Ian Clayton | Bringing It All Back Home Interview


As Ian Clayton’s Bringing It All Back Home approaches its tenth anniversary, and we prepare to mark the occasion at the Pontefract Festival of Stories, here is an interview Ian conducted about the book in 2006, prior to publication. In ten years, the book has been on a journey of its own, and with each person who has read it, and every review written, something new has been brought to its essence. This then, an interview conducted before the book entered the world, gives insight into its conception and original intent.

Ian Clayton answers questions about Bringing It All Back Home in a public house in the Castleford Potteries, a traditional drinking hole adjacent to a dilapidated old tin hut which was once home to a school where a young Henry Moore began his education.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about why you wanted to write this book?

A: It’s just some stories that I’ve been telling for years and never written down. Most stories circulate in their own neighbourhood, you might call this a gang of stories bursting out of where they are from.

Q: The book is essentially about music, but in it you do talk a lot about the value of the stories and the power of storytelling.

A: It starts with sounds really. If you enjoy music it’s because you’ve enjoyed sounds as a kid. The sounds can be anything, from listening to birds whistling in the morning to listening to the sounds of the street where you live, to listening to arguments. In my case I listened to a lot of arguments because I grew up in a house full of them. I listened to what people were shouting to each other about. And it’s a learning thing then. Because I tried to understand what the arguments were about and in trying to understand what arguments are about I get an understanding of what people are about. So that’s the first part of it, listening to sounds, listening to noises. I always enjoyed listening to what was going on, it could be my old grandad telling stories, could be old neighbours telling ancient stories about what their lives were about and what entertained them.

I listened to a lot of radio when I was a kid, so that’s a really big memory for me. Radio Luxemburg in my case, sometimes the pirate radio stations I got to hear. The few records that we had I enjoyed and on top of that are the stories that children tell each other at schools, and I always got something out of that; playground games, rhymes, songs that kids were singing in playgrounds, stories that kids were telling in playgrounds.

Then above that I grew up in a place where working men’s clubs were strong; they always had entertainment at weekends and I’d hear songs coming out of those places. These songs were contemporary in a way because the songs that turns were singing in working men’s clubs were up to date, but also old fashioned because they were presented in a way that entertainment to working people had been presented for a hundred years, right back to the music halls. And although I didn’t know it when I was a kid, thirty years later I would become fascinated by music hall and I think the fascination is because that was the music I was hearing as a kid. The songs that my relatives and friends and neighbours were singing coming out of working men’s clubs wasn’t much different to what people had been listening to for a hundred years or more. So that’s the starting point really. The starting point isn’t pop music, rock music or folk music or any kind of music, it’s sounds; sounds of my neighbourhood, my street, my school playground, my family home and places of entertainment, which was working men’s clubs.

Q: You’re saying that fascination with stories and the fascination with music is inseparable. So your pursuit of music which is outlined in this book, is that a pursuit of stories and other places?

A: I can’t separate anything, I never have been able to. It’s what is usually wrapped up as culture by better educated, more culturally aware people. They will say that conversation, music, art, creativity, reading, stories, dance, however we choose to express ourselves creatively, is culture. I never got the opportunity to see anything beyond the confines of my town where I lived until I was a young man, so for the first sixteen years of my life my culture was wrapped up in my environment and what that means. So anything that is coming to me is synthesised really. If I hear a record that is on Radio 1, I don’t hear it on Radio 1, I hear it in my kitchen on a wireless. And so it means something because of that.  Therefore when I hear The Kinks singing ‘Lola’, I don’t think of it as a band that is recording in London as part of a 1960s, early 1970s pop culture, I hear it as part of an everyday occurrence coming from a wireless or a record in my house. I don’t recognise the pop music industry as a separate entity to my everyday life, it’s just another part of what I’m listening to or experiencing.  To be precise when I think of ‘Lola’ it makes me recall a caravan holiday at Withernsea on the Yorkshire coast, which is a long way from ‘old Soho where they drink champagne and it tastes just like cherry cola’.

Q: There are many journeys in the book, lots of starting points that lead you to other stories; finding a blues record in a second hand shop in Cornwall leads you to Bessie Smith’s deathbed; listening to the wireless leads on to you being on the wireless, to making radio. Have you educated yourself through these things?

