Saturday, 31 January 2009

John Martyn - a personal memoir

As most of you will know by now from assorted news and blogs and what-not, noted singer-songwriter John Martyn has passed away. A colleague mentioned this to me on seeing the news and asked if I'd heard of him.

"Heard of him?" I retorted, "I've supported him."

And oddly, this statement turns out to be true. Let me reminisce a moment...

In 1990, I returned from my first two-year stint in Indonesia and was living in a series of crapulous bedsits in Oxford while justifying my pointless existence on the grounds that I was 'a graduate student'. I had just scraped together enough dosh to pay one year's fees at a college which I knew would have me (I knew and had played gigs with my prospective supervisor), and supported myself thewhiles by a fissile mixture of TEFL and semi-professional music. I was for a time in a band that played for 'drinks and tips' at a muso pub down Cowley Road, at 'folk evenings' MC-ed by a chap called Frank Underwood whom I had known on-and-off for a few years. The next few years saw me yo-yoing between Oxford and Central Java on 'fieldwork' (usually arranged by getting TEFL jobs at places desperate for native speakers).

Frank's main paying gigs at this period were as part of the duo 'Mortlock and Underwood', Mortlock being a folk fiddler of considerable skill and charisma. Alas, in a rock'n'roll style breakup Mortlock threw his fiddle down on stage in front of a large crowd, called Underwood a few unparliamentary things and stormed off, leaving U grinning desperately at the audience and saying "Yeah! Baroque'n'roll!"

He now had the problem of how to do gigs for which 'Mortlock and Underwood' were booked, and asked me to fill in as an ersatz Mortlock for a while.

Thus in summer 1993 I came to be on a beach at Hastings playing to an enormous crowd at a free festival, immediately before the headline act, which was - I'm getting there - John Martyn.

There had been many acts before us, over the period of about 4 hours; and free drink provided to performers throughout. This is often a mistake, and with a heroic drunk like Martyn it was quite disastrous. The man - genius though he may have been - could barely stand up through his set. I watched from the side of the stage, beer can in hand, willing him to get through the set. He just about did, but there was a palpable sense of "WTF?" among the crowd, hundreds of whom had come down from London and elsewhere specially to see JM perform. I think the people who appreciated it most were those as sloshed as he was.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Colonel of the month - January

One of the things that first drew me towards No Good Boyo as a connoisseur of the amusing (rather than the "certain diminutive evil Welchman" that one of my trainers warned me of on my first day in the same workplace) was our shared delight in the foibles of gloriously moustachioed military and colonial gentlemen. For those who share our passion, either currently or in the near future after reading this, I offer up a few highlights on one of my personal favourites: Colonel (later Major-General) David Graham Muschet "Soarer" Campbell of the 9th Lancers.

The nickname 'Soarer' comes from the horse he rode to victory in the 1896 Grand National. I first came across this delightful character in Richard Holmes's excellent book "Tommy - The British Soldier on the Western Front 1914-1918", in which Holmes quotes the medical officer who found Campbell lying in the long grass after charging into a superior force of German cavalry in September 1914. "I'm sorry to find you like this, sir" the medical officer recalled saying.
"Nonsense my dear boy - I've just had the best quarter of an hour of my entire life!" retorted the thrice-wounded Campbell.
Subsequently he was promoted to command of the 21st Division - a 'New Army' formation composed primarily of men who had answered Kitchener's 'Your Country Needs You' call. He was in command of this division when it was badly mauled in 1918, and said of the affair "Monday (27 May) was the worst day I have spent in this war, which is saying a lot".

Blimpishness aside, it says much about the man's character that his 'best quarter of an hour' involved leading from the front, crossing swords with the enemy and receiving multiple wounds, while his 'worst day' involved being in command but behind the lines while his men were suffering.

There is a good short biography on Birmingham University's Centre for First World War Studies page, which features the magnificent aside "Wounds were to be a feature of his military career". Though British generals of WWI have not enjoyed a high reputation on the whole, there were nonetheless some genuinely brave and charismatic men among them. Campbell certainly seems to have been such a man.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

One song in the style of another - 5

Yes, the insanity continues.

This time, it's a Cha-Cha version of Deep Purple's 'Smoke on the Water', from Germany's legendary Senor Coconut:

I wish to thank my mate Russell for introducing me to this artiste. Other may deeply regret it...

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Have a good laugh, and then feel uncomfortable...

