Biography (part 21)
At a further get together - this time of friends from Secondary School - at Gavin Hughes’s farm in Cambridge (who I met when we were five years old!) we had submitted our ten favourite songs from the early Seventies. This was a time when we played football, discovered the joys of real ale, regularly attended concerts at nearby Lancaster University, didn’t think an evening in the pub was complete without vomiting in some car park or other, and went through the usual trials and tribulations of adolescence. Roxy Music, early Queen, David Bowie, Deaf School, Sparks, Dr Feelgood, T Rex, Thin Lizzy . . . glorious stuff! This was all topped off with a glorious farm breakfast in the morning before I caught the midday train in order to attend the birthday of Sally England at the BFI where we were treated to a triple bill of Buster Keaton shorts.
On the 16th August the death was announced of Aretha Franklin. I first became aware of her when I was about ten years old at my Granny’s house in Rosyth. The song was ‘Say a Little Prayer’ and both the lyrics and the music captivated me. I remember sitting in front of the radio imagining this woman putting on her make up and it was years later that I learnt that the fabulous chord sequence was created by Burt Bacharach who had captivated me once before as a five year old with ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’. But Aretha . . . she has one of those voices that thrills me and she still surprises me even though I know what is coming.
On the 25th Rhoda was booked to play The Byline Festival in the wilds of Kent . . . at midnight! We arrived in the evening to find ‘Pussy Riot’ on stage. I have no doubt of their courage and sincerity treading a very dangerous path in Putin’s Russia but I found their music very tedious though they were going down very well with the crowd. I retreated to the band tent which had one light, a wonky sofa and was utterly freezing. This was definitely the end of an unprecedented heatwave and I felt very sorry for the organisers. By the time we took the stage the crowd had depleted somewhat but we put on a good show and when we left I could see only three people dancing to the music of the band that followed us - The Carpets, (formally The Inspiral Carpets). I felt for them! I returned to London with Rhoda but the Sat-nav seemed to guide us via a very long and convoluted route and I had to dig deep into my fund of stories to keep Rhoda going at the wheel. So another 4 a.m. bedtime.
On Bank Holiday Monday I relaxed! Going to see ‘The Happy Prince’ - Rupert Everett’s labour of love about the hellish last years of Oscar Wilde - I passed through Shepherds Market and realised I hadn’t been there since 1981 when I was arrested for singing ‘I am the King of The Swingers’ from Walt Disney’s ‘Jungle Book’ from a nearby rooftop. I was with a colleague from Lillywhites (hello Ben!), where I worked at the time and it turned out that the police suspected we were from the IRA and surrounded the building. I wasn’t previously aware that the IRA sang Disney songs when they were going about their business but when I tried to point this out we were arrested for what I can only conclude was cheek. We were held in a cell at West End Central until four-o-clock in the morning when we had sobered up and there were no tubes or buses to get home. The film was brilliant in ALL departments and I then went to The Albert Hall for a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No 2 filling the time before the concert in sketching ‘The Queens Arms’ in Queens-gate Mews where you can often find the horn players of sundry orchestras enjoying a post (and occasionally pre-) concert drink. Horn players generally love their beer. And the concert - conducted by Marin Alsop - was a real treat.
The following Saturday Melody and I set off for Santorini for our annual holiday. A volcanic island in the Aegean Sea, Santorini is a visually striking place with its traditional blue and white buildings stacked high and clinging precariously to the cliffside. We found a lovely restaurant/bar on Perissa Beach in the south of the Island near our hotel that served incredibly cheap, good food, had hammocks and straw parasols and was the perfect place to either plan our days or reflect on the day we had just had. The climax of our stay there was a round island trip on a schooner through fairly rough seas. This was proper seafaring (or as near as I’ve ever got), being showered with water in the bows as we breached the waves. A little shambolic too; the Captain twice had to jump start the electrics to keep us going - but the trip was all the better for that.
Back in London we went to view Stueart Padwick’s installation on the Thames to raise awareness of Mental Health. Appropriately titled ‘Head Above Water’ it was a giant wooden head the size of a terraced house erected on a pier in front of the Oxo Tower. The general public could - via a tweet - manipulate the colours inside the head according to their mood which, in the evenings, made for impressive results. Steuart had enlisted my help in publicising it but, because of the holiday season, I had only been able to contact Paul Whitehouse (who duly obliged - thank you, Paul).
I received a text from Lee Thompson inviting me to his sixtieth birthday party (just a year late, Lee!) to be held at The Fleet Bar near Fleet Street. This turned out to be one of these characterless, modern developments and I turned up early as Lee had mentioned that he might want some ‘Jott Scoplin on the old joanna’ to get the party going. However this wasn’t possible as The Silencerzs were setting up so I filled in the time until guests arrived chatting to the band and two hostesses on stilts that Lee had hired for the occasion. Amongst the revellers were Suggs and Anne McPherson, Chrissy Boy and Melissa Foreman, Spyder Johnson (Crunch, Potato Five), and Mez Clough (LTSO and latterly Van Morrison). Touchingly Lee and Debs repeated their wedding vows on stage. It is remarkable how those two have remained solid through everything life has thrown at them since they were teenagers. Without Debs Lee would probably have bounced off the planet years ago!
The following day was also pretty full: first to Cineworld in Leicester Square to see ‘Out Of Blue’ showing as part of the London Film Festival, followed by a Q. & A. with the director and two of the leading actresses which was fun but they seemed to have had a much better time making the film than I did watching it. Then it was onwards to Rotherhithe to see pianist Tim Richards and cheesemaker Ned Palmer for ‘An Evening of Cheese and Jazz’ in the Brunel Shaft which turned out to be a remarkable venue. I arrived early enough to pop over to the nearby Mayflower Pub (named after the Pilgrim Fathers who set off from here in 1620). This is a traditional pub, full of clutter of the maritime variety, with snugs and cramped little parlours in which I ate a delicious chicken and mushroom pie, mash, greens and gravy by candlelight. Superb! Back at the shaft the gig was a sell- out and Ned - a long time pupil of Tim’s - joined him on keyboards. In the interval, every attendee was given a plate of hand picked cheeses to go with the wine on offer and the second half of the concert included some films by Tim to which he and Ned improvised accompaniments.
On Friday 19th October I was invited by Angela Wint to her birthday party in Leyton. She had booked a room in ‘The Technical’ a massive pub on the high street that used to be the Town Hall. Suddenly inspired that morning I had attempted a caricature of her and was a little nervous as I handed it to her but I needn’t have worried; she laughed out loud and said “It makes me look like Her Majesty!’ I’m not sure I’d agree but I think I got the essence of her and it is an affectionate portrait.
The following Monday it was over to Lenny Bignall’s house in East Cheam to add some Fender Rhodes to one of his tracks and also put down an arrangement of a song Rhoda has written entitled ‘Mansplaining’. As we had a tea break I noticed the slight wonkiness of the kitchen walls and Lenny explained that his house was one of only two that weren’t bombed in the blitz but were clearly shaken up slightly. “So spirit levels won’t work here then” I said and Lenny agreed, “No - you have to do everything [like putting up shelves] by eye”. Then it was back home by train in the afternoon sun.
I had booked tickets for Melody and myself at The Coliseum for George Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess’ two days later. This has always been a profoundly important work for me. It was more or less responsible for me learning how to read music; despite my teacher telling me this was too hard (I was around Grade 2 at the time) I soldiered on deciphering the sharps, flats and accidentals simply because I found the resultant chords so wonderful. I had never seen a full performance of ‘Porgy’. I booked a ticket for the last production to hit London in 2012 but illness meant I had to miss it as I was in hospital. Melody and I decided to make an evening of it and went to ‘Browns’ across the road which does cheap pre-theatre deals and I told Melody about my journey with this masterpiece. “Dad! Don’t tell me anything. You always spoil it” but I assured her that I wasn’t going to talk about the plot and told her about Gershwin’s living with a black fishing community as he wrote this and how they accepted him and were impressed by his musicality and his ability to absorb their music - it was his wish that ‘Porgy’ never be performed with a white cast. Predictably I had tears in my eyes as soon as it started. This was a fabulous production and my only complaint was that the scene at the beginning featuring ‘Jazzbo’s Blues’ had been cut. But I was singing all the way home and for a few days afterwards . . . a masterpiece!
It was Mole’s birthday on the 27th October and I walked down to The Skinners Arms in Kings Cross to buy him a drink and celebrate. There also were Felix Weldon and Tom Ash who played drums and bass respectively on the masterpiece of an album (now available by the way), ‘Danger Island’ by Mole. I knew their playing backwards having spent three years working on the album on and off but had never actually met them. I cannot understand why the Press hasn’t lauded this work to the skies! Ladies and Gentlemen, please buy (or listen). You will not be disappointed! I wished Mole Happy Birthday and then offered my apologies immediately, “for two things”. Mole looked concerned: “What?”; “Well today I went to see ‘Bohemian Rhapsody”. The previous evening I had watched a documentary about Mercury in which his mother, humble and dignified, had said of the song “It still hurts when I hear it’. The actress in the film was perfectly cast and got her spot on and despite some preposterous shoe horning of events ‘for dramatic purposes’ the film turned out to be moving and Rami Malek was impressive as Mercury (particularly the later years). It was good, too, to hear the music in all it’s glory on huge cinema speakers though me and my school mates thought that the song ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was a sell out; we loved the early ‘unknown’ stuff - songs like ‘Keep Yourself Alive’, their first single. I had tears in my eyes at the end - after all Queen were part of my youth. After explaining all this to Mole he said “But you wanted to apologise for two things?”. “Ah yes,” I said, “I have to leave now to catch Match of the Day”. So Happy Birthday Mole!
After swimming outdoors at The Oasis in Holborn each weekday morning I sometimes pop into Ruskins, a cafe on Museum Street, to scribble in my diary over a cup of tea. The assistant there, catching sight of some of my sketches asked if I would be willing to draw her son and daughter from a photograph as a Christmas present for her mother who was coming over from Poland. I told her I wasn’t really a portrait artist but said I would give it a try. So I spent the morning of Sunday 18th November trying to get a good likeness and I think I largely succeeded; luck as much as anything. I delivered them the following day and she was so delighted she started showing them to the other customers whilst I tried to look self effacing. I refused payment, telling her it had been good practice but later in the week she presented me with a tin of water colour pencils an item which, miraculously, I didn’t have.
That week, also, I was invited to St John’s Church to see a Buster Keaton night by Elinor and her son Joseph Sainsbury - one of my pupils. He loves Keaton (he is eight years old) and this night was historic for him: the first time he had been allowed out late to see something on a school night. The accompanist was Peter Foggit who is an utterly brilliant all-round musician capable of improvising fugues (a skill most musicians simply don’t have!) and he played the organ for the first short, ‘The Scarecrow’. He switched to the grand piano to accompany ‘Sherlock Junior’, one of Buster’s masterpieces which features the stunt with a water reservoir for a steam engine that actually broke his neck, though it was some years before this was discovered. And young Joseph loved his first school night out - he has a huge laugh for such a small boy! So - Saturday 24th November 2019: The Gathering - 1958 - 2018. This was arranged by Ray Vaughan and Akim Carter and was held on the 28th floor of the Millbank Tower in Pimlico. And it was jam packed with people who - to be blunt - have completely changed my life and made it worth living. Mainly the people I met when I went to The University of East Anglia in 1977. But over the years the net has widened to include members of Madness, The Pogues, and figures from stage, screen and the Arts in general. As someone brought up in Lancashire and whose first few jobs were ‘In’t Mills’, and in the ‘schmutta’ trade I would never have dreamed that my life would involve anything creative - never mind working with people who are (ahem) ’famous’. I realised after the first term at U.E.A. that Mary, Kath, Chris’s (Barnes and Barter), Jim, Steve, Charlie, Karen, Paul, Dave, Pete, Jody, Ray, Arvind etc. etc (the list is long!) WERE my new family and I was surprised at how much I had missed them all during the Christmas Break. 1977 was a golden year and to have us all still hanging around together at around sixty years of age was quite something. What a fabulous night.
We (Rhoda Dakar) had our final gig of the year at The 100 Club and we had arranged to use their grand piano which had been specially tuned and sounded splendid. In effect we were our own support: we took the stage early to play a set of the soulful, semi-acoustic songs that we don’t play in the main set (hence the grand piano!). Included in this set we did three covers - Sam Cook’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, Fred Neil’s ‘Dolphins’ and ‘Alcohol’ by The Specials. As Mark (saxophone) and Tad (bass) had flown in from Germany and France respectively the only time we had been able to rehearse was on the day itself so the day was pretty exhausting but the experiment was really well received and we are all up for repeating the experiment if we can find the right venue. And for the main set I did my ‘Rick Wakeman on a budget’ impersonation playing both the piano and organ - sometimes at the same time!!. The gig fell on the same day as Melody’s birthday (December 7th) so I booked a table at the excellent Mere on Charlotte Street for the 17th to celebrate that.
On the morning of the 14th December I found myself having a little bit of a cough by the side of the pool at the Oasis and one of the lovely 80-plus regulars, who turn up every day rain or shine, called from the pool, “Feeling old, dear?” I couldn’t exactly shoot back with “Look who’s talking” so merely patted my chest, smiled and said “Better now”. Then it was up to the Health Centre in Kentish Town at the request of Cina Aissa to join her in a performance of carols etc for a mother and baby group there. I was to be her special Christmas guest on piano. Cina was great, improvising stories, playing the guitar and singing, though it was sometimes difficult to follow her in the chaos of screaming babies, gossiping mums etc. But the whole went very well and I was impressed with Cina as she had told me she had been having terrible problems with her landlords that very morning. We just have to plough on; do what we do; try and make the world a better place.
On the 19th December Melody, Adil and I set off for our - now traditional - three day Christmas break in Paris. We had booked an Air BnB in Montmartre which turned out to be adjacent to the sloping gardens in front of Sacre Coeur. Magnificent! We did the usual: eating, sketching, shopping and a visit to the Pompidou Centre for the Cubist Exhibition which was very inspiring. And I can recommend La Pigalle Bouillon just by the Metro which had a queue of (mainly) Parisians which is always a good sign. The food and atmosphere there is fabulous; very good value too. Just before returning Melody and I decided to have our portraits done by two street artists in Montmartre village. I think - like the portrait painters of Royalty and Nobility in Tudor times - they set out to flatter you: Melody looks like a super model and I look precisely half my age! Back in London I had the idea of combining Santa Claus and The Nativity in a card - I can’t understand why no-one has done this before. Unfortunately it was too late to post out but for those of you who missed it on Facebook, a copy accompanies this missive. No surprises at Christmas (apart from presents of course) and on New Years Eve, Lee Thompson dropped by with a ‘little something’ (a leather bound sketchbook) on his way to Westminster Hall where Madness were to bring in the New Year for the BBC. Two weeks previously he had (rashly) offered to take me. I guessed that he would not be able to swing this as it is a BBC gig and not the back room of a pub in High Barnet so I hadn’t expected him to turn up at all! So I brought in the New Year watching their performance on the telly. Bless you, Lee. Happy New Year or ( as we say in Scotland) ‘Lang may your lum reek’. It’s the thought that counts.