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Stony Stratford – the self-proclaimed ‘Jewel in the Crown of Milton Keynes’ – is a music and poetry town.  All year round.  But one week each year, in early June, it overflows with the stuff.  This is one man’s StonyLive! 2017.  Intention: attend at least something each day.  But I have to pace myself these days.  Sorry if I didn’t make it to your gig. …

In and out of the Day of Dance on the High Street on Saturday, June 3 – many varieties of tripping the light fantastic and Morris sides aplenty, including Red Cuthbert Morris, youngsters out of Bedford – the gentle art of Morris as martial art; and the more local fledgling – pirates ahoy! – Rapskallion Morris.

Bread, eggs and veg purchased at the Saturday market, it was time for  Groundhog Day – or the traditional StonyLive! opener  – and the mass singing of The night they drove Old Dixie down with the good ol’ Hole in the Head Gang in the Fox & Hounds at lunchtime – as ever, accomplished bluegrass and Hank Williams country.

Sunday morning‘s fine weather a welcome contrast to New Year’s Day’s very wet Classic Car show in the Market Square.  Shiny cars and a blue sky make for interesting photo opportunities:

Stony Stratford old Magistrate’s Court and Courthouse reflected on the bonnet of a … should have taken a bit more notice. Lambo?

I’m no car buff, so it’s aesthetics (ie. nice curves), romance and nostalgia that mostly whet my interest.  My best in show this year was an immaculate black Citroën Traction Avant, a car 20 or 30 years ahead of its time (it said in the window), produced pretty much unchanged from 1934 to 1957, front-wheel drive, low on the ground and various other things.  This one was apparently built in Slough for the South African market, and with only 16,000 miles on the clock:

With the added bonus of a sort of selfie of your host here at Lillabullero.

Monday night and a pint in the Vaults, that lasted me the stroll down the alley to their Stables bar too.  Crossroots a fair mix of genres with some decent vocals, and then a Traditional Tunes session hosted by Innocent Hare (previously mentioned in despatches).  Twenty folk musicians ranged around the tables and a feast for the ears; an Irish air had me weeping inside.  Felt a bit naked without an instrument in my hands (not their fault, I hasten to add, just me wishing I’d applied myself more over the past half century or so).  Then over the road to the back room in the Old George.  I’m no great fan of covers bands, but The Journeymen are a classy outfit with great taste – a stylish Make me smile (come up and see me) in particular.  It was here I got into the seeming habit of purchasing a pint just as the band were finishing their last number before taking a break.

Tuesday was An evening with The Bard and Friends, and an absorbing evening it proved to be.  Current Bard of Stony, Stephen Hobbs – of whom more later – had assembled a wonderfully varied line up, including two of the very best local original singer-songwriters.  MK Laureate Mark Niel’s northern alter ego Ezra Poundland kicked off proceedings with an innocent smirk, and finished with various singers’ takes  on the words of the hymn Amazing Grace.

I’m always amazed at what the trained voice can do – and without a mic – and countertenor Daniel Collins delivered Vaughan Williams’ House of life song sequence (settings of poems by Dante Gabriel Rosetti) beautifully.  My only problem is that such compositions, written for the classical voice, are not exactly the most memorably tuneful.  Unlike, say Mark Owen‘s and Naomi Rose‘s.  All on the bill excelled.  The always impressive Screaming House Madrigals brought the evening to a powerful end with more original songs of style and pizzazz.  To the poster’s description of them – “indie-folk blues” – you must add jazz and funk.  Jo Dervish is a stunning vocalist, a voice both expressive and full of rhythm.  As it happens, my favourite Naomi Rose song – the name of which escapes me – the “part of the wonderful” one – contains the line “That was good night.”  And it was.

Let it also be noted that Mahmut Dervish, the Madrigal’s guitarist and writer, this very evening, accurately predicted a hung parliament two days before the event.

Wednesday I opt for something new – that opportunity one of StonyLive!’s benefits, I’d say – a recital in York House’s Beechey Room by a musician and composer of some repute in the classical music fraternity.  Locally born keyboards player Geoffrey Allan Taylor had put together A sequence to summer: Byrd, Bach and Beyond, himself being the beyond – modern, the odd not so much dischord as, well, I’m sure you know what I mean – and an engrossing and relaxed gig it proved to be, enhanced by the varied instrument sounds available on his new Roland keyboard.  What struck me about the opening sequence of Medieval dance pieces was how similar the shimmering cascades of notes sounded to what I hear when entranced by Malian kora players; other parallels to be heard – in music I was not familiar with – ensued.

And so down to the Vaults in time to get a pint in midway through the closing number of the Bullfrogs‘ first set – a storming Copperhead Road.  Fine band in the southern rock/alt-country mode.

Worth mentioning that, as well as being in pursuit of the new, I opted not to go to Scribal Gatherings’ Billy Bragg Night fearing a certain worthiness in the face of the election.  Seems it was a blast though, and just the thought of those musicians all on stage at the same time (not that The Cock has a stage) is an entertaining one (messy as it could be, I gather).

