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Encounters with Portugal.

12 Mar

Portugal– a small country at the western edge of Europe which hardly ever makes the news headlines, except for the tragic disappearance of the British toddler, Madeleine McCann. Yet this is the country whose explorers discovered a large chunk of the world. It’s a country that had a world empire well before the British, French or Dutch. It’s a fiercely Christian nation that used to be Muslim. Just in the 20th century, it murdered its king, became a republic, endured a long dictatorship, avoided both world wars, had a peaceful revolution and joined the European Community. I’ve just been to Portugal, my second visit. On both occasions I didn’t go to Portugal’s popular and picturesque south coast, the Algarve, although I believe it is lovely. Instead I opted  for cultural sightseeing in Lisbon and Porto and all points in between. Typical history and geography teacher’s stuff really. Here are a few of the things I saw and found out about.

THE VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY and the DAY WHEN MY DAD LOCKED MY SCHOOL BOOKS AWAY.

At Belem, a suburb of Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, is the striking Monument to the Discoveries. It is a huge white, waterfront edifice in the shape of a caravel, the ocean-going sailing ship developed by the Portuguese to explore  lands beyond Europe. On it are clustered famous Portuguese explorers, kings, poets and priests. It was built in 1960 to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, who did more than most to make the famous Portuguese, 15th century voyages of discovery possible. He set up a maritime school in the Algarve which developed great advances in navigation, cartography and ship design.

Portuguese explorers in the second half of the 15th century, gradually sailed down the west coast of Africa, dispersing the fog of the unknown and opening up the world that we know today. It was from Belem that Bartholomew Diaz embarked when he became the first European to sail round the tip of South Africa. He changed its name from “Cape of Storms” to “Cape of Good Hope.” Then in 1497, Vasco da Gama sailed all the way round Africa and across the Indian Ocean to India. He thus opened up a cheaper route to the lucrative Spice Trade than the expensive and dangerous overland one, making Portugal extremely rich and turning it into a world power. Even before this, in 1494, the Pope had divided the world between Portugal and Spain. The Spanish had become wealthy and powerful following the discovery of the New World of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Yet, even here, there was a strong Portuguese connection. Columbus, an Italian from Genoa, was married to the daughter of a Portuguese sea-captain and learnt all his mariner’s skills and knowledge on the Algarve.

I know all this because as a young teenager, I became fascinated with the age of discovery which I learnt about in my history lessons at secondary school. It was probably this subject that ignited my life-long passion for History. One could argue that Portugal was responsible for my subsequent long career as a History and geography teacher. I got so obsessed that I spent hours and hours producing marathon home-works which ran well beyond 30 pages of writing, drawings and maps. My poor teacher, Mrs Todd, must have hated me as she had all that extra marking to do! My dad got very worried. Surely I should be out in the fresh air, playing football or hide and seek with the other “normal” kids? In fact, my father got so concerned that he locked my books up in a cabinet and ordered me out of the house! It didn’t work though because as soon as he left for work I took my books out again and continued my absorbing studies.

MANUELINE ARCHITECTURE. — an exercise in Royal showing off.

The Portuguese got extremely rich through their discoveries and the establishment of their Empire. The 15th and early 16th centuries are seen as Portugal’s “Golden Age.” They even cashed in on the discovery of the “New World” by colonising Brazil, the largest country in South America. This proved to be a fortuitous move for gold was later discovered in Brazil and brought yet more wealth pouring into the Portuguese coffers. The Royal family, the Catholic church and others spent vast sums of money on lavish palaces, churches and monasteries.( for some reason, monasteries are called convents in Portugal.) I doubt whether many ordinary people enjoyed the benefits of all this wealth. Basically, it was a huge showing- off operation with each king or noble trying to  outshine the others. For instance, Mafra, a small town near Lisbon, is dominated by an enormous monastery-palace built in the early 1700s by the extravagant King Dom Joao V to celebrate the birth of his son and heir. It began as a simple Franciscan monastery, but thanks to the vast mineral wealth pouring in from Brazil, it soon grew into a gargantuan palace with hundreds of monks employed to pray for the Royal souls. Some people regard the spending on Mafra as obscene. Still, all that extravagance has brought great dividends to the modern Portuguese tourist industry. Cultural tourists flock to see these spectacular, over-the-top edifices. I saw similar grandiose buildings at Belem ( the Jeronimos Monastery), Coimbra, Tomar and Batalha, to name just a few.

The most characteristic style of architecture in Portugal’s Golden era is the Manueline style. It gets its name from King Manuel I ( 1495-1521).( no connection with the waiter in Fawlty Towers.) He used much of the riches of the empire to build fantastic monuments of self-glorification. His successor favoured a more restrained, simpler style so the Manueline period was relatively short. As I said, this extravagant style of architecture is a great hit with the tourists of today. Manueline architecture was a late, Portuguese version of the Gothic style. It involves elaborately carved stone-work around doors, windows and arcades. It includes: mock vegetation, twisted ropes, knots and swirls, crosses and globes. Sometimes it seems impossible that such delicate ornamentation can have been carved out of actual stone. A lot of the carvings are symbolic, representing the king, the church or the empire. Coming face to face with it, Manueline architecture makes your jaw drop. Brought up on modern architecture full of clean lines, tourists are taken aback by the forest of fancy ornamentation. It’s all very over-the-top. At the Convento do Cristo at Tomar, we saw the most brilliant examples of the Manueline style. It decorates the chapel and the multiple, arcaded cloisters ( some of them 2 storied). The whole display comes to a head at the hard-to-believe Chapter House Window.( Janela do Capitulo.) The window is swathed in intricate stone carvings representing maritime and Imperial motifs. Our guide talked to us for a full 5 minutes to explain all the symbolism in front of us. We had to pinch ourselves to remember that this was only a mere window! It is a rich, extravagant early 16th century fantasy.

AZULEJOS — beautiful glazed tiles.

Today Portugal is a Christian country but, like its neighbour Spain, it used to be ruled by the Muslim Moors from  north Africa. Much of Portugal’s history is taken up with the Christian re-conquest, led by organisations like the Knights’ Templar.( whose HQ was at Tomar.) However, the Moors did leave a strong legacy especially in the south. The most obvious relics of the Moors are the lovely glazed tiles, that grace both public and private buildings, inside and out. They brought this skilled craft over in the eighth century. The Portuguese name for these beautiful, decorative tiles is “Azulejos.” Some are pictorial, some show repeated patterns. Many of these ceramic tiles are in pale blue and white, but others feature pale yellows, reds and greens. We saw them in medieval palaces, 15th and 16th century churches and cloisters and even in 19th and  20th century Town Halls, shops, houses and railway stations. The entrance hall of Porto’s suburban rail station is particularly spectacular. Tiles are particularly apt for hot countries because they are so cool. Of course  they are ubiquitous in the Arab countries of north Africa and the Middle East. Portugal’s legacy from its Arab past is particularly rich.

