Monday, December 05, 2016

Slipping icily into the festive season...

'The cold never bothered me anyway' trills Frozen's Elsa bravely. Don't mistake me for Elsa. As frost grips leaves (prettily) and windscreens (annoyingly) I strive to muster the stoic resilience of Albert Camus who wrote In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer. Good luck with that, then, my less stoic self mutters. But it's beautiful, I concede, that icy clarity of winter sunshine ~ this is how Stourhead looks when half the lake is solid and the grass is a field of tiny sabres.
And now it's December there's no avoiding the beast that lurches toward Bethlehem to be born again as a Retail Festival. Frome had a low-key lights-switch-on event this year: singing in the streets and tree sparkles which all lit up at the right moment ~ the mass 'Ooh!' gasp in response was more of an Oh!' of surprise from Fromies familiar with such events.
There was plenty of good music & other stuff around too: Dexters Extra Breakfast after the festive market at the Grain Bar were followed by the foot-stopping Buffalo Gals, and on Sunday Jazz Jam at the Cornerhouse gave us Simon Sax's lineup of superb performers. And Cafe La Strada is now featuring an exhibition of David Goodman's characteristically lucent eclectic photographs.
First Sunday of the month is Frome Independent market and minus- zero temperatures didn't stop the crowds pouring in. Cerulean skies and sunshine helped, and despite the whole town bordering on gridlock status (especially around hot-drink stalls) there was an upbeat atmosphere.
This month I was on the market myself, spasmodically declaiming poems from Crumbs from a Spinning World outside Hunting Raven Books, along with World Tree Story author Julian Hight who was also selling and signing. Great fun, and lovely feedback from buyers.

Earlier this week I'd met up with Burning Eye Books press officer ~ delightful Jenn Hart, here setting up for a podcast to give my progress report. My idea is a kind of scatter-gun approach to launching, with pop-up events in various locations (Frome Library next Saturday, December 10) and open-mic performances in Poetry Cafes and clubs. "If it isn't any fun, don't do it" D.H.Lawrence said, and he was right.
 So far, I've done spots at events in Bruton and Wells, acquiring after the latter a review in the Wells Journal I shall quote endlessly: Praise ... to Crysse Morrison, whose alphabetical 26 word review of Austen's Pride and Prejudice allied form and function in a way the Bauhaus would have applauded.  So it's a watch-this-space situation, or check my facebook page should you want to know upcoming.

Footnote of the week comes from a marvellous piece in Index: Wiltshire in which a Devises resident yearns fractiously for some of Frome's iconic charm. Oh, blast that funky freewheeling Frome... Here we go again, I swear every news story I hear about Frome is a happy-ending-tale of civic action... 
...not a constant free festival or a hippy commune, Frome is an organised community acting upon issues, often against conformity, to create a distinctiveness and liberal attitude which makes Brighton look like North Korea. Full of facts, and funny too ~ Darren Worrow, you may not be Bauhaus but I enjoyed that very much.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Chocolate shoes, a hippy Tempest, punk music & retro art

Frome's Chocolate Festival was on Sunday and the Cheese and Grain almost split at the seams with excited tasters and buyers from stalls selling everything conceivably chocolate from bars and boxes to Thomas the Tank engines and high-heeled shoes - including chocolate candyfloss and chocolate limoncello (my favourite). Big sticky licky-fingered congratulations to Jo Harrington for an amazing enterprise.

The Grain bar Roots Session this week featured two excellent acts - punky ukelele-&-cahón trio The Wochynskis with vocals from Carl Sutterby, and 'velvet-voiced' Steve Loundon's band now featuring Charlotte Egmore.
And now to the theatre. The Tempest, despite its redemptive ending, is a difficult play. Prospero has born an understandable grudge in solitude for many years, he's a control freak and often frankly nasty. Neither of his fairy servants feel well-treated and none of the new arrivals on the island are people you'd like to spend much time with, though you have to as this play runs for nearly three hours. Credit then to Frome Drama Club for a brave new version, in which director Steve Scammell gender-swaps three key roles and gives Prospero an almost Lear-like tragic decline in powers at the end. Modernising a Jacobean play is always tricky but Raggedy's lovely costumes helped and there were some moving moments: the dance of the two fairies during Caliban's Be not afraid... speech was my personal highlight. Polly Lamb's watchful Ariel stole every scene she entered. Congratulations all for the team effort.

