Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Chillies, Sherman tanks and super-moons

As we hurtle, once again, towards the end of the year - and, of course, Christmas - it's pleasant to recollect late summer travels. In the final week of September, we managed to have a summer holiday at the very last moment before the switch was thrown and autumn kicked in.

Festive-looking chilli?
(c) Tony Gillam
The part of the Devon coastline that lies between Torbay in the west and Plymouth to the east is known as the South Hams.  Apart from a dimly-recalled holiday in Paignton when I was 13, I had no memory of visiting this part of the world, but I'd heard good things about the pretty towns of Totnes and Kingsbridge.

Colourful and quirky
(c) Tony Gillam


The area was full of surprises - some colourful and quirky, some poignant and solemn.  On the colourful, quirky end of the scale was the South Devon Chilli Farm at Loddiswell. Here you could sample pieces of chilli chocolate or enjoy a savoury variation on the theme of a traditional Devon cream tea - a cheese scone with chilli jam.  The chillies in the show tunnel are a joyful sight and seeing images of them now, in the run-up to Christmas, they have an almost festive look about them.  The place does for chillies what Yorkshire Lavender does for lavender (see Windmills, pineapple sage and a dream pub - December 2010).


The  Exercise Tiger Memorial at Torcross
(c) Tony Gillam
If we were somewhat surprised to find a chilli farm in the Devon countryside, imagine our amazement at coming across an American Sherman tank from the Second World War, overlooking the coastline at Torcross.  The tank was salvaged from the sea in 1984 - four decades after it had been submerged during Exercise Tiger.  In 1943, Torcross and other villages in the area were evacuated and requisitioned by 30,000 US troops, in order to practice for the D-Day landings.  Slapton Sands was considered an ideal place to rehearse the landings that would take place for real in June 1944. Exercise Tiger turned out to be one of the great tragedies of World War Two.  Troops practising came under real attack, both from German E-boats on a reconnaissance mission and from 'friendly fire' as, to make the exercise as realistic as possible, a decision had been taken to use real ammunition.  Nearly 1,000 lives were lost in the operation and, presumably so as not to damage morale or jeopardise the real, planned invasion, the tragedy was kept secret until after the war. A few weeks after Exercise Tiger, in the actual D-Day landings on Utah beach, around 200 men were killed. Had it not been for the exercise, many more allied troops would have died on D-Day (including, perhaps, my own dad ... in which case I wouldn't be around today to write this tribute to all those brave young men.)

In a bookshop in Dartmouth, I spotted a novel based on the events of Exercise Tiger.  The Kid on Slapton Beach by Felicity Fair Thompson tells the story of the evacuation of Slapton and Torcross from the point of view of a twelve year old boy.  This beautifully produced novel (suitable for children or adults) is a compelling adventure with a proper villain and a brave young protagonist.  In simple, pacey prose, the turmoil of the characters is dramatically conveyed, against the backdrop of Torcross and Totnes, giving a real sense of the upheaval of a community and the terror and confusion of war.

(The author Felicity Fair Thompson was born in Australia and worked as a dancer and in West End theatre management, before becoming a novelist and screenwriter.)


And, if chilli farms and Sherman tanks weren't enough excitement for one summer holiday, this was also the week that a total lunar eclipse coincided with a super-moon - also known as a full perigee moon, or blood moon, because of its blood-red appearance.  The prospect of this was a bit alarming as I'd recently read RC Sherriff's The Hopkins Manuscript - a novel about the moon colliding with Earth (see Two Forces for Civilisation- June 2015).  

We did see the super-moon over our village and, luckily, it kept a respectful distance from Earth. It was eerily large but sadly didn't appear blood-red and, by the time of the eclipse, we were fast asleep. So, I suppose, we'll just have to wait until 2033 for the next one. But, in the meantime, let's enjoy what remains of 2015 and look forward to a peaceful and enjoyable Christmas.
Slapton Sands, September 2015
(c) Tony Gillam

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Hey, Hey, it's The Monkees at Moseley Folk Festival!

The Monkees - Sunday 6 September, Moseley Park, Birmingham
The final day of the tenth Moseley Folk Festival saw glorious, late summer weather and a spectacle of equally dazzling music - some of it definitely folk, some stretching the definition to the limit. On the unarguably folk end of the spectrum, we had veteran performers Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick.

With a more contemporary feel, but still very much in the English folk tradition, The Unthanks had reinvented themselves once again, this time with the big, fulsome sounds of their new Mount the Air album. Trumpets and strings augmented the haunting vocals of the Unthank sisters ... with the occasional burst of clog-dancing, of course.

Angels from the realms of glory? No, it's just The Polyphonic Spree
At the less folky end of things was that jubilant troupe of pop rockers from Dallas, The Polyphonic Spree, whose numerous members filled the stage in their white choir robes to share with us their joyous symphonic rock. This helped the sun-drenched, well-chilled crowds prepare their ears for the headlining act ... The Monkees.

Now, I suppose you could argue that the Monkees' music is so much a part of popular culture that it has become a kind of folk music. Hits like Last Train to Clarkesville, Steppin' Stone, Pleasant Valley Sunday, A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You and I'm a Believer had the enraptured audience joining in. Footage from the original Monkees TV series was projected at the back of the stage while Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork impressed us with their exuberance (not bad for a couple of septuagenarians) and their musicianship (not bad for artists who were famously said not to have played their own instruments.)  Micky sang in his distinctive and still powerful voice and played some rhythm guitar, his drumming duties taken care of by Peter's son, while Peter sang and switched between guitar and keyboards. A kettledrum was provided for Micky to play on his Randy Scouse Git (Alternate Title) while Peter's songwriting and guitar skills were showcased on several numbers including his For Pete's Sake (which some will remember as the old end credits music from the TV show) with its message of love, peace and freedom.

The Monkees about to be railroaded by the last train to Clarkesville
Perhaps the Monkees' songbook has passed into folk memory. A rerun of the series in the 1980s might account for some of it, as not everyone enjoying the performance in Moseley was old enough to remember the original airings but, regardless of age, everyone seemed to know all the lyrics. Micky joked, "You may know this one, but please don't join in ... it puts me off," before launching into Daydream Believer. Of course, everybody joined in. 

In an unexpected climax to the evening the numerous members of The Polyphonic Spree were invited back on stage to join in a rendition of the theme from The Monkees' 1968 film musical Head, The Porpoise Song, with its fitting if bizarre refrain: "but the porpoise is laughing, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye ..."

If you had suggested in the late sixties, as my big brother Phil and I watched The Monkees monkeying around on black and white TV, that one summer's evening five decades later we'd be standing in a park in Birmingham singing along with Micky and Peter well ... we would have called you a daydream believer. But now you know how happy we can be.


Friday, 4 September 2015

Harping on about Shrewsbury Folk Festival

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita

Shrewsbury Folk Festival, Shrewsbury, August 31


As the unrelenting English Bank Holiday rain intensified, some of the audience were probably seeking shelter. Others had eagerly taken up their positions for one of the festival highlights. It didn't take long for the fusion of Catrin Finch's harp and Seckou Keita's kora to captivate fans and newcomers alike. It's not every day Shropshire can enjoy this joyful, contemplative blending of strings from Wales and Senegal.  'You'll notice our act is quite strings-based,' joked Catrin. With the 47 strings of her harp  and Seckou's two koras (one with the usual 21 strings, the other his innovative double-necked kora) - they're not kidding.

The duo played a selection from their acclaimed 2013 debut album 'Clychau Dibon'. The focal point of the performance for me was a composition called 'Les Bras de Mer' which, Catrin explained, alluded to an Atlantis-like legend from her native West Wales. Under the waters of Cardigan Bay lies the sunken kingdom of Cantre'r Gwaelod, and ghostly church bells can sometimes still be heard. Towards the end of the piece, Catrin deftly recreates the peal of bells using the harmonics of her harp while Seckou keeps up the kora accompaniment ... all this while the rain from the Welsh borders drums gently on the canvas of the marquee.   

