The year began with snow. The nineteenth century roofs and gables of Stuttgart (twice), following poetry Slams in January and March; the midnight streets of Bensheim, after a great concert; the long roads from Calais to Frankfurt. Snow, snow, snow. Wonderful to look at, wonderful to walk or sledge in, but not so wonderful for driving.
The best experience during those wintry months was a fourteen mile circular hike, in the company with Gabriele and three other friends, when we took the train out into the countryside near Laufach, and tramped through quiet woods, shin-deep in snow for most of the way. Stark bands and traceries of shadow, and sometimes a downward, powdering haze, lit by the sun, shaken out by the wind. A sky of faultless blue, with high, flossy clouds; and a welcome thermos of hot elderberry juice to accompany our sandwiches.
Down in Austria in March, it was more of the same; lakes crazy-paved with ice, white mountains, and temperatures of minus 21ĝ. But the concerts were successful, and later in the month, touring north Germany, rain and a boisterous wind began replacing the snow, without making the world feel significantly warmer.
At a Dichter Dran performance, down in the old underground station, I had the pleasure of meeting Marc Kelly Smith, the man who started the whole idea of poetry 'slams'; and I was also approached by someone who remembered me from the Halletauer festivals, just north of Munich, where I used to play in the mid eighties. 'I was just a kid at the time.' he told me, 'But I still have the copy of your first album, The Lady, which I bought there!' Nor was that the only window on the past that week.
The following evening I had a concert at Gestringen's 'Alte Schule', where I'd last played in August 1993. The organizers Addi and Monika were as welcoming and hospitable as I remembered them, and in spite of the weather, which continued to dash its gusty tears against the windows, the evening was a delight.
Right from the start I was busy with the remaining songs for the new CD. At the end of January, friends in Sussex extended their hospitality between a Monday and a Sunday gig in London (Hackney's 'Speakeasy' and Battersea's 'Quecumbar'), and I was thus able to use the time to finally complete a parcel of songs which had been circling about in varying forms of undress for well over twelve months. This was followed by the annual one-week residential course at Kilve Court, in north Somerset.
But I've forgotten to mention my encounter with London's 'Congestion Charging' scheme! Having gone to the trouble of downloading all the details, I took care to plan my route to Hackney so I would never enter the relevant zone. However, the Elephant and Castle roundabout was so confusing, and badly signposted, I accidentally took the exit before the one intended. Immediately I turned and went back, but, need I say more? Never are bureaucrats more efficient than when they think you owe them money! On my return to Kenton a few days later I found a letter awaiting me, from Coventry incidentally, not London, informing me of my crime and the subsequent 'penalty' of 50. Suffice to say that, with typical bureaucratic logic, they readily accepted the explanation that my error was unintended, 'an accident', but then went on to assert that, as I had knowingly'(!) committed it, I still owed them the fine, which would, naturally, double as a result of non-payment etc., etc! So, be warned. Next time you make an error, don't do it 'knowingly'!
The poetry and songs, London Bridge and The Tower were, of course, delightful memories, but whether they entirely compensated me for the painful result of my 'knowing mistake' is another question.
The return journey from Devon to Frankfurt was a nightmare. I left Kenton at 8.45 a.m., and, despite closed exits on the M20 and A2, still contrived to reach Dover in good time. I was then informed that my 3.20 p.m., sailing wouldn't leave until 4.45 p.m., would make the crossing in eighty minutes, but would then spend over four hours queueing for a place to dock. A highly charged group of healthy, happy, loud adolescents on the ferry (wherever you tried to hide), did not contribute to the regenerative effect of five hours spent drifting aimlessly about off the coast of France. However I am now better informed concerning who loves whom, what Rachel said to Jade, how readily Mark can fart to order, how successfully group farting contests can contribute to emergent male bonding, and other such essential topics.
Snow, darkness, snow and more snow made Frankfurt seem a very long way indeed, but at last, having dazedly and gratefully found the last remaining parking place in our drifted road, I slithered past the bakery van making its dawn delivery to the local bakerei, sashayed into the space, and finally tumbled into bed beside a dreamy Gabriele at 5.45 a.m. Heaven preserve me from too many more journeys like that one!
