Creating Balance with Anglepoise

I’ve never had a particular fascination with lamps. Yes, they can look nice and I appreciate there are various different designs to suit different tastes, but essentially they’re a rather practical thing. You switch it on so you can see better. So when I heard (rather later than everyone else in Portsmouth, it seems) that Anglepoise was teaming up with Strong Island and the University of Portsmouth (UoP) for a creative project called Creating Balance, I must admit I didn’t jump in the air with excitement.

Creating Balance 5

An iconic British brand, Anglepoise is famous for its instantly recognisable lamps. Think of a traditional desk lamp, and you’re most likely thinking of the shape of an Anglepoise lamp. They’re practical yet pleasing in an aesthetic way, as well as energy efficient.

When I first met with Paul Gonella of Strong Island back in the Autumn to discuss joining their team of local writers for the website, I noticed a pile of brochures showcasing the Creating Balance Project, and thus my interest was piqued.

They had taken a simple, everyday object – the lamp – and captured it in a whole new light. If you’re in Portsmouth then do look out for one of these A5 booklets, as they’re full of awesome photography and a lot of lamp action! Just flicking through the pages makes you realise how many creative spirits there are on our little island (Portsmouth’s on an island, don’t you know!), and how much talent this creative community has.

The Creating Balance project, organised by photographer and UoP lecturer Claire Sambrook, twinned 10 artists with 10 local photographers and gave them an Anglepoise lamp (or several) to play with. According to the brochure, “the aim was to explore the true meaning of balance at work and in life and to document its significance in the creative process”.

I work at the University of Portsmouth, where the new part of Eldon Building, which houses the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries, has just opened. It includes a ground-floor exhibition space, which is currently home to several art installations, including a seemingly uniform cluster of Anglepoise lamps.

I say seemingly, because as you get closer to the display, you start to notice all the little discrepancies and variations in positioning – a little lower here, a fraction higher there. Portsmouth people can wander down to Eldon Building and take a look, and I believe the newly-opened coffee shop there is also open to the public. If you’re in the area and want to see more of the exhibition, pop down to the Aspex Gallery in Gunwharf Quays from now until 2nd March.

I took a few shots of the installation in the Eldon Building (see above), called Changing Faces, which complements and connects to the Creating Balance project. I tried to give a sense of the almost mesmerizing quality of it. However, please bear in mind I’m no photographer, and was using an iPhone 4S! I’d like to say they’re in circles because I thought it would be in keeping with the circular heads of the lamps, but in reality I’ve just discovered how to make an image gallery in WordPress and am working my way through the different display options with far too much enthusiasm.

Byron by day, Beethoven by night

As a press officer, I write releases that often make it into the local paper. Recently I was asked to write this year’s graduation stories – one for each day about a student graduating that day with an interesting story to tell.

Will at his graduation

Will at his graduation this summer

One of these graduates is Will Sherwood.  An edited version of Will’s story made it into the local paper The News, and you can read the full story on UoP News.

Will, a creative writing graduate, balanced a passion for music and creative writing with his academic studies, and earlier this year achieved his dream of conducting the University of Portsmouth choir. I asked him where this dream came from, why he was set on being a fantasy writer, and how he manages to keep his different interests going.

Where did your goal to conduct the university choir/ensemble stem from?

“I’ve always been enthusiastic about music. My grandad made sure of it by playing Tchaikovsky or Beethoven whilst I played with my train track when I was little. I started learning the piano around the age of ten and soon began to expand into the history of music.

When I came to uni, I was rather lucky that the orchestra were in need of a percussionist, so before I knew it I was banging around on the timpani. At the same time a course mate dragged me along to the first University Choir and Chamber Choir rehearsals.

My interest in conducting began after watching the Proms for the first time. I particularly loved the interviews with the conductors. They would explain how they interpreted the music and shaped it so that it was their own unique performance.”

How did you go about achieving your goal?

“Well, I enquired about the possibility when I arrived at university but obviously they weren’t about to put a fresher in charge of an orchestra! When I started my third year however, the Chamber Choir wasn’t being run so I decided to put together my own ensemble for the Music Unplugged concert before Christmas.

George Burrows (Choir Director) and Colin Jagger (Head of Music) asked me if I wanted to conduct the University Choir. So I suppose I finally achieved my goal through my own stubborn determination to try new things, no matter how tough they are.

George and Colin were extremely supportive throughout the rehearsals. I met with George at regular intervals to discuss my progress and what I could do better in the next rehearsal and Colin helped in preparing the music, booking rehearsal slots and the venue itself.”

Will playing the timpani in the University orchestra

Will playing the timpani in the University orchestra

How have you balanced academic study and all your musical activities?

“Oh goodness, with great difficulty! Time management is not my forte and I get distracted extremely easily by anything artsy. Thankfully I only had my dissertation to focus on whilst I was conducting but it was a matter of pulling apart Byron’s poetry in the library by day, then picking at Mozart and Rachmaninov by night. It was an overwhelmingly demanding few weeks but it was also a thrill.”

With your passion for music, why did you choose to study creative writing rather than music?

“Ahh, the question that almost everyone I’ve met has asked me over the past three years! I was set on being a fantasy writer before I came to university and I wanted music to be something I could do in my spare time, that I could look forward to when the stress of reading Shakespeare or George Eliot got too much. I didn’t want it to feel like a chore or something I could become annoyed about.”

You said you were set on being a fantasy writer before you went to uni – why?

“It all starts with Tolkien. My parents bought me a recording of the Hobbit on cassette when I was very young and I strongly remember falling asleep whilst Bilbo gazed into his fire in Bag End with the dwarves singing their song. It was a magical moment and since then I’ve devoured all of his works, written a dissertation on the Lord of the Rings at college and organised a choral ensemble to sing Tolkien’s elvish languages in the orchestra film concert in May this year!

