Sunday, September 30, 2018

A tale of two towers - then normal service resumes

Torre del Mar is a coastal resort in the Malaga province, which means the beach is basically a sandy strip between high-density resorts, but it was originally a Moorish fishing village and the town behind the long promenade is popular with the Spanish so although Brit is spoken, it doesn't predominate. The old castle was expanded and fortified in the 1730s as a direct response to the loss of Gibraltar: some of the old walls remain and although much has gone, there are definitely what the Bristol Old Vic team would call Ponderable Clues. Information at the site  is entirely in Spanish, and is compiled with plangent indignation, translating: In 1704,  Gibraltar was lost in an act of piracy by the English fleet while Spain was not at war with Great Britain, and became a base to continuously harass the coasts of Malaga... Everyone you'll meet nowadays of course is charming to the English - we're no longer the dominant nation who seized the rock, we have a more risible role on the political scene, and Nazi bombing less than 100 years ago seems even more outrageous - there's a mural of Picasso's famous protest painting on the sea front, in the silver-sandy tones of the strand. We were on the campsite, under plane trees and near the beach bars where you could watch the moonlight flickering on the sea as darkness spread and it was still warm...

Further down the coast in Gibraltar itself, there's another history: a tale of epic endeavour as years of conflict left the rock riddled with tunnels longer than the roads outside, and 14 sieges devastated the community - the final one, in 1740, lasting four years. This tale doesn't need translation- it's English, like the town streets and pubs named after our monarchs, admirals and politicians. The caves, however, were home for Neanderthal communities for 100,000 years - there's a great museum emphasising their important place in the history of the rock - and from 711 this was a key part of the Muslim empire here, named The Hill of Tariq after their leader. The old Moorish tower known as the Calahorra, half-way up the climbable part of the hill, was the largest in the area of Iberia controlled by Islam and for 800 years called Al-Andalus. This was a seige tower, a place of last resort in the many battles that followed - there's 'impact craters' on its sturdy walls that have been dated back to the Castilian attack of 1333. Life under siege for the British community during the 18th century would have supported Thomas Hobbes view of life as 'nasty, brutish, and short', in a camp where disease, starvation, and bad sanitation killed them off in hundreds every year. Military discipline was savage - the mother in the reconstruction may be upset not just by that cartload of grey corpses but because her husband is lashed to a frame awaiting flogging for missing a call of Who Goes There? as required every half minute by men on sentry duty.

Back home, Frome is doing a nice line in autumnal sunshine and Somerset Open Studios arts fortnight is nearly over - in fact the only studio I've visited is Clive Walley who is developing his impressive series of Birches in Mist... here's Clive with 109 and 110 as a  diptych. The turbulent, red-tinged, foreground to these ethereal trees adds a strange undefinable element that visitors have found powerful and disturbing.

Though I've missed much music, including marvellous Pete Gage at the Grain Bar, I did arrive home in time to hear the extraordinary voice of Lewis Clark at the Cornerhouse, not only sounding amazing on his own folk/blues but interpreting Amy Winehouse impressively too.
Saturday was also Bath Spa University MA Scriptwriting Showcase Festival, with an afternoon of 16 short scripts, showcased fully-produced for stage or screen. Rosie and I went along as all three young actors in our 2017 Nevertheless Pub Theatre festival drama - Time Slides -were involved in various productions. I usually prefer live drama, but the two films we saw impressed us more than the staged scripts: one was a clever & very funny parody of women's roles in the entertainment industry written & directed by Gabrielle Finnegan, the other the poignant & succinct story of a short-lived child-snatch by a feckless mother - look out for more from Isla Ure. Gabby, hope you don't mind I've nicked this picture of you filming from the Shorts and Tees website!

It's six years now since writer Kate McEwan had the unlikely-sounding idea of overcoming her procrastination by gathering a likeminded group around her to encourage each other to persevere.
'The Write Place' became their shared solution - a studio at The Black Swan where you reserve a desk space and then just get on with it, and the group has grown to around 200 members, all using the opportunity of a few hours away from home pressures or temptations plus the ethos of commitment to personal projects. And perhaps also unlikely, Sunday morning turned out to be a perfect time for a writer's party to celebrate with prosecco & cakes, and talk with writer friends familiar and new, and join Kate's toast to 'Procrastination, the tie that binds us.'

