Friday, 17 November 2017

Of Non-Days & Songs That Are Out Of Control

Have you ever had one of those days that were full of good intentions and by the end of it you realise you had achieved very little? This could turn out to be one of those days if I don't do something productive soon. Hence this non-post.

I suppose I could credit among today's achievements the couple of hours I spent writing to someone I have never met who is really struggling to cope with her tinnitus; the glockenspiel practice I spent time on, so I'd be ready for percussion lessons I'm teaching tomorrow for a friend who is in America for three weeks; the processing I've been doing about a song I've been working on that will probably have to undergo a massive dose of therapy itself if I am to avoid trouble down the line ...

Songs can be uncontrollable children and this one certainly has been. I've mentioned in other posts that I find writing lyrics difficult, but I have read and heard many times the smug adage that many of the best-known songs have arrived fully-formed and that one should stop tinkering with them and get them finished, learned and shared and that, anyway, the best songs are always the ones you don't mess around with too much. That don't impress me much! I don't know if I shall ever experience such a pleasure or even that I actually agree with it. I do a lot of editing - sometimes over days, weeks, months or, in the case of a couple of songs, years - to make my words say exactly what I mean them to say. Perhaps it is a case of writing, writing, writing and occasionally the subconscious yields a gift as some sort of reward. I don't think I've written in sufficient quantity recently to merit that, although I have spent at least a couple hours most days practising and rehearsing. I don't know how people find the resources both to write and to practise. They require completely different frames of mind. Perhaps this non-post is an address to that very problem.

The most difficult bit for me is finding a subject sufficiently engaging that a song demands to be written - I put it down to my unprofessionalism and lack of imagination. I think this is one of the reasons I love Richard Thompson's songs so much. He seems so prolific and has covered a lot of subjects in his songs. He never seems short of places ito start. If he doesn't have an angry relationship situation to set down in a tear-stained song he'll imagine one, or he'll write about a motorbike, a lost love, a race horse, a Victorian beggar girl, an abused child, a night on the town, a fantasy wedding ... hell, he even managed to write a song about Sting! 

The lyrics of my new song appeared in a first draft quite quickly a couple of days ago at about three o'clock in the morning. By six a.m. I'd written three verses and a substantial chorus with a bridge. I'd even had ideas for the melodies for the bridge and the chorus that I noted down in my manuscript book. I'm trusting that whatever melody I compose for the verses will arrive at some point when I sit down with the intention of doing some work on it. However, the lyrics ... they are fierce and angry and, while that's not normally a problem, this time it is. I don't know whether that anger is justified or where it should be directed - which is just another way of avoiding admitting that I really need to look in the mirror. I have directed my anger at someone who didn't deserve it while I was being a prima donna. I let a personality glitch spill into the professional attitude of which I am so proud.

Have you ever met someone who was probably full of good intentions and they simply rubbed your ego up the wrong way? This was a case of that. I perceived a request being made, I offered a solution, the solution was rejected, I took it personally and the ointment I applied to my thin and bruised ego was to stop talking and retreat into my metaphorical ivory tower. Without giving too much away I talked it over briefly with the wise bass player last evening and I'm glad we found time for that brief exchange as he was preparing for a gig with his own band. Now I have to discipline my delinquent song. I've been thinking of ways to do that. Pity really, I did come up with some first-rate bitching!  

Notebooks and pencil on the bed and at the ready.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Of The Pleasure Of Small Gestures

Did I tell you about the early concerts I attended? They were life-changing events in that they are still with me fifty years later. I'm sixty-two and I feel myself slipping into life as one of those older people who loves to share stories of earlier years. If I find them so fascinatingly memorable, why doesn't everyone? In 1967, the so-called summer of love, I was one of the many swept up in, amongst other things, Monkeemania. There was something so appropriately sunny about the music, even when the subject matter was slightly daft ("Your Auntie Griselda"?), somewhat improbable ("Saturday's Child"?) or even downright stupid ("Look Out [Here Comes Tomorrow]"!). I enjoyed the weekly antics on the television show and bought the first three albums - Meet The Monkees, More Of The Monkees and Headquarters - as soon as they came out. I went to their show at the Empire Pool in Wembley, dressed in my Sunday suit, and experienced the grip of mass hysteria as I stood up on my seat and screamed like all the girls were doing. My mother, could only sit next to me in horror and amazement.  By the time we got to  "Piscces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Limited" and "The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees" my attention had moved elsewhere. My interest was raised again with "Head", but the relationship was never quite the same. That show was opened by Lulu. She was sunny, bubbly and totally inaudible, but I decided I loved her too. I bought several of her singles.

I had begun to devour the weekly music press at the age of twelve, starting with Disc & Music Echo, while John Peel had become my guru on the radio. I had listened to him on the independent radio ship, Radio London, and had reluctantly followed him to the BBC and their new venture, Radio 1. While never quite being able to forgive him for taking Auntie's shilling he did still play the most interesting music. He played Tyrannosaurus Rex every week and they became the next object of my adulation. Again I bought the first three albums the moment they were released. I had pestered the poor man behind the counter at the local Rumbelow's for weeks leading to the release of "My People Were Fair And Had Sky In Their Hair, But Now They're Content To Wear Stars On Their Brows" and I bought Marc Bolan's book of poems, "The Warlock Of Love", with similar haste. I was devastated when Steve Peregine Took left. He was my favourite - it wasn't just the long hair, the cloak and the percussion, but he added those strange and beautiful vocalisations to the songs. I was horrified when, in 1970, Jeff Dexter played "Ride A White Swan" over and over and over again at the Third Isle Of Wight Festival. I wasn't aware of the controversy caused by Bob Dylan's expansion into electric expression at the time, but I think I felt betrayed in the same way as John Cordwell who shouted, "Judas!" during the second half of the concert at The Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 17th May 1966. From that moment my relationship with Tyrannosaurus Rex was severed. I had been prepared to give the new man, Mickey Finn, a try but every further move into commercialism (including the unconscionable shortening of a great band name) distanced me more from the band.

