Last year at the Cambridge Folk Festival the main headliner was Joan Baez. In her heyday in the early 60s I wasn’t too fussed. For me her voice was pure, mannered and irritating. She used to give what I would call a “custard pie” performance. Imagine an old Buster Keaton or Fatty Arbuckle movie. Someone putting on airs appears, and a custard pie would sail out of the wings. Splat! Right in the kisser. So, so satisfying.
But as Joan got older and her voice got more “lived in” she improved drastically in my estimation. Her performance at Cambridge won me over, and when I saw they were issuing a live concert recording - 2 CDs and 1 DVD - of her 75th birthday bash, I bought it. A host of ageing folkish luminaries appeared with her, Emmylou Harris, Judy Collins (a big rival in the 60s), Paul Simon without his cap for once, Jackson Browne, Mary Chapin Carpenter (who we will be seeing at Cambridge this year) but I’ll desist, because the reader will either have never heard of them, or if they have, will probably know all about the album anyway.
So what songs have stood out for me from first hearing? One was a belting version of House of the Rising Sun. This was made world famous by the Animals back in the days of yesteryear, who pinched their arrangement from Bob Dylan’s first solo album. However, it is actually a woman’s song. Of a woman gone wrong. In the usual way. A lament. Let ‘em have it, Joan. She did.
Paul Simon joined her to sing the Boxer, with Richard Thompson playing back-up guitar. They slipped in an extra verse that brought the house down.
Now the years are rolling by me They are rocking easily, And I am older than I once was And younger than I’ll be - But that’s not unusual... Nor is it strange, After changes, all the changes We are more or less the same; After changes We are more or less the same.
My daughter grew up as a Simon and Garfunkel fan. We used to call them Simon and Garbage-Uncle and wind her up something rotten, as parents sort of do. Well, these parents anyway. In her teens she wrote an arrangement for her school choir of The Only Living Boy in New York. She probably got her love of S and G from her mother, rather than me, but I did enjoy Simon’s first solo album recorded in the UK before he hit the big time. Yup - and Here’s To You too, Mrs Robinson... And don’t get me started on Anne Bancroft in the Graduate...
There was a merciless parody of S and G by a British double act Hale and Pace, which you can catch on You Tube if you have a mind to. Fortunately my daughter laughed too...
Joan’s patter had a dig at Bob Dylan claiming to write a traditional folk song, with quite a nice vocal impersonation, but of course he and Joan had been an item for a while. She was the megastar, he was just the harmonica player for Caroline Hester who pinched an old folk tune No More Auction Block and turned it into Blowing in the Wind. But Bob latched onto Joan’s star and to some degree eclipsed her. And then, because folk was just a vehicle, and at heart he probably wanted to be rock star, he went electric, to the dismay of his original core audience. This was completely irrational, because blues players had been electric for years. Anyhow, back to the show - Joan did Dylan’s bitchiest of “get lost” songs Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright, which rumor has it was originally written with her in mind. Ah me - the trivial things we used to take so seriously all those years ago...
She did Freight Train, which I first bought on a 78rpm shellac disc back in the Precambrian era. It was written by Elizabeth Cotten, who had been a maid for the Seeger family. (Yes, the extended Pete Seeger family, who had been quite well-to-do. Pete of course “dropped out” as all good radical folk singers do, but he did drop out of Harvard). The Seegers heard Elizabeth sing her own song and supported her on her way as a folk singer. There is some footage of her on YouTube as an old lady singing Freight Train and playing a guitar left-handedly. But not re-strung, just played upside down. It gave new meaning to the expression “cotton picking”. So Joan belted that one out.
Some of her biggest hits over the decades of course appeared - There But For a Fortune (written by Phil Ochs), Diamonds and Rust, Gracias a La Vida, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and - very appropriate to finish on - Forever Young.
There are lots of folk performers from the 60s who still sing, and frankly shouldn’t. Knowing when to stop is a judgment that many fail to make in all walks of life, and singing is a prime example. Not just folk singers - anyone remember Pavarotti’s last appearances? And rock singers. I saw Little Richard in his heyday - fantastic” - but also well into his 70s - hilarious - but for all the wrong reasons.
But Joan really did well. There was no need to make any concessions or allowances.
I am a great fan of British B pictures - those “quota quickies” that the British film industry was obliged to make in the 1940s through to the early 1960s as support for the big picture - which often came from America. They were cheaply and very quickly produced and many directors and actors cut their teeth on them. Watching them today - in glorious grainy black and white - it is great fun to see famous thespians of later years playing the cinematic equivalent of Shakespeare’s third murderer in Macbeth.
One series we are currently enjoying all over again on DVD was called “Scotland Yard”. These were three reelers, designed to last half an hour when the big picture was a bit long (and a total performance was rarely allowed to exceed three hours). Nearly 40 were made, and they were all crime investigations, and all were introduced by the solemn faced and sonorous toned Edgar Lustgarten who also acted as narrator.
Lustgarten (we always used to call him Edgar Last-Gasper) was a lawyer, writer and broadcaster, and a fixture on British radio for several decades. And I would always listen to him in his various radio series of famous crimes, trials, and scandals, with him often playing all the parts.
One of the best, which I quite often revisit, was about William Joyce, “Lord Haw-Haw”, the radio propagandist for the Nazi regime, who was hanged by the British as a traitor in 1946.
Joyce was a familiar voice over the airwaves throughout the war; broadcasts that many Brits found amusing. Lustgarten was involved in propaganda broadcasts back to Germany, using the pseudonym Brent Wood to hide his Jewish background, and the two men reportedly indulged in oblique verbal sparring at times. However, for the public, the dialog was somewhat one-way. Listening to Haw-Haw in Britain was a popular entertainment; listening to British broadcasts in Germany could be punishable by death.
But Lustgarten did this radio documentary about Joyce, and got the voice impersonation off (as the Brits would say) “to a T”. (As an aside, had Joyce been captured a few years after the war, he would have probably served a token sentence, and then written his memoirs. Unfortunately for him he was captured in the full flood of post-war retribution, and was convicted of treason. Since technically he was never a British citizen, but Irish-American, his conviction and execution has caused legal misgivings since. And his wife, who also broadcast propaganda and certainly WAS British, was never charged. But as one authority put it - in the climate of the times, better men were executed for less. Americans who broadcast for the enemy like “Tokyo Rose” and “Axis Sally” got away far lighter in comparison.)
Anyhow, we were talking about Edgar Lustgarten. Actually, we were talking about British B pictures in which he appeared. I really must keep to the point. Whatever that is.
These little films started with the dramatic tones of - “SCOTLAND YARD”. Americans should imagine a token rip-off from the introduction to “The FBI” or “Dragnet”. We would go through doors into the secret rooms of Scotland Yard where about three men in a small room would be using state of the art technology - maps on tables, magnifying glasses, that sort of thing - and then we would home in on a file that said “The Driscoll Case” or similar. Cut to Last-Gasper, I mean Lustgarten, who would introduce the story.
They were all filmed at Merton Park Studios, home of another long running B series based, loosely, on the work of Edgar Wallace. The studio was tiny. So we would have the police in their headquarters, the size of small closet. The villain had maybe escaped to somewhere exotic - say, Morocco. Cut to stock footage of airplane in the sky, then stock footage of Morocco, and then police headquarters in Morocco - the same closet now decked with slightly different furniture and British character actors with unconvincing make-up and even more unconvincing accents. By the end of thirty minutes the crime was solved, and Lustgarten would pontificate over the end credits.
It was great fun. It never failed.
And the sheer limitations of the form gave the whole series a new lease of life when TV took over. That reliance on close ups and few characters - created by threadbare budgetary considerations - actually made them ideal for the small screens of early TV and they all had new lease of life.
Modern films with their emphasis on CGI and action and bloated lengths and surround sound quite often leave me cold. But creaky old movies with creaky old plots and ghosts from the past in the casts - I can enjoy them time and again.
O and I must be the epitome of aging groupies. We have taken an interest in the
singing of Amy Goddard for some years. There is a family connection. But it
means that over these last couple of days we have travelled around 400 miles to
attend a concert launching her second album.
don’t do “out and back” in a day now - and anyhow, the gig ended somewhat late.
In fact, by the time we helped dismantle everything it was very late indeed. So
we stayed with relatives.
when I stay in other people’s homes there is something that goes awry. About
the only thing that happened on this flying visit was the shower. No - I didn’t
break it - but I clambered in without my spectacles and looking closely about
found that all my soaps and stuff were somewhere else. So, assuming that the
household would not mind me borrowing, I peered myopically at various tubes,
and it appears I then elected to wash my hair with someone’s Super Exfoliating
second album is nearly all self-penned, and for this show she had a guitarist
I’ve known for years, a back-up singer and percussionist, a hammer dulcimer
player (a bit like a piano with bits missing that goes out of tune at the
slightest change in temperature), a flute/whistle player, plus her own
collection of guitars, in various tunings. Apparently you soon run out of
linking jokes if you try and tune between numbers (“it was in tune when I
bought it”...“I always wondered what these twirly things were for...”) so each
instrument had its own tuning, and Amy’s husband was back-stage tuning up and
doing the roadie bit. The venue was full, and at least three radio D J’s from
specialist programmes (one linked to Canada, America and Australia) were there,
which bodes well for future plays.
real money from performing folk music can be problematic unless you are early
Bob Dylan. (Joke: how do you become a folk singer with a small fortune? Answer:
start off with a large fortune). In these days of streaming even megastars often
sell few albums, so CD sales aren’t the way. You can wear yourself out
traveling around the country doing gigs, which is not Amy’s choice of life
style. Or you can get played on radio, and there are a surprisingly large
number of stations in Britain alone, let alone world-wide that have a need for this
kind of product. Codes built into the CDs send information on plays to a
central source, and the artist and songwriter gets royalties. A number of plays
plus at least four really good reviews on specialist sites so far bodes well
for the new album which has only been out for less than a week officially. Of
course, if a megastar hears Amy’s work and decides to record something she’s
written, I suspect she is not going to complain. But writers rarely write for
the money. There are far easier ways to earn it. They write because - well,
it’s part of them. But if it sells, no-one in their right mind is going to be
churlish and grumble.
- in the, “it’s a small world sometimes”, category - long-suffering readers of
my stuff may vaguely remember how I carry on about a late American
singer-songwriter, John Stewart. At Amy’s show, in my own guest slot, I did one
of his numbers. At the interval I was immediately waylaid by an old guy (which
probably means ten years younger than me) who had met Stewart, knew his wife,
had been interviewed on radio about the man, and - and - yes, had actually been
to - Bolinas. Huh? That will mean absolutely nothing to readers here. Only
because I am what we can in the UK “an anorak” could I trade reminiscences and
hold up my end of the conversation. Amy too could wade into the debate of
minutia because she had to contact the Stewart family for permission to do one
of his numbers on her first album and arrange royalties.
a good time was had by all. We paid for cover to look after my mother while we
were away. She will be 97 in June. She’s now outlived her first husband, my
father, who was a fitness freak. She’s managed that age after her parents were
told she’d not survive beyond five, and has spent a life time of eating the
wrong foods and talking about, but not actually, taking exercise. (Her idea of
slimming was always eating large unhealthy meals followed by two token low-fat
biscuits afterwards). Anyhow, the last time we went away my daughter visited to
hold the fort with her husband, and then she was taken ill and they had to stay
with her for three days - kindly not telling us until we got back from
vacation. This time all that has happened is that the carers have broken one of
the sides of her bed. She can’t fall out, although it doesn’t look too safe. So
that is a job to get sorted on Monday when the place that supplied the bed
re-opens. So now it’s a takeaway meal, glass or two of red, and crash out,
while hoping to make a killing selling obscurities on eBay.
that’s our last couple of days. How were yours?
So ... in
the dim, distant past, Elders (pastors) from the church my mother attended did
their best to persecute me. Mind you, I wasn’t a member of their church, and,
other than attending because I believed I owed it to my mother, I did not participate
in any of their communal activities. Some few years ago, I petitioned the court
for a restraining order against two of the local Elders. It was granted.
One of the
reasons I took that extreme step was their attempted interference with my job.
They objected to a book I used in my literature class. I worked for the school
district, and district policy was to offer alternative reading. I would do that
even if it weren’t policy. Students are captives of a system, and it is unfair
to subject them to reading they find objectionable. The book in question was
Gideon the Cutpurse, a young adult time-travel novel. In the minds
of these elders, time travel is demonic. The school district
restated the policy, the parent involved removed her child from my class, and I
ask for and received a restraining order. (You Know I’m leaving out
This week I
had another run in with elders from that church. I walked out my front door,
stuck my key in the car door, and two of them zoomed up in their car. They’d
been waiting for me. And Lo! I know these guys. They’re the two self-entitled
creepy guys from my childhood. They’re now old and wrinkled, and one has false
teeth and hearing aids. I haven’t seen them in at least 15 years; certainly enough
time hasn't lapsed for me to want to see them in any setting. They’ve both moved
here in the past few months. They were waiting, lurking outside my house.
pretended to be my long-lost friend. He was never my friend. The other was
silent through an inane conversation about the other guy’s declining health.
His only comment was to ask me where I worked now. I told him. I have no connection
to this church. I reject its teachings and I reject their behaviors. I was
polite. I will not be next time I see them.
Some of my
blog readers will say, “But we’re not like that.” You are. That’s you. Listen
to your videos; listen to what you say; analyze what you think. This is your
organization at its best. It goes down hill from this.
is contacting each of the local branches of this church. I will not be waylaid
and spied upon by under-educated clergy of any denomination. If you have a comment to make, make it here, not through an email.
It's no secret that I love my pet Scotsman. Even if we're not as young as we were when we first met, he still makes my heart flutter. He's touchable. If I manage to live to old age, and he does too, and we're fat and he's bald and forgets to shave, I'll still want to cuddle with him.
His best quality is his ability to listen patiently to me and to our girls. And believe me, sometimes that takes "the patience of Job." Oh, he has his faults. (He never hangs up his coat. It's a nag the tall man moment.) But that only matters when it's cold. It's warming up now. He'll fiddle in the yard, tracking in dirt and being generally smelly. That washes off, and I have trained him to take his shoes off at the back door.
Put him together with his friends and get them talking 'engineer-ish' things and life can become dull. I'm good at un-dullifying it. We played tag around the house this morning. It left me out of breath, and I surrendered first. My current meds leave me short of breath. But he's still fun to chase. And snuggle and Kissify.
a reasonably long life (so far) you tend to meet a lot of people. I know that I
have. My voluntary work has taken me to different parts of the country and I
know literally thousands of people, and far more superficially know me. My
secular career involved publishing and lecturing around the country, and doing
battle on message boards. But when you look back, sometimes there is the odd
individual who somehow stands out.
this post is a tribute to Una. I remember her from when I lived in London, and
recently I used a variety of websites to trace what became of her. (Which is
not the easiest of things to do going forward in time, it is far easier to go
Green in West London has special meaning for me on several levels. The
religious building I attended and worked from in London was there. The school I
went to (Ealing Grammar) was there. And the Ealing Film Studios were there. For
a glorious period of about ten years they produced a series of comedy films
that subtly sent up the British character, or at least how the British liked to
think of themselves. Most starred Alex Guinness before he was a big hit in The
Bridge on the River Kwai and went all po-faced and serious prior to finally
ending up in Star Wars. By the time I lived there, the Ealing Film Company had
sadly gone, but BBC TV had bought the studios. Most old Ealing Film comedies
and many BBC comedy programs from later in time have recognizable locations for
me; streets where I called on people, familiar buildings, even the interior of
my school for a couple of films. And the whole area was peopled with actors,
many of them minor players, who could be called into the studio at a moment’s
notice just down the road for work. I met many of these people, but
name-dropping here wouldn’t mean much - certainly not to an American audience.
also on Ealing Green lived Una.She was
in her middle years, and was extremely short. She’d spent her life on the
fringes of the film industry. She’d acted in one film - she’d played The Infant
Phenomenon in the 1947 film version of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, a part for
which she was perfectly suited. For those who don’t know their Dickens, the
traveling players of Vincent Crummles have as one of their star turns a
somewhat elderly infant prodigy, who “though short on stature had a
comparatively aged countenance” who “had been kept up late every night and put
upon an unlimited allowance of gin-and-water from infancy to prevent her
growing tall”. Nicholas looks a little too closely and asks how old she
is?When told she is only ten, he
remarks “How extraordinary...”
probably the most resonant part of Una’s background for me was her parrot - a
particularly vicious specimen which invariably advanced menacingly whenever we
called. Una’s parrot had been Mrs Wilberforce’s parrot ‘General Gordon’ in The
Ladykillers. Forget the unsubtle re-telling with Tom Hanks - the original film
version with Alex Guinness, Peter Sellers, and Herbert Lom had it all. Or at
least for a British audience, which could appreciate the nation-specific
subtleties and stereotypes. (Just watch the scene where a team of hardened
criminals are overwhelmed by a gaggle of twittering old ladies handing out cups
of tea and cakes while playing Silver Threads Amongst the Gold on an out-of-tune
piano.) The director, Alexander Mackendrick went back to the States on the
strength of it, and directed the extremely cynical Sweet Smell of Success with
Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis straight after. Anyhow, I’m getting off the
point - which is an Occasional habit - the original film starred Una’s parrot.
of her family were in the film industry in some way. One relative I believe was
a set designer, and when he died I was given a copy of Jerome K Jerome’s
Sketches in Lavender from his library, which I still have. Her brother was a
film producer. Yet another relative was a stuntman, who did David Niven’s jump
in The Guns of Navarone. As a film junkie and long-time member of the British
Film Institute, I had lots to talk about. And I saw specific films again on the
strength of the information she gave me.
that wasn’t actually my official reason for meeting her. I’d called in our
ministry work with a young lady with whom I was an item at the time, and we had
been invited in. Una made excellent coffee. And we debated this and that and
the other, and each week for number of months got on (as we say in the UK) like
a house on fire. It wasn’t our reason for being there, but we read some of the
pieces she had written, and she heard some of the humorous verse I was writing
at the time before I grew up. Una’s philosophy was best described as agnostic -
and just so that my posts impart a tiny bit of erudition, that’s a word that
actually comes from the Bible - check the Greek for Acts 17 v.23.
realize now, that Una wasn’t really all that interested in our message. She was
interested in US. Two young people who were idealistic and wildly enthusiastic
and - as goes with the territory - probably came over as planning to change the
world. (In actual fact, our message was specifically that WE were not going to
change the world, but the subtlety of that probably got lost on her.) We were
also greatly interested in the arts, or at least of her two visitors, I was.
did it come to an end? Una went back to work, so was not available at the times
we were. The young lady and I broke up. And soon after that (although no
connection whatsoever) I said goodbye to London and headed off for the wilds of
deepest Berkshire, working my way over the decades to the even wilder wilds of
I always remembered Una. And when doing historical research, I wondered if I
could trace what happened to her? Her film contacts as well as Ancestry should
help. Well, they did. I found from IMDB that she had been a composer. There had
been a grand piano in the back room and I’d never asked and she’d never
volunteered. Her published composition work however was not remotely classical,
but in popular music of the 40s and 50s. It seems surprising that had not come
up in conversation, but maybe I had just been more interested in the movies at
everybody else I knew from that era, Una ultimately left London. She lived to
be 98. I discovered that she had put her memories down on tape for the British
Film Institute History Project, one of many groups for which I was already a
member. As I write I am waiting for them to digitize the two cassettes her tale
is stored on, so I can hear her in her own words as recorded for posterity back
in 1991. I am looking forward to that. She appeared on the outside to be a very
happy person, with a happy family around her. Perhaps, several decades ago, I
should have tried to regain contact. But I remember her now.
I am writing this while we are on holiday,
or as most readers here might term it, vacation - two whole weeks, when our
daughter and son in law care for my mother, and we can get away.
But nothing seems to go completely
smoothly in Occasional-land. For a start, as soon as we reached our destination
my laptop sort of half turned up its toes and refused to accept the existence
of the internet. Now I have had this machine for nearly eight years, one of the
first with Vista, and it has been hammered during that time. Four of the letter
keys have completely worn away, making it impossible for most others to use it.
