Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Berwick Prison Cells

These are the 18th century prison cells on the top floor of Berwick Town Hall - that's the building with the bell tower that looks like it ought to be a church. Obviously the cells are not used any more for their original purpose. They could be a major visitor attraction if only there was anyone in Berwick who could manage to co-ordinate a decent tourism promotion campaign, but there isn't, so they aren't. Intermittent tours of the cells take place but the dates can never be predicted with certainty. The only times you are guaranteed to be able to see them are two weekends in September: the national Open Doors weekend when  many historic buildings are opened to the public, and the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival when they are used as a venue for video installations. Last week I wrote about how it is the use of unusual venues which makes this Festival so special. Seeing the films running inside the cells always makes a great impact on visitors, and the programmers try hard to choose appropriate ones. This year's included a Polish film documenting the long distance romance of two imprisoned murderers.

Observe this notice asking visitors not to close the doors. This is necessary because the doors of prison cells are of course designed to be impossible to open from the inside, so if your family go off and leave you there as a joke you will be stuck there until one of the stewards comes and rescues you, and frankly we have better things to do so we may decide to leave you there for a bit. The Festival organisers take health and safety very seriously, as all events have to these days, and armfuls of laminated notices must be patiently blu-tacked to walls and doors by the volunteer stewards. Mostly these concern things like 'uneven floor' and 'low level lighting' where you can expect visitors to co-operate out of a natural desire not to fall over in the dark. The only warning that is persistently ignored is this one, asking visitors to please not close the doors and shut themselves in a cell. Honestly, it's not big, it's not clever and nobody else thinks it's funny.  Children are of course the worst offenders but plenty of adults who should know better do it too. They all just love the idea of being locked in a cell. Apparently the popularity of this kind of experience of the brutalities of the past is recognised in the visitor attraction business and referred to as 'dark tourism'. Presumably these people wouldn't be so keen if they'd ever spent time in prison for real.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Berwick Film Festival

Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival started yesterday. It's on until Sunday 23rd so if you live within travelling distance you still have time to come and see it. Look at for details. We don't claim to rival Sundance or Cannes but we do aspire to be the best small film festival in the world. It's been running for several years now in precarious financial circumstances and has now finally attracted secure funding. As a result, after a couple of years of telling volunteers to preserve their festival tee-shirts carefully for next time, because they don't grow on trees, you know, this year we all have brand new tee-shirts in a different colour! And I'm proud to wear it.

The Festival is centred on the Maltings theatre and cinema building, shown above. This is a purpose built arts complex which attracts bitter envy from other towns in Northumberland, who suspect that the Arts Council of England funds it particularly generously just to make a point to the Scots who form a large percentage of its audiences. Last night the Film Festival opened there with Chasing Ice, a documentary about American photographer James Balog and the Extreme Ice Survey, a remarkable project which recorded glaciers over several years and generated time lapse film whch starkly ilustrates the speed at which the Arctic ice is receding. It made a great impression on everyone who saw it and it was perfect for the theme of this year's festival, which is the relationship between still and moving images. Balog's still photography of the ice is extraordinarily beautiful, while the documentary maker Jeff Orlowski has captured the tension between aesthetic thrill and scientific fear. Orlowski recorded a special message for the Berwick audience. Thanks Jeff, we really appreciated it. Tonight as part of the Festival the Maltings is hosting the UK premiere of Resident Evil: Retribution, because it was directed by Paul Anderson who is the son of Chris Anderson who was one of the founders of the Berwick Film Festival. Resident Evil is not my sort of thing but it's great for Berwick to have the UK premiere of anything at all, and seeing a long line of eager young people in fancy dress as zombies was something to remember.

What makes the Berwick Film and Media Arts festival so special is that it does not just consist of feature films shown in a cinema, it includes a series of video installations set up in unusual locations all over town. You can follow the whole trail with the help of a leaflet but many people just stumble across an installation by accident and so have an artistic experience which they might never have deliberately sought out. The whole town is turned into one big celebration of the cinematic arts and this gives the festival an immersive quality which I have never come across anywhere else. The picture on the left is the venue I was stewarding this morning - it's the magazine or arsenal next to the old barracks, where the gunpowder was stored. These barrels are modern reproductions. One of the visitors asked me if they had gunpowder in. Since there was no mention of this in the otherwise exhaustive health and safety assessment, I thought not. Setting up cabling for three video projectors - the installation in there is a triptych - in a building hundreds of yards from an electricity supply is a real technical challenge. The photo above shows the Gymnasium Gallery, formerly the gym for soldiers in the barracks but now an art gallery. It is hosting an installation which combines 24 separate screens to give the effect of a 19th century zoetrope. The programme describes it as 'ambitious'. Unfortunately it's so ambitious that at the time of writing the technicians haven't been able to get it to work. Never mind, it'll probably be fixed before Sunday and meanwhile there's plenty of other wonderful things to see.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Debatable Land on Tour 2012

This is not a photo of any part of the Debatable Land. It was taken in the city of Wells. I've been visiting friends for a few days in The Land of Far, Far Away, otherwise known as the South of England. Yes, I do have friends Down South. I don't have anything against Southerners in any racist, xenophobic kind of way. I just can't help feeling that they're not like us. And the South is not like the North. I've been thinking about the differences that struck me, and this idyllic scene seemed like a good visual shorthand.

For a start, it seemed very quiet without the seagulls, but of course that's not a north-south difference. It always seems quiet when I go inland. I live with the screeching of gulls 24/7 and I only notice it when it stops.  Second, the weather was glorious. Very warm, blue skies, no wind. The media were calling it an Indian summer. On my first day back in Berwick it rained heavily all day and now it's blowing a gale. To be fair, I hear that the weather down south isn't so good now either. But it did remind me that nobody is ever going to visit the Borders for the climate. And then there seemed to be an awful lot of trees in Hampshire and Somerset. Acres of sun-dappled leaves rippled prettily on every side. Of course we have trees in Northumberland too. Honest we do. But we do also have a lot of bare moorland. For those of us who grew up here the distinctive beauty of this moorland is imprinted on our hearts. But it is not the landscape that is celebrated as England in the canon of English literature. It's the softer southern landscape of low hills and something called 'water meadows' which is evoked in, for example, Alice Through the Looking Glass, where the chessboard effect is created by the small streams criss-crossing the small fields. My friends live beside a water meadow. It seems to be what we call a pasture - a field beside a river that you stick cows in.

I went on the tour of Winchester Cathedral. It has 13th century floor tiles. This is truly amazing. I've never seen anything that old on a floor. The kind of society that existed in the 1200s in the Borders was not conducive to anything that was put on a floor surviving for very long. There were too many people tramping about to fight with each other and too many animals that needed stabling in any handy old building. In fact all of Winchester and Wells have the look of somewhere that's had a fairly untroubled existence most of the time. The most famous historical character in Winchester is King Alfred and his great achievement was paying off the Danes who conquered the rest of England. I don't think anybody in Hampshire ever had to take refuge on the upper floors of a pele tower after locking their livestock in on the ground floor, while the thieving gangs known as reivers roamed about looking for anything not nailed down to take away with them. And even though Winchester has seen its fair share of political turbulence as the monarchy and government of England took shape there, I don't think it ever had armies of thousands fighting on its territory. The book Historic Architecture of Northumberland explains that the distinctive character of the old buildings of the Borders comes from the fact that even domestic buildings had to function as defensive structures in a lawless and violent society. Function and fortification had to take precedence over prettiness for hundreds of years.

When my train from London drew into Newcastle my heart did a little leap of happiness. This happens every time I approach Newcastle from the south and see that view of the bridges. It also did a little leap when I boarded the train at Kings Cross and the woman in charge of the coffee trolley spoke to me in a Geordie accent. And I'd only been away five days.