Chloe Foy – The Latest, Brighton

Friday 19th April, 2019

Oh gosh this has taken ages to write. Far too long. I’m going to have to save up for a lightweight laptop to take on my travels. Alas I have only an ancient and heavy beast on which to wrestle words and life has prevented this review from being formed before today. Eight days have passed since I went to this gig so forgive me if the details have been lost.

The weekend in Brighton was planned first, for once I was to be travelling for reasons other than a gig! But this is me, so I checked the listings for Brighton to see what was on while I was there. I was pleased to discover this gig. I’d seen Chloe support Jesca Hoop way back when 40 gigs was an infant and had been struck by her lovely voice and tucked her name away in the back of my mind to see headline somewhere, sometime. That somewhere and sometime was to be Good Friday in a basement bar in Brighton. The Latest is an odd place and because of that I liked it. Many steps, but friendly staff and a faded glamour made it a place I’d happily visit again. As did the tables and chairs, hooray, a gig I can sit down at is always a winner.

There were two support acts, neither of whom I can remember the names of, sorry. The first was a young local group and they were ok. There were two singers and sadly it was the weaker of them who took most of the lead duties. There was too much going on, two electric guitars, bass, drums, keys, a pair of voices is a lot electrics for a folk band. It felt confused, as if they weren’t sure what sort of music they wanted to be making and what they wanted to communicate with it. If you are going to play a Gretsch you really should know what you are doing with it. Overall it didn’t hang together and as such, although not bad, didn’t work for me.

The second support band were better, despite also being very young. Yes, I’ve reached the age when I’ve more in common with the band’s parents than them! Still two guitars, but one acoustic and one electric, which made more sense. Drumming that was quieter and more understated (brushes rather than sticks, less thumping bass drum) and subtle bass made this a more coherent sound. Also, the lead singer had a great voice. If I knew who they were I would recommend them.

Chloe’s voice is more beautiful than I remembered and the combination of George and Harry supporting her on keys, guitar, harmonised vocals and violin (not all at the same time, although they seem talented enough to give that a try!) gave the whole sound a really lovely feel. Warm, enveloping and emotional. There was a shiver inducing cover of Fade Into You by Mazzy Star that made me cry, There was a song for a bereaved friend that kept the tears flowing. It is the sort of melancholic, yet uplifting music that works almost too well in an intimate space like this.

Chloe’s Mum had made jam for the merch table, which if I had been closer to home I would have bought. As it was I made do with CD’s – merch sales are about the only way artists can make enough money to survive and it would be a crying shame if someone with as much talent as Chloe couldn’t continue to make music. As this was the last night of her tour I can’t recommend you see her soon, but when she tours again please go along and give her your support.

Terry Riley -St George’s, Bristol

Saturday 13th April, 2019

This one has taken a few days to write, partly as I’ve been busy but partly because I had no idea what to say. I was rendered almost speechless at the end of this one, a pretty rare occurrence.

When the announcement for this gig arrived in my inbox I was instantly clicking the book now button. Terry Riley, one of the master of minimalism, a towering great in modern composition, you do not turn down the chance to see him play. Especially as he is 83. The rest of Bristol felt the same and the only ticket I could get was in the third row of the side stalls, with a restricted view. Nah bother, it’ll be worth it to hear Terry Riley play I thought and spent more than I usually would on a ticket.

“How does a youngster like you know about Terry Riley?” I was asked by my row C companions as I took my seat. BBC4 and Radio 3 I answered, besides, he has influenced just about everyone and everything with his music. Turns out they had travelled from Suffolk to be at this gig and the guy at the end of the row had waited 50 years to see Terry live, and had with him his original vinyl to get signed (I really hope he did) so I was in good nerdy musical company!

Terry, on piano, keyboards and melodica (a first for me) was joined by his son Gyan on guitar. Just the two of them. One playing keys, the other guitar. Nothing and no-one else. It was spinetingling. It was goosebump introducing. It was spectacular. Tears fell. I was transported to other worlds entirely. St George’s was transformed from a concert hall to an audio spaceship that took us to amazing places. I felt the shivers. I cried. I saw all sorts of colours swooshing about. It was all sorts of things that I cannot describe. I experienced a tingling sensation at I can only explain as being like feeling the presence of an absent loved one. My whole body felt light and I was covered in goosebumps from head to toe. Music lights up all areas in our brains, it is unique in that, and when music is this brilliant it just does things to me that I can’t really explain or share, I just know I like it when it happens and that it happens all too rarely.

In the first half there was a piece played on the keyboard that sounded like a harpsichord with the guitar distorting and it sounded exactly as if Handel and Hendrix had made a tune together. I couldn’t help but smile and remember standing in the Hendrix & Handel museum last year. In the second half there was piece that went deep, dark and disturbing. It was quite creepy and yet spellbinding.

Elements of the whole thing sounded like jazz, classical, folk, avant guard, prog rock or traditional North African music. Some, or all, may have been improvised. There was and is no way to classify Terry Riley and that is why I loved this gig. Time disintegrated. I felt disoriented at the end, as if my molecules had all been rearranged somehow. Someone shouted “wow” from the balcony and it was the most enthusiastic standing ovation I’ve seen given. I was stunned. It was stunning. I am not at all sure I could have written this on the night,it has taken a few days to sink in deeply enough for the words to appear.

Nothing I write will do the experience of seeing Terry and Gyan Riley play live justice at all, but I had to try. Thank you both for being so brilliant and for making me feel all the things.

 

 

Dobet Gnahore – St George’s, Bristol

Friday 12th April, 2019

I was frankly shattered from the trip away with my boy, but having handed him over to his Dad for the weekend there was only one thing for me to do. No, not the washing, go to a gig. Music feeds my soul and it was in need of some nourishment.

