Sunday, January 06, 2019

Arty start to 2019 and other January tidings

The arty start to the new year begins at Bath's Holburne Museum (specialism: knowledgeable & chatty volunteers) which has several temporary temptations enhancing its Georgian splendour this month: That marvellous study of '60s iconography and human nature Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy has been shoehorned into the long gallery with the silverware, where it succeeds in looking utterly stunning, glimmering beyond the teapots as you enter. Ossie Clark influenced so many of us in those ruffled chiffonny days of spliffs and parties, and David Hockney's disarming simplicity of style has mirror-like clarity. Simply staring was one of those epiphany moments, spilling over with nostalgia, and our small group of visitors, strangers on entry, began confiding in hushed voices, awed like pilgrims in Chartres when the sunlight shines through the stained glass rose windows. More treats upstairs too, with an on-loan exhibition of Gainsborough's portraits of his theatrical chums - Mrs Siddons of course, Thomas Linley, John Henderson, and others who trod the boards of Drury Lane and the Haymarket - and also the boards of Bath's own Theatre Royal, which acquired its licence through the influence of Gainsborough's friend, the architect John Palmer. No photography is allowed in this gallery but this National Portrait Gallery image of the painting of David Garrick, 18th century equivalent of Hugh Grant, shows how much more fluent Gainsborough's portraiture becomes with friends, when there was no need to give enhanced evidence of status, wealth, or lapdogs.
Bath in winter sunshine, with Wedgwood blue sky and gilded buildings, is an artwork in itself of course so with visuals very much the theme of the day, my next drop-in was the Victoria Art Gallery by Pulteney Bridge. The current visiting exhibition is On Paper: from the Arts Council Collection. The connecting notion of this small collection is that all use paper 'as a material in its own right rather than just a surface to be painted or drawn upon.' Collage seems an obvious process, and there are some examples (including a reconstruction of Wittgenstein's thought processes by Eduardo Paolozzi) as well as other more esoteric interpretations of the theme. I quite like this portrait of Sid Vicious in paper, board and glitter by Jim Lambie - the extra glow is reflected room lighting - not sure whether or not it's enhanced...

A fascinating & provocative new exhibition opened on the first Friday of the new year at Frome's Black Swan Arts: Eleanor Bartlett's paintings on the theme of Matter - challenging in that the artist (here pictured) demands 'does art have to mean anything?' and fascinating in that this seems contradicted by her premise - that 'matter describes form and form resolves matter in a continuing and unstable exchange...  the chosen vehicle of realisation, literally the stuff of imagination...'  The Words at the Black Swan workshop on Monday led by poet Louise Green found much to engage with in these impressive black blocks created by tar and wax.
Other than visual imagery, the first week of the new year has been a time for favourite local walks, well wrapped up and within striking distance of a warm inn: here's Stourhead lake early on a frosty morning.

And now as the new year limbers up for its second week, normal service is resuming in the creative corridors of Frome. Our Nevertheless Fringe Theatre Frome Festival co-production with Frome Actors Network ~ provisionally entitled The Sex and Death Quartet ~ is back in rehearsal, and Roots Sessions at the Grain Bar have restarted (hurrah!) with the fabulous Raggedy Men, on absolute peak form with our favourite punk classics and outrageously riffing up some new ones.

Final footnote for the first post of 2019: a look back at the week before christmas when Hunting Raven Books sold FIFTY-FOUR copies of Frome Unzipped - fingers crossed book-tokens may keep the roll going a bit longer... Our popular independent bookshop was on ITV West News on Wednesday too, with its manager the lovely Tina Gaisford-Waller rightly extolling her books, her staff, their customer-care, their customers, and our town.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Unavoidably seasonal!

