Sunday, February 27, 2022

Small joys among turbulence. Lets hang on to them.

A quiet week, unless you count horrific international belligerence and national gales plus a sleet-storm here in Frome. Let's begin more cheerfully, with current and upcoming exhibitions; 

Eddie Martin is probably best known as a well-respected blues musician, with specialism in slide guitar and harmonica, but his newly-opened exhibition at the 
WHY Gallery reveals his painting skills too. Mostly on paper rather than canvas, these still-life images in vivid colours have a vibrance that is, as Eddie agrees, almost musical. He draws the outlines initially in black paint with a fine brush, and says 'It's the first take that has the energy- just like music.'  

A pre-launch now, as the museum prepares its upcoming exhibition to celebrate some of the 'Celebrated Women of Frome' throughout history. Scheduled to start on International Women's Day - March 8th this year - and to continue until the end of the Frome Festival, this promises to raise awareness of several amazing women including four pioneers who feature in my book Frome Unzipped, from Prehistory to Post-Punk. Credit for this major initiative goes to historian David Lassman, seen here discussing the popularity, in her day, of poetess Elizabeth Rowe with the portrait of this lady which has now been beautifully restored by Rosario Trivellini.  who joined the celebratory soiree at the museum on Saturday.

Theatre spot:  An Hour and a Half Late by Gerald Sibleyras with Jean Dell, at Theatre Royal Bath.  
In the 1980s series The Young Ones, as oldies may recall, there’s an episode which begins with Rik Mayall raging “Five minutes before the most important party of my life and the house is destroyed by a giant sandwich!” and that, sort of, is the impulse of the plot, so to speak, of this drama.  In a living room that is the epitome of affluent good-taste, a couple are about to go out for a dinner at which they will eventually arrive an hour and a half later. He is Peter, celebrating his early retirement; she is Laura, indulging her late mid-life crisis. They will run the gamut of recriminations, accusations, confessions, laments and longings, and then - as we know from the title - finally, go out to dinner. 
As always with Theatre Royal Bath, the set is splendid: designer Fotini Dimou perfectly evokes the style, taste, and income of such households while also allowing for a wide range of visual shenanigans as the tempo of the debate rises in diverse directions. Both Griff Rhys Jones and Janie Dee seem to relish the opportunities for parody in their characters’ life-styles, as well as their disparity in future visioning. While Peter hasn’t really thought this through - his big aim seems to be indulging a childish passion for tuck-shop-style treats - Laura has gone all out for free-ranging overthinking: past, present, and future are all in the mixer for her, and most of the living-room gets embroiled in emotional chaos too. Belinda Lang adapted & directed this happy-ending story of an non-event crisis in a well-off household. 

Music!  Rosco Shakes, whose Frome visit had sadly clashed with Wednesday's theatre, provided another chance to enjoy their brilliant high-energy performance at the Bell Inn in Bath's Walcott Street on Sunday afternoon. 
This talented line-up (bass, singer/drummer, guitar, percussion, sax) led off with a funky St James Infirmary Blues and kept the bluesy vibe strong, enticing dancers of varying ages. A great way to end a week of storms and trepidation, and with sunshine outside too..
Ending this week with an image of some of the magnificent Turkey Tail mushrooms on the flat stump of the much-mourned lost copper beech in the churchyard of St Johns in Frome, looking like a resting murmuration of butterflies.  This is where we all say, Isn't Nature Wonderful... because it is.


Sunday, February 20, 2022

Art thrice, poetry twice, and some witchery.

The Whittox Gallery opened five years ago, after this old chapel was converted to a thriving eatery plus an art gallery in the balcony area: RISE has already hosted fourteen stunning exhibitions, and on Friday their celebratory 'Retrospective' exhibition opened in party style. The variety of previous shows created an impressive diversity of pieces, from the 'playful Renaissance devotional imagery' of Leslie Glenn Damhus (R) to the We Feed The World exhibition from the Gaia foundation. As always, great hospitality from Ed and Sarah, and the wonderful backdrop of the massive organ in its starry alcove.

Still with art: 
having found that the new Frome Gallery opened by Ray Jones had a twin (or possibly elder sibling) in Woolverton, it seemed a good idea to take a look there too. Most of the paintings in this excellent collection show the same love of vivid colour and story-telling, like this landscape by Moira Hazel.  Here too, in contrast, is a tree-painting from Frome artist Alexandra Howell, "I’m quietly obsessed by light and shadow, colour and texture and constantly inspired by the natural world," the artist says. (These impressive pieces aren't scrunched together like this in the Gallery btw, but this blog's formatting won't let me show two images together any other way... tips gratefully accepted)

And Alexandra's tree painting segues nicely to these two new works from Frome artist Clive Walley. Rewinding to last October, the Somerset Open Studios had included Clive's atmospheric paintings which evoked for me the arborial foliage along the path beside the river walk. I sent him a copy of my photo, and Clive has now created two versions of this view, intriguingly seen behind an imagined netting between the viewer and the foliage, which not only adds slim lights to the shadows but also evokes an emotional connection with feelings about stolen land, as evoked in books like Trespass, and Who Owns England? Here's Clive with both these beautiful, powerful, paintings. 
Poetry now, with poet & writer Julie Mullen who runs The Word Cafe on radio from Totnes and invited me to participate on Thursday. Among the excellent poets, main guest George Szirtes read from his new collection with BloodaxeFresh Out of the Sky ,and talked about his work. My contribution (at 1:08) was a phone chat with Julie in anticipation of What's It Like For You? soon to be published by Caldew Press. This is a collaboration with poet Hazel Stewart which we developed on Zoom during lockdown, recreating our performance personae as Live & Lippy. You can hear the title piece of this collection near the end of this recording of the show - with apologies to Hazel for my terrible Scots accent when reading her lines. And big thanks to Julie!

Back in Frome, Monday's poetry workshop at Black Swan Arts, ably led by Wendy Perry, had a theme to suit the date, with valentine emblems as triggers for writing and some favourite love poems shared. You can see some of the outcomes on the Words at the Black Swan facebook page here

Still with words, as three Zoom options clashed this week & after a difficult choice, my pick was an online seminar on Witchcraft, Magic, and Society in C19th  Somerset by Professor Owen Davies, from the Regional History Centre &  Bristol M Shed.  Rural Somerset was apparently obsessed by fears of bad magic in times when farming was the main wealth: failures in dairy produce were attributed to spells, and people travelled miles to use the mysterious services of the 'cunning folk' to identify culprits. Here's Billy Brewer, 'Wizard of the West', the most renowned of such witch-detectors. According to Prof Davies most supposed 'curses' were just consequences of bad luck or malice; the 1736 Act repealed laws against witchcraft while ironically imposing imprisonment on the 'magical' folk who claimed to counter their power. A fascinating talk, perhaps with antecedents to the current 'blame' culture in the UK... who knows.

And with stormy winds unabated, here's hoping you stay safe!

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Striking art, funky music, & other entertainments...

Regular followers of this blog may recall that one of my much-lamented covid losses was the Ida Applebroog exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in Bruton. This box has now been ticked, and exploring this extraordinary work on Thursday afternoon gave, probably, a better viewing experience than the party on opening night could have allowed. Both galleries are filled with Ida's bizarre 'scavenging' art style, involving repeated themes of pain, gender politics, and family relationships. There's a lot of violence and violation, expressed in story-telling that varies from comic-book jokiness to savagery: it's extraordinary to realise that this boundary-breaking woman was born in 1927 and has been producing challenging artwork for half a century. 
The current exhibition is curated really well, and visitors can take home a 'goodybag' set of reproductions of some of Ida's key works - a really generous touch, especially as the show is free to enter (though you do have to pre-book and choose a time, to ensure no overcrowding.) Showing till May, lots of time to book see it, and the ever-lovely gardens too.

Back in Frome, where a new art gallery is always exciting: This one at 22 Christchurch Street West is called simply The Frome Gallery, and is a sibling of the Woolverton Gallery, displaying work from several of the same artists and also curated by artist Ray Jones. Here (above) is Ray with one of his trios of famous faces. Strong colours are important to him when selecting work to exhibit: he has some wonderful pieces from highly regarded local names like Amanda Bee, Moira Hazel, and David Wilkie - who created this painting She Sold Me Magic - and several others.
Still with visual art: the National Gallery in London has released more its excellent - free - short online talks about the treasures in its collection. Among various options, there's a fascinating surmise of Bart Cornelius, curator of Dutch & Flemish paintings, about the  real story of Rembrandt's painting of 'A Woman Bathing in a Stream.'

Moving on to music now - and yes, it's wonderful Rosco Shakes again at Bar Lotte - the full team this time: (L-R) Josh, Dom, Ned,Tim, and Steve all on fabulous form. These lads either rehearse every waking moment or they're intuitive geniuses - there never seems any doubt who's doing what when - and their sound is instantly exhilarating, so there's dancing in the bar from the start.
Also accompanied by energetic audience action, the annual Frome Punk Festival at the Cheese & Grain offered an evening of popular local live bands.  Here's the ever-wonderful Raggedy Men, recreating the incendiary sounds of the late-70s with a few added riffs - lighting in the hall, as evidenced here, was more for mood than clear illumination, but that didn't matter to the avid audience and dancers.

Theatre now, as New Old Friends deliver Crimes, Camera, Action, their spoof tale of a hard-boiled private-dick negotiating murder and blonde bombshells in golden-era-Hollywood.  Most of the entertainment is provided by the ever-more-elaborate negotiation of props and costumes in ever-more-unlikely crime scenarios, and while some of it incomprehensible, a lot of it is very funny indeed.  Great to see a full house at The Merlin, & a young audience clearly enjoying the show. Here's a sneaky shot of one device they used to boost the (apparent) number of performers, in one of the most hilarious moments. 

Frome's Proof Pudding Book Club, the brainchild of Hunting Raven Bookshop's inspirational doyenne Tina Gaysford-Waller, met on Sunday to review & discuss new imprints - and eat cake - at River House. It's a great format: small group discussions, plus a final feedback to share the most interesting titles. And we keep our proof copy! My lucky random choice this month was Who Are We Now? by Jason Cowley, a non-grabby title for a profoundly felt & well-argued analysis of post-Brexit Britain - how it happened, and what next.... 

Ending this edition with a view from the sunnier start of the week: the field beyond the beautiful church of Mells. This lovely little village tracks its fascinating history from Mesolithic days (c. 6000 BC) and that quaint circle of trees, according to a local historian, is the remains of a round barrow, one of only a few of these Neolithic burial places still surviving. 


Sunday, February 06, 2022

Out & about! Vienna, Belfast, & a phantom landscape

Bristol Old Vic director Tom Morris pulled off what many will consider an impressive coup when Mark Rylance agreed to develop his own personal project with this theatre company: the result is Dr Semmelweis, the true story of the doctor who found a way to fight the virus killing women in childbirth in the 19th Century. With hindsight it seems quite extraordinary that hundreds of women died because the experts in charge hadn't thought that washing their hands after dissecting cadavers before thrusting them into the bodies of women in labour might be a good idea, but this was the revolutionary and life-saving concept that Dr Semmelweis came up with before sadly parting company with his sanity, along with his wife and reputation.  This is a stunning production and we in the southwest are privileged that Mark Rylance brought his personal project - which actually predates the current pandemic - to Bristol Old Vic.  News is out now that Tom Morris is stepping down as artisic director of the theatre he steered to high international reputation during the last 12 years - I can't believe it's actually that long since I persuaded Tom to a breakfast meeting at the quayside to talk about his plans for Plays International. Under his steerage, Bristol Old Vic has been transformed physically as well as artistically: this production, with its emphasis on essential innovation against all odds, is curiously apt despite the personal tragedy of Dr Semmelweis himself. 

It's not a straight-foward hurtle from obstetrics to madness, however: there is much reverie and wafting dance, mostly by dream images, en route, and some violent rows as the pioneering Hungarian doctor is obstructed by the hostility of his superior (Alan Williams) and by his own unfortunate manner: an incoherence mingled with arrogance and, sadly, the approaching insanity which finally claims him. Mark Rylance is mesmeric in this role, managing to hold the audience's hopes that he may battle through his own crazy notions just as he battled through those of the hospital authorities', and come through somehow in the end. The set, conceived by Ti Green, effectively evokes an alien clinical environment while also providing balconies where the ghostly mothers, murdered by bad science, dance around in the mind of tortured, obsessive, Dr Semmelweis. (Choreography Antonia Franceschi, diaphanous costumes by Ti Green.) Oh, and a big shout-out to Ewan Black, playing 'off book' so seamlessly he had special applause at the end.

Ethereal dance-drama without spoken exchanges now, as Mark Bruce Company premiered their new production Phantoms at Frome's Merlin Theatre. This triple bill delivers all the intense atmospheric imagery and phenomenal skill in movement and mood that we've come to expect from this company. This was a triple bill, opening with two shorter pieces: Green Apples featured music by White Stripes as two dancers relate intensely to each other, and Folk Tales evoked quirky narratives of loves, betrayals and handed-on stories from the tapestry of our past. The final piece in this triology, Phantoms, opens in a landscape of beasts & strange savagery as well as extraordinary beauty in movement and connection. Ever-changing lighting effects & set details enhanced the mood of a dream - or a nightmare - of startling intensity. Phantoms will be touring nationally: we're privileged to have hosted the first performance in Frome.

 On to the movies now, and I have to admit I was disappointed in Belfast. It's set in 1970, just at the start of the the Troubles I remember well - living with a toddler and a baby in the centre of a city suddenly overtaken with civil war isn't something you readily forget - and this story opens with a barrage of street conflict as catholics in a 'mixed' street are assaulted with firebombs. So far, so nightly news. After that it goes a bit cute and goey. The boy is supposed to be nine, I discovered later, having taken him for much younger throughout. He's mad about the movies so we get snippets of popular 1970s films in full colour, to contrast with the monochrome of the backstreets - a set, not the actual streets, because Branagh was filming throughout the pandemic, which might explain the vaguely un-city-like feel of much of it. "Anybody who turns to “Belfast” for a delve into the roots of the Troubles in Northern Ireland will be frustrated," warns the New York Times, and it's true. Anyone who hopes for more insight into Branagh's formative years than a sentimental youthful crush and a passion for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang will be disappointed. What annoyed me most was the failure to show just how much Northern Ireland is another country, with a language & values that have little in common with the mainland. For an instance, young Kenneth & his cousin discuss how hard it is to know who's Catholic in their Protestant street. Excuse me?  That's like having a couple of south London kids discussing how to work out which of their mates are Caucasian and which Jamaican. Trust me, they know.  "A syrupy memoir offering little insight into a turbulent time," is one trenchant observation on  Rotten Tomatoes, though the Daily Mail thought it was 'an absolute joy.' 

For a more realistic view, also through unaware eyes, you might want to read The Price of Bread, the true story of a young family living in central Belfast when the Troubles erupted, as seen through the eyes of an English girl who came to live in this conflicted city with no idea of the ingrained realities and only hopeful hippy idealism to counter the terrifying hostilities exploding on the streets. You can get a copy from me, or Hunting Raven Books in Frome, or my publishers Hobnob Press - or any other outlet. It's about what it was like when the city streets were filled with blockades, when it wasn't safe to take children uptown, when red-white-and-blue were painted along the kerbs of the backstreets as a  warning, and the colour of your coat could mean the difference between an attack and a safe passing. That's the Belfast I remember. 

And finally... the absolute joy of packing up the jigsaws that cover the floor and rejoining the real world! A bit wobbly - a little bit woah! & a little bit wha? - but definitely in that lovely land called Beyond Covid.  Huge condolences to everyone who had it worse than me, massive thanks to everyone for their gifts & kindness. Here's a Frome market stall in Saturday sunshine, where Tom from Bristol Fungarium is selling chinese-inspired tinctures from mushrooms. 
Being a Leo, with an affinity for lion imagery, it wasn't surprising that the lion mushroom was the one that chose me: this amazing fungus looks like a massive exploded brain, but if it helps me get my house back to some kind of order and cleanliness, that will be magic indeed.