Wednesday, February 22, 2017

"'Tis a pageant to keep us in false gaze"

After the pantos and family shows, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory opened their spring season in Bristol with Othello ~ a play about racism and false reports, about how hatred and lies can destroy trust and love ~ a play for our times, you could say.  This modern-dress production puts the focus on contemporary relevance from the opening moment, showing Othello as a muslim, sharing his prayer with his new bride in a tender moment. Combining dungarees with sixteenth century speech is a big step away from realism and director Richard Twyman makes the most of this by adding some non-scripted physical sequences - aggressive singing and a wild brawl for the men and a private dance for the two women. Opinions may differ but to me these perfectly fitted the theme of the tragedy - Grayson Perry with his views on masculinity would I think approve.
Andrew Hilton, artistic director for STF, always assembles a strong cast and this team is no exception. Mark Lockyer’s Iago brings touches of black humour to a performance that never drags and Katy Stephens is absolutely superb as his enabling wife Emelia. Norah Lopez Holden’s Desdemona is delightful and immensely moving as she struggles to contain the mad anger of the beast that was her gentle-giant lover Othello, played by Abraham Popoola. And Brian Lonsdale’s Geordie interpretation of hapless Roderigo brought moments of joy in a play of progressive darkness.
The in-the-round format of the Tobacco Factory venue works really effectively for this drama, as the audience is always visible: we watch like voyeurs and when Iago, obsessed with jealousy for the man he calls 'the Moor’, expounds his plots we become collusive, passively watching the terrible consequences and undeserved suffering. Again, much like life.
(images TheOtherRichard)
The production is touring in Exeter & London in May and June, and then heads for the Shakespeare Festival in Neuss Globe, so get to Bristol while you can. Unless of course you live in Germany.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Poetry, mostly... with spring in the air & a bit of art

I have no image of Monday's magnificent Frome Poetry Cafe sadly ~ it was simply too incredibly busy for photos so I'll leave you to imagine the wondrous sight of the Garden Cafe absolutely crammed for an evening of fantastic love poems in various styles including mime, song, and thumb-piano. Bristol bardic quartet The Spoke ~ Bob Walton, Elizabeth Parker, Paul Deaton and Claire Williamson ~ shared passions for people and places and even lasagne, rhubarb, and starlings.  An even wider range of moods came from the superb open-mic poets: witty, reflective, cynical, erotic, political, poignant, surreal and historical ~ I could go on & make it a list poem, but we had one of those too, alphabetically. The poetry book donated by Hunting Raven Books for the most appreciated poem of the night went to David Glasman for his moving and beautifully-crafted 'Love poem to life' after surviving a heart attack. An evening of magic & mirth & wild imaginings.
And there'll be another session of lyrical delights in Frome next month when Merlin Theatre hosts the Poetry Platter, at which I'll be joined by five outstanding performance poets: hugely popular Liv Tork and Chris Redmond from the Hip Yack Poetry Shack, Hannah Teasdale (one of our favourite Cafe guests), Bristol stand-up Buddy Carson, and hi-impact rapper Jake XJX Hight. Could there be any more compelling reason to book right now? you may be wondering, and there is: you don't have to sit passively in a dark auditorium, instead you share the stage with the performers, with wine and tapas platters, and the whole package ~ poets, supper, and esoteric experience ~ costs just over a tenner. Wow. March 16th. Plan your trip to Frome and be there to tell your great-grandchildren!

February 14 is traditionally the day M&S charges £25 for a bunch of roses and the famous Valentine lamp on Catherine Hill is lit by its protector Reg Ling, who found and restored this piece of Victoriana some years ago. The ritual is opened by the town cryer and accompanied by free mulled wine so it always draws a small crowd ~ this year there was a Points West TV team too.  Reg is a great showman, arriving in traditional attire and giving a commentary on the four stages of lighting a gas lamp. It's all delightful fun and a bit like being in an episode of Trumpton ~ The lamplighter seems to be in trouble - it's taking an awful lot of clicks to light the lamp. Oh look, the lamp has lighted! Well done, lamplighter, now the lamp is lit! Everybody cheers the lamplighter.