A: It’s utilising experience. I didn’t think this when I was younger, I’m not even sure I’m completely aware of what I’m doing now, but I think that if the metaphor for life is the journey, then part of that metaphor is experiences.  If life’s journey is about experiences that you have in life, then it necessarily follows that one experience must lead to another and that if you can enjoy and learn from those experiences then your natural and instinctive inquisitiveness leads you from one experience to the next. I don’t have any qualms about making the leap from the general hubbub of noise in my backyard to the concert hall where I go to see my first opera.

Q: The world is awash with music and we get it pumped at us on a regular basis. How do you discern, what is it that interests you in a piece of music? How do you make your steps?

A: You’re touching on taste there. I think authenticity is the word. If with expression – whether it be musical, storytelling or however you choose to express yourself – if you are doing that with sincerity then it necessarily follows that it is an authentic experience of who you are, where you are from, what you are aiming towards and what you are trying to understand in order to transfer that understanding to somebody else. If you take an old music hall song that my grandad used to sing, I think that’s a great thing because it’s the popular music of that time and it’s meant something to his life and therefore meant something to mine because I’m part of him. If you take a Blue Note jazz record by Ike Quebec or Art Blakey it’s completely out of my experience in real terms but I can see what they are doing, expressing something which is dear to them or near to them, so that’s important. I’ve listened to African music, I’ve never been to West Africa or Central Africa, but I enjoy the music of Congo and Mali because I can see what they are doing, that they are expressing something which is close to them, meaningful and authentic.

Q: As you’ve travelled through your life and you’ve made journeys and connections, as you’ve moved from one thing to another there is a sense in the book of collecting and hoarding as you go along and you fill your house. There is this talk of your ‘head being your house and your house being your head’. What is this instinct about? You may hear the hubbub of a playground, but that is a transient and passes by, why is it you feel the need to collect music and artefacts?

A: I think it might be primitive. Most human beings who have nothing try to acquire and once they’ve acquired they try to keep.  Here again I don’t separate the collections in my house from the collections in my head.  Playground hubbub is transient, but even though it doesn’t sit on a shelf in my house it is filed somewhere in my head.

I don’t want to make a big sociological argument for this book, but I think working-class people like to acquire things that they haven’t got and they hold them. My record collection is pristine and I don’t want to hurt it, I want it be as good as it was when I got it. There is a passage in this book that is very important to me and that is when I was a little boy I liked to collect things because I didn’t want them to be lost. I used to collect things that were washed up from the sea at the seaside because it seemed to me they were very lonely; pieces of wood with bits of writing on that were once crates for fruit or vegetables, once were boxes that had things in them and now were destroyed and tossed about on the waters. I saved stuff like that because it seemed to me that it was more important to render them not lost. I don’t know if that connects. I think it probably does actually, if you render something not lost anymore it connects to something that’s been created, so something that’s found is as important as something that is made. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the last few years, while creativity is a good thing for all human beings to be involved in – and I have been involved in a lot of creativity in my life – I think that finding things is just as important and what you can do with things that you find is great.

Q: There are lots of references in the book to your desire as a young man to make maps. You had this very early, almost romantic fascination about foreign places and wanting to create maps. Is your library and record collection and your trinkets some kind of map of your life?

A: Yes they are, they are places on a map, it’s a progressive route. I also think that I’m very romantically and sentimentally attached to my hometown and I want it to be as important as other people’s hometowns. I’ve been upset over the years that there are certain northern English working class towns that don’t get the recognition that they deserve. I’ve sophisticated this idea over the years – I didn’t know this when I started to think about it – but it seems to me that my hometown is as important as anybody else’s hometown anywhere in the world. So, if I can find something from another place and compare it to something that’s from where I’m from and share the comparisons and draw the significances, then it lifts my hometown up to their level, or the level that they perceive themselves to be at. It’s a way of drawing maps and drawing lines between places. This is what I’ve heard from your place, now listen to something coming from mine.

Q: The title Bringing It All Back Home is in many ways about a dialogue. Exactly what you have just described, a dialogue between what you have, what you can bring to it and what you can export as well.

A: I don’t think there is any point in making any journey whatsoever if you are not going to take anything with you as well as bring something back. I despise the idea of being a cultural tourist; I don’t want to be one. That means to say that the only thing you will ever do is go to somewhere to see what you can get from it. I’d rather take something with me and then it works both ways.

