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Profile: John Fox MBE

Elderly man smiling in front of beautiful view

John Fox MBE (1959, Education and PPE)

John Fox MBE (1959, Education and PPE) has a worldwide reputation for creating celebratory participatory art with communities. Artist, printmaker, published poet, filmmaker, lecturer, cultural provocateur and occasional musician, John is an Honorary Fellow of the Universities of Cumbria and Central Lancashire and a Companion of Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. Along with Sue Gill and others he founded Welfare State International (1968-2006) –­ a collective of radical artists and thinkers who explored ideas of celebration, site-specific theatre, fireshows and spectacles. In January 2022, the University of Bristol Theatre Collection was awarded £281,758 by The Wellcome Trust for a three year project to conserve, catalogue, digitise and make available the archive of Welfare State International (WSI).

With their latest company, Dead Good Guides (DGG) Fox and Gill create ecological sculpture trails, secular ceremonies and celebrant training for Rites of Passage. Recent work includes Wildernest, a sanctuary garden on the shore of Morecambe Bay and On The Edge Of A Rising Tide (with Sound Intervention), a processional fable with musicians, tricycles, off-grid amplification and digital projections. 

John’s publications include Ground (1998) poetry, linocuts and woodcuts, Eyes on Stalks (Methuen, 2002), Engineers of the Imagination (Coult and Kershaw Methuen, 1983/1990) and (with Sue Gill) The Dead Good Funerals Book (DGG 1996/2004). Recent collections of poetry are You Never Know (DGG 2011/2016/revised 2022) and The Rain Days (DGG 2021), composed in hospital whilst recovering from surgery for rectal cancer and COVID-19 in 2020-2021.

John received a lifetime achievement award from Arts Council England in 2006 and was appointed MBE in the 2012 Queen’s Birthday Honours for his “unstinting contribution as an inventor of forms of creative participation and celebration.”

What brought you to Univ?
I went to a direct grant school in Hull and was expected to do well academically; if you went to Oxbridge then you had done really well. I don’t know why, but I’d put down PPE and to my amazement, I got in, but first did my National Service in Ghana. Sir Maurice Shock and Sir Peter Strawson were fantastic. They knew I was a maverick spirit who was probably never going to be an academic, but they let me turn my room into a studio and make a complete mess. Sir Peter Strawson was really good for somebody like me on logic. I think the only decent mark I got was in logic. But he and Sir Maurice Shock were just very open, relaxed and wise. I really appreciated it.

Parliament in Flames, Catford. Welfare State International 1981

Parliament in Flames, Catford. Welfare State International 1981

As an undergraduate, I could enrol in The Ruskin School of Drawing for £3 a term, and spent all my time there drawing life models. It was wonderful. I made friends with several artists, designed and made many sets for All For Kicks, an ETC (Experimental Theatre Company) musical and then designed Ibsen’s A Doll’s House for the Oxford Playhouse.

The most important thing about Univ for me was finding out about who I was, which is what I think university used to be and could be about. It wasn’t just about the process of learning, it was about discovering how to develop oneself. Univ gave me total encouragement.

How did Welfare State International (WSI) evolve?
WSI started in Bradford in 1968. I was the tutor librarian at Bradford School of Art (alumni include David Hockney). Radically we wanted to get art out of galleries and theatres. A small group of students and Sue Gill started creating street theatre, initially with stories like Punch and Judy or The Arabian Nights. We put out a circle of oil drums painted yellow, banged drums and persuaded people to come to see us. Gradually we got better at it. At that time we were all living in a large Victorian house in Leeds before we moved out into caravans parked in a former rubbish tip in Burnley. We lived as a collective of artists, mainly couples with children and a few single people. We weren’t hippies, it was simply cheaper to live in caravans and our life and work were nomadic. Our manifesto proclaimed “Art as an Entertainment, an Alternative and a Way of Life.”

Glasgow All Lit Up poster

Glasgow All Lit Up poster – University of Bristol Theatre Collection. Welfare State International. Photo: Ken Meharg and Annie Butcher

In about 1980 we moved to Ulverston in Cumbria where we started to live in a house and send our children to school. They had been home-educated on the road. As a way of learning and connecting with adults, meeting deadlines and being part of a team who were respected for their skills, they learnt a lot. But we didn’t want to deprive them of other things like a broader science curriculum, languages, team sports and wider friendships. Starting school at ten and eight years, they were a bit surprised by the culture of the classroom.

