Thursday, May 29, 2014

Cows, carnage, and festival creatures

In the week Gove shocked the sentient nation by extending his megalomaniac tweaks to the Literature curriculum by a purge of international classics ~ to be fair he didn't actually demand burning of all copies of To Kill a Mocking Bird and Steinbeck's Mice & Men though he might as well have from the fury evoked (including mine) ~  Lynn Gardner gave me respite from despair at our 'spoilers for sadness' culture in a delicate demurral to Alan Bennett's view of the playwright's craft. With hindsight, the National Treasure said, he should have been kinder to the audience. The Queen Mum of theatre commentary, with due respect, shifts from agreement at the joy of 'floating out of the theatre on a cloud of pleasure' to a more vigorous view:
 I also want to come out of the theatre on occasion feeling riled, angry, fired up for action or as if my heart is breaking... Yes I love being charmed and delighted in the theatre, but I don't want to be killed with kindness by artists, I want to be provoked by them and made to look at the world differently. I want to be taken outside my comfort zone. If that sometimes means they are going to risk boring me, offending me or even being cruel to me, then I'm not going to complain. Great art is seldom easy or kind.  I so agree. As Banksy said, art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. Lynn's piece used a picture of King Lear but I'm using Guernica.

Coincidentally ~ this is not one of my contorted segueways ~ Nevertheless Pub Theatre is currently preparing for our next production War Zones: six 10-minute dramas which will be performed at the Cornerhouse for Frome Festival in July, 4th-13th. We've got two great actors so Rosie & I are getting quite excited about that one. There's a line-up on the Festival website of other wordy events, ranging from Moomins for adults to Teatime Treats for children, including talks, performances, a book quiz, and poetry workshops from me and Rose Flint whose inspiring poem Elements of Healing you may have seen featured in the RUH in Bath.
Rose lives on the outskirts of Frome on a dairy farm which I rarely visit, having a psychosomatic allergy to free-ranging bovine creatures (also equine, ovine, porcine and canine... anything bigger than a cat, basically.) But this farm having recently won BBC4's Food & Farming Award for 'outstanding contribution with cutting-edge thinking and creative ideas' ~ and Rose having provided strawberry-pink Wellington boots to replace my Edina-ish high-heels ~ I ventured forth. The big thing about Lordswood Farm is that all the cows are fed on grass not grain, and even though these ones were (safely) ensconced in the dairy yard they still had plenty of grass to nosh on. So here's a happy image to conclude.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Curious: eager to know ~ arousing interest ~ made with skill & subtlety

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Mark Haddon's best-selling novel, has an 'unreliable narrator' now as famous as Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield. Fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone is autistic: his thought processes are by turns simplistic, logical and amazingly complex. All of this made the story sensational to read but an enormous challenge to transfer to stage, as writer Simon Stevens did for the National Theatre. The show won seven Olivier awards last year ~ including Best Actor for Luke Treadaway ~ and is now released as an Encore Live screening. And it came to the Merlin in Frome! An inspired choice and a complete sell-out, with several first-time audience members enticed by the chance to see a big London success in a local venue at local prices. There was a buzz of excitement throughout and applause at the end was as fervent as if the actors were there with us.
Certainly a superb show ~ imaginatively directed, cleverly filmed, brilliantly acted, and immensely moving.... though for me personally, live theatre will always have the edge on pre-recorded, and there's something about close-up shots that rarely comes up to the total immersion of watching whole-stage interaction. Which is why Luke's performance was so remarkable: touchingly credible and totally engrossing. Christopher's autism is a part but not the heart of the story, as director Marianne Elliott understands, finding a hero's journey and a metaphor for life too as he stumbles through messy human frailties while longing for splendid solitude in the stars.

Political shuffling has been in the air this week. Having enjoyed a year with the youngest, tallest, Mayor in the country at the helm, Frome town council has now moved into the stewardship of Sustainable superhero Peter Macfadyen, author of Flatpack Democracy, who admirably maintained his casual attire for the official portrait, though he did change his orange slacks. Here he is eschewing formality of background too, with his lovely Lady Mayoress Annabelle. 

