Saturday, 12 January 2019

Bangor University, Botticelli and The Beatles

This year, it will 40 years since I left home to head off to Bangor University. Fittingly, I've just finished reading Bangor University 1884-2009 by David Roberts - a historian and former registrar of this great North Wales institution. It's a handsomely produced, concise and highly readable account of the first 125 years of this grand old place. I like the fact the 'college on the hill'  began its life with just 58 students in a pub - The Penrhyn Arms - and was generously funded, in part, out of the meagre wages of slate miners, many of whom contributed a fixed sum out of their earnings.

I arrived at what was then called the University College of North Wales in 1979, to begin a four year degree in English and French. I hadn't fully appreciated, until reading David Roberts' book, just how tumultuous a time the late 70s and early 80s were for the university, with angry clashes between the management, students and academics, often to do with the status of the Welsh language and culture.

There are some fascinating stories in the book. For example, it describes how, during the Second World War, art treasures from the National Gallery were dispatched off to Bangor in anticipation of the Blitz. Over 500 paintings - including works by Botticelli, Rubens and Rembrandt - were stored in Prichard-Jones Hall, and later at Manod Quarry in Blaenau Fffestionog.  Twenty years later, in the early 60s, students would attend 'hops' where live performances by the likes of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates would no doubt have them "shaking all over"; all of this in the same Prichard-Jones Hall that had originally housed the nation's artistic treasures and where in the early 1980s, I would sit my exams.

One event that isn't included in David Roberts' book is the visit, 12 years before my own modest arrival in Bangor, of The Beatles and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi*. Two months after the release of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, John, Paul, George and Ringo, accompanied by Pattie Harrison, Cynthia Lennon and Jane Asher (not to mention Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull,) converged on Bangor University. They stayed in dormitories at the Hugh Owen Building and attended a seminar given by the Maharishi. Their stay in Bangor was cut short by the news of their manager Brian Epstein's death.

After my time as an undergraduate, universities came under increasing financial pressure from government and higher education became more market-driven, pragmatic and vocational. Polytechnics, teacher-training colleges and Schools of Nursing were absorbed into universities, student grants were replaced by student loans and education for its own sake, particularly for students from poorer backgrounds, became an idealistic memory. As David Roberts writes: "The golden age of academic independence and freedom was being displaced by a new uncomfortable culture based on market values. Performance monitoring, productivity, accountability and value for money became the prevailing dictums". How lucky I was, then, to have had a few years to live and learn freely through that golden age at the 'college on the hill'.

*There is BBC Wales archive footage of the Beatles visit to Bangor that can be viewed here.
Bangor University 1884-2009 by David Roberts is published by the University of Wales Press.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

The Strawbs Celebrate Fifty Years

The Strawbs
Huntington Hall, Worcester
Wednesday 14 November

Sometime in the 1970s my brother Phil and I were dragged along to what, in those days, would have been called a Sunday market (a forerunner of the car-boot sale.) Perhaps it was the summer of 1977, when the top ten was dominated by Showaddaywaddy, Donna Summer, The Brotherhood of Man and David Soul. Rummaging through some singles at a record stall, I found Steeleye Span's Fighting for Strangers and Phil found The Strawbs' Lay Down. I'm not sure if Phil liked my Steeleye single that much but I was very taken with Lay Down which seemed to me a perfect folk-rock record, featuring Dave Cousins intoning the psalm-like lyrics, a hooky chorus and Dave Lambert's wonderful, distorted electric guitar.  

In their fifty-year trajectory The Strawbs have occupied a unique position in the intersection of English folk-rock and prog-rock. Dave Cousins is one of the few British singer-songwriters to have composed and performed songs on the mountain dulcimer (something that may well have unconsciously influenced my own love affair with the instrument.) His voice is a weathered blend of preacher, actor and wild-man-of-the-woods. (One of the greatest compliments I ever received in my own insignificant musical career was to have an audience member tell me after a gig that I sounded "a bit like Dave Cousins".) The Strawbs are also distinguished by being one of the very few bands that my wife and I both like. So, of course, when I heard they were touring again, we just had to go and see them.

