Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Hastings Friendship Group - a platform for local musicians and good causes

Hastings Friendship Group is the brainchild of Trevor Webb, who, together with fellow local Labour councillor, Nigel Sinden, and other supporters, puts on fund-raising music events for charity. In doing so they draw on a welter of local musical talent. This week’s very worthwhile cause was the Bohemia Counselling Centre, which for 21 years has, by word of mouth, brought together therapists and those in need of help. It’s very much in that cooperative spirit that musicians and enthusiasts gathered at the excellent Armenian restaurant and wine bar, CafĂ© Relax on Marine Court, St Leonard's on Sunday evening.

First up was Jack Apps, a grizzled singer of “nobody else’s songs”; a fact that he underlined mid-set and in conversation afterwards. Jack is a comic too, but when he told me he had been waiting 40 years to be an oversight sensation, it was partly said in earnest. His gag routine, to which I was treated to a personal performance, took me into an imagined alternative Royal Command Performance at which there “isn’t a dry seat in the house” and he has the audience “rolling in the aisles” (gedditt?!!?). More poignant was his opening song, ‘Love The Person Inside’. Perhaps you can’t properly love someone if you don’t love yourself, or if your feelings for another are only skin deep.

Next up was someone from the other end of the age spectrum. Tom Cole is a man who plays covers, but does so very tenderly. He also performed what sounded like an original, and impressive, take on the gospel and blues standard, ‘In My Time of Dying’, stripping it back to its roots in a refreshing rejection of the Led Zeppelin bluster with which it became associated in the 1970s. Bravest performer at the gig perhaps was acoustic guitarist and singer John Bushbridge. He began hesitantly but gained in confidence with each song. Covering ‘Nights in White Satin’ is no walk in the park. 

Paul Crimin has a good voice and performed some interesting material. I may never know what the song was that he said he had never performed before as he, sadly, couldn’t pull it off on the night. Bashfully, he said he should have saved that one for the bedroom.

After what had been a stream of acoustic guitar playing singers, a change in pace and style was welcome. Dan Wahnon and Nina Nicola blended contemporary RnB, pop and rock; at one point in the very same song when they fused Rihanna's ‘We Found Love (in a Hopeless Place)’ and White Stripes' ‘7 Nation Army’. Nina had the voice to carry it off and, as she put it, to wake us up (and drown out some of the less considerate punters).

Sassaparilla Sam is apparently a regular on the Hastings circuit. Big in personality but not in stature, the fedora-wearing guitarist belted out a cover of Irish folk tune ‘Star of the County Down’ and made Van Morrison’s ‘Real Real Gone’, ordinarily a fairly forgettable number, come to life. However Sam’s party piece was Leonard Cohen’s ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’, for which he increasingly furiously tapped into its Yiddish overtones in a cranked-up klezmer cum hoedown style. Now the whole audience were engaged.

I chatted with guitarist John Hobden later. He is a mere 80 years of age, first picked up the instrument at the tender age of 73, and first performed in public just 18 months ago. I hope to see him play on another occasion.

The band that helped make the whole evening possible were a three-man Latvian act: singer, keyboardist and electric guitarist, Midnight Cats. The keyboard player doubled up as sound man. The Cats were a little slick for my taste, but their professionalism went down very well on the night.

The fine-voiced Pete Williams, a veteran of these events, performed toward the end of the evening, including a sweet version of 'Streets of London'. Sadly though, I missed Paul Crimin returning to the stage to sing an emotional version of a highly emotional song, 'The Green Fields of France', which recalls the horrors and, for many, pointlessness of World War One. He sung it in honour of Jeremy Birch, the much lamented local Labour leader who was a great supporter of HFG and who, at only 63 years of age, died very suddenly just over three weeks ago. Jeremy had helped Paul, mid-performance at an HFG gig, to remember the words of 'Waltzing Matilda', a song whose original lyrics are famously critical of the WW1 battle of Gallipoli.

  • Hastings Friendship Group has held 26 charitable gigs in the 12 months since it began such events. In the process it has raised nearly £2,000 for 15 national and international charities, including many that focus on children. For showcasing local talent for such good causes, it deserves all the support it can get. Trevor Webb is also involved in organising the annual St Leonards Festival, which takes place 10-12 July.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Conservatives are the natural party of government

Labour has never been the “natural party of government” in this country. Harold Wilson’s claim was based on only one resounding election success under his leadership. Tony Blair, like him or loathe him, was perhaps a natural prime minister, the only Labour leader who was able to reach out beyond Labour’s comfort zones and into the socio-economic parts of Britain without which you cannot command a sustainable majority. Even in the face of his Iraq horror show, Blair led his party to its third comfortable election success.

