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Archive for the tag “Festivals”

Berwick Literary Festival free online offer ranges from poetry to politics

Berwick Literary Festival will go live online in 2020 with a programme of free events showcasing a range of genres and topics – including Black Lives Matters themes. Organisers are excited about the potential of the virtual festival to attract a wide audience in October.

With Berwick hard hit economically by coronavirus and many summer and autumn events cancelled this year, the Literary Festival is an exciting opportunity to open the doors of the town to a varied national and international audience – and to offer a treat to local visitors old and new.

Festival chair, Michael Gallico says: ‘Since a ‘normal’ festival is not practical this year, it’s vital that we keep Berwick in festival-goers’ minds. The overarching aim of the Festival is to entertain, engage and provoke debate across age ranges.’

The Festival is all about words – written, spoken, performed – and the programme includes themes such as poetry, history, and current affairs. Performers range from world champion slam poet Harry Baker whose quirky, poignant poems tap into today’s world in a modern, accessible way to political broadcaster and columnist Steve Richards, whose acclaimed book ‘The Prime Ministers’ will be the basis for his session on the recent incumbents of Number 10: from Wilson to Johnson.

World champion slam poet, Harry Baker (photo credit: Garry Cook)
Broadcaster and political commentator: Steve Richards

Black Lives Matter themes will feature in this seventh Berwick Literary Festival. Brian Ward, Professor of American Studies at Northumbria University, will follow on his 2019 talk on Martin Luther King’s visit to Newcastle with a look at the life and times of Frederick Douglass: the black slave whose freedom was bought by two Quaker women in Newcastle. Former NME media editor Stuart Cosgrove will talk about how black music lit up the sixties. This remarkable musical revolutions is set against a backdrop of social and political turmoil and the extraordinary transformation of boxer Cassius Clay into Muhammad Ali.


Other contributors include writer and biographer Ann Thwaite whose biography of A.A Milne led to her being consultant on the major 2017 film ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’; writer, social historian and horticulturist Ursula Buchan – who spoke about her grandfather John Buchan in 2019 – will share her passion and expertise in gardening and gardening history; and Neil Astley, editor of Bloodaxe Books, will be joined by poets David Constantine and Vicki Feaver for his session which will also feature readings from the highly-acclaimed ‘Staying Human’.

Anne Thwaite’s ‘The Secret Garden: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett’

Programme co-ordinator Mike Fraser says: ‘We’re always seeking to attract new audiences and the online Festival offers us a chance to reach out to a wider local, national and international population. Attracting visitors to Berwick is part of our remit and we’re looking to ensure that online visitors get a taste of our town – we want them to visit in person when that’s possible.’ Organisers say the online Festival will offer plenty of opportunity for interactivity, with poetry and creative writing workshops also on offer.

Berwick Lit Fest runs from 15th-18th October 2020 online from Berwick-upon-Tweed. For up-to-date information on the programme as it unfolds, visit the Festival website.

Autumn Festivals: Save the dates

My family arrived in Berwick-upon-Tweed from North London on the last Saturday of August 2010. Our new house was piled high with packing cases and all the loose shoes, clothes horses and pillows that seem to self-seed when you move house. The Husband announced that he had signed us up for litter picking duty at some Food & Beer Festival in a place called The Barracks the following day.

I wish I could say I merely waved an arm at the mountains of unpacking  that needed to happen before our then eight-year-old started her new school in a few days’ time. Over the sound-blast of my fury, The Husband said: ‘It’ll be a way of getting to know people.’ And, of course, he was right. Eight years later, we know an awful lot of people in Berwick, the now 16-year-old is well-established – and we’ve nearly finished unpacking!

And here we are again, looking forward to the Berwick Autumn Festivals. History and buildings, film and media arts, the written and spoken word in all its forms and genres, eating and drinking ethically and locally – Berwick’s got a festival for that! So get the dates in your diaries and plan your trip and stay.


