Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Snapshots of Voewood Festival 2011

Breaking my journey through Norfolk to stand outside the house that my beautiful clever Hannah lived in in Norwich and finding myself crying uncontrollably at the still raw irreplaceable loss her death has left, remembering the moments, conversations, life and love we shared within those walls.

Singing ‘da diddly qua quas’ stage side with Glen Matlock as Adam Ant gave a beautiful stripped down rendition of Stand and Deliver.

Watching Glen Matlock rock out performing ‘Anarchy in the UK’ to a delighted Voewood literary audience and then turning to see John Hurt, gently dancing to it.

Standing in for Misha Glenny and interviewing former M.I.6 Chief Sir John Scarlett, who gave generous, exact answers and revealed his keen sense of custodianship of his department.

Hearing Beth Orton perform a superb set and realising that Hannah sang with the same fractured cadence and wondering if Hannah had been a fan of Beth’s, a question I’ll never now be able to ask.

Hearing Beth’s partner, the hugely talented Sam Amidor, harmonise vocals and guitar to the open mouthed admiration of those who were watching as he sang us through some superb American folk.

Listening to Glen Duncan perform some of his excellent novel ‘The Last Werewolf’ to music by Steven Coates and Geraldine McEwan and realising I was witnessing the birth of the Were-opera.

Watching D.B.C. Pierre deliver the most cogent, lucid and generous masterclass on how to structure a novel to 50 plus people, all of whom were furiously scribbling his pearls into their Moleskine notebooks.

Discovering the best pork pies in the world at the Samphireshop food tent. No really, they are simply, sublimely out of this world, especially the onion marmalade versions

Arriving at Voewood to be warmly greeted by owner Simon Finch who, understanding that the last time I had been at his home had been the time that Hannah and I first met, took me by the hand to the bedroom we had been in, where the story of she and I had started. Bless you for that Simon.

Helping Clare Conville pick up cigarette butts in the garden with the wonderful Kirsty Lang, a true star who was collecting horrible dog ends with all the tenacity of a journalist on the trail of a hot story.

Feeling sorry for David Gilmour as he told me that he had just put 15 litres of petrol…. in his diesel car.

Meeting on Saturday an extraordinary, beautiful couple, Roz and Tom and spending so much of the weekend, when able, in their company, feeling some sort of natural resonance, an instant connection, only to find on the last night, after the last event, that Tom and I had met before... he being a friend of Hannah and one of the few that she had told our plans to. Karma? Maybe. An extraordinary moment in a life? Certainly. Unforgettable.

Doing some serious bunting with Gavin Turk and his wife Deborah Curtis, son Caesar and the inimitable, wonderful Jane Simpson. Pimp my ride? Nah. Bunt my tent.

Watching Clare Conville manage to pull off gracious hostessing duties while at the same time dealing with three crises, two guests wanting stuff and all the while casting her eye around making sure that the authors, musician and guests gathered on the terrace had full wine glasses.

Meeting Emily and Kate Austen (great-grandaughters of, since you ask) who ran the kitchen and catering with quiet grace and efficiency and enjoying being mercilessly teased by Emily all weekend for being controlling and bossy.

Listening in rapt concentration to Damon Murray of Fuel as he described the story behind "Russian Criminal Tattoos Encyclopeadia - Vol 1," a brilliant tome with such an extraordinary, heartrending and fascinating story behind it... get yourselves a copy while they're still available.

Not finding Rowan Pelling’s grey cardigan evidently picked up by someone in error. It’s fitted, charcoal grey and she wants it back should you find it in your bag by mistake – she has yours in the meantime!

Diana Athill. I need say no more, surely.

Observing talented, admirable and admired authors, poets, musicians and artists mucking in with plate clearing, bin emptying and all the domestic chores that one might think they would have people to do for them. Life affirming reality and authenticity.

Watching lean purposeful Richard Long walking around the grounds of Voewood and bending to smell the occasional flower.

The Peter Pan of Brit Art and all round delight, Colin Self, picking me a sprig of lemon verbena for my buttonhole.

