Monday, August 30, 2021

A bookish week, mostly, with celebrations too.

Let's start with words:  On Tuesday, Tina at Hunting Raven Books organised a launch for Pete Gage to discuss and read from his newly published poetry collection: Fifty-Six Poems, a handsome further addition to Hobnob Press's list of titles by Frome authors. Pete has previously been best known as a rock & blues musician, but these profound and moving reflections, all untitled, are drawn from another side of the Doctor Feelgood singer's creative energy, intensely personal and deeply aware of universal griefs. He shares a powerful evocation of his 'mythic disgust' at war in Suddenly I wept and his passion for Schumann in a reverie written in Bonn where the troubled composer is buried. Reproductions of Pete's elegant mandalas in mainly muted colours, on each alternate page, are a perfect calm counterpoint to the love and sadness plangent in Pete's words. This is, literally, a beautiful book and one to treasure.
Regular readers will know that Hobnob is owned & run by Dr John Chandler, who commissioned and published Frome Unzipped - from Prehistory to Post-punk.  This well-respected small press originally specialised in local history, so my follow-up The Price of Bread, although a sort-of social history of 1970s Belfast, was a stretch in genre by being a novel. Other Frome writers have found homes for their imagined histories here too, and the mysterious, unquantifiable, creativity of Frome has resulted in a veritable banquet of fiction and poetry appearing in the Hobnob stable. 
My latest contribution - as already referenced in this blog - is Déjà Lu, 37 short stories previously published.  Now this is officially 'out' and available in Hunting Raven Books (as well as from my stash of signed copies), my bestie & partner-in-drama Rosie Eliot hosted a soirée to welcome this new title into the Frome community. Small but perfectly formed, with fizz & nibbles - amuse bouche created by the hostess - this was a delightful event: here's David Moss, whose stunning painting we used for the book cover, cajoling me into a speech (which lasted all of 30 seconds), and the image below is that breathless moment before everyone arrives... Thanks to Rosie for these snaps, and to everyone who came - it's fascinating to hear which are your favourites in this collection.  

And rain held off too on Saturday night when there were other Frome shenanigans, with the Silk Mill transformed into a hedonistic paradise for a much bigger party with cocktails and eastern delicacies in the big yard, and much dancing within the gallery to amazing sound & visuals from Breezeblock Beats.  
Such celebrations are really appreciated as summer dwindles and blackberries & fallen leaves are thick along the dank lanes. '
Poem of the day' for Sunday was, appropriately, this from Robert Frost: 
Nature’s first green is gold, / Her hardest hue to hold. / Her early leaf’s a flower; / But only so an hour. / Then leaf subsides to leaf./ So Eden sank to grief, / So dawn goes down to day. /  Nothing gold can stay.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Days of wine and rambles...

 Despite living less than 15 miles from Prior Park, on the edge of Bath, I'd always thought this was the property of a posh school and only discovered on a jaunt with friends last week that there's a marvellous landscaped garden here owned by the National Trust. Certainly there is a school there, boasting the motto Deo Duce Deo Luce which sounds quite posh to me, but beyond it lies the landscape garden created in the early 18th Century by Ralph Allen, original owner of the mansion, who took advice from Capability Brown when designing the paths and water features and the crescent vista offering incomparable views across the estate and beyond.

This turned out to be a gorgeous place to wander around at this time of year: the meadows are full of wild flowers with berry-laden brambles alongside the paths up to the summit with its amazing view of Bath stretching from Kelston Round Hill to Bathampton.  Sadly, the system of dams that created Allen's ornamental lakes has fallen into serious disrepair but extensive work to clear & restore them to their original splendour is due to be finished by early next year. 

Big thanks to my friends Eleanor and Gordon for this delightfully varied jaunt, which began with cakes at the Lavender Farm, where sunflowers add golden glamour to the bee-filled purple haze awaiting harvest, and concluded with wine & snacks at The George Inn beside the canal at Bathampton - & thanks also to Ellie for the sunflower field snap, and Gordon for the one of me and Ellie on our circumnavigation of Prior Park.

Back now to Frome, where Theatre is the remarkable organisation which provides dance and theatre classes for all ages, holiday workshops, and regular full productions of popular big-cast musicals and dramas: apart from the obvious enrichment provided by this kind of creative group activity, has launched several young participants into successful performance careers. This week Merlin Theatre staged their version of Lionel Bart's Oliver, a delightful ensemble production with some stand-out performances by the young cast - I especially enjoyed Florrie Walker's Artful Dodger. Here's a production image of Oliver with wicked Fagin and his sassy Dodger chum. And while we're at the Merlin, in a brief departure from this blog's usual retrospection,  do check out Liv Torc's touring show which will arrive here on Wednesday 22nd September: it's the incredible story of Haiflu, a newly adapted version of an ancient poetic form, invented by Liv and now celebrated across the world.  

Regular followers of this blog will know by now that my big literary event of the summer is the publication by Hobnob Press of Déjà Lu, a collection of 37 of my short stories, nearly all of which have been previously published in anthologies & magazines or read on BBC4 - hence the title (pretentious, moi? pas du tout) and my website is now updated to give more details: When I checked that deja lu did really mean 'already read', it turned out there's also an Urban Dictionary meaning for the phrase, viz: somebody telling you something you already know about from reading it on the internet.  So if you order a copy from me after reading this, you will have completely fulfilled the on-trend definition and thus definitely be le dernier cri ...

Sunday, August 15, 2021

A cornucopia of a week: drama, bands, ramblings, art - & my new book now on sale!

This week's bulletin once again begins with a performance in Frome's Merlin amphitheatre: HMS Pinafore, Gilbert & Sullivan's comic opera of class pretensions, as interpreted and presented by another of the illustrious casts of Illyria Outdoor Theatre (There's also a childrens' show or two from this stable going round this summer, so hopefully this wonderful company will survive the dramatic hiatus caused by plague.)

There's a certain poignant irony in some of the parodic songs - in spite of all temptations, to belong to other nations, he remains an Englishman, for example - but a great set, tight direction, and the talented cast all combine to create an entertaining evening: "Pantomime for grownups!" as one delighted audience member summed up.
This week has been particularly rich in musical entertainment.  Nesta Yurt Camping, unknown to me until quite recently although it's only a 20 minute walk down the lanes from my house, for various reasons last week became almost a second home. The food here is amazing - vegan menu with delicacies like banana-blossom 'fish' and chips - there's a friendly, casual but well-equipped, tent site and visitors from town are welcomed at the undercover evening entertainment. On Wednesday the band stage featured Rosco Shakes, a fantastic funky local trio comprising Dom on guitar, Ned on drums & vocals, and Tim on crazy honky-tonking piano.
Music too in Frome's Victoria Park, where a sunny Saturday saw families & friends sprawled on rugs or - for the more organised - settled on garden chairs to listen to live music from the bandstand all afternoon.  Frome's fabulously funky quintet The Valley, joined by Colin on cajon, led off and other excellent local musicians followed, including brilliant bluesy duo Roger & Annie Davenport. Great sounds, brilliant atmosphere, reminding us all what summers can be like here...

This August hasn't been the kind of summer we longed for during the winter months, but there has been some sunshine and abatement in the downpours and blustering winds. Tuesday's respite gave me a chance to visit Rodden 
Nature Reserve - one of Frome's best kept secrets, largely because it's closed during the long breeding season for the many rare birds who find this a safe haven. Paths of desire are kept clear between wetland areas, and the entire wildlife park is brimming with autumnal flowers, bushes, reeds and trees - and dense with insect life plus tiny mammals & frogs. 

Art & Lit corner now: Frome Art Society opened its annual exhibition in the Round Tower of Black Swan Arts on Friday: an eclectic display with much to enjoy - though it isn't always easy to avoid window reflections on the glass of the paintings - and a chance for all visitors to vote for their favourite piece. This evocative view of the  river is by Kristen Vincent. 

And my personal big news is the arrival of copies for sale of my new book: Déjà  Lu is a collection of 37 short stories, most of which have been previously published in journals & anthologies or broadcast on BBC4, and now for the first time readable together in all their strange diversity. Suzy Howlett, author, thespian, and reviewer, has summed up delightfully: "This collection, stylishly presented with cover artwork by David Moss, is a delight in the same way that a selection box of hand-made chocolates is: you can select and taste the soft-centres, the nutty, the rich and dark, the hard-boiled, the sweet, the fruity and the plain gorgeous. They are all delicious!"  My first delivery is already all sold or committed, but please contact me if you'd like a copy from the second box, due next week! Thanks Patrick Dunn for the - genuinely spontaneous - picture! 

 Ending this week's bulletin with an image from the fields around Frome, where autumn is already arriving...

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Illyrian romps, a posse of bibliophiles, & a splash of music

Outdoor theatre is again the feature of the week: Illyria, active again after a difficult summer last year, has several productions on tour and on Thursday a multi-tasking quintet arrived at Frome's ECOS venue to take on Much Ado About Nothing.  The amphitheatre was virtually full for this production, impressively set and lit, with all 20 of the play's characters vividly created by three men and two women. As Elizabethan productions were single-sex, Chris Wills as a hirsute lady's maid sort-of followed tradition, but Nicola Foxfield taking on jilted Claudio as well as feisty Beatrice was impressive. Rachel O'Hare as Hero, the insulted bride, also portrayed her elderly uncle, and Chris Laishley enacted evil Don John as well as the benign Governor of Messina, where the action occurs in a party atmosphere following a successful campaign.

Nobody could call Shakespeare's comedies anodyne. The seventeen plays placed in that category include themes of antisemitism, domestic abuse, assault, abandonment, betrayal and murder, so in this drama Claudio's savage rejection of Hero on their wedding day is fairly mild, although his initial indifference to her demise does suggest some lack of empathy.  Fortunately there's no time to worry about that as the action moves on to another popular theme of the bard's: the looney-tune lower-classes, and Illyria delivers their antics with extra relish.  The focus is on laughter: David Sayers relishes the affectations of Benedick as much as the antics of the Watch who chaotically foil the dastardly plot.  Oliver Gray's production cleverly established a convention of imaginary directional space in the opening moments of the play, and made the most of the absurdity of the garden scene where the match-making plot to bring Beatrice and Benedict together is hatched. Basically, there's much to enjoy whether or not the plotline always emerges, and the company's excellent programme gives a clear synopsis. Much Ado has been claimed by Hollywood as the original screwball romantic comedy, and it's always a pleasure to see different emphases in a stage production.

As a personal postcript: In the days when a 'standing seat' bought on the door for 2/- at London's Old Vic meant you could take any seat still vacant at curtain up, in 1965 I saw Franco Zeffirelli's production of this play with a cast including Ian McKellen, Albert Finney, Derek Jacobi, Maggie Smith and Lynn Redgrave... the garden scene, when even the ornamental sculptures shimmered forward to eavesdrop on the love-plot, is probably one of the reasons for my enduring passion for live theatre.

Sadly, the English summer couldn't manage more than a few pleasant days this week, and by the weekend had swapped summer showers for downright deluges. On Friday evening we defied the elements in search of live music at Critchill Manor Estate, a fairly new camping site on the southern outskirts offering a tented bar with a band open to drop-ins, and on Sunday the heavens opened again for the Frome Lions Summer Fete in Victoria Park: the big chutes and and bouncy apparatus continued to be splashily popular with the saturated children while their elders clustered under trees with hot drinks.

Sunday evening saw the return to (fortunately dry) real space of Proof Pudding Club, the inspired innovation  of Hunting Raven Books' manager Tina Gaisford-Waller, originally meeting monthly at the Cornerhouse to discuss upcoming titles and for the last year continuing on zoom. Our new venue is River House, in its new location at Black Swan Arts. Spreading across the courtyard as well as the indoor cafe, about thirty volunteers appraised new titles and chatted with coffee and cake in animated small groups, reporting back at the end of the evening. Here's my group: Liz, Naomie, and Nicki, deciding that Silent Earth by Dave Goulson, a warning of imminent insect apocalypse, was our pick of the night.

Ending with thanks to etymologist Susie Dent for providing a word that explains and excuses my morning indolence in a week of disappointingly non-seasonal weather: Hurkle-durkling: 19th-century Scots for lounging in bed long after it’s time to get up.

Sunday, August 01, 2021

Outlook unsettled but magic still around

Let's start with a storm: the torrents sprayed wildly on the audience by wonderful Folksy Theatre  in Merlin's ECOS amphitheatre to get us all into the spirit of The Tempest on Wednesday evening. Musicians as well as actors, this endearing quintet held their audience rapt as they morphed between characters with speedy costume changes, from ethereal sprite & romantic lover to a couple of drunks, in the most impressively extreme case. 

Shakespeare was all about patron-pleasing, and while Good Queen Bess loved the vulgarity of the Merry Wives and the man-teasing of Malvolio, her 1603 successor James I didn't: he wanted magic and masques, which aren't so easy to graft into a popular rom-com. Perhaps that's why The Tempest is the bard's last play: Prospero's breaking of his magic stick is seen as symbolic of Shakespeare's decision to create no more stage dramas after this one, believed completed in 1611. Folksy's production wisely minimised the gratuitous mythical set pieces and focussed on clarifying the storyline and maximising the comedy. 

In both these aspects they did really well: Andrew Armfield was delightful as both Stephano the drunk and Ferdinand the lover (playing each with just a touch of Bertie Wooster), Ariel was enchanting and Miranda charming; Caliban as apparently an Ulsterman fresh from a brawl in his underwear was entertaining though without the poignancy sometimes found in this abused role, and Tom Hardwicke's Prospero was simply the best interpretation of this demanding role that I've yet seen anywhere. Huge credit to director Lee Hardwicke too. The audience sprawled across every level of the ECOS stones clearly loved it, and so they should: it was brilliant - well paced and full of energy and fun.  Here's Rachel Delooze as Ariel with her master, and as above as Trinculo with Stephano and Caliban (Gilchrist Muir).

While open-air theatre companies have had more chance to survive the last couple of years, problems for indoor productions have been intense and, despite some ingenious adaptations, most stage practitioners are having a really tough time. Acting For Others is the UK Actors Support Network and actor John Cragg runs a Youtube page of productions created to fund this charity for the industry. This week has the impressive addition of a zoomed reading of King Lear directed by Andrew Hilton, founder/director of the excellent Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory company which, until he stepped down in 2017 after 18 years of high-quality productions, was always a high spot in my reviewing calendar. With a stunning cast headed by David Horovitch as the impetuous old king, this is so good that - even for nearly 3 hours - it's easy to forget that the boxed heads meet only in our shared imagination. Here's the self-deposed king at the start of his sufferings, losing his temper when reproached by his daughter and teased by his fool.

Eleanor Talbot's latest episode of Variations of a Theme has a focus on the Mind's Eye, and an interview with Pete Gage, previously best known as a fantastic keyboard player and singer - he was the voice of Dr Feelgood during the 1990s - who has now published a book of his poems and mandalas. His interview starts at 13.50 in (pausing for John Lennon's Mind Games at 26 minutes, and restarting at 37.00 -49.00) and is a fascinating account of Pete's creative sensitivity and processes, with a beautiful reading of his poem about Robert Schumann written in Bonn. Pete's readings show a sensitivity that may surprise many who know him mainly from his mega-popular blues band, and the mandalas are all quite beautiful - order from Pete here, or from Hunting Raven Books.

As we cautiously emerge into new national regulations, all balancing desire to maintain safe social barriers against the detrimental effects of isolation on our mental health, Frome's Sun Inn opened its newly-improved premises for a live gig from The Hoodoos. No dancing, seating spacey, masks worn at the bar, and the exuberance of this multitalented sextet all combined to make this one a must-do for me.  Live music is the life blood of our community, it seems, and as the long sunny evenings wane it will be hard to resist such events.

In fresh air again on Sunday for 'Open Gardens' day in Nunney village giving access to some splendid vistas: Eleanor and I travelled with Gordon Alexander and another friend to tour twelve of the superb gardens listed, choosing Midhurst as our favourite for its  layered layout, vibrant colours, and its feisty feline incumbent - but all of them really were gorgeous. Our trip was top'n'tailed with cake & tea in the church at the start, and excellent Sauvignon in The George before we headed homeward at sunset.

Concluding this week of dark clouds as well as sunshine with a look back at the Frome Festival at the start of the month, inspired by a great set of images sent me by official photographer Alan Denison - here's wonderful Liv Torc leading us off with me giggling in the background - and his fellow Frome Wessex Camera Club member, David Chedgy who caught the set-off moment of the Slavery Sedition & Sin walk around Frome, effectively led by historian David Lassman with me chipping in from time to time.