My Pop Life #127 : He Who Would Valiant Be

To Be A Pilgrim

he who would valiant be ‘gainst all disaster

let hm in constancy follow the master

there’s no discouragement can make him once relent

his first avowed intent to be a pilgrim…

At some point in 1966 my mother was still in Hellingly Hospital near Herstmonceux in East Sussex, receiving ECG and taking various medications, mainly Largactyl.   She’d had a Nervous Breakdown.  She would be there for 9 months in all.  I wrote about this period in My Pop Life #55.  My dad was struggling to cope with three young sons and a full-time teaching job in Brighton and initially he’d been helped by our Nan, Ruby Laming who’d travelled up from Portsmouth and lived with us in the village.   Apart from missing Mum terribly our lives hadn’t changed all that much – we still walked up the road to the little village school, played football, fought in the playground, saved up for a packet of crisps and hid in the bales of the barn opposite our house.

Mum came home eventually 9 months later, but Dad moved out under a cloud pretty soon after that after being caught with the babysitter.  So then it was Mum and three boys.   These years blur and blend, but perhaps it was 1968 when she must have returned to hospital again.

And suddenly we were shipped out to Brighton – or at least Paul and I were.  Andrew was only 3 or 4 years old at this point and would have been transferred to Mum’s sister Valerie in Portsmouth.   Separated not for the first or the last time.   But at least we weren’t in care.   Being abused somewhere.   Lucky us.   I think Paul and I were 10 and 8 years old respectively.  It may be 9 and 7.  Someone may help me pin the year down.  It won’t make that much difference.

We were taken to a house in Lauriston Road where a colleague of my Dad’s lived with his family.  Phil was a teacher at Westlain Grammar too.  His wife Moyra also worked but I cannot remember her job.  They had two children called Ceri and Eleri – the daughter Eleri was one year older than Ceri.

Lauriston Road is opposite the top end of Preston Park in Brighton.    Us country boys from a small village with one shop were suitably gobsmacked by this development.  Just down Preston Road was the Rookery Rock Garden, right opposite the park and we explored that with delight.  Twisty paths, ponds with fish, rocks and overhanging trees, all built on a hillside between the main road north – the A23 and the railway line.  It has a slightly Japanese feel in design, and was built in 1935 using tons of imported Cheddar rock and stone.   It is still a delightful place to visit.  It was my first taste of Brighton.

We were all taken to their primary school the next morning, but Paul refused to go, hanging onto the baluster of the staircase and screaming his head off.  Moyra got quite upset with him – I imagine she was being made late for work, and there was nowhere else for us to be at that age.  Eventually his hands were prised free from the staircase and we were bundled into a Morris Traveller and taken to school.

Christian reads his Book :  William Blake

The school was terrifying of course.  We’d been used to a tiny classroom with a dozen kids, three or four of them my own age.   Now we were lined up at desks with 25-30 strange faces and a large female teacher whose name I have erased.  She read to us every day from a large book about a man called Christian and his journey across a strange forbidding landscape – the Hill Of Difficulty, the Valley of Humiliation and carrying this weight everywhere he went – a book.  When Christian was captured by The Giant Despair and imprisoned in his Doubting Castle I started freaking out.

The psycho-geography of Pilgrim’s Progress

Then I caught chicken pox.  Then Paul caught chicken pox.  Then Ceri caught chicken pox.  Then Eleri caught chicken pox.  That was the end of school !!  We were bedridden for at least a week, maybe more.  Phil would read us bedtime stories at night bless him.  In loco parentis.  We never really made friends with those kids and I don’t think we ever saw them again.  It was like an unearthly interlude with illness – and probably felt like chaos to my parents.

John Bunyan (detail) – painting by Thomas Sadler

Later I realised that the book that was being read aloud to us was John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a christian allegory the first part of which was published in England in 1677 while Bunyan was imprisoned for preaching without a licence.   Perhaps it was an abridged version, or a child’s version we were listening to.  In any event the looming Celestial City and the Valley Of The Shadow Of Death both represented the same thing to me – horror.  I can’t ever remember enjoying Christian stories, whether Old Testament, New Testament or books like Pilgrim’s Progress.  They always felt slightly threatening.  Perhaps it was the context, or the character of the teller.

