The parody news outlet the Daily Mash ran a story recently that reported on a group of Texan tourists that had visited Swindon and proclaimed it ‘magical like the world of Harry Potter.’
One of the tourists summarised their experience in the town: “We already saw an old-fashioned girls’ toilets just like in Chamber of Secrets – so authentic, really stank – and really the whole town’s just exactly how I’d imagined Azkaban Prison, but more sinister.”
Swindon has long been the butt of jokes like this one. It has become synonymous with shithole, describing a uniquely British every-town that lacks redeeming features, a hopeless hinterland of soulless offices and dreary architecture where culture is scant and the people greyscale. Comedians use it freely as a byword for ‘crap town’: it’s lazy but usually elicits the desired snigger.
I am from Swindon, but I no longer live there. Growing up in the town, I was aware that it lacked much of what other towns and cities had to offer. Commerce and service industries, head offices and chain shops dominated. Sallow people looked for solace in the windows of empty shop fronts. The outsiders drawn to the town for work, set up camp in identikit suburbs, only entering into the centre to allow their distaste for Swindon to be screwed into angry fists or come spewing out onto pavements.
I would travel to Bristol and London for live music, museums and art galleries. Despite its shortcoming, it was evident however that Swindon wasn’t a cultural oasis. Creative people lived there with their own ideas and private passions, there just wasn’t the infrastructure nor the platform to make them visible. As teenagers we didn’t have a place to call our own. We were confined to our parents’ garages, secluded corners of parks and our college cafeteria. This is where we would write words, make music, create art and talk big ideas.
Things have improved since I’ve been away. The Old Town area of Swindon has become gentrified. All the signs are there – the cafe-cum-record-shop, the craft ale bar, the modern art gallery. These are nice additions but I still don’t see something in place to nurture grassroots creativity. There’s still nowhere for young people and artists to make their first tentative steps into the world of art, learning to express themselves creatively. Hopefully, that is all about to change.
The Bohemian Balcony
Housed in the old Palladium in Rodbourne, the Bohemian Balcony is a multi-faceted performance space, where artists, performers, photographers, filmmakers and musicians can “fuse together”. This lovely husk of a building, located a stone’s throw from Swindon’s champion tourist draw the McArthur Glen Designer Outlet Village, already shows signs of realising its ambitions.
The main space sits beneath a gracefully arched ceiling with bright splashes of orange and re-purposed miscellanea from bygone eras adorning the walls. It is evidently a labour of love. The man behind it is Dan Rivers – a passionate actor with a vision – who has worked tirelessly to create a space that is inclusive and welcoming.
When I spoke to him, he told me of his epiphany that no-one was going to create this kind of venue for him or anyone else – if Swindon was to have a collaborative arts space, Dan would need to create it himself and make it work. He hasn’t had time to eat and has found himself drinking too much tea, as he transforms the space and meets with the people that may make this project a success.
Adam Crosland – Post-Truth
Only a few days after its launch, the Bohemian Balcony is already exhibiting a new collection of works by Purton-based artist and musician Adam Crosland. The work is a mixture of larger canvases showing an abstract expressionist quality, smaller line drawings and ceramic towers that melt pleasingly from atop plinths.
The show’s reference to post truth is clearly pertinent. Truth has become eroded by politicians for their own gains in recent times. Both here in the UK and the United States, the general population find themselves floating in a sea of lies without a narrative that they can hold onto. This is not a political exhibition, but the art works do serve as a commentary on a society where the lines between fact and fiction are blurred to the extent that they are indistinct. It also marks a departure for Crosland from his previous work that was often figurative, overtly satirical and even whimsical. His earlier canvases rendered Stonehenge from Mobile Phones, cast wry glances at popular culture, and depicted television sets, teats and phalluses in abundance. This show, although different, is still a unique and cohesive statement.
The opening night of Post-Truth is soundtracked by I, Idol who make a gloriously unshackled noise. These art students wear elaborate masks and swap instruments as they indulge in fractured electronica, krauty rhythmical experiments, Aand, because they can, a cover of Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World.
They create dystopian soundscapes that could just as well score a cinematic journey through Swindon’s darker side, an apocalyptic wasteland where random acts of violence, drug addiction and binge drinking reign. These teenagers have been given the freedom to express themselves and a platform to make a discordant statement that is their own. This is core to the ethos of the Bohemian Balcony and long may it continue.
I, Idol – Bohemian Balcony performance
We, the sons and daughters of Swindon, many in exile, have bemoaned our town and its plight for too long. We have allowed ourselves to join the chorus of jokers, thinking we have the right because we know the set-ups and punchlines intimately. It is much harder to do something about it and that is why I urge everyone to get behind the Bohemian Balcony. Do something for Swindon to silence the jeers and finally give voice to the creatives.
Header image Flying Numjac (from an angle that suits)