Monday, August 12, 2019

A detour of 1,500 miles to a small sun-soaked island...

Programme announcement: This post contains no Frome-related data so please go to social media for reports of the excellent events of the last couple of weeks - I shall have to, as I missed Independent Market at the seaside, Nunney Street Fayre bands at the castle, and The Hoodoos at the Cornerhouse - to name but three.
In replacement, here’s a brief bulletin about another creative community, on the Greek island of Skyros which hosts holidays with a difference, viz: an ethos of connection and contribution, and with personal development activities ranging from kayaking and abseiling to creative writing (my privilege to offer) and lashings of soul stuff like yoga and other bodywork, music and dancing. Within two-weeks, a community blossoms swiftly like one of those big Peruvian magnolias, nurtured by connections from co-listening one-to-ones, ┼ôkos group check-ins and a daily meeting of the full community. If this sounds an ambitious project for 100-or-so people, mostly strangers on arrival, all living in a hut camp, then remember the location is a pine-covered bay on the Aegean sea with sunshine from early morning till after 8pm when the clear cerulean sky began its nightly flooding of myriad pinks to mauve and gold  as the huge orb of sun drops like a blob of ketchup and the silver sea glimmers into darkness.
So this is a fabulous place to swim and walk, sing and talk, and to connect with others and yourself. About seventy of us, including twenty children of varying ages - running feral to varying degrees - were supported by a resilient team of ‘work scholars’ - mainly students on a break - and permanent staff. Add absence of internet and you have the complete concept: a re-imagining of society, no less. It is a fact, however, that even ardent supporters of this beautiful concept, like me, head daily to the Sunset Cafe on the cliff which has espresso coffee and (intermittent) wifi, and always a welcome from Marianna and her team. This is where my writing groups worked each morning, in what became a master-class. The 'sunset writing' session before supper was fabulous too, with work-scholars also 'dropping in' each evening, after the more strenuous sessions, to join the group in the terrace bar.

The mid-course weekend brings my highlight: a group walk to town, nine miles across the island from rural isolation into an alternative reality of surprising sophistication.  Skyros town, the chora of the island, though charmingly still called 'the village' by our organisers, is in fact a large & growing conurbation of city-style sophistication, visited extensively by Athenians and with every facility they would expect to enjoy. When I first arrived in the final decade of the last century, old men here still wore the traditional island garb of pantaloons and stockings, and front doors were proudly open to show displays of pottery and bronze plates - these are still features, though less obvious from the street.  The amazing hilltop Faltaits Museum has a complete cultural history of this feisty island, the only one in the Aegean Sea to confront the pirates on their ransacking routes, and neither defeat nor be defeated by them, but instead to barter for samples of their loot and then to copy these stolen crafts of weaving, woodwork, metalwork, and pottery - hence the rich tradition of Skyrian art today. Skyros town is surprisingly like Frome physically too, with its steep & cobbled ancient streets, and an amphitheatre getting ready for a band that night. There's one big difference: the long soft sandy shore, sunshine at near 30°C all week, and my stroll through town took me from an afternoon at funky Juicy beach-bar to an evening of sophisticated shopping opportunities, restaurants, and rooftop bars - we chose the one on top of the Bank of Greece, which seemed both ironic and appropriate.

Final footnote for this fortnight is an off-piste book recommendation: since deciding to conclude my happy career of deconstructing fiction, my reading in that genre has been virtually zilch but I picked from the shelf here Jonathan Coe’s novel Middle England, and honestly have never read so convincing an account of how our nation degenerated so swiftly from a jolly country with a proud tradition of cricket, beer and irony into a an ignorant, racist snarling brawl, inspiring bewilderment and derision the world over.  Here you'll meet the genteel, ageing, middle classes whose resentment of PC-ness rumbled into racism, fuelled by inept leaders, lazy journalists and outright corrupt bankrollers, all spawned from inbuilt systems of snobbery and complacency… this would be dystopian if it wasn’t, tragically, simply an accurate tracking of the last decade. Buy, borrow, or beg your Book Group to read this novel - it may be to late to save us from chaos but it’s not too late to understand.

I'll end with a return to the raison d'etre for my sunshine sojourn: working & talking about writing, with some fabulously creative writers - thanks Alice, for the snap.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Here comes the sun!

This bulletin is a thing of shreds and patches, as the bard would say, due to evening cancellations.
The week's art exhibitions have been immune to that particular issue, so here are two interesting & unusual ones: LISTEN - a summer of sound art - includes among its many aspects a 'Listening Hub' at the Round Tower, with a different playlist every day. I'm particularly pleased that mine - the words and music on Liquid Jam, as recorded by Will Angeloro - shared its day with David Daniels, whose sound-inspiring images filled both galleries.