Thursday night, all things being equal, was made for cruising the musical streets.  But all things were not equal, so I missed the positivity and good vibes of the Milton Keynes Women’s Choir, and buying a pint as sets were finishing at an attractive sounding Vaultage line-up, and the energetic jump jive of the legendary Hellzaboppin’.

Early evening Friday was the feelgood Stony Stratford Theatre Society‘s Promenade Shakespeare.  But it was such a lovely evening, in the enchanted dappled light under the trees on Horsefair Green, that promenading was abandoned, and no bad thing this day.  Shoulda been more there to see a rich accomplished mix of some of the Bard’s greatest hits (and a bit from Titus Andronicus).

Saturday lunchtime it’s back to the Fox & Hounds and Groundhog day again – ok, StonyLive! tradition – singing along to the Concrete Cowboys‘ theme tune, Bob Dylan’s You aint going nowhere.  Great playing – they been together for decades – bluegrass and beyond.  Walked back over the Millfield in the sun; heartening to see the Riverside Fair so well attended.

Saturday night to York House for Canals of Old England, and even those behind the bar in Victorian canal garb.  The evening started with similarly costumed folk duo Innocent Hare in the guise of music hall entertainers; it’s an interesting time line, from ballads to pop music.  The main event, I can do no better than what it says in the programme: “Songs and poetry weave together with real canal tales and history to tell the stories of the working people in the early canals and the incredible society they created.”  Indeed they did.  Outstanding.  Take a look – this was filmed at the event – for yourself:

 Sunday and it’s F*lk on the Green, which has nothing to do with StonyLive! and has, down to licensing and keeping very locals happy, become ‘the festival that dare not advertise its name or existence’.  This is all to the good, because this year, in splendid weather – blue skies and a breeze – it was pleasingly but not uncomfortably well attended in good spirits (and not much evidence of the hard stuff).  Decent programme, though these days we haven’t the stamina for a get-there-early-to- establish-your-spot and stay the distance.  Bullfrogs again, closing by testifying what they didn’t believe in; as an atheist the suspense was killing as to what was to be the positive … but it was OK: the answer was beer.  Went home for a cup of tea and managed to fall asleep, so missed more than planned, but got back in time for the ‘Latino punk’ of The Zeroes and their splendid globetrotting Milton Keynes song:  “She was a girl from Ipanema /  I was a boy from Milton Keynes …”

And so, to coin a phrase … that was the week that was (the week, as I type, as I type, before last).  Let us now salute the StonyLive! Committee (and FOG) for another auspicious year’s work.

And let us now finish with the current Bard of Stony Stratford’s traditional StonyLive! poem.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, for your explification, Mr Stephen ‘BoSS’ Hobbs:

A Poem for StonyLive! 2017

Let’s …

create encounters
of ambition – wide
vibrations to stir
everyone inside –
rejuvenators
stirring Stony’s pride.

Let’s …

challenge ourselves
on communal space –
valued festival –
escaping life’s race
revealing to all,
Stony’s friendly face.

Let’s …

cheer those who bring
our many joyful treats
values that truly sing
enabling the beats
reverberating
Stony Stratford’s streets.

Let’s …

extend a high five
to welcome another
celebrated StonyLive!

The BoSS has expressed disappointment that no-one picked up on the technical nature of his poem, which embodies a particular bee (which I tend to share) in his own – personal, steampunk – bonnet.  Still works fine, acrostics bedamned, nevertheless!

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What, you say The April Scribal Gathering featuring a UK National Slam Poetry Champion followed by Scribal Gathering hosting  The mighty Antipoet‘s album launch the very next night?  Yes, how spiffing indeedie!

A great night of entertainment and nobody died …” was how support act Robin das Boot-Illischuss (familiar rock tunes with amended lyrics – the eye of the tiger transmuted into a camel’s hoof) described the evening on his FaceBook page, continuing:  “a pleasant surprise considering the audience demographic.”  Ouch.

You’d have to say that compared with the exuberant launch of The Bards of Bugger All last year, this was a more sedate (probably soberer – I was), less raucous affair, but come on, we’re still talking about The Antipoet here.

The evening kicked off with ebullient compère Chris Norton Walker; you could extend the meaning of that adjective by way of how it sounds to include his physique, which was, after all, the source of a chunk of his material.  He too was a bit puzzled by the Stony audience.  I’d tell you his best joke – about a particular nickname – but that would be a bit of a spoiler alert, would it not?

First surprise was the inclusion of some filmed sketches – to give the lads a bit of a breather between numbers, they said (what was that about the demographic?) – in The Antipoet‘s presentation of We play for food .  For the evening they were joined on drums by the CD’s producer Marc Gordon.  The sketches are also on the CD, listed in red on the back cover, providing (ahem) comedic context and depth to the social, professional and philosophical dilemmas explored in the new material.  Which is characterised by energetic bouts of introspection, self-doubt and explication.  Sort of.

OK, for those unfortunate souls unaware of the phenomenon that is The Antipoet, in their own words … Paul Eccentric and Ian Newman are “artists of a sensitive disposition“.  The pair of them (geddit?):

  • Antipoetry is “a poetic movement that merely assumes the formal rules and intentions of mainstream poetry. We’re beat poets; I [Ian] slap the bass and he [Paul] does the talking.” (to quote from Gizza gig?)
  • We are a peripatetic beaty poeting pair with a musical comedy flair /Patent pending genre bending / in offending bondage wear” (Patent pending)
  • advice is given more than once: “You need to make your mind up / what it is you’re trying to be / cos you’re not quite poets, musicians or stand up comedy.”  (Patent pending)
  • Leading to the query whether: “It is never too late to rethink a mis-chosen career.”  Nah, it’s too late to stop now (as they used to say in the ’60s).  And they are poets; poetry needs them.
  • Misunderstandings can occur: “I’m not sure what they were expecting / but it probably wasn’t this /two middle-aged blokes in fancy dress / I think we might have been mis-booked again.” (An awkward moment)

The title track Of We play for food may be a cry of pain, but it’s an infectiously good one: “There’s not a lot of money in performance poetry / That’s why we poets are the paupers of the art world hegemony / But on the plus side we don’t earn enough to pay VAT.”  There are limits though: “Don’t try and palm us of with crisps and hummus dips / cos that’s just rude / that’s not food / that’s just fuckin’ rude.”  On the other hand, poetry slams (“competitive arts“) are unflatteringly examined in Slammin‘.  In the nursery delightfully murders The wheels on the bus: “The poet at the front goes whinge, whinge, whinge …”

The hard driving Pointy dancing is the track that will almost certainly take its place in the ‘greatest hits’ repertoire.  “Finger jabbing prancing” – a worrying phenomena at wedding receptions and other celebrations – is nostalgically explored and deplored: When did jogging round a handbag / get aggressive and alarming?”  Various scenarios are visited: “The vicar’s in the corner / she’s [nice touch] pigging out on cake”, which contagion leads to the situation where “now she’s gesticulating from the pew with pious unreserve” (it scans better when they say it).  Of course, when set against such rhythmic backing, rants like these can become infectious and dangerously counter-productive; indeed, when a friend of the artistes donned the gimp mask usually worn by Paul later in the evening for the rendition of Gimp night down at the fighting cocks, this was precisely the nature of dance adopted.

The Antipoet – the latest publicity shot

Other delights on the CD include a couple of classic Music Hall numbers (see – in another age they would not have had such a definition problem) in Mrs Worthington and the fiercely egalitarian Flesh’n blood; in Miss Adventure they exquisitely describe the selfie phenomenon as being  “to validate [one’s] place in this online peer review forum of the human race“, while pointing out that more people die of selfie accidents than shark attacks.

The evening’s entertainment was rounded off with a quick sprint through some of the combo’s  crowd favourites.  Oh to be a virgin where exposure to The Antipoet is concerned, though it has to be said the ritual audience chanting of Tights not stockings does rather lose the number’s edge without the explanation of it being the strangulated thoughts of a middle-aged lecher who is trying to be good.  Those introductory rubrics are worth being there.

There’s another track – You should’ve been there! – on We play for food that regrets a current performance compared to a previous word-perfect on the beat one.  Nah, I’m not having it.  Part of the charm is the anarchic energy and commitment they bring to every gig I’ve seen (which is quite a few).  They are endlessly inventive moralists, a combo full of rhythm, joy and wit, delivering good-natured and/or righteous scorn and loads of big fun.  In a rational world they’d have their own telly programme.  For more info: http://www.theantipoet.co.uk/ or http://pauleccentric.co.uk/the-antipoet/

Bonus paragraph: there are bonus tracks on the CD – three live performances of older stuff including the rather atypical but wondrous 1420 MHz, about one man’s search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (from which the title of this review is taken), and … The scariest day of the year (unreleasable Christmas single) which is worth the price of entry on its own.

April Scribal

Now, here’s a thing.  Both the featured artists at the April Scribal Gathering made reference to JCBs in their respective sets, Sam Deed in his buoyant take on Nizlopi’s The JCB song, and Pete the Temp in a context I can’t recall.

A fine performer, Pete kicked off his set with his compelling and inspirational Keep it lit, a sort of punk and more specific take on Bob Dylan’s Chimes of freedom’s “For every hung-up person / in the whole wide universe” and further inspired and entertained with a lengthy Remember that you’re going to die.  In between fun was taken.

Sam is not just remarkable for his youth (16) but is an accomplished singer and guitarist by any token, acknowledging the influence of people I’ve never heard of.  Another good, varied and well-attended evening, enhanced by the rare sighting and performing at Scribal of the good ship Naomi Rose.

 

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There were times when reading Barney Norris‘s Five rivers met on a wooded plain (Doubleday/Transworld, 2016) when it felt like I’d wandered into the pages of one of those self-help personal growth tomes.  This is a young man’s novel.  Ambitious, over-written and striving too hard – death and the meaning of life and all that.