A literary festival with a heart

I am even more in love with the Berwick Literary Festival today than I was yesterday. smiley

This is because I met with Pamela Wright this morning. Pamela is a member of the Festival steering group and responsible for areas of the Festival that reach out into the community in ways that are beyond the remit of a ‘meet-greet-applaud’ literary festival.

Here’s Pamela:

The Festival has recently been given charitable status and the drive to include members of the community who either self-exclude or are excluded by circumstance has played a large part in that.

Pamela told me about three key aspects of the Festival that come under this umbrella:

1. Poetry readings in all local care homes

2. The Festival Schools Programme

3. The re-configured Poetry Café

I’m going to give an insight into area number one in this blogpost and follow up with posts – including details of events and timings – about the other two exciting initiatives in the next couple of weeks, so stay tuned.

Pamela explained that for many years music has been acknowledged as a key to unlocking doors in the brain jammed by dementia and Alzheimer’s. More recently the rhythm, repetition and imagery of poetry has also been recognised as a powerful tool in tapping into childhood memories. Inspired by an article in the Telegraph on the subject, Pamela set about creating a team here in Berwick-upon-Tweed which, in the two weeks leading up to the Festival, will visit each and every care home in Berwick and the adjoining towns of Spittal and Tweedmouth.

The long-term aim is to develop (with hopefully some outside funding as well as the support of the Festival) a bank of laminated poems and nursery rhymes and ultimately to enable readers to visit care homes on a bi-monthly basis.

The volunteers will read a maximum of ten carefully chosen poems – such as Kipling’s If, Lear’s Owl and the Pussycat, Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, and Wordsworth’s Daffodils.

Pamela says that, unsurprisingly, care homes are seeing the initiative as a welcome addition to their activity and events programmes.

If you’re interested in the poetry in care homes initiative, please do contact Pamela on

Tickets for the Festival are available online from The Maltings and the full programme will be available at various outlets including The Maltings, Grieves the Stationer, and Festival hub the Corner House Café. Heads up: the full programme looks amazing!

The trill of the opera – time to take the plunge

I took a plunger with me the first time I went to the opera in the early 1980s. My brother lived in Peckham, south London – his sink was blocked. I lived and worked near Shepherd’s Bush in west London. Covent Garden was a good halfway house. Our plan was to experience an alien music form (and hand over the plunger). Our chosen opera was in English – we figured that we’d never understand warbly voices and a foreign language. I’m pretty sure the work was called “Samson!” Nowadays I would immediately be wary of a gratuitous exclamation mark: then I was young and innocent in the ways of punctuation hyperbole!

It’s a plunger!!!

In our childhood, my Dear Old Ma had a few Gilbert & Sullivan LPs – Iolanthe and HMS Pinafore spring to mind – I was aware that these romping tunes and catchy songs were not ‘real opera’. Real opera was difficult and hard to listen to. “Samson!” confirmed this. We folded ourselves into the stifling gods of the Coliseum. Below, tiny figures aboard huge turrets – half in black, the other white – skittered about colliding and separating, emoting and trilling. The good/evil metaphor was obvious even to us but we came away bemused and sure that this was not an art form to pursue. My brother, however, did unblock his sink.

We’ve all heard of operas such as Carmen. Here’s the reason: they’re the good ones.

Years later I was lucky enough to be reintroduced to opera through the Husband’s work. Many of us have only heard of a handful of operas: Carmen, The Magic Flute, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La Traviata to name a few.  There’s a reason: the operas we’ve heard of are the best ones. If only I’d realised that 20 years earlier! Other winning aspects of opera that passed me by for many years were the spectacular sets, opulent costumes and huge casts. Opera, I now know, is glitz and bling – the Dubai of theatre, if you will.

“Opera is glitz and bling – the Dubai of theatre, if you will”

Matthew Rooke (Artistic Director of The Maltings, Berwick) has a beguiling vision to take well-known operas and produce vibrant new productions to fit smaller venues in smaller towns. He tested the water last year with a new orchestration of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury (performed by the ebullient Newcastle-based Rocket Opera at the Guildhall, Berwick). It was fab –and despite what the cognoscenti may say, I think G&S is real opera. The trial led to a mini opera season this year. Would punters miss the pizazz and panache of large scale productions?

