Friday, October 20, 2017

Ghosts in art and history

Southampton is the port from which the Titanic sailed, has a Premier League football team (currently interested in Barcelona striker Paco Alcácer) (thanks Google), and a great little art gallery which is featuring a major retrospective of the work of Christopher Bucklow. As Chris lives in Frome, and I was fascinated by his amazing paintings exhibited in the Black Swan in 2013, a trip to the City Art Gallery was definitely called for. Here, in several galleries, there's early work reflecting a passion for Sisley's landscapes, later work exploring 'Guests' ~ ghostly figures arriving unexpectedly and mysteriously, and some of the series that had fascinated me when I first saw it in Frome: Mandy Rice-Davis struggling with the art critic Clement Greenberg, who here is 'trying to keep Mandy down as a 2-D ghost, while also preventing her from cutting, Suffragette-like, the vital fourth slit in the Kenneth Noland Chevron painting...' The gallery is fronted by a fountain & beside a line of horse-chestnut trees but as 3pm was museum closing time and there didn't seem much else in this part of the city, we adjourned to The Titanic to talk about ghosts with the landlord... until he rather strangely disappeared...

Frome in Palestine is the title and theme of an impressive exhibition at Silk Mill gallery, where thirty-six boards filled with photographs and media cuttings tell the tale of our town's contribution to Britain's involvement in this troubled land. There are also tables of books and images, options of films and food, and a programme of talks and entertainment, all creating a rich though serious environment for this extended study. Frome Friends of Palestine is marking their tenth anniversary with this historical presentation of British involvement in the region, summed up by the excellent introduction in their guide booklet: A hundred years ago this autumn General Allenby marched into Jerusalem. To some it was the culmination of a dream, but Britain's 30 year rule of Palestine rapidly became a nightmare. This carefully researched study of a difficult but crucially important subject is on till the end of the month and deserves at least one visit ~ more if you can, as there's much to absorb.  Banksy said it's the role of art to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed': this, one might think, should also integral to any religion. The history of the 'Holy Land' shows a different perspective and this is not, as the booklet warns, an easy exhibition.

A brief blog  this week, as I'm off now to the Alpujarras to go walking in the foothills for a week with Bootlace Walking Holidays. We'll be based in Cortijo Romero, a lovely venue I know well from years of fond memories with writing groups. I'll end with a view that trails happy ghosts... poets and fiction-writers, memoirists and bloggers, all of us enjoying these abundantly-blossomed gardens with their fabulous views of the the mountains beyond... wow, I can almost hear the laughter over that sparking azure pool, and the bell ringing for supper-time... though actually it's the long days of walking I'm going for. Obviously!


Monday, October 16, 2017

Elvis in the building & Frome's multicultural faces

Major event for me personally this week was Elvis McGonagall at the Granary on Friday, pitched to Frome as a kind of Poetry-Cafe-special-outing and pushed to Bristol and Bath too since they're  more familiar with big names in performance poetry. I knew if people came they'd love him: they did, lots of them, filling the Granary bar (big thanks to bewildered barman Sam for keeping smiling & serving even though we drank you out of draft) with many standing (only about 50 stools and chairs rustle-uppable). Frome Poetry Cafe posse opened to a warm reception and Elvis took us to sizzling at imagination-warp factor fifteen.. We all had personal favourites ~ the irasible barman,  Trump's haircut, the UK Government Care Policy, the Immigration Alphabet ~ but the whole was even bigger than the parts.*
In short, a fantastic event and an unforgettable evening. No publicity pix, but here's a snap of Elvis and also the brilliant Liv Torc.

In other news: the Celtic collective had a session at the Lamb and Fountain on Thursday ~ the first time I've actually visited this friendly time-warp pub ~ and brilliant cover-band Purple Fish returned to rock the Cornerhouse on Saturday.

