Art Attack! Art, Loho and Lutopia

In a way I take comfort from the way that some people readily presume that I am dead if I haven’t posted in a while. Certainly, that’s the approach taken by my mother, who recently got quite worried given that I hadn’t posted on Facebook for a couple of days, and hadn’t updated this blog in over a month. I apologise to all: I’ve been busy (rather than dead), and my conscience is all the more pricked for having missed this year’s annual High Town Festival over the weekend of 15-16 July, which I learn from the Friends of High Town was super-plus good.

High Town (or 'Hightown') Festival sign in front of the now sadly fire-ravaged premises of the former pub, the Railway Tavern.

High Town (or ‘Hightown’) Festival sign in front of the now sadly fire-ravaged premises of the former pub, the Railway Tavern.

The festival featured an arts and crafts fair at the Scandi, a special festival beer at the Brickies (which is where I am right now, and what’s more, has FREE WIFI), and a host of live music performances from such distinguished local talent as Johnnie Chocolate & The Milkshakes, Konni Deppe, and The Knockouts, across a number of venues, including Shop 33 (on which subject: more, shortly), The Painters Arms and newcomer The Freeholder.

I’m really sorry to have missed it.

ART happens.

ART happens.

But I’m now back in harness and bring news, first of all, of a special event taking place this Saturday (20 July 2013). I reproduce the email I received in full:

Friends and colleagues…

On Saturday July 20th, several people, organisations and businesses within the area that we work, an area we are loosely calling ‘Loho’, are coming together to spend a day cleaning up the mess that surrounds us, and the entry point to Lutonia.

This will be a full-on combo of sweeping, pressure washing, painting, digging, excavation and guerrilla gardening. It will be tiny jobs like removal of cable ties from lamp posts and large jobs like the creation of a wild flower meadow where piles of rubble currently sit. It’s one day. And we hope it will become an annual event that will spread into other areas, and inspire pride, rejuvenate neighbourhood spirit and ensure progress at a faster rate than the powers that be currently move.

‘Loho’ is the tri-street area of Guildford / Bute St / Cheapside.

We have full and active support now from the local authority and team leaders for different areas.

I write to you as someone with interest in the town, the area or someone that I think might be into it, in case you are available to pitch in. It will be a fun day, like one of those fun movie montages when people ‘make something happen’.  😉

Seriously though, if you can help, we need bodies, hands, ideas, experience and people who can buy in to what we’re trying to start here.

You will be fed and watered, naturally.

Meeting point. 8.30am Mill Yard, Guildford Street, 20th July.

A crew t-shirt will be provided, but if you can, bring good work clothes, hard shoes, gloves and any tools that you think might help. We will have resources of course, many are being donated, but the more the merrier. Nearer the time we will do a further call-out for items that might help.

If you can’t do the manual labour, we need people at base-camp, people to help with admin on the day. If any people out there want to make cakes, brownies etc.. for the workforce that would be awesome too.

Hope you can help. Some people are naturally turned on by an idea like this, some not. That’s fine. Come if it floats your boat. It will be a great day.

So there you have it: a call to arms to the good citizens of Lutonia (or Lutopia, as it has been memorably called by local artist Ben Hodson) to get involved in taking care of our beloved but down-at-heel town, and christen the ‘tri-street area of Guildford / Bute St / Cheapside’ not currently known to anybody as ‘Loho’. Come along, not least, for a chance to try some of my very special home-cooked baklava (made with coconut oil and cashew nuts) which I shall be bringing down during the day by way of personal contribution.

A picture of my excellent home-made baklava.

Cappuccino Police also makes excellent baklava.

The entire exercise does, of course, impel me to wonder why we need to convene a citizen army to do this kind of thing and what I pay my council tax for. I thought that street-cleaning was rather squarely the responsibility of Luton Borough Council, who’ve been ‘planning’ the redevelopment of Loho into an ‘artists’ quarter’ since at least 2006, and I raise a facetious eyebrow at our dear government’s exhortations to create a ‘big society’ as much as the next person. The guerrilla Loho cleaning exercise sits along others (most notably, the new Luton Foodbank, which I am involved with) whose very existence point up wider systemic failures. I nevertheless support the efforts of my fellow Lutonians and see it as one sign among others (including, perhaps, Yoga World & Pesto itself) of a steadily increasing impatience and aspiration to see Luton thrive. The sense of ferment that I have witnessed in the last few months suggests a resurgence of civic pride that has accompanied a (modest) burgeoning of new cultural and artistic ventures.

This isn’t to say that art and culture haven’t been at home in Luton prior to this (Luton’s very own and much-loved international film festival, Filmstock, came to a triumphant conclusion in 2009; Luton Community Arts Trust/Snap 33 has been around since 1978, in various guises; and in recent years High Town Road has seen a couple of pop-up art initiatives), but 2013 already feels like the dawn of a new period of cultural production and community improvement.

This rising tide has in recent weeks brought us Shop 33 (an outcrop of Snap 33), a new shop on High Town Road selling art, hats, vintage clothes, CDs and vinyl records as well as other sundry arty and crafty marginalia. Doughtily staffed by Antony and Chris, Shop 33 is a decidedly Small Good Thing which we all need to get behind and support.

Only yesterday I received a text from local friend and milliner Marie-Louise Lowcock to tell me that she had spotted an 1987 edition of Melody Maker featuring the Pet Shop Boys on its cover, and had strong-armed Antony into putting it aside for me, and having recently snoozed and lost in respect of a cute vintage WRNS/Wrens black jacket they were selling that fit me perfectly, I lost no time in going to claim it for a good home.

Front cover of the Melody Maker, featuring the Pet Shop Boys.

Community 2.0: when local friends text you with Pet Shop Boys-related tip-offs.

Shop 33 is also the new public base for Friends of High Town’s very own David Landau, with whom, as you may remember, I traded internecine beefs for a brief period a couple of months back.  David will be there most Wednesdays during Shop 33’s opening hours (12pm-6pm), so drop by, tune in and hang out with him and Antony (and indeed the possibility of a number of us High Town or ‘honorary’ High Town locals: I hail from up t’hill at Round Green) and do your bit for the local economy.

On a more review-style note, I’d love to see Shop 33 selling a range of regular-purchase items and adjusting their opening hours so as to attract footfall and sales from the substantial numbers of commuters who pass the shop twice a day on their way to and from Luton station or the town centre. Maybe they’d consider a small selection of Fairtrade kitchen essentials (tea bags, biscuits, and the like), or selling coffee and cake to go with the jazz and the art and the moustachioed bunting. Shop 33 is an excellent initiative of the kind that High Town needs to bootstrap a programme of regeneration, but this will only be achieved if new ventures are sufficiently profitable to survive. It’s early days, but I’m not convinced this is yet the case for Shop 33. 

Then there’s High Hats, a new initiative that has seen the premises at 77 High Town Road transformed in recent weeks into a pop-up hat-making exhibition, workshop space and shop that is harnessing the efforts of local volunteers such as Marie-Louise, whose extensive knowledge of couture and the hat-making industry is invaluable. A volunteer team has been hard at work at no. 77 (which was previously Zoeen, an Afro-Caribbean hair and beauty salon) to get it ready to open to the public. Though High Hats has opened briefly to deliver a children’s workshop during the High Town Festival, it is not yet officially open, and I’m not sure what the opening hours will be.

(You did know that Luton is famous for hat-making, didn’t you? There’s a clue, not least, in the name of our local football club (the Hatters), and the Luton straw boater even made a worthy appearance in the BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects.)

And whilst we’re on the subject of art, I owe a long-overdue nod in the direction of Departure Lounge, an Arts Council-Funded exhibition space on George Street which has been open for around a year. As its name suggests, Departure Lounge is a gateway bringing work by international artists to a Luton audience for the first time. Previous exhibitions have included Nancy Newberry’s photographs of the astonishing decorative corsages worn by Texan schoolgirls, which featured in the Guardian; and the next exhibition, ‘By the Rivers of Birminam’, a photographic exploration by ‘anthropological photographer’ Vanley Burke of ‘the history of the Caribbean community in Birmingham since 1967’ will open on 25 July.

Shop 33, High Hats and Departure Lounge: all well and good, but I’d been waiting for just the right stimulus to get my writing hat on and get some words together for Yoga World & Pesto. And then I saw this in the window of a newsagents in Round Green today, and I knew I could delay no longer:

Any picture, any size, on any wall.

Any picture, any size, on any wall.

Ah… Simone’s wall art. No, I have no idea what the heck that’s all about either and (maybe meanly) I have partially obscured the mobile phone number (though it’s up for all to see at Round Green) as I’m not totally sure whether Simone will necessarily appreciate the indiscriminate promotion of her (or his?) wall art in years to come (though Simone – if you’re reading and have a different view on the matter, do get in touch!). Simone is nevertheless to be congratulated for her or his undoubted entrepreneurial zeal and enthusiasm to contribute to Luton’s creative economy, as well as that excellent picture of a tank. Simone of Luton may well be one to watch. You heard it here first.

2 thoughts on “Art Attack! Art, Loho and Lutopia

  1. Love the idea of the LOHO cleanup ! LIke you say – isn’t that what we pay our Council Tax for ? But hey ho – I’m one for getting on with things rather than whinging about them so well done to all – I’m not free otherwise I would be there but if I get a bit more notice next time I’ll be there !

  2. Pingback: #lutonhappy: On Ambivalence | Yoga World & Pesto

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