Biography (part 20)
By late afternoon I had arrived and was greeted by my hosts, Hema and Twinkle. My ‘Beach Hut’ was at the back of a compound scattered with coconut palms and fronted by a sea wall. I went for a walk, sketched some stalls in Fort Cochin, returned for a delicious vegetarian curry and before retiring walked up the wooden ramp to the top of the sea wall and watched the sunset over The Arabian Sea. As dusk turned to dark the horizon sparkled with numerous ships and boats and the lights from the compound lit up the underside of the palm trees and - to either side - their silhouettes overhung the crashing waves and I really had to pinch myself.
India: fishermen in the bay bashing pans in the early morning to attract the fish and chanting as they haul the nets over the bulwarks of their small boats, a scene little changed in three thousand years . . . Red Kites gliding overhead . . . the dawn chorus of Crows . . . the flash of Kingfishers in The Backwaters . . . Egret’s picking their way across retreating waves on the beach . . . the cool of the Ginger warehouse, the sorters silhouetted against the dazzle of the sunlight in the doorways . . . the broad grin of a clay diver as his head emerges from the water to dump handfuls of the stuff into the belly of his punt . . . the relative cool of Munnar in the mountain region of tea plantations and the scent of the flora . . . there also two little girls so excited to demonstrate their English who wave to me as long as they can see me climb a mountain path, their shouts of ‘Goodbye’ growing fainter until I lose sight of them . . . the view from the upper bunk of the train to Varkala and the epic conversations on the journey . . . evenings relaxing on the veranda outside the sea hut . . . the bustling markets and shops . . . the beauty of the temples and churches their spires and towers watching over the rubber plantations and coconut palms . . . the scent of incense at the evening concerts of traditional Indian music and the outstanding resonance of Sitars and the virtuosity of the Tabla players . . . the thrill of watching dolphins play before breakfast . . . the wild descent by windowless bus down from the hills of Munnar through tea plantations that form a , moss-like blanket across the mountainsides . . . Tuk-tuk rides through the anarchy of the streets at night . . . the sunsets, blood red through the Palms . . . GOD’S OWN COUNTRY.
India had a profound effect on me and - corny as it sounds - I felt an inner peace and happiness which has endured despite someone attempting to bring me down to earth by telling me that it was ‘probably all that Vitamin D from the sun’. Of course that helped but there was much more than that. I will be returning!
The first task, on my return, was to conduct an interview with Jeff Baynes, the director of Lee Thompson’s ’One Man’s Madness’ which is to be included as an ‘extra’ in the forthcoming DVD release. This took two attempts on two consecutive days as the stereo microphone we were using seemed to malfunction at our first attempt. No matter though; it was good to at least rehearse it. On February 7th I received my Freedom Pass ( a week before my 60th birthday) and was absurdly thrilled. Talking to Paul Whitehouse about this he replied that “It’s alright travelling around London for nothing, Lou, but at our age you get there and can’t remember why you went there in the first place!” On Friday February 9th I took the train to Redcar for the funeral of Anne Reilly, mother of Jim Reilly, the song writer and guitarist of Hackney Five-0, my first band. The trains were overcrowded due to last minute cancellations by Virgin who I believe have their eye on profit rather than the convenience of the public - it is becoming ever more apparent to me that this Government in particular govern with private interests in mind. (It was good to hear, later in the year, that Virgin had been stripped of this franchise and the East Coast line has become one of the first to be re-nationalised; in my view the quest for profit completely ignores the interests of the public at large . . . look out the NHS!) The branch line from Darlington to Redcar offered the most remarkable views: under a clear, crisp blue sky chemical plants gave the moorland landscape the appearance of some futuristic landscape like abandoned life forms from some alien civilisation. I walked from Redcar station to the seafront to confront a grey sea and a freezing wind which drove me to a cafe where I looked out at the extraordinary light over the wind farms on the horizon and tucked into a bacon sandwich. I rang Angela - mother of Jim’s sons, Jack and Luke - who was staying at the Park Hotel, a short walk to the end of the Promenade. We met in the eerily deserted, wind-lashed bar which seemed appropriate given we were attending a funeral. We took a taxi to Kirkleatham Crematorium which was already crowded. Anne was well loved and actually competed in the Olympic trials in the 1950’s and had remained involved in athletics ever since; an extraordinary life and I know that - whenever I visited - she always welcomed me as one of the family. I have known and loved the members of this family for a good 35 years and the reception at Redcar Cricket Club afterwards was a joy though, when I left to catch the train back to London I felt I had to qualify this: “It’s been really great! . . . Not sure that’s the appropriate phrase . . . but it has!”
