Monday, 9 June 2014

Shedloads of memories

Ever since we moved into our house more than 20 years ago, there's been a large white time machine parked in our garden. Most people mistake it for a garden shed, a slightly ramshackle construction that's been there since at least the early 1960s. But they're wrong - it's definitely a time machine. Once or twice, it's even fooled me.  I've kept lawnmowers and garden shears in it, and patched it up with bits of wood when it began to disintegrate.

This year we decided that, if it were a garden shed, it would be judged an irreparable eyesore, only good for demolition.  So we began to clear out all the junk that had accumulated there over more than two decades, some of which, I swear, had never been unpacked since the previous house-move. It was when I began to empty the 'shed' that I was reminded it wasn't a shed at all. Some of the contents had been destroyed by rain, damp, mice. But, being a sophisticated time machine, it had preserved everything of importance.

The time machine first of all transported me back to 1974, when I was a 13 year old singer songwriter who wore a denim cap to look like Dylan and Donovan. The 13 year old Tony Gillam had already been writing songs for three years and was contemplating learning the harmonica to accompany his guitar playing.  He never did ... but he got as far as buying a copy of J Reilly's The ABC of Harmonica Playing from Bratton's Pianos in Shrewsbury. When he wasn't browsing through the sheet music at Bratton's, the teenage Tony would be checking out the LPs in the basement record department of Wildings Bookshop, imagining buying the albums in the Island Records Illustrated Dictionary  - a beautifully-produced free catalogue made to look like a children's pictorial alphabet book.

Journeying through time, we are able to see again the hand-written lyrics to songs written when I was 14, 15, 16. Just reading the words on the page allows me to hear the tunes - unplayed since the 1970s -in my head, and my fingers find the abandoned chord progressions on an invisible guitar. The teenage Tony was now dreaming of electric guitars, but even the budget-priced instruments in the Woolworths catalogue were out of reach. (£15.49 for an Audition Solid Body Electric Guitar, £11.75 for an amplifier - who could afford that kind of money?)

The songwriter, back then, was a poet too, a regular contributor to the school magazine, The Priorian. And the time machine has kept these too, along with the thrill of first seeing my name in print.

Marc Bolan sang, 'Whatever happened to the teenage dream?' and I wanted to know whatever became of the schoolboy poet?  For the answer, we are transported to St Brieuc in Brittany, 1981, where the young student buys a few large posters to cover the walls of his bleak bedsit ... among these a print of Ha Van Vuong's Mandolin. This enigmatic picture combines my love of acoustic instruments with the beauty and simplicity of Zen philosophy.  Yet, it was rolled up when I left France in 1982 and remained thus hidden from view as I moved from Wales to Shropshire, Shropshire to Worcestershire, Worcestershire to Staffordshire and back to Worcestershire.  After 32 years, for the first time we've framed it and put it on the living room wall. I never knew my wife would like this picture as much as I do.

Finally, the time machine is emptied of its memories and made ready, Tardis-like, to de-materialise. It has no need to linger. Its job is done: it has reminded me of who I was ... and who I am. 

Monday, 21 April 2014

Speaking without being interrupted

You can't create new writing without ruining a few saucepans
My fellow Severn Valley Author Rob Ronsson has invited me to answer a few questions as part of a kind of writers’ chain-letter. As I don’t twitter, tweet or twist-like-we-did-last-summer, he’s going to do whatever the twittering classes do with these things. So I thought I’d just try to answer the questions as best I can and pop it on my blog to simmer gently … 

What are you working on?  
Two projects: one non-fiction, one fiction. The non-fiction is a proposal for a dissertation, part of a Masters degree I’ve been doing part-time alongside the full-time day job and alongside the writing and the music. I’m researching wellbeing and mental health nursing and, when I’ve finished the dissertation (and the Masters), I’m planning to use some of this material in a non-fiction book.The fiction - apart from the on-going effort to try to get some of my short stories published - involves a novel with the working title Nothing but a Phantom. 

How does your writing differ from others in its genre?
Let me tell you a bit about Nothing but a Phantom and then perhaps you’d be able to tell me what genre it is! At the moment, it goes a bit like this … An adventure story set in an alternative version of the late 1970s-early 1980s, where an Anglo-Saxon king still rules over a country called Angland. Dissenters risk banishment or assassination. The government is experimenting with a radio station called relax’d that can lull the populace into indifference with specially engineered chill-out music. Meanwhile, in Brittany, plans are afoot to form an alliance with the Celtic nations of Cornwall and Wales in a challenge to the power of King Edgar IV…  It doesn’t really sound like historical fiction, science fiction or fantasy. Would you call it ‘literary speculative fiction’? If anyone knows what genre I’m writing in and, more importantly, who will publish my novel when it’s finished, I’d love to hear from you! 

Why do you write what you do? 