Q: If this book represents your journey so far, where do you go from here? What is interesting you now, what musical journeys do you expect to embark on?

A: I’ll carry on doing what I do. It’s undefined. We talk about maps, we talk about compass directions, we talk about journeys, and journeys always suggest that there is a start and a middle bit and that you come to some kind of end. This book doesn’t work in that way because it goes round and round. Time isn’t accounted for, geographical location isn’t accounted for, except to say that there are certain places and comparisons that I have made. I think that there are towns in America and Eastern Europe and Asia that have got more in common with where I’m from than places in the south of this country.

The hardest thing of all to deal with has been the terrible family tragedy that befell us.  As I was coming to the end of this book my daughter Billie died in a canoeing accident.  My partner Heather encouraged me to write about this and include it in the book. Billie’s death has ended many journeys for me. A lot of my life now, both professionally and personally, is going to be trying to work out how to restart the journey. I don’t want to make a big thing about it, but it just seems that a lot of endings have come all at the same time; working on a book that’s finished, having a child in your family that has died, doing some cathartic thing like getting a lot of stories out of you means that they’re not in you anymore. There’s a lot of endings that have come all at once.

Q: On the idea of time and how things connect to each other across all different sorts of levels, there’s a section in the book called ‘A Seed Doesn’t Stay in the Ground Forever’, do you see that there are seeds in the book that are part of that continuum, is there stuff in there that you will relate to and bring round again.

A: Of course there is. Nothing ever ends in that sense. There are resonances in this book coming from hundreds of years ago, which means that there will be echoes in years to come. It’s finding that ear for both resonance and echo and I’ll do it. At the moment I’m a bit lost with that, I’m not quite sure what a lot of things mean anymore and I’m not sure what is going to be important anymore. I’ll just find it, it’ll happen. I’ve never planned, it’s always been quite an anarchic journey, sometimes I think the harder I try to make the maps the more I throw them away.


>>Pontefract Festival of Stories
>>Bringing It All Back Home
>>Ian Clayton Website




The Screen on the Green


29th August 1976 was the day Punk in the UK exploded. The Screen On The Green was McLaren’s big play – his first opportunity to show that three bands was indeed a movement. The three key bands played together on the same stage for the first time. Buzzcocks first foray to London. The Clash’s first ever public gig billed as Clash, and Sex Pistols, the trailblazers, headlining with a storming set to underline their dominance. And the punk crowd came out to play in all their finery, putting on their best bin bags and strutting their stuff.

Enjoy all three sets. Links below.

Buzzcocks – Screen on the Green, Islington, August 29th, 1976

Audio. Buzzcocks set from The Screen on the Green Mid-Nite Special.

Clash – Screen on the Green, Islington, August 29th, 1976
Audio. Clash set from The Screen on the Green Mid-Nite Special, their second public gig and first time they were billed as Clash.

Sex Pistols – Screen on the Green, Islington, August 29th, 1976
Audio. Sex Pistols set from The Screen on the Green Mid-Nite Special

Read all about this night, what it meant and how it fitted into the explosion that was Anarchy in the Year Zero.


Clinton Heylin Interview


When Clinton Heylin called in to Route HQ to sign the Collector’s Edition of Anarchy in the Year Zero, he took time out to answer some questions about the book.

Why did you write the book?
There have been punk histories over the years, and obviously I wrote a relatively famous one myself, From the Velvets to the Voidoids, all of 24 years ago, but I always thought this was unfinished business. I think one of the extraordinary things about the Pistols story which nobody really picks up on is this thing about direct inspiration. People went and saw the Sex Pistols then formed a band. I don’t mean that they saw them on the Ed Sullivan Show or that they heard a record, quite liked it, and several years later became The Smiths, I mean they went, they saw, they became musicians. There really is no parallel in popular music, either before or after.

How does this book differ from other punk accounts?
Well obviously it’s very concentrated. It starts with the Sex Pistols’ first gig in November 1975 and it ends with the final gig of the Anarchy Tour in December 1976, so it’s very compressed. The point of doing it this way is to try and give a sense of the sheer momentum of that story. This is a band who have never made a record, they are making the front pages of all the music papers and appearing on television before they even have a record deal. It’s pretty revolutionary stuff. It’s an extraordinary story and in order to get that story and momentum across, you have to compact it into this very tight narrative of those initial 86 Pistols gigs with all the little spin-off bands, and everyone else in the shadow until the end.