Monday, September 24, 2018

Arrivals, departures, and renovations

Zooming to Bristol right after a 17 hour journey home from a remote Greek island (via the dentist) probably wasn't the best way to bring appropriate focus to a theatrical production, but I didn't want to miss the sneak preview of newly- refurbished Bristol Old Vic before press night of Touching the Void, their current blockbuster which is collecting streams of stars from reviewers. I'll start with the tour. BOV's iconic frontage has been boarded up since work began so entry has been round the side, just off Welsh Back, through a temporary bar area. In future you will enjoy this lustrous reception area in a building so radically revamped as to be tagged REBORN in the screen presentation that met our awed group. Tom Morris, artistic director, and chief executive Emma Stedding talked us through the 252 years that had left BOV isolated from city life and in need of desperate measures to survive.
Or, as Tom put it 'Bristol Old Vic is the Stradivarius of theatres, but it had become a complete mess.' With an eye-watering £26m grant, architects Haworth Tomkins took on the brief of making the theatre contemporary & commercial while preserving and restoring all key historical features. Steve, the architect for this bit, explained the aim was to take away certainties and leave 'ponderable clues... we're taking existing fabric and making it more informal and accessible. That's what we all feel theatre should be about.'  So, with the theatre poised to renew its 'passionate love affair with the city' to quote Tom Morris again, on to the current show - which is also about taking drastic measures to survive. Touching the Void was a book & a film so anyone with an interest in real-life adventure probably knows the story: In 1985 Joe Simpson & Simon Yates decide to climb the west face of one of the most difficult peaks in the Peruvian Andes and both nearly lost their lives. Compounding the peril of their descent, Simpson fell and as he dangled over an abyss and his friend, realising he had no strength to pull him up, cut the rope between them to save himself. Yates survived, and extraordinarily so did Simpson, who wrote the best-selling book. This is another of those stories like A Monster Calls (probably the best show this year for me) which makes you initially wonder why it's being adapted for stage when it seems to require so much that only film effects or the internal imagination of reading can provide. Set, lighting, and music are all impressive, and so is the physical agility of Edward Hayter and Josh Williams as Simon and Joe - I liked Patrick McNamee too, as the dorky backpacker who helps them recount their tale to Simon's sister, whose angry bewilderment slowly succumbs to the lure of the rock.  David Greig who wrote this stage version - (I loved his play Midsummer so much I saw it twice) - makes the sister, played by Fiona Hampton, a leading character, which does sometimes divert attention from the extraordinary intensity of the men's experience though it's a useful device to explain things that, like her, we might not know about... the way in extremis the brain turns on the body, consuming muscle to feed itself, and personalities change, and inner voices become manifest. I thought there was too much sisterly intrusion and that it would all have packed more punch in one act, but I may be a lone voice here. Anyway, if you're stirred by thoughts of adventures beyond mortality, as was Shakespeare's Claudio, and also Peter Pan, this is the play to see. Director Tom Morris.

Now for something completely different. As a consequence of Frome Unzipped, I've been asked to help in a quest to find the house where Joni Mitchell wrote four of her songs. Muir MacKean uncovered this gem in Reckless Daughter, a biography of Joni by David Yaffe. Suggestions in an email please! If we find the place, a small celebration can be initiated, probably on a 7th of November which was her birthday - it would be great if the first could be this year, when she will be 75.

Art spot now: Cheese & Grain is currently hosting an exhibition of works submitted for the Green Art competition, judged by David Chandler, who chose Emma Tuck's series of which imagines the house-martin's migratory route to Africa, and this impression of wind turbines by Richard Whitehouse.
On a musical note again, an excellent Sunday session of Jazz at the Cornerhouse featured Martin Kolarides and the Graham Dent Trio. I intended also to go along to Magic Tractor's Granary session but my psyche was still in the radiance of Greece and couldn't face the ferocity of storm Ali, which Frome caught the rim of after it battered Ireland. I watched the trees whirling like dervishes and wondered why we personalise storms: apparently its because meteorologists believe it raises awareness of potential to damage. You'd think we'd notice winds of 100 mph tearing up streets and scattering road-repair barriers like a toddler in a tantrum, wouldn't you. Apparently the new storm is called Bronagh, and I hope she doesn't delay flights to Malaga from Bristol tonight... which is where I'm off, hopefully to grab one last week of sunshine and warmth, before winter enfolds us.  I'll be back, obviously, for Poetry Platter at the Merlin - don't forget to book in advance if you want the buffet, as well as the tasty show!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Flatpack community

Frome - as you probably know if you follow this blog - is famous for its independent council: visitors arrive literally from across the planet to interrogate the IiF (Independents for Frome) about how the town became engaged with the concept of local autonomy. Founding father Peter Macfadyen wrote a book about it - Flatpack Democracy - and the reason I'm talking about it now is because I've realised there's a huge connection between Frome and Skyros Holistic Holidays on the Greek island of Skyros. There too, they do things differently. There, as in Frome, there's a commitment to creating a sense of community. Frome has the structure of a town council whereas Atsitsa is a hut-village on the west coast of the island, home to temporary communities. Daytime activities include windsurfing, abseiling, yoga, singing, art, writing - which is why I go there (here's my fantastic morning group) - and impro drama, with evening activities like starry walks, dancing, pub quiz, and on the final night a glorious cabaret. It's all a mix of esoteric, creative, and plain wild. Food is terrific, accommodation isn't, and participants - often from high-powered jobs unused to latrine ablutions - come year after year, loving the ethos every time as each group creates its own identity: a precious community in which every individual is cared for and valued. Like Frome, Atsitsa's creates its community identity by attention to diverse individual needs and a lot of meetings. There's morning demos daily for the whole group, then œkos (small group sharing) and paired co-listening to go deeper... and there's interest group meetings which all come together on the last night in a cabaret so glorious you can hardly believe that five days ago these people were still trying to remember each others' names.
To illustrate that lovely Appollinaire quote, here's lovely Lilla who believe-it-or-not had never before danced suspended from a pine tree in a silk sling...
"Come to the edge," he said.