Seeing Salena "Sex Goddess" Godden performing her poem “I’m Gonna Move to Hastings” and wanting to laugh - and weep - at the bleak humour of it.

Getting to know Damien Barr and David Whitehouse as they lay in a bed together discussing David's brilliant new book “Bed”, Damian sporting excellent striped p-js, David looking suitable authorial.

Loving Kirsty Lang's quiet pride in husband Misha Glenny's 'Dark Market" being the best-selling book of the festival.

Discovering the rare talent that is David McAlmont and hearing his beautiful song "Ode to Gene."

And more, so much more.

Truly a lit/mus fest that passes the litmus test with flying colours

Monday, 23 May 2011

Wham! Bam! Thank Ewhurst Am-Dram

It’s not often that LibraDoodle veers off into Terra Theatricalis, over-proximity to the flatulence of strangers, the prohibition on smoking and a remarkably short attention span being just three reasons. Another is that anything I might think or write about what I’ve seen has generally been better thought and more beautifully written by others before I’ve even got out of the stalls. It’s hard to follow such pithycisms as Walter Kerr’s ‘Me no Leica’ review of the 1951 Broadway production of “I am a Camera” and unless I’m much mistaken, the Swiss psychiatrist’s view on theatrical light comedy, “Live farce? Die! – Jung” is just too tough to match let alone beat and I do have some pride.

So when on Saturday two friends spoke the dread words “We’ve got you a ticket to join us at the local players production of Ayckbourn after supper,” my mind silently replied with “Oh what fresh hell is this?’” before playing a speed psycho Powerpoint demo featuring images of a fetid village hall scented by decades of Cub Scouts and bingo, creaking scenery and creakier performances and topped it off with a reminder that politesse would prevent early escape. And we’d been having such a lovely time, I thought.

I should not have worried. As it happens the Ewhurst Players (Ewhurst – pretty little village near Cranleigh in Surrey’s Rockbroken heartland) are a highly proficient band of performers. The production was Alan Ayckbourn’s “Improbable Fiction” in which a writers group convenes at the grand house of its chairman to discuss their authorial progress. A Sapphic smallholder confesses that she hasn’t written a word for fear of ruining the perfection of the novel in her head, an artistic children’s writer owns up to having spent six years only doing the drawings, a busybody who claims to be prolific has failed to bring anything with her while the geek who pens multi-layered sci-fi that proves to be overcomplicated, narcissistic escapism has and we wish he hadn’t. Then there is the ageing roué librettist with a weak bladder, no musical partner and only one finished verse leaving only the chairman host, a rather endearing “Tim, nice but dim” type whose artistic endeavours extend only as far as translating instruction manuals for household appliances. Add into this mix Ilsa, the exotic “girl from the village who does,” and we’re set for a nice meander through artistic aspirations that remind us of the old joke: Two writers meet in the pub. One says to the other, “I’m writing a new novel.” The other replies, “Neither am I."

Everything rumbles along nice and sedately until just before the interval when WHAM! - a huge peel of thunder blasts cast and audience alike and BAM! - the lights go out and we’re all thrown into pitch darkness… until the lights fade back up to reveal…

I shan’t spoil it in case you’ve not seen it either but what happens next shows that it really is a play of two halves and that all the carefully crafted intros not only have a purpose but are neatly and are hilariously referred to.

There proved to be some real talent on stage. Jason Butler’s wonderfully portrayed host and fulcrum for the whole production, Arnold Hassock rather than Tim, revealed an Alan Cummings-like style fused with David Tennant authenticity, Roland Butcher’s brilliantly OTT librettist, Brevis Winterton, was deliciously grumpy old mannish, Jane Biggins’ lesbian pseudo-Bronte, Jess Bales, was trouser-wettingly funny while Peter Barnett’s, whiny science fantasist Clem Pepp, was deftly drawn and played a point. Tricia Coopers’ blousy Grace Sims had some lovely Mrs Slocombe undertones, Wendy Davies cunningly underplayed the mouse-like Vivvi Dickens and Gaynor Arnold’s effortlessly sexy Ilsa deployed a fascinating range of accents which veered from Somerset to Scandinavia, often via Solihull and usually in the same sentence but with the red hot pants she was wearing I doubt anyone cared… or even noticed.

