Letter from Chester

Updates have been scarce lately, and it’s not for lack of material. The late summer festivals and many nice family outings went unreported. Rather, it’s our old friend, procrastination, and a sense of inadequacy when I read the well-turned phrases from some of my blogging heroes, that keep me from writing more often.

Time then for some inconsequential twoddle to break the writer’s block. The rock’n’roll lifestyle of an itinerant IT consultant has brought me back to Chester, where I’m a weekly guest in the City’s low-cost hotels. On a budget of £50 per night, playing the market with LateRooms, I can avoid the real dives, but not quite attain business class. These marginal places are low on luxury, but high on unintentional comedy.

Last week’s lodging was the Discomfort Inn. My stay was uneventful, save for an extractor fan fit to wake the dead, on a timer that left it running for a good twenty minutes after the bathroom light was extinguished. A trifling challenge for the road warrior — creep in darkness to the shaving light — and certainly no match for the morning a few weeks back when my entire routine of shower, shave and dress was completed in total darkness due to a blown fuse in the same hotel.

Domenica, the lovely receptionist, has a hesitant knowledge of English, but she’s hampered more by her tenuous grasp of the hotel trade. She looked dumfounded when I proffered a loyalty card; yes, the very same loyalty cards that are placed on the counter to encourage customers to pick them up and, erm, I suppose, use them. “You want to pay with this?” she asked. I gave a brief explanation of the loyalty concept but her boss’s more practical advice was better received: “Push it into this slot and press these buttons here”. A few weeks later, Domenica’s hitting her stride, but the hotel’s shaky systems throw rocks in her path. On checking out last week she asked me: “Can you tell me your Auth code?” Again, an unwarranted lecture from me about merchant acquirers and the card payment clearing system and “you really should be getting an auth code from the bank, not me”. Ten minutes later, after calling over the manager from a partner hotel across the road, my payment was finally accepted.

The Discomfort is my back-up hotel, my preference being the Second-Best Western. The drawback here is that the hotel does a roaring trade in coach parties passing through the fair City of Chester. When Caledonian Tours are in town, the place is filled with Scottish pensioners, mostly four-foot tall women named Moira or Aileen. An ill-timed visit to breakfast can find you queued behind a few dozen of them, painfully navigating the stairs with their walking sticks, belays, carabiners, hip replacements, the works. My boss, Kaye, has suggested that the reason I like the Second-Best Western is the invigorating thrill when they say “Och, I’ll let you pass with your sprightly young legs”. I can’t deny it! A while back I got a call in my room, and the dulcet voice said: “Is that you Donald?” Kaye said I should have answered: “Aye, it is, will I join you for cribbage tonight?” I’ve never sat up in the bar with the Caledonian crowd, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, after a few drams, the zimmer frames are kicked aside and Scottish country dancing begins.

Breakfast this morning brought a new Alan Bennett moment. A grey-haired couple walked into the restaurant, she clutching a small bundle wrapped in a napkin. As the waiter walked over she thrust this package at him and said in a Yorkshire accent. “Can you toast my teacake?”

Kazuo Ishiguro on folk music

The way I see it is like this. There is this kind of treasure chest you have sitting in front of you, and if you were American or perhaps Irish you might have opened it by now, but because you live here it probably hasn’t occurred to you to do so yet. Well, I would urge you to open that thing up and delve inside it, because I believe you’ll find there a sublime vision of life in the British Isles at it has been lived over the last few centuries; and it’s the kind of vision that you can’t readily get from the works of say, Dickens or Shakespeare or Elgar or Sir Christopher Wren. If you don’t open that treasure box I think you are going to miss a certain dimension, a whole dimension of cultural life in this country so I urge you to do it.

Speaking at the 2003 BBC Folk Awards, London

Morocco photos

D03-IMG_2425-250.jpgI’ve added new photos to the library, from our Family Adventure in Morocco back in June. This was the first outing for Caroline’s new Canon EOS350D. Caroline took some great landscapes. I took a lot of pictures of blokes.

Glastonbury photos appear

Glastonbury floodsAfter the customary pause for procrastination, a small set of photos from this year’s Glastonbury festival are now posted in the photo library. Another festival dominated by the weather, though some of our camp site neighbours seemed to revel in the drama of it all. Before even leaving their tents on Friday morning of the great rain, they were on mobile phones: “they’re saying it’s the muddiest Glastonbury of all time… well, for fifty years at any rate!”. You almost expected to hear: “There’s a bloke up in Green Crafts, name of Noah, he’s building an ark and going to take us out two-by-two.” One nearby woman, we dubbed ‘local radio DJ’ for her breezy, smoother-than-smooth telephone patter, declared “well, it’s blue skies all the way from hereon”. It wasn’t, but things did improve enormously, to the extent we got sunburnt noses on Sunday. We also got to exercise the twenty-three different words for ‘mud’ known to all Glasto veterans, and in double-quick time. Friday was liquid, Saturday gloopy, then claggy, and Sunday delightfully doughy.

