The riverside at Castlefields

The riverside at Castlefields

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.”