Sunday, September 29, 2013

That was the week that wasn't.

Rose Flint and Graham Hartill are an awesome combo and Frome's Poetry Cafe was privileged to welcome both as guests at our Equinox session. They've both published collections to critical acclaim and both work on the Creative Writing for Therapy course in Bristol. Graham has worked extensively in prisons too, and believes 'poetry pops up like mushrooms in unexpected places.'
As well as two strong sets each from our guests, we had nine great readings, from popular local poets like Helen Moore, Rick Rycroft and Linda Perry as well as some fine debut performers.

Since that night I have been histrionically ill all week ~ not me being histrionic, the virus has been histrionic, it's a Demon Diva. The call-out doctor (what an amazing service! big thumbs up to NHS) diagnosed a triple whammy of causes each one of which would have been quite enough thankyou and maybe not left me shivering and sweating simultaneously, muzzy-headed and fumbling around like a geriatric zombie.I knew it was just a virus but it felt more like I'd had a mini-stroke or a mega-accident with brain injury - I couldn’t seem to find a way to get back into me... So, in short, my week was simply cancelled.

I'll leave you with this nice quote from Philip Pullman in the Journal of the Society of Authors: 
"Politicians talk about 'the basics', by which they mean the ability to spell correctly and write grammatically. But that's not basic at all. You can correct that sort of thing at the last minute. What is truly basic is the attitude to language from the way you're brought into it. .... Picture books do more than anything else to help this happen - if we let them."

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Art and Life

The Holburne Museum in Bath has been showing a special exhibition of works by Rembrandt and his Contemporaries which, though it could have been more honestly titled Some 17th Century Dutch Artists, was rich with social interest and included several fabulous paintings. Most stunning of these was Rembrandt's portrait of his mother, painted when he was only 23, of which the Indie review said simply This one is worth the price of admission alone. You could take a folding chair and just gaze at this picture all morning, just absorbing its humanity. 

This was a fascinating era for painters: the first generation of artists who painted for a market rather than for wealthy patrons and the Church, and subject matter was less about individual portraiture and more about society, with something of a moralistic tinge to many of the domestic scenes.  Several have narrative strands redolent of a dread of indolence and what it may lead to, while some of the landscapes show social changes with the emergence of the new bourgeoisie.  And after this enthralling immersion, there's a toy theatre of painterly characters and props to rearrange and make your very own Dutch interior... hoe zit dat!

Also in Bath, The Persistence of Memory, written by Alison Farina and directed by Nancy Medina, transferred to the Rondo after a highly successful run in Bristol. The play deals with contemporary issues ~ dementia and family breakup ~ in a classic context as Mneme, the muse of memory, arrives to oversee Dante DeLucca's decline and to use her goddess powers to console him and his daughter as his life fades away. With so moving a theme sensitively treated by the script, and such excellent lead actors, it's not surprising this piece garnered 5-star reviews: there's subtle humour from the start with Mneme's C-list-celeb self-introduction, but by the end I wasn't the only one damp-eyed as her terrible pact with Duncan Bonner's Dante is finally concluded. 

And now back to Frome, where our annual Carnival on Saturday filled the streets with pirates, music and circus skills and processions for children throughout the day, and in the evening roads throughout the town closed for an eclectic parade of Carnival Competition entries which range from elaborate floats with illuminations that would shame Sirius, to blokes with a penchant for girly underwear, including plenty of whirling twirling majorettes of all ages and sizes. It's excellent street theatre, and the best place to be a groundling is at Cornerhouse corner, where after the 2-hour road-show is over, the awesome Pete Gage Band plays fantastic blues rock that gets us all dancing.

This week's tenuous footnote: any scriptwriter wondering how to move an audience to tears with exquisite non-expositional narrative should check out the final moments of Coronation Street on Friday, as Roy Cropper watches his beloved, terminally-ill, Hayley (the first transexual soap heroine) gaily singing When Will I See You Again? with Fizz and Sean at his birthday karaoke.... which just shows, you should never disparage 'Continuing Drama' series simply because they're popular: the best have strong characters, gripping storylines, and actors like David Neilson and Julie Hesmondhalgh to ensure superb pop-up theatre on a small screen near you now!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Back in the southwest: viewings, writings, and readings

Encounters Short Film & Animation festival took over Bristol dockland screens last week. I went along to the South West Showcase and enjoyed a fantastic programme of 15 bite-size movies ranging from 90 seconds to 13 minutes, some dramatic, many comic. One of the more intriguing shorts used verbatim speech to tell a behind-the-scenes story of train journeys from the cleaners' perspective, but overall my favourite was The Best Medicine, for reasons summed-up by another viewer on their FB page: Seriously the best film I've seen all year... can't believe I went from crying to laughing to crying to laughing so quickly... It touched me... I want everyone to see it! its so life affirming... I want more awesome people like Jon in my life... THANK YOU.
I couldn't put it better.