December ended with  mild weather, a lustrous solstice dawn and enormous silvery full moon, plus festivities nightly all around town. There was much festive spirit around in the week leading up to the big day, with great live music too. Artisan was the venue for another of the Bare to the Bones gigs organised and led by Paul Kirtley, with a dozen musicians entertaining with songs ranging from classic rock -with Annie Davenport's lyrical sax - to a delightful spot from a young performer apparently perched on a snowman.
By the weekend Frome was as lively as you'd expect, with music all over the place and Pip Utton's acclaimed reading of A Christmas Carol at the Merlin, but my report is a bit patchy: you know how when you're young and get over-excited and your mum says, stop dashing about - you'll Get Ill, and you don't, and you do... well, it appears it's the same when you're old too, so a few events didn't make the final cut. The Cornerhouse hosted a particularly lively session on Friday led by Geoff Younger and Colin Ashley, with great guests and much dancing, but I can tell you nothing about the following night's events (though luckily I was mobile enough to respond to Hunting Raven's urgent call for another delivery of Frome Unzipped to fulfil demand in their christmas rush.... twice!)
On Sunday the Three Swans hosted an amazing afternoon of festive singalong music - classics, folksongs and even carols - involving a gathering of murmuration proportions of amazing performers of all ages, definitely the best possible way to ease into the official crux of the season especially when topped off with the Pete Gage Band, in top form as always, at the Cornerhouse in the evening.
Cornerhouse kept the musical  flag flying high with the final Jazz Club of the year, which featured the Keith Harrison trio with guest Knud Stuwe, whose playing on the esoteric oud - an ancestor of the lute - added a wistful mood to the crowded pub.
Change of mood again at Cornerhouse with the New Year house party - host Martin Earley providing a smashing buffet and the lovely local musicians and singers creating the smashing party atmosphere.

I did manage several walks, coughing gently, so here's an image from midway through that bit between Christmas Eve and New Years Eve when the holiday shifts from public to personal: high above Eastville Park (which is really lovely btw and features a lake with swans and a heron) there's the remains of a WWII look-out station, inherited now by brambles and graffiti artists. We came across it at the same time as a group of local walkers and one was happy to tell the story. This was the site of legendary supergun 'Purdown Percy' - a massive ack-ack gun that shot down countless enemy aircraft. Legendary indeed - there was no such weapon here, only a battery of small guns  showering shrapnel all over the city. Perhaps height enhanced the sound, or maybe it was patriotic optimism, but actually between 1939-45, only two of the hundreds of German planes flying over Bristol were ever shot down.
And the traditional year's end to a writer's blog is always a poem. I was going to write you a satire on the Majestic message delivered this year beside a golden piano, which began by commending the might of the RAF and ended without apparent irony vaguely commending the notion of universal peace,  but I lost heart. Here instead is the passionate voice of Dylan Thomas reflecting on the passing of a lifetime as we all sail away from that other country called 'the past.'
Nothing I cared, in the lamb-white days, that time would take me
up to the swallow-thronged loft by the shadow of my hand
in the moon that is always rising,
nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
and wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh, as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means, 
Time held me green and dying
though I sang in my chains like the sea. 
Makes me feel glad I missed out on a happy childhood.  Go well, may 2019 be tender with you.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Poodles, ravens, and quite a lot of music..

The Scarlet Pimpernel at the egg at Theatre Royal Bath was created in association with Pins & Needles Productions, and together they've created a version which will amuse adults with fragmentary historical recall, baffle children in 6+ range, and totally delight everyone. (Top tip to enthrall a young audience: start the action with haggard crones in the auditorium offering severed heads before the show starts - the sight of 150 small children popping and squeaking in their seats is quite something...) The multi-talented five on stage seemed to be enjoying everything too, especially the fights, the flights, the dances, the disguises, the costumes (think punky Marie Antoinette), the corny gags, the brilliant music (composed & directed by Jack Drewry) and the inventive props - there's an impressive guillotine and even a life-size canon, though it fires only poodles... if this all sounds chaotic, there is a storyline holding together this tale of mistaken identities, severed heads, revolution and resistance.  Baroness Orczy's legendary English lord - who took it upon himself to rescue French aristocrats - in this version becomes the Scarlet Pimple, with Dominic Allen's splendidly vicious Chauvelin in pursuit: there is a short appearance by Robespierre but most of the story is lively invention. So if you're a history teacher and when you ask the class what caused the French Revolution and they all shout 'Poodles!', you can blame Christopher William Hill who wrote this entertaining adaptation.

Frome Festive Poetry Cafe on Monday was a real delight. Guest Rosie Jackson, who spent the summer collecting a positive garland of prizes from Poetry Festivals around the southwest, gave two impressive readings around themes of art, soul, and light in all its forms. The Open Mic section was particularly entertaining this time, with a huge range of styles from poignant to hilarious.  That splendid emporium Hunting Raven Books had donated several books as christmas gifts, and a full-house audience good-naturedly accepted my 'scientifically selected' allocation of these for poignancy (Louis Payne), scandalousness (Claire Coleman), reference to fish depletion (Mike Grenville), debut reader (Diane Preston), use of the word 'red' (Sara Morris), and intriguing fragments (Kieron Bacon).

