John Fox


John Fox Carnival Conference March 2013

Here’s One We Made Earlier. The 2nd Carnival Archive Conference March 15th and 16th 2013

John Fox Dead Good Ideas: Uprising!

John Fox Transcript (Click to read/hide)

Hilary Carty:

First up we have a speech called ‘Uprising’, just what we need in the afternoon. We have John Fox from Dead Good Guides; he’s an artist, cultural provocateur, advocate of vernacular culture, beach comber and poet. He directed Welfare State International creating Lantern Festivals, site specific celebrations, carnivals, operas, the £2 million Lanternhouse in Ulvertson, Cumbria, he ‘Raised the Titanic’ in Limehouse, shifted Trident Sheds in Barrow, and wrote Eyes on Stalks. Of course he’s won numerous fellowships and awards. Please give a very warm welcome to John Fox.

John Fox:

[ Musical Introduction – 0:50 - 2:07 [

Thank you and thank you to Tim who I’m privileged when I go to conferences, I’m a bit of a steam melodeon player, he’s a super player, so it’s wonderful, and Pax as well who I’ve also known for many years.

It’s great to be here. Tola said, ‘you will make it historical won’t you?’, so I’ve put some dates in; I’m trying ever so hard.

I do want to thank people, and thank you Hilary for that wonderfully generous introduction, it’s a privilege to know that so many people out there have been on summer schools. We’ve gone a slightly different direction I guess, and I’ll talk about that if there’s time.

‘Uprising’ what a fabulous title for this session. I live in Cumbria in an area called Furness, and I play in a street band [ Slide ]. This particular street band plays a kind of Cumbrian Cuban, I guess, and although we do play a version of Bob Marley’s Freedom, we haven’t played anything yet from the Uprising album. If you look at some of the words on it, in the Real Situation on that album Marley wrote:

‘Nation war against nation

Where did it all begin?

When will it end?

Well, it seems like: total destruction the only solution.’

Although that was written 22 years ago I think we still need to be remembering it, particularly when he talks about emancipating ourselves from mental slavery, ‘none but ourselves can free our minds’. Now forgive me if you’re not very familiar with this, but I think it’s partly the essence of what my talk is about, that there are standard patterns we keep reverting to and that we need to try this time to make sundry big changes.

There you go [ Slide ] that’s Blast Furnace the Cumbrian Cuban band. It should be a steel band, please come up and help us make it into a pan band.

This is me [ Slide ] a long time ago, in the spirit of anarchy, making an island in the streets of Burnley. I was arrested for this because it was deemed to be too anarchic. The indignity was I went to the police station and then I got a parking ticket for the Prem [? 4:56] that was parked up outside the police station.

In terms of Welfare State I’ll just give you about four images, because we started the company in 1968 and did lots of things. We’re probably best known for, ‘when in doubt set fire to things’ as they say at Welfare State, and, ‘when in real doubt put wings on and set fire to it.’

This is the ‘Houses of Parliament’ in Catford in 1983 [ Slide ] directed by Boris Howarth.

We started off in caravans; it wouldn’t really be too easy nowadays in terms of the travelling aspect of it. We graduated to Lanternhouse, which is in Ulverston, a £2.2 million project. Wild imagination sometimes wins out a little bit. This is up for sale I should say, so if anybody wants to start a carnival centre or a pan centre in Ulverston it is there on the market. The garage opposite is threatening to knock it down and turn it into a car park for Ford cars.

I do a lot of wood cuts and lino cuts [ Slide ] and this was a conceptual image I made for it, which was this wondrous tower of dream. Subsequently, once we stopped the company, I’ll show you a little clip of the film later on, it was about Eyes on Stalks going off from the circus tent back to the roots we had, to make crazy wonderful things all over the planet.

I know full well, and you know far more than I, that Caribbean carnival is the creative and artistic expression of dispossessed people. I think this is also what Marley is talking about, it’s not just the dispossessed of the Caribbean it’s the dispossessed of the world, and indeed in Britain, the culture we live in, there are many dispossessed people there. Clearly you know the history of slave owners in the 1700s and then slavery and emancipation in 1834.

