Sunday, September 19, 2021

Wartime drama, still life, and spiny fungus

This week began dramatically.  
"No man is a hero to his valet" Hegel allegedly said, yet there's always a strong relationship between the server and the served, and perhaps a mutual caring beyond the annoyances that constant close contact inevitably causes. The Dresser was written by Ronald Harwood, who held that role with Donald Wolfit for many years, and recounts a night in the life of bombastic ageing actor on a UK tour during the last war.  A new production at Theatre Royal Bath recreates the glamour and the perils of that fragile, defiant, era, with Matthew Kelly giving an impressive performance as 'Sir' and Julian Clary in the title role. (image: Alastair Muir)   
I've been a fan of Julian Clary since the days of Fanny the Wonder Dog, long before that 1993 fisting gag that led The Sun to claim moral outrage and demand him banned from TV - perhaps surprising from a newspaper which continued to promote naked mammaries for salacious enjoyment for a further  22 years - so I was looking forward to his interpretation of the title role. However, director Terry Johnson possibly decided against having two outrageous characters onstage at one time: while Sir ranted like Lear on the heath,  his dresser's performance was so muted it seemed almost like a rehearsal run-through. This revival, a co-production with Cheltenham Everyman will now tour, with dates already booked till February. 

This has been a particularly good week for wall art in Frome: the Gallery at the Station hosted Simply Still, Holly Brown's debut exhibition of paintings in both traditional oils and experimental use of natural pigments. This display space was converted from an old warehouse and worked superbly for Holly's lovely lucent images.

Twelve Frome artists are participating in Somerset Open Studios which started on Saturday and will run until 3rd October - definitely do pick up a brochure as this is a brilliant opportunity to talk to creatives about their process. Six of the studios at the Silk Mill are open, including Dan Morley whose mezzotint and painted still life images are exquisite: this is one of his 'little ritual' series.
The moving and powerful Portrayal of a Pandemic exhibition curated by Active and In Touch at Black Swan Gallery was extended for an extra week due to continuing interest (thankyou Frome Nub News for using my images to share this news), and David Thompson, winner of the poetry category, met up with the judge of this category Tina Gaisford-Waller, dynamic manager of Hunting Raven Books, at the gallery last week. David 's collection of poems,  Days of Dark and Lightis now published so he joins Pete Gage in the Hobnob Press hall of Frome's poetic fame. Frome Mayor Andy Wrintmore talks in the current edition of The Giant Pod to Pete about Fifty-Six Poems,  his recent collection - (thanks for the shout-out, guys!) - you can listen to the podcast interview here - and here's David discussing his winning poem with Tina. 

In music news: sadly, that exhilarating flurry of outdoor gigs allowed by the long mild evenings has dwindled as we trundle reluctantly into autumn, but with care and flow test kits, indoor options are now being explored. The Octopus Studio in Bruton was the venue for a memorial that was bittersweet but unforgettably brilliant, celebrating with sadness, love, and big talent, a recent loss from the local musician fraternity. I know that Chris read this blog, because we met up sometimes to talk about writing, but his big talent was music and Saturday night was a live music dancing party in his honour. Here's just two of the bands: Brue River, and The Johnsons. 

And finally: top walk of the week was a long prowl around Harridge Wood, about 10 miles from Frome and a stunningly beautiful area of dense foliage, streams, and cascades - bright with sinuous rills, as Coleridge might say. This area was apparently predominantly used for coal-mining for 500 years, from the 1300s onward, so among the overgrown relics of this industry are the 'bell pits' that medieval coal workers used, and the leats they created to carry water to power their shafts. Nature has reclaimed the abandoned areas, apart from some mid -20th century planting of coniferous trees for timber.  The whole area is now primarily a nature reserve, with a bat house, thriving bird life, and a thriving population of butterflies, birds, flowers, and fungi: my thrilling find, since apparently these are only rarely seen, was a spiny puffball, the size of my fist & dark brown - both indications of longevity.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Dramatic nostalgia & deep history this week's flavour

