Sunday, December 18, 2016

Three books, four bands, & lashings of poetry & song

"I am because you are, and we are community - this is Ubuntu."
Hazel Carey's book 'Ubuntu - My life in Other People' is an amazing memoir of a lifetime of creativity through drama, dance and song, including spearheading the South African cultural renaissance in the 1980s. Ubuntu is an African term meaning 'we are who we are because of other people,' and as Hazel's friend for over twenty years, I was privileged to edit her story, learning in the process more about this fearless, free-spirited, inspirational woman.

Last week saw Hazel's book launch in London at St Ethelburga's Centre in Bishopsgate, with a party where scores of Hazel's colleagues and friends converged to celebrate, including a posse from Skyros sessions ~ here surrounding the queen of the scene in an impromtu photobombing opportunity. An unforgettably marvellous event, and a great day out in London too as I chose to make my way to the venue via South Bank to watch the city's twilight scenes turn into glamorous nightscapes of magical illuminations as the shard spiralled and sparkled over the dark water and bright-lit bridge arches.

Words & Ears, Bradford-on-Avon's monthly Poetry Cafe run by Dawn Gorman, is always enjoyable though I don't go as often as I'd like. This week I did, and was rewarded by an excellent evening with strong readings from guests Elizabeth Palmer and haiku master John Hawkhead from his collection Small Shadows published by Alba, and outstanding poetry on the open mic. Moods ranged from Chaucer Cameron's subtle and powerful protest at the censorship of Iranian poet Sepideh Jodeyri to Kate Escher's poem composed entirely of lipstick names, and it was great to hear favourite poets like Stephen Payne, Jinny Fisher and Dawn herself, as well as discovering new voices like Pey Oh Colborne.

Back in Frome, it's been a sensational week for live music. The newly-rouged bar of The Cornerhouse was crammed on last two Saturday nights for fantastic bands: marvellous Captain Cactus and the Screaming Harlots (Jane, you broke my heart with that rendition of Just Somebody I Used to Know) and another must-dance-to band, Bristol's rootsy Flash Harry.
Back Wood Redeemers, another awesome band, treated us to their 'twisted blues & religious fervour' at Silk Mill last Sunday and then did it all over again, even better, at Grain Bar Roots Session on Wednesday with our Mr mayor astounding on mouth-organ.
And Bonne Nouvelle gave a sublime performance at the 'Friends of Frome Festival' party at the newly refurbished Granary venue, a fun event which confirmed the fact I'm rubbish at quizzes.
Final music note~  for me, though there's always more music in Frome than days in the week ~  Nunney Acoustic Cafe, featuring Emi McDade and with an excitingly eclectic open-mic including original songs along with covers of Undertones, Manics, Green Day, and Company of Thieves. I contributed three of me pomes which while not exactly child-friendly were at least not scurrilous, which neatly segues into the frankly self-indulgent footnote for this post (about which, as Jane Austen said of Emma, no-one but myself will care...) viz: that Amazon now has two reviews of my collection Crumbs from a Spinning World:
"... Funny, touching and beautiful collection. It is a rare book of poetry that takes you on so many journeys." "My favourite book of 2016. Crysse is a genius with words and these poems make me smile even on their umpteenth reading."  Thank you, lovely people, and for all the facebook comments and emails too. 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Winter words ~ poetry and performance

Let's begin with the poetry. I had high expectations of Monday's Frome Festive Poetry Café: dry humour from guest John Christopher Wood plus eclectic variety on the open mic promised a great evening and a supportive forum for unveiling my collection Crumbs from a Spinning World. It was indeed a wonderful event, with full-house audience and a great buzz,  twenty open-mic poets, and John's droll wit immensely popular. From quickies like 'What do you call vicars with no underwear? Nicholas Parsons!! to his reflections on temporal inexactitude and the plasticity of time, there was much word-play to ponder. Audience readings were excellent, ranging from seasonal humour to moving profundity, and I was chuffed with responses to my 'crone' poems ~ thanks David Goodman for the image. Burning Eye Books have now posted the podcast recorded in my kitchen last week ~ link here. If you haven't got 30 minutes (who has?) you could slide to 24.30 for the 'predictive poetry' bit (fun for all) or 27.50 to hear a 'crone' poem.  And despite the drizzle I had some interest for my 'Pop-up Poetry' session on Saturday at the Library ~ thanks Sara Vian for this 40-second video clip!