The battery has died, and to get the official version to replace it will cost
more than a decent netbook. Yes - IT IS TIME.
But that didn’t help me on this trip. So I
have been reduced to using a Mickey Mouse tablet. Mrs O uses her tablet all the
time, but mine was kept mainly for videos. Well, forced into it, I have learned
a lot. I trained as a touch typist a million years ago, with a view to getting
part-time work to support myself while working for a charity. I was a lad of 16
at the time, in a class full of girls, which was rather nice really. The result
was that I can think of a word or sentence, and it is already there on the
page. Great! But a tablet! Here I was, pecking away like a demented chicken at
keys with fat fingers - I’d mislaid the stylus of course - at about five words
a minute - misspelling something chronic. It sort of reminded me vaguely of
someone else. So the massive emails I usually send to less than long-suffering
correspondents were reduced to an impersonation of Twitter. Which probably was
an improvement, but changing the habits of a lifetime was hard. I come from the
penny a line school. That was the name for journalists of yesterday who were
paid by the line, so it paid to be as verbose as possible. Their motto was
always to use two words when even one was superfluous.
So, now I am back (even if momentarily) on
a conventional keyboard - our hols. What a dispiriting title. It reminds one of
all those times when people invited you round to show you their holiday movies.
Even though 8mm film was quite expensive, people used to shoot reels of out of
focus movies of families embarrassing themselves. And when video came in and
the cost of cameras came down it was even worse.
But - you don’t have to read this do you!
You can skip it and read posts about dragons and young pixies and stuff
We went to North Wales, because Mrs O
wanted to learn to swim. Properly. There was this course she’d wanted to do for
about ten years. The hotel supplied the pool, instruction every morning, while
Occasional could crash out in the bedroom and curse at both his laptop and
tablet. It worked. She learned. She is ecstatic. She wants me to join her in
the pool every day. I am NOT ecstatic.
But every afternoon we did the tourist
bit. We visited the Roman town of Chester, and what a well kept place it is.
The main streets - dating back to Victorian times - have two tiers of shops,
one above the other - all kept in pristine condition. And a canal. Belonging to
a canal trust back home, I am a sucker for canals. We will go back again. And
we went to Liverpool, and behaving like real tourists, saw the Beatles
experience. Quite nicely done, and the reconstruction of the Cavern reminded me
of places I used to visit in another life when in London.
The only problem with visiting Liverpool
was the toll system for the tunnels under the Mersey. Back in Wales, I am used
to traveling over the two Severn Bridges to reach England - where you either
have a tag on your vehicle, or someone swipes your card or gives you
old-fashioned change at the booth. Here, they wanted the exact money and they
wanted it thrown into a strange kind of bucket. Mrs O hastily counted out the
fee - unfortunately all in very small change - as we queued and I threw it into
the bucket - and missed. Don’t ask me how I missed. Mrs O is still asking me,
but I don’t know. But I was out of the car grovelling on the ground trying to
retrieve the small coins, while juggernauts with impatient drivers leaned on
their horns behind me. Mrs O says I should stay calm and not get flustered.
Flustered? Moi? It is easier said than done. I REALLY felt like a tourist.
The only other mishap (well, so far) was
when we first got to North Wales. The day before we left we’d both visited the
dentist and were given a clean bill of health. But my dentist - my daughter’s
age - gave me a little lecture and suggested I might like to retire my trusty
toothbrush. Mrs O has used a rechargeable thing for years, but I have resisted.
So - I succumbed. How do you use this thing? Well (said in a world-weary
patient voice with only a trace of a sigh) you put the toothpaste on the little
brush - see? - And then you press the button. Simple. I have been told that the
ring of toothpaste on my sweater will wash out, but there is still some concern
about the hotel wallpaper.
Our second week we travelled to the
Holiday Village of Centerparcs, and here to-night - oh joy, oh rapture - the
internet has come back, even if only temporarily. So I am bashing this out
before it all goes pear shaped again. And I am hoping to catch up on all the
research I promised to do for various ones last week.
usual, I expect we’re going to need a holiday/vacation to get over this one