Conversations in Drenthe and Friesland

Last weekend I headed north. For the past few years, Culturapeida has had a partnership with PeerGroup, a theatre company from Drenthe in the northern Netherlands. We worked with them on a project for the Preston Guild in 2012 and have maintained the relationship ever since. We are currently working with them on a project called Bridging Blackburn which is about conversations with strangers and encouraging communities to communicate. Our other partner in this venture is a project that works with young people in Blackburn called Slyncs which is headed up by an old friend and ex employee of Culturapedia, Jaf Hussain.

20160917_115447Last weekend a group of seven young people from Blackburn visited PeerGroup to work with four of their young people to further explore ideas that will ultimately lead to a performance/happening/event, in Blackburn in the Summer of 2017.

I headed off, with my bike, and caught a train to Assen. From there I had a 45 minute cycle ride up to PeerGroup’s HQ which is an disused 1960s cold war ammunitions base called Donderboerkamp, surrounded by forest. The site consists of a grid of streets with buildings sparsely placed amongst the trees. Peer Group manage this site. It is where they are based but it also houses sheltered work opportunities for people with learning difficulties and mental health issues. Most of the buildings have been, or are in the process of being, converted from storage units for ammunition into useful spaces for staying, rehearsing, building, eating and creating. They are functional red brick boxes but they have a simple aesthetic with their shutters in amongst the trees.

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The weather was great and we had good company. The chall957447848282696132-account_id2enge was focusing on the task in hand – to think about how you had conversations with strangers and how we communicate – with words, pictures, actions…

On Friday night we set off in a convoy to go and see PeerGroups current production, an hour and a half drive away in the village of Kimswert on the Friesian coast. Five hundred years ago this was the home of Grutte Pier, a celebrated Friesian freedom fighter resisting Dutch or Saxon rule. Friesland still  has its own language, quite distinct from Dutch and a proud identity all of its own. The performance, which came half way through a four year programme of activity celebrating Pier’s anniversary, was spectacular. We were lead from the road, past the site of Pier’s farm house, (burned down on January 1515), by a giant drum and a choir of local women farmers and farmers wives. We arrived at a massive outdoor theatre with seating for over 400. An army, made up of 20 local people were training hard in the mud, preparing for battle. The stage was marked out by upturned tree trunks, brutally thrust into the ground and standing fifteen meters high. This was a hard setting – we were going to witness war. Beyond the trees lay the battlefield. Throughout the performance we witnessed layers of activity, body-bags being dragged, buried and burned. We saw Grutte Pier’s descent into madness, despair and cruelty. His conscience was represented by a narrator dressed in red – the only colour in the production. She tormented him and fought with him verbally throughout. She was his mind, his dreams, his ideas. All the dialogue was in Friesian apart from the narrator who spoke in Dutch. A lot of what she said had been directly lifted from the speeches of Geert Wilders, an frightening, active, charasmatic, outspoken right wing, nationalistic politician here in the Netherlands.

Naturally, I didn’t understand what was being said. I could pick up the odd word but it didn’t matter. This was physical theatre and the actions portrayed the meaning. It was fantastic. I loved every minute. I feel privileged to have seen it. Ticket sales have been so good, they have extended the run. By October nearly ten thousand people will have travelled to this small village on the coast of Friesland. Amazing.

20160917_084224_001B20160917_121006ack in Donderboercamp we further explored ideas and got to know each other better. Connections were made and strangers became friends. We improvised and we discussed ideas, ambitions and dreams. The next phase of the project will be back in Blackburn in mid October….

We had seen a depiction of war and violence on a field in Friesland and I had slept in an old weapons store. I cycled back to catch my train back to the noises and hubbub of Rotterdam having spent some wonderful tranquil hours in the peace of Donderboerkamp – glad that the weapons were a thing of the past and that Bridging Blackburn will be about talking to strangers, not fighting them.

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READ, READ, READ and ask WHY? WHY? WHY?

Yesterday was the first day proper of my Master year here in Rotterdam. Last year I successfully completed the Pre Master course which gave me a grounding in economics, social science research and statistics, amongst other things. Now the real work starts.

There are about sixty people in all, (it is hard to tell exactly as even the University is not one hundred percent sure who will turn up). About twenty of us did the Pre Master. We are the ones who know our way round, know most of the lecturers and how to use the EUR online services. We are the mostly European but span five continents. I am the only Brit.  I have included a list our home countries – sorry if I have missed anyone.

Where we are all from: Australia, Austria, Brazil, Czech Republic, China, Columbia, Ecuador, Germany, Ghana, Hong Kong, Hungary, Italy, Korea, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Taiwan, UK, Vietnam

Last week we had an introduction day when we went to visit an artist’s studio and a creative industry hive around Marconiplein in the west of the city. There were drinks at the city farm and a departmental party at a club on the river. On Saturday Guus and Dennis, two friends from the Pre Master course last year, organised another party with the aim of helping the old PMs and newbies to get to know each other better.

We have a course Facebook group which is really useful in terms of keeping on top of things. I seem to have adopted the role of updating the literature we have to read. At least this means that I am sure of knowing what we are supposed to be doing.  

Yesterday was the first day proper.  We had two, three hour lectures. The first was lead by the Department’s Professor – Arjo Klamer. Arjo is something of a celebrity here in The Netherlands as a frequent commentator in the press and on TV. He was the world’s first professor of Cultural Economics and has been fulfilling the role at Erasmus University for as long as most of my fellow students have been alive. He is leading a course on Cultural Organisations which will be strongly influenced by his own research on values. Over the course of the next eight weeks we will complete a group project and a number of essays. Why we organise and why cultural organisations organise as they do is really interesting to me. It was partly the subject of my thesis last year. Let’s see if my thoughts chine with Professor Klamer’s.

Our second was on Cultural Economics with Dr. Erwin Dekker. We didn’t meet Dr. Dekker last year as he spent a postdoctoral year in the USA. This course aims to strongly link  economic theories to art and culture. This course will be structured as a whole group lecture one week and smaller seminar groups, of about 20 the next. I don’t claim to be a natural economist but am looking forward to getting a bit of a better grip of the concepts. I think Dr. Dekker’s approach will suit me down to the ground. We have a number of essays to do here – the first two due in two weeks.

Our third course this term will be on Cultural Entrepreneurship. We start on Thursday. Starting in October we will undertake a series of research workshops. More on those to follow.

Two themes seem to be emerging Professor Klamer told us that we should not be asking HOW? but WHY? WHY? WHY? Dr. Dekker told us that we should READ, READ, READ and WRITE. I’d better get on with it.

 

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Saturday in Deliplein

From the north just follow the signs to Tattoo Bob. Across the Erasmus Bridge, over a bridge by the New York Hotel and behind the Fenix Food Factory, you will find Deliplein. A triangular ‘square’ with the brick and concrete Fenix warehouses to one side and early 20th century red brick on the others. It was missed by Hitler and is a scene of concerted regeneration activity over the past few years.

Tattoo Bob has played his part. Many a lamppost around the river has a yellow sign pointing you in the right direction but there is plenty else to keep you occupied. On one side is the Walhalla theatre. Fenix Food Factory backs onto the square, a highly fashionable food court with its own brewery, bakery, butchers, Moroccan spice stall and more. It’s built into the rough and ready surroundings of an old warehouse with rough wood and old sofas. It’s great but a bit pricey. A Sunday brunch platter, where you got a speciality from each stall is fun but it’s becoming a bit our a tourist trap.  I prefer Posse, next door. Built into another part of the same warehouse, it has a more more relaxed style than Fenix. It has bicycles and art photographs on the wall and the food and wine is really rather good. Sit outside in the Summer but they’ve plenty of room inside if it’s raining. The whole square is surrounded by eateries. I’ve not been to them all but they include a raw food, vegan food and pizzas.

Last Saturday (27 August), Sue and I went to Rotterdam’s street art festival in the square. It wasn’t Mintfest but fun and extremely busy nonetheless. The highlights included the washer women.  A group who largely took over the square with white linen and a LOT of water. Cast, audience and just about everything else got wet. This was a piece with no language which could work anywhere. It probably could do with a bit of tightening. Another highlight came from a Belgian company, Pikzpalace, in the form of a butcher’s van – but without meat. The four hander was in Dutch but it was quite clear what was going on, They were butchering soft toys and barbie dolls. Grotesque and funny, the audience loved it. This was clearly a polished piece that is already travelling. It would work in English and be enhanced by Belgian accents. Some might go home with nightmares but… Barbie paté anyone? Or teddy leg on a stick?

On Saturday evening we had booked for dinner at De Matroos en het Meisje (The sailor and his girl). A renowned table dote restaurant on the southwest corner of Deliplein. It was a lovely evening so we sat outside. You can choose 3, 4, 5 or 6 courses – we went for three which was more than enough. You get what you´re given with no menu or wine list. The wine has been pre-chosen to go with each course. The food is exquisite. I have been twice now and enjoyed every course. For the quality, the price is good. 35 for three courses 6 for a glass and 3.50 for a half glass of wine. This is definitely the best food I’ve had in Rotterdam so far. ***** from me.

