If you’re reading this and are feeling at all disgruntled, perhaps you shouldn’t be reading my blogs?
A discussion by text message about the BBC’s Jimmy Savile story – which I didn’t watch, though I’d glimpsed enough snippets to be able to say that, whatever else you might think about it, Steve Coogan’s portrayal had been remarkable – led to a more general discussion of BBC Radio One DJs’ questionable sexual mores in the 1970s, about which I commented – sarcastically I grant you – that those DJs seemed to have an inherent inability to say no. This led to me being castigated by the person I was having the discussion with because I apparently hadn’t done enough ‘research’ into the topic to know that (a) the BBC condoned their behaviour, and (b) the DJs in question ‘explained’ that it was the 13-year-old female fans who ‘wouldn’t say no’ and that therefore they, as grown men, had no choice but to have sex with those girls. That this was often unprotected sex, in at least one case while having an STD, and leading in at least one case to what the girl herself described as a ‘traumatic abortion’, was apparently beside the point. What did seem to be the point was that I was ignorant enough not to know that that was the DJs’ explanation, which must of course be accepted without question. I naively assumed that this person was being facetious in stating this. It turned out that I was wrong, which, to me, was a hundred times worse, because it’s crushingly disappointing and almost beyond my comprehension that this particular person would take this stance, effectively siding with every rapist and sexual predator who’s ever blamed their victim, said that ‘she asked for it’, and, oh yes, how could I forget, that she was wearing a mini-skirt, so what did she expect?
If you’re reading this and are feeling at all disgruntled, perhaps you shouldn’t be reading my blogs?
There’s a Facebook meme telling you to pick your three favourite bands out of a choice of around a hundred from the 1960s up to (roughly) the present day. Of those hundred bands, maybe five have women in them. I have no doubt of the gender of the person creating that meme. Nor of the gender of the person who commented that it was tough naming only three, but in the end plumped for the Beatles, the Who and the Rolling Stones. (To be truthful, I have no doubt of his gender because he’s a Facebook friend of mine!) No surprises there, then. But my stomach churned in an oh-so-familiar way when he then went on to deride his ‘least favourite’ of those hundred: Siouxsie and the Banshees. Was it just a coincidence that they were one of the handful of female-fronted bands given as a possible choice? Or was it yet another of those tiringly regular chauvinistic digs that women musicians face every time they play a gig?
A couple of years ago, I bought a Zoom guitar effects pedal at a car boot sale for the bargain price of three pounds. ‘That’ll make a nice present for your hubby or boyfriend!’ said the bloke whose stall it was as I held it up to pay for it. Despite everything racing through my stunned mind right then, I refrained from shoving it back at him and instead merely said, ‘It’s for me, actually.’ ‘Oh, you play guitar, do you?’ he said incredulously. I could have told him I’ve been playing for around fifty years – which was quite likely forty-five or so years longer than him – but I felt no inclination to give him any personal information, so I simply walked away.
‘That’s a really beautiful-sounding guitar you have there!’ is something I hear often from men who come up to me after I’ve played. Only once do I remember it being turned around to: ‘You played that guitar really beautifully!’ From the same school as the hundred favourite bands came a Facebook meme that gave a choice of the ‘fifty greatest guitarists’ to pick your favourite from. If Bonnie Raitt was among that selection, she’d have been the only female listed, and I’ll be an angel from Montgomery…
I was recently chatting to another female singer-songwriter, who spoke of the gig at which she had dared to sing a humorous original song about the signs of ageing we face as older women. She knew from the tumbleweed silence that descended during the first verse that the song had bombed, and knew too that it only got more graphic as it went on, but she was committed to finishing it by then, so finish it she did – as well as any chance of another booking at that club. It’s OK, apparently, to sing funny songs about Viagra, baldness and brewer’s droop. It’s not OK, however, to sing of greying pubes and saggy boobs (even though they do rhyme rather beautifully)…
Sadly, it’s as true as it ever was that for a woman to get half as much credit as a man, she has to work twice as hard and be twice as smart. As the French (who aren’t any more liberated than anyone else) say, ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’…
The following lists are by no means exhaustive and are in no particular order – they are simply some of the female musicians I personally have been influenced by, looked up to, or otherwise known about during my life in music.
