Sunday, December 05, 2021

It starts earlier each year... a blogful of festive goodies...

Even in a week crammed with sparkly-season specials, Wednesday evening at Bar Lotte is always a highlight: this week the fabulous Rosco Shakes gave us jazzy blues with great bass from Josh, Ned's amazing drum/vocals combo, Tim sensational on keyboard and Steve on 'sax that gets you eating your knuckles', to quote my companion... unsurprisingly there was dancing before the evening was over. 
And live music ushered in a weekend of festive art markets - here's The Decades at Black Swan Arts' brilliant Makers Market on Friday night, with masses of brilliant craft stalls & a late night cafe too. 
How nice to have a funky festive market crammed with works by local artists, you may think - but this is Frome: in the same weekend we also enjoyed an amazing art fair at the Silk Mill, Midwinter Joyant in Keyford, a Christmas Gift Market at the Cheese & Grain, and a Makers Market in Lower Keyford with mulled wine under tiny glittering lights... and then it was Sunday, time for our nationally acclaimed Frome Independent - market, that is - selling absolutely everything edible, drinkable, wearable, displayable, and above all giveable... if you didn't solve all your present problems there then either you weren't trying or you found too much you wanted to keep yourself.
As there were far too many intriguing & beautiful items to decide which images to include here, this pic is from outside Hunting Raven Books, where Julian Hight was selling his fantastic books of trees around the world.  Which also leads me nicely on to the most unusual book launch I've ever attended: Frome legend Tony Bennett (we gave a lot of local legends, you may have noticed) selling his illustrated life story at the Sun Inn, with queues extending outside the door to grab a signed copy of life as fully lived by this truly iconic Fromie - notorious as an award-winning florist as well as for leaping from a blazing bedroom after a bedtime cigarette set his house on fire. Here's Tony signing my copy of He Can When He Will - and he remembered my name. Now that IS fame.

And speaking of Frome's quirky creatives, we also have our own festive Dismaland-alike: Santa's Grotty, the inspired creation of artist and political satirist Kate Talbot, a grim experience of phoney good cheer amid dangling covid microbes, which is entered via Kate's notorious shop Hung Drawn Quoted.  Here's a glimpse of one of the exhibits, though sadly I'm not allowed to give away any of the outrageous lifesize caricatures...  The £5 entry price goes to Fair Frome.
Still with a festive focus, but more cheery and moving out of town now:   
I've been a devotee (which is the posh word for besotted fan) of Stephen Mangan since Episodes, in my view one of the cleverest TV comedy series ever - and he's now taking the lead role in A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic so, since the window for safe travel before winter may soon narrow, this week seemed a good opportunity to scoot up to London and see it.  I haven't visited this venue since leaving London in my late teens - previously I went regularly with my father, dramatic critic HG Matthews, or else on my own, paying 2/- 'on spec' at the door for any seat still available - so it wasn't surprising to find the theatre much changed. Matthew Warchus, the current artistic director, has aimed for an atmosphere audiences will find "accessible, inclusive, and informal", which turns out to mean with friendly attentive staff, lots of loos, and - for this production anyway - a free mincepie on arrival. 
The performance area of my memory,  where I watched a young Judy Dench throwing a tantrum in Franco Zefferelli's unforgettable production of Romeo & Juliet, is now part of the auditorium, and actors used a kind of central corridor between the aisles to perform their high-energy, immersive version of Charles Dickens' tale of a skinflint visited by 'ghosts' that bring remorse and radical life change. 
A Christmas Carol has become as deeply identified with seasonal celebrations as carols themselves - there are 12 in this show - and this is the fifth winter that the Vic has featured this production.  Programme notes identify 'rage, determination and a fiery compassion' as Dickens' motivations, and these would have been inspired in part by his own painful childhood. This Scrooge is never too afraid of the ghosts to argue, but he is moved to tears by his memories. The nightmare aspects of the tale are vivid, but it's a feel-good show too, with a running thread of love and the possibility of new hope,
enhanced by the hundreds of tiny lanterns dangling above the storytelling, and the visual surprises.

