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Archive for the ‘Railways’ Category

I’m not immune to the pleasures of this kind of literature, though there are times when the tedium of the photo captions prove I’m only a fellow traveller in the land of the railway enthusiast.  There is only so much you can say about a railway photograph: time, place, train, loco details and history blah blah blah, while any semaphore signals in evidence might well get a mention.  I pity the poor caption writer if he has aspirations to rise above railway nerd status; most don’t.

So I’m puzzled as to what is going on here, with this, the second most boring photo – the most boring is also an even less distinguished DMU (diesel multiple unit) – in David Cross‘s interesting enough compilation Diesels around London: a colour portfolio (Ian Allan, 2006), that I borrowed from the local library (use it or lose it!).  The photo credit goes to one Michael Mensing, but I’m not sure if the caption belongs to him or David Cross.  Anyway, you don’t need to click on the photo to read the caption, because:

Formed of a four-car Derby DMU, train 2C59, a semi-fast service from Bedford to St Pancras, is 8 miles into its journey as it emerges from Ampthill Tunnel in May, 1965.  these DMUs would provide the commuter service for many years until electrification of the line between Bedford and Moorgate in May 1982.  Since the photograph was taken the station at the small market town of Ampthill has closed, passengers now being directed to use the station at Flitwick, some two miles to the south.  Just out of sight on the right [my italics] is Houghton House.  Designed by Inigo Jones and built in 1615, this was reputedly the model for the ‘House Beautiful’ in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.  Empty since 1935, the pollution from several nearby brickworks having eroded much of the stonework, it is presently being restored by English Heritage.

To his credit, Cross does, in describing a photo of a ‘footex’ special – yes, they used to put on special trains for away football fans as late at least as 1984 – give the result: Spurs beat Luton 2-1.

As an occasional poet I remain intensely proud of the lines:

Yes I’ll admit I trainspotted
In the boy’s time allotted –
British Railways then,
What a crazy scene!

This usually gets a laugh.  Then was late 1950s and early ’60s, when the British Railways Modernisation Plan of 1955 was just taking hold.  The programme of  steam locomotive withdrawals hadn’t got up much steam yet (sorry) and an intriguing variety of new diesel locomotives were suddenly appearing all over the place.  Many of the tribe eschewed these modern interlopers but modern boy I was well up for it as well.  That diesel throb, and they looked so good in the traditional green livery.  Like that Warship on Diesels around London‘s cover, and the two-toned green with white outlined cab windows of the Deltic on its title page.  Then they moved into what is now known as a re-branding exercise – from British Railways to British Rail – and two dead artistic hands were brought into play:

  • i). Health & Safety painted an un-aesthetic yellow warning blob on the diesel locos’ noses, a blob that got bigger and bigger as time went on, and
  • ii). Modern design conceptualists (fine in their rightful place but …) painted everything apart from the yellow blob an un-vibrant blue, and the romance was gone.

With the proviso that this is not railway photography, rather photos of trains, Diesels around London carries plenty of photos of that era (and some up to the 1980s) that document in passing this uglification well enough.  Compare and contrast the early pre-yellow blob etc liveries below with the degraded aesthetics on those further down (click on the photos for a bigger picture):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OK.  It’s a shame that cheap decent colour photography wasn’t more widely available back then, but I still get great satisfaction from books like Diesels around London because they can remind me of a time … the decades fade away … when I could get excited, as I skipped between London termini, by a sight like the one below, at Euston in 1961:

This one IS railway photography, I’d say. Credit to John Edgington.

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I was going to say about the Welsh male voice choir we saw in Wales in my what-we-did-in-Wales post but they somehow slipped off the agenda.  Fortunately it fits nicely with one of the books I’ve been reading, which is, as it happens, all about singing …

Naked at the Albert Hall Book One

In Naked at the Albert Hall: the inside story of singing (Virago, 2015) Tracey Thorn tells of a recording session with Elvis Costello at which he asked if they wanted an ‘Elvis Costello’ vocal?  The authenticity/artificiality continuum is a recurring theme.  In an interview with Green Gartside of Scritti Politti, she’s somewhat taken aback by something he tells her: “Hang on, are you saying we can all do the Scritti voice just by smiling?” After which she comments:

If you are not now trying to sing The sweetest girl while experimenting with different degrees of smiling, then you are not the reader I took you for.

OK, I passed, but that shouldn’t let her potential disappointment put you off.  (And if you’ve never heard of Scritti Politti you probably know the song; there’s a link at the bottom of this post to it in all its 6 glorious minutes.)  True, when it comes to men she’s a bit punk as Year Zero – momentous that John Lydon sang in an English accent, no mention of Ray Davies and the Kinks – but easy to forgive the spiteful charm of her description of Mick Jagger’s voice:

It’s a cartoon of a black singer, painted onto a balloon and then inflated, then put through a mangle, then through an amplifier. What comes out the other end is patently foolish and ridiculous, and turned him into one of rock’s most admired singers …

At the time of its publication Tracey Thorn, she of Everything but the Girl, hadn’t sung in public – and still hasn’t as far as I know – for 15 years, because of chronic stage fright.  Naked is more than an addendum to her lively Bedsit disco queen memoir.  She was hoping, she admits at the end that it might have been a shot at therapy, trying to see what it means for her to still put ‘singer’ as her occupation on the passport renewal form.  And so it turns out, though not necessarily as expected (no spoilers!).  In the chapter Why sing? she says:

In this book I’ve focused on the trouble with being a singer, in an attempt to balance out some of the idealised clichés I’ve grown tired of. And I’ve looked for stories that mirror my own …

It’s a fascinating journey, starting from the physics and physiognomy of the voice  (“… unlike any other instrument, these components are your own body parts“) and takes it from there, reminding us that “Musicians … are separate, distinct from us, in a way that singers are not.”  In that way our bond with singers is “egalitarian” – we can all do it – and yet … not.

She talks to fellow women singers – seeking out particularly reluctant singers, ‘the silent sirens’ who chose to disappear, and those who don’t particularly like their own voices;  similarly she looks at the lives of some no longer with us (Dusty Springfield’s “brick wall of self-doubt and discomfort“, Sandy Denny’s fear of fame, the tragic Karen Carpenter) – while examining the career aspects of the singing life.  (Oh, and there’s a chapter on Scott Walker. )

She unpicks aspects of her subject generally taken for granted, and – intriguingly, too, for us bibliophiles – tellingly draws on characters in novels to further illustrate what she’s talking about: Willa Cather’s The song of the lark, George du Maurier’s Trilby, and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, no less, are the main texts drawn on.

Some sage professional advice is offered in passing:

Singing live is like a complicated sporting event for the voice. A fiendish obstacle race. Over this hurdle, around this tricky bend, down for this horrible low note.

