Postcard from Madrid

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Madrid, one of Europe’s grand old cities, and what better place to spend a few days exploring and feeling the first real bit of warmth of the year.  Like many Spanish cities I found Madrid great for walking and exploring, there was no grand plan just some vague ideas and this approach works for me as you tend to come across things as you mooch, you have the time to take the temperature of the city and get a feel for it with the hassle of thinking I need to get someone by a certain time or to see a particular thing.  Much as great cities have fantastic places to see, it’s people that make places so getting a feel for them and the beat of the city is equally important as far as I am concerned.

Also, like when I was in Barcelona last year, it seems to be very easy to get away from the cram of tourists who follow a very predictable trail.  Walk a couple of streets away in any direction and you are in a different Madrid, one that’s much more to my liking.  I stayed right bang in the centre, in a great little flat that was my first experience of using air B & B and I couldn’t have wished for better.  If meant that I could step out of the door and be right in the heart of things but could stroll half an hour in any direction to explore some of the different areas.

I’d been to Madrid before a few years ago and I wondered how it would feel in light of the serious impact that the recession has had on Spain.  For me the city remains as warm and welcoming and as clean and safe as you could possibly hope for.  This time in the city I seemed to spend a lot of time in the markets, each area that I visited had one and they really were astonishing places and could really teach my home city a thing or two as it ponders how to ‘regenerate’ the city market.  For me the most astonishing was Sunday afternoon in San Fernando market in the Lavapies area.  I stumbled across this by poking my head through an entrance and the first signs were not promising, stalls with the shutters down, the odd one or two with a couple of people sat at.  However music could be heard so we ventured in and lo and behold the world changed.  In the middle of this covered market a hundred or so people were in full swing dancing away to latin music pumping out as DJ’s played the tunes, surround the central area, a labyrinth of packed stalls selling tapas, beer and wine kept the crowd fed and watered.  It was mesmerising and the atmosphere was so good it just made you feel alive.  We found a fantastic little wine place, drank what was recommended and just soaked it up.  I want to spend every Sunday doing that, it was perfect.

I was chatting to someone from Lavapies about the market and he said that a few years ago it was dying, just a couple of stalls remained but slowly the community has brought it back to life with events and activities and placing it back into the heart of the community which has brought new stall holders and businesses in.  A fantastic success story.  Round the corner I also stumbled across a great little bike shop and bought the local cap, I found out that they have only made 100 and the money is going to help run the community cycling club.  They seemed amazed that some guy from Leeds wanted to buy one of their caps.

Little adventures and experiences like this happened across the few days we were there as we wandered about.  Yes we saw the main squares, Guernica, the parks, Churches, Palaces etc but it was the neighbourhood bars, markets and vibe of the city that I enjoyed the most.  Can’t wait to go back.

 

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The Rise and Fall of Little Voice- Review

West Yorkshire Playhouse/Birmingham Rep production of LITTLE VOICE by Jim Cartwright directed by James Brining

West Yorkshire Playhouse/Birmingham Rep production of
LITTLE VOICE
by Jim Cartwright
directed by James Brining

Hi I’m Cari, I’ve written a review of Little Voice for my Bronze Arts Award Project where I was required to view a performance, write a review, give and share my opinion.  This is my first time writing on a blog and I thought it would be a good way of sharing my review.  I’d love to hear your comments and feedback.  Thanks.

The Review

Witty, intelligent and insightful, Little Voice has it all.

Set in a gritty working class family, where poverty and desperation appear round every turn.  The Rise and Fall of Little Voice lit up an unseen spark which remained untouched throughout the play.  Little Voice (LV) spends her time in her room, relentlessly playing her dead father’s cherished record collection, in a house which she shares with her mother, Mari. Mari is loud, crude and frequently drinks.  This automatically sets an interesting starting point, as LV is the opposite to her mother, and drowns out the emptiness she feels with the sound of her music.

The play commences with Mari getting a new phone fitted into her house.  I feel this was an excellent starting point, as it immediately sets the time concept and shows the awkward relationship between Mari and LV.  LV’s soon to be friend Billy is also introduced in this scene.  There tentative yet intimate relationship slowly blossoms throughout the play, and captivates the audience because of their unlikely friendship.

Nancy Sullivan (LV) was perfectly cast in this role, as she captures the shyness and timidness of LV, as well as the spark and desire to be heard.  Later in the show, we realise that not only does LV listen to music, she can also flawlessly impersonate the famous artists.  This is revealed when she sings to herself and her mother’s latest fling Ray Say.  Astonished and bewildered, Ray Say acts upon this and attempts to persuade LV to sing in the local cabaret.  The entirety of the play is then based upon LV mastering the courage to perform and make her father proud.

Nancy Sullivan’s beautiful singing bewitches the audience and transports you to Hollywood: a thought, I presume, that’s also on Mari’s and Ray Say’s mind.  Vicky Entwhistle complements Mari to a T.  She is a Yorkshire lass who’s larger than life and feels misplaced in the life she is living.  Her constant boozy barrier, protects her from the looming fears of poverty and isolation which is perfectly shown by her acting.

The transition from scene to scene is snippets of radio broadcast from the time; such as, Margaret Thatcher and the Miners Strike.  I feel this highlighted the struggles in that time period and related well to LV and Mari’s struggle in a working class life.  It was also well chosen, as it has an effect on audience members who lived through that time period, as well as the Tories unmistakeable effect on the social and economic structure then and now.

The set reflected a Yorkshire terrace house, it has a damaged structure and is falling apart in various places.  It contains two bedrooms, a bathroom and adjoined living and kitchen space.  Around the outside of the house were various objects, such as dart boards and broken junk.  I feel this may represent past memories of LV’s father and Mari’s old life as a constant reminder of what they don’t have.  The fractured house structure may also reflect LV and her mother’s fractured relationship.

To conclude, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is a witty unmissable play currently showing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.  It touches on life as a working class family in the time of the Tories reign in the 1980’s.  James Brining and Jim Cartwright have created a touching performance that makes us think about how our starting point in life affects us and how success is finding who you really are.

4 Stars.

Viv Albertine – Clothes, Music, Boys

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With the return of Sleater Kinney and renewed interest in the Riot Grrrl movement it seems rather prescient that two of the major influences on the movement, Viv Albertine of the Slits and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth both have books out.  I’ve not got round to Kim’s yet but having just finished Viv’s I feel like I’ve just emerged from a mosh pit, a big smile on my face at the sheer unabashed joyfulness of it all but also bruised, sweaty, scared and somewhat unsettled.

This is no vacuous ghost written PR pamphlet it’s Viv’s voice telling her own story from the birth of punk through to today and it’s a story that is raw, uncompromising, funny, courageous, visceral, shocking, unflinching, uplifting and inspirational.  A bit like the music she played and the bands that reference her, The Slits and others of that ilk, the individual notes may jar at times and appear discordant but the overall sound and message is impossible to ignore.

Viv splits the book into two ‘sides’; Side 1 effectively charting her upbringing, discovery of music, youth, the punk movement, sex, fashion becoming part of The Slits and through to their break up.  Side 2 takes you through more sex and fashion, marriage, illness, depression, blood, family, motherhood, career, middle age, and creative rebirth.  It is not a comfortable ride, the stories and anecdotes assault you in rapid fire fashion sharply written with no punches pulled mirroring the songs of the movement that she was part of.  The characters, music, clothes, boys swirl around in a dizzying kaleidoscope as Viv grows up in the white heat of the punk movement before settling into the seeming middle class rural idle of a designer house by the sea, but as the saying goes be careful what you wish for.

Viv’s writing is whip smart throughout and it’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that is so unflinchingly honest, she does not hide from her own mistakes but throughout you get a sense of a woman constantly grappling with who she is and what her place is.  She is also laugh out loud funny and comes across as a warm person who you’d want to spend some time with.

A thought that remains with me after reading this book – what is punk ? and is it still relevant ? for me it’s not about what you wear, look or sound like, it’s about independence of thought the willingness to make your own mind up, go your own way and cut against the prevailing wind. Viv Albertine is the embodiment of this and this book is as punk a book as you could ever hope to read.  However what do I know about what punk is ?  Perhaps this extract from the book where Viv goes to see the Pistols and watches John Lydon gives the best interpretation of punk and it’s continuing relevance:

 All the things I’m so embarrassed about, John’s made into virtues.  He’s unapologetic about who his is and where he comes from.  Proud of it even.  He’s not taking the world’s lack of interest as confirmation that he’s wrong and worthless.  I look up at him twisting and yowling and realise it’s everyone else who’s wrong, not him.  How did he make that mental leap from musically untrained state school educated, council estate boy, to standing on stage in front of a band?  I think he’s brave.  A revolutionary.  He’s sending a very powerful message, the most powerful message anyone can ever transmit. Be yourself.

For me Viv’s fight to be herself IS the story and in telling it she asks the most pertinent question of all – What does it mean to be an independent, creative, intelligent woman and what has changed in society from 1976 through to today ?

 

Song for Coal

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This year sees the 30th anniversary of the miners strike, an event that is still etched in the minds and consciousness of many, and which did so much to change the political and social landscape of Britain – whatever side of the political fence you happened to be on, things would not be the same.

To mark this event Nick Crowe and Ian Robertson have produced an amazing audio visual piece that is currently showing in the chapel at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.  You enter through what at first appears to be total pitch black, you can hear haunting singing and monk like chanting while projected up on the wall is what appears to be a stunning visual representation of a stain glass window.  As your eyes slowly adjust you can find a bench and sit down and let yourself be immersed in sound and visual.

The ‘window’ is an astonishing thing, firstly that it looks so right projected as it is inside a church but it takes a while to get used to as it is moving and flickering as you watch it.  The colours are incredibly vivid and your eyes try to work out what is happening.  The window is comprised of 152 panels and each panel contains a film that looks at the history of coal, from it’s origins before mankind through to it powering the industrial revolution and beyond.  As the films play in the panels it creates a hypnotic kaleidoscopic effect that is enhanced by the music and singing (sung by Opera North) that accompanies the visuals.  You see flickers of plants, cars, flame, sculptures, Davy lamps, miners faces morphing constantly across the window to a mesmerising effect.

As I sat in the darkness, eyes transfixed by the visual and sound surrounding me you could hear occasional words like ‘it made us strong’ but it brought memories to me of the coalman delivering sacks to the house, of lighting the fire that heated the house, through to the strike and it’s devastating consequences and then made me think of our need to move beyond fossil fuels so that what once powered our world remains buried below the surface.

 

 

Me and the Manics

 

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Ever since I set this blog up I’ve wanted (but struggled) to write a post on the Manic Street Preachers and I guess more specifically my relationship with them and what they mean to me.  This week I’ll be going to London to see the Holy Bible gig at the Camden Roundhouse (thanks Phil) and I’m excited beyond belief and certainly perhaps more than a man of my age should be but that in itself is testament to the band, their longevity and relevance.

When the Mancis burst onto the scene in the early 90’s proclaiming they were going to be bigger than Guns N Roses and Public Enemy many (especially those in the music press, yes Steve Lamacq I’m looking at you) sneered and dismissed them as fake but what I heard was ambition.  Ambition was an important attribute in South Wales, not in the naked greed sense displayed by the plastic spray tanned idiots paraded on our TV screens on a daily basis, but in the ‘I don’t want my kids to have to work in the pits type of way’.  ‘I want you to get an education and get a good job’.  Good jobs were often seen to be teachers, lawyers, ministers and to this day if you walk into any secondary school in England there will be a good chance you will find teachers of Welsh heritage.  It was recognised that to escape the manual labour and better yourself then education was important.  This had been the case in South Wales right from the early days of industrialisation through the formation of the strong trade unions, miners welfare and institutes that established principles of looking to improve both yourself and your community along lines of equality and social justice.  Many left leaning leaders came out of this approach none more so that Nye Bevan, founder of the National Health Service. Libraries did indeed give us power.

When the Manics started releasing incendiary recordings chock full of pride, passion, emotion and intelligence I felt a clear lineage through to the likes of Bevan using the microphone in a different way but still using it for powerful oratory, strong messages and vision.  They were light years ahead of any other band at the time and picked up the gladioli dropped by Morrissey and breathed some Welsh fire back into the music scene.  It’s impossible in a simple blog post to cover all of the themes, authors, philosophers, cultural and political reference points that make up so much of their music because to do so would require the writing of a book.  Suffice to say that for me it is so good to have a band writing songs that actually mean something, have been thought about and that provide a fantastic education in their own right.  Having an intelligence in your lyrics however is irrelevant unless you can back them up with brilliant tunes and scorching, visceral live performances which the Manics do in spades.  I’ve been lucky enough to see them in all sorts of venues over the years from tiny sweat stained clubs to Glastonbury declaring they should build a car park over the lot of it.

I grew up in Newport in South Wales, and after stumbling through school travelled north each day up the Gwent valleys to go to Crosskeys 6th Form college.  This was at a time when my home area was being decimated by the Thatcher government and the miners strike was honing my political education.  The year below me at that college were the individuals who would, a few years later, emerge as the Manics and I understood where they’d come from and what they were singing about.  Over the last 20 odd years I’ve aged along with them, but also hopefully changed and developed along the way as they have.  Whenever I hear them, and particularly when it is live, I am transported back to where I’m from and I experience feelings of pride, passion and emotion that no other band can provoke within me.

The Manic Street Preachers – original, intelligent, controversial, ambitious, exciting – simply one of Britain’s greatest ever bands.

Manic Street Preachers - 02 Arena, London 17/12/11 | Photo by Jason Williamson

As the viaduct looms like a bird of doom

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I wrote recently of my new found exploration into night time MTB riding and I was not expecting to write something else on it so soon but last night I was out again and this photo of me and my experience encapsulated in many ways what is so magical about it.  A short time before this photo was taken we’d careered / slithered down a muddy field and I was trying to learn fast how to control a bike that was quite frankly moving around all over the place as my wheels skidded and skipped in the mud.  I tried very hard to relax, stay off the brakes and feel the movement, letting the front wheel go where it wants and slowly correcting.  Trying to do this intuitively and by feel was tricky but I did reasonably well I thought.  Plenty to build on and a very interesting experience.

Then after much mirth and a short pedal I looked up and wow, this incredible structure loomed up in front of us.  Being pitch black you couldn’t see it until you were almost underneath it.  It was a jaw dropping moment.  The others who ride the area regularly take it for granted but I thought it was mesmerising.  It reminded me of some old mid west American coal or gold mining track and it was really eerie and atmospheric.  Apparently we’d ridden over it an hour or so previously on our way out on the ride and it’s pretty cool on the top but approaching it from below in pitch black was just ace.

I must admit that I love bridges, there is something about the concept of reaching out to cross a divide that appeals to me, perhaps because it goes to the heart of human desire for exploration as in “I wonder what’s over there?” but also because bridges link places and help people to connect with one another which I think is a fundamentally good thing.   Although perhaps they just remind me of my own mortality, no matter how many bridges I cross, I can’t escape the ultimate crossing from life to death.

All these thoughts and heightened images were whirling around in my head as I pedalled off under the bridge and Rob @chasingsheepMTB took the amazing atmospheric photo above.  As I rode under it there was one song that was playing in my head, the brilliant Red Right Hand by Nick Cave, the lyrics to which I’ve used for the title to this post as it was so apt.  The track is below if you don’t know it.

 

20,000 Days on Earth

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20,000 Days on Earth reflects the number of days in Nick Cave’s life so far and this engaging docu / rockumentary starring and narrated by Nick himself looks back over those days and delves into the heart of his creative processes, how he goes about writing songs and then delivering those through magnetic live performances.

I’m a big fan of Nick Cave and have closely followed his musical journey since the implosion of The Birthday Party through to his 15th Bad Seeds album Push the Sky Away, the creation of which forms the primary musical backdrop to the film.  I think there are very few artists who have managed to mature so gloriously from such riotous beginnings and none who can match Cave’s brilliant lyricism that can conjure up images of such love and tenderness mixed with downright menace and intensity.

The film covers Cave’s fabulous career to date while charting his meanderings around Brighton (where he lives) for one day from dawn to nightfall interspersed with live recordings, either creating the album in France or taking it on the road triumphantly to the Sydney Opera House.  Cave drives round Brighton in the drizzle going to a fictional therapy session (with Alain de Botton) and visiting key Bad Seed collaborator Warren Ellis for some eel stew whilst delivering him a pair of stuffed birds that he has in the back of the car.  All the while he is chatting away and exploring his life and creativity and what that means.  As he chats people from various points in his career appear in the car with him and join in the conversation before fading away as if figments of his imagination.  Ray Winstone, Blixa Bargeld and Kylie all pop up in the car.  Of course not all elements of his life are included but through this quite unusual vehicle there is enough for you to grasp what he is about, where he has come from and what drives him.

Cave comes across as a highly intelligent, reflective, caring and funny man but above all someone in love with the concept of creativity through words and this comes across beautifully in many moments of the film, not least when he describes his love for his wife Susie and how she represents the distillation of all the beauty and fantasy that he can imagine.  A genuinely touching moment.

He talks of his writing process and how important it is to constantly write, to work on it, to have ideas, that each idea is a small flame and if you nurture it you never know how big the fire might grow, particularly when you hand your idea over to others and to see what happens through collaboration.  He stresses the importance of having a go and to trying things as it’s far better to try and fail that not to try in the first place.

I’ve been fortunate to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on a few occasions and there are few people who can match his intensity on stage where for me he appears like some long limbed Gothic karate kicking preacher here to wrangle and writhe and conjure up some Faustian pact before your very eyes.  This is captured in the final moments in the performance of Jubilee Street, which as it builds to a crescendo is mixed with flashes of Cave performing at all stages of his career before the film ends, at night on the seafront in Brighton with Cave musing on the flame of ideas.

I’ve seen lots of films of bands I like over the years and most music documentaries are to be honest not that great.  This is different in many ways and I was spellbound from start to finish.  Whether or not you are a Nick Cave fan go and see this it’s brilliant.