Saturday, January 27, 2018

The land we live on, the town we live in

When Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane came... a tale of treachery, murder, and scots ballet moves.
Multi-award-winning Mark Bruce Company is now fully established in Frome with a superb home here in a fully-fitted out dance studio, so we're privileged that their current opus Macbeth premiered here before its highly anticipated tour. Like their version of Dracula, and their Odyssey, this is powerful dramatic story-telling, the lack of voice increasingly irrelevant and paradoxically more powerful as the story unfolds. The dancers are amazing, the special effects are stunning, and the second act becomes a horror film nightmare of remorse, recrimination, & retribution: Shakespeare fans, this is the best Banquo's ghost scene you've ever seen.

The Land We Live In - The Land We Left Behind curated by Adam Sutherland is the newly-opened exhibition at Hauser &Wirth, an 'ambitious survey exploring the contradictory nature of society’s relationship to the rural telling the story of humanity’s evolving connection to the land, our perception of, and reliance upon it.' There's a huge range of evidential artefacts, from tiny woodblock prints to a wall-sized film of modern farming methods, pointing up every aspect from sentimental to sensual, from exploitative to indifferent, some exhibits puzzling & some deeply moving. Opening night fizzed  and this deserves a second visit for proper scrutiny - on till 7 May.

Land, coincidentally, is one of my current themes so I was fascinated by Angela France's semi-dramatised presentation of her new poetry collection The Hill: tales of Leckhampton Hill and the struggle of Gloucestershire people over a hundred years ago to save their footpath rights. The land wears time as a mantle, bending briars over paths, growing trees to fill a slope, change encoded in every seed and speck of earth.  Several other excellent poets too at Words & Ears, Dawn Gorman's always-excellent poetry night in Bradford on Avon, including Robert Walton and a fine open-mic.

And on Saturday, three Frome authors shared a presentation of their recent titles under the title Bookends of Time, all firmly rooted in locality and soil: Julian Hight explained how the land around here was all part of Selwood Forest, Annette Burkitt talking about the deep history of this area, and Carolyn Griffiths telling the fascinating story of woad in local cloth industry. Flesh & Bones by Annette is a fiction set in the pre-Roman kingdom of Dumnonia, and Carolyn has written a scrupulously-researched account entitled WOAD TO THIS - a traditional instruction to the dyer. Residents of the Blue House knitted this cloak in varying shades of woad-indigo which apparently has the property of losing visibility when mist descends, which enemies must have found disconcerting. I faded my shot to test the theory, and these blues definitely disappear more than other tones. (Makes you wonder why so many cars are silver...)

Currently I'm still in full-on project mode so again this post will barely skim the surface of  the last two weeks in Frome. But there's been too much music to ignore all, and though I've missed jazz & blues (& also King Sporks who promised 'hand-crafted artisanal funk, seditious jazz and ungentrified reggae in an outrageous night of original live music' at the Griffin), here are the events I just could not pass up: the totally brilliant Raggedy Men at the Grain Bar ~ new boys on the music block shaking up the scene with extraordinary vigour ~ also the even newer Borrowed Light, who shared their exquisite traditional songs and melodies at the Three Swans. and a Sofar Sounds Frome session ~ three excellent guests, introduced by the man who, with Anna Dina  and Beth Monk, brought the concept to Frome: singer-songwriter, town councillor & general rep for creativity, Al O'Kane.  Sofar is an excitingly quirky concept which transports anyone of my generation back to those magical '70s days of wandering night streets looking for a party you knew must be somewhere, following the people who had a bottle in hand because they must know, and always ending up somewhere with great live music playing... it's a lot more organised these days of course, but there's still a sense of secrecy and passion for music and a great buzz ~ and Frome is the only town in the southwest to have joined this international initiative. And I can't miss a mention of the rock & blues jam session at 23 Bath Street since (it was research, honest) I somehow ended up on stage with Elaine Pugsley knocking on heaven's door with the jammers.... thanks David Goodman for snatching my camera from the bar and grabbing some shots of this unlikely occurrence.

Final footnote: it did look published but it wasn't properly (because self-publishing on Kindle is not as easy as it looks, folks!) my second novel with Hodder & Stoughton Sleeping in Sand now an e-book, thanks to David Goodman who not only created the cover but tidied up the text within. It will cost you 99p to verify this, but you can't get a coffee anywhere for under 2 quid these days - go on, spoil yourself! 