Wednesday's Roots Session at the Grain Bar featured Clayton Denwood and his band ~ folk rock with echoes of Bob Dylan, fabulous music and terrific lyrics too. And the really big musical event was Griff's Big Night Out, Saturday's party to celebrate the life of much-missed Griff Daniels. I know it was a stonkingly wonderful unforgettable gem of a night but you'll need to go to Griff's page LINK pictures as  I was in Dublin for the weekend, missing also the Snowdrop Festival in Shepton Mallet and the Frome Tattoo Convention in Frome. So here instead is a picture of snowdrops in Mells last week, and a snap from a previous tattoo festival. Normal service will be resumed next week.

My trip was a reunion with a friend from our student days at Trinity. Our catchup included walks by Howth pier,  a lunch with Irish poet Rory Brennan ~ also a college friend ~ and a visit to the National Gallery of Ireland to see the splendid Beyond Caravaggio exhibition, so titled because most of the paintings featured are by 'Caravaggisti': other artists, working in his style.  Caravaggio's personal life was apparently violent and chaotic but these paintings plangent with tenderness as well as vivid story-telling and dramatic lighting. After Caravaggio's (unexplained) death his significant influence wasn't acknowledged until the 20th century. He's now seen as the founder of modern painting and in fact of these images have the impact of a stills grabbed from a movie.

This is Dutch Caravagesque painter Dirck van Baburen imagining the meeting of Tobias and the Angel ~ among the quieter pictures but one I really loved ~ and the famous Supper at Emmaus by the master himself. Synchronicitously, this painting is referenced in Rory's new book Dancing with Luck by the artist Rafael Mahdavi, whose paintings are published alongside the sonnets, who says I feel my pores tingle... Art needs to generate meaning, it is only worthwhile if it is shared, and it should leave people speechless.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Farce, forests, pole dance, moon eclipse & Isis rising

It is a truth universally acknowledged that though a marriage is the joining together of bride and groom, a wedding is for the bride's mother. This is her day, to dress up and to gloat, summon distant relations, settle old scores, hire a marquee to exasperate the neighbours, and rush round John Lewis compiling a gift list. Chris Chibnall's play Worst Wedding Ever at Salisbury Playhouse is based on this premise and from audience reactions of hilarious recognition, I was lucky to be in another country from my mother when I married.
Julia Hills, who was unforgettable as Madame Lyubov Andreievna Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard at Tobacco Factory a couple of years back, once again shows how brilliant she is at playing autocratic domineering mother-figures, while Elizabeth Cadwallader, whether berating her ex or falling out of a portaloo, is comic genius as sister of the bride. (She does a sympathetic ear well too, telling her sister's fiance, "When it goes wrong between the two of you, I’m a good listener - and an even better shag.")
And while Elizabeth Hopper and Nav Sidhu, the about-to-be-newlyweds, are both charming, the play really belongs to the comedy roles, including the vicar (Keiran Hill) and dog-mad, offspring-allergic, father-of-the-bride Derek Frood ("You were alright as babies but you became difficult ~ for twenty years..")  It's mostly farce, but the second act brings unexpected insight into family dynamics that redeem the storyline from mere superficiality. And it's tremendous fun, with a wonderful wedding-party-style band bursting out all over when you least expect them, so if you or anyone you know has been affected by the wedding issue, do go along -it's on till 25 February.  Images: The Other Richard

The monthly social for Frome Writers Collective on Monday was a busy one with two speakers: Tim O'Connor,  a Town Councillor as well as a writer, unveiled first plans for a specifically literary festival ~ Literally Frome ~ to be organised next year (yes, it is exciting... more later...) and Karin Campagna gave us a peek  behind the scenes of Winstone's takeover of  Hunting Raven Books. Reassuringly, all staff will stay on and local writers are still supported ~ in fact we now get 10% discount ~ and the main question as yet unanswered is whether the shop name will change, in which case I confidently expect a petition to retain our much-loved raptor. Here's a picture of Tim (he's a stand-up comic too so I'm hoping he won't mind me sharing this snap) and a view of the smart new bookshop interior.
And in an especially creative week in Cheap Street, where eclectic independent traders are always artistic in their window displays, as well as Hunting Raven ~ now also offering coffee in its smart refurbished premises ~ the fabulous Frome Wholefoods has a great makeover look, and Elli on the King Street corner devised an inspired window display to celebrate valentine month.

