Shadja drones on

A few words slung together

September 9, 2017
by Stuart
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Rhinos, Winos & Lunatics

If you were hoping for something about rhinos, or wine, then I’ve sold you short, I’m afraid. There is lunacy aplenty, however.

The heading is the name of an album by Man, one of my most favourite bands. Man are on my mind because I’m reading Deke Leonard’s books about them. And, while we were in Cambridge, I picked up the boxed set of the ‘Original Album Series’ in Fopp, featuring five classic Man live albums, including Live At The Padget Rooms, Penarth, and The Greasy Truckers Party, which was organised in part by my friend Matthew Trustman.

The thing about Man is that they straddle everything I love about rock’n’roll. When I say rock’n’roll, I mean all of rock music, which includes heavy metal, prog, actual rock’n’roll (now called rockabilly for some stupid reason), punk, disco, jazz fusion, pop – you name it, it’s rock’n’roll to those of us who’ve been in it a long time. Even those overblown, strutting public schoolboys Queen qualify, at the pop end.

Anyway Deke Leonard himself described Man as a rock’n’roll band, and if he says so, then that’s how it is.

The most important thing about Man is that they are Welsh. They play British-style proggy rock music, but they are massively influenced by the West Coast scene of the US – people like Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane and the good ol’ Grateful Dead, who are THE band for me. Even more than Pink Floyd. Man, for me, have a bit of the very best of everything.

I was introduced to them by my old friend Debby Cooke (now Luxton) whose sister Janet was going out with a bloke called Dexter, who was into Man. Clear? Also, Ian Campbell, a near neighbour of ours who we used to give a lift to school – he was the same year as Steve – was a Man fan and, as I recall, saw them at Wycombe Town Hall.

Ian used to come and wait in our kitchen and I thought he was dead cool with his long hair and loon flares. Which made it all the worse when I came down for school in a lather of excitement about some new shoes I had to wear, which were possibly Wayfinders, with a compass in the heel. Anyway, I marched into the kitchen going, “new shoes, new shoes, new shoes” in a silly voice, only to find Ian standing there looking vaguely bemused. I never really recovered.

As usual it took me a long time finally to buy an album, and the one I bought is still a Desert Island Disc for me: Be Good To Yourself At Least Once A Day.

What a wonderful name for an album. It has a fabulous cover and only four long tracks: C’mon, Keep On Crinting, Bananas, and Life On The Road. Bananas and C’Mon are both classic Man tracks.

One of the reasons it stands out for me is the sound. Warm, slightly fuzzy, but comfortable and friendly. Terry Williams’ drums especially have a soft but no less insistent sound that kind of defines the whole album.

It was recorded at Rockfield Studios, where a lot of my favourite albums were made, including Hawkwind’s Hall Of The Mountain Grill, and Kingdom Come’s Journey, two other Desert Island albums.

I’ve encountered bits of Man as I’ve pottered through my little music career. Storm Warning played the club in Swansea set up by Terry Williams and Clive John, and Pete Brown, who accidentally hired me as part of the Krissy Matthews Band, usually worked with Phil Ryan on keyboards. That’s not to say I MET Phil Ryan, or even depped for him, but I was aware of his presence when working with Pete. Phil was the man who played the signature solos on Bananas and C’Mon.

Ken Whaley, who toured with Man, including an ill-fated American tour, worked with my brother as a journalist for a while, on the Islington Gazette. He signed my recording of Man’s BBC In Concert session, which included the best version of Deke Leonard’s signature 7171551 I’ve ever heard. But again, I never actually met him.

Most recently, I met Deke Leonard, guitarist, singer, songwriter and chronicler of Man. Derek White (Storm Warning bass) and I travelled to Cardiff together to see Son Of Man, the band set up by George Jones, son of Micky, the man who was Man more than any other man. Deke was guesting with them.

Well they played some of my favourite songs, including Bananas and 7171551, and Deke was in fine form, even though he was in long-term ill-health. Afterwards, he signed two books for me and chatted to me like an old friend. A lovely feller. Not more than six months later, he was gone.

As he said that night (in a rich Llanelli accent that covers a multitude of oaths), “Why do the Gods always take the good ones? Why don’t they take Brian Ferry? Fuckin’ ‘ell…”

Funnily enough, Deke is not on Be Good To Yourself. It’s Micky Jones’ voice and guitar you hear soaring above things after Phil Ryan’s joyous solo on Bananas.

That was the thing about Man. People came and went, and went and came again and no one really cared. They just wanted to make music together. How lovely.

September 8, 2017
by Stuart
Comments Off on The old man and the sky

The old man and the sky

Heading back up the Great Ouse, Lucy at the tiller. We’ve just pumped out our waste and taken on fresh water. All is well, despite the anxious moments when we first opened the valve.

We got a rare sight soon after this, of a pair of herons cruising above us. And then a blinkin’ kingfisher, which we had not seen for a couple of days.

September 8, 2017
by Stuart
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Norman is an island

After the Lemon Tree, we made a pilgrimage to Ely Cathedral. It’s a Norman cathedral, built after William’s conquering armies finally defeated Hereward the Wake. Hereward’s fighters defended the Isle of Ely for five years. It actually was an island then; the Fens were not drained until the 18th Century (I think that’s what our guide said).

The picture is taken from the nave of the cathedral from the west, so facing the altar. Up above you can see the ‘lantern’ tower, which dates from the 14th Century.

The original collapsed when the foundations were undermined by the building of a Lady Chapel. To rebuild the tower, they brought massive oak trees up the Ouse from Bedford, each one more than 300 years old. So the oak of the lantern has stood for more 1,000 years.

This is the Lady Chapel. The statue of the Virgin Mary was carved in Portland stone by David Wynne, the father of Ed Wynne of the Ozric Tentacles. I first heard the Ozrics when David Wynne chose Myriapod as one of his Desert Island Discs. They have been up there with Hawkwind and The Grateful Dead ever since.

And this, as best as I could manage, is the great organ of Ely Cathedral. The big decorative bit to the right is fake – purely decoration. You can just see some of the real pipes up on the second level.

Charles Handy bemoans the lack of ‘cathedral builders’ these days, by which he means visionary people who are prepared to start projects even though they may never see them finished. Such people are driven by causes greater than themselves. I wonder if the Gherkin will still be there 1,200 years from now?

September 8, 2017
by Stuart
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Early Ely

We’re heading out in search of coffee, which we found at the Lemon Tree Deli. Very nice and they had some amazing vinyl. Didn’t buy any.

September 7, 2017
by Stuart
Comments Off on A man in a punt…

A man in a punt…

‘FFS’ is, I believe, the accepted abbreviation. I am in a crocodile of tourists, led by the bloke in red, heading down to the river for a punt tour.

We – well, not me – were hustled outside King’s College, not long after Rachel saw Laurence Fox in a newsagent. In her haze of adoration she succumbed to a charming young man who said dogs go free. It was 20 quid a head. I said, mostly jokingly, “Will you do it for a tenner?”, and he agreed.

So now I’m trudging down back alleys towards a most uncertain fate. “It’ll be nice on the boat,” the bloke said. I pointed out that I’d been on a boat since Monday, but it didn’t make any difference.

This is Andy, our punter. Puntsman? He was intelligent, fit and charming. Twat.

Off we go then. Down the Backs of the colleges. Bloody Andy was funny and informative, as you can see from the delight on the faces of the punters, which, at a tenner each, we assuredly were. I can’t remember which bridge this was, but you get the gist.

This is what I signed up for. King’s College Chapel from the river. Lovely.

This might be Claire bridge, or not. But it’s Rae and a bridge, which matters.

And oh look, a Tiger Moth pottering over. Lovely.

I think this is the Wren library, with Lucy’s nice jumper.

Here we are approaching the Bridge of Sighs, which is not like the one in Venice, according to Andy, and I believe him. We turned round after this and gently punted back in silence till we got chatting to him. Punting is his year-round full-time job. His passion is painting but he struggles to get the time and space, like so many artists.

And on the way back, there was a beaky heron. Turned out to be a lovely trip.

September 7, 2017
by Stuart
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For the record

So that’s Max out of action for a while. Might take a look too, though to be honest the vinyl thing hasn’t grabbed me, even though I wanted it to. Old stuff on vinyl, on my old record player, yes. New stuff? Nah. Gimme a CD in a digipack. Yes, John Peel, life has surface noise, but the quiet bits on ‘Reflections Of A Floating World’ needn’t, and neither should the harpsichord works of Frescobaldi. Actually, the shop had a Jack Teagarden LP, with a version of ‘Rocking Chair’ on it, but I didn’t fancy lugging it about.

September 7, 2017
by Stuart
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Platform heel

I suspect the driver was pretty annoyed with me for taking this. Leaning across the yellow line, dog on lead, precarious phone. 

But I’ve learned a fundamental trainspotter’s lesson today: NEVER travel without your books. I took them out because they were weighing my bag down a bit and lo and behold it’s been a feast of railwaydom for pretty much the whole trip. Our mooring in Ely was just across from a line that runs commuter traffic and freight, and it has diesel and electric locomotion, with overhead power for the electric units.

Anyway, I’ll just have to look this one up when I get home. It’s the 12:25 service from Ely to King’s Cross and we’re travelling on it to Cambridge for the day.

Just arriving I think…

September 6, 2017
by Stuart
Comments Off on For you, Ron Ron

For you, Ron Ron

We stopped at Ely, and went in to explore. Rae and I had been before, but only to the cathedral, which is lovely.

What you see here – a bit blurred, which will make sense in a minute – is The Drayman’s Son, a ‘micropub’ in Ely that is dog friendly and brews its own magnificent beer.

I’ve not drunk real ale for a while, because most pubs near me don’t know how to keep it. It’s a shame, because our local brew, Rebellion, is excellent. But it’s in the nature of real ale that it requires love if it is to be at its best. Like all of us. At The Drayman’s Son,  there’s a true love of good beer.

We sat and played with the Trivial Pursuit questions on the table, and Max read the Calvin and Hobbes book on the shelf next to him. A lovely time.

I nipped to the gents – a pint and a half takes me that way these days – and there on the wall was a lovely photo of a Spitfire. It was taken from below, with the aeroplane at a slight bank, which shows off R J Mitchell’s (didn’t look it up) timeless design perfectly.

The image provoked wonderful memories, including a very recent sighting near home, which was a rare chance to see a Spitfire cruising by at that rakish, ineffably beautiful angle. It called to mind another treasured memory, of a man who was part of my life even before Pink Floyd woke me up.

Ron Peters was my dad’s best friend, and I loved him too, in my own way.

Dad got to know Ron when they both became founder members of High Wycombe Junior Chamber of Commerce. Ron was a bank manager (they were still decent people then) and Harry – my dad – was a rising star in the paper industry.

We often visited the Peters’ house, and Steve (brother) and I would hang out with Janet and Kate, the two Peters daughters. In the hot summer of 1976, we all went on holiday to Scotland together and I fell in love with Kate. I’m not sure she fell in love with me, but she humoured me for a while until she realised I’m a total idiot, devoid of honour, and dumped me like nuclear waste (Frasier).

It was while in Scotland that Ron explained to me the meaning of the line ‘hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way’ in Pink Floyd’s ‘Time’. Ron, like my dad, kind of enjoyed dwelling in quiet desperation. There’s a picture of the two of them taken at a character-building outward bound course run by John Ridgeway. I think they went to become better managers. The shot shows the two of them, after about four days, looking absolutely spent, and wondering why the hell they had bothered. It was a study in quiet desperation.

During that Scottish holiday, it was decided (without consulting me, or disregarding my reasonable objections) that we would go pony trekking. Back then, I had a fear of horses (and dogs, cows, almost any sentient creature) that I had inherited from my dad. I badly didn’t want to go, and neither did Ron, who shared my distrust of large animals. Dad, of course, was going to keep Ron company, and I had to make the trip.

But before we left, another horse bit my mum’s horse and she fell off. She was fine, but I was convinced; I was not prepared to spend another moment among such demonstrably savage and uncontrollable beasts. So my dad climbed on my horse and Ron and I were left to explore the locality together.

Well, he was very decent about it. Knowing what I know now, he was probably cursing his luck at being left with this bumptious, yellow-bellied oik, but he took it in his stride. Before heading off into the Scottish countryside, we nipped into the gents – perhaps it started then – and stood in that distinctly male way alongside each other.

“Magnificent views around here,” ventured Ron, ever the polite conversationalist. One of my great regrets in life is that I choked back my reply: “Bragging again!” (I was going through a smartarse phase that has so far lasted 50 years…). My dad later told me that Ron would have have been highly amused.

We pottered about the fields and along a river that ran near the trekking centre. To our dismay, the route took us into a field of highland cattle. They even had the temerity to wander along the banks of the river among the trees. I nearly tripped over one before we discovered our plight.

For two arrant cowards like Ron and me, they might as well have been lions. We froze, then crept away, treading like native American scouts to avoid provoking the unpredictable creatures. Then we came to a gate, with a path that clearly led to safety. Except that in the field, close to the path, was a splendid highland bull. Shaggy coat, massive horns. I swear it pawed (hooved?) the ground, and blew smoke from its nostrils, like the bull in Bugs Bunny.

I honestly don’t remember how we got back. Perhaps it’s one of those memories you blot out, from shame, or fear. But after that, Ron and I definitely shared something of a bond, a bit like Bruce Willis and the gangster guy in Pulp Fiction, when they’ve battled the Gimp. We never spoke of it, but we both knew.

The Spitfire thing actually happened before all that, when I was still at primary school, I think. Wycombe Air Park – locally known as Booker Airport – used to put on an air display every year, which was pretty good for a local aerodrome. It included a Piper Cherokee formation team, Tiger Moths and other cool stuff. But pride of place went to the Spitfire, which was the last show of the day.

My memory is that we were leaving to avoid the traffic – my parents’ generation were that kind of cautious – when the Spitfire turned up, so we missed a fair bit of the actual display. But at one glorious moment, it flew right in front of us, banking at that supreme angle. The curve of the wings, the sleekness of the fuselage, the roar of the Merlin.

Ron had a voice made for such occasions. Slightly Kenneth More-ish, with a hint of John Le Mesurier. Proper RAF. As the Merlin faded gloriously into the distance, I saw a look of wistful rapture on his face. “That’s an aeroplane,” he murmured, simply.

He was right, it was. And when you see one now, it still is.