Thursday, 26 February 2009

A Catastrophising I Will Go.

A watched kettle takes forever to boil. Perhaps it was Einstein that said that? One thing I’ve always been aware of, and particularly in these last few weeks as I record events and thoughts here, is how ‘time’ seems to pass at such differing rates according to what I might be doing or working on at that time.

I often work on my laptop (doing exactly what I’m doing now) during the period between the interval and the point in the evening when Phil and I take to the stage for the grand finale to accompany Fairport on their final encore - Meet on the Ledge. That stretch of time can feel like an eternity, or alternatively, if I’m deep in composition then the time can fly by - and there’s even the potential danger of missing my cue completely.

The way in which I’m illustrating my point makes ‘time’ out to be something that actually exists outside of me; an energy, a force that moves consistently in a linear direction, and although I understand nothing of Einstein’s ‘time and relativity’ theory (or his ‘kettle’ theory come to that) unless I’ve got it wrong, it would appear that his work might support that view.

In my summation, if one’s perception of time can change so radically, it’s hard to see what you think you’re perceiving as anything more than just a perception. OK, I understand that we humans have invented a system of measurement, a means of measuring the distance between events, and I’ve heard it said that without ‘linear time’ all events would occur simultaneously; but somehow we’ve gone from a system of measurement based on days, nights and moons to a collective belief that we walk a line that stretches forward to a future, backwards to a past, and that here we are somewhere between the two. This imaginary line is directly implicated in the way we avoid the experience of the only place we have always been and always will be - that place is ‘now’.

It all goes to show what an incredibly inventive bunch we are - conjuring up all these ideas and illusions. Nevertheless, no matter how much we invent, or how much we think that our ‘take’ on life is actually reality itself and not just a subjective and collective belief system, when life actually does happen to you, you have no choice but to go with it, surrendering everything else. What brings you sliding in at birth, also picks you up and carries you out at death, and apart from what feels like the odd ‘life or death’ scenario along the way, you make up the in-between part as you go along.

Performing can put you in ‘the now’, not that it is a ‘life or death’ situation or anything, but there is a correlation factor in there somewhere, and I’ll go into this a little more, later on.

A few years back, maybe seven or eight, maybe more, I heard someone called Julian Barbour speaking on the BBC Radio 4 program Start The Week; he was promoting his book: The End of Time. I was completely taken and compelled by his ideas, so I went straight out and bought it; it was written, supposedly with the ordinary man in mind; non of this academia-speak or anything, the whole purpose was to explain things in a language that almost any half intelligent reader could comprehend. I think I made it up to about page twenty, not just the once I might add, but each of the five times I went back to re-read it, page twenty was were my understanding came to a grinding halt.

A few months back, Phil came round to rehearse with me; as usual, we drank tea, talked a bit, sang an occasional song, and talked a bit more. Our conversation moved onto the subject of ‘time’, then he told me that a few years back he’d heard this chap talking on the radio about a book he’d written; he couldn’t recall the exact title, but it was something about ‘time’, he said. He went straight out and bought it. He explained he found much of it quite hard to understand, so he hadn’t managed to get very far into it.

I guess I don’t need to spell it out, but yes, it was the same book; a case of synchronicity maybe? Well if that’s synchronicity - what about this; Fairport have just launched into ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’.

Monday 16th. Boston Folk Club.
Should’ve been a day off, but having been contacted by Greg Swain, who has, here in Boston, one of the longest running clubs in the land, both Phil and I decided to spend our leisure time performing. Greg seems like a very decent chap, and someone who knows what’s going on in the world of music, well - folk music at least. This is more than can be said for the master of ceremonies. Our introduction went something like this: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are very privileged to have here in our midst someone who’s work you’ll be very familiar with - star of television - comedian - Phil Cool. And also Ken Nicol; I’ve no idea what he does, but I guess we’re about to find out”. Now that’s what I like, someone who does his research and takes time to gather some background information.

In my assessment of the evening I’d probably say that the audience wanted little more than comedy, and largely speaking - that’s what they got.

I do believe that there is something to be learnt from all situations and scenarios in life; and what I learnt from tonight’s situation has a somewhat philosophical leaning to it.

Tuesday 17th Feb. The Drill Hall, Lincoln.
Apart from just a couple of minor issues, this is a thoroughly classy and impressive venue. Preston needs one of these badly. Refurbished to aesthetic perfection, the only noticeable flaws lay behind it’s striking exterior, and as far as I can see, they are only relevant to us, the artists, who spend time on the ‘inside’.

