Sunday, July 25, 2021

The week when freedom arrived and nobody noticed

Starting, unusually, with a weather report: over 30°C all week until the dramatic storm in the early hours of Saturday morning. As I was born in a German air-raid over London, this seemed a very appropriate start for my birthday, although sadly other celebrations were either rained-off or plagued-off.  But the long hot days were perfect for walking along the river path, and the glorious evenings lovely for a sunset trip to Marston Park.

Friday's trip was a jaunt to Hauser & Wirth, where Green councillor and environmental activist Theo Simon was giving a short talk in the cloisters to chime with the impressive exhibition of works by Spanish pacifist & artist Eduardo Chillida. Theo's personal eco-activism started in '92, inspired by Swampy and the Twyford Down M3 protest: his tales of past action were entertaining but he reminded us that the situation now requires urgent mass direct action.  Theo's also the  songwriter/singer leader of Seize the Day and brought his djembe so his talk was top n tailed with a song. And then to the galleries and the magnificent garden! 

Returning again to the topic of my birthday, celebrations while small were perfectly spaced:  a trip to the cocktail bar with Eleanor Talbot, whose weekly online programme Variations on a Theme is always smorgasbord of tasty talk & tracks, and a garden get-together with two close friends. Sadly my family's visit had to be cancelled - a scenario that many in similar situations will recognise. 

An upbeat note to end this week: Frome's popular new Mayor Andy Wrintmore, featured weekly in the Frome Times, was interviewed by Kerrang under the banner They kicked party politics out of town”: Spending the day with the punk rock mayor of Frome.
It's a good read, and a particular pleasure for Andy who for years avidly followed Kerrang - "The world's greatest metal / punk / hardcore / rock music publication." Andy's Giant Pod has a new edition too, and his latest Mayoral column in Frome Times (p.25) reflects powerfully on the serious loss to the town centre of the Co-op - and of course Andy is interviewed as a musician in Frome Unzipped - from Prehistory to Post-Punk (pages 186-188) which has it's own page here, with regular updates.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Two books and a trip to the seaside.

With Frome festival now fading, as all excitements do, into the realms of memory, the highlight for me this week was a trip to Teignmouth with my writer friend Hazel Stewart, for our postponed 'writer's weekend', thwarted by the first lockdown. Staying at an excellent B&B right beside the sea, we talked-n-walked up and down the esplanade, admired the artworks there, took the ferry across the estuary to Shaldon, sampled local ice-creams (top tip: Kerry's salted caramel) treated ourselves to an Italian meal in a restaurant garden, and even did a little en plein air writing.  
We didn't manage to catch the museum open but learned that Teignmouth was invaded by the French army in 1690, the last invasion of English soil by a foreign power. And the town has a strong writerly connection throughout the ages: Fanny Burney visited in 1773 and wrote of 'the rural beauties', and the admirable qualities of the town's women who, while their menfolk are working in the Newfoundland fishery for most of the year, 'do all the laborious business.. the rowing and towing of boats, and go out fishing... they wear no shoes or stockings notwithstanding the hard pebbles all along the beach.. Yet I never saw cleaner cottages nor healthier, finer children.' Among other diarists and writers the best known is probably John Keats, who stayed in the town for three months in 1818 and amended his initial impression of 'a slipshod county' enough to write Here all summer could I stay...  With solid blue sky above dense blue sea, on a promenade rimmed with flowers,  Hazel & I felt pretty much the same. 

This was the week that temperatures leapt into the 30°s and, equally sizzlingly exciting for me, the first proof copy of my new book arrived.  Deja Lu is a collection of 37 contemporary short stories, mostly previously published in anthologies & magazines or broadcast on radio, and the fabulous cover image is a section from one of the paintings of David Moss exhibited at the Silk Mill last month. Currently this is the only existing copy, but when a few essential 
small corrections are made, this will be available to all fiction fans, hopefully with appropriate celebrations... 
Still on the subject of words, Frome's fabulous book emporium Hunting Raven Books came up with another brilliant idea last week: to raise enough donations locally to fund 200 copies of Marcus Rashford's book You Are a Champion which they would distribute in & around Frome to 'young readers who might otherwise miss out.' So prompt & generous was the local response that this was raised within a few days to 500 copies - it's probably not too late to join in if you click here. There's a review from Goodreads here.

And now, with Freedom Day threatening us all, stay safe out there...

Monday, July 12, 2021

Frome Festival, where rain never stops play

Despite the loss of indoor venues, the 2021 Frome Festival succeeded in providing an opulence of visuals, sounds, and activities in an incredible diversity of events - in fact it's incredible that the last ten days of brilliant entertainment right across town have been almost entirely outdoors. 

 This 10-day fiesta, which began last Friday, has been crammed with activities and performances - let's start with The Opening although it wasn't actually till Wednesday: a three-night music event on a pop-up stage in the Silk Mill yard, organised by Dave Smith whose sensational drumming was a festival highlight in itself.  All three sessions were brilliant: pictured (above) are Mohammed Errebbaa & Driss Yamdah on the second night - which also gave us sensational sisters Currer Bell - and Frome's Pete Gage on keyboard, one of five fabulous acts on the final night.

Still shuffling personal highlights, shifting to Tuesday now for the  Poetry Cafe on ECOS amphitheatre where rain threatened all evening but only delivered briefly once, and 45 people spaced themselves on the stones to listen to twenty original poems performed on the open-mic by their writers, with mega-popular Liv Torc as guest.  Liv is always brilliant and the quality of the open-mic readers is amazing: check out for instance this stunning poem from Karl Bevis about the silencing of theatre I am not viable I have absolutely loved the privilege of running this Poetry Cafe from its inception twenty years ago: I'm stepping down now but I'm sure spoken word/slam/standup/ performance poetry will continue in Frome, whatever name it goes by. Thanks Annabelle for the picture, taken from the far end of the amphitheatre.

Town walks are always popular in the festival, and this year they were more popular than ever, with themes ranging from biodiversity in the churchyards to Frome's history in terms of Slavery, Sedition, and Sin -  this one was led by historian David Lassman and me - here's the final stop with David expounding routines at the old workhouse in the second of our 2 sold-out trips. Eleanor Talbot's  latest Variations on a Theme programmes includes a focus on our talks - you can hear a bit of the interview at 19.40 minutes in, with the rest at 40.10. Episode 91 continues the festival tale, with more reviews and comedy clips.

Frome's quirky comedy duo Rare Species also offered a historical walk, though somewhat less reliable in factual data: here they re-enact the opening of Jenson Button bridge while actually on the footbridge.  

The Hidden Gardens trail, outdoor entertainment of the horticultural kind, is always popular - this year over 800 maps of private gardens open at the weekend were bought by avid visitors. This is an absolutely lovely part of the festival, as Frome shares its passion for nature so generously, with 32 gardens to visit - I only managed ten but they were all magnificent in various ways. Here's one of several with a sumptuous lily pond, this one attended by glittering damsel flies.

Another popular aspect of individuals' involvement is the Open Art Trail, offering festival-goers an opportunity to see the work and studios of our many local artists - fifty of them in fact, in 21 venues including outlying villages. Again, it's impossible to pick a 'best' from this amazing diversity of talent: here's St Mary's Church on Innox hill converted temporarily into a festival gallery!

St John's Church in the town centre always puts on a flower show for festival: the theme this year was 'Reconnection', expressed in displays created by members of the Frome Floral Art Society. Arrangements combined props to represent positive themes: the journey back to the outside world was expressed in various ways, one unprepossessingly adding a union jack, but this is a nicer one.

Also art, of a curious kind, was the Secret Staircase which provided private access to a location revealed after booking, and fifteen minutes of strange & strangely calming music composed by Helen Ottoway & played by Nick Sorensen. There were several of these mysterious locations around town and mine transpired as the 3 floor stairwell in the Silk Mill studios, originally nonexistent but ingeniously added by current owners Kate & Damon Moore by cutting a hole through all the floors and literally building it step by step. Just another of the curious tales of Frome's secret history. 
The final Sunday gave a chance to see a few more gardens, and art venues, and to pop into the Picnic in the Meadow where Rodden meadow was offering stalls and family entertainment - here's popular local band The Hoodoos harmonising, conveniently close to the Active & In Touch tea'ncake stall...

Ending this festival edition with a return to Marston Park for the finale, as the rain fell steadily on the lake and even the ducks scuttled into our covered stage area, and Bonne Nouvelle played two sets of their delicious mellow, nouvelle-vague style, covers. A superbly quirky finale to a fantastic week of Frome Festival.

And if one image could sum up my festival, it would be this snap by Rosie Eliot, of us happily ignoring the weather, and the state our country's in - just enjoying music and reconnecting our friendships.

Monday, July 05, 2021

And it's festival lift-off! Music, art & drama everywhere!

Frome Festival has begun its ten-day tour of the heart&minds of Frome, spreading dramatically and musically from the Merlin theatre to Marston Park where the lakeside band-stage is proving sensationally popular.  Talented singer/songwriter Leander Morales opened their festival bookings with a great set presented on Folk'n Funk Friday, and Saturday gave us a superb double bill: Al O'Kane with Andy Hill (above - you can hear them on 'Soundcheck' here) followed by Back of the Bus: covers that sizzle, from (to quote)"a 7-piece punk pop band, fronted by four female vocalists and backed up with a throbbing badass rhythm section, covering punk and pop classics with their own memorable twist." And their copy doesn't lie: a dynamic set that gave gothic drama to White Wedding as the sky darkened over the moonlit water. 

We Feed the World is an amazing photographic exhibition at The Station, the new complex opposite Frome's train station, with an overflow at the beautiful gallery in Whittox Lane. Both these venues are filled with photographs of small-scale farmers and fishers around the world, whose practices contribute to protecting, restoring, and rewilding as well as reviving and promoting traditional practices. Beside the striking photographs, explanatory wall posters clarify the grim facts about the way industrial practices degrade the soil and create wastelands for future generations. You can read more in the Frome Times - and definitely visit the venues. Here's Zuzana Pastorkova in Slovakia, posing for photographer Tina Hillier, who cultivates herbs, fruit trees, and 40 different kinds of vegetables on a small-holding that was her grandmother's, and claims her success is 'about being in tune with nature'. 

The Frome Festival Art Trail will feature in next week's bulletin, but here's an exhibition which is touring Somerset : Inch by IN:CH aims to bring art out of galleries and into public spaces. Frome Museum basement doesn't really fall into that category but it's interesting to get to see that area, especially filled with suitcases of curious work. I especially liked Fiona Campbell's decrepitised umbrellas as 'hope of a tree' and the glimmering lights in Philippa Edwards case, representing the bioluminescence of nature.

The big exhibition at Rook Lane is a tour through the 20 years of the life of Frome Festival. Succinctly and elegantly curated by Sue Bucklow, who must have had a dumper-truckful of events and memories to wade through, this shows the story-arc of the festival that came to grow from a dream in the mind of Martin Bax to one of the most highly rated festivals in the country, known for its enterprising diversity and egalitarian events. I was on the smug side of pleased to find that several events which were important to me personally have found their way onto the display screens. Especially pleasing is this reminder of the 2015 contribution from Nevertheless Productions: Midsummer Dusk was a site-specific theatre piece performed at the Dissenters Cemetery and probably my favourite production ever. (If this chimes fondly for you, too, you can check it out in this blog: type the title in the little box offered top left and you will be transported to13 July 2015 and offered images & a full review.)  

God of Carnage, Yasmina Reza's 2008 popular play about squabbling parents, translated from the french by Christopher Hampton, was the festival choice of Frome Drama, who managed to stay within regulations at the Assembly Rooms by limiting audience seating. The storyline - two parental couples meeting to agree how to ameliorate their offspring's quarrel and instead become fractious themselves - should be easy to make hilarious but actually the steep escalation of cultural & financial oneupmanship makes it hard to avoid over-egging, but the team did well, achieving a lot of laughs throughout. I particularly liked the brief boxing-ring fantasy that preceded the demure actual meeting of the two couples. 

And in other dramatic altercations: Flash-mob opera invaded the precinct on market day to the delight of a gathering crowd who heard a medley of arias wrought into amorous and acrimonious encounters by four incredibly talented performers. My comprehension of the lyrics was limited to andiamo so there's little else I can tell you, but it was magnificent - big thanks to the Cooper Hall foundation.

Finally, in this back-to-front, slightly late, report: last week also saw the launch of a new book from  Corinna Sargood, artist extraordinaire and Angela Carter's favourite illustrator: The Village in the Valley arrived at an elegant soiree in the garden of Rook Lane chapel on Wednesday. Corinna and her partner Richard have visited this Mexican village every year, since they discovered it over 20 years ago; her lino-cuts inspired by that first visit illustrate the second Virago Book of Fairy Tales, and now the village has its own story, along with other travels. It's published by Prospect Books, an elite London establishment which clearly has no notion of Frome culture as her publisher Catheryn brought only 2 boxes of books for this launch and was surprised that all copies were bought before many of the guests had even arrived. But the night was balmy and the bar was open, so we partied on.