Festive showtime has arrived, with a double splurge of Bristol's best: Cinderella: A Fairytale at the Tobacco Factory is a revival of the Travelling Light show originally directed by Sally Cookson which I saw & loved five years ago, with several of the same performers as well as the same musical magic. The concept is to retain that Grimm psychological horror at wicked parenting and damaged children, with domestic bullying and bleeding severed toes (they bounce as well, which is particularly awesome) but with beautiful storytelling, tenderness, and humour throughout. Every scene, from the forest of birds to the palace gala, is created by five extraordinary actors and two brilliant musicians. Isabella Marshall as Ella is a delight but her appalling family are even more riveting: Lucy Tuck is mesmeric both as spiteful sister and head-scarfed Queen, and Craig Edwards' metamorphosis from tender father to incandescently evil stepmother will probably haunt me forever. The in-the-round format of Tobacco Factory's main house is perfect for this production, creating an imaginary world through inspired lighting with clever direction ensuring varied viewpoints from all angles throughout. A fabulous show for every age, running till January 22nd but may sell out ~ book while you can! Images Farrows Creative

In contrast to Cinderella's traditional tale, The Snow Queen at Bristol Old Vic adds an elaborate plot involving goblins, robbers, reindeer, radical animal rebels and a psychedelic flower-witch. The acting team and musicians are great but the complexity of storytelling make the hero's journey hard to follow, and re-envisioning that profound shard of ice in the child's heart as a 'mirror of opposites' loses the poignancy and impact of the original Hans Anderson tale.
However there's much to charm: dramatic lighting, lively musicality and spectacular puppetry, as well as superb performances, especially from Gerda and Kai (Emily Burnett & Steven Roberts). I had a soft spot too for the dysmorphic reindeer (Dylan Wood) though his role is bewilderingly extraneous. Written by Vivienne Franzmann, director Lee Lyford and Tom Rogers designer, this runs till 15 January. Images Mark Douet.
And with seasonal shows all around, as someone (probably not Scrooge) must have observed, why stop at two? So on Friday I was back in Frome watching a musical interpretation of Peter Pan by Merlin Theatre Productions, directed by James Moore with a lively cast of 34 plus singers, musicians, and a 7-piece band. With Edwardian London evoked by the ensemble from the start and a story-teller to keep the narrative close to Barrie's style and child-like imagination, the production stayed satisfyingly close to the familiar story, creating 'suspension of disbelief' with minimal props & set. I expected to be annoyed that Captain Hook had been transposed from his alter-ego paternal role to be played by a woman, but Daisy Mercedes won me over with her psychotic dominatrix/Teresa May combo. The lead roles were all well taken, with Ryan Hughes and Tabitha Cox superb as the waiting parents, and the steampunk pirates almost as endearing as the lost boys. I really liked the way the central vision of a boy refusing to grow up was maintained right to the end, so the final song is from Oliver Edward's Pan as courageous anti-hero still rejecting the treadmill life. Impressive show, well done all. Image Ken Abbott

Ending with written word again: Frome Writers' Collective monthly social at Three Swans this week featured a fascinating and informative talk on writing & publishing a personal memoir. Rosie Jackson, whose own memoir The Glass Mother has been much praised, shared her experience of the process. Memoir, Rosie showed, can weave strands of political and social history into personal memory, and can be therapeutic too: "You put the narrative of your life in a container and find the meaning of an experience from your current perspective." As a sample of the genre, Rosie read the start of her book, as did two other local memoirists, all three demonstrating that writerly adage 'An opening should grab you by the throat and compel you to read on.'  Des Harris and Steve Small are previous students of Rosie, who is a highly-rated tutor as well as an elegant writer ~ you can find course details on her new website, which has this lovely image of writing in a summer garden so we can look ahead to better days.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Slipping icily into the festive season...

'The cold never bothered me anyway' trills Frozen's Elsa bravely. Don't mistake me for Elsa. As frost grips leaves (prettily) and windscreens (annoyingly) I strive to muster the stoic resilience of Albert Camus who wrote In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer. Good luck with that, then, my less stoic self mutters. But it's beautiful, I concede, that icy clarity of winter sunshine ~ this is how Stourhead looks when half the lake is solid and the grass is a field of tiny sabres.
And now it's December there's no avoiding the beast that lurches toward Bethlehem to be born again as a Retail Festival. Frome had a low-key lights-switch-on event this year: singing in the streets and tree sparkles which all lit up at the right moment ~ the mass 'Ooh!' gasp in response was more of an Oh!' of surprise from Fromies familiar with such events.
There was plenty of good music & other stuff around too: Dexters Extra Breakfast after the festive market at the Grain Bar were followed by the foot-stopping Buffalo Gals, and on Sunday Jazz Jam at the Cornerhouse gave us Simon Sax's lineup of superb performers. And Cafe La Strada is now featuring an exhibition of David Goodman's characteristically lucent eclectic photographs.
First Sunday of the month is Frome Independent market and minus- zero temperatures didn't stop the crowds pouring in. Cerulean skies and sunshine helped, and despite the whole town bordering on gridlock status (especially around hot-drink stalls) there was an upbeat atmosphere.
This month I was on the market myself, spasmodically declaiming poems from Crumbs from a Spinning World outside Hunting Raven Books, along with World Tree Story author Julian Hight who was also selling and signing. Great fun, and lovely feedback from buyers.

Earlier this week I'd met up with Burning Eye Books press officer ~ delightful Jenn Hart, here setting up for a podcast to give my progress report. My idea is a kind of scatter-gun approach to launching, with pop-up events in various locations (Frome Library next Saturday, December 10) and open-mic performances in Poetry Cafes and clubs. "If it isn't any fun, don't do it" D.H.Lawrence said, and he was right.
 So far, I've done spots at events in Bruton and Wells, acquiring after the latter a review in the Wells Journal I shall quote endlessly: Praise ... to Crysse Morrison, whose alphabetical 26 word review of Austen's Pride and Prejudice allied form and function in a way the Bauhaus would have applauded.  So it's a watch-this-space situation, or check my facebook page should you want to know upcoming.

Footnote of the week comes from a marvellous piece in Index: Wiltshire in which a Devises resident yearns fractiously for some of Frome's iconic charm. Oh, blast that funky freewheeling Frome... Here we go again, I swear every news story I hear about Frome is a happy-ending-tale of civic action... 
...not a constant free festival or a hippy commune, Frome is an organised community acting upon issues, often against conformity, to create a distinctiveness and liberal attitude which makes Brighton look like North Korea. Full of facts, and funny too ~ Darren Worrow, you may not be Bauhaus but I enjoyed that very much.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Chocolate shoes, a hippy Tempest, punk music & retro art

Frome's Chocolate Festival was on Sunday and the Cheese and Grain almost split at the seams with excited tasters and buyers from stalls selling everything conceivably chocolate from bars and boxes to Thomas the Tank engines and high-heeled shoes - including chocolate candyfloss and chocolate limoncello (my favourite). Big sticky licky-fingered congratulations to Jo Harrington for an amazing enterprise.

The Grain bar Roots Session this week featured two excellent acts - punky ukelele-&-cahón trio The Wochynskis with vocals from Carl Sutterby, and 'velvet-voiced' Steve Loundon's band now featuring Charlotte Egmore.
And now to the theatre. The Tempest, despite its redemptive ending, is a difficult play. Prospero has born an understandable grudge in solitude for many years, he's a control freak and often frankly nasty. Neither of his fairy servants feel well-treated and none of the new arrivals on the island are people you'd like to spend much time with, though you have to as this play runs for nearly three hours. Credit then to Frome Drama Club for a brave new version, in which director Steve Scammell gender-swaps three key roles and gives Prospero an almost Lear-like tragic decline in powers at the end. Modernising a Jacobean play is always tricky but Raggedy's lovely costumes helped and there were some moving moments: the dance of the two fairies during Caliban's Be not afraid... speech was my personal highlight. Polly Lamb's watchful Ariel stole every scene she entered. Congratulations all for the team effort.

