Thursday, 27 August 2009

Salt of the Earth

Lynda dropped me off at the church to say goodbye to John. We had a bit of diffulty finding the place. It's a rough part of town. A few yards from St. Benedicts, I didn't make way for another motorist quite as fast as he thought I should have done and he wound down his window to snarl something I didn't catch that ended with, '. . . you fucking werewolf.' It made me smile at the time (from the safety of our car) and I thought, 'Yeah, well, I suppose I do.' What a thoroughly unpleasant chap, though, what?

John would have been proud of his children. Mary gave a terrific eulogy in her father's honour. Her description of her dad's character described exactly the man I knew. Those two things don't always match so perfectly. It goes to show what a genuine bloke John Waters was.

As always with funerals, there was a comical dimension. Look, landmates, I'm not a catholic - I ain't anything as far as religion is concerned - and I was hoping to slip into the back of the church where I wouldn't intrude or stick out like the proverbial swollen thumb. But, when I got there, the church was packed out. A tribute to people's regard for Johnie. I heard the usher say to a woman in front of me, 'Are you going up stairs?' She said, 'No.' and went off into the church. So I said to the fella, 'I'd like to go up stairs, please.' He looked puzzled, 'You want to go upstairs?' he asked. 'Yes,' I said. He asked me again, 'Upstairs?' I said, 'Yes, please.' He said, 'Do you know it's for the choir?' I'm glad he questioned it. Anyway, I ended up on the right-hand side of the church right up the front. I felt mega uncomfortable.

My social plight was compounded when I realised that the usher, had neglected to give me an order of service booklet. This was, no doubt, because it had thrown him so completely off key having a complete stranger - and a werewolf, too boot - asking if he could join the choir.

The opening hymn was announced which everybody read from their booklets. But, hey, The priest had also given the number of the hymn in the hymn book, a copy of which I had picked up on the way in. Fine, except the words in the hymn book were different to the lyrics in the booklet.

The mass was of a high kind with three men in robes and a robed altar boy ringing a bell. As the service went along, I was able to lose myself in the ritual and the smell of the incense and the intoning of the priests and the singing of the choir and congregation and their calls and answers and the poems of the scriptures. A real sense of peace came over the place.

There were tears, of course. The death of a loved one is painful. Like I say in 'Talking Revolution', nobody really ever wants to die. Even those couples who buy one single and one return ticket to Switzerland would prefer to the ill partner to be well again and get two return tickets instead. If you are distressed enough, and there is no turning back the clock, death can appear as sweet release, that's all.

Mary's moving tribute to her dad made me very glad I went. There is a great comfort in religion for believers.

Emily came round today to put some cello on two new pieces of mine. Have I mentioned this new work I am doing? I really must start reading my own blog. Ian Banks of Atoll-UK, on behalf of Spaces, has commissioned 6 artists, of which I am one, to respond to Cheshire's Weaver Valley and Winsford Waterfront regeneration.

Ian is a top geezer to work with. He is helpful in the utmost without ever trying to get you to conform to an agenda of his own. So many of these commissioners (and, unfortunately, you don't know who you are) try to turn you into themselves-as-artist. Not so, with Ian. Consequently, he gets a better result from everybody.

My way into the Weaver project was through an article I read that explained Cheshire's salt deposit is the remains of a triassic sea. In other words, 250 million years ago, Cheshire was ocean. That's fascinating to me - the Cheshire salt is the cinders of a burnt up sea. I did a couple of field trips, talked to people and did a load of rooting about in museums and libraries and, under the title of 'Songs of the Triassic Sea', I have written 4 lyric poems, each set in a different epoch of the Weaver Valley and Winsford Waterfront:

i) The Ballad of Old Salt (phantasy of pre-history and the spirit of the sea)
ii) Ram Your Spike (a worksong/shanty of open pan salt making)
iii) In Winsford Town (a contemporry pastoral)
iv) Over and Under (a prophesy foretelling the rebirth of Old Salt)

The first is a dramatic monologue which I am still working on. The other three pieces are finished so far as the text is concerned but I have some musicical settings, and that's what me and Emily were putting together. I am hoping to road test ii) and iii) individually at the Coachmakers before I schedule a special evening performance for the complete work.