The following weekend, en route from the BFI (where I had watched the brilliant film ‘Loveless’) to The Three Kings in Clerkenwell to see the Near Jazz Experience, I was deep in thought about the film and must have been unconsciously staring at a very glamorous Nigerian lady who was talking to her daughter. She suddenly looked directly at me and said “You look lovely” then resumed her conversation. I woke from my revery with a start, a little embarrassed and stammered an apologetic ‘really?’ (which was probably the wrong word). Then - on leaving Farringdon Station a be-suited bloke confronted me and said, “Get the fuck out of the way!” which left me astonished for the second time in ten minutes. At the gig (which was very good) I was joined by Pete Saunders, ex keyboard player with Dexy’s, and I told him what had happened on the way. He accompanied me part of the way home and as we left the tube on the platform of Kings Cross station a bloke entering the carriage actually punched me in the chest! Alone on the platform, Pete seemed as astonished as I was: “How do you do it?” he said. “Am I emanating some kind of aura?” I asked. Was there a full moon? I didn’t think to check.
In late February the snow arrived and a long held ambition was finally achieved: to swim in a blizzard. I go for a swim at the outdoor pool - Oasis - in Holborn on most weekday mornings. The snow bordering the pool was freezing so it was quite a relief to dive into the steaming water. But once floating on my back, there is something quite magical about watching the snow flakes drift down onto your face from the grey sky above. On this particular day I popped into the church in Gordon Square in Bloomsbury on the way back and listened to the wind howling in the eaves. All of London seemed transformed into some place bleak and quiet. I do love this country’s seasons (when they work!).
Scribbling in my diary at Benugo’s - the cafe at the National Film Theatre - a young woman at the neighbouring table screamed in delight at what I was doing. “That is so beautiful - all the drawings . . . and people don’t write like that with pens any more!” This is how I met the singer and songwriter Lettie McClean who has released three self-penned albums and worked with the likes of Hugh Cornwell (late of The Stranglers) amongst others. We exchanged numbers and said we would have to meet up for a film sometime and she invited me to the launch of her new album in June (and more of that later).
On the weekend of the 17th and 18th of March we - Rhoda Dakar - were booked to appear at ‘The Working Class Meat Raffle Party’ in the Pit Theatre at the Barbican. (Is that an oxymoron?) On the Saturday I decided to make a day of it going first to the Cinema there to see ‘He Was Never Really There’ starring Joachim Phoenix which was so-so but had good performances, followed by the excellent photography exhibition, ‘Outsiders’ in the Gallery there. Each room was dedicated to a ’scene’ - Teddy Boys in London in the early 1970’s; Biker Gangs in America in the early 1960’s; The Trans scene in New York State in the late 1950’s; Parisian gangs in the 1980’s. This was compelling; fascinating photographs documenting the ghosts of the past . . . you wonder what became of the people in them. However the most affecting for me were those of a dedicated clown/dwarf by Bruce Davidson in a travelling carnival in the U.S. in the 1960’s - images of him, alone (always alone) diligently practicing his trumpet on his bunk in his caravan; smoking a cigarette in full make-up (there were no photos without the make-up) outside one of the tents in the pouring rain. Some of these bordered on the tragic but what was clear through the loneliness and down-at-heel-ness of his existence was his dignity. I wondered what became of him most of all.
Then it was time to sound check at the Pit Theatre. We had been given 240 (!) tea bags and a table loaded with green bananas as part of the rider (a little eccentric). The shows had both sold out and from our vantage point back stage they seemed to be received very well and our job was to get everyone up and dancing at the end which we succeeded in doing on both nights. I reflected that I hadn’t played the Barbican since Graham Coxon’s show on the main stage about a decade ago . . . good memories.
On Saturday 24th March I sped up to High Barnet to rehearse with Lee Thompson’s band for another premiere of his film, ‘One Man’s Madness’, at the 100 Club the following lunch time. As we waited in the alleyway outside the rehearsal studio for Lee to turn up with the keys I surveyed the untidy lot of us, shuffling about in the cold to keep warm and said, “So this is The All Stars”. Oh - the glamour! Then I had a dash to Richmond for a meal at The Ivy there in celebration of Susan Tapp’s birthday which was a largely Irish affair, Susan hailing from Drogheda. I told them that I had finally finished James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ which had taken me about four years to read and unravel (at the end of my copiously annotated paperback copy I have scribbled ‘A Fucking Masterpiece!’ on the end papers - and it is!).
All there had suggestions for celebrating Blooms Day in Dublin; the Irish love their writers.
The following morning found me at the stage door of the 100 Club where I noticed, tucked under the iron staircase, two full but slightly rusty cans of Kronenberg, probably hidden there and forgotten about by some dim and distant band member too drunk to remember where he/she had put them. I left them there just in case. The grand piano was freshly tuned and sounded wonderful. After sound-checking I went for a sandwich and noticed that Lee was already causing chaos in the Ann Summers shop next door - goodness knows what he was doing. It was good to see Richard England, head of Cadiz Music, there who had been busy premiering a series of music documentaries (including ‘One Man’s Madness’) in various London venues for the past week. I was impressed with the improved film which now has a credit sequence drawing on the animated sequences of the Pink Panther films and I had to congratulate Ian MacPherson on the theme music which has the bonkers gravitas of the Bond films. The Q and A afterwards verged on anarchy (nothing new there) and then the band rounded everything off by playing a short set. All in all it was a successful afternoon.
On April Fools day I visited the Regent Cinema in Regent Street for the first time which was the venue in which the Lumiere Brothers premiered film in this country in 1898. There was a showing there of four Laurel and Hardy silent shorts which were accompanied by Donald MacKenzie playing an Art Deco Compton 1937 organ. His playing was very impressive; he even managed to trigger some castanets in time with Hardy on screen old style without the aid of samples or any digital technology - it was both fascinating to see Laurel and Hardy developing their relationship on screen and great to experience the films as they might have been experienced by audiences when they were made.
On the 4th April I went to Suffolk to visit Cindy Engel for a short break. She had organised a late birthday dinner for me at The Fleece in Bungay with Ruth Selwyn Crome (who has been running the award winning ‘Gigs at U.E.A. web site) and Baz (lead singer of The Farmers Boys, some-time rivals of The Higsons back in the 1980’s). I plumped for sirloin steak and wasn’t disappointed; a great meal with equally great company. The following day Cindy and I headed for Aldeburgh in her van and - after the incessant rain - the clear blue sky seemed to promise some kind of Spring and the pastel colours of the buildings facing the sea were picturesque in the extreme. I sketched the ‘South Look-Out’ and a boat beached high on the pebbles. Having missed the lunchtime opening of the Fish and Chip shop (‘The Greatest in England’) and in such surroundings, tea and cake seemed appropriate before a bracing walk back along the beach to the van where we had the not so delightful surprise of a parking ticket. Cindy is working on a new book which - in my lay man terms - I understand to be about the innate intelligence of the body which has forced me to modify slightly my theories about how the brain and body work with respect to teaching and playing the piano. We ended the day at her local pub where she hoped the local Brexit-eers would not be in too much evidence (they swallow the Mail and Telegraph whole in rural Suffolk) and it proved to be a pleasant end to a good break.
On the 18th April on the way to the Temple Gallery I was stopped by an officious doorman who told me that I couldn’t continue in the direction the signs were telling me to go as the police had shut the road due to a fatal car crash on The Embankment. He pointed to a group of people trudging back up the street and said, “See . . . they didn’t listen - they are having to come back!”. I said, with one of my best smiles, that I was listening. He finally managed to return a half hearted smile and barked back at me: “You might be. But they didn’t!”. He clearly loves his job. I finally found the Gallery, taking a circuitous route, which had mounted an exhibition on the impact of Jazz in Britain between the 1890’s and 1940. This was far more engrossing than I expected: programmes, paintings, decorated drum kits, sketches, ‘jazz’ tea sets, fabrics, rare black and white film of performances etc. I was inspired to buy a ‘musical ruler’ complete with instruction booklet from the gift shop . . . the last time I ‘played the ruler’ (aged 7) the teacher inadvertently broke it by hitting me on the palm of the hand with it as a punishment for ‘possibly damaging school property’. Well - that worked!