The paperback blurb writer does him no favours:  “One quiet evening in Salisbury, the peace is shattered by a serious car crash. At that moment five lives collide…”  Except they don’t, really. 

The actual crash (spoiler alert) is delivered as a slow reveal, so the reader is inevitably wondering when this flamin’ crash is actually going to happen.  We are at least a third of the way into the book – sorry, my copy’s gone back to the library so I can’t be exact – before the crash happens, and even further before we know who’s taken to hospital.  Of the five people the book features, only two are actually involved in the crash, two are observers who don’t linger at the scene, and the fifth has observed the observers. 

So we actually have five people (Hey, five rivers!).  All are undergoing some sort of crisis in their lives, and we get the full context of that.  They range from teenage schoolboy up, roughly representing decades,  all speaking in the first person.   Their lives, or their families’ lives, have more or less obliquely touched one another; they have been in the same place at the same time once or twice.  Not collided.  Which is, chasing the epigraph, a quote from George Eliot’s Middlemarch that introduces the text, the self-proclaiming and highly creditable point of the book:

 That is the secret meaning of this quiet city, where the spire soars into the blue, where rivers and stories weave into one another, where lives intertwine.

That is the closing sentence of the opening chapter, which unfortunately is immediately proceeded by “there exists in all of us a song waiting to be sung which is as heart-stopping and vertiginous as the peak of the cathedral.”  The quiet city is Salisbury, the chapter’s title is The burning arrow of the spire.  Rather good, that.  But the chapter is a load of psycho-geographical babble, linking the settlements in “the green south of Wiltshire” over time from Woodhenge through Stonehenge (“We know they heard the song“) to Old Sarum and the building of the Cathedral to the modern-day city.  Which might just have worked in verse form. Even the book’s greatest defenders at Book Group – nay, champions even! – were not averse to my use of the word pretentious here.

The book has its moments, the way their stories entwine is nicely done, and Barney Norris obviously cares.  While I wasn’t wholly convinced by any of the five, I ended up wanting to know what happened to each of them to the extent of bewailing please, author, get on with it as I read, especially in the case of the lonely soldier’s wife, stuck out in a suburb.  As it happens, Norris, whose primary artistic focus has been theatre, uses her to make a convincing case for local theatre as both an effective personal and ongoing community therapy.

Here’s the problem.  Barney can write, but at the moment he can’t help but Write with a capital W; given his theatrical background I think it’s fair to say he slips into being a Writ-or too easily.  At our Book Group meeting, for instance, one woman, whose judgment I respect highly, surprised me by quoting this passage as being particularly impressive:

The mind is like a flood plain. The slightest rainfall can leave it awash with old stories that seep into your newer terrors and swell them, drown you under the long-forgotten feelings as your life rushes over you.

As it happens, that was a quote I’d found jarring, particularly coming from the mouth of a gauche 16-year old schoolboy.  She said she’d once known a 16-year old capable of stringing that together.  So what did I know?  (That’s rhetorical to myself, by the way, not an indication of her demeanour).  There were other passages, but I’ll pick on this one; he finds some solace in a service in the cathedral (where else?):

The miracle of a ritual. I felt my shoulders begin to ease. I thought to myself, I don’t want to believe in this. But when you run a story through your neural pathways like a line of beads through your hands, it stands to reason you unblock them, and your own life flows through afterwards, rushing out of the oxbow lakes of the plans you didn’t see through to their conclusion, the phrases that wouldn’t come till long after it was too late to use them. A hymn, nothing more than a tune and a string of words someone had invented, was somehow making things better.

Ah, ‘oxbow lakes’, an abiding memory of school geography.  But ‘neural pathways’ even now?

We were all agreed that his next novel, if he so chooses to continue in this sphere now all this has been got out of his system, is highly likely to be a very good one.

 

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The Tuesday evening here of the day over there of the US Presidential election, at Watford Colosseum I see the Czech National Symphony Orchestra performing Dvorak‘s New World Symphony – you czech-national-symphony-orchestra-natalie-cleinknow, the one with all those old world immigrant folk melodies woven in.  Also featured is his Cello Concerto, the dramatic Natalie Clein soloing, which I enjoyed immensely when the cello was to the fore but was less keen when the composer chose to turn it up to 11 – I’ve got a full orchestra big bass drum’n’all and by God I’m gonna use it! – something that also, to these ears, spoiled the New World, and maybe a problematic predilection for some nineteenth century composers.  It still deserved more than the barely half-full hall they got.  With a raised stage and not much of a rake to where we were sitting it was slightly disconcerting to not have a minimal view of that full orchestra behind the string section, even when at full blast.  I hardly ever see classical music live but always find it amusing to watch the percussionists hanging around waiting for the odd triangle tinkle.

vaultage-early-nov-2016scribal-2016-novLocal words and music

The first Scribal Gathering after the Brexit vote the audience felt flat, unbelieving, devoid of energy.  Scribal Gathering the day after the Trump presidential victory was a vibrant what-else-can-you-show-me? affair, with interesting first timers (hey, a strident flirting with finger-style rendition of Come together), Taylor Smith keeping up the developing Scribal tradition for featured duos of one half thereof being ill – no probs for Michell Taylor to solo – and a lively and colourful set from featured poet Tina Sederholm, including her Prediction (“I’m sorry / but you have just given birth / to a poet“) and her contribution to the self-help industry, Let your dog out (try this YouTube link for a taste).  Then the surprise treat of a storming end: two blues, a John Martyn song and ‘a bit of gypsy jazz‘ from Bella from Cardiff – great voice, great guitar – who was, it seems, just passing through.