At the height of my affection for Tyrannosaurus Rex, though, I begged my parents to let me go and see them play live. Obviously it was not feasible for a thirteen year-old to be allowed to attend one of the all-night gigs at Middle Earth in London that were the tofu of many legends in those days, but when the Babylonian Mouthpiece Show was organised at the Royal Festival Hall 3rd June 1968, my mum and dad relented and bought tickets for the whole family to attend.

This isn't my ticket, but wasn't far from where I sat.
The evening opened with Stefan Grossman. I seem to remember him singing the line, "Delia, I wanna steal ya", which made an impression on a young man who had yet to write his first song and a whole year before I plucked my first guitar string. After his set was David Bowie, who didn't sing a note that night. Instead, he danced/mimed his way through a story about a village being invaded by an army, I think. I could look this up, because someone is bound to know. I do remember this was the time of discontent over US involvement in Vietnam and at one point Bowie was heckled by a man with an American accent. Tyrannosaurus Rex were the final act of the evening and of course they were wonderful, but I was actually most taken by seeing Roy Harper play for the first time of what was to become many times. His second album, "Come Out Fighting, Ghengis Smith" had just been released and he was also singing songs from "Folkjokeopus", which wouldn't be released for a while to come.I remember my father laughing at a line in "She's The One" and my mother giving him a disapproving look. Roy Harper had mentioned "pants" - shocking. My two younger brothers slept through it all - pity, they'd have thought it very naughty and a lot of fun. I bought "Ghengis" within days of attending that concert and I played it almost literally to death. I made the mistake of using a brand of so-called record cleaner on it. This imbued the music with a hiss which over months became a storm of noise on the record that gradually obliterated the music altogether. I've kept the album, but it has been unlistenable for decades. From time to time I looked for a replacement in whatever format I could find, but nothing seemed available.

Recently I stumbled across Roy Harper's website. He seems to have most of the licenses to his recordings and is able to offer them as downloads. I jumped at the chance of buying a download copy of "Come Out Fighting, Ghengis Smith" and getting my ears wrapped around the title track that has been such an important influence on the way I make music now, or the mysterious "Highgate Cemetery", the doped up, "You Don't Need Money" and the extraordinary "Circle". Although my own parents never put me under the same pressure as the parents of the schoolboy in the song I identified very strongly with the protagonist - victim status has been fashionable for a very long time. As I was downloading the album and one or two others that caught my eye I also saw a hardback version of a book of Roy Harper's lyrics, photographs and recollections, "The Passions Of Great Fortune". I bought that too. I sent an e-mail message to the web-site sharing something of what I have written here. I didn't know if Roy Harper saw the e-mails that were directed to his site. A few days later a heavy package arrived from Ireland. It was my book. Indeed it is a beautiful volume and it was great to have the lyrics of most of the words in one place. As I opened it I came to the title page and there in thick black pen was a personal message from Roy Harper addressed to me and thanking me for my recollections. I cannot say just how much I was touched by this simple and thoughtful gesture. It's a lesson many could learn and a reminder to myself to try and be nice to people.

A couple of weeks ago I went to Norwich to see (and this time hear) Lulu in concert. She was, of course, superb. She has one of the finest rock voices this land has ever produced and, maybe I'm just an old softy, but I did find it very moving that she has only recently found her own voice as a songwriter along with the confidence to sing her own songs. I bought a signed copy of her cd of those songs. I do find great satisfaction in completing previously unfinished business, even if it takes me fifty years.

Of Right Times and Right Places

Any passing reader may be aware that my way of living is different from that of many. One of the consequences of living both in the Fens and the Alps is the probability that I shall be in an inconveniently distant location at any given time. Wrong place, wrong time could be on my coat of arms.   However, occasionally things come together in a most extraordinary way. Take a weekend earlier this year, for example. I had plans - some work, some play, lots of playing. Two days before a paid job, a social ceilidh in a village in the East Midlands, the gig was cancelled. I hadn't organised it.  Friends were playing as a scratch band, although we all play regularly in a number of combinations, we all take on the fixing and admin roles differently. Some like the clarity of a contract, others are more comfortable with a telephone call or a handshake. I tend towards the former. The fixer on this occasion seemed inclined to the latter. This meant that no cancellation arrangements were in place, including any arrangements for paying cancellation fees. In any life the loss of work at such short notice leaves little opportunity for replacing it, which is a bother. Just saying though that if you choose to renege on one of my contracts I will hunt you down ... On this occasion the evening wasn't entirely wasted. The bass player normally hosts an open mic evening on the first Friday of the month. The sudden hole in the calendar allowed him to undertake his hosting duties and gave me an audience for some Marshlander-style musical agitation.

After a rehearsal with a quintet led by my composer friend, Jane, in the morning, Saturday's plan was to take up an invitation to John's (a storyteller friend) birthday party. He had attained seventy years of age the previous weekend, but his work as a professional storyteller and poet had engaged him elsewhere. The party was at The Steamboat, apparently a well-known pub on the dockside in Ipswich. I would like to be able to say I like Ipswich. I'm sure it has a grand history, beautiful buildings, an engaged community and a thriving cultural scene, but I have not been there often enough to find any of these things. Coming from Norfolk I do know that my presence is not aways welcome among local football fans.

Ipswich does have a musical history though. Pretty much every touring band once played at the Odeon, later the Gaumont and now the Regent, but I have no idea if that is still the case. I'm talking about days when bands like the Small Faces and Pinkerton's Assorted Colours played in Heacham, in Norfolk, or when The Jimi Hendrix Experience rocked the Wellington Club in Dereham or The Rolling Stones, Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent played in Wisbech ... although I am sure the Ipswich venue was used beyond 1965.

Much of the area around the River Orwell in Ipswich is now given over to parking space, except that none of it is neither open to members of the public nor to casual visitors, such as I was that day. The effect of swathes of grey concrete fenced in behind chain-link or more substantial security fencing is to give the dock area the appearance of a town in distress, one deciding whether or not to recover from a war once it can raise some money. It was also frustrating to have found the pub, and see acres of parking all of which was inaccessible. On street parking near the pub was, quite naturally, full. I found a space outside a modern block of flats and reluctantly abandoned the van there. It wasn't clear whether parking was allowed, but there were other vehicles there already.

