Blakefest 2018

With Bognor Regis gearing up for its annual Blake-inspired arts festival tomorrow, Blakefest director Rachel Searle shares just a few of the highlights. Blakefest has become a unique cultural experience by the sea, featuring international art, poetry, political discussion panels. As Rachel says, "in all honesty, it's very pleasingly different and eclectic in its approach, and perfectly mirrors the creative magpie approach, showcasing the whole spectrum of art forms."

The presence of William Blake as a resident in my hometown of Felpham has always been a catalyst for me wanting to create a cultural legacy in Bognor, that both honours him but also celebrates new art and contemporary visionary artists, as well as bringing in artists that embrace his rebel spirit and political resistance. We are really excited by the acts we’ve managed to secure this year and the breadth of the programming.

BlakeFest, part of the Big Blake Project, has its roots in Blake’s vision of Beulah, perhaps best understood as a window on earth into heaven itself: In Felpham, Blake penned “Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates” and the words to Jerusalem. In the “spirit of Blake’s poetic genius”, BlakeFest is a synthesis of original music, poetry and audio-visual art and includes talks on issues of ‘the imagination’ and social justice. Our over-riding aim for BlakeFest is to be an agent of regeneration in Bognor Regis through the exploration and celebration of William Blake.

Before the main programme

While the main programme starts tomorrow, there is a question-time style panel debate tonight. Building Jerusalem is a public meeting, being held as part of BlakeFest 2018 at Chichester University, involving talks and a panel discussion exploring the relevance of William Blake’s poem/hymn Jerusalem, and wider philosophy, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Britain’s potential role in finding a solution to it. The event is an inter-faith and truth-seeking initiative and there will be no promotion of ideological or religious views that favour one faction of humanity over others. 

Building Jerusalem was inspired by the community poem – ‘We’ll Do It’ – crafted by Stella Bahin during her time as BlakeFest’s Poet-in-Residence. For me,’We’ll Do It’ reveals the heartbeat of Blake’s Jerusalem in the people of Bognor Regis today. With Blake’s own visions of both Beulah and Jerusalem, the idea of an inclusive inter-faith panel discussion emerged. This was followed by a sobering trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank. The highlight of the trip was meeting Dareen Tatour who used her precious last hours of freedom to give us a tour of her beloved Nazereth.”

Blakefest: music, poetry and talks

Our daytime programme starts at midday on Saturday with local and national talent. And the South Downs Poetry Festival has converged with Blakefest this year, curated by local bard Barry Smith — placing jazz and poetry alongside each other, weaving in and out of the musical acts throughout the day.

In keeping with Blake’s anti-establishment spirit of personal freedom, the acclaimed 1970s pop icon Lene Lovich headlines in the evening, with second headliner the All Things Must Pass Orchestra; led by Alex Eberhart, this is a celebration of the music of visionary Beatle, George Harrison. 

Mikey B Georgeson has been a major mover and shaker with BlakeFest, in capacities ranging from musician, exhibition curator, speaker and generally inspiring those around him. This year, he brings his Silent Disco, an art installation called An Actual Occasion and then performing as Mr Solo: an eclectic range of original, very individual, material taking inspiration from Bowie, the Beatles and Blake. A riveting and highly eloquent performer, this promises to be another highlight of BlakeFest 2018.

Vincent Gray will be unveiling and available to discuss an exciting possible sculpture for Bognor Regis, Albion Rose. Vincent recently completed a Keats sculpture now permanently installed in Eastgate Square, in Chichester.

The evening event at the Alexandra Theatre is being opened by a talk on Blake and the 60s by the accessible and scholarly Tobias Churton. The internationally-recognised and respected Churton, a very erudite orator, will be shedding light on Blake’s enduring contribution to our culture, focusing on the resurgence of his popular influence through the 1960s which still resonates across the arts, philosophically and spiritually.

