Tuesday 31 March 2020

The Folker

For a reluctant introvert who is happiest in his own company and resolutely unfond crowds, I've always had an odd attraction to standing up in front of them and performing. I blame my parents. I guess. Dad does say there's something of a family history of this. On my mother's side, at least. Through their interests I was certainly raised in the company of performers, of folk clubs, community choirs, amateur dramatic societies and the like.

By age 7 I'd already been put into tights and pushed onto stage as part of the kids' chorus of a Christmas pantomime.

Growing up in Kuwait, in the late 70's, along with Company yacht club it has to be said, the local expatriate amateur dramatics society, the Kuwait Little Theatre or "KLT" as it was affectionately known, was the hub of my parents social life and therefore mine.

The previous year I'd simply accompanied them to the rehearsals and shows whilst they got involved in the whole tramping around on stage in tights bit themselves. For the first few nights of the production they sent me out front to sit and watch. It was pretty much a gated, privileged community back in those days, and folks could afford to let their kids pretty much run wild and unsupervised. By the second sitting, I'd memorised all the lines, and was sat out in amongst the audience reciting them milliseconds ahead of the actors actually delivering them, to the frustration of all concerned except myself. I was enrapt.

I got into a bit of trouble over that, it really wasn't the done thing to steal a pantomime dame's punchlines, and so wasn't allowed out audience side of the stage again. And the following year I was, as mentioned, put out on the stage myself.

I'm pretty sure my debut, tights, tunic, stage paint and all, was as one of a crowd of minions of the Gnome King in the pantomime Cinderella. There was a song involved, cunningly entitled "The Gnome Song". I seem to recall we didn't actually sing it, but danced on stage as the Gnome King performed it for us.

I've never been much for dancing, but needs must. It was, after all, pantomime. We've all got to start somewhere.

I am moving to a point here, some kind of segue into the actual purpose of this post.

The Gnome Song was by an irreverent English West Country comedian and folk singer called Fred Wedlock. Or, at least if it wasn't written by him, it was certainly performed by him. I discovered later that Fred, just like most of his comedic contemporaries of the time, was, well, "artistically light-fingered" when it came to lifting material from other sources making it his own.

Anyway. Mum couldn't sing and Dad couldn't play, but a musical instrument is, essentially, a mathematical and mechanical puzzle, and Mum was a smart lady with both gift and taste for such a challenge. So we had a full piano sized electric keyboard in the house, a "Bontempi" if I recall, and a guitar or two.

Mum never really took to the keyboard, although I was given free reign with it and by the age of 6 or 7 had deciphered where to find middle C, worked out the basics of a scale on both paper and keys and was picking out the melody to the Beatles "Yesterday" for my own amusement. Not because I knew who the Beatles were, or particularly liked them, but rather because it was in the song-book Mum kept on the music stand of the piano.

Meanwhile Mum was deciphering the chords and transcribing the lyrics so she could accompany Dad on the guitar singing various folk songs, both of the serious, "finger in yer ear" kind like Barbara Allen and The Water is Wide, and the less serious, tongue in cheek parodies penned or so skilfully adopted by the likes of Fred Wedlock, which included sophisticated titles like the afore mentioned Gnome Song, or The Bantam Cock, or The Frog and the Vicar, or An English Country Garden or The Widow and the Cat. Or British Rail:

"In the carriage there is a chain / And if you pull it it stops the train / There's a twenty-five pound fine if your unwise / So ladies if you're being molested / Wait until you've been divested / It ain't worth five fivers otherwise"

Sorry, I was tripping down memory lane for a second there. I'll stop. Self-indulgence ill becomes me. In any case, that gives you an illustration of the quality of wit involved in this stuff.

Anyway, skip forward some five or six years. I'm now into my early teens. I've had half a decade's worth of piano lessons but, like my Mum before me, have discovered that the guitar is so much easier and so much more versatile. Not to mention cooler. And you can (or could back then) carry it on board an aeroplane as hand luggage, and for most of my early teen years I was doing a lot of air travel, back and forth between my boarding school in the UK and my parents who were still working in Kuwait.

And I wanted to perform. I've always been drawn to that spot in centre stage. It's not about me, it really isn't. And that's not false modesty. Sure, I'll happily talk, or preferably write about myself until the cows come home, I'm very familiar with my own opinions and my ego; next to sailing I'm possibly my own favourite subject.

