Tuesday, 24 March 2009


This group of ash trees stands beyond the meadow at the end of my garden. The earliest photograph was taken in the mid-1980s when there were six trees. I think the gales of 1987 took the tree on the right away, and in the last few years another tree has been steadily leaning into its neighbour. In the snowy picture you can just make out the roof of a barn between the two trees on the left. That, too, was damaged in 1987 and subsequently demolished.

The ash trees make my garden what it is because of the way they frame the northern landscape with those arches between their trunks. Everyone who walks through the hedge into the back garden exclaims at the view, but it's the trees that turn a straight horizon into a series of windows and draw your eye to the narrow band below the horizon where you can see distant marshes, windmills, churches and villages. You can even see wind turbines flashing in the sunlight a dozen miles away on the coast.

I like to think that I live on a hill. Even if it's only 30 metres above sea level I have the comfort of knowing that there's no higher land between me and the North Pole!

Friday, 13 March 2009

A word or two about banjos...

pulps from the bothy features a banjo-playing Jerry Garcia today. As it's Red Nose Day here's a banjo joke.

A band has arrived early for a gig so they lock up the cars and go in search of a drink, but on the way to the pub the banjo player suddenly stops. 'Hell!' he says, 'I left my banjo in the back of the car where anyone can see it. I'll have to go back and cover it up.' The rest of the band sigh, but they walk back to the car with him. When they turn the corner they see that the rear window has been smashed. The banjoist breaks into a run. When the others catch up they find him staring into the car in astonishment. There is now an extra banjo lying on the back seat!

There are similar jokes about other instruments, especially bagpipes. I like this one. Q: Why do bagpipers walk when they play? A: To get away from the noise.

But back to banjos. All those jokes are really very unfair. A friend of mine once pointed out to me that a banjo player can always draw a crowd, and most of the banjoists I've met have been friendly, helpful people. As an example I give you Mikel Iverson from Utah who has provided, absolutely free, a wonderful online archive of tablature for the clawhammer banjo. If you want to know what clawhammer banjo sounds like then visit his website, because he has also made beautifully clear little recordings of all the tunes he has transcribed. It's better than most of the books you can buy on the subject.

The picture shows a far younger version of myself with an old 'Broadcaster' banjo which was covered in tasteful yellow pearlite. This is from the late eighties when The Moles were at their peak!

I have to mention also that Class 1C at the school where I work made a great little movie about Anansi. They had already composed and performed the music to go with the story and their teacher helped them to create the animation. You can see it online here.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009


This photograph shows the great Scottish storyteller, Duncan Williamson on a visit to the small Norfolk school where I was teaching in 1992. Here's a quote from Hugh Lupton about him:

It was Duncan who told me that when you tell a story, or sing a song, the person you heard it from is standing behind you. When that person spoke, he, in turn, had a teller behind him, and so on, back and back and back. I love this idea, the story has to speak to its own time, but the teller has also to be true to the chain of voices that inform him or her.

You can read more from Hugh Lupton about storytelling here. I was lucky enough to spend a whole day with Duncan, listening to him telling the children story after story, interspersed with songs and tunes on the harmonica, and I often tell stories that he told that day, hearing his voice in my head. He had a very special way of beginning a story so that you were aware that it was part of that chain of voices. Here's an example from The King and the Lamp from Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children.

Now, I want to tell you a good story, and I hope you're going to like it. The story is one my daddy used to tell me when I was wee, because I was very fond of a story and I used to say to him, "Tell us some stories Daddy!" See, when we were carrying on and being wild, Daddy used to say, "Come on and I'll tell you a story!" So you be quiet and listen. And some day when you're big and have wee babies, you can tell them the same story I'm telling you!"

No one can resist that invitation - "Come on and I'll tell you a story." Children who are angry, fed-up, bored or even out of control go quiet. They want to know what happened. Somehow, by telling a story you give it weight, because it's coming directly from you. There's a kind of mystery about where the story comes from, which is the mystery of memory, a direct expression of ourselves like singing or dancing, and I think that's what children (and adults) respond to.

Duncan Williamson died in 2007. You can read about his life here.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Book Corner

I thought I'd follow Chris Priestley's example and post a small corner of one of my bookshelves in honour of World Book Day. Most of the children at the school where I teach dressed up last Friday. They were supposed to be characters from books, but usually these days they're characters from the book of the film, or maybe from the book of the film of the book. It's all very confusing. I did notice that Harry Potter seems to have faded from the scene. The big favourites were Ben10, (looks like the book hasn't appeared yet for that one!), Snow White, Batman, Spiderman, Captain Hook (along with various pirates from the Caribbean), and police officers - which is fair enough when you think how much crime fiction we consume.

So: my bookshelf. It's almost a little history of my childhood reading. I loved the Sam Pig stories for a long time. They evoke a vanished rural England which was still just about alive when I was a child. When I read them now I can still recapture the vividness of the experience of reading them for the first time, especially the story of Sam Pig and the Hurdy-Gurdy Man. Brock the Badger mends the broken hurdy-gurdy so that it has the music of the woods in it. He says, 'if I can mend broken whistles and broken hearts, I can surely mend a broken hurdy-gurdy.' I had no idea what a hurdy-gurdy was and I didn't see one until I was about 20 years old, but I knew I wanted to be a hurdy-gurdy man!