Ending with exciting news - for me, anyway, and for my erstwhile 'Live & Lippy' performance-poetry partner Hazel Stewart, now living in Cumbria. We revived our lyrical connection during lockdown via zoom, and put together a package of old & new pieces which, to our delight, has now been taken by Caldew Press - here's editor Phil Hewitson zoom-chatting about options, and showing us his upcoming publication of John Hegley's poems about Keats.  So, in this illustrious company, our double-album-on-page of performance poetry pieces What's it Like for You? and Dance for Those Who'd Rather Not will be out early next year! 

Sunday, November 28, 2021

A week of dazzling night-lights & sizzling performance

Storm Arwen (the Welsh name means 'fair' which seems  ironic) gave an early fluttering here on Friday causing cancellation of the 'Little Night Market' which should have launched Frome town festive celebrations but the Lantern Procession went ahead, to the excitement of the huge crowd watching Jamma de Sa
mba lead hundreds of lantern bearers down the hill to the town centre where mayor Andy did the tree-lights-switch-on. This parade is really something: Frome artists Mel Day and Alice Vaas for the last five years have been leading workshops for anyone wanting to join in, providing willow wands and  tissues as well as instruction, and results this year were especially stunning, with magical moonflowers and other clever constructions like owls, and a dazzling green frog.
Still in Frome next night, this time with two Olympians of poetry, Liv Torc and Elvis McGonagall.  Fromie Liv features often in this blog; Elvis has performed in Frome in the past, but my role as Spoken Word Co-ordinator at the theatre was on plague-pause until we heard he was booked for a southwest tour - although ironically the other venues weren't able to deliver so Frome was the sole beneficiary - all of which moithering leads to the happy outcome that on Saturday a big & beaming audience in the Merlin Theatre was brilliantly entertained by an award-winning shouty Scottish poet, with a local legend as support act - honestly, you couldn't want a better night than that could you.
Liv established massive rapport from the start and delivered a mix of very personal poems and powerful eco-poetry: as one of the Hot Poets, she delivered her remarkable poem When You Know The Water's Coming at COP26 and her terrific collection The Human Emergency is available from Burning Eye.  
Elvis has published a new collection with Burning Eye too: that link in this case takes you to Complete and Utter Cult, which contains many of the vehement & hilarious political diatribes with which he entertained his audience: you'll find his exasperated satire on emotive reporting Gimme Some Truthiness, his savagely funny 'trip through the sunny uplands of British exceptionalism' What a State and - my favourite -The Immigration Alphabet, in which “P is for Priti Patel, turning back boats like a psychotic King Canute.”  Both these poets have big personalities and amazing delivery, so it's unsurprising there were queues after the show to buy signed copies - at under a tenner, both books should be on your Christmas lists both to give & receive!

So now we've acknowledged that the C word will have to be uttered quite a few times before this time next month,  it's panto time:
Little Women in Black,
 billed as 'a brand new darkly comic Christmas show from The Wardrobewas my choice for a festive drama this winter as I'm a big fan of this anarchic Bristol pub theatre. - it's so niche and locally popular that promotion is minimal, and this image is the only one available of their 'parody mashup' of Louisa May Alcott's tale of dull lives in 19th Century Massachusetts. This "anarchic, sexy, adult-only devised comedy with little women, big guns, scary aliens and a sweet 1990s soundtrack" presents the March sisters as you've never imagined them... Pretty Amy, a wannabe Britney with a passion for pink, is probably the most like her fictional inspiration; her sisters however are sassy sky-roaming galaxy guardians apart from massive Beth, who doubles as Laurie, and he's an alien, but a great singer.  It's all fast-moving and incredibly funny, and the audience rapport is phenomenal - you feel like you've crashed a private party at times, and the four actors - Jenny Smith, Tesni Kujore, Jessikah Wilson, and Tom Fletcher, are brilliant.  Directed by Julia Head, showing until 16th January. 