I’m going to dwell on some of these questions this afternoon, questions about our dominant culture. That’s an old-fashioned Marxist word isn’t it, ‘dominant culture’, and necessary dissent, and ask why carnival parades are important, and where the radical spirit comes from now and how it transforms ordinary, civic environments and can promote subversion and excess.

It’s quite interesting, one of the books I was reading about it called ‘Carnival in Romans’ about a wild revolution that happened in 1580 in France through a carnival; it’s a fantastic book. It’s quite interesting that in there he talks about the relationship between inversion and subversion, and says that a lot of carnivals are about changing identity, putting the mask on and being somebody else. It’s not quite the same as subversion, so I think I’m talking about both.

As I’m not an academic or an activist, and because I also want to please Tola, I will draw on not only four decades of experience with the company Welfare State International, which began in 1968 and ended on April Fool’s Day 2006, but I will include a little history and a few references beyond that.

Essentially I will argue that our so called austerity is provoking a major cultural shift, and that we need to look at, not just carnival, the whole suppressed river of the wide ranging vernacular art. In this river carnival arts are one dynamic part, but a part which can be colonised into a product of spectacle designed to reinforce the commercial status, where carnival troops are manipulated for the tourist industry and for opening shopping malls. There’s an article in the Wall Street Journal about the Rio Sambadromo, and they reckon that it brings a £1 billion into the economy of Rio, now this may be necessary, but it is part of the kind of world we live in.

I like to think, and we like to think, that carnival has traditionally been a spontaneous and uninhibited creative process, which gathers people together physically in free space. Now so much of our current communication is mainly electronic and through virtual communities this is politically very important. It’s actually one of the key things about any kind of theatre, it gathers people together, and when you’re together you talk, you can talk about what you’re thinking and feeling, and that’s very often very different from what the media projects, so we need to be vigilant lest carnival, like so much of our current established and establishment art, can be equally contaminated by celebrity product and money.

Influenced in 1968 when we started by the situation at [??? 9:50] and Norman Brown, we were always wary of spectator sport and gratuitous, non-participatory spectacle wished upon us by a consumer culture. We always sought to achieve, and it said this in our first manifesto, an alternative entertainment and a way of life, and it’s gone on ever since, we juggle them around a bit, and I think at the moment we’re looking particularly at how to lead a creative life, which in itself is a political act.

It was partly because of the anxieties I mentioned that we decided to archive Welfare State, we felt the edge had gone somewhere else and so started Dead Good Guides, our new company, dedicated to examining perception, ecology, new ceremonies for rites of passage, and creative ways of living.

It’s interesting the more I’ve been thinking about carnival, which I’m not, to be honest, very familiar with, the more I’m realising there’s a crossover point between rites of passage, between ceremonies, between funerals, namings, weddings and so on, and that a lot of our art has become, in my opinion, rather a decorative door knocker, and not connected at points where people are at crossroads in their lives and really need art to connect. Clearly carnival is about excess, it’s about identity, and it’s about moving through, possibly even a liminal space. I don’t want to get too intellectual about it, but I think there are big links there. It’s about an art that’s a mode of knowledge and a way of being that we’d rather rejected.

Those of you who aren’t familiar with our work, I’ve shown a few slides, and I’ll show a clip from our last Welfare State show, ‘Longline, the Carnival Opera’, which was performed 7 years ago, virtually to the day, in March 2006. It’s just a 3 minute clip.

Lynne Gardner wrote about it in a very positive review in the Guardian, she said;

‘Where do we come from, where are we going to, how does landscape shape us, and how do we shape the landscape?’

[ Clip plays 12:00 – 14:00 ]

I was reminded when Ally [? 14:02] was talking about how we learn from history, how history gets rewritten, and obviously the question is, whose history and who’s doing the rewriting of it? Lynne Gardner wrote,

‘How can we learn from the past to transform our futures? These are just some of the questions raised by this show. Like all Welfare State’s work Longline is different from most theatre, it’s about people and not product, it’s full of colour, acrobats and junk puppets, masked choirs and soft with whispered memory, as if it’s trying to uncover a collective and conscious buried between layers of sand and rock. It comes from the community and speaks directly to it, in geological time but also with Trident submarines and globalisation. Because it is specific it has a claim to the universal and it is inclusive. It’s about what we’ve all lost, and it’s quietly moving, highly rich second half about how we might retrieve it.’

