Encounters with Russia.

23 Jun

I’ve just spent 2 months in Russia, visiting the homes of the very rich and the very poor, listening to monks deliver long religious discourses, eavesdropping on political and philosophical discussions in taverns, getting caught in the middle of violent family disputes, eavesdropping on passionate love affairs, witnessing a murder and attending the subsequent trial. It’s been a long, intensive, traumatic experience. Luckily, I am now back in the calm and familiarity of my English home and the book I’ve been immersed in: ” The Brothers Karamazov” is now resting safely back on the shelf. Reading its  985 closely typed pages was a mammoth enterprise and, at times, an all consuming experience. Fyodor Dostoyevsky didn’t belief in writing little ditties. His novels were invariably on a grand scale, sprawling epics giving a rich slice of life at all levels of 19th century Russian society. He’s very much like a Russian version of Charles Dickens, painting a rich, detailed picture of the human experience. Like Dickens too, Dostoyevsky’s works were published in instalments in newspapers or periodicals. That’s probably why they contain such gripping suspense. He wanted to make sure that his readers would  purchase the next episode. Some wag in a review I read, noted that he got paid by the word, thus explaining why his novels were so long.

The sheer length of “The Brothers Karamazov” explains why I waited until I’d retired before I was brave enough to tackle it. When I was at work I wouldn’t have had the time to read it regularly enough to follow the multiple threads it contained. As a 20 year old student I had attempted to read the same author’s “Crime and Punishment.” I gave up just over halfway through the crime. This time it wasn’t the length that daunted me but the frightening, sinister quality of Dostoyevsky’s prose. It got to the point where I was too scared to turn over the page! I abandoned the book and didn’t think about reading anything by him again until a thrilling, chance encounter in the early noughties. In November, 2006, I was lucky enough to go on a city break to St Petersburg, Russia’s former capital city. Opposite our hotel to the south of the city centre , stood an ancient looking Orthodox church surrounded by an atmospheric graveyard. It was in fact the Alexander Nevsky Monastery and cemetery from the mid eighteenth century. It had been snowing so everything looked pristine white and beautiful. My wife, Chris, and I decided to brave the biting cold and go to explore it. The church was mysterious but fascinating with people bowing to and kissing glistening icons and a bearded monk baptising a crying baby. But it was in the cemetery that the real surprise and thrill came. We wandered past a row of Bolshevik head- stones tucked away to one side. They were topped by red stars and red hammer and sickle motifs. Presumably they were not allowed to rest in the main part of the cemetery because they had been atheists. It was surprising that they were there at all though, as if at the last minute they had decided to hedge their bets. Then we stepped into the heart of the graveyard. It was surrounded by avenues of bare black trees festooned with bunchesof blood-red berries. It looked stark and beautiful in its blanket of snow. What enfolded was a parade of Russian, 19th century celebrities.

First came Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s headstone, quickly followed by two other famous composers: Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin. Tchaikonsky’s handsome bust was accompanied by two thoughtful angels, one studying a music manuscript. Flecks of snow gathered in her wing feathers and in the folds of her gown. On to her lap someone had placed a bunch of lovely, white narcissi. Borodin’s tomb featured a dazzling art-nouveau mosiac of a page of his music, black notation, a glowing golden background and green and red decoration. We were just marvelling at our surprise find when there it was, the grave of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the celebrated novelist. We stood and stared, forgetting the freezing cold. It was a tall, handsome tomb surrounded by a low, wrought iron fence. At its centre was a head and shoulders bust of the great man , sporting a full, flowing beard and a dodgy looking comb- over. Above and below him in gold, Cyrillic script were his name and biographical details, I presumed. Strewn in the snow was a scattering of red carnations. We had just stumbled across the last resting places of 4 of Russia’s most famous sons. For a while, until the cold started to gnaw the tips of my fingers, I stood there mesmerised. I think it was at that moment that I decided to return to Dostoyevsky’s novels at some point, as well as listening  to more Russian classical music. Time to dust down those old vinyls and revisit the classics on the book-shelves.

At first though I ignored Dostoyevsky. Maybe I was still too scared. I had had nightmares for months after putting down “Crime and Punishment.” To me it was the literary equivalent of Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, a film I always have to pluck up courage to watch. Instead I took down Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”, another epic work. It’s sheer length had made it previously too daunting to tackle. My only previous connection with it had been through the old Hollywood film starring Ingrid Bergman. ( made in the 1930’s I think.) Most people remember the last scene when the ” heroine” jumps in front of a thundering train. But watching the film seems a lazy way of tackling one of the great works of world literature. The inner world of the book and of the characters cannot adequately be revealed in a moving picture. I’ve always thought this and that’s why I made a point of reading all the novels of Jane Austin instead of just being satisfied with the pretty costume dramas on TV or at the cinema. The same goes for the works of Dickens. One cannot capture the sheer power of his writing by singing along to the catchy tunes of “Oliver” or viewing any of the innumerable TV adaptations of his works. Applying the same logic to Tolstoy, I decided to pick up the book, even though it was so big. I don’t know what all the fuss was about– my translation of Anna Karenin ( mysteriously missing the final “a”) was a mere 853 pages of close text and they flew by in no time. From the first sentence Tolstoy’s wonderfully lucid writing had me in its spell. A book only seems long if it’s boring. It’s dead easy to read a genuine masterpiece. Don’t worry, I’m not going to deliver a critical analysis of the novel in this blog. It probably wouldn’t be very good anyway. I’ll just suffice to quote part of the back cover of my Penguin classic ( translated by Rosemary Edmonds) :” Acclaimed by many as the world’s greatest novel, Anna Karenin provides a vest panorama of contemporary life in Russia and humanity in general. In it Tolstoy uses his intense imaginative insight to create some of the most memorable characters in literature.” Like Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy is a supreme master of the psychological novel, delving into the motivations of his characters and their many conflicting facets, with subtle, compelling skill. Yes, I got drawn straight into it,was gripped and fascinated throughout and felt sad and bereft when it finally finished.  Like all very good books, completing it was like losing a close friend. Anna Karenin jumped straight to the top of my all time favourite  novels chart, pushing George Eliot’s marvellous “Middlemarch” down to number 2. Without leaving my armchair I had returned to St Petersburg and Russia. My earlier trip had inspired and enhanced my reading of the great novel. I was now on a roll. I now picked up “War and Peace”, another Tolstoy classic and another truly epic read. Many critics regard this as the greatest book ever written.

I thought “War and Peace” was great. It too has vivid characters and their psychological and emotional worlds are expertly detailed. The epic battle scenes are fascinating too but I think Tolstoy overdid the theorising about history and the fate of humanity. Sometimes he laid it on with a trowel as they say and his frequent philosophising slowed the momentum of the main story. So I didn’t put it at the top of my personal literary hit parade, ( sorry Leo), but it easily secured a spot in the top 20. The book has wonderful characterisation, and  such convincing dialogue that you feel as if you are actually in the room with the speakers. Most of all, it too immersed me in the Russian world, albeit one of over 2 centuries ago. It’s a world that is familiar but strange at the same time. Russia is the largest country in the continent of Europe, yet the majority of its land is in Asia. It’s a paradox. I entered that same intriguing world in my Dostoyevsky readings. To make it all the more mysterious and compelling, it’s a world that has now passed into history following the traumatic revolutions of 1917.

For much of my life I wasn’t allowed to visit Russia. It wasn’t even called Russia. The communists renamed it : The Soviet Union. When I was growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, the Soviets were the enemies. They were the ones we might have a catastrophic nuclear war with. It was very scary especially during the incredibly tense Cuban missile crisis of the early 1960’s. Russia still is scary. Their recent annexation of the Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine are not exactly peaceful or welcome developments. Also the Russian treatment of the Chetchens and other Causasun peoples has been consistently shocking and largely ignored by the west. Putin loved Bush and Blair’s “War on Terror” as it gave him the convenient opportunity to harshly suppress and oppress his minority peoples with western approval. All he had to do was label them “terrorists.” It’s not surprising that in their desperation, some of his opponents have turned to terrorism. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Violence sadly breeds violence. And all this has come on top of the many horrific events of Russia’s tragic 20th century — a disastrous First World War, violent revolutions, bloody civil war, communist dictatorship under Lenin and especially Stalin plus others, reigns of terror, political repression, enforced collectivisation and subsequent famine, forced relocation of whole populations, the lethal work camps of the Gulags, the Nazi invasion and the horrors of the Second World War… The list of terrors and tragedies is seemingly endless. It makes Tolstoy’s or Dostoyevsky’s Tsarist Russia seem like a walk in the park.( which it wasn’t of course.) The fact that many Russian novels are so big, long and heavy, merely reflects that nation’s long and heavy history.

Even in our brief visit to St Petersburg in November, 2006, we could feel the heavy weight of Russian history bearing down on our shoulders. St Petersburg, 17 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, looked superficially prosperous. The roads were crammed with cars, big, glossy shop windows displayed a wide range of luxury goods, and many of its grand historical churches and palaces had been beautifully restored. However, even a brief look at the people, their facial expressions and their body language, was enough to show that all was not well. Most people avoided eye contact and did not even look up. They trudged through the streets or on and off the Metro with bowed heads and slumped shoulders. Most, if you could see them, wore miserable expressions. There were no smiles, and no courtesies in these street encounters. People did not make way as we approached. They just walked straight  at us and it was us who had to give way. It’s easy for tourists from a rich country with a comfortable life style to conclude that Russian people are just plain rude. It’s not as simple as that though. As soon as I tried to imagine myself in their shoes, I understood their behaviour a lot better. With all that tragedy and tyranny in their lives, why should they be carefree and happy? The younger ones whom we met in shops and restaurants were more friendly and spoke enough English to break down the language barrier a little. However the younger generation is not weighed down by so many terrible memories. They had not had to survive the horrific Nazi siege of Leningrad in the 1940s for instance or the gross deprivation of human rights experienced under the Soviet regimes. They had not lost loved ones in the wars in Chechnya or Afghanistan.      Many older people tragically lost their life savings in the post Communist Yeltsin regime when inflation ran riot and the state’s prized resources were sold off to opportunist businessmen who became obscenely rich overnight. There was a power vacuum and an economic free for all which saw the rise of the notorious Russian mafia. Apparently, when state run industries such as oil, gas and minerals were broken up and privatised, every citizen was given a handful of shares. However these were gobbled up by the oligarchs, who bribed many gullible people with the price of a bottle of vodka and so the few became super rich and the many became desperately poor. A travel companion of mine told me she had lodged in the St Petersburg apartment of an older couple in their late 60’s. They had lost all their savings in the Yeltsin era and were forced to go out to work full time and rent their spare room to western tourists. This was  in the mid 90’s. My friend told me the area where she stayed was dimly lit and shabby, with litter and broken glass . She didn’t feel safe and was always in well before dark. She said it was an interesting but very uncomfortable experience. Meanwhile, mega rich Russian oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich, buy up properties in central London, the south of France or Cyprus, swan around in luxury yachts and private planes and buy football clubs such as Chelsea FC to use as their private playthings. At the last count, Abramovich was worth a cool US$9.1 billion. A few years ago someone commented to me : “I wonder how many people are slaving away in Siberian mines to pay Frank Lampard’s wages!” At the time, Lampard was one of Chelsea’s highest earners at £150,000 a week!

So it was not surprising that we encountered gloomy faces and defeatist body language. Many Russians have had their hopes and spirits crushed by circumstances. Life is one big, bitter struggle. That was my impression anyway. The lack of smiling, welcoming faces was disconcerting but it certainly lent a powerful atmosphere to the place and a definite edge to our visit. Yes, we saw wonderful churches and cathedrals, ornate palaces, spectacular squares, picturesque canals, world class art and a wonderful ballet performance. We saw the Winter palace in winter and queued for the Hermitage museum in a raw, freezing -7degrees centigrade, to be eventually rewarded with a dazzling array of masterpieces. St Petersburg is a world class tourist destination. Yet my most abiding memory is of the depressed ordinary people shuffling through the wintry streets. It was not a  totally comfortable experience but that made it all the more fascinating. On our last day there we got mugged in an underpass as if to underline the air of discomfort that hung in the air. A large group of Asiatic- looking men in military uniforms, bumped into us and jostled us for about 30 seconds. It was like being in the middle of a rugby scrum. When we were spat out at the end I found that my wallet was missing and they had tried to cut the straps of Chris’s rucksack. Luckily we were not hurt, albeit more than a bit shaken, and they only got away with the equivalent of £35 and my Tesco’s card. I hope they found it useful!  Oh, and we also got taken as hostages in the colourfully named Restaurant Rasputin where we ate with friends after the ballet. They would not accept payment by card, demanding cash only. They refused to let us leave until one of us walked back to the hotel cash machine to get the money. A couple of “heavies” suddenly appeared to back up the previously friendly waitress. ( They weren’t really that heavy– I’m only joking.) Still it wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience.

So, I’ve had a rich, interesting interaction with Russia and the Russians over the years. Not all of it has been easy. But it’s a vast, strange and intriguing country and in my reading, music listening, ballet watching and armchair travels, I continue to be fascinated by it.  I’m determined to visit it again and see places beyond St Petersburg which is beautiful but not exactly typical. I have another Tolstoy lined up — “Resurrection!”, plan to explore the piano concertos of Rachmanoff and revisit the plays of Chekov.( The Cherry Orchard is a particular favourite of mIne.) I may even pluck up courage and face up to my old nemesis: “Crime and Punishment.”

Living in a Left Wing Bubble.

16 May

Well, I’m still recovering from the shock of a Conservative victory in the 2015 UK General Election. It was a severe jolt to the system for several reasons. First of all, the much vaunted opinion polls had consistently forecasted a hung parliament and the necessity for another coalition government to be cobbled together. That didn’t happen, so all that media hot- air about who would form an alliance with who turned out to be a waste of time. The polls were so consistent in telling this stalemate story that I was lulled into a false sense of security myself. Maybe we could get a “progressive”, left-leaning government after-all I hoped? But it all proved to be a cruel mirage. I heard that a full third of the total media election coverage had been spent on such hypothetical speculation about the consequences of a hung parliament. That time could have been more fruitfully spent on exploring the issues, manifestoes and policies of the parties in contention. It was a big mistake to try to second guess the actual voting public, who in the privacy of the polling booth, revealed more than they did to the pollsters
The second reason I was shocked by the election result was the realisation once again that I was living in a deeply conservative, right wing country. All those vast swathes of blue on the new political map of 2015 Britain have really upset me. I should have known better. Afterall I lived through the misery, frustration and heartache of the Thatcher years of the 1980s. Mass unemployment, jingoistic war, Trade Union bashing, class war ( almost), nuclear missiles, the privatisation of important public services — it was an endless nightmare. The fact that Margaret Thatcher’s governments were wildly popular at the ballot box in 3 elections, showed me just out of step with much of the rest of the nation I was. I hated it all and got deeply depressed. Now it’s happened again. A new right- wing Tory administration has been elected and this time there are no Liberal-Democrats to curb and restrain their more extreme policies. I fear for the future. One of friends said she cried. Once more I feel like a square peg in a round hole. I should be used to it I know, being a vegetarian in a predominantly meat- eating society. Sometimes I feel it’s as if I’m living in the wrong world! It’s impossible for me to grasp that so many people have voted for a party that has been responsible for a devastating programme of public spending cuts, seriously affecting the most vulnerable people in our society. To me it’s incomprehensible that many people have voluntarily opted for another damaging dose of austerity, but I have to accept that they did. It’s a bitter pill to swallow.
I know it’s dangerous for me to write a blog about politics. Along with religion, politics is such a hot potato of a subject. I know many people will disagree with my views and may even have stopped reading by this point. However, I think it’s important to stand up for what one believes in. It’s just too easy to sit on the fence. Politics is about the pursuit of power and how that power, once gained, is used. In a way, it’s the most important issue of all. Power can be used as a force for good and as a force for bad. It can be used for the benefit of all or just for the few. We are lucky that in the United Kingdom we have a democracy where in theory, the ordinary people can choose their rulers. Many nations around the world, those ruled by dictators or corrupt governments, do not have such a choice. Yet, this idea of choice is a bit of a con I think. Apparently 63% of the British people did not vote Conservative but still ended up with a Tory government controlling their lives for the next 5 years. This particularly applies to Scotland, North- East England, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Inner London where the vast majority voted SNP or Labour. The fault of course is with the “first past the post” voting system, where a party can garner a large number of votes but keep coming second or third in the constituencies, gaining no MPS. I’m no UKIP fan, far from it, but I think it unfair that a party that experienced such a significant surge in support, only ended up with a solitary MP. The same applies to the Green Party. The only fair way forward seems to be a Proportional Representation system where the amount of votes a party gets is properly reflected in the number of MPs they have in Parliament. Most other European countries have PR so it cannot be that outlandish an idea. However, the British people rejected PR in a referendum a couple of years ago. Maybe they were influenced by the largely right wing press or maybe it was just too complicated for many to understand. I voted for PR, finding myself in the usual position of being in the minority. Maybe it’s just my lot in life to be out of step.
I think of myself as a left winger, politically speaking. To me this means that I want to live in a compassionate, fair society where everyone looks out for everyone else. I belong to what is known as the “soft left” along with people like Ed Miliband, all of my friends and most of my family. “Birds of a feather flock together” as they say. I am one of those people regularly mocked as a “Guardian reader” by the largely right wing press. I’m proud to read The Guardian and its Sunday sister “The Observer.” I don’t see anything wrong in caring for others and wanting a more just society, where the strong protect the weak and vulnerable and the wealthy help the poor. That is my Utopia, my dream. Instead, in my opinion, we have the tragic dystopia of a right wing government that promotes individualism and an “I’m all right Jack”, attitude. It’s no coincidence that the 5 years of a Conservative led Coalition, resulted in the gap between the rich and the poor widening considerably and a massive and shameful rise in food banks. A caring society should look after its own without the need for charity. But the Tories, despite their claims that “we’re all in it together”, do not want a society where every one is cared for. Margaret Thatcher revealed her true colours when she declared that “there’s no such thing as society.” She was promoting rampant individualism where the strong prosper and the weak fall by the wayside. It was this era that gave birth to the idea that everyone in need of help from benefits is a “scrounger”. I know that not everyone on benefits is a genuine case and agree that the cheats need to be weeded out, but to tar everyone with the same brush is wrong. The right wing press are mainly responsible for this especially the Daily Mail and Daily Express with their drip drip of daily poison into the minds of their readers.
So I’m a left winger, which puts me out of step with much of the media and many of the voting public. I’m not “Hard Left” as I do not want a revolution or a working class dictatorship. That would be inconsistent with my belief in democracy and in human rights. Many of those on the left of the political spectrum are compassionate people not violent revolutionaries. We want a fairer, more equal society, not a Marxist/ Communist Dictatorship. I think we have seen that go horribly wrong in Russia, China and eastern Europe. All the soft left wants is a caring society which looks after it’s less fortunate members. I don’t see anything wrong in that and yet I consistently end up in the minority. It’s difficult for me to fathom.
Maybe my lack of understanding derives from the fact that I have been living in a left-wing bubble all my life. My parents and grandparents always voted Labour. I grew up in the Labour stronghold of Chesterfield in industrial North-east Derbyshire. Both my grandfathers took part in the 1926 General Strike. One was a coal miner, the other, a steel worker. My dad worked on the railways and voted Labour as, for a long time, this was regarded as the political Party that supported the working man ( and woman.) So you could say that voting Labour was in my DNA. I grew up being taught that Labour supported the ordinary working class people whereas the Tories represented the privileged and the well-off. I know that this is a very simplistic, divisive interpretation but that it what I was indoctrinated to believe. Largely speaking though, I still think this holds true. If you look at all the great social reforms of the last 2 centuries, most if not all have been brought in by the Liberal or Labour parties.( not the Tories) :- The Great Reform Act of 1832 (The Liberals), The Poor law Amendment Act, 1836 ( Liberals), Secret Ballot, 1860s ( Liberals), Old Age Pensions, early 1900s (Liberals), School meals, early 1900s ( Liberals), The National Health Service, 1945 ( Labour), The Welfare State, 1945 onwards ( Labour), Legalisation of Homosexuality, late 1960s (Labour), legalisation of abortion, late 1960s ( Labour), Equal pay act and other anti sex-discrimination legislation, early 1970s ( Labour), Abolition of Fox Hunting, early 2000s ( Labour) etc. I cannot think of one important piece of progressive social reform introduced by the Tories. David Cameron, to his credit, has recently presided over the legalisation of GAY marriage, but even that was when he was under the influence of the Liberal-Democrats and was against the objections of many of his own party. Even Cameron’s new, post election 2015 cabinet contains several people opposed to GAY marriage and who are pro hunting.
As he grew older my father moved more to the right. He started to read the Daily Mail and take on many of that paper’s views. He became anti-trade Union and anti comprehensive education even though I, his son, had been a victim of the 11 plus lottery. I had arguments with him about these things. When Tony Benn, a leading left winger, became the MP for Chesterfield, my dad couldn’t bring himself to vote for what the right-wing tabloids painted as “a red under the bed.” (To me Benn was a hero.) Even then though, dad couldn’t stomach voting Tory but switched to the Liberals instead, taking my mum with him. He too would have been shocked by this election if he had been still alive. All my children have grown up being anti-Conservative being brought up in the left wing bubble that our family has always existed in. Maybe we might vote Green , maybe up to the betrayal of 2010 we might vote Liberal, but never Conservative. Their mother shares my views as does my second wife. You see, we are all lefty Guardian readers and proud of it! So it comes as a massive shock to find that we are in the minority.
There has been an outpouring of shock and horror in many of the conversations I have been involved in since the election result. This sense of disbelief and outrage has also been aired big-time amongst my Facebook friends. People have been expressing disgust, signing petitions and preparing to go on anti-cuts protest marches. I think it’s important not to just have a knee jerk reaction. Anger and despair must be channelled into useful, constructive avenues. The 37% must be constantly reminded that their views are minority ones even though they are represented by the majority of MP’s. I will march, write letters, canvass my MP ( a Labour one) and sign constructive petitions. I am actively considering moving to Scotland! ( joke!) I also intend to join the human rights organisation “Liberty” as one of the first priorities of this new Conservative government is, unbelievably, to scrap the European Human Rights Act! I intend to come out of my left-wing bubble and engage the right-wingers in the real world in as many ways as I can positively can. Roll on 2020!