Dink’s Song

jeff-buckley-sin-e.jpgSo I was listening today to Jeff Buckley – Live at Sin-é and he took me off on a little ethno-musicologist wandering. If you don’t know it, this is an extended recording of one of Jeff’s solo shows at a tiny NYC club, made shortly before he signed to CBS to record Grace (recently voted #61 in Channel 4’s 100 greatest albums). So in a way it marks the end of innocence for Jeff, and the start of an arc that would see him achieve superstardom and tragically drown within four years.

It’s fantastically discursive. There’s little or no editing, and so all of the between-song patter is there on CD, and in Jeff’s case this means snatches of nigh-perfect renditions of radio jingles, Zeppelin, Doors and Dylan. He has clearly absorbed all of this material through obsessive study and practice, and he uses snippets as a kind of extended vocabulary, just as a poetry-maven might slip in quotations to illustrate a debate. At one point he performs a song by the great Pakistani Qawwali singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and it’s hard to tell whether he has learned the song phonetically, or studied the original Sufi poetry — but you suspect it might be the latter. He does mention that he knows “everything” about Nusrat, including his boyhood nickname.

However it was not the Nusrat song that caught my ear. There’s a track callled Dink’s Song, a long impassioned blues narrative that is classic Jeff. Based on stanzas that you’ve heard spun through Robert Johnson, Son House and about every other Delta bluesman, but driven towards the type of climax that Steve Berkowitz, Jeff’s A&R man, called “the flying Buckleys”. I’m pretty blues-literate but I’d never heard of this Dink’s Song so I googled it.

Roger McGuinn’s folk den provided the answer. John Lomax collected the song on a field trip to College Station, Texas in 1908. He witnessed there what can only be described as a mating ritual among the black workers, slaves in all but the narrowest definition. Lomax’s description from his 1947 book, Adventures Of A Ballad Hunter:

I found Dink washing her man’s clothes outside their tent on the bank of the Brazos River in Texas. Many other similar tents stood around. The black men and women they sheltered belonged to a levee-building outfit from the Mississippi River Delta, the women having been shipped from Memphis along with the mules and the iron scrapers, while the men, all skilful levee-builders, came from Vicksburg. A white foreman volunteered: ‘Without women of their own, these levee Negroes would have been all over the bottoms every night hunting for women. That would mean trouble, serious trouble. Negroes can’t work when sliced up with razors.’

The two groups of men and women had never seen each other until they met on the river bank in Texas where the white levee contractor gave them the opportunity presented to Adam and Eve – they were left alone to mate after looking each other over. While her man built the levee, each woman kept his tent, toted the water, cut the firewood, cooked, washed his clothes and warmed his bed. Down on the dumps nearer the river, clouds of drifting dust swirled from the feet of moving mules and from piles of shifted earth, while the shouts of the muleskinners sometimes grouped themselves into long-drawn-out couplets with a semi-tune – levee camp hollers.

But Dink, reputedly the best singer in the camp, would give me no songs. ‘Today ain’t my singin’ day,’ she would reply to my urging. Finally, a bottle of gin, bought at a nearby plantation commissary, loosed her muse. The bottle of liquor soon disappeared. She sang, as she scrubbed her man’s dirty clothes, the pathetic story of a woman deserted by her lover when she needs him most – a very old story. Dink ended the refrain with a subdued cry of despair and longing – the sobbing of a woman deserted by her man.

If I had wings like Noah’s dove
I’d fly up the river to the one I love
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well

I’ve got a man, he’s long and tall
Moves his body like a cannon ball
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well

One of these days and it won’t be long
Call my name and I’ll be gone
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well

I remember one night, a drizzling rain
Round my heart I felt a pain
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well

When I wore my apron low
Couldn’t keep you from my do’
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well

Now I wear my apron high
Scarcely ever see you passing by
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well

Now my apron’s up to my chin
You pass my door and you won’t come in
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well

If I had listened to what my mama said
I’d be at home in my mama’s bed
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well

So it’s the classic tale of woman left barefoot and pregnant by a deserting philanderer, cf Willie O’Winsbury in the Scottish tradition.

