Tuesday, 25 November 2014

little cups of wisdom

Coming down for breakfast in a New York hotel one morning in the summer, I was quite taken with the cardboard sleeve that is slipped around the coffee cup. Everything in the breakfast room was disposable - plates, cups, plastic cutlery and the food obviously.

What had caught my bleary eye was that there was a little aphorism printed on mine. There was a different one on Mrs Dave's. I wandered over to the stack of sleeves to find that each of them had different aphorisms on them. I collected a few as I thought they were an interesting idea. The 100% recycled cardboard had each aphorism printed in dark blue on them. To me a sleeve - what I now know to be a zarf - is simply there to help stop scalding your fingers. But no, even here there is an opportunity to offer Life Coaching. At least it reminds me to "take care" which is thoughtful. In truth, I thought that I could write a song using the different aphorisms. I was going to call it "Little Cups of Wisdom" then promptly forgot about it. One told me to "flip the switch because the best form of light is natural" and another, in the photo on the left, reminds me to breathe if I'm feeling stressed. Presumably because if I,m stressed, I'll forget to do what I've been doing for the past fifty eight years.

This morning whilst idly looking through some articles in the Guardian on-line I came across this one which reminded me of those aphoristic sleeves ( I can't bring myself to seriously use the above term). We don't seem to be able to escape these helpful words. In the article the writer tells us that "inspirational quotes have become a key indicator of a person worth following." Most people I know hate these little words of wisdom.

The idea that as we have become more secularised we feel the need for "a kind of verified wisdom that seems both omnipotent and instinctive, timeless and personal" could be true. I'll add to these irritating messages the rise in company slogans - even schools have them. They call them "Mission Statements". Ours, believe it or not, is "Making our best better" which I find ludicrous.If our best students are already the "best" how can they become "better"? What idiot thought that was a great Mission Statement?

I'm beginning to get stressed. Where's that zarf? What did it say?

Sunday, 16 November 2014

passing ghosts

back on the coach in the morning, head full of pain
sleepy-eyed still yawning, yes we're back on the road again
sometimes makes me wonder what we'll be like at the end

It's nineteen years to the day since Alan Hull died. I was 39 and had just started my first proper teaching job as a newly qualified English teacher at a very tough school in Ipswich. I knew I had to take possession of my teaching room and make it my own, so amongst the poems and the poster of Munch's Scream I put up the obituary from the Independent. I didn't think anyone would care as I also knew that nobody read anything put up in classrooms. Particularly kids.

What I hadn't appreciated was that the room I had been given was also the one used regularly for meetings by various departments as well as management. So it was pleasant to be asked by someone about the obituary. Tim, a history teacher at the time, said he was so bored in the meeting that he started to look around at the posters on the walls when he noticed this one and had been quite upset as he had always liked Lindisfarne.  He hadn't been aware that Hully had died. Well, nearly twenty years on and I still occasionally meet up and go to gigs with Tim. The headteacher of the school was a Richard Thompson fan - and of folk music generally - so I did feel at home at the school for a while.

Still, Alan Hull. At the tender age of fifty Alan died suddenly. Things were looking up at the time after a helter-skelter career in the music business. He was a keen supporter of the Labour Party and secretary of his local constituency. I'm not sure how true it is but there was talk of him standing for Parliament but, alas, it was never to be. What he would make of the state of the current version of the Party is anyone's guess. I can't imagine he would have been a Blairite either!

Politics aside, Hull's legacy is a fine body of songs - a very strong body of fine songs indeed. Whilst the general public at the time of his death probably couldn't care less, many could probably have looked back through their back pages and found singles, maybe an album and a memory of a great gig they'd witnessed. His legacy is of a sort of Northern Lennon but to be honest, Alan was a much more honest and intelligent man than the very emotionally screwed up Scouser.

For me, Alan had been an inspiration and I had seen him with Lindisfarne many times and managed, thankfully, to see him solo at Hitchin folk club - in the Nightingale years -  and had even got drunk with him a couple of times way back in the mid-1970s.

I guess a lot of people only think of the band as being a good time pop band. However, I think that during their heyday, the band were a very potent force. The first album Nicely Out of Tune was not only an incredibly apt title but also chock-full of great songs. The acoustic-driven sound of the album was certainly part of the early seventies Zeitgeist amongst such popular gems Bridge Over Troubled Waters and  Led Zeppelin III and After the Gold Rush. No one bought it at the time of course. But songs like Clear White Light - Part 2 and Lady Eleanor were haunting and very, very striking to a fourteen year old loner whose other favourite album at the time was Trespass by Genesis. Interestingly, the whole acoustic vibe has stayed with me since those halcyon days.

Just in case someone out there points out that I wasn't a huge fan of NOOT when it first came out - it was, after all, a bit too Beatle-y for me on first few hearings. You have to remember that the Fab Four were my (older) sister's band, I was into the emerging prog bands, the Moodies, Crimso and of course Genesis. Interestingly, my favourite songs of those bands were the acoustic ones*. Honest, M'lud. However, it didn't take long to become convinced. Seeing them live was what really did it.

Over those early years of the seventies Lindisfarne became ubiquitous - Rod Stewart even had Ray Jackson from the band playing mandolin on his biggest hit. Having the opportunity to see Lindisfarne at Reading and Weeley (June and August 1971) festivals as well as at the Lyceum on the "Six Bob Tour" in January 1971 I realise now was better than mis-spending my youth learning how to play snooker. I even took my parents (well, I guess they took me as I couldn't drive and had no income) to see them at Watford Top Rank on Wednesday 18th October 1972. By this time I was failing educationally but riding high on promoting well-attended gigs at Stevenage College.

The last point there brings us neatly to the aforementioned drinking episodes with AH. As Social Secretary of the College (a Union member even then) I booked the bands - the whole point of being Social Sec, of course. I became friendly with the Charisma promoters Paul Conroy and Nigel Kerr. Both seem to have done okay (well in Paul's case running Virgin Records was quite a high point for him, I guess) but in those days they were always trying to get little guys like me to book their mostly obscure or "bubbling under" bands. Most of these bands disappeared into running building firms or alcoholism of course. Still, because I used them a few times I was often able to blag free tickets into the Marquee in Wardour Street or even other bigger gigs. Consequently, I became a regular at the Nelly Dean pub in Dean Street. As regular readers may be aware, I still frequent Soho drinking establishments when I get the chance. The Nelly Dean was the Charisma Records watering hole of choice.

Quite often the bar at the Nelly Dean was full of members of various Charisma acts at lunch times and especially on Friday evenings. One particular evening I remember most of Genesis (sans Peter Gabriel), label boss Tony Stratton-Smith, various Lindisfarnes and I getting quite less than sober. Chris Welch, the Melody Maker journalist, was at a table with Viv Stanshall and they were definitely much less than sober than me. This is the time that Phil Collins bought me a pint. I mention that as most people say he's a very mean person. I won't have a word spoken against him. He bought me a pint**.

Alan was there too. I found him quite a private person. He was outwardly at times jolly and I guess because they were a drinking band rather than a stoner band Lindisfarne were seen as a good time band. Alan had a far away look in his eyes on the few times I met him. There was a lot going on behind those eyes. That night he was part of a large gathering of friends and work colleagues (and I was just a little oik who was no doubt intruding) and therefore seemed happy enough. I'd also seen him wander on stage and fall over obviously having enjoyed the refreshments backstage a few times. This was a man after my own heart - someone who enjoyed the craic enjoyed other people's company but was a deep thinker.

One day at one of those all-Sunday Roundhouse concerts (I went to so many I honestly can't remember who was on), which I think was about 1974, I bumped into Alan at the bar. He seemed dimly aware of the fact we'd met before. He'd met so many people over the years I'm sure he didn't even remember my name. Still, he seemed happy that he vaguely recognised me and that I seemed to know who he was without being starstruck that he wanted to sit in the corner of the bar and spend a few hours in each other's company. I must admit that he seemed distant and certainly didn't want to talk about the band or previous success. I respected that and we sat and just generally chatted. Occasionally he'd fade away and get lost in his thoughts and then snap back out of it and chat for a while. A cynic might assume that he was out of it but I think he was quite deeply affected by the rise and fall of the capriciousness of fame and was in the dark days after the disintegration of the band.

A few years later I travelled up to the notorious Chorley Festival, which I'll no doubt write about another time, and saw Alan's band Radiator. The band didn't last long but it was definitely AH and backing band. In the early 1980s he played the Hitchin Folk Club and the future Mrs Dave and I went along. Alan was superb and played a mixture of old and new songs. It was a glorious evening that seemed both hopeful for the future and elegiac for times past.

I love the first three Lindisfarne albums and his solo album Pipedream, which was one of my mother's favourites too. I haven't tried to write about how great many of his songs are as they stand up on their own merits. The man was one of those great Englishmen we've all met one or two of along the way. He was a deep thinker, a little eccentric maybe but overall, he was one of the great British songwriters.  I think he was one of those influences on my life that has kept me thinking about the three Ps: people, politics and pints. There's nothing wrong with that. I'm sure that the fact that a 12 string acoustic guitar and a mandolin hang on my wall with equal placing to my Strat is partly due to Alan Hull. The sound that the band pioneered with no attempt at flashy showmanship and pure song-craft has stayed with me for the last 44 years.

I haven't attempted here to write about the songs, which was my intention. I realised that whilst writing this I have dwelt on the man. That's interesting and makes me realise that he was inspirational in all sorts of ways. Maybe next year on the twentieth anniversary of his death I'll tackle the songs. In the meantime, I'll let the man himself tell you about it here.

In the meantime, I'm raising a glass or two to the spirit of one of the greats. Cheers, Alan.

One more bottle of wine.
opened up to the name of love in the nick of time,
drunk to the future of mankind
for in truth we are the blind leading the blind
let's have another drink for God's sake
though we're on the brink of a bad break
let's have another drink for God's sake.

Alan Hull (February 20th 1945 - November 17th 1995)

* Question by the Moodies & Cadence & Cascade by King Crimson always affected me more than their wilder moments. 

**It's a boring story but he had accidentally poked me in the ear with a bar billiard cue at Bletchley Youth Club a few years previously - I brought the subject up as I had little else to talk to him about! He felt he should buy me a pint to say sorry.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

long distance love

Everybody wants to be my friend
But nobody wants to get higher
Long-distance operator
I believe I'm stranglin' in this telephone wire

Every day we get more and more dire warnings about the use of social notworking networking. Today it was about Government Agencies spying on us - or was that yesterday? Evidently Terrorists use Facebook to arrange their nefarious activities. If they can work out how to use Facebook they're welcome. The 24 hours I spent on it was so awful an experience I'm seriously traumatised by it.

Still, yesterday there was a story in the Independent in its i100 section that caught my eye (no pun intended). For one thing it was brief but it did annoy me. Always a good thing. The article suggests that "unpopular Twitter users" (sic) shouldn't waste everybody else's time by bothering to even think about tweeting a comment. 

This ridiculous piece of "analysis" by the Technical University of Madrid suggests that the only reason anyone would use Twitter is to gain a huge amount of followers. Now, I'm aware that some people click to follow people in the assumption that if you follow someone, they'll automatically follow you in return. It seems that the name of the game is to gain as many followers as possible and be retweeted more than anyone else. The article states:

“Having a larger number of followers is much more important than the user’s ‘effort’ or activity in sending lots of messages,” lead researcher Rosa M. Benito said. “The data shows that the emergence of a group of users who write fewer tweets but that are largely retweeted is due to the social network being heterogeneous.”

Does anyone know what that last part actually means? It doesn't make any sense to me. It does, however suggest that the standards of journalism in so-called quality papers is sinking ever lower. Since newspapers realised that nobody buys them any more so they have to spew everything up onto the internet, the art of proof-reading seems to be rapidly disappearing.

I thought using the various social networking platforms was to be able to keep in contact with (real) friends and family, make a few jokes and pass around a the occasional good article you've found.  Oh, and for the more intellectually challenged,videos of animals being hilarious. Mind you, I did find it quite funny that people quickly jumped onto the Russell Brand/Parklife bandwagon. I'm reminded of the interview with the so-called "inventor of the internet©" Sir Tim Berners-Lee when asked what he thought of his brainchild. He replied, "Well, I didn't expect so many cats."

Anyway, I remain obviously an unpopular Twitter user with very little influence on the world at large. I'm devastated. By the way, if you can understand what the hell the graphic that accompanies the article actually represents, keep it to yourself.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

misty mountain hop

I sometimes see myself as a wanderer
In the days before the road,
Avoiding all inhabitable contact
Afraid of the heavy load . . . 
. . . I'm afraid of the heavy load.

Walking along the Malvern Hills Ridge I became aware of the panoramic view below us.  I often find myself identifying with the character of Goldmund from Herman Hesse's Narziss and Goldmund in these situations. Goldmund realised that perhaps locking himself into a lifetime of being a monk may not be the only career path open to him, and wandered off to 'find himself' and realised his own artistic talent. Along the way he realised that he's attractive to women and embarks on various love affairs. Okay, well, the similarity certainly ends there but maybe I'm just aware of some vague sort of artistic talent. But the point remains. The song by Michael Chapman I quote above also reminds me of this particular novel -  a favourite of mine from the past (I must re-read it but that could prove fatal to my memory of it!). The call of the countryside and the call of the city is often as strong for Goldmund.

However, as I wandered along the ridge and stopped to admire the view of the patchwork quilt below us I realised that writers such as Tolkien and  C. S. Lewis had trodden in exactly these hills before me. Whilst not really containing mountains, this area rises and falls beautifully and one can see exactly why it had become the Hobbit's homeland, and in reality the beloved spaces of Tolkien's imagination. Maybe that's the sort of view Dave Cousins saw that inspired this:

 Could you only see what I've seen
You would surely know what I mean

I think I must have caught a glimpse of heaven.

Looking back across the early 21st Century landscape of the Shires I'm made aware by my guides and travelling companions - people who have lived here for about quarter of a century - of the huge impact of mankind here. The growth of human habitation on the landscape below us has not spoilt the huge panoramic view for us but I guess if you've walked these hills every week for the past twenty five years, you will have noticed less fields and more bricks and roads than when you first started wandering here. Worcester seems much closer nowadays.

My adopted home county of Suffolk is inextricably linked to Worcester and its environs historically - the reconstructed settlement of West Stow and Redwald's funeral barrow at Sutton Hoo, for instance. In his book The Real Middle Earth, Brian Bates paints a vivid picture of the reality of the world Tolkien attempted to recreate. However, Bates was trying to create a 'history' of a world that seems to be much misunderstood: a post-Roman world that mistrusted its own past and didn't really leave a trustworthy documentation of its own history. I notice that even in the section on plants and Middle Earth, little is really forthcoming. Whilst walking the ridge of the Malverns, I photographed this Parasol Mushroom (Macrolepiota Procera) standing proud with no pretence of hiding, and thought that this would be a real prize for any Middle Earther out foraging. I didn't pick it, of course, as I couldn't accept that it might be a good meal. I've read the warnings, thank you! I thought, too, of the Druid Getafix from the Asterix books and how such as he would wander the landscape only using what was needed and leaving only a footprint like some Gallic pothead pixie.

At some stage - and it may be sooner than we'd like to think - foraging and facility with a bow and arrow may be pretty useful if the prophecies of our rapidly declining natural resources are anything to go by. In the meantime, I'll buy my mushrooms from the farm shop and presume the meat I buy has traceable provenance.

I enjoyed looking out over the landscape unfolding beneath me. The farmland certainly seemed like the patchwork quilt Cousins sings about. It tells a story of many hundreds of years without too much pressure to change; and the story I was being told as I looked brought together that past and a future that was happier to change much more slowly. Unfortunately, I think that there are designs to change this landscape quickly and irretrievably.  This high above it you can see the brown field sites this government are so greedily desperate to sell off and build on.

So, we walk these footpaths and eat at the inns we find and take in the experience whilst we can. Finding a small pub that seems to run on 1970s time with delicious non-fast food, food that suggests another world, another time - whisper light wholemeal bread with the most gorgeous, soft goat's cheese and beetroot - reminds me that whilst I'm part of a digital world, it's a chimera at best. If the digital world disappeared, the organic world would continue.

However, I'm aware that we often accept our experiences without really taking full note of them. Whither Orwell's Moon Under Water? If I genuinely found it - his imaginary pub, that is - would I be able to guide someone else there? I can read a map and I can look out over a landscape and imagine a previous time - not a better one, but a more rural and less technically dependent one - and see myself as a wanderer in those times. Would I, like Goldmund, come back to discuss the ugliness of humanity  with an old friend, having refused to join the membership of a guild so that I could enjoy the freedom of being a man of the road? I tend to think that I'd be like Marco Polo in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities and come back to describe my adventures - even if they are all enjoyed in the same basic places*  - much as I probably did when I used to come back off of holiday and tell my mother of my adventures. My mother seldom ventured out of her known world but enjoyed the stories, much like Kubla Khan in Calvino's novel.

hello trees, hello flowers . . . 
A few days away in a different environment can certainly work wonders. I love existing outside of my own experience for brief periods - these moments make me feel like Goldmund or some similar wanderer for a while. It's a good feeling to divorce yourself from the everyday once in a while.

*Every city Polo described to Khan was Venice.