Multicultural Frome at the Cheese & Grain on Sunday, 'a family festival of music, dance, crafts, food and a celebration of our international community', must have even exceeded its own expectations ~ it could not have been more successful. Hosted by Young People Frome, initiated & oraganised by Azeema Caffoor & Lenka Grimes with contributions from groups, schools, families and individuals, this was an afternoon of delights: a mix of entertainment and entertainingly-packaged information in a party atmosphere with international tasty samples, many free. Special feature was the energy and enthusiasm of the young contributors, from performances on stage to general participation. Entertained by music, song, dance, and recitations from across the world, hundreds of local people explored tables of foodstuffs, specialities, rituals and treasures, interactive games and activities... general verdict: let's do it again, next year and every year.
Somerset Scratch at the Archangel on Sunday evening, organised by Sian Williams of Boiling Kettle Company, gave the opportunity to five local writers to present extracts from their plays in progress and invite positive critique. All themes ~ a benefit office row, a refugee,  compulsory purchase, life-regression therapy and a secret love child ~ had potential and hearing their words read by professional actors like Sally Sanders is gold-dust to any writer. Congratulations, all.

* I'm aware I haven't done much of a review of Elvis, because a big percent of the show is delivery. But the words are great too, especially the political ones, & they're free to read here.  I recommend particularly That Government Healthcare Policy In Full and The Queen's Speech. smiley face!


Sunday, October 08, 2017

Autumn medley: art, words, & a brilliant SLAM in Bristol

Stourhead in October consoles winterphobes like me for the ending of summer. The Temple of Apollo is particularly consoling as he was a major inspiration to Keats and other romantic sun-worshippers.

A further attraction last week was the work of Frome painter Kate Cochrane who has combined with Olivia Clifton-Bligh, Tanya Hinton and Tim Rose in First View Gallery on the edge of the park in a show they call Quartet. Here's Olivia with her massive bronze lion Bee-speaker, who has a tiny gold bee in his mouth. There's a strong connection between lions and bees from a biblical story cannily utilised by Tate & Lyle when they canned their sugary waste with the slogan Out of the strong came forth sweetness. (The quote, from Judges, begins 'Out of the eater, something to eat', so it's a kind of Ozymandias theme about power never enduring, really, but we all loved Golden Syrup anyway...) I like too the notion of telling your secrets to the bees: they don't care or tell.

Frome author Peter Clark sees his writings about his time in the middle East for the British Council as "in the genre of the Subaltern's diary: fly-on-the wall observer, not someone important in his own right." The Emirates Diaries are the latest to be published: "I didn't want to go to the Emirates," the author admitted to an attentive audience for his talk in Hunting Raven Books on Tuesday. "I thought it was an unreal country, modernist and consumerist". In the event he found much to admire among the people of the sheikdoms, and as he speaks Arabic, Peter could contribute much as well as enjoy his experience. As well as the Sheiks, other colourful characters featured in Peter's fascinating talk, like Wilfred Thesiger, who consented to an exhibition of his photographs of arabs in the 1940s & 50s, and Mrs Thatcher who left without paying her bill... This book like his previous ones is based on a daily writing habit which has accumulated into 50 volumes of page-a-day diarising. Peter's writing has been described as "quirky, digressive, and indiscreet" and he says he's happy with that. It sounds perfect to me.
The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever has quit the Serpentine to come west, filling all three floors of Bristol's Arnolfini dockside gallery. The Analphoney, as some disenchanted Bristolians call this prestigious institution, is usually renowned for esoteric items in unfrequented rooms, but when I went on Saturday it was totally rammed for Grayson Perry. This is a show that sends you out into the city finding you are gazing at strangers with compassionate intensity. I've only experienced this after a really great play before, but then Grayson Perry's art is like theatre: he dramatises life in extreme and vivid ways. He weaves our lives in tapestries, we are bottled in vast ceramic vases, he depicts everyone from world leaders to the dispossessed. He has a special empathy for men, struggling to define manhood without jobs, money, or status. It's all very political and personal and indescribable, and you really should go and see it ~ if you haven't yet ~ before 24 December.
Grayson Perry wasn't the only sensation at the Arnolfini on Saturday: the evening brought an influx of poets and poetry fans for Bristol Poetry Festival Poetry Slam, a dazzling presentation of talent and passion as 18 performance poets presented slices of their life-view: acutely insightful, mostly witty, sometimes painful, each one showing why this art form is so extraordinarily powerful and exciting. Judging was on writing, performance, and audience response, and scores were high all round with Shaun Hill the final winner and Melanie Branton a nano-fraction behind him ~ but the 'competition' aspect becomes an exciting part of the enthusiastic appreciation in the superbly capable hands of host Claire Williamson together with Elvis McGonagall ~ who will be in Frome later this week: cue quick final push for Elvis at the Granary!!!

