Sunday, September 20, 2020

Wake me up when September ends...

23 Bath Street is the unassuming name for one of the town's best pubs, especially in these difficult times when staff and premises struggle to create a space both welcoming and legal. The small upper terrace at the back is a great place to enjoy a cool drink on a hot day, and owners Lark & Toby well deserve the Arts Council grant they've been awarded as part of the Culture Recovery Fund. Last Friday night they gave us the popular Gundhi Brothers in a mission to Make Frome Fun Again, with a hybrid set of Bhangra combined with Hip Hop, Garage, Drum n Bass and Soul.  Table-discipline doesn't really allow for dancing, but can't stop a great atmosphere.

More music in another short-notice-while-we-can live session, also with careful social distancing, as host John again welcomed the Tribe to The Mill at Rode. This is always a lovely event, and the line-up this time included brilliant work from Jim Cook, the only man I know who can play two saxes at once...  music included some great blues numbers. Here's the line-up, with David, Paul, Steve, Chris Chapman, and Jim.

Moving to art now, with a fascinating exhibition at the WHY Gallery in Stony Street: Dan Morley has been painting butterflies, life-size and in immaculate detail and vividly exact colours. His 'boxes' of various species are exquisite, and there's a tale behind the prize of his collection, on camera obviously: the incredibly rare Large Blue, now a protected species which can be seen only on  Collard Hill.  Really worth a visit, to admire the paintings and read the story. Here's one of the 'boxes' - the one with my favourite butterfly, the Adonis blue. 

As September sunshine continues, the Silk Mill yard once again brought entertainment to the customers of 42 Acres fabulous al fresco meals, with a musical session from Paul Kirtley's shape-shifting 'Don't Scare Easy Tribe': this time Paul and David Goodman were joined by Ray Bradfield -with sound-man Steve on cajon from time to time. This was a real 70's style 'happening, triggered by the poetry event by the inspiration of Steve & support of 42 Acres' Jo Harrison and Sarah Callan, with drop-in additions too. Here's Sarah on the other side of the counter, with husband Vin Callan also commandeered... a really great session.

Meanwhile Frome artist Sarah Godsill has been using the summer to create snapshots commissioned from around the world. Sarah says her 64 snapshots from England, Spain, Chile, Canada, USA, Venezuela, Scotland, Mexico, Singapore, Northern Ireland have "kept me relatively sane over three months this very strange Summer 2020 whilst I've thought about each person or family as I worked on each section." - you can commission your own memory here

And prolifically-successful writer Clare Reddaway created a story-trip round Bath you can find here. This linear walk from Walcot Memorial Chapel to the Botanical Gardens has regular stops to listen to stories about the cityscape that inspired them, written by  local writers and read by the equally talented Kilter Theatre team.

Also in the wordy-information bit, I was interviewed on Tuesday about my book The Price of Bread by the inspirational Eleanor Talbot for her Variations on a Theme show on mtri - that's Mixed Tape Radio International, broadcasting in buzzy forward-looking places all around the world and thus, of course, Frome. We sat on River House Cafe terrace talking about the violence of the Troubles in Belfast, as the newspapers of the week featured lead articles about fears that the Good Friday agreement has become precarious because of the ignorance, indifference, and stupidity of our current leadership. Eleanor is an incisive reviewer and an excellent interviewer so I'll be interested to hear the broadcast result - with musical interjections - in a couple of weeks.

This will be the last blog from Frome, and indeed from the UK, for a while, so I've held it over to include Bottom's Dream from on Saturday afternoon on the Merlin's ECOS amphitheatre.  Devised by 2m Theatre with the aim "to create socially distanced performances during the current pandemic",  this  talented young company demonstrates how Shakespeare never goes out of date. Bottom, dreaming that a beautiful woman might fall in love with a donkey like himself, is maybe a more interesting story than the upper-class couples bickering in the woods, and this one-hour devised show cleverly uses Shakespeare's text with a shift of focus.

Ending with another session at the Silk Mill from Paul's tribe, now named Fair Play for Frome and raising money for the town's charity: sadly I missed some good guest acts as this clashed with the Merlin show, but arrived for the final hour - and a bean stew from the excellent cuisine of 42 Acres. 

Friday, September 11, 2020

Lights, music, action - for one last week...

A balmy evening and Merlin's ECOS amphitheatre last Saturday combined to create the perfect setting for great entertainment from the Unravelling Wilburys,  Frome's riposte to the supergroup septet (Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty, in case any of the names slip your mind as they did mine...) These Wilbury boys are the real thing, spotted and copied by the assorted musicians who nicked their name, so in response the Unravelling clan have nicked some of their songs - that was the story we heard, anyway, along with fantastic renditions of the songs of those rich eras.. Only the Lonely, Mr Tambourine Man, and While My Guitar Gently Weeps were my personal favourites but the entire show was brilliant, with humour as well as passionate nostalgia: "Don't make fun of the young people", ersatz Roy chides his mainly post-mature audience, "You probably take more drugs than they do."

With our local gigs now once again taken off the menu, words became the main theme for me last week, with the good weather allowing individual & small group outdoor writers' meetings, four in all, and two - yes TWO, poetry performances.  Merlin's ECOS proved excellent for our long-delayed Poetry Cafe event, easily big enough for social distancing all around the amphitheatre: here's Kieron Bacon at the mic early on - with fourteen poets and 9 o'clock finish, all the lights were needed by the end of a wonderful evening with a rich variety of subjects and styles. One of the highlights, in an event glimmering with them throughout, was Liv Torc's premier performance of her latest poem, There's Something About Mary, enriching and moving in equal parts - you can read it here.
More live performance to end the week, with a 'Pop-Up Poetry Party' at the Silk Mill, hosted by Jo Harrington for 42 Acres, who joined in on the open mic. Among my other favourites were Rosie Jackson's poem about reconnecting with the natural world, B's moving words to her imagined daughter, Cathy's sizzling riposte to an insult, Mike's bicycle-related histories, Owen's mum's poem about the granite hills of Talyllynn, and the unexpected guest spot from pro-performer Dave Hubble whose witty musings on humanity included evidence that humans offer less to the world than a sea anemone. Here's Jo, and the picture she took of me. Thanks Steve for providing sound for both these gigs. 
And if you've ever wondered what an Indonesian birthday breakfast party looks like, this wonderful spread will give you a clue: the eggs are a birthday speciality spiced with chilli, ginger, and garlic, and the vegetable centerpiece Gado Gabo was suffused with the flavour of coconut. The leaves are calaloo, in a light tempura. All delicious!

So there won't be much more from me about Frome's creative life for a while, and a community arts blog has no place for comments about hedge-fund racketeers raking in billions from their bets on a collapsing deal with EU while our portly buffoon of a PM fantasises about being leader of the gang, but I do recommend you read, or re-read, Orwell's Animal Farm. It's full of plangent relevance.

Ending this post with a personal pleasure that the new edict can't ban: yoga with YogaBen. As well as longer online sessions, this excellent tutor & practitioner generously offers free support in shorter youtube videos: check him out here, and subscribe or just try them out. 

Friday, September 04, 2020

Music, poetry and more, as September comes...

Kicking off this bulletin with live music, doubly precious in this short window before the changing season will halt outdoor sessions again. Paul Kirtley's We Don't Scare Easy Tribe returned to The Mill at Rode on Saturday afternoon and treated visitors in the garden area & balcony to a high-energy medley of old favourites like Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder and Gerry Rafferty with a good splash of Oasis, Greenday, Crowded House, Police, Stones, and perfectly hitting with vibe Joni Mitchell: We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden...  All in all such a stonkingly great session that optional donations in the bucket for Fair Frome reached nearly £180. Big credit to (L-R) Jim, Chris, Joseph, Colin, Paul, Alex, David - and to sound-man Steve.  Here's the idyllic location:

Sunday's session at Prestleigh Inn, near Evercreech, rather more laid-back, proved a delightful way to pass a sunny Sunday afternoon in friendly company with live music - and this too had a fabulous location, with views over the Royal Bath & West Showground fields which are readily accessible for roaming from the pub garden. Hospitable landlord Gary made everyone welcome in this perfect spot for a sunny afternoon, enjoying a quirky take on Beatles and more by Jakey Zee with Sherrie Nutty followed by a strong solo performance, enhanced by loop, from Jorden Lindsay.

