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Saturday, 31 October 2020

Devil's Elbow

To the left, Lol on squeeze box. Behind her Nigel who played a mean flute, Mike a guitarist, Henry in the blue shirt. Theo a lovely Dutch guy played with us in Irish sessions, and Reg capturing the dissolute cavalier vibe played bodhran and jug. To my shame the other two guys I've no idea. I'm taking the photo.

There are moments of intense happiness in most people’s lives. I have been more than fortunate in friends and events: University, my year in America, my marriage, seeing my children born. And the intensely enjoyable years I spent with the legendary Devil’s Elbow—well, we were big in Abertillery. Our Captain Pugwash hornpipe going down a storm: headbanging and much stamping of feet.

So, with that in mind, I need to put on the record my gratitude to two old friends and founding members, Henry and Lol Lutman. Both from Yorkshire, they enjoyed the Viking propensity to grasp chance by the neck and go where the tide took them and the band. (My scouse propensity is grasping metaphors by the neck) So, in short, they brought joy to my life, and for that I’m grateful.

From small beginnings, as they say: a priest loosely attached to the school heard that a Welsh dancing troupe were in need of musicians. Now, I was not a musician, though I owned a second-hand fiddle bought in a Swansea junk shop for 7 shillings and sixpence. But I was able to pick up a tune very quickly and then later discovered I was better on mandolin. The Welsh dance group—Gwerinwyr Gwent—were the nicest bunch of people you could possibly meet, which was just as well because even the musicians had to dress up, in my case waistcoat, short breeches and long socks. I drew the line at the tall hat and skirt. It was also very good, coming second in the Welsh National Eisteddfod, Henry, Lol and me accompanying them—me the imposter—scared out of my wits and staring at sky when I didn’t have my eyes tightly shut.

The Red Lion

We left the dance group eventually, and over a drink in the Red lion on Stow Hill, Henry and Lol told me they were forming a ceilidh band and would I like to join.

Never say no, however bad you are. I said yes. 

And from there Devil’s Elbow was formed, various other band members (mostly guitarists) coming and going over the years.

Self-belief and hard practise work wonders. Weekly rehearsals and much laughter punctuated by increasing bookings on the Ceilidh circuit and then folk clubs. And it was hard practise, the key to muscle memory that allows you to play when you’ve drunk one too many. I still have the cassettes, one with us playing the damn ‘Atholl Highlanders’ ten or twelve times until it was sufficiently tight. And I still have the muscle memory, fingers and mind on automatic even after all these years. 

This was originally 'OReillys,' a magical Irish pub that had 'lock-ins' (much better than lockdowns) on a Sunday afternoon. The guinnnes was free for as long as we played

And so, the wheel turns full circle and the joy continues when my daughter a gifted violinist, and a Valkyrie on ‘fiddle,’  comes home from London. She reads music fluently, but possesses the greater gift of being able to play by ear—and the even greater gift of playing Devil’s Elbow


I hope the sound is okay, it comes from an old demo tape/radio interview. As I remember the format was usually one or two instruments playing the opening few bars and the rest of the band coming in as and when. I played the Octave Mandola pictured above. It sounds like a woody banjo bubbling between the violin and guitar - and believe me it's the devil's own job keeping up with a fiddle. I also play mandolin somewhere or other

Saturday, 24 October 2020

Their owners reclaim them at night


Ever since a child climbing up them, making tree houses, swinging from homemade swings as Robin of Sherwood, I've loved trees. Now my tastes are more sedentary but I still like to touch them, sometimes even sniffing aka Joe Biden  the more attractive specimens. 

(First youtube pic might not show on iphone. It does show on my ipad and desktop)

There is music to this: The Lamentation of Owen Roe O'Neill by the blind C18th Irish harpist O'Carolan. The only thing of note is that it's played by me on Octave Mandola accompanied by guitar. It's from a different life, when I was a musician . . . of sorts.

But what was I saying about trees?

