Friday, November 20, 2020

Drama, poetry, conflict, and sedges

Creatives have been hard hit by this second lockdown, especially theatres. Here in the south-west, Theatre Royal Bath had no sooner re-emerged on the strength of handouts from the Culture Recovery Fund than their 'Welcome Back' season was paralysed again, but Bristol Old Vic enterprisingly added a live-streamlining aspect to their new productions. Hedda, created via the 'permeable membrane' (their term) of their Theatre School.  Chekhov's dramatic principle asserts that if a gun is shown in the first act then it must be fired before the end of the play and Hedda has two, which, combined with her self-destructive boredom, ensures no surprise in the finale here, even if you're not familiar with Ibsen's play. 
The filming angles were great, with plenty of full-stage 
views rather than soap-opera-style  close-ups, although for some technical reason there were also plenty of blurred moments while my system played catchup. Lucy Kirkwood's adaptation transfers the story to contemporary Notting Hill so some changes are essential (though possibly not Hedda eating the lost book) and the trainee actors did justice to the vying, lying, academics - Hedda's husband George and Michael Drake as handsome ex-lover Toby were particularly strong, and so too was Emma Hadley-Leonard as the woman who fascinated and enthralled everyone except herself.

A Friday night of verbal immersion now as four remarkable poets launched their new collections on Zoom: Frome's Claire Crowther and Bath's Carrie Etter were joined by Alan Baker and Vik Shirley in an extremely well-organised hour of fascinating readings. Alan, an editor & translator as well as poet, was launching his new pamphlet A Journal of Enlightened Panic, Vik's debut collection is entitled The Continued Closure of the Blue Door - samples of her work here - Claire's latest collection Solar Cruise has already been picked as Poetry Book Society recommendation. Claire is married to the renowned solar physicist Keith Barnham & these poems, all written on their sea trip to America, focus on meditations around his work - there's a sampler here and  some have been reprinted in the Fortnightly Review. 
Carrie's new collection is The Shooting Gallery published by Verve, extraordinary and sombre prose poems juxtaposing reflections on the WWII drawings by Czech artist Toyen with school shootings since the Columbine massacre in 1999.  
These are also featured in the Fortnightly Review, but it was particularly powerful to see some of the drawings that inspired these pieces as Carrie read them with moving calm.

Frome Writers Collective's Writers on Radio session this week was on 'the art of revolting, and writing about it,' and opened with an interview with David Lassman discussing why Frome is famous for its riots - mostly legitimate protests, incidentally, as the food riots were inspired by the inflated price of bread, the 3-day riot at 1832 election was in response to blatant corruption, and the wool-workers attacks on new machinery were protests at the loss of essential income for the spinners. David doesn't emphasise rationals but he's really interesting on the facts. (Here's David in a clip from the Wessex Camera Club's coverage of our 'Rogues and rebels' walk in the last Frome Festival.) Among other intriguing features, Sian Williams recalled the 1980s Greenham Women's protest, and Suzy Howlett considered the etymology of 'riot' - the language of the unheard, as Martin Luther King so perceptively said. Good to hear Kaiser Chiefs' riot prediction again too.

Maybe because we all feel under partial house arrest, dissent seems to be in the air: Eleanor Talbot interviewed me this week about the thread of dissent that runs through my book Frome Unzipped, from Prehistory to Post-punk for her weekly show Variations on a Theme. Unlike David, who is reliably lucid,  my recall of dates is impeded by dyscalculia, unhelpful when discussing history... luckily Eleanor is a brilliant interviewer & editor. I'm on Episode 58, at 24mins-35.10, 46mins for 12 minutes, and again for 9 minutes at 1.09 - but you should listen to Eleanor's brilliant music choices too, like the sensational History Song from The Good the Bad & the Queen and (at 1.33) an amazing rap battle between Trump & Biden created from actual speeches by ERB (Nice Pete & Epic Lloyd). All seamlessly fused by Eleanor, here seen at the WHY gallery opening last year - another from-the-festival-album image.

