Information Online

On-line information systems:

current trends and future prospects

This paper summarises current approaches to the electronic distribution of information and looks ahead to where things might be going in the future.
This was written as a contribution to the CivicNet conference in 1997.

The current situation

Public information, as far as the Internet is concerned, tends to be passive – i.e. you have to go out and get it. Libraries are passive – you have to go there to find the books and take them out. Electronic information services give more scope for being proactive – like TV news broadcasts, they pump the content out to the user. Some electronic ticker-tape services present a constant flow of news, others are more episodic. The WWW requires the user to search for the desired content and then to type in a URL or link from the results of a search, get into the page, browse through the site, mark the page to get back to it again.

Newsgroups again are passive and required the users to go into them and browse. List servers however are proactive in that they fire e-mails at the users, usually in daily batches but some are more frequent.

Kiosks provide information at the touch of a screen – are always up and running and only require the users to be in the same place as they are to present their content. Some companies provide TV video to customers – like those queuing at the post office. They run their content on looped video tape or CD ROM.

The Internet

The Internet is a world-wide public information system. One of its biggest components is the World Wide Web. The Internet is a network of several million computers all linked together via the world’s telephone and telecommunications links (including the high capacity ISDN lines). Information travels from one computer to another via the same telephone lines as the spoken word and by special channels called backbones. The Internet provides the capability of sending information, electronic mail, transfer of computers files and other electronic data packages.

World Wide Web

The web is a collection of some four million pages of information. A lot of these are linked together where there is related information and many of them are indexed in search engines. By typing keywords into these search engines, these web pages can be located. Web pages can present text, in full colour, still images, moving images and sounds (including speech and music). A variety of functions can be built into web pages such as the ability to send e-mail back to the authors, to fill in and send forms, purchase good or make orders of other kinds.

Intranets

Sometimes organisations or groups want systems that are geared to their needs and will create intra-nets. These use similar technologies to the Internet and also involve linking together networks of computers, but they are limited to defined computers and users who are admitted to the system.

Current methods of distribution

There a several standard packages for transferring information on the Internet. One of the oldest methods is the electronic bulletin board. This enables simple text to be posted and browsed and is usually available to anyone who finds that particular bulletin board. Similar to these are the newsgroups (Usenet groups) on the Internet. There are probably around about 15,000 of these and they tend to be grouped together by broad subject areas. Text is posted to the group and everyone else can read it. Postings need to be read on a regular basis. Most newsgroups can be read using a web browser or by specialised news group readers.

A new method emerging is what are push clients. These send information to the user, as opposed to news groups which you have to go to read. Push clients make information appear on your computer screen in a variety of ways.
Somewhere, between passive newsgroups and highly dynamic push clients, live the list servers. These are systems to which the user subscribes and which send e-mail like postings to the user’s e-mail address box. These postings are written by the other subscribers to that list or by people who are using the list to push out information. The list servers are like electronic mailing lists. Lists can have any number of subscribers and some have hundreds of subscribers. The software needed is an e-mail reader. By and large only simple unformatted text can be sent although a more recently generation of e-mail packages can now handle colour, fonts and text emphasis, like most word processors.

Where the technology seems to be heading in the future

One important development in the field of public information is digital TV. This is a broadcast media which allows TV pictures to be transmitted in a digital format rather than the analogue format we are currently using for most of what we watch on the TV. The significance of digital TV is that a lot of it is likely to be interactive, allow the users to feedback information, have a control over the content of what is being broadcast.

What I think we will see is a convergence of the Internet with broadcast media. The Internet has become increasingly multi-media. It is likely that the world wide web or something like it will be broadcast in the same way that TV pictures are broadcast and will go out over high band width channels either by satellite or optic cable. But the user will have the same level of selection, control and feedback as people current have on the Internet.
The world wide web is still a rather text-based collected of pages even though the technology exists to create totally multimedia web sites. The web can deliver video, sound and three-dimensional images in full colour but this requires to user to have high specification multi-media computing equipment. This is becoming more common.

However, I think there will be major changes in the hardware. the most common piece of electronic equipment in the world is the television. I think that the Internet will migrate over to TV and will put much of the processing power of a standard PC into the television and give people something like the existing remote control pad to navigate around the content. There might be an optional keyboard for those who feel they want it. But for the domestic users, they want to buy a TV and then be able to use the one box for everything – leisure, domestic information, education and games. It is possible that the same equipment will also be integrated with telephone – the Internet phone – and e-mail – ability to send text over the telephone network.

Broadcast media at national or European level might also be complemented by local networks – providing much more localised content rather like local radio does now. This is where the future of the community network lies. Community Networks (CNs) started out on the Internet, allowing small geographic communities to connect together. As the technical specification of the CNs increases, it is likely that they will merge into local broadcasting and information services. Other CNs will serve communities of interest rather geographical communities and this already happens a lot on the Internet. There is little difference between the two: a geographical community is a community of interest where people share information about their locality.

Community Networks and work

Work is about economic, educational or social activities. Being employed, having a job is part of work but so is being self employed, long term volunteering, studying for a qualification. Work has a variety of forms not just or only economic. Hence in the future we need not be concerned with people who are employed or unemployed – that is just a technicality. Most employed people will be on short term contracts, probably working for one or more employers. More and more people will work flexibly so that the public policy concern is about access to work – having the skills to do work, ensuring that there are effective skills registers (equivalent to yesterday’s employment exchanges or job centres), that people who wish to work have access to training, skills enhancement and the means of production – more and more of which needs to be either in the public sector or publicly available from commercial suppliers. As we move more and more into the information age, the means of production will be distributed on public infrastructures. In industrial societies capital was located in places – factories. The capital of the information age is software and that we be accessed through telecommunications channels.

In the past, work was limited by location: people went to work, they traveling from their homes to their factories, workshops, offices. They still have to do this in large numbers but the world has witnessed a growth in remote working or work that is mobile and not dependent on location. Teleworkers now work at home either as small businesses or employees. Home workers using telecommunications as an aid to their work.

In the past, the exchange or transfer of information was slow compared to today’s capacity for fast (almost instantaneous) communication of information and data. There is a danger of information overload and people need to develop information management skills from school age – start teaching kids information skills in primary schools and updating those skills goes on throughout life. I’m offering courses in effective communications and information management skills for people working in charities, community groups and teleworkers. They are proving to be popular.

In the past, the over-riding adage was ‘it is not what you know but who you know that counts.’ Now, in the information age, the converse it true: it very much is what you know that matters. And it’s about know where to find things out, how to get information, where to put information that make people effective communicators.

So, community networks supply the infrastructures for a range of social, political and economic functions – work, leisure, civic activities, voluntary work and activism, education, training, enterprise, family history, LETS schemes, community banking, credit unions, kids clubs…  a great long list of things that become possible once the technologies are made available.

Networks versus stand alone tools

The old work place was a location with tools on site. The trend now is towards networks where the tools are available in the network or are held centrally. The power of the computer is in the network. There is a battle going on between those who want to build ever more powerful stand alone computers and those who want to put all the processing power and tool kits into the networks so that all the user needs is a simple devise for getting into the network and working on-line.

I think the networkers will win. I think that desk top computers will amalgamate with televisions as far as the domestic user is concerned but that there will be a growing emphasis on the power of the network and that people will need computers that will open up the network and provide its facilities. The computer on our desk will need relatively little power.

The old tool box was one that houses tools. The new tool box is one that opens the door to tools that are distributed around a network and that are picked up and used when needed and then put back when that task has been completed.

The commercial challenge for software houses is that traditionally they have relied on selling large numbers of free-standing packages – or site licences. Now a lot of software is available over the Internet with people paying a registration fee to download it and use it. A new approach is for the software package to be houses on a central server and for a number of users to dial in and use it. But that is not any different from a network (LAN) server providing software to clients.

More and more people are working flexibly – from home – from other offices – mobile workers working from hotel rooms. People have begun to carry laptops around but they tend to be more expensive than desk tops. I favour the idea of the Network Computer – with lots of them being publicly available, in Libraries, in schools, colleges, community centres – places where people might want to work in the public arena and with the servers being dialled up from home. Computing power in the network and widely available through relatively cheap hardware and no personal software costs. Community printer banks mean people can get hard copy printed from high quality, high capacity machines and delivered to them by couriers.

Trevor Locke,  © 2nd June 1997

EconomicsAgeing

The economics of ageing

Over the past few months I have been following the media’s preoccupation with the “baby boomers”. Being over 60,  I am facing up to the challenges of not being in my prime any more. As current policy goes I am in fact only a few years away from retirement age [at the time of writing – see below for original date of publication].  What weighs on my mind however, is that by the time I reach 65 they will have moved the goalposts. I will have to wait till I am am 70 and who knows, by then, they will have probably dismantled the goal posts altogether.

I am most probably part of the work-till-you-drop generation. Retirement is just a passing phase, in the broader historic scheme of things. My grand fathers worked till they dropped and retirement was a luxury afforded only to post-war generations but, as an economic concept, it looks it’s being consigned to the museum of history.

What do we do?  With a labour market that is almost universally geared to people aged between 21 and 31, people in my age group are struggling to find any kind of employment. Despite the government’s blandishments about the need to employ older people, the recruitment industry just does not want to know.

This is why I am building my future around self-employment, where age does not necessarily matter. After 45 years of working life, I consider myself to have a broad range of knowledge, skills and experience. Try telling that to HR consultants. Fortunately I now include in that work profile,  over 15 years experience of running my own micro businesses.

Several things have got me thinking about the future of work.  Notice I use the word work; part of my vision of the future is that employment  is likely to follow retirement  into the graveyard of economic history – at least for a very sizeable segment of the population.