Phil Johnson dropped in today, too. We ended up playing some English dance tunes: me guitar, Lynda tambourine, Phil mandolin, Emily cello: Jenny's Reel, Tiger Smith's Jig, Speed the Plough . . . The rafters was ringing, doods. What a dandy way to spend an afternoon. Lynda baked some currant scones and brewed up lashing of tea. And that's what I'm gonna do any minute now - have some more of the ol' fruit of the Beko oven courtesy of the Tambourine Lady. Just in case you are getting the wrong idea about my domestic life, please note that I cooked tea tonight.

I'll post the Songs of the Triassic Sea lyrics as soon as they have been officially presented to Ian. It wudna bey rayt, as they say in Stoke, to do it beforehand.

I've started reading David Copperfield again. It'll go nicely with the cup of Rosie Lee.

Oh, yeah, before I shoot off, Tatton Park, RHS show: Cheshire Life have done a little feature on it. My mugshot made the online version, but they must have thought it a vision too far for their more-sensitive hard-copy readers cuz it was cut from that. Here's the link:!--197897

Oh, yeah an' all, Shooting Stars is back on the telly. See? Life ain't all bad, are it?

See you later, folks.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Life At Both Ends

Talking of Bobby Bonehead aka Curly the Caveman and a few other akas, as I was last time: Trawling through my book shelves looking for Ted Hughes 'Pike' poem (an exemplary text for a lecture on the 'eagle eye of the poet' {Auden???} that I was sketching out), I chanced upon a 1980 diary which I'd kept because Amy was born that year. I leafed through it for reasons of nostalgia and the sort of curious enquiry time generates and came across this entry:

January 10, Thursday
Bob Coppard for bodhran lesson - 8.30

8.30 being the time I arranged for the callow youth to turn up, not what he paid me cuz I didn't charge him anything. I feel that I have played a large part in his becoming a children's entertainer. Sorry kids. Did I tell you that Rob and I were working in effluent treatment at the time? Tis true. You'll get nothing but the truth here, ain't that a fact?

Back to the more-recent past. I had my meeting with the Dean of MMU Cheshire - one Mr. Dennis Dunn - re the continuation of my associate lectureship there. We got on well from the outset in a ducking an' dodging sort of way (Asked had I come to berate him or to sort things out? I said, 'Well, yes'). In absolute fairness to the good Dean, he expressed surprise and dissatisfaction at HR only permitting my employment to be continued until Feb 2010 and said he would address the matter that very afternoon and get it sorted. He was as good as his word and I now await a contract for the whole of the 2009/2010 academic year. Our meeting settled down quickly and we discovered that we had a few views in common. More on this when I have signed the contract.

Some very sad news: Dear old Johnie Waters has passed away. John was a terrific bloke. A kind and gentle man and an absolutely fabulous flute player. He was from Sligo and a founder member of the Green Velvet Ceili band along with Jack Baynes, Jim Sweeney, Frank Preston and the rest of the boys who had moved on or who I knew less well. I don't know exactly when the Green Velvet was formed. I remember seeing them playing for a dance at the Holy Trinity Church social centre in the middle 1960s. I had popped across from a friend's flat in the same road to buy some fags and stayed to listen for a while. They played 'Black Velvet Band' and then a couple of reels I didn't know the name of. Of course, I didn't realise at the time what a big influence they were to become on my life a decade later. Charlie Ferguson (later known as Chris Ferguson) from Bangor, NI, another wonderful flute player, introduced me to the boys.

I met Charlie at Jason Hill's folk club at the Sealion pub in Hanley. Under the influence of Robin Garside, a folk-singing friend of Lynda's (they went to the same art school where Lynda was studying painting under Arthur Berry - that's a funny expression, ain't it. What an image!). Robin lodged with us at our house in Mow Cop at one time. I had started to play the tin whistle. I thought I could play it OK and did a couple of gigs on it with Robin. Then I heard Charlie and realised I couldn't play it all. Hearing Charlie was like all your records coming to life. We became good mates, Charlie and I, and he taught me to play the tin whistle properly and to play the bodhran. Thing was, where the bloody hell could you get a bodhran from? We're talking donkeys ago here - pre the Chieftains and all that.

