Public Service Broadcasting – The Amersham Arms, London

Friday 10th September, 2021

A gazillion years ago I entered a prize draw via Passport Back To Our Roots to win tickets to this intimate gig. I forgot all about it. I’d entered never expecting to win, I cared about giving money to Save Our Venues, knowing venues would struggle to survive without income during lockdown. Then I got an email saying I was on the reserve winners list and I gulped. Was I ready to get on a coach to London and go to an indoor, non distanced show? I didn’t think I was, but I also knew the opportunity to see Public Service Broadcasting in a pub that holds 300 wasn’t one I was going to get every day. So I said yes. I calculated various Covid related risks, checked the price of the coach, how I would get around London and how much somewhere to stay would be. Then I looked at my dwindling savings and thought, sometimes you have to take a risk. A sensible, calculated one, but a risk nonetheless. Or an impulsive and ridiculous risk. Sometimes both.

I was so nervous about boarding the coach that I couldn’t and if it wasn’t for the very nice National Express staff at Bristol Coach Station I wouldn’t have even got to London. They let me transfer my ticket to a later time coach, and although I still didn’t feel entirely happy (please wear masks people is all I’ll say) I made it onto the coach after the coach after the coach I was supposed to be on and I was on my way.

Getting around London was easy-peasy and exhilarating thanks to scooters. I’ve been using them in Bristol, they’ve given me independence and confidence, I love them. The under 10 me, who lived in London, was thrilled and excited beyond measure to be bombing about on a scooter past Westminster Abbey, round Parliament Square and along the Embankment. However long it is that I’ve been away, and I love Bristol, I really do, the Thames flows in my veins and seeing it will always thrill me and make me feel at home. Actual home. So does the Docklands Light Railway, dinky toy trains I remember seeing being built as a small child and feeling like I was watching the future being constructed around me.

I’d found somewhere to stay in Limehouse (and yes, Mum, I pronounce the H), a Christian charity retreat/conference centre/B&B that also run a Yurt cafe and community centre; a weird little oddity just like me. It was calm and helped settle me and centre me back where I needed to be. I still wasn’t sure I was ready to be in a crowded venue, but I’d made it this far. Bit by bit, stage by stage, I found myself moving forward and then bam I was stood outside the Amerhsam Arms pub in New Cross. Deep breath, Emma, you can do it.

Through the door I went, and Laura, one of the organisers, smiled broadly at me and asked if was feeling ok. I shook my head but said I was here now, so lets try. She helped me orient myself (and had been brilliant over email at helping me feel a lot less anxious about the event before I’d even set off. Small acts of kindness and understanding go a really long way). I spent too much money at the merch desk, got myself a drink and decided to find a little Emma shaped gap somewhere. That turned out to be in front of the tech desk at the side of the plinth (to call it a stage would be being somewhat generous) where I had clear line of sight to the band and space behind, in front and to the side of me. Some of the people in this corner were, like me, wearing masks, which also helped.

I’d missed the support completely (I’m sorry whoever you were) as I knew that the extra hour in the venue would have been too much and had a nervy 20 minute wait for PSB. They came out and onto the stage right behind and around me, I could not have been closer. Wearing all white suits like pure musical angels they took to the stage nervously but to a very warm reception.

I’ve seen PSB play the Royal Albert Hall and at a Castle, being this close to them and being able to see the nerves at the beginning and then the relaxation on their faces as the gig went on; being that close that the warmth of the smiles and laughter between them could be felt was rare and special.

All Out, heavy, angry and searing, helped me release a lot of pent up emotions as I danced and let out the feelings that have been bottle up inside. Progress served as a beacon of hope, Theme From PSB is a slice of musical perfection and a manifesto for who PSB are and why I love them and Blue Heaven sounded so very, very good, live. I tried to dance, I can’t help myself, my body moves even when I don’t want it to and at times the joyous connection of heart, head and body floated me into a different space of consciousness; the place of being where I am floating free of everything and can simply be. The place I call home. Music. Live music. I become one with it, pure and free and feeling everything and nothing simultaneously, where colours and shapes and sounds merge to overwhelm and drown me in a sea of utter bliss. All the things I’ve missed and thought I’d lost forever. All the things that make me feel me, alive and vital and connected. PSB are among the small circle who’s music can take me to those places.

I had to force myself to stop dancing, pain was shooting through my nerves and I had to stick my arm up under the straps of my dress as an improvised sling. I lent back against the wall and allowed synaesthesia in, seeing music in colours is something I wish everyone could do; its so beautiful.

Go! is my boy’s favourite song, it does things to him neither he nor I can explain. I video called him, propping my phone up on the top of the pubs piano. His face was everything, having that moment with him was everything.

I’m not sure when I began to cry, or if I stopped, I just know that a lot of tears were shed during this gig. It was a really emotional and overwhelming musical experience that I felt deeply, right into the marrow of my bones.

At the end I was in some sort of gig induced trance, fugue or fog of admiration; this is the best bit, when the world actually feels quiet to me, when the whirl of my too fast acting brain actually shuts down temporarily. It’s a little like being lost in time and space, it takes me time to re-orient and come back down. I guess I’m also trying to cling to it, to make the feeling last just a little longer. It is why I hang about at the end of gigs to thank the artists. It is why, and this bit still doesn’t feel real, I got to meet J Willgoose Esq in all his bow-tie wearing glory. I’ve not met any of PSB before, yet they have been incredibly kind to my son. He is taller and more handsome in the flesh, by the way. I had to supress the desire to ruffle his hair (Mum’s gonna Mum). The combination of the pain medication I’m on, the Archers & lemonade I’d drunk (classy to the last, me), how emotional I was feeling and the fact that I’ve barely spoken to an adult in 18 months, probably made me come across as even weirder than usual and I’m sorry for that J. Words can express so much, but I can struggle in the moment to make sense sometimes; its why I write, it helps me process. Music live and writing about it have been the things that made me feel alive and without them during the darkness I’ve been very, very lost. For a couple of hours last Friday night, PSB helped me feel I knew where I was again.

