Thursday, 1 October 2009
A Melancholy Moment
I don’t play now, at least not often. I write. It’s what I do, what I enjoy but sometimes….. Every so often I bring out my mandolin or mandola. The fingers are stiff, and their tips hurt after a bit. The strings are sulky. They sense I’ve lost my calluses and are making me pay for months of neglect. But the fingers remember tunes I can no longer name, and I persevere. I ‘workout’, practicing an hour a day, sometimes more until the calluses return and my fingers skim over frets with some of their old suppleness. It’s a fine moment, and then…. What’s the point?
A moment has gone.
Once I played with a band, lost in a shared sound, excitement, companionship.
I put the two instruments away, admire my new tungsten tipped fingers and return to the keyboard. Writing is a solitary pursuit.
It wasn’t always so. I enjoyed playing with the Welsh Dancers, following Henry on fiddle, the oomph provided by Lol on an old concertina, though now she’s become a grand old lady and plays the harp. Then one day, Henry suggested a drink in the Red Lion on the corner of Charles St. and Stow Hill.
Over a pint of Courage best bitter he and Lol announced their intention of forming a folk band, with the less than catchy title of Teithwyr Twmpath. We practiced religiously at home and together. Sheet music was used until we’d mastered a tune and then thrown away. Later the band’s name was changed to the more sexy ‘Devil’s Elbow’ (Though whenever we played at St Anne’s Parish Ceilidh, they always billed us as ‘Fiddler’s Elbow’. Religious dyslexia perhaps)
We had various guitarists: a suave mathematician called Nigel Stephenson, Mike, a loud and jolly, guy from Oxfordshire, and finally Quince, who possessed a melancholic, slightly flat voice but played the essential guitar. We attracted a flute player, another Nigel who later became a vicar, and a moody Dutchman called Theo who played the Uillean pipes. They made a lovely sound but hurt the ear when being tuned; like piglets in an abattoir. Finally there was Reg, who played Bodhran and Jug. He was a solidly built postman with a smile like sunshine and hair from the Seventeenth Century.
And yet, it must be said, we never became superstars, though we were big for a time in Abertillary
From left to right: Nigel the flute, Lol, Mike, Henry, Theo, Reg, and two friends. I'm taking the photo.
We were also big in O’Reilly’s, a wonderful, family owned pub in Baneswell. We played every Sunday lunch time, paid in Guinness, followed by a ‘lock-in’ when the pub ostensibly shut but the beer continued to flow. The wonderful thing about O’Reilly’s was discovering how alcohol aided the learning process. I think scientists somewhere have proved this, though it’s a case of swings and roundabouts. You can learn something quickly with the aid of alcohol - lose it when sober – and pick it up again when next time you’re drunk. So not ideal for airline pilots but effective for musicians. We played by ear, picking up new tunes from visiting musicians.
But what powered the band and no doubt ruined my teaching career were the weekly Ceilidhs throughout Gwent and sometimes beyond. They paid well, and negated the need for me to climb the rungs of teacher advancement. With tax-free cash in hand, along with my ordinary salary, I was earning as much as a Head of Department with beer thrown in, and none of the hassle. These were golden times.