School visit, or ‘I become a failed bear.’

As an author, school visits help build an audience. They encourage new young readers, they build bridges with parents, they add to the cultural life of the nation. The Society of Authors has pages of guidance on how to conduct a successful author visit: from ideas, to legalities, to the basics of what and how to charge.

Sadly, my visit today is not author-related. I am sat with other parents in a class of six year olds, undertaking practical activities pertaining to the literary work ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears.’

The session is being led by a visiting lady who has dressed as Goldilocks. We have yet to read the book itself. Instead, an initial activity – making and stuffing a small cuddly toy bear – has already stoked the kids into dangerous overexcitement.

The mums file back into the classroom after our mid-session coffees. As usual, I am the lone male parent. I am held back by a tap on the shoulder from Goldilocks.

“Could you help out when we resume?” she asks. “I need someone for the bear role.”

I am chuffed by this. Aside from the fact that a story might calm everybody down, I’ve done quite a few readings etc. recently, and I reckon that my authorly experience will lend weight and gravitas to this key character. Plus I have recently grown a magnificent beard, which will help me emphasise the fierceness of the dialogue.

“Of course,” I say.

“Great,” says Goldilocks. “The next activities will be outside. Join us there. Your costume is in that bag.”

She indicates an enormous bag. I unzip it cautiously. Inside is a life-size bear costume.

I stare at the bear costume, then at the retreating form of Goldilocks, then at the bear costume again.

Nonplussed, I extract the bear costume from the bag. It consists of an all-in-one bear body suit plus a bear head. I look at the bear head. The bear head looks at me. I am on my own in the library, with nobody to whom I can articulate my deep aversion to wearing bear costumes.

With a plummeting heart, I begin to fumble with the bear costume. I have negligible experience in bear costumes, and this one seems both much too small and much too big at the same time. There is a peculiar smell about it, as if it were last washed in the days when actual bears roamed the forests of Britain and that its previous occupant was, indeed, a bear.

“Oh I’m sorry – I didn’t realise you were changing.” A teacher has entered the room and glanced at me as if it were the most natural thing in the world to wander into the school library to find a man sporting half a bear costume and a full expression of dismay.

“Could you just…” I begin, but she has already withdrawn.

The word ‘changing’ exacerbates my alarm. It dawns that I may have been expected to remove my own clothes before putting on the bear costume. I have now struggled fully into the bear suit as best I can. It is excruciatingly hot. Nevertheless there is no way that I am going to fight my way back out in order to remove my clothes. I have collected a reasonable press file over the years; happily no cuttings yet commence with the phrase: ‘A man, naked except for a bear costume…’

Defeated, I put on the bear head.

Everything goes dark. After a momentary panic, I discover that some visibility is possible via a strip of mesh concealed in the bear’s mouth, at my eye level. I step forwards and backwards a couple of times, to try to get acclimatised to the situation.

Very little acclimatisation seems possible. Sweating, I edge my way to the door. Then I lumber through the primary school, dressed as a bear.

The sun beats down as I emerge upon the playground. It appears to be deserted, but shouting noises, muffled by the bear head, are reaching me from the playing field. I make my unsteady way in that direction.

I round the corner, to be confronted by the class of six year olds. I stand before them in my bear costume. They stand before me, their little jaws dropping. If I am going to disguise myself as a bear then at least I am determined to make an impressive show of it, although the father within me cautions against scaring the kids too much.

“It’s Mr. Marsh!!!” shrieks one of them. “It’s your dad!!!” cries another. “Hey!!! Mr. Marsh!!!”

A tsunami of six-year old children surges towards me.

“He’s got the bloody costume on the wrong way round,” I hear one of the teaching assistants hiss. “Oh God – look where the tail…”

Her words are lost as I am engulfed. I feel arms grabbing my legs and bodies swarming around my back, attempting to hug the bear. Several pairs of hands are clawing away at the bear head, trying to pull it off. I can dimly hear the teacher appealing for calm, but now every bit of me is being pushed and pulled in some sort of bezerker frenzy. The mums are pointing and hooting away and using their phones to take photographs.

