Monday, 14 May 2018


For my friends ... you know who you are, specially since some of you were there.


Yesterday upon the stair 
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He turned up later at the show
So far out he didn’t know
We’d met before.
Hard and rude to just ignore
I listened through the spit and sparks
As he declaimed once more that Marx
Would be two hundred had he lived.

Hippy, boho, pagan, punk?
Was he like me or simply drunk?
“I’ve been stoned these thirty days,”
He declaimed through purpled haze
Emphasised through thrashing gesture
Splashing ale in my direction.

I hoped he’d find another friend.
Instead he grabbed me by the hand
And led me through the throng.
The band could only struggle through their set
As every thought he spoke out loud
In front of the assembled crowd.

He chivvied, “Have you seen the world?
South America? Africa? China?
Nepal? India? Asia Minor?
I’m seventy-seven, seen the lot.
Though some would claim I lost the plot
At least once I held it in my hand.
Have you been far beyond this land?

Do you write?” He asked and said,
“May I recite?”
Threw back his head 
And howled some sounds into the air;
A thin and baying song so rare
I’d never heard the like before.
He carried on declaring more a feeling than a meaning
And concluded with a drunken smile.

Throughout the recitation
Mildly panicked situation
I scanned to seek the aid of friends
And in the end two came to my assistance.

They moved their chairs and made some space
I took my leave and left in haste
Abandoned him to speak to others.

No umbrage given and none taken
At being suddenly forsaken
A new idea took hold at once
And he exhorted all, “Let’s dance!”

Marshlander 5th May 2018

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Of Sonic Warfare, Pink Smoke and Fairies

After breakfast on Friday, the day of my hour-long set for the festival I went off to seek Elric of the Dagda, who had seen me through the gate late the previous evening. The Dagda seem to be the security agency of choice these days at Pagan events. Elric had suggested I return in the morning to secure my wristband for the weekend. I found him and he made the necessary introductions to the committee member looking after the box office and with whom I registered my presence. Once strapped into my adhesive wristband (a fetching gold one labelled "Crew & Entertainment") I set off to chat to the music organiser.

Events for Friday
The M.O. was in the music tent and affably introduced me to SoundMan, who apparently had only been on the site long enough to unload the speakers, amps, desk and outboard, but nothing was plugged in or strapped down. "Come back at 3," he said. So I did.

In the meantime though, I went back to Camp Marsh for more personal rehearsal and warm-up, wandered round the site greeting old friends and making new ones. Chatting to stall holders who were getting ready for an expected inrush of the hoards, everyone had a tale to tell of the waterlogged swamp that was the site after heavy rain earlier in the week and every single stall holder had got stuck in the marsh when arriving to set up. Arriving the night before in the dark it looks like I actually got off very lightly as I drove round the whole site looking for "my" chosen spot. New arrivals continued to get stuck in their vehicles throughout the festival even after three days of hot sun and the often accompanying fierce wind blowing off the North Sea. On the final day an AA truck arrived in response to a distress call from a member and also became embedded in the marsh. The festival couldn't have been more aptly named, even if this time, perhaps a first in the collective memories of returning punters and long-time organisers, the weather was mostly very hot and sunny.

I watched Vic prepare the Beltane bonfire, destined to be lit with due ceremony an hour before my set and which was, in the spirit of Beltane, to be kept alight for the duration of the festival over the extended weekend. Every time I saw him I had to resist asking, "Is Vic There?" It was difficult. Most of the wood for the fire that was stacked up at the edge of the arena was in the form of old pallets. I couldn't see Vic getting much sleep if he had to look after a fire that was going to burn very quickly. In addition to the blistering sun, there was the stiff breeze to contend with and the fire was going to need lots of feeding once it got going. However, before the ceremony, it was a beautifully arranged pyramid of branches and twigs with sprigs of greenery and floral contributions around the base. What we didn't know at the time was that there was also a surprise ingredient that would produce a mass of pink smoke after a few minutes. Nice touch.