An extraordinary party night on Friday, with the finale of an extraordinary project: the Isis • Horus • Osiris exhibition opened at Silk Mill with esoteric electronica, projected visuals, live performance from Andrew Heath and a long display of butterfly images, each featuring photographs of eyes collected by the artist.
Andrew Shackleton chose the night of the lunar eclipse to launch these amazing images to further empower all these elements. I was one of the eye-photo donors (thanks David Goodman) ~ here's how I would look to a cosmic lepidopterist.

Another gathering the next day ~ segue here is amazingly talented Frome personalities ~ saw Frome's Assembly Hall crammed so full that stewards were uttering quivering cries about fire regulations as the last of us crowded in to hear Julian Hight talking about the ancient trees of Selwood forest. Here I learned among other things that we have many ancient oaks, that yews can live 4000 years and that 'forest' historically meant not the dense growth we think of today but lightly-wooded pasture claimed by the king.  Julian's expertise and passion plus superb projections of his photographs ensured an absolutely enthralling hour. More here about ancient-tree spotting and here is where you can vote for the European tree of the year (top tip: go for the Brimmon Oak, the tree that moved a bypass in Wales... one silent step for a trunk, one giant squelch for developers...)

Change of mood on Saturday evening with Polers'n'Poets in a show at Chapel Arts in Bath organised by Funky Monkey in support of One Billion Rising. I hadn't heard of this mass-action group opposing violence against women ~ it takes its name from the statistic of assaulted women around the world ~ until invited by Jo Butts, MC at this awareness-raising event, to join three other poets (Alice Smith, D'arcy Chappell and Rich Butnotfamous) performing with some stunning pole dancers and a really classy burlesque act. Chapel Arts Centre is a great venue and the audience was warmly responsive ~ I think there will be photos later but in the meantime here's our table...

A quick look at the music scene this week as I missed a lot, but did catch some absolute gems at Nunney Acoustic Cafe on Sunday, like Keziah singing Amy Winehouse, and Ollie playing Angie. I first heard this in 1966 at an all-nighter in Leicester Square, played by Bert Jansch... unforgettable.

Final footnote to this post is also a personal time-trek: I've finally acquired a copy of David Byrne's brilliantly quirky 1986 movie True Stories, the tale of an 'ordinary' Texan town pageant. It's as bizarre and satiric as when I first saw it, especially when 'ordinary' redneck John Goodman sings People like us We don't want freedom - we don't want justice - we just want ... somebody to love. Thirty years on this love song sounds chillingly prescient in times when, to paraphrase Yeats, things fall apart and the centre cannot hold, the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity, and that rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches across America with a shadow as long as the world.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

spring celebrations: satire, music, media, and birdsong


February 2nd is Groundhog Day (the all-knowing American rodent foresaw shadow, by the way) and the day of Celtic goddess of poetry Brigid: this is the time our northern hemisphere officially passes from dark winter days into the coming lightness of spring. The US ritual as we all know requires you to go to your metaphorical room and stay there till you say you're sorry, and for Imbolc celebration you invoke healing power with flame and prayer ~ definitely preferable ~ but I chose instead to go and see Jonathan Pie at the Komedia in Bath. Pie live delivers exactly what you'd expect: furious rants at every aspect of social order and disorder, with some especially pithy contempt for the UK party of opposition ("the Left have made themselves irrelevant - Labour have fisted themselves to death") using the dystopian irony of Children In Need's Pugsy as specific focus of his rage. As unexpected bonus, a very good warm-up spot from Andrew Doyle too.

