Saturday, 18 March 2017

Maggie Roche (1951-2017)

Maggie Roche, ©Irene Young, 1979
We don't usually do obituaries here at the Passengers in Time blog, but this time we'll make an exception for a remarkable and underrated artist. The pantheon of late sixties/early seventies pop and rock music continues to lose some of its brightest and best as 2017 gets underway. The obituaries section of April's Uncut magazine pays tribute to members of Can, The Allman Brothers, Mott the Hoople, King Crimson, Spooky Tooth and Man – not to mention that quirkiest of singer/songwriters Peter Sarstedt.  But I was particularly shocked and deeply saddened to read of the death of Maggie Roche. The 1979 album The Roches (featuring the perfect harmonies and highly original songwriting of the three sisters Maggie, Terri and Suzzy) is very close to my heart as the soundtrack to my first year away from home at university. Maggie, the eldest of the sisters, was responsible for writing the soaring, heartrending "Hammond Song" from that album and the wittily poignant "The Married Men".

When I as eighteen going on nineteen the three Irish-American sisters from New Jersey seemed to epitomise just how much fun could be had with acoustic guitars and a devil-may-care attitude. Their 1982 album Keep on Doing emboldened me and my friends to keep writing and playing music against the odds.

All three sisters seemed equally gifted songwriters yet The Roches never fully achieved mainstream success. Considered perhaps too twee for some tastes they resolutely continued to produce albums of elegantly-crafted, beautifully-observed songs. Maggie's contributions were often infused with an underlying sadness as well as a self-deprecating humour. She wrote the title track to their 1989 album Speak - a song about being lost for words – as well as the lovely "Broken Places".

If the music of The Roches has passed you by then I suggest you explore their back catalogue and discover what the New York Times described, in their obituary of Maggie Roche, as a "pop-folk songwriting style that could be droll or diaristic, full of unexpected melodic turns."

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Portable ecstasies – Wordsworth's spectacles and square oranges

Derwentwater (c) Tony Gillam
Perhaps the more dramatic the landscape you inhabit, the more romantic the literature you produce. Think of the Brontës and their West Yorkshire moors ... and, of course, the Wordsworths – William and his sister Dorothy – (not forgetting their good friend Coleridge) and the English Lake District. The grandeur of Derwentwater and Grasmere, even in chilly February, is always inspirational but it was the small domestic details of Wordsworth's life on display at Dove Cottage and the adjoining museum that captured my imagination. Here you can see the poet's special writing chair which had flat armrests to use as a writing surface – because Wordsworth hated sitting at a desk. And here, also, his blue-lensed spectacles, more redolent somehow of John Lennon than of the author of The Prelude. It's easy to imagine, with the heady Lakeland air all around and an opium-induced haze (courtesy of friends like Coleridge and De Quincey), Wordsworth squinting at the world through blue-tinted glasses and inadvertently laying the foundations not only of Romanticism but of psychedelia too.

Thomas de Quincey, fan and friend of Wordsworth, memorably celebrated opium in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater:“here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered; happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat-pocket; portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint-bottle; and peace of mind could be sent down by the mail.”

Now, I should explain that no opium or related substances were involved in our recent trip to the Lake District but we did enjoy more innocent delights, some of which de Quincey also appreciated: “Surely everyone is aware of the divine pleasures which attend a wintry fireside; candles at four o'clock, warm hearthrugs, tea, a fair tea-maker, shutters closed, curtains flowing in ample draperies to the floor, whilst the wind and rain are raging audibly without.”

Village School, Grasmere (c) Tony Gillam
There is something ineffably cosy about a stay in the Lake District and the area is reinvigorating in so many ways. Being surrounded by so much natural beauty and bracing weather is restorative enough, but it's an area rich in sensory not to say sometimes psychedelic-sounding pleasures. For example, the scent alone – not to mention the taste – of fresh gingerbread, made in the tiny village school building in Grasmere where William and Dorothy once taught local children (convinced, as the Wordsworths were, that universal education was the means to escape poverty and ignorance.) Then there is the craft bakery and tea rooms Bryson's of Keswick selling, alongside their gorgeous fresh loaves and cakes, bottles of toffee vodka.  Yes.  Toffee vodka. ('It goes very well with Prosecco,' said the sales assistant, conspiratorially.) 

The Square Orange, Keswick
Or perhaps you'd like to try a rhubarb cheesecake with your coffee at Keswick's Square Orange Cafe Bar, or be brave enough to order a glass of Kwak (a Belgian beer that appears to be served in an hourglass-shaped glass.) It was at the Square Orange that we caught a live performance by Lancaster-based singer-songwriter Felicity Harris who just stood up and played (completely unamplified) a selection of her own songs and some very unexpected cover versions, including Laurel & Hardy's Blue Ridge Mountains Of Virginia.

Unlike de Quincey's opium, it's not always so easy to bottle the pleasures of a stay in the Lake District: the landscape that inspired the Romantic poets, good Cumberland beer in friendly, cosy pubs, miles and miles of walking. But perhaps a visit there every now and then, and the memory of the place, will keep at bay what Coleridge called Dejection and those attendant feelings Wordsworth described of "sorrow, disappointment, vexing thoughts, /Confusion of the judgment, zeal decayed, /And, lastly, utter loss of hope itself/ And things to hope for!" As Wordsworth reminds us in The Prelude: "Not with these began/Our song, and not with these our song must end."

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Scandinavia on my mind

What links these three books: Tove Jansson's A Winter Book, Hold Tight by Felicity Fair Thompson and The Rough Guide to Scandinavia? Well, one answer to that question is that I've recently been reading all three.  But, that's a bit unfair, unless you've been sneaking around my house spying on me (and I'm sure you're much too polite to have been doing that.)  So, here's another answer...

Many of us are keen on (not to say addicted to) dark Scandinavian thrillers – the genre known as Scandi noir (sometimes referred to as  Nordic noir.)  Even if we don't read the books, TV dramas like The Killing, Wallander and The Bridge, have set a high standard for compelling storytelling, intriguing characters and reliably fine acting and directing. But it's worth reminding ourselves that not all Scandinavian fiction is in this genre and, equally, not all crime thrillers are Scandinavian.    

Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is fondly remembered as the Swedish-speaking Finnish writer and artist who created the Moomin stories, but I really enjoy her books for adults. In the past I've read her novels The Summer Book and Fair Play and so, this winter, it seemed appropriate to read a collection of her short stories A Winter Book. Regular readers of this blog will known I'm a great fan of the short story form and Jansson's are wonderfully succinct, beguiling examples. At times she writes from the perspective of a small child, with a partial grasp of the world around her; at other times, her point of view is an older adult who really should know better. In my view, they occupy an area between memoir and fiction, and between reality and dream, edging towards magical realism but remaining grounded. The independent publisher Sort Of Books is to be applauded for reissuing eight of Jansson's books for adults. 

I mentioned that, just as not all Scandinavian fiction is crime, so not all crime fiction is Scandinavian. Felicity Fair Thompson is an author based on the Isle of Wight. I've reviewed some of her other books in this blog. Hold Tight is set in Hampshire but it's as dark and gritty as anything coming out of Sweden or Denmark. The crime at the heart of Hold Tight is child abduction and its central character, WPC Jane Velalley, has to contend with unreliable male partners and colleagues who are variously unfaithful or sexist. The society portrayed is one that doesn't make life easy for female professionals juggling family life and a demanding job, and a world where children are vulnerable ... and so, perhaps, are adults. Felicity Fair Thompson shows that, whether she's writing for adults or younger readers (as with her equally enjoyable The Kid on Slapton Beach), her narrative style carries the reader along with her.

... And so to the Rough Guide to Scandinavia. Well, of course, we've been talking about Scandi noir and Tove Jansson and I've started perusing this particular Rough Guide because we're thinking about visiting Denmark later this year. If that seems like a bit of a tenuous link, it also turns out that Mark Ellingham and Natania Jansz who run the aforementioned Sort Of Books were also the founders of the Rough Guide series of travel books.

One thing that puzzles me, though. The Rough Guide to Scandinavia covers Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland but my dictionary tells me Scandinavia is a cultural region consisting of Norway, Sweden and Denmark and sometimes also includes Iceland, Finland, and the Faroe Islands. I always assumed Finland was definitely in Scandinavia – and Iceland too. Indeed, the famously Icelandic Bjork, in her song Hunter, sang: " I thought I could organize freedom / How Scandinavian of me..."

Whether or not we judge Finland and Iceland as Scandinavian, I'm pretty sure we can agree that both Hampshire and the Isle of Wight are just a little too southerly to be included.  

