“it’s a whole community of great people” — ben porter, plastic fortuneBack
Here are two things that are true about the city of York. One is that there are a lot of signposts in the city to help people find their way.
The Minster sir? If you can’t see it above the rooftops already, the signs will point you in the right direction. Castle area? Regarder le signe, très bon, non? A museum? Madam, we offer several. Choose a sign, choose a way. If you set off in the wrong direction, there will soon be a sign to put you in the right direction.
Another thing that is true about York is that it is often easier to find your way if you don’t live here. Although, like many truisms, that one is easy to contradict. Something else that people always say about York is that it’s a place where everyone knows everyone else; or, at least, everyone knows someone who knows all the other people they don’t themselves know. It’s not hard to find people; and if you’re looking for something people are a good place to start. If you were looking for Jorvik, you’d ask somebody and they’d be able to tell you the way. If you were lost with no direction in your life, though; or, less dramatically, if you needed a photographer in a hurry for an event; you might know everybody, or know enough people to know everybody, but do you know them well enough to know who can help you?
“I knew him from school,” says Michael Hayes, about his partner in Plastic Fortune, Ben Porter. You can imagine that at school they would’ve been quite different; they are quite different now. Michael is garrulous and forthright, and sometimes he will emphasise a point to our voice recorder rather than to us; he studied politics at University, and we suspect it was as a way of making himself heard rather than from a wish to seize power. Ben’s power is also in performance, but that’s as guitarist in The Blue Dawns, his hair down, his solos blue, the way deep rock formations are blue; in person he is quieter than Michael, and usually speaks after Michael has begun and before he has the last word, but with an intensity of his own that ensures his ideas resonate like a long-held note, while Michael adds the punctuating percussive thunder that drives the point home.
Listen to them. But bear in mind that after school they didn’t really speak for three and a half years. “I was in the pub with my friend, and with Ben’s girlfriend,” says Michael. This was during a self-described “phase” last year when Mike was complaining to any audience he could get; about how he was frustrated by how difficult it can be to be creative in York, frustrated by how little attention was being given to the people who deserved it.
“There was no better example than Record Store Day in York,” Michael says. “It was like two worlds. I went to Inkwell and there were people queuing up to get in to see two punk bands play. Half the people were on the street trying to look in through the window, while the other half were moshing and going mental in the shop. It was great, it was independent, tourists were looking on wondering what the hell was going on — and it was the best impression that the city could possibly give, the impression that the city is alive.
“When that finished I walked down to Parliament Street, to see a massive tent full of expensive equipment and a folk singer, and it was just exactly what you would expect in York. And there were about four people watching. There was a market of food stalls that can’t have sold much more than a hot dog. It was such old hat. It was almost dysfunctional in the way it was exactly what people expect. But at The Inkwell, that was what people want.”
Ben might moan in a different, lower key, but his frustrations were the same. When Ben tells you about starting Plastic Fortune, he begins with a basic fact: “I’m originally from Sheffield.”
For the first six months after moving Ben was still going to school in Sheffield, so he was getting the train back there all the time anyway. But summer put a stop to all that.
“That summer holiday I didn’t really know anybody and I had nothing to do, so I spent all my time trying to find out what was going on in York.” It’s not that there wasn’t anything going on, but Google unhelpfully assumed Ben’s search for new things to do in York was really a hunt for things to do in New York, while the local magazines and what’s on guides either offered nothing at all or too much to be able to discern what was good. In that atmosphere, says Ben, “Everything just became background noise.”
Sheffield became less a retreat than a contrast, and maybe even a taunt; an example, just forty-five minutes back down the tracks, of how things could actually be.
“I was looking at various creative companies, particularly ones that I knew in Sheffield, and they were all talking to each other all the time — clothing companies to photographers to bands to videographers. Each one had worked with somebody else, and they kept in contact on social media.
“There are lots of Facebook groups for York, but I find they are all very separate — one for filmmakers, one for theatre people, and so on. So if a theatre person needs a film person, they’ll ask the theatre people and struggle to find anyone.”
The solution, thought Ben, was some sort of level, localised platform, somewhere to share information and contacts and resources, a place to see what other people were doing, be inspired by it and by them and to be inspired to work with them. Which was the same solution Michael was talking about with his friend that night in the pub, towards the end of the phase of moaning, when Ben’s girlfriend heard him and said, “You know Ben’s got the same idea?”
“YORK MINSTER, WE LOVE YOU. BUT STOP IT FOR A SECOND”
“I thought, I’d better talk to him,” says Michael. It makes sense for two people with the same idea, and the same frustration, to work together; but knowing York and the way things work, he knew it was essential to talk, not compete.
“It’s something that’s on my mind all the time,” says Michael. “You get loads of companies keeping things all to themselves, and it damages the greater good of what they’re trying to do. They want to protect themselves, as if they’re worried someone else will do something in a way that makes them look bad. But working with someone can be the greatest thing that can ever happen to you.”
“There is a high level of competition in York, I think,” says Ben. “We can have competition, but we need to make things better for everybody, not just better for one person and bad for everybody else.”
When they started to talk it over, Michael says, “Ben was nice enough to say — you know what, I trust you. Let’s do something together.
“Working with Ben for six months, I’ve learned a great piece of advice to give people. Whatever you’re doing, whatever you want to do, find someone much smarter
than you. Find someone who’ll say, that’s a great idea, I’ll help you with it. If anybody is wondering what to do or how to do it, find a clever person, because clever people are great.”