And there's another unusual use of venue space at the Silk Mill, where the WHY summer exhibition relocated to display more than 70 pieces of artwork donated by local artists to raise funds.Each piece is 6x6 inches, with a wide range of style, colour, and technique, all are on sale at £40 until Sunday - but going fast, as the red dots show. I spotted the talents of Dan Morley, Mark Jessett, Alan Overton, among others, but don't know who created that amazing cat.

A quick look at the local theatre scene now, depleted as Uncle Vanya press night at Theatre Royal Bath was disappointingly cancelled due to cast injury but on the hottest evening of the year I did manage to get to Malory Towers in Bristol, adapted & directed from Enid Blyton's tales by Emma Rice.
Theatre followers will remember it's not long since Emma quit the Globe and formed, amid almost equal controversy, a new company called Wise Child which toured successfully with a show of the same name. I saw it at Bristol Old Vic and loved it. Based on Angela Carter's book of a similar name, this show was glamorous and anarchic and full of memorable individual characters. Enid Blyton does not of course offer quite the same scope, so without the savage genius of the Comic Strip perhaps the best that can be expected is mere parody unless there's an element of the wider social context beyond post-war all-girl boarding schools. This co-production with York Theatre Royal, in association with Bristol Old Vic, is staged in the Passenger Shed rather than the theatre (which actually offers excellent visibility and is a great venue) with numerous visual effects to create a story-book boarding school on a Cornish cliff-top. It's billed as a 'family show with songs' (there's one about a horse which would be top tip for a Craggy Island Eurovision Song Contest entry) and aims to pay homage to "the teachers in those schools, who devoted themselves to education and the nurture of other women." As a survivor of an all-girls school just after WW2 I remember the curriculum as rigidly moribund and the environment toxic, but this lively group of girls found much to enjoy, apart from the violent bullying, and enjoyed a free hand in re-envisaging Shakespeare (one London venue might sense a footnote here). Overall, Malory Towers seems a homage to genre rather than a play, and really relies on feel-good factor - it also probably helps, as they say, if you've read the books...

And as trains and planes are grounded in droves, among my personal cancellations is a long-held plan to see The Operation at 23 Bath Street tonight, in their ten-year-on reunion gig. Last year's research for Frome Unzipped had excitingly revealed a largely now-unknown, and extraordinarily vibrant, history of music in the town before its fame hit the glossy supplements, with The Operation repeatedly referenced with huge respect, so I got my tickets early on before they sold out - as they quickly did. But with a 5am start the next morning to a 2-day journey - if the flight's not heat-grounded - and a still-unyielding chest infection, with immense reluctance this too had to join the week's scratched events.
On a happier note: I had a really lovely birthday, meeting friends all day in glorious sunshine, and a walk over the fields in the evening.  And now I'm about to board a plane for Skyros, so there will be no more reports of Frome for a while. Enjoy the summer, y'all!

Sunday, July 21, 2019

A mixed bag: Nazis, novels, birdsong, and bands.

Drama first, as Vienna 1934 - Munich 1938  written, directed by, and featuring, Vanessa Redgrave, is showing at the Ustinov Studio in Bath until August 3rd. If this seems a strange name for a play, that’s because it is not a play, it is a scrapbook - a family album, its creator calls it.  Vanessa Redgrave, a stately and sparkling 82 year old, arrives on stage from the start to steer us through her collection of photographs of family and friends projected on screen behind her. Some then become animated and arrive onstage to speak for themselves, in scripts devised by Vanessa from journals, poems, and memories. She watches these cameos for much of the time.
Her support team - Robert Boulter a charming Stephen Spender, Lucy Doyle delightful as feisty anti-Nazi Muriel Gardiner, and Paul Hilton mesmerising in all his roles (unforgettable as Koloman Wallisch at execution and Thomas Mann indicting England's collusion with Fascism) - all help to create the lost world of Europe before Hitler’s war.  It's a time of political struggle but still hope. Socialism is the language of all these people - poets and subversives, who all live to work for, and express the need for, all people to be free. ‘Everyone my father knew was a socialist’ says Vanessa in her programme notes. It is another world and, despite the atrocities, an innocent one.  
The detailed events make this a hard story to follow, even with programme notes - and don’t go if you want indulgent memories of theatre in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Go instead to see what they never told you at school, even if you studied history, as I did right through university.  There is so much here that we all need to understand, even with hindsight, about the misdirections of national leaders and the courage of individuals. Image Nobby Clark