"We can't, we're afraid!" they responded.
"Come to the edge," he said.
"We can't, We will fall!" they responded.
"Come to the edge," he said.
And so they came.
And he pushed them.
And they flew.
But if our happy band sounds more like 1950s Butlins than a Greek idyll, there are in fact many options  to evade cabin-fever. You can walk down the pine road to Cook Nara where there's ambient music and wifi at the taverna and exquisite soft sand, shallow turquoise sea and loungers...and you can walk right across the island to the old town where tiny white houses - to hide from pirates - pile like sugar-lumps behind the massive rock. There you'll find cobbled streets so old and narrow that even the local taxis stop below the Plateia in the centre, music bars & shops staying open till late - that's because they take the longest siesta in the world and only reopen around 7pm - and the long sandy 'town beach'. Near the top of the rock, overlooking the cerulean-and-golden glamour of the bay, is the most amazing museum I've ever visited: the Manos Faltaits Museum has an extraordinary range of treasures and its gentle-voiced curator, who is also called Manos, can tell you fascinating facts about anything that takes your interest because he knows every item.  Here's pictures of our first glimpse of the town from the 9 mile walk, and Manos with some of the art works. (Thanks for the me-pix, Berny)
And now I'm home but still waking on the island, my mind finding it hard to grasp there will be no dash to yoga, no lavish breakfast on the trestle tables under the bougainvillea, no morning meetings...  no local wine at 2€ a brimming glass, no singing on the terrace and no more sunsets spilling across the Aegean sea...
But Frome has a way of re-asserting itself, as evidenced by a large sticker on the post at the corner of my road when I arrived :-)
And from another Greek island - Skiathos - a picture of Vicki Burke's holiday reading... (Thanks Mark Brookes!) I've had really great feedback on Frome Unzipped, and came home to this particularly lovely email from Bob Ashford, ex-Mayor & now Chair of Fair Frome: ...Absolutely brilliant. So much I had forgotten about and so much more I have remembered. Written with warmth, humour and passion and found myself smiling throughout. Genuinely the best account of Frome I have read and does justice to all those over the years who have made this such a great place to live. Good on you!
Makes it all worthwhile, doesn't it... 

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Postcard from Skyros

Regular readers will know that this primarily-Frome-focussed arts blog goes off, geographically speaking, annually to an island in the Aegean where Greek heroes hid, where Cretan pirates roamed, where the quintessentially English Rupert Brooke has his grave, and where now Skyros Holistic Holidays offers creative 'alternative' activities both in the main town and on the wild west coast, at Atsitsa Bay.
That's where I am at this moment, in a beach bar with wifi and exquisite soft-sandy beach and warm azure water, to which I shall shortly adjourn. I'm now midway between two sessions: here's last week's supergroup, posed in dappled light which unfortunately makes them look as though they're mid-way being beamed up to another planet, and my other awesome group, the 'Sunset Writers'... and here's our sunset view as we wrote. We did other things too: there's a wide range of options throughout day and evening - including aerial dance - and the food here is fantastic, all created by superchef Taki. And now these amazing groups have both gone, and new people have arrived, for another week of mornings immersed in creativity and afternoons immersed in water...

Avid Frome-followers keen to catch up on culture-goss, therefore, will find this post disappointing - I can tell you nothing about the Fat Boy Slim gig at  Cheese & Grain, which I would have give my eye-teeth to be at if I knew what these dentures are - though in compensation, here last week we had ecstatic dance, bopping in the bar, and a late-night hut-rave. And singing in the cabaret, and harmonising on the beach... The only home news I can add is that legendary music producer & singer/songwriter Ethan Jones shared his songs in the unlikely venue of Sagebury Cheese Deli the night before I left (next-door Raves from the Grave is so cram full of recordings in every format there's no room for a guitar to be unstrapped, never mind played to a rapt audience) and he was terrific. Leonardo's Bicycle at Three Swans afterwards gave us a fun tour through the 60s in song, and after that I know nothing.... I console myself with the extraordinary beauty of this island, the amazing people who come to Atsitsa, and the awesome, entertaining, sensational, & sometimes magical experiences it provides.