BlackSwanArts is currently enjoying a retrospective look at 30 years, 30 artists, celebrating 'artists and makers who started their careers at the Black Swan, returning with a mix of ceramic, jewellery, painting, pottery and printmaking.' It's a charming exhibition, most of pieces delicately playful - and an admirably vibrant interactive art chest from Stina Falle.
I ended my week with a family trip to Dorset and a marvellous walk along the chesil beach and ridgeway at Abbotsbury, included here via the slightly-dubious connection with TE Lawrence who as well as being an officer, archeologist, and diplomat was also of course a writer, and whose cottage is here. We didn't see it actually, because after a seven mile walk we preferred the pub, but the whole area is fascinating historically as well as beautiful. 

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Art to disturb the comfortable & comfort the disturbed

In a week when Michelle Obama's departure from the White House was greeted in West Virginia with relief that the ape in heels had gone, the new production at Bath's Ustinov feels disturbingly relevant.
 Trouble in Mind was originally performed in 1955, and writer Alice Childress was the first African American to win an Obie - best Original Off-Broadway Production award. It's a passionate play about the production of a passionate play: a tear-jerking inditement of racism from a white writer's perspective. Can the black cast accept this, as they accept the bullying of their volatile director (Jonathan Cullen terrifyingly good in this role), and be grateful for the money and for sharing meals in public with their white co-actors or do they have a right to their own feelings? This is the dilemma that increasingly emerges, and Tanya Moodie ~ who instigated this production ~ is memorably impressive as Wiletta Mayer, the one who articulates it. Director Lawrence Boswell brings deliberate theatricality to every moment of this painful journey: from dominated role-playing, to slow achievement of confidence and ultimate crisis. Don't matter who gets in, don't make no difference to us, is a line from the play-within-the-play that resonates throughout. Grippingly watchable, often painfully funny, and brilliantly acted - it's on till 17th December so forget the panto, come and see this. (image Simon Annand) 

This has been a week of new beginnings. My poetry collection Crumbs from a Spinning World was officially published by 'upstart indie punk' company Burning Eye Books on Tuesday with a really nice blog on their site (very short, do click the link!) and I had a small celebratory party. On Thursday Ann Harrison-Broninksi launched her 'comic horror story for kids' Hag of Hythe, also in a party atmosphere at the Three Swans. So you can enjoy a brace of covers from the pen of 'Frome's Banksy', Paul (Mutartis) Boswell who lavishly illustrated Ann's story.

Then on Friday night Frome Writers Collective launched their imprint Silver Crow in the Black Swan gallery to an enthusiastic crowd of writers. Nikki Coppleston read from her detective novel The Shame of Innocence, published in this new imprint by SilverWood, whose director Helen Hart gave an excellent talk about self-publishing as no longer a 'vanity' choice but 'the democratisation of publishing.  Here's Helen, and Nikki with her book.
I just had time then to scamper to the Round Tower to congratulate Annette Burkitt, Geraldine McLoughlin and Kate Cochrane on their collaboration with Rosie Jackson to create paintings inspired by her poems, which Rosie was discussing at the launch of Kate's Angles & Aspects exhibition.
And also on a busy night, Cornerhouse rebranded its upstairs room as a gallery with a fantastic exhibition of prints by Frome photographer David Goodman. The bar downstairs too was filled with amazing examples of his work, and Bonne Nouvelle were there to entertain the guests, appropriately surrounded by superb portraits of musicians.

It was a big week for farewells too: on Wednesday a memorial service for Esme Ellis, sculptor and writer and supporter of all arts and artists. I met Esme when she was writing her allegorical novel This Strange and Precious Thing ~ this picture is from the launch in Bath in 2008 ~  and she responded to one of my poems in her last book Dreaming Worlds Awake, a deeply personal reflection on life and love.
 And on Friday, Frome town said goodbye to Griff Daniels with a tribute night at Rook Lane. Griff was a key figure in the Frome music scene and an all-round fantastic guy, and over two hundred people came to his send-off - fittingly in a party atmosphere, with several of his closest bandmates playing throughout an unforgettable evening.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

All about diversity...