Ten days later I was again on the train to Redcar, this time for the funeral of ‘Jimmy’ Reilly, husband of Anne whose funeral I attended earlier in the year. I had booked an Air BnB there and Sandra, my host, answered the door in her dressing gown having just had a massage to ease her back - she had broken her neck, she explained, years ago in a ski-ing accident. She had once been a chambermaid on the Champs-Elysées and had - amongst other things - tidied up Bruce Springsteen’s underpants, noticed that Bill Wyman was meticulously tidy, Charlie Watts was (at the time) ‘off his head on smack’ but ‘very nice’ and Mick Jagger’s energy ‘you could feel across a room’. All this I learned before I’d even been shown my room! She was great fun and her husband was good enough to give me a lift to The Park Hotel where I - again - met Angela in the - still very quiet - hotel bar, this time with Ted who, I learned, still works in the Biology department of Foyle's bookstore. We again got a taxi to Kirkleatham crematorium where Jimmy was given the last post by uniformed war veterans. Jimmy had completed 32 bombing sorties between September 1943 and April 1944 and when the war ended he was at a loss what to do with his life so convinced was he that he, like many of his friends, would die before finally becoming a chemist at ICI and - like his wife, Anne - became a fixture of the Athletics scene in the North East (he actually completed the London marathon in his late seventies). Again the wake was at Redcar cricket club and, despite the obvious grief, it was a celebration of a wonderful life. The following morning I went for a walk on the beach and sketched the breakwaters in a perishingly cold wind. Before the train back to London we convened at the Reilly house for tea and Jim told me that one of the last things they watched on DVD was a Laurel and Hardy film but - as Jimmy was now blind - Jim had to give him an audio description: “ They are on the roof and there seems to be a barrel full of water against the wall . . .” There - in a sentence - is the beauty of Laurel and Hardy.
On the 19th of May I flew to Nantes and was met there by Jody Yebga, one of my closest friends (we met on a beaten-up sofa in The Premises Arts Centre in Norwich during a Black Slate gig in the Autumn of 1977 - she turned to me and said “What do they call you then?” It was as if we had always known one another). We drove from there to Le Pouliguen, a small port on the Cote Sauvage, to stay for a few days at Steve Hackett’s new place there. The sun was shining, the sea, sand and rocks wonderful, the food and markets excellent as was Steve and Isabelle’s hospitality. Stories and reminiscences around the dinner table went on well into the night, the days full of laughter and joy . . . I won’t go on . . . there is nothing so tedious to read about than the joy of others!
On the final day of May I headed to Earls Court, to the Finborough Arms, to see Lettie McClean’s album launch (she who I met earlier in the year at the BFI). There, and playing bass for Lettie, was Mark Vernon who (we agreed) I haven’t seen for twenty years. He acted as manager to Dave Studdart, the Australian singer songwriter, with whom I did a couple of albums in the mid 1990’s. We laughed over memories of the eccentric gigs we did at pop-up venues around Soho all ‘financed by Universal Australia’. Universal also financed our ‘tour’ of the said continent - two gigs in two weeks in Melbourne and Sidney which was, more or less, a paid holiday. Lettie introduced me to her violinist (whose name I didn’t catch) who plays with Nigel Kennedy no less. I was bowled over by her performance which was so packed that latecomers were forced to watch through the windows that lined one of the sides of the staircase that led to the basement venue. Lettie not only sang - she played guitar, keyboards, recorded her own backing vocals whilst playing, whistled (and I know how hard that is to do live from bitter experience), and with delightful eccentricity, occasionally disappeared behind her keys to trigger sound effects on the stage floor. I helped out a bit on the door and, when her boss, the ex M.P Jonathon Aitken arrived, she asked me to hide the cash receipts purse which was a leather pouch with two wooden handles emblazoned with a crucifix which was clearly a church collection pouch as it “might offend his religious sensibilities”. Yes - I vaguely remembered that he had discovered religion whilst in prison for perjury. In person he was tall, slightly stooping and very genial. Also there was B. J. Cole, the pedal steel player, who I recalled had shared playing credits with me on Graham Coxon’s album, ‘The Kiss of Morning’. I walked back to Earls Court tube with a broad smile on my face: an utterly compelling and delightful performance!
At the beginning of June Suggs’s wife, Anne, asked me to help her with a sort of operatic, unaccompanied vocal, which was to be filmed by the Artist, Ari Benjamin Meyers, for The Liverpool Playhouse as part of the Liverpool Biennial. It wasn’t what you would call a ‘pop’ song; more an avant-garde piece with very tricky changes in time signatures, very long held notes and no lyrics. Anne is a great singer (I remember - as a teenager - watching her perform with Deaf School and being thrilled at her range). After an hour of ‘La-la-la’- ing I could see the amused glint in Suggs;s eyes: what on earth were we doing downstairs? Over some delicious home made soup we agreed that it wasn’t exactly playing to her strengths, but Anne rose to the challenge and, despite finding it a bit of a nightmare, she succeeded in performing it on film in Liverpool after a couple more rehearsals.
It is the year of many ’Sixtieths’ amongst my peers and Jim Reilly arranged a get together at the Coppermill in Walthamstow to celebrate his. He and his son, Jack, had erected the house P.A. when I arrived and we played and sang a couple of Hackney Five-0 songs which - and this is a typical Hackney Five-0 story - seemed to be received with startling appreciative shouts from the locals which were, I realised, a response to a winning horse coming home on the televised racing at the other end of the bar. Chris Barter (Hackney Five-0’s bass player) was at his gloomy best: “Sixty! Well it’s the end; the great mystery of life will soon be revealed.” Chatting with Vicki Higson about my first meeting with her husband, Charlie, in the Autumn of 1977 at U.E.A. I described how, at a ‘Freshers Ball’, I had been chatting to Lucy Peel when Charlie appeared wearing ski boots, black lipstick, eyeliner, and fake safety pins connecting his ears to his nose ‘looking like Adonis’. He approached us, looked scornfully at my suit trousers and said witheringly “Flares”. I made some withering remark back but - as far as Lucy was concerned - I no longer existed. Charlie was listening to my tale and added vis-a-vis my appearance, “And that bloody gigantic, mirrored Thin Lizzy badge you were wearing”. To this day I feel no need to apologise for that, Charlie (so there!).
The following day - after England had trounced Tunisia 6-1 which has caused a surreal aura of surprised contentment in the streets of England - I travelled to Peckham to attend Tim Richards’s (pianist and writer of the great series of books ‘Exploring Jazz Piano’) birthday party. Unsurprisingly there were many pianists there so it was a party of the best kind with plenty of live music. I found myself chatting to an excellent pianist and singer who turned out to be Sarah Walker who presents the Sunday Morning show on BBC Radio 3. We agreed to connect on Facebook and I promised to send her my ‘Midnight in Havana’. Well . . . you never know!
On the last Saturday of June, Rhoda Dakar played in Whitehall at the end of the march from Portland Place to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the NHS. We had rehearsed on the previous Thursday evening with two deps: Gordon Mulrain on Bass and Sarah Tobias on saxophone and (it turned out) flute and other entertaining percussive bits and pieces. The rehearsal meant missing the England-Belgium match though, by all accounts, we didn’t miss much. The sun was blazing over Whitehall and workmen were still building the stage when I arrived so I repaired to the St. Stephens Tavern, which - until the onset of terrorism - was a favourite hang out of many of our Prime Ministers up to and including Edward Heath. There I met Lenny and Rhoda and we discussed the gig. It was a strange one: we were to supply between speech musical interludes which doesn’t really give you a chance to warm up and engage properly with the audience. However the cause is an important one so we would do the best we could. The stage was finally erect by about 1.30 but there wasn’t time to sound-check before the march started to arrive fifteen minutes later. I noticed that the supplied piano seemed to have a problem with the damper pedal and when we started playing the sound was bloody awful but we ploughed on, smiles on our faces to muted applause so the sound couldn’t have been much good out front either; I noticed one lady with fingers in her ears in the Press enclosure. The Press were there, of course, for Jeremy Corbyn and before he appeared there were excellent speeches from Jonathon Ashworth MP amongst many others but it crossed my mind that there was a certain amount of ‘preaching to the converted’ and I doubted very much whether many of the important points made about the survival of the NHS would make it into the Right Wing tabloids. Corbyn himself was passionate and impressive and, as I looked out over the cheering crowds at the end of his speech I noticed that someone was ‘plinkety-plonking’ with clumsy fingers at the top end of my piano. I turned to find that it was Jeremy Corbyn himself. He gave me a sheepish grin and said “I’m not very good am I?” I wasn’t quite quick enough to enquire, “At what, Jeremy?”