John, the celebrating storyteller, was at the bar and effusive in his welcome as I crept through the door to the saloon. Other guests were already present and I was introduced to members of his tribe. A small p.a. was set up and it appeared the festivities were going to take on a participatory element at some point. Having my guitar and footdrums in the van I offered my services which were accepted. That necessitated a twenty-minute round trek back to the van. I was relieved to find it still there and the instruments still inside. How nice, though, to be able to repay the pleasure I have received over many years working with John on various projects by sharing some of my creative efforts with him for a change. He seemed surprised as I suppose we might all be when we find that someone has another life outside any hole into which we have pigeoned them.

Sunday was another day. I had planned to meet Jane in Cromer. She and her artist partner, Bob, moved there recently and this happened to be also the weekend of Folk On The Pier, a folk festival in Cromer celebrating its wooden anniversary. As it happened another friend, Richard Penguin, was hosting a weekend of "Teatime Showcase" events and I arranged to meet Jane at the Cromer Social Club to enjoy the last of these. Walking into the Social Club all was not well. Richard was looking concerned and it transpired that the opening act was stuck on a bus between Cromer and Norwich and wouldn't be due to arrive until well after his set was due to start. That was a shock. I had no idea there would be a bus between Cromer and Norwich on a Sunday evening. Although I suppose I shouldn't have been, I was also surprised to find I had worked with most of the people on the programme in some capacity or other over the past thirty years. I had worked with the classes of the ex-teachers, and even in the same band as some of the performers. They didn't make it easy to predict that we would have previous connections since they had changed their real names to more innocent-sounding folksinger names - like I can complain about that! Seeing Richard's quandary I once more offered my services. Although he is a promotor, performer, radio show host, writer and raconteur, Richard didn't really know me as Marshlander - one man acoustic band and songwriter. Once again it was fun to subvert someone else's filing system. In fact he was so delighted he asked for an encore and publicly offered an invitation for a full set at next year's Teatime Showcase. 

So while I may spend a great deal of my time being in the wrong place, it is fun to enjoy an occasional weekend such as this where the stars align and form pretty patterns.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Of Blobs, Scratches And Other Musical Deviations

I'm in the process of writing up a new song, "Vote For Them". So far I'm working on a fourth tune for the song ... the others turned out to be unsatisfactory for one reason or another. This one has promise and will probably end up being the one. This has been the first song I've written up using the new score writing program, Dorico. Until a couple of weeks ago it couldn't handle writing chord symbols, so wasn't much use to to me, but now ... 
Since the 1980s I have used computer programs for writing out my scores - my handwriting being illegible and the ease of being able to print copies as required being really handy. If I go back through my notebooks I can find scores printed out from Steinberg's Pro-24, C-Lab's Notator, Logic (from C-Lab days, through the company's metamorphosis into E-Magic and on to being sold to Apple), Hybrid Arts' very neat and barely known program, EZ Score, Steinberg's Cubase (even in its early form when it was called "Cubit" or "Cuboid" or some such) and others I've forgotten. There was one called something like Music 24, which looked great as a sequencer, was on show at very loud volumes at all the trade shows for a time, was purchased by many schools in Essex and which crashed every time I fired it up to have another go at trying to use it. At least the idiosyncratic Hybrid Technology Music 5000 system didn't pretend to offer score writing ... although wasn't there a Yamaha connection at some stage or am I thinking of something else? I remember dongles and cartridges being involved with a special Yamaha keyboard and a monitor with a blue screen?
Eventually I needed something with more functionality and better-looking scores and Finale seemed to be the industry standard solution. It turned out to be a musician's nightmare. Enduring the horrors of Finale for too long and having to work on each project with its five manuals (!) always on hand, I switched to Sibelius, which had, after some years, finally reached a level of functionality (not to mention its eventual migration beyond the Acorn environment!) that satisfied me. I have been using Sibelius as my score writing program of choice for twenty years or so.
Yesterday I gave the latest version of Steinberg's new dedicated score writing software, Dorico, a trial run. I tried it a few weeks ago, but abandoned the project and had to go back to Sibelius, because I need certain functions which weren't in Dorico until a couple of weeks ago. Yesterday, though, I discovered that using Dorico for writing lyrics and chord symbols in particular is rather elegant. Now if I can get used to inputting notes the Dorico way it may soon be time to consign Sibelius to the "thanks for the memory" tray (Sibelius stopped being fun the moment it was sold to Avid anyway - and I refused as a matter of principle to upgrade to the subscription version, Sibelius 8).
Some of you may know that when Avid bought out Sibelius one of their first actions was to sack the team that built it and lose the vision that drove the program. Steinberg brought those gifted people back together a few years ago with a view to producing the new score writing software from scratch. I've never been a big fan of Steinberg in the past, but things sometimes change ...
Naturally there going to be things I don't like about Dorico, but that may just be down to being unfamiliar with the environment. Having to switch tools to perform certain functions seems a retrograde move, although the experience is nowhere near as awful as my encounters with Finale. A manual, specially one of the quality of Sibelius, would be a very welcome development, and plans are afoot for that. Yes, the online video tutorials are pretty good, but looking up something in a handy manual is much quicker and interrupts the work less. A manual also allows me to save some of my precious monthly data allowance for watching cat videos (only kidding!). I'm also not at all convinced, that editing note pitches in Dorico should require two key presses (Alt+up/down arrow when Sibelius just uses the much more logical up and down arrows), but that may be something I can configure within the program options ... (Edit: I have just reconfigured this in the Preferences window and can now alter pitches by using the up and down arrows <happy dance>) Importantly for me, Dorico does not yet have the functionality to write percussion parts properly, which is necessary for several projects, but this is promised in an early future upgrade. I can see myself migrating fully over to Dorico as the functions improve.
I am not sponsored by anyone (although I could be tempted with the right offer ... ) so this little essay is completely independent of thoughts other than my own perspectives and prejudice. However I'm going to go out on a limb and point out that there is a time-limited trial version of Dorico available, if this kind of thing interests you. It has only taken thirty-plus years for version 1.1 of a score writing program to be usable without total loss of hair. Just as well, since I have little more to lose. The portents seem quite positive at the moment.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Of New Ways To Get There

A few days ago ....