Rocket Opera’s rumbustious performance of The Pirates of Penzance had the audience giggling and guffawing. One man in front of me silently sang along to the whole show. The orchestra navigated the pared down score seamlessly under the helmsmanship of Nick Butters.

Not at all. Each of Berwick Festival Opera’s offerings was extraordinary in its own right. This was opera up close and personal – conductors, singers, musicians and audience bound together in the experience. Who’d have imagined orchestrating Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas with four Saxes (the super Sax Ecosse) and an electric bass guitar? Rooke would. Or conjuring the seaside (G&S’s, Pirates of Penzance/Rocket Opera) with Doddington’s ice cream, some deck chair fun, and a sea-shanty riff or two? Watching Opera dei Lumi’s music director Peter Keenan rally some fine young regional musical talent in their electrifying inaugural performance of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte gave me goose bumps of delight – yes, the young male singers flagged slightly towards the end, but their female counterparts managed to buoy them up and sustain the energy and characterisation essential in a show without costumes, lights or sets and with the conductor tucked behind them. Hats off to them. Conductor Peter Selwyn dextrously steered the sublime Hebrides Ensemble and NYOS Camerata through the surges and splurges of Wagner’s Die Walkϋre with singers Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (first seen in Berwick last year in Rooke’s Flyting), Ronald Samm and Stuart Pendred making the most of the acoustically brilliant Guildhall. Pared down operas? Yes. Tailored to fit? Perfectly.

Another plus of local opera for local people is the opportunity to showcase local talent which was abundantly represented during the Berwick Festival Opera. Including well-known local singer Tamsin Davidson as the Sorceress in Dido and Aeneas.

Berwick-based singer, Tamsin Davidson.

Here in Berwick festival season is now in full swing – we’ve just smacked our lips over the final lobsters and locally sourced organic sausages of the family friendly Food Festival (13th & 14th Sept), and it’s eyes-down-look-in for the internationally acclaimed Film Festival (17th-21st Sept) with its blissful mix of free installations around our historic town, well-priced and accessible workshops, and cutting edge films. Plus there’s the all-new Literary Festival (17th-18th October). So, here’s to the delights still to come and, if you’re an opera sceptic, I urge you to take the plunge next year with the Berwick Festival Opera – but perhaps not the plunger.

Conductor Peter Selwyn conducted Jonathan Dove’s arrangement seemingly effortlessly.

(A version of this article was first printed in The Berwick Advertiser on 4th September 2014)

To do, or not to do? What is the answer?

Reading the 18th/19th-century charge sheets at the Magistrates Court during the recent Berwick Heritage Open Days, I was struck by how many misdemeanours then are the same as those perpetrated today. Drunk and disorderly, brawling, illegal parking (carts left in Tweed Street too long!), fly-tipping, petty theft. The punishments were perhaps rather more barbaric – public floggings, workhouses, hard labour.  But overall history does seem to repeat itself. Or, as the French would say – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Berwick Magistrates Court (Image (c) Jim Herbert)

Another thing that stays the same is the amount of missed appointments. Skipped NHS appointments cost shedloads and increase waiting times. A report I read a while back (based on research by the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine) suggests that posters telling people how many patients keep their appointments (rather than how many miss them) are more effective in reducing DNAs (Did Not Attend). Combine that with getting patients to write down their own appointment time and date, or asking them to repeat details back over the phone, and no-shows were cut by 31% in the surgeries where trials were run. So why isn’t this common practice? Now, if I were in charge…

Moaning. Everyone loves a good moan. It gives us a feel-good frisson of self-righteousness. Moaning is a mono-activity. You download about a subject and then sit back. And when no one does anything about your moan, you moan again.

In-fighting, back-biting, bullying, jostling for supremacy. These are endlessly repeated in playgrounds and meeting rooms around the world.

Parallel to the repeating worlds of petty crime, missed appointments, power-play and moaning, is a world where people keep appointments, work together and do life-enhancing things. I am endlessly impressed by people who get stuff done. They are not overcome by the possibility of failure or ridicule or humiliation.

