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The Bardic Trials

And it came to pass that Stony’s got a brand new Bard.  All hail poet Sam Upton!  Crowned (or rather, cloaked) after an absorbing contest with accomplished storyteller and laidback one-time Texan Lynette Hill at York House Centre.  Tellingly, Sam delivered his statement of Bardic Intent acknowledging the tradition and the work of previous holders of the post in verse form.  Shame there were only two up for it this year, but it was a good contest, and a fine evening’s entertainment was put together by the Bardic Council and outgoing Bard – Bard 007 Mr Stephen Hobbs – nevertheless.  Sam will have a hard job to match Steve’s work rate.

Fay Roberts held a buzzing audience still and entranced with a poem delivered entirely in Welsh – I add No, really! for those who’ve never seen her – while Northampton’s Bard Mitchell Taylor‘s was an energetic (with much poetic striding) and passionate set, by turns personal and political.  Original stuff from singer-songwriter from Dawn Ivieson, in fine voice.  Professional comedian James Sherwood finished the evening off in style.  He had me in stitches, not least when – sat at and playing keyboard – singing and raging against the mathematical inexactitude all too often found in popular songs.  Wish I could remember some culprits other than 50 ways to leave your lover (in which just 5 are listed); there was that Cher song …

The Pantomime

The Stony Stratford Theatre Society‘s 3rd annual panto,  Dick Whittington in Stonyland was a hoot, with all the traditional trimmings, complete with plenty of nods to the locality and no little originality from playwright (and Principal Boy) Danni Kushner (no surnames on the handout, no surnames here … except this one … for the writer).  Great ensemble performance (Oh, yes it was), invidious to single out etc etc (Oh, no it isn’t), because as Dame, troubadour Roddy’s Sally the Cook is already legend; not bad for a first acting role – “Oh, you won’t believe your eyes / at the size of Sally’s pies.”  Another first was Danni singing solo – who knew there’s a folk singer in there as well?  [Photos © Denise Dryburgh]

The Talk

Sarah Churchwell, prof of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the Uni of London, delivered a bit of an eye-opener at the Library for those who think of Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby as rooted in, and symbolic of, the Jazz Age.  No.  As she enthusiastically demonstrated, published in 1925, almost as a warning, it is pointedly and set in 1922,  highlighting with some telling slides what was in the news that year, and suggesting 1922 was to the celebrated Jazz Age what 1962 was to Swinging Sixties.

She expanded her subject to look at anti-immigrant origins in the 1920s of the first America First movement, and its links with the KKK.  I almost bought the book, though I have piles waiting to be read at home, she’s that charismatic a performer.  We didn’t have lecturers like her back in the day.

This talk, along with a handful of others, and various other events that I didn’t make it to – and those I did, above and below –  were all part of the programme of the splendid 14th Annual StonyWords literary festival.

Roger McGough. Photo © Andy Powell, who seemed to be everywhere, sound engineering and performing: so here’s a thumbs up.

That Roger McGough

Tickets for Roger McGough at York House were sold out even before the StonyWords programme was printed.  Resplendent in red sneakers he delighted a packed crowd with material that was new to the vast majority of the audience (and certainly to me).  Refreshingly none of the greatest hits were called upon; at the age of 80 he’s a sprightly and dapper performer, and still writing.  [One, um, golden oldie, Let me die a young man’s death cites the ages 73,91, and 104.  Not as much a hostage to fortune as Pete Townshend’s “Hope I die before I get old” in the Who’s (and their middle-aged tribute bands’) My generation, but then, they still do that. ]

Saying he was often accused of being ‘too sentimental’ he went out of his way to disabuse that with a neat reworking of one piece.  He was very funny, but at the same time, with a broad-ranging selection of an hour’s worth of material, not afraid to give us pause for thought.  I did succumb here, bought the autobiography.

This StonyMusicHall4

The Prince of Wales Rattlers. Photo © Andy Powell

Even without The Prince of Wales Rattlers, special guests from over the Northamptonshire border closing the show, StonyMusicHall4 would have been a grand affair.

What did we have?  With various multi-talented members of the Stony Steppers never far away we had: a sand dance, a recitation, a  clog dance (Daisy), singalong Vera Lynn, Whispering grass (from Two Men not called Matt, with accents slipping), a surreal chorus line dance routine involving half black/half white costumes, Mr Ferneyhough and concertina implanting an earworm (“With her ‘ead / tucked / underneath her arm“), some stunning slapstick choreography on If I was not a clog dancer, and … an act I’ve forgotten, I fear; sorry, please do tell.