We've seen The Strawbs twice before at the Worcester's magnificent Huntington Hall, once as a full electric line-up and once as The Acoustic Strawbs. Both were great performances and Huntington Hall's ambience and acoustics really enhanced the experience. Sad to report, then, that this time there appeared to be some problem with the sound. I don't think it's just my advancing age that made me find the music too loud - the vocals were distorted to the point where not only did we lose the meaning of the lyrics but some songs became less instantly recognisable in the general mush of sound.

The band were obviously keen to showcase a few songs from their latest album The Ferryman's Curse, but it was disappointing that so many other great songs - Benedictus, Witchwood, Heartbreaker, Stormy Down - were omitted. Still, the lovely Out in the Cold was performed beautifully, and segued into Round and Round as part of what Dave Cousins introduced as a Readers' Digest version of their 1974 album Hero and Heroine. Sadly Shine on Silver Sun was again only quoted, rather than played in full. Perhaps the problem is the back catalogue contains just too many good songs. Still, drums, bass and keyboards were spot-on, Cousins was the consummate front-man as always, and the ever-cool Dave Lambert sang and played exquisitely, making wonderful, versatile electric guitar-playing seem effortless. And the encore? Inevitably, Lay Down.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Where do we go from here? - Dulcimers at Halsway and the Beardy Folk Festival

 Dulcimers at Halsway
©Tony Gillam
May and June turned out to be full of musical surprises. In May, I spent a week at Halsway Manor - the National Centre for Folk Arts - in Somerset for the annual Dulcimers at Halsway event. This was my second trip to Halsway (see Clementines in Dulcimerland ) and this year we mountain dulcimer players were privileged to have Aaron O'Rourke and Sarah Morgan to teach us some new tunes and techniques. I hadn't come across Sarah before but she's a charming musician with an irrepressible sense of fun who introduced us to the traditional repertoire of Kentucky fiddle tunes. I didn't imagine this would be my kind of music but Sarah's excellent teaching and musicianship brought these old time tunes to life for us.

I was already aware of Dan Landrum and Aaron O'Rourke as the familiar voices of the Dulcimer Geeks podcast. When I chatted to Dan over a hearty Halsway breakfast I told him how much I enjoyed the podcast and how it reminds me of the rambling, philosophical conversations groups of blokes have in pubs. He observed that, in the States, they don't really have pubs where you can have intelligent conversations; he conjured up a depressing image of rather impersonal bars where people drown their sorrows against a continuous backdrop of motor racing on the TV. Dan (who is also editor of Dulcimer Player News) is a hammered dulcimer player so I didn't experience his teaching but did enjoy, as part of the concert, his daring hammered dulcimer arrangement of the Beach Boys' California Girls. I was lucky enough, though, to participate in some of Aaron O'Rourke's mountain dulcimer workshops. Aaron is a seriously accomplished player and I felt I learnt a lot from his and Sarah's very different approaches.   
Fantastic Day!
©Tony Gillam
Sadly, no dulcimers were in evidence last Sunday when I attended Day Three of the first Beardy Folk Festival (although I believe Kim Lowings had been there the previous day.) What persuaded us to get tickets for the Beardy Festival was not so much any of the folk acts on offer but the unlikely headliner Nick Heyward (of Haircut 100 fame). Nick may have been a bit disappointed by the slightly thin-on-the-ground Sunday night audience by the time he took to the main stage, and he also seemed beset by sound problems (although the festival's sound production had been excellent all day.)  Still, it was fun to hear the likes of Whistle Down the Wind and Love Plus One - hits so evocative of the early 1980s with their poptastic post-New Romantic vibe.

Beardy Folk Festival describes itself as a "beautifully crafted midsummer festival in a secret walled garden" and it was all of these things. From the design of the stage to the bespoke reusable beer glasses this was a lovingly put-together festival in a beautiful setting - Shropshire's Hopton Court.

Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman (Seth's big brother) played an accomplished afternoon set before heading home ("because we've got to get the kids to school tomorrow"). Unexpected highlights of the day were Dan Webster (whose band featured blisteringly good mandolin and fiddle players) and Granny's Attic - a young trio who gave an assured performance that embodied all that is best about English traditional folk music.
The Dan Webster Band
©Tony Gillam
It takes time for festivals to establish themselves so I'm delighted that the Beardy Folk Festival will be happening again next June. What with Dulcimers at Halsway also becoming a regular fixture, I feel next summer is already shaping up to be another musical extravaganza.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

African dreamworlds, driftwood harps and non-existent spaghetti western soundtracks - A round-up of some of the best world music you may not yet have discovered

Suku - Your Life Is Your Poem by Nils Kercher ... Driftwood Harp by Pippa Reid-Foster ... Innamorata by Andrea Terrano

German multi-instrumentalist Nils Kercher's second studio album is an international affair. His ensemble is made up of musicians from Mali, Finland, Martinique, Senegal and Australia. The result is an ambient soundscape infused with the music of West Africa but also betraying Kercher's classical orchestral background, (which predated his interest in drumming, the djembe and the kora.)

Accompanied by Oumar Barou Kouyaté on ngoni and guitar and Mariama Kouyaté, Kira Kaipainen and Sylvia Laubé on vocals, Kercher sings and plays kora and balafon, while violin, viola and cello add extra depth to the sound. This is particularly compelling on 'Tuuli Itkee', where the insistent pulse creates an effect almost like the music of Steve Reich.

Kercher studied kora with Djelemady Sissoko (brother of Ballaké Sissoko) and, if you like the fusion of kora and cello on Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal's albums, you'll probably enjoy this. Kercher's music may lack the spontaneity of Sissoko and Segal or, for that matter, Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté's classic In the Heart of the Moon, but Suku - Your Life Is Your Poem offers a beautifully crafted dreamworld of shifting rhythms and many-layered voices and sounds.

Pippa Reid-Foster's debut CD is a set of original compositions and arrangements for the traditional Scottish harp (clarsach). The album has an uncluttered purity befitting the instrument, and is reminiscent of Alan Stivell's 1964 album Telenn Geltiek (Celtic Harp).

Pippa, a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, is based in the Argyll region on Scotland's west coast and Driftwood Harp draws upon the sights and sounds of the area, as well as on Celtic folklore. The rhythmically shifting opening track 'The Selkie' conjures up the mythical, half-seal, half-human creature while 'The Mermaid Song' is a delicate rendition of a traditional Gaelic song. Original tunes evoke scenes and landscapes. In 'Steam Boats on Crinan/The Herring Lassies of Argyll' Pippa shows that the harp can be both haunting and jaunty, and her virtuosity creates something akin to a rhythm guitar accompaniment for her complex melodic lines. 

There's plenty to please traditionalists here – such as the three jigs that make up 'Kilmartin Glen Campsite' – but I prefer the more ethereal quality of tracks like  'Elements 1' and the six minute finale, 'Deirdre in Dreams', which show Pippa's skill as a composer as well as a performer. 

The press release suggests Innamorata is 'a perfect companion for driving around the Ibizan hills.' Tunes like 'Heatwave' certainly evoke a sun-kissed, chilled-out Mediterranean mood. Italian guitarist Andrea Terrano's album is produced by Felix Buxton of Basement Jaxx. Fellow guitarist Rafa Marchante supports Andrea on a couple of tracks while elsewhere there are sympathetic touches of cello, violin and flute. 

'Sugar Rush', 'La Song Gaucho' and 'Autumn Symphony' (the latter driven along by Raul Terzi's drumming) offer a groovy kind of flamenco not unlike the flamenco jazz fusion of the likes of Eduardo Niebla.

