Thursday, 31 January 2013

“All this, from a tent in Zimbabwe”

Noel's Painting

Just after the snows had melted, two friends died within a few days of each other.

The first to leave us, on January 23, was Noel Wain. I’d met him when he joined The Western Morning News as chief reporter. I was his deputy. Later he became picture editor, and in a final chapter, he cut free and discovered his real vocation as a painter.

This is one of his pieces, a painted collage of objects found on a Westcountry beach. It was created in 1989.

Four days later, we lost Brian Pedley, whom I knew when he and I were at Television South West, where he was a senior producer, working principally on the evening news magazine.

I liked to think that at least in spirit (if not in fact) Brian was descended from that robust line of Westcountry non-conformist radicals, those upright, unbowing dissenters whose stock also produced the late Labour leader Michael Foot, who was, like Brian, one of Plymouth Argyle’s passionate pilgrims.

Brian was a master of popular TV journalism, a tough discipline which required a bold field of vision, a pitch-perfect ear for colloquial speech with a talent for getting words down onto paper then back up in the air as if newly spoken, an affinity with the audience, and an instinct for the stories that would entertain or resonate with them. What he did not ever do was to cross the boundary into that demeaning and patronising travesty of his craft, “populist” TV.

Perhaps because of that decency and scruple, on more than one occasion he reached out an arm to steady a tipsy superior and save him from tumbling into the consequences of his tipsiness, rather than push him over the edge and take his job.

He preferred, I know, that unpredictable but endearing toper to the cynical shits who succeeded to the superordinate post. They tried and failed to turn Brian into their sort of management stooge, sending him off, among other irrelevancies, on one of those ludicrous courses where people are supposed to develop their “skills” by fording rivers and bridging ravines with a length of rope, some barrels and a few planks.

“How did it go, Brian?” I asked. “Oh, you know”, he said, grinning and raising his eyebrows. “Bit damp”. And then that unforgettable, rumbling chuckle.

Though I worked with Noel at The Western Morning News, we didn’t become fast friends until he’d left to paint and I was with TSW. Our homes were only a few doors from each other in Ann’s Place and Somerset Place in Stoke (Stoke, Devonport, that is).

I lived alone then, and Noel and Jacqui frequently asked me round for supper and great, long, swerving conversations, after which he and I, now mildly intoxicated, played fluent duets on his African drums.

Both us were prone to something we called “creative mishearing”. I remember him whooping when I thought he’d said “sub parrot”, and from then on – “Ah, Sub Parrot, come in” – that was his nickname for me.

One night, after listening to a concert on Radio 3, Noel sighed, “just think, all that from a tent in Zimbabwe”. “You idiot,” Jacqui said. “It was the Assembly Rooms in Derby”.

Brian and Noel had this in common: they were enchanting company and engaging conversationalists because they were the kind of cultured, gentle, inquiring and largely self-taught individuals who were once the mainstay of regional newspapers and broadcasting.

T S Eliot wrote that "we cannot afford to forget that the first - and not one of the least difficult - requirements of either prose or verse is that it should be interesting." These two gentlemen were interesting not because they mugged the camera, but because they stepped back and told the story. Or rather, the story, in whatever the medium, seemed to be telling itself.

Their deaths reminded me of the loss, decades before, of another good friend, who was also a mentor (our evenings, I now realise, were as much seminars as social events): Mike Tilson, one-time deputy editor of the Tavistock Times.

There were about half a dozen of us apprentice journalists, none older than 19 or 20, who were drawn into his orbit. He was in his late fifties, I guess: grey crew-cut hair, bright eyes behind round steel spectacles, sharp features – think of a sparrow hawk that’s gone vegetarian.

He lived by himself in a tiny granite cottage in the Tamar Valley, beside some fields where a farmer grew cauliflowers and anemones. A little wooden table with his portable typewriter on it; a neat, small fireplace where he burned coal and logs; and bookshelf after bookshelf: all of Dickens, all of Orwell, all of the two Lawrences (T E and D H), Penguins black, red, grey and green (Simenon), reference books, guide books, art books – and poetry; in particular, he loved Milton, Shelley and Blake (we’re back, I see, with radical dissent).

Once when we were there, and he returned from his galley kitchen with the omelettes he’d cooked, he saw me reading his Everyman edition of the poems of Francois Villon.

“Like them?” he asked.

“Very much”.

“Have it”.

“I couldn’t”.

“Go on – I’ve got two copies”.

And I have it still - here it is:

Mike's Book

This morning, thinking of Noel, Brian and Mike, I tried a little translation:

Prince, n’enquerez de sepmaine

Ou ells sont, ne de cest an,

Qu’a ce reffraing ne vous remaine:

Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?


Prince, please don’t moan “where’d that week go?”

Or sing your “wish it were last year” song.

You might as well ask me whether I know

Where all the melted snow has gone.

RIP, mes amis.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Thank you, Wilko

Dr Feelgood

Yes, yes, I know 1975 was the year of the last great EU referendum, but that same Summer my good friend Graham Ball (himself a scion of Southend-on-Sea) barged into my house clutching a vinyl LP called Down by the Jetty and pushed past me to the record player (a Pioneer PL-12D wired to  a pair of Wharfedale Dentons) crying “listen to this, listen to this,” and introduced me to Dr Feelgood.

So in the week when Wilko Johnson (Feelgood guitarist, nearest to you) announced his farewell tour – farewell because he also announced, with dignity, wisdom, and measured wit that he was dying - I find I don’t really care much about Mr Cameron’s forthcoming referendum; or only insofar as the event might fulfil the promise of an entertainment suggested in these lines from Marx:

“Hegel says somewhere that  great historic events occur twice. He forgot to add: 'once as tragedy, and again as farce'.”

I do care about Wilko, though, who was also a philosopher and historian, and I care, of course, about times past, sweet and irretrievable.

Cheque Book is a great song, still thrilling to hear after nearly forty years. How’s this for a masterclass in getting on with the narrative? -

“Well my mum and pop told me they had some words to say
They said get out, I said I'm leaving anyway
I made some money playing this here guitar
Filled in a form and went and bought myself a car
I got my cheque book baby
Got my bags all packed
You come with me, get in the motor
Throw your suitcase in the back

“I've been here for so long, sick of this whole town
Ain't getting younger and it's time I got around
Wanna go some places I ain't never been before
When I turn that corner mamma you won't see me no more
I got my cheque book baby …”


What’s high art? what’s low art? Roy Campbell made a stunning translation of Baudelaire’s Invitation to a Voyage, a poem which seems to me to be bowling along on the same kind of journey as Cheque Book -

“My daughter, my sister,
Consider the vista
Of living out there, you and I,
To love at our leisure,
Then, ending our pleasure,
In climes you resemble to die.
There the suns, rainy-wet,
Through clouds rise and set
With the selfsame enchantment to charm me
That my senses receive
From your eyes, that deceive,
When they shine through your tears to disarm me.

“There'll be nothing but beauty, wealth, pleasure,
With all things in order and measure.”

Here’s to the great Wilko Johnson, whose music (for me, at least) retrospectively made the great Charles Baudelaire rock and roll.