The riverside at Castlefields

The riverside at Castlefields

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Attingham Park In The Snow: Just One Of The Highlights

Away from the treadmill for a few days, Carol and I have this week more or less gone back to being the people we always thought we were. . . . quite nice human beings really.
At the start of the week, she was Up North with her mum, snowed-in at Kingsley Drive, nattering, laughing, crying, drinking lots of tea, watching telly.
Meanwhile, I'd enjoyed a rather special evening out with my old Staffordian chums at the Spittal Brook pub in the county town of Staffordshire. Ah yes. Not an office party where you have to put on a mask, but a gathering of genuine friends, easy in each other's company. As always on these occasions, our dear old friends, Steve and Louise, put me up for the night. The next morning, I pulled back the curtains to see the first of the snow. Just beautiful.
Then it was back home to Shrewsbury for a week with highlights such as:

Alex and I treating ourselves to a Portuguese-style spicy meal at Nandos

Alex and I treating ourselves to a traditional English fry-up

Carol returning to Shrewsbury and cooking us a proper meal

Our impressive collection of Christmas DVDs coming out of hibernation

Christmas shopping up town with Carol (and lunch at Rococo in Butcher Row)

Buying myself a new scarf. Carol says you're allowed to have more than one scarf.

Carol and Karen being pampered at a spa near Oswestry

Getting some writing done

Watching 'Elf' (without doubt a modern Christmas classic, I reckon, and one which always makes me shed a tear . . . but in a good way)

Watching 'The Family Stone' (without doubt another modern Christmas classic, I reckon, and again one which always makes me shed a tear . . . but again in a good way)

Watching 'Love Actually' (without doubt yet another modern Christmas classic, I reckon, and yet again one which always makes me shed a tear . . . but again in a good way. Am I repeating myself at all?)

Carol and I attending Attingham Park's lovely Frost Fair on a beautiful snow-covered day

Going round to see my old mate Steve on Saturday night and watching three episodes of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads followed by one episode of The West Wing

Yep. A pretty great week, actually.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Ramblings From A Riverside Bench

As I fumble around in my jacket pocket for a mint or perhaps a hard-boiled rhubarb and custard, I notice that swans are gathering on the mirror-like water beneath the Castle Bridge. It is a bridge I have known all my life. This is a river I have known all my life. I am sitting on a bench I have known all my life.
This entire scene before me – the long grass on the opposite bank, the curve of the riverside walk to my left which takes you down to the cascading waters of the weir, and to my right the mighty railway station bridge – is so deep within my psyche that it is sometimes impossible for me to separate memories from dreams. Did my ten-year-old self really sit here on this bench with my best friend in 1967, the two of us planning what we would do with our lives if we were given super-powers? Or did I just dream that? Certainly, on summer afternoons, just before teatime, my little brother and I would often wait here for Dad who would be cycling home from work on his museum-piece of a bike. Now that one is definitely a memory and not a dream.
The sun is low now and partially obscured by cloud. There is a chill in the air. I allow myself to drift into a pleasing fog of abstracted fancy, and for a moment I can almost see our old Dad pedalling his trusty steed towards me.
Just over there is the rather magnificent Severn Bridge Junction signal box, built in 1904 and – I’ll have you know – the largest of its kind in Europe: a cathedral among signal boxes. And just there you can also see the Abbey Church, which is possibly even more magnificent than the signal box, and indisputably somewhat older, clocking in at 1083. That’s what I love about Shrewsbury: layer upon layer upon layer of history.
The streets of my childhood are just a stone’s throw from here: North Street, Queen Street, Burton Street, West Street, Donkey Alley. Our family moved to this oh-so-ordinary and yet oh-so-enchanting Victorian suburb in 1963 and left it in 1979. I was six years of age when we came here, twenty-two when we left. My formative years. From the birth of Beatlemania through the glory days of Slade and T. Rex and Rod Stewart and David Bowie to the death throes of punk.
We lived in a magical beaten-up old house in the shadow of the lovely All Saints Church. All these years later I cycle or walk or drive back down here frequently, seduced by what many these days would refer to as nostalgia, but what I prefer to think of as communing with the past.
A jogger now passes by, his iPod plenty loud enough for me to pick out the monotone of an insistent rebellious rap. I smile to myself, momentarily considering my own kaleidoscopic tastes in pop music. Rap, I’m afraid, I shall never warm to. Nevertheless, I am proud to say I enjoy just about everything else from The Searchers to Coldplay. But wide though my musical interests are, and as vast as my CD collection is, I suppose some might say that the writing was on the wall for me as far back as 1978. Even at that point in my life I was beginning to live in the past. Because although I knew full well back then that in order to be cool I should really have been loving Paul Weller snarling his way through hits like The Modern World, I in truth yearned for the much more melodic tunes of the sixties and early, pre-punk seventies. In my heart of hearts, I suppose I will always prefer The Marmalade to The Jam.
Oh dear. A weak joke. Our dad would have approved . . .
I look downstream now, towards the weir. The jogger and his iPod disappear into the distance.
Ah. Our dear old parents, God bless ’em, would have been totally baffled by the world today. What would they have made of iPods? Come to that, forget your digital downloads and your memory sticks – Mum and Dad would have been confused by shower gel and clip-on sunglasses.
Dad was decidedly working class, dirt forever under his fingernails. Mum: lower middle class, curlers and cardigans. He was fun-loving, gregarious, all beer and dominoes. She was shy, sensitive, easily embarrassed.
Dad had his silly sayings:

“It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.”


“I can’t help it if I’m good-looking.”

