A Pilgrimmage In Sound

A song saved my life.

Or at the very least, inspired me to keep on living.

Amazing what music can do.

Walking To Santiago, by Colin Bass. A song very few will have heard of, but one that means the world to me.

Bass by name, bass by nature; he of the four stringed guitar. I first got to know of him through his work with Steve Hillage in the late ’70s, before he joined prog rock band Camel. The school days when I spent hours perusing the album offerings in Coventry’s Central Lending Library.

Hillage and Camel, in particular, became part of my musical life. Moonmadness, Nude, Mirage, I Can See Your House From Here with the achingly beautiful Ice, Breathless, with its breathless guitar solo on Summer Lightning.

Colin Bass was a name on an album sleeve.

I left school and continued to grow my record collection, buying now rather than borrowing. Other Camel records followed, until I switched to compact discs. Then a solo offering from Mr Bass. I was curious – and a completionist. Outcast Of The Islands was a revelation. It’s opener, Macassar, was a driving instrumental which saw him teamed with Camel’s main man, Andy Latimer.

Glorious.

So when I saw a crowdfunding effort by Mr Bass for third solo outing, At Wild End, I signed up. Suddenly my name was on an album sleeve, in the ‘thank you’ section. And that of my son, Henry. And on a lovely handwritten postcard from the man himself.

Still the album could have been tepid. You takes your chances, and all that.

It wasn’t. It was full of treasure, some unexpected, some pushing the boundaries, some simply hitting the spot. Well, if you’re a romantic who’s into prog, that is.

And one track, in my descent into depression, stood out.

Walking To Santiago.

Wow.

It changed my life when I needed it most.

It’s the build in music. The urgency, the passion, the soul-searching honesty in chord and note.

It’s the lyrics. Sheer poetry.

I’d bought a book about the pilgrimmage route through the Pyrenees to the believed tomb of St James The Apostle in northwestern Spain years earlier. How the Milky Way serves as a pathfinder and how the journey is one for the soul.

And this song was good for my soul, despite a deceptive beginning, a chorus singing the old hymn, He Who Would Valiant Be.

https://colinbass.bandcamp.com/track/walking-to-santiago

Striking a chord? A wake up call?

A little time is all you have before you reach the gate

Better know yourself before it gets too late…

…And no matter where you come from, no matter where you stay

The way is just the journey and the journey is the way…

I’m not sure Mr Bass could be fully aware of the magic he weaves, when the drums kick in and the pace lifts. There’s a persistence about the music, even in the absence of a ‘proper’ chorus. That Latimer chappie appears again, with an excquisite touch on Spanish guitar, and there’s a jumble of brass.

Having been a professional writer across four decades, there’s also a touch of jealousy  that he had nails emotion so beautifully and in so few words.

Capturing a situation, an impasse, I knew only too well.

…The clock struck the hour

The birds had all flown

Everyone walking by me

Everyone going home

I went down to the station

But the trains had all gone

No-one was waiting

Standing on my own

Like a fish out of water I jumped out the school

I thought I was clever, but I was just a fool

I never counted my blessings

I didn’t know they were mine

I had to find out that love is

Something deep inside

I was just a bar-room gambler

Shiny as a snake

Eyes sparkling like diamonds

Both of them were fake…

Brilliant.

…I was looking for salvation

Someone threw me a line

You ask me how I’m feeling

I’ll say I’m feeling fine

There’s no use to complaining

You only do what you can do

Just do something useful

While you’re passing through

Cos you’re just passing through and the stars are shining and the moon is full…

And the song set me on my own pilgrimmage. To rediscover me. To revive a love. To refresh a life. My life.

I’d never been depressed before. Or since. Cynical? Yes, absolutely. That’s the journalist in me. But this is a song that has me smiling, revelling in the glory of life.

And music and lyrics.

Thank you, Colin Bass.

 

 

Sky Blue Heaven – Or Hell

I DIDN’T see any of the Sky Blue goals in my first taste of top flight football at the old Highfield Road stadium.

The perils of being an eight year old in the cheap seats.

It was, according to the record books, November 18, 1977 and a star-studded Queen’s Park Rangers had come to town.

Ian Wallace scored the first of his brace within a minute of kick-off. In front of me, the hordes of City fans jumped up and blocked my view. The roar told me we’d scored.

While Terry Yorath and Mick Coop also got themselves on the scoreboard, I missed much of the spectacle on the pitch. But the atmosphere was like being on a different planet. It was electric.

I received the tramline Admiral kit that Christmas. Complete with shirts and socks. I wore it for years. Until the material was falling apart. Other kids at school followed Leeds and Liverpool, the glory teams of that decade. But I was always a Sky Blue.

My grandfather had played for the Bantams, pre and post-war. He was a different beast to the template of centre-forwards back then and his first team game time was limited, but he’d succeeded, against the odds, to play for his adopted city. My city.

I felt sure I would follow in the football-booted footsteps of that wonderful man. I collected the chewing gum cards, the candy cigarette cards, watched Match Of The Day every Saturday just to see my club in action. And now I even had the kit. What if?

While the call of Coundon Road became too great, especially with my transition to initially unwilling rugby player at Blue Coat School, the pull of Highfield Road was never too far away.

I knew all the names of the players until, perhaps, the 2000s, when I left Coventry to work elsewhere. I followed the club’s on-pitch fortunes on Saturday afternoon TV, or Ceefax updates.

I proudly wore the brown tramline Admiral replica shirt, bought as a leaving present from my erstwhile colleagues at the Coventry Evening Telegraph. It’s surprising how many people recognise it and want to talk to you about it even today.

From a distance, I was saddened to hear of the dip in playing fortunes of both Coventry football clubs, and the sale of both Highfield Road and Coundon Road for cheap and nasty housing.

I can’t remember the other games I saw at Highfield Road. Another one that famous season when the Sky Blues clicked and gave other teams a run for their money, including champions-elect Forest at the death, that much I know.

I remember the electric pace of Danny Thomas with the little red Talbot badge on his chest; the flowing locks of Mark Hateley in the T jersey and the belligerent power of Terry Gibson. I remember watching Oggy’s heroics in the home goal, months after facing his lifters on the cricket pitch. I didn’t expect Steve Ogrizovic, the opening bowler for Coventry and North Warwicks, to be the same bloke who played guarded the net for the Sky Blues, but then I doubt I’ll meet another Steve Ogrizovic.

There was Speedie, and Gallacher, and Dublin, Whelan and Huckerby. The fancy dans, the headline hustlers, not to forget the heros of defence and midfield maestros. And always a great atmosphere, no matter how low the crowds.

I’ve been to the Ricoh several times. It’s not the same. It’s not that the Sky Blues lost each time, or that I wasn’t familiar with the players. There was something missing. A big chunk of the club’s heart? The fact that big money has ruined football for the majority and club’s like Coventry are slowing being edged out of the big picture? Or simply the fact that the childhood magic of watching football went when Highfield Road and all its memories were bulldozed away?

Even before the SISU and Wasps debacle, the Ricoh felt like an out-of-town sports supermarket, soulless and sad.

And Signet Square…have you been there?

My club, my city – unrecognisable both.

The starting point of my art project.

 

Wrong Or Write

I was lucky enough to start my journalism career at the end of its golden age.

A noisy and boisterous era of clacking typewriters, telephones ringing like church bells, overhead pipes loudly shuttling copy and ads to composing room and scribes shouting to be heard over the racket.

When the pressure of deadlines was released with a beer or two over the pub at lunchtime.

This current bout of nostalgia was sparked by the re-emergence of a video, now on YouTube, showcasing a day in the life of the Coventry Evening Telegraph, my local newspaper, playground of aspirations and inspirations.

And then Jeremy Vine’s return to the corridors he once strolled, as a feature for Radio Two. Where it began for him and hundreds of other junior reporters. Like me.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1nykG6T9xYs04yyXGrH5Gt7/jeremy-vines-brief-history-of-coventry-since-the-blitz

For the Coventry Evening Telegraph was a place like no other.

A world of characters that at once would grace the pages of a thriller and the stages of a situation comedy. For The Fast And The Furious read The Weird And The Wonderful.

And every soul that poured into the Coventry Evening Telegraph building on the junction of Corporation Street and Upper Well Street in those days played their part. It was a family, proud of achievement, proud of brand, proud of togetherness.

Heavy drinking sessions, often at the nearby Town Wall Tavern – out the front door, aim for the gap between the Belgrade Theatre and Lunn Poly and no chance of missing it – didn’t seem to dampen the talents of those who imbibed.

It brought them closer to the people who formed the Telegraph’s holy trinity: audience, subject and informant.

Photographers snapped away, then hid themselves away in the darkroom – managing to come up with world class pictures that would have the modern day equivalent, with all their computerised aid, weeping.

Talent. Sheer talent.

But everyone brought into the desire to be the best. From the security guards to the cleaning staff to the groundsman at the paper’s Lythalls Lane sports field. Newsagents were part of the family, too, and copies were snapped up outside factory and shop, sports ground and school.

The security team had a list of people not to put through to the newsroom team. One of them was ‘Jesus Christ’. On the sheet of paper in those non-PC times, the legend added to it was ‘obviously a nutter’.

Maybe we missed the Second Coming because no-one took it seriously. The one scoop the team failed to win.

Advertising bods understood what the paper was about and their part in it, journalists the same. The composing room, fresh from the smelly days of hot metal, was where the magic finish was fashioned . There, the chosen few trusted with computers inputted stories from the sheets we had handed over, readers checked stories, again and again, and ‘comps’ pointed out mistakes, too, from headlines to picture captions. The minutiae was important.

Not to say that mistakes didn’t happen. Coventry City striker Ian Wallace apparently struck a ‘hot shit’ over the bar at 1970s Highfield Road, although I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that was one mistake let through on purpose.

For a journalist it was about understanding what the readership wanted, understanding the city and county, understanding law and story writing. No time-wasting idly staring at a computer screen, trying to decide which was the best intro. In the days of typewriter it was about having a strong grip on the story, of writing an intro, tearing off the triplicate paper and attendant carbon copier, putting ‘MF’ for ‘more follows’ and then on to writing paragraph two (we called it three, because the first sheet was always 1/2).

It was the same for reporting from outside the office, from court or the scenes of crimes or tragedies. A phone call through to newsdesk, a brief chat about the story and then onto copy desk to dictate. On the spot reporting. A nightmare concoction of fun and fear, fear of getting it wrong, but fun believing that this was what journalism was all about.

And it was. Without the mobile phone, the internet or social media, it seemed easier to get hold of people. We rang next door neighbours, who would gleefully go round to get our intended interviewees to the phone. Or local post offices or shops, who on more than one occasion would send a member of staff to knock on someone’s door for us.

Only in certain cases, because we were encouraged to get out there and knock doors for ourselves back then. Get out and become part of the community.

The computer changed it all. The noise of the newsroom got gradually quieter. The telephones would purr, if you bothered to put it on the lowest setting. Colleagues would glare if you talked to loudly, or, God forbid, laugh. The modern world of journalism became sanitised, like public libraries. At one title I worked for, I ran up a small mock sign for a particularly sour-faced colleague who seemed to like absolute quiet when on a telephone interview. The sign said simply: Quiet Please!

The computer also saw staff levels savaged, from the ‘comps’ to reporters, subs and photographers. It wasn’t they weren’t needed, just that the newspaper landscape changed and suddenly profit came before product.

Maybe there were characters afresh, but not like the old days.

I remember Jeremy Vine’s splendid spoof on a Christmas tree story that had us all in stitches; Bob Cole’s incessant barking down the corridors; dragging my first editor, Barrie Clark, back to his desk from a drinking session that became immortal – nobody quite knew what to do. He leaned in his chair, a cigarette becoming a precarious pile of ash jutting at 90 degrees as the snores reverberated.

There was trying to make out sports editor Ken Widdows during a conversation at his desk, which was fog-bound by cigarette smoke from Ken and his colleagues; there was photographer John Bassett asked to get more action shots from Coventry Rugby Club at Coundon Road who accidentally walked on the pitch and nearly getting mullered in a scrum; and my first scrape with Jesus Christ, who had plenty of worries to share.

There were nine daily editions back then and most people grabbed a copy while it was still warm.  I remember telling someone I thought important that I was a reporter with the CET and immediately it was as if I was someone special, just because I was part of it.

That was the power of the paper. And watching those videos and listening to that radio interview, I am back in those newsrooms, searching for background information about all manner of local story in the CET’s library archive and asking the ladies in the telephone exchange for a number somewhere else in the country.

Teamwork. Pride. Belief in a common brand.

Unbeatable.

Suicide And Extraordinary Mistakes

ABOUT  this time two years ago, I stepped out in front of a car.

It was going fast in gloomy conditions on the Tamworth Road in Coventry, just after where the houses make way for parkland and countryside.

I had hit rock-bottom and felt the best way out – for everybody – was for me to go.

How bloody stupid.

Of course, only one or two friends know this. I was low. I’d been told I couldn’t work because of injury-induced frozen shoulder on my left side which was causing me significant pain.

The woman I loved, trapped in a loveless marriage, had, I felt, reached out to me and then thrown up an impenetrable brick wall. Love and the loveless.

But it was the sheer despair of the moment, of everything I’d worked hard – and damn hard at that – to achieve, slipping away. Fitness after a lung collapse, rebuilding a life and being grateful for the opportunity. Suddenly feeling that opportunity had been stolen back, like I never had it in the first place.

I’d never been off work for anything other than a fortnight. And that was when I’d been admitted as an emergency patient and had half my back removed. I’d been a workaholic, defined by my attitude to graft. Without it, I was lost. With the injury, it wasn’t as if I could go for a run, or to the gym and going down the pub to drown my sorrows when I was off-sick was a ‘no-no’.

Then there were the deaths of 13 friends in a 14 month period leading up to this.

Rockbottom.

It only ever happened once.

It was like I was so used to juggling 20 balls in the air, someone had thrown me two more and there they all were on the floor, me unsure how or what to do.

My Jimmy Stewart moment. My ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ wake up call. Because I have had a wonderful life.

But my, how things can change. I’m not a confident person. Never have been. But I’m generally a positive person. Ask some of the people I’ve helped. Ask anyone who’s played in a team with me, sport or otherwise. I’ve always focussed on the positives. The people that know me realise how much emphasis I put on self-worth, putting themselves first – without being selfish oafs – and how much they are capable of. I guess I often miss myself out of that.

I had come back to the UK from North Cyprus drained of energy and every last bit of confidence I could muster, a hollow shell of who I was. I went to interviews for journalism jobs only to find they didn’t want capable writers, just ‘yes’ men and women who would churn out press releases.

At one particular interview, for the post of a journalist writing 200 word business pieces for a tablet audience, the editor seemed dumbstruck at my question about what would happen if I happened across a big story, as had been my record in four decades of newspaper work. Or features, supposed to be a big strength of mine – an in-depth look at an issue, with talking heads and analysis. No, he just wanted me to rewrite press releases from businesses and business groups in no more than 200 words. No skills, no thrills, no frills. Nothing. Nada. A world away from the journalism I had known and loved.

So I became a chargehand on a bin crew, being treated like the rubbish I was taking away. A big hit to my pride, but at least I was earning a living. That was the real me, taking the hits, surviving, winning.

Until the car driver didn’t see me on my pushbike, lit up like a Christmas tree, in hi-vis clothing, helmeted and with right of way on my side.

Rockbottom.

To the verge of stupidity.

At that point, I wasn’t to know that my son, Henry, a real pain in the proverbial for his mother in North Cyprus, would be destined to live with me. To need me to be there for him.

At that point, I didn’t realise the love of my life, Shellie, needed me, either. She says she wanted me, loved me, hoped I would stand by her side as she became stronger and happy. She finally exited a horrible, loveless and abusive marriage and we’ve been together ever since. Like it was meant to be.

Except.

I was selfish, self-pitying and stupid – two traits of which I normally never entertain. And I apparently picked the one driver in Coventry who was able to stop.

How many lives would I have ruined?

Because I was feeling sorry for myself?

So my fitness had disappeared, I started putting on weight again, and soon, within weeks of moving to Cornwall to live with Shellie and Henry, I had a whole new raft of health problems to face.

But so what? Compared to some friends and their woes, this was small fry. Is small fry.

We’ve had some awful times since then, with shameful betrayal of the highest order and wicked lies to match, of toxic people trying their best to hurt us or target Shellie because she dared to be happy, dared to stand up to the bullies that had held her back.

Damaging narcissists the like of which I never believed existed.

And I wouldn’t change any of it. Because I’ve dared to be happy.

We’ve dared to be happy.

Henry has transformed into a young man, confident, happy and able. He’s a team player now, doing brilliantly at school and just a joy to have around.

Shellie has become strong, in control of her own life, happy and positive for the future. We laugh so much at times and know that we both made the right choices.

We have a beautiful baby daughter who has made such a positive difference to all our lives. That’s not her job, but Elizabeth has proved a marvel.

Shellie’s son Zane is responding so well to our love, reassurance and care, even though there are those who want to use him as a weapon to punish Shellie.

We have good friends who back and support us; family, for the most part, too.

So when I look back on my moment of madness, I realise that God didn’t want me for a sunbeam. There were other plans for me that I would never have guessed and how would those people that needed me to step up be faring now?

 

 

*I didn’t want to talk to anyone about how I felt. It wasn’t a cry for help, but I would urge anyone feeling depressed, or suicidal, or in need of a friend to call Samaritans on 116 123.

As a journalist I got to see how this wonderful organisation can help people at the worst of times.

Please, don’t throw a life away. Depression can be a killer, but you’re not alone. And people do want to help.