Next day’s Vaultage saw a welcome extended set of striking originals (“It takes its toll, toll, toll“) from co-host Lois Barrett and what was probably a first for the Vaults bar, a rendition of a Take That song among the originals from the hard rocking solo John Michael Davies; decent song that,  Gary Barlow’s Back for good.

don-giovanni-on-tour_83486aDon Giovanni

Friday and – I’m no opera buff, but, joy of joys – it’s touring Glyndebourne at MK Theatre.  Doing Mozart!  A La Dolce Vita era Don Giovanni, no less.  The set was a strikingly clever cube – revolving, expanding, contracting – adapted as the action unfolds.  As always with Glyndebourne there’s the energy, fun and fine detail of the party scene, and while it has to be said I wasn’t the only one who thought the second act went repetitiously on a bit, the conclusion – the Don’s scary comeuppance and his descent into the fires of hell was nicely done.  I appreciated  how at the start the splendid orchestra broke straight into the overture without the indulgence of the conductor having to arrive to customary applause – why? they haven’t done anything yet!  I was strangely disconcerted when the surtitles (‘subtitles’ in English projected above the stage) suggested someone was effectively singing, “I am strangely disconcerted by what you say“.  Self-proclaimed opera-phobes: give Glyndebourne and Mozart a try; you never know – it happened to me.

After all that I needed a week to recover.

monsignor-quixoteMonsignor Quixote

Really enjoyed Graham Greene‘s late novel Monsignor Quixote (1982).  Here is a great novelist and chronicler of his times having fun in his old age with the themes – faith and commitment to a cause or belief – that dominated his life’s work.

Set in post-Franco Spain, Don Quixote, a Roman Catholic priest upgraded to Monsignor by a stroke of luck and to the disgust of his bishop, and a godless Communist ex-mayor who inevitably becomes Sancho (though it’s not his name), embark on a road trip, a modern reflection on the experiences of the priest’s namesake in the Cervantes’ seventeenth century Spanish novel, Don Quixote, whereby his tired old horse, Rocinante, becomes in Green’s hand, a knackered old Seat 600 (a Fiat 500 made under licence in Spain).

They drink a lot as they venture – sometimes perilously – along, debating one another’s allegiances and beliefs, increasingly acknowledging their common decency.  As well as arguing against the tenets of each other’s beliefs, they discover a shared scepticism of their respective institutions and dogmas that have clouded their hopes and aspirations.  The priest is pleasantly surprised by what he reads in the Communist Manifesto, has more time for the mystics than the rigid moral theology of his textbooks.  The places they pass through all have their lessons.  There’s a lovely running joke of their drinking to the health of the Holy Trinity – come on, you remember: the father, son and holy ghost – and short-changing the holy ghost with only two and a half bottles of Manchegan wine.

Behind the humour there is a seriousness and a rueful anger concerning how life should be lived and enjoyed, but it never gets in the way of the fun.  Though the mayor still prefers ‘Marx to mystery’, no-one wins, both are changed; the atheist in me can easily live with that.  It’s also subtly educative along the way. To say it ends poignantly is an understatement.

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There’s salt in them hills

Spent some time in Nantwich, Cheshire, a week or so ago.  Fine little town, a proud Republican stronghold back in Civil War days.  Still lots of timber framed buildings like this independent book shop and coffee-house:

Nantwich book shop

I always feel guilty about not buying something in an independent bookshop, but we did have a coffee.

And in St Mary’s a four-star, Grade 1 listed,  church:

Nantwich St Marys writing on the wall

The writing on the sunlit walls in St Mary’s, Nantwich. [Click on the photo then click again to read it]

There’s a charming little museum, too, where I photographed this photograph:

The caption reads: "Christmas cheese train of 1907, carried the gold medal challenge cup cheese. the train carried 18 tons of cheese."

The caption reads: “Christmas cheese train of 1907, carried the gold medal challenge cup cheese. The train carried 18 tons of cheese.”

Went on a mini-pub crawl one evening – such a choice – ended up in the fine old Black Lion, on Welsh Row, happily on the night of the Norfolk Mountain Rescue Team‘s Americana session – a session of 8 years standing – a repertoire including some Credence and that break-neck rendition of My grandfather’s clock that someone recorded a few years ago.  And while we’re talking of pubs, the best pub fish cake I’ve ever had (was it smoked haddock?), topped with a perfect poached egg, surrounded by ‘heritage’ tomatoes and some green stuff with an enchanting herbal dressing, in the Dysart Arms in Bunbury (a place I’d always thought was fictional).

