Monday, October 22, 2018

History, ecology, and music

A little over 200 years ago, Britain was at war with the French, then as we all know from school, Wellington beat Napoleon at Waterloo. He was given £750,000 thank-you from parliament at a time of massive poverty as grain was stored for profit by mill-owners despite bread shortage but most of us didn't learn that at school. The working classes also had no choice at all in government as 92% of the population had no vote at all, and anyway their allotted MPs had mostly never set foot in their own constituency. This was the background to the events in the true story of the massacre of unarmed men women and children gathered to listen to speeches in St Peter's Field in Manchester in 1819. 700 were severely injured and 18 slaughtered at what horrified newspaper reporters promptly dubbed Peterloo, and that's the title of Mike Leigh's latest film, in cinemas next month. The premier, followed by a Q&A session from Mike as part of the BFI film festival, was appropriately in Manchester: it was streamed live on Wednesday at selected cinemas one of which was Wells which is where I saw it. Critics have commented that some of the early dialogue is expositional (true, but how else would people understand why they were all hungry?) but the speeches are all authentically sourced: “When the powers in the hands of a number of persons whose interests are not that of the people, the destruction of our nation is inevitable and imminent” says young Radical Reformer John Baggerly.  Mike Leigh, in the Q&A also screened, was asked why he made this film. It’s soon going to be the bicentenary,  he replied, and many people still know nothing about what happened. "This is not a museum piece, it’s a visceral dramatisation, and I’m in the business of making films that ask questions. You don’t have to be very bright to see that it relates to things that are happening in our world now."

And it was that unassailable point which caused me to cancel my plans for Saturday (sorry, Common Salt) and book the early train to London, to join the other 700,000 - at least - people marching through the capital in support of democracy and a public vote not manipulated by lies deceit and fraudulent funding.

Historical contrast on Thursday at the newly refurbished Bristol Old Vic for a new production of Twelfth Night from the BOV company with Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh. The concept is delightful: Shakespeare's title invites music, mirth, & general revelry and his plot involves much dressing-up, so director Wils Wilson and designer Ana InĂ©s Jabares-Pita turned for inspiration to the psychedelia of the '60s & '70s and a set that would evoke the idea of ‘a never-ending bohemian country house party’.
What could possibly go wrong? For many of the audience, clearly nothing: there was huge applause for the parodic songs, some of which were brilliant (Malvolio's Rocky Horror moment for one) but others, possibly missing the bard's firm hand, noticeably left at the interval. There were some strong performances -  I'd sit through it all again for Dylan Read's Feste - but some pairings lacked chemistry. The conceit that roles were taken almost randomly by the carousing 'house party' is funny up to a point, but, as with the over-milked fake-letter scene, exaggerations around gender-switching weakened and confused the dramatic impact of Shakespeare's story. Images Mihaela Bodlovic
Back in Frome, a Tree Conference networking day to encourage the reforestation of planet Earth met at Merlin Theatre on Sunday, and even with solid sunshine on the spectacular displays of autumn foliage outside and Apple Day celebrations in the new Community Orchard, the event was totally sold out and the auditorium remained crammed with passionate dendrologists and tree-huggers. Founder & director Suzy Martineau introduced a series of expert speakers all with a passion to change society's view of trees as commodities to an understanding of their vital role in planetary survival. Dr Martin Bidartondo has been exploring the effects of pollution on our fragile ecosystem, understanding of which seems hardly to have changed since Leonardo da Vinci wrote We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot: he delivered his somewhat-sombre findings with dark sardonic humour. More hopeful was the case-study of a failing chemically-saturated farm now transformed successfully into an amazing habitat, repopulated by birds, butterflies, animals, and 'thorny scrub', essential to protect tender saplings and enhance the process of natural regeneration. Isabella Tree's book Wilding is a true story with an inspiring solution: 'we have to take our hands of the steering wheel and give the driving seat to Nature' - that's if the human-centric guidelines of 'wild life' campaigns allow...
Reconvening after al fresco buffet lunch created by Keren Hayden, we heard about the importance of imagination - no argument there - and met four delightful teenagers using theirs to encourage tree planting. They were asked to suggest one thing could make a difference.' Changing the education system would be a wonderful place to start' said smart Hannah. No argument there, either. We heard, with visuals, from Andy Egan and Tersa Gitonga about reforesting projects in Kenya and Europe, and Frome's tree champion Julian Height just had time to share some of his amazing experiences and  fabulous images as Peter Macfadyen brought the expertise of Frome to the forum.

Frome's pubs gave us the usual diversity of live music: a Celtic jam at the Three Swans with Trevorr Mills, the Mark Smallman Band stirring up a blue storm at the Cornerhouse on Saturday, and Graham Dent's jazz session with Peter Jones cooling the tempo there on Sunday.

Finally for this week: All About Frome is a monthly programme on Frome FM  focusing on volunteering work in the town and this week I was invited to talk about my book Frome Unzipped in terms of the community spirit strong throughout our history ( link here.) Thanks to programme makers Rupert Kirkham and Julia Welland, and  appreciation to Richard Ackroyd for cycling from Lands End to John o'Groats for Sustrans Missing Links and to Stephen Dale, coordinator for Dorothy House.

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