The great thing about fantasy is the myth building. I actually wrote the first draft of a big fantasy novel between my GCSEs and A Levels with the intention of polishing and publishing it at uni. It was the first of a five-book series with plans for another trilogy. It’s been four years and I haven’t really gone back to it. The freedom with fantasy is limitless and you can really let your imagination go wild.

I mainly read Tolkien and C.S. Lewis but also read other series such as the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. I read a range of classics but I was always attracted to fantasy. I’m currently planning an academic work on Tolkien as a Romantic writer, exploring his approach to nature and how he deals with the Romantic ideology, critiques and develops it. I’ll never not be into fantasy; it’s where I went every night, hoping to suddenly wake up in the Shire or Lothlorien.”

Do you think it can be difficult to balance two creative passions (writing and music) in your life?

“My remedy for making sure I don’t neglect my studies, writing or musical activities is by making sure that I’m connected to groups or people that I can either debate ideas with, sing or perform.”

Now you’ve graduated, you’re going to teach English at Canterbury College, and you want to go into academia. Why this route rather than the many other routes involving writing? Do you not find academic writing quite dry and restrictive in comparison to the creative work?

“Teaching is an area I’ve always loved. In 2011 I took part in the Student Associate Scheme programme where I worked in a primary school for three weeks. I enjoy helping people with their work and when it’s English or music I become extremely passionate about what they’re doing.

[Academic writing] demands a formal style and requires a kind of straight back attitude to your writing. However, I wouldn’t necessarily agree that it lacks creativity. Your job as a researcher is to develop new ideas and although the writing may be a bit dry and dense, the essence of the writing is bursting with creativity. As much as I might moan when writing an essay because I can’t exactly express my point, nothing quite thrills me as much as writing an essay on a topic that I’m interested in. I love writing about my own interpretations of texts and analysing poetry.”

How does music fit in with your future career in academia?

“Well, my aim is to be a Byron scholar and Byron had a phenomenal influence on the music scene both in Europe and outside of western culture. I’d like to write a monograph on the subject of Byron and music influence at some point.

Although I don’t want to devote myself completely to the connection between music and literature, I feel that I don’t need to because poetry and music evolved together and rhythm is the foundation of both. Whenever I look at a poem, I always see the musicality of it.”

Criminologist to crime writer

For Portsmouth lovers of crime fiction, today marks a special day – the release of not one but two crime novels written by local authors.

City of Devils by Diana Bretherick and Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square by William Sutton, both available to buy from today, were launched at an event at Blackwell’s bookshop in Portsmouth yesterday. With wine, nibbles and the chance to mingle with some fellow creative types, this was right up my street.

William Sutton and Diana Bretherick at the book launch with their novels, released today. Image courtesy of William Sutton.

William Sutton and Diana Bretherick at the book launch at Blackwell’s bookshop in Portsmouth with their novels, released today. Image courtesy of Nina McIlwain.

As I stepped into the bookshop I noticed a lady with a scarf draped elegantly around her neck, clutching a glass of wine. Introducing myself, I was met with a warm and open smile, and eyes that sparkled with the excitement of the evening. A former barrister, nerves would ordinarily have no place here, but the launch of a precious first novel inevitably stirs up the butterflies.

Diana, a criminology lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, won the 2012 Good Housekeeping Magazine New Novel Prize with City of Devils, a crime thriller set in 19th century Turin.

As Diana signed my newly purchased first edition, I asked her: what prompted a criminologist to start writing fiction?

“I have always enjoyed writing stories and started (but never managed to finish) a few novels too. Having completed my PhD in Criminology I started to look for another challenge and the MA in creative writing seemed exactly the thing to provide it.”

Diana wrote her novel while studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth. “I loved every minute of it!” she said. “The structure of the course was extremely helpful as was the feedback provided by my tutors and fellow students. It gave me an invaluable support network and without it I would never have finished the book.”

Investing the time and money in a taught course in creative writing is something I’ve often toyed with. It would force me to give my writing the priority it deserves, and needs, if I’m ever going to fulfil my dream of being a published author. However, there is a certain amount of criticism of such courses, including from established writers. For some, there is the notion that good writing cannot be taught. I asked Diana whether she thought of writing as a craft or an art.

She said: “I believe that it is a craft and it can be taught but only up to a point. There are lots of mistakes to be made for a beginner. I have probably made them all at one point or another! But good tuition and feedback can help you to avoid them. So some things can certainly be learned but you have to have a feeling for language and story-telling in the first place otherwise all the teaching in the world won’t make you into a good writer.”

The flyer for the book launch

The flyer for the book launch in Portsmouth

Guests at the book launch were treated to the authors reading their work. This is always a delight, as you hear the words in the tone and colour of their creator, as they were originally spoken. William delighted us all with a song he had written for the occasion, accompanied by both the ukulele and mouth organ, and involving audience participation for the chorus. Both writers then read bits of their work, Diana the opening chapter of the novel and William a short story featuring his novel’s protagonist, Campbell Lawless.

As I said my goodbyes before heading off for an evening with McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists, I asked Diana one last question: what advice would you give to anyone with that half-finished novel manuscript gathering dust at the back of a drawer because they’re too busy with their day job (ie me)?

She said: “It won’t write itself so get it out of the drawer and start! You can write 500 words in an hour and if you do that most days then before you know it, you’ll have a first draft.”

Sound advice indeed, and as I made my way home clutching my precious signed copies and looking forward to devouring their every word, I dreamt of that being me one day, accepting praise with grace and a smile, and basking in the warm glow of finally being able to call myself a published author.

Follow the antics of writer, musician and Latin teacher William at www.william-sutton.co.uk, and keep up to date with Diana and her work at dianabretherick.wordpress.com.