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The Interview

Mary Agnes Krell

Local writer and storyteller, George Murphy interviews local characters and personalities

George Murphy: Professor Mary Krell is Director of Teaching and Learning for the School of Media, Film and Music at Sussex University. In normal times she commutes each week from Mytholm to the south coast. She’s also, in non Covid times, producer and director of the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival (GNUF) which attracts visitors and performers from across the world. With husband Rob she runs the twice monthly ukulele group at the White Swan. GNUF takes place in Huddersfield, but it’s run from Hebden. GNUF received a Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in the same year as Hebden Bridge Town Hall.

Mary Krell: I grew up in Southern California in a small town called Monrovia where Route 66 ran straight through our town. My abiding memories of childhood are that it was hot and that Christmas presents came from the church via their charity drives. We weren’t rich but I don’t think I actually understood that until I was older. My siblings were all, bar one, half siblings but I didn’t know what that meant either until someone used it as an insult and I got suspended from school for writing a swear on my notebook to the person who told me.

I used to long for rainy days and after I left the Los Angeles area, I moved north to Humboldt County (above San Francisco) and ended up in Seattle after a brief stint in Brooklyn. I went to catholic school and a religious university for undergrad where they destroyed any notion of faith I might have held, so I’m a reluctant atheist.

George Murphy: As a postgraduate, Mary studied directing for stage and screen and worked in New York City and London. She was an Associate Member of Forced Entertainment working closely with Tim Etchells as a digital author

Mary Krell: I’m not sure if I ever told Tim, but I think I owe a big part of my happiness to him.

George Murphy: Their digital work won the Transmediale Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2000.

Mary Krell: Today, I’m a Professor of Creative Media. I’ve worked largely with installation, using photography, interactivity and forms of virtual reality to try to breathe life into heritage spaces and historic events. I worked with Tony Penrose to build an interactive project about his mother Lee Miller’s photography in St. Malo during WWII. Most recently, I have been the Principal Investigator on a series of virtual immersive performances called, Digital Ghost Hunt.

This year, when the pandemic hit … Inside of 2 weeks we had to move all of our teaching, learning and assessment online as lockdown took hold. Shortly after, as summer began, we had to do the same for our entire Autumn semester while also rethinking exams and related rules & regulations so that nobody was disadvantaged by Covid. I joked throughout that time that I was doing all of the work while crying, but it’s not actually a joke. I spent many days in the Spring and Summer of 2020 actually working while crying. I am somewhat afraid of the toll it may have taken on me.”

Q & A

Name your favourite …

BOOK - A Prayer for Owen Meany has made me cry at the ending every time I’ve read it. It was the first book I read that left me feeling bereft at the end. I reread it often.

FILM – Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams – the episodic nature of the short narratives collected in that film are amazing. This year, during the pandemic, where there was worry about hanami (the cherry blossom festival in Japan), I couldn’t stop seeing the images from his film. Similarly, the soldiers in the tunnel remain in your memory long after the film.

PAINTING – David Hockney’s Pearblossom Highway It was referred to as painting with light as it is more a photomontage than a painting, but I love it for its painterly nature. That image, I now know, had a major transformative experience on me when I first saw it as a young girl in Los Angeles, not far from the Mojave desert featured in the work.

If you were washed up on a desert island, with a solar powered record player, which LP and single would you most like to have with you?

SINGLE – Lizzo’s Truth Hurts. She’s great and in a recent interview with David Letterman, hearing him (and her) talk about that song only made me like it more.

LP – Gogo Penguin’s Man Made Object. It was the last album I discovered before my baby brother passed and when he lay in the hospital, in that moment between when we turned off the machines and he passed 3 years ago, it was playing for him in the room. The song, All Res still makes me happy and still makes me cry because I can feel him in the room. They’re a jazz trio from Manchester (they met at the RNCM) but I didn’t know any of that when I discovered them. They just… well listen to the album… it’s great.

What has made you laugh loudest?

My husband makes me laugh very loud every day. I don’t know how I was so lucky to find him! Back to my baby brother… in one of our last ever conversations, he told me how great he thought Rob was. He was so right!

Who is your hero or heroine?

My stepchildren Dave and Riley. Dave is studying Fine Art at Oxford and Riley volunteers at Overgate while he’s studying at Greenhead College. They make me so proud and so hopeful for the future. They are my heroes.
How has lockdown been for you?

It has sucked. See above for the whole working-while-crying thing. We lost close friends early on in the first lockdown. At present the children of many of our friends have the virus. I feel lonely and sad and angry and don’t know if there will ever be a ‘normal’ again. I’m normally an optimist. I am struggling.

Mary, what drew you to the ukulele?

I played it as a child and when I moved to the UK for work in the 00s, I saw a notice for a ukulele club. I thought it would be a nice way to meet people and I wasn’t wrong.

Can you tell us about a moment that changed your life?

On my 17th birthday, after a picnic at my brother’s house (where I was staying) my mum hugged me and before she went home said, “Goodbye.” I laughed at her and said, “I love you mom. See you tomorrow.” She paused, looked me in the eye and said, “I love you Mary Agnes. Say goodbye.” So I did and the next day I found out she died in her sleep. My mom made sure I loved her and gave me a chance to say goodbye. I have, since that day, tried to always find ways to tell people that I appreciate them and care about them.

Whats your favourite place?

My front garden, on the picnic bench, with my husband and a cup of coffee… looking down the valley and laughing about silly things or talking about vague and hopeful futures.

Whats been the good and bad of life in Hebden?

I love this town and I like how people move here and want to make a mark on it. Sometimes that same energy makes me sad though. Some of my favourite people in town (like Liz who runs the White Swan) have been here for ages and I worry new arrivals may not always be aware of the rich histories in our community.

To whom would you most like to say, “Thank you?”

My husband. He has shown me that love and good fun and ridiculousness and hope and hard work are all part of the best life. 

To whom would you most like to say, “Sorry?”

My baby brother Bernie because the plane did not fly fast enough for me to get there before they put him onto the breathing machines.

If Trump put you in the condemned cell, what would you choose as your last meal?

Pizza from Marco’s in Hebden.

Whats your prediction for the Presidential Election result?

Mayhem. I think Biden should (perhaps will) win and I just don’t think Trump or those who feel emboldened by him will accept the result. I fear for November and December, I really do.

What question would you like me to have asked - and what would your answer be?

Q What is one thing you like about George?

I love George’s writing. It is full of energy and a mischievous spirit. His words make me feel like I am in the room… any room that he conjures. George’s words have introduced me to this my adopted town and often help me see more of the world I inhabit.

More HebWeb interviews from George Murphy

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