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.