Wednesday 12 December 2012

Confessions of an eBay Trader #2: Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath, Two Virgins

It can be a dispiriting business, selling folk LPs on eBay, when a wonderful and rare record like A Mayflower Garland by Cyril Tawney offered at the price of £5.99, in mint condition mind, attracts one watcher in all the the world. Even more dispiriting, he or she might snap it up at that price. Really, it's enough to make you examine your vocation. 

So I thought I would change tactics and act like a proper dealer. 

Q. What's the most collectable label in the world? A. Vertigo with the swirl label, of course. Q. And who is the biggest rock 'n' roll icon of them all? A. John Lennon, natch. 

If there's any connection between Vertigo and John Lennon, I don't know of it, but I intend that the next two eBay offerings shall be the eponymous Black Sabbath LP from 1970, and John Lennon's Two Virgins from 1968. 

In my book, the former is the definitive Sabbath album. The striking gatefold Keef cover and the hilarious sub-Dennis Wheatley sleevenotes just edge it over Paranoid

Surely the famous Vertigo swirl is the most eye-catching label design ever. Roger Dean will live in infamy forever for designing the spaceship horror that succeeded it.
Alas, my copy is not in great nick, but the surface noise is consistently drowned out by industrial levels of heavy metal, and it only becomes an issue on the quiet bits (!), notably the tolling of the bell at the very beginning, and the spaces between the seven tracks, although where 'Sleeping Village' ends and 'Warning' begins has always been a deep mystery.
'Warning', lest we forget, was written by Lancashire blues legend Victor Brox. He once told me the story of how he first encountered the Sabbath version. It chanced to be playing as he and Aynsley Dunbar strayed into an 'underground'-style club sometime in 1970 (sorry, I'm a bit fuzzy on the detail, it would have been a hippy haunt like UFO or Middle Earth). 'Warning' had already been released as a single by The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation. Hearing it blind, and presumably entering at a non- Ozzy moment, Victor assumed it was the Retaliation. He turned to Dunbar and remarked how he hadn't noticed that he (Dunbar) was having such an off-day when they recorded it. 

As for Lennon, well Two Virgins was universally viewed as the ultimate rock-star folly. Essentially a sound collage like 'Revolution No.9' from White Album, though not as tightly structured, Two Virgins was criticised as unlistenable and self-indulgent, and a sad comment on Lennon's state of mind at the time. What interest it possessed was purely prurient (you can see Lennon's willie on the cover). 

And yet… Well, you have to applaud the man's defiant experimentalism and marvel that 'She Loves You' was, what?, only five years distant. Some redeeming features: Yoko One remains the best screamer in the business (Fly is the one). Plus it offers insights into John's home-life and I think it's meant to be taken lightly:  more Goon Show than Edgard Varèse.
Unfortunately this is a USA reissue, possibly from the eighties, with recurring surface noise almost certainly due to low quality vinyl stock. It's unlikely to have received much needle-time. 
Sigh! Fortune my foe! That's an LP by Goliard by the way. On the Broadside label. 1978. Mint condition and a starting price of £5.99. Are there any takers?

Thursday 6 December 2012

The Great John Fahey Debacle: A Cautionary Tale

John Fahey's ill-fated UK tour of 1999 virtually defines the word 'debacle'. With its sorry mixture of self-delusion, malevolence, naivety and depravity, it is probably the archetypal rock 'n' roll horror story. This account, from an inside perspective, has been revised from original publication in the December 1999 issue of the Worpt Wire Service (the Newsletter of the Friends of Abner Burnett). 

I don’t understand what you are worrying about. I have been touring this year in Japan, Germany, Holland, and there hasn’t been any kind of trouble anywhere. I’m not a “no-show”. Three months ago I decided I like touring and hate staying home  and am going to tour the rest of my life. I don’t drink anymore, don’t take non-prescription drugs. I’m trusting you to do a good job, why not trust me to do a good job? - John Fahey to Paul Kelly and Mike Butler, July 24, 1999  

Fahey is freaking out about his new love. The travel agent says that from what she has seen when they show up to confuse the travel logistics, the romance is much more heated on his side of the stove. If Hitomi abandons our artist, we may be conductors on the dark diesel blinds that ride mighty John Fahey into storied oblivion. He may deliver a series of performances so despondent that Worpt is remembered as the promotion company upon whose mount the Grim Reaper rode to extinguish all enthusiasm for all time for “Roots Americana”, If so, and he is depressing, I will outdo him measure for measure: macabre, lurid, sordid, self-absorbed negativity - Abner Burnett to Mike Butler and Paul Kelly, August 31, 1999  

[Mike Butler writes] I was (still am) a music writer and back in the day I promoted the occasional UK tour by Abner Burnett. I was Abner's agent, sort of, and it was my life's goal to raise the public profile of the Texas attorney, Mexican tree nursery proprietor, and - most relevant for our purposes - the most gifted songwriter ever to toil in obscurity. My vehicle to achieve this was Worpt UK, a branch of Abner’s little agency in the USA, Worpt. 

To extend the dramatis personae of our story, Paul Kelly was a psychiatric nurse (now retired) with a responsibility for the criminally insane. I knew him as a face, sometimes the only other face, from free jazz (improvised) concerts in our hometown of Manchester. When Paul Kelly proposed that Worpt sponsor a tour jointly headlined by John Fahey and Derek Bailey, I willingly listened. Fahey’s music had been a passion since schooldays, and Derek Bailey was a radical sexagenarian who had carved a new language for the guitar. The pairing of these maverick musicians was an inspired idea, and I resolved to do all in my power to make it happen. 

From the go, a question-mark hung over Kelly’s integrity. In 1998 Helter Skelter published Like The Night by CP Lee, which centred around Bob Dylan’s historic concert at Manchester Free Trade Hall on May 17, 1966. The book contained photographs of the gig by Paul Kelly (then 16 years old). Indeed, these photographs were deemed such a selling point that Kelly claimed co-authorship with Lee. Alas, another photographer emerged, Kelly's school companion, who was merrily snapping away on the next seat. The attribution of the images became the subject of litigation. Kelly gave me his side of the story, and I naively believed him. Anyway, he soon proved his worth as a promoter, finding venues across the UK, contacting regional promoters and booking accommodation. An itinerary was soon sketched out. All that was needed was an investor to back the venture. The phrase "seed money" now became Kelly's mantra, often mentioned in conjunction with the name Abner Burnett. 

Abner Burnett is a lawyer by day who occasionally represents widows when their husbands are killed in the oilfields. Drilling crews often drop heavy objects on each other or just blow each other up. Having recently settled a case and picked up his usual exorbitant fee, Burnett is eager to piss it away on a musical mystery tour called ‘Guitar Excursions into the Unknown’ - from 'Henry's Take on the Tour', an unpublished account of the tour by Henry McCarty (aka Abner Burnett). 

The name of the John Fahey tour, Guitar Excursions into the Unknown, derives from a track on his rare 1966 LP, The Great San Bernadino Birthday Party and Other Excursions. A company, Worpt UK Ltd, is formed to oversee the operation. Abner Burnett, Paul Kelly and Mike Butler become the legal directors of Worpt UK Ltd. The wheels are now ready to roll, or, more accurately, ready to fall off the wagon. 

First, Derek Bailey withdraws after a fee dispute. This may only have been a handy excuse. Bailey, a cultivated fellow with a lifetime’s experience of playing to empty halls, may have had a presentiment of trouble ahead. Then the drafting of a contract with Fahey’s Nashville-based agent, Mark Linn of Do Easy Booking, proved to be an exceptionally arduous business, and made the company name seem a dark, ironic joke. 

We are on the edge, which is where all courageous rock ’n’ roll lunatics should hang. Everybody get tense. If you’re feeling at ease, find and take some poorly manufactured speed, something with that strychnine veneer - Abner Burnett to Mike Butler and Paul Kelly, August 25, 1999 

The hunt for passport details uncovers the fact that Fahey’s middle name is Aloysious. His mysterious ‘assistant’, whose airfare Worpt UK Ltd is contractually obligated to provide, is eventually identified as one Hitomi, a young girlfriend Fahey acquired during his recent tour of Japan. The course of this Winter/Spring romance is not running smoothly. 

“I got past the saddest music in the world, and I decided to do the angriest music in the world,” declares Fahey during the course of our phone interview, intended for pre-tour publicity . The date: Monday, September 6, 1999. Fahey is speaking from the hotel where he lives in Salem, Oregon. Standard questions receive standard replies. The conversation isn't sparking. Fahey seems preoccupied and distant. Then, with no warning, his fluting voice cracks with emotion. “I’m sorry to tell you, but my Japanese girlfriend broke up with me.” I offer words of consolation, but, to be honest, I'm more the Concerned Impresario than Good Samaritan. “How will it affect your playing?” I ask. “I play better when I’m mad,” Fahey replies. “And I’m as mad as hell. It should be excellent.” 

Could I call up Hitomi in Tokyo? “I don’t want her to think she’s going to get away with this,” said Fahey, the whine replaced with menace. “And tell all your friends to phone,” he growls. Now, at last, the ringing of the alarm bells could not be ignored. Curiously, alarm bells failed to jangle when I read Fahey's quote about the recently deceased Jerry Garcia in Mojo # 39: “The more people like that who die the better.” Somewhat insensitively, l enjoyed the outrageous nature of this remark. Sociopathology, however, is more disquieting at close range. 

Mike’s Tour Diary, written from the thick of it

Tuesday, September 14, 1999 

Our Guitar Excursions immediately plunge into the Unknown. The travel agent in Oregon (or Fahey himself?) makes a blunder with the ticket. Fahey arrives at Glasgow Airport 24 hours early. I accept reverse charges on a series of increasingly desperate phone calls. The guitarist is homeless, tired and hungry. To cap it all, his wallet has been stolen on the flight, so he is also penniless. “You gotta rescue me, man!” he whines in a pitiful falsetto. He is calling from The Post House Hotel at Glasgow Airport. On my third attempt I manage to circumvent the automated switchboard and talk to a real human being. Fahey, a diabetic, is given food and care. Paul Kelly, already on the road in a hired VW carriage, picks up the stranded artiste some three hours after his premature arrival. 

Wednesday, September 15, 1999 

How quickly gratitude turns to enmity. I meet John Fahey for the first time in the foyer of our hotel, the Ibis (or ‘the Abyss’, as Abner prefers), in Edinburgh. The guitar legend is due to play at the Queen’s Hall, a medium sized venue in the city, on the following night. I notice Fahey through the glass frontage. He is wearing dark glasses, and there is no mistaking his obese form. He has two companions with him. There is Paul Kelly, sure enough, who cuts a distinct figure himself, with his bald pate, little round glasses, extravagant walrus moustache, and portly build. But who is the little fellow in the shell suit, buzzing around Fahey like an anxious fly? I enter. 

The little fellow vanishes before I clear the door. I gather myself and offer Fahey a handshake and my most ingratiatingly smile, doubtless a bit strained because of my nervousness. My hand is left dangling, and my smile is left to wither and die. “Sit down!” barks Fahey, pointing to a chair. Kelly smirks and excuses himself, pleading an appointment elsewhere. Fahey betrays unease. 

“I thought you were going to stay, man." And, in a quieter undertone, "I’m not sure of the figures.” 

“Oh, you can take care of it, John,” says Kelly, and exits. 

I sit down with mounting apprehension, alone with my hero of old. Fahey removes his dark glasses. Oh horror! His gaze is dead and his eyes are pure yellow, streaked with blood. He delivers an ultimatum. 

He has, he explains, no faith in Worpt UK or our ability to manage the tour. If the money for the first four gigs is not immediately forthcoming - he glances at some hastily scribbled figures, and mentions the sum of £4,400 - the tour is off. This behaviour is more than just unprofessional. 

In the past months, Abner had conferred with travel agents about the feasibility of a round-trip for Fahey and his fiancée - from the USA to Japan, thence to Scotland and back to the USA. Fahey's calls became such a nuisance that Susan, Abner’s partner, finally refused to take them. 

“Let me put it like this,” Abner wrote. “If you look up professional in the dictionary, Fahey is not even mentioned in the footnotes. Whereas if you looked up flaky as shit, it might have his picture.” 

In life, Fahey doesn't look in the least bit flaky. His flesh, so gross and abundant everywhere else, seems to run out at the neck. His skull is clearly visible beneath the pallid skin. Grey whiskers sprout from his jowls in haphazard clumps and his grey beard is dirty and unkempt. His t-shirt and baggy shorts, an unchanging uniform, are permanently stained with spilled juice and body fluids. The omnipresent sunglasses sit oddly, like some accessory of a calavera in a Posada cartoon for Día de los Muertos. And this death's head is scowling at me

"You better check in," he says, by way of dismissal, having relieved me of £250 (all the money I have on me and all the money available until the bank opens in the morning). I retreat to the sterility of the hotel double-room, and recline on the bed and brood, and readjust my image of John Fahey from old-time hero to horrible old man.    

