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.