Bees

I’ve always liked bees. I mean, who doesn’t? Okay, I got stung on the arm by one once aged about nine, but that was because I had the squashed the poor little beggar tripping over my own feet on a football pitch. Even poor little worker bees in 1987 knew I was never going to make it to Wembley as anything other than a supporter. 

When I moved to the Manchester area fifteen years ago I have to admit I was fairly ignorant of the significance of the bee as an image to the city. They just don’t teach the cultural heritage of this part of England to the kiddies down South. Past cobbled streets, whippets and the widely accepted opinion that it’s ‘grim oop North’ – anyone living south of Watford Gap services doesn’t tend to dwell on anything other than their own version of events. As one of my kindly aunts put it to me at a family party once… “Why would you want to live up there?”. (Because it’s a lot cheaper and the people up here talk to each other was the very quick response!)

Scoot forward fourteen years and the city was served a wholly unwelcome dish in the form of someone deciding that blowing themselves up outside of a pop concert is a regular and sane way of going about your daily business. (I shan’t be referring to his name or his ‘cause’ here – no need to give any fuel to that fire by dignifying it with notoriety). Immediately the city pulled together and rallied behind a symbol that as I already mentioned had casually passed me by for so many years.

The humble bee. It was suddenly everywhere. People were getting tattoos, street art popped up, artists created a thousand versions of Bees at work and yes, poets wrote about them. I myself caught up in this first ‘buzz’ as I penned a piece for my second ‘Poems from Villagetown’ collection. Taking inspiration from the awesome Tony Walsh and his epic ‘This is the Place’. My own piece ‘Some are drawn here’ was a reflection on how my two children (sons of an economic migrant 😉) are proud Mancunians and are lucky to live in a place where the idea of community just seems to come as second nature.

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Some are drawn here

As it turns out – this was all to be a mere prelude. The swarm was yet to arrive. 

Sunday 22nd July (way past bedtime)

A hotel room on the outskirts of York. It’s late and I should be going over my lines for tomorrow but instead I’m on my phone. While browsing through Facebook I spotted a short video from the Manchester Evening News  about the Wild in Art Bee sculptures being sent to Manchester for a trail celebrating the city the next day. Immediate thought? “Well that’s nice…”. So I jotted down a quick poem in response. It’s got 101 lines. One each for all the bees. Lovely. Took about twenty minutes to do. Now get some sleep Paul, you’ve got a show tomorrow. 

Monday 23rd July (All day)

I perform my debut one man show at the Yorkshire Fringe. All goes well. Decided that I should really write a blog post about it at some point as it’s surely the most exciting thing to have happened recently. (One day you’ll hear about it – I really did have a good time…) 

Tuesday 24th July (Morning) 

On a whim I decide to go into Manchester on my way home from the show in York . I can see those bees – maybe do some recording for my YouTube channel while I’m there. They will all be in the city centre so this won’t take more than a few hours will it? (Ha! 😂) 

Find map. Find first bee. Manchester Piccadilly station. A big golden one. Ironically the bee has a swarm of people around it despite only being up since yesterday.

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Shiny – The first step of the saunter, that became a marathon, that became a pilgrimage.

There’s no way I’ll be able to film a full 4 minute poem without any distractions so I made a quick decision to just do the first line here and see how things went at the next one. Arrived at the next one – next one packed too. One line again… Repeat and move to number three.

By bee number five two things became apparent. 1) every single bee was packed with people chatting about these sculptures – engaging with them and finding out about the artists work and 2) there was no way that it was going to be possible to get round each of these and record the poem one line at a time in one day. The map showed them all over the place – Didsbury, Heaton Park, Old Trafford….the airport! This was going to take a while. This foolhardy poet took a moment to reflect. 🤔

Tuesday 24th July (Afternoon) 

I am sitting in a cafe on Deansgate resting my weary feet, charging my phone (the filming was also taking its toll in lithium terms too) and developing military style tactics to get round these giant insects. Thirty five down and there is now no way that the task will not be completed. The fun little visit? It’s become a mission. Look at the phone. Back up to 40% battery. I mentally decide I can get 24 more done in town today before heading out to do some of the ones in North Manchester on the way home. The phone can be recharged in the car. I make a mental note that portable battery packs are useful things for poets. 

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Military planning (avec Panini)

Some more filming and rejigging of the poem (Bee number 21 – ‘Drip Bee’ was sadly unavailable for filming) and I was on my way for the evening shift! 

Tuesday 25th July (Evening) 

I get to work on the bees on the outskirts of the city and visit Heaton Park, Harpurhey, Media City, Old Trafford, The Etihad stadium and the National Cycling Centre. I would probably have moved a lot quicker but I found myself chatting to so many people along the way. Sometimes it was about how cool the bees are (let’s not forget, each of these things are totally unique) and sometimes it was to explain why I was setting the camera up and filming these odd pieces to camera. 

None of the lines by themselves made much sense as a stand-alone so in order to convince people I was not a threat to them or their children I found myself explaining what was going on. Most people seemed genuinely interested in the idea – there was only one lady told me I was nuts but she was standing in a Man United top outside Old Trafford, so I didn’t really trust her judgement that much. 😉

I finished filming that day at just after 9:15pm and by then, the light was fading.  I went home, grabbed something to eat while the video clips were downloading and then set about doing the first days editing, merging the clips together and topping and tailing all the bits where I was explaining my sudden outbursts of poetic nonsense to passers by. I put the iPad down at just before midnight. 

Wednesday 26th July (morning)

It’s 8am. I’m standing in a deserted park in Higher Blackley, refreshed from a sound nights sleep and a man with a plan. I get my first odd look of the day from a dog walker then hit the trail again. A quick stop at North Manchester hospital to play a quick game of ‘time the clip right with a bee who speaks to you’ (well done THAT artist for throwing me a curveball) then on to Clayton Hall. 

I had never been to Clayton Hall before (I’ll hold my hands up – I’d never heard of it) but what a treasure! A 12th century medieval house now fully restored with a moated area and beautiful, stylish gardens. 

Behind locked gates. 

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Clayton Hall

NOOOO! I could see ‘Polly’ the bee I needed behind the railings just fifty feet away, but nowhere near close enough for a photo and certainly not a video clip. It was properly shut. The whole project was thrown into jeopardy. I couldn’t let this bleed into tomorrow – I had work commitments with other groups for the rest of the week and today was realistically the last day I could get to see these things. I started trudging back to the car. Utterly deflated. 

From behind me a voice called out. “Excuse me! Were you here to see the bee?”. The Hallelujah chorus played within my head and thus a new friendship was formed. Thank you Lynn – you were a lifesaver and I immediately fell in love with Clayton Hall. I would be back very soon, but more on that later. I quickly bagged Polly and then headed off on my mission back into the city. 

Wednesday 26th July (Afternoon)

Up and down Oxford Road, Albert Square, St Peters Square, Deansgate, The Bridgewater Hall (Just 2 bees took nearly an hour – you try filming while hundreds of students are pouring out from their graduation ceremony with their doting parents!) and then back in the car for the last leg. 

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Befriended – man pretending to be teapot meets giant insect.

Grabbing the bee at the Whitworth Gallery was easy. Parking in Didsbury was not. It took me a full hour to park up and find just the one bee. Parking at Wystenshawe hospital was equally as testing. The way I ran through the car park outside the maternity ward that afternoon frantically searching for a bee before my time ticked over into needing to pay was probably hilarious to watch for anyone around the site. I hate paying for parking when I don’t need to and I was trying to keep the costs down for the whole project. (Especially as I only had a few pence in change left in my pocket!)

Which left just the one. At the airport. By the time I went live on Facebook at just after 5pm you can see the physical effort it had taken out of me.

Watching it back I looked shattered and the relief on my face when I finally came across the ‘80 years around the world’ bee, was palpable. I felt like a great pilgrim. I’d done it – in fact, I think I was possibly one of the first people to do it as well. I knew other complete nutters would follow. Great works of public art attract strange people to do strange things, but it felt so nice to be among the first few. 

Homeward bound with a contented smile. 

Wednesday 26th July (Evening) 

Some careful editing to include the day’s haul and a double and treble check to make sure everything was included. It’s a good job I did as well. Two of the clips had failed to import properly throwing the whole middle section of the poem out of kilter. A lesson to all. No matter how shattered you are or how keen you are to share something – it pays to go and grab a cup of coffee before you hit publish. It’ll save a whole heap of time later.

A quick posting to YouTube & Facebook and by 8:30pm I was done. “Be(e)” was finished and ready to fly off into the world. 

2 days. 25 hours solid work. 53,000 steps. 100 bees. 

Some nice comments from friends on social media, a couple of shares to some of the sites I visited along the way and then…..breathe. 

I slept soundly that night I can tell you. 

Thursday 27th July (and everything thereafter) 

…has been an absolute whirlwind. The poem has currently received over 120,000 views on various platforms with numerous comments and shares. It’s been featured in a variety of regional newspapers after a phone interview the following day with the Press Association including the Belfast Telegraph and the Shropshire Star. I’ve now been on BBC Radio Manchester twice to talk about it and am lined up to appear on two separate poetry podcasts in the next week. In the words of Eddie Izzard…. “I’m covered in bees!!”

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Bee at the Beeb – Chilling in the Blue Peter Garden

Two amazing developments stand out from the rest. The first is my collaboration with 360 degree photographer Jonny Bentley, who is making his own (much more measured) tour around the bees during the summer. His work uses a special camera to create a ‘global’ image of the bee in its surroundings. Just like with my poem, the original artwork is giving life to another artist working in a different form, triggering all sorts of creative ideas. 

Having met with him a couple of weeks back we have begun scheming together and on the 15th September we will be holding a special joint event where prints of his work will be sold for charity at the Premier Inn adjacent to Old Trafford. My Be(e) poem (alongside a few other relevant pieces) will feature as part of the evening in a couple of short performances for those coming to grab themselves a unique momento of this very special trail which has brought so many people onto the streets of Manchester. 

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Mr Benn Bee – Jonny & PJ buzzing about town

Then, just a few weeks later, I have been asked to share the poem at the grand finale to the trail. As I mentioned earlier, I needed to return to Clayton Hall to get a proper look around the ‘Old Lady’ as she is known by the friends of the hall. The ‘official’ unveiling of Polly the bee saw me meeting with the Lord Mayor herself who has asked me to perform the Be(e) poem at the grand auction of all the bees when they are sold off for the ‘I love Manchester’ charity. It’s going to be big, it’s going to be flash – it’s going to need me to rehearse delivering this poem all in one go! 

It’s also meant that myself and my good friend and running buddy Catherine Shield have produced a framed version of the poem, especially for the event so that it too can be auctioned off. Orders for them from other people have started coming in too – giving us a very nice headache to sort out about mass producing something that is fairly unique.  A great headache to have!

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Catherine’s amazing reimagining of the poem for the ‘Bee in the city’ auction.

It’s been a totally transformative experience.

When I started jotting down the words last month as a bit of whimsy, I honestly didn’t expect it all to snowball like this but then again, this is Manchester. This is the place that brought you computers and steam trains and women’s suffrage. One should never underestimate what can be achieved if you hang around the city and listen to old Happy Mondays tunes for more than two minutes.

Manchester is a place that really does buzz….

…and I shouldn’t have expected anything less.