The dressing rooms are few; fewer than three; greater than one; and today both were cold, too cold. And again, it is another one of these places that has, sitting behind the bar, a great looking espresso / cappuccino machine, and yet they don’t seem to want to use it in the evening; I ended up walking across to Wetherspoons where the Lavazza is acceptable and surprisingly inexpensive.

The parking situation: There is an NCP car park adjacent to the theatre; unlike Wetherspoons, in terms of expense, it is unsurprisingly extortionate. As I write this, I do so in anticipation. Earlier I attempted to add another £2:50 to the sum of what has already been spent on keeping the car fine-free for the day - up until 6 p.m.

The £2:50 is for all evening parking; this is the exact amount I have repeatedly tried to feed it only to be told that it was insufficient by the machine. So later, after the show, I am fully expecting to see that dreaded piece of yellow polythene, held firmly between wiper and window, edges flapping in the wind, as it becomes larger and more of a reality with each step taken towards my car.

24 hours later.

Now, the day after, I can state that my fear of incurring a parking violation was unfounded. Once more I was guilty of catastrophising. I’ve been caught catastrophising before on more than one occasion; actually, to be perfectly honest, if there were a competitive sport in this I’d probably do quite well at it; maybe I’d have trophies on my mantle piece, trophies that would illustrate perfectly the success that preconceived failure can bring.

Catastrophising is a concept, a description, a practice that I became aware of when I wrote my dissertation on ‘stage fright’ whilst doing a Contemporary Music degree at the University of Central Lancashire back in 2002; it’s what an enormous number of us artists do before and often during a performance.

I am completely intrigued by this subject. Whenever I do guitar workshops I always try and spend some time discussing how students feel about performing. The number of us that put ourselves through hell is quite staggering; and for what? One would have to assume that there is some significant magnitude in whatever objective the performer has, and is trying to achieve, that would give him or her reason to go through what feels to many like a life or death scenario.

But be it performing or just living, my reasoning mind has concluded on the basis of past evidence that we have far fewer things to worry about than we imagine, and that there is every reason to place our trust in this process of life that we are all a part of - whatever label or value (God-given, etc) one might want to give it.

Still, my reasoning mind is not yet fully integrated with the rest of me, so a-catastrophising I shall continue to go, at least to some extent - until I take a few steps further up and along the ladder of enlightenment. The next thing is: how come we think of enlightenment as an upward, or a forward movement? Now don’t get me started on that one.

And speaking of enlightenment and all things related, Phil and I visited Lincoln Cathedral on the afternoon of the 17th; it’s spectacular, massive, a brilliant building. Whether it be the Duomo in Florence, St Botolph’s Church (Boston, Lincolnshire), or here - Lincoln Cathedral, it’s not just the majesty of it all that becomes the object of my fascination, it’s more a desire to know, to comprehend some of that which was the motivational force behind the planning and construction of anything on such an awesome scale. Buildings that took centuries to build and required an incredible amount of manpower; there would have to be an extraordinary purposefulness to this; a belief that’s unswerving and undentable. Maybe the bigger they were, and the further they reached out, the closer they became, both spiritually and physically, to the almighty. For a man with so many question marks, so many ‘ifs’, ‘buts’ and ‘maybes’ in his mind, I find such unquestioned belief quite mesmerising.

As far as the cathedral is concerned though, whatever your take on all of the above, the bottom line is - it’s worth a visit.

Wednesday 18th Feb. The Stables, Milton Keynes.
Every time I come here it seems they’ve done something more to to the place; it’s always more different to how different it was last time. It’s looks very swish, even more swish than before.

If you don’t know already, this ever improving venue was founded back in 1969 by Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine. Almost all of the people that work here appear to be volunteers, and there are plenty of them; still, despite all of this willing assistance the prices to the public are about as high as they come.

Friend Anna was arriving, she estimated, at 3 pm - after driving up from some business she had to do in Tunbridge Wells. I know Anna from my association with Barry Cheesman who organised and promoted the Great Bardfield Guitar Festival last February at The High Barn, one of my all time favourite venues. I really enjoyed the spot I played on the Sunday night, as well as the new faces I met there. The following day I set off back to Lancashire on what was a cold, frosty but sunny morning; surrounded by the beautiful Essex countryside somewhere between Great Bardfield and Saffron Walden on a somewhat small and quiet stretch of road, suddenly from my right through a hole in the bushes, and at full flight, came about half a dozen Roe Deer running across and slightly towards me. There was absolutely nothing I could do to avoid hitting the one at the front of the bevy (I just discovered that this is the name given to a group of Roe Deer). The impact was horrible, the only fortunate part being that both animal and vehicle met each other with such force that death was probably immediate. I pulled up about 100 yards further and stepped out of the car to walk back and assess the damage.