There's no getting away from the approaching rituals now that the tree lights are on in the centre of town and decorations dangle in all the shops. Frome FM's friendly On Air Book Group once again invited me and Tina Gaisford-Waller, manager of Hunting Raven Bookshop, to join them at the recording of their festive edition edition. Sheila Hedges and Karen Stewart focussed on fiction, I went for non-fiction* and poetry, and Tina  gave us a whistle-stop tour of her hot tips in every genre.  
Here's Karen, Tina, me and Sheila enjoying this delightful hour of chat, recorded by James Ellis and enhanced by mulled wine, mince pies, and general booky chatter: the show goes on air on 3rd Dec at 2pm, and the link will stay live for later listening.   (* apart, obviously, from commending my own collection of short stories, Déjà Lu - perfect stocking filler or small gift, available from Hobnob Press, Hunting Raven or me!) 
And also on Frome FM radio, Eleanor Talbot's ever-intriguing podcast Variations on a Theme  this week puts a focus on fashion.  As always, the playlist is wildly eclectic and the scope is entertainingly broad, ranging from Bowie and Dylan to Madness and The Irish Rovers: we learn the history of the top hat, or 'beaver', and of the kilt, and various fads & extreme styles of apparel, and I'm using this as an excuse to post a picture of Aiden Turner in a pre-Raphaelite style waistcoat.

Still with audial entertainment this week, but a shift of mood back to climatic and ecological concerns: Last Friday's art openings caused me to miss the viewing at the Town Hall of Rivercide,  George Mombiot's film about our river crisis, but you can hear about this - and other crucial situations, on Frome FM here 
Annabelle Macfadyen was one of the protesting 'Blackbirds' at COP26: interviewed by Rupert Kirkham about her rationale, she explains  "The blackbirds in Druidic mythology stand at the gateway between the world of concrete reality and the dream world, the unconscious, and if we can open up to the possibility...  the changes we need can be made.
This programme is well worth a full listen for the discussion, and for Al O'Kane's performing two of my absolute favourites of his songs: Losing It and Animals.  Pic snatched from Frome FM's post, thanks.    (Oh, and the strange looking game is Prometheus, invented by Frome's Christopher Curtis and now a hot favourite as a Christmas gift.)

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Vibrant art & music as autumn starts to fade

It's been a vivid week for visuals: Frome's town centre, already a half-way to a Dickensian Christmas filmset with its cobbles and overhangs, is beginning to sparkle in anticipation of solstice celebrations, and a brilliant exhibition at Black Swan Round Tower gallery is reminding us how art makes a great gift... not just paintings here but wonderful ceramics and garments. Friday night's opening of Together Again, an exhibition by Old Bakery Artists was crammed with superb work, all very well displayed, and with many of the artists themselves present. Cleverly curated to show all the work to advantage despite the sometimes-tricky circular space, this was full of vivid colour and varied textures - Here's surrealist painter Caroline Walsh-Waring with some of her work, and a young visitor admiring the knitted fertility deities on display. 

Another opening on the same night at the WHY gallery displayed some of the immaculate and extraordinary engravings by Chris Pig, who I met outside discussing his work with some of his fans.  His exhibition, Fancy Goods, wasn't so easy to photograph in situ, but you can see one of these impressive works here - an immaculate and tender glimpse of a moment in time in a barbers' shop.

Music has been impactful too, with jazz, funk, and 'twisted blues and religious fervour' enlivening the gathering gloom of late November.  Rosco Shakes brought their upbeat jazz style to Bar Lotte on Wednesday, this time with a different line-up: Steve on sax, Josh on bass, Ned on drums and vocals and guitarist Paul who scan wing his guitar over his head and plays it on his back... whoever said jazz musicians are snobs?
And on Saturday, 23 Bath Street opened its stage for a fundraiser for Fair Frome, an independent community service providing support for the most vulnerable in our community, for whatever reason. This charity is based at the Town Hall and provides a wide range of vital services, especially in the winter.  Two popular local bands played live: Unit 4, a newish funk quartet fielding vocalist Mark with David on guitar, Danny on bass & Pat on drums.  The Back Wood Redeemers followed, with their six-piece band giving a theatrical performance of their of gospel/rock favourites. Dancing ensued, some of it on stage.

Finally: the changing colours of leaves seemed even more vibrant than usual this year but the strong winds brought masses of them down creating rich carpets on our pavements but stripping trees naked. It looked like maybe a little too late for my walk from Heavens Gate to Shearwater on Sunday, but by the lake the trees were still russet and gold: here's my favourite shot. 

