Down by the river
On July 2nd 2017 we gathered at Centrespace - an artist-owned studio and event space located along the tiny Leonard Lane in Bristol, and home to the Letterpress Collective - for an evening of water-inspired poetry, music and film.
The event, which sought to bring together some of the creative expressions around water, as well as to remind ourselves and others of human-water connections further afield, brought together a wonderful collection of artists who performed to an appreciative crowd.
Helena Enright, a performer and drama lecturer at Bath Spa MC'ed the evening, and also shared material from her own work on the River Shannon, gathering stories of this river (more on that later).
The evening was opened by the wonderful Holly Corfield-Carr, a multi-talented poet and artist who presented poems alongside a film, taking us through a journey through Bristol's harbour, imagining rising tides and flows. The words and images together were amazingly atmospheric. Holly's work is also funny, with photography and words woven together to draw out the wonder and delight of both water and people. There are signs that have been worn away, (disembark safely now says 'bark safely'), and my favourite observation, of an illusion created at sea of Denny Island floating - and thereby becoming part of Wales, given some legal division of the island as that which is above see being Wales and that below being England! You can read and view some of Holly's wonderful work on her website and blog here: http://hollycorfieldcarr.co.uk/
Holly's wonderful opening poems were followed by a screening of the fantastic short animated film produced by Water City Bristol's Hidden Ecologies strand. The film, put together by animator Lucy Izzard, with the voices and drawings of the children of class 5 at Victoria Park primary school, was really well received, with the room filling with laughter at the charming moments in the journey of the eels.
Following this, Helena shared some great stories from the River Shannon, based on conversations she had had with people living close to the river, or with intimate connections with it. A group of sisters reminisced about their father packing their whole big family into a boat, with a couple of boys attached to a raft at the back, sharing the joys of the river, and some hairy moments as well!
On the topic of boats, Jack Adair Bevan, an apprentice boat builder at Underfall Yard gave a talk about the process of building the famous Bristol pilot cutters, including a short history of why these boats were so special, having been built to navigate the very particular tidal estuarine conditions coming into Bristol, and the particular ways in which their design and motion followed these conditions. The craft of building pilot cutters is being kept alive by a small number of enthusiasts, and the care and attention and love that goes into building these boats was very evident in Jack's talk.
We were then treated to the beautiful sounds of Agua de Beber, singing watery bossa nova, music from the shores of Brazil, a country with nearly 7500 kilometres of coastline! Bossa nova apparently emerged through the blending of different styles of music, and was given its name as something new, on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. Listening to Agua de beber's vocalist Kat's soothing voice, it was easy to imagine relaxing on such a beach.
We were brought back to the local next, but in mind of connections further afield, when Nick Hand, one of the Letterpress Collective's printers presented a photo essay about the Pill Hobblers, skilled boatsmen who guided ships into the treacherous harbour to unload their goods. A profession that clearly was one of great prestige, we were shown images of hobblers in three-piece suits and bowler hats! Hardly the image you might expect of people out in the tidal waters of the Bristol Channel! The hobbler community at Pill is apparently very secretive, and so Nick had spoken only to the wife of a hobbler, as none of the hobblers themselves were willing to be recorded.
The boats and arrivals into the harbours of Bristol come with a reminder of other boat journeys too, some with darker stories of challenges both at sea, and on land where situations like war have, particularly in recent times, led to mass movements of people, often in treacherous conditions over waters that have claimed the lives of many. In recognition of this, we were lucky to be treated to a performance by Oud duo Nabra, comprised of Knud Stuwe and Ali Elmubarak. The pair had met through a scheme to introduce refugees to musicians, and the collaboration that has formed is pure joy to watch. Ali's face beams with smiles, and the pair's musical interweavings speak volumes. You can read a write-up about the pair and see some of their music here: www.bristol247.com/news-and-features/features/music-and-friendship/
After a short interval and beverages from the bar, the second half of the evening commenced with poems by Libby Houston. Libby is a botanist and rock climber who has spent many a day hanging off ropes in the Avon Gorge, where she famously discovered a new species of whitebeam. Her poems were wonderfully evocative of relationships with these natural landscapes. This rare performance was a real treat, as Libby has not performed her poetry for many years, and was truly a delight.
Another performance that was a rare treat was that of Legacy, a group of guitarists led by Alex Hogg performing rhythmic and fluid music, in accompaniment to the 1929 film poem on water by Ralph Steiner.
Mesmerised by the music of Legacy, we then plunged below the city of Bristol through a film by Antony Lyons exploring the underground spaces of water in Bristol through the eyes of the people who maintain the sewers and culverts, descending into these tunnels and caves to keep the circulation of water in the city in flow. The film gave the sense of the city as a body, accompanied by human heart-beats (including that of Antony's child when she had been in the womb). An evocative connection between the human and the city, truly a Water City Bristol expression.
As the evening drew to a close, Helena shared more stories from the Shannon, the personal woven into the natural, and we were played out into the night once more by the lovely Agua de beber, with our minds and hearts full of all the amazing ways in which we are connected to places, peoples and our selves through water...
Thanks to Antony Lyons, Nick Hand, Helena Enright and Owain Jones for organising and hosting Down by the River.
Blog post and photos by Katherine Jones
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