Scotland is now pro-nationalist, and even perhaps willing to vote for independence in a year or two’s time. It has long been another country in political terms too. While it was revolting over the poll tax, England considered the mild radicalism of a Welsh Labour leader and, shyly, voted for John Major’s Conservative Party. Yesterday the Tories got a majority after hurting poorer “hard working” families for five years while those not in need of in-work welfare benefits feared that the Labour Party would somehow jeopardise the flimsy certainties of what, statistically at least, is an economic recovery.

The NHS is the exception to the rule, the last surviving nationalised industry and one that, broadly speaking, is popular. Labour may have won the 1945 election because its promise to introduce socialised medicine was the most believable, but after only six years in office it was out for another 13. Labour’s two election victories in 1974 were barely deserving of the name. The Labour government that lost office in 1979 had essentially been a minority one for most of its rule.

Now Labour has to consider whether a more authentically social justice and home rule message in Scotland and Wales will remotely help it in England (where Westminster elections, after all, are decided). To paraphrase Neil Kinnock, if you think that that is right, then go into the semi-detached homes of people struggling to pay their mortgage in the south of England and “tell it there, tell it there.”

The United Kingdom is under threat, and the very self-serving economic reasons why we joined the Common Market are increasingly being seen in England as not being upheld by the EU today. What will Labour do next? A lurch to the left will this time definitely consign it to the dustbin of history. There will be no electoral reform to save it, while Labour has lost Scotland (and its parliamentary support) whether it becomes an independent sovereign country or not. To be elected and then to govern in England will be impossible for Labour without being able to both appeal to aspiration and not somehow abandoning its so-called electoral base. In the 2015 election Labour absurdly pandered to that base without offering anything more than half-hearted apologies for past errors and an unconvincing line on deficit and debt reduction. The outcome was its third worst General Election result since 1935.

The recession was a fork in the road. In this election Labour tried to plough down the middle by refusing to say it had overspent in the last government whilst claiming it would reduce the deficit faster, but somehow more fairly, in the next. Electing a new leader who mouths the same (and, ironically, non-inclusive) platitudes about hard working families will not cut it, in England or Scotland. Something major needs to be tried. Reaching out to everybody, right across the Union, is an even taller order right now. Perhaps more honesty would help. If Scotland hasn’t already left the building by the time of the next Westminster election, tell voters that you will work with the SNP precisely to save the Union, that we should stay in the EU for the sake of jobs and, yes, for the sake of political stability across Europe, and that ever-expanding health and welfare budgets are not the answer. Otherwise, just carry on regardless.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Stag in Hastings hosts a Jack in The Green jam

This was the scene in The Stag Inn, a beguiling ale house in Old Town, Hastings on the first night of the Jack in the Green Festival. We arrived early and supped pints before the musicians arrived. A serial monologist was regaling the barman with tales of his indispensable part in folk and rock history.

We were seated at the musicians' table, so made our excuses when a female mandolin player dressed as an orange dragonfly arrived. On the next table a bodhran player and singer from Eastbourne was modest about his own abilities, but full of tales of the skill and wonder of other musicians. He also told us of the legendary Jewish storyteller Shonaleigh who still treads the boards, the last of a long line of Drut’sylas. I felt like part imposter, part musical groupie; though in conversation I could nod in the right place and had conducted my first pilgrimage to Sidmouth Folk Festival when I was 17.


Within half an hour the pub was rammed. Mandolin, banjo and penny whistles were soon outnumbered by female fiddlers and male melodeon players. The fiddlers in particular kept up a furious pace, periodically accompanied by unaccompanied singers whose songs drifted in like waves from a distant shore, but actually just the other corner of the packed pub.

"Thatcher's Heritage" flowed. As the aptly named cider slipped down all too easily, I got a flashback to Sidmouth in the early 1980s. It being an election, memories of the politics of that time passed through my increasingly addled brain as one singer told tales of workers by hand or by brain getting the shaft from the man. I thought I saw Michael Foot enter the pub disguised as a banjo player, quickly followed by the ghost of Pete Seeger. I wondered who would hold the audience for longer.

We were seated next to the musicians. Storytellers gathered there too, although the boozy musical revelry wasn't quite suitable for a performance by them tonight. The bodhran man gave us all a story in song though, unsteady at first but he soon rose to the occasion.

Regardless of the Festival, The Stag Inn often has music on. No frills, no hierarchy, just people playing their heart out.