6th-former, Lewes Grammar 1964 by the Chapel

Later when I was at Grammar School in Lewes we sang in the School Chapel, the whole school assembled to stand in pews and hold hymnbooks and sing together.   Me in shorts, uniform, striped dark blue and light blue tie and cap.   And there was that word again, in a tune that filled my heart :  To Be A Pilgrim.  I never heard any version of this on record or anywhere else, my entire memory of it is as a hymn sung in a church.  Little did I know that the words of the hymn were taken from Bunyan’s book, slightly modified in 1906 by Percy Dearnal, and set to music in the same year by my namesake Ralph Vaughan Williams.   Later on Vaughan Williams would write an opera called Pilgrim’s Progress which premiered in 1951.

English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams

Young Ralph – he was 34 at the time – took the music from a Sussex folk song called Monk’s Gate, named after a village near Horsham, the tune being collected by a Mrs Harriet Verrall of that parish who was also responsible for the Sussex Carol.  The resulting tune and words are forever stirring and pleasing to mine ear, and do not remind me of the shadowy days listening to Pilgrim’s Progress in some strange forbidding grey school in Brighton.  I can pick up and discard these associations in my own time – luckily – for the hated Thatcher’s funeral also featured this very hymn.   In fact I’m quite fond of the word Pilgrim.  I like to set myself random tasks, usually psycho-geographical in nature, oft times muso-geographical, and then become a pilgrim for the length of a day, a week, a year.  An example is to be found at My Pop Life 16 when Jenny and I visited the Metropolitan Museum in 2014 seeking the paintings from Rufus Wainwright‘s The Art Teacher, or at My Pop Life #97 when I sought out the locations in Berlin that David Bowie references in “Where Are We Now?“.  In both instances I was a pilgrim.  There is a staggeringly good Van Der Graaf Generator song called Pilgrims which I am inordinately fond of.

And there is a Wishbone Ash LP called Pilgrimage which captured our teenage imagination at one point with its twin lead guitar attack and which I have not revisited this long century since.   But it means so much more than this.  Remember the Canterbury Tales?

The Hajj to Mecca ? The Pilgrimage Of Grace ?

Benares ?  

These mass movements of the devoted are peaceful in nature, the very opposite of a crusade.  And yet and yet.  I have to reject the religious way, the idea of such certainly being handed to me in a book, from a man, located in a place, a system of beliefs laid out for me.  The centre of the universe is surely everywhere as Sitting Bull once observed.

Pilgrims are focussed.  Single minded.  Valiant – possibly.   They seek, they search, they have a reason to go on.  Following a master ?  Don’t know about that.  It would certainly make it easier though wouldn’t it ?  Make it easier to be a pilgrim.

Maddy Prior who used to be in Steeleye Span :

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My Pop Life #49 : This Guy’s In Love With You – Herb Alpert

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This Guy’s In Love With You   –   Herb Alpert

…who looks at you the way I do?  

When you smile

I can tell 

we know each other very well…

It certainly helps that the first thing you hear is a soft-tone electric keyboard before the brushes on the snare and the vocal arrive for this is a lounge groove par excellence, from deep in my memory.   Herb Alpert had been running Tijuana Brass since 1962 with huge success, the extremely popular albums outselling even The Beatles in 1966.   Tijuana Brass were a faux-Latin brass pop outfit which Alpert described as “Four lasagnas, two bagels, and an American cheese”.  Alpert himself is Ukrainian Jewish from Boyle Heights and went to Fairfax High in Los Angeles.   He is also the “A” in “A&M Records” which he formed with Jerry Moss in 1962 and was home to The Carpenters, Sergio Mendes and Burt Bacharach who wrote and arranged “This Guy…“.   It wasn’t all easy-listening central, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker and Procul Harum (My Pop Life #37) all signed with A&M in the late 60s and by 1972 they were the largest independent record label in the world.  Herb Alpert has many Grammys, millions of sales and the distinction of being the only artist to top the charts as a singer (This Guy…1968) and an instrumentalist (Rise, 1989).

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He’s not the greatest singer as he would himself admit – Herb first sang this to his wife on a TV special (see below) but the phone lines went ballistic and within two days it was released on his own label.  Somehow it is one of the most romantic records ever recorded.  Perhaps the guys listening to it feel they can join in given that the lead vocal is so ordinary, perhaps the languid backbeat just makes them wanna slow dance with their wives…either way it is a potent and irresistible slice of conceptual conception music for adults.   Cheesy you say?  Only in the best possible way.