Monday, November 15, 2021

Words and music - and more cake than usual

As this week's bulletin is mostly on a writerly theme, let's start with a blast of music: Saturday evening saw the much-anticipated return of Frome's hugely popular quartet, The Raggedy Men, playing at The Sun to an enthusiastic audience. The songs are all punk classics, but the skill and polish of the presentation isn't '70s-rough: these are all seriously good musicians and terrific  entertainers. The Guns of Brixton is still my favourite, but Andy, Bugsy, Pat & Carl make every song special.   

Now buckle up for a lot about writing. It's been five years since Frome Writers' Collective launched 'Silver Crow', a quality-control system to support self-publishing authors, so Friday night saw a birthday party at the Masonic Hall, with all FWC members invited.  This was a chance for authors to mingle, with a complementary drink, and show off their books, perhaps selling copies too. The sitting-down part began with a few words of encouragement from Mayor Andy, before Alison Clink, well-known in Frome for leading writing groups & classes in Frome, spoke of their benefits for writers.   
There are currently 18 books boasting the Silver Crow logo, and Nikki Coppleston, who launched her 'Jeff Lincoln' detective series in 2016 this way, talked about her experiences and her new novel The Promise of Salvation. Gill Harry shared the story and images of her engaging new book for children with an interest in history: Zoe and the Ancient Egypt Adventure - superbly self-illustrated. Here's Alison, soon to be published by John Chandler of Hobnob Press (on R) who has added several  Frome writers to his list, including poet David Thompson (on L). There are more pictures of this event on the FWC facebook website.

Writing continued the theme of my week on Saturday: Following my talk on writing short stories at the Library to a small but delightfully enthusiastic group, I headed for the upper rooms of the Black Swan, where The Write Place was hosting a tea-party, partly for self-promotion and partly for fun and mince pies with mulled wine. This popular project was the inspiration of Frome writer Kate McEwan, and has a big following now among writers who like to write in a quiet place but with a sense of surrounding support - sounds like the perfect combo. There are monthly one-day writing retreats which include a starter-session, too. The 'Chat Room' was full and very friendly - here's Kate (on the right) at the end of the event. Kate started her literary success in 1983 with an illustrated history of the south-west suburbs of London, and she reminisces entertainingly about initial struggles,  until Ealing Walkabout sold out its first print-run of 3500 and rushed to reprint 5000 more.

Proof Pudding Club night at River House nicely rounded off this wordy week: this group's role, devised by Tina the ever-inventive custodian of Hunting Raven Books, involves appraising the promotional proof copies of new titles, and eating cake. In the final roundup, Ai Weiwei's tale of 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows emerged as an absolute must-read - this isn't surprising: I still have disturbing memories of his exhibition in London six years ago filled with courageous criticisms of the Chinese government, highlighting their callous treatment of their people. The odd, jelly-baby, look of the book jacket almost, but not quite, evokes the collections of little faces released by campaigners attempting to stop human traffic of hundreds of thousands of children in China...  One to read, if you can.   

And while we're still on the subject of books...this was the week that should have seen a high profile party launch for Struck Off at the Silk Mill - another Hobnob title -but, sadly though wisely, author-host John Killah decided to cancel rather than cause Frome the anxiety of a large group gathering from other areas. His novel now has its own private window-party in Hunting Raven, ready to delight fiction readers who may wonder what goes on in the world of a successful trial lawyers... think insider knowledge plus satirical humour, this tale may do for the legal world what David Lodge did for academic life in the '80s.

So this week's verbosity ends with an apology to Walking Festival, and the '6x6' Art exhibition at the Silk Mill, both of which sadly were squeezed off my to-do list, and with a picture of dawn over the Cooperage estate.