Seeing them live, it's no surprise they were judged Songlines' Best Cross-Cultural Collaboration in 2014. And it's no wonder they got a standing ovation from the entranced audience.  

Thursday, 23 July 2015

The Lone Piners return to the Long Mynd

(c) 2015 Tony Gillam
Pentabus Rural Theatre Company's production of 
The Lone Pine Club 
(a new play by Alice Birch) 
at Carding Mill Valley, Shropshire,  
Saturday 18 July

If you weren't already familiar with Malcolm Saville's Lone Pine adventures, what would you make of Pentabus's theatrical production The Lone Pine Club? That the stories are ginger-beer-infused tales, à la Famous Five, about a group of 1950s children ... and a small dog?  That there's an element of Peter Pan - of not wanting to outgrow the age of adventures and fierce loyalty to true friends? That there's also a hint of a darker side - of the atavistic swearing of secret oaths in blood, of the untamed Lord of the Flies world of children unconstrained by spoilsport parents?

And for those of us who know - and love - the Lone Pine books, what were we to make of the prospect of four young adult actors embodying the characters of our treasured childhood books? 

Unsure what to expect, on a glorious July Saturday, we attended the first performance of Alice Birch's play in the familiar but always breathtaking setting of Carding Mill Valley, in the heart of the Long Mynd. Pentabus had set up a marquee  - foregoing the opportunity to perform against the authentic backdrop of the Shropshire Hills themselves.  The choice not to stage it in the open air was a real shame for all sorts of reasons. The marquee was uncomfortably hot for audience and actors and it seemed paradoxical for the Lone Piners to re-enact their many outdoorsy adventures indoors on such a beautiful summer's day.  As my sister - a veteran of Shropshire's amateur dramatics scene - pointed out, even if it rains, the spectators are usually prepared with umbrellas so it's only the actors who get wet (and the Lone Piners never minded a bit of rain.)

The four actors convincingly took on the roles of David, Peter, Dickie and Mary (and Mackie) as well as bringing to life a host of other characters including, with great comic effect, the rather overconfident journalist Dan Sturt and the ghastly Miss Ballinger with her trademark 'flip-up' spectacles.

(c) 2015 Tony Gillam
In taking on the Lone Piners, Pentabus faced a difficult task. Their target audience was children 8-12 (but the play is suitable for all ages.)  However, there seemed only a few children present, the youngest watching in polite bemusement, while the majority of the audience seemed to be - like me - adults of a certain age.  Presumably, many remembered the books fondly ... and herein lies the real challenge: how to make the play enjoyable for young children who don't remember the original books without upsetting the grown-ups for whom the memory of reading Malcolm Saville's books is dearly-held.   

Some of you will recall Channel Four's comedy special from 1982, Five Go Mad in Dorset - a parody of Enid Blyton's Famous Five starring Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. There was a danger that Pentabus might have strayed into the same territory, but they chose to appeal sincerely to modern children rather than satirise the genre for adult consumption.  But it's a fine balance:  at times they did appear to be parodying Malcolm Saville; at other times it seemed a heartfelt homage. 


The books were, of course, written in prose and Malcolm Saville's atmospheric evocation of real places is one of the enduring pleasures of the original adventures. Some of his lyricism did find its way into the dialogue and I would have liked to have seen more of this aspect of the stories in the play. One facet that was very well conveyed, though, was the developing relationship between Peter and David - and David's jealous dislike of Dan Sturt. The characters seemed convincingly surprised and confused by their growing feelings for one another.

For the modern audience the Gay Dolphin became the Dolphin Hotel, complete with a hilarious Fred Vasson (the hotel's friendly porter).  The quick switches between actors playing multiple parts was very funny, especially the flipping between David and the elderly antiques dealer Albert Sparrow.  All the actors worked hard to cover so many characters - and four adventures - in 70 minutes without a break.

(c) 2015 Tony Gillam
The play urges the audience - old and young - to be adventurous and to become Lone Piners themselves.  Pentabus have certainly been adventurous in staging a version of  these classic but now somewhat neglected books. It would be wonderful to think the play might inspire new young readers to read the books for the first time or at least, as is more likely, I suspect, encourage old readers to revisit and rediscover the pleasures of the lone Pine Club.

Pentabus are touring The Lone Pine Club. For details, follow the link here.


Sunday, 21 June 2015

Two Forces for Civilisation

I've jut finished reading The Hopkins Manuscript by RC Sherriff.  This novel, about the moon colliding with Earth, was first published in 1939, so its vision of England surviving an apocalyptic event and its aftermath provide a fascinating imagining of the 1940s without the Second World War.  It's one of several wonderful reprints of forgotten gems produced by Persephone Books.  Over recent years, thanks to Persephone, I've discovered and thoroughly enjoyed Denis Mackail's 1925 comic novel, Greenery Street, Jocelyn Playfair's 1944 A House in the Country, and collections of short stories by Mollie Panter-Downes (Good Evening, Mrs Craven) and Elizabeth Berridge (Tell it to a Stranger). Not to mention, Monica Dickens' enchanting first novel Mariana (which my daughter has adopted/nabbed as one of her favourites. )  Persephone Books pride themselves on reprinting what they call 'neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers ... chosen to appeal to busy people wanting titles that are neither too literary nor too commercial.'  This is a difficult course to steer but I've rarely been disappointed by one of their selections and I'm grateful to them for broadening my reading horizons. 

Another publishing enterprise that never fails to surprise and delight is the magazine Resurgence which has been going since 1966.  Resurgence (which merged with The Ecologist in 2012) deals with the environment, activism, social justice, the arts and ethical living.  That might make it sound rather dry but Resurgence has always been a joy to behold - colourful, thought-provoking and an inspirational read.  The secret of the magazine's success and longevity is captured in the words of founder editor Satish Kumar:  "The purpose of Resurgence & Ecologist is to practice, pursue and promote Truth, Goodness and Beauty (TGB).  This ancient trinity is our foundation.  When we select our articles, reviews, poems and pictures we ask ourselves:  do they meet the test of TGB? Are they true and authentic? Will they do any good to our readers?  Do they embody a sense of balance and harmony, in other words, are they beautiful in themselves? ... The manifestation of truth and goodness, or science and spirituality has to be beautiful.  That is why the arts need to be an integral part of human fulfilment. Science correlates to truth, spirituality to goodness and the arts to beauty ..."  

In very different ways, I think both Resurgence magazine and Persephone Books are forces for civilisation in a fragile world.  Both offer us Truth, Goodness and Beauty.  Even if the moon is unlikely to collide with our planet, the good life on Planet Earth is delicate and vulnerable and, like the books Persephone rediscover for us, there is often value and joy to be found in neglected things.



Monday, 6 April 2015

The Overlooked History of Clun Castle - the Third Headquarters of The Lone Pine Club

(c) Tony Gillam 2015
The little town of Clun in South Shropshire is one of my favourite places to visit.  Only seven miles from the Welsh border, it is a tranquil outpost of the border country located entirely in the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The River Clun divides what little there is of the town in two, and a stone, packhorse bridge, built around 1450, connecting the Saxon part of Clun with the Norman part, now carries the A488 and B4368 routes across the river.  Looming over the town are the ruins of Clun Castle, now managed by English Heritage.  

(c) Tony Gillam 2015
As you approach the ruined keep, helpful interpretation panels tell the story of how the motte and bailey castle was originally built in about 1300 by Robert de Say, a follower of Earl Roger of Montgomery,  and that it is one of the earliest Norman border castles.  But what the English Heritage panels don't tell you is that, in 1946, a fictional group of adventurers, the Lone Pine Club, made it their third headquarters.  It was here, in Malcolm Saville's The Secret of Grey Walls, that the Shropshire Lone Piners - David Morton, the twins Dickie and Mary and their friend Petronella (Peter) Sterling -  induct Jon and Penny Warrender as official members of the Lone Pine Club.  Jon and Penny are from Rye in Sussex, and this is their first visit to Shropshire. They arrive, by bicycle, just in time to witness an 'angry, flaming sunset' over the apparently unremarkable town:

                ... Although it was nearly dark now the setting sun, at that very moment, flung out a final, fiery challenge to the dying day. Suddenly the western sky glowed red and orange and silhouetted against this strip of colour the travellers saw, for the first time, the ruins of the Castle of Clun dominated by its mighty keep...  (p. 47)

(c) Tony Gillam
Later in the adventure, just before Jon and Penny are inducted as members of the Club, Dickie declares Clun Castle should be Lone Pine HQ3:

                ... They climbed the hill until they were actually in the shadow of the mighty walls of the keep and then Dickie said: "This place is HQ Three. One is our own Lone Pine at home. Two is the barn at Seven Gates and right in this old castle is HQ Three ..."  (pp. 57-58)
(c) Tony Gillam 2015

Why such a small club should need quite so many headquarters is a bit of a mystery.  Be that as it may, while Robert de Say has doubtless earned his place in the history of Clun, I think the least English Heritage could do is also commemorate the significance of the site for a group of young people who first appeared in book form in the 1940s and whose adventures continued to be enjoyed by children throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s. 

(c) Tony Gillam 2015
Malcolm Saville, author of 90 books for children, died in 1982. The Malcolm Saville Society was formed in 1994 to celebrate 50 years of the Lone Pine books. It now has over a thousand members of all ages who share an enthusiasm for Savillle's work and a love of the English countryside he used as a backdrop to his stories.  Surely, the adventures of the Lone Pine Club are as much a part of our English Heritage as the ruined castles that once guarded the borderlands in the aftermath of the Conquest? Is it asking too much for English Heritage to make a brief reference to the fact that Clun Castle is none other than Lone Pine Headquarters Number Three?




Sunday, 1 February 2015

Family-friendly festivals

Some of you will know that it sometimes takes me a while to get round to things.  Friends and colleagues don't expect an instant reply to emails.  It has been known for them to experience up to three weeks of 'satellite delay' before I reply to an email with the answer to a question they'd, by now, forgotten they'd asked.  Regular readers of this blog will have noted that, although I had planned to write a Christmas message in December, I've maintained radio silence since November ... and it's now February.  In a similar way, I love magazines but have a particularly thorough and long-winded way of reading them:  when I buy a new magazine I like to browse through the whole thing, making sure I don't miss any of the more 'newsy' items, before filing it away for a more careful reading of the features at some point in the future.  That point can be several months after publication, when I revisit and relish the whole magazine at my leisure.  Goodness knows what would happen if I were one of that dying breed who take a daily newspaper.

One of the magazines I enjoy is called Songlines - (a world music magazine that's published eight times a year, and covers music from traditional and popular to contemporary and fusion.)  And so it was, in January, that I came to be sitting in Worcester's oldest pub, The Cardinal's Hat, finally reading Issue 102 (the August/September issue) of Songlines.  Here, at last, I read Matt Milton's fantastic piece about going to music festivals when you're a parent of young children.  Matt, evidently, was a regular festival-goer in his youth and writes, with great verve and wit, about his disdain for family-friendly festivals  (because festivals shouldn't be "orderly, comfortable things.") He describes the moment when he looks down and realises that the young child at the festival he's complaining about is his own.  Now, unlike Matt, I had never been to a festival before becoming a parent.  I had my children when ... well, when I probably should have been going to festivals.  And I didn't experience my first festival until my kids were old enough to attend festivals without me. I told you it takes me a while to get round to things; the first festival I went to was in 2011 (when I was touching 50.) The festival was The ArleyFest in Worcestershire and headlining was the amazing Seth Lakeman.  (I wrote about it in the blog, see August 2011 - A Musical Summer).


 I loved Matt's description of the dubious joys of taking a baby to a music festival but I don't think I'd have enjoyed my first festival half as much if I'd had my kids in tow. Matt's right, though, when he says parenthood is, in some ways, a good preparation for festival-going; when you are used to "being spattered with mucoid substances and Guantanamo Bay levels of sleep-deprivation", as he says, rain, mud and  dodgy toilets are no big deal. I quite fancy Shrewsbury Folk Festival this year, and now my kids are grown up, I can pretty much please myself.     

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.