Monday, June 18, 2018

Back in Frome, with words & music

Another of those excellent writer's events at Hunting Raven last week saw local author Sarah Scholefield's talking about debut novel Redferne Lane, already getting great reviews on 'Goodreads'. Sarah's degree was molecular biology, so no-one was more surprised than her at the digression to novel writing. Her work on the Bath MA course brought immediate attention from an agent, and after a rocky road (is there any other route to publication? answers on a postage stamp...) Sarah's novel reached publication with Thistle as an e-book and a handsome paperback. Her talk was entertaining and encouraging, with a useful Q&A afterwards.

A stunning week for music, even by Frome's cornucopian standards: Ben Cipolla Band gave us a great Grain Bar Roots Session on Wednesday, and a wonderful party at the Cornerhouse on Friday turned into an unforgettable open-mic session for Nicki Mascall and her talented friends.  Saturday night was more than usually frenetic due to a clash of two of Frome's favourite bands: Captain Cactus and the Screaming Harlots at The Sun, and The Back Wood Redeemers at The Cornerhouse... Both pubs were rammed and bopping, both bands on top form in splendid costumes and engaging full-on with their avid audiences, so the only thing to do was run between venues at the breaks. No chance of pix of the Back Wood boys through the dancing throng at Cornerhouse, and a crushed stage for the Cactus Crew - there are nine of them! - so here's just a taster of the night: the delightful Screeching Tartlettes, as the blackboard tagged our favourite vocal quartet.
And after all that frenzy, a mellow end to the week with jazz from the Graham Dent Trio & Nick Sorensen on sax, at the Cornerhouse.

To further complicate Saturday evening, the Merlin Theatre joined the event-clash with Thrill Me This demanding drama is as slick as it is grim, which is an impressive but uncomfortable combo. Based on an allegedly true tale of a mindless murder in 1924 (the facts are true but accounts differ, and motivations of psychopaths are unfathomable) Stephen Dolginoff has written a musical which is really more Chill Me than Thrill Me. The two actors and the onstage pianist are brilliant and the effect is powerful, evoking that horror-movie feeling that there's more evil around than we can ever guess as director Guy Retallack emphasises destructive obsessions - sadism and control both physical and mental - as primary narrative threads with no real suggestion of private tenderness. Credit to Merlin programming for bringing this Richard Williamson and CliMar production to Frome as one of only six venues on an international tour: Sam Johnson played the piano, with Harry Downes and Ellis Dackombe as the amoral law students.
Final footnote for this week: after scouring the galley proofs with magnifying glass and tweezers, my endlessly patient and supportive editor/publisher feels we are nearly nearly ready for a launch...  so here's a sneak preview of the draft cover - I have permission from the e.p & s editor/publisher for this reveal....)
Excited? let's just say right now the moon is looking tiny down there...

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A Northern Digression

Way back in 2004 when I was a 'Writer in Residence' for Somerset Libraries offering a menu of themed readings, one of these was 'Places' which included, just for fun, a brief extract from Crap Towns - the 50 worst in the UK. Number One was 'Hull - it smells of Death.' As well as olfactory repulsiveness, WW2 devastation had been compounded by '60s & '70s brutalist concrete reconstruction, leading the nominating writer to conclude 'no matter how bad things get later in life, it can never, ever be as bad as living in Hull.' Since then (aided possibly by EU rulings) those morbid aromas from nearby docks, factories, and tanning works seem to have diminished, and 2017 European City of Culture status has completed the transformation of Hull into an absolutely brilliant place for a writers' weekend, as poet Hazel Stewart and I can happily confirm. (That's the steam fountain outside City Hall in the top picture - great fun on a warm day,  though a notice on the nearby toilets firmly forbids parents from drying their children therein.)

Our B&B, the Kingston Theatre Hotel, a Victorian mansion beside a nice little community park (with a statue of course) was perfectly placed to see all the interesting bits, including the old town and Fruit Market, the river and docks, and all the posh stuff around the ornamental fountains.
This includes the Ferens Art Gallery, opened 1927 and now with a good collection outstandingly well curated, with exciting proximity choices: one gallery had a focus on 'Conversations' spanning eras, styles, and media - and interactive rooms as children's arty play areas. There's also a video of the extraordinary 2017 event Sea of Hull, artist Spencer Tunick's active installation of 3200 naked people painted blue.

