Biography (part 22)
I had been lucky enough in the BBC ticket allocation to get two for a recording of ‘The Lost Hancocks’ at the BBC Theatre in Broadcasting House on Sunday 13th January at lunchtime. These were the last two scripts to be recorded so there was a ‘last day of term’ atmosphere about the whole event. Paul Merton guested on the first - called ‘New Year Resolutions’ - and the actor taking on the Kenneth Williams parts was almost as outrageous as our Ken himself. It made you realise how brilliant it must have been to see the original cast with Sid James, Hattie Jacques et. al. in the supporting cast. The second script featured Hancock as Prime Minister which - given current political events - I thought very timely.
The same week, however, brought a series of set backs. Firstly, my computer finally gave up the ghost. As did my television router the following day. Then my CD player stopped working so I had to include a CD drive into the rapidly increasing list of expenses. Finally my coat hanger fell off the wall. I merely looked at it, not really surprised, and said “Anything else, World?”
On my birthday I had to take my bike for repair before whizzing down to the Oasis for my daily swim. I commented to a fellow swimmer that I was “Sixty-one today” and she replied “Yes - not very good is it?. It turned out that she thought I was talking about the water temperature. Then it was up to the hospital for a routine blood test and when the nurse asked me for my date of birth I said joyfully “Today!” (I’ve always wanted to do that). “Oh a Valentine Baby!” she said which apparently made her day. Birthdays I like but they seem to come around with increasing frequency the older you get.
Inspired by Orson Welles’s sketches - particularly in Ireland when he was sixteen - I decided to spend a weekend in Bath to do some sketching. Walking to my Air BnB I left Georgian Bath behind (with its wonderful street names such as ‘Comfortable Place’), passed through its Victorian suburbs to find my lodging in a 1930’s housing estate - a walking timeline through history. Queen Victoria is name-checked everywhere and I found out from a local boatman why: as a young Princess she visited Bath and as she stepped out of her coach a wag in the crowd shouted “What fat ankles!” As a result she avoided the place to the end of her life going to the length of pulling down the blinds each time the Royal Train passed by. Not even the naming of the spanking new Art Gallery in her honour in 1897 could tempt her back to open it. In effect the naming of so many streets and crescents in the name of Her Majesty were attempts at flattery which never came close to working. Nevertheless Bath is a beautiful city and eminently sketch-able.
On my return I went to the Indo Bar in Whitechapel, again with my sketchbook, to see the Near Jazz Experience where I was introduced to Damien O’Neill of The Undertones which was a particular thrill. I joked that we hadn’t met since 1978 when they played ‘Peoples’ night club in 1978 and had a brief chat. For my money they and The Buzzcocks were two of the greatest tunesmiths in pop music with the latter being tight and punchy and the former a little looser with more swagger. Great days. Thursday 7th March brought fierce gales to London and a whole buildings worth of scaffolding collapsed opposite The Royal Free Hospital totally blocking Pond Street. Miraculously there were no casualties but the event left me with problems reaching pupils in Hampstead. Prior to my discovery of the collapse I had already abandoned the overground due to signal failure and - in desperation - got the tube to Belsize Park but could go no further due to the blockage of Pond Street. This merely heightened the impression of a country run by incompetents and those that believe they aren’t are a bunch of right wing shits. There! I feel better now.
Tuesday 12th March found me in Matrix Studios in Parsons Green playing accordion in a session for Wendy James. She was the lead singer of Transvision Vamp in the 1980’s. She cuts quite a figure (as she always did) and knew exactly what she wanted - the odd forbidding stare through the glass into the studio as I played was a little disconcerting but it was entirely unintentional. We worked on three songs for her forthcoming double album and (I think) were both very happy with the results.
The following week Melody and I went to the Don McCullen exhibition at Tate Britain. What a treasure trove of brilliant photographs from his early shots of Teddy Boys in London in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s to the many stories he covered for The Sunday Times: the Biafra famine, the Vietnam war and down and outs in the East End of London many of which I recalled from issues of The Sunday Times that I read at the time. Some were profoundly moving, some shocking and some laugh-out-loud funny. Afterwards we went to the pub next door for a meal and the barmaid looked at me and said “Aren’t you wonderful.” I was quite taken aback but - hey - she might have a point: I obviously can’t comment. There we overheard a disgruntled Brexiteer say that May’s deal had been voted down . . . Good!
Half Term occurred on the week of the 15th April and I had booked a shed on Lindisfarne Island just off the Northumberland Coast. Before leaving I booked a taxi to get me from Berwick station over to the island before the high tides made getting there across the causeway impossible. The person I spoke to at ‘Woody’s Taxis’ suggested he pick me up from The Castle where, he suggested I could have lunch. On arriving at the pub the barmaid gave me a mournful look and said, “I’m afraid we’re not doing lunches - out of season love.” I had to make do with a pack of peanuts and a lemonade until the time for my pick up came. The time came and went and I was anxiously standing outside when I saw a ‘Woodys’ bus. On asking the driver about my taxi he said, “Who did you speak to?”. I described my call of earlier in the day. The light seemed to dawn: “Oh - you must have spoken to Woody himself; he forgets everything - famous for it!” He rang the office and told me a car would be along ‘any minute’. It wasn’t ‘any minute’ soon. And meanwhile I was increasingly worried that I would miss the low tide. I rang them again to be told that the ‘bus’ was ‘on its way’. Now I was completely baffled: a bus? A bus duly turned up and I was the only passenger. However it was considerably cheaper than the taxi would have been. The driver explained that the new girl they had employed to organise the publicity for ‘Woodys’ for the Summer couldn’t spell so the timetables were late. “All those spelling mistakes would give a bad impression wouldn’t they” he explained, “we should be all sorted out in two or three weeks.” None of your metropolitan urgency and efficiency here!
The hut turned out to be a well appointed wooden chalet in my host’s back garden. Lovely - shower and everything. At high tide when the day trippers have gone it really feels like you have the Island to yourself. I last visited Lindisfarne in ’62 or ’63 when I was three or four years old and I retain a vivid memory of witnessing a life boat launching into high seas so I was puzzled that I couldn’t find a life-boat house on the island. I was met with blank stares by everyone I asked. However on my last afternoon I found a large shed on one of the beaches which turned out to be a mini museum with a history of life boating on the island. And there it was. A black and white photograph showed the boathouse in the harbour which had been demolished in 1968 - hence the blank stares. It felt like I’d fulfilled a mission.
Woody’s were due to pick me up at 11 o’clock on the Thursday for the return trip to Berwick and - of course - the due time came and went. I hailed the bus that took day trippers to the Castle and back on the Island and he looked puzzled when I explained the problem: “No,” he said “They’ve got it wrong. There isn’t a bus at eleven. That’ll be the new girl in the office.” I wondered if this was the girl who couldn’t spell. “If you hang on for half an hour I have one more trip to the Castle then I’m going back to Berwick. I’ll pick you up.” In a strange way, you can rely on good old ‘Woody’s’.
On my return I played piano for Gary Dennis’s 60th - both a Dead Dog and Ska Orchestra fan - at The Balcony Rooms in the pub next door to The Globe Theatre on the banks of the River Thames. There were marvellous views of the river as the sun set and the food was top notch. Towards the end of the night I managed to slip the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’ into a boogie I was playing As the guests realised they started to sing and poor Gary had to give a short speech which (I think) consisted of three words: “Thanks for coming.”
Rhoda Dakar had been booked to do Skamouth at Great Yarmouth on Sunday 28th April and I decided to take the train there. I met Terry Edwards in the restaurant of the Caravan Park where Skamouth is based and we ate good and early so that we wouldn’t feel like sleeping when we were due on stage at 7.30. We had Andi McClean and Marley Drummond to replace Mark and Tad on drums and bass and they were bloody good. We had added ‘Soleil Trop Chaud’ to the set as a tribute to Ranking Roger of The Beat who died recently and what a joy that was to play. Rhoda sang through her tears and Christine Sugary Staples presented Rhoda with a plaque and sang our encore ‘Do Rock Steady’ with us. Then - after packing up - it was the long drive back to London with Bill Lewington at the wheel slightly stressed that we wouldn’t make the Blackwell Tunnel before it shut at 1.00 am. (we made it!). All in all it was a bloody good gig.
