Sunday, February 28, 2021

Glowing window art & a crammed miscellany celebrating waning winter

Things to do as February ends: Well, if you live in Frome, you could do what over 200 households have done and fill your windows with glowing imagery to create a Window Wanderland. This now-annual event has been extended an extra day, so if you're reading this on Monday you have time to check the map here and enjoy the exuberant artistry: ranging from stunningly beautifully crafted to joyfully expressive, many with profound messages of hope, these are all simply wonderful. Frome was an early and eager participant in this national project - it's ideally suited to our quirky town which has a life & logic often at odds with controlling authorities - viz the news last week of a man posting cash through letterboxes who when interviewed by the police turned out to be just a kind man. The Mail reported the story with a picture of a letterbox for further clarification.

Wandering backwards time-wise now, Tuesday 23rd was the 200th anniversary of the death in Rome of John Keats, attended by a doctor who daily bled the weakened poet (8 ounces at a time) and with Joseph Severn, the friend who had travelled with him on what both knew would be his final journey: consumption, and distress at the vitriolic reviews his 'cockney poetry' was receiving, were killing him. The dying poet and history both blame his critics, but Keats' 'imperturbable drivelling idiocy' is now held by many in the same regard as did Shelley, who had a copy of Keats poems in his pocket when he drowned. To mark the actual hour of the poet's death the British School at Rome premiered Lift Me Up I am Dying, an account of his final days by art historian Pelé Cox, compiled from extracts of letters and fragments of poems. The scrapbook approach makes this lively viewing and highlights the tragic irony that Keats' lucent imagery and sensuous story-telling was offensive to the public-school-educated publishing world. 

Moving from poetry to fiction: Bath's 'Story Friday' team A Word In Your Ear, led by highly successful fictionist & dramatist Clare Reddaway, has been looking at ways to continue bringing spoken word stories their followers. After a successful series of Youtube stories last year, Clare has again collaborated with Kilter Theatre to create Storyopathy - "Hand-crafted story therapy for when you feel like you’re losing the plot…"  I'm particularly pleased because one of the Storyopathic Remedies written by me: The Invisible Granny will be read by Olly Langdon on Thursday 25 March - you can book here, and it's just the one price for as many of you as can safely & legally fit round your laptop screen. 

Now for a Fromie miscellany, starting with The Last Lockdown haiflu collation from Liv Torc, reflecting the upward curve in mood as spring and hopes of future freedom stir. Andy Wrintmore in his new series of The Giant Pod talks with comedian Rich Wilson - and Andy also picks the playlist on Eleanor Talbot's latest edition of Variations on a Theme.  
Moving outdoors: Dress-Up Friday, initiated by the wonderful Rare Species Theatre Company, continues to inspire Fromies to strut their glad rags in the streets and shops of town - it's good to have something to mark the passing weeks tbhonest - and Frome Wildlife Watch brings daily reports of encouraging sightings: badgers, hares, kingfishers and otters around the town weir were recent specials, and the bird life is amazing. This is a red kite spotted just north of town and caught on camera for the webpage by Joe Paul Durrant. 
It's only a couple of weeks since lakes round here were frozen and after the thaw, acres of land became lakes, so it's great to see blue skies and a slowly returning equilibrium. Chris Packham's Self-Isolating Bird Club is another place to celebrate our national wild life,  with nearly 56,000 members posting delights daily. 

And finally: anyone interested in the struggles mentioned last week between Frome conservationists and developers avid to convert shared land into private profit, might like to look at this informative website Who Owns England?  Guy Shrubsole's book of the same name is a good companion to Nick Hayes' brilliant Book of Trespass - and I've also belatedly acquired Robert Macfarlane's Wild Places.  As the Ice Moon starts to wane, we can take heart that the year is mellowing and this time next month will be the start of summer time... 

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Non-contact Shakespeare, virtual sleuthing, and various walks

As the English Puritans discovered in 1642, you can close playhouses by law but you can't keep theatre down. We've seen the emergence of zoomed & streamed performances and now there's a filmed version of Romeo and Juliet available on a laptop near you. It's set in a the near future in a depleted world with all its traditional rivalries plus unused theatres intact - a kind of Mad Max II where the disaffiliated youngsters lounge about in red plush velvet auditoriums. Shakespeare's play is about passion and intimacy, giving producer Nick Evans a major problem in these pandemic times: the chosen solution is computer-generated imagery with cast members all filmed individually against green screens. Considering this is an early foray into a new form, it seems churlish to complain that the result lacks dramatic impact, but it does. The overall story-telling is laborious, with too much intrusive music and speeches slow and heavy as if lingering for translation. My main problem was my usual gripe about filmed productions being too selective - i.e. not showing the whole scene the way the playwright envisaged but going instead for a close-up of whoever is speaking.  This inevitable consequence of separate filming is a major problem since the plot hinges on intense sexual encounters and a deadly dual, plus a community in rowdy discord with two rival gangs running wild in the streets. This contextural tension was a major casualty in this production, and the Prince's solemn hope that these deaths would inspire societal control was barely audible under the finale music. Technical problems aside, this is well acted in the circumstances but insensitively directed and with unimpressive scenery & costumes (who wears a bra for their night of passion?)  Juliet (Emily Redpath) is lovely, but Romeo (Sam Tutty) while charming has a disconcerting resemblance to Joe Lycett.  Anyway I don’t want to put you off, have a go if you fancy it, for the fx at least - it's on till the end of the month.  

