Monday, September 26, 2016

The carnival is over, it must be autumn

There was much to celebrate on Saturday but as this is an arts blog I'll keep all that for facebook and just tell you, if you weren't there, that the annual Frome Carnival was as glittery and quirky as ever, and the streets were thronged to watch the colourful paraders prance, dance, cartwheel or totter down the hill and through the town centre.   In typical egalitarian style, the mayor & his lady chose to walk with the collectors rather than wave regally from a posh car.
This lively event was a great finale to week with arts in the spotlight, as Frome Town Council concluded a series of meetings to define the priorities for a 'performing arts' policy. Consultations with venues, performers, promoters, and potential audiences all culminated in this week's round-up, led by deputy mayor Al O'Kane who instigated the initiative, and a six-point practical summary for enhanced renaissance will go forward to the council.

Meanwhile the Roots Grain Bar sessions continue to give the best value evening entertainment for a hat donation you'll ever find on a Wednesday, this week featuring superb song-writer and performer Phil Cooper with his band.

And for spoken word fans this week there was Story Friday, the popular bimonthly event presented by A Word In Your Ear at Burdall's Yard in Bath. This session's theme of Outsiders particular interests me so I was delighted my story was one of the seven chosen. The standard is awesome and it was a genuine privilege to be in a line-up with Clare Reddaway and other superb writers - look out for Conor Houghton if you enjoy droll fast-moving Irish humour, a new star who may well go supernova soon. Stories now all on audio - listen here!
So now autumn has officially begun ~ it arrived astronomically on September 21st, also allegedly International Peace Day (don't get me started) ~ here's a couple of events to look forward to: Frome Poetry Cafe on October 4th has Hannah Teasdale as guest poet, and local writer Rosie Jackson will be launching her memoir The Glass Mother at the Merlin on November 4th.  Nevertheless Fringe Theatre isn't planning another production this year as Rosie & I are both involved in other projects, but there are exciting new theatre initiatives around as well as to the Merlin's eclectic autumn programme. Marc Cox is starting a script-in-hand writers group at the Atheneum in Warminster, and Simon's Blakeman's impro group now meets each Tuesday upstairs at the Cornerhouse. And for film fans, the good news is that new owners will reopen the Westway as an independent cinema again. And there's still one more week of Somerset Art's 'open studios' ~ venue list here

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

All men are Bavarians...

Sheridan's famous comedy The Rivals is set in 1775, which was 'a glorious period of indulgence and frivolity' according to Tom Rogers who created the designs for Bristol Old Vic. 'Overblown and excessive' was his aim, impressively achieved in this lavish ~ and very funny ~ current production, with wigs as high as Oklahoma corn and flamboyant costumes in silk taffeta with extravagant trimmings. The set, basically a dressing-room where everyone preens, is interrupted for scene changes by vast frames to suggest different locations, enhancing the sense of show not substance, and a social milieu where everyone dissembles ~ even hero Jack Absolute who pretends to be a humble ensign to get his girl, romantic Lydia Languish. There are secrets overheard, notes intercepted, lies rebounding and deceits unmasked at every turn of this complex plot. Even Mrs Malaprop, despite her pride in her 'oracular tongue and nice derangement of epitaphs' is at it, posing as her ward to lure one of her suitors...
The story may hover between pantomime and farce, but Sheridan was a noted radical and there's satire too in his depiction of tyrannical landowners, and of women who despite their status have no other powers than beauty and perversity.
 Director Dominic Hill finds gags and innuendo in hidden corners of the script, and spices it with visual humour: anachronistic touches like polaroids and a typewriter, landscape-painting-style sheep, and a mysterious macaw.  More importantly, he has assembled a superb cast in which Lucy Briggs-Owen's Lydia Languish, a bizarre combination of Tim Burton's Red Queen and Lauren Am-I-Bovvered? Cooper, takes comedic caricature to the outrageous limit. She is marvellous. And all, of course, is unravelled at the end as Through all the drama — whether damned or not — Love gilds the scene, and women guide the plot. On till October 1st, hugely recommended.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

