Sunday, 23 April 2017

Learning how to wrong-foot a villain at The Old Ship Hotel

The Malcolm Saville Society Literary Conference, 
Friday 21 April, 2017 at the Old Ship Hotel, Brighton

The Old Ship, side-street view. Tony Gillam (c) 2017
Overlooking the seafront, The Old Ship is the oldest hotel in Brighton.  Parts of the building date back to 1559. Dickens stayed there in 1841 – a prolific year for him that saw the publication of both The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge. The hotel is also mentioned in Graham Greene's 1938 novel Brighton Rock (‘This gentleman’s invited me to the Old Ship,’ she said in a mock-refined voice. ‘Tomorrow I shall be delighted, but today I have a prior engagement at the Dirty Dog.’)

With so many historical and authorial associations, the hotel seemed an ideal location for a literary conference. And so it was that the Malcolm Saville Society chose this setting for their first literary conference on the life and work of the children's author. In fact, the Society was holding their annual weekend-long gathering there this year, but I had come along just for this stand-alone event. The conference was aimed at society members and was also open to members of the Alliance of Literary Societies. Elder statesman of the Malcolm Saville Society Frank Shepperd had long thought it would be a good idea to run such a conference. As Frank astutely pointed out to me when we chatted, some members of the society are not as young as they were and, for all our enduring fondness for the real-life locations in which Saville set his books, the prospect of scrambling up the Long Mynd or across Dartmoor in the wind and rain may not be as feasible as it once was. 

Brighton pier sunset. Tony Gillam (c) 2017
Instead, we were treated to a series of talks in which various members of the society reflected on what Saville's books meant to them. All the presentations were peppered with little gems of information and affectionate insights.  

I particularly enjoyed Phil Bannister's talk on Strangers at Snowfell (1949) – the only Saville book set in the Lake District. Phil broadened the discussion to compare and contrast Saville's approach with that of Geoffrey Trease who set five novels for children in the Lake District. 

Patrick Tubby gave a delightful account of his rediscovery of Saville books and subsequent membership of the society, claiming that he was nearly thrown out when it was revealed he had never visited Saville's spiritual home of Shropshire.  Happily, Patrick has since remedied this and his description of his encounters with the county and the Lone Pine locations were as poetic and sublime as Saville's own.

Another sunset on Brighton Pier. Tony Gillam (c) 2017
Alan Stone's talk explored some of the environmentalist aspects of Saville's books.  I hadn't appreciated quite how often Saville used the device of baddies posing as birdwatchers who are (repeatedly) caught out by their lack of ornithological knowledge.  How many modern day children would know enough about bird-watching to wrong-foot – and thus unmask – a villain?

It was great to meet so many members of the society in such a lovely old building.  My grateful thanks to Frank, who hosted, and to all the contributors and organisers for their hard work in preparing and presenting such an entertaining and informative conference. Also thanks to The Old Ship Hotel staff who provided novel refreshments to accompany the tea and coffee in the form of popcorn, chocolate and ... of course, sticks of Brighton Rock.  

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Celtic-Medieval Speed Folk... courtesy of PerKelt

PerKelt - Live at The Artrix, Bromsgrove, Saturday 11 March

It was somewhat startling to see the members of PerKelt, conspicuous in their flowing medieval cloaks and kilts, among the gathering audience sipping cappuccinos in the foyer of the Artrix Arts Centre. But any sense of alarm was quelled by the sight of them carefully applying face paint to one another's foreheads, before heading backstage in readiness to play. 

PerKelt describe their sound as Celtic-Medieval Speed Folk. This belies the lyricism of moments like 'The Willow Song', (a setting of Shakespeare's ballad from Othello) and John Dowland's ‘If My Complaints’. All three members of PerKelt – founding members Stepan Honc (guitar and vocals) and fellow Czech Paya Bastlova (vocals, recorders and harp) – are astonishingly good musicians. The most recent recruit, French drummer/percussionist David Maurette, adds to the vibrancy, warmth and good humour.

Paya is able to alternate between sweet lamentation and a harder-edged singing voice and switched from singing to recorder without missing a beat or a breath. What's more, the challenging choice of material called for multilingual skills with ‘Ay Vist Lo Lop’ sung in the Occitan language of southern France and ‘Herr Mannelig’ in Swedish. Stepan was sensitive to the intimacy of the venue and chose to restrain his urge to rock out on speed folk, changing the set list to include a few more downbeat selections. There is, though, an irrepressible, almost grunge sensibility to PerKelt which means for every soft, delicate moment it won't be long before the guitar, drums and recorder joyfully let rip again. 

