Thursday 11 November 2021

September ’21 (Oh What a Night!): ArT1st Live

I’ve never been particularly prolific on social media or as a blogger. I prefer to use fewer, more considered words rather than too many words in the real world and I am no different in the online one. Moreover, it's been an exceptionally busy few months for me, with various post-retirement involvements and responsibilities all bringing worthwhile, enjoyable yet time-consuming tasks my way since the end of summer. And with two members of my family near and far, as well as a best friend, unwell in recent days, that too has been more of a priority than shouting into the echo chamber of diabetes Twitter during this Diabetes Awareness Month.

I've looked on as November has brought the usual crop of posts, tweets and images, all aimed at raising awareness, especially in this centenary year of the discovery of insulin therapy. I’m a little bit concerned that it’s starting to become a bit dutiful and ritualistic, but I admire those who persist. There is a growing sense that it's all been said before, and the “awareness-raising” posts that crop up on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram during November in the run-up to World Diabetes Day on the 14th often seem increasingly contrived or recycled. I sometimes worry that awareness raising does nothing more than preach to the converted. Many who were previously prominent in the diabetes community have gone quiet, and it sometimes seems that they are the wise ones. I was very sad recently when I saw a post from one of them apologising for his lack of advocacy presence, or worse still another saying she had been accused of lack of advocacy activity - the lady concerned is more than a little busy raising two lovely pre-school children, amongst other things. Those just quietly getting on with their lives without telling the world all about it are in many ways my dia-heroes.

Having said that, I have read, this year as every year, some wonderful observations and stories which serve to remind us all that we are far from alone, and for those newly diagnosed that there is a long and fulfilling life to be lived despite the undoubted challenges of managing the condition. Such posts and stories encourage others, and encourage me to keep writing and sharing, and more importantly to enjoy the work of others.

I enjoy writing, and so if and when I find something worth saying, I shall say it. There's no point in just writing for my own pleasure, so I shall continue posting here and hope that some will enjoy it. However, as befits my long-held and oft-stated position, I have little expertise in diabetes, only experience of it, and limited enthusiasm for diabetes technology, so there's not much for me to write about in the field of diabetes. Heaven forbid that I should be thought of as a “diabetes blogger”.

So I am writing and posting this piece for Diabetes Awareness month, and for WDD on Saturday. It’s a long-overdue reflection on ArT1st Live, already fading into a distant memory, yet in many ways the proudest day of my 24 years living with diabetes, and a day which encapsulated so much about my attitude to the condition. It’s about diabetes, yet it isn’t. Just like me.

The  ArT1st Project - still very much current and future as well as past - came to a triumphant climax on Saturday 25th September, with a gathering of around 150 people from across the UK and beyond at Drapers’ Hall in the City of London for a celebration of the creative and artistic talents of people living with Type One. 

The project had originally been the brainchild of Partha Kar back in 2019, and was supposed to be a one-off real-world event. He invited a group of enthusiastic community members - both HCPs and people with diabetes – to start planning an event, but it fell victim to the Covid-19 Pandemic and became an online event, which provided a much-needed distraction for organisers and contributors alike during the tough days of the first and severest lockdown in 2020. The website remains a wonderful reminder of what was achieved by so many, and will remain for the foreseeable future as a reminder of those difficult yet in some ways life-affirming days.

However, as soon as circumstances permitted, the organising team wanted to make the live event happen, and happen it did: perfectly timed in many ways, despite more than a few Covid scares, it proved for many of us to be a welcome return to real-world socialising, to the joys of dressing up, of eating and drinking together, which are such an essential part of what makes us human. The sense of excited anticipation that comes with getting dressed up, the “how do I look? feeling, the butterflies in the stomach, were forgotten yet precious emotions. And there was so much to enjoy about the evening:

The venue, Drapers’ Hall was simply perfect, and a source of real personal pride to me, having secured it thanks to an unlikely centuries-old connection between one of the City’s most prestigious guilds and a small-town school in Lancashire to which I devoted an entire working career. Everything about it was pitch-perfect, notably food and drink of the highest quality, discrete and attentive service by the catering team, and rooms which almost literally took the breath away of all seeing them for the first time.

The Livery Hall, Drapers' Hall

The attendees - people with diabetes, their families and NHS professionals who care for them - were a delightfully esoteric mix, bringing together some familiar names and faces from the world of diabetes care and advocacy yet also many more who had seldom, if ever, met or interacted with others from the diabetes world. That alone was a triumph, extending the reach of the community in a new way.

But above all, the performances and artwork to which we were treated were phenomenal, and gave us a powerful reminder that Type One Diabetes, that most random of afflictions, creates a community which is a random collection of individuals, impossible to categorise by age, gender, lifestyle, personality type, wealth or anything else. In this case, all they had in common other than T1D was a remarkable level of creative talent, and a wonderful willingness to share it.

