Sunday, March 22, 2020

Ghost Town Times

This arts blog could of course do what every other creative option - gigs, plays, art-exhibitions, social get-togethers, writers' meetings - has done and go dark,  but it isn't going to. Instead, it will opine and discuss stuff. Like: 
Social history in the Movies:  Misbehaviour was at Frome's Westway but luckily BBC2 also broadcast their version Miss World 1970 - Beauty Queens and Bedlam.  The Miss World, an annual contest to find which of 58 girls in demi-nudity Bob Hope would drool most lasciviously over, was watched by over 100 million viewers at its peak, and successful contestants had all been white, despite this not being the skin colour of the vast majority of the world's population. What was exciting about this contest was that it was unexpectedly won by black Miss Granada, with 2nd place going a contestant from South Africa - not Miss South Africa, who was white, but Africa South - a new name for an entrant who was not. Also exciting was the disruption of the contest by smoke bombs, water pistols and bags of flour hurled from the audience by a small posse of Women's Liberation protesters. Probably the movie is excellent, but what was particularly interesting in the TV documentary were the interviews with the actual women involved -not just survivors of that post-colonial past but fighting founders of a more equitable present.

Books - naturally. Even if you have piles of unread, & shelves of re-readable, titles, it's still a great chance to top up: here's Hunting Raven Books' dynamic manager Tina Gaisford-Waller, for whom no accolade could be too fulsome, whose emporium last week was officially rated Best Independent Bookshop in the entire Southwest of England.
This Aladdin's cavern of luxurious wordage is also doing home deliveries within two miles, & postal beyond - click the link. (You can get cheese from the market delivered too, along with other goodies! A pretty special place, our town - though the market offer is from Dan's Somerset Deli.)
Sadly, local author Andrew Ziminski's talk at Rook Lane about The Stonemason succumbed to the shut-down but the book continues to cause a stir in the review sections. Not only a fascinating account of his unique experience as a master craftsman, this history of Britain through its stone buildings has a stunningly atmospheric authorial voice: Andrew seems to feel about stone as some do about creatures, mourning that sarsen stones have been 'hunted to extinction', and finding Avebury 'a place to be felt rather than analysed.' I took my copy to Mells churchyard to enjoy a new relationship with stones I've often visited in tribute to Siegfried Sassoon who is buried there, while picnicing quietly on a Co-op meal-deal and perching on a low grave nearby.

Which moves us to Walks, and a reminder of the wonderful series of books about trees by Julian Hight, especially his latest: Britain's Ancient Forest, legacy and lore, which has its own (downloadable) soundtrack Coit Mawr. Frome is within the last patches of Selwood forest, and massively tree-conscious: Here's the one at the start of my walk out of town towards Longleat, with Cley Hill in the background, and also another of my favourites in Stourhead, the heart tree. Stourhead has sadly closed its 'elements' - the follies, temples, and grottos within the garden - but the wider space is still available from public footpaths.

Final recommendation in this somewhat-different cultural round-up: 'online' isn't just wiki and kindle and games, it's an endless source of diversion and information on an ongoing basis. You can sign up for a regular Poem of the Day with the Poetry Foundation, and there's also Brain Pickings, a weekly article on a random literary topic (often fascinating) and Good Reads, the online book club, which includes quotes from recommended books, such as for example The Plague, by that great existentialist writer Albert Camus:
“But what does it mean, the plague? It's life, that's all.” 
“They knew now that if there is one thing one can always yearn for, and sometimes attain, it is human love.”

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Time-slips in Bath and a blast of music in Frome

Bath city, noted for elegance and style, has an alternative history that began in mud with Bladud and his pigs in 863BC and continued in muck and dubious morality, and Natural Theatre Company has been exposing scurrilous tales from the long and frequently outrageous history of that not-always-fine city in their sell-out show at the Rondo. Dirty Bath is hilarious. Three delightful women performers with a vast array of costumes and wigs take audience participation to its limits, scouring the steeply raked auditorium to identify lovers, gang members, murderers and more, responding to the resultant unscripted contributions with inventive vigour,  coaxing startled audience members on stage to enact exchanges of unlikely historical exactitude and in one instance to model male genitalia in plasticine..
it's all bonkers, and very funny. We met lovely Eliza Linley, painted by Gainsborough, eloping with Sheridan, inspiring duals among her lovers. We met Chaucer's raunchy Wyfe of Bath,  Hugonot refugee Sally Lunn, the murdered Nymph of Avon Street (enacted by puppets), a bedhopping fake castrato, the absurd duelling suitors of courtesan Fanny Murray, and many more outrageous characters before notorious gangleader Carroty Kate hands out peaky blinders caps and newspaper boulders for a mass street fight finale to the show. Massive appreciation to Alison Campbell, Amy Vickers, and Florence Espeut-Nickless for their titillating tales, to Andy Burdon who directed, and to whoever created the gloriously glamorous costumes.

