Friday, 1 September 2017

Mounting the air at Shrewsbury Folk Festival

Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2017 -Sunday 27 August 2017


It's two years since we were last at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival, back in September 2015, when Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita performed on a typical rain-drenched English Bank Holiday weekend. This year we were blessed with a warm and dry day, though the atmosphere was perhaps a little subdued, the festival mourning the loss of founder and co-director Alan Surtees, who established the event twenty years ago and sadly died in June.

We came for the Sunday only, mainly to see our old favourites The Unthanks and Seth Lakeman. Before this, though, we witnessed an unexpected highlight in the Pengwern Marquee in the form of the fantastic - but alas ephemeral - National Youth Folk Ensemble. This group of teenagers had spent just four weeks learning a dazzling set of tunes which they played with great confidence, skill and obvious enjoyment.

After an early evening lull in the music we gathered in the Bellstone Marquee where The Unthanks performed, as the end-of-summer sunset seeped through the entrances and exits. With songs like 'Magpie', 'Mount the Air' and 'What Can a Song Do to You?' – and augmented by trumpet, string quartet, drums and bass – they delighted and thrilled as always. 

Loudon Wainwright III is an acquired taste (and one I'm afraid I still haven't acquired), but he offered up his trademark mixture of irreverent, cynical songs and anecdotes on guitar, piano and ukulele, ending his set with 'The Swimming Song'.  


Finally, for us, Seth Lakeman gave a breathless and blistering show, the lights perfectly synchronised with his mesmerising fiddle playing, while his amazingly talented band managed to keep pace, looking like a bunch of delighted kids on a musical roller-coaster ride. Folk music can sometimes be surprisingly loud, surprisingly fast and very exciting indeed. 

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Meteors, eclipses and a sense of perspective from the night skies

Things astronomical have dominated the news recently. Earlier this month there was the spectacle of the Perseid meteor shower, sometimes referred to poetically as the 'tears of Saint Lawrence'. And then the US witnessed the 'Great American Eclipse' – a total solar eclipse visible across the entire United States, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. So it seemed appropriate that I should be reading a thought-provoking book by Adam Ford called 'Galileo and the art of ageing mindfully'. Subtitled 'Wisdom from the night skies', this little volume is one of a series of slim hardbacks produced by Leaping Hare Press which deal, in a very entertaining and often rather tangential way, with mindfulness. (Other titles available include 'Einstein and the Art of Mindful Cycling' and 'The Art of Mindful Baking'.)

Adam Ford (who has written a number of the books in the Leaping Hare series, is an ordained Anglican priest, but there are more references to Buddhism than to Christianity in this philosophical reflection on what we can learn from astronomy. In a chapter called 'Time Tunnels and Eternity', Ford explains the speed of light and what it means to us. He points out how, if we look up at Orion in December we see Sirius (the brightest star in our sky):
"Like the sound of the woodcutter's axe delayed when seen from the far side of a field, the light of Sirius is somehow delayed by its speed, so we do not see it as it is now but as it was eight and a half years ago. What we see in our present moment is something happening eight and half years ago in our past. What were we doing then?"

Ford goes on to consider that, because of the time taken for light to travel, using light years as a measure of distance, when we look at Betelgeuse for example (450 light years away) "we see it now as it was in the past, in the first Elizabethan era." While the three stars of Orion's belt "are seen even further back in history, for they shine to us from hundreds of years ago before the days of William the Conqueror."


I, with little knowledge of astronomy and still less of Galileo, had never contemplated how, because of the speed of light, when we look at the stars we are looking into the past – a kind of everyday, interstellar time-travel that might help us maintain a healthy sense of perspective when we reflect on our place and time in the world.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Tewkesbury Medieval Festival, July 2017

A musical reception committee
While parts of Europe are suffering a heatwave this August, in England the summer has, for now, been chased away by thick cloud, rain and the occasional rumble of thunder. It's hard to believe that, just a few weeks ago, we were enjoying perfect weather for what was, for me, the highlight of the summer (if not the highlight of 2017) – the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival.  

