Monday, January 30, 2017

Choose life, Frome style


It's been a great week for live music, with Roots Sessions at the Grain Bar Cafe crowded out on Wednesday for 'laid-back, rootsy, jazzy' Pete Gage Trio: the fabulous gritty voice of Dr Feelgood's erstwhile vocalist, also dynamic on piano, combined with virtuoso guitar playing from Jon Amor and Duncan Kingston's superb double-bass. The vibe was fantastic ~ a night to remember.
And there's an Acoustic Club nearby Frome, I've now discovered, in Dilton Marsh, with regular folk nights in the pub - it's the Prince of Wales but there's only one so you can't miss it - with excellent performers and a friendly atmosphere. Music ranged from folk & blues to original songs and a smattering of hippy nostalgia. 'Dilton always reminds me of Woodstock' explained Paul Kirtley before beautifully singing we are stardust, we are golden, and Carl Sutterby gave us a terrific punk-uke set: Buzzcocks' Breakdown, Stranglers' No More Heroes and Clash classic Guns of Brixton.
Back in Frome town, Saturday night saw Sam's Kitchen writhing with jive and cocktails as Great Big Feet ~ three young whipper-snapppers from the big city ~ played classic smoochie dancey blues & swing so it felt just like a club night in the fifties, except of course for all the selfies, and cocktails instead of half-pints of warm beer.

A good week too for Frome Writers Collective, with the launch of a second novel under their Silver Crow brand: The Tissue Veil by local author Brenda Bannister, an intriguing story of two girls divided by a hundred years but both resisting restrictive cultures: in 1901, English feminism is in its infancy, while in 2001 a Bengali teenager battles with her traditional family. Brenda lived and worked in the area of London where her story is set, and has close connections with the Bengali community, so this novel will make fascinating reading. Karin Campagna of Hunting Raven Books hosted this first launch in the newly-refurbished bookshop, and Brenda gave a short talk with readings to a crammed audience.
And there's an unexpected writing link in T2 Trainspotting, now on general release. This movie does what it promises on the poster: revisits the four wild boys now their in their forties, still fighting the cards dealt them by life's lottery ~ or in Begbie’s case, just still fighting. Another brilliant soundtrack, and much evocation of the original movie: the energy is less raw though still focussed on escape by and from their addictions. That iconic 'Choose Life' rant is powerfully and provocatively updated by Ewen Macgregor (bloggers get a glancing blow from his cynical scythe) and there's a satisfyingly redemptive strand that writers will enjoy. Renton still looks good, Spud is still cartoon-faced, Sick Boy has lasted least well despite his Warhol-blond hair, and Begbie... - ok that’s enough spoilers, go see it. On in Bath Odeon and everywhere. Oh and they give you That poster.

Final footnote this week is a look ahead to summer and Skyros Holistic Holidays, and I'm pleased to see four of my photos on the cover of their new brochure.  If you're interested in writing, there are other options as well as my courses on finding your 'voice', so do click the link & take a look. Going somewhere new and different, in the company of others who share the passion, is an amazingly effective way to kickstart ideas and enrich your creative processes.  And Skyros is a magical island...

Sunday, January 22, 2017

And in other news...

Politics is downstream from culture, as Timothy Goeglein wrote (mind you he was a notorious plagiarist so someone else probably wrote it first) and political power can be the enemy of culture, which is why the organisation English PEN was founded nearly a hundred years ago to campaign for writers oppressed and imprisoned for their words and opinions. One way PEN raises awareness is through readings, and Emma Craigie who curates events At the Chapel in Bruton organised an especially dazzling one last week. My first involvement with these PEN evenings was eight years ago as a reader, which inspired me to stage Chimes of Freedom in Frome's Merlin theatre the next year, so I was pleased to be among the audience of Freedom to Write, Freedom to Read.
Here as well as enjoying supper, we listened to poet Alice Oswald, novelist Andrew Miller, comedienne Viv Groskop, broadcaster & writer Jonathan Dimbleby and PEN President & writer Maureen Freely.
Alice read poems by Iranian poet Mahvesh Sabet and three of her own, Andrew read from a work by Egyptian Ahmed Naji considered unacceptably sexual, and a strong extract from his own novel The Crossing. Viv's extract was a powerful piece by Sanjuana Periodista about the murder of journalists in Mexico, which she admitted finding difficult to follow as her topics are more typically 'the prime ministers's horrible tartan trousers', and Jonathan read a piece from Bahrain's Nabeel Rajab, in detention for promoting human rights. In a deeply moving conclusion, Maureen's extract featured the repression of writers in Turkey, including detained journalist Ahmet Altan, and Armenian journalist Hrant Dink who was assassinated in Istanbul ten years ago to the exact day of our elegant supper. That's a picture of him. It's salutary to reflect how all of these writers, in Alice Oswald's words, laid their life before us, like gold leaf.


There were bubbles in Bruton on Saturday again, this time at Made In Bruton for the launch of fragile, the first poetry collection by 'Forgotten Bee'.
Bee Brook is a local radio personality who cohosts on Frome FM morning radio shows too. Her 'snapshots' reflect on love, loss, and life generally, including intimate aspects like insomnia, missing socks, and the satisfaction of toast.
The Elizabeth Frink exhibition, Transformation, at Hauser & Wirth had just opened so while in Bruton we seized the opportunity to look at this impressive collection of bronzes from the 1950s & 1960s gathered together in the Rhoades gallery, while life-size Riace Warriors stare in from the Cloisters. The (excellent) notes explain that these sinister figures were inspired by the 1972 discovery of two ancient greek bronzes off the coast of Italy, combined with the artist's interest in aboriginal face painting. She also said she liked representing male nudes. On till May 7th, well worth a visit.

Back in Frome, Roots Sessions at the Grain Bar restarted with the 'dark but sensuous sound' of class local duo-turned-trio Bonne Nouvelle. Sadly the support acts were decimated by winter ailments but Mike Cornish gave a strong solo start to the event.

And staying local for the final footnote in this mostly out-of-town posting, thanks Sara Vian for sending the audio of Midwinter Magic night. Memo to self: must do more of that, it's fun.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Wolf moon

In a week of crystalline cold clear skies and frosty mornings, with the wolf moon full and strangely haloed, here in downtown Frome life continues its creative way. I'll start with art.

"A tree represent something full of life, but calm" says Clive Walley of his paintings of Birches in Mist on show now at Black Swan Arts in an exhibition exploring the relationship between reality, perception and what we are allowed to see.
Gazing around this roomful of large square canvases, all similar though none identical, feels a bit like straining to see through the time-fretted glass of a train window, or staring at the world through gauze net curtains. There are outlines but the impediment is the image itself. The 'artist notes' explain this is about the struggle between two conventions of representation, the birch trees set out in the conventional way... and the mist standing in for the mid-twentieth century conception of "flatness". Showing till February 4th ~ and Clive welcomes responses: sadly the Black Swan poetry group is still currently awaiting news of access ~ don't let that stop you writing though...

Roots Grain Bar Sessions restart next week but there's been no shortage of brilliant music in Frome. Griffin Open Mic night on Thursday had some stunning acts: The Moonlit Poachers and Glastonbury foursome Lazydaze were among an impressive lineup including genius impro from MC Ross p, who responded to audience appreciation of his plum jam song with an inspired rap about Pearl Jam and Jeremy Kyle.


And there was a great party in The Three Swans upstairs room to celebrate the memorial anniversary of David Bowie, first of last year's much-mourned casualties ~ big appreciation to Pat Feeney who kept the film stream and songs going while we danced.
Still on the subject of Space Oddities, Frome astronomer Mike Witt will be in Beckington next Friday to present his impressive summary of space exploration from the pioneering 1950s to the current debris-riddled state of the galaxy, with over 4000 satellites whizzing round earth at 18,000 mph and smashing each other into squillions of bits like a Nutribullet.  I was treated to a preview of the talk, and it's interesting social history too, spanning the years when 'computers' were Afro-American women, (thus segregated from the men whose lives were in the hands of their calculations) and the reckless 'space race' between Russia & USA, which probably sacrificed lives of men as well as dogs, until the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission co-led by Alexey Leonov and Tom Stafford. They say what doesn't kill you makes you strong: here they are as octogenarians at the Gagarin Training Centre last year.
This topic for this month's social meeting of the Frome Writers Collective was preparing manuscripts for publication, with an excellent talk from Tim Cutting who last year printed his own book What a Long Strange Trip it's Been. Tim has also helped others from the memoir group led by Rosie Jackson, and he offers a range of advice options to anyone wanting to self-publish. Frome's literary creativity is endlessly awesome: at the Bowie party I met stonemason & writer Andrew Ziminski who's just been signed up by Bill Bryson's agent ~ with publishing auction pending ~ for his fascinating-sounding book on the history of migrations, from birds to people and ideas, that have created the land we call our own today.
Finally for this post:  Here's me in Bristol on Monday at the Ujima Radio Station talking about my poetry collection Crumbs from a Spinning World with Gail Bowen-Huggett - our interview for the Babbers show is online at that link.