It was, I must confess, a bloody good laugh. Good people putting their hearts into their last night and pulling off a play that could easily have bested a less proficient and hard working group. What they in fact managed was to pay the dramatist the biggest compliment; show a proper understanding his text or as I’d put it “Am Dram Thanks Alan” (See para 1)

Yours ever,


(Nb: some quotes and words may be freshly coined in this post and are available for rent or hire. Please contact for rates.)

Saturday, 14 May 2011

All’s unfair in Stow-on-the-Wold Annual Gypsy Horse Fair

Stow-on-the-Wold, straddling the Roman Fosse Way in the heart of the Cotswolds, is considered by many to be a jewel of Gloucestershire charm; all honeyed stone, prissy cafes and quaint antique shops nestled next to vendors of high-priced posh tat: faux amusant cushions, £200 rubber boots and gnarly rural kit that looks as if it has purpose but bearing price tags that will forever consign it to ostentatious display in a second homers weekend cottage. Mind you, not everyone is suckered by Stow’s outward charm, A.A Gill, the deliciously acerbic restaurant reviewer and penner of bon mots described it as "catastrophically ghastly" and "the worst place in the world,” in his excellent book The Angry Island (2005) and in doing so incurred the tepid ire of the town’s mayor.

Architecturally it is undeniably beautiful with many of the buildings dating (and often predating) the Civil War in which Stow was a Royalist stronghold and the locale for many battles. There are mullion windows aplenty, little alleyways that tempt you to explore ever onwards and the sharp eyed visitor will notice names and dates carved into lintels and stonework, defacement so old and of such quality of ‘penmanship’ that there ought to be an entirely separate name for such antique graffitos.

Being stuck on top of an 800-foot hill, the eponymous ‘wold’, affords it glorious views of the surrounding arable land and woods and doubtless made it a highly defensible position when the Cromwellian Roundheads came a-calling. But these days, although the enemy comes in a different form, the town behaves as history has taught it, locking and shuttering doors and windows, literally shutting up shop and repelling all-comers. And never more than when the annual horse fair comes to town.

Stow has a history of fairs. In 1330, Edward III set up an annual market in August. Edward IV replaced this in 1476 with two 5-day fairs and yet another in October on the feast of St Edward the Confessor (the saint associated with the town). The aim of these was to establish Stow as a place of commerce and to level out the unpredictability of passing trade.

As the fairs grew, the town became more prosperous. While traders who had dealt solely in livestock started to deal in other goods it was the wool trade that underpinned the town’s income, 20,000 sheep changing hands at one 19th century fair. The aforementioned alleyways, known as "tures," that run between the buildings of Stow into the market square, used to herd sheep from surrounding holding pens and fields into the square to be sold.

As the wool trade declined, people began to trade in horses, a practice which continues today and which reveals the lurking fear and ugliness that seeps through the place.

Twice a year in field just 5 minutes walk from the main square a gathering of clans occurs. Travellers, Roma - I am loathe to write ‘Gypsies’ having been taught by a true Roma that that word is the equivalent of the N-word in such circles – gather for two main reasons, to trade bloodstock and to present their marriageable children to each other in the hope that good matches may be made. The huge field becomes alive with a multi-generational conclave of folk from all parts of the UK. Some have traditional caravans, beautifully painted wooden-wheeled, horse drawn affairs with immaculate interiors revealing wood-burning, pot-bellied stoves and intricately painted ceilings like mobile Michelangelo’s. Some have state-of-the-art trucks and cars that haul chromed and honed modern mobile homes with interiors that would shame many a suburban drawing room. The comfortingly atavistic smell of wood smoke wafts across the place. Fires everywhere are straddled by great iron tripods from which blackened stew pots and kettles are suspended on chains, steaming away with a meal or a brew. Small children skittle around, the girls like little meringues in layers of white or cream netting with twists of ribbon at their throats or laced through their hair, the boys smartly elegant in mini tweed jackets and trews, shined boots and with errant hair lines cow-licked into place. The teens favour more defiant dress, young women this year in a uniform of tight jeans, lycra micro skirts and day-glo, fluorescent pink or lime green crop tops; tanned midriffs, arms and shoulders bared to maximum effect and with the most spectacular two-tone suede boots, gravity testing stilleto-ed shoes blinged to the max with sparkling rhinestones or, when the new shoes hurt, bare feet. Teen lads move around in packs, effortlessly James Dean cool in tight t-shirts (often even with a cigarette packet tucked in the sleeve), tighter jeans and yet tighter muscles testifying to a life spent working with horses, bareknuckle fighting and just, well, just being cool.