At about the same time Gabriele and her work colleagues took a doddering shuffle down Memory Lane, throwing a 'Winter of Love' party, for which I was hired to impersonate Bob Dylan, enquiring nasally into the number of roads necessary for the perambulation of a maturing male, and introducing other stars of yesteryear. So I whittled up my adenoidal twang and blundered about in dark glasses, while Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, Elvis, Van Morrison, and Miriam Makeba (who, under her black make-up, looked suspiciously like Gabriele), came and went. Much merriment and befuddled nostalgia.
In early April a rather dull gig in Erfurt was balanced out by my encounter with a medival unicorn in the cathedral. Then, later that month, I had the all too rare delight of sharing the stage with Ljubo Majstorovic, a special friend and the mastermind behind the recording and producing of most of my CDs. Ljubo is a worker of miracles, both technical and musical, and it was wonderful to have a chance to play together in Frankfurt.
A concert in Wetzlar, at the Bunte Katze, was followed the next afternoon by an 'Alchemical Yoga' workshop n Frankfurt, presented by Sandra Scherer and myself. This was a first time we'd run such a course, and the positive feedback from those who attended it encouraged us to plan another such event for 2006.
Now, it may be that some people are scratching their heads and murmuring, 'What, in sweet charity, is Alchemical Yoga?' Allow me to explain.
Having been a self-taught practitioner of an eclectic cross between Hatha and Tantra yoga since 1975, and a diligent student of Alchemy since the early eighties, I found that the two disciplines gradually merged during my regular yoga regime. I'd been giving talks about various aspects of non-laboratory alchemy for about eighteen months, and discussing this with Sandra, a close friend and qualified eastern dance and yoga teacher
In early May I recorded the remaining songs for the CD at Ljubo's Baden studio. Then there were a couple of good, if rain-lashed, Swiss shows, after which Gabriele and I retreated, once more, to the mountain hut of our friends Arno and Ursula. Here, among snow showers and lingering drifts, the marmots were already up and about, and wild crocuses, with numerous other early blossoms, were beginning to carpet the alpine fields. Climbing flower-starred slopes; fetching clear, icy water from the spring; breathing fresh, invigorating air, and conjuring fire from split logs, really regenerated our appreciation of these four alchemical elements, Earth, Water, Air and Fire. Gentians, anemones, pansies, violets, coltsfoot, heather, and fragrant seidelbast; a glowing woodstove, rushing streams, a thrush calling down the moon's slim crescent, and, on our last morning, the year's first cuckoo.
From there we drove back to Frankfurt, and the next day Gabriele left for England, while I headed north for the festival of Burg Waldeck. This is the oldest 'folk' festival in Germany, and still retains an endearingly hippie atmosphere, with marquees, crackling bonfires, wild jam sessions and, on this occasion seas of mud and chilly, relentless rain. Waiting to go on at 11.00 p.m., in the main tent, I sat on my hands to keep the circulation going, but the set was a runaway success, and the audience, in steaming rain capes and squelching boots, were hearteningly warm in their appreciation. Inge, long-standing friend and agent, Leon her son, and Giorgio, on a school exchange from Rome, were also on hand to savour, and shiver in, the atmosphere.
In early June there was a Radio-X party at the old industrial dock, Hafen 2, in Offenbach. It was planned as an open-air happening but, surprise surprise, turned out to be an indoor one. This was a wise decision because, although the weather was dry during the early evening, the eager deities of lightning, thunder and torrential rain soon hurried over to join us as soon as they heard about the event. It could almost have been England.
June 13th saw us up in Berlin to celebrate the 80th birthday of F Reichelt, Gabriele's much-loved dance teacher, who moved there in her seventies because Frankfurt was becoming a bit too quiet! Typically, it was a lively extravaganza in a large dance studio, with performances, tributes, several heart-warming reunions and many meetings of old friends. We also put the days to good use, visiting museums and marching about all over that vibrant city.
Meanwhile I was busy with the graphics for the new CD and, in mid-July, I drove down to Switzerland again to make the final mix with Ljubo. Four solid days, fuelled by coffee and roll-ups for him, and chocolate for me, and we finally had 'Whispers on the Turning-Ground' in the bag. With this under my belt (which all that chocolate seemed to have expanded a couple of notches), I knew we were on target for the September release, at a special weekend in Haldenstein Castle, just outside Chur, where we planned a concert to launch the CD, and a celebration to mark 'thirty years on the road.' The only sad omission from the CD was Uschi Laar, who was to have added her inimitable harp to two of the numbers, but sudden illness prevented her, and there was no time thereafter. Those who wish to hear her can do so on my dream-wolf song 'Backtracks' (CAUGHT AT THE CROSS-ROADS : BRAMBUS 1998 07-2), and, of course, on her own CDs.
We were in England a fortnight after my birthday, and Gabriele's present to me was a trip to the bibliophile's heaven, Hay-on-Wye. This unpretentious little town on the Welsh border is Britain's second-hand bookshop paradise, and, released to wander at will, I was like a hungry squirrel in a nut shop. Several hours, and many books, later we chose a secluded stone table in the garden of the local hotel. The declining sun was still bright and hot, goldfish flickered in the pond, swifts darted high overhead in the blue, the air was fragrant with jasmine; and doves, blackbirds, and even a little coal-tit, contributed to the idyllic mood. After a delicious meal, well worthy of the setting, we drove home across country, diverting to visit a five thousand year old burial chamber called Arthur's Stone, while dry lightning flickered in the evening sky.
The only event in July was a rather special one. Jrg Stein, an artist/poet friend who lives with his partner Dorothea in a small village among the woods and grainfields of Hunsrck, often hosts a summer festival. In the barn there are readings, performances, games and raffles, outside in the garden there are refreshments and, as dusk falls and the stars begin to kindle, Jrg lights a large bonfire around which everyone gathers to talk, sing, drum, eat, drink, and generally out-watch the night.
On this occasion I played and recited, as well as providing minimalist guitar backing for a reading of self-penned Arabic lyrics by an Iraqi translator who lives nearby. Other poets, too, presented their works, but the presiding spirit of the place was unquestionably a large, black crow called Sophia.
Sophia was adopted by Jrg and Dorothea after she had fallen out of the nest while still young and helpless. But 'young and helpless' is no longer an appropriate description. On the contrary, Sophia is now adept at snatching food, taunting dogs, stealing jewellery and generally creating mayhem. At the time of the Sommer Fest she was as free as the proverbial bird, and likely to manifest in a sudden flurry of black wings from any point of the compass, at any time whatever. An innocent craaak and tilted head usually preceded mischief, in spite of which she thoroughly charmed everyone, without surrendering an inch of her cocksure autonomy. Unfortunately the villagers were less charmed, and after an orgy of turfing up freshly planted seeds, soiling or stealing freshly laundered linen and dive bombing freshly cossetted children the black marauder was in danger of attracting buckshot and, for her own safety, is now confined to barracks.
As we had previously agreed, my fee was one of Jrg's works and, while Sophia continued her aerial patrols, I unhesitatingly plumped for a large elm-wood carving of a raven carrying a book in its elevated beak. In Alchemy this coal black bird traditionally symbolizes the nigredo, the dark opening stage of the Opus; and what else could this one be carrying but some mysterious volume of alchemical secrets!
There were no performances in August so Gabriele and I took advantage of several happy coincidences to spend two weeks in Sardinia. One of her youth groups was travelling down to Livorno, and then across to northern Sardinia by coach and ferry, so I was able to hitch a ride with them. Gabriele followed, by air, the following day, rented a car at the airport and drove over to pick me up.
There isn't room to record all the details of this wonderful holiday; the house where we were able to stay for free, the friends we met, the miles we covered, the two abandoned pups we rescued; but one of the highlights was the night we slept (for want of a better word) out under the sky in the Barbagia, the wild, mountainous, pig-infested centre of the island. I was woken at some glimmering early hour by the sound of Gabriele's voice exclaiming, 'Das geht zu weit. Verpiss dich!' ('That's going too far! Piss off!')
Fearing I might have inadvertantly encroached upon her sacred sleeping roll, or, heaven forfend, lapsed into stertorous volleys of snoring, I started wriggling away in my caterpillar bag, when I realized that she was addressing a large, inquisitive pig who, recognizing the sort of company in which he could expect to feel at home, was advancing amiably, with one eye on the food basket lying next to us. I thereupon rose up in my fearful nakedness and cried out incoherantly, but loudly, which gave the poor blighter such a shock he nearly wet himself. Perhaps the word 'disgruntled' would not be inappropriate to describe his body language as he beat a chagrined retreat, taking half the broken gate with him.
This unceremonious treatment had no noticeable effect on the curiosity of his porcine colleagues, and we received several more similar visitants before a light scattering of rain announced the arrival of morning. On each ensuing occasion it became more and more difficult to persuade the intruder that we really did not wish to partake of the pleasure of his company.
Thus, with the final caller, I first shouted, which caused him to give a start; then I sat up and shouted, which caused him to take a few tentative steps; whereupon I sprang up and chased him bodily out of the enclosure. The chorus of oinking and squealing which arose on all sides at this juncture confirmed my suspicion that a naked, gesticulating human and a mildly flustered pig, in animated communion, shortly before dawn, makes an entertaining spectacle for anyone happening to observe it!
So that, with thunderstorms, warm sun, stunning countryside, green figs, myrtle honey, silent seascapes, many exceedingly 'old stones', Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and lots, lots more, was our twelve day Sardinian trip.
On September 3rd I headed north for a concert in the Heimathaus 'Op de Heidloh' in Kutenholz, about forty kilometres (26 miles) west of Hamburg. After leaving the motorway the final three-quarters of an hour took me down long, tree-lined roads dappled with shadow, passing half-timbered houses offering honey, pumpkins and potatoes for sale. Everywhere looked idyllic and fertile in the warm, golden light of late afternoon.
The Heimathaus itself, also half-timbered, began its life on the North Sea coast a couple of centuries ago. It fell into disrepair, was dismantled, brought to Kutenholz and lovingly re-erected and restored by a team of dedicated volunteers. Now, as the local community centre, it looks as if it could never have been anywhere else, and is in better condition than it's ever been. The concert was warmed by firelight, and I was warmed by the enthusiastic response of the friendly audience.
Two days later, back in Frankfurt, I played a concert in Das Bett, a newly established culture venue in Old Sachsenhausen, just five minutes walk down the road from where we live. I'd met Karsten, the organizer, at the Hafen 2 event in June, and Marina, another contact from that same evening, invited me to feature on her Radio-X show shortly before the concert. This was the first airplay of the new CD, and Das Bett itself was to prove a favourite venue in the future. Frank the proprietor remembered me from gigs in Oberursel twenty years previously, thus continuing the year's tendancy to bring back echoes from the past, and the concert was well attended, with numerous friends and Wall Street English Language students in the audience.
After a concert in Rdermark on 11th, where I made the first sales of the new CD, it was time to prepare for the big event, the official Release Concert and celebration of 'thirty years on the road', in Schloss Haldenstein, down in Switzerland
(The account of this event, from 16th - 18th September, numbers over 4000 words, so it has a newsletter all to itself)
After the excitement of the Swiss celebration my first concert was on September 24th, in Hersbruck, a charming old town in the vicinity of Bayreuth. The motorway passing Wrzburg often resembles a parking place rather than a road, so I set out in plenty of time; but, as it happened there were no hold-ups at all and, arriving well ahead of schedule, I was soon sitting in the town square drinking hot chocolate and listening to a group of brass-players, serenading the public from the clock tower. The sunlight gleamed on their instruments, and there was a timeless quality to the atmosphere, entirely appropriate to this old custom, only recently revived.
The concert was in the City Kino (Cinema), was well-attended and furnished some good CD sales. I returned to my lodgings at 2.00 a.m., walking through cobbled streets to a welcoming bed.
The musicians were in the church tower the following morning, filling the town with mellow music, while the small, encircling stream ran swift and clear beneath the walls, patrolled by squadrons of garrulous ducks. An old man wearing braces, cycled leisurely across the square. By way of a reminder of how times, and tastes, change, the nineteenth century fountain in the shadow of the tower displayed, in graphic detail, a bronze hunting scene in which a stag was in the process of being torn to pieces by hunting dogs.
Mercury, the presiding deity of travellers and alchemists, and my ruling planet, must have been looking after me during my return trip to Frankfurt, because there were so many traffic jams, on so many motorways, that even the announcer of the traffic news commented on the fact; but my route seemed to be the sole exception, and I sped home without any delays, thanking my speedy Mercurial guardian as I observed the multiple snarl-ups on the opposite carriageway.
October 1st saw another Frankfurt concert, in the Odyssee Kulturcaf, and on 7th I was back in Brensbach, at the 'Alte Post'. The relatively short drive, along country roads, took me through a beautiful autumnal landscape of drowsing fields and rusting trees, which could have come directly from the background scenes of Frankfurt's numerous, and famous, alchemical engravers, of past centuries. The red copper sun slipped through a ragged pocket of cloud, like a burnished penny, and I arrived in just the right mood to discuss alchemy, eat wonderful homemade food, and play a successful concert.
Two days later I was up at 5.00 a.m., to drive through darkness and mist, and a gradually breaking dawn, to Calais where the wind was restless and the 'security' features increasingly ridiculous. One of the pleasures of waiting for the ferry at Calais used to be the opportunity to stroll onto the beach and sit watching the sea until it was time to board. Now a high, diamond-wire fence has appeared, festooned with DANGER notices, while the locals continue to stroll, andwalk their dogs as usual on the other side. On one side is the car park, on the other, the beach; so quite where all this DANGER is supposed to manifest itself remains a mystery.
Once aboard I was soon up on deck and, turning to the couple beside me, was astonished to see Paul and Brigitta, two friends from Switzerland! Such chance meetings are as delightful as they are unlikely, and we relished the coincidence, and the chance to enjoy each other's company for the rest of the crossing.
Over the next ten days or so I performed at Borders Bookshop in Islington, then, after sleeping in the van at Willesden Green, nipped up to Liverpool to share a poetry and song evening with Joan Poulson, at the Wellbeing Centre. Next I headed across to Yorkshire, where the dales were in fine autumnal trim, and following two delightful days, and a photo session, in Pateley Bridge, I once again headed south for London, where I was booked to give a talk on 'Alchemical Symbolism' at Treadwells Bookshop.
There were so many motorway closures and consequent delays that time was suddenly short and, instead of being able to park in Putney, in readiness for the night journey down to Sussex, I had to duck into Chingford, and take the first train into the city.
The talk was very well-attended, and various friends were there as well, making the event even more enjoyable. Then it was back up to Chingford, where it was tilting down with rain and I had to run all the way down the High Street to where I'd parked the van, because I'd neglected to take my umbrella! Having dried my hair I then drove south, through the heart of London (congestion charging doesn't operate at night), over Tower Bridge, round the Elephant and Castle roundabout, of blessd memory, and on past Guildford, after which the leafy lanes commenced in earnest. It was a wonderful dark, shining, gusty drive, with whirling leaves, deer and rabbits crossing the road, and a warm bed at Tony and Jennie's place at 3.00 a.m.
After a night of rain, day dawned a bright and peerless blue, and I had a good journey to Dover, a fair crossing, and a hazy moon for company most of the way back to Frankfurt.
The next evening I came second in the Frankfurt Book Fair Poetry Slam and, in the following week, had gigs in Bensheim (again) and Bad Hersfeld. Then it was November, and time for the annual Austrian tour, which began with a detour to Ljubo's studio in Baden to leave the guitar with him for a new pick-up, and the Mac for a new CD-burner. Thus the faithful old Takamine came into its own again, and served as faithfully and well as ever. Not so, the van!
The first, frosty week went very well, with concerts in Graz, Murau and Wrgl, and a relaxing couple of days in Linz, where I stayed with a friend. But when it was time to be on the road again, one bright warm morning, with a cargo of newly purchased books, CDs, walnut oil, top quality coffee and a couple of original Linzer Torten, the van began playing up.
