Here’s a taste of some anecdotes from Of Death And A Banana Skin
I used to live next door to Reading Reading Centre. You might want to read that sentence again – out loud if you dare – and ponder the depths of absurdity to which presumably educated human beings can sink. OK, politicians have been guilty of worse, but really, of all the inexplicably confusing names you could bestow upon an institution, Reading Reading Centre surely takes the biscuit (and up to 1976 that very biscuit could have been supplied by Huntley & Palmer’s factory just half a mile away). They could have called it Reading Literacy Centre, for goodness sake! At least the uninitiated local and many a fazed foreigner would have had a sporting chance of pronouncing it correctly. Even Books ‘R’ Us or Phonics-U-Like might have been preferable. It wouldn’t have been so bad had ‘Reading’ the town, kept to its original ‘Redding’, but no, the English language has always taken smug delight in its proclivity for confusion.
Reading is ridding itself of a bad press, slowly but surely. Even Her Maj thought fit to get the bus down from Windsor to open the new railway station for us. Since student days (a degree in Russian Studies doomed by a preference for playing the mandolin) the town has been home, and, despite a few moves, I’ve clung to the same square mile like a cat to its territory ever since. It lends a sense of stability to life as a touring musician. In that time, 45 years and counting, ‘home’ has transformed itself from a two-storey red-brick backwater into a vibrant, sleepless mini-metropolis, as cosmopolitan as London, European base for many international companies, and proud home of The Oracle Centre, a vast retail cathedral built at the turn of the millennium. Reading can now impressively and justifiably claim to be the place where people from Slough go shopping. What an honour to live here!
But the Yorkshireman never really left me either. In the early days there were times when both the locals and my new southerner friends at university would greet with blank incomprehension my flat vowels and completely innocent use of dialect. One quickly learns to speak standard English, doesn’t one? The accent remains, though, albeit softened a little by the years.
Nowadays, regular trips to The Yorkshire Dales to indulge in some hillwalking keep me in touch with my roots and lend opportunity for nostalgic excursions into the vernacular. One summer, a friend and I took the train to Richmond and walked west for a few days, stopping at cheap guest houses until we reached The Lake District. About a mile before the Lancashire border we were engaged in lengthy conversation by an old Tyke out cutting his hedge. After half an hour the world was definitely a better place and Yorkshire cricket had been analysed in some depth. We were taking our leave when he asked if I was a Yorkshireman.
‘Yes, Sheffield’, I replied.
‘Only just’, he grudgingly conceded. ‘What about you?’ He turned to my friend.
‘Leicestershire’ came the reply.
‘That’ll do.’ He looked away. ‘Thought you might be one of these bloody Lancastrians.’
Studying Russian, which began at school in Sheffield, had been a revelation. Getting to grips with the alphabet was the easy bit, and how wonderful that, once over this initial hurdle, the spelling was so logical. A major simplifying revision in 1917 meant that to see a word in print was to be confident of its pronunciation. My accent was always good too; the musical ear helped. Later, at university, the native speaker who took us for conversation classes complimented me one day.
‘Simon, your accent is so good that when I close my eyes and listen to you, you could almost be Russian. You have only two problems: grammar and vocabulary.’
I knew the Cyrillic script was on the wall so far as any career in academia was concerned, but in any case, a passion for the forgotten beauty of the mandolin had long since overtaken any such aspirations.
As a musician one inevitably becomes acutely aware of pulse, of rhythm. Working with a singer (Hilary James) awakens a deep admiration for those who write well-crafted, wittily rhymed song lyrics, and indeed writing songs oneself underlines how hard this can be. There’s an uncharitable quip that a poet is just a songwriter who can’t write a tune. In truth, the two are different art forms in the same medium, words. But it’s also true that even without melody, rhyme and rhythm draw in the listener, engage the ear, and for me, remain the zestiest condiment to the written or spoken word.
From a personal perspective, professional life has centred around the mandolin, mostly performing and recording, but also writing tuition and repertoire books, music journalism, and, in recent years, hosting weekend Mandolin Retreats. The first few of these, gratifyingly well attended, were in the south of England and it was decided to promote one in the neglected North, with a comfortable hotel in home town Sheffield as venue.
