The Clifftown Podcast – The Estuary

Half way through my interview with Iain Keenan of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) we paused for a coffee. We walked a short distance from the station house to Rebecca’s Cafe in the small parade of archway shops opposite the pier head. As the man was making our drinks Iain commented offhand that for a seaside town Southend’s community was not very connected to the sea. No-one looks outward much here.

I agreed with Iain on this statement. You get no strong sense of maritime history in Southend, it’s more about all the fun you can have on land. I think this occurs because Southend is a relatively new place and has never relied on the estuary for it’s food and livelihood, other than the beachside fun for day trippers. Southend was named in the middle ages because it was the ‘south end’ of Prittlewell, the Saxon village which is now simply a large crossroads to the north of the town and a suburb of Southend town centre. When Southend developed in the nineteenth century it, like many of its kind, became a destination resort for Londoners not a working fishing town. If you go further along the coast by a couple of miles, to Leigh-on-Sea, you get more of a sense of a maritime town. This is where Paul Gilson, the Dover Sole fisherman I interviewed for the episode lives and works. There are a few boat chandlers still and the cockle trade is still extent there but this too does not define Leigh as it once did. This is all now commuter town. I wonder with the pandemic and the potential for people to travel less to London less whether this area will change once more. 

Iain had a wealth of information about other topics I didn’t include in the episode. I’m naturally curious and will route out any hidden story I can but I felt it important to focus on the modern day role of the RNLI. I wanted to give the listener a break from my own personal obsessions about the town. 

One of the stories Ian told me was how the Palace Hotel, which is a grand white Victorian edifice that sits on the cliff overlooking the main seafront, was used to house wounded soldiers during the Second World War. He pondered openly about how those men had spent days, months even on boats and ships and when they were finally home they had to endure watching the sea while they recuperated. He supplied me this photo of men standing on one of the balconies. You can still see this balcony today and barely twenty metres from here, on the seafaring side of the hotel, Laurel and Hardy had their pictures taken….but that is another episode to come. 

The Palace Hotel could tell a few stories I am sure. Since starting the podcast I have walked past it many times as directly behind it sits St John the Baptist’s Church where, in its graveyard, lay a number of people I will visit in forthcoming episodes. It overlooks the pier where I met Iain and where the Olympia, the building on the front cover of my album is. It’s this interconnectedness that calls me. This is but one piece of ground but layers and layers of human experience lie on top of each other. The buildings hold ghosts  while the air forever changes. 

The most enjoyable aspect of this episode for me was another of Iain’s discoveries, that of the Chapman Lighhouse. An isolated tripod lighthouse which, as Paul Gilson told me, protected boats from a submerged ‘sea cliff’ that could pitch a boat over. The solemn ringing of a bell across the desolate Canvey marsh was something straight out of ‘The Heart of Darkness’ or ‘Great Expectations’ (both of which start in the boggy  ethereal Victoriana of the Thames Estuary). I relished looking into the lighthouse and there is a bonus episode out there on it, which I am very proud of. In a story I uncovered for the bonus episode there was the start reminder that the tides here can creep in and take a man unawares, the water gathering around you before you yourself know you have been cut off from the main land. Thankfully we have Iain and his colleagues at the RNLI to help us in those times of need. 

 

 

A Guide to Clifftown

Front Cover:

The front cover of the album shows the Olympia, which is one of the arcades on the seafront in Southend-on-Sea. It is a typical British seaside strip of neon lights and competing buzzes and theme tunes from hundreds of games machines. Most local people won’t recognise the building because who really looks up when they’re having fun in the summer?

Seafront icons you need to know:

“Peter Pan’s” by far the biggest feature of the seafront is the permanent fairground sprawling across the beach with such delights as ‘The Pharaoh’s Revenge’, ‘Rage’, ‘Mighty Mini Mega’ and my childhood favourite ‘The American Whip’. Officially branded as Adventure Island Southend these days all locals over the age of 25 will refer to it as ‘Peter Pan’s’ after it’s old name Peter Pan’s Playground.  

“The Pier” – Any Southender will tell you we have the longest pleasure pier in the world. People seem proud of it. It’s long because the tide goes out a long way. The pier has burnt down numerous times and in 2005 I watched it burn from Belton Hills like a torch in the night. 

“Never Never Land” – refers to the now obliterated theme park attraction on the cliffs where as a kid you could follow a path around dioramas depicting magical worlds. They had the entire collection of He-Man toys displayed in one case which seriously impressed me in the late 1980s. The only remnants of it now is a large fairy castle complex which rises out of the shrub. 

“Fantasy Land/ Waxworks” – Another abandoned theme park that was locally famous for having a waxwork of a man being carved in two by a swinging blade. It was the wonder of Southend when I was young.

Midnight Movies:

I walk around the streets of Southend and its suburbs at night. It’s a sprawling network of suburbia with each part having its own unique character. In the summer the seafront is alive with people and in the 1990s boys used to descend with their souped up cars and bumper kiss each other as they slowly went around the loop of the esplanade. It used to feel so dangerous driving down there with my dad when we were kids to drop relatives off on the other side of town.

“Bumper Kissing” – trying to touch your car’s bumper with another while slowly making your way down the seafront in a queue of other highly altered cars. 

“The Braken” – In Leigh-on-Sea, leading from the train station across the hill towards Hadleigh Castle are thick bramble and blackberry hedges, sprawling wild. As kids we called this ‘The Braken’ and was where we built our secret dens and the like. In this song I enjoyed name dropping it. 

Soft White Belly 

This song references a number of personal local experiences. The old lady referred to at the beginning was someone I had observed back in 2014. She had stood in an empty arcade in the off season and with a small plastic tub of pennies she was methodically feeding the ‘tuppenny shoves’. It looked like an Edward Hopper painting, something comforting and tragic in the same moment. 

On the opposite shore to Southend is the Hoo Peninsula and the Isle of Grain in Kent. It is dotted with vast silos and chimneys which have been a constant backdrop to my living here. In 2016 they demolished the power station chimney on the Isle of Grain using explosives. Everyone came out to watch and people sat on the hills with champagne and gramophones like the Queen was about to visit. I watched it with my friend Lucy Farrell and we subsequently wrote a song about it called ‘Explosion Day’.

“Tuppenny Shoves” – The glorious term coined (excuse the pun) by the legendary local comedic poet Simon Blackman to describe those games machines where you launch pennies onto moving trays in the hope that once accumulated they will push the cuddly toy or poor quality watch into the receiving hatch. 

“The Casino” – The Westcliff Casino sits on the foreshore and is a vast lit up plexiglass and steel cube. Open until the early hours it is the go to place for the 1am nightcap. London biographer Iain Sinclair referred to Southend as ‘Casino City’. 

“Ship Full of Bombs” – Refers to the SS Richard Montgomery which grounded off Southend in 1944. It is packed full of explosives and is cordoned off by the MOD in the middle of the Thames. A local radio station if named after it – they have some great specialist shows, check them out. www.sfob.co.uk

Clifftown

Southend is a place where kids grow up and then 90% of them flee for London after working the menial jobs at the co-ops and curry houses. They then return to raise their own kids here. It’s the natural cycle like salmon swimming upstream. Southend is also a commuter town where the commuters have their own code and community. You become friends with people without saying a word to them simply because you both get on the same carriage at 7.38am from Leigh Station every day for the last eight years. 