Roots Sessions at the Grain Bar this week featured a Frome-grown band: Back of the Bus, four feisty women singer-players with backing from three strong musicians, featuring mainly '80s covers - the great ones, like Hazel O'Connor's apocalyptic 'Eighth Day'.

And another fantastic night of music from The Raggedy Men, also a local band with massive talent and a big following, who rocked the Cornerhouse on Saturday with their iconic re-styled punk - with all the best angry classics, from Brixton's guns to burning Babylon and beyond - with awesome riffs and fantastic drumming.

This week's review-round-up of local events is thinner than usual, what with one thing & another - well, mainly one thing - so to bump up the medley here's a reading recommendation: This emerged originally through the Proof Pudding Club started by Tina Gaisford-Waller, enterprising manager of Frome's Hunting Raven book shop. The Future We Choose - Surviving the Climate Crisis by Christiana Figueres & Tom Rivett-Carnac may sound like it will be another gut-wrenching summary of the appalling state of the planet and initially it is, but it goes on to make a convincing case for hope. We actually have, in prototype or possibility, all the means to improve the global situation and survive - in fact to improve our species into a more caring one, with a sense of stewardship of the earth. It's really well explained and well argued, and brings a blast of hope to our blighted world.  Next week's top tip: The Plague, by Camus...

Monday, March 09, 2020

Past times in cabaret, slave-ship, and pit - with music, of course!

Victoria Art Gallery in Bath sometimes seems like the modest little sister to Holburne Museum with its big glassy café, grand garden, and costly ticketing. Sitting unobtrusively on a busy corner by the river, Victoria has a tea-machine, a tiny lobby, and reasonable prices, yet some of the most exciting touring shows have come there - the Grayson Perry tapestries, to name but one. Their current exhibition of Toulouse Lautrec posters and other art work from  fin de siècle bohemian life in Montmartre beautifully evokes an era & location at one time associated with wild decadence which now, with its sense of passionate living and romantic pastel-coloured posters, evokes mainly a longing for simpler times.   On till 26 May, well worth a trip.

A double-book night this week, as Pete 'the Temp' Bearder brought his stage presentation of the history of spoken word From Homer to Hip Hop to Frome's Merlin Theatre on Thursday: with projected images to support his solo narration, Pete showed how the bardic oral tradition linked generations and movements, from the first griots in Africa through to beat poets and the rappers of today, the language of story-telling, celebration and protest: "Poets are the gobshites of the tribe," he concluded, proudly. You can buy Stage Invasion, Pete's account of the oral poetry tradition, here.
Hunting Raven Books that evening overflowed with avid visitors to the launch of Andrew Ziminski's history of a different kind: The Stone Mason, a History of Building Britain is an archeological and personal story, already acclaimed as 'book of the year' by expert Francis Pryor. That's actually the celebratory cake in the photo but the book looks exactly like it - you can buy it online from Waterstones if you don't live near Frome.

Still with words, Frome Writers' Collective meeting this month at the Three Swans featured several members' current projects, all of which (apart from a charming children's tale of slime parties and pig wrestling) are historical, inspired by personal interest or family tales. The question that recurred in all (except for the slime & pigs one) was whether to present the research fictionalised. Opinions vary and, as Miss Jean Brodie said, 'for those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like'.

Socialist historian Dave Chapple, who gave a talk for the Frome Society for Local Study on Saturday, can be considered firmly in 'team authentic'. Dave's  meticulous research, well supported by his excellent handouts, gave a grim picture of the Social and Political History of the Somerset Coal Miners. Their long journey for fair treatment and equitable pay spanned strikes, riots, pit tragedies, and other struggles and Dave brought the story vividly to life with readings from miners' own tales, newspaper accounts, and even a replica 'gus & crook'. This was a tough rope and chain worn by boys as well as men to tug the putts of coal along the narrow seams, often dangerously slanted due to the geological formations of the mines. This outrageous device which caused bleeding and permanent scarring, as well as psychologically reducing them to beasts of burden, was deemed acceptable by the Home Office in a report as late as 1912. Here's Dave, demonstrating its size and weight.