No live drama this week but physical theatre Kneehigh offered a free online experimental show: 'a love story with a bitter twist, a modern fairytale for grown-ups and brave youngsters.'  The Neon Shadow is a short two-hander exploring isolation and desire based on a Hans Anderson tale enhanced by animated effects. It's an interesting take on a difficult theme and is still viewable on the link, as there are plans to develop this work into a live performance, so take a look and comment if you feel intrigued.

Highlight of the week for me came on Friday with the Frome Poetry Cafe on Merlin Theatre's ECOS amphitheatre, an open-mic event which was weather-precarious right up until 7pm when we launched into - in the words of participating poets, an event with 'lovely atmosphere, very high standard of contributions, and a real uplifit in these weird times' - 'a gorgeous evening of words and moonlight!' Fourteen performers & readers from as far afield as Bath and Box shared a range of themes & styles from witty ditties and black humour  to poignant memories. Huge appreciation to all especially to Liv Torc for treating us to the premiere of her new poem commissioned by Siren Poets There's Something About Mary, and mega thanks to sound-&-lighting man Steve, and to Merlin's open-minded director Claudia & team for trusting our posse of bards to behave ourselves as well as having a fabulous time.

Still in Frome: it was great catching up with Eleanor Talbot to talk about her weekly online show Variations on a Theme. Eleanor's life took her from Dublin to Canada via the Scottish Highlands, so she brings a wide cultural interest to this quirky show broadcasts from downtown Frome. taking a different themes for each episode: love, revolution, guilty pleasures... even punctuation, with a retrospective look at the interrobang, a punctuation symbol that apparently enjoyed a brief heyday in the 1960s when writers identified a need to denote the 'excitable query' and combined exclamation with question marks in a single symbol: He said what  Was this the serpent's-apple forerunner of all emoticons, emojis and gifs, now released by this first sin!

Ending this week's bulletin with a puff for The Price of Bread: a short interview with Suzy Howlett on the Frome FM 'Writers on Radio' show hosted by Frome Writers Collective here: it's starts a7 minutes in and lasts around ten, then ends with Wonderwall as I think my messily-creative, dreamily romantic, central character Lee would have loved Oasis.  It was great fun chatting with Suzy and I realised, as I listened in, that she's an extremely astute interviewer....   
And as a happy footnote, this novel has now crossed the Atlantic to Canada and America, and has now provided a discussion topic for at least two book groups! I still have a few copies, and Hunting Raven does too. I'm delighted with the reader reviews, too. 

