OK, OK, I know, I know and no, I have not developed some sort of typographical speech impediment, it is just the way I talk. I know I was all full of good intentions of keeping up a decent work-rate on the blog but events have overtaken me again. I won’t bore you with them here as the post which follows is quite long enough already and was almost ready for posting a few days ago.
So where were we? Oh yes, I was on a train heading to Broadstairs (BSR in railway parlance) heading for a location and a festival that are both very high on my list of favourite places / events. I am sure that most doctors would have cautioned me against such a trip in my physical state which, frankly, wasn’t great. Well, I had got as far as Stratford International railway station, so what was going to happen next? If you wish to find out and have come to this post via my homepage, then please click the “more” button below. If you have hit on it otherwise I apologise and please read on.
The train trip to BSR which is the acronym for Broadstairs as, say, LHR means Heathrow airport was a strange experience. I wonder if the pioneers of the “iron horse” steam belching railway ever thought that their stations would be thus designated like an airport for a technology that was still science fiction. Men flying? The stuff of fantasist novels and yet it is here. It is strange to think that all four of my grandparents were born before the Wright brothers had ever even got off the ground.
Whatever the history of train travel the journey to BSR was nothing short of a Damascene moment for me if you believe the Judeo-Christian mythology. Saul / Paul allegedly had a revelation on the road to Damascus, hence the name. It wasn’t quite a blinding light from above that got me but I swear that when I got to about Whitstable and saw the sea (well, technically still the Thames estuary but you get the point) I almost literally felt a weight lift off my shoulders. I am so glad the carriage was empty (I had planned it that way to avoid wearing a mask, which I hate) as anyone nearby would have thought I was some sort of idiot grinning, as I was, like a Cheshire cat.
I know the above paragraph will sound utterly ludicrous to many readers but, having had two major life-saving operations in the last couple of years and then being placed under house arrest by a panicked Government foe about 16 months, it was an escape. It was freedom, it was the first time I had ventured more than 800 yards from my front door for far too long and those small jaunts were for hospital outpatient visits, trips to the pharmacy, essential food shopping etc. Now I was going somewhere.
It is very hard to describe what Broadstairs means to me, it is literally a second home, sometimes for many months at a time. I am constantly asked there why I don’t sell up in London and move there. Frankly, I don’t know. With the obscene house prices in my part of London, ramped up by buy to let cowboys, I have more than five times increased my investment on my flat. I could buy a very, very decent little place in BSR and have money left over.
I think I just cannot bear the thought of leaving London where I was forced to move over 30 years ago. I love it, it is a brilliant place to live (well, it was pre-virus) and I cannot drag myself away but every time I pull into BSR station, I somehow feel like I am at home. I suppose a few “episodes”, including a month in the local hospital, literally hundreds of gigs with brilliant, talented and now occasionally sadly demised musicians, it sort of leaves a mark.
I was deposited bang on time (unusual for a franchised British railway where the obscene profits (we pay the highest rail prices in Europe) do not ensure a brilliant service and I headed out the front. The cabbie (taxi driver) was there and gave me a hand with my kit. Normally, I would have walked to my digs but I didn’t trust my rather broken down old carcass to make it. It is all dowwnhill by virtue of the fact you are heading for the sea which is, by it’s very nature at sea level i.e. 0 feet.
One day this year I was standing outside the wonderful George pub in town one day and a family of very obvious day-trippers asked me where the beach was. I indicated Harbour Street (which should have been a bit of a clue) which has a fairly steep downhill gradient. I told them to keep waalking downhill, stop before they got wet and they would be on the beach. It took a worryingly long few seconds to sink in but they eventually thanked me and headed on their way.
Back to the cabbie i.e. my driver from the station to my digs, I didn’t trust my legs that far. We conducted a commentary over a five or six minute cab ride which will fill the reader with dread but bear with me. As regular readers know, things just happen to me. As I stated above, the driver had helped me with my kit and had obviously seen the guitar case. We had probably reached the excellent Bradstow Mill pub on High Street (which is virtually opposite the station) when he informed me that he had previously played in a few bands. Fine, many people have and are now driving cabs, flipping burgers or whatever when the yellow brick road to fame and fortune petered out in a tangle of agents, managers, debts and the omnipresent lawyers who are held in equally omnipresent contempt by musicians and any other right thinking human being.
Out of politeness more than anything but a little curiosity I enquired who he had played with, expecting a name from some local outfit I had never heard of. He replied, “The Anti Nowhere League” and my ears pricked up. I had never seen them live nor bought an album of theirs but I had heard of them which makes them slightly famous in my book.
