Spreading a creative response to oppression across Europe

The border guard opens the side door of the minibus clutching all our passports. “Parveen Butt?” he asks in a strong accent, looking up at Parveen before he passes her passport back. “Joanne Hardcastle?”

I last reported on the collaboration between Creative Scene and the charity 6 million+ when friends Parveen and Joanne were helping to make huge puppets for Holocaust Memorial Day in January.

The two local women met at an arts class they both attend at Batley Girls High School. As Joanne is a mother of three girls – two with special needs – the weekly class provides a bit of ‘me time’. They’ve been friends ever since and jumped at the chance to volunteer on this trip.

Today we’re heading for Subotica in Serbia, a city smaller than Dewsbury and Batley put together. I put my tape recorder in front of Kim Strickson, the charity’s co-ordinator, and ask why.

“So far 6 million+ have done most of our work in Yorkshire, remembering the Holocaust and other genocides and connecting those events to what’s happening around the world now,” she says. “This EU project – Every Button Counts – gives us the opportunity to do that kind of work with other countries.”

The group – there’s also charity trustee and artist, Chris Squire and local artist Mandeep Samra – have flown from Reggio Emilia in Italy today where they’ve heard harrowing accounts of persecution from a diverse group of refugees.  A couple of months ago Kim and Chris visited Lublin in Poland, so this is the third leg of their European tour.

“The emphasis will be on the Roma,” says Kim as we head off the motorway, “and that will be interesting for us because we have a Hungarian Roma community in Kirklees.”

The following morning we’re met by Silvija and Filip from our hosts, the Local Democracy Agency, who take us on a walking tour of the city.

The first stop is the beautiful historic synagogue, currently being restored. “It was built in 1902 in the Hungarian Art Nouveau style, back when Subotica was home to 4,000 Jews,” says our cheerful guide, Sonja, as she passes out hard hats. “Now there are only about 400.”

The city museum – originally built as a home for a prominent Jewish family – is followed by a look inside the impressive town hall that dominates the city centre.

“It’s a living, working municipal town hall,” says Sonja leading us up a central staircase into the council chamber where we take turns to sit in the mayor’s ‘throne’.

After lunch we take two taxis out of town to a deserted indoor market complex. Outside we’re met by the president of the Roma Education Centre, Stevan Nikolic who leads us up to a small office.

“Hello, I’m Joanne,” says Joanne as we all make our introductions. Thankfully a box of name tags appears as Kim introduces the project.

“The name of our organisation comes from the number of buttons we’ve collected to represent the Holocaust and all genocides since World World Two,” she says. “Not only Jewish victims but all those who died, including Roma.”

Chris introduces the first creative activity where everyone is invited to take six buttons from the several piles now laid out on the floor. Each button represents a member of their families and coloured matchsticks connect them together.

“This golden button is my mother,” says Rejhana. “My father’s button is bigger because he is the head of the house. These two red buttons are my sisters.”

“Now place another six buttons around them to show your friends and colleagues,” says Chris. A little later: “And another six to represent the professionals in your community that support you like teachers and doctors.”

Everyone is on their knees having fun covering the floor with patterns of buttons, each one a network of personal connections.

“The next bit is not so enjoyable,” says Chris. “It’s hard, but now take away any red buttons.”

Progressively our participants dismantle their networks as Chris asks for more buttons to be removed. It’s a simple exercise that brings home the individual pain experienced when whole societies are fractured by oppression. It affects people in different ways.

“Dušica found that very difficult,” Joanne tells me later. “When she was asked to remove her mother – a big red button – she couldn’t do it and asked me to do it for her. That made me sad too.”

The Serbian trip continues here.

“It goes splishy sploshy, splishy sploshy.”

Already people are lining the streets in the centre of Cleckheaton eager to get the best view as the riders sweep by. They’ve a long wait.

In the King Edward VII Memorial Park, a large screen set up between Mr Super Scoop ice cream van and the face painting tent shows the peloton riding through another grey part of Yorkshire.

“When are they due here?” I ask the guy next to me.

“Not for another hour and half at least,” he says, bending down to wipe blue ice cream off a child’s face.