Friday, August 28, 2020

A double dose of drama as summer bows out

Ironic, isn't it, that after the long gorgeous summer, now there's permission for socially-distanced performances outside, the rainy season begins. This week's survivors of relocation within the Merlin building were Folksy Theatre, an outdoor group who could probably lift your spirits in an air-raid shelter under bombardment, so their version of The Taming of the Shrew was deservedly much appreciated. Apart from the trees, this publicity shot gives a pretty good summary of their physical interpretation of Shakespeare's play, with Petruchio employing well-received lust as well as psychological warfare on his recalcitrant bride Katherine. There's very little editing of the bard's script, which puts something of a strain on the other members of the cast to create parents, wooers, servants, and visitors, so big credit to all three that they manage to steer a coherent path through the confusion. Even within the formal confines and the mask-juggling required to sip prosecco, this was brilliant entertainment - and huge credit to director Claudia Pepler and her stoic team for keeping our little theatre's head above water when bigger ones are foundering. 
Still with the theatrical theme but without the feel-good factor:  The Merchant of Venice isn't one of the the bard's jolly dramas, and this 2015 Royal Shakespeare company production,  one of their season of streamed free shows, made no concessions to the brutal storyline. Prejudice and racism intrude in every scene like the massive silver ball rolling back and forth across the stage throughout the action.  Director Polly Findlay adds an extra layer of deceit by relocating Bassanio’s passion for his bride Portia to his old friend Antonio instead, and the jeering of the antisemitic Christians is upgraded to thuggery by their routine spitting in Shylock's face on sight. 
It's hard to cheer when the tables are turned against him with such venom in the court room. Makram J Khoury is impressive as Shylock, pushed beyond the limit of sanity by the defection of his daughter and determined to have his long years of abuse revenged in court. One of the other highlights is Launcelot Gobbo, clown-servant with the wit of a modern standup comic,  here haranguing an audience member.  Available till September.
And now back to Frome, where Hunting Raven Books autumn sale last Saturday had so many great offers that manager Tina Gaisford-Waller moved the entire event to Silk Mill, and within three hours an overwhelming response from the bibliophiles of Frome had stripped the trestle tables  Top pic is by Tina at the start, showing the 10 max customers but not the long queue outside! Below is my view later that morning as doorman, with 42 Acres in the courtyard also doing a brisk trade, theirs being lipsmackingly-good organic produce.

Also on Saturday, a defiant snook at the wild winds in the afternoon came from Fair Play for Frome, a new group set up by Paul Kirtley to play folky-pop songs live with whichever instrumentalists are able to come along. This time it was mega-talented David Goodman, and soundman Steve in his other incarnation as cajon player... The number braving the King Lear style weather conditions amazingly reached double figures... we're hoping for a more temperate time in the pub garden at Rode next weekend.

Ending this post with an image of the changing view when walking those fields so recently waist-high with waving crops, and a link to the Siren Poet project led by the supernova talent of Liv Torc, who'd be the jewel in Frome's poetry crown if she, I, & Frome were royalist, and who has also this week posted a new poem after her recent hospitalisation: There's Something About Mary is available for public viewing - click the title for link - and I suspect that like her environmental poem The Human Emergency it will move many and travel far.  

Friday, August 21, 2020

Poems, books, blooms - top-&-tailed with Shakespeare

Culture in Quarantine! With the encroaching sense of quasi-normality I'd forgotten about the streamed theatre promised throughout the summer.  It's now nearly September, so these magnificent productions by RSC and the Globe will all disappear like the sprites in a Shakespeare play very soon, so check them out here. My pick this week was The Tempest from 2013, directed by Jeremy Herrin. It's the bard's last work, so the bawdy intrigues and innuendo that Queen Lizzy had enjoyed are replaced by the fantasy theme preferred by his new patron James I, and the breaking of the magic wand at the end, signalling Shakespeare's own creative finality, has been seen as the writer's formal resignation. Performances are all good, of course, and so are the renaissance costumes, and there's a big emphasis on magic and illusions.

The two non-humans indigenous to the island, Ariel and Caliban, are always a challenge: sometimes they're played as opposite aspects of the same mysterious energy but in this production Caliban scampers around like a little red rooster while Ariel wearing a long white coat and quiet dignity seems more minder than servant to the extravagant frenzies of his overlord. Programme notes suggest this is a story of 'forgiveness, generosity and enlightenment', but Roger Allam's hot-tempered brooding Prospero reinforces that it's more about revenge than redemption: even though the lords sail off with honours restored, the servants all suffer for their brief aspirations. But Shakespeare does compensate poor abandoned Caliban by giving him the most poignant speech in the play: 'Be not afeared, the isle is full of noises: sounds and sweet airs, that give delight ....when I waked, I cried to dream again.

Still with words:   Poets Prattlers and Pandemonialists, who must be among the most hardworking wordsmiths in the country, offered no less than three zoom performances on Sunday. 