1980s- Musical memories.– from synthesizers to CDs and everything inbetween.

22 Apr

Move to Newcastle upon Tyne.
On the cusp of the 1980s I hit 30 years old and got a new job in North Tyneside. My young family and I moved from Sheffield up to Whitley Bay on the North East coast. From a musical point of view this was a very good move. Newcastle City Hall had many more mainstream gigs than its equivalent in South Yorkshire. Having been virtually starved of live music in the last half of the 70s, I was now presented with a veritable feast of concert opportunities throughout the bulk of the new decade. However, my most indelible musical memory of the 80s was not at the City Hall but at Newcastle United’s football ground, St James’s Park. Here, in the summer of 1985, I was lucky enough to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on their fabulous “Born in the USA” World Tour. From a live music point of view, it was one of those “Road to Damascus” moments. Acquiring a friend of a friend’s spare ticket, I accidently stumbled upon the most dynamic and thrilling live rock show in the World.( and I’ve seen a few.)
The Ups and Downs of the Decade.
The 1980s was to be a tumultuous decade, both personally and musically. Those 10 years witnessed the birth of our son, who joined his 2 sisters to complete the family; a crisis at work which resulted in me being granted a year’s secondment to study at Newcastle University; a crisis at home which led to the break up of my marriage; a mid-life crisis (as I approached the dreaded 40), and eventually setting up in a place of my own. All these events were played out to a background of popular music. I partied to Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Soft Cell and drowned my sorrows with Tracey Chapman or The Cure. I had music to suit most occasions and moods. I wasn’t a depressed teenager so the downbeat offerings of The Smiths did not initially appeal to me. So it was only later that I came to appreciate their haunting melodies and provocative lyrics. The same thing happened with The Stone Roses. I discovered them in subsequent decades but now revere their peerless first album as a timeless classic. Better late than never as they say. I tried the same trick with The Joy Division, belatedly purchasing their second album “Closer”, but never got into their depressing, doom-laden sound.

Trying to Keep Up.
Obviously, by the time of the 1980s I had left my adolescence far behind. I no longer had the luxury of listening to pop music whenever I pleased. I had other priorities such as: teaching career, family and political campaigning to take up much of my time. Therefore it was impossible to keep up with the myriad of musical trends, the latest releases or new artists. I fell further and further behind, such that whole movements and major new performers appeared on the scene with me only being vaguely aware of them. As well as a constant “to do” list , I also had a “to listen to” list which I never got near to the bottom of. For a time I beat myself up for not keeping up, but I then sensibly decided to do just what I could and not worry about falling behind. After-all, it was not a race and nobody was judging me except perhaps myself. This was still a pre-Internet age for the majority of the public, including myself. Getting to know new music was not a question of You-Tubing, Spotifying or instantly downloading. One had to tune-in to lots of radio or spend hours in the listening- booths of the high street record stores – all very time-consuming.
The task of keeping up became all the more complicated in the 80s because of the multiplicity of styles and genres that appeared. Once upon a time, life had seemed so simple — a straight choice between classical and pop. Now the popular music scene was fragmenting at a frantic pace. I was faced with a mind-boggling choice between: rap, hip hop, techno, House, funk, soul, folk, reggae, country, blues, New Romantic, New Wave, heavy metal, hard rock, soft rock, Indie, Goth, synth pop, post punk and uncle Tom Cobbly and all! It gives me a headache just to think about it all. As one commentator noted, it was a decade that refused to be pinned down.
Watching Top of the Pops.
We still watched Top of the Pops on Thursday nights as a family. It was past its sell by date and had included lots of gimmicky novelty- acts in the latter years of the 70s. However it helped us to keep up with some of the latest musical trends and fashions even though many of them didn’t appeal. I was still a rock fan really. So the soundtrack of the family as we moved north was the driving, aggressive rock of Chrissie Hinde’s “Pretenders” and the witty, jazz-infused rock ‘n roll of Ian Dury and the Blockheads. “Brass in Pocket” and “Hit Me With Your Rhythmn Stick”, both Number 1 singles at the turn of the decade, were big hits in our family too. We went on to buy multiple albums by both groups. Apparently, Dury and his group was a top live act of “New Wave” music, so that’s at least one item ticked off the above list. But labels like “New Wave” don’t really appeal to me. They are often artificial constructions made up for the convenience of music journalists. I wasn’t bothered whether they were New Wave or not. I was just attracted by the driving rhythms and Dury’s amusing Music Hall- style word- play. I was later lucky enough to attend gigs by both The Pretenders and Dury’s Blockheads ( just before he prematurely died) in Newcastle. Both put on dynamic and exciting performances. And it had all started with good old Top of The Pops!
The New Romantics.
As I switched on my screen or turned the pages of the music press in the early 80’s it soon became apparent that mainstream musical fashion had changed yet again. I was no longer confronted with angry, foul mouthed punks festooned with piercings and thrashing their guitars to death. ( as you can see I wasn’t very enamoured of the Punk Rock movement). Now, I was faced with groups festooned in flamboyant clothes such as frilly fop shirts, and sporting a variety of extravagant hairstyles. These were the “New Romantics” who in many ways reminded me of the mods from the 60s. Some of them, following in the footsteps of Bowie and Roxy Music, wore cosmetics such as eye-liner and lipstick, cultivating an androgynous, gender-bending look. However, although it obviously appealed to the latest generation of teenagers, it did not grab me, mainly because I saw it as a fashion movement rather than a musical progression. Thus I never took groups such as Ultravox, Spandau Ballet or Duran Duran seriously. To me they were just pretty “boy bands” who had little musical merit. I found their offerings overwrought and largely vacuous. Another popular group I rejected was Adam and the Ants, who thought make-up and silly costumes could compensate for lack of talent. Their commercial success was another example of the triumph of style over substance. As you can see, I was now starting to show my age by dismissing the younger generation’s musical choices ( just as my own teenage music had been derided by my parents and their peers, back in the 60s.) Life goes on and history constantly repeats itself.
MTV and the Pop Video.
Part of the reason for the rise of the image- driven “New Romantics” was the emergence of the pop video as a major way of marketing music. This huge new development was kick-started by the creation of MTV, an American television channel that played wall to wall music videos. It was the time when viewers in America were no longer restricted to a few main TV channels but now had many more cable channels of varying quality, to choose from. This development was parodied by Springsteen in his song:”69 Channels and Nothing On.” The cable and satellite TV revolution was to follow in Britain a little later and we now have many more channels than a mere 69. The actual video tape was also a completely new thing for most people in the 1980s. Before, we could only watch a TV programme when it was broadcasted. It was very restricting. Now, with the aid of a video tape, one could choose to watch a programme or a film whenever one wanted, could pause the entertainment in order to make a cup of coffee, could rewind to see an important scene again and could fast forward through the boring bits. All this is taken for granted these days but was a wonderfully liberating new piece of technology in the 80s. I remember going to friends for video evenings which also featured another new 80s development in Britain — the take- out pizza delivered to your door. It was all very exciting and novel. MTV and the advent of the pop video completely transformed the music scene. It was a god-send for TV shows like TOTP because they no longer had to book the live artist to perform their song. Now it was just a simple case of playing their video.
Reservations about Pop Videos.
All this sounds great but I had several reservations. Instead of being judged on their musical merits, artists were now judged on the qualities of their videos. People who had the glossiest, slickest videos got more TV airplay and publicity than those who had less flashy offerings or could not afford to produce anything at all. In other words, the new system discriminated against musicians who did not have much money to splash around. It seemed so unfair. This was even criticised by some successful groups such as Dire Straits in their facetious top seller “Money for Nothing.”
I also thought the video often seriously hampered the listening experience. No longer were we allowed to just listen to the lyrics and paint a picture in our minds. Now a film director and photographer were hijacking our imaginations and imposing their own vision of what the song was about. It was all very irritating and distracting. I was annoyed that a moderate singer like Madonna, a purveyor of routine dance music, was quickly elevated to super-star status on the back of her mastery of image, media manipulation and marketing. It seemed that musical ability and vocal skills were now of secondary importance. Duran Duran also swept to the top of the charts on the back of their expensive videos in exotic locations, even though their music was distincly run of the mill. Musical giants such as Springsteen didn’t even bother with videos, until forced to by their record companies and broadcast media demands. MTV has a lot to answer for! It’s heavily ironic that the very first music video played on the game-changing channel was The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Focus had changed from music and lyrics to fashion and theatrics.
Masters of the Pop Video.
Of course some of the videos were great and despite everything, actually enhanced the music. A prime example was David Bowie who quickly transferred his flair for performance art from stage to screen. I enjoyed both his music and his vivid imagery. Also memorable were the dynamic productions of Michael Jackson in support of his record selling “Thriller” album. I enjoyed his urgent singing and whirlwind dancing but never actually bought the album as I didn’t fancy listening to track after track of relentless dance music.
Synth Pop.
Another dominant feature of early 80s music was the synthesizer. So many groups based their sound on it that the term “Synth Pop” was coined. I had first heard and enjoyed the synthesizer in the late 60s and early 70s when it was a central component of the music of The Moody Blues. It had also been pioneered by Kraftwork and Tangerine Dream in the 70s. However, guitars and drums mostly continued to dominate until suddenly it seemed that almost every new group had to consist of a singer backed by a synth player. Leading the charge into the charts were : Yazoo, Gary Numan, The Thompson Twins ( all 3 of them), Soft Cell, The Pet Shop Boys and of course Eurythmics. At first synthesizer-driven pop and rock sounded a bit artificial, mechanical and even sterile. It lacked the warmth and subtleties provided by other instruments. However it was something new and interesting and we all quickly got used to it. Although I never liked Numan’s cold, robotic offerings, I did enjoy quite a few of the others. Yazoo had a great singer: Alison Moyet, whom I still like to listen to today. The Pet Shop Boys produced moody epics about seedy urban life. I found their music evocative and atmospheric and often listened to it on my headphones late at night when I was in a melancholy mood. I loved Marc Almond’s Soft Cell with his sexually ambiguous looks, and soulful singing, also focussing on the sleazy side of life, all to an insistent electronic beat. “Tainted Love” and especially “Goodbye and Hello” were favourite tracks of mine.
Eurythmics.
Pre-eminent though were “Eurythmics”, who were to become one of my top groups of the 80s and beyond. Lennox’s superb singing whether belting out a rocker or extracting more subtle and gentle emotions was one of their main assets. But the songs were memorable too with driving, hypnotic beats, haunting, minor key melodies and increasingly dark, obsessive lyrics that lingered in the mind. They were masters of style and image too, producing powerful and unusual videos to back up their excellent music. Annie sported a whole range of striking looks and was not afraid to do a bit of gender bending. Like Madonna, Lennox was a stylistic chameleon, but unlike Madonna, Annie could sing with real feeling and the group she was in produced original and memorable music. As the decade progressed, so did Eurythmics. They were a movable feast. They morphed into a rock group with Stewart on electric guitar, they employed other musicians and backing singers as they saw fit, and they were not afraid to indulge in electronic experimentation in the studio. They constantly pushed the boundaries, driven on by Stewart’s creative musicianship ( it’s not surprising that he later went into production) and Lennox’s superb songs. Eurythmics provided a consistent soundtrack to my decade.
Straits and Stranglers.
I still loved guitar groups though. I continued to follow Mark Knoppler’s “Dire Straits” especially when he sang about the area where we lived — Cullercoats and Whitley Bay on the lyrical album “Making Movies”. I went to see them 2 or 3 times at Newcastle City hall, including taking my teenage daughter Joanna. They were all great gigs. However I slowly tired of them when they added extra musicians ( keyboard and sax players) and started to cultivate a grandiose, bigger sound. I found it overblown. As they become more full of themselves they became more middle of the road, used as background at dinner parties and played in many a BMW.( I imagine.) I didn’t even bother buying their massive selling “Brothers in Arms”. Another City Hall favourite were The Stranglers, who had calmed down a bit from their wild punk days and began to produce hypnotic, keyboard based, mood music based on the excellent songs of Hugh Cornwall. I adored their single “Golden Brown” even though it was about drug taking. In a way their music reminded me a bit of The Doors with their emphasis on organ riffs. I enjoyed most of their 80s output and their concerts were great. It could get pretty wild at the City Hall. I remember fans rushing on to the stage in the middle of Stranglers gigs and being thrown back into the crowd by the bouncers. I’m glad I wasn’t sitting on the first few rows! However, when Cornwell left in an acrimonious split, I lost interest, as he was the creative heart and soul of the group. Also at Newcastle City hall I enjoyed concerts by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions and bought their first 2 excellent albums.
American Rock.
American rock bands were always high on my listening agenda. Springsteen and the E Street band with their energetic, stunning live shows took pride of place. I saw them at the aforementioned St James’ Park and later at Bramhall Lane, Sheffield on the equally brilliant “Tunnel of Love” tour. Both of those nights lived long in the memory.( I have already written about them on a previous blog, so I won’t go on now.) Other American rockers I followed were Bob Seger ( and the Silver Bullet band) and Tom Petty ( plus his Heartbreakers.) Petty was also a leading light in the Traveling Wilburys, a sort of loose “super-group” formed by George Harrison and friends in the late 8o’s The other members were Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynn. They were a staple of every party I attended at that time, and I loved their easy-going, chugging along, catchy songs.
Live Aid and Mandela Day.
The 1980s had two big musical events which were given wall- to- wall coverage on the TV — one was Live Aid, to raise funds for the victims of the Ethiopian famine and the other was a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday which doubled up as a protest against South African Apartheid. You can tell how long ago it was as Mandela was still languishing in jail. Both events brought a lot of new music to my ears and the great opportunity to see artists performing live. The Live Aid event was actually two 2 simultaneous music extravaganzas, one in London, the other in Philadelphia. It was a great opportunity to catch up. Queen were supposed to have stolen the London show but I had no time for their pretentious, over the top showiness. The groups who caught my eye (and ears) were U2 and Simple Minds, both darlings of big stadium, anthemic rock. I found their performances exciting and immediate and followed up by purchasing several albums. These included U2’s classic ” The Joshua Tree. They were one of my favourite acts for a while but after they achieved worldwide fame and became increasingly bombastic, I gradually tired of them. I followed a similar trajectory with Simple Minds, losing interest after they became mainstream. This was a trait of mine — to turn away from many artists once they were famous. I was still more comfortable with undiscovered, so called “Underground” musicians.
Singer Songwriters.
The Mandela event enabled me to see Eurythmics, Sting and Dire Straits ( with Eric Clapton guesting) put in great live performances. It also introduced me to Tracey Chapman, a previously unknown American singer songwriter. I loved her soulful singing style which had such an edge to it. Her subjects were edgy too, dealing with racial tension, violence, revolution and poverty as well as the usual joys and heartaches of sexual politics. Apparently she was given a longer set than planned because Stevie Wonder had had his keyboard, computer and other equipment stolen. Welcome to London! He later appeared to do one song backed by a galaxy of musicians who had scrambled together to help him. Another favourite singer songwriter of mine to emerge in the 80s was Suzanne Vega. I liked her sparse voice backed by subtle guitars and violins. Her melodies were often haunting and her lyrics interesting and clever, featuring word-play such as similes and metaphors. Vega’s subjects ranged from medieval knights, to having a cup of coffee in a café, to serious issues such as child abuse.( in her famous song “Luka.”) I went to see her a couple of times and the concerts were magical and spell- binding. Yet another singer songwriter I liked and admired was Billy Bragg with his overtly political lyrics in support of socialism. His was a necessary voice in that bleak, oppressive era of Thatcherism.
Chance Discoveries of New Artists,
New artists arrived at my door by a variety of means. My post- marriage life was initially sad but at least it gave me opportunities to meet new people and come across new music. Some of it had been around for a while, but it was new stuff to me. In one friend’s house, my ears suddenly pricked up at the magical opening strains of “Fisherman’s Blues”, the folk-rock classic of The Waterboys. Meanwhile, at another friend’s place, I was given a welcome crash-course in the exhilarating Afro-funk rhythms of David Byrne’s “Talking Heads.” Both groups have since established a major presence in my music collection. Catching on to them a little late, I proceeded to embark on a retrospective but exciting exploration of their repertoire. My appreciation of Talking heads was enhanced by the brilliant concert movie “Stop making Sense” by Jonathan Demme. It encapsulated the essence of their live performance and the flair and charisma of Byrne himself.
African Rhythms.
The African influence was strong on the 80s. Not only did we have Mandela’s “party” which featured leading South African musicians, and the insistent Afro beats of Talking Heads, but we were also treated to the evergreen Paul Simon reviving his career with the inspiring “Graceland” album. Everyone I knew bought it and played it constantly( including me). It was like a huge breath of fresh air — new rhythms, new instruments, new harmonies. And it was all welded together by Simon’s smooth, soothing voice and his clever, quirky lyrics.
REM.
My final major musical revelation of the 1980s came via the unusual medium of a glossy Sunday newspaper magazine. I was just settling down to read the sport’s section when my eye caught the headline: “REM — The Worlds Top Rock Band?” I abandoned the football reports and started to read about a great “garage rock” band that had emerged from the south of the USA several years before. I had hardly heard of them I’m ashamed to say. That chance article sent me on another illuminating voyage of discovery covering every album from 1981’s “Murmur” onwards. I now regard them as one of the all time greats.
Summary of My Musical 80s.
Although it is now fashionable to deride the 1980s, for me they were another golden age of music. I have only mentioned a fraction of the stuff I enjoyed. From late night listening to Sade, allowing myself to be enjoyably introspective while listening to the Goth Rock of The Cure, jumping around the kitchen to Bruce, Tina Turner and any number of rockers, grooving to Fleetwood Mac ( “Tango in the Night) and Eurythmics, it was a great decade. I have tried to avoid boring lists and have attempted to give you a flavour of my musical journey through those eventful 10 years. I bought many albums and saw numerous gigs both in the flesh and on the screen. It was a great era for live music.
Cassettes and CDs.
But the 80’s music scene was also driven by technological developments. Apart from the aforementioned music video and MTV, that era was also the golden age of the cassette tape. I spent many a merry hour dubbing compilations to swap with mates or try to impress girlfriends. I always felt a bit guilty ( “Illegal taping is Killing Music”) but couldn’t resist the temptation. I consoled my conscience by buying most of the albums anyway. Finally of course there was the advent of the CD which quickly pushed vinyl on to the dusty attic shelves. ( at least for the time being.) It was a whole new and simpler way of playing music and stopped us worrying about whether we should change that scratchy stylus.
That decade was a typical example of the frenetic, kaleidoscopic world of popular music. I couldn’t have got through all the trials and tribulations of the 80s without it!

GOODBYE AND HELLO.

10 Mar

I said goodbye to my father a few weeks ago at the very end of January, 2015. He didn’t speak to me as he was concentrating so much on his breathing but after I had finished, he moved his hand which I took as a sign that he had heard me. My sister and I had just been told that our dad was dying, so it was a sad and sombre last meeting. The phone-call came in the middle of the night telling us that dad had passed away. He was a couple of months beyond 91. Up to the last 2 years he had been in pretty good health. He had a long, good life. I know he was ready for the end when it came. Dad was a lifelong chapel goer and as my cousin put it :”He died in Christian hope.”
Despite his Christian beliefs, dad was very blunt and matter- of- fact about death. “Once you’re gone, you’re gone” he used to say. He sometimes challenged the premise of grieving, almost suggesting that it was a waste of time and emotion. I sometimes thought he sounded a bit harsh but it was typical of his unsentimental, no-nonsense approach to life ( and death), and I respected him for it.
Now dad is the one who has gone. It’s funny that he’s not there anymore sitting with mum in their bungalow, waiting to greet me when I visited them and ready to put the kettle on at a moment’s notice. He’s been an ever- present in my life from birth to retirement and beyond. It seems strange that he is now absent. It’s difficult to realise that I’ll never hear his loud, booming voice again. There is a silence as well as a big gap in my life.
I’ve not always been close to my father. At times, when I became a teenage rebel and then wanted to assert my independence as a young adult, we were even semi-estranged. For many years, the generation-gap was actually a chasm that was difficult to bridge. But bridge it we did. Bit by bit we became closer again. The arrival of my 3 children helped. Dad always enjoyed being a granddad. I have photos of us all out on trips together with dad smiling happily at the camera. We spent some good family times together and the clashes of the past gradually melted away.
My dad was quite a private person and didn’t like talking about his emotions. He was typical of many men of his generation. One wasn’t supposed to cry or talk about one’s inner feelings. It wasn’t the masculine thing to do. I regret not ever having had a deep conversation with him. I tried at times but he usually clammed up or changed the subject. I think he thought that the emotional side of family life was mum’s area of expertise and he didn’t want to trespass on her territory. That’s fair enough – I respect that. It was dad’s prerogative to keep his inner world under wraps. Thus I only ever got to talk to him about everyday matters. We would chat away about the fortunes of the family, the news, sport, holidays, the weather or our jobs. Even after he had retired, dad used to love talking about his time as an engine driver on the railways. I don’t blame him — he did that difficult job, working anti-social hours, for a staggering 47 years! He knew the railways like the back of his hand.
So I’m really sad that dad is no longer in my life. He has been there at almost every significant moment, helping and supporting in his own quiet, unassuming way. As I said in my funeral oration, I have a myriad of memories of my father: whether it was pulling me out of a boating lake when I fell in and nearly drowned, teaching me how to ride a bike, telling me all about life in the Second World War, taking me to school, driving me to college, attending my wedding, helping me decorate the house, or helping me to set myself up in my post-divorce flat. Dad was the continuity man — always there. But now he’s not and I will really miss him, as I’m sure all the family will.
Life goes on as they say. A death always seems to stimulate a flurry of clichés. They are corny but also very useful, as they help to paper over the cracks of loss. People express their condolences and ask me how I feel. What can I say? It’s difficult to express my emotions at the drop of a hat. Sometimes I feel very sad. Sometimes I feel empty and unable to express myself. One of the most powerful feelings that the death of a loved one brings up is of one’s own inevitable mortality. We’re all going to die even though we don’t often want to think or talk about it. A death and the subsequent funeral, bring these submerged thoughts and emotions to the surface. The passing of my dad has made me feel suddenly a lot older and also, more vulnerable. I am now the eldest male in our direct family. I am the “Godfather” if you like. It’s a sobering thought.
No sooner had I started to come to terms a little bit with the sad loss of my father, than I was recently hit with another significant family event with its accompanying swirl of emotions. My son’s wife gave birth to their first child, a boy. So I am a granddad again. I already have 3 lovely grand-daughters , the children of my eldest daughter and her partner. Now I am delighted to have a grandson. He made his first appearance in the world just 5 weeks after my dad passed out of it. It’s a pity they didn’t get to meet. I know my dad would have been thrilled to see his latest Great Grandchild. But it wasn’t to be. Time marches on, as does our family. A new addition has now been posted at the bottom of the tree. I hope he lives a long, happy and fulfilling life. Soon my wife and myself will travel down to say hello to the latest arrival. It’s a wonderful development for the family.
I remember when I met my first grandchild and held her in my arms at the hospital. I was thrilled of course but I distinctly recall saying to myself: “Blimey! — I’ve just moved up a generation!” That feeling is doubly reinforced today. The arrival of my grandson so soon after the departure of my father has made me contemplate my position in the family and my place on the family tree. That famous television programme is actually very well named — recent family developments have made me acutely aware of who I think I am. My current feelings about both of the recent events strongly remind me that I am a link in an endless chain of love that passes seamlessly from generation to generation. A loving “goodbye” has been swiftly succeeded by an equally loving “hello.”