Ben’s too modest to take all that appreciation like a straight shot, but it goes to the heart of what Plastic Fortune are trying to do, which is as much about matching skills and temperaments and ambitions as providing a showcase.
“It’s not just me,” says Ben. “It’s a whole community of great people. I think that’s why it has caught on. If we’d said we were making a video company, I don’t think people would have been interested. But we want to do things that people can be involved with. I’ve got four younger brothers and each one wants to do something creative, but they don’t really know what or how to find information without knowing somebody who does it already. We want people to keep coming to us, saying, we saw your videos, can you give us some advice?”
Video is where it began, and is still the core: Plastic Fortune’s first project was a twelve-part film series called People of York. The format is simple: four- to-five minute videos in which interesting York people show and tell about who they are and what they do, starting with busker Ashley James and taking in photographers, theatre directors, radio presenters, clothing designers and whoever else Ben and Michael know about, hear about or find out about. The format is effective, the nearest thing to a face-to-face meeting that the passive internet will allow, with people you’d be hard-pressed to get five minutes with, or people you didn’t know you needed five minutes with. A second series is being worked on, amid short films of happenings like live gigs and exhibitions, and they’re all getting better.
“Ben was creative from the get go,” says Michael, “But I got to sixteen, really discovered drinking, then did A-levels and university and had all my creativity battered out of me by the education system. So I have to work hard at getting better.
“I can now do audio mixing, editing, all that sort of stuff, and the barriers have felt high. But if you realise you don’t know much about something, and just get on with it and start learning, you can get better at almost anything. We’re always trying to learn new things, and that makes it better for all the people we work with, who get better work from us.”
One of the unifying features of the People of York series was a simple question put to the people featured: what, in York, could be better? And the answers were similarly unified: there should be better provision for people in the city who want to try alternative creative things. Although it’s to York’s credit that any aimless tourist will never be short of help to the right path, the crowds of people in the streets declaiming the fastest way from here to the Chocolate Story can make it difficult to get around and through to Nevermind or, even better, to scythe the Minster- bound hordes on your way to somewhere, in your own city, you’ve never been before.
“You can do a certain amount of promotion with Twitter and Facebook,” says Michael, “But the best thing is always when someone goes to an event, loves it, and asks: ‘Is it on again next week?’”
What they’ll probably find is that it is on again next week, and has been on every week before now, for weeks. “There are so many alternative things happening in York that just aren’t talked about,” says Ben. “And at the same time there are loads of people who would be interested in them, but think that nothing is going on. And a lot of them end up moving away. We only know what’s going on because we spend every hour of every day asking people about it.”
“WE NEED TO MAKE THINGS BETTER FOR EVERYBODY, NOT JUST FOR ONE PERSON”
Ben and Michael ask so they can tell, and that’s Plastic Fortune’s mission in a moment. There’s so much that’s good going on in York, but it doesn’t get the attention it deserves for the absurd reason that it’s being done for love, not money, and without a bottom line reason the city doesn’t love that love back.
“Of course there are things like the Minster that people come here to look at,” says Ben, “But it leaves the people who live here a bit left out, shoved into tiny venues off to the side. The whole city just thinks about how to grow tourism to make more money for the economy.”
“York’s music scene is amazing,” says Michael. “There’s Bull, …And The Hangnails, King No-One, Sam Griffiths, Ashley James, Ian Wilson; I could go on for ages, and it’s such a reassuring thing. Let’s be frank, there’s less than a tenner in the music industry at the moment, so they’re all doing it because they love it, and people go to see them because they’re good at it.”
It’s the city that the people of York see; the city after-dark when the open-mic nights are on in town, when music-lovers criss-cross the streets, not caring if they’re cobbled, hurrying from pub to pub to catch the next act up, hailing friends passing the other way on their way to catch the next act down. It’s culture, but it’s not a castle; it’ll be history, if enough people remember it, but it’s not heritage.
“It’s difficult to talk about,” says Michael, “Because, fundamentally, history makes whatever culture you live in. The Minster is part of our history and it’s a magnificent building, so it’s hard to say: York Minster, we love you. But stop it for a second. Because something else needs to happen.
“It’s frustrating. Tourists are good, we need them. But we’d rather they came here to take part in things than just to look at the buildings. That frustration, though, isn’t just about the little guy versus the big guy anymore, because lots of people feel the same and are doing something about it.
“I remember seeing someone say, all you need to do to set up a magazine in York is say the word ‘content’ and everyone wants to do something. And they were taking the piss. But that, actually, is a good thing. If you say you want to do something people pop up and say, let’s do it.”
“That’s what happens when you try and do things in a positive way,” says Ben. “It pulls people towards you.” Ben and Michael paid their pissed off dues back in the separate but shared phase of moaning, and Plastic Fortune is the positive result that means nobody has to be pissed off anymore.
“We are trying to do things and show things that people will look at and say, ‘that’s better’,” says Ben. “We don’t want to attack things we don’t like; we want to just leave them and do something better, and when you do something better people tend to come to you. And the other thing goes away on its own.”
“The most real way to tell people the position we’re in,” says Michael, “Is that we are just part of it. Everybody involved so far, everybody in the collective — and anybody can sign up — we just all want to do the same things, and we’re all just people. We’re just people doing the same thing. That’s what Plastic Fortune is. We’re just all doing it, all of us.”
Originally published in The City Talking: York, issue 1