To be a fan of Irish trad in those days was rare and regarded as quirky. It wasn't even cool to like it in Ireland at that time. Coming home that same night as I had met Charlie, me and Lynda were heading for the bus stop with Jason and Becky. I was so utterly drunk. Becky stepped out in the road in Hope Street without looking properly and nearly got run down by a knobhead in a car that was going too fast anyway. The knobhead blasted his horn and, startled in my drunkeness, I reeled back out of the way against the window of Chatfield's music shop. There in the window was a bodhran.

The next day, I wondered if I had merely dreamt it. But it turned out that Denis Chatfield had been having a clear-out of his stock room. The drum had been ordered by a Keele student some years before and never collected. So, thanks to student apathy, I was fixed up. It cost me £3.50 and wasn't a very good drum. I later learned to make my own bodhrans and made dozens of them. Now and again, I used to see bands on TV using one of my drums. I don't have one of my own make anymore. Anybody out there got one I can buy back? I've given up making them now. It's too time-consuming. I've been working on a big tambourine now for about two years and it's still only an unfinished frame and when you understand that the frame pre existed as a garden sieve you'll see how feckless I have become with the making.

I bought the bodran on the Saturday morning, Charlie showed me how to go on with it on the following Tuesday evening and we played at Jason's Club on the Friday. We played everywhere after that. Everyone who heard Charlie play wanted to hear him play again. We played with Dick Gaughan, Nic Jones, Tony Hall, the Rev. Kenneth Loveless, that geezer from up Newcastle . . . oh gawd . . . Vin Garbutt, that's it, and loads of others I won't attempt to recall right now as it occurs to me that I need me breakfast and a long cup of tea. I do remember we played for the Keele Rapper side, too. Do they still have one? There is something special about the drum and tin whistle or flute playing together. The interplay of rhythm between the two is endlessly variable and exciting. The two instruments can be clearly separately heard as they interweave. Chance has a magical input too. Well, it does when the whistle player is as inventive as Charlie was (RIP). Charlie had a very NI style - lots of tongued notes like the 'tight' piping of NI pipers.

At different stages of time and on different stages, come to that, I played bodhran, tin whistle and piano with the Green Velvet Band. Terrific music. As good as it gets.

Johnie taught me so many tunes and encouraged my playing. He did the same for dozens of others. His son, Martin, is a flute player of awesome capability and the beautifullest tone in the world. His daughter, Mary, as a young girl was extraordinary on the tin whistle. She had a way of playing that was quite unique - great rhythm and individually creative ornamentation. What a family! I lost touch with John some years ago. John, Martin and Mary and Jack played at my 40th birthday at the Red Bull in Kidsgrove. Lynda arranged it all. After chucking out time, a bunch of us went back to our cottage by the canal (We'd bought it off Paul Atterbury who is one of the Antiques Roadshow presenters. He, or his Mrs, Avril, took all the light fittings with them and the ceramic fittings from the bathroom). A few people brought bottles of wine. Thing was, me and Lynda didn't drink wine at the time, it was something that only ultra sophisticates did, and we had no wine glasses. But, on the other hand, we did have plenty of egg cups. I have an enduring image of Avron White, an American drummer living in Stoke - a very cool dude in a white suit and shades - standing there in earnest conversation with Biker Bill, drinking merlot out of a Winnie the Pooh egg cup.

I will be saying goodbye to Johnie on Tuesday.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Is This Some Kind of Record?

Hey, two weeks on the trot! Is this some kind of record? Well, yeah, it's a blog . . . You really are a mentallist when you start interviewing yourself, aren't you? Politicans do it regularly.

Guess who came marching into my living room on Tuesday, after an absence of 15 years?

Lynda and I invited Emily and Rob (Emily always calls him Mr. Cochrane) round for lunch and a chat. Lynda cooked a beautiful veg curry with cauliflower cooked Japanese style - as shown to her by Hisami a world ago. We ate in the garden, it being a glorious sunny day. I say 'ate', 'scoffed' is probably the more-accurate verb here. We came back indoors, after scoffing a few of Lynda's homemade scones with strawberry jam, to play some music. I say 'scoffing', but 'eating' is probably the more-accurate word here, as we were all slowing down a bit after the curry.