Still with social conflict of a kind, the Workhouse Burial Ground walk mentioned in previous posting, one of Frome writer John Payne's projects, had a plug in The Guardian this week. This would have been one of the Frome Festival events, and John's pamphlet of poems The Few and the Many includes two tributes in remembrance.  And with live music on hold, we continue to  rely on Sky Arts, youtube, and downloading: this is Destination Unknown, from Pete Gage with Ruzz Evans on guitars and Mike Hoddinott on drums - free sample from Pete's new downloadable album Live to Fight Another Day, with great advice in the title track: if you don't do it now then you never will. 

Ending this week's foray with an image from the extraordinary Oudolf Field at Bruton's Hauser & Wirth, where inspired planting has created a landscape for all seasons: the opulent colours of spring and summer morphing to a different glamour by late autumn, with starbursts of moon-pale grasses, russet stems of seed pods, and a few late, mulberry-dark, flowers.

Friday, November 13, 2020

The here-we-go-again edition.

Let's start with an image that shows how we're all feeling, as modelled by Hunting Raven Books marvellous manager Tina Gaisford-Waller at the end of a long day coping with phone & email orders. The legend on her jumper, you may notice, reads OPTIMIST. With a massive stack of quirky wrapping and sturdy paper bags at the ready, we're hoping this brilliant bookshop does really well in the season ahead. And if you want to shop for other stuff to support Frome's creatives, join Friendshop, here - loads of unique art & wearable posted by craftsfolk - and authors - of Frome.

Still with words, Frome Writers Collective monthly social on Thursday had a spooky theme, perhaps apt in a week when 'shape-shifting creep' was trending on twitter, with short stories shared at the zoom meeting. 

And individuals are offering virtual gigs again in response to the renewed lockdown - and no apologies for my sample choice of  Steve Pottinger and Luke Wright as both these brilliant poets have visited Frome to perform in the Poetry Cafe. Steve this week was hosting a set in Dubai, although his presentation and material stay firmly in the Black Country.  His poems are inspired by actual people and historical events, but also wildly imaginative as he word-shifts from the ordinary to the fantastic, always with a strong sense of the human struggle right across the range of his work.  

Spoken-word poet Luke Wright, too, has this ability to convey poetic experience as deeply personal yet also universal. Luke is is offering his poems every night throughout November at 8pm on his twitter feed, for free (though donations appreciated.) Luke doesn't seem to work from a set list, you get what he's in the mood for. On Thursday this seemed a little bit cynical & sad, but he finished the set with a really beautiful poem about his little boy in bed reading, existing in his solitude 'steady as a rock pool' .
Frome's fabulous Liv Torc was in the zoom room on Tuesday for Haiflu Ever After, talking candidly about her year of troubles & triumphs, about the international haiku-writing project she launched, and also about her serious illness (which led to 2 brilliant poems of cuckoo-nest flying craziness). Liv's audience rapport is as instinctive as her poetic talent and this hour was inspiring as well as entertaining: Liv wants more haiflu now, and hopes you'll post them publicly, 
and share them on social media... so look out for #haiflu2020art, and join in if you'd like to feature in her next film.

Visual art now : The Cam Valley Arts Trail went virtual for the first week of November with 32 artists presenting their paintings, prints, pottery and beads: Here's some of Frome's Andrew Eddleston's varied ceramic work - you can see more in his a Youtube movie here. Apologies for the belated notice - events across the Atlantic have been a bit distracting) 

Performance taking teetering steps back into the live world has, of course, been stopped in its tracks. Theatre Royal Bath's costly 'Welcome Back' season of three great classic dramas was halted after the first show (Pinter's Betrayal) and Bristol Old Vic is working out live-streaming from the stage for Hedda in order not to postpone their new collaboration with the BOV Theatre School. Future productions will also be semi-streamed, with a few seats available in the theatre. 

