I continue my ecological survey of the fields south of Addenbrookes Hospital around the Nine Wells nature reserve.The field on the hospital side of the cycle path is wonderfully wild at the moment – this morning I heard 3 corn buntings there (right) and saw 2 (possibly 3) pairs of reed buntings. A yellowhammer was also singing and several skylarks.
The field on the other side of the cycle path had been earmarked by South Cambridgeshire District Council for further development. However, the conservatives suffered a shock defeat in the recent local elections. The liberal democrats, who now have overall control of the council, had campaigned vigorously against the proposed development. Let’s hope they now throw it out – I am trying to clarify the position. In case they need reminding, you can write to local councillors.
My 2017 survey of the area – which you can download below – showed that the area remains extremely valuable for farmland birds of high conservation concern, with exceptional numbers of grey partridge in the autumn, as well as good numbers of skylark, linnet, yellowhammer and corn bunting.
‘The square km south of Addenbrookes has this year supported a grey partridge population of at least 11 spring pairs/km2 and 85 birds/km2 in autumn. The arable farms typical of Cambridgeshire support between 0 and 5 pairs/km2 and 0–20 birds/km2 in the autumn.’
Corn buntings also did particularly well last year, with 8 pairs. This is an important population – there are just 11,000 birds in the UK and its recent extinction in Ireland risks being repeated in large parts of Britain if its breeding sites are not protected. The RSPB’s nearby Hope Farm had 2 pairs in 2016 in 1.8km2.
In addition, the site supports a thriving population of water voles, both in the start of Hobsons Brook, and in the ditch that runs alongside the cycle path.
You can download a copy of my report for 2017 here.
‘I’d never learned how to talk to people who weren’t like us – people who went to school and visited the doctor. Who weren’t preparing, every day, for the End of the World’.
There are many things I love about being a singer-songwriter – notably the rush of creativity when a new song comes, or the buzz after a concert that goes particularly well. But it also means that you meet some fascinating people.
I first met Tara Westover at our local music club in CB2, Cambridge, some five years ago, when she was completing her PhD at the university – shortly after, I now realise, one of the most difficult periods of her life. She rather unwisely offered to sing harmonies on some of my songs, an offer I could hardly refuse as she has one of the finest voices I have had the privilege to work with. We have since played many gigs together, and she has collaborated on my last two albums.
In quiet times during rehearsals, or on the way to or from concerts, she would tell me many tales from her astonishing and highly unusual childhood – growing up in a Mormon community in Idaho, in a survivalist family dominated by a charismatic but flawed father who spent his time – when not placing the family in mortal danger in his scrapyard – preparing for the end of the world.
But this could hardly prepare me for reading her remarkable memoir, Educated, published on February 20th by Hutchinson (in the UK – Random House in the US). The first part of the book describes Tara’s childhood and adolescence in the family home nestled under the mountain they called the Princess. To describe the family as ‘survivalist’ is somewhat misleading, as how Tara and her siblings survived their childhood is itself a miracle , confronted as they were by a succession of car crashes and workplace accidents, a refusal to counter any healthcare or medication beyond mother’s herbal remedies, a violent brother and non-existent ‘home schooling’.
There is one particularly stark moment when Tara finds her brother lying on the road side following a motorbike crash. He has suffered his third major head wound (the first two have left him a changed person), but when she phones her father he tells her to bring him home so that their mother can administer a few herbs. It’s an odd world where teenage rebellion takes the form of driving your brother to hospital.
It would be easy to conclude that Tara paints a bleak picture of her family. In fact she remains remarkably honest throughout. She is still able to talk of her love for her parents, to capture the wild beauty of her childhood home, and to paint a portrait of her father that is tremendously human, where his humour, his enthusiasm and his pride in Tara’s singing shine through his probably bi-polar delusions and paranoia. In the end she likens him to Don Quixote, a ‘zealous knight’ tilting at windmills, to whose warnings of doom ‘no one listened. They went about their lives in the summer sun.’
