Sunday, 23 December 2012

Synchronicities at the end of the year

According to the Mayan calendar, the world was supposed to have come to an end on 21 December. Fortunately, it didn't and, on the morning of Saturday 22 December, I wake up feeling relaxed and glad to have a day off work. Breakfast with my wife Sue and some good music playing in the background. My iPod shuffles and offers up some jazzy flamenco. 

‘Is this the guitarist we went to see in Worcester?’ asks Sue, meaning Eduardo Niebla. 

'No, this is Paco de Lucía,' I say, and marvel at the speed of his playing.

After breakfast we go to Bridgnorth, a quaint little town just over the border into Shropshire. We wander round a few charity shops and I pick up a couple of paperbacks that I've always meant to read -- Jack Kerouac's On the Road (I lent my son Dan my other unread copy) and a nice clean copy of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Later, I treat myself to the latest issue of Songlines magazine. I've never bought this before but I do like a bit of world music and I can't resist a bargain of three free gifts with the magazine -- a free CD, a free calendar and a free book.

When I get home, I have time to relish my horde of goodies. The free book is a beautifully-designed paperback by a publisher called Route publishing, The Train of Ice and Fire. From the blurb, it sounds right up my street:  
'Columbia, November, 1993; a reconstructed old passenger train is carrying one hundred musicians, acrobats and artists on a daring adventure through the heart of a country soaked in violence. Leading this crusade of hope is Manu Chao with his band Mano Negra. Manu's father, Ramón Chao is on board to chronicle the journey... '
And I read on to discover that the train journey ends up in Aracataca which, the blurb explains, is 'the real-life Macondo of One Hundred Years of Solitude.’ So the free book I’ve just acquired makes reference to one of the other books I've just bought from a charity shop.

After that surprising coincidence, I take a look at the free Songlines calendar and wonder who it is pictured playing the guitar. It turns out to be Paco de Lucía, the very same who had serenaded us at breakfast-time.  With such synchronicities I can't help thinking the Maya have got it all wrong.  If this isn’t the end of the world perhaps it’s the beginning of a promising new era.  It turns out that, over in the heartland of the ancient Maya civilisation, the Yucatan governor Rolando Zapata, agrees with me:  ‘We believe that the beginning of a new baktun’ - a cycle of the calendar - ‘means the beginning of a new era, and we're receiving it with great optimism,’ said Zapata. With my free Songlines 2013 calendar, my family and friends, my books, my music and my coincidences, who am I to dismiss these auguries?  So have a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Yes, yes, yes, it's ... Ray Davies

Ray Davies

Saturday 13 October

Live at Birmingham Symphony Hall

It's 1974 or thereabouts and I've been playing guitar now for about four years.   Chris fancies himself as the lead vocalist in our ramshackle band but he sings like a choirboy.  Still, we don't object because Chris knows some girls who he reckons might want to be backing singers.  I hadn't considered backing singers but now I can see us being the next Mott the Hoople. 

My mates are assembled in our front room and are keen to learn some cover versions. Luckily, my brother-in-law Geoff, has an extensive collection of sheet music which he's let me plunder merrily.  There's Light My Fire and Paint It Black and The Sound of Silence.  Loads of hits from the 60s, the sheet music (priced in old money,  2 shillings and 6 pence or 3 shillings each) and among them The Kinks' Waterloo Sunset and Autumn Almanac. The Kinks songs are credited to one Raymond Douglas Davies.  Kinks songs? No problem.  I know these songs well from my brother Phil's Golden Hour of The Kinks LP.  But I quickly realise Kinks songs are far from simple, straightforward pop.  For one thing, the music publishers have seen fit to transpose Waterloo Sunset into a really awkward key.  Without a capo, the chords of E flat and A flat test the limits of the 13 year old Tony Gillam's virtuosity.  But then, even in an easy key, lyrically and musically, Autumn Almanac is a fiendishly complex little ditty.  The alliterative and assonant splendour of its opening line single it out as an extraordinary pop song:

From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar,
When the dawn begins to crack.
It's all part of my autumn almanac.
Breeze blows leaves of a musty-coloured yellow,
So I sweep them in my sack.
Yes, yes, yes, it's my autumn almanac ...