Our children look back on that time quite fondly. My son Dan Fox is an installation artist. He makes elaborate off-grid light sculptures with soundscapes. My daughter Hannah Fox was recently commissioned (with Dan) as a key artist for Saturnalia, a festival of events on Hadrian’s Wall. She is a very good visual artist, animator, musician and performer. I love our family Ceilidh Band with Hannah on fiddle, Dan on melodeon and trombone, me on accordion and grandson Luca (age eight) on percussion. Granddaughter Bel (twin, age eight) filmed us on her phone camera, posted her Barn Dance “documentary” on Facebook and had 300 hits before she went to bed! Sue Gill calls the dances.

People with lanterns

Ulverston lantern parade. Photo: Ged Murray

You created the Ulverston Lantern Festival in 1983, which is still going strong. What inspired its creation?
We’d been to Japan to perform King Lear on a mountainside and experienced a wonderful  Shinto/Buddhist lantern festival. We imported it to Ulverston using our own techniques of woven willow sticks (withies), tissue paper and candles. After a very small procession in 1983 it has grown extensively. Now in a moment of joyous excess families gather to fabricate lanterns for the parade. Children involved in those early processions now bring their own children to the annual parade.

Since 1983, scores of Lantern Parades have spread internationally from Ulverston, to all of the UK, Europe, Australia, Canada and South Africa. The biggest parade WSI produced was All Lit Up for Glasgow’s City of Culture in 1990. Over a year, schools and community groups created 3,000 lanterns to end with a massive city-scale motorised parade and a climactic extravaganza on Glasgow Green.

Ulverston is now marketed as “The Festivals Town.” In 1985, we introduced “Flag Fortnight” with scores of locally made banners and flags decorating ginnels (back lanes), shops, houses and listed buildings. Stylistically Matisse meets Beano! The first inspirational designs were by Angus and Shona Watt who gained their flag-making skills and reputation through enhancing Womad Music Festivals.

Ulverston, the birthplace of Stan Laurel, is also the ideal place for comic street theatre. We pioneered this in the eighties and it has now matured into “Fine Fest”, a wildly creative annual festival of comedy and bands selflessly organised by Dave Crossley, an energetic and skilled local impresario. Other festivals have proliferated including “Ulverston Dickensian Festival” and “PrintFest”, a nationally acclaimed exhibition and (for a couple of years) a breastfeeding celebration!

For the Millennium, we steered a large carnival to honour Sir John Barrow, 2nd Secretary to the Admiralty (1804 -1845) who was born here. The economy of the town has been stimulated. Thirty years ago there were 44 empty shops. Now there are none. New restaurants and old pubs are buoyant. The town is a lively welcoming place that draws tourists and “offcomers”. It attracts “creatives” and artists, although house prices have risen and many local young people can’t afford to live here. Another paradox of community art!

Margaret Thatcher puppet at festival

Margaret Thatcher in Glasgow, All Lit Up (1990) by Welfare State International (Cumbria, UK) Puppet construction: Graeme Gilmour

In 1988, WSI bought The Old National School, a Victorian landmark in Ulverston which we used as a base until 2006. In 1999, we were awarded a £1.7 million lottery grant to develop it into The National Centre for the Celebratory Arts.

We produced a lot of work there including many exhibitions, a Song Cycle and our last performance Longline: The Carnival Opera in 2006. Longline, which took three years to make, was a commemoration of the lives and deaths of generations around Morecambe Bay. As a community theatre event, it relied on 200 local people, including choirs and performance groups. A mythic work about The Bay, it referenced the tragic deaths of 23 migrant Chinese cockle pickers in 2004.

It was an extremely difficult gig. As our last performance (in a circus tent in heavy snow!) it was a rite of passage both for the end of WSI and also for many people in Ulverston who had worked and volunteered with us for more than 20 years. We were delighted with the review in The Guardian from Lyn Gardner, because she spotted its essence i.e. people making and celebrating together, with a community voice articulating and revealing deep-rooted memories and concerns.

I have always written poetry, whether through songs or poems, or scripts that have been used in shows. In 2021, I published Foxy’s Songbook, which includes 51 of my most accessible songs with acclaimed composers such as Mike Westbrook and Pete Moser and the late Tim Fleming. My other books are listed above.

Our work has always had a poetic base that takes us and our audiences into a different dimension. Our job has been and is to discover hidden and often deep agendas. Then, without dumbing down,  articulate our findings and make them accessible to a wide congregation. Within a certain poetic frame of mind, consciousness and energy can shift us away from the mundane and from everyday tribulations. As I discovered in hospital, the process can be a unique healing catalyst offering one kind of “well-being.” This is one declared reason why The Wellcome Trust awarded a substantial grant to The Theatre Collection at Bristol University to begin work to put our archive in the public domain (along with current buzz jargon of “social engagement” and “social prescribing”). During our bid, The Wellcome Trust acknowledged that we were “Ten years ahead of our time.” How we achieved this is a mystery!

All Lit Up (Glasgow 1990) – Glasgow coat of arms.

All Lit Up (Glasgow 1990) – Glasgow coat of arms

The archive of Welfare State International in The Theatre Collection at Bristol University records scores of WSI shows including Parliament in Flames Catford, London (1981), which had an audience of 15,000 people, Tempest on Snake Island, Toronto (1981), Raising the Titanic in Limehouse, London (1983), False Creek, Vancouver (Expo ‘86) and A Tapestry of Shipyard Tales with Town Hall Tattoo and Golden Submarine, Barrow in Furness (1983-1990). Full accounts of these gigs are in the books listed on our website.

Sue and I now live in a timber-framed wooden house on stilts, with a grass roof, above the shoreline in Baycliff, a village south of Ulverston. We are lucky to own 150 yards of beach for Wildernest, a devotional garden. It’s our answer to religion, a mixture of whirligigs, weathervanes, and poster poems, with observation points and accompanying publications, including small illustrated books for children. After working with scientists documenting the micro life in the Bay we have created videos about critters in the bay (and threatened oystercatchers), all of which can be triggered on the beach with smartphones via QR codes mounted on posts. They can also be viewed on the Dead Good Guides website. Going through our archive, I have discovered many articles, essays and lectures which need to be published.

Band in red

Blast Furness in the Lake District (Coniston annual marathon). Photo: Clare Gillham

Where did the idea come from for Dead Good Guides?
We archived Welfare State on April Fool’s Day 2006 and on the same day started Dead Good Guides, to pick up where WSI left off, using many of the same ideas in a more domestic way.

With Dead Good Guides, as well as Wildernest,  we have been invited to create many works including After The Storm, a Requiem for a forest on the Falkland Estate in Fife (2012–2013), an arboreal cloister, to mark the decimation and storm trauma. Also, I Could Read The Sky, another ecologically orientated sculpture trail in Ballycroy, County Mayo. In 2022 we directed a workshop on community theatre in Romania and performed in All Lit Up, a concert of WSI songs for Mid Pennine Arts, the people who first gave us a home in 1968.

Our work on secular ceremonies for Rites of Passage has progressed hugely over the years. When we lived in a nomadic collective, every now and again we would create a ceremony to mark a birthday, a marriage, the naming of a child or occasionally a funeral. Over the last decade such events have become more of a day job where art, theatre, culture and a certain way of life interweave and overlap. Under the umbrella of Dead Good Guides, Sue Gill creates secular services as a professional celebrant and in partnership with Gilly Adams directs two residential courses a year to observe how both positive and negative life events can be distilled, via myth and poetry, into meaningful rituals.

Finally, Sue Gill has just written a non-linear memoir, In All My Born Days, a woman’s perspective on WSI, which connects with Nature at our Beach House! It can be read in any way at all, apart from upside down. So, here we are, Dead Good Guides. We don’t have the same resources we had with Welfare State International but we judge things accordingly, look for adventures and take what comes. We are open to offers!

This feature was adapted from one first published in Issue 15 of The Martlet; read the full magazine here or explore our back catalogue of Martlets below:

Published: 13 February 2023

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