Wednesday, 16 September 2015

a long strange trip indeed

You're sick of hanging around and you'd like to travel
Tired of travel, you want to settle down
I guess they can't revoke your soul for trying
Get out of the door - light out and look all around

Sometimes the light's all shining on me
Other times I can barely see
Lately it occurs to me
What a long strange trip it's been

It's been three months since I last blogged which is the longest break I've taken since I started way back in 2010. I hadn't got bored with it or anything like that, I've just been very busy and the break became rather extended.

My last post mentioned the fact that I was about to retire - we were about to retire! Both Mrs Dave and I packed our trunks and said goodbye to the circus at the end of July. There were fond farewells and all that and then we had a major wedding to attend. Our middle daughter got married at the start of what we still thought of as the Summer holiday. As we were still paid until the end of August, we didn't consider ourselves retired until the first day back for everyone else!

During the Summer break we went away around East Anglia a few times with friends, enjoyed our eldest daughter's brief return from Mexico and my friend John and I also took ourselves off on a Rock'n'Roll tour of London. There will be more on that in a future blog - I also feel the need to mention the similar tour from last year in New York.

Obviously there has been far more than those few things going on. Most of May and June were taken up with exam marking and there was rather a lot of finishing off and packing up from our place of work. More recently there had been two more weddings to attend. We've had dealings with various agencies to sort out our pensions. Mine is incredibly modest but I felt it time to stop working in an environment that was becoming increasingly more bogged down in a mire of trying to outguess and impress Ofsted than actually concentrate on just educating kids. There has also had to be a gradual coming to terms with the fact that we would not be rushing off to work any more. No more pointless meetings, unnecessary admin tasks or lessons to prepare. No more lesson observations and constant criticism.  However, Mrs Dave has been very busy (indeed, still is) remarking Psychology A level exam papers. So all in all, the laptop has been pretty well taken up recently. It has been so busy lately that I've taken the step of using our older laptop which chugs along slowly but gets there in the end (usually).

So, sitting here tapping away at a laptop that occasionally misses letters and whole phrases out, I have returned and hopefully will be corresponding with anyone out there still listening.

Whilst it has indeed been a long strange trip, here's to many more adventures to come.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

the garden of earthly delights

And so we learn there's no return
Only journeys to depart on
Salt and dust, oil and rust
It's still the only garden

I'm no Adam, you're no Eve
Don't look back and never grieve
A wasted seed, a broken reed
It's what the poor man sets his heart on . . .

We never left the garden

Whatever qualities I may have, being a gardener isn't really one of them. I don't have green fingers, for sure. However, over the last few years I have begun to enjoy growing things to eat in my tiny garden more and more.

I always laugh when I see books or articles about small gardens. They still seem to think that a small garden is about the size of Rutland. Ours really is tiny, it's about thirty two feet by twenty (if that). Given its ridiculously small size we somehow manage to grow stuff in it as well as cook, entertain and - weather permitting - sit around soaking up the sun.

A few years ago - probably about ten - we actually attempted to run an allotment. That was a dismal failure by anyone's standards. Both of us being full time teachers with a family and my wife being on the Senior Management Team meant we had no time whatsoever to get up to there and spend the months of tpoil required to produce much worth talking about, let alone eating it. In fact, we failed so hilariously, we were just about to be kicked off of it by the council. We did manage to grow some potatoes and what started as courgettes. The potatoes were quite good, as I recall. However, the courgettes resembled the pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers because we had left them for so long.

The dismal failure of that exercise was very disappointing but we have built up in a small way to provide some food that we really do use. I'm not talking The Good Life here of course! For the past ten or so years we have managed to produce a decent crop of tomatoes each year alongside some salad leaves and herbs. Last summer we did not buy any salad from a shop at all. Little Gem lettuces, rocket, chard and various leaves kept us supplied well throughout the summer and into early autumn. This year is beginning to look the same. This year we have nine tomato plants and another six to plant. The amount of french salad leaves, chard, rocket and sea purslane currently growing should see us well through the summer months ahead.

Alongside the above there are so many different herbs this year in pots and poked in to any available space that I've forgotten what I've planted where. I think I've actually got some sea kale growing but I can't remember where. Edible flowers like Borage and Nasturtiums are rapidly growing and we have a blackcurrant bush that seems quite prolific too. Because space is at a premium we probably should plan it all out but I have continued with my usual haphazard approach that the rest of my life seems to have bumbled along with that it hardly seems worth changing the habit of a lifetime for.

For many years I have been able to wander out of the back door and pick fresh herbs when I'm cooking - a small bay tree, an old gnarled rosemary bush that was replaced a year back and various
thyme plants have been constant culinary companions. This year the mint, sorrel, lavender and sage all seem quite robust. Sunday meals require regular wanderings out with a pair of scissors to snip a couple of bay leaves for a stew or some rosemary for the lamb or even thyme for the chicken.

When I think back to being a lad in Stevenage, the only herb that my parents ever grew was mint - there was always a fine patch outside the back door in our house in Four Acres. I really don't remember much else. I think my parents preferred flowers and a lawn. At least the mint sauce was always home made.

I sometimes joke about my mother's cooking. She was a pretty good cook really but I always wondered why she over-cooked joints of meat. Sunday meals often meant quite tough lamb or beef. I'm sure they would have been cheaper cuts but it took me quite a while as an adult to get into enjoying both cooking and eating them. Now, they are a pleasure to cook. I guess we have the plethora of celebrity cooks to thank for better knowledge of how to prepare food now. According to Michael Pollan Americans (and I guess the British too) have abandoned their kitchens at the same time that there has been a huge rise in tv celebrity chefs showing off food porn.

Most of the tv programmes about cooking are awful and I don't have much time for the bake-offs and Master Chef ones at all. Over the years I've enjoyed Keith Floyd and Nigel Slater. The latter is a fine writer. I've also continued to refer to the late Marguerite Patten although she hated sage for some reason. She was one of those post WWII writers that evidently changed Britain's cooking habits.

I took over the cooking (and shopping) quite a few years ago when my wife was becoming more and more bogged down in Management meetings and other important stuff. Nowadays, it's second nature. I make bread by hand, I can cook pretty well, even if I do say so myself, and being able to supplement what I churn out with some produce from our little garden makes me feel good about what I do. I spent most of last Sunday cooking or preparing food - homemade bread, guacamole, roasted beetroots and elderflower champagne were all made as well as the actual evening meal. Whilst I was pottering about the kitchen it occurred to me that this is exactly what I want to be doing when I retire.

As I am about to retire from the British education system next month I am very much looking forward to continuing my haphazard adventures in both small-scale gardening and cooking. Perhaps it's time to think about trying to run an allotment again . . .

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

down by the river

Find myself beside a stream of empty thought,
Like a leaf that's fallen to the ground,
And carried by the flow of water to my dreams
Woken only by your sound.

It's that time of year again - it seems to come round quicker and quicker. Still, this is the last time I'll be juggling a regular job and exam marking. Yes, it's the annual trip to London for the AS Film Studies exam marking conference.

