Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
There had been neither hide nor hair of him for three years. I wasn't expecting to see him again and then, suddenly, last October he reappeared. Brian had been living in woods near to my home since the turn of the millennium. His dwelling was deep inside the woods. Unless you'd known the place very well, you would probably have had no idea that he even existed. He spent most of his time foraging wood for his fire. He lived very simply. Brian was often visited by his friend Matt, an outsider with musical ambitions but very little talent He was also visited by Clare, a former ballet teacher of Russian origin, who had a pilot's licence, so she claimed. This unconventional trio were occasionally joined by Morris Horse , an amiable character with an interest in buses bordering upon the Aspergic. Other visitors were seasonal, only joining Brian, Matt and Clare during winter months. I became very familiar with Brian and his strange friends. I saw him often for almost a decade.
Then, one year, he didn't appear. What had happened? Brian the Lion wasn't required anymore. My daughter, my little Essex girl had grown up. Some dads are good at more overtly daddish things; playing football, building tree-houses, driving you miles away to places of entertainment, taking you fishing, teaching you self-defence etc. My own dadding talents, however, resided in home-made stories, jokes and songs.
In early years, when my daughter was really young, I made the stories up as we went along. By the time she was six, however, Brian the Lion had become an established Saturday night serial, one which required plots, sub-plots, and incidental music played on a guitar or piano. It was round about this time, it dawned upon me that it might be a good idea to crystallise it – make her a CD of some of the best stories – for those times when I was working away from home. In addition, if it was her bedtime and I had my hands full in the kitchen on a Saturday night, a ready-made CD, was a handy sort of thing to have lying around.
By the time she was seven years old, the scripts were taking me three days to write and half a day to edit. Since I was at that time, briefly without decent home-recording facilities, I had to book a friend's studio in order to record them.
The reading and performing of the narrative, along with doing the various characters' voices, took up much of the first day. Dubbing the incidental music and sound effects took the second. A third day was kept free for 'track repairs' and mixing. That's about seven working days, two of them with someone assisting me in production duties. The end product was a feature-length audio-book, with a running time of about an hour. Why did I do it? Because it was something which I could do. I can't build rocking horses, drive a car or pay for a trip to Santa's Grotto in Lapland. But I can spin a yarn and I do know my way around a recording studio.
The Brian stories were never produced commercially, although a few copies did sometimes find their way to close friends' children. Several attempts were made to persuade me to consider either mass-producing them or approaching the industry with the idea. I resisted. It just didn't seem right somehow. It was a personal Christmas present. I believed, however loftily, that I shouldn't cannibalise my entire life for commercial gain. And anyway, who knew whether or not they'd have been good enough?
When my daughter became a sophisticated pre teenager, Brian the Lion left the woods. I didn't expect to see him again. I missed him, actually. Then, two years ago, I was informed by my youngest brother that the CDs which I'd copied for him, had been going down very well with his own young children. His little girl asked me, whether there were anymore. I confessed that I was afraid that there weren't. That was a Grinch moment.
Thus did it come about last November, that having found myself with some spare time, after a three-year absence, Brian the Lion 9 went back into production. For the past two weeks, I've been working piecemeal on Brian 10. His friend Matt the Cat is also back, this time with an all-cat boy band. Kool 4 Kats were formed rather too late to enter for Fame Acatemy, but they might just be in with a chance of winning Kittens Got Talent.
I'm not a children's writer but this stuff is fun. It just seems to write itself. As for the recording of it, two years ago, having appointed myself Jingle-meister for Radio Wivenhoe, I had all the excuses I needed for building a domestic mini-studio. One of the first things which I acquired was an ancient sound effects library. American in origin, it probably dates back to the 1950s. It's full of animal noises, industrial machinery, boings, crashes and breaking glass. I found it online. It cost me seven US dollars. It's real boys' stuff. The all-cat singing group effects, I have to make up myself; sitting there with cold tea and the light fading, overdubbing cat voices. It's an insane thing for a grown man to be doing but it's a great way of cheering up dark November days. It also still makes a pretty good home-made Christmas present.