Sunday, November 07, 2021

Spectrums and celebrations as we move into winter

A spectrum in terms of colour perception, 'blue-orange’ is also a psychological term for a kind of amorality most often found in alien fictions. Such characters are not exactly immoral, but their actions are random and not codified in socially normal ways.  A new production of Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall at Bath's Ustinov Studio revisits the dilemma facing two psychiatrists as they argue over a patient who may be one of these: Chris (Michael Balogun) claims to be a son of Idi Amin, and his main carer Bruce (Ralph Davis) thinks he should remain in psychiatric care, but Bruce's superior, Robert (Giles Terera) insists his detention was based on ethnic prejudice - the topic of his upcoming book, for which he needs another case study. Who is right?  The drama swings painfully between the arguments, and so does Chris. The only thing he seems sure of is that the inside of an orange is blue. Is he mad, or is the playwright evoking the surrealist perception of Paul Eluard that the world est bleue comme un orange?  
A stark, dark, set defined by strip lighting (designer Simon Kenny) holds the three volatile conflicting personalities, each fighting for acceptance of their own reality.  Previous productions have cast both carers as white so it's interesting that director James Dacre has gone another way, perhaps to encourage his audience to disconnect from any preconceptions - in which case, would it have been even more interesting to challenge perceptions even further by swapping roles after the interval? With or without such permutations, this 21-year-old 'best play' winner continues to raise questions about the use of incarceration in society, and whether labels are helpful, and who has the right to decide... much to ponder while waiting at Vino Vino for the last bus home. images: Marc Brenner 

Art now, and lots of it, starting with In Movement from Marian Bruce at the Gallery at the Station, where Thursday's opening was filled with fascinated viewers. Marian has long been widely respected for her representations of the plight of the oppressed and the dispossessed, but these vibrant images show a different aspect of her empathy: the passion and vigour of  Cuban dance, which she experienced while in Havana as the designer for Rooster, Chris Bruce's acclaimed production with Acosta Danza in 2018. The energy in these tiny figures and drawings is incredible - a highly recommended exhibition open Wednesday till Sunday until 27 November, late nights Friday and Saturday. 
The Whittox Gallery is hosting Somerset Printmakers in an exhibition which opened on Friday and has already proved popular: this group formed in 1998 to promote their passion and professionalism and showcase 'the best of printmaking' in the county. Using a range of techniques, eleven of the artists in this group are showing one-off unframed prints and cards for sale. Here's Gail Mason with one of her imagined landscapes, and the splendid gallery - a superb arena for art.
- and also in the in the list of don't-miss shows in Frome, the pandemic work of Frome Wessex photographers, Closing Down and Opening Up, first exhibited in Corsley (& reviewed by this blog in the October 24 posting) has now arrived at the Round Tower Gallery at Black Swan Arts. Intimate and moving, these images are really worth seeing.

Final exhibition piece for this posting is the Sinking House above the weir in Bath - a tourist attraction as well as a message to the leaders at COP26 and a warning to communities throughout the world.   

Words now, as another Frome author from the Hobnob Press stable prepares to launch their debut novel: John Killah, well known in Frome as an erstwhile 'legal bulldog', is now writing fiction and his first book is a biting tale about shenanigans in a lawyers office leading to a crazy chase to catch the culprits...  STRUCK OFF is a comic novel with many elements Frome inhabitants may feel they recognise in the setting, and a plot that is outrageous, clever, and totally gripping.                        
Here's me and John discussing his plans for an exciting launch on publication day - 9th November - now sadly struck off, so to speak, by the possibility of Covid closures, but you can read more about the story here.  Look out for the classy cover - you may see it in the posh paper reviews soon, too!

A musical fanfare to finish the week, as one of Frome's most popular bands took over the Cheese & Grain bar/cafe area on Saturday night. Back of the Bus is brilliant at creating a party atmosphere, and although the line-up was one short (condolences, Mary) their performance was hi-energy from start to finish, with costume melodrama for White Wedding and closing their set with the magnificent menace of Hazel O'Connor's Eighth Day...

And our first-Sunday-of-the-month Independent Market busking stage presented its usual range of talented performers: I'll leave you with Francis Hayden, plus Danny Shorten on bass, singing his brilliant though gruesome tale of The Carpenter Ant, with its ominous final line: "the one who runs the show may be the parasite..."  Horribly apt, as our chaotic year totters towards an infectious end.(You can find the full cordyceps history, and Frances' lyrics here.)

