My sister Catherine

At the start of 2020 my sister Catherine was diagnosed with a return of a cancer that we thought had been cured four years ago. The doctors were not able to find a treatment that could help her, but she bore the pain and discomfort with great patience. She died on October 31st. Here is the text of the tribute I gave at her funeral on November 16th.

My very first memory is of a newborn Catherine coming home from hospital with our mother, Beryl, to the terraced house on the Spotland Road in Rochdale where we lived while the vicarage was being prepared. It was in Rochdale that we learnt that Catherine would go through life with learning disabilities. As I grew older, and after we had moved away from Rochdale, I became conscious of the prejudice that disability could provoke – but as school friends visited our house, Catherine’s gentle kindness and her joyful happiness helped them to see that disability was not something to be feared or laughed at, but something that brought its own love, strengths and specialness.

Catherine has had a profound influence on me. I have learnt much from her and a friend wrote how ‘she seems to have a kind presence’ in me; I hope that is true. I’ve had messages from friends across the country, and in France, America and even Australia. Catherine loved it when my university friends came to stay and Pam, widow of my best friend Dave, wrote: ‘Cathy was a lovely soul. I remember her singing and happiness when we visited you.’

After moving to the village of Felsham in Suffolk with our parents, Beryl and Harry, Catherine’s influence spread through the community. I have been conscious going through the messages we have received that people in the village clearly loved her and also, to quote Beryl’s friend Elizabeth, her own ‘deep sense of security, knowing she was loved’. The vicar, Sharon Potter, described how ‘it has been a privilege to be involved with Catherine’ while Richard Stainer recalled ‘such fond memories of Catherine’. A special memory for many is caught by the former vicar, Simon: ‘her spontaneous, enthusiastic joy and shrieks as she skipped up and down the aisle before a service’. She also enjoyed theatre visits with Beryl, especially to the opera and Stratford – and above all the ice cream during the break!

Stowmarket Community Hub became a central part of Catherine’s life. Team members there recall ‘Catherine’s beautiful keyboard playing and her willingness to take part in a variety of activities both at the Hub, the local leisure centre and out in the community’. At the time, ‘Catherine was the only learning disabled person ever to be accepted into the Stowmarket Art Club and have four paintings on show at the annual art exhibition at the URC church in Stowmarket. Her landscape of a poppy field was accepted by the Town Council.’ Her remarkable self-portrait is on the right.

Roy, for many years her key worker, describes how her artistic talent stood out: ‘Her ability was always there and, in time, she developed a confidence and style all of her own, enhanced by the transition from working on paper to canvas. She was always happy, choosing whichever subject she wanted to work on, never worried about trying something a little more challenging, applying herself with her usual patience and eye for detail. The results speak for themselves, her legacy, a remaining source of pleasure and amazement, not only for myself but for everyone involved at the time. An inspiration.’

Over 20 years ago a vital new chapter of Catherine’s life opened as she moved to Combs Court. I have become increasingly conscious over recent times of just how much Catherine was loved and valued by everyone at Combs – and also of how much she enriched their lives with her kind, gentle sunshine. When Beryl broke her leg in Cambridge in 2017 it was the ever-helpful and capable Catherine who tidied the hotel room and did the packing – and when we asked her where she wanted to spend the night she made it clear she wanted to return to Combs. So I’d like to close by quoting some moving words from Wendy, who stood close beside her throughout her illness.

‘Catherine was a kind, loving person and her artwork was amazing. She will be a great loss to us all and we will miss her dearly. We are one big family with a hole in our hearts now.’

Beryl requested that one of my songs, ‘Tenderness’ be played at the funeral. Here it is:

Love to you all

Well, these are truly strange times! We are all starting to realise how important are live music, and indeed live events generally. I hope that you and those you love are able to stay well, and that we will get through this difficult period safely.

Sadly, all my lovely gigs for the summer have been postponed. I am instead giving short mini-concerts via Facebook live. The first four are available here:

March 28 Three songs inspired by Nepal

April 11 Two new songs

April 19 Three songs for Huguette

April 26 Three songs from ‘Never enough

I plan further mini concerts, usually on Sunday at 11.30 UK time. Check my Facebook page for updates.

Keep safe and I look forward to seeing you when things return to normal. You can listen to  my latest album, Never enough, here.

Into the Spring

Winter may at last be coming to an end – tell that to people whose boiler has been out of action for over a week! – and I had been looking forward to some warmer weather and some lovely gigs.

Sadly these have all now been postponed because of the virus. And it is much better so. I can only wish you all a safe time ahead and look forward to seeing you after things start to get back to normal.

I have however posted a video of Matt, Lucinda and I playing a new song, ‘Progress’, at our most recent church gig in St Mary’s, Stotfold:

Goodbye to 2019

It’s slightly scary to see that another year has slipped by, though I’m not sure we will lament the passing of 2019. Here, anyway, are my annual musical musings.

Never enough’, which we launched at the end of last year, has been well received. I seem to have been busy playing gigs through the year – the highlight was the inaugural Royston Folk Club Summer Shindig on the August bank holiday weekend, where Matt and Lucinda joined me on violin and viola and we had a lovely welcome from the audience – including some who had travelled from Oxford and Milton Keynes! There is a video of us playing La Fayette live here – all in evocative black and white.

And I have several gigs planned already for next year. I’m particularly pleased that my friends Thursday’s Band and I have at least three more church concerts to look forward to: on February 16th in Stotfold, near Hitchin; on February 29th in Ashwell, near Roystom (though this one is to be confirmed); and on May 30th in the delightful little church in Kettlebaston in Suffolk. More details are here – and if your church would like such entertainment to help with the restoration fund, do let me know. We really enjoy playing unplugged with the acoustics that churches provide.

Our trip to India and Nepal in April opened the flood gates of my songwriting and, after a barren year, I have eight new songs – several inspired by our experience there and also a new song inspired by my home town of Rochdale – which I’m currently testing out on long-suffering audiences. Rhys and I are starting to turn our attention to reworking some of my older songs for a retrospective album as well so 2020 promises to be busy.

In other music my favourite album of the year has been the ever-innovative Bon Iver’s ‘ii’; see for example, ‘Hey ma‘. I’ve also just discovered that the delightful and often epic Her name is Calla have released their final album this year. Sad news, but at least they left us ‘Kaleidoscoping‘. I have also just come across a French duo called Grand Veymont – L’odyssée du petit parleur is beautiful.

In fact I’ve been listening to quite a lot of French music this year – some interesting new music from Bertrand Belin, Keren Ann, Alain Chamfort, Malik Djoudi and Jean-Louis Murat. Song title of the year? Emily Loizeau’s ‘Viens avec moi mon vieux pays‘ and a rather nice video from a country that still knows how to protest (and of which I am now a citizen!)

Thankyou for your continued support. And may I wish you Happy Christmas and all the very best for 2020.

Insurgent empire, by Priyamvada Gopal

When the Scottish explorer John Rae was posted by the Hudson’s Bay Company to arctic Canada, he very quickly recognised just how much he had to learn from the Cree and Inuit peoples about traveling and surviving in the hostile climate he would face. When Rae was tasked with finding what had happened to Lord Franklin’s expedition to the Northwest Passage, his trust in and respect for the local people led him to accept their account of the expedition’s fate, which he repeated in his own report. In so doing, Rae drew condemnation from the British establishment – including Charles Dickens, who found it unimaginable that Rae had ‘failed’ to make the 10-12 day trek across the Arctic wastes to verify the story of ‘mere natives’.

So it did not come as a total surprise to me to read – in the second chapter of Priyamvada Gopal’s excellent book Insurgent Empire – that Dickens had sided with the English governor, Eyre, who had ordered a brutal repression of demonstrators and the murder of a local politician in the Jamaican uprising of 1865 . It did, though, come as some shock that a number of other supposedly progressive Victorians – including John Ruskin – had also supported Eyre. And by contrast, the Positivist thinkers Congreve and Harrison, bêtes noires of my university days, had taken the side of the anti-colonialists. The first part of Priya’s book shows how – when it comes to the Empire and colonisation – our Victorian ancestors were not always what we might expect.

I met Priya through political activism. We were both involved in Campeace, an anti-war movement, around the time of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and later in supporting the student protests in 2010-11. I have always been impressed by the balanced, thoughtful way in which she speaks, and the courage with which she stands up for what she believes. I take any opportunity I can to hear her talk in and around the university. I am proud to call her a friend and mentor, and had been awaiting the publication of Insurgent Empire with some anticipation.

Insurgent Empire focuses on specific moments of rebellion against British colonialism, and so John Rae does not feature in its pages. However, it is interesting that Wilfrid Blunt, the focus of Chapter 3, also saw himself as a student of a colonised people, in this case the Egyptians involved in the upraising of 1882. And this is the first key lesson of the book – that there was very much a two-way interchange between insurgents in the colonies and radicals in Britain – that terms like ‘liberty’ were not ‘gifted’ to the colonised, but forged in dialogue and eventually taken in struggle: indeed ‘the resistance of the periphery helped radicalise sections of the metropole’ and ‘ideas of freedom’ distinct from those of the free market economy were able to ‘make their claims heard’ (p448).

The second key lesson of Insurgent Empire is to challenge the extent to which people are obliged to accept the conventional wisdom of their time. Wilfrid Blunt is just one of a series of fascinating characters who came to see that behind the prevailing image of a benevolent empire lay an altogether different picture of aggressive self-interest and oppression. These people were able to unlearn the accepted view of empire – Blunt would eventually comment on how Britons were expected to ‘fall down as a nation and worship our own golden image in a splendid record of heroic deeds and noble impulses’. Others would go further and argue – perhaps a third key lesson – that British working people had more in common with those oppressed in the colonies than with their own ruling classes.

As Insurgent Empire moves into the twentieth century there is a change of focus. While many of the nineteenth century activists were British people who traveled to the colonies, recognised what was really happening, and fed this in to the debates at home, as the twentieth century unfolded activists from the colonies such as the Trinidadians C L R James and George Padmore increasingly came to London and became involved in – and often leading lights in – the struggle against colonialism. Priya’s characters, as she comments in the interview below, recognised their ‘moral responsibility’ to ally themselves with ‘those who are at the receiving end of inequality, exploitation and violence’.

Empire was built on the dehumanisation of subject people. In the more extreme view they were regarded as inferior ‘races’; to the more liberal they were ‘backward’ people who needed tutoring by their colonial masters until they were ready to graciously receive independence. As I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s such views still permeated the wider culture (less so, fortunately, my own family), maps of the world still proudly showed British ‘possessions’ in pink, and I am conscious that I still have to work through the remnants of this personal legacy. Insurgent Empire ends with the ‘Mau Mau’ uprising in Kenya and that country’s eventual independence – an event I can remember and a salutory reminder of just how recently the colonies achieved independence.

Priya creates a highly original style of history writing. She interweaves brief but engaging – if often horrific – outlines of the rebellions and the oppression that inevitably followed with the human stories of those who were moved, challenged and radicalised by them. In the process we learn more both about the events themselves, and the lessons they may hold for us today.

Insurgent Empire makes an important contribution to understanding the British colonial past. At a time when myths of empire once more weigh upon current events – from curriculum design to the UK’s relationship with Europe – it becomes ever more pressing to imagine new ways in which we can learn from the past, separate myth from reality and find responses more helpful than pride or embarrassment. We need to recognise both the realities of imperialism – and how fundamentally it helped to create the current world order – and the ways in which resistance in the colonies and in Britain interacted and helped to challenge the imperial project. Insurgent Empire offers some crucial pointers about how we – as activists, educators or citizens – can do this.

Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent by Priyamvada Gopal. Published 2019 by Verso. ISBN 9781784784126

You can read about how I came across John Rae in this blog entry. and the song he inspired is here.

La Fayette

Here is the video for La Fayette, taken from my album Never enough. It features Matt Kelly (violin), Lucinda Fudge (viola) and myself at the Royston Folk Club Shindig in August 2019.

I originally began the song on a December early evening in Paris. I had arrived with time to spare for a Eurostar, and spent a few minutes wandering around the always interesting streets close to the Gare du Nord. I noticed someone standing in a doorway on the Rue La Fayette who was to prove the inspiration for the song.

My train was a little delayed, and while the business people were busy with their laptops and mobiles, I was quietly singing the first lines of the song into a microphone.

The remainder of the song emerged from my imagination, albeit under the shadow of Le Pen over France, though it rapidly became equally relevant to the EU referendum in the UK, the election of Trump in the US, and the rise of the right generally around the world.

La Fayette himself was a French aristocrat who commanded troops in the American war of independence before joining the French revolution as commander-in-chief of the National Guard. While a street in Paris is named after him, there is not in practice a Place de La Fayette – however that fitted better with the feel of the song.

Here is the album version of the song, which you can download from Bandcamp.

Festival time

It’s hard to believe that it’s 50 years since Woodstock took place. But to celebrate, I’m playing at two festivals over the next couple of weeks.

On Sunday August 25th I will be playing at the very first ever Royston Folk Club Summer Shindig with Matt Kelly (violin) and Lucinda Fudge (viola) – we will be playing a 40 minute set between 2 and 3pm before their set with my good friends Thursday’s Band at 4pm. Tickets are £20 for the Sunday and £30 for the Sunday and Monday. The event is raising money for One-to-one Enfield and will take place in the grounds of The Bungalow, Royston Road, Melbourn SG8 6GD.

Then on Sunday September 8th Rhys and I will be playing Woodfest, in Hatfield Forest close to Bishops Stortford, between 3.20 and 3.40pm. Details of the festival are here.

The Peak Everest school in Bhital

During our recent stay in Nepal we visited the Peak Everest primary school in the village of Dhital, in the Machhapuchhre Rural Municipality, 16km from Pokhara. The school is set in a stunning location, with the Annapurna range behind it.

Somnath Poudel, the Principal, showed us round the classrooms. The school has eight classes and 120 students. The rooms were small and dark and while the early years had carpets the older children did not. The classroom walls were bare. There was no glass in the windows and in winter it must get cold.

Some classes are taught in English at the request of parents. There are four 45 minute classes in the morning and four in the afternoon. Subjects included social studies, mathematics and Nepali. Somnath’s commitment, passion and sense of mission were striking. He has a clear vision of what he can do to help his community, and the energy and enthusiasm to confront the many difficulties he encounters. Inspirational indeed.

We also met students walking to or from school for books (it was the new year holiday) who said they enjoyed school. Most of the students are from low caste, Dalit or Hill Dalit families – some are orphans living with their relatives. Many students are from low income family backgrounds and cannot afford the necessary things such as stationery materials, clothes etc.

Some teachers lived in the local villages but others in Pokhara – a 2 hour journey, by bus and on foot. After the school we stopped for a while at the bus stop – as local people arrived it became apparent that the bus itself stopped on the road 400 metres below us, and that this was a resting point before or after the steep climb down or down.

It was all a million miles from our own local primary schools in Cambridge – the school was very short of resources like pencils and we thought we would see if we could find some way to support the dedicated people working there. In my subsequent correspondence with the Principal, he explained that the school’s most pressing need is to provide school lunches. He comments that some students arrive at school without lunch, or with junk food, and that this leads to problems of nutrition and concentration.

We have made an initial contribution to the lunch programme, which the Principal comments has allowed them to buy a cooking stove, gas canisters, and some cooking and eating utensils. We hope to make further contributions ourselves, and possibly in addition by fund-raising and/or a benefit concert. I attach the school’s Lunch program proposal – if you would like to help in some way please email me.

Lunch program proposal

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: