Tuesday, 17 March 2009

The Circle Game

So often I hear the words: “I feel a very strong connection with this place”, and it’s more than once I’ve noticed that those expressing these uncanny feelings are referring to Scotland, or some area of it. I must have run into scores of people, for example, who, in a past life fought at Bannockburn or Culloden; well, going by age alone I assumed it was in a past life.

No, you’re wrong, I’m not at all cynical about these things - I stand by my existentialist principles; you see, maybe the intuitive sense that some people have, has a tangibility known only to them, and without being them, I’d have to reserve judgement.

I do have a few considerations though; like how come I’ve never heard someone express the same sense of connection with Luton? This feeling; this sense, does tend to be focused on the more beautiful and historically significant habitats the world has to offer, and much of Scotland is, without question, beautiful.

Come to think of it, just last year I experienced what the professionals might call ‘minor connection syndrome’. This, a syndrome I’ve just invented, is one I experienced when Carol and I visited Ayr in August of 2008. I found it to be one of the most pleasant, peaceful areas I’ve ever been to; and the lush golf courses, they are all over the place - as was I when I played, but I’m sure with a little practice I can sort that out.
The words ‘pleasant’ and ‘peaceful’ don’t really nail the picture I’m trying to paint, but it’s the closest I can get at this moment in my attempt to describe the experience of when everything is absolutely OK; when things just feel ‘right’.

Now if anyone has a right to feel connected to this country I’m presently in - Scotland, it’s me; you see, my surname, Nicol, is of lowland Scottish origin.

Despite the above, there have always been way too many people out there, stretching across the years from my earliest to these very latest, and across the miles from these borders down to the southern-most counties that have conspired to turn me into one who carries with him an English heritage. They have done, and continue to do this by persistently adding the letter ‘H’ to my surname. Consequently, I learnt at a very young age, whenever asked my name to reply: Ken Nicol . . . N-I-C-O-L. But such has been the determination of the many I’ve spelt it out to, that they still went and stuck the ‘H’ in.

Still, there are much worse things in life.

I’m not privy to much information on this subject, but I do know that it was my Father’s great Grandfather, David, back in the mid eighteen hundreds who travelled from his native land to New Zealand; I know that at this time many of the indigenous population here were making similar journeys to the New World - boarding ships bound for New Zealand and Australia in their quest for a new life. My Father grew up in Dunedin on New Zealand’s south island; the name Dunedin is, of course, the first part of the name Dundee (where I am now) combined with the first two syllables of Edinburgh (where I was yesterday).

Joining the Royal Navy at the advent of the second world war, my dad, Jim Nicol met Tom Prescott on an aircraft carrier bound for the UK; he consequently ended up, when on leave, at the Prescott household in the Deepdale area of Preston, Lancashire, and this is where he was introduced to Tom’s sister Alice. Now, here I am, the result of a classic wartime story - the son of Jim and Alice.

In my music, as in my life there has always been the desire for perfect symmetry. I suspect many of us want the same; it’s something about equals and opposites; beginnings and endings; equilibrium; balance; tying up loose ends; taking care of business; putting things to bed; it’s about packaging life in a way that gives the feeling of having made sense out of, out of . . . well, everything out there - and in there. I love the notion, the symmetry, of returning, eventually, to the place where I began; the idea of completing the perfect circle, and finishing a set task.

Sounds romantic? I’m being honest here, I spent too great a part of my life espousing cynicism as reality, believing that a positive or hopeful view of life was delusional; nowadays, having unintentionally proved myself wrong too many times, I couldn’t disagree with my old-self more.
Now I see Cynicism as a search in itself (well, maybe mine was), an effort to put one’s finger on something with the use of attempted logic, albeit a logic which seeks an already determined outcome. This is a process that continually sets out to ‘disprove’, and carries a belief system of it’s own that does not always examine and potentially disprove ‘itself’. And yet, without my cynicism I would never have worked this out.

I don’t care what anyone says, one can’t be cynical based on fact, but you can be on the basis of interpretation.

Now let me try and tie this together somehow.

The culture I grew up in certainly did not appear to question itself very much, and secondly, many in it frowned upon those who challenged the values of that culture; questions were, I would say, perceived often as the obstacle rather than the way to a potential solution.
‘Questioning’ removes you from the midst of things, it creates distance; and consequently it is a way of gaining perspective. And it can be a means of achieving that circle - not just in helping to rediscover everything you already knew, but by consolidating it - and learning quite a bit more along the way.
One last note about this sense of connection; is the connection for real, or is it imagined? Well, I’m going to leave out the specifics and just go with the feeling.
For a little more information on the name: Nicol, go to:

Monday 23rd Feb. Day off.
A short drive up to Luton and our first time off in thirteen days. Searched forever for a filling station that had LPG. This is the only downside I can see when it comes to running your car on a duel fuel system. The availability of Autogas varies dramatically from one area of the country to another, not to mention the price. Before the tour began I downloaded a ‘POI’ (points of interest) file for my sat nav, which gives directions to hundreds of LPG outlets around the UK. I discovered today though just how erroneous some of these directions are; I did everything the sat nav lady told me; every roundabout exit; each left and right negotiated perfectly, until eventually she told me I had arrived at my destination on left. - a residential care home? I know that in today’s economic climate many companies are diversifying, but no, this time I had been led up the proverbial garden path.

Carol took Mavis, our sixteen year old cat to the vets today to find out why she’s lost so much weight; the vets said she has a growth on her kidney. We’ll find out the result of her blood tests in the next couple of days.
In the evening Phil and I walked a short distance to a pub called the Leicester Arms, and drank slightly more beer than was good for us.

Tuesday 24th Feb. The Alban Arena, St Albans.
Since our London show at the Union Chapel I’ve been intending to mention an email I received from someone called Janet. For me, there’s much about touring that can feel quite mundane; I’m not talking about the actual performances of course, it’s the other bits, the bits that constitute the remaining 98% of time spent away from home. However, when you get an email such as the one Janet sent, it can all make a bit more sense.
She wrote: I saw you at the Union Chapel the other evening and thought you and Phil were just great - exactly what we needed to warm us up on that chilly evening. I will be seeing you again at St Albans and wondered if there was any chance you might play The Level Plain? I love your arrangement of that tune.
It also has special memories for me.
When my dear father-in-law died a couple of years ago we had it at his funeral (I hope you received the royalties!). My mother-in-law asked us to bring some music round so that she could choose something. We played her lots of things from classical through folk to jazz but none were quite right. When we put on The Level Plain, the tears just rolled down her face as she said, "That's him …”

Now what can you say about that? It certainly lifted my spirits. I’m just sorry I couldn’t oblige with the request; The Level Plain is not something I’ve ever performed on a single guitar.

After I’d played my instrumental piece tonight and left Phil onstage, I went into the dressing room, and as usual started to tune the banjo. Listening to Phil through the monitor on the dressing room wall, I heard him go into his Johnny Cash routine. He sang the first verse, and then strummed the usually brief guitar interlude that leads to the second verse. I was surprised to hear the strumming continuing a little longer than usual; I waited for the verse to start; the strumming continued; still waiting for the vocal, I turned and looked towards the monitor above the door; the song ground to a halt. I heard him apologise to the audience. I figured he’d just pick things up and carry on, but there was nothing happening.
Next, the tour manager, Nigel, stuck his head round the door, and said, “Phil’s struggling, get back out there”. We cut the set short, bringing Fairport on a good ten minutes earlier than usual.
I’d certainly never seen this happen to Phil before, and he said he’d never experience such a thing until today. ‘It was like a dream’, he said, and described it as suddenly becoming completely removed from everything he was doing. Everyone was very concerned about his well-being.

Got the results of Mavis’s blood test; her kidneys are working fine. Will find out tomorrow if she’s diabetic.

Wednesday 25th Feb. Day off.
Checked out of Trowell M1 services just after midday, and we made our way up the A1 to Scotch Corner.
Phil had this idea of going to see a film; not being much of a film-goer I wasn’t all that keen. I’ve always been the same, I don’t know why, but I’m always reluctant to watch a film, and yet, more often than not, once I’m there I love it.

We drove only two or three miles from the hotel to the town of Richmond in North Yorkshire, took a walk round what is one of the is loveliest places you could ever visit, and then saw the first film that was showing. The cinema is in a renovated train station, called, not surprisingly, The Station.
First film up was Revolutionary Road; we knew nothing about it. Once again, I loved it; the acting was spectacular. And as always I sat there thinking, ‘I wish I could do that’.

Called into an Indian restaurant on the way back, and got a take away; a chicken tikka biryani. Not a bad day all round.
Mavis is not diabetic. She’s going in on Friday to have an x-ray to find out what the lump is.

Thursday 26th Feb. The Journal Tyne Theatre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
This theatre has a fantastic history, and the walls backstage are covered with posters and sheet music that date from the 1800s up to the present. Someone did say it was the oldest theatre in Britain; I’ll google it and see if that’s verifiable.
Saw friends Ray and Joyce Stephenson that live close by. We met Ray and Joyce six, maybe seven years ago when holidaying in Lefkas, Greece.
Also it was great to see Charlie Monck - or Lord Charlie as he’s sometimes referred to. He had suggested we all go out for a bite to eat after the show, but as usual Phil and I had a drive ahead of us, this time to Berwick.

Friday 27th Feb. The Queens Hall, Edinburgh.
Today was a struggle after one of my customary late nights and early mornings. I just had to take a rest in my car later, maybe listen to a little hypnotic induction on the ipod, otherwise I didn’t know how I’d make it through the gig. I’d even bought a new pair of earphones a couple of days ago after somehow losing the Etymotic ER6i in-ear phones I got from the USA a couple of years ago. The Etymotics were very good, and the replacements I got are very cheap and basic, but I figured I’d use them in the interim whilst deciding on my next earphone move.

So I got into the car, locked the doors from the inside, manoeuvred my way onto the back seat, put the inflatable travel pillow around my neck, inserted the ear-pieces, and turned on the iPod. The car was parked around the back of the theatre in what was like a small quiet and hidden driveway. About three minutes in I heard the distant sound of kids, teenagers. I slowly and slightly opened my right eye to see what the deal was.

It was a group of, I’d say fourteen year olds (or thereabouts), boys and girls, they were walking past the car; I figured they were probably on their way home from school, so I closed my right eye again and tried to push aside that very slight feeling of concern I now had, as the voices faded into the distance.

Minutes later, there it was again, the sound, the voices; reassuring myself with positive thought I took another peak. This time they were standing around my car; I spotted one of them eyeing my sat nav, and my in-car DAB radio which is suspended from the quarter light on the driver’s side. Still, I thought, “ignore them, and they’ll go away”. The third time I opened my eyes, all positive thoughts had gone; this kid was hitting the window, and hitting it hard. My car was being broken into - and I was in it! Because of the vehicle size and tinted windows they were completely unaware that it had an occupant.

I’d just gone from being told to ‘let go’, ‘relax’, ‘take deep breaths’, to wanting to commit murder. I shot forward toward the front, the drivers seat, and on seeing me they took off, all except one who seemed to find the whole episode quite amusing. He stood by the drivers window waving and mouthing various taunts at me. At that moment I understood everything about how and why people get into serious trouble taking the law into their own hands. Opening the door, I flew out of the car, seriously wanting to hurt this person. He ran off to join his friends who were now some twenty or thirty yards away on the main street below.

I know it all sounds quite scary, but I wasn’t shaken too much by it at the time, my main thought was, “when will I ever be able to get some sleep?”

The news on Mavis: she had her x-ray but the vet was unable to make out exactly what the growth was, so she was sedated and they took a look inside. Turns out the tumour is on the intestine. The plan now is to let her recover for a few days, treat her with steroids to get her strength up, and then see if we can have the growth removed. The final part involves having the house re-mortgaged to pay for it all.

Saturday 28th Feb. The Whitehall Theatre, Dundee.
Great to see old friends Dave and Margaret Nicholson again. Not long after I arrived back in the UK from America in 1988 I got to know Dave and Margaret when they started to come to the shows I played around Preston. Dave was working for Barclays bank at that time, and he helped me with a little financial assistance to invest in some recording equipment.
He’s a dedicated and serious runner, but in the present economic climate, if you’re a banker - you need to be.
Audience was a bit thin on the ground, especially for a Saturday night.

Sunday 1st March. The Pavilion Theatre, Glasgow.
Another theatre with a rich history, and very much like the Journal Tyne theatre in Newcastle the walls are littered with old posters and reminders of past times. Phil came into the dressing room saying, “Ken, you’ll never guess who played here in 1937 . . . a duo called Nicol and Martin. Now that’s weird”. What I should explain is that Phil’s real surname is Martin. He took me down to the bar to see it for myself. “I’ll bring my camera and photograph that later for the blog”, I said.
After the interval I headed back towards the bar, camera in hand, only to find that it was completely closed. I was locked out, and that was that.
I tried a Google search for Nicol & Martin but couldn’t come up with anything; so all I know about these two is that they performed at the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow seventy two years before we did.
This hall has a capacity of 1500, and tonight we had around 250 in. It’s what’s described in the business as ‘a furniture sale’. From the stage though you’d never have guessed; they truly were one of the warmest crowds we’ve encountered.