At first the it wouldn't start at all, nothing, not a movement. Then it started; but it was clear that some diabolical little roulette wheel had been set spinning and it would only be a matter of time before the problem returned. On the way to Wiener-Neustadt I checked it once again. No problems. But arriving in the village where I was due to spend the night, again, the only response to a twist of the ignition key was silence. In the end I managed to reach the somewhat elusive guest house, where a bearded version of The Incredible Hulk was slumped at the breakfast-room table, and all the walls seemed to be made of paper. The Hulk returned my 'Gten Abend!' with a grunt, so I retired to my room to listen to the television and phone calls of the man in the room on my left, and the gravelly conversation of the two men in the room on my right. I discovered that, by inserting the plug into the wash basin, I could slightly lower the volume from the right hand room but, as I then needed my Swiss Army knife to remove the plug again, it hardly seemed worth the bother. Feasting grandly on dry bread, yoghurt and a piece of month old cheese, I settled in for an uneasy night.
I was up early, The Hulk was nowhere to be seen, and the friendly landlady assured me that, in case of starting difficulties, the local garage would be there 'within minutes.' This I seriously doubted, but appreciated her friendliness, even though she did take an unconscionable time preparing breakfast, further delayed by a liesurely telephone chat.
It wasn't that I really wanted the breakfast. I've learned by bitter experience that a couple of bland white rolls, oversweet commercial jam and, if you're lucky, a boiled egg, eaten to the accompaniment of a witless, jabbering radio, is the most you can usually expect in such circumstances; but having declared myself ready and seated myself at the table I could hardly get up and leave. Besides, I still had to pay her. All I wanted to know was whether the van was going to start or not.
In the event it did, at the first attempt, so, scraping the frost from the windscreen, I was able to reach the school, where I've played many times before, give two good concerts, and then call the road services. They diagnosed a terminally ill starter motor and directed me to the local Ford garage, where the stricken motor passed permanently from this life into the next with such rapidity I couldn't even get the van from the parking place to the workshop under my own steam.
So, three hours, and several hundred Euros, later I was on track for Radstatt, musing on my now less than watertight finances, and the volley of chain shot the latest payment had just sent whistling through the rigging. There were hints of snow en route, and the next morning I awoke to a white world, with fine powder-sugar still drifting down.
It was an early concert at the school, where I've played many times, and by eleven a.m., I was heading for snowy Salzburg, then over the Arleberg Pass, which was just navigable, through Austria, and into Switzerland, where I was soon eating raclette and drinking hot chocolate by the fireside of Paul and Brigitte, two very good friends who live near Buchs.
The following morning I drove on to where Paul Rostetter, founder and manager of Brambus Records, lives. He and Alice gave me a second breakfast, I settled various debts, and Paul helped me on my way with snowballs as I followed the road to and through Zrich, and back to Ljubo's studio.
Over the intervening days since our last meeting Ljubo had replaced the guitar's pick-up system, built me an incredible foot pedal, designed and built a new amplification system for the harmonica and fitted a new CD burner into my computer. As we sat chatting he fine-tuned everything, inserting a capacitor there, a filter there until everything sounded so good I wasn't sure I'd be able to live up to it! Typically, he only wanted enough to cover the cost of the parts.
As December made its liesurely way towards Christmas I baked the usual raft of mince pies, Christmas cake and Christmus pudding; won a comedy evening in 'Das Bett', in Frankfurt; was a finalist in a BCN Caf 'slam'; watched squirrels, blue-tits, a nuthatch and, briefly, a woodpecker, in the snowy walnut tree behind the house; cycled to and fro through wind andsleet and, one icy evening, steered my bicycle through whirling snow showers, under a brilliant, moody moon.
We made a five day dash to England for Christmas, and having decided to see in the New Year in Frankfurt, we'd already arranged our return flight for Tuesday December 27th. This would have been fine, but for a sudden crisis at The Wall Street English Language Institute, where I help out on a flexible, part-time basis, which meant that I was suddenly obliged to leave Kenton at 1.30 a.m., twelve hours earlier than planned. With Gabriele's skilful online abilities, my flight was successfully pushed forward, my sister ran me to Exeter bus station to catch the 2.00 a.m. bus, and I even managed to get home for a quick shower and shave before pedalling off through the snow to teach from 12.00 until 6.00 p.m. I then cycled home again, the snow still falling, jumped into Gabriele's car, and drove to the airport where, of course, her plane was over forty minutes late. She'd had a very tiring journey too, so we were both a touch zombified by the time we got to bed that evening. We soon caught up again, and were back on course; but, as with the year's inception, the snow kept falling.