As I am now only working part time and the conference was on Saturday, I took myself off to London on Friday to have a day out. As the hotel was in Hammersmith this year I thought perhaps a wander along the river up to Chiswick and the Fuller's Brewery would be a good idea. Unfortunately I couldn't organise a piss-up in the brewery for myself as they were full. Still, a wander along part of the Thames Walk seemed like a pleasant distraction on a nice sunny day.

And indeed it was. I fairly quickly came across The Dove, quite a famous pub that sits next door to a house William Morris once lived in. I wonder if it's still got the same wallpaper? Anyway, it seemed like a good place to pop into for a pint and a bite to eat. At £4.04 a pint practically next to the actual brewery I was a bit taken aback. It's still only (!) £3.55 in my local and that's the priciest place around here. London prices outside of the West End seem quite high. The West End tends to be a bit cheaper I guess as there's so much competition. Market forces and all that.

I wandered along and took a look around the area as I've never spent much time around there before. I did see the pre-Clash Joe Strummer band the 101'ers* back in the mid-1970s and Dire Straits in 1979. Oh yes, my Best Man took me to see John Martyn there the night before my wedding too. But these were all fleeting visits to a concert hall. We certainly didn't go wandering around the neighbourhood to take in the ambience.

A parakeet, honest!
The riverside walk was a very pleasant experience. Three green parakeets were noisily chasing each other around the trees whilst a couple of cormorants stood on a platform in the centre of the river with their wings akimbo, drying them off. Walking by water is pretty soothing and it gives me time to think. Perhaps that's why I live next to the sea. A warm sun, the sound of bird life and solitude, even whilst in the heart of the city, gave me some time to reflect and think about how life has lead up to this moment. The parakeets were bloody noisy though.

A little later outside a very busy pub, a heron was happily allowing pigeons and gulls to wander around checking him out whilst he lazily thought about whether it was dinner time or not. He was only a few feet away from a lot of people but seemed quite happy. That's probably the closest I've ever been to one in the wild since one flew directly overhead once near the River Ivel when I used to live in Bedfordshire near Jordan's Mill.

A trip to the Fuller's Brewery shop secured a few cans of London Pride at a much more decent price of £1.97 to take back to my Executive suite at the Novotel. They even supplied mini Bose speakers for my entertainment. Things are looking up. After a rest and a few beers I went down to dinner thinking I'd go to the cinema to finish the evening's entertainment off. But after meeting a few old colleagues that was a non-starter as more and more bottles of wine turned up like on some sort of psychic conveyor belt.

Usually I end up wandering around the West End when I go up to London. I have mentioned before that modern Soho is becoming Every Town, Every Place as developers are forcing local established businesses out to build more swanky shops, hotels and restaurants. A depressing state of affairs but everything changes, I guess. I didn't go this weekend as I'd forgotten my Oyster Card and travelling around London otherwise can be pricey (I'm practically a pensioner you know!). Maybe next time.

Saturday came and Saturday went and I reached home without having to get the usual East Anglian weekend "alternative transport"- or getting a bus as they're known.  Usually someone's digging up the railway tracks. Or sweeping leaves off of it. Or nicking the copper wire. On Sunday I wandered up to get a newspaper which is something I rarely do nowadays. However, there was a great article on disappearing Soho in the Observer which I enjoyed reading over a light lunch in my local - yep, definitely £3.55. Reading it made me feel a little cross that I hadn't gone to see it before it does disappear. Well worth a read, anyway. Actually, a live version of Wild West End by Dire Straits just came on as I wrote that. Synchronicity? Ah well, I'll be back up on June for the A2 marking so perhaps it'll last until then.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

wondering where the lions are

Cut and move on,
Cut and move on:
take out trees,
take out wildlife at the rate of a species
every single day.

I was sitting in a friend's garden on Sunday with the wildlife of Nottinghamshire flitting and around and entertaining us with a few songs, I brought up a subject I'd had on my mind for a while now. For some reason I recently flicked through the Brooke Bond Picture Card album Wildlife in Danger and I mentioned to my friends about how I wanted to check through the fifty species mentioned to see how many were now extinct. They sagely nodded and thought it a worthwhile pursuit.

I have mentioned this series before but essentially, in the 1960s P G Tips tea regularly gave away cards that we collected and glued into our little books. This one cost sixpence which shows how old it is. It was first published in 1963. So my little seven year old self was busy collecting cards and sticking them in badly so the pages occasionally stuck together all those years ago. I got all fifty of them. Even if some of the species hadn't survived, the album has. It also shows that we drank a lot of P G Tips in the sixties (I've still got plenty of the other collections!).

Anyway, yesterday I spent a short while checking every one of the species in the album. Some of them seem bizarre, almost as if they were made up or had featured in The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges. I was sure that I was going to be quite depressed afterwards, which is why I'd put off checking them out for a while. However, as I worked through the EDGE and Wikipedia sites my heart was lifted by the news that nearly all of the species have survived. That doesn't mean to say that everything is rosy - many remain critically vulnerable or in low numbers. Given that most of the species were, even then, becoming endangered because of mankind, it is only really due to human attempts to stop them from disappearing that has saved them from inevitable extinction.

This chap, the Mi-Lu or Père David's Deer is now extinct in the wild but the story here was a fascinating read. There are quite a few creatures in the album that have become extinct at some point in the wild but through reintroduction programmes are now, at least, hanging on. In some cases the creatures that have been reintroduced into the wild are now thriving such as the Splendid Parakeet. The only creature in the album that I have genuinely seen in the wild is the Californian Condor. In the album it claimed that there were about 60-65 individuals left in 1963 and according to Wikipedia they became extinct in the wild in 1987. Due to being reintroduced they seem to be surviving.  Still the veracity of Wikipedia is called into question here as the EDGE site tells a slightly different story.  They're supposed to be protected now but it would seem all is not well. One of the main problems for them is lead poisoning from hunter's spent cartridges.

About ten years ago we were standing looking out over the Grand Canyon when several of these huge birds flew up from below us - there was an audible gasp from everyone there. Spectacular.

Another bird that is only just hanging on is Stellar's Albatross with its seven foot wingspan, because of the vast distances they fly it's difficult to keep perfect records but it is, just about, still with us. The Galapagos Giant Tortoise which is featured on the cover became extinct as a sub-species in 2012 when the last surviving one 'Lonesome George' died. Technically he was a Pinta Island Tortoise but him and his kind have gone the way of the Dodo now. The Leathery Turtle managed to survive in their thousands but our propensity for plastic bags has become a major problem. The turtles, along with many other sea species, assume the floating bags are their main source of food - jellyfish. Obviously with devastating results.

Another little chap that is still having a hard time clinging on is the Giant Fijian Wood Boring Beetle.
Such a creature is probably nowadays the star of awful Celebrities eating through the Insect World-type programmes. But this chap has continued to be seen as a delicacy particularly in the larval stage - a stage which takes twelve years. There is also an internet-based trade on them, so along with attacks on its habitat life is certainly still challenging for them. Mind you, according to some reports, we'll all have to start relying on insects as a food source soon. In fact, they already are being marketed as a food source in the West having been consumed in some parts of the world for aeons. The second largest biomass on earth has not yet really been exploited. The big food companies are planning our future fast food as we we sit quietly watching the world be destroyed.

