Sunday, 2 July 2017

a rye smile

The other night as I lay sleeping
I dreamt a light entered my heart
When I awoke, I was mistaken
Ah, but the curtains were still blown apart

Sometimes I find it unbelievable how quickly time moves on. My last post was April. April? Bloody Hell . . . that's far too long. When I retired from the day-to-day working life I really thought I'd be writing all the time. Ha!

The past few weeks have involved mostly the annual two month shift of exam marking. From the middle of May to early July every year I mark Film Studies exams, both AS and A2. As the new orders in education demand a return to a two year course at A level, I'm guessing my marking days are drawing to a close. My only gainful employment. Ah well . . .  Mind you, after being a Film Studies teacher for sixteen years has had a similar effect that teaching English Literature did to reading fiction*. Analysing the same things over and over year in year out gradually wears you down. That's why I chose to never teach King Lear. My idea of Purgatory is teaching bloody Fight Club which, other than Trainspotting, is fast becoming my least favourite film ever. At least I never had to watch Titanic or Mamma Mia - so I didn't. Never have, never will.

Meanwhile, Life has a habit of rushing forward tumbling and tripping over itself headlong into some sort of anarchistic celebration of chaos. Whilst I am sitting here enjoying the afterglow of a beautiful summer's evening having sat in the garden eating and drinking (four hour slow-cooked lamb and a rather good Argentinian Malbec in case you wondered) and listening to - yes! vinyl records - I'm trying to get my head together about how Time has a habit of running away from you. Still, Robert Cray's guitar solos are easing all that stress. At least music helps us get through the days - Jackson Browne has managed to stay alive healthily and he was on sparkling good form at the Royal Albert Hall last week.

Meanwhile, I have read that Britain's best beaches are still worth visiting, as long as you can step over the tons of plastic beads and bottles that are pouring onto them (mostly from the stomachs of whales, it seems). I notice that the beach at the bottom of my road isn't included in the list. Nor is Camber Sands which was opposite where we stayed a week or two back.

Now, Camber Sands is an interesting place. I've never been there, despite spending a week opposite the place. We were at a mighty fine wedding nearby a few weeks ago. On the Sunday morning (Father's Day) we had to nip over to the barn where the wedding was held to pick up the cars left from the night before. I knew I had to get back to Rye Harbour, where we were staying, as my wonderful offspring were treating me to a meal. It took a whole hour to crawl back through Rye as the World and his wife were all chugging, very slowly, through Rye to get to the aforementioned beach. Evidently, you have to stand up on Camber Sands as there isn't the room to sit down (I think I'm right there) whilst the beach on the other side of the river - yes, the one we were at - was an empty page waiting to be written on. You can't get arrested on Rye Harbour beach.

Other than that, there's a little village next door called Winchelsea - so good they had to make it in two parts: Winchelsea village and Winchelsea Beach. Now, as a quick quiz question: which one is the Middle Class part? Ah well, it wasn't the beach bit. Still, with Spike Milligan buried in the (rather spectacular) church and Sir Lord His Majesty Paul McCartney living in another village a mile or so away, you can imagine that it might be worth a visit.

Meanwhile, despite Mrs Dave and I starting our exam marking that same week (actually my second set), we were able to enjoy the baking hot weather and put up with the screeching seagulls - not so much a dawn chorus, more a crack of dawn cacophony. Each night was an adventure in guessing whether we'd get any sleep at all due to the humidity and sheer heat. The area itself was fabulous. It even has a pub with a French connection. Given the rather Mediterranean weather on offer that week, it seemed to be a mini Bexit break. In truth, we don't often get quite such wonderful weather but that really was quite something. It made me realise how lucky I am to not be teaching critical approaches to David Fincher's zeitgeist parody of Consumerism and Brad Pitt's apotheosis into Nietzsche's Ubermensch, or something like that. I must go and lie down somewhere . . .

Still, Rye was a bit of an eye opener. I'd always wanted to visit the area and I'll explain more in the next post. Meanwhile: what's the connection between the UK's oldest, most haunted Inn, smuggling and Rye? Answers on a postcard, please.

* No more Of Mice and Men or An Inspector Calls for me!