The 21st century is going to experience a sea change in how people earn a living. Large sections of the population are going to have get into self-employment and running their own  businesses, for no other reason than that is the only way they can avoid destitution and poverty. We are enter the age of the “sole trader”. [Current indications are that just under half the UK population of working age is self-employed. According to the Office of National Statistics, ‘Self-employment higher than at any point over past 40 years’, in 2014. ‘ The number of over 65s who are self-employed has more than doubled in the past 5 years to reach nearly half a million’]

We saw the rise of the Entrepreneur in the industrial revolution, the rise of the capitalist and the rise of corporate man in the twentieth century.  All that is waning and the the age of the sole trader is upon us. Company pensions are going to be a thing of the past and indeed several people have said recently that they have given up on the idea of a pension and prefer to invest in more secure containers for their wealth.  It’s an issue that government policy analysts are wrestling with. Western capital has moored itself to the rock of the pension funds, only to find that they have secured themselves to rocks that are beginning to sink to a watery grave, where they will find themselves gathering encrustations alongside the wrecks of “banks” and “building societies”.

In the meantime, my ship of private business is sailing into the new dawn of the twenty first century economy. Those who are aged 55 and over should be thinking about their futures as working men and women. Those futures are largely going to be self-determining.  We are exhorting our children to start paying into pension funds as soon as they start work, planning for a life-time of saving for their retirement.  Don’t.  It’s basing their future on the here and now.  Not a good idea.

I would rather see the nation’s parents exhorting their offspring to go on business courses, so that they have to basic skills to go it alone, if they find themselves bereft of employment  (a not-unlikely scenario, in my view.)
Tax consultants will have to start thinking outside of the box. Post-war society never had it so good because the state could easily collect its revenues from bulk employers: the corporations that could maintain an army of administrators to tax the work force and send the cheques to the treasury. Very cost-efficient. It is not where things will be in the future.

There might well be big corporations for the rest of our life-times but they are likely to be populated with sub-contractors rather than employees.  I am seriously thinking about the amount of time I spend submitting my CVs to companies. My four hours a day of laborious sifting through vacancies could be better spent raising my profile in the market place. So, if you’re the MD of a recruitment agency or a jobs web site, take my advice – plan for the future and re-engineer what you are doing. Your business is likely to find itself resting alongside the wrecks of the pension funds and banks.

The old order is waning. We just need to stand back far enough to see the bigger picture and look for enough head to see the direction in which the world is heading. Listening to a social media guru tonight, I heard her say that she stopped bothering about getting herself listed on job web sites and concentrated on making herself “be found” on the Internet.  Now, people phone her up to ask her to work for them, she claimed.  Much better.  That is where I need to be. recruiters now should be searching for people to hire. if you want a particular type of person, someone with a distinctive profile, you should be out there looking for them.

They [prospective recruiters]  no longer need to apply to you. You need to apply to them. Age is not important.  It’s a complete red-herring (just as is gender.) If you need people with the right skills for the job, go out and find them. As tonight’s speaker said:  NEVER put your real age on a profile, the speaker claimed.  I totally agree and we both understand the reasons why this principle is of prime importance. For me, it mainly to do with identity theft, where date of birth is the key to stealing identity (I know from my years of doing genealogy.)

I have decided not to put my age on my CV and I am busily deleting information that will give a clue to my age. If they are going to judge my application using age as a factor, I don’t want their job, I will just press the next button.

So, what am I going to do that will earn me a living and be consisted with my knowledge, skills and experience? I am going to work (notice the lack of the word job) for companies who can make money from people like me and share the benefits with people who want to work for them. Forget the pension, the PAYE, the office, the set hours of work, the employment contract, the annual leave package. These are legacy already.

Ah!  I can hear some of you whingeing already about the loss of annual leave. Well when you work for yourself you arrange your own holidays. You decide how much holiday you can afford, when you want it and where and how you want to take it.

Wave good bye to the concept of annual leave, conditions of service, benefits (such as the company car), the corporate credit card, health plans and all the other trappings of post-industrial corporate life. If you want something, earn the money and buy it yourself.

I did talk about sole traders  earlier didn’t I? Well, it’s interesting that many of the people who are on the long march into the new economy are working together. Yes they are still sole traders but they seeing the opportunities of working alongside other sole traders in business pods, even in project swarms. Being a sole trader can be lovely and isolating. Until you discover all the other people who are in same situation and suddenly realise that if you all work together,  you can be more than the sum of your parts.

Disheartened?  Frightened? Filled with foreboding?  I’m not. I am excited about the possibilities and the opportunities to show what I can do with my 45 years of experience.

Trevor Locke © 15th December 2010

LeicestershireTeleworking

Teleworking today and tomorrow

A talk given by
Trevor Locke, Chairman of Telenet
at John Storer House, Loughborough, on Thursday 5th February 1998.

Summary

Current patterns of teleworking in Leicestershire and in Europe

What teleworkers do

Nuts and bolts of being a teleworker

How they find work

Future prospects for teleworking in the year 2000

Four year of Telenet in Leicestershire

The impact of the Internet on teleworking

Current patterns of teleworking in Leicestershire

Teleworkers are people who work mostly at home or from home. OK in some cases they work from a small office but the key factor is that they work for clients who are some distance away – hence the ‘tele’ in telework.
Employees of companies are now [1998] more likely to spend some time working at home and on a more regular basis. Telework is becoming accepted as one of a number of flexible working practices available to large employers.
Traffic congestion is a factor in encouraging the growth of teleworking. Commuting has become a costly practice, both in time and expenses. Traffic congestion is increasing, although here in Leicester the problem is not a very great one. The City is about average for ancient Midlands cities in regard to congestion at peak hours. Parking capacity certainly is fully stretched but not necessarily overburdened. The road network is saturated at peak hours due to single car commuters but there is a computerised parking system. The commuting flow can be traced back to several large employers, most notably the City Council itself, the Inland revenue, the Hospitals, Universities and colleges.

Teleworking is for many firms an option for some white-collar workers on an ad hoc basis (a couple of days a week). LCC does have a home working policy whereby staff who are able to do so may work at home if they need to but the practice is not activity encouraged.

The City Council activity encourages staff to walk, cycle and use public transport. The development of the Town Hall Square Cycle Centre is an example of this as are the building of the cycle routes and bus routes. Much more could be done to encourage home working and this could further reduce regular traffic flows by up to 10 per cent.

Self employment

Most of the teleworkers who join the TCA (the national body for teleworkers) are self-employed and working from home. They tend to be white-collar specialists although there are also a large number of people who are home workers who might have a computer and might use it for work but they are not computing specialists – this is however a point where teleworking merges in with the general field of small business and self employment. Only a small number of teleworkers actually use a computer as their main piece of working capital – e.g. programmers, translators and web authors. Most teleworkers use a computer for word processing, accounts, some database work etc.

Teleworking is on the increase right across Europe and teleworkers are now more able to engage in collaborative projects with other teleworkers.
The Internet and competition amongst telecoms providers has meant that we have seen a decrease in telecommunications costs and an increase in the efficiency of telecoms media.

What do teleworkers do?

Some have described teleworkers as knowledge workers – collecting, repackaging and redistributing knowledge – but in many ways this sounds too vague. Let’s look at the list in Telwebsite: Electronic engineer, Software developer, Secretarial Services, Administration, Engineering consultancy, IT Consultant, Writer, Graphics designer, Journalist, Technical author, Multimedia author, Market researcher, Distance learning consultancy, Technical illustrator, Career management adviser, Psychometric tester, Tax adviser, Book keeper, Trainer.

There are a lot of people who have a computer at home, know how to do a bit on it and then are willing to take on any kind of assignment – loads of general administrators. Some are very vague on what they can do but are full of willingness and enthusiasm. Some have a yen to get into business and end up in those awful MLM schemes. Some just try to sell what ever they can over the phone.

The nuts and bolts of being a teleworker

Over the last four years I have tried to boil down the practice of being a teleworker to certain crucial elements:

(a) Working at home

For me teleworking is about being a home worker – working from home rather than at home – or both. I used to be out of the house most days in the week at one time – now I am spending four out of five days a week at home. That presents it own challenges – the fact that I am alone in the house all day. The fact that the office is in the home and if I cant find anything better to do I will work. I keep funny hours – common to work up to 2 in the morning and fall asleep in the last afternoon. Having two rooms solely devoted to office space is a source of friction.

(b) Finding work

I have multiple clients – up to 10 at any one time. I have constantly to be alert to new customers and I have to be all things at once – salesman, manager, operative, book-keeper.

I don’t make enough profit to employ secretaries, book keepers and salesmen though I ought to if I am to maximise the time I spend managing the business. One day I will get to that break point where I can. But I am beginning to work with other teleworkers – I am not so much a lone star as I used to be. That is very important – being able to find other people to work with and to share enterprise with them. I now have half a dozen associates – some in Leicester – one in the Netherlands. I find I am working with individuals and with larger companies.

(c) Doing the work

The biggest challenge is just shifting the vast pile of work that is always present. Having to keep plates spinning. Having to keep a clear sense of priorities – sadly, I have to say, this does always happen. I tend to do easy work in order to avoid the challenge of the really important and difficult stuff. When you work on your own you have to be able to engage in time management because you do not have anyone on your back tell you what to do.

How do teleworkers find work?

With great difficulty! If a teleworking is a generalist – administrator – portfolio worker – they have to do a lot of advertising. Marketing is all important. Yet a lot of work comes by word of mouth. Cross-fertilisation between clients.
You have to have good communications – customers won’t bother to find you if they can’t get an answer to their phone call. Some teleworkers end up working for agencies because it’s easier – marketing takes time and money.

Future prospects

Teleworking will continue to become easier and will be a greater possibility for more and more white-collar workers. House builders are just beginning to realise that people are working at home and are building houses with offices or studies.

Large companies are beginning to understand the benefits for teleworking. They are training managers to manage outputs. People are moving into the countryside out of the cities – this is a topic for the Government at a time when the Green Belt is under stress.

This only exacerbates commuting pressures and costs. Soon it will be cheaper to work at home because of the high cost of car ownership and travel. More student will spend more time studying at home and that will begin to affect school age children.

Four Years of Telenet

We begin with the East Midlands and have focused down on the county. That is more realistic. But the constant pressures of having to organise meetings is a burden for committee members who are very with their work.

We need to know how many of our members are on the Internet. I wonder if it feasible to run the Association for people who are not on the Internet. The sheer cost of doing mailings in time and postage is too great. E-mail and web pages cost so little – they are so easy to operate – there are none of the overheads of stuffing envelopes – doing printing – licking stamps. Perhaps the time has come to say no more paper based mailings. Do we actually need to meet together face to face.

Well many of us do enjoy seeing each other. I would suggest that we need the chance to meet face-to-face but they the bulk of association activities can be done over Internet and we would achieve more if we decided to go down that route. That might lead us to opening up our membership – to see Telenet as a general vehicle for anyone who is a regular work-related user of the Internet. But perhaps that is putting the cart before the horse.

It would be a loss if there was no longer a body to represent the interests of teleworkers, to promote teleworking, to give talks on the subject, to give advice to people who want to do this.

The impact of the Internet on teleworking

There is no doubt in my mind that the Internet has revolutionised teleworking. It has become a standard tool of the trade. It has opened up endless possibilities. It would be impossible to go back to being without it. Just as we would not want to return to manual typewriters or to having to send all communications by postal services. Once we enjoy a technological development there is no going back. But where are we going forward? What technological advances lie ahead of us?

Document created 6/2/98 © Trevor Locke 1998

NetactivismParticipation

Participation, inclusion, exclusion and netactivism:

How the Internet invents new forms of democratic activity.

by Trevor Locke

Community Networks are developing in the UK, just as they have developed in North America and other parts of Europe. They represent an important departure in the provision of community access to information, telecommunications and IT resources.

Community Networks are described as being people-oriented and place-focussed. In the criteria set by the co-ordinating body UK Communities Online, such networks are characterised by some or all of these features:

  • They offer a diverse range of information – not just ‘official’ material.

  • They seek to involve all sectors of the community in their production and consumption.

  • The offer and encourage some level of interaction, from e-mail feed back through to full-scale conferencing.

Such networks can be run by a local charity or association, a regeneration agency, a private individual or by multiple partners. They often provide training and support to users, free public access through a wide range of venues (such as libraries or community centres) [http://www.communities.org.uk].

It is true that communities of interest can and do exist on the Internet as well as naturally in society. UK Communities Online has oriented itself to geographically bounded communities, even though it recognises that communities of interest will co-exist with these networks. Hence, it regards electronic networks as arising from pre-existing social and economic relationships and are part of the development and regeneration of geographical areas and their communities.

Debbie Ellen has formulated a Charter for Community Internets in which she sets out a number of principles or values that characterise community networks. One of these principles is that of inclusion:

commitment to the principle of social inclusion in the ‘information society’ for all (learn from each other networks that have found ways of providing access to the less well educated elderly people afraid of or uncomfortable with the technology, people on low incomes who cannot afford the hardware..) [Ellen, 1997 http://www.comunities.org.uk%5D

A principle often enshrined by these networks is freedom of access. In order to maximise inclusion, the networks are established in such as way as to allow the users to gain access to them at someone else’s expense. Gaining access to the network is about gaining access to the opportunities that flow from it. Freedom of speech is another widely espoused principle associated with the way the networks are set up and operated.

The networks seek to involve all sectors of the community, allow businesses to stand side by side with charities, the arts, recreation clubs and voluntary social services. It is frequently the users who develop the information that is placed on the network. Network developers, as a matter of principle, enable and encourage local groups and individual users to provide information, news and material for the networks. It is felt to be consistent with the general principles of community development that users should feel a sense of ownership for the networks in which they are involved.

Debbie Ellen sees the outcomes of the networks as including

  • improvement of local democracy, through enhancing access to information and improved communication;

  • improving communications between individuals and groups;

  • improving opportunities for work and business;

  • improving input to local planning and development;

  • strengthening self help initiatives;

  • supporting local organisations such as LETS schemes, credit unions, food co-operatives, volunteering or home working [ibid].

David Miller of Sheffield University has considered community information networks (CINs) which serve the needs of users in a specific geographical area. David pointed out that early electronic information systems tended to be based either on video-text or on networked PCs. These were often under the control of some centralised authority with decisions about content, where points of access should be placed and other key characteristics being made by network managers rather than by the users. He argues that the Internet has allowed users to take control of the content and form of the information which they provide.

David distinguishes three types of network (1) those that are initiated and controlled by the local authority, (2) those initiated and developed by the private sector and (3) those initiated and developed by user populations. There are a great many local information systems on the Internet; an index of web sites maintained by the London Borough of Brent includes 262 entries, the same number as the list maintained by the private sector company Tagish (figures taken in August 1997 – new sites are appearing each week). There are many sites in the UK that provide information about local areas and which are maintained by private sector companies, such as local newspapers.

Even though bounded by a geographical area, these are not community networks because they provide only information about a local area. Community Networks are by their nature interactive, multi-functional, user driven and are a function of some broader regime of community development or regeneration. Whilst information provision might well be a key function of many web sites, it is the involvement of local people that determines that an initiative falls into the remit addressed by this article.

The network can be either a specially engineered intranet or one that is provided through the medium of the Internet. Sometimes, the network involves both of these, with gateways allowing access between the two in a controlled manner. Whilst some networks allow completely free access, some require users to register and thereafter logon to the network even if they do not have to pay a registration fee. Sometimes, there are areas on a network that are confined to local users and screened off from unfettered public access.

As Cisler as argued, in an early study of community networks:

Just as electrical systems began to transform urban and small town America a century ago, community computer networks will do so in the 1990’s. The present situation is that few people are aware of the concept of community computing networks, any more than people understood much at all about electricity in 1890. Most of the attention has been paid to national research networks such as the Internet and the commercial consumer services such as Compuserve, GEnie, Prodigy or business services such as MCIMail or Dialcom. On a local level thousands of electronic bulletin boards have been started by dedicated individual hobbyists, small business people, non-profits, corporations, federal agencies, other governments and educational institutions. What is striking about many of these ventures is that each group is relatively unaware of the activities by the other groups. Database providers such as Dialog and Mead Data stay out of the messaging business except for narrow uses; business mail systems are just beginning to make links to bulletin board networks, and the BBS networks are just learning about the Internet. [Community Computer Networks: Building Electronic Greenbelts, Copyright by Steve Cisler, 6/20/93, Apple Library, US]

Community Networks and Political Participation

Community Networks are creating additional platforms for political participation. The network provides a medium through which public and politicians can communicate, exchange information, consult, debate and gauge each other’s opinions on the issues that confront them. It is a medium which replicates the more traditional face to face interactions and exchanges as well as sometimes creating its own unique versions of political interaction.

It does this to the extent that users bring their issues to the network, seek to influence decision-makers who are online, are willing to use its various platforms for debate or are open to being polled on-line. The Internet – with its email and web sites – is too often just an electronic replication of the printed media. Unlike the printed media, the Internet is fully interactive, speeding up the exchange of views and information from say 24 hours to real time (synchronous) communications through chat, video or audio.

Community Networks have grown around the world. Having been created first in North America and flourishing in Europe, they are now firmly established in the UK. As a reflection of their entry to the UK, Communities Online (COL) has been created to co-ordinate, resource and service the needs of this field. COL has an extensive web site of information about community networking [http://www.communities.org.uk].

It aims to bring groups together, to inform the field and to encourage new Community Networks to come into being. Having secured funding it now has a full time Director (David Wilcox) [as at 1997/98] COL provides a list of about 40 Community Networks in the UK and Eire. One of the largest Community Networks in the UK is Hantsweb which has over a quarter of a million pages of information and a county-wide network that provides both a public media of communication and an Internet intranet for the County Council.

Access and inclusion

We know that only a minority of people have access to computers let alone on-line computing. We also know that access to the Internet is rapidly increasing. It was reported that the number of PCs accessing the Internet in the US increased from 15 million in early 1996 to 31 million in the following 12 months. Most Internet access is made from home PCs, although access from work based PCs is growing, increasing by more than 200 per cent since last year [ISOC Forum, 25.7.97, Vo1.3. No.7.]

Whilst it is true that there has been an exponential rate in the growth of the Internet, as measured by the amount of traffic and the volume of web pages, and a considerable increase in the number of people who access it on a regular basis, it is still by no means a mass media. It is limited to social, educational and economic elites.

The issue of access to technology, of inclusion in access and exclusion from it, is an important issue for politicians and educators alike. A recent report bears witness to this. The report (on ensuring social inclusion in the Information Society) was backed by IBM and strongly endorsed community networking as the way forward.

The Net Result, report of the UK National Working Party on Social Inclusion (INSINC), recommended two linked models to ensure social inclusion – local IT community resource centres and community networks. Between them these initiatives provide well-organised information, access, training, and scope for electronic discussion forums. They enable citizens and community groups to become active participants rather than passive receivers of information. The report was launched on June 24 1997 at the headquarters of IBM UK in London. IBM supported the work of the independent working party, together with the Community Development Foundation.

So what role do these local networks play in distributing the opportunities and benefits of new technology? The aim of community networks is to bring the opportunities offered by ICTs and the benefits they confer to people who would not normally be able to gain access. They are oriented to people who are economically excluded from the personal ownership of such technology, to those who would otherwise be excluded from seeking information and from engaging in public communications.

Community networks have a political implications, not least because they enhance and empower access to information. Already local and central government politicians (and local authority officers) have realised the potential of the Internet for communicating with the public and offering them information. It is estimated (in 1997) that over half of all local authorities have some presence on the world wide web.