Emily plays the cello. Lynda practically swoons when ever she hears the cello played well and was looking forward to some Elgar but, as soon as Emily got her cello out, I got my accoustic guitar out. I had been waiting for this opportunity. I played Emily an English reel which she learned in the blink of an eye. We started to run through it together. By the time we had gone a couple of times round the tune Em was playing seconds as well as the melody, being the terrific muso she is. It was sounding soooooo good. Emily's musical background is ideal for the onbeat cool of English dance music. I decide to switch on the ol' recorder to let her have a listen to how good she is. We were just hitting in to the second A part, when in he walks:

Rob the Bones. I say, Rob the bloody Bones.

In 1985, Geoff Walton, Rob Coppard, Adam Fenn and me, were recruited to play at, and promote in the lead up to, the 1986 Etruria Garden Festival. We were separated from the other musos and thrown together by Baz (RIP) because we all played folk stuff. As it was, Rob had become a minor celebrity (which reminds me that, a couple of years before that, Arthur Scargill had figured in the musical life of my family. But, of course, he was a miner celebrity, not the same thing at all).

Rob the Bones' celebrity was due to his appearances on the Ester Rantzen show, 'That's Life', as a bones player. There was a competition, as far as I can recall, to find out who was the best bones player in England. I don't remember now why it was deemed so important to know that. Anyhow, I don't think Rob actually won it, but he did capture the interest of a lot of people in along the way. He is terrifically good at bones playing - two-handed and everything. The role of Geoff, Adam and me was to play music to showcase Rob. That is why after we had to briefly consider Geoff's 'Bodran Bodran' and 'The Friendly Pebbles' I hastily came up with the name: BONESHAKER.

We turned out to be the only musicians hired by the Festival who were more interested in making music than getting pissed, smoking dope, and aimlessly jaming over rock riffs for hours. I am not saying we were not guilty of any of that. I am just saying organised music was our priority. Consequently, when it came to crunch time, Boneshaker was the only band that had got an act together. It followed that, initially, at least, we got all the gigs - all the live promotions, all the radio gigs and all the TV. We were literally on one or the other at least once a day for weeks. We did the lot. Local radio local to us and in far-off towns. We did Woman's Hour on Radio 4; Folk On 2; that worldwide programme; early morning TV programmes; daytime TV. Our favourite was Saturday Superstore with Keith Chegwin. I loved doing that cuz not only did i like the programme, I got some goody bags to take home to Amy who was 6 at the time. We gigged with a whole motley crew at the Etruria Fest: Bob Holness; Grot Bags; The Yetties; etc., etc. And laugh? I laughed my bloody head off. We played at the front gate; in the African Village, in the Japanese Garden, on the train - everywhere - And, oh, yeah, we featured in a channel 4 documentary called, 'Stoke in Bloom'. The whole thing was a blast.

So in walks Rob the Bones. The music stopped. It was helloes all round and me and Rob began doing that, 'Do you remember when . . .?' thing that ain't very nice for other people who weren't there cuz as the memories come flooding back, you start talking in short hand to each other. So sorry to Emily and Rob and Lynda but, come on, 15 years . . .

We talked about the time when we had both started working at the same factory: Simon-Hartley in Etruria. Rob was a young apprentice, I was a bit older and was brought in from Manpower to sort out the design and implementation of some financial incentive schemes (don't get me started on the belief of most management that the working class are only motivated by money and need to be supervised at every momentor else they will swing the lead. Whereas the middle classes are both naturally motivated and thoroughly trust worthy . . . )

Me and Rob got talking at Simon-Hartley and found we had some musical interests in common. Rob told me his ambition was to learn the ol' Irish drum - the bodhran. He had mentioned it to the right geezer, of course. I showed him how to pit his patters on the skin of a murdered goat that had been stretched across an old wooden riddle. For free, mind you.


does he mention this on his web pages? Does he mention Boneshaker and his initiation into the world of gigging and getting paid for it?


He mentions Greg and the Boatband, as well he should, but of his old Boneshaker buddies?