Before we leave Somerset's mines entirely, my week ended with a long walk over the hilly area of Browne's Folly 'site of Special Scientific Interest' and nature reserve. Quarrying here was for Oolitic limestone from the Jurassic age, apparently providing stone for the façade of Buckingham Palace, and these relics are now maintained by cavers as they house roostings by the Greater Horseshoe Bat.
And now to music: we binged on singer-songwriters at the Grain Bar Roots session on Wednesday, with Sean Snook and lovely Holly supporting the Rob Lear Band - a double helping of original work played with energy and impact, and strong audience rapport.

Paul Kirtley's They Don't Scare Easy Tribe once again entertained Friday night's diners and drinkers at the George in Nunney with classic song covers, superbly performed to a hugely receptive crowd - Paul's sessions are always delivered party-style, with requests encouraged!
And on Saturday night, a fantastic performance from The Back Wood Redeemers in Frome's iconic 17th Century pub The Sun. It was difficult to imagine this high-energy septet fitting into the available space with their ever-theatrical mobility, but they did, and their set & sound was outstanding.

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Emma & Einstein, plus words and art, and both in windows.

Jane Austen films, while popular with fans of heaving bodices and grand vistas, are often disdained by serious Janites as reducing these wonderful social sagas to Mills & Boon romances. Frome's Westway is now showing the new version of Emma directed by Autumn de Wilde, and it's delightful. Purists might complain that our heroine and her ultimate partner (Johnny Flynn) find their feelings earlier than the author intended, and that he is younger, fierier, & better looking than Jane Austen's Knightly, but these changes - like others such as contracting the Jane/Frank romance in favour of a stronger role for Harriet (Mia Goth) - all worked well to create an entertaining movie which looked luscious throughout. I loved Bill Nighy as Emma’s father, Miranda Hart as the irritating neighbour, Amber Anderson as Jane Fairfax, and obviously the costumes and cinematography. It’s true there was none of the political and economic critique of that era which Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility achieved, but the troops of servants, from housemaids to stablemen, constantly jumping to anticipate their masters’ needs, established a strong sense of the infantile dependancy of this ostensibly ‘ruling class’. Here's Emma with her hypochondriac father, and Mr Knightly looking sultry. (Still showing this week.)
Moving on to art now, and on a town-size scale - right across the town in fact, as Window Wanderland 2020 began its weekend visit to the houses, shops, cafes and pubs of Frome: here's the team responsible, at the Black Swan launch with Emma Warren, and just one of the literally hundreds of beautifully illuminated displays - in shops, schools, pubs, cafes, and - most impressively - private dwellings where hours of careful creative toil must have gone into designing and crafting each creation. Fictional & fantasy characters from books and movies featured often, with lots of animals and birds, some with messages. There were scores of  'favourites' for me but this one (probably on Somerset Road but the miles of walking have blurred!) sums up the moving nature of the event - shared passions, charmingly presented. Congratulations Lisa for importing this brilliant event into Frome and Jo for creating the map so we could find them. There's a short video here, made by BBC Somerset, if you missed it all!
Art on a small scale continues, always: Boann Lambert's touching work inspired by her grandmother's shoes is at the WHY Gallery, with Abigail Reed's wild life images. Abigail works mainly in monochrome too and is known for massive bears and other animals, but also creates moths - this one, she says, is largely imagined, but it looks very lepidopteran.

Pip Utton, Frome's favourite one-man showman, took his latest persona Albert Einstein to Edinburgh last summer where it was favourably reviewed as an interesting and genial evocation of that great, though not always good, scientific genius. The geniality was welcome after the addition to Saturday's billed performance at the Merlin of a run-through of Papal behaviour as preparatory work for Pip's next show. Popes proved a a tough warm-up act, though Einstein was well-received. Looking like a scatty Professor Branestawn with white fright-wig, Pip's ability to interact compelling with a full-house audience is impressive: he shifts effortlessly from roguish humour to rueful confidences, and his simplifications of those famous mathematical equations are as impressive as his twinkling eyed charm and underlying sincerity. Imagination is more important than knowledge, he insists throughout: 'If you stop being curious, you start to die.' 

More words now, from local historian David Lassman, who launched his latest investigation into the fascinating past of our town, Frome At War 1939-45 with a short talk at Hunting Raven on Friday night. Frome lost only two residents and a tiny bit of Nunney Road to bombers -and that was accidental - so the main practical impact was the arrival of child evacuees, many of whom still retain a fond connection with the town. Another social consequence came from housing American troops as one of the government-designated 'alternative' towns: this meant black GIs could not socialise on the same night as their white colleagues, to avoid fights, though sadly it didn't prevent five racial murders in the town. All this and more, including conscientious objectors & a secret visit by Eisenhower, is revealed in David's book...