All-in-all I was relatively impressed that we have managed to stop the wholesale extinction of many of these creatures but it's still quite unsettling to see the devastating impact we've had. The fifty species identified back in 1963 for the most part have managed to lurch into the Twenty First Century which is good to know. However, the EDGE Project gives the picture that we still continue to have a ridiculously devastating impact on the World.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

the banks of sweet primroses

As I walked out on a midsummer's morning,
For to view the fields and to take the air,
Down by the banks of the sweet primroses,
There I beheld a most lovely fair.

Three short steps, I stepped up to her,
Not knowing her as she passed me by,
I stepped up to her, thinking for to view her,
She appeared to be like some virtuous bride.

I says, "Fair maid, where are you going?
And what's the occasion of all your grief?
I’ll make you as happy as any lady,
If you will grant to me one small relief."

"Stand off, stand off, you're a false deceiver!
You are a false deceitful man, I know
'Tis you that has caused my poor heart to wander
And in your comfort lies no refrain."

So I'll go down to some lonesome valley,
Where no man on earth shall there me find,
Where the pretty little small birds do change their voices,
And every moment blows blusterous wind.

So come all young men who go a-sailing,
Pray pay attention to what I say,
For there's many a dark and a cloudy morning,
Turns out to be a sunshiny day.
                                          (From the English Book of Penguin Folk Songs)

I think Richard Thompson added the second and last verses for the Fairport Convention live recording from 1970. The Penguin book loses a definite article, hence the title of the blog post.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

it's alright ma, it's only witchcraft

"What if it should really bleed? And what if the witch came out of it and ran after us?"

The young Laura and her brother Edmund look up at the Elder tree which local superstition has it that if cut, the tree would bleed real blood. They had taken a knife along to test it. Afterwards, Laura asks her mother if there are still any witches:

"No. They seem to have all died out. There haven't been any in my time; but when I was your age there were plenty of old people alive who had known or even been ill-advised by one. And, of course," she added as an afterthought, "we know there were witches. We read about them in the Bible." That settled it. Anything the Bible said must be true. (Lark Rise to Candleford, 1939, p267 Penguin edition)

During the original run of the Keith Dewhurst's version of Lark Rise to Candleford at the National Theatre, the young Laura and her brother Edmund look up at the Elder tree with the Albion Band playing this. It was an electrifying moment in what was a fantastic production. I can still remember that moment some 36 years later.

The young Flora Thompson was writing as the World was plunged into another devastating war and she looked back to the changes of modernisation on rural communities. Laura, as Flora called herself, and her brother were fascinated with witches. And in those prelapsarian times they could easily believe that an ugly old woman being chased by men and boys with pitchforks could change herself into a tree. Evidently witches can't cross running water, so as she came to the brook she turned herself into an Elder tree to avoid her pursuers. And, like children have for centuries, Laura and Edmund lived in fear of them.

Quite possibly we have Shakespeare to thank for creating a vivid image in words of witches. Laura's mother thought witches had died out but they hadn't. They never disappeared. Perhaps after centuries of persecution they hid like unicorns and other fantastical creatures - away from mankind's malevolent gaze and need to destroy anything they don't understand.

Driving back from Heathrow on Monday my thoughts had turned to witches for some reason. It was probably because that ridiculous song The Witch by The Rattles came on but somewhere in the back of my head a thought grew about the amount of songs that were written about witches particularly in the late 1960s/early 1970s. And then last night, I came across Richard Thompson's version of Donovan's Season of the Witch purely through synchronicity, or perhaps by magic. Who knows? Evidently RT's version is played over the opening credits of a TV programme I've never heard of called Crossing Jordan. Anyway he adds his own magic to it and it could just as easily be one of his own songs from his most recent albums. Donovan released his version way back in 1966 and it has had many cover versions. Since then witches have become popular characters to write songs about.

You can probably Google lists of songs about witches because some people have nothing better to do than make lists. However, I'll mention a few notable ones. Donovan was a bit of an old fart by the time I was getting into music at the cusp of the sixties turning into the seventies. After all the fey wispy away-with-the-fairies stuff, someone decided to beef up his sound. By putting him in a studio with the Jeff Beck group, Donovan had a major hit with the barking mad gobbledygook of  Goo Goo Barabajagal and a great appearance on Top of the Pops. It was, I think, the first single I bought on my own. It was 1969 and I bought it from W.H. Smiths in Stevenage Town Centre - I can remember the lovely Caroline Scott serving me to this very day. Another case of unrequited love -  we spoke often but all she used to say was, "That'll be eight shillings, please," and usually, "ta" after fumbling over the change. She was quite a beguiling witch, I can assure you. Still, standing there as a gawky 13 year old trying to say, "have you got Goo Goo Barabajagal?" probably wasn't the most romantic chat up line I could have mustered. And she was a lot older than me.

The song itself was very silly but gave a beefier sound to the subject of witches than Mr Leitch himself or that other little elf that warbled on about witches and wizards, Marc Bolan. They were complete twaddle of course but Bolan picked up a white Fender Stratocaster and spent an eternity fighting the neck and the electrickery itself running through Tyrannosaurus Rex's Elemental Child. He then realised a name change by shortening it to T. Rex and only spending 2 minutes on Ride a White Swan could change his life forever. Meantime, Jethro Tull had turned up on TOTP looking totally freaky with The Witch's Promise which was another single I had to rush out to buy. I think the fragrant Miss Scott had moved on to better things by then. Jethro Tull had started mixing a more acoustic sound into their music with the flute and mellotron that were the early sound of Prog. The wildness of the amped up distorted guitars of Jeff Beck and the late 1960s blues rock players was being given a pastoral makeover.

The early 1970s saw a rise in songs about witches in the American Indian band Redbone's Witch Queen of New Orleans, Santana updated Peter Green's Black Magic Woman and the Eagles told us about a Witchy Woman. Meantime, electric folk rockers such as Fairport and Steeleye Span were adding electric riffs in a more aggressive manner to old songs of magick like Tam Lin and Alison Gross (the ugliest witch in the North country, evidently). Another barking mad songwriter, Stevie Nicks, became her alter ego in Rhiannon in 1975. Probably Fleetwood Mac's best performance post-Peter Green. Of course, his swansong The Green Manalishi had been a sizeable hit too. Another spooky mystical song that nobody knew what the hell he talking about.

There seemed to be so many songs through these times about witches, wizards and magic that there must have been more than just fluoride in the water. Bands like the awful Uriah Heep (a Stevenage connection there) and Black Widow released albums exploring such subject matter. Black Widow, as I've mentioned before, featured a mock Sabbath sacrifice on-stage. I know that as young teenagers we were interested in all this stuff. Dennis Wheatley books such as The Devil Rides Out - we were too young to see the film - the weekly magazine collection Man, Myth and Magic told us about a whole netherworld of arcane happenings. Catweazle was on Saturdat evening tv and The News of the World informed us about the daily goings on of Vicars getting mixed up in covens . . . er, I think I might have made that bit up. Somehow, though, witches themselves seem to be wonderful muses for songwriters.

Witches are part of a huge literary culture and over the second half of the last century, due to films, they played a huge role in populating our dreams and nightmares. The warty-nosed witch offering an apple to Snow White in Disney's best movie probably still plays on young children's minds and haunts them. Mind you, not as much as those bloody scary trees!