Over in Warminster on the Community Radio station, 'Kowalski', aka John Walton, has an apt name for his show: Painting Coconuts in Paradise seemed just right for a pleasant Monday afternoon of music and chat about writing... discussion of poetry, blogging, and courses for writers all interspersed between african rhythms and 1960s hits... mm that's the way it's meant to be... (Anyone else remember Concrete and Clay? just asking...)

And linking chat to music with another question, does Frome need another Acoustic Club? As King Lear would say, reason not the need, just enjoy. The Artisan had a terrific session on Monday evening, neatly summarised by Paul Kirtley, himself a superb contributor: I believe the phrase 'eclectic mix' would be appropriate... ranging from soulful folk to a WW1 piece, to acoustic blues, to Americana, to modern "pop", to freestyle rap, to beat box (now I know what 2C-I is), to covers and original stuff.  Another good night and a free pint... what more could one ask for, pray tell?  MC Ross p was the brilliant rapper, and this enjoyable mix also included Julian (Bugs) Hight and Hello Hopeville.


This week's main guest at the Grain Bar Roots Session was Katey Brooks who combines soulful words with powerful voice and dramatic performance. In an unexpected highlight she quit the stage and sat on the bar for an 'unplugged' version of a her new recording Never Gonna Let Her Go: sometimes the sweetest things were meant to pass you by..


Sessions in different style filled the Cornerhouse on Friday, as more than a score of musicians and singers settled in for a night of celtic carousing with guitars, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, flutes, accordion, washboard, spoons, tambourine, bodhran, and much good humour. Great sounds and wonderful atmosphere of enjoyment and fun.


Frome town is on the telly again, this time with the story of our Food Fridge. Literally a free-for-all, exclaimed the voice-over in Jamie and Jimmy's Food Feast this Friday on C4, explaining people both donate and take... it's a simple solution to a massive food problem. Jamie suggests the system should extend across the country to supplement provisions of food banks. It ain't rocket science, he says, and he's started a community fridge scheme in Southend. It's not only for local growers with a surplus: supermarkets have signed up too, diverting their excess away from landfill. Now there's even an app for it ~ and it all started in Frome!

Looking ahead there's good news for Fromies with the reopening of Westway! Our much-loved independent cinema will be back in business later this month, refurbished and triple-screened, while retaining those invaluable features of movie-going: the licensed bar, the old-style intermission, and fixed ticket price of four quid... cheaper, as The List points out, even than streaming at home.

And good news for everyone: Frome Festival is already taking shape. Brochure entries are being assembled, and from the look of that motor-cycling Jane Austen, this one will be a scorcher. Those of you who saw our Nevertheless production Timeslides will realise we actually unwittingly anticipated this theme last year ~ but look out for a dramatic promenade piece with a hint of regency... And this year is the hundredth anniversary of the death in action of poet Edward Thomas who wrote about his travels close to our town so he will be featured too, with an Edwardian swimming party and Adlestrop moments at the Poetry Cafe. I'll leave you with birdsong, and thoughts of spring.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Choose life, Frome style


It's been a great week for live music, with Roots Sessions at the Grain Bar Cafe crowded out on Wednesday for 'laid-back, rootsy, jazzy' Pete Gage Trio: the fabulous gritty voice of Dr Feelgood's erstwhile vocalist, also dynamic on piano, combined with virtuoso guitar playing from Jon Amor and Duncan Kingston's superb double-bass. The vibe was fantastic ~ a night to remember.
And there's an Acoustic Club nearby Frome, I've now discovered, in Dilton Marsh, with regular folk nights in the pub - it's the Prince of Wales but there's only one so you can't miss it - with excellent performers and a friendly atmosphere. Music ranged from folk & blues to original songs and a smattering of hippy nostalgia. 'Dilton always reminds me of Woodstock' explained Paul Kirtley before beautifully singing we are stardust, we are golden, and Carl Sutterby gave us a terrific punk-uke set: Buzzcocks' Breakdown, Stranglers' No More Heroes and Clash classic Guns of Brixton.
Back in Frome town, Saturday night saw Sam's Kitchen writhing with jive and cocktails as Great Big Feet ~ three young whipper-snapppers from the big city ~ played classic smoochie dancey blues & swing so it felt just like a club night in the fifties, except of course for all the selfies, and cocktails instead of half-pints of warm beer.