I love them grouped in shade and light

I love them fully dressed

But most of all I love them naked, especially when, like looking at clouds, you see hidden shapes

From a distance you know something is not as it seems

And then you see it: a serpent, the tree's hidden owner or prey being consumed.

Clearly a tunnel, until you see the face and again the question, owner or one trapped in the tree. 

And here I see a mother rabbit and baby.

If you look top right corner you imagine a tree slowly sliding down, and the tree at the bottom clinging on for dear life, its roots turned into giant claws. But look again and you can see all manner of things: a horse's face, there's the  face of a malignant goblin somewhere there too. Look long enough and you'll see all manner of things.

And you just know that something lives in this tree. 

Here though, there is no pretence or attempt at disguise. this is owned by a tree gnome. Tradesman entrance below 

With all these things be wary at night when their owners awake and reclaim what is theirs

Saturday, 17 October 2020

Chepstow Castle

There were already rumblings from the Welsh Assembly. They wanted to ban the English from Covid stricken areas from visiting Wales. As far as I can see, Boris Johnson’s strictures already ‘discouraged’ those areas affected from travelling outside of their immediate area. Likewise, within Wales, Covid stricken areas are similarly ‘discouraged’ from leaving their local area. What Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister and a man with the charisma of a dead sheep, seems to be demanding is that the English should be legally enforced from moving from one area to another, as opposed to the Welsh who will continue to suffer the milder ‘discouragement.’

But these were mere storm clouds when our beautiful daughter announced a visit from Covid-ridden London. Hmm, Mark Drakeford or daughter?

Being responsible we agreed to meet up at Chepstow on the borders of England and Wales and where the Mark Drakefords of their day had as much success at keeping out the Normans as they’re having with Covid.

But first we had lunch in an outside seating area at Una Vita, a small Italian cafĂ© reasonably close to the Castle. It wasn’t a good start, at least not for me. Not when I stared down at my plate of Lasagne the size of a small sandwich with a dollop of sauce, and two squares of bread little bigger than stamps—and one of them was mouldy. 

Never mind, Chepstow castle awaited, with a tower for each of us to keep socially distanced.  

Approaching the castle, it appears impressive but not over large. It's a bit like the Tardis in this respect, appearing larger in the inside.

Two pictures at the rear of the castle

When you consider William the Conqueror invaded in 1066 and the foundations of this castle were laid in 1067, you can appreciate the speed of Norman penetration and the importance of this particular site on the border of England Wales. It was the gateway to the rich lands of Herefordshire and Monmouthshire, as well as being a possible crossing point for Welsh forays into Gloucestershire. In fact the original name of both castle and town was Striguil, (Bend in the river) which remained its name until the C14th. 

The bridge separating England from Wales, no doubt patrolled by a vaguely embarrassed policeman when the law banning the disease-ridden English from entering Wales comes into effect. 


One of its four baileys each marking a different period of its development

The river Wye flows past the castle. Winches brought up wine and other supplies from barges below.

Ooh look! Ducks

Note the  beautiful vaulted roof for what is essentially a storage room overlooking the river.

One of the inner baileys. Compare it to that first picture of the castle. The Tardis effect

Like most small boys, I loved battlements.  Imagined myself on them fighting off every kind of maurader. (I haven't changed much,)  But here,  note their solidity

And here, two baileys connected by a bridge

The Normans, of course, were highly Covid conscious

This remains the oldest castle door in Europe, dating from the 1190's perhaps earlier. It guarded the front of the castle until as late as 1962

The Great Tower, started by William fitzOsbern and developed subsequently by William Marshal, and Roger Bigod
It’s hard to imagine what it once looked like inside, but the heavy Romanesque arches and the beautifully carved windows shown below give some indication

Again, the wonderfully solid battlements and glimpses of one Bailey linking into another

Forest, limestone cliffs, and the river Wye hints at how impressive it must have looked to the Welsh

St Mary’s Priory founded by William FitzOsbern and his son (keep it in the family) Roger de Breteuil, 2nd  Earl of Hereford, in 1072.