The Rattlers started off with a couple of temperance hymns.  Too late, the barrels were empty.  Then continued with material more from the folk than music hall tradition but fully the latter in spirit, (and they elided somewhere in there historically anyway (didn’t they?)).  Great four-part harmonies, a moveable feast of musical accompaniment, a fine comedic turn, much jollity.
And so home with a big grin all over one’s face.

Them Theatre pop-ups

Caught one of these – the Light Programme, as opposed to the Dark Programme – in the Library.  A selection of rehearsed readings from a shifting cast of members of the Stony Stratford Theatre Society including a couple of Alan Bennett monologues, a bit of Bard and another old dude, excerpts from Alan Ayckbourn, the Stoppard Rosencrantz and Wossname, and a surprising piece (well, to me) from Chekhov that I wish I could remember*.  Good show, Caz & Co.

*The sneeze; the evils of tobacco – thanks Caz.

 

 

 

 

 

Pop-up theatre in the library

 

 

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OMR

We were there on a three-line whip from one of the Old Mother Redcaps folk dance team, to partake of the delights of the May Day celebration down by the canal in Campbell Park, put on by the Milton Keynes Parks Trust. We overhear a man saying to his partner, “Better than Midge Ure at The Stables?”  Says she, “A load of women having a good time, laughing and dancing?  What could be better than that?”  His only response: “Whatever floats your boat.”  [Click on them and then click again to upsize the photos, © DRQ].

Manx Folk Dance Society in MK

Old Mother Redcaps, local dancers out of Stony Stratford in the Manx tradition, were hosting members of The Manx Folk Dance Society, over from the Isle of Man, or Ellan Vannin as some might say.  (Land of my great great great-grandfather for what it’s worth.)  A mixed troupe, it was all very gentle and polite, courtly even at times.  Near the end they had a mash-up of home and away:

OMR MFDS mash up

And then there came Hemlock Morris, a mixed alternative morris side out of Bedford.  A darker side, as they say on their website.  Shades of goth, sporting Suffragette colours against the black.  Faces daubed, wielding sticks of varying size, accompanied a dog.

Hemlock04

Not the most violent of sticks sides I’ve seen, but bearers of great joie de vivre.  How the traditionalists must hate them.  Tough.

Hemlock 02

All this, and earlier, the, as ever, rather splendid Concrete Cowboys made some new friends:

CC1

Also mentioned in despatches

Aortas 260415Vaultage 30042015Scribal blankAt Aortas Dan Plews would have debuted a new song celebrating the Northampton’s footwear industry heritage if he hadn’t left the words at home.  That he was cajoled into playing Wonderwall was an entirely unrelated incident.  Breaking news: Naomi Rose too played a cover – the wonderfully obscure Ingrid Bergman (Words Woody Guthrie, music Billy Bragg – you remember).  Ralph Keats, with the confidence gained from a world tour of Swansea behind him, was everywhere.

As was Mark Owen, but it was at Vaultage that his See the dancing bears – on the night of the party leaders’ Question Time on telly – instilled itself as a not unwelcome earworm for the next few days until it got replaced by “Sailing over the Dogger Bank to Great Grimsby;” but I jump ahead of myself.  Mitchell Taylor surprised with a version of The last of the steam-powered trains – one of my favourite Kinks songs.  A nod to hosts Lois – Readjust a fine song written around such an unmusical word – and Pat.

Sunday Scribal started off metaphorically all a bit Scribal fought the drunks and … but against all the expectations of poetic metre … the music and poetry won.  Nicely held together by Terri and Steve (Richard sitting this one out, unfit, on the subs’ bench) Mark was both warm-up and featured artist (even though the poster never got made) with what is now an excellent political trilogy, satirical, thoughtful and angry; Getting away with it just keeps getting better.  Poet Danni Antagonist was on fire, but what made this Scribal memorable was an unaccompanied Tim Hague venturing solo into choppier waters than I would guess he’s used to.  Bet he’s never been whooped at before like that.  Tables were thumped, empty glasses vibrated across tables, and I daresay there were a few there who’d never joined in with a shanty before.  I speak of the aforementioned Dogger Bank.  Google has failed me in identifying ‘a proper jub-er-ju’ (it gets ‘triggered’ in the chorus), never mind a fake or improper one.

[For the record, Lillabullero seems to have fallen into a chronicling role in the matter of various musical delights in the town of Stony Stratford, but I’ve never mentioned the great Sunday lunchtime sessions in the Vaults – the longest continuously running folk session in the land it is claimed – and there’s a reason for that.  It’s one of those things that should and shouldn’t be taken for granted, and I am not worthy.  It’s a sit-down performer’s thing and all I can contribute in the circumstances is to enhance the bar takings standing at the back with a beer glass in hand drinking in the fine music and good vibes.]

Can’t finish without mentioning a book …

WH-Auden-001I’ve been reading an absorbing biography of W.H.Auden that has revealed much (to me, anyway) – like, he was a speed freak for over three decades, and, even as a teenager at Oxford (before teenagers were invented) he was telling people, “I mean to be a great poet” – and I’ll probably be writing more about the book another time.

A friend recently expressed surprise on discovering that he was older than Nigel Farage.  OK.  The number one hit song in the pop charts the week Nigel Farage was born was Can’t buy me love by the Beatles.  Yes, he’s only 51.  What happens?  At a tangent, I have only recently discovered that I have survived on the planet longer than W.H.Auden, despite all those iconic shots of him looking well ancient.  1907-1973.  Benzedrine, booze, cigarettes: the Christian life – it’s a fascinating story.  [Added May 10: So I get to page 330 and then the writer (Richard Davenport-Hines) tells me, “Auden had apparently been suffering since early manhood from Touraine-Solente-Gole syndrome in which the skin of the forehead, face, scalp, hands and feet becomes thick and furrowed …” Still, the drink and drugs can’t have helped.  Nevertheless, thanks R D-H.]

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tmmkgWhat is time?  How do we order the past, the present, and the future.  Why are artists interested in time?  How is art a machine, vehicle, or device for exploring time?  How is art a means by which time ‘travels’, and how does art permit us to travel in time?

This is the way in to MK Gallery‘s latest show, How to construct a time machine, from the press release of which that opening quote is taken.  You enter under Ruth Ewan‘s We could have been anything that we wanted to be (2011).  Yup, only ten hours.  It harks back (nostalgically?) to the revolutionary Republican calendar of 1793 in France.  The exhibition is a fruitful and entertaining way to spend some time, and we will return to it later in this post.  Meanwhile, let us consider the book as a time machine – two books, actually – and visit a period when England was actively trying to decide what it wanted to be more than usual.

LamentationLamentation (Mantle, 2014) is the sixth in C.J.Sansom‘s distinguished sequence of weighty historical crime novels featuring the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake, set in the reign of Henry VIII.  Innocent traitor (2006) was popular historian Alison Weir‘s first novel after nearly two decade’s worth of non-fiction mostly touching on the same era.  The lead protagonists of both novels witness the burning at the stake of the heretic Anne Askew at Smithfield in 1546; Henry’s 6th wife – Katherine Parr – features strongly in each book as a good woman; and his prolonged miserable death is a very big deal in both – well it would be, you’d suppose.

That I read them one after another was pure coincidence; I’ve followed Sheldrake’s fortunes from the start in 2003’s Dissolution, while Innocent traitor was the latest Book Group book.  Add the spellbinding adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall on the telly and a surfeit of Tudors could threaten, were the latter not so beautifully done; Thomas Cromwell – not one of Shardlake’s favourite people when alive – is long gone by the time the novels begin.  And what a time: when failure to believe in transubstantiation – that the bread and wine taken at Catholic Mass actually become the blood and body of Christ – could be fatal; when even sacramentarianism, the sop of metaphor, just wasn’t good enough.

Innocent traitorWhile its narrative is driven by events at – and it spends a fair amount of time in –  royal residences and the corridors of power, Lamentation also shows us Tudor London in its vivid entirety.  Along with the sights, sounds and smells of its mean streets and the river you get to see an interesting selection of London’s other ranks.  The drama of Innocent traitor, on the other hand, is almost exclusively played out in the opulent royal courts and in the mansions of the high and mighty.  Similarly, while the issue in Innocent traitor is seen simply as being between Catholic and Protestant, in Lamentation we get to meet some real radicals, those handy folk devils – socialist Levellers precursors no less – the Anabaptists.

Lamentation is an astute, gripping, sometimes violent, layers-of-the-onion conspiracy thriller, an examination of the nitty-gritty of realpolitik at close quarters, delivered with a beating heart and a finely tuned moral core.  A sub-plot involves a hopeless legal case Sheldrake has been engaged in, which functions as both light relief and to underscore what is going on in the wider world.  There is an easy continuity of Shardlake’s likeable social circle with previous volumes; you care about him and his friends.  He gets involved again against his better judgment, basically because he fancies the Queen; not that anything’s ever gonna happen but, you know, she’s got a nice smile.  What I found particularly interesting this time around is his growing disillusion with it all, his radicalisation.  Here’s the evidence.  Postmodernist intrusion? – maybe, but not beyond the realms after what he’s seen:

  • I no longer had sympathies with either side in the religious quarrel, and sometimes doubted God’s very existence … (p6)
  • Nicholas shook his head firmly.  “Now the war is over, prosperity will surely return.  And the security of everyone depends on people staying within the ranks to which they were born.  Otherwise we should have the anarchy of the Anabaptists.”
    That bogey again.  I said, “I confess the more I see of mankind, the more I think we are all of one common clay.” (p160)
  • “I thought the proceeds from the monasteries would be used to bring justice to the poor; that the King, as Head of the Church, would have a regard to what the old church did not.  Yet all that money went on extending Whitehall and other palaces, or was thrown away on the war.  No wonder some folks have gone down more radical paths.” (p225)
  • I looked over all these rich men and women and thought of Timothy, somewhere alone out on the streets.  The notion came to me that perhaps the Anabaptists had something after all: a world where the gulf between the few rich and the many poor did not exist, a world where preening peacocks like Thomas Seymour and Serjeant Blower wore wadmol and cheap leather might not be so bad a place after all. (p561)

Right on, brother Shardlake!  Who it is almost time to leave, save to ponder what it can mean as the hunchback lawyer says, when mightily surprised, “I sat bolt upright” – a miracle? – and wonder how he’s going to fare in the months and years to come after Henry’s death, which is the crisis at the heart of Alison Weir‘s book.  Something to look forward to.  I note that Sansom has already cleverly set his man up with a young mate who is to achieve a prominent position when Elisabeth is on the throne, but there’s a lot of muddy water to wade through before that happens.

Innocent traitorThe innocent traitor of Innocent traitor is Lady Jane Grey: at age 16, the 9-day queen, holder of the record for the shortest reign of any English monarch.  The girl was cruelly used as a pawn by her parents and various others at court in order both to secure a Protestant succession to the throne and as a blatant exercise in self-aggrandisement.  She ended up – spoiler alert – quite unjustly, because of the specific utter stupidity of her very own father, losing her head, as happened quite often in those times.  I knew nothing of her story before reading this, but I do now, and for this sympathetic retelling I am grateful.

I wasn’t quite as annoyed by certain aspects of Innocent traitor as some in my Book Group.  Because of time constraints (I was reading Lamentation) I skim-read a lot of it and so missed the others’ detailed objections to the prose, the unlikely adverbial and adjectival elaborations, that particularly got up people’s noses.  The tale is told in first person mode by a number of participants including Jane herself, her Lady Macbeth of a mother (the book opens with her giving birth to Jane), her loyal loving serving woman Mrs Ellen, Queen Katherine Parr, Queen Mary to be, and a couple of others, with the final words coming from The Executioner (which was rather a nice touch, I thought).  The trouble is, they all sound the same, with practically no variation in voice at all, even from Mrs Ellen, the closest to a pleb we get in these pages.  As first person narratives they work better as third person voiceovers for a tv documentary.  The one that really made us laugh in bemusement was Jane’s, “Today I am four year’s old,” followed by some elaborate scene-setting with no concessions to toddler talk, which might have been interesting.  And her mum telling us, early on, “After two disastrous marriages, and a cataclysmic quarrel with the Pope, my uncle, King Henry VIII, at last has a son and heir” is no isolated example.

I was moved by Jane’s plight, I’ll admit, but I didn’t cry, so according to the quote on the cover of the paperback edition, I “must have a heart of stone“.  “What young girl would not giver her all to be Queen of England?” Tom Seymour (for it is he) asks rhetorically.  Alas, not poor bullied Jane, the kind of gal who scorns all the young nobles out a-hunting: “Their sport is but a shadow to the pleasure I find in Plato.  Poor souls, it seems to me they do not know what pleasure means,” she tells her tutor.  Maybe, but she didn’t have a chance to have much fun.

