Lesley picked me up at the train station in Banbury once she got off work. We threw my stuff in the boot of her car. I slid into the front seat, and immediately sat on a banana.
“Oh,” she said, “I think you’ve sat on my banana.”
And so for five days, the banana, none the worse for having been sat on, became our mascot, our talisman, our guide: sitting on the dash next to the CD player and the sat-nav. Because we were road-tripping, Thelma and Louise style, though without shooting people and driving off cliffs.
When our beloved Bellowhead announced, late last year, they were disbanding on May 1st after a farewell tour, I wished to see one of their last gigs (some of their last gigs?). Lesley suggested we do some together. And you know how it is: if someone suggests a possibility, the wheels start turning until that possibility becomes a likelihood, and then a done deal. Lesley bought the tickets. I reserved hotel and hostel rooms. I bought a plane ticket, a train ticket from Heathrow to Paddington to Marylebone to Banbury…and then we hit the road.
Appropriately, the accompaniment was the new Bellowhead Farewell live 2-CD set: loud. Our first leg, with the banana pointing the way, was from Banbury to Biddulph, a small town outside Stoke-On-Trent, where we were to meet with Steve and other Lesley, Anne and Paul, Lauren, and David, friends from previous adventures in walking and music and beer. On the way, we did a bit of lunch at Frankie & Bennie’s (Review: so-so). We did dinner at Roti in Biddulph for Lauren’s birthday, and then we had the Merry Hell experience. Afterward, it was to a bed in New Mills at Liz’s house (thanks, Liz!): this involved much twisty and turny roads through hilly terrain in rain and snow and dark, past farms, through woods with trees I was unable to identify because I’m a tree failure (and it was the middle of the night). Every so often Lesley would say, “I know exactly where I am now!” I, of course, had no clue. The banana remained mute, but somehow reassuring, and I would every so often reach out a surreptitious hand to pet it. At one point I saw a sign that read “rock kennel,” and I was vaguely frightened of rocks that required caging. But we got to Liz’s house, and there were waiting Liz and her daughter Kate (busily writing a story set in Ancient Rome–a girl after my own heart), and Steve and other Lesley. Warmth! Safety! Friends!
In the morning Liz led us out on a chilly sunny walk into the ruins of the mills down by the river, with her lovely dog. The water was high and loud and breathtaking. The mills were ruinous–the perfect morning food for the imagination. I could have spent the entire day wandering and looking–and Liz’s dog Bud could have, too; we would have been perfect companions –but there was a Co-op to visit for bacon and wonderful breads, which we ate at Liz’s table in the cozy kitchen built into the cellar in her wonderful house. Then Lesley and I hit the road again for Bristol. Liz instructed Lesley to drive along through Buxton, where I could see the Opera House, because the Big Session Festival would be taking place there at the end of the month, and it was beautiful besides…so we meandered along that way .
I hadn’t been to Bristol for five years, and then I came into the city on a coach with a busload of cranky high-school-age kids. This time it was in Lesley’s car, hopped up on motorway services coffee, guided by a banana, but the city was still the one I remembered. The hotel where we were to meet Louise was even close to the place we’d stayed back then. When we’d checked in and ventured out in search of an early dinner before queueing up for Bellowhead, I even looked up my old friend Cary Grant, so I could send a picture of him to his erstwhile date, my friend Karen. So here he is, obviously lonely without her:
A word of advice: if you want to have an early dinner on Saturday night in Bristol, so you can get in the queue for the rail at a gig, make reservations. I cannot tell you how many restaurants we checked with who could not seat us. We finally found a place on the waterfront, No. 1 Harborside, where we could get a burger (Review: good and big) and sit outside, in the cold. Don’t be like us.
We got a lazy start in the morning, because Cardiff was only a bit more than an hour away from Bristol. The banana was well-rested after its night in the parking garage; I felt a bit awful, because of the sinus infection that had been plaguing me. This meant that, once we got to Cardiff and drove around in circles a bit because we had trouble figuring out where to park for the Premier Inn, I was on a desperate quest for tissues.