In Birmingham, the ASSIST project allowed people to discuss Council policy issues, provide a channel of consultation between public and elected members. It enabled people to gather opinion and and to engage in debate in ways that were entirely new. Some Councils have experimented with their financial planning procedures by making Council Tax and spending plan information available on the Internet. Financial information is ideally suited to Internet communication: there is a lot of it, it is almost entirely documentary and textual, it constantly changes and it benefits from graphical presentation.

From the provider side, community networks are seen as enabling citizens to participate more fully in the formal structures of the national and local state. Paying officers to spend time answering public enquiries is expensive – a very resource hungry service. The more that information can be made available on a self service basis, the more cost-effective it becomes. Expensive resources like staff are better deployed on generating new information, implementing policies and evaluating them rather than answering the telephone to tell Joe Public the same thing for the hundredth time.

One of the most frequently asked questions on the Edinburgh Public Information system was reported to have been “where can I get a refuse sack?” Answering that question has probably cost the local authority hundreds of thousands of pounds in staff time. Placing that information on the Internet and on pubic access terminals released valuable resources to deal with other environmental issues.

Access and inclusion will be aided by both the provision of technology and by the intelligent deployment of that technology in the service of the public. Too often information is set out in a dull, uninviting and unimaginative way. Information producers seems to think they can get away with lifeless presentations of text on computers that would never be allowed on more visual media. Fortunately that is beginning to change. Information is becoming more multimedia, more animated, fun to use, and engaging – making it more likely that the user will come back and use the technology again. Paper based media are available to information providers. They have word processors and photocopies and thus the means of production are under their control on a DIY basis. The web however is a technically elite medium requiring specialised resources in its creation and specialised knowledge and skills to deploy those resources. In this regard it is easy for professionals and technicians to gain a powerful hold on the Internet. Fortunately, there is no shortage of people who want to liberate skills and resources for the benefit of the community.

Netactivism

In the US the Rand Corporation completed a massive and seminal study called “Universal access to e-mail: feasibility and societal implications”. The study considered the feasibility of making e-mail as commonplace as the telephone. In the concluding chapter of the report, the authors considered the policy conclusions and made a series of recommendations.

The authors argued:

We find that use of electronic mail is valuable for individuals, for communities, for the practice and spread of democracy, and for the general development of a viable national information infrastructure. Consequently, the nation should support universal access to e-mail through appropriate public and private policies.

and a little latter they observed:

Individuals’ accessibility to e-mail is hampered by increasing income, education, and racial gaps in the availability of computers and access to network services. Some policy remedies appear to be required. These include creative ways to make terminals cheaper; to have them recycled; to provide access in libraries, community centres, and other public venues; and to provide e-mail ‘vouchers’ or support other forms of cross-subsidies.

Their evidence suggested that email played a central role in the promotion and use of electronic networks. Evidence from the town of Blackburg in the US, where Internet access was said to have reached some 60 percent of the residents, suggested that the most popular function to be provided was e-mail. Residents use of email far outstripped that of surfing the World Wide Web.

The next step up from the e-mail is the bulletin board, newsgroup and list-server. For a few months last year I subscribed to the US list-server, Civic Values, provided by the Institute for the Study of Civic Values. It was a very lively and active list, dropping more postings into my mail box each day than I could easily cope with. It was during my subscription to this list that I became aware of the concept of netactivism, primarily through the work of Ed Schwartz, a leading proponent of the application of the Internet to political activism.

Ed’s book Netactivism: How citizens use the Internet was published in 1997. The book described how:

Electronic networks offer new channels for action from the neighborhood to the national level. Now you can quickly find out what the government really does and organize around a cause or around a community using mailing lists, online debates, and websites.

The flyer for the book astutely observed that

this book is not a paean to the Internet. It deals also with the real world outside the Internet. Schwartz takes a hard look at what contemporary political movements need, whether they be about neighborhood empowerment, ecology, children, or electing candidates to public office. The Internet is not an end in itself, but a tool to wield in the constant job of organizing people. This book discusses the roles of mailing lists, Web sites, and community networks, and their relationship to traditional outlets for activism [ibid]

In would concur with these arguments and believe that the Internet is not an end in itself, it is a medium that is used and moulded like all of other media to suit the ends of the users. It does not depersonalise users; people “en-personalise” the Internet.

Future trends and directions

The emergence in the UK of community networking is in itself a key trend that will influence access to information communications and technology. It is very likely that people will learn to use such facilities just as they have learnt to use the telephone, the broadcast media and computers. What drives users is their agendas, their desires, their anger, values, ambition, lust for power, public spirit, commitment to justice and equality, greed …. all the things that have driven humanity for thousands of years. Technology may have changed since the times of the Greeks and Romans, the Egyptians and the Incas, but the underlying motivation and behaviour of its users has remained remarkably constant.

Some might argue that the essence of new technology will radically alter the way that people think and act, that there are inherent properties within the technology that will bring about qualitative changes in human relationships and in social differentiation. It is argued that the Internet is a great leveller – it depersonalises and allows anyone to do anything irrespective of their race, age, sex or class. I doubt this. In fact my experience suggests that this is decidedly not so. In a classic joke of the Internet, a dog (seated at a computer), remarks to another dog that “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”. My role as a Chat Room Host on AOL [in the 80s and 90s] leads me to suspect that whilst the Internet is a cloaking device, in the final analysis the real person always shines through, if only dimly. As people become more fluent with the language of on-line chat, as they master its capacity for social communication, their real selves become revealed. The dog is soused out; his canine properties finally being detected in his mannerisms, style and attitude. You can pass for a human being and fool some of the people some of time but at the end of the day you are still a dog and subject to doggy ways.

Although this might sound trite, it signifies an important principle for electronically mediated human transactions: the more you use the media, the more fluent you become. It’s the same as speaking a language: the more you speak it, think in it, feel with it and live by it, the more difficult it is to detect that it is not your native tongue. No matter what kind of communications media is used, the more it is used the more fluent become its users. Just as language speakers become fluent in the spoken word, so signers become fluent with their medium of communication.

The Internet is still relatively new and there is still a large proportion of people, even in advanced technological societies, who have not been on it. Television however is a technology that is omniscient: can there be even one sighted person in the UK who has not seen television? How many people hardly ever watch it?. Even people who themselves do not own a TV find they end up watching it at the home of a friend or relative. TV has become the technology that has penetrated everyday life and penetrated it the most deeply. Even more than the telephone.

The advent of digital TV will, in my view, have a far more profound impact on everyday life for the majority of the population than the Internet. It is very likely that the Internet will continue to exist alongside the telephone and the wireless but it will be, I suspect, the preserve of the literati; it will attract the devotions of a dedicated following, like citizen band radio still does following the passing of its hey-day. Digital TV however will replace newspapers and the Internet as the main infrastructure for the delivery of information. It will do everything that the exponents of the Internet claim for their own medium but it will do it better.

The Internet is a wonderful thing but the biggest barrier to its success is that you need a computer to get into it. More precisely, the biggest barrier to mass access to the Internet is the keyboard. The keyboard is the artefact of the literary elite, the technically competent and the highly skilled. The mode of communication of the common person is the voice. Even the mouse is not a universally welcome tool amongst the IT-literati. Most people will cope with the remote control of their TV, providing its doesn’t get too complicated. Within a few years, the keyboard will be as obsolete as the inked ribbon is now as we will learn to communicate with technology via our voices. That will open up technology and will be the most important development in providing access to technology.

TV has up to now been a largely passive device; digital TV, combined with a feedback loop with every box with put access into every home. There is still something a little exclusive about the telephone. If that feedback can travel through the electricity supply, then that would open up interactive TV to universal enfranchisement. It will be possible to allow the individual to vote via their TV, ask questions and publish their opinions with needing specialised technologies. Interactive, digital TV carries enormous power because it gives everyone equal access to the means by which political persuasion is produced.

Even now, the media channels public opinion polling into the political arena. All opinion polls are however long-winded, manual procedures that must, in practical terms, utilise relatively small samples. TVs on the grid, however, will allow universal opinion polling and voting. A national referendum would be a routine event.

If we come back in ten years time to reconsider the impact of technology on democracy, we will hear little of the Internet: it was just a passing technology, like the vinyl record and the audio cassette. It will occupy the same place in the history of technology as citizens band radio. Its force and content will have been taken over by digital TV. Its interactivity and connectivity will find a much fuller life and vigour in the mass audiences of the TV set. Within about ten years, every household in Europe will have one box which will combine together our present domestic technologies of TV, telephone and computer. The implications of that for politics and democracy are quite profound.

© Trevor Locke 1998

PlaceToLive

A place to live: a place to work

Teleworking from home: the implications for planning and house design

[This article was published in 1995]

Introduction

An increasing number of people are working from home, either on a full or part time basis, either as employees or as self-employed people. A survey carried out in 1992 for the Employment Department found that 1 in 10 employers use some form of home-based worker, 1 in 20 employs at least one person who could be described as a teleworker and a further 8.5% of employers have actively considered introducing teleworking [Huws, 1993]. By 2001, there will be over 10 million teleworkers, according to the Henley Centre for Forecasting [BT, 1993]. It has been estimated that the total number of homeworkers in the UK is now between 1.3 and 2 million, of whom just over half a million are full-time teleworkers [Smythe, 1994]. This is probably an under-estimation because a lot more people work at home than appear in the statistics.

The 1991 Census suggests that about 5% of the working population work mainly at home [Felstead and Jewson, 1995]. This represents a considerable increase over the 1981 Census results. The highest proportion of homeworkers are employers, managers and those in professional occupations. A report commissioned by Reed Personnel Services found that nearly 14% of large employers now use teleworkers [Reed, 1995]. These increases are probably due to the greater availability of computers, faxes and telecommunications and to the trend towards flexible working practices, such as temporary and fixed term contracts, part-time working and out-sourcing of technical skills.