In a week of writing-related events across three counties, I'll start with Take Art's 'Getting the Ball Rolling' session at The David Hall in South Petherton because the theme was diversity in the arts. Several really great presentations sparked discussion and cross-fertilisation between the poets, story-tellers, singers and theatre-makers. I especially enjoyed the Word/Play poets with Liv Torc, and the snippet from Gloria Lawrence's musical envisaging an African Queen meeting Elizabeth I, performed with singer Sasha Herriman ~ pleased to see Nzingabeth will be touring soon. An excellent event, entertaining and informative, with cake.

Moving northward, the Cotswold Walking Trail covers a hundred miles of footpaths and fields through quintessentially English rural vistas from Chipping Campden down to Bath, and I don't think I've ever walked any of it till last week. Martin Bax, founder of the Frome Festival, invited me to come with him on a 6 mile route featuring Adlestrop, the tiny village made famous by Edward Thomas. The railway station that inspired his poem was a victim of the 1966 Beeching cuts, and the poet himself was a victim of the 1917 attack on Arras that killed 160, 000 British soldiers. One of the station signs was salvaged, and re-housed at the end of the village as a place of pilgrimage for the many admirers of this gentle, epiphanic poem.
Martin and I were both there for the Edward Thomas connection (he will feature in next year's Frome festival) but there was an added bonus: a short talk from local Jane Austen specialist & author Victoria Huxley on the visits made by Jane to stay with her cousin the Reverend Thomas Leigh - here's the posh rectory. "You are literally following Jane's footsteps" Victoria assured us as we shuffled into the church, "because she came here every Sunday and there's no other door!"  Her talk, based on her book on the subject, was short but really interesting, especially on the vexed and precarious aspect of social status. "To the Leighs, the Austens were poor relations. All the snobbish observations and subtle putdowns in her books were what she saw and heard - how she herself was treated." A bonanza of a day - connection the two literary heroes, fantastic weather, and a really nice pub lunch at the end. I'll skip quickly over the field of frisky cows, as indeed I did at the time.

Back to Frome now, and a pleasant FWC social on Monday as the Frome Writers Collective gathered to listen to readings from the 'Writers in Residence' contest, when writers were allocated shops & cafes on the first Saturday of the summer festival, to write on the theme of 'All's Well That Ends Well.' Six of these impromptu sagas were shared below a unicorn to an attentive audience and a stuffed hen (we were in the upstairs room of the Three Swans, if you're unfamiliar with Frome), with Caroline Snailes' topical political satire deemed a worthy winner (though I wish Michael Eavis had taken leadership of our country) (note there will be no mention of any other country in this post.) The range of readings was delightful, and I especially enjoyed Judy Annann's recollections of producing Shakespeare in China in the 1990s, and Nikki Lloyd's witty phraseology in a tightly-crafted mother/daughter reconciliation story.

Staying in Frome but moving from fiction to fact: Steve Tompkins is an architect specialising in designing theatres, and his talk on this topic at Rook Lane for on Tuesday was a superb performance.  Projected illustrations enhanced his account and I was pleased to note that Steve and his Haworth Tompkins team like me have a passion for vermillion.  Steve, like Grayson Perry last week, subdivided his thoughts into categories: in this case elements not of maleness but of excellence in design. Theatres need to embody theatricality and also local memory, democracy, playfulness, permissiveness, and civility. The concrete (and reclaimed materials) examples and the stories of their concepts, constraints, and development were all fascinating, and I relished too Steve's architectonic phraseology: new buildings 'deferring' to neighbours and 'announcing themselves' in the street, 'talking to' the industrial surroundings and 'revealing themselves by night'... actually it does all sound quite male...

The brimming cornucopia of diversity this week also included a couple of terrific gigs ~ Roots Session on Wednesday featured Out To Grass, an amazing sextet who blue-grass up oldies from Beatles to Bon Jovi, and Blue Midnight rocking the Cornerhouse on Friday night with their unique ska-meets-folk fiesta style.