To be honest, the promo for The Spirit of Woodstock on Frome's ECOS amphitheatre: "Award-winning Something Underground are bringing you their latest open air stage show over two wild and immersive hours - the politics, the conflicts, the music, the protests, the moon landings, the civil-rights movement, the adverts, the drugs, the music, the musicians and the personalities, all imbued with the soundscape of this incredible era.- combined with a winsome image of a Twiggy-lookalike with sequins round her eyes, didn't really prepare me for the solo show that transpired.  There were 32 bands at  Woodstock in August 1969, but writer/performer Jonathan Brown managed easily twice that number of characters in his long (slightly overlong in the second half) re-imagining of that legendary end-of-the-60s era. 
Described by its creator as a 'semi-immersive theatre collage' this awesome feat of multi-memory never flagged in energy and the cameo characters were entertaining. Jonathan's performance is mostly direct to audience, sometimes demanding our participation, and his myriad roles range in mood from an entertainingly stoned festival-goer to the angry passion of a Vietnam veteran.
It was a hugely impressive feat for a one-man show: evocative for those of us who remember the era, the imaginative collage of characters would be informative as well as entertaining for those who don't. (And to assert my credentials for reminiscence, here's an image of me in that year - that baby isn't mine btw though I did have one by then.)

Still in theatre mode: over to Wiltshire now where September in the Rain, probably aptly, is the choice of Salisbury Playhouse for their upcoming production as theatres cautiously reopen their doors with fingers crossed there won't be a repercussion of previous seasons' cancellations - especially as the Playhouse is one of only 45 producing theatres in the country, so this is a bigger deal for the company than for tour-hosting venues.
Director Gareth Machin is currently rehearsing this John Godber two-hander with Ian Kelsey and Nicola Sloane, and Wilshire Creative's Development Director Helen Taylor had the fun idea of inviting reviewers to chat with them both over lunchtime snacks - fun for us, anyway, and both actors were charmingly accommodating. My main interest was the logistics of rehearsing in a pandemic. Ian and Nicola both admitted the process was challenging, despite the safeguard of their 'bubble': 'My brain hadn't been used for months,' Ian declared, 'I was practically narcoleptic!'  Opening night is 16th September, with a live-streamed option if you can't make into Salisbury. Here's a rehearsal photograph, and Helen with her doorway display.

Imagine this: you have an idea for a book so you visit a publisher and show him some pictures you hope will illustrate it, and the result is a commission, 5000 copies sold pre-publication, with a follow-up print of 25,000. This was the real-life experience of Frome's Amy Jeffs as described by her publisher at riverrun, an imprint of Quercus, at the launch of Storyland on Friday to a big gathering at the Silkmill in Frome, hosted by Hunting Raven Books dynamic manager Tina Gaysford-Waller. Amy herself was too endearingly modest to say much more than thanks to everyone, and to Frome itself 'for the culture of independence, and encouragement that you can do this.' Here she is signing my copy of this compelling retelling of our ancient history, with mesmerising linocut illustrations by Amy too. There's an excellent review here.  And here too is the bookshop frontage as temporarily decorated by Amy.

Also on a bookish theme: Frome Writers Collective hosted a social gathering on zoom this Thursday at which I gave a ten minute chat about short story writing, and the Proof Pudding club met at River House on Sunday evening to talk about some of the new publications arriving in Hunting Raven Books and eat cake. I was lucky in my proof pick: The Status Game by Will Storr is a well-argued and ultimately positive analysis of this pervasive aspect of social psychology. 

Other than theatre and books (and a couple of parties) this week has been mainly about walking and bees. Rodden Nature Reserve is now officially open to visitors until March, when the breeding season starts, and another highlight of my peregrination was a rainy visit to Easthill Field, where the long grass was a fairyland of glittering spiderwebs. This one's a wasp spider, a newish arrival in England, with its sac of eggs - apparently the female often eats the male after mating.  
And finally: for those on tenterhooks since last week's revelation of Frome's assault on the world record: Pending final verification, local charity We Hear You will enter the Guinness book of records after 8 hours and 671 players completed the longest & biggest ever, in the entire world, game of skittles.

Monday, September 06, 2021

Wicked drama, splendid art: a vividly visual week.