The main marquee and sound stage

Arriving for my soundcheck, there was still rather more setting up of equipment being done than one might have expected after six hours prep time. There were also gremlins in the signal chain. In the end my 3pm soundcheck was conducted just as I was due to go on at 5 o'clock. Although there were more speakers and amps than I use, even with my six-piece band on a village green, the set up didn't look massively more complicated than my own. It seems though that the equipment problems were difficult to trace and with appropriate fortitude, courage, panic and (I suspect) embarrassment and irritation SoundMan continued tracing them much of the way through my set. Unfortunately one outcome of his dedication was that I had no idea from which of the six monitors surrounding me I would be receiving the next blast of sound which took a variety of forms including me, any combination of the noises I was creating (except my snare drum which seemed totally absent from any cocktail), complete silence, a blast of ear-destroying feedback or a level of hiss one might expect from a generously large knot of snakes. As a wearer of hearing aids I had no idea what I was hearing and how much was my own internal squealing. Of course, the silences between the blasts were doubly confusing when I could not hear some of what I was playing and had no idea how much I was over (or under) compensating. Prima donna that I am I was worried about trying to pick the strings too hard and tearing a nail on thumb or fingers. I could pick up a hint of my kick drum from the sound issuing from the front of house speaker arrays, but my guitar and snare drum were sucked into the air long before I could hear them. That was unnerving, specially the more so because when practising at Camp Marsh with no amplification whatever I was perfectly well-balanced ... albeit admittedly only as far as the sound was concerned. The whole experience took me back to being a seventeen year-old opening for the Pink Fairies in a reverberant municipal drill hall. In a spirit of loving awareness, solidarity and cooperation I had agreed to play, severe vertigo notwithstanding, from a narrow balcony halfway along and up (very much up) a side wall between the floor and a very high arched roof in order that the crew could set about their business of preparing the stage. After working on my playing and writing for a couple of years and having plucked up the courage to begin to sing at folk club floor spots it was an honour I took very seriously being asked to open for such a popular band. That memorable evening in 1972 proved to be the end of my attempts to perform as a solo singer/guitarist/songwriter in any forum for the next thirty or forty years. Had I realised that setting up the (at the time) loudest band in the land involved a drum tech nailing Russell Hunter's kit to the stage during my set I may have been less cooperative about performing halfway up a wall with only a couple of microphones and very long leads daisy-chained into a domestic hi-fi more used (and thoroughly inadequate at that) for providing what we used to refer to as "sounds" before, between and after the live performances. I wouldn't have needed much of the stage for just me and my acoustic guitar and crew might have realised someone was trying to sing. At least the guerrilla percussionista later apologised, "Sorry mate, I thought it was a record playing," which could have been taken as a compliment of sorts I suppose.

Since, as the first act on, and with the majority of people on site yet to twig that any entertainment in the music marquee had begun, the audience could be totalled in spectacularly modest numbers. Most of the listening audience present were friends, friends of friends and their miscellaneously related family members anyway. A few songs into the set I asked SoundMan to stop putting me through the P.A. altogether. I announced to the audience that anyone who wanted to hear the rest of the performance would be welcome to bring their chairs to the front of the stage (the plan being to continue without any further assistance from electrically operated equipment). In those milliseconds of thought I also considered taking myself to the audience rather than making them move towards me, but I had already tried out a few seats in the auditorium and had already experienced the joy of gently sinking into the marsh. Putting myself at risk of such further distraction was plainly daft, so the audience kindly came to me. I think the same number were still above ground by the end of the set. Naturally enough I was berating myself for behaving like a prima donna, but playing three instruments simultaneously whilst remembering the strings of lyrics and chord changes with which I challenge myself requires at least a minimal degree of concentration. Unfortunately I was failing to attain anything close to such a level of focus. I had a bit of an insight into how Manuel Noriega may have felt being confronted by Delta Force during his days of sanctuary within the Nunciature of The Holy See as his final days in Panama drew to a close. For the record I have no ambition to become either a military dictator or a soldier in an invading army.

People were very kind about my performance. I suspect Words may have been had elsewhere. Over the next few days I compensated by treating friends and victims to guerrilla performances of my own, which turned out to be very intimate and rather less fraught affairs - much closer to the living room performances I would like to undertake once I finish recording the new album. Some of these were thank yous in exchange for bartered services, like for Amy who showed me how to make a dreamcatcher, braided my hair and treated me to a couple of baby dreads.

Photograph by Helen Cragg
Marshlander plays for a little gathering at Amy's stall in the main arena.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Of Masked Men, Woodwork And The First Festival Of The Year

Not quite nine o’clock in the morning and Ive been up for three hours. The sun is shining and if it stays like this, today will be hot. I’m in a boggy field near the Lincolnshire coast for this weekend’s Spirit of the Marsh Beltane celebration. Ive been to this festival a couple of times before, but only for half a day at a time. It always coincides with other work. This time it is work.

On the basis that it’s not what you know I contacted one of the organisers, a friend I met through an internet discussion group, and suggested to him that Marshlander would be appropriate entertainment for a festival called “Spirit of the Marsh”. As the keyboard player quipped, “It’s got your name all over it!” I arrived last night, at about eleven o’clock. I decided not to use my phone app to find the place. I went organic. I knew it was in Trustthorpe, which itself is somewhere near Mablethorpe. I knew that Mablethorpe could be reached by first finding the A16. I knew I had a choice of routes to reach the A16. Somehow it worked. More amazing than that I did not feel tired on the two-hour trip.  

For many decades long drives, specially evening ones, have made me feel very weary. Perhaps it is because I have not slept properly for many years that I have found driving soporific. Driving has always involved keeping very aware of my state of alertness and stopping to sleep if I feel potentially dangerous to other drivers. I’ve had mixed messages about this. I always felt that I was being polite by not killing other road users. I have been stopped by the police many times after working at night. After a gig and all the packing up and some obligatory post-performance cameraderie, I’m quite keen to get home to bed. Being stopped because I drive a van is irritating, but they are only doing their job ... I keep telling myself. Perhaps the police get bored or lonely. Perhaps I’m part of a game they play. One might have thought that in a country that outdoes pretty much everywhere else in the degree to which it watches and records the activities of its citizens there would be a record of van registrations where the owner is known to be a gigging musician. I should get Cambridge Analytica on to it. After all, it was coming back home from Cambridge one time in the wee hours that I was pulled by the police after I’d found a safe layby to catch a bit of a sleep. If I’m on the road it would seem I’m suspicious because I’m driving a van, specially a white one apparently (but then black vans were the troublesome ones when I owned one of those). Unfortunately, when I’m being cautious and pull off the road for a nap, I’m still suspicious. 