Still on theme of recycling: did you know you can weave on a loom using yarn made from plastic, videotape, rubber inner tubes, paper, wire, and plants?  Just one of the things I learned from a fascinating exhibition of yarns at Frome Museum until July 19th. You can try little bits of weaving for yourself, too ~ I did. Great fun.

I'll end this post with an image from Stourhead, a place so redolent of English culture that even renovation work is screened with literary quotations (One of the most picturesque scenes in the world ~ Horace Walpole in 1762, and many visitors since) and with a quote from Mark Haddon which feels particularly apt for me at the moment: “You can’t drive yourself as a writer unless you have this mix of overwhelming arrogance and toxic anxiety.”

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Summer's lease...

Summer's Lease was the theme, loosely, for Monday night's poetry cafe at Frome's Garden Cafe, which would have been held outside but for the aptness of the quote hath all too short a date weather-wise ~ and with such a fabulous lineup of poets it definitely felt like the evening was too short as well. Daisy Behagg used bike as well as rail to ensure arrival this time, and opened the night with an exquisite and profoundly personal set: tender, delicate and full of mysterious lightness and colour. Her Templar pamphlet Cockpit Syndrome is due out soon, you can pre-order here.  

Dawn Gorman, doyenne of Bradford-on-Avon's popular Words & Ears performance nights, showed why her poems were selected by Toadily Press for publication in Mend and Hone, and then nine very varied voices stepped up to our virtual mic. From debut poet Jim Henderson bashfully sharing his first tongue kiss to the incomparable Muriel Lavender performing hirsute to celebrate her trophy as World Champion Lady Beard, all delighted us in different ways: some reflective and some very funny (thanks John Christopher Wood for the bird calls...)  So thanks to all who came ~ we'll do it all again in July so put Monday 7th in your diaries now!  This will be our Festival special, with Hilda Sheehan our guest and the title Festival Poet Laureate up for grabs. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Frankly, a miscellany

Booking is now open for  Frome Festival in July and Annabelle & I have been walking Rodden Meadow at one step to 5 million years in preparation for our Time Walk - the story of the earth in a thousand paces, struggling to unknot  the scientific complexities of the last 6.5 billion years. Solar Physicist Keith Barnham has no such difficulty: in The Burning Answer, "a user's guide to the solar revolution" he explains history, here-&-now and future options in a guaranteed-readable form.
 Here's Keith at his Hunting Raven book signing on Saturday with poet Claire Crowther and Oliver Dowding, organic farmer and enthusiastic purchaser. And while we're on the subject of earth ~ survival of, and best way to live on ~ Flatpack Democracythe story of Frome council's successful bid for independence, is still creating a stir with a Guardian feature last week.

Moving from prose to poetry, Rosie and I were guests at Words from the Rising Sun, a friendly venue in Bath with an intimate atmosphere. A fun night, thanks Sadie - and Kevin Boylan on the tin can guitar.  And moving on again to drama, Nevertheless Productions was featured on the Frome FM writing spot Write On with David Lassman, on Sunday.

This year is the fourth anniversary of Frome's unique Pub Theatre which, inspired by Rosie's vision of bringing professional productions to the town at an affordable price in an accessible venue, has been thriving at The Cornerhouse ever since. During those four years we've brought in 14 productions, all using professional companies, so it feels good to pause and celebrate before our next project: War Zones, commissioned for Frome Festival and  showing on July 8th and 9th ~ you can book now...  we do sell out you know!
Speaking of drama, I must do a quick plug for Lane's List: invaluable for anyone writing for stage as local playwright David Lane trawls the lucky bag of current dramatic opportunities.
And since this post is already a mishmash of themes and genres, I'll end on a musical note: the marvellous  Fat Stanley at the Olive Tree on Saturday night. Here's wishing you happy writing in the sunshine, and lots of dancing too.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Local knowledge

