My Pop Life #153 : Small Hours – John Martyn

Small Hours   –   John Martyn

I met Colin Jones at the London School of Economics in 1976 and remained friends with him until he died in 1997 in a possibly deliberate car crash on the M6 when he drove into the back on a lorry parked on the hard shoulder somewhere in Cumbria.  We were shocked and saddened, but the happy-go-lucky LSE student, music lover, dope dealer, driving instructor and friend had turned into (revealed himself as?) a secretly deeply depressed man who struggled increasingly with his own private torments.  In the late 1980s his flat-mate Dave Moser had found him lying in his bed with slit wrists and a huge pool of blood around him on the floor, but Dave had called the ambulance and Colin had lived.  A cry for help no doubt.  Or was it ?

The London School Of Economics, Houghton St WC2

LSE 1976-79 was full of unreformed hippies, beatniks, groovers and fresh new student punks.  My gang was loosely grouped around the ENTS Room which organised live concerts and suchlike and was where you were guaranteed to score some dope or at least bum a puff of weed, a cloud of which hung like a signpost outside the door of the scruffy 2nd-floor office.  The other room which was near the ENTS Room was the Student Newspaper office – called Beaver, less druggy but still hippy-drenched and groovy.  I spent my spare time (which at university was plentiful) between these two rooms, and two other key groups – the LSE football team and the Drama group.  What a blessed time.  I was studying for a law degree, which I achieved with a lazy 2:2 in the summer of ’79, never intending to use it.  I would have been a good lawyer.  My mind works like a lawyer’s.  But I’d caught the acting bug by then, and regardless of shadow careers and what-ifs, it has been a true privilege to earn a living in this precarious and exciting profession.

The ENTS gang then :  Andy Cornwell, from Lewes Priory like me, the ultimate cool groover with a blond afro, pear-drop glasses and mushroom loon pants.  Permanently stoned, earnest and absurdly relaxed, he booked the bands that we all grew to champion : Aswad, Roy Harper, Vivian Stanshall and others.  He would later run the Legalize Cannabis Campaign, and perhaps still does.  Mike Stubbs, the previous Ents Chief, long wavy orange hair and pop-blue eyes, who stayed reasonably above the fray (he was a little older) but with whom I lived in my 3rd year (see My Pop Life 150).  He became a lawyer.  Pete Thomas, twinkly-eyed Everton fan from Hertfordshire, reggae disciple and expert joint-roller had a keen eye for business and had retired by the time he was 40.  His girlfriend and wife Sali Beresford, one of the only women in the crew, bright as a button, funny as fuck and fierce as a firecracker.  I lived with them and Nick Partridge from  ’78-’80 (see My Pop Life #59).  Their friends :  Colin Jones, Tony Roose, John Vincent.  Colin had frizzy ginger hair and a beard which looked glued on, round John Lennon glasses and a nervous but generous smile. He actually resembled Fat Freddy from the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers in an admittedly blurry kind of way.

Fat Freddy and his cat

On closer inspection and the clear cold light of day of course, he didn’t look anything like him, but there you go.   He was warm, vulnerable and funny and he supplied the dope incessantly.  For decades.   Tony and John were a team within the team and they supported the eternal wearing of denim, throwing of frisbee, smoking of weed, drinking of beer.  John was very quiet and shy.  I went to Belfast with Tony on a Troops Out Delegation in 1981 (see My Pop Life #13), and we’re still in touch.  Back then we used to go to Regent’s Park, our nearest green space to Fitzroy Street, and play frisbee golf, a game which we invented.  (not strictly true, but we did : see Wikipedia ).   It involved declaring and indicating the next hole (That tree over there!) then throwing your own frisbee at it in turn until you hit it.  While stoned.  Subsequently I introduced this game to Brighton in the late 1990s, playing with the village gang Andy Baybutt, James Lance, Tim Lewis, Lee Charles Williams and Thomas Jules on a regular basis in the parks and green spaces of Brighton and Hove.  I recommend it to you all as a splendid pastime.

