A few weeks of Algarve sunshine, swimming in the pool and messing around in the ocean, barbecues and terrace tables, a quietus for the family (both kids and their partners along - and they really do make the holiday). They mostly go for Sangria or Pimms, and I mostly sup something half-decent, white and well-chilled. Then occasional Portugal beer is a treat, too. Don’t drink much beer as a rule, but in the hot sun, there’s little to beat it. Took out a small boat with a Guide on the Ria Formoso, the natural park reserve set among islands off Faro. Plovers, grey herons, egrets (their white cousins), spoonbills, flamingos and storks; a Little Bittern or three, cormorants and a really sweet shag lurking among the grasses off the dunes; shearwaters and grebes – it rather took my breath away, spotting them all, then writing them down, with the great help of our guide. I wouldn’t have known them by name, not most of them, without his help. And he was using my own favourite guidebook, Collins Bird Guide, in English! Clever young fellow.
In my head, I am a dancer. I can complete a spin into a perfect Arabesque, the standing leg bent at the knee, in a plié, taking an attitude like a spiv in a cocked trilby, and the trailing one straight as a cane. I can dart joyously across a festival stage and, close to the wings, drop victoriously to my knees, then leap to my feet on the last beat of the bar and moonwalk back to centre-stage, and for that moment, that magnificent nanosecond in a lifetime of movement, this Ballerino, this danseur, is King of the world, master of the rhythm and utterly fulfilled.
First rehearsal of the two first albums is behind us. Five months, to the day. Spent Saturday with the band, eight of us in all, including the lovely Larteys, running through each track, in sequence, and learning some of them for the first time in ages. Several haven’t been played Live since the beginning of it all, and it felt good.
Into the woods. Nettles a metre high, so the Chestnut tree is out of reach until the Hayterette is fired up and given its head. Blossom, both cherry and then apple, came and went quietly this year, as the climate played silly buggers, confusing the flora, the fauna and us. Apple trees we planted three years ago are in leaf, which comes as a relief considering the sharp frosts we had here on occasion from November to May. But old (ancient) apple trees have fallen. It didn’t take gale force winds to knock them over, just a force three, I reckon, but lie there they do, forlorn but not entirely worthless. There are several others that fell long ago, probably in the storms of ’87, which still flower every spring and still bear fruit, giving good, robust eating apples. As I pass a clutch of Scots pines, a high-pitched squabbling catches my ear. Fifteen feet up the trunk of one, in a near perfect circle, there is a hole, roughly 3 inches in diameter. The squabbling cacophony of newly-hatched birds is coming from there. Woodpeckers. But Titch, our local carpenter and good neighbour, suggests they might be nuthatches. We’ll know soon enough, because whatever they are they will soon fledge and I’ll train one of the Stealth cameras on their hideaway, thereby keeping a 24-hour watch. Titch was born and bred around here and has a few years on me, so he knows his stuff. But my money is on woodpeckers. Greater spotted. We see the mum and dad all the time, banging at the old wooden feeder stand, digging out grubs, or knocking on an ash tree when calling a mate. They even sit on the lawn and peck at the bird seed strewn for the garden birds. Right now (just back at desk from brewing tea in kitchen), on that lawn, there are chaffinches, yellowhammers, greenfinches, a sparrow, two robins and a host of starlings, both mature and juveniles. In one corner of the roof eves, the starlings have been nesting, and in the diametric opposite corner, the sparrows dwell and fledge. I wonder, do they know of the existence of each other? The young must cry out when needing breakfast, surely. We allowed the meadow, the size of a goalmouth, at a guess, to overgrow this year. The wild flowers are having difficulty getting their heads above the grasses, but we were keen to see how it all develops without the sight or sound of a mower in the vicinity. If we grow frustrated, missing the flashy display of wild field flowers, we’ll call on the Hayterette: “One man and his dog and a bottle of pop and a sausage roll…..” We took delivery of some rolls of turf just a day or two after the hose-pipe ban came into force. How stupid was that? We have a big, old water-bucket on a frame and wheels (1930s, we estimate; my dad saw it a few years ago and told how as a kiddie they put him in one similar and pushed him down the streets of Deptford) which we are filling from an outside tap, then wheeling it, heavily and awkwardly, to the far end of the land, to the five-bar gate where the turf struggles for survival. We spray it by decanting into a watering can. It’s a slow business, but that turf will live and grow, I swear! And I swear, too, when the young muntjac appears. He’s (she’s?) eaten a dozen irises, as well as plenty of foliage. It is a nuisance and I can think of no way to stop it entering the garden, out of the woods where we’re happy for it to live and roam and eat. A pair of mallards is visiting the big pond daily. I might put a duck-house out there, floating, fox-proof, to see if we can get them to stay and breed. You see six ducklings one day, and a week later…one, maybe none at all. Sparrow-hawks get them. Foxes, too. But sightings of Reynard are rare around here. Too rural, I think.