This isn’t, by the way, about slamming male musicians, it’s about creating some kind of balance, recognising any musicians who’ve influenced those who followed them, not for their gender, but for their artistry.
I set off yesterday afternoon on a week-long ‘tour’ in the van. ‘Tour’ is admittedly a bit of a stretch - the week is bookended by two paid social club/care home gigs, but in between I plan to take in a folk club/acoustic session/open mic each evening, with the hope of (a) securing bookings and networking, (b) meeting up with old friends in the various music circles I’ve been part of over the years, and (c) generally having an open-road blast. The downside is that this time it’s just me out on the highway - Carol and the pups are holding the fort back home - but we are of course in regular touch, and I gather my dressing gown is being used - particularly by Chilli - as a proxy me in my absence. (Just as well I hadn’t thought to put it in the laundry basket for, well, let’s just say ‘a while’…)
I set off yesterday so that I wouldn’t have to rush this morning to the first paid gig, at a social club in Kidlington, Oxfordshire (where my family home was for forty years). That meant that I could take in the Monday night meeting of Chipping Norton Folk Club, at a lovely country pub in Chadlington, where I indulged in a very nice meal and where they were happy for me to park up overnight in the beautifully rural and peaceful car park. I knew most of the folk who came along to play or listen - first of all outside, and then, when it got a bit chilly, in the dining area inside. It was a really great evening, and I particularly enjoyed chatting with Sylvia, a regular at the club, but who I only learned last night spent 55 years delivering milk in the Witney area (I can practically hear that familiar early-morning sound of the milk float as I write this!), and gave talks about her life at the very same venue I’m about to play at this afternoon.
Speaking of which, I’d better start getting ready to entertain. Kidlington, here I come! 😎
As the proud new owner of a 14-fret gorgeous-sounding ‘Little Silver’ handcrafted by Brook Guitars, I’ve reached the glorious end of a long quest for the perfect travel guitar. If you’ve never heard of this West Country luthier before – or, indeed, if you’re saying in a knowing, appreciative tone, ‘Ahhhh!’ – read on!
I first heard of Brook Guitars quite recently, when I was so taken with the outstandingly beautiful resonance of the guitar someone was playing at the Queen of Cups open mic in Glastonbury that I went up to the owner of the guitar afterwards to ask him about the instrument that, I noticed, had ‘Brook’ on its headstock. He told me how he’d had much the same reaction as me when he first heard a Brook guitar and set his sights on acquiring one himself. He went on to describe the extremely rural location of the Brook Guitars workshop in the heart of Devon and the affable – not to mention extremely talented – men who painstakingly and lovingly build each unique instrument right there. I was intrigued, and when I got home I looked up Brook Guitars, and the more I read, the more I dreamed of one day having my very own Brook. What’s more, that deepest-Devon workshop was only an hour and a half from me, so what was to stop me from taking a trip down there sometime to meet the men who make these fabulous instruments and maybe get to play one or two myself while I was there?
If you look on the Brook Guitars website, you’ll see that each model is named after a river in the West Country – Taw, Tavy, Lyn, etc, etc. There are, it turns out, quite a few rivers in the West Country, which is fortunate because there are quite a few Brook guitar models. There’s also, not surprisingly, given the small size of operations and the fact that everything is handmade, a bit of a waiting list for these custom-made beauties. So I also had a look online to see if any used Brooks ever come up for sale. Sure enough, there were one or two, and – again, not surprisingly – it was clear that they hold their value and are very sought after.
One in particular, listed on Reverb, caught my eye – a travel-sized Brook Little Silver, named after a tributary of the river Mole in North Devon. I’ve long been after a small guitar that sounds like a big one, and up to now have been quite disappointed with the travel guitars I’ve acquired and then quite quickly sold on – not only because they sounded too thin, but also because there was a limit to what I could play with just 12 frets up to the neck. When I realised that the Little Silver is a 14-fret model, I decided I absolutely had to at least have a play of the miniature beauty to see if it might be the very instrument I’d been looking for. The seller was Coda Music in Stevenage, Hertfordshire – one of a very select number of dealers who stock Brook guitars. I called the shop, had a chat with them about the Little Silver, and decided that I’d drive there to try it out.