Thursday, September 16, 1999 
Abner Burnett is providing support for the first four dates of the tour. He has other places to be - in fact, he's marrying Susan in Texas in ten days' time - but he also has a professional and financial interest in the success of the tour. When Abner steps off the plane at Glasgow Airport to be greeted by Paul Kelly, he is approximately $10,000 "in the grease" (oh, hire of halls, the considerable cut taken by DFEE, hire of instruments and equipment, touring van, hotels etc etc). 

Kelly had fallen prey to the delusion of self-importance. He had somehow gotten hold of the businessman's earring, a cellular phone. It clashed however with his work shirt and baggy green corduroys. Burnett had a cell phone also, but hadn't thought to haul it out for the occasion - from 'Henry's Take on the Tour', ibid. 

John Aloysious Fahey is no friendlier when Abner and I visit his hotel room in the afternoon. The old misanthrope is sitting up in bed eating his breakfast. Also in attendance are a couple who trade under the name of the House of Dubois (dubbed by Abner the House of Doodoo), and promote concerts in the Glasgow region. I recognise the little fellow in the shell suit from the foyer. He introduces himself as Bob Mills. Actually, we've spoken over the telephone. Bob has been Worpt's man on the ground, an intermediate with the venue. His motivation was unclear to me. "What's in this for you, Bob?" I asked. "Oh, I'm happy to work for love of the music alone,"  replied Bob, his tone suggesting that he was hurt by the question. Right now, he and his business partner, Chris (a female Chris), are cowering under Fahey's scan as he finishes demolishing a pizza and proceeds to frozen dessert. 

Abner goes over the terms so painstakingly negotiated with Do Easy Booking. Fahey pauses between scoops of ice cream. "I don't have a contract with you. I'm talking about what that fucker over there promised me." This, with a gesture to me. Abner walks out of the room in disgust, and I follow. Chris runs after us with a compromise solution: Fahey will take £1,400 as an advance. He insists on payment in cash. The figure represents all the money in the Worpt coffers. 

Ratfarts are probably seldom heard or identified by smell. They waft around the back doors and hallway exits. They mix in the kitchen with the better odours of well-planned dinners. It may have been that each player in the game had been pure hearted and intent upon a successful tour up to the point of confrontation in Fahey's room. Maybe the bad smell was only ratfarts. More probably though, it was a rank stew of fear that would do anything, worship gone sweaty and stale, 'ornery pride that denied its own odour and the bad breath of one pissed-off jet-lagged Texas lawyer - from 'Henry's Take on the Tour', ibid. 

Upon our return from the bank - it entailed a tramp down the Royal Mile in the rain - Abner fails in his first attempt to give Fahey the advance fee. We meet in the foyer, but before the transaction can be concluded the guitarist turns tail and runs. 'I can't take the money now," he wails, "I'm going to vomit!" 

And so the exchange is deferred until after Fahey's appearance on the Brian Morton Radio Show. He cuts an imposing figure in the foyer (oh, that Abyss foyer), hitching up his baggy shorts, dangling a bare leg over a chair arm, and fingering an unplugged solid-body guitar. Fahey announces his displeasure at Brian Morton's producer, who has had the temerity to request short pieces. He's not so much flexing his fingers by way of warm-up, more hammering out a single note obsessively, whilst muttering: "They're imposing a compositional form on me, and I don't like that. You'll be sorry. You'll be sorry." 

The troupe take identical positions in the foyer a few hours later, after the live broadcast  of the Brian Morton Radio Show. Fares are organised to take the company to the Queen's Hall, where crowds are already beginning to gather. Fahey seems in no hurry, as he counts, re-counts and arranges his Scottish pound notes on top of his guitar-case according to denomination. Kelly, in full Albert Grossman mode, is lobbying a harried BBC producer to get John Fahey onto Later with Jools Holland. He drops the phrase "a force of nature" and Fahey nods approvingly. Emboldened, he takes another dig at Abner. "I don't have a contract with anyone," he taunts. Abner seethes with impotent rage, to Fahey's visible satisfaction.

Half an hour later Abner Burnett carries his first drink of the evening onto the stage of the Queen's Hall; a double shot of Bell's with ice. Bugs are already all over the project. Stray dogs languish by the fly-covered carcass panting and staring idiotically - from 'Henry's Take on the Tour', ibid. 

If Abner is lacklustre in performance, then Fahey is lamentable. Turgid single-line licks are strung together to be resolved, or not, with crushing banality. 'Juana', a pretty tune, is stretched beyond its natural length, and an attempt at 'Samba de Orfeo' is fumbled and abandoned. The Fender Strat, carried across the Atlantic by Abner as stipulated by the contract, is ignored in preference for a cheap model hired for the radio session. It's difficult to tell the difference between the incessant tuning and the desultory improvisation that follows. 

"God-damn," says Abner beside me in the back row. The walk-outs grow in number until a trickle swells into a stampede. "Absolute mince," says one defector. "God-damn," says Abner again, before joining the flow. 

I stay until the end, which is not long in coming. Fahey stops in mid-tune, suddenly deciding that the performance has exceeded the one and a quarter hours so painstakingly negotiated with Do Easy Booking. "I'll quit while I'm ahead," he announces. This is asking for it. "Ahead of what?" rejoins a heckler from the crowd. The remark has the effect of unnerving the artist, who, unsure of his exit, becomes entangled in the stage curtain. Patrons file out stupefied and mildly dazed.  

Abner meanwhile, is consoling himself in the Queen's Hall bar with a beer chased by double whiskey. "You're not Derek Bailey," says someone. (The names 'John Fahey' and 'Derek Bailey', are printed on the tickets: just another cock-up.) "You're in big trouble." 

"Buy me a drink and tell me about it," says Abner. 

All around, the recent concert is the subject of conversation. 

"The most puerile guitar playing I have ever heard," says one dissenter. "My seven year old grandson can play better and put more feeling into the music." "Perhaps he was drunk," replies his companion, obviously a charitable soul. "Either he was drunk or he couldn't be bothered to play coherently." Another speaker volunteers: "John Fahey is on another planet, I think." 

Paul Kelly is present, and as the tenor of the discussion becomes clear, he gets redder and redder, and madder and madder. A reformed alcoholic and strict abstinence man himself, Kelly has a pathological intolerance of drink, and the widely-held belief that his star is drunk is more than he can bear. He looks around for a drunk to abuse and spots Abner Burnett. "He's not even a real drunk, he's just posturing as a drunk," fumes Kelly, and advances menacingly.      

It transpires that Abner's new acquaintance is Tim Hardin's road manager, and the two, along with a party of friends, are getting along famously. Abner is theorising that John Kennedy was shot by the retired football coach of his high-school in Midland, Texas, when all merriment dies at the approach of a mean-looking Kelly. He obtrudes his bulk between Abner and his companions, and out pours a jet of abuse, at close enough range to douse Abner with spittle. 

This is too much. Abner grabs Kelly's collar. Tim Hardin's road manager pulls the two men apart. Kelly's bellicose ranting subsides in a moment. Spluttering hysteria is replaced by a smirk. He has what he came for. 

Meanwhile, I have to go back to the hotel for a cheque-book to pay the sound-crew. On my return, the Hall is deserted except for these same technicians, busy packing up for the night, and one other: a figure is stretched out on the stage. It is the original American Primitive, snatching a moment of peace from the chaos all around. He is belly-up as I enter. I duly pay Alex the Soundman. At the sound of my voice the living bulk on the stage stirs. 

The Malodorous Plenipotentiary of Takoma now settles on his side and props his head on his elbow. He stares directly at me, and, hemmed in by aisles on either side, there is no escape from the penetrating intensity of that horrid gaze, undimmed by his sunglasses. I search for words, but am struck dumb. What can I say? "You were marvellous, John"? I calculate the distance to the exit. I manage the words, "'Ello John," and make a dash for it. 

And so the official part of the stormy opening night of Guitar Excursions into the Unknown is over. It only remains for Abner, the bogus drunk, to get drunk for real. The two of us head for Whistlebinkies, an after-hours bar with live music on South Bridge, to drown our sorrows. During the course of the night, a honky-tonk band play 'Pancho and Lefty' three times. Abner claims he sung it from stage once, but I have no recollection of this. It might be true. The scene got slightly fuzzy. 

I do remember that Abner's conversation touched upon the case of a sheriff in a small Texas community who had lately been exposed as a paedophile. Apparently the bad sheriff had been dragged out of his office weeping and howling, and shouting, "Jesus Christ! I'm a Christian!" Thereafter, the music of the honky-tonk band at Whistlebinkies is periodically interrupted by cries of "Jesus Christ! I'm a Christian!" These come from Abner. 

"Every silly son of a bitch who contributed to this debacle is going to get shovelled into the furnace for a long time," he continues. "Myself included." 

After several more beers and whiskey chasers and a turn at reading the palms of our hands, his thoughts return to religion. "Luckily, I'm a Buddhist. A little mound of particles which disperses into oblivion where more little mounds are being made." 

At 3am, we return to the Abyss, with the stated intention of taking advantage of the residents' all-night bar. Abner's voice is slurred but he is still sensible. "Going up in smoke is my stock-in-trade," he says, before collapsing on the floor, with his final beer and double whiskey chaser unfinished. I and a hotel employee carry him to our room. 

On the one hand I've never seen a man so determined to relive the day he refused to eat his supper. On the other hand there's a man who knows he's dead no matter what, but keeps waiting around trying to get heard - from 'Henry's Take on the Tour', ibid. 

"When a situation is really, really ugly," I had earlier asked Tim Hardin's road manager, "what do you do?" (I imagine life on the road with Tim Hardin wasn't all Misty Roses.) "Get out at once," he replied, without hesitation. 

And now I'm looking at an envelope which has 'WORPT' written in pencil on the front, and, in another hand, a message in block letters in ink on the back. It reads: 


This reassuring note came from the partner of Tim Hardin's road manager. 

Friday, September 17, 1999, early morning 

Abner is whirling around the room like a dervish and hurling half-empty bottles of alcohol and mineral water to the four corners. "God-damn!" he yells, "I'm on tour with two assholes!" For the first time, I begin to understand the rock 'n' roll ritual of hotel-room demolition. "Don't do it!" I plead, as Abner's attention turns to the merchandise and several scattered boxes of CDs. In the absence of the John Fahey reissues, kindly provided by Ace Records on a sale or return basis, he directs his ire on a box of his latest, Calavera. He shows every sign of wanting to propel the box through the window. "Don't do it! It's Calavera, it's a masterpiece!" This only provokes him all the more. And then, in an instant, he flops on top of the nearest bed, out like a light, and proceeds to snore very loudly.  

Friday, September 17, 1999

It's the lobby of the Abyss again, at mid-day, and Paul Kelly is loudly proclaiming to everyone in earshot, including several bystanders not directly involved with the tour, that he is not prepared to do further business with a violent, drunken, dangerous… He searches for the worst possible insult he can think of. "…bar room singer!"  

Deaf to entreaty, Kelly refuses to let Abner ride in the van. This is particularly hard as the hire of the van has been paid with Abner's visa card.

I try to assimilate the latest bit of bad news. Worpt UK Ltd, I was informed by the management of the Queen's Hall that morning, cannot receive a penny of the takings of the previous night's concert because Bob Mills signed for the Hall on behalf of the House of Doodoo. 

Now the scene divides into a chaos of overlapping altercations. I demand the money from the ticket sales from Bob Mills. Abner is roaring, "Ring the police! Ring the police!" If he can't ride the van when he hired it, then he will report it as stolen. Mills loses his nerve and produces a wad of bank-notes. "Ring the police!" reiterates Abner. But this is not a simple operation, because Abner left his mobile phone in the States, and the public phones at Abyss only operate with a WorldCom Global Phone Card. We finally manage to get through to Edinburgh's finest. A disembodied voice sweetly explains that an authorised person cannot be prevented from driving a hired vehicle. In reasonable tones, it explains the difference between a civil and a criminal offence. 

Fraud and deception and bad faith, it seems, are civil rather than criminal offences. Actually, Kelly at this point had passed into criminality. Abner had been asked to provide a DAT recorder - along with the guitar that Fahey never used - to capture the concerts for posterity. He bought one with his own money and duly put it to use. I remember Alex the Soundman returning the DAT recorder to Abner in the Queen's Hall bar. There was some bantering talk about blackmail. 

The DAT recorder had been left in the changing-room, along with guitars, CD merchandise, a camera and other odds and ends, waiting to be loaded into the van. Every item is accounted for, with the exception of the DAT recorder. Now, as patrons and staff of the Abyss stare in incredulous dismay, the two factions divide their possessions jealously. The amplifier - another item paid with Abner's visa - goes Kelly's way, and we get the merchandise. Kelly makes an offer to carry the CDs to Manchester (the next stop of the tour). I have to decline. "Have you got your DAT recorder?" Kelly sweetly inquires, with a smirk.   