I think this is the journey we’re on, it’s about how to, I guess, revitalise what is a fundamental need in us all to create. In Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, art doesn’t come very high at all, but in fact it’s a basic instinct we all need to do, just look at cave paintings, or look at the Ice Age exhibition in the British Museum, it’s a primary, necessary instinct we all have.

If you’d like to see more of that film it’s on YouTube, and also on our website you’ll find a catalogue of our books including this book, which is, ‘Engineers of the Imagination’, which we actually wrote in 1983. It’s been reprinted a number of times, and I’m glad to say it’s still got pounds of glue on it and been handed around. It’s a useful manual for creating not only street theatre but a degree of anarchy.

In 1973 the science fiction writer Keith Roberts wrote, in ‘Machines and Men’:

‘We artists can became State licenced buffoons, treading the tightrope between creativity and dilettantism, between free thought and aimless posturing for applause, that’s why we have lost and how, and why we’ve got to stop now before we burn ourselves out, and if we etiolate right out of existence there’s no hope left, not for anybody … they need us, the crazy things we do, they need people who have made lunacy a profession. Without us they’ll forget they are living in hell, they’ll just sludge down into a sort of doughy mass and forget how to think, how to eat, and one day they’ll forget how to breathe.’

Now although this was written 40 years ago I reckon it’s a pretty good description of our current big aspiration society motored by couch TV, posturing celebrities and manipulated inequality foisted on us by Etonian millionaires.

What kind of carnival do we need in the face of recession and austerity; well I guess we should first look at our motivation. In face of the ‘perfect storm’, predicted for 2039, when population growth, water and food shortages, exacerbated by probable climate change and religious conflict, coincide, to quote Bob Marley, ‘when will it end?’ and will carnival fit in then. I believe it’s essential, but what kind of carnival.

I’ll come to this in a minute, but to be clear I personally find change very exciting. We, as Welfare State, as a family, have always changed our skin probably every 7 years. The big changes that are now taking over are scary and challenging but stimulating, and a breaking of fossilised routines is open to creative solutions. DH Lawrence wrote in 1936:

‘Suppose a bomb was put under the whole scheme of things what would we be after, what feelings would we want to carry through into the next epoch, what feelings would carry us through, what is the underlying impulse in us all that will provide the motive, power, for a new state of things when this democratic industrial lovey, dovey darling, take me to mamma, state of things is bust?’

‘What’s next?’ says Lawrence, and that’s what interests me, what now is no fun anymore?

Well I agree with Lawrence, and the good news is that outside arts, including carnival, are gaining ground. In 1991 I wrote a paper called, ‘A Plea for Poetry’ for the National Arts and Media Strategy of the Arts Council, I asked, ‘where are carnival, fairground, puppetry, new circus and crossover arts represented?’ In 1991 they were virtually non-existent, but today, in terms of grants for the arts, investment from 2003 to 2012, nearly £59 million, that’s 10% of the total grants for the arts funding, went to carnival, cultural festivals, circus, street art and public art. Now I have to say quite a lot of that is thanks to Pax who pushed it through in the Arts Council.

It could increase, it may not, after the undoubted success and extraordinary spectacle of the Olympics, and authorities of course have recognised its economic value, this is we’re on the tightrope of Rio and the Wall Street Journal. For example, in 2012, Mintfest in Kendal in the Lake District, just down the road from where we live, attracted over 25,000 visitors, many from overseas, with 70 acts from 12 countries, and 57,000 attended Lakes Alive events, with a total net impact on the Cumbrian in the region of £2.4 million. Artichoke claim that the elephant brought a public spend of £29.7 million.

Now apart from such economic growth this work is self-evidently good for us. It is local, populist, connected, community building, visceral, non-elitist, fun, accessible, necessary, essential, skill-based, thrilling, interactive, site specific, participatory, often with process before product, and it can be singularly democratic and occasionally poetic. However, although in two decades there’s been an undeniable shift, that 10% figure for our sector is still only a very moderate step in the right direction.