And then Covid struck. My plan was scuppered for at least the next ten days, and I kept looking on Reverb to check that the guitar was still there, worried that someone else would snap it up before I ever got a chance to try it. I finally made another call to Coda Music, and they very kindly agreed to hold the Little Silver until I could get there the following week.
Well, the rest goes without saying, really – for who has ever tried out a guitar, discovered that it has the most wonderful tone, is in fact everything they’d ever wanted, and then walked away from it? Not me, let’s just say… (Incidentally, I’d also recommend Coda Music as worth a visit – a fabulous range of guitars of all types, and very friendly and knowledgeable service.)
Next stop, a visit to the Brook Guitars workshop in deepest Devon to get a pickup and strap button fitted. Given its small sound hole and pristine neck, I wouldn’t have trusted anyone other than the makers of the guitar to carry out that kind of delicate work on it!
Getting from the M5 to the workshop was quite an adventure, involving crossing two fords and deciding not to risk a rather deeper third one, so having to reverse my little motorhome back along a grassy lane with a steep riverbank on one side in order to gingerly drive over a rickety wooden bridge instead. It also involved a lot of hoping and praying that nothing would come the other way along miles of narrow lanes with very few passing points – as well as, in the end, a call to the workshop to say to the chap who answered that I was ‘lost-ish’ and could he please work out where I was (all I could tell him was that I was in the muddy entrance to a field) and direct me to the workshop from there? Remarkably, he did work out where I was, and it turned out I was actually only a few minutes away by then.
The man I’d spoken to on the phone was waiting for me outside the workshop when I finally rolled into view, and, after breathing a hefty sigh of relief, I parked up, was greeted by him (he introduced himself as Simon), and we went into the rambling old pink cottage where Brook guitars are created. The aroma of sawdust filled my nostrils as we stepped into the first room, and I was instantly transported back to the woodshop in Virginia where I’d happily worked during my very first stay in the USA years ago, when I was a volunteer at a therapeutic community in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Ah, the memories!
The other half of the Brook partnership, Andy, took my guitar from me, laid it on the work bench and set about the business of fitting it with an under-saddle pickup (the only type that would work due to the size of the sound hole). Meanwhile, Simon took me on a fascinating tour of the workshop, where it became apparent that absolutely every step of the process of building a Brook guitar is done by hand, or at the very most with the help of basic but customised (by Andy) woodshop machinery such as routers, sanders and planers. It also became clear that each Brook guitar is completely unique, as they use such a wonderful variety of different woods, mostly British tonewoods. So there is no other Little Silver exactly like mine, whose sides and back are made of beautifully resonant walnut, with a Sitka spruce top. (To be honest, I’m not sure that there are many other Little Silver guitars full stop!)
On the tour I also met Jack, who creates really exquisite inlays as well as doing other skilled and minutely detailed work.
By the end of the tour, Andy was just about finished with my guitar, and after settling up and having a photo taken for their website, I headed back to the M5, this time by a much easier route thanks to Simon and Andy’s directions.
So I have the travel guitar of my dreams, memories of an adventurous ride into deepest Devon and a fantastic trip around an amazing guitar workshop – as well as another exciting related project in the making: because the Little Silver is such an unusual size, it came with no case, so what else was there to do but have a leather gig bag made specially for the tiny beauty? I happened upon a leathermaker here in Glastonbury, the talented Effie at SoulHuntress. Together, we’ve come up with a design for the bag, and as I write it's being created. More photos will follow!