You talk about spin-off bands, how would you describe the hierarchy of punk?
If you talk about the hierarchy of singer-songwriters, there’s Dylan and then there’s everyone else. The hierarchy of punk is the Sex Pistols and then everyone else. Obviously I am talking about English punk here, and with English punk you are either the Sex Pistols, or you’re directly influenced by the Sex Pistols, or you’re not punk. To be a punk band you have to have seen and been directly inspired by the Sex Pistols. It is not about whether you play fast or whether you play with barre chords or don’t know what a middle eight is. There are people who keep insisting that The Stranglers are a punk band, indeed that The Vibrators are a punk band, both of those bands were in existence long before the Sex Pistols and in neither case can it be said that they were directly inspired by seeing the Sex Pistols play.

What’s the distinction between Year Zero punk of 1976, and the punk of 1977 which most people associate with punk rock?
1977 is the year of punk in the same way that 1967 is the year of psychedelia. Sgt. Pepper came out in 1967, ‘God Save the Queen’ came out in 1977. In neither case was it the year of that particular movement. Psychedelia was pretty much dead and buried by the time Sgt. Pepper came out; the year of psychedelia was 1966. All the interesting things that were going on – Pink Floyd, The Move, Tomorrow, Happenings – were all happening in 1966, not 1967. Well, punk is a bit like that really; once it becomes a cultural movement, once the tabloids think they know what punk is, it’s over, because it has to be. Once any art movement becomes a public movement, it cannot retain its true self. At the end of the book I quote Lenin who said, ‘Whoever expects a pure revolution will never live to see it,’ which is actually what he said about the Easter Rising and he’s right on many levels. The thing that I try to tell in the book is that the original punk movement was incredibly elitist. All this ‘we are all in this together, it’s the working-class lads’ is all arrant nonsense. It’s being instigated by a guy who runs a fetish sex store on the King’s Road, this is not somebody who is trying to start an annex to the Socialist Workers Party. The elitism is there in the snobbery of the individuals – you can see it in the way they looked down on the people who turned up to see the Sex Pistols in November 76, let alone November 77. In the book I quote Steve Severin turning to Siouxsie Sioux at a gig at Notre Dame saying ‘It’s all over’ because all these people had turned up in bin liners.

Why did it all go so wrong for the Sex Pistols?
Punk is combustible, that’s really the point about it. The Sex Pistols are a train wreck because of the figures in the band and the man who oversaw the whole exercise, Malcolm McLaren; those five individuals were never going to be able to keep the thing together for any kind of period of time. They all had massive issues, unresolved. Johnny Rotten was a time bomb and that’s part of what made him so incredible. People who I interview in the book, people who talk about that period, they all say that over that year when he was in the original band, the transformation in Rotten was something to behold. But there are losses and there are gains; by the end of it he was a magnetic performer but he was also starting to believe his own publicity. Sadly, it was him that conspired to end the band more than McLaren, more than circumstances. Obviously the Bill Grundy show had an effect, but it’s really that he started to believe it was his band, and it never was.

Do you see McLaren as the charlatan he is often painted?
McLaren, I think, has been slightly dumbed-down in history, but it’s entirely his own fault. I have no sympathy for him on that front because obviously he set out to convince everybody that it was all some great master plan, which of course it wasn’t. He was making it up as he was going along, but everybody who worked with McLaren in that time period has great fondness for him, so you can put that aside. What perhaps he didn’t realise was just how successful the joke would become. What is amazing is to be able to go back and realise that he connects all the dots; he’s getting people to come down to see the Pistols from NME, from Melody Maker, he’s making phone calls, he’s pissing people off, he’s getting them to write things they don’t need to, he’s doing everything he can to make this happen and it’s inspired. He gets Chris Spedding to produce the Sex Pistols six months after the band started playing, that’s impressive. He then gets Chris Spedding to pick up the bill for it as well, which is even more impressive. He’s the only one of those punk entrepreneurs who didn’t get screwed over by the record labels, in fact he took EMI to the cleaners. He was shrewd, he understood how the business worked. Unfortunately, at the end of it, it sort of became a battle between him and Rotten and instead of these spontaneous happenings, he started to try to make things happen. I think that’s the turning point. Obviously there’s the incident with Nick Kent being beaten up at the 100 Club, we don’t really know whether McLaren was behind that, but whoever was behind it, it is a turning point because he was starting to try and make things happen when there was no need to.