And now for something completely different: another zoomed dramatic gem from that clever young Sharp Teeth team with Bristol Old Vic this week as Murder on Ice challenged its audience to find the killer on a stricken Antarctic expedition where the leader has been found mysteriously murdered. 
Technically, this spoof show is superb in terms of organisation & timing, and the five-strong team of young actors are all quirkily brilliant. The concept is demanding for anyone who prefers the anonymity of a silent darkened auditorium since, apart from the characters' passionate protestations of innocence (& hints of others' culpability), much of the dialogue of the drama is up to the viewers to create via their impromptu interrogations until the big reveal at the end...  It's great fun, with all the essential essence of theatre. Hopefully this unexpected bonus of performance-in-lockdown will continue in some way after the buildings have reopened, maybe moderating the sacrosanctity of silence in the auditorium since the more interactive days of Shakespeare, when interjections from the pit provoked much of the wit. (I've posted this 2013 article before but it's still relevant.)

With the continuing rain, my walking has tended to be confined to the lanes around Frome: this field is surrounded by posters pleading for a halt to the massive commercial project that will convert it from an idyllic view to massive housing estate, probably annually battling with the consequences of building on a floodplain - you can read more about the project & the protest here.  Inappropriate invasions of our fragile ecological environment are still shadowing Frome's life:  Easthill Field has now been officially designated priority habitat requiring conservation action, and Frome Town Council are supporting their application for this land to be designated an asset of community value. Plans to build here are now halted but to ensure its future safety there's a petition to Mendip District Council you can sign here. And Save River Frome Pathway has successfully delayed a controversial planning application and temporarily at least saved this important final stretch into the town. Huge respect to all the committed Fromies who dedicate so much time and energy to protecting the town from loss of its treasures and inappropriate development.   
Here's a picture of local river walk threatened only by its own popularity and the rain: Vallis Vale. My Sunday afternoon walk took nearly three hours, and cleaning my boots took nearly as long, but the luminous green landscape of sculpted moss made it all worthwhile.

Regular readers will have noticed there's very little reference to televised shows in this chronicle, since presumably you all have your own favourite channels & programmes, but I can't let  It's a Sin leave our screens without note - if you're not sure why Russell T Davies' series about the 'gay plague' of the 1980's is an important contribution to a mostly-secret aspect of our own lifetimes, this article is a reminder.  
And on the subject of demonising,  a salutary tale from Northern Ireland: Human rights activist Mark Ashton, who died in 1987 of Aids, is scheduled for a memorial in his hometown of Portrush but the project has met Unionist Party protests that Mark - a catholic - was an IRA supporter. Considering he went to London to cofound a movement to support striking Welsh miners (featured in the film Pride) this seems a dubious claim but it suggests that the Brexit border issue has breathed life into old hostilities once again. See The Price of Breadmy novel set in Belfast in the 70s, for how it happened last time, and what followed last time. 

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Bumper bundle week - words, words, words. And some icicles.

Murder at the Circus on zoom is the concept of Sharp Teeth with Bristol's Wardrobe Theatre: a ‘Sherlock Holmes’-style intrigue with interaction developed to the point where audience contribution becomes the major part of the show. We were divided into zoom gallery groups to solve the crime, interviewing the five 'suspects', so the dialogue of the performance became primarily our own sleuthing debate. Part murder-mystery spoof, part parlour game, constructed with extreme technical ingenuity and a clever team of actors, there was enough essential theatricality in the production to tick all the boxes of dramatic entertainment. Here's one of the audience screens at the end of the show, with our murderously deceitful but entertainingly delightful cast along the top row.