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Gypsy jazz and more at the Ginger Pig

Remi Harris Project at the Ginger Pig Cafe Bar, Worcester, 

Friday 11 November

The poster at Worcester's Ginger Pig described Remi Harris as an "up and coming guitarist" but he has surely already well and truly arrived. With appearances at the Montreal Jazz Festival and the BBC Proms and airplay on Jamie Cullum's Radio 2 show it's commendable that Remi still plays intimate local venues. Accompanied perfectly by his never-failing rhythm section of guitar and double bass, Remi was equally at home playing acoustic or electric and ranging effortlessly across gypsy swing, jazz and blues and everything in between. The set was breathtakingly varied. 'Over the Rainbow' wandered unexpectedly into Willy Wonka territory with 'Pure Imagination'. Other highlights of the evening were an exquisite version of the Beatles' 'In My Life' and a dazzling rendition of Tunisian oud player Dhafer Youssef's 'Odd Elegy', with its unfathomable time signatures.

As a proponent of gypsy jazz, you'd expect the spirit of Django Reinhardt to loom large at a Remi Harris gig, but less predictable was the summoning of the ghost of Jimi Hendrix.

Totally absorbed in his music, Remi almost forgot to mention that his second album, 'In on The 2', was available at the gig. Standout tracks from the new CD included the Wes Montgomery tune 'Bock to Bock' and Peter Green's 'Need Your Love So Bad'. Fond of quoting little snippets of tunes – even Chuck Berry makes a brief appearance – Remi is always tasteful with this technique and never labours the joke. It might be said this is jazz and blues for people who don't really like jazz or blues, but that might suggest it's in some way dumbed down. In fact, Remi's gift is that he's able to infuse the music with intelligence, warmth and wit making it accessible to the wide audience it deserves.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Autumn Hymns, New Living Rooms and Leaky Boats – a round-up of some of the best acoustic music you may not yet have discovered

Of what we spoke by Threaded ... The James Brothers by The James Brothers ... Autumn's Hymn by Son of John

Threaded are a classically-trained folk trio from the English Midlands and Of what we spoke is their first release. If you think the clarinet deserves more prominence in folk music, you'll probably take a shine to Threaded, who blend Jamie Rutherford's guitar with Rosie Bott's clarinet and the violin of Ning-Ning Li (whose illustrations also grace the beautifully-designed album cover.) The quirky opening track, 'The New Living Room' , sounds like it could have been a slightly manic piece of incidental music from 'Pogles' Wood' or 'Ivor the Engine'.

The collection intersperses Rutherfords' songs with an agreeable variety of instrumentals. Some of the songs are more effective than others. 'Left Off', a tender ballad of lost friendship, has shades of Nickel Creek and stays with the listener. While I admired the idea of setting Robert Browning's 'Pied Piper of Hamelin' as a song, the result - 'A Secret Charm' - is not entirely successful. On the whole, the instrumentals work best, from the delicate 'The Courtyard' (where Bott's clarinet somehow evokes the sound of a fairground organ) to 'Captain Markham' (imagine Rodrigo y Gabriela swapping guitars for violin and clarinet.)

Next up, the eponymous debut album of The James Brothers (alias Australian James Fagan and New Zealander Jamie McClennan), which was recorded in Scotland and mastered in Nashville. These songs, tunes and shanties are well-travelled, steeped in the tradition of the British Isles but distinctly antipodean. 'Hey Rain' complains about the fact that 'there's rain in me beer and there's rain in me grub' ... not to mention 'a Johnstone River crocodile livin' in me fridge'.

McClennan plays fiddle and guitar while his vocals are strangely reminiscent of Al Stewart (on songs like 'Shearing's Coming Round' and 'Leatherman'.) Fagan shares vocals and guitar duties but the real synergy comes in the mellifluous blend of McClennan's guitar and Fagan's bouzouki on tracks like 'Family Tree' and 'The Voyage of the Buffalo' (a tale of an ill-fated ship that transports convicts to Australia and returns to England with a cargo of New Zealand timber.) The duo further demonstrate their Australasian credentials with 'The Ballad of Ned Kelly' and a cover of 'Six Months in a Leaky Boat' (a Tim Finn composition from his Split Enz period which, when given The James Brothers' treatment, is revealed as a Crowded House song in disguise.)

Finally, the perfect accompaniment to these mellow, fruitful days and dark autumn evenings is surely Autumn's Hymn by Worcestershire-based Son of John. Son of John is, in fact, singer/songwriter and acoustic guitar virtuoso Jacob Johnson. The whole album has an earthy, traditional feel – though eight of the ten tracks are Jacob's original compositions. Both his guitar and vocal style (not to mention his banjo-playing) betray a devotion to the music of Martin Simpson while the choice of the traditional 'Spencer the Rover' suggests John Martyn is no small influence on this talented young artist.

The opening track 'Baseborn' has a lilting guitar figure and a compelling lyric: '... And the tale is far from done/and the song still sung/as it echoes round the halls/it breaks down the doors ... ' 'The Maid and the King' reminded me somehow of an early Suzanne Vega song, 'The Queen and the Soldier', while the dark arrangements of the title track and 'Let Me Rest', with their haunting female backing vocals, violin, jaw harp and handclaps on the offbeat, transport us into Ennio Morricone territory. If you like your contemporary English folk infused with a touch of Americana and blues, you need to listen to Son of John.

Further information:
The James
Son of John:

Monday, 10 October 2016

I'm Not Just Being Nice About Dean Friedman

Dean Friedman at The Artrix, Bromsgrove, Sunday 25 September

Not everyone can remember who Dean Friedman is.  My sister, Jan, for instance. So we tried singing her a few snatches of his hits from 1977-78 ...  Lydia and Ariel and Lucky Stars ... but she still couldn't quite get it. By contrast, my brother Phil had fond memories of the album Well, Well, Said the Rocking Chair which I'd bought in 1978 – around the same time that I added Kate Bush's The Kick Inside to my record collection. 1978 was a great year for quirky, piano-playing singer-songwriters with unique vocal styles. Phil told me he'd been listening to Dean's back catalogue on Spotify and I happened to know that Dean was touring again – so we caught up with him in the intimate surroundings of Bromsgrove's Artrix.

Dean was supported by Michael Armstrong - a performer whose version of Allentown sounds more like Billy Joel than Billy Joel. After some original songs and covers from Michael it was time for the main man. 

Dean regaled us all with beautiful versions of many of his more lyrical songs - including Company, Shopping Bag Ladies and Saturday Fathers – but was also unexpectedly funny and self-deprecating. He mused that, when we had told our friends or colleagues we were going to see Dean Friedman, we were probably met with the reaction 'Dean who?' He also talked about the band Half Man, Half Biscuit, who had recorded a song called The Bastard Son of Dean Friedman.  Dean had written his own riposte to this in the form of A Baker's Tale, in which he speculates upon the real origins of Half Man Half Biscuit's Nigel Blackwell. In a similar darkly comic vein Death to the Neighbours is viciously hilarious.  

With rosy cheeks, white beard and a mane of white hair, Dean wouldn't look out of place starring in a remake of Miracle on 34th Street. As a performer he is as engaging and impressive as ever - his voice still soaring and powerful on Ariel, leading us onward to a touching version of Lucky Stars in which the audience has to sing the part originally sung by Denise Marsa. The result is Dean dueting with his audience ... women of a certain age – and some very deep-voiced men  – unashamedly singing the call and response:
Do you still love me?
Yes, I still love you.
You mean, you're not just being nice?
No, I'm not just being nice.
Do you feel sleepy?
Aw, you're so sincere. Yes, I feel sleepy.
Well, slide over here ...

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Something Magic? - Felicity Fair Thompson's 'Hugo the Hungry Pig' reviewed

Hugo the Hungry Pig 
by Felicity Fair Thompson
Wight Diamond Press

In December we mentioned Felicity Fair Thompson's novel The Kid on Slapton Beach (see Chillies, Sherman tanks and super-moons.) Felicity has kindly sent us some of her other books so here we review something for a rather younger audience:

Something magic. The brush ran round the paper. This something looked like a pig. Ben gave it little ears and a curly tail. He coloured it orange and painted huge blue flowers on its back. He called his pig Hugo.

Felicity Fair Thompson's first book for very young children - Hugo the Hungry Pig - is an agreeable tale.  Adults can read it aloud and it seems perfectly designed for reading and sharing together.  An extra dimension of interactivity is provided by an occasional page for colouring in, space for adding a 'magic picture' of one's own and a dot-to-dot. All Wight Diamond Press's books are beautifully produced and Hugo the Hungry Pig is no exception.

The story is uncomplicated enough but the author conveys, in very simple language, a reassuringly warm and loving relationship between Ben and his mother.  Mum is an artist who finds time to take Ben to the library and on trips to the park where they can sketch together.  If there's a moral to the story it's that artistic activity, creativity and the imagination are to be valued. When Ben asks his teacher to explain what magic is, she says, 'Well, it's sort of special. Something you can't explain.'  Hugo the Hungry Pig reminds us that the things that are special and hard to explain are worthwhile.

About me

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Tony Gillam lives in Worcestershire and his fiction and non-fiction has appeared in national magazines and newspapers, academic journals, textbooks and blogs. His blog – – purports to be about books, music ... and time travel. Tony is also a singer-songwriter, guitarist and dulcimer player with Worcestershire's most undiscovered indie-folk band Fracture Zone.