A friend forwarded me a slightly old article from the Daily Mail today:

What Daddy's little girl wants Daddy's little girl gets.
So when Missy Quinn insisted on a big white wedding with her boyfriend, her father said Yes. It didn't matter that she was only 16 and the groom 17.
Daddy also said Yes to a £16,000 wedding dress (which looked suspiciously like a crop top and skirt) and Yes to 150 guests at the reception. Then there were the cars, the hotels, the tiara and the £500 bouquet.
In the end, making Missy's wedding dreams come true cost her father - who lives in a caravan and surfaces driveways for a living - a whopping £100,000.
But as his princess, who hasn't been in a classroom since she was nine and wants to be a glamour model, posed for photographs, her father Simon, 35, declared it was worth every penny. 'I'm very proud of her today,' he said.
Missy was just happy to be the undisputed centre of attention.
Her dress, studded with Swarovski crystals, and with a 10ft wide train, was so heavy that it took ten guests to help her struggle out of the Rolls-Royce Phantom that brought her to the church.
'It was huge. I wanted to outdo everyone else's wedding dress,' she said.
'It was extremely heavy and just standing in the church was really difficult. But despite all that, I felt just like Cinderella.'
The bill was around five times the cost of the average British wedding.
Missy said: 'It cost a fortune, but I've always wanted a big wedding and my dad has been saving for ages to pay for it.' She met Thomas at Alton Towers theme park when she was 13.
They continued to date despite her traveller family leaving their caravan park in Stoke-on-Trent every summer to tour the UK while Thomas lived with his parents in Wolverhampton.
Missy said: 'I just knew he was The One from the beginning. He's perfect.'
Her mother Theresa, 33, who married Missy's father at 16, said: 'I was surprised they wanted to get married so young in this day and age. But we could see they were madly in love.'
The couple married six days after Missy turned 16 at St Mary's Catholic Church in Congleton-Cheshire. After the ceremony-guests in feathers and crystals enjoyed champagne and an all-day buffet at the reception. Girls as young as nine showed off bikini tops, high heels and make-up.
Guest Victoria Docherty, 23, who wore a £700 hotpants and bra outfit, said: 'This isn't unusual - it's just what we do at weddings. It's all very extravagant. Everything is paid for by the bride's daddy.'
Missy and Thomas honeymooned in Turkey before moving into their own £18,000 caravan -a wedding gift from her parents.

Do click on the DM article for the photos...

The tone is surprisingly subtle for the Daily Mail, but the article still manages to push all the 'let's have a go at pikeys' buttons that the average DM reader would need (key words: 'lives in a caravan' 'surfaces driveways', 'traveller family', 'hasn't been in a classroom since...'). The person who sent this to the friend who forwarded it to me even titled the e-mail "Chav wedding of the century".

I object.

These people are not 'chavs' - they work for a living, pay their own way, get and stay married and know who their parents are. They're not asking for benefit handouts, nor are they wallowing on drugs and alcohol in subsidised housing or committing petty crimes. They have an aesthetic to which they aspire which - although it may be the target of self-gratificatory snide remarks by London-dwelling arty-farties - is a matter of their taste, not ours.

Moreover, the parents are supporting their daughter by paying for a lavish wedding. Since when has that been a crime against anything? They come from a culture where this is the kind of thing you spend big money on, rather than over-inflated houses or share portfolios (both of the latter investments are looking slightly less wise now than they were last year, it must be said...). Events like this help to bind traveller communities together. Why have a go at them?

(I should also add the standard Roma disclaimer at this point "They's not Gyppoes, they's Tinkers". But I shall still stick up for them. Someone has to. I was pleased and not a little susrprised to notice that many of those posting comments on the DM site also defended the Quinns.)

Wednesday, 21 January 2009


Was anyone else struck yesterday by the similarity between Rev Joseph Lowery's benediction and the lyrics of Mr Big Bill Broonzy?

Big "Bill" Broonzy:

Rev "Joseph" Lowery:

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

One song in the style of two nutters...

Not that I'm trying to upstage Gadjo or anything; actually, my enthusiasm for comically bad singing was reqwakened by Scarlet's championing of the divine Mrs Miller. She has a living legacy, the torch being carried on in a slightly wobbly manner by living legends such as the two I present here. Screaming Jay Hawkins was a good musician but with a slightly tenuous grasp on reality. I reserve judgment on these good ladies.