A few observations and notes: I think they might all live to over a hundred down here, since they all say "no worries" or "no probs" to every request or need. They seem pretty laid back here. The sun has been shining for me. They say it's unusual, in this their autumn. Yesterday and today: 25C (78F?). Sat and read form around the swimming pool on this, my one and only free day.
Busy schedule, I'm happy to say. Feel wanted, which is always a bonus when you visit a country, a place, a market-place for the first time after 39 years.
Joe Matera is looking after me and playing with me on Live sessions for radio.
Yesterday was Joe's birthday. He and I and Mrs Matera had Italian dinner (he's a Matera, it had to be Italian).
I sneaked a word with the maitre d' and got a little cake with ice-cream and a candle delivered in lieu of ordering dessert. The birthday boy was bemused, amused and happy. Good feelings all round.
Spent a couple of days in Frankfurt last week: radio interview and a visit to the Munch exhibition. One hundred and sixty-four pictures. A feast. Mostly oils, with some sketches, water-colours and many of his own photographs. They are, of course, early and mostly self-portraits. For a guy who suffered most of his life with depression and associated ailments, he lived to the very stately age of eighty years. The show doesn’t have The Scream (any one of three copies), but I’ve seen that up-close at least twice. First time, later that evening it was stolen. They dropped in through the roof, as I recall. Went back a year later (both times at The Munch Museum in Oslo) and there it was, back in situ. I’d heard nothing of it being discovered, so asked an attendant. “He painted it three times. We brought another up from the vaults…” he told me. Then that one was filched, along with his other masterpiece, Madonna. I believe both have been found and placed back in their spots in Oslo, albeit behind some serious protection. At dinner with Lydia and Werner, Birgit and Gerald, a recorder was pushed towards me by Lydia, a print music journalist and radio presenter. She had mentioned that next morning she would be interviewing Morten Harket, lately of Aha. I raved quietly about their latest (last?) single, Foot Of The Mountain. I told her I used to (two years ago, maybe?) pull over when it came on my car radio, whack up the volume to at least eleven, sit back and enjoy. I told Morten this, via Lydia’s recorder. She played it to him next day and he responded on the same machine. He was kind and suggested we could work together on song-writing. I will have nothing to lose. And I shall get in touch soon. Sounded like a very decent man.
Bognor was fine. One hour, as per contract, generally the hit singles, plus some more esoteric yet stirring stuff, too - just what the crowd expected and wanted really. Everyone’s a winner. There were around 3,000 people in the vast hall and we touched a good percentage, though not all, I think.
Some were there to bop to “Tie A Yellow Ribbon”, re-enacted by four old pros (no idea if any of the originals were in the line-up) who each held a radio mic and sang and moved to a backing track on a machine. I didn’t stay to watch, but that’s the story. My old mate Rick Driscoll popped down a day early to see us. His modern take on Kenny were on Sunday’s bill. That’s Kenny made up of Rick on vocals and guitar and a bass player, working to backing tracks on a laptop, as described by Rick himself. But we Headlined, on between 8 and 9pm, and I was home just after midnight.
Sunday morning. Woke to find several inches of snow. Frozen ponds. But even that won’t spoil my mood. The response from our website users to the Priority Sale of Birmingham Symphony Hall tickets has been a real charge, giving me and those involved a rush of excitement. I hope most got the seats they fancied, but it’s not a perfect world, so I imagine some had to settle for less. But that is a wonderful hall, with hardly a bad seat in the place. We have a sizeable budget for national advertising, but at this rate we might just save most of it! Think we’ll wait a few weeks – it isn’t even actually officially on sale yet – and see the figures then. Might be able to run a couple of ads with “Sold Out” splashed diagonally across them! All vanity to one side, I really will want the nation to know!
