Monday, March 30, 2020

Redefining Solitude

Two pictures which define last week: sunshine glinting through the gloriously abundant mossy fronds on trees by the river in Vallis Vale, and Frome's community responding to lock-down status with window enhancement for the NHS support applause from doorways on Thursday evening. Frome's Window Art is part of the international #FromMyWindow online gallery.

As we all get used to this life of heightened screen-staring, it seems that never have so many connective opportunities been offered by - well, so many, actually. New groups are springing up like mushrooms and the internet is heaving with opportunities varying from pyramid posting of poems and sharing images of art to participating in yoga sessions and downloading classic productions at the National Theatre, and much more. You've probably already found enough to make you wonder how you ever had time to do the any of the stuff now prohibited, but here's a few more ideas to mull, mostly word-related.
•  Rediscover 'Morning Pages'. If your eureka moments are sticking, get hold of a copy The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, at one time the bible (or possibly Quaran) of every writer. The theory is that in order to find/recover/release your creative flow, you must write freely for ten minutes each morning,  even if - especially if - you feel you have nothing to say. The free-flow of exasperation is just as effective as lyricism or even coherence. It works: not by magic but for two logical reasons: it establishes self-expression as a prioritised habit, and more importantly, it downgrades the importance of the self-critic thus allowing free flow of ideas and feelings. (And you can tidy it up as a blog from time to time! )
•  Keep a Plague Journal. You can call it something else, but it's about taking time to express & explore your feelings, to celebrate your epiphanies, acknowledge your anxieties, and generally to grasp the pattern of your moods. Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo brilliantly explains and illustrates the power of therapeutic writing. She took the view that "Writing about difficulties enables us to understand that our greatest shocks do not separate us from humankind. Through expressing ourselves we establish our connectedness with others and the world."  
Frome Poetry Cafe page offers you a space to post your own original work in a virtual 'open mic'. Your poems don't have to be on any specific theme, but our April theme of Revenge or Redemption seems appropriate...
• And of course there's Zoom. Bath writer Clare Reddaway, who devised Story Friday and runs the very successful writing events and workshops, is running her spring series of sessions this way.
The first Zoom meeting for the weekly writers' group I usually join in real-time was on Thursday and we spent most of our time grappling with logistics. I'd stuck tape over my camera years ago, such is my aversion to face-calling, but I've scraped that off now. O Brave New World.

And to finish, a new feature:
This Week's Little-known Character launches with H G Matthews, philosopher, raconteur, and critic.
Enid Blyton celebrated post-war all-girls schools as fun places of learning but that was not my experience and my lasting education came entirely from an erudite, melancholy, misogynistic, writer-manque of extreme and irrational prejudices: my father. He read to me nightly from early childhood from the books in his own library: Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Yeats, Auden, Eliot, Larkin, Keats... he took me with him to watch plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Synge - even Osborne and Brecht. He taught me that language is the highest of the arts, above even music, and that no time spent absorbing it from written or spoken word is ever wasted. I'm not saying he was totally correct in this, and certainly some of his views would be extremely unpopular today - in fact even as a child I would argue with him, using skills of logical analysis he'd taught me, which he found very annoying. He was out of step with everyone, proud of his prejudices, clever, sad, and kind. Anyway, to conclude this week here's a selection of Things My Father Said, which I hope you don't find depressing - I heard them all daily yet emerged as an optimist - extracted from a booklet I compiled years ago and rediscovered while clearing my study for its new windows (installation of which is of course another victim of the present situation...) He looks in this photo - apart from the smile, which unlike the bow tie is unusual attire although he had a good line in sardonic mirth - just as I remember him.
"There is nothing new under the sun."
"All politicians are either knaves or fools"
"Malthus was much misunderstood"
"We are not here to enjoy ourselves. We have to share this universe with a multitude of other species whose interests are at variance with those of ourselves."
"Democracy is impossible"
"Sadness is a luxury"
"Life is nasty, brutish and short - if you're lucky."
"You can say what you like, if you know the language."