And I'm delighted to be supporting Merlin Theatre with their Short Play Competition this year - closing date 31 March, so for all you writers out there, here's what you need to know:

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Year of the Rooster ahead...

According to the Chinese calendar 2017 is a Rooster year (and if Nostradamus is right, a super-power will become increasingly ungovernable and incompetent, wow, who could possibly be responsible for that?) but Chinese New Year doesn't start till the end of the month so right now we're still in monkey zone: smart, naughty and wily, a good time to make plans and have something to crow about later.
Panto season isn't even over yet, which is why I was at the Wardrobe Theatre watching ROCKY a horror show - and what could be more entertainingly horrible than a comic pastiche of every 1970s American Dream cliche in a boxing movie with (spoiler alert but it really doesn’t matter) an alien twist...? Nothing at all, unless you detest burlesque, satire and unrestrained vulgarity,  in which case this ‘christmas show’ isn’t for you. Luckily the full-house at last Saturday's loved it, shrieking with joy as the cross-dressing cast of four talented young actors engaged in vigorous faux-bouts of more physical activities than can be readily imagined. There was singing too, and (luckily) no need for much of a storyline with this amazing cast: Katy Sobey took on the Stallone role with Harry Humberstone as his evil but staggeringly sexy opponent, while James Newton was superb as his girlfriend and his manager, and Emma Keaveney-Roys stole every scene in whatever weird guise she appeared, including the exasperated tortoise. Director was Tom Brennan, soundtrack by Tom Crosley-Thorne, and Madelaine Girling was responsible for the commendably simple design. Do see it - it’s on till 21st January, but don’t sit in the front row if you’re easily shocked.

So back to looking forward to writerly events in the year ahead: Frome Writers Collective's plans are featured on Discover Frome (gratifyingly, Crumbs from a Spinning World is in the top ten currently-read books... no cynicism please) and I'm looking forward to great poetry events like the Poetry Platter at Merlin Theatre, and the Frome Poetry Cafe next month, with Bristol's The Spoke as guests. Dramatically speaking, Feet First is taking our Time Walk on another outing in June with Take Art.  Lots more artsy things happening in & around Frome too so tune in next week for another exciting instalment. Go well, and may your creative juices flow with you.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

the festive one

A bumper festive issue now it's all nearly over, that time of year when facebook goes wild with images of celebration, cake, and social inequality, and Elvis McGonagall writes a poem that says it all. Here's this year's one: Unholy Land
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed
Someone’s erected a trampoline instead
The foxes are bouncing, the baby awakes
Mary screams “Joseph! What’s this for Christsakes?

Eighty miles on a donkey and me up the duff
No room at the Premier Inn, I’m not chuffed
Where’s the Wise Men with frankincense, myrrh and gold
The angels, the shepherds, the lo and behold?

Who gives a toss about a gymnastic dog
A badger that goes “boing!” or an airborne hedgehog?
I was promised some glory, the birth of a King
At the least I want to hear Aled Jones sing"

But while we’re shopping bombs are dropping, 
                                                         I've lost all mirth
Aleppo’s burning the meaning and truth from this birth
So goodwill to all men for what it is worth
And let’s pray like fuck for some Peace on this Earth.

(The picture of Bath in the rain is to counterbalance not illustrate: it's by Peter Brown and is in the exhibition A Bath Painter's Travels at Victoria Art Gallery till 19 February - well worth popping in. )

Frome of course does everything its own way, and the Night Market Before Christmas at Silk Mill was full of delightful local craft from independent traders plus a full band around the fire in the yard.
Solstice celebrations featured Midwinter Magic at the Wheatsheaves: music and poetry, organised by Sara Vian, pictured here playing with her band.
A great set too from Sue Harding, and fine words from Graham Owen and Liam Parker (Thanks Patrick Moss for my pic)

More music at the Cornerhouse last Friday, where Pete Gage with his band were on brilliant form ~ do get their CD Left Over Blues if you haven't got it already. The last night of the year was lively here too, as musicians gathered for an informal session at Martin Earley's generous end-of-year party.