I hadn’t visited Norwich properly since 1980 and I decided to return over the Mayday weekend and explore my old hunting grounds. Some years ago whilst teaching Beth Orton she had commented that, as a girl, she had lived around the corner from where Charlie Higson lived in Norwich and commented that “that house was completely mad”. To her astonishment I had admitted that I too lived there. Yes - she was right; we had a wild time! So it was intriguing to visit the same streets, pubs and clubs that we had made our own. Norwich was remote and cut off from the rest of the country in the 1970’s and the major change has seen it become more of a satellite city of London and the South East. I was overjoyed to find Cinema City, Captain America’s and The Waffle House still thriving. The pubs - the Plasterers and The Woolpack seemed more sedate and brighter than I remembered, no doubt partly as a result of the smoking ban. I visited the still excellent market, bought a vintage shirt and mentioned to the stall holder that I used to come to the market for the mushy peas and mint sauce. “He’s still there,” she replied, “and the same owner. Been there seventy years now!” And just off the market was the lane down to ‘The Brown Derby’ (now ‘The Birdcage’ our Saturday lunchtime haunt) where ‘Ace Records’ used to be - a very important factor in my musical education. Jim Reilly and I would spend hours there being played 1950’s RnB like Huey Piano Smith and The Clowns and Professor Longhair by Colin, the proprietor. I recall there was a queue of three waiting patiently outside (including me) for it to open on the day ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ was released (Punk didn’t hit the locals of Norwich for a further two years). I returned to London glad I had made the trip. It felt like a ‘rounding off’ of the three years I spent there.
My oldest ‘old friend’, Gavin Hughes (we met aged 5 at Scotforth Primary School in Lancaster) has resigned from his job running the Cambridge University farm so it was up to Cambridge for a weekend to see him off to his new home in France. Meggie Goodridge had found in her mother’s cellar a pottery chess set I made in my final year at Lancaster Royal Grammar School in 1976 that I thought was long since lost. On examining it I found it was all there present and correct. Before I left Lancaster that year I hadn’t had time to set the pottery pieces of the board into a frame which I have now done. It is finished after more than forty years. Great to see the class of 1974 once more, though the weekend ended with the inevitable slight argument over Brexit which reminded me how divisive the issue has become and extremists of both sides are both deluded and dangerous (I talk here of politicians and not friends who are - of course - entitled to their views). However Martin Simpson invited me to attend a Mark Knopfler concert at The Albert Hall the following Wednesday - we’re blowed if politics will divide us after fifty years - and, though not a die-hard fan of Knopfler, the concert was impressive and enjoyable.
My closest friend, Jody’s nephew, Jordan Stephens (of The Rizzle Kicks) has turned in a fantastic performance as a cross dressing drag artist in the film ‘Tucked’ which I saw the following week. He was compelling, moving and beautiful and his co-star Derren Nesbitt - the Nazi in ‘Where Eagles Dare’ - was equally impressive. A great independent film!
On the 30th May I took my mother, Simone, to BBC Broadcasting House to see a recording of The News Quiz; both the last in the season and the last hosted by Miles Jupp so there was more of a party atmosphere than normal. It was great fun but I couldn’t help thinking what a gaping hole has been left in this show by the untimely death of Jeremy Hardy who I met briefly at Glastonbury on the day of the Brexit referendum (gulp) three years ago now.
And while we are on the subject (of death that is), news reached us of the death of Dr. John. I will never forget the first time I saw him: on Clapham Common, where he completely silenced the crowd by his playing of the chorus of ‘Qualified’ - a celestial experience if I have ever had one. I have studied his playing and certainly wouldn’t be the piano player I am without his extraordinary videos of the 1970’s in which he shared his encyclopaedic knowledge of New Orleans piano. Since that performance I have seen him many times, another highlight being his appearance at Ronnie Scotts in the early 90’s where the queues stretched as far as Soho Square and mainly consisted of musicians of ALL stripes. That was some gig; I was so excited afterwards I had to walk home - I couldn’t sit still. So long Mac! Bless you.
On the same day I caught a flight to Sligo for a reunion of the Dead Dog Club the house band of which played every month near the Oval, again, in the early nineties. What a weekend! Present were: Gordy Blair (mandolin) and his partner, Jackie; Patmo Sheeran (guitar/vocals) and Suzanne; Bernard (guitar/vocals) and Anne; Dave Western (photography), Susan Buckley-Ross (vocals) and Malcolm Ross (guitar/vocals) and Pat Waugh (Northern Soul and ‘Fecking Gin’ enthusiast) and me (accordion/keyboard). On both nights we played sessions until two in the morning and we had played so ofter together in those halcyon days that we simple picked up where we had left off. We filled the days with sight-seeing which included a trip to Ballyshannon, the birthplace of the great Rory Gallagher, which they have commemorated with a statue which - as these things go - is actually pretty good. The eccentric museum there, which is on the third floor of a 1950’s style department store, devoted a room to the great guitarist but the highlight there for me was a display showing St. Patrick which was clearly a 1970’s shop mannequin complete with period footballer’s hairstyle over which a cassock had been thrown. Who knew that that St Patrick played for Leeds in 1973! We then dashed off to a wonderful bar in Sligo called ‘Shoot the Crows’, where Bernard was performing with an excellent local band. The bar was typical of the species: dark, nicotine coloured walls, stained glass windows and pints of Guinness on every available surface of the bar in the process of being topped up. The music was magical. The Irish have it right: music is an integral part of life! Susan told a great story of her playground chatter in Edinburgh when she was very young: her friend said “You’ve got a brother so your mum and dad have DONE IT twice! Urgh!”; “Ah but look at Eileen. There’s thirteen of them so their mum and dad must have done it THIRTEEN times. “And there was always the poncy only child who would pipe up and say: “Well MY mum and dad have only done it once.” Glorious!
On the Sunday before returning we were treated to breakfast by Bernard and Anne at which I was re-acquainted with White Pudding (a cousin of black pudding) which I haven’t tasted since I was a child at my granny’s in Rosyth - a real Proustian moment. On the way back to Knock airport we had time to visit the grave of W.B. Yeats. We discussed the meaning of the epitaph he wrote for his own gravestone: ‘Cast a cold eye; on Life on Death; horseman pass by’ My interpretation of that for what it's worth is ‘Don’t worry about me. Get on with life’. I could well be wrong but that is what I am doing anyway.
As we get older death gets ever more omnipresent. On my return from Ireland I was invited to Newhaven to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the death of my very good ‘mate’, Jubby Ingrams (daughter of Richard- co founder of Private Eye). We were a rollicking good team at Quartet Books through the mid eighties. She left three children, Phoebe, Sam and Lilly. We celebrated her life at Sam’s house and then - in pouring rain drove to David Ford - Jubby’s husbands house in the gorgeous rolling countryside of the South Downs near Lewes, where I entertained on the piano. Jubby’s daughter, Phoebe, was kind enough to drive me to Lewes station and as we said goodbye, I apologised for ‘looking at her strangely’: “You have Jubby’s eyes. In a way it’s almost like being with her again. You have the sense of her too. Everything. I hope you don’t mind.” It moved us both very much; Jubby was such an astonishing life force and the most astounding thing about her was her complete indifference to any social, class or race distinction. She treated dustbin men and royalty in exactly the same way and was universally loved by everyone with whom she came in contact. When she died I wrote ‘For Jubs’ for inclusion in my second album, ‘Mechanicatastrophe’ which - if you are interested - you can find on Spotify. I often think of her and miss her still.
On the final day of June I saw the documentary ‘Apollo 11’ marking the fiftieth anniversary of Man’s landing on the moon. Our primary school class had a competition to predict the first words that would be uttered by Neal Armstrong on setting foot on the Sea of Tranquility’. My entry? “Oh help - a monster!”. I didn’t win. Did anybody?