I’ve been a very lucky girl in the past and had some wonderful, incredible and emotional musical experiences. This is up there with the best of them. I wish any of these words were enough to actually express how it felt.

Thank you to the tall man who helped me get set list, thank you Matt on merch for looking after my goodies all night, thank you Laura for checking in on me and making sure I got to thank J personally, thank you J Willgoose Esq, Wrigglesworth, J F Abraham and Mr B. Public Service Broadcasting make public service music and I love you for it.

Hannah Williams & The Affirmations – Bristol Beacon, Bristol

Thursday 10th September, 2021

A socially distanced, seated gig with single seats that started early in my musical home of the Beacon, this had all the elements I needed to be able to start gigging again. Plus was part of Bristol Blues and Jazz Festivals series celebrating women in music.

I can’t say I wasn’t feeling a little trepidatious before setting out. This would be the first time I’d gone to an indoor gig alone in, well, forever.

Pre closure for refurbishment I used to joke with the box office staff they should set me up a camp bed at the back of the Lantern in the Beacon as I was there so often. The best acoustics in Bristol belong to St George’s but the place where I feel most at home is the Beacon; its love. Feeling comfortable in a place goes a long way to easing anxiety.

I thought I didn’t know Hannah Williams and that this would be a chance to discover some new music. I was both right and wrong. I knew Hannah’s voice, from The Voice, but I didn’t know her brilliant, original music. At this point it almost goes without saying that Hannah has a cracking voice; a smoky, bluesy voice that can bellow and whisper songs of heartbreak and disappointment at you that make you feel both seen and ashamed all at once. I felt Hannah was singing about me and to me at the same time; I’m the one who did her wrong and was wronged. The Affirmations provided perfect packaging around Hannah’s voice. I’m sold, basically.

Being an early gig, I was home and in my jim jams by 8.15pm. Seated, distanced, early doors, Beacon, fabulous music, I couldn’t have asked for much more to be honest. As a way to dip my toe back into the water of gigging alone, it was like a paddle on a clear beach on a warm night and it made me feel a little bit more confident about going out again. Thank you Hannah Williams, The Affirmations, The Beacon. Hope to see you all again soon.

Paraorchestra – preview of Smoosh!, Filwood Community Centre Car Park

Thursday 15th July, 2021

I didn’t think it would be 8 months before I wrote a word here, or that there would be such a gap between the event and the writing of this. The problems I have in my cervical spine have flared up very badly, one of the things that is painful to do is type. So as much as I wanted desperately to write this as soon as I got home, I have not been able to. If I’d been able to type within minutes it may have been more effusive, expansive and ebullient. I may have run out of superlatives to describe the experience of seeing Paraorchestra again.

How much do I love Paraorchestra? It might be easier to direct you to earlier entries of the times I’ve seen them perform. Desconstructed over the entire height of the Beacon’s foyer, the Nature of Why at the Old Vic or playing Kraftwerk at the Marble Factory. Now I was to see them in the car park of a community centre in South Bristol previewing their latest project, Smoosh! It was a hot walk to get there. Let us not talk of how dreadful Bristol’s buses are, nor of the safety of them without mask mandates. This was an afternoon about joy. Paraorchestra are all about joy. Everything they do is done with love, with joy, with a desire to connect and unite. That is why I love them.

I had been invited to be part of a preview of Smoosh! and however much pain it would cost me to be there (walking, standing and dancing are all painful activities), I was not going to miss it for all the world. I packed a bottle of water, donned a massive hat and slathered factor 50 all over and set off. Not knowing what I was likely to hear or see, but knowing that it would be emotional and powerful and incredible no matter what because that is who Paraorchestra are. A group of talented, boundary pushing, inclusive, brilliant musicians, composers, arrangers and dancers. I love them, all they do and all they stand for.

There was dancing, there was music, there was a sense of joy and fun and togetherness and of something intangible and magic. There were brass reworkings of Kate Bush, Adele and Fatboy Slim, slam dance take downs and just so much happiness. It has been such a long, long time since I heard music that made me want to dance and smile like this. And all I could see around me, socially distanced of course, were other smiling faces and moving bodies. We were united in movement and music. There were, of course, this is me, tears. But they were tears of joy. Of being back where I belonged. Of being who I am again. Of things I thought I had lost in the pandemic; I thought I had lost the emotional connection to music, that my senses had been dulled, that I had lost the way music can make me feel. You gave it back to me, Paraorchestra and I cannot thank you enough for that gift.

Every time I think Paraorchestra can’t get any more inclusive, they prove me wrong. Making events free, inviting you to walk among the musicians, being an orchestra of disabled and abled musicians, playing classical music in a nightclub, they’ve done all that already. Smoosh! will be free, outdoors, winding through the streets of working class Knowle West. They will be taking music to the people. Literally. I can imagine people indoors, hearing this weird mash up of brass instruments with tunes they know going “what on earth is that?” opening their windows and joining in. It will be a parade, a celebration, a conga, a carnival of music, open to anyone who happens to be nearby. There will be dancers, there will be movement and music and absolutely everyone is invited.

Smoosh! will hit the streets of Knowle West on Friday 17th September, a sonic street food event and I plan to be there to eat and drink in the music with the rest of the locals. Maybe I’ll see you there. I’ll be the one smiling, crying and dancing near the back. Thank you Paraorchestra for inviting me to experience the preview, and, well, for being you. I love you all.

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.