I write songs and short stories to encapsulate ideas and experiences in a compact, accessible form; I write non-fiction, (articles and books,) to try to interpret and distil knowledge so that it can be better understood and used in practice. As for the novel, I’m writing that partly for the sheer enjoyment of it (and in the hope it will give others pleasure) but also because, in the UK, it seems almost impossible to get short stories published (either singly or as a collection) without first being published as a novelist. I suspect all my writing – stories, songs, articles and books – stems from being the youngest of four siblings who grew up in a noisy family. I write so as to be able to make myself heard, and this is still true, even now I’m grown up and living in a quieter family home. At work, and in the wider world, you can’t always say exactly what you want … but you can write it.  Jules Renard, the French writer, wrote: ‘Écrire, c'est une façon de parler sans être interrompu’ (‘Writing is a way of speaking without being interrupted’.) 

How does the writing process work for you? 
The young Tony Gillam (not to be mistaken for Rapunzel)
When I was little I took a few old candles and tried melting them in a saucepan to see if I could reshape the melted candlewax into new candles, as it cooled and re-solidified.  The experiment was not a complete success and turned an old but serviceable saucepan into an unusable one. It was also probably a significant fire risk and terrified my mother. But it taught me that you can’t create new writing without ruining a few saucepans, making your loved ones anxious and nearly burning the whole place down. Had someone actually been interested in my attempts at recycled candles that would have encouraged me to persevere. Even better, if someone had commissioned me to produce candles, offered payment, promised they would display them prominently with my name attached to them and set me a deadline by which to complete the project, then that would no doubt have helped. If, as too often happens, there is no publisher or editor urging me on, I find it helps anyway to set myself deadlines and try to imagine how excited the unsuspecting editor/publisher will be when they first get hold of the finished product.

I’m supposed to nominate a couple of other writers now to take up the challenge of answering these four questions. I feel slightly uncomfortable about doing this. It’s like trying to sell raffle tickets to friends of friends. That said, I would be interested to hear what my fellow Severn Valley Author Chris Smith would have to say on this topic and also to hear the thoughts of my dear old friend and freelance journalist Paul Dinsdale. But no pressure, there, Chris and Paul.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Cary Grant and his drip-dry suit ... February in Paris

Hotel St Jacques - view from the balcony by day
The Hotel St Jacques in the rue des Ecoles proved to be a good choice. It seems to have changed little since Cary Grant took a shower here whilst wearing a suit, much to Audrey Hepburn's amusement, in the 1963 comedy mystery 'Charade'. A comfortable room with a delightful view from the balcony, friendly staff and a varied and delicious buffet breakfast.
The streets around the Pantheon are very atmospheric and it's only a short walk to Boulevard St Michel and the Musee d'Orsay.

We had arrived via Eurostar (from Ashford in Kent, direct to Paris). (It's very useful having a daughter who lives 40 minutes from Ashford and who can provide a lift and overnight accommodation in Kent.) Travelling by Eurostar is much less stressful than dealing with airports and much more comfortable than travelling on British trains. It's also amazingly quick. One excellent, time- and hassle-saving innovation is that you can buy books of metro tickets from the Eurostar buffet en route to Paris (and Oyster cards for the London underground, if you're travellling in the other direction.)

Our Eurostar tickets also gave us two-for-one entry to the Musee d'Orsay.  The former grand railway station would be worth a visit in its own right even if it didn't contain a mesmerising collection of the world's best art. Looking through the giant clock out over Paris, it's incredible to think this building was threatened with demolition in the 1970s.
My wife Sue and I spent the days walking, exploring, having improvised picnic lunches in the Luxembourg gardens, browsing in bookshops and stopping off in cafes. Despite a disappointing vegetarian meal at Le Grenier de Notre Dame restaurant and a horrible coffee at Starbucks (why bother?) we agreed that, thanks to Eurostar and the Hotel St Jacques, this had been our most relaxing trip to Paris ever, and the best holiday we could remember in a very long time. We will definitely do it again and, next time, I might even take a shower with my suit on.
Hotel St Jacques - view from the balcony by night

Saturday, 15 February 2014

A Starship lands in Bromsgrove

Jefferson Starship live at The Artrix, Bromsgrove, Wednesday 29 January, 2014

Since she was a young teenager, one of my wife’s favourite records has been Jane — a 1979 hit by Jefferson Starship. Over the past 35 years, Sue has oftentimes spontaneously burst into anguished song — 'Jane you're playin’ a game you never can win, girl!' —so, when we heard that Jefferson Starship were coming to nearby Bromsgrove, how could we resist? 

Jefferson Starship grew out of the seminal psychedelic band Jefferson Airplane whose 1967 album Surrealistic Pillow featured the classic singles White Rabbit'and Somebody to Love. The history of the band (from the 1960s Jefferson Airplane to the 1970s Jefferson Starship, with a further continuation in the 1980s as Starship) is complicated and we weren’t sure who, if any, of the original members would be in evidence.)  It seems the current line-up includes two original Airplaners (David Freiburg also of Quicksilver Messenger Service fame) and Paul Kantner. Sadly, the latter was too ill to join the tour so Freiburg was the only authentic aviator aboard this particular incarnation of the starship.