What’s your connection to the story, were you there?
I was sixteen years old in 1976. I’d been going to gigs for 5 years and like everybody my age who read the NME religiously, I was waiting for the next big thing. NME and Sounds were the two weeklies that I read so I read Jonh Ingham’s two-page piece on the Pistols in April 76 and I remember thinking, ‘Oh yeah, okay.’ I didn’t hear about the first Pistols gig in Manchester until it took place. I knew someone at my school who’d been to that show and he’d told me about it. I was aware enough to know when they played the second time but I hold my hands up, the reason I knew about the second gig was really because of Slaughter and the Dogs. Everybody from South Manchester knew Slaughter and The Dogs, everybody was into Bowie and that kind of thing. My curiosity was not the Sex Pistols, it was seeing one of the local bands make good.

What happened when you saw the Sex Pistols then?
I have to say in my case all I really remember is the trouble because there was a lot at that gig and it got pretty hairy. I remember I split early, I didn’t see the end of the show. I was down the front and it was no fun, as they say. But, from that point forward, I kind of figured it out. I quote Linda Sterling in the book saying Slaughter and The Dogs were one thing and the Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks were another. Because Buzzcocks were in Manchester, I was more aware of them than the Pistols, and Spiral Scratch coming out was exciting, all of that. The Grundy show was only shown in London, but one of the things that people don’t talk about was seeing ‘Anarchy’ on So It Goes. It was absolutely extraordinary. Just to see a band like the Sex Pistols on TV had a profound effect. By 1977 I was seventeen, I was old enough to have a motorcycle and was able to start going to gigs on a regular basis. I saw pretty much everybody. It certainly was what I thought I was looking for all along. I’d grown up with Slade and T-Rex and all that so in that sense I always knew there was something up. I mean, I like prog bands, I still do, but I knew that they weren’t it.

In the book you talk about a small handful of people who were there and saw the Sex Pistols and they were all inspired to go on and do something else and get involved, would you count yourself amongst those?
Yeah, absolutely. I grew up reading the NME and had always wanted to write about music. I remembering replying to the ‘Young Colts’ advert that NME ran which Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill ended up getting jobs out of. I must have been one of the first people to buy Paul Morley’s Out There, the little fanzine that had a review of the Sex Pistols. I can’t remember reading that review, but I can remember where I bought the fanzine. I remember fanzines being a big inspiration, just the idea of them. I had access to a Zerox machine, which many people didn’t, because my dad had one in his office that I could raid to print my own fanzine. After the Sex Pistols I started a Public Image fanzine very early in 1978 when their first record came out. It was called Piles, Public Image Limited Information Services. I think we did 5 issues. I’d been listening to avant-gardy, proggy, kraut-rock stuff prior to punk so I didn’t have a problem with the direction things went in. My real love after the Pistols were bands like Wire and Siouxsie and The Banshees who were much more interesting to me than the na na na na na na. XTC were a great band, very underrated, and you could see all those bands for 10 bob. So it absolutely inspired me. The first book I wrote was From The Velvets to The Voidoids, which actually came out after my Dylan biography, but my first proper book was a punk book, and it continues to hold up for me and the music still holds up for me and the energy still holds up. I put on that tape of the Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall and it never fails to galvanize me, I put it on and I’m like ‘yeah’.

A lot has been made of the impact that the DIY ethos has had on music in particular. Do you think the same applies to writing?
People forget how inspirational that punk writing was in the NME and Sounds and Melody Maker. Go back and read them. Jonh Ingham’s piece about the Sex Pistols is a great piece of writing. And to hear Johnny Rotten say ‘I want more bands like us’, remember this is an interview taking place just four months after the band was formed. To have the arrogance and the sheer chutzpah to say that, and then of course it all came true. It is an extraordinary piece of foresight, and that whole aspect, reading about punk – remember there were no records, the first record came out in November 1976, we’d been reading about punk for nine months at that point, and reading about it week after week after week, reading about these bands that we couldn’t go and see. I didn’t see The Clash or The Damned until 1977, so we were reading about these and wondering ‘What the hell do they sound like?’

Charles Shaar Murray’s memorable quote about The Clash being a garage band that should stay in the garage with the motor running, there’s something great about that line. I wasn’t a musician though I did form my own crappy punk band like everyone else did. We were called The Pits, and trust me, that’s what we were. I was the drummer, we were truly atrocious. We had some great songs, ‘Sleep a Little Longer Grandma’, ‘Baby I’m a Terminal Case’, ‘Thank You God Now Get Off’, the usual punk fayre. We headlined the Tewkesbury Punk Festival.

There is definitely that Punk DIY spirit in the writing too. It’s hard to think about that now in terms of social media, the internet and interconnectivity. Certainly for me, I don’t feel that the youth are as connected as the people in the book. The people in the book had to hunt to find what they were looking for, but that hunt is what inspired them.

The interesting thing about DIY writing is the ability to say what the hell you want. And now we’ve lost that. The constraints now, even though there is the pretence that you can have your own blog or whatever, the reality is that you cannot say what you think. Somebody will shut you down, somebody will distort what you say. In Chrissie Hynde’s autobiography, she made a comment about her own body and choices that she made and she was pilloried for it by people who’ve got no damned right, who’d done nothing. Think of the good that woman has done for women who want to also make artistic statements and all these people just laying into her. Whereas, one of the beauties of punk is not only the ability to offend, but the desire to offend, an actual determination to set out to think of the worst thing that you could say to somebody 40 years old and say it. Of course the establishment reacted with horror, but it was a battle worth fighting. If you believe in something, you should be able to shout it from the roof top.

What do you consider is the legacy of 1976?

Obviously, like all art forms, the legacy is in the art. And that doesn’t just mean the music, that means the image, the literature, that means everything that goes with it. I get slightly annoyed by people talking about punk happening in 2016, it’s like people talking about the new psychedelia, there’s no such thing, there can’t be because times have changed, you cannot have punk in 2016. In its pure state, punk ended the day that The Roxy opened. If you want to have a new music movement, think of your own name, don’t come up with somebody else’s. You can take inspiration from punk, but the inspiration shouldn’t be ‘I would like to be like that’. The last quote from Rotten in the book is ‘When I said I wanted bands to be like us, I didn’t mean exactly like us’. Punk was something that could only be very short lived.

Click here to order a Collector’s Edition of Anarchy in the Year Zero: The Sex Pistols, The Clash and the Class of ’76.


The Feast of St Cyril


An extract from Right Up Your Street by Ian Clayton, which is officially released on St Cyril’s day, 14 February 2016.

Nice one Cyril

It’s a long time since anybody sent me a Valentine’s card but there was a time when I got two in one year; alright it was a long time ago, forty one years ago to be precise, and I think they both might have been from Aunt Alice.

I did a bit of digging and found out that Saint Valentine lived in the third century and was sentenced to death by Claudius for trying to convert him to Christianity. They threw stones at him to start with, then they hit him with wooden clubs and, when that didn’t work, they cut off his head outside the Flaminian Gate. That was on a Monday, 14th February 209 AD. I also discovered that Saint Valentine, as well as being the patron saint of love and lovers, is also the patron saint of bee keepers, the plague, epilepsy, people who faint, travellers and young people; he’s a busy lad is St Valentine. I wondered why he might be best known for instigating a multi-million pound card business and then I found a romantic little story about when he was in prison awaiting execution. One of his jailors had a blind daughter and Valentine performed his first miracle by laying his hands on the girl’s eyes and restoring her sight. Later he penned a note to the young woman and signed it ‘From your Valentine’.

For such a famous saint, it might surprise you to know that there is not a single church in the whole of England dedicated to him, though there is one in Dublin on Whitefriar Street that has a shrine to him and a little vessel tinged with a small amount of his blood. And, in Rome, there is a church that was built for the athletes’ village in 1960 when they had the Olympics there and that’s called St. Valentine’s.

For those of you who don’t believe in all the romantic malarkey, you’ll be pleased to know that today is also the feast day of that lesser known but, in my mind at least, very important saint. Yes, I refer to Saint Cyril.

Cyril was a philosopher, a man of books and learning, he worked as a missionary in the 9th century and interests me because he believed in vernacular language. He made it his mission to help people to learn in their own tongue and translated most of the bible into the Slavic language of Moravia. Along with his brother Methodius, he became one of the fathers of the literary movement in that part of the world. He was of course punished for his efforts, like all these martyrs tend to be, but he should be remembered.

