Friday, 29 December 2017

Ancient end-of-year traditions - Bonfires and Bongaloos

As the days grew shorter, darker and colder, we decided we would make one last trip away from home before settling down to Christmas and the New Year. Regular readers of this blog will know Rye in Sussex is a special destination for us and so, in November, we revisited the magical medieval town perched on a hill in time to witness its famous bonfire night.  Dating back several hundred years, ‘Rye Fawkes’ night predates the gunpowder plot and features not only the bonfire and fireworks associated with bonfire nights all over the UK but also burning boats, fire-breathing dragons and a spectacular procession of flaming torches through the town's streets. Its history is obscure but it seems to be less about Guy Fawkes & Co. and more about a curious mixture of disguise, revelry, smugglers, warding off the threat of invasion and ancient end-of-year traditions of banishing evil with flaming torches.

The 2014 edition of Rye Royal
The pageant of Rye bonfire provided the backdrop to Malcolm Saville's 1969 book Rye Royal. When the book was republished in 2014 (by Girls Gone By Publishers) I was privileged and delighted to be asked to write an introduction for the new edition. Of course, it is to the children's adventures of Saville that I owe my fascination with Rye and the surrounding area so it seemed appropriate that we should make the short journey from Rye to neighbouring Winchelsea, where Saville lived throughout the 1970s. He died in 1982 and his ashes are buried in the Garden of Remembrance at Winchelsea church (the Church of St Thomas.) We chatted with a local resident at the gates of the churchyard who said he knew Saville had lived in the town but didn't realise his ashes were buried there. He did, however, point out the grave of another famous former resident of Rye – Spike Milligan.  The already rather worn tombstone of Milligan (who died in 2002) famously bears the Irish epitaph "Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite" ("I told you I was ill") – a last joke by the comedian.

I can remember a day, when I was at primary school, when the teacher read us some poetry by Spike Milligan.  I was completely captivated by lines such as:
"On the Ning Nang Nong
Where the Cows go Bong!
and the monkeys all say BOO!
There's a Nong Nang Ning
Where the trees go Ping!
And the teapots jibber jabber joo."

I raved about these poems to my sister Jan (who happened to work at Wildings bookshop in Shrewsbury) and she came home with a gift for me:  a yellow paperback copy of Milligan's Silly Verse for Kids. I read and memorised some of the poems, like Bongaloo:
"How strange is a Bongaloo, Daddy?"
"As strange as strange," I replied.
"When the sun's in the West
It appears in a vest
Sailing out with the noonday tide."

It may have been nonsense but it was poetry. Just as Saville's novels would later make me yearn for adventure, travel and loyal friendships (not to mention fostering a love of books and a desire to be an author) so Milligan's verse (with its wit, perfect rhythm, alliteration and assonance) was surely an excellent foundation for an aspiring songwriter with an appreciation of the surreal and the absurd.  Strange, then, that these two writers, so influential to me, should both be laid to rest in the grounds of the same church in Winchelsea.

Part of the charm of the sister towns of Rye and Winchelsea is that they are both a little lost in time. Some things have changed, though, since our last visit. The windmill where we stayed has new owners and, in Lion Street, buildings that were once a Victorian schoolhouse (and later a library) now house a wonderful state-of-the-art cinema – the Kino Rye. It's surely a hopeful sign that places can celebrate their long history and ancient traditions and still develop beautiful new venues for arts and entertainment.  I'd like to think both Saville and Milligan would approve.

Saville, in his Portrait of Rye, wrote:
"It is difficult to assess the magnetism of this historic little town. I have come to believe that in this unhappy age of standardization and mediocrity, Rye stands alone, sufficient to itself. It is not indifferent to the outside world but history has left its mark."

Milligan, in his book Puckoon, wrote:
“Life wasn't too bad. The trouble with Man was, even while he was having a good time, he didn't appreciate it. Why, thought Milligan, this very moment might be the happiest in me life. The very thought of it made him miserable.”
Happy New Year!

Friday, 27 October 2017

The Thief of DADGAD - Pierre Bensusan

Live at St Mary's Church, Alveley 

Saturday 14 October, 2017

It could have been a scene from days gone by ... more than a hundred people making their way to the village church on a dark, autumnal Saturday evening. But, this well-attended gathering was not for a religious service but for a concert. That's not to say it wasn't a spiritually-uplifting evening as the mellifluous music of the virtuoso French-Algerian guitarist Pierre Bensusan filled the beautiful 12th century building. That the internationally-renowned musician should make the former coal-mining village of Alveley in Shropshire the venue for one of only five dates on his 2017 UK tour is something of a surprise. I'm told one of the villagers is a Bensusan fan and persuaded the organisers of Music at St Mary's to contact the guitarist's management.

