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The Comedy of Errors

Interview: Writing East Midlands

1 April 11 interview: James Walker and Aly Stoneman

As the Cleggeron takes a hatchet to the arts we decided to have a chat with Henderson Mullin, head of Writing East Midlands (WEM), to see how his organisation may be able to help local writers survive difficult times...

Tell us about yourself...
I’m a Brummie. I spent a lot of time around these parts during and after studying at Leicester Uni and have been coming up this way socially since the 80s. My working life has been in commercial marketing and then in human rights publishing, literature and journalism in London for many years. I ran Index on Censorship, which is a great organisation that supports freedom of expression by introducing new, or seldom heard, or suppressed voices and writers on the issues that shape the way we live. That was great, if at times harrowing, work. That, and a need to get my girls away from the Hackney flesh-pots and into a decent school, and an opportunity to set up Writing East Midlands, brought us back up this way. I like the Midlands. I’m comfortable here to be honest.

When did you set up WEM?
At the back end of 2008. It was mainly an Arts Council initiative which came out of a feeling that their investment into writing in the region hadn’t created the opportunities for writers, from different backgrounds across the region, in the way that they wanted. So we set WEM up to do this and to shout for more investment into writing. There’s a tendency to see writing as something that will happen anyway regardless of encouragement or investment. It’s traditionally the poor relation of all the art forms, which is crazy really as it underpins virtually everything.
So WEM is a kind of a lightning rod. Our job is to make sure writing is represented when conversations about culture and money are had. We also do an untangling job – we make literature people aware of shared interests and we join them up to other arts and cultural people through facilitating or seeding projects and events.

Do you think ethnic engagement with the arts is improving?
Well, there are rich and growing ethnic influences on art forms. Aside from very obvious influences and engagement in music and dance, you‘ve only got to look at the programming at Curve in Leicester, or The Playhouse or New Art Exchange here to see the depth to which ethnic engagement influences the arts. There’s still a big issue with audiences and we can still do more with programming. I’m not entirely sure that the amount of black or brown faces in an audience is purely about ‘ethnicity’ though. You might talk in terms of social class and come to similar conclusions. Anyway, I don’t suppose ethnic engagement will get to improve now that we’ve had a Quatermass-like pronouncement that ‘multi-culturalism has failed.’ I fear that we might slip back into one-size-fits-all types of art, as well as culture.

What have been the highlights for WEM so far?
We’ve established ourselves, and a very strong programme of work, pretty quickly. The Lyric Lounge, spoken word and poetry weekenders show off completely new writers and emerging talents alongside established artists like Jean Binta Breeze, John Hegley, John Agard and Daljit Nagra. The events have taken a bumpy but brilliant journey from Leicester in 2009, to Derby, Nottingham, Leicester again, and then Loughborough in 2010. This year it’ll run around Lincolnshire, Northampton, Corby and Rutland. I love the way it sparks things off – like how the work with the YARD youth theatre group at the New Art Exchange Lyric Lounge inspired Deborah Stevenson to create Mouthy Poets.
We could also make a good case for the residencies for writers that we’ve set up. These are part of a project we call Write Here. We’ve placed them in hospitals, schools, library services, art galleries, museums – all sorts of places. For example we’ve got playwright Andy Barrett working with school kids at Brewhouse Yard using the John Player workers’ archive to write a script to go with the collection. Or Peter Rumney who is helping kids in twelve schools to interpret the art at Lakeside Theatre. That sort of work has been a lot of fun and great for the writers involved.

What causes WEM the most problems?
Getting money. Do I need to say more?

How can you promote local writers and do any standout in particular?
We’ve got some great writers in the region. Some are more recognised than others. Our job is to get credit where it’s due. We’ve helped set up the East Midlands Book Award for this purpose. You’ll see a pretty good list of writers in the nominations on our website.
We create opportunities for writers to earn a living or to perform. We attract investment into writing, and we stand up for the art form. We help writers develop as writers, as performers, or as businesses. Sometimes it’s good to have someone else to read your work, to give kind but honest advice and plan a next step. We are a writing agency so if we can’t help we usually know someone who can.

How are the cuts affecting you as an organisation?
We’ve always worked though partnerships. That becomes even more important now, as is the need to avoid duplication. What I mean is that it makes sense for people to share resources and agendas and to avoid the arts world’s curse of territorialism. We’ve been forced to become more selective about what we get involved in now. Hopefully that doesn’t mean that we’ll stop taking chances. It does mean that we’ve become more interested in working in areas where there is now less capacity than before – like schools!

Do you get any support from the council or other organisations?
We’ve had support from Museums Libraries and Archives (MLA) for several writer projects, and from Derby, Derbyshire, Leicester, Northampton, Lincolnshire and Nottingham local councils at various times, as well as from several universities.

What are the challenges facing writers in Nottingham?
They’re the same as anywhere else. How do you improve? How do you get noticed? How do you get work? How do you get paid enough?
Nottingham has a pretty good infra-structure for writing now. I’m not saying it’s because of WEM but it is noticeable how many groups and gigs have got going in the last couple of years. There’s Nottingham Writers’ Studio which provides a great space for writers in the city and does a great job creating opportunities for its members. There’s Blackdrop, Scribal Gathering and Shindig, Nottingham Poetry Series, YARD, and Mouthy Poets. Staple Magazine is here and the redoubtable Five Leaves Press was here before the Crusaders left the Trip. So, Nottingham’s writers are pretty well-served. But the challenges are there.

What attracted you to this industry? Do you write yourself?
I haven’t written for years after convincing myself that I had nothing to say. Now I find I’ve quite a lot to say so I’m writing again which is wildly exciting. I read Treasure Island when I was ten. I was Long John Silver in the school play and still am in my head. I’ve loved a good story ever since then.

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