17 June 2018

A Day In The Life....

I read the news today.....

It's fifty odd years since John Lennon read the news, today, and worked out how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.  

Having read today's news, I sit in the courtyard of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea under the golden statue of Charles II, while planes pass by his highness,

Waiting for Imelda May, and for Jeff Beck....  Just a day in my life, like, or unlike, any other, as you will.

Woke up.  Fell out of bed.... Found my way downstairs....It started with disruption, as any train journey does these days.  When I bought my ticket, the 9.49 was on time.  When I reached platform 1 it was 'delayed.'  I noticed I was late..... It then went to second place as the 9.53 moved into pole position.  Then the 9.53 was 'cancelled.'  Then the announcer said it wasn't cancelled.  Then it approached.  Then it drove straight past the crowded platform, someone standing in the driver's compartment with an arm across the driver's shoulder.....  He didn't notice that the lights had changed.....

Well, I just had to laugh.....  Eventually the 'delayed' 9.49 arrived.  Although it was originally scheduled to get to St Pancras International for 9.26, it was now going to stop at all stations, though the announcer still promised we would be in London for 9.30.  We weren't....  [Yeah, OK, I should be grateful..... But.....]

A crowd of people stood and stared....

But from then on the day just got better....  I made it to the Photographers Gallery to see two new exhibitions: Tisha Murtha's black and white documents of British social history, where skinny young people dive into images from desolate backgrounds; and Alex Prager's Silver Lake Drive, technicolour stagings of American life, where everyone is detached, uneasy, pre-occupied, perhaps overweight.....

Then, after a cool relaxing spot of lunch at The Drones with a chum, I potter off through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens to visit my aged Aunt in Putney, pausing to admire the finishing touches to Mr and Mrs Christo's Mastaba (a flat topped pyramid; a house of eternity) floating in the Serpentine....  It is an impressive slice of colourful oil-drum fantasy burial ground in the middle of London: a monument to the fragility of our economy perhaps?  A caricature of the echelons of our governmental structure? 

Then to see Frida Escobedo's Serpentine Pavilion; dark, rough tiles,  and smooth reflecting surfaces; it delights with quiet and irregular space.....  But I just had to look.....  

There is no regional architecture, she says. There is an architecture that absorbs the context and is informed by where it is from and where it is going to.   I stumble to grasp what she intends, but instinctively lean towards her.  It is a fine contrast with Christo's multicoloured barrels....

Frida looks a little wan, but she is charming, and for some inexplicable reason insists on taking a selfie with me chuckling like a loon....  She must be exhausted, poor lamb.  Perhaps she thought I was Christo?

Anyway, a cup of tea and a drop scone with dear Auntie and her troubles, and then, carrying a sisterly message for my poorly ancient mum, it is time to wander back to Chelsea, for my tryst with the stars.  

I beg costly refreshment in the vicinity of the Saatchi Gallery, then present myself to the bag-handlers at the Royal Hospital.  No food?  she queries.  I wish, I joke, trying to be friendly.  Did she want a sandwich?  Somebody spoke and I went into a dream.....

I have come to see and hear Jeff Beck, a god of sorts.  A crowd of people stood and stared.....  It is hard to think of any living instrumentalist with such a million-hour command of technique.  We are in the realm of the lucky men who made the grade: Art Tatum, Pablo Casals, Stephen Hawking, George Eliot..... (insert names of gods at will.  Ed.)

I catch a glimpse of a tattooed arm, snapping at ankles, guarded by the militia.....  Could this be Jeff?

I am disappointed.  'Tis but a a Dorset Lad, posing.....


But then, as the beers become more expensive, Imelda May graces the stage, all tonsils and emotional grit.  I have no idea when I last went to a show like this.....  Kiri Te Kanawa at Hampton Court (supported by Andrea Bocelli, with champagne and smoked salmon in the dressing room after)? or was it Bob Dylan and Santana in the Palasport in Rome?  

[I did see the Lowlamps at the Carpenters Arms, recently.... and they are really good....]