The rest of the LSE possee then  :  Anton who edited the Beaver, long hair down to his waist and a permanently amused lisp.  His team-mate and flat mate Nigel, the only other person other than me who dug Peter Hammill, lead singer of Van Der Graaf Generator who’d made a string of alarming and alarmingly good solo LPs.  Wavy hair down below his waist, Nigel turned me on to Todd Rundgren, for which eternal thanks.  Lewis MacLeod who was studying Law with me, speaking almost incomprehensible Glaswegian who liked a drink and a smoke and watching football so much that he would come down to the Goldstone Ground to watch the Albion with me.  We invented the Beatles A-Level  one stoned afternoon (sample question :  “She was just seventeen, you know what I mean. Discuss.”)  He is now a journalist at the BBC in Reading, specialising in Bangla Desh among other things.  Dave Moser, prematurely balding and brightly benign, shared a flat with Colin then moved to Australia in the mid-1980s.

I was with Mumtaz through all those years, and she would often be there with us, and was indeed one of us, still is, but often she would have to duck out of the incessant revelries because she was studying to be an actual lawyer rather than just playing at it.  And she didn’t enjoy frisbee.  She also became a lawyer.  The standard as I recall it through the haze, was high.  John Vincent was the don, his unerring accuracy gave us all something to aim for and raised our game.

Later Nick Partridge would join this crowd, after LSE finished  and lived in West Hampstead with us, he went on to run the Terrence Higgins Trust from 1991 until 2013 when he resigned, having become Sir Nick Partridge in 2009 to everyone’s joy and amusement.  In those balmy heady years after university the whole gang stayed effortlessly in touch and we still sought each other’s company, played frisbee golf and went to concerts together.  And of course got stoned together listening to Burning Spear (see My Pop Life #10), Spirit, Van Morrison and John Martyn.

Hard to choose a song for Colin, his favourite artist was Bob Dylan, favourite song Tangled Up In Blue.  But that doesn’t remind me of him.  Small Hours by John Martyn does.  A wonderful musician whom we all saw regularly in London at UCH, Bloomsbury and other venues, and he’d come up with a fantastic new LP in 1977 called One World.  It was on the record player a lot.  An early experimentalist with technology, Martyn at that point performed solo (or with just a bass player) utilising a repeat box of pedals which set up a groove for him to solo and sing over, a hugely effective trick which kept us all rapt.  A very original sound at that time.  We all loved the futuristic blues/folk/jazz of John Martyn, as did DJ John Peel.  Martyn’s early albums with Beverley Martyn his wife were subtle and beautiful, but once they’d divided their talents he changed his vocal style to a more slurred jazzy feel and hooked up with bass player Danny Thompson.   He then started a run of amazing LPs starting with Bless The Weather, followed by total masterpiece Solid Air (1973), dedicated to his friend Nick Drake (who died of an overdose of anti-depressants a year later).

Then followed  Inside Out,  and Sunday’s Child, at which point Chris Blackwell, boss of Island records, suggested that John take some healing time in Jamaica.  He did like to drink.   He has a backing credit on Burning Spear‘s Man In The Hills, and spent time with the great producer Lee Perry at Black Ark.   The shared ideas were poured into the One World album.  The track Small Hours was recorded outside at Woolwich Green Farm deep in the English countryside one night.  Engineer Phil Brown discusses the unique set-up around a lake in his book “Are We Still Rolling?“.  You can hear water, and the sound of geese on the track, haunting and wonderful.   Records (or albums, LPs indeed), were to be listened to in those days, and they also supplied us with mini-trays to roll joints on.  The selection of the album to roll on became a part of the ritual.  Joints were to be passed around, a social event.  And then when the brain was stoned, it listened to the music and fell in love with it.

After college we all helped Pete & Sali and Colin’s girlfriend Mary move a reasonably large upright piano into the infamous Huntley Street Squat, just round the corner from Heals Department Store off Tottenham Court Road.  Top floor, of course.  Up seven flights of stairs.  Most of the above-mentioned chaps were there.  It was quite simply one of the worst evenings of my life, and in the joke about visions of hell (tea-break over, back on yer heads) I would substitute an endless spiral staircase with an infinite line of pianos which had to ascend it as a particular torture which I never wished to revisit, even in hell.  A few years later we moved that same piano into a flat in Mornington Crescent, then years later when I got the Housing Association flat in Archway Road, Mary gave it to me, bless her.  About 20 years later I gave it in turn to our friend masseur Anna Barlow because her disabled son had asked her for a piano, and I then bought Andy Baybutt‘s gentler-toned upright.  Recently in the summer of 2019 I gave it back to Andy. The Frisbee piano circle continues.