A busy week left me less time for enjoying the bar music sessions but Thursday gave us an extra treat from Frome Jazz Club at the Cornerhouse, where Keith Harrison-Broninski's trio was joined by John Martin on sax adding a mellow 'multiphonic' sound which gave a different mood of their set (though, sadly, from a photographer's viewpoint no further illumination.)

Somerset Arts Weeks ended on Sunday so I made a last-minute dash to Shave Farm to see the amazing collective work of 8 artists, using a range of media including film, printing, pottery, and painting, all working in barns with wonderful views across the fields towards Bruton.
Here's Frome artist Annemarie Blake painting in one of them, Terri Hogan with her Cornish seashore sketchbooks in another, and a portrait of her daughter by Kay Lewis-Bell.
And here too is the more concentrated hub of artistry in the village hall of Batcombe and Beyond that I stumbled upon en route due to Google satnav malfunction. As well as paintings and drawings, there were some intriguing envelopes by illustrator Peter Sheldon, decorated satirically as inspired by their stamps.

Sunday was Come Together day at Frome Library, a free-to-all event hosted by Fair Frome in a party-like atmosphere with music, balloons, and lots of cake, to show the range of facilities and supports available in Frome to anyone looking for companionship, activities, or any kind of support.
The Frome Street Bandits and the Frukes, as pictured here, provided the live music and among other presentations Home In Frome was there to encourage people to share & record their memories of changing times for an archive of stories that would otherwise be lost.

Finally in this slightly out-of-order week, a quick movie recommendation, because of its writerly connection and because you may think Goodbye Christopher Robin will probably be sentimentalised and sugar-frosted. It isn't. The back-lit woodland shots are gorgeous, but the child is usually anxiously trailing his shell-shocked father, who's blocked from writing by PTSD and slowly finding solace in those famous imaginings which become a product that turns his distressed son into public property and ruins their relationship.  It's a dark tale, in short, and the film ends with a reminder that AA Milne really wanted to write an anti-war book. He finally did: Peace with Honour ~ "It is because I want everybody to think that war is poison, and not an over-strong, extremely unpleasant medicine, that I am writing this book" ~ was published in 1934. Well, he tried...


Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Not-so-dumb blondes and other Word Play

Marilyn Monroe and Ruth Ellis, a movie star and a murderer, with little apparently in common except their dramatic deaths. Writer/performer Joan Ellis researched beyond the media fables into the lives of both these iconic women to create a double-bill of monologues imagining the 'last words' of both women, and the result is poignant and provocative. Died Blondes reveals how the world-famous American glamour girl and the unknown small-town girl from Rhyl both had appalling childhoods, brutal lovers, lost babies, and were victims of an era when women were commodities with only their sexuality to trade. Nevertheless Pub Theatre, mostly known for productions of local writers' work, brought this gem to Frome for two nights and Rosie & I were massively pleased with our audience feedback: "Thought-provoking, sad, funny, and so brave and bold" "Fabulous. Interesting, beautifully constructed. Clever."  ~ 24 such responses on the first night alone while The Fine Times Recorder gave us this superb and astute review, concluding: The two playlets are carefully researched, convincing and beautifully contrasted, subtly observed and never falling into caricature. Another fascinating evening of pub theatre from Nevertheless.

