Community homestay in Panauti, Nepal

One of the things we most wanted to do during our travels in India and Nepal was to meet and spend time with local people. So when we came across the Community Homestay initiative in Panauti – a small rural town a two-hour bus ride east of Kathmandu – this sounded like an ideal opportunity to stay with a family. We took the local bus which in itself was an experience – I quickly lost count of how many people could squeeze into the small bus, and as we made our way out of the pollution of the city the conductor leant out of the open door to shout out the destinations.

Our Community Homestay hosts were Biju and her two daughters Aayusha and Nirusha. Upon our arrival they made us most welcome with masala tea and a delicious lunch of dal bhat, the staple Nepali meal.

In the late afternoon Aayusha showed us some of the village monuments – Panauti is a historic town with some beautiful temples. She then took us up a nearby hill to look at the Buddhist temple and enjoy the views over the town and the valley where the fields were green with the potato crop.

In the evening Biju showed us how to make potato curry and chapatis, and we looked through photo albums of the daughters’ weddings and of all the guests who had stayed with them.

On our second morning we walked along the path running north through the nearby hills towards Dhulikel. We climbed up to the Shree Sharada Devi Temple, the highest point of the path, where a local man put flower petals in our hair and took us to a viewpoint from where we could see Dhulikel, Banepa, Panauti and Namobuddha.

In the late afternoon Nirusha took us to a local café where they had found a guitar, and asked me to sing a few songs. When we returned home, Nirusha dressed Isabelle in a Nepali sari. We ended the day with a fabulous Newari dinner with 9 different dishes and a glass of home-made rice wine.

Our stay in Panauti with Biju and her daughters, not to mention Grandma and adorable 14-month old Neepun, was very special. There is a world of difference between their home and ours in Cambridge – Biju’s home is very basic with no glass in the windows, a very wet bathroom with cold water, and steep ladder-like stairs. But the welcome they gave us was beyond compare – human warmth and kindness know no boundaries and we were made to feel very much at home. It was a privilege to meet them and our stay was most memorable.

On our last day in Nepal we met Bikal, one of the Community Homestay organisers – he had very kindly brought some glasses we had left in Panauti and asked us for feedback on our stay there. We asked for more detail about how the financial side works – the central office takes 15% of a booking and 20% of the rest goes to the local community. The host receives the rest – around two thirds of the booking fee. Given that our stay there was rather more expensive than the other places we stayed, it was good to know that the hosts would receive a reasonable proportion of this.

Bikal also explained that he had considered going to the US as apparently many educated Nepalis do, but decided he could be more helpful by staying in the country. He spoke inspirationally about Community Homestay, about how it has given a purpose to his life, how it aims to empower the women who act as hosts, and how it can support local communities in more remote areas of Nepal by bringing income from tourists.

India and Nepal

We are just back from spending three and a half weeks in India and Nepal and it has been good to experience once more the highs and lows of travelling. In their different ways – and they have been very different – India and Nepal have been exciting, eye opening, challenging and rewarding. We experienced a fair degree of culture shock, though overall much less than I had expected and more than counterbalanced by the many positive experiences.

The warmth and friendliness of the people we met has been outstanding. Apart from our time with our son and his partner – which was of course was a real treat and the initial motivation for our trip – we spent very little time with westerners and a lot with local people who welcomed us into their lives. All our hosts made us feel at home, and in particular Vinita and Pradesh in Delhi and Biju, Aayusha and Nirusha in Panauti, who have become friends. Then there were the friends of friends – Antara and Saurabh in India and Julia in Nepal who gave up their valuable time to show us round, respectively, the dargah of Nizamuddin, the Taj Mahal and the courtyards of Patan.

On top of that we met many very special people, often quite unexpectedly – Baiku and Bai who invited two total strangers to their home in Kathmandu; Julia’s brother who shared his profound knowledge and enthusiasm for Newari culture; Bikal who went out of his way to bring us a pair of glasses we had left in Panauti and who spoke eloquently about the Community Homestay project; the principal of the government school in Bhital who shared his inspirational hopes for education; the poet Pushkar, the sarod player Suresh and the tuk-tuk driver in Agra who commented that if you show people respect you are likely to gain respect in turn. It was a privilege to meet them all.

The architectural and natural beauty of the two countries was breathtaking. The Taj Mahal really was as good as we had hoped – a quite staggering achievement. But then so were the Qutub Minar, the carvings in the royal palace of Patan, the gorgeous gardens of Humuyum’s tomb, and the local treasures of Green Park in Delhi and Panauti.

Then all this fell sharply into perspective when we woke one morning to watch the first rays of the sun fall on the Annapurna mountains. And some of the birdlife has been every bit as
beautiful – the sparkling blue of the verditer flycatcher, the vibrant purple of the delightful sunbirds or the brilliant red of the long-tailed minavets.

The food was excellent, and we have never been anywhere before that was as easy for vegetarians. All our hosts provided local breakfasts – the aloo parathas in Delhi were particularly special – and several offered delicious home cooking in the evening as well – Biju went as far as to teach us how to cook potato curry and chapatis. When that was not available good restaurants were not far away, notably in New Delhi and Pokhara.

Musically our trip was rewarding also. On our first evening Antara took us to hear Sufi music in the dargah (shrine) of Nizamuddin. The music was magical. A couple of days later in the Sikh temple Sis Ganj in Old Delhi, we sat again enthralled by sacred music. I was asked to sing as well, firstly by our hosts in Delhi, and then, in cafés in Agra and Panauti. And in Patan we joined sarod player Suresh Raj Bajracharya, who was practising the Sarod in Julia’s gallery, Yala Mandala, with his student, a former living goddess. They played ragas and I sang Rainbow – I have never sung to a divinity before!