So, if I don’t get a Valentine’s card today, and I don’t really expect to seeing as I haven’t had one since 1972, I shall console myself by raising a glass to Saint Cyril. Nice one Cyril!

If Valentine and Cyril don’t do it for you, then consider paying homage to the other Saints who have feast days today, there’s plenty to pick from including Saint Abraham, the hermit of Syria; Saint Conran of the Orkney Islands; and Saint Antoninus of Sorrento, who once pulled a child out of a whale’s mouth after the little lad had been swallowed whole!

I thought that while I was doing my saintly research I ought to look up the saints who have their feast day on my birthday. I came across Saint Hermione, a second-century martyr, venerated in the eastern orthodox church, who doesn’t appear to be the patron saint of anything; and Saint Rosalia of Sicily, who in young life was led to a cave by two angels. She then decided to spend the rest of her life there. I learned that academics often quote Rosalia on papers about bio diversity… not the most interesting of saints I have to say but then I discovered that I share my birthday with Beyonce Knowles. Now there’s a woman who I like the idea of blowing a few candles out with. I wonder if she’s free to come and sing at my party later this year?

There is a launch event for Right Up Your Street at the Tap & Barrel, Pontefract, on Thursday 18 February at 7:30pm. All welcome.

A Sloe Christmas: Right Up Your Street


An extract from Ian Clayton’s book Right Up Your Street: the great Boxing Day tradition of decanting homemade sloe gin and then supping it as a chaser with a pint of beer among friends.

Sloe timing

I’m a great fan of the food that comes to us free every autumn from the hedgerows and trees. I can’t pass an apple or pear tree without ‘scrumping’ one or two and blackberries, well, I absolutely adore them with the relish of a poet. I can’t make apple and blackberry pie as nice as my gran could, but I do a mean crumble. I’m also a dab hand at pickling and preserving and, at this time of year, I love to look through my stash of jars that have handwritten labels on them like ‘Apple Jelly, October 2010’. People know I like this stuff too, my friend Jan makes the best preserves this side of the Pecos and this year for Christmas another friend, Pam, gave me some beautifully homemade green tomato chutney with red and white chequered lids on.

For many years I have made sloe gin. I generally pick about four or five pounds of the fruit of the blackthorn, wash out a big bell jar and put in my sugar and gin. I shake my jar every day between the end of September and Christmas and, by tradition, I decant it on Boxing Day morning and take a bottle or two to the pub to share out with my mates. Sloe gin goes well as a chaser to a foaming pint of Tetley’s bitter.

Last autumn a friend called Alf, who goes in the taproom at the Shoulder of Mutton, asked me where I got my sloes and would I give him my recipe. Like any self-respecting sloe gatherer, I refused to give him my source, but I did tell him the recipe. As it turned out, I might as well have told him where I got my fruit, because when I got to my favourite stand of blackthorn bushes, I found out that somebody had been there before me and I had to go in search of another tree.

Alf duly went in search of his own sloes somewhere near Methley and must have found some real beauties because he showed up on Boxing Day with a gorgeous, rich ruby coloured concoction, which he presented in a cut-glass decanter. By common consensus, well by the nods of the heads and barely discernable mutterings of various taproom imbibers sat round the fire in the Shoulder, Alf’s sloe gin tasted better than mine. For some reason, this year mine turned out to be a pale pink without the usual fire and warmth that you get in the chest as it goes down. Amidst much good humoured banter, Alf spent the whole of Boxing Day afternoon with a wry smile on his chops and I was left to wonder if a fairy or pixie or something had been tampering with my sloe gin in the middle of the night. It hurts me to say it, but I award this year’s gold medal for sloe gin making to Mr Alf Varley, but you can bet your bottom dollar that this coming autumn I shall be out hunting down the best sloe berries and I will look to regain my title. In the meantime, if Alf asks me for my recipe for damson jam, he can whistle!


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Train Journeys of Colombia

An extract from an article on Train Journeys of Colombia in Le Monde Diplomatique by Robin Oisín Llewellyn, which details Ramon Chao’s book The Train of Ice and Fire

A ship named Melquíades (after the wandering Gypsy in One Hundred Years of Solitude who brings telescopes, ice, and magic carpets to Macondo) was sailing around Latin America with the support of the French Government, loaded with circus performers from Royal de Lux and musicians from the then wildly popular punk-reggae band Mano Negra. The band’s singer Manu Chao noted the lack of any rail service in Colombia and resolved to return to reactivate a form of transport “so crucial to a country’s social and geographic fabric.”

