Words.

The first words down are so important, they set your store, draw in your reader and sum up what you are going to say. Starting is always hard. Writing this, well, writing anything, has been extra hard of late. I’ve committed not a word to this blog, or in private, for almost three months. And it isn’t simply because I’ve not had anything to write about. Yes it is true that I have had no events; no gigs/concerts/exhibitions since Erland Cooper on the 10th October, but it is more than that. So much more. There were events I did go to that I didn’t write about before October 10th. I didn’t know how to write about them. Writing is a form of therapy and helps me process. There have been plenty of things to think about and process and yet, I haven’t known what to say or how to say it. The words they wouldn’t come.

Simply staying alive, keeping me and my boy as safe as I could, has taken almost all of my energy. Running a household alone, continuing to work, solo parenting a growing teenager, new health discoveries and diagnoses against the backdrop of a global pandemic didn’t see me feeling at my creative best.

Two of the Doctors I work for were seriously ill with Covid, one in ICU. Both thankfully recovered or recovering, but it was pretty worrying when they and around eight other colleagues became ill at the same time. It made it all feel very real and very close. I also had friends who were ill, with long Covid, in the first wave. I know people who have lost loved ones, father in laws, beloved Mum’s, a wife not much older than me and at work we lost one of our transport drivers, a man who had plenty to give for and who should have had more years to live. Covid has circled close enough to be something I’ve feared. Doubly true as an asthmatic with other chronic illness who has experienced both what it feels like to lose the ability to breathe (asthma attacks are frightening things) and what it is to lie in a hospital bed not knowing if you will make it through the night (Sepsis isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs either). Those experiences, plus many others, have left me with a form of medical PTSD. Covid scares the beejesus out of me. It should us all to one extent or another. My fears have not simply been for myself. That’s the thing about believing in society, in caring for others, even those who do not care for you. In a global pandemic, heck even when we are not, we are all responsible for each other. Any one of us could carry Covid asymptomatically and infect others, who in turn infect others and bam, without knowing it you’ve killed someone. Or changed their life forever with long covid. I don’t want that on my conscience, neither should you. That is why we distance, that is why we wear masks, that is why we leave windows and doors open, that is why we clean surfaces and wash our hands. That is why we cannot see friends and families nor gather together as humans have always done. Not just to protect ourselves, but to protect each other. For many it has been hard to understand how their individual actions make a difference, well, they don’t, but when all of us, enough of us, do them together, they make all the difference in the world.

When you work in healthcare, you can’t escape illness and death, even if you work remotely as an administrator like I do. It is literally our business. Everything we do is about helping people to get the best outcome we can and we are all trained in infection prevention and control. I knew how to wash my hands properly pre pandemic! We are all also engendered with some sort of belief in helping others. Many of us could do our jobs in other industries or areas but choose to work in public service. You have to believe in society to work for the NHS, you certainly don’t sign up for the pay!

I’m unusual in being a frequent flyer patient as well as a member of staff within the NHS, so I often see things from both sides. I have had to risk assess so many times that it is second nature to me now. That aspect of the pandemic has been easier for me to adapt to than most; find information you can trust and rely upon, cross reference your sources, tabulate them together, decide what risks you are willing to take for yourself, your immediate circle and then wider society and make decisions from there. I have spent my entire adult life chronically ill one way or another and I’ve had to make decisions that weigh up the risks and benefits of drugs and surgery so often I can do it in my sleep. Give me info, give me stats, find me some graphs and figures and I can make a choice easy enough. Covid was difficult at the beginning because there was so much we did not know. Sources that were reliable and trustworthy felt harder to find, as speculation and conjecture filled the air. Slowly and then rapidly that changed, open source data made the geek in me very happy. Realising in early September that I was more likely to contract HIV than Covid made going on a few dates seem reasonably safe (at distance, outdoors, wearing a mask as risk mitigation factors). Of course, when things changed, which they did at an alarmingly rapid rate in Bristol, I ran new risk assessments and made different decisions based on those updated outcomes. As risks changed, so did my behaviour. I am still dating, but exclusively with one person, who lives alone and so we have been able to form a support bubble. For me, the benefits of adult company and companionship (including touch) far outweighed the risks. At this point and with the information available, of course.

I have adapted, as we all have, to our changed world. I haven’t thrived, but I have survived and that is enough. It is enough. In tough times you find out who you are, who those around you are and what sort of society you live in. I knew I was tough, I’m basically made of granite, but I have surprised myself with how well I’ve managed this year at times. I knew I had few friends or people who truly cared about me and the ones who have made an effort to stay in touch this year will not be forgotten. The ones who haven’t won’t be either. That the society around me has been deeply polarised hasn’t been much of a surprise either, leave/remain, Labour/Tory, Corbynites/AnyoneElse, vaxxers/antivaxxers, we’ve been heading down that destructive path some time. The arguments between those who believe in forms of collectivism and those who are individualistic is much older than I.

My escape, my home, my place of safety and respite has always been music and my challenge of 2020 has been coping with it all it has thrown at me without the one thing that steadies me; live music. And no, listening to records or the radio or even a livestream is nowhere near the same experience. This time last year I had been to 100 concerts. I had spent countless hours on coaches and trains travelling to gigs, tens of nights in cheap hotels. I managed 3 nights away before March lockdown (one of those on a sleeper train) and I snuck in 2 nights in London in Aug/Sept when Covid rates were a lot lower, but other than that I’ve spent every night of 2020 in my own bed. I’ve been on public transport so little that I am even missing, and feeling nostalgic about First Buses (believe me, this is really saying something). I live not far from Temple Meads and yet I cannot get on a train and have an adventure somewhere. Anywhere. Not even Bath or Cardiff or Oxford, all places I would day trip to for exhibitions and gigs. My world has shrunk to about a mile and half from my front door, distances that I can reach on foot as I do not drive. I have never wished I had a driving licence and a car more than I have in the last couple of months. I yearn, long, ache, to see the sea, hills, clifftops, mountains, countryside. What I wouldn’t give for a walk in the Mendips, or Cheddar, or to see Devon or Cornwall again. Yes, even in the rain and cold of winter. Waterproofs and thermals are all I’d need. I miss the swell of the sea and the ebb of the tide and the open expanse of nature. I miss being able to escape the City and all its infernal people! I love my local parks, I really do, but they are not the same and they are always busy. I need to feel sunlight on my face and wind in my hair somewhere a little bit wilder than a park. I also need music and art. If I cannot stand in a gallery and stare deeply into the eyes of Frida Khalo again, or gaze at a Cezanne for hours, losing myself in time and space, well, well I don’t know what will become of me. I need art. I need music. I need them like oxygen. Art is what makes us human. I need ballet, contemporary dance, opera, musicals, theatre and even panto. I need paintings and sculptures and installations. I need this stuff injected into my soul. And I fear that not only will it be months before I can, but that what I will be able to indulge in will be severely limited. When the arts return, they will have been decimated by Covid and by Brexit. In whatever shape they do return, I will be there, trying and failing not to cry, feeling all the things I’ve not allowed myself to feel this year. They will pour in and out of me and I will break down I am sure. I will weep at the ugly beauty of a Donatello again. I will fall to my knees in prayer to a God I’ve never previously believed in due to the power of an El Greco, I’ll stand in awe of Cezanne and Van Gogh like I always have and I’ll discover new artists and be changed by the way they see the world as I have been by Steve McQueen and Kara Walker and Mona Hartoum. And I will hold my hand behind my back to stop myself stroking the Rodin’s, however much I want to feel that beautiful marble beneath my fingers. I’ll discover strange museums and learn about all sorts of things, whiling away happy hours in gardens/ruins/stately homes/provincial art galleries and museums. I will.

I will also get to gigs again. I will get to sit in concert halls and stand in sweaty venues and share the experience of live music with a room full of strangers. I’ll get to gabble at the musicians afterwards and maybe, just maybe, I’ll get to hold hands with Nils Frahm or hug Guy Garvey or weep all over Erland Cooper or Hannah Peel again. I miss you all so much. I miss every single thing. Even the terrible toilets. I haven’t really allowed myself to think about how much I miss live music for fear of it being too sad, too upsetting. But a huge part of me is missing. I feel the loss of live music in the way most people are missing the warmth of their loved ones I suppose. I have no loved ones to miss. I would be spending Christmas alone anyway. There is me and my boy and that’s pretty much all I’ve had for ten years. I’m used to a level of loneliness. I am also used to having art and music there to fill the void. Without them I have felt lost, confused and even more lonely. I am made of granite, but even rocks need support.

I also know I’ve been lucky in so many ways. I have a job, I’ve been allowed to do that job from home, neither me or my boy have been ill, I’ve not lost anyone close to Covid (or anything else), I have enough money coming in to keep the heat on and food in our bellies. I have enough life experience of tough times to draw on to know that somehow I’ll get through this. I know all of that and I am grateful for it. I still miss the things that give my life meaning and make me feel what it is to be human, music and art. Without them I feel the colour has been drained from my life and I used to live in glorious technicolour. My life was saturated and now it is muted, grey and shrouded with mist. Wouldn’t it be just heavenly to dance in rainbow coloured rain again?

This is the trouble with not writing for months. Words, when they do come, spill and slip and I’ve meandered without finding a destination. I am not sure where any of this leads me, you, us. I know I needed to get some of these thoughts out of head and share them with someone, anyone. Thank you for reading, and maybe come say hello @EmmaIsAChampion on Twitter, or @EmmaChampion6 on Insta. Take care of yourself and those around you. This will end. None of us know when, but it will.

Erland Cooper – The Barbican, London

Saturday 10th October, 2020

My first indoor gig since March. The first opportunity most of the musicians on the stage had to play for a live audience in 7 or 8 months. A concert we did not know was going to be possible even as short a time ago as a few weeks. That may not in a few more. Where people came to gather and share, in small groups, at distance and wearing masks. Our lives, our relationships, to each other and to the world, have been altered.

Music has been my constant. My companion, my best friend, my lover, nursemaid; my home. Live music gave me a place to belong, and people to belong with. No livestream can ever replicate that, no technology, no piece of vinyl, will ever be as powerful as sitting or standing in a room with others hearing music performed live. Hearing and seeing performers pour out their hearts and souls on the stage in front of you. Being part of that. sharing in it, being connected by it, has been essential to my wellbeing. The only way I can explain how the past few months have been without live music is bereft. I know for many it has been being without friends or family, not being able to hold a loved one close, but for me it has been the shared experience of live music. That is my community.

There have been socially distanced outdoor concerts and I have loved them. There have been album listen alongs, live streams, Insta live events, and they have all been enough to keep me going. But nothing will ever replace, replicate or bear witness in the way an indoor, live music event can.

Erland Cooper was due to play all three of his Orkney albums, in full, with the LSO, at the Barbican in June. I was supposed to be there. On the 12th June, the day the concert should have happened, I sat at home and played Solan Goose, Sule Skerry and Hether Blether in full, allowing in the emotions this music stirs and I wept. Simply knowing music this beautiful exists gives me hope. I had to hope that one day I would hear it played live again. We have to hope. Our pandemic world is very different, but it will not last forever. There will come an end and although things may not return to the way they were, we will have been changed by this experience of that there is no doubt, there will be an end point at some time in the future. Not all of us will see it, but like old women who plant trees in whose shade they will never sit, there will be better times to come. Music gives me that hope. It is a rope to our pasts and our futures. Musical threads weft and bind us to ourselves and to each other.

I fell utterly in love with Erland Cooper’s music the very first time I heard it and it continues to entrance me. Music written, from the bottom of his soul, to calm his own troubled mind, privately and then shared with such love and tenderness. It is music so deeply rooted in place that it can act as an aural vehicle to transport you across land and sea to Orkney, whilst remaining universal, speaking to deep emotions of homesickness, loss and longing. There is a keening, a yearning, to Erland’s music that speaks to my heart and soul. I feel seen, heard and understood in his musical world. My relationship with music is as deep, mysterious and essential as any I’ve ever felt. There are not a lot of artists I would have made the journey from Bristol to London for in current times, but to hear Erland live I would have moved mountains.

There were so many expectations and emotions bubbling away inside me, the Barbican Hall, the musicians about to play, and the rest of the audience. I am sure it was an emotional experience for many. I cannot have been alone in my tears. There has been a deep, aching, longing, in me for live music like this. Erland’s music reaches those places that you cannot understand nor explain. It was the perfect way to reintroduce live music.

I had been prepared for tears, extra tissues had been packed in my bag just in case, but the depths and swells of the emotions I felt at the beginning of this concert were like no other. Haar makes me weep every time I hear it, those opening bars just melt me, and live it is that to a greater power. Live strings, in the hands of wonderful performers like Anna and Jacob (plus everyone else onstage tonight, I am sorry I do not know your names), are things of such beauty and steer us into the realm of the divine. They transported us through time and space, lifting and moving the Barbican from where it was moored, into Stromess Harbour and beyond. This is music that can take you to places unlimited by your imagination. It is beauty and it is truth and I love you for sharing it with us, Erland. Thank you.

The last time I saw Erland live he gifted me the feather he conducts with, and I have kept it safely treasured since and it is my tiny connection back to what was a very special live experience that I want to live in forever. That feather was safely tucked into my handbag for this concert, it needed to come home as it were. Well I now have another to join it. Erland graciously and ever so gently, passed me another feather as he left the stage. I will keep the pair of them safe, together, forever, Erland. They, and what they represent, will be safe with me. As will your music, in my heart. Music that brings me back, that takes me home, that makes me feel so much less alone.

I may have been sat in the Barbican, but I felt as if I were in another place, and of another time. The music was both safe harbour, storm and calm sea. It was wonderful, absolutely wonderful and I cannot thank everyone involved in bringing this gig into being enough.

Musicians from the WNO – St George’s, Bristol

Friday 4th September, 2020

I almost missed knowing this was on! I only found out about it the night before and was very lucky to grab two of the last remaining tickets. 

St George’s garden is almost as lovely as the hall itself and making use of the space to hold distanced concerts has been such a welcome return to live music. 

The last live music I heard before lockdown was the Welsh National Orchestra, I went to see The Marriage of Figaro at the Hippodrome only a few days before the world stopped. That night the atmosphere had been a bit strange, tonight was a lot lighter and more joyful. The quartet of WNO players were emotional about being able to play for a live audience for the first time in so long, I wanted to cuddle them (which of course I couldn’t, even if I knew them).

They opened with Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik “ah good, I’ll know this one, then!” whispered my companion.  It may have been the first time I had heard it played live, despite being one of Mozart’s most famous pieces and it sounded wonderful.  Playing outdoors brings different acoustic challenges, and at times this was a duet between birdsong and strings.  It was lovely to hear nature joining in. 

One of the next two pieces made me cry, but I can’t remember if it was Crisantemi – Puccini, or Meditation from Thais – Massenet, I’m guessing the second one, which is a from a lesser well known and performed opera where a Priest convinces a harlot to give up her life of sin for one of devotion. Whichever it was I found myself shivering and not just because I was starting to get cold.

It isn’t all that often that I hear a new instrument, but I did tonight, with Mirek Salmon on the bandoneon, guesting for a pair of Piazzolla pieces, Oblivion and Libertango.  An Argentinian adaptation of a German instrument it looked unwieldy but sounded fantastic. My foot was tapping along on the grass. 

It may have been drizzly and a bit chilly, but it was still a lovely, lovely experience. To be sat in St George’s garden, hearing live strings in the hands of superb players, well it almost felt like coming home. For all those of us for whom music is an intrinsic part of our identity, the past few months without have been very challenging. It will be a slow, gentle and distanced return for live music for some time to come, for audiences and musicians, but we will get there. One day we will sit together in a concert hall and hear full orchestras play again. We will. Mozart’s music has survived through so much more than this, and will endure forever. The greatest music does.  There is much hope in that if you are inclined to look for it.

Starsailor livestreamed gig – a pub (them), my bedroom (me)

Wednesday 26th August, 2020

Okay so it wasn’t ever going to be the same as an actual gig, but until we can be at those together again, getting all four member of my favourite band together in one room to play together for me and loads of other fans via the internet is the next best thing and still something I really looked forward to.

I knew I would be watching (not in the same place) along with Nick, Lou, Mandie and Hazel and that also made it feel more communal. Having a virtual chat room on the page helped during the inevitable technical problems (where is a roadie with a torch and some gaffer tape when you need one eh?)

Once we were up and running it sounded and looked pretty good. Ok it looked like the boys were playing in your posh Nanna’s conservatory with bookcases and Scrabble behind them (don’t think we didn’t notice the cushion on a shelf or the impressive Rough Guide travel series) but all four of them were there! James had done a weekly Instagram gig, on his own, and that got me through to an extent, but the magic really happens when the four of them get together and I was thrilled to hear them live again, even if I wasn’t there.

I have a long history with Starsailor and there are so many wonderful stories and friendships connected to them. I miss it. I miss them. I hope we get to be reunited one day. For now, though, this was a little treat, thank you.

The Foundling Museum – London

Friday 21st August, 2020

This is a place I have long wanted to visit, and having recently read Lemn Sissay’s My Name Is Why (an excellent book that left me speechless and in tears), I felt a renewed urge to book a ticket. Advance booking, reduced numbers, mask wearing, all helped, along with the Art Pass making it a free visit. Plus a temporary exhibition about the portrayal of pregnancy in art made it a must book while I was in London.

I booked for 10am, the opening slot of the day, as a way of further reducing the number of people I would be sharing space with, but actually that was no worry at all. The numbers are so limited that it was incredibly easy to maintain distance the whole time I was there, and at points I was completely alone in the galleries. That was a big bonus, it gave me the time to read all the cabinet displays and really take in what I was seeing.

The pregnancy exhibition was sensitive and although small, fairly comprehensive in covering about 600 years of art. There were handmade and delicate pregnancy stays, portraits, self portraits, gynaecological models, magazine covers, digital prints and sculpture. To see Alison Lapper pregnant at eye level, instead of on Trafalgar’s plinth was wonderful, although also very sad, given the loss of Parys Lapper so recently. The issue of race and pregnancy could have been teased out further, the two Annie Leibovitz Vanity Fair covers of Demi Moore and Serena Williams were both there and the reactions to the pair of images was not just different because of the time in which they were taken. The last image, of Beyonce, resplendently pregnant with twins, all baroque Madonna, was stunning. I was left wanting more, and at greater depth.

The one way route takes you up to the original entrance way (now the exit) where the first thing you hear is birdsong and the first thing you see is a rather magnificent piece of modern art. I really loved the way the Foundling mixed the contemporary art in its collection like this, it transformed what could have been a dry, old building into something full of life and colour. Again, I wish they had taken it further and installed some jarring modern pieces among the Gallery upstairs, so that the ‘great and good’ of Georgian society and their ships were mingling with the more recent commissions. It is a brave, bold move to show both, but where I’ve seen the juxtaposition (Damien Hirst in Chester Cathederal, Grayson Perry at the Holbourne), it works so well and enhances both the old and the new.

The gallery devoted to the history of the Foundling is powerful, evocative and full of information if you take the time to stop and look. I knew it would be an emotional place to visit, but nothing really prepares you for seeing the tokens, or reading the ledger book, or seeing the uniforms with the child’s number stitched in. That really struck me, how they were not names, but ledger numbers. It felt very cruel and inhumane. Each one of those uniforms belonged to a child, behind every number was a face, hopes, dreams and potential. Yet they were reduced to numbers and treated en masse to the same regimented treatment. Bullying was rife, near encouraged, by the sounds of it and loneliness and mental health problems must have been endemic. Yes they were fed and housed and educated, but at what cost to their wellbeing? I felt frustrated that the story of the foundlings was still being portrayed as one of hope, that their lives were better here than in grinding poverty with their mothers. Whilst I do not doubt that many of them were better off, and survived in way they would not have done otherwise, I cannot feel that they were treated fairly or with any decency by a regime that seemed completely devoid of the one thing children need more than anything; love.

The entire idea of white, wealthy men like Thomas Coram being the saviours of the poor is not an image that sits well with me. It never has. The truly revolutionary thing to have campaigned for would have been fair pay, safety and security of working conditions, decent housing, equality so that women who had sex outside of wedlock were not treated as pariahs. All things we are still fighting for today. The idea that white, liberal men know best is still pervasive. modern ideas of child rearing and development come from the same group and they still run the world. Much has changed, but much has also stayed the same. The state care system is still an unloving and cruel system for children to be in. Those placed in are still predominantly children born into poverty. They still leave school with fewer qualifications and with greater rates of addiction. Have we really moved on when a child in care graduating from Oxbridge is headline news because it happens so rarely? There should be space for those arguments too, Foundling. I was left with a deep sense of wanting to know an awful lot more. The stories of the mothers for a start. How, when and why residential care homes were abandoned and what transition arrangements were made for children caught between the two models. What life is like now for a child in care (this is touched on quite briefly). The aural testimonies of children with archive footage was quite powerful, but needed to be in a dedicated room of its own, where you could sit down, out of the way of the cabinets and really listen. I was left with more questions than answers, which is partly the job of a museum and if I had time/money/inclination perhaps there are resources I could find that would answer some of them. Were any of the Foundlings ever reclaimed? Do we know any of the stories of the mothers who left their children? What about the babies who lost the lottery and were not admitted? There is so much more to know!

Standing in the receiving room, which now houses art and historical photography of the foundling buildings, I felt overcome with grief. To know I was standing in the room where desperate mothers handed over their babies, hit me very hard. I thought of the pain and anguish each must have felt. Can you imagine how hard it would be to leave your infant like that? In that moment I so badly wished to hold my own son and tell him how loved and treasured he is. I thought of all my ancestors, none of whom were rich, and how easily any woman in my line could have been one of those who had been in this room. That in different circumstances and at another time, it could have been me. I was glad to be alone, although I also dearly would have loved someones hand to hold in that moment as I wept silent tears for those women.

What I had not known about the Foundling was that Handel had been instrumental in funding it. composing a theme and holding fundraising concerts. His conducting score is displayed and I will admit to a little thrill of excitement at seeing that, along with his will. Handel’s signature! His will gave generously to the Foundling, but also his servants and I found that rather lovely. Having visited the also excellent Handel and Hendrix Museum last year, I felt that visiting both gave me a deeper understanding of each. I got to sit in a chair I wanted to steal, red leather, with speakers in built (I mean talk about heavenly) and listen to the Messiah for a little while. It was much needed space to digest and come to terms with the emotions I was feeling.

The Foundling is a gem of a museum, despite what I have said about them needing to go further, the team here have put together an informative and vibrant history that needs you to visit and support. Yes I found elements frustrating, I saw no mention of how Coram’s wealth was made, which must have been from slavery, even if it was indirectly, and that needs addressing immediately, but the core of what is needed is here. They are uncovering vital history, of people at the margins, of those so often forgotten and overlooked.

I was tired out, it has been a while since I’ve traipsed round two galleries/museums in as many days and all the emotional output of both the Foundling and my first trip away since March, drained me. I had intended on walking to Paddington to get the train home but flopped onto a bus after getting lost.

It was a very worthwhile trip and if you are able to get to the Foundling Museum, then take the opportunity. We have to support all our arts and culture, much of it won’t be here when the pandemic is over otherwise.

Masculinities exhibition – The Barbican, London

Thursday 20th August, 2020

It wasn’t just live music that I missed. Art, photography, history, architecture, walking, train travel and having mini adventures are also things I’ve been aching for deep in my bones, for months. When you don’t drive in a pandemic your world becomes very small, limited as you are to the distance on foot you can travel. In the past three years I’ve been all over Britain by train and coach. I missed it. I had also, thanks to some very affordable offers on the national Art Pass, rediscovered how much I love quirky museums, galleries and exhibitions and getting back to being able to explore those was one of the things I needed to do to feel like myself again.

I was nervous, of course, of the journey, of London, of being so far from home (believe me when 3 miles felt a long way, imagine what 100 felt like! It felt a little but like living in a different age, 1850 or something) and I didn’t really share that I was going, until I was there.

I’ve been without the things I love, and that make me, for so long, I think I was afraid that they, and I wouldn’t still be there. I had been frightened of permanently losing myself.

The Barbican is a strange place, huge and unwieldy and housing so many different things that it is almost bewildering. It is a place chock full of memories for me (not all of them positive) and yet I get drawn back to it so often that it almost feels like visiting family. I love concrete, I love Brutalism and one day I would really like to tour the whole estate. For today I was, however, very content, with seeing the huge Masculinities exhibition.

Multiple rooms filled with photography and film, all dedicated to training the lens on men; what it means to be a man in the 21st Century. Some of it was excellent, some of it very powerful and some of it needed even more space to be able to tell even more stories of manhood. Despite how large the Barbican space is, and how many works were here, I still felt as it there were chunks missing. How could you not, when you were trying to tell the story of all of mankind and how it has been represented in western art in the past 50 years?

I should have written this when the exhibition was still running and I still had fresh memories and I really must take notes next time, the names of the artists and their works will have made their escape from my brain already, which is a shame. There were some really arresting photographs, but it was the films that left the greatest impression on me. I should have stayed for the entire Jeremy Deller film, documenting a British wrestler I’d never heard of, Adrian Street. A Welsh coal miner who went on to camp it up as a world champion wrestler, how could you not find that compelling? Placed within the framing of this exhibition, Adrian, taking on a flamboyantly gay persona, wearing outlandish costumes and make up, when he was (and is) married to a woman, coming from a tough, hard man, working class community, in the world of violence that is wrestling, well, it took on a whole other set of layers. I am still intrigued now.

I did stay and watch the entirety of Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston, I found it too compelling not to if I’m honest. It plays with the male gaze on other men, desire, love, racism and masculinity all in hour of a black and white dreamlike non linear and non narrative film. There are angels, a black tie ball, a police raid, an angry mob, art, beauty, power and money, all exposed and seen through a very different lens. It is both timeless and rooted very deeply in the time it was made.

The sections exploring queer masculinity and black masculinity were some of the most compelling to me, perhaps as a result of the times we live in; Black Lives Matter and the disproportionate effect Covid is having in killing black men, keeping those issues of identity and justice in the forefront of my mind.

Until I sat to write this I had forgotten much else of the exhibition, there was so much to see, that I had somehow let the Mark Billigham photographs slip out of focus. Having seen Mark’s film, Ray and Liz, but not the original works, it was a real sucker punch to experience them. They are hard to see, and hard to keep in mind as they represent alcoholism, chaotic childhoods and abuse. The whole section they were part of was quite disturbing and claustrophobic (not helped by the small rooms they were displayed in, which made social distancing almost impossible and added a different level of fear to proceedings) so I sort of scuttled through this bit, more so that I would have with more time and even fewer people.

The final series, where women turned the lens on men, had some really excellent elements, but I remain uncomfortable in watching images obtained without full consent, even if they are subverting the male gaze, are not ones I want to see in a gallery. The point of them may well be to confront and make the viewer uncomfortable, but I’m not sure, as a woman, I really needed to see it. All it did was remind me of all the abusive and nasty men who have, and continue, to photograph and video women in creepy ways. I’m not sure that making men feel the same really achieves anything; are we only equal if they suffer the same sort of abuse we do? That isn’t the sort of equality I’m after.

Overall this was an excellent exhibition that showed some interesting works, explored some vital themes and reignited my intellectual curiosity. As a first foray back into the worlds of art and photography it was a pretty good place to start.

Oh and if you are nervous of returning, as I was, to visiting gallery spaces, I have to say that the Barbican did a really good job of making me feel safe. The time limited tickets, reduction in visitor numbers, one way routes, plenty of hand sanitiser, and staff on hand in masks, helped a great deal. Mostly there was enough space to distance safely and everyone was wearing a mask. It felt comfortable enough for me, and I have been pretty risk averse thus far. Nothing is without risk, of course, but the Barbican have done what they can to mitigate them and the behaviour of the other visitors (always the scary bit, the bit you can’t control) was also fine. From what I have observed, people in London are being a lot more respectful of space. For me, the gains in my mental health and sense of wellbeing have been served greater benefits than the minor physical risks of being there.

Thank you Barbican for welcoming me back and for continuing to put on expansive, challenging exhibitions. It was exactly what I needed to start to feel a little more myself.

Campfire Club – St George’s garden, Bristol

Wednesday 19th August, 2020

For Kitty Macfarane and Dizraeli this deserved to have been written much earlier. One of the effects of the world changing has been that I’ve not been able to write. Writing helps me and yet I forget, or I get distracted, or I am afraid to start typing. Live music and writing about it became such a part of my identity, that without both I have felt very lost. The fear took hold and words didn’t seem to want to come. I’ve spent time in the past few days re-reading a lot of this blog. Much of it made me cry. Not in sadness, or loss, but in celebration of the extraordinary life I’ve been able to live in the last three years. I have been grieving the loss of it all for months, we have all lost whatever our ‘normal’ was – live music and writing about it was mine. But it hasn’t been entirely lost. Slowly, delicately, live music is returning, Campfire Collective among them.

A short series of outdoor folk clubs, round a campfire were organised by the Nest Collective and St George’s beautiful garden was one of the venues. Two, socially distanced and limited audience concerts were to take place, outdoors. The 6pm show sold out very quickly, and I was lucky to get tickets to the 8pm, when audiences are limited to around 50 it makes each ticket like a golden ticket.

I have seen Kitty Macfarlane before, supporting False Lights as part of 40 gigs a whole three years ago. I was struck then by her beautiful voice and interesting tales, in song and word, of eels and female craft art. She is beguiling and lovely and it was so wonderful to hear her sing again. That Kitty’s voice was the first I was to hear singing live in six months was wonderful. I don’t think I could have picked better by design. Thank you, Kitty, for sharing your lovely songs with us.

Dizraeli was an entirely different artist, charming, disarming, funny, sharing tales of young lives that I found all too relatable. The rain pelting down on us all, somehow, added to the experience and I don’t know why.

I really enjoyed this gentle reintroduction to live folk music, and sharing it with my gig buddy Janine was also really lovely. When your friendship is based in live music, not having any to share puts a dent in things! I’m so glad we were able to reconnect, with the rest of the audience, each other and the music.

Summer Serenade with Bristol Ensemble – St George’s, Bristol

Friday 7th August, 2020

Live music has, of course, been the thing I have missed the most during the ongoing Covid crisis. Five long months without hearing a note of live music played has felt like an eternity and also not very long at all, all at once. Time has taken on new meaning since we went into lockdown, hasn’t it?

It had been five months, to the day, since I was at BBC 6 Music’s Festival in London. There was a part of me then that sort of knew life was going to change soon after. There have been times when I’ve wondered if I would ever get to a gig or concert again.

I had deliberately kept my emotions and expectations in check, not daring to dream, but knowing that if I was to find myself in St George’s lovely garden listening to Bristol Ensemble play, that I was likely to cry. I wasn’t the only one. Suzanne, St George’s CEO welled up introducing Bristol Ensemble, the leader of which also welled up when introducing the music. Me? Well, as soon as the bow hit the violin for the first note leaks sprang from both my eyes. Less than two seconds and I was already crying, even for me, that is a new record. It was as if five months of emotional repression escaped at once. The release valve had been undone and out all the emotions came.

That it was Mozart, of course, helped. How can you not have an emotional reaction to one of the greatest composers in history? Bristol Ensemble had very cleverly designed a programme that reflected both their, and our feelings about being without live music for so long and how wonderful it was to be sharing it again.

The next piece was perfect. I’ve not heard the Lark Ascending performed live before and I doubt it will ever feel as emotional as it did to hear it played so beautifully by Emil, every high note of the violin solo was sublime and had me weeping at an ever increasing rate. It was the most glorious sound I’ve heard in such a long time. I cannot tell you why I react quite so strongly to strings, but I do, they just make my heart and soul soar. It was wonderful.

Fate was tempted with the choice of Petricor. The weather Gods heard and decided to join in with some light rain, which added surreal humour to the afternoon. I stood, barefoot in the wet grass, brolly in hand, swaying gently to the music, enjoying every second of being able to feel with all my senses; the smell of the rain, grass tickling my toes, music filling my ears. Glorious.

We would have no problems hearing Harriet Riley above the traffic, building work or seagulls as her solo percussion piece was loud enough to cut through all of it. I enjoyed her energy and verve, which took us into a different emotional space.

Bristol Ensemble closed with a piece that took us to a summer in Buenos Aries and the change of pace and mood was welcomed. It was an excellent programme, put together will real thought and care by musicians who clearly missed their audience as much as we have missed them.

Music is communal experience, a universal experience. Throughout human history, across all cultures, humans have sung and made music. We have an inbuilt need for it and to share it. Live music means everything to me, not just because of how it makes me feel, but because I feel those things in the company of others. It is not a solo experience, even though I am often times alone. Music, live music, connects us. It takes the musicians, the composers, the staff and volunteers who run venues, it takes every member of the audience to make it happen. I spend so much of my life alone and lonely. Sharing music live is one of the few times I get to connect. That is why it has been so very hard to be without – there simply is no substitute.

For ninety gorgeous minutes on a Friday afternoon in St George’s garden, I got to feel it all again. None of us know, in this uncertain world we now find ourselves in, when/if/ever we will get to do the things that matter to us again. In the last five months I had lost a part of myself that I feared I wouldn’t get back. Being able to see and hear live music performed again gave me a sliver of my old self back to me. That is the most precious and wonderful gift. Thank you St George’s, thank you Bristol Ensemble, thank you Harriet Riley, and thank you to the other 49 souls who were there listening too. The toddler who made me laugh, piling grass on his Mum’s head and dancing to the music, the little girl who’s sense of exploration needed to be sated and everyone else who shared it. The sound of applause was like a firework of joy.

I hope I get to experience live music again soon. My soul needs it.

 

John Grant with Royal Northern Sinfonia (recorded in 2014, broadcast 2020)

Friday 12th June, 2020

In support of the Music Venues Trust, this recording of a concert from 2014 was broadcast as live by a number of wonderful venues, including Bristol’s own, soon to be renamed, Colston Hall. It was recorded at the Sage Gateshead, which I’ve never been to, but looks pretty fab from the footage. Many, many venues are under threat due to loss of income during the Covid crisis. Donate to as many as you can, but mostly donate what you can to the MVT. Culture and the arts are vital to life, to wellbeing, to health and to, well, everything. We could lose so much without them.

Now I may have mentioned this before, but I love John Grant. Like really love him. I have seen him live a number of times, every one of them special. I also love orchestral music. The first time I heard John’s music was on a BBC4 documentary where he was playing with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and it was that that prompted me to seek out his records and to fall in love. How I wish I had seen this concert live at the time. Right now, the best any of us can hope for, is a livestream so in way it felt no different. I turned the lights down low, to aid atmosphere, whacked the volume right up and other than there being no background chatter or people near me, I could have been at a live show.

It was wonderous and glorious and all sorts of fabulous. John’s voice, so gorgeous, took us through humour, humility, arrogance, love, pain and redemption, just as it always does. John Grant’s voice is the goalkeeper of the pop world, a safe pair of hands and as my friend Jacqui says, should be available on prescription. It certainly did me good to sit and listen. Pale Green Ghosts, magnificent with the orchestrations, had me on my feet. GMF I have to sing along with, until the Richard Burton line which makes me collapse laughing everytime. Glacier, oh my gosh, too emotional and stirring and powerful. If for nothing else I will always love JG for this song, written about and in pain to soothe and give strength, it has been the balm I’ve needed many a time.

It was the best non gig, gig experience I’ve had in lockdown. It came close to capturing the power live music has to move me. One of the gigs I’ve missed in the past three months was seeing John at the Forum in Bath. There was a tiny sliver of a chance I may have been able to photograph that one. It is probably just as well that didn’t happen, I may have fainted from excitement. John Grant is, I think, the only one of my musical heroes left that I’ve not met (I have been a VERY lucky woman) and I adore him so much it would be too overwhelming to be that close.