It’s difficult to describe how upset I felt; I could see on the front of my car there were a few strands of the animal’s fur scattered in various places, and a few scuff marks on the front near-side wing, but the last thing I was concerned about was the car. I went to see what sort of condition the creature might be in. When I reached it I saw no evidence of life in it’s innocent and twisted body. I used my mobile phone to take a photograph; I thought I might need to do that.

I felt like a Bulldozer; one amongst many; a willing and active participant in a culture only concerned with, literally and figuratively, getting to wherever it is we might be going; and that our reasons for going there override, not just the concerns of others with similar objectives, but worse of all - the innocents; those who live in natural accordance with life, the life that we drive through and over.
I understood that there might be a legal requirement to report these things, so a couple of days later I went online and found a website which is set up for such a purpose. They want to know - location, what day, what time, the type of deer? All that kind of stuff.
Some four weeks later, my partner Carol and I were heading out to warmer climes, we were flying from Liverpool to Gerona, Spain. Sat in the departure lounge my phone rang, it was Tim; I’d met Tim at the guitar festival where he was displaying his own make of acoustic guitar: Moondog. He gave me the news that festival organiser Barry had suffered a serious stroke, and that the prognosis looked bleak. Within four days of the news, Barry died.

Anna still lives at the house they shared together in Great Barfield, and I’m very taken by just how much of ‘the survivor’ she has in her.

Thursday 19th Feb. The Winding Wheel, Chesterfield.
Looked like full house - or thereabouts. A good atmosphere. Loads of friends.

Chesterfield is the town with the famous crooked spire, and a town I feel know well - having travelled here on countless occasions usually to work with Ashley Hutchings who lives just outside the town in a village called Cutthorpe. Paul Hopkinson runs The Foundry, a recording studio I’ve worked at many times; it’s situated in Church Walk, adjacent to the twisted spire. The most recent project both Ashley and myself worked on at Paul’s studio was the Anglo - Italian CD: My Land Is Your Land - a collaboration of Ashley’s and, my dear friend, Ernesto De Pascale, who lives in Florence. The album, which was released about two months ago, in my view, brings our two cultures together, in both music and verse, from so many different and interesting angles, that give it a dynamic I could never have predicted; testimony to the foresight of both Ernesto and Ashley. I was very moved when I first listened to it from start to finish. It’s an absolute winner - I love it.

Also, I neglected to mention when writing about the London concert at the Union Hall that Ernesto was due to fly over from Pisa with three fellow journalists for the show. However, we, here in the UK, were not the only ones at that time to be suffering the rigours of winter; it was bad in Italy also, and consequently Ernesto’s flight was cancelled. He was incredibly disappointed, as was I.

This was the most difficult of days for me, emotionally and energy-wise. Touring is such a roller-coaster; if I’m to be brutally honest I’d have to admit that the ability to tour with a reasonably sustained sense of stability and and a kilter that’s even is not an innate part of my makeup. One of the positives on this tour is that I’m driving my own vehicle; it makes a big difference when you can feel even a little bit like the master of one’s own daily destiny.

Of course, the best part is when you step onto the stage, and this part, the only part the audience sees, constitutes a tiny fraction of the time spent away from home.
You’d think that by now, after all the practice I’ve had over my years on this planet, I would have, as with other things in my life, honed the art of sleep into something more achievable. In actual fact, I am getting slightly better at it, but whereas many a musician can sleep through till midday, I wake early, and more often than not can’t quite figure out a way, no matter how hard I try, or don’t try, just how to sink back into that state of ever-so illusive slumber in order to recapture those last couple of hours or so, you know - the bit that seems to make all the difference. So some afternoons I’ve taken to spending anything from a half hour to an hour in my car. I sit on the back seat (the windows are conveniently tinted); I lock the doors, put the travel pillow around my neck, find the hypnotic induction playlist on my iPod, put on my earphones, and away I go. The skill is timing it all so that later, when it comes time to go on stage, I’m sufficiently awake to perform.

Friday 20th Feb. The Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield.
Feeling slightly more up for things today, and I’m looking forward to sleeping in my own bed; the one in my own house; the one in my home town, even if it is just for one night.

This is a very attractive theatre. It’s only the second time I’ve played the main hall (the first time being with - yes, Steeleye); previous to that, and some three and a half to four years ago, I played a solo gig below in the basement bar. It was one of those very sparsely attended shows that I became quite accustomed to in a ‘solo’ capacity. It was though - a great evening, good enough to spur the theatre manager into talk of an immediate re-visit; ”Would you like to play here again? Soon?”, he asked. “Why yes, that’d be great “, I replied. “OK, I’ll phone your agent tomorrow”. And he went on . . . ”We’ll definitely do it again, only next time we’ll really promote it properly; it’ll be great to have you back”. You know, as a performer, half the job is taking things with a pinch of that which raises your blood pressure; I’m still waiting for the phone call.

Saturday 21st Feb, The Burnley Machanics, Burnley.
Not only is the date the 21st but also it’s the 21st date of the tour; 21 down, 11 to go and one of the best nights so far.

With two notable guitar heroes in the the audience tonight: Jerry Donahue and Gary Boyle, I’m grateful my mind chose not to pay too much attention to their presence as I launched into my solo instrumental - R.B. To be frank, it was most probably my best performance of the piece to date.

Phil and I had quite a long drive after the show; we travelled down to Hilton Park on the M6, arriving at the Travelodge there somewhere around 2 am.

Sunday 22nd Feb. The Maltings, Farnham.
Checked the milage; 3,080 miles driven since our first day on the road, and the first night in Tewkesbury.

The good night had by all got off to a great start at a local balti restaurant, although I did break one of my golden rules in eating before a show; it’s never a good idea.

A particularly vocal audience tonight.

Had one of our shortest drives so far after the show … about 11 miles to Camberley.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Hail To The LPG.

A thread is easy to lose. Be it music or prose, both have, in their moments, a most natural way of transitioning from their conceptual source to an audible or visual destination. OK, it’s a roundabout way of saying that sometimes ideas flow, and at other times they don’t. In my view, I reckon people prefer to think that the ‘only’ reason for such contrasts in difficulty or ease of expression are invisible; they are unexplainable. It’s a romantic notion that places responsibility for the ‘giving’ of inspiration in the realm of the ethereal.

I’ve chosen my words carefully; I said they might prefer to believe this was the ‘only’ reason; I myself think it might well be a significant part of it. But, as with a great many, if not all things in life, the more one does something, the easier it seems to get. It’s like creating ones own luck; again, making the intangible happen. Even the psychic has to practice.

And so, as the days and the shows approach, occur, and pass, the continuum of my thought process is interrupted by the absence of intention.

There’s no doubt about it though, the morning is the best time for me; there’s much less that stands in the way, and clogs the mind in the early hours. And morning it is - in another stop along the way on our Travelodge tour of the UK. Last night and this morning it’s the Cherwell Valley, Bicester, Travelodge just off the M40 in Oxfordshire. The weather is getting a little milder perhaps, but still the snow lies in patches here and there; outside my window it’s positively Christmas-like.

By our standards it’s a short drive today, only about 35 miles to Leamington Spa.
I’ll give a brief run down of our last few shows along the way 8th Feb. The Union Hall. London. It’s just great to travel to London once every couple of years, it’s important to remind oneself exactly why one made the decision to live somewhere else, and it only takes a single journey from the west along the M4, onto the A4, and then spending around a half hour to fourty five minutes getting through Knightsbridge, and there you have it, it all falls into place. Don’t get me wrong, I actually like the place, maybe I even love it in a way, but I don’t love it enough to put myself through that kind of daily strife, not to mention expense.
The venue we played is situated in Islington, not all that far away from Highbury, the home of football team Arsenal. Fairport’s truck was parked at the back of the venue in a space normally reserved for football parking; these spaces are like gold dust, and it cost a grand total of £90 for the privilege of leaving the truck in this space for half a day; there was also the substantial cost (a few hundred pounds) of an ‘emission’ charge that these large vehicles have to pay to enter our capital.

When I walked into the Union Hall I thought it would be a difficult room in which to get a good sound; the roof is very, very high; and ‘cavernous’ could describe the way everything bounced around in the sound check.

After Phil and I had done our spot I walked out and listened to some of Fairport’s set; I was surprised, maybe more than surprised, by how good the whole thing sounded.

The venue is actually a church; I got the impression it is still being used in the manner it was originally intended. The only down-sides for me (apart from the London traffic) were the temperature of the place, and the fact that we all shared one big communal dressing room.

9th Feb. The Gatehouse Theatre, Stafford
A cold Sunday, and a small but very friendly audience. I was looking forward to seeing friends Bill and Sue who live close by. Bill is a headmaster, and for something like the last eight or nine years, twice a year, he has organised school work for Ashley Hutchings and myself. This involves a full day at each school; Ashley teaches the children all about English folk music; I provide the music for the children to sing and dance to. Our next run of schools will be this coming March. It’s always like having a bit of a holiday for me - away from the responsibilities of home, and we get looked after very well.

Another nice surprise tonight was seeing Dave Rhead. Dave runs the Leek folk club; Phil and I played there just the other week.

10th Feb. The Brindley Arts Centre, Runcorn. A town so close to home, yet so rarely visited. This is one of those towns that’s easy to have a negative impression of - before you visit it, may I add.

I guess it’s all about the association of industry and chemical production that one attaches with the name. The theatre was actually very nice, and the town centre is like many others - with, by all accounts, one of the best music shops in the land.

This is the third night spent in my own bed; we drove back to Preston after the Stafford show last night.

11th Feb. The Harrogate Theatre, Harrogate. 
A beautiful town; the kind of place I should live. A very ornate 108 year old Victorian theatre, and a complete contrast to the modern architecture of the Brindley Arts Centre of the previous night. Tonight’s was a particularly lively audience.

Friends Steve and Terry Sheldon turned up, and presented me with the customary bottle of wine - Colombard Chardonnay, a very pleasant surprise. I’m not all that partial to Chardonnay, but this tasted just fine. I promised that there’d be half a bottle left at the end of the tour; Steve didn’t believe me, and wisely so, I’ve finished it already.

12th Feb. The Swan, High Wycombe. 
I couldn’t remember having played this venue before, that is - until I arrived, then it all came flooding back - nothing unpleasant you understand. It’s just that the natural tendency is to try and relate a venue name with a picture of the place before you arrive; very often I have to see it in front of me to have any recollection, and this was such a case.

And speaking of recollections, I remembered exactly where a Costa coffee house was in the town centre just behind the venue, and I recalled it being particularly good. So I sneaked out after the soundcheck for a quick ‘medio’ cappuccino.

13th Feb. The Assembley Hall, Tunbridge Wells. 
Getting into the town wasn’t quick, with some of the main streets in town blocked by road works the result was a very long end to a, up to that point, very short trip.

I always seem to have plenty of time on my hands when I’m here with Steeleye - for some reason my visits here have coincided more than once with our days off. Last time we visited, which I think was spring of 2008, I had lunch at a southern Indian restaurant, and I spent some time in a very nice district of the place called The Pantiles. It’s a pedestrian area, all very pleasing to the eye, and there’s also a good selection of restaurants and pubs. I dragged Phil along there with me, and just after brushing passed Tom Baker, who appeared, as we were, to be just enjoying the sites, the two of us had some lunch.

Peter Knight (Steeleye Span) and partner Deborah turned up at tonight’s show; it won’t be all that long before Pete and I are working together with Steeleye.

One of the customary features on these Fairport tours is how those who ‘open up’ for the band then come on and rejoin them for their encore at the very end when they perform Meet On The Ledge. I knew it was the kiss of death when, in the interval, Peggy jokingly said to Phil and myself, ‘don’t you two forget to come onstage at the end’.

Later in the dressing room Phil was, I think, reading a book, I was typing away, as I am doing now, and the time was just flying by. The dressing room usually has a speaker on the wall through which one can hear what’s going on onstage; we know that when we hear the band playing Matty Groves it’s almost time, there’s normally one more song that follows, and then Simon introduces us onto the stage; this is where I pick up my green Strat (copy), and I go electric. Anyway, we hadn't really been very smart and had turned down our dressing room monitoring system. At around 10:40 Phil walked over to the speaker and turned it up a little; we could hear Simon talking, and the audience was laughing; he was making ominous inferences; Phil and I looked at each other, at which point Nigel sticks his head around the dressing room door, and says, “You’re on chaps”. I made a dash for it. To tell you the truth, I think I might’ve then played particularly well, because I didn’t have any time to really think about things, this is often the way it work.

14th Feb. The Royal Spa Theatre, Leamington Spa. 
Phil and I arrived early at the theatre so we could first of all leave our guitars and valuables in some place other than in my car, and then we could rendezvous with Keith Donnelly. Keith and Phil are good friends and have worked together a lot over the years. We ended up eating lunch at the Pizza Express just down the road from the theatre.

I ran into Keith on many occasions during my stint with The Albion Band when Keith would be MC-ing at various festivals. He’d usually introduce the band as - The West Bromwich Albion Band, or even - The West Bromwich Albanian Band.

Today was a Saturday, football day, and at 2:45 p.m. I headed back to the venue for a date with my MacBook. I’m a season ticket holder at Preston North End, and a major grievance of mine at the moment is only being able to attend one match between now and the end of the season. I figured that the closest I can get to being on the match is to listen to the match commentaries; this is quite a bit harder than in sounds though. 

If I were in Preston I could switch on the radio and hear the normally excellent coverage provided by Radio Lancashire, but they won’t let you listen online, as they (they? The FA maybe) block the coverage. This is, of course, so they can then sell it. Right, so they sell it through a medium called Whites World; I don’t know if that’s what it’s called throughout the country, but that’s the banner it goes under in relation to PNE. OK, so I want to join Whites World so I can then listen on my laptop; well, it turned out that I could join, but once a member I would not be able to listen on the MacBook because of the encryption they use. It’s called DRM, and it only works on Windows computers. It’s best not to get too angry about these things. 

For a moment I did think I’d solved the problem when I discovered you can install Windows on an Intel Mac - as mine is, using a program called BootCamp; OK, I’ll do that then; no, again there’s a snag. The BootCamp that was designed to be used with my operating system has been discontinued. Luckily a friend of mine, Steve, found the version I needed, but in order to install it I had to reset the date on the laptop to a time before the software was discontinued. Once the software is installed it’s then OK to adjust the date again back to the present. I actually did it, I installed Windows, and it was a slightly terrifying process. Afterwards I was totally convinced I’d lost everything on my hard drive, but no, after a bit of fiddling everything was there, and to my amazement it all worked.

The end result was - me sitting in my car on a Saturday afternoon listening to a litany of missed goal scoring opportunities. We did win in the end though; and if you include the outcome of my installation efforts, I make that two victories in one week.

After tonight’s show someone expressed their appreciation at having heard my LPG song, not necessarily because he thought it was a well crafted inspired piece of songwriting, but because he too had been a fellow Liquid Petroleum Gas user over the years. He had worked for Calour Gas, and had been required, along with other employees, to run his car on the stuff. That was back in the 1980s when the whole technology was in it’s infancy. I had my car converted some four years ago; it’s been trouble free, and has saved me quite a bit; it’s hard to understand why it’s not more popular; mind you, I’m happy it’s not.

15th Feb. The Princess Theatre, Hunstanton. I’d been looking forward to being by the sea, so on arrival Phil and I did what one does in places like this; we had fish and chips and then took a walk along the sea front.

The beach looked a little dodgy in places, I mean not very inviting. And above, on the cliffs, there were a multitude of signs; signs telling you to clean up after your dogs (not sure how many people there can read though - I actually stepped right into the result of one dog owners illiteracy); there were signs to inform you that the cliffs were crumbling; and finally, for any of those mortals contemplating the notion of hurling themselves in a fit of desperation off this crumbling cliff, for those who’d maybe seen more dog mess than any mortal can take, there were signs to inform them that the Samaritans were just a phone call away.

Phil and I thought that we could reassure any of those considering throwing themselves from the balcony this evening that we would be available for them to talk to in the interval.

I used to work for the Samaritans in Preston; it was just after I’d returned from a nine year stint in the USA in 1989. I’d struggled so much with so many things in life, and I suppose I felt as though much of what I’d experienced might come in handy in regards to helping others. I did this for around two years, and I know I helped at least a couple of people during this time.

The most profound experience for me was on, I think, a New Years eve when a chap called who’d not long since lost his mother. He’d been drinking the whole day, and had taken an overdose of sedatives. Expressing his desire to ‘end it all’, he became more and more incoherent as he spoke. Following all the procedures I was taught to follow. I managed to get his address, I got him to unlock his door, and I kept him talking whilst at the same time sending the paramedics round to his house. He actually fell unconscious moments before the ambulance man entered the building and then picked up the phone to speak to me.

It was quite an emotionally exhausting experience. A couple of weeks later the man phoned the Samaritans again, this time it was to thank me for saving his life. On that day I felt in a way as though I’d completed a task, I’d done my bit, so to speak, and now it was OK to move on from there.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Second thoughts first.

The knock on my hotel door must’ve been at about 9:15 a.m. I immediately pictured the ‘I’m still sleeping’ sign hung on the outside door handle - placed there the previous night; a sign with a somewhat serious message to it, a message that in truth is saying to anyone contemplating making any contact with me whatsoever: ‘even though I may not, as the sign says, actually be asleep, DO NOT under any circumstance knock on my door’. As those who spend any significant amount of time in hotels will know, these ‘do not disturb’ notices are at times ignored by cleaning staff who either can’t read, or always do the opposite to what they’re told, or just want to make absolutely certain that you meant to display the notice, thereby confirming the total accuracy of the intent behind it’s placing on the outer door handle.

It was a sheepish knock; a knock without real conviction; not just a quiet knock; one that suggests more than just hesitation; it carried a dynamic, and though hard to quantify, a dynamic that’s recognisable both instinctively and instantly. Smelling fear, my response was totally committed. The timing has to be just right and it’s important not to appear too angry; I waited just a moment, just long enough, and in a fairly low timbre, and without shouting I said, “HELLO”; more of a question than a greeting. There was no reply. With attempted authority I strode, wearing the pyjamas I bought from Lidl only a few days earlier, towards the door thinking I was going to make life slightly unpleasant for this person, this cleaner; well, I mean there must be many cleaners who find cleaning pretty unpleasant anyway, and in truth I wouldn’t want to compound anyone’s misery or anything like that, but after all, they have ignored my sign.I swung the door open, again not too fast as I repeated, “HELLO”. In broad northern voice I heard “Sorry Ken, ‘ave I woken you up?“.

Before me stood Phil. Even his grin was sheepish. The words ’what the f##k’ that were in my mind, almost reached my lips. “I’ve been talking to the person at the desk, and they said there’s no way we should drive anywhere today. Have you looked outside?” He asked. When I did look outside I saw what he meant. The snow was thick; thick and frozen.

The question arose as to whether we should ‘stay put’ and cancel the hotel reservation for the following night in Bridgwater; we were informed that it was possible to transfer all the details to the present Travelodge in Barnstable. I have to admit that the thought was quite an attractive one; I could do a little practice; I could do some writing; I could relax a little; I had some food in my rucksack, and even a bottle of wine; being snowed in didn’t sound so bad at all.

First thought was to email tour manager Nigel, and find out if he and the band have made any decisions. An hour or so passed without a reply and so I phoned Simon. He explained that Nigel had called the AA, and they had informed him that the roads were in fact open but the going was slow; so the band were going to make their way to Ilfracombe from Tiverton, intending to set off at 12:30 p.m.

Not all roads lead to Ilfracombe, just two in fact, they’re both small, but one is not quite as small as the other. As luck would have it, the sun appeared in the sky; it was very picturesque outside, and though there was still plenty of snow around, the ice lost it’s footing. The journey and the gig began to look feasible. Though the going was definitely slow, in Ilfracombe we did eventually arrive. The conditions were quite bad, but they were manageable; it was, so we were told by the locals - the first time they’d had any snow to speak of for over thirty years. So, the show went ahead. I felt that for all of us this was the point at which the transition became noticeable; that is, the transition from the music being something one might have to reach for, as opposed to something that has been absorbed into the system. When that starts to happen basically there’s less tension, and the more free you are to think about expression, etc.

February 4th. The Anvil Theatre in Basingstoke has to be one of my favourite theatres, it’s just very tastefully and well designed from both an atheistic and acoustic point of view. It was good to chat with Maria again, someone who I first met when friend Charlie Monck used to get me solo gigs in Whitchurch, some years back. Don’t know what’s happened to Charlie; last time I saw him at a Morris On show he was holding his mobile phone in the air as the band played, so as to let his girlfriend in the USA listen - and we’re not talking just one or two tunes here, it was for most of the night. I keep imagining that he finally went to live over there. Charlie, if you stumble upon these writings, do get in touch sometime.

The 5th of Feb, and Worthing. The first in a duo of seaside venues, this one not really being at the sea-side, more a case of above-sea, on the pier to be precise. Lovely crowd there; at least four people came up singing the praises of Folkcast. If you don’t know about Folkcast - you should; you need to visit: Folkcast

Weston-Super-Mare, 6th Feb. The Playhouse. If it had been left up to me we probably wouldn’t have made the journey today, not for any other reason than the weather report being absolutely terrible with significant areas of the country completely cut off, and this included the closure of the road into Weston-Super-Mare on the east of the town - the direction we are approaching it from. With reports of around two hundred drivers who had been stranded over night on a hill just south of that location, it wasn’t just a case of wondering whether we’d reach the place, with extreme icy conditions forecast over night, it was more a case of wondering if we could get back for tomorrows London show. After the customary email to Nigel and phone conversation with Simon, once again ‘fearless Fairport’ were on the road. So Phil and I did the same and set off on a westward course. We made sure we had plenty of food, and that the car was full of petrol and gas, just incase we got stuck somewhere. The hardest part was getting the car out of the hotel car park as it’s wheels spun on the thick, compacted snow and ice.

The names: Devon, Somerset and Cornwall have an instant association of warmth and cosiness for me; they are reassuring and safe places. They are all about cream, cider apples pasties and beautiful coast lines; when compared to the likes of steel, cotton, black puddings, and other dubious products associated with some of our other counties, for me the south-west of England is the winner. Of course, my coloured view is most likely down to a childhood holiday. Our parents were quite brave to drive us all the way down there from Preston back in something like 1960, especially when I think about the car - an old Post Office van; a Morris with a smiling front. The way these vehicles were sold by the PO was by inviting offers from prospective buyers, and from what I recall, my Mum and Dad offered the princely sum of £7.00. On it’s acquirement my Father painted it blue, and being a joiner, he fitted it out with these bench-like seats in the back which were covered in this sort of fake leather, PVC type of material. There was a layer of foam between the cover and the wood that could be described as, well, minimalist. Maybe this is why I prefer to stand up so much these days.

There was, of course, no concept then of such things as seat belts, but there was also no concept of this car travelling at speeds greater than 40 mph; there may have been one occasion when we overtook someone; I recall us cheering in the back. In the end, via central and south Wales, we got to Devon, and then got back home. It was a great childhood holiday, and there’s no doubt that wherever you have a good or a bad time as a child you will most probably continue to view those places in a corresponding light for the rest of your life. The show was a very good one tonight in Weston-Super-Mare, but you know, it wouldn’t have really mattered if it hadn’t been; I like this place - unconditionally.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Third night nerves.

It’s Monday 2nd February, and finally I’ve got myself to sit down and write. Here I am, at the Roundswell Services Travelodge, just outside Barnstable in Devon, a location we reached after something like an hour and a half on the road after last nights show in Yeovil. It was an easy drive; it usually is at such late hours; the only notable features of the journey were twofold, first the display of mortality by way of a large number of badgers and foxes laying lifeless on the country roads; and secondly, the swirling powder-like movement of snow in the headlights as the extreme Siberian weather conditions moved over and into the entire United Kingdom. As luck will have it, I do believe that we, ‘we’ being Phil and myself, have actually engineered events, by chance, in such a way to have avoided the heavy snow that the rest of this country appears to be witnessing today; mind you, it’s still damn cold and windy out there.

Lets see … the shows so far, four in all; they have, with those inevitable moments of scratchiness, been good, and, as one would hope, have been getting better.
Night number one was Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire. The venue was The Roses Theatre, a fairly small venue as venues go, or, I should say - as ‘theatres’ go; I’ve played much smaller, but for bands like Steeleye and Fairport the theatres are generally larger. But as they say, size is unimportant, and The Roses has a unique character to it; it’s cosy. it feels comfortable and welcoming, and the staff usually have smiles on their faces. 
When I chatted briefly to Simon (Nicol) before the show, asking how he felt about the new songs in Fairport’s set he said he was suffering third night nerves, I didn’t pursue the subject, nevertheless I sort of understood. I wouldn’t pretend to know exactly what he meant, but I categorically know from my own experience that nerves are not so easily defined so as to be able to limit their description to a classic ‘first night’ scenario. No, ‘nerves’ have dynamics all of their own, they are fuelled by whatever fuels them at the time, and even though uncertainty is at it’s core, there are components that present themselves along the way, twists and turns as songs evolve, some that eliminate the uncertainty, some that feed it.
From my point of view it was a good first night. 

This may well relate to the ‘nerves’ issue, but for me night two was a bigger challenge; the venue - The Pheonix Arts Centre in Exeter is actually smaller than The Roses; the venue itself is a lovely and intimate space, but for the size of Fairport’s operation - that’s road crew, band, equipment, flightcases, etc, there just wasn’t very much room left for privacy back stage. I hadn’t slept well the night before and was feeling far from my best; it’s at these times when it really helps to find a quiet place where one can settle the mind before taking to the stage. 
Night three: The Hall for Cornwall, Truro. From one extreme to another; this place is huge, well, that’s an exaggeration maybe, but after the previous night it was huge.

Night four: The Octagon Theatre, Yeovil. Maybe a slightly more conservative audience, and a Sunday night too. It wasn’t that they didn’t show their appreciation, they just did it more quietly than Truro. Fairport sounded brilliant to my ears, obviously they’re settling into the new material nicely. I particularly enjoyed Meet on the Ledge, the point of the concert when Phil and I join the band on stage at the evenings end.

Today was our first day off, and as stated earlier, Phil and I are staying very close to Barnstable in Devon; despite the blizzard-like conditions outside we decided to take a drive to the seaside, to Westward Ho. We actually wanted to go to Clovelly, but it was closed due to the weather, and how treacherous it’s steep streets would consequently be.
We ended up on the Westward Ho sea front eating fish and chips as the snow fell. My fingers were absolutely bloody freezing, and yet I can’t quite explain the pleasure and comfort I felt at the time. It’s been a good day.