Canal strolls, taking in where the road has to be lifted for the boats to get through on the Llangollen.  Shame no boats came along:

Llangollen Canal crosses the road

Another day, a climb up to Beeston Castle, from where you can see for miles and miles, the distinct ellipse of the Jodrell Bank telescope clear as a bell:

Some nifty brick and stone work and (probably) some Welsh hills at Beeston Castle

Some nifty stone work and (probably) some Welsh hills at Beeston Castle

Belle

Thanks to my pal, Sal. And my new friend Belle.

Why the salt title for this piece?  Nantwich is a town, figuratively and literally, built on salt and the salt industry, and it gives me an excuse to allude to and air this lovely piece of work from Ron Sexsmith, from – can it really be so long ago – 2002?

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Naked guideBe nice if every city had a guide like The naked guide to Bristol: not all guide books are the same (5th ed: Tangent, 2015).  Scathing wit and a whole lot of sub-cultural love and knowledge, a production of real urban identification and affection.  Organised energetically by postal district BS1 to BS8, and by theme, giving a people’s history.  We were out in the suburbs in BS9, Henleaze, but I thought this publication worthy of mention.  If its span had reached as far as where we were staying I’m certain they would have raved about the fruit and veg shop on the main drag – beautifully presented and full of temptation beyond what we had the capacity for.  Wish I’d taken a photo of that basket mixed in shape and colour – purple, green, yellow, oh, and red – of English tomatoes.  Also Badock’s Wood.

Chestnut blossomA short stroll over a minor crossroads and up a bit, Badock’s Wood is an oasis of green in a mild sea of mixed suburban housing – if Richard Thompson’s Mock Tudor had been a song rather than an album title I might have been humming down some of the streets.  According to its Friends organisation “It is a small, semi-natural, broad-leaved woodland situated in a limestone valley with adjacent areas of grassland.”  There’s a small river along its edge and the circular fitness route the council has instituted with unobtrusive distance markers involves, as we shall see, a bit of a climb.

Badock’s Wood has survived because it was given to what was then the Bristol Corporation in 1937 by Sir Stanley Badock, a local landowner and industrialist – something to do with metal smelting and refining – so that the citizens of Bristol could enjoy the woods as a public open space in perpetuity.  The deed of gift specifically excluded the erection of any buildings on the land.  Good for him; and wouldn’t developers just love to get their hands on it.  I mention this because I was reminded that within living memory financial success was once regarded as an opportunity to make a grand gesture and give something tangible back to where you lived, as an expression of civic pride; rather than, these days, self-indulgence far away.  (Locally one must give a very big nod of appreciation to Jim Marshall, of Marshall Amplification no less, and all that he contributed to Milton Keynes, but inevitably the nature of philanthropy, of land or libraries, has changed.)

Badock's Wood wild garlicAnd for sure the locals do appreciate Badock’s Wood.  Especially the dog owners and the keep-fitters and those with babes napping in prams.  Walking by the wild garlic in full flower and scent, then through a carpet of pink chestnut blossom.
20160523_15420160523_3

On the path (river to the right) up to top of the woods a bisected fallen tree trunk invites you on, but not before taking in the not wasted opportunity for a bit of wood sculpture – the spider stood out but other creatures and the inevitable serpent featured on the other side of the path too.

At the top a wild flower meadow and modest tumulus – a Bronze Age burial mound – and rumours of a windmill.  There’s a stainless steel sculpture marking the tumulus that plays nicely with its position and the light, the work of Michael Fairfax.  The hole is at adult face height.

20160523_8The windmill is anecdotal – there used to be one somewhere around here – but that seems ample justification for the inscription curling at the foot of the piece, written by the sculptor’s dad, John Fairfax:

At Badock’s Wood ghostly windmill sails turn / and like a rewound film spin through history / to remote times when this was burial place for bronze aged warrior / In that landscape wolves prowled / and nervy red deer grazed / while hog rooted among the trees.

It’s a thought.

StonerStoner – a slight return

Back home in time for Book Group.  Half of us had read John WilliamsStoner (1965) before but none regretted a re-read and it retains its quiet power admirably.  This is a special book.  Put simply, the only son of a farming family who could have posed for Grant Wood’s American Gothic, William Stoner, at the urging of the Land Agent, goes to uni to study agriculture, struggles with the compulsory EngLit intro until he has a classroom revelation and devotes the rest of his life to medieval and renaissance literature there.  His dissertation? – “The influence of the Classical Tradition upon the Medieval Lyric.” But you don’t hear much specifically about that.

He’s not that great a teacher, though he gets a bit of a mojo in that regard after a personal tragedy brought on by backstabbing spirit-destroying departmental politics.  It’s the story of a decent man’s life, how he copes with its slings and unreasonable arrows (“…the density of accident and circumstance”), related in an even-toned unspectacular yet haunting prose, and it is absolutely thrilling.  Incredibly sad and yet so life-affirming.

Reading it the second time round I was struck by how vivid the supporting cast are; the slow tragedy of his mentor’s despair as he sees how others react to the Great War (“There are wars and defeats and victories of the human race that are not military and that are not recorded in the annals of history”), seeing his mate Finch as less of the uncaring careerist I’d thought, and further ruing the loss in that war of the third of that Friday night drinks trio, who, for all that he “gave him a glimpse of the corrosive and unspoiled bitterness of youth”, might have given Stoner the odd useful kick or pointer when he needed it: “Dave Masters, the defiant boy they both had loved, whose ghost had held them, all these years, in a friendship whose depth they had never quite realised.”

And then there’s his wife …  Now I wasn’t the only one – and I’m the only male in the group – who’d wanted to strangle the bitch (sorry, it just slipped out, but it’s visceral in the book), but discussion had us wondering how damaged she was even before she met Stoner: when her father dies she comprehensively destroys all her stuff with any connection to him, and cruelly reclaims their daughter, the saving grace of the marriage for him – is it more than jealousy and bloody-mindedness?  If I ever read it again – not out of the question, it’s a great book – it’s something to look out for.  Again, on second reading, the hope and excitement of his compensating affair seemed even more vivid: “after a while, the outer world where people walked and spoke, where there was change and continual movement, seemed to them false and unreal.”

He was forty-two years old, and he could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember. (p181) [that number again!]

He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance. (p275)

Thrilling? Life affirming?  A life worth living?  A book worth reading.  You betcha. 

Here’s the link to what I said at first reading a couple of years ago: https://quavid.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/this-is-your-life/

Vaultage late May 2016A Vaultage that was a bit special

And not just for the launch of the T-shirts (see photo below).  Two very fine guest acts who formed a mutual admiration society while being quite different in their subtle offerings.  First up were hazeyjane – one word, no spaces – two blokes with no qualms about bravely wearing the Nick Drake influence on their sleeves, but doing their own nicely crafted material.  Was that a five-string bass?  Indeed it was, being mellifluously played behind some accomplished singing and guitar from the writer.  Only thing I would say, is you probably need to dig a bit deeper in the Drake oeuvre to find another name, not because of gender confusion but because it’s already quite a well used web identity.  There’s even a US ‘saison’ beer (whatever that means) from the Mystic Brewery.

Then we had Wednesday’s Wolves – that’s them on the poster – two young women who describe themselves on their worth a visit website as doing ‘contemporary folk’, again doing their own stuff.  Enchanting vocals, some aetherial harmonies, engaging songs, the one who didn’t play guitar getting away with playing glockenspiel on a couple of songs in an often noisy pub.  As Lois, who had got these two duos to come along, said: a magical evening.  (Not forgetting the open mic-ers too, he added, of course).

Dynamic duo

Now seems a good time for a photo of Pat Nicholson and Lois Barrett, two fine performers and writers in, um, their own right, who host Vaultage, sporting the aforementioned t-shirts. And a nod to the Vaults Bar in the Bull Hotel, Stony Stratford for this and many other things.

 

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I’ve had worse earworms but this one threatens to invoke the law of unintended consequences.  Next time I’m in a coffee shop my fear is I’ll place an order saying, “Can I get a coffee? / Can I, Can I get a coffee? / Can I, can I get a coffee?”  This is, of course, the wrong question, as is fully explained in The wrong question, the eighth track gracing The Antipoet‘s latest CD, which is a plea – nay a protest – of Gallic intensity against the further Americanisation of everyday English discourse.  Because, as any fule kno, “We don’t say ‘To go’ / We say ‘To take-a-fucking-way’.

Bards of Bugger AllWednesday March 16, Stony Stratford’s Scribal Gathering hosted the launch of Bards of Bugger All, the fifth CD collection of “beatrantin’ rhythm and views” from those two gentlemen of distinction trading under the name of The Antipoet.  It was a grand night of furious fun and celebration in the packed Marquee Room of the Cock Hotel.  And there was cake.  Oh, and even a little table card magic.

New readers start here: The essential Antipoet, the basic Antipoet, are Paul Eccentric (words – lots of words – and vocals, occasional triangle and cowbell, of punk heritage) and the taller, more hirsute Ian Newman (full-size double bass-man and interjectionist, also contributing harmony).  Prolific propagators and propagandists for poetry and the spoken word, they are artists of a sensitive disposition (to quote from one of their signature pieces); they are also Men of a muchness (a notion I’d riff on further here if I could recall a single line of one of their most songiest of pieces) and have been known to wear leather skirts (indeed, I think they might have done this night).  Anyway, you can find a lot more about them here, at http://www.theantipoet.co.uk/#!info/c161y; and more about them their wider interests here at http://rrrants.org/home.  I have seen them performing in pubs and function rooms, in the library and on the street, and I’ve never seen them give less than 100% There’s plenty to discover on YouTube.  If you get a chance, do go see; you won’t regret it.