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It reminds me strongly of my grandfather’s funeral in Portsmouth.  My mum’s dad.  I remember Horace as a kind man, balding with remaining hair greased flat onto his head, slight air-lip, dark suit, sleeveless maroon pullover and a navy tie over a white patterned shirt.   We used to play jacks together – he taught me how to play it with five dice : 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King.  Kept in a nice red leather pouch in the sideboard.  He had a mysterious genesis as we believe his mother returned from Shanghai pregnant and gave birth in Portsmouth.   My brother Paul lives in Shanghai.   There is a Laming mentioned as a government official in China but not much more information, and it could be unrelated of course, but anyway murky family histories sometimes have to be pieced together with the clues available from reticent relatives.  He met Ruby my nan in Portsmouth and they married and had two daughters, Heather, my mum, and her sister Valerie.  I do know that Horace, my grandad, was a policeman during World War Two and had to climb onto the roof of the Guildhall in air-raids to defuse unexploded bombs, which is impressive to say the least.  He then became a shoe shop manager/owner (vagueness again) and a Mason.  The funeral I was attending, along with the other males in the family but none of the females, was Masonic.

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Portsmouth 1968

It was a pretty weird day.  I don’t even remember if my Dad was there, but I think he was.  I was eleven. Paul was nine, Andrew just turned five.   Aunty Valerie was married to Uncle Keith by now and he had a daughter Annette who was about my age. Uncle Keith was a dark-voiced stern-looking smooth operator.  Over-familiar yet unfriendly.  The ‘men” all trooped off to some impersonal chapel of rest where other masons sat in silence and a vicar read a funeral service, inserting the word “Horace” where a blank was left for a name.  There was no personality to it.  No eulogy detailing what he had done, who he was, and I was tremendously disappointed.  The priest seemed not to have known Horace at all.   It made me wonder whether there had been another Masonic funeral service to which Uncle Keith, Dad, Paul and myself would not have been invited.   The glum little ceremony done, we were driven back to 6 Moneyfields Avenue in Copnor where Nan and Mum and Valerie, Annette and cousin Wendy were gathered.  Triangular sandwiches appeared.  Tea.  Paul was there aged nine, and Andrew was five.   Perhaps he’d stayed behind with Mum.  Some music went on the gramaphone, Uncle Keith no doubt.  For some unspoken reason the men congregated at the back of the room, and the women near the bay window.

Then this song came on.  Me being a veteran of the radio and TOTP I knew it, but Uncle Keith wanted to instruct us in the ways of righteousness.  Our conversations were suddenly interrupted as he announced “Listen to this – suddenly there’s a complete silence”.

“Say you’re in love, in love with this guy.  If not I’ll just die….”

We dutifully listened to the silence.

And the mournful trumpets returned, Bacharach-style, and that laid-back groove from heaven resumed, and Uncle Keith made a hand gesture as if to say “See – what did I tell you?”.   We all nodded in solemn appreciation of this moment and then after a respectful pause carried on chatting, ignoring the actual song itself, it was the silence we had come to see.  Uncle Keith had slip-on shoes and he wasn’t to be trifled with.

About two years earlier he and Aunty Valerie had been looking after Andrew and offered to adopt him if Mum “couldn’t cope” after her first major breakdown.  They were childless, and Andrew had spent a lot of time down there.  But he’d stayed with Mum in the end.   He’d be back in Portsmouth a a couple of years time when we lost the house in Selmeston, but for now we were all together.   Later on, Aunty Valerie would divorce Uncle Keith and he would disappear from our lives.   Aunty Val would go on to live with the true love of her life in Norfolk, a woman whom I never met, also called Wendy.

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This Guy’s In Love With You was written by Burt Bacharach & Hal David at some point in the 1960s when Herb Alpert asked Burt if he had any old songs lying around.  It has been covered numerous times by other artists such as The Supremes, Donny Osmond, Booker T and Bacharach himself.  It reminds us that while the Beatles broke the charts, and the Stones brought the blues to suburban England, there was always a strain of seriously laid-back music with its adherents and practitioners happy to croon away on Sunday evening radio, any evening radio, Andy Williams, Percy Faith, Barbra Streisand, Val Doonican and even Elvis himself supported the cause, the chunky sweater, the easy warm smile, the undemanding seductive tune, your gran liking it, your Uncle Keith liking it;  secretly, you’re loving it too;  you know you are.

From “The Beat Of The Brass” TV Special 1968