But really, honestly, that spot on stage is about anything but the actor, the band or the musician. It's about the song, the verse or the play, about the escape; immersing yourself in something that's entirely external to you, and drawing in, feeding off and living within the reaction and participation of the audience.

I'm very much of the opinion that art is intrinsically worthless in and of itself. You may have a different opinion and I can respect that. I think certain members of my band have a different opinion, although I suspect that's just a limitation of their particular perspective. They're artists. But whatever slim pretence I may have towards that, it's quite secondary to my role as a performer.

And in my view, a singer is nothing without the song, the song is nothing without the gig, the gig is nothing without the crowd. The validation of an audience is everything. Though don't get me wrong: a crowd can be a crowd of one or a multitude. I've performed to both. I've had gigs good and bad before both. The quality of a crowd is not a simple, numerical metric.

To return to my original thread however. The trouble was, I'd figured I could just about string together a few picked chords, sing a steady note and had a definite gift for remembering lyrics and a tune. But I wasn't centre stage material, I was more pantomime chorus or third guy on the right in the crowd of extras. I don't walk into a crowded room and immediately draw attention. If I talk, more often than not I'll get talked over, unless I force the issue.

Which is perhaps why I prefer to write.

But I'd found this raft of comedy folk songs, hand written or occasionally typed chords and lyrics deciphered by Mum all those years ago when she used to accompany Dad at those monthly KLT folk nights. And Dad had all these tapes of this bloke Fred Wedlock singing these songs in a comfortable, familiar, West Country Bristolian accent, and to my delight I discovered they were bloody hilarious.

The realisation hit me that even if I couldn't sing and I couldn't play guitar, I could at least learn these chords and these lyrics and hammer out these old Fred Wedlock tunes and if the quality of the performance, of the singing or the playing couldn't justify or hold the audience, then the comedy of the material still would.

In pursuit of the limelight I've never really been bothered about whether people laugh with me or laugh at me. Because if they have to laugh at me, I've always been able to still laugh along with them.

This has to be the longest winded introduction to a song I've ever given. I'd never get away with this on stage. If you're still with me, congratulations; in this new age of quarantine and self isolation, you must really be running out of things to read!

There was one Fred Wedlock song I always loved, but Mum and Dad never covered it themselves, which meant that, unlike the rest of Fred's repertoire, I had no easy access to the chords and lyrics having already been transcribed for me. So, in a pre-Internet age, when you couldn't just look these things up on Google, I continued to love and admire the song from afar, but never actually put in the hard graft to learn it.

I've always meant to, it's just one of those things I've never gotten around to.

The song is a parody of folk clubs and the pub-gigging rock 'n' roll lifestyle and desperately trying to "make it big", put to the melody of one of my absolute favourite Simon and Garfunkel tunes, "The Boxer".

Actually, I love pretty much anything Simon and Garfunkel ever recorded, so could easily call any of them my favourite. But Fred only nicked the tune to The Boxer, so it's special.

One of the advantages of my current situation at work is that when the rest of the staff go home at 5pm (ie. by "the rest" I mean my mate Matt) and I can relax my vigilant watch over our company networks, I have the entirety of this old mill to myself, with nary another soul within earshot.

That's a rare treat for me. I also keep a couple of guitars in the office, always have.

So last Thursday, after work, I stayed on a little late at the mill and finally worked out the chords and lyrics to my favourite Fred Wedlock song, "The Folker".

It's not the sort of song the band would ever let me play at a gig, but as a suddenly socially distanced, involuntary solo performer with a camera phone and the length and breadth of social media spread out before my digital feet, there was nothing but my dignity and self-respect to stop me.

They never really stood a chance.

A quick word of caution. Whilst not exactly justifying an "Explicit Content!" warning that so many of these up and coming youngsters in the charts seem to actively aspire to these days, the content of the song that follows is a little coarse in places. And I don't (just) mean the production values . . . .

So, without further ado, I give you "The Folker"

Monday 30 March 2020

proof of life

Monday 30th March 2020. The UK is about to enter it's second week in lock down. According to our illustrious leader, we can only leave home for one of the four following reasons:
  • Essential shopping
  • Getting medical help
  • One form of exercise per day
  • Travelling to and from work if you cannot work from home
With regards to the fourth point, that's currently me. It's hardly essential work, but my being in the office to keep the servers and networks up and connected to the Internet means that our other twelve staff can all work from home. There is one other member of technical staff in the building with me to assist. With 4000 square feet of office space between the two of us it's very easy to maintain our distance. We occasionally wave to each other when we pass from opposite ends of the building. 

