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2004 Newsletter

For a decrepit beardy-weirdy of excessive age Old Father Time still seems to keep up a hell of a lick! It’s now been well over two years since I last put finger to keyboard with the object of compiling a homepage newsletter, and now I hardly know where to start. But Tony, who runs my home page for me, insists, quite rightly, that everything should be brought up to date. So, here we go.

I ended May 2004 with a late gig at the Goldene Krone in Darmstadt. I think the last time I played there was in the early eighties! It was a good concert, finishing at 2.30 a.m., after which I gave an Italian chap a lift back to Frankfurt Central Railway station, eventually hitting the hay at 5.30 a.m., by which time the blackbirds and doves were in melodious conflict under a dawn sky of turmeric and saffron.

The big event in May was Gabriele’s Fiftieth Birthday celebration, which was held in a seven hundred year-old castle not far from Eisenach. Three perfect days of friendships, reminiscences, walks, music, drumming, singing, cabaret, dancing, eating and drinking. The little kitchen and sitting room at the top of the castle became the general meeting place. Falcons were nesting not far from the window, and we shared their view of roofs and tree tops, hills, woods and fields. In general the weather was friendly, with occasional lapses; sun, rain, wind and even hail came and went but, whatever the conditions, every moment was a gift. It would be difficult to summarize without going over the top. Let’s just say that the party surpassed our expectations in every way, and it would be difficult to imagine how we might have been more blessed.

‘From quiet homes and first beginnings,
Out to the undiscovered ends,
There’s nothing worth the wear of winning,
But laughter and the love of friends.’ (Hilaire Belloc)

The summer was uneventful, with trips to England in July and August, but no performances there. August 5th saw a successful open-air gig in Frankfurt’s Günthersburg Park. Dark clouds patrolled the horizon at dusk, lightning flashed over the distant skyscrapers, and prospects didn’t look promising; but the storm gradually rumbled off without releasing a single raindrop, people started arriving and, in the end it was a great evening. I played for two hours, without a break, because the atmosphere was too good to lose.

The following evening I was back in the Gasthaus Hahn in Ottenstein, near Hamlin (See Newsletter for August 2002), where the concert took place on an outdoor stage, under predominantly friendly skies. A wasps’ nest under the eaves of a neighbouring house ensured that there was a real buzz to the proceedings. German wasps, as might be expected, are partial to a drop of beer when the opportunity offers and, more than once, members of the audience who were apparently waving enthusiastically in response to the music, turned out to be fending off a striped marauder. At the conclusion of the show Elke and Hans Hahn came onto the stage and presented me with a china chicken and a small, soft cockerel who crows when thumped! On this occasion they weren’t wearing their chicken outfits, perhaps because Hans was on crutches, with his foot in bandages. So, there are limits as to how far a chicken enthusiast will go in the name of authenticity!

After the second trip to England, during which we spent a great day of sunshine and scudding skies, walking among the Bronze Age stones and hut circles near Kes Tor, on Dartmoor, I returned to play a concert at the Café Tifaret in Bonn, followed by a weekend of appearances at the annual Museumsuferfest in Frankfurt.

This is a very special summer cultural weekend during which all the city’s numerous museums are open well into the evening. One ticket secures admission to however many of them you care to cram into your schedule, and there are free bus services to get you to the venues of your choice. In addition, all along the river Main, both banks are lined with stalls and stages where you can indulge yourself with samples from the world’s multifareous and tempting cuisines; or feast your ears with an equally varied menu of sights and sounds. One of these sights and sounds was me!

I was up early on the rainy morning of Saturday 28th August to drive the van to the ‘Poetry Corner’ tent, close to the old iron footbridge, the Eiserner Steg, which has spanned the river at this point since 1868. Here I set up the p.a., helped by Dirk Huelstrunk, the moving force behind much of Frankfurt’s ‘performance poetry’ scene, played for an hour or so, to lure in an audience, and then kicked off the ‘open mike’ session. This included everything from mesmeric mumblers to ‘Telepathic Poetry’, with a wide world of words and wackiness in between. At the Poetry Corner anything goes, from Dada to the classical mode, but it all has to be your own work; no Goethe or Shakespeare, no Puff Daddy or Beyoncé, only the sweet, sour or middling fruits of your own muse, presented in whatever way you deem to be most appropriate.

That evening, unable to use a van on the still crowded promenade, we had to lug the whole p.a. a long and weary way downriver to store it securely overnight but, as it turned out, this was worth the effort. When we returned the next morning, with the van this time, the only item we’d left in the poetry tent, an old cassette player belonging to Dirk, had been pinched! There was more verbal midsummer madness that afternoon, and I rounded things off with an hour’s concert. The insistent thump of nondescript muzak from the neighbouring Last Minute Holidays tent did little to enhance the inspirational ambience of my performance, but everything still went off very successfully, including the final, spectacular firework display which officially concludes the weekend. After the performance Gabriele managed to weasel her car into a nearby street, and assisted by Dirk, assorted poets and other denizens of the inspirational aether we loaded up, drove home, and then returned on foot to savour the last half an hour or so of the festival, and to enjoy the fireworks.

We spent the first week of September in the Swiss mountains, in the idyllic little hut of Arno and Ursula Catrina. The setting is exquisite, high up among the sloping fields, with wild flowers and mountain peaks in every direction. The water is taken directly from the spring, and lighting is supplied by oil lamps and torches; but this is Switzerland, so all the mod cons are there as well. It’s just big enough to be both cosy and uncramped, with a wood stove in the main room, and a smaller one in the bedroom downstairs. One morning I even went up to the spring and washed my hair under the falling water, but I wouldn't do it on a cold day I can assure you! The water was so icy I thought my brain would freeze. There's no television, and we never once turned on the radio.

At the end of the month I mixed music and the spoken word at Dirk and Jürgen’s BCN Café Poetry Slam, a favourite venue, where I garnered unexpected praise from Crazy Cuts the Dj, and his ultra, wraparound cool sidekick. I say ‘unexpected’, because we could hardly have looked more different; the Afro Djs in their baggy, low-crotch pants, shades and slanting caps, me with my waistcoat and watch chain. “Man! that went to our hearts! That was really somethin’! We should get together man!” No doubt about it, the Arts build bridges. Long may they span the cultural divides.

October saw me back in England; travelling with a rolling Poetry road-show organized by Barry Fitton, a spacey poet who’s based in Amsterdam. We performed in Birmingham, at the Custard Factory; Norwich, at the Arts Centre, and London, in the Brixton Art Gallery and Hackney’s Speakeasy, spreading the poetic word and, in my case, also belabouring guitar strings. In addition to this mini tour I shared a show of songs and poems with Project Adorno at The Mitre, in Oxford, followed by a talk on Alchemy the next evening, and gave a further concert of homegrown songs and poems at The Liverpool Wellbeing Centre. Thanks to Laura King in Oxford, and Eve Goldsmith and Helen Clarke in Liverpool. After a good drive back, London to Frankfurt in ten hours, with a fine bright moon to light the final miles, within five minutes of home, the van’s drive belt snapped!

This would have been bad enough, but I was due to fly to south Italy the following day, to join Gabriele on the Tyrrhenian coast. In the end I managed to get the crippled vehicle to the local Ford garage early the next morning, catch the plane, miss my onward flight in Rome, catch a later flight, pick up the hired car, even though I didn’t have the right paperwork, and, later that night, make the rendezvous in Calabria.

We were up with the lark the next morning to take a boat trip round the Æolian Islands, and, off a smouldering Stromboli, I called the garage to discover that, yes, they would be able to have the van ready for south Germany and Austria by next week; and yes, it would cost me 1000.00 Euros (£ 600.00). I could have erupted, but I didn’t want to give the snoring volcano any ideas. The fool and his money .....etc!

In spite of this financial thunderhead we had a wonderfully sunny stay; wading in translucent water, while coloured fish nibbled at our knees; climbing halfway up Stromboli; discovering the delicious sin of hand-made truffle ice cream in the piazza of Pizzo, the town where it was invented (no, we didn’t have a pizza in the piazza of Pizzo); exploring Rheggio, where we made the aquaintance of two ancient Greek warriors made of bronze; visiting the Ionian coast; seeking out a tiny Byzantine chapel and a Moorish tower, and a thousand and one other delights.

I then flew home, picked up the van, bandaged my wallet and headed down to Stuttgart to represent Frankfurt in the German National Poetry Slam. This was followed by three Austrian schools; and I was back in Frankfurt by November 6th.

It was on the breakfast trolley of the Stuttgart hotel that I discovered this wondrous gem of auto-mistranslation. ‘Please, the table ware sorts on him dare put back. Thanks.’ Only when I recalled that the German word ‘wagen’ can be translated not only as ‘vehicle’, but also as ‘venture’ or ‘dare’, did I begin to understand how such a translingual spaghetti might possibly have come into existence.

This compares favourably with a similar missive Gabriele and I found in a Sicilian hotel room in 2002. ‘Customers can’t absolutely take off by the room towels and sheets. Otherwise extra will be charged.’ (Pity, we’d had great hopes of flying back to Germany on one of their towels.)

The Croatian trip, mentioned in the previous newsletter as a possibility for November 2004, never happened. In fact times have changed so radically down there that I’ve even lost contact with Berislav, who used to organize the Croatian and Slovenian jaunts. That’s a pity, because I have some wonderful memories of touring along the Dalmatian coast and, inland, through forests and mountains, along winding, single-lane roads, staying in bat-haunted castles, playing in sunny library courtyards, returning home through foot-worn marble streets by moonlight, and uncountable other recollections. But there goes Old Father Time again!

While I was down in Austria I bought a copy of Dylan’s autobiographical ‘Chronicles’ and was reminded, in his own words this time, that the concert about which I wrote the song ‘Piazza Grande’ (SECOND-CLASS HOTEL: BRAMBUS 1989 04-2 (Lp. & CD), had been a turning point in his career. ‘Then suddenly, one night in Locarno, Switzerland, at the Piazza Grande, Locarno, it all fell apart. For an instant I fell into a black hole.’ He goes on to describe the stormy, outdoor venue, exactly as I remember it, and exactly as it features in my song. I’ve seen five or six Dylan concerts, starting with the Isle of Wight in 1969, and including Blackbushe, in 1978, but the Locarno concert was different; I sensed it, and it’s oddly re-assuring to confirm that my instincts were on target.

‘..... but even the heroes must lie down to sleep,
and I just hope your dreams are as peaceful and deep
as you need them to be.
A brave, lonely sailor, far out at sea.’

There were a few more poetry performances, in November; two in Karlsruhe, one for Petra Seynstahl’s ‘Dichter Dran’, down in an old, converted underground station in Frankfurt, and one which took place in Trier, the oldest town in Germany. Gabriele came with me to the latter, and we stayed with an artist friend in a village about an hour’s drive from the town. After the show that night, as we drove back to his place, with a gibbous moon and bright stars gleaming above woods and fields glittering with frost, I couldn't help feeling that the real flavours of existence are in the details. I took my poems to the oldest town in Germany, walked through the ancient Porta Nigra with a 1st cent. B.C. Roman coin on my watch-chain, bought a Chinese dragon and bronze lion on the way to the Roman bridge, shared laughter with a room full of strangers, and drove home by moonlight and the frost fire of winter constellations to a room warmed by a woodstove, a soft bed and restful dreams. If I'm a romantic, and I suppose I can't pretend otherwise, perhaps it's simply because the romantic viewpoint is just another way of telling the truth.

Thus passed 2004.