Songwriting. You can divide it into two distinct types. There’s the kind where you spill out your innermost feelings, your darkest, most poignant experiences, in such a way that your listeners aren’t embarrassed by ‘TMI’, but can relate and take comfort in the fact that someone else has been there too. And there’s the more calculating commercial kind, where you’d willingly sell the rights to everything about your creation, including the right to say you wrote it, to the highest bidder because it really contains nothing of you – anything that was ‘you’ has been written out, or was never there in the first place.
It’s taken me years and years – and I’m probably not even there yet, when it comes down to it – to fully appreciate the gulf between the two, and to celebrate the fact that my songs fall fairly squarely into the former. Once I am finally there, perhaps then I’ll also know that my own instinct about my songs is more solid and pertinent than the words of someone from the commercial world paid to find something – anything – to take a pop at in them. From there, it’ll be just a small jump to taking subjective criticism of my babies with a pinch of salt, instead of feeling like someone who purports to know more than me about the songwriting business has just rubbed salt into an open wound.
Just recently, I cut the second verse from my semi-autobiographical song ‘Trail of Goodbyes’ when someone in a song-critique group I was taking part in said that he’d been right there with me until the end of the bridge, but that as I started on Verse 2, I lost him – the song was too long. Just one opinion, when there has been so much positive feedback about the song. And yet I took his view fully on board and shortened the song to one verse, one bridge and three choruses. Now I had a song that met the ridiculously restrictive criterion for a radio-length commercial song – a little over three minutes! I was still fairly happy with it, if somewhat disappointed at having jettisoned the second verse that had fleshed out the song and given more insight into the protagonist’s nomadic lifestyle, so I then took it along to another song-critique session for what I hoped would be nothing but praise for my concise, upbeat creation. Well, there was, thankfully, praise – but – and there’s always a ‘but’ at these sessions – as I say, that’s what they’re paid to come up with, even when an ‘and’ would be more justified: ‘Incredible! Sung like you’d really lived those words – and that rugged Americana delivery – not at all what I’d expected from your clipped British speaking voice! BUT…’ I held my breath. ‘BUT – I really wanted a second verse, giving more examples of that wanderlust…’
I was beside myself with fury at having listened to that other lone voice, the shallow opinion of a chap who hadn’t been able to stick with more than a two-and-a-half-minute song! And I immediately went into my studio and reinstated the second verse – with a renewed conviction to stick with my gut instinct about my creations rather than flip and flop according to the whims and fancies of any passing ‘music industry professional’.
But as I made that resolution, I was forgetting another song I’d chopped and changed as a result of professional critiques, rewriting it to within an inch of its life to the point where I no longer sang it because I didn’t really like it any more. I had, however, uploaded the original version of that song, ‘Too Bad To Be True?’, on to a music industry website ages ago, where it lay forgotten until last night, when a DJ from a US radio station messaged me to say: ‘Hi, I came across the song “Too Bad To Be True” – it is so amazing. I absolutely love this song and I will be honored to have it in my rotation.’ I’ve no idea how widely listened to that radio station is, but that’s not really the point. I was going to write to him to say I’d rewritten the song since then and would he play the rewritten version instead, but I decided to listen to the original version once again before messaging him. And guess what? I immediately realised that it was far superior to the badly scanning, forced version I’d re-shaped it into on the basis of music industry professionals’ opinions about what I needed to do with my song. So that US radio DJ will be playing my song in its original version, and the newer version will be consigned to the recycle bin. And I’ll hope the lesson will permeate my grey matter just a little bit deeper, so that in future I’ll trust my own feelings about my creations far more than the shaky, and often conflicting, opinions of ‘industry professionals’.
All of this is not to say that there has never been any valid criticism of my songs – or, indeed, that there’s nothing wrong with any of them! My point is, rather, that it’s important to be able to sift the useful points that will benefit the song from the ones that will end up actually being detrimental. Often you can only tell the difference in hindsight. But it’s usually possible to go back and reinstate the earlier version when you’ve realised that it was better than the clunky thing you’ve ended up with in an effort to please all the critics, but actually pleasing no one – including yourself.
My virtual world tour of online music sessions continued a few days after my cyber trip to Tallahassee with a worldwide whisk across the North Sea to Norway. Prior to the pandemic, we had just begun planning a road trip there, as I’ve long wanted to dip my toe into any live-music scene we might find and see how receptive Norwegian audiences are to my material.
There were several reasons why I was so keen to visit the country, one being that I have Norwegian relatives – fairly distant, admittedly, but I did get to know them when by chance the head of the family, a senior officer in the Norwegian navy, happened to be posted to Norfolk, Virginia the very same year I was working as a volunteer in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so I spent a lovely, and very different, Norwegian-style Christmas with them at the US naval base in Norfolk. Another reason was that I had a friend who regularly toured Norway with her songs, which got me thinking that there might be an audience for my material there too. And the third reason was that a large party of Norwegian tourists happened to be visiting the Troubadour, the legendary live-music venue in Earl’s Court, the evening I had a gig there in October 2019, and (despite my under-par performance that evening due to the effects of a lingering bout of flu) I sold CDs to some of them that night as well as via my website a while later. Even though the town I posted one of the CDs to, Bodø, turned out to be north of the Arctic Circle, it didn’t stop me fondly imagining playing there in a packed log-cabin-type venue full of newly acquired fans…
But a few months later, just as we started thinking about how feasible it would be to drive our small motorhome to Norway and tour the country in it (probably not very, I realised, once I saw how very long the country is; we'd do better to fly there and hire a vehicle once we arrived), the Chinese city of Wuhan leapt into the news, Covid-19 became a household word, and the world rapidly proceeded to change dramatically, putting an end – at least for the time being – to any such plans.
When the idea of embarking instead on a virtual world tour came to me, Norway was therefore one of the first countries I researched for online music sessions, and aha! (get it? Aha? Oh, never mind…), what should come up, but a weekly singer-songwriter session based in Oslo! Perfect! I was slightly anxious about the fact that I don’t speak a single word of Norwegian, but the two main things I recalled about my distant relatives from that long-ago Christmas in Virginia were: (a) they all spoke absolutely perfect English; and (b) (not really relevant, but memorable nonetheless), they all looked like film stars. The latter point might have increased my anxiety if I’d dwelled on it, but instead I hung my hopes on the notion that all Norwegians speak word-perfect English, so I felt relatively sure that I’d be fine.
So I duly signed up for the next session, on a Monday evening, with the welcoming English title ‘Bring your songs, heart and ears!’, and at 6 o’clock that evening clicked on the Zoom link with a teensy bit of trepidation. I wasn’t the first one there by any means – the host and a number of others were already ensconced in the Zoom room, and for some reason I was slightly taken aback to realise that they were indeed all Norwegian and all speaking in, yes, Norwegian!
‘Um… is it okay for me to be here, as I only speak English?’ was my opening line.
There was only a very momentary hesitation before I was welcomed in English by the host, who then went on to ask the others in Norwegian whether they’d mind conducting the session in English for my benefit. They didn’t mind, but when I realised that that’s what had just been agreed, I leapt in and said they must speak in whatever language they felt most comfortable speaking in, and I’d be more than happy just to be there and to sing my songs when requested to do so, as long as I was prompted to do so in English!
The end result was a happy middle ground, with some discussion in Norwegian (I prided myself on being able to discern the subject of one particular conversation in that language, laced as it was with ‘screen share’, ‘feedback’ and other seemingly non-translatable terms), but a very generous amount of English. At the end of the two hours I felt that these lovely Scandinavian musicians genuinely hoped to see me there again, and I could equally genuinely tell them that I’d really loved listening to them sing – some in Norwegian (one man’s voice in particular I found very hypnotic), and some in admirable English – and that all of the performances had been full of emotion that I could relate to even if I didn’t always understand the actual words. In return, they seemed very engaged with my song, with my explanation of why I was there – the virtual world tour and all that – and with me showing them how I use the partial capo. The energy level was refreshingly laid back that evening – I think some of the participants were quite tired, so it may not always be so low key, but it certainly helped me keep up much more easily with what was going on throughout.
I’m looking forward to going back – and even, one day, to putting in a real-life appearance when things return to some semblance of normality and the session reverts to its regular venue in a café in the city.
Towards the end of 2020 I was struck by a pandemic-related paradox: in lockdown, where most of us are doing the responsible thing and staying at home except for ‘essential’ trips out, with any chance of live music having therefore all but ceased, it’s become possible where it wasn’t before for artists to play all around the world, to audiences who previously had no idea of their existence.
Realising - albeit belatedly - the opportunity provided by the recent explosion of Zoom-type music events, I decided to embark on a virtual world tour of online open mics and singer-songwriter sessions. My first foray into this internet-based form of globetrotting was, by pure chance, on 1 January 2021, but that gave me a vision for the coming year – a year that has started out pretty much where its predecessor left off. In that vision, this is the year my songs will be heard everywhere across the pandemic-struck world where an online live music session exists!
So far, while not stepping out of my log cabin studio at the bottom of my garden in Somerset, England, I have played in Tallahassee, Florida, Oslo, Norway, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, and it’s been heartwarmingly wonderful! To get to play to brand-new, appreciative audiences is fabulous in itself – and for them to be spread all across the world is the absolute icing on the cake! Tonight I’m performing a 30-minute set in Tucson, Arizona, which I’m looking forward to pulling out my southwestern desert-type songs for.
I came across Virtual Open Mic Tallahassee on Facebook. It’s hosted each Friday evening on StreamYard by singer-songwriter Robynn O’Leary and her co-host Adam, and is broadcast on Facebook. The night I first went along (and it certainly was ‘night’ for me rather than evening – it’s midnight in the UK when it’s 7 p.m. in Florida…), there were about five or six other performers, including Robynn, Adam, a heavy-rock duo, a pianist with a big, theatrical voice and a singer-songwriter from Nashville. For some reason my internet connection was particularly unstable that night, which was disappointing, as it made it very difficult for me to join in with the chat between songs. But everyone was so welcoming that I made a return visit to the state capital of Florida the following Friday night, when my internet connection was much more reliable. It was another really enjoyable session, and although the initial idea of the world tour was to visit as many sessions as possible, the friendships I’m forging there have made me think that it’s better to make repeat visits to the same sessions as a way of getting to know people better and familiarising people with my music. And just because it's more fun that way!
To be continued...
Funny old times, these. Who’d have thought I’d ever get round to cobbling together the ‘rustic’ leather guitar strap that I’d long dreamed of making for myself, or the equally ‘rustic’ leather camera strap I then went on to create for Carol? Or that I’d ever find the time to meticulously saw the fiddly metal hoops off a number of tiny silver charms in order to make them into medallions to attach to the aforementioned straps? Or that I’d finally turn my hand to replacing the rotten plank at the front of the log cabin – something I’d previously imagined could only be done by someone who actually knew what they were doing?
To an expert leather craftsperson, admittedly, my rather unique straps might be laughable – but I’m quite proud of them myself, and as for Carol, well, she charmingly claims to love the ‘rusticity’ of hers and has already attached the lighter of her two weighty cameras to it, with bold assurances from me that I stitched and stitched and stitched the bloody thing, so it’ll bear the weight of a battleship if need be… 😟
And to a professional carpenter, I daresay the mismatched planks and paint colour that now characterise the front of the cabin would be the first thing they’d notice (b***ards!), but at least I had the chutzpah to get out in the garden and do it in this time of social distancing and self-reliance.
We already have a much tidier garden and shed than we did this time last week, and we have come up with some amazingly creative ideas for ways to bring in a bit of cash at a time when everyone whose income has crashed to nought is doing the same kind of planning. And, like many creative types, we’re finding ways to keep bringing our creativity to others when there’s nowhere to go out to and no one who would be going out even if anywhere was open. This Friday evening I’m hosting a virtual acoustic song-share session on Zoom that’s proved far more popular than I ever dreamed, with performers and audience from both sides of the Atlantic playing, watching and listening in their own homes, via their phones or computer screens. It’s an idea I’d never have dared voice at any other time, but in these surreal, unimaginably strange days, we’re voicing anything and everything, with little fear of mockery or derision…
There are limits to universal acceptance, however, even today. Filming me singing an a cappella medley from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to the dogs and putting it up on YouTube, for instance. Some things, let’s face it, will always be beyond the pale…
This is the darkest of times. We are plummeting into survival mode, for many of us for the first time in our lives. Long-term plans are decimated and the medium term is an unknown. Even the short term is based on a day-by-day existence as we wait for news and instruction from the powers that be. We are down to our last roll of toilet paper and now regretting our decision to be very principled and not be taken in by the ignorant mass panic buying of loo roll. How we mocked and superciliously slated the rest of the nation for their sheep-like behaviour. It was a rather sad affair this morning folding the single sheet into four in the hope of some additional absorbency before having to open the last-resort baby wipes as an alternative wiping method.
Day one of social distancing was interesting. Resigned to the fact that the next few weeks are going to be a bit of a long haul, with all of our planned events being cancelled one by one, we decided to wisely invest this time in progressing with decorating of the house. Some posts on Facebook led me to believe that others had the same idea and so, learning from the toilet-paper experience, we headed off to B&Q to stockpile paint before the wider population cottoned on, although seemingly everyone was at it, so avoiding other people was tricky. Still, we took comfort in knowing that once ensconced in our own house we’d be safe from any human contact – or so we thought. A knock at the door later that afternoon announced the arrival of a friend who was just popping by to say ‘hello’. A friend who has chronic health issues and seemed blissfully unaware of the gravity of the situation and who looked more than surprised when we politely hinted at the need for social distancing going forward.
As the day wore on and we were drip-fed the grim headlines through a combination of news and social media websites, we decided that we really needed to avoid unnecessary trips to the supermarket. Online shopping was the obvious solution. But there was not a single delivery slot available in the next few weeks, and no local click-and-collect options. Trips to the supermarket seemed inevitable, and we went to bed a little disheartened. However, I was woken in the early hours. Mandy’s gentle voice, something about getting a slot, shea butter toilet paper, and what else did we need? I thought it might have been a dream, but there was an email this morning with an order confirmation list, the first few items of which consisted of shea butter toilet paper, three different types of chocolate bar and two bottles of my favourite wine on special offer. So I think we’re going to be OK.
I had my first guitar at the tender age of nine – most likely a birthday present from my parents, though my memory's a bit hazy on that. I do remember the guitar clearly though, and where it came from – Kempster Pianos, a now defunct music shop in Witney, in the county we’d only recently moved to, Oxfordshire. The girl next door, six years older than me, offered to teach me some chords, and the first song I learned (in a very loose sense, since I don’t remember ever practising between lessons, and as a result, never stopped struggling with the F chord) was ‘Blowin' in the Wind’. She was a bit of a hippie and I looked up to her. Everything she said ended with ‘man’, as it did for hippies everywhere in those days, but I didn’t realise that, so when she kept on about ‘Fleetwood Mac, man’ I thought that was their name – Fleetwood Mac Man – and even when I later came across an album by Fleetwood Mac, I simply assumed that by then they must have dropped the ‘Man’ in their name for some reason...
As I say, I don’t remember practising very much at that stage, but I must have done, at least a bit, because a few years later, at 13 or 14, I played guitar in the concert my form put on at school. I accompanied two friends who were performing a song as Big Jim Jessop and Fat Belly Jones, the hippie cowboy characters created by the Two Ronnies. Too shy to sing myself at that stage, I was happy just being the strummer – though I think I may have dared sing (or maybe shout) the last line (‘…And nor were her knees!’) to our self-penned comedic song, ‘Knock-Kneed Nell’.
Anyway, I shall always be grateful to my 15-year-old hippie neighbour for having had the patience to attempt to teach me C, F, G7 and Am, and yesterday I had the opportunity to pay her kindness forward in the most apt way I can think of – by teaching my neighbour’s nine-year-old granddaughter the chords she needs to play the song she wants to learn: ‘2002’ by Anne-Marie (neither song nor artist were known to me, so thank goodness she brought a CD with it on, and thank goodness, too, it turned out to be a rather straightforward 3-chorder!).