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Maggie Roche (1951-2017)

Maggie Roche, ©Irene Young, 1979
We don't usually do obituaries here at the Passengers in Time blog, but this time we'll make an exception for a remarkable and underrated artist. The pantheon of late sixties/early seventies pop and rock music continues to lose some of its brightest and best as 2017 gets underway. The obituaries section of April's Uncut magazine pays tribute to members of Can, The Allman Brothers, Mott the Hoople, King Crimson, Spooky Tooth and Man – not to mention that quirkiest of singer/songwriters Peter Sarstedt.  But I was particularly shocked and deeply saddened to read of the death of Maggie Roche. The 1979 album The Roches (featuring the perfect harmonies and highly original songwriting of the three sisters Maggie, Terri and Suzzy) is very close to my heart as the soundtrack to my first year away from home at university. Maggie, the eldest of the sisters, was responsible for writing the soaring, heartrending "Hammond Song" from that album and the wittily poignant "The Married Men".

When I as eighteen going on nineteen the three Irish-American sisters from New Jersey seemed to epitomise just how much fun could be had with acoustic guitars and a devil-may-care attitude. Their 1982 album Keep on Doing emboldened me and my friends to keep writing and playing music against the odds.

All three sisters seemed equally gifted songwriters yet The Roches never fully achieved mainstream success. Considered perhaps too twee for some tastes they resolutely continued to produce albums of elegantly-crafted, beautifully-observed songs. Maggie's contributions were often infused with an underlying sadness as well as a self-deprecating humour. She wrote the title track to their 1989 album Speak - a song about being lost for words – as well as the lovely "Broken Places".

If the music of The Roches has passed you by then I suggest you explore their back catalogue and discover what the New York Times described, in their obituary of Maggie Roche, as a "pop-folk songwriting style that could be droll or diaristic, full of unexpected melodic turns."

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Portable ecstasies – Wordsworth's spectacles and square oranges

Derwentwater (c) Tony Gillam
Perhaps the more dramatic the landscape you inhabit, the more romantic the literature you produce. Think of the Brontës and their West Yorkshire moors ... and, of course, the Wordsworths – William and his sister Dorothy – (not forgetting their good friend Coleridge) and the English Lake District. The grandeur of Derwentwater and Grasmere, even in chilly February, is always inspirational but it was the small domestic details of Wordsworth's life on display at Dove Cottage and the adjoining museum that captured my imagination. Here you can see the poet's special writing chair which had flat armrests to use as a writing surface – because Wordsworth hated sitting at a desk. And here, also, his blue-lensed spectacles, more redolent somehow of John Lennon than of the author of The Prelude. It's easy to imagine, with the heady Lakeland air all around and an opium-induced haze (courtesy of friends like Coleridge and De Quincey), Wordsworth squinting at the world through blue-tinted glasses and inadvertently laying the foundations not only of Romanticism but of psychedelia too.

Thomas de Quincey, fan and friend of Wordsworth, memorably celebrated opium in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater:“here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered; happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat-pocket; portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint-bottle; and peace of mind could be sent down by the mail.”

Now, I should explain that no opium or related substances were involved in our recent trip to the Lake District but we did enjoy more innocent delights, some of which de Quincey also appreciated: “Surely everyone is aware of the divine pleasures which attend a wintry fireside; candles at four o'clock, warm hearthrugs, tea, a fair tea-maker, shutters closed, curtains flowing in ample draperies to the floor, whilst the wind and rain are raging audibly without.”

Village School, Grasmere (c) Tony Gillam
There is something ineffably cosy about a stay in the Lake District and the area is reinvigorating in so many ways. Being surrounded by so much natural beauty and bracing weather is restorative enough, but it's an area rich in sensory not to say sometimes psychedelic-sounding pleasures. For example, the scent alone – not to mention the taste – of fresh gingerbread, made in the tiny village school building in Grasmere where William and Dorothy once taught local children (convinced, as the Wordsworths were, that universal education was the means to escape poverty and ignorance.) Then there is the craft bakery and tea rooms Bryson's of Keswick selling, alongside their gorgeous fresh loaves and cakes, bottles of toffee vodka.  Yes.  Toffee vodka. ('It goes very well with Prosecco,' said the sales assistant, conspiratorially.) 

The Square Orange, Keswick
Or perhaps you'd like to try a rhubarb cheesecake with your coffee at Keswick's Square Orange Cafe Bar, or be brave enough to order a glass of Kwak (a Belgian beer that appears to be served in an hourglass-shaped glass.) It was at the Square Orange that we caught a live performance by Lancaster-based singer-songwriter Felicity Harris who just stood up and played (completely unamplified) a selection of her own songs and some very unexpected cover versions, including Laurel & Hardy's Blue Ridge Mountains Of Virginia.