Southend links direct into Fenchurch Street, which is overlooked by the Tower of London, and when you leave the City at night the Tower is lit up (ominously I think) just to remind you that there were once kings who would kill and maim all sorts of men, women and children within those walls. Anne Boleyn grew up near Southend in Rochford. The Boylen residence is still there and is now converted flats (expensive ones) and a golf club. 

“Southend Airport”   This is where all the planes are flying from and to in the song. Neil Young shipped his 1930s Rolls Royce from the airport in 1974 and then stayed in Westcliff for a day or two (see my song ‘Westcliff’). They also shot the airport scenes in Goldfinger here. 

Nights at the Aquarium 

All seaside towns have an aquarium. Southend’s aquarium sits at the east end of the seafront. It emits salty mudflat smells and is usually full of excited and noisy kids. The cafe has porthole windows and it’s nice to sit there at weekends and pretend you’re out at sea. 

“The Three Shells Restaurant” – is a cafe on the seafront where you can go for all your candy floss, donuts (as spelt), hot drinks, buckets, spades and ice cream. It has an iconic roof shaped like three clam shells. For great coffee try Roberto’s a little further near the casino. A favourite haunt of mine and Paul Ambrose who plays bass on the record. 

Icy Paw

Kids jump off the quays and jetties in Old Leigh during the summer. It’s a dangerous pastime as many harbour stumps and fishing detritus lie just beneath the water.  I was thinking of the jetty on Canvey island when writing this song. It’s a huge finger pointing out to sea and was used for pumping oil into the nearby Shellhaven. Local heroes Dr Feelgood named their debut album after it and sang about the oil refinery, its flames burning in the night: ‘I’m going down by the jetty/ Tonight the tide is high/ It’s tankers in the channel laying/Flames up in the sky’

The heron who flies from the gables is a nod to the local heron who I watch from my living room window. He comes when the Prittle Brook is high.

“Prittle Brook” – The Prittlewell Brook is a stream that winds all the way through the suburbs and courses about seventy metres from my house. It’s named after the medieval village of Prittewell, which was the big smoke here until Southend developed in the 1900s. Two blocks away from my house, in 1926, they found bronze aged offerings buried in its banks.

The Slow Decline 

This song starts in Peter Pan’s Playground where there is a small stage under the rollercoaster. Presenters take to this stage in the summer and over blaring music they pump the children up into fairground ecstasy.

The man dying on the headlines was a catch all phrase I read when I was in my early twenties, scribbled on an A board outside the newsagents. The seafront used to have lots of first floor nightclubs – Mr B’s, Bar Bluu and the legendary TOTS (Talk of the South) where I heard once, during dropped conversation, the owner had boasted in the 1970s he had secured an appearance by Elvis (it never materialised of course). The man in the song had fallen (or was thrown) from one of the nightclub windows. There’s an undercurrent of East End gangster here and they made a film called ‘Essex Boys’ about the Rettendon Turnpike Murders. Less said about that…..

Southend has a superb homeless charity and sadly in the summer months, some years back, homeless people were making makeshift camps on ‘the cliffs’. I reference them here standing under the Arches, which is a nod to the row of beachside cafes which are housed in the arches under the road that leads up the cliff. It’s referred to locally as the Essex Riviera in July and August.

“The Cliffs” – can refer to the grassy upland between the Cliff Lift and the Pier/ Never Never Land. It can also mean the Cliffs Pavilion which is a concert hall where I once saw Willie Nelson play. 

Simon Of Sudbury 

Simon of Sudbury was the Archbishop of Canterbury during what was commonly known as the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381. The revolt was largely led and instigated by the men of Essex and Kent and was ignited when people in nearby Corringham, Stanford Le Hope and Brentwood (now famous for TOWIE) refused to pay a poll tax. Wat Tyler was potentially from Basildon and after Simon of Sudbury was beheaded by the rebels the revolt was suppressed with Tyler’s murder at Smithfield and the subsequent Battle of Billericay. Simon’s head was saved from the spike and kept in a church in Sudbury where it still sits. This song is about my quest to find it. 

Fan of the Band

Southend was once packed full of venues where music was played most evenings. The current go to music pub is The Railway Hotel but here are some others (RIP) that were special for me and many others:

The Ship, Leigh-on-Sea: I’ve played here more than most other places I reckon. The Pink Flamingo Club used to be held here every month and it used to attract musicians from all over the world. It’s currently boarded up. 

Bar Lambs, Westcliff-on-Sea: Famous for having giant piano keys painted on the floor this basement bar was odd but special. Not currently open to the public. 

The Grand, Leigh-on-Sea: Packed full of musical and entertainment heritage. Four bars with an upstairs room where all the Southend pub rock bands played in the 1970s, Dr Feelgood, Eddie and the Hot Rods etc. Lee Brilleaux’s local boozer and also where Frankie Howerd performed stand up when stationed in the nearby barracks in Shoebury during or just after the war. Currently closed being turned into flats. 

Night Worker 

I could write a whole album worth of songs about the things I’ve seen on commuter trains; it’s human life in microcosm and there’s distinct comradeship among those who find themselves on those busy trains that mark the very beginning and end of the day.

When I first began gigging in London I often found myself running down Fenchurch Street for the last train home. The cabbies would always be there having a smoke and waiting for those who missed it so they could get a fare for the way home. The City is gloriously empty at night and in the foyers of the huge glass towers of insurance companies and banks you will often see lonesome security guards whiling away the night.

“Neptune, high on your wall”: The Neptune refers to the vast building that is known as 10 Trinity Square just off Fenchurch Street. Once the home of the Port of London Authority. A figure stands proud on the ramparts surrounded by clam shells and pointing out towards the River Thames and the world. 

“Drunk girl, Leaving too soon”/“The Vomit Comet”The term affectionately used for the last train home to Southend from London Fenchurch Street at weekends, which is often full of drunken revellers, tired shift workers and party girls. Imagine a house party on a train carriage with people rolling down the aisles, lovers’ tiffs, boys shouting tall stories and generally missing their stops. Those who don’t want to participate can be found staring intently out of the train window with earphones on. Multiply atmosphere and intensity by 100% at Christmas and bank holidays.

Pilate

“The Mermaid under Carnival Lights” – In victorian times some travelling carnivals would display wonders of the sea including real life bodies of mermaids which were often remnants of fish and monkeys stitched together to make a grotesque mannequin of a dead mermaid. The lyric refers to these seaside carnival grotesqueries. 

The Clifftown Podcast – Hidden Histories

I was sitting at a kitchen table in Sheffield with my friend (and the producer of my new album) Andy Bell. It was a washed out late summer day in-between the various lockdowns we had all been weathering in 2020. The rain was falling heavy on the garden and a squally breeze was ruffling the flower beds. I had come up to spend some time with him and generally talk about how we were going to get people into the album (which is called ‘Clifftown’ by the way and was born out of a desire I had for some years to articulate my experiences in my hometown, the seaside suburbia that is Southend-on-Sea). 

“You should make a podcast about all the stories and characters” Andy said, or something to that effect. He’d visited me numerous times and knew how colourful an area it was. Inside I recoiled – the thought of interviewing people I knew about the things that went unsaid between us felt like prying, or worse making something grandiose out of the ordinary. But, I said I would try. I drove home days later plotting how I could pull this off…and then thought became research and I sent a few emails to people and some of these turned into interviews and then it happened, The Clifftown Podcast.