Parents and grandparents have the look of those who have lived lives on the outside, in all senses. Weathered and well fed, the men have hands that look as if manually wrenching a living from a recalcitrant life has been their lot while the women veer from exuding a wiry energy to extruding from clothing two sizes shy of flattering. They all are cautious and guarded, perhaps used to insults and rejection, but friendly. A cheery “good morning’ is reciprocated here, a question is politely answered there. A request to take a photo is met with a smiling “Go on help yourself’ or ‘Of course you can fella.” There is no sense of threat, no background radiation of suppressed or impending violence, none of the angst that the good burghers of Stow had warned me about. Just hard-working, hard-living people gathered for trade and exchange, graciously putting up with the hordes of rubbernecking tourists, here to take pictures, buy souvenirs and absorb a little of a lifestyle largely gone and increasing vilified.

Mind you this isn’t all bucolic rural charm. The caged cocks with the huge, vicious-looking spurs weren’t there for food. The dogs tied up around the perimeter, guarding the caravans and possessions, weren’t called Muffy and certainly weren’t over-fed, over-pampered pooches. Doubtless after the sun goes down and the drinking starts, things warm up. My guide told me tales of knife fights and mortal stabbings. The police presence in the town was as overt as in a Trafalgar Square university fee demo. To be fair, the stabbing had been some years ago and the constabulary was charm personified but you take the point.

And therein lies the rub. Given that Stow-on-the-Wold’s fame and fortune is historically based on such fairs, you might imagine that the residents would welcome those who attract coach loads of incomers into their curio shops and cafes, hostels and hostelries; that Stow would know which side its bread is buttered on. Sadly not. The general air when the fair’s in town is that ‘people from off’ are coming and it’s time to shut up shop. One of the big hotels in the square literally barricades its doors. Many small businesses clear the stock from view and close for the duration. An unattractive haughtiness descends upon some of the permanent residents. There is sneering at some of the dress sense on display, a general unfriendliness, an overt snobbery directed at the descendents of the very folk who helped make Stow what it is today by those who are living on the fat that previous generations of those ‘people from off’ helped to create.

I was told a story that a former Lord of the Manor was so against the whole affair he prevented it from happening at all in Stow’s domain during his tenure. I heard also that while the very field in which the fair takes place is owned outright by the travelers, bought by them to protect their right to convene in the face of fierce local opposition, they are oddly – and unfairly – prevented from actually setting up there, on their own land, until immediately beforehand, thereby forcing them to make do in the verges of local lanes until the appointed hour when they can gain access.

Of course there is bound to be partisanship in such situations, but it strikes this correspondent that when so much legislation is created to ensure parity, fairness and equality in a nation that historically prides itself on diversity and offering a warm welcome to the oppressed, dispossessed and downtrodden, there is a small corner of our national psyche that is blind to that which is before eyes, a band of folk who choose an alternative lifestyle that brings colour, heritage and a tang of smokey authenticity and that stems our relentless fall into a homogenised blandness.

There is an unattributed couplet “Stow on the Wold where the wind blows cold and the cooks can’t roast their dinners.” It could easily describe the welcome the town offers and may come from a rhyme about Brill in Buckinghamshire that runs:

At Brill on the hill

The wind blows shrill

The cooks no meat can dress

At Stow-in-the-Wold

The wind blows cold

I know no more than this.

I know that that Stow’s cutesy charm hides a darker, unattractive streak and that - as my Grandmother used to say in another context - it is “all fur coat and no knickers.’ Not much good when the wind’s even colder than the welcome then.