Bensusan's playing and ethereal vocalising benefited from the church's wonderful acoustics plus some judicious effects, controlled by a laptop (which he operated himself from the stage area.)  In between numbers, he would adjust the effects, joking at one point, "I'm sorry about this – I'm expecting an important email."

Highlights of the performance included the delicate Four A.M. (from the 1987 Spices album), L'Alchimiste and Intuite. From the 2010 studio album Vividly, Bensusan played Pas Sage and Dadgad Café, explaining that he always plays in the DADGAD guitar tuning because he is self-taught and no one told him the standard way to tune a guitar!  Le Voyage pour L'Irlande was introduced with a quip that it's not so difficult to translate the French titles into English. He also had a funny anecdote about an occasion when he took part in a pub session in Ireland.

For one man to keep an audience entertained with just an acoustic guitar (in one tuning) for a couple of hours on a Saturday night takes remarkable skill and talent. Thankfully the transcendent, adventurous thief of DADGAD has what it takes.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Mounting the air at Shrewsbury Folk Festival

Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2017 -Sunday 27 August 2017

It's two years since we were last at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival, back in September 2015, when Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita performed on a typical rain-drenched English Bank Holiday weekend. This year we were blessed with a warm and dry day, though the atmosphere was perhaps a little subdued, the festival mourning the loss of founder and co-director Alan Surtees, who established the event twenty years ago and sadly died in June.

We came for the Sunday only, mainly to see our old favourites The Unthanks and Seth Lakeman. Before this, though, we witnessed an unexpected highlight in the Pengwern Marquee in the form of the fantastic - but alas ephemeral - National Youth Folk Ensemble. This group of teenagers had spent just four weeks learning a dazzling set of tunes which they played with great confidence, skill and obvious enjoyment.

After an early evening lull in the music we gathered in the Bellstone Marquee where The Unthanks performed, as the end-of-summer sunset seeped through the entrances and exits. With songs like 'Magpie', 'Mount the Air' and 'What Can a Song Do to You?' – and augmented by trumpet, string quartet, drums and bass – they delighted and thrilled as always. 

Loudon Wainwright III is an acquired taste (and one I'm afraid I still haven't acquired), but he offered up his trademark mixture of irreverent, cynical songs and anecdotes on guitar, piano and ukulele, ending his set with 'The Swimming Song'.  

Finally, for us, Seth Lakeman gave a breathless and blistering show, the lights perfectly synchronised with his mesmerising fiddle playing, while his amazingly talented band managed to keep pace, looking like a bunch of delighted kids on a musical roller-coaster ride. Folk music can sometimes be surprisingly loud, surprisingly fast and very exciting indeed. 

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Meteors, eclipses and a sense of perspective from the night skies

Things astronomical have dominated the news recently. Earlier this month there was the spectacle of the Perseid meteor shower, sometimes referred to poetically as the 'tears of Saint Lawrence'. And then the US witnessed the 'Great American Eclipse' – a total solar eclipse visible across the entire United States, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. So it seemed appropriate that I should be reading a thought-provoking book by Adam Ford called 'Galileo and the art of ageing mindfully'. Subtitled 'Wisdom from the night skies', this little volume is one of a series of slim hardbacks produced by Leaping Hare Press which deal, in a very entertaining and often rather tangential way, with mindfulness. (Other titles available include 'Einstein and the Art of Mindful Cycling' and 'The Art of Mindful Baking'.)

Adam Ford (who has written a number of the books in the Leaping Hare series, is an ordained Anglican priest, but there are more references to Buddhism than to Christianity in this philosophical reflection on what we can learn from astronomy. In a chapter called 'Time Tunnels and Eternity', Ford explains the speed of light and what it means to us. He points out how, if we look up at Orion in December we see Sirius (the brightest star in our sky):
"Like the sound of the woodcutter's axe delayed when seen from the far side of a field, the light of Sirius is somehow delayed by its speed, so we do not see it as it is now but as it was eight and a half years ago. What we see in our present moment is something happening eight and half years ago in our past. What were we doing then?"