I wracked my brains for themes and ideas that wouldn’t be too obvious that would be interesting not just for me but others too. I kept circling back to the hidden histories and tall tales I had heard growing up here, romantic tales of smugglers and fleeing royalty and the grittier (but equally compelling) tales we heard from the old boys that used to prop up the bar in the Grand Hotel, stories of petty criminals trying to kill cows near Hadleigh Castle in order to sell the meat illegally but being so drunk they ended up shooting crossbow bolts into a tractor mistaking  it for a sleeping Frisian. I’m obsessed with finding traces of past lives so this topic felt like a good place to start – I felt comfortable with what I was talking about and it seemed apt to start at a point where the place existed but I did not. 

Brian Denny was an obvious choice for my first podcasting attempt. A naturally affable and warm man Brian is great for stories and local lore. Over the years we had regularly met to walk around the more desolate places of the county including the Dengie Peninsula (the site of one of the oldest  largely intact churches in England, St Peter’s by the Wall in Bradwell-on-Sea, built in the 690s by the patron saint of Essex, St. Cedd) and the shores near Canewdon trying to picture the Battle of Ashingdon, which took place nearby and where King Cnut was victorious over the Saxon king, Edmund Ironside. 

For the interview we met up in more anodyne surroundings on the edge of the suburban Highlands Estate in Leigh on Sea. We started talking straight away about the common myths of these parts – the highwayman Cutter Lynch and the Sea Witch Sarah Moore. In the podcast I gloss over the myth of Cutter Lynch simply because the wind ruined the quality of the recording. So, maybe it’s good summarise it here –

There’s a block of flats from the 1970s on the main London Road called Lapwater Court. In 1750 it was the site of a dilapidated and expansive residence called Leigh Park House. It was bought by a mysterious Mr Gilbert Craddock who subsequently visited the site and ordered renovations to take place. Towards the end of the renovations the local workmen were expecting, as was local custom, to receive ale from Mr Craddock for their work. Mr Craddock stated in no uncertain terms that if they wanted to drink rather than get their work finished they could ‘lap water’ from a nearby horse pond. His new house was dubbed locally as ‘Lapwater Hall’ and carries that moniker to this day. And what about Mr Craddock? Well, in some sort of karmic fate he was discovered to be the infamous highwayman Cutter Lynch who gave his earless horse, Brown Meg, prosthetic wax ears when holding up stage coaches to disguise his very unique and recognisable horse. He was shot by the Bow Street Runners near the house and died of blood loss and possible drowning in shallow water thick with reeds. [Source: ‘Legends of Leigh’ by Sheila Pitt-Stanley 1989, who gives a much more thrilling account] 

In the podcast Brian mentions a few times the character Goldspring Thompson in relation to the Nore Mutiny of 1797. Goldspring had supposedly escaped the mutiny when events looked like turning against the mutineers and I suppose he saw what retributions might be meted out to him and others if he stayed on board. His story of jumping overboard and hiding out in the reeds probably survives because he lived such a long life, dying in 1875, and no doubt he told his tale many times in the local pubs of the old town.

Thinking about the richness of these old stories about mutineers and highwayman around the old town of Leigh-on-Sea seem understandable to me when you think that nearly all of these tales derive from the late eighteenth century or nineteenth century; old enough to be mythic but young enough to be part of an oral tradition passed down through 4 or 5 generations.  Southend did not really exist in any extensive sense at this time, only growing in the later nineteenth century as the train line expanded eastwards from London and Leigh was the hub for boats from across the world. I think this explains the reason there are less tales of high adventure from Southend itself. 

The John Constable tale that forms mine and Brian’s quest in the podcast was one I had known for some time but there had been little attention on it. Constable had painted the nearby Hadleigh Castle, first in 1814 when he sketched it and then the actual painting in 1829. The Sketch resides in the Tate Gallery, London while you would have to visit the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conneticut to see the finished painting. I had read in several references that John had stayed with his uncle Thomas in Leigh-on-Sea when he came to make the sketches.

John Constable’s ‘Hadleigh Castle’ (1829) 

This didn’t seem far fetched at all so the hope was that finding some remains of the original Juniper’s Cottage would give us some spiritual closeness to it all. The day we chose to visit was in early December and without my gloves it became painful holding the recorder to capture our journey. You may be able to hear me gasping a bit as we walk and talk, it was that cold. I should have taken my warmer jacket.   

Juniper’s Cottage doesn’t exist any more and Brian later discovered through his research that it was mostly demolished in 1952 but you can see the rough shape of the building still. I tried to get a photo of the building that day and then subsequent days but it was always so busy and in winter lockdown it felt a place to steer away from. I managed to get the shot on the left in a very cold and bitter early January evening while to the right you can see how it looked, most likely in the 1930s or 40s. It was named after Joe Juniper who turned it into a fishmongers and tearoom some time in the nineteenth century. 

                            

People in Leigh are very proud of these stories and there’s lots more of them. The pirate’s grave  at St. Clement’s Church, the near death of Henry IV as he crossed the Thames to Leigh from the Isle of Sheppey during a storm and the oyster wars with the men of Kent in the early eighteenth century. These are not stories that define national identity or inform this island’s greater heritage, it’s parochial and light but what it does show is that there is a desire to keep these small events in the lives of those who lived here a couple of hundred years ago alive today and to keep a thread to an older, perhaps less cluttered, era in an area that is continually being developed and added to as the need for housing to accommodate the growing overspill of communities from London grows. The Government’s ‘Estuary 2050’ scheme plans to significantly develop this part of the Thames shore (and others) for housing and economic growth. 

This desire for a personal and local history that can be publicly owned and recounted by the community was very evident in the Joscelyne’s Beach story which I discussed with poets Jo Overfield and Ray Morgan. I worked in an independent bookshop in 2000 and remember Arthur Joscelyne’s daughter coming into the shop with the book. We sold lots and people would come in for years afterwards wanting copies. Those who bought it knew Arthur or his family and always wanted to impart to me their own experiences and memories of the beach and the area. 

I collected a lot of stories that way, listening to people in the bookshop and some made their way into my songs. For example, there was one elderly couple who came in with their son, Michael (who must have been in his fifties and suffered various health issues). They would recount stories about using the Medway Queen, a pleasure boat over in Kent and heading over to Margate from Southend Pier. Michael’s father was drowned in World War II. I thought  this incredibly sad and I recall they said something about the Captain in charge being a man called Boutwood. Having just looked it up I wonder whether his father died on the HMS Fantome which was mined in 1942 off Bizerte. It was this story that inspired my song ‘Night Water’ from the album, ‘The Water or the Wave’.

Sadly booksellers in Leigh-on-Sea have dwindled in recent years, although Leigh Gallery Books is a must for your secondhand needs. The personal and hidden histories remain however and there’s still more to uncover. With Clifftown I suppose I have laid my own little history down by these silver waters, maybe to be retold by the next person along. 

 

Tour Diary: Newark, New Jersey to Oxford, England: April 2012

Monday 2nd April 2012

Simone and I catch an overnight flight from Newark to London. Aurora is on a different flight and Art is taking a few more days in New York to meet with friends. Newark looks like a dark kingdom in the dusk, something akin to Mordor, all jagged towers and plumes of ominous smoke. We had returned from New York City on the Thursday, stopping briefly in a car park off the motorway in Poughkeepsie to drop an LP off for Nate (Conor Oberst’s manager and CEO of the Team Love record label). This was followed by a show in Woodstock on the Friday.