First, we have the lovely Wing, covering ABBA's 'Mamma Mia' in her own inimitable style:

While the same song was also given the Margarita Pracatan treatment some years before:

Wing, bless her, has also tackled AC/DC in her time:

Monday, 19 January 2009

People who annoy me....

As I promised but a few days ago, I am not going to complain about my life and lot this year. No - I shall cease moaning, count my blessings, and turn my ire on other people who frankly get on my wick.

So, who's first up? So many to choose from... but let's start with cyclists.

"Oh no Gyppo!" I hear the multitude cry, "Surely you can't be having a go at anyone who rides a bike?"

Umm - no, I'm not. There is an important distinction to be made. Ordinary People On Bikes (OPOBs) are one thing; evangelical cyclists in lycra, slipstream helmets and visors - let us term them cyclologists for ease of distinction - are quite another.

OPOBs ride along at an appropriate speed for a bicycle, wear ordinary clothes, look and signal before turning and stop at red lights. They don't get in the way of your car or run you over when you're on foot. I have no problem with such people. I wait patiently behind them until it is safe to overtake, I let them go at junctions and they thank me for it, I exhange cheery words with them at the pelican crossing. They are not the problem.

Cyclologists are people who regard bikes not as a means of getting from A to B but as an ideological statement. They fervently believe that they should have the right of way over anything and everybody because they are 'the good guys' and the rest of us are filth. They take delight in riding along narrowish busy roads at rush hour at a speed just fast enough to make it impossible to overtake safely, yet slowly enough to cause a massive tailback. They dress like prats. They sweep out in front of you without looking or signalling when turning right and only then turn to give you a filthy look when they hear the squeal of brakes. They swear at drivers and pedestrians alike and make rude gestures by way of apology after causing accidents to other people. They ride heedlessly through mud splattering inoffensive walkers on country paths. They ignore traffic signals and rights of way, and they still seem to think that they are better than the rest of us. Has it occurred to these brain-dead zealots that causing a massive traffic tailback by bimbling along in front of it at 10 mph under the speed limit causes more pollution than just getting in a car and driving at the same speed as everyone else, to say nothing of not causing major blockages TO SINGLE-LANE BRIDGES IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FREAKING RUSH HOUR?

Truly, they are the Esperantists and Socialist Workers of the transport world. And already I can predict their response - "But if everybody rode a bike..." And frankly, that's crap. Because I have been to cities where everyone rode a bike - China in the 80s was very much on that model. And it was fine. But if everyone in this country did ride a bike, the cyclologists wouldn't be riding along happily with the rest of us. They would be jostling for position, giving OPOBs filthy looks, trying to push to the front of the queue at red lights and swearing at pedestrians. Because in the final analysis, it's not about exercise or pollution or expense - it's about being a self-important, lycra-clad git.

("No, please -" I hear the multitude cry, "Just go back to moaning about your everyday life or posting silly music videos...")

Saturday, 17 January 2009

One song in the style of another - 4

Slightly more surprising, this one, in the sense that it qualifies at all - I knew it as a Gypsy Swing standard long before I had heard the original.

This tune started life as a Russian song in 3/4 time, before being carried off on the back of a vardo to become a Manouche standard in 4/4 in the scarred and twisted hands of Django Reinhardt.

This version features five of the six finest Gypsy swing players alive today (Jimmy Rosenberg was, iirc, in a Dutch prison at the time) - Bireli Lagrene, Stochelo Rosenberg, Angelo Debarre, Tchavolo Schmitt and Dorado Schmitt, starting off with Django's solo in unison before each doing their own thing. Bireli's comping at the end of Stochelo's solo around 5'45" paticularly sends a thrill down my spine every time I hear it:

This version is from Tony Gatlif's Swing, in which a bunch of non-Sinti musicians (as seen in the 'Song of Peace' clip) all join in for a joyous jam session at a Sinti campsite. It's how life isn't, but should be:

Wednesday, 14 January 2009


Yesterday I visited our canteen, got myself a cup of tea, and went to the till to pay for it. The cashier handed me a footlingly small coin in change. "You know" I mused out loud "Maybe you should have a charity box here for people to deposit small change like this."

Patiently, she indicated the bright yellow collecting box placed prominently next to the till, which I had totally failed to register.

I was unsurprised to see that it was for the Alzheimer's society.

I deposited the change silently and slouched off, tasting the ashes of humiliation. The way I'm going, I shall need their help soon anyway...

