Sunday, 23 October 2011

Sing the songs

We’re back at Cork airport after what feels like the longest two days of my life. It’s been an absolute blast. We met Roy and his wife Tracy in our B&B in Clonakilty, and were immediately whisked off to a stunning recording studio in the rolling hills above the town, which felt like some kind of exotic Swiss chalet, with every keyboard instrument you could ever imagine crammed against the walls. Fiona borrowed a fairly basic violin from the engineer’s wife, and the three of us worked through her arrangements, making sure they matched what Roy was intending to play at the Royal Festival Hall. The rehearsal went about as well as you could expect. It was wonderful to see Fiona and Roy reaching out to each other musically; working together, sensing each other. I wished I’d had my own instrument to add to the mix... But instead I just studied the score, and practised conducting... just in case.
Roy Harper is an astonishing musician who has given so much to the music industry over the years. In the late sixties and early seventies, he was way ahead of his time; creating epic 15-minute tracks years before the prog-rockers jumped on the bandwagon. His music is also blessed with space, which is a rare thing in an age in popular music where every last sonic layer is filled with sound, and every last beat is marked by a drum. His influence extends to Pink Floyd, Kate Bush and Led Zeppelin, who even recorded a track called “Hats off to Roy Harper.” I felt very privileged just to be sitting in a room with such a charming, talented man, and encouraged him as often as I could to tell me stories about those heady days when anything seemed possible at Abbey Road Studios.

I very much liked his wife as well, who I suppose is also his manager. We drove back to Clonakilty and ate at a lovely fish restaurant by the side of the estuary. It was pitch black. Looking out of the window at the view, it was impossible to tell where the sky met the hills and where the hills melted into the peaty water. Dotted about in the darkness, and glowing like tiny balls of fire, the odd house, or passing car was reflected in the water.

We also had a chance to visit a folk music club called De Barra, which has to be one of the most charming and authentic live venues I’ve ever set foot in. It also had a most peculiar, spooky atmosphere, which literally stopped us in our tracks. It was a very strange sensation. We came through the main door, through a sort of conservatory, and then entered the live room, which was a barn of a space with a little gallery. As we walked towards the back of this room, it almost felt as though the place was suddenly swimming. Fiona describes it as like “walking through a heavy cloud.” We stopped, shivered and laughed at ourselves, before walking down a small flight of steps where we were immediately confronted by a room filled to the brim with African voodoo masks! I immediately went up to the barman, and asked if the place was haunted. The answer was affirmative, although you’d probably expect to hear that from any tall-tale-telling Irish barman. What I wasn’t expecting was for him to whip out a photograph that had, apparently, been taken by a psychic. It showed the weird African masks, but between two of them was the very odd sight of the floating, disembodied head of very thin man with a pale face, and razor-sharp cheek-bones. It’s difficult, of course, in this day and age to claim that it wasn’t some kind of photo-shopped spoof. Furthermore, if you were going to photograph a “ghost” in that particular bar, you’d be most likely to do it in amongst the set of African voodoo masks. But it was strange that the two of us had had such a simultaneously strange reaction, just before entering the bizarre and “haunted” room.

The streets of Clonakilty are charming. It reminded me a little of Thaxted, with all sorts of beautiful buildings painted in a variety of pastel colours. The air had an almost permanent rather rich scent to it; slightly sulphurous, slightly-perfumed, which I’m told is the smell of peat bricks being burned; a substance which is far more popular than coal in this part of the world. You see it for sale in big piles with the newspapers outside convenience stores. We went to bed early and slept like the dead, although I woke up at one point in the night feeling sure that a ball of light had just flashed through my room!

It was still raining when we woke up this morning, probably even more than it had the day before, but we wanted to experience the joys of Western Cork, so wrapped ourselves in cagoules, jumped in the car and drove along the coastal road to a charming harbour hamlet called Glandore. We sat in a lovely pub and ate lunch whilst the rain fell in sheets outside and a series of buckets underneath the windows collected the water which was pouring through the ceiling. Even the Irish were complaining about the weather!

We visited a circle of standing stones called Drombeg. It was a sort of mini-Stone Henge. I suspect, under any other circumstance, we might have gone barefoot, and spent hours feeling unnecessarily spiritual, but the rain continued to lash down in impossible quantities, and it was as much as we could do to stand up straight in the wind. As we left the site, we watched a very sad-looking horse in a field, trying to stay dry underneath a tiny blackberry bush, which was barely covering his bottom. He looked so very depressed, and for about three minutes, we felt his pain, before jumping in our lovely warm car, and leaving him to his living hell. On another occasion, I’m pretty sure Drombeg would have been the most astonishingly beautiful and hugely electrifying experience.

As we continued to drive, the rain became even more intense. Periodically, we’d thunder through a giant puddle at the same time as a car on the opposite side of the road, and a sheet of water would rise up like a mini-tidal wave, which prevented us from seeing the road again for what seemed like an age... certainly long enough to go off the road, or be maimed in an horrific head-on smash.

I fulfilled something of an ambition at about 4pm, however, because I kissed the Blarney stone! Yes, I did... (And so did Fiona)

It’s housed in a quirky little castle slightly north of Cork, and the one benefit of the dreadful rain was that we didn’t have to share the experience with two thousand rather crude American tourists. Visitors start at the bottom of the building (obviously) and work their way up to the top via a series of snaking stone corridors, and tiny darkened spiral staircases. It’s incredibly atmospheric, and something of a health and safety nightmare! The Blarney stone – or witches stone – is right at the top of the castle, in the open air, where the views over the battlements of the lime green, gently undulating Irish landscape are almost legendary.

To kiss the Blarney stone, one must risk life and limb... In the olden days, I’m pretty sure many would have fallen to their deaths whilst attempting to reach it. The stone hangs out over a 100 foot drop, and if you decide to kiss it, a special man appears who grabs hold of your waist as you shuffle backwards to the edge of a ledge before allowing the top half of your body to simply drop. You kiss it whilst hanging upside down, the blood rushing to your face and nothing but air between your head and the ground 100 feet below. It’s actually a pretty shocking experience for a bloke with vertigo and it triggered a coughing fit! I’m irritated, and more than a little concerned to report that my cough still hasn’t entirely cleared up!

Still, the benefits of snogging the stone are said to be huge. Winston Churchill kissed it just before his meteoric rise to power. I’m told the band Megadeath did the same. And The Simpsons. Although I’m not altogether convinced that a cartoon counts. The process is said to improve one’s oratory and communication skills, so, if you’re enjoying this blog a great deal more than usual today, it’s because I’ve been hanging off a battlement whilst being manhandled by an Irish brute!

snoggig the stone!

During our two-day trip, it became apparent that the Irish, though lovely people, probably need to let go of one of two national obsessions. I have therefore created a list, which I’d like to share with you:

1.      Penny whistle music

2.      The Gaelic font

3.      The colour green

4.      Leprechauns

5.      Blarney

6.      Singing whilst they speak

7.      Rain

350 years ago, Pepys had lunch with his old friend Peter Luellin. During this period, Pepys and Luellin were close drinking buddies. They’d both been clerks together, and Pepys’ meteoric rise had not yet found him moving away from friends he’d made in his former, less glamorous life. Sadly, Luellin died of the plague. Pepys probably never knew. The double tragedy of the plague and the Great Fire meant that many people simply disappeared from life or from London. I’m sure, in later years, when Pepys thought about Luellin, he’d wonder what became of him. Did he move on? Seek a life for himself in the new colonies? Perhaps he heard on the grapevine that he’d died. Perhaps he never knew.

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