This gig had caught my eye in the St George’s programme a while back due to the promise of Dobet marrying traditional African rhythms with electronic elements and her music being a celebration of modern African women. Exactly the sort of music I’ve been trying to seek out.

Out came Dobet, part Black Panther warrior, part traditional West African Queen, all parts fabulous. Her look, carefully chosen and presented, was in perfect sync with her music. Her band was made up of drums, guitar and keyboards onto which Dobet added extra drums (African and Western). It was explosive, polyrhythmic and like nothing else I’d heard at St George’s before. Her voice is exquisite, ranging from sublime highs to deep lows and although I could not understand the language, I understood the meaning. Music is the universal language. Education, Africa, those were song titles requiring no translation and spoke to and of Dobet’s home continent with pride and love. By sheer force of personality Dobet was going to get us up and dancing and she succeeded. I have never seen St George’s up on its feet like it, spontaneous grooving was going on in the aisles and the balconies! An old man in the front row, wearing a polo neck and a waistcoat for goodness sakes, got up and shook his groove thing. It was wonderous and infectious and Janine and I found ourselves joining in. It was impossible not to get carried away with the joyous spirit of Dobet’s music with smiles and laughter.

I did wonder to myself what the genteel white men who built St George’s (during the time of the transatlantic slave trade) would have made of a black African woman making music in their Church. It would have been unthinkable then, now it was and is a life affirming and healing act. Music brings us together and unites us.

Listening back to Dobet’s album now and there are more subtle flavours to it, confirming what I felt on the night, that the sound mix on her vocal was too low and the drums too high. Otherwise this was a fantastic gig, one to lighten and bring gladness.

Liverpool

8th-12th April, 2019

Thanks to a ridiculously cheap deal I managed to book the Easy Hotel for me and my boy. He had never stayed in his own hotel room before (there have been rare occasions when we have shared a family room in a Travelodge but that’s it) and he’d also never been to Liverpool before. With a family railcard the train fare becomes affordable and with a journey time of about 3 hours it is just about manageable. What else were we to do with the Easter holidays?

Easy Hotels are no frills (I’ve stayed at their Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle hotels before so I knew this) but with locations this central and prices this low you can live with the lack of a kettle or chest of draws. As a place to crash they are perfect. Clean, comfortable and did I mention how well located they are? The customer service is great, they were very good with my boy, giving him the room with the most space so he had room to build his Lego!

I’ve been to Liverpool a few times myself and have had the opportunity to explore parts of it with local friends – this trip was a family one and I had my son’s needs to cater to. Somehow I managed to get out of the trip to the Nerf gun centre, but I was forced to visit the Lego store on 4 occasions! As we were staying near the Albert Dock and Pier Head we had a wander there and watched the sun set over the Mersey. Me going “look, look at that bloody massive river” and him going “it’s just some water” as we both laughed at the Lambnana’s.

I gave him the list of museums on our doorstep and let him pick which we would visit. To my pride and surprise he picked the Slavery museum and so that’s where we went. You would think that living in Bristol, as we do, that the transatlantic Slave Trade would be a part of history we knew. You would be wrong. Bristol hides its racist past (and present) very well. Discussions about how the City’s great wealth came from (and still comes from) slavery just aren’t had. The Wills Building, Colston Hall; our great buildings still bear the name of slave-owning merchants and the association they were part of still control much of the wealth and power of Bristol. When M Shed, which is effectively the museum of Bristol was built only a few years ago the slavery section was tucked away in a corner, shielded by a wall, and is very small. It is incredibly easy to visit M Shed and miss it. Ergo very easy to miss any reference to Bristol’s part, as a port city, as a dock city, as a city of chocolate and cigarettes, to the role Bristol played in slavery. Liverpool isn’t hiding it’s part. It created the Slavery museum. It would have been easier to have created this as part of the Maritime Museam (it is housed within) but instead the new name, publicity and branding gave the Slavery Museam equal footing will all the other (high quality and varied) museums of the city. It makes a very clear statement – we take this seriously.

Once inside the Slavery museum is split into 3 sections. The first positions Africa before slavery, showing the depth and vibrancy of West African culture before Western powers and their racism descended. This is vital as it challenges the justifications for slavery and modern-day racism in one fell swoop by exposing the lies of ‘uncivilised’ natives. My eye, obviously, was drawn to the cabinet of musical instruments and the sound board next to it that allowed you to hear recordings of African music. The next section of the museum was difficult, as it should be, as it exposed some of the horrors of the triangular trade. At the recreation table (a model of a plantation in Jamaica) my son sat and pressed the buttons to light up the different areas and recoiled in horror at the stories of the slaves’ punishment. I think those images will stay with him for a long time. It was sensitively curated, this is not an easy area for artifacts – by displaying instruments of torture you risk glorifying them somehow – and the use of ships’ logs and audio-visual elements helped to keep things factual and still shocking. An inter-active colour coded map of Africa, showing the extent of involvement of many European nations, was a simple way of demonstrating how widespread the slave trade was. Being able to trace the journeys of individual ships helped to place the global, national, local and personal in some sort of context. It also gave a hyperactive child something to play with lots of draws to open and buttons to press. The simplest, yet most poignant display was a window with a sign next to it. From this place it read. You were invited to gaze out at Pier Head and imaging the ships that would leave from Liverpool, bound for Africa and their role in the horrors that followed. In that one, simple act, you were asked to confront Liverpool’s history as well as to perhaps reflect on your own. The final section deals with the legacy of slavery – again a vital part of telling this story. My boy was frightened by the Klan uniform and I had to spend time explaining the US Civil War, its connection to racism in both America’s past and present “do they still exist Mum?” when I answered yes he was visibly shaken. The personal stories of black Liverpudlian’s and their family history/heritage/connection with slavery was done well, as was drawing the line between those African instruments and the Mersey Beat sound a few centuries later.

Overall I was really impressed with the Slavery museum and felt that Bristol could learn a lot from how Liverpool has attempted to address this difficult part of its history. I will take away a willingness to learn more and to do better. I will continue to challenge people around me who object to Colston Hall changing its name, or to new wording being placed on the statue of him that better reflects his part in the slave trade. Why we would continue to honour the legacy of men who earnt their money off of the backs and lives of others is something I struggled to understand before I visited, but I am renewed in my support for change now.

Next up on our whistle stop tour of Liverpool culture was Tate Liverpool, which I really wanted to love but found I could not. A distinct lack of natural light and an inadequate number of lifts didn’t help matters. I felt penned in and forced to climb a lot of stairs. Other than the new acquisitions section, where I found a couple of pieces I liked very much, I also wasn’t hugely impressed with what Tate had sent up North. I should probably ‘fess up to not being an enormous fan of Tate Modern either! What there was, right at the top, was a huge work in progress where all the artists involved are neurodiverse. Again this I should have loved, but did not. The language, the subject matter and the stark black paint (no colours) serving to reinforce negativity, rather than celebrate neurodiversity. I had a long chat with someone involved in the project who admitted that there were few neurodiverse people involved at high level and that discussions about language had taken months. He encouraged me to give honest feedback, however, and genuinely listened to my concerns which I took as a positive sign. It is also a huge step forwards for neurodiverse artists to be given such a big platform and I hope that it is simply the start of a more inclusive and diverse art world that embraces the way all people see the world.

I also paid a brief visit to the 209 women photography exhibition, portraits of every female MP in Parliament. There was something quite powerful about standing in a room with the faces of all our representatives staring down at me and it showed how much progress has been made, whilst also highlighting how much there is to go. There aren’t many black female MP’s for a start, nor younger women, nor women with visible disabilities. I found the 3 Bristol MP’s, Kerry, Thangham and my own MP Karin. It is the first time I’ve ever seen professional portraits of people I know and I found that a disjointed exercise. None of the shots of them captured the women I know at all. Thangham is a force of nature, so full of life and verve and Karin one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, her intellect and determination were not there. Kerry’s came closest, showing her love of the natural world, but even then it lacked something. More than anything it was amazing to see 209 portraits of women, all taken by female photographers, in one space.

Our big trip of the holiday was to Chester Zoo which was glorious in the sunshine. We were lucky enough to see the tigers playing and the bears foraging, both of which we missed on our previous trip. The staff and volunteers deserve a lot of praise as they were all friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. That the cafes sold decaf tea and gluten free cake was a massive bonus too!

We met up with an old friend of mine, who I have not seen since I was 18, for breakfast, the next day. Despite it being over 20 years since we had seen each other, it felt as if it were yesterday! People who make you feel at ease are rare and to be treasured, thank you Kate, we will come back up to Liverpool as soon as we can to meet again. Promise.

Partly on Kate’s recommendation the next place my boy asked to visit was the Double Fantasy exhibition at the museum of Liverpool. I was again surprised and proud of his choice, he can be a sophisticated little bunny at times. I wish we had been able to explore the rest of the museum and the architecture inside and out was fantastic, I loved the shapes and natural light. However, I was dragged up the spiral staircase to see the exhibition about Yoko and John. As a love letter to Liverpool’s most famous son and his beloved it was very moving. Powerfully so. Given how much racism and misogyny Yoko was subjected to at the time she and John met (which is touched on in archive film interviews of the time) it is so wonderful to see her place reappraised now and her influence on John’s solo career (and life) placed firmly where it should be. At its heart. They were a true creative partnership and without Yoko there would have been no Imagine. Or Beautiful Boy. Or Mother. The Beatles would have ended without her, I think it’s time all Beatles fans faced that.

This exhibition tells Yoko and John’s love story from the beginning, in an art gallery, right up to and beyond John’s murder in New York. What shines through is the love they had for each other and how good for John Yoko  was. There are wonderful recreations of her artwork, some of which remain baffling – my boy was quite confused by some it – some of which remain powerful statements. You Are Here, Bagism, Bed In’s all strange, radical even now and yet also powerful messages about peace. We sat and played chess on a recreation of the all white board and got thoroughly confused about whose pieces were whose, I even took my own castle! But that is the point. When you see us all as equal, when we are all equal, you cannot fight, be beaten or win. I found that profoundly moving. As was the enormous room filled with the music video of Imagine and the circular sky sculptures so that above us was only sky. I’m not ashamed to admit I wept. My boy was quite overwhelmed with the newsreel footage of Vietnam, Civil Rights and Northern Ireland. I attempted a whistle-stop history lesson of all 3 for him but it got too much and he needed to leave. Which meant I had a very brief look at the end of the exhibition, but what I did see moved me profoundly. The Starting Over that John sang of was in evidence, with beautiful family portraits of him with Sean as a baby, the pappoose he carried him in (quite a radical act of equality for a man in the 70’s) and a wonderful photograph of the 3 of them on holiday in Japan, looking for all the world like any other tourist family posing. It was an intimate glimpse into the life of a man who has become an icon. At the end seeing how many countries of the world had sent plants for the peace garden memorial in Central Park showed just how far-reaching John’s music had been (and continues to be) and I left in tears at how sad it was that his life was ended so young and with such violence. Predominantly for Yoko, Sean and Julian. Again this was a sensitively curated exhibition and huge credit goes to the culture team in Liverpool for it, as well as to Yoko for gifting the material it contained.

Our final museum of the week was to be the World’s museum – which was recommended by the hotel receptionist and Kate’s son so despite protestations the boy was encouraged back out after some chill out Lego time at the hotel to visit. “From the sea to the stars” was promised. Housed in an amazing Victorian building but very much a modern museam I really enjoyed our visit here. The aquarium is undergoing refurbishment so we shall have to come back for that, but the rest of the floors contained half the world it seemed! Bugs, natural history, ancient Egypt, word cultures, dinosaurs and space & time all within 5 floors. Phew. I can see how this is a really valuable resource for Liverpool’s schoolchildren and would have happily spent a lot longer here than we had. You can see how the museam has been and is continuing to develop, from its Victorian collector roots into something more fitting for the 21st Century. In the world culture galleries “that looks like the African stuff in the Slavery museam, Mum!” as he spotted the Ghanaian masks and spears. He surprised me with his in-depth knowledge of Japanese swords and he was fascinated with the Inuit snow goggles and hunting spears. We gave the Mummy room a miss in the Egypt section and had a discussion about whether it was right to show human remains on display in a museam at all. We also watched Tim Peak’s Q&A with Liverpool schoolchildren in the space gallery, recorded when he was on the International Space Station. It was an all too brief trip around so many things that I think we both became a little bewildered! Highlights included stroking an elephants tooth in the natural history gallery, hearing my son explain snake skeletons to me and attempting to lift a very heavy meteorite. It was a busy afternoon!

To cap off my need to give the boy social history lessons, we stopped to pay our respects to the memorial statue for the victims of Hillsborough where I had to try to explain to him how 96 football fans went to a game and didn’t come home. He noticed the matching surnames, how families lost more than one member, and how young most of the victims were. He was incredulous as to how the police had continued to allow people into the crush and how we had all watched people dying on television. Explaining difficult things to curious children isn’t an easy business, but it is necessary and I have always been honest with my boy.

Sadly we didn’t have time to get a ferry across the Mersey, or to visit the red squirrels in Formby, or a million and one other things we wanted to see and do. Liverpool is a city brimming with culture of all kinds and we only scratched the surface with a 4 day stay. Liverpool you have always welcomed me warmly in the past and I’m pleased to say that the boy loved his visit and has asked to come back in the summer holidays. I need to also plan a trip for myself so that I can take in the art at leisure and immerse myself in the music. Liverpool we loved visiting you and we can’t wait to come back.

 

 

Spindle Ensemble – St George’s, Bristol

Saturday 6th April, 2019

As part of their extension and refurbishment St George’s created this lovely little new space, the glass room. The aim being to hold intimate gigs and talks in there, like this Listening Room event. Part live performance, part conversation.

I was exhausted from Friday’s very long day and had gotten home at 1.45am so all I really wanted to do was rest and recover but trooper that I am I managed to just about sneak into the back of the room before it all started. It was a very relaxed and gentle couple of hours with music and interview interspersed. Modern classical is probably the best way to describe Spindle Ensemble, I found it to be quite soothing and calming and as such exactly what I needed it to be. I sat at the back, closed my eyes and allowed the sounds of piano, cello, violin and vibraphone to wash into me and float me away on a little pillowy cloud of relaxation.

It was a fantastic use of the space and I would like to encourage St George’s to programme more events like this, it worked really well. I’d also like to see Spindle Ensemble play again when I am not quite so exhausted!

 

Ex:Re – Union Chapel, London

Friday 5th April, 2019

I was only at this gig at Tom’s insistence. If he had been over we surely would have been going to this together, but as he was back home in the US, I had to attend for him. I didn’t take a huge amount of persuasion, I was looking for an excuse to get to London on a Friday to pop in to see James Meynell presenting his Soho Radio show and catch a couple of exhibitions, having a gig to hang the trip around gave me the push I needed. That and some affordable train fares and I was set.

I’ve heard Ex:Re on BBC 6 Music (where I’ve also heard Daughter Elena Tonra’s other band) and liked the session she did for Mary Anne Hobbs but that was all I knew. Union Chapel is a venue everyone should visit at least once and is every bit as beautiful as you could wish. It’s acoustics are fabulous and although they have a bar, you aren’t allowed to consume alcohol in the Church, so it is usually a place with a wonderful atmosphere unhindered by the constant stream of people nipping to the bar or loo and back. Now I’ve nothing against people having a drink. That’s what pubs are for. I go to gigs to hear music. I expect the rest of the audience to do the same. If you can’t enjoy an evening out without being drunk then perhaps it is you with the problem, and not me for judging you. Can’t get through a few hours without booze, ditto. Really want/need that beer, then go to the bar or to a pub. Want to hear music, then be quiet and don’t keep wandering off! It really shouldn’t be too much to ask, should it?

Despite arriving at a sensible time, 40 minutes before showtime, I was still stuck in the back row. There was the option of the balcony, which I would have taken if my hips and back weren’t already protesting that I’d used them too much walking round 2 galleries and between Waterloo and Soho (that bit was probably a mistake!) so I settled into the end seat of the back row which wasn’t all that bad to be fair as the sloped floor meant I could still see most of the stage.

Support was from Herbal Tea, she was clearly very nervous and shy. Rather sweetly the more she seemed to falter, the more the crowd clapped, as if to say it’s alright, we know, keep going, it’ll be ok. When she found her stride she sounded great, just need to work on the confidence a bit as the voice suffered at times. Union Chapel is a big place and it must be pretty intimidating to stand on that stage. Take heart in how the audience were rooting for you, Herbal Tea, the bones of your talent were there.

Ex:Re are a melancholic band. There is no avoiding that their music is quite sad. And it had already been quite an emotional day with the two exhibitions so I sort of knew that tears were going to be inevitable at some point in this gig. They took a while to come, only because I was distracted by 2 girls talking a row behind and across the aisle. They weren’t even on the end of the row. I waited til a break in songs to go and ask them to either take their conversation to the bar or stop talking during the songs. For me to have to get up and go talk to them took huge courage, as I hate that sort of confrontation. My heart was racing so badly that I missed a song calming myself down and getting refocused. Please, please, consider the feelings of other gig goers. Even if you think you are being quiet and discreet, some of us have the sort of hearing that can pick you up from some distance. Respect those around you and the artists we have all come to see.

Once that was sorted and I could focus on the music I could let the emotions build up and wash over me. I closed my eyes and allowed the music to reach in and unlock the flow of tears. Once they began there was little I could do to stop them. It has been a while since I’ve had that sort of emotional release at a gig. I needed it. It had been a day of slowly building emotional tension and the sweet relief of letting it all go. Something powerful happens when women share their truths and Elena is a brave woman to stand on stage and share hers. It was all over too fast “we haven’t any more songs left to play you!” which was the truth, so they ended on a cover and I was left dazed and alone. I wish Tom had been with me, he would have loved this gig and I would have loved having his hand to hold when I cried. Sometimes we all need a little comfort. Music is mine and Ex:Re provided an emotional sucker punch when I needed one.

 

 

 

 

 

Don McCullin Exhibition – Tate Britain, London

Friday 5th April, 2019

It isn’t every day that a major retrospective of one of the greatest reportage photographers takes place, so as much as I was worried about this being too much for me, physically and emotionally, in one day I decided to get a ticket. And on that note can I recommend the National Art Pass from the Art Fund? I picked up a 3 month trial membership last year in a special offer for £10 and they then offered me a reduced 12 month extension for £30 (less than half the usual price). With it you are not only supporting the purchase and ongoing care of art treasures, but you gain free or reduced price entry to hundreds of art galleries and museums right across the UK. I have visited the Fashion museum in Bath, the Hendrix & Handel in London, Cardiff Castle, Tyntsfield and got half price entry to both the McCullin at Tate and Arbus at the Hayward. If, like me, you enjoy your art, it is a really worthwhile investment. I’m not sure what I’ll do come September this year when my membership expires and I’ll have to pay the standard renewal fee of £67 but for the special offer prices I secured (more by luck than judgement) it has been superb value and has encouraged me to get out to see more art than I would have otherwise.

Tate Britain is a wonderful gallery in which to lose yourself for a few hours generally, I have spent happy time among the Henry Moore sculpture’s there and also have fond memories of a childhood skipping through its wide open galleries while my Dad was trying to concentrate on looking at the paintings.

That McCullin’s photography is held in high enough regard for Tate to commission such a large exhibition of his work almost says enough. One could argue over whether photography is an art form and whether it deserves to share space with Van Gogh (of whose work Tate is also hosting) and even if all that is true, whether McCullin’s photography of war and suffering can count as art. Or you could just go and have a look, satisfy your curiosity.

So much has already been written about Don McCullin, some of it by himself, he has been the subject of a recent BBC4 Documentary, a documentary film and countless articles, that I know whatever I write will be unoriginal. It will, as my writing always is, be honest and heartfelt. I hope that is enough to do justice Don McCullin’s work.

This exhibition is huge, by far the largest photography retrospective I’ve seen and it covers McCullin’s photography from his earliest days right up to now encompassing the London of his youth, atrocities across the world in every decade and the landscapes of the Somerset levels. Beautiful seems about the least appropriate word to use in relation to some of Don McCullin’s photography, but in a harrowing way they are. The framing, the depth of saturated black, the use of light, the play of shadow, they are all beautifully done, like Rembrandt or Caravaggio. He applies a painterly eye to photography, seeing these prints in an art gallery absolutely makes sense in that context. As does the humanity and compassion with which they were shot. They were taken not out of vanity, but of necessity and with a purpose to help; how much they achieved is another debate entirely.

I have seen some of these photographs dozens of times in magazine supplements, on TV documentaries, but their power lies in seeing them in print, you cannot hide from them. They haunt you and follow you and burn themselves onto your retina. The shell-shocked Vietnam soldier, the family leaving the cemetery in Cyprus, the woman discovering the corpse of her new husband, a mother holding her child in Bangladesh are all images I will not forget in a hurry. I gulped and swallowed back tears. These images retain the power to shock and disturb, not simply because they depict shocking and disturbing things, but because there is a humanity and a deep respect for each life and death in front of the lens. An awful lot of these photographs are difficult to look at, they are meant to be, but I found it impossible to look away and it would have seemed disrespectful to the people in the photographs to have done so. The only way recording their suffering can make any sense is for it to be seen, for us to not to pretend none of it happened. As a series of images documenting some of the darkest aspects of the 20th Century this is an unparalled collection of images. Northern Ireland, Berlin as the wall went up, Cambodia, Congo, Biafra, Bangladesh, Beirut, Britain’s homeless and disaffected, they are all here and they are all treated with as much respect and humanity as Don McCullin could give them. The quiet introspection and self awareness he lends to his work, through the quotes and notes against the images, add to their power.

All of the prints in the exhibition were produced by McCullin himself in his darkroom, he continually prints and reprints them, these images haunting him and driving him to try again and again to reach photographic print perfection. They are beautiful prints, sadly not given the respect they deserved by the Tate’s hanging. The lighting bounces off the photographs so that you see your own reflection and the reflection of the rest of the gallery in the frame, not simply the image. This is such a basic thing for a gallery to get right and yet it happens so often that I wonder if it is deliberate. If it is, stop, it doesn’t add a layer of refection on the work to add a layer of literal reflection! Consider the different heights of the public who will be viewing and adjust your lighting accordingly. Please. Dark walls, light wooden floors and harsh lighting don’t a good viewing experience make.

The latter years of McCullin’s photography are in some ways even more powerful. By documenting the ancient sites of Syria and Egypt in their starkness he reminds us that they were built by slaves and that their beauty hides a hidden cost. They also serve as reminder of the fragility of peace, given the targeting of ancient sites by IS.

The Somerset countryside is rendered as bleak, dark and unyielding as any war zone under McCullin’s lens, yet they have a haunting beauty about them that also offers comfort. Perhaps as it does to Don himself, who having seen up close the very worst humanity can do itself must struggle with any sense of peace or of calm.

Don McCullin is a remarkable photographer and a brilliant documenter of people. This exhibition is in parts difficult to view, but it is sometimes essential to be reminded of the evils of the world in order to try to live a life of peace.

Diane Arbus & Kader Attia Exhibition – The Hayward Gallery, London

Friday 5th April, 2019

I’m not all about the music. Well, I am mainly about the music. But I also love photography and art and architecture. When I can combine them with say a photography and art exhibition in a Brutalist concrete art gallery I am a very happy bunny indeed.

I’ve not been to the Hayward in many a year, but it has long been a place of treasured memories and special experiences. The first time I visited I was a child of 9 and was taken to see the Rodin exhibition by my Dad. I have vivid and goosebump filled memories of falling in love with “the lady with the pretty hair” sculpture that day. I was firmly told off for stroking the marble and to this day have to hold my hands behind my back when viewing Rodin’s work as the urge to touch it, to feel the smooth, delicious marble under my fingers, to trace the curves, is too overwhelming to resist. Many years later, as an adult, I went to Musee Rodin in Paris to find my lady with the flowing hair and despite it being displayed in a glass box (it was uncovered and on the floor, no plinth at the Hayward), it retained the same emotional power for me all those years later. The 1986 Rodin exhibition also included the Gates of Hell, which I remember being awed by. It was displayed, I think, against the wall of the stairwell, so that you could climb up to view the top section up close. The scale of it overwhelmed me then, and still did 20 years later when I saw it again. As a child I knew it was frightening without knowing why, I was mesmerised by the darkness and hugeness of it.

Ever since that formative experience I have loved sculpture, give me a Barbara Hepworth, a Henry Moore, a Rodin and I am in heaven. A Donatello and I’ll be in raptures. The power of stone, wood and marble to move me astonishes and astounds me even now. There is a wooden Mary Magdalene by Donatello in Florence that is the ugliest yet most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, more than 500 years old, carved in wood. I wept viewing it. Some of his marbles are so piercing that I can’t look at them, the power of emotion they hold is too great. 

1996 was the next time I visited the Hayward, for Spellbound, an exhibition exploring the relationship between art and film. Multi media, experimental and including a 24 hour super slow mo version of Pyscho it wasn’t for the faint of heart. I was 19, living away from home for the first time and studying film (I wanted to be a writer/director back then). It was the era of the YBA’s and Britpop and London had a charged atmosphere. There was a sense of hope and of change. It was an exciting time to be young, or perhaps to be young is an exciting time. It would have been my first encounter with Damien Hirst and Steve McQueen. There was a room full of filing cabinets, floor to ceiling, created by Terry Gilliam as part of his artistic response to his own film 12 Monkey’s. There was an animated short about the life of a popcorn kernel. It was playful and fun and blurred the edges between art and film. I felt exhilarated and alive visiting it.

The Hayward is part of the South Bank Centre, built for the Festival of Britain in post war London. Designed to be cutting edge, modern, futuristic and for the people. It is a Brutalist monument and love song to concrete. It was to be a place of high culture for the people, a National Theatre, an art gallery, a concert hall, it must have been quite an exciting place to be in the 50’s and 60’s. It didn’t stay that way, though. The maze like passageways and underground thoroughfares became a cardboard city for the homeless. Places and spaces for the disaffected and the forgotten. It was a grimy and scuzzy place, edgy, unsafe and not somewhere I felt happy. To get to the NFT or the Hayward you had to run a gauntlet it seemed of drunken men and rivers of urine. Then came gentrification. Now the South Bank is teeming with life, cafes and tourists and I still find the change jarring. I may not have to worry about getting piss on my shoes anymore, but where have all those people gone? They don’t vanish, they simply move. To where? And why should we end up with another chain restaurant or overpriced wine bar? Wasn’t the South Bank supposed to be for all the people? Not just the white, chattering middle classes who can afford the theatre, darling? Where are the ordinary people? The ones like me. London has always been a melting pot, the Thames, sitting right beside all this, bringing in people from all over the world. That’s my London, the one into which I was born and still partly belong. The London of the educated working class who read Pinter as well as the Daily Mirror. It must still exist and there must be more people like me. Where have we all gone?

I’ve wondered. The Hayward is a place of precious memories was my point. And for reasons I can’t really explain I really love Modernist, Brutalist concrete buildings like this one. They soothe me. There is something in the abject coldness of them, the harsh lines and angles, that I just love. To run my hands along smooth and cold concrete, feeling its seeming uniformity and strength, makes my blood run cold and yet I like it. Look closely at the pillars, you will see that they aren’t all the same, each one taking on the form of the wood used to press and pour it. There are grains and knots and threads, each is unique. The crushed stones poured in to create that strength aren’t uniform either, nor are they smooth where they are exposed. There is a hidden underbelly of life teeming away inside that concrete; you just have to look more closely to find it. I can feel the hope and youth that went into designing and building these structures. They were new, brand new, and exciting, and you have to admire the bravado of that if nothing else. They were experimental and I love that about them. Yes, poorly lit, difficult to navigate if you have a pram/wheelchair/small child in tow but those aren’t problems unique to Modernism, they existed before and after this movement of architecture. To blame the architects and town planners for the social ills that befell some of these buildings is unfair. Poverty, unemployment, economic crashes and the decimation of industry and community weren’t caused by Brutalism alone. I am glad that some of these buildings have been accepted as historically important and that there has been a reappraisal of sorts of this style. Once Victorian buildings were called slums and torn down, now they are highly prized buildings. Things change and we must adapt around them, not simply destroy and rebuild.

All of which led me to walking through the doors of Hayward on Friday morning. I went predominately to see the Diane Arbus exhibition, a photographer mostly overlooked in her lifetime, who has fascinated me for years. Street photography is a style that requires great patience, concentration and confidence as well as an unusual eye. It is not a style I can pull off. It is one Arbus was exceptional at. These were her early works, and include a diverse cross-section of life. People watching and people recording is what she did and she did it brilliantly. Among the ones I loved most were the ones of children crossing, or waiting to cross the street. The innocence and confusion captured in each case perfectly. Each subject knew they were being photographed, Arbus had to be close enough to each subject to take the shot, but mostly they aren’t posed. They are real, raw, human reactions to seeing a camera (a ubiquitous sight now, but not then) and the expressions challenge both the photographer and the viewer. There is something powerful going on in the relationship between being seen and seeing. A tension inherent in photography as an art form (if you consider it one, which I do).

I have to praise the team who curated this exhibition. It was sensitively and interestingly hung. The pillars and columns gave a feeling of discovery, it felt like being in a concrete forest with the tress each containing an image. Each small enough to make viewing them an intimate experience, you had to get close, but also at a height I could see them at. So often I am left frustrated by galleries that hang too high, this was perfect. The lighting angles were also spot on, no annoying reflections on the glass, so that each photograph could really be savoured and enjoyed. With no definitive direction or flow either there was the freedom to wander, explore, double back and weave in and out. This really added to my enjoyment and cleverly mirrored the way Arbus would have weaved in and out of the New York streets with her camera to capture these images.

I knew there was another exhibition running in the Hayward but that was all. I had gone for the Diane Arbus part and as it was to be a busy day I didn’t know if there would be time to enjoy Kader Attia’s work as well. As it turns out there was and of that I am very glad. Attia isn’t an artist I had heard of before and this is his first major solo exhibition in the UK. It is well worth a look, either in addition or as a stand apart from the Arbus. I can see why putting them together made sense, they both deal in identity, ways of looking and of being seen, in who gets to make those decisions and why. Working across a mixture of mediums in both grand and intimate styles Attia poses questions and provokes emotional responses to questions about who we are while exposing the power dynamics at play within society. That might sound very grand and academic, and I suppose it is, but I found the work to be highly accessible and interesting. It spoke to me about the tensions I carry internally about identity and visibility (the women who say becoming invisible in middle age is a super power are privileged to have ever been visible in the first place) as well as making me question the deep rooted colonial racism still prevalent in our society. All of the Museum of Emotion is interesting and challenging but there were parts that really stood out for me. The shock of entering room 3, almost pitch black, from the brightly lit previous room, took some adjustment, and there are only 2 works to see. Both involving mirrors. Both asking questions about self identity, about being ‘broken’, about who we are, how we present, are there realities and facades? or are we all all of things all of the time? I found this pair of works quite powerful and spent a long time with the second one, a globe of sewn mirrored patches reminiscent of a planet orbiting through space. The reflected shadows as important as the reflected lights. The knot work tying it all together tightly. The tension held just so. It made me ask myself a lot of questions and it made me feel things at the same time. That is the job of art.

Room 5 is a huge installation piece and it really did make me think. About disability, about visibility, about scarring (physical and metaphorical), about history and heritage, about who makes art, for whom and why. About colonialism, about racism, about how it is impossible to divorce the personal from the political and yet how we are bound by shared experience at all times. The sculpted busts were commissioned from Carerra and Senegal. Deliberate choices. Italy, birthplace of the Renaissance and what we consider High Art and West Africa, where slavery ripped apart the cultural heritage of a Continent as well as the lives of millions. A metaphorical tear, a stain on humanity’s hands centuries later, as well as the physical tearing of every man, woman and child forcibly removed from their homes, beaten, raped and murdered. Juxtaposed with images of First World War soldiers who were scarred by mortar shells, gases and bombs. That war, born partly of colonial wars, of German, British and Belgian actions in Africa. Those soldiers fighting for King and Country in foreign fields, often ordinary working men who had little choice and no real idea what they were fighting for. And although I felt all of that, I also felt, as a disabled white woman, that these conversations concerned me. My scars aren’t visible, I am not visible (getting older dims you in the eyes of society). The questions raised were about grand themes, historical and complex, yet they were also personal, about who I am now. It was quite an intense experience!

Kader Attia may not have been an artist I had heard of before entering this exhibition but he is an artist I will look for again.

 

 

 

Kathryn Tickell & The Darkening – St George’s, Bristol

Wednesday 3rd April. 2019

This was another culture flash sale ticket purchase in January. It caught my attention in the programme; traditional Northumbrian folk with a modern twist. Female musician playing music I’ve not heard, that is both old and brand new. Check, check and check, right up my street I thought.

I really may as well move into St George’s at the rate I keep attending gigs there! It is such a beautiful space, with such wonderful acoustics, and the volunteers and staff there always make me feel welcome. Most importantly the music programme is varied and interesting.

Many of the things I have come to love about folk music were on display tonight. It is a more equal genre, there are plenty of great women in folk. Storytelling and narrative, darkness and light, history and modernity all jostling along together. Some that move you emotionally, others that move you physically, but all that move you in some way. Kathryn can spin a yarn, I’d love to have a bloody good natter with her! I’ve never heard or seen small pipes before, they are fantastic. Kathryn made playing them seem easy, which I am sure they are not. Melodic and pretty sounding, I liked them very much. Folk music gigs often double as a history lesson, you are after all listening to music that may have been originally composed hundreds of years before. Add in some poetry and you’ve got an accessible mix of wonderful intellectual stuff that also makes you feel things. How did I not fall in love with folk music a long time ago?! Why haven’t you?