Hull can boast quite a few residents born great, or having greatness thrust upon them, and boast it does, with many of them literally on pedestals: from William III in 1734  to 1970s pop star David Whitfield, from William Wilberforce to Philip Larkin, late for his train, they bestride and survey the streets and alleys.
Old Hull loved to build big: courts and museums with domes and turrets, lofty statues and grand fountains. There's a peaceful central park that was originally a dock, created to cope with the shipping gridlock in the harbour in Victoria’s day: Queen's Dock is now Queen’s Gardens, with long pools of water lily ponds and a tall Solar Gate which allows sunlight through its cheese-grater-like texture in tiny predicted pools.
There are plenty of historic pubs - my favourites were dockside Minerva and Ye Olde White Harte, where the plot was hatched close Hull gates to Charles I when he arrived to claim the city's arsenal. The plan succeeded, and Charles responded by attack - an act of civil war against his own citizens, thus precipitating the conflict that led to the establishment of Commonwealth in 1649. History oozes out of every stained glass window here...
History is definitely the currency of now, in this city: the Museum Complex, a vast hangar-like building, acts as a kind of directory of exhibitions, and there's a Museum Quarter where you'll find William Wilberforce's house with its beautiful garden and mulberry tree (and a disturbingly graphic account of the slavery he strove to end) next to a Museum of Transport, and the East Riding Museum of just about everything from the dawn of time, which has so many life-size life-like models silently going about their business on the many floors of this tardis-like building that I nearly had a panic attack.
Everywhere we went, we stopped for 10 minutes of free-flow writing (Ted Hughes reckoned this the ideal length of time: 'the compulsion to haste frees ideas previously hidden' he suggested). For a writer, this kind of practice is as essential as breathing: it helps you to realise if you can think it and feel it, you can write it, and to trust your mind, however unexpected the words it produces. And writing-and-sharing like this a really lovely way to have a serious catch-up with a long-time friend who now lives a long way away.
Fourteen hours travelling forth and back, with only one full day in between, may seem a tad arduous but we had such a good time it was worth it. Every corner brought unexpected surprises: wandering cobbles, we found ourselves in a dismantling film set and were plied with strawberries and apples by the crew... we discovered a great (&cheap) home-made curry pub just when we realised we needed supper (breakfast had been massive)... and we arrived unexpectedly at Hull Truck Theatre exactly minutes before LipService Theatre were about to perform Mr Darcy Loses The Plot so I'll end this digression by telling you about this utterly hilarious pastiche of writers' problems: On a set composed mainly of quilting with an occasionally- 
(and cleverly)-used projection screen, Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding played every role, not only all those women writers of previous centuries struggling to fit their scribbling in with the life of a lady - Jane Austen, Mrs Gaskill, Daphne du Maurier, Beatrix Potter - but most of their characters too - even Jemima Puddleduck. Like Frome's amazing thespian duo Rare Species, they have an extreme-performance style that's hard to describe - this little video gives an idea of their fast-moving absurdity - but with an edge, illuminating constraints on women creatives in earlier eras. If LipService ever come south-west, don't miss them.

I'll leave you with a line from Philip Larkin, famously critical of his adopted home yet conceding it 'as good a place to write in as any': inscribed on his personal solar-circle in Queen's Gardens is the reflection: what will survive of us is love.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Dramatic visits - terror, identity & the power to change

A Monster Calls at Bristol Old Vic now (until 16 June) is such a dramatically theatrical piece of story-telling that it's very difficult to credit that this gripping story started as a book, or even to imagine it as a film, it seems so perfect for a stage production -with live music, scary lighting effects, a mass of ropes symbolising viscerally the constraining emotional tangles, and directed - this is the essential factor - by Sally Cookson. If you saw her productions of Peter Pan and Jane Eyre you will know that she is unsurpassable at finding the complex heart of any story of a lost child, and she has done it again for Connor as he struggles with his feelings as his mother's illness worsens. Sally is supported by a terrific cast, with standout performances from Matthew Tennyson as the troubled teenager and Stuart Goodwin as the monster who haunts and redeems him. Benji Bower composed the emotion-enhancing score - he and brother Will can be seen on stage throughout - and designer Michael Vale's uncluttered set allows both unlimited imagination and unfettered time-shifts. It's really good, do go.

