What’s next on my list of things to see at Dundee’s Literary Festival? Well, what better an event than a showcase of different art forms? Heard it. Seen it. Done it. was advertised in the Dundee Literary festival guidebook as a “One-off cultural showcase of live music, spoken word, animation […] conceived, curated and performed by voice hearers from the HaVeN, Dundee […]” The blurb went on to explain that the HaVeN charity based in the City was an organisation seeking acceptance of voice hearing being a valid experience. I was left a little puzzled in what was meant by ‘voice hearing’ and so I grabbed my coat and made for Bonar Hall.
Upon arriving, and after a quick detour to the downstairs bar, I had found a seat. Some chairs were placed around tables with pens and paper, other chairs lay dotted around the room bizarrely. Was it interactive? Did I need a pen and paper or a table to lean on? Were they reserved for specific people who did need pens and paper? I wasn’t sure and so I found a chair close enough to a table that I could shimmy to in the event it was needed, but far enough away in case it was indeed reserved. With reasons unknown, the showcase began forty minutes after its scheduled time. A man dressed in bright, patterned clothes jumped on stage and brought the spirits of the waiting crowd back to life. He told us he was part of NEU! REEKIE!, a duo who bring literary culture to the masses by holding events using technology and their bright enthusiasm for The Arts. He explained how they had given workshops at HaVen to inspire poetry among other mediums to express their experiences as either voice hearers or mental health issues. The informal chat was cheery and informative, although I was rather hoping the term “voice hearing” would be explained as he had obviously chosen to categorise it differently to that of mental health struggles.
He then introduced a short film directed, created and written by Ainslie Henderson portraying daily battles with mental health. The lights went down. The short was narrated by the main character, a man about to face a crowd and sing at an open mic. We watch as the character breaks down and his doubting inner voice materializes as a younger version of himself. The film’s subject matter talked about how childhood experiences may linger and cripple our self-confidence in future life and how we must fight it by finding peace with ourselves. The film ended as the character and his younger self walk on stage together and begin to sing. As the lights went up the sheer silence of the room before the roar of applause said everything. It had moved every single member of the audience to reflection and thought as well as appreciation of the beautiful and flawless stop motion.
The host, only known to us as NEU! REEKIE!, quickly brought on the second act of the night, three musicians under the names of Loki, Becci and Marissa. Loki seemed the foreman of the trio as he welcomed us in his broad Glaswegian accent. He spoke about how he too had run workshops with groups including HaVen, mental health support groups and nderprivileged teenagers. He spoke of vaguely of personal traumas as a younger man and how these experiences had caused a sense of depression and isolation within himself. Without further ado, Becci strapped her guitar round her chest whilst Marissa rested her violin under her chin and they began their first song. Fully expecting Loki to sing, my eyes widened in delight as the lyrics spilled from his mouth; he was a rapper! Each piece they performed sang of his dark experiences alone with his mind and his struggle with drug use. “Tell me something good to shout about, ’til then its mood swings and roundabouts”.
His elegant play on words, rhymes and rhythm accompanied by the sorrowful tones of the violin and constant strum of the guitar had successfully personified his struggles into sound. The group thanked the crowd at the end of their set and left us with a beautiful and comforting thought “some of you here might represent the mental health community, some of you might represent the literary community and others are part of the local community. Tonight, we ARE the community. One community together.” I found myself looking around the room at the crowd and no longer felt in limbo at my table-less, scattered chair.
The next performer was Kevin Swinyard, a member of HaVEn, who had prepared two of his own poems written in a workshop with Kevin McCabe, a spoken word artist. The poems described the poet’s face and repetition peppered the piece with “you have a boxer’s nose like me” giving an even and lulling rhythm and tempo. He spoke with passion and commitment for his work whilst giving a convincing performance of the words he spoke. His ode to Kevin McCabe suited the event perfectly as the poet himself was welcomed onstage to perform his own pieces.
Again, the spoken word was set to music, a Rhythm and Blues tribute from the lone guitarist as Kevin performed his pieces, inspired by Dundee, with elegant musicality. Unfortunately, it was here that I guesstimated the reasons for such a long wait for the show to begin. During the last of McCabe’s pieces the sound crackled with deafening screeches. I mention this in my review not as a negative point but to applaud both McCabe and the following performers as they continued with confidence and strength as the sound misbehaved intermittently throughout the rest of the night.
Margaret Mackay, another member of HaVen, was next up, reading her own poems also created in a workshop with NEU! REEKIE! What struck me most about her poems was not the content itself, but how her personality shone out of them, like the rainbow she spoke of in her first piece.
Last to perform were a duo named Panda Su, a singer songwriter and her drumming companion who stunned the crowd with her melancholic and unusual sound. Not for the first time during the evening, the crowd applauded with genuine appreciation and recognition of their talents.
I walked home that evening with a sense of wholeness and a new respect in humanity, something that is often lost in a bustling, busy City. No, I still wasn’t completely sure what the term “Hearing voices” meant, but it wasn’t the point of the evening. The showcase, as Loki had pointed out, had brought communities together to form a whole; to acknowledge talent and skills from every point of life – how you can put the worst and darkest nights of your life to use and turn them into a celebration in happier days.