Now, you might be thinking these guys at the Passengers in Time blog surely aren't into dressing up in costumes and reenacting battles. Maybe not, but of course this blog has always been about books, music and time travel and the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival brings together two of those interests very nicely indeed. You may recall that, back in the spring, we reported on Celtic Medieval Speed Folk trio PerKelt. We were so taken with them we looked them up to see where we could catch them playing live again. Turned out they were booked to play at the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival – reason enough to go along to this free, family-friendly event even if battle reenactments, archery displays and sampling mead aren't really your thing. 

PerKelt at Tewkesbury Medieval Festival
(c) Tony Gillam, 2017
PerKelt were, as expected, amazing, and I found myself beaming with joy and contentment as they performed their sweet, exuberant music in the brightly-coloured dome tent. But it wasn't just the enchanting music or the obvious enjoyment of PerKelt; the whole atmosphere of the festival was delightful – relaxed and relaxing – with the opportunity to see all sorts of interesting stalls and displays within a stone's throw of one of our favourite quaint English market towns. The Tewkesbury Medieval Festival is our new choice event of the year; and, if it's not a contradiction to say so, we're really looking forward to going back in time again next July. 

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Clementines in Dulcimerland

Dulcimers at Halsway, Halsway Manor, Somerset

22 May - 26 May, 2017


Many an episode of The Saint or The Avengers involved Simon Templar, Steed or Emma Peel snooping around an isolated English country house and uncovering sinister goings-on. Mad scientists would be plotting nuclear destruction or charismatically leading some strange cult. I felt a bit like one of these 1960s TV adventurers as I turned into the drive leading to Halsway Manor. Halsway – pronounced, I discovered, 'Hall-sy' with a silent 'w' – is set in the Somerset countryside and is home to the National Centre for Folk Arts. All sorts of unexpected activities happen here but nothing, I'm pleased to report, involving criminal masterminds.

At Halsway you can learn square basketry, green woodworking or 18th century style dance (taught by the choreographer of the BBC's Poldark series.)  Musicians can hone their skills on banjo or ukulele and the Manor also hosts a festival for the nyckelharpa (a Swedish keyed fiddle, similar to a hurdy-gurdy.) 

I was here for an event called Dulcimers At Halsway, hosted by the Nonsuch Dulcimer Club – an organisation for anyone interested in hammered or mountain dulcimers. Now, for the uninitiated, dulcimers are part of the zither family of instruments. Hammered dulcimers and mountain dulcimers might sound as if they ought to be related, but really they are as different from each other as balafons and balalaikas. The trapezoid-shaped hammered dulcimer is played by striking the strings with small, spoon-shaped, wooden  'hammers'. Even if you've never seen one, you've probably heard its haunting sound on film soundtracks – John Barry’s score for The Ipcress File, for example. A mountain dulcimer, on the other hand, is a completely different kettle of fish or, if you prefer, box of strings. Sometimes called an Appalachian dulcimer as it was developed in the Appalachian mountains in the late 18th century, it is a descendant of various fretted zithers brought to America by European settlers. The mountain dulcimer is played on the lap and strummed or plucked. If you've ever heard Joni Mitchell's classic Blue album, you will have heard her playing the dulcimer.

I bought my first mountain dulcimer in Brittany in the 1980s and have been trying to play the instrument, on and off, ever since. To begin with, I thought I'd mastered a few tunes and got on quite nicely for several years until I discovered it was strung incorrectly, so I'd been playing all my chord shapes back to front. (It turned out, unlike a guitar, the bass string of a dulcimer is a drone that should be furthest away from the player, with the melody being played on the string nearest.)

Having never had any tuition – and having never even met a fellow dulcimer player until recently – the idea of a few days in Somerset involving practical workshops for beginners to advanced players sounded ideal. I made my mind up to give it a go and so, with some trepidation, I found myself in the entrance hall of Halsway Manor. As I signed in, I was given a name badge bearing the words "Tony Gillam", followed by a question mark. I wasn't sure what was so questionable about my identity until I noticed others who had the letters 'HD' or 'MD' on their badges. For a moment the number of people with 'MD' after their name made me wonder if I'd accidentally stumbled into a convention for medical doctors until I realised it was meant to distinguish the pluckers from the hammerers.

