From Oxford (not, not that one) to Cropredy - Part 1,
It all started so innocently enough. Some time at the beginning of the year I received an email detailing the initial line-up for 2017’s Cropredy Festival, and while sat watching TV with my amazing wife, Sara, mentioned that it looked interesting this year. It was a throwaway comment, nothing more or less, so imagine my amazement when she immediately responded “well, you should go”. At the time of the conversation I was sat in my house near Oxford, which is not the famous university town, but instead is a small township to the west of Christchurch (no, not that one either), on South Island, New Zealand. By the way, the next township south of us is Sheffield, I tell my pommy mates that I think I must be living in Stoke. Anyway…
After my initial response of “you must be kidding”, followed closely by “we can’t afford it”, I realised that Sara had decided. At this point I had the choice of fighting a good fight (and ultimately losing anyway), or wondering whether this might be doable after all? At this point it had been more than five years since my last visit to the UK, the country of my birth that I had happily departed in 2006, and it was some 13 years since I had last been to the Cropredy Festival. Also, it was Fairport Convention’s 50th Anniversary so it was bound to be special, and Richard Thompson was headlining Friday night, and as an added bonus Show of Hands were performing as well. Even if the rest of the bands were no good (highly unlikely), those three alone would justify flying to the other side of the world. Or would they? I was still undecided, until it was pointed out to me that this is the sort of thing that memories were made of, and that I should make the most of the opportunity. Very quickly I started to get quite excited, and the game was afoot. We decided to book onto a new airline that had recently commenced flights out of Auckland, Qatar Air, because it was a better price than my favoured Air NZ, and then started to plan the trip. If I landed in the UK on the Sunday, that gave me a few days before the festival started on the Thursday, and by flying back on the following Thursday it meant that I had the opportunity to visit some old friends as well. After a while it became transparent that I was going on a holiday to catch up with a lot of people who have been incredibly important to me over the years, and then in the middle I was going to see some great music!
It seemed to take for ages for the time to leave to come around, and as I had been in and out of Australia quite a bit for work in the time before departing I was already quite tired, and ready for the break. So, a short flight up to Auckland to stay overnight with my daughter, son-in-law and grandbaby (I can’t be a grandad, I still play Napalm Death), and then the next day it was on the flight to Doha. I must say that Qatar Air do a great job, but it’s still 18 hours to Doha, which is a long time to be sat in any airplane. Getting off the flight at midnight local time into 35-degree heat was an experience as well, but soon it was the time for the next round, and off to Heathrow. I landed at approximately 7:00 Sunday morning, and quickly collected my car from Avis (great service – they were awesome at both ends) and was soon on the M25. It was here that I made my first real observation, namely when did everyone start driving so bloody fast!? The speed limit outside towns in NZ is 100 kmh, which equates to just over 62 mph, so I found even driving at 70 mph really quick, given that it would be more than 112 kmh. I know I used to regularly drive at about 85 mph back in the day, more than 135 kmh, which would be a driving ban in NZ (more than 30 kmh above any posted limit is instant).
Anyway, I soon made my way around the M25 to my first point of call, namely Barton’s Bookshop in Leatherhead (http://www.bartonsbookshop.co.uk). This is owned and run by one of my oldest friends, Peter Snell, who I have known for nearly 30 years. Peter is a polymath, and has an incredible brain, and thanks to him I saw more gigs, drank more malt whisky and studied more incredible cult movies than any sane man would ever appreciate. He was also one of the two witnesses at my wedding in 1993 (there is nothing quite like ringing up your parents to tell them that you got married that day). As an example of what he was like, we used to follow a band around London called Steve Waller’s Overload, which featured Steve Waller (ex-MMEB, guitar/vocals), Pete Stroud (ex-Toyah, Roger Chapman, bass) and Glen Le Fleur (ex-Gerry Rafferty, drums). One night we asked the guys if we record their next gig, to which they happily agreed, expecting us to turn up with a tape recorder and a dodgy microphone. Instead, Peter walked into a professional studio and asked if he could borrow a mobile recording desk. Imagine the surprise when we turned up at The Southampton in Surbiton with all the kit needed to make a decent live recording (which they later mixed and were going to sell). Needless to say, Peter’s bookshop is a treasure trove. If you want a Top 20 then go to Sainsbury’s, as they sell them cheaper than he can buy them, but if you want to talk to someone about what you’ve been reading, and possibly what you should be reading next, then he’s your man.