This week the focus is mostly on words. Alison Clink, founder of the Frome Festival Short Story contest, joined Frome FM's regular weekly Writers on Radio to give sound advice for competition entrants, now online here, and the Frome Writers Collective monthly meeting devoted Thursday evening to the topic of diaries. This was a very successful session, well-organised and cram full of fascinating material, from historian David Lassman's on Pepys as a somewhat unreliable witness to the Great Fire of London in 1666 ("I thought it far enough off, so I went back to sleep") to the 2020 lockdown diary of John Payne, whose latest title A West Country Homecoming has earned review praise as 'a fascinating mix of local and national history.' 
Among other intriguing insights we heard about Peter Clark's life in Damascus, Sian Williams during the 1980s Greenwatch, and Jonny Griffiths at an East End school; Michael Riggs shared the pages of his illustrated diary, Nikki Copleston revealed how hers triggers ideas for fiction and Ann Phillips' journal, begun in 1972, was beautifully laced with Yeats poetry.  My pitch was recommending blogging for writers of every genre: to encourage a regular writing habit, provide practice in editing (free from the constraints of word-count) and even lead to wider publication - my chronicle of the life & times of Frome led to a commission and Frome Unzipped was born!  As examples of personal style, try Sally Gander's The Unwritable - her current post on apophenia is fascinating - and Maria Popover's award-winning Brainpickings.  

And still in Frome, our superhero bookshop manager Tina Waller is on Nub News talking about Hunting Raven Books - she does have a face, actually, but seems to like my snap of her taken in passing during her prep for the pre-Christmas rush. 

Two poetry events on zoom this week: Frome's fabulous Liv Torc joined Wolverhampton wonder Steve Pottinger for their Literary Festival Fringe on Saturday, sharing her personal story of the last year as well as talking about the sensational success of her HAIFLU project. Liv is always not only sparklingly glamorous, but also superbly well-prepped, and her twin themes of distress and success were movingly conveyed in screen shots illustrating her talk. 
Liv's succinct summary of her experience of 'some big things' last year included bereavement and serious illness as well as banana poems and inventing the project that National Poetry Day described as 'a spectacular collective act of poetry, photography, music and film involving more than 8,000 crowd-sourced haiku, more than 500 'citizen artists', 13 films and a newly-minted artform uniquely adapted to the nation's creative needs during pandemic: it's been featured on BBC 4's Today programme, in The Times, and continues to inspire hundreds of people to write poems.' 
She is still working on the project: you can submit words or images on her facebook page here. Two of the weekly chronicles of submitted moments were shown: I picked this moment because the image is mine but it's the collation, not the individual frame, that makes this such a stunningly successful art form. 

A few hours later there was another poetic triumph to celebrate as  Caleb Parkin, current Bristol City Poet, held a launch party to celebrate the publication by Tall Lighthouse of his new collection Wasted Rainbow. It's some years since Caleb & I performed an impro collaboration-poem about lipstick in Bath, and I wish the film of the outcome had survived but, like lipstick, these things roll out of one's life. It was great to hear Caleb's sensitive, sometimes surreal, words - there's a lovely example here - and his reading was supported by invited open mic-ers and guest poets, all strong voices: I particularly enjoyed Keith Jarrett & ordered his collection from Burning Eye (which I hope includes the poem concluding we have learned to build bridges, we have learned to cross those bridges even as they burn, we have learned to love...)

With temperatures lingering round 0°(and a 'feels like' dipping as low as -11° according to my app) after the weeks of rain, this week's local landscape view shows Nunney's Donkey Lane (much of which came home on my boots). 
The sunshine flickerings on our subzero town bring stirrings of hopefulness. I didn't write another novel during this lockdown but words haven't entirely shrivelled like my amaryllis bud: a new short story was taken by an anthology, another earned a prize in the FWC winter competition (shared 3rd actually, but a certificate & book token to show for it 😊) and I've enjoyed few 'commended's, including a poem in the Corsham swan-theme contest and some of the mini-contests in the King Lear Awards (in which bulletins incidentally Frome's David Thompson is frequently named and quoted.) And, excitingly, I'm back in collaboration with my poet friend Hazel Stewart, reviving our Live & Lippy collaboration via zoom.. It's a long time since Howard Vause collected some of our performance pieces for a DVD but a few are still on his page: here's Weird, and our signature piece: What's It Like For You?  We don't know yet where this will take us but it's good to be working together again.

So now that I've illustrated Pascal's precept that brevity takes more time than verbosity (plus also my point above on the irrelevance of word-count to a blogger) I'll end, appropriately for the date, with a   Valentine project created by Frome's Summer Harwood to support Child Poverty Action. She's already raised over £700 for her hand-crafted valentine cards! So that's the visual art spot for this week. 

Sunday, February 07, 2021

A good week for drama on screen & birdsong outside

Performance arts have been major victims of the ramifications of the past year, yet continue to respond with initiative and vigour. SHOOK by Samuel Bailey at Southwark Playhouse won the 2019 Papatango award for new writing and was set to transfer to the West End before the pandemic ended that option, but until the end of the month you can see this powerful piece of theatre online for a tenner here in a film of the show "dedicated to all the productions that never were."
Despite the grim institution setting, and the appallingly sad real-life glimpses, there's huge compassion and tenderness as well as humour and even hope in this story of three young men submitting to parenting skills education to while away their incarcerated days. Josh Finan as Cain and Ivan Oyik as Riyad are simply brilliant. Direction by George Turvey, with the effectively, depressingly, realistic set & costumes created by Jasmine Swan, SHOOK is definitely worth a tenner and 95 minutes of your life - highly recommended. 

Performance poet Rob Gee is one of the 'names' who has guested in Frome - he brought his first show Fruitcake to the Merlin for a Poetry Platter evening back in 2015. Undaunted by lockdown, Rob has devised another one-man show based on his combined of experiences of nursing and performing.  Death - A Romantic Comedy, staged at the Arthouse Southampton, was a zoom event, and though the story was on the Trainspotting spectrum in terms of anarchic behaviour, Rob's genial narration of a mortuary party prank that went pear-shaped and a lost-&-found second-hand pacemaker leading to terminal romance is a delight. Interspersed with these antics and in the same droll tone, Rob recalls the blasé stoicism of this older, war-surviving, generation: 'They'd faced death in their '40s and now they were just facing it again.'  Rob's narratives of deranged geriatrics is the sort of humour probably essential for a psychiatric nurse but it's not black, more a sort of Stygian sable, delighting in any eccentricity not actually fatal. And then those too. 

Still with performance, Artsreach, supported by Dorset Council, provides constant menu of options, the latest including Winter Warmers from the Inn Crowd - warm-hearted poems about pubs, online every Wednesday. This one's from East Anglia's Charley Geneve, it'll take you back to the better days. Here in Frome we're proud to claim haiku queen Liv Torc, still providing her fabulous HAIFLU film chronicles of the passing weeks - currently celebrating the one hundred thousand milestone, and featured in The Times as well as on BBC4 - I'm inappropriately pleased one of my photos made it into this.

Bob Marley's birthday was, or would have been, on Friday. Kevin Macdonald's iconic movie Marley, released in 2012, was premiered in Bath's Little Theatre - apparently a favourite venue of Haile Selassie during his years of refuge 1936-40 in the city. It's a fantastic authentic biography and social history of the era, still available to view.

And now for something completely different: Italian baroque arias accompanied by archlute, one of those esoteric events that turn up randomly in Facebook's eclectic mix. I had initial doubts about Musicke in the Ayre but a proxy visit to Iford Manor's beautiful grounds was an irresistible lure. In fact the whole event was delightful, a compilation drawn from several open-air concerts, subtitled with translation, superbly performed, and with wonderful shots of the Peto gardens.
Art spot now, which should have been in the poetry spot, but my visit to Poetry Ireland on Monday for a Celebration of Women Poets marking Brigid's Day & Black History Month was foiled by late arrival, but googling St Brigid led to a wonderful exhibition in Dublin's Hamilton Gallery two years ago.  The gallery is now hosting exhibitions online, currently with an amazing celebration of Bram Stoker - there's a great little video viewable here - so this year let's celebrate Imbolc with gothic horror for a change.

Tuesday was World Wetland Day, and Frome has plunged whole-heartily in the celebration of wet with waterlogged fields and swollen river. Until Roman intrusion in the 13th century, February was apparently called Solmonath - Mud-month - according to the etymological almanac of Susie Dent Word Perfect, but the plethora of rainfall hasn't deterred local enthusiasm for nature-watching. 
As well as several facebook groups keeping an eye on encroachment of protected reserves, others simply share enjoyment of natural beauty: trees, birds, and all life wild and precious in & around Frome.
Otters - here's one posted by Nathan Slee - deer, dormice, red kites & kingfishers were all spotted last week, offsetting dismay at the invasion of Easthill Field's precious biodiversity by a grave-digging team who mistook the ancient hill for a practice pitch... Mendip officials, ruffled by probing from -of all unlikely champions- a Daily Mail journalist, announced themselves 'satisfied' that the lugging of a mechanical digger into ancient land currently under disputed threat of development was merely 'a misunderstanding' - just one of current areas of concern for the town, with a disappointing outcome to the long debate over Saxonvale and the misnomer of 'Selwood Garden Community' looming - appreciation to the hardworking objectors... And If you can't get out as much or as far as you'd like, enjoy this evocative film created by poet Linda France in a project to record 'the natural world in a time of Climate Crisis and Coronavirus'.

Ending this post with a massively belated THANKYOU to all my readers who have been leaving  messages after my postings. This is apparently an option offered by the new blog format I moaned so much about, and I've only just noticed.  Do keep it up, 'Paul' and all of you: your comments are really appreciated, and in future you will get a response!