That little girl went away happy (according to her grandparents, she couldn’t stop smiling afterwards) and eager for her next lesson, and I went away happy too – at the memories teaching her brought back, and at the new-found confidence showing her a few chords has given me, so that if anyone else asks me if I teach guitar, I can now actually say, ‘Yes, I do, man!’
It was soon after we moved into our new house in the late summer that I became aware of another presence in the log cabin at the end of the garden. While I was crawling around under the bulky raised wooden platform firmly screwed into the cabin’s rough wooden walls, trying to work out how best to go about removing it, I suddenly heard a loud buzzing and could see out of the corner of my eye something black flitting around my head, as well as feel it brushing against my hair. I quickly scuttled out from under the platform, all the while swiping at the air in a vain bid to swat whatever creature it was that I had just disturbed.
I soon realised that the creature was a butterfly, and that I had rudely awakened it out of hibernation. But I didn’t find out that it was more specifically a peacock butterfly until deep into the winter, when a friend gave me some information about the species in a Facebook message after I’d posted a photo of it perched on my hand, its wings outstretched. By then I’d become peculiarly attached to its constant presence in my cabin, and had even come to dread the time which surely couldn’t be too far in the future when it would either flutter through the door and never be seen again, or else would expire there in the cabin, having reached the end of its too short life.
My friend explained that they take refuge in sheds and other outbuildings from September to May and have a lifespan of eleven months. She said that their wings make a characteristic loud buzzing noise when they are disturbed, but added that this one – my ‘friend’, as she put it – looked completely at home resting on my hand.
I googled how to care for butterflies that overwinter in sheds but awaken prematurely when the room is heated up, and read that they are often fooled by the artificially elevated temperature into thinking that spring has arrived, and head outside into a frosty garden, where they meet the deadly combination of harsh weather conditions and no sources of nectar. So I started to worry about the same fate befalling my fluttering friend, and took care to quickly close the door upon entering or leaving the cabin – until it dawned on me that it had resolutely stayed put throughout the removal of the wooden platform and shelf, which had involved the use of a noisy electric drill, and during which time the door had been mostly open, as well as throughout the installation of a woodburning stove. I also recalled that I had one day made my way out of the cabin, along the garden path and into the house, not realising until I sat down in the living room that the butterfly was firmly attached to one of my slippers. It hadn't flinched when I carefully removed it from the slipper and carried it back to its cabin home. This butterfly clearly had no intention of leaving me before the winter was out, if it had any say in the matter...
It got to where I’d look for its black folded wings on one of the rough wooden walls as soon as I entered the cabin, and if I didn’t see it, I’d get slightly anxious – and then feel elated when I heard its soft fluttering as it emerged from its place of rest, as though aware that I had come in. It would sometimes crawl onto the desk in front of the computer monitor, making its presence known to me, and I would gently put my hand in front of it so that it could hop on and we could commune with each other for a while.
I became concerned about how it would be able to obtain any nourishment there in the barren cabin, and put a small amount of water in a plastic container close to where it was resting on the wall. It ignored the container and instead flew down onto the floor, where I put a few drops of the water in front of it and watched it crawl onto one of them and appear to luxuriate in the feel of the moisture on its legs. I could also see it drawing some of it in through its unfurled proboscis.
A friend of mine who had also known my late mother, who had passed away in April, and whose absence in my life I was still struggling to come to terms with, told me that butterflies are spiritual beings and said that she felt that this one actually was the spirit of my mother.
Over the weeks, the butterfly did in a way come to represent just that – a comforting presence reassuring me that Mum was okay and that when the time came for the butterfly itself to leave – in whatever way that would be – I could be at peace, as I now knew my beloved mother was.
Is all of this just me being fanciful? Does it matter? The comfort I continue to take from that butterfly’s presence in my log cabin is real. The time will come when it won’t be there any more – but then, isn’t that true of pretty much everything in our lives?
So simple a creature, so heartwarming an encounter. So unexpected, yet so, so needed at that particular time.