On the other side of the war memorial the pedal-powered sculptures – Les Espaces Cyclophones – are piquing interest from the ever-growing crowd.

“They’ve brought these over from Belgium,” I explain to a group of young lads as one pedals the stationary bike as if he’s about to take the yellow jersey.

“Jacob, keep going, peddle, peddle!” encourages his mate as water cascades around a waterwheel.

“Is it for charity?” asks Jacob, out of breath.

“No, no. It’s just for your enjoyment. That’s François,” I say, pointing out a man tinkering with one of the mechanisms. “You should go and say hello.”

“Bonjour. Je m’appelle Liam,” practices Liam.

“Very good.”

Lisa and Anna from Creative Scene are giving out leaflets and collecting email addresses. Sporting bright orange ‘Art Adventurer’ T-shirts they look as if they’ve just got off their bikes.

Seven-year-old Lucas is stood next to a water-filled old bath with a stethoscope round his neck. “What sounds can you hear?” I ask.

“It goes splishy sploshy, splishy sploshy,” he says.

“It’s like an echoey swooshing sound,” his mum adds.

Lucas puts the end of the stethoscope up to his lips. “I can hear myself speaking,” he says.

“We saw all these being put up last night while we were walking the dog,” says Dan, one of the dads standing back, surveying the scene. “We brought the kids down at about 11 – it was nice and quiet then – and they had a play with all the different contraptions.

“It’s intriguing, isn’t it?” he says. “The kids love it. Listening to the different noises, especially the water.”

“Have you had a go?” I ask.

“I have, yeah.”

With the help of some translation from Silvia, François’s collaborator, I find out the velo-powered sculptures were originally built in 2004 and this is the first time they’ve been to the UK.

“Tell me something about these pieces,” I ask. “What can the children and grown-ups experience?”

They converse quickly in French. François’s English is only slightly better than my French. “It’s a visual installation,” Silvia tells me.

“Aussi important…” says François.

“He’s saying that the view and the sound are equally important, and we leave the public to discover it for themselves.”

“… very simple… but the people are Wow, they don’t… d’habitude?” continues Francois.

“Normally,” translates Silvia. “People don’t normally play with something so tactile. They are so used to clicking their computers. And everyone knows how to ride a bike, it’s not complicated.”

Chloe is pedalling the water wheel now. “What do you make of all these in your park?” I ask.

“Good,” her mum says for her, “it should be a regular thing.”

“So these guys have brought all these from Belgium.”

“Wow!” says Chloe.

“No one will recognise us in all of this.”

Yellow bikes are attached to every railing, yellow and blue bunting is strung across every shop front, even the statue of Joseph Priestley has a yellow cycling cape. It must be the Tour de Yorkshire.

“Have you got a bike Len?”

“I have but I’m afraid I didn’t bring it,” I say sheepishly. “I’m going to be the mad one running after you with the camera.”

We’re in Birstall Community Centre where the Strictly Cycling troupe are welcoming their volunteers for today’s performance.

Batley Festival volunteer Donna is here with her teenage daughter Rosie. And Rosie’s friend Joe has just been dropped off by his grandma.

“Above all we’re going to have some fun,” says Kate who’s leading the rehearsals. “You’ll make people smile because you’ll look quite silly.”

Kate and her fellow performers lead everyone outside where a section of the car park has been cordoned off. “So we’ve got about two hours to workshop some stuff and then we’ve got a half hour display slot around the square.

“It’s pretty much just following what we do, repeating the same movements. Then we’ll have a practice with costumes.”

The Bicycle Ballet company has been touring their Strictly Cycling routine for about four years. It’s perfect for today. Art meets sport with a bit of flash mob thrown in.

“One hand on the handlebars and one hand on the frame,” shouts Kate. “Now twizz it round.”

“I’m a bit wobbly,” says Donna.

“That’s okay,” encourages Kate. “Wobbly is good.”

While they’re all rehearsing I wander to the market square where a party atmosphere is developing. A boom box bashes out Freddie Mercury’s ‘Bicycle! bicycle! bicycle!’ as local dancers limber up for their own show.

On one stall Creative Scene’s Parveen is plugging upcoming events and on another Creative Scene supporter Andrew Marsden is setting up his ‘Graf-E-Tee’ stall.

