Wednesday, 10 October 2018

'Windrush: Movement of the People'


What a mesmerising, captivating and completely absorbing performance Windrush: Movement of the People is. I was lucky enough to catch it at Bristol Old Vic, where it is only on for two nights at the start of a tour to various venues around the UK (check the link at the end of this post for more information).

Created by the impressive Phoenix Dance Theatre, Windrush celebrates and illuminates the promises, reality and hope during this 70th anniversary year of the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush, which brought the first Caribbean migrants to the UK. The boat brought 492 people (known as the Windrush generation) from the Caribbean to the UK in 1948 in a moment that marked the start of the post war immigration boom that led to a radical shift in British society.

The soundtrack by Christella Litras is evocative and effective, spinning between calypso, jazz, gospel, reggae and more, and completely brings to life the changes occuring in those crucial decades of Britain’s formative multicultural era. The refrain of “You called and we came” from a poem read aloud is particularly haunting, as the newly arrived immigrants are shunned and excluded from a hostile British society.

Choreographer (and Phoenix Dance Company artistic director) Sharon Watson creates an extraordinary story that introduces us to our protagonists who are full of hope at what a move to the UK might mean (the sunny orange lighting supporting this), and then the awful reality of racism and bigotry that they encounter once here (portrayed by eerie faceless dancers in masks who wonderfully conjure up a sense of fear and ignorance, and backed up by dark and sombre lighting), followed by the sense of community and camaraderie that is fostered as a result (matched by the warmth of interior lighting). The duet between a reunited couple (Vanessa Vince-Pang, pictured above, and Prentice Whitlow), who had been parted for months, is especially beautiful to watch.

Windrush: Movement of the People is utterly mesmerising and I was gasping when the performance ended. I wanted to watch more and I want to watch it again. Don’t miss this!

Windrush is at Bristol Old Vic for two nights only, as part of its UK tour. It is performed at Bristol Old Vic as part of the Seeds of Change week, which is itself a part of Black History Month.  For more information on the national tour of Windrush, please click here.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Down in Demerara

There’s a suspicion that Felix Radstock has gone on holiday by mistake…

The protagonist in Mike Manson’s third novel Down in Demerara is a freelance labour market research analyst who is plucked from his sleepy Bristol office by the mysterious DoDO organisation to head to Guyana on a fact finding mission. What follows is the hilarious but touching story of an innocent abroad in a very unusual place.

Guyana is a real place on the northern mainland of South America, yet few people have heard of it (myself included, prior to reading Down in Demerara). So Mike handily provides us with a hand-drawn map at the front of the book, locating Guyana and its capital Georgetown with the other areas of the country that Felix visits. And Mike creates a wonderful mental film for the reader of the sights and sounds of the South American wildlife and habitats, drawn from his own visits there.

Set in 1999, with the shadow of the millennium bug looming over the world, Felix is feeling the growing pressure to finish his report about this little known South American country (and return to the safety of Bristol and his fiance) before Christmas and before the world implodes when the Y2K bug destroys all the infrastructure. But before that can happen, our innocent abroad has to put his trust in a lot of unlikely characters as he navigates his way around an increasingly bizarre state of affairs. The sense of paranoia and panic is escalating.

With his driver and assistant Xavier leading him a merry dance, Felix finds his preconceptions - and misconceptions - challenged. He is wrong to think Xavier is simply a driver; he is wrong to think the mysterious Roxy actually wants to measure his head for a hat; and he is wrong to think he really knows why DoDo has sent him to Guyana... as Felix’s heart-rending visit to the gold mines in the heart of the bush and rainforest reveal.

As well as being a ramshackle travelogue, Down in Demerara is also a ecological warning, gently advising the reader of the importance of making a difference, however small it seems. Always be suspicious of the big, evil corporations. But always be gentle to blue butterflies.

Mike Manson writes with a gentle, friendly and humorous tone that makes you feel from page one that you are in the company of a friend. As with his other novels, Down in Demerara is a comfortable read that draws you in quickly, but it is also pleasing to note the leaps and bounds that Mike’s writing has matured by in his third novel (no doubt thanks to the guidance of his writing tutor Fay Weldon: if you’re going to take advice from anyone, Fay is pretty much as good as it gets!). Mike’s own passion for spreading the word about the magic of Guyana and for challenging our assumptions about people and places comes through loud and clear, and makes for a refreshing and funny read in his sparkling new book.

Down In Demerara is published by Tangent Books. Pre-order your copy from this link.