The second and third parts of the book describe the process through which Tara found her way into education, sought to come to terms with the wider world, and eventually gained a doctorate from Cambridge University. It’s a journey of both remarkable achievement but also some personal cost. At each step along the way she has faced a regular ‘twitch upon the thread’, as Waugh put it, from her home and family.
We all bear the scars of growing up, and spend much of our adult lives coming to terms with them. Educated is often a tough read, and it was painful to hear a good friend describe with such honesty how she responded to her brother’s abuse, her parents’ rejection, or the resulting family schism. It is also very moving indeed.
But above all, it’s a tremendous read and Tara has a real talent as a story teller – I found it very hard to put down. Here is a link to Tara’s website. You can order Educated from Heffers/Blackwells or, if you must, from Amazon.
You can listen to Tara singing here and here is a video of The Hills of Arran, on which she takes lead vocals:
The first single – Side by side – from my forthcoming album is now available. It describes a journey from Paris to London and is my small contribution to the debate about Europe, and a plea for tolerance and diversity. Rhys Wilson arranged and produced the song, and delightfully so. Here’s the video of the song:
It was filmed in and around St Pancras station, Gare du nord, Gare de l’est and Gare de Lyon. I’m grateful to the SNCF and St Pancras for the publicly available pianos – the grand at the Gare de Lyon is especially wonderful. And I’m even more grateful to the people of Paris and London for going around their daily travels and inadvertently (and in one lovely moment a the end of Verse 1, advertently) participating in the film, and for proving that what makes us different makes us shine. If you like and approve of it, and are into social media, please do share it. I still hope it’s not too late to change people’s minds.
If you’d like to download the song, it’s available here:
We are working away on the rest of the album and I will of course let you know once it’s available next year. In the meantime, Rhys and I will be performing quite a few of the new songs at Cambridge Folk Club this Friday, December 22nd. We are playing a 45 minute set as part of their Christmas showcase, and the two other acts are Lizzie J Taylor and Pat Cullen. The Folk Club meets in the Golden Hind, Milton Road, Cambridge CB4 1SP, and and there are more details here.
And as it’s that time of year, here are my musical highlights from the last twelve months:
My favourite album of the year, by some distance, has been Planetarium, a collaboration from Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and James McAlister. It’s somewhere out there and takes a few listens but we love it. You can hear some samples on their website. I also rather like the album ‘Conflats’ by Outlines. I’m still trying to get the hang of The National’s ‘Sleep well beast’ and Benjamin Clementine’s ‘I tell a fly’ but I think both will be worth the effort.
My favourite concert of the year was some ‘flamenco experimental’ from Rosalia and Raul Refree in Girona. Their album, Los Angeles, is remarkable. You can watch them playing ‘Catalina’ in front of Guernica.
I’d like to wish you a very happy Christmas, and all the best for 2018. Thankyou all for your continued support.
I recently uploaded a live video of ‘Replacement valve’, filmed in Alstonefield Village Hall. A while ago my mother needed a new aortic valve, and it left me thinking about the various uses we make of valves. I even managed to build in a reference to our local (and favourite) Cambridge pub, the Flying Pig, home to much good music. The video is here:
On Friday December 22nd the lovely people at Cambridge Folk Club have asked me to play a 45 minute set as part of their Christmas showcase event. They have asked me to sing something festive but don’t worry – I won’t be doing any Slade. Instead I’ve been working on a Christmas verse for the Woodstock rest home and hope to put an appropriate Thomas Hardy poem to music. It promises to be a lovely evening – Rhys will be joining me on piano and guitar, our good friend Lizzie J Taylor will also be playing, and Pat Crilly as well. The Folk Club meets in the Golden Hind, Cambridge CB4 1SP, and and there are more details here.
Finally, work is progressing on my own next album, and I hope to release one track from it, Side by side, as a single by the end of the year. I will let you know!
Last Saturday I played a a fabulous gig in St George’s Church in Anstey with Thursday’s Band who had kindly asked me to open the evening. A lovely venue, appreciative audience and great acoustics. Matt and Lucinda joined me for Blackbirds and Never enough which was a treat. Thursday’s Band were excellent.
And thankyou to Ali Cossor for organising the gig and taking the picture.
Thursday’s Band and I really enjoyed the church concert experience and hope to repeat it – let me know if your church would like some live acoustic music!
I also played Rocks and stones – the song I wrote some years ago for my good friend in Collioure, Charlie Devarennes – and you can listen to the live recording here:
At first sight, at some 600 metres and surrounded by some of the highest Lakeland peaks, Haystacks looks, in the words of the great writer of Lakeland walks Alfred Wainwright, ‘like a shaggy terrier in the company of foxhounds’.
However the mountain was one of Wainwright’s absolute favourites: ‘Not one of this distinguished groups of mountains can show a greater variety or or more fascinating arrangement of interesting features.’ We had wanted to climb it for many years, and last week at last got the opportunity to do so.
We had stayed the night before in Carlisle and didn’t start the walk until just before noon, which was just as well because the weather had been temperamental. The first shower hit after 20 minutes and others followed, though fortunately the wind was behind us. We managed to picnic in the lee of a large rock before a lull in the rain gave us the courage to attack the final climb.
After a relatively simple approach, the climb to the top was surprisingly challenging, with several pleasant scrambles up rock faces. However the views just got better and better, and by now the rain had more or less relented and the clouds were starting to lift from the surrounding peaks. Here is the view towards Buttermere and Crummock Water.
By the time we reached the summit there was even a patch of sunshine on the delightfully named Robinson, while Great Gable and Pillar briefly appeared out of the clouds ahead of us and we could look down over Ennerdale water. We were by now entirely convinced by Wainwright’s belief that this is one of the best climbs in the Lake District.
One of the many delights of Haystacks is the small tarn at the summit. As Wainwright said: ‘For a man seeking to get a persistent worry out of this mind, the top of Haystacks is a wonderful cure.’
We decided against going down the way we had come up, and instead descended to Innominate Tarn, where Wainwright’s ashes were scattered, and from there worked our way round to the river coming down from Brandreth. Following the previous day’s heavy rain, the expected stepping stones had disappeared under a raging torrent, and the crossing might well have been beyond us but for a helpful guide who told us where best to put our feet and hauled us up on the other side. The adrenaline buzz was worth the wet feet.
The rest of the descent was straightforward. All in all, it’s a wonderful circuit, with none of those tedious stretches you can meet on mountain walks, a new and often stunning view around every corner and no little excitement as well. As Wainwright said, ‘Could you wish a better place?’
On Friday January 27th I’ll be playing a band gig at Cambridge Folk Club. The two other acts will be Brian Cleary and Hugh Boyde, and Dave Jenkins. The club meets in the Golden Hind, 355 Milton Road, Cambridge CB4 1SP and the music starts at 8pm. Tickets, price £8, are available online. If you can make it, we’d be delighted to see you. We don’t often do full band gigs, and I’ve been enjoying the sounds in rehearsals!
I’ll also be playing a gig in Northampton on February 23rd at the Street Food Supper Club, The Black Prince Back Room, Northampton, NN1 4AE – I’ll be sharing the stage with the wonderful Welcome to Peepworld.
Looking back, 2016 has been a rum old year. Politically we’ve had to endure Brexit while the rest of the world has had to endure Putin, Erdogan, Assad and now the prospect of Trump. Musically we have lost Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, two of my musical touchstones, as well as Prince, George Michael and a host of others. And personally, we have lost two good friends, people we won’t be able to replace.
