Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Windmills, pineapple sage and a dream pub - six of 2010's happiest finds

As 2010 draws to a close, with Arctic weather and the promise of a white Christmas, my thoughts drift back over the past 12 months to some special places I've happened upon this year. Two cafes, two countryside walks, a cinema and a dream of a pub - here is a selection of my favourite discoveries of 2010, in no particular order ...

1. A walk around Much Wenlock, Shropshire, England

We discovered a walk in the country around the Shropshire town of Much Wenlock, along Wenlock Edge, that takes in not only a disused railway line but a disused windmill. How romantic can you get! The lightning-damaged, 17th century windmill is under the care of - who else? - the Much Wenlock Windmill Preservation Society.

2. Coffee#1, Chepstow, Monmouthshire, Wales

If you take the scenic route from Worcestershire to Bristol, you pass by Tintern Abbey and then it would be rude not to stop in the lovely town of Chepstow. A short walk from the castle up to the town and you happen upon Coffee#1, an elegant, relaxing coffee house that does scrummy food and, inevitably, wonderful coffee.

3. Yorkshire Lavender Farm, Terrington nr York, Yorkshire, England

On holiday in York, we visited Yorkshire Lavender - an award-winning attraction that is free to visit, although you can repay the owners' hospitality by savouring a pot of Yorkshire tea and lavender scones and by buying some blueberry and lavender conserve and lavender sugar - to make your own lavender scones when you get home. My great delight, apart from the tea and scones here, was being invited to rub the leaves of a some pineapple sage between my fingers and enjoying the childlike pleasure of my hands smelling of pineapple. The sights, scents, tastes and touch of this place are unexpectedly therapeutic.

4. Jaffé & Neale Bookshop and Café, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, England

En route from Worcester to Oxford, in the Cotswold town of Chipping Norton, it's almost compulsory to stop at Jaffé & Neale. Two things I love - brilliant independent bookshops and fantastically friendly coffee shops - are here rolled into one. Life doesn't get much better than home-made cake and coffee surrounded by an intriguing selection of books.

5. Irish Film Institute, Dublin, Ireland

On a recent trip to Dublin, I stumbled across the Irish Film Institute in Eustace Street. Under one roof, a cafe bar selling Guinness and food, a specialist bookshop that would be a film studies student's heaven and an impressive range of films on show. When I was there in November they were showing a season of Powell and Pressburger films. That doesn't happen every day so I just had to return the following evening for a viewing of the 1941 classic 49th Parallel. Inspirational.

6. Pivni, York, England

Every once in a while, I am lucky enough to happen upon a dream of a pub. When I lived in Brittany it was Le Pressoir in St Brieuc. For a few years in North Wales it was The Kings Arms in Bangor. On two recent visits to York, the Pivni in the city centre met all the criteria to join my list of dream pubs.
Pivni was formerly called the Pivo bar (taking its name from the Czech word for beer) but was changed to Pivni after a copyright dispute. Housed in a timber-framed building dating back to 1190, it couldn't have more character. The bar sells a selection of the finest cask beers from the UK, and draught and bottled beers from around the world. It's cosy enough and friendly enough for a man to sit with a newspaper and a pint without feeling self-conscious, but equally comfortable for couples of a certain age to chat together without feeling too old. In term-time, it becomes a student pub, in summer time a tourist pub, but neither of these things exclusively.
Pivni combines the best elements of a snug European bar with the charm of a traditional English pub. It has the world's best jukebox and, upstairs, board games are provided to amuse groups of drinkers in need of an ice-breaker. A pub like this is, to me, the pinnacle of civilisation and, if I were prime minister, I would make it government policy to ensure every town had a place like this. I could spend hours simply soaking up the atmosphere - and the beer ... and I probably did. Cheers!

2010, like every year, has been full of surpises, unexpected journeys and unforeseen discoveries. As the year draws to a close I would like to take this opportunity to wish all of you - fellow passengers in time - a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Martin Simpson in Worcester

Martin Simpson live at Huntingdon Hall, Worcester,
Friday 29 October

Worcester's Huntingdon Hall (a former 18th century Methodist Chapel) lends itself particularly well to folk music. Martin Simpson, an outstanding guitarist and a fine singer/songwriter, performed solo and without even a support act - just an acoustic guitar in an open tuning.