"I'm on the Eurostar heading south through France. I have just used my phone to book a rail ticket from Lyon to Bellegarde-sur-Valserine for the next part of my journey. Received wisdom is that rail travel is much better in France. It is great if you happen to want to go to one of the main destinations. Experience has proven that reality does not always match the myth on more local services (one six-hour journey on four trains for a ninety mile trip that takes ninety minutes by car comes to mind). This Eurostar and the TGV are very fast and efficient. I still can't get my head round the notion of having to book a seat on a specific train, even for local journeys, though. Miss that train and one loses the money. I'm sure there are probably more open options, but I'm not sure what they are.

I have made the journey between The Fens and Haute-Savoie most months for nearly fifteen years and today is the first time I have done it using the train. I will usually tell anyone that adventure is over-rated, but I have been looking forward to this trip for weeks and now it is happening it is exceeding all expectations ... mind you, I do have a few hours to go yet.

 I have always hated the whole flying experience, but I have endured it all this time because it has been significantly cheaper than the train when I am going to stay with P. First of all I hate the notion of leaving a huge carbon footprint every time I fly. I hate airports, airport security, being separated from my personal belongings (potentially permanently), all the hanging around, the marketing, the airport as shopping mall, the crush, the queuing, the pushing-in, the noise, the resentment of one's fellow travellers, the squashed knees in seats too close together, the reclining seats, the recycled air, the effect I find an hour and a half spent in a pressurised tube a mile up in the air has on me for days afterwards, turbulence, bored children and exhausted parents, children screaming in pain through changes in pressure on their ears and sinuses, the passenger next to you who throws up, the one behind who coughs and splutters over the back of your head the whole journey, not being able to see where you are, where you are going or where you have been, motion sickness ... I'm sure I could go on.

Today's experience, though,  has been a revelation. I've been staying with an old school friend for a few days while I have had things to do in London. I cannot dispute the convenience of being "in town". The transport infrastructure is very easy. Just load up the Oyster Card and go. It took me only half an hour to get from West Hampstead to Tate Britain yesterday. The horror of being crowded in on tube trains and jostled for pavement space in the streets does tend to take something away from the pleasure of convenience though. Standing crushed in a rush-hour tube to get to Notting Hill for a seminar on Thursday was horrible. I began to see the human species as a virus. We fill spaces and crowd out everything else. People piled on people. Like a virus we multiply until we kill the host that supports us. I feel contaminated and grubby by just being in London. I have never felt any pride through having been born there, lived there or worked there. For me, the best part of a visit to London has always been the train journey home when we pass through Ely and I can see real sky and water again!

Today's train trip was made possible through the introduction of a new rail service to the south of France. I'm on the train bound for Marseille, but I'm getting off at the first stop, Lyon Part Dieu. For some reason this service is much cheaper than previous rail journeys to France that I have researched many times over the years. I have been very keen to use the train, but have never been able to afford it. EasyJet flights have generally been at least a quarter of the price of travelling by rail. Of course flying has enabled the relationship that P and I have enjoyed this long to flourish, but I resented being backed into the flying corner.  I found the Eurostar experience to be pretty much the opposite of everything I hate about flying. Even security was painless. Border inspections were rather charming in contrast with airport border control. Once in the "departure lounge" I wasn't hassled to spend money. Caffè Nero and W.H. Smith were my choices. I opted to breakfast at the former.  The very fact that I am sitting in a double seat on the train and typing this is also an unexpected bonus. I opted for a standard 2nd class; extra legroom would have been another £40+, so I thought I would take a chance. Standard seating is painful on easyJet, but was perfectly adequate on Eurostar. As we whispered out of the Channel Tunnel (does anyone still call it "The Chunnel"?) and into France we picked up speed and when I checked the speedometer app on my phone we were flying along the track at 185mph. I had no idea we were going that fast and I could still type. Compared with the twelve minute waltzer ride on the single track section of railway line out of Littleport this was so smooth. It was also quite wonderful to be able to look out of the widow and pass small fields with trees and hedges. It is not until I see such things again at close quarters that I remember how our countryside used to look when I was a child.

I thought again about how I was going to manage the next part of the journey from Lyon to Bellegarde where P was going to meet me in the car. I thought I would see if I could find another app to help. The Trainline Europe app gave me details of times and an option to buy my ticket. I downloaded the app and as already mentioned bought the ticket for the next part of my journey all while travelling south to Lyon. Trainline Europe helpfully informed me that if I waited two and a half hours I could catch a final segment of the Nice to Geneva TGV Lyria which stopped at Bellegarde before it finished its journey in Geneva."

Lyon Part Dieu was the first stop after Ashurst in Kent. That in itself was pretty amazing. What was distinctly less amazing was the number of ways one may be hassled in a French railway station. Having a good couple of hours before my connection to Bellegarde I thought a sandwich and a wander around this city I have enjoyed a few times over the years would be quite in order. Immediately I set foot outside the station exit I was besieged by people wanting money. One wanted to sell me a newspaper, another - a woman in a headscarf wielding a baby in a pushchair and wearing her most pathetic and imploring expression - was repeating the same phrase over and over, although I didn't get what she was saying. The first time I ever visited Lyon was with P. We saw a number of women who brought, or sent, their children out on to the streets to beg for money. This woman was dressed the same. She kept pointing at the pushchair that she was clutching with her left hand and rolling back and forward as she repeated her words. She had the carriage turned away from me and I wondered if she actually had a child inside. It could have been the week's shopping for all I knew. I never know what to do under these circumstances and she could see my weakness. Whether what she saw was born out of desperation or professional expertise I couldn't make out. I gave her a two Euro coin and fled back into the relative sanctuary of the station building. A trip into the city, hauling thirty-five kilogrammes of luggage - i.e. the things I'd needed for three days in London, assorted computery equipment on my back and a lot of stuff for P. - was never going to be an option at the sort of speed I would require to reach escape velocity. Once inside the station, though, security was on hand to eject anyone soliciting money or favour. That did not prevent a young woman stopping me in my wandering and thrusting a clipboard into my face demanding that I sign whatever it was. This was far easier to reject. I've been hassled by far more professional clipboarders and chuggers on the streets of Manhattan and turned them down when they thought it appropriate to request my bank account details in lieu of cash. I had no intention of entertaining this pushy young woman. I may be a mug for pathos, but over-confidence is not in the least attractive. The next time I saw her she was screaming at a security man as he was ejecting her from the station. Clearly this scene was re-enacted many times daily. I saw her again on my return journey some days later.  