The shock news broke last week across all media: Arts funding was discovered to be heavily biased towards London. Well, quel domage! Apparently people in London are receiving £70 per head, whilst the remainder of us, benighted peasantry that we are, receive only £4.60 per person. That made me really indignant. £4.60? Where's mine, then? On BBC Radio 4, they wheeled out a hapless Arts Council supremo to answer his charges. London was described – rather optimistically I felt – as the 'jewel in the crown' of the arts. The feeble defence mustered was that all of the finest exhibitions, shows and events were to be experienced in the great metropolis. It was pointed out to our Arts Council man by his interrogator, that if someone living, say, in Plymouth, wished to visit London, if only to enjoy the free museums and galleries, he'd still have to pay £150 in train fares and probably, that sum again in accommodation. Further, if the potential visitor then wanted to bring his family for a weekend of culture, he wouldn't see much change from £1,000.
The news didn't surprise me all. As a swede-crunching provincial, I have watched talent draining out of this region for years, the superstition being that only London had the money, the venues and the media to build careers in the arts.
London, it must be said, has long behaved as if it were a separate state. It chirrups,“Look!” and expects everybody's head to turn. Meawhile, as the capital secures most of the funding, salient local talent continues decamping there, impoverishing our region still further. We in the provinces receive London's hand-me-downs – the touring versions of various shows etc – and are expected to think ourselves lucky.
As for the Arts Council, the words on the tin sum it up: 'Arts' and 'Council'. Pantisocracy or pants bureaucracy? You decide. What, therefore, are the Arts Council really like? Ever seen a cat with its head wedged in a food can, banging and thrashing around a kitchen? Like that, only nowhere near as entertaining. It's not that the Arts Council don't want to dole out the money, it's just that, like all desk jockeys desperate to justify their jobs, they need to create a vaguely credible-looking system by which they will do it. This comes in the form of the Funding Labyrinth.
Got a great idea? Good. They can give you the money. But first you have to fill in a sheaf of their forms and wade your way through horse-conker hell. Unless, therefore, you the hopeful artist are adept at reading reams of gobbledegook – and let me assure you that it makes Dickens' Office of Circumlocution look like a kindergarten – then most of you fluffy-headed creators will fall at the first fence. The complexity of the application process has spawned a new creature, the arts facilitator. This is someone who knows the labyrinth well and can assist the applicant through it – for an appropriate skim, naturally. The chief reason that London hogs the main share of the moolah, therefore, is simply that they have more panhandlers – I'm sorry that should have read 'facilitators' – fluent in the sort of blarney likely to get the anxious artist over the hurdles.
This is not the end of the paperwork, however. Upon the arts project's completion, the funding body may well ask its creator to produce an even more spurious sheaf of old waffle called an 'evaluation.' This describes what the project did and how it contributed to the wider good of the 'end user'. Naturally, it and the language it employs will also be pants.
If there were not all this paperwork, however, the people who work in the Arts Council offices might not have jobs. They too, we often discover, were themselves once arts hopefuls, but lacking the basic talent or tenacity of the real thing and not fancying the rates of pay, crossed the floor. I'm sure you have the picture by now. Need I continue? Oh I must. I must.
Who pays for the arts? Mostly, ordinary civilians do. Unwitting cherry-lipped innocents such as I once was – people who sit in pub gardens and think that Giacometti is a type of ice cream. We pay a stupidity tax. It's called the Lottery. Central government takes a chunk of it – you don't think they'd buzz their own money on the arts do you? – and they give it to the Arts Council. The Arts Council in turn allocates most of the money to London and a smaller amount to outposts such as Essex.
Interestingly, last week Lord Heseltine said that regions such as Essex and Suffolk should not be 'cosying up to London' and should be fighting its dominance. He even used the phrase, 'peasant's revolt'. I'd go further. Let London have all the arts money. They can keep all the waffle, pretension and elitism too. As a freelance arts navvy, I don't want their clammy little fingers over my work. I neither seek their money nor their approval. I want to serve the public – not some insipid quango. The Arts Council's adminstrators should be sacked and the money given to the food banks. Let London come here to be judged by us – and why not send the Royal Opera out on a tour of rural barns? True artists will always survive. We're ruthless as river rats. The Arts Council should be afraid of us. The c***s (please insert password)
The Return of Sam Cockney – The James Hunter Story
An American DJ is interviewing James Hunter on camera, at some point after his Grammy Award nominated album went stellar in the States: “Why do you English guys sing in American accents?” he asks. James replies that the listeners wouldn't thank him if he sang in his native accent. To press home the point, he sings a snatch of Sam Cooke' s You Send Me in classic pub knees-up style. “There you are.” he says. “Sam Cockney.”
Hunter's story goes roughly like this: For a while in the 1970s, he lived with his mum and siblings in a small caravan in an onion field in Thorrington. He listened mostly to old rock'n'roll records on a Dansette given to him by his gran. Then he attended Monkwick School and grew up in Colchester. Round about the mid 1980s, by now in his early twenties, he formed a rootsy little R&B band, and jokingly called himself Howlin' Wilf. People, however, took him seriously. He was good. In the midst of all those Flocks of Seagulls, power-dressers and great big stadium gestures, he actually had a wonderful little club band, the VeeJays, for anyone who preferred to take the road less-travelled. He regularly returned to his hometown and even stormed the Wivenhoe May Fair a couple of times. He also made a record or two.
Somewhere along the line, he got a part in a rather overlooked Brit-gangster film, Mojo in which he played a band leader. He met Harold Pinter, who was starring in the film. He was ticked off by a still-in-character Pinter, for playing his music back too loudly. Later on, down on his luck, whilst dragging fertiliser sacks from a van in a West London street, he met the playwright again. Pinter remembered him and was nice to him. Also, along the way, he met Van Morrison. Van liked him so much that he didn't even have him wrapped, just took him home. He ended up in a band touring with Morrison and Georgie Fame. He went to America and met Jimmy Witherspoon, John Lee Hooker and Alan Toussaint. He made another record. It was a hit. The Americans liked it. People Gonna Talk was up there in the top ten best albums of 2006.
Back in Blighty, even Terry Wogan played a track. Then, instead of the usual blarney, Wogan gave the run-out groove of the record a mystified, respectful silence, saying quietly: “...and that was James Hunter.” Joolz Holland, has featured James on the Later show ‒ twice. Almost the entire UK music industry now knows who he is and loves him. Except for the general public ‒ who are busy being sonically anaesthetised by Jedward and Subo. As Roger the Dodger might have said: “Top dodge, hey, readers?” Ho ho. Now for a slap up feed.
I'll call James Hunter 'Wilf' from here on in, as everyone in Colchester who remembers him from the old days ‒ myself included ‒ will know him by that name. Wilf and I touch on the subject of the X-Factor: “You mean, Smashed Dignity Showcase?” he laughs, “Stuart Maconie called it that.” I tell Wilf that they should put a line at the end of each show saying “No real artistes were hurt in the making of this programme.”
I also tell Wilf that I still think it's a great format. I mean, you get the audience up on the stage. You award them points for the most mediocre performances. You get a small cartel of successful business executives to run the thing and then give the watching public only that which they already know. Despite the protestations of the Handwringing Classes, you don't actually humiliate anyone. You simply you let them humiliate themselves. No victims, only volunteers. Brilliant. Ker-ching! And while England's still slopping around in the kitchen, in pink fluffy mules and a tatty negligee, mesmerised by the telly, James Hunter's out on the drive in a shark-finned Cadillac, bipping on the horn like a dream date. And they're still not ready. Britain's got talent? Britain's got cloth ears, more like.
Talent, you understand isn't just the inate ability to do a thing. It's the ability to realise it, to improve it, and then maintain the quality of that talent , in many locations and in all kinds of adverse circumstances. I concluded some time ago that Wilf must have practised an awful lot when he was younger. Over the 24 years since I first met him, there have been a series of sudden dawnings for me about his musical ability. Round at Captain Sensible's, for instance, in Brighton in '86. The Captain was asking where he could get a harmonica session player. Wilf who just happened to be visiting some people in a house over the road, says, “Oh, I can play a bit.” And he plays this solo. Prior to that I'd only ever heard two blokes play the gob-iron as well as that. One of them was called Rory McCleod and the other was a bloke called Stevie Wonder.