I'd never read, or even seen, The Godfather but Paccamora on Catherine Hill was an ideal venue to learn more about that complex political world, over an amazing supper created by Loredana Waters for her 'Literary Reading' event on Friday. Jamie Thomas-King, famed for his role in The Tudors (a series "light on dates and heavy on sex, glamour and lovely table settings" according to The Guardian review) read two dramatic scenes as we nibbled authentic Sicilian cuisine in cushioned candlelight. Originally formed to support the poor through solidarity, the Mafia is now synonymous not only with racketeering but with Sicily itself, and Lore was anxious we should know that only 2% of the five million in her homeland have any such links...  which I make 10,000...
Tales of sex and violence take me neatly to Bedminster on Saturday for the Show of Strength theatrical walk Why Don't We Do It In The Road? Writer Sheila Hannon researched the quirky, and often gory, history of these streets to introduce us to authentic characters like Alfred Daw Collard the poet-butcher who penned ditties in his slaughterhouse. Less jolly was the history of The Bull pub which doubled as Magistrates Court and was known locally as The Bull and Butchery. Mrs Gardner, matron of the Victorian jail in North Street, tells of the last public hanging in Bristol when the prison governor fainted as seven men wrestled an 18-year-old servant girl to the scaffold, despite the 3500-signature petition to the Home Office to save her.
After gruesome tales of grave robbers & body snatchers we moved on to more modern times with Lucky Eric, who introduced us to traditional features like a drain cover made by Thomas Crapper, ending the tour with the 1983 Brinks Mat Warehouse Robbery which unexpectedly has a local connection too: stolen gold was smelted down in a North Street house and laundered through the local Barclays, where apparently no suspicions were aroused by the deposit and withdrawal of a few hundred million pounds in a few weeks. All stirring stuff, lucidly animated by actors Kim Hicks & Chris Yapp and much enjoyed by those who braved the gales to follow them.
Another image to end this posting, from the blossom-filled lanes around Frome which make me think of Brendan Kennelly's fabulous (longer) poem Begin:
Every beginning is a promise
born in the light and dying in the dark
determination and exaltation of springtime
flowering the way to work... 
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending, 
that always seems about to give in,
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Homeward Bound

In the week I was away, Half Moon Bay turned into a blossom festival: yellow mustard massing high as an elephant’s eye and floral pageantry everywhere. The lanes are loud with birdsong as lizards bask on the cliffs & seals bask on the rocks along the shore. I had just two days for all those 'last time' moments: suppers with Mo & Anja, walks along the beach and over the headland, a final Classique cappuccino with the (fiendish) crosswords in San Francisco Sunday Chronicle, before heading back home.

The sky in London was the colour of tarnished pewter and as my train reached Frome the steady rain turned into a monsoon so I arrived at my house drenched to the skin from gutter spray of passing cars... but then there was a rainbow, so that's all right.
Time now to unpack, and look back: despite having to abort my plan to restart running, overall this was a fantastic trip ~ plenty of walking and also quite a lot of writing.
And now I'm home there's much to look forward to: reconnecting with friends & family, and great local events like Frome Poetry Cafe on Monday May 19th, when the very talented Daisy Behagg will be reading some of her award-winning poems. Garden Cafe, 7.30 ~ do come.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Trekking time

I didn’t expect to spend last week in the Sierra Nevada, hiking through forests spattered with snow and wandering the beaches of Lake Tahoe in 20-degree sunshine... but that’s what happened.
Mo’s friend Gary has a condo up here and a three hour drive brought us into a land of snowcapped mountains and dense forests and this shimmering lake, 22 miles long and 12 miles wide, filled with enough water to spill over the whole of California to a one-foot depth.  It's a "young" lake, glacially carved about ten  million years ago, but long known to the Washoe Indians who came here to fish, hunt, and spiritually commune with these crystal-clear waters. Then in 1844 it was 'discovered' by a senator named John C Frémont and within a decade became a tourist mecca, serviced by railroad and steamboat even before the roads were cut through, and by the 1960s the forests were riddled with condos and burger bars.

But the beauty of the lake is transcendent, and with a shoreline of 72 miles even that urban assault hasn't ruined it all: we walked for miles along fabulous trails through scented forests of incense cedar and Jefferson pines with cones as big as sheep skulls, seeing jays and woodpeckers,  golden-mantled ground squirrels and masses of other wildlife - not actually any bears, though this is bear country. The Steller jays are ubiquitous, and came each morning to the condo balcony demanding breakfast.  The beaches are lovely too ~ we found Tahoe City by far the nicest resort: if you ever go there, head for Dockside 700 for a great meal as you watch at dusk while the lake melts from indigo to silver and the white-crusted mountains flush under the setting sun.