I'll give you his link and you can check it out for yourselves. I have emailed him about it. It'll be mildly interesting to see how long he takes to put that right.

Here's the link:

He's into loads of entertainment stuff these days and has developed and expanded his skills as you will see. It was great to see Rob again. Thanks for taking the trouble to track me down, dude (Through this blog, as it happens). And Emily, we must pick up where we left off asap and can you owe Lynda some Elgar, please?

I had my meeting with the Dean of MMU Cheshire re their HR teams heinous ageist policies. I will tell you about it as soon as it is diplomatic to do so. Suffice to say, the situation, allegedly, is to be moved moved forward. Time will tell and so shall I.

This is great news: James Harker, a bright, hip, thoroughly nice, talented, MMU Writing student, having completed an extemely successful first year as an undergraduate, has been awarded the editorship of the student magazine, PULP. The post could not have gone to a more-worthy or more-capable person than James. Where have the students mags with real edge gone? It looks like, with James' appointment, at least one of them will be coming back. All the best, James. You will be missed at uni.

All the best, too, to you, who read this, and all the best, too, to you who do not read this. So long as you are compassionate, respectful-where-appropriate, human beings with good intentions, I wish for a long, pain-free life to you all. May each one of us be sustained by enlightenment.


Thursday, 6 August 2009

Is Anybody Out There?

It's so yonks since I got around to writing this, ain't it just? Last night, I played the Coachmakers in Hanley (what a great little boozer it is and they're gonna knock it down, the tow rags, just like they knock everything and everyone down that's any good) with ACW Fenn, mandolinist to the blissful, and he nagged me about failing to keep blogging. I am self-evidently NOT a natural born bloggist. Is it possible to be a 'natural born' at any such construct???

Writing in a blog about something that I have just done seems fairly irrelevant to me. I mean, why would I care? It done and gone. Even more, why would you care? The only justification would seem to me is if it was used as a creative vehicle in poetry or prose - which certainly could happen with a blog although I doubt that I am committed enough, or bloggist enough, to pull that one off. Come to think of it, I don't think I have read any blog that has pulled that one off. Come to think of it, I don't think I have read any blog.

It was my intention to keep a meticulous account of my days as Cheshire Poet Laureate. Coffee has that effect on me. It makes me think that you and I are different people altogether. I only drink tea now and my plans for myself are far more realistic. I will no longer keep up the pretence of writing a continual coherent narrative. I shall only post what ever falls out of the ends of my fingers on the qwerty. Actually, mine is not a qwerty any more, but a qwfty. It's turned Welshy through wfar and tfar.

What I shall attempt to do very soon is put things right with a few poets who contributed to the 'Homage to Cheshire' I allegedly edited. Anne Sherman of the Arts Service steadfastly refused to allow me to see the page proofs of the CCC publication (and more of this later in connection with my collection 'Somewhere in the Night' which I disown as being unrepresentative of my work). Consequently, there was no proper proof reading or final editing carried out. Naturally, errors got though - which is exactly what showing page proofs to authors and editors is designed to prevent. Some of the errors originated with me, some with the printer or whoever(?). They could have all been put right before publication had A.S. observed the usual courtesies and procedures. I apologise to the offended authors and hope to publish their poems in corrected form on this screen any day soon.

There is a whole big ageist thing going on with MMU Cheshire and me, too. Grey is the new black, don't you know? I will give you the low down on all of that. I have booked an appointment with the Dean on Tuesday morning, to get stuff said to me, face to face, instead of having rumours and facts whispered to me in corridors and encoded in doublespeak and liptrick in emails. I am happy to tell you straight away that my students, unasked by me, have been wonderful in their support of my cause. They really have been fantastic about it. And, so too, have been members of the Writing staff. It is in gratitude and respect for them as well as for myself that I determined to see the thing through and hopefully bring some integrity and commonsense back into play in the thinking of the MMU Cheshire policy-makers.

But, right now, I have remembered I have a few cans in the kitchen. NOT in the frig, you understand? Why the hell would anybody want to drink icecold ale? All right, in Oz you would, but you'd want to drink it inside the frig there, wouldn't you?

This blog, you and I, have officially lost out to three or four speckled hens. Adios.