Music events, like drama, have been hard hit. Individual performers continue to use the easy-access site Open Micsolate - you'll find several Frome favourites there - or posting directly on their own pages, like Nick van Tinteren, awesome lead guitarist with popular Bristol band Cut Capers. This is the image used by Paul Kirtley on quite a few of his posts - this one is Go With the Flow, recorded with David Goodman, a great example of impro jamming. Al O'Kane's poignant new song Black Lullaby, written in response to the current situation, was released on Friday 13th, with  a short taster here and Sara Vian's offered a new song Trust the Sea 'to celebrate the result of the USA election.'  The Summer of Sound project is now archived on Frome.FM and my contribution, a revival of the Liquid Jam CD of Frome poets produced by Will Angeloro 20 years ago, is online here. This really is an excellent little radio station with a wide range of range of music, from eclectic mixes to fan specials like Foo Fighters Top Tracks, all available in their archives - lockdown is maybe a good time to browse.

Ending now with the Frome Walking Festival, also bludgeoned by new restrictions, but you can still enjoy these themed local walks by downloading the routes, each with maps and information, varying from a short, sombre town tour with a focus on WW1 to a strenuous 13 mile trek along the Saxon Kings Way - this one recommends a bus or train for the return! Big credit to the Walkers are Welcome team for keeping this project afloat.  I'll leave you, once again,  with a tree.


Saturday, November 07, 2020

Small local events, in a big week for the world

As an antidote to national and international news, let's turn to the thumb-sucking comfort of The Secret Garden, the story of an unloved little girl who is eventually seen as a heroine, a healer, and - most importantly, loveable. Obviously this tale was a favourite for me as a child, re-read repeatedly under the bedclothes in a dim light that probably did, as promised, ruin my eyesight. It's by Frances Hodgson Burnett (who also wrote A Little Princess, the story of an unloved little girl... etc, another comfort-read,) and has been filmed four times: the latest with Colin Firth, Julie Walters, and - barely off screen & always mesmerising - Dixie Egerickx as Mary, the child who finds the garden that changes all their lives. Director Marc Munden has indulged in quite a lot of embellishment to the original story: it's no longer the robin who 'showed the way' but a big shaggy dog; surly gardener Ben Weatherstaff is all but erased, Misselthwaite Manor suffers a blaze on Jane Eyre scale, and it's Mary who saves her uncle.
This Mary has psychic powers too, enabling her to introduce us to her dead mother and that of her ailing cousin Colin. The magical garden eschews any attempt at credibility: despite the wuthering wildness of the moor beyond, here it's CenterParcs but with Thai temples, and the secret section could be an elaborate set for Strictly. Most of the story, in short, is massively over-egged but somehow it seems to work. Showing - till stopped - at Frome's super little indie cinema Westway, where icecreams still come round on a tray. 
It's been a short week for entertainment reports, since 
at midnight on Wednesday the portcullis descended on live performances - and meet-ups to discuss such things.  The  scramble to organise future writerly and dramatic plans meant me missing the final session from the talented We Don't Scare Easy Tribe at The Mill at Rode - particularly disappointing as the band ended their set by playing Holiday in Spain especially for me & Steve... awww...  This fantastic team, spearheaded by Paul Kirtley & David Goodman, plays to raise money for Fair Frome projects, usually with support from other talented musicians - in this video, Carl Sutterby is on harp. with sound support from Steve. 
And now, once again, the only way is online, with Zoom re-entering our lives like Scrooge's persistent ghosts: past, present, and probably future too. The creatives of Frome are more prepared this time around: Frome Drama Club has already moved online, with Six Poems in Search of a Performance on youtube - here's Laurie Parnell with the opening words of Under Milk Wood  - and their Autumn project is a full length play, Terminus, written by Al Brunker and John Palmer.
Frome writer John Payne's project, Walking the Names, has been shortlisted for a short-listed for an international Sound Walk award. This monthly event has been developed to give respect those who died in poverty in the Bath Union Workhouse, by reading their names in a slow walk with music and poetry.

And if you want to buy a book, or a cd or art object, knitting wool or pizza, any one of 60 other options still available locally during lockdown, check this brilliant directory of opportunities from Shop Frome - another of the pro-active responses to difficult times in our extraordinary town. 

So at the end of a quiet week, here's two images of autumn from my 'permitted exercise': fields by Frome, and Shearwater lake. Long may these sunny chill days continue... 

Monday, November 02, 2020

Drama, words, & spooky stuff - the Halloween edition

Uncle Vanya was mid-production at the Harold Pinter Theatre when coronavirus interrupted them, but director Ian Rickson reconvened his team to make a film version. Frome's Merlin, ever  aware that 'use it or lose it' is this year's maxim for theatres, promptly booked it for a showing. The cast, with Toby Jones in the title role, are all excellent and Conor McPherson’s adaptation effectively highlights topical issues, possibly overmuch in the environmental-speak attributed to the forest-loving doctor.  Despite its length - it's 2½ hours - and the fact that you couldn't call this a feel-good story, it's really enjoyable... but, like all films-of-plays, frustratingly abandons the supreme advantage of stage: that we can see not just the speaker but listener/s too.  Chekhov was writing about the decline and decay of the Russian land-owning class and Uncle Vanya, like The Cherry Orchard, is poignant because everyone is affected: the best bits for me were when I could see all their responses, rather than just massive facial close-ups like on a game-show. 

Moving closer to home now, in fact to Home in Frome, the community group formed eleven years ago to ensure the town's history in terms of work and social life was not lost and forgotten as trades died out. Stories recalled by older community members have already been published and now Working Memories has its own web-page here - a remarkable achievement and a fascinating collection of interviews. A wonderful addition to the public history of Frome.  

Still with words: A West Country Homecoming is the title of Frome author John Payne's new book, which - he says - 'explores the possibilities of writing history backwards from the present into the past.'  It's part memoir, part family history, part social history, and illustrated with over 100 photographs from family albums and other sources. This is another from quirky Hobnob Press, run by John Chandler who seems to have become the go-to publisher for Frome writers.  

Also from the Hobnob stable (or possibly kitchen), my book The Price of Bread now has it's own Facebook page,  inspired by a staggeringly good review which actually suggests it could be a Booker contender... pick yourself off the floor and read it here. "Rarely have I read a book that casts such an accurate looks at the 60s - an era of free love impossible to imagine nowadays - in the context of hostile social forces." was the encouraging verdict of author & editor Dana Rufolo.

Liv Torc, despite having a tough summer, has again managed to spin Covid straw into words of gold with her latest publication: a collection of poems produced by Siren Poets: What if we can't save the Earth - But if the Earth could save us? Liv guided a group of sixty participants on a 'creative quest to uncover the lessons the Earth sends us, by uncovering sigs and metaphors in nature. This is a stunning little booklet, full of lucent imagery and creative surprises, and it's good to see words from several poets well-known in Frome Poetry Cafe - here's a short sample from Jo Butts, our current Festival Poet Laureate (a title it currently looks as though she will hold forever...) - an actual news story transformed into a thought-provoking haiku:  A young polar bear / devours a sleeping camper / His hunger? Our fault. 

Time for a tree: this oak is just outside Frome, at East Woodland. Sadly, Frome's southern fields are currently threatened with massive development of 1,700 houses, extending from the Mount to the bypass, not only obliterating a breathing space for the town but compounding pressure on basic services like schools, transport, and medical facilities. Not surprisingly there's opposition - not from NIMBYs, from the many in Frome who believe this is actually about planetary survival. If you live in the area, and would like to support the protest, stopsgc is the site.

And this post falls at Samhein, with a full moon as well as halloween, and the Frome Window Wanderland too... this brilliant illuminated trail of home-made imagery goes right across the town, with inventive narratives and striking scenarios as well as ghoulish figures.  Witches were quite a theme this year - and black cats too.