Saw The Artist. Silent, yes, but with swathes of sympathetic lush music, and perfectly acted. It will lighten any dark mood. It is a deeply moving piece of work. The French still can do it when they stay within their comfort zone. Bought tickets on-line (Cambridge Arts Picturehouse) and it made me feel officially elderly – saved £1 for being “Over 60 (retired)”. Well, I never…! When is the Bus Pass due?
Mastermind was some experience. But Jaws - a whale? What possessed my mind at that moment? Nothing, that’s what! Truth is, though, the inter-round interview John Humphreys conducted with each contestant, while running for only an edited minute, actually lasted around five minutes in the “Live” recording. All the time, I was thinking “Can we get on with the General Knowledge? Can we get on? Can we? Please, John, I don’t want to talk about myself, I am on a roll, keen to get on.“ But the producers would have seen the chat as a chance to plug the “celebrity” and they would have a good point, of course. Nevertheless, Simon Day and I certainly felt the edge going off, and because of all that, I blurted out “whale” for “shark” and may have some trouble living it down, if the wind-up-Steve messages from friends are anything to go by. Never cared about coming first. You compete only against yourself in a quiz like that. Just cared that I didn’t look too stupid. Fee for charity was £2,750, so two fine organisations did well, and that’s ultimately the main thing. Mine was split evenly between The Cancer & Polio Research Fund and The Mines Advisory Group, for whom I’m an Ambassador, and jolly proud of it too. Some terrific moments occurred on the UK tour: met the delightful Cheri from California, with her friend Kathy. Had fun introducing Cheri to the audience at The Stables, Wavendon. You never know how a person will react when you single them out. Thankfully, Cheri was good, and we had a hug and 450 people cheered her. I like fun between songs, sometimes. I have to hope the audience has a sense of fun, too, and catches the glint in my eye, and the smile as I tease. The Dutch couple who came to (I think) all the Belgian dates – I know them well, and any joshing between us in public is well-intentioned and they do have that sense of fun, and knew I was kidding when I asked something like (allegedly…I don’t actually remember) “when do you go to work?” Met them outside my hotel in Poperinge later in the Summer, and we laughed about it. They are not the type to take themselves too seriously. But that guy in Bilston – self-importance the like of which I’ve never witnessed at a show. Right in front of me, iPad machine alight, tapping away or else scribbling onto a paper pad, all this while leaning on the stage. Three songs in, it was clear he meant to remain in situ, in that self-promoting stance, for the duration. No chance. He could make his notes from further back, out of my sight. It was rude and it was a serious distraction, not only to me, but to several people around him. As for his pitiful stab on Facebook, rather than misrepresenting me, he ought to be sending grovelling apologies. No professional would ever act that way. I have never minded one bit the taking of snaps. I’m flattered anyone cares enough, to be honest. I don’t mind one bit if a YouTube film gets uploaded after being surreptitiously made from out-of-sight. But those dazzling white squares they aim at me – impossible to concentrate with that happening. Believe me, if you own a Blackberry (I have been told they are the culprits), take it into a dark room, start filming and aim at your own face. No singer can do their job properly with that distraction. I don’t rant. Not my style at all. I just like to ask, please don’t aim that light at my face in the dark while I’m concentrating.
Recorded Celebrity Mastermind. Researching and studying for that has been a lot like learning a stage role, like the Beckett a few years ago. Once committed, I can’t help myself. I don’t care a lot about winning, coming first, but I care a great deal that I can believe deep down that I did my best. It was torture, frankly. I was much more nervous about it than I’ve ever been about any show of my own. Up to the last minute, after make-up and the director’s pep talk, I was still cramming from my notes. My subject, T. S. Eliot and Four Quartets, was broad and deep enough. I visited Burnt Norton, the Jacobean Manor house near Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds and the title of the first of the four poems, where Eliot had gone surreptitiously in 1934, and where, in its formal garden, he found magic and inspiration that would inform him for the rest of his life. I, too, found a little magic, but nobody was home, and no soul approached me while I ambled for twenty minutes or so among the rose bushes and fruit trees. I was technically trespassing, so didn’t stay long. I made plenty of noise with big car on gravel! Still, nobody came out to question me. I wanted them to: I could have explained it all and maybe get clearance for a private tour of the gardens, set among 2,000 acres of farmland. On the way home, I was passing within a handful of miles of Little Gidding, the title of another of the quartets. There I found a 17th Century chapel, where Eliot had knelt (“You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid”) in the ‘thirties. It, too, is a special place, tranquil and over-brimming with mystery. I sat alone in that tiny place of worship and took a few deep breaths. Seldom have I felt calmer, and it was there and then that I realised I could do that quiz without making myself look foolish and dim.
Strange, had never been to Chichester until we played open-air in July, then I was back a few weeks ago. Mrs Harley and I stayed in a harbour-side country house hotel for three nights; took in the Festival’s “Singin’ In The Rain” on the middle night. Went with high hopes – it had received 5-star reviews everywhere you looked. We give it 4. Sometimes the leads forgot to be American. Spent an inspiring few hours exploring the Roman Palace at Fishbourne. The countryside surrounding Chichester is calming, not wild like further west; the city itself a southern Cambridge, we thought, without the great halls of learning. The cathedral is splendid, of course. Outside, I sat to take in the magnificence of it all, then my stomach turned, slowly and achingly, and my top lip snarled in silent disbelief at the sight of a guy climbing down a ladder from the top of the steeple. I have awful acrophobia – it’s my one big phobia, heights. The fear manifests in a wish to fly. I want to dive and cross the roads to reach the roof of that building over there, without touching the ground. Like a bird. I know I am human and it won’t work, so I dread being close to balconies higher than, say, the fifth floor. Watching him, Spiderman personified, brought out suddenly a groan from the back of my voice; then his mate appeared. There were two of them, twenty feet apart, descending almost vertically. “That’s the perfect job for you,” Mrs Harley mocked. I heard “aaarrgghhh” emitting from me, involuntarily. And yet, I couldn’t take my eyes off them. On the tower, still a hundred feet up, there seemed to be four or five men in the team of steeplejacks. They were casually breaking into their packed lunches, apparently. All just part of a normal working day. “Well, I don’t suppose they could stand on stage in front of huge crowds and perform like you do, “ Mrs H spoke consolingly. I wasn’t sure. From where I sat, they were Supermen.
Uplifting: in rehearsals, we get little idea of how things will play out in public. Cocooned in a near-airless space, stopping every hour or so while one or another volunteer brews tea and coffee, taking maybe 40 minutes for a light lunch brought in from a sandwich shop in town, we go over and over parts and arrangements until a semblance of near-perfection is reached, and this time recently we were attempting this with almost 30 songs in total (many familiar, of course). It went well, and there was a satisfaction among the players in the knowledge that several old titles had been either revived or introduced. Then I was alone. Alone to collect them all together, the titles, and create a running-order for a Live audience. Leamington Spa Assembly Hall is a cracking good rock venue. Good acoustics, standing on the ground, a lot of history, and backstage (downstairs), there is a sense of other-worldliness. The owner, Chris Alexander, has installed his private collection of fairground memorabilia. There’s a dodgem car, a rocking horse, and a 1960s 20’ chromium caravan. Rumour has it that it was made (fitted out, anyway) for Tammy Wynette, and who could argue? Once the lights and sound picked up my 12-string rhythm, the reception was a gratifying kick-start for us. Ritz was always in danger of shocking some, and I have opened with up-tempo tracks mostly for many years. But my gut feeling was that a little drama from lights-down would start us all off on a mystery tour for the evening. I know now for certain that those Human Menagerie and Psychomodo album titles will be wonderful to play, backed by orchestra and choir, and I’m determined to press on with that idea. It may mean no other UK rock band shows all next year, so the tickets (2,700 if we get the Royal Festival Hall) can sell. Will probably happen in November or December, and no other band shows before it…it’ll be hard for me. But that’s a price I will have to pay – believe me, to forgo the Live experience in my home country for 12 months will be a stress. But business is business, and the costs will be astronomical, so the tickets must shift. Pride, too, will factor in all this. I want to play to a sold-out hall, and we already know a figure pushing 150 is likely to be coming from the Continent, maybe more. At Leamington, spent time with my cousin Jackie’s husband, dear Tony. He talked excitedly about the set. Cheered me with his (the first) reaction to my slipping into The Beatles song, You Won’t See Me, out of the end of Mr Raffles, but before the refrain. “I may come back to that,” I remember saying, and when I did, the Having A Party line took on a sort of mayhem I can’t remember witnessing before. Uplifting.