Meanwhile in Bath, a rather different celebration with the annual Jane Austen Festival, bringing all things sprigged and genteel to the Georgian streets and tea-rooms. From a cosy talk on Rummaging through the Reticule to a city walk termed The Unsavoury Tour!, Janeites can gavotte, nibble, trim turbans, learn etiquette, and generally immerse themselves in Jacobean fashion from sun-up till candlelit evening ~ including a daily dose of Pride and Prejudice at the Podium library. Reading the entire novel takes four hours a day throughout the week using relays of readers: Rosie and I were recruited for a stint in Thursday's installments, the ones when Lizzie has seen the house of which she would have been mistress and begun to regret her strident rejection of its owner, and deciding his renewed addresses stirred an impression of a sort to be encouraged as by no means unpleasing.... Great fun, and a reminder of the author's mastery of irony and clever eye for social mores.

Frome's riverside gallery Black Swan Arts has a new exhibition for autumn: a collection of very diverse images by Rachel Anne Grigor with the intriguing title where the earth meets the sky. Words at the Black Swan writing group met as usual on the first Sunday after the opening to consider this visual art from a verbal perspective. Rachel uses a process involving etching ~ and an element of random outcome ~ for most of these pieces, while achieving apparent precision and touching detail.  This was the day after I got back from Spain and probably my head was still full of Picasso's injunctions so I may have plunged depths unintended, but I was reminded of Auden's wonderful poem about Brueghel's Fall of Icarus, how "everything turns away / quite leisurely from the disaster... " My responses, and those of the other workshop participants, will be posted in the FB archive of Words at the Black Swan.

Final note: another local overview from  Martin Dimery blogs Frome, a recognisable summary in my experience. Like Martin I'm an ancient incomer: I arrived in 1987 from an area of London where litter didn't flutter only because it was solid with the debris of glue-sniffers, so I found the town quaintly respectable at first. I grew quickly to realise it was stubbornly egalitarian and anarchicly quirky, had the wildness of Glastonbury without the dreadlock self-theming and the otherworldliness of Totnes without the cliquey snobbery. I suppose I'll always be an incomer, but unlike those more western counties with their scorn of 'grockles' and 'emmets', locals in Frome always seemed to me to welcome new energy pragmatically. As Martin says, Ever since Frome weavers resisted the lure of industrialisation... Frome has engendered a sense of anti- establishment independence, attracting the like- minded to move in. Frome likes its artizans, writers and artists. Which is why Frome, with arts funding hardly worth bending to pick up if it fell in the Cheap Street leat, nevertheless thrives.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Late sunshine in Spain

I broke my camera on arrival at Cortijo Romero, ~perhaps overawed by the superb suite plus secluded garden with palms and pool allocated for my stay~ and using my mobile meant I took fewer photos than usual. I did grab some highlights, like our day trek high in the mountains foraging fruit and messing about with mulberries, and the trip into Orgiva on market day, but the real highlight was actually the group itself - both groups in fact, yogis and writers mingling indistinguishably at meals and free times. And I totally loved the sessions with my 'Self Expression through Writing' group, who were all supportive, responsive, exploring creatively and finding superb responses to share.
As Ted Hughes said: The progress of any writer is marked by those moments when he manages to outwit his own inner police system ~ and there was much successful outwitting this week. Oonagh Corrigan summed up beautifully in a last-day haiku, quoted here with permission:
No blame intended
when I speak of one who stood 
most in my way: Me.

Add into the mix the constants of Cortijo Romero ~ friendly staff and great meals, jasmine and starlight, dancing and song, those mesmeric mountains with contours shifting subtly as sun slowly fades from the dazzling sky... ~ and you can see why so many visitors return.

A change of pace at the end of the week: a small posse of our group found our late flights back from Malaga offered a chance to scamper into the old town to visit the Roman amphitheatre and the Picasso Museum, so I'll end with a quote from that Spanish genius which is as true for theatre as for art:
You have to wake people up. You've got to create images they won't accept. Force them to understand they're living in a very strange world - a world that is not soothing, a world that is not as they think.
... A painting - any painting - should bristle with razor blades. 

Friday, September 06, 2013

Suppression. For one week only.

I wasn't going to post again so soon, but there's an exhibition on at Rook Lane that will be over when I come back from Spain and really deserves recommendation. Multi-media artist Mark Carr fills the coolly austere gallery space with colour & discord: big acrylics, challenging woodcuts, disturbing videos ~ and music & poetry. At last night's opening Mark was ready to talk about his theme of 'suppression' as well as his techniques. The self-portraits came from an experience of wrongful arrest: there's a video that evokes the confusion of captivity, which led to exploration of the integral aspects ~ anxiety, wariness, and a kind of defiance. This was the image that led Mark to think about his capacity, and the capacity of all of us, to be a 'suppressor' to others.
All the visual work here in some way exposes what is suppressed or hidden. A series of brightly-coloured prints of jolly characters, looking almost like Canterbury pilgrims, is unambiguously titled with actual identities: cardinal, chief executive, child killer... The video in the main room, Hand of God (2) is about the Pope's visit: note the haunted cherubs in the corners. The big woodcuts use a Hogarth/comic-book crude energy to evoke political anger. But don't go without reading some of the poems in the display copies of "13": they show a different side to the artist, reflective and even rhapsodic, as he walks in the countryside appreciating moments like a "peach river showing sunset clouds."