And so we were treated to a wonderful celebration of life despite diabetes, not life with diabetes. After a brief history lesson from me, explaining how on earth we had all ended up in this wonderful building, my best friend and fellow organiser Ellie Huckle set the tone with a thoughtful take on the link between the imperfect delights of the arts and the imperfections of life with diabetes, and then we were able to forget the D-word and enjoy ourselves. First we had the edgy comedic genius of Ed Gamble, who captured perfectly the spirit of the event with some hilarious observational material, yet remained commendably clear that he was first and foremost a master of ceremonies rather than top of the bill. 

Ed Gamble

Ed was followed by Sophie Oliver, a student of ‘cello at the Royal Academy of Music, whose dignified yet joyful interpretation of familiar favourites from popular and classical music set the tone perfectly. 

Next came Anibal Miranda, a Spaniard living in London, with passionate interpretations of the musical theatre numbers that he loves so much.

Anibal Miranda

Then a scratch acappella ensemble called The Darling Buds of May put together and led by Pete Davies, with Nick Cahm, and Abi Ackerman, three stars of the GBDoc firmament, who blended perfectly with their supporting guest vocalists with a performance of the highest quality in a musical genre in which there is no hiding place.

The Darling Buds of May

After the interval came Abi Ackerman as a vocal soloist, her powerful voice and confident stage presence filling the Hall as only she could, including a self-penned song based around the thoughts of others living with T1D. 

Abigail Ackerman

She was followed by the wonderful Duke Al Durham, a Welsh rap poet who voices feelings familiar to all of us in his intensely personal writings. 

Duke Al Durham

Next came Siobhan Argyle, a T1D Glaswegian Victoria Wood, whose catchy, witty and engaging ditties of everyday life during the pandemic were delivered with a confidence which belied the fact that this was her first public performance.

Siobhan Argyle

And finally there was Sheku Kanneh-Mason: what can we say? Already a household name thanks to his appearances on BGT, Harry and Megan’s wedding, at the Proms and much more besides, he brought his cello to life in a manner which was, almost literally spellbinding. The fact that, before and after his performance, this delightfully self-effacing young celebrity just sat at a table with other guests, and that he duetted with Sophie Oliver with not a trace of self-importance speaks volumes about the man. Truly a superstar.

Sophie Oliver and Sheku Kanneh-Mason

So much else was good about the evening, most notably the chatter in small groups that is always one of the best things about any real-world get-together, but almost forgotten is the fact that the evening raised a much-needed £6000 for JDRFUK, whilst being pitched at a cost to attendees that made it accessible to all, thanks to the generosity of commercial sponsors Abbott, Novo Nordisk and Dexcom. An auction of artworks created by people with Type One raised almost £2000 thanks in no small part to Partha Kar’s persuasive mastery of a skill new to him.

Professor Partha Kar, OBE

But perhaps the best thing about Art1st as a project and ArT1st Live in particular is that Diabetes has been present, yet totally absent. Does that make sense? Of course it does! That, surely, is a realistic aim for all of us compelled to live with this fickle condition, and I have been fortunate enough to be able to live that out that aspiration over these past 24 years. 

Art1st Live was a gathering dominated by people who live with the condition, all of whom will have spent that evening discretely aware as always that their condition needed their attention, that the unusual circumstances of the evening, the unfamiliar food and drink, the late night, the excitement would all have to be borne in mind if they were to make it to the end with enjoyment and dignity unscathed. And yet all they did was enjoy themselves. Diabetes was there, but was largely unseen except for a lot of technology proudly on display because of sleeveless dresses. It was an evening of fun and friendship, about the people, not the diabetes, the ability not the disability.

As with all my posts, I like to find it a title from a song, and this one came to me as I sat alone in my hotel room after the event, unable to sleep yet enjoying the memories already. An exuberant celebration of a wonderful night out? What better than Franki Valli and the Four Seasons’ 1976 classic? Let’s just rename it with a revised full title: September ’21 (Oh What a Night!). What a night indeed, and one which, by popular demand, will surely be repeated before too long.

In conclusion, I must salute my fellow organisers: Agnieska Graja, Pete Davies, Partha Kar, Ros Gray, Lydia Parkhurst, Lis Warren, Sarah Ali Racanière, Jazz Sethi, Ellie Huckle, Kamil Armacki, Jess Broad and Danni Hitchins. As good a team as any I have ever had the pleasure to work with, and one linked by one thing: a life with, or caring for others with, Type One Diabetes. Patients, health professionals, a charity and three commercial companies working together. Take a bow:

Members of the organising team

ArT1st Live was sponsored by headline sponsors Abbott and Novo Nordisk, and supporting sponsor Dexcom, in order to allow all proceeds to go to JDRF UK.

All organisational work was carried out by community volunteers, supported by JDRF staff.

Photo credit - Max Turner Weddings

Twitter: @maxturnerphoto

Instagram: @maxturnerweddings


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