And then a leisurely drink in the Beaufort Arms before our daughter slipped over the border

Friday, 9 October 2020

Marketing Madness. Part 2

'We’re going to read this tonight,' Teddy said.

Ming didn’t think it a good idea.

That night, they huddled under the duvet, and Teddy read....

 . . . Moira stood, breathing slowly. She heard a chair crashing on tiles, and the sound of Sam sobbing. Then silence, the room very black. She turned slowly remembering what she had seen in the mirror, her eyes piercing the darkness. Nothing—but the whisper of rain—Grote’s soft, occasional snore.  There were other, smaller noises, distant echoes faint as sighs, and then a soft, shuffling sound from one of the rooms above.

“Grote.” Her throat was dry, the sound barely audible. Sam had fallen. There was only her and Grote, and he was asleep. Moira moved cautiously, unable to see much and horribly scared. The cottage murmured, alive with presence. Shadows suggested rather than seen gradually thickening around her. Something touched her neck, something greasy and damp. . . .

When  Teddy finished reading

Bun hid in the drawer

Heffy hid in the dark . . .

 . . .  a bookcase.

Lion put on all the lights and said he would guard the window.

'I’m not scared,' said dog.

'I am,'  said Teddy.

That night none of them slept easy.

Bun woke up first. 

‘There’s someone behind us,’ he whispered.

'I know,' Teddy said. 'Don't move'.




Friday, 2 October 2020

When is a habit a rut?


What is the difference between a habit and a rut, because I’m in one of them but can’t decide which? Habit seems more positive than rut, I suppose.  As, Vance Havner said: ‘Many people are in a rut and a rut is nothing but a grave with both ends kicked out.’ Pithy, authoritative, but then being an evangelist he was one used to certainties. 

Maybe ‘rut’ is ‘habit’ recognised, whatever the case, habits, ruts, they’re devilishly hard to break free from. In my case, perhaps impossible, because it’s just so comfortable; brain and muscle memory conspire to keep me in place.

I’m talking about the early morning routine and my daily waste of three hours. The routine is simple enough: Wake up at 6 am. Lumber downstairs mildly surprised I’m still breathing.

Then what? 

Three hours over a pot of strong tea, listening to various news programmes Radio 4 — Talk Radio —LBC — whilst browsing social media, Facebook, Twitter, various blogs, and those newspapers free from a paywall.  

The thing is, it’s all very pleasant but such a despiriting waste of time. I think of alternatives: 

An early morning walk, but that would involve getting washed and dressed and waking up my wife. I’m not a quiet person. 

I could spend those precious three hours reading, breaking into my formidable pile  'To Be Read' books, or delving into one those ridiculously cheap kindle collections I can never resist buying To think, you can get the collected works of G K Chesterton for less than the cost of a pint. Ridiculous. And I have them all. Never read them. Just can't resist buying them.

 In short, I could be reading,  dipping into a Dostoevsky or a Fu Manchu . But no. Instead I’m caught by the radio burblings of Mishal Hussein, Nick Robinson, Hartley Brewer, Nick Ferrari, occasionally cursing. The news is essentially the same, opinions perhaps marginally different ranging from the honeyed-venomous to the chirpy aggressive, from shallow certainties to cheerful bluster with adverts thrown in.

And I ask myself, if they make me so angry, what am I doing here? Why waste my time like this? 

Questions without answers.

I’ve no idea.

I could be writing – three hours is a considerable chunk of time. And then at last the answer sinks in. I’m still asleep, or at least in that border land between sleep and full consciousness. The three hours slip by in what seems like five minutes. And I surface empty minded and needing the toilet.

So, the question remains. 

Leo Tolstoy had the answer. He was after all a genius.

‘We imagine that when we are thrown out of our usual ruts all is lost, but it is only then that what is new and good begins. While there is life there is happiness. There is much, much before us’ 

All well and good but within eight years of his death you had the Russian Revolution, perhaps not what he was thinking when extolling the virtues of change. 

Maybe I should just stick with Arnold Bennett: ‘The great advantage of being in a rut is that when one is in a rut, one knows exactly where one is.’