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.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

From Dublin Streets to Kentish Lanes

It seemed odd that the police were stopping taxi drivers to breathalyse them. In England, we assume - perhaps naively – that no one who earns their living by driving would risk their license by doing so under the influence. Our Dublin taxi driver explained to us that it’s fairly common to be pulled over by the Gardaí … and I suppose we should be reassured by it.
I was in Dublin in grey, early September to help provide some family therapy training (along with my fellow trainers from the Nova Scotia adventure, Chris and Julia.) Early starts and long days meant there wasn’t much daylight left by the time we got back to the very comfortable Ashling Hotel. No time to visit the museum or even the Guinness Museum though, luckily, Guinness isn’t only found in museums. But then nor is it always found in pubs. I managed to find an Irish pub that didn’t sell Guinness; The Porterhouse in Temple Bar specialises in ‘craft beers’. One in particular, called Galway Hooker, was rather tasty. What more innocent pleasure can there be, I put it to you, than to enjoy a Galway Hooker at the Porterhouse?
After my week in Dublin I was worried that summer was already over but my wife Sue and I managed to squeeze in a week’s holiday in Kent, courtesy of daughter Katie who now lives in an idyllic corner of the garden of England. So, at the end of September, we bade the season farewell in a bliss of bike rides down country lanes, sailing past windmills, feasting on blackberries from the hedgerow.
 And then and only then, it was autumn …

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Are oranges the only fruit? And is that Germolene I can smell? Adventures in Nova Scotia

Question:  How could you logically travel from Halifax to Truro in a north-easterly direction?

Answer:  When you are in Nova Scotia.

The multi-coloured houses of Lunenburg
and cars without front registration plates
I have just had the pleasure of visiting Nova Scotia, having been invited to help provide family therapy training to mental health professionals in the province.  After an overnight stay in Halifax, we travelled to the town of Truro, stopping off for a brief touristic interlude at Mahone Bay and Lunenburg.

Truro is perhaps not the most exciting place in Canada but, as a centre for training people from all over the province, it made geographical sense.  It’s described as a ‘hub’ and was once the point of convergence of major railway lines but I was surprised to learn much of the railway network has closed, simply because, so I was told, ‘Everyone has a car and the highway network is so good’.  Nova Scotia is now left with a legacy of disused railway-lines-turned-cycle-tracks which, sadly, I had neither the time nor the bike to enjoy.

The Nova Scotians seem to be generally an unassuming, rather conservative people who made us feel very welcome with their enthusiasm for learning and their commitment to improving the lives of families dealing with mental health problems.  So what does a British visitor notice that’s different from the UK?  
Cars display no registration plate at the front which, for some reason, creates a slightly sinister atmosphere when you first become aware of it, as if you have stepped into a sci-fi movie. That said, the road etiquette is characteristically well-mannered:  pedestrians don’t cross roads at crossings until the ‘red hand’ turns white. Visually-impaired pedestrians are prompted to know when it’s safe to cross by birdsong sounds – one that sounds like a cuckoo and another more monotone one which, I think, help you to determine when it’s safe to cross either in a forward or a sideways direction.  Traffic stops as soon as a driver notices a pedestrian wanting to cross.  For a while I found myself looking the wrong way when crossing roads (the traffic being on the right) and gratefully acknowledging the person in the passenger seat rather than the driver! 
 Most of the buildings are made of wood rather than brick (there are endless forests all around so timber is plentiful and brick is reserved for the more prestigious buildings.) Homeowners favour steel roofs – they last forever.
 I had expected to have lots of good strong coffee but Nova Scotians seem not to prioritise this. I was also surprised at how alien vegetarianism seems to be to them.  Restaurants seemed satisfied with themselves so long as they offered a single veggie option (usually mushroom risotto or salad). Salad sometimes had meat in it, however, and even baked beans in the hotel’s hot buffet had to contain bacon – real cowboy food. Frankie and Gino’s (nothing like our Frankie and Benny’s) was an unexpected treasure.  Friendly staff served pints of Rickards Red beer for those of us who were missing our real ale, and they were able to be more flexible about the menu. The complimentary mints that came with the bill caused a minor transatlantic stir. 
magical ointment
Our Canadian hosts explained that, in North America, the over-sized Polo mints are called Life Savers (they are lifebuoy-shaped, if you think about it for a moment!) But what was that pungent aroma that could be smelled through the sweet wrapper?  ‘Wintergreen,’ said the Canadians.  ‘Germolene,’ said the English. We were transported instantly back to the playground, grazed knees and the comforting smell of that magical, skin-coloured ointment applied lovingly by our mothers from a little tin.  The Canadians looked bemused but I politely declined to pop a Germolene-impregnated mint into my mouth.  Germolene was, as far as I was concerned, not to be taken internally.

