From the UK Midlands to Central NSW

A long journey from Derbyshire’s damp green hills and dales to the wide brown plains of inland New South Wales; from Wirksworth’s Arts Festival to our own Kalari-Lachlan River Arts Festival back home in the small country town of Forbes.

Wirksworth’s arts festival was founded some 25 years ago by visual artists who wanted to exhibit their work in their own community. Our River Arts Festival was founded just two years ago, as  “a celebration of country creativity and resilience after a decade of drought,” to premiere The Kate Kelly Song Cycle. So we, in Forbes, still have lots to learn!

FestivalPoster2013_72aSeems we did OK with the second River Arts Festival in 2013 though.  The Forbes Advocate called it “Spectacular”! Reporter Sophie Harris decreed it “an astounding success”. [More >>] And thousands of other people apparently agreed with her. Even now, some two months on, we volunteer organisers are being stopped in the street and congratulated for what we achieved! The best thing they’d ever seen in Forbes, some of the locals told us. People had never experienced anything like River Arts 2013 in our town. Their expectations for 2015 are now alarmingly high!

[For more on my visit to Wirksworth’s Festival, see my September 2013 posts, visit The Pavilion Project, check out Maryanne Jacques’ article in the Western Advocate, Rural to Rural: International Arts Links,  or Jason Thomas’s Swapping Festival Ideas, in the Forbes Advocate, or go to The Australian Pavilion on Facebook. ]

I once imagined that I’d be able to update this blog even while I was co-organising River Arts 2013. Such naivity! The chaos and stress of mounting something as complex and comprehensive as our second rural arts festival in Forbes, and with such limited human and financial resources, was … well, frankly I was too frantic and too exhausted to even think about blogging at the time! Indeed, by opening afternoon, some of we key volunteers were life-threateningly “buggered”, to use a popular Australian colloquialism. My own life was saved by one of our visiting musicians, a much more experienced Festival facilitator than me, who gave me a block of chocolate and a bottle of water, and insisted that I sit down and get my breath back! She’d been there, done that, she said, and had learned her lesson the hard way. As I did that day too after nearly collapsing! Thank you Sally!

I’ll document some of the 2013 River Arts highlights and capture their impact on our local communities in later postings, but today, as a segue from my Derbyshire posts to Central Western NSW, I’d like to tell you about some of the ongoing creative links we’ve developed since the 2013 Wirksworth Festival. As a writer, I’m biased towards words and the literary arts, so let’s begin with poetry …

Two of our Festival partners, Central West Libraries and Central West Writers Centre, hosted a poetry competition called River Words for River Arts 2013. They invited poets of all ages from throughout Central Western NSW to submit up to thirty lines in which the word “river” had been used at least once, and offered a prize of $100 cash in each of three age categories. While in Wirksworth, I’d met several very inspiring English poets, including River Wolton, one of Derbyshire’s former poet laureates, whose name, I suspected, predisposed her to think positively about our Festival in Forbes. River conducted creative writing workshops and classes all around Derbyshire. So let’s invite River’s students to enter the River Words competition too, I suggested to Jasmine Vidler, at the Central West Writers Centre. And we did. Eight of River’s community writers from Chesterfield submitted poems: Dan Greaves, Alex Wheeldon, Kerri Harwood, Susan Oxburgh, Olivia Bradshaw, Katherine Robinson, Andrew Hamm, and Nina Moss. Ten times that number of community poets from inland New South Wales also entered this first River Words competition, a significant number of them from a single school in Bathurst!

[LISTEN here to Vince O’Donnell’s Arts Alive podcast recorded from the River Arts Festival site, Forbes, on 27 October, 2013. Including an interview with Jasmine Vidler about  River Words   >> ]

The English entries were very different from the Australian ones, however, and these differences presented the judges with some difficult dilemmas. How should they compare the English and Australian entries? By what criteria should they judge them? The local community poets tended to draw on the Australian bush ballad tradition, as popularised in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In general, they favoured bush themes, and used traditional lineation, rhyme and metre (although there were several impressive exceptions to this generalisation). The Derbyshire poets, on the other hand, used more contemporary poetic forms and tended to be more introspective. Their themes tended to be more urban, and their language more figurative. These differences high-lighted the richer opportunities young writers enjoyed in Derbyshire, as citizens of their crowded little archipelago at the edge of mainland Europe, compared with their Aussie counterparts in our own sparsely populated and relatively culturally deprived rural inland. Our River Arts Festival has an important role to play in addressing such disparities, and not only in the literary arts.