What does this mean for the house building industry?

It is clear that an increasing number of people are living and working in the same place. This trend poses a number of implications for architects, those who supply homes and town planners. Since the full employment of the 1960s, when a relatively small number of people lived and worked in the same building, the home has been regarded as a place of escape from the demands and pressures of work. The 1980s and 90s have seen a considerable increase in home ownership, a trend away from the rented sector to house buying or some form of social housing. There has been a steady increase in the number of households having a telephone and, more recently, in those having a personal computer at home.

People who spend all or most of their working lives either at home or being based at home are confronted with a range of problems that stem from the fact that society has not adapted to this trend. Companies that insure household contents frequently refuse to cover computers used for business purposes. Local authorities can be confused about how they assess the need for planning permission in cases where small businesses are being from homes in mainly residential areas where offices or workshops would not normally be allowed. The Inland Revenue, it is said, will impose taxes on people who take their computers home from their offices to do work (on the assumption that they could also be used for domestic or leisure purposes).

What kind of homes are needed?

Where house building companies are designing new homes, particularly for those in the executive sector of the new build market, the requirements of working at home are not widely taken into account. Some higher priced houses now include a room that is intended to be used as a study. A few houses have been given garages that could be converted into offices or workshops. Quite a few garages have been converted even though not designed with such a move in mind. A number of design features could be worked on with a view to meeting the requirements of home workers, as for example, the placement of telephone sockets in the bedrooms. Home workers often use bedrooms as offices or work areas. Ground floor rooms that could be used for home working are as yet not widespread and tend to be confined to higher value homes.

Not all home workers are professionals sitting behind computers; some are craft workers, catering for the increasing demand for the products of country crafts, fine art, and decorative object d’art. Some home workers are piece workers, fabricating small items on a very labour intensive basis. These considerations relate both to new build and to conversion designs. Housing Associations converting or refurbishing properties might also take note of the trend towards home working by providing fittings that will meet some of the needs of home workers. Some houses could be designed with purpose built workshops in outbuildings. Some housing estates could be provided with buildings that could serve as neighbourhood offices or light industrial use, such as car repair centres or for craft working. Can certain rooms be designed so that they could be used either for bedrooms or offices, as dining rooms or as studies? Can certain exterior walls be designed so that out buildings or temporary structures can be added to them, for use as workshops?

What are the planning implications for working at home?

Apart from a few exceptions, local authorities have not begun to address the planning issues involved in the trend towards home working. Few have yet identified that the trend exists or, if they have, have responded to it. An exception is Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council, which has adopted a Supplementary Planning Guidance Note on Business Uses in Residential Areas. Having recognised that working patterns are changing and that there are increasing numbers of people employed either full or part time at home, the Note sets out to establish criteria for deciding whether a business use from home requires planning permission. It tackles the question of whether or not planning permission is required for working at home. Use of any part of a house or flat would normally constitute a ‘material change of use’ that required planning permission. However, where someone is working from home in a small scale way, the grant of planning permission is not normally required. The criteria involved include:

  • the main use of the property must remain residential;

  • there must be no alteration to the exterior of the property;

  • no sign or advertisement must be displayed on the dwelling;

  • no person outside the household itself must be employed;

  • there must be no use of garage/sheds and ancillary residential storage in connection with the business;

  • there must be no nuisance to adjoining residents caused by noise, vibration, fumes/smell or unsociable hours if this has a noticeable effect on the privacy of neighbours.

The guidance note advises those thinking of working at home to discuss their proposals with their neighbours. In some cases the Council may impose a temporary permission in order monitor the effects of the business on neighbours. There are other planning issues that are more to do with structure plans than individual houses. Some of these issues are to do with the volume of commuter traffic from outlying areas into city centres. Traffic congestion is now endemic in our cities and towns. The more that local authorities can encourage people to work at home for two or more days in each week, the more commuting traffic can be abated. Clearly, only certain types of work are amenable to home working. Local authorities could play an active role in promoting ad hoc home working with employees and employers. There are good environmental reasons why they should do so.

The rise of the neighbourhood work place.

Not everyone wants to work at home. An alternative is the provision of neighbourhood offices: places that are equipped to offer people desks on demand, computers, telephones, faxes and photocopiers. Telecottages are an example of small business centres that have equipment, particularly computers, that can be hired by the hour. The advantages of these local work spaces is that they enable people to either to walk to them or to travel along different routes, rather than travel into the centre of town and out again. By encouraging flexible hours of use, traffic movements can be evened out. Secondly, such centres provide a broader range of equipment than most people would have at home, particularly if they work away from their offices on an ad hoc basis. Apart from centres catering for office workers, there are nursery units for people who are engaged in more physical work, such as crafts or small scale manufacturing, light engineering and so on. These can be located away from the areas that attract the greatest traffic flows.

For young people there are an increasing number of foyers, buildings that provide accommodation for youngsters to live in and space for work and training. Some tower blocks have been converted to use for single people and some provide common rooms for study or work. High rise flats, unsuitable for families, could well be adapted for mixed residential and occupational uses. Some of the office accommodation that has been over supplied could be adapted to this kind of mixed tenure of living and working. Again, it is likely that planning policy would need to be amended to facilitate this. Central Government might actually encourage the adaptation of surplus office buildings through modifications to Business Rates and Council Tax charges.

CONCLUSIONS

There really is no reason why the home and the work place need be so inexorably separated. The distancing of home and work is a recent phenomenon historically; our ancestors had little choice but to live and work in the same buildings until the industrial revolution brought whole sale changes to the size of factories and mills.

The availability of information and telecommunications technology now allows the home and the workplace to co-exist. This demands that we adapt our attitudes, our culture and our behaviour accordingly. A great deal of down-sizing is going on in firms and public bodies. There is less zeal for the construction of huge office buildings, for people being brought into city centres in their ten of thousands, for a 9 to 5 existence that is dependent on commuting long distances. More and more people are aspiring to self employment, leaning to live on and by their own resources. Competition is favouring the businesses that have lower overheads, than can achieve a high level of productivity without over burdensome overheads. Companies in the service sector are realising that they can reduce their costs by reducing the amount of office accommodation that they have to maintain. Some are dispensing with expensive fleets of company cars.

These trends are conferring an environmental advantage, a green dividend that many companies and local authorities would wish to secure. Our travel systems are straining to cope with the increasing demands made on them. Those who, for one or two days a week, do not have to get into their cars or wait for buses and trains, can increase their performance and out put. They can avoid some of the ills and illnesses resulting from commuting stress and sick building syndrome. Where more people are at home during the day, there is less burglary. Much can be done by housing developers and local authorities to encourage and enable home working. There are many reasons why they would want to do this.

This paper was written by Trevor Locke © Copyright reserved 1995

REFERENCES

BT (1993) The indispensable guide to working from home published by BT 1993. BT (1995) Welcome to Network Services: your user guide.

Farrant, Sue (1995) A Beginner’s Guide to Teleworking, Thames Valley Enterprise Ltd, Newbury College, Oxford Road, Newbury, Berkshire.

Felstead, Alan and Jewson, Nick (1995) Working at home: estimates from the 1991 Census, Employment Gazette, March 1995, pp 95 – 98

Huws, Ursula, (1993) Teleworking in Britain A report to the Employment Department is available from the Research Management Branch, Employment Department.

Huws, Ursula (1995) A Manager’s guide to teleworking.

Murray, Bill (1995) Vital statistics: results of the telecottage survey, The Teleworker, Vol.2. No.2. Feb/Mch 1995 pp 14 – 16

Reed (1995) Shape of work to come: a major research survey and report on changing patterns of work in UK organisations, by Reed Personnel Services and the Home Office Partnership.

Smythe, Kate (1994) Teleworking, in Local Work, Sept/Oct 1994, No.55, pp 1 – 11

(published on this blog 23rd October 2015.)

Archive reviews

Reviews previously published in Arts in Leicester magazine.

Archive articles

This version of the Arts in Leicester magazine website started in 2013 but the whole thing began life in 2005. The old site had many reviews of plays, shows, books and films and other articles that have now disappeared from the Internet.

Our archives project has re-published some of this material and it is likely that further articles will be revived in the future.

The current set of archived articles is listed below.

Abigail’s Party (2014)

The Black Swan (film) From April 2011
The Black Swan (film)
From April 2011

The Black Swan film review) 2011

Brighton Rock (film) 2011

Chicago (2013)

History of Art Education in Leicester (2013)

Karman (2012)

News archives

One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest

See also:

The history of Arts in Leicester magazine

This page was published on : 21st October 2015

 

Streetcar

Tuesday 20th October 2015

A Streetcar Named Desire

Curve
our rating: ***

Gripping drama

Director: Nikolai Foster
Play write: Tennessee Williams
Running at Curve’s Studio Theatre from 16th October to 7th November 2015.

Trevor Locke reports

The audience in The Studio tonight was delighted with this production and many stood to give their ovation at the end of a performance that clearly had people captivated.

We have already given an overview of the play

In the leading roles at tonight’s show were Charlie Brooks (as Blanche Dubois), Stewart Clarke (as Stanley Kowalski) and Dakota Blue Richard (as Stella Kowalski. )

Patrick Knowles (as Harold Mitchell), Sandy Foster (as Eunice Hubbel) and Natasha Magigi (as Neighbour & nurse) provided supporting roles among others.

A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
A Streetcar Named Desire.
Photo: Manuel Harlan.

 

One of the great plays of the twentieth century, this was a not-to-be-missed evening. A production by Curve, this was a nail-biting and gripping drama that brought to life the colour and atmosphere of America’s south and the fragility of personal experience.

Tennessee William’s play of 1947 has been a phenomenal success on stages all over the world and became a smash hit on the cinema screen when Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh starred in the the 1951 film version.

Those of us who have seen the film version will be forgiven for being influenced by its sensational acting. As is often the case, a film version with leading stars, sets the bar and it is difficult to judge other productions because we always think back to what we have seen before.

The play deals with mental breakdown and we are reminded of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, produced at Curve in 2011.

See our archive review of One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest.

A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
A Streetcar Named Desire.
Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Blanche Dubois (Charlie Brooks) is one of those Marmite characters which you feel sympathy for one moment and pity the next. Equally, the rough and violent character of Stanley Kowalski (Stewart Clarke) can be both horrible and charming. Blanche appears pretentious, living in an imaginary world of her own, flirtatious and scheming, fragile and manipulative but you cannot but be sympathetic to her plight. Life had dealt her some unenviable cards and she has had to survive by her wits. In the play she is at the end of the road and has run out of options.

The scene is set in the French Quarter of New Orleans, the haunt of gamblers, streetwalkers and poor people and the ambience is evoked by the sounds of jazz music which is heard both at the opening of the show and at various points later, together with the passing of trams and the deafening roarer of trains passing by the flat where the Kowalskis live. Blanche is a bag of nerves but portrays herself as a woman who has had a faded past, brought up in a white house with columns, among the Southern aristocracy, her world of finery and delicate etiquette had been lost. She arrives at the Kowalski home because she has nowhere else to go; her world has vanished and she takes to the bottle as tensions mount between her and the brutal Stanley. Stewart Clarke ably enacts the violence of the rough Polish man (who Blanche refers to as a ‘Polak’ until she is roundly ticked off for this by Stanley), banging loudly on the table and smashing the crockery and flying into drunken rages.  He also well portrays the smouldering sexuality of his masculine character, ripping off his shirt right from the start of the play to reveal his muscly torso. The whole play is shot through with sexual tension and the actors capture this effortlessly in their roles.

Curve's A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Curve’s A Streetcar Named Desire.
Photo: Manuel Harlan.

The good points of this production: the incidental music composed by David Shrubsole, the evocative set design of Michael Taylor, the real water rain storm at the end of the play (don’t sit on the front row if you prefer not to home wet), Nikolai Foster’s attention to detail in directing the action and the fast that the pace is maintained throughout the two acts so that its flies by quickly.

A Streetcar Named Desire, at Curve. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
A Streetcar Named Desire, at Curve.
Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Bad points. This was a good production and I, for one, would not have missed it. I am, however, less than convinced by the casting of Charlie Brooks as Blanche; she somehow did not seem to fit the part that well and I thought she was prone to over-acting at times.

A Streetcar Named Desire at Curve. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
A Streetcar Named Desire at Curve.
Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Most of the cast managed their Southern accents well enough, thanks to Tim Charrington’s dialect coaching.  Stewart Clarke’s role as Stanley was good, though there were times when it failed to reach the mark and was a triumph of style over content. The scene where Blanche is raped (a dramatic highlight) is treated very coyly in this production, resulting in a disappointing under-statement.

Balancing things out, it was nevertheless a highly charged production that captured the main elements of what we would expect from this challenging and demanding drama. It is well worth seeing and one of those plays that will stand out in the annals of Leicester’s arts highlights.

See also:

Our archive review of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Our pre-production article on Streetcar Named desire

Our review of Aakash Odedra’s performance in Echoes and I Imagine

OneFlewOver

19th October2011

Archive review

artsinmagazine logo 300 x 300

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Curve, 14th October to 5th November 2011.

“You must follow the rules”, Nurse Ratched demands of her patients on the ward of the mental institution where the play is set. The ward is organised like a prison; rules, policies and strict routine are order of the day. Medication is handed out, a ‘chemical cosh’ designed to keep the inmates subdued and compliant.

One Flew Over The Cuckoos Next, 2011, Curve. Photo © Jonathan Keenan
One Flew Over The Cuckoos Next, 2011, Curve.
Photo © Jonathan Keenan

The asylum is run like a military academy, with an emphasis on order, routine and compliance and a belief in the curative properties of discipline. The day is organised into a series of activities and events, one of which is group therapy in which the inmates are encouraged to talk about themselves and discuss individuals.

The ostensibly ‘democratic’ regime of the therapy group is portrayed as being manipulated and controlled both by the steely Nurse Ratched (Catherine Russell) and by the patients themselves, not least by McMurphy who organises them to vote in favour of watching the world series on the TV.

In to the orderly routine of the ward comes Randle McMurhpy (Michael Beckley), a brawling, aggressive but fun loving, untamed rogue of a man who, in those days, would have been referred to a ‘recidivist’. He has been committed to the institution as an alternative to being sent to the drudgery of the penal work farm, having committed a variety of offences during his life of drunkenness and debauchery.

One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, 2011, Curve. Photo © Jonathan Keenan
One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, 2011, Curve.
Photo © Jonathan Keenan

The plot is set. The characters and their relationships are ready and ignited to burn towards the explosive ending of the play. The ward is a microcosm of the wider society, the USA of the time (the late fifties, early sixties). The story is about rebellion against authority, revolt against tyranny, insurgency – sounds familiar?

We discover that the inmates of the ward fall into two groups: those with acute conditions that are there to be cured and eventually released and those with chronic conditions for which a cure is not an option. Referred to as “vegetables”, their fate is to be warehoused indefinitely. One such inmate is Chief Bromden (Thomas Renshaw), a native American Indian, who spends most of his time, motionless in a chair, apparently deaf and dumb.

Chief Bromden understands the struggle for power that he sees in McMurphy’s bid to take on the might of Nurse Ratched. It is through Bromden’s eyes that we see the underlying significance of the struggle of the individual against the machine.

It is his relationship with McMurphy which is pivotal to the whole plot. Initially said to be deaf, dumb and catatonic, he delivers a set of soliloquies, illuminated by a bright spotlight in an otherwise darkened stage. The mysterious monologues unravel a deeper meaning to the plot. In the later stages of the play, McMurphy and Chief Bromden engage in a duo scene, impeccably and movingly acted by Renshaw and Beckly.

Another revelation appears later in the play when we find that some of the acute patients were admitted voluntarily; something which shocks Randle McMurphy. He is accused of feigning mental illness to avoid the penal rigours of the work farm. He believes that some of the voluntary patients chose to be there as a way of escaping unbearable situations in their personal lives.

One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, 2011, Curve. Photo © Jonathan Keenan
One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, 2011, Curve.
Photo © Jonathan Keenan

Are they mad? It’s a theme that had been around since the time of Shakespeare, who used madness, either real or contrived, in Hamlet and King Lear. The twist that writer Ken Kasey puts on this theme is to question the sanity of the wider society and of the people who are running the mental institution.

McMurphy refers to group therapy as “chicken pecking” – one member of the group is pecked to death by the others. If life on the ward is not brutal enough, there is the spectre of ECT – electro convulsive therapy – in which patients are subjected to electric shocks which send their brains and bodies into spasms. That is not the ultimate punishment that could be inflicted. If ECT fails to modify their behaviour, violent patients could be subjected to surgery, having parts of their brains removed.

Randle is determined to conquer the case-hardened tutelage of ward nurse Ratched. She is a taught figure, an iron lady whose dictatorship must be obeyed to the letter. The battle of wills winds towards its dramatic and tragic denouement.

The production was well cast, the characters fitting the plot like a glove and the cast delivered a set of superbly acted roles. Altogether, an excellent production, mixing the darkness of the plot with moments of humour and pathos. Their acting skills created a believable storyline and the result was a convincing play that did justice to the book.

The cast brought the story to life and made it enthralling. Like many in the audience, I had seen the film, in fact, more than once. A story about mental patients in an asylum might seem to be an unattractive theme, depressingly sombre and far from uplifting. Novelist Ken Casey used the plot to open up something about the wider society of the day and to explore aspects of the human condition.

Designer Ellen Cairns has put together a set that fitted the plot, the one room of the ward, given depth by the clever use of perspective, with the lines of the room using well known optical illusions to make it look much bigger than it really was.

Was this production enjoyable and entertaining? Last time I was at Curve, I saw a musical. That certainly was enjoyable and entertaining. Being the person I am, I don’t only like bright, happy, joyful entertainments. Plays, films and books can lift one’s spirits in a variety of ways and stimulate the mind. This was a piece of ‘drama noire’, a dark thriller with a tragic ending. It plays out issues that speak to us on a variety of levels.

Drama does not have to be superficial to be entertaining and often deals with the darker and challenging elements of the world and human existence. Director Michael Buffong has done an excellent job of keeping the action and the drama taught and convincing. The plot unwinds towards its (literally) explosive ending. The stark ambience of the clinical ward is lightened by comedic moments and by amusing quirks and idiosyncrasies of the characters.

Acting lunatics is never easy but Paul Joseph did a particularly brilliant job of playing the catatonic Ruckley, a victim of over-used ECT. Based on Ken Casey’s iconic, cult novel of 1962 (his first book), and the 1975 Oscar winning film starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Milos Forman, that was based on it, both are credited with dealing the death blow to ETC. They influenced the emergence of the anti-psychiatry movements both in the ‘states and here in the UK by opening up the sinister world of state psychiatry to the public.

The book was quickly brought to the stage by playwright Dale Wasserman. Broadway was ripe for productions with social issues, ever since West Side Story opened in 1957. Several stage productions of the play have appeared, both in the West End and in the Midlands.

This review was published on Arts In Leicester magazine in 2011.

 

Art Education

The History of Art Education in Leicester

by Trevor Locke
This article was first published in Arts in Leicester magazine in 2013.

The history of what we now know as De Montfort University revolves around art. It was in 1870 that the first students attended classes in a disused warehouse in Pocklingtons Walk. Neither they nor their tutors could have imaged the institution of today – one of the most prestigious centres of learning in the country with its campus of award winning architectural splendours. In the same year, the Reverend James Went began to teach a series of technical classes at the nearby Wyggeston Boys School. Demand for lessons was so high that the Leicester School of Technology was founded in 1882.
Funds were raised to construct a new building and The Hawthorn Building came into existence in 1897, this being extended in 1909 and a new west wing being added in 1927. A £4 million refurbishment was completed in the year 2000. The first headmaster of the Leicester School of Art, Wilmot Pilsbury (1840-1908.) He was a noted landscape artist who arrived in Leicester in 1870. Pilsbury studied at the South Kensington Schools and at the Birmingham School of Art and was headmaster of the school from 1870 to 1880.
By the 1930s, the schools had been renamed the Leicester Colleges of Art and Technology.

dmu_crest_overdoorway
City crest over a doorway at De Montfort University.

The Leicester Pageant

Art students helped to create a fabulous event held in 1932 – The Pageant of Leicester. It was a celebration of the city’s history that saw a large procession snaking its way through the streets. Costumes were made to depict key scenes from the past up to the opening of Abbey Park in 1882.

Participants dressed as Roman Soldiers through to Victorians and an Ox Roast was held. The event lasted from 16th to 25th June. even Stephenson’s Rocket made an appearance. Decorated floats advertised local industries.

A silent, black and white film exists of the Pageant, which can be viewed over the Internet on the University of Leicester website My Leicestershire History.

This remarkable piece of archive film and reveals a great deal that is of interest from Leicester in the 1930s. It was a substantial event involving a large cast of characters dressed in period costumes. The film shows the Roman Army, complete with a large number of live horses, a battle with the Vikings and the visit by Cardinal Wolsey, whose memorial can still be seen in Abbey Park. There are also scenes showing the Ox Roast and those showing the procession of motorised vehicles and some horse drawn floats through the streets, one of which was entered by the Leicester Hosiery Union. It was a bright sunny day and large crowds had lined the roadside to see it.
From the Crusades to the Wars of the Roses, the Pageant marked the landmark events of the history of Leicester. The various scenes were filmed in the grounds of Abbey Park and later in Leicester as the parade went past.

DMU is now homes to a number of specialist centres. One of these is the Institute of Creative Technologies. Launched in 2006, the Institute has initiated hundreds of collaborative research projects.
Working across the whole of the University and across many disciplines, its main concern is with the practice, theory and history of creative technologies. These include creative computing, interactive arts and media and networks and collaboration. Of particular interest is the Music, Technology and Innovation Research Centre. Activities here are concerned with a range of artistic creation focused on innovative application of new technologies to music. There is an active agenda to do with electroacoustic music studies and sonic arts.

Music, Technology and Innovation Research Center.

The Institute of Creative Technologies

Boots and shoes

There was a time when Leicester was an important centre for the boot and shoe industries. Boot and shoe makers began to increase from about 1793, driven by the needs for foot ware for the army. In 1835 Thomas Crick and J. Dilkes entered the shoe trade in Leicester and became large-scale manufacturers. Stead & Simpson became well known in the shoe trade from the 1850s. By 1934 the firm had 186 retail shops in the British Isles. The shoe industry grew steadily throughout late Victorian times and into the middle of the twentieth century.
See Foot ware Manufacture (McKinley Ed.)

At its height, the Leicester boot and shoe industry manufactured more goods than were produced anywhere else in Britain.
By 1900, the firm had over 300 shops. The rapid development of shoemaking and distribution in Leicester attracted a variety of associated trades, so that Leicester became the main source of production of shoe machinery and materials. David Holmes has lived in Leicester since 1960 and spent all his working life in the boot and shoe industry, working for the British United Shoe Machinery Company. David Holmes (University of Leicester) has undertaken research into the development of Leicester’s shoe industry.

Lace making

Whilst the making of lace has never been a large segment of Leicester’s manufacturing economy, it has played a significant part in the life of the city and its outlying towns such as Loughborough. The East Midlands became a centre for textile production in the late eighteenth century. It has been argued that lace making was introduced into this country by the Flemands or Huguenots.

Education and the economy

As Linda Butt’s account reveals, the history of development of Art Education needs to be seen in the content of the various industries and trades that have been dominant in Leicester. Whilst there has always been education in fine art, courses have also been a conduit for employment and skills, channelling people into the local factories and manufacturers.

The early days of art education in Leicester

This article is based on an Interview we did with Linda Butt, the Archivist of De Montfort University, made on 5th April 2012. The pieces in [square brackets] have been included by the Editor, based on separate research.

The School of Art opened for lessons in 1870. The development before that was quite long. They had been trying to get an institute going for about ten years before that. It kicked off with the Mechanics Institute. As was the case in so many of the industrial cities, efforts had been made to get an art school going until finally various philanthropists in the city got involved. Plans were put in place and preparations were made throughout 1869; in April 1870 the first classes were held, at a disused warehouse in Pocklingtons Walk. I don’t know the precise location of that building.

The history of art education went back before that at a national level. The Great Exhibition of 1851 kicked off the interest in good design in industry, The London School of Art (or school of design), had started in the 1750s, somewhat as a result of the European Tours that great people undertook. They were bringing back influences from Europe – from painting sculpture and architecture – and thought that Britain needed to start its own cultural efforts in that direction. In London the School of Design became the Royal College of Art (founded in 1837.)

[The RCA was founded in 1837 as the Government School of Design. In 1853, it became the National Art Training School with the Female School of Art in separate buildings, and, in 1896, it received the name Royal College of Art. During the 19th century, it was often referred to as the South Kensington Schools. See Richard Burchett, an early Headmaster, for more details on this period. After 130 years in operation, the Royal College of Art was granted its Royal Charter in 1967, which gave it the status of an independent university with the power to grant its own degrees.]

It always had an emphasis on design and applied rather than fine art. The Schools of art in the regional cities, were also set up primarily for design and there was a lot of pedantic teaching for shading, for drawing, from life or still life. The ultimate goal was to feed designers and artists in to industry, to whatever industry that city was supporting. In Leicester it was textiles, shoes, printing – Leicester was a very big centre for printing. They needed the kind of draughtsmen skills that could be taught at an institution.

So in 1870, the first classes were centred around art of various kinds. In the 1880s there were technical classes, starting at what was then the Wyggestons Boys School, organised by the Reverend James Went. Those carried on there and were augmented by the various engineering and draughtsmanship courses.

dmu_hawthornebuilding
The Hawthorne building at De Montfort University

In 1890 the Hawthorn Building was built – although, at that time, is was known as the Leicester School of Art – it was named Hawthorn some time later. The building derives its name from John H. Hawthorn, the first headmaster of the newly established technical school. The technical classes then joined the art classes which had moved from Pocklingtons Walk up to a building that was on the side of the current New Walk Museum building, which was started as a school begun by non-conformists for their children. The art classes went into a wing on the side.

When the Hawthorn building opened in 1897, everything came on to our current site. The classes expanded to take in a lot more vocational education – architecture, building, food trades, textiles – art was very central to what was done and still is. The vocational courses that we teach now in textiles, shoe design, graphic design, interior design, still pull very much on that core of applied art.

A very good modern example of that would be the shoe that was designed for Catherine, The Duchess of Cambridge. That is so close to the original purpose of this establishment. You can see the link between 1870 to 2012.

Early courses were qualified. They were validated by the South Kensington body which was tied to the Victoria and Albert Museum, when the whole of arts and technology education was based in South Kensington. I believe that a lot of the examination papers were sent down there to be marked. Prizes were awarded from that body and the various standards were decided by that body. Our courses always have been externally validated and nationally accredited.

Initially it was thought that part time courses would be better for people who were already in employment, or who had other commitments, although there were always full time courses available, a lot of courses at that time where in the evening or at the weekends, when working people could come.

The tutors on those courses were highly qualified people. The first headmaster was Wilmot Pilsbury who was a very talented water colourist. He specialised in landscape painting and particularly that which included water. He got the school up and running and off the ground.

Benjamin Fletcher was another pivotal character and Principal of the school from 1900 to 1920, had been and still was a very able artist. When Augustus Spencer was appointed headmaster here he brought Fletcher along with him as a teacher. So Fletcher began his career here in 1888, taking up the principalship in 1900. Fletcher was an able artist and designer and also a noted pedagogue, who wrote pamphlets on how art should be taught. He was very influenced by the arts and crafts movement. He was a great friend of William Lethaby (1857 – 1931) and was close friends with Harry Peach who set up the Dryad business. That started by making cane furniture but widened out to arts and crafts in general. At that time the two of them were very influential in furniture design and tied up with the arts and crafts movement. Fletcher was pivotal to art teaching within the institution.

Some of the milestones in the development of art education?

I think it is difficult to give artistic milestones. The education that was offered and is offered, was built, very much in those early days, around the needs of local industry. The institution of course has changed out of all recognition, in that we went from being The College of Art of Technology, to being Leicester Polytechnic, and then to becoming De Montfort University. The training in art history and fine art has always been there. What has been added on have been specific courses, in graphic design, interior design which are now strong courses, and are leading directly into industry, which is really what we are here for.

They now run very much in the way that they always have. The Institution has changed around the courses, rather than the courses having changed around the institution. So there are very strong threads, of fine art, of history of art, of applied arts, of various kinds. These have continued through the changes in the institution, and are continuing now.

We are still training artists and designers, to go out into industry, into fashion, in to architecture, into shoe design, interior design, graphic design, which of course are the new names for printing, dress making, all the things that we did back in the early days. The Scraptoft campus offered teacher training and health studies, and youth studies, and dance. Community dance developed there, one of the earliest in the country, that has been continued now here, and links very closely with the Foundation for Community Dance. Performing arts were at Scraptoft but Fine and Applied arts were always here on the City Campus. Performing arts are still very strong. The departments have branched out into media studies, theatre and film studies. All of the new media have been incorporated into that.

Music and computer gaming

We are also now strengthening our teaching into computer gaming, which is a new strand of art education, so the new technologies have been brought in. Music forms a part of performing arts, particularly cutting edge modern music in that we have the links with Gavin Briers, that kind of very forward looking minimalist music, which was carried on there and that links with the American minimalist music.
That has actually branched out now, and seems to be basing itself again in the Baltic countries. There are composers in the Baltic countries, who have taken on that minimalist aspects of music, and there is some phenomenal work coming out of there. People like Arvo Part is a slightly different aspect of it but the strands are still there.
Scraptoft was linked into that and that is being continued here on the City Campus within the Institute of Creative Technology, which is pioneering electronic forms of music. We have the link with the Curve Theatre. We are training students go into theatre.

Our Theatre Studies students do productions at Curve, they are looking at modern play writes, and producing extremely good theatre. We are becoming increasingly known for music technology.
DMU Institute of Creative Technologies | DMU Music, Technology and innovation research centre.

Shoes and fabrics, dresses and corsets

We began teaching dress making, tailoring and shoe design, from quite early days when the college came into the Hawthorn building in the late 1800s. That would have been for people who were already in the trade, who wanted to learn that kind of skill. Dress making, tailoring was taught as a formal subject. There were also general craft classes, where embroidery would have been done, certain types of lace were made, competitions were held to design lace. Lace making was taught to women from Ireland so that they could augment their family income.

I don’t know what kind of lace that was, but there are mentions in the Annual Report – that prizes were given to students for their designs. Unfortunately we don’t have those designs now. The dress making courses fed into the city industries, as did tailoring.

In 1946 we began corsetry classes which fed into what we now call ‘contour fashion’. As rationing came to an end, after the second world war, the materials for that kind of garment started to become available. The college decided that that was a good area to go into and to get into an an early stage. That has always been one of our most successful courses, within the textiles area. We are still the only full time degree course in the country in Contour Fashion.

Shoe design was done from quite early days, but in various guises. In the early days it would have been called ‘cobbling trades’. After the end of the second world war when soldiers were de-mobbed, and needed a trade, we held classes, to teach those soldiers, how to make and repair shoes, so they could then go into civilian life with a trade.
Our most recent success is the student who designed a pair of shoes for the Duchess of Cambridge on the recent Royal visit. That is really coming full circle from 1870 when we started teaching designers and artists to feed into city industries, we are still doing this now.

Lace making

Lace making was particularly interesting. I found a photograph that was taken in the 1930s, of a women’s craft class. Most of them are doing embroidery; some of the women are working on large embroidery frames, so I would assume they are working on quite complex pieces.

One girl, right at the front of the class, is working on a bobbin lace pillow. The photograph is quite clear but not clear enough for me to see what kind of lace she is making but she seems to be using East Midlands Bobbins with a continental pillow. Quite how that combination came about I am not certain. I am not sure what kind of lace was made then, East Midlands-type laces had not at that time been developed.

There is a large collection of East Midlands Bobbins in the Museum and I do know that there was bobbin lace making in Leicester as early as 1610.

I wonder whether that girl in the photograph had brought her skills with her. If you look very carefully at the photograph, the girl sitting next to her, who is working at an embroidery frame, is wearing very antiquated clothing, that you would almost associate with peasant garments: a long skirt, hair in a coil round her head, shawl, and a frilly blouse. This does not look like the kind of garment that a 1930s girl here, would be wearing. It looks Eastern European.

Those two girls – if you look very closely at their features – I have a feeling they are sisters or possibly cousins. Now, if those two girls are related, and they have those skills, the centres of bobbin lace making (apart from England and Northern Europe) were in the region of what became Eastern Germany and Czechoslovakia. I do wonder whether those girls came out of Eastern Europe, prior to the outbreak of the second world war, brought their skills with them, and then were honing their skills in order to fit themselves for employment. It is just a surmise, because I have not had time to research the registers, but they look very much as if they might be of Eastern European extraction.

The Midlands would have been known in Eastern Europe as a centre for lace making at that time. Nottingham was machine lace, which is a very different discipline to hand made lace. The machines were developed in Nottingham because the technology was already there. There is no tradition of hand made lace in Nottingham – that resided in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and in Devon. Those were the centres of hand made lace.

Nottingham started to make machine lace because the skills and the factories and the know-how about to the build and maintain them was already there. Machines were then taken to Northern France, so the industry spread out but I am not aware of machine lace being produced in Eastern Europe.

There is some bobbin made lace in Leicester from 1610 and there is a notice (at that date) of money being given by a particular charity to a lace maker in Leicester to employ girls to make bobbin lace. Leicester was right on the very periphery of the hand made lace area but I do know that one of the Ellis family was a very competent lace maker and her collection of bobbins and lace appears to have formed the foundation of the collection within the museum. Agnes Ellis may have known some of the girls who trained here in the very early days. I am not aware of bobbin lace being taught as a separate subject here, which me think that the girl in the photo probably brought her skills with her rather than having learnt them here.

Published on 13th October 2015.

See also:

The history of music technology.

 

 

Aakash Odedra

Friday 9th October 2015

Echoes and I Imagine

World Premiere
Curve

Our rating: *****

The solo dance performance of Aakash Odedra tonight was sensational. I have not seen male dance of this calibre since I last saw Rudolf Nureyev in the 1970s. Odedra’s first piece was a stunning performance based on the Indian classical dance genre Kathak. Dancing to the choreography of Aditi Mangaldas,  Odedra demonstrated the sublime artistry of his abilities, with movements that had razor-sharp timing, perfectly synchronised with the music. The work opened with with gloriously evocative sounds creating a hauntingly beautiful atmosphere, heightened by the lighting and the floor of the stage being spread with long filaments of golden threads studies with tiny bells, laid out to look like the ripples of a lake.

Aakash Odedra at Curve in 2015
Aakash Odedra at Curve in 2015

The piece drew on the image and symbol of bells, which hung from the top of the stage in clusters of long strings.  As the programme notes explained ‘The resonance of the bells awaken us to the now. A breath and senses awakens. LIFE awakens me.’ The Kathak dance form is story-telling in motion. The elaborate footwork, enhanced by bells,  attached to the ankles, was characteristic of the dance form; Odedra pulled down two of the long strands of bells and wound them around his ankles before proceeding to display amazing footwork, in his bare feet. In something that Western audiences would recognise as tap dancing, he also used his feet as percussion instruments, drumming on the stage, producing sequences of intricate rhythms. Echoes is a work that plays with the idea of bells, their tradition in classical dance, their ritualistic significance and their potential as a metaphor for freedom and awakening.

Aakash Odedra at Curve in 2015
Aakash Odedra at Curve in 2015

The piece also included many of the spinning movements – the chakkars –  so characteristic of classical Kathak. What Mangaldas has done is to bring the ancient art form into the 21st century without losing any of its resonance and vibrancy. Some of Odedra’s spins were like those of an ice skater; he has a fluidity of movement that is remarkable but he combined this with dynamics that are amazing.  All the time we watch those extraordinarily impressive hand movements, the fingers that wave and flutter like the wings of a bird. It was like seeing dance from another planet; something that moves forward what we understand about solo dance. Utterly enthralling and spellbinding throughout.

Echoes celebrated the form of classical Kathak, but the second piece – I Imagine – brought a totally new approach and direction to the stage. In it, Odedra demonstrated his sense of humour, his consummate capacity for entertaining his audience. It was another demonstration of his story-telling powers, using mime, antics and even spoken word to engage us in a meditation on the theme of travel and migration (very topical.)  Odedra came on to a stage stacked with suitcases – like the bells, another evocative metaphor. This piece used a variety of masks to signify characters, not unlike those used by actors in classical Greek drama, I thought. At the beginning of the piece, one of the larger suitcases begins to move and Odedra emerges from it, foot by foot, leg by leg, rather like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. It reminded me of Ernest being found in a handbag. The story goes on to depict arriving in a new country, migration to a new and alien culture, the feelings evoking loss of homeland, leaving behind the ones that are loved, the challenges of accommodating a new style of life. And then Odedra does something totally innovative for a dancer – he engaged in a spoken monologue in which he used surprising skills of characterisation, speaking in accents to bring his characters to life, much to the amusement of the audience. It was a sequence that bore similarities to stand-up comedy, recollecting the Kumars, I thought. Towards the end of the piece, Odedra walked across the top of a line of suitcases, having used them beforehand to make an armchair and a house.  It was a gleeful deployment of the props and one that took us a long way from the previous  classical dance routines.

I Imagine included spoken word by the celebrated Sabrina Mahfouz, the British Egyptian poet, playwright and performer who was born in South London. Odedra’s collaboration with the award-winning Mahfouz created a work that was supremely one of theatre, one that gave us dance, drama, comedy and gymnastics. It reminded me of my previous experience at Curve when I saw Bromance, the production by the Barley Methodical Troupe that created a new genre of dance and gymnastics. Odedra commissioned the masks used in this production from circus practitioner David Poznanter (it must have been the association of circus that conjured the idea of the work by the Barley Methodical Troupe in my mind.)

Read our review of Bromance

Aakash Odedra at Curve in 2015
Aakash Odedra at Curve in 2015

Tonight’s World Premier of Echoes and I Imagine crowns the previous appearance made by Odedra at Curve, including Inked and Murmer in 2014.

Speaking after the performance, Odedra paid tribute to his teacher, the internationally renown Kathak dancer Nilema Devi MBE.

Read more about Nilema Devi

Aakash was commissioned by Curve Theatre in Leicester to choreograph a piece for the opening of the theatre in November 2008. This piece, called “Flight” was the only one invited to perform for HM The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh on their visit in December 2008 [Facebook]

Aakash Odedra was raised in Leicester and his company is based here.

Curve has over the years given us so much that is new and exciting in the arts and tonight was no exception.

See also:

Our news archive page with more about Kathak dance, Nilema Devi and Aakash Odedra.

Read our intro article about A Streetcar named Desire.