Sunday, January 30, 2022

The week that wasn't

 So this has been the week my luck in swerving the thin red flow-test line ran out, leaving me dutifully isolating amid a litter of cancellations, with only Boris' Partygate debacle and jigsaws for entertainment. So here are the excitements that would otherwise be filling this week's bulletin: 

In pride of place, press night at Bristol Old Vic for Dr Semmelweis, developed from an idea by, and starring, marvellous Mark Rylance. No-one who saw this actor in Jerusalem will ever forget his powerful stage presence, and the theme of a doctor struggling to save lives - albeit in a very different situation from our present one - is bound to chime. This is one cancellation I will definitely replace as soon as it's safe and legal to do so.
Also an immense disappointment was sacrificing my ticket to view BELFAST at the Westway in Frome - Kenneth Brannagh's memory of the Troubles of the late 1960s and early 70s in Northern Ireland. These disturbances are the theme and backdrop to my last novel The Price of Bread, based on my own experience of those fearful and violent days - if the movie stirs you up and you want another angle, you can get my story from Hunting Raven Books or me...      Meantime, that movie is going right back on my to-do list!

Sadly not replaceable is my planned trip to see the Red Dress in Somerton, as it will be en route to its next show-place next week. There's a film here about this impressive project, started in 2009, which has involved hundreds of women decorating the dress with emblems of their culture and their stories. It looks wonderful from the glimpses online - here's one small section of this full-length, voluminous, vivid, luxuriant dress textured with stories of women all around the world. 

Also struck from my diary: the opening night of a new exhibition at Hauser & Wirth on Friday night: Ida Applbroog, a feminist pioneer now in her nineties - the work looks fascinating & I had tickets to be there at the party....You can see the whole tour on this link - but at least this event is on for a while...

Also deleted: meetings with friends, my writers' group, a precious lunch date with my son and his family, a party, and a Burns Night event, with vegan haggis, bashed neeps and tatties followed by cranachan - portions kindly carried over to my house by hostess Emily, but I missed the poetry readings, including our annual favourite:  Tay Bridge Disaster by William McGonagall.  

Still, all in all, what with arrivals of flowers, food, chocolate, wine, jigsaws, offers of provisions and messages of condolence, being incarcerated in Frome isn't a bad experience. If only it were so mild for everyone...

Sunday, January 23, 2022

A dramatic week: absurdity, tragedy, & some poetry...


Who said February was a dull month? This week has been crammed with performance and creativity. Let's start with live theatre:The Late-ivityYes, it is the nativity story from the bible, Jim, but not as we know it.  Living Spit, unabashed that January is trudging onward, has brought their version of the arrival on earth of the Son of God to Bristol’s Wardrobe Theatre at the end of its short revival tour - revived from December’s performances when it was called The Nativity, that is.

The Wardrobe has fantastic audience atmosphere, especially for comedy, and Howard Coggins & Stu McCloughlin are absolutely on top form here - I speak as one who has followed them for over a decade of fantasies and histories, always steeped in absurdity. Here, Howard’s bored God picks a random woman (Howard) to impregnate, so Stu dashes around as an exasperated Gabriel, and both of them morph into shepherds and kings, skimming hilariously through the familiar tale to their own undoubted highlight: Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, recreated by audience participation as scores of dolls were chucked at us to dismember and hurtle back. The stage by the end looked like party leftovers from a cannibal feast. Sadly next week is the end of the run for this show: if you can’t get tickets, keep your fingers crossed for The Later-ivity - this one could run & run.

The recent remake of West Side Story, which has been popular with both reviewers and the public, has been showing at the Westway, Frome's charming little independent cinema: the combination of Spielberg and Sondheim, plus wild passion and hot nights, is clearly unmissable in a chill January, and the Westway has added attractions like icecreams on offer from a tray during the intermission, and a foyer bar. Adding to these small delights, this movie has been very well reviewed by both critics and audiences - and rightly so. This version is, as you'd expect, careful to get ethnicity correct, and also to establish a credible social context for the aggressions of the deprived teens.  Choreography & agility in the dances is as brilliant as you'd expect, and that clever, funny, song Gee Officer Krupke works particularly well as a private ensemble number rather than an unlikely challenge to real authority. It's great, altogether.

Still with drama: a chat in The River House with Frome's writer/performer Hannah Kumari whose one-person show ENG-ER-LAND will be touring the UK from February. As well as celebrating her own passion for football, Hannah says it's an exploration of her own mixed race identity, and what it means to be English. "I wanted to write a play that was fun and uplifting, whilst also confronting big issues," Hannah says. The play is coming to Frome in March, with a showing at the Football Club as well as the Merlin theatre.

This was a rich week for poetry too: Words at the Black Swan ekphrastic poetry group met on Monday to respond to the extraordinary Slow Time exhibition in the Long Gallery which opened last weekend. This fascinating project proved really stimulating to all ten workshop participants- do take a look at the website in the link, there are some extraordinary and beautiful responses to these pinhole landscapes extending Cartier Bresson's concept of a 'decisive moment' into an infinity of time. One of the group, Mike Grenville, also made a film you can view here.

Then Thursday evening Rainbow Fish Speakeasysession on Zoom led by by Frome's wonder-girl Liv Torc included some wonderful words, mostly crafted from heart-felt personal experience, with brilliant guest Rebecca Tantony also movingly personal in her poems: there's a sample of her work here

And after a couple missed Wednesdays, here's your musical blast from wonderful Bar Lotte! Saxophonist Iain Bellamy was with Nick Pini on bass, guest guitarist Denny Ilett, and drums this time from Marc Whitlock. I know nothing about jazz, but I do know that these sessions are fabulous.

And your final footnote this week is a recommendation for all those who for various reasons don't get up to the talks at the National Gallery in London: this is another of their short free-to-view exhibition promo films, this time Albrecht Dürer. It's a fascinating revelation of Dürer's huge impact on artists ever since.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Fast dance, slow art, & Boxes - a week of permitted joys

We live in interesting times, don't we? This is allegedly a Chinese curse but 2022 is taking it literally. Parties and protests, operation Big Dog/ this is the background to January's blog, as Julie Andrews might not have trilled in 1965. However this is an arts blog, so ignoring protest marches & the bumper batch of bulletins about ludicrous misbehaviour in the corridors of power, let's go direct to Frome's Merlin Theatre for a double bill of talent and innovation on Saturday night. First aKa dance theatre presented a speechless solo show of brilliant parody, dance, mime, and mimicry all exquisitely synched to a clever topical soundtrack.  A Real Fiction (do check this link) had the circle of audience transfixed by stunning moves and surreal comedy, including an 'intermission' where we all got jellybabies and concluding with a short series of 'out-takes'.  Next, the fable of Pandora's box was given a new twist with puppetry and current context by Kerchief Theatre in their short performance Boxes - basically a simple piece of story-telling made enchanting by the rapport between the two women performers, Esme Patey-Ford and Maddy Herbert, emerge from boxes with different perspectives which are increasingly highlighted throughout their drama, ultimately resolved not by 'hope' as an  abstract injunction but by their playful Tiktok. There's more about this delightful production here.  

From hi-energy drama to silent art, as Black Swan Arts has re-opened the Long Gallery after its long break for Slow Time, a fascinating exhibition of pin-hole camera photographs taken in Somerset on long settings - a week, a month, or longer. This project began as a creative response to lockdown, inspired initially by Steve Poole & Jannette Kerr who provided neighbours and friends with pin-hole cameras created in cans, and a brief to leave them in any situation for long enough to register the changes of light over time. With support from John Gammans of Somerset Arts Work, this project developed into a fascinating collection of images that in their distorted stillness seem to chime with the strange life-reorientations of our community during these times of stillness imposed by the pandemic. Here's Steve showing me a typical pinhole camera, and one of the images created by months beside an immobilised concrete works when the passing of daylight was its only illumination. (workshops available - check Black Swan site.)

Other than that, my week has had a focus on written word: two live writers' group meetings, now that we're allowed indoors, a meeting of Hunting Raven's Proof Pudding Book Club at River House on Sunday, plus a zoom discussion with Hazel Stewart on the progress of our twin-twin poetry collection (two writers, two reading routes) now that our commissioned cover imagery* has been delivered to our publisher. What's it like for you? and Dance for Those Who'd Rather Not are both pamphlet-length collections jointly devised, exploring & expressing our personal themes as well as our long friendship: we're both beyond thrilled that this Caldew Press, who recently published John Hegley's collection A Scarcity Of Biscuit, has now added us to his stable of quirky poets. *images available soon!

Patchy sun this week has allowed for some very pleasant local walking too, so to conclude this chat on disparate topics, here's Nunney Church looking particularly lovely as the snowdrops in the graveyard start to flower.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Rainy with a chance of Blues

To begin at the end of the week, the undoubted highlight of the year so far was Sunday's gig at The Bell in Bath, with an incredible line-up of top class blues musicians: Jon Amor (guitar & vocals), Pete Gage (keyboard & vocals), Tom Gilkes (drum & percussion), Jerry Soffe (bass) and Eddie Martin (guitar, harp & vocals). 
These musicians are all top class creatives with huge audience-impact in their presentation - I haven't the skills for anything like a coherent review of their musical techniques but their performance together is sensational. The Bell is a great music pub too: raised stage and space for dancing, and an avid audience.

Also with the music, Eleanor Talbot, Frome's international broadcaster on wide-ranging topics, aired another of her popular  'Trash or Treasure' sessions. This was recorded in Ellie's living room last week, with her cats, fizz and cakes, and with Rosie Eliot & me as adjudicating guests. Great fun to participate, and fascinating to listen to such an esoteric mix, expertly guided by Ellie's extensive knowledge of the music world. My personal list would be less esoteric: current 'treasure' is Wet Leg, currently following their brilliant Chaise Longue song with Too Late Now and hopefully heralding a year when bonkers productions are in vogue, as this would be useful for me and Hazel when our double poetry collection What's it Like for You?/Dance for Those who'd Rather Not comes out with Caldew Press this spring. Our awesome cover design is still in progress with ON FIRE so instead here's Wet Leg in their current video 

No theatre shows this week, but the good news that Plays International has gone online, under the editorship of Jeremy Malies, which means my reviews will be immediately available, rather than in 3-monthly chunks which doesn't always help to promote the show. There's a historical archive too, where i'm pleased to see my piece about my father is currently resting...

Finally, an artsy tip for those still unsure of travel: The National Gallery is sharing short 'taster' films about their exhibitions paintings free online: this week's subject was Durer, who appears to have had a healthy respect for his own -undoubtedly magnificent - talent as both a print-maker and a painter. 

Other than these highlights, it was a quietly pleasant week for me: meeting friends and fellow writers, cat-sitting, a meal at Frome's excellent Italian restaurant Castello, and a lot of writing... the  promised snow didn't arrive but at least the bin-men did, clearing away the last of the festivities as rain settled in.  And Stephen Mangan won the House of Games weekly quiz challenge hosted by Richard Osman. 


Sunday, January 02, 2022

Here comes another year, just like the other year...

Bruce Munro's distinctive 'Field of Light' art installation has come to Frome! Well, to Marston Park, actually, the popular glamping site just a 30 minutes walk from Frome, past the threatened southern fields which - if we can't hold back development plans - will all become Frome anyway soon. Anyway, at present there's no residential light contamination around the beautiful big lake, one side of which is adorned for what seemed like (but probably isn't) about a mile of luminous spider-web adorned with thousands of bubbles, flowing in colour from blue to green to pink, purple, and gold. It was a mild night, and the free invitation to locals included a complementary drink (my pick was a negroni, for a touch of scarlet beside the lake) - a sensational enhancement of that tricky last day of the old year.

This 'tricky bit' has been more tricky than usual this year, with parties cancelled and continuing anxiety over every aspect of the news, now the dreaded 'big C' no longer means an overly-commercial event but an international plague. For me the unexpected option of a Boxing Day walk brilliantly illuminated this tween-time week, literally in fact as sunshine reddened the beech-leaf carpet of Roddenbury Hillfort, turning the hilltop into a stage-show of dramatic shadows. I've posted before about this amazing place, just on the edge of Longleat forest, where the contours of Iron Age settlement fortifications are still decipherable as you walk through the lofty trees, without foliage transformed into splendid columns. (Regular readers may notice this data also appears in last week's post: that's because it was a Sunday walk & therefore on the posting-cusp, plus this edition is a bit thin on items, what with the 'tween' lull & covid cancellations.)*

New Year's Eve brought a lovely non-crammed party with friends, chats & fizz - thanks Tracey for the selfie, with hostess Rosie Eliot. Social media has been awash with shared good wishes and positive images, and our Town Council site has posted - here - a wonderful round-up of last year in snaps of successful projects, celebrations, and policies in action.
Rodden Nature Reserve, on the Eastern edge of Frome, is an amazing wetland space which isn't always open to visitors, as the many wild species, some quite rare, need privacy in their breeding seasons. It needs stout boots, but lingering there always brings rewards of birdsong & tranquility, and photographs. My visit this Sunday gave more: a close encounter with an otter!
About ten feet in front of me, standing in shallow water, staring at me. I stood still, not daring to raise my camera, and after a few seconds he darted through the rushes to deeper water, the ripples to showing he was swiftly away. A memorable start to 2022.

Also a good omen, a live music gig: Pete Gage,
Frome's favourite keyboard/vocal star, was featured guest at the Southgate Inn in Devizes when John Amor's R&B trio (Innes Sibun, Jerry Soffe, and Tom Gilkes) played on Sunday afternoon. In the depth of winter, an afternoon gig feels very much like a late night session, and this one had all the energy of a party-night - with Ruzz Guitar joining in with a rocking number.

The more persistent of my readers will recall that the first blog of each new year generally begins with Brendan Kennelly's wonderful poem Begin Again, but for this year's reflection here is some poignant simplicity from Ezra Pound:
    'And the days are not full enough
    And the nights are not full enough
    And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass.'

*You might also notice the font on this post is bigger than usual:comments on this, as in better/worse, will be appreciated - you can do this by clicking the 'comments' link at the end of the blog.