Sunday, May 30, 2021

Theatrically to Bristol & Peru, realtime in Wales & Frome

This is a good time for theatre enthusiasts. Restrictions now allow companies to find ingenious ways to rehearse, but are still tight enough for online productions to continue - and by now they're fairly sophisticated. So Bristol Old Vic is now offering Touching the Void as performed in "a bespoke sound-stage in its 255yr old auditorium which not only created the atmosphere of being in a theatre, but transported viewers to the mountain itself -from anywhere in the world." Devised by BOV director Tom Morris in 2018, this drama tells the true story of an outrageous attempt to scale one of the most difficult peaks in the Peruvian Andes, as explored from the perspective of a non-mountaineer marvelling that anyone would purposefully risk their life to purposelessly climb a crag. Which is most of us, I imagine.  In this dramatisation by David Greig of the book of the same name by Joe Simpson, the nearly-deceased climber, it’s his sister who takes the inquisitorial role, initiating the dramatic interaction by repeatedly asking why, until Simon Yates, the other climber, compels her to explore their drama via furniture & fittings and a vivid imagination. There's a good short summary here.  The initial, live & highly acclaimed, production came at the end of the Bristol Old Vic's long closure for a £26m renovation project so it's fitting that this revival celebrates the gradual ending of the plague closure. Fingers crossed, anyway. Fiona Hampton takes the prime role of Joe's sister, with Josh Williams as Joe and Angus Yellowlees as Simon, and Patrick McNamee as a random hitchhiker.  Set & costume design by Ti Green. (screen shots by me.)  

Also last week, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory offered an online medley of Shakespearean sonnets and speech extracts in a patchwork of recitations by 'five contemporary characters as we explore our relationship with our city and our culture.'  The Place At The Bridge is written - or rather, compiled - by Chinonyerem Odimba and directed by Helena Middleton, and has the immense bonus of constant accompaniment throughout by the brilliant Gambian kora player Sura Susso - here with Zachary Powell, an impressively strong presence throughout. (my screen shots.) 

Moving now from Peru via Bristol to Wales: to Tywyn, on the southernmost coastal tip of the Snowdonia National Park, an area of forests and lakes and - last week anyway - solid sunshine. Developed into a resort in the 1870s by benefactor John Corbett, it's now famous for its narrow-guage mini Talyllyn Railway which appears inspired by Rev W Awdry but was actually designed to service the slate mining up the hills in Abergynolwyn.  Slate is everywhere - even fences are sometimes made of slate.
Our basecamp was a well-equipped camper-van site between a broad, silvery-sanded beach rimmed by grassy dunes, and viridian fields filled with grazing sheep, extending to the distant undulating verdant hills. A lush scene.  And nearby, the amazing Dolgoch Falls descend across flinty rocks in a fern-filled forest, and a mere 4.7-mile-walk in blustery winds along the sand, there's the picturesque sea front of Aberdovey - 'front' being the operative term, as there's not much build beyond the line of gaudy buildings that look like Villajoyosa without the palm trees, but the cappuccino ice-cream is lush.
 We were back in Frome in time for the Saturday market in glorious sunshine, complete with Paul's Tribe busking on the bridge and for a sumptuous garden party hostessed by Frome FM broadcaster, podcaster, & all-round delightful person Eleanor Talbot. 
Silk Mill opened its doors at the weekend for an exhibition by artists in the Visionary Arts CollectiveThe Future Is Now features a diversity of psychedelic and visionary images in a range of media. Much of it is beautiful, even when menacing, like these extraordinary figures.
And there's welcome news from the Friends of Easthill that Mendip DC have agreed not to use this ancient field for their housing development.  This is a big relief in terms of preserving the green lungs and biodiversity of Frome but, as campaign initiator Bharati Pardhy wrote when reporting the decision, the need for affordable housing is still a community concern. And it remains to be seen how, and if, Frome can retain its independent integrity after the local government reorganisation. Fingers remain crossed.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Art and life: reopenings, trips & plans and local heroes.

Last Monday celebrated another cautious step forward into community life when Words at the Black Swan poetry group reconvened in the Round Tower to create responses to In Pursuit of Spring, the current exhibition of artworks created in response to the book of that name written by poet Edward Thomas, which you can read for free here or buy at the gallery. Our group discussed the art on show - this is the ipad response by David Daniels, an image of the River Frome which we all liked - and we reflected also where our own personal journeys might take us, with some very moving poems crafted and shared by all the group. 

Still in the arty centre of Frome, congratulations to Daniel Musselwhite - who works, usually, in his jewellery workshop at the Black Swan -  for reaching the final of BBC's show All That Glitters. The task for the three stunningly talented finalists was to design and make pearl drop earrings and a bridal tikka. Here's judge Shaun Leane modelling Dan's pearl earrings, and Dan in his Frome workplace.

Mega congratulations too, to Andy Wrintmore, here posing for probably the most unconventional official mayoral portrait in history. Andy is Sick Ones' drummer & a tremendously popular figure in Frome, and I'm immensely pleased his talent and energy is represented in my book Frome Unzipped - from Prehistory to Post-Punk, where he talks about his music and his commitment to the town. Supporting him as Deputy Mayor, we now have Sara Butler-Bartholomew, another big personality with high energy. (I'll add picture credit when I find out!)

A change of theme now, with online drama from Stepping Out Theatre Company in Bristol: Pumpgirl by Abbie Spallen, set in Northern Ireland and first performed back in 2006, is a harsh story of drab, loveless, lives told in three separated monologues. A good choice for lockdown production for this last reason, it's also particularly pertinent in a year which has put a public spotlight on women's vulnerability. Danann McAleer is excellent as Hammy, car-obsessed and brutally sexist; Neroli Trammell strong as his emotionally unstable wife, with Emma Stadon memorable as the vulnerable pumpgirl who feels gratified by his attentions.  The virtual backgrounds are sometimes distracting but this production is an impressive achievement and a credit to the company. 

Ending now with some images from local walks, as spring merges with early summer with little cessation of howling winds and rain, but bursts of sun have allowed short sorties: a jaunt with friends to The George in Norton Saint Philip, in 1685 during the Monmouth Rebellion used as headquarters for the rebel army, and in the terrible aftermath used by Judge Jeffreys as a courtroom: these idyllic lawns now being rolled as an immaculate cricket pitch saw hangings in the Bloody Assizes.

The short (under an hour) walk to Marston Park seems to have become a regular route for me so here again is the lake beyond the bluebell wood, where you can sit with a drink from the tiny bar and look ahead to Frome Festival, only 6 weeks away, when this will be the venue for many of the bands.  

Brochures are out now, and despite all uncertainties and anxieties, their 36 pages are crammed with events : walks and talks, performances of every sort, displays, workshops, and general celebration. As Festival Director Martin Bax explains in his welcome letter: We thought we might produce a much smaller festival this year. We have failed abysmally.  Don't forget the Poetry Cafe - page 12 - where as well as the quirkily egalitarian open mic, you can hear wonderful Liv Torc - the Best Fest Guest in the West.

Monday, May 17, 2021

When 'normal life' is exciting... with fingers crossed...

Frome last week was abuzz about the return of the Saturday Market, a proper outdoor do with stalls selling everything from carved curios and tantalising jewellery to garden glories and amazing edibles - here's Liam's Cake Stall offering scandalously delicious vegan specialities.  Stoic local buskers Paul Kirtley and David Goodman were on the bridge to enhance the market yard browsing experience, too.

Across the town in Merchants Barton, the ongoing debate on the Saxonvale development moved  forward with a weekend-long presentation to the public of the preferred project, described as "an exemplary development on the banks of the River Frome, meticulously designed taking the historic grain of Frome as its starting point and delivering a characterful, vibrant, residential-led mixed-use community, with flexible commercial uses, high-quality public realm, and homes for all ages." It really does look what Frome needs, and local enthusiasm is high (especially for the lido.)

Also in Merchants Barton, the car parking space has been embellished by a project to raise awareness of Mental Health Awareness Week and to further highlight the need for creative development of the Saxonvale site.  Photographer Tim Gander shot pictures, which have been paired with poems and comments from users and staff at Mind in Somerset. Tim's aim is to highlight "what happens when a former industrial site is left to deteriorate. Fly-tipping, vandalism and natural decay take their toll" and his project has much to commend it, but it is worth remembering that the abandonment wasn't all negative: birds and wild flowers flourished among the trees and the old buildings were a prime site for the ingenuity of young street artists as Frome's graffiti Hall of Fame... here's a sample:

This week's zoom drama is Transition Tales from The Travelling Talesman, promoted by  the Art House Southampton with the tagline 'When gender fluid gods saved creation...' Not only in Greek mythology but in cultures across the world, deities changed gender as well as species, and his transformation tales ranged from the same-form duality of Hermaphroditus to flowers (Hyacinthus, remade in blood and tears), stars (Ursa major & minor) and in the unfortunate case of Actaeon, a stag promptly torn apart by his own hounds. Zeus had a particular penchant for metamorphosis, apparently, seducing his many lovers in multiple forms such as as a parrot, a pig, and a shower of water. Although this talk clocked in at 2 hours 20 minutes, the chronicles never flagged and the zoom audience was enthusiastic and articulate: the chat line was really interesting, posing questions like How does root sex work for fungus? (the answer is mitochondria) and comments on the gender of quabbatic numbers. Performances like this, with an option for audience participation, are as valuable for community health as Open Mic poetry online sessions, and hopefully will all outlive the pandemic and continue to zoom.

My week ended excitingly 
with a train journey to Gloucester, taking advantage of new freedom to meet my publisher and iron out various issues relating to my upcoming short story collection: not only a useful visit but a delightful one, as we had time to walk around the docks - which are beautiful - and the older parts of this odd, somewhat bedraggled, city. 
Relics of medieval buildings, religious and secular, are everywhere, though mostly overwhelmed by modern build, but there seems to be a will to reclaim civic history more effectively. There are quite a few boards explaining the history & context of some features - there's a storytelling bench designed by the master mason at the Cathedral in 1999 - but there's not much street art around the city. This alleyway, however, has been turned into a Van Gogh art gallery, with posters of the artist's final works all along the hoarding,  in a designated 'covid friendly outdoor exhibition.'  There are some interesting curios too, like the team of clock bellringers above the old woodwork & jewellery shop, the new gargoyles on the cathedral, and even the unpretentious centre of the old town where road signs to 
Eastgate, Southgate, Westgate, and Northgate once referred to the old main roads London, Devon, Wales, and the North - as shown in this 1805 map:

This was a week when summer came in starts and stops, rather like everyone's social plans, and a busy one for me: the deadline date for my quarterly round-up of drama in the southwest for Plays International (amazingly, and encouragingly, there was much to report even though not a single production was live), a restarted writing group, new fiction project underway, and sense of renewed freedom.  I'll end with a view of a sunny walk along the river path from Frome to Great Elm. 

Monday, May 10, 2021

Mostly outdoors, with added foraging, art, and a look ahead

What a difference a week makes. Last Sunday's return to real-time contact with the band at Prestleigh seemed almost surreal, but seven days later it feels not only delightfully relaxing but perfectly normal to be meeting friends at Marston Park, the still-in-development glamping site with fabulous lakeside views, so I'll start there - thanks Rosie Eliot for the introduction, the walk, and the snap of our bubbly-pitch watching a grebe swanning around the ducks. Marston Park will be a featured site in the upcoming Frome Festival too, with several local bands booked to play - and it's a wonderful afternoon stroll, especially when the woods are thick with garlic and bluebells.

My trip to St Algars Yard to see the art studio work on display for the Wyle Valley Art trail once the gales had subsided was rewarded not only by some fabulous paintings, glassware and pottery, but also by a tour around the studio grounds which are simply beautiful. Legend has it that the bones of Ã†lfgar of Selwood, or Saint Algar, were buried in a chapel here, with a 16th Century report by John Leyland, Henry VIII's chaplain that they were venerated "superstitiously by the folische commune people". After Henry's land-snatch of all monastic property, the chapel was absorbed into the farm but this area is now thought to have been making glass since Roman times, making St Algars the first glassworking site in the southwest. Here's the site, and the gorgeous glass I bought from Sonja Klinger.

And as wild garlic colonises the woodland around Frome - with a total takeover in North Parade woodland, a secret parallel world running alongside the main road largely unknown - the tiny trees installed in and around the town are beginning to show leaf. The baby oak in the Millennium Green is in leaf, and so too is another protege of tree-guru Julian Hight: the sycamore planted last year to commemorate the Tolpuddle Martyrs - this is how it looks now, and you can read the full story here.   

Still with an eye on life outdoors, though the talk organised on Wednesday by Tina Gaisford Waller, manager of Hunting Raven Books on Wednesday was on zoom: David Hamilton has written another fascinating book about the treasures of our natural landscape: Where the Wild Things Grow is a forager's guide, and David's lively talk illuminated the nourishing and tasty possibilities growing all around us. Mushrooms and nuts, obviously, but also grasses, leaves, buds and roots, all discovered by taste trial - and possibly occasional error - by David over his years of study in town & countryside, coast & woodlands. The talk was organised as following a long walk in our local area, with daily recipes all created from plants passed in that day's terrain.

Also on zoom - for the last time, fingers crossed - was the Proof Pudding Club meeting to share book reviews of upcoming possible top-titles for Hunting Raven Books, always an interesting session though my overheating MacBook required me to leave before the end this time. My random pick from options offered was a story collection entitled The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans, which appealed since my own current writing project involves gathering my previously-published short stories into a collection.  Danielle's book is worth buying for the title tale alone: a Kafkaesque narration which turns slowly fearsomely, inevitably, violent as the significance of such 'corrections' is explored. With the conflictive responses to Colston still resonating, we in England should perhaps take heed.

So as we edge cautiously back into what we used to once consider normal life, hopefully with lessons learned and not too much sorrow incurred, a quick preemptive look to the summer ahead: as well as the camping and glamping sites around the area, Frome town is looking forward to the return of its annual Arts Festival - reduced in size but with plenty of outside activity and a covered stage on the ECOS amphitheatre. I've already plugged the Poetry Cafe - Tuesday July 6, 8pm - only £5 for the always-brilliant open-mic session plus the ever-sensational Liv Torc as guest - but there will be much more on that stage - see the Merlin lineup - and of course elsewhere. So hopefully we can all look forward to less zooming and more meeting, connecting, and laughing. 

Monday, May 03, 2021

Beltane, bluebells, bits of history, and a band gig!

Remember the days when a sunny weekend meant bands playing outside pubs? Frome's Paul Kirtley and his amorphous group The Tribe never forgot, and the easing of lockdown rules plus Beltane weekend's sunshine saw a multi-talented assortment of musical friends outside the Prestleigh Inn playing for 3 hours on Sunday afternoon. Huge performance skills with an impressive array of instruments were delivered with table service and social spacing - big credit to the team, and a happy step forward for us all. Here's sound-man Steve, with David on guitar & mandolin, Monty on cajon, Carl on harp, Paul singing and strumming, Danny on bass, Ray on slide guitar, other guitars, and vocals: Jim Cook joined us with his magic double saxophone act, and Keith Horler provided the guest spot. A small event for us, a giant leap for hope for performances of all kinds returning.  

Still on the subject of music, Pete Burns (not that one, the folk musician) has completed his collection of 41 songs created for lock-down listening.  Pete came to Frome in the final year of the Grain Bar Roots Sessions, and shared a thought-provoking song about his hometown, Belfast: The Riches of America.  And here's the fabulous Swervy World buskers, on tour from Ipswich, enhancing Frome precinct on Saturday as the market bustled with shoppers in the chilly sunshine, buying everything from cakes and cheeses to garden gear and glittery gaudies. 

Poetry events organisers, unlike bands, having discovered the wider audience possibilities online are maintaining their profile online with Zoom performance sessions. The popular Poets Prattlers & Pandemonialists hosted their monthly Yes We Can't session on Sunday evening, with a cracking posse of open-mic voices and Frome's own Liv Torc as main guest - she is, of course, also Womad's Hip-Yak Liv, BBC's environmentalist Liv, HAIFLU's Liv, and even Fyffes-bananas' Liv, but Frome maintains its prime claim and - just to remind you - Liv will be guesting at the Festival Poetry Cafe on July 6th, on ECOS.

Moving Voices at the Art House in Southampton has also maintained their regular open mic session on zoom: held on the last Friday of each month, this session was a smaller group but the poetic voices were strong and the feelings shared went deep. B Harwood Parsons collated an enjoyable event with contributors from as far afield as The Withdrawn in New York, and a music spot from Winchester's local hero Stevie Simkin from the Railway Inn roots session.
Still with words, but the on-the-page kind,  Hunting Raven Books had another stunningly successful pop-up book-shop at the Silk Mill on Saturday, offering reductions on a big range of titles. So popular was this that the queue snaked all around the yard and into Saxonvale.  I've posted this pic from manager Tina Gaysford-Waller's page, just to show how superbly socially-distanced we all are: how strange these images and priorities will seem in years to come. We hope...

The Wylie Valley Art Trail is another happy example of first steps back into real space: the nearest hosting venue to Frome is St Algars Yard at West Woodlands, where seven artists are showing paintings, prints, ceramics, glassware, and metalwork during the first week of May. I'd intended to include a report in this bulletin, but had to postpone my planned Bank Holiday Monday visit due to winds of a ferocity that even King Lear howling on the heath might think were overdoing it a bit.  So here's a picture from the online catalogue to be going on with: a ceramic piece created by Hiro Takahashi who takes her inspiration from the wild animals and the ruins in the woods. 

And as May's arrival alternates blustering winds with sunshine, this image is from my best walk of last week: wandering through a trillion bluebells in Black Dog Woods (allegedly so called after a highwayman was hanged here leaving his dog continuing to roam), as pools of sunlight on the silver birches transformed the woodland into a set for A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Final funky footnote: my walk around Mells to reconnect with the grave of Siegfried Sassoon and the round barrow burial ground nearby, skirting the estate stolen by the Horners during Henry VIII's dissolution days, took me past the gateway to Mells Park House where the documents which released Nelson Mandela were signed in 1990, with apartheid laws amended and the ban on the ANC lifted. The original Mells Park House had burned down by then: the 1925 replacement looks a more like a private boarding school, but views aren't accessible from the public road anyway so here's a picture of the gatehouse. Walking in Mells is a potent reminder that we live, always, in historic times.