And finally in this diverse melange, the most unusual exhibition I've yet seen at Silk Mill: The Abnormalist Collective of young local artists have filled the space with personal work in a wide range of media, presented in an engagingly personal way. The concept is engagingly personal too: Frome does things differently, the event description explains: Where we've been raised is unlike any other place, due to the amount of freedom there is here. It's about independence, it's about how we do things in our own way, every person is an individual. And about impermanence. Theres a lot of change in the world, and in our individual lifes. So lets stop, and come together, to praise those who are moving with us. Frome does indeed do things differently, so massive appreciation to organisers Joey Sadler and Ewan Mitchell, here with artist Chloe Steeple. Only showing for three days, it will all be taken down after Sunday, so if you see this in time, do take a look.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Of launches, sanctions, and masculinity

It's been a great week for book launches. In Frome, over a hundred people arrived at Merlin theatre hungry to hear poet and author Rosie Jackson reading from her newly published memoir The Glass Mother, with quite a few also hungry for the exquisite platters of tapas (thanks Jo Harrington) in the night-clubby ambience onstage. As 'Spoken Word coordinator' for the theatre I'd been involved in this event for a while, and as Rosie had shared her developing story at our writing group, I knew this was going to be a memorable evening, and it certainly was.
Rosie suggested at the start of her reading that memoir is a form more akin to poetry than to history, and her extracts all showed that quality of lyrical precision, as well as unflinching integrity to the poignant theme at the heart of her story.
Also there to celebrate their completed books were seven of her writing group, Des Harris, Dennis Costler, Maggie Pierce, Gillie Richardson, Steve Small, Tim Cutting, and Karine Butchart, who all read a short extract from their own memoirs. A fabulous evening and an unforgettable night ~ huge appreciation to the writers and thanks to the theatre crew for their superb support. As a happy footnote, Rosie's publisher Robin Jones reports after-show sales surpassing all his previous Unthank Books launches.

Now to Bath, where Carrie Etter, originally from Normal, Illinois now lives. Carrie and Frome's Claire Crowther are both powerful & compelling poets who are currently launching new chapbooks with Shearsman, and as they're also friends this was clearly a brilliant opportunity for a shared launch at Toppings, with a soiree at Circo afterwards. The diversity in subject and form in these two books made for fascinating readings: Carrie explores climate change in words scattered across the pages of Scar, vividly evoking the blizzards, tornadoes, floods, droughts & heatwaves that Illinois is suffering, while in Bare George Claire reports with esoteric precision on the history of coinage from her observations at the Royal Mint. Both extraordinary books that yield more meaning with every re-reading.
Claire's 'bare George' is the dragon-slayer, symbol of mastery and male dominance which segues usefully into my next report: Grayson Perry opened his Typical Man in a Dress tour in Bristol, entertaining a full house at Colston Hall with his thoughts on masculinity. As you'd expect, these were colourful and comical as well as thought-provoking, and after the interval some thoughts thus provoked were tweeted onto the back-screen. (I liked 'masculinity is having to fetch the interval drinks because the wife can't be arsed to get out of her seat.') Masculinity, according to Grayson Perry's six-point man-ifesto is: not innate but learned, it's power & dominance, it's performance, it's redundant, it's sexy, and it's a treatable mental health condition. Backdrop projections accompany the banter ~ a picture of Bear Grylls crouching in undergrowth, for example, to illustrate his point that skills a man needs have changed and nowadays it's more likely to be how to find a decent school in your area. His conclusion is that macho men are now skeuomorphs, a wonderful word derived from architecture meaning 'an object that used to be functional and is now merely decorative'.  Like those awesome tapestries, insightful detail creates an overall picture of our society, and his appraisal is compassionate as well as clever.

Also in Bristol: Watershed was showing I, Daniel Blake all week and I went to an afternoon screening. Director Ken Loach deserves every accolade for this searing case-study story of the iniquities of 'austerity' which professionals and users confirm as entirely accurate although Work & Pensions Secretary Damian Green, who hadn't seen the film, disagreed. It won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and has six nominations in the British Independent Film Awards, including best film and best director. Hang on there Ken, we need you.

On a lively firework night, bonfires were burning too in Silk Mill's yard as a Cider Festival raging within ~ not my personal tipple, but great to hear Al O'Kane and Andy Hill playing there, especially Al's wonderful Winter Bluesit's that time of year again... what will winter bring for us all. Indeed.
And there's always excellent live music at the monthly Frome Independent market, on the busking stage and in pubs and streets as well ~ here's The Wochynskis punking it up with London's Calling in Cheap Street.
And finally: here's the impossibly beautiful view at Stourhead on Monday at the start of a week that began with mild days and gorgeous autumn tones, and ended with a deep litter of fallen leaves as November winds bite..