from the edge of the ocean

Frome how big you are! How full of roads & cars & houses, and how overwhelming damp & colourless... apparently there's been an Indian summer here last week but I've returned from Atsitsa on Skyros island into the season of mists and a 10 degree drop in temperature.
No blazing cerulean skies here, no strobe-bright dazzle on an indigo sea, no stark dark pine-tree shadows. No nightly views of the sky glittering pink and the ocean silvering as a big red sun drops like a blob of ketchup below the horizon, no more red moon rising above Juicy Bar beach on a warm evening, with mojitos. No more mealtime bell announcing trays of banquet-luscious food arriving, no more extreme (Irish) yoga, or demos group appreciations, or oikos groups and, big on this miss-list, no more marvellous shared words from the writing group.
My  awesome octet met each morning in Adonis taverna on the beach to drink greek coffee and write, and each morning they astounded me, and sometimes themselves, with memories & inventions, feelings & observations, stories & poems.... meanwhile the fishermen mended their nets & drank grappa and the local ladies gossiped & laughed loudly and the sea methodically slapped the white pebbles and the sun shone. Miss that? Just a bit. That's litotes - understatement to emphasise an affirmative. And this is flow, which is only allowed ten minutes (Ted Hughes says so too) so I must stop. Normal service will be resumed next post.  In the meantime in the words of physicist Carlo Rovelli, which I read aloud in the warm full-moon darkness beside a bay on the island after our starry starry night walk, Here on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world. And it's breathtaking.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Flying in & out of Frome

So I got back home from San Francisco late on Monday realising there was no real point in emptying my case, more sensible simply to take remove the warmer layers and replace with books & course notes as I head off to lovely Skyros after four days enjoying Frome's warm sunshine.  It's autumn here, crab-apple & berry time, but apparently hot & stormy on the Aegean...

My  brief check-in included a terrific gig at Wednesday's Roots Grain Bar where Steve Loudoun and the Saboteurs covered an amazing range of styles with terrific vocals from Charlotte Egmore & Steve himself, and two very different art exhibitions.

Guy Watts is showing some of his fascinatingly complex 'detailed, dreamy' pen&ink works at La Strada until the end of October, and Paul Minott's exhibition of massive monoprints at Black Swan Arts had its launch on Friday.
In total technical contrast, Paul creates his designs on iPad and then each element is lasercut from thin plastic to be inked and etched and placed together to create a unique print. Well worth going to see, folks, and in the gallery till 8th October. Some lovely landscape photographs by Mahtola Eagle-Lippiatt in the cafe downstairs too.

I've been keen all summer to catch Frankenstein in Bath, the nightly 'theatrical walking tour' from the ever-innovative Show of Strength Theatre Company. The street performances of stories and histories I've seen in Bristol and Wells are always enjoyable, but this true tale from 1816 had extra appeal as it overlaps the Persuasion year featured in my play for Frome Festival Time Slides.  Creative Producer Sheila Hannon wrote this dramatic investigation and on Thursday led our intrigued group in the footsteps of Mary Shelley, revealing liaisons, tragedies & scandals along the way. Mary, as well as the poet Shelley's bride and the creator of Frankenstein the monster-maker, was the child of influential early-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft who died when she was 10 days old, so there's a particular  poignancy in her obsession with an unmothered creature whose life became a long frantic quest to find its creator. This saga of still-hidden secrets is totally gripping, evoking huge empathy & compassion as we hurried along the dark streets, pausing to eavesdrop fragments from letters of love & despair while the moon glowered above the plumes of our narrator's Regency headdress... It's on till the end of September, and it's a real treat. No booking, just turn up by the fountain outside the abbey at 7.30.

And finally this week: the exciting news from Burning Eye Books that my poetry collection Crumbs from a Spinning World will be published next month. I'm thrilled with the cover design by Mutartis Boswell, and more than chuffed to become, as Hannah Teasdale puts it, "another BE club member". With the tagline Never knowingly mainstream, Burning Eye scooped the Saboteur 2016 award for 'Most Innovative Publisher' - I'm thinking of making a lapel badge from that image... And in case you were wondering, my title was inspired by one of my favourite poets Brian Patten: it's the song of the slow, sad bird in The Translation:
"From my nest among moments 
Where I keep a spinning world 
I stole one crumb of joy 
But lost it coming here.”

So now I'm off again to join the team leaders in Atsitsa Bay for their penultimate week on the island. Smiley face!

Sunday, September 04, 2016

The pelican days are over...

