Border Lines

From London to Berwick: Culture shock? Oh, yes!

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Today is the time and place for miracles

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We invest so much into beginnings. We wish for better. Or for different. Or for change. And New Year is the classic time when we decide this is the moment that it’s all going to happen. It’s a time to breathe in new possibilities and exhale what’s past. Despite all the partaaays!, and Auld Lang Synes, and live-like-every-day’s-your-lasts, an indefinable profundity drapes itself around the start of a year. And what better place to be at such a time than the home of Hogmanay: Edinburgh.

Even before we’d arrived at the top of the Waverley Steps by the station, there was an expectant thrum about the place. It was New Year’s Eve or, in northern parlance, Old Year’s Night. Roads were being cordoned and stages erected amongst the shoppers and sightseers of Princes Street. Unlike London at times of mass gatherings, Edinburgh did not appear to groan under the weight but rather to expand happily to receive the flood of anticipation, awe and anxiety that comes with one year’s end and the next’s beginning. I deposited my daughter at the hip eatery Indigo Yard on Charlotte Lane with an agreement to meet in a couple of hours’ time.

Free! I tripped along Queensferry Street, past Randolph Crescent (which always makes me think of its namesake in London’s Maida Vale where I used to live), towards the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Suddenly I was in Alexander McCall Smith’s book A Work of Beauty ‘under the towering Dean Bridge’ and in the cobbled streets of Dean Village. I’ve been there before, but in that moment it felt fresh and new.

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To arrive moments later at Nathan Coley’s illuminated installation There will be no miracles here, is surreal in the very finest way. What more thought-provoking piece of art could you wish for when mangers and shepherds have still to be mothballed. I am perhaps particularly sensitive to the concept of the miraculous: this time last year I had just come through a major operation and, in truth, was not sure whether I would still be around a year later. But here I was. Here I am. A miracle of sorts.

The Joan Eardley A Sense of Place exhibition at Gallery Two (until 21st May 2017) is a profound experience in its own right. Eardley tenaciously sketched and painted the tenements and people of Glasgow’s Townhead and the brutal and evocative landscape around Catterline just south of Aberdeen during the 50s. The exhibition is a tour de force that encapsulates the human and, specifically, one individual’s relationship with time and place. For Eardley this began with buildings in Glasgow and then extended to people – particularly children – who she portrayed with a curious and memorable blend of gritty macabre and Pierrot sentimentality. In Catterline, her initial focus was on the ramshackle fishermen’s cottages, rather than the stunning coastal views below the village. As you progress through this well-curated exhibition you are drawn into Joan’s world of urgent painting. From fishing creels to graffitied shopfronts, her’s is an emotive and at times jarring vision. You feel that she wanted to capture this moment, this place, to stop them being lost.

As I walked back to the meeting place I’d set with my daughter, I enjoyed the failing light and the drizzle. There was something about the water-smeared festive lights that brought a fitting wistfulness to the glitzy shop windows, fairylight-draped hotels, and spinning fairground rides. The fireworks later would be fabulous, but we were not staying to see them this time. Our moment here was done. As we sat on the train back south to Berwick-upon-Tweed, I felt strongly the creative miracle of time and place. And I thought how I would love to live 2017 not as if each day were my last but as if it were my first. Now that would be a miracle.

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Berwick Festival Opera: putting the high into Iolanthe

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I have a soft spot for Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘Iolanthe’. My Mum had the album and, although I was never sure how you pronounced it, I knew that when it went on the deck there would be plenty of ‘tripping hither and tripping thither’ with the opening fairy chorus. The real joy, though, was to get to ‘Loudly let the trumpet bray’ so that we could march round the furniture shrieking ‘Tarantara!’ and waggling brooms at each other.

On Saturday evening at the opening night of 2016’s Berwick Festival Opera’s (BFO) season at the Maltings, there was no impatience to skip through Matthew Rooke’s delightfully reorchestrated version of the operetta. From the first tinkling breaths of the clarinet and flute, you knew you were in safe hands. Indeed, the effervescent Monica Buckland has now conducted ‘Iolanthe’ three times – although I suspect this was her most bijou orchestra to date.

It’s a mad hoot of a story that, as so often with G&S, delivers a political satirical punch and a generally high old time. Two worlds collide: the domain of the female fairy dell – where fun, frolics and dancing predominate; and that of the House of Lords – where hunting, shooting, fishing and hereditary patriarchy rule. Iolanthe is a fairy who has been banished from the fairy dell for marrying a mortal. The son from that marriage (Strephon) wants to wed a shepherdess (Phyllis) who is a ward of court. However, since the whole aged troupe of the House of Lords including her guardian the Lord Chancellor seem to want to marry the young Phyllis too, Strephon’s in for a tricky ride. Cue much fairy intervention and plenty of comic riffs – including some up-to-the-moment referendum references stitched into Gilbert’s exceptional libretto.