Frome's 'hub' role isn't only as a cauldron of creativity, as expressed in gigs, markets, shows, and other events ~ it's a rural thing too. There are so many amazing walks within a short radius of the town, and the weather has been friendly.
White Horse at Bratton on Boxing Day was breezy, but a Christmas Eve day walk to Longleat was balmy though I can't report how the Disneylike Beatrix Potter characters look when illuminated as we were hustled off the site by six security personnel having been identified on camera as walking in on regular footpaths without paying the £31.95 price of a glimpse (but if you're disabled it's only, oh, £31.95 ~ unless you're aged 3 in which case it's £22.95). I don't include this to add a sour note ~ we had a lovely walk and a great day, especially with a stop at amazingly welcoming Cross Keys en route back ~ but to highlight the fact that local walkers have been in conflict with Longleat for the last five years over the about-turn on ramblers' rights after genial bohemian Lord Bath handed over control to his son Caewlin.
The 900-acre estate was a priory until the pillage of Henry VIII's 'Reformation' and, since its grounds are crossed by several routes between local villages and towns, there existed until 2011 an understanding between laird & serfs that these could still be used on foot even when vehicle- barriers were up for an event.  There's much to take your money anyway if you linger, but we were on the Pleasure Walk, a woodland sculpture trail still listed as free to all visitors, so 32 quid seemed a high fine for passing an illuminated hedgehog. (There's more in the national press about the history of the walkers-v-capitalist toffs conflict and the family's own battle for the soul of Longleat.)

And this small struggle between indigenous locals supported by vociferous incomers against a mighty money-making mentality, ironically, segues perfectly to my last event of this post.
If you google Standing Rock you'll find it's a small reservation in North Dakota occupied by ethnic Hunkpapa Lakota, Sihasapa Lakota and Yanktonai Dakota. You'll also see, although you probably already know, that Standing Rock has for 8 months been encamped by thousands from other tribes, joined by supporters from other parts of America and the world ~  including about 4,000 US war veterans ~ in protest against a crude oil pipeline installation across their land. (pic Huff Post) The camp is now closed for winter, as freezing blizzards will ensure enough delay to void the project, but for a month, until the day the fires were dowsed, one of those international supporters was Frome environmental activist Ben Macfadyen.
When he arrived back in Frome, Ben met with so much curiosity he decided to have an informal meeting to respond to questions about his experience of working at the camp.  He'd been drawn by the core mission of the native protesters: to protect the water because 'water is life'. Ben went initially as an environmental activist but realised when he arrived that the pipeline was only one aspect of cultural oppression. His induction showed him native history not taught in any schools, even those in reservations. There's a big emphasis on the induction process, and elders rely on daily sessions of 'decolonisation' to ensure the incoming, white, supporters recognise that these are prayer camps to hold what is sacred not to empower conflict. This didn't come easy news to many, as the Lakota tribe are warriors and the vets were hardened to confrontation, so meetings were often long and conflicted. Ben says he learned 'to carry on chopping wood and shovelling snow' as the best contribution he could offer.
There seems much to learn from Ben's insights on the struggle: holding focus on peace, the central role of women, and solidarity through diversity. 'Solidarity is when you tend the fire for people who don't feel safe,' Ben said. Perhaps for those of us who feel powerless in terrible times, the best we can do is tend the fires and hold our own values. Until of course, the Snow Bird comes to save the water and war is averted by the power of natural forces...

So now end the revelries of December, and thanks to all my friends and family for the best of times in the worst of times, and I'll leave you all with a toast to the year ahead: my January Song:
 Let us praise New Year resolutions, their pusillanimous tyranny,
and let’s praise their abandonment half way through January.
Let’s eat more cake, and abridge that long debate 
about detoxing, how much we don’t need this big glass of Pinot 
- would be just as happy without it! - oh go on then, I’m not driving.
Let’s admit this new year will be just like the last: a wrangle 
with self discipline which our more articulate decadence will win. 
Let’s praise the clich├ęs that let us off the hook: 
“It is winter – be kind” - “Men like love handles.” 
Ah, the love handles of our lives, the soft slack self-indulgence 
that under-bellies every good intention. 
Let’s praise BAD intentions. Take courage, take heart: 
Here's a toast to whatever is hidden in the dark.