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A Magazine for Sheffield

Exarchia : From Pitsmoor to Athens

Community artist Patrick Amber has disappeared to Greece. With his puppet making, mural painting, shadow puppetry and all-round usefulness, he is sorely missed in Pitsmoor. So I travelled to Exarchia, the anarchist quarter of Athens, where I soon found Patrick. I had three aims: to make a short film, to put on a show of some kind, and to bring Patrick home. I regret to report that I failed in all my aims. l will explain. Exarchia is a very diverse but cohesive neighbourhood that feels very similar to Pitsmoor. Housing is cheap, the streets are lively and the people are organised. The police are not allowed in the area, so they deploy in full riot gear at the corners of the quarter. I'm sure this was originally intimidating, but the police have been hanging out there for so long they have become part of the scenery. They cadge cigs off passersby, chat to locals and are steadily becoming integrated into the community. Like Pitsmoor, Exarchia has seen a huge influx of refugees and the local community has rallied to support them. But in Pitsmoor we do at least get some funding for our various projects and schemes. Exarchia has had to make up for a lack of government involvement by taking direct action. Unused buildings are requisitioned, water, electricity and wifi are installed, furniture is found or ingeniously fashioned from pallets, and food, advice and support are all provided. The energy and sheer humanity of the enterprise is extraordinarily impressive. However, I soon found that cameras were not welcome at the scene of such necessary humanitarian (but illegal) work. So no film. We arranged to put on a puppet show in one of these squats. I was a little concerned about Patrick's lack of attention to detail in his performance, but he knew better. As soon as we entered the building, I realised how severely I had misjudged the audience. These weren't the sort of children who would passively watch a performance. I often complain about our own unengaged, screen-obsessed, entertainment consumer kids. I couldn't make the same complaint about these children. They were up for it, audience participation personified. The puppet show we had spent a week planning never got started. Our stage area was a bar with high counters on all sides, so I wasn't too worried about having to keep an eye on stuff. But our defendable, fort-like area was instantly invaded by polite, excited, determined children. This was no disorganised rabble. They had tactics and leadership. The older kids with better English distracted us, while younger children poured over the side of the stage. Suicidal toddlers clambered up shelving units and I soon had my arms full of them. Each exciting thing we had made was targeted and captured. Every prop, every puppet, absolutely everything vanished into this crowd. They played noisily, chasing each other with puppets and bits of scenery, and had a fantastic time. I couldn't help but think how pointless my attention to detail had been, and at the time I was more than a little annoyed. So no show. Patrick, however, took it in his stride. He continues to work with the squat, because it's nearby, the group are approachable and because he can see their potential. These hard work, impulsive, unrestrained, justifiably suspicious kids are the people he finds most rewarding. He has the patience and the knack of engaging with them, and nobody else caters for them. This is where he can make a real difference. And so I left Patrick in Athens, where he is valued and appreciated, if anything more than he is here. I said I would bring him home, but I think he is home, so that's a success of sorts – or, as I prefer to think of it, a happy failure. In the meantime, there is a vacancy in Pitsmoor for a community compulsive creature creator, mural maker, mover and shaker, lantern lighter and shadow caster. Those are big boots to fill, so step on up Pitsmoor. And Athens, keep your hands off. We know your game now. )

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