Regular Festival collaborators Rocket Opera combine a light touch and a heady energy with perky, inclusive performances. The young cast stepped up to the plate with Lottie Greenhow (Phyllis) and Euan Williamson (Strephon) settling quickly and delivering a couple of tingling duets – Greenhow’s voice seemed to grow and grow with each song: beautiful. The fairy chorus provided pert and impertinent support and were masterfully stewarded by the stern but ultimately soft-hearted Queen of the Fairies (Kath Ireland). The confidence that the audience gains from the seamless interactions and interplay between characters would have been even sharper with a few more rehearsals – but bearing in mind the budget constraints these guys work under, the quality of production and performance is remarkable. Tamsin Davidson shone as Iolanthe, combining understatement and constant engagement. Someone commented on Facebook that when Davidson sang ‘My Lord, a suppliant at your feet’ he had a tear in his eye –  me too! Always an audience favourite, Fred Broom (The Lord Chancellor), reprised his role as Pooh-Bah in last year’s ‘The Mikado’, delivering a good dose of slapstick and Panto Dame – to grand effect. Austin Gunn (Earl Tolloller) and Neil Turnbull (Earl of Mountararat) are founder members of Rocket and along with Sam Morrison (Private Willis) injected plenty of frenetic energy and high-drinking jinks to the stage. Hats off to the tech crew: the lighting was excellent.

All in all, BFO continues to bring high-quality, accessible opera to Berwick, presenting great opportunities for young performers to work alongside seasoned professionals and delivering excellent entertainment to audiences. We still have Britten’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’, Marschner’s ‘The Vampyre’, Poulenc’s ‘La Voix Humaine’ and a Summer Recital featuring Peter Selwyn to look forward to. Excited? You should be!

The Silken Ladder: a racy, pacey night at the opera

From the first note of the violins in the opening overture to the final bow of the cast, conductor and orchestra, Berwick Festival Opera’s (BFO) brand new production of Rossini’s farce of relationship tomfoolery was pacey, racy and raucous good fun. There is no doubt that the Maltings and North East-based Rocket Opera have consolidated their partnership with this original take on an opera favourite first performed in 1812.

The key plot question posed is whether Dormont (Austin Gunn) can marry off Giulia (Ines Simoes) one of his beautiful wards (the other is her cousin, Lucilla played by Berwick’s Tamsin Davidson) to lothario Blansac (Christopher Jacklin), whose hit rate is legend?

Yes, of course there are complications! A chaotic and delightful hour and a half of concealing truths and hiding behind and under furniture as relationships unravel and regroup. You see, Giulia is already secretly married to Blansac’s best friend. In BFO’s take, set in anything-goes Paris of the roaring 20s, Blansac’s best friend is a woman (Dorvil, played by Laura Wolk Lewanowicz). The happy couple have managed to keep their wedded bliss a secret courtesy of the silken ladder of the title which Giulia throws from her bedroom window nightly and Dorvil duly shimmies up. But their relationship spells trouble for the puffed-up Blansac and confusion all round – particularly for the inept Germano (Phil Gault), Lucilla’s tipple-loving servant.

So, the scene is set. But, how do you ensure an audience understands what’s going when the libretto is in Italian and the gorgeous (but not tailormade) venue (Berwick, Guildhall) has no surtitle technology? This production delivered a thematically and historically apt solution which contributed considerably to the slapstick quality and overall cohesion of style and setting. It gave us an extra non-singing character: Toniette (Katie Oswell) the maid. In fine silent movie tradition Toniette presented pithy plot synopses on classic cards. Oswell’s pert and knowing delivery massively enriched the nudge-nudge wink-wink tone. In fact Toniette was such a natural addition that it felt as if Rossini would have included her if he’d thought of it (and silent movies had been invented). For those of us used to understanding every word of opera, there was some adjusting to do. However, allowing the music and libretto to wash over your ears and the musical and sung performances to feed your eyes was enormously rewarding. Additionally, it ensured that the audience did not have its collective head buried in translation sheets on laps and was able to fully enjoy the fabulous emoting by the tip-top cast.

Never has an eyebrow conveyed so much desire or discomfort as that of Wolk Lewanowicz’s Dorvil as she was by turn delighted and enraged by her lover. She is convinced that Giulia, rather than shaking off Blansac’s attentions, is giving him the come-on. Of course, it’s hard to tell what your lover is up to when you’re hidden under a lampshade. Dorvil’s subsequent aria was masterfully delivered by Wolk Lewanowicz as a comic soaring wail of confusion and pain. Meanwhile, Jacklin’s cocksure Blansac continued to strut his stuff and voice his desires in muscular bass to anyone who would listen. Fortunately Tamsin Davidson’s ditsy and coquettish Lucilla was easily won over, with her limber suggestive soprano a fitting counterpoint to Jacklin’s macho playfulness. As Giulia, Ines Simoes was a superb spider at the centre of the web of confusion. Her fast-fire expressive asides and animated singing ensured we knew where we were in storyline and relationships terms – and enjoyed being there. I doff my cap to Phil Gault whose Germano conveyed lasciviousness, conceit, bamboozlement, and increasing inebriation (culminating in a superb drunken aria) with equal panache. Dormont could be seen almost as a cameo role, but Gunn’s energy is magnetic and he is a compelling and generous foil to other cast members.

It was fantastic to see the eight-piece orchestra taking a third of the stage space beside the set. And, boy, did they deserve it. Matthew Rooke’s new orchestration ensured that each instrumentalist shone, and Stephen Higgins’ impeccable and understated conducting highlighted the integral nature of music and performance. All together an exhilarating romp of an evening. Check with the Maltings Berwick for full details of forthcoming BFO productions – Le nozze di Figaro and Die Walküre.