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Come September

Come September, come the new season launches... I'm delighted my new short play Muffin Man is on in Theatre West autumn season at Alma Tavern Theatre October 8th-12th as curtain raiser to 100 Miles North of Timbuktu by talented Bristol writer Tom Phillips. And delighted too that Alison Farina of Butterfly Psyche will be directing!
I discovered this last night at Bath's tasty little Rondo Theatre where director Ian McGlynn had the best launch idea yet: a party, with entertainment from the Music is Life team whose new show Pencoweth has its première at the end of the month, and a taster from Living Spit's marvellous show The Six Wives of Henry VIII which you can, and should, see in full in October.
Rondo has a policy of dovetailing professional touring shows with community theatre, and  encouraging new writing too. "We punch above our weight for a 150-seater," says Ian, "people come because they love the place, the welcome, and the view." I'm not quite sure about the view is, but it looks good tonight: here's Rosie Finnegan with Stu McLoughlin and Howard Coggins, attempting to net Living Spit for next summer's festival, me with Shane and Ian, and with Annette Chown, Alison Farina and Laura Jane Faultley.

Nevertheless Pub Theatre is looking forward to autumn, too: Rosie and I are bringing the Stepping Out production of Gogol's Diary of A Madman to The Cornerhouse next month, so put October 11th & 12th in your diary if you live anywhere near Frome and fancy quality professional theatre for less than the cost of a couple of drinks.  More on this later...
... in the meantime, Poetry Cafe night on Monday September 23rd at Frome's Garden Café should be amazing, with Rose Flint and Graham Hartill guests as well as open-mic.  Autumn Equinox feels like a time between times, summer behind us and Samhain approaching, a great time for poets to reflect on Life, Death and In Between...

In the meantime too, I'm off for a final week of sunshine ~ leading my writing course in lovely Cortijo Romero in Andalucia.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

From Athens to Frome, democracy in action!

This week I have mostly been negotiating with Aircraft Chest syndrome, that mysterious virus cultivated in the plane's air-conditioning which ensures however bronzed, fit, and relaxed you are when you set off, by the time friends at home are asking about your trip you'll cough pallidly and answer from a throat like sandpaper...  Lots of things have alleviated this annoyance, however.
One being a fantastic BBC4 programme about the origins of theatre: Ancient Greece, The Greatest Show On Earth is hosted by the delicious Dr Michael Scott, who interviews female experts looking like he's planning to lick them later and is passionate about Athenian dramatists and their impact on democracy. "To understand ourselves we have to understand the ancient Greeks" he says, "Athens invented democracy, and theatre was the oil that allowed it to function." It was here, in 6th century BC, that epic narrative stories were for the first time enacted, and stage drama was born. Dr Michael leaps endearingly through ruined sites finding carved dedications that show the key role in civic life of the amphitheatres. He explains, with (literal) animation, how the famous tragedies combined myth and politics in a way designed to promote debate, predict outcomes, and encourage reflection on the communal good.  They were also emotional toga-rippers.  All the big names ~ Sophocles, Oresteia, Aeschylus, and 'enfant terrible' Euripedes ~ would compete in a massive festival for Dionysus which was held in huge esteem by generals and rulers. Plays like The Persians and The Trojan Women had a public purpose: to engage Athenians in an understanding their own history, and to warn their leaders of the dangers of hubris by showing truly tragic consequences. We left Athens as it stood poised for decline after failing to heed the dramatists' warning... Can't wait for next week!

I've been positively chafing to see Steve Coogan's movie debut, and this week Alpha Papa arrived in local cinemas. On the big screen, Alan Partridge delivers everything you'd want from a top-class comedy: brilliantly nuanced characterisation, witty script, superb editing, excruciating humour, and cracking sound-track. Partridge is narcissistic, unreliable, and socially inept, but what keeps us rooting for him is that somewhere within he knows he's not the person he really wants to be, which is why (unlike David Brent, much as I enjoy The Office) he's up there with the best tragi-comic heros: insecure and often self-deluded, but somehow arousing our compassion...  perhaps, some might say, because we know we can be like that too. (Writers may be interested in this Ideas Tap interview with the scriptwriters.)

First Sunday of the month is now a regular date for Frome Super Market, already featured online by Texan photo-journo ("What do I love about England? My husband and a good Gin & Tonic") Selena in four postings about our town. It's a big thing. From the top Catherine Hill, down the cobbled street to the main road (closed to traffic for the occasion) and along the riverside to the old cattle market yard, hundreds of stalls offer just about everything you could put on or beside a stall: bottled, baked, woven, painted, kiln-fired, matured, stir-fried ~ all locally made or sourced by individual enterprises. The independent shops ~ which is most of them ~ are open too: POOT Emporium on the hill has reopened as a collective of contemporary and vintage designers, selling clothes, curios and collectables, now charmingly describing itself as a Department Store. And there's buskers, including classy duo Nicky & Griff, and pop-out cafés, and mask-making for children and the casually carnival kind of atmosphere Frome does so well. Happy September, y'all.