Over the weekend I had the barn to myself as Art had stayed in New York after our Mercury Lounge show. As a result I had let the fire in the stove die, a role that Art had fulfilled manfully during our time as barn mates. I recall the immense cold of the night, the pines sentinel outside while icy fingers reached into my soul. The next morning I awoke to a malady that I have since referred to as ‘barn fever’. I could not get warm, I had lost all appetite and it hurt to move my eyes. I spent a lost day huddled by the rekindled stove, Indian rug about my shoulders reading Julian Barnes’s ‘Arthur and George’.

It was with this growing fever that myself and Simone found ourselves in the departures lounge, me with this raging fever and Simone reading ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel and fielding emails on his phone. An Englishman sits alongside us and introduces himself as a friend of Jeremy’s. The English guy is pleasant and says he plays keys in a band called Brakes and was once in British Sea Power. He now lives in New Falls, New York. He makes an effort to light a conversation but I am barely keeping hold of my vital life signs and Simone is adrift on a sea of emails and administration.

I haven’t slept for at least twenty four hours and this is added to by the five hours fifty on the red eye to London. I don’t eat and drink little on the flight. I try to fall asleep in various positions but only manage some quiet shut eye when my head is resting on the seat in front. We arrive at Heathrow and are met by an eastern European chauffeur. He’s not big into talking or helping with our bags. We head for the flat of Simone’s literary agent and I manage to grab two hours rest on a mattress on the floor. I hope for the sweet and blissful release of sleep but I find I simply cannot drift off, which makes me feel worse than ever. I shuffle around the flat fearing that I may never eat or sleep again.

We get a cab to Portland Place. I buy a snickers bar and a Lucozade from a corner shop. They are the first foodstuffs through my mouth for at least two days. They taste sour. On arrival we are shown up to the Radio 2 studios. We set up. Bob Harris comes in soon after and shakes our hands. Simone heads off to the toilet leaving me with Bob in the studio; he behind the gargantuan radio console, me pale and confused with lap steel.

 

Bob is a very pleasant man and we chat about the numerous differences in language between English and American English. I want to say how much I admire him and that I used to listen to his show when I was a student, late on Saturday evenings but I can barely make any sense of my brain. Simone takes a considerable time deciding what songs to play and when he does, they are ones I haven’t played lap steel on or the keys have changed.  I look at my hands and ponder whether this will come off good or not. I am going to have to work hard. During the last song Bob leaves briefly to move his car so as to avoid getting a parking ticket- I thought the BBC would have a secret car park somewhere for the likes of Whispering Bob.

The recording is hit and miss. I look up to the producer, PR rep and label man in the control booth. They put thumbs up so I accept it as OK. We walk out into the corridor. I glimpse Steve Wright’s shoulder through a door as he broadcasts his afternoon show. He looks a big guy.  All I can think of is home and bed and the few days rest I am going to get. I manage to navigate London for home and that night the fever breaks after a marathon fourteen hour sleep. I am a new man by morning.

Friday 6th April 2012

Jack picks me up early, having driven from the Gower at dawn. Our first stop is Heathrow to pick up Simone and Simi from the airport and then onto the old capital of England, Winchester. At the venue, The Railway, I instantly feel at home mainly because I have played there so many times before with the Lucky Strikes. Oliver is the promoter and our host. He does an excellent job of both and looks after us. The Railway is decked out with plastic seagulls and homemade portholes – a theme for a club night later on. The gig is good and we stay at Oliver’s house, eating cheese and putting away a prodigious amount of whiskey and coke. Oliver and I talk a lot about the Southend music scene and Dr. Feelgood. We retire late.

Saturday 7th April 2012

The next day is very relaxing and  we are taken on a countryside walk into Winchester via a route starting at Twyford and then across to St Katherine’s Hill, which affords us views of the cathedral and its associated ‘hospital’, where the pious practitioners of the Middle Ages would offer free sustenance to poor and needy travellers. Word is that you can still get a portion of beer and cheese there. At the top of the hill, through a dense copse of trees, there is a ground level maze. The grooves seem to have been worn over centuries and the information board links it to an assize ritual of a bygone age.

We follow the path down across a field arriving at a church where we sit under an ancient tree for a while, its sprawling branches providing us with shade. We follow the river Itchen (which Oliver tells us is one of the clearest waterways in Europe on account of its short length) and play ‘pooh sticks’, which is a game enshrined by A A Milne in Winnie the Pooh whereby you pick a stick, drop it on the flowing water from a bridge and then race to the other side of the bridge to see whose stick is fastest. Simone and Jack are the most excited to start this game and it releases the inner boys in them. It ends with them swinging from a rope above the water further along the path.

We arrive in Winchester feeling exercised but spoil it all by eating pastries in a deli that sits across from the cathedral and is owned by TV chef James Martin. The day is fine and crowds mill about the terrace outside the cathedral. The building itself is subsiding and we walk its perimeter, through the herb garden and around the buttresses. We have no time or money to spare to go inside. So, with bellies full and legs stretched we leave Winchester to its sweet waterways and cobblestones. As we try to find the route to the motorway we find ourselves driving straight towards the giant statue of Alfred the Great, sword brandished in one hand. I wasn’t expecting it to be so large. Simone jokes about pledging one hundred Catskill swords to him.

Our next stop is Oxford, which today is fairly unremarkable although strangely I feel close to home and untroubled. The venue is a wine bar come pub. The gig is the best so far with the band in light and comedic mood. I even get chance to catch up on my reading. We stay in a Travelodge near Oxford. As all travelling musicians know, there is a degree of order about hotels. Travelodges are OK but Premier Inns are the next step up. Beyond that, you’re kings of the road.

Tour Diary: Stockholm and Uppsala, February 2018

3.45am, 16th February 2018. I’ve been unable to sleep and have been awake for twenty one hours. I’m outside my flat leaning on the front wall. A badger bundles down the street away from me, a cat arches in surprise when it rounds the corner. This is not a time for men. It’s cold and the neighbourhood is hallowed quiet, the deepest of dark starts. I’m travelling light; a change of clothes, a novel (a Tudor whodunit), notebook, comb, toothbrush and passport. 

Will’s car glides down the road. He moves fast. I picture him barely fifteen minutes earlier cutting through the suburbs of Westcliff to pick up Dave and then over the main road past Chalkwell Park (empty of dog walkers at this time) and along the seafront to Paul’s flat; then the three will go up and over the railway track and turn back on themselves to my place. Everyone is bleary eyed but excited for the journey ahead as we cut through Essex countryside to Stansted Airport. Yesterday Paul crushed the index finger of his fretting hand in a car park barrier so we inspect it on the shuttle bus into the terminal; it’s twice the size of its right hand counterpart and is black and oozing.

Hours later we enter Stockholm over a bridge. The city, spread across a series of islands divided by frozen lakes and tributaries, hosts no high rise leaving the sky wide and inviting. All the buildings have Art Nouveau style balconies and are mustard yellow or peach in colour. We take a short walk from Citytermalin to T-Centralin train terminal where we take the escalator down to a plush shopping mall style concourse. This is the main station – no-one rushes and there is a sense of calm even in the busyness. King’s Cross it is not. The Metro, green line heading south Hawk had said, any train going to Hågstra, Skårnpack or Farsta Strand. Four stops to Skanstull – count them off – Gamla Slan, Slussen and Medborgarplatsen. 

