Memories stagger out of the gloom, bounce off the soft grey walls, collide and spark with one another, the sparks floating high and hardening into the hot little coals of yet more memory. My sister’s grave, parsnip soup, Doris Day, a Spanish book shop, all thrown together, pounded and bruised with the pestle of the past in the mortar of my skull. To release their vital, aromatic oils, their essence.
“These memories are all I have, And they will send me mad”, or lead to an unexpected blossoming. One of those blossoms which only happens every 20 or thirty years, stinks to high heaven and collapses after a day, I should think.
I don’t separate the books on my shelves into categories. History, philosophy, fiction, botany, politics, poetry, music, mental health, all together. They are all together.
I see everything as interconnected, interdependent.
“One measures a circle beginning anywhere” – Charles Fort.
At Canning Circus in Nottingham, you are at one of the higher points of the city, just outside the centre. On the east side there is a row of almshouses with a central arch. Through the arch you are standing at the top of a steep cemetery, looking across the north of the city. It looks like the greenest city you ever did see, the occasional spire or high rooftop pushing through a vast green canopy spread to the horizon.
It’s an illusion. Nottingham is one of the less green cities of England. What you see depends on how you look at it, on where you stand. On what you would like to see.
For a few years I was involved in the underground avant garde fringe or something music scene in Nottingham. We were knowing, cynical, post punk creatives. Real punk, ’76 – 78, not the commodified, mohicanned, graffiti splattered, leather jacketed monster of the ’80s.
My mate The Fat Poet googled my name – my birth name, my “real” name – a while ago (he must have been very bored),and I still crop up as a musician. Twice. It’s on the web. It must be true.
Music was what held our little group together, any music, provided it was unusual,interesting, powerful, honest or funny. A couple of times we went along to a quite incredible Sunday night event at a now demolished pub, The Brittania, behind the Nottingham Palais dance hall. It was a 78rpm disco. How cool is that?! It was run by a man called Johnny Hobbs. I’ve never been a lover of jazz, particularly. I think enforced bonding sessions with my dad at Royston Manor jazz nights when I was about 16 or 17 put me off, but even I had heard of Johnny Hobbs. He’d been an in-demand clarinettist for decades, a friend or acquaintance of George Melly. I think he used to own a jazz record shop in the Meadows area of Nottingham until, like St Anns in Nottingham and Attercliffe in Sheffield, the area was levelled. Improved.
Hobbs was 60ish then, tall, stocky, shoulder length white hair, full beard, or was it a handlebar moustache, huge, ornate, possibly Indian silver earrings which dragged his ear lobes low. He was not known for his social skills. Some would say he was a grumpy old curmudgeon. But then, some would say I’M a grumpy old curmudgeon and I’m almost 30 years younger. It was the music that mattered.
See, anyone would have reasonably expected JH to play nothing but jazz 78s, being a lifelong jazzer, but he rarely did. JH loved music. JH loved 78s. I felt an affinity between him and our little group. He played doo-wop, rockabilly, pop, lounge music, film music, a bit of jazz and seemed to know something about everything and everyone involved. He’d probably find enjoyment in Tom Waits or the Tiger Lilies or Amoebic Ensemble if he heard them. Perhaps he does (he was alive and unwell in Nottingham a year and a half ago. I checked).
I enjoyed it so much, the second time we went I gave him my copy of Julie London’s “Cry Me A River” on 78. I had nothing to play it on, anyway, back then.
One record still stands out for me. Not a Spike Jones And His City Slickers number (we already knew about them, of course, being sophisticates) nor Phil Harris (I still have several Phil Harris 78s, great stuff), but “Orange Coloured Sky” sung by Betty Hutton. What a song! What a voice!! Within 30 seconds I was in love. That night in 1989 or ’90 was the only time I heard that song and it still goes round in my head for days at a time, on occasion.
Why I didn’t follow up on this amazing singer or that brilliant song, I don’t really understand. I felt much the same after seeing Tarkovsky’s “Mirror”. Sort of, my god that was brilliant how can any human being be responsible for something so powerful and moving? And I think that’s the point. Fear of disappointment. It’s so unlikely that anything so wonderful could ever happen, so it’s impossible for the same person to do it twice.
But those Sunday nights at The Brittania with Johnny Hobbs – they were great.