All this means that our company survives, our staff continue to remain employed and contributing to the economy and our customers continue to benefit from our service, which in turn helps them continue to do business themselves. I realise how lucky we are, so far at least, and how difficult a lot of folk less fortunate than us, many friends and family included, are finding things at the moment.

I also feel like a bit of a pariah, which might explain a little as to why I felt I had to justify my current circumstances and the fact I'm still working 9 til 5 each day. There are a lot of "key workers" delivering "essential services" to the country at the moment. My wife, who works in food retail (includes alcohol!) is one of them. Our company primarily services the insurance industry, so I'm not sure we could argue we're an essential service as such, although for as long as insurance remains a competitive market I guess we are an essential part of that service for our clients and their ability to deliver to their customers.

But in any case, we can, with very minimal risk, continue to operate a pretty much uninterrupted service. So I think it's very important, for many reasons, that we do just that.

Ironically, Nikki's currently taking a week's leave, although she's on call and has to go in to help out when they get their (currently much more regular than usual) deliveries. I was supposed to be on leave too; had the year proceeded as planned, we'd currently be somewhere west of Fowey with Dad and Calstar. However, under the circumstances, I figured it was best I cancelled my leave for now.

Calstar is a weight on my mind at the moment.

She's currently berthed in Queen Anne's Battery in Plymouth, which has been her home for the last couple of years. This year we decided to move her to the more sheltered cover of neighbouring Sutton Harbour. So just before Christmas we arranged and paid for an annual berthing contract for 2020 in Sutton that would go into effect when the 2019 contract with QAB expired.

At the end of March.

At the beginning of last week, when the advice was still vestigial and advisory, maintain social distance, self isolate for 14 days if anybody in the household shows symptoms, etc, I observed the media hysteria, social, tabloid and otherwise, generated by the entirely predictable reaction of the crowd to a particularly sunny spring Sunday, and realised things were likely going to become a lot more draconian.

Monday lunchtime I called Dad and suggested we headed down to Plymouth the following morning to move Calstar to her new marina, rather than waiting for the weekend as we'd originally planned. At 2030 Monday evening they announced the lockdown with immediate effect and our plans were scuppered. I really should've acted the moment I thought of it.

So Calstar currently remains in Queen Anne's Battery. Our annual contract with them expires on 31st March, when our new annual contract with Sutton Harbour comes into effect. However, we've no way of moving Calstar from the one marina to the other before then; nor is there anybody else that could do it for us.

I can only hope that the lovely folks at QAB are reasonable in allowing us to arrange some kind of temporary extension to our current contract, given the extraordinary circumstances we all find ourselves labouring under.

All that said, in light of all the other turmoil and travail abroad in the world at the moment, however much a weight on my mind, these troubles really are quite trivial in comparison.

It was the strangest weekend. Got home, the gig was long cancelled, so nothing to do Friday night except settle down with a beer and chill for the evening. I'm not very practised at that (the chilling with nothing to do of an evening, that is; of beer I've had practice aplenty!) but thought I could probably get the hang of it with a little dogged persistence. Saturday morning, woke up, nothing planned except to walk the dogs and chill for another evening.

Saturday night was funny. Still no gig of course, so another evening home with another beer and the Internet. I look up from my beer and entertainment to glance at my watch, notice it's 0020, and think I really ought to consider going to bed. Figure another thirty minutes or so, finish my last glass (of by then no longer quite so so chilled) beer.

Next thing, I glance again at my watch and am horrified to see that it's now 0220. I can't for the life of me work out where the last hour has gone, but shame-faced and possibly a little tipsy from the night's, um, "chilling", I wake Nikki up from where she's nodded off on the sofa and we head off to bed.

Sunday, walk the dogs, cut the grass. Nothing else to do. Is this how normal people live? Sunday night, go to bed at a more reasonable hour, but having not done much all day read in bed into the early hours (EM Powell, historical fiction, a page turning style akin to Bernard Cornwall) then take an age to finally nod off. And oversleep a little the following morning.

It isn't until I'm pulling into the office car park after a very quiet drive into work, thinking it's around about 0900, not too late, that I glance at the clock on my car dashboard, the only time device in existence old enough to not get automatically updated by satellite, Internet or it's own artificial sentience.