This was the last week for submissions to the Frome Festival brochure, involving me in a flurry of finalising details for the Poetry Cafe,  Nevertheless pub theatre night, and a book-based history walk with David Lassman.  Other submissions are in the pot too, including a response to BBC Radio Wiltshire's quest for 'Ten Tiny Plays' set in Wiltshire. A session on writing drama for radio at Warminster Library led by playwright Jamila Gavin was provided free to support writers submitting to this, and it was a privilege to join the Warminster Writers Group for this excellent workshop. We were all too busy writing for a photo, so let's move on now to music.

Reg Meuross, troubadour par excellence, returned to the Grain Bar Roots Session on Wednesday with songs of his travels both real and imagined. Reg is a superb raconteur and while his lyrics are droll and his tunes are charming too, the banter is undeniably a big part of our audience delight. A hugely enjoyable evening - maybe a live recording would be the way to go for sales...


Fabulous Pete Gage with his mega-talented guitar/bass/drum trio band at The Cornerhouse on Friday were, as  always, a total delight.  Among other scorching classics, they do the best version of St James Infirmary Blues you'll ever hear, with stunning solos from Paul Hartshorn, Richie Blake and Eddie John.  Extra seating enabled closer audience but didn't stop the dancing!

. This Sunday as first of the month had brought, along with birdsong and a sudden abundance of wild flowers along our verges, the Independent Market which fills the streets of Frome with stalls of tantalising goods.  Blue skies and sunshine ensured a great atmosphere, and great acts on the busking stage enhanced the benign mood.  They Don't Scare Easy Tribe, a variable line-up led by Paul Kirtley, were followed by duo MountainSpeaksFire: haunting cello from Helen Robertson combined with subtly passionate voice of Vin Callan make this duo unforgettable.

And another regular favourite of mine, Frome's awesome Back Wood Redeemers put on a brilliant show at the Three Horseshoes in Bradford on Avon on Sunday. It was even worth missing the rest of this first sunny afternoon of spring for these guys who, to quote no less a music critic than Charles Nevin, not only "bring forth to you songs of dark country, twisted blues and religious fervour" but "just as importantly, they’re also top fun." He's not wrong.


Monday, February 24, 2020

Poetry, punk, plans, and purple fish

An away-day from the stormy south-west this week, to the Unicorn beside Tower Bridge to see Tim Crouch performing his solo piece I, Cinna, inspired by the story of Julius Caesar. Tim has re-envisaged several of Shakespeare’s minor characters previously - I saw I, Malvolio back in 2011 but that was practically stand-up comedy compared to the psychological insight and complexity of  this exploration of the thoughts and relevance of Cinna the poet, murdered by the mob back in 44BC.
Helvius Cinna was a real person, and his death was real too, mistaken for the assassin Lucius Cornelius Cinna while on his way to Caesar's funeral. He was late already and in Tim Crouch's monologue this is due to his private reservations about Caesar's rise to a too-absolute power. 'The people want a king, like in the old days,' he laments, as contemporary riot images flash violently on the backdrop.
What would you die for? is one key question he wants us to reflect on, and written answers are required- we have notebooks and pencils provided and Tim Crouch waits like an invigilator after each challenge. (I don’t know about others in the audience but for me this was bliss - I always write in a notebook during productions, though I haven't yet perfected the art of doing so legibly while still watching the action on stage.) His instructions begin as a control, but when our controller loses his power we become the scribes and poets and historians. A complex piece that could be endlessly analysed, and another tribute to the power of real drama. Shakespeare's character Cinna the poet had no voice in the play except to protest his political uninvolvement - the plangent warning in Tim Crouch's resurrection of the silent poet is that if we lose our words as sentient witnesses, then tyranny will win. Poems in response sent in by the audience are all here - including mine.

Roots Session at the Grain Bar on Wednesday gave us a double helping of singer-songwriter excellence - Tamsin Quin and Lazy Daze. Tamsin is delightful solo, offering a selection of 'happy songs about regrets', also teamed up with Phil Cooper and Jamie R Hawkins as Lost Trades, and Glastonbury trio Lazy Daze are well known on the south west scene: I especially love their (sadly once again topical) song about floods in Somerset: The Waters Rise.
Another party night on Saturday as the Cornerhouse said goodbye in style to massively popular bar managers Tom and Amy with marvellous (and also massively popular) Purple Fish, one of the most exciting cover bands around. Much dancing ensued!

And the week ends with a double-helping of punk at 23 Bath Street, with Wiltshire's thumping ear-plug-defeating One Chord Wonders and the sensational Gimme Gimme Gimmes from Edinburgh who would walk five hundred miles and then five hundred more to perform anything remotely connected with Scotland. They look like a Butlins bar band from the 1950s (I know, I worked there)
and they sound brilliant. 

Concluding this post with a quick look ahead to the Frome Festival in July - the 20th birthday one - as we're now all submitting our events to the brochure: brilliant Liv Torc will be main guest at the Poetry Café (Monday 6 July) and Nevertheless Pub Theatre returns to the Cornerhouse on Thursday 8th with 'I'm Talking to You' - six dramatic monologues by local writers. Here's me and Rosie Finnegan threshing out the near-impossible task of picking from the submissions. We look happy, despite the dilemma, because there were so many excellent entries...  more data lata!

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Realism and lyricism and rain



Writer Will Eno has called all his characters 'Jones' which might seems to suggest they’re ordinary folks, just like you & me - but who else in the world could be like these couples - needy, evasive, self-contradictory, incoherent then exquisitely lucid? Well, perhaps all of us in our different ways. The Realistic Joneses, at Theatre Royal Bath's Ustinov Studio takes under two hours to remind us that everyone has secret sorrows and joys and if this sounds like a long play about nothing, you should know that it’s a superb script, beautifully written and acted - an absolute delight of a production, laugh-aloud one moment, poignant the next.  Bob Jones (Corey Johnson) is recuperating though it’s unclear from what (he won't say, except that his syndrome's name sounded like a jazz quartet) with support from his wife Jennifer (Sharon Small): their neighbours, John Jones (Jack Laskey) and Pony (Clare Foster), have problems too, though the owner/holder relationship here is less clear.  There is no incisive moment of conflict and no carnage, only the story of something unknowable, and it seems over too soon when it ends. Great direction by Simon Evans intensifies the sense of quest for connection of both couples, and designer Peter McKintosh has created an evocative set, with glass doors enhancing and sometimes mirroring the precarious vulnerability of all the characters, neutral removal boxes as seating, an astral void above and emptiness beyond. Written in 2012, timeless in a modern world and will probably remain my 'best drama' for 2020 right to the end of the year: it's simply superb on till 7th March, see it if you can. Images: Simon Annand.

A delightful Frome Poetry Cafe too, with Deborah Harvey and Dominic Fisher, two of the Bristol-based IsamBard poets, guesting at our spring session. 'Green Shoots & New Beginnings' was our theme, selected hopefully although in current global conditions it might have seemed sardonic. However we had a really lovely evening: as well as some even more recent work, Deborah read from her new collection The Shadow Factory and Dominic shared from Ladies and Gentlemen of the Dead. Both poets have the ability to distill the extraordinary from the commonplace, combining visceral imagery with tender memory, with form stripped down to its essence. Fourteen 'Open Mic' poets shared impressive and entertaining words too - some moving, some funny, and all much enjoyed. Here's Jo Butts, current Frome Festival Poet Laureate, reading her witty history of Saint Valentine. 


Words with music now, starting with Roots Session at the Grain Bar on Wednesday.   Jon Amor denies that he has the longest fingers in the world but it's hard to believe him: they must certainly be among the fastest strumming ones. He leads the Jon Amor Blues Group as well as performing solo with his mainly-original songs - the scorching 'Stitch in her party dress' was my ear-worm all week. A brilliant session: great rock-bluesy music and sharp lyrics.

Paul Kirtley, indefatigable organiser of local music gigs, excelled himself this week with not only a late night charity event but an afternoon acoustic session next day. The White Hart at Corsley was the venue for Saturday evening and as storm Dennis kicked off outside, the small friendly group in the bar proffered song requests and shots and turned this event into something of a party.
Next day's session in The Three Swans,  by contrast, was completely full, with most of the audience also performing. Lovely informal atmosphere and great range of styles and instruments, plus performers of every age, all crammed into the baroque-style decor of the upper room there. These three images may give some idea of the range of performers: Paul's house band (not all, just as many as fitted in to one frame) playing rock classics - probably Wagon Wheel, the Callums, (Sarah, Vin, and Annie) with Dakota by Stereophonics, and me doing some semi-scurrilous wordage of my own. (thanks David for the snap) A rich event indeed.