Stockton on Tees – “There’s Nothing There.”

9 Feb

When my friend, Ian, and I told people that we were planning to have a day out in Stockton on Tees in late January, I think we were thought of as slightly mad. After-all, we were authoritatively informed: “there’s nothing there.” However, it all depends on what one is looking for. What may appear to be “nothing” at first glance, may soon be revealed to be something interesting if one has only a cursory dig beneath the surface.
So why go to Stockton? At first there seem more reasons NOT to visit it. It’s a declining industrial town with its fair share of unemployment and poverty. The manufacturing industries that created its wealth — shipbuilding and engineering– have closed down. It’s once busy river port is no more. Many buildings are in a state of decay, or have been boarded up. Stockton sits in a largely forgotten corner of North-East England. It has even found a place in the top 100 of Britain’s infamous “crap towns” listed in the book: ” Crap Towns Returns: Back by Unpopular Demand.” So, plenty of reasons to avoid it then, but we still went and enjoyed it. Why? Is it that we are just plain perverse? No — our answer would be the same as that of a climber asked why he/she wanted to ascend a mountain. The answer is ” because it’s there!” I have a theory that every place is interesting if one is willing to be interested in it.
Places represent people and their everyday lives. Other people’s existances are always interesting. Add-in all the lives of past generations and past centuries, then you’ve let yourself in for a fascinating journey, linking the present with the past. Walking round a town equipped with : eyes, imagination, and a bit of research, can be really stimulating. And so it proved to be with Stockton. We armed ourselves with a town trail obtained from the local Tourist Information Centre and set off on our day of discovery.
Ask most general knowledge buffs about Stockton and they’ll probably come up with one famous fact: the World’s first public railway in 1825 ran from Darlington to Stockton. The line was built by the railway pioneer, George Stephenson. Its purpose was to carry coal from the Durham coalfields around Darlington to the important river port of Stockton in Tees, from where it could be shipped to all corners of the country and beyond. The line actually ran from Shildon to Stockton via Darlington. Initially, the trucks were to be hauled at walking pace by horses. However, Stephenson persuaded the Directors to experiment with the new invention, the steam locomotive. Stephenson himself drove his Locomotion No 1 on that first record breaking journey. The train consisted of a mixture of trucks of coal and flour and passenger coaches. Altogether about 600 to 700 people travelled on that very first steam train journey, clinging on in all sorts of precarious positions. The train featured the world’s first purpose built railway passenger coach “The Experiment”. Stephenson was ably assisted by his friend, fellow engineer and railway pioneer, Timothy Hackworth, who acted as the guard. At the head of the train for much of the 12 mile journey, walked a man with a red flag, an early example of health and safety getting in the way of adventure. Eventually the man with the flag was persuaded to step aside and the train picked up speed a little. However it still averaged less than 10 mph for the entire journey. It was hardly earth shattering stuff but was a dramatic “first”, and Stockton, that “crap” town, was at the centre of this world famous event.
Stockton is now surrounded by busy roads. The major trunk routes of the A19 and the A66 pass to the east and south of it respectively. Crowded 2 or 3 lane roads and busy roundabouts encircle the old town centre. In fact, a noisy dual-carriageway cuts off the centre from the River Tees, which used to be its life-blood. We had to climb up on to a pedestrian bridge to access the waterside. The once bustling port that used to feature 48 working vessels, is no more. All that is left is a pleasure cruiser used in summer and a replica of Captain James Cook’s “Endeavour”, used for entertainment and educational purposes.
Thus there are few hints that Stockton was once a thriving river port, and even fewer clues that it helped to give birth to the railways. A modern metal sculpture, on a grassy bank just outside the centre, depicts that famous first train, complete with the top-hatted flag-waver at its head. However, it significant that this is sited by a road not a railway. Stockton does still have a train station but it is a bit out of the town centre and sits on a branch line off a branch line. The full original line ceases to exist. It used to run along the quayside by the Tees to 4 sets of staithes ( jetties) where the coal was loaded on to ships. Today’s station is on the quiet Durham coast line which meanders its way between Thornaby ( near Middlesbrough) and Newcastle via Hartlepool and Sunderland. There is just one train an hour each way. The current building dates from 1893. It has two quite long platforms linked by a bridge, but it has no staff and no roof. The latter was removed in 1979 because it was in such a bad state of repair. The waiting rooms, booking hall and toilets have gone, to be replaced by a couple of plastic shelters with little perching seats.
Ian and I travelled to this slightly forlorn station from opposite directions. We were the only people to alight from our respective trains. The station was deserted apart from one confused foreign visitor, trying to get to Manchester. It was difficult to imagine that this was a world famous place in railway history. To be fair, the current Stockton station is not in the same location as the former terminus of the 1825 Stockton to Darlington railway. Was it completely devoid of its illustrious history? Well, not quite. As we left the station, we noticed that the old station buildings had been refurbished, added to and turned into apartments named after the railway pioneer Hackworth. It would have been nice if the approach road had been christened George Stephenson Way, but it wasn’t. Just before we headed off for the town, the London to Sunderland Grand Central express, passed through Stockton. It slowed down but didn’t stop. Stockton is now largely divorced from its railway heritage and has been shunted into an obscure siding.
Stockton today is an intriguing mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. Although it is surrounded by some fairly depressing, run-down streets, the old medieval core is pretty impressive. (at least, we thought so.) We entered a wide spacious High Street which twice a week hosts North-East England’s largest open air market. The street is flanked by a selection of 18th, 19th and 20th century buildings now put to a variety of commercial uses. Some are neglected and run-down, but we could easily imagine how grand it must have been in its Georgian hey-day. In the centre sits a square, red-brick early 18th century Town Hall. It has 3 stories, an ornate clock tower, a red pan-tiled roof and four, large chimney stacks. Once it had a meeting room for the Mayor and the Aldermen with shops underneath. Nearby is a lovely, little market hall and sitting in-between is a tall, stone column crowned by a plinth and a mysterious monument that looks a bit like an urn. We never found an explanation for it. Maybe next time we should ask one of the locals. This area used to be the site of the medieval tollbooth and a communal smithy. Alongside was the “Shambles” where butchers slaughtered and sold their animals.
Today this big, wide area is being gentrified into a pedestrian plaza which eventually will have: seats, foliage, fancy street lamps and views through to the river. When we were there this January, it was a noisy work in progress with a workman employing a teeth-grinding, stone-cutting machine. Once finished, it will be a far cry from the days of blood and guts in the gutter and the dying moans of doomed livestock.
Stockton existed as an Anglo Saxon settlement but really got going in early Norman times when the town and the borough was founded by the Bishop of Durham in the late 12th century. Initially, it consisted of 12 farms and a Manor House. The latter eventually developed into Stockton Castle, which stood until 1652 when it was demolished on the order of Oliver Cromwell’s parliament. It had been a Royalist stronghold in the English Civil war and had later been occupied by the Scots. Today the site is occupied by the rather ugly Swallow Hotel and Castlegate shopping centre with its indoor market and multi-storey car-park.
When Stockton was declared a Borough, it meant that traders, craftsmen and other business people could move in and develop the land. It was no longer a purely agricultural area. It’s site was the reason for this significant development. It was on a major river and on main road routes heading north and south. In fact Stockton stands at an important crossing point of the River Tees. For many years it was the lowest bridging point of this major waterway. That honour was eventually stolen in the later 19th century by Middlesbrough’s Transporter Bridge, 6 miles further downstream. Stockton also marked the southern border of the Bishop of Durham’s considerable lands and the border between Yorkshire and County Durham.
Despite all of this, the town only developed very slowly in the Middle Ages. It was regularly ravaged by marauding Scots and was also badly affected by the Plague. By the early 17th century it was almost derelict. Then came damaging occupations by Royalist and Scottish troops during the course of the English Civil Wars. Real prosperity only came when a Charter in 1666 granted the town a weekly market and an annual fair. This attracted trade and more prosperous times ensued. By the 18th century the town was doing really well. This is reflected by the considerable number of once fashionable Georgian town houses that are still dotted about the centre today. In the 1700’s, Stockton became a successful ship-building centre, having four shipyards by the end of the century. Sail and rope making were lucrative spin-offs. Stockton by now was a busy river port, exporting lead and agricultural produce and importing wine, raisons, glass, coal and household goods. The coming of the railway in the early 19th century enabled Stockton to expand further. Its population increased from 3700 in 1801 to 13,000 in 1861.
However, this was not as big an increase as might be expected, considering Stockton’s prime location and its connections to important events in the Industrial and Transport Revolutions. Some nearby towns underwent massive population explosions in the same period. Perhaps a big reason for this relative lack of growth was that there was already an enormous cuckoo growing up very quickly in the Tees-side nest. That was Middlesbrough just down the river. It usurped Stockton and other Teesside towns in industrial development especially in the areas of iron and steel, chemicals and shipbuilding. Middlesbrough’s nickname: “Ironopolis” sums up its industrial importance. Hartlepool also eclipsed Stockton in the rapidity and size of its industrial development, including ship-building and engineering. Thus Stockton on Tees was left somewhat in the shade. Maybe however, this wasn’t such a bad thing and was a blessing in disguise from the modern Stockton’s perspective. Some of its grand 18th century buildings have survived instead of being swept away in an headlong rush for development. Thus, these can still be appreciated today. In that earlier prosperous period ( 18th century) the town acquired pavements so its citizens didn’t have to plough through the mud. A stone 5-arched bridge was also constructed to replace the river ferry in 1771. So the place wasn’t exactly an obscure backwater. The 18th century has still clung on in 21st century Stockton and is now once again being appreciated as a glorious chapter in the town’s history.
Two rows of mostly narrow-fronted properties line the wide market place and off it run historical side streets with interesting names :- Ramsgate, Finkle Street, Silver Street, Dovecot Street and West Row. The street names often reveal their original features. For instance, an open air sheep market was once held on Ramsgate. West Row included large warehouses, some of which have been restored. We found that one had been turned into a small shopping mall. ( Regency West Mall sadly was mostly empty.) Finkle, a common street name in the north-east, means a narrow, winding road with a corner or a bend in it. It’s an old Norse name. On Stockton’s Finkle Street we admired 16th to 18th century town houses, some with pilastered doorways. Halfway up the street is a narrow opening leading into the hidden gem of Green Dragon Yard. Stockton’s centre has a number of these old, hidden away 17th and 18th century courtyards accessed by narrow alleyways. Green Dragon Yard has a restored warehouse, a pub, a building converted into a recording studio and England’s oldest surviving Georgian Theatre. The theatre was built in 1766 on to the side of a medieval Tithe barn. It’s been lovingly restored and is an intimate venue for small-scale productions. It was fascinating to spot where the stone of the old barn merged into the small 18th century bricks of the theatre. We walked through more lanes and yards into Silver Street, complete with its row of tiny 18th century cottages. From there it was a short step down to the river.
We stopped for refreshments in a little, late-medieval tea-shop. It was friendly, warm and welcoming. We had been warned that there would be mostly greasy spoon cafes in Stockton, but in fact there was a whole string of tempting teashops. Our café was called “Quaint and Quirky” which is was. I had to carefully mind my head to avoid the low beams. The view from the window partly summed up our Stockton experience. We looked out beyond the ancient timber ceiling beams through the tiny, “Tudory” windows incongruously on to the concrete, circular exit ramp of a multi-storey car park. A constant stream of quietly growling cars descended it. It would have been much more satisfying to have heard the clip-clop of horses as would have been the case when the café building was first constructed. But that sound has now mostly faded into the past. Modern Town trails are full of these strange juxtapositions. At the top of Dovecot Street is a striking, modern arts centre, The Arc. Its all gleaming glass and bright, orange paintwork. Adjacent to it stands a lovely Georgian Friend’s Meeting House now converted into office space. Across the road, in place of a recently demolished 19th century building is a pop-up car park. It’s a confusing mixture that stretches the imagination but constantly stimulates the mind.
The most abiding memory of Stockton’s centre is of the wide variety of once grand Georgian town houses. Some are beautifully restored, whilst others are sadly neglected. Ian and I studied: classical doorways with columns and pediments, fancy fanlights over entrances, decorative motifs, attractive wrought iron balconies, ornate stone cornices and symmetrical sets of sash windows. Some had 2 stories and some had 3. We learnt that the first floor public reception rooms were the grandest ( so the people could impress their visitors) and thus had the largest, most impressive windows. Quite a few of these splendid buildings were on Church Road, formerly know as “Paradise Row.” This is where the rich and successful lived, showing off their status and wealth through their grandiose homes.
Nearby the Stockton mish-mash continued with a fine 18th century Church and ancient church yard facing an undistinguished jumble 1960’s/70’s municipal offices. On the other side of the beautiful old churchyard stood a derelict, abandoned pub.
The Stockton on Tees Trail gave us glimpses of a glorious past, much evidence of a long, sad decline and a few signs of hope and regeneration. It’s a slightly down- at- heel town which is starting to appreciate its heritage and move forward towards a positive future. The Arts Theatre with its cinema, concert space, workshop areas, bars and cafes, is thriving. The Georgian Theatre is up and running again. The Globe Theatre, once the popular venue for 1960’s/70’s pop acts such as the Rolling Stones, Ike and Tina Turner, Cilla Black and Roy Orbison, is now being restored and is soon to reopen. It famously hosted The Beatles in November, 1963 on the same day that President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Today, an attractive, eye-catching pavement display reminds us of its glorious recent past.
In Stockton’s centre there’s plenty to admire and hidden corners to discover. As we walked back to the train station, we felt that we had only just begun to scratch the surface. It was not a bad day out considering we were visiting one of Britain’s “crap” towns. Maybe we should revisit in the summer when the Stockton Riverside Festival is in full flow. Then we could discover yet more delights of the town where there’s “nothing to see.”

NEW YEAR MUSINGS, 2015.

8 Jan

It’s another New Year- 2015. It seems incredible to think that we are now a full fifteen years since the momentous millennium when the world as we know it was supposed to come to an end.
The frenzy of Christmas shopping is now just a memory. Many are facing the cold reality of credit card bills and accumulating debt. The Christmas trees have been de-baubled and discarded. Millions of recently sent Christmas cards have now disappeared from mantle-pieces, shelves and window sills. It’s the time of year when I always think — what was all the fuss about?
I used to be a teacher and so can reliably guess that the theme of school assemblies up and down the country has been New Year resolutions. It’s a hoary chestnut. It is time to turn over a new leaf, students will be told, as if a new number at the top of the calendar, magically generates a fresh start for everyone. More erudite teachers may mention Janus to their pupils, the 2-faced Roman god which gives its name to the first month of the year. One face of Janus looks forwards into the future, while the other looks back into the past. This encourages reflection on what has happened as well as making resolutions for the year ahead. I think this is a sound way of handling New Year. The lessons of the past have to be learnt if progress is to be made in the future. It’s not just a case of wiping the slate clean and starting again, regardless of what has happened.
Many of my own reflections are centred on the family. Christmas is supposed to be the special occasion when families gather to spent quality time together. However, I believe that family interactions and commitments should be a whole year thing. Families, along with pet dogs are not just for Christmas! At the start of this particular New Year, my thoughts focus on two very important male members of the family: one nearing the end of his life and the other yet to begin his. My son and daughter in law are expecting their first child, a boy, in early March. I hope all goes smoothly and I am looking forward to being a Granddad again. I already have 3 lovely grand-daughters but this little one will be my first grandson. It will be a special moment in my life. I was lucky to spend some time with the unborn bump when he visited me over new year along with his parents. It’s an awesome thing, thinking about this precious new life about to commence, the newest member of the family. He will carry the Bates name forward into future generations.( if the present sexist system of selecting surnames, persists.)
Perversely, the birth of a new family member makes me think about my own advancing years and of my own mortality. When a baby is born, everyone shuffles up a place. I remember when my first grandchild, Esme, was born, I took my first look at her and thought — ” Blimey– I’ve moved up a generation!” I am now near the top of the family tree, with just my parents ahead of me.
Yes I am very lucky to still have both my mum and dad. Sadly, last year saw a decline in their health and fitness such that they both need regular care, especially my increasingly frail dad. However, even this cloud has a silver lining. The positive result of the situation is that my siblings and I have come much closer together in order to help and support our parents. Increased family harmony and unity has been the happy result.
Just like the birth of the baby, mum and dad’s need for more care in their old age, focusses my thoughts. It’s strange how the 2 very different developments are linked. Both remind one of the continuity and longevity of the family and also the unconditional love that binds us all together, from the youngest to the oldest. Once the baby has been born, the living members of my family will span over 91 years and 4 generations. Will my father ever meet and talk to my grandson? I certainly hope so.
So, as this latest year gets into its stride, I am thinking both backwards and forwards. I think back on the many happy times I spent with my dad, who is now in hospital. awaiting a place in a nursing home. I remember the toy garage he built for me, the holidays to the seaside he organised for us all, the second-hand bike he did up so that I could have a crack at my cycling proficiency test. I recall the unflagging support and encouragement he has given to me over my entire life. I also think forward to the times I hope to spend with my new grandson — playing with toys, reading books, trips to the park and those first simple but magical conversations. What will his first words be? I already spend precious times with my 3 delightful grand-daughters.
The future balanced with the past. That’s what life is all about, particularly in late December and early January, in the reflective time when the year turns. A friend recently told me of a lovely saying he had read in a shop or restaurant–” The past is history. The future is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it is called “the present.” Happy New Year!

STRANGE GOINGS ON IN AUTUMN.

15 Nov

Autumn can be a strange and disturbing time. Darkness descends much sooner every day. The weather gets cold and damp. The leaves fall from the trees and most of the flowers die. Many insects disappear, while numerous birds fly away, vanishing from our skies for months on end. Meanwhile people, including young children, start to dress up in weird costumes and go around the streets trying to scare others or even threaten them with mischief on their own doorsteps. In this same disconcerting season, bonfires are lit and 17th century-style effigies are burnt on them. Explosives are set off creating a cacophony that sounds as if war has broken out, frightening both animals and people of a nervous disposition. Adults indoctrinate their children into an irrational hatred of Roman Catholics as if they were still living in the 16th or 17th centuries. This results in a well known Catholic man from the past becoming a hate-figure and being symbolically burnt to a cinder on countless ritualistic bonfires. Yes, autumn in Britain can be a mysterious and disturbing time.
Of course, I’m talking in particular about the festival of Halloween and the British tradition of Bonfire Night, on October 31st and November 5th respectively. They are both very popular traditions, and if anything, their popularity is on the rise. People spend increasing amounts of money in order to take part in them. I read recently that Britons have spent in the region of £330 million on pumpkins and other Halloween party goods this year (2014). For the whole of October 31st, social- media sites were taken over by pictures of people and their children daubed with frightening face-paints and sporting costumes that transformed them into: ghosts, ghouls, skeletons, monsters or characters from horror movies. It seems that such activities all have to be exhibited online these days. I went to the supermarket to get back to normality, only to be welcomed by a she- devil and served by a skeleton. Later on in that strange day I switched on the TV to find that the barman in the Eastenders pub had a large bolt through his neck as if he was a character from a horror movie. Knocks came on our door after dark and we were greeted by neighbours’ children dressed as ghosts and zombies threatening to play tricks on us if we didn’t give them a treat. In the past, when asked the question ” Trick or treat?” I’ve always asked for a treat but never got one. I was just met with bemused looks as if it was me who was the crazy one. It was a strange, unsettling day.
It’s funny because when I was a kid we never did much at Halloween. Some of my mates referred to it as “mischievous night” and went around threatening to throw people’s gates into the middle of their gardens unless placated with a reward. But, being a law-abiding citizen, I never joined in on that. The festival seems to have taken off in recent years and become a very big event. I suppose the influence of mass media , advertising and social networking has a lot to do with it. I imagine that people come under great social pressure to conform and not to be left out in the cold. This is especially so for people with children. The value of “pester power” should never be underestimated.
But what is all this dressing up, trick or treating and partying all about? It would be interesting to conduct a survey of all those participating in Halloween and see how many understand why they are doing it. Halloween is a contraction of “All Hallows Evening”. “Hallows” are saints. On the evening of October 31st, people in the past remembered the dead, including saints and martyrs. However, I haven’t yet seen anybody dressed up as Saint Christopher or Joan of Arc, have you? Christians traditionally prayed for the souls of the recently departed, to help them make it through purgatory and get to heaven. Have you seen anybody praying at Halloween? It seems that the original reasons for the festival have now been largely lost in the mists of time, such that we are now left with a celebration without a reason, a tradition that has lost its roots. I think lots of our festivals and celebrations have been separated from their original meanings. Christmas is a case in point. It’s now largely a time of material consumption, present giving, parties, family get-togethers and much eating and drinking rather than being about Mary, Joseph and the birth of their baby: Jesus Christ. The festival and the original reason for that festival seem to have become disconnected.
I suppose a few Christians might still pray for the souls of the dead or light candles on graves in the churchyard at Halloween. However, for the majority that’s sounds pretty boring and terribly serious. It’s much more fun to dress up and have a party. The connection with the souls of the dead seems to have been reduced to dressing up as a ghost or a skeleton. I’m talking mainly about the UK, the USA and other countries of the so called West. I know that celebrations in Mexico have a much stronger connection with the actual dead and in places like New Guinea , coffins are dug up and paraded through the streets so that the departed can take part in their own festival. Maybe that would be considered too upsetting in the West where people don’t normally like to think about death, corpses or coffins. In the past people used to bake soul- cakes to commemorate the deaths of loved ones. Mummers ( singers) in disguises would sing, recite verses or pray for the recently departed in exchange for being given these cakes or other food. This tradition has now disappeared. Trick or treaters don’t sing, recite or pray anymore. They just turn up in fancy dress with a candle-lit lantern and are rewarded with the ubiquitous sweets and candies. For instance, a three year turned up on my sister’s doorstep and immediately grabbed a handful of sweets as a reward for dressing up. I wonder if that little girl knew that her scooped out pumpkin is called a Jack o’ Lantern and is supposed to represent the soul of a deceased person? I doubt it.
I’m not against people having fun although you might get that impression from the above paragraphs. It’s great to have fun- times especially when you are a child. What does concern me is that most of the serious reasons for the Halloween festival are mostly forgotten or ignored. It is no longer about thinking of departed loved ones or paying respect to saints and martyrs. That depth has largely disappeared. It has become another one of our frothy, superficial festivals devoid of real meaning. As is often the case these days, the driving force behind it is big business, trying to get us to spend our money. When I Googled Halloween on my laptop, the list of references that appeared read: costumes, decorations, games, ideas, pictures. There was nothing about saints, souls, praying , singing or lighting candles. To be fair, it’s not a festival that is totally devoid of meaning. Rather it has simply acquired new meanings. I suppose, being generous, one could say that nowadays people use humour and ridicule to confront the power of death. It’s strange how people love scaring themselves and others. It is thought to be great entertainment. However, does the modern version of Halloween really tackle the sombre subject of death or does it merely provide us with yet another fun-filled distraction that helps us to avoid actually thinking about our own mortality? Meanwhile the shops and the manufacturers rub their hands in glee at the prospect of another consumer spending spree. The pressure to join in and not be left out is very powerful, especially for those with children.
Meanwhile, hot on the heals of Halloween comes Bonfire Night, a peculiarly British festival. But what is this festival about? It celebrates the foiling of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. A group of Roman Catholic plotters planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament when King James I was due to make a speech there. They hired a soldier called Guido Fawkes to handle the gunpowder which they had hidden in a storeroom below the parliament building after tunnelling through there from an adjoining house. They were disappointed that King James, the first of the Stuart monarchs had decided to keep England as a Protestant country instead of restoring Catholicism as the official church. The burning at the stake of leading protestants in the reign of Mary I ( “Bloody Mary”), the attempted invasion of England by the Catholic Spanish Armada in 1588 and the numerous plots to replace Elizabeth I with her Roman Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, had all led to Roman Catholicism becoming very unpopular in mainstream Britain. This post Reformation era had seen many examples of religious ( Catholic v Protestant) strife across Europe. The Gunpowder plot of 1605 was just the latest example. The plotters had planned to replace King James with a Catholic ruler and put Britain back into the arms of the Pope in Rome. So when the plot was discovered and the plotters executed or killed while trying to escape, it was a great cause of national celebration. Guido (Guy) Fawkes himself was captured, tortured and then hung, drawn and quartered. He was never actually burnt on a bonfire, the fate of many a religious “heretics” in those far off days.
So that’s what Bonfire Night is all about. But the momentous events of 1605 are now over 4 centuries ago. Why are we still celebrating them today? Roman Catholics have been allowed back into the fold and religious freedom and tolerance are practised in modern Britain. ( except a Roman Catholic would still not be allowed to be our monarch.) Why are we annually trying to stir up religious hatred and intolerance, and indoctrinating our children with the same out-dated prejudices? I remember watching a TV programme which showed how the rest of Europe viewed the British tradition of Bonfire Night. They portrayed us as a nation still living in the past, constantly reviving old hatreds and prejudices such as the holding of Tudor and Stuart era anti-popery demonstrations. Is this true? Are we are a nation that clings on to negative prejudices from the past? Or is it really that it’s just another excuse for a party and a celebration? Bonfire Night is another occasion when people gather together, have parties, eat and drink special dishes and generally have fun. There’s nothing wrong with that of course. Indeed Bonfire Night, like Halloween and Christmas is an important occasion that brings our nation together. It is a unifying force in an increasingly disparate nation. However, I still suspect that Bonfire Night has become a festival divorced from its original meaning. This disturbs me and I don’t really know why. I know all about the story of Guy Fawkes and King James I because I taught it every year in school. However, I wonder how many people building bonfires, setting off fireworks and burning “Guys” actually know and understand the real story behind their celebration? Also, is it right and proper that our country should annually stir up such ancient and poisonous prejudices?
I enjoyed Bonfire Night as a child. It was one of the highlights of the year. It brought our local community together. But is it now a tradition that is way past its sell-by date? Maybe, if we love firework shows so much, we should just use them to celebrate New Year?
This is the blog of a non-conformist. I hate to be a slave of tradition. I dislike being pressurised by the media and by society into doing the same things at the same time as everyone else. Christmas is always a time of mixed emotions for me. What I hate most of all is being subjected to intense commercial pressure. I don’t mind spending my money if I see a point to it. I like buying presents for my loved ones. But how many people spending large sums of cash on Halloween costumes and Firework displays really know why they are doing it? How many know the real origins and meaning of the festivals they are supposed to be celebrating? Are people really trying to get in touch with their departed loved ones or celebrating the saving of King and Parliament from murderous plotters, or are they taking part because they don’t want to be left out or called a killjoy? Lots of subtle pressures are constantly trying to persuade us to be an accepted part of the crowd. Facebook pages on Halloween or glossy Christmas adverts on TV that have already begun in the first half of November are just two of the more obvious examples. Yes it’s been a strange, slightly disconcerting autumn for me, but then it always is!

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