Nobody has ever heard of “The Terminators”, “Oscar’s T-shirt” or (my favourite) “The Hang Gliders from Hell”, all of which are bands I have played in. OK, the “Hang Gliders” was a one-off outfit who played one gig “headlining” the Sunday night at the club tent at Cambridge Folk Festival but you get the idea. There is a great story about that gig but I’ll save it for another time and back to the driver.
He drove faultlessly the mile or maybe a touch more to where I was going to be based for the next three weeks or so. I do not subscribe to any of the major religions and I am most definitely not into signs, portents, auguries or whatever you want to call them but I took this as a good start to my trip. Frankly, even getting to my destination was a good start and to have been driven there by a member of a band I had even heard of was just the icing on the cake. Something in the deep, dark recesses of my hindbrain told me I had done the right thing, that I was in the right place at the right time and that it was going to be a great Festival. I wasn’t proved wrong!
I wandered into the Wrotham Arms to be greeted by my great friend Jackie, who is the licensee. I had timed my run as I knew the place does not open until 1600 on weekdays and I noticed that she had taken advantage of her lengthy enforced closure to have the place re-furbed a bit. A new paint job inside and out, a few touchups here and there and even a snazzy new sign but still effectively the same old Scrotum Arms (please pardon the term) I had left after the Blues Bash of February 2020.
Why do I call it the Scrotum Arms? It is certainly not to cause offence or I might be forced to ban myself from my site but with the current state of the lawyer dominated world (yes, we are back to that lot again) it is not that improbable. I call it that because of pronounciation and isn’t it slightly ironic that the very word pronounciation has two ways of pronouncing it? Go on, think about it.
This is going to be difficult without the medium of verbal communication but, if you ask ten different locals what the pub is called you will get ten different answers. It is a bit like putting the jam or the cream first on your Cornish cream tea. I’ll try as best I can here. The O in Wrotham can be rendered as either a standard O, a longer Oo or even mostly ignored. The th can be pronounced as either soft as in them, there but others insist it is hard as in a single T. Confused? You should be!
About 30 years ago, with my principle of avoiding conflict, I decided to name it the Scrotum Arms and, strangely enough, everyone understood, such is the joy of the evolution of language. You would meet another musician in the street and, after the initial pleasantries it would be, “Where have you got”? My answer would be along the lines of “Louisa Bay tomorrow (a great pub now sadly turned into flats), Rose on Wednesday (again sadly demised and a restaurant with flats above), the Nelson Thursday (currently having had the roof ripped off so it becomes dangerous and the South African developer gets his way to tear it down and build, you’ve guessed it, more luxury flats which he was denied permission for as it is a conservation area), then the Scrotum on Friday. Nobody ever asked what I meant by the Scrotum Arms, everyone just got it and there was never even a discussion about the pronunciation of the word, everyone knows how to say scrotum!
Enough of that and back to the Wrotham Arms which has now become something of a second home to me, a second home within a second home if you will. The current licensee, Jackie, has been there for 12 years but I go way back beyond that to the previous licensee, another dear friend called Jenny when she had the place. I think I first stayed there when she booked Steve Mulhern (brilliant fiddle player, domiciled in Bulgaria with this French girlfriend last I heard) and myself to play a gig. She had seen us at Folk Week and obviously liked it. We got a few £££, a lot of pints bought for us and a bed for the night so Steve did not have to drive the 70 miles back to London), it was perfect.
If you want to know what Steve and I were like here, you can check it out. I know it is only a short clip but it is the only one I have in that venue. I miss Steve so much, we did so many things together. Someday I might even tell you about Madonna turning up at one of our gigs and I really am not making this up! You can see from that clip why I love the place so much. It is a proper home for musos.
If I have not bored you sufficiently already, I am going to bore you further with the layout of the pub. Jacks calls room 6 “my room” and she puts me there purely because of my size. It has a double bed and, with me standing 6’5″ I can lie diagonally and sleep comfortably. She was hugely apologetic but told me “my” room would not be available until the Monday as it was booked.
The unavailability of “my” room was no problem to me, as one who used to spend his nights sleeping on the back seats of cars, on any amount of hard floors and even once on (not under but on) a pool table, which was damned uncomfortable, I can get my head down about anywhere or at least I could before this insomnia and nocturnalism hit me.