The Nova Scotians seemed more Scottish than they realised. Some of them pronounced ‘Out and about’ as ‘Oot and aboot’. They seemed to prefer meat and fish to fruit and vegetables; trees and lakes (lochs?) abound.  The traditional music they enjoy, which they think of as Nova Scotian, sounded pretty Irish and Scots to my ears. If a young man decides to take up the bagpipes rather than the guitar it is not considered strange.Fresh fruit, like strong coffee, seemed unimportant in Nova Scotia. 

A few precious bananas appeared in the hotel one day but, within 24 hours, they had converted themselves into a banana dessert. Curiously, slices of oranges were de rigueur, whether on the edge of a pint of Rickards White beer or as an accompaniment to poached eggs. Apart from these ubiquitous slithers of orange, fruit was, if not forbidden, rare.

After a week in Truro, the enthusiastic politeness of the hotel staff was wearing a bit thin. Call it grumpiness, but an English person is satisfied with a grunt when he thanks a waitress for pouring his coffee whereas it is the Canadian reflex to declare: ‘You’re welcome!’ at every turn. I had the privilege to meet some great characters and kind souls in Nova Scotia and so - perhaps despite rather because of the urgent, insistent ‘You’re welcomes’ - I genuinely did feel very welcome in this big, beautiful, peaceable province.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Thankfully not floating away with Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Unknown Mortal Orchestra — live at Thekla, Bristol

Tuesday 7th  May, 2013

 I'd heard some tracks by Unknown Mortal Orchestra on BBC 6 Music but no one else I know seemed to be aware of them. When I discovered they were playing in Bristol in the week of my birthday, it seemed like a perfect excuse to hook up with my son Dan -- currently a Bristol resident -- for a chilled-out, father/son, gig-going experience.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra (UMO) is led by Ruban Nielson (former member of the Mint Chicks) — a New Zealander now based in Portland, Oregon. UMO were supported by Splashh -- a four-piece psychedelic rock band that also includes a smattering of New Zealanders.

The unusual setting for the gig was Thekla – an award-winning venue that's actually a cargo ship moored in the Mud Dock area of Bristol's Floating Harbour. (The ship was originally brought to Bristol as a music and theatre venue by the wife of Vivian Stanshall of Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band fame.) I'd been aboard the Thekla years ago though I can’t recall which band I saw. (Dan tells me it's more interesting to see gigs there on a stormy winter's night because you forget you're on a boat and are suddenly reminded when the venue starts to sway.) But it was a calm, early May evening when we embarked to see UMO.

Support act Splashh, despite the aptness of their maritime-sounding name, were disappointing. I tried to imagine their songs performed without the arsenal of effects pedals and suspected there would be little left behind to enjoy. The sound was unbelievably distorted. There’s psychedelic and lo-fi ... and then there's just distorted. By contrast, UMO sounded fuzzy in a good way. Ruban, in a leather jacket with a Monkees logo on the back, is a talented guitarist and songwriter and gave an assured performance with solid but unassuming backup from bassist Jake Portrait and drummer Riley Geare.

Gillam the Younger looked pretty unimpressed throughout the gig and told me he enjoyed the psychedelic cover version encores more than the main set. As for Old Man Gillam, well, I was glad to have witnessed UMO in action. Ruban has a gift for creating chirpy songs with sprightly guitar parts and quirky, sometimes incongruously dark lyrics. Who could fail to delight in the hook ‘... so good at being in trouble, so bad at being in love ...'? The intriguingly-titled The Opposite of Afternoon could, in a parallel universe, have been a lost track by the Young Rascals while UMO’s nearest thing to a hit single, Swim and Sleep, epitomises their plaintive pop sensibility:  
‘I wish that I could swim and sleep like a shark does,
I'd fall to the bottom and I'd hide till the end of time
in the sweet cool darkness, asleep and constantly floating away ...’

Sunday, 28 April 2013

A Joy Forever — Fruity Shirts and the Survival of Children’s Fiction

I received a parcel in the post recently that made a pleasant change from junk mail and bills. Girls Gone By Publishers republish a selection of the most popular children's fiction from the 20th century. They concentrate on those titles that are most sought-after and difficult to come by second-hand. Having republished nearly all of Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine series, Girls Gone By are planning to bring out an edition of Man with Three Fingers this autumn. Man with Three Fingers was first published in 1966 but my own copy dates from 1971 when I was 10 years old. I’m thrilled, therefore, to have been invited by the enterprising folk at GGB to provide an introduction to this new edition.

So what was in the parcel? Two sample copies of GGB books -- two handsome paperback reprints of Saucers over the Moor and Sea Witch Comes Home. These books really are a thing of beauty and, as Keats wrote:  ‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: Its loveliness increases...’

Saucers over the Moor has an atmospheric cover that is a reproduction of the 1955 dustwrapper, while Sea Witch Comes Home sports the original cover from its 1960 first edition —  an innovation that combined a photograph taken at Walberswick in Suffolk by Malcolm Saville himself with superimposed portraits by the illustrator Terry Freeman of the main characters, David and Rose. The representation of David Morton with a fruity-coloured shirt and tucked-in neckerchief makes him look uncannily like a young Michael Portillo!

The Girls Gone By reissues have lots of bonus material; they use the text of the first editions and rigorously but sympathetically check and correct these, providing detailed notes on the text, along with a new introduction, a biography of the author, a detailed publishing history and often ‘extra features’ such as essays about the illustrators and the locations of the books. Rather like Persephone Books — who reprint neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly women) writers — Girls Gone By are providing an invaluable service, producing beautiful objects of nostalgia and enjoyment. They are true to their aims of making these books ‘available at affordable prices and to make ownership possible not only for existing collectors but for new collectors so that the books continue to survive.’ Like David Morton and Michael Portillo, I'm more than happy to don a fruity shirt and join in the campaign to celebrate the survival of things worth keeping.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Sigur Rós - how to make three thousand souls smile in unison

Sigur Rós, Live at Wolverhampton Civic Hall

Tuesday 5th March, 2013

I knew my nephew Tom was a fellow admirer of the Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós so, when I tentatively suggested we should go to this gig, the response was predictable:  ‘I imagine,’ he emailed me back, ‘after  seeing them, we will scoff at ever debating whether we should have or not.’ Sometimes, the way Tom expresses himself, I think he might actually be GK Chesterton. And so it was that Tom, his affable friend Joseph and I found ourselves waiting for Sigur Rós while the support act – Blanck Mass -- got the crowd into a suitably hypnagogic state. 

When the light show projected white circles across the back of the stage, Tom observed that the Mysterons had arrived. This reference to the 1967 TV series Captain Scarlet had me looking out for the sinister Captain Black. I have to say, there were quite a few contenders in the crowd but, as Joseph pointed out, surprisingly few jumper-wearers considering this was a Sigur Rós concert.

Finally, Blanck Mass ended, and Sigur Rós began to play behind a gauze curtain which only dropped away at the climax of the third song. (Is this what they call in theatre-land a scrim curtain? I'll have to ask another of my nephews, Tim -- a lighting engineer -- about that one.) 

The eerie use of lighting cast giant shadows of singer-guitarist Jónsi Birgisson as he played electric guitar with a cello bow. Stooped in concentration, bowing his guitar, the giant shadows appeared, at times, to be projections of a headless frontman. Visually, the show was astounding, with its clever combination of back-projected film and countless standard lamps on stage, sometimes streetlights in fairyland, sometimes beacons answering the strange flashes of maritime lights playing on the backdrop. The sounds emanating from the stage were as extraordinary as the visual effects, and it was remarkable that everything, from the quietest tinkle of glockenspiel and toy piano to the loudest crescendo of guitar, drums, bass, strings and brass playing together was audible and undistorted, testimony to great sound engineering combined with impeccable musicianship. Sigur Rós‘s music, whether at its gentlest or most searingly dramatic, is transcendentally beautiful and, at certain moments, there appeared to be two or three thousand souls smiling at once. At the end of the show, the musicians lined up to take a bow, as if at the end of delightful, otherworldly pantomime.

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).