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Newsletter September 2003

At last, the long overdue update to the newsletter! It would take too long to explain why such an extended gap has intervened, and there’s a lot to catch up on; so let’s cut to the chase.

It’s Hallowe’en 2002. I’m in Berlin. and thereby hangs a tale.

My Mitfahrer Zentrale passenger from Frankfurt (Mitfahrer Zentrale is a sort of car-sharing agency) was a charming young Russian woman who worked for a Moscow advertizing agency. Her delightful companionship telescoped the journey dramatically, and having somewhat reluctantly dropped her off in the city’s western extremities, I headed for Spandau where I was booked to play in the Kultur Haus.

I duly located the club, set up and made the sound check, after which I was issued with the address and directions to the ‘Zitadel’, where I was due to spend the night. Meanwhile I discovered that the sole of one shoe (shoes bought in Palermo, I might add, after unrelenting pressure from Gabriele and a tyrannously pretty sales assistant), had become talkative to such a degree that, at every step it threatened to gape and flap away from the welt altogether. It was so bad I could hardly walk without risking a scuff, a trip and a tumble; but the hour was late and I was unfamiliar with the local shops.

My saviours materialized in the shape of a couple who had turned up early to buy tickets for my concert before going for a meal. They immediately took me in hand and marched me, right leg raised at every pace like an undecided dog in need of a lamp-post, to the nearest superstore, where a cheerful east-bloc cobbler soon had me shod like a thoroughbred. Profusely thanking all concerned I went loping off to the Zitadel with my overnight gear, hoping to manage a quick shower before the performance. But the Zitadel turned out to be a castle and, being Hallowe’en, it was swarming with merrymaking devils, witches, angels, monks, a bishop or two and assorted monsters.

Having persuaded the doorkeeping Zombie to entrust me with the key to ‘Room 30’ I then spent the next twenty minutes ranging cluelessly among the diabolic revellers in search of this chimerical haven. Eventually a most unlikely-looking monk gave me directions and, despite the prominent number ‘420’ displayed on the door my key fitted, and I found myself in a truly civilized suite. It was now too late for a shower, so I simply dumped my bags and hared back through the pumpkin lanterns and bonfires to the Kultur Haus.

It was a good concert, and there was even a woman in the audience whom I had met at a gig in Wales the previous month. Afterwards I drove wearily to the Zitadel, where the infernal hosts had dispersed, the fires were glowing down and the last lampions were flickering out. I spent a few minutes basking in the warmth of one particular mound of glowing embers before retiring gratefully to bed.

The last time I’d played in Berlin The Wall was still very much in place, so the next morning I was eager to revisit the centre for a few hours before proceeding to Charlottenburg for the next concert.

The close-set eyes, plug ears and beetle brow of the doorkeeper decided me against the employment of nimble wit and airy banter when he informed me that I would not be permitted to leave the van in the courtyard, and following his muttered directions I drove out onto the neighbouring bridge where I was able to squeeze into the last available parking place. The Zombie had assured me that there was no parking fee here, so light of heart, I took the train into town.

Seventeen years ago the West Berlin underground, where it briefly looped round under East Berlin, would slow down to rattle through dingy, unused stations, lit like sewers on a dull day and patrolled by heavily armed East German guards. It’s hard to believe it was the same city. Even so, it’s still a strange feeling to saunter casually about the Brandenburger Tor where, at Checkpoint Charlie in 1985, I had to undergo no less than five different inspections in order to be permitted to set foot in the Forbidden City of ‘East Berlin.’ Now a chummy-looking fibreglass bear plastered over with scraps of old newspaper marks the spot where the checkpoint used to stand. On one side are the bird-haunted woods and leafy paths of the Tiergarten, and the tall column of the ‘Siegersäule’, whose 285 steps I did not feel obliged to climb again. On the other side, Unter den Linden, smart, chic and pricey.

After wandering contentedly for a couple of hours I took the train back to Spandau where, to the sound of my heart skittering over an indiscriminate number of irregular beats, I approached the bridge to discover that all the cars parked there, mine included, had disappeared.

How I restrained myself from throttling the zombie when he casually confirmed that, yes, all cars parked there must always be moved before 4.30 p.m., I will never know. He seemed blissfully unaware that by assuring me there was free parking, but omitting to give me the full picture, he had played no small part in my present predicament. Besides, zombie or no zombie, he was marginally more useful alive than dead, and minutes later I was panting and scrabbling at the locked door of the local police station. Everyone there was very friendly, including the dog, and they were sympathetic too, waiving the fine I should, by rights, have had to pay in addition to the towing fee. But, although this latter pretty well obliterated all the previous night’s earnings, it was an immense relief to learn that the van was not locked up in some distant pound, but was parked nearby.

So, I was still in good time for a great concert in Charlottenburg; and the following morning I took the road to Austria.

This time it was a great tour and, yes, of course, I was fined for speeding, just outside Kitzbühel. I challenge any normal person to drive extensively in Austria without being done by the hyper-pernickety traffic police.

Two weeks later, driving via Switzerland where snow had already begun to powder the peaks, I visited friends, stayed in the mountains, and recorded more songs for the next album. Finally I returned to Frankfurt; to Gabriele, the Christmas Market, candlelight, incense, concerts, poetry ‘slams’ and a bunged up kitchen sink which, dinner parties notwithstanding, obliged us to do all the washing up in the bath for over a fortnight.

After a great Christmas and New Year in England we returned to a snowy, icy Frankfurt; but the thaw soon set in and everything looked good for my first gig of the year in the local Stalberg Theater. However on the very morning of the concert Gabriele woke me to say that the town was white! It just had to be that day didn’t it!

Of course, everywhere looked lovely, and the little red squirrel was dancing up and down in the walnut tree as if the prospect of a snowball fight was very appealing, but unfortunately the net result was that we lost at least a third of our potential audience. The roads were like a skating rink and no-one outside the city ventured to come in. Typical! The concert went well enough, and they immediately re-booked me for October, but it was galling to think that Jack Frost had to target that particular evening. Naturally, the following day all traces of ice and snow had completely vanished.

The next weekend I had a concert at the Folktreff Bonndorf, down near Freiburg, in the Black Forest. It was beautiful weather, clear and cold, and part of the route lay through the hills of the Schwarzwald where the woods and fields were still snowy. But the roads were clear and it was a great concert.

Amsterdam was next on the list, and instead of snow we had rain. The venue, a private party, was at a yacht club down by the water where the van was parked among dry-docked boats which loomed over it protectively but made manoeuvring distinctly tricky. This was also an opportunity to stay with friends, walk the cobbles and canals, and catch up on everyone’s news.

Time kept marching, as Time always will, and February found me in England where I has a variety of engagements. The White Horse Folk Club in Sussex; a poetry Slam in Merton Library, which I won; (The Slam, that is, not the library!); The Farrago Slam in London, which I also won; two days in Thorn College, Stourbridge; a concert at The Poachers in Ide, down in dear old Devon; and across the border, over Exmoor and into north Somerset, for the annual Kilve Court residential music and composition course for schools.

Back in Germany I had a couple of weeks to catch my breath, after which came five exhausting but enjoyable days driving down to Austria, on to Croatia, across to Slovenia and up again to Frankfurt. The purpose of all this was a school gig in Braunau, and a couple of performances with Ljubo Majstorovic, a brilliant guitarist, very close friend, and the presiding genius behind the recording, backing and mixing of my last five CDs.

After the school concert I zoomed south to pick Ljubo up at Graz railway station. We then drove lickety-split to Zagreb where Berislav had heroically salvaged the mini-tour by replacing a last-minute cancellation from a club in Ptuj with a gig in Bosco Petrovic’s famous B.P. Club. I still have memories of swooping through the streets of Zagreb in a taxi, playing, as Dylan says, ‘inside out and upside down’ on my harmonica, while the driver laughed and clapped, shouting out, “Blues. Yes, Blues. Good! Good!”

Novo Mesto, and the Club Lokal Patriot, was, as usual, wonderful; and apart from one uncomfortably near miss on a roundabout in Zagreb, the tour seemed to consist of great music, fields full of cowslips, woods full of anemones, high winds, snow storms, white peaks and blue heavens with chasing clouds.

I dropped Ljubo off in Graz the following day, and just managed to keep ahead of some pretty severe snowstorms which later closed off much of the route. Not that I escaped entirely unscathed. On the way home there were some minor problems with the 'water-trap' of the van's fuel system, and the speedometer, suddenly deciding it had had enough of ticking off the endless miles, simply opted out for the remaining two hundred or so. This resulted in a chilly wait for the ADAC (The German AA), and a couple of hours’ snooze in the back of the van. Thereafter my lady-love the Moon, with Jupiter and a levee of stars in attendance, oversaw the final part of the trip and, by 2.00 a.m., I was at home in bed with a Horlicks and 'The Thousand Nights and One Night', which is surely a perfect way to round off what was, in fact, a very enjoyable trip.

The van visited ye local Ford garage, and, three days later I was away again. This time to Burgsteinfurt where Klaus Doll, builder of my incomparable guitar, had arranged a concert. The next day I was in Bremerhaven, playing in Thieles Garten, a delightful culture club in a little park full of eccentric statues. I’d last played there in 1994 but, quite apart from the welcoming, appreciative audience, it’s not the sort of place you forget.

Four days later Gabriele and I were off to England for a week, to share Mum’s eighty-seventh birthday with her, and to visit a witchcraft museum in Boscastle, with some Pagan friends.

Back in Germany there were more Poetry Slams, a successful concert in the Alte Post, Brensbach, some English teaching for the Wall Street Institute, and in late June, a marvellous little open-air festival in the Watthalden Park, Ettlingen, where the sun was so hot the audience were all packed into whatever corners of shade they could find and the performers had no choice but to face the sun and sweat.

Speaking of sun and sweat. Earlier that month Gabriele and I had celebrated my birthday with a five day visit to Rome, staying with guitarist Franco Morone and his partner within five minutes walk of the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. Suffice to say that even the locals were complaining about the heat. Franco and Raffaella were hospitality itself, and we had a wonderful, sweltering time, visiting endless ‘old stones’ as Gabriele is pleased to call antiquities, savouring the cuisine, and generally indulging the senses.

One particular memory is of a tour de force birthday supper of oysters, scallops, octopus, callemari et al, specially prepared by Raffaella in honour of my continuing advance towards eternity. Afterwards Franco and I sat out on the balcony with our guitars, while swallows and bats hunted overhead and a demi-lune kindled in the twilight. But don’t form too romantic an image of the resulting soft airs and languourous music; this is right next to the via del Tritone, and Roman traffic is not conducive to stillness and sweet harmony!

Late June, and I was back in England, playing another Devon gig, a concert at The Glasshouse Studio Theatre in Stourbridge, and a performance of Poetry and Song at Karouac’s, in Deptford.

The rest of the summer was fairly quiet as far as concerts were concerned, with a Poetry and Jazz Slam in Giessen, and a songs and poems concert in Frankfurt’s Nordbar.

We were back in England in August, to celebrate the fortieth birthday of a good friend, then down in the Allgaü to repeat the process with Uschi Laar, a harpist friend whom I’ve known since the early eighties. This three day event was punctuated, for me, by a quick foray across into Switzerland to play at an open-air festival in Stäfa, on the shores of Lake Zürich. Heavy rain was the order of the day. Not that it damped the enthusiasm of either the concert-goers or the party guests.

Which, by a roundabout route, brings us up to the present. I’ve just completed a round of concerts in Solingen, Northeim, Schortens, Frelsdorf, Plauen and Babenhausen, and am looking forward to October 6th when I play in the Stalberg Theater again. After that the pace hots up once more, and October and November should see me in England, Austria, Croatia, Slovenia and Switzerland.

As my dear old Dad used to say, “No rest for the wicked!”