Monday, January 15, 2018

shows, faces, words, wildlife, and a dilemma for Frome

Black Swan Arts current exhibition is Face to Face, paintings and drawings by Oliver Bedeman, which has been widely enjoyed. I loved every piece ~ tenderness without sentimentality, life-style insights without ever seeming clichéd. Most of the titles reference song lyrics but the pictures aren't labelled so when you look in the catalogue your first impression becomes illuminated and extended. The boy with gun is a Southern Man, wondering maybe how long, how long...  the young man on the train is a Nature Boy, travelling very far, very far to learn the truth about love...
Another excellent writing workshop from Louise Green for the growing group participating in Words at the Black Swan brought extra dimension to our responses by inviting us to write pieces that explore these resonances. Here's mine:
Urban Scrawl
I see you face to face in this abandoned site, your trail 
of challenges in skull-white smiles and broken glassy eyes
your watchful burning tower blocks tagged with flourish of defiance
your celebration of dystopia, private army of grotesques;
fantastic fiendish friends, their cacophony of questions
unanswered in the silence of stubborn Saxonvale.
As a footnote, Black Swan Arts complex is currently being unified which hopefully will be good news for visitors of this vibrant resource. The assurance is that jobs are safe and in future "The cafe will be at the heart of everything we do."

First meeting of the year for Frome Writers Collective, held as always at Three Swans, featured an excellent talk by Peter Clark on the value and practice of writing a regular diary.  Peter has travelled all over the world with on British Council business and literary missions but he's far more disciplined than me and confines himself to 300-400 words a day: he reckons he's clocked in over six million words over the years, which will be material for quite a few books.  So far his Damascus Diaries and his Emirates Diaries have both been published. His talk was entertaining as well as informative: Peter refers to his raw diary as 'a blend of malice, self-pity and narcissism' and confesses the final books, while extensively edited, are still 'indiscreet.' Witty reminiscence and top tips for writers, another excellent FWC evening.

De Hepe's splendid emporium on Bath Street ~  in the local news last year for responding to aesthetic trolling by putting it in the window for the entertainment of passers-by ~ is owned as you would expect by a genial & flamboyant individual. Robin Cowley isn't naturally a small-town dweller, but he's as passionate about Frome as, well, as I am. His current concern is a very real issue, and after we talked I suggested that this blog might be a small start to wider awareness, and Robin agreed. This is his point: When Frome was down on its uppers it was individuals taking the challenge offered on Catherine Hill that provided the impetus for the change we needed. And now that that’s all come to fruition, other people are taking advantage of it by raising rents, and actually it’s penalising the very people that did the planting of the seeds in the first place. And I think that the landlords have a responsibility. I don’t begrudge anybody taking advantage of the popularity and the rebirth of the town but we need to remember why Frome is popular now.  And it’s not because of massive input from multinationals or even the District Council, so we need to remember our roots.
A serious point, which the council as well as anxious tenants will realise: combine this with rising house prices which will drive out many of the next generation ~ even if they'd intended to work in a family business that won't otherwise survive ~ Frome in the future may no longer be a popular hive of small independents and idiocyncratic self-confident style. Well, it's happened before... I refer you to Cobbett in his Rural Rambles nearly 200 years ago, on a return visit to Frome which he'd last seen when it was busy and affluent, finding destitution among the cloth workers: "Yes, these men have ground down into powder those who were earning them their fortunes: let the grinders themselves now be ground, and, according to the usual wise and just course of Providence, let them be crushed by the system which they have delighted in..."

After missing press night due to December's lurgie, I finally caught up with Beauty and the Beast at Tobacco Factory too late to recommend it, though it'll be in my column for Plays International, because it's now sold out until the end of the run. And so it should be. This delightful co-production with N.I.E directed by Alex Byrne represents the triumph of simplicity over flamboyance, with a cast of six talented actor-musicians and no gimmicks, just the magic of storytelling and song creating a fairytale drama to satisfy all ages. With only a flutter of leaves and occasional props, the scene shifts back and forth from castle to forest hovel (le gîte terrible, as we are in France) where newly impoverished merchant Maurice is attempting to relocate his horrendous twins, aided by beautiful Isabella, non-avaricious misfit of the trio. Most of the comedy is inventively created by the appalling sisters, played by Samantha Sutherland and Elliot Davis, who can't grasp the concept of 'poor' - they can't pronounce it actually, rhyming it with 'Mwah!' which is the sort of sound they're more used to.
Roles follow the fairytale mostly, but this is a feisty Beauty who chooses to confront the Beast herself. Act 2 abandons tradition too, following (with much audience consultation) the besotted Beast's attempts at wooing, on top of a table in Mad Hatter chaos of chocolate mousse, terrible jokes, and wild dancing. It's all going quite well until Beauty realises Maurice is ill and dashes home for a dad-snatch in a wheel-barrow. The ending is a mix of classic and original too, with a touching moment of transformative love, but also a kind of Thelma-and-Louise-gone-very-wrong finale for the wicked sisters.  So I'm sorry you've misssed it, all I can say is, look out for the next NIE production, and for anything anywhere where Elliot Davis is performing. Especially in a frock. And look out too for other developments at Tobacco Factory Theatres.