The Bunkle books and the 'Fred and I' adventures of which Tuesday Adventure is the only one I own, came a bit later than Sam Pig, and unlike Sam Pig they came from the library. Almost all the books I read as a child came from the library. Bunkle was written by M. Pardoe. I've just discovered that the Scottish publisher Fidra Books is republishing her books. There's a biography and more information here. Bunkle is a precocious boy whose father is a spy. The plots of the books are improbable, but the stories are brought to life by the descriptions of family life. The children are realistically rude to each other and there are plenty of devious German spies. Like the Sam Pig books, they were printed during World War Two on thin yellow paper. One of them was a Christmas present to someone called Dick in 1944. It seems strange to think that ordinary childhood was still going on. Tuesday Adventure is part of a series by the poet, John Pudney,who wrote 'Johnny Head-in-Air', probably the most famous poem to come out of WW2. The 'Fred and I' books involve two boys and their Uncle George who is fighting the Cold War from a place called Fort X. I couldn't get enough of them. There was one for each day of the week and then one for each season. I'd read them again if I could get hold of them, but they are very rare.

Jacobs' English Fairy Tales is one of the great collections of folk tales. You can hear the voice of the original storyteller in every one. They were first published in 1890 and still sound fresh today. If I had my way every primary school teacher would be required to tell stories to children every day. It used to be a much more usual thing - the teacher telling stories (and I don't mean reading them) and there are plenty of anthologies like the Lucia Turnbull one designed for the purpose. They're worth seeking out in secondhand bookshops. Elizabeth Clarke produced several.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Mike Ingham 1949 - 2009

Mike died on 22nd of February. For ten years between 1980 and 1990 I played with him in a band called The Moles, along with Derek Guy and Henry Holzer. It started out as a ceilidh band. We met on Friday evenings at Henry's house to rehearse and chat, and played gigs maybe once a month, but more frequently in the summertime. In the early years I didn't have a car and Mike would pick me up every Friday in his Morris Traveller. Ellie and Emily always looked forward to his arrival and it usually took at least half an hour's conversation before we were ready to leave.

Mike was a terrific guitarist. He grew up listening to his dad playing all the standards on the guitar, and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of those old songs. Sweet Lorraine was a favourite of his dad's. He was brilliant at working out the chords, too, and also at faking it when he wasn't too sure. We called that improvising until Mike came up with a better word - impoverishing! Sitting on a stage for hours while country dancers leaped around in village halls all over Norfolk we had plenty of time to figure out the most interesting ways to play the three chords we needed for the dance tunes. And as time went by we worked out songs with even more chords and sometimes vocals and then played and sang to anyone who would listen. When we weren't playing we chatted. We talked about everything, but mostly about education.

I had trained as a teacher years before, but never taught. Mike convinced me that in spite of the ever-increasing stranglehold of the bureaucrats and politicians on education it was still possible to be a creative and exciting teacher. We had endless conversations about education, and they all focused on the amazing things that children did. Eventually I started to wonder why I was missing out on such an interesting life and I found myself a job. Without his influence I'm fairly sure I would never have done that.

When Mike stopped being a headteacher and became an inspector and adviser I was surprised because I knew how much he loved working in a school community, and how great he was with children. When he was head of Crowfoot Primary in Beccles he taught music whenever he could. He kept all the instrument in boxes (he loved musical instrument cases!) and I watched him teaching a class one day. He had made a box labelled "silence", and whenever silence was needed, a small boy opened the box. It was brilliant.

But it wasn't just that he was great with kids (I work with a young teacher now who was a pupil of Mike's and the shows he wrote and produced are her most vivid memories of primary school). He was great with grownups, too. Someone who taught in that same school told me the other day that Mike used to wait in the school entrance on a Friday night and say goodbye to every member of staff as they left. Not a lot of people do that.

And that's why he was so good at the job he chose to do. He influenced me, and he influenced very many other people, and through them thousands of children. That was clear from the amazing number of people at his funeral. He was a good, kind man who made a big difference to people's lives. I miss him very much.


The main part of my teaching job these days is teaching music, and the most important part of that job is teaching singing. I've always sung songs with children, ever since the time when I was a playgroup supervisor in Emily's playgroup, and when I was a class teacher I'd always have my guitar with me so that every day was punctuated by songs. However, I've never been that confident about my singing voice, and until recently I'd never had any training either in singing, or in teaching it.

So, after a couple of years of encouraging singing in my school I had children who loved singing, had a great sense of rhythm and were really musical, and I realized I needed to know how to take them to another level. I also figured out that while I was sitting playing the guitar I couldn't help them to sing. I needed to conduct them. The result of all that is that when I saw a conducting course advertised in Great Yarmouth with James Davey I thought it was just the thing. And it was. But it was very hard work, in just the same way that the mountain course I described in an earlier post was.

I had never even done that basic time-beating thing that conductors do - a bit like making the sign of the cross, only not. So suddenly finding myself standing in front of twenty-four fellow students trying to conduct them was incredibly daunting and confusing and pretty stressful too. But you do learn fast like that. And if I learned nothing else I learned that what you do when you stand in front of a group of singers really does directly affect what they do - how you stand, your expression, how you move - it's all incredibly important. It may seem obvious, but the difference between sitting playing a guitar while people sing and conducting their performance
couldn't be greater. When I went for a run this morning I found myself beating time and singing Jubilate Deo. I'm hoping that's not a serious problem.