Where’s this leading? Earlier this year I was diagnosed with OSAS - obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. For years P has told me that he has woken in the night and felt he needed to give me a nudge to see if I were still alive. He has caught me not breathing many times. I don't not-breathe on purpose, but I didn't do anything about it until I finally felt so exhausted I went to see the GP to help me get to the bottom of it. I was convinced that it was the tinnitus roaring in my head that woke me several times a night. My lovely GP admitted we needed specialist advice on counts of both the exhaustion and the tinnitus, and I left his consulting room within five minutes of entering with hospital appointments at two different hospitals. The appointments were to take place within a fortnight. This is the NHS at its very best!

The first appointment brought me to the attention of an audiologist who diagnosed moderate hearing loss over 2kHz. This was, as it happens, a bit of a shock. I had been under the impression that I could hear okay up to about 6kHz, and hopefully more. The tinnitus is my brain making up for what it can’t hear, so hearing aids were prescribed. They have made a huge difference. I still have the tinnitus, but it is nowhere near as disruptive as it was. Taking them out at night leaves room for the noises to come whooshing back.  The second appontment, at a sleep clinic, has resulted in me being diagnosed with "a chronic disorder of his breathing for which he requires treatment every night with a CPAP machine through a face mask" - a declaration I have to carry with me when I pass through security at airports and railway stations. Once again, the CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) device is a life-changing experience. Bits of my life have started to return, most gratifying when I thought some of those bits were gone forever. From an AHI of nearly 15.9 (ie 16 breathing stoppages every hour when entering deep sleep) my last reading was 6.3. I have not exactly been waking up completely refreshed, but it is wonderful not feeling completely drained. I am now, though, a man in a mask. I am plugged, via a corrugated hose and a mask that covers my nose and mouth, into the machine which forces filtered air into my nose and keeps me breathing at night. It is a bit of a rigmarole, but there are benefits to be had.  There are also challenges. Using a CPAP machine does require electricity. Here I am in the middle of a field with no mains power so I have had to find a means of powering my device off-grid. For the past few nights I have drawn power from deep-cycle leisure batteries in the boat via a (very expensive) DC-DC kit designed for the machine. This was a trial for when sleeping in the van. Now all I need is a means of recharging the batteries. Undoubtedly more of this later. 

View from Camp Marsh before the crowds arrive.

Camp Marsh

Woodwork, it's something I never had a chance to do a school. Other boys did, but I was one of those who had to do Latin instead. I didn't get very far with Latin (show me a teenaged boy who hasn't sniggered at an ablative or genitive case) although I suppose I have found what I managed to understand quite useful on occasions. Knowing something about wood and its workings, though, would have come in so handy so many times. When I left school I went to work for a firm of builders in London. My lack of knowledge was ripe for humorous episodes amongst the "blokes". I ended up driving the firm's flatbed Transit truck, keeping the tradesmen supplied with the bits they needed to bring in the money and clearing away the mess after they had finished. My first trip to the timber yard prompted an embarrassment I shall probably never forget. I had to buy some 8'x4' sheets of blockboard. As I was waiting to be served I had seen men carrying piles of timber and several sheets of various boards to their vehicles. Asked if I needed any help I assured the man in the yard I'd manage. I approached the stack of boards leaning against the racking ready for me to carry to the truck. I stretched my arms wide and clutched the outermost board as I attempted to get the balance right. I over-compensated and the first board nearly turned me into Flat Stanley. I simply could not lift a single board off the ground and ended up having to go back and ask for help. Within a fortnight though I had a technique of sorts and the next visit was not quite so embarrassing ... apart from the ribbing I got in the yard.

I didn't know anything about joinery, but my first job in every house I lived in was to put up some shelves. I developed an idiosyncratic shelving style which was pretty bomb proof and held my huge collection of books and vinyl. Whenever I have lived in the van for a few days I have used a camp bed in the back. It has never been very comfortable, or particularly warm on colder nights, and it has used up precious floor space. I decided that for Spirit of the Marsh I would attempt to emulate some of my nomadic friends and erect a sleeping shelf upon which I could lay a proper mattress, although this time an airbed would have to suffice. On the morning I was due to leave for the festival (i.e. yesterday) I went to the timber yard in the neighbouring village and bought some wood that would enable me to knock something together according to a plan I scribbled on the back of a bank statement envelope the previous evening. I got back to the farm. I measured everything twice and nearly got it right. I had to cut some bits out of some of the lengths to make joints that wouldn't twist and it took me a while to get my head round where and how much to cut. I even had to shape some cross-pieces that I planned to lay across the panelled-in wheel arches, because the sides of my van converge from the rear awards the sliding doors. Amazingly everything fits, more or less, apart from a frame for the foot end of the ply board bed support. I bodged that up by blocking it up with some of the wood I'd cut to make the frame; job done! It may make a chippy blush, but it's my own work and I had the best night's sleep I'd ever had in the van. I shall consider my sleeping shelf a work in progress, a bit like the leisure battery recharging operation, but I'm very happy with the results so far.