BlackSwanArts is currently enjoying a retrospective look at 30 years, 30 artists, celebrating 'artists and makers who started their careers at the Black Swan, returning with a mix of ceramic, jewellery, painting, pottery and printmaking.' It's a charming exhibition, most of pieces delicately playful - and an admirably vibrant interactive art chest from Stina Falle.
I ended my week with a family trip to Dorset and a marvellous walk along the chesil beach and ridgeway at Abbotsbury, included here via the slightly-dubious connection with TE Lawrence who as well as being an officer, archeologist, and diplomat was also of course a writer, and whose cottage is here. We didn't see it actually, because after a seven mile walk we preferred the pub, but the whole area is fascinating historically as well as beautiful. 

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Art to disturb the comfortable & comfort the disturbed

In a week when Michelle Obama's departure from the White House was greeted in West Virginia with relief that the ape in heels had gone, the new production at Bath's Ustinov feels disturbingly relevant.
 Trouble in Mind was originally performed in 1955, and writer Alice Childress was the first African American to win an Obie - best Original Off-Broadway Production award. It's a passionate play about the production of a passionate play: a tear-jerking inditement of racism from a white writer's perspective. Can the black cast accept this, as they accept the bullying of their volatile director (Jonathan Cullen terrifyingly good in this role), and be grateful for the money and for sharing meals in public with their white co-actors or do they have a right to their own feelings? This is the dilemma that increasingly emerges, and Tanya Moodie ~ who instigated this production ~ is memorably impressive as Wiletta Mayer, the one who articulates it. Director Lawrence Boswell brings deliberate theatricality to every moment of this painful journey: from dominated role-playing, to slow achievement of confidence and ultimate crisis. Don't matter who gets in, don't make no difference to us, is a line from the play-within-the-play that resonates throughout. Grippingly watchable, often painfully funny, and brilliantly acted - it's on till 17th December so forget the panto, come and see this. (image Simon Annand) 

This has been a week of new beginnings. My poetry collection Crumbs from a Spinning World was officially published by 'upstart indie punk' company Burning Eye Books on Tuesday with a really nice blog on their site (very short, do click the link!) and I had a small celebratory party. On Thursday Ann Harrison-Broninksi launched her 'comic horror story for kids' Hag of Hythe, also in a party atmosphere at the Three Swans. So you can enjoy a brace of covers from the pen of 'Frome's Banksy', Paul (Mutartis) Boswell who lavishly illustrated Ann's story.

Then on Friday night Frome Writers Collective launched their imprint Silver Crow in the Black Swan gallery to an enthusiastic crowd of writers. Nikki Coppleston read from her detective novel The Shame of Innocence, published in this new imprint by SilverWood, whose director Helen Hart gave an excellent talk about self-publishing as no longer a 'vanity' choice but 'the democratisation of publishing.  Here's Helen, and Nikki with her book.
I just had time then to scamper to the Round Tower to congratulate Annette Burkitt, Geraldine McLoughlin and Kate Cochrane on their collaboration with Rosie Jackson to create paintings inspired by her poems, which Rosie was discussing at the launch of Kate's Angles & Aspects exhibition.
And also on a busy night, Cornerhouse rebranded its upstairs room as a gallery with a fantastic exhibition of prints by Frome photographer David Goodman. The bar downstairs too was filled with amazing examples of his work, and Bonne Nouvelle were there to entertain the guests, appropriately surrounded by superb portraits of musicians.

It was a big week for farewells too: on Wednesday a memorial service for Esme Ellis, sculptor and writer and supporter of all arts and artists. I met Esme when she was writing her allegorical novel This Strange and Precious Thing ~ this picture is from the launch in Bath in 2008 ~  and she responded to one of my poems in her last book Dreaming Worlds Awake, a deeply personal reflection on life and love.
 And on Friday, Frome town said goodbye to Griff Daniels with a tribute night at Rook Lane. Griff was a key figure in the Frome music scene and an all-round fantastic guy, and over two hundred people came to his send-off - fittingly in a party atmosphere, with several of his closest bandmates playing throughout an unforgettable evening.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

All about diversity...

In a week of writing-related events across three counties, I'll start with Take Art's 'Getting the Ball Rolling' session at The David Hall in South Petherton because the theme was diversity in the arts. Several really great presentations sparked discussion and cross-fertilisation between the poets, story-tellers, singers and theatre-makers. I especially enjoyed the Word/Play poets with Liv Torc, and the snippet from Gloria Lawrence's musical envisaging an African Queen meeting Elizabeth I, performed with singer Sasha Herriman ~ pleased to see Nzingabeth will be touring soon. An excellent event, entertaining and informative, with cake.

Moving northward, the Cotswold Walking Trail covers a hundred miles of footpaths and fields through quintessentially English rural vistas from Chipping Campden down to Bath, and I don't think I've ever walked any of it till last week. Martin Bax, founder of the Frome Festival, invited me to come with him on a 6 mile route featuring Adlestrop, the tiny village made famous by Edward Thomas. The railway station that inspired his poem was a victim of the 1966 Beeching cuts, and the poet himself was a victim of the 1917 attack on Arras that killed 160, 000 British soldiers. One of the station signs was salvaged, and re-housed at the end of the village as a place of pilgrimage for the many admirers of this gentle, epiphanic poem.
Martin and I were both there for the Edward Thomas connection (he will feature in next year's Frome festival) but there was an added bonus: a short talk from local Jane Austen specialist & author Victoria Huxley on the visits made by Jane to stay with her cousin the Reverend Thomas Leigh - here's the posh rectory. "You are literally following Jane's footsteps" Victoria assured us as we shuffled into the church, "because she came here every Sunday and there's no other door!"  Her talk, based on her book on the subject, was short but really interesting, especially on the vexed and precarious aspect of social status. "To the Leighs, the Austens were poor relations. All the snobbish observations and subtle putdowns in her books were what she saw and heard - how she herself was treated." A bonanza of a day - connection the two literary heroes, fantastic weather, and a really nice pub lunch at the end. I'll skip quickly over the field of frisky cows, as indeed I did at the time.

Back to Frome now, and a pleasant FWC social on Monday as the Frome Writers Collective gathered to listen to readings from the 'Writers in Residence' contest, when writers were allocated shops & cafes on the first Saturday of the summer festival, to write on the theme of 'All's Well That Ends Well.' Six of these impromptu sagas were shared below a unicorn to an attentive audience and a stuffed hen (we were in the upstairs room of the Three Swans, if you're unfamiliar with Frome), with Caroline Snailes' topical political satire deemed a worthy winner (though I wish Michael Eavis had taken leadership of our country) (note there will be no mention of any other country in this post.) The range of readings was delightful, and I especially enjoyed Judy Annann's recollections of producing Shakespeare in China in the 1990s, and Nikki Lloyd's witty phraseology in a tightly-crafted mother/daughter reconciliation story.

Staying in Frome but moving from fiction to fact: Steve Tompkins is an architect specialising in designing theatres, and his talk on this topic at Rook Lane for on Tuesday was a superb performance.  Projected illustrations enhanced his account and I was pleased to note that Steve and his Haworth Tompkins team like me have a passion for vermillion.  Steve, like Grayson Perry last week, subdivided his thoughts into categories: in this case elements not of maleness but of excellence in design. Theatres need to embody theatricality and also local memory, democracy, playfulness, permissiveness, and civility. The concrete (and reclaimed materials) examples and the stories of their concepts, constraints, and development were all fascinating, and I relished too Steve's architectonic phraseology: new buildings 'deferring' to neighbours and 'announcing themselves' in the street, 'talking to' the industrial surroundings and 'revealing themselves by night'... actually it does all sound quite male...

The brimming cornucopia of diversity this week also included a couple of terrific gigs ~ Roots Session on Wednesday featured Out To Grass, an amazing sextet who blue-grass up oldies from Beatles to Bon Jovi, and Blue Midnight rocking the Cornerhouse on Friday night with their unique ska-meets-folk fiesta style.

And finally in this diverse melange, the most unusual exhibition I've yet seen at Silk Mill: The Abnormalist Collective of young local artists have filled the space with personal work in a wide range of media, presented in an engagingly personal way. The concept is engagingly personal too: Frome does things differently, the event description explains: Where we've been raised is unlike any other place, due to the amount of freedom there is here. It's about independence, it's about how we do things in our own way, every person is an individual. And about impermanence. Theres a lot of change in the world, and in our individual lifes. So lets stop, and come together, to praise those who are moving with us. Frome does indeed do things differently, so massive appreciation to organisers Joey Sadler and Ewan Mitchell, here with artist Chloe Steeple. Only showing for three days, it will all be taken down after Sunday, so if you see this in time, do take a look.