Ironically, my second week of self-isolation ends just as another lockdown is about to begin.  Actually, after travelling remote stretches of Spain for a month and catapulting back into busy Frome, much as I wanted to connect with friends, the compulsory tranquility was a chance to absorb the experiences of the journey.  In Africa, apparently, the guides hired by European explorers would stop every few days to wait for their spirits to catch up with them. Another month without live arts will be a stretch, though... but one of the compensations of winter evenings is rediscovering telly, and programmes like Portrait Artist of the Year on Sky Arts.  I leave you with Stephen Mangan... you lucky people. 


Sunday, October 25, 2020

From azure & gold to mainly grey..

How dark and cluttered England alway seems after an absence: pale pleated sky hanging low over endlessly cluttered terrain on the drive home from Plymouth. In Spain masks are mandatory for all public places, and after a month with this sense of safety, the 14-day requirement to withdraw was actually a relief while readjusting to the on-off policy that England allows. But Frome is all about community so I've attempted a skim-catch-up on how the enterprising townsfolk have maintained their creativity... and of course, the answer is: impressively. 

Words first: here's a link to Andy Wrintmore's Giant Pod  interview with Chris Bucklow, artist and art historian in which, as Andy says, 'We go down a rabbit hole of Chris’s complex and captivating theories about how his subconscious communicates with him via dreams, how we can learn to derive or interpret lessons about ourselves and get a better read on where our heads might be at.' Eleanor Talbot too has created several Variations on a Theme interviews with a difference. Her recent themes were healing, hair, and 'sexy connections'. 

Hunting Raven Bookshop is maintaining its reputation for innovative energy, with a socially-distanced book sale at the Silk Mill this weekend. with two more planned.  
Frome Writers Collective is maintaining active support for an increasing membership, with a virtual writing workshop, story contest, and monthly meetings continuing on Zoom, with historian Peter Clark giving a talk on his new book, Churchill's Britain.

And - not from this patch, but poet Steve Pottinger is so well-liked in Frome that he's allowable - do check out Come to me now,, a reflection on nature and how life is always 'a moment you pluck between finger and thumb, a just-ripe moment...

Obedient self-isolation similarly precludes any report on this weekend's exhibition of visual artworks made by people in Frome during lockdown, Creation from Isolation, curated by the Edventure students, but there's a virtual tour here. North Somerset Arts group took a different online approach, with members' work posted in their Virtual Art Exhibition throughout the weekend. Masses of high quality work, in a wide range of media - here's a painting by Gail Mason, from 'imaginary 'Emotional Landscapes,' places that I would like to be, and memories of how it feels to be in nature.' - because I miss these colours. 
I narrowly missed the 6x6 exhibition at the WHY Gallery, selling cores of tiny masterpieces  donated in support of the charity counselling service that Jill Miller founded - particularly poignant in the month of the first anniversary of her death. 

The amazing Frome Street Bandits have responded to lockdown with a massively impressive display by the full clan of 'semi-autonomous anarchic syndicalist' instrumentalists in a piece they call Ca Fait Pas Mal (compilation credit Jez le Fevre). Premiered October 19th - a fullscreen must-watch, here.

Frome's individual musicians have been prolific in their online posts on facebook, both on their own pages and on the public group Open Micsolate (with an impressive 6,600 members, none of whom seem any more keen to retrain than Fatima...) - here's Guru in a Camper Van from Paul Kirtley and Shoreline by Jane Langley and friends, both original works. And there's a new album out any minute now from Phil Cooper: here's Over My Head, one of the tracks on These Revelation Games. 

And now as autumn arrives although the world still feels nowhere near normal, there are reasons to be cheerful: my pre-ordered copy of Staying Human from Bloodaxe Books (edited by Neil Astley) has arrived and hedges are spurting with vivid, glamorous, reassuringly ordinary, bunches of berries. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020


This post is a little late, as wifi was variable during the final days of our trip - a week stolen on impulse, changing our booking and extending our travel eastwards: Vélez-Rubio, for an overnight Aire stop in this little riverside town between two sierras with a restaurant playing Wham, then on to Vilajoyosa where I'd stayed with Jill Miller, feminist writer and Frome's inspirational charity innovator, who made this lovely beach resort her home for several years before her death last October.