This image is not one of mine, it's from the facebook page of the Ravenmaster, an amazing character who lives and works in the Tower of London, tending to the legendary ravens. He is completely besotted with these creatures, and insists they have 'soul' as well as intelligence and - often - a wilful sense of humour, which he demonstrated to a large, intrigued, audience at his slide-illustrated talk in the Bennett Centre on Friday evening. The tradition of maintaining the ravens' presence is fuelled by superstition but to Christopher Skaife's credit, he discontinued the habit of clipping the birds' wings - he says he wants them to stay by choice, not because they can't fly.  His fascinating talk and book-signing was the enterprising idea of Hunting Raven Books who hosted with wine and mince pies.

Catherine Hill had a pop-up Christmas market planned for Saturday but Storm Deidre was out & about in Frome so I wasn't, so sadly I can offer no report, and will move swiftly on to music: The Grain Bar Christmas Special showcased the amazing Critters, the band that moves from folk to dub & reggae to classic pop, with the wonderful voices of Nicky Mascall and velvet-throated guitarist Steve Loudon. Add great fiddle, bass guitar, drumming, and the superhuman skill of guitarist Paul Hartshorn, who seems to have ten fingers on each hand. Their party atmosphere was contagious in the audience too...

Up to the Cornerhouse now, for three nights of sheer class: Flash Harry on Friday got us dancing with their energetic & extraordinary folk/rock/jazz/ fusion - their Irish Rover made the Pogues seem tame,
Saturday night had more simultaneous band options than Glastonbury, with punk at Lamb & Fountain, rock in the Sun, the street band at the Three Swans, and wonderful Back of the Bus seen here heading up a party in the Cornerhouse... luckily the storm had passed by then.
Sunday was Nunney Acoustic Cafe's festive party, an extended edition involving no less than 17 spots from a wide range of great performers - here's the 'house band' spot, and superb Emma Harris at the evening's jazz cafe at the Cornerhouse with Graham Dent's trio.

Fizzing footnote for this week: Skyros Holistic Holidays has confirmed my session as 28th July to 10th August, in Atsitsa Bay.  Other activities offered include yoga, windsurfing, kayaking, painting, singing - and of course swimming, walking, dancing, and generally having a fantastic, mind-blowing, life-affirming, time.... you can book, should you feel so inclined, here!

Monday, December 10, 2018

Bands, words, and surprising sunshine

Seasonal spangly candly celebration abounds now in Frome but the weather in our neck of the woods doesn't seem to have yet got the hang of winter. Mild days enlivened by rainfall in literal floods alternate with dazzling sunshine and blue skies enlivened by birdsong - possibly from birds that should be halfway to Africa by now.  Maybe they too don't want to leave Europe.
On, quickly, then to arts news beginning this week with live music. Captain Cactus and the Screaming Harlots on Wednesday's Roots Session at the Grain Bar gave a fantastic performance in a party atmosphere that delighted the crowd who squeezed in for the penultimate show of the year. As well as great musical performances this band are always a visual delight with lots of drama - this time enhancing their instrumental accompaniment with sousaphone and kazoos - eager audience participation for those - with a plea from 1982 to Stop The Cavalry (Patrick you get 3 stars for noting my title gaffe!)
Thursday evening the Granary had a great night of garage & punk bands - here's Los Grebos -
and Saturday the splendidly eccentric Blue Midnight made a welcome return to the Cornerhouse. 'Unlike anything you've ever heard' as trombonist Nick Waterhouse modestly describes a band that melds reggae with folk, adding violin, bass, harmonica, drum & vocals, playing songs called things like His moustache is part of the family but he isn't and Can't pay the rent! No image for Sunday's Frome Jazz Club at the Cornerhouse but an excellent session of Nordic works from Keith Harrison-Broninski's trio with trumpeter Gary Alesbrook. I especially liked Witchi-tai-to, based on the Jan Garbarek version, Keith tells me (if I've got that right) and Dodge the Dodo.

Frome FM Radio station is thinking about books for Christmas, which is very nice for me: Writers on Radio on Tuesday invited me to talk about Frome Unzipped and to read an extract in a programme extremely professionally led by Sara Scholefield which included also some excellent tips for writers from Suzy Howlett and Lisa Kenwright (link here). On Wednesday the Book Group invited me to join them to discuss gifts for avid readers and also the counter-phenomenon of tsundoku which probably happens everywhere but only the Japanese have sensibly identified the common habit of collecting new books and not getting round to reading them.. link to that on the Book Group page as 7th December's show.