And it was Sunday afternoon, so Boots was closed. We ditched the car finally, dropped our stuff off, and hiked out in the general direction of the castle. There was no time to visit, alas. We meandered in the direction of the courts–and found a corner shop with tissues! Saved! Hellelujah! Then, on the way back, we walked past a police van at the entrance to the pedestrian shopping area, and I checked myself, as one does, to be sure I wasn’t looking suspicious. I wasn’t, as it turned out, the droid they were looking for, for as we approached a church, a catfight broke out: two girls, a guy trying to intervene, one wriggled away from him, chased the other around a tree, and roundhoused her with a closed fist. Bam. The police van was on scene immediately. We walked away quickly, but not before I got to see the policewoman take down the puncher. Woo.
Dinner that night was at Jamie’s Italian Kitchen, where, at Louise’s urging, I had my first ever Malibu and cranberry. (Review: nice.) After the gig and the session, we walked back to the Premier Inn around 2 in the morning. The city was quiet, and rather pretty, and deserted once we got away from the pubs and clubs. I liked the walk. It was rather strange, though, to feel as though the police were watching us on their CCTV–all the more reason why our version of Thelma and Louise was a bit tame.
From Cardiff to the Brighton is something like a four-hour drive. We left early and cranked it back across the bridge into England, then headed south as our trusty banana and sat-nav directed. The banana, in case you’re interested, was holding up well.
Somewhere along the motorway we stopped at Costa’s for coffee and a toastie (Review: yum). I hadn’t been to Brighton in 15 years, but as we cruised past the Pavilion, I realized that the place had not lost any of its gaudy romance for me. The hostel where we had reservations was in a tall Georgian house just down from the Pavilion; our window looked out over the green. We shared the room with two other guests, who were not there when we dumped our things. Lesley and I met up with yet another of her friends, Alison, and rambled about the lanes until we were to find Louise and her friend Susan, and Maureen, who was going to her 80th Bellowhead gig. (The last time I was here, 15 years ago, we were in the company of another gaggle of teenagers, which meant we spent all our free time on the Pier.) This time the bunch of us opted to go to Wahaca for dinner, and we wanted it early, so we could get to the queue at the Dome in good time (third in line this time–perfect for the prime spot on the rail). I had the cauliflower cheese and the chorizo and potato quesadilla, and was a happy camper. (Review: yum.) There was no session after the Brighton show, but nearly everyone who was anyone ended up at the pub across the street from the Dome. Lesley, Alison and I sat at a picnic table on the pavement and watched people come and go. Band members, strangers, a van with no headlights which stopped in the middle of the street, apparently to ask directions to a shop selling bulbs, forcing all other traffic to drive up onto the pavement next to us. Drinks gone, Alison and I wandered away–Lesley stayed out later–and back through the lanes to the hostel.
Tuesday was my birthday. We had no gig tickets. Lesley had to get back to her room in Banbury to be to work Wednesday morning. While having breakfast in the hostel dining room, we examined her National Trust guidebook and decided, as Hughendon Manor outside of High Wyckham was on the route from Brighton to Banbury, it might make a nice stop. The home of Victorian prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, the house’s original Georgian stonework had been refaced with Victorian brick, giving it a vaguely gothic and sinister look; display materials called it a “hideous monstrosity.” Who wouldn’t want to visit a hideous monstrosity? It transpired that my birthday was also the anniversary of Disraeli’s death, and the National Trust steward manning the upstairs bedrooms and sitting rooms was so taken with that bit of synchronicity that she came around with us and pointed things out, rather than remaining at her post.
The library, though containing only one fifth the original books, was wildly exciting (even with the books screened off). I managed to set off an alarm in the dining room, and cringed at the noise and under the glare of the enormous portrait of the queen. The gardens, even this early in the season, were stunning. The tea shop was pretty good, too: with my tea I had a fruit scone with butter and jam (Review: yum). We were, all told, in the Manor grounds for perhaps three hours, but imagine our horror when, returning to the car, we found that in that brief space of time, our trusty banana, which had held on valiantly for so long, had turned brown. Not spotty brown. Entirely brown. The inside of the car suddenly smelled like a slightly overdone loaf of banana bread. Our guide–dare I say it? our friend–had given up the ghost in honor of Benjamin Disraeli’s death day. How could we possibly go on?
So–we didn’t. Not really. Lesley and I returned to Banbury, our starting point, tired, saddened, unprepared to face reality. With one last stop, of course: at the Fox at Farthinghoe for my birthday dinner, where I finally had fish and chips. (Review: all right). Then it was back to Banbury, where, after a night with her friend Kathleen’s cats, Lesley pitched me off once more at the train station. Road trip over.
For this time, anyway.
“Essentially, this album’s [The Ties That Bind] only preconceived purpose was to simply let you have fun while trying your damnedest to find some deeper meaning. We’re not making a statement apart from don’t hurt yourself while you’re dancing in the kitchen.” –David Delarre, in an interview quoted on the Mawkin website.
Because I have never run across Mawkin here in the land of commercial music, finding them as the support on the Bellowhead farewell tour was a gift. The band is made up of
the Delarre brothers, David (singer, guitarist) and James (fiddler); Nick Cooke (on melodeon); Danny Crump (bassist); and Lee Richardson (drummer). Their newest album, The Ties That Bind (which David refers to above) provided the material for their 45-minute set, which I had the privilege to see three times in three days. The first night, in Bristol’s Colton Hall, as an added bonus, featured guest Eliza Carthy (even in the land of commercial music, I know Eliza Carthy), as James Delarre had a separate engagement.
Each time I saw Mawkin–at Bristol, at Cardiff, and at Brighton–
they opened with “I Can Hew.” What a choice! If they intended to draw the audience in to get them up and dancing, this was the way to start. They won me with the first song. It helps that there’s a depth to David Delarre’s voice which is particularly attractive. At Bristol, with Eliza Carthy, she and Nick Cooke played the stomping tune off one another, and their eye contact made it clear that they were more than familiar with the way they played, and the way they fit together. The energy in the music was
inviting. Of course, once James Delarre returned for the other two shows, the energy was both the same and different–and equally captivating. I came away each time with this as an earworm.
The other earworm was the “love song” David Delarre claimed they had stolen from Eliza Carthy: “Love Farewell.” A week later, and that is the Mawkin tune still running through my head. Again, it is the combination of David’s singing, and the way Nick and James
mesh fiddle and melodeon that stay with me. The driving nature of both pieces is built on the rhythm foundation of bass and drums; even now that I’m home, I’m dancing in my kitchen as predicted. My one mistake was not buying the CD at the merch table at any of the gigs (proverbially penny-wise and pound-foolish, me); but I will be buying The Ties That Bind now, because it’s become a musical necessity.
When I parted from Louise, one of the women I’d been touring Bellowhead with, she suggested that next time I’m over, we tour Mawkin. This is not out of the realm of possibility, I think. I’m glad to have found them so serendipitously; I’m a fan now.
Postscript: On the Mawkin homepage, there’s a link to download their bootleg Bath show recording from last November. DO IT.
Originally the plan on this adventure was to road-trip Bellowhead: four shows in four days with my friend Lesley. Then Merry Hell announced this show, on my first day in the UK–and the only gig they’d be doing while I was there. No-brainer, that. As it was Lauren’s birthday, we arranged to meet beforehand for dinner: Lauren wanted a curry, so to Roti Restaurant we went.
As a sad aside: I can’t eat rice, because of a strange sensitivity; and the last time I went to an Indian restaurant was with my ex-husband, in Whitechapel in 1989, and the results were disastrous. But it was Lauren’s birthday, and I hadn’t seen her in several years, and I figured there would be something on the menu that would work. Naan, for example. In the end I went for the Nimbo chicken, which was lightly spiced and cooked in lemon–bits of lemon slice, as I found out. It was quite nice. Lesley had a Peshwari naan, which was flavored with coconut; I found that a bit too sweet, but the plain naan was rather nice.
The town hall was just down the street. We were plenty early, but the front row was behind tables, and people in the know where there first to claim them. We ended up a bit back from the stage, and we were a fairly large contingent, with Lesley, me, other Lesley and Steve, Lauren and her boyfriend and some other friends, Anne and Paul, and David: a wild and crazy group. Wilcox:Hulse opened. They put on a great show–notably, for me since I was unfamiliar with them, the song “Upon,” about one of the six towns that make up Stoke-on-Trent. Ostensibly it was a a seated gig, but there was a bit of space off to either side of the stage, and Lesley and I didn’t sit, because that makes it hard to dance. Other people chose to dance: some couples, and over in under the balcony near the merch table, the family and friends of the Kettles and company, including, eventually, us.
out on the road on my bicycle. Hard-driving songs. The band opened with “Summer is A-Comin‘”. Lesley and I hit the floor. I was a bit hesitant at first, because I’m The Easily Frightened Person, and I didn’t want to be in anyone’s way, or maybe have anyone notice I was there–you know how that works. But by the time they launched into “Drunken Serenade,” it really didn’t matter anymore, because I’d lost it entirely. I don’t see how anyone could hold back at a Merry Hell gig.
Lesley was disappointed that they didn’t play “Crooked Man.” I have to say that I was so busy enjoying what they did include on the playlist (which they gave to me after the gig), that I didn’t notice. I was excited for “The Ghost in Our House,” a wonderful slightly creepy stomper (watch the video, seriously, just watch it). And for the encore, Andrew Kettle announced a song for friendship, dedicated to me, the song I wrote that would complete my life, should anyone ever sing it to me: “Rosanna’s Song.” Well, I guess my life is complete, then.
Then we went backstage. I got to talk about the passion of creation with Bob Kettle, who is the mandolin player, though not the one in my book. I got to have the requisite groupie pictures. Quite frankly, it was a fantastic show and experience–and only the first full day of the adventure. Virginia Kettle said she was honored we’d ditched Bellowhead for them, but going to this gig was something I just couldn’t pass up. Serendipity, I call it, that they would be doing a show when I was there.
Damian, the manager of Merry Hell, very kindly gave to me a red umbrella from the merch table–a Merry Hell inside-joke-umbrella, which you’d get if you’d seen the cover of their CD Head Full of Magic, Shoes Full of Rain. And wouldn’t you know? I forgot it in the boot of Lesley’s car at the end of our adventures together. (This is a picture of me crying, in a broken-hearted way.) I was horrified when I realized it. So this is my broken-hearted plea to Lesley: can you send it to me? I’ll pay you postage! Pleeeeeaaaaaassssse?
Here’s my story, and I’m sticking to it:
Last summer, when the inimitable Brenda Sparks Prescott invited me to participate in her self-designed writing retreat in the Green Mountains of Vermont, I was so wound up on the morning I was to leave–car troubles, mostly–that I backed out of my garage and ran over my own suitcase.
I suppose it could have a been a lot worse. I do have pets and children, all of whom know enough to stay out of my way–and all of whom are still alive, you’ll be glad to know.
I was unable to say the same for my little blue suitcase. Thus, as I am jetting off to the UK once again in a few days, I was forced to purchase yet another little blue suitcase. One that was not crushed at one end, nor had the cloth torn away from the corners. But it’s still small; I prefer to travel with as little as possible, since I get on buses and trains and the Underground, and the thought of dragging a full-sized suitcase around behind me is not attractive at all.
So I pack light. Lots of underwear (“she said underwear!”) and a change or two of clothing. I’m an expert in finding washing machines, or washing my clothes in sinks. I think carefully about the clothes I’ll wear on the plane, so I don’t have to put those in the suitcase. I think versatile. What pieces can I wear more than once, in a variety of different
combinations? Is everything I do going to be casual, or will I need something a bit more dressy? I think small. I think about wearing a jacket instead of packing sweaters; I think to wear the shoes on the plane and pack the sandals.
This time around, I have to think smaller. Mostly because, with the publication (Hallelujah! At last!) of The Book of the Mandolin Player, I have to bring copies of my book with me to my British friends. And with books in my bag, there is less room for clothes. Am I complaining? No, I’m not. Because I’ve been looking forward to the day–for more than 25 years now–when I can bring my own novel to my friends, especially the novelist Stephen Benatar, who has given me copies of everything he’s ever published. Now I can return the favor, for the first time. Hopefully not the last time.
The plane leaves day after tomorrow. I’m making my last trip to the store for provisions this afternoon–batteries and the like. I’m washing all my clothes tonight so I can lay them out and look at them in order to decide. And then it’s time to get packing.
Postscript: I’m picking up some concert stuff while I’m about–Merry Hell and Bellowhead shirts, for example. But by then, the books will be gone, anyway.
I’ve been waiting, as have all the Ramblers, for this CD–and for a long part of the wait, since news of John Jones’ illness and surgery broke, with more of a sense of urgency than the usual pre-release expectation.
Never Stop Moving does not disappoint.
Perhaps my view is colored. Most of the songs are familiar to me because of my adventures with the Reluctant Ramblers: having heard them in live versions–at the Nettlebed Folk Club, at the Wickham Music Festival, at a rehearsal in the private lounge of the Lysses Hotel in Fareham–listening to them on the CD was like coming home. Like being in the arms of friends. There is a certain joy in closing my eyes and envisioning John Jones on stage–or in an ornately upholstered wing chair–singing these lyrics while holding out his hands to us; or in picking out Rowan Godel’s harmonies while remembering how she lifts her head and closes her eyes, holding the microphone in both hands; or how Lindsey Oliver plays bass barefoot (and has tattoos on her insteps); or any other performance moments with Tim Cotterell, Dil Davies, Benji Kirkpatrick, Al Scott, or Boff Whalley. Knowing the songs is all the richer for knowing the players.
By far my favorite has always been “Black and White Bird.” John Jones tells the story frequently behind this break-up song, with the horse, the stable, and the bird in a burlap sack. What he makes of these elements is a brilliant mixture of the eeriness of the setting and the sad reality of the end of a relationship: it’s art at its most haunting.
To the girl on the chestnut horse
Please tell her I’ll be gone tomorrow
I leave to her this black and white bird
Two for joy, one for sorrow
Al Scott’s obsessive guitar, and Tim Cotterell’s melancholy fiddle overlay, punctuate, decorate, emphasize:
On this flip side of this story is “Ferryman,” which might be overtaking “Black and White Bird” as my favorite song on this CD. While still haunting and melancholy, there’s something hopeful in this song, something which reaches out of John’s and Rowan’s harmonies on the refrain to grab me by the heart:
If you should need a guiding hand
when the sea of trouble is wide
If you should need a rock to cling to
when you’re struggling against the tide
I’ll be your ferryman and I’ll never ask you why
I’ll be your ferryman and I’ll carry you over,
over to the other side
This is the song that I long to have someone sing to me.
The entire CD is an immense treasure trove. As with any artist with a foot in the English folk tradition, John Jones includes a turn on the murder ballad: in “Pierrepoint’s Farewell,” an abused wife knifes her husband and is in turn executed by the hangman. In “Down by the Lake,” the death is accidental when a boy with a gun takes “one stupid shot” and kills a girl (a kind of updated version of “Blackwaterside,” if one wants to think of it that way). The social conscience, too, that Jones has given voice to all these years as the front man of Oysterband, appears here in “Ghosts of the Village,” angrily mourning a life that has been subverted by money:
A man from the city has bought these hills
Where we played as kids and wander still
And locked in time his rural dream
Locked out life and the chance to breathe
When John Jones chose the title for his second solo CD, from the song of the same name, he knew it was a wise selection. In these songs, he moves backwards and forwards, across the landscape, across the sea, across time, across a wealth of human emotions. Just as he takes people (including me, sometimes) on his regular perambulations across the footpaths of England, he takes his listeners (including me, all the time) with him in the music.
My copy of the CD made its way to me from the pre-release at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival, courtesy of one of my Rambler friends, Lesley Collett. Because of the nature of that Rambler friendship, she not only had John Jones sign the cover, but inside, on the front of the booklet, she had the rest of the band sign: Al, Tim, Dil, Rowan, Lindsey (missing were Benji, who was with Bellowhead, his other band, at Towersey; and Boff, who, Lesley said, had disappeared). To top it off, on the back of the booklet, she had members of the Rambler family sign: Anne and Paul, Lauren, Val and John, Hep, Fran, Rose, Bev, Steve, Kay, Judith, and many many others, including Lesley herself. Am I the luckiest person in the world, or what?
I’ve been feeling a general malaise this week (sometimes bordering on existential dread), and that has translated into slow rides on the bike–not a really good thing, with the MS ride coming up this Saturday, but better than not riding at all.
This morning, the clouds sat thick on the side of the mountain, one of those times the real weather mirrored the psychological weather: how metaphorical! I dragged myself out anyway, and the song I forced into my head was “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba. Because anarchy!
Sadly, today in the humidity, it didn’t work. I didn’t speed up. I slowed down and found, instead, the song in my head was “A River Runs” by Oysterband. Not a bad choice for my mental soundtrack, of course. It’s a lovely song, and it’s by Oysterband. So–I went with it. Because if you’re not feeling anarchical, you might as well be kind to yourself.
Onward and upward!
P. S. Ironically, last summer, because of the way the universe unwinds, I ended up riding around in the back of a car, in Hampshire, in the south of England, with John Jones, the lead singer for Oysterband, and Boff Whalley, the lead guitarist for Chumbawamba. Wait, what? Yeah, that happened. And I was okay with it.
Another hot one on the Tour de Dixmont this morning, with little to no shade. The hills were killers–but I’ve never been a strong uphill rider anyway, though I can get some speed going down. Nevertheless, as I was slogging up the first mile to the cemetery, I realized that the song in my head today was “Rosemary Lane” by Bellowhead–another driving tune from the remarkable 11-piece band from the UK.
I don’t know whether it’s the driving nature of their music, or the fact that they’ve announced they’re quitting after next April, but Bellowhead plays in my head quite a bit. Ride to this one, kids!
Sometimes we go old school.
This morning, the Tour de Dixmont was quite hot; I was quite sore, having been installing metal roofing all week (just don’t ask, okay?). But the song in my head was an oldy-but-goody: “Fire on High” from ELO’s Face the Music. What a driving song. A person cannot ride slowly to this one. Not even up the mighty hills of Dixmont.
Play it, to quote the musician Jonathan Byrd, loud.
I get angry on hills, and I get slow.
So the playlist in my head obviously follows suit. I found this one on replay as I was slogging it up a particular cranky-making hill near the end of this morning’s Tour de Dixmont: “Pendle Hill” by Merry Hell, from Blink…and You Miss It.
I hope I was never as cruel as the schoolteacher of this song.
Happy National Poetry Month!
It’s also the first full month of spring, but it hasn’t really felt like it: April snow, April frost, April freeze. It’s been cold and miserable, for the most part. T. S. Eliot knew what he was talking about when he said it was the cruellest month.
April 1, Wednesday: “Spring” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
April 2, Thursday: “April Weather” by Edith Wyatt
April 3, Friday: “Full Moon” by Lisel Mueller (because there is one this weekend)
April 6, Monday:”Love Song in April” by Edith Klem
April 7, Tuesday: “A Shropshire Lad 2: Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now” by A. E. Houseman
April 8, Wednesday: “April” by Alicia Ostriker
April 9, Thursday: “Strewn” by Barbara Crooker
April 10, Friday: “April Snow” by Pearl Anderson
April 13, Monday: “To Daffodils” by Robert Herrick
April 14, Tuesday: “Little Exercise” by Elizabeth Bishop
April 15, Wednesday: sonnet # 44 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
April 16, Thursday: “Home Thoughts from Abroad” by Robert Browning (because this is the one I always read before April vacation. I think I’ve forgotten the reason why by now, but a tradition is a tradition.
April 17-26: April vacation–no school.
April 27, Monday: “April Prayer” by Stuart Kestenbaum
April 28, Tuesday: “Spring Evening on Blind Mountain” by Louise Erdrich
April 29, Wednesday: “The Burning Kite” by Ouyang Jianghe
April 30, Thursday: “Willow” by Anna Akhmatova
I ended the month–and National Poetry Month–with a couple of poems in translation, just to throw something new and surprising into the mix. The Chinese poem, by Ouyang Jianghe, was really difficult for most of the students–but it was about time to make them think hard, and to think differently. Baby steps, as it were: at the beginning of the year, all the pieces were difficult. So now we raise the bar. And that’s a good thing.