Thursday, 23 July 2015

The Lone Piners return to the Long Mynd

(c) 2015 Tony Gillam
Pentabus Rural Theatre Company's production of 
The Lone Pine Club 
(a new play by Alice Birch) 
at Carding Mill Valley, Shropshire,  
Saturday 18 July

If you weren't already familiar with Malcolm Saville's Lone Pine adventures, what would you make of Pentabus's theatrical production The Lone Pine Club? That the stories are ginger-beer-infused tales, à la Famous Five, about a group of 1950s children ... and a small dog?  That there's an element of Peter Pan - of not wanting to outgrow the age of adventures and fierce loyalty to true friends? That there's also a hint of a darker side - of the atavistic swearing of secret oaths in blood, of the untamed Lord of the Flies world of children unconstrained by spoilsport parents?

And for those of us who know - and love - the Lone Pine books, what were we to make of the prospect of four young adult actors embodying the characters of our treasured childhood books? 

Unsure what to expect, on a glorious July Saturday, we attended the first performance of Alice Birch's play in the familiar but always breathtaking setting of Carding Mill Valley, in the heart of the Long Mynd. Pentabus had set up a marquee  - foregoing the opportunity to perform against the authentic backdrop of the Shropshire Hills themselves.  The choice not to stage it in the open air was a real shame for all sorts of reasons. The marquee was uncomfortably hot for audience and actors and it seemed paradoxical for the Lone Piners to re-enact their many outdoorsy adventures indoors on such a beautiful summer's day.  As my sister - a veteran of Shropshire's amateur dramatics scene - pointed out, even if it rains, the spectators are usually prepared with umbrellas so it's only the actors who get wet (and the Lone Piners never minded a bit of rain.)

The four actors convincingly took on the roles of David, Peter, Dickie and Mary (and Mackie) as well as bringing to life a host of other characters including, with great comic effect, the rather overconfident journalist Dan Sturt and the ghastly Miss Ballinger with her trademark 'flip-up' spectacles.

(c) 2015 Tony Gillam
In taking on the Lone Piners, Pentabus faced a difficult task. Their target audience was children 8-12 (but the play is suitable for all ages.)  However, there seemed only a few children present, the youngest watching in polite bemusement, while the majority of the audience seemed to be - like me - adults of a certain age.  Presumably, many remembered the books fondly ... and herein lies the real challenge: how to make the play enjoyable for young children who don't remember the original books without upsetting the grown-ups for whom the memory of reading Malcolm Saville's books is dearly-held.   

Some of you will recall Channel Four's comedy special from 1982, Five Go Mad in Dorset - a parody of Enid Blyton's Famous Five starring Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. There was a danger that Pentabus might have strayed into the same territory, but they chose to appeal sincerely to modern children rather than satirise the genre for adult consumption.  But it's a fine balance:  at times they did appear to be parodying Malcolm Saville; at other times it seemed a heartfelt homage. 

The books were, of course, written in prose and Malcolm Saville's atmospheric evocation of real places is one of the enduring pleasures of the original adventures. Some of his lyricism did find its way into the dialogue and I would have liked to have seen more of this aspect of the stories in the play. One facet that was very well conveyed, though, was the developing relationship between Peter and David - and David's jealous dislike of Dan Sturt. The characters seemed convincingly surprised and confused by their growing feelings for one another.

For the modern audience the Gay Dolphin became the Dolphin Hotel, complete with a hilarious Fred Vasson (the hotel's friendly porter).  The quick switches between actors playing multiple parts was very funny, especially the flipping between David and the elderly antiques dealer Albert Sparrow.  All the actors worked hard to cover so many characters - and four adventures - in 70 minutes without a break.

(c) 2015 Tony Gillam
The play urges the audience - old and young - to be adventurous and to become Lone Piners themselves.  Pentabus have certainly been adventurous in staging a version of  these classic but now somewhat neglected books. It would be wonderful to think the play might inspire new young readers to read the books for the first time or at least, as is more likely, I suspect, encourage old readers to revisit and rediscover the pleasures of the lone Pine Club.

Pentabus are touring The Lone Pine Club. For details, follow the link here.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Two Forces for Civilisation

I've jut finished reading The Hopkins Manuscript by RC Sherriff.  This novel, about the moon colliding with Earth, was first published in 1939, so its vision of England surviving an apocalyptic event and its aftermath provide a fascinating imagining of the 1940s without the Second World War.  It's one of several wonderful reprints of forgotten gems produced by Persephone Books.  Over recent years, thanks to Persephone, I've discovered and thoroughly enjoyed Denis Mackail's 1925 comic novel, Greenery Street, Jocelyn Playfair's 1944 A House in the Country, and collections of short stories by Mollie Panter-Downes (Good Evening, Mrs Craven) and Elizabeth Berridge (Tell it to a Stranger). Not to mention, Monica Dickens' enchanting first novel Mariana (which my daughter has adopted/nabbed as one of her favourites. )  Persephone Books pride themselves on reprinting what they call 'neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers ... chosen to appeal to busy people wanting titles that are neither too literary nor too commercial.'  This is a difficult course to steer but I've rarely been disappointed by one of their selections and I'm grateful to them for broadening my reading horizons. 

Another publishing enterprise that never fails to surprise and delight is the magazine Resurgence which has been going since 1966.  Resurgence (which merged with The Ecologist in 2012) deals with the environment, activism, social justice, the arts and ethical living.  That might make it sound rather dry but Resurgence has always been a joy to behold - colourful, thought-provoking and an inspirational read.  The secret of the magazine's success and longevity is captured in the words of founder editor Satish Kumar:  "The purpose of Resurgence & Ecologist is to practice, pursue and promote Truth, Goodness and Beauty (TGB).  This ancient trinity is our foundation.  When we select our articles, reviews, poems and pictures we ask ourselves:  do they meet the test of TGB? Are they true and authentic? Will they do any good to our readers?  Do they embody a sense of balance and harmony, in other words, are they beautiful in themselves? ... The manifestation of truth and goodness, or science and spirituality has to be beautiful.  That is why the arts need to be an integral part of human fulfilment. Science correlates to truth, spirituality to goodness and the arts to beauty ..."  

In very different ways, I think both Resurgence magazine and Persephone Books are forces for civilisation in a fragile world.  Both offer us Truth, Goodness and Beauty.  Even if the moon is unlikely to collide with our planet, the good life on Planet Earth is delicate and vulnerable and, like the books Persephone rediscover for us, there is often value and joy to be found in neglected things.

Monday, 6 April 2015

The Overlooked History of Clun Castle - the Third Headquarters of The Lone Pine Club

(c) Tony Gillam 2015
The little town of Clun in South Shropshire is one of my favourite places to visit.  Only seven miles from the Welsh border, it is a tranquil outpost of the border country located entirely in the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The River Clun divides what little there is of the town in two, and a stone, packhorse bridge, built around 1450, connecting the Saxon part of Clun with the Norman part, now carries the A488 and B4368 routes across the river.  Looming over the town are the ruins of Clun Castle, now managed by English Heritage.  

(c) Tony Gillam 2015
As you approach the ruined keep, helpful interpretation panels tell the story of how the motte and bailey castle was originally built in about 1300 by Robert de Say, a follower of Earl Roger of Montgomery,  and that it is one of the earliest Norman border castles.  But what the English Heritage panels don't tell you is that, in 1946, a fictional group of adventurers, the Lone Pine Club, made it their third headquarters.  It was here, in Malcolm Saville's The Secret of Grey Walls, that the Shropshire Lone Piners - David Morton, the twins Dickie and Mary and their friend Petronella (Peter) Sterling -  induct Jon and Penny Warrender as official members of the Lone Pine Club.  Jon and Penny are from Rye in Sussex, and this is their first visit to Shropshire. They arrive, by bicycle, just in time to witness an 'angry, flaming sunset' over the apparently unremarkable town:

                ... Although it was nearly dark now the setting sun, at that very moment, flung out a final, fiery challenge to the dying day. Suddenly the western sky glowed red and orange and silhouetted against this strip of colour the travellers saw, for the first time, the ruins of the Castle of Clun dominated by its mighty keep...  (p. 47)

(c) Tony Gillam
Later in the adventure, just before Jon and Penny are inducted as members of the Club, Dickie declares Clun Castle should be Lone Pine HQ3:

                ... They climbed the hill until they were actually in the shadow of the mighty walls of the keep and then Dickie said: "This place is HQ Three. One is our own Lone Pine at home. Two is the barn at Seven Gates and right in this old castle is HQ Three ..."  (pp. 57-58)
(c) Tony Gillam 2015

Why such a small club should need quite so many headquarters is a bit of a mystery.  Be that as it may, while Robert de Say has doubtless earned his place in the history of Clun, I think the least English Heritage could do is also commemorate the significance of the site for a group of young people who first appeared in book form in the 1940s and whose adventures continued to be enjoyed by children throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s. 

(c) Tony Gillam 2015
Malcolm Saville, author of 90 books for children, died in 1982. The Malcolm Saville Society was formed in 1994 to celebrate 50 years of the Lone Pine books. It now has over a thousand members of all ages who share an enthusiasm for Savillle's work and a love of the English countryside he used as a backdrop to his stories.  Surely, the adventures of the Lone Pine Club are as much a part of our English Heritage as the ruined castles that once guarded the borderlands in the aftermath of the Conquest? Is it asking too much for English Heritage to make a brief reference to the fact that Clun Castle is none other than Lone Pine Headquarters Number Three?

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Family-friendly festivals

Some of you will know that it sometimes takes me a while to get round to things.  Friends and colleagues don't expect an instant reply to emails.  It has been known for them to experience up to three weeks of 'satellite delay' before I reply to an email with the answer to a question they'd, by now, forgotten they'd asked.  Regular readers of this blog will have noted that, although I had planned to write a Christmas message in December, I've maintained radio silence since November ... and it's now February.  In a similar way, I love magazines but have a particularly thorough and long-winded way of reading them:  when I buy a new magazine I like to browse through the whole thing, making sure I don't miss any of the more 'newsy' items, before filing it away for a more careful reading of the features at some point in the future.  That point can be several months after publication, when I revisit and relish the whole magazine at my leisure.  Goodness knows what would happen if I were one of that dying breed who take a daily newspaper.

One of the magazines I enjoy is called Songlines - (a world music magazine that's published eight times a year, and covers music from traditional and popular to contemporary and fusion.)  And so it was, in January, that I came to be sitting in Worcester's oldest pub, The Cardinal's Hat, finally reading Issue 102 (the August/September issue) of Songlines.  Here, at last, I read Matt Milton's fantastic piece about going to music festivals when you're a parent of young children.  Matt, evidently, was a regular festival-goer in his youth and writes, with great verve and wit, about his disdain for family-friendly festivals  (because festivals shouldn't be "orderly, comfortable things.") He describes the moment when he looks down and realises that the young child at the festival he's complaining about is his own.  Now, unlike Matt, I had never been to a festival before becoming a parent.  I had my children when ... well, when I probably should have been going to festivals.  And I didn't experience my first festival until my kids were old enough to attend festivals without me. I told you it takes me a while to get round to things; the first festival I went to was in 2011 (when I was touching 50.) The festival was The ArleyFest in Worcestershire and headlining was the amazing Seth Lakeman.  (I wrote about it in the blog, see August 2011 - A Musical Summer).

 I loved Matt's description of the dubious joys of taking a baby to a music festival but I don't think I'd have enjoyed my first festival half as much if I'd had my kids in tow. Matt's right, though, when he says parenthood is, in some ways, a good preparation for festival-going; when you are used to "being spattered with mucoid substances and Guantanamo Bay levels of sleep-deprivation", as he says, rain, mud and  dodgy toilets are no big deal. I quite fancy Shrewsbury Folk Festival this year, and now my kids are grown up, I can pretty much please myself.     

Monday, 17 November 2014

Temporary beauty, not at all far away

I know this blog doesn't normally concern itself with flora and fauna (although, back in December 2010, I did eulogise about pineapple sage and fields of lavender.)  So allow me a little digression from the usual fare of books, music and time travel to marvel at something closer to home. A few weeks ago, my wife Sue noticed a couple of striking-looking fungi growing in our garden. These handsome specimens looked like something that might be found growing in the shade of The Magic Faraway Tree (though I wouldn't want to suggest they were that kind of mushroom.) 

The problem was even our Big Book of Nature didn't seem to know what kind if fungi they were either. So after a bit of googling, I emailed a chap called Pat O'Reilly. Pat works at First Nature and what he doesn't know about fungi isn't worth knowing. Pat kindly got back to me immediately saying he believed they were stropharia caerulea. His webpage explains these are one of very few blue-green fungi and that they also go under the beguiling name of Blue Roundheads. 

... And no sooner was this confirmed then the blue began to fade and the bell-like caps began to flatten so that, now, you wouldn't give them a second glance, their pale wateriness blending in unremarkably with the leaf litter of a soggy mid-November. So it is, I suppose, that all that is vivid, vivacious and attractive in nature withers and pales with time, a reminder we must relish the momentary splendour of life and celebrate beauty and joy wherever and whenever it may take us by surprise. 

Thursday, 9 October 2014

From a Distant Shore

I'm really enjoying the Tracey Thorn book Bedsit Disco Queen (which my brother Phil got me for my last birthday - or was it the one before?) Tracey Thorn always amazed me because, somehow, she was a year younger than me and yet I bought her album A Distant Shore when I (and she) were still at university! She was studying English at Hull while I was studying English at Bangor. I could never figure out how someone younger than me had released an LP by the time I was 22, and she must have only been 21, but then I think Roddy Frame was only 19 when Aztec Camera released the dazzlingly brilliant High Land, Hard Rain in the same year. Now that I'm 53 it's easy to understand how people younger than me may have released records ... but when I was 21 or 22 it was impossible to comprehend!

Bedsit Disco Queen is a fascinating, understated memoir of that weird post-punk and pre-New Labour time when I was finishing university, being unemployed and, eventually, starting my training as a mental health nurse; the strange hinterland between my youth and meeting the wonderful woman who became my wife. I never liked Everything But The Girl that much, despite the early promise of A Distant Shore, but Bedsit Disco Queen is a terrific testament to being young in the early 1980s ... CND marches, miners' strikes, Jamming magazine, Billy Bragg and The Style Council.

I occasionally buy The New Statesman and Tracey Thom's column is one of the highlights. I think her writing for New Statesman is even better than that she displays in her book (which was written over a number of years). So, thanks to Phil for the very thoughtful birthday present!

Meanwhile,Tracey Thorn's partner and musical collaborator Ben Watt is also now an author (as well as resident DJ on BBC 6 Music's electronic music show 6Mix.)  I'm a big fan of podcasts and have a backlog stored on my i-Pod. This week, I heard the BBC's Open Book podcast from February, featuring Ben Watt talking about his memoir of his bohemian parents Romany and Tom. While I might not be the world's biggest Everything But the Girl fan, I have great respect for Tracey and Ben, who have combined a political and artistic sensibility in the various media of memoir, songwriting, broadcasting and journalism, over three decades, in a way that is wholly admirable.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Cool Poetry for Hot Nights - Memories of Pierre Reverdy's 'Selected Poems'

Some time after my big sister Jan left home to get married, it was agreed that my brother Phil could have the big front bedroom to himself and I could move into the little box-room at the back of the house that had previously been Jan's. This room could only be accessed via my parents' bedroom, but I rarely felt any lack of privacy because they always went to bed after me and usually got up before me. Jan' s bedroom became mine for a few years from, I suppose, my mid-teens until we moved house when I was 17. Here it was that I read books, wrote songs, did my homework, listened to the radio and perused university prospectuses.

The room was directly above the kitchen (which doubled as a bathroom) and, immediately beneath my window was the flat roof of the outside toilet and a view over next door's garden onto West Street. On summer nights, when my parents were fast asleep in the next room, I would sometimes climb out of the window and stand on the roof of the toilet to enjoy the cool air and admire the moonlit sky.

Around this time, I bought a copy of Selected Poems by Pierre Reverdy. The book was published in Cape Editions in 1973, originally priced at 75p, but my copy had been marked down - first to 40p and then further reduced to 20p - making it worth taking a chance on, even though I had no idea who on earth Pierre Reverdy might be. The paperback, a mere 96 pages, (just about the shortest a book can be without it being a mere pamphlet,) had a white cover with the title printed in silver. This elegant cover was concealed by a green dust-jacket, with some blurb explaining that Reverdy was, in fact, 'one of the great figures of twentieth-century French poetry ... a contemporary of the Cubist painters and the Surrealists.'

As a working-class boy growing up in Shropshire I knew nothing of Cubism or Surrealism but it all sounded terribly interesting and exotic. I had no way of knowing if Reverdy was a famous poet or not but I liked to think he was suitably obscure, a secret discovery of mine which nobody else - or, at least, nobody I knew - had uncovered. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz recognises this quality when he describes Reverdy as 'a secret poet for secret readers’.

Reverdy was born in 1889, moving to Paris in 1910. When his father died, he was obliged to try to make a living by writing and published his first volume of poems in 1915. He associated with fellow avant-garde poets and painters including Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Georges Braque, Juan Gris and Pablo Picasso. Reverdy was among the founders of the monthly literary review, Nord-Sud, which became a focal point for the first cubists and surrealists and featured the works of Louis Aragon and Andre Breton.

Greatly admired by other surrealist poets, Reverdy nevertheless sought to move beyond surrealism in his later poetry and his work became more mystical and spiritual. After twenty years in Paris, Reverdy retired to the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes where he lived as a lay associate. He continued to write and publish poetry, making only occasional trips to Paris to see his old friends, until his death in 1960. This life of simplicity, spirituality and seclusion naturally permeates the poetry. Mary Ann Caws, the American author, art historian and literary critic, finds his work 'at once impersonal and intimate, crystalline and opaque, simple to the point of austerity. The landscape of his poetry,' she writes, 'is both instantly recognisable and, devoid of local specificity, imbued with an otherworldly strangeness.'

The very first poem in my green-covered paperback - bafflingly-titled The Same Number - begins with the lines:
The hardly open eyes
                The hand on the other shore
The sky
            And everything that happens there
The leaning door
              A head sticks out
From the frame
And through the shutters
You can see out...

Perhaps it is this jumble of windows, doors, sky and 'everything that happens there' that first inspired me to stick my head out, climb outside and take a look around at the moonlit, urban landscape. These images, 'devoid of local specificity', may just as well have been North Street and West Street as the Place Vendôme or the Boulevard St Michel.

One of the attractions of the book was that it was a bilingual edition with what is called parallel text (i.e. Reverdy's original French poems on the left-hand page and an English translation on the right-hand page by, according to the blurb, 'one of America's foremost Cubist poets' - Kenneth Rexroth.) I have to admit that, at no time in the past 40 years has either Reverdy's original French or Rexroth's English translation made a great deal of sense to me. I understand the words but not the meaning of the phrases. The blurb, though, reassures us that making sense of Reverdy is a difficult task because he apparently 'sought to break down and then reform language, to achieve a poetry of direct perception, poésie brute as he called it.'

The American author Paul Auster describes how 'Reverdy's strange landscapes ... combine an intense inwardness with a proliferation of sensual data.' Auster notes that, although 'almost mystical in their effect, his poems are nevertheless anchored in the minutiae of the everyday world; in their quiet, at times monotone music, the poet seems to evaporate .... The result is at once beautiful and disquieting as if Reverdy had emptied the space of the poem in order to let the reader inhabit it.'

Take, for example, these lines from Turning Road:
...When the fires of the desert go out one by one
When the eyes drip like blades of grass
When the dew falls barefoot on the leaves
Morning hardly risen
Somebody seeks
A lost address on a lost road...

Though I still struggle to grasp the meaning, I have no problem with this poetry of the empty space, this 'poetry of direct perception.' I perceive the slim, green volume (with its concealed white cover beneath), the two swathes of text, French to the left, English to the right, and I directly perceive the teenage boy, absorbing the quintessential cool-ness of the words of a Surrealist, Cubist, French poet in the heat of a summer's night in a box-bedroom in Shrewsbury - a poetry of pure atmosphere.

Many a summer since - but only on very hot nights with a deep, dark blue sky - I have revisited Reverdy's Selected Poems. The mere sight of the cover is enough to transport me back to the strange exhilaration of being that working-class teenager who stood surrealistically on the roof of the outside toilet in the middle of the night, with his head full of French poetry and of the promise of travel and escape.

About me

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Is it 'Tony Gillam' or 'Anthony Gillam'? Well, both actually. I write for children under the name Anthony Gillam, and for adults as Tony Gillam. Why? Because, as Tony Gillam, I've written lots of articles and a text book for mental health nurses and, when it came to writing my first children's novel ('A Passenger in Time'), I thought I'd take on a different identity so people wouldn't get confused! I'm afraid it may have only added to the confusion. I'm a member of the writers' group Severn Valley Authors who also have a blog - Currently I'm working on a number of short stories, a handful of songs, a few articles and the beginnings of another book.