Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
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.
Last month a new book was published. Afterliff is the third in a series of publications begun three decades ago by the Hitchiker's Guide To The Galaxy author, the late Douglas Adams. A hugely popular writer for the last two decades of his life, Douglas Adams, died aged 49 in 2001. Born in Cambridge in 1952, he lived in Brentwood, Essex from the age of 5, attending Brentwood School. until he went to university in 1970. It was Adams and his friend, the TV comedy producer John Lloyd who came up with the idea of The Meaning of Liff, the first in the series. Briefly, the concept is that there are a number of situations or objects for which there are no names. At the same time there are a number of names which have nothing else to do but hang around on the signposts for villages or towns. Adams and Lloyd decided to combine the two.
Wivenhoe, for instance, is defined by The Meaning of Liff as 'The cry of alacrity with which a sprightly eighty year-old breaks the ice on a lake when going for a swim on Christmas Eve.' Farther down the page you'll find Woking – defined as 'Standing in the kitchen, wondering what you came in for.' Jarrow is listed as, 'An agricultural device which, when towed behind a tractor, enables the farmer to spread his dung evenly across the road.'
I first came across The Meaning of Liff only months after its publication, and having worn my first copy out, eventually managed to find another. I still buy copies in second-hand bookshops and send them to friends whom I think will like it. The book has reportedly never been out of print, but there was a time during the late 1980s where it seemed harder to find.
The idea itself, however, that a spurious definition could be conjured from a place name on a signpost, took root, among other places, in the differently wired-minds of travelling musicians and other itinerants whom I knew. 'Liff' as a road game for myself and my friends never went away. Whilst touring in early 1990 – in East Suffolk as it happens – a music journalist and myself whiled away almost a week playing with village names. Hasketon, near Woodbridge became, 'A nondescript tartan blanket owned by two old ladies living together, who kept it in the back of their Morris Traveller to prevent the Jack Russells making the seat muddy after walks.
Little Glemham, I'd suggested, was a boy soprano once mooted as Scotland's answer to Aled Jones, until his career was cut tragically short by his voice breaking at age 12.
Our journalist, however, suggested that Little Glemham might have been a character so pathetic that Charles Dickens couldn't even bring himself to write him into Bleak House.
A Westleton, we thought, was either an inferior type of service rifle, left behind by the British Army to native defenders during a managed retreat – or possibly a coat of indeterminate make, found hanging in the cupboard under the stairs, which your mum always reminded your dad to put on whenever he had a bad cold.
For this past quarter century, thanks to The Meaning of Liff, whenever I've been travelling I have been unable look at place names, without also wrestling with definitions for them. Sometimes I reverse the game by fitting a place name to a situation which seems to need one.
An academic once told me the following story: Apparently, whilst at a party a colleague of his met a professor whom he hadn't seen for a while. Since they'd last met, the professor's wife had died. Having temporarily forgotten this fact after a drink, the chap absent-mindedly asked the professor: “By the way, how's your wife? There was an awkward pause before he added: “Still dead, I suppose?” Such a situation might easily have been a Clacton – but more likely, a Great Bromley.
Essex, as well as Suffolk is littered with possibilities: A Kirby Cross for example might be an old rugby manoeuvre outlawed in the 1930s because it caused players fertility problems later in life.
Frating – is descriptive of a teenage daughter pining beside the telephone.
A Colchester is an uncomfortable make of chaise longue only found in a divorce lawyers' offices.
In 1992 Douglas Adams and John Lloyd revised and expanded the original Liff book, with The Deeper Meaning of Liff. Here were new definitions along with original gems such as Ambleside – A talk given about the facts of life, by a father to his son, while walking in the garden on a Sunday afternoon and, Amersham – The sneeze which never comes.
Following Adams' untimely demise after a heart attack, the Liff books might well have died with him. Just over a decade later, however, his former writing partner John Lloyd enlisted the help of another friend, Jon Canter, a a well-known comedy writer, to revive the idea. Canter, had been at Cambridge with the book's two authors – also a sharing flat with Douglas Adams for some time. There is something brilliantly eccentric, delightfully time-wasting and very British about the whole notion of the book and as a long-term fan, I can only wish its new incarnation a long and healthy second Liff.