Unlike de Quincey's opium, it's not always so easy to bottle the pleasures of a stay in the Lake District: the landscape that inspired the Romantic poets, good Cumberland beer in friendly, cosy pubs, miles and miles of walking. But perhaps a visit there every now and then, and the memory of the place, will keep at bay what Coleridge called Dejection and those attendant feelings Wordsworth described of "sorrow, disappointment, vexing thoughts, /Confusion of the judgment, zeal decayed, /And, lastly, utter loss of hope itself/ And things to hope for!" As Wordsworth reminds us in The Prelude: "Not with these began/Our song, and not with these our song must end."

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Scandinavia on my mind

What links these three books: Tove Jansson's A Winter Book, Hold Tight by Felicity Fair Thompson and The Rough Guide to Scandinavia? Well, one answer to that question is that I've recently been reading all three.  But, that's a bit unfair, unless you've been sneaking around my house spying on me (and I'm sure you're much too polite to have been doing that.)  So, here's another answer...

Many of us are keen on (not to say addicted to) dark Scandinavian thrillers – the genre known as Scandi noir (sometimes referred to as  Nordic noir.)  Even if we don't read the books, TV dramas like The Killing, Wallander and The Bridge, have set a high standard for compelling storytelling, intriguing characters and reliably fine acting and directing. But it's worth reminding ourselves that not all Scandinavian fiction is in this genre and, equally, not all crime thrillers are Scandinavian.    

Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is fondly remembered as the Swedish-speaking Finnish writer and artist who created the Moomin stories, but I really enjoy her books for adults. In the past I've read her novels The Summer Book and Fair Play and so, this winter, it seemed appropriate to read a collection of her short stories A Winter Book. Regular readers of this blog will known I'm a great fan of the short story form and Jansson's are wonderfully succinct, beguiling examples. At times she writes from the perspective of a small child, with a partial grasp of the world around her; at other times, her point of view is an older adult who really should know better. In my view, they occupy an area between memoir and fiction, and between reality and dream, edging towards magical realism but remaining grounded. The independent publisher Sort Of Books is to be applauded for reissuing eight of Jansson's books for adults. 

I mentioned that, just as not all Scandinavian fiction is crime, so not all crime fiction is Scandinavian. Felicity Fair Thompson is an author based on the Isle of Wight. I've reviewed some of her other books in this blog. Hold Tight is set in Hampshire but it's as dark and gritty as anything coming out of Sweden or Denmark. The crime at the heart of Hold Tight is child abduction and its central character, WPC Jane Velalley, has to contend with unreliable male partners and colleagues who are variously unfaithful or sexist. The society portrayed is one that doesn't make life easy for female professionals juggling family life and a demanding job, and a world where children are vulnerable ... and so, perhaps, are adults. Felicity Fair Thompson shows that, whether she's writing for adults or younger readers (as with her equally enjoyable The Kid on Slapton Beach), her narrative style carries the reader along with her.

... And so to the Rough Guide to Scandinavia. Well, of course, we've been talking about Scandi noir and Tove Jansson and I've started perusing this particular Rough Guide because we're thinking about visiting Denmark later this year. If that seems like a bit of a tenuous link, it also turns out that Mark Ellingham and Natania Jansz who run the aforementioned Sort Of Books were also the founders of the Rough Guide series of travel books.

One thing that puzzles me, though. The Rough Guide to Scandinavia covers Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland but my dictionary tells me Scandinavia is a cultural region consisting of Norway, Sweden and Denmark and sometimes also includes Iceland, Finland, and the Faroe Islands. I always assumed Finland was definitely in Scandinavia – and Iceland too. Indeed, the famously Icelandic Bjork, in her song Hunter, sang: " I thought I could organize freedom / How Scandinavian of me..."

Whether or not we judge Finland and Iceland as Scandinavian, I'm pretty sure we can agree that both Hampshire and the Isle of Wight are just a little too southerly to be included.  

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Gypsy jazz and more at the Ginger Pig

Remi Harris Project at the Ginger Pig Cafe Bar, Worcester, 

Friday 11 November

The poster at Worcester's Ginger Pig described Remi Harris as an "up and coming guitarist" but he has surely already well and truly arrived. With appearances at the Montreal Jazz Festival and the BBC Proms and airplay on Jamie Cullum's Radio 2 show it's commendable that Remi still plays intimate local venues. Accompanied perfectly by his never-failing rhythm section of guitar and double bass, Remi was equally at home playing acoustic or electric and ranging effortlessly across gypsy swing, jazz and blues and everything in between. The set was breathtakingly varied. 'Over the Rainbow' wandered unexpectedly into Willy Wonka territory with 'Pure Imagination'. Other highlights of the evening were an exquisite version of the Beatles' 'In My Life' and a dazzling rendition of Tunisian oud player Dhafer Youssef's 'Odd Elegy', with its unfathomable time signatures.