By 1993 his band, together with many circus performers from Royal de Lux and a support band named French Lovers, had returned to Colombia, taken charge of a hurriedly restored train from the sidings of the Ferrovias depot outside Bogota, and were rumbling through territory fought over by guerrillas and paramilitaries to mount musical and spectacular extravaganzas at abandoned stations along the line to Aracataca. “The Train of Ice and Fire” was a locomotive and 21 carriages that, according to Manu’s father and journalist Ramón Chao who documented the journey, resembled “a load of bric-a-brac put together by inexpert but passionate hands.”

The expedition rejected all offers of an escort from the Army to the alarm of the French embassy, one of whom responded resignedly, “What can we do? It’s too late. I never thought this train would actually leave.” The Fire carriage was lined with asbestos and sheet metal, designed to burn in flames through the performances, while an ice wagon contained “the biggest diamond ever seen — a five-cubic-meter six-ton block of ice, pure and translucent like crystal.”

Then came a cage-wagon home to an enormous mechanical dragon cum flame-thrower, while the ice-wagon was a grotto in which a snowstorm would be unleashed when a “child-friendly sleepy polar bear” woke up. Other carriages housed trapezes for the circus acts, or the stages for French Lovers and Mano Negra.

By the time the train arrived at Aracataca after nightfall to a crowd of 2000 and a children’s choir singing the Marseillaise in Spanish, the Train of Ice and Fire had become the talk of Colombia after a string of widely reported concerts in the tumble-down stations along the line. The carriages had derailed numerous times on a line afflicted by years of neglect, but the musicians, circus actors, and staff from Ferrovias would simply crow-bar the carriages back onto the tracks and the train would slowly continue to another town, another concert-cum-extravaganza.

Awe-struck townspeople were unable to buy tickets for the events; instead they had to write down their dreams in order to gain admittance. The children were astonished by the ice sculptures, one little girl said the ice made her “skeleton tremble,” but it was Roberto the dragon who, according to Ramón Chao, fulfilled “the role played many years ago in Aracataca by Melquíades’ ice. “The young, and the not so young, open their eyes wide, go into ecstasies, scream blue murder, and recoil with fear every time Roberto sweeps the station with his piercing eyes and blows ten metres of flame, to a deafening crash of sirens and decibels.”

The concert in Marquez’s hometown was a success but marked the beginning of the end for Mano Negra with several band members leaving for France two days later, the tour still unfinished. Away from the train the violence of Colombia continued unabated. News of the killing of Pablo Escobar reached the train as it travelled from Bosconia to Gamarra, and the effects of sustained mass displacement were clear when the group reached Dorada in the coffee growing highlands.

The train would proceed all the way back to Bogota, with Mano Negra’s remaining band members having to use synthesizers to mimic those who had abandoned the adventure. The band would never reform. The promises of politicians to use the Train of Ice and Fire to regenerate the railways were not fulfilled: Ferrovias was liquidated in 2003 and while cargo is still moved along some lines, passenger services have never been restarted. Pablo Escobar’s death saw new gang wars emerge, and the rise of AUC paramilitaries backed by the military saw massacres increase to unprecedented levels.

The dreams that gained access for their authors to the concerts have been preserved:

My dream is that there will be no need for children or teenagers to go hungry. Obviously we have to have pain in our lives, but not so much. —Franklin Muñoz, 13

Pineapple, lemon, lemonade.
If you don’t love me why do you kiss me? —Damaris, 15

One of my biggest dreams is that there’ll be peace in Colombia, and to do that we have to stop the drug traffickers. As for me, I hope that when I’m eighteen I’ll have a good job so I can help other people and be a good person. —Illegible signature

I dream of travelling in a train. —Ana Gonzalez, 12

How beautiful Colombia would be without war! Here a man loses his life and leaves a wife and children. A rifle shot ends an existence, mothers cry for their children, wives cry for their husbands. No more wars, no more bombs, no more violence. Why does everything have to end with a rose on a grave? —Rita Santos, 24

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‘Any band that ever moaned about the freshness of the backstage towels should read this book.’ – Word

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