I need to do a bit of time-sliding here as I went directly then to Hull for a writing week-end with long-time friend and previous poetry-performing colleague Hazel Stewart:  Hull is a fantastically creative place so I do want to write about what we saw and did there but as Monster has only another week to run, and also since some followers of this blog are mainly interested in locally accessible arts, I'll press pause on that and leave you with this taster of us at the interactive project at Humber Street Gallery where they are exploring themes of identity, equality, power and social change...
Back now to Frome, where my garden roses have gone bonkers and I have galley-proofs to check (exciting!) and a long list of other must-dos, including preparations for Frome Festival so I'll leave you with a taster of 2 events to look out for... Poets! get musing on Mary Shelley's monster and bring a poem to the Cafe for a chance to win the title Frome Festival 2018 Poet Laureate. Everyone! come and hear the true story of a Frome woman who started the first Human Rights campaign and overthrew a tyrant... presented by Peter Clark in the satirical words of Mark Twain, clearly the Frankie Boyle of his era... it's all happening SOON!

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Summer loving and summer days, in and around Frome

Costume drama from Theatre6, a London touring company whose current production is a nearly-3-hour epic from an energetic sextet of impressive young actors. Persuasion has been re-imagined for stage and for modern minds by Stephanie Dale and if the lovely Ceri-Lyn Cissone as heroine looks rather more Jane Eyre than Anne Eliot, there's a reason: the UST factor looms large in this version of Jane Austen's last novel and we are never far from wild soliloquised regrets for the lost love of handsome Wentworth.
Jason Ryall, superb in this role, also plays his own rival - the louche deceitful Mr Eliot - which may have confused audience members not familiar with the story, though as we were in Dorchester Arts Centre most of the full house probably were. Other parts were shared out - there must have been thirty costume changes for Siobhán Gerrard, gaining and losing both rank & age in her many roles. Persuasion, even as an intense love story, is primarily critique of the social conventions and manners of its author's era, and director Kate McGregor highlighted humorous opportunities here, sometimes to the point of panto, but with live music on piano, flute, clarinet and violin from all these talented young performers, this was certainly an impressive night of theatre.
As a small digression, if you feel uneasy about being encouraged to sympathise with poor Mrs Smith's anxiety to recover 'some property of her husband in the West Indies' - presumably one of the sugar plantations worked by slave labour - it's encouraging to know Jane was herself actually an Abolitionist.  Slaves of the British Empire were all officially freed in 1833, 17 years after the novel was written, but there's a grim connection that will never go: Lyme Regis was where the Duke of Monmouth landed from Normandy in 1685 to conduct his ill-fated rebellion, and hundreds of his supporters in the southwest were sent to these plantations to work as slaves,  many dying en route and at the docks on arrival.  Just another of those things that twirl in one's mind, like those whirling parasols making fantasy carriage wheels on cross-country canters and capers.

Fast forward a century for another slow-burning love story - a medley of them, in fact, as PG Wodehouse’s golfing romances are recreated in a club house somewhere in the Home Counties, some time after the end of the Great War (which was 'not all that great', according to the morose barman) in Love on the Links at Salisbury Playhouse. It would be impossible to recreate the iconic wit of these tales without the narrative voice of Wodehouse himself, and this adaptation wisely didn’t try: the anecdotes are presented as told by the Oldest Member, with absurd Charades-style enhancement from the small team of club members.
Jon Glover and Edward Taylor adapted the tales for stage, and the cast have tremendous fun with them. Designer James Button has created a handsome set that works as a flexible stage for multitudinous shenanigans, with pot-plants that double as tropical jungles, a couch that operates as a boat, and even dangling lamps that work as escape swings - and the seven actors vigorously created the absurd scenarios devised by director Ryan McBryde. Jenna Boyd is especially delightful as various damsels, and Tim Frances as Fitt the barman adds absurd surprises when least expected. The cast apparently had guidance on their golf swings, but the exuberance seems to have needed no coaching. On till 23 June -images Robert Workman.

 Finishing a big writing project always brings a strange feeling and, like other major deliveries in life, you always forget what it's like - until next time. It's a sense of relief mingled with unappeasable existentialist bereftness, which settles into a chronic frenzy of anxiety that you've done it all wrong anyway.
With Frome Unzipped, the transition was both eased and complicated by the fact there are scores of direct quotes from people who I'd promised to show before publication, in case errors had crept in between transcript and page. And of course they had, with a hefty sprinkling of typos. Thank you to everyone who responded, mostly speedily, encouragingly, and without deciding to rephrase.
And time now for long walks: here's the last of the bluebells making a faerie ring on Roddenbury Hillfort, and the path through Vallis Vale, another of Frome's magic places: this is the point where Frome's little river joins Mells stream, hauntingly atmospheric and beautiful. A good week too for re-connections with writer friends - a meet-up with the Friday morning group, and a reunion of the Fromesbury set to share plans...

Time too for a shot of art and music. Frome Community Education has an impressive exhibition at the Round Tower of paintings, pottery, prints, basketry, textiles and upholstery by students and tutors. Amanda Bee, whose exquisite mixed-media landscapes are both evocative and personal, and Andrew Eddleston, with a great selection of his earthenware pottery, hosted the opening on Friday. Here's a small sample of the students' work: chunky pots by Bob Spode and Keith Kemp.
A very jolly Jazz Jam at the Cornerhouse on Sunday evening, with an assortment of Frome's amazingly talented musicians including Simon Sax, Mike Peake, John Plaxton, Graham Dent, Jim White, Nicki Mascall, and more. And of course, now it's June it must be time for another Frome Independent Street Market, with the most glorious weather of the summer so far shining on the stall holders and browsers.

And while it's still on i-player, if you missed A Very English Scandal it really is worth three hours of your life to remedy that: Not just Hugh Grant revealing himself a sensational actor, but a script by Russell T Davies which is masterpiece of story-telling scattered with dazzling gems of dialogue that ricochets between powerfully understated to graphically startling... very English indeed, as the judge sums up with blatant bias that would seem like a parody, if it wasn't actually on record. One of those infrequent times when TV really does it well.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Sun, thunder, art and life

The Chemistry of Bronze as an art concept to be honest didn't attract me much until first glimpse of the amazing exhibition which opened last Friday at Black Swan Arts. Bronze is all about weaponry and statues of warmakers isn't it? Well, no. Superbly curated by Hans Borgonjon, the casting foundry Art of a Fine Nature showed a diversity of creations from glowing guitar-fronts to random Rorschach-style seahorses and porpoises retrieved from the drips bucket and presented facetiously for inspection as the works of Sandra Pail. Here's one that might, or might not, be a witch with her incubus lover... There will be a casting demo on July 7 at 3pm - postponed from Saturday because of That thunderstorm.

Masses and masses of music this week - every pub in Frome seemed to be bursting out with bands like blossom on the Judas tree in Victoria park. (Irrelevant digression: the name apparently wasn't from the biblical betrayer but a derivation of the French name, Arbre de Judée, referring to the hills of Judea many of these gorgeous trees grew. Just an interesting fact, for fact collectors.)
Anyway though I missed most of this being out of action for 5 days (another digression, more relevant this time, the NHS service despite all attacks is at point of need utterly fantastic), I was back on the circuit to hear some great young musicians at the Frome Sofar- here's Josh, and Wedlock, sorry I don't know much more about them than their names but both were excellent.
And Sunday's Frome Jazz Club had sax player Jon Lloyd as John Law's guest - an extraordinary rapport apparent between these two - and Billy Weir on drums.

The big thing for me this week, and the reason why this blog has gone all garrulous, is that my book has finally, belatedly, been delivered to the wonderful Hobnob Press and is now under the editorial red correcting pen - I say that as though it wields its own authority but it is of course steered by my endlessly patient & supportive editor. Various people in Frome have been wondering what happened to this project, because I've interviewed many of them, saying breezily back in November that I expected to finish by end of February... yeah, that's right, a history of Frome in four months. I can't imagine why I thought 120 days might wrap it up - it's not as if it's only a bit of Frome either, like a history of 17th century button-hooks and bodkins.  The title I negotiated is FROME UNZIPPED - from Prehistory to Post-Punk, beginning at the ice-age and ending with the call for Frexit in the last Frome Times. It's a bit of a parkour ride, with masses jumped over, but you can get all that from sensible historians. This is more of a street-theatre story - there's a narrative arc, and characters, and everyone I talked to has a voice in the book because I wanted it to be genuinely egalitarian. Nearly a hundred people generously gave me their time and when I'd transcribed all their interviews, along with notes from the sensible historians, with a month to go, I found I had the equivalent of a 5000-piece jigsaw to assemble with no box. Anyway, it's off now, and I've learned so much about this extraordinary town where I came to live back in 1987... what's next? After the prosecco, of course.. (thanks David)

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Mostly music and madness

Starting off with madness, and the Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland, the latest production by internationally renowned Ridiculusmus. It's an endlessly provocative, in the thinking sense, story and we get two takes on it, one on each side of a divide in time, or reality (or both) made literal by a semi-opaque wall. Half the audience sees each narrative, but disturbingly hears fragments of the other. Then we swap over, for the rest of the story, which like life has by now slightly changed, with some new bits and some bits lost and not in the order we (half)remembered it. In other words it's like life, disturbingly so. The psychiatrist, who has troubles of his own, is struggling to find answers in the works of RD Laing and there's an ongoing theme of the use & dangers of meds - 'They don't want to medicate meaning-making,' he explains to the fragile, angry, author who thinks he wrote Nabokov's books and may well be writing the play we are watching... It's an amazing, brilliant, unforgettable piece of theatre and I won't say, Go See, because it's sold out at Tobacco Factory in Bristol - and I only got to see it through an amazing gesture by Ridiculusmus when Stepping Out mental health theatre group failed to get tickets and wrote to tell them, and their response was to put on an extra show especially for the Stepping Out group, transporting their entire set to St Werburghs Community Centre on Saturday. As an associate of Stepping Out I was invited too, and after having our minds blown to Lapland and back by this amazing show, we all went off for lunch with the cast in Cafe Napolita.
Saturday evening, you may know if you were in Bath on this warm clear night was Party in the City with masses of bands in the parks, gardens, pubs, cafes, halls, so I hopped off the train and met up with some Frome friends for a saunter round the streets.
There were some good bands indoors but on a sultry night like this, the outside venues lured: Queens Square for wonderful atmosphere and great bands like Jupiter Owls and Agent Philby and the Funtans, and the Parade Gardens - free for this event - for The Blues Others with a magical crescent moon above the floodlit abbey... a glorious way to end an extraordinary day.
Back to Frome, and the week began with a very pleasant Frome Poetry Cafe. It's always a delight to hear the diversity of readings from the floor, and our guest Matt Duggan treated us to the first UK reading from his new collection A Season in Another World. Matt is only just back from a US tour with readings in New York and Boston, so Frome probably did seem like another world... Next Poetry Cafe will be in the Festival, which we're already gearing up for, with brochures out now and booking beginning!

Over in the Round Tower this week there's an unusual exhibition by Si Griffiths, 'pop surrealist' paintings: vivid contemporary iconography probing cultural icons from all walks of life - political, religious, cultural, evoking references to movies, music, comic books, even theatre, in a striking display on the old mill walls. Adventures in Reality? is on till 26th May - do take a look and have a chat with this fascinating explorer-artist.

A bit more music, Frome-style, to finish: Roots Session at the Grain Bar had the fabulous Fos Brothers from Belfast, plus drums and bass, bringing banter and traditional songs presented in a mostly-non-traditional way. And the weekend offered just to too much to see it all,  even if you ran from the Vine Tree to the Cornerhouse as I did, pausing only to admire the Boyle Cross in the marketplace foaming again. Sorry I missed The ShakeSpearOs following (2 of) the ever-vibrant Raggedy Men, but glad to have caught most of Rebel Heroes - a nice irony in ending one session with No More Heroes and the other with Heroes... just for one day...