Back in Frome, life is settling down after the festival but not without words and music. Hunting Raven Books had one of their highly enjoyable 'Author Events', this time at the Town Hall (with sandwiches!) where manager Tina Gaisford-Waller was in conversation with fiction writer David Nicholls. Hard to believe it's ten years since One Day was the backdrop to summer for just about everyone I knew, copies past from hand to hand on beaches and poolsides everywhere - I still feel hot and sandy just looking at the cover. His new novel Sweet Sorrow looks set to be massively popular too. David was an actor before he became a novelist and screenwriter, so he knows how to hold an audience, and as Tina shares this skill the discussion was highly enjoyable, giving fascinating insight into the craft of structuring storyline and creating credible character.

On Friday Black Swan Arts hosted an exhibition launch to celebrate their 'LISTEN - Summer of Sound' project, which will involve a wide range of audial treats at the gallery and beyond. Singing the World: The Dawn Chorus is the contribution from painter Mike Collier, who was inspired by birdsong heard early one May morning. The processes devised to move the sonograms to coloured paintings are complex and intriguing: even more fascinating is the complete set of neumatic notations filling one wall. Bennett Hogg's music accompanies the art. The LISTEN event continues in the Black Swan and various venues around town until September 1st - I'll be involved a talking-walk at the end of August, (and also have a presence on the 'Playlist' scheduled for Thursday July 25th, just before I head for the azure skies over Greece...) 

Only a small music section this week, as I didn't get to several gigs I'd intended to see. 'Bare to the Bones' reincarnated again at the Artisan on Friday, this time with four bands and several solo performers joining in: Hello Hopeville, The Decades and Hoodoos all enriched a regular mix that starts and ends with Paul Kirtley's famous jam sessions - totally unrehearsed, he always reminds us, and we believe him! It's a good fun night, and has so far raised around £3,000 for Paul's chosen cancer charity. Here's The Hoodoos, and a typical glimpse of our 'stage'...
On Saturday night 23 Bath Street was overrun with percussion, as Frome Street Bandits gave a fabulously flamboyant demo of their urban gypsy / funky ska style:  this was followed by 25-strong Carnival Collective, but my functioning week ended at that point so no report on that, or the protest song event A Change is Gonna Come at BOV on Sunday as I had to forgo that too. Fingers crossed for return to health in time to travel to Skyros next weekend...

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Bumper Festival picture book

This was the sunshine festival, and perfect for all outdoor events like walks, picnics, markets, art trails & 'Open Gardens', also ensuring evenings could extend naturally - usually ending late under the twinkly bar lights of the pop-up cantina in Silk Mill yard. If this sounds idyllic, you are getting the vibe: there was far too much on for this report to be comprehensive but it should give you a glimpse.
So, not in any particular order of chronology, we'll start with performance, and if you're wanting to know how the Nevertheless/Frome Actors Network production Where The Fault Lies was received, the happy answer is: rapturously. The event sold out so early we put on a second showing later the same evening and that sold out too. Cornerhouse Upstairs was transformed into a tiny intimate theatre and feedback forms throbbed with comments like "Fantastic... great plays, superb acting and a fabulous evening of entertainment!"... "Wonderful plays! I loved the humour and the depth of understanding of the human soul and relationships"... "Clever, funny, surprising, thought-provoking, satisfying"... "hilarious and inspired!" - you can see them all here, and there's a full review online on the Fine Times Recorder. Thanks David Goodman for production photos, and Martin Earley for the venue, with special appreciation to Tom for support throughout the run-up and transformation of the gin-bar into an intimate theatre.
Over at the Town Hall, a  new comedy drama by Frome writer Nikki Lloyd gained massive commendation and audiences grew throughout the run. Turtle Doves, with the focus a dysfunctional young couple and their troubled therapist (the ever-excellent Laurence Parnell), looks at a range of relationships - siblings, strangers, long-term or brief encounters - in a clever series of time-slip segments (think Tim Crouch rather than Alan Ayckbourn) with much to laugh at, perhaps with wry recognition, as well as unexpectedly moving moments. Geoff Hunt was producer of this exciting and memorable play, well acted by all ten cast members, and superbly directed in the round by Keely Beresford.
Still with words-&-performance: the Festival Poetry Cafe, always fun to host in the eponymous garden of the Garden Cafe on a sunny night, was a total delight. Guest poet Henry Madd absolutely captivated the crowded audience with his intimate yet accessible reflections on childhood, loss, and life.
Open Mic is especially important at this event, because the coveted title Frome Festival Poet Laureate is awarded on a single poem offered on that night, written on the theme of the festival. Despite difficulties from this year's dedication to JW Singer's foundry, several of our 15 readers braved the challenge, with five runner-up book prizes and Jo Butts scooping the title! Congratulations everyone who came to participate and to listen, making this relaxed and lovely evening a highlight of the week for me. Thanks Wendy Perry for the picture of Jo with Henry & me, Hunting Raven for the books, Garden Cafe for the bubbly and venue transformation.
Hip Yak Poetry Slam at the Archangel by contrast has a hi-energy vibe and is immensely competitve as the prize here is no less than a spot in the Poetry Tent at Womad. Liv Torc, Chris Redmond and Jonny Fluffypunk run this with proper sound and professional skill, and random audience members choose the winners in the tradition slam way - by holding up score cards. As with football rulings, opinions are bound to vary, but everyone seemed to agree that Stewart Taylor, self-professed 'slave to rhythm and unpaid lackey to rhyme' well deserved to take top spot with his defence of the clog -yeah, I know it doesn't sound likely, but you should have seen the repeat prestissimo... also notable was the first nudist performance in Frome!
Historical talks with a focus are hot favourites in Frome, and this festival has offered weaving, foundry work, war, buildings, and more. My contribution, along with David Lassman, to this oeuvre was 'Rogues Rebels and Renegades' - a town centre tour of hot spots in our unruly and dissenting past. David has far more experience and a louder voice so he took the main role, and our exposition was enhanced by the attentions of a 19th Century pickpocket who was eventually apprehended by traditional 'hue and cry' and confined to the Blind House - many thanks Ollie, and to Joao Diniz Sanches for the images.