Room 5 was, as the images hopefully show, a delight and when Jackie offered me to move to “my” room I politely declined on the basis that it would give her sister Tracy (who does the cleaning) unnecessary work and anyway the single bed must have been about 6’5″ or 6’6″ long. I could sleep easily in it without too many of my extremities hanging out and getting cold. Ideal. After the trials of the previous couple of years this was really like actually having died and gone to heaven, whatever your concept of that is.
I was in a perfectly comfortable room, I could see my guitar propped up in the corner and knew I was going to get the chance to play it with some serious musicians. OK, circumstances dictated that it was never going to be as it had always been before the world was destroyed but I just knew that everyone was going to bust a gut trying to make it work.
I was still a bit anxious about being out of my own home without fear of being arrested, I was anxious that I had not played live for 16 months or so. I was anxious that the pads on my left fingers had softened and I was badly out of practice. I was anxious about just about everything. If the reader will pardon a little indelicacy I was wetting myself. When I was a much younger musician I used to regularly throw up before gigs because I got so nervous. I even took to carrying a toothbrush and toothpaste in my guitar case against such an eventuality. I still do, just to be on the safe side. I am past the nervous vomiting stage now but I was feeling not unlike I used to feel before a gig 40 years previously.It was an odd sensation two days before anything official was even happening and I was not contractually obliged to do anything. A very odd feeling.
I have often said that I inhabit Planet Fergy, population 1, and that is a hopefully humourous comment which I use onstage but, as ever, it has an element of truth behind the joke and Planet Fergy got a whole lot happier when I got in touch with my dear friend Sarah and she said we should meet up for a drink that evening. Suits me. I should mention at this point that I have cleared it with everyone involved to write about them here although there are cases where I shall apply pseudonyms to protect their identities for various reasons. I shall indicate this by writing the pseudonyms in italics although it is not necessary for Sarah.
What can I tell you about Sarah? Well, in the interests of the truthfulness I keep going on about I am going to tell you the facts, uneasy reading as that may be. Again, as I said on my intro page, I started this blog as much as my own epitaph as anything else with maybe a few useful travel hints thrown in for good measure, so I’m not going to start spinning yarns. I have cleared this with Sarah and she is cool with me writing about her and using her real name.
The simple and potentially uncomfortable fact for the reader is that, were it not for this utterly wonderful human being, you would possibly not be reading this. Let me explain. Some years ago, having recently retired, I was very down and very unhappy. I had nothing to do, it seemed as if any sort of meaningful life had effectively ended. Enter, stage left, the mighty Sarah.
I’d known Sarah for years, I first met her when she was 21 and was working a summer job in the Tartar Frigate pub whilst she was in Uni studying to be a teacher. We had a bit of interaction but it was evident she was young enough to be my daughter if not grand-daughter. The thought of a relationship never entered my mind, pleasant company as she was.
Fast forward a few years and I was back in Broadstairs playing the festival with some thrown together scratch band, as is my way, and I ran into Sarah again. Somehow or another we ended up going out for a drink and she told me that she had fancied me for years. I nearly dropped off my bar-stool and made some ridiculous comment like, “Why didn’t you say so, you dozy cow”. She rode that one and, to make a very long story slightly shorter, we ended up as “an item” as I believe the modern term is.
Sarah and I were the original odd couple (forget Walther Matthau and Jack Lemmon) and briefly the talk of the town. In those days Sarah was 26 and I was 52 so we used to joke that she was literally half my age. It was never an issue for us and isn’t to this day but everyone else seemed to find it odd. Broadstairs operates very much on “small town mentality” where garden fence gossip rules. We didn’t give a damn and used to laugh at their stupidity.
In the popular imagination I was an old pervert preying on a much younger girl (albeit her IQ is about three times mine and she did qualify as a teacher) and she was supposedly a gold-digger although what potential gold she was meant to be digging for is a mystery to me, I am not a rich man. Both concepts were utter rubbish. We were two people who liked being together and rubbed along pretty easily together. Let them think what they will in their narrow-minded view but back now to how she helped me.
As I mentioned, some years ago, I was not a happy bunny. Sure I was financially well enough off with a monthly pension but I was just going down, down, down. I cannot remember now how we were in touch (I do not use antisocial media) but Sarah told me she was house-sitting (and in the first case lizard sitting, my introduction to herpatology!) and I should come down for the summer. The period had Folk Week right in the middle so I could help with the set-in, set-out and play a bit in between. It sounded perfect and it was.