But back to Jeff. Closer inspection reveals that he has sacrificed form for feeling. He has attempted a sex-change on the lyric, that renders it almost nonsensical:

if I met your man, and he was long and tall
I’d heave his body like a cannonball
fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well

Furthermore he has injected bastardised versions of well-known stanzas, like Robert Johnson’s Come On In My Kitchen, which he renders thus:

oh she’s gone
I know she won’t come back
oh she took the last nickel out of my saving sack

In Johnson’s original “I took the last nickel out of her nation sack”… a nation sack, I discovered, is a bag used specifically by women to carry their mojo, or voodoo charm, a talisman used for spells of female domination over men. One wonders whether Jeff’s aware that a man would never use a nation sack, and hence changed to “saving sack”, or is it just a slip.

Ultimately one’s left with the impression that Buckley didn’t take too much care with the lyric and just let rip with his stream of consciousness. This would be typical of his approach, I think, and I don’t have a problem with that. His spirit and musicality do it for me.

And what of Dink’ She was dead when Lomax returned for a second visit a year later. And it would be twenty-five more years before Lomax and his son Alan returned with some extrememly primitive portable recording equipment to capture the sound of the blues. I’d love to hear Dink’s own rendition of her song, and so, I suspect, would have Jeff.

PostScript: Thanks to Brandon and Annalivia for the great comments. I’m a little shame-faced that I didn’t know about the Dylan version; almost certainly the model for Buckley’s. Of course, Dylan’s is now in legal circulation, thanks to the No Direction Home soundtrack, and I must do a little comparison to see how the two match up. And now we have a few candidates for Dylan’s source: Van Ronk, Baez, and also Pete Seeger who, I discover, recorded it in the late fifties as part of a massive project called America’s Favourite Ballads. Thanks to Scorsese’s film, Dylan’s early New York period is buzzing in my head. I dug out Chronicles Vol. 1, the kind Christmas gift of father-in-law Peter and am busily reading it. Another discovery, the woman whom Dylan describes as his favourite blues singer of the Greenwich Village era, Karen Dalton. She has a couple of albums in circulation and I’m looking forward to hearing them too.

By the way, the Seeger album is available on emusic.com, my absolute favourite legal download site, and a bargain at US$10 for 40 tracks a month. They have a wonderful archive of independent music, and I intend to write a jordan-maynard.org piece about it one of these days.

My eyes are dim…

CRW_2508C.jpgA few years back, when we took Clara for a new pair of specs, she persuaded me to get my eyes tested. She was tired of watching me squint at the small print, and, in the unselfconcious way of small children, suggested the obvious remedy. Duncan, a wise and experienced South African optician, put me through my paces. “You’ve always been a bit long-sighted” was his verdict “and as you get older that only gets worse. However I don’t think you need any help yet. Come back and see me when you’re 41 and a half. You’ll be needing glasses then.”
And lo, it came to pass, as my 41st birthday came and went, I found myself increasingly carrying papers to read them in bright window light. At the end of a long day at the computer, words started to swim. The final humiliation was when a nice young man came to the door to sign me up for a local wildlife charity, and I had to ask him to read the bank’s address from my cheque book. On my forty-first-and-a-half, almost to the day, I succumbed and ordered my first reading spectacles.
Everyone tells me that they are not at all strong: +1/+1.5. But I’m shocked and amazed at the icy sharpness that has come into my life. I’ve been driving with an empty wash-bottle, the windscreen splattered with the debris of 41 and a half years of Kamikaze insects, and a youth in a parka has stepped out at the lights with a squeegee and soapy water. Actually, my saviour wasn’t a youth in a parka, it was a bottle-blond in a crisp white tunic, of which there are now four at the opticians. They seem to think that suits the aesthetic. Duncan is no more to be seen. Perhaps they told him he would no longer be welcome once he reached 51 and a half.

An outrage against simple men

This evening I will begin publishing a series of articles written by my Dad, Tony Jordan, a history of the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. It’s a very personal account: Dad’s father miraculously survived one of the bloodiest landings of this initiative, unlike the majority of his companions, who were mown down in minutes. The tale of intertwined lives is as fascinating as it is horrific: Churchill, the architect of the botched mission; Robert Jordan, a foot-soldier in the Royal Munster Fusiliers; and a young officer named Nightingale, the uncomfortable interface between Whitehall’s strategy and the grim reality of a Turkish beach.

I’m very grateful to my Dad for writing this and for allowing me to read and publish it, and also to my old history teacher Chris Holland, for giving Dad the impetus to turn decades of study into a finished article.