A few days later ...

"I am now on the return journey and, with P in school this morning I have had to undertake the whole trip by train this time. Fortunately P's apartment is only a fifteen minute walk along one street from the station. It's the one that passes through where our little cherry orchard used to be before the trees were uprooted and more apartment buildings grown in their place. I left plenty of time to get there and took a very leisurely stroll down the road.

La gare au bout de notre rue

I did not wish to spend the rest of the day in sweaty clothes. I am looking at six trains to get back to where I left my van over a week ago, on the front drive of a friend in Norfolk. I left P's apartment at 10:36 and I am expecting to arrive home by about 11pm. Long day ahead. The first train was a Rhône-Alpes TER back to Bellegarde.

The new Trainline Europe App on my phone informed me that I would need to get the train from Bellegarde to Lyon from Quai E. Excellent.

Bellegarde has always been a very quiet place whenever I've been there, but today something was going on; it was serious, for sure. Making my way to the end of the platform where train one deposited me there was a bottleneck at the entrance to the slope leading to the underpass between platforms. As I approached some people were being stopped by uniformed militia wielding automatic weapons. I saw a couple of armed police at Lyon on my journey in, but this time there were seven men and women in khaki military camouflage uniforms wielding automatic weaponry protecting the several uniformed police officers who, in turn, were watching over the rail staff checking tickets. I have never seen anything quite like it, specially in such a small and usually quiet town. I slipped through without showing any papers. I was clearly not needed today.  I found my platform for the next train due in six minutes.

I noticed that the next train went through to Lyon Perrache so I had to remember to descend at Part Dieu - no falling asleep allowed. The carriage itself was a delight - old fashioned compartments! I haven't been on a train with compartments for many decades and now I had a whole one, with its eight seats, to myself. I like this.  I am reminded of much loved books from childhood - Emile and the Detectives, The Railway Children - and a very personable controlleur has just been through and scribbled on my ticket (that would have to be a scene from a much more recent story!).

The journey passes along valleys and cuttings with steep wooded mountains towering above us on both sides before flattening out as we approach Lyon. I know we must be near because we are running alongside the Rhône which, as always, is its distinctive chalky green colour. We cross the river before we arrive in the city at Part Dieu station. I make my way along the carriage to an exit door and stand back so someone else can deal with the handle. All train handles are different and I am in mind of the embarrassment I felt when I could not get out of a Swiss train. Handles that push up, push down, turn clockwise or anti, automatic doors or buttons to find and press. I prefer someone else to deal with the door rather than cause a queue of passengers impatient to escape the train. Horror or horrors, though. I have chosen the wrong side and I have to open the door! This one seems to have a turny handle, like the crank handle on the Lister Engine I had on my first boat, Loretta. It looks like there is a choice of two directions in which to turn the handle. Naturally I choose the wrong one first and nothing happens. Of course getting the door to unlatch is only the first challenge on attempting to alight a train. What happens next is usually just as confusing. In this case I get the door open halfway and it took me a moment to work out what indeed ought to happen next. The platform was a few feet below me and I think I was trying to get some steps to unfold which also involved folding the door back into the frame. Eventually I half-fell off the train followed by a stream of passengers alighting as elegantly as you like. I made my way along the platform and down more steps into the main concourse of la Gare de Lyon Part Dieu. Food outlets and shoe shops. It was lunch time. I walked up and down and the queues were very long everywhere, except for in the shoe shops. There is no way I was going to attempt exiting through Sortie Porte Rhône again. I could see chuggers, beggars and any number of people desperate to ask me for something. I went to the food kiosk where I had bought a nice filled baguette on my journey in. When I eventually arrived at the front of the queue I asked whether they had quelquechose vegetarien. No, nothing today, I was informed. Oh must be just on Saturday afternoons then! The man behind the counter pointed across the concourse at La Croissanterie. There was a short queue there this time, so I waited my turn while squinting at the tiny labels to see if I could determine what was in each filled delicacy. I failed and resolved to try out my French again in order to ask. Somehow my place in the queue became usurped by at least four people behind me, but eventually I was served. The vegetarian option today turned out to be a baguette filled with goat's cheese and apricot. Mmmm! Not something I would have thought of myself, but it was rather delicious.

Naturally my journey could never have all been roses! The first challenge once on the Lyon to Paris TGV was to find the correct carriage. Then I had to find my seat. The seat I thought must have been mine was already occupied, so I was obliged to ask an earnest and amorous young man to move away from the young lady he was engaging in conversation. He wanted to swap seats with me. I was quite happy with the one I had been assigned. It was facing forward and there weren't any others available. His would have been facing the wrong way.  The trip from Lyon to Paris Gare de Lyon found me sitting beside the young woman who was carrying some kind of document or art folder that she put on the floor by her feet. It spread halfway across my leg space. Being a double-decker train, the over seat rack space was very narrow and very limited, barely wide enough for a coat so my back pack also had to sit on the floor. Normally this would not have been a problem and I would have placed a foot either side of my bag. However, I discovered her artistic proclivities after I reclaimed my seat from her young male would-be suitor and spent the couple of hours trying to get comfortable, which probably didn't help the painful pulled muscle in my lower back that I had been not particularly stoic about for the past few weeks.