It reads 0800. The clocks have leapt forward this weekend, and living in a bubble of my own isolation, I'd never realised.

Anyway. I'm fit and well. In fact, I'm pretty certain I already had this dreaded virus at the end of February before it became fashionable or was even supposed to be available in this country, go figure? Although that's another story, and there's no way to prove it, so I'm working on the clear assumption that I've not and taking all the appropriate precautions, washing hands like I hate my skin, staying a full cadaver's body-length distant from anybody not in my immediate household, coughing into my elbow when I must, etc.

The photos accompanying, completely out of context, are of our last time afloat. Dad and I had a weekend tramping around the Solent with my brother-in-law Jim, his wife's brother-in-law and my friend Paul and their friend Leigh aboard a Hallberg Rassy 34 called "Blue Spirit" that Paul had chartered from the Metropolitan Police Sailing Club of which he's a member.

I've not been sailing since, and it looks like I'll not have the chance to go sailing again for quite some time to come. So I thought I'd post the photos to accompany and lift what was otherwise a fairly bleak and self-indulgent, even self-pitying post, to combat the risk of a growing sense of captiaterraphobia that I fear may only get worse as the land-locked weeks wear on.

Monday 2 March 2020

SCSC: fifteen

I finally got back out on the water on Sunday.

John races a Flying Fifteen called "Silkworm" at South Cerney, and his regular crew was poorly, so our mutual friend Dave, seeing that my own boat still had work to be done before she was fit to relaunch, volunteered me.

The Fifteen is a keel boat, about 20' long; the biggest and heaviest boat raced at South Cerney. Despite being a keel boat, she essentially sails like a big dinghy, complete with toe-straps to hike out on. With the wind gusting up into the high twenties or more, the reaches were very fast and very wet; as the gusts hit we'd slide our weight aft, I'd hike out hard to help keep her flat, and Silkworm would climb up onto the plane in an exultant ball of spray and adrenaline.

John, whom I'm sure he wouldn't mind me saying, is in his early eighties, is clearly a bit of a speed freak. On more than one occasion as we tore down the reach we were both whooping like teenagers with the exhilaration.

The Fifteen is a muscular boat that seems to love heavy weather. And John is a deft helm around the race course. Out of the thirteen boats racing, we took a very creditable third place.

Three didn't finish. My usual crew Amanda sailed with my mate Mark in a borrowed Albacore. They're just off our port bow in the picture above, having just caught and passed us. They would've had a very good result, except on the penultimate lap they wiped out in a big gust on the second gybe mark. Mark slipped and the boom got him on the head as it came over, giving him a good smack that ended their race.

Nothing broken thankfully, although he spend most of the rest of Sunday in an A&E department in Bristol strapped to a spine board waiting for them to run a CT scan to double check. But he's now got four stitches in his scalp that are going to slow him down for a week or two.

Our Albacore made it back to the club on Sunday, most of the work done, but some splicing of the shroud control lines still needs to be finished, and the patched up centreboard needs to be refitted. Because it was blowing a hoolie, we secured her back in her berth and postponed the mast raising until next Wednesday.

The splice work means the mast is going to have to stand un-stayed whilst the lines get cut to length and spiced. Not a problem ordinarily as the mast is keel-stepped, but with the wind gusting up to the 30's, patience and discretion were the better part of valour on Sunday.

However, once we're finished, the Albacore's rig will have been fully modernised: adjustable shroud and forestay tension plus independent adjustment of the port and starboard shrouds, mast ram and prebend controls, all led back to the helm. We've also replaced the kicker, jib sheets, main sheet, and toe-straps, resealed and refinished the cockpit floor and patched a chunk that was missing out of the trailing edge of the centreboard.

We now need to refit the board, put the mast up and finish splicing the shroud lines. Then, once we've tuned and calibrated her controls, she'll be race-ready.

By which time Mark will hopefully have had his stitches out and we can get back to chasing each other around the lake.

Rather than attempting all this myself, Paul at CS Boats has been doing the work for us. Dealing with tradesman can often be a bit of a nightmare, especially if it's got anything to do with boats. But dealing with Paul has been an absolute pleasure.

Aside from his huge, infectious enthusiasm, it helps that what he doesn't know about Albacores isn't worth knowing.

He's also kind to dogs.