The dramatic 'Our Story' is pure Ennio Morricone and the wittily-titled 'Braindrops' twists and turns pleasingly, while the closing track (or should I say end credits) 'Cinemotions' leaves us in no doubt that Andrea has ambitions to write film soundtracks and this could be another theme to a spaghetti western that never was.  Innamorata the title is Italian for 'lover' by the way – is a varied, uplifting collection of original tunes, played with verve and obvious enjoyment.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Sprains and strains and darkest hours

Keswick's Alhambra cinema
In my early twenties I visited the Alhambra – the fortified Moorish palace built between 1248 and 1354 near the Andalusian city of Granada. Of course, the grandeur and majesty of the place was impressive but my abiding memory of my visit was pain and exhaustion after climbing the hill in the heat with a swollen (or possibly sprained) ankle. I soaked a towel in a fountain to use as a cold compress for my foot as we rested up on the ancient ramparts.

Now I'm in my mid-fifties and, on a visit last month to the Lake District, I somehow managed to injure my knee at the start of a week's walking holiday. So, once again, I found myself nursing a sprain or strain of some sort at The Alhambra ...this time The Alhambra Cinema in Keswick, one of the few cinemas in the UK to have been in continuous operation for over 100 years, since it first opened in 1914.

We had gone to see The Darkest Hour (which has since deservedly won a couple of Oscars.) The film, in case it's passed you by, is about Winston Churchill, ineffectual government, the threat of invasion and the power of rhetoric. While the story is part-myth, part-fantasy, part-history, The Darkest Hour resonated with me because it feels we are once again living through dark times, contending with tyrannical forces threatening the world's tenuous hold on peace and freedom while our hapless politicians struggle to produce memorable soundbites, never mind speeches that might capture the mood of the nation.

Thomas Carlyle
Later, In the Oxfam bookshop in Keswick, I happen upon a Collins Illustrated Pocket Classic edition of Thomas Carlyle's 1841 book On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History. Originally retailing for one shilling, I pick up my copy for a mere £2.99. I reference Carlyle – the Victorian philosopher and essayist – in my new book Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice, in a chapter called Creative Approaches to Learning and Leadership. Carlyle is credited with creating the so-called Great Man Theory of leadership, of which Churchill is often cited as a classic example. If the idea that history provides great men to lead us in our darkest hours is a questionable one, it remains an attractive and compelling myth, from King Arthur's Camelot to The Darkest Hour. Yet, we all know it is the ordinary men and women, like the character of Churchill's secretary, Elizabeth Layton, and the passengers Churchill meets on the London Underground in The Darkest Hour, who help make peace and freedom possible.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Loopy, multi-layered guitar wizardry

Gordon Giltrap

Huntingdon Hall, Worcester
Saturday 13th January

People had been telling me for years that I should go and see Gordon Giltrap live. The publicity describes his show as one that "guarantees to enthral guitar aficionados, acoustic enthusiasts and music lovers in general" and there was no shortage of middle-aged men in the bar during the interval who could be overheard saying, "Yeah, well, I used to play a bit of guitar but, when I see Gordon, I think I may as well give up!"

We took our pews in Worcester's magnificent Huntingdon Hall – an 18th Century former Methodist church and surely the city's most atmospheric music venue. Sitting centre-stage surrounded by an array of guitars Giltrap worked his way through an impressive selection of tunes including the loopy, multi-layered 'The Dodo's Dream' and his homage to childhood seaside holidays 'On Camber Sands' with its rippling, dappled arpeggios. Complaining of temporary deafness in one ear due to a virus, he asked the audience to confirm that his favoured 'ping-pong' delay effect was working properly.

Some may think of Giltrap's music as slightly irrelevant, a remnant of the late 60s folk scene that wandered off the singer-songwriter route into the side-roads of 1970s instrumental prog-pop guitar wizardry. But he is a survivor and a reminder of that talented group of artists – and of that particular sound associated with the Transatlantic label, that included the likes of Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Pentangle.

Not surprisingly, Giltrap saved 'Heartsong' (which made the top thirty in 1977) for the finale and encored with the dark, complex 'Lucifer's Cage', hopefully inspiring all those middle-aged lapsed guitarists to go home and dust off their instruments.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Ancient end-of-year traditions - Bonfires and Bongaloos

As the days grew shorter, darker and colder, we decided we would make one last trip away from home before settling down to Christmas and the New Year. Regular readers of this blog will know Rye in Sussex is a special destination for us and so, in November, we revisited the magical medieval town perched on a hill in time to witness its famous bonfire night.  Dating back several hundred years, ‘Rye Fawkes’ night predates the gunpowder plot and features not only the bonfire and fireworks associated with bonfire nights all over the UK but also burning boats, fire-breathing dragons and a spectacular procession of flaming torches through the town's streets. Its history is obscure but it seems to be less about Guy Fawkes & Co. and more about a curious mixture of disguise, revelry, smugglers, warding off the threat of invasion and ancient end-of-year traditions of banishing evil with flaming torches.

The 2014 edition of Rye Royal
The pageant of Rye bonfire provided the backdrop to Malcolm Saville's 1969 book Rye Royal. When the book was republished in 2014 (by Girls Gone By Publishers) I was privileged and delighted to be asked to write an introduction for the new edition. Of course, it is to the children's adventures of Saville that I owe my fascination with Rye and the surrounding area so it seemed appropriate that we should make the short journey from Rye to neighbouring Winchelsea, where Saville lived throughout the 1970s. He died in 1982 and his ashes are buried in the Garden of Remembrance at Winchelsea church (the Church of St Thomas.) We chatted with a local resident at the gates of the churchyard who said he knew Saville had lived in the town but didn't realise his ashes were buried there. He did, however, point out the grave of another famous former resident of Rye – Spike Milligan.  The already rather worn tombstone of Milligan (who died in 2002) famously bears the Irish epitaph "Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite" ("I told you I was ill") – a last joke by the comedian.

I can remember a day, when I was at primary school, when the teacher read us some poetry by Spike Milligan.  I was completely captivated by lines such as:
"On the Ning Nang Nong
Where the Cows go Bong!
and the monkeys all say BOO!
There's a Nong Nang Ning
Where the trees go Ping!
And the teapots jibber jabber joo."

I raved about these poems to my sister Jan (who happened to work at Wildings bookshop in Shrewsbury) and she came home with a gift for me:  a yellow paperback copy of Milligan's Silly Verse for Kids. I read and memorised some of the poems, like Bongaloo:
"How strange is a Bongaloo, Daddy?"
"As strange as strange," I replied.
"When the sun's in the West
It appears in a vest
Sailing out with the noonday tide."

It may have been nonsense but it was poetry. Just as Saville's novels would later make me yearn for adventure, travel and loyal friendships (not to mention fostering a love of books and a desire to be an author) so Milligan's verse (with its wit, perfect rhythm, alliteration and assonance) was surely an excellent foundation for an aspiring songwriter with an appreciation of the surreal and the absurd.  Strange, then, that these two writers, so influential to me, should both be laid to rest in the grounds of the same church in Winchelsea.

Part of the charm of the sister towns of Rye and Winchelsea is that they are both a little lost in time. Some things have changed, though, since our last visit. The windmill where we stayed has new owners and, in Lion Street, buildings that were once a Victorian schoolhouse (and later a library) now house a wonderful state-of-the-art cinema – the Kino Rye. It's surely a hopeful sign that places can celebrate their long history and ancient traditions and still develop beautiful new venues for arts and entertainment.  I'd like to think both Saville and Milligan would approve.

Saville, in his Portrait of Rye, wrote:
"It is difficult to assess the magnetism of this historic little town. I have come to believe that in this unhappy age of standardization and mediocrity, Rye stands alone, sufficient to itself. It is not indifferent to the outside world but history has left its mark."

Milligan, in his book Puckoon, wrote:
“Life wasn't too bad. The trouble with Man was, even while he was having a good time, he didn't appreciate it. Why, thought Milligan, this very moment might be the happiest in me life. The very thought of it made him miserable.”
Happy New Year!

About me

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Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton, a freelance writer, trainer and musician. He is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing' (2002) and 'Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice' (2018).