The bedroom had no TV, reinforcing the idea that I was on a retreat. My wife had jokingly told people her husband was spending a week away in Dulcimerland and it's true that I and my fellow students were totally immersed in the instrument, with workshops throughout the day and sessions or concerts in the evenings. I was taught plenty of interesting new techniques and even finally learnt exactly what chords they were that I'd been playing all these years. I was introduced to playing in different keys using that handy gadget the capo (a device that attaches to the neck of a stringed instrument to shorten the playable length of the strings and hence raises the pitch.) To a guitar player, the capo used on dulcimers looks like a very crude-looking wooden clamp, a kind of Flintstones' version of a capo – but it opened up a whole new world, taking us away from the tyranny of D-A-D tunings and effortlessly into the key of G. Our affable and gifted tutor Dave Haas, from West Virginia, would teasingly ask us: "Now, can you play this in G?" To which we were encouraged, pantomime-style, to reply in unison: "Sure! No problem," before carefully positioning our capos on the third fret.

Dave asked us to imagine we were picking up a clementine in our left hand to get our fingers in the right position for fretting the strings. "Remember, it's a clementine, " he would say, "not a melon." Whereas beginner guitarists are taught to play down-strokes and up-strokes, dulcimer players are taught out-strokes and in-strokes – the ins and outs of dulcimer-playing.


Our other tutor was Pete Coe – multi-instrumentalist stalwart of the English folk scene since the 1970s, whose latest album features a dulcimer version of the American folk song Shenandoah called World Of Misery. Pete, with his North of England matter-of-factness and mischievous humour seems like a folk music equivalent of Jarvis Cocker. "Only put your instrument in its case if you're taking it outside," he urged. "You need to leave it lying around so you can just pick it up and play when you're watching TV and the adverts come on." He encouraged us to "muck about and make up stupid little tunes." This, he insisted, was how we would improve as players. And to those who bemoan the low profile of the instrument Pete had one simple, inspirational answer. We must get out there and let the world see and hear it. So come on, you dulcimer players! Pluck up your courage. Let's go and play.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Senegal comes to Worcestershire

Amadou Diagne & Group Yakar 

- Live at Worcester Arts Workshop, Worcester, Saturday 29 April


Photo courtesy of Phil Richards (c) 2017
Describing Amadou Diagne as a multi-instrumentalist is something of an understatement. The Senegalese musician switches effortlessly between drums, guitar, kora, djembe and talking drum, all accompanied by his powerful voice. And, as if this didn't offer enough sonic variety for one evening, Amadou was joined by his UK-based five piece band Group Yakar.

The show started with some solo oud playing by Group Yakar's extraordinarily talented bassist Mark Smulian, before keyboards, drums, vocals and electric guitar were added to the mix. Amadou's music incorporates elements of afrobeat, blues, rock, jazz funk, mbalax and West African praise singing. The first set began gently but was rounded off energetically with Amadou taking his mobile from his pocket mid-song, placing it carefully on his djembe and leaping off the stage to dance ecstatically before the audience. Had the organisers been over-optimistic in creating so large a space for dancing between stage and seating? I wondered if the band had found it hard to connect at first with the polite, rather distant audience.

The second set began with Amadou playing solo kora and the music built progressively towards a climax, the complex interplay of the musicians taking us into rockier territory. Dan Pert on electric guitar began to really enjoy himself and even Amadou used some wah-wah effect on his kora. Perhaps the moves looked a bit reticent compared with the fine example set by Amadou, but eventually a few of the good people of Worcester were up and dancing to the Senegalese groove.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Learning how to wrong-foot a villain at The Old Ship Hotel

The Malcolm Saville Society Literary Conference, 
Friday 21 April, 2017 at the Old Ship Hotel, Brighton

The Old Ship, side-street view. Tony Gillam (c) 2017
Overlooking the seafront, The Old Ship is the oldest hotel in Brighton.  Parts of the building date back to 1559. Dickens stayed there in 1841 – a prolific year for him that saw the publication of both The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge. The hotel is also mentioned in Graham Greene's 1938 novel Brighton Rock (‘This gentleman’s invited me to the Old Ship,’ she said in a mock-refined voice. ‘Tomorrow I shall be delighted, but today I have a prior engagement at the Dirty Dog.’)

With so many historical and authorial associations, the hotel seemed an ideal location for a literary conference. And so it was that the Malcolm Saville Society chose this setting for their first literary conference on the life and work of the children's author. In fact, the Society was holding their annual weekend-long gathering there this year, but I had come along just for this stand-alone event. The conference was aimed at society members and was also open to members of the Alliance of Literary Societies. Elder statesman of the Malcolm Saville Society Frank Shepperd had long thought it would be a good idea to run such a conference. As Frank astutely pointed out to me when we chatted, some members of the society are not as young as they were and, for all our enduring fondness for the real-life locations in which Saville set his books, the prospect of scrambling up the Long Mynd or across Dartmoor in the wind and rain may not be as feasible as it once was. 

Brighton pier sunset. Tony Gillam (c) 2017
Instead, we were treated to a series of talks in which various members of the society reflected on what Saville's books meant to them. All the presentations were peppered with little gems of information and affectionate insights.  

I particularly enjoyed Phil Bannister's talk on Strangers at Snowfell (1949) – the only Saville book set in the Lake District. Phil broadened the discussion to compare and contrast Saville's approach with that of Geoffrey Trease who set five novels for children in the Lake District. 

Patrick Tubby gave a delightful account of his rediscovery of Saville books and subsequent membership of the society, claiming that he was nearly thrown out when it was revealed he had never visited Saville's spiritual home of Shropshire.  Happily, Patrick has since remedied this and his description of his encounters with the county and the Lone Pine locations were as poetic and sublime as Saville's own.

Another sunset on Brighton Pier. Tony Gillam (c) 2017
Alan Stone's talk explored some of the environmentalist aspects of Saville's books.  I hadn't appreciated quite how often Saville used the device of baddies posing as birdwatchers who are (repeatedly) caught out by their lack of ornithological knowledge.  How many modern day children would know enough about bird-watching to wrong-foot – and thus unmask – a villain?

It was great to meet so many members of the society in such a lovely old building.  My grateful thanks to Frank, who hosted, and to all the contributors and organisers for their hard work in preparing and presenting such an entertaining and informative conference. Also thanks to The Old Ship Hotel staff who provided novel refreshments to accompany the tea and coffee in the form of popcorn, chocolate and ... of course, sticks of Brighton Rock.  

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Celtic-Medieval Speed Folk... courtesy of PerKelt

PerKelt - Live at The Artrix, Bromsgrove, Saturday 11 March



It was somewhat startling to see the members of PerKelt, conspicuous in their flowing medieval cloaks and kilts, among the gathering audience sipping cappuccinos in the foyer of the Artrix Arts Centre. But any sense of alarm was quelled by the sight of them carefully applying face paint to one another's foreheads, before heading backstage in readiness to play. 

PerKelt describe their sound as Celtic-Medieval Speed Folk. This belies the lyricism of moments like 'The Willow Song', (a setting of Shakespeare's ballad from Othello) and John Dowland's ‘If My Complaints’. All three members of PerKelt – founding members Stepan Honc (guitar and vocals) and fellow Czech Paya Bastlova (vocals, recorders and harp) – are astonishingly good musicians. The most recent recruit, French drummer/percussionist David Maurette, adds to the vibrancy, warmth and good humour.

Paya is able to alternate between sweet lamentation and a harder-edged singing voice and switched from singing to recorder without missing a beat or a breath. What's more, the challenging choice of material called for multilingual skills with ‘Ay Vist Lo Lop’ sung in the Occitan language of southern France and ‘Herr Mannelig’ in Swedish. Stepan was sensitive to the intimacy of the venue and chose to restrain his urge to rock out on speed folk, changing the set list to include a few more downbeat selections. There is, though, an irrepressible, almost grunge sensibility to PerKelt which means for every soft, delicate moment it won't be long before the guitar, drums and recorder joyfully let rip again. 




About me

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Tony Gillam lives in Worcestershire and his fiction and non-fiction has appeared in national magazines and newspapers, academic journals, textbooks and blogs. His blog – passengersintime.blogspot.co.uk – purports to be about books, music ... and time travel. Tony is also a singer-songwriter, guitarist and dulcimer player with Worcestershire's most undiscovered indie-folk band Fracture Zone.