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Wild wuthering and other fantastic displays

FORGET WHAT YOU KNOW, the preview for Wuthering Heights at Bristol Old Vic urges, THIS IS NO PERIOD DRAMA, and director Emma Rice's version of Emily Brontë's gothic fantasy of passion revenge and redemption, enhanced with music, lighting, fights, dance and puppetry, is indeed no ordinary remake. It's spectacularly wonderful, especially in the first act - in fact you could practically leave in the interval: the recovery strand doesn't grip or intrigue as much as the dark themes of child abuse and Bristol's own connection with slave shipping. 
The storytelling follows the original version in that it's all narrated to Mr Lockwood who, after being blown in by spectacular stage effects and set upon by dogs, is curious to know why a ghostly woman comes screaming at his window. Some of the visual devices, like the birds flying past for every death, do effectively enhance the storytelling but the personification of the moor by various cast members with spiky headdresses as a kind of Greek chorus didn't for me create any real sense of its presence or significance. But overall this is an amazing achievement with a superb cast: Lucy McCormick plays a psychotically disturbed Cathy, and Ash Hunter is stoic as abused, vindictive, Heathliff - both with terrific singing voices. Also particularly engaging are Tama Phethean as both the young Earnshaws, Sam Archer as a lissom Linton and Katy Owen as his adorable little sister Isabella. 
This National Theatre, Wise Children, Bristol Old Vic & York Theatre Royal co-production is at BOV until Nov 6 and the last four performances will be streamed online book here - highly recommended. 
(The pic at the top is the end of the first act, as sneaked from my camera - the others are promo shots from the website.)

This has been a theatrical week in other ways too. 
Frome's blackbirds', previously featured on several TV channels and in the Guardian, are preparing for their protest at COP26 and toured the town on market day to raise awareness.  Their message is simple: if the conference doesn't succeed in changing policies, all birds will die and so will the rest of the life on earth.  We're lucky that our town council supports this message, as do many local groups which monitor our river and local wildlife and, encouraged by our Green councillors, take a practical role in cleaning our streets and general environment. So it probably won't surprise you that there was no town-sponsored firework display to mark Halloween: much better than that, we had a drone display over the old Showfield, watched by thousands. This was designed by Frome-based Celestial using a fleet of 256 drones to create glowing coloured images in the sky to a moving soundtrack of poems read by local children, the best civic event since Jenson Button scorched up and down the high street doing donuts in our 2013 festive celebrations. After sensationally reforming in various ooh-ahh images, the display concluded with a love-message to the town that none of us here will forget. And no dog-owners were enraged.

Moving on to less volatile, though also performance-related art now: and an up-coming exhibition at the Gallery at the Station currently in preparation. 
Artist Marian Bruce is know for her powerful figures, often life-size and embodying a sense of mute suffering. Currently, however, her Frome studio is full of the energy & skill of the dancers of Havana, as Marian prepares for In Movement at the Gallery at the Station - an exhibition of drawings & sculpture inspired by her collaboration with Acosta Danza in 2018. Marian was in Cuba as designer for Chris Bruce's production Rooster and became fascinated with the body postures of these flexible dancers. She showed me her initial sketch: "I was sitting in a bar on a warm night sipping a mojito, sea salt on the breeze and music all around, and I picked up a black biro and on the back of a novel I was reading, I drew these, each of them in one continuous line - that's the Zen influence." You can see the stunning result here and the exhibition will be opening next week.

A double helping of splendid music this week: in Bar Lotte on Wednesday evening it was the sensational combination of saxophonist Iain Ballamy joined by Anders Olinder (keyboard) and Henrik Jenson (double bass). All three of these performance giants are also composers, and a fair amount of creative improvising appeared happening throughout their set, which was hugely exciting. 
Also dimly lit - or actually in this case, erratically & with savage smoke-effects - was the mightily-anticipated return of the magnificent Back Wood Redeemers, hosted by The Cornerhouse on Saturday evening. All our favourites were there - Right Thing Wrong, Hold On, Chocolate Jesus, and other irreligious scurrilousness - with the redemptive line-up further enhanced by Sarah Hobbs on loan from the Hoodoos on double bass.  

With a definite feeling around that the window for shared activities may soon be closed, either by legislation or winter wariness, such events are treasure. Ellie and I snuck in another cocktail night on Monday but most connections are outdoors.  I'm constantly careful, using masks & frequent flow tests and opting for a 'safe' performance of Wuthering Heights instead of press night, but as we all know human contact is a vital aspect of maintaining health. Breakfast chat meetings and coffee catchups can all still be outdoors, and the writers of the 'Fromesbury Group' managed a meet-up after a long break, so I'll leave you with the selfie Debs took of her, me, Emily, and Debby at the Archangel. Other pub gardens are available!