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:

Why I’ll be voting to stay in the EU

As the author of Thesalonika, Rue Mouffetard, Poussière d’étoiles, Les enfants de la mer and Andalucia it may not surprise you to know I’ll be voting to remain in the EU.

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.’

Walking the streets of Paris in the footsteps of Louise Michel

It was just after we joined the Rue des Fossés St Jacques on a cool August evening that we found, painted on the footpath, the words: ‘Au Panthéon; Simone de Beauvoir et Louise Michel’.

We had celebrated my birthday in a Greek restaurant just off the Place St Médard, at the southern edge of the 5ème arrondissement. After eating we had climbed the rue Mouffetard towards the Place de la Contrescarpe and the Panthéon, the final resting place of the great men of France. Of the 71 worthy people buried there only one, Marie Curie, was a woman. I could understand the case for de Beauvoir joining her; but Louise Michel was new to me.

I visit Paris regularly but over the years I spend less and less time on the Champs Elysées and the grands boulevards for which Haussemann had in the 19th century demolished large swathes of an older Paris, leading Baudelaire to write in Le Cygne: ‘Le vieux Paris nest plus; la forme d’une ville change plus vite, hélas! que le coeur d’un mortel.’ (Old Paris is no more; the form of a city changes more quickly, alas! than the human heart.)

I prefer the less ordered older quarters of Paris that escaped Haussemann’s  attentions, mainly those clustered around the hills or ‘buttes’ of the city, including Montmartre. My favourite is that which tumbles down the contrescarpe along the rue Mouffetard. As we walked back down the slope I determined to find out more about Louise Michel.

By the time we set out again the following morning a combination of an iPad and hotel wifi had given me a short introduction to the remarkable life of this anarchist, teacher and poet. Born in 1830 in the Haute-Marne as the illegitimate daughter of the son of the local chateau and one of his servants, Michel trained as a teacher and moved to Paris where she opened a school, wrote poetry, corresponded with Victor Hugo and became active in left-wing republican politics.

We walked along the rue Pascal, following the course of the river Bièvre which used to flow past the Gobelins and the tanneries at the foot of the Rue Mouffetard but is now confined to an underground canal. We were heading in the direction of the Butte aux Cailles in the 13ème arrondissement – in 1871 one of the last strongholds of the Paris Commune.

The Commune was established in Paris (and in many other major French cities) following France’s defeat at the end of the war against Prussia. The spark that lit the uprising was the French army’s attempt to take back the cannons that had been used to defend the city during the siege of the final months of the war. And it was Louise Michel who had alerted the people of Montmartre to the presence in the city of the French army.

We crossed the Boulevard Auguste Blanqui – named after the revolutionary who had been imprisoned by the French government to prevent him joining the Commune – and ventured up the rue Daviel towards the Butte aux Cailles – in English the ‘hill of quails’. This area is another where much of the old housing has survived since before Haussmann, and numerous narrow streets and passages scramble up the hillside, lending the area a village-like feel until a more modern tower block looms up ahead and brings you back to modern Paris.

The Commune survived for two months – time to introduce new ideas and practices far ahead of their time – but eventually the French army began to move into the city, massacring thousands of communards as they went. Louise Michel fought the soldiers in the suburbs and later the city barricades. At her trial Michel denounced her persecutors:

‘Puisqu’il semble que tout coeur qui bat pour la liberté n’a droit qu’à un peu de plomb, j’en réclame une part, moi ! Si vous me laissez vivre, je ne cesserai de crier vengeance… Si vous n’êtes pas des lâches, tuez-moi!’ (Since it seems that every heart that beats for freedom has the right only to a little lead, I demand my share. If you let me live, I shall never cease to cry for vengeance… If you are not cowards, kill me!)

At the top of the butte we found the place de la Commune de Paris and drank tea in the cooperative café Le temps des cerises, named after a song by Jean-Baptiste Clement which the author later dedicated to a nurse who had been with him on one of the final barricades:

Mais il est bien court, le temps des cerises,
Où l’on s’en va deux cueillir en rêvant
Des pendants d’oreilles.
Cerises d’amour aux robes pareilles
Tombant sous la feuille en gouttes de sang.

(But it is too short, the time of the cherries
When together we gather them while dreaming of earrings
Cherries of love dressed in red robes
Dripping from the leaf in drops of blood)

Louise Michel was not granted her wish by the court, but was instead exiled to New Caledonia, where she supported the indigenous people in their fight against French colonialism, and ran a school with methods that were a century ahead of their time. It was there that she concluded: ‘C’est que le pouvoir est maudit, et c’est pour cela que je suis anarchiste.’ (Power is cursed, and that is why I am an anarchist.)

She was eventually freed and returned to Paris in November 1880, to be welcomed by an immense crowd. She continued her fight for social justice and remained a thorn in the side of the government, spending several stretches in prison. She wrote extensively – poems, pamphlets, an autobiography and a personal history of the Commune. When she died in 1905 some 100,000 people followed her cortège through the streets of Paris.

We continued to wander around the Butte aux Cailles, lingering in particular in the passage Boitton with a Parisiénne who spends her spare time exploring and photographing the backstreets of her beloved city. She told us where we could find the graffiti below.

There is talk that François Hollande may decide to include another woman in the Panthéon, and Michel would seem an ideal candidate – along with Simone de Beauvoir and Olympe de Gouges, who published a Declaration of the rights of women during the revolution of 1789. In the meantime, she retains an alternative commemoration beyond the gift of any of today’s politicians – Victor Hugo dedicated his poem Viro major to her:

Et ceux qui, comme moi, te savent incapable
De tout ce qui n’est pas héroïsme et vertu,
Qui savent que, si l’on te disait: « D’où viens-tu ? »
Tu répondrais: « Je viens de la nuit d’où l’on souffre. »

(And those who, like me, know you to be incapable
Of all that is not heroism and virtue,
Who know that, if you were asked, ‘Where do you come from?”
You would answer: “I come from the night where there is suffering.’)

We walked back along the Avenue des Gobelins and that evening ate in Les Bugnes, a Basque restaurant just off the rue Mouffetard. And here is the video of my song, Rue Mouffetard, with some echoes of the Commune.

For more about Louise Michel you can listen to one of the BBC’s Great Lives radio programmes, read a blog from Pam McAllister or listen to a talk from Paul Foot about her and the Commune.

Looking back on 2013

Here are my annual musical reflections on the year now almost past.

We launched my fifth album, The dust of time, on November 30th in CB2, Cambridge. The first track, Moelfre Hill, has been played both on Celtic Heartbeat on BBC Radio Wales and on BBC Radio Scotland by Iain Anderson who commented ‘rather nice – we liked that’. There was also an article about the song in the Abergele Post. Rue Mouffetard has also been played on several occasions. Richard Penguin, of Future Radio, described it as ‘part Parisien, part Leonard Cohen, part Jacques Brel, part Christy Moore, part you’ while Emily Barker described it as ‘really beautiful’. There’s a video here. At the launch event, The camper van song – a tongue-in-cheek look at successive generations’ love of the VW Camper, went down especially well.

The album features Brian Harvey (bass), Dawn Loombe (accordion), Miguel Moreno (flamenco guitar), Cliff Ward (violin), and Rhys Wilson (guitar and keyboard). Rhys also co-produced the album with me.

I have really enjoyed playing with the band this year – as well as the album launch we played Cambridge Folk Club in May and as ever the club made us most welcome and provided a lovely audience – there is a video here of Thesalonika. I hope we’ll manage to do a couple more gigs together next year. I also returned twice to Alstonefield in the Peak District where Dave Littlehales has made me one of his regular support acts – this year I played with Al Parish and Brooks Williams (which included Brooks and I singing Waterloo Sunset together!). In June I went back to my previous employers, the National Extension College, to play Second chances, a song I had written for their 50th anniversary.

We also managed a trip to Istanbul with friends to see our good friend Leo who has moved back there to live. Leo introduced us to his own Istanbul friends and musical parties ensued, firstly in our own flat on the Istiklal Cadesi, and later in the home of Aysem and Bora – and we recorded the backing vocals for Leo’s Party Machine which also features on the album. We also visited the workshop of Seyda Hacizade, who makes the classic kemençe – a three-stringed instrument, slightly like a violin, but held and bowed differently and where notes are sounded by holding a fingernail against the string, rather than by pressing the string down onto a fretboard. The kemençe produces a very special, melancholic sound that I first encountered in the film The Weeping Meadow.

I spent far too long this year listening to drafts of the album tracks, but in between my favourite new music has included:

– The National’s new album Trouble will find me – not perhaps quite up to the standard of High Violet but still rather good, especially Fireproof.
– Daughter’s debut album If you leave – see for example Still.
– Volcano choir’s Repave, for example Comrade.
– Agnes Obel’s Aventine which can be streamed at her website.
– Our friend Emily Barker’s Dear River – see for example Letters.

I’ll leave you in peace for a while, now! Thankyou again for your support through the year. I’d like to wish you a lovely Christmas and all the best for 2014.

You can listen to, download or order the album here:

‘The dust of time’ now released

We launched my fifth album, The dust of time, on November 30th in CB2, Cambridge, and it is now available for order.

The first track, Moelfre Hill, has been played both on Celtic Heartbeat on BBC Radio Wales and on BBC Radio Scotland by Iain Anderson who commented ‘rather nice – we liked that’. There was also an article about the song in the Abergele Post.

Rue Mouffetard has also been played on several occasions. Richard Penguin, of Future Radio, described it as ‘part Parisien, part Leonard Cohen, part Jacques Brel, part Christy Moore, part you’ while Emily Barker described it as ‘really beautiful’.

At the launch event, The camper van song – a tongue-in-cheek look at successive generations’ love of the VW Camper, went down especially well.

The album features Brian Harvey (bass), Dawn Loombe (accordion), Miguel Moreno (flamenco guitar), Cliff Ward (violin) and Rhys Wilson (guitar and keyboard). Rhys also co-produced the album with me.

You can listen to, download or order the album here:

Rue Mouffetard

Rue Mouffetard is the first single from my fifth album, ‘The dust of time‘. It features Dawn Loombe on accordion, Rhys Wilson on piano and additional guitars, and Brian Harvey on bass. Here is the video for the song; it is also available for listening or download here.

La rue Mouffetard, in the 5ème arrondissement of Paris, is my favourite street in the city. It runs down the hill from the Place de la Contrescarpe to the Place St Médard, lined with cafés, shops and market stalls, and steeped in history. Its course has remained unchanged in 2000 years since the Romans built it as part of the road linking Paris with Rome.

The quarter has not always been as relatively genteel as it is today. As Paris expanded out into the surrounding villages in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Faubourg St Marceau attracted poor workers from other parts of France and beyond. It developed an insalubrious reputation, smelling as it did of the tanneries along the River Bièvre. Hugo set Les Miserables in the neighbourhood and in 1834 Balzac referred to it as ‘the grimmest quarter of Paris’.

As with other working-class areas of Paris, it helped fuel the revolutions of 1789 and 1848. Its steep slope spared it the attention of Baron Haussmann, who destroyed many of the mediaeval streets of the city while constructing les grands boulevards, and during the Paris Commune of 1871 the barricades went up again. However, as the Commune ended in the Semaine Sanglante, troops from Adolphe Thiers’ army stormed up the street to crush the barricades. The customary massacre and mass executions in the gardens of the École Polytechnique followed.

The nearby Butte aux Cailles lasted a day longer and is now home to La Place de la Commune de Paris and a café organised as a workers co-op and named after Le Temps des Cerises. This song, written by Jean-Baptiste Clément five years before the insurrection, has remained associated with the events of 1871 and indeed Clément was later to dedicate it to Louise, a young ambulance worker who joined him on one of the final barricades.

The area continued to attract artists and writers – Verlaine lived nearby in the 1890s and Hemingway, Joyce and Orwell spent time there in the 1920s. Scenes from the films Amélie and Trois couleurs: Bleu were filmed in the street.

The quarter has now become attractive with tourists and students, but retains a distinct, almost village-like, feel – especially when friends meet up again after Paris’s annual August break over breakfast in the Cave la Bourgogne, while purchasing cerises in the marché, or while browsing the shelves of local bookshop l’Arbre à Lettres (recently bought by its employees). At such times you feel far from the frenetic centre of Paris.