Sunday Salon: 10 years in Bristol

The Sunday SalonThis past week I celebrated 10 years in my current job, which means that last month Tim and I completely missed celebrating 10 years of living in Bristol. 10 years! For Tim that’s the longest he’s spent living in one place (though not quite yet the longest in one house as we have moved around Bristol a little); I still have a ways to go on that front as I lived in the same house from age 0 to 20. But I’m happy enough in Bristol that I can well believe I’ll still be here in another 10 years.

I love Bristol. And not least because the music scene here is fantastic. This week I’d made a note that Amy Rigby was playing at a pub near our house, but then realised we wouldn’t be able to see her because we already had tickets to see Kate Tempest that night. Which I can’t complain about at all because the Kate Tempest gig was one of the best of my life. Absolutely incredible.

She performed her new album Let Them Eat Chaos in its entirety, which is the only way to do it as it’s a single story told in poetry, rap and song over the course of 50 minutes or so. It is smart, politically and socially motivated, beautiful, funny, angry and hopeful. As when we saw her perform this without musical backing at the Downs Concert, Kate put so much of herself into it that she was in tears at the end, and not just one or two stray tears either. I love Kate and truly think she is a force for good and positivity in this world that seems to be sorely lacking in those things far too often.

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The Downs Concert

Back in May, Tim and I queued for two hours for tickets to see Massive Attack’s first concert in Bristol for 13 years. Yesterday, the big day finally dawned and it was wet and windy but excitement won out over cold and we headed up to the Downs.

Kate Tempest

The concert had expanded from a handful of special guests into a small festival, with three stages packed with acts. The one I was most excited about, after Massive Attack themselves of course, was Kate Tempest. After seeing her on TV and in YouTube videos, I had the brief pleasure of experiencing her live last year and have been itching ever since to see more of her. Yesterday, I got my wish.

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Pink Mist

Bristol Old Vic
19 February 2016

One of my Christmas presents from Tim was tickets to the play Pink Mist at Bristol Old Vic, which I knew nothing about except that it’s all in verse and was first performed last year. So it’s modern and experimental but in other ways classical, harking back even as far as ancient Greek theatre. Because this is the story of three young men – boys, really, the main character Arthur corrects himself – who go to war.

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Bristol Women’s Literature Festival is back!

final logo TEXTOn 14–15 March, Bristol’s Watershed will be home to a celebration of women’s writing, with a series of events covering everything from the overlooked women writers of the Renaissance to the brightest and the best of today’s up and coming literary stars.

The festival was founded by feminist writer Siân Norris “to celebrate the work of women writers in a literary scene that is all too often dominated by male voices”.

It all kicks off with a screening of Paris was a Woman, a 1996 documentary film about the amazing women of the 1920s Paris literary scene including my beloved Colette, followed by an audience discussion chaired by Norris.

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The broken branch was a symbol of my too-much

clever girl

Clever Girl
by Tessa Hadley

I bought this book for two reasons – it’s set in Bristol and it was a staff recommendation at the very lovely Mr B’s Reading Emporium in Bath. Why buy one of the hundreds of books on my wishlist when I can pick up something new and random?

Stella tells us her life story, from working-class single-parent 1950s origins, to gaining a stepfather and moving to a fancy new estate and fancy new school in the 1960s. Stella is smart and suddenly she has the opportunity to do something with her abilities. But a life that could have been predictable is made unpredictable by choices she makes when she is 17.

“He broke off a whole branch of wet, scented apple blossom and gave it to me. It was a criminal thing; bees were still dangling, desirous, around the flowers’ stamen and stigma and their bulges of ovary which would never now grow into apples. The broken branch was a symbol of my too-much; it seemed more lordly not to refuse such bounty if offered. What it was impossible to have without harm was also most to be desired.”

For a lot of the book, Stella is a window into the youth cultures of the time, from the late 1960s on through the 70s and 80s. She is attracted to the political and the alternative, but somehow the book is never about politics itself, only about political ideologies. Stella is never wholly happy or satisfied or confident in herself, which makes her a sympathetic, if occasionally frustrating, character. She certainly doesn’t let her lack of direction stop her from living a varied and interesting life.

“I tried to prolong this happiness, or find a code I could store it in, so that it meant something even when I wasn’t feeling it. I imagined it as resembling the filmy skin of a bubble enclosing its sphere of ordinary air; impermanent yet also, for as long as it existed, flexible and resilient – real, a revelation.”

In some ways, this book could have been set anywhere, or at least in any British city outside London, but on the other hand, Bristol does have a certain mix of people and neighbourhoods that allows Stella to see and meet all sorts without ever living anywhere else. For those familiar with Bristol, you can nod along when Hadley mentions a specific area, knowing what relevance it has, but Hadley gives enough information for non-Bristolians to get it too (e.g. Totterdown in the 1970s = working class; Totterdown in the 2000s = working and middle class, arty types and professionals – I can attest to this one!). I don’t know any other city as well as Bristol but I can firmly believe in this story happening here. I can believe in people getting lost in politics/drugs/ideals while all around them friends and family plod on with boring ordinary lives.

“The land’s fabric seemed dragged down and tearing under the sheer weight of the built environment, which never ended and could surely never be undone and wasn’t even thriving: the monster machine was stalling, it had poisoned itself and now it had fallen into enemy hands.”

Stella’s story is very readable and absorbing, with some gorgeous language, but somehow not quite what I hoped for. She’s smart and loves books, which is usually a winner for me, but the story doesn’t linger on her bookishness, lingering instead on the men in her life, who are admittedly key, but for a character who calls herself feminist I struggled with how much she is defined by her role or by her man and not by her self.

Published 2013 by Jonathan Cape.

Source: Mr B’s Reading Emporium, Bath.

The sadness and loneliness of death


by Mo Hayder

Many moons ago I blogged about the lack of books set in Bristol and a couple of people pointed to Hayder as an author who has set multiple novels here. Crime series don’t tend to be my bag but that’s a combination of prejudice and unwillingness to get sucked into something that makes me add another 20 books to my TBR. Crime books have a history of strong settings so I decided to give this one a go.

This isn’t actually the first book in the series, but it’s the first one set in Bristol. Hayder’s hero policeman Jack Caffery has moved from London to the West Country, just a few weeks before the novel begins. However, the real central character in this book is Sergeant “Flea” Marley, a police diver whose personal life is a bit of a mess. She’s interesting, though perhaps loaded with a few too many foibles. But by the end of the story I really liked her and found myself hoping she’s a major part of the next few books as well. So does that mean I have become a fan of the series?

Well, yes and no. The early chapters suffer a little from a habit of describing physical appearance a bit too much, or maybe too cheesily or clunkily. It was made abundantly clear from the start that Hayder was setting up a physical attraction between Flea and Jack that, in tried and tested fashion, begins with mutual dislike/distrust.

“She had something kind of kinetic about her, something in her face that suggested her thoughts didn’t stay still for long. He hated the way he’d noticed these things about her…He hated the way he’d wanted to leave, because suddenly all he could feel was his body.”

But another apparent flaw, one that had me quite annoyed for a few days, turned out to be a prejudice of certain characters that was suddenly turned around and dealt with eloquently towards the end of the story. I can’t really explain more than that without giving away major plot points, and I am torn as to whether it shows skill or lack of it that it took so long for it to become clear that the prejudice wasn’t Hayder’s own.

But back to the plot. The story opens with Flea diving for a hand in Bristol Harbour, after someone called the police claiming to have seen one. There’s a lot of discussion about the scenarios that might lead to a severed hand being found without a body in that particular spot. Descriptions of water flow from various sources, not to mention where corpses tend to come from, seemed detailed and accurate without being at all boring. In fact one of the novel’s strengths for me was the realism of the police procedures and conversations. I completely believed in those scenes of police work, even if only Flea and Jack ever got to have the limelight.

“It wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last body part she would fish out of the mud around Bristol, and except for what it said about the sadness and loneliness of death, usually a severed hand wasn’t remarkable…Only she, Dundas and the CSM knew that this hand wasn’t commonplace at all.”

One hand becomes a pair of hands and they are quickly linked to a South African witchcraft ritual in a plot that seems at first highly unlikely before eventually becoming cleverer and darker than I had expected. There are plenty of red herrings thrown in, some a little more contrived than others, but arguably it was less of a whodunit and more of a “will the police figure it out in time?”.

It was a fairly easy, enjoyable read. It’s not great literature and I’m not in a big rush to pick up the next book but I do want to read it. Not just for the Bristol setting, either, although that was done pretty well.

Published 2008 by Bantam Press, a division of Transworld.

Source: Borrowed from a friend.

Bristol Festival of Literature

If I had had any spare time at all this week I would have blogged about this sooner but I didn’t so I didn’t. Hey ho. It’s Bristol Festival of Literature time!

I’ve been to two events this year, both of which were great. On Sunday I ventured into Redcliffe Caves to hear Bristol Writers Group read aloud a series of chilling tales. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric location and organisers had done a great job of lining the route from Redcliffe Wharf entrance to the big cavern with candles so that we didn’t even need the torches we’d been advised to bring. (We did need the sensible shoes and camping chairs, though. Glad I was reminded of that advice!) The stories were generally excellent and well chosen for the location – occasionally spooky but mostly choosing more real-life chills than supernatural. (I’m afraid I didn’t take notes of any of the writers’ names. Poor journalism, I know.) And I now want to do a proper tour of the caves even more than I did before.

The second event was at the Thunderbolt pub and entitled “Satire and the city”. Local authors Mike Manson and Jari Moate talked about Bristol, comedy and the subjects that interest them. The title was a little misleading in that satire was not specifically discussed, though it was there to some extent in some of the excerpts they read from their books. Perhaps I need to read one of their books to find out if it was just an accurate description of them as writers. I’d be happy to do that; both were interesting, funny speakers. And another great venue that I’ve been meaning to go to for years and never made it to before.

Bristol Festival of Literature continues until this Sunday, including a big day of many events on Saturday, so there’s still a chance to join the fun. And for more bookish fun, tomorrow it’s also Bristol-Con, which was great fun last year.

She thought she’d left her past behind

In Her Shadow
by Louise Douglas

I was sent this book on spec by the publisher, I’m guessing partly because it’s set in Bristol, or at least half of it is. But I must admit that I wasn’t entirely won over.

The premise sounded a bit woolly and to be honest, it was. Highly strung museum worker Hannah Brown has never get over the death of her best friend Ellen when they were 18, especially because she feels that she had betrayed her friend in some mysterious way. What appears to be a sighting of Ellen sparks off a long-drawn-out breakdown, or almost-breakdown, told in alternating chapters to the story of her childhood friendship with Ellen.

The characters are interesting and varied. As well as mousey matter-of-fact Hannah and exuberant arty Ellen there’s Ellen’s brooding, troubled father and Hannah’s sort-of-foster-brother Jago who is a gentle salt-of-the-earth type.

And there is quite a lot going on. In her youth Hannah nurtured an obsessive fixation on Ellen’s father, turning a blind eye to his failures as a father to her best friend. She also got pretty jealous over both Jago and Ellen. In the current day Hannah has a fixation on her co-worker John who is married, though not happily. And she’s having a meltdown.

Which all sounds like it could have been gripping. But somehow…it wasn’t. It was easy enough to read but there were no stand-out passages. The Bristol setting if anything annoyed me because it was slightly clunky, name-checking streets and locations constantly, rather than using more subtle descriptions that Bristolians would recognise anyway.

The Cornish setting was better, combining the romantic wild landscape and the mystery of a big rich house (Ellen’s) and the starker reality of working-class Britain in what I think was the 1970s and 1980s. Douglas showed some love for this setting, subtly dropping in local detail the way I would have liked her to in the Bristol sections.

The climactic reveal of the betrayal was actually better than I had expected, and made me dislike Hannah where up to then I had been on her side. I know the moment itself could be written off as a youthful mistake but she has spent years (16 or 17, I think) doing nothing to right the wrong.

There was some gothic, melodramatic potential for this novel but for me it didn’t deliver.

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published 2012 by Bantam Press, an imprint of Transworld Publishers.

Local bookshops: Beware of the Leopard

Beware of the Leopard is a secondhand bookshop in the heart of Bristol’s Old City, overflowing with books and a particular treasure trove of old annuals. Not to mention that awesome name (a quote from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

Beware of the Leopard

It occupies two units opposite each other in the covered market, plus as many boxes and shelves in-between as they can fit. It looks haphazard but is actually well organised, you just need to know the system. It’s not really a place to go with a specific book in mind, it’s more of a browse and stumble across several gems sort of a place.

Just browsing

The shelves are crammed close together so that you are constantly manoeuvring around other customers, which makes for a pretty friendly experience! And the staff know their stock, so it’s always worth asking.

Beware of the Leopard benefits from having a fantastic location within St Nicholas Market, which is my (and many other Bristolians’) favourite lunchtime venue. So many tasty foods to choose between, my mouth is watering at the thought. And when you look up, it’s an impressive building too.


Beware of the Leopard
66–69 & 77 St Nicholas Market
St Nicholas Street

Sunday Salon: Holidaying

The Sunday Salon

It’s been a busy busy week. Amazing how much more you can do when you don’t go to work! Okay, so I’m on holiday for a week and a half, which we are filling with three short breaks in a row. We seem to have managed once again to coincide our plans with glorious sunshine, which is not strictly good for me but I love how happy it makes everyone.

Part 1: London
In London, we went to museums with Tim’s parents, watched fox cubs playing from a friend’s balcony and sat reading in royal parks.

Urban fox

Part 2: Bristol
Then we came back to Bristol and enjoyed our city at a slower pace, took in a film at the excellent Watershed and went on a day trip to see the amazing sand sculptures in Weston-super-Mare.


Part 3: Melton Mowbray
Finally, we hopped on a train to Leicestershire to chill with friends in the countryside, which is where we are now.


I am relaxed, I have done lots of reading (you can read my reviews of Enduring Love and Mr Fox, posted earlier this week) and I didn’t have to dip into my savings. Who needs fancy foreign holidays? (I’m not saying I never want one again. Just to be clear, I still want to see the world. But this has been a good holiday. That is all.)