Mid-September 2016, I was driving on my way to meet Alison Cooper, Barnsley Arts Project Worker to discuss a piece of proposed writing work with a group of young people in Grimethorpe. The car radio was burbling forth when all at once a newsreader announced that the previous evening the 2016 Mercury award had been won by Skepta, a young ‘grime’ artist. It was such a felicitous moment that I had to laugh out loud. What else could we write, me and the young people of Grimethorpe, but grime? Wasn’t Grimethorpe, (known to the entire local world as Grimy), the heart of grimeness and grime? Could we not devise and proselytise the myth that Grimy was the very source? The very place grime had been mined for the better part of a century until its demise courtesy of the pit-closure programme in the early nineties, two decades before its recent renaissance as an oral art-form for the radical young?
Yes I was far more carried away on the wings of linguistic serendipity than were the young people at GAZ, in their voluntary after-school youth club. They knew far more than me already about grime, what it signified and meant, what it sounded like, and who were the most celebrated grime practitioners. In fact, each of those young people in his or her way remained a formidable little Skepta in regard to my own feverish myth-making speculations.
Nevertheless, they were ‘Grimy kids’ with an embryonic though firmly partisan sense of identity. They were animated, energetic, enthusiastic, imaginative and voluble; verbally irrepressible for sure. A constant hubbub of chitchat and dialectic characterised our every session, and yet, as might have been expected, no such self-assurance underpinned their deployment of the written word. At that point they were not so keen.
To anyone familiar with our South Yorkshire communities this would come as no surprise whatsoever. Relegated as we have been, to the bottom of the economic and educational heap for so long, written articulacy, the medium for the most part of the academically endowed, the middle classes and the culturally confident, continues in the broadest sense to elude us.
Confidence as we have always known, is all; the seed, the core and the motive power.
So that was my target from the off: to get the kids playing, for the fun if not the hell of it, the unfamiliar instrument of their own language-potential. My aim was and always is, to try to nourish an appreciation as well as a belief, that whacking words around in the air between us is not so far removed from kicking, batting, chucking or racqueting a ball, and that writing up those words, as a way of remembering what between us we have said, via the common property of the flip-chart, is no more alien to our digits than typing, texting or tweeting.
As a tactic then to increase the young people’s familiarity with their own personal word-hoards and with the conscious and often challenging act of looking for rhymes, chimes, verbal echoes, puns and general word-play, we worked together as a group to demonstrate, hopefully to one and all involved in the process, how something articulate, perhaps even eloquent, rhythmically or poetically satisfying could be pieced together out of our own utterances.
Out of next to nowt if you like.
I would flip-chart any passing phrase or trope to save for later, on the back of my extravagant promise that it could all go into our collective written piece, and that furthermore if we adopted and developed an eight beat rhythm we could market it as grime!
‘You can tell them anything,’ if you make it sound convincing enough, I would say. Who is going to argue with the young people of Grimethorpe itself, the very alpha and omega of grime? I wanted them to get the sense that creativity is both deadly serious and at the same time quintessentially daft.
‘It’s mind-blowing, it blows your mind,’ was our first recorded refrain and it kept recurring and repeating; and of course if you reverse the statement and tack it back on the end, then you have your eight beats:
‘It’s mind-blowing, it blows your mind, it blows your mind, it’s mind-blowing’
The GAZ kids were not necessarily convinced at all by my dead-pan confidence trickery but by the third, fourth and fifth out of our six weeks together we were able to complete, there in the room between us, two finished and performable pieces. On top of that I was able to net a dozen flip chart papers laden with their lines and phrases that I was able to take away to assemble into new minted ‘epigrimes,’ and to slot all the sections together into our over-arching ‘pantogrime.’
I have yet to take those two words, ‘epigrime’ and ‘pantogrime,’ back to GAZ for the scrutiny and approval of the young people. They are as likely as anything else to send them packing as ‘rubbish,’ which will be fine by me, as long as they come up with confident and workable alternatives.
Confidence is the refrain word. Confidence is always and remains the key. Confidence develops through familiarity with technique; through regular practice comes skill and accomplishment, stressing all the time to everyone that people improve at their own and not at anyone else’s pace.
All artists know this, and all good teachers.
The cream on the top of course is the diminishment if not the banishment of endemic and prohibitive self-doubt. The consequence of that is a rounded, humane, articulate and creative human being, with hopefully a fulfilling and achievable future in store.
It is mind-blowing in its simplicity. Mind-blowing.