Time for more crags and castles then as we moved slowly westwards: Jalance, with a hermitage and superb historic mosaic fountains -Albarracin, where our cliff-top Aire gave stunning views across the double-walled hill, - Medinaceli with its massive Roman arch.

By now we're moving consciously towards Santander, via the Rioja region: a mellow Sunday night in Labastida and then Lierganes our final stop before Santander and the ferry home. 
And after two and a half thousand miles of driving, stopping in quiet places with amazing buildings & fascinating histories, what's really seared on my mind is the space: the vast vivid sky, endlessly blue on most days - the massive sierras, the near-endless forests and rocks of our driving landscape - their subtle colour shifts through every tonal range: coppery-gold to russet, lime-green to forest, pale sapphire to cerulean...  England still feels strange: grey, and crowded. I guess I'll get used to it. 

Even now we're back there won't be any Frome-related live reports till the requisite 14 days is up, but it's good to see 'the arts' are holding their own... Frome's talented visual animator Patrick Dunn has created a short video for Steve Pottinger's poem inspired by that crass advert urging creatives to de-skill from their years of training, inspiration & commitment, and sit over a keyboard instead. - you can see this animated version of Fatima here. Sadly, I missed Liv Torc's 'Rainbow Fish Speakeasy' zoom event with Elvis Mcgonagall, one of the excellent promotions from Wordplay, but it's good to know creatives are finding routes within the confines: live music & meetings, and online readings & workshops. Also lightening the final days of official summer for me: an enthusiastic review of The Price of Bread from the editor of Plays International which included the suggestion that this 'fast-moving story that has balanced narration and history, the private and the public, with sensitivity. Reading it non-stop I became convinced that it is a potential Booker Prize candidate.'  

So there's always something nice about coming home, even when your fridge has died and everything's now in a puddle of water.  

Friday, October 09, 2020

still half a world away

 A zigzag week, from Andalusian beach to a lake in the Sierra de Almijara to crags and castles, then back to the coast of Granada. Here's some images: lake Viñuela, en route to our three randomly chosen historlc towns in Cordoba province: Zuheros with its fantastic elevated castle,  Rute, which had surprisingly baroque street architecture and the region's Anis factory, and Priego de Cordoba, a busy town with a young population featuring not only an Islamic fortress and restored muslim nucleus of the town but also an elaborate 19th Century water feature which is also now a historic monument.

Southern Spain has a bloody history and our current campsite is in another brutally-conquered territory: poly-tunnel land, the shimmering plastic wastes that smother this coastal area. But it's a pleasant change to be on a site, after a week of  -massively enjoyable but isolated- Aires plus wild-camping on a car-park for trekkers on one of the Parques Natural. This is at Castillo de Banos, where we arrived today to find palm trees, sunshine, and a sea-line that apparently never recedes...

Wifi access has also given me the pleasure of listening to Eleanor Talbot's programme online on the theme of TRANSITIONS, which includes her interview with me about The Price of Bread at about 30 minutes in as well as Eleanor's thoughts and music choices. I read too that there has been much rain in Somerset. Here it's still sizzling hot with an unreal azure sky. For one more week ...

Friday, October 02, 2020

Week 2 of the Spanish adventure

Sunset Cafe on the beach at Sanlucar lured us for a few days more, with next stop the limestone peaks of Sierra Bermeja, in the gorgeous biosphere reserve & bird sanctuary Casares (confusing for the map-reader as nowhere near our earlier stop in Cáseres) - where we watched eagles and griffin vultures circling the amazing rock peaks. 

Then down the coast road to Torre del Mar, the ex-Moorish fishing village now a town with an extensive campsite where we stopped on our last visit. Parrots in palm trees, brilliant bougainvillea, paella in the beach bars... with our last week shuffling into view, we changed our tickets to extend our trip another week. Good luck with the rule/s of six, guys - here the sun shines & everyone wears masks - just bought a sequinned one, for evening...