The band was fronted by the powerful presence of Cathy Richardson, sporting a fantastic rock voice and leggings with an interestingly ecclesiastical, stained-glass window design. (I’ve since discovered, as well as being a singer, Cathy is a graphic artist and clothing designer, about to launch a line of hand-dyed organic cotton yoga pants, so that might account for it.) Jude Gold — virtuoso lead guitarist — is also a man of many parts. When he’s not playing with Jefferson Starship he’s the Los Angeles editor of Guitar Player magazine. Overcoming a few problems with microphones and monitors, David Freiburg (who incidentally co-wrote Jane), at 75 years of age and still singing beautifully, shows that it probably pays to practice Buddhism and to live in California. Airplane fans were treated to a fine selection including White Rabbit and Somebody To Love while fans of the later 70s music were delighted with exhilarating versions of Miracles and Count On Me as well as, much to my wife's obvious joy, Jane. Cathy thrashed a cow bell with a rolling pin and David beamed beatifically. And so did we.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Fracture Zone hit the big time in a very small way

 Members of Fracture Zone — far too ugly to be depicted here
2014 has got off to an exciting start for my musical project, Fracture Zone. For those not in the know, Fracture Zone is ... me, joined in live performances by my good friend and cajon-battering harmonicist Phil Richards. How to convey our sound in words? Well, it has been described (by me, actually) as ‘Original, guitar-driven songs with spicy lyrics and a pop sensibility nestling alongside capricious instrumentals.’ It’s also been said that ‘our live performances are peppered with the occasional unlikely cover version while the Zone's lo-fi recordings have a more psychedelic tendency than our live sound; (guitars are blended with broken keyboards, autoharps and dulcimers played backwards and sideways.)’

 Phil and I decided to play a few open mic evenings locally to get the New Year underway and hopefully get a few more gigs under our belts. So, we showed up on a Sunday afternoon at The Talbot in Bewdley for the session hosted by renowned blues guitarist Gwyn Ashton, who spontaneously and expertly accompanied us on bass. Next, we cropped up on at Pete Kelly’s amazingly friendly Tuesday evening bash at The Queen's Head in Wolverley and then, a week later, back in Bewdley at The Cock and Magpie at a splendid evening curated by stalwart of rootsy percussive acoustic guitar, Dave Onions. Here, we were approached by the irrepressible Andy O’Hare (music reviewer from BBC Hereford and Worcester’s Introducing.) As a result, on Saturday night, we got a mention (‘this very capable duo who have hidden their light under a bushel’) along with a tantalisingly brief snippet of airplay on Andrew Marston’s radio show.  After forty odd years of writing songs, strumming, bashing and blowing on various instruments, it’s nice to get some recognition.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Enlarging horizons is far from old hat

The imposing Lancasterian Primary School, Shrewsbury
It's always good to hear from people out there who’ve enjoyed the Passengers in Time blog. Recently, I was contacted by someone -- let's call her Sheila -- who, it turns out, was in my class at school when we were both 11 years old, the year we took the fateful 11 Plus exam. Hearing from Sheila took me right back to The Lancasterian Primary School in Shrewsbury. Built in 1812, the 'Lancs' was an imposing-looking institution that I attended in the late 1960s and early 70s. We haven't seen each other in the intervening forty-odd years but I remember Sheila well because -- out of our class at primary school -- I think I'm right in saying we were the only two to go on to grammar school. Sheila went to Priory Girls’ Grammar School and I went to Priory Boys’ Grammar School (which was only right, given our respective genders) and our paths never crossed again until Sheila contacted me to say that reading Passengers in Time had inspired her to create Grumbling Appendix -- a blog about 'politics, feminism and popular culture in the context of the NHS'.

It turns out let’s-call-her-Sheila is a nurse in a NHS hospital. Funny, that — as I’m also a nurse who works in the NHS. Grumbling Appendix is a brilliant and highly-regarded blog that's getting rave reviews. So, hearty congratulations to let’s-call-her-Sheila. 

A cowboy hat made from recycled beer boxes
And then there’s let’s-call-him-Matthew. Well, actually, no need for anonymity here; his name really is Matthew — Matthew Steffen, to be precise. Matthew contacted me to say some very positive things about my blog post on Nova Scotia. He appears to be involved in a company called redneck that produce cowboy-style hats made from recycled beverage boxes. So, hat’s off to Matthew! What with grumbling appendixes (or should that be appendices) and recycled beer hats, my horizons are now suitably enlarged. I wonder if the treatment for a grumbling appendix would also work for an enlarged horizon.

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.