Monday, 27 August 2018

123 Miles Later - A Tail of Gromit Hunting

Bristol In Bloom, outside St Mary Redcliffe
When Aardman Animations conceived the Gromit Unleashed 2 trail, they were probably largely focussed on finding a fun way for families to explore Bristol while generating some cash for The Grand Appeal. And that’s certainly happened. But they forgot to take into account another group of Gromit hunters: obsessive runners who are determined to find all 67 statues on foot. (NB: I’m using ‘Gromit’ to also include the Wallaces and Feathers. Accept it!)
With a two-month window, this seemed perfectly achievable. However, first I needed to exclude every single working day because I have a full-time job. I also needed to exclude four days in August when I was away. And several weekends when I had long races (and then periods before and after those races to rest). I also lost a week due to illness, which required some re-jigging. So: challenge accepted!

Champion, in Downend
Zone One
The Bristol city centre Gromits (the zone one Gromits, if you will) were largely no trouble to tick off swiftly, aside from a pesky handful hidden away behind locked doors and restricted opening hours that don’t work well for those with jobs. The staff at the two Marriott hotels, which both had Gromits in their bars, managed not to look in any way disgusted at the sight of a sweaty, red-faced runner trudging in and out to pose for photos and click an app, which was very professional of them.

Space Oddi-Tea, on Wapping Wharf

I live only a mile from Arnos Vale Cemetery but, due to their 5pm closing time, it was a massive logistical challenge to get their Gromit… unless I climbed into the cemetery over a wall that I’d heard mention of (but I’d rather not have to break in anywhere). In desperation to find time, the day before a 16-mile, stupidly hilly, off-road race, I tagged a few extra miles onto my Ashton Court parkrun pilgrimage to run in the opposite direction and get the Arnos Vale Cemetery Gromit. A 10-mile run in blazing heat the day before a tough race was perhaps ill advised but to get the Gromit it had to be done. Zone Two
A few after-work runs picked up the zone two-esque Gromits up on the Downs and by the Observatory, or out in Easton, Gloucester Road, Winterbourne and Hartcliffe etc.
Gromit took me to see some parts of Bristol that I might not otherwise have seen. While I found Hartcliffe Community Farm a very dejected place, to reach it I excitingly had to run across the former Whitchurch airfield (now a community park but soon to be trampled and turned into a housing estate), which was pretty special. Later research dug up a fascinating woman who will now be going in Volume Two of my book The Women Who Built Bristol and I would not have found her without Gromit.

Amazing Grace, on Chipping Sodbury High Street

And although the roads of Bradley Stoke are hardly known for their charm, I chose to get those two Gromits on the same humid night that everyone else watched the semi-finals of the men’s football. This meant that I enjoyed a somewhat 28 Days Later experience as the roads were virtually deserted with everyone tucked away indoors watching on a big screen as some men ran around a Russian field. However, the Aerospace Gromit necessitated TWO (two!) soul-sapping trips from Bedminster to Filton due to the fact it was locked away at 5pm every day (last entry at 4pm!)… which is, quite simply, unreasonable when most jobs require staff to be at their desks until 5.30pm.

Zone Three

Cubby, at Avon Valley Wildlife Park - with my Two Tunnels Half Marathon medal that I earned on my way to finding him
Now… those pesky zone three outliers. The Gromits in places like Chew, Weston and Thornbury caused the biggest headaches if they were to be reached on foot… Thankfully, a few were near parkrun locations (I parkrun every Saturday, that’s the law), and while Eastville and Ashton Court are easy enough to run to from home, I decided that it was OK to drive to Chipping Sodbury and Thornbury, run the parkruns and then run straight on to get the local Gromits. Plus I was fifth woman at Thornbury parkrun that day, so that was a double triumph!
Our family of Gromits en route to Weston in the rain, to start the journey to get the last two statues
Merry-Go Gromit, at Puxton Park: my final Gromit
The second most challenging Gromits were the Weston-super-Mare and Puxton Park ones, with their unhelpfully early closing times (both of those Gromits are locked behind gates). However, we found out Weston Pier was staying open until 10pm on Friday nights throughout August and there was one just Friday that both my friend and I could do (in reality, Weston Pier decided to cancel the late night opening at the last minute... which they forgot to advertise, causing some frantic last minute changes of plans). But that still didn’t help us with Puxton Park and their 5.30pm closing time.
The plan had been to get the train to Weston and run the 20 miles home via Puxton Park… but the combined perils of the Gromits’ early closings, working hours and train timetables meant this was just not possible without taking an afternoon off work. So we had to admit defeat and take the train to Weston to get that Gromit moments before the grille was pulled in front of the Gromit, then run on to a closed Puxton Park, where we could climb over the five-bar gate despite and run down the driveway despite it being after closing time. The torrential driving rain that evening only added to the fun! (Note to Aardman: please don’t hide Gromits behind early closing gates!) However, the prize for the most challenging Gromit was the one at Chew Valley Lake, which is locked behind a gate after sunset (which is a vague time). Which is why one drizzly Sunday morning I got up early and spent three hours running a 16 mile round trip to Chew and back (including 1,728 feet of hills, which is the same as climbing the outside of the Shard in London… twice!) to get one solitary Gromit. And trust me, most of those roads were not made for running on - at least half the route had no pavements meaning you have to run on the road, which isn’t really safe… but there didn’t seem much alternative unless I drove, which defeated the object. (Note to Aardman: please put Gromits where we can safely access them without needing a car!)