If I have any theory as to why witches inhabit so many songs - and I've only touched on a tiny amount - it is possibly linked to those childish fears. The music of the era I've been talking about was mostly produced by fairly young people. The managers and money-spinners were older and jaded and couldn't care less what the songs were about. The kids buying records like me had grown up reading about this whole otherworld where we knew wolves could become men and trees could bleed if cut. We wanted to be transported to such far off times and lands full of Rackhamesque trees and black cats. Ultimately, they were just more intriguing and exciting and the new music of pop and the Underground bands that grew into Prog just tapped into those childhood memories. Looking around for something more than"I love her but she doesn't love me" ideas for lyrics, songwriters turned to the stories of their childhood.

There are witches out there in the real World but they aren't warty-nosed and flying about on broomsticks. They are everyday people like the rest of us who have a different belief system. They have their ceremonies sky-clad and cast spells. It's only, as Laura's mother said, because the Bible says they exist that Christians assumed they were evil. In Witchfinder General, there are no real witches. The evil is there in Hopkins and his desire to make money out of the stupidity of the rural yokels who believe what they're told. As Bill Caddick sang about those other mystical secretive creatures Unicorns:

We never went away,
You always knew we were near,
Remember how to look for us,
You'll see we were always here.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

no news is good news

Bad news, bad news
Come to me where I sleep
Turn, turn, turn again
Sayin’ one of your friends
Is in trouble deep
Turn, turn to the rain
And the wind

It's been an interesting week. Well, for me it has - I've been out of the country and have absolutely no idea what's going on in the World beyond Joni Mitchell being ill. Obviously the most important story of the week got through because some intermittent posts on Twitter filtered through. Otherwise, I didn't see an English newspaper, read a news article or see/hear a tv or radio. Having returned and bought a copy of The Observer I don't think I've missed much really.

Anyway, this excellent turn of events helped make the annual ski trip a lot more than bearable. Absolutely nothing about the Election, boring 'Slebs*, sporting events (other than England/Italy football match in a bar but no tries scored: I think that's right?!) or anything much. Quite blissful really.

Once or twice the wifi internet connection was so poor where we were in Savoie, France, that I almost gave up bothering to check emails and Twitter. A few messages and Tweets took so long to try to send that I gave up as the moment had well passed - by a day on two occasions. This reminded me of how easy it is to become addicted to the little mobile device. I now use mine for so many different things that I was beginning to wonder what I'd do without it. But of course, I would just go back to the natural order of the pre-technological world. The one I grew up in.

As all my fellow travellers were gathering through yesterday waiting for the long coach journey home everywhere you tried to walk in the chalets and bar was a potential trap: the amount of electronic devices being charged up was unbelievable. there were iPads, iPods, phones, laptops and just about any other device you could name. The amount of wires and lights flashing looked like a scene from Terry Gilliam's Brazil. And, as I said, the wifi connection had the same future/retro quality to it as well. Now, it may be because of the weather conditions that we were so badly served, I'm not sure really. As you can see from the photo that there was still plenty of snow around. In fact, it snowed most days and nights so we had fantastic ski conditions generally. This is in complete contrast to last year when we were stomping around in full ski gear in baking hot sun with lizards skittering around. So, no suntans this year and no sitting around drinking Stella Artois in the sunshine.

It's all very well having instant access and emails, messaging and such stuff but it can be a distraction at times. Sitting around in the evenings with the only entertainment available is watching people trying to get their devices to connect to the internet. Watch the frustration. However, of course despite what I've said, it's been an important development too. I've mentioned before that when I was a youngster my parents had no idea where I was or what I was up to. When I first started going abroad as a naïve young man my parents would have to assume everything was okay as there was no instant contact then. I think my first trips out were to France and then in 1978 to Israel. We had just got our first land-line phone. I certainly didn't bother to let them know whether I was all right or not. Given the fact that I was so ill in Israel that they'd had worried like hell and wondered what to do, I'm quite glad even to this day that they didn't know how ill I was.

For us this year, setting off for the trip last Friday was caused some anxiety in that we couldn't be around to ensure that third born got up the following morning to catch a 6:30 train to get to Heathrow and catch his flight out to see his sister in Mexico. We were more concerned about this that my packing for the trip was, shall we say, a little, er . . .lax. I managed to forget to pack several useful items such as ski gloves, hat, scarf and a belt - being skinny I need one to keep my salopettes up. At least I packed my iPod and bluetooth Bose speakers. You know, it's all about priorities.

It all worked out well in the end as one might assume: I found a belt and bought some gloves, our son got to Mexico without a hitch. The reason we know he did is because of the technology - Mrs Dave checked that he was at the airport via the phone and first born used various social networking ways to keep us up-to-date with how their time together went. All through the luxuries that modern technology gives us. 

So, along with waiting for a few friends to Tweet me and for me to a) eventually get the message and b) for a response to gradually seep out, it's been a slow week for news and such-like.In the meantime, it's nice to be home with English beer and decent wifi.

Never thought I'd say that about TalkTalk.

Action Man's younger, skinnier brother

*I believe it means "Celebrities" M'Lud.

Monday, 23 March 2015

the ornament tree

O bonny Portmore, you shine where you stand
And the more I think on you the more I think long
If I had you now as I had once before
All the lords in Old England would not purchase Portmore.

O bonny Portmore, I am sorry to see
Such a woeful destruction of your ornament tree
For it stood on your shore for many's the long day
Till the long boats from Antrim came to float it away.

All the birds in the forest they bitterly weep
Saying, "Where shall we shelter or where shall we sleep?"
For the Oak and the Ash, they are all cut down
And the walls of bonny Portmore are all down to the ground.

Bonny Portmore was a castle built in 1664 by a Lord Conway between Lough Beg and Lough Neagh. He hired some Dutch engineers to drain Lough Beg to create arable land. The project failed so Conway lost his fortune.  He was therefore forced to sell Bonny Portmore and, typically, it was to an Englishman who, seemingly, just wanted to own an Irish castle as he had no intention of staying in Ireland.

The area was covered by vast, beautiful forests and in particular there was a great oak called The Ornament Tree. Evidently, one branch alone was some twenty five feet long. The trunk’s circumference was said to be fourteen yards. A storm in 1760 felled the tree and the wood was used for shipbuilding – hence the reference to “boats from Antrim.”

The song, which goes under either name, is an early environment song lamenting the loss of the ancient forests of Ireland. It’s quite famous in its home country but not as well-known over here. Richard Thompson’s daughter Kami recorded this beautiful version with her husband James Walbourne. Together they are called The Rails. They, in turn, learned the song from Bert Jansch who recorded it on his most Celtic album of which  this is the title track. I've presented both versions for your delectation and delight.  They are both great versions but you can choose your favourite.

The tree obviously isn't an oak but a fairly enchanted looking tree I often see on a local walk. I couldn't resist filtering it.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

winter wine

Life's too short to be sad, wishing things you'll never have
You're better off not dreaming of the things to come
Dreams are always ending far too soon

Once upon a Time there was a girl and a socially awkward and clumsy boy. . . 
Actually for several years there was always a girl. Taking some children and splitting them up in going to single sex schools may work for some kids but in my own case, it didn't really do me a lot of good. For one thing, I didn't really take to the Grammar School system and pretty soon sunk to the bottom of the class. For another, as mentioned elsewhere on previous posts, when I left the school rather ignominiously and attended the local college, I didn't find talking to girls that easy. 

My sister got married and moved away from home when I was in the third year (Y9 nowadays) but, truth to tell, we weren't the closest of allies. At the same time as moving into the local Grammar School, we had moved away from 125 Haycroft Road and into the newly built Council estate of Four Acres. The friends I had grown up with had all moved on too. We were just kids and we all played together, had our Measles parties and spent our wild youth running around bluebell woods and cornfields before they built the newer estates of Grace Way and beyond. So suddenly, here I was in a new school full of boys, my main childhood friend and I had parted - not even good enemies in Steve Ashley's lovely phrase - and my only other friend went on to a totally different school*. 

By the time I got to the third year I was lost to music. At the time I dreamt of being a great songwriter and after getting my first acoustic guitar, maybe a performer too. The damned thing was un-tunable - perhaps I should have seen the signs. Anyway, despite being a Prog fan for many years (I've waffled on about this before) I had not really listened to Caravan. At college one guy kept telling me how great they were and gradually, I suppose, through osmosis I got to know the album In The Land Of Grey And Pink pretty well. Eventually I bought it. The songs were quite whimsical and very English in that Ray Davies/early Genesis way, all tea and psychedelia. Golf Girl by Richard Sinclair was a fantasy song about the lady who later became his wife, the title track was a contender for the most far out piece of dope-smoker whimsy imaginable. It was up there with Traffic's Hole In My Shoe only without the sitar. The  second side of the album - yes we had to get up and physically turn the album over** - was a side long prog extravaganza. But the real killer - and it still is, really - is the second song on the first side, Winter Wine. It seemed to be just a long epic song about fair maidens wandering minstrels so I didn't pay that much attention to it at first. I guess I didn't listen to the lyrics too carefully.

A couple of years later a good friend, let's call him Jim, noticed that I was a bit morose. Not my usual happy joke-telling self he may have said. In these times we went as a large group of friends to pubs all around the area and often to gigs. Jim was older than me and had been to the same school as me and had also been asked not to come back after O'levels. Jim came round my house one evening, I guess we were going to go over to the Longship and have a glass or two of beer and a chat. Before we went out, he asked me what was wrong and eventually I told him about my unrequited love for a particular girl. I guess he must have told me that the obvious thing would have been to ask her out but I wouldn't have considered that option as I would have probably said that she was out of my league. So, Jim being Jim, he put Winter Wine on and told me to listen to it carefully. All of a sudden, the whole song made sense. The dreamy lyrics that seemed to have drifted out of Sinclair's lungs along with whatever he was smoking at the time weren't just about pastoral scenes and Arthurian ladies. There was a sort of stoned eroticism about it:

Bells chime three times, naked dancers enter slowly
Smoky room, scented gloom, audience eating, fat men drinking
Candles burn, a dull red light illuminates the breasts of four young girls
Dancing, prancing, provoking - dreams are always ending far too soon

The last line of that verse seemed to point towards something else, not just that awkward moment when the best bit of the dream is about to happen and the alarm bell goes off. And then the first three lines of the final verse hit hard (I quoted them above). That's why Jim played it to me and that's why I occasionally play it to friends (or daughters!) who seem to be down in the dumps about something. Some of us spend far too long "wishing for things we'll never have." I've been dreadful over many years for doing exactly that. I'm better now.

Another thing is that it reminds me of Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris which explores the nature of nostalgia. The Golden Age syndrome some call it. In the film the Allen character, played by Owen Wilson, is an Hollywood writer who is trapped in an upcoming marriage that he really shouldn't be in. During a trip to Paris he travels back in Time via an old car that turns up at Midnight and whisks him off to 1920s Paris. It's the Paris of his dreams when writers and artists sat around drinking, arguing, loving. And for him, it's his absolute dream come true. Where does he belong? Should he stay back then or carry on in the present? During the film his new love interest wants to go back to an earlier time and several other artists they meet, such as Lautrec, want to go back to the Renaissance. No matter how far you go back, someone always thinks a previous time was better.

So, for me, the song's final verse (well, I tend to ignore the actual last two lines) tell me that I shouldn't waste time wishing for something I can't have. Sure, there's nothing wrong with dreams, for me that's where the creativity often lurks. There's nothing like the feeling of waking up with a whole song in your head. It doesn't happen often but it's a great feeling. But generally as any decent Buddhist would tell you, you should live in the present.

The boy grew up and as an old guy instead of wishing for things he'll never have looks back and wonders why he wasted so much time doing that! The wisdom of age, I guess. Also, he isn't as socially awkward any more. Still clumsy though! As for the girl, after a few years of a platonic relationship they drifted apart and she did well. She came to the boy's father's funeral but that was 26 years ago. That was the last time they spoke. There were other platonic relationships until eventually the awkwardness wore off.

So, essentially here's a song that I use to remind myself to stop moping about and get on with life. I'm not talking here about ambitions or drive - they've got their own songs. But that's for another time.

*And prison later but that's not really important.
** or leave the arm up so the same side repeated - how often I fell asleep listening to John Martyn's One World or Pink Floyd . . .ahh!

Friday, 20 March 2015

man of march

The man of March he sees the Spring and wonders what the year will bring
And hopes for better weather

Assuming the world hasn't ended, much to the chagrin of many religious folk, it's the first day of spring. As I sit here typing, the sun is out in full force and bathing our tiny garden in a golden glow that makes a mockery of a few hours ago when it was so cloudy that we had to resort to watching the eclipse on the internet. It saved our eyes, I guess.

I'm temporarily housebound today as I'm waiting for some builders to turn up to do a few urgent jobs that I'm not willing able to do. Consequently I'm looking out the French doors wishing I was walking somewhere. Anywhere. Preferably around some woods or by the sea.  Ah well, hopefully soon I'll be walking some longish distances as I'll be spending my weekends walking the Suffolk Coastal Path and the Stour & Orwell Walk. In the meantime, I've just re-read the March entry from Bob Copper's A Song For Every Season. He starts the entry with:

Although nothing in the countryside ever stands still, the change that takes place, usually during the month of March, is the most remarkable. For this is when the first decisive step forward is taken to leave winter behind. The transformation, not so much physical as of the senses, can come about quite suddenly and if you are lucky enough to be afield when it happens you will be aware that something really significant is a foot.

And whilst I read it I thought about the wonderful Dave Goulder song The January Man which anthropomorphises each month. I'm the February Man who "still wipes the snow from off his hair and blows his hands" but it is the coming of March man I was thinking of. Another reason I was thinking of this song is because one of my students told me she really likes Bert Jansch, Pentangle et al and I was pleasantly surprised that such a young person should have discovered such pleasures in this day and age. Evidently it was some Music coursework a year or so back that brought her to this type of music so it proves that school isn't wasted on the young. Hopefully contact with music of such quality will influence her own music as she develops her musical talents.