Then we are up and out onto the wide open street. Snow is falling in big flakes but it does not feel cold. The city seems alive, I feel alive.

In Hawk and Sofia’s apartment we eat chocolates and strong coffee. I feel elated to have arrived at our destination, safe to be directed and organised by a native. We’re all too exhausted to go out, it is just enough to look out the window (being warmed by the radiator) and watch the Stockholm afternoon go by. The street is a wide boulevard, cars swing past with their wipers on, people are going about their daily lives, it’s the same as home over a thousand miles away. I’m a time traveller. I get lost in the busy vignette. 

Stage time 10.15pm, I’ve been awake forty hours. My body feels wrecked, Paul with his crushed finger is screaming behind me every time he forgets and uses his mushed digit on the fret board. We are collectively medicated by booze, caffeine or pain killer. Words hang in my brain my mouth just a fraction slower to get them out. People dance and people have fun. We finish and drink ourselves stupid.

Amongst the pounding music of Oasis and Dave loudly ordering beer after shot after beer I fall into conversation with a man who quietly exclaims, ’Why? That is the question of the artist and you must keep asking it for everything as you get older, why? Why?’, he pauses and looks to his wife, ‘The blood must continue to be heated even as you get older. The blood doesn’t have to boil necessarily. It is not always about passion but the growing companionship between a man and a woman’. It made sense to me in my inebriated state.

4am: back at the apartment and we are still talking with Hawk and Sofia about social media, the show and the state of Swedish and British politics, something about their king stuffing a microphone down his throat at a university presentation while drunk. There’s one bed and Dave is too big for us both to share. I try to sleep on the parquet floor but my head is full of bad dreams and I wake before 9am my hip and ribs burn from the tiles. Coffee.

Saturday is the day for exploring. Ann and Hasse have offered to show us the town so we walk to the very edge of the island we are on and from a snowy peak we survey the black tiled roofs of Stockholm, the yellow and orange plaster of the old town and Knight’s Island. The Stockholm Concert Hall where the Nobel Prize is awarded stands proud on the bank south of us.  A walk along a tow path and into the streets again for a coffee at Tårtan where we are told a famous comedy sitcom about retired sailors was filmed. Our Swedish companions are chewing tobacco gum called Snus. I respectfully decline. 

Back to Hawk’s flat before the tube and double decker train to Uppsala. Forty minutes through snowy hinterland. The cold feels bitter here and we leave the square brick train terminal following a wide boulevard and along a canal towards the HiJazz Club. Away from the station Uppsala seems empty of life, snowflakes occasionally fall, the wind slight but biting. Doors closed, curtains shut.  We stand outside the club, barred windows, the crunch of snow under foot, everyone’s face wrapped up silent and focused on getting into the warm.

Jilal the owner of the club cycles towards us and opens up. Inside the bar is small, shop like, with a small counter serving bottled beers and an array of CDs stacked on shelves. We are directed to an English themed restaurant/pub called Sherlock’s for dinner. The pub is dark with anaglyptic wallpaper and nestled amongst tower blocks. It reminds me of parts of east London. Fairy lights hang off most balconies, their pre-set patterns twinkling on and off being the only signs of life. It’s quiet, a commuter suburb deep in the delight of a Saturday night in. I am later told by a member of the audience that there is a Eurovision heat on and the Swedes take their Eurovision very seriously so were all most likely glued to their TV screens.

The show is good, a massive challenge physically, but a few students dance towards the end. I feel sad that we are leaving tomorrow, leaving the Plastic Pals who we have only just started to know. We’re all tired, Will and Paul especially. They sit in the front row hollowed and empty. The gig gets them back into the land of the living though.

Post show we return along the canal to the boulevard and the station which is thronging with young people heading back to Stockholm. Boys with tails and white bow ties, medals pinned to their jackets. They are too young for the military. It’s a tiring journey back to Hawk’s place and another late night.

 

Rolfe, Sofia’s Boston terrier meets us back at the flat. By 3am he is prized from his bed in the living room and relocated elsewhere so that we can sleep in peace. Another night on the parquet floor for me. Hours later I find myself staring directly into Rolfe’s eyes. In the pale morning light he has liberated himself from another room to find me using his bed for a pillow. Sorry Rolfe. An hour’s sleep at most before Dave’s alarm goes off. I feel neither alive nor dead. I am in the in between. And so, with a note to Hawk and Sofia hastily written saying heartfelt thanks and love, we creep out of the flat and into a bright Stockholm morning.

Tour Diary: Woodstock, New York – Toronto, Canada, March 2012

Wednesday 21st March 2012

Today is our first day in Woodstock, New York state, which is about a twenty minute drive from Palenville where we are staying. We follow winding roads with dense pine forest on either side which lead into a typical American pastoral town with a broadway and white timbered square steepled church. Simone heads to the chiropractor while Simi takes us on the grand tour. Our first stop is a thrift store, heavy on tie dye and overpriced curios (a standard Alice Cooper CD mounted in a frame for $99!). I purchase a sepia print of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young circa 1970, Neil finger shooting the cameraman. 

We head to a cafe called ‘The Garden Kitchen’. The heat of the day is intense and someone suggests an ice cream outside the church. Built in 1799 the church is now  the Artists’ Museum but all hope of taking in the much publicised folk art is dashed – it’s shut on Wednesdays. We grab a coffee instead and sit on a bench out the front. Simi gets chatting to her friend Alison, who happens by in her car. As they talk a police man drives up and asks whether we have been smoking too close to the museum because the internal fire alarm has gone off. He seems a pleasant enough cop and we chat and laugh with him as he inspects the museum.

Simone comes to collect us and we visit Jessie’s childware shop. It is stuffed full of knitted characters and hand puppets, scarves and jerkins. We sit outside in the sun eating food and drinking root beer. Next to Jessie’s is a T-shirt shop selling Woodstock memorabilia, mainly Grateful Dead T-shirts in luminous tie dye. As we sit a man in his late fifties, skinny and shirtless, his dirty jeans hanging off his pelvic bones jumps across the shrubbery at the front of the shop. He jumps from kerb to kerb, swinging from a shop awning. He looks manically around the road before walking off hugging close to the picket fence of the T-Shirt shop. Simone looks at me wryly. ‘Welcome to Woodstock’. Directly opposite Jessie’s shop is a white building which was once Bob Dylan’s house but now houses some sort of photographic exhibition. A cut out of Nashville Skyline era Dylan pouts in the dark recess of one of the windows. 

Walking back to the car we see a man on a mobility scooter, dirty looking with a great white beard that flows to his waist. ‘That’s Rocky’, Simi says anecdotally, ‘He’s one of Woodstock’s great characters. He used to dress up in high heels and lipstick and go by the name of Roxanne’. We head back home and rehearse more. We play a new version of ‘Helpless’ for Jessie and Pearl and we end the day with dinner and Simone thanking the great spirit for us visiting and sharing their home. Tomorrow we head for Canada for ‘Canada Music Week’.

Thursday 22nd March 2012

We get up early to try and make some miles on the road, heading up towards the Canada/US border. We move up through New York State, brown fields and tall pines for mile after mile. We drive through a town called Middleburgh, which I can only describe as a truly pretty American town with hacienda style porches and vacant rocking chairs sitting below American flags hanging limp in the morning sun. Up through Schoharie and Seneca Falls following onto Buffalo. We head across the border, stopping only briefly for the border control to scrutinise our faces. I am disappointed to find the immediate Canadian landscape exactly the same as the American hinterland we have just left behind; large mall outlets and manufacturing plants.

We eventually arrive in Toronto at around 3pm. It is a lovely clean city and we enter along the harbour road where people are running and cycling in the unseasonably hot day. It is like the city has come out in bloom just for us.

Toronto captures my heart with its brownstone buildings and fairy lights absolutely everywhere. The cafes and bars are full with people drinking and laughing. I feel like I am on holiday. There is a small town feeling about the place, as if we were not in a big city at all. The shops range from the vintage and thrifty to Hugo Boss and Prada. There does not seem to be a rundown area in the whole city as we go through Chinatown, Little Italy, the Greek Quarter and Korea Town. Our first stop is an instore at Sonic Boom which has to be one of the largest record shops in the world.

We are led ‘backstage’ into the stock room by Rob, a long haired and mild mannered member of staff. He’s sweating heavily and when I say that I am struggling with the heat, he rolls his eyes, ‘tell me about it, dude’. We’re cut from the same cloth. In the stock room there is Steaming Whistle beer, water and pizza waiting for us. 

Arthur and me hang by the pizzas like good soldiers when there is a burst of activity in the corridor immediately leading off of the small room.  A diminutive Martha Wainwright walks in along with assistants and a camera man. There’s barely enough room to swing a cat. Martha looks over at me and Art loitering by the pizza boxes and comes over. Effusively warm and welcoming she introduces herself. Pizza and chat with Martha reaching a natural conclusion I linger around the CD racks waiting for her set. She unassumingly comes on stage and plays one of the most captivating and beautiful solo shows I’ve ever witnessed…to around twenty people. It’s incredible.

I love hanging around Sonic Boom and the band that follow us (the Great Bloomers) are talkative guys, although we have difficulty establishing I live in England and not Toronto. They can’t quite get that I have travelled all that way for an instore.

Post show we walk around the immediate town. We meet Aurora’s friend Basia Bulat over lunch. Afterwards we head to Dine Alone Records HQ where we film two songs. The guys doing the filming and sound (Eason and JP) are really nice guys and put us at ease, despite the fact I am tired and a little grumpy by this point of the day. We finish around 9.30pm and head to legendary Pho Kung’s which is a Vietnamese restaurant everyone is raving about. It is shut so we settle for King’s Noodle Bar in Chinatown. The wonton soup with duck and dumplings is tasty.

Friday 23rd March 2012

I have a lazy start to the day and we spend the morning at Peter’s eating macaroni cheese and beef and talking about a range of topics from Canadian politics to the Royal Ontario Museum and the expensive shops in Yorkville. Myself and Arthur are itching to get out and see the city. We go to pick Simi and Simone up, who have stayed with a hairdressing friend of Simi’s. We spend most of the afternoon in a cafe, which is insanely hip and I have the strongest cappuccino I’ve had in a long time. I inform the barista that it’s the first coffee I’ve had in weeks, ‘Jesus man’, he replies, ‘do you need a cigarette after that?’

Tour Diary: North Yorkshire – Teeside – Leeds, October 2019

There is a suburban rural delight to Great Ayton, a paradox of semi-detached houses set amongst green grey mountains. Cottages and stone bridges. The first show is at the Velveteen Rabbit Luncheon Club, diners eat their starters and mains before heading down into the basement for my first set. People sit in respectful silence, some doze, others are drunk.  Dessert upstairs and then a shortened second set where the audience has dwindled and the sleepy eyes of those who remain tell of some fine food and drink consumed and the cosy friendship found in a Saturday evening meal. My billet is the spare room in Elaine Palmer’s house, it’s a room where I strangely sleep best. The enveloping mattress combined with the clean paint and angular corners relax my mind.  The next day I get out of bed about 9am – unprecedented for me.

We weave our way across the North Yorkshire Moors to Lastingham. Mist draws heavy and thick across the road. Pilgrim crosses of sedimentary rock  stand like ghostly figures to the side, abstract monoliths of stone jut out from the ground further into the bracken (it’s impossible to tell if they are ancient or modern from the warmth of this speeding car), sheep with their heads down chew industriously and oblivious on the short grass. The autumnal weather is perfect for our arrival at the Butcher’s Arms and the ensuing roast dinner. We explore the church opposite after our lunch. A celebration of the northern saints is emblazoned on portable triptychs explaining the roles of Patrick, Cedd, Chad, Aiden, Columba and Cuthbert. The tenth century crypt is peaceful and illuminated by the flicker of votive candles. I find the cold ruins of what can classically be described as Celtic crosses, Saxon in design but suggestive of a Viking acceptance. The remnants of a huge Celtic Cross sits against an ancient funeral bier and it is vast, greater than the span of my arms outstretched. I am struck with an earthy and primal feeling, I think of the moors we have just crossed, the damp and the cold; I think of Cedd leaving Lastingham for the coast and his sea journey to Bradwell in Essex and his church that still stands there, built on top of a Roman fort purloined by the pirate Carausius centuries before, so many histories interconnected and woven into place.

A dash back across the moors to Middlesbrough. Elaine drives us through Marton into the city centre where kids congregate around police cars in empty petrol station forecourts. The rain is persistent and heavy and it’s dark. The lights from the University of Teesside logo splash briefly onto the Westgarth Social Club. Reminiscent of a Russian doll we enter into a small atrium and walk up a set of stairs into a dark and empty social club before walking up a narrower set of stairs into an attic bedecked with fairy lights, books and bunting. The collective that is Spooker Rekkids have created a transcendental space, it’s a beautiful dream and reflects what can be done when people want to create with their communities. I warm the room up for Elaine who plays her best.

I sleep well again and am disturbed in the morning by the rag and bone man walking down the street calling out. At first I think he is mentally ill until it is explained to me that he walks an alert around the neighbourhood before the van shows up. In Essex they simply ring a bell as they drive around the streets.

I have a whole day to kill before I need to be in Leeds. First stop is Stokesley in the Ridings of Yorkshire. I exhaust what the market town has to offer in less than two hours. I drink a costa coffee and read my book, the barista keen to chat and find out my story.  I mooch around a couple of charity shops, James Herriot is branded here and there. Everyone in the street is older than me by twenty years or more, I pick up on the rhythm of the day here in Stokesley. A half an hour drive and I enter Boroughbridge, skirting Thirsk in favour of a battle site. I have recently read a book on Roger Mortimer, the First Earl of March in which the Battle of Boroughbridge was mentioned. Edward II faced the Earl of Lancaster at the Bridge here and the grim detail of the Earl of Hereford being stabbed in the anus by a Welshman with a halberd from underneath the bridge is forefront in my mind as I watch the River Ure tumble and froth below me. It’s raining heavy but I linger on the bridge,  a retirement home sits on the banks, elderly ladies in the warmth are being served tea by a blue jerkined carer.

