Arts for all means making a noise;Another Voice;Opinion

28th May 1999 at 01:00
IT'S FRIDAY, it's almost 12.30, and l've just finished setting up the drums and the microphones. Bernie is stretching her vivid yellow tarpaulin across the floor and Susan is getting the paints out of the boxes. John comes into the room and says, in a mock-doomy voice "They're here. They're here. It's time." And the kids come in. One of them looks at me and laughs. "It's the dodgy geezer," he says, and we all laugh. That's me: the literature worker. The poet and broadcaster. The dodgy geezer.

We're in the Beckett Road centre, a converted primary school in the middle of Doncaster that's now a pupil-referral unit for Year 11 students who've been excluded from mainstream school. For the past year, with my colleagues from DARTS (Doncaster Community Arts), I have been working here on a multitude of arts activities, just to see if constant weekly participation in the arts does something, anything, to raise self-esteem and confidence.

I know where this all started. It started with me and Sir Alec Clegg in Low Valley primary school in Darfield in the 1960s. I was lucky enough to go to a West Riding primary and although I'm probably looking at this through rosy-mist-of-time glasses I remember my years at Low Valley, an ordinary school in a mucky pit village, as a time chock-full of artistic development.

A time of child-centred learning, of the West Riding Abstract Art Van (it had square wheels, ho, ho) that came every six months with abstract art for the walls, and the string quartet that came and played Haydn and the theatre group and the endless, endless poetry.

I remember Mr Meakin taking me on one side and telling me that poems didn't have to rhyme, Mrs Hinchcliffe praising my story which said "The giant came out of the mouse hole" when lesser women than her would have said "Don't be silly".

And of course there was Sir Alec Clegg, the visionary behind all this, who once came to our school and all the staff got dressed up in posh frocks and suits and he came into our classroom and took away the book that I'd written called The Little Red Engine and from that moment I wanted to be a writer and, more importantly, I knew that everyone is creative.

And that brings me back to Beckett Road. This week, as well as the visual art we're bringing in Nick Robertson, a blues singer, to give them a bit of shouting. He brings in his case of harmonicas and his guitar and the lads (they're all lads) gather round. They like music, although sometimes our attempts to bridge our music with theirs creates hilarity.

One week we found some old acoustic guitars in the cupboard and we got them out and they started bashing away on them and it sounded, to me, absolutely fantastic. We called them the Beckett Road guitar ensemble which made me smile. Mind you, I'm a fan of Japanese noise music, and that's what this sounded like. It had real exhilaration and passion, and when I got my old harmonica out and Adrian had a go on it it sounded absolutely brilliant.

So now Nick is about to start singing and the lads are sitting with their hats back to front, sitting on their chairs back to front (On my first visit, I said "Is this the back-to-front place, then?" Nobody laughed) and the air is heavy with the kind of expectation that I remember from Low Valley. Something is about to happen.

As Nick plays and sings and shouts, the lads are at first embarrassed, but then they begin to like it. One of them says: "Have you played at the Station Hotel in Goole?" Nick says that he has, and the lad says: "My dad used to have that pub, and I've seen you there." And that's a kind of seal of approval, and the session starts to go really well.

Then we get the acoustic guitars out and the Beckett Road guitar ensemble join Nick and the harmonicas come out and the Beckett Road hybrid of blues and Japanese noise music is a fantastic, exhilarating roller-coaster and I know there's one ghost looking down and smiling: Sir Alec Clegg. He may not have been a fan of Japanese noise music (although you never know) but he would have loved the creativity that was making that room steam.

And that's the point. Creativity is it. We are all creative people, we can all take part in the process of art. When we say arts for all we don't mean that everybody goes to watch, but that everybody takes part. And school is where it starts. School is where it continues. And this must happen. It must. And I know that you're not meant to start sentences with "And" but hey, I'm being creative. See you at the Japanese noise music gig. Joining in, of course.

Ian McMillan's latest collection, I Found a shirt: Poems and Prose from the Centre, is published by Carcanet Press

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