Ford goes on to consider that, because of the time taken for light to travel, using light years as a measure of distance, when we look at Betelgeuse for example (450 light years away) "we see it now as it was in the past, in the first Elizabethan era." While the three stars of Orion's belt "are seen even further back in history, for they shine to us from hundreds of years ago before the days of William the Conqueror."

I, with little knowledge of astronomy and still less of Galileo, had never contemplated how, because of the speed of light, when we look at the stars we are looking into the past – a kind of everyday, interstellar time-travel that might help us maintain a healthy sense of perspective when we reflect on our place and time in the world.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Tewkesbury Medieval Festival, July 2017

A musical reception committee
While parts of Europe are suffering a heatwave this August, in England the summer has, for now, been chased away by thick cloud, rain and the occasional rumble of thunder. It's hard to believe that, just a few weeks ago, we were enjoying perfect weather for what was, for me, the highlight of the summer (if not the highlight of 2017) – the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival.  

Now, you might be thinking these guys at the Passengers in Time blog surely aren't into dressing up in costumes and reenacting battles. Maybe not, but of course this blog has always been about books, music and time travel and the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival brings together two of those interests very nicely indeed. You may recall that, back in the spring, we reported on Celtic Medieval Speed Folk trio PerKelt. We were so taken with them we looked them up to see where we could catch them playing live again. Turned out they were booked to play at the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival – reason enough to go along to this free, family-friendly event even if battle reenactments, archery displays and sampling mead aren't really your thing. 

PerKelt at Tewkesbury Medieval Festival
(c) Tony Gillam, 2017
PerKelt were, as expected, amazing, and I found myself beaming with joy and contentment as they performed their sweet, exuberant music in the brightly-coloured dome tent. But it wasn't just the enchanting music or the obvious enjoyment of PerKelt; the whole atmosphere of the festival was delightful – relaxed and relaxing – with the opportunity to see all sorts of interesting stalls and displays within a stone's throw of one of our favourite quaint English market towns. The Tewkesbury Medieval Festival is our new choice event of the year; and, if it's not a contradiction to say so, we're really looking forward to going back in time again next July. 

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Clementines in Dulcimerland

Dulcimers at Halsway, Halsway Manor, Somerset

22 May - 26 May, 2017

Many an episode of The Saint or The Avengers involved Simon Templar, Steed or Emma Peel snooping around an isolated English country house and uncovering sinister goings-on. Mad scientists would be plotting nuclear destruction or charismatically leading some strange cult. I felt a bit like one of these 1960s TV adventurers as I turned into the drive leading to Halsway Manor. Halsway – pronounced, I discovered, 'Hall-sy' with a silent 'w' – is set in the Somerset countryside and is home to the National Centre for Folk Arts. All sorts of unexpected activities happen here but nothing, I'm pleased to report, involving criminal masterminds.

At Halsway you can learn square basketry, green woodworking or 18th century style dance (taught by the choreographer of the BBC's Poldark series.)  Musicians can hone their skills on banjo or ukulele and the Manor also hosts a festival for the nyckelharpa (a Swedish keyed fiddle, similar to a hurdy-gurdy.) 

I was here for an event called Dulcimers At Halsway, hosted by the Nonsuch Dulcimer Club – an organisation for anyone interested in hammered or mountain dulcimers. Now, for the uninitiated, dulcimers are part of the zither family of instruments. Hammered dulcimers and mountain dulcimers might sound as if they ought to be related, but really they are as different from each other as balafons and balalaikas. The trapezoid-shaped hammered dulcimer is played by striking the strings with small, spoon-shaped, wooden  'hammers'. Even if you've never seen one, you've probably heard its haunting sound on film soundtracks – John Barry’s score for The Ipcress File, for example. A mountain dulcimer, on the other hand, is a completely different kettle of fish or, if you prefer, box of strings. Sometimes called an Appalachian dulcimer as it was developed in the Appalachian mountains in the late 18th century, it is a descendant of various fretted zithers brought to America by European settlers. The mountain dulcimer is played on the lap and strummed or plucked. If you've ever heard Joni Mitchell's classic Blue album, you will have heard her playing the dulcimer.

I bought my first mountain dulcimer in Brittany in the 1980s and have been trying to play the instrument, on and off, ever since. To begin with, I thought I'd mastered a few tunes and got on quite nicely for several years until I discovered it was strung incorrectly, so I'd been playing all my chord shapes back to front. (It turned out, unlike a guitar, the bass string of a dulcimer is a drone that should be furthest away from the player, with the melody being played on the string nearest.)