Mum, sitting by the open fire on a winter’s afternoon, had her simple wisdom:

“If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

We boys played endlessly with our Matchbox cars and plastic soldiers. We were happy to stay indoors for much of the time, which was just as well as trips out were few and far between. Although, for the vast majority of our childhood, our family could not afford a car, we did however have an old banger for a few months. It was so untrustworthy, though, that it wasn’t used a great deal. For the most part, it seemed to me, our pride and joy – an ancient Hillman Minx – stood rusting round the corner in West Street; worthless, built like a tank, looking sad as if it knew it had a date with the scrap merchant.
Meanwhile, we boys played on. With crayons and scissors, staples and Sellotape, we would create our own comics featuring the adventures of our own superheroes and cartoon cats. Our interests in writing, story-telling and publishing – not to mention a strange and enduring fondness for stationery – thus found an early outlet.
Oh dear. The pre-pubescent me: every bit as shy as my mother, uncertain, slow to learn, under-achieving, scared of his own shadow, head in the clouds, almost always preferring the sanctuary of home to the often not-so-great-outdoors. In here: telly, biscuits, Mum. Out there: a host of tiny dangers. Beyond that old dependable front door lay the domain of bullies: big boys with fists and attitude. Adults could be just as bad. It was a world inhabited by sneering teachers, suspicious shop-keepers and unfriendly bus drivers.
Oh watch out. The jogger is back. He must have been as far as the weir and is now on the return journey.
“Hey mate,” I pretend to say. “Got any Marmalade on that iPod?”
The swans have moved on now. It’s getting cold. Time to go home. But I’ll be back again soon.
This is how I nourish my quiet, unobtrusive love for our long-gone Mum and Dad.

St Alkmund's, St Mary's and the Railway Station

A letter to the Shrewsbury Chronicle.

October 2010.

Re: Restoration projects.

The thoughtful and insightful letter from the Rev Richard Hayes of St Alkmund's (Chronicle, September 30), reminds us that there is a difference between good restoration and bad restoration.
An example of good restoration is that which the people of St Alkmund's have achieved over the past nine years. An example of bad restoration was the scheme from 1910 (outlined in the Rev Hayes' letter) to effectively rip out and replace four beautiful windows dating from 1795; a scheme which thankfully never came to fruition.
But this story reminded me of other acts (and proposals) relating to St Alkmund's, to St Mary's, and (more recently) to our splendid railway station.
As is told in St Alkmund's own leaflet ('A Brief History'), the medieval church of St Alkmund's was a fine one but when Old St Chad's Church collapsed in 1788 there was "a general alarm about the safety of both St Mary's and St Alkmund's".
On the strength of questionable advice, the demolition of St Alkmund's was decided upon and an Act of Parliament was passed dated April 17, 1794, to authorise the taking down and rebuilding of all but the tower and spire.
As if to emphasise just how crazy this move was, the strength of the undecayed walls was such that explosives had to used to destroy them. As the leaflet says: “The authorities realised their folly too late”.
As if that were not enough, the next sentence in the leaflet really blew my socks off: “St Mary's was saved from a similar fate by one vote”.
Well, thank goodness for that one vote!
With thinking like this all down through the centuries it is a miracle that so many wonderful historic buildings have survived at all!
Leaping forward in time the best part of a couple of hundred years, our beautiful railway station was under threat, I believe, in the early 1960s. I am sure I remember reading this somewhere (and perhaps fellow Chronicle readers can help me out here). In an era when many lovely Victorian railway stations up and down the country were swept away in favour of the shoebox designs so fashionable at the time, even our gorgeous station was considered (briefly) as ripe for the bulldozers. Just who are these people who can envisage such appalling vandalism?
Phil Gillam,

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Cassette Tapes - Why Do I Still Have So Many?

A bit of a rant from earlier this year . . .

Okay. It’s official – I am a hoarder.

I decided this morning to have a bit of a sort out of the tape cassettes that are kept in a sideboard behind the settee. I seemed to recall that I had one or two. I got them all out to have a look at:
I have 182 tape cassettes
(that’s in addition to my 800 CDs and 300 vinyl albums).
And you know what?
I don’t feel I want to let go of any of them.
If we look specifically at the cassettes (which, I know, I never play any more, what with CDs and my iPod being the currency of the day) . . . we find many of these have strong sentimental value (and some are simply priceless, as opposed to valueless).
There is, for example, a whole bunch of compilation cassettes made for me by Tone for various birthdays, with titles like:
None Taken I’m Sure
Tinted Foundation Eye Shadow
Devastating To Colours
I Was Surprised That Phil Hadn’t Rung
(most poignant of all)
Time Isn’t On Our Side: I’m Getting Horribly Ancient.

Then there are gems which ought to be in the British Museum, like
Two Evenings by Solid Water
Sgt Kipper’s Loony Parts’ Club Land
Treasure Island
Administrative Gardening.

Sorry Tone. I think I borrowed these off you in eighteen-fast-asleep and forgot completely to return them. (Along with your book on the Quakers). And, yes, I know, the two editions of Slightly Foxed.
Anyway, I just hope my brother is taking care of those copies of Target magazine as well as I am taking care of these tapes!
Meanwhile, if any of you out there have any ideas which will help me reduce the size of my cassette collection or (alternatively) suggestions as to how I can store them somewhere else other than behind the settee . . . please get in touch. Or if you have a philosophical outlook or any advice at all, email me back. I would be delighted to hear from you.

The Mystery of the Bowling Green Pub

A letter to the Shrewsbury Chronicle.
August 2010.
Re: The Bowling Green Pub at Meole Village.

People always used to believe that The Wrekin was an extinct volcano. I'm quite sure that for years even geography teachers used to pass on this misinformation to their pupils. Funny how these myths can solidify into 'facts'.
By the same token, an article in your Home and Property supplement about an absolutely gorgeous (wish I could afford it) townhouse on Hereford Road, may have contained a tiny myth.
It suggested Brook House was at one time a public house by the name of The Bowling Green Inn. This sounded a bit unlikely. I looked up The Bowling Green in Derek Row's painstakingly researched book, Shrewsbury: A Heritage of Old Inns and Taverns.
Mr Row gives the address of the pub as Hereford Road, Meole Brace, but other information recorded here suggests that the townhouse currently for sale and the Bowling Green Inn are not one and the same place. Firstly, Mr Row's book has it that the pub was rebuilt about 1850 (much too late to be the elegant Georgian building now on the market). The book also says the pub was between Meole Road and the Rea Brook in Meole Village. Well, Brook House may well be near the Rea Brook but it certainly isn't in Meole Village. Mr Row goes on to say that the inn stood on the site where the Leagrove House is now (which must mean that the building that was the inn no longer exists).
Can anyone out there shed any light on this?

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Shrewsbury Folk Festival and Chuck Brodsky

Alex and I had a really super time at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival on Sunday, taking part in a harmony workshop (no, honestly, we did), listening to the odd sea shanty, watching in speechless astonishment as the Morris Men danced by (quite surreal), and catching up with Splendid Nephew Tim, the lovely Fiona, the lovely Fiona's mum and the lovely Jan.
And although the mighty Billy Bragg sparkled brightly at the big marquee's evening gig, the artist both myself and Alex were truly knocked out by was American singer-songwriter Chuck Brodsky (who took to the stage during the afternoon and therefore of course played to a much smaller audience than headliner Mr Bragg would enjoy as the big crowds gathered several hours later).
Chuck's songs range from the heartbreakingly sad to the downright hilarious. And the man himself is totally engaging with his warm, gentle sense of humour, and his big, big heart.
No doubt about it. . . On Sunday, Chuck made himself an army of new fans.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Holiday Ghosts

It is when I'm on holiday at the seaside that I feel closest to the spirits of my long-gone parents.
Not memories exactly, but often it's just the uncatchable essences of memories which fly by.
And if I try, even for a second, to focus on these, I can feel tears welling up.
I catch a glimpse of Dad smiling, relaxed, taking us to the park for a game of putting or crazy golf. We've lost a cheap rubber toy snake somewhere along the path and he helps us search through the grass verges.
Or there he is again with his pipe o'bacca in the sunshine. He seems happy. Not like the man he became in his final years, so greatly diminished by old age, ill health and institutionalisation. Bored and lost.
No, he's happy in the sunshine. He's helping us retrieve a football from under a caravan. Mum is cooking sausages on the Calor gas cooker. Also happy. Also relaxed. Nice change of scenery.
Like Christmases, family holidays are loaded with emotion.
For a deeply touching evocation of that bitter-sweet aspect which must inevitably imbue every family holiday, look no further than the gorgeously understated 1931 novel by RC Sherriff, A Fortnight In September, available again thanks to the wonderful Persephone Books.

Writing, Nick Hornby, Self-Publishing


Funny. But as the years roll by, I'm attracted more and more to those authors who started late in life. This may have something to do with the fact that I am now 53 – and still showing no signs of delivering The Great British Novel anytime soon.
But there are plenty of writers who were a bit slow off the blocks. And I take comfort from this.
There's the highly-acclaimed Annie Proulx. According to one of her admirers writing in the Guardian recently, Proulx is "A private, unassuming and generous woman who swept in at the age of 56, a fully-formed and great American writer". Which means that I still have time – as a private, unassuming and generous man – to sweep in as a fully-formed great British writer. What? Am I right or am I right?
The Nobel laureate Jose Saramago, a giant of Portuguese literature featured just now on Radio 4's Open Book programme, didn't publish a book until he was 60.
Then there's Howard Jacobson who was teaching English in a Midlands polytechnic for years before finally getting around to his ambition to become a writer. His latest offering, The Finkler Question, is on the Booker Prize longlist.
I haven't actually read any of these people, but I intend to. Oh dear. Is that enough? Intending to? Or is the road to hell really paved with good intentions?
Part of my problem, I feel, is that I've always lacked drive, I've always lacked focus. (Perhaps I should try driving a Ford Focus.)
Then again, attempting to write a book of any kind when you have a family and a full-time job is a serious undertaking.


Ever since reading High Fidelity in 1995, I've compared myself a little bit (no, don't laugh) to Nick Hornby. Yes, yes, yes, I realise he is an internationally successful novelist whose books have been made into internationally successful films whereas I'm . . . oh, never mind. But, you see, we are contemporaries, old Nick and I, both born in 1957. Not only that but he writes the kind of books that, given half a chance, I might have written myself. Of course it might just be that Nick is incredibly talented and I'm not, but, you know . . . it doesn't hurt to dream.


Much has been said and written about self-publishing. As someone who has gone down this particular road, I just wanted to say a few things myself:

Self-publishing appeals to three kinds of people:
1. DELUDED PEOPLE whose inflated egos easily eclipse their common sense. These folk are on a collision course with reality if they go ahead and self-publish in the belief that this will lead to fame and fortune (or even serious recognition). Clearly, it won't. Nor will it lead to a real publishing house wishing to snap you up. Such deluded people will almost certainly end up painfully disappointed with the outcome.
2. DRIVEN PEOPLE who feel passionately they really do have something worth saying and want to get it out there any way they can. These people could well find themselves reasonably pleased with the self-publishing option because they'll be able to distribute a limited number of books to those readers they want to reach. Excellent. Job done.
3. SENSIBLE PEOPLE who understand completely that their project will of course have only a limited readership (like, for instance, mechanics living in Macclesfield) or a very specific readership (their own immediate family), and therefore self-publishing is the perfect answer. These writers should end up entirely satisfied with the outcome.

To sum up, self-publishing is by no means a bad thing. Indeed, it can be a very good thing. But please understand what you are getting in to. Do not expect the moon and the stars.

I myself self-published a novel, Here Comes The Sun.
Now, whether I was deluded, driven or sensible is for others to judge.

Meanwhile, I leave you with this final thought.
If a man wins a raffle at the village fete and his prize is to play football (during training) with Manchester United, he could – many years later – tell his grandchildren that he once played football with Manchester United. This would not be a lie. But it wouldn't quite be the truth either.
Similarly, I could claim to be a published novelist. It wouldn't be a lie, but it wouldn't quite be the truth either.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Shrewsbury's 1960s Clock Tower

My letter to the Shrewsbury Chronicle, published on July 22, 2010.

Shrewsbury's 1960s clock tower: a carbuncle on the otherwise beautiful face of a medieval town or a striking example of the architecture of its day and something to be treasured? Discuss.
As someone who has wrestled with this question over several decades, I was both amused and intrigued by Neil Felton's recent letter (July 15) protesting against suggestions that the clock tower should be demolished. Mr Felton refers to the building as ”classic“ and says Shrewsbury's skyline would not be the same without it. Well, while many might disagree with the first part of Mr Felton's argument, no-one can quibble with the second part. The clock tower is an unmistakable element in the town's skyline.
Mr Felton goes on to say: ”Instead of talking about knocking down this iconic building, let's start thinking about celebrating its 50th anniversary in a few years' time.“
I suppose really it's all down to a matter of perception. Many of us who love Shrewsbury think of it as a lovely old town boasting many fine ”black and white“ timber-framed buildings and also many elegant Georgian and Victorian structures. But then we start to go a bit wobbly when we have to try to justify the more modern stuff.
Believe me, I am one of those who goes a bit wobbly when I'm showing off the town to visitors and we stumble across the Shirehall or the big town centre shopping complexes or indeed the Market Hall.
I read with interest the other day that the 1970s steel-and-glass shopping centre at Milton Keynes has just won Grade II listed status – much to the bewilderment of many locals. The Secretary of State – having been persuaded by English Heritage and others – that the building was worthy of such recognition – conceded that it has never been universally loved. Now, there's an understatement. But, as Tina Turner might put it, what's love got to do with it? The UK's oldest rollercoaster (doubtless an eyesore to many) – built in 1920 in Margate – has been given Grade II listing, as has the 1964 concrete signal box at Birmingham New Street. Clearly, love (at least the widespread love of the public at large) is of little consequence here.
On the other hand, Mr Felton did seem to express a love of sorts in his letter defending the clock tower.
Our eldest son once suggested knocking down the monstrous market hall but keeping the clock tower because it truly has become an integral part of the skyline. That sounds like the start of a slightly different debate.
But perhaps some of us (myself included) need to update what we think of as being precious.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

ELO Experience at Theatre Severn

Apart from the amazing Bootleg Beatles, I've never really felt the urge to go and see a tribute band. But partly because this lot sounded really rather good, partly because it was an excuse to meet up with some old friends and go along as a little gang, and partly because it would give me my first chance of seeing the spanking new Theatre Severn, I thought I'd give it a go.
Well, it was a success on all fronts. Mightily impressed with the smart, ideally-situated Theatre Severn. Mightily impressed with my old friends (still old, still friends). And mightily impressed with the ELO Experience.
My youngest son said they did get a bit Butlins at times (lots of arm-waving and clapping) which, I thought, was fair comment from the 16-year-old music critic dragged along there by his dad, but you could not fault the note-perfect renditions of Jeff Lynne's poptastic hits. I especially enjoyed Wild West Heroes and The Diary of Horace Wimp (two recently rediscovered ELO gems as far as I'm concerned), but the whole thing was great fun and made me want to dig out my ELO CDs again. You just can't beat a good tune.
The lads in the band (who are from Hull incidentally) clearly don't take themselves too seriously (how could they? - This is good-time rock 'n' roll meets irresistible melodies meets 1970s hairstyles). No. This is just escapist entertainment done with great style.

Severn Valley Railway Pub Crawl 2010

It's hard to explain really, but, frankly, the Severn Valley Railway Pub Crawl, which has been organised each summer for the past seven years by my younger brother Tony, is a joy.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, it's like stepping into an Ealing Comedy for the day.
Gorgeous steam locomotives, pints of beer, plates of chips, vintage railway carriages, pints of beer (have I said that already?), pretty-as-a-postcard station platforms, excellent company, outrageous discussions (politics, pop music, half-forgotten television shows), laughter, pints of beer, male bonding, and pints of beer.
The day ends with a pub meal and - well - several more pints of beer really.
This was my third time on the SVRPC so I'm really just an enthusiastic amateur compared with the others. But Tone must be congratulated for masterminding another day to remember.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

McCartney in Hyde Park

For me, it was one of those great weekends. June 26-27, 2010.
Even as I boarded the train on the Saturday morning (a very smart London-Midland multiple unit with its bright, clean upholstery done out in pleasing shades of green), I felt excited and completely happy, just like a child in a Ladybird book who is embarking upon a railway journey bound for adventure.
The carriage throbbed gently at the platform as brilliant sunshine illuminated lovely old Shrewsbury station.
I was off to spend the weekend with eldest son Dave and his girlfriend Laura. And on the Sunday we were going to Hyde Park to see my all-time musical hero Paul McCartney in concert in Hyde Park.
It turns out that the Sunday was the hottest day of the year, but even the heat (which normally would be too much for me) seemed right somehow.
Thousands of happy people enjoying sunshine and music (oh, and - on the giant screen before us - England being thrashed by Germany, but hey!). There was beer to drink. Good company. Elvis Costello, Crowded House, Crosby, Stills and Nash. And of course Macca, magnificent as always.
Boy! What a weekend.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

My Fifty Favourite Musical Artists

I seem to have this compulsive desire to make lists – and I'm a father . . . and so on this Father's Day I am going to treat myself by making a list:

My Fifty Favourite Musical Artists

The Beatles
The Bee Gees
The Hollies
The Kinks
The Move
The Byrds
The Monkees
The Lovin’ Spoonful
The Beach Boys
The Mamas and the Papas
Crosby Stills Nash (and Young)
The Who
The Rolling Stones
Procol Harum
John Lennon
Paul McCartney
George Harrison
Stealers Wheel
Cat Stevens
Simon and Garfunkel
The Moody Blues
The Strawbs
Paul Simon
Elvis Costello
Frank Sinatra
The Supernaturals
Crowded House
The Mutton Birds
Bob Dylan
Roy Orbison
Tom Petty
Traveling Wilburys
Michael Nesmith
Bruce Springsteen
Elvis Presley
Johnny Cash
Flaming Lips
Teenage Fanclub

Sunday, 2 May 2010

73 North Street

Mum and Dad in the back garden at 73 North Street

The walls were so ravaged by damp that, in certain places, if you pressed your finger against them, the plaster would crumble to dust.
Nevertheless, I always thought it a most fabulous house, part of a street in a pleasant collection of streets that had been built mainly for railway workers and their families in the 1870s and – in this particular case – standing directly across the road from the rather magnificent All Saints’ Church. This was the house in which I grew up.
This was the house where I watched Fireball XL5 and then, as the years rolled by, Stingray and then Thunderbirds and then Captain Scarlet and then Joe 90 and then UFO. It was the house in which we watched Bonanza and The Man From UNCLE and Crossroads and Opportunity Knocks and Star Trek and the Cilla Black show and Danger Man and Bob Monkhouse in The Golden Shot and The Monkees and Dallas and Robinson Crusoe and Whacky Races and Scooby-Doo and The Flintstones and Top Cat and Follyfoot. Where we watched Morecambe and Wise and The Two Ronnies.
It’s where we chewed sweet cigarettes from Mr Howard’s shop at the top of the street. It’s where we ate potatoes from Mr Brown’s shop at the bottom of the street. It’s where I read my favourite comic: TV21. And it’s where my lifelong love of The Beatles began.
It was cold. Even in the summer it was cold. And the rooms seemed so big. Compared to those found in modern houses, the rooms were big.
The hall – a long, tall-ceilinged and rather pointless corridor – ran for miles from the heavy Dickensian front door to the door into the living room. It was in this hall where my little brother Tony and I would play balloon basketball, a game which had virtually no rules and which could last for hours. It involved, as you may have guessed, hitting a balloon back and forth, back and forth, until either it was time for Top of the Pops or we were just too tired to do it any more.
There were two other doors leading off the hall: one into the front room, the other taking you down into the coal cellar. There was no electric light in the cellar so when you went down there to collect coal you had to take Dad’s bicycle lamp with you to see what you were doing. Its beam was pathetically weak and so you never knew quite what was lurking in the hundred-year-old corners of that dark, damp place. In my little boy’s mind it was not so much the ghosts and demons that worried me – although doubtless these resided there too. But I was more troubled somehow by the thought of terrifying creepy-crawlies and plump, sharp-toothed vermin scuttling out of the blackness: spiders the size of lobsters, rats the size of armadillos.
It was always such a relief to get back up the steps unscathed, back into the light, back to civilisation. And then you could build a fire in the grate – scrunched-up newspapers, firelighters, sticks, coal. Ah, there’s nothing quite like a real coal fire.
One evening, whilst we were all standing outside the front door, waving off relatives after a visit, my little brother suddenly vanished, not having noticed that the manhole cover was missing from the coal hole that led down to the cellar. He was about five years of age at the time. He had stepped backwards and tumbled straight down in an instant. Whoomph! I remember it now as if it had been a slapstick comedy sketch with my brother re-emerging utterly bewildered, his face covered in coaldust – it was like something out of a Laurel and Hardy film. Our dad would have provided the punchline: “Enjoy your trip, son?”
Things you should know about our dad:
He was born at a very young age – and he was a lovely little girl.
During the war he was involved in two invasions within six months – the D-Day landings in June 1944 and the Invasion of Rangoon in May 1945.
After the war he worked as a hospital porter, a grave digger, a driver for a brewery, a driver for a garage, a cleaner at the market hall, and in a whole range of other jobs.
At one time – so he told us – he had also worked in the treacle mines at Picklescott.
He had been born a very long time ago – in Eighteen-fast-asleep.
For a short while in the 1960s he was commissionaire at the Empire cinema. I wish we had taken a photograph of him in his uniform. He looked like a Russian general in his smart peaked cap and a wonderful tunic with fancy epaulettes. He was able to sneak us into the pictures free of charge.
Dad thought the house was a step up the ladder from the council house we had moved from.
This was 73 North Street, Castlefields. Victorian. Solid – even taking account of the crumbling plaster. Fashioned with the working classes in mind, but surprisingly spacious. Bags of character.
Some pompous, middle-class woman said to me in 1976:
“Don’t you just hate it when you’re lying in the bath, sipping your Martini, and the phone rings?”
I wanted to tell her that we didn’t have a telephone at home. If we wanted to make a call, we had to use the kiosk at the top of the street. As for Martini, this was something I thought was enjoyed only by characters in a James Bond film. Oh yeah – and a bath? We lived in a house with no bathroom. We had a tin tub which occasionally we would take down off the wall in the yard, bring into the kitchen, and fill with hot water from saucepans and the kettle. The whole process seemed to take hours.
When I first began going out with girls, I would almost die of embarrassment when, on a first visit to our house, a young lady would ask to use the bathroom. I would point her in the direction of our outside toilet and – because that had no light either – present her with Dad’s trusty bicycle lamp.
“What’s this?” she would ask.
“Believe me, you’ll need it,” I would say, trying to hide my shame.
Mum, from a rather more middle class background than Dad, would sometimes show her own embarrassment at our lack of amenities.
Things you should know about Mum:
Served in the ATS during the war.
The daughter of a Great Western Railway locomotive driver and his fine, upstanding wife.
Easily embarrassed: “Oh, Jim. You do embarrass me!”
Painfully shy.
She loved Tom Jones, Englebert Humperdink and Terry Wogan.
Always happy to help me with my homework.
Even though we had no money, she made sure our Christmases were magical.

An airforce uniform on the back of the door. Cheap souvenirs of Newfoundland. Postcards of Cyprus displayed on the sideboard.
Our big brother – eight years my senior – did not fully inhabit the house like the rest of us. He was in the RAF for five years, seeing the world, so we saw him only when he came home on leave. When I think of Paul at that time, I think: pubs and girlfriends, rough and ready, down-to-earth, Terry out of The Likely Lads.
Our big sister Jan – ten years my senior – was always more cultured somehow, always with her head in some historical novel. She ate oranges and was interested in the wider world. She managed to give her areas of the house a slightly more refined feel. In her tiny bedroom at the back of the house were dainty little ornaments. But if she wanted a bath she would not bother with the tin tub; she would go to Nan’s place.
Jan introduced Tony and I to the concept of borrowing books from the library. In my case this meant mainly the quaint schoolboy adventures of Jennings and Derbishire. She helped us to appreciate history and architecture. She took us on long walks on Sundays. And she took us to the cinema a lot – The Jungle Book, 101 Dalmations, The Lady and The Tramp, all those John Wayne westerns, The Sound of Music, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, all the Carry On romps, Charlton Heston in Major Dundee, and Elvis surrounded by bikini-clad beauties. It was an education.

And all the time, in the cage in the corner of our living room, the budgerigar sat on its perch looking bored out of its tiny mind.
The enclosed staircase in our house was so dark when you shut the doors at both the bottom and the top that it made a perfect cinema. We called it The Panorama. We would set up the slide projector. The stairs became the seats. We would sell tickets to Mum and Dad. It was so cosy.
The front room was where – if the weather was bad and sometimes even if the weather was good – Tony and I played at weekends and during the holidays. We played with Matchbox cars or plastic soldiers. Underneath the sideboard in the front room were Grenadier Guards, the Household Cavalry, Mexican bandits, cowboys and indians, the US Cavalry, soldiers of the Confederacy, German stormtroopers, British Tommies, and members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. There were also elephants and performing seals, dogs jumping through hoops, clowns and a circus ringmaster. We had dozens and dozens of Matchbox cars and we had imaginations — Tony and I — big enough for entire cities.

Brother Tony: Collector of matchbox labels, fascinated by marionettes (for a while he had dreams of running his own puppet theatre). Inexplicably (and for only about three weeks in 1968) a Manchester City fan. Self-taught-guitarist and singer-songwriter. Devotee of Cat Stevens and Donovan. Talent contest competitor. Busker.

In the kitchen – which really was not a place to prepare food at all, but consisted simply of a sink and a draining board, a gas cooker and a few cupboards – was the ancient gramophone on which we played records, not that we had too many records at that stage. It was from this gramophone that Tony and I would broadcast our imaginary radio show on a Saturday morning. We could say whatever we wanted. No-one was listening.
The soundtrack which accompanied our lives at Number 73 – a soundtrack provided by the radio – would surely have impregnated the very walls. Run a stylus down the wallpaper and you’ll hear echoes of Freddie and the Dreamers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Dusty Springfield, The Searchers, The Hollies and The Kinks. And on into the seventies: T. Rex, Slade, The Sweet, Lindisfarne, Rod Stewart and Cat Stevens. To this day, I love all this music with a passion.
When I was little I would come home from school on a cold winter’s afternoon and sit on my mum’s lap in front of a roaring fire and watch Blue Peter on the telly. Or I would quietly eat my way through a packet of cream crackers while watching Leslie Crowther and Peter Glaze in Crackerjack.
Crawford’s Cream Crackers and Crackerjack. It doesn’t get much better than that.

73 North Street was my home in a way that no other house can ever be.

Insisting On Magic: An Argument for Romantic Agnosticism

And it’s magic if the music is groovy.
It makes you feel happy like an old-time movie.
I’ll tell you about the magic, and it’ll free your soul.
But it’s like trying to tell a stranger ’bout rock ’n’ roll

(from “Do You Believe In Magic” by The Lovin’ Spoonful)

Let’s talk for a moment about the idea of something beyond this earthly life; something beyond flesh and blood. We might be talking about an afterlife or a different dimension or a spiritual plain. Just something else. And it’s a “something else” which we might occasionally catch a glimpse of or feel a connection to, even as we go about our ordinary daily lives. I’m talking about a quality beyond our understanding.
Oh, come on. Humour me for a minute.
I’m going to zero in now on what I see as the very essence of this different dimension, this spiritual plain, this indefinable “whatever”. It’s this essence, this quality, which I believe we DO indeed catch a glimpse of from time to time. It is an essence, a quality, which certain folk might think of as “the supernatural” while other people might recognise it quite simply as God. Hippies who have enjoyed one too many tubes of Smarties might call it fairydust.
Setting aside for a moment its unfortunate connection with television magicians like Paul Daniels, we might call this thing “magic”.
Hence, we might talk about having had a magical experience – something above and beyond the ordinary.
Now, let’s be clear. This is not the magic of pulling rabbits out of a hat or making doves appear from your sleeve. That is conjuring and trickery and sleight of hand. Nor am I talking about the magic of Harry Potter, of wizards and the fantastic creations of an author’s imagination. No, I am talking about a “something else” which we might sometimes become aware of but which we simply cannot put into words, a feeling that THIS is not all there is, a feeling that perhaps there is meaning to this universe after all, a purpose to our lives, that we are right to believe in love and hope and redemption.
You see . . . .
I’m quite keen on the idea of a magical dimension.
But just for a moment, just for fun, let’s substitute the word “magic” for the word “God” and see how far we get.
If someone asks you: “Do you believe in God?” what are you supposed to say?
It seems to me that this is such an enormously complicated question that the three possible one-word answers which spring to mind:
(a) Yes
(b) Maybe
(c) No
are not terribly helpful.
Let’s put a little meat on the bones of those three for starters:
(a) Yes. I believe completely and whole-heartedly in a supernatural being who created everything. Therefore, I call myself a BELIEVER.
(b) Maybe. I sometimes think there might be a supernatural being who created everything. Other times I think we are entirely alone in the universe. But I just don’t know. Therefore, I call myself an AGNOSTIC.
(c) No. I most certainly do not believe in God in any shape or form. Therefore, I call myself an ATHEIST.

And still these answers are not terribly helpful.
Because for these answers to really mean something, you need to define your terms.
The words that trouble me in the question: “Do you believe in God?” are:
(a) “believe”
(b) “God”.

Let us accept that it is easy to believe in, say, popcorn. We can see popcorn. We can feel popcorn. If we take a piece and hold it up to our ear and then squeeze the piece between our fingers, we can hear the sound it makes. Pop it in your mouth and you can taste popcorn. Go to the cinema and you can buy popcorn. We know that it exists.
Many people will happily declare that they believe in God. And yet – if we compare God to popcorn for a moment – I think it’s fair to say we cannot see God or feel God or hear God or taste God. We cannot experience God at all, at least not in the same way that we experience popcorn. So what on earth do people mean when they say they BELIEVE in God? Clearly, it is about faith. And it is a faith based upon no scientific evidence whatsoever.
So then I have all sorts of questions about the depth of a believer’s belief. Do you believe in God just a little bit or quite a lot or completely and utterly? And even then, what does that mean? Tell me. Tell me. Do you believe completely in the Bible and all the amazing stories and all the miracles and the angels – or if you are not a Christian but a Muslim or a Jew or a Hindu or whatever, do you believe in all the amazing stories in your holy books or do you just take the bits that mean something to you and set aside the rest? Are there degrees of belief?
When you break it all down, belief is such a completely personal thing. The Bishop of Durham in the 1980s famously said he did not believe in the literal interpretation of the Virgin Birth – but he remained a Christian and he remained a bishop. So that suggests believers are able to tailor their faith to their own personal needs which gives us, for instance, millions of Christians believing millions of slightly (or sometimes entirely) different things.

What is God? Who is God?
I’m reminded of the old anti-establishment joke – “I’ve seen God – and she’s black!”
Clearly, God means millions of different things to millions of different people. Definitions of God would make a book in themselves.

There exists a T-shirt with the message:
(and then in smaller letters underneath)
“he was down the back of the sofa all the time!”

I love this because, for me, it strikes just the right chord. It is funny and yet profound. And if God isn’t both funny and profound then what the heck is he?
You see: the question “Do you believe in God?” really is a tricky one.

The wonderful American singer/songwriter Iris de Ment has it:

Everybody’s wonderin’ what and where they all came from.
Everybody’s worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done.
But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me.
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.
Some say once you’re gone you’re gone forever, and some say you’re gonna come back.
Some say you rest in the arms of the Saviour if in sinful ways you lack.
Some say that they’re comin’ back in a garden, bunch of carrots and little sweet peas.
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

I think I’m with Iris on this one. I think I’ll just let the mystery be.
After all, God (and not just the Christian God, but any God) is clearly an awfully complicated fella (or indeed woman, or thing) to get one’s head around. Magic somehow seems a lot simpler. It also has the cheeky advantage of not necessarily excluding the possibility of God.
So, yeah, I’ll continue to be puzzled yet intrigued; confused yet fascinated.
But I think also I’ll continue to believe in something . . . . a magical dimension of some kind that none of us have the brains to appreciate right now, a magical dimension which not only enriches our earthly lives, but gives us a little hope of something more.
If I really have to give myself a label then I’ll call myself a romantic agnostic – (a) because I insist on a little romance in my life, and (b) because I prefer to keep the door ajar to the possibility of the seemingly impossible.
Trouble is. Trying to share your own visions of a god or simply of “something else beyond all of this” or of what I like to call “magic”, for heaven’s sake, is – as The Lovin’ Spoonful so rightly said – like trying to tell a stranger ’bout rock ’n’ roll.

Now, I’ve read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion from cover to cover. It is a book in which Dawkins comprehensively tramples all over God and any notions of supernatural dimensions. Dawkins is revered as one of our greatest intellectuals and this book is undoubtedly extremely clever, witty, tremendously well researched, and incredibly powerful in driving home its arguments. It’s a damn good read. And, frankly, I would have to agree with almost everything the man says. There simply is no scientific evidence for any kind of a god or any kind of an afterlife or any kind of miracles.
But, impressive though Dawkins is, we still cannot say with any certainty that he is right.
When all is said and done, Professor Dawkins is just a human being like the rest of us, and although he gives the impression that he knows everything, it is unlikely that he does.
As I’ve already said, I happily go along with the vast majority of his arguments, but . . .
(Now, many who have read The God Delusion will cry: “How can there be any ‘buts’ after reading this extraordinary book?”)
I say only this. Set aside all the ideas about God and religion that man has toyed with since the dawn of humanity. But who is to say, even if every civilisation has got it hopelessly wrong for thousands of years, that there isn’t actually something else out there?
One of the really sad things about The God Delusion is that the arguments employed by Dawkins to rubbish God could just as easily be used to rubbish Love. After all, is there any scientific evidence to prove the existence of Love? Or is it merely something which many human beings choose to have faith in? Love can easily be dismissed (like religious belief) as the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. If you don’t mind, I will choose a more romantic approach.
I know love is real, I keep an open mind about some kind of a god, I keep an open mind about angels and ghosts and an afterlife, and I most definitely DO believe in magic.
And this magic is not just to be found in the big stuff.
Some of us tend to think that magic can be found only in a round-the-world cruise or in winning the lottery, or in Christmas in Vermont or a romantic weekend in Paris, or in skydiving or in swimming with dolphins – and maybe magic can be found in these things. But what we so often fail to see is that magic can also be found in much more commonplace things: a chat with a friend, a drink down the local, a walk in the country, a beans-on-toast tea with your son.
Even these simple things can give us a glimpse of something beyond this earthly life. Even these simple things, therefore, can be imbued with what I call magic.
Yes. I think I shall call myself a romantic agnostic.
I really don’t believe this is intellectually lazy of me; surely it is more to do with being intellectually honest and emotionally open, leaving yourself receptive to at least the possibility of a spiritual dimension far beyond our feeble comprehension.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Paper Bubble, Lager And Lime

They were labelmates of the mighty Moody Blues. Their album was produced by two of The Strawbs. And they worked alongside the likes of Thin Lizzie, Ralph McTell and Pentangle. So whatever happened to Paper Bubble?

Harold Wilson is busy inside Number 10 Downing Street fretting about what will turn out to be the last months of his second period as Prime Minister. Meanwhile we youngsters wonder who will be on Top Of The Pops this week. Will it be Mud, 10cc, the Bay City Rollers or (heaven forbid!) Windsor Davies and Don Estelle with their unforgettable rendition of Whispering Grass?
Yes, this is 1975, and my mates, in their flared jeans and hideous round-collared shirts, are up at the bar getting in the pints of lager and lime as we prepare for an evening of live music. As a sort of modest excitement builds in the hall, faded Regency grandeur is all about us at this most exquisite venue: The Lion Hotel, Shrewsbury, a 16th century coaching inn at the heart of Shropshire’s gorgeous county town.
Paper Bubble take to the stage – cheery local lads with acoustic guitars – and the sound they make is heart-stoppingly lovely, something akin to a very English Simon and Garfunkel.
Now, because Brian Crane (lead singer-songwriter of Paper Bubble) and myself share a great love for our home town of Shrewsbury, and because, as I discover later, we grew up on the very same street in the Victorian suburb of Castlefields (and our dads knew each other very well), I quickly develop a feeling of connection to this man with the angelic voice.
Fast forward a decade to the mid-eighties and both Brian and myself (who haven’t seen one another for ten years) find ourselves in the neighbouring county of Staffordshire, him playing as a solo artist now in the pub that I just happen to be in that evening, and me working as a journalist on the local paper. We have a good old chat during the break between his sets and then I sit back and enjoy the rest of his performance; Cat Stevens and Rod Stewart covers mixed in with some originals.
Fast forward another 20 years and I – having returned to my beloved hometown now with my wife and family – find myself reminiscing about Paper Bubble in my weekly column in the Shropshire Star. Someone reading this column then gives me a call and tells me that Brian is now living in Devon “and here’s his address if you want to get in touch.”
I write to Brian and – bingo! – the connection first made thirty years ago is renewed again.
Somehow, it now seems the singing voice of Brian Crane, his plaintive guitar playing, and the sound of Paper Bubble have worked their way into my DNA. And if, through circumstances too fantastic to contemplate, I should ever be given the chance to make a feature film set in Shrewsbury, the music of Paper Bubble would of course have to be included in the soundtrack.
“I feel very fortunate having been brought up in a small town like Shrewsbury and also being part of the sixties, although seeing the period through somewhat innocent eyes during the Paper Bubble Days,” explains Brian, today looking back over decades of music-making.
“I suppose my earliest recollections are somewhat blurred but I do remember being the conductor for the All Saints Infants School Percussion Orchestra at the ripe old age of five.
“Then it was school choirs and Sunday School anniversaries. When I was eight I was given a four-string ukelele by an uncle and I believe this was the instigation for later interests.
“At fourteen I bought my first guitar out of a catalogue with earnings from my paper round. I think it cost £12. Because I could not, and still cannot, read music, I tuned the guitar to what I thought it should be. This turned out, years later, to be completely unconventional open tuning. Consequently no chord books could be used and so I developed my own chord structures.
“Later when I joined Terry Brake (vocals, six-string guitar, 12-string guitar), he had only just bought a guitar and so we developed together. It was not until much later – after Paper Bubble had split up – that I learnt how to play in a conventional tuning.”
Brian and Terry quickly became firm friends and musical partners and as a duo playing pubs and clubs in the late sixties would play Donovan, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary songs. But they also began writing their own material.
It was in 1968 that the lads recorded a few songs at the studio of Avon HiFi on Wyle Cop, Shrewsbury. Also that year they were offered a booking in Oswestry supporting the Strawberry Hill Boys (later The Strawbs). The possibility of publishing some of the lads’ songs was mentioned by soon-to-be Strawbs frontman Dave Cousins. Then came gigs in London. And soon after a recording deal with Moody Blues label, Deram. It was at this time that Brian and Terry (now joined by Neil Mitchell on bass) became Paper Bubble. Their only commercially available album – Scenery – was released in 1970. Reviewed by Stefan Granados in Shindig! (vol 2, issue 5), Scenery – a beautiful and wistful collection – is available again through RPM Retro records.
Now, all these years later, aged 59, happily married to Sue, and proud dad to grown-up daughter Sarah, Brian looks back with affection on the record. He says: “The songs we chose for the album were all acoustic numbers that we performed live, and the orchestrations came as quite a surprise. I remember standing around with Phil Dennys, the arranger, and also Tony Visconti, who was The Strawbs’ producer, describing humming, chanting, what I felt the songs needed. My biggest memory was going to the EMI studios in London and watching a 40-piece orchestra putting the backing on the song, Energy.”
Sadly, Scenery – produced by Strawbs Dave Cousins and Tony Hooper – received little publicity upon its release and failed to set the charts alight. But it did give Paper Bubble a little while in the spotlight as they toured with the Strawberry Hill Boys, enjoyed more gigs in London and had appearances on Radio One Club and BBC Nite Ride. “But the best for me was a return to Shrewsbury for a concert at the old Granada cinema,” says Brian. The group also supported Thin Lizzie, Ralph McTell, Pentangle and many others. And for several years the band had a steady stream of work.
Eventually, though, as that work dried up, there was an amicable split.
Over the years, various incarnations of Paper Bubble resurfaced, but it was never quite the same. Ultimately, Brian concentrated on solo enterprises including working on plays, musicals and even a spot of pantomime at Shrewsbury Music Hall.
“I went to drama college in Birmingham where I attained my ALAMDA as Associate of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. From there to Birmingham University for a Post Graduate Teaching Qualification in educational drama. Apart from working as a solo act during this period, I still worked with a band line-up and also did quite a lot of extra work for the BBC and ATV. In 1978, I started teaching drama and performing arts at a school in Handsworth, Birmingham. Here I wrote and directed the musical Saints and Sinners. In 1980, though, I came out of teaching to go on the road. Always as a solo act in pubs and clubs, but as the eighties progressed, much more with the guys who formed my new band, Stillbreeze. We recorded a set called Coming Home. In 1982 I was awarded the Michelin Club Land Artist of the Year, and the following year Vocal Guitarist of the Year.”
After eleven years, Stillbreeze broke up. But that didn’t stop Brian. He continued performing as a solo artist until a move in 1994 to Devon with a new teaching job.
To this day, Brian is still writing and performing music. He says: “I’m really enjoying performing my own songs again. And it really does matter to me that others out there still appreciate the work, the heartache and the frustrations that go into it.”