This is no Twist and Shout - more Edward Lear, John Betjeman or ... Arthur Askey.  The fact that there's a chord change on almost every beat - Yes- yes - yes - it's my - autumn alma- nac ... is enough to make a young guitarist drop his plectrum into his soundhole.  And then there's the structure of the song - one middle eight is not enough; first, there's the bit that goes:  "I like my football on a Saturday ..." but then, instead of going back to the main theme, the song takes off in yet another direction:  "This is my street and I'm never going to leave it ..." This kind of variation and layering is less Dave Clarke Five, more Dvorak.

So, yes, I've always admired Ray Davies as a pioneer of the serious business of writing pop songs, fusing social commentary and poetry with exquisite melodies and rip-roaring riffs.And when my friend Phil invited me to join him to see Ray at the Birmingham Symphony Hall I was delighted to go and expected to see the grand old gentleman of English pop perched on a stool with an acoustic guitar.  The gig began just so, Ray Davies and a second guitarist on the stage that, a few days earlier, had been graced by Boris Johnson as he wowed the Tory Party Conference. Ray worked his way through his opening songs including Autumn Almanac and delivered them in a cheeky chappy, music hall kind of way.  But then, towards the end of Dead End Street, the band arrived on stage which meant, by the end of the evening, we would see the 68 year old Ray leaping around with an electric guitar like the rock n roll legend he also happens to be.

The set included several songs that began like quiet acoustic folk songs and ended up in full rock band versions, Waterloo Sunset among these. Other highlights were an unaccompanied Days and a heart-rendingly perfect See My Friends.    Apart from the sheer musical enjoyment of the evening, there was something life-affirming about the fact that Raymond Douglas Davies the man continues to exude all the good humour, warmth, energy and authenticity embodied by his remarkable catalogue of songs.

Monday, 10 September 2012

“Purify our misfit ways and magnify our crystal days...”

Echo and the Bunnymen 

Live at Moseley Folk Festival, Birmingham, 

31st of August, 2012

I have a theory that the pop music that meant most to us when we were in the first bloom of youth becomes a kind of gold standard by which we judge all subsequent music. Even bad music that was popular in our late teens and early twenties has a special place because of its power to evoke memories through association -- but good pop music that formed the soundtrack of our lives as we came of age is sublimely potent.

So it is that Echo and the Bunnymen, formed in 1978 (when I was 17), released one of my most treasured LPs Heaven Up Here (when I was 20) and the monumental Ocean Rain (two days before my 23rd birthday.) When the 51-year-old me heard the Bunnymen were headlining the Moseley Folk Festival on the last day of summer, it felt like too good an opportunity to miss.

The 80s post-punk sound of the Bunnymen is stretching the definition of ‘folk’ beyond credulity and, in fact, there seemed to be precious little folk music at the Moseley Folk Festival but there were a fair few artists playing acoustic instruments -- particularly on the Bohemian stage. If the migraine-inducing poor man's disco lighting of the Bohemian stage left a lot to be desired, at least the sound engineer consistently got the best out of a mixed bag of performers. Among these, I was delighted to see those old favourites of this blog, One Sixth of Tommy (see the entry for Monday, 29 August 2011).  As ever, they sang and played beautifully but I was dismayed to hear them announce this was to be their last gig. So it was left to the Bunnymen  to make my soul soar again. One highlight for me was All My Colours (Zimbo) which took me right back to 1981. Front man Ian McCulloch will never succeed as a health promotion worker:  where other singers sip mineral water between songs he just goes on lighting up one cigarette after another. In fact, since the smoking ban in pubs, it comes as a shock to see so many people smoking so many cigarettes. At least I could use my inhaler to keep asthma attacks at bay whereas there was nothing that the many children under three could do to protect their hearing. Despite changeable weather and thoughtless parents of young children, that first day of the festival was worth the trip. Seeing Echo and the Bunnymen live, as they scythed their way through a magnificent version of The Cutter, I was once again in heaven up there.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Ray Bradbury and 'Dandelion Wine'

... You only had to rise, lean from your window, and know that this was indeed the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer...