THREE more songs in another style

The subtitle for this one is "Attack of the Lounge Lizards from Planet Easy Listening" - three worthy contenders for the title of 'best lush swing arrangement of an overly serious, teenage angst-ridden piece of pretentious drivel from a spotty, unwashed grunge or indie-band'.

First up, Paul Anka does Nirvana:

Next, Frank Bennett does Radiohead:

And finally, Mike Flowers does Oasis:

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

One song in the style of another - 3

Let me tee this one up by asking you a question: Did you ever listen to Carl Perkins - or one of the many rockabilly cover artists who sang his stuff from Elvis onwards - and think to yourself "What this really needs is a backing group of Transylvanian lautari armed with cimbalon, taragato and violin and capable of more adventurous modulations than three chords allow?

You didn't?

Well, these guys did:


The more I amble gently through life, the more I am convinced that happiness - or at least contentment - is an inner state of mind unaffected by the buffets of the external world.

This was rammed home to me recently when it became obvious that some people, regardless of the apparent enviability of their lives, find it necessary to complain endlessly about things which really should be the cause of no complaint at all.

I catch myself doing it occasionally, in particular complaining about being woken up at ungodly hours by a crying baby. While this puts a certain strain on one's moods, it is nothing compared to the heartache of losing said baby or having been unable to conceive said baby in the first place. I have resolved not to whinge about it ever again. Children are good, and wonderful, and I love both of mine more than I can ever say.

It's like that with anything I can find to complain about:
The gearbox on my car is thoroughly grendled and has moods of refusing to go into first, usually at a busy junction with a queue building up. And my exhaust pipe has just exploded and will need replacing. But I have a car.

I find it tiring to get home after work and have to set to cooking supper. But we have food to eat.

The heating system needs an overhaul to prevent it going on an off at random and making strange noises. But we have heating.

Everything that bugs me from time to time is something that would be an enviable blessing to many others - my job (I have one), the untidiness of my house (I have a house and posessions with which to be untidy) and so on.

Therefore, I have resolved not to complain about my life any more. I am lucky. I am, basically, a happy man.

Henceforth, I shall only complain about other people who annoy me. Is that a plan or is that a plan?

Saturday, 10 January 2009

One song in the style of another - 2

Staying for the moment on an elevated plane of inspirational reinterpretation before slewing off into complete madness, let me take up the baton from Gadjo Dilo, who has contributed to this meme an accordion interpretation of highway to hell, bless him.

Aside from accordions, another great instrument that has the capacity to bring any song - however pretentious - down onto a level of healthy ridicule and instant fun is the ukulele. The finest exponents of ukulele music currently practising are the divine Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Almost anything from their repertoire could fit this thread, but I think their finest work takes an overblown piece of tosh by borderline vampire Kate Bush and makes it a thing of incomparable beauty:

Thursday, 8 January 2009

I is dissing your slang, innit?

Regular reader Ms Pearl has noted her increasing inability to keep up with yoof slang and 'the word on the street, innit?' or whatever they have over the pond there in Good Old Uncle US of Stateside.

My personal campaign to eliminate irritating patois among the slack-trousered adolescents of Albion takes a simple yet effective form - I use it in front of them, in an exagerrated cut-glass public-school accent. This causes them to redden, squirm and on one deeply satisfying occasion explode with embarrasment, and quickly convinces them that if I am using such slang, it must needs be thought hopelessly uncool and unfashionable.

Shortly before Christmas I took my daughter to the local theatre where she was participating in a music festival. There we hooked up with a family we know well, in which there are daughters aged 12 and 14. As we sat there waiting out the gap between dress rehearsal and performance, my daughter called out to a friend who was wandering past, but her voice was lost against the background hubbub and the friend went on, heedless. "I say" I commented to my daughter "She is dissing you bad, innit?" The 14-year old exploded at this point; her face taking on a crimson hue and her eyes popping out as half a sandwich was ejected across the table in a spray of crumbs. "Oh my GOD that is so embarrassing!" she yelled in a voice so loud that all conversation within a 200-yard radius temporarily ceased.

I smiled quietly to myself, satisfied at the thought of a job well done.

I am not, I hasten to add, the only one to see the comic potential in this form of linguistic transvestism:

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

One song in the style of another

As rashly promised, here is the first in an ongoing series of genre-busting covers.