Frome Unzipped also enjoyed a place on the bookstall of Nunney Road Christmas Bazaar, warmly hosted by Elanor Steel Ceramics and crammed with crafts, cakes, and mulled wine, where I was delighted to meet Dave Hamilton, who writes widely on countryside topics, and to agree to his suggested book-swap.

Meanwhile..... plans for a Nevertheless production in Frome Arts Festival 2019 are already showing their tiny fecund tips... we have the venue booked, the actors, the scripts... fans of pub theatre, keep an eye on our page in the coming weeks!

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Lights, action, camera - it's festivity time

As November ended, Frome officially began its seasonal celebrations. We had the traditional tree-light-switch-on with traditional carols on Friday - after a stunningly beautiful lantern procession led by a less-traditional samba band. Hundreds of exquisite paper lanterns, created in free workshops led by talented Mel Day and Aliss Vaas, glimmered their way down to the town centre to Light the Night - another of those wonderful Frome-style creative events that engage every age.
Once the lantern spectacular had dispersed, the evening festivities continued at Three Swans with the second of Paul Kirtley's Bare to the Bones charity gigs, this one at Three Swans, - excellent entertainment from fabulous local musicians. Here's the amazing Original Barn Finds band, and me doing a spot of morally dubious poetry - thanks Mike Grenville for the snap!

Saturday night resounded with clashing bands, metaphorically speaking, as the All Stars Christmas Charity Doo opened with phenomenally fabulous new band Back of the Bus, while the Cornerhouse featured popular dance-generators Purple Fish. And another party benefit gig at 23 Bath Street completed the weekend with the fabulously fearsome (I'm running out of adjectives here) Back Wood Redeemers ripping up Sunday afternoon with a version of This Train Is Bound For Glory to terrify the angels as well as the sinners.

Sunday being the first one of December, it was of course our glittery Frome Independent market day with all the usual goodies in the star-spangled streets and carol singers. Magpie Market in the Cheese and Grain was crammed with present-buying opportunities - including the usual Frome Writers Collective stall, delightfully decorated and here also festooned by me - thanks Dizzy Greenfield for the promo. The new exhibition at Black Swan Arts is also full of buyables and collectibles: Extremely Textiles is the showcase of 9 very different local artists, all continuing Frome's traditional textile craft though mainly in non-traditional ways. Words at the Black Swan met for a poetry workshop led by Louise Green, our group of nine focusing on different pieces - interestingly, four writers chose this amazing portrait of a couple on the tube, created by Julie Heaton on dissolvable fabric so the entire image is created by the stitching threads.

There is no doubt that The Model Apartment at Bath’s Ustinov Studio, directed by Laurence Boswell, is superbly acted. Whether or not you like the play will be a more individual matter. The theme - the elephant in the spotlight you might say - is the Jewish experience of WW2 and playwright Donald Margullies uses dramatic format to explore inheritance of trauma as represented by the three central characters: Lola and Max who believed they can escape their demons in a new life in Florida, and their their daughter Debby, the demon they cannot escape.  Neil, the fourth character and a Brooklyn street-orphan, might have become sidelined within this treatise on Nazi-related suffering so big credit to Enyi Okoronkwo who was impressive in this role.
The story is saturated with symbolism: the apartment itself is temporary while the older couple await their real destination, and is also fake: the entertainments systems are empty and the fridge has no plug - their escape, in short, has no reality. Max (Ian Gelder) copes by blanking out in sleep, Lola (Diana Quick) resorts to repeating anecdotes in which she was best friend and mentor to Ann Frank. So how does their daughter Debby (Emily Bruni) cope? That’s the most scarily unsuccessful struggle of all. The story seems a reproach as well as a reminder - but November is month for Remembrance.  Image Simon Annand

Final thought for the week: As readers of Frome Unzipped will know, 'dissent' in all its social aspects emerged, from my research into the town's history, as a strong thread in my book, so when I heard of the special exhibition at the British Museum on that topic, I definitely had to go. I Object is curated by media's pet imp Ian Hislop, who pledged to 'investigate what the downtrodden, the forgotten, the protestors' had to say about history, so it seemed reasonable to expect caustic comment at least but this meagre collection is captioned by puerile speech bubbles and padded by images of Mr Hislop walking about, presumably wishing he could find something more relevant than well-known political cartoons and the odd bit of graffiti - and as for the protest-badge tee-shirt display, I've got more myself. There was one note of real dissent: a hand-printed card at the exit that read BRITISH MUSEUM RETURN YOUR STOLEN LOOT BACK WHERE IT BELONGS - so here's a picture of  one of the Elgin Marbles, now renamed The Parthenon Sculptures. Despite being hacked into chunks for transport and then further damaged by the museum's inappropriate cleaning attempts, they still look pretty impressive. They'd look even better in Athens. I Object is on till January. If you're in the area with time to spare, go instead to Camellia's, the lovely rococo teashop over the road, and sit among flowers under the chandelier. It will be cheaper and you'll enjoy it more. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