I could go on – about the colours, the sounds, the packed streets, the contrasts and the surprises – but I’ll spare you all that, for now at least. Our travels seem to have had a positive impact on my creativity – I am at long last emerging from a long period of songwriting drought and a new song is working its way into the light. Thankyou, India and Nepal.

Here is Suresh playing the Sarod:

John le français

I officially received French nationality on the morning of February 6th 2019 when we attended the ceremony at the consulate in London. We were given a a glass of champagne and a folder containing a copy of the Declaration of human rights, and we sang the Marseillaise.

I first met Isabelle 37 years ago and, while we have never formally lived in France in that time, across those years we must have spent some 7 or 8 years in a country I have come to love and where I now have many close friends. It has also given me the time to get to know francophone culture, and especially music, which has increasingly influenced my own songwriting, especially in Side by side (below), La Fayette, Rue Mouffetard, Bordeaux, The centre of the world, The children of the sea and Rocks and stones.

Nevertheless, until the 2016 referendum it had never seemed remotely important for either of us to apply for a second nationality – we were citizens of Europe. However in the uncertainty that has ensued it became apparent that we needed our own backstop, just in case the vicissitudes of politics threatened to separate us.

And while I am above all delighted to retain my identity as a European, I am also happy to join a republic, to celebrate liberté, égalité et fraternité, and to share the culture of Balzac and Bashung. The Consul gave a speech of welcome in which he underlined the values of the French republic, and here are a couple of examples from the documents in my folder: ‘Les êtres humains naissent et demeurent libres et égaux en droits’ and ‘L’homme et la femme ont dans tous les domaines les mêmes droits’. All good by me.

As 2018 draws to a close…

My new album ‘Never enough’ is now well and truly launched and has been getting some radio play. I’ve had some nice comments from reviewers: ‘Really thought-provoking and interesting songs’ (Genevieve Tudor, BBC Radio Shropshire).‘There is some beautiful writing on Never enough (Greg Russell, BBC Radio Sheffield). Never enough is possibly John Meed’s finest work, finding him totally in control of his palette of words and ideas’ (Les Ray, Unicorn). ‘John Meed has created something that is at once highly engaging and equally thought-provoking’ (Allan Wilkinson, Northern Sky). ‘The rewards are worth the reaping’ (Mike Davies, FATEA).

I’m grateful to everyone who came to the launch at CB2 earlier in November – you created a lovely atmosphere. If you missed it, or would like to repeat the experience, we will be doing much the same set at the Cambridge Folk Club on January 25th. The club meets in the The Golden Hind, 355 Milton Road, Cambridge CB4 1SP – the evening starts at 8pm and we shall be on at around 10pm. I’ll be joined by Rhys on guitars, Andy on bass, Matt on violin and Lucinda on viola. Tickets here.

You can listen to or download the songs, or order the CD, here:

There is a live video of the title track (with Matt and Lucinda) in the lovely Suffolk church of Felsham here:

There is also a live version of Blackbirds here:

As it’s getting to the end of the year, here is some of the other music I have been enjoying this year. My album of the year has been Low’s ‘Double negative’ though you need to be able to cope with doses of distortion – all apparently a reaction to living in Trump’s America. It’s worth persisting, though.
It’s also well worth trying:
– Nenah Cherry’s ‘Broken Politics’ and its standout track ‘Kong
– Ed Harcourt’s piano pieces on ‘Beyond the end’ including the lovely ‘Duet for ghosts
– Phoebe Bridgers’ ’Stranger in the Alps’ – try ‘Motion sickness
And if you feel like venturing away from the English language, try Catalan singer Joanjo Bosk’s Albera.
My favourite new film of the year – by some way – was ‘Shoplifters’ by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda.
Finally, can I take the chance to thank you all for your support, and to wish you all the best for the year to come.

‘Never enough’ now available

We launched my new album, ‘Never enough’, on November 10th at CB2. You can listen to or download the songs, or order the CD, here:

There are some fabulous contributions from other lovely musicians – Rhys Wilson, who co-produced the album, played many of the instruments. Matt Kelly and Lucinda Fudge from Thursday’s Band played the delightful strings on ‘Never enough’ and ‘Blackbirds’. Myke Clifford added breathtaking sax to ‘Strange thing’, while Dawn Loombe’s wonderful accordion takes us to Paris in ‘La Fayette’ and Brian Harvey adds bass to ‘Never enough’ and ‘Bordeaux’. I’m grateful to them all.

And the artwork for the cover is from our good friend and wonderful artist, Gail de Cordova.

New album ‘Never enough’

We have now launched the new album, ‘Never enough’. Rhys’s production skills have gone from strength to strength, and it is sounding good.

The track listing is:

1 Side by side
2 Never enough
3 La Fayette
4 Strange thing
5 Why?
6 Blackbirds
7 For granted
8 Mistakes
9 Bordeaux

There are some fabulous contributions from other lovely musicians – Rhys of course but also Matt Kelly and Lucinda Fudge on strings, Myke Clifford on sax, Dawn Loombe on accordion and Brian Harvey on bass. I’m grateful to them all.

And the artwork for the cover is from our good friend and wonderful artist, Gail de Cordova.

Here’s the video of the first track on the album:

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.

I will have copies with me at gigs but both the CD and album download are available from my Bandcamp page and on iTunes etc. You can also listen to the tracks here:

Educated by Tara Westover

‘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 photo of Tara was taken by Paul Stuart.

‘Side by side’ released

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.

Video and concert at Cambridge Folk Club

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!

Concert in Anstey Church with Thursday’s Band

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: