Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Back To School

As I mentioned back in post 3 (Nicol & Cool / Fairport Tour, 9th Feb. The Gatehouse Theatre, Stafford), twice a year, for what I think has been the last ten years, Ashley Hutchings and I do a little school work, teaching grades four, five and six children all about folk music; well maybe it’s best described as our folk tradition, seeing that it’s more about the history and way of life of a time that gave rise to what we see now as traditional music and dance.

Ashley definitely does most of the work, but then - he’s the expert, and he’s spent most of his life as both servant and messenger to this cause. Don’t think for a minute though that this implies the kind of narrowness one might often identify with such focused intention, particularly in folk music; Ashley is seen as one of the original, if not ‘the’ original folk-rocker(s); he has an innate ability to incorporate and to work comfortably within the contexts of both past and present.

We normally work down here in Staffordshire for two weeks at a time, and we do this twice a year - February / March and June times. This time round, due to a number of reasons, it’s just four schools. Basically, both Ashley and I have more work commitments than usual; but this is also not to ignore the reality that a significant number of older school Heads, those who’s awareness of folk music has it’s roots in the student days of the nineteen sixties and seventies, are, one by one reaching retirement age.

Although I’ve never been drawn specifically toward this notion of having to keep our traditions alive, I must admit to finding the idea of a culture dominated solely by the mainstream superficiality that is increasingly afforded so much unquestioned regard really quite disturbing. And far from having concern over whether there will be any schools to work in before too long, I do fear a little for the children, and wonder as to whether generally there is enough emphasis on, not just folk music, but any of those things outside of ‘the three Rs’ that add a little more fullness, richness and meaningfulness to our lives.

The schools that we visited, all in the Stoke / Leek areas are, in this order:

Monday 16th March. Forsbrook Primary School, Forsbrook.

Tuesday 17th March. Bursley Primary School, Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Wednesday 18th March. Woodcroft Primary School, Leek.

Thursday 19th March. Westwood First School. Leek.

As usual, the dynamics, and the way in which the children relate to one another, and indeed to us, varies enormously in terms of their willingness, interest, intelligence and all round behaviour from one day to another. There’s no doubt, they can be a real handful.
Speaking as someone whose school days were little short of a nightmare, these days I have high regard for those who choose teaching as a profession, they deserve a little admiration.

Friday 20th. St Bede’s, Clayton-le-Woods.

A solo gig, and although a welcome change, this turned out, personally, to be a very difficult night.

The evening has been promoted by Dominic Finley, who, along with keyboard player Chris Stewart I shared the bill with.
Arriving at the venue at around 4 pm; tonight I am the provider of the P.A. the sound man, and later on a performer. My P.A. has been perfect for what I’ve needed it for over the years, and is more than adequate for the size of tonight’s venue. The 400 x watts a side amp, and the Bose 602s have been incredibly reliable.
After setting everything up and sound-checking myself, I set about getting Dominic and Chris sorted out.


Somewhere, sometime, I don’t quite recall the exact point in time, the mobile in my pocket vibrated. Opening up the phone as I walked out of the building, and into the car park, I was slightly surprised to see on the display that it was Carol calling me; she sounded a little shaky. “Ken”, she said, “I’m at the vets, we need to make a decision about Mavis”.
I’d been dreading this moment, but wasn’t in the slightest bit surprised of it’s timing.

I asked the inevitable and obvious questions: what has the vet said then? Is an operation completely out of the question? Have they given an indication of how much longer she might last?

Mavis, as well as becoming very thin had been getting progressively more unsteady on her feet. The plan had been to give her these steroids that were supposed to build her strength up. Then when we deemed her to be strong enough we would pay a considerable sum of money to have the offending section of intestine removed. Contrary though to what we’d been led to believe, the moment that the very first of the steroid injections was administered her condition declined in dramatic fashion.

It had been upsetting to watch this decline in her health, as you would imagine, but the most striking thing to me was that in the whole of her sixteen years of life I’d never seen her this happy. Really, all you had to do was look at her, and she’d be purring. The more she seemed to struggle physically, the happier she became; I even wondered if half of her was already somewhere else - waiting for the other half to follow. There was a beauty and an innocence about her that made me want to cry, and that would fill me with hope both at the same time.

Anyway, it was decision time, and both Carol and I knew that - there was no decision. Out of the two of us, Carol was the lucky one - lucky to be with her as the injection was given. My instinct was to not to want to witness the reality of Mavis’s death, yet I absolutely knew that in some way being safe in the short term, meant I would suffer in the long term. It’s all about being able to move on.
And move on I will do - to the show I’m about to play. It wasn’t easy; I felt drained.

Me and Mave.

If I'm being honest, I’d have to say that in my view, Dominic’s set just went on a bit too long. It was so hard sitting, waiting.
When eventually it did come time for my bit, motivation was something I had to dig very, very deep for. My own assessment was that though I may not have been at my liveliest when I took to the stage, I did actually play well.

Sunday 22nd March. RMMGA Gathering, Hargate Hall, Derbyshire.

Another solo gig. I drove down from Preston, calling in at Bill and Sue’s in Endon, just outside Stoke on the way. I’d left a guitar there (unintentionally) during the past week of school work. It was just one of those fortunate things that it happened to be somewhat on my route to Hargate Hall. It was nine years ago when I last played at one of these annual meetings.

RMMGA stands for: Rec.Music.Makers.Guitar.Acoustic. Not certain what the ‘Rec’ is; ‘recording’ maybe? Recreational?

They’re a great bunch of people though, and they travel from far and wide to be at these events, some even flying in from the US.

It was a perfect mixture of organisation and chaos. There were barrels of real ale, a whole row of them in a small corridor that led away from the main room where everything seemed to be taking place. A fair number of those in attendance were exhibiting signs that would suggest there had been a significant number of encounters made with these barrels.

The evening meal, a curry, was served at 20:30, then when everything quietened down I was ‘up’; ‘up’ on stage, that is; as ‘up’ on stage as one could be without there actually being a stage. There was a performing area though, and a PA, quite a good PA in fact.
The set went well; I enjoyed the whole evening. I especially enjoyed seeing some old faces - guitar maker Alan Marshall, who I first met back in 1969 when I lived in Derby; Gillie Nicholls, whom I worked with in the Albion Band back in 1998/99; plus, all the others I know from my previous encounter with the RMMGA group.

Pete Gay, one of the organisers seemed slightly put out that I wasn’t staying over, after all the effort he’d made to get a room prepared for me, but I had no recollection of saying I’d do anything other than travel home after I performed. I was very appreciative though. I got back home at around 2 am. Sat 28th March. Nicol & Cool, Ashover Village Hall, Derbyshire.
You could say this is one of the first fruits that the Fairport tour has yielded.

When Phil and I played in Chesterfield on the Fairport tour, the guys from Xeli promotions were there (http://www.xelipromotions.co.uk); it’s a team of people local to that area that have promoted some good quality concerts for the last few years, usually in the village hall in Ashover, a small village that sits just outside the Peak District National Park.

On February 25th I received an email from Stephen Preston asking if Phil and I could fill a date that had been booked for another act, but for one reason or another had been cancelled.

Despite the last minute nature of the event, with over a hundred in attendance, the hall seemed quite full. It was a good night, promoted by an organisation that appear to know exactly what they’re doing.

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