And once over that there’s the problem – this from a chapter called Little monsters – “… when you move from the territory of having listeners into the realm of having fans.”  Be warned, my musical friends.

Naked at the Albert Hall is entertaining and informative, conversational and confessional.  At times it sparkles and you feel she must be good company.  It’s full of nice asides like when the author tries a hypnotherapist to see if it can help with the stage fright:

She put on a CD of ‘spa music’, the least relaxing form of music in the world. Noodly pan pipes, fretless bass. Treacly synth sweeps and occasional random harp. The music that has ruined every facial I’ve ever had, every massage, every seaweed wrap.

From what I’ve said so far you might get the impression Naked is all about the perils, the trials and tribulations of the singer’s workplace, but it is also a celebration of the human voice, as a source of joy and transcendence:

Set against this egotistical aspect of singing, which exploits the possibility of personal allure, is the concept of singing as a shared experience, something to join us together.

Which is where the Welsh male voice choir comes in.

The Welsh male voice choir

The hotel we stayed in Wales a couple of weeks back played weekly host to Côr Meibion Cymau, the Cymau Male Voice Choir.  It’s one of those community things that is slowly dying out.  They do it because they love it, and for local charities, take a collection at the end.  Cymau is a village in Flintshire, North Wales, near Mold.  About 10 blokes – one of them told me there used to be 40 of them – white shirts, black trousers, quietly proud, aged from about 40 to 70+, enjoying one another’s company.  Damn, I should have taken a photograph.

I’m not saying it was one of the greatest musical experiences of my life, but it moved me – but it was uplifting, fun, there was the definite odd tingle up the spine – and it will stay with me.  If I had a bucket list seeing a Welsh male voice choir in Wales would have been on it.  They delivered a varied repertoire: a spiritual, a setting of the Reverend Eli Jenkins’ Prayer from Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, American Trilogy, Unchained melody and, with a tenor solo, The Rose (which far from being the ancient genre piece I imagined it to be, actually dates from the ’70s and was made famous by Bette Midler).

They did a routine about what happens when one of their members’ voice goes, when the day comes when he can no longer sing, when he can contribute to the choir no more.  One night in the middle of winter the whole choir convenes in a large hut perched on the side of a local mountain.  Cue the choir making  wintery noises, cold winds, a dark and stormy vocal night.  The broken man is ritually stripped of his clothes and ceremonially pushed out of the door onto the snow covered mountainside.  To the harmonious strains of, “F-reeze a jolly good fellow …”

Flying ScotsmanBook Two

Andrew McLean‘s The Flying Scotsman: speed style service (Scala/NRM, 2016) is a visual delight, a nice piece of book design featuring items in the collection of the cathedral that is the National Railway Museum in York.  So as well as a wealth of photographs from the earliest of the 1880s through to the Deltic diesel era and beyond, we get page after page of social history, and of sublime and sometimes strange railwayana: plenty of those classic posters, some carriage prints, cigarette cards, a tea set, the centenary anniversary wine list cover and even a fan.

FS 01 Here are a couple of my favourite double spreads: on the left,  railwaymen posing on the signal gantry at Hatfield in 1932; below, the time-travelling bizarrerie of the businessmen at the bar on the Flying Scotsman as late in the 1950s.  The book’s themed text is more companion to the illustrations than any attempt at being a definitive history, but it still manages to throw up much of interest.

FS 08In its conception and development the notion of modernity was central to the railway company’s marketing.  Initiated as the ‘Special Scotch Express’ in 1862, with both the up and down trains leaving simultaneously at 10 o’clock in the morning at Kings Cross and Edinburgh, it soon became known, initially, as The Flying Scotchman – oh yes!  Competition between the East Coast and West Coast routes to Scotland was intense – a very different model of privatised rail transport than holds sway today.  The Flying Scotsman was central in this, and as explained in the chapter entitled Building the brand, the confusion that still exists between the express train and the locomotive of the same name, introduced in 1923, was quite deliberate.

FS 06A few other things I wasn’t expecting.  In 1924 they introduced a cinema carriage.  During the General Strike the Flying Scotsman was deliberately de-railed by Northumberland miners removing a track section – what would the history books say if that had gone disastrously wrong?  And in the ’30s the installation of the LNER’s (London & North Eastern Railway) Railway Queen: “a ceremonial position given to the daughter of a railway worker every year, to promote railways and British culture at home and abroad.”  Now if that isn’t a gift to a budding historical novelist, I don’t know what is.

Great Western BeachBook Three

Doing my duty by the Book Group I started on Emma Smith‘s The Great Western Beach: a memoir of a Cornish childhood between the wars (Bloomsbury, 2008) without much hope of being able to stomach it – just look at all those pastel colours on that idyllic cover photo from the family album.  Overcoming the disappointment that, despite that tease of a title, the sights and sounds of the Great Western Railway played no part in the scene-setting, I was soon sucked in by the authorial child’s voice though – the book finishes when she’s twelve – and read enthusiastically through to the end.  That voice initially reminded me of James Joyce’s Portrait of the artist as a young man and … despite the age thing, a big touch of the diaries of Adrian MoleEmma Smith juggles nicely – manages the illusion – with giving us the info so as to know what the score is without the adult intruding and jarring the child’s naive yet knowing flow.

In fact, what we have here is a tragi-comedy of a dysfunctional family life that is full of tension, people trapped by circumstances beyond their control (the past is another country) played out in the – ok – idyllic and beautifully evoked setting of Newquay and environs.  Her father – an officer and a war hero, is a resentful bank clerk, a stubborn failed painter who will not be told – is married to a woman four years older than himself; he is her fourth fiancé, what with the Great War and the Great Flu.  The fine details and pain of scraping out a genteel poverty are acutely described, as are the changes when they inherit loads of money from her rich uncle and they become, among other things, the life and soul of the tennis club.  It could be one of H.G.Wells’ social novels.  The subtle nuances of social class, of snobbery, hypocrisy and prejudice in a seaside town are all horribly apparent.  Some of the language shocks: ‘darkies’, ‘Jew-boys’ – we have come a long way.

But we also get the joys and pregnant confusions of childhood, of friendships and adventures, of the daily life, lovingly recorded.  Indeed, one does begin to wonder at quite the level of detail of recall – this was written in Emma Smith’s 80s – that is going on here, though my father did tell me the older he got, the more he remembered from his childhood, so I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.  You wonder what happened to them all – mother, father, elder sister, twin “milksop” brother, younger sister – but it’s one element of the book’s magic that we’re not told.