“How’s it going with Batley Does Opera for this year?” I ask.

There’s an intake of breath. “Timings are against us. We’re probably not going to be able to work with Opera North this time. It’s more likely we’ll go more contemporary, perhaps something bespoke for Batley. Which sounds about right.

“But we’ll do it. It was an amazing night last year. One of the best things I’ve ever been involved in.”

Back in the community centre the cyclists are putting on their yellow capes, helmets and goggles. “We look like Minions,” says Rosie.

“No one will recognise us in all of this,” says her mum. The teenagers look relieved.

“If your goggles steam up, and they will,” says Kate, “just put your thumbs underneath and move them about like little windscreen wipers.”

Back outside they have another run through in their costumes. I particularly like the finale where they all pretend to have crashed and, in slow motion, disentangle themselves, gesticulate to imaginary motorists and celebrate they are unhurt.

It’s show time! Kate leads them all to the market square high-fiving bemused spectators. For the next twenty-five minutes or so I dash from one side of the square to the other as the caped performers entertain the crowd.

It’s a great spectacle that culminates in ‘the crash’ being performed in front of a row of amused police officers. “Come on guys, help them out,” I shout as the riders lie supine.

“We’re not on traffic duty today,” one jokes as he helps himself to Donna’s bike and joins in the fun.

Exhausted and exhilarated everyone returns to the community centre as the dancers start their set.

“That was really good,” says Kate. “Well done everyone.”

“I’m not happy they didn’t arrest that policeman for pinching my bike,” says Donna.

“I don’t do slam poetry, yet. But watch this space.”

Tonight I’m the roving reporter. Before the presentations kick off at The Butchers Arms, Vicky and I leave to catch the second half of a poetry evening back in Dewsbury.

“There’s a lot of interest in spoken word around the area,” explains the Creative Scene producer as we pass under the railway viaduct, “and some popular poetry groups. With this event we’re trying to bring some of that together and draw on the cultural background of West Yorkshire.

“So anyone can present their work in whatever language they’re comfortable with.”

We arrive at Sensory World on Westgate during the break which gives me the chance to put my tape recorder in front of Vicky’s colleague, Parveen who organises It’s A Word Thing.

“There’s a real openness about this group,” she explains, “some people come to perform their poetry, others come just to listen. But everyone is really supportive and nurturing.

“What’s happened so far this evening?” I ask. “What have we missed?”

“We’ve already had three poems about the election,” says Parveen. “There’s really something immediate about this artform, something urgent. Last time we met on the day of Trump’s inauguration and we had two poems about that.”

“This is the third one we’ve had and it’s lovely to see that already we’re getting a cohort of regulars,” says Parveen. I notice Glen, Marina and Jason who I’ve met at Creative Scene’s The Social, a networking gathering that hosted at The Old Turk across the road.

And there’s Stella from the Idle Woman canal boat project who’s brought along some local women they’ve been working with. Parveen says one of them, Nicola, has been so moved by what’s she heard in the first half that she’s penned some verse – her first ever – for the second.

“Okay, shall we get started again,” calls out tonight’s MC Tamsin Cook above the chatter.

Tamsin kicks the second set off with a poem she considered performing earlier. “I didn’t feel we knew each other well enough back then,” she says, tongue firmly in cheek. “The reason will become immediately clear: I wrote this in response to some everyday sexism I experienced walking home one evening.”

Tamsin’s ‘adult’ poem draws hoots of laughter from many in the audience but, judging by the odd stony face, it isn’t to everyone’s taste.

After a couple more, she introduces the second half performers. Some are seasoned performers. Others, like Nicola, are trying this for the first time.

Mancunian Joel reads from his first book. “All these poems are about freedom,” he says, “sometimes personal freedom, sometimes political.”

Judith from Batley recites some traditional verse about trees whereas Marina gets stuck in with poems about feminism, swearing and another about the election.

“This fatwa on foul language is just a distraction/what counts in my book is the sum of your action.”

After Jason and Parveen have done their bit Tamsin brings the evening to a close and I get to speak to some of the ‘turns’.

