Saturday, 14 February 2009

Friday the thirteenth

Going to Nottingham has become a kind of memory test: which shop was where? I play a gloomy game of prediction too: which will be the next shop to fail? There are plenty of shops still standing but they're emptier than they were and even in Primark people browse and deliberate over the quality of goods.

I was headed to a bookshop to collect a book for a friend but browsed a little on my way. I didn't buy anything though later I had a half of Marston's Pedigree (50p) and a freshly-baked pretzel (75p) to supplement the apple I had brought with me. I'm turning into a virtuoso credit-crunch shopper.

I was also in search of happenings. An announcement at fencing alerted me to Light Night and it sounded fun, though the information on the web was hard to follow. There would be lights, sounds and activities - well, you can usually find those in Nottingham on a Friday night. Presumably there would be something extra that I might like seeing - and I could also support friends from my fencing club who were demonstrating epee and sabre on the cold flagstones of the Exchange Arcade.

The evening began slightly before the billed opening at 6.00. as school musicians began to play and the Council House was luminously strange in a sequence of bright and acid colours. I watched the changing lights for a while, then was drawn a little out of the square towards the Brian Clough statue. I don't know what Brian would have made of his pale green, glow-in-the-dark jumper but I suspect he'd have liked the attention he was receiving.

The streets around the Old Market Square were illuminated by tall, slender, pyramidal lanterns. I think they had been decorated in schools and libraries. I walked away from the noise towards Hockley and the Lacemarket. It's a slightly offbeat area and every so often I'm beguiled by something unexpected. On Light Night, it was the hula hoop dancer with glowing hula hoops and the juggler tossing luminous clubs high in the air. They were outside the shop that sells juggling equipment and magic equipment but for all I know they later roamed the streets. Nottingham was a magical, unlikely place where brides on stilts might appear round a corner, a robot danced and sprayed crowds with a water pistol and a blue, lit-up wheelie bin called Sid terrorised pedestrian by ... doing wheelies, of course.

Fencing in the city's poshest shopping centre - below the Council House - made perfect sense on a night like this. Crowds flocked to wonder at the speed and skill on display - and perhaps to fantasise about d'Artagnan or, of course, Robin Hood. People asked the usual questions: "are the swords sharp?" and "what are the strongs for?" (the strings were the wires that connected the fencers to the electric score box). I watched for a while, applauding points and inwardly cheering my friends.

Then I began to wander further - to St Mary's in the Lacemarket. I pushed open the door and found the late mediaeval space lit mostly by clustered candles. Their light wavered fragilely amid the deep shadows. There was a fragile music too - chords that filled the air, then faded into silence. And above the altar a black and white film of a smiling boy running on a bridge flickered into life, then died. It took a while for me to realise that the sounds and film were being produced by a typewriter and that visitors to the church were invited to type on it in response to the question, "What gives you hope?" This was the typophonium. Small children and adults queued in wonder. I queued too and noted that the clatter of typewriter keys stopped me from hearing the chords or seeing the film.

Eventually I headed back towards the train station but paused at the Congregational Hall where there was a music and film installation by Streetwise Opera and Mira Calix. My Secret Heart was projected on a huge oval at the centre of the church. I watched and wondered for a while. I knew the work was based on Allegri's Miserere and knew it was strange and beautiful and that was all. As I left, the film was still running.

Many of the wonders I'd seen would scare people if placed in a gallery and labelled "art." But on Light Night people thronged the streets, their minds open to novelty and wonder. There were no worries that reverence was required. Instead we all displayed that capacity to marvel that is regularly evoked at circuses, pantomimes and football matches.

I walked past a street sign promising "Biscuits for 800 metres." There may have been biscuits. I didn't check. By the Broadmarsh Centre, great signs in vacant shops offered "wonderful retail opportunities." But that suggestion required more imagination than I possess. I hurried on past.

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