Greed, powerlust, and violence… Macbeth’s story hits current themes with disturbing impact, and this production from Beyond the Horizon highlights these aspects in the tragedy of misgovernment by a leader seeking glory without integrity.
Impactful and esoteric, this highly unusual production brings a new edge to Shakespeare's famous tale of 11th Century power struggle in Scotland. 
With James I on the throne and magic his favourite theme, the bard celebrates (and exaggerates) his Scots lineage, and adds supernatural embellishment too. The fateful predictive witches are a real highlight, all created by volatile fingering as - somehow combining Lear's Poor Tom with the Cabaret emcee in a dazzling spangled jacket - Luke Hardwell (pictured below) takes on their personae with his long white gloves... one of the production’s imaginative highlights for me.  
Visually there seems no dominant overall design scheme: costume ranges from antiquarian fighting kit (there’s a thrilling start to the final battle as warriors spring on stage brandishing a diversity of shields) to Man at M&S, the apparent choice of Ross, but the stark scaffolding of the set seems to suit every scene, creating an atmosphere of tension both in the violent interactions and the equally terrifying quiet intensity.
The seven acting members of this ambitious young theatre company are a strong team, successfully doubling disparate parts:  Katherine Aldridge’s Lady Macbeth is convincing in her ambition and poignant in her collapse, and director/producer Adam Lloyd-Jmes in the title role is mesmeric in every scene. With its radical approach and adventurous interpretations, the upcoming tour of this young company deserves massive success. Bath's Rondo Theatre hosted this production, which will now tour.

Back to Frome now for the opening night of Portrayal of a Pandemic, a fantastic multi-media exhibition at Black Swan Arts. Active and In Touch Frome, a charity offering support to anyone lonely or in need, had the inspired idea of creating an art exhibition to reflect 'the emotions of lockdown in the community, both positive and negative.' Resulting submissions are on display in the Round Tower all week, and represent a marvellous range of interpretations in a range of media from contributors of all ages.  Here's Heath Date with his winning portrait of Captain Tom, and David Thompson, winner of the written word category, whose poems will now be published by Hobnob Press. 
Some entries focus on 'comfort' aspects of isolation with impressive craftwork, others engage specifically with the plague, creating pictures of the virus. The awesome image below is The Mental Health Garden by Nicole Medin, representing nine of the recognised disorders: bipolar, anxiety, ADHD, bulimia, dyslexia, insomnia, depression, Meige syndrome, and Alice in Wonderland syndrome. This last condition, causing visual distortions and 'derealization and depersonalisation' was only identified in 1955 and is sadly on the increase - apparently Dodgson suffered it himself, so his little heroine was facing his experiences defeating his dragons by proxy. 

The Patsy Gamble Blues Collective arrived at The Sun on Saturday night to deliver their 'jazz funk saxy fusion' to a severely under-attended audience (though nice for those of us anxious about crowds) and lived up to all expectations. As a sessions musician Patsy has worked with top names and toured extensively at home and abroad and her line-up for this little gig in our local was superb, with Mike Hoddinott defying the speed of light in his epic drum solo.

Also in Frome: On Saturday Mayor Andy welcomed the Afghan Refugee support group at the Town Hall, where hot tea (with non-lactive milk alternative) was on offer ("Only in Frome" we murmured). Support from the town council was assured, but not from our MP Mr Warburton, but he does live thirty miles away...    
This week heralded the return of the famous Frome Independent after its long covidic absence. On one of the sunniest days of the year, the town's streets and alleys were again filled with stalls and entertainment. The busking stage featured several excellent performers including newly-formed Unit Four, pictured here, and a temporary skittle alley in the market square urged passers-by to help break the current world record for the most participants in an 8-hour game of skittles: here's local celebrity 'wellness guru' Cheryl Sprinkler taking aim for her first shot...    

Ending back at the start of the week: Bank Holiday Monday is the ideal time to swerve holiday destinations - especially when the sky is doggedly grey - and stay under a roof, like the glorious one of Gloucester Cathedral.  As a lifelong baffled atheist, places of worship don't usually lure me but a guided tour with the Wiltshire Lifetime Award winner for historical study Dr John Chandler (a title not as terminal as it sounds) was too good to miss. The interior of this massive edifice of vaulted cloisters is crammed with centuries of tombs and sculpted monuments, all surrounded with glorious stained glass windows.  The Great East Window, installed in the 1350s, was once the largest in the world - this credit moved in the 1960s to Illinois - but being as big as a tennis court is impressive enough.  Edward II is buried here; Ivor Gurney, first world war soldier, poet and composer, has a stained glass window in his honour, and there's an extraordinary monument to Robert Curthose, William the Conqueror's eldest son, which apparently represents the active battle pose of a crusader. The whole place is spectacular, within and without. Coffee at the docks afterwards was nice, too.