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Ghosts & monsters as halloween hovers...

Another week, another theatrical tale of a mutilated victim, as Salisbury Playhouse commissioned comedy duo Living Spit to recreate Mary Shelley's tragic monster Frankenstein.  Howard Coggins and Stu McCloughlin are brilliant at creating a somehow-recognisable storyline from their chaotic double-act so it's reassuring when, stepping out through the plush red curtains in immaculate evening dress, they explain all they've added for this big-stage, bigger-budget, production is a four-piece backing band. The programme suggests other parts are played by ‘members of the cast’ but happily that's just Stu as usual, capering around in various costumes when not in his underpants (and sometimes out of them) being a monster. The extra musicality is great, and there are puppets too, including a hamster called Greg, but basically it's the mixture as before: Howard and Stu hogging the action and upstaging each other, banter and faux-rivalry, absurdity and vulgarity, a thin thread of authenticity, and a little bit of genuine pathos.
There’s always a moment in a Living Spit show when you realise this is actually like life and not really funny at all (this time it’s when Victor Frankenstein abuses his creation for his ugliness and shows us all how easily a mob can be enticed to jeer).  Apparently this story when first published in 1817 was described as ‘a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdities’. “We’re expecting similar reviews for this show” the programme notes conclude. On till November 5th, well worth seeing.
Tobacco Factory Theatres has combined with Sherman Theatre for a revival of Connor McPherson’s award-winning 1997 play The Weir in which reminiscences flow like lager (the Guiness is off) in a rural Irish pub where superstition is still part of life and there’s 'no dark like a winter night in the country'. This is a play about being haunted by losses and regrets, about tedium and drinking, a play about Auld Oirland, represented by the dingiest pub imaginable and motley crew of lonely drop-ins swapping mordbid tales in Oirish as they sup their way through a dismal evening. Think Father Ted without the bawdy mirth, think a pitch-dark version of Wendy’s stories to comfort the lost boys in the Never-Never Land. “We’ll all be ghosts soon enough” says one of the men. It’s the sense of place and atmosphere, according to the writer himself, that made this play special: he saw it as like eavesdropping for an evening - ‘a little snow-globe, a perfectly contained world of its own.' Tobacco Factory is usually brilliant at creating such a world of imagination in the round, but for this production there's a massive set of detailed structure which the characters roam around, rather than creating any sense of intimacy. Orla Fitzgerald is impressive as the woman whose arrival sets the competitive story-telling rolling, and the four men are strong on roguish charm though the barman in particular doesn't seem comfortable with the accent. There’s an exchange early on that sums up the play: ‘You’re making very heavy weather of this story,’ says Finbar, and Jack replies unphazed ‘You have to relish the details.’ Showing till 5th November.

Death is a brave topic for stand-up, but Drift Snowbarger, the new Storytelling Bard of Somerset, pulled it off in the suitably gothic upstairs room of the Three Swans on Friday. As well as laughing, quite a lot, I learned some interesting mordant facts, like false knees can't be made of magnetic material, and that I - and you - can be buried anywhere we want as long as we don't contaminate the water. There was genuine personal feeling at the heart of this monologue, too. George Bernard Shaw, who famously opined 'Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh,' would have approved.

Staying with dark laughter: Austentatious promised a uniquely improvised Jane Austen novel, on a theme provided by the audience, at the Merlin Theatre on Saturday. The title allegedly picked at random was The Curse of Candlestick Manor ~ appropriate for an evening when Frome townsfolk were already anticipating Halloween in ghoulish costumes (and even the bakeries are full of horror...)
Six cast members, plus violinist, all look gorgeously Regency-stylish for this parody of the melodramatic gothic genre, but the narrative felt a bit flaccid and lacking in authentic edge. These actors are clearly all talented entertainers, so it would have been great to see genuine audience involvement, suggestions audible, and with the addition of roles played 'in the manner of...'   Instead it was pleasant and often amusing but all rather mono-toned.

Finally this week:  the current exhibition at Frome's Black Swan gallery is the Arts Open Exhibition, a prestigious event with prizes of materials, framing and masses of cash in various categories for the judges' favourites - and, still up for grabs, £250 for the 'public choice', so pop along and vote!  You'll also see a fabulously varied array of amazing artworks, impressively curated.  On until 19th November.