Carmel – Sally

I had lived in a housing association flat in Smethwick for most of my time in at Birmingham University as I studied for a housing policy PhD. I was allocated it after I had to be moved out of the horrible dry rot riddled University accommodation in King’s Norton that I had been my ‘home’ when I first arrived in Birmingham. Returning to London to work, the plan was to get an inter-landlord move to north or east London, it never happened in practice though. In the short- term, I took up the space vacated by one colleague, I, in a short-life house rented by T in Leytonstone. It was owned by the council I worked for, but being managed by a small housing association whilst money was found to refurbish it.

I had lived in short-life before behind Turnpike Lane tube station in a house earmarked for demolition for a bypass of Wood Green High Road that never came to fruition. That had just been a bit grotty, but no worse than much student housing of the era. The house in Leytonstone was grim, really grim. There was only an outside toilet, with a hole in the roof – of sufficient size to ensure that toilet paper always got wet when it rained.

The bathroom was a massive room with an ancient cast iron bath and basin at one end and the rest of the room something of a dumping ground. We had bath nights a couple of times a week during the bitterly cold winter of 1986/87, taking it in turns as to which order we bathed in – the heavy iron bath took a couple of occupations and new hot water to warm up to an acceptable level, although for the third bather it was almost like being in a steam room.

My room was the rear living room which had little natural light and a small window overlooking the partially covered walkway to the toilet. While the room had a door, it wasn’t attached to the frame and had to be manhandled into place when any privacy was required. This didn’t prevent the free movement of the other inhabitants of the house, a large family of mice, in and out of the room and everywhere else in the house for that matter.

The other human occupant was M, who worked for a travel agency. Despite his tall frame, he was terrified of the mice and would often be heard screaming in the kitchen. The mice though were almost oblivious to our presence. We made desultory attempts to rid the house of rodents by putting out copious amounts of poison, it seemed to have little impact on numbers although the stench of rotting mouse carcass occasionally filled the air. The mice liked to store the poison for future use, oddly in the 1960s spin drier we had for helping to dry the hand washed clothes, water frequently emerged from the spout a bright blue as a result. I was working as a Housing Officer at the time, residents would often say – ‘I bet you live somewhere really nice.’ If only …

imageThe front room had a floor covered with beer cans, particularly the gold aluminium of Stella Export – M’s drink of preference – which seemed to appear like mushrooms, it was particularly noticeable if I had been absent for a day or two. He had musical tastes were not dissimilar to mine and introduced me to a few new artists including Mathilde Santing and Astrid Gilberto. The most significant though was Carmel, a three-piece band, who played a mixture of jazz and pop. The first sound of the the drums of Gerry Darby, with the echoey double bass of Jim Parris being woven into the mix at the beginning of ‘I’m Not Afraid of You’ followed by the haunting, slightly gravely voice of Carmel McCourt had me hooked within seconds. The best was to come at the end of the album though – the delightful, upbeat ‘Sally.’

T, I and sometimes M and our respective girlfriends, E at the time for me, saw Carmel several times at Ronnie Scott’s, the Jazz Café and one or two other places over the next few years, even after I’d moved out and bought a house in Walthamstow Village with E. There doesn’t seem to be any footage from the gigs at Ronnie Scott’s but ‘Sally’ is available from the same era in a concert in Bologna.

We were all due to see Carmel at the Astoria on Charing Cross Road on 4 July 1990 in the days when you could still pay on the night to watch bands at medium sized venues. The Astoria was one of my favourite London venues, despite the aggressive bouncers in its latter years; it was sadly lost to Crossrail. The plans to see Carmel had been made weeks before but excuses started to roll in as it clashed with the Italia 90 semifinal with England playing Germany for a place in the World Cup Final in Rome. It would have been one of the last times E and I went out together before we split up, it was only the pair of us that went in the end.

I had recorded the game at home on a VCR, just replaced after a burglary. I was hoping to avoid all reference of the result, ‘Likely Lads’ style, at the gig and on the way home – it was a dismal plan. The venue was almost empty and Carmel gave updates on the game, which was going into penalties by the time the encores had finished and we emerged onto Charing Cross Road. Those getting onto the Victoria Line train at later stops knew the final score and grumbled about the misses of Pearce and Waddle that they had seen on pub TVs. The tape was never watched.

I saw Carmel once or twice with J in the subsequent years, I remember a festival in Stanmer Park in Brighton, but I guess I was falling out of love with their newer work which started to take on more of a gospel based sound with overtly religious lyrics.

Like a lot of music I listened to in that era, particularly Working Week and Everything ButThe Girl, Carmel was largely forgotten for a couple of decades from the mid 1990s as my musical tastes moved on. A serious accident in 2015 and the resultant psychological dislike of loud noise saw me return to my music of the 1980s. A second hand CD of ‘The Falling’ was an early purchase as I recovered at home, it remains my favourite Carmel album, and one that I play regularly.