So while we shuffle off winter's icy grip and start looking at seed catalogues, despite the washout of the eclipse here in the east, the man of March should be quite hopeful about the coming season. When spring turns up many people's minds are already looking forward to warmth and the later hazier days of summer. Endless days that turn into balmy evenings. Escape from work and a few glasses of your favourite tipple.

In Copper's memoirs he tells a great story about his father Jim's hard life early last century. Whilst reading such material may give us a false idyllic impression of bucolic splendour, it seems that life was harsh but not without its rewards.  Jim was carting sacks of grain around the village but had worked out a way to earn a little extra:

. . . On the journey back, instead of going across the green and up past Rudyard Kipling’s house he took the longer road past the Plough and popped in there for a pint of beer. That first trip set the pattern he followed for the rest of the day’s work – pubs were open all day then. By the time he hitched off at the end of the day he had made eleven trips, carried eleven tons of oats and drunk eleven pints of beer, and that would be a good day’s work by anyone’s standards.

When Jim got home that evening Grand-dad said, “Well, mairt, you you’ve ‘ad a pretty stiff day up an’ down them granary stairs. You’d better ‘ave a glass of beer.” Jim did not dare say that he was not particularly thirsty, for the old man would wonder where he had got his beer money. No wonder Jim could sing with such enthusiasm and conviction:

It is of good ale to you I’ll sing
And to good ale I’ll always cling
I like my glass filled to the brim
And I’ll drink all that you can bring.

O, good ale, you are my darling
You are my joy both night and morning.

A man after my own heart definitely.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

at a loss for words

You showed me Eyebright in the hedgerow,
Speedwell and Travellers Joy.
You showed me how to use my eyes
When I was just a boy;
And you taught me how to love a song
And all you knew of nature's ways:
The greatest gifts I have ever known,
And I use them every day.

I often get told by students that they "don't like reading" this is usually accompanied by a giggle and maybe a raise of the eyebrows and a little grin as though it's a delightful affectation. Basically it's because they get bored and it seems too much effort. Some of the students who do read tend to read the same books - certainly the same types - over and over again. Reading a Harry Potter book twenty times doesn't really make you a reader. And, too be honest, I don't think it helps your vocabulary much either. It certainly doesn't help the quality of essay writing. Essays are often ridiculously short and there is an incredulity at the expectation of "developing" the points made. Or making more than one!

Having made my living as an English teacher for the past quarter of a century, I would be expected to find this a sorry situation. However, although I, thankfully, don't teach the subject any more, I still see the need for a good vocabulary and a developed literacy. Over the past few days I have had conversations with students that are variations on the "don't like reading" theme. It's me that raises my eyebrows in despair. Reading about the subject you are studying will obviously help you become a better writer about it. This follows on that a better understanding is developed and, rather obviously, better grades will be the result. It seems that this point is beyond the pale for some students. Some of them get exasperated about the length of a Wikipedia page and this is about all they'll ever bother to attempt to read. If it's not available to look at on an iPad screen, it's not worth bothering about. 

Robert Macfarlane's new book Landmarks explores the loss of language that shapes our sense of place. The point made early in the first chapter is jumped on often in reviews and articles but it's an important one. In the Times Higher Education review the point about this loss of language is referred to:

Some readers may dismiss this as mere whimsy. But they should ponder the disturbing detail that Macfarlane includes in his opening chapter concerning the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, in which there has been a “culling” of words concerning nature – acorn, cowslip, kingfisher, willow – as, at the same time, terms such as blog, chatroom and celebrity have been added. As Macfarlane ruefully remarks: “For blackberry read BlackBerry.”

I do understand why there has been a shift but it saddened me to read these words. Many youngsters don't venture out into wild places very often and don't see a need to know the names of plants, birds or birds. Yesterday there was a clue in a crossword: "small wild flower (9)" it stared with s and ended with l - "speedwell," I said immediately. Mrs Dave went off to check as she hadn't heard of it. I was right. Okay, so it's not important for young people to be able to name wild flowers or even do crosswords as both seem so arcane and pointless, I guess.

As a child in the sixties growing up near the edgelands of a growing town I was lucky enough to be able to spend a lot of time wandering around the countryside. We played in bluebell woods and fields near ponds and climbed trees. Parents were usually at work and the summer holidays were a great time to explore. We weren't ignored but left to our own devices. As I got older I still walked those mean fields, often alone lost in my dreams and thoughts. An old song I wrote from that time has a refrain that, in part, features the imagery of these walks: If I'm out in a cold winter field/Or down in a damp frozen ditch . . . and song titles echo them too - Endless Summer Days being one such example.

By the time I was in my late teens I had taken to making up for my woeful lack of reading anything that wasn't Sci-Fi, James Bond or Westerns written by Louis L'Amour. I took to wearing jackets that had pockets big enough to carry a Penguin Classic paperback and I was happy to sit in a pub or restaurant alone reading. I still do nowadays. In fact last Thursday evening I took myself off to my local to read the Sandy Denny biography whilst enjoying a pint of Adnam's best whilst Mrs Dave was being sociable with some of her friends. I was quite happy.

The point I'm making here is that I come from a pre-digital age where the act of reading was a pure joy. It's an important skill, obviously, but for the students I teach Film Studies to it's an essential one. I often start a lesson with an article or chapter that I have found - I give it to them and get them to read it, make notes on it and discuss it. Occasionally there is one left on the desk at the end of the lesson, discarded. Many of our students eyes are fixed constantly on their iPad screens and I know they're not really taking notes. This shift to all students having the damned things isn't helping their poor literacy skills.

We can't escape the use of tablets and phones I know. A few years ago when I still taught English at GCSE we had to study several Seamus Heaney poems. With the remark made by Macfarlane, quoted above, I guess some students will assume that Blackberry-Picking is a poem about going down to the phone shop at upgrade time.

a cormorant (slight return)

Oops! I forgot this one:

A Cormorant

Here before me, snake-head.
My waders weigh seven pounds.

My Barbour jacket, mainly necessary
For its pockets, is proof

Against the sky at my back. My bag
Sags with lures and hunter’s medicine enough

For a year in the Pleistocene.
My hat, of use only

If this May relapses into March,
Embarrasses me, and my net, long as myself,

Optimistic, awkward, infatuated
With every twig-snag and fence-barb

Will slowly ruin the day. I paddle
Precariously on slimed shale,

And infiltrate twenty yards
Of gluey and magnetized spider-gleam

Into the elbowing dense jostle-traffic
Of the river’s tunnel, and pray

With futuristic, archaic under-breath
So that some fish, telepathically overpowered,

Will attach its incomprehension
To the bauble I offer to space in general.

The cormorant eyes me, beak uptilted,
Body-snake low — sea-serpentish.

He’s thinking: “Will that stump

Stay a stump just while I dive?” He dives.

He sheds everything from his tail end
Except fish-action, becomes fish,

Disappears from bird,
Dissolving himself

Into fish, so dissolving fish naturally
Into himself. Re-emerges, gorged,

Himself as he was, and escapes me.
Leaves me high and dry in my space-armour,

A deep-sea diver in two inches of water.

(Ted Hughes from A River, 1983)

Sunday, 15 March 2015

bushes and briars

I can't believe that it's so cold
And there ain't been no snow.
The sound of music it comes to me
From every place I go.
Sunday morning, there's no one in church
But the clergy's chosen man
And he is fine I won't worry about him
Got the book in his hand.

Oh there's a bitter east wind and the fields are swaying
The crows are round their nests.
I wonder what he's in there saying
To all those souls at rest?
I see the path which led to the door
And the clergy's chosen man
Bushes and briars, you and I
Where do we stand?

I wonder if he knows I'm here
Watching the briars grow.
And all these people beneath my shoes,
I wonder if they know.
There was a time when every last one
Knew a clergy's chosen man?
Where are they now? Thistles and thorns
Among the sand.

I can't believe that it's so cold
And there ain't been no snow.
The sound of music it comes to me
From every place I go.
Sunday morning, there's no one in church
But the clergy's chosen man
Bushes and briars, thistles and thorns
Upon the land.

One of my favourite Sandy Denny songs is tucked away on the second side of her second solo album Sandy (1972). Over what appears to be a simple acoustic chord pattern in G a beautiful high Fender Stratocaster comes in, heavy on harmonics, played by Richard Thompson. He probably pretty well made it up on the spot but it has that lovely flow to it that we heard more of later on the officially unreleased Fairport cover of Roger McGuinn's Ballad of Easy Rider.  The song is just Sandy Denny on acoustic guitar, Pat Donaldson on bass and Timi Donald on drums with RT extemporising a guitar part that he may have thought was just a guide solo to overdub later. It's a perfect example of why RT was the guy to call on many folk and folk rock sessions in the seventies.

Thompson had swapped his Gibson Les Paul for the Strat after seeing Peter Green do the same around about the time of Oh Well. Thompson gave his Les Paul - the one seen on the back of What We Did On Our Holidays - to John Martyn. I think that got stolen but Martyn used it on his classic seventies albums. RT's guitar work at this stage was far more country influenced than his current style. It's for this reason that he was asked to join the Eagles. I can't imagine the Eagles touring with RT nipping off to pray every few hours whilst they snort bucket-loads of cocaine off of the backs of underage groupies. Mind, he was also asked to join Traffic at this time as well. Now THAT would have been something to see. A simple Strat played most likely through a Fender Reverb amp with no other effects still manages to convince so it shows what a consummate musician he always has been. Denny trusted RT explicitly, even writing Nothing More and, possibly, The Music Weaver about him. Denny wrote quite a few songs about her friends and the meanings of the songs are sometimes dense and hidden.

During the recording of Rock On by the Bunch - a collective of hard-partying wild folkies let off the leash for a week or so at Richard Branson's Manor recording studio - Sandy went for a walk in the surrounding Oxfordshire countryside. She came across a lonely, empty church where she saw a lone vicar "giving a service to a phantom congregation" (quote from Mick Houghton's excellent new biography of Sandy Denny). This may be why I love this song so much. During the seventies I spent a lot of time wandering around the countryside around Stevenage alone. I still wander the countryside but it's Suffolk nowadays. The church in the photo above is fairly lonely and the type of place Sandy would have seen. I often come across such empty places around Suffolk and wonder who puts the flowers in the jugs, sometimes leave tea-making facilities and tend the gardens. Who goes to services in these places? Are there vicars who still perform the services to all those souls at rest?

I've just finished reading the aforementioned Mick Houghton biography I've Always Kept a Unicorn and listened to the podcast from David Hepworth where he and Mark Ellen interview Houghton, Ashley Hutchings and Simon Nicol, it's a great hour or so and I thoroughly recommend both to you. The book is exhaustive in its detailed interviews to piece together Sandy's tragically short life. The only other worthwhile book about Denny is Philip Ward's excellent Sandy Denny: Reflections On Her Music

I have been meaning for ages to write a re-view of Sandy's first solo album. Reading the biography and listening to the podcast has spurred me on to start thinking it through. More Sandy Denny soon, then.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

the liver birds

And, as into the tiny creek
We stole beneath the hanging crag,
We saw three queer, black, ugly birds - 
Too big, by far, in my belief,
For cormorant or shag -
Like seamen sitting bolt-upright
Upon a half-tide reef:
But, as we near'd, they plunged from sight,
Without a sound, or spurt of white.

later the same day . . .
As I walked out on this fine Spring morning, I turned towards the sea to take a walk. A lukewarm sun was trying to poke its head out from amongst the translucent clouds scudding across it and I wandered down the slight incline some two hundred yards to take in the view. What sun was managing to get through was reflected on the surface of a placid sea. A flock of gulls were gently bobbing up and down presumably having an early break after shrieking their early morning chorus to send the merry workers on their way. Being semi-retired I get up later on Tuesdays.

As I wandered down to the beach my first thought was to wonder if I'd see a cormorant. And, sure enough, just beyond the gulls being brought closer to the shore, a familiar dark, reptilian, short-winged, long-necked shape flapped awkwardly into view. It was almost as if I'd conjured it up in the two minutes it took to walk from my front door to the beach. As usual, the dear chap was flying in a straight line parallel to the shoreline. He flopped down onto the sea to take a rest whilst keeping a beady eye out for lunch.

As a child I was aware of cormorants - we were too innocent in those days to snigger at the name of its close cousin, the shag - but I never saw one until my first visit to Cornwall. The holiday mentioned in my last post was exciting for several reasons and I'll never forget seeing my first cormorant in the harbour at Padstein Padstow. Yes, they even held their short wings out in that cruciform way just to show off and look just like the picture in my Brooke Bond P.G. Tips picture card book Wild Birds of Britain (1965, illustrated and described by C.F. Tunnicliffe R.A.). Yes, I've still got it and I collected all 50 cards from the Waxwing to the Guillemot. You had to make your own fun in the sixties and we obviously drank a lot of tea*.  I was also aware of them in Wilfred Gibson's wonderfully atmospheric and mysterious poem Flannan Isle (quoted above).

Since those far off days I have seen many cormorants and shags as well as many other pelagic birds such as pelicans in their natural habitats. In fact, in Mexico a few years ago, a pelican flew so close just above my head I could have probably touched it! Since moving down to the relative calm of the east coast from the urban squalor of downtown Stevenage, I have noticed the numbers increasing exponentially. The first time I saw one here was about twenty years ago when a guest pointed it out. I was aware of a colony in Essex just down the coast and was excited to start to see them a few hundred yards from my house. Only a year or so back one flew overhead as we walked along the Suffolk-Essex borderlands. Cormorants are essentially sea birds but Winter and breed by freshwater too. They've begun to nest more and more inland so they are not as uncommon now as they obviously were back in the mid-sixties. After all, they are opportunistic birds and these new wetland habitats must have seemed like the sudden upsurge in supermarkets we noticed. Cormorant figures in Britain reached their nadir in the 1960s but through the introduction of new wetland habitats since the sixties has led to a growth in numbers. I guess the stocking of these habitats and the rise in trout farms et al is particularly relevant here. I blame all those stinking rich rock stars like Roger Daltrey and Ian Anderson. From 151 known pairs at one nesting site in 1986, they grew to 1334 pairs at 35 sites across the land between 1999 - 2002. The birds are now so successful that there are probably some 9000 pairs in Britain.

The problem with cormorants - and they've had a bad press since mediaeval times - is that they eat fish. An adult needs to eat about a pound of fish a day. I'm no mathematician but that's a lot of fish. Anglers and the fisheries industry constantly call for the birds to be 'managed' (read = culled) and basically, it's another war with nature that humans continue to wage. Anglers moan about cormorants damaging and scarring fish when they're unsuccessful in catching them but don't most anglers throw the fish they've damaged with hooks back into the water? I never was a fisherman. I mean, fish are my favourite form of food so I'm glad these guys are out there catching them, I just wish we could accept that the world is a finite resource and mankind's habit of catching more than they need and leaving the seas full of collateral damage no doubt pisses off the cormorants and other bird and marine life that rely on fish as a food source.

Anyway, I don't know what it is about weird looking birds like herons, egrets, cormorants, pelicans and flamingos but they're the ones I get really excited about seeing. By the way, cormorants are the "Liver Birds" of Liverpool. For some reason I didn't know that. Maybe it's because I've never been to Liverpool. I did perform a little search on poems and songs about cormorants but surprisingly, there aren't many.

Perhaps I'd better write one.

*They do say of the sixties, of course, that if you can remember it you weren't there. I went from being about 4 to 13 that decade and I can remember it all very well. It was called childhood. It was great fun but the tea was always sweet. I started the next decade by refusing to take sugar in my tea or milk or sugar in my coffee. 

Friday, 27 February 2015

slow train coming

When the train comes in the morning
I'll be waiting, how about you?
I'll be standing at the station with my ticket
How about you?
When the train comes . . . 

For a while I've been thinking about how different train journeys are nowadays - time really has changed our expectations and experiences.

It seems that steam trains still raise some form of romantic notion in many people. Memories of seeing the beautiful Mallard or the Flying Scotsman come rumbling through Stevenage when I was a child are still vivid. Looking down on them as they thundered through the Old Town station from the bridge outside the ESA factory filling the air with smoke brings a tear to the old eye – and it wasn't just the grit thrown up alongside the smoke.
The opening shots of the Time Shift programme The Nation’s Railway: The Golden Age of British Rail brought back the same memories. The programme looked at Britain’s railways during the era of nationalisation. It showed how the decayed, Victorian transport network that had clung on but eventually became tired after WWII had been transformed into a modern system fit for the twentieth century and laid the foundations into the twenty first. As steam gave way to diesel and electric, the architects of the railways looked ahead far into the future. Now things are knee-jerk reactions, built for a quick profit and have built-in obsolescence. New stations like Euston were built as cathedrals to Modernity and the first British high speed trains were introduced.
During these exciting times when the disparate companies were brought together as a nationalised industry, British Transport Films was set up to keep a record, educate and advertise. The archives for the BTF (1949-1982) can be found here and they’re well worth a look.
The programme itself was an enjoyable hour watching some great clips – see the well-behaved football fans! Watch the debauched sweaty vicars playing chess! – and realising what was going on whilst I was getting on with my life. I hadn't realised how history was being made in 1978 with the first high speed trains. In 1978 I used trains a lot to travel between Kings Cross and Stevenage to go shopping in London or to gigs. Or to wander around the West End looking in awe at beautiful guitars and go to the Nelly Dean for a few pints. A bit like nowadays, really.
During the years of British Rail’s “unified and efficient transformation” as they mention in the programme, I travelled on the trains quite a lot. Somewhere in the past when I was about twelve, I journeyed up to RAF Lossiemouth near the top of Scotland. At that time, it was the furthest I'd ever travelled away from home. Not only that but it was certainly the furthest I'd ever been away from home without any  parental presence. Some of my fellow travellers were those that taught me all I knew (sic) about matters of an intimate nature but a week away amongst bullies and sailors was an eye opener. To say the least.

Old Stevenage Station
The train journey itself was wonderful - we left Stevenage station and journeyed up through the night to Edinburgh and beyond passing through such exotic places as Derby and Leeds et al. This would have been about 1968/9. No adults were involved until we got to HMS Lossiemouth and we were kept in order by one Able Seaman Tony Evans, himself not much older than us little oiks. Sleeping in a carriage and sharing a dormitory with bigger boys who all seemed to know the ways of the world, was an eye opener (no - nothing happened, it really was very innocent). When we got up to the wilds of Scotland, we had to very quickly accept that we were in the Navy now. As we had to leave by the following Friday, I never got a turn in the barrel, in case you wondered*. However, spending the week being driven around that part of Scotland in a speed boat and lifted up into a hovering helicopter helped make me the person I became. Still, moving on . . .

A few years later I went on holiday to St Ives in Cornwall with some friends. As they all went down a few days earlier than me because I went to the Reading Festival, I followed down on the train. I actually did this two years running due to Reading and I must say that I really enjoyed the experience of travelling alone with a pocket full of money and the freedom to do as I liked.  Long quiet train trips through fabulous changing countryside with the time to sit and read (most likely science fiction or a Penguin Classic) sipping beer and occasionally chatting to fellow passengers.

The BBC4 programme informed me that British Rail served Whitbread Tankard keg beer in those days so I assume that's what I was drinking - remember folks, no ID needed in those halcyon days! I also remember one of the trips quite fondly because a rather lovely young lady took a shine to me and talked to me all the way from London to Exeter. We drank a few beers and she told me all about her trip to Exeter to get married the following day. A sweet old lady opposite for a while listened in and assumed that I was to be the Groom. Given that I was a scruffy seventeen year old with a remarkable resemblance to Catweazle’s skinnier brother and must have been one of the least likely passengers on the train to be getting married the next day, this was a bit of a surprise. That was nowhere near as surprising as the fact that the charming young lady decided to continue with the conceit. It was a lovely journey and still brings back pleasant memories of innocent travelling. What was that line by Mark Knopfler? I got a keepsake and a kiss.

It just so happens that I'm currently reading Tiny Stations by Dixe Wills - a man terminally incapable of spelling his own improbable name - which is a sort of travelogue about travelling around Britain by rail and stopping at request stop stations. Up until about two years ago I didn't realise these little stations still existed let alone realise that there were so many still clinging on. I found out by having to request a stop on an emergency dash to get to our car somewhere in Wales. Anyway, Mr Wills does write about his pathetic attempt at a pub crawl on the "Real Ale Rail Trail" (also known as the Tarka Trail ) in the West Country was quite amusing. It also reminds me of an attempt a friend and I made last summer at walking part of the Mayflower Line between Harwich and Manningtree. A few pubs were visited as we wandered along not surprisingly. Manningtree has a rather good bar if you ever get stuck between London and Norwich. Which happens a lot actually.

So, all in all, trains still seem to feature in my life. Maybe they're not so romantic nowadays but I do usually enjoy the experience. And of course if you get really fed up with everyone yakking on their phones or the sound of a distant Ed Sheeren's tinny voice whining on, you can always sit back with a good book or crossword listening to your own choice of tinny digital background noise.
* an old joke but you should check out the po-faced attempts at explaining the phrase online!
** having re-found that bit in the film it seems that was just the 125, so I'm probably wrong.