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Ghost Town Times

This arts blog could of course do what every other creative option - gigs, plays, art-exhibitions, social get-togethers, writers' meetings - has done and go dark,  but it isn't going to. Instead, it will opine and discuss stuff. Like: 
Social history in the Movies:  Misbehaviour was at Frome's Westway but luckily BBC2 also broadcast their version Miss World 1970 - Beauty Queens and Bedlam.  The Miss World, an annual contest to find which of 58 girls in demi-nudity Bob Hope would drool most lasciviously over, was watched by over 100 million viewers at its peak, and successful contestants had all been white, despite this not being the skin colour of the vast majority of the world's population. What was exciting about this contest was that it was unexpectedly won by black Miss Granada, with 2nd place going a contestant from South Africa - not Miss South Africa, who was white, but Africa South - a new name for an entrant who was not. Also exciting was the disruption of the contest by smoke bombs, water pistols and bags of flour hurled from the audience by a small posse of Women's Liberation protesters. Probably the movie is excellent, but what was particularly interesting in the TV documentary were the interviews with the actual women involved -not just survivors of that post-colonial past but fighting founders of a more equitable present.

Books - naturally. Even if you have piles of unread, & shelves of re-readable, titles, it's still a great chance to top up: here's Hunting Raven Books' dynamic manager Tina Gaisford-Waller, for whom no accolade could be too fulsome, whose emporium last week was officially rated Best Independent Bookshop in the entire Southwest of England.
This Aladdin's cavern of luxurious wordage is also doing home deliveries within two miles, & postal beyond - click the link. (You can get cheese from the market delivered too, along with other goodies! A pretty special place, our town - though the market offer is from Dan's Somerset Deli.)
Sadly, local author Andrew Ziminski's talk at Rook Lane about The Stonemason succumbed to the shut-down but the book continues to cause a stir in the review sections. Not only a fascinating account of his unique experience as a master craftsman, this history of Britain through its stone buildings has a stunningly atmospheric authorial voice: Andrew seems to feel about stone as some do about creatures, mourning that sarsen stones have been 'hunted to extinction', and finding Avebury 'a place to be felt rather than analysed.' I took my copy to Mells churchyard to enjoy a new relationship with stones I've often visited in tribute to Siegfried Sassoon who is buried there, while picnicing quietly on a Co-op meal-deal and perching on a low grave nearby.

Which moves us to Walks, and a reminder of the wonderful series of books about trees by Julian Hight, especially his latest: Britain's Ancient Forest, legacy and lore, which has its own (downloadable) soundtrack Coit Mawr. Frome is within the last patches of Selwood forest, and massively tree-conscious: Here's the one at the start of my walk out of town towards Longleat, with Cley Hill in the background, and also another of my favourites in Stourhead, the heart tree. Stourhead has sadly closed its 'elements' - the follies, temples, and grottos within the garden - but the wider space is still available from public footpaths.

Final recommendation in this somewhat-different cultural round-up: 'online' isn't just wiki and kindle and games, it's an endless source of diversion and information on an ongoing basis. You can sign up for a regular Poem of the Day with the Poetry Foundation, and there's also Brain Pickings, a weekly article on a random literary topic (often fascinating) and Good Reads, the online book club, which includes quotes from recommended books, such as for example The Plague, by that great existentialist writer Albert Camus:
“But what does it mean, the plague? It's life, that's all.” 
“They knew now that if there is one thing one can always yearn for, and sometimes attain, it is human love.”