Colin became a Driving Instructor (as did Mike Stubbs) and although I’d learned to drive (in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in the summer of 1976 in a Beetle), now I had to pass the test (on the wrong side of the road!), which thanks to Colin I did first time despite hitting the kerb on my reverse corner.   Colin also continued to provide most of the dope that we all smoked in copious amounts, either as a first choice drug, or increasingly to cushion the come-down of speed which had now entered our lives thanks to punk and the increased tempo of the music we listened to and watched live.  At some point after this I moved into the Finsbury Park attic room with Mumtaz, Colin met Wanda and they were married.  Later he transferred his talents to driving transport for the disabled for Camden Council, eventually as team leader.  He carried on dealing throughout.  But he never seemed to settle.  Neither did I by the way.  The flat with Dave Moser was a headquarters once again for all of us to gather and smoke and chew the cud, listen to music and solve the world’s problems.  Until the dark night when he slashed his own wrists.  We held a men’s group in the early 80s as a supportive response to the feminist movement, Colin was in that, as was Tony, and my mate Simon Korner.   But despite the suicide attempt Colin always seemed to me to be a together person, a proper grown-up.  I felt like a young soul next to him, he was wise and funny and sad, compassionate and thoughtful and very bright.  When we heard that he’d died in an accident on the M6 and the details filtered through, many felt that it was no accident, that this time he’d managed to kill himself.  We gathered for his funeral and wake near King’s Cross, drank and smoked, shocked and stunned, sad and looking at each other for support and understanding.

I still miss him.  In researching this piece I spoke with Pete, who confided to me that Colin had been sexually abused by his father as a child.  I can only guess at the torment inside him, never shared with me.  Given that burden I feel that his life was a kind of miracle.  He was a terribly kind and gentle man.   Were we all damaged, in different private ways, trying quietly and communally to heal together in the wee small hours, holy music washing over us ?

My Pop Life #13 : The Green Fields Of France – The Fureys & Davey Arthur

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The Green Fields Of France  –  The Fureys & Davey Arthur

But here in this graveyard it’s still No Man’s Land
The countless white crosses stand mute in the sand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
To a whole generation that were butchered and damned.

We’re sitting on a bus to Crossmaglen in South Armagh in the summer of 1981;  me,  Tony Roose and a delegation of the Troops Out Movement.  We have a Sinn Fein escort, for these rolling green hills and sparkling rivers are in bandit country, and we’re heading for a village on the Irish border.  An IRA village.  There’s a huge bristling watchtower on the village green, and a mile to the south, towards the border, a British Army barracks.

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We marched down the country lane with banners and made a speech through a megaphone to the troops inside.  Then someone knocked on the door.  I remember this moment quite clearly.  A young lad with a red, black and green camoflage painted face stood there with his rifle, reminding me of Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, the paint glistening on his young features, he was younger than me, about 18.  We made our point: “we don’t want British troops in Northern Ireland” and went to the pub.  Drank Guinness and then this song came on the jukebox.

I think the moment I became curious about Ireland was after Bloody Sunday in 1972, shocking grainy images on the TV of soldiers, people running.  Death.  An IRA bomb sometime after that terrible day – the day the Daily Mirror headline IRA SCUM was published.  We had the Mirror delivered every day to our council house in Hailsham. I was about 16 and on a political learning curve – I had a map of Vietnam on my bedroom wall where I mapped the Vietcong advance.   For me, there was just something wrong with a newspaper using the word “scum”, about anyone.   My antennae wobbled.  I investigated.  I understood fairly quickly that we were at war – not in some far-flung colonial outpost – but inside our own country.   Nothing really happened except filtering The News through this knowledge, translating and decoding the stuff we were supposed to think but never really being active until after college in London when I joined the Troops Out Movement and went to some marches and meetings. Tony Roose was at LSE with me and felt the same way.