The gates don't open for festival business for another three hours, so, when I arrived last night, I had a pick of places to set up. Some of the going seemed a little soft, but I found my place and backed the van into it. I decided I would erect my shelter and "kitchen" in the dark. This also turned out better than the first time I tried to erect the shelter when I was still trying to work it out after the light had faded and it became very dark a couple of years ago. This time I was all set up in under an hour and in bed by midnight, CPAP hissing gently beside me.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Songwriters & Poets Newsletter - extracts, March 2018

From time to time I have thought that I should include the content of the monthly newsletter I write to subscribers of the Songwriters & Poets nights in Downham Market in Norfolk. Maybe this is cheating, but just in case anyone else is interested, here are bits from the most recent one.

Last week I had my first experience of performing at the circus. I opened the evening for the monthly Psychedelic Circus evenings at Jurnet’s Bar in Norwich and it was a lot of fun. I was followed by a man from Bristol juggling hats. He has come to Norfolk to join the cast of the Foolhardy Circus this season. I missed seeing most of his act because I was packing my kit away, but what I saw was very clever although nothing like as scary as the act that followed him - a woman with a bull-whip and a very brave friend who held playing cards between his lips or through his legs for her to whip away! Being of a nervous disposition I moved further back. I love making music but I am constantly in awe of people who have musical and other skills including, as in this case, the brandishing of vicious weapons. Whether skills enable people to build their own homes, write books, give speeches, make beautiful or practical things, cook delicious food or fix something that is broken people truly are amazing. I took part in the Venice Carnival last month and I have been looking at some astonishing photographs taken by some really skilled photographers of the most extraordinary and beautiful hand-made costumes and masks that lit up the city for four days. I don’t have the vocabulary to explain why some photographs are so much better than others, but somehow they just are and something very special shines off the picture. I have now been to Venice a couple of times and have spent hours watching gondoliers working their boats with incredible accuracy and skill - it takes five years to train and qualify for a licence to “drive” a gondola. They manoeuvre their craft with delicacy and precision through the tightest of situations that would have me in a complete panic and not once have I ever seen two gondolas touch accidentally.  Last evening I watched a friend coaching a young girl on a new pony. I had to ask questions about how she knew what to look for in order to help the girl improve, because I could not see what she so obviously could see. I suppose that is what some people wonder about me when I am working with children on composing projects. Over many years of experience I hope I have enough of a feel for ways to help them get increased satisfaction from their music. While what I offer doesn’t feel special to me, and I always question my right to interfere in their creations, I hope that they feel better - rather than despondent - about their efforts when I’ve finished interfering. Smiles on faces sometimes reflect that, I suppose. I would guess too that it is all a matter of degree. I was complimented on my own boat-handling skills recently. To me it just seemed logical to take a manoeuvre slowly. It’s the only way I have a chance of not getting into trouble - something I have found all too easy in the past and undoubtedly shall again in the future. Last year another boater passed me after I had turned in a limited space and congratulated me for having managed it since it was something he would not have attempted, even in his smaller boat. It was nice (actually, very nice if I am honest) to be acknowledged, but somehow skills seem more special when they are possessed by someone else. If I see you and offer you a compliment for something you have done, it comes from a place of warmth. I feel genuinely amazed by what others can do, not because I didn’t expect them to achieve it, but because I feel joy, and often awe, at something I feel I would be unlikely to be able to accomplish myself. 

I have received an invitation to open the Spirit Of The Marsh in Lincolnshire in May. Actually, I chased it a little. It is a tiny festival (my favourite kind) put together by a group of friends and I spent a short time there as a punter a few years ago. It seemed appropriate that Marshlander should perform at Spirit of the Marsh and that will now happen. Fortunately I did not have to audition for the gig or, worse still, go up in competition against others for a spot. I realise this often happens behind closed doors as choices are made but this month I shared the disappointment of friends whose music was insufficiently acknowledged. It was supposed to be an open competition for a chance to perform at another festival. The criteria for success were published in advance and, apart from a final catch-all criterion, it seemed straightforward enough. What was disappointing was not that the friends didn’t get through to perform at the festival, but that the criteria for judging performance were mostly ignored in favour of the final one which amounted to whether or not the judges liked them sufficiently - the same decision that takes place with an autocratic promoter or by committee behind closed doors. This made a nonsense of criteria that claimed the decision would be made on the quality of the music, the composition, originality and crowd engagement. I have always struggled with the notion of competition, yet some people have said I am competitive. I disagree. I do not experience the feeling of being in competition with others but I am, though, very tough on myself and always want to do something better than I have done in the past. I think that is different.