Marshall, at Chew Valley Lake - I developed an irrational sense of hatred for this statue
I sound like I’m moaning but I’m not. I loved the Gromit trail and the challenge of getting them all on foot, even though at times it really was a logistical headache that required countless revisions. I enjoyed seeing the different designs the artists had come up with, and I’ve now bought my very own mini Gromit soft toy from the shop (he came with me on the run to collect the final two statues) - though the app wilfully refuses to let me scan him. I’ve enjoyed being taken on a tour of some parts of Bristol that I didn’t previously know, and I’ve also been pleased to be given some purpose to my long marathon training runs to save me from running up and down the Bristol to Bath cycle path every weekend! Plus, I’ve found at least one new Woman Who Built Bristol thanks to Gromit. I've also discovered a lovely new dog walking location for my real life dog at Manor Valley Woods (on my way back from Chew), and finally got to run on the Frome Valley Walkway (on my way to Winterbourne), which I fully intend to explore properly before autumn kicks in. When’s the next Aardman trail? Please make it soon!

A close-up of Peek A Boo!, at Blaise Castle - my favourite Gromit
Gromit stats: My favourite Gromit was the one at Blaise Castle featuring children’s book illustrations by Belle & Boo. I liked the nostalgic style of the illustrations that reminded me of books I’d enjoyed as a child (and still enjoy as an adult). My least favourite was the absolute dickhead in a fireman’s hat at Chew Valley Lake, largely because it was such a bloody pain - and not very safe - to get to (and I had to see a physio to get my calves unknotted after those punishing Dundry hills). Total mileage run: I ran 123 miles collecting Gromits (though I didn’t always take the most efficient route as sometimes I was deliberately trying to up my mileage, and for the much more remote ones sometimes I drove - and once took a train - to begin my run if it just wasn't realistic to run there from Bedminster). Number of other people run with: 24, including two group Gromit runs that I led with my running club.

Spock, outside The Mall at Cribbs Causeway

Friday, 3 August 2018

'Make More Noise' at Bristol Old Vic

It can’t have escaped your attention that 2018 is the centenary year of when (some) women were finally entitled to vote. To mark this, Bristol Old Vic’s Young Company presents its tribute to the women of the past who shaped our future.

Taking its title from a famous Emmeline Pankhurst quote (“You have to make more noise than anybody else…”), Make More Noise is of the moment, melding one or two historical facts with present day problems, all of which concern women. Because the vote was just the start…

A range of strong women from history are referenced during this busy hour of theatre. There is the generic suffragette character as well as named sheroes such as Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, American birth control activist Margaret Sanger and Hollywood actor Uma Thurman.

It is the Uma Thurman section that I found the most affecting, with one of the cast speaking proudly about her love for Question Tarantino films, especially Pulp Fiction and the famous dancing scene with Mia Wallace and Vincent Vega. As the cast don ubiquitous white shirts over their black jeans to dance the twist to Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell, our narrator reminds us that Pulp Fiction was produced by Harvey Weinstein, who we now know sexually assaulted Uma during the film’s production. And watching that joyous, strong woman dance in that famous scene, knowing what we now know… we are invited to think about how Uma (playing Mia) must have felt at that time. And I found that very effecting.

Make More Noise is an energetic and enthusiastic tour through contemporary feminism. With a strong, all-female cast who dance, sing and shout their way through his/herstory, at times I did wonder who the intended audience was. The cast was all white and predominantly young (facts they acknowledge), but it seemed a stretch to believe that of the 300+ students at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School there were no BAME women who could have filled some of these roles, especially given how self-conscious the script was in places to acknowledge ‘cis’ white privilege.

But that aside, it is always positive to see feminism embraced and celebrated by a new generation and Make More Noise is a triumphant celebration of where we have been as women and where we need to go next.

Make More Noise is being performed at Bristol Old Vic until 4 August 2018. For more info and to book tickets, click here.