Arriving at Paris confirmed that the French have a cavalier attitude to vegetarian food and, in the main, either don't understand or simply don't bother. I couldn't find anything to eat at Gare de Lyon. I remembered a meal at C's house many years ago. She knew that P. and I were both vegetarian so had thoughtfully left one quarter of family-sized dish of lasagne free of meat ... 

I had researched that the connection for the Eurostar at Gare du Nord involved a two-stop journey on the "green line" ... at least it was green on the map. I later found out that this was also known as route D on the RER. I stood in line to buy a ticket from the self-service machine and watching the woman in front of me struggle with the touch screen I realised I would be unlikely to manage it either so, bumping a few ankles on the way, I excused myself from the queue and found a ticket kiosk where a helpful woman was conducting face to face sales. Thankfully she understood where I wanted to go and even told me I needed platform two. I couldn't find any signs with platform numbers.

Considering there must be a zillion first timers who have to connect between la Gare du Nord and the other Paris termini every week there is a surprising lack of information. Another plus for London, I think. Somewhere between the stations of Lyon and North my phone failed. The battery didn't die, the phone did. It's six months old. It's an iPhone. It shouldn't die; certainly not this soon into its life. No more timely alerts to trains and their platforms of departure. Maybe more importantly, no alarm clock tomorrow morning when I have to be in a school by nine. I had been taking photographs to provide you with some evidence of my door-to-door journey. I may lose all those photographs. The Gare du Nord also failed to provide any veggie sustenance. It was to be a long time till London, even longer when the train arrived late.

Paris Gare du NordParis Gare du Nord

I was afraid that I would miss the connection back to the Fens from King's Cross, but the exit from the Eurostar was as painless as the entry a few days ago.

This is definitely the way to travel. After six trains today I shall be home fourteen hours after I left P's apartment. Yes it is tiring, but I don't feel the kind of unhealthy exhaustion that air travel has always induced. Three more stops, a half-hour walk to my van, another half-hour drive back to the farm and I'll be home. I hope it isn't so cold I need to light a fire, but I might just do it anyway, because I can."

P.S. I resurrected my phone, halleluia! The external battery pack I carry for emergencies seemed not to be able to provide the required power to charge the phone. It simply failed to address the task even though the level of charge was showing as full. A quick burst of solar magic once back on the boat brought it back to life and has saved me a trip down to Cambridge to seek advice or redress. That also means that there are some photographs of the trip.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Of Boats And Brothers And Metropolitan Recognition

A few weeks ago, on 8th April, I attended a demo in London, "Boats Are Homes", organised by the National Bargee Travellers Association. Of all boating groups this one attracts more controversy than many and I have to admit that after my encounter with a number of the members I cannot fully decide which side of the argument I follow. On the one hand, they have some amazingly helpful, well-informed and committed members, who certainly seem to know their stuff. A couple of the members of their executive have been really supportive of our own campaign in the Middle Level. Without their input I would not have had a clue where to start putting my own arguments together in our attempts to modify what in Parliament were called "Draconian" measures by one MP during the second reading. The main argument one hears against the NBTA is that the campaign they are waging against some of the activities of the Canal and River Trust (CRT) supports wasters and scroungers who don't wish to pay for a recognised mooring. That kind of derogatory and inflammatory language is rarely helpful and it does appear that CRT are often exceeding their remit according to the law as set down in the 1995 Waterways Act. As with many causes these days, though, I cannot work out where the reality lies. 

It was from the organiser of the Boats Are Homes demo that I received an invitation to come and speak to describe our own campaign on the Middle Level. I have no idea of the ratio between those who choose to speak for a cause and those who have spokesperson status thrust upon them but I am definitely in the latter category. I have already described how I have been playing catchup with the campaign and the history associated with it. To have to speak in front of an unspecified number of people at a demonstration in London is not something I ever expected to be doing and the prospect filled me with trepidation. I spent most of my spare moments in the week leading up to the demo researching, reading and making notes. I filled about thirty pages of an A4 notebook with bits of information, charts, diagrams, lists, dates, asterisks and arrows and it wasn't until the day before the demo that I thought I had better start putting the speech together. Around midnight I finally thought I had finished. I read my speech through and found I had exceeded my allotted time by fifteen minutes. There followed a festival of striking out of lines and paragraphs. At three in the morning I had to call it a day. I fell into bed and resolved that I would have to continue the next day - three hours later.

The train to London was packed and I perched on a luggage rack juggling and balancing books and papers and continued a vicious editing of my text. Finally there seemed little left to edit, so I could do no more. I arrived at the meeting point in Villiers Street and met the group assembling in the park. I found a couple of people I already knew, but they were busy setting up for the event. When things kicked off some speakers read from their notes, others improvised. Some on the programme didn't actually show up. I had specific points I thought it important to make, but I hadn't managed to make a bullet point version of my notes. My performer instincts kicked in though and I felt the audience would be less interested in a read speech than one delivered to them. I kept my notebook closed and hoped my preparation would prove thorough enough to meet the demands of the occasion.

I got through it although I have no idea whether what I thought I said and what the crowd heard were the same things. I remember looking at my notes afterwards and realising there were points I had wanted to make which I had forgotten to raise. I also realised I had laboured other points - an image of overcooked Brussels sprouts comes to mind.

Following the speeches there was the march ... to Downing Street and Beyond ...! Petition with 35,000 signatures delivered, more speeches, more marching. It was the weirdest march I had ever participated in. The obligatory samba band had been replaced by an ensemble of djembe players playing a simple mono-rhythm on instruments that were in clear need of tuning. Some of the chanting was of better quality than I had heard on other occasions, indeed some of the chants were better too. I particularly liked,

"One, two, three, four. Where are we supposed to moor? Five, six, seven, eight, we just want to navigate."

