Sunday, 17 April 2016

Skipping the Light Fandango at The Mended Drum

I've been a bit quiet on the blogging front recently.  In March, I was kept busy with helping to run various training courses in Birmingham, Worcester and York.  In Birmingham, I spent half a day at The Beeches in Bournville - a lovely venue built by the Cadbury family in the early 1900s, only half a mile from Cadbury World. In Worcester, I spent a day at The Fownes Hotel (a converted Victorian glove factory) and, between these courses in Birmingham and Worcester, I was sequestered for a week at the former Victorian mansion that is now the Burn Hall Hotel near the village of Huby, ten miles outside York.  The staff at the Burn Hall Hotel were amazingly helpful (especially the ever-resourceful and cheerful Operations Manager, Leo.)

I was helping with a training course for the Tees, Esk and Wea Valleys NHS Foundation Trust who claim to cover a catchment area the size of Holland.  Their patch seemed, to me, to equate roughly with the old Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. Taking an evening walk to the village pub, with deer in the fields and kestrels flying overhead, it was easy to imagine I had travelled back in time to Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, and I was quite prepared for a skirmish with a few Vikings on my way to the nearest pub.  Fortunately, all I had to do was dodge the passing traffic and get out of the way of a few lumbering tractors before taking sanctuary at The Mended Drum (apparently a reference to  a hostelry in Terry Pratchett's Discworld.)

The owner of The Mended Drum has impeccable taste in music (1970s singer-songwriters) and a great choice of real ale. Me being a fan of beer and Procol Harum, I tried a pint or two of something called Whiter Shade of Pale which, thankfully, didn't cause me to skip the light fandango or to turn cartwheels cross the floor ... but it was very nice!

We only made it into York city centre once.  My favourite Mexican restaurant in York - Fiesta Latina - was still closed due to the recent floods, but we had a lovely vegetarian meal at a very hospitable place called the Go Down Restaurant (also in Clifford Street).

Returning home after all this training and travelling - a veritable passenger in time - I was pleased to find Wight Diamond Press had sent me a couple of books to review (including Felicity Fair Thompson's latest novel Hold Tight.)  And then yesterday I received the latest issue of Songlines  magazine (including a couple of CD reviews by yours truly) and a copy of The Persephone Biannually, including - in the section Our Bloggers Write - a snippet from this very blog's review of RC Sherriff's Greengates.  All of which makes me feel Passengers in Time is really connecting with the world of music and books ... as indeed it should.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Six Apples a Day - RC Sherriff's 'Greengates' and the Cataclysm of Retirement

In June of last year I wrote that I had just finished reading RC Sherriff's The Hopkins Manuscript - a novel about the moon colliding with Earth, first published in 1939 and republished in 2005 by Persephone Books.  Now, Persephone have brought out Sherriff's 1936 book Greengates. No interplanetary collisions occur this time, but the retirement of central character Tom Baldwin is hardly less cataclysmic.   

Tom has "worked for forty years to earn the pleasure of sitting by his fire on a week-day afternoon:  he had gone to work in the dawn of winter days:  through snow, and blinding rain - he had sat for hours in bitter fogbound trains - for six months at a stretch he had scarcely seen his home by the light of day."  Any of us who do the daily commute, whether by unreliable train or through roadworks and traffic jams - particularly in the inclement British weather - surely don't begrudge Tom his hard-earned retirement.  We may envy those who are able to retire; we may even fantasise about our own retirement, though the idea of retirement has changed considerably since the 1930s when Greengates was first published.  Over the next two decades, the state pension age in the UK will move up to 68 and people can go on working for as long as they wish.  Average life expectancy in England rises to 81 years this decade; in the 1930s a man would be doing well to survive into his 60s.  The 'demographic time-bomb' means governments struggle to support 'unproductive' citizens and are phasing out default retirement ages; people may not be able to afford to simply sit by the fire on weekday afternoons even if they wanted to and, of course, many surprisingly sprightly older people wouldn't be satisfied with that and so take up second careers, vigorously pursue hobbies or continue their education. 

For Tom and his wife Edith, retirement brings first freedom ... and then panic. Tom begins to regard his retirement "as a marooned man might think as he calculates the time his food will last" - he contemplates filling his leisure time with sticking cuttings in his scrapbook, a picture frame that needs repairing, some drawers that need clearing out, the garden, afternoon walks and books to read. "He had been given his reward for forty years of work. He had yearned a thousand times for freedom, and now that it had come he was afraid of it. It was the fear of a man who having habitually enjoyed two apples a day, is suddenly called upon to eat six in the same period."

For Tom's wife Edith, the panic is not so much about a surfeit of leisure time but the way Tom's retirement highlights a marriage that is, perhaps not as fulfilling as it should be:  "They used to have lots of friends, but these had gradually left the neighbourhood and they had never troubled to replace them. They had been sufficient to each other while they only had a few hours together each day - but now? ... it was a great pity."

In delightfully well-crafted sentences and highly original imagery, Sherriff explores his themes of retirement and the need for a purpose in life.  At the office, with the presentation of the inevitable retirement clock, Tom's colleagues gaze with "the sort of smiles used at weddings, turned on very carefully to half-pressure to prevent them wearing out too soon..."

RC Sherriff - intriguing and paradoxical 
Sherriff himself is an intriguing and paradoxical character - a war hero and an insurance man, who enjoyed the glamour and excitement of being a Hollywood screenwriter but who lived with his mother for most of his life.  And, at the time of writing Greengates, Sherriff was an unmarried man in his late 30s who was able to get inside the mind of an ageing married retiree.   

Greengates has, as its main theme, retirement and - to borrow a phrase from Alain de Botton - the pleasures and sorrows of work. But another theme in the novel is home ownership - as a burden or an adventure.  It suggests that a new home - and a new project - can provide an antidote to depression and old age. The old house and the new house are almost characters in themselves.  The new-built house is "so gloriously clean and airy. Its very plainness and simplicity captured the imagination and gave one the feeling of being in a ship bound for some high-spirited adventure. One could never feel depressed or ill in such a room..."  Tom and Edith are seeking to escape old age and depression and the greatest adventure imaginable to such a stay-at-home couple is to exchange their old depressing house for a new one.

Tom estimates the value of their old house at £1,000 ("say £900 at the lowest") - it's not only life expectancy that's increased since the 1930s.  But despite being worth this princely sum, the old house - and its worn-out garden - have lost their appeal: "The garden was old and tired and wanted to be left alone ..." while the house was unreasonably expected "to remain fresh and young out of respect for his pretence at remaining young himself. The dining room was old and dull because the young man and the girl who had furnished it were old themselves..."

Greengates is the third Sherriff novel Persephone have republished.  I wonder whether they might next consider bringing out a new edition of his 1968 autobiography No Leading Lady.  From the First World War to London's West End in the 1920s and on to 1930s Hollywood, this would surely be a good read worthy of Persephone's mission to reprint neglected fiction and non-fiction.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Mysteries and Coincidences

Every now and then, I like to go to the pub and catch up on reading some of my backlog of magazines while nursing a pint of real ale.  Sometimes it's Resurgence, sometimes Songlines or Shindig!, occasionally Lonely Planet.  Readers of this blog will know my tastes.  Yesterday it was the Summer 2015 issue of Acoustic magazine (for acoustic guitarists who care about Phosphor Bronze strings and appreciate Fishman pick-ups or, in my case, pretend to know what they are.) Why the Summer 2015 issue?  Well, I told you I had a backlog of magazine reading.

The mandolin that survived D-Day
 (image courtesy of Acoustic magazine)
In last month's blog post I wrote about Exercise Tiger and the Sherman Tank reclaimed from the sea at Torcross. The last place I expected to stumble across another Exercise Tiger story was in the pages of Acoustic magazine.  Yet here was an article written by Gordon Giltrap about a mandolin that survived Exercise Tiger. It seems Ken Small (the man who rescued the tank and established the memorial at Torcross) was given a mandolin that had been signed by some of the soldiers who took part in the exercises - the servicemen had scratched their names into the back of the instrument, which went with them to Omaha beach ... and was eventually returned to Devon. So now Ken's son Dean is the custodian of both the barnacled Sherman tank and the remarkable, war-veteran mandolin.