In the 7pm slot Emma Purshouse introduced us to a selection of characters from the Black Country, where this entertaining posse are all based,  while Steve Pottinger interspersed his local-character pieces with poems from lockdown. Poignant, witty, and even hopeful, these affectionate glimpses all have a warm humanity - I especially liked The Glass Collector, which you can read here - among other powerful poems by Steve. 

Also zooming: Hunting Raven Books's manager and Frome's shimmering star of literary conviviality Tina Gaisford-Waller chaired another meeting of Proof Pudding Club, the monthly event for avid readers to enjoy discussing book previews over dessert, though camera clips showed more glasses than spoons on this occasion. An entertaining couple of hours, with main recommendation of the night going to Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers, commended as a contrast to sombre times too often reflected in book lists: "The Booker long list this year is the most depressing I've ever seen," as Tina put it. Here's Tina with her pick of the month: Dear Reader - a book about the comfort and joy of books by Cathy Rentzenbrink.

Hauser and Wirth's famous gardens are notoriously impressive in late summer - there's an interview with the garden's designer Piet Oudolf here - so a trip to Bruton seemed a great idea when the sunshine returned on Monday. It turned out that's the one day the gardens are closed, but the floral displays in the allotments on the other side of the path also provide sensational 'drifts of rich late-colour summer in climactic display' - and the town itself is full of quirky lanes and skylines - including the famous dovecote.  

Ending this post with the careful return of live theatre. Billed as outdoors on ECOS but transferred within the Merlin on Friday night due to blustering gales: Shakespeare Rattle and Roll from multi-talented musician & performer Martin Dimery in the guise of a lecture on the bard's lyrical stylism but actually a fantastically entertaining romp through the key musicians of our times. From evolving Macbeth's witches' trochaic tetrameter into rap, to creating Mick Jagger as Puck,  this is a vastly entertaining - and very informative - survey of our major music icons - including Elvis, Dylan, Sex Pistols, Sting, and obviously the Beatles -  in a fantastic tribute to not only the bard but every music trend this century and the last. This is the third time I've seen this show,  it's that good.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Mostly outdoors: words, music, & other sounds

It's been a hot week, perfect for long walks in the countryside and safe outdoor gatherings. Last Saturday evening combined elements of both, with a large group of nature-loving Fromies staging a peaceful protest-party in Rodden meadow in response to an excessive and ill-timed assault on the trees of Willow Vale on behalf of the quarry railway. A barrier-side  meeting between representatives of both sides of the dispute resulted in a pledge to restore the treeline once the work is completd, which won't restore the habitat of this year's birds, bats, and myriad other wild life, but is at least a civil compromise, and the gathering became more of a musical soiree as the warm evening darkened.

Another musical gathering next day: this time in Victoria Park where Paul Kirtley's We Don't Scare Easy Tribe continued their support of the slow return to live music in Frome with an afternoon session on the bandstand.  Several guest performers were also accommodated before the end of this four-hour session, without any breach of spacing or sanitising, so hopefully there will be more of these excellent sessions - strong songs, excellent performers, and great sound.

An unusual art report this week, as Breezeblock Beats put on an exhibition at the Bennet Centre inspired by the early 20th Century electronic audio art movement Musique Concrete. Eleven individual 10-minute compositions ere played on a loop throughout Saturday afternoon, each one created in response to recordings of the ambient sounds of that building. I was particularly drawn to Carl Sutterby's evocative piece Ghosts, which reminded me of the Tristram Shandy banquet held in that very two years ago - though with shadows and sunlight replacing the opulent costumes and aromas... an interesting & unusual event. 

With my new novel The Price of Bread now beginning to raise interest in the US, it was great fun to chat with Suzy Howlett about the background and origins of this story for the FWC Writers on Radio broadcast aired Friday 21 August at 2pm (and online soon after.) Here we are in Suzy's lovely garden, snapped by Jane Battye.