A good week too for Frome Writers Collective, with the launch of a second novel under their Silver Crow brand: The Tissue Veil by local author Brenda Bannister, an intriguing story of two girls divided by a hundred years but both resisting restrictive cultures: in 1901, English feminism is in its infancy, while in 2001 a Bengali teenager battles with her traditional family. Brenda lived and worked in the area of London where her story is set, and has close connections with the Bengali community, so this novel will make fascinating reading. Karin Campagna of Hunting Raven Books hosted this first launch in the newly-refurbished bookshop, and Brenda gave a short talk with readings to a crammed audience.
And there's an unexpected writing link in T2 Trainspotting, now on general release. This movie does what it promises on the poster: revisits the four wild boys now their in their forties, still fighting the cards dealt them by life's lottery ~ or in Begbie’s case, just still fighting. Another brilliant soundtrack, and much evocation of the original movie: the energy is less raw though still focussed on escape by and from their addictions. That iconic 'Choose Life' rant is powerfully and provocatively updated by Ewen Macgregor (bloggers get a glancing blow from his cynical scythe) and there's a satisfyingly redemptive strand that writers will enjoy. Renton still looks good, Spud is still cartoon-faced, Sick Boy has lasted least well despite his Warhol-blond hair, and Begbie... - ok that’s enough spoilers, go see it. On in Bath Odeon and everywhere. Oh and they give you That poster.

Final footnote this week is a look ahead to summer and Skyros Holistic Holidays, and I'm pleased to see four of my photos on the cover of their new brochure.  If you're interested in writing, there are other options as well as my courses on finding your 'voice', so do click the link & take a look. Going somewhere new and different, in the company of others who share the passion, is an amazingly effective way to kickstart ideas and enrich your creative processes.  And Skyros is a magical island...

Sunday, January 22, 2017

And in other news...

Politics is downstream from culture, as Timothy Goeglein wrote (mind you he was a notorious plagiarist so someone else probably wrote it first) and political power can be the enemy of culture, which is why the organisation English PEN was founded nearly a hundred years ago to campaign for writers oppressed and imprisoned for their words and opinions. One way PEN raises awareness is through readings, and Emma Craigie who curates events At the Chapel in Bruton organised an especially dazzling one last week. My first involvement with these PEN evenings was eight years ago as a reader, which inspired me to stage Chimes of Freedom in Frome's Merlin theatre the next year, so I was pleased to be among the audience of Freedom to Write, Freedom to Read.
Here as well as enjoying supper, we listened to poet Alice Oswald, novelist Andrew Miller, comedienne Viv Groskop, broadcaster & writer Jonathan Dimbleby and PEN President & writer Maureen Freely.
Alice read poems by Iranian poet Mahvesh Sabet and three of her own, Andrew read from a work by Egyptian Ahmed Naji considered unacceptably sexual, and a strong extract from his own novel The Crossing. Viv's extract was a powerful piece by Sanjuana Periodista about the murder of journalists in Mexico, which she admitted finding difficult to follow as her topics are more typically 'the prime ministers's horrible tartan trousers', and Jonathan read a piece from Bahrain's Nabeel Rajab, in detention for promoting human rights. In a deeply moving conclusion, Maureen's extract featured the repression of writers in Turkey, including detained journalist Ahmet Altan, and Armenian journalist Hrant Dink who was assassinated in Istanbul ten years ago to the exact day of our elegant supper. That's a picture of him. It's salutary to reflect how all of these writers, in Alice Oswald's words, laid their life before us, like gold leaf.