We saw lovely early 16th century geometric tiles in the Royal Palace in Sintra.( Palacio Nationale.) We saw a lot of religious imagery in the churches such as the Sao Roque in Lisbon’s upper town. These were usually in restrained pale colours. Later more colourful, extravagent panels were commissioned showing: battles, hunting scenes and fantastical images  influenced by the Voyages of Discovery. Sometimes a large panel would cover a whole wall like a vertical carpet. In the later 17th the blue and white Dutch style became very popular, often showing images of flowers and fruit. Tiles were seen as good insulators on the inside and solid protection from rain and fire on the outside. After the industrial revolution, mass produced tiles were used to decorate shops and factories. We saw numerous independent shops and cafes in Lisbon and Porto, all sporting attractive decoration involving azulejos. Now that I am back in Britain, the beautiful ceramic tiles of Portugal are certainly an abiding memory.

PORT WINE – White, Tawny and Ruby.

As a child I was brought up as a tee-totaller Methodist. However, even my strict, non-drinking parents made an exception for Christmas. We all enjoyed a glass of port wine. OK, it was adulterated with lemonade, but it still counted. I still remember its rich flavour and heavy texture. I think we all thought we were being rather daring and just for once, were letting ourselves go! (Ha! Ha!)

Years later, when I first visited Lisbon, my girlfriend and I made a special point of visiting the Port Wine Institute for a tasting. We were ushered into what looked like the entrance hall of a rather grand, old hotel. It was cool and shady compared to the dazzling, hot sunshine outside. The atmosphere was hushed and still. It was like stepping into another world. We sat at a table in a partitioned booth, and waited. In front of us was a menu. It was a list of different types of Port, some ruby red, some white and some tawny.( a cross between the two.) An old, uniformed waiter approached us for our order. The deal was that we could sample 6 different ports for a special, subsidised price. Not having a lot of spare cash, we carefully chose the cheapest options. However, everytime we selected a cheaper wine, the waiter gravely shook his head, saying it was not available. It was only when we got to the quite expensive ( for us) category that he finally nodded, and after a short wait, brought us our samples. We drank 3 rubies and 3 whites, carefully trying to savour the flavours and look like connoisseurs. I don’t think the waiter was fooled for a second. We soon became talkative and giggly as the wine took effect. In the end, our heads swimming, we parted with a too large sum of money and staggered out into the daylight. As soon as the bright sun hit us we realised how drunk we were. So we retreated to the quiet courtyard of a nearby old convent ( The Carmo) to rest and slowly sober up.

  Recently, I was lucky enough to visit Porto itself and went with my tour group for a tasting at a wine lodge on the banks of the Duoro. We were given a long but interesting talk about the special grapes, their growing conditions and the processes they go through to finally produce the port wines. The soils, cold winters and long hot summers of the Duoro valley provide ideal conditions for the vines to grow and prosper. It was all very scientific and I’ve forgotten most of the technical details. Apparently the British were very involved in the development of the industry, such that we have ended up with names such as :Sandeman, Graham’s, Cockburn and Taylor’s. Most of the lodges are on the Gaia side of the river Duoro, on the opposite bank to Porto itself. We had an interesting and pleasant tasting involving one ruby and one white. Someone acquired a sample of tawny wine which ended up being our favourite. It was lighter than the others and slipped down more easily. I suppose this preference just confirmed that we are philistines but after 3 ports, we didn’t really care. We had tasted port wine in Porto, the drink that shares its name with its country. When you’re a serious tourist you have to do these things! My Methodist background just faded into the past.

The European Union.

  Portugal voted to join the European Union in 1986, over 10 years after the British. Membership of the EU guaranteed political stability. It’s first attempt at democracy after the fall of the monarchy in the early 20th century, had resulted in massive political instability. There were a staggering 45 changes of government in only 16 years. This led to the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar who, being a skilled finance minister, at least brought some order to the country’s economy. However, ordinary people were denied human rights, no opposition was allowed and the press was heavily censured. It was a one-party dictatorship. The country became backward compared to much of Europe and the ordinary people suffered poverty. The dictatorship was overthrown when Salazar stepped down in 1970 due to illness and dementia. The colonies were given up after damaging wars and a so-called “Carnation-Revolution”in 1974, overthrew the old regime and restored democracy. ( The protesters put flowers in the barrels of the soldiers guns.) I remember visiting Estoril in the mid 1990’s and seeing the atmospheric, decaying, empty mansions of the rich. Their gardens were overgrown with weeds and the gates were secured with rusty pad-locks. It was like a scene from the Adams Family! These supporters and beneficiaries of the dictatorship had all fled to Brazil and abandoned their sumptuous homes, fearing for their safety.

 Joining the EU gave Portugal much needed international support and stability. Its infrastructure was badly neglected and European money was pumped in to build roads, bridges, railways and all the other necessities for a modern nation. We were told that if there was a referendum about EU membership in Portugal today, probably about 90 to 95% would vote to stay, as the benefits for the country had been so great. The Portuguese governments had also used the excuse of EU membership to bring in some important reforms. Some measures would have been initially unpopular and might have led to the fall of a government. However, using Europe as the reason for their introduction, helped to bring in some much needed changes that were to the long- term benefit of the country. Our recent tour guide Tomas ( half Portuguese, half German) told us much of this as we drove around on a cultural tour of his country. I don’t think anyone failed to spot the irony in the fact that he talking to British tourists whose country had just voted narrowly to actually leave the European Union in the Referendum of June, 2016. It highlighted the great difference that now divides the United Kingdom from Portugal. On the face of it these 2 nations have great similarities. Both are in western Europe, both are democracies, both are sea-faring nations, both had “golden eras” and world-wide empires, both lost their empires in the second half of the 20th century and have had to come to terms with their diminished status in the world. However, one nation sees its future firmly in Europe while the other has decided, for better or for worse, to go it alone.

I have enjoyed my visits to Portugal and will certainly go again. There are many things I have not mentioned of course as this blog is not intended as a comprehensive guide, but merely some fleeting impressions. Two last images spring to mind as I near the end of the piece — the wonderful mosaic pavements decorating many of the towns and cities we visited, and the delicious pastries in the numerous bakeries and cafes we visited, especially the Pasties de Belem, wonderful flaky custard tartlets, sprinkled with cinnamon and icing sugar. These were some of the many treats we experienced in Portugal. ( Do you think the Portuguese Tourist Board will give me a free holiday now?)

 

 

Musical memories of the 1990’s.

16 Oct

My music listening reached an intensity in the 90’s that I had not experienced since my late teens. For much of my adult life, as family and work responsibilities crowded in, the luxury of listening to music had been pushed aside. But now, in my early forties, deeply wounded by divorce and the destruction of much of my previous life, music became my solace and my saviour. After a hard day at work, I could unwind at home by putting on the headphones and listen to a whole album without interruption. I switched off the light and allowed myself to be completely taken over by the sounds feeding into my head. It was a blessed escape and a small but important consolation for the pain of separation from my family.