Monday, August 30, 2021

A bookish week, mostly, with celebrations too.

Let's start with words:  On Tuesday, Tina at Hunting Raven Books organised a launch for Pete Gage to discuss and read from his newly published poetry collection: Fifty-Six Poems, a handsome further addition to Hobnob Press's list of titles by Frome authors. Pete has previously been best known as a rock & blues musician, but these profound and moving reflections, all untitled, are drawn from another side of the Doctor Feelgood singer's creative energy, intensely personal and deeply aware of universal griefs. He shares a powerful evocation of his 'mythic disgust' at war in Suddenly I wept and his passion for Schumann in a reverie written in Bonn where the troubled composer is buried. Reproductions of Pete's elegant mandalas in mainly muted colours, on each alternate page, are a perfect calm counterpoint to the love and sadness plangent in Pete's words. This is, literally, a beautiful book and one to treasure.
Regular readers will know that Hobnob is owned & run by Dr John Chandler, who commissioned and published Frome Unzipped - from Prehistory to Post-punk.  This well-respected small press originally specialised in local history, so my follow-up The Price of Bread, although a sort-of social history of 1970s Belfast, was a stretch in genre by being a novel. Other Frome writers have found homes for their imagined histories here too, and the mysterious, unquantifiable, creativity of Frome has resulted in a veritable banquet of fiction and poetry appearing in the Hobnob stable. 
My latest contribution - as already referenced in this blog - is Déjà Lu, 37 short stories previously published.  Now this is officially 'out' and available in Hunting Raven Books (as well as from my stash of signed copies), my bestie & partner-in-drama Rosie Eliot hosted a soirée to welcome this new title into the Frome community. Small but perfectly formed, with fizz & nibbles - amuse bouche created by the hostess - this was a delightful event: here's David Moss, whose stunning painting we used for the book cover, cajoling me into a speech (which lasted all of 30 seconds), and the image below is that breathless moment before everyone arrives... Thanks to Rosie for these snaps, and to everyone who came - it's fascinating to hear which are your favourites in this collection.  

And rain held off too on Saturday night when there were other Frome shenanigans, with the Silk Mill transformed into a hedonistic paradise for a much bigger party with cocktails and eastern delicacies in the big yard, and much dancing within the gallery to amazing sound & visuals from Breezeblock Beats.  
Such celebrations are really appreciated as summer dwindles and blackberries & fallen leaves are thick along the dank lanes. '
Poem of the day' for Sunday was, appropriately, this from Robert Frost: 
Nature’s first green is gold, / Her hardest hue to hold. / Her early leaf’s a flower; / But only so an hour. / Then leaf subsides to leaf./ So Eden sank to grief, / So dawn goes down to day. /  Nothing gold can stay.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Days of wine and rambles...

 Despite living less than 15 miles from Prior Park, on the edge of Bath, I'd always thought this was the property of a posh school and only discovered on a jaunt with friends last week that there's a marvellous landscaped garden here owned by the National Trust. Certainly there is a school there, boasting the motto Deo Duce Deo Luce which sounds quite posh to me, but beyond it lies the landscape garden created in the early 18th Century by Ralph Allen, original owner of the mansion, who took advice from Capability Brown when designing the paths and water features and the crescent vista offering incomparable views across the estate and beyond.

This turned out to be a gorgeous place to wander around at this time of year: the meadows are full of wild flowers with berry-laden brambles alongside the paths up to the summit with its amazing view of Bath stretching from Kelston Round Hill to Bathampton.  Sadly, the system of dams that created Allen's ornamental lakes has fallen into serious disrepair but extensive work to clear & restore them to their original splendour is due to be finished by early next year. 

Big thanks to my friends Eleanor and Gordon for this delightfully varied jaunt, which began with cakes at the Lavender Farm, where sunflowers add golden glamour to the bee-filled purple haze awaiting harvest, and concluded with wine & snacks at The George Inn beside the canal at Bathampton - & thanks also to Ellie for the sunflower field snap, and Gordon for the one of me and Ellie on our circumnavigation of Prior Park.