“I love all the different types of poetry at this event,” says Judith who is a member of poetry groups in Batley and Cleckheaton. “My poetry is a bit old-fashioned because I like things to  rhyme. I don’t do slam poetry, yet. But watch this space.”

“It’s good to meet local people,” says Marina, standing with Glen. “We often go further afield to spoken word events. But it’s not ideal. You have to leave early for the last train and you miss all this chat.

“I definitely like this open mic format,” she says. “It’s good to listen to people who are a bit nervous and haven’t shared their work before. It’s an honour for us isn’t it? They feel comfortable enough with us as their audience. And we feel proud that we’ve made it possible for them.

“The bigger venues aren’t special like that. This is really open. Open to anyone who wants to speak.”

For details of the next It’s a Word Thing, keep an eye on Creative Scene’s website or email parveen@creativescene.org.uk

“There’s no closure until it’s put in front of an audience.”

It’s just after seven and The Butchers Arms on Halifax Road is already buzzing. We battle through the players around the pool table and head upstairs where a buffet is being laid out.

“Remind me why we’re here,” I ask Creative Scene producer Vicky after we’ve ordered our drinks.

“We want an update on our play The Ruck, she says, “and Kevin and Craig are due to meet here tonight.”

It’s true. It’s been a while since I reported on the read-through around the big table in Creative Scene’s offices, so a re-cap is due.

The story so far. Commissioned by Creative Scene, playwright Kevin Fegan has written a play about Batley Bulldogs Girls’ Rugby team, coached by Craig Taylor. Last year, after an unbeaten season, they became the UK’s first female rugby squad to tour Australia. The Ruck is inspired by the girls’ exploits in both Batley and ‘down under’.

“We’ve now appointed a director, Joyce Branagh,” says Vicky, “and Rebecca Foster will be assistant director which will be great opportunity for her to work alongside an experienced professional.

“It’ll premiere at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in September,” she says, “before going on a Yorkshire-wide tour. And before that we’ll do some little 20 minute ‘shorts’ at places like Batley Festival and at the Rugby Club.”

Negotiating his way through some excited young children, Kevin joins us at the bar. “Vicky tell me you helped choose the director,” I say once he has his pint. “Do you like to be involved in the production process?”

“I do. I’m that kind of writer. We were clear we wanted a female director and I’m delighted we’ve appointed Joyce. I’ll be going along to the casting sessions and rehearsals too.”

“Do you have a type of person in mind for your characters?” I ask.

“No. I like to be surprised. Often it becomes apparent during the auditions who the right person is. You have to be careful not to close the door to what someone might bring to a role.”

“I like to be at the rehearsals as well, to be part of the team. I’m clear about what I’m good at and I want everyone else to be good at what they do. Everyone brings their own skills to a production.”

“And tonight it’s a presentation evening,” I suggest.

“Yes. Last year – hot on the heels of the Aussie tour – Craig asked me to present some trophies, which was lovely. And it’s been a while since I’ve seen them all, so it’ll be good to touch base.”

Kevin is keen to keep up his connection with the Rugby Club. “There’s no closure with a play until it’s put in front of an audience. I’m looking forward to hearing the comments of those who’ve inspired it. It matters to me what people think.”

While we’ve been talking Craig has arrived with large boxes of trophies. Once they’re laid out he joins us at the bar and he and Kevin seem to continue where they left off.

It turns out last year’s winning team have pretty much dispersed. “Some are old enough now for the open age women’s team,” Craig tells Kevin, “and some are now playing union.”

“You brought that in, didn’t you?”

“Yeah. The girls play both over there,” he says, meaning in Australia, “and it makes sense for them to play both league and union here too. The seasons don’t collide. So why can’t the girls play both?”

There have been other spin-offs from the Aussie tour too. A couple of the girls – including Craig’s own daughter, Millie – were invited to go on a New Zealand tour with the team that hosted them.

“And now they’ve been offered a full-time rugby league scholarship in New Zealand. They’re thinking of going out there to study and play full time,” Craig says, proudly.

“And I hear there’s a chance the play might go out to Australia too?” I say. “That would be great.”

“Having The Ruck put in front of audiences here in Yorkshire will be brilliant,” says Kevin. “Taking it to Australia would be a real bonus.”

Tickets for The Ruck’s premiere are on sale now.