For an art form specialism, which by an Arts Council definition, hasn’t traditionally existed that long, this is a positive picture, in one timescale this has some truth, however within the vast range in history of outdoor work, if we include demonstrations, parades, puppetry, guerrilla theatre, and even rebellion, we are on the energetic wave and continuing current of a very ancient tradition indeed. The people’s tradition entwined with a radical art tradition that encompasses a multitude of styles, companies, artists and events. Bosch in the 15th century painted carnival performers; the carnival in Venice was allegedly started in 1268; we know dates that go way back of Caribbean carnival; and in Romans, from the book I quoted, it was in 1579 in France.

To name a few other purveyors with the spirit of carnival Punch & Judy, Mommas, Arto [? 21:16], Russian Constructivism, Miehold [?], Da-Da, American Happenings, Archaos, La Fura dels Baus, El Comedians, Dogtroep in Holland, Warner & Consortium [?] also in Holland, Magnus and many more.

With very few exceptions, mainly outside Britain, such wild creativity is, however, still underfunded and, not surprisingly, still blocked by our huge institutionalised bureaucratised funding system. It is a massive, fossilised rock in the paths of a hidden vernacular river, and in the large PAYE system it is increasingly difficult for radical artists, particularly young ones, to acquire a basic wage, and, unless you’re an administrator, a pension is unthinkable.

In my ‘Plea for Poetry’ I argued for a culture ‘which may well be less materially based, but where people will actively participate and gain the power to celebrate moments that are wonderful and significant in our lives’, be this building our houses, naming our children, burying our dead, announcing partnerships, marking anniversaries, creating new secular sacred spaces, and producing whatever drama, stories, songs, rituals, ceremonies, pageants, parades and jokes that are relevant to new values. I’m still pursuing this.

Unfortunately the old guardians of taste are still reactionary, and this is class education, English history, fill your own gaps in. Michael Billington in the Guardian rubbished the Sultan’s Elephant, which I suppose was a kind of passive carnival, as:

‘… appealing to the mood of infantilism that seems to be taking over, and a spectacular irrelevance to the business of theatre.’

And a couple of months ago Howard Barker, good playwright as he is, complained on Front Row that now the Arts Council are obsessed with audiences, and the words he hated most were, ‘accessible’, ‘collaborate’ and ‘celebrate’. However, our collaborative and celebratory movement is unstoppable, the networks and cross-fertilisations are astounding and generous, and I’ll show some of the companies, put some slides on at the end. We’ll get there, but we have to think generations and life times.

What in addition to all the good things I’ve already mentioned is the fundamental spirit of carnival, and where is it maintained, is it in Rio, Venice, Trinidad, Notting Hill, New York, Gozo by Malta, Gay Pride in Sydney, Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Cologne, Greece, Madera, Tenerife, or some wondrous, unpredictable sequined neo-Paganism in Luton?

Now you all know this stuff but I’ll read it anyway, we go back to the traditional basics here. ‘Carnivale’ means meat can be eaten and allows Christians to eat meat before the 40 days of fasting, before Lent. Fun loving celebrations were held on the days before the religious period of Lent, I know full well carnival happens all months of the year but it’s still one of the roots, before the religious period of Lent, which preceded Easter, ‘thus during carnival for 5 days the populous were allowed to eat to its hearts content and revel in all manner of debauchery, dance, and deviations wearing creative and sometimes costly costumes and masks, which were used to avoid recognition during the festival.’

Now I quote that actually from an airline magazine advertising trips to go and see carnival in Malta, so how far is anarchy a marketable commodity?

In fact I did witness a carnival in Nadur, which got some EU money previously to be the cultural carnival capital, one of them, of Europe, and I’ve got few pictures I took on a dodgy mobile phone that I’ll show you at the end. They have two carnivals, they have an official one, which starts on the Saturday, which is all formal, and then they have another one, which is at the end of the week. The first one was pretty wild, but the week later is the truly wild one, a silent one, which is apparently given to considerable boozing and spontaneity, excess and extensive cross-dressing.

What traditions can we refer to in England? There’s Helier, there’s Padstow, the Lewes Bonfires, there’s Bridgewater electric floats that Tim knows a great deal about. Interestingly he was telling me a story about the Arts Council saying how, ‘we have to improve the artistic quality of the Bridgewater floats …’ It’s built in isn’t it into our whole culture, the Hush Puppies and the corridors of excellence.