Back now to Frome, where Theatre is the remarkable organisation which provides dance and theatre classes for all ages, holiday workshops, and regular full productions of popular big-cast musicals and dramas: apart from the obvious enrichment provided by this kind of creative group activity, has launched several young participants into successful performance careers. This week Merlin Theatre staged their version of Lionel Bart's Oliver, a delightful ensemble production with some stand-out performances by the young cast - I especially enjoyed Florrie Walker's Artful Dodger. Here's a production image of Oliver with wicked Fagin and his sassy Dodger chum. And while we're at the Merlin, in a brief departure from this blog's usual retrospection,  do check out Liv Torc's touring show which will arrive here on Wednesday 22nd September: it's the incredible story of Haiflu, a newly adapted version of an ancient poetic form, invented by Liv and now celebrated across the world.  

Regular followers of this blog will know by now that my big literary event of the summer is the publication by Hobnob Press of Déjà Lu, a collection of 37 of my short stories, nearly all of which have been previously published in anthologies & magazines or read on BBC4 - hence the title (pretentious, moi? pas du tout) and my website is now updated to give more details: When I checked that deja lu did really mean 'already read', it turned out there's also an Urban Dictionary meaning for the phrase, viz: somebody telling you something you already know about from reading it on the internet.  So if you order a copy from me after reading this, you will have completely fulfilled the on-trend definition and thus definitely be le dernier cri ...

Sunday, August 15, 2021

A cornucopia of a week: drama, bands, ramblings, art - & my new book now on sale!

This week's bulletin once again begins with a performance in Frome's Merlin amphitheatre: HMS Pinafore, Gilbert & Sullivan's comic opera of class pretensions, as interpreted and presented by another of the illustrious casts of Illyria Outdoor Theatre (There's also a childrens' show or two from this stable going round this summer, so hopefully this wonderful company will survive the dramatic hiatus caused by plague.)

There's a certain poignant irony in some of the parodic songs - in spite of all temptations, to belong to other nations, he remains an Englishman, for example - but a great set, tight direction, and the talented cast all combine to create an entertaining evening: "Pantomime for grownups!" as one delighted audience member summed up.
This week has been particularly rich in musical entertainment.  Nesta Yurt Camping, unknown to me until quite recently although it's only a 20 minute walk down the lanes from my house, for various reasons last week became almost a second home. The food here is amazing - vegan menu with delicacies like banana-blossom 'fish' and chips - there's a friendly, casual but well-equipped, tent site and visitors from town are welcomed at the undercover evening entertainment. On Wednesday the band stage featured Rosco Shakes, a fantastic funky local trio comprising Dom on guitar, Ned on drums & vocals, and Tim on crazy honky-tonking piano.
Music too in Frome's Victoria Park, where a sunny Saturday saw families & friends sprawled on rugs or - for the more organised - settled on garden chairs to listen to live music from the bandstand all afternoon.  Frome's fabulously funky quintet The Valley, joined by Colin on cajon, led off and other excellent local musicians followed, including brilliant bluesy duo Roger & Annie Davenport. Great sounds, brilliant atmosphere, reminding us all what summers can be like here...

This August hasn't been the kind of summer we longed for during the winter months, but there has been some sunshine and abatement in the downpours and blustering winds. Tuesday's respite gave me a chance to visit Rodden 
Nature Reserve - one of Frome's best kept secrets, largely because it's closed during the long breeding season for the many rare birds who find this a safe haven. Paths of desire are kept clear between wetland areas, and the entire wildlife park is brimming with autumnal flowers, bushes, reeds and trees - and dense with insect life plus tiny mammals & frogs. 

Art & Lit corner now: Frome Art Society opened its annual exhibition in the Round Tower of Black Swan Arts on Friday: an eclectic display with much to enjoy - though it isn't always easy to avoid window reflections on the glass of the paintings - and a chance for all visitors to vote for their favourite piece. This evocative view of the  river is by Kristen Vincent. 

And my personal big news is the arrival of copies for sale of my new book: Déjà  Lu is a collection of 37 short stories, most of which have been previously published in journals & anthologies or broadcast on BBC4, and now for the first time readable together in all their strange diversity. Suzy Howlett, author, thespian, and reviewer, has summed up delightfully: "This collection, stylishly presented with cover artwork by David Moss, is a delight in the same way that a selection box of hand-made chocolates is: you can select and taste the soft-centres, the nutty, the rich and dark, the hard-boiled, the sweet, the fruity and the plain gorgeous. They are all delicious!"  My first delivery is already all sold or committed, but please contact me if you'd like a copy from the second box, due next week! Thanks Patrick Dunn for the - genuinely spontaneous - picture! 

 Ending this week's bulletin with an image from the fields around Frome, where autumn is already arriving...

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Illyrian romps, a posse of bibliophiles, & a splash of music

Outdoor theatre is again the feature of the week: Illyria, active again after a difficult summer last year, has several productions on tour and on Thursday a multi-tasking quintet arrived at Frome's ECOS venue to take on Much Ado About Nothing.  The amphitheatre was virtually full for this production, impressively set and lit, with all 20 of the play's characters vividly created by three men and two women. As Elizabethan productions were single-sex, Chris Wills as a hirsute lady's maid sort-of followed tradition, but Nicola Foxfield taking on jilted Claudio as well as feisty Beatrice was impressive. Rachel O'Hare as Hero, the insulted bride, also portrayed her elderly uncle, and Chris Laishley enacted evil Don John as well as the benign Governor of Messina, where the action occurs in a party atmosphere following a successful campaign.

Nobody could call Shakespeare's comedies anodyne. The seventeen plays placed in that category include themes of antisemitism, domestic abuse, assault, abandonment, betrayal and murder, so in this drama Claudio's savage rejection of Hero on their wedding day is fairly mild, although his initial indifference to her demise does suggest some lack of empathy.  Fortunately there's no time to worry about that as the action moves on to another popular theme of the bard's: the looney-tune lower-classes, and Illyria delivers their antics with extra relish.  The focus is on laughter: David Sayers relishes the affectations of Benedick as much as the antics of the Watch who chaotically foil the dastardly plot.  Oliver Gray's production cleverly established a convention of imaginary directional space in the opening moments of the play, and made the most of the absurdity of the garden scene where the match-making plot to bring Beatrice and Benedict together is hatched. Basically, there's much to enjoy whether or not the plotline always emerges, and the company's excellent programme gives a clear synopsis. Much Ado has been claimed by Hollywood as the original screwball romantic comedy, and it's always a pleasure to see different emphases in a stage production.

As a personal postcript: In the days when a 'standing seat' bought on the door for 2/- at London's Old Vic meant you could take any seat still vacant at curtain up, in 1965 I saw Franco Zeffirelli's production of this play with a cast including Ian McKellen, Albert Finney, Derek Jacobi, Maggie Smith and Lynn Redgrave... the garden scene, when even the ornamental sculptures shimmered forward to eavesdrop on the love-plot, is probably one of the reasons for my enduring passion for live theatre.

Sadly, the English summer couldn't manage more than a few pleasant days this week, and by the weekend had swapped summer showers for downright deluges. On Friday evening we defied the elements in search of live music at Critchill Manor Estate, a fairly new camping site on the southern outskirts offering a tented bar with a band open to drop-ins, and on Sunday the heavens opened again for the Frome Lions Summer Fete in Victoria Park: the big chutes and and bouncy apparatus continued to be splashily popular with the saturated children while their elders clustered under trees with hot drinks.

Sunday evening saw the return to (fortunately dry) real space of Proof Pudding Club, the inspired innovation  of Hunting Raven Books' manager Tina Gaisford-Waller, originally meeting monthly at the Cornerhouse to discuss upcoming titles and for the last year continuing on zoom. Our new venue is River House, in its new location at Black Swan Arts. Spreading across the courtyard as well as the indoor cafe, about thirty volunteers appraised new titles and chatted with coffee and cake in animated small groups, reporting back at the end of the evening. Here's my group: Liz, Naomie, and Nicki, deciding that Silent Earth by Dave Goulson, a warning of imminent insect apocalypse, was our pick of the night.

Ending with thanks to etymologist Susie Dent for providing a word that explains and excuses my morning indolence in a week of disappointingly non-seasonal weather: Hurkle-durkling: 19th-century Scots for lounging in bed long after it’s time to get up.