Even Bettakultcha-What a Performance

I started this year by devouring apocalypse books and watching apocalypse films and telly.  From Stephen King’s “The Stand” to American post nuclear TV town “Jericho”, from the classics of End of Days literature like “The Canticles of Leibowitz” to Will Smith smoothly dispatching Vampire-Zombies in “I Am Legend”. It was odd because I usually have no appetite for horror. I mostly blame the Cameron government having led me to several end of the world nightmares, which seemed to be helped by picking up the survival tips that pepper  Armageddon fiction (Carry guns, water, matches. Rig up generators, run away from people who dribble etc). I became less enthusiastic after I watched the incredibly realistic BBC series “Threads” which was set in seventies Sheffield when the bomb dropped, but that’s another story. Anyway, having been steeped in what humantity can do at it’s worst-with occasional chinks of hope, I think my four attendances at Bettakultcha events this year have shown me what it can be at it’s best and why it would be worth saving, even amidst all the Cannibalism and unfortunate regression to seventies decor that the end of the world would be bound to involve. In fact, post nuclear holocaust, I’m going to make my way to Cornwall’s Eden Project and start a version of Bettakultcha in the domes- it’s how we’ll manage to rebuild…

What I love about it is that it’s people talking honestly about what they’re passionate about. The random and unpolished nature of it is important. I enjoy seeing the large audiences, attentive and open and receptive to conversations that flip from nuclear phsyics to forgiveness to ghosts in the shift of a slide. It’s more like real life than the poetry and comedy events I’m usually involved in- though I love them too for how they are also rare examples of person speaking directly to person in our increasingly mediated culture.

I wonder a bit if I had an element of Bad Faith in my performance last night-because it was more that- a performance- than my first two BK presentations in which I was trying to convey a particular idea. I think I was impacted by it being a Christmas party gig, not wanting to repeat what I’d done before and still finding it easier (and safer) to wrap my beliefs and feelings up in a comic performance which adds a bit of safe distance.  My sense would be that there were also at least three other performances during the Christmas Bettakultcha. I enjoyed all of them- for their content and skill- and for the different type of listening and thinking they required from the audience. Martin Carter’s beauiful burlesque Maria Millionaire’s rendering of an Amanda Palmer song (Vegemite; The Black Death) was entertaining and strange and moving and both helped break up and underscore the strange realities of the other presentations. Lydia Slack slightly makes my head explode in a good way. She comes across as neither solely a farmer nor a rural Derbyshire after dinner/public speaker of the Old School nor a modern stand up comic, but combines elements of all of these things to funny and clever effect. Nigel Vardy swapped hats, hinted at the frostbitten fate of his fingers and toes and made mountaineering with him sound as eccentrically English as Peg Alexander’s lucky dog of Todmorden. The Random Slide presentations also allow for, in fact encourage, a more “Performance” feel and all the presenters did it proud- particularly Sue Everett and Dinesh Kaulgaud who could almost have pre-written theirs as comedy monologues but were doing it on the hoof. I suppose that shows how “Performance” is an essential and invited element in the recipe that makes up the Bettakultcha stew, but one that needs to simmer in balance with other ingredients. Ivor helps this happen as a comedic compere- so that even after a powerfully moving presentation like Richard Mccann’s about the impact of his mother’s murder, the tone can be lifted and shifted and re set for whoever comes next.

I think the venue added to the Performance element in itself. The Corn Exchange has the wow factor and,on balance, I think worked as a Christmas venue for that reason. Yes, the acoustics are a bit dodgy and sound and atmosphere can escape down the big hole where the revellers noises were drifting up from the restaurant, but it felt like we were somewhere special- a bit out of the normal way of things. Purely for speaking and listening and creating an intimate amosphere purposes, I think the Brudenell Social Club has worked best for me as a more general Bettakultcha venue.

I think maybe I’ve argued myself round there a bit. To the point that, actually, BK is a great mixture of things and that performance and presenting are fairly intertwined, as are truth and fiction and illustrated fact and hyperbole and theory and conjecture and all of the wonderful things that made up a night that saw an explanation of Falling Down Drunk (and ended up with several chairs falling down and taking their people with them), Dr Chris out-Coxing Brian with a new development in Neutrons travelling faster than light, Irna Qureshi’s funny and compelling survey of biscuits (I always knew I was a Bourbon Socialist) , a live DJ demonstration, Steve Manthorp showing us the Ghosts in the Machine and Ivor having kicked us off with top tips on how to present.

I left the night with the “Merchandise” of the rather splendid Bettakultcha mug, with washer attached and wooden spoon included. Reflected that as a speaker, treading the path between what you really want to say, the structural challenges of slides and time and the awareness of having an audience and an event is worth wrestling with, for the fulfilling cup of tea feeling that comes at the end.