There were bubbles in Bruton on Saturday again, this time at Made In Bruton for the launch of fragile, the first poetry collection by 'Forgotten Bee'.
Bee Brook is a local radio personality who cohosts on Frome FM morning radio shows too. Her 'snapshots' reflect on love, loss, and life generally, including intimate aspects like insomnia, missing socks, and the satisfaction of toast.
The Elizabeth Frink exhibition, Transformation, at Hauser & Wirth had just opened so while in Bruton we seized the opportunity to look at this impressive collection of bronzes from the 1950s & 1960s gathered together in the Rhoades gallery, while life-size Riace Warriors stare in from the Cloisters. The (excellent) notes explain that these sinister figures were inspired by the 1972 discovery of two ancient greek bronzes off the coast of Italy, combined with the artist's interest in aboriginal face painting. She also said she liked representing male nudes. On till May 7th, well worth a visit.

Back in Frome, Roots Sessions at the Grain Bar restarted with the 'dark but sensuous sound' of class local duo-turned-trio Bonne Nouvelle. Sadly the support acts were decimated by winter ailments but Mike Cornish gave a strong solo start to the event.

And staying local for the final footnote in this mostly out-of-town posting, thanks Sara Vian for sending the audio of Midwinter Magic night. Memo to self: must do more of that, it's fun.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Wolf moon

In a week of crystalline cold clear skies and frosty mornings, with the wolf moon full and strangely haloed, here in downtown Frome life continues its creative way. I'll start with art.

"A tree represent something full of life, but calm" says Clive Walley of his paintings of Birches in Mist on show now at Black Swan Arts in an exhibition exploring the relationship between reality, perception and what we are allowed to see.
Gazing around this roomful of large square canvases, all similar though none identical, feels a bit like straining to see through the time-fretted glass of a train window, or staring at the world through gauze net curtains. There are outlines but the impediment is the image itself. The 'artist notes' explain this is about the struggle between two conventions of representation, the birch trees set out in the conventional way... and the mist standing in for the mid-twentieth century conception of "flatness". Showing till February 4th ~ and Clive welcomes responses: sadly the Black Swan poetry group is still currently awaiting news of access ~ don't let that stop you writing though...

Roots Grain Bar Sessions restart next week but there's been no shortage of brilliant music in Frome. Griffin Open Mic night on Thursday had some stunning acts: The Moonlit Poachers and Glastonbury foursome Lazydaze were among an impressive lineup including genius impro from MC Ross p, who responded to audience appreciation of his plum jam song with an inspired rap about Pearl Jam and Jeremy Kyle.


And there was a great party in The Three Swans upstairs room to celebrate the memorial anniversary of David Bowie, first of last year's much-mourned casualties ~ big appreciation to Pat Feeney who kept the film stream and songs going while we danced.
Still on the subject of Space Oddities, Frome astronomer Mike Witt will be in Beckington next Friday to present his impressive summary of space exploration from the pioneering 1950s to the current debris-riddled state of the galaxy, with over 4000 satellites whizzing round earth at 18,000 mph and smashing each other into squillions of bits like a Nutribullet.  I was treated to a preview of the talk, and it's interesting social history too, spanning the years when 'computers' were Afro-American women, (thus segregated from the men whose lives were in the hands of their calculations) and the reckless 'space race' between Russia & USA, which probably sacrificed lives of men as well as dogs, until the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission co-led by Alexey Leonov and Tom Stafford. They say what doesn't kill you makes you strong: here they are as octogenarians at the Gagarin Training Centre last year.
This topic for this month's social meeting of the Frome Writers Collective was preparing manuscripts for publication, with an excellent talk from Tim Cutting who last year printed his own book What a Long Strange Trip it's Been. Tim has also helped others from the memoir group led by Rosie Jackson, and he offers a range of advice options to anyone wanting to self-publish. Frome's literary creativity is endlessly awesome: at the Bowie party I met stonemason & writer Andrew Ziminski who's just been signed up by Bill Bryson's agent ~ with publishing auction pending ~ for his fascinating-sounding book on the history of migrations, from birds to people and ideas, that have created the land we call our own today.
Finally for this post:  Here's me in Bristol on Monday at the Ujima Radio Station talking about my poetry collection Crumbs from a Spinning World with Gail Bowen-Huggett - our interview for the Babbers show is online at that link.

And I'm delighted to be supporting Merlin Theatre with their Short Play Competition this year - closing date 31 March, so for all you writers out there, here's what you need to know: