Sunday, 19 March 2017

saga holiday

see these things by northern light
you'll never see them clearer
love's as short as summer nights
by northern light my dear

Luton is, quite possibly, one of the worst airports there is. Having got up and left the house by 3:30 am and driven for two hours to get there, I was still fairly tired. The experience of being cattle-herded through security and then rushed through to the gate was quite unpleasant but nothing compared to what happened next. Now, easyJet aren't renowned for their customer liaison skills but some of their employees could do with reminding that the herds of holidaymakers being corralled and prodded through the airport are paying their wages.

We were rushed through past an abrupt middle-aged woman with a face like Les Dawson who seemed to believe she was re-enacting the Sensational Alex Harvey Band's version of Jacque Brel's Next!  Whilst everyone was tutting and thinking how rude she was they were being forced down into what can only be described as the waiting room for Hell. We were told to move further in together as there were plenty more to follow. The stairway was so hot that people started to fear for the older passengers - there were a fair few retired and elderly characters down there. Panic started to set in. The problem was that the radiators were all on full pelt but as we were travelling with easyJet, it meant that we'd all piled on as many clothes as we could. The airline demand that you can only take one small bag on and we had decided, like most fellow travellers, we wouldn't pay their extortionate fees for taking any hold luggage. So there we all were looking like an old school reunion for Michelin Men being held in a sauna. Just as desperation had totally set in, we were allowed to board the plane.

An hour or so later they announced to us that they had finally managed to find the bit of the plane that wasn't working and so we finally set off.

I had read Njal's Saga way back in the mid 1970s and have had a hankering to visit Iceland ever since. Well, it's taken one hell of a long time but I finally went there last week. Despite easyJet's attempt to stop me from getting there and making it as unpleasant an experience they could, we were finally on our way.

To be fair, the journey was fine, almost comfortable. I'd been warned that Reykjavik Airport was difficult to navigate but it was okay. There was a little bit of  tension when we were told that we hadn't printed off our voucher for the transfer to our hotel but it seems that Icelanders tend to be fairly curt when speaking. They sorted it out quickly and we were onto the bus quickly.

The bus had complimentary wifi and was very comfortable. Efficient seems the best way to describe our initial impressions. We got to the hotel and, again, they were very efficient. The journey there allowed us to see the landscape I'd been looking forward to for years. Fairly stark and wide open - I thought East Anglian and Scottish skies were big but this was on another plane altogether. As for buildings, well they seemed very functional and quite industrial. We passed small settlements and lots of pipes. Reykjavik was just a larger version only with hotels. We seemed to end up on the outskirts.

After off-loading our bags into the room we decided to go into the city, even though we were tired from travelling. It was mid afternoon and although cold, quite bright. We set off. As we had no idea how the buses worked we had been told that the walk wasn't too long. So we wandered off towards the harbour. We walked passed various restaurants and hotels and eventually came to the main drag, Laugavegur, which boasted a "World famous penis museum" and loads more restaurants. We turned off and walked along the seafront towards the harbour. We could see the famous Hallgrímskirkja church on our right. We stopped along the way to photograph everything as tourists do. A group of Eider ducks quacked noisily as we took a photo of Solfá which is a sculpture by Jón Gunnar Ārnason, which is a dreamboat, an ode to the sun. It promises of “undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress and freedom”. This seemed to be very apt as we looked forward to the days to come.

We wandered about the small city centre for a while and realised that we needed to sit down in the warm for a while - the temperature had gone down a little - and began to look for somewhere to reat our weary bones. Mrs Dave was looking at the brightly coloured decor of one place when I realised it was The Laundromat, somewhere that had been recommended by a friend. Went went into what appears to have actually been a laundromat in the past and enjoyed their hospitality. There were washing machines washing what I assume were towels etc from the restaurant itself. We had a simple burger and chips* and a beer each. After a struggle with the bar staff to get my wallet off me and empty our bank balance, we decided to head off out into the late afternoon. I'm not joking, Iceland is probably the most expensive place I have ever been. It appears that the cost of living is twice that of ours. We were working at £7 per thousand krona. Let's just say that 1200 krona for a beer is a bit breathtaking. But that's nothing compared to later in the trip.

Meanwhile, we got outside and realised that the temperature had plummeted quickly and that it was starting to rain. We got up to the Hallgrímskirkja church and took a few photos but by now the wind was whipping the sleet into our faces and blowing us along. We decided to set off back to the hotel. Ah . . . the hotel. We could see it on the map but we had already gone off course and had set off in the wrong direction. With the weather now settled in for the rest of the night, we had to make our way back somehow. We were already knackered.

Mrs Dave began to bemoan my poor sense of direction and question my ancestry. After managing to walk totally in the wrong direction quite near to a small airport (not Keflavik which is where we had arrived) I decided to ask the only soul we could see who seemed brave enough to be outside during this arctic blizzard which was now approaching epic proportions. No, he had no idea even with a map where our hotel was but we worked out with him that we were heading in the wrong direction. He pointed us at least more-or-less in the right one and we set off again. To say that we were cold would obviously be an understatement. But cold, wet, tired and pissed off we indeed were. Eventually, somehow, we managed to get back to the hotel. We had seen parts of Reykjavik that probably don't feature in the official City tours but we got back to have just missed Happy Hour. Actually throughout the five days we were there we managed to miss Happy Hours no matter what time they were.

So we found ourselves back at our hotel totally shattered and very wet. As luck would have it, we'd eaten dinner and through foresight had some wine waiting for us in our room. We had been warned of the cost of alcohol and advised to take some with us. Two bottles of Californian Merlot for a tenner were procured at Luton airport after security and very welcome they were! So we ended our first evening in Iceland sitting in our pyjamas drinking cheap wine watching British television after a very welcome shower. Not exactly what we were expecting.

It hadn't been the best day of travelling we'd ever experienced but we had an early night excited by the thoughts of the next few days touring this very different country of extremes.

To be continued . . . 

* not very Icelandic I know but we were hungry. But more of that next time.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

there was this bloke

all those songs that I sang you,
all forgotten, all in vain . . . 

I've just learned of the death of Derek Brimstone, a true gentleman and a great musician. Who? Well, Derek Brimstone was a very influential guy, let me tell you. Okay, we're not talking of the influence of a David Bowie here but for many of us, he was a legend. An unsung hero.

Way back last century, somewhere about 1970 I think, I was introduced to folk music through the wonderful vehicle of the Folk Club. They still exist today but nothing like in the numbers or quite like them as they were then. Recently, Martin Simpson has been quoted as saying that the definition of folk music is, "music that accompanies a raffle", and honestly I can't really argue against that! Sometimes it seemed that the whole point of the evening at a folk club was to buy a ticket and hope (or not, depending on the prize!) that you've won. I won once. I won an album in St Ives, Cornwall at the folk night - typically a Sunday - held at the local disco venue, Mr Peggoty's. Yes, sadly, I can still remember it. This was the summer of 1972 when as an end to school after our exams we went on holiday together. It was a bit like today except we didn't go to Ibiza to get out of our skulls on slammers, have wild sex and get horrendous sunstroke. No, we hired a cottage and went to Wimpy, the Chippie and the local pub and behaved like the nicely brought up grammar school kids we all were. The most obnoxious we ever got was singing the chorus of Angel Delight* by Fairport Convention (too loudly - the owners of the cottage lived next door!) You had to be there, I guess. It was so last century.

Anyway, I can't remember the album I won. Still, we were so well served by folk clubs back then. As a working class kid who managed somehow to get in to the local grammar school, I got to meet people from other places and castes, er, people wealthier than me (not difficult). A few of these came from Knebworth - the sort of place that nowadays would probably be fenced off from Stevenage and most likely would be a "gated community". My later best friend from there was the son of a bank manager. Barclays! Blimey, look at their ethical record for the early 1970s!

Anyway, they had a folk club in Knebworth and, as it was easy to get a train there and jump off as it slowed down into the village station, we didn't even have to pay to get there. It probably cost about 30 pence or so to get in to the club. The type of acts we got to see was quite formidable really but the late, great Mr Brimstone was one of the first acts I got to see there.

He already seemed old then but was actually in his early forties. He played an old Gibson guitar with an amazing style. Having started going to gigs about this time, I was used to seeing Prog players like Steve Hackett and Dave Gilmour but this was an old guy playing very flash filigrees of notes whilst singing in a Cockney accent. Not only that, but he was absolutely hilarious! The jokes he told - you have to remember we had pretty good attention spans in those days - were long, rambling and cryingly funny. Several of his better jokes are immortalized on his album Very Good Time, where the songs are interspersed with live jokes. Not only this, but he also sang great songs. I didn't know it at the time but he chose songs by John Martyn, Michael Chapman and the Incredible String Band as well as old Blues numbers.On top of this, he also played guitar and banjo in a remarkable style: clawhammer. This was a style developed by Blues and Country musicians and was well-known by older teenagers who had been weaned on Bert Jansch albums but to some of us (younger ones) this was all a revelation. Fingerpicking. This meant that you didn't just strum your guitar loudly with a plectrum, scratching the top of your five quid plywood box willy-nilly, oh no: you could delicately tickle the strings and make it sound like - if you shut your eyes - like two players playing badly at the same time instead of just one. Marvellous.

Through the fuggy atmosphere of Embassy Regals, No 6 and the stickiness underfoot of those backrooms of pubs and village halls we learnt to sing along to "the chorr-arse" and laugh to some very dirty jokes. It was a real eye-opener to be part of this movement. These were the middle days of the folk club movement, by the late 70s/early 80s the clubs were dying on their arses. It was a time when good folk club acts could start to move out into the mainstream.

Whilst everyone else was trying to move out of the circuit to earn a better living, Richard Thompson had left the World tour circuit afforded to him by being a member of Fairport Convention to appear in those very clubs, whilst their main rival, Steeleye Span, were moving into the world of tv and contract riders. I'm guessing that their riders included dusky maidens and glasses of mead.  Still, in 1976 Steeleye weren't quite the World-conquering act they were later to (briefly) become. So, they appeared at the Gordon Craig Theatre in Stevenage. The lineup was Steeleye, preceded by Mr B and a very young Martin Simpson before him. Derek Brimstone was also, as a great raconteur, the compere for the tour. So, not only did he do a short set himself, but he introduced a very young Mr Simpson too. Meanwhile, the folk world provided gigs and festivals that constantly produced wonderful to-die-for lineups that still, sometimes, astonish me.

I saw Derek Brimstone live many, many times at various folk clubs and festivals. He was often the host as well as performer but he was always great entertainment. That leads me on to his skills as a storyteller. A master joke-teller in the Dave Allen field. Let's face it, Mr B never EVER got the recognition for being such a great comedian. We watched all those comedians on tv in the 1970s that the BBC thought we should. Occasionally they'd put a folk musician on such as Richard Digance, Mike Harding, Jasper Carrot or Mike Harding. But nobody bothered with Derek B. He wasn't as rude as them but, to be honest, he was funnier. Now, I always thought Mr J C was the least funny of those but he became the most well-known (so what does that tell us?) but poor old Tony Capstick was better known for being the policeman in Last Of The Summer Wine rather than as one of the funniest dirty-joke tellers and great unaccompanied traditional folk singers of the seventies. This is the guy who once started a gig by saying, "I'll start off a bit dirty then go out in a blaze of filth" and then proceeded to do exactly that.

The last time I saw Derek Brimstone must have been a good ten or more years ago. He appeared at the Red Lion in Manningtree as part of a double bill with Michael Chapman. Now, like many people I thought that they'd gigged together often, given their friendship. However, it seemed that they'd never played together on the same bill. They were wonderful that night. There was a mutual admiration and we were all (the sold-out audience) blown away. It was a fantastic gig.

What I haven't mentioned is the fact that sometimes my friends and I would come home from the pub, most likely mid-week, and listen to the albums. Oh yes, we'd jump the serious songs but listen to the jokes. We'd line up the Mike Harding, Bill Barclay and Capstick albums which my parents would be only too happy to sit back and listen to. Well, we had to make our own amusement in those Pre-internet, less than four station tv days. We'd all sit back and laugh and (this may seem sad nowadays) but be happy to regurgitate the jokes we'd learnt at parties. I have still occasionally attempted to tell some of DB's jokes over recent years. However, with the loss of tolerance and lack of attention nowadays, I've noticed that trying to tell a shaggy dog story must be an impossible task.

Oh well, I talk of time past and time passing. All I do know is that Derek Brimstone was a major influence in my young life. What few bits I can glean from the internet in his passing is that many others felt something similar.

God bless you Derek Brimstone, you were a gentleman and a very funny guy. I loved the story about how you drove the Rev Gary Davis around the UK in the sixties ("he could drive himself, but he kept bumping into things") and you made me realise that there was far more to music than young proggie guys flashing about with their Gibson guitars, Marshall stacks and fuzz pedals.

At least you managed to get to your mid-80s and were aware that you gave so much joy to many people. I checked out the few comments on the internet and you were well liked. Loved, actually.

That's not a bad life.

Derek Brimstone 1932 - 2017. RIP

*Try listening to it and imagine, if you will, sixteen year old naive kids singing it!

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

strange town

Found myself in a strange town
Though I've only been here for three weeks now
I've got blisters on my feet
Trying to find a friend in Oxford Street

Growing up a half hour's journey outside of London often means you grow up with a fascination for the place. During my childhood visits to museums, galleries and the zoo were commonplace. By the time I was fifteen I was regularly going up there by myself. Trains were quick and easy and life was different and, yes, exciting. However, I never really wanted to move there.

I stayed there often enough with friends that had moved there, often for extended periods. A good friend of mine from school mostly lived in Kensington at his girlfriend's house. Why wouldn't you? Her parents were loaded and had a huge house. They were always away on their island in Scotland or in America sorting things out for the family oil business.

As I've often written about before, my main area of operation was around Charing Cross Road, Denmark Street and the pubs around Soho Square. The Marquee Club was in Wardour Street and I spent much of my time there. I loved eating cheaply in Greek restaurants and drinking in the Nelly Dean in the next road along. By the time I had some money to spare in my late teens early twenties, guitar shops become as important a haunt as the record shops I frequented.

However, back at home in Stevenage I often prefered to be out in the woods and fields walking for miles through Hertfordshire's gentle landscape. Mind you, the amount of chalk and mud in those fields meant you came home about six inches taller and it took forever to clean the stuff off of your boots. Oh, I enjoyed the pubs in the High Street and the one guitar shop (owned by Chris Barber's guitarist John Slaughter) but these were later joy. In my youth if you ventured out particularly on Friday and Saturday nights you needed to be able to either run fast or have the gift of the gab to stop being beaten up by the marauding gangs of skinheads. The violent underbelly of the urban landscape has always driven me out towards clean air and vast fields. You can see who's coming and from what direction much easier.

My thoughts these past few days have drifted back to those times but not through any nostalgia particularly. Talking to old friends via the phone or email has made me start to think much less of my home town. I still go back occasionally to see a few of our best friends who still live there. But when we're there we go to their houses and very occasionally a pub in the High Street. I never go to the town centre but we do often walk out to some of the rural areas that have survived into this century. These are some of the same places I used to walk myself.

Also, another old friend from the old place invited me into a Facebook group of old memories of the town. I took a look around there, posted a thing or two about some gigs I put on at the College and now feel that I have little interest in what's being posted there. It's a long time ago. Maybe the worrying amount of adult illiteracy in what I read there has put me off, I'm not sure. I don't really give a toss about, "who remembers the chinese restaurant/cinema/tramp?" etc that goes with the territory. Or maybe, finally after thirty five years living away from the place, I've finally got it out of my system. I'm not sure which.

Still, I started by talking about London. Another thing that has definitely prompted me to think about my home town is the book I'm reading. I'm reading Paul Du Noyer's In The City which is brief history of the music of London and how that city has helped shape much of the music that we all know and love. It's a book where Elizabethan ballads, Gilbert and Sullivan and the Music Hall are as important as Carnaby Street and the Kinks and Small Faces. Typically, of such a book covering such a subject, there are parts that are much more interesting than others. That is to say that by three quarters of the way though when punk rears its spotty Art School face and he starts to write about Wham! and Dizzee Rascal, my interest has totally waned. It's not an exhaustive history but I feel there is a lot missed out. Still, there have been some intriguing points made along the way.

One thing that struck me is that whilst much modern music, like punk, is a product of urban environments, I fell in love with more acoustic based music at an early age. Genesis being the first band I really took to in the early 1970s lead me to enjoying Prog music for a while. But the 12 string guitars, flutes and more pastoral sounds juxtaposed against the electric guitars and drums eventually lead me towards more Elysian fields and into folk. The acoustic/electric mix of folk-rock also fuelled my rural/urban upbringing. Like many in the early seventies, a semi-rusticated childhood through the 1960s had fuelled a love for the types of music Fairport Convention, Traffic and Nick Drake were producing.

The main prompt to my thinking, though, was a quote from Paul Weller. Now, he was from outside of London too. Hailing from Woking, which is twenty six miles and half an hour outside of Waterloo, Weller also had a desire for London. Weller worked hard and has several changes of direction musically. He desperately wanted London but needed also to remember where he came from and use his influences. Town and country. What he says to Du Noyer is probably in essence how I feel about the past too. However, before I end with the full quote, I'd like to just point out that most towns are like this. If you're lucky enough to live near open fields, woods, hills and/or the sea then you too probably feel that pull. You need the services available, you need community but you also need to escape the fumes and noise. I do feel blessed in some ways for having the rural location of my youth with the ease of getting to London too:

"It's funny to look at those paces," he says of his childhood. "Everywhere looks tiny and run down. It's all the reasons I wanted to get the fuck out of there. I've still got family there but my main link with Woking is the area where I used to play as a kid, the woods around there, the rural side. The actual town's a dump, like most satellite towns. They've got a big mall but no one's got any bread and the shops are empty . . . "

Sunday, 19 February 2017

we're all james bond now

we could be heroes just for one day . . .

I was looking down over a ski slope in the Pyrenees last week as I was sitting on a chairlift thinking about how lucky I felt being able to slide down the sides of mountains. What I mean is that the World has changed so much in my sixty one years.

When Ian Fleming started writing the James Bond books in 1953, he gave an impression of being very worldly-wise and attempted to provide an exotic life for his hero. In truth much of what he created was rather naïve. The traits he gave Bond were mostly his own such as his favourite brand of toiletries and his love of scrambled eggs. There has been much written over the years about the vodka martini he drinks - including Daniel Craig's Bond ditching the drink in favour of a different one. Most people don't really care, I'm sure, but evidently the Fleming drink is not supposed to be particularly pleasant. Not being a cocktail drinker I really don't care. However, there is a point to my ramblings here.

Whilst skiing in the Pyrenees last week as opposed to our usual haunts of the Alps, we skied off-piste briefly which added a frisson of excitement to the proceedings. It struck me again that whilst taking great pleasure in the activity, back in the post-war years when Fleming was writing it would have seemed like life on another planet for many of his readers.

As many people have probably grown up with the films rather than actually reading the books, Bond has become synonymous with an exotic and exciting lifestyle. This lifestyle must have seemed extraordinarily fascinating back then in those harsh and austere days of rationing. Rationing was brought to an end on 4th July 1954, two years before I was born. Bond's easy familiarity with fine dining, cocktails and how to undress ladies without fumbling like Captain Hook must have fueled many fantasies of a smarmy, charmed life.

This life now very much seems to be with us. Many of us have been to exotic locations, eaten far more interesting foods than Bond ever seemed to and driven some very flashy cars too. The amount of things my car can do seems way beyond even the worst excesses of the awful Roger Moore years of the Bond franchise. Mind you, I still haven't found the ejector seat or machine guns but I'm fairly sure that Nissan have provided them.

We use communication devices and can track people via their phones and cars if we are suspicious enough of our partners. Mrs Dave can just look at her wrist to read her texts without even checking her phone due to her exercise doo-hickie. When I want to check a fact I can google it or use the Wikipedia app on my phone within seconds. It's quicker to check a recipe online than it is to look it up in a book too. The pleasure of looking things up is still there though. Having instant access isn't always the best thing in my very humble opinion.

Air travel is definitely something that has changed over the years. Loads of people seem to have been to the most far-flung parts of the World quite happily and experienced some very diverse cultures. In Fleming's time very few - only the very rich - really travelled abroad. Flying must have been very exciting. Probably not the long slog through airport security that we have to endure nowadays. Given how much we have to take off and put in a tray now I'm surprised they don't just tell us to walk naked through the security checks and have done with it.

Cameras. Let's not talk about cameras.

So, exotic holidays, food and drinks are available fairly cheaply nowadays. Our technology is so advanced (even if our battery technology hasn't kept up) that we can keep in touch and have instant access to many forms of knowledge. We drive cars a that many of us still can't work out all the things it can do. I have a pen that is a stylus for my phone, two different screwdrivers, a spirit level and a short ruler. A useful item for me, mainly to tighten the screw on my glasses and write quick notes with. You can use it to stir tea too. Mind you, the refill is so short you can't write many notes with it.

Still, with all this going on I feel that we are all James Bond now. Okay, without the murder and violence, but I'm sure some people manage that too.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

nicely out of tune again

For in and out, above, about, below,
'Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,
Play'd in a box whose Candle is the Sun,
Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.

Alan Hull would have been 70 this year. In fact, his birthday was in the same month as mine, so he'd have been 71 in February next year. So, exactly 10 years older than me.

I'd been worrying a lot recently about how I was going to slam my funk and start writing again: this date was on my mind. I won't keep you too long but I'd love it if you checked out a few things. I've written before about Alan (checkout the Archive bit, somewhere to the right of this) but I have other reasons for writing now.

Firstly, and let's get this bit out of the way - he'll be spinning in his grave over the current state of the Labour Party. Personally, I think that had he'd survived (and hadn't passed away in his 50th year) he could have possibly been our first genuine Labour leader (PM?) that had a Rock'n'Roll background: our Bill Clinton?! Still, onwards and upwards . . .

Somehow, the fates drew together and decided that I would receive the new album by The Alan Hull Songbook today - Some Other Song. Serendipity. The aforementioned collective is really Alan's* son-in-law and another latter day member of Lindisfarne. What they've done is get together and record some songs from the huge backlog of songs Hully had demoed somewhere between 1967-69. If you read the Dave-Ian Hill biography of the band then you'll be aware that he'd written hundreds of songs by the time the band had properly formed and that he'd also recorded quite a few of them too. Now, this is in no way intended as a review - I've only listened to it a couple of times. I have a few thoughts on it, and Alan's legacy, and that's as far as it goes.

The new album is a collection of new recordings of new versions of demos Hully made all those years ago. Many of them are great. They have the feel of genuine AH songs because Dave Hull-Denholm has spent his working life keeping his father in law's legacy alive. His voice is slighter than Alan's but it works here because the songs have the air of being from the early late sixties/late seventies. Alan's voice would have had that slighter/softer timbre then anyway. There is a "Beatlesque" vibe about some of the songs (check out page 22 of Fog On The Tyne) which isn't surprising given how influential they would have been in the late 60s. I was given a little shock at the Stephan Grappelli-like influence on Little Things but given Alan's love of Classical music and strings generally, I guess I'm not totally surprised.

Some of the songs here have been given an earlier outing, stablemates Capability Brown had recorded I Am And So are You on their swansong Voices album. Mind you, I noticed also that they'd recorded Wake Up Little Sister as a B-side for a single, which was recorded by Lindisfarne for their third Charisma (and least successful Lindisfarne 1) lp. This had included Alan and an orchestra on the title track Dingley Dell - a great song that later gave the title to a fan club and fanzine. It also suggested future string-driven Hull things. It works here on this album. There are certainly "Beatlesque" moments on this album. It shows how influenced AH was. Unlike the Thea Gilmore Sandy Denny-based album of a few years ago, this smacks of a genuine knowledge of his work. I guess his son-in-law was so immersed in his work that he could not do much more than work within the ouevre set out all those years ago. Still, as I said, this isn't really a review but a chance to remind any interested parties of a lost genius.

In checking over a few facts for this, I am reminded that Alan loved Surrealism and must have seen a similar account of the exhibition of Magritte's works somewhere back in the late 60s that shocked me. I wrote about my own introduction to this elsewhere. My memory sticks it in the old time magazine Reveille but as always, I could be wrong (I'm not though!).

I'm desperately trying to keep this first new post short so I'll end on this note. There is a song on the new album that also resonates with my younger days. I sit here with a copy of the Rubyaiyat of Omar Khayyam sitting in front of me. I was given a copy of it by my uncle for Christmas back in 1976. There is a song on this album that is a version of some verses of the poem  - from what I can work out it's the first translation by Edward Fitzgerald (which is the copy I own). Hully has taken a few verses from it and put them to music. It works.

So, a little psychedelic, a bit Beatlesque and quite mature for a late-60's wanderer not too sure where life was taking him. Well, I can't really rate it higher than that.

* I feel that after having met him a few times, and as the previous post explains, I am fully within my rights to call him Alan.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

where the wild thyme blows

We're the mystery of the lake when the water's still.
We're the laughter in the twilight
You can hear behind the hill.
We'll stay around to watch you laugh,
Destroy yourselves for fun.
But, you won't see us, we've grown sideways to the sun.

The Globe Theatre, of course, is an educated guess of what Shakespeare's original theatre may have been like. Modern health and safety rules and regulations have played their part in bringing an approximation of what Elizabethan times may have been like to life. Illuminated signage, fire-retardant materials and modern backstage machinery help ensure that modern audiences can attempt to get near to the 'genuine' experience.

In my previous life I took a group of pupils up to the Globe for a workshop, I visited the theatre on various occasions but have never been to a performance there. Finally, yesterday, my wife and I were able to experience a production there. This was a thrill for us both and the fact that this year is the 400th anniversary of his death helped push us into going.

The current production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is not without its detractors and critics but it was a glorious first one to see. Just like Middle Class audiences in the Bard's time we sat on cushions and watched the groundlings getting soaked. Yes, typically after the best weekend weather of the year, the day we had booked to go to the Globe was a wet and dreary affair. Still, a quick lunch in the bar and we climbed to the top of the East Tower to take our bench in expectation for one of Shakespeare's lighter plays. Whilst the BBC trudges through the mud and blood of his History plays, no doubt reflecting their own bloody battle to the death with the current government, the Globe sought to update Shakespeare's play of fairy folk and lovelorn youths.

Emily Rice, the director of this production has attempted to update the play by setting it in a modern London - hence the "Hoxton Hipsters" instead of the Athenian youths - but has also brought in many other more contemporary themes and ideas. The bawdiness of the play is certainly brought out more than just in the obvious Titania/Bottom scenes. Whilst Oberon squeezes the potion onto Titania's eyes, his actions suggest its more of a date-rape drug. The changing of Helena into a male character and therefore the Demetrius/Helena pairing helps the audience keep up with who is who in the usually rather confusing (and boring) lover's scenes in the woods. Oberon's sexuality is played with too. His fondling of Demetrius as he tries to correct Puck's mistakes may be, at first, a little shocking to some. However, it does remind us of why he is so insistent that Titania hands over the Indian Changeling child. In Ancient Greece, older men often took younger boys as lovers and taught them the ways of the(ir) world. Not the sort of thing I mentioned much when teaching the play to younger students of course. It used to be bad enough when they realised how old Juliet was.

The current need to make Shakespeare more "diverse" leads to many slightly startling changes. Aegeus is played as a paraplegic and there are hints of honour killings. The main fairy, Mustardseed, suggests Voodoo rather than English fairyland, but what a great voice she has. The music was fabulous with much made of the popularity of Bollywood with the background drones of the sitar and the sudden outbursts of full-on Bollywood dancing and singing. Ewern Wardrop as Bottom has a nice line in George Formby pastiche which - in the very Shakesperean term - went over the heads of many younger members of the audience, I'm sure. At one point Bottom and the Mechanicals burst into a few verses from David Bowie's Space Oddity which confused the American couple in front of me. They left not long after. Still, to me it suggested not only an affectionate nod towards the thin white one but also a nod to the fact that the Dame had brought about a change in perception of androgyny, bisexuality  and theatricality all those years ago. I thought it was a lovely touch and it also made sense when the Moon was presented in the mise en abyme Pyramus and Thisbe. I always saw in that little playlet Shakespeare taking a swipe at himself and it works as a great parody of Romeo and Juliet, and I did teach that to kids.

At least one critic to my knowledge thought there was little "magic" in the production. I'm not sure many of us in the Globe yesterday missed that. I always thought that it is a dreamlike play and this production certainly had the mad swirl and surrealism of dreams. We weren't allowed to take photos during the performance of course but I've added a picture of the staging. The white balloons and green tubes represent the woodland trees (and allowed a slightly distorted view, interestingly enough) and the tables allowed much jumping on and off of stage therefore bringing the players amongst the crowd. You can just see one in the lower right of the photo - there were three set up offstage. The woods are the habitat of the fairy folk and the Dream really takes place within those woods. Personally, amongst those imagined trees and banks where the wild thyme blows there was magic enough. The dirty fairies and the glorious turn by Meow Meow as Titania in all her Burlesque charm and the licentiousness of the scenes with Bottom's Ass reminded me that fairyland was never really as effete and childlike as many think. Look again at the characters that populate Richard Dadd's The Fairy-Feller's Masterstroke and think of all the different types of magic folk that abound in myth. There was enough rough magic for me in the production. Nowadays the fairy folk are nowhere to be seen, maybe they've simply turned sideways to the sun so we can't see them anymore.

One more point to bring me back to where I started, the audience reaction was superb. From the cheering and spontaneous "Ugh!" from a student as the gay couple kissed to the interactions with Puck, I'm assuming that the Bard himself would have revelled in how much the audience got into this very modern and fun version of the play.

I once saw a production of AMND at Regent's Park open air behind the zoo. It was in the early 1980s and Robert Lindsay was Lysander. It was a fine performance but this new one showed how far we've come. Now I no longer teach I can enjoy watching Shakespeare for what it is and don't have to worry about how I can get the points over. I would loved to have been able to take a group of school kids along to this production and any teachers out there I would suggest you get onto the box office straight away. I have never felt anywhere near what it might have been like to see a play 400 years ago but this production helped get me a little nearer to what it may have been like.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

smoke filled rooms

See you in Heaven or next time whichever's first
I ain't USDA prime God knows you seen worse
Just tell Saint Peter at the Golden Gate
Can I get a beer, can I smoke in here?

Ten years ago we were in in Kinsale just outside Cork. We were there to celebrate my good friend John's fiftieth birthday. After a day of travelling and before the other families were going to turn up the next day, John and I slipped out to the nearest local bar for a drink.

It's a late Saturday evening in a busy Irish bar with a roaring fire, we had a pint of Guinness each but there was something missing. Every so often a few people hurried out into the cold night air and huddled together in the tiny back yard. That's when John nailed what was missing. People had to go outside to smoke. In fact, in Eire people had been going outside to smoke for three years by then. In the UK we were a year away from the ban becoming law.  In Eire the ban started on 29th March 2004. Here in the UK the ban started on 1st July 2007. They also have a ban on smoking within 3 metres of a public building.

Now, it was quite a revelation that evening. We noticed how much more pleasant the ambience was. We'd both been going to pubs for all of our adult lives - in fact, most of our teenage lives too. John had worked in a pub and I had spent a lot of time in pubs because my parents used to look after the White Hart in Stevenage High Street whenever the landlord went away. So for at least two weeks a year for many years I had spent time in a smoky atmosphere. That hadn't bothered me much as both my parents smoked as did my sister.

Flash forward ten years and we have become used to people not smoking in bars, restaurants or anywhere really. Well, except for the doorways of anywhere you're trying to get in or out of. Still, this isn't an anti-smoking rant as such. Two weeks ago I was in Austria. Now, Austria is a foreign country, and, like the past, they do things differently there as L. P. Hartley was wont to say.

Having spent the last nine years avoiding smoke in public spaces, it was a shock to find out that they still smoke indoors in Austria. I've been to this same hotel many times over the past twenty or so years but the last time I went there was about 2009 when I took a group of students on a ski trip. My mind, like the bar, was a bit hazy. Having travelled there with the feeling of a cold coming on anyway, I tried to avoid going in to the bar as much as I could that week. As did quite a few others. The biggest problem for most of us appeared to that the smoke aggravated our throats. One friend of my wife's didn't have a cold but had a right stinker by the end of the week. Talking of which, the smell permeated the whole hotel. Now, it's a family hotel so there are a lot of children that stay in it. I think most of us came away from a healthy pursuit in an alpine region feeling that we'd been set back a few years. As I gave up smoking on 31st January 1980 that was quite a jolt to my system.

A remarkably well-stocked tiny bar at the top of a mountain. Everyone's outside because the smokers are inside!

The view from that little bar.
Through diligent and extensive research (I looked it up on Wikipedia) I discovered that Austria has technically banned smoking in public places - except in many bars and restaurants. Now to me they are the very establishments where it should be banned. Evidently many bar owners such as mein host Walter have tended to ignore such frivolities as the law. However, as from May 2018, smoking will be prohibited everywhere except (wait for it . . . ) in bars where they are going to be allowed to have a smoking room (non-serviced). Maybe I'll go back in 2018 to check it out.

As I said, this isn't a diatribe or a rant, just a statement really. It is surprising how quickly most countries have taken to banning smoking in public places. The map on Wikipedia was interesting and I checked up on Cyprus as we were there back in October. I seem to remember that people did smoke in hotels and bars but, as Wikipedia comments, the results of the ban have been "variable" at best. When the ban came in back in 2007 I remember all sorts of arguments and concerns about the impact it would have on businesses but it would seem that generally throughout most of the world it's become an accepted fact of life. I guess the paint manufacturers had to stop making that particular shade of tarry yellow that must have sold in huge quantities through most of last century.

I do wish that people who do smoke wouldn't stand right in the doorways of shops smoking though.