March 24, 2013
I’ve been listening to songs by Molly Drake this week, in preparation for the Laugharne Weekend literary festival. There’s going to be an event about Nick Drake with his producer Joe Boyd and a few singers, including Robyn Hitchock, Katell Keineg, and myself, are going to perform some songs, as a kind of illustration to the talk. When I was asked to do it, I immediately thought of Molly Drake, since I’ve been very fascinated by a new collection of her work, out on Alimentation records. Molly was Nick’s mother, and a very talented singer, songwriter and pianist who played for friends and family, rather than in public. Her songs are fresh, melodic, and musically sophisticated. They seem quite light in tone but actually there’s an undertow of melancholy in all of them. They take me back to my childhood, in that her style reminds me very much of my mother’s singing, which was fashionable in the forties and fifties but was swept away by rock and roll.
In the early fifties, my mother Susan Stutchbury (as she was then) was a student at Cambridge where she met Julian Slade, the composer of the musical Salad Days. They became friends, and she went on to star as the leading lady in his first production, Bang Goes the Meringue! Later on, when she married and had children, she stopped appearing on stage but continued to sing constantly around the house. The same was true of her great friend, Angela Haswell, my godmother, who also had a beautiful voice. These women, who by the way were the first generation of women to graduate from the university with proper degrees (before that, if you were a female, they just gave you a piece of paper saying ‘well done’), were remarkably talented in many ways, but in those days, once you married, you gave up any kind of serious work or public life.
On top of that, during the sixties and seventies, my generation became very dismissive of that kind of music. I always felt quite embarrassed about liking it, and kept pretty quiet about it, since at the time masculine rock was all the rage. So it’s very poignant now to return to that era and realise how stupid that attitude was, and how difficult it must have been for our parents – accustomed as they were to a diet of tuneful, romantic, and often gently witty songs – to listen to us all singing three-chord tunes in fake American accents, strumming away earnestly on guitars. Fortunately things have changed, but it still makes me feel sad to think of all the lovely songs like Molly’s that have been sitting on the shelf for years, and are only now just beginning to be dusted off again…
March 17, 2013
Today I went down to the Gwent Levels, a post-industrial landscape of muddy ditches and dykes running alongside the Bristol Channel,overlooked by chimneys of Newport and the massive steelworks at Tremofra. Not exactly picture postcard country, but nevertheless fascinating. This is a non-gentrifiable area of scruffy smallholdings, scrapyards, cheaply built houses, and untidy fields that seems curiously Dickensian, or perhaps outside time altogether. Small ponies graze by the roads; cows amble along the levee by the sea; old men wander on the beach with buckets, looking for shellfish. At one roundabout, we passed a car going the wrong way, full of children, with a pony on a lead trotting alongside it. We walked for about a mile by the sea, then came to this old lighthouse, which happened to have a Dr Who tardis on the balcony. You can just see it in the picture above. It’s not the first time I’ve seen the tardis – a couple of years ago, it appeared in the park opposite where I live. It’s one of the curiosities of Cardiff and its environs that it pops up from time to time when least expected.
This week, I also drove across country to mid Wales, in freezing rain. Despite the cold, there were signs of spring everywhere: clumps of snowdrops by streams, banks of daffodils, wobbly lambs feeding from their mothers, their tails wagging furiously. I watched a field full of them running about in a bunch, playing together, getting up to mischief, like children in a school yard. It made me feel quite guilty about the lamb shoulder we ate last night (delicious). Still, I suppose there wouldn’t be any lambs if we didn’t eat them. If that makes sense.
March 10, 2013
Yesterday I went down to Three Cliffs Bay in the Gower, one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen ever, anywhere. There are three pointed cliffs that rise up on the headland, and there’s a ‘door’ through to the sea, casting a triangular reflection in the water below it. The sand is pale and fine, and the waves white and foamy. Really magical. You have to walk about a mile to get there, past a ruined castle on top of a hill, so it seems very remote once you do.
Aside from beachwalking, I did a short tour of bookshops in the area to promote my new book. As everyone knows, it’s a very challenging time for all bookshops at the moment, especially independent ones. I hadn’t realised just how much hard work goes into getting our books on the shelves for the public to buy – booksellers, reps, and others. These are people who are passionate about books, and prepared to do everything they can to keep our bookshops on the high street. On the way down to Cover to Cover bookshop in Mumbles, where I did an event with the crime writer M. R. Hall, we passed the huge Amazon warehouse in Swansea. The sheer size of it, in comparison to the small bookshop, told its own story. I completely understand why people buy online, but it would be tragic if we let our high street bookshops disappear completely.
Speaking of which, here’s a photo my good friend Anthony Reynolds took of my book on display in Waterstones with the shop’s review beside it. Much appreciated.