A few years on, Wilf arrived back in Brighton with a bassist and drummer to play at a friend's wedding. Somewhere above a dancing throng, Wilf was on a tiny stage playing a guitar solo. He was really tearing it up, ragging the R&B song around like Jack Russell does with an old sock in the garden. Not widdly-widdly guitar heroics but something maybe more like Ike Turner at his best. In the middle of it all, Wilf peeled off a lick, which I recognised as Colonel Bogey, the military band tune. Hilarious.
John Cooper Clarke, a connoisseur of such things, will tell you, absolutely sincerely, that Wilf is the best guitarist he's ever heard. This is all without even mentioning his voice. You can't pin it down to anything, really. Sure the oft-made comparisons with Sam Cooke may apply a little. Given a blind test, though, I'd have probably guessed at Lee Dorsey in his Working In A Coalmine period. Asked to put a time-frame on his music, I'd have maybe said it came out of hip black America, somewhere between '55 and '65‒ all shiny suits and stingey-brims. In truth though, even within its unimpeachable soul influences, James Hunter's music is nobody's but his own. These are perennial sounds which, as he will tell you himself, “Can still make girls dance.” It's very modern actually.
I still possess a cassette demo with two of his joke songs on it, which, years ago, Wilf gave me. One of the songs extols the virtues of lard. The other's called B***** Me Buttocks For Christmas. Both were lovingly demoed in American doo-wop style. Very wrong. Very funny.
Wilf, a self-possessed, humorous man with a slight feline quality about his eyes, is actually a quarter Burmese. His dad's Eurasian family left Burma, in the early 1940s, when the Japanese invaded. They went to India. When, a few years later, India chucked the Brits out, the family came to England. There's a picture of James Huntsman, Wilf's dad, with*Wilf's gran and auntie sitting outside a long-demolished old house which once stood behind Colchester's George Hotel. It was taken in about 1954, Wilf reckons.
The family emigrated to Australia in 1970, when Wilf was eight years old. Deeply homesick ‒ especially his mum ‒ they returned to Colchester in 1972. Alice Cooper was on TV and a pouting parade of brickies in bacofoil had taken over the pop charts. Wilf spent the time listening to his gran's Frankie Laine records. Of Colchester now, Wilf admits to a nostalgia for the place: “Every street corner grabs hold of me when I come back.” he says wistfully. And then he brightens and asks me, “ Did you know that Lee Marvin's great grandfather came from Great Bentley?” I confess that I didn't. “I've written a poem about my old school, too.” he adds.
I could have gone to Eton
Instead of a comprehensive
But at least you don't get beton
And it's considerably less expensive
Asked about his music style, whenever he's in America, he explains to them that in his native country, the north-south difference is reversed. “ The Watford Gap is our version of the Mason Dixon Line” he tells them ‒ “Except that we have a decent caff, there.”
About eighteen years ago, Wilf turned up at a gig which I was doing in Crouch End. He brought the 1960s singer, Duffy Power with him. We went back to Duffy's afterwards, where the veteran rocker told us scandalous stories about being on the coach with Larry Parnes Stable of Stars in the early Sixties. One well-known young star, when approached in his hotel room, rebuffed the entrepreneur's lecherous advances by hitting Parnes over the head with a heavy bedside lamp. Another one had once gone up to the back of the tour coach and outraged the backing musicians by waving parts of his anatomy around at them. These were the printable stories. Wilf knows all these people, you see.
James Hunter came home to Colchester last month and played the Twist ‒ the Ollie Twist as once was. It was the last gig for now. He and his band are taking some time off, before going back into the studio to do a follow up album to The Hard Way (2008). I get the feeling that he's looking forward to the time off. He says that he writes songs slowly and reflects that after twenty-five years in the business, it's only comparatively recently that he's been able to support a household. And don't a few of us know that story? You may, of course, still be glued to the telly watching the National Karaoke. But if you do want to hear James Hunter, please take your time. He's going to be around for a good while, yet.