In the coming month I am looking forward to being under the spotlight at Grange Farm Studio Hangout on Thursday evening. Singer/songwriter Neil Cousin has said once or twice that he feels that he wants to have a q&a when I perform. He may be there. This may be his chance. I am hoping to see some new people turn up for Songwriters & Poets night at The Crown in Downham on Friday. There have been hints in the postings! I am going into fanboy mode a couple of times this month when I get to see Maggie Bell and Dave Kelly perform in Peterborough and Jethro Tull in Cambridge. Although I’ve seen them all before I haven’t seen any of those people play for decades (I think Maggie Bell was in Stone The Crows last time I saw her and I haven’t seen Tull since 1970), so I am really looking forward to the performances. 

Other local events to look out for later in the year (which I’ll include now because tickets sell out quickly) include Folk In A Field at the beginning of July (I shall be working with Willowspin on the Saturday afternoon) and the Southburgh Festival at the end of July. I’ve reserved my tickets for that one and hope to catch up with an old friend, Chartwell Dutiro, whose photograph beams out as one of the headline acts, performing with his son Shorai, whom I haven’t seen since he was a little boy. I really look forward to seeing him perform with his father.

Nico Dobben continues to organise the splendid music nights at No8 - The Old Bookshop in Downham Market and John Preston runs the open mic nights at the Green Britain Centre variously known as the Collapsing Cabaret or the Apocalypse Café. It will probably have another name by the time of the next evening. Something I’ve rarely mentioned in the past is the fortnightly Wolf Folk Club at Wolferton Social Club. It is probably one of the longest running events in the local folk and acoustic calendar, yet seems a secret known only to the many who attend. 

As usual, don’t forget West Norfolk Radio. It’s best to check out their website for details. The format of their twice-monthly live music evenings on Sundays is often a mixture of recorded music, guest performers and floor spots.  You can go and be on the radio as performer or audience member.  I did my third guest spot recently. It is probably best though to check their diary, because the remaining weekly shows are recordings only. As mentioned they also keep an excellent diary on the website of other folk-related events around the East Anglia region, occasionally promote some high profile performers in concert and they broadcast from a number of festivals (including Ely Folk Festival and Folk On The Pier) around the region. It beats me how two people manage to do so much. 

Another excellent source of music is Norwich’s Future Radio specially with Richard Penguin’s “Acoustic and Eclectic Show” on Sunday afternoons, which often features the work of local musicians. The show is available live on air if you live in the Norwich area or otherwise online or occasionally via a podcast on Mixcloud. 

Saturday, 17 March 2018

In The Meantime

Just case anyone thinks I've forgotten to write something here, I haven't. I am ridden with guilt about neglecting this blog! I have, though, had other things happening that seem to have taken priority. I really must get round to telling you all about opposing a private bill in Parliament, some health stuff, this year's Venice Carnival, how I moved on to the boat in the first place (I promise t's a good story if I can remember it all), something about gigs, some sad news about dogs, and I have spent a couple of days in a studio over the past couple of weeks ... "about time too", said P.

Okay, that's a little shopping list of reminders for future essays. In the meantime here are some pictures from last week of me recording at Grange Farm Studio in Norfolk, with the wonderful Isi Clarke at the desk (and on my iPad in order to take these photographs). I'll save yesterday's photos for when I write properly and I'll try and write properly soon.

Now I have to leave to get set up for a ceilidh with my brilliant rocking ceilidh band in Norwich tonight. 

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Of Masked Men, Women, Children And Dogs

Some of the fabric bought for the costumes

The last couple of weeks have continued in their extraordinary way. If my life is this rich I cannot imagine what everyone else’s must be like. I’m writing this sitting on Platform 8 at Geneva-Cornavin, the city’s main railway station. I arrived here a fortnight ago and, while so much has happened, it seems to have gone by so quickly. When I arrived at Cornavin I left the station for the 61 bus to France. On arrival at the end of that journey I walked the fifteen minutes journey to P’s apartment. As I turned the key in the lock there were no suprises. P and The Divine Miss M were in full sweatshop mode preparing our costumes for the coming Venice carnival. As always P had been overwhelmed at work and had very little time available for working on costumes. We only went out to buy the fabric four weeks ago and he's done an extraordinary job.

Some more rolls of fabric ready to be turned into costumes
Since then I think Miss M had come up from Annecy every time he had minutes at home. She moved in for the weekends too. The family consider we have a strange relationship. When they gather at family events the three of us - P, Me and The Divine Miss M, become “Les Savoyards”, chiefly on account that we don’t live in Isere, Grenoble being the place of P’s birth and upbringing until he left for his national service in the army. Progress on the costumes had been faster than I expected. P and Miss M work well together. P is the designer and artist who creates his costumes in the most organic of ways. All he required from me were my measurements. He didn’t trust that I had stayed the same over the past four years. He was probably right. What I hadn’t expected was that the costumes were going to be quite so ornate. I should really have known better. I barely had time to shower off the anguish of the journey and consume a bowl of warming soup than I was set to work on my own mask. This time we were using a Columbina design as the basis. Then I had to cut out the shape of the mask from fabric left over from my chemise and sleeves and carefully glue it to the mask. Matching the contours was tricky, but once that was done I could edge the mask with ornate gold trims and start adding shiny gems of costume jewelry. The final addition was to add two layers of fabic to veil my lower face. Once completed I was childishly delighted with the result. While the three costumes were substantially the same they were distingushed mainly by colour. We all had a different main colour. Mine was green.

