Extraordinary things happen on Dark Angels courses. That is because the people who come on them are extraordinary.
In truth, everyone is extraordinary if only given the chance to be him or herself. And that is perhaps the most unfathomable magic of our courses: the way in which people find the courage to let a voice be heard which has often been buried or ignored or beaten down for years.
The voice-freeing spell has a number of ingredients. Place is a hugely important one – in this case the comfort and space, the seclusion and quiet of novelist Robin Pilcher’s hillside house in Andalucia, which he kindly opens to us every September and from which we returned on Tuesday.
Hearing the sounds of cockerel and donkey floating up from the valley at first light, looking out on early morning mist among the cork and chestnut trees, picking a ripe fig from the branches outside the bedroom, quickly serve to banish that other world from which we have all travelled.
Companionship is another. The sense of all being in it together, usually with a dash of anxiety at the start, is a powerful glue. Mutual support comes quickly and easily. If there are tears, there are always plenty of shoulders ready to be offered. When personal boundaries are pushed, or simply when fine words are spoken, the praise is immediate and generous.
We nourish the senses as much as we can. Good food and plenty of wine are essential. Creativity is hungry and thirsty work. Music plays its part too. We start the day in song and often end it with impromptu performances on whatever instruments come to hand. And sunshine works wonders. We spend as much of the time as possible outdoors in the house’s spacious courtyard.
Then there are the local people we connect with. The Saturday morning research trip gets everyone out of the house and exposes them to something of local life. This year three groups visited respectively a British couple, Sam and Jeannie Chesterton, who for many years have run Finca Buen Vino, a small private hotel nearby; Alberto German, a sculptor of national repute who opens his Aracena studio to us; and Jose Ramon, head of the language school run by the local authority, who guided one group around the town itself.
Finally there is the work itself. It would be disingenuous to say that we, the three tutors, John, Stuart and I, have nothing to do with it. Our programme is well-honed. We know which exercises hit which spots. But we don’t consider ourselves teachers. If anything we are facilitators, to use the dreary functional word; we simply offer up the potion that makes it possible for what is already there to emerge.
Emerge it invariably does. On the final evening we hear first the results of the research trips, creative responses to whatever each group has gleaned from their local hosts; then the personal pieces that each person has worked on.
This year those people were Cat, writer with a big branding agency, recently returned from a five-month sabbatical among the penguins as postmistress for the British Antarctic Survey; Faye, formerly an archaeologist, now business creativity coach and intrepid traveler; Gillian from Northern Ireland, freelance writer and designer with a penchant for gun-toting Western tales; Jo, poetry-lover and director of a family-owned Scottish specialist food company; Laura, writer with a London writing agency, recent mother and unexpectedly brilliant soul singer; sunny, Spanish-speaking Megan, originally from California, now internal comms manager with a pharmaceutical company in Zurich; Neil, freelance business writer, short story writer and pop-up storyteller at bookshops and music festivals; and Sarah, formerly owner of a scuba diving school in Honduras, recent Professional Writing graduate and now a freelance writer.
Ordinary people. Extraordinary people. As their voices grew firmer and fuller both notes became clearer. The extraordinary enchants us, the ordinary connects us. It always happens.
A Dark Angels first – this short film was made by Faye, Gillian and Sarah following their visit to Alberto German’s studio.
Beautifully conjured Jamie. It is, actually, when all’s said and done, a sublime cocktail, or Sangria.
Yes, that word facilitator is a bit dreary and functional. Got me thinking. In the late 80s I was part of the Bristol Playwrights group headed by a great guy called John Downie. As well as introducing me to the fantastic Kneehigh who I had the privilege for writing for back then, he also ran a number of playwriting workshops as part of our programme. He referred to himself as an ‘animateur’. I think we could reasonably refer to ourselves as that too. Taking our own medicine (as I do regularly) I looked up the word in my Petit Larousse. Animateur: Personne qui anime. Animer v. t. Donner la vie. Fig: exciter, encourager. I think that is closer to what we do maybe, more than just facilitate: give life, excite, encourage.
As this may all sound a little puffed up I’ll end with a postscript. John Downie once made a wonderful slip of the tongue when critiquing a piece for getting its story told in ‘fits and starts’. Except it didn’t come out that way. ‘Shits and farts’ is what he said. He was delighted and claimed the phrase on the spot! Then he emigrated to New Zealand. Couldn’t bear to live a moment more in Thatcher’s Britain. Plus ca change.
Fond memories of last year. Are my favourite free range pigs still there? Now completed MA Professional Writing at University College Falmouth-great course. Well on way with first book, set in Spain of course. Re Cat, a great novel set in Antarctica is The Ice Lovers by Jean McNeil. See my interview with her on http://www.falwriting.com. Best wishes Paul