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Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Listen to Her Heart

Tom Petty holds a very special place for me – unlike anyone else, I can genuinely say that his music changed my life; it was something that I recognised as soon as it happened and reflect upon every time I listened to his music.  Perhaps as a result, he is one of the few artists that I have almost certainly played every year for the best part of 40 years.

I had been dreading the interview at the London School of Economics for a place on their Geography degree course; 12 months before I had had a crash and burn interview at University College, London and, unsurprisingly, had failed to even get an unachievable offer from them.  It was the only formal interview that I had had when I applied to universities in late 1977.  My grades weren’t quite good enough for my first choice Hull or my fall-back position of Sheffield.  While I was offered places through ‘clearing’ at some less renowned educational establishments, I suppose that I also realised that I wanted to move to London and not have the comfort blanket of being close to ‘home.’

Twelve months on, despite my not quite good enough A Level results, I was, perhaps, slightly more confident in myself –  I had found a new Saturday job working for an old boss who, when I enquired about the job, S offered it to me on the spot without an interview; I had successfully found some new friends and was consequently going out a lot more and at the FE College I had gone to in Nottingham to re-take my A Levels; I had a great, inspirational teacher in A, who clearly saw something in me and was always really encouraging and positive towards me.

The night before the interview, I had stayed with J (see Lindisfarne – Run for Home) in Surrey commuter land and had gone into central London with the City workers and had plenty of time to kill before my late morning interview.  I had wandered around the yet-to-be regenerated Covent Garden and had stopped at a record shop, probably somewhere near Shaftesbury Avenue and saw Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers 2nd album on offer and with the few quid in my pocket had bought it.  It was perhaps the best purchase of my life.

You're Gonna Get IT

The interview had started with the contents of the bag – ‘You’re Gonna Get It’ (fortunately I didn’t get out the Albert Camus novel that was also there, as I suspect talking about that would have sunk me) and went onto talk about other musical likes and and a shared dislike of opera and Wagner.  The Admissions Tutor, B, then wondered out aloud as to how we could get the interview back onto geography and I was neatly able to take it back through Tom Petty to Knebworth to J who I had gone with to Dale Fort Field Centre where I had met J to the coastal geomorphology that I had studied there.   B was impressed with my transition whilst I was able to stick to something that I knew about and was confident in discussing.  It set me in good stead for the rest of the interview. I was given an offer of much lower grades than the standard LSE Geography offer. In the end, I needn’t have worried about the grades – I did more than enough to get into LSE when I re-took my A Levels.

The Tom Petty album in the bag had been the starting point to one of my best ever interviews, changing something that I feared could go catastrophically wrong into a positive watershed in my life; a place that much of what has happened to me in terms of work, education and relationships points back to.  As I am generally pretty happy with the way in which my life has turned out, I have a lot to thank Tom Petty for. The standout song from ‘You’re Gonna Get It’ was ‘Listen to Her Heart’ so it seems appropriate to focus on that here.

R-1986451-1322941246.jpegI saw Tom Petty at least a couple of times live, at Knebworth in 1978 where they were on stage mid-afternoon and were fantastic, the real highlight of the day; and at Hammersmith Odeon (now Apollo) and when ‘touring’ my favourite album of his, ‘Damn the Torpedoes’, in early 1980.

Tom Petty’s death brought me to tears – more so than the passing of any other musician, it was more than part of my past having gone, it was the recognition that, without him, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now.  I have played him a lot in the days since his death – my vinyl copies of ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ and ‘You’re Gonna Get It’ are long gone, lent to a friend and not returned two decades ago.  But the digital Greatest Hits, the re-purchased ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ and the 1981 Hard Promises have been on almost non-stop over the last few weeks.

Tom Petty –  October 20, 1950 to October 2, 2017

Alan Hollinghurst – The Swimming Pool Library

A holiday away from home requires at there to be at least some attempt to find literature that is appropriate to the location, it is a tried and tested approach to reading. Admittedly, it is a plan that I have only successfully executed in one previous location – partially reading Hans Fallada’s excellent ‘Alone in Berlin’ (recently a somewhat less good film) whilst staying near Checkpoint Charlie.

imageAn ‘all-tinclusive’ hotel holiday in Menorca proved somewhat challenging subject matter, but thinking slightly laterally Alan Hollinghurst’s ‘The Swimming Pool Library’ seemed appropriate – a book picked up at the Greenwich and Blackheath Amnesty International second hand book sale last autumn.

The novel is set in the summer of 1983 for William Beckwith a 25 year-old feckless and work shy narcissist ‘riding high on sex and self-esteem – it was my time, my grande époque.’ He is living on the early inheritance from his grandfather when cruising for sex in a public lavatory, Will saves the life of Charles Nantwich, an 83-year-old gay peer.

Nantwich asks Will to look at his diaries with a view to writing a biography, this juxtaposes the past criminalisation of homosexuality with Will’s considerably different experiences of early 1980s London.

imageCleverly and wittily told, the narrative sometimes drifts off into almost Sebaldian diversions with a flawed but always engrossing narrator. It was certainly better than the only other novel of Hollinghurst’s that I had read before – ‘The Stranger’s Child’, which had rather put me off his work. It seemed a novel of its time, set before HIV/AIDS had become widespread and at a time when attitudes to gays much more hostile and coming out still hard for many.

Was it the best of my holiday reading? Sadly, not; that accolade goes to the subtly told tale of bereavement and developing a new life beyond just coping
Colm Tóibín’s delightful ‘Nora Webster.’

The Beatles – Yellow Submarine

Until my early teens we had very little music in the house, we very much a Home Service, and its successor, Radio 4, household.  We didn’t have a record player or gramophone until I was around 8 or 9.  While a TV was bought just before I went to school in 1965, so I ‘didn’t feel left out’, I only remember being allowed to watch ‘educational’ programmes and certainly not music.

Austin A40 mkI

I don’t remember having listened to popular music before one of our regular trips to Cornwall; Mum originates from there.  It would have been the summer of 1966, we had gone down with my cousin from Canada – Mum was one of seven and four of her siblings were to emigrate to Canada; moving away was part of Cornish life – many of my grandparent’s generation had emigrated to Australia.  There were five of us in a tiny Austin A40 (picture Wikipedia Commons) with masses of pre-war suitcases, neatly wrapped in polythene on a roof rack that made the journey from Mansfield to Penzance in the days before motorways.  One of the brackets of the roof rack broke off around Cirencester in the Cotswolds and the rest of the journey was spent with my Mum, my cousin and myself (for short periods) holding onto the roof rack from the passenger side-clipped window.

Eleanor_rigby_single_usaWe stayed with my aunt; I think that she had moved to Penzance at that point from her previous home in Newlyn.  Unlike us, she had a record player and a radio in the car and bought singles – unsurprisingly she had bought The Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’ which was a double A-side with ‘Eleanor Rigby’ – the former was played a lot more though.  I remember signing along and thinking it hilarious to change the words to ‘Jar of Vaseline’ and ‘Tub of Margarine’ – how the adults must have laughed.

As had been the case in previous visits, I was allowed to go in the car with my aunt.  Oddly, I associate ‘Yellow Submarine’ with rows in the car – they were something that never happened at home. By that stage, I think that she was with her second husband with whom she seemed to have had quite a volatile relationship, there seemed to be a row every time we got in the car. She had divorced a year or two before, her first husband had eventually and painfully ‘come out’ in days when homosexuality was still illegal.

Despite the early exposure to The Beatles, they were never a band I listened to much – I think that I only ever bought ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘Back in the USSR’ – the latter was oddly a song that was always played at parties of the group of friends that I was part of in the late 1970s, linked to a church youth club.  The reasons for it being ‘our song’ were never clear though.

IMG_3623

More recently, both A-sides featured in Beatles ‘sites’ seen in a visit to Liverpool – the former outside a community centre in Penny Lane where we were told on a bus tour that Lennon stayed and looked out at this bizarre yellow construction.  It was utter nonsense, of course, ‘facts’ for the gullible tourist, as the history of the song demonstrates.  The Eleanor Rigby bronze statue in Stanley Street is much more tasteful and genuine – designed and made by the entertainer Tommy Steele, who is a renowned sculpture artist as well – it wasn’t even mentioned on the tour bus commentary as the less than magical mystery tour strangely by-passed the area around The Cavern.

 

Lindisfarne – Run for Home

I’m quarter Geordie, my paternal grandmother’s side of the family came down to the Nottinghamshire coalfield from its Durham counterpart in the later 19th century.    Their sojourn in Durham had been a relatively short one – the family had previously been colliers in Northumberland, 30 miles to the north.  It seems that there was a liaison with a daughter of a local landowner, a quick marriage and a move to near Bishop Auckland which saw the family of miners become a family of pit managers. There were still some links to the Northumberland coalfield and one of the sons was middle named after a colliery in a pit village that was eventually swallowed up by Cramlington New Town.  It became a family tradition to continuing the naming, passed down to me and now one of my sons.

DaleFortFieldCentre(JulianCremona)May2003I’d met J on a field trip course during a bitterly cold Easter at Dale Fort Field Centre (left on a Creative Commons via Wikipedia), a very bleak former Victorian fort which guarded the northern entrance to Milford Haven.  She was from Surrey commuter land and her trip was a biology one, mine geography – we had got chatting in the pub one evening.  We stayed in touch and wrote to each other quite a lot – she was the only person I have ever ‘corresponded’ with.  We met up a few times including seeing Tom Petty, Genesis and others at Knebworth in 1979 and I went up to see her in Durham a couple of times when she went there to university.

On one of those visits we went to see the band Lindisfarne.  They had always somehow resonated with me in my youth, I felt that there was a connection – perhaps I wanted there to be as I knew the history of my middle name. They were close to ‘home’ in a small, crowded venue full of both students and north-eastern fans of the band, every song being sung-along to.  Lindisfarne seemed to be in their element.  Few gigs I have been before or since came close to the amazing atmosphere that night; my ears were ringing for days afterwards.

Unsurprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be any footage of the concert, but this was one of their concerts from a few years later at Newcastle City Hall.

r-1457363-1352498132-7517-jpegI think that I’d borrowed and taped a live album, probably ‘Magic in the Air’ around 1975 and bought ‘Run for Home’ which did quite well as a single in mid-1978 – at the time we saw them it was my favourite song of theirs.   My tastes moved on though, and any vague liking of Lindisfarne was completely destroyed when the band allowed Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne to do an appalling rendition of ‘Fog on The Tyne’ in 1990.

As for J, I think that we saw each other only once or twice more before losing touch – it was in the days before Friends Reunited and then Facebook – I guess that I was never really a letter writer and that I probably didn’t really have the time anyway as I got more involved politically in my second year at LSE.  Oddly, I saw her Dad again a few years later in a corridor at Nationwide Building Society’s head office, where he worked, when I was having a meeting with someone in relation to my housing policy PhD.

Colm Tóibín – ‘Nora Webster’

Set in late 1960s Ireland against the backdrop of the growth of imagethe Civil Rights movement, ‘Nora Webster’ is about one woman’s loss of a husband, Maurice, a well respected teacher and member of the local community. It also deals with the impact that his death had on their children, particularly the two younger sons. Several of the interviews given at the time of the publication suggest that it was partially shaped by the death of Tóibín’s own father.

imageDeath, loss and the beautifully observed small town Ireland feature strongly, they are well trodden paths for Tóibín – featuring in some of his other novels, notably ‘Brooklyn.’ As the flow of visitors and people stopping her in the street to ‘pay their respects’ reduces, Nora begins to find a voice for herself and a new confidence through classical music as the beautiful, well-paced novel progresses.

In future, she hoped, fewer people would call. In future, once the boys went to bed, she might have the house to herself more often. She would learn how to spend these hours. In the peace of these winter evenings, she would work out how she was going to live.

Austin A40 mkIThe detail of the Austin A40 (picture Wikipedia Commons) driven by Nora brought back memories of my own youth – trips from the Nottinghamshire coalfield to the south west of Cornwall with five on board, piled high with carefully polythene sheet wrapped ancient cases, precariously balanced on a roof rack of uncertain stability. I digress though ……

Tóibín has a delightful reading voice, which you can almost ‘hear’ in the narrative; it is a voice that I first came across reading a short story by Sylvia Townsend Warner on the excellent New Yorker Fiction Podcast. The YouTube video below has him reading some extracts from Nora Webster as well as discussing it.

 

 

Orchestre Jazira – Happy Day (Celebration)

The early to mid-1980s saw a growing interest in West African music, I probably first came across it at Glastonbury in 1983 when I saw King Sunny Ade and Fela Kuti the following year.

I started seeing highlife bands at Arts Centres around Birmingham and later at smaller London music venues. The standouts were the excellent Somo Somo and my favourites of the era, Orchestre Jazira. Musically, Jazira while labelled an “Anglo-Ghanaian band” were much more diverse than most and this was reflected in their music.imageTheir only album, ‘Nomadic Activities’, was released in 1984 and while it could have been a springboard to success it wasn’t, as one of the few on-line biographies of the band noted

The album was consciously and defiantly at odds with what both the UK record business and its public then expected of an ‘African’ band – that is a simple, happy, all-night party sound.

‘Happy Day’ is atypical of ‘Nomadic Activites’ and was a final doomed attempt by their label Beggars Banquet to eke out some sales from the album, it did have a rather good video which surfaced again on YouTube a year or two ago.

I saw them a couple of times live, once in a crowded pub in Islington (I think) and the other in an almost deserted community centre in North London – around Crouch End, if my fading memory serves me correctly. The former was full of joy, dancing and sweat (probably what Beggars Banquet thought that they had signed), the latter much more subdued – the organisers appeared to have forgotten to do any publicity, but the band was slowly drifting apart, a shadow of  the recent past.  As it was probably around 1987, it may have been one of their last gigs – they were to finally split up that year.

The lack of commercial success and their demise didn’t stop me playing the record – it remains one of my favourites. Sadly, it was never to get a digital release, Jazira had drifted apart by the time CDs effectively replaced LPs. A fair number of the tracks are on YouTube though.