Uncovering a lost family story from the First World War

British troops in the trenches during the First Battle of Cambrai in 1917

The stories behind the names on the cenotaph in Shaw and Crompton, a small mill town in the North of England, may have slipped from living memory, but they can still be traced in surprising detail.

I have long been aware that a great, great uncle of mine, John William Barrass, is listed on the cenotaph and I remember my grandma taking me to look at his name when I was small.

My grandparents, the only link I had to John William’s story, have gone now, and I recently started some research to see if there was anything I could find out about him.

John, like many millions of young men, would have left for France and the rain sodden trenches of the Western Front full of a spirit of adventure, and Shaw, which was then a northern cotton spinning mill town at its zenith, would have sent boys to war like it sent out countless bales of yarn from its fifty cotton mills.

I knew the name of his regiment and not much more. John had spent his last years in Shaw, but he was born a Yorkshireman and joined up with the King’s Own Yorkshire Infantry in 1914.

I also knew the day of his death, the 11th of December 1916, twenty three months and nineteen days before the peace of Armistice Day.

Armed with these two facts, I started my research at the National Archives where I found the official war diary of John’s regiment.

War diaries were kept by an officer and record the regiment’s day to day activities. When the King’s Own were in barracks the diary is neatly typed in blue ink, but when they were in the trenches, on active duty, the pages are crumpled and muddy, the words scrawled out in a faint pencil.

I found the entry for the 11th of December 1916 to be in a neatly typed blue. The regiment were training in northern France on the day John died.

J.W.Barrass’ name on the Shaw and Crompton war memorial

I guessed from this that John William had died by accident, in a crash perhaps or from a stray bullet fired by mistake.

I assumed that the trail would then go cold, but some persistent Googling led me to the painstakingly researched website of Pierre Vandervelden, a Frenchman who has documented and photographed a great number of Commonwealth cemeteries in France.

Pierre, it turned out, had visited John’s grave in Cambrai, a town in Hauts-de-France, around 60 miles from the Somme and close to the cathedral of Amiens.

In December 1916, war-torn Cambrai had been in German hands and it was likely, Pierre told me, that John had died in the Parmentier Field Hospital as a prisoner of war.

My next port of call was the Red Cