Review: Festival of Happiness

Festival of Happiness in Settle, 27/05/2017. Settle Stories Summer Events Season. Reviewed by Gill O'Donnell for the Craven Herald and Pioneer. 


What do a plasticine man, a dead poet, a multi-coloured bat puppet, a lunch with a stranger, a cowfoot griot and learning to balance on one leg while moving your arms around have in common? Answer - they were all parts of an eclectic mixture which comprised the Festival of Happiness and the various ways of examining what makes us happy. Considering the events in Manchester earlier in the week there may have been those who felt that to have a festival of this sort was perhaps inappropriate, however Settle has a reputation for resilience in the face of the after all, this is the community which defiantly flew banners during a flag festival to celebrate the community spirit even as wagons rumbled through the market place during the foot and mouth epidemic. Therefore it was in a sense of solidarity with Manchester that the organisers went ahead with the plan to celebrate the human spirit and all that is good in the world by marking what makes us happy as individuals and as a community. With twenty taster sessions and workshops by local groups and 80% of events being free it proved a great way to discover more of what is regularly on offer in Settle and to try something new as well as take advantage of visits by world class artist who were visiting the community. On a packed day there really was something for everyone.


It's 100 years since local legend Tom Twisleton died. A local farmer, Tom wrote in Craven dialect and his poetry reflected the world around him and now provides a fascinating insight into Dales life.  In recent months a group of young people have been working with Settle Stories to discover more about Tom's poems and his life and writings and to examine how knowing about your past can influence your current and future happiness. Presented by 4 of the young people involved in the project this was a brief but colourful examination of Settle life in times past with explanations about local habits and customs. It was very obvious that the topics chosen reflected the young people's own interests with much attention being paid to some of the more unusual pursuits and wry comments on the habits of locals who took pains to avoid using the toll roads so that they could spend more money at the inns around the town. The snow castles which appeared in the severe winters were also a source of fascination as were the activities of the Temperance Movement. Clearly this was not always as successful as it might have been as one of Tom's poems described a woman so drunk that she couldn't "stand steady on the spot". However, what brought this session to life most of all was the very personal response of one student who explained that she too lived on a farm and that when reading Tom's poems she found that although some things had moved on and changed ie. through mechanisation, there were times when they were still very relevant today and that often when reading them she would stop and think, "yes, I still have to do that"  or "he's got that right!". That a voice of a distant generation should speak so clearly today says a great deal not only for the poet himself, but also for the generation which is now listening and choosing to spread their enthusiasm for his work.


In a fun family story session, storyteller Fiona Angwin considered the theme of things that fly and wove stories around tales of fairies, unicorns, witches, flying beds and a particularly colourful bat. She was aided by a wonderful array of puppets which ranged from a very small mouse, through a talking book, to a life size representation of Puck/Robin Goodfellow. Throughout the session the audience was spellbound, happily suspending disbelief to accept that not only can unicorns talk but they can also fly and it is quite normal for golden geese to become the means by which the hands of princesses are won. This was a delightful session which included much audience participation and all manner of fantastical creatures. There was also time for a few scary moments in the weird and wonderful tale of Baba Yaga, the Russian witch who rides around in a mortar and wields a pestle and eats young children and chases folk in a cottage that runs around on hens' legs!  Not all stories however follow the familiar pattern as could be seen in the tale of the frightening ogresses from Iceland who kidnapped a prince, only for him to be rescued by an extremely cunning heroine! However, my own favourite had to be the tale of the bat who wanted fine feathers and to be like the other birds but in the end lost his finery because he bragged too much, but did manage to create a rainbow along the way. Perhaps a metaphor for why happiness is so fleeting - however, while stories may fly through the air on our imagination, it was sadly time that flew too swiftly bringing this session to an end.



In recent days there has been much talk of threat levels and one social media response has been to joke about the things which make the British feel threatened: one of the many suggestions was "having to sit next to a stranger on a bus". However, the threat was taken to a whole new level by the concept behind the feast of happiness - where over a meal you were invited to actually talk to strangers!  Not one to be easily daunted, I gave it a go and was genuinely surprised by how much fun and how stimulating it really was. The concept is surprisingly simple, along with the usual lunch menu you are also given a conversation menu which suggests a range of topics for you and your dining companion to discuss with a range of different stimuli available for each course of the meal. Topics included ambition, curiosity, fear, friendship, happiness and civilisation and inevitably there were digressions into current events and reflections on society also. The fact that there were a range of subjects provided and willing participants meant that there were no uneasy silences as you tried to make small talk without actually saying anything much and very soon you found you were not only talking with passion but also listening intently. As a means of  reviving the art of conversation it was certainly a winner and a great way of overcoming traditional "reserve".   Very quickly you discovered there is a real joy to be had in sharing ideas and thoughts on issues and finding that while in some aspects you share a common ground, in others it is the difference in viewpoints and experience that make the conversation more interesting.  Talking to strangers over a meal is certainly a very novel approach and a way of making meals a more rewarding and happy experience.


It is not often as a reviewer that I find myself lost for words, but the world premiere of this show was one such occasion - principally because I doubt if any words could do justice to the sheer happiness that radiated from the stage in waves, lifting the audience and transporting them from a rain-soaked thunder storm in Settle to a rich, vibrant African world filled with music and laughter.  It was quite simply amazing and huge fun. Usifu Jalloh, (The Cowfoot Prince) has appeared previously at Settle Stories events and mixes tradtional African storytelling and drumming  with a great sense of humour and energy. He is the Griot of the title,  a Griot being an African term similar to our idea of a bard or troubadour. However, he doesn't just tell stories - he lives them and totally involves his audience: which is why at one stage everyone was on their feet laughing and learning the "cowfoot dance", shimmying wildly and indulging in a wonderful singalong which mixed traditional Sierra Leone tunes with nursery classics by way of Bob Marley and Lonnie  Donegan. There was also a story in there somewhere and like all good stories it did have a moral, that actually we are all much richer and happier when we blend together. Which was ably followed by a second tale, this time by Alim Kamara, an amazing Hip Hop Artist and storyteller who bubbles with energy and oozes charisma. If the Griot had the audience dancing in the aisles then the Rapper had them bouncing along telling the story of Ananse and the hat stealing monkeys with great gusto. His use of visual clues was hilarious and wildly energetic and had the audience hanging on every word and gesture. Apart each element was sublime, but put together then the experience of The Rapper and the Griot was beyond words alone for to be part of it was to be immersed in sound, movement, rhythm and the sheer vibrant joy of life itself.


In recent months animator and film director Virpi Kettu has been working with Settle Stories to create animated films at workshops in the local area. These were premiered as part of the festival and covered a wide range of topics and displayed a vast range of styles. What was consistent however, was the very high standard of the work and amount of patience and imagination which has gone into the production of these "mini-epics".  Undoubtedly one of the funniest concerned a poem which didn't have to rhyme but others like "Girlll"" were brief and witty in their elegance. There were also some which were very reminiscent of the cartoons which appeared in the early Monty Python series and others where watercolours came to life. The inspirations behind the pieces were varied too, with music being a very obvious source for ideas. Equally appealing however was the wonderful way in which the leaflet produced by the local Community Hub came to life with plasticine figures unfurling from balls and rolling into one another. Particularly striking was the gentle tale of Ferdinand the church mouse from Clapham which incorporated animation with pastel drawings and live action in the tale of his quest for cheese. The second half of the programme focused on word done in conjunction with North Yorkshire Horizons, with people whose lives are affected by drugs or alcohol.  Here animation techniques were used to help their clients use the arts as a tool of self expression and to tell their story and this resulted in a number of very powerful films which dealt with both the horror of addiction and the joy of moving towards recovery. The imagery in some of these pieces was striking and extremely moving. Clearly the work done in this collaboration was of tremendous value not only in terms of developing skills but also as a means of considering the topic itself.


Having won The Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award Newcomer and Chortle Best Newcomer Award in 2015, Danish Comedian Sofie Hagen is certainly a name to look out for if you want to be ahead of the game in comic terms. She is most certainly memorable and not afraid to deal with some very dark subjects in her work. Dead Baby Frog covers topics such as child abuse, physical and mental abuse in marriage, Danish Nazism and the way in which society views weight and body shape. Mixed in with this are a few oddities and astute observations about the naming of Danish towns and relatives, teenage crushes on boy bands and whether it is ever acceptable to laugh at a funeral. It also dispels a few myths along the way, including those in relation to killing frogs. What is slightly disconcerting is that these are sometimes given the same weight in terms of delivery and the fact that the delivery is coming from what appears to be a very likeable, charming and ebullient performer. Yet the narrative behind the show is particularly bleak as it deals with the impact on her life of her relationship with Ip, her grandfather, a man who is both abusive and controlling and who clearly was suffering serious mental health issues of his own which caused him to target his wife, stepdaughter and Sofie herself. Towards the end of the show  she reveals how, after years of experiencing constant abuse, Sofie’s grandmother confronted her abusive husband, at the age of 93, and from this draws the conclusion that it is never too late to challenge abuse in any area of life. In this respect it was a lively and interesting show and certainly it was appealing in its message. Whether humour, even black humour, is always the most appropriate way in which to raise these topics and to challenge them is perhaps more open to question as so much depends on individual taste and experience. It is however a show that you won't forget in a hurry and which  leaves you with a lot to think about, including wondering whether of not you are at times too like the mythical frog or whether, if faced with increasing irritants and abuse, you would actually just get up and do something about it!


Settle Stories runs year round events for adults & families. Find out whats coming up next. Click here