First up, we have the sublime Hayseed Dixie reimagining Motorhead's heavy metal song 'Ace of Spades' as Bluegrass, and improving it considerably in the process:

The missing link in this is, of course, Skiffle - often overlooked as a feeder-stream of later rock music. Brits play a mutated form of hillbilly mountain music as skiffle, same Brits go on to form bands which create heavy metal, Hayseed Dixie bring it home.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Flying monkey business

Fellow grendler of random anorak-wearers No Good Boyo has recounted an incident in which he dealt with a green-inker who had a thing about vampires. Apparently.

The same file of correspondence also yielded a complaint about something we had published about Sri Lanka. "Please to correct this article!" the person of injured pride had written "If you check the holy book of Ramayana you will see that Tamil was in Sri Lanka before Sinhala!" Or perhaps the other way round.

The shambling, haunted-looking colleague of ours whose daily task - mandated presumably by a community service order - it is to plough through the assembled lunacy of the interweb-viewing public around the world passed it over to me, asking how on earth he should reply. Now I may not know a lot about Sri Lanka, but I do know the Ramayana, having spent a lot of time studying performing arts in parts of Southeast Asia where the Ramayana and Mahabharata form the bedrock of all dramaturgy. I reassured him he could leave the problem safely with me, and drafted the following:

"Dear Sir,
We have indeed checked the 'holy book of Ramayana', and come to the inescapable conclusion that the correct order of arrival for ethnic groups in Sri Lanka was as follows:
1) Ten-headed demons, some of whom were capable of flight and self-transformation;
2) Talking monkeys, at least one of whom was also capable of flight;
3) A couple of guys from Uttar Pradesh, who then went home again.
We shall correct our article forthwith to reflect these important findings.
Best wishes,
&c &c"

He never sent it.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

A short break for New Year...

We managed to get home briefly for New Year. Home - as distinct from where our house is - is on the Worcestershire-Staffordshire border just West of Stourbridge. It is stunningly beautiful and very good walking or horse-riding country; but almost unknown by outsiders (who, after all, ever thinks of going on holiday to the fringes of the West Midland conurbation?) My daughter and I - with Guthlac asleep in the back and Mrs Byard having a rare moment to herself - went to the local park to walk around on the frosty grass, watch the ducks coping with a frozen pond and give Guthlac his first experience of a playground swing. Of such simple shared pleasures are truly golden memories forged.

The park pond offers up, however, a deeply depressing sight - bunches of wilted flowers and mawkish messages scribbled in marker pen, attached to the fence where a depressed teenager jumped over and drowned himself. Sometimes I find the sentimentality around these events more grating and nauseating than the everyday tragedy itself; part of what Alan Bennett aptly called 'the Liverpudlianisation of Britain'. There is much to be said for keeping the upper lip stiff and the private grief private.

The occasion on which I felt least comprehension for the country of my birth was the aftermath of Diana the Princess of Wales's death in 1997. I watched the media coverage from afar (Java, in fact) and was asked by many locals to explain what was happening. I couldn't, since I totally failed to understand it myself. The nearest I can get to it is a feeling that it was a kind of emotional anarchy; the media - in a desperate attempt to hide their own culpability in paying top whack to the pursuing papparazzi - had told everyone that a self-indulgent outpouring of public grief for someone they never knew was now permissible.

Anyway, after being made miserable at the park, we drove out into the country, via Ismere, Caunsall and Kinver before returning to the parental/grandparental homestead. From Ismere we could see the tops of the Clee Hills, their lower slopes hidden by mist so that the summit appeared as an apparition-like blue-grey line in the sky. (Oddly enough, the oldest administrative document dealing with the Anglo-Saxons in this part of the country mentions the local tribe as the 'Usmere'; in the reign of Aethalbald in the early 8th century land at Ismere is granted to one of the king's followers.)

I sometimes daydream about finding a job in that area and being able to move out of the Thames Valley. The Thames Valley is a very congenial place to live in many ways, to be sure, but most of the people we know are economic migrants like we are rather than people rooted in an ancient community. Even though it may seem strange for someone with a family tree like mine to be going on in a way that is perilously close to the 'blood and soil' rhetoric of the far right, I can't help feeling more at home in North Worcestershire than I do in Reading. Though come to think of it, many of my ancestors were the economic migrants of a few generations back. Maybe my great-grandchildren, if they live around Reading, will feel about it the way I do about the place I grew up.