And also on the subject of writing, Frome's renowned eco-poet Helen Moore is offering a programme of 'Wild Ways to Writing' - online mentoring for 'a unique creative writing journey into deeper Nature connection.  Hopefully Helen will be one of the poets coming along to the return of Frome Poetry cafe on September 3rd, on the ECOS amphitheatre outside the Merlin - I've already had the wonderful news that Frome favourites Liv Torc and Deborah Harvey and John Christopher Wood intend to be there! It's b.y.o. tipples, nibbles, and cushioning for the stones, and  £2 entries will go directly to the theatre. Big thanks too to Suzy Howlett for this snazzy flyer!


Friday, August 07, 2020

Times a'changing: a random mix as doors reopen.

Anyone who's read my novel The Price of Bread set in Belfast at the start of the 1970s, or remembers 'the Troubles' escalating onto UK's mainland, may wonder how such ferocious anger and historic grievance finally abated.  John Hume, primarily, is the answer. Coming from the Bogside, Derry's large Catholic area (which had suffered much during his growing years as the port and the city were deliberately run down to force trade to more Protestant Belfast) he worked consistently for a solution to the age-old divisions in the Northern Irish community. He founded the Social Democrat Labour Party with a commitment to non-violence in 1970, negotiated privately with Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams throughout the next decade, and finally engineered the signing of  Good Friday agreement in 1998, earning him that year's Nobel Peace Prize. He died this week and is rightly mourned as Ireland's Martin Luther King. You can read more about his work here, and his own words here (thanks David Thompson for this).

Meanwhile in the real world, the return to gigging for Frome bands creeps cautiously on. This image is from a great session in the garden of The George at Nunney, led by talented performer, and master of effective non-planning, Paul Kirtley.  Great classic folk/rock songs, great playing & great sound, with conscientious space-awareness from the pub - a very enjoyable evening made even better for me as I walked the 2 miles from Frome through fields of corn as the sun set... sharing that image, too.  

Also in the music category: the excellent indoor self-recordings continue on local musicians' facebook pages - Open Micsolate has a wide variety of individual contributions - and Al OKane has a new single out:  Butterfly Mind is available on Spotify here

Poetry hasn't gone live yet but discussion is in progress, with the Merlin's ECOS amphitheatre a possible venue for our postponed Poetry Cafe open mic evenings.  And the Fromesbury Group writers, founded more than 20 years ago and still meeting monthly, celebrated the new permissions with a reunion in Victoria park on a sultry night last week. Our fourth member was granted leave of absence as she's in Majorca. My personal writing success story this week is in the category of bizarre, with acceptance of my submission to quirky 42 Stories Anthology in response to their call-out for stories written in 42 words with a 42-word biography and a 42 letter title. The collection is due publication when they get enough off-the-wall entries to fulfil their 42-centric requirements - online here, if you fancy entering! And The Price of Bread is now featured in my website, courtesy of designer David Goodman. 
As the world cautiously opens up,  Frome's Westway cinema does so too so in
 a spirit of mingled curiosity & support, I went along - appropriately cautiously - & shared the afternoon showing  of Back to the Future with an audience of four others, finding the venue superbly well-organised with all standard precautions and the air-con circulation turned off, and such a pleasure to time-travel back to those innocent days when the future didn't need a mask to mingle...
So for now, the Blog Goes On. Moving to a different provider would lose access to archived posts, but the new layout is frustratingly limited and learning how to compromise is taking a g e s . . .  
Meanwhile in the real world, Frome like the rest of the country has its own struggles in these extraordinary times, as evidenced by town councillor Andy Wrintmore in an excellent piece in the Frome Nub, and two areas of town are under threat of invasive development. Rambling the meadows, riverside, and woodlands around Frome in this continued sunshine has an edge of poignancyall are 
full of thriving wild life and sublimely beautiful, yet several are under threat. This is the water-meadow that Friends of the River Frome is working to protect, now recovered from a previous assault but with its future still uncertain, and there was an unexpected attack on scores of trees in the heart of town this week in the name of 'strengthening' the railway support. A support group - Willow Vale Trees - formed immediately to protest this ill-timed and excessive damage in a conservation area, but when wealth and profit always win over the health of the environment, and with projected dismantling of the need for planning permissions, it's a worrying time.