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The Magpie Lands and Brixton’s Bank Holiday Feeling

23 Aug

The French take a day off work to let off fireworks on Bastille Day, on 14 July, to commemorate a key symbolic event in the French Revolution. The Americans get all pyrotechnic on 4 July in celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. And the people of the Philippines celebrate their independence from the USA, and Spain, with fireworks and a public holiday on 12 June.

As a nation, Britain is in the rather embarrassing historical position of generally being the ‘oppressor’; looking through the list of national days on Wikipedia, most countries seem to be celebrating their independence from us. So the UK’s designated ‘fireworks day’ on 5 November, rather than a commemoration of the glorious achievement of nationhood, is in honour of some disgruntled Catholics who tried to blow up the government, and were then executed. What exactly we’re celebrating here is a bit of a grey area, but unless the government suddenly grants us a public holiday to do it, I reluctantly mention that this weekend coming is the last Monday off until (shhh) christmas. So let’s use it wisely, eh?

The refurbed Upstairs at the Ritzy is having a free relaunch party  on Friday featuring music from awesome skiffle band The Severed Limb. The Windmill (sticky floored music venue not historic mill) are planning to barbecue on Sunday to the sound of their 1992 ‘Retrospectacular’  – with various bands covering songs from this year. Dressed in global hypercolour, hopefully. Also on Sunday, Radio6Music’s Gilles Peterson has been confirmed for the roof terrace at Brixton Clubhouse. Or head over to Myatt’s Field for a picnic to learn about Remakery and Makerhood, skills swapping and local craftiness from 1pm.

Also taking place this weekend at The Brick Box’s temporary home at the old Angel Pub is Magpie, a mini-festival of music, art and performance, weirdness and wonder, kicking off on Thursday night (£3 entry) and carrying on through Friday and Saturday evenings (£5 entry).

The Angel is destined to become a development of four houses and four flats once planning permission is received by the property company, Lexadon. Until October however, they have been renting the space out to The Brick Box, a grass-roots arts organisation who put on various community-based shows, workshops and interactive arty experiences from their usual locations in Brixton and Tooting markets.

There’s a veritable artistic buffet of performers lined up for this weekend’s festivities. Local artist and curator of Magpie David Nevin will be displaying his work, and Aerial Sparks has made a house out of dolls. Creepy. There’ll be poetry from acclaimed poet Dan Holloway on a roof, as well as in a very small ‘Eritrean Hut’, where, for the brave and, er, probably those whose courage comes by way of Holland, more intimate performances will be taking place. That’s not a euphemism. (Apart from the bit about Holland, that was).

Music tonight comes from the London City Reggae Choir and Brixton DJ Geoff Parker, who I think is behind the Catch a Fire nights Upstairs at the Ritzy. Tomorrow night is Gothic rock from Andi Sex Gang and Chris from United 80 will be DJing on Saturday.

If you’re there at around 10pm definitely look out for weird, absurdist comedy from Annie Bashford and Grumpy Lettuce. Having trained at clown school in Paris (where she met her comedy partner) Annie’s just back from performing right wing cabaret  with Frank Sanazi (say it out loud) at the Edinburgh festival. As you do.

Hungry? There’s veggie curry on offer tonight, and expect fantastic LA-inspired meat sandwiches on offer from London French Dip on Friday and Saturday. Get there quickly because odds are they’ll sell out.

Right then. I’ll start the Weekend Countdown Clock then shall I?

Brixton Book Jam

3 Jul

Peer in the door of many publishing houses at the moment and you’ll notice that the onward march of eBooks is shaking up and dusting down what can be a pretty foot-draggy industry. It means that anyone can publish a book and sell it through Amazon, without having to jump through the hoops of finding an agent and getting a book deal. Pale and shaken publishers claim that without their quality control and marketing budgets the internet will become a hideously democratic cacophony of pseudo-literary ramblings, causing everyone to throw up their hands and stop reading books altogether. Of course this assumes that, with the kind of innovative Darwinian solution for which it is known, the interwebz does not come up with some way to sort the wheat from the paff and we all adapt and survive. If you could see my slush pile at work you’d certainly hope so. (Although this will be academic when Amazon eventually takes over the world and all thinking.)

The greater, and often fatuous, debate aside, what eBooks are undisputedly great for is giving talented writers a platform to try out their material and connect more directly with an audience.  And what live book events are great for is getting those writers out from behind their laptops and face to face with their readers; preferably in a noisy pub, stuck three intimidating feet high on a stage. And so it was at Brixton Book Jam last night.

Many of the writers at the first Brixton Book Jam did have physical books to promote, but a noticeable number were download-only.  The intention of the night, organiser James Wallis announced ambitiously in his opening gambit, is to create ‘a belle époque, a fin de siècle salon in the Hootananny’. ‘Yeah, bon chance on a dark and soggy Monday evening mate,’ you might think. But in piled the audience to drink beer, eat tacos from El Panzon, and hover pleasingly between ‘attentive’ and ‘rowdy’. When asked to ‘stick up a hand if you’ve written a book’ (published or unpublished) about a fifth of the room did.

Perhaps not surprisingly, as all the authors were fairly local, many of the books were set around London. Chris Chalmers opened with a reading from his eBook Five to One, the story of a helicopter crash on Clapham Common. Glen Mehn’s ‘The Unkindness of Ravens’ and Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son both featured a darker, more fantastical London. Zelda Rhiando – co-organiser of Book Jam – read from her novel Caposcripti which is about photography, London, and shrunken heads. Independent columnist Rhodri Marsden spoke about Crap Dates; many of which will have inevitably taken place in London. And the ‘Bard of Brixton’ Alex Wheatle brought the house down performing his poem ‘Uprising’ about the 1981 Brixton riots.

It apparently took just four weeks (although slightly frenzied ones I imagine) to set up this month’s event. The team are hoping make it a quarterly occurence, which, once word gets around, I’m sure will be in great demand  from both writers and readers. If this is the future for books then I for one am ready to embrace it. I just need to, er, buy a Kindle.

When the Chickens Came Home to Roost at the Brixton Empire

26 Oct

We walked through the gardens of St Matthews Church and down the stairs into its crypt. We bought our tickets from a desk just inside the front door: ‘Just wait in the restaurant and they’ll come and get you.’ The audience collected at one end of the bar while a man ate dinner at the other. We were shown through a door at the back and walked several times around a tatty white spiral staircase, past no windows, somewhere up into the middle of the building. I think.

This will be a familiar experience if you’ve been to Mass nightclub, which usually inhabits this mysterious space. For everyone else it’s an effective sort of discombobulating prelude to watching live theatre. The opposite is drinking pinot noir whilst standing on thick carpet in the West End.

The play we’re here to see is called When the Chickens Came Home to Roost, after a comment Malcolm X gave to the press on the assassination of President Kennedy. He suggested that, as Kennedy failed to stop violence against the black community, it was to be expected that he himself would eventually become the victim of violence. In the play, and in real life, Malcolm X was ‘silenced’, prevented from speaking and preaching for 90 days by the Nation of Islam as punishment.

It opens with Malcolm X in prison, but at the moment he’s just Malcolm Little, or even ‘Satan’. He’s feeling very rageful until he hears a voice, which I think we are supposed to assume is god (although it’s mostly not) that convinces him to convert to Islam. Next, out of prison, he has joined the Nation of Islam and risen to become one of its most prominent preachers.

Most of the play deals with the difficult relationship between Malcolm X and the head of the movement, Elijah Muhammad. This is no democracy, Elijah points out. Malcolm should do as he’s told. And always with the words! Why can’t he just keep quiet for once? He asks the renowned speechifyer.

Playing one of history’s most charismatic men and gifted speakers must come with challenges, but Ricky Fearson’s performance is compelling and effortless. It’s helped by the linking  soundscapes (do people still call them that?) which are very effective. The traverse staging (a runway with the audience on each side) works well. Apart from when they are having lunch while trying to sit so as not to continually show one half of the audience their backs: that’s decidedly awkward. But then mealtimes are often difficult in the theatre. It’s hard to eat and act, especially when you are being served something dubious that is definitely not in the script.

A  Time Out review noted that little allowance is made in the script is made for an audience not familiar with the subject matter. This is true to an extent. I could understand what was going on, but a deeper knowledge of the black power movement would have helped with the significance. Then again, no one wants to see a play where the writer assumes you’re a moron.

With or without  a degree in 1960s racial politics, I think the powerful performances ensure that the audience understands why Malcolm’s chicken is cooked. In prison he rails against his father’s death at the hands of white men, and his realisation that for him the American dream is a sham. He throws his lot in with a man with questionable morals, yet who  believes only in absolutes. He’s punished for his autonomy by being forbidden to speak (Samson and haircuts come to mind), and finally his family are threatened, his house attacked, and his end is nigh.

It’s a powerful play, and an intense one. It’s also an interesting choice for the inaugural production at the Brixton Empire, as it’s called when the space isn’t being a nightclub at the weekend. According to the flyer it has never been performed in the UK before (although an off-broadway production helped make Denzel Washington’s name in the 80s). They’re planning to put on cabaret next.

The production runs until 4th November, but not at the weekend when I think the space reverts to its other function.  Tickets are £6-£15 (although I’m not sure how exactly this works, we paid £7 on a Tuesday night). A fascinating and absorbing production in great setting.

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