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Suffolk People: Talking to Tom Barker from the John Peel Centre for Creative Arts, Stowmarket

Church Walk Stowmarket Suffolk IP14 1ET


Tom Barker, John Peel Centre, Stowmarket, SuffolkWe’ve been hearing a lot about The John Peel Centre in Stowmarket recently.  It’s been developed as a tribute to the much loved DJ, radio presenter, record producer and journalist and the idea behind it is to create opportunities for artists to develop their creative skills and to give audiences access to more cultural events.  The centre is in the former Corn Exchange, a Victorian building that stood neglected for many years and which has been brought back to life as an exciting and inspirational arts centre.  John Peel would surely have approved.

We spoke to Tom Barker, one of the founding directors of the centre, who has been instrumental in securing the much-needed funding  to make this ambitious project a reality.

People have been very interested in the development of the centre, in large part because of the link with John Peel, what is it about him that has such enduring appeal?

That’s difficult for me to answer really because he touched so many people’s lives in so many different ways. For a lot of people it’s because he introduced them to new music, for others it was Home Truths, for others just his natural, unpretentious approach. He was an incredibly influential figure in British music, but down to earth at the same time, which I think is part of why he remains so fondly remembered. I guess it’s something we should ask people really. As the Archive project has grown and our social media gains followers we’re getting more and more snippets of the impact he had on people’s lives, so perhaps we should try and collate these somehow.

Can you tell us a bit about the John Peel Archive?

The archive is really exciting. This is one of the most amazing record collections in the world, so it’s a real honour to be able to make it available to the public. The collection contains over 26,000 LPs, 40,000 singles and unknown thousands of CDs so it’s been bit daunting to start making that available, and there’s a heavy responsibility to do it justice, but it’s still been amazing. We’ve only had limited funding so far, so the work we’ve done is essentially piloting the best way to make the whole collection available in the future.

The John Peel Centre for Creative Arts, Stowmarket, Suffolk

Photo EADT 20th October 2005

We’ve tried to recreate the experience of being in John’s studio. From there people can see some photos, a growing series of short films and other documentaries. There are links to some sessions, then the obligatory links to social media (which wouldn’t of course have existed in John’s actual studio). There’s also the link to the record collection itself, which we’ve tried to make feel as though people are there, flicking through the records on their shelves.

To make it achievable for the project on The Space* we’ve had to break it down a bit so we are taking the first 100 records (alphabetically) from each letter of the alphabet and making the artwork and John’s hand-typed filing cards available, one letter per week, until October.

Record collection at The John Peel Centre for Creative Arts, Stowmarket, Suffolk

Working with his family, we have also identified a chosen artist for each letter and Eye Film and Television have created a short documentary for each one. So every week there’s a new video.

One week there was a beautifully personal piece interviewing Nina Nastasia. The next week Richard Branson revealed how John, playing the whole of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells on his show, was intrinsic to the successful launch of Virgin Records. I could talk for hours but will start to get boring soon. The best thing is for people to go there and have a look around themselves.

What sort of events do you put on at the centre?

We’ve had all sorts really. We’ve obviously had music – singer songwriters, bands, some electronic music, and some classical and choral.

We’ve had new and upcoming artists as well as some better known figures like Billy Bragg and The Wedding Present. We’ve had an Open Mic night.

Most of the events have been things we have organised but we’ve also had local organisations like Stowmarket Chorale and Concert Band put on nights. As well as the fantastic Ultrazang. We’ve also had cinema, poetry, live literature, talks (The Physics of Superheroes, for example), theatre, childrens creative workshops, a tea dance… we’ve even made solar thermal panels in there as part of our Mad Green Scientists project with local Middle Schools.

What new developments have you got planned?

We’ve just started on perhaps the most exciting part of our journey so far. Phase 3 building works have just commenced which will create a truly world class venue in the heart of Stowmarket. We’re replacing all the 36 of our glorious full height windows, which is quite a task and will be a massive improvement, environmentally. The main part of the work is installing a mezzanine floor though. Instead of the single cavernous hall, there will be a reception desk and office, proper toilets and lobby downstairs, then above on the mezzanine will be kitchen facilities and a cafe and bar. Then the performance space will have new flooring laid, a new sound system, lighting, IT systems… everything we need to create a venue worthy of our name.

Music at The John Peel Centre for Creative Arts, Stowmarket, Suffolk The John Peel Centre for Creative Arts, Stowmarket, Suffolk The John Peel Centre for Creative Arts, Stowmarket, Suffolk

Have you got a ‘funniest/most memorable moment’ relating to your work at the centre?

Erm… most memorable for me was probably the day we spent making Solar Thermal Panels with students from Combs and Stowmarket Middle Schools. One of our Directors, Paulin Goonan, did a fantastic job on the place – the floor was completely covered in bubble wrap so it popped whenever you moved. We all had lab coats on and I remember mine being ridiculously small. There was a bike powered smoothie maker… and then the volunteers there to help and the children themselves were just so enthused it was a really special day. Billy Bragg was pretty special too, so intimate and personal it showed how the space already has an atmosphere and character that we can build into the next phase of work.

What three things do you like most about living/working in Suffolk?

I’ve lived in Suffolk all my life and I really like the people, the understated humour, the accent, the willingness to get on and do things. I like the countryside, and the coast. I also really like the amount that people put in to their local communities.

John Peel Centre for Creative Arts, Stowmarket, Suffolk

Where is your favourite place to eat?

Hmmm. There are loads of good places to eat. There’s a lovely little vegetarian cafe on Museum Street in Ipswich. I also really like Saints Cafe in Bury… then there are so many pubs doing great food. The Punch Bowl Community Inn at Battisford do great food but they’re also a really inspiring example of a community acting to provide for itself (they’re a non-profit set up the same as we are), so it’s got a really nice feel.

Favourite place to go for a walk?

I like walking along the Gipping around Needham where I live. I like the deer park at Helmingham, Dedham Vale is cool… then the coast, Dunwich, Walberswick, there are loads of lovely places.

What is your favourite Suffolk event of the year and why?

I’ve been to Latitude for the last 2 years with the John Peel Centre trailer, and that’s been pretty special. It’s a really diverse event so there’s loads to see. Locally though Stowfest has really come on in the past few years as well.

What’s your favourite Suffolk tipple?

Adnams. Hmm, or maybe Calvors. Depends on the day I think.

Most fun/interesting fact about yourself?

Erm, I’m not sure I’m that interesting really. I’m unusually tall, but that’s not very exciting. I love playing football, I still play every week for Mendlesham, the village where I grew up. As well as volunteering with the John Peel Centre, I also helped set up and still help run a community-based Internet cafe in Needham Market and I’m a Trustee on our local welfare charities.  And then there’s the day job of course, where I work for Mid Suffolk and Babergh District Councils.

Thought for the day/philosophy on life?

This is a difficult question. I’m not sure I can sum up my outlook in a pithy sentence or two. Ultimately I’m a bit of a Eutopian. I want to see a fairer society where we have more of a say over the things that affect us, more opportunities to develop ourselves and more confidence in ourselves to solve things together. I think these things are within our power, hence the attempt at clever spelling above.

John Peel Centre logo in black and white

* The Space launched in 2012 as an on-demand digital arts service. Available free of charge via the internet, smartphones, tablets and smart TV, on Freeview and Freeview HD, it has been developed by the Arts Council in partnership with the BBC.

The Space will help transform the way people connect with and experience arts, music and film and give artists space to innovate and experiment.

You can find out more about The John Peel Centre for Creative Arts on their website. If you have been to the arts centre and would like to leave a comment, please feel free to do so below.

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