This week the Bay area suddenly remembered California is the Golden State and offered dazzling sunshine for most of my walks. I've spent hours each day on coastal trails from Moss Beach in the north to beyond Poplar in the south, each about 6 miles from my central point in El Granada. Mo has taken me further too, up to the Devil's Slide (still part of the Cabrillo Highway on my first visit, but after constant landslides it's now an environmental reserve) and down to Bean Hollow, where the rocks of Pescadero are transformed into strange creatures by wind and salt erosion.
The phenomenon is called tafoni, and is rare and mysterious especially since, unlike the rest of the coastal rocks, these patterns are resistant to further change. I compared the tiny squarish corn-circle-like etching in this picture with my photo from 8 years ago and it's identical in every detail.
As well as extraordinary rocks I've seen amazing trees: avenues of cedars, creeks overhung with massive ancient eucalyptus, and slim pastel-barked younger ones in elegant rows all the way down from the hills to the sea. I've been dazzled by the range of flower colours continuing up the Highway verge as well as along the dunes and gardens... but more than all that, this trip has been about the birds.
 I've spent literally hours watching them fishing along the shore: mincing sandpipers, shrieking gulls, terns and cormorants, elegant herons and snowy egrets, diving murres and endless gangs of pelicans, and inland there are wrens and tits and blackbirds along the paths and dunes, while above the ocean seahawks and buzzards circle high then drop suddenly to glide the thermals like surfboarding teenagers.  Oh and let's not forget the seals: I often saw them basking on rocks along the coast & several times swimming in the bay, lifting their musky muzzles to stare around like curious puppies.

I have of course had people contact too, and trips to places other than the long beach and its wild rocky outcrops, like Alice's Restaurant (of Arlo Guthrie fame), the farmers' market where Mo & his musician friends play & sing, and a fascinating afternoon with the 'Coastside Life Story Writers' hearing their moving memories of wars around the world from Bolivia to Iwo Jima and Vietnam. And I also did quite a lot of writing on my current drama project, though that's still at design stage... but my book project is now close to launch: my editor has sent page proofs & the publisher loves Mutartis' cover design, so I hope to set off the fireworks for this one soon!
Meantime, here's a last look at the bay, and goodbye USA. Thanks for having me, it's been great. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

Letter from America

Incredibly, to me, this is now my seventh 'writing retreat' visit to Half Moon Bay to stay with Mo and Anja, walking the coast paths & beaches daily as well as getting quite a bit of writing done. Each year there are changes ~ huge erosion along the coast ensures that ~ but each visit brings the same sense of serenity in the spaciousness of this incredibly beautiful coast.
My  long walks along the bay and over the headland to the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve have been in coastal fog as well as dazzling sunshine, but there's always so much to elate: seal heads bobbing in the harbour, processions of pelicans flying in slow scoops, massive yellow butterflies flopping on the wild flowers...
And there's been more than a dash of culture too. Half Moon Bay Shakespeare Company is presenting The Tragedy of Macbeth in an open-air performance in Carter Park, which to quote the local press preview, you will find just down Highway One, turn left on Main Street and it's just before the bridge. Quite a lot of people have found the venue, and massively enjoyed this lavish production. Director Robert Pickett created a fast-moving interpretation effectively choreographed and with some great individual performances, especially Duncan (pictured in the opening scene), and Lady Macbeth ~ here greeting her husband, newly made Thane and with his heart already fixed on the crown. Macduff and his doomed young son were excellent too. I was delighted to attend the opening night of this production, with Mo's friends Dave & Claudine who brought cheese & wine for a perfect picnic in our front-row-stalls seats.
Dave also organised a Spoken Word evening at his house later in the week, where nine of us were gathered to share words & appreciate some superb readings by Bay residents like Diane Moomey whose droll & tender poems have been widely published.

Apart from these social highlights, my time here has been exceptional for its quietness & the leisurely progress of days.  So what else... I've spent a lot of time outdoors, examining flora & sometimes fauna through the lens of my old Canon compact, since my Nikon lens now repaired is waiting for me in Frome, and a lot of time on my current writing project, and even some time writing while I walk...  

Today the California blues have ebbed to monochrome
sky softly pleated gray,  the wet sand silver,
sea platinum, foam-flecked as white froth pulls away.

Today is a day to watch pelicans in slow flight,
examine the intricate tapestry of eucalyptus trees,
to observe, minutely, the endless reciprocity of rock, & sand, & sea.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Girdling the earth, from Bottom's Athens to Batman's Gotham City

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a play about love in all its aspects: magical, delusional, reckless, reliable, posh & common, and the current production at Theatre Royal Bath puts sharp focus on Shakespeare's timeless theme of passion's follies as well as its ecstasies. The cast are all impressive and the lovers are superb. William Postlethwaite is specially awesome, his louche Lysander mesmeric from the moment he steps on stage as lover of feisty Hermia (Eve Ponsonby). Helena (Maya Wasowicz) thrillingly makes an olympic sport out of fighting for your man (Wilf Scolding) ~ in fact the funniest scene by far is not the comedians' set-piece but the lovers' cartoon-like conflict in the forest. Darrell D'Silva and Katy Stephens are mesmerising in their royal roles in both human and faerie worlds, and Simon Gregor creates a strange Caliban/Ariel-like figure for Puck.
Among the gang of would-be players, Phil Jupitus's Bottom has been gathering plaudits and Oscar Batterham's Thisbe-aka-Flute-the-bellows-mender is a particular delight.
Design in both visuals & direction seems all about stripping down beneath the presentable surface of life, with much flesh progressively revealed and fairies war-dancing around like the lost boys from Peter Pan.  Costumes for mortals are vaguely modern ~ Hermia in leggings, though Helena is more like a 1950s school librarian, and all the lovers abandon their drab attire in the forest (it reappears, disappointingly for so flamboyant a production, at the wedding) while Titania spends most of the time cavorting in purple underwear. The workmen are dressed pantomime-style, with the betwitched Bottom (Phil Jupitus) sporting feathers on a headband and a black blob on the tip of his nose so he looked neither transformed nor like a donkey though he did say 'Eeyore' a lot.
There are some marvellous sequences: transforming the verbal cruelty of the young people in the night forest by physical comedy is an inspiration, and individual performances are fantastically strong. But ~ and I'm on my own here I suspect, as audiences and critics are loving Laurence Boswell's direction  ~ I missed a sense of light & shade, and the symbolic mystery of the forest. Despite dark mottling on the set, the effects are mechanical rather than magical with Titania in a hoisted bed and Puck’s transport a kind of dumb waiter.  The success of high-impact-entertainment in every scene comes at a cost, and I felt the four segments of the play ~ lovers, fairies, commoners and court ~ ultimately failed to combine as integral aspects of human experience, so the show was a series of set-pieces without real significance. But go along and see for yourself ~ you'll enjoy superlative acting, a feast of visuals, and a lot of laughter guaranteed. It's on till 20th August.

Puck can 'put a girdle round the earth' in forty minutes: Phileas Fogg's boast that he could do the same in eighty days must have also sounded like the stuff of fantasy in 1872, when Jules Verne's famous saga is set. Open-air theatre is one of those classic summer delights and the Bishop's Palace Garden in Wells is a delightful venue ~ both good reasons to see the Boxtree Productions version of Around the World in 80 Days. Adaptation of a 250 page novel set globally is an ambitious project, not least as young viewers are unlikely to be familiar with concepts like consulates, valets, & gentleman's clubs, and more significantly because the action famously features trains & steamers & an elephant... the small but lively team of performers managed the elephant charmingly in a version simplified for family audiences and the evening was beautifully warm and sunny.

Sunday was Frome Comic Con Town Festival, with superheros & villains strutting the precincts and costumed fans of every age swarming the streets. Unlike the traditional convention, this inclusive event was spread through shops, cafes & pubs all around the town, with cosplay competitions and trader stalls in the Assembly rooms for collectors of comic collectables. Sheldon & the Big Bang Theory Boys would've had a frenzy fest of recognition, but as more of a Penny I couldn't identify most of the characters but enjoyed the atmosphere of excitement and odd sites like spiderman on a break in Costa and Dr Who's tardis parked in the Sun. Gotham Cosplayers were my favourite but it was all fun, except the inexplicable inclusion of reptiles in plastic boxes for a pound to pick up & hold, at the Steiner school ~ even if these creatures' normal containment is less confining and uncomfortable, it's not ok to encourage children to see them as objects to handle like toys. Sorry to add a sour note. Alligator lizards belong in stony mountain range, Steiner Academy what were you thinking.

Still in Frome: the amazing work of local artist Paul Boswell, aka Mutartis, has added excitement to various nooks around Frome, and I'm thrilled he's agreed to do the cover design for a project I'm involved with.
We  met in the Garden Cafe this week and talked of many things ~ poetry & Upfest rather than cabbages or kings. Crumbs from a Spinning World is the title that Paul's Rackhamesque imagination is now addressing, from a poem by Brian Patten with the refrain: ‘From my nest among moments/ where I keep a spinning world/ I stole one crumb of joy/ but lost it coming here.’ I have every confidence his design will the exquisite and very weird.

And that's my last post from Frome for a while, as I'm off to Half Moon Bay for a 'writing retreat' with my very good friends Mo & Anja, and intend to spend my days walking the eucalyptus avenues & pale beaches & high cliffs  ~ and writing, of course ~ and my evenings playing scrabble...

Monday, August 08, 2016

sunny celebrations & crop circles - must be August

We've reached that high point of late summer: still hot but blackberries are out now on the hedgerows and there's a crop circle in the field just below Cley Hill. This has been a busy week.
I'll begin with the Frome Creative Collective acoustic night at Sun Street Chapel: a delightful event redolent of the kind of relaxed happening we used to have in the 70s, with live music and face-painted children but more organised (credit here to Daniel Dobbie) and with superb supper thalis from Lungi Baba. Great performances from musicians James Watts, Bob HillaryJames Hollingsworth and more, with powerfully-felt poetry from Liam Parker and a stonkingly good set from Jake Hight who really should be competing in national slams.

Nunney enjoyed its annual Village Fayre on Saturday, on an afternoon so glitteringly sunny I actually bought a hat from one of the stalls along the lanes (Liz Oliver's, in fact) before enjoying jazz from Norman Leater's New Academic Feetwarmers beside the castle moat... cue 2 pictures (thanks David Goodman for the one of me)

Sunday was Independent Market day in Frome, and as August is traditionally the holiday month this one has a seaside theme with a beach in the market yard complete with donkey rides and a cocktail bar. Car-free roads as always at these events were lined with stalls selling everything you could want to eat, drink, wear, or impulse-buy and the busking stage featured Al O'Kane & Andy Hall - all with added sunshine too.

South West Poetry Tour arrived in Bruton on Sunday, hosted by Hauser & Wirth in the big pod in their gorgeous garden.
Rosie Eliot & I arrived early enough to enjoy a cheeky sauvignon in the quirky bar (thanks Rosie for the picture)
I hadn't realised the poets were different each night so I wouldn't catch up with favourite local poets like Carrie Etter and Claire Crowther, but it's always interesting to be introduced to the work of new poets. The brief was to work in pairs, a natural form for conversation but less so for poetry and duets' responses varied from chanting in unison to filmed stone-eating.  I enjoyed David Caddy's curator ignoring inappropriate back-projections & interruptions like ‘I need a pee and there’s a Waitrose delivery van in the drive’ from Andrew Henon (more on this in Andrew's blog). The variety of work was impressive and though some pieces were abstruse it was a thrill to hear the odd intriguing line surface like an otter swimming through chlorophyta: 'real ambition demands bloodshed...' 'this week I enclose a thread of zeds.'

Tic Tac Toe brought The Scandalous Love of Oscar Wilde to the Merlin on Saturday, exploring the life of a literary genius born when homosexuality was not only illegal but unnamable, even in law. The term used was Peccatum illud horribile, inter Christianos non nominandum - 'that horrible crime not to be named among Christians'.  Public prurience, and probably envy of Wilde's fame & his cavalier attitude to convention, ensured his downfall from the moment he rashly decided to sue his lover's father Lord Queensberry for libel after receiving a note addressing him as 'posing sodomite'.  In the ensuing trial, Oscar chose to use his charismatic wit to play to the gallery which entertained the public but unfortunately alienated the jury, who found against him without even retiring. Calum Grant's play picks up at this point, with Wilde's downfall set in motion as inevitably as a Greek tragedy. Strong direction from Geoff Hunt and a tour-de-force performance from Luke Stuart who despite the age difference (Oscar at 40 was 10 years older) completely inhabited this part, in a monologue containing much reminiscence and rumination and even some remorse though sadly no redemption. Hopefully this ambitious piece will tour: it's a fascinating story, reflecting a very different era from our own. image: Merlin website

Final footnote: what a pleasure to meet up again with Derek Fowlds, whose autobiography A Part Worth Playing will have its Frome launch at Hunting Raven in October. Derek was superb in that iconic '80s TV satire Yes Minister, and I'm excited there may now be a (very different) stage project in the offing...