So what was good about the year? Well, ironically, my favourite album of the year was David Bowie’s ‘Black Star’, released a couple of days before he died. Indeed, it has replaced Heroes as my favourite of all Bowie albums. As with all his best work, it’s challenging, innovative and musically stunning. Above all, it’s one of those rare albums where we start with Track 1 and do nothing else until we have reached the end. There has also been good music from Bon Iver, whose third album ’22, A Million’ is another challenging but satisfying listen. Try this. ‘A Moon-shaped Pool’ from Radiohead is also rather good and I enjoyed the debut album from Lanterns on the Lake. We were also able to see a concert from my favourite flamenco guitarist, Vicente Amigo.
I’ve been musically busy as well. My sixth album. ‘The Hills of Arran’ attracted some nice reviews and the video of the title track has proved popular in Youtube land.
I also produced videos of the two Spanish-flavoured songs: ‘Andalucia‘ and ‘Santa Maria‘. Finally, there’s a live band version of ‘Ashes and rust’. As well as my usual gigs in the region I also played four small festivals, a gig at the 12 Bar Club and a set in support of Philip Henry and Hannah Martin in the Peak District. And I have been writing lots of new material, some of which we will do on Jan 27th.
Thankyou for your support last year, and here’s wishing you all the very best for the year to come.
This year it is 40 years since my love affair with Andalucia and its music began. In the summer of 1976 my friend Gordon and I spent six weeks in and around Granada, camping in the Alpujaras and in Motril on the coast, trekking across the Sierra Nevada and exploring the city that was to become one of my very favourite places. I then spent a couple of weeks travelling around Andalucia with another friend, Mike, before I set off alone to cross North Africa and return through Italy. A few years later I returned with Isabelle and we met a flamenco troupe who introduced us to the music of Camarón de la Isla, and notably his remarkable album La Leyenda del Tiempo, generally regarded as a turning point for flamenco and a key moment in reclaiming the music from Franco’s regime.
Since then we have returned on several occasions, most recently two years ago when we visited El Puerto de Santa Maria on the Bahia de Cadiz (staying with our friends Magi and John, alias Zig and Zag), Sevilla (where we caught up with Miguel whose flamenco guitar playing on ‘Andalucia’ is stunning), Cordoba and of course Granada. Our stay in El Puerto resulted in my song Santa Maria and I have now been able to combine film by Roger Murfitt of a live performance of the song with some of the photos and videos of the town that Magi kindly gave me. Here is the the resulting video:
Two minutes in there is an example of the wonderful flamenco baile (dance), we believe from Cadiz-born bailora Begoña Arce, filmed at the peña Tomás el Nitri in El Puerto. The song loosely uses the rhythm of the flamenco tangos – rather different from the Argentinan dance. There’s a more authentic tangos from Camarón himself here (also about the Bahia de Cadiz with a mention of El Puerto towards the end).
I have a few gigs planned for this autumn as well:
– On Saturday October 15th I’ll be supporting Philip Henry and Hannah Martin in Alstonefield Village Hall, close to Ashbourne in the Peak District
– On Saturday October 22nd I’ll be playing a 25 minute set with the excellent Keith Sadler and some other Suffolk troubadours at Relevant Records, 260 Mill Road, Cambridge, CB1 3NF (7-10pm – I’ll be on around 9pm)
– On Tuesday October 25th I’ll be playing a 30 minute set at the Hear the Music evening in The New Captain’s Table, Cathedral Marina, Waterside, Ely, CB7 4AU (8pm for 8.30 start)
– On Tuesday November 8th I’ll be playing a 40 minute set the MacKenzie Society, Unitarian Hall, Victoria Street, Cambridge CB1 1JW (7.45 pm)
– On Monday November 14th I’ll be playing a 25 minute set at the Carpenters Arms in Victoria Road, Cambridge CB4 3DZ
I have several new songs at the moment (the referendum at least got my creative juices flowing, even if it plunged me into despair) so I’ll be combining these with old favourites. It would be lovely to see you if you can make one of the events. There are links to the venues on my gigs page.