As the 1990’s dawned I was freshly ensconced in my post-divorce flat in North Tyneside. It was the beginning of a new era for me. Upon leaving my marital home I had grabbed my most precious vinyl LPs (Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, The Doors , The Velvet Underground etc) to take with me to my new life, but most of the family’s large record collection stayed right where it was, for the hopeful edification of my children and my ex-wife. So I wasn’t only starting again emotionally and socially, I was starting over in music too. I had to build up a new collection, beginning almost from scratch. As it was, many music fans were also busily re-purchasing their record collections, this time on CD , the new format which was rapidly replacing vinyl. That was a great trick by the music industry– getting us all to buy our music collections twice! It’s yet another example of how technology drives our lives in the modern world. However, as it so happened, it suited my circumstances to abandon vinyl ( though never completely jettisoning it). I now embraced the new format. I purchased a second-hand music player from a friend, erected a neat stacking system of shelves and started filling them with shiny new Compact Discs. My old vinyl LP sleeves, I used to decorate the walls!

My musical experience in the 1990’s and beyond was not just about listening though. It was also about taking part. No I didn’t form a rock band, but I did join a folk choir. I heard the Caedmon Choir singing in a Friends of the Earth anti- nuclear festival at Druridge Bay in Northumberland. ( This beautiful stretch of coastline was being threatened by the building of a Nuclear Power station.) They were (are) named after an Anglo-Saxon monk in north-east England, who was supposedly given the power of song by God. I was so impressed with Caedmon Choir’s performance  and repertoire, that I decided to join them. I knew I had a decent bass-baritone voice but had previously only sung at church as a kid and in a school production , as a teacher, of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” So I travelled to Gateshead’s Caedmon Hall one dark, cold Tuesday evening and joined the acappella, 4 part harmony, mixed choir that  was to become a regular feature of my life for the next 14 years or so. ( I later joined other choirs and still enjoy being a member of the excellent Middlesbrough Town Hall Choir.) We sang a mixture of folk, pop, gospel, classical and World music, led by the renowned singer-songwriter Sandra Kerr. We did gigs and even recorded a couple of albums.( I later found a cassette version of one of them: “Angry, Gentle People”, being sold for 50p in a charity shop — so I bought it!) It was all very exhilarating. Apart from enjoying the music, I made lots of good friends. Amongst others, I sang alongside  Rachel and Becky Unthank ( and their mum Pat) who were later to become famous alternative- folk recording artists.( I promise this will be the last name drop in this blog!)  We sang at concert halls, community halls, hospitals and care homes, as well as in shopping centres and on street corners. The whole choir experience sharpened my musical skills. It  developed my musical knowledge and appreciation immeasurably.

Meanwhile, back in my flat I bought an expensive, Japanese keyboard and started playing a lot more again. I had learnt piano as a child. I played light classical, pop, blues and a bit of jazz, though not very well. I acquired a lodger, M, who was a friend of a friend, and he just happened to be the editor of the periodical: “Keyboard Monthly”. He helped me choose the Korg and introduced me to new music and artists. One day he interviewed Tori Amos and later I went with him to see her show at Newcastle’s Opera House. She put on a mesmerising, dynamic performance, her sweet but powerful, soaring voice interweaving with the 2 keyboards that she played both alternately and simultaneously. ( shades of Keith Emerson here.) Tori Amos was to became one of my favourite musicians of the 90’s. I quickly acquired her first 2 albums :”Little Earthquakes” and “Under the Pink” and played them to death in my little flat. I then bought the rest of her output. I found her singing intense and unique. She used her mezzo-soprano voice as another instrument,  accompanying her piano-driven songs. Her lyrics were interesting too. They dealt with serious subjects such as sexuality, politics, feminism and religion. They even featured a tale of sexual abuse. I believe many of them were semi- autobiographical. Like most great artists, Tori Amos creates her own world which one can immerse oneself in. I missed my family, but one small compensation of living alone was that I had more time to listen to music. This meant that initially difficult music would become more accessible after repeated hearings.

To the uninitiated, Amos might have sounded like an American Kate Bush, with her high pitched, swooping and soaring vocals. However, once given time, she emerges with her own distinctive, compelling style. In fact, Amos ironically later led me back to the work of Kate Bush, particularly “Hounds of Love” and her 21st century albums. I had previously dismissed Bush as an irritating “screecher”, but now, I came to appreciate her genius and become a fully paid up member of the fan club. Better late than never, as they say.

Not surprisingly, the 90’s were just as complicated musically as the previous decade. The music scene had splintered into a  whole myriad of genres, styles and artists. I was now in my 40’s, so teenage pop had little interest to me, except to keep up with what my  pupils were listening to. Thus I didn’t bother with boy bands like “Take That” or girl bands like the pseudo-feminists, “The Spice Girls.” I ignored the bubble gum pop of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Although it is now highly revered, the so-called” “Grunge” rock of “Nirvana” and “Pearl Jam” , also failed to grab me, maybe because I wasn’t an alienated adolescent feeling disenchanted with the established adult world. My mid-life crisis had consigned my teenage angst to the dim and distant past. I was still a big rock fan though and the stuff I particularly liked was dubbed “alternative rock” by the critics.

I  loved the American garage rock band REM whom I had belatedly discovered in the late 80’s.  In the 1990s, they managed the difficult task of achieving mainstream popularity whilst still retaining critical acclaim.  REM were a constantly evolving band who kept their edge. I particularly liked their first two 90’s albums: “Out of Time” and “Automatic for the People”, which  achieved massive success on both sides of the Atlantic. The former had a baroque, acoustic feel using a variety of string instruments to go alongside the guitars. The latter had a more subdued, moody atmosphere with sudden, thrilling explosions of electric guitar. The songs dealt with deep subjects such as mortality and spirituality, had interesting lyrics and often beautiful melodies. I found Michael Stipe’s vocal style compelling. In the 90’s, REM emerged from their previous obscurity to become a major stadium rock band, although inevitably some of their subtlety and sensitivity had to be sacrificed in the live performances. Maybe this is why they put out a more strident, heavy rock album: “Monster” in the middle of the decade. I bought this but didn’t find it as satisfying as their earlier offerings.

I was lucky enough to see REM live at Edinburgh’s Murrayfield stadium which normally hosted international rugby matches. I lashed out and bought a transport and concert package for my eldest daughter, Joanna, her partner Al and myself. We travelled up from Newcastle upon Tyne in a large convoy of double decker buses, listening to REM classics all the way up through Northumberland and into Scotland. Unfortunately, our driver got lost in Edinburgh and we nearly missed the start of the concert. Even we diehard fans got rather sick of “Losing my Religion” and “Man on the Moon” by the time we had listened to them for the twentieth time! But we made it in the end and enjoyed a great show, even though we had to sit in plastic seats and swivel our heads to the left to see the stage. REM were supported by the Irish folk/rock band “The Cranberries” who were very popular at the time. I liked them too and bought their first 2 albums. ( strong melodies, beautifully sung and played.)

I continued to like folk rock. As well as the Cranberries, I kept up with the Waterboys’ output and had a spell of liking The Levellers, another celtic band with a more political edge, as can be deduced from their name. (The original Levellers were enlightened but ill-fated mid 17th century revolutionaries.) After a while their earnest lyrics and strident style began to grate on me, but not before I went to see them perform really well at Newcastle’s atmospheric Mayfair club, along with the equally good Chumbawamba. Unfortunately that gig, which I attended with my second daughter, Catherine, was marred by a terrible accident, when someone fell off a balcony and later died. It rather put rock music into perspective! Also in the folk-rock mode were the excellent Oyster Band, who like The Levellers featured an electric violinist and had a real edge.  The Oysters led me to the superb June Tabor as they made a joint album with her. Her wonderful haunting voice and melancholic folk songs made her one of my favourites. A Tabor gig was always totally engrossing.

June Tabor in turn led me to appreciate the excellent bluesy guitar playing and strong singing of her right hand man: Martyn Simpson. I regularly went to see him too, when he launched out as a solo performer. Although he moved from Manchester to far away New Orleans, he seemed to pop up in Tyneside very regularly.

I was lucky to live in the north east of England where there was a multitude of musical venues, large and small. My local Buddle Arts Centre in Wallsend featured lots of talented singers and musicians. I remember going to see  Robin Williamson, of Incredible String Band fame, perform there, lacing his other-wordly songs with magical stories. I also saw Peggy Seeger perform although she must have been well into her 70’s by then. The gig was uncomfortable though as she was still very much the militant feminist, blaming men for all the world’s ills, so being a man, I was made to squirm in my seat quite a lot! Tyneside also had its own resident singer-songwriter and superb guitarist: Isaac Guillary, who sadly only achieved local fame. Going back to the folk scene I enjoyed the celtic music of Capercaille, their reels and jigs interspersed with beautifully sung gaelic ballads. I saw them at the now defunct Riverside club. My lodger had bought me one of their lovely albums for Christmas.

I suppose one of the most famous musical “events” of the 1990’s was the emergence of “Britpop”. This was largely a contrived label made up by the press to help sell its papers. It also helped to sell lots of records of the four main groups involved: Oasis, Blur, Pulp and Suede. British pop/rock groups of the mid-90’s were hyped up to be the modern successors of the famous bands of the 6o’s. The media got excited that the Brits seemed to be conquering the pop world once again. A typical example of this hype was the so-called “Battle of the bands” when the latest singles by Oasis and Blur were supposed to be having a race to be Number 1. Just for the record, Blur won. Well, where did I stand in all this? I must hold up my hands and admit that, rightly or wrongly, I’ve never shown much interest in Suede. Maybe I should stream them now and give them a belated chance?  They just never caught my ear. One can never say the same about Oasis, who were probably the most hyped band of the four. Oasis were in your face all the time and seemed to take up permanent residence in the tabloids with their “bad boy” antics and controversial pronouncements. I didn’t like them at all despite their incredible success.( or maybe because of their incredible success.) I found their guitar based sound quite derivative of 60’s groups like The Beatles and their unsavoury behaviour to be a pale imitation of the Stones or the Pistols. I was irritated by their whining singing style and hated their sneering arrogance. I got to hear their songs because they were never off the radio but I never got to like them or their music. I felt they were greatly over-rated.

So that left Blur and Pulp. I liked Blur but never grew to love them. I could see their songs were clever and well performed and I admired the way they constantly experimented with different instruments and styles. I particularly enjoyed the LP “13” which included both electronic and gospel elements, which takes some doing in the same album. The lyrics of Damon Albarn were thoughtful and increasingly personal. They could also be great fun as in the highly enjoyable “Parklife” album which celebrated their cockney roots. However, I think much of my appreciation of Blur’s music came retrospectively, looking at their back-catalogue after listening to their strange but stimulating  “Think Tank” album in the early noughties.

Pulp were my big love out of the so-called Britpop big 4. My daughter, Catherine, put me on to them, as again, I was a bit slow on the uptake. With my advancing age, roles were now being reversed.  I was now getting recommendations from my children. Pulp had been going since 1978 but only hit it big  two decades on. I enjoyed all their excellent 90s albums: “His ‘n’ Hers”, “Different Class” and “This is Hardcore”. I also went to see them at Newcastle City Hall with Jarvis Cocker putting on a fabulous show-man’s performance. The group had a driving, pop-rock sound with catchy keyboards complementing the guitars. But it’s Cocker’s witty, earthy, often challenging lyrics that makes Pulp’s sound so distinctive. They deal with serious subjects ranging from sex to social class, from the perils of fame to the dangers of drugs, but they often approach them in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Much of the music is dramatic and often looks at the dark side of life. Some are like mini operas. I  remember listening to and thrilling to the tracks of Different Class, especially the title track and L.O.V.E. The latter struck a deep chord with me as I was embarking on a post-marriage love affair at the time and the lyrics captured the raw intensity of the feelings that were coursing through me. And at the same time Jarvis always had that ability to make you laugh with his wry comments on the absurdities of everyday life and his playful but compelling  vocal performances. Yes, to me, “Pulp” easily won the battle of the bands. A little later, Catherine also introduced me to the grandiose, lush pop and clever, quirky lyrics of Neil Hannon’s  brilliant”Divine Comedy” Thy became another long term favourite of mine.

In the 90’s I discovered 3  great American female singer-songwriters apart from the aforementioned Tori Amos  — Mary Chapin Carpenter, Alison Kraus and Lucinda Williams. For this I have to thank a friend and a magazine. G., the friend, was a fellow chorister who also became my squash partner ( a vitally important role) and music gig buddy. She went on a road trip to the southern states of the USA and while driving around in her hire car, she listened non-stop to some of the many American radio stations that crowded the airwaves.  She subsequently ended up spending much of her holiday money on CDs! She kindly “burnt” a few copies for me and it was through this that I grew to love Mary Chapin Carpenter. She had been packaged as a country singer but really she was ( and is) a superb singer-songwriter . I loved her 1992 album “Come On, Come On” and then quickly bought everything else she had recorded. She mixed up-tempo, driving country-rock with tender, emotional, personal songs. Her lyrics often spoke to me as I negotiated the ups and downs of my unstable post-marriage world . Most of all I found her rich voice so soothing and beautiful. I was also lucky to see her live at York’s Barbican centre — an excellent show shared with Shaun Colvin, who I also grew to like. The warmth of Mary Chapin’s personality shone through and made it a very special evening.

It was the same story with Alison Kraus. She possesses an absolutely exquisite voice and I fell in love with her blue-grass style music after acquiring several excellent albums and going to see her in concert. Kraus led me into an appreciation of a whole new genre of popular music, as I had never considered blue-grass before. It was exciting to branch out  and explore new musical worlds. I in fact became interested in American roots music in general, a genre that was increasing in popularity under the heading of “Americana.” I was to discover a rich vein of new artists by going along this route. All this brings me to the magazine that I mentioned earlier. “Uncut” specialises in music and film  and once I got into it and took out a subscription, a whole wealth of music fell into my lap. Every month it also included a sampler CD so one could listen to some of the music that was being reviewed. Thus I discovered the excellent Gillian Welch and her down to earth but lovely roots music recorded with Dave Rawlings, sometimes in her own living room. One day I read a letter from someone who said he couldn’t stop playing “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” by Lucinda Williams. So I took a risk and went out and bought it. This was before the age of music streaming and youtube. ( at least for me it was.) Pretty soon I couldn’t stop playing it either. It’s a classic southern country rock album, with strong, haunting songs and dynamic guitar work . Lucinda’s voice expresses raw, searing emotion, all delivered in her rich Texan drawl. Fantastic!

The trouble with music blogs is that it’s difficult to avoid boring lists. That’s often how we categorise pop music — into charts, and catalogues of names and titles. UNCUT magazine is a serial offender. The thing about “Best Of” music lists is that they are totally subjective. Someone will always disagree with your choices or get upset and even angry if you’ve missed their choices out. As this is a purely personal blog I make no apologies if I have omitted your favourites. When the list is retrospective, memory also plays a part in perhaps distorting the original picture. I’ve tried to give a flavour of my musical experiences and preferences from the 1990s, and some of the events surrounding them. Even as I try to wind this blog up, more musical memories flood into my mind: the thrilling feminist anger of Alanis Morrissette on her mega album “Jagged Little Pill”; the  futuristic, electronic soundscapes and weird but wonderful singing of Bjork: the 90’s offerings of Neil Young, especially “Harvest Moon” and “Rockin’ in the Free World”; the exciting  hip-hop tinged rock of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers; the powerful songs and sensational singing of Jeff Buckley, son of the incomparable Tim, on his only album “Grace” ( before his young life was cut tragically short); the bombastic, wild, witty art-rock of Oklahoma’s “The Flaming Lips”. I will even admit to obsessively listening to the top selling, radio friendly albums of Dido and David Grey, before I suddenly got sick of them. Then there were the artists such as Mary Black and Eddie Reader, whom I loved for their beautiful voices but whose material gradually got more and more comfortable and middle of the road, until I stopped listening. I also remember a phase of constantly listening to Cheryl Crow, but then dropped her as suddenly as I had discovered her. The Beat goes on, as Cher used to sing.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my musical journey through the 90’s. It was a turbulent decade for me personally, but no matter whether I was ecstatically happy or totally depressed, I could always find something to match my mood and lift my spirits. Playing, singing and listening to music help me negotiate through the emotional minefield.

PS — All that, and I still forgot to name-check The Verve! Their “Urban Hymns ” was one of my top albums of the later 90’s.

Vintage Man.

19 Sep

I’ve recently been feeling my age. I am 66 years old. The signs are all there. I have less energy and after a busy day, usually creep off to bed well before 11pm. I sometimes grumble about the younger generation and gently mock the technologies they are addicted to ( until I get into them  myself.) I have put on a late middle age/early old age spread and need to lose a couple of stone at least, but I cannot be bothered to join a gym or employ a personal trainer. Although I still look forward to plenty of times in the future, I increasingly hark back to the past. I recently had a coffee with my 90 year old mum and two of her chapel mates They all agreed that life would be much better if the “olden days” could be brought back again. Life seemed to have speeded up around them. They were increasingly bewildered by the frantic pace of change and multiple choices they are constantly bombarded with. I sympathise and empathise with the 3 old ladies to a certain extent. Even just going back to my own childhood in the 1950’s and 60’s, life seemed so much simpler, calmer and more pleasant. The roads were much quieter, there were only a couple of channels on the TV, there was no Internet and no social media sites to shower us with trivia and worry us about “keeping up.” With my rose-coloured glasses on, I can truly state: ” Those were the days!”

Yes, I should be feeling “past it” whatever “it” is, and should be gradually moving out of the main swim of things. I am retired and my teaching career is over. My children are all adults and no longer depend on my financial support. In many ways I have become a more peripheral figure in society. Yet, ironically, in recent years, it seems that I have become more and more trendy. This is because, you see, I am a genuine “vintage” person. “Vintage” is an extremely popular concept these days. People have “vintage” tea parties. Couples arrange “vintage” weddings. Cafes offer “vintage- style” afternoon teas. “Vintage” television shows are resurrected and rescreened, such as the current series of favourite BBC sitcoms. Collectors comb charity and antique shops for “vintage” items from tea sets to table cloths, from bric- a- brac to toys, inspired by daytime TV shows such as “Bargain Hunt.” Baking, the activity that was done in the past out of necessity, is now all the rage, even though we can easily buy all the items from the supermarket. The baking and cupcake craze is popularised on Facebook and other sites  and by phenomenally successful TV shows like “The Great British Bake Off.” For some reason, there seems to be a great thirst for items and activities from the recent past. Maybe some of this is generated by a powerful wave of nostalgia. Maybe people yearn for a simpler, less stressful time when Britain was still “great.” How else can one explain the enduring popularity of “The Archers” on radio or “Coronation Street” on TV? In those days, people talked to each other a lot more instead of being cut off in their private worlds of electronic devices. As far as I can work out, “vintage” means anything from the 1940’s, 50’s and early 60’s. And guess what — I am a real-life “vintage” human being! I don’t need to watch “Bake Off” to find out how to make cakes, bread and biscuits, as 60 years ago I watched my mum and my grandma doing it in real life. I remember being sent to the corner shop to buy the yeast that would later make the dough rise. I recall my mum placing trays of dough balls on the hearth near the open coal fire and the heat gradually baking them into delicious bread-rolls. This is why I am so excited! Surely a real vintage person will now be of great interest and be in great demand at the numerous vintage events? After-all, a tea-pot or a sundae dish cannot tell you what life was like back in the 1950’s , but I can!

I was recently at a vintage garden party for a charity I support. I wondered round expectantly, hoping to get into fascinating conversations about outside toilets, tin baths and coal houses. I was all ready to explain to an enthralled audience how we enjoyed a fruitful life without any need of the Internet and how we entertained ourselves before television. I wanted to tell people what it was like listening to the music of Vera Lynn, Perry Como or Val Doonican, before the age of the Beatles and Stones. Elvis had burst on the scene in the later 50’s of course but he was banned in our house. However, much to my disappointment, those “vintage” conversations never took place. The older people would have remembered those times anyway and probably wanted to forget about them. The younger people never asked me any questions and were never more than a few seconds away from checking their smart-phones. It was a very good crowd of people, all chatting away and eating their sandwiches and cakes off “vintage crockery” and drinking their tea from “vintage” tea pots. However,nobody was interested in finding out about real vintage life back in the day. I would have had to go to the Local History Society for that type of conversation. It was disappointing. I never got to tell them what is was like getting undressed in a unheated bedroom, or marvelling on a winter’s morning at the wondrous patterns “Jack Frost” had made on the window pains. Maybe I was just an old irrelevance after-all? I was just fooling myself, thinking I had become trendy at my advanced age. It was just silly, wishful thinking!  Then I remembered this blog, and decided to write a little bit about “vintage times” to my captive audience.

You see, I really do  remember the days before television came to rule the living room. I know it’s a cliché, but we truly did make our own entertainment back then. For example, my family loved doing giant jig-saw puzzles with up to a thousand pieces. My mum, dad, sister and I would all gather around the dining table to make our contribution to the evolving picture. The sky or trees were particularly difficult. One piece of blue or green was very much like another, or so it seemed. First of all, we had to sort out all the straight edged pieces, for these would make up the border. Then all the different colours or subjects would be sorted and placed into groups, ready to be eventually slotted into their correct places. It was a great family activity, bringing us all together after a busy day at work or school. It taught us patience and deferred gratification. It taught us categorisation and colour appreciation. It gave us socialisation and cooperation skills which stood us in good stead in later life. Sometimes it took many sessions to finish. If the jigsaw was unfinished when it was time to eat, we simply laid the table cloth gingerly on top of it and ate our meal extremely carefully, not wishing to spoil our emerging masterpiece. When the puzzle was finally completed we got a great feeling of satisfaction and pride. I particularly enjoyed doing pictures of railways featuring snorting steam locomotives. My dad was a railwayman. It helped to engender a lifelong passion for trains and keeps me linked to my father  to this day even though he is sadly no longer with us.

If you think that all that sounds very exciting, just wait till I tell you about “clippy mats!” In line with the current craze for all things “vintage” there is now a big revival of interest in this old, home-based method of rug making. In the north-east of England, where I now live, they are called “hooky” or “proggy” mats. In Derbyshire they were known as “clippy mats” or “rag-rugs.” It was another family activity before the age of television. Maybe the radio would be on in the background. Making these rugs or mats was a common activity in working-class homes in the north up to the middle of the 20th century. Our family made them in the 1950s. They were hand made from old socks, rags and other recycled fabrics. These were the days of post-war austerity when many items were in short supply and it was regarded as a crime to waste anything. These were the days of darning socks and mending old clothes instead of throwing them away  or donating them to charity shops. Well known phrases were: “make do and mend” and “waste not, want not.” So it was that we made our own rugs from recycled rags. I know it sounds very Dickensian but it’s true. These hard-wearing rugs and mats kept our feet warm before the days of wall-to-wall carpeting.

First of all, the family would set to work, cutting the old material into little strips. They would be about as long as a match-box. Then a large piece of hessian or sacking would be stretched across a frame and secured. This frame was placed on the dining table. The hessian would be arranged with the wrong side of the mat facing us. Once the strips of material had been prepared, we armed ourselves with little metal “prodders” and set about pushing or prodding the strips through the hessian backing. Somehow each strip of material was secured ( I cannot remember how) and the result was that on the other side, a thick, colourful rug emerged. It had a shaggy, long pile. Once it was placed down in front of the fire, we were all very proud of our creation.

Nowadays, mat-making is all about pleasure, but in those “vintage” days , for poorer families, it was a necessity. As well as keeping our feet warm, the mats also made good bed covers. It was another great activity that brought our family together and strengthened our relationships. Recently my daughter has learnt how to make these “proggy” or “clippy” mats at a skills- sharing session up in Whitley Bay where she lives. I also came across a “proggy” mat maker at an arts festival in Staithes on the North Yorkshire coast. Seeing her pushing the strips of material through the sacking took me straight back to my childhood and the family rug/mat making sessions we enjoyed in the 1950s. I talked to the lady and she said quite a lot of people had spoken to her about doing this when they were children.

Obviously there are lots of things I could tell you about life in the real “vintage” days. It was not all hunky dory. I remember the long process of making a coal fire instead of merely flicking a switch to get heating. I remember bath-time, when water had to be heated up in a copper which was like a large kettle. The water was then poured into a tin bath which usually hung on a nail in the outside wall. My dad would wash me very roughly at one end, while my mum washed my sister, considerable more gently, at the other end. The most recent time I saw such a tin bath was in a museum! I remember the outside toilet which was very cold and uncomfortable in winter, and the hard, crackly toilet paper. I remember the excitement when we got our little 12inch black and white telly and then, a little later in the early 60’s, our first mono record player complete with stylus and our first 45 rpm vinyl records. Just for the record, my sister and I purchased “Bobby’s Girl” by Susan Maughan and “Let’s Dance” by Chris Montez.

I had a happy childhood in those far off vintage days, but don’t worry, I won’t bore you with any more of the exciting details. You probably know most of it already now that the 40s,50s and 60s have become so fashionable and popular. Maybe one day, as a real life “vintage” person I’ll be really sought after as an after-dinner speaker, but somehow I doubt it. These days people can find out everything about everything from their lap-tops and smart phones. Maybe I’m destined to have a quiet retirement after-all, thinking nostalgically back to my many “vintage”, real-life memories.

Living under a Nuclear shadow.

12 Aug

When I was a teenager in the 60’s I had a small collection of pen-friends, scattered around the world. This was well before the Internet/E Mail age. In those days we wrote real letters to each other. I had pen-pals in Northern Ireland, Sweden, the USA and Japan. It is the Japanese friend, a girl called Junco Fujii, who has stuck longest in my mind. She was a serious girl who wrote sober letters.  She was from the city of Hiroshima, which meant nothing to me at the time. While my American pen friends from Cleveland and Pittsburgh wanted me to send them Beatles memorabilia or wanted to know whether I had been to The Cavern or who my favourite “mop top” was, Junco sent me pictures of white doves and was always asking whether I was in favour of world peace. Sometimes she sent me pictures of peace memorials in her city, of which there seemed to be quite a few. Being a naïve, ignorant 15 year old, I was at first bemused by this obsession with “peace.” As far as I knew, the world WAS at peace, except for the war in Vietnam of which I was only vaguely aware of at the time. Then the penny dropped — Hiroshima was the first city to have a nuclear bomb dropped on it, on August 6th, 1945. Three days later, Nagasaki, also in Japan, became the second city to receive such a nuclear attack. The two cities suffered horrifying consequences, both at the time and for many years to come. It had obviously left a deep scar on Junco’s psyche. I wonder how many of her family perished on that fateful day?

The devastating bombs were dropped by the USA and the received wisdom is that they were justified because they led directly to the Japanese surrender, finally bringing the Second World War to an end. It is argued that the nuclear bombs  probably saved many lives that would have been lost in the battle to conquer Japan. This conclusion has been challenged however. Some think the nuclear bombs were dropped as a massive, horrific scientific experiment, using tens of thousands of Japanese civilians as human guinea- pigs. The Soviet Union was about to join the war against Japan. As this development would almost certainly have brought about a swift Japanese surrender, it is argued that President Truman and his advisers  dropped their nuclear devices in haste, before the justification for using them was taken away. The arguments about whether the nuclear attacks were morally acceptable have raged back and forth over the subsequent decades. Many have quite rightly pointed out the atrocities that the Japanese carried out during the war, especially in their appalling prisoner- of- war camps. My own great Uncle William was reduced to eating grass and although he survived, he could never eat properly again. However, can it be comfortably argued that revenge was an acceptable reason for dropping the bombs? As my grandma always taught me: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” It is not the purpose of this blog to come to a definitive conclusion however. I don’t have enough relevant information anyway and the Americans have made sure their motivations and discussions have remained strictly classified. ( I wonder why?) What I can write about are the consequences of those first, and so far only, nuclear attacks, both for the World in general and on my life in particular.

I was born in 1949 and in some ways you could say I was lucky as I had missed the horrors of the Second World War. However, what I didn’t know was that I had  entered a savage new age — the Nuclear Age. Now, for the first time in history, it was possible to kill and maim indiscriminately on a colossal scale. 90,000 people were killed instantly at Hiroshima, and another 70,000 died or were seriously injured at Nagasaki. Nuclear bombs were the most destructive explosives ever invented. A whole city could now be obliterated with a single bomb. Radiation poisoning could then kill or deform many others in the years to come. Even the unborn were to become its victims. So I had been born into a world of fear rather than one of hope. Luckily, in my childhood innocence I didn’t know that. President Harry Truman, the man who had catapulted the world into this frightening state of affairs, was rather proud of his achievement. He boasted: “We have spent more than 2 billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history and we have won.” That sort of gives the game away. The Americans probably dropped the nuclear bombs as a scientific experiment rather than to bring about a Japanese surrender. President/ General Dwight D Eisenhower stated in his 1963 memoir – “Japan was already defeated, so that dropping the Bomb was completely unnecessary.”  But as I said, we cannot reach definitive conclusions until the US government declassifies the relevant documents, and I don’t think they are going to do that until we are all dead and nobody cares about what happened in 1945 anymore.

Despite all this, I had a happy childhood, blissfully unaware of the threat to the world I lived in. The Soviet Union, Britain and France quickly followed America as so called “Nuclear Powers.” Other countries, such as China, India, Pakistan and Israel, followed. Nuclear proliferation was inevitable as the Bomb was seen as the ultimate status symbol, enabling  a country to be known as a “Great Power”. Possessing a terrifying weapon that could destroy the whole planet was thought of as essential by  countries and leaders who wanted to have a big say in world affairs. It seemed that they were quite content to hold the rest of us to ransom in exchange for power and influence. In 1955, while I was playing out with my friends and starting primary school, Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his last “great” speech to parliament. In it he chillingly stated that we had “reached a stage where safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival, the twin brother of annihilation.” He probably thought that sounded pretty impressive at the time, almost as good as his “Iron Curtain” speech at the end of the 40’s. But was he really happy with a situation where many of his people were terrified of a Third World War and where everything and everyone could be annihilated at a moments notice? ( i.e. at the press of a button by an unstable leader.) I’m pleased I was still living in blissful ignorance, thankfully unaware of the grave potential danger the world now faced.

By the early 1960’s I was growing up, entering my teens, and slowly becoming more knowledgeable about the world. A first big clue to the dangers we all faced was the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962. Suddenly all the newspapers were full of gloom and doom about a confrontation between the USA and the Soviet Union which could lead to a nuclear war. I didn’t know the precise details at the time but I clearly remember the fear and tension. Dire headlines dominated my dad’s Daily Mail, though he never discussed any of it with me. Maybe, quite rightly, he wanted to preserve my innocence for as long as possible and for me to continue to enjoy my youth. Afterall, I was only just 12. My voice had not even broken yet! Yet my young life was being played out under a nuclear “sword of Damocles.”

Apparently, an American U2 spy plane had discovered Soviet nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, Russia’s communist ally in the Caribbean. They were within easy reach of all of America’s great cities. The American President, John F Kennedy saw this as a dangerous and unacceptable situation for his country. The Soviet Union and the USA had been sworn enemies in the so-called “Cold War” since the conclusion of the Second World War. So now places such as New York, Chicago and Washington DC could suffer the same fate as Hiroshima and Nagasaki 17 years earlier. Understandably the Americans didn’t like the feeling of being potentially on the receiving end of their own terrible invention. When the Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev refused to remove the missiles , Kennedy initiated a naval blockade of Cuba, which raised the tension considerably. What Kennedy didn’t reveal was that the USA had already placed similar missiles in Turkey, its NATO ally. They were near to the Russian border and were trained on Russian  targets. So Kruschev and his colleagues probably argued that they were merely acting in self defence. For 13 tense and terrible days the 2 leaders faced each other like 2 rutting stags, posing and strutting their macho stuff as the rest of the world waited in fear. It was like a massive game of “chicken” with potentially dire consequences for everyone . Thankfully Kennedy and Kruschev saw sense and the offending missiles in Cuba and Turkey were removed.  Kennedy was hailed as a hero who had faced down the Soviets and saved the world from a nuclear catastrophe. However, he never told anybody about the American climb-down in Turkey, a secret that was kept for 25 years. I’m surprised Kruschev agreed to keep this quiet, but maybe he had bigger problems to deal with. Kennedy was allowed to pose around as a great strong leader without revealing the full truth.

So the world was saved from a nuclear holocaust because one of the great powers was willing to back down and lose face. However, even though the world had escaped unscathed this time, the message was clear for all to see —  trying to keep world peace through the premise of Mutually Assured Destruction was a very fragile and highly dangerous concept. It could so easily have come unstuck, with disastrous consequences in 1962. The acronym of this policy is very apt I think — M.A.D. Already many people in the world were campaigning for nuclear weapons to be destroyed and abolished. The CND movement held many protests and marches in Britain in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Again, I was vaguely aware of all this through the press, but was more concerned with listening to pop music, trying to get a girlfriend and studying hard at school.

In 1964, just as The Beatles and Rolling Stones were hitting their stride, Harold Wilson’s Labour Party was elected to power in the UK. Part of its manifesto was to unilaterally disarm Britain of its nuclear arsenal. However Wilson, surprise, surprise, promptly broke his election promise and instead, his government started to develop  a full nuclear weapons programme despite widespread public protest. The  Labour government then leaned heavily on the BBC to stop it screening a drama/documentary by Peter Watkins called “The War Game” in 1965. It set out to show in a terrifyingly realistic manner, just what might happen in Britain if it was subject to a nuclear attack in a future war. It depicted mass deaths through blasts and hurricane- speed firestorms. It showed  large scale sickness and death caused by radiation poisoning. It examined the psychological impact of such an attack leading to a big rise in suicides. It depicted a breakdown in law and order and the shooting of looters by police. In other words it wasn’t the usual comfortable or escapist TV fare. The government pressurised the BBC to ban “The War Game” because it didn’t want the public to see the possible results of its own “defence” policies. By being a nuclear power we made ourselves into a prime nuclear target. The film was not shown until 20 years later to mark the 40th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Until that time, much of the population was kept in the dark.

Again I was only slightly aware of the fuss about Watkins’s film, not being told at home or at school what was really happening. I was too busy watching football, experimenting with a new “Mod” hairstyle and hanging around with my mates. But full realisation was to come and it came suddenly through my old friend, Bob Dylan. I had already sung along to Barry McGuire’s hit single: “Eve of Destruction” without bothering to engage with the Doomsday lyrics it contained. Now at the age of 17 or 18 I at last started to listen seriously to early Dylan. His 1962 song “A Hard Rains’ A-Gonna Fall” from the “Freewheelin” album, had such vivid , powerful, evocative lyrics that listening to them for the first time was like receiving an electric shock. They talked of “crooked highways”, “sad forests”, “a dozen dead oceans”, walking “ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard”, “blood drippin'”, and “A young woman whose body was burning”. This wasn’t the usual “I love you and you love me” of your average pop songs. Dylan’s lyrics were deliberately ambiguous and were open to all sorts of interpretation. But to me they were clearly about the aftermath of a devastating war. And what was the “Hard rain” that he finished every verse with? Although he denied it in an interview, many people interpreted this as a reference to deadly nuclear fallout. Irrespective of Dylan’s denial, I believed this interpretation and it led to me growing up very fast. I read about nuclear warfare and learnt all about the lethal effects of long term radiation, a silent killer. Bonny Dobson’s “Morning Dew” which I heard via Tim Rose’s recording, also referred to radioactive fallout, being a dialogue between the lone man and woman left alive after an apocalyptic catastrophe. So I had entered serious territory here — contemplating the end of the world!

I was really frightened, if not terrified by all this. It was a lot for a 17/18 year old to take in. My previous childhood innocence had well and truly been blasted away.( an unfortunate verb I know.) This all led to me having an enhanced awareness of my own fragile mortality. I started to fear death! This in turn developed into me being strongly against any unnecessary death. I became anti- war except in the case of self- defence. I did not want animal’s lives to be deliberately ended just to fill a hole in my belly. It was a formative period of my life. I became a pacifist and a vegetarian. I argued with my history teacher about the War in Vietnam. Yes, the Americans were sadly at it again — bombing, napalming and slaughtering people in a far away Asian country. Luckily they didn’t use nuclear weapons this time but I know that President Nixon actively thought about it. As a student I went to London and took part in anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in 1968, including a night long sit-in at the LSE. I manned the barricades, ate vegetarian food and watched films about American atrocities in Vietnam. I suppose you could say that I was being radicalised.

In the 1970s I got married and became a father twice over. A third child arrived in the early 80’s. I was also, busy working of course, so no longer had much time for demonstrations or activism. However, the arrival of my three lovely children gave me a sharp reminder that they had been born into a dangerous, precarious world. Their birth gave me a second, massive wake-up call. I suppose this is why, in my thirties, I became an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament ( CND.) Thus it was a decade of protest marches, torchlight processions, vigils, debates, doorstep canvassing, writing letters, signing petitions, lobbying MPs and singing songs of solidarity. The issue which re-energised the anti-nuclear movement in the 1980’s was the arrival of American Cruise Missilles at British sites such as Greenham Common. It seemed to many that Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was making Britain even more of a target in the event of a nuclear war. We already had our own nuclear weapons — Polaris and then Trident — but now we were letting the Americans bring there’s along too. For me it wasn’t a time to remain apathetic and to sit on the fence. It was a time to stand up and be counted. The campaign against Cruise missiles was long and hard but in the end they were removed. However we remained a nuclear state and after 4 consecutive election victories for the Conservatives, the position of the Peace  Movement seemed hopeless. I personally lost heart and started to feel burnt out. Finally, reluctantly, I dropped out of active participation in CND, turning my attention to the environment and becoming a member of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.

In the 80’s there were, thankfully, reductions in the American and Soviet nuclear arsenals, negotiated and cemented by treaties. This multi-lateral disarmament was welcome but the world still retained enough of these weapons to destroy itself  several times over. Also in the 1980’s we had a belligerent Prime Minister ( Mrs Thatcher) dubbed the “Iron Lady” by the Soviets, and we also had an American President, Ronald Reagan, who could joke ” let’s bomb Russia” when he thought the microphone had been switched off. With leaders like that it was a very worrying time for lovers of Peace. Apologists for the Nuclear weapons say they have kept World peace for over 60 years since the end of the last World War. However, this conveniently ignores the constant smaller wars that have occurred in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Central America and even in Europe ( Yugoslavia and Ukraine.) The Nuclear age has been anything but peaceful. I still cannot understand how any sane person can think that having weapons of mass destruction is the best way to preserve world peace. The Nuclear Powers of the West know this full well as they are desperate for them not to fall into the hands of terrorists or states they don’t like, such as Iran. If nuclear weapons are safe and necessary for our security, why deny them to the Iranians? This smacks of gross hypocrisy .

So the nuclear debate goes on. On the 70th anniversary of the atrocities at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese Prime Minister has twice called for the World to give up its Nuclear Weapons. Japan, by the way, is still a pacifist state. The leading candidate in the British Labour Party leadership race, Jeremy Corbyn, is in favour of Unilateral Nuclear Disarmament. Even though he is derided by the right wing press as  a left wing extremist, he is extremely popular with many people, especially the young. I still fear for the world and am worried for my children and now my grandchildren. I have been living under a terrible nuclear shadow all my life and it has not been pleasant. I may be thought of as a naïve idealist but I still dream of genuine world peace and of a planet free of weapons of mass destruction. I have recently rejoined CND and plan to be a more active campaigner again. I wonder what Junco is doing now? Maybe she was at the recent ceremonies in her home city and saw the release of the doves of peace. Maybe, like me she is still clinging on to hope and trying to conquer the fear of living in the Nuclear Age.

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.”

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.”