NB: This post has been amended somewhat since it was originally written for a reason I'll explain over a pint sometime.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

brand new start

A lot of words but no one talking
I don't want no part of that
Something real is what I'm seeking
One clear voice in the wilderness

Being of unsound mind, I continue to put myself through the absurdity of an annual coach trip to Les Arcs ski resort in France. This involves packing a coach full of mad skiers, drinkers and reprobates who have all come together to form a huge family for a week. The coaches are always uncomfortable with the bare minimum of legroom and, for the second year running, no working air conditioning (as in, it's either in El Azizia or brass monkey mode). However, the camaraderie and the fact that once your skis are on the coach, you don't have to try to carry them and a boot bag and a suitcase as you would if you were flying (as in our trip to the Pyrenees in February), make it all worthwhile. Still, it seems a bizarre way for grownups to behave.

Now, I'm sure you've all at some stage in your life made at least one long distance coach trip, so you will be aware, gentle reader, that at some point in the journey some fellow traveller will demand to be entertained with a dvd. I have suffered some awful films over the years on various forms of transport. Probably the worse was a film called The Wolf of Wall Street which had most of the passengers lose the will to live. This year it was decided  on the return journey - a journey even more feared than the return one - that they would show Deadpool. For the uninitiated, this is a violent potty-mouthed comic book aimed at kidults. Not to be caught out this time, I had made sure that I had charged up my faithful iPod fully and brought along my headphones instead of the little 'earbuds' that have a tendency to fall out of your ears every few minutes and don't manage to cut out any of the soundtrack to the usual in-coach entertainment: often a musical or appalling Hollywood 'comedy' about grown men behaving like 18 year olds. I chose to bring along a pair of reconditioned Bose headphones that I bought in the States a few years ago. 'Reconditioned' means that they were second hand and cheaper but guaranteed, and that was fine by me. Now, I need to point out here that unlike just about the rest of humanity, I don't walk around ignoring everyone else all day with a pair of headphones on. Or earphones. I listen to music all the time but mostly through speakers. I'm sure some of the people I see must sleep with headphones on.

So there we are, a coach full of uncomfortable big people - some with sporting injuries - being forced into listening to the soundtrack on a sound system  that would have put Led Zeppelin to shame and a a screen the size of a Colombian Bolivar 10 cent green postage stamp somewhere in the far distance. For one thing, I didn't have a pair of binoculars with me, for another, I had no interest anyway. On with the Bose headphones and my trusty iPod Classic. This didn't entirely alleviate the constant pain from twisting and contorting my legs into positions haven't been seen much since a Victorian freak show of the world's most bendable man stopped performing, but it stopped having to listen to Ryan Reynolds swearing for about two hours. But what to listen to?

Often there are certain albums I want to enjoy whilst trying to pretend to sleep on such journeys but I made the decision to listen to something I was familiar with but hadn't really listened to on headphones much. I chose Paul Weller's Wild Wood, which is an album that unbelievably came out twenty four years ago. That's right, it came out last century, only five years after I moved down here to the East Coast. Where has all that time gone? Anyone unfamiliar with the album perhaps need only be aware that the former Mr Angry of Woking had settled into some sort of rural bliss after listening to much 1970s music and smoking a few Jazz Woodbines. The music he had been listening to appears to mostly consist of the Island Records catalogue: Traffic and Nick Drake featuring heavily. Generally, the album is seen to be an "organic blend of styles - rock, folk, psych, R&B*" which was also probably more daring then than it may seem nowadays.

Now, Mr Weller is a fine songwriter and guitarist. He obviously, like most guitarists, takes a lot of care over his tone and effects pedals. He also trusts the other musicians he works with, particularly his co-producer Brendan Lynch. The album has a definite rural feel having been recorded at The Manor in Oxfordshire. Late night writing sessions and a family of reliable musos collected around him allowed him to record in a fairly relaxed way. The resulting album is fairly dreamy with a lot of acoustic and slide guitars, keyboards and occasional a very laidback jazzy feel (that'll be the Woodbines then). As I have said, this is an album I'm very familiar with. What listening to it yesterday on headphones did though, was to open up a whole load of other layers that I was only really vaguely familiar with. It appears that the aforementioned Mr Lynch likes to add lots of other sounds and effects to his productions. Well, certainly the ones he's made with Weller. The stylophone is one instrument used, for instance. Now, the good old stylophone is best known for its appearance on Space Oddity and, er, that bearded Aussie chap we don't mention anymore. Other than that, there are loads of wibbly noises and buzzy bits along with various synthesizers no doubt playing backwards as well as forwards. There are no doubt plenty of bits of mellotron on there too. All very seventies.

Now, the main point here isn't to review the album or even to get interested parties to check this particular album out (although that would be a good thing). I guess the point I'm making here - in a very long-winded way - is that we can often be pleasantly surprised when we experience something familiar in a new way. I used to listen to music through headphones a lot when I was younger. I think the quality of my headphones is better now. I've already mentioned that I see many people wandering the streets and in public places wearing them all the time. Maybe they are all experiencing constant epiphanies due to the beauty of the wonderful music they bathe themselves in twenty four hours a day. I strongly suspect many of them don't given the snatches of computerised algorithmic AI-created drum beats I've heard them listening to.  Remember, I've just come back from France where they have the most abysmal  music played loudly booming across the ski slopes. Someone needs to be told that constantly repeating a phrase over such a beat for about 10 minutes doesn't really constitute a song. Still, back to the point. I feel that my often jaded listening patterns have just had a bit of a kick up the backside.

I feel now that I want to re-think my attitude to the use of electronica in my own musical experiments. I'm going to dig out my old stylophone and Digitech Synth-Wah pedal and add a few wibbles and boings to some songs to see what sort of atmosphere a well-placed noise lower down in the mix might create. Listening to a rare Weller track, a version of Nick Drake's River Man, is proof  that atmosphere can be created with well-placed and well thought-out ambient textures (oh, and a Beatlesesque raga feel), whether it's successful or not.

Tongue back out of cheek, though, listening to music more intensely in a more solitary manner can provide new insights into the music making process. It's just nice for a change to find something new in such a familiar artefact. Maybe the constant re-selling of older albums by remastering them is just a cynical ploy but, occasionally, there are benefits to us as well.

*Neil Spencer Uncut Autumn 2012

Monday, 27 March 2017

ice in the sun

Looking for constellations above the horizon,
West wind cutting sharper than our blades;
smiling forever into an endless sunrise,
we're flying on the waves.

After our quiet night in at the hotel in Reykjavik, we had a good wholesome Icelandic breakfast - fairly continental in style - and got ready to join our fellow travellers on a three-day tour of the east coast and southern areas of this stark land.

Anybody having recently seen the Rick Stein series Long Weekends will be aware of the tour we had chosen. We pretty much followed that but without a BBC camera crew to take us into people's homes to eat their roast lamb and fermented shark. We'd chosen the tour because I had no inclination to drive around Iceland myself at this time of year (the weather was occasionally awful). Maybe in the summer months.

The first day took in the iconic geysers and Thingvellir National Park where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly pulling away from each other. We also went to Gullfoss waterfalls which were very impressive. Tours like this always leave me a bit overwhelmed with how much they can pack in to each day, but with some sights, how long do you really need to stay there. The geysers, compared to some other parts of the tour, were not quite as thrilling as I thought they'd be. Still, the waterfalls were huge and the sense of scale of the landscape was quite stunning. That afternoon we were taken to the Secret Lagoon. As everyone seems to go there, it doesn't really seem so secret but it was Iceland's first public swimming pool which has only been re-opened for a few years.

I was feeling that it seemed a bit foolhardy to take my clothes off and wander around in the freezing cold - I'm not a natural lover of swimming, truth be told. However, one doesn't hang around but get straight into the hot spring. The experience was wonderful. Certainly one of the highlights of the week. To be floating about in  38 - 40 degree water with the ice cold air around was thrilling. Iceland, of course, has cheap geothermal heating all year round which they even heat the pavements with! We then showered and grabbed a refreshing beer before heading off to the hotel we were going to be using for a couple of nights. The lava fields were vast and the moss that grows on them can take a hundred years to grow. Once again one tends to wonder why they plunder such a delicate resource to sell across the World but Iceland needs an income. They can't survive on Skyr alone.

The hotel was eye-wateringly expensive for food and quite disappointing too. When you paying in the region of £30 - £50 for a meal that you feel you could cook better yourself it can deflate you a bit. But we were a captive audience. It was a long walk to another restaurant although a young couple did try the following night and got caught in a blizzard for their sins. After the dissapointing meal (smoked lamb if you're interested) we headed out to search for the Northern Lights. Now, it seems that this is what most people go to Iceland for. However, most people don't see them due to poor weather and heavy cloud cover. It was a bright fairly clear night with a full moon. We weren't expecting to actually see anything as we haven't met many people who have seen them in Iceland. There's a big industry growing around people's determination to see them nowadays.

We stood around in the freezing cold with a few fellow travellers with decent digital camera on tripods. As I was beginning to shiver and feel that this was a wild goose chase, our guide told us that we were in luck. Now, we all expected Hollywood-style CGI but it wasn't to be quite so spectacular. Sure enough there were smudges and streaks and tinges of green but the moon was so bright it probably didn't help our view. So we did see them. If this was one of those Norwegian ferry trips that promise that if you don't see them, they'd give you another free trip the following year, they'd be able to say that, well yes, you did see them. One of the photographers allowed us a look at what his camera was making of it and it really was stunning. Shame our eyes aren't up to the same standard! The picture here is one of the photos taken that night. Obviously not by my iPhone, though. Eventually we had to get back to the hotel before frostbite took out too many of us. A glass of Luton red wine and a good night's sleep were required.

The following day was a shorter one and the weather report suggested that the evening sky would be cloudy with poor visibility, so we had been out the right night. We travelled to Jörulsarlon where various blockbuster movies had been filmed (late-period Bond films and the suchlike). This was probably my very favourite part of the trip. It's a massive glacier lagoon where huge parts of icebergs float down the river towards the sea. Some of them collect onto the beach. It genuinely was awe-inspiring. The beautiful colours and the feel of the power of Nature took hold here. Europe's largest glacier, Vatnajökull is here. The vastness of these humbles you.

On the third day as we started our return to Reykjavik, we went to a black sand beach with massive
stacks, Reynisfjara and then headed west to Skogafoss and Seljalandfoss waterfalls. Here, at the latter,  we were able to walk behind the massive falling water and keep relatively dry. We stopped by the Eyafjallajökull volcano to watch a film about the eruption in 2010. You know, the one that stopped international flights and was mentioned in the XPTs' remake of Parachute*. This is truly the land of ice and fire. The last thing we did before the long journey back to Reykjavik was to visit a second lagoon. This one, the Blue Lagoon, is much better known internationally. It's the one from all the holiday advert pictures. Whilst we knew pretty well what to expect, the opportunity to stand around socialising drinking local beer (Viking, believe it or not) was a great way to bring the proceedings to a close.

The Secret Lagoon was much more natural and relaxing, whereas at the Blue Lagoon they've worked out how to fleece as much money as possible out of everyone. The landscape around it certainly wasn't very picturesque as it was a working geothermal site full of diggers and overground pipeworks. A more industrial and functional side to the country than we'd experienced in the National Park. Still, refreshed and relaxed, we headed off to the last leg of the trip.

Returning to the Reykjavik Lights hotel tired and hungry, we decided not to bother doing much other than nipping to a next door restaurant for a very pleasant meal. it was Icelandic in style. I chose halibut and Mrs Dave went for the lamb shank. An early night finishing off the cheap Luton plonk and we were having to face up to coming home the next day.

After breakfast we used the (very) expensive bus service as we weren't going to get ourselves into the same situation we'd had on Monday. Whilst I would have liked to get into some of the museums, the day was so sunny and pleasant (still cold though) so instead we explored the city on foot. If you're ever there and feel hungry, go down to the Old Harbour and find the Icelandic Fish and Chip restaurant. I kid you not, it was our favourite meal whilst we were there. We had the catch of the day, which was Ling. Not a fish I'd knowingly eaten before but I would certainly have it again. The shops are too expensive to contemplate and one we did go into was playing a row Björk, so I quickly got out again. And then we had to get back to the hotel to get the bus to the airport. One last beer (ironically enough, the cheapest of the holiday!) and the flight home. Delayed, of course.

A short visit to a country I'd wanted to visit for some forty years over and we have plenty of memories to keep us enthralled for many years to come. In all truth, we would love to go back there, perhaps in the summer months and then we could drive around. When you only go on a short break to a very unfamiliar country it seems sensible to me to see and experience as much as you can in the time you have. We wouldn't have seen anywhere near as much as we did. And, as we were visiting outside of school holidays, it meant it didn't cost anywhere near as much as the trip we planned but abandoned last year for our sixtieths.

* The XPTs are the Parachute era Pretty Things without Phil May and they re-recorded a modern take on the album. Still one of my all-time favourites for some unfathomable reason.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

saga holiday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued . . . 

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

Sunday, 12 March 2017

there was this bloke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's not a bad life.

Derek Brimstone 1932 - 2017. RIP

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

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

strange town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 19 February 2017

we're all james bond now

we could be heroes just for one day . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cameras. Let's not talk about cameras.

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

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