John Fahey? He doesn't take a role in any of the preceding unpleasantness. He just sits to one side, looking inscrutable in his shades. I never see him again. Indeed, it's a couple of years before I see Paul Kelly again. With the exit of Fahey and Kelly, driving to the borderlands in a hired van, the most sensational part of our story draws to a close. But back to the tour diary, which is now a non-existent tour diary… 

Abner hires a car to take us to Manchester. The sun sets in the Lakes as we drive. The fate of Guitar Excursions is more than unknown, but it feels like freedom not be sharing a carriage with the odious F and K. Abner talks me through Beethoven's String Quartet #13, playing on the car hi-fi. Later, we arrive at my Manchester pad and pick up my voice-mail messages. 

The tour is off, says a short message from Kelly. Fahey has flown back to the States. He, Kelly, has disassociated himself from Worpt UK Ltd and resigned his directorship. We are to notify the tour venues and cancel existing hotel bookings. Calls to Kelly's home for clarification are in vain. Once when we ring, Kelly picks  the phone up and resorts to mimicking an answer-machine to avoid discussion.     
Saturday, September 18, 1999 

Playing the part of an itinerant with some conviction, Abner Burnett busks outside the Royal Northern College of Music to a few disappointed music-lovers expecting to see John Fahey. An elderly woman of middle-European heritage declares her love for the singer. She tries a variety of dance-steps, and abandons the polka for some wayward gyrations she calls "the Elvis Presley". She is mad in a refreshingly benign way. 

Sunday, September 19, 1999 

Taking advantage of the unexpected downtime, Abner and I visit Blackpool. The Lancashire resort has been a source of fascination for Abner since he chanced to see the Lee Evans film, Funny Bones. The first sight of Blackpool Tower from the road draws an excited response. "God-damn! This is it!" he says, slapping his thigh with one hand and holding the wheel with the other. 

We brave the wet and cold in the cheerful way special to day-trippers. Alas, Abner's enthusiasm wears down and expires completely in a cowboy theme-bar on the seafront. Upon entering, he is told to remove his freshly purchased jester's cap. This rankles, but the Confederate flag finally does for him. "Don't these idiots realise they're glorifying a culture that sanctioned slavery?" he moans.

A Tammy Wynette tear-jerker plays on the jukebox. "Should I confess," says Abner, "that my real interest in music lately is composition through use of fractals and chaos? Or just write a fucking country song about it?" 

In the evening, friends, singers, musicians and a bull terrier gather for an impromptu singaround in honour of Abner at the Temple of Convenience, an old public lavatory converted into a bar, just off Oxford Road. The raw stench of failure is dispelled by the deodorant of camaraderie and song. Thank you for the support, Helen Pendry, Marcus Hickman, Clive Mellor, Mark Greer, Kirsty McGee, Scott Alexander, Kaisa Jokinen, Juha Halinen, Sheila Seal, Al Parry and Oscar the bull terrier.     
Monday, September 20, 1999

More information trickles through about the real state of affairs. Contrary to Kelly's message, it seems that Fahey and Kelly are still at large, honouring some dates and cancelling others. [Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds are "no-shows". Fahey fulfils his engagements in Newcastle, Belfast, Stamford and London, mostly co-promotions with established promoters, with Fahey on a flat-fee. The London show is promoted by Serious.] A live radio session for Andy Kershaw is cancelled at short notice. The broadcaster drops a pointed remark about enigmatic guitarists between record plays. 

Abner, with a true lawyer's instinct, inserted a clause in the contract to state that all disputes are to come under the jurisdiction of Ector County, Texas. He derives some satisfaction from picturing John Aloysious in front of a jury of common folk from Ector County, Texas. [The legal action is derailed when Fahey dispenses with the services of Mark Linn of Do Easy Booking and replaces him with… Paul Kelly.] 

The management of the Queen's Hall consult their legal team and opt to pay the local promoter. [Bob Mills, if one is to believe his subsequent bleating and whining, sincerely desires to reimburse Worpt UK Ltd, but events kept conspiring to prevent him: oh, postal strikes, post-dated cheques that bounce when the day arrives, an entire street burnt to the ground, including the venue where his Casper Brotzmann gig was taking place, etc etc.) 

Over a meal at Yang Sing Restaurant in Chinatown, I brood over Kelly's duplicity. The tour has been the cause of great pain and produced small gain and, with the best intentions, I succeeded only in introducing a terrible pestilence into the world. I am inconsolable, and Abner isn't going to let me off the hook. 

"It couldn't be worse," he is saying. "It's worse than going to jail." He casts around for comparable misfortunes. "It's worse than standing at a crap table where you can't get more credit because you've just pissed away 3000 dollars." He refills his cup of shushi. "It's worse than your girlfriend playing mattress slam dunk with your best friend." A graceful manoeuvre with the chopsticks. "It's worse than picking a fight and getting the shit kicked out of you." 

An unworthy thought about the relaxed standards of the Ector County Bar Council flits across my mind. 

We're trying to get through this with enough of our asses left over to be able to grab with both hands. I know that each of you has worked hard to get this rolling. I believe we can pull it off. Woe to whomever wrongfully takes advantage of the situation. I don't exactly understand the nature of it, but time's revenge seems to flow justly over the carcasses of the unrighteous - Abner Burnett to Mike Butler and Paul Kelly, August 27, 1999. 

Where are they now? 

Derek Bailey RIP, December 25, 2005. It was an inspired idea (credit where it's due), to pair Bailey and Fahey. Both were outsiders and both grew more radical with age. Which is not to say they were compatible. Bailey's style, astringent and flinty, was surprisingly elegant in his late period, and he even started using conventional jazz harmonics, doubtless as a valedictory and affectionate nod to his youth.

John Fahey RIP, February 22, 2001, after undergoing a sextuple bypass at Salem Hospital, Massachusetts. Poor sod. He had his reasons. Not least a sexually abusive father. The beauty of his American Primitive guitar always had a compensatory function. His late music - he told me so himself in that publicity interview - was more faithful to the bitter, damaged fuck-up he always had been. Roughly speaking, the change from transcendentalism to inchoate barbarism came with his adoption of the electric guitar. 

Abner Burnett gave up ambulance-chasing for human rights, and since 2007 has enjoyed the position of Chief Public Defender in Willacy County, Texas, for Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid. He still sings and performs and his most recent album, which he threatens is his last, is It Ought to Be Enough, on Worpt Records (2008). His motto is still "All Merit for Freedom".   

Paul Kelly relocated to Newcastle, where he helped jazz promoter Paul Bream with On The Outside, then an annual festival of improvised music. He started Music Stuff, a booking and management agency. The great NY 'New Thing' drummer, Sonny Murray, was a client. But it seems that all business relationships end in bitter recrimination, and all promotions end in black farce. Horror stories filter down to me from time to time.  

Bob Mills. Current whereabouts unknown.  

Mike Butler lives and works in Manchester, and is writing a book about legendary folk producer Bill Leader. Many years after the Fahey debacle he turned on the radio and, by chance, 'The Death of the Clayton Peacock' was playing. It was his first exposure to Fahey's music since 1999. He steeled himself to listen, for the shock therapy value as much as anything, and found himself strangely enjoying it, to his surprise. "That was 'The Death of the Clayton Peacock' by Leo Kottke," said Verity Sharp, the announcer. Ah, that explains it then. 

Friday 30 November 2012

GoGo Penguin, Matthew Halsall Trio

GoGo Penguin, Matthew Halsall Trio
Band on the Wall, November 29, 2012 

The first tune was characteristically frenetic, full-on and storming, but GoGo Penguin are nothing if not dynamic, and calm entered with a springy bass solo by Grant Russell. The occasion is the official launch of GoGo Penguin's debut album, Fanfares (on the Gondwana label), and the trio are cooking. 

What is the secret of the distinct GoGo sound? It might be that each player reaches their point of flammability at a different temperature. No matter how voluble drummer Rob Turner and bassist Russell get, Chris Illingworth is never less than measured and graceful on piano. And just as temperatures collide in a positive way, so rhythm is also mercurial and unpredictable. Rob Turner's absorption of urban hip-hop rhythms gives a modernistic sheen. Then there's Illingworth's confidence in melody, and a sense of dramatic structure that owes more to prog-rock than straightahead jazz. They also insist on giving listeners something to feel - a real rock 'n' roll imperative - and every piece is a journey into mystery. The strangely freaky bits that est used to achieve by electronic means are here deployed on strictly acoustic instruments, using skin and ivory, which is another plus. 

Whereas the Matthew Halsall Trio harness the full panoply of electronica, with Taz Modi simultaneously manipulating a bass synth and electric keyboards. A box of wires enables Halsall's trumpet to vault the gates of heaven. Or, at other times, a ghost Halsall spars with the flesh and blood Halsall. The music flits between inner-directed reverie and spellbinding grandeur. Listeners either surrender to mesmerism or vote with their feet, with the latter a definite minority, and mainly from the mouldy olde fig camp. 

Two covers indicate the expansiveness of Halsall's vision: 'Acrid Avid Jam Shred' by Aphex Twin and 'Ode to the Big Sea' by The Cinematic Orchestra (indeed, The Cinematic Orchestra's own Luke Flowers is on drums). "I love this tune," said my neighbour, as 'Big Sea' was announced. So it's not all Miles and modalism as Halsall's recorded output suggests. If I didn't surrender completely, it was only because Flowers comes from the John Bonham School of Jazz Drumming. Possibly I'm turning into a mouldy olde fig myself.

Sunday 25 November 2012

The Golden Age of Comedy Records

Some thoughts on British Comedy (circa '59-'61) occasioned by the listing of four comedy LPs on one-for-every-fair-and-rainy-day, my little eBay trading post -

‘The Blood Donor’ (Hancock, NPL 18068) is immortal, but  do writers Galton and Simpson have to be so cruel and pitiless while dissecting the petty vanities, hopes and fears of one ineffectual little guy. Poor Tony Hancock is so vain he wants a medal for donating blood; he’s a casual racist, bragging of his pure British stock, and crows in conceit when he finds he belongs to a rare blood group. He’s also self-pitying (“A pint, but that’s an armful!”) and cranky (“it might be a prick to you, but it’s life and death for somebody, mate”). 

The humour of Hancock’s Half Hour is savage. And bitter too, as you’re expected to mock the pretensions of this poor, self-deluded fool. But why shouldn't Hancock wish to improve himself with Bertrand Russell or escape the rat-race to fulfil his creative potential (as in the feature-length film, The Rebel)? 

Tony Hancock’s genius was to instil dignity to the character. His identification was so complete that the comic creation and the actor/comedian actually shared the same name, blurring the boundary between fiction and reality. There was always a clear delineation between Phil Silvers and Sgt Ernie Bilko, even if one was self-evidently a projection of the other. But Hancock wasn’t allowed that fig-leaf, even as Galton and Simpson heaped weakness and misfortune onto his frail psyche. His end was tragic. Remember the suicide note? “Things just went wrong too many times.” There’s a pithy summation of the human condition for you. 

Which is why the laughs of ‘The Blood Donor’ don’t come cheaply. 

But at least there are laughs, which is more than can be said for Peter Sellers. 

Some of the good points of Songs for Swingin’ Sellers (PMC 1111)and Peter and Sophia (PMC 1131). Ah, Matt Monro does a nice Frank Sinatra impersonation on the former. Sophia Loren is thankfully under-used on the latter, and the co-credit was presumably just a gambit in Seller's vain wooing of the Italian starlet. The funny Clousseau voice first appears on ‘Shadows on the Grass’ (from Swingin’ Sellers), that’s if you think French accents are inherently funny. The latter sketch is written by, and co-stars, the wonderful Irene Handl, who brings a bit of humanity to (another) study in self-delusion. There might actually be a real person in there. 

And because a lot of the material spoofs the contemporary music scene, it acts as a vivid snapshot of its time, blithely evoking trad jazz with ‘Ukelele Lady’ (and borrowing the Temperance Seven to do it), and targeting skiffle with ‘Puttin’ On the Smile’, although the irritating Lonnie Donegan defies parody. 

And, ah, that’s all the good points. 

Well now, The Goons. We’re back in drab, grasping, penny-pinching post-war England again, redeemed by a sense of the absurd, albeit tinged with desperation.  The Goons were (are) worshipped by jazz musicians for the way they used sound to suggest 101 impossible things before the inevitable moment when Eccles got "drownded in the water". But ‘Tales of Old Dartmoor’ and ‘Dishonoured’ (The Best of the Goon Shows, PMC 1108) seem ill-supplied with sonic and engineering innovation, and Ray Ellington and Max Geldray have been excised from the proceedings altogether. Talk about mean-spiritedness.   

(I guess I'm not alone in my opinion: nobody's bidding on them.)  

Thursday 22 November 2012

Confessions of an eBay Trader #1: A Festival of Lessons and Carols

So there was I, keying in today’s offering for one-for-every-fair-and-rainy-day, my little eBay trading post. This is what I typed:

"KING’S COLLEGE CHAPEL A Festival of Lessons & Carols OVAL ARGO 1959 orig RG 190 mono 

On offer is the 1959 LP A FESTIVAL OF LESSONS AND CAROLS as sung on CHRISTMAS EVE, 1958 in KING’S COLLEGE CHAPEL, CAMBRIDGE, directed by DAVID WILLCOCKS w SIMON PRESTON, organ.  On ARGO, catalogue number RG 190." 
I scrupulously noted the details beloved by record collectors: 
"This is the FIRST PRESSING mono release, with the FULLY LAMINATED FLIPBACK THIN ‘CLARIFOIL’ SLEEVE, and the 1ST LABEL ARGO - dark blue, with the Argo motif enclosed in an OVAL design with a groove inside the perimeter." 
The record was playing as I wrote, “ From the arresting opening, a lonely boy chorister emerging from silence with a hushed ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, it’s evident that this is the ultimate Christmas record, and trounces Phil Spector’s Christmas Gift to You. In comparison, Wizzard and Slade are barbarians.”

I was warming to my task now, soaking up the atmosphere as the sweet little angels of King’s College Choir chirruped ‘I Saw Three Ships’: “Redolent of dusty chapels, dreaming spires, Choral Scholars in white altar gowns.” Now came a Lesson, a reading from St Luke. “The establishment at prayer,” I typed. Then another carol, ‘Gabriel’s Message.’ I deleted the previous line and entered: “A dream vision of Christmas from the dream city of Cambridge, preserved in aspic from Christmas Eve, 1958.” I pondered the significance of the date. At the time of recording, I was precisely two days old. 
Then I thought, “Fuck it, I’ll give them Sgt Pepper instead,” and hoped I wasn’t being disloyal to the cause of women bishops.  

Monday 12 November 2012

A Brief History of Donal Maguire

Donal Maguire was born in 1948 in Drogheda, County Louth, and, in his own word, “interned” in Berkshire in 1963. Paradoxically, the move awakened awareness of his Irish heritage. In the early seventies, he bumped into Ewan MacColl and was part of the radical theatre group Combine, formed by disaffected members of the Critics Group. His first recording was made in Paris in 1977 - he contributed ‘The Bold Tenant Farmer’ to Folk Pirate Bis (ES54), for the French label Expression Spontanée.  

His debut album, The Star of Sunday’s Well (MUS 001) was released on his own label, Rossendale Records in the same year. It sets the template for future releases: stirring ballads and rattling reels. It’s successor, The Clergy’s Lamentation (Rossendale, MUSCD005) from 1980, added some beautiful Carolan tunes, with harp promoted to dominant instrument. 

Then came Gilded Chains & Sordid Affluence (Rossendale, MUSCD006) from 2001, and this might be my favourite, in terms of choice of material and feel. But it’s not for the purist. Maguire enlists the support of jazz guitarist Mike Walker. This, more by propinquity than grand design: Walker happened to move across the road from Donal’s place in Haslingden. The guitarist brought his saxophonist buddy Iain Dixon to the sessions and they play reels with a freedom that is utterly exhilarating. 

In 2006 Michael Davitt - The Forgotten Hero? gathered several songs with a connection to the Irish nationalist hero. It can be warmly recommended for both seriousness of purpose and ease of execution. About a third of the songs are sung unaccompanied in the traditional, timeless style. 

“The crucial note is that I’m a revival singer. Therefore, I couldn’t get up and sing songs from Connemara all night. Actually singers from Connemara never sang songs from Connemara all night,” Donal told me.  

“ I’m taking it from Darach Ó Catháin. He was born in Connemara but he worked in Leeds for the last I-don’t-know-how-many years. He died in the eighties, not that old. Darach was the greatest singer I’ve never heard in the flesh. I knew that he existed and he knew that I existed but unfortunately we never met, which was a great tragedy. 

“But I don’t want to be a Darach Ó Catháin tribute band. After a few renditions Donal Maguire will take over, I hope.”

I tried some names on him, wishing to benefit from his expertise and experience.  On Tom Lenihan: “A great singer from Clare, yeah.” He offered another Tom by way of response: Tom Costello, a singer from Connemara. “I sat at his feet in a metaphorical sort of way. His timing was wonderful.” 

To bring it all home, his latest is a pure expression of Irish traditional singing - Louth Mouths From Drogheda (Rossendale, MUSCD009) - being Donal and two old friends, Sean Corcoran and Gerry Cullen, swapping songs and singing unaccompanied. It’s at once casual - nothing could be simpler than letting rip with the bare voice - and a labour of love. Corcoran collected some of the songs first-hand. Donal is in fine form, and Gerry Cullen likewise impresses. It’s a disc that combines vitality - reflecting the excitement of the revival as it gained a foothold in County Louth in the sixties - with integrity. 

This brings us up to date, except that one disc has gone unmentioned. By The Hush (Rossendale, MUS003), from 1981, captures a cross-section of singers and musicians from North West England performing Irish music. “I lost my shirt on it,” Donal says, in a manner that pre-empts further discussion.

Saturday 10 November 2012

All good rock stars...

It's strange how everything leads back to Bill Leader, once you're in the mind-set. So Bill had an engineer at Leader Sound in Greteland called John Gill, who went on to become one of The Three Johns, and just now I was hovering over a Three Johns LP on a second-hand stall. It had a good quote from Richard Neville on the back, which began, "All good rock stars take drugs, put their penises in plaster casts and collectivise their sex..." and went on for a bit more in this vein. Now that I can't find the quote anywhere on Google, I might have to go back and buy the record. 

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Alan Turing’s Teen Tragedy and the Difference Between Electro and Rock-Opera


Alan Turing satisfies quite a few of the criteria for Jesus Christ. Tick them off: he saved the world (or hastened the end of WWII by cracking the Enigma code), he foresaw the coming of a second kingdom (the kingdom of computers; he came up with the prototype), probed the secrets of creation (morphogenesis), and was put to death (hounded for his homosexuality) and rose again: only now, a half century after his death, are scientists and biologists beginning to appreciate, partially and inadequately, the full range of his ideas. 

And now he has his own rock opera, or rather, a glittery synthpop tribute. Un digito binario dudoso comes from Hidrogenesse, an electronic pop duo based in Barcelona. It translates as A doubtful binary digit. The subtitle is recital para Alan Turing

And it’s entirely enchanting.

The style pioneered by Soft Cell and Pet Shop Boys has never sounded more delicious, tuneful or plain weird. The synthetic beats are groovy, the swooshes are silvery and not entirely from a human source (quite appropriately), and the fact that the sweet, heart-on-sleeve lyrics are mostly in Spanish adds another level of delightful dislocation. 

I can’t think of a better compliment than to say that Alan Turing would love this album, which mines his biography sensitively, yet with a frisson of camp. The first song, drawing on the Snow White imagery, conjures a kiss with which to wake Alan up. And ‘Christopher’ is not in the least exploitative but breathtakingly sweet, and, with one bound, Turing’s personal teen tragedy joins the pantheon of universal pop teen tragedies. 

Anyone who lives in Manchester, or works at Manchester University, whose field is Computer Science, who comes from Spain and what’s more contributed to the Alan Turing exhibition at Manchester Museum that’s going to close next week, is going to love ‘Love Letters’. Indeed, Eva Navarro was much amused and has been singing the chorus ever since. This bit is in English and it goes: 





The album closes with ‘Historia del Mundo Contada por las Computadoras (History of the World Told by Computers)’. Far from being impersonal and sterile, it’s a beautiful, melodic, quasi-pop excursion. Artificial intelligence, it seems, has crossed the line into romance and discovered heartbreak. Love and logic are no longer incompatible extremes. The machine has learned to cry. Divine! 

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Paddy on the Road Provenance

As I mention (monotonously) in each relevant listing, the records I'm currently selling on eBay come from the collection of the late Ian Chappell, and were acquired at Omega Auctions, Stockport, in late June. Amongst the more heavyweight lots at the Auction - far outside my pocket - was Paddy on the Road by Christy Moore (Mercury, 20170 SMCL), which was finally bought by a Manchester-based dealer called Nigel for the winning bid of £640. 

Donal Maguire, the great Irish traditional singer (the best, in my humble opinion), happened to be present because I alerted him to the event (he’s a fellow Oddfellows regular, and so, by definition, a friend). Maguire was flabbergasted at the price, and secretly thrilled, because he’s owned a copy since first release in 1969, and doesn’t particularly rate it. Indeed, he may have played it once, or twice at most. 

To make a hard story easy, after the failure of the ploy of distributing his card with a scrawled explanatory note amongst the serious dealers (suppressed by Nigel, I later learned), Donal asked me to sell it for him on my little eBay trading post, one-for-every-fair-and-rainy-day.

I'm not sure if Donal's stratospheric expectations of its value will be realised. It has, ah, three days left to run. 

Nigel finally sold his copy on eBay for £650, which represents a net loss after auction and eBay fees are taken into account. However, two Russian oligarchs looking for a new way of laundering money started a bidding war for his copy of Heavy Petting by Dr Strangely Strange, which finally sold for over £2000. Swings and roundabouts.

A Manifesto, Invisibles and Twenty Years-A-Growing

My politics? Not party political (of course). My manifesto would be a line from Robert Louis Stevenson: “The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” That’s the ideal. My wrath is reserved for those who reduce them, or, worse, substitute with a number of horrific, horrible things, chief among them War, which fucks everything up in perpetuity. 

Eva has accused me of living in my own little world. “This is the difference in our worlds,” she said only this morning. “You live in an imaginary world. I live in the real world.” To which the only reply is, “But I’m very fond of it. Don’t knock my imaginary world.” 

So - here’s an illustration - we were each doing our own thing last night. She was watching Invisibles, a Spanish documentary, and I had my nose in Twenty Years-A-Growing, Maurice O’Sullivan’s autobiography about a childhood in Great Blasket, an island off the coast of Kerry, Ireland. 

Invisibles, produced by Javier Bardem, is a documentary in five parts by five different director. A synopsis of each section follows: 

1. A woman from Bolivia working in Spain receives a letter from her sister. As the film follows her in her daily round of low-paid work (nursery worker, cleaner), a voice-over reads the sister’s letter. The news is bad: her daughter has died from a virulent disease carried by bedbugs. The victims are so poor it’s not in the drug companies’ interest to develop a treatment. 

2. Women, travelling twenty or thirty kilometres in an isolated area of the Republic of Congo to feed and water their families, are systematically raped by police, army and rebels, sometimes by twenty-strong groups of men. The women organise together to combat the sexual aggression, but their vulnerability is highlighted by a cinematic device: they fade and become invisible before our eyes. 

3. In the north of Uganda, children sleep in communal centres organised by Médecins Sans Frontières to prevent them being kidnapped by rebel militia.  There is a civil war of some twenty years’ standing. Children kidnapped to become soldiers are commonly subjected to a trial of kill or be killed, and are forced to murder loved ones or siblings under pain of death. In this way, generations have been brutalised.

4. A sleeping disease transmitted by the tsetse fly is devastating areas of the Central African Republic, claiming up to a hundred victims a day. A side-effect of treatment seems to be hair loss on the upper lip: drugs are diverted to satisfy the demand of the female cosmetic market in the first world.   

5. The discovery of mineral wealth in an area of Colombia has led to ongoing conflict since 1948 and the displacement of the resident population. Now the community - led by strong women - are fighting to reclaim their homes, but the government offers no guarantee of security. This is the most hopeful of the episodes and it’s still as bleak as hell.

Twenty Years-A-Growing offers a contrasting side of human nature. An island childhood in the early decades of the twentieth century, it seems, offered unlimited freedom. Maurice and his best friend, Tomás, are as free as William Brown and his friends and the Swallows and Amazons children. So in Chapter V, ‘Ventry Races’, our hero rises early and slips away to the mainland on a curragh (a little boat) with Tomás on the occasion of the Ventry boat races. They encounter several adventures, including their first beer, a fight with a lanky fellow who tries to cheat them in a game of hoop-la, and the raid of a homestead for a loaf of bread. Then there is the triumph of the giant Tigue Dermod from the Cooas in the boat race, amongst cries of “My love to you forever, oh flower of men!” The grown-ups who come and go, ineffectual and benign, are all very demonstrative. “Musha, my heart,” and “God and Mary save ye, my treasures” are some of the milder endearments.  

Not that God and Mary were particularly effective either. Maurice O’Sullivan died in a swimming accident off the coast of Connemara in 1950, aged 46. Bill recorded his widow Cait, a fine Gaelic singer, but the tapes were lost. That’s a story I’m reserving for the book, which I hope will have some of the spirit of Twenty Years-A-Growing whilst giving the Invisibles their due. 

The Complete Chris Ackroyd vs Vladimir Putin 1-61

Chris Ackroyd, who manages to lead a fulfilled life without a computer, asked if I could send a message to the world. Well, I sometimes have...