Jamie Leeming will headline an afternoon set of live music sessions. He’ll also be accompanying the Southdown Festival Poets, culminating in Sasha Dugdale’s vocalising of Catherine Blake. Joy: Poetry & Jazz features Sasha Dugdale, Niall McDevitt, Naomi Foyle, Barry Smith and Jamie. The genre-crossing compositions of Jamie Leeming — with strong roots in the jazz tradition, but with folk-influenced imagery and textures  — meet the Blake-inspired words of South Downs poets!

Ciaran O’Driscoll and Margaret Farrelly with John Davies (aka Shedman) can be trusted to bring their lyrical Celtic music and humour to the afternoon. Probably the biggest contemporary name in Irish literature, Ciaran has won several awards and formally recognised by the Irish Arts Council as making an outstanding contribution to art and literature.

Alongside the wonderful musical lineup, free Silent Disco and performance poetry, there will be a graffiti art exhibition and bitesize talks on: Graffiti, Ginsberg and Blake; Blake and the Divided Brain; Female Revolutionary Figures

There is also an event in William and Catherine Blakes’ Cottage on Sunday and a guided walk.

Bognor Regis is a town poised at the brink of regeneration following similar projects in Margate, Hastings and Liverpool, with proposals including a major ‘William Blake Theatre’ — channelling local culture and arts to enrich their current heritage and touristic allure.


Notes

BlakeFest 2018 is taking place over the weekend 14th-16th September with the main focus being the all-day Live Music Festival on Saturday 15th at The Regis Centre/Alexandra Theatre from noon onwards. The Fringe Events on Friday and Sunday have limited numbers and payable separately.

The event is sponsored by Chichester University & Chichester Observer

You can find more information and booking details at the Blakefest website. This video shows events from last year’s festival.

 

Strange Mystery Flower

Finding Blake welcomes songwriter and musician Roger Arias, whose Strange Mystery Flower adaptation of four of William Blake's poems featured in the Other Blakean Artefacts section of our Blakean Archive. Here, Roger describes how this musical project arose from his personal encounter with Blake's poems and from the journey these accompanied him on.

This is the story of the birth of a musical project, Strange Mystery Flower.

It all begins in Ferrol, a port city located in Galicia, on the northwest of Spain, some time in early 2014. One of the many musicians who live in this run-down and quaint city comes home after a night of partying and, after a small discussion with his girlfriend, he takes the first book he finds in his humble library and goes to his room. Needless to say, he was so wasted that his eyes closed before opening a miserable page. The next day, with the foreseeable hangover, he opens one eye and finds a small cover in front of his face that reads like this: William Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience. He begins to flip through it and immediately perceives and senses something that connects him with those verses. Some melodies begin to play around in his head. Curiously, he does not remember having acquired that book and it does not belong to his girlfriend either; the explanation of how it got home, which for sure exists, is still a mystery today. The name of this musician is Roger Arias.

Travelling with a Blakean spirit

Returning to the subject in question, from that first encounter the book accompanies him everywhere and Roger becomes more and more familiar with the Blakean spirit. On those days, the first two songs arise, inspired by the poems Spring and Night. Already fully aware of the powerful connection he is feeling at a deep, almost spiritual level, he decides to shelve the book for another, more timely, occasion.

Strange Mystery Flower Cover design: Mario Feal © 2018

That time would be September 2014. Roger acquires a complete anthology of Blake’s poetry entitled See a world in a grain of sand and prepares a small suitcase with clothes. These two things, as well as a guitar, a sleeping bag, some other books and some records (among which were some compilations of acid folk that a good friend had recommended), are his only companions on a trip that he decides to make to the north of Italy.

From poetical to musical sketches

Once this trip starts, and after making several stops in the north of Spain (specifically in Asturias and the Basque Country, where he meets old friends and plays a few gigs that help him defray the cost of the trip), he arrives in a small village located in the Odesa National Park in the Pyrenees, a natural border between Spain and France. There he opens for the first time the recently acquired book by Blake. He finds, at the very beginning, Blake’s Poetical Sketches, which include a short poem entitled Song first by a shepherd, whose first and timely verse is “Welcome, stranger, to this place … “, and immediately a melody emerges as a ray of light to accompany these verses in the most appropriate environment, the high Pyrenean mountains. There also arose Miss Gittipin’s second song.

Song first by a shepherd

It is only the beginning. After several weeks, the protagonist of this story has musicalized twenty-four poems! As well as his first song in Italian, although this is another story… Most of the songs that emerge over the next few days do so in situations analogous to the content of the poem, as in the aforementioned Song first by a shepherd. For example, at a certain moment that Roger needs to rest from driving all day, he leaves the highway and arrives at a charming little town called Colle di Val d’Elsa. In a small park located on a hill in front of the village and the bell tower of its church, the musician sits on a bench to regain strength and watches how a lady takes care of a boy and a girl playing in the field and the swings. After a while, Roger opens the book and finds a poem titled Nurse’s song. The melody appears immediately.

On another occasion, wandering around inner Tuscany, he arrives at a town called Tarquinia, in the heart of Etruria. After having dinner in a tavern of the village, where he is talking for a while with the innkeeper (a nice man who even showed him the Etruscan tombs located in the basement of his bar) he goes to sleep in his car, as usual. After an hour of rest, loud noises awaken him; it seemed like the sky was falling on Tarquinia. It is one of the typical end-of-summer storms in Tuscany. At that moment he decides to spend the night in a tunnel near the town that he had glimpsed in his walk before dinner. In that tunnel, that night, Roger opens the book and a new song is born, The Little Vagabond.

Strange mystery flowering

In the same way, many more songs emerge from the inspired mind of this “little vagabond” throughout his journey through the transalpine country. Genoa, Modena, Siena, Florence, the Mediterranean coast, the Adriatic side, Foligno, Assisi and a few other places are some of the ones Roger visit and where many of these songs are created. It is a magical journey, in all senses, which emerges from a strong intuition and in which certain energies that surpass reason and understanding accompany and shield the musician along this adventure; or so he feels. At the end of it, he realises that he has a treasure worthy of being shared with his family, so when he gets home he locks himself up for a few days to register and record these songs with his guitar and voice. It would be nice enjoying them with his family and friends.

Roger Arias
Photograph: Oscar Millarengo © 2018

Shortly after, he decides to record four of them in a more complete and professional way with the help of his sister, Amparo Arias, as second voice of the project and the musician / arranger Raúl Diz, as well as other punctual collaborations, such as the cellist Macarena Montesinos or the bassist Íñigo Uzarmendi.

And that’s the way this EP of four songs was born, accompanied by the desire to be shared with the world thanks to this project, once dreamed by Roger, and in which Blake and other great poets of humanity will be sung. I do hope it has a long and intense journey ahead: Strange Mystery Flower


Notes

Roger Arias is a musician, singer, songwriter and independent producer from Galicia. But above all he is a lover of the nature and the sea, a researcher of the weaknesses of the heart, a portrayer of the society we live in, a passionate reader, an inveterate cinephile, an intrepid traveler, a unique bohemian… activities that have had a strong influence in his music and art through all his albums, videoclips and concerts. Recently he has published a joint album with the Madrid musician Charlie Mysterio, with the name of Os Peregrinos and published by Elefant Records. 

You can find four of Roger’s Blake-inspired songs for Strange Mystery Flower on YouTube and on Bandcamp

NB: This post originally contained a link to an article which we suggested was about Strange Flower Mystery, but as Roger himself quickly pointed out was referring to another band! See our Corrections page.

 

 

Fallen, Fallen Light Renew!

Finding Blake welcomes Gareth Sturdy, a trustee of the Blake Society, where he has a special interest in bringing the poet’s work into schools and was part of the team responsible for laying the new monumental stone at Blake’s grave. In his post, Gareth shares five scenes with Blake, illustrating his own story of this great poet and how the man and his work have reappeared throughout his life. 

Scenes with Blake: a dark, dusty stock cupboard …

… in a pokey corner of a suburban grammar school. A blonde vision of loveliness emerges, bearing gifts. My English literature teacher is handing me some books to read over the summer. She has no idea about the massive crush I have on her, and mistakenly thinks my enthusiasm is for my forthcoming A levels. We will study ‘Blake’, apparently. Who? There’s a pencil sketch of him in one of the frontispieces. Big, grey hat, by an artist called Linnell. He’s got something you can’t quite put your finger on. He looks… ill-fitted to the world. Wily. But with tired, moist eyes. He’s turned his head out of Linnell’s frame to stare directly into my mind, like he knows about my crush on my teacher. He can read me. Spooky. And so passes my first ever contact with England’s greatest visionary artist. I kissed the moment, and then it flew. The crush on my teacher didn’t survive the summer. Yet here I am, approaching middle age, still trying to come to terms with my association with Blake.

William Blake, wearing hat, c1825
Artist: John Linnell; draughtsman, 1792-1882
Source: Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge: Creative Commons Licence www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

Scenes with Blake: a big discussion desk… 

… in a classroom. Around it, a bunch of precocious, opinionated and argumentative teenage boys are loudly giving the world in general the benefit of their opinions. I’m fighting my corner, alone. I’m trying to insist that Blake’s poem is called The Echoing Green because the children and their laughter aren’t really there, they are all echoing inside the heads of Old John and the other seniors. It’s a vision of what was and is gone, but yet lives on inside the old folk. The darkening green is the place where loss is so strong it transforms into something beautiful. Come on, it’s completely obvious, even a child could get it, for goodness sake! But my classmates are not getting it, not at all. Where they read black, I read white. It feels as if the poet and I hold a view of reality that is crystal clear to us but baffling to the general consensus. Mr Blake and I bond over a shared secret. We were both born with a different kind of face; when we speak, we offend.

Scenes with Blake: a cramped bedsit …

… halls of residence, Liverpool University. The Berlin Wall fell a few days ago, weird atmosphere on campus. Need something diverting to read. Brought some books up at the start of term to adorn my shelf, make me look erudite to girls. What’s this one? Critical Essays on Blake, ed. Northrop Frye. Mr Blake and I haven’t had much to do with each other since school. Give it a try, why not? Then bang! “Fallen, fallen light renew…” Seizes me. “Night is worn and the morn rises from the slumberous mass.” The Fall…and the Wall… a sense of ideas slotting together. Frye wants to “examine one of Blake’s shortest and best known poems in such a way as to make it an introduction to some of the main principles of Blake’s thought.” With these four strange, terse stanzas, he succeeds. The words beginning to catch fire like dry kindling. They won’t stop burning for days afterwards. Feels like Frye has handed me a golden thread, and I’ve started to wind it, and the ball is getting bigger and bigger, faster and faster…

Fall of the Berlin Wall, November 1989. An Eastern guard speaks to a Westerner through a broken seam in the wall.
Photographer: Sharon Emerson 1989, Creative Commons
Source: Wikipedia

Scenes with Blake: small hours of Christmas morning …

… at home, underneath the tree lights. Freshly unwrapped, a copy of Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry. Reading, and reading, and reading, helplessly. Blake consuming me like wildfire. “Oh! Flames of Furious Desires”. Must get to the bottom of these insane injunctions: “the Bat that flits at close of Eve has left the Brain that wont Believe”, “Every Tear from Every Eye becomes a Babe in Eternity”, “If the Sun & Moon should Doubt theyd immediately Go out”, “We are led to Believe a Lie when we see not Thro the Eye”. Each phrase a bomb, going off under my worldview. Everything I’ve ever thought is up for question. I’m working through each perception, each thought, each philosophical supposition about the world and revising it. It’s painful. It’s incredible. Winding that golden ball has led me to a place that I never would have gone on my own. Now it feels like standing on the threshold of a mighty door, with only a small lantern in my hand. A kind of death, and an inspiration, simultaneously.

Fearful Symmetry, by Northrop Frye

Many, many scenes have followed. But since that one, if you look carefully, a single, humble figure can always be seen at the back of each one. William Blake is now a constant companion in my interior life. The death of my father. The birth of my sons. Who would I have become had I not, throughout, heard the voice of Mr Blake, advising that an excess of sorrow laughs and an excess of joy weeps? Each scene, a portion of eternity too great for the eye of a man like me. Where do we go to find language and images that are profound enough, modern enough, ordinary enough – human enough – to deal with these things? I go to Blake and he has never once let me down. The Bard of Soho taught me that the soul of sweet delight can never be defiled, that truth can never be told so as to be understood and not believed.

And yet when I sit to try to tell the truth of Blake for me, I find that it can’t be bought for a song. It takes all that I have, the price is everything: my house, my wife, my children. It is the labour of ages.

Scenes with Blake: a funeral or wake

A quiet summer Sunday afternoon, Bunhill Fields, London. Birdsong. An occasional siren. A disparate crowd. A hushed expectancy. A small group stands around a human-sized block of beautiful Portland Stone, while one of them reads some words of Blake, similarly bought by them with everything they possess. This is not the past, though, but futurity.

I have consistently followed and wound that golden thread for three decades now, until it has led me here, to be one of those responsible for laying this stone in this patch of London earth, under this tree and sky. To do the utmost I can to honour the artist who has done so much for me. When one sees such an eagle, such a genius, one really ought to look up as it soars to Heaven. But I look down, to read the inscription: “Here lies William Blake, 1757 – 1827, Poet, Artist, Prophet. I give you the end of a golden string, only wind it into a ball, it will lead you in at Heavens gate, built in Jerusalems wall.”

If Blake means half as much to you as he does to me, join me in futurity – in Bunhill Fields at 3pm on August 12th 2018 – and let us together lay his stone.


Notes

Gareth Sturdy is a teacher of physics, mathematics and English, who has also spent time as a national newspaper journalist and public relations practitioner. He is a trustee of the Blake Society, where he has a special interest in bringing the poet’s work into schools, and was part of the team responsible for laying the new monumental stone at Blake’s grave. He can be found on Twitter @stickyphysics

Find out more about the Blake Society in our More Resources page and the links there.

William Blake’s poem The Echoing Green was published in Songs of Innocence in 1789. You can find out more about it and read it in full in this Wikipedia entry.

Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry was published in 1947. According to this short Wikipedia entry, Frye later explained “I wrote Fearful Symmetry during the Second World War, and hideous as the time was, it provided some parallels with Blake’s time which were useful for understanding Blake’s attitude to the world. Today, now that reactionary and radical forces alike are once more in the grip of the nihilistic psychosis that Blake described so powerfully in Jerusalem, one of the most hopeful signs is the immensely increased sense of the urgency and immediacy of what Blake had to say.” The book is published by Princeton Univesity Press.

‘And fallen fallen light renew!’ is from William Blake’s Introduction to the Songs of Experience, taken here from the Poetry Foundation site.

Hear the voice of the Bard! 
Who Present, Past, & Future sees 
Whose ears have heard, 
The Holy Word, 
That walk'd among the ancient trees. 

Calling the lapsed Soul 
And weeping in the evening dew: 
That might controll,
The starry pole; 
And fallen fallen light renew! 

O Earth O Earth return! 
Arise from out the dewy grass; 
Night is worn, 
And the morn 
Rises from the slumberous mass. 

Turn away no more: 
Why wilt thou turn away 
The starry floor 
The watry shore 
Is giv'n thee till the break of day.