I move further into the high street. People aren’t smiling and the elderly man in the tourist office, some form of sarcoma on his temple, looks wary when I offer my surprise that there is a Roman fort here in Boroughbridge too. “This is Yorkshire”, he says without a hint of humour, “we have everything”. He does point me in the direction of three ancient stones (2700 BC) called the Devil’s Arrows. I head off and am met with a bewildered non-committal response by the local butcher when I enquire if I am near them. “I don’t know what they are” he says. The sausage roll is excellent however. Five minutes’ walk from the butcher, in a claggy field by the motorway, stand three obelisk like stones with deep striated grooves. Two of the stones stand barely a hundred metres from a new housing development proclaiming 3, 4 and 5 bedroom houses. The contrast flaws me, the most ancient against the most modern, never have I felt so in the present. I kick around Boroughbridge a little longer, the café I sit in is silent and there are stern faces all around. The rain gets heavier, the atmosphere more claustrophobic. It’s liberating to leave.

I fritter another two hours in the car park at Weatherby Services reading a magazine. For once the journey into Leeds is easy and I sit in my car waiting for the ticket machine to turn over to 6pm for cheap parking. I’m in the gay quarter and I watch a drag queen cross the road in a silver sequined dress with a foot high purple beehive. This place is frenetic and the energy constant. A Monday night in Leeds, wilder than most weekends in Southend for sure. The show at Oporto goes OK. It’s muted in the performance space, the opening act struggling with a dead guitar, the second act equally struggling with a dead lead while the bar area is alive with the loud chatter of students on the Monday night lash. My friend Tre turns up to take me home and I nearly drive us both into oncoming traffic by jumping a red light I didn’t see.

I sleep terribly, I fall asleep around 2am only to be woken at 3.41am and there I lay in state listening to the neighbour shut the side door of his van at 4.09am and drive off to wherever. The white noise of traffic becomes busier around 5am and I swear someone puts their wheelie bin out around the same time, there is no other explanation for the thud I hear and which draws me to the window to check my car is OK. At 6am a dog walker with thick West Yorkshire accent harshly whispers below the window to his errant dog, ‘git here, cumon’. So many thoughts turn over in these hours and in these strange rooms. The next morning is a struggle and after a cooked breakfast at Enzo’s with Tre, bleary and tired, I punch through the ring road of Leeds and into the country below.

Tour Diary: Newport and Glastonbury – May 2019

Light drizzle accompanies us out of Giant Wafer studios, down the gentle hill and across the tiny stone bridge of Llanbadarn Fynydd into the real world once more. I have just spent the last five days recording a new album, the first since 2015 and I feel equal measure of jubilation that it is finished and pure exhaustion. Paul is with me and two months ago it didn’t seem a bad decision to tag two dates in Newport and Glastonbury onto the end of the recording. We follow the road through densely green fields and enter valleys of equally verdant nature, the drizzle enhancing the fresh loam smell you get this time of year. We’re hanging out for a coffee and we drive through the picturesque towns of Llandrindod Wells and Builth Wells, a local butcher offering a home kill butchering service, the roads busy enough to be considered bustling in this part of the world, sleepy in most others. We don’t want to leave the guitars in the car and it barely takes a few minutes to drive through each town. On the road to Abergavenny we buckle and stop in the road side tea room of Mynydd Ddu. The café turns in unison when we enter and we instantly feel under scrutiny, the kind you get in places where they don’t see much through traffic. The ladies behind the till are friendly and refilled with coffee and the sweetest of brownies we skirt the boundaries of Abergavenny into Newport.

The show is lightly attended, Chelsea are playing Arsenal in a football final and it seems to have everyone’s attention.  The Tiny Rebel tap room where we eat pizza is gearing up for the big game and it’s testament to Paul’s professionalism that as a Chelsea fan he’s happy to be away from it. It’s great to see our friends at the show and Matt from Diverse Records always puts on a nice gig. A few technical difficulties and we don’t overplay. Back at our friends Tim and Dawn’s house we eat more Pizza and I sleep the best I have slept for a week.

Tim, ever the host takes us to Tredegar House the next day and we mooch about the grounds. We hear how this used to be the estate of the Morgans, one of whom was a famous pirate. The motorways drone in the near distance. We have coffee and browse a second hand bookshop. We leave Tim and Dawn and head for the Severn Bridge and it’s a pleasant and sunny drive to Glastonbury. It feels like we’re returning to an old friend as we take the back route through sleepy hamlets and straight country roads towards the Tor which stands proud on the skyline.

We are soon crashing out in the family room the Hawthorns Hotel have provided. I feel empty and shattered and for once, in a long time, I crave to go home to my flat and shuffle about the kitchen making my own coffee and have my schedule to myself. It feels like an endurance test. We walk around Glastonbury just before sound check looking for a sausage roll for Paul. He’s got a craving but it’s late afternoon and we struggle to get a vegan pastry slice and an ice cream, which we eat outside the ruins of the abbey. It’s hot and sunny and a young girl walks past with a cheap guitar we watched her trying in the music shop further up the road. A young Indian man was trying to buy an electric guitar too using £50 notes, the owners being particularly suspect about their legitimacy. I detect their accusatory questions suggesting it’s fake money. The man is polite and I wonder if their hostility is even being picked up by him. We have coffee, it’s overpriced.

Back at the hotel we fall into talking with a man who calls himself ‘Sean of the Shed’ because he lives in a woman’s shed, which is a step from his former dodgy crime ridden campsite on the Mendips. He talks about the listed mansion house he is renovating including all the extra work they have to do because they have found a rare breed of bats in the barn. We’re soon joined by another guy who has recently returned from Rwanda. We talk briefly of the genocide there and having just read a recent article about the country I’m interested to hear if the Hutus have returned and there is a more acceptable peace there but he can’t really comment. He talks about fishermen singing in the dawn light but nothing of the horrors. Talk eventually, inevitably moves onto the earth’s chakras and we take our leave.

The gig goes well with a small but attentive audience. It’s good to see the regulars and catch up with Steve the butcher, who has now become a local parish councillor. We retire early for Glastonbury (by midnight) and are watching quiz shows on TV not soon after. We’re out on the road by 10am the next morning and it takes a gruelling six hours to drive home.

Recording Diary: Giant Wafer Studios, Llanbadarn Fynydd, May 2019

Trying to gather some thoughts about the recording of my new album is hard to do without making it too mundane (who wants to hear about the constant repetition of songs, tuning guitars, sitting on sofas waiting for the keyboard take to be done) or too technical (how we placed the microphones to get the sound of the floor toms right or the fact we moved the rotation ratio on my Lex Rotary effect just a little bit higher for that song). When you extract these things then you are not left with much.

