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Photo: Slung Low
The Slung Low theater group sorting out food parcels at their headquarters in Leeds, England.

Many companies and nonprofits around the world have been stepping up to meet new needs during the lockdown. This story is about an innovative UK theater delivering food to the hungry.

Ian Youngs reports at the BBC, “When you’re suddenly tasked with co-ordinating emergency food parcel deliveries to vulnerable local people during a pandemic, the ability to think creatively comes in useful. As artistic director of one of the UK’s most innovative theatre companies, Alan Lane is used to coming up with imaginative solutions.

“But they normally involve finding ways to stage epic community theatre shows, not making sure hundreds of people have the food and medicines they need in a lockdown.

” ‘Today we find ourselves with a Transit van full of crisps,’ he says on the phone from Leeds. … Yesterday we didn’t have any vegetables. And tomorrow we’re not going to have any eggs. So constantly I’m on the phone doing deals.

‘The other day, I swapped a load of tote bags that I got from the university for some face masks, which I split in half and swapped the other half for a lot of cream. …

“Six weeks ago, Lane and his company Slung Low were asked by Leeds City Council to co-ordinate the community response in Holbeck and Beeston, meaning any requests for help from the 10,000 households in the area have been passed to them.

“They are mainly from people needing food, but prescriptions need dropping off too, and they are often asked to just phone lonely people for a chat.

“Lane is in charge of around 90 volunteers, including some from the region’s other arts organisations — from Opera North and Yorkshire Sculpture Park to theatre company Red Ladder. …

“Managing them is not the only new role Lane has taken on during the pandemic. When not scrounging and delivering food, he has become a game show host, and a very entertaining one at that — appearing online every fortnight from Slung Low’s HQ to keep locals’ spirits up. …

“On top of that, he has launched an open-air art gallery, posting residents’ lockdown pictures on lampposts. And Slung Low has just made a short film — shot before coronavirus rewrote Lane’s job description — which went online on Friday.

” ‘We didn’t know this at the time, but having a short film to release at the moment is much better than having a play,’ he says.

“Except — he will be taking an enforced break from all that frenetic activity for a while. [A Covid-19 test] came back negative, but he has symptoms so is isolating and recovering. Others have stepped in to ensure Slung Low’s work goes on. …

“The connection with the local community is what sets Slung Low apart from other theatre companies and means it can adapt to doing things like delivering food during a crisis, Lane says.

“Other venues have been busy putting their shows online and continuing their education and outreach activities digitally, but Lane thinks they could be doing more with their facilities.

” ‘There are a lot of vans currently sat in the car parks of arts organisations because they couldn’t quite work out the insurance to get them doing food bank work,’ he says. … ‘We spend a lot of time talking about what we’re for at Slung Low. What we’re for is not putting on a show for people to pay for tickets.

” ‘[Putting on a show is] something we do quite a bit, and something that we can be quite good at on a good day. But it’s not what we’re for. And therefore, when you can’t do that, it doesn’t mean we stop.’ ” More at the BBC, here.

Although people in the arts may not be uniquely compassionate, they’re often among the first to demonstrate sensitivity to the needs of others. Still, gold stars for a city council that thought of asking for the theater’s help!

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Photo: Finnbarr Webster / Getty Images
The UK’s “Sturminster Newton Mill has stood on the banks of the River Stour in Dorset County since 1016,” writes the
Smithsonian. It was called up out of retirement to help feed the populace during the Covid-19 pandemic.

You’ve heard of old soldiers reenlisting to fight a war and medical people being called out of retirement to fight a pandemic.

In this story, we learn about a 1,000-year-old decommissioned mill in England that is rolling again. (Imagine being able to talk about 1,000 years ago! In this country, only indigenous people can do that.)

Cathy Free writes at the Washington Post, “Flour has been in high demand and short supply during the coronavirus pandemic. Imogen Bittner and Pete Loosmore knew they were in a unique position to help home bakers in southwest England by firing up a mill site that is more than 1,000 years old.

“So the two millers, who help run the Sturminster Newton Mill and the adjacent museum, decided in early April that it was time to dust off their aprons and go back to the grind.

“They cranked up the ancient machinery at the mill, which has been updated through the years but has been powered by a water turbine since 1904. In recent years, it has been used exclusively as a museum that churns out small ornamental bags of flour for visitors in the small town of Sturminster Newton in Dorset county.

‘When covid-19 struck, all of the local shops ran out of flour very quickly,’ said Loosmore, 79, a retired art teacher who has worked at the mill for 25 years. ‘We had a stock of good-quality milling wheat and the means and skills to grind it into flour, so we thought we could help.’