The evening commenced with MC for the night Poeterry telling the tale, broadened later, of how it all goes back to an open mic night in ‘the stabbing pub’ in High Wycombe towards the end of the last decade, and many of those involved then were here to join in the celebrations.  As was Paul’s dad.  So, given too the lads’ involvement with local Bard selection procedures – most of whom, indeed, were in attendance – it was, all in all, a bit of a family affair.

There’s a track on the new CD called We are the warm up, and first up to perform was – oh! welcome return to performing – Stony’s very first Bard, Ian Freemantle, who, forget the warm-up, set the place alight from the off, opening with the steady stomp of his staff on the floor as he made his way from the back of the hall to the stage declaiming a committed people’s history of England – from the Peasant’s Revolt (is that where he started?) to the near present – in a rhythmic lilting chant.  Was great to see and hear Ian in full flow again.

And so the Antipoet performed to great acclaim the entirety (without the bonus tracks) of Bards of Bugger all, augmented by Mark Gordon, who produced the album, also hitting things sitting at the back with a modest drum kit, unobtrusively adding value, as per the album.  Of which I shall speak later.  Which is not, I hasten to add, in any way to suggest that the “We’d like to give you some new songs” haiatus that bedevils many an old favourite’s performance applies here.  Because it doesn’t.

And then Philfy Phil Alexander, guitar in hand, another veteran of the stabbing pub days, lived up to his name with a couple of his own songs, finishing with a wholesale reworking of Paul Simon’s The boxer, wherein the singalong ‘Lie-la-lie’ chorus received a mortuary revision; so in one verse he reflected on the life and death of the surrealist artist with the chorus ‘Dali died‘ etc.; I’ll disregard the rest so as not to spoil it for those who might get a chance to hear it in full.  And  …  interval.

Our attention is re-engaged by an enactment: the Antipoets, quills in hand, approach one another from opposite ends of the room, enacting Two gentleman duellers, an ancient tale (here’s a take from the archives) of how a breach of etiquette led to a duel “to the death, but through the medium of rhyming verse“; the Two Ronnies never stood a chance.  Then it’s straight into what I’ll call a Greatest Hits session, giving an outing or two for the back-up bassist with one of those anorexic science fiction electric basses, and allowing plenty of space for occasional partners in crime Fay Roberts and Richard Frost – good to see him in the saddle again too – to contribute variously parodies, piss-takes, sequels, appendices and tributes to the work.  All great fun.  For example, Little old lady is a ditty concerning the narrator regularly visiting an old woman – “She was a little old lady” – whose political conclusions after a long life (“served with Pankhurst for the cause“) are somewhat disappointing  (“coming over here, taking our jobs” etc.).  Frost’s Little old lady’s reply starts “He was a punk performance poet …”

At a certain stage Faeries, two young women, further members of the loose creative collective in the same part of the universe as the Antipoet, took the stage, laid their magic carpet on the floor and, seated cross-legged, delivered a charming acoustic folked-up version of Gimp night down at the Fighting Cocks, the standout track on the Bards of Bugger All.  (“Definitive,” I think I heard Donna, the Antipoet’s manager, or at least someone at their table, say).  It all climaxed with a gangs-all-here workout – guitars, drums, bass, back-up girl vocal trio – on Tights not stockings and Random words in a random order (a meditation on the perils of open mic poetry), which were none the worse for the application of a latin tinged shuffle.  A splendid time was had.

Bards of Bugger All backThe album

It’s interesting.  By which I mean it’s less in-your-face than the lads live, but with no diminution of the warmth, wit, invention and scorn, just more relaxed and conversational, a bit lounge even, with Ian’s bass given some space: mellow, rounded, there to be appreciated in its own right.  An unexpected (and strangely satisfying) recognition listening to In a poetocracy: it’s pure (minus the piano) Flanders and Swann (oh come, on, you know: “another g-nu“).  Gimp night is an instant classic.  Producer Mark Gordon is behind the drums for three tracks, which rumble or gently funk  along nicely.  A collection to be proud of.  What they say on Track 9:

We can help you
It’s what we do
There’s nothing like a poem
to get you through.

Oh, and lurking behind the second bonus track there is … another bonus track, a lengthy sketch, an outtake of hopefully a work in progress – which on its own is worth the price of entry (a fiver, ladies and gentlemen, and a princely bargain indeed).  It starts off as a night at The Fighting Cocks, with Paul (presumably) taking on the persona of Al Murray’s Pub Landlord to welcome punters in and introduce the Antipoet, now a changeling Lonnie Donegan Trio with a dash of Chas ‘n’ Dave thrown in, as well as reverting to their own mighty selves.  The Trannie Shuffle, ladies and gentlemen: trust me – chuffing hilarious.

The Badge: an appendix

They were selling badges; I just paid my money and grabbed one, little realising there was a variety to choose from (were they even one-offs?).  Delighted to have got ‘Random words, random order’, now in the museum (bottom centre):
Museum… the company you keep …

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