Until we can return to concert halls and venues, events like this are the best we can hope for. They feel special for being shared; I knew Jacqui, Sally and Jeff were also listening at the same time and even if we couldn’t be physically together, we could share in the music somehow and that matters. It really matters.

 

 

A meandering of thoughts and feet.

Friday 12th June, 2020

The last time I went for a long walk was Mothers Day. The UK went into lockdown the next day, I went into full shielding at the same time. After 6 weeks of not leaving the house at all, I snuck out for a short walk to see the Moon with Venus in the night sky. I went out to my local parks a few times more, at times when I thought it would be quiet, exercise, fresh air and needing to see the world compelled me out those few times. It has been a long and also short time to spend alone, save for the company (if you can call it that) of a teenager. The first weeks were hard, weren’t they? Really hard. Now things are easier, the routine of home working and the slowing down in the tempo of life have become the new normal. I rarely saw people outside of work anyway, and I’ve found enough solace in books and online stream gigs to just about keep myself going.

Something about the afternoon of Friday 12th June felt different though and I needed to get myself out for a proper walk. Not just round a park. To feel somehow connected to the urban environment around me again. A Black Lives Matter protest had taken down the statue of Edward Colston a few days before and I’d watched, amazed, at the images on social media of it being toppled, rolled and splashed into the harbour. Yes, yes, I thought. Democratic channels had failed, I’d been among the 11, 000 who had signed a petition asking for its removal and had been angered by the failure to even agree wording for an additional plaque. Sometimes direct action has to be taken. That only the statue was taken tells you everything about the motives, they damaged nothing else, including the thousands of people nearby. Hearing the splash as Colston went in the harbour was cheering. That he met a watery grave, as so many Africans slaves had also, right by Pero’s bridge, named after Pero Jones, a slave, was delicious and deserved irony. I hadn’t been able to take part in the protests or actions, to be a part of that history of peaceful protest, but I wanted to feel connected to it. So I went for a walk to go and see the now empty plinth. It was the first time I had crossed the river in 12 weeks. The first time I had seen Bristol’s harbour. The first time I walked past so many of the places that make me happy to call Bristol my home on the way to see something that had made me feel ashamed, but now made me proud. The empty plinth. Covered in new signs, a black power salute, banners and black balloons and candles in tribute to George Floyd. This isn’t the erasure of history, it is the start of a new chapter. One where people, sick of decades of inaction, took matters into their own hands and made a powerful statement. One that has echoed around the world. Just as the horrific killing of George Floyd had beforehand.

I haven’t done enough, been enough of an ally. I know that and I’m sorry. My white skin allows me to take time off from the anti racist fight whenever I want and that is a privilege. Yes, I signed a petition or two and I called out friends who objected to Colston Hall’s statement that they were to change their name, but that is nowhere near enough. I have benefited from systemic racism by being white and silence is complicity. I have been listening and learning and reflecting and I’m going to keep doing so.

I walked from the empty plinth towards the harbour, to the spot where Colston went splash and had a good chuckle at the sheer swagger and determination it took to roll the statue that far. Well done. There is so much more Bristol needs to do. It is a very divided and segregated city, both racially and economically and all of us have responsibility to see that that changes, but for the first time in a long time I felt stirrings of something that felt a little like hope.

Buoyed by the excitement I went over to Society Cafe, which was open for takeway in a socially distanced way. I ordered a coffee and a brownie. I will sit by the harbour and enjoy these I thought. A tiny slice of something approaching normal life. I’d taken one bite and it started to rain, hard. I dived under a tree with my waterproof on but still was soaked to the skin. I had to laugh and enjoy the moment for what it was. It has been 12 weeks of not feeling the wind in my hair, nor the rain on my skin, or the simple pleasure of a walk into town to get a coffee. Whatever weather was thrown at me it was better than another day indoors, alone. So I did what any self respecting weirdo like me does, I drank my soggy coffee and danced in the rain. I walked home, soaked to the skin, laughing at the irony of picking that day, that time, to end my solitude.

My route home took me down Guinea Street, currently famous for being featured on BBC2’s A House Through Time. It is a series I have loved watching anyway, but it has been extra thrilling seeing Bristol’s history told on screen these past few weeks. Knowing the house was about a mile from mine and somewhere I’d walked past dozens of times made it all the more touching and personal. I’m sure the citizens of Newcastle and Liverpool felt the same. The houses on Guinea Street, built by a slave trader, now have BLM banners in their windows and that thrilled me too.

What I love about A House Through Time is that it tells the stories of the forgotten people in history, women, working class people and black people, not the alleged great and good, but the ordinary, extraordinary people and that makes history accessible, relevant and vital to me. Bristol’s Festival of Ideas had an excellent event with the shows producer and presenter last year. I met David Olusoga afterwards (it was quite the day, let me tell you as I’d met Marcus du Sautoy on the same day). FOI had another, online event recently with David. Both are available via their website, first one is audio, second one is video, and are worth seeking out.

It stopped raining and as walked home in the sunshine, slowly drying out, I smiled. It has been a long time since I felt happy like that. Or hopeful. Or part of something bigger than myself. It felt good.