Eight weeks ago -- on June 5, 2012 -- Ray Bradbury died. Bradbury is often thought of as a writer of science fiction but this is really too narrow a description of his work. Prompted by news of his death, I pulled from my bookshelf an unread copy of his 1957 novel Dandelion Wine. The only other Ray Bradbury book I'd ever read was The Illustrated Man (1951) -- a collection of short stories ingeniously framed by the idea of a vagrant with a tattooed body, where each tattoo tells a different story. Apart from this, I was a great admirer of Francois Truffaut's 1966 film adaptation of Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451 (1953) — a dystopian tale of a future society in which a fire brigade is deployed not to extinguish fires but to burn down any house found to contain books.

I had been thinking about reading Dandelion Wine for a while but it looked like it needed to be read on long hot summer days. After all, it's based on Bradbury's own experience of growing up in small-town Illinois in the 1920s and charts the experiences of 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding from the beginning to the end of summer. Notwithstanding the vagaries of an English summer, I finally plunged into Dandelion Wine and found it dazzling and intoxicating.

... He felt sorry for boys who lived in California where they wore tennis shoes all year and never knew what it was to get winter off your feet, peel off the iron leather shoes all full of snow and rain and run barefoot for a day and then lace on the first new tennis shoes of the season, which was better than barefoot. The magic was always in the new pair of shoes. The magic might die by the first of September, but now in late June there was still plenty of magic, and shoes like these could jump you over trees and rivers and houses... 

In a way, the novel is a work of science fiction: Douglas gets himself fitted out with a pair of magical tennis shoes, he and his friends happen upon a time machine while another character in the town is building a contraption called a Happiness Machine. But the tennis shoes are only magical in a metaphorical sense, the 'time machine' turns out to be old Colonel Freeleigh reminiscing in his wheelchair and, when the Happiness Machine that Leo Auffmann has been trying to build turns out to be a disaster, Leo discovers a ready-made Happiness Machine as he gazes serenely through the window of his family home:
            ‘There it is.’  And he watched with now-gentle sorrow and now-quick delight, and at last quiet acceptance as all the bits and pieces of this house, mixed, stirred, settled, poised, and ran steadily again. ‘The happiness machine, ' he said. ‘The Happiness Machine. '
            A moment later he was gone.
            Inside, Grandfather, Douglas, and Tom saw him tinkering, making a minor adjustment here, eliminate friction there, busy among all those warm, wonderful, infinitely delicate, forever mysterious, and ever-moving parts...

Lyrical, nostalgic, humane, a writer who relished and celebrated the magic of stories and books and memory — Ray Bradbury (August 22, 1920 – June 5, 2012).

Friday, 29 June 2012

Japanese Art at Hanbury Hall

We don't normally review art exhibitions here at the Passengers in Time blog but there's a first time for everything. Last week we made our first visit to Hanbury Hall, a beautiful 18th century country house near the town of Droitwich Spa in Worcestershire. Hanbury Hall, built in 1701, is owned by the National Trust. The house is surrounded by 20 acres of recreated early 18th-century gardens and 400 acres of park land, and I felt like a character from a Henry Fielding novel as I explored the dairy and the icehouse, and admired the fruit garden, the orchard and the orangery. It must have been quite something, in the 18th century, to be able to enjoy home-grown oranges and lemons in the winter and chilled drinks and desserts in the summer. But, as if Hanbury Hall and its grounds were not delightful enough, we were pleasantly surprised on our visit to happen upon a free exhibition by Japanese artist Takumasa Ono. 