“He’s hungry! The bear is hungry!”

A child starts force-feeding the bear, stuffing leaves and twigs into its mouth. This is where my eye-hole is, so I am now completely blind. A small hand thrusts up inside the bear head itself and gives me a fat lip. Something, presumably a child, is clinging on so hard to my left leg that I am in danger of falling. I can hear Goldilocks and the teacher trying to restore order. But the children are in a bear-baiting world of their own. I make pathetic ‘please be kind to the bear’ noises, but to no avail. They are not giving up. I remove the bear head in defeat, blinking in the sunshine, sweat pouring down my face.

“Yay!!! Mr. Marsh!!!” My act of submission appears to satisfy the children.

When calm finally descends, I put on the bear head once more, in order to take part in the activity. It involves me standing under a tree in a bear costume. In my paws I hold a basket, in which are the ingredients for porridge. The children seem to enjoy their activity, and my role is concluded.

I plod back across the playground and through the school. I change out of the bear costume.

Later, I am given an evaluation form for the session. The first question reads: ‘Please state whether the event met your expectations.’

You can buy my latest book on Amazon (and in all good bookstores). (‘In the grand tradition of British comic novels’)

A summary of events.

I’m not updating this very often at all.

Which was always the plan, in that I kind of retired from blogging. And as a write a little more in other spheres, I’ve tried to find other hobbies that don’t involve sitting at a PC thinking about words.

Thing is, Twitter has revealed that you only really need 140 characters and people can fill the gaps themselves. Everything else is wasted effort in these days of mobile devices and short attention spans. So it seemed sensible just to save everything up and post it in headlines. Here’s my past few months.

I spend an eventful Christmas with Unlucky John.

We shut the chickens away.

I grow a magnificent beard!!!

I search online for a beard-trimmer, to be sent next-day delivery.

The chickens are morose.

I attend an eye-test.

We win a game of snooker!!!

I study the bird flu regulations with sadness.

I collect my fashionable new spectacles!!!

I am struggling to adapt to my new spectacles.

I badly mis-read the settings on the beard-trimmer.

I fall over Short Tony’s front wall.

The chickens are extremely unhappy.

“Perhaps it was the headbanging?” I ask the LTLP.

We bid farewell to Len the Fish.

I suspect the chickens are being radicalised.

On Leonard Cohen, and music before words

This is in danger of becoming a music blog, but if people WILL keep dying and/or enjoying spectacular critical revivals then that’s the way it’ll have to be. The world has lost a genuine great with Leonard Cohen’s death. In some way the situation is very dissimilar to Bowie’s death, in that it had seemed to be not unanticipated in the media. The Canadian’s old age had been repeatedly cited for the past year or so, despite the fact that he wasn’t particularly that old in the big scheme of things. Early eighties, wasn’t it? Too soon.

So given that I’m (again) hardly first off the mark to articulate my thoughts, what can I say about Leonard Cohen that hasn’t already been said a billion times elsewhere?

This. Forget Cohen the poet. Cast aside your critical analysis of those words, and appreciate the fact that this most literary of intellectuals from Montreal created some of the greatest popular music records ever made.

I was privileged to have a short chat with singer and musician Pete Atkin a couple of weeks ago (he has a book out which I’ve heard is utterly great). Pete wrote the music for, and performed, Clive James’s lyrics, and one of the topics we discussed was the fact that music criticism focuses 99 per cent on the words; possibly 99.9 per cent for certain genres. Because, of course, it’s easier and more natural to write about words.

Whereas, of course, music doesn’t work like that. I wrote a while back about how I loved Georges Brassens, despite the fact that my comprehension of French is diabolical.

So yes. Listen to the records. Listen to them.

