You know sometimes, when you’ve got stuff to do the next day, and you wake up about 4am thinking, ‘Are we late?’ Then you realise it’s hours until you need to get up, but it’s really hard to get back to sleep because what you’ve got to do is all running round your head? We’ve been doing that a lot.
Last night, I woke up at 6am, when someone in the next room’s alarm went off, with the same ring tone I use. It wasn’t that loud or anything, but my brain was obviously on a hair trigger and worried about over-sleeping. I couldn’t get back to sleep.
I lay there in the dark, thinking about what’s happened over the last few days, and what’s ahead. It wasn’t pretty. Some of the things I was thinking about:-
We’ve put so much work into this – for the last two months we’ve been working flat out, often until 11 at night, or into the early hours some nights. And yet we still haven’t got places to stay in most places. Neither have we got a show that’s as perfect and polished as we planned. The admin took so much more time than we envisaged, there wasn’t as much time left for research and rehearsing as we’d have liked. Maybe this is normal – if you had a realistic idea of how much work was going to be involved in a new project, you’d never start it… But it makes me wonder what all those late nights were for.
We’ve had several shows now when almost no-one turned up. I was going over and over things trying to work out what I could have done differently, how I could have explained things better. Some people get it straight away – I’ve had a great response from other public engagement people – but maybe it was completely naive and stupid to think that people not steeped in a certain set of ideas about public engagement, and people who don’t know me and get where I’m coming from, were going to see the potential in the idea without a lot more work on my part.
But how and when could I have done any more work on this? We’ve got no funding. I wanted to do something that wasn’t about the money, that just gave us the chance to completely experiment. But we couldn’t have afforded any more time – three months is a pretty long time to not be earning any money as it is.
People don’t seem to have really taken on board what we were trying to do. For example, at Staffs Wildlife HQ, we had a lovely time, but no-one who worked there came to the event. They obviously just saw it as a bit of entertainment for visitors. But it’s supposed to partly be a chance for people whose work is connected to the river to sit down and share stories and get ideas from each other, and from other people. It’s supposed to breed new ideas and creativity and help connect people to each other. It can’t do that if people don’t come. But why should they come? It’s my baby, my vision. Have I just been completely self-absorbed to think that people would love the idea as much as we do and get behind it?
I guess I’m unrealistic about what it’s like working for big organisations and how much leeway people have. Yesterday I got an email from a woman at Severn Trent. She wants to put something on their website about us, could I send her a copy of the press release? She couldn’t just get it off the website herself because their IT network blocks ‘blogs, etc’. It just had never occurred to me that in 2012 corporate IT networks block blogs, even for people in comms. How on earth does anyone do their jobs? How do they know what people are saying about them?
I guess this means that a lot of the people we’re hoping to reach with this can’t even access the website. They certainly won’t be logging on every morning to check our progress. Furthermore, if they aren’t even trusted to have access to half the internet, they definitely aren’t going to be trusted to get some experimental public engagers, armed with walking boots and a ukelele, in to do an event, and budget to put them in a B+B. And people working in that kind of environment aren’t going to volunteer their own spare room, just to further corporate aims.
When we first started organising this, to be honest, I thought some people would read about it and love the idea of modern day troubadours straight away. I thought there’d be enough schools/community centres/pubs, etc who had one crazy person working there who thought, ‘This sounds fun, let’s get these people to do one of their events here, they can stay at my house!’ But there haven’t been. We’ve had to work so hard just to get events set up. And even then, venues haven’t offered us somewhere to stay for the night, or even a cup of tea in most places.
We’ve had some great people that we’ve found through couch surfer, or personal friends, and they’ve got it, and offered a place to stay, and even dinner and breakfast and been lovely. But there aren’t any people on couchsurfer in little villages, only in the big towns. We’ve got a host in Burton-on-Trent, but in between there and Nottingham? Nothing. We’ve been having to stay in hotels and B+Bs, which is costing a fortune and is a total pain in the arse to try to organise from a canal towpath on your phone. I’m starting to think, if I’m using up all my savings on this, I could have spent them on a nice holiday instead, that didn’t involve half so much work.
In Downstream, a lovely book about the Trent, Tom Fort describes the Trent as England’s forgotten river. And yet it’s the UK’s largest. It stopped Bonnie Prince Charlie in his tracks when he was invading from the North. For 36 years it stopped the Romans in their tracks when invading from the South. It was an artery of the industrial revolution, carrying the coal, powering the mills, carrying away the effluent. It drains 2.5 million acres of the midlands – the biggest catchment area of any British river. And yet there are few books about it, fewer songs. Half the settlements along it’s banks hardly seem to know it’s there. We were hoping to do our small bit to change that. But maybe part of our problem is we’re fighting that neglect. On top of my seemingly myriad failings at organising this.
We’re also totally knackered by the end of each day. Not only are we doing all this walking, but we’re stressing about documenting the trip, about having enough charge on our phones, about making it to the next event on time. We fall into bed, far too tired to do any extra PR, or finesse the website, or do any of the admin we need to do. People (trying to be helpful) keep merrily suggesting extra things we could do, but we don’t have enough time for any of it. Everything is just down to us, and we’re trying to walk a river and put on shows everyday, never mind organising the bloody thing at the same time. We definitely don’t have time to even sit by the river and enjoy the experience. We’ve not even had time or energy for sex!
Sorry if that’s TMI, but today I’m really thinking, what is this all for? We’re killing ourselves to get to shows on time, that no-one wants to come to. To provide engagement that people aren’t engaging with. Why aren’t we just having a holiday instead, like normal people? We hardly even get to see the bloody river, we’ve been walking down the canal most of the time, because so far the river’s been too small, and too overgrown and too going-through-private-land to walk along.
We hurt all over, our boots smell disgusting and I’ve got a weeping sore on my right heel that’s soaked right through the plaster, so I couldn’t even take it off if I wanted to. I’m sure I don’t remember being so tired on previous long-distance walks. Maybe I’m just not as fit as I used to be. Or maybe it’s that I’m 41 now, and your body can’t do anymore what it did at 35. So, on top of everything else, I’m getting OLD!
We keep missing buses because we’re confused by the information at country bus stops. The stupid co-op in stupid Barton under Needwood doesn’t sell my preferred type of rizla, Ross is being amazing and putting up with everything with no word of complaint, and all I’m doing is self-indulgently WHINGING. All I can think at the moment is, what were we thinking?