CAST

Dormont – Austin Gunn

Giulia – Ines Simoes

Lucilla – Tamsin Davidson

Dorvil – Laura Wolk Lewanowicz

Blansac – Christopher Jacklin

Germano – Phil Germano

Toniette – Katie Oswell

ORCHESTRA

Conductor – Stephen Higgins

Violins – Claire Taylor, Frances Orde

Viola – Judith Buttars

Cello – Nigel Chandler

Double Bass – Kit Petry

Flute – Diana Clough

Clarinet/Bass – Sam Lord

Bassoon – Helena Richards

(A version of this review was published in The Berwick Advertiser on 6 August 2015)

Sweet music & community places & spaces – the perfect antidote to politics and politicians

Ne’er cast a clout til May is out. Electioneering mud-slinging has already ensured that May is knee-deep in more than clouts. But, hurrah! Today marks the end of the scrabble for our votes – although the shirt-tugging and hair-pulling will doubtless live on. For me voting is a bit like making a Pavlova. I always go through the same process but the end result isn’t always what I’d hoped for. That’s why, amidst all the endless politicking in Berwick, it’s nice to turn to other more productive topics.

Pavlovas are unpredictable beasties

Pavlovas like politics are unpredictable beasties

Just before I do, I should recap (for those who’ve been lurking under a duvet for a couple of years) that the upturned dander of the politicos amongst us is largely due to the fiercely contested nature of the Berwick-upon-Tweed seat. Lib Dem Sir Alan Beith has been warming it for the last 42 years since the then Tory incumbent Lord Lambton resigned after a scandal that would probably have enhanced his profile if he’d been a French MP. With Sir Alan’s retirement, the Tories are desperate to plump up the cushions of power for their own pert posteriors. And so the game of election musical chairs has been particularly discordant. Happy days.

Sweet music was abundant at the Maltings’ 25th birthday celebration. Local talent shone in ‘Here Come the Girls’, directed by the indefatigable Wendy Payn. My personal highlight? The boys’ take on the Ronson/Mars classic ‘Uptown Funk’, closely followed by Katie Hindmarsh’s rendition of Hairspray’s  ‘I know where I’ve been’. Fast-forward a couple of weekends and the Guildhall rang to the soaring notes of Northumbrian Kist, confected by Maltings Chief Exec Matthew Rooke. The deftly muscular National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, energetically helmed by Chris George, sailed through a true treasure chest of a programme sparkling with local references and talent. Mezzo soprano Tamsin Davidson and baritone Alan Rowland were perfect foils in Rooke’s tapestry of traditional tunes. Alison Coates pinpointed the twinkly naughtiness of ‘Wor Geordie’s Lost ‘Is Penker’. In Agustin Fernandez’s stunning ‘Arreglos Bolivianos’ the strings momentarily sounded like Bolivian pipes – incredible; whilst Alice Burn (sometime protégée of Fernandez’s partner, Kathryn Tickell) gave us no-holes-barred Northumbrian Pipes; Rooke’s ‘An a Craw Can Sing Anaw’ was a light-handed smile-inducing homage to Vaughan Williams’ ‘Lark Ascending’ and a perfect showcase for Sam Lord and her bass clarinet (or crow).

Northumbrian Kist was fab – look out for more classical music from The Maltings including 2015’s Berwick Festival Opera with shows in June, August & September.

If you missed the Maltings’ celebrations, the free Party on the Parade (Berwick Rotary Club and Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research) on 24th May has rapidly become a town tradition. It’s a great bash and another opportunity to tap your toes to local talent.

The public spaces of Berwick are looking absolutely cracking. Kate Morison and her team of volunteers have managed to turn Castle Vale Park, Coronation Park and surrounding spaces into delicious areas for frolics, picnics, or simply to be. And, when mindless vandals attacked one of the handsome new shelters, local tradesmen stepped in and made them good: that’s community. Kate’s laid on a programme of events in the parks, from photography workshops to the wildly successful Easter egg hunt, from family sessions to get you up close and personal with pondlife and heritage to live dance and a dawn chorus walk. Alternatively (or as well!) head seaward to the crow’s nest atop the Coastwatch Tower by Magdalene Fields Golf Course. Volunteers have made this a place of beauty and information. The vertiginous stair will give you an adrenalin rush and the views will make your heart soar (open at weekends).

An example of community and what volunteers can achieve. Berwick's Coastwatch Tower.

An example of community and what volunteers can achieve. Berwick’s Coastwatch Tower.

The refurbed lily pond and shelter near Berwick Station

The refurbed lily pond and shelter near Berwick Station

Here’s a thought. Whatever the result today, let’s lock the politicians in a padded room where they can clout each other to the end of time – we could call it the House of Commons. The rest of us can get on with engaging in the community day-by-day and appreciating our tip-top corner of Northumberland.

The perfect room for politicians to clout each other.

A version of this article was published in the Berwick Advertiser on 7th May 2015

Roll out the Burrell: Berwick’s community treasure chest

A new exhibition at the Granary Gallery showcases a fabulous town treasure – The Burrell Collection: a legacy always intended by its donor to be freely accessible to Berwick townsfolk. Berwick Visual Arts (BVA) and Berwick Museum wanted to do more than simply select artefacts for a one-off show. So, during the six months before it opened, volunteers explored and catalogued documents, oral histories were gathered, relationships and learning resources were developed with local schools, and a restoration programme began. This has enriched a delightful exhibition and fed into a wider programme of talks and school visits. James Lowther and Val Tobiass of BVA and Anne Moore of Berwick Museum hope it will begin to reconnect the town with this extraordinary gift.

Schoolchildren take inspiration from one of the newly framed Melville’s (Picture: Kimberley Powell, Berwick Advertiser)

When a community receives an arty bequest it can be a dilemma as well as a delight. In 1851 JMW Turner famously left a mass of his work to the nation, decreeing that his paintings ‘Dido building Carthage’ and ‘Sun rising through Vapour’ must be hung alongside two paintings by 17th-century master Claude. A complex juggling act followed, complicated by a legal challenge to Turner’s will. Ultimately the four paintings were hung together in the National Gallery (and still are). The bulk of Turner’s collection – including beauties such as ‘Norham Castle, Sunrise’ – was shunted around London until finally taking up residence in the new Tate Gallery in 1910.

About the time Turner’s bequest was being pass-the-parcelled around London, Berwick Naturalists’ Club founded Berwick Museum (1867). A bit later, in 1875 a slip of a Glaswegian lad started to work his way up the rungs of his family’s shipping firm. This Victorian boy would become Sir William Burrell of Hutton Castle (he moved there in 1927). Aged 18 he chose to buy a painting instead of a cricket bat (to his father’s disgust), and began a 60-year hobby-cum-investment habit of collecting art. In the 1940s, he gave a princely slice of the works he had amassed to the people of Berwick. At the heart of Burrell’s gift of some 50 paintings and 300 ornamental objects was a desire to “give the people [of Berwick] an interest in Art”.

it came as a surprise and thrill to discover that I could experience works of great quality directly and freely in my local library

Through today’s lens Burrell looks like a classic didactic Victorian: a control freak with a keen mind and sharp business eye – sometimes expressed in eccentricity and meanness. He liked to shut off the electricity at Hutton Castle at 10pm, plunging all residents and guests into darkness whether they were in bed or not. However, Berwick can be thankful that, whilst Burrell enjoyed being hands-on during the renovations (which he paid for) to Berwick Museum so it could house his gift, he did not impose the restrictions he placed on the massive collection given to Glasgow. That city took years to find a site that met Burrell’s criteria and the doors did not open on Pollok Park until 1983.

Sir William Burrell – very much a man of his time. Picture from The Glasgow Story

Meanwhile, people in Berwick stopped by the Library and Museum on Marygate (now Costa Coffee) and perused the works of Arthur Melville and Jacob Maris while waiting for the bus. One man remembers spending weekends in the Library while his parents worked. He had free access to the Museum above where, he recalls, the Burrell Collection “shared space with a collection of local artefacts: huge keys and locks, cannonballs from the battle of Halidon Hill, a statue of Jimmy Strength and other treasures… it came as a surprise and thrill to discover that I could experience works of great quality directly and freely in my local library. The works that remain most strongly in my memory are paintings by Joseph Crawhall and Eugene Boudin.”  Degas, Daubigny, Gericault and Muhrman also feature in Berwick’s Burrell hoard, plus exquisite ancient Roman and Venetian glass, Japanese Imari pottery and Ming porcelain.

Vincent Lomenech in his Belford Studio reframing the prized Gericault

Vincent Lomenech in his Belford Studio reframing the prized Gericault. Picture Olivia Gill/Vincent Lomenech

An often neglected aspect of publicly owned collections is restoration, conservation, and preservation. Thanks to some Heritage Lottery Funding several works in the current exhibition have received TLC from local paper conserver and restorer, Vincent Lomenech. In his Belford studio, Vincent eased from their frames watercolours and pastels undisturbed for over 100 years in order to release them from damaging acidic board and adhesives. He healed and cleaned, remounting and reframing as necessary. Vincent is a master in a precise and fragile art – in the past he has restored pages from the 15th-century Gutenberg Bible, and is currently working on redeeming the original plans and drawings for Alnwick Gardens. Whilst working on the Burrell Collection, he found annotations in the artist’s hand on the back of a Maris, and a £45 price tag behind Melville’s ‘Cairo Bazaar’, “probably what Burrell paid for it”. Vincent’s wife, artist and illustrator Olivia Gill, remembers being inspired by the portraits in the Glasgow Burrell Collection as a 15-year-old and says she was “childishly excited at having Gericault’s ‘Wounded Cavalry Officer’ in the studio”.

BVA’s and Berwick Museum’s aim to rekindle community interest and present the Collection as a resource and attraction for a new generation echoes Burrell’s original desire. Hopefully the project will contribute to the on-going story of this important and extraordinary haul. As one local school teacher said in the visitors’ book: “A wonderful exhibition and workshop. Such a great resource for Berwick – we are very lucky!”

Berwick’s YHA: home of the Granary Gallery. Picture: Visit Berwick

MORE INFORMATION:

  • Berwick’s Burrell Collection at The Granary Gallery, Dewar’s Lane: Free entry, 11am-5pm Wed-Sun until May 4th 2015
  • Berwick’s Burrell Collection at Berwick Museum: http://www.berwickmuseum.org.uk/
  • For more information about the Schools Programme, Digital Learning Resources, Mobile App visit: http://www.berwickvisualarts.co.uk/
  • To contribute to the oral history project: contact Val Tobiass at bvalearning@maltingsberwick.co.uk or telephone 01289 333 088.
  • Vincent Lomenech, Paper Conservation and Restoration and specialist Picture Framing: http://www.lomenech.eu/
  • Olivia Lomenech Gill, Artist, Illustrator, Printmaker: http://www.oliviagill.com/

This article was first published on 2nd April 2015 in The Berwick Advertiser

Bring Back Borstal: nostalgia and a liberal blast of the airbrush

I am mourning the loss of the Co-op here in Berwick. It was our shop. We lived so close, I could leave a pan on the stove and run over for the missing ingredient. Now it’s gone, it feels as if a magic season has passed.  The other evening the Husband and I sat in front of the TV with a bowl of crisps and a glass of wine (we know how to live!). I whispered, ‘That’s the last bag of Co-op crisps’. Sad days indeed! And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Seven am and the 13-year-old fancied a fresh-baked croissant before heading to school? Over to the Co-op. Eight-thirty pm, no milk? Co-op it is. Bag of cut-price greens for the guinea pigs? You guessed it. I’m already nostalgic for the Co-op. I’ve air-brushed out anything that irritated me about it, I just long for the sign to go back up and for things to be returned to the good old days.