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Sorry, it wasn’t me who broke it.

Team GB’s success in Rio did something to raise the mood but there has been a somewhat somber tone to the UK this Summer. Now the athletes are back home polishing their medals the national news returns to the political turmoil.  

Through ineptitude, some of our very senior politicians broke Britain and severely dented Europe. The referendum result, on June 24, was a classic example of uninformed democracy with one side promising billions of pounds to the National Health Service and to stop immigration (all total lies because they never believed they would win and have to deliver). The other side decided to ignore the positives of us being in the UK and patronised the electorate with ridiculous doom scenarios (the EU may be crap but we’d be worse off out of it….). A significant number of people who voted to leave only did so to give the Prime Minister a bloody nose – never actually believing that they would be on the winning side. The shock result of 52% leave and 48% remain has divided the population down the middle. The Prime Minister, who called the referendum to silence the swivel-eyed loons on the right of his party, promptly resigned to be replaced by a rather canny politician, who kept her powder completely dry during the referendum campaign. She inherited a government and a country who has no plan for leaving the EU. No plan was drawn up because no one believed we would need one.

We shouldn’t have needed one. We may be sat on a little island but we are still European. We are lucky to have a language that others choose to speak. We are a significant world economy and punch well above our weight diplomatically and in terms of soft power. We are world leader in creativity and the arts and are very good at elite sport as evidenced by the GB medal tally in Rio. On the whole we are quite nice really – we tend to be a bit conservative and traditional but that’s not the worst trait in the world. None of this is possible without cooperation and collaboration. Much of our economic status cames from being the financial managers for the rest of the world. Diplomatically people listen to us because we are collaborators, we bring membership of the EU, the Commonwealth, NATO etc to the discussion. We need trade and conversations to be creative.We can’t be good at track cycling if no one will compete with us.  

There are some important lessons about democracy in the UK here. Firstly, we live in a parliamentary democracy. This means that we elect politicians to represent us. We give them the resources to research and become the experts and vote accordingly. We don’t have a tradition of referenda as they undermine parliamentary democracy. The referendum was decided on the basis of uninformed democracy. Secondly, the vast majority of members of parliament in the UK recognised that the only sensible course was to stay in the EU. Our out of date ‘first past the post’ electoral system, rather than a sensible proportional system, means that we are largely a two party democracy with the Conservative Party on the right and the Labour Party in England and the Scottish National Party in Scotland on the left. The Conservative Party includes a range of people from One Nation centrists to the swivel eyed loons on the far right. Labour range from Blairites in the centre to Trotskyists on the far left.

One Nation Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, promised a referendum to placate the far right of his party. If we had a system of PR, as exists elsewhere in Europe we would have a larger number of parties made up of people who broadly agree with each other. Mr Cameron would not have needed to recklessly put Europe at risk to retain the support of a few right wingers unless he’d chosen them a coalition partners. All this has thrown the left into disarray. The lackluster left wing leader of the Labour Party has lost the confidence of 80% of his MPs but refuses to stand down. This leaves the new Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, with almost no opposition. We’ve long needed a PR voting system that will allow all our parties to divide accordingly.

What a mess!

Without a plan there is no clear timescale for or idea how we will leave the EU. The referendum was not binding. The UK parliament is sovereign and will have to make the decision. May has put three men, who all campaigned for Brexit in charge but they are clueless. Boris Johnson, former London Mayor and the new foreign secretary speaks from the hip and over the past few years has managed to insult just about every foreign leader. Look up what he has said about Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton and worst of all Turkey’s prime minister, Erdoğan. The new International Trade Minister was kicked out of the last government for fiddling his expenses and taking his boyfriend on trips at government expense. The Brexit minister has just admitted that when he was campaigning he genuinely thought we’d be able to negotiate individual trade deals with other European partners. We can’t we will have to negotiate with the whole EU. Trade deals usually take about 10 years and most specialists claim that you cannot do more than one concurrently as they influence each other so – 10 years for a deal with Europe, another ten for a deal with the US, then China, Japan, Canada, India…..  It will take about 300 years to get to where we are now as members of the EU. On top of that every single law that has been passed in the UK since 1974, when Britain joined the European Economic Community, will have to be re-written as then all enshrine European law into the detail. Because we have been in the EU since 1974 we don’t have any trade negotiators employed by the government.

The world is a better place if we talk, debate and share rather than argue. The UK is a big player but we are so much stronger when we look outwards and sit alongside our friends rather than fall out with them.

Will we ever leave – I certainly hope that someone will come to their senses, realise what a mess this is and find a way of reversing the decision. Perhaps the threat of Scottish independence, major financial institutions leaving the UK etc will be a catalyst. Perhaps it will just be delayed then somehow overturned at the next general election. Who knows. I have another year on Pancake Street. If nothing improves I may need to apply to the Netherlands for asylum. It wasn’t me that broke it – honest.

Back by popular demand

Or I soon will be. My first year in Rotterdam was fantastic – I’ve loved almost every minute. Sorry for my absence from your screens. I have been duly reprimanded and will endeavour to try harder.

After a Summer break, back in the UK, August turns and I start to think about coming back to Pancake Street. I’ll be sharpening my pencils and filling my fountain pen in readiness for the MA proper. At the end of June the results were in – confirming that I had cleared the hurdle of passing the Pre-Master year.

My Pre-Master thesis was on the relationship between CEOs and boards of arts organisations. I got a good grade but gratefully take on board the feedback that I made it a bit too complicated. This is great learning for next year when the thesis element will be twice as long and worth a third of the grades for the year.

20160606_181421Since I last tapped a key on this site I have also completed courses in Academic Writing, International Arts Markets and Advanced Economics of the Cultural Industries. I feel academically well equipped and a little nervous about the year to come. Most of my Pre-Master friends will be returning with another thirty five or so new faces who will be coming straight onto the Master year. Lots of new friends to make and new people to learn from. I can confidently say that I have learned as much, if not more, from my fellow students as I have from the formal lectures and assignments – that is how Universities should be.

I will be flying back to Rotterdam in about ten days time. Sue is coming back with me for the weekend and I’ve got a few days to re-orientate myself before the learning begins in earnest. I fear that my limited Dutch has rusted over during the Summer and I will be a lot poorer as the pound has plummeted against the Euro but I look forward to settling back into life on Pancake Street.

The Swan on a cold bright February afternoon

It has been a cold crisp sunny day here in Rotterdam. A beautiful day for a walk and a visit to the Swan which looked beautiful against eh February blue sky. The Swan is the local nick name for the Erasmus Bridge which crossed the Nieuwe Maas  in the heart of the city. The bridge is 20 years old this year. We are planning a tribute to the bridge with a very special concert by Blackburn People’s Choir on April 30. Watch out for more news on that one. In the meantime, if you want to find out about the architecture click here or just look at some of my photos below.

End of term report

 

The campus bell tower in the November sunshine

The campus bell tower in the November sunshine

Remember when there used to be three terms a year punctuated by Christmas, Easter and the Summer? The world doesn’t work like that at Erasmus University. Here there are four terms in the year. Christmas and Easter are just inconvenient holidays that get in the way. All this means that half way through November I finished term one with two exams and an essay deadline. In term one I’d taken three courses. Introduction to Social Science Research, Introduction to Economic Theory and Creative Economy and Creative Organisations. I’m sure that you’ll be as relieved as I am that I managed to pass all three, including the exams, (which were ‘orrible).

But what have I learned that I can pass on? I thought I should try and sum up each course, that’s eight weeks, into one sentence. Here we go.

 

 

Social science research is about how we know about things, how we find information, how we ask questions and how we look at the world objectively.

Economic theory is about prices, supply, demand and a rather unrealistic assumption that we are all capable of making rational decisions and that we spend based on our rationalising.

The creative economy is driven by creative people and organisations who create, communicate, organise themselves and others, collaborate and socialise.

I found each course useful and interesting in their own ways. I better understand the principles of scientific research when it comes to society. I know that I want to further question the standard economists and challenge their view of how things work. I have also had chance to think about creativity, how it works and what it needs to have impact.

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that my best marks came in Creative Economy and Creative Organisations. One, I’ve been helping run a creative organisation for a few years and two, there wasn’t an exam, (did I say that the exams were ‘orrible?). I particularly enjoyed writing an essay on Country House Opera, an area that I knew nothing about. It’s another world and it was fascinating applying the literature to it. (If anyone would like to read it, I’ll send you a link). I think my enjoyment must have shone through as I got a very good grade.

The grades here are not out of 100 but out of ten. Why does 78% sound better than 7.8? Is it just because of what we’re used to?

My results

Introduction to Social Science Research 8.1
Introduction to Economic Theory 6.6
Creative Economy and Creative Organisations 8.9

I’ve put these books to one side and am almost half way term two. We have a lovely course entitled an Introduction to Statistical Analysis*, another on the Values of Culture and a third on the Economic Geography of Creativity and Urban Development. So hard sums, values not costs and creative cities. All is going well.

 

*My German friends tell me that sarcasm is a very British trait.