Sneyd Colliery Explosion, 1942
Grahame Shrubsole, head of MMU Cheshire music faculty, turned everything round for me when I was a student. My first year as an undergraduate was really exciting. To be among people who took music and writing seriously was mind-blowing for me. My creativity doubled over night. I was lucky, too, in that I had been in factories for most of my working life and I had a highly developed work ethic. I worked six times harder than the majority of students I met and for seven times as long. Alas, the music part of my degree took a dive in the second year. I was taught by a different bloke and we did not see eye to eye. He awarded me what I felt to be (an still do) unjustifiably low marks for everything I did. It was difficult to take from a guy whose own experience was severely limited and whose own compositions were lamentable. He was exciting himself with ideas that I had shunned as passe when I was fourteen-and-a-half. The only good thing about him was that he was incapable of irony. I mean, he really didn’t get it at all. Here’s a quick example: One day, he was drinking from a novelty mug that had something mildy blokey on it. He plainly thought this accoutrement made him look like one of the guys. I forget what the slogan was – something tossy like: ‘Tea? I’d rather have a beer’. He was making a show out of drinking from it, drawing attention to it. I flattered the child in him by nodding towards it and saying, ‘Nice mug.’
‘It was given to me by a grateful student,’ he told me.
‘Leaving then, were you?’ I said.
He didn’t bat an eyelid even though I must have had a right sly look on my face.
‘Yes,’ he said.
‘Thought you must have been,’ I said.
But apart from the occasional small victory like that, he brought me down. I was disenchanted and, after two years of studentship, seriously out of money. Amy will confirm our low financial status. We had peas on toast for tea one day. I took a year out then went back. For my third year I had Grahame as tutor. He is a musicologist – a man with an awesome knowledge and experience of music. He is respectful of everybody and can communicate even the most complex of theories. He understands muliplicities of musical traditions and knows how to push the envelope in the 21st century. You can imagine my delight when he so generously offered to arrange a song of mine (blimey, there’s a pun there, as will be seen) for male voice choir.
The song came about because Lynda saw an article in the Sentinel about a local mining disaster, showed me and I wrote a song about it and started doing it with Boneshaker. When my biography, Battling Jack, came out I was giving a reading at Kidsgrove library and I had the pleasure of meeting a man who had worked down the pit in question at the time of the disaster. His interest in the Turpin boxing family had brought him to the reading and we got chatting during the interval. This man’s son, I found out, sings in a local male voice choir and it gave me the idea that my pit disaster song and therefore a significant piece of North Staffs social history, could be part of the repertoire of a local men’s choir that has its roots in the social life of the local coalfields. The man’s son thought the idea was a good one but explained that before a choir master could make a decision about it the song would have to be aranged in four parts: two tenor, two bass. I went to Grahame for advice . . .
I had a meeting with Grahame today and he played me some of the musical sketches he has made for the arrangement and they are fantastic. I was prepared to have to compromise, as is often the case with collaborations but, to my huge delight, his ideas are both empathetic and innovative. It has lifted the project to another level. I can’t wait for the next move.
Adam has posted our Up To Scratch version of Owed To Paddy O’ on our MySpace page today. Have a listen to his playing of the low whistle. You will agree it is everything I claimed for it. I am one lucky geezer.