As a proponent of gypsy jazz, you'd expect the spirit of Django Reinhardt to loom large at a Remi Harris gig, but less predictable was the summoning of the ghost of Jimi Hendrix.

Totally absorbed in his music, Remi almost forgot to mention that his second album, 'In on The 2', was available at the gig. Standout tracks from the new CD included the Wes Montgomery tune 'Bock to Bock' and Peter Green's 'Need Your Love So Bad'. Fond of quoting little snippets of tunes – even Chuck Berry makes a brief appearance – Remi is always tasteful with this technique and never labours the joke. It might be said this is jazz and blues for people who don't really like jazz or blues, but that might suggest it's in some way dumbed down. In fact, Remi's gift is that he's able to infuse the music with intelligence, warmth and wit making it accessible to the wide audience it deserves.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Autumn Hymns, New Living Rooms and Leaky Boats – a round-up of some of the best acoustic music you may not yet have discovered

Of what we spoke by Threaded ... The James Brothers by The James Brothers ... Autumn's Hymn by Son of John

Threaded are a classically-trained folk trio from the English Midlands and Of what we spoke is their first release. If you think the clarinet deserves more prominence in folk music, you'll probably take a shine to Threaded, who blend Jamie Rutherford's guitar with Rosie Bott's clarinet and the violin of Ning-Ning Li (whose illustrations also grace the beautifully-designed album cover.) The quirky opening track, 'The New Living Room' , sounds like it could have been a slightly manic piece of incidental music from 'Pogles' Wood' or 'Ivor the Engine'.

The collection intersperses Rutherfords' songs with an agreeable variety of instrumentals. Some of the songs are more effective than others. 'Left Off', a tender ballad of lost friendship, has shades of Nickel Creek and stays with the listener. While I admired the idea of setting Robert Browning's 'Pied Piper of Hamelin' as a song, the result - 'A Secret Charm' - is not entirely successful. On the whole, the instrumentals work best, from the delicate 'The Courtyard' (where Bott's clarinet somehow evokes the sound of a fairground organ) to 'Captain Markham' (imagine Rodrigo y Gabriela swapping guitars for violin and clarinet.)

Next up, the eponymous debut album of The James Brothers (alias Australian James Fagan and New Zealander Jamie McClennan), which was recorded in Scotland and mastered in Nashville. These songs, tunes and shanties are well-travelled, steeped in the tradition of the British Isles but distinctly antipodean. 'Hey Rain' complains about the fact that 'there's rain in me beer and there's rain in me grub' ... not to mention 'a Johnstone River crocodile livin' in me fridge'.

McClennan plays fiddle and guitar while his vocals are strangely reminiscent of Al Stewart (on songs like 'Shearing's Coming Round' and 'Leatherman'.) Fagan shares vocals and guitar duties but the real synergy comes in the mellifluous blend of McClennan's guitar and Fagan's bouzouki on tracks like 'Family Tree' and 'The Voyage of the Buffalo' (a tale of an ill-fated ship that transports convicts to Australia and returns to England with a cargo of New Zealand timber.) The duo further demonstrate their Australasian credentials with 'The Ballad of Ned Kelly' and a cover of 'Six Months in a Leaky Boat' (a Tim Finn composition from his Split Enz period which, when given The James Brothers' treatment, is revealed as a Crowded House song in disguise.)

Finally, the perfect accompaniment to these mellow, fruitful days and dark autumn evenings is surely Autumn's Hymn by Worcestershire-based Son of John. Son of John is, in fact, singer/songwriter and acoustic guitar virtuoso Jacob Johnson. The whole album has an earthy, traditional feel – though eight of the ten tracks are Jacob's original compositions. Both his guitar and vocal style (not to mention his banjo-playing) betray a devotion to the music of Martin Simpson while the choice of the traditional 'Spencer the Rover' suggests John Martyn is no small influence on this talented young artist.

The opening track 'Baseborn' has a lilting guitar figure and a compelling lyric: '... And the tale is far from done/and the song still sung/as it echoes round the halls/it breaks down the doors ... ' 'The Maid and the King' reminded me somehow of an early Suzanne Vega song, 'The Queen and the Soldier', while the dark arrangements of the title track and 'Let Me Rest', with their haunting female backing vocals, violin, jaw harp and handclaps on the offbeat, transport us into Ennio Morricone territory. If you like your contemporary English folk infused with a touch of Americana and blues, you need to listen to Son of John.

Further information:
The James
Son of John:

About me

My photo
Tony Gillam lives in Worcestershire and his fiction and non-fiction has appeared in national magazines and newspapers, academic journals, textbooks and blogs. His blog – – purports to be about books, music ... and time travel. Tony is also a singer-songwriter, guitarist and dulcimer player with Worcestershire's most undiscovered indie-folk band Fracture Zone.