There are people in Berwick who win Portas bids, set up pop-up shops, open cafés, devise and organise festivals. Sometimes, when I think of all the amazing things that people make happen in Berwick, I feel the need for a duvet day on their behalf. We’ve had the Food & Beer Festival, Film & Media Arts Festival, Heritage Open Days, Mouth of the Tweed, Frontier Music Festival,boat trips on the Tweed, and much more besides. Could these things have been better? Probably. Will they get better? Possibly. Will there be in-fighting in committees and organising bodies? Indubitably. Will some people have a good moan about them? Certainly.

A festival season in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Worth celebrating.

A festival season in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Worth celebrating.

Of course, most of us criss-cross between the world of celebrating and pursuing the positives and the world of getting bogged down in negatives. The truly amazing thing is that anything ever really gets done at all. But somehow events committees, town councils, town teams dust themselves down after body blows, criticisms, dead-ends and they plod on –  or pass the baton on to others, sometimes graciously and sometimes less so.

And maybe this is the painful and repeating dynamic of getting things done. Reading reports about the Berwick Town Team, the Town Council, County Council and the Portas Pilot monies, I certainly hope so. A glance at feedback on other Portas Pilot towns indicates that most are experiencing similar issues to Berwick – and presumably everyone wants the funds spent effectively and judiciously. But interpretations of ‘efficient and judicious’ vary. It’s hard to please everyone.

Mary Portas – many Portas Pilot towns have faced struggles.

Despite the French proverb, history isn’t all same-old, same-old. Just as attitudes to punishment have changed, the line between things we applaud and things we deplore also shifts with time. The research into NHS missed appointments demonstrates – and any parent will tell you – that highlighting positives rather than moaning about negatives will usually produce more positive outcomes. If only we could simply consign moaning to history and focus on trumpeting the successes of the here and now. Who knows where it might take us.

(A version of this article was first published in The Berwick Advertiser, October 2013)

Drama & demos, fun & festivals, laughter & aching legs: Another fab year in Berwick

Calendar Girls at the marvellous Maltings – you can still get copies of the fab cast & crew calendar at the Maltings or on line here

As we’re approaching Christmas I thought I’d partake in that age-old tradition of ‘looking back’. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, looking back –  whether with a sense of yearning, a frisson of shame, or a wry smile – is an inevitable pastime. So, in this festive season, bear with me as I glance back over my musings in this column during 2012.

In January my post-holiday glow, gave me cause to celebrate the plethora of events and functions in and around Berwick. Many still to come this year – from the Dickensian Market (9th December), to the Spittal torchlit parade (December 14th), complete with camels this time! I gave three cheers for the pioneering spirit that ensures that treasured traditions continue and new things are thrown into the ring; the lights on the Royal Border Bridge, now fully functioning and gorgeous; and the colours of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, which, come August 1st 2013, will hopefully be central to a thrill-a-minute civic week.

February was the month when Scottish independence and broody hens made curious nest fellows. With a referendum due in 2014, Berwick’s claim as the Monaco of the North needs to be shouted loud and proud. As for hens, I managed to pop fertilised eggs under our broody hen who, miraculously, hatched two gorgeously cute chicks. One is now the noisiest cockerel in Berwick.

The chicks. One is now the noisiest cockerel in Berwick

The chicks. One is now the noisiest cockerel in Berwick

The inescapable inability to keep New Year’s resolutions slapped me reproachfully in the face in March. But, happily, so did the beauty of the surrounding countryside as charity and exercise collided in the form of training for the Edinburgh MoonWalk.

Mary Portas fever hit in April as the first-round bid for funding gripped the town. As in so many things in life, success came second time around. Hopefully uniting behind a coherent vision for Berwick will follow seamlessly.

By May training fatigue plagued me as did fury at the amount of litter that people insist on dumping – particularly from cars. June brought a train timetabling rant after a five-hour journey twice took eight hours – I am fearful that East Coast Mainline’s habit of dropping Berwick from key routes to regain time might mark the whittling away of what has been a fantastic London and southeast-bound service.