The other literary highlight for me in a particularly brightly-illuminated week was the second edition of Word Play from Visual Radio Arts. Phil and Maggie, the lovely people behind this wonderful studio enterprise to promote musicians & other creative performers, suggested another edition of this poetry showcase, this time featuring B Anne Adriaen, Jake Xjx Hight, Liam Parker, and Jo Butts. I went along to check everyone had located the venue and give a general cheery thumbs-up, and ended up as interviewer for the entire hour-long session... great fun, and a real privilege to be 'audience' to a brilliant session with four distinctly different voices: from reflective to rap, and rhapsodic to rhyming fun.

Visual arts without radio have also been prominent, with a profusion of exhibitions around Frome. There's a double-bill at Silk Mill with Outside Insight, a powerful and enigmatic combination of Rosalind Robinson's paintings inspired by early Flemish portraiture, together with Hans Borgonjon's sculptures transformed from ancient Flemish weaving looms. "We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are." Meanwhile Somerset Arts Weeks, a fortnight of exhibitions in 140 locations around the county, features five venues in Frome: Black Swan Arts host Fiona Campbell and Angela Morley have filled the beautiful Round Tower with an exhibition entitled Ephemeral and Eternal. "We are all nature, from neurons to branches to man-made stuff, Fiona says, and the work uses natural crafts of weaving and binding to impressive effect. Also in the Black Swan complex, and Cameron Scott's wood-carvings and Nick Weaver's woodwork furniture make an elegant combination ~ I'd buy these stunning cabinets in a nanosecond if I had the £££ and a big house ~ and Divas cafe has an exhibition by Ellie Mawbie using handmade paper and ink to explore perception. Archangel is showing Kit Sadgrove's Street Photography b&w candids, and Settlers Stores in Cheap Street has some of Max Milligan's photographs from Ghana and Scotland. All on till 8 October.

And there's been great music, of course: the awesome Back Wood Redeemers put on a brilliant hi-energy show at the Grain Bar Roots Session, while Pete Gage in the club atmosphere of Sam's Kitchen Deli was fabulous as always, but even more impossible to photograph as autumn creeps on and lighting is, well, clubby...

Another month, another Frome Independent Market... less crowded than usual, making a stroll through the stalls very pleasant on a mild autumnal morning. Here's authors Rachel Ward and Julian Hight at Hunting Raven Books, and Owen from Rye Bakery providing pizzas literally fresh from the oven.

This last ten days has been largely a time for family, and immersions in both art and nature, so I'll end this post with an image from each: Rita Ackermann's exhibition in Hauser & Wirth, and a walk in the magical landscape of the Brecon Beacons.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Identity & history - drama, art, poetry, and ducks.

