Words On Wheels

28 April 2010 // Miscellany

This July, a Caught By The River led art project will take place in East London as part of the 2010 Create Festival. In the first of a series of regular blogs in the build up to Roam, Robin Turner explains why he’s taking to the road to tell the people about nature.

Undoubtedly there’s less stressful ways of spending your first summer as a parent than navigating a decommissioned mobile library round the five Olympic host boroughs of London to talk to the public about nature, but that’s what I find myself dedicated to right now. To anyone who knows me – someone who shirked driving lessons in favour of walking to the pub and back, one whose brushes with nature for the most part of the last two decades have been gawping at foxes going through bins on the way back from nightclubs – this idea will seem pretty farfetched. But then, I think I’ve always believed that it’s the farfetched ideas that are the best ones to get properly stuck into it.

On and off, I worked as a press officer and story spinner at Heavenly Recordings for fifteen years. Caught By The River is a fantastic yarn that we’ve spun over the last handful of those years, our very own ‘antidote to indifference’. Big ideas have always tended to come quite easily to us, usually when sat shooting the breeze over a beer or two. Whether starting a club night or a bar, a magazine or a website, there have always been schemes that took the journey from boozy figment-of-the-imagination to that of an all-hours-calling. The mechanics of selling records so often took back seat to radical thoughts. We need to launch our own beer! We need to know Vincent Gallo’s thoughts on socialism! We need to do our own signature Monsterism toys! It’s probably these… brain-spasms (I’ve spent a long time grasping for a much better term but that one seems to fit just right) that kept us just about sane while we’ve been sat watching the downward spiral of the music industry into that plughole where all the other Great British industries have gone.

Ideas wise, this summer’s project – christened Roam – is no different. With Caught By The River, we had no idea where what was ostensibly a simple blog would take us. Three years down the line it’s been an ever-expanding website, a critically acclaimed book, an occasional social club, a one-off night of readings with nature disco accompaniment at the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Hall and a weekend of performers and readers at one of the world’s greatest literary festivals. This summer, it’s a nature based art project on four wheels.

During July – and thanks only to the very good people at the Create Festival who took a punt on our proposal back in October – the van will trundle through the five Olympic host boroughs (Waltham Forest, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newham and Greenwich). The brief for the project was basically an attempt to pull together lots of the disparate, magical strands of Caught By The River under one roof. Nature and music and art brought to you by people who live and breathe it, edited together by us.

Each borough will see a series of events – talks, walks, gigs, workshops – originating from the van. Whether it’s birdwatching or outdoor swimming, fishing or fact finding, we’re hoping to spin stories that engage the public in areas that are generally overlooked as being almost exclusively urban (the grassy, verdant polar ends of Waltham Forest and Greenwich Park the notable exceptions).

In attempting to put together a mellow month of events, we’ve tried to connect with contributors to the site and also to a handful of people we’ve never spoken to before whose work has inspired us. Local councils have granted us access to public parks in the height of summer to stage small scale happenings. At just 25 foot long and comfortably holding around 10 people, it’ll be the smallest festival stage in the world. When static, the van will act as a browsing library. You’ll be able to sit out (weather permitting) and flick through books about the environment or local knowledge. You’ll be able to take away print outs of guided walks through each of the boroughs that will meander slowly off the beaten track, that create a new set of iconic landmarks. In Hackney, Throbbing Gristle’s Death Factory will take the place of Buckingham Palace.

So why a library van? I’m sat trying to write this and I’m well aware of how pretentious the next statement might seem… Sod it, I’m compelled to say it anyway. I think culturally, historically and ideologically, the mobile library sits in the same place in the collective memory that much of the content of Caught By The River does. It’s symbolic of a slowed down Britain, one where idle banter about books, about records, about the whereabouts of that fish or the beauty of a walk taken on your own is the key to a sane life. It’s less the Major-esque Britain of “warm beer and invincible green suburbs” – some England half-remembered from a cheese ad – and more a Britain where taking knowledge to the local community is something to be proud of, where striving for intelligence isn’t something frowned upon.

To these eyes, the library represents freedom of information – free information – in a pre-digital age; the mobile library is the outreach programme to connect the disconnected. Read right by the questing mind, the library would light the pathway out of town, whichever town you were itching to leave.

The opening line of Manic Street Preachers’ “A Design For Life” distills all this perfectly. “Libraries gave us power”. That statement was itself inspired by an engraving above Pillgwenlly library in my hometown Newport declaring “Knowledge is Power”. That the van was found for us via Sean Moore, the Manics drummer, has to be a propitious omen. The library van – and the fact that one of only two on sale in the UK when we needed it was on a forecourt in Brynmawr – doffs a respectful cap to 2009’s visual tone poem “Sleep Furiously”, Gideon Koppel’s exemplary paean to the beautiful frailty of beleaguered rural communities in mid-Wales.

The London boroughs that the van parks up in have some of the lowest literacy rates in Europe. I’m not trying to imply that this is some grand philanthropic gesture, in fact the idea of taking a stocked library van through the East End may even look like folly. Having worked in the music industry for a decade and a half though, this project feels a lot more real, a lot more important and a damn sight more interesting than a hundred and one meetings about digital rights ownership and market share. Roam will be visiting a selection of local schools and hospitals along the way. If just a few people who step inside then head off a little bit inspired, then the job’s a good ‘un.

So, Roam hits the road in July for the Create Festival in a decommissioned mobile library that stamped its last book up in the Welsh Valleys a year or so ago. It’s being refurbished at the moment in Peckham – the inside will hopefully look like something between a Deco reading room that pays tribute to the great civic architecture of the pre War period and a miniature museum of found ephemera from the five boroughs.

We’ll post updates here as we start to build a dedicated offshoot website which will map the journey in video and text. We’re excited and more than a little daunted by the whole thing.

Just like we were with all those other farfetched ideas we’ve pursued.

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