What really made this march unusual was a distinct lack of police interest. We paraded unaccompanied along some of London's busiest and most sensitive roads - just days after the attack along Westminster Bridge and the murder of PC Keith Palmer - past the front of the Palace of Westminster to Smith Square where we delivered our second petition; this time to DEFRA requesting that they take more interest in how the the £39m they give to CRT is used. At that point the demeanour of some members of the entourage became a little more extemporised and the organised bits of the day had clearly come to a stop. I suppose I am like everyone else and I approve of individualism until someone else's behaviour starts to make me uncomfortable. We had no more business to conduct so that's when I left.

It seemed churlish to travel all the way to London and not honour Old Father Thames, so I went to sit on a bench in Victoria Tower Gardens to enjoy the view, quaff some water and nibble some nuts. As I walked back past the gates of Westminster I felt moved to offer condolences to one of the policemen on duty on the loss of his colleague. A couple of other officers overheard and thanked me. I have experienced many occasions when trust in the police has been seriously undermined, but no one should have to experience what I imagine they were going through.

What I wasn't expecting was a call, four days later and at just seven hours' notice, to return to London for another demonstration. This time it was a different cause and a different location. Sadly it was a location with which I have become familiar during the past few years. The small space outside the Russian Embassy in Kensington has seen demonstrations in recent years over the treatment of LGBT communities in Russia and other places within its sphere of influence. While President Putin has made a point of telling us that Russia has a long and proud history of tolerance and protection of sexual minorities we have also seen, under his watch, the creeping influence of religiously inspired homophobia.

That this condemnation comes from men who lead the orthodox churches and adorn themselves and their best party frocks with jewels and all manner of sparkly things amuses me. What is not amusing is the effect their preaching has on the lives of their innocent targets. Pronouncing their abhorrence of men who find love and companionship with other men seems also at odds with their belief in a supernatural being who commanded his followers to love one another. Many Pride marches have been banned in Russia and their version of our old and deservedly discarded "Section 28" (Section 28 of The Local Government Act 1988) bearing the grand title, "for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values" has led to the rise of anti-gay sentiment. A further consequence seems to have been to provide justification for the activities of unpleasant groups like "Occupy Paedophlia" who openly and mistakenly equate homosexuality with child abuse and who operate by luring gay men on to false dates where they are attacked, abducted and subjected to hours of  humiliation and torture before being released. Film of their victims' experiences is then posted to the web. Allegedly at least one person has been killed during this treatment. It is only a matter of time before more die if this continues. However the demo called on 12th April was for activity which has gone much further along this path of oppression.

The Republic of Chechnya, part of the Russian Federation, is a muslim majority region and the leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has both denied there are gay men in his country while rounding them up to place them in recently opened concentration camps where they are being tortured, interrogated and killed. Families are apparently being told to come and collect their offspring and "deal with them" or the authorities will do it for them. Families have been conditioned to see it as their duty to protect "family honour". Unfortunately simply having a gay man in the family apparently brings dishonour in the eyes of a significant proportion of Chechen society. Clearly, sexual minorities in the Russian Federation are under attack from religiously motivated sources of multiple origins.

I knew nothing about it beforehand but, on the day of the demo, at eleven in the morning I saw a notice that there was to be a vigil, demonstration and speeches along with the laying of a wreath of pink flowers in seven hours' time outside the embassy of the Russian Federation. Fortunately I had nothing else on that day, so the only arrangements I needed to make involved getting to the station for another trip to London. The organiser also mentioned that he needed volunteers to steward, so I volunteered, never before having done anything like it. I arrived at 5pm as requested for a stewards' briefing, which mainly involved being told to help keep part of the pavement open, so members of the public could get through. I was given a regulation yellow excruciatingly visible jacket to denote my new dogsbody status and chatted to the five or six other people who turned up. Then the reporters appeared. I was asked for my reasons for being there by someone from Pink News. This surprised me. I never realised that Pink News actually had reporters. Every article I have read seems to have been cut and pasted from somewhere else. I was, therefore very pleased to see with my own eyes some evidence of independent news gathering. There was also a reporter from BBC Radio One Newsbeat, who was on a mission and a strict time limit. There were only about four of us present when she first arrived. She had forty-five minutes to collect audio recordings and edit them into a report before transmission that evening. That indeed was pressure. She seemed keen, but relatively unflustered by a demand which I am certain would have turned me into a nervous wreck. Among the four of us gathered were three boaters, so we had plenty to discuss amongst ourselves. The others were all at least thirty-five years younger than me. Guess who was not interviewed by the Newsbeat reporter. When I pointed out that if she was looking for audio copy she might want to consider widening her demographic she started as though she had just noticed the old geezer in the crowd of the young, the edgy and the beautiful and asked me a couple of perfunctory questions. I don't think she had actually pressed her record button, but I no longer felt ignored.

From modest beginnings, the crowd grew. Last time I was demonstrating in this spot I was part of a crowd of about fifty people. This time the people kept on arriving and I am pretty certain there must have been at least a thousand people at the demo. I found it an overwhelmingly emotional experience to be part of a community that could organise and muster this amount of support on a Wednesday in less than twenty-four hours. I truly experienced gay pride and solidarity on this evening. After speeches, our final act was to file across the road to the gates of the Embassy and lay the pink flowers that many of us had brought with us on a pink blanket folded into a triangle that was deeply symbolic of another time in history when gay men were rounded up, herded into concentration camps, tortured and killed.

I mentioned that I had never performed stewarding functions before. I was a little nervous about this part of the occasion. I spoke to the handful of the police officers who had also turned up. I suspect that, contrary to the previous Saturday, it was politically expedient for a visible police presence. I asked how stewarding functions might be most usefully carried out. They mentioned helping to keep a pathway along the pavement and trying to keep people off the road. During the event itself, the police were happy to be a quiet presence and by the end they were saying that this was a good event and there had been no trouble, especially considering the unexpectedly large turnout. I would like to thank the people who were on the receiving end of my reminders not to block the passage of others. Contrary to my fears, everyone was courteous and helpful. It can be done.