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Time-slips in Bath and a blast of music in Frome

Bath city, noted for elegance and style, has an alternative history that began in mud with Bladud and his pigs in 863BC and continued in muck and dubious morality, and Natural Theatre Company has been exposing scurrilous tales from the long and frequently outrageous history of that not-always-fine city in their sell-out show at the Rondo. Dirty Bath is hilarious. Three delightful women performers with a vast array of costumes and wigs take audience participation to its limits, scouring the steeply raked auditorium to identify lovers, gang members, murderers and more, responding to the resultant unscripted contributions with inventive vigour,  coaxing startled audience members on stage to enact exchanges of unlikely historical exactitude and in one instance to model male genitalia in plasticine..
it's all bonkers, and very funny. We met lovely Eliza Linley, painted by Gainsborough, eloping with Sheridan, inspiring duals among her lovers. We met Chaucer's raunchy Wyfe of Bath,  Hugonot refugee Sally Lunn, the murdered Nymph of Avon Street (enacted by puppets), a bedhopping fake castrato, the absurd duelling suitors of courtesan Fanny Murray, and many more outrageous characters before notorious gangleader Carroty Kate hands out peaky blinders caps and newspaper boulders for a mass street fight finale to the show. Massive appreciation to Alison Campbell, Amy Vickers, and Florence Espeut-Nickless for their titillating tales, to Andy Burdon who directed, and to whoever created the gloriously glamorous costumes.

Roots Sessions at the Grain Bar this week featured a Frome-grown band: Back of the Bus, four feisty women singer-players with backing from three strong musicians, featuring mainly '80s covers - the great ones, like Hazel O'Connor's apocalyptic 'Eighth Day'.

And another fantastic night of music from The Raggedy Men, also a local band with massive talent and a big following, who rocked the Cornerhouse on Saturday with their iconic re-styled punk - with all the best angry classics, from Brixton's guns to burning Babylon and beyond - with awesome riffs and fantastic drumming.

This week's review-round-up of local events is thinner than usual, what with one thing & another - well, mainly one thing - so to bump up the medley here's a reading recommendation: This emerged originally through the Proof Pudding Club started by Tina Gaisford-Waller, enterprising manager of Frome's Hunting Raven book shop. The Future We Choose - Surviving the Climate Crisis by Christiana Figueres & Tom Rivett-Carnac may sound like it will be another gut-wrenching summary of the appalling state of the planet and initially it is, but it goes on to make a convincing case for hope. We actually have, in prototype or possibility, all the means to improve the global situation and survive - in fact to improve our species into a more caring one, with a sense of stewardship of the earth. It's really well explained and well argued, and brings a blast of hope to our blighted world.  Next week's top tip: The Plague, by Camus...

Monday, March 09, 2020

Past times in cabaret, slave-ship, and pit - with music, of course!

Victoria Art Gallery in Bath sometimes seems like the modest little sister to Holburne Museum with its big glassy café, grand garden, and costly ticketing. Sitting unobtrusively on a busy corner by the river, Victoria has a tea-machine, a tiny lobby, and reasonable prices, yet some of the most exciting touring shows have come there - the Grayson Perry tapestries, to name but one. Their current exhibition of Toulouse Lautrec posters and other art work from  fin de siècle bohemian life in Montmartre beautifully evokes an era & location at one time associated with wild decadence which now, with its sense of passionate living and romantic pastel-coloured posters, evokes mainly a longing for simpler times.   On till 26 May, well worth a trip.

A double-book night this week, as Pete 'the Temp' Bearder brought his stage presentation of the history of spoken word From Homer to Hip Hop to Frome's Merlin Theatre on Thursday: with projected images to support his solo narration, Pete showed how the bardic oral tradition linked generations and movements, from the first griots in Africa through to beat poets and the rappers of today, the language of story-telling, celebration and protest: "Poets are the gobshites of the tribe," he concluded, proudly. You can buy Stage Invasion, Pete's account of the oral poetry tradition, here.
Hunting Raven Books that evening overflowed with avid visitors to the launch of Andrew Ziminski's history of a different kind: The Stone Mason, a History of Building Britain is an archeological and personal story, already acclaimed as 'book of the year' by expert Francis Pryor. That's actually the celebratory cake in the photo but the book looks exactly like it - you can buy it online from Waterstones if you don't live near Frome.

Still with words, Frome Writers' Collective meeting this month at the Three Swans featured several members' current projects, all of which (apart from a charming children's tale of slime parties and pig wrestling) are historical, inspired by personal interest or family tales. The question that recurred in all (except for the slime & pigs one) was whether to present the research fictionalised. Opinions vary and, as Miss Jean Brodie said, 'for those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like'.

Socialist historian Dave Chapple, who gave a talk for the Frome Society for Local Study on Saturday, can be considered firmly in 'team authentic'. Dave's  meticulous research, well supported by his excellent handouts, gave a grim picture of the Social and Political History of the Somerset Coal Miners. Their long journey for fair treatment and equitable pay spanned strikes, riots, pit tragedies, and other struggles and Dave brought the story vividly to life with readings from miners' own tales, newspaper accounts, and even a replica 'gus & crook'. This was a tough rope and chain worn by boys as well as men to tug the putts of coal along the narrow seams, often dangerously slanted due to the geological formations of the mines. This outrageous device which caused bleeding and permanent scarring, as well as psychologically reducing them to beasts of burden, was deemed acceptable by the Home Office in a report as late as 1912. Here's Dave, demonstrating its size and weight.

Before we leave Somerset's mines entirely, my week ended with a long walk over the hilly area of Browne's Folly 'site of Special Scientific Interest' and nature reserve. Quarrying here was for Oolitic limestone from the Jurassic age, apparently providing stone for the façade of Buckingham Palace, and these relics are now maintained by cavers as they house roostings by the Greater Horseshoe Bat.
And now to music: we binged on singer-songwriters at the Grain Bar Roots session on Wednesday, with Sean Snook and lovely Holly supporting the Rob Lear Band - a double helping of original work played with energy and impact, and strong audience rapport.

Paul Kirtley's They Don't Scare Easy Tribe once again entertained Friday night's diners and drinkers at the George in Nunney with classic song covers, superbly performed to a hugely receptive crowd - Paul's sessions are always delivered party-style, with requests encouraged!
And on Saturday night, a fantastic performance from The Back Wood Redeemers in Frome's iconic 17th Century pub The Sun. It was difficult to imagine this high-energy septet fitting into the available space with their ever-theatrical mobility, but they did, and their set & sound was outstanding.

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Emma & Einstein, plus words and art, and both in windows.

Jane Austen films, while popular with fans of heaving bodices and grand vistas, are often disdained by serious Janites as reducing these wonderful social sagas to Mills & Boon romances. Frome's Westway is now showing the new version of Emma directed by Autumn de Wilde, and it's delightful. Purists might complain that our heroine and her ultimate partner (Johnny Flynn) find their feelings earlier than the author intended, and that he is younger, fierier, & better looking than Jane Austen's Knightly, but these changes - like others such as contracting the Jane/Frank romance in favour of a stronger role for Harriet (Mia Goth) - all worked well to create an entertaining movie which looked luscious throughout. I loved Bill Nighy as Emma’s father, Miranda Hart as the irritating neighbour, Amber Anderson as Jane Fairfax, and obviously the costumes and cinematography. It’s true there was none of the political and economic critique of that era which Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility achieved, but the troops of servants, from housemaids to stablemen, constantly jumping to anticipate their masters’ needs, established a strong sense of the infantile dependancy of this ostensibly ‘ruling class’. Here's Emma with her hypochondriac father, and Mr Knightly looking sultry. (Still showing this week.)
Moving on to art now, and on a town-size scale - right across the town in fact, as Window Wanderland 2020 began its weekend visit to the houses, shops, cafes and pubs of Frome: here's the team responsible, at the Black Swan launch with Emma Warren, and just one of the literally hundreds of beautifully illuminated displays - in shops, schools, pubs, cafes, and - most impressively - private dwellings where hours of careful creative toil must have gone into designing and crafting each creation. Fictional & fantasy characters from books and movies featured often, with lots of animals and birds, some with messages. There were scores of  'favourites' for me but this one (probably on Somerset Road but the miles of walking have blurred!) sums up the moving nature of the event - shared passions, charmingly presented. Congratulations Lisa for importing this brilliant event into Frome and Jo for creating the map so we could find them. There's a short video here, made by BBC Somerset, if you missed it all!
Art on a small scale continues, always: Boann Lambert's touching work inspired by her grandmother's shoes is at the WHY Gallery, with Abigail Reed's wild life images. Abigail works mainly in monochrome too and is known for massive bears and other animals, but also creates moths - this one, she says, is largely imagined, but it looks very lepidopteran.