The songs that worked best, for me, were his re-workings of traditional ballads, particularly the stunning Little Musgrave, but the performance of his 'hit' (inasmuch as English folk singers have hits) Never any good was as moving as ever. The Chris Wood song Come down Jehovah was also very effective in the hallowed ambience of Huntingdon Hall but I was disappointed, given the ecclesiastical setting, that we weren't treated to one of my Simpson favourites - his version of Jan Struther's children's hymn When a knight won his spurs. Still, for an example of what can be achieved with an acoustic guitar and a voice steeped in English tradition, Martin Simpson is hard to beat.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Back to school

The 11th October was one of those golden, sun-drenched days of autumn and I had the great pleasure of travelling to my home town of Shrewsbury in Shropshire and on to the nearby village of Hanwood. I was off to visit the children of Class 3 at St. Thomas and St. Anne’s CE Primary School. The children had been learning about what it would have been like to have lived in their local area in the past and also about stories with historical settings. I was delighted and humbled to see the class had made a display on the wall of books with historical settings which had my own A Passenger in Time ranked alongside Goodnight Mr Tom and The Railway Children (the latter with a cover design uncannily similar to that of my book!) Hallowed company indeed.
I began the afternoon by talking a bit about my own childhood, growing up in Shrewsbury in the 60s and 70s. I talked about my favourite book as a child, Mystery at Witchend by Malcolm
Saville. We talked about adventures and how children's books - and the world - had changed since I was the same age as Class 3. I read a couple of extracts from A Passenger in Time and then the children took part in a writing workshop which they entered into with real enthusiasm and imagination. Halfway through this, a photographer from the Shropshire Star turned up and invited one of the children and myself to have our picture taken with a pile of my books, sitting in the playground in the October sunshine. I had a lovely afternoon. I hope the children and the staff had as much fun as I did and I hope, in some small way, I have inspired some of the children to read - and to write - now and in the future.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

'White Ravens', 'Out Stealing Horses' and my Shropshire school visit

One of the great things about travelling away from home and from work is that it often provides a few precious opportunities to catch up on some reading for the pure pleasure of it. On my recent trip to Ferryside I took with me an appropriately Welsh book - White Ravens by Owen Sheers. White Ravens is a novella inspired by a story from the Mabinogion (a collection of native Welsh tales taken from two mediaeval manuscripts). It's a very unusual book, weaving together characters from the present with a story from World War II, and linking the ravens in the Tower of London with a journey from Wales to Ireland. It was the perfect book to accompany a quiet few days in Wales and introduced me to a new publisher Seren (actually the book imprint of Poetry Wales Press). I'm currently reading another Seren book - a collection of short stories by Graham Mort called Touch.

On holiday in York, I read a beautiful novel by the Norwegian writer Per Petterson. Out Stealing Horses is another book which links the present day with the 1940s. An old man, living in an isolated part of Norway, reflects back on events that happened when he was 15. The book was so beautifully written, and so touching, I now want to read everything Per Petterson has written. Everything I've tried to read since has seemed disappointing by comparison.

I hope I'm not going to be a disappointment to the children of St. Thomas and St. Anne’s CE Primary School in Hanwood, near Shrewsbury. I am delighted to say their teacher Mrs Preece-Dawson has invited me to come in and talk with them about A Passenger in Time on Monday 11th October. Mrs Preece-Dawson is already reading the book to the children so I hope they're enjoying it and that they won't give me too hard a time when I meet with them. I'm really looking forward to my visit.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Back from my travels

I've just got back from a family holiday in York and have decided to tidy up my office space ready for writing. As part of this new tidying-up frenzy I've also 'refreshed' the Passengers in Time blog. I hope you like the new look and, as ever, I welcome your comments.
York was my third trip away from home this summer and I've been meaning to bring you up to date on all this travelling.

Early in June, my wife Sue and I spent a weekend on Dartmoor at The Forest Inn, Hexworthy. We joined members of the Malcolm Saville Society on some wonderful country walks , following in the footsteps of characters from Malcolm Saville's Saucers Over the Moor. I should explain I have been a member of the Malcolm Saville Society since 1999. You can find out more about the author, his books and the society at www.witchend.com

The Hexworthy weekend involved an eight mile walk from Dousland to Princetown along the route of the old Yelverton to Princetown Railway (me and my disused railway lines again!) It also included a three or four mile walk alongside Wistman's Wood, complete with a dramatic fording of a steam and a march through uninvited fog. All appropriately adventurous. As ever, the members of the Malcolm Saville Society were delightful company.

Later in June, I spent a week in Wales at The Three Rivers Hotel in Ferryside, a quiet little retreat eleven miles from Carmarthen. This was meant to be business not pleasure - I was helping to run a week-long training course - but Ferryside is so peaceful that, in the evenings, I felt as if I were on holiday. Each evening I would walk up the steep lane at the back of the hotel - the only place I could get a mobile phone signal - to phone home. Sometimes, I'd take a moonlit stroll alongside the estuary. It reminded me a lot of the Menai Straits in Bangor where I lived as a young university student.

Ferryside has the feel of a seaside place but actually the expanse of water is not the sea but the Three Rivers Estuary of Carmarthen Bay (the three rivers being the Tywi, the Taff and the Gwendraeth). Walking along the sand, with the tide coming in, I could see Llanstephan's ancient castle across the water. Both Hexworthy and Ferryside gave me plenty of time for walking and reflection - part of the process of writing, long before ideas take shape as words on the page.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

From Hexworthy to Ferryside

For regular readers of this blog, I apologise for being very quiet lately. The reasons? I’ve been a-travelling. Time travelling? Well, in a sense. In the last few weeks, I’ve been away to two of the most beautiful parts of Britain – first to Dartmoor and then to Wales. I went to Dartmoor with my lovely wife Sue, to join with friends from the Malcolm Saville Society. I’ll tell you more about them soon. We based ourselves in Hexworthy and walked miles across Dartmoor in the steps of characters from Malcolm Saville's 1955 book Saucers over the Moor. Then, I went off to Carmarthenshire in Wales to help out with some family therapy training. I stayed in a little place called Ferryside – and I’ll tell you more about Ferryside soon. So, that’s why the blog’s been very quiet lately, but the good news is that all this (time) travel has inspired me to write some more stories and some more music … and I’ll tell you all about that soon too.

Monday, 19 April 2010

“As the spring is made alive the winter dies”

Midlake, Live at Birmingham Town Hall, 16 February, 2010

Now that spring is here it is possible to forget what an endurance test the winter has been. There's an old song by Rod Stewart- ‘Mandolin Wind’ - that contains the lines: "Oh the snow fell without a break/Buffalo died in the frozen fields/Through the coldest winter in almost fourteen years…."

The Met office - the UK’s national weather service - confirmed that the winter of 2009/10 was the coldest winter in England and Wales since 1978/9, making it our coldest in thirty-one years, though no buffalo died here, as far as I know. And 2009 was the year I discovered the beautiful wintry music of Midlake.

When I mentioned to the members of my writers’ group that I was going to a Midlake concert I was met with blank looks. Charlotte - the youngest member of the Severn Valley Authors at just turned 18 - had heard of them and a friend of hers was also going to the gig at Birmingham Town Hall. The band seems to have two types of fan - brooding teenagers who perhaps identify with the poetry of the lyrics and fortysomethings (or even fiftysomethings) who hear, in this music, echoes of Crosby, Stills and Nash, America and the fragile optimism of the early 70s.

I went to the gig with my friend Martin - conveniently a resident of Birmingham and an aficionado of semi-obscure Americana. Martin commented that he had never seen so many beards. The uniform of the band (and most of the audience) seemed to be that of a woodsman – beard, check shirt (untucked) - and many of Midlake's song evoke the woodlands and plains of America and the spirit of Walt Whitman and Thoreau.

Seen on their own without hearing the music, the lyrics of lead singer/songwriter’s Tim Smith often seem slight and childlike: “These buckets are heavy, fill them with water/I could ask these people, but I shouldn't bother… “(‘Van Occupanther’) or “Bring me a day full of honest work/and a roof that never leaks/I’ll be satisfied…” (‘Head Home’). Sometimes they seem close to nonsense poetry: “I caught an apple and she caught a fox so I caught a rabbit but she caught an ox…” (‘Bandits’). With the full musical accompaniment, however, they resonate as if part of some great folk/rock canon.

With a refreshing lack of showmanship and an apparent genuine appreciation for the venue and the audience, Midlake had come to play songs from their new album ‘The Courage of Others’. It was clear that Tim Smith had been listening to lots of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span but, with the full band of up to four guitars, flutes, recorders, harpsichord, bass and drums, I swear I could hear European progressive-folk as well as Anglo-American folk-rock and fleeting echoes of the Moody Blues, Focus and Procol Harum. The new songs from ‘The Courage of Others’ were accomplished but I suspect most of the audience, like myself, couldn't get enough of the songs from the 2006 album ‘The Trials of Van Occupanther’.

As we anticipated spring, Midlake were there to share with us the difficulties of winter. In the closing words of their song ‘ Bandits’ : “it's not always easy, it's not always easy/when the winter comes and the greenery goes/we will make some shelter/when the winter comes and the greenery goes/we will make some shelter….”

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The wonders humble people own

Buffy Sainte-Marie
Live at Wulfrun Hall, Wolverhampton, 31 January, 2010

What's a 68-year-old North American Indian doing in Wolverhampton on a cold Sunday night in January? Buffy Sainte-Marie has travelled all the way from her home in Hawaii to raise awareness of the plight of indigenous people - (she was born on a Cree Indian reservation in Saskatchewan). Perhaps this half-forgotten singer-songwriter has also come just to remind us who she is and to have a thoroughly enjoyable evening declaiming her songs to this seated, well-behaved English audience.

I became aware of Buffy Sainte-Marie when, fancying myself as a singer-songwriter at the age of 11, I first heard her song 'Soldier Blue' on the radio. It got to number 7 in the UK charts in 1971 but I was too young to see the film for which it was the title song - a graphic portrayal of the treatment of native North American Indians. I owned one Buffy record - the 1972 single – 'Mister, Can’t You See' but much preferred the B-side 'Moonshot', a remarkably original song about space travel and mythology that contains the lines:

See all the wonders that you leave behind
the wonders humble people own
I know a boy from a tribe so primitive
he can call me up without no telephone


An anthropologist he wrote a book
he called it ‘Myths of Heaven’
he's disappeared, his wife is all distraught
an angel came and got him

It's intriguing to wonder why Buffy's status as a singer-songwriter is so much lower than those fellow Canadian contemporaries Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. She herself has suggested she was the victim of censorship and suppression and it's true that the film Soldier Blue was not shown in American cinemas and the record failed to chart there.

Her best-known songs were hits for other artists -'Up Where We Belong' (for Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes), 'Until It’s Time for You To Go' (most famously Elvis) and 'Universal Soldier' (Donovan). Perhaps the reason she is less well-known in her own right is due partly to her relatively meagre output compared with other singer-songwriters and partly to her distinctive singing voice with its insistent sustained vibrato which can be an acquired taste.

At 68, though, Buffy's energy levels are impressive. Her singing and playing seemed to struggle to keep pace with her enthusiasm at times, but she seemed at her most confident with her never material. Songs like 'Cho Cho Fire' and 'No No Keshagesh' from the 2009 album 'Running From The Drum' fuse folk, rock and Native American chanting and rhythms in an exhilarating stomp that makes the spirit soar.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Timeslip photography

photograph (c) Phil Richards, 2009

They say you can't judge a book by its cover but there's no doubt that a striking cover helps attract readers. When A Passenger in Time was being prepared for publication, the publishers asked me for some ideas about the cover design.

As the book is set partly around the Severn Valley Railway and partly on the historic Great Western Railway I thought the cover ought to feature an image of a steam locomotive in action. Perhaps it could combine the idea of time travel and railway travel. I wondered whether we could incorporate the image of an old railway station clock, or play around with combinations of colour and black and white to suggest the time shift between 2005 and 1955. Could the famous 'coffee and cream' colours (the livery of the Great Western Railway) be used or would this create a bit of a dull impression for modern young readers? And what about the GWR guard's whistle that Jessica finds in the story? Could this be incorporated somehow?
photographs (c) Phil Richards, 2009
One thing worried me though. Although I'm no railway buff myself - and many people wouldn't know the difference between a 1950s GWR train and, say, an LNER one - I'm sure there are plenty of enthusiasts who would, so it would be good to aim for as much accuracy as possible.

This was quite a complicated brief but the cover designer Jacqueline Abromeit rose to the occasion. Jacqueline tried to take all my ideas into account but was struggling to find a picture of an authentic GWR locomotive on which to base her design. This is where my friend Phil Richards comes in....

Phil is a gifted photographer based in Bewdley - the setting for the book and the home of the Severn Valley Railway. Phil kindly agreed to a special on-location photo-shoot at Bewdley station, and Jacqueline skilfully incorporated some of these images into the design.

If you look closely at the front and back cover, you'll see the locomotive, the railway clock and the whistle all carefully blended in. Jacqueline's dazzling finished design would not have been possible without Phil's evocative original photographs, more of which we'll be seeing on this blog in the future.
cover design Jacqueline Abromeit, 2009

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

A Passenger in Time – a new children’s adventure, with Severn Valley Railway setting, from Worcestershire author Anthony Gillam

A Passenger in Time is a thrilling new timeslip fantasy adventure for 9-12 year olds set around Wyre Forest, Bewdley, Tenbury Wells and the magnificent Severn Valley Railway. 21st century young readers will identify with the lives of Jessica and Craig while their parents or grandparents, in the vivid evocation of 1950s Worcestershire, will be reminded of the adventure stories of their own childhoods.

.... and the train began to move. Jess rushed to the window. Craig was no longer sat on the bench. There were no flowerpots or garden ornaments on the platform ... the garden centre had reverted to a real, working railway station and her family were nowhere to be seen. ... Jess saw the open countryside flash by outside. The train’s whistle blew as they gathered speed.....

It’s July 2005. Sunday afternoon at a garden centre is the last place 15 year old Jessica and her brother Craig expect to find any excitement but, when a steam train arrives out of nowhere on a track which shouldn’t exist, Jessica finds herself making a journey back in time, to 1955!

Suddenly, nothing makes sense. Who is Jonathan Green, the boy whose life she saves? How can Jessica be in two places at once? To stand any chance of getting back home again, Jessica must become a passenger in time.

Publisher: Pen Press
Publication date: 17 Feb 2009
ISBN-10: 1906710503
ISBN-13: 978-1906710507
Price: £5.99 pb
Available from all good bookshops (including online bookshops) and Severn Valley Railway giftshops

Leaping and hopping on a moonshadow

Yusuf Islam – Cat Stevens Live at the NIA, Birmingham, 23 November, 2009

I can’t quite believe that, after a 33 year absence, Yusuf Islam – Cat Stevens, has decided to tour again and is standing in front of me on stage. Next to me, in the precipitous seating of the NIA’s auditorium is my 19 year old son – normally a thrash metal fan but, I’m proud to say, one who is also able to appreciate iconic singer-songwriters. I’ve adored the music of Cat Stevens from his pop hits of the sixties to his classic albums of the 70s. Now, the man seems at peace with himself and his music.

The evening starts with a 25 minute showcase of ‘Moonshadow’ – a musical based on his songs, blending some of his earliest (‘Matthew and Son’, ‘A Bad Night’) with some of his more recent (‘Maybe There’s A World’). Cat Stevens grew up in London’s theatreland and this represents the culmination of a dream for the songwriter. When he comes back on after the break with his guitar and starts playing ‘Lilywhite’, I smile stupidly and continue to do so through ‘The Wind’, ‘Where Do The Children Play’ and ‘Oh Very Young’.

The six-piece backing band helps it all go smoothly. Alun Davies (the original supporting guitarist from those classic 70s albums) is back while Pete Adams on keyboards makes an admirable attempt at recreating Rick Wakeman’s piano solo when it comes to ‘Morning Has Broken’.

After finishing with ‘Peace Train’, we are treated to an encore that includes ‘Sitting’, ‘Tuesday’s Dead’ and ‘Father and Son’. The evening has been a joyous event for this father and son and the songs, with a common theme of the importance of a spiritual journey, put into perspective any worries about the working week. On this particular Monday, at least, we could all agree that “Till tomorrow, Tuesday’s dead.”

About me

My photo
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).