As the evening was drawing to a close and demonstrators were dispersing I was returning my yellow jacket when I fell into conversation with a young policeman who had apparently grown up in Norfolk, but who now obviously worked in London. We compared notes about places we knew and our experiences of the demo. Then he turned to me and said, "I have to ask you this, but three of us have noticed you and we all know you from somewhere. Where do we know you from?" I pointed out other occasions when I have been accosted by people who were convinced they have seen me somewhere that I don't recall ever having been. "I must have one of those faces, " I answered. Being recognised as a familiar face by three members of the Met was the only worrying part of the evening. I can see I shall have to be on my best behaviour when out in public. I've been noticed ... I wish I knew where from. Maybe they are all secret ceilidh dancers or fans of dissident songwriters.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Of Accidental Buskery And Close Encounters Of The Female Kind

I'm one of those old-fashioned types who feels a compulsion to vote. I have a postal vote, but I had left it late and missed the post. Consequently there were choices. Boat and bicycle won. An hour-and-a-half cruise along the river to March and I was pleased and surprised to find a mooring spot in the town centre. I indulged in a round-about cycle tour of the town and eventually arrived at the district council offices to deliver my ballot paper.

When I came back the sun was shining and I needed to do some practising for a friend's open mic the following night, so I took my guitar and drums into the Market Square to set up and play for a while. I enjoyed having some space around me. It was better than hitting the guitar headstock on a wall or the body of the guitar on my desk, chair or music stand every time I moved. People walked by and let me get on with it. I don't play or sing very loudly so I hope no one felt their space was being invaded. 

After about ten minutes three girls in school uniform walked past. To be honest I didn't really see them, but realised that is what they must have done when one came running back and wanted to give me 30p saying that was all the money they had between them. I was very touched, but a bit torn too. I wasn't busking, didn't have a hat or box for money, but she really seemed to want to give me something. I recognise that. I do the same if I like someone's street entertainment. I opened up my guitar case and let her drop the money in. I thanked her, let the lid drop shut and carried on. About an hour later a man insisted on putting some cash on top of my guitar case. I told him I was only practising, but he said he wanted to give me something anyway and insisted on leaving the money. Then a woman wearing patchwork trousers and handmade shoes arrived and stood to listen. 

When I finished the song I was on she said she had seen me and had had to turn her car round and drive back. She had been living a simple life abroad for several years and had come back to be near her young adult son whom she was missing and who, apparently, was missing her. She hadn't yet sorted accommodation so she was staying with her parents for a while and things weren't going well. She had had a terrible day, mostly triggered by a fierce argument with her father before having to leave the house. She had never expected to reach the age of fifty and still be living with her parents ... indeed owing to lack of space she was actually sharing a bed with her mother. Reeling slightly from this onslaught of information I couldn't help but sympathise. When I was fifty, many years ago, I was living with my own father. Fortunately he had a spare bedroom. She also said she had been learning to play the ukulele ... my heart sank a little. She was looking for a musical partner ... my heart sank a little further.

"Do you have your ukulele with you?" I asked. When she affirmed she had I told her, "Go and get it then!" I had to wonder what the hell I was doing.

While she was away I had nearly enough time to entertain the good passers-by of March with "Cruiser", my song about gay cruising. When I play this one to a captive audience I usually dedicate it to those who either understand or who have no idea what I'm singing about. March people kept marching and were either too busy, unconcerned, irritated or embarrassed to make eye contact or listen too obviously. The woman arrived back in time for the final two verses (perhaps fortunately, missing the climax of the song and arriving in time for the clinic appointment) with her instrument. "I'm not very good, I'm only a beginner ..." she said. I suggested she lead and I'll accompany on some of the things she liked to play. She started with Amazing Grace and seemed happy to have guitar, drums and backing vocals accompany her uking. Flushed with success we went on to Streets of London. Then she started talking about Bhajan songs. I'd heard the term, but don't actually know any so I asked her to play. She did. I think we were praising Shiva, but it sounded good enough for someone else to drop money.

By the end of our session I had been playing for a couple of hours and was cold, unexpectedly up by £1.74 (yes, one pound and seventy-four pence) and this hitherto unknown woman said I had made her day much better. I offered her the proceeds from the final donation, but she refused except to take one two-pence coin. "Id like to take this," she said, "as a reminder that no matter how awful my day has been, there is always a chance that something surprising will happen and turn everything around." I would have to call that a result of some kind.

I celebrated by heading to a favourite restaurant, the Shah Jahan. Even though I had to supplement them a little I ate my earnings by turning them into a delicious mango lassi and vegetable korma. I went back to the boat and decided a post-prandial moment was in order. When I came round it was nearly eleven o'clock. There was a pub adjacent to the town mooring and, although I am not a regular pub goer, I fancied something to drink. Taking advantage of being in a place where I could do exactly what I was about to do I climbed the steps from the mooring enclosure up the bank and entered The Ship. As I was ordering myself a drink a woman also at the bar gesticulated at me as though she were casting magic spells. She turned her head to a dangerous angle and creased her face as though she had just sniffed something and wasn't sure whether to be disgusted or not. If I looked how I felt she would have seen fear and confusion. 

"I've seen you," she slurred perhaps louder than she intended, "You were in the Indian ..." A man, perhaps her companion, pointed out that it wasn't unusual for a man to want a drink after a curry. I had to fight the urge to point out that I had actually been eating korma and not curry, but they wouldn't have heard anyway because the discussion opened up to contributions from the other half-a-dozen or so customers sitting around the bar. They all seemed to have an opinion about the appropriateness of a strawberry-lime Rekorderlig as suitable post-curry refreshment. The barman settled the matter by declaiming that he thought it was a very good choice after such a meal. I retired to a corner where there was just enough light to see the free Towpath Talk I had taken from a pile of this week's edition and squint at the news. I wished I had remembered to bring some spectacles.

Leaving the pub I noticed the sky. There was a bright moon, the brightly lit face of the town hall clock and a streetlight all in alignment. This is the view from the boat. I'm certain that even through my single fruit cider they didn't look as fuzzy as this. Maybe my camera had been indulging while I was away.

From the top - moon, town hall, lamp-post, river bank.

I stayed overnight and headed back to base the next day. Here I am, still cold, and leaving March behind as I headed to where I had left my van.

Leaving town, heading home.