Vegetarian supper for one (perhaps with a glass of wine?)

The last bowl of Co-op crisps. Sad times.

Has anybody else been watching ITV’s “Bring Back Borstal”? A self-styled “social experiment” that certainly has its roots in nostalgia (apparently seven out of 10 lads sent to Borstal in the 30s did not reoffend, today nearly three quarters of young offenders end up back in prison), and our appetite for fly-on-the-wall shows. Served with a hearty helping of moral high ground, a dollop of character building by proxy, and period costumes, the series ignores the fact that, I suspect, for many boys, Borstal was neither formative nor transformative. The bad boys’ institution of the 30s was recreated in Ford Castle – so there are plenty of familiar places and local faces (scenes between Matthew Rawlings of Great Northumberland Bread and cheeky wide-boy Burniston are particularly touching) to spot alongside the nice-guy/nasty-guy act of Governor (criminologist Prof. David Williams) and Chief (ex-soldier Darren Dugan).

Borstal at Ford Castle last summer – Bring Back Borstal was screened by ITV in January 2015.

It makes compelling – and slightly depressing viewing – the 14 are like toddlers trapped in the strapping bodies of young men. They are entertaining but they are also scary. They have short fuses and lash out instinctively and without control at the slightest perceived injustice or snub. Their collective string of offences is sobering. They are, of course, a product of their childhood experiences. And it isn’t fair and it isn’t right and we as a society should be doing more to ensure young men such as these are not simply recycled by the system into ever more extreme criminals. Perhaps the lads’ most appealing custodian is Matron Jenny Molloy. Now a social worker, she talks about being taken into care at the age of nine as an opportunity “to rebuild my fractured self”. There was  an extraordinary attrition rate – three lads departed in the first week – but I hope the experience, albeit a quasi-experimental one, will help them towards making positive choices. It won’t be easy.

Institutions are always a bit prone to hypocrisy and our 13-year-old was horrified that the Chief in “Borstal” broke both the no-swearing and no-shouting rules. She commented that “it’s just like adults expecting you to say please and thank you and then not doing it themselves”. Since then I’ve kept my ears open. She has a point. This turned my mind to other things I’d “bring back” for adults. In no particular order, here are my top-five:

Bring back plate-licking. Way more polite than belching.

1. Gloves on strings. This would save so much heartache – and money.

2. Early nights and a good bedtime routine. You know how tired you are? Well then.

3. Asking “Why?” and “How?” this should never ever stop.

4. Plate-licking – way better sign of meal-appreciation than belching.

5. Tidying up one thing before starting another. Hiding mess under a sheet or in a cupboard/garage doesn’t count.

And now I’m thinking about the Co-op again. Sniff.

“Why, oh why?”

(a version of this article was published in the Berwick Advertiser on 5th February 2015)

The trill of the opera – time to take the plunge

I took a plunger with me the first time I went to the opera in the early 1980s. My brother lived in Peckham, south London – his sink was blocked. I lived and worked near Shepherd’s Bush in west London. Covent Garden was a good halfway house. Our plan was to experience an alien music form (and hand over the plunger). Our chosen opera was in English – we figured that we’d never understand warbly voices and a foreign language. I’m pretty sure the work was called “Samson!” Nowadays I would immediately be wary of a gratuitous exclamation mark: then I was young and innocent in the ways of punctuation hyperbole!

It’s a plunger!!!

In our childhood, my Dear Old Ma had a few Gilbert & Sullivan LPs – Iolanthe and HMS Pinafore spring to mind – I was aware that these romping tunes and catchy songs were not ‘real opera’. Real opera was difficult and hard to listen to. “Samson!” confirmed this. We folded ourselves into the stifling gods of the Coliseum. Below, tiny figures aboard huge turrets – half in black, the other white – skittered about colliding and separating, emoting and trilling. The good/evil metaphor was obvious even to us but we came away bemused and sure that this was not an art form to pursue. My brother, however, did unblock his sink.

We’ve all heard of operas such as Carmen. Here’s the reason: they’re the good ones.

Years later I was lucky enough to be reintroduced to opera through the Husband’s work. Many of us have only heard of a handful of operas: Carmen, The Magic Flute, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La Traviata to name a few.  There’s a reason: the operas we’ve heard of are the best ones. If only I’d realised that 20 years earlier! Other winning aspects of opera that passed me by for many years were the spectacular sets, opulent costumes and huge casts. Opera, I now know, is glitz and bling – the Dubai of theatre, if you will.

“Opera is glitz and bling – the Dubai of theatre, if you will”

Matthew Rooke (Artistic Director of The Maltings, Berwick) has a beguiling vision to take well-known operas and produce vibrant new productions to fit smaller venues in smaller towns. He tested the water last year with a new orchestration of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury (performed by the ebullient Newcastle-based Rocket Opera at the Guildhall, Berwick). It was fab –and despite what the cognoscenti may say, I think G&S is real opera. The trial led to a mini opera season this year. Would punters miss the pizazz and panache of large scale productions?

Rocket Opera’s rumbustious performance of The Pirates of Penzance had the audience giggling and guffawing. One man in front of me silently sang along to the whole show. The orchestra navigated the pared down score seamlessly under the helmsmanship of Nick Butters.

Not at all. Each of Berwick Festival Opera’s offerings was extraordinary in its own right. This was opera up close and personal – conductors, singers, musicians and audience bound together in the experience. Who’d have imagined orchestrating Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas with four Saxes (the super Sax Ecosse) and an electric bass guitar? Rooke would. Or conjuring the seaside (G&S’s, Pirates of Penzance/Rocket Opera) with Doddington’s ice cream, some deck chair fun, and a sea-shanty riff or two? Watching Opera dei Lumi’s music director Peter Keenan rally some fine young regional musical talent in their electrifying inaugural performance of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte gave me goose bumps of delight – yes, the young male singers flagged slightly towards the end, but their female counterparts managed to buoy them up and sustain the energy and characterisation essential in a show without costumes, lights or sets and with the conductor tucked behind them. Hats off to them. Conductor Peter Selwyn dextrously steered the sublime Hebrides Ensemble and NYOS Camerata through the surges and splurges of Wagner’s Die Walkϋre with singers Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (first seen in Berwick last year in Rooke’s Flyting), Ronald Samm and Stuart Pendred making the most of the acoustically brilliant Guildhall. Pared down operas? Yes. Tailored to fit? Perfectly.

Another plus of local opera for local people is the opportunity to showcase local talent which was abundantly represented during the Berwick Festival Opera. Including well-known local singer Tamsin Davidson as the Sorceress in Dido and Aeneas.

Berwick-based singer, Tamsin Davidson.

Here in Berwick festival season is now in full swing – we’ve just smacked our lips over the final lobsters and locally sourced organic sausages of the family friendly Food Festival (13th & 14th Sept), and it’s eyes-down-look-in for the internationally acclaimed Film Festival (17th-21st Sept) with its blissful mix of free installations around our historic town, well-priced and accessible workshops, and cutting edge films. Plus there’s the all-new Literary Festival (17th-18th October). So, here’s to the delights still to come and, if you’re an opera sceptic, I urge you to take the plunge next year with the Berwick Festival Opera – but perhaps not the plunger.

Conductor Peter Selwyn conducted Jonathan Dove’s arrangement seemingly effortlessly.

(A version of this article was first printed in The Berwick Advertiser on 4th September 2014)

On the lash in Newcastle – a two-day dash and dine experience

The 12-year-old was gallivanting on a school trip so the husband and I took the opportunity to go on the lash in Newcastle. Usually we seek our kicks in a northward direction – drawn to Edinburgh like skiers to après ski. However, an impossibly cheap deal for two nights at Premier Inn Quayside (£29/£36) was a siren call.

We romped from restaurant to restaurant barely taking time to digest, managed a gig at the fabled Cluny, and a fly-by The Workplace Gallery (Old Post Office, West Street, Gateshead). We arrived at Workplace to view work by Cecilia Stenbom (Berwick Visual Arts’ resident artist, 2013) via a stroll in the leafy Gateshead Riverside Park, home to a variety of public art.

The Cluny – photo: Evening Chronicle http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/

Some thoughts on a Newcastle getaway:

  1. The first notable point is that a city break on Sunday and Monday nights avoids the inevitable Friday and Saturday hen and stag parties (and four-foot inflatable penises).
  2. David Kennedy’s River Café. We had high hopes for this North Shields hotspot. Kennedy is a former North East chef of the year and River Café bagged the Observer Magazine’s top café of the year accolade within 12 months of opening. The metro journey was eyecatching enough taking in Wallsend (signs in Latin and English nod to the station’s location near the end of Hadrian’s Wall). Sunday downsides include the ubiquitous Sunday roast. I’m not a fan of huge slabs of beef served with giant Yorkshire puds, however beautifully cooked. I went for crab bruschetta, whole grilled mackerel, and gooseberry fool, the husband had ‘fabulous’ mussels. It was all nicely done and cracking value but somehow not quite the aaah! of delights I’d anticipated. I’d like to revisit on a weeknight and sample a less formulaic menu. Nevertheless, well worth the trip and Fish Quay is a great location.

    Fish Quay – photo: Newcastle upon Tyne and Northumberland Daily Photo

  3. Back to Newcastle for supper at Café 21, Trinity Gardens. Don’t be put off by the hotel-like décor. We sailed merrily through ‘the finest Provençal fish soup this side of the Channel’ (according to the husband), crushed peas with goat’s curd on toast, scallops and venison. This was tip-top food – the priciest of our visit (no change from £100 for two courses plus a shared cheese plate, cocktails and a bottle of wine) but, we felt, worth the blowout. We also had it in mind to try out a trendy gin bar – we went to Pleased To Meet You on High Bridge and sampled a fragrant French G’Vine and a classic 50 Pounds gin (a name dating from the taxes levied on gin distillers back in the 18th century) – as we sipped we enjoyed a well-chosen playlist alongside a pleasing (but not overpowering) number of other punters and again congratulated ourselves on choosing the tail end of the weekend.

    The Lit & Phil – Image – BBC Tyne

  4. With a visit to the gorgeous Literary & Philosophy Society, Westgate Road (opened in 1825 and the largest independent library outside London) under our belts, we headed to what the husband dubbed ‘a tearoom run by three bearded men’. The Quilliam Brothers (only two are bearded) purvey over 60 types of tea at their quirky tea-cum-arts café on Barras Bridge. We took ours accompanied by a sprightly Monday-lunch salad of pear and goats cheese with a walnut pesto on the ground floor, whilst those with bendier knees sprawled on beanbags in the basement.
  5. The funky Ouseburn Valley (five minutes along the Quay from the hotel) is a former seat of industry – part regenerated, part in progress. Here you’ll find the Victoria Tunnel – 19th-century wagonway carrying coal from Spital Tongues Colliery to the river – and Seven Stories, the national centre for children’s books. Plus, Artisan in the Biscuit Factory, a restaurant headed up by another North East chef of the year, Andrew Wilkinson.  He we indulged in truly toothsome salt cod beignets, mackerel with sublime chilli jam on a mouthwatering salad of watercress, coriander and sesame, a pleasingly puffy cheese soufflé and well constructed sea trout with sea veg and baby clams (although perhaps not enough clams and not sure which was sea veg!). Overall a cracking meal – we’ll be back. I wish there were time to tell you about the delicious Geordie tapas we sampled the following day at Broad Chare, Quayside (fun and tasty nibbles but rather grumpy service). Alas I have run out of space. As had my stomach when we boarded the train home.

Of course, there’s no place like home. Back in Berwick I have since enjoyed toothsome lamb (Queen’s Head, Sandgate), wonderful mussels and lobster (Audela, Bridge Street), candlelit cocktails (King’s Arms, Hide Hill), and a fruity pint at the Curfew micropub (Bridge Street). And now I must lie down!

Stories abound in unique Belford museum, Northumberland

A man with trench foot rescued from a morgue and resuscitated by a disobedient nurse. A woman who extracted her teeth to make way for a wedding gift of a false set. A 16th-century highwaywoman. What do they all have in common?  The answer IS: Belford.

Belford & District Hidden History Museum, tucked into two rooms and a corridor, is a treasure trove of information. Check out the visitors’ book and you’ll find entries saying, “Fascinating”, “Beautifully laid out”, “A model for other places to do the same”, “A wonderful little museum”.

Mike Fraser, one of my tweeting buddies, recently began extolling its virtues on Twitter. Intrigued, I met Mike at the newly established museum. We spent a happy time reading stories of Belford – like the day the suffragettes stopped off en route from Edinburgh to London. They received a warm welcome – unlike the jeering they endured in Berwick.

Mike, whose project on Sir William Beveridge led him to the museum, was so taken that he took on social media and marketing on its behalf. He says, “It’s unique in Northumberland. There’s no other village museum.”

But how do you create a museum from scratch? Fiona Renner-Thompson holds the key. Fiona was born nearby and can see the museum from the window of her quirky townhouse – the former stables of the Blue Bell Hotel. She is rather inspirational. She says things like, “Well you just get on with it, don’t you?” And, “It’s about little history, not just kings and queens.” And, “If we don’t record peoples’ stories they’ll be lost.”

Belford has had its ups and downs. In 1639 someone wrote, “In all the town not a loaf of bread, nor a quart of beer, nor a lock of hay, nor a peck of oats, and little shelter for horse or man.”  By 1763, with the advent of the post and the Blue Bell Hotel, it was “a neat post town having an exceedingly good inn.”

Recently Belford’s high street has struggled. And in 2008 Fiona conducted a grant-funded survey to find out what residents wanted to do about it. She included the question, “Do you think Belford should have its own tourist attraction?” 80% of respondents said “Yes.”  Fiona gathered old photographs and took new ones of buildings needing attention. She had an artist create an impression of what Belford could be like. It all came together in an exhibition in the empty bank.

“As a result,” Fiona says, “a couple of shop fronts were spruced up in heritage colours, people started planting flowers. And people began telling me their stories. That’s when it struck me that this could be the basis of our tourist attraction.”

Armed with a recorder, Fiona listened to peoples’ stories, took more photos, and gathered memorabilia. She uncovered tales of lost houses – from tiny cottages to piles such as Twizell House, demolished in 1969/70. A trunk of clothes under a friend’s bed turned out to be those of the wife of one of the richest industrialists on Tyneside.  Four themed exhibitions followed – one a year. “They weren’t just my exhibitions,” says Fiona. “You’d go along and find that someone had added a folder, or photo.”

The bank was sold and the exhibitions moved to the empty Spar shop. Retired teacher, Eric Gassner, now on the Belford Community Group, recalls the agriculture-themed exhibition, “They wrestled a plough down the high street and put it in the window. Brilliant!”  Others, such as historian, Jane Bowen, came on board.

When the shop was taken over, Fiona’s gaze turned to the Reading Room. Always intended as a community resource, it was closed and unused. Permission was given and, with grants from the Lottery Village SOS Fund, the AONB Fund (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), and James Knott Trust, the Reading Room was spruced up and kitted out. The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s the stories that make the museum. I wish I could tell you more – like the Old Year’s Eve when Eva Walker led Black Swan customers (including the village policeman) in a conga round the market place to get rid of them… Sadly, there’s not enough space. You’ll just have to visit.

Belford & District Hidden History Museum, the Reading Room, Market Place, Belford, NE70 7NE. Open daily 10am-4pm. Free entry.

(A version of this article was first published in the Berwick Advertiser)

Couple’s life-affirming art captures the light and rhythm of nature in the Borders and beyond

It’s a rare thing to meet people who are grounded in time, space and environment. But Pauline Burbidge (textile artist, quiltmaker and designer exhibited worldwide, including London’s V&A) and Charlie Poulsen (specialist in sculpture, growing sculpture, drawing) are rather like their respective art works. That is, inspired by and intertwined with the local landscape and its ambience. Charlie and Pauline have created a studio, home and gardens in Allanton near Duns that are an extension of their way of life. A place that breathes vitality, originality and joyful quirkiness.

Charlie & Pauline's marvellous kitchen. (c) Charles Poulsen 2006

Charlie & Pauline’s marvellous kitchen. (c) Charles Poulsen 2006

Charlie is my husband’s stepbrother so I knew the couple were artists. However, it wasn’t until I met them eight years ago, that I began to grasp what that means. Even then I was naïve. I was beguiled by their clothes – a collision of the practical (overalls) with the hippy-cum-homespun (knitted waistcoats, printed scarves); enthralled by their home – painted wooden floors, bunches of herbs hung artlessly but precisely, Kilner jars glistening with preserves, upcycled Marmite jars, feathers here, a bowl of stripy stones there – like a perfectly organised version of Kim’s game; and entranced by the garden – fronds of sculpted and entwined branches guiding you round beds of flowers and vegetables growing to the right height and in the right direction. And, yes, I was wooed into thinking that this kind of stylish artistry is, well, easy, for artists. Of course, generally, artists work incredibly hard, create beautiful stuff, and just about scrape by. Pauline confirms this, “Survival can be quite hard. Being a couple, we can be supportive of one another – we keep separate pots of money so we can borrow from each other from time to time.” Charlie owns up to being in debt at the moment, “You’ve got to keep your costs right down. If you don’t spend, you have all that free time to do the work you want to do.”

The Allanbank Mill Steading kitchen during Open Studio. (Image (c)  Jason Patient 2013)

The Allanbank Mill Steading kitchen during Open Studio. (Image (c) Jason Patient 2013)

Charlie in one of the exhibition spaces at Allanbank Mill Steading (Image (c) Charlie Poulsen/Pauline Burbidge) 2014

Charlie and Pauline came north from Nottingham (where they met, married and, until 1993, worked) searching for a property to make the most of Charlie’s small inheritance from his brother. Most people would have balked at the slightly dilapidated group of house-less farm buildings. Pauline says, “We knew within 15 minutes of arriving at Allanbank Mill Steading, this was it!”  Ten years passed in a whirl of camping on mattresses, developing studio and exhibition space, creating a home, producing work, and taking on supplementary jobs here and there to keep financially afloat.

Pauline at The Quilt Museum & Gallery, York. (Image York Press)

From the start, the yearly Open Studio was at the heart of the Allanbank Mill Steading ethos. “We came up with the idea as a way of letting people view our work and see it in the place it was made,” says Charlie. “Being in a rural location, we felt we needed buyers to come to us, particularly as my sculpture is heavy and difficult to move. The first Open Studio in September 1994 was a fairly basic affair but we attracted a surprising number of mainly local people.  However, we made more money on donations for the tea, coffee and home-made cakes than on the artwork!”

The garden featuring some of Charlie's living sculptures and a Nigel Ross sculpture in wood.

The garden (above and below) featuring some of Charlie’s sculptures in lead and living sculptures and a Nigel Ross sculpture in wood (foreground below).

Allanbank Mill Steading

Since 1999, Open Studio has featured the work of a guest artist each year – including architecture, furniture, ceramics, glass, photography and much more. Last year local artist Olivia Lomenech Gill (who has illustrated for War Horse author Michael Morpurgo) was there. This year it’s the turn of Halima Cassell and her carved ceramics. Open Studio now attracts some 500 visitors over four days. It is 21 years since Charlie and Pauline conceived Open Studio and the on-going renovation of Allanbank Mill. To mark the anniversary, they have published a vibrant visual feast of a book printed in Berwick by Martins. It’s a celebration of their life environment and a taster of their work – from Charlie’s epic growing sculpture (400m long and 150m wide) on the Southern Upland Way and playful, thought-provoking ‘ghost’ sculptures in lead and concrete; to Pauline’s stitch art and quiltscapes that hum with the colours, light and rhythms of places such as Holy Island Causeway, Pittenweem, and Puglia in Italy. The best way to appreciate this generous life-affirming couple’s work is, of course, in situ. And you can do that during their Open Studio 2014 from 1st – 4th August and at other times by invitation or appointment (details below).

Charlie & Pauline are marking Open Studio's anniversary with this gorgeous book. Printed by Martin's in Berwick. (Image (c) Pauline Burbidge 2014)

Charlie & Pauline are marking Open Studio’s 21st birthday with this gorgeous book. Printed by Martins The Printer in Berwick. (Image (c) Pauline Burbidge 2014)

FIND OUT MORE

Allanbank Mill Steading, Allanton, Duns, Berwickshire, TD11 3JX T: 01890 818073 E: info@paulineburbidgequilts.com or charliepoulsen@pobox.com w: www.paulineburbidge-quilts.com, www.charlespoulsen-sculpture.com

(This article was first published in The Berwick Advertiser on June 5th 2014)

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