Takumasa (or Tak, as he is known) first visited the UK in 1999 when, as an Official Artist for the Association of National Trusts in Japan, he toured National Trust properties, producing art works to be exhibited in Japan. He decided to settle in the UK in 2002 and, since then, has been holding yearly 'Henro' (pilgrimage) exhibitions of his works at National Trust properties. Tak produces mainly watercolours, silkscreen prints and Sumi-e (a traditional form of Japanese brushwork). While I'm certainly no art connoisseur , I found Tak’s exhibition full of strikingly original and vibrant works. The Henro 2012 exhibition is at Hanbury Hall until 12 July and can then be seen from 1 August to 2 September at Baddesley Clinton in Warwickshire. Many of Tak’s images (like the one above, which is a detail from his picture of Hanbury Hall) can be viewed here. For more details visit the National Trust's website.

Friday, 11 May 2012

The Unthanks in Malvern

The Unthanks 
Live at the Forum Theatre, Malvern
Saturday 28 April
The Unthanks are not a barrel of laughs. There were very few upbeat songs in their set but their good-natured rapport with the audience lightened the mood enough to be able to carry the genial people of Malvern with them through an evening of slightly unsettling folk music. This was supposed to be ‘an intimate evening with The Unthanks, with support from Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell' but the Forum Theatre, unexpectedly packed, could hardly be called intimate. It's a grand old theatre that reminds me of Shrewsbury Music Hall where, as a teenager, I saw the likes of Ralph McTell, Prelude and Alan Hull. The Unthanks’ music is more disconcerting. Unusually for folk, their sound is dominated not by a guitar accompaniment but by the minimalist piano of producer and arranger Adrian McNally. Adrian's piano suits the often austere soundscapes of the  Northumberland-inspired songs performed by the ethereal voices of Rachel and Becky Unthank, whose occasional bursts of enthusiastic clog-dancing provided some unexpected moments of exuberance.

The band is an extended family and, when Jonny and Lucy were not on stage with The Unthanks, they appear to have been minding Rachel and Adrian’s baby backstage. Rather than the traditional structure of support act/break/headline act, all the musicians took turns to pop on and off stage in the second half, in various combinations, which gave the impression of an old-time variety show (and no doubt facilitated childminding responsibilities.) The audience appeared to enjoy the evening, although I don't imagine all of them were folk music enthusiasts and certainly not all fans of this peculiarly stark and fractured folk. But Rachel and Becky's voices are winningly beautiful and they can be forgiven for sticking with what they do best -- an uncompromising and unapologetic music, inextricably attached to its north eastern roots.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Writing blindfold in a soundproof box

‘There is a Latin tag, solvitur ambulando, which means, roughly, that you can sort it out by walking...’ This is one of the observations made by Richard Mabey in Landscape into Literature: a Writers’ Anthology. Published by Green Books in 2005, Landscape into Literature features evocative, thought-provoking essays by many fine writers (Roger Deakin, Brian Patten and Richard Mabey among them) as they explore their own relationship with landscapes and the relationship between landscape and writing. One of the recurring themes in the book is the importance of walking as an activity for writers. Walking provides both a break from the internal mental activity of writing and an extension of the writing process into the external physical world. To me it seems obvious that walking is beneficial for mental and physical health and that it can be key to stimulating creativity and unblocking creative blocks.

Ronald Blythe's contribution is an essay on the poet John Clare. We learn that it was while ploughing in a cornfield that Clare ‘began his “muttering”, 'his softly speaking aloud of the rhymes which he would later write down...’ This may have been the start of John Clare’s poetry but it may also have been the beginning of his mental illness. As Blythe puts it: 'Boys sang, they did not mutter, and eyes would have been upon him, this child talking to himself, a sure sign of something being wrong or different...' I wonder how much Clare's "mutterings" could be seen as a sign of his emerging mental illness (a sign of 'something being wrong') and to what extent they could be seen as a sign of his creativity ('a sign of something different'.) Talking to oneself is one thing, speaking aloud rhymes is another; but then speaking aloud rhymes that you later write down is something else and, when these rhymes are published to great acclaim, that is something else again. Claire was, at various times, a young boy making up rhymes to amuse himself, someone who suffered serious mental illness to the point where he spent years in an asylum -- and a successful poet. Had he been allowed to roam free, one wonders if Clare might have been able, to some extent, to ‘sort it out by walking’.

Also included in Landscape into Literature is an essay by Penelope Lively, in which she returns to what she calls ‘the abiding relationship between walking and writing.’ She jokes that ‘the Lake Poets set the pace, I suppose, literally...’ and goes on to make a serious point eloquently. Walking, she writes, is 'a good healthy escape from an otherwise sedentary way of life, but there's more to it than that. Writing takes place in the head; theoretically you could write blindfold in a soundproof box. But this solipsism generates an intense need for an alternative, a need for the eyes and ears to take over the mind, a need to look and listen and wonder what kind of tree that is, and why that field is shaped thus -- a need to stop writing, in fact, except that of course in a subliminal way you are not; any or all of it may be grist to the mill, in ways you could not possibly anticipate.'

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Shropshire romantics, American humorists and Dutch Zen detective fiction

My friend Linda recently asked me to name my favourite writers. The question took me rather by surprise and I actually found it quite difficult to answer spontaneously so I thought it would be a useful exercise to try to compile a list. Scouring my bookshelves, it's interesting to realise how few of my books I would consider real favourites but some authors keep cropping up so, if frequency of appearance is anything to go by, fellow Shropshire romantic Mary Webb would appear to be a favourite novelist and American humorist William Saroyan a favourite short story writer.

Jerome K Jerome is dotted around the house and his Three Men in a Boat is one of the few books I have read more than once. There are the tatty old copies of classics I was required to read at school or university -- Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Dickens’ Hard Times, DH Lawrence's The Rainbow and Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn along with Voltaire's Candide and Rousseau’s Meditations of a Solitary Walker. The fact that I haven’t got rid of any of these indicates I still hold them in some affection. Classics that I wasn’t required to read but remember enjoying included Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (and they remain on my shelves, along with the short stories of Kafka and Chekov).

More modern classics that might fall into the category of cult fiction include Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. I went through a craze of collecting Persephone books (publisher of ‘rediscovered’ inter-war novels and twentieth century fiction by neglected mainly women writers). Among these, I recall particularly enjoying Monica Dickens’ Mariana (which has since been adopted as one of my daughter's favourite books) Denis Macrail’s Greenery Street (which has quite a lot in common with the aforementioned Jerome K Jerome) Jocelyn Playfair's House in the Country and highly evocative wartime short story collections by Elizabeth Berridge and Mollie Panter-Downes.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince left a lasting impression on me, as did Patrick Leigh Fermer’s luminous A Time of Gifts. People seem to think my own writing is influenced by Garrison Keillor and he does make a couple of appearances on my bookshelves, as do the books for adults written by Finnish novelist and painter Tove Jansson (best-known as the creator of the Moomins.) I enjoy Simenon's Maigret books but, more obscurely, I'm a great fan of Janwillem van de Wetering, purveyor of Dutch Zen detective fiction.

Some of the more contemporary discoveries I’ve recently savoured include Gil Adamson's Help me, Jacques Cousteau, Leonardo Padura Fuentes’ Adios, Hemingway and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, (though I found his novel When We Were Orphans disappointing.) Kathleen Jamie’s Findings, Alice Munro's Runaway and Owen Shiers’ White Ravens were all a pleasure but the book I enjoyed most in recent years was Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, whose other books I am slowly working through. I'm not sure I can distil this down to a 'Top Ten' but perhaps this goes some way towards answering Linda's question and may also prompt me to revisit some of those books I should reread (and whittle out some of those books I'll never read again.)

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).