Having never had any tuition – and having never even met a fellow dulcimer player until recently – the idea of a few days in Somerset involving practical workshops for beginners to advanced players sounded ideal. I made my mind up to give it a go and so, with some trepidation, I found myself in the entrance hall of Halsway Manor. As I signed in, I was given a name badge bearing the words "Tony Gillam", followed by a question mark. I wasn't sure what was so questionable about my identity until I noticed others who had the letters 'HD' or 'MD' on their badges. For a moment the number of people with 'MD' after their name made me wonder if I'd accidentally stumbled into a convention for medical doctors until I realised it was meant to distinguish the pluckers from the hammerers.

The bedroom had no TV, reinforcing the idea that I was on a retreat. My wife had jokingly told people her husband was spending a week away in Dulcimerland and it's true that I and my fellow students were totally immersed in the instrument, with workshops throughout the day and sessions or concerts in the evenings. I was taught plenty of interesting new techniques and even finally learnt exactly what chords they were that I'd been playing all these years. I was introduced to playing in different keys using that handy gadget the capo (a device that attaches to the neck of a stringed instrument to shorten the playable length of the strings and hence raises the pitch.) To a guitar player, the capo used on dulcimers looks like a very crude-looking wooden clamp, a kind of Flintstones' version of a capo – but it opened up a whole new world, taking us away from the tyranny of D-A-D tunings and effortlessly into the key of G. Our affable and gifted tutor Dave Haas, from West Virginia, would teasingly ask us: "Now, can you play this in G?" To which we were encouraged, pantomime-style, to reply in unison: "Sure! No problem," before carefully positioning our capos on the third fret.

Dave asked us to imagine we were picking up a clementine in our left hand to get our fingers in the right position for fretting the strings. "Remember, it's a clementine, " he would say, "not a melon." Whereas beginner guitarists are taught to play down-strokes and up-strokes, dulcimer players are taught out-strokes and in-strokes – the ins and outs of dulcimer-playing.

Our other tutor was Pete Coe – multi-instrumentalist stalwart of the English folk scene since the 1970s, whose latest album features a dulcimer version of the American folk song Shenandoah called World Of Misery. Pete, with his North of England matter-of-factness and mischievous humour seems like a folk music equivalent of Jarvis Cocker. "Only put your instrument in its case if you're taking it outside," he urged. "You need to leave it lying around so you can just pick it up and play when you're watching TV and the adverts come on." He encouraged us to "muck about and make up stupid little tunes." This, he insisted, was how we would improve as players. And to those who bemoan the low profile of the instrument Pete had one simple, inspirational answer. We must get out there and let the world see and hear it. So come on, you dulcimer players! Pluck up your courage. Let's go and play.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Senegal comes to Worcestershire

Amadou Diagne & Group Yakar 

- Live at Worcester Arts Workshop, Worcester, Saturday 29 April

Photo courtesy of Phil Richards (c) 2017
Describing Amadou Diagne as a multi-instrumentalist is something of an understatement. The Senegalese musician switches effortlessly between drums, guitar, kora, djembe and talking drum, all accompanied by his powerful voice. And, as if this didn't offer enough sonic variety for one evening, Amadou was joined by his UK-based five piece band Group Yakar.

The show started with some solo oud playing by Group Yakar's extraordinarily talented bassist Mark Smulian, before keyboards, drums, vocals and electric guitar were added to the mix. Amadou's music incorporates elements of afrobeat, blues, rock, jazz funk, mbalax and West African praise singing. The first set began gently but was rounded off energetically with Amadou taking his mobile from his pocket mid-song, placing it carefully on his djembe and leaping off the stage to dance ecstatically before the audience. Had the organisers been over-optimistic in creating so large a space for dancing between stage and seating? I wondered if the band had found it hard to connect at first with the polite, rather distant audience.

The second set began with Amadou playing solo kora and the music built progressively towards a climax, the complex interplay of the musicians taking us into rockier territory. Dan Pert on electric guitar began to really enjoy himself and even Amadou used some wah-wah effect on his kora. Perhaps the moves looked a bit reticent compared with the fine example set by Amadou, but eventually a few of the good people of Worcester were up and dancing to the Senegalese groove.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Learning how to wrong-foot a villain at The Old Ship Hotel

The Malcolm Saville Society Literary Conference, 
Friday 21 April, 2017 at the Old Ship Hotel, Brighton

The Old Ship, side-street view. Tony Gillam (c) 2017
Overlooking the seafront, The Old Ship is the oldest hotel in Brighton.  Parts of the building date back to 1559. Dickens stayed there in 1841 – a prolific year for him that saw the publication of both The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge. The hotel is also mentioned in Graham Greene's 1938 novel Brighton Rock (‘This gentleman’s invited me to the Old Ship,’ she said in a mock-refined voice. ‘Tomorrow I shall be delighted, but today I have a prior engagement at the Dirty Dog.’)

With so many historical and authorial associations, the hotel seemed an ideal location for a literary conference. And so it was that the Malcolm Saville Society chose this setting for their first literary conference on the life and work of the children's author. In fact, the Society was holding their annual weekend-long gathering there this year, but I had come along just for this stand-alone event. The conference was aimed at society members and was also open to members of the Alliance of Literary Societies. Elder statesman of the Malcolm Saville Society Frank Shepperd had long thought it would be a good idea to run such a conference. As Frank astutely pointed out to me when we chatted, some members of the society are not as young as they were and, for all our enduring fondness for the real-life locations in which Saville set his books, the prospect of scrambling up the Long Mynd or across Dartmoor in the wind and rain may not be as feasible as it once was. 

Brighton pier sunset. Tony Gillam (c) 2017
Instead, we were treated to a series of talks in which various members of the society reflected on what Saville's books meant to them. All the presentations were peppered with little gems of information and affectionate insights.  

I particularly enjoyed Phil Bannister's talk on Strangers at Snowfell (1949) – the only Saville book set in the Lake District. Phil broadened the discussion to compare and contrast Saville's approach with that of Geoffrey Trease who set five novels for children in the Lake District. 

Patrick Tubby gave a delightful account of his rediscovery of Saville books and subsequent membership of the society, claiming that he was nearly thrown out when it was revealed he had never visited Saville's spiritual home of Shropshire.  Happily, Patrick has since remedied this and his description of his encounters with the county and the Lone Pine locations were as poetic and sublime as Saville's own.

Another sunset on Brighton Pier. Tony Gillam (c) 2017
Alan Stone's talk explored some of the environmentalist aspects of Saville's books.  I hadn't appreciated quite how often Saville used the device of baddies posing as birdwatchers who are (repeatedly) caught out by their lack of ornithological knowledge.  How many modern day children would know enough about bird-watching to wrong-foot – and thus unmask – a villain?

It was great to meet so many members of the society in such a lovely old building.  My grateful thanks to Frank, who hosted, and to all the contributors and organisers for their hard work in preparing and presenting such an entertaining and informative conference. Also thanks to The Old Ship Hotel staff who provided novel refreshments to accompany the tea and coffee in the form of popcorn, chocolate and ... of course, sticks of Brighton Rock.  

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Celtic-Medieval Speed Folk... courtesy of PerKelt

PerKelt - Live at The Artrix, Bromsgrove, Saturday 11 March

It was somewhat startling to see the members of PerKelt, conspicuous in their flowing medieval cloaks and kilts, among the gathering audience sipping cappuccinos in the foyer of the Artrix Arts Centre. But any sense of alarm was quelled by the sight of them carefully applying face paint to one another's foreheads, before heading backstage in readiness to play. 

PerKelt describe their sound as Celtic-Medieval Speed Folk. This belies the lyricism of moments like 'The Willow Song', (a setting of Shakespeare's ballad from Othello) and John Dowland's ‘If My Complaints’. All three members of PerKelt – founding members Stepan Honc (guitar and vocals) and fellow Czech Paya Bastlova (vocals, recorders and harp) – are astonishingly good musicians. The most recent recruit, French drummer/percussionist David Maurette, adds to the vibrancy, warmth and good humour.

Paya is able to alternate between sweet lamentation and a harder-edged singing voice and switched from singing to recorder without missing a beat or a breath. What's more, the challenging choice of material called for multilingual skills with ‘Ay Vist Lo Lop’ sung in the Occitan language of southern France and ‘Herr Mannelig’ in Swedish. Stepan was sensitive to the intimacy of the venue and chose to restrain his urge to rock out on speed folk, changing the set list to include a few more downbeat selections. There is, though, an irrepressible, almost grunge sensibility to PerKelt which means for every soft, delicate moment it won't be long before the guitar, drums and recorder joyfully let rip again. 