That summer I fed the lizard, wandered about on a daily pub crawl of the numerous establishments I inhabit in that town and region, Sarah would go to work and I’d pick her up at closing time. We’d even take it in turns to ride her ancient ladies bicycle, festooned with yellow flowers, on the way home. That was a sight, I can tell you, especially when I occasionally wobbled it onto a hedge trying to ride slowly enough for her to keep up. Thankfully, I know it is not a criminal offence to be drunk in charge of a bicycle although it used to be, it is just a silly thing to do and occasionally painful! We’d also take it in turns to cook a late supper and watch whatever was on late night telly before retiring to bed. It was quite idyllic really.
I realise this whole story must be intensely boring for anyone reading but, as I mentioned above, I want this to stand as an epitaph after I have gone and, quite frankly, it feels good to get this all out of my system. The end result of the entire process was that by September of that year I wasn’t in such a bad place any more. Somehow, with her help, I’d crawled back out of the hole I was in. Sarah saved me and that is a huge debt to repay, I am not sure if I ever can.
I realise this post has gone on far too long now but I am going to extend it further with a plea to whoever may read it. As I have written above I was in a very dark place then. If you are in the “dark place” then please believe me, having been there, that there are ways of climbing out. I was going to put up a list of helplines here but I know that my readership is global so there is no point in posting a load of UK websites. Find your local one, there are plenty out there globally.
Look at it this way, and again I apologise to people who came here looking for a travel blog but this is important, if I had done something silly or just withdrawn and become a recluse I would have missed out on some of the best years of my life like my various trips to Canada, Sri Lanka, Madeira, Portugal and a lunatic three month trip round Europe, all of which are documented on this site. If you are in a bad place, talk to someone, there is no shame in that.
I was so lucky to have Sarah and I realise that not everyone has a Sarah on call but, wherever you are in the world, there are people who will listen to you without judging you and will try to help you. If all else fails, send me a message here, I’ll talk to you. I know the current world situation has left us all feeling very isolated but believe me on this, you do not need to be alone and back now to the narrative. I really did not intend this “public service broadcast” to happen, it just seemed to come out and I actually make no apology for it.
The narrative (we are now on about take 20 in film terms) and there I was sitting in a fairly empty Wrotham Arms with Jackie, a very dear friend, behind the bar and sitting at a table with a woman who had saved me from myself some years previously and is still a dear friend. I ask you, dear reader, how bad can that be?
Without wishing to sound too overblown, I felt like I was home, in the place I should be and with people who I know actually care about me although I have no idea why. All this and I could barely walk and had not even dragged “the Beast” (my guitar) out of the case which is a good way of making friends and everything in my world was pretty Hunky Dory, to borrow the title one of my favourite Bowie albums. To actually be sitting in a bar 70 miles from my home with an intimately close friend enjoying a drink under the patronage of another dear friend was something I could only have dreamed of a few months previously. Yes, I was in “my” place, I was back and I was going to play either the next day or the day after. With the state of my health, it could have been the last festival I ever played and I was going to enjoy it.
I shall share with you now a bit of wonderful news. Again I have had clearance to speak of this here. Sarah has been living for some years with a guy and they are now officially engaged to be married. My very best wishes to both of them and I have already been invited to the wedding and ordered to bring my guitar to play in the scratch ceilidh band at the reception. Believe me, when Sarah tells you to bring your guitar and play, you do that. Quite honestly, I would not wish to fall out with her.
The problem with Sarah and I was geography. We live about 70 miles apart and, despite her having housesat my flat one time when I was in Asia it was evident she didn’t want to move to London permanently and I could not commit to a full-time move to Thanet. We sort of drifted apart but remain great friends and thankfully her future hubby thinks the same, he doesn’t mind his fiancée sitting drinking all night with a weird guitar-playing hippy, he’s a good bloke.
“Heavens to Murgatroyd”, as I believe it was W.C. Fields once said, this post has run rather out of control. I was on the verge of another apology but I am not going to. I gave fair warning above and in previous posts that I was going to be brutally honest and that is what I have tried to be here. With some recent medical information I have (full details to come), I may not have too many more trips so I am afraid you are getting it both barrels, Lock, Stock and two smoking as my “mate” Guy Ritchie once directed. There are a few great tales of me, Guy, Jude Law, Robert Downey Jr., my guitar, bottles of Laphroaig and Jason Statham! Clang, there goes another namedrop. Maybe I’ll tell you some time.
If you have not been completely put off by my verbosity here and perhaps a little more soul opening than I expected to do then please hang around for the story of a brilliant festival cobbled together under the most extreme of circumstances (the festival, not me!) then stay tuned and spread the word.