To my delight, bookings came in from far and wide, including one from an American who was as keen to see Yorkshire as he was to play the mandolin. His wife was accompanying him on the extended trip, and he wrote how they both adored films set in the county: Calendar Girls, A Private Function, The Full Monty… it was a long list. The problem was, they always watched with subtitles because they found the Yorkshire accent impenetrable, so he was hoping I didn’t have one when I taught mandolin…? I emailed back with the bad news, but all seemed well when we met and I hope he left as a better mandolin player.
llkley is now the usual base on trips north, a town with a Roman, and before that, a Celtic history. It is beautiful in a somewhat austere, Pennine way, with some true architectural gems hidden among the already imposing Victorian gritstone grandeur. Seek out Heathcote, a mansion by Lutyens or The White House, a private dwelling which is a particularly fine example of Bauhaus design. I first made Ilkley’s acquaintance because musician friends there offered a ‘safe house’ on any sojourn north. Over many visits I enjoyed not only the charms of the surrounding countryside, but the convenience of being just a short train journey from both Leeds and Bradford, and all the cultural benefits of that broad conurbation. Pierce Ilkley’s own genteel veneer (‘morning coffee at Betty’s?’), and you’ll soon discover its own cultural life to be the envy of many a small place, Ilkley Literature Festival being one of the largest in the country. Ilkley Moor, setting for the title poem of this collection, is an inescapable, brooding, dominating presence, towering over the town from the south and fond of blocking any late afternoon sun. But Ilkley wouldn’t be Ilkley without its famous Moor, and the associated Yorkshire national anthem On Ilkley Moor Bar T’at (translation: On Ilkley Moor Without A Hat). Best not tell a Yorkshireman its tune is from Kent.
In 2001 the outbreak of foot and mouth disease struck the nation, and, like other areas of open country, Ilkley Moor was closed to hikers lest infection be spread by boots. We all miserably but dutifully complied with the ruling; the problem was, nobody told the sheep, who blithely wandered down into the town for company and to eat the grass by the main street, The Grove. Photographs of them listening to the municipal Saturday afternoon entertainment on the green in front of the bandstand remain among my most treasured.
The Grove closes completely on certain days to host larger scale attractions. Nifty Fifties night comes around every year, attracting jive dancers from as far away as Leeds. The touring French market turned out to be the one place not to address the beret-bedecked olive seller in French (‘dunno wot yer on abaht pal, I’m from Bingley’); but best of all is Ilkley’s own improvement on The Royal Albert Hall’s Last Night Of The Proms. The Grove is a sea of Prosecco and fluttering Union Jacks while a couple of opera singers give their all.
‘In London y’af to mek doo wi’ a bloody symphony orchestra; ‘ere y’gerra proper silver band an’ y’can ‘ave a tipple or two wi’aht werritin’ abaht drivin’ ‘om!’
While music rears its head (how could it not?) as do other subjects including echoes of many years writing for both adults and children, the towns and environs of Reading and Ilkley have provided inspiration for much of this volume. Refreshingly and reassuringly they shatter the stereotypical descriptions of the supposed North-South divide.
Unfriendly, decadent southerners who have to drink rubbish beer? Not in Reading! Dark, satanic mills and people ‘toiling on’? Not in Ilkley! In their own ways they’re both inspiring and uplifting places that mirror, I hope, my own optimism and in turn the spirit of the poems here.
Canada was the destination for our very first trip across the Atlantic, and in retrospect I was rather pleased this was the case. Canada is like the korma a curry virgin eats before moving onto the phal that is the United States. It causes but the mildest of sweats, easily assuaged by a rather splendid supersize ice cream. We would regularly be asked where in England we lived. Not thinking for a moment that anyone would have heard of Reading, we’d simply reply ‘near London’. The concept of ‘near’, I later discovered, means different things to different peoples. Two hundred and eighteen miles apart, Ilkley and Reading would never be described as ‘near’ by an English person, but a Russian I once met who professed to be from ‘near’ Moscow, turned out to live five hundred miles distant.
One Canadian pressed us for more information.
‘You won’t have heard of it, but we live in Reading. It’s 40 miles west of London.’
‘You live in Reading? You actually live in Reading?!?’
Unbeknown to us, our adopted town had unwittingly achieved celebrity status in Canada through a long running CBC radio programme called As It Happens. Started in 1968, the show mixes current affairs and general magazine content, and from its outset has always expressed the location of anywhere as being so many miles from Reading, a surreal idiosyncrasy passed from presenter to presenter down the years. It’s a gentle humour, typical of Canadians as we discovered over many subsequent visits. One programme host, Barbara Budd, reportedly described Reading as ‘obscure’, but added ‘It will always have a very special place in my heart’. I can feel a little tear welling as I type, but sadly cannot report ever being aware of hordes of Canadian tourists invading the town every summer.
Nowadays, when in Canada and asked of our domicile, we always answer ‘zero miles from Reading’.
By half way through the second year of my degree in Russian I had become so disenchanted with the course, and positively enchanted with the prospect of a career in music, that I announced to my tutor that I would drop out. He successfully spent an entire morning talking me out of the idea. It never struck me until years later, that if I had departed, the drop out rate for my year would have been 100% percent – I was his only student! But in those days, it wasn’t just about the academic qualification and job prospects. It was about the whole university experience, broadening the mind, staying up all night talking about the meaning of life and so on. Best of all, I had my year abroad to look forward to.
With just a few exceptions, it wasn’t possible to get British students into Russian universities in the 1970s, but a Polish one beckoned, and the prospect of a year behind the Iron Curtain was enticing. And so I set off for Poznan in 1974. I was excited to get my first view of the East, and as the train juddered to a halt at Friedrichstrasse station, right on the Berlin Wall, I put my head out of the window. I looked west for a moment, then turned to look east to be greeted by a gun barrel quivering an inch from my nose and its owner barking something in German. I didn’t need to understand, and beat a hasty retreat. Later that day I unpacked my suitcase in a sparsely furnished room of a drab student high rise block known as Akumulatory (batteries) because of the large sign on its roof. Both block and sign still stand, a testament to the durability of communist construction.
I quickly realised that I wasn’t going to learn much Russian. Poles were forced to learn the language of their Soviet masters, but would never speak it willingly. Still today, my closest encounter with death remains the occasion just a few days into my Poznan experience when I bought a Russian newspaper and sat in a café reading it. Suffice to say the big geezers at the next table were not impressed.
A couple of days later, still in my first week, there was an unexpected knock at my door. A man smiled, resplendent in an expensive pinstriped suit, brolly over arm, bowler hat in one hand and – here’s the crunch – a copy of that morning’s Times in the other.
‘Mr Mayor? How do you do? The name’s Kobylanski.’ He spoke in perfectly enunciated received pronunciation.
‘Are you English?’ I asked, a little confused by this stereotypical city gent with a Polish name.
‘Good Lord, no! I’m Polish, old boy. I have a little business proposition for you; may I come in?’
I was intrigued; he sat down in the one easy chair in my room and placed his hat and newspaper on the table. The cryptic crossword was completed, and there was little doubt he’d wanted me to notice the fact. Mr Kobylanski, it turned out, ran evening classes in English conversation and he asked if I, with my obvious qualifications as a native speaker, would be willing to lead some. We chatted for a few minutes. It was only because he had told me he was Polish that I could detect any accent, but I had to listen very, very hard. He spoke with a fluency and a command of idiomatic English I have rarely heard in a foreigner. Perhaps the one giveaway was that he had obviously absorbed some ancient book of English proverbs and sayings, and was fond of peppering his speech with archaisms. Eventually he dropped this bombshell:
‘I notice you have a South Yorkshire accent; are you able to speak RP?’
A Pole had detected my Sheffield accent!!
I could indeed speak received pronunciation, I told him, but couldn’t guarantee I could keep it up for the length of a conversation class. He said he didn’t want his students speaking with a regional accent, so, if I wouldn’t mind…?
I think I lasted three weeks. I was then sacked by a foreigner for not speaking my own language well enough. Not many people can make that claim.
It wasn’t as if I needed the extra money. The grant I received was generous. I often ate in restaurants, bought books and lots of sheet music, and generally had a good time. But by Christmas I was homesick and decided to head back to England until early January, even though the original plan had been to stay out for the whole academic year.
Mid December found me sitting on a sluggish train trundling across West Germany – and panicking. I had received bad advice from some other students in Akumulatory, who had told me it was cheaper to buy separate tickets to cross the countries of northern Europe rather than just one from Poznan to Calais. As I looked at my cash I knew there was not enough. I had no credit card, nothing. An elderly man boarded the train and sat opposite me in the same compartment, saying something by way of a greeting. I apologised for not being able to speak German but it was no problem as he spoke excellent English. Our conversation flowed easily for the next hour; I learned about his successful business, he about my student life in Reading and Poznan. I never mentioned a word about my plight, but a very strange thing happened. He announced it was his station and, thanking me profusely for the chat, offered a handshake as he left. He then pressed a bundle of notes into my palm and with his other hand closed my fingers round them, muttering quiet apologies about what had happened during the war. He turned swiftly and made no further eye contact, and I looked down at my ticket home.
Hilary joined me for the last six weeks of my stay and we travelled south to the mountain resort of Zakopane for a holiday. A Polish friend had arranged a week’s break for us on a farm about a mile outside the town. A new house had been built specifically for B&B, while the family (Mum, Dad, children, Grandma and cows) shared an old shed across the yard. Any linguistic communication was out of the question, but it didn’t matter. The farmer showed us the al fresco toilets sporting an interesting thirty foot drop, the old newspaper torn into, err…, handy sized pieces, and presented us with a huge rye loaf and a dozen eggs. Breakfast for the week, we thought. The next evening we were convinced our time had come. He burst into the room, and with a vodka induced wobble brandished a huge knife. He beckoned us to follow him down to the cellar and we thought it best to obey. Hanging from the ceiling by its trotters was a whole pig. He raised the knife and, despite his inebriation, managed to cut a long slither of fat, nearly the whole length of the animal. He tipped his head back, slid it down his throat, then with a golden-toothed grin handed us the weapon and magnanimously offered his pig.
We didn’t want to repeat the experience and chose to leave early and get back late each day. On our last morning we had two eggs left, just enough for breakfast before we returned to Poznan. Our host arrived, sober this time and brandishing another dozen, his trademark grin in place. We tried as best we could to explain we didn’t need them, but he decided he was going to cook for us. It was a simple meal, a twelve egg omelette fried in 500 grams of butter. We ate, polite to the last, and with our stomachs heavy in our boots, headed for the train.
Not long after that we left Poland, or at least Hilary did. At the East German border the Polish guards boarded the train asking for passports. Hilary’s was checked and returned, mine was pocketed by the guard, who said something I couldn’t understand. He marched off and came back a minute later with his friend; they took control of an armpit each and lifted me off the train. Hilary and I had ten pounds between us and we managed to take five each before we were separated. The train left and I was locked in a border post with no clue what was going on, visions of extended Siberian holidays looming. They eventually found someone who spoke enough English to explain to me that, because of my extended visa, I needed a document from the police confirming that I was not wanted for any criminal offence before I would be allowed to leave. This was big news to me, but I had no choice. They put me on a train back to Poznan and told me to go down to the police station the next morning. What followed was like something straight out of James Bond. After an interminable wait, which I suspect was more for their amusement than necessity, I was shown into a room where a senior officer rocked back, testing the strength of his chair’s rear legs. He eyed me over his feet which were up on the edge of his desk:
‘Ah! Meesterrr Mayorrr! Ah heff bin expectink you.’
With no fuss, I was handed the necessary document and left Poland the next day.
Anecdote to live audience.
Sometimes, the expectations of an audience, maybe through no fault of its own, are quite different from what you’re about to offer, or indeed are able to supply. This can often arise when you accept last minute gigs standing in for another artist who has had to cancel.
We were booked at The Stephen Leacock Humour Festival in Orillia, Canada to do a matinée children’s show. A Canadian friend had suggested it and sold the idea to the organisers, but it was an oddity of a gig both for us and them. The Leacock Festival’s other events were all evening talks by prominent humorous writers, and our own tour was otherwise made up of music festivals and concerts for adults. However, having played extensively to children, we were very happy to accept the date.
Three people and a stray dog turned up in a marquee with four hundred seats and we were understandably disappointed, but of course we did the show. Since we were free that same evening, we bought tickets for another festival event in the same marquee, where a Canadian author would be giving a talk and reading from his latest book. That evening the place was packed to the seams, but the guest had obviously forgotten all about it and was down the pub in Toronto. A few local stand-up comedians filled in for half an hour and, still hoping he’d appear, an interval was announced. But he didn’t appear, and, as all seemed lost and the organisers were preparing to refund everyone’s money, we said we could fetch our instruments and do the second half. They jumped at the offer.
So, as we huddled round the solitary microphone, I announced as the first number one of our party pieces, a mandolin and guitar arrangement of Handel’s Arrival Of The Queen Of Sheba. This invoked loud guffaws from all four hundred people.
‘No, I’m not trying to be funny’, I tell them, ‘that’s what we’re going to do.’
‘No, really, I should explain, we’re not a comedy act.’
Unbridled chortling. Man on front row elbows his neighbour (‘these Brits are so hilarious!’) and I realise what was happening. They were at a humour festival, so they expected it to be humorous. They were laughing even when I’d not actually said anything funny; the psychology was extraordinary. So I milk it and feign offence.
‘Please!’… – wiping brow in mock exasperation – ‘we are musicians of international repute about to play a serious piece of classical music.’
Lady on front row splits her sides and has to be rushed to hospital for stitches while another rolls onto grass and gives birth to sextuplets. OK, I’m exaggerating, but you get the picture. When we actually performed the piece the crowd went berserk, not in any way because we’d played it better than we normally do, but simply because they’d assumed the mandolin and guitar were props for a comedy act and what they heard was so unexpected. We ended up playing for about 40 minutes and enjoyed one of the best receptions ever… all the time having bought tickets for the privilege!