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So one early morning in August, we boarded a coach with our fellow Delegates, and drove up the M6 to Stranraer where a ferry would take us to Larne.  Before we boarded there was a checkpoint and we all had to hand over our passports.  It took them about 20 minutes to photocopy the lot, and we were all on file and bang goes the knighthood and there we were on the Irish Sea.  Once in Belfast, we were taken to our orientation meeting off the Falls Road, told not to wander around alone, we were guests of Sinn Fein, and there’ll be a trip to Crossmaglen tomorrow, then a rally the following day.  We were billetted with republican familes on Ballymurphy Estate in West Belfast and that’s when it hit me.  War.   Roadblocks with soldiers. Watchtowers.  Barbed wire.  Armoured Cars with squaddies.   Guns.  And amongst all this war, people going shopping , going down the bookies, kids playing in the street.  “They never told us about this”  I said. ” Look at this !”  This is what war looks like.  Squaddies with rifles cocked crouching down in someone’s front garden as the net curtain twitches and an old lady looks out.  The weird normality of occupation.  The wall which separated the Protestant Shankhill from the Catholic Falls Road.  It was shocking.  The kids were fresh – asking for money, dancing Michael Jackson for us, flirting, laughing at our accents.  When I ran out of cigarettes I wasn’t allowed by Jean (whose husband was serving time in H-Block) to go to the shop on my own.  “They’ll pop yer when they hear yer accent. They’ll think yer an undercover Brit“.

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It was a passionate moment in Irish history.  Ten hunger strikers had died in the H-Block prison demanding political status since May, among them Bobby Sands, who was elected MP for Fermanagh in April 1981 on an 87% turnout.  Thatcher had overseen this grisly procession of martyrdom with a steely demeanour, and would go on to prove she had guts by sacrificing more young men in the South Atlantic the following year.  The stakes were high.  The anger in West Belfast, mixed with the anarchic joy of the kids, the incredible street murals championing the IRA as heroes, and Bobby Sands in particular as a latter-day saint, the British Army waiting “out there” as Joe Strummer had said : “and it weighs fifteen hundred tons“, everything just felt like resistance – fight back – take a stand.

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The song is about the First World War and was written by Eric Bogle, a Scotsman.  But I’ll always marry it to the Irish republican struggle because of this moment, and because this cover version by The Fureys & Davey Arthur is so universal – and yet so specific too. The year 1916 saw the Easter Rising in Dublin, 500 were killed, and the leaders were executed.  Conscription for ‘The Great War’ was abandoned and Ireland turned decisively against the British.  At war’s end, Sinn Fein won the 1919 election and formed a government in Ireland.  The following war of independence saw the formation of the “black and tans” – the brainchild of Churchill  -who became the sectarian RUC or Royal Ulster Constabulary – the N. Irish Protestant police force. The South formed the Irish Free State in 1922, and the partition of the country ensued.  And that’s where we were sitting in our pub in the village of Crossmaglen – in the north of a divided nation.  This was a particularly hot period in Irish history, and although I’d read about it somewhat I was not prepared at all for what I found there.  It was thrilling and scary and righteous and we stood for what we believed.

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I nearly got beaten up in London for wearing my favourite Troops Out badge – a map of the UK where Scotland was beating Northern Ireland with a baton formed of The Hebrides, and got searched on the tube platform at Victoria on my way to a gig by a secret Policeman who snarled “Don’t Wear Badges” when he couldn’t find anything incriminating.  Mine was slightly more geographically accurate than this, and was a greener green, but nearly got me a broken nose outside The French House one afternoon by a dead squaddie’s brother.  “Say sorry to my brother!” Me : brave, foolish : “I’m sorry your brother is dead but if he hadn’t been over there he would still be with us“.

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The Troops Out Movement is still going and their website is here:

Somehow this song incorporates all my feelings about that time, even though it is a song about WW1, perhaps the soft southern irish accent of Davey Arthur singing, or perhaps the righteous fury at the establishment, or more likely a heady combination of the two, and where I first heard it.   There were plenty of rebel songs too of course, The Men Behind The Wire and others but this song is pretty amazing.