But, with no disrespect, this is something else.  A Chelsea Pensioner, probably not much older than Jeff, stands centre stage and draws the crowd.  One of us, he says,  went to see a physiotherapist in the gym the other day, asking for some help loosening up a bit.  'Well, are you flexible?' she asks.  'I can do Tuesdays or Thursdays,' he says.

Boom, Boom!

The audience, in general marginally younger than the Queen (or Jimmy Page), applauds, politely, and Jeff Beck appears.  He plays.  A crowd of people stood and stared.  He plays, with support from bass, drums, 'cello and vocals, and all is right with the world....  He plays a white guitar with a left-handed neck.  He plays with his thumbs and fingers.  The range of tones and harmonics is aaaaaastonishing.....

For me, perhaps, though it was a close call with Little Wing (a wonderful tribute to Jimi Hendrix, who Jeff saw perform this piece), the highlight is an extraordinary version of A Day In The Life....  Fifty years or so since John Lennon read the news.  And today here we are, though the news [is] rather sad....

Well, I just had to laugh.....

*      *      *      *

And then, the day after, James, and me, and Roy, with his family, gather to celebrate the life of Moyra (Moyra Daphne Dodds):

Another day.  Another life....

And so it goes.....

I'd love to turn you on.....

Love you all.....

29 May 2018

Lancaster Affairs

The old house is still standing....

The old hometown looks the same
As I step down from the train

Almost fifty years ago, in grainy black and white, I stepped warily off a train at Lancaster station, my head still heavy with farewells.  As in deportation dramas I was herded onto a bus with the small black, soft, suitcase my grandmother had gifted me, and delivered to the building site which was the County College, on Bailrigg Hill.  A smooth man, by the name of Roger perhaps, who said he taught linguistics, announced he was our tutor and gave us a glass of sweet white wine.

In my purple flares and stacked heels I staggered through freshers’ week, an eighteen year old with an empty head.  Somehow I made friends.  Ray Steele, son of a Crewe railwayman, a moustachioed Lawrentian character, confident with the girls; and Steve Blackham, from a broken family of St Leonard’s on Sea, whose dream of incessantly descending in a lift, stopping at all floors but never coming up, still haunts me.

We drank Boddingtons in the bar, conveniently close below my room, which looked out on the 200 year old oak tree (that I used to play on) in the quad.  We ate pies and beans and chips and sauce.  We smoked Players No 6.  We were introduced to teachers and study.  Philosophers who wore their jumpers backwards and smoked cigarettes and pipes simultaneously, who didn’t quite have a cat called Schrodinger but who talked about the table in the next room and whether it was there or not….  (Why didn’t they just look?)  Some of the Religious Studies staff wore kaftans and spoke with dense Scottish accents; others talked of India and Japan as if they were real places.  I heard that Gautama was a bit like St Francis, without the wolf, and that Mohammad was also a bit like St Francis, though with thirteen wives….

In the English department, there was talk of gest and Brecht.  Coal for Mike meant something.  Was I being indoctrinated?  Others talked of alveolar consonants and voiced dental fricatives, while still others wanted me to read Ancrene Wisse (Ondes Salue, Ich seide, wes feolahlich luue….)  I was being indoctrinated….  But wasn’t that what I had come for?

The University of Lancaster was taking shape. A nondescript brick building housed a computer, all punch cards, reels of tape, and whirring.  The chaplaincy centre conspired to refer to Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut, though only later, under the tutelage of Basil Ward, might I have come to this misconception. I found a music room somewhere to which I escaped to play a recording of Fernando Germani playing Bach’s D Minor Toccata and Fugue, at full volume.  Later I realised that full volume was actually eleven on the scale, when The Who accepted £1,050 to perform Tommy in the Great Hall, and my ears still ring from being up close and personal with Pete Townshend’s 2,000 watt speakers.  Still later my brain was even further rearranged when Bob Marley and Peter Tosh thanked me for help in shifting the Wailers’ gear with a dark introduction to Caribbean customs in their dressing room….

Around the same time I saw Leni Riefenstahl’s film of the 1936 Olympics; I remember asking someone in the interval how long it would go on, and was told that it was very long…. It covered the whole Olympics….  My understanding of the world was developing.

Kath Owen screamed I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough on grey walks under the M6 and over concrete tubes, even though she wasn’t from New York, she was from Treforest, a ward of Pontypridd, and it was there that her father took me on a tour of pubs, each of which had a back room with an ex-miner in a tuxedo and a bootlace tie endlessly singing Green, Green Grass of Home……

Sarah, from genteel Harrogate, slipped in a spillage of beer and broke an arm, so taught me to cook minced beef with sweet corn and mushrooms, with a crumbled OXO cube, in one saucepan.  For one.

Then Mary Lewis, one of four children of a Methodist Minister once of Coquetdale (but latterly of Geneva), became close, and stayed so through the second year in college and a year at 64 Dale Street in town, until, following her first class degree in history, the power of the US intervened in the form of a dandy don from Dumb Tom’s and I had to find consolation in Diane, from Stockport, and other drugs….

My understanding of the world continued to develop.  Slowly.

Down the road I look and there runs Mary

We were taught.  Perhaps we learned.  I was still a teenager.  My head was a worm cast of ideas, mostly other people’s.  At a distance of half a century I can’t itemise what I gained.  I can remember excitements and disappointments, incidents and fleeting moments of discussion.  At best I think I know the differences between Mahayana and Marxism, Modernism and Mozart, but probably only to the level of Pointless….  I know too much to enjoy pub quizzes, but not enough that I can answer even half the questions on University Challenge.  I almost certainly wasn’t indoctrinated enough….  Or maybe it was the alcohol?  It killed Frank Goodridge, ruined Norman Fairclough’s marriage, cured Ninian Smart of smoking, and extended our Friday lunchtime creative writing sessions when David Craig would drive us out to Glasson Dock in his VW microbus to start the weekends….

The Lancaster Affair came about after Professor Bill Murray (Ghostbusters,  Lost in Translation sic) went swimming in Prague with the British Ambassador (not, I am sure, my old chum Sir Cecil Parrott, but, most likely Howard Smith, later DG of MI5) during which immersion the Murray picked up a viral kind of McCarthyist fear of red insurrection in his dept. and the witch hunt began.

Seven bona fide members of staff were targeted, and constructive dismissal was the aim.  It hit the national press; the Guardian featured David, the BBC reported.  

In the confusion we set up an alternative university and I helped organise sessions at David’s home as well as upstairs in the Shakespeare pub, near the Duke’s Theatre.  Eventually, at least I think there was a connection, we occupied the Senate House, where legend had it that Bill Corr, who in 1969 had invested a toad with the title Archduke of Lancaster on the occasion of the Queen’s visit to open County College, carried a shotgun.  Apparently Vice Chancellor Chas Carter sanctioned our intrusion on the grounds that we were welcome as long as we cleaned up afterwards.  But my memory is hazy.  

It was boring sitting on the floor and it was nice outside.  Eventually, thanks in large part to Adrian Mitchell’s fundraising at the Liverpool Everyman which helped with legal fees, the crisis passed, David taught again, and in due course I became more better educated (sic)…..  As a post script, the then Headmaster of Lancaster Royal Grammar School later told me that there had definitely been evidence of left-wing bias in student work of the time, but, like Bill Murray, he is dead now.  And they were both wrong.  Or I’m a brain surgeon….

Shadows drift round the city now.  The Castle and Priory Church still sit broodily on the hill above the Roman bath house.  Lune Mills and the empire of James Williamson, later Lord Aston, are dust, and lino no longer rolls here.  The exhilarating covered market, once dazzling with fruit and veg, fish, meat, and cheese, the thriving hub of a living city, is no more, having suffered that curious fate of places to be redeveloped - a minor conflagration…..  Some of the back-to-backs

are still there, grass-green and unloved, but nobody seems to hang washing any more, 

and those Scottish Streets (Elgin, Dundee, etc) are choked by pavement parking, and uniformly decorated with satellite dishes, all directed at Moscow…..

Up in Williamson Park, by the Ashton Memorial, kids taunt me for taking pictures of my memories, innocent of the fact that they are enjoying the space as much as I did. 

The view across Morecambe Bay to the distant hills of the Lake District is the glory it ever was, and brings back memories of the gleaming sea and evening skies.

I visit David at his home near Carnforth.  Still as sharp as millstone grit, though inevitably less likely to play football with his offspring now, we lunch together, our memories folded like our napkins, personal, but not completely private. 

I don’t know what has become of the others.  Occasional threads drift across my face, but where Ray, or Steve, or Kath or Mary are now, only they can tell…..

What are we without memories?  My mother, now 95, sits vacantly in the departure lounge, unable to tell whether she knows who we are.  So should we, like Hamlet, wipe away all trivial, fond records…. From the table of my memory?  Or, like Cowper, should we acknowledge,

What peaceful hours I once enjoy’d
How sweet their mem’ry still!
But they have left an aching void,
The world can never fill.

(Olney Hymns, I)

I loved Lancaster, and my times there.  It was the kiln I was fired in.  But there is no going back.  I just hope that those I shared my time with there have had good lives.

It’s good to touch the green, green grass of home…..

17 May 2018

Third Degree Burns

We'll take a cup o' kindness yet.....

In June 1971, as an undergraduate at Lancaster University, I bought Barbara Goulding's unused copy of Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, even though the national poet of Scotland was not on my syllabus.  I must have looked at it, but I have to say that, until recently, the book has remained little thumbed....

I guess I was attracted by a hazily understood reputation of the bard.  But neither then, nor when I returned to Lancaster in 1984 for a second degree, did I unravel the references to Poosie-Nansie, Souter Johnie, or Tam o' Shanter.  

Robert Burns was born in a small cottage in Alloway, on the 25th January 1759, merely a day before Australia Day (and my birthday....)  

His father and mother are buried in the yard of Alloway Auld Kirk nearby, and, to paraphrase something I heard someone say recently, if they were alive today they would be turning in their graves to see the grandiose monument and magnificent museum dedicated to their eldest son, which are just a step away from the rough and ready cottage that William had built himself on a small parcel of land....

Even though the boy has parked his bike outside....

Robert's father, a stern calvinist, did his best for his children and, despite the rigours of farm life, he ensured that education was not overlooked.  Robert learned to read and write and was fluent in both English and Scots, though as he grew he may have had conflicting thoughts about learning...

'O Man! while in thy early years,
How prodigal of time!
Mis-spending all thy precious hours,
Thy glorious, youthful prime!'

Man was Made to Mourn

Robert and his brother Gilbert worked as ploughmen for their father, but also managed to form a debating society in Tarbolton which they called the Bachelors' Club.  

At the age of 22, in 1781, he went to Irvine to learn how to dress flax, one of the crops his father was growing.  He was there for six months, and made the most of Templeton's bookshop, though at the same time he also became acquainted with whisky and women....

After their father's death in 1784, Robert and Gilbert took on the lease of a farm in Mauchline.  Robert also fathered a child which, as he didn't marry the mother, he brought into the household.... one of fourteen children he acknowledged.....

About the same time he met another local girl, Jean Amour, who, early in 1786 became pregnant, though in the same year he was courting one Highland Mary... unfortunately, however, by October Mary was dead.

On July 31st 1786 John Wilson of Kilmarnock printed 600 copies of Scottish Poems by Robert Burns, which became an overnight success.  On the back of this, and without care for Jean Armour who had given birth to twins, Robert set out for Edinburgh in November of that year.

In Edinburgh Burns was a hit.  The Ploughman Poet charmed and intrigued society, and on 21st April 1787 the First Edinburgh Edition of his poems was published - and 3000 copies were printed.

With glowing eyes and a steady gaze, as well as a captivating voice, Burns was irresistible, and affairs and passionate friendships ensued.  However he didn't stay put in the city - he made tours of the Border counties and of the Highlands - and before too long he felt the need to find a job, and to provide for Jean Armour, who had managed to produce a second set of twins by Robert, although both of these swiftly died.

But, in 1787, Burns married Jean, and, in June, he set up home at Ellisland Farm on the banks of the Nith, near Dumfries, where, in December, the house was finished and he was joined by Jean. 

Here, amidst family life, the difficulties of a poor agricultural existence (Robert switched from arable to dairy after a year) and the training he underwent to become an exciseman, Burns wrote some of his best loved verse, including the rollicking yarn, Tam o' Shanter, a tale that may have had some personal experience behind it.....

But pleasures are like poppies spread,

You seize the flow'r, its bloom is shed;

Or like the snow falls in the river,

A moment white - then melts for ever....

The tale ends as drunken Tam is carried across the keystone of the Brig o' Doon by his faithful mare, Maggie, chased by a howling band of warlocks and witches, who grab at Maggie's tail:

The carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.

But, as 'twas well known, the devil's brood dare not cross a running stream, so....

Now, wha this tale o' truth shall read,
Ilk man, and mother's son, take heed:
Whene'er to drink you are inclin'd,
Or cutty sarks run in your mind,
Think! ye may buy the joys o'er dear:
Remember Tam o' Shanter's meare.

And this was not the only example of Robert's care for animals.  On Seeing A wounded Hare Limp By Me Which A Fellow Had Just Shot At is another of his Ellisland poems, composed by the winding river Nith...

And many a reluctant GCSE pupil will know To A Mouse (On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough, November 1785):

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie....

If only for the lines:

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o' mice and men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

And so to Dumfries, where, after three years of struggling with the land, Burns moved to become a member of the First or Port Division of the Dumfries Excise, and lived with his family at 11 Bank Street, now preserved as a museum and memorial to the poet.

And it is here that I enter the University of the Third Age, inspired by Burns to the third degree....  I find, amongst the articles on show or for sale, a copy of Eddi Reader's deluxe edition of the Songs of Robert Burns.  Eddi was born in Glasgow though her family later relocated to Irvine, where Burns had learnt to dress flax.  She became a musician, travelling round Europe and then settling in London for a while, where she sang with Annie Lennox, and then topped the charts with Fairground Attraction, whose drummer was my old pal Roy Dodds, who spent many a mispent moment with me, Joe, Ben et al in The Festival Hole, infamous club in 1960's Berkhamsted.....

Since London Eddi's career has taken her around the world, including to Hollywood, and she is currently on tour in the UK.

It is the Robert Burns album that inspires me now, however.  It was recorded with some of the finest folk musicians, including Roy on percussion, and also with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.  It was premiered at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall as part of the Celtic Connections Festival in January 2003, but released as the Deluxe edition in 2009.  The arrangements are beautiful, but it is Eddi's hauntingly beautiful voice that cuts across the centuries and breathes the words into living thoughts, wild birds in the treetops and the wind....

Robert Burns lived a relatively short life, but he made his mark, and his verses still inspire and console over two hundred years after his death.  I am only sorry I didn't look more into the book I bought all those long years ago....  

So, to make up for lost time, and to commune a little with the soul of the departed bard, I pay my respects at his mausoleum in St Michael's churchyard..... 

And then I step down the narrow lane off Dumfries High Street that leads to the Globe Inn, the howff where Burns spent many an hour, wining, dining, and courting Anna of the Gowden Locks....

Yest're'en I had a pint of wine,
A place where body saw na;
Yest're'en lay on this breast o' mine,
The gowden locks o' Anna....

It's not too late.  There is still time, I hope, to appreciate the works of this particular poet man:

 The winter it is past, and the simmer comes at last,
And the small birds sing on eve'ry tree:
The hearts of these are glad, but mine is very sad,
For my love is parted from me.

The Winter it is Past


And though he no longer scratches poems on windows with his diamond ring, he has left us enough to be going on with, and more.  I hope his love of love will perhaps touch such souls as come together in the near future, (such as some who may marry on May 19th, in Camden, if not in Windsor....)

And I will love thee still, my dear,
'Til all the seas gang dry.
'Til all the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt with the sun;
And I shall love thee still, my dear,
Though the sands o' life shall run.....

As Eddi Reader writes in her liner notes: What a wonderful thing that man did.... to write a song that makes everyone sing together and hold each other at the dawning of a new year, in ALL languages... and he never got to see it... God bless his soul.

We'll take a cup o' kindness yet
For auld lang syne.
For auld...
For auld lang syne.