It may be better to start with who was involved and that is key because six people fundamentally turned the songs I have written into something far deeper sounding, with intricacies and melodies that I didn’t have the musical lexicon to achieve on my own. At the foundation, on the drums, was the incredible talent Pete Flood. I met Pete as part of the Emily Portman Coracle Band back in 2016 when he handed me some wild garlic that had been growing in a car park in Oxfordshire and told me to eat it. Every morning after breakfast and coffee he would sit down with his charts and play these intricate rhythms that we would all follow with excitement. Paul Ambrose on bass knows all my songs back to front (even the ones we don’t play publically) and there is an organic feeling built over so many shows with him that he was an essential choice. Tom Lenthall played keys and sang. He’s been on my last two releases and he has that enviable ability to play  tastefully without over playing and whatever he does brings depth to the whole arrangement. His harmonies combined with Lizzy O’Connor’s make my soul rest back into my frame. He also does an incredible impression of Gollum! I have known Lizzy since we first met playing in the band Deer Park back in the early noughties. She’s an all-rounder superstar who fills in all the bits we’re missing from snare rhythms on ‘I Cannot Lie’ to grunge Guitar on ‘Fan of the Band’. She also knows where my vocal lines are going intuitively. Helen Bell from The Froe is a key part of the sound too adding string arrangements that are really different from the norm – she makes everything sound so classy. And finally, Andy Bell, producer and good friend managed the whole session. He coached all the performances you will hear, challenging the way we approached the songs as a band, hearing the whole as we all sat in our respective rooms listening to our own parts.

We recorded the songs in a studio just over the English-Welsh border in Llanbadarn Fynydd, Powys. Giant Wafer sits on a gentle hill above the village and you access it via a small stone bridge barely the width of a car. The control room backs out onto a small holding with chickens (the cockerel taking pleasure I am sure in waking us every morning around 5am) and horses. I can write about the gear and the rooms but suffice to say it’s remote and is the perfect bubble for me to focus on the job at hand. A few people wandered to the community shop across the river one day however I stayed in the studio for the full five days.

We recorded 15 songs overall, including two different versions of ‘Clifftown’, an up one and a down one. After a leisurely start we would track the main frame of the songs with live vocals and then add overdubs and then move on to the next. We averaged out about three a day and broke the whole thing up with tea breaks, lunch and general aping about which you need as a release from the intense concentration you must have during takes. The only significant challenge was  a song provisionally called ‘Come Back’. Andy felt we needed to make it different from the tumbling circus vibe we were labouring but nothing seemed to fit. We reluctantly abandoned it and it was only when we had a listen to some Joni Mitchell did we hook upon an idea based around Paul’s bass part. Thus it was born.

Recording finished around 8pm each night and following dinner we would head over to the barn opposite for late night sessions of pool. Andy, Paul and Tom were expert shunters while myself and Lizzy occupied the ‘merits for effort’ category. And those were our days, regular and productive. Towards the end of our week people started to drift away and it’s like a holiday, you never want it to end. Pete was the first to go, his drum parts all secured and then Tom and Helen shared a car home to Birmingham. Lizzy went early the last day and not long after myself and Paul gave one final wave to Andy before we all parted, we to Newport for a show, Andy to Hay on Wye.

Hopefully the album will be out in early 2020 and if you really want the technical detail then drop a message below!

Tour Diary: Eaglescliffe to Leeds – February 2019

There is something virtuous about early morning starts at the weekend. Sunday 17th February 2019 and I am on the road before 8am heading towards Great Ayton in North Yorkshire. I have a run of shows with my friend Elaine Palmer who is a singer songwriter based on the borders of North Yorkshire and Teeside. She is stuck on a train in Doncaster so I sit with her family eating soup and catching up; it seems an age since I was last here, although we reckon it was late summer last year.

Tonight’s gig is at a vegetarian restaurant called ‘The Waiting Room’, which is a stone’s throw away from Eaglescliffe train station. Yarm is not far away, a town which I recall is the home of Janick Gers from Iron Maiden. I wonder if he’ll come tonight? A knitting group sit in the corner industriously sewing knitted flowers onto baskets. They look Really intricate and beautiful. Elaine is joined by her cellist Harriet and we all sit and break bread with the most amazing food. The show goes as standard and I stand under the carousel binding that headers the stage. I feel a little rusty but I enjoy the feeling of playing to new people and I am soon falling into a bed exhausted.

I spend a leisurely morning the next day with Elaine, swapping stories and comparing notes before I am off and into Lincoln for a solo show. I cross the fens and get that famous view of Lincoln Cathedral sitting on its hill many miles before I enter the city. My satnav takes me through Denham on Trent and I pay 40p to cross the small toll bridge. I’m astounded they have it manned 24/7. One audience member that night tells me the farmer who owns it makes a killing and Christmas Day is the only day it is free.

I love Lincoln and have happy memories of visiting one hot summer day in 2003 with a group of friends when we were living in Sheffield. I recall sandwiches on the Castle green, a Cumbrian piper outside the Cathedral and Will Carr Straddling a cannon for a  cheap laugh. We gazed upon  Magna Carta that day but today it’s raining hard and straight so I flit between coffee shops. I am cornered by the owner of a second hand bookshop in the Jew’s House (the oldest house in the UK if I am right?). I innocently ask him what books he likes and he sets forth on a blow by blow account of Hannibal’s harrying and triumphs over the Romans. When I finally escape I peek into the Cathedral, which is covered in scaffolding, impressive as the stone work itself; if I could be so uncouth. I walk the perimeter trying to look at the masonry and gargoyles and come eyeball to eyeball with a young man sitting in a doorway. I sense he might be homeless but there is no obvious baggage or bedding and he doesn’t ask for any money. Just a menacing stare.

The show is in St. Mary’s Guildhall which I read was probably built for the purpose of housing Henry II’s winter crowning ceremonies of 1157. It’s a welcoming crowd and a beautiful setting.  James, one of the organisers, lives in the St. Giles district of the city and his 1920s house is set back from the road giving it a gloriously secluded and peaceful air. The next morning I drop him off at the train station before heading over the flatland once again towards the A46 and Newark. The sky is a magnificent blue and small planes wheel over me in as Smooth Radio pumps out the 80s ballads. It’s a moment of clarity and justification that I find rare these days.

Fast forward a few days and Elaine is in my neighbourhood for shows at the Fishermen’s Chapel in Leigh on Sea and The Harrison in London. The Leigh gig feels like a homecoming but I find it tiring being organiser, performer and promoter. Everyone seems to like the show so maybe I did my job OK. Likewise, in London, we do our own sound and I feel a sense of achievement in getting it right. Paul gives me a lift home and I feel pretty spent up.

Finally it’s another early start on Sunday 24th February. I certainly don’t feel as virtuous today. Lack of sleep that night makes me feel hollow and the fog is dense on the drive up to Leeds. I’m on a mission to visit the Battlefield at Towton, which is only twenty minutes from my venue tonight. Towton was one of the bloodiest and pivotal battles of the Wars of the Roses and the massacre of human life that took place is sobering. I wanted to feel that and although the sun came out in a glorious spring like fashion I struggled to find the site beyond the Crooked Billet pub. The area seemed poorly signposted and although I got to visit the now gone medieval village of Lead and walk around the fields I gave up and headed into the labyrinth that is Leeds city centre. A good feeling show at Oporto in the heart of the city, which is being hosted by a wonderful human and performer, B W Pike. A man asks me to lend him £100 at the parking meter, half-jokingly but half sincerely I think.

It’s sad to leave Elaine and I feel like we were just getting into the swing of things. It feels an anti-climax and these things always do. There’s never any balloon drop or wild after show send off, just the acknowledgement that you survived, you did OK and you need to get on and do some more. The pubs and clubs are busy with drunk students and shady track suited men, hoods up, poncing lighters off the street life. I weave home to my friend Tre’s house. She’s come from watching the Cup Final and is horrified at how Leeds city council prevents you from turning left at certain junctions when clearly that would help traffic flow massively. I can only agree.