Pip Utton, Frome's favourite one-man showman, took his latest persona Albert Einstein to Edinburgh last summer where it was favourably reviewed as an interesting and genial evocation of that great, though not always good, scientific genius. The geniality was welcome after the addition to Saturday's billed performance at the Merlin of a run-through of Papal behaviour as preparatory work for Pip's next show. Popes proved a a tough warm-up act, though Einstein was well-received. Looking like a scatty Professor Branestawn with white fright-wig, Pip's ability to interact compelling with a full-house audience is impressive: he shifts effortlessly from roguish humour to rueful confidences, and his simplifications of those famous mathematical equations are as impressive as his twinkling eyed charm and underlying sincerity. Imagination is more important than knowledge, he insists throughout: 'If you stop being curious, you start to die.' 

More words now, from local historian David Lassman, who launched his latest investigation into the fascinating past of our town, Frome At War 1939-45 with a short talk at Hunting Raven on Friday night. Frome lost only two residents and a tiny bit of Nunney Road to bombers -and that was accidental - so the main practical impact was the arrival of child evacuees, many of whom still retain a fond connection with the town. Another social consequence came from housing American troops as one of the government-designated 'alternative' towns: this meant black GIs could not socialise on the same night as their white colleagues, to avoid fights, though sadly it didn't prevent five racial murders in the town. All this and more, including conscientious objectors & a secret visit by Eisenhower, is revealed in David's book...

This was the last week for submissions to the Frome Festival brochure, involving me in a flurry of finalising details for the Poetry Cafe,  Nevertheless pub theatre night, and a book-based history walk with David Lassman.  Other submissions are in the pot too, including a response to BBC Radio Wiltshire's quest for 'Ten Tiny Plays' set in Wiltshire. A session on writing drama for radio at Warminster Library led by playwright Jamila Gavin was provided free to support writers submitting to this, and it was a privilege to join the Warminster Writers Group for this excellent workshop. We were all too busy writing for a photo, so let's move on now to music.

Reg Meuross, troubadour par excellence, returned to the Grain Bar Roots Session on Wednesday with songs of his travels both real and imagined. Reg is a superb raconteur and while his lyrics are droll and his tunes are charming too, the banter is undeniably a big part of our audience delight. A hugely enjoyable evening - maybe a live recording would be the way to go for sales...

Fabulous Pete Gage with his mega-talented guitar/bass/drum trio band at The Cornerhouse on Friday were, as  always, a total delight.  Among other scorching classics, they do the best version of St James Infirmary Blues you'll ever hear, with stunning solos from Paul Hartshorn, Richie Blake and Eddie John.  Extra seating enabled closer audience but didn't stop the dancing!

. This Sunday as first of the month had brought, along with birdsong and a sudden abundance of wild flowers along our verges, the Independent Market which fills the streets of Frome with stalls of tantalising goods.  Blue skies and sunshine ensured a great atmosphere, and great acts on the busking stage enhanced the benign mood.  They Don't Scare Easy Tribe, a variable line-up led by Paul Kirtley, were followed by duo MountainSpeaksFire: haunting cello from Helen Robertson combined with subtly passionate voice of Vin Callan make this duo unforgettable.

And another regular favourite of mine, Frome's awesome Back Wood Redeemers put on a brilliant show at the Three Horseshoes in Bradford on Avon on Sunday. It was even worth missing the rest of this first sunny afternoon of spring for these guys who, to quote no less a music critic than Charles Nevin, not only "bring forth to you songs of dark country, twisted blues and religious fervour" but "just as importantly, they’re also top fun." He's not wrong.