For Frome Writers Collective, a busy week that began with a Publishers Fair ends with the prize-giving for the winner of the Short Story Competition, another very popular feature. After a morning of workshops and the awards for the 'writers in residence' last Saturday, judge Tyler Keevil announced this year's First Prize winner is Clare Reddaway - an absolute delight for me, as I am friends with both these  great writers & lovely people. I couldn't be there for the big reveal, so thanks Gill Harry for the picture.

Moving on from words,  the visual arts were strongly reflected, with 23 Open Studios and exhibitions showing the town's tradition of textile work is still thriving - masterly work in both creating and decorating fabric evident in exhibitions by Weavers Spinners & Dyers,and Embroiderer's Guild. The town opened its 'hidden' gardens too, but sadly I only had time for a smattering of visits. Here's one of the tiny Paul Street gardens, and part of a Dan Morley piece I covet...

Music seemed everywhere this week - in streets and beer gardens by day, in churches and halls and of course the usual pubs each evening.
Independent Market busking stage featured favourites The Raggedy Men followed by Crossing the Rockies while The Decades entertained outside the Grain Bar as Comic Con characters roamed the hot streets (thanks, man in the street, for the snap of me and Helen Pearse.)  Daytime music too at the Saturday Sofa Session promoted by Humans of Frome, this time Feral Beryl and friends entertained the crowd on Catherine Hill.
On Sunday afternoon, not strictly in the festival schedule but a highlight of the weekend, was the launch of a new sound on the scene as Ed Green's Pagan Gospel Groove Machine introduced its unique Brooklyn style of 'nature-based spirituality and funky grooves' to the world at the Red Shed in Chesterblade. With Vicki Burke on sax,  Dermot West on bass, Nick 'the potter' on drums and Tim Maryon on keyboard, this is definitely a band to look out for!
And finally, the evening sessions... as you'd expect, too many for any one person to hear all, and the only 'classical' concert for me was John Law's late-evening Renaissance, piano improvisations over electronic backing tracks, with projections by Patrick Dunn, in Christ Church where the setting sun glowed spectacularly through the famous stained glass windows.  Cornerhouse cornered the festival market for popular bands at the weekend, with three fantastic nights of dance-orgy.  Purple Fish on Friday, probably the band Carling would make if it branded bands, brought their own lights which looked fantastic but caused a quandary, to bop or to snap? No such problem next night with Flash Harry - too dark for snaps but lovely Ann Harrison-Broninski has been assiduous in her festival sketching so, from her viewpoint on the floor, here's wonderful Vicki Burke on her sax. (I couldn't find a youtube of their incredible hamster song, but this is a sample of their energy & style.) Sunday's spectacular was local band Blue Midnight, tagline 'unlike anything you've ever heard.' You might add 'or seen' as the lads barge into the pub already playing, led by the trombonist, and their set ends in darkness with everyone softly crooning la la la... 
And another fabulous Frome Festival ends. Thanks for reading!

Monday, July 08, 2019

Apocalyptic drama in Bristol, Festival fever in Frome

Big stage news of the week - Kneehigh's Dead Dog in a Suitcase is back at Bristol Old Vic - until 13 July, when the tour continues on to Galway International Arts Festival - and it's as fearsome and funny as it was five years ago and, grimly, even more recognisable as a darkly-mirrored but realistic world. I see was too overwhelmed back in 2014 to blog a coherent account, and feel much the same now: this production is a jaunty remake of The Beggar's Opera, a show-case of performance skills, and a fiercely furious satire, all mixed apocalyptically into a kind of real-life Punch & Judy show. The performers - there are fourteen, including musicians and puppeteers - are all incredible, especially Rina Fatania whose evil vivacity will haunt your dreams, while Dominic Marsh as murderous philanderer Macheath must be the sexiest hitman in the galaxy (after Stephen Mangan in Pinter's Birthday Party - unless you count a psychotic terrorist as a hitman, in which case Aiden Turner in The Lieutenant of Inishmore remains unsurpassable) - but back to Dead Dog... Writer Carl Grose and director Mike Shepherd worked with composer Charles Hazlewood whose 'mongrel score' ranges from evocations of 18th Century opera to ska, disco, grime and 'songs culled from the edge of existence'. And like John Gay's 1728 bawdy backstreet parody of grand lives which provided the characters and the plotline, there's a serious punch beneath the fantasy and frivolity - as significantly forewarned in the opening scene of the show: "Look closer, you might realise this world is no different from your own.” Except perhaps that this one has unforgettable special effects at the finale - no spoilers, but the standing ovation was well deserved.

And now to spectularly sunny Frome:
Matt Owens, founder member of Noah & the Whale, has since moved on to a successful solo career (and don't ask where he'll be in five years time) - entertained an enthralled crowd at the Wednesday Grain Bar Roots Session with Kerouacian tales and original songs.

After that, Frome moved up a gear to festival mode: there's an impressive exhibition of the work of JW Singer's foundry & its aesthetic impact around the world at Rook Lane Chapel, and - with 23 more visual arts venues poised to open - there were two excellent events on Friday: painter Mark Jessett at the HUBnub centre (he says he does try to use laid-back, calm, colours but it just doesn't happen, you can see the vibrance right across the gallery!) and Ann Harrison-Broninski sharing her sketches of the life of Frome in the gallery room at The George with sunset views across town, accompanied by folksy sounds from Crossing the Rockies. Both delightful events.

The focus shifts to literature on Saturday morning, as Frome Writers Collective took over the Silk Mill for their Small Publishers Fair, a superbly organised, very busy, event. Barry Cunningham, MD of Chicken House and patron of FWC  opened the day with a few perfectly pitched words about the need for imagination in order to create change, and the famous festival cantina opened at noon to provide refreshment outside. For me this was an anniversary: one year ago Frome Unzipped - from prehistory to post-punk was launched here, so it was really nice to meet up again with my publisher,  John Chandler of Hobnob Press.

Also on Saturday, the sofa on Catherine Hill returned to feature the striking sound of Otto Wilde, dubbed Cab Calloway channelling the future soul of Jack White, and Artisan pub garden enjoyed sunshine and swing with Alexandra's Washboard Band.

For the evenings, Cornerhouse was the go-to music place: an exuberant set from quirky Back of the Bus, and Pete Gage Band excelling even its own usual brilliance on Saturday night.

So as you can tell there was much to enjoy but I can't tell you anything about the official festival opening at the International Food Feast with its tantalising stalls, or the traditional flamboyant entry led by the Street Bandits, the excellent bands and entertainments... with an afternoon dress rehearsal for our Nevertheless Pub Theatre show Where the Fault Lies too, something had to go...  (There'll be a same-night second performance at the Cornerhouse now, too, at 9.30 as the 8.00 tickets sold out so quickly)   So I'll end on a comedy note, with Peter Fleming- have you seen? at the Granary with an ageing BBC children's presenter, nostalgic for the old days of glove puppets and making things with sticky-back plastic... endearing and very funny, this should go well in Edinburgh.
Final non-artsy footnote, purely because my recent gloomy forboding of curtailment in reports met with several concerned responses from kind blog-followers: normal service now expected to resume, as I've had an alternative diagnosis with much more positive prognosis.  Smiley face - and thanks all.