If we think green, which is another aspect, then should we not abandon eating meat altogether, in our awakened ecological consciousness what place is there for outmoded religious authority, especially discredited Catholicism.

Carnival must surely incorporate play; the state of ludic being I believe is our natural state. Okay I know we need a house, we need food, and we need affection, but we need to play with humour, caricature, and nonsense, personal creativity in collaboration with fellow joysters; maybe sometimes political, comic, or even dark satire and disobedience; and of course gloriously skilled amateurism, maybe with a few professional facilitators. Carnival needs the people but it does also needs the talents of the rare geniuses like Peter Minshall, so we have to watch professionalism, it’s a balancing act again.

But since you’ve been able to get a degree in street theatre its political edge has evaporated, leaving groups such as Platform, UK Uncut, Clown Army, Occupy and Climate Camps to fill the gap. The same could, and maybe has happened, with carnival, and despite its undoubtedly worthwhile social engagement, which is sometimes used as frankly surrogate social work on the cheap, in workshops that stimulate a dormant imaginations, it could end up as a decorative and bland exercise in pretend radicalism and distracting reinforcement.

I’m going to bring this to a conclusion with a few slides, which though theatrical include some of what I think are the prerequisites of the carnival spirit.

[ Slides ]

This is just a piece of comedy in Ulverston, and there’s a moral to the story. This is the wheelbarrow at [??? 28:00], followed by the giant vegetable display, and this is an accountant who was so bitten by the event that he started his own flea circus and dropped out of the kind of economic world altogether into running his own flea circus.

These are middle-of-the-road pageants, carnivals.

We had a dilemma in Ulverston, you always have with heritage, how much history you celebrate, how much you tell the truth, and so on. This was celebrating Sir John Barrow who worked for the Admiralty and sent young men by and large to the outer reaches of the planet, was part of the whole colonial exploitation really. Being Ulverston, small town on the edge of the Lake District, 12,000 people; we had two Sir John Barrows and a Major in the middle, we all went up to the top of the hill, which nobody ever really went to, this is the lighthouse to celebrate Sir John Barrow, and finally a mass of explosions up there. The most political thing about this was getting people up to the top of the hill at all!

Heritage buildings, this is the Bowes Museum, this was a fun one, very middle-of-the-road, but we took objects from the museum and we turned them into various costumes and comic items. We all gathered together then in the grounds of the Bowes, these are the two patrons of the original Bowes Museum, and then there’s a big French [??? 29:41] floating about, English Morris Men grabbing any kind of tradition you can, I mean we grabbed whether it’s climbers, Morris Men or whatever, they all go into this joyous tapestry of creation and then a final lantern there, an explosion of the building.

‘Raising the Titanic’, London, 1983, now you’ll see the Titanic there has got cruise missiles for its funnels. Original theatre used to be spread over a huge context, if you look at medieval theatre it was in the temples, it was outside, it had processions, it had interior monologue, and it had poetry and so on. We’ve gone really into a dead end with the black box, or a more limited one.

Here on the dockside we’re selling shark steaks, the Chisenhale Dance Troupe are performing there. Three women in a boat, two women and one man in a boat, and all this is comic stuff beforehand, and then the Titanic comes up from the dock, Marshall Steiner, sadly now dead, who had to check people out for his motorbike and sidecar; you could only get into the Titanic if you had the right sized teeth, so you had three classes and then it all ended up in a wonderful comic way, and the Titanic comes up from the dock.

In Limehouse one of the problems had been that it had been taken over as a kind of middleclass arena, but also a lot of dockers were put out of business by container trucks, so we built a theatre out of container trucks. I won’t go into the whole story, but there’s definitely an upstairs and a downstairs, people who really don’t know what they’re doing who are steering the ship into [??? 31:41]. There’s first class at the top, stokers at the bottom, there’s an albatross, an iceberg that comes in the form of an ice giant, there’s a tea ceremony, which is a way of sinking the Titanic by pouring cold tea on it, and then finally there’s questioning from the children who said, ‘why did you allow it to happen?’

Now of course what we’re dealing with in 1983 is the Thatcher Government, we’re dealing with the sending of young men to the Falklands in ships that were badly designed, young men from Plymouth and Portsmouth who would try and get work, just as much as they could on the Titanic. It was still a class structure, still a hierarchy, it was still against nature, it was still driven by people who really hadn’t got a clue about the bigger environment, ecologically or whatever, so it was an allegory, it was a caricature, it was political provocation, but it was also good theatre within a carnival style. It took us up-to-date with the sharks coming up from the dock in the marina, who were the loan sharks who were in fact taking over the dock and turning it into middleclass flats, and the final floating on the dock of all the lanterns and a final dance of the people who had all taken part in it.

This is another one in Barrow-in-Furness it was the film of the script by Adrian Mitchell, it was about King Lear, who was a geriatric living in a nuclear submarine. We would take parades out through the town, which was the spill off of the events, and it became in itself a wild carnival procession, people were terrified because there were big placards saying, ‘Stop!’, just to stop the traffic actually, and they thought, therefore, it had to be a nuclear CND demonstration.

I’m going to return to this, this is the throne of King Reel, and I’m going to return to this handsome looking guy at the end, because it’s one of my little final tiny stories about the parable of it.

Because we’d upset people with provocation about nuclear submarines in Barrow, because of they still built Trident submarines …… Barrow is a town of 60,000 people, it’s at the end of the Furness Peninsula, and it was put there because you can seal it off if disasters happen, so we went for Queen Victoria, who should have come to the town 100 years before but actually didn’t appear, so we put these persons outside the shipyard, you can see the shipyard in the background there, men dancing with submarines. To get men dancing in Barrow in the streets was also a major political act.

Here we go with first of all the carnival of the celebration parade of all the council refuse collectors, we gave them £100 for the best float, and then we had a big choir which then sang for the entry of the elephant. This is Queen Victoria on her elephant gun carriage, and she’s following the coat-of-arms of Barrow, which is a B and an arrow, and the man in the pinstriped suit was one of 30 men that kind of parachuted over the town hall, all bureaucrats leave you with their briefcases. There was a kind of chase, I guess, of Queen Victoria and the Major, which ended up in a fairly sort of English McGill postcard vulgar fashion, with the Queen’s bloomers floating high from the town hall. The theory of this is that once you’ve put bloomers of this nature above any public civic building, which is going back to what I was asked to talk about, how you convert civic buildings, you fly very large knickers above them and they never look quite the same ever again.

Then we had a classic birthday cake with explosions and so forth.

This is what happens, this is the paper of this year, ‘Memories Calendar’, a big elephant’s head came down the streets and it got turned into memorabilia. I guess it hasn’t made much difference; it’s just become a piece of nostalgia reconnecting with the past, which we’ll come back to in a minute.

Then the final bit of dissent here is the golden submarine, using in fact local dance troupes dressing up and telling the story of the cuckoo. Now this is an 80 year old lady playing the role of the cuckoo. The cuckoo, as you well know, is one of those birds that sits on other peoples’ nests, and there’s a folk story that if you build a big wall around your village and keep the cuckoo in you’ll have summer there for ever, and in fact of course it’s like Barrow and the submarine industry, it doesn’t really ever stay for ever. I think we always need stories, myths, like the Titanic story or like the cuckoo story, really important.

Here you’ve got a model of the submarine sheds with some rails going across the right and then a carnival band with engineers and stock cars made locally, and then the Hooray Henry’s of our culture are going to swing a champagne bottle, you can see it’s a siege tower made of consumer goods, refrigerators, cruise missiles. Lord Shelbent [?] is there in the corner about to launch the final golden submarine. The story goes that you have to hit this submarine with a champagne bottle, and then [??? 36:41] in the midst, and as a result the hidden sheds, you know full well if you’re in Barrow if you get hit with a champagne bottle it’s launch time, so the shed is launched not the submarine, revealing that there was a cuckoo inside that had devoured all the souls, the creative apprentices.

Finally there’s a comeuppance, the women had made a nuclear vacuum cleaner and they finally demolished Shelbent, danced the women’s three pin plug dance, which is a traditional Cumbrian form; it isn’t really but you can invent any tradition you want, look at the history of the Royal Family, read Hobsbawm [? 37:18], and if you’ve never read any just think about traditions, think about invention, people believe the Cumbrian Lantern Festival, I’ll show you at the end, has gone on forever. This could go on forever if you were so inclined, so treat history likes it needs to be treated, as long as it’s your history.