Will Berwick's train service be whittled away as trains sail straight through on some routes to save precious minutes

Will Berwick’s train service be whittled away as trains sail straight through our station to save precious minutes?

In July, following on from June’s Jubilee and Olympic fervour, I celebrated Berwick’s ability to lay on a jolly good day out. I hoped – and still do – that we might become a renowned town of festivals.

August was a month off for me – but the people of Berwick continued to plan, party and campaign – notably in the march to keep Berwick’s Maternity Unit open.

September: two more festivals! The Food Festival and Film & Media Arts. Plus October’s all-new Frontier Music Festival. All fabulous. All attracting a wide variety of people to Berwick. All back in 2013.

Change and its challenges were hot topics in October – brought on by our own lengthy building works and the many positive plans being hatched for Berwick. Deep down I know we are doing the right thing in updating and modernising our home – but the process is not always easy or without conflict. This, I mused, is a bit like keeping up the momentum for change in Berwick.

I wafted (rather bravely I thought) into windpower in November. Another brave move for me was appearing at the marvellous Maltings in Calendar Girls. Having marched round Edinburgh in my bra for breast cancer, it seemed only fair to walk the boards in – well, not much really – for Leukaemia and Lymphoma research.

I have had a fabulous year in Beautiful Berwick – thank you for letting me share some of it with you. And, as the windmill might say to its sails: ‘What goes round, comes round.’ So, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

(A version of this article was published in the Berwick Advertiser on 6 December 2012)

A jolly good day out in Berwick

A day out – at home!

I do love a good day out. And if it’s a good day out just outside my front door, so much the better. And, my goodness, we’ve had a couple of great Berwick days during the damp, bleak month of June – both garnished with lashings of community spirit and, miraculously, sunshine.

I know many staunch republicans absented themselves from all things Jubilee, but I confess that, despite my ambivalence towards the monarchy, I enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to partake in a bit of neighbourly togetherness.

And, oh, what fun we had. The Parade was packed with all sorts: superbly priced, efficiently delivered, deliciously tempting sandwich and cake platters; a charity raffle; a mega inflatable slide; marvellous entertainment from Norham Brass Band (loved the Abba selection and can-can!), the mellifluous Mamatones, the anarchic Berwick Broadcasting Corporation, and much more besides. Families supped, chatted, laughed and sunned themselves. How idyllic.

The following week the Olympics, another event from which I’ve kept my eyes firmly averted, made its presence felt in Berwick’s sunny streets. Again, despite my misgivings about the corporate handcuffs applied to the so-called ‘People’s Olympics’, I looked forward to a second opportunity to gather with the good folk of Berwick to wave flags and enjoy bunting and laughter.

The Olympic Torch enters Berwick – ready for mass flag waving

Two national events that, although perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, prompted two brilliant community days. Days that left me with a warm glow about my adopted town and its ability to put on a good bash. When it counted, people flooded into the town, lined the streets, found places to park, walked to where they needed to go, chatted to each other and cheered each other on. It didn’t matter that our high street can perhaps seem a bit grim, or that the parking isn’t ideal: people came and enjoyed.

We, as a town, are rather good at this sort of thing – the party or festival that brings the community together, piques the visitor’s interest and makes them welcome. And it’s that ethos of the ‘good-day-out’  that might well become a unifying factor as we wrestle with all the various elements that conspire to make things tough for us – from devolved administration to economic constraints.

Our streets teem with people trying to make a case for improving Berwick’s lot – or simply improving it bit by precious bit. By the time this goes to print, the first Town Tidy Up of the year will have happened. Organised by Città Slow and Berwick in Bloom, supported by the newly formed Berwick Deserves Better – the aim is to tidy, clean, mend and paint community areas such as Eastern Lane by the Maltings, around the station and Castle Vale Park, and deal with graffiti in places like Woods Wynd. Meanwhile, the Town Team is busy polishing the second bid for Portas funding. Additionally, Arch (established by Northumberland County Council to stimulate regeneration and growth in Northumberland), is hatching a methodical approach to developing ‘a programme for Berwick which will make a significant contribution to competitiveness, place quality and sustainability, but which is also realistic, pragmatic and deliverable.’  Which, hopefully, will bode well for a number of prime redundant sites in Berwick, including the Kwik Save building.

So, let’s hope that, in time, such initiatives coalesce to make a lasting impact on the quality of life for those who already live and work in Berwick as well as those who visit. As one person I spoke to said: Berwick is a quality town. We have the history and heritage that makes people want to call in; we have the boutique B&Bs that attract people to make Berwick a base from which to visit other locations; what we need are the add-ons that make people who visit linger a while –  and enjoy a jolly good Berwick day out.

(A version of this article was first published in The Berwick Advertiser on 5th July 2012)

Berwick: a town of festivals?

A couple of weeks ago The Husband and I trotted along to a meeting at the William Elder Building.  The aim was to discuss ideas for a bid for £100,000 from a government grant scheme launched after the Mary Portas Review to boost ailing town centres such as Berwick.

In recent years, exhausting amounts of expensive research has examined the challenges Berwick faces. A baffling array of ideas, projects and events from various groups of dynamic people have followed. Some of these have run their course, others struggle to keep going. Separately, independent stand–alone events, like the Film Festival, attract international attention. But few projects seem to capture the collective imagination and support of all Berwickers.

Some 40 of us gathered – individuals, representatives from organisations and businesses and interested parties, all of whom would like to see Berwick booming and blooming. A place of cultural and historical stimulation: a vibrant, fun and happening town – on the map of places to go.

The meeting was ably led by Peter Watts (Trustee, Berwick Community Trust) who’d gathered valuable input from a range of Berwick people and stakeholders, including The Maltings Theatre & Cinema and Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival. We watched a great amateur film (which has accompanied the bid) produced by the Youth Project. It offered a thoughtful perspective from young people on how and why Berwick could and should be improved.

Facelift type projects were discussed at some length. But do they sustain a town centre? What we’d all love is a regular influx of interested and interesting people (with money to spend!) drawn to Berwick by ‘something’. But what? Of course we want pretty shops, lovely cafés, a flourishing market, acceptable parking, a decent children’s playground etc – but what’s the big draw?

The sheer breadth and depth of marvellous Berwick events was aired and admired…the Film Festival, Food Festival, the much mourned Tattoo, the Riding of the Bounds, the Minden Parade, the Dickensian Market. Great cultural venues such as the Granary, the Barracks, Gymnasium Gallery and the Maltings; natural delights like the river and coast, and historic landmarks from the walls to the Royal Border Bridge were dusted down and appreciated. But, let’s face it, regeneration for Berwick isn’t happening – even with all this.

In our little discussion group it quickly became clear that we were done with reports. We wanted action. But there are as many ideas of what action looks like as people in a room. Many of us were involved in different events. All beavering away, valiantly endeavouring to create ‘the’ event. Endlessly reinventing the wheel of licences, permissions, permits and local involvement with varying degrees of aggro and success.

So, how to move forward?

Well, as one person at the meeting said, “Can we agree that whether or not we are successful in this bid, we will get a working party together and, despite the barriers – insurance, absentee landlords etc – we will clean and tidy and decorate the town centre?”

And, as someone else pointed out:  there’s no deep historical reason that Hay–on–Wye is now ‘the town of books’. Richard Booth decided to pull a publicity stunt in 1977, it caught people’s imaginations, and the rest is very lucrative history.

I’d say that surely the ‘something’ to attract people is Berwick itself. Berwick with its glorious potential, amazing calendar of events and attractions. And the unifying factor is people acting together. A co–ordinated, independent town team, planning and making things happen, with a mission to promote ownership of Berwick by its people for its people.

So let’s hope the bid’s successful – but let’s hope even harder that we, as a town, get the momentum to work together effectively to make Berwick the place we want it to be – and that others want to come to. A town of festivals, perhaps?

A version of this article was published in The Berwick Advertiser on 5th April

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