My mask in progress.

Because I am writing (from his point on) several weeks (no, wait a minute, it's actually months) after the event I am not going to attempt to give a full account. I'll try a share a few pictures to give a flavour of the trip to Venezia and the 2018 carnevale. I shall back date this entry though so that it it falls within a sensible timeline within the context of the blog.

I have so many photographs of the other costumes, but this was a family from Switzerland. Their costumes were beautiful and the children were brilliant and very patient posing for hundreds of photographs, but the little one was SO cold, poor mite!

This gentleman, Philip Von Reutter, is a carnival veteran and well into his seventies. He borrowed the little masked dog from a passing visitor and posed for a few photographs. (edit: Very sadly, Philip passed away in May 2018. For many he characterised the spirit of carnival and will be missed. His costumes were incredibly inventive. I recommend you look for a photograph of his Van Gogh! Oh, okay I'll post one at the end of this essay.)

Philip Von Reuter
These were our day costumes, the ones created by P for this year's carnival. I think Miss M's arms may have been tired by this point. We each had starry, psychedelic banners to hold behind us. The original concept was that they be the walls of a music box out of which we would emerge to do a special dance. I could have predicted we'd be so tight for time on the costumes we'd have no chance to realise the concept properly. As it was, people thought we were celestial beings, and the music box walls became starry banners, not representations of sounds and music! I'd probably have thought the same, so I can't argue.

l-r Marsh, P, The Divine Miss M.
Marsh and P share an intimate moment near the Ponte dei Sospiri.

Nowadays one can only stay costumed and masked for four days. After Shrove Tuesday masks may no longer be worn. In times gone by, though, Venetians stayed masked for six months of the year and got up to all sorts of mischief. Venice had thriving red light areas and customers flocked into the city to take advantage of the city's charms. It was, however, a destination or home for so many gay men that prostitutes complained about the lack of business! In the 1400s the city council was so shocked to discover there were so many gay men not using the facilities provided they paid women to stand on the bridge displaying their breasts as a means of converting these errant souls. Old Whore Street and Tits Bridge are remnants of this unusual municipal facility.  There are no records as to the success of this somewhat inventive plan!

The Tits Bridge end of Old Whore Street
Copping a feel on Tits Bridge

As last time we were able to spend a few days seeing the sights. David took us to see many places we had not seen before including the rooftop terrace of the second largest building in Venice that dates from 1285. Now it is a luxury goods megastore, but it was originally a centre for trade. From the terrace much of Venice is visible.

Kings (or Queens?) on the rooftop terrace of the 800 year old Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the second largest building in Venice.

Given our interests in the mask and costume traditions of the city it was amazing to spend time in the workshop of a traditional family business making papier maché masks. Having made my mask for my carnival costume on a Columbina base in a modern style I wanted to try and decorate a traditionally made mask in a traditional pattern. Taking a plain papier maché Bauta mask as my starting point I borrowed a traditionally decorated mask  and copied the pattern and the colours as best I could. Had we more time it would have been fun to try and incorporate a torn off section of musical notation. I asked about this and there is a story, but I forgot the reason. I'm sure P or David will remember.

Seeing Venice from the water is definitely the best
Last time we came to Venice the only travel on water we did was one trip across the Grand Canal by man-powered traghetto, but mostly we travelled by the motorised vaporetto, the water bus. This time five of us pooled our resources one afternoon and took a trip in a gondola. The skill of the gondolier is staggering. No wonder the training takes five years before one can apply for a licence to trade. Buying a gondola is not cheap either. Got a spare €30k, guv'nor?
Traghetto across the Grand Canal 

Of course Venice has a massive cultural history. Listed in many travel guides as one of the world's "must-see" bookshops the Alta Acqua Libreria fulfils and confounds every expectation and is crowded with visitors. It is stacked from floor to ceiling with (mostly) second-hand books. They are stored according to subject. It also lives up to its name. In case of high water, many of the books are ready piled in a gondola and there are some in enamel bath-tubs too. At the back of the shop is a tiny courtyard and the shop owner has created a staircase from old books. Of course we all had to climb it to see over the wall to the adjacent canal.

The visit was over far too quickly. Eight days is not enough to see everything. It is barely enough to realise that Venice is truly unique in the world and that it is the only city in the world to which I am determined to return. There never has been, nor ever will be again, a place like Venice. Climate change is a very real threat. A month after our visit the Piazza San Marco was nearly waist-deep in water during the Alta Acqua (high tide).

In addition to lots of walking and visits to all kinds of buildings we had seen the works of Titian and and attended a concert of music by Vivaldi. I gave two short performances in the hotel on different evenings. On one of the evenings I sang Referendum Rag. When I got to the harmonica solo, the "Ode To Joy" part, the whole audience sang along - funny, moving and most unexpected. That has never happened when I've sung the song in the UK!

Ciao Venezia

One of Matteo Chinellato's photographs of Philip Von Reuter's Van Gogh

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Of Snows Of The Wrong Kind And Late Night Chairobatics

As I mentioned in the last post (did I really write that?) the day, (now yesterday, do try to keep up) started dramatically enough. Leaping on to trains having already run a marathon between platforms followed by a distressing encounter with a troubled man were just the beginning of what was to prove an exhausting and very stressful day.

The gate to international trains at St Pancras International slid open as I shared the ticket in the Wallet application on my mobile phone admitting me to that holy sepulchre, security. Suitcase, backpack, bumbag, water bottle, coat and hat in large trays were treated to x-ray zapping. None of the nonsense of removing computers, tablets, e-readers, belts, shoes and anything else that conflicts with the rules du jour that afflict air travellers (or visitors to Parliament ... ah, you don't know about that yet, I must get round to bringing you up to date with my recent January - you will need to know about harmonicas and padlocks!). Two border control people fought for my attention at adjacent desks. I apologised to the one I had rejected and he graciously accepted my expression of regret. Another helper was available to aid me with inserting my passport the correct way round in the e-passport gate and there I was, in Valhalla - the international rail departure lounge at St Pancras. I had made the journey in plenty of time. I love it when plans actually work out. It so rarely happens. First stop, breakfast. Much lighter in the wallet later I had stocked up on more than enough goods to get me on to the train and through the three-hour journey to Paris. I may not be vegan, but I do try to select vegan food options when available. As usual at railway stations, there were none. After a short wait during which I began to write up my stingingly fresh memory of the distressed man we were called to board our train, which also proved to be painless enough. As we were boarding I caught part of the announcement that seemed to suggest there would be a twenty-minute delay getting into Paris, but no one else was listening and no one seemed to be making a fuss above their ambient chatter that had partially blocked the message, so I let it go too. The train left on time and I was looking forward to a stress-free trip from Paris Nord to Gare de Lyon on the RER, two stops only - the order of the day. I think I have now memorised the route from platform to platform, de quai à quai, and I had tickets left from the carnet I bought on a previous adventure. There would be no queuing necessary at a ticket office or behind one of the (usually few) working ticket machines at Paris Nord.

A little snow in Northern France 

I tried reading, but having had even less sleep than usual, I couldn't keep it going. I am currently reading Judy Dyble's autobiography written in partnership with Dave Thompson and really wanted to get past the obligatory childhood memories and on to her time as a performing musician. I dozed. I came to in the blackness of the Chunnel and dozed some more. The countryside of Northern France sped by. A sign on the screen in our part of the carriage pointed out that Eurostar had hit a record 346.7 mph at some point in the past. I wanted to fire up the speedometer application on my phone to see how fast we were travelling at that moment, but resisted, knowing I would need to conserve battery life for later in the day. The fields were beginning to look whiter. At first I couldn't make out if this whiteness were frost, snow or lime spread in anticipation of a specific crop. Soon it became apparent that this was snow. A few inches of the stuff were piling up on branches drooping under the weight as we rolled by. All was going well with the journey and the sign on the screen informed us we would soon be arriving at Paris Gare du Nord. Then we stopped. We didn't move for quite a while. We edged forward and stopped again. The disembodied voice from on high informed us we would be arriving fifty minutes late, because the snow had meant there were three trains ahead of us waiting to pull into the station. We were in a train jam! It appears that the French rail system also is prone to suffer the effects of the wrong kind of snow. After much more edging forward and stopping we eventually arrived at the station two hours late and it was clear I was going to miss my connection to Geneva. Half-an-hour should have been sufficient time to get me between these two Paris main stations and I had timed my journey to leave two hours. On this occasion it wasn't enough. 

Rather more snow in Northern France

I have often underestimated how much a difference in style makes in understanding helpful notices between the UK and France. For example, in England a direction sign with a down arrow suggests a descent to a lower level. In France it means go straight ahead (notified in the UK by an up-arrow).  On the tube in London, all stations are listed as destination options at the entrance to a pedestrian tunnel, staircase or platform. Nothing of the kind seems to exist in France. One just seems expected to know that a train heading for Malesherbes or Melun will stop at the major gateway to the south, Gare de Lyon, in two stops. I think I have cracked this one now and  - probably for the first time - I found Quai 44, the home for southbound trains on the green RER ligne D without any wrong turns. However, there was still nothing really obvious confirming that my destination was possible. This was further confused by the apparent introduction of trains from Ligne B on to this track. The overhead electronic destination board was listing places with which I was not familiar and Gare de Lyon featured in none of the information. I checked with a woman in my broken Français and I understood that what I was now expecting was correct, namely that not this train, but the next one, should be my train of choice. It was. The first train pulled in and it was at this point that I discovered that even French people get confused with their own system.   The woman turned to me and said something I didn't understand and I smiled gormlessly in acknowledgement. She gave up after a few attempts to help me understand something. Then amongst a little gang of men on the platform a cry went up. Does this train go to Gare de Lyon? It doesn't, okay. It does? It does! One of the men leapt on the train and I followed in what used to be called hot pursuit. Once on the train I looked at the route map. There above the door in its full green glory was the route for Ligne D. The destination I hadn't recognised was a tributary of the main line and the only way to that destination was via Gare de Lyon, two stops down! Aaagh! I am never going to understand this. My map of the Paris Métro and RER system stops short of the tributary and so, of course, I had never seen it on the plan. Once again, and for the second time in the day, railway destination boards proved unhelpful. 