When Barracudas came out, heard the name before, said, ‘great’, they came out and they went on for 12 years until their Arts Council grant was cut last year, and we subverted the kind of traditional dance schools, so instead of the rather sexist drum majorettes, which are often there in an inferior tradition, we invented a dancing terra-street instead, so this is a dancing terra-street. If you look at the shipyard from a distance it’s like a bunch of red crocodiles creeping up on it, so this is directly there, and I always keep saying, ‘we have to find the poetry under our feet.’

They used to make liners but it was just as exploitative as making submarines, they used to have these wonderful liners, wonderful, they would sail these liners like wedding cakes past the bottom of your garden, so that was some history worth keeping.

I didn’t think at first that these were necessarily carnival parades, and I’m bringing this to an end with the lantern festivals we started in Ulverston in 1983. The town was very depressed, there were 44 empty shops, and it became gradually known, through a group of people organising, as the Festivals Town. One of the key things we did was make lantern festivals.

There are four processions, four rivers of light dissembled from all around the town, about 10,000 people assembled and about 1,000 lanterns made by local people. Incredible skills that people now have which they’ve passed on, they could make lanterns as good as this.

This is made by a guy who worked in a chemical factory, and it’s about the journey that people used to make to come to Ulverston, coming across the sands in stagecoaches, the poetry under your feet, but the skill is in the community because they’ve had years to practice this.

Then the town lighthouse that you saw previously now with wings on; statue, or model, of Stan Laurel who was born in Ulverston; dragons; fish from Morecombe Bay; and then always bands, this is my son’s band in fact, Dan Fox.

I like this because this is ritual sculpture, it’s the putting of lanterns on to a tower, and it wouldn’t exist without those separate lanterns all coming together in a patchwork form, so it’s a classic example of how a wondrous thing couldn’t be made without the involvement of a lot of people from the community.

Everybody’s got a garden shed, even it’s in your own head or whatever, and this takes off yet again with wings on it, and if you look carefully you’ll see submarines in there as well. People will always make what they’re familiar with, [??? 40:10] by Gavin Lewry into a seahorse, again when in doubt set fire to it, the garden shed taking off again.

This is interesting, this is from this year, and it says, ‘graduate engineers from British Aerospace Systems in Barrow made an ambushed themed lantern.’ Now I don’t know if we’re winning or losing on this, but this is a fact, where’s the dominant culture on this one?

I’ve written a paper, which I’ll pass around, called ‘A New Role for the Artist’, which is seeing the artist as a facilitator and a lasso that can draw energy from communities.

These are some crappy photographs I took; I only had a poor mobile phone, so I’ll just you very quickly. This is the Nadur one, the official carnival before the wild one, and I’ll just give you a very quick flavour of it and then we’ll bring it to a finish. The other interesting thing about Nadur is there’s still the usual formal work made by the way they make things in Valencia, very solid work, almost made by shop fitters, but what I wanted to show you was the end, because a bunch of young people came on …… that’s a whole heap of dogs, which I thought was one of the best things in the parade, all being pulled by one little shepherd, which is very good. This is a take-off of the Olympics from young people who were throwing water around, making a slide, they were really going wild and enjoying themselves enormously, which I think is one of the true spirits of the carnival aspect.

Finally we’re not alone; this is the elephant in London, but the spinoff of all these things and how it spreads, Royal de Luxe have said that they were at one point in their lives influenced by Welfare State, the lantern elephant comes to London, I was strongly influenced by the Bread & Puppet Theatre from early days, 1965, in fact in Notting Hill they were still producing wonderful political work, very committed.

That’s a company in Canada called, ‘Shadowlands’, this is one of their posters, and they specifically talk about the puppetry from Royal de Luxe, and also this is from Noeleen Kavanagh, you can’t really see it but it’s about a boy who writes letters to schools saying what he wants to be, and all the schools write back again, so there’s this wonderful interaction, but the big puppet is the one that’s travelled all the way, conceptually, from one company to another, which indicates, I think, that we’re all in it together.

That’s one of [??? 43:33] Puppets’ puppets.

This book is really useful because it’s by Clarke Mackey; it talks about the history of vernacular art, which puts it together in a slightly different way.

Finally a lotus flower actually made by my daughter Hannah, with the Liverpool Lantern Company.