Recently, Jon Downes and I were talking about what a small world it is, and sometimes it feels that we are all just next door. Peter told me that he had an employee who had gone back to NZ to live, and that she ended up in a seaside town called Orewa. I told him that two of my daughters had attended the High School in Orewa, to which he responded that he was sure that was where she worked. I responded that my son-on-law is a teacher at the school so they probably know each other. A few checks later and it transpired that her daughter was in the same class as my youngest and they all do indeed know each other. What are the chances? I spent an amazing day in the shop, reminiscing and talking to customers but the jetlag was starting to hit so it wasn’t long after the shop had been closed, and an evening meal had, that I crashed and slept the sleep of the dead.
Monday morning I was up bright and early as I had to get to Virginia Water, and I was looking forward to the joys of the M25 (not). Still, I somehow managed to time it right, and even managed to grab a coffee (and I thought it was expensive over here!) before meeting with Clive Nolan at his house, where the Thin Ice Studio is situated. I have known Clive for more than twenty-five years, and have followed his career with interest. Although during that time he has always been the keyboard player with Pendragon, he has also had multiple bands and projects of his own, all of which I’ve written about one time or another. My favourite of these is ‘Alchemy’, a theatrical production which tells the story of Professor Samuel King (played by Clive himself) and his battles with the dastardly Lord Henry Jagman (portrayed with real malice by ex-Twelfth Night singer Andy Sears). So, when I heard that the sequel was nearly ready to be released I knew that this was a great opportunity to catch up with Clive and understand more about the music and storyline.
Sat up in his music room, Clive explained that although it was a sequel in that it kept some of the main characters, and had some musical hooks that listeners may recognise from ‘Alchemy’, he felt that it could easily be listened to in its own right. For the last album, he used many people from the progressive underground, but while singer Alan Reed (ex-Abel Ganz, ex-Pallas) is involved, and musically it is the same band as last time, no-one else is from “the scene”. Clive calls this the first steampunk musical (to find out more, then visit the website at http://www.kingsransomthemusical.com/index.php/news where it is also possible to see some short films made to promote this), and then handed me a copy of the script and we promptly listened to about half the album. Clive is hoping that both this and ‘Alchemy’ will take on a life of their own, be performed in different countries (as has already been the case with the first one), and hopefully both be made into full-length films as well. His next project will probably be a new Arena album and tour, but I do hope that his theatre productions get the attention and critical acclaim they deserve, as they really are quite special.
All too soon it was time to depart as Clive was on his way to rehearsals, so I found my way to the M4 and travelled down to Chippenham to see some family. The next day was spent with mates in the New Forest, and then on Wednesday it was off to see one my oldest and closest friends in music, Stu Nicholson from Galahad. But, there was just a small fly in the ointment as it were, namely that he was in hospital! On his way home from Thin Ice a few weeks previously he had been in the car with keyboard player Dean Baker, and when they stopped at the Services to get something to eat he was unable to get out of the car! Although initially the doctors thought they had everything under control that obviously wasn’t the case and he ended up in Poole Hospital having to undergo an operation. Until it was visiting hours I sat with Stu’s amazing and supportive wife Lin in the house talking through old memories, looking at the band photos and posters on the wall and admiring the framed Galahad vinyl. Lin told me to go through the merchandise and grab anything that I didn’t already have, which was lovely of her, and I did come away with a reissue of ‘Classic Rock Live’ that was now a double disc which I wasn’t aware of, some vinyl, posters, and a Galahad mug!
We spent the afternoon in the hospital with Stu, and although he was obviously fed up with being there it was great to see him after way too many years – one of the problems of living on the other side of the world is that it’s not so easy to catch up without a lot of effort. I had taken with me my Galahad file of every piece of paper they had sent me over the years, even the band Christmas cards, as I thought it was likely that I had some material that even Stu wasn’t aware of. We talked about ‘Distant Storms’, and what the new album was going to sound like, as well as the departure of Roy. I am intrigued to hear what they sound like with a new guitarist. We also discussed Andy Wild’s book on Galahad and I learned that it was being updated, and as I now had more material available digitally I sat down the next morning and sent him some files. I am glad to report that Stu is now making a full recovery, and I am looking forward to him keeping his promise of coming over here with Lin in 2019!