I’ve been a fan lately. Eurostar to Brussels to see Yusuf. He played a beautiful set, made up mostly of Cat Stevens’ Greatest Hits, and you couldn’t ask for more really. Great band with him. Alun Davies back with him on acoustic guitar was especially good to see. Yusuf introduced him as “one of my best friends”. They took “a holiday” for Ruby, My Love, with Greek island seascapes on the big backdrop and the bazouki parts were played in brilliant harmony by guitarist Eric Appapoulay on mandolin and percussionist Kwame Yeboah on 12-string guitar. After the show, I spoke to Yusuf about in-ear monitors and why doesn’t he wear them. Like all of us of a certain age, he found them difficult to get used to, but I pressed him to persevere. They are a singer’s saviour. Yusuf had his beautiful wife and two teenage kids with him, and there was much good feeling back there. The canon of work he has to choose from is enormous and brilliant. He is one of the greatest writers the music industry has seen, in any generation, at any time. Played the Forest National, a circular arena, capacity close to 7,000, and it looked close to full to my eyes. We got close to selling it out in the mid-70s. Not today, sorry to admit. I felt pangs, the sort of wistful day-dreaming we get in reminiscing of other, better times. Today is good, too, though, and I relish every minute of my professional life.
Went to ITV on the South Bank for a chat with the production people of a new series, starting June, I think, of Popstar To Operastar. Don’t ask why, although I must admit to a little curiosity after counselling opinion from my agent and a couple of other respected industry judges. Maybe I just wanted to know how I would respond if offered a part. I was always 95% certain I would make my excuses. Never saw a moment of last year’s first series, but checked YouTube clips and it struck me beyond doubt as down-market TV, masquerading as middle-brow, for those who need it – I don’t. As it happens, we were kept waiting almost half-an-hour past the agreed time to meet in their lobby, received a pitiful apology only after my assistant pointed out that we might like a cup of tea, and an explanation. Many readers here would be amazed, rocked, to know the state of play these days among the Production offices of such companies and such shows. Either way, I never did have to make a decision. They didn’t even have the courtesy to let my office know the chosen ones! Just drifted. Incredible! But I got a little adventure out of it, and never, ever felt comfortable with the idea of accepting, if offered. Could have been chucked out, voted off, first week. The ignominy!
Back from Greece (more notes later) to
learn of the shocking and sad news of the death of Sheila Naylor.
Russ sent me the order of service for her funeral, held last week. I
know nothing else, so if Russ or anyone (Ray?) wants to tell me (us)
more, I’d like to hear. The Guestbook is there for you. I’m sure
many would like to know…..Many of you knew Sheila, who followed me
and my career path from the very early days. My thoughts are with
Russ and their lovely girls, and, of course, Gareth.
Colchester, Essex, Wednesday: another leg of the 3-man acoustic tour comes to an end. I was pretty weary next morning, adrenaline running down etc. But now ready again. It’s always an adventure out there and on-stage, but some nights it’s even an event. Had some precious musical moments recently, with Barry and James letting off improvised mayhem night after night. We got into some rather ethnic rhythms and tempos (jazzy, at least) on Sling It! and Sebastian in particular. The respect shown by audiences to the guys for their musical brilliance brings much pride to me. Surround yourself with the best, and some glory will rub off on you, I reckon! It’s a privilege to be part of it up there. The standing ovations gave all the team (including Roger Searle on lights, Andy Linklater on sound and Shop on stage-duty) a real glow. The crew all know their contribution is considerable and highly respected by me. They are all pros at the top of their game. That’s why it looks so good and sounds so good.
A few random thoughts occur: Christmas has just passed, according to my head-clock. That’s weird. Weird, because soon after, on New Year’s Eve, we rolled into Holmfirth for a belter of a celebration. Was a great way to end a good year, and ring in a new one. Am sending thanks here to all who sent Christmas cards and gifts. More than I deserve surely. Somme guide will come in most handy when we visit Poperinge in August. Thank you, m’am.