To rewind, it became firmly established, after his initial burst of hipster popularity, that Leonard Cohen was miserable; that his was music to slit your wrists to; the Godfather of Gloom; that he couldn’t sing, yadda yadda yadda. In one sense, Cohen had become one of those jokes that people did, not too far removed from ‘in the dark, you can only see their eyes and teeth’: not witty, nor funny, nor original, nor intelligent in any sense; just a punchline that remained a punchline because somebody, somewhere had decided that it was one. That was the seventies for you.

Perhaps at that point his most analysed songs tended to be the ‘growers’. ‘Chelsea Hotel’ for instance – it’s lovely, but not the most accessible production in his catalogue. And the masterpiece album that launched his decade, ‘Songs of Love and Hate,’ opened with the ferocious and doomy intensity of ‘Avalanche’ – a magnificent piece of music unlikely to convert a sceptic. Leonard Cohen’s own – ummm – mixed feelings about his collaboration with Phil Spector possibly coloured the reception of his most conventionally ‘pop’ album.

But that might be over-analysing things. I think people had just made their minds up.

Sonically, Cohen’s seventies albums are astonishing. His stock approach was to take a few chords on a nylon-stringed guitar, mix his own voice with a couple of great female singers having instructed them to sound ‘beautiful’, then augment where necessary with pared-back instrumentation. In this, he created a body of work that was the easiest of easy listening, in the truest possible sense. One should be able to say that without howls of outrage from pseuds; it doesn’t diminish from the songs’ weight. Works like ‘Why Don’t You Try’; ‘Joan of Arc’; ‘The Window’; ‘The Guests’ – these should have been Radio 2 staples; in a different world he could have been performing them as the musical interlude on The Two Ronnies. *Adopts posh Scots voice* “Ladies and Gentlemen – Mr. Leonard Cohen.”

Then you hear snatches of his live performance, or the studio recordings where he lets that bellow really rip. And again, if you’ve not been listening, it’s a revelation. Post-Cohen-revival, we’re kind of used to the concept of Leonard Cohen as a showman, but when ‘Sing Another Song Boys’ hits the coda, there’s a moment of open-mouthed: ‘bloody hell – this guy can *rock*’ And no words to be heard – just la-la-laaahs, blasting out at the Isle of Wight festival audience. ‘Live Songs’ may as well be the Rolling Stones in its spirit. ‘Is This What you Wanted?’ is barely-reined-back thunder.

So: Phil Spector. When I was a little boy, ‘Death of a Ladies’ Man’ was the only tape we had in the car. Being puritans at heart, and a tape player in the car being unimaginable luxury and indulgence not really for the likes of us, we didn’t listen to this tape that often. Like a cassette-based front room, it was reserved for ‘best’, this being the long drive to our annual fortnight in the West Country. I’ll therefore never be able to disassociate the simple ‘ting!’ that opens the album with the utter joy that the outset of this journey represented. ‘As the misssttt…’ they sing, above the Wall of Sound – it’s anything but misty, but I am misty-eyed recalling it. ‘Death…’ is the Cohen album for people who don’t like Cohen, but side A and most of side B of that tape surely can’t be described as anything other than one of the most utterly fucking exciting twenty or so minutes of music of 1977 – it hits you between the eyes with its major sevenths and spoken vocals and however many hundreds of drummers that Spector multi-tracked for the fill that leads to the climax of that sax solo.

But I can’t possibly get that across. Because the words are much easier to write about.

So just forget them for a bit, and forget the novels and poetry awards and zen-calm and magnetism and humanity and general Leonard Cohen-ness. Go listen to his stuff as you would any other pop group, and see what you think.

The Lost Will and Testament of Jake Thackray

You know that thing many felt about David Bowie?

I felt it when Jake Thackray died. I won’t overplay this: it wasn’t the utter loss and grief of the uber-fan. More an unexpected wash of upset, startlingly so, given that I was fairly convinced that I wasn’t the sort of person to be affected by the passing of a total stranger whose songs I happened to like.

Perhaps it was something to do with learning the news via his formal obituary: I was staying with my wife’s family that Christmas, opened my father-in-law’s Daily Telegraph, and there it was. There is something particularly brutal about learning such things via obituaries (it happened to me again a couple of years later, with a cricketing friend, artist Ian Breakwell. It is not a nice experience). A bit of rootling around later, and I had found his old friend Ralph McTell’s farewell piece to Jake, which had me in pieces.