I arrived at Gare de Lyon about ten minutes after my connection to Geneva had been due to leave. I considered the possibility that my next train had been delayed too and that I would still be able to catch it, but of course today was not going to be that day. I looked on the overhead information boards and there was no sign of any train leaving for Geneva, on time, running late or at any time in the foreseeable future. What if the train I had booked on to was the last of the day? It took me a further twenty minutes of drifting between Halls 1, 2 and 3 to find help. I found a man in his smart SNCF uniform who was loitering in the lobby and answering the questions of the stranded and delayed. Every answer seemed to initiate the immediate flight from his spot to a distant part of the hall with the hapless passenger in pursuit. I joined the game and once again failed to crack a French code. This one probably explained why railway station staff in uniforms only answer questions from people who interrupt a previous passenger requiring another migration with a flock of the confused in tow. After a while I had been his acolyte for longer than anyone else and was still being ignored every time I moved into his direct line of vision and opened my mouth to speak. That was the point at which I gave up and looked for another solution. Eventually I found the ticket office in a hitherto hidden corridor between Halls 1 and 2 and decided that enlightenment lay somewhere near at hand. The queue leading from the door was horrendous. It was being marshalled by barrier straps while the entrance to the ticket office itself was staffed by bouncers. No one was allowed through unless they had queued for at least half-an-hour, unless for some unfathomable reason the bouncers decided it was your turn to sidle up to the exit lane and push through to the inside - another French code I have yet to break. This queue was at least as long as the queues I had often encountered at ticket machines on the Paris underground during strikes and public holidays, when most of the machines had already given up in despair and actual ticket offices with real people were closed. It was also growing longer by the second. I turned to the woman behind me and asked as best I could if this was the right place to come as I had missed my connection. She answered in the affirmative helpfully filling in my halting French with random words in English. So I waited … a very … long … time. Finally being beckoned into the ticket office foyer I was greeted by a charming and smiling woman in SNCF colours who looked at my home-printed ticket and led me to a machine that dispensed tickets with numbers. This is France after all. My number was I39043. The foyer was festooned with more overhead display screens. It was overhead display screen heaven. I worked out that my ticket number would appear in a left-hand column and the desk at which I was to present myself for assistance would be in a corresponding right-hand column. I learned a new word, guichet (n. m. - a window in a post-office, bank or some other administrative office through which one speaks to an employee). Once again I was confused by the customs associated with this form of queuing. While waiting for my ticket number (I39043, remember) to hit the display I had to experience a somewhat abstract arrangement of letters and numbers first. Ticket number A61230 would be followed by, say J11275 and then a sequence of I numbers, except for mine. It took me a while to discern that the newest number appeared at the top of the screen and eventually disappeared altogether from view after it had dropped to Number Six in the chart. I did not even begin to work out what happened if one missed a turn. My eyes stayed glued to the screen. After another half-hour I was summoned to guichet dix-huit. I handed my ticket to the gentleman at the desk and explained as best I could my quandary. He tapped at his computer keyboard and I had to wonder if I should trail behind when he leapt up from behind his desk and hurtled out amongst the throng to speak to the woman who had allotted me my ticket number. I stayed and awaited his return. I assumed his return was as near to inevitable as dammit. He did indeed come back to his desk and he could not have been more helpful. He changed my booking to the 15.15 train and didn’t even charge me for another ticket. I had been fearful that I would be expected to cough up another €90, because French rail staff are generally rather keen for passengers to travel only on their allotted train and only in their allotted seats. Booking websites are equally keen to point out that tickets are not transferable. I needn’t have worried. The experience from here onwards was actually rather painless, barring the inevitable wait for my next train.

A little south of Paris the snow disappeared altogether. It appears that the snow that had caused so much chaos was in reality a narrow belt stretching from the west coast to the German border. Once in Switzerland I knew my way. I could almost do that bit blindfolded. It took me longer to pick out the Swiss francs in my change to buy my ticket from the ticket machine for the 61 bus back across the border into France. Having arrived at knocking-off time I had to stand for the whole journey. Arriving at my destination in the town centre left me with just the fifteen-minute walk to P’s apartment. 

When I opened the door the sewing machine was throbbing and production was in full flow. The Divine Miss M was brandishing gold-threaded braid and asking me how much I wanted to be able to tie up my new cape. P immediately had me balancing on a chair so he could pin up the pantaloons he had made me. I was so exhausted that I was seriously afraid of not being able to keep my balance. Breaking a leg at this stage would be most inconvenient. Tomorrow night we leave for Venice. Carnival awaits.

Work in progress - The Divine Miss M
Work in progress - P modelling my outfit so far