Feminist drama, feral parades, festive glitz

A new performance of Pygmalion is always a delight, partly to see if the ending has been tweaked - against the playwright's expressed intention - to make the play an unlikely romance rather than the social critique that George Bernard Shaw intended. In this, as in many other aspects, Frome Drama Club at Merlin Theatre succeeded admirably. In director Simon Blacksell's production, David Holt's eccentric linguistic professor and Annabella Fairgrieve's utterly wonderful flower-girl do not seem likely to settle into future domesticity, even if charming Colonel Pickering (Philip de Glanville) remains to referee and she stops throwing his slippers at him. Much of the humour of the play is created by the absurdities of the concept of class status, and strong performances by the women in the team highlight this: Lynne McCaffrey is excellent as  practical, caring, housekeeper Mrs Pearce, in contrast to the silliness of snobby Mrs Eynsford-Hill - superbly played by Suzy Howlett. The men are good too, though it would be good to see more of Freddy in the first scene (he gets somewhat lost behind the umbrellas) and Alfred Doolittle, the usually rumbustious dustman, seems a bit subdued even before his unwanted status elevation. Gillie Richardson's costumes and Judy Simmons' hair design, plus simple but effective sets, ensure that this resoundingly successful production looks beautiful on stage though I can't find a promotional image which shows that, so instead here's a poster from Montreal and GBS in 1914 directing the contentious first London production.

From Shavian socialism to the current plight of the planet, or one of them: Extinction Rebellion has a strong contingent in Frome, participating visibly on the London Bridge demonstration, and on Saturday in Frome they showed there's big local support for their determination to change policies steadily, and increasingly speedily, destroying our world. A dramatic Funeral for Extinct Species set off from Rook Lane with a couple of hundred people following the hearse downhill to the precinct, where we gathered in the precinct around the coffin - respectfully carried by a bear, a wolf, an eagle and a (sort of) ram - to hear a poem listing and lamenting the species killed and threatened by mankind's activities. 60% have disappeared in the last 70 years.
The slow march continued, escorted by the Frome Street Bandits (dressed in mourning without their distinctive red), to the market place where Green Party's Theo Simon ended the event with a note of hope that while we have to accept the world is changing, we may be able to stop this mass extinction if we have the courage to continue speaking out. And then we had a song from his band Seize the Day, a bit of drum'n'dance to warm up, and hot chi, free from Mahesh on the Loop-de-Loop stall.

Extinct animals seems an unlikely segue but it actually works perfectly for Longleat festival of light this year, which the Sustrans cycle path has happily made available again to non-car users. There's a kind of Tintin theme here, plucky kids with a little white terrier, dashing around places and eras having adventures, one of them being the time Longleat House was assailed by prehistoric creatures.
Possibly that's a camptosaurus lurking by the bedroom windows, though it could be an iguanodon with a small head. I've no idea what the one with green wings is, but they all looked great in the dark as the full moon rose.

We're now at the start of the annual Gift-Anxiety festival, though fortunately - to my unreconstructed-Scrooge mind - there's been a slackening of the grip of that particular fever, and Frome anyway seems to focus on the opportunity to support its many local craftsfolk rather than tax-avoiding internationals. So we've already had two christmas markets - Black Swan hosted a lovely evening event throughout its cafe for its artisan traders, and Kate Cooke - pictured here at the Black Swan event - opened up her house for two days as well. There will be more to come!

Music this week once again shows how high the bar is set in Frome: the Wednesday Roots Session featured Keith James' skilful performance of a great repertoire which included Nick Drake & Leonard Cohn songs and poems of Lorca and Neruda. The fabulous Critters at the Cornerhouse on Friday opened with Cohn too, then ranged from country music to reggae as dancers filled the floor at this massively popular gig - 8 great performers superbly hosted by singer Nicola Mascall.
Sunday is jazz night at the Cornerhouse, always good and sometimes incredible: Frome often punches above its weight musically and this was one of those times - a  concert of capital-city quality as John Law on piano with Riann Vosloo bass, Sam Crockatt sax, and the incredible Dave Smith on drums gave us the music of  John Coltrane. I'm still quivering....