I sent a silly little email to Ralph McTell to mumble ‘thanks’ and I’ve now found that email posted underneath that latter article. I think the songwriter might even have replied – I can’t remember, but it’s not out of the question; this was 2002 and people did that sort of thing those days.

Anyway. Like I said, I wasn’t an uber-fan, but over the years I became more and more convinced of Jake Thackray’s singular talent, especially as I drifted further into writing for a living. It hadn’t particularly occurred to me that there was lost material; EMI’s release of the ‘Jake in a Box’ set seemed to wrap things up; we enjoyed it and sighed deeply for the loss of a true great.

Then, out of the blue this year, an email. Would I be interested in hearing some recordings of Jake’s lost songs?

I wrote before about the unexpected manner in which Frederic Debreu’s music became reality. This was the bit I left out; a fairly major bit; the bit that was a secret; the bit where my new collaborator Paul Thompson dropped in that he – along with his son – was involved in producing an album of unrecorded Jake Thackray material, to be sung by John Watterson.

(John Watterson is a Jake Thackray tribute act, although the term ‘tribute act’ doesn’t quite do him justice, associated as it is with the another-day-another-dollar touring mainstream. After all, being a Jake Thackray tribute act is a niche occupation rather than a sure-fire route to a quick buck. I’ve not seen him live, but he’s splendid on video. John performs as ‘Fake Thackray’, which is reason enough to book him for pretty well any musical function you could ever think of.)

Would I be interested? Yes. I would.

Audio files began to appear in my inbox over the next couple of months. They came with explanations and annotations: this song was from X; this one was written about Y. Occasionally a touch of anxiety filtered through in the emails: do you think this bit works? Is the background to this song explained adequately? These were people who cared deeply about getting it right; of doing justice to the legacy. I made a couple of the most minor and tentative suggestions about a liner note, and poked my head above the parapet in a debate about instrumentation.

But mainly I just listened and gaped.

John Watterson doesn’t simply ‘do’ Jake Thackray in the way that most people with a certain type of voice might be able to ‘do’ a pretty good Bob Dylan (guilty), or a Johnny Cash (not one of my best), or an Elvis (no good whatsoever) or, indeed, a Barry Gibb (doubly guilty, and have wowed karaoke audiences accordingly). John just seems to inhabit Jake’s voice: the inflexions, the mannerisms, the little asides. Some of these songs have been heard in live recordings before, but many haven’t: it’s not as if John could have simply copied the originals. His performance is the aural equivalent of seeing a ghost; it makes your brain go funny. Some weeks later, my father and I sat down with a bottle of red and I played him the finished but unmastered tracks in a rough album order; I will cherish the look of confusion on his face before I recapped to explain all.

Of course the obvious question about any artist’s ‘lost’ material is: ‘why was it lost?’ and, more pertinently: ‘is it any good?’ To which the answer is: ‘yes.’ I can say that confidently, now that the initial impact of hearing it has passed. These aren’t songs that weren’t good enough to commit to vinyl at the time, but a mixture of work that post-dated Jake Thackray’s recording career, that was recorded for TV but not for album release or that were a staple of his live performances. A couple of tracks survived as lyrics alone; these have been set to new music.

So all-in-all a bit of a treasure trove.

There you go: an unexpected coda to the tale. This is the lot; Paul and John have been through Jake’s old papers and archives, and there’s nothing else. The Lost Will and Testament of Jake Thackray has now been released, with the backing of Jake’s family and Ralph McTell. One of the best, most brilliant things about my life is that sometimes the things that I’ve done, be it work-wise, authoring or blogging, have afforded me a little glimpse through unexpected doors – and this has been one of the nicest, most unexpected doors of all.

Here’s the YouTube commercial. See what you think. The CD’s available via the Amazon link above; cut out the middleman by buying it via John’s own website.