One of the songs performed tonight was Roman in origin, 2,000 years old. Woven into a tale about the landscape of Northumbria, of Hadrian’s Wall, of Empires, of cultures clashing/merging/emerging it conjured wonderful pictures in my mind. As did the pair of tunes about the Holy Island, one smouldering and atmospheric, the other revelling in the ecstasy of religious fervour or the joy in realising you’ve missed the tide and get to spend time in a place of such wild beauty alone.

The addition of Joe on drums, riffing with Cormac on percussion, and Amy on keyboards as well as accordion helped make this all feel 21st Century, ancient and modern clashing together to make lovely sounds. There was clog dancing and fiddle for the trad lovers (although absolutely everything had to be new at some point) and lovely, lovely harmonising too. Tunes about mining, in local dialects with words that had to be explained, an ode to the Goddess Nemesis, a love song to childhood playground games, just about everything was crammed into this couple of hours of wonderful music.

My abiding memory of this one will be that I felt lighter by its end. I was smiling and felt a happiness that has been escaping me of late. Folk music is the ribbon that connects us to our history, ourselves and each other.

 

Merry Waterson & Emily Barker – Rough Trade, Bristol

Sunday 31st March, 2019

Sometimes music has a nice serendipity, not always logical or circular, but sometimes the right connections meet. Such as Merry Waterson and Emily Barker being put together at a writers retreat by Kathryn Williams. Such as me having seen Merry Waterson 3 years ago at the BBC6 Music Festival in Bristol, where my journey into folk music began (thank you Mark Radcliffe). That’s pertinent as this years Festival was taking place over the same weekend.

I have also seen Emily Barker before, at St George’s last year as part of River Town, and again recently at Daylight Music. I’ve also seen Lucas Drinkwater who played bass with Emily and Merry today before, with his fabulous duo Jacob & Drinkwater.

I’ve hung out at Rough Trade before too, and seen some great performances in their cracking little live room so I felt reasonably confident that today would work out just peachy.

It was Mother’s Day. A day that can be pretty difficult as a single Mum. As a Motherless Mother. As both, as I am, it is a bittersweet day. I buy my Mum flowers and arrange them next to her photograph and talk to her about how much I love her and miss her and wish she were here to see her Grandson looking so grown up and handsome, on the cusp of adolescence; changing before my eyes by the day it seems. I shed silent and hidden tears for the relationship we will never get to have, for the old age she never got to enjoy, for the laughter we don’t get to share and I pretend that spending the day with my boy, alone, is enough. I laugh at his card, from the dog that we don’t have, wishing me a happy birthday because he got confused writing it, and note all the kisses and the love he presented it with as being all that’s important. I unwrap my present, well his, as it is Lego Captain Marvel and I’m grateful for an ex-husband who helped our boy choose and write the card and the gift.

Without this instore lunchtime gig I’m not sure that I would have gotten the boy out of the house and would have struggled even more with the conflicting emotions. So thank you for the serendipity of the universe that bought Merry and Emily to Bristol at 1pm on Sunday 31st March.

My boy doesn’t like noise or crowds and doesn’t have the relationship with music I do. As much as I would love to share with him all that music means to me, I know he is his own person and has his own passions that make him happy. Watching him grow and develop has been the most amazing journey and letting him be himself, not what I want him to be, giving him that freedom as my Mum did for me, is how I must parent. That is love. As is him agreeing to come with me today to see Merry and Emily play. It took a lot of courage for him to walk into the dark live room, a place he’s never been, knowing it would be loud, but he did that for me. I could feel his nerves and had to stay close to him and with him towards the back. Meeting Lucas before helped (thank you) him feel more comfortable, as did the small crowd.

He may only be 12 but he tries to understand what all this means to me. He has made me read blog entries to him, he has gifted me money for gig tickets for my birthday and Christmas and he has even appeared on Steve Lamaq’s BBC6 Music show with me as part of the Dinosaur to Junior feature! He holds my hand when he sees me crying about my Mum and tells me he misses her too. When he shared his only memory of his Nanny, when we visited her in hospital a few months before she died it almost broke my heart. That he has no happy memories of her, that he didn’t even get the chance to make any, is the saddest part of all this. So much of 40 gigs and what it has become was tied up with that grief and the desire to ensure that my life mattered, counted, and was recorded for him in a way that hers was not. It was also a response to the loss of my own fertility and life threatening illness. That’s another layer of grief and another set of tangled emotions. Music, writing and photography have been my ways of attempting to understand, explain and share them.

It is why sometimes after gigs words fly out of my fingers in a rush and I get over excited and enthuse passionately about whatever new thing I’ve discovered. It’s also why sometimes I need time to reflect, to process and think before I write. It is why, like today, tilts and diversions swerve in and it becomes not about the music at all. It is all tied together tightly. All I know is that music helps. That standing next to my lovely boy, him seeing and feeling what it meant to me, meant the world to me.

I needed to get out of the house, my own head, I needed live music and Merry and Emily gave that to me. The album they were there to promote, A Window To Other Ways, is excellent. They work perfectly together, the harmonies just work and the thing is an understated gem. Less can indeed be more. A light touch and a gentility can make all the difference sometimes.

A lunchtime gig in the live room of a record shop with my son and half a dozen others was never going to be the best live experience of the year, but in many ways it means so much more than ‘better’ gigs have, There are two things that give my life meaning, my boy and music. I’ve never been able to tie them together before. Even if he never comes with me again, he has stood by my side and seen how lost I became in the spell of live music. That’s worth more than any bunch of flowers or special lunch.