“In the past month, with the mill operating full-time in the agricultural town of 5,000 people, he estimates they have ground more than a ton of grain and bagged several hundred sacks of flour. The three-pound bags are sold at cost to a local grocer and baker, who then sell them, said Bittner, with all proceeds benefiting the mill’s upkeep.

“ ‘We’ve been inundated with requests to sell it online or in large quantities, but we are not a commercial business,’ said Bittner, 63, an artist who began learning the art of milling 18 months ago and plans to take over as supervisor when Loosmore retires next year.

“Bittner, who has traveled the world but now lives in the home in which she was born near the mill, said she has always been drawn to the historical structure along the River Stour.

“ ‘It’s been amazing to work alongside oak beams that have been inside the mill since the 14th century and which were probably [trees] growing locally in the 10th and 11th centuries,’ [Bittner] said. ‘Although there have been adaptations and changes, these gnarled old timbers still hold the roof in place.’ …

“Loosmore said the mill, which is managed by the Sturminster Newton Heritage Trust, is treasured by locals, who volunteer every year to bag flour for museum visitors and help with maintenance. …

The wooden water mill dates to 1016, he said, and is mentioned in agricultural records in the Domesday Book, a ‘survey’ of England and Wales written in 1086 by order of William the Conqueror. …

“[It’s] a building that has survived everything from war to the Black Death.

” ‘It’s just a wonderful historical attraction — we have details from abbey documents dating back to the 13th century naming some of the millers and describing their roles, rents and obligations,” said Bittner, adding that one miller in 1230 paid part of his rent in eels.’ ”

More at the Washington Post, here.

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Photo: Filippo and Marianna
Nine-month old gerbils Pandoro and Tiramisù survey London’s newest art institution, the Gerbil Museum.

This cute story from London about two imaginative shut-ins and their pets makes me think of Beatrix Potter books. But which one in particular? Maybe The Tale of Two Bad Mice? What do you think?

Hrag Vartanian reports for Hyperallergic, “Pandoro and Tiramisù are not your ordinary gerbils. The London-based pair got a special surprise when their owners, Filippo and Marianna, created a miniature museum  just for them during the current COVID-19 quarantine. …

“Both Filippo and Marianna are art lovers, with one working in a local museum and the other as an artist and writer. The gerbils declined to comment.

“Hyperallergic: Tell us about your gerbils!

“Filippo and Marianna: They are 9-month-old brothers and their names are Pandoro and Tiramisù. Pandoro is tawny while Tiramisù is the taupe one.

“H: Have they demonstrated a love of art before?

“F&M: Not really, this was their first time in a museum. They much enjoyed the display and paid close attention to the quality of the gallery’s props. They can’t read, so the sign to advise the visitors to not chew [on the furniture] went completely unnoticed. Overall, it seemed to be a satisfying and engaging experience.

“H: How did you choose the paintings?

“F: Initially we wanted to select less famous paintings but in the end we thought it would have been funnier and more engaging to choose some of the best known works in art history. … Marianna is very good at painting and I couldn’t help but wonder how ‘The Kiss’ and “’Girl with a Pearl Earring’ could have looked with a gerbil twist. …

“H:  Did Pandoro and Tiramisù enjoy the opening of their private museum?

“F&M: Initially they explored the gallery space looking for clues about the rather eclectic selection of artworks. After a while, boredom and a certain love for disruptive gestures grew to a point they managed to start a performance by chewing the empty gallery assistant’s stool — an act that we were lucky enough to film. …

“H: Is this a complicated ploy to write off your gerbils on your taxes?

“F&M: Maybe yes, although they are not very expensive. As long as we have seeds and mini gallery assistants’ stools we are good.”

The blogger Bereaved Single Dad, also in England, frequently mentions gerbils. This is from 2019: “A couple of days back we set off for the pet shop to get a gerbil. A couple of hours later we had fallen for the story of the three inseparable brothers who they didn’t want to split up. … Happy Son. Confused Dad.

“Meet our three new faces. Cupid, Jeff and Hendrix. Unbelievably the house is already covered in wood chippings. Suspect I will need a bigger Hoover.”

The video of the museum-going gerbils is at Hyperallergic, here.

As the New Yorker magazine used to say in a bottom-of-the-column feature: “There’ll always be an England.”

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Photo: Robert Sansom
Employees at a small bookshop in England were inundated with orders last week after a day with no sales was reported on Twitter. Pictured here is John Westwood, one of the shop’s owners.

For better or worse, the thing about Twitter is it can reach a lot of people very fast. Some people reached by tweets are not so nice. In this story, though, kindly Twitter users decided to give strangers a helping hand. Of course, it helped that one person with millions of followers took an interest.

“After more than 100 years in business,” writes Cathy Free, “the Petersfield Bookshop in Hampshire County, England, had perhaps never seen a day quite like Jan. 14.

“For the first time that anyone could remember, the independent shop on Petersfield’s Chapel Street did not have a single sale, saddening bookseller Robert Sansom so deeply he decided to tweet about his ‘tumbleweed’ day.
‘Not a single book sold today. . . £0.00,’ he wrote. …

After closing up shop that day, Sansom, 48, went home, thinking the 102-year-old secondhand shop specializing in antique and collectible books might have to close permanently, he said.

“But overnight, something unexpected happened. Sansom’s tweet went viral and was retweeted by author Neil Gaiman to his 2.8 million followers, prompting thousands of people to inundate the shop’s website with orders.

“The worst day ever quickly turned into the best day ever, said Sansom, who works at the bookstore with owners Ann Westwood, her son, John Westwood, and sales clerk Barbara Kelsey.

‘‘ ‘Just reading the messages we have received has brought tears,’ he said. ‘This was a lightning strike. …

‘’We’re now actively looking for ways to pay it forward.’’

“For the past two weeks, Sansom, his co-workers and a small band of volunteers in Petersfield — population 14,372 — have spent 14 hours a day frantically filling hundreds of orders and mailing them to customers around the world. …

‘‘ ‘One lady, recently back home in the States after a UK holiday, sent us her leftover UK currency,’ he said. ‘One couple drove 460 miles, round trip, to visit us, and many drove at least an hour or two.’ …

“On the afternoon he tweeted about his lonely day, he said, a storm had swept into town, bringing steady rain and putting a damper on customers.

‘‘ ‘There wasn’t a single penny in the till — not a book was sold to a flesh-and-blood customer,’ he said. ‘Of course we have slow days — everyone does. But that particular week, the shop was facing one of its worse crises ever. Even on a slow day, we would expect to sell 20, 30, or 50 books. We were wondering if we would have to announce the closure of the shop by the end of the week.’ …

“Now that the shop has 21,000 Twitter followers, ‘We have a voice we didn’t have before,’’ Sansom added. ‘Please, go and find your local indie bookshops, new and secondhand, and buy real books from them. If you don’t, they will just close and disappear. … You won’t even notice to start with,’ he said, ‘and then you will. And it will be too late.’ ”

How lovely that the shop is looking for ways to “pay it forward”! I wonder what they will decide to do. Encouraging followers to shop at indie bookstores is a good place to start. Personally, I avoid Amazon for books, food (Whole Foods), and other items unless I have tried and failed to get the thing somewhere else. Too much power in one pair of hands.

Although I read this story in Boston’s Sunday Globe, the article originally appeared in the Washington Post. More here.

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Photo: Tim Crocker/RIBA/PA
The Goldsmith Street project in Norwich marks the first time the UK’s Stirling architecture prize has gone to affordable housing.

I’m looking at pictures of a handsome affordable-housing project in England and remembering that during my short stint at Rhode Island Housing, a similar building, restored to provide affordable housing for homeless veterans, also won a prize. I blogged about interviewing one happy resident here. Clearly, homes for low-income people need not be ugly.

Oliver Wainwright reports at the Guardian, “One hundred years since the 1919 Addison Act paved the way for the country’s programme of mass council housing, the prize for the best new building in the UK has been awarded to one of the first new council housing projects in a generation.

“Goldsmith Street in Norwich represents what has become a rare breed: streets of terraced homes built directly by the council, rented with secure tenancies at fixed social rents. And it’s an architectural marvel, too.

“ ‘A modest masterpiece’ is how the RIBA [Royal Institute of British Architects] Stirling prize judges described the project, designed by London firm Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley, representing ‘high-quality architecture in its purest most environmentally and socially conscious form.’

“The 105 creamy-brick homes are designed to stringent Passivhaus environmental standards, meaning energy costs are around 70% cheaper than average. The walls are highly insulated and the roofs are cleverly angled at 15 degrees, to ensure each terrace doesn’t block sunlight from the homes behind, while letterboxes are built into external porches, rather than the front doors, to reduce any possibility of draughts.

“Immense thought has gone into every detail – from the perforated brick balconies to the cleverly interlocking staircases in the three-storey flats at the end of each terrace – to ensure that every home has its own front door on the street. The back gardens look on to a planted alley, dotted with communal tables and benches, while parking has been pushed to the edge of the site, freeing up the streets for people, not cars. …

The architects won the original competition because they were one of the few firms to propose streets, rather than slabs of apartment blocks.

“They took inspiration from the city’s Golden Triangle, a desirable neighbourhood of Victorian terraced houses, where the streets are laid out more tightly than modern overlooking regulations would allow. The architects used this precedent to argue that their new neighbourhood could be just as humanely scaled, while fitting in more homes.

“Marking the first time in the 23-year history of the Stirling prize that it has been awarded to social housing, the project beat stiff competition from the revamped London Bridge station, an opera house in a former stable block, the Macallan whisky distillery in Scotland, a visitor centre for the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and a house made entirely of cork. …

“This year’s choice sends a clear message that, despite government cuts, it is eminently possible for brave councils to take the initiative and build proper social housing.”

Read more here.

Photo: Suzanne’s Mom
An impressive coalition of funders, including Rhode Island Housing, collaborated on this 2015 award-winning mill restoration to house homeless veterans.

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Photo: Wikimedia
Paper theaters like the one above were popular with children in England in the 19th century. Robert Louis Stevenson never forgot his.

Children love to put on plays. I know I did, and I see my own grandchildren acting out stories as if on “The Stage.” One form of children’s theater, popular in England in the 19th century, involved paper cutouts.

As Amelia Soth writes at JSTOR Daily, “In the Regency era (early 1800s), live theater was so popular that it regularly inspired riots. In 1809, when the Covent Garden Theater tried to raise ticket prices, audiences were so incensed that they revolted. For more than two months straight, they shouted, shook rattles, rung bells, and even brought pigs into the theater to drown out the actors. The protest was successful, and the administration gave up on the price hike. …

“People were hungry for entertainment. And in this time before Netflix and YouTube, enterprising toymakers developed a novel way to bring entertainment into the home: paper theaters. For ‘one penny plain, two cents colored,’ you got a tiny cardboard stage about the size of a paperback book, complete with a proscenium arch, curtains, and sometimes even a paper audience. The characters were laid out on sheets of paper, frozen in dramatic poses: villains brandish revolvers capped with clouds of gunpowder, jolly sailors hook arms and dance, clowns emerge from barrels. …

“Then there are the sets, storybook illustrations of extravagant palaces and howling wildernesses, to be slotted in and out of the back of the theater, behind the cavorting characters. The scripts that came with them were as miniaturized as the stage, heavily abridged and censored for children’s ears and attention spans.

“Despite the scripts, it’s easy to imagine how these stories would have expanded in the hands of the children who played with them — how the plots would zigzag, how the characters would migrate from one story to another, how scribbled additions would enrich the pre-drawn scenery.

[When] Goethe’s son August put on shows in his paper theater, the family cat always served as one of the performers. …

“The magic of the paper theater was not that it allowed children to replicate a beloved play in their home; it was that it provided them with the raw materials either to copy or create, to follow or subvert, as they saw fit.

“Perhaps this is why this short-lived children’s toy left such an enduring cultural legacy. Before Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island, before Jean Cocteau directed his iconic, dreamlike Beauty and the Beast, before Wagner composed his Ring Cycle, they each acted out their big stories on these tiny stages.

“As the literary scholar Monica Cohen points out, Stevenson’s Treasure Island reads almost like a paper-theater drama writ large. Pirates were an unshakeable cliché of Victorian melodrama, and the grim tales of cruelty and violence that featured on the Victorian stage were brightened into candy colors in their miniature theater editions. Likewise, Stevenson’s dashing pirates come to us filtered through a sunny lens. ‘As a toy theater pirate,’ Cohen writes, ‘Billy Bones is a copy of a copy.’

“Remembering the shop where he purchased toy theaters in his youth, Skelt’s Juvenile Drama, Stevenson wrote: ‘Every sheet we fingered was another lightning glance into obscure, delicious story; it was like wallowing in the raw stuff of story-books. I know nothing to compare with it save now and then in dreams, when I am privileged to read in certain unwrit stories of adventure, from which I awake to find the world all vanity.’

“He continued, ‘What am I? what are life, art, letters, the world, but what my Skelt has made them? He stamped himself upon my immaturity. The world was plain before I knew him, a poor penny world; but soon it was all coloured with romance.’ ”

Read more here.

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Photo: John Sturrock
“A modern mania for canal developments is reshaping cities by offering oases of calm in fast-moving town centres,” says the
Guardian.

When our kids were small, the Barge Canal (otherwise known as the Erie Canal) was as familiar to them as their friends’ backyard, as the elementary school, as the Hicks and McCarthy luncheonette. It ran right through town. I remember taking a canal-boat ride up and down (vertically) through the locks with a visiting grandmother and a picnic lunch.

In today’s story, John Vidal writes at the Guardian about a new focus on canals in England.

“Every second Monday of the month, a small group of volunteers meets in the training room of a Birmingham supermarket. They discuss what has long seemed to many of their friends a crazy and probably doomed idea: how to excavate a contaminated 40-year-old waste dump, create an urban marina, restore three miles of derelict canal and build several new bridges and locks.

“Last month, however, the meeting of the 18-strong Lapal Canal Trust committee was joyous. After 20 years of trying to restore this short stretch of the 200-year-old Dudley No 2 canal, permission had finally been granted, they were told.

“What’s more, a feasibility study showed that the plan – which would link the suburbs of California and Selly Oak by water – could be a catalyst for nothing short of the economic and ecological renaissance of a large area of south Birmingham.

“The new canal will generate jobs but also provide space for new houses, as well as pollution-free walking, boating and cycling routes. The marina for 60-100 boats will stimulate businesses and bring in tourists. The wildlife corridor created along the canal will attract herons, otters, fish and waterfowl. And although the whole project will cost about £5m, the study said it would pay for itself in six years.

“ ‘It will improve life in the city. It will complete an old canal loop around the city – we owe it to the future to restore it. … No one is objecting and we have nearly raised the first £250,000 – enough to start work,’ says the Lapal trust CEO, Hugh Humphreys.The Lapal plan is one of at least 80 canal renaissance projects currently making British towns and cities suitable for populations seeking tranquility, leisure space and new ways to move around. …

“It’s not just happening in Britain. … But few countries have as many urban canals as the UK, a legacy of British industrial might – and now a golden opportunity for transformation. Some, such as the Aldcliffe yard development in Lancaster, will see just a few expensive houses built on old industrial canal works; but many seek to create large new ‘liveable’ urban communities in what were some of the Britain’s polluted places, such as Wolverhampton, Leeds, Manchester, Lancaster, Glasgow, Liverpool and Birmingham. …

“Three things unexpectedly changed everything. A postwar infant canal leisure industry emerged; dozens of passionate heritage charities like the Lapal trust voluntarily restored many of the old waterways; and water proved to be the vital ingredient to kickstart a new, property-based canal mania.

“ ‘The restoration of the canals in the 1950s and 60s was thanks to a remarkable act of defiance by unpaid volunteers against the authorities,’ says canal historian Mike Clarke.

“ ‘Volunteers were vital. It’s unlikely there would be many canals today without them. The government, many influential people, and the British Waterways board, were all happy to see the majority filled in. … They told the government, “if you want to complain, take us to court.” …

” ‘They formed isolated stretches of peaceful country within the urban environment. Planners eventually saw them as an asset, and government at last understood their potential for leisure.’ …

” ‘The job is only half done in Britain,’ says Alison Smedley, policy officer of the Inland Waterways Association. ‘The restoration of Britain’s canal system is in full flow but there is so much left to do. … There are still about 1,800 miles left to be restored, although many [canals] have been filled in and are unlikely ever to be reclaimed,’ she says. …

“Canal and River Trust (CRT), the government-part-funded charity set up in 2012 to take over and manage the 2,000 miles of state-owned canal formerly run by British Waterways, [calculates] that about 10 million people a year visit the canals to fish, walk, cycle, observe wildlife or go boating. …

“In addition, canals have become a real alternative for people unable or unwilling to buy city property. .. Ten years ago 10% of the boats on British waterways were used as primary residences. It is now 26%, says the CRT. …

“ ‘Almost unnoticed, the canals have become important sanctuaries for urban and rural wildlife,’ says Simon Atkinson, head of conservation at the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust. … Otters, water voles, kingfishers, ducks, herons, fish, dragon- and damsel flies, even rabbits, are seen on the 100-odd miles of Birmingham canals, some of which are classed as local nature reserves. …

“ ‘If development is done well, it can enhance nature. The canals have never been more important, but it could go the other way. There is a real opportunity for high quality inner-city development and nature to flourish together.’ ”

For me as a lover of Dickens (the novels, not the man), I can’t think of English canals without thinking of the dark spirit of Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend. In fact, maybe I’m ready to read that one again.

Learn more about the benefits and challenges of canal popularity here.

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