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Maggie Roche (1951-2017)

Maggie Roche, ©Irene Young, 1979
We don't usually do obituaries here at the Passengers in Time blog, but this time we'll make an exception for a remarkable and underrated artist. The pantheon of late sixties/early seventies pop and rock music continues to lose some of its brightest and best as 2017 gets underway. The obituaries section of April's Uncut magazine pays tribute to members of Can, The Allman Brothers, Mott the Hoople, King Crimson, Spooky Tooth and Man – not to mention that quirkiest of singer/songwriters Peter Sarstedt.  But I was particularly shocked and deeply saddened to read of the death of Maggie Roche. The 1979 album The Roches (featuring the perfect harmonies and highly original songwriting of the three sisters Maggie, Terri and Suzzy) is very close to my heart as the soundtrack to my first year away from home at university. Maggie, the eldest of the sisters, was responsible for writing the soaring, heartrending "Hammond Song" from that album and the wittily poignant "The Married Men".

When I as eighteen going on nineteen the three Irish-American sisters from New Jersey seemed to epitomise just how much fun could be had with acoustic guitars and a devil-may-care attitude. Their 1982 album Keep on Doing emboldened me and my friends to keep writing and playing music against the odds.

All three sisters seemed equally gifted songwriters yet The Roches never fully achieved mainstream success. Considered perhaps too twee for some tastes they resolutely continued to produce albums of elegantly-crafted, beautifully-observed songs. Maggie's contributions were often infused with an underlying sadness as well as a self-deprecating humour. She wrote the title track to their 1989 album Speak - a song about being lost for words – as well as the lovely "Broken Places".

If the music of The Roches has passed you by then I suggest you explore their back catalogue and discover what the New York Times described, in their obituary of Maggie Roche, as a "pop-folk songwriting style that could be droll or diaristic, full of unexpected melodic turns."

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Portable ecstasies – Wordsworth's spectacles and square oranges

Derwentwater (c) Tony Gillam
Perhaps the more dramatic the landscape you inhabit, the more romantic the literature you produce. Think of the Brontës and their West Yorkshire moors ... and, of course, the Wordsworths – William and his sister Dorothy – (not forgetting their good friend Coleridge) and the English Lake District. The grandeur of Derwentwater and Grasmere, even in chilly February, is always inspirational but it was the small domestic details of Wordsworth's life on display at Dove Cottage and the adjoining museum that captured my imagination. Here you can see the poet's special writing chair which had flat armrests to use as a writing surface – because Wordsworth hated sitting at a desk. And here, also, his blue-lensed spectacles, more redolent somehow of John Lennon than of the author of The Prelude. It's easy to imagine, with the heady Lakeland air all around and an opium-induced haze (courtesy of friends like Coleridge and De Quincey), Wordsworth squinting at the world through blue-tinted glasses and inadvertently laying the foundations not only of Romanticism but of psychedelia too.

Thomas de Quincey, fan and friend of Wordsworth, memorably celebrated opium in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater:“here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered; happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat-pocket; portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint-bottle; and peace of mind could be sent down by the mail.”

Now, I should explain that no opium or related substances were involved in our recent trip to the Lake District but we did enjoy more innocent delights, some of which de Quincey also appreciated: “Surely everyone is aware of the divine pleasures which attend a wintry fireside; candles at four o'clock, warm hearthrugs, tea, a fair tea-maker, shutters closed, curtains flowing in ample draperies to the floor, whilst the wind and rain are raging audibly without.”

Village School, Grasmere (c) Tony Gillam
There is something ineffably cosy about a stay in the Lake District and the area is reinvigorating in so many ways. Being surrounded by so much natural beauty and bracing weather is restorative enough, but it's an area rich in sensory not to say sometimes psychedelic-sounding pleasures. For example, the scent alone – not to mention the taste – of fresh gingerbread, made in the tiny village school building in Grasmere where William and Dorothy once taught local children (convinced, as the Wordsworths were, that universal education was the means to escape poverty and ignorance.) Then there is the craft bakery and tea rooms Bryson's of Keswick selling, alongside their gorgeous fresh loaves and cakes, bottles of toffee vodka.  Yes.  Toffee vodka. ('It goes very well with Prosecco,' said the sales assistant, conspiratorially.) 