Here is the video for the second song from ‘The Hills of Arran’, Andalucia:
When the final Sultan of Granada, Boabdil, was driven into exile, he paused on the road south to the coast to look back on all he was leaving behind and sighed with grief for the loss of his land and the magnificent palaces of the Alhambra. This point in the road is now known as the Ultimo suspiro del Moro (the last sigh of the Moor).
Granadapedia comments that ‘No es difícil entender el porqué del llanto de Boabdil. Las lágrimas que derramó eran la constatación de que iba a abandonar un paraíso en la Tierra.’ (His tears were the recognition that he was about to abandon a paradise on earth.)
The song was produced by Miguel Moreno who also added additional guitars.
The video was filmed by John Meed and Isabelle Fournier, including a live performance at the fringe of Folk on the Pier in Cromer in 2016, as well as footage of the Mezquita in Córdoba (right)…
I don’t want to get into the economic arguments – while I can’t see how leaving would create more decent jobs, trade etc, I’m no economist, and anyway I don’t believe anyone can accurately predict such things – too many other factors in the wider EU and world economy will affect the future. Instead I want to focus on the things we could lose if we walk away – the 4 Ps of peace, people, protection and place.
Peace – It’s not just that, following centuries of conflict between European nations, we have enjoyed 70 years of peace between EU members. Above all, the EU’s regular meetings have provided a forum to resolve differences between member states. The EU has also helped us surmount some major challenges such as the reunification of Germany and the end of the iron curtain. Many on both right and left of the leave campaign want to return to a Europe of nation states, as does Marine Le Pen in France. Such a backwards step is potentially highly dangerous – we are far better off working together.
People – My friends come from across Europe (and of course from far beyond) – from France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Ireland and Greece as well as Turkey and Russia. Much of my favourite music, art, cinema and literature comes from Spain, France and – in the case of the great Jacques Brel – Belgium. Most of the recipes I cook are from Italy, Greece, France or Spain. I value all these people and their cultures and have no wish to close borders and take a step inwards.
Protection for workers – EU regulations underpin the UK’s health and safety law and oblige employers to take steps to reduce the risks we face at work. The Working Time Directive limits working hours, while EU rules strengthen maternity and paternity benefits and ensure that part time workers get the same rights as full time workers. There’s also protection for consumers as well. And one of the most important aspects of the European community is that all member states are constrained by these regulations – there is reduced opportunity for individual states to undermine these rights in order to gain competitive advantage.
Protection for the environment – OK – the EU’s record on this hasn’t always been good. The early CAP was disastrous for biodiversity – but even that has now greatly improved. Away from this the Habitats Directive 1992, the Birds Directive 2009 and the Natura 2000 ecological network provide enhanced protection to habitats and species, the Environment Action Programme regulates businesses to reduce waste and pollution, and the EU has been a key player in attempts to reduce climate change. Of course, Nigel Farage doubts global warming and hates wind turbines.
Place – We all have the right to travel freely throughout the EU and to live, work or retire where we choose – and we have the right to decent healthcare throughout the EU. And yes, this means that people from other EU countries can travel, live and work here. Good. As John Lennon said, instead of building walls we should be building bridges.
Above all for me the EU represents a way of living that sets a certain benchmark. Things like not resorting to the death penalty, agreeing a Charter of Fundamental Rights and embedding values of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights into the EU treaties. I know it’s far from perfect – the treatment of Greece was inhuman (though Yanis Varoufakis nonetheless strongly believes we should stay in). I’m appalled by its policy towards Syrian refugees, and concerned about the rush towards TTIP. However, for many years now the UK has had governments that were even further from perfect – invading Iraq, cutting benefits for the disabled, etc.
It’s up to us to fight for the EU we want. To quote Varoufakis:
‘Britain needs to join the rest of us on the other side of the Channel in the only fight that is worth having: the struggle to democratise the European Union.’