Going back to this again, the story here is last week was the 30th anniversary of putting this film on, we all gathered together again, and this guy’s wife came up to me and gave me a huge hug, she said, ‘thank you for saving my husband’, because this guy 30 years ago was a total pisshead, he was out of his head on pills and whatever, and Adrian Mitchell and I managed to take him and say, ‘you’re a really creative guy, you’ve got to get yourself out of this state and really go for it.’ He’s now teaching in fact in prisons in the North East, and is reading Adrian Mitchell poems to people there.

One of the tragedies, I’m never sure about reunions, but I think part of the things that people come together, they want to have a nostalgic moment, they want to remember. What I heard that evening is that a lot of people wanted a copy of the film we made, because a lot of the young people in it in Barrow have killed themselves over drugs and whatever, so that’s a kind of, why do we do this stuff, is it because we want to be politically angry and provocative, wonderful and joyous and colourful, or is it because every now and again there’s something like that happens.

This you can’t see very well, but it’s a tiny newspaper cutting of a clown called, ‘The Toxic Clown on a Motorbike.’ I pinched this off a wall of a guy I know who’s a fitter, it was in his workshop, and I said, ‘what is that, who made it?’, and he said, ‘I made it’, I said, ‘why?’ and he said, ‘because we’re all suffering toxicity because we’re all being screwed’, he said, ‘I wanted to just do something’, he’s a kind of wild spirit. Now this is a guy who’s not a trained carnival maker, he’s a fitter, and there it is, so again I think that’s another little parable, another little story.

My grandson is looking at the world on fire, and there’s me who is paralysed because I was trying to find a place for them.

At the very end, which I won’t go into because there’s no time, is to talk about funerals, to talk about rites of passage, to talk about a whole area of work which I think overlaps carnival, which I think has been neglected and that I think we need to look at very carefully in the future.

Thank you.

Hilary Carty:

Thank you. For John really what you’re getting from us is a bit of a bow, because that kind of history, that much knowledge, that much creativity not held within one person but shared wave after wave of community is really special. I think you’ve shown us what carnival does in its entirety, thank you very much indeed, any questions for John?


Do you think our future evolution is defining ourselves through what we create rather than through what we consume, and also do we have to reinvent money to do that, how did you struggle to get funding to produce a product?

John Fox:

I think creativity is an essential part of our being, we’re creative people, but we get sucked out of ourselves by other peoples’ agendas because we’re easily exploited. I mean there’s nothing wrong with buying, selling and trading, but I think what we need to do is set-up a whole gift economy, a whole gift exchange, so art is a gift, we exchange, we change the structure. We have to change the whole economic structure of it because it’s completely inward and out of balance. I think people are natural creators, they are natural givers, but they’re trapped in fake propaganda essentially that’s driven by TV, press, whatever. It’s a radical change we need, it’s an absolute sea change in culture, but I think that’s possible.

What was the second question?


Within the system how did you get the funding for these amazing projects?

John Fox:

I never tell lies. I always told people what we were doing. I didn’t always agree with that, I had fierce arguments, but I was never aggressive to any arts funder or whatever. I found that if you tell the truth and tell it well, tell it with passion, clearly people will respond, even the most unlikely people.

I mean the most unlikely one was a Mobile Oil calendar ad in Australia, I learnt from them. A long story, but I did an image of a tanker on fire in a dock, it was a fantastic image, couldn’t resist doing it, and they said, ‘you’re not using that image’, and I said, ‘well why not?’ and they said because the tanker was from a rival company and, ‘we’re not prepared to rubbish them’, and I suddenly thought, I wouldn’t rubbish half the companies I know. They were absolutely right, I was wrong, they had the moral advantage. I learnt from them and I’d never imagined I’d learn from a multinational oil company ever, but they were right.

I think it’s about relationships, about trust, and it’s about explaining. If you explain in the right way to most people, you do it viscerally, essentially, with passion and poetry I think people listen because everybody has that within them, even the people who are the most corrupted and bruised. I used to have on the trucks the words, ‘pathological optimist’, and when I had severe doubt I would go out and read the trucks, and think, I did write that, yes I think I am one of those, yes I am.

Hilary Carty:

John thank you very much indeed.

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