Back to the Time Machine …

Time machineThere is much to engage with in How to construct a time machine – Mark Wallinger’s highly reflective aluminium TARDIS which “disappears into the space-time continuum by reflecting its own surroundings” and the butterflies ‘flying’ in the zoetrope, to mention but two – but the thing that really absorbed me, and I shall probably go back and watch it all the way through, just because, was Thomson & Craighead‘s The Time Machine in Alphabetical Order (2010), a re-editing of the classic 1960 film of the H.G.Wells novel featuring Rod Taylor as the time traveller; that’s right, only the one with the actual time machine prop the lads successfully bid for on eBay in an episode in the first series of The Big Bang Theory .  Each word of dialogue, and the spaces in between after the last words of a sequence (I appreciated the rest), appear in alphabetical order.  Never mind the artspeak justification, it works because you vaguely know the story, but it also works … beyond narrative.  I guffawed loudly a number of times in the 15 minutes I was in there in two sessions (it runs for 1 hour, 36 minutes) and hung around for specific words: ‘love’, for one – just the once, as it happens.  You probably have to experience it to understand why I’m so enthusiastic, but for the high frequency words like ‘time’, ‘machine’ or ‘future’ the rapid fire succession of speakers and backgrounds is a joy to behold.  If I were to meet the perpetrators I would not be able not to ask whether they took at least some inspiration from the notorious Short f***ing version compilation of The Big Lebowski(Go on: you probably want to).

Before I move on I’ll say something about the gallery experience.  Another of the exhibits is a small (non-flat) television showing a performance of John Cage‘s 4’33 – you know, the one where the concert pianist sits at the piano and ‘plays’ silence (in three movements) for precisely 4 minutes and 33 seconds.  The telly’s on the floor and on the wall above it there’s a facsimile of the original score sheets (oh, yes – full of rests).  Now you can see the same bit of film right here on your computer or other digital device in much better picture (and sound) quality, but … context … it’s just different, worth being there.

Briefly, some other cultural adventures …

In chronological order:

Scribal Feb 2015

Archivists of the future please note: Glass Tears were nowhere to be seen.

HB Scribal 5What can I say?  It was Scribal‘s fifth birthday and there was cake courtesy of Caz.  The mighty Antipoet were mighty lots of things, among them being rhythm section to the wonderful Dodobones, who were surviving admirably after their self-imposed cover-a-day for a month stint on YouTubeMitchell Taylor showed a sensitive side but still managed to shout/sing “Fascist scum” with some glee at another song’s end; shame because his The blood of St George stands well enough (nay, better) without it.  New Bard Pat Nicholson continues to blossom in the role.  Can’t remember much else about it.

SSSAnother grand night at York House for S.S.Shanty! 3, a benefit for the RNLI. (for non-MK readers the SS stands for Stony Stratford, as well as the traditional nautical nomenclature).  An acapella evening of great variety with, naturally, a maritime theme one way or the other.  We had the many-handed Sloop Groggy Dogg from the shores of Woburn Sands, barber shop from B-Flat, a round the world trip from Oxford’s Manchoir, and the stirring Trim & Doxy up from Liverpool (one of whom played accordion).  The sheer power of The Five Men Not Called Matt (all 6 of ’em) gets me every time, with, this night, the occasional sweet bonus of aiding and abettment from Michèle Welbourn.  All the beer was drunk.  Unexpected were the low-level murmurings of demurral at the last mentioned (wait for it) when MC Ken kicked off the evening by addressing the assembled multitude, “Ladies, Gentlemen, and UKIP supporters.”

All six of The Five Men Not Called Matt in action.  Photo (c) Alison Holden.

All six of The Five Men Not Called Matt in action. Photo (c) Alison Holden.

esAnd then there was Matthew Bourne‘s splendid production of Edward Scissorhands at the theatre.  Has to be one of the highlights of the year already.  I’ll say it again: I don’t do ballet, but I do do Matthew Bourne.  What’s to add?  All the superlatives.  Even though I’ve never actually seen the Tim Burton movie, I’ll presume you know the story.  It had everything.  Energy, humour, wit, rhythm, romance, compassion, satire, a touch of goth.  Brilliant moves, exhilarating ensemble work, suitably corny stage business and a great set.  Glorious shiny happy ’50s American suburban stereotypes paraded and parodied, and the fears lurking behind.  Dominic North as Edward was magnificent.  Was moved greatly by the dramatic, then poignant, ending.  And we got snowed on.  Biggest genuine standing ovation I’ve ever been a part of.

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