And, if finding an Exercise Tiger-related story in a magazine for acoustic guitarists isn't strange enough when, out of idle curiosity, I checked the stats for the Passengers in Time blog this evening it turns out that, while I was down the pub reading Acoustic magazine yesterday, 55 people were reading this blog. Why? I have no idea - but it seems we're big in Russia at the moment with 68 readers there, while some 48 people in Israel can't get enough of our eclectic mix of book, music and time-travel-related musings. We're also on our way to becoming a household name (kind of) in Vietnam, Malaysia and the Ukraine. So, let's hope stories about antique mandolins have a broad, international appeal.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Chillies, Sherman tanks and super-moons

As we hurtle, once again, towards the end of the year - and, of course, Christmas - it's pleasant to recollect late summer travels. In the final week of September, we managed to have a summer holiday at the very last moment before the switch was thrown and autumn kicked in.

Festive-looking chilli?
(c) Tony Gillam
The part of the Devon coastline that lies between Torbay in the west and Plymouth to the east is known as the South Hams.  Apart from a dimly-recalled holiday in Paignton when I was 13, I had no memory of visiting this part of the world, but I'd heard good things about the pretty towns of Totnes and Kingsbridge.

Colourful and quirky
(c) Tony Gillam

The area was full of surprises - some colourful and quirky, some poignant and solemn.  On the colourful, quirky end of the scale was the South Devon Chilli Farm at Loddiswell. Here you could sample pieces of chilli chocolate or enjoy a savoury variation on the theme of a traditional Devon cream tea - a cheese scone with chilli jam.  The chillies in the show tunnel are a joyful sight and seeing images of them now, in the run-up to Christmas, they have an almost festive look about them.  The place does for chillies what Yorkshire Lavender does for lavender (see Windmills, pineapple sage and a dream pub - December 2010).

The  Exercise Tiger Memorial at Torcross
(c) Tony Gillam
If we were somewhat surprised to find a chilli farm in the Devon countryside, imagine our amazement at coming across an American Sherman tank from the Second World War, overlooking the coastline at Torcross.  The tank was salvaged from the sea in 1984 - four decades after it had been submerged during Exercise Tiger.  In 1943, Torcross and other villages in the area were evacuated and requisitioned by 30,000 US troops, in order to practice for the D-Day landings.  Slapton Sands was considered an ideal place to rehearse the landings that would take place for real in June 1944. Exercise Tiger turned out to be one of the great tragedies of World War Two.  Troops practising came under real attack, both from German E-boats on a reconnaissance mission and from 'friendly fire' as, to make the exercise as realistic as possible, a decision had been taken to use real ammunition.  Nearly 1,000 lives were lost in the operation and, presumably so as not to damage morale or jeopardise the real, planned invasion, the tragedy was kept secret until after the war. A few weeks after Exercise Tiger, in the actual D-Day landings on Utah beach, around 200 men were killed. Had it not been for the exercise, many more allied troops would have died on D-Day (including, perhaps, my own dad ... in which case I wouldn't be around today to write this tribute to all those brave young men.)

In a bookshop in Dartmouth, I spotted a novel based on the events of Exercise Tiger.  The Kid on Slapton Beach by Felicity Fair Thompson tells the story of the evacuation of Slapton and Torcross from the point of view of a twelve year old boy.  This beautifully produced novel (suitable for children or adults) is a compelling adventure with a proper villain and a brave young protagonist.  In simple, pacey prose, the turmoil of the characters is dramatically conveyed, against the backdrop of Torcross and Totnes, giving a real sense of the upheaval of a community and the terror and confusion of war.

(The author Felicity Fair Thompson was born in Australia and worked as a dancer and in West End theatre management, before becoming a novelist and screenwriter.)

And, if chilli farms and Sherman tanks weren't enough excitement for one summer holiday, this was also the week that a total lunar eclipse coincided with a super-moon - also known as a full perigee moon, or blood moon, because of its blood-red appearance.  The prospect of this was a bit alarming as I'd recently read RC Sherriff's The Hopkins Manuscript - a novel about the moon colliding with Earth (see Two Forces for Civilisation- June 2015).  

We did see the super-moon over our village and, luckily, it kept a respectful distance from Earth. It was eerily large but sadly didn't appear blood-red and, by the time of the eclipse, we were fast asleep. So, I suppose, we'll just have to wait until 2033 for the next one. But, in the meantime, let's enjoy what remains of 2015 and look forward to a peaceful and enjoyable Christmas.
Slapton Sands, September 2015
(c) Tony Gillam

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Hey, Hey, it's The Monkees at Moseley Folk Festival!

The Monkees - Sunday 6 September, Moseley Park, Birmingham
The final day of the tenth Moseley Folk Festival saw glorious, late summer weather and a spectacle of equally dazzling music - some of it definitely folk, some stretching the definition to the limit. On the unarguably folk end of the spectrum, we had veteran performers Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick.

With a more contemporary feel, but still very much in the English folk tradition, The Unthanks had reinvented themselves once again, this time with the big, fulsome sounds of their new Mount the Air album. Trumpets and strings augmented the haunting vocals of the Unthank sisters ... with the occasional burst of clog-dancing, of course.

Angels from the realms of glory? No, it's just The Polyphonic Spree
At the less folky end of things was that jubilant troupe of pop rockers from Dallas, The Polyphonic Spree, whose numerous members filled the stage in their white choir robes to share with us their joyous symphonic rock. This helped the sun-drenched, well-chilled crowds prepare their ears for the headlining act ... The Monkees.

Now, I suppose you could argue that the Monkees' music is so much a part of popular culture that it has become a kind of folk music. Hits like Last Train to Clarkesville, Steppin' Stone, Pleasant Valley Sunday, A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You and I'm a Believer had the enraptured audience joining in. Footage from the original Monkees TV series was projected at the back of the stage while Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork impressed us with their exuberance (not bad for a couple of septuagenarians) and their musicianship (not bad for artists who were famously said not to have played their own instruments.)  Micky sang in his distinctive and still powerful voice and played some rhythm guitar, his drumming duties taken care of by Peter's son, while Peter sang and switched between guitar and keyboards. A kettledrum was provided for Micky to play on his Randy Scouse Git (Alternate Title) while Peter's songwriting and guitar skills were showcased on several numbers including his For Pete's Sake (which some will remember as the old end credits music from the TV show) with its message of love, peace and freedom.

The Monkees about to be railroaded by the last train to Clarkesville
Perhaps the Monkees' songbook has passed into folk memory. A rerun of the series in the 1980s might account for some of it, as not everyone enjoying the performance in Moseley was old enough to remember the original airings but, regardless of age, everyone seemed to know all the lyrics. Micky joked, "You may know this one, but please don't join in ... it puts me off," before launching into Daydream Believer. Of course, everybody joined in. 

In an unexpected climax to the evening the numerous members of The Polyphonic Spree were invited back on stage to join in a rendition of the theme from The Monkees' 1968 film musical Head, The Porpoise Song, with its fitting if bizarre refrain: "but the porpoise is laughing, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye ..."

If you had suggested in the late sixties, as my big brother Phil and I watched The Monkees monkeying around on black and white TV, that one summer's evening five decades later we'd be standing in a park in Birmingham singing along with Micky and Peter well ... we would have called you a daydream believer. But now you know how happy we can be.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Harping on about Shrewsbury Folk Festival

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita

Shrewsbury Folk Festival, Shrewsbury, August 31

As the unrelenting English Bank Holiday rain intensified, some of the audience were probably seeking shelter. Others had eagerly taken up their positions for one of the festival highlights. It didn't take long for the fusion of Catrin Finch's harp and Seckou Keita's kora to captivate fans and newcomers alike. It's not every day Shropshire can enjoy this joyful, contemplative blending of strings from Wales and Senegal.  'You'll notice our act is quite strings-based,' joked Catrin. With the 47 strings of her harp  and Seckou's two koras (one with the usual 21 strings, the other his innovative double-necked kora) - they're not kidding.

The duo played a selection from their acclaimed 2013 debut album 'Clychau Dibon'. The focal point of the performance for me was a composition called 'Les Bras de Mer' which, Catrin explained, alluded to an Atlantis-like legend from her native West Wales. Under the waters of Cardigan Bay lies the sunken kingdom of Cantre'r Gwaelod, and ghostly church bells can sometimes still be heard. Towards the end of the piece, Catrin deftly recreates the peal of bells using the harmonics of her harp while Seckou keeps up the kora accompaniment ... all this while the rain from the Welsh borders drums gently on the canvas of the marquee.   

Seeing them live, it's no surprise they were judged Songlines' Best Cross-Cultural Collaboration in 2014. And it's no wonder they got a standing ovation from the entranced audience.  

Thursday, 23 July 2015

The Lone Piners return to the Long Mynd

(c) 2015 Tony Gillam
Pentabus Rural Theatre Company's production of 
The Lone Pine Club 
(a new play by Alice Birch) 
at Carding Mill Valley, Shropshire,  
Saturday 18 July

If you weren't already familiar with Malcolm Saville's Lone Pine adventures, what would you make of Pentabus's theatrical production The Lone Pine Club? That the stories are ginger-beer-infused tales, à la Famous Five, about a group of 1950s children ... and a small dog?  That there's an element of Peter Pan - of not wanting to outgrow the age of adventures and fierce loyalty to true friends? That there's also a hint of a darker side - of the atavistic swearing of secret oaths in blood, of the untamed Lord of the Flies world of children unconstrained by spoilsport parents?

And for those of us who know - and love - the Lone Pine books, what were we to make of the prospect of four young adult actors embodying the characters of our treasured childhood books? 

Unsure what to expect, on a glorious July Saturday, we attended the first performance of Alice Birch's play in the familiar but always breathtaking setting of Carding Mill Valley, in the heart of the Long Mynd. Pentabus had set up a marquee  - foregoing the opportunity to perform against the authentic backdrop of the Shropshire Hills themselves.  The choice not to stage it in the open air was a real shame for all sorts of reasons. The marquee was uncomfortably hot for audience and actors and it seemed paradoxical for the Lone Piners to re-enact their many outdoorsy adventures indoors on such a beautiful summer's day.  As my sister - a veteran of Shropshire's amateur dramatics scene - pointed out, even if it rains, the spectators are usually prepared with umbrellas so it's only the actors who get wet (and the Lone Piners never minded a bit of rain.)

The four actors convincingly took on the roles of David, Peter, Dickie and Mary (and Mackie) as well as bringing to life a host of other characters including, with great comic effect, the rather overconfident journalist Dan Sturt and the ghastly Miss Ballinger with her trademark 'flip-up' spectacles.

(c) 2015 Tony Gillam
In taking on the Lone Piners, Pentabus faced a difficult task. Their target audience was children 8-12 (but the play is suitable for all ages.)  However, there seemed only a few children present, the youngest watching in polite bemusement, while the majority of the audience seemed to be - like me - adults of a certain age.  Presumably, many remembered the books fondly ... and herein lies the real challenge: how to make the play enjoyable for young children who don't remember the original books without upsetting the grown-ups for whom the memory of reading Malcolm Saville's books is dearly-held.   

Some of you will recall Channel Four's comedy special from 1982, Five Go Mad in Dorset - a parody of Enid Blyton's Famous Five starring Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. There was a danger that Pentabus might have strayed into the same territory, but they chose to appeal sincerely to modern children rather than satirise the genre for adult consumption.  But it's a fine balance:  at times they did appear to be parodying Malcolm Saville; at other times it seemed a heartfelt homage. 

The books were, of course, written in prose and Malcolm Saville's atmospheric evocation of real places is one of the enduring pleasures of the original adventures. Some of his lyricism did find its way into the dialogue and I would have liked to have seen more of this aspect of the stories in the play. One facet that was very well conveyed, though, was the developing relationship between Peter and David - and David's jealous dislike of Dan Sturt. The characters seemed convincingly surprised and confused by their growing feelings for one another.

For the modern audience the Gay Dolphin became the Dolphin Hotel, complete with a hilarious Fred Vasson (the hotel's friendly porter).  The quick switches between actors playing multiple parts was very funny, especially the flipping between David and the elderly antiques dealer Albert Sparrow.  All the actors worked hard to cover so many characters - and four adventures - in 70 minutes without a break.

(c) 2015 Tony Gillam
The play urges the audience - old and young - to be adventurous and to become Lone Piners themselves.  Pentabus have certainly been adventurous in staging a version of  these classic but now somewhat neglected books. It would be wonderful to think the play might inspire new young readers to read the books for the first time or at least, as is more likely, I suspect, encourage old readers to revisit and rediscover the pleasures of the lone Pine Club.

Pentabus are touring The Lone Pine Club. For details, follow the link here.

About me

My Photo
Is it 'Tony Gillam' or 'Anthony Gillam'? Well, both actually. I write for children under the name Anthony Gillam, and for adults as Tony Gillam. Why? Because, as Tony Gillam, I've written lots of articles and a text book for mental health nurses and, when it came to writing my first children's novel ('A Passenger in Time'), I thought I'd take on a different identity so people wouldn't get confused! I'm afraid it may have only added to the confusion. I'm a member of the writers' group Severn Valley Authors who also have a blog - Currently I'm working on a number of short stories, a handful of songs, a few articles and the beginnings of another book.