Richard III as re-envisaged by Beyond the Horizon has the kind of anarchic energy and raw violence I imagine productions would have achieved in Shakespeare's own era. The set looks like a kind of dystopian Occupy and familiar roles are chaotically unfamiliar, but the story is faithful to the savagery of the times: this rogue king is not uniquely monstrous but a creature of his age.  Adam Lloyd-James, producer and co-director, is charismatic in this role: duplicitous, ruthless, credibly the fittest to survive when 'war has descended into brawls and government into shambles.'
This young company based in the southwest has just completed a year of touring this dynamic production, the final two nights at Bath's nice little Rondo Theatre. I'm delighted I caught the penultimate night, and will look out for their tour of Oedipus and Antigone next year.
Tom Stoppard's play The Real Thing was first performed in 1982, over twenty years since his 'modern masterpiece' Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which may be why the playwright-hero of this piece reflects with irony that 'it's the fate of all us artists - people saying they prefer the early stuff.' Actually this one is very entertaining. Henry's play about love and marriage opens the 'real' play, which promptly replicates the storyline of suspected infidelity. His daughter's summary of the play-within-a-play works for his 'real' life too: “It’s not about anything except did she have it off or didn’t she?” The 'real' play seethes with sensual possibilities but its fascination is cerebral: wit and wordplay constants as Henry (Laurence Fox) struggles with emotional uncertainties and the audience can never be sure if we are seeing the real play or the play within the play. Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Annie, whose moral system challenges Henry's belief in 'insularity of passion', is fabulously watchable and entirely convincing as woman even a passing stranger might follow anywhere, even to prison.  Stephen Unwin's direction and Jonathan Fensom's set design effectively supported the sense of era and the overlapping realities. And how much of this is autobiographical? Tom Stoppard has only admitted to identifying with Henry's preference for Procul Harum to Bach and pop to opera. On till 30 September - recommended. Image: Edmond Terakopian

So, a good week for theatre, and a fine week for other creative-artsy events too. Hinterland, the new exhibition from Gladys Paulus at Black Swan Arts, has already stimulated enormous emotional response. Gladys is a felt-maker, previously best known for her theatrical animal masks, but after her father's death two years ago she started to explore the hidden story of her heritage and uncovered a painful history dating from Japanese occupation of Indonesia. The story is available alongside the work: it is too traumatic to précis here but do visit before 14 October if you can. Gladys work is disturbing but no way depressing, a painstaking reparation for the shattered past, which she calls 'mourning and healing.' It's an invitation to consider your own identity, as a human in history, interactive with the past and proactive with the future.
Words at the Black Swan, the writing group dedicated to responding to Long Gallery exhibitions, met on Monday for a workshop led by Dawn Gorman, founder of Words & Ears in Bradford-on-Avon. Dawn's imaginative guidance inspired all ten participants to create some powerful writing, using the installation as both window and mirror.


Dawn's other poetry highlight this week was finale of her role as organiser & host of the Bradford-on-Avon Arts Festival 2017 Poetry Competition with the award ceremony at The Swan. Entries came from all over the world, over 600 of them, so it was remarkable as well as delightful that 7 of the 11 finalists could be present to hear senior judge Carrie Etter introduce their 'Flights of Fancy' and, after reading of some of her own poems on that theme, to announce the verdict: overall winner New Yorker Eric Berlin, second David Van-Cauter, bronze for Penny Hope, with Daniel Snieckus collecting the local prize: a bottle of bubbly and an illustration of his poem by Bradford's artistic deputy mayor Alex Kay. An excellent night, well organised, friendly, and sky-high with stunningly imaginative fanciful flights.

And now for something completely different - ducks.
Nine hundred yellow plastic ones, all bobbing down the river Frome, as they do every year since 1976, in the Frome Carnival Duck Race. This admirably compact event lasts about five minutes from start to finish, probably a tenth of the time it takes the bold canoeists to collect the 897 non-winning ducks.

I'm desolate that I won't be in Frome for the actual Carnival on Saturday or the musical party after... but at least, despite several clashes, I caught a couple of the brilliant musicians of Frome ~
viz : Al O'Kane, celebrating his birthday (here with Andy Hill), and Pete Gage at the Grain Bar with terrific support from Duncan Kingston and Paul Hartsholme on guitar.

Finally for this week's post: once in a while in a writer's life a chance arises to take on a project which is totally fascinating & obsessively engrossing.  I'm lucky enough to be deep in one of these now. One of my research strands took me literally into the underbelly of Frome, into the labyrinth of tunnels that date back to Saxon times and before. This is the view below the bridge, one of only three left in England still with its 18th century buildings in use as shops and cafes, but long before then there was a ford across the marsh here... Andrew Ziminski, my fascinating guide, reckons it's been a crossing place since prehistoric times.