Life At Both Ends

Talking of Bobby Bonehead aka Curly the Caveman and a few other akas, as I was last time: Trawling through my book shelves looking for Ted Hughes ‘Pike’ poem (an exemplary text for a lecture on the ‘eagle eye of the poet’ {Auden???} that I was sketching out), I chanced upon a 1980 diary which I’d kept because Amy was born that year. I leafed through it for reasons of nostalgia and the sort of curious enquiry time generates and came across this entry:

January 10, Thursday
Bob Coppard for bodhran lesson – 8.30

8.30 being the time I arranged for the callow youth to turn up, not what he paid me cuz I didn’t charge him anything. I feel that I have played a large part in his becoming a children’s entertainer. Sorry kids. Did I tell you that Rob and I were working in effluent treatment at the time? Tis true. You’ll get nothing but the truth here, ain’t that a fact?

Back to the more-recent past. I had my meeting with the Dean of MMU Cheshire – one Mr. Dennis Dunn – re the continuation of my associate lectureship there. We got on well from the outset in a ducking an’ dodging sort of way (Asked had I come to berate him or to sort things out? I said, ‘Well, yes’). In absolute fairness to the good Dean, he expressed surprise and dissatisfaction at HR only permitting my employment to be continued until Feb 2010 and said he would address the matter that very afternoon and get it sorted. He was as good as his word and I now await a contract for the whole of the 2009/2010 academic year. Our meeting settled down quickly and we discovered that we had a few views in common. More on this when I have signed the contract.

Some very sad news: Dear old Johnie Waters has passed away. John was a terrific bloke. A kind and gentle man and an absolutely fabulous flute player. He was from Sligo and a founder member of the Green Velvet Ceili band along with Jack Baynes, Jim Sweeney, Frank Preston and the rest of the boys who had moved on or who I knew less well. I don’t know exactly when the Green Velvet was formed. I remember seeing them playing for a dance at the Holy Trinity Church social centre in the middle 1960s. I had popped across from a friend’s flat in the same road to buy some fags and stayed to listen for a while. They played ‘Black Velvet Band’ and then a couple of reels I didn’t know the name of. Of course, I didn’t realise at the time what a big influence they were to become on my life a decade later. Charlie Ferguson (later known as Chris Ferguson) from Bangor, NI, another wonderful flute player, introduced me to the boys.

I met Charlie at Jason Hill’s folk club at the Sealion pub in Hanley. Under the influence of Robin Garside, a folk-singing friend of Lynda’s (they went to the same art school where Lynda was studying painting under Arthur Berry – that’s a funny expression, ain’t it. What an image!). Robin lodged with us at our house in Mow Cop at one time. I had started to play the tin whistle. I thought I could play it OK and did a couple of gigs on it with Robin. Then I heard Charlie and realised I couldn’t play it all. Hearing Charlie was like all your records coming to life. We became good mates, Charlie and I, and he taught me to play the tin whistle properly and to play the bodhran. Thing was, where the bloody hell could you get a bodhran from? We’re talking donkeys ago here – pre the Chieftains and all that.

To be a fan of Irish trad in those days was rare and regarded as quirky. It wasn’t even cool to like it in Ireland at that time. Coming home that same night as I had met Charlie, me and Lynda were heading for the bus stop with Jason and Becky. I was so utterly drunk. Becky stepped out in the road in Hope Street without looking properly and nearly got run down by a knobhead in a car that was going too fast anyway. The knobhead blasted his horn and, startled in my drunkeness, I reeled back out of the way against the window of Chatfield’s music shop. There in the window was a bodhran.

The next day, I wondered if I had merely dreamt it. But it turned out that Denis Chatfield had been having a clear-out of his stock room. The drum had been ordered by a Keele student some years before and never collected. So, thanks to student apathy, I was fixed up. It cost me £3.50 and wasn’t a very good drum. I later learned to make my own bodhrans and made dozens of them. Now and again, I used to see bands on TV using one of my drums. I don’t have one of my own make anymore. Anybody out there got one I can buy back? I’ve given up making them now. It’s too time-consuming. I’ve been working on a big tambourine now for about two years and it’s still only an unfinished frame and when you understand that the frame pre existed as a garden sieve you’ll see how feckless I have become with the making.

I bought the bodran on the Saturday morning, Charlie showed me how to go on with it on the following Tuesday evening and we played at Jason’s Club on the Friday. We played everywhere after that. Everyone who heard Charlie play wanted to hear him play again. We played with Dick Gaughan, Nic Jones, Tony Hall, the Rev. Kenneth Loveless, that geezer from up Newcastle . . . oh gawd . . . Vin Garbutt, that’s it, and loads of others I won’t attempt to recall right now as it occurs to me that I need me breakfast and a long cup of tea. I do remember we played for the Keele Rapper side, too. Do they still have one? There is something special about the drum and tin whistle or flute playing together. The interplay of rhythm between the two is endlessly variable and exciting. The two instruments can be clearly separately heard as they interweave. Chance has a magical input too. Well, it does when the whistle player is as inventive as Charlie was (RIP). Charlie had a very NI style – lots of tongued notes like the ‘tight’ piping of NI pipers.

At different stages of time and on different stages, come to that, I played bodhran, tin whistle and piano with the Green Velvet Band. Terrific music. As good as it gets.

Johnie taught me so many tunes and encouraged my playing. He did the same for dozens of others. His son, Martin, is a flute player of awesome capability and the beautifullest tone in the world. His daughter, Mary, as a young girl was extraordinary on the tin whistle. She had a way of playing that was quite unique – great rhythm and individually creative ornamentation. What a family! I lost touch with John some years ago. John, Martin and Mary and Jack played at my 40th birthday at the Red Bull in Kidsgrove. Lynda arranged it all. After chucking out time, a bunch of us went back to our cottage by the canal (We’d bought it off Paul Atterbury who is one of the Antiques Roadshow presenters. He, or his Mrs, Avril, took all the light fittings with them and the ceramic fittings from the bathroom). A few people brought bottles of wine. Thing was, me and Lynda didn’t drink wine at the time, it was something that only ultra sophisticates did, and we had no wine glasses. But, on the other hand, we did have plenty of egg cups. I have an enduring image of Avron White, an American drummer living in Stoke – a very cool dude in a white suit and shades – standing there in earnest conversation with Biker Bill, drinking merlot out of a Winnie the Pooh egg cup.

I will be saying goodbye to Johnie on Tuesday.

Have your say