From devised to revived:
I've been a massive fan of Stephen Mangan since The Hunt for Tony Blair, avidly watching every episode of Episodes and, as a writer for stage, I'm obviously in awe of Harold Pinter, so when I saw The Birthday Party was celebrating its own 60th birthday at the actual Harold Pinter Theatre, I promptly booked. I like my Pinter plain: I fretted over BOV's explosive version of The Caretaker last year, and was quite happy there were no distractions from the dense perplexity of Pinter's belief that 'the more acute the experience, the less articulate its expression.' We're not really supposed to understand, the programme explains, any more than we really understand life.
The story starts like a sit-com in the boarding house of a stoic husband and his dim ditzy wife ~ Peter Wight and Zoë Wannamaker excellent in these roles ~ which has only one resident: Stanley, who might or might not have been a pianist, but he's not doing anything now, until two men arrive, who might or might not be Dumb-Waiter-style thugs, and the mood changes to menace. Stephen Mangan is electric in the role of dominant Goldberg, with good support from Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as McCann. They arrange an unwanted party for Stanley ("This isn't my birthday!"). Strange and sad things happen. Stanley might or might not know why, and as audience we are left with our own assumptions. I didn't think Toby Jones was quite compelling enough in the role of enigmatic victim, but that might come from direction. With a big stage it's hard to create tension as you don't get a real sense of menace when everyone's spaced out, and perhaps Ian Rickson aimed to keep that feeling of nearly normal life, just a bit weirdly messed up.  He did that well. I don't think I'll ever forget Goldberg's quiet, babylike, request Blow in my mouth....

And now for something completely different: a walk round Rodden Nature Reserve on Sunday morning, with about sixty other enthusiasts, organised by the Mendip branch of Somerset Wildlife Trust and led by Eve Tigwell, who pitched it perfectly for our motley crew, some experienced bird-spotters, bat-supporters and otter-counters, some tabula rasa like the toddler who toddled enthusiastically ahead, and some in the middle like me, enthralled by Frome's very own nature reserve. With hundreds of wildlife residents and thousands of visitors, this is a real gem and it's right outside Asda so you can just park and stride! but you only have two weeks before the breeding season means a lengthy closure till the autumn.
Back to work now, it's been fun sharing. As Blaise Pascal said, I would like to have written it shorter but I didn't have the time.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Begin again

A short medley this week, and future blogs will be sparse for a while as researching my current project is taking about 23 hours a day.  'Research' is the grand name for a labyrinthine process, as googling leads me instantly into a web of fascinating irrelevances. Chat sites especially are glitterballs of distraction, as when I somehow landed, while searching for something entirely different, on an old mumsnet thread about choosing books which included the comment "There is a writer called Crysse Morrison, one of whose books looks quite interesting and whose articles I have seen in magazines. But I won't read her book because she spells her name such a daft way."  'Unquiet Dad' sounds delightfully like my father, who would never read anything by a woman or an American.
So here we are in a new year, looking in Frome today pretty similar to the one we just kicked out. Short sunny days, good company and great music - here's an afternoon jam in the Three Swans with a mash-up of bands plus various acoustic instrumentalists and a bit of electric too.

And here's a powerfully evocative new figure created by Marian Bruce, who gave me permission to share. This one is unnamed, but her other figures represent consequence and this one also resonates a sense of human suffering. Marian says people find her art 'hard', but viewers struggled with Guernica too: Picasso said the purpose of art is not please, it is rather to bristle with razorblades.

We live in a world that dreams of ending, says Brendan Kennelly in Beginhis sublime celebration of mundanity, yet something that will not acknowledge conclusion insists that we forever begin.  I usually quote that poem in full to end the year but for a change here's a little ditty inspired by research: another distraction that won't make the final cut, but it seems appropriate now I'm going dark, as the theatre folk say:
The coffin path passed through the pub
and as each corpse's journey paused,
pall-bearers & grievers shared a round 
before proceeding to the waiting grave. 
This cadaverous custom must
have comforted mourners as dust returned to dust, 
and probably enlivened the funerals no end.
That's it from me, now a new year is out of the box let's see if we can keep it nice this time.