The Square Orange, Keswick
Or perhaps you'd like to try a rhubarb cheesecake with your coffee at Keswick's Square Orange Cafe Bar, or be brave enough to order a glass of Kwak (a Belgian beer that appears to be served in an hourglass-shaped glass.) It was at the Square Orange that we caught a live performance by Lancaster-based singer-songwriter Felicity Harris who just stood up and played (completely unamplified) a selection of her own songs and some very unexpected cover versions, including Laurel & Hardy's Blue Ridge Mountains Of Virginia.

Unlike de Quincey's opium, it's not always so easy to bottle the pleasures of a stay in the Lake District: the landscape that inspired the Romantic poets, good Cumberland beer in friendly, cosy pubs, miles and miles of walking. But perhaps a visit there every now and then, and the memory of the place, will keep at bay what Coleridge called Dejection and those attendant feelings Wordsworth described of "sorrow, disappointment, vexing thoughts, /Confusion of the judgment, zeal decayed, /And, lastly, utter loss of hope itself/ And things to hope for!" As Wordsworth reminds us in The Prelude: "Not with these began/Our song, and not with these our song must end."

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Scandinavia on my mind

What links these three books: Tove Jansson's A Winter Book, Hold Tight by Felicity Fair Thompson and The Rough Guide to Scandinavia? Well, one answer to that question is that I've recently been reading all three.  But, that's a bit unfair, unless you've been sneaking around my house spying on me (and I'm sure you're much too polite to have been doing that.)  So, here's another answer...

Many of us are keen on (not to say addicted to) dark Scandinavian thrillers – the genre known as Scandi noir (sometimes referred to as  Nordic noir.)  Even if we don't read the books, TV dramas like The Killing, Wallander and The Bridge, have set a high standard for compelling storytelling, intriguing characters and reliably fine acting and directing. But it's worth reminding ourselves that not all Scandinavian fiction is in this genre and, equally, not all crime thrillers are Scandinavian.    

Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is fondly remembered as the Swedish-speaking Finnish writer and artist who created the Moomin stories, but I really enjoy her books for adults. In the past I've read her novels The Summer Book and Fair Play and so, this winter, it seemed appropriate to read a collection of her short stories A Winter Book. Regular readers of this blog will known I'm a great fan of the short story form and Jansson's are wonderfully succinct, beguiling examples. At times she writes from the perspective of a small child, with a partial grasp of the world around her; at other times, her point of view is an older adult who really should know better. In my view, they occupy an area between memoir and fiction, and between reality and dream, edging towards magical realism but remaining grounded. The independent publisher Sort Of Books is to be applauded for reissuing eight of Jansson's books for adults. 

I mentioned that, just as not all Scandinavian fiction is crime, so not all crime fiction is Scandinavian. Felicity Fair Thompson is an author based on the Isle of Wight. I've reviewed some of her other books in this blog. Hold Tight is set in Hampshire but it's as dark and gritty as anything coming out of Sweden or Denmark. The crime at the heart of Hold Tight is child abduction and its central character, WPC Jane Velalley, has to contend with unreliable male partners and colleagues who are variously unfaithful or sexist. The society portrayed is one that doesn't make life easy for female professionals juggling family life and a demanding job, and a world where children are vulnerable ... and so, perhaps, are adults. Felicity Fair Thompson shows that, whether she's writing for adults or younger readers (as with her equally enjoyable The Kid on Slapton Beach), her narrative style carries the reader along with her.

... And so to the Rough Guide to Scandinavia. Well, of course, we've been talking about Scandi noir and Tove Jansson and I've started perusing this particular Rough Guide because we're thinking about visiting Denmark later this year. If that seems like a bit of a tenuous link, it also turns out that Mark Ellingham and Natania Jansz who run the aforementioned Sort Of Books were also the founders of the Rough Guide series of travel books.

One thing that puzzles me, though. The Rough Guide to Scandinavia covers Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland but my dictionary tells me Scandinavia is a cultural region consisting of Norway, Sweden and Denmark and sometimes also includes Iceland, Finland, and the Faroe Islands. I always assumed Finland was definitely in Scandinavia – and Iceland too. Indeed, the famously Icelandic Bjork, in her song Hunter, sang: " I thought I could organize freedom / How Scandinavian of me..."

Whether or not we judge Finland and Iceland as Scandinavian, I'm pretty sure we can agree that both Hampshire and the Isle of Wight are just a little too southerly to be included.  

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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).