I could go on, but this post is too long already.  Her father’s cringingly embarrassing bad-tempered excuses when he loses at tennis, which he always does are pure Fawlty Towers.  And yet she and her father bond over literature – poetry! Omar Khayyam! – which her mother regards as “degenerate, unhealthy, immoral.”  As I say, I could go on, but I’ll leave you with this lovely image of shelter from the storm:

Picnics-on-the-beach is the one area of an otherwise discordant marriage where our parents are in harmonious, if tacit, agreement. To be out of the house, out-of-doors, to be sitting on the sand, or on smooth rocks, with the sounds of the sea making unnecessary any attempt at conversation: this has, for them, it would seem, a significance of almost religious intensity, notwithstanding the acrimonious preparations, always attendant on these regular family outings … they are a form of salvation for our mother and father, and so, by association, for their children.

As promised, a musical bonus

Herein the link to Scritti Politti’s The sweetest girl from their Songs to remember album of 1982.  I’d say they boast one of the great band names, acknowledging the influential Italian Marxist writer and political theorist Antonio Gramsci.  But never mind that.  Here is a gorgeous piece of timeless inventive pop music, some melody lines that you may well be humming for quite a while: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExC0oK28VLA

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Not last week, but the week before …

Monday we travelled.  By the time we’d checked in and had dinner and got to the bar it was half-time.  Given we were in Wales it was the Wales match that was on the TV in the bar; I could have found the other lounge but opted for when-in-Rome over Anglo-anguish.  It wasn’t crowded.  Wales were already 2-0 up and there were only a couple of quietly committed Welshmen, concentrating conversationally on the game, still fearing the worst every time the Russians got the ball into the Welsh half until that third goal.  But truth be told, the Russians were as bad as England in the second half against Finland.  At breakfast, Danny, the man in the Arsenal shirt at our table who’d watched the goal-less England bore draw with Slovakia averred I’d chosen well.

Tuesday morning to the Llangollen Railway, a 10 mile Llangollen Railway 1trip each way up and down the line.  On the journey everywhere a riot of greens; saw an angler up to his tits in the River Dee and  some alpacas in a field.  Sight, sound and smell of a steam train in motion still gets me every time.  Loco was resplendent restored Great Western Railway mixed traffic ‘Prairie’ tank engine 5199 (one not copped back in the day, though I might have seen it as a wreck in the Barry scrapyard), turned out in classic early British Railways black livery.

Only had time for a 5-minute dash around the fiction upstairs in the modestly fronted Cafe and Books on the main street in Llangollen.  Manages to be both a vast emporium and a rabbit warren at the same time; an old cinema building, the upstairs packed with 100,00 or so second-hand books.  Bought Jack Trevor Story’s splendidly titled Screwtape lettuce for a very reasonable £1.25.

In the afternoon a situationist dérive through Chester, St John the Baptist Chesteror, in laymen’s terms, basically, aimlessly wandering about Chester without a map, until we bought a map and found the wall.  I like a good ruin, so the ruined red sandstone bits each end of the city’s oldest church – St John the Baptist church – appealed.  Weeds by any other name so impressive on a ruin.

So … the wall, the river, the half-timbered black and white of the Rows.  Does anyone dare call it a shopping experience? – probably.  Had the best chai latte of my life in an Alice themed teashop.  Three times I was tempted by a gorgeous trippy-hued paisley patterned shirt in the window of a boutique upstairs in the Rows, and three times I demurred. You’ll only regret it if you don’t said A.;  and yes, indeed I do regret it.  ‘Leave’ campaigners on the street, and a bunch of school kids holding shields being enthusiastically taken through their Roman legion paces in the amphitheatre.

Ffestiniog 1Welsh Highland RailwayWednesday was Blaenau Ffestiniog and  Rheilffordd Ffestiniog, the Ffestiniog Railway, 13½ scenic miles to Portmadog and then over the platform onto the revived Welsh Highland Railway, which only dating its original short life from 1922, for the 25 miles to Caernarfon.  Cramped but fun.  They may be considerably smaller than standard gauge railways – 1′ 11½” – but given the power needed to negotiate these gradients these are no toys.  So many trees!  Bit of drama on the Welsh Highland when the (fascinating for rail fans) Beyer-Garrett loco had problems along the way.  Camera was saying low battery so – sparing the juice – the above is the best I got (typically, camera magically revived once in Caernarfon).

I once had a boss who did volunteer labour on the Ffestiniog Railway Deviation Project (finished 1982); always made me laugh.

Lloyd GeorgeBriefly in Caernarfon, one of those ice creams (so hard to decide …) and a stroll down to the promenade.  The town square road-less, all varieties of slate and nicely patterned cobbles but with traffic still allowed; seemed to work, if disturbing ar first.  ‘Leave’ campaigners a presence again.  What would David Lloyd George have thought?  Where have his like gone nowadays?  What have the pigeons been eating?  Was it a paint protest or just a blue ice cream not as satisfying as hoped?

Thursday to the seaside and then deep into the heart of Capel Sant Trillo Llandrillo yn RhosSnowdonia (or Betws-y-Coed anyway).  At Llandrillo yn Rhos, more prosaically Rhos-on-Sea – great beach without all the holiday nonsense – a brief stop to see the tiny 6th century Capel Sant Trillo.  Atheist I may be, but I can still dig little shrines like this.  I’m a bit of a fan of coastal wind farms too, makes me think I’m in a science fiction movie:

Wind farm at sea

Promenading with the Hatter in Llandudno.

Promenading with the Hatter in Llandudno.

Old and new in Llandudno

Old and new in Llandudno

Promenading with The Hatter and another ice cream in Llandudno, we suspected vengeful local vandals had messed with the pedestrian direction signs.  45° at a crossroads to the toilets?  Turned out it was sort of right.

And so through the spectacular  Llanberis Pass and Snowdonia in all its glory.  Lots of ‘Leave’ signs in the farmers’ fields.  Again, so many trees.  At Betws-y-Coed the public – 20p – toilet seats were of built-in cold polished igneous rock.  We walked up to the Thomas Telford bridge (didn’t he get around?) and along the river.  So soon this peace after the turbulence downstream.

Down by the river Betws 1
Don’t know what has caused this patterning on the water on the other side of the bridge, but I could watch the changes a long time:Down by the river Betws 2

Llanberis Lake Railway

Coal, water & steam – the works

Llanberis Lake Railway, another narrow gauge remnant of the slate industry, is a charming little scenic run of about an hour there and back along one side of Llyn Padarn, with great views of the mountains in the distance and more mundanely the tourist steamers on the lake.  The train starts off going the opposite way you’d expect, away from the lake, a short journey away from the terminus that is not the end of the line, to the end of the line where the loco runs round to the front of the train.  A joker in the carriage – at least I think he was joking – made a good job of convincing travelling companions that the short journey back to the main station was all that was on offer, was the whole trip.

Friday was the journey home.  Early but not too early before the Referendum result was definite.  The title of this piece is Sunny Wales in Welsh.  The dispositions occupying seats 21 and 22 on the coach were far from that, though if the result was being talked about I didn’t hear anything.  No triumphalism among the Leavers, of whom I’m pretty sure there were plenty enough.

Yes, it was a coach holiday, just a short one.  Actually the coach was quite long, but you know what I mean.  No, we were not the youngest on the bus, and that’s without researching it too deeply.  A liberation not to be the driver and worrying where to park!  Mind, you get some very odd people on these charabancs, but some surprising ones too (a pro-Corbyn 70+ ex-union rep showed me her selfie with Owen Jones at a TUC Conference).  You also get to recognise among the coaching demographic – impossible not to become apparent as you wander around the usual stops – what is probably a finite variety of archetypal oldie ways of being, which can be confusing when saying Hi to people on the street who turn out to be strangers, not on our bus at all.

Three days in Wales.  Sunny, not a drop of rain.  Jumpers packed and never worn, rain gear redundant.  No-one believed us back in Stony.

I leave you with a view of puzzling blue from the Llechwedd Slate Caverns car park, and that first train, again:

Blue house from llechwedd Slate Caverns car park
Llangollen Railway 2

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Or… I probably shouldn’t do this in omnibus mode.  Anyway, this blog post is dedicated to Oliver Cromwell, though probably not entirely as you’d expect (except for Pete N. maybe).  But for now, later for Ollie.

Martin Edwards - Dungeon houseFirst, some crime fiction …

The dungeon house (Allison & Busby, 2015) is the seventh of Martin Edwards‘s never less than interesting Lake District Mysteries.  As well as the action moving west to Ravenglass and the coast, it breaks fresh ground in that retired telly and academic historian Daniel Kind, who kicked off the Mysteries sequence, stays pretty much in the background. His now temporary live-in girlfriend (that happened in the sixth book), maverickish DCI Hannah Scarlett, head of Cumbria’s cold case team, is very much to the fore, investigating the possibility of links between the disappearance – one 3 years ago, the other very recently – of two young women, and what appeared to be an open and shut multiple murder and suicide case twenty years back.  A case, indeed, in which Daniel’s late detective father, Ben Kind – Hannah had been his protegé – had been involved, and had his doubts.  So the soap opera aspects of the Mysteries – one of the real strengths of the series – take on a retrospective tinge too.

The dungeon house is populated with a rich and varied cast of characters, variously damaged by, or related to people involved in, the events of 20 years ago.  Naturally as events unfold there are plenty of twists and one major red herring, all climaxed with an unsettling and nicely executed suspenseful denouement.  Police budget cuts and administration-by-spreadsheet hover in the background – a standard feature of most British crime fiction these days – while Les Bryant, wily old detective brought back into the cold case team as a consultant, plays the part well.  There’s a swipe at the Police Federation, from the long serving local rep: “The stable needs a bloody good cleansing. You could say I’m Fed up.”

Is it just me or is a bit more humour creeping into The Lake district Mysteries?  Not laugh out loud, but with interviews conducted in “yet another Lakeland tearoom”, for instance.  This may have something to do with Hannah being more prominent in the action, more comfortable with her place in things, and re-finding her mojo:

Les Bryant poked his head around her door. ‘Going to this meeting about the new Communications Strategy?’
‘Nobody told me about it.’
He sniggered. ‘Nothing would surprise me in this place.’
‘I’m scheduled for a briefing on the Transparency Agenda, plus catch-ups with Finance and HR either side of lunch. Not to mention ten minutes ruled out for that photo shoot for the new identity cards to get us in and out of the building, and an hour’s online course about …’

So … what to do next?:

Good Hannah was duty bound to attend the various activities scheduled for her, even if the online course was one more wearisome example of ‘sheep-dip training’. Bad Hannah would suffer a severe memory lapse – why not blame deficiencies in the IT system? They were a reliable scapegoat. She could race off to Ravenglass before anyone trapped her in a corner, and started blathering away about key performance indicators.
Good Hannah never stood a chance. Her evil twin opened the door, and chased after Les.

She’s an interesting lass, capable of hyphenating ‘dream-come-true‘, developing nicely:

Hannah found herself itching to give him the benefit of the doubt. She couldn’t help feeling sorry for the man. This was a weakness in a detective, she knew …

I look forward to more opportunities for her to show her strengths and weaknesses, and hope poor old Daniel Kind can stay very much in the picture when Hannah moves into her bachelor pad in Kendal; he’s feeling a bit insecure.

BR StandardNow for Oliver Cromwell …

That’s him on the cover (of a recent charity shop purchase), that’s him in the sunlight, clean.  As a republican I love it that the last express Pacific steam locomotive retained in service by British Railways was Britannia class 70013, Oliver Cromwell.  Shame he ultimately made such a mess of the English Revolution and bequeathed us the problem of Ulster, but hey, even though he eventually neutered them, the Putney Debates of 1647 could be said to be the start of modern democratic politics in action, and for twenty years the English were citizens, not subjects.  I’d like to favour the idea of some kind of conspiracy theory among subversive railway workers that made sure it was Oliver who lasted longest …

The naming of express steam locomotives in the middle of the first half of the twentieth century was a very establishment affair, ideological in its celebration of traditional hierarchies.  Worst offenders were the Great Western (GWR) and the London Midland & Scottish (LMS) Railways.  The GWR’s crack express locomotives, the Kings, celebrated the monarchy, and stuck to its semantic guns by – although steam locos are still often referred to as ‘she’ – ignoring (because unladylike?) any Queens that happened to get in the way.  Working back from George V, the sequence went from the teenage Edward VII to William IV, missing Vicky, and further down the line from Edward VI to James I, missing Liz I.  They even subbed poor old King Stephen (who was as far back as it went), bringing on Edward VIII to keep up with the times, and didn’t reverse it even though he was never crowned.  Other classes on God’s Wonderful Railway celebrated the homes of the aristocracy with the Castle and Hall classes, and lesser country houses down to the Manors.

With the Kings taken, for their express Coronation Class locos the LMS had to resort to Princesses and Duchesses and a couple of Queens (but only the wives of kings), though to be fair the rest of the class was named after cities.  Their Jubilee class saluted among other things, the far-flung reaches of the British Empire (eg Bechuanaland).  Somehow, with the odd exception, Dukes seem to have missed out.  The LMS were also big on the military.  The Southern Railway’s Schools Class was limited to – naturally – what we in the UK euphemistically call Public Schools (ie. fee-paying and private).  Interstingly, the less patrician LNER mainly used birds of a certain stature (like Mallard, the world speed steam loco speed record holder), successful racehorses and football teams.

So it was left to the post-war British Railways Standard Classes, specifically the Britannia express locos, to fly the flag for a wider cultural heritage (writers like Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Chaucer, Dickens & Co) and, as we have seen, ‘God’s Englishman’, Oliver Cromwell.  Was it a coincidence that this principle was established under the same socialist Attlee government that set up the National Health Service?  The Standard Classes, intended by the newly nationalised British Railways to fill the motive power gap left over from the Second World War, were probably a mistake – they should have gone straight for diesel or electrics, like the rest of the developed world – but at least many of the Britannias reflected a pride more fitting to a democratic nation than kowtowing to the aristocracy.  Rant over.

Midford - Derek Cross

With the high-sided tender – Derek Cross at Midford.

BR Standard Steam Locomotives (Ian Allen, 1983), Brian Stephenson‘s anthology selected from the annals of Locomotives Illustrated magazine, is a decent enough collection of photos of all said classes of locomotives in a wide variety of working situations.  Over the years I have come to appreciate this group of locos – that as a trainspotter I always saw as a clumsy appendage to the individualities of the glory days of the old regional companies – as a worthy practical and handsome summation of British locomotive design and manufacture.  The book kept me (to quote myself: “I’ll admit I trainspotted / In the boys time allotted” though I’ve never owned an anorak) interested enough on that level – it never leaves you – and it was thankfully devoid of the more arcane grin or cringe inducing notes that can often accompany the photos in such publications.  Indeed, I am thankful for its demonstrating to me the aesthetic advantages of the larger capacity, higher-sided BR1D tenders, as opposed to the angular cut away BR1As.  You can see the difference in the two photos I have filched (scanned, treated a bit in PSP) and included here.

Nr Penmaemawr - Kenneth Field

Near Penmaenmawr – Kenneth Field

No, my problem with British railway photography in general is that it’s big on railways but not great at Photography with a capital P – the American O.Winston Link (just put him into Google images) is the benchmark here.  Some of this is down to the equipment that was available to enthusiasts in the most atmospheric of railway eras – colour only readily available only right at the end of steam – and some down to vision.  Not fair to bring this up, really, in this instance, because the standard 45° shots of engines – albeit taken from a variety of heights – that constitute the majority of photos here are what this volume is all about.  But the inclusion of Kenneth Field’s lovely composition (only a half plate in the book unfortunately, because its sharpness doesn’t bear enlarging) gives us a bigger picture of the railway in a social as well the conventional landscape, life’s rich tapestry.

John Hegley - Family packJohn Hegley had a platform ticket

Poet and comedian John Hegley was a trainspotter too:

is the happy shunter hunter
any more insane
than the lot who’ve not got jotters
who spot the spotty spotters
with disdain?
we’re looking forward to our crusty rolls
we’ve got platform tickets
and platform souls

Another charity bookshop purchase, His combined volume of early work, The family pack (Methuen, 1996), has been my bath-time reading of late.  [Bath-time reading rules: has to be an old desiccated paperback (new books steam makes the pages swell); never a library book].  Of course I’d been aware of him – tv and radio spots, the odd poem in the press and anthologies – and always thought I’d check him out further one of these days.  And he’s not the only person I’m aware of with a passion for Luton and its football team.  Reading him in bulk, on the page, imagining the distinctive voice, the quality is more variable than I expected, but when he’s good he’s great.  Have to say I liked The brother-in-law and other animals, his first, originally self-published collection of 1986, best – just the titles, never mind the actual poems: His heart’s in the wrong place, it should be in the glove department just defeating ditto in the dustbin; a different kind of muse.  Can I come down now Dad? (1991) wrings humour from an unhappy childhood among many other things, but I was flagging by These were your father’s (1994).  Never mind second album syndrome, the third book includes a plodding and inconsequential 32 page playlet called A tale of two tenting that for me makes Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May (you remember – folk singer Candice-Marie) sound like Shakespeare.  It won’t stop me picking up and opening any of John’s later books if they happen to fall into my path, though.

Has anyone ever encapsulated upward social mobility better in two lines than Hegley in his Luton?:

I remember Luton
as I’m swallowing my crout’n

Of dulcimers, the Italian campaign and other musical adventures

Roddy at the Crown Stony Stratford’s magical musical square mile.

The Roddy Clenaghan Band ended their immaculately chosen and beautifully performed and sung set of songs – from Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle among others – with a driving version of Things have changed, the song Bob Dylan has been opening with at the Albert Hall on the current installment of his never-ending tour.  Andy Knight gave the accordion his grandfather bought in Italy, coming back from the war, an outing on one number, while Andy Fenton’s pedal steel was a delight.

Vaultage late Oct 15

Yes, it’s the wrong poster but Jimtom Say – he in the poster – is who I’m talking about, and Pat posters retrospectively.

Scribal Oct 2015Don’t think anyone had tried the active loop tape technique there before that Jimtom Say put it to good use at mid-month Vaultage.  Guitar still in hand he recited poetry over the resulting backing, while his songs, robustly individual, were equally absorbing.  Something different.  Meanwhile, earlier in the week Scribal Gathering had seen a plethora of poets outnumbering the music either side of the as ever entertaining Rrants takeover.

Beechey Room Sessions 4

Archivist note: unfortunately Paul Bell was unable to attend.

BeecheyRS Pat

Photo (c) Pat Nicholson

End of a busy week and so to the relaxed delights of another fine Beechey Room Session at York House on a Saturday afternoon.  Not that energy was not embraced in the performance.  Paul Martin (that’s him with his mandocello in the photo) also brought along a dulcimer, the first, I suspect that I’ve ever heard in the flesh – a captivating sound, made me think I’ll dig out that Richard & Mimi Farina album again.  Original canal songs from Phil Underwood and I can’t for the life of me remember what Michelle did (but it was all very fine).

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That’s the Isle of Wight, that is, not some early short-lived fledgling socialist republic.  He made the claim in a letter to his old chum, Friedrich Engels: “One can stroll here for hours enjoying both sea and mountain air at the same time.”  We did a bit of that; cliffs and hills, anyway – there aren’t exactly mountains.  The great man convalesced in Ventnor shortly before he died.  There’s a scruffy blue plaque on the wall of the house in St Boniface Gardens where he stayed attests to the fact; no-one has ever blamed Ventnor for his demise.

Getting there is interesting.  The Southern Railway train from MK crossing London on the old freight lines is still a novelty to me, a journey through the hinterlands of Wembley and Shepherds Bush to the exhibition halls of Olympia, then on to West Brompton and over the river at Imperial Wharf.  I was going to say it was one of those flashes of understanding how the bits of London all fit together, but I’m afraid West Brompton still means nothing to me.  As I say, old freight lines running through an industrial and commercial hinterland: a vast heavy duty scrap yard, mountains of shredded metal, unglamorous back ends of buildings, big new developments (soon a hinterland no more), this time of the year all leavened by a great burgeoning of buddleia bushes in bloom wherever they have the room and inclination to thrive, which is a lot.  Legendary Clapham Junction may be, but it’s still a surprise at just how busy it is.  And so to Portsmouth and the catamaran over the sea to Ryde.

The train from Ryde Harbour to Shanklin is an experience.  A redundant two car ex-London Underground train which was new in the 1930s; needless to say none are left on the mainland outside a museum.  Both coming and going off-peak it was standing room only for parts of the journey.  It is probably the bumpiest, jerkingest passenger train ride in the country.  People do say coming to the Isle of Wight is like losing a decade or two, but this is scandalous, really, because heritage railway it is not meant to be.  Cheery conductors, though.

Welcome to ShanklinA friend picks us up at Shanklin – the old track on to Ventnor is history – and he has set things up nicely for us.  We see TWO unmistakably red squirrels – indeed, we have to slow down to let them cross the road – and a big bird of prey on the way.

FarmerA breezy walk down to the sea front and a hearty vegetarian breakfast at Besty & Spinkys fine esplanade cafe.  In the evening to Dimbola Museum & Galleries,  Dimbola Lodge in Freshwater, home of Victorian photography pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron, for the private view of Steve Blamire and Julian Winslow’s Portrait of an Island exhibition – 20 incredibly inventive photographic portraits of contemporary creatives currently working on the island.  I’ve nicked this rubbish quality low pixels small pic via the PrtScrn button purely to show how their mind works: he’s a farmer, so that’s a warrior Jimi by John Swindells at Dimbola 2necklace made of asparagus.  We knew one of the subjects and – interestingly – she hadn’t seen the finished product until now; she was absolutely delighted.  Tremendous show, well worth the visit.  Also got a look at the Isle of Wight Festivals exhibit, a fascinating collection of posters – oh the memories (not the festivals, just the amazing variety of period Letraset fonts) – alongside photos of the first three historic events what line-ups!) and those that have followed this millennium.  In the grounds, the Jimi Hendrix Garden and a life-size statue by John Swindells of the great man himself, that the locals were not impressed by.  This Daily Telegraph article (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1520329/Life-size-Hendrix-statue-infuriates-islanders.html)about the controversy makes for a wonderful snapshot of Englishness, particularly of the Vectian (Isle of Wightian – from the Roman) variety, and gives a good picture of what has been achieved at Dimbola.

Herbaceous borders MottestoneHad a good time in the extensive Ventnor Botanic Garden, where they enjoy a microclimate an average 5º hotter than mainland UK, so loads of sub-tropical exotic plants and trees in specific – Australian, South African, NZ – contexts.  Now a Community Interest Company, they operate a healthy ‘Keep ON the grass’ ethos.

And the next day more horticultural adventures in the gardens at Mottistone Manor, where we actually got to use our National Trust cards (we really should make more of an effort).  Never before have the words ‘herbaceous borders’ crossed my lips or tripped from my keyboard, but they were spectacular (click on the photo to Shack window furnitureenlarge, and then again).  It’s a ‘dry’ garden; they say they don’t water.  The Shack – one of the 5 things not to miss, the leaflet said – was actually pretty good too: a supercharged 1930s state of the art shed that you could easily live in, the period Penguin books arranged on the shelves by colour.  Here’s a link.  Cannot not mention the charming window shutter handles.

StonesAnd up the hill on Mottistone Down to the neolithic standing stones known as the Long Stone, though I’m not sure it counts anymore as a really ancient monument given they were moved sometime in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Fantastic views over the downs and the sea, though.

Given the nature of both gardens and some of the plants I couldn’t help occasionally thinking we’d slipped into a science fiction landscape.  Those on the left are from the quietly impressive ‘tranquil’ lower garden at Mottistone (which used to be the cow sheds, apparently), that on the right from Ventnor:

SF plant 04 VBG SF plant 01 VBGBedroom 02Finally, before we leave the island, a glimpse into the bedroom we slept in – this might develop into a series – another bedroom of one of our friends’ absent and well-on-the-way-to-fleeing-the-coop children.

Thanks, D & J, and Zappa.  He's a briard.

Thanks, D & J, and Zappa. He’s a briard.

Just a slight return: I came across the story of the missing Karl Marx mosaic while checking for something else.  I didn’t see it for myself, but there is a fine community-made mosaic detailing some of Ventnor’s greatest hits gracing the main car park.  Ventnor mosaicThe picture I’ve used of Karl Marx at the top of this piece was lifted from an article about his mosaic being physically and criminally lifted earlier this year; its whereabouts remain, as of late July 2015, a mystery.  Here are links to a couple of web articles about this act of vandalism, complete with comments, links which I provide because of the classic nature of the – albeit swearless – comments, some of which could have come straight out of that regular Private Eye feature, and some of which reflect citizenship of the highest order:

 

 

 

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HeightsPoop, poop!  The open road.  Or at least, the M6 Toll.  The heart begins to lift at the sign for the Kirkby Lonsdale turn-off, the tension to fall from the shoulders past the exit for Kendal.  Bit of a ritual now.  Check in, unload, cup of tea, then go and see if the stones are still there.

Yup - stil there: Castlerigg Stone Circle

Yup – still there: Castlerigg Stone Circle

The way we go, you don’t see them until you’ve climbed the steps built into the wall, but once in among the stones it makes perfect sense why they’re where they are, seeming to be at the centre of something.  No astro-science, ancient science or pseudo-science necessary to appreciate that.

Trees and shadowsIn The Lakes the sun plays shadow games with the clouds and the land, painting constantly shifting shades of hill and fell.  We’re just looking, not striding up and down them.

Wednesday is the hottest day of the year so far.  We choose to do Walla Crag, which overlooks the north half of Derwent Water and, in the distance, Bassenthwaite (what’s the only Lake in the Lake District?) Lake.  And, of course, a whole lot more of the solid stuff.  Northern or oak eggar mothFortunately the higher we get the stronger the breeze, which is a wind by the time we reach the top and laze for a bit.  Photographs (or at least mine), especially in summer, never get anywhere near the magnificence of the view, so here’s one of a northern (or oak) eggar moth, trying not to get blown away.

Today we make the descent (probably too grand a term, even though the walk leaflet calls it strenuous and steep, and the worst bit involves dropping from a seated position) lakewards down the other side.  To our left Cat Gill, and after the aforementioned worst bit, the gill briefly flattens out so I have the brilliant idea of stepping down and bathing my sweltering salt-strewn face in the cool clear waters.  It is here that I learn the aptness of the ancient wisdom enshrined in the old adage, “Slippery when wet”, even when there are no warning signs.  Twelve days on I still bear the residual signs of what proved to be a truly psychedelic bruise on my thigh; nor can I yet grip a pen as tightly as I am wont to.  No matter.  Onwards to a fine lunch on the veranda of the all-welcoming Mary Mount Hotel, bestrewn as it is with busy bird feeders – chaffinches and great tits so fine and handsome we had to do a double-take.

Musical stonesThursday to town, and my favourite little museum: The Keswick Museum and Art Gallery.  Where I play Louie, Louie and From me to you on the musical stones – 3 sets thereof, stacked like they’re waiting for Keith Emerson to come and climb all over them. It’s a fascinating piece of rock music history.  In the gallery a major exhibition celebrating Alfred Wainwright – Wainwright: a love letter to the Lakeland Fells.  Along with his tweed jackets (pipe sticking out of the pocket of one), his ‘best’ (for council meetings) and his first boots, and all the obvious stuff, we get to see memorabilia from his life as an active Blackburn Rovers supporters: a cartoon of his of fans at the 1922 Boxing Day match with the legend “Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching”, his ‘motor coach excursion ticket’ to the 1940 (wartime) Cup Final.  At one end of the gallery, a one-piece vinyl floor covering, maybe 15 foot square, printed with an old style OS map of the Lakes; Isobel stood on top of Helvellyn, no probs.  And with one bound …

Dog & GunDog & Gun veggie goulashAnd so to The Dog & Gun, there to partake of their vegetarian goulash, a disappointment last year because we only discovered its very existence after we’d eaten elsewhere.  It was worth the wait.  Pictured is what they call a small portion – it comes with garlic bread too – and I couldn’t have eaten anymore.  I was drinking a pint of Ruskin’s, pretty much the most cultural it got this time around, and – goodness! – taste buds now fully engaged, it had twice the flavour after the meal.  A splendid array of ales, imaginatively and helpfully presented with a colour sample in a jar beside each pump (click on the image for an enlargement, and once more if that’s not good enough to whet your taste buds, beear drinkers) :

Pumps 01Pumps 2Pumps 3

In the afternoon, the gentle railway walk out of Keswick, the river winding, wildly here, wandering there, under the permanent … walk-way.  Such sights, such engineering.  The tallest foxgloves everywhere.  For fans of ironworks, rust and greenery:

Iron & greenBridge

On Friday we sample a live railway.  Eighteen minutes there and eighteen minutes back behind ‘Victor’ on the restored Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway – the lake being Windermere – and in between a look around the Lakes Aquarium, stocked with a lot more than fishes.  We saw voracious mean-looking ‘baby’ crocodiles included being fed.; lots of potential ouch there.

Train coming

D8000 classIn the locoshed at Haverthwaite I discover I am older than all the engines in the shed – including four steam locomotives of varying size – except for a diesel shunter.  There are a couple of older engines outside, but I wasn’t expecting that: to feel that old, even pursuing memories of a childhood and early-teen pursuit.  As it happens, the photo is one of the class of locos mentioned in a poem of mine some readers might remember having heard Lion & wheel logoperformed, called The lamb’s last gambol: “I sold my stamp collection for a train set / a Hornby freight diesel / Lion and wheel logo / painted grey and green“.  Except this one was missing a lion and wheel logo, though one of the other young locos proudly displayed one (compare and contrast with, say, Virgin, or any of the other railway companies now).

Saturday to the seaside and a bracing sea breeze at Alonby on the Solway Firth, which could be a very forlorn place on the wrong day.  When the interesting clouds lifted we could see the green fields of Dumfries under a blue sky.  Stony beach, true, but with plenty of delightful pebbles to peruse.  Borrowdale’s Great Wood again in the pm, finally making geographical sense to us in the scheme of things fitting together.  And the next day home again, home again, jiggety jog, fortified midway with Waitrose sandwiches at Keele services – the high life! – even if we did have to walk over the Keele services bridge and through Burger King to get them.

RevealSoundtrack of the sojourn in the car proved to be REM’s gorgeous masterpiece Reveal.  Hardly a rock album at all, but there’s certainly a lot of roll, and some floating.  Song soundscapes.  Anticipation, sympathy, self-doubt overcome, with a nod to science while not letting that take away the poetry.  Beguiling, sinuous melodies that don’t hit at first but once they catch you’re waiting for them eagerly the next time.  To sing along to.  A sadness that glows, with a bit of Beach Boys in there too.  Lovely.

Oh, and I forgot to mention in chronicling the Welsh trip how my breakfast Marmite habit had been broken, it being overtaken on the toast by Rose’s pleasurably sweet and sour Lemon & Lime Marmalade, but I’m over that now.

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Colne guitarWallace HartleyColne

Now where was I?  Oh, yes.  Coming back from the Lakes a while ago now, stayed over with a friend in Colne, Lancashire, in the Borough of Pendle.  Interesting town, feels like it’s built on a ridge, scarily steep roads leading off down at various intervals from either side of the main drag – population circa 19,00, over twice as big as Stony – and another music town.  That guitar in the photo is part of a floral bed which is (it says) “a tribute to The Great Bristish [sic] Rhythm & Blues Festival held in Colne every August.”  After a few ales maybe.  Close by is a bust celebrating Colne’s most famous son: Wallace Hartley – violinist and bandmaster on the RMS Titanic, who famously played on as the unsinkable ship sank.

I still think it’s a coincidence, though, that we sat through the whole of Tempest, the 14 minute ‘epic’ title track from Bob Dylan’s last album, while eating in Jim’s Acoustic Cafe & Vegetarian Restaurant … and it sounded better there – took me a while to realise what it was, intrigued by the rhythm of the vocal, not listening to the lyric – than I’ve ever heard its tedious drone in my own home.  Put it down to Jim’s more than decent sound system.  The food is great too, always interesting (from a choice of three mains a day) and really reasonably priced – I should have nicked a menu to show you.   The music a fascinating and varied mix – as well as the Dylan I remember Howlin’ Wolf, some African funk, Joni Mitchell, Hendrix – and what I didn’t recognise was always interesting;  the man has taste to match his culinary skills.  Comfortable, relaxed, ramshackle (in the best sense of the word) decor with an eclectic collection of pictures to have you out of your seat for a closer look.  Oh for anything like it locally!  Apparently ‘Jim’s’ is the small Festival venue; Jackie Leven used to play there.

I used to think of places like Blackburn and Burnley as post-industrial waste lands, but Colne seems to be doing OK, and the towns were always never far from the hilly Pendle countryside, which, though never as dramatic as The Lakes or as wild as the North Yorkshire Moors, has plenty going for it (and there is plenty of it).  You can walk into Bronte country from Colne; Yorkshire spreads further west than many would think.

BRCBuckinghamshire Railway Centre

Springing forward three weeks, spent some time at the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre at Quainton the weekend just passed.  Blimey, it’s changed a bit since I was there last.  Like there’s a swishy visitor centre now (went up 12 years ago, I was told) and there’s so much more to see.  Hadn’t done any research prior to the visit so it was a nice surprise to be met on entering with an example of a GWR Castle class, that most handsome and exquisitely proportioned class of express steam locomotives, resplendent in British railways colours, in the entrance hall. (Photos © Lillabullero)

Castle 5080 'Defiant'.  But what if one were in a more compliant mood?

Castle 5080 ‘Defiant’. ‘Climb aboard Defiant’ the sign says, but what if one were in a more compliant mood? (To be fair, the sign does have the loco name in inverted commas.

In deepest Buckinghamshire

In deepest Buckinghamshire

Janice

A beast of a locomotive named ‘Janice’; South African, 3’6″ gauge but still enormous.

Lots more oddness in evidence, along with resplendent resident Metropolitan 1 – click on the photos to enlarge:

BrooklynOddnessInteresting

Metropolitan No 1BeggarsAnd as you’d expect these days, loads of social history in the museum and the lovingly restored 1890s Quainton Road station, where you’ll find this reminder that the ‘deserving poor’ are always with us.  It’s like something out of a Thomas Hardy novel if he hadn’t stopped writing novels about that time.  ‘Wayfarer’ – does that not have an adventurous dignity about it? The honest wayfarer – a folk song waiting to be written.

Castle chimneyFurther on down the line

So … between Colne and Quainton a fair few events and happenings.  Staying with the railway theme briefly, a beer promisingly named Smokestack Lightnin‘ supped in the Vaults  at the Vaultage Re-Charged, pleasant enough, but without the bite of Howlin’ Wolf’s record of the same name …  a couple of AORTAS open mics, the first where landlord Andy required of Dan, the paid piper, that he deliver an evening of happy songs, which was enough to keep at least one songsmith away, only for Andy then to go on holiday himself … the second distinguished by the usual good (musically miserable) times, Mark Owen (one half of The Last Quarter) playing solo, being introduced as The Last Eighth, and Pat’s dog farting; eyes raised approvingly at the previously unnoticed appearance at the word ‘acrimony’ in Dan Plews‘ fine rendition of The Sailor’s Rest … down the road in the bar of The Crauford Arms in Wolverton another day, Tom George, going out as The Lion & the Wolf, warned the nevertheless appreciative audience to prepare themselves for “the miserable-ist 20 minutes of your lives”; interesting songs played and sung strongly, in not ideal circumstances, which was a relief given he’s the son of an old mate – fine young man, chip off the block, even – who could remember playing in our back garden when he was 8 … and music back at the Shoulder of Mutton hopefully on a regular basis, courtesy of the Hoodwink Elixir; the ever excellent Zeroes covering Kim Wilde’s Kids in America to good effect, Second Hand Grenade funking away (Emmazing Emma getting better all the time), teenage openers Ali in the Jungle displaying accomplished musicianship for their tender years.

Was good to see John Cooper Clarke at the Stables.  He may have slowed down a bit, but he’s still got it, and good to hear new material.  Neat update of Beasley Street into Beasley Boulevard reflecting the embourgeoisement of Salford with its Media City.  Quite a phenomenon, very English I’d say, the general warmth of the affection in which JCC is held.  Not that he’s exactly cruising behind it.  His support acts would have been worth seeing on their own, hard acts to follow.  I think there’s fair chance they schooled themselves word-perfect on the man himself’s records as young teens, but they certainly proved that’s no bad thing as a starting point.  Mike Garry went out of his way to stress Johnny’s Salford, I’m Manchester, and took us down the streets the inhabitants or descendants of Beasley Street have moved to.  it was a hell of a dramatic performance – theatre, poetry, comedy.  Luke Wright, who introduced himself as ‘the token southerner’ was no slouch either; particularly strong JCC-isms in his dream woman piece (was her name Barbara?).  Discussion over the interval in certain quarters as to the shortcomings of the hair care products Luke was using, with recommendations offered.  Shall we call his barnet the sculptured bastard love child of extreme early Phil Oakey and a wind machine?

Life goes on

Went to the funeral – a real celebration of a life – of a good man.  Intro music Rage Against the Machine’s Wake up!; outro Woody Guthrie’s So long, it’s been good to know you.

Dick Apr 2013x

Dick Skellington at Scribal Gathering, April 2013. (c) Jonathan JT Taylor

HellWent to the wake of another good man who I wish I’d known longer than just the last couple of years on the poetry – the multi-faceted polymath Dick Skellington.  Much-loved scholar, poet, actor and director, raconteur, traveller and keen “agricultural” footballer (Stuart Pearce was mentioned) and team manager; I never knew about the football.  I’ve heard the word ‘curmudgeonly’ applied reverently lately too.  It was Dick who had devised The hell where youth and laughter go, a reading of a set of poems commemorating the start of the First World War, at Stony Stratford Library last week.  It kicked off with Siegfried Sassoon’s Suicide in the trenches and ended with Carol Ann Duffy’s moving Last post, and in between featured an inventive variety of verse including material taken from the Wipers Times.  I think everyone in the audience who knew Dick heard the glee, passion and gusto of Dick’s voice in the rendition, by a friend, of A.P.Herbert‘s poem about an un-loved Major General, That shit Shute:

The General inspecting the trenches
Exclaimed with a horrified shout
‘I refuse to command a division
Which leaves its excreta about.’

But nobody took any notice
No one was prepared to refute,
That the presence of shit was congenial
Compared to the presence of Shute.

And certain responsible critics
Made haste to reply to his words
Observing that his staff advisors
Consisted entirely of turds.

For shit may be shot at odd corners
And paper supplied there to suit,
But a shit would be shot without mourners
If somebody shot that shit Shute.

The Carabosse Theatre Company dedicated their run of their adaptation of Gormenghast at the Chrysalis Theatre to Dick, and there were tributes too at the October Scribal Gathering, where, with much characteristic shuffling of paper, some of his poems were given another outing.

GormenghastThat Carabosse adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy into nearly 3 hours of full-on theatre was simply stunning.  To say it was ambitious – it was – is in no way to imply they were over-reaching themselves.  The set and atmospherics were  stunning; 4 immaculately dressed and lighted acting areas – 2 up, 2 down – constructed using scaffolding, plus the fore-stage, more than enhanced by some brilliant projection work.  Fantastic costumes, great cast, some wonderful individual performances (dual in the case of the twins) – a tremendous theatrical experience.  Never managed to get into the books, but that didn’t matter one bit here – total absorption.  Bravo!

And somewhere in there the longest (if not the nearest) sighting of a kingfisher resting on a branch, flying away, returning, resting some more.  Always special.  From the older bird hide on the edge of Stony Nature Reserve.

Shoulder HoodwinkScribal Oct 2014

Bristish - to prove it was there.

Bristish – to prove it was there.

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