PoetrySlamWorkshopWithMilesMerrill_RiverARtsFestival2011_DSCN0870 (2)

Sydney-based poet Miles Merrill (left) conducting a workshop with local poets at the Kalari-Lachlan River Arts Festival in 2011.

But already our Festival in Forbes has enlarged community writers’ literary worlds to some extent. In 2011, for example, Central West Libraries and the Central West Writers Centre co-hosted a Forbes heat of the Australian Poetry Slam, with a workshop and performance by the Slam’s main man, Chicago-born, Sydney-based poet Miles Merrill. Winners were chosen by judges randomly selected from the audience. Their prize? A chance to compete in the national poetry slam’s state finals at Sydney Theatre Company’s HQ at Walsh Bay, Dawes Point, against some of Australia’s best performance poets.

Only one of the Forbes finalists, Ted Webber from the nearby town of Young, was able to get to Walsh Bay on the day. He described the experience as “an eye opener to me.” (Which was probably an understatement!)

“Apart from myself there was only one other rhyming poet,” he confessed in his report. “Subject matter ranged from baking a cake, to a teenager going on a first date and possibly having a first kiss, sticking up for Palestinian rights, escaping from Vietnam and a confronting double X rated piece. Sixteen poets were awarded points by judges selected from the audience and only the top two go on the Australian Poetry Slam finals. I was not one of them.”

That night, Ted and his wife went looking for another big city adventure. After getting lost on the train network, after waiting for buses that never appeared, they hailed a cab for Kings Cross, then “walked bug-eyed down the Golden Mile of Darlinghurst Street passed [sic] bouncers, strip clubs, ladies of the night, others I can’t describe, and “adult” shops.”

“Certainly different to Young!”, this true-blue country bloke concluded. And different to Forbes too!

Dry Stone Wall Studies by Christine McMillan, a series of postcards exhibited at The Australian Pavilion, Wirksworth, September 2013.

Dry Stone Wall Studies by Christine McMillan, a series of postcards exhibited at The Australian Pavilion, Wirksworth, September 2013.

Back in Derbyshire some of the Write Here Young Writers in Chesterfield have responded to the work of one of my fellow inland professional creatives, Christine McMillan: her series of abstracted drawings of the dry stone walls which, as the photos below show, are quintessentially Wirksworth. Christine posted the Chesterfield writers’ responses on her blog, including the following …

I am a single stone in miles of wall.
I sit, nestled amongst my brothers and sisters
who separate me from my husband and children.
I am one among many, insignificant and important.
For without me, the wall would crumble.
Without the others, I would fall. 

Christine has since emailed me to tell me more about this collaboration [Email, 19 January 2014]:  “I was explaining my postcard idea to River Walton at the Australian Pavilion exhibition, showing her the stacks of cards of my drawings that that the public could take and respond to. She immediately explained that it would be good to use them as a starting point for the young writers she is working with. OH YES! What a wonderful idea!  I’d previously thought of the responses being drawings, even though postcards are, more often than not, written on.”

Dry Stone Wall Study, by Christine McMillan, 2013. Photo by the artist.

Dry Stone Wall Study by Christine McMillan, the postcard the young Chesterfield writers responded to. Photo by the artist, 2013.

“Back in Australia I received an email from River with the first responses, short lines of words that created alternative images. And the responses kept coming with a wonderful video! [above] What a great idea for communicating the written word! The young writers from Chesterfield had transformed the minimal forms I’d created into words and, in turn, had created totally new images to explore.”

“I’m running a workshop at Orange Regional Gallery next week and we are going to use the words created by the Chesterfield young people as an inspiration for making print works. I’ll then post these works on my blog for more responses,” Christine continued. “Can’t wait to see what the participants create.”

Below, Christine McMillan’s Dry Stone Wall Studies, and some of the structures (not all of them dry stone walls) which may have inspired her. Photos taken by Christine, or snapped by your blogger, Merrill Findlay, during her long walks in and around Wirksworth, September 2013. Click on the images to enlarge them.

Page updated 19 January, 2014. Revised 16 January 2016.


2 thoughts on “From the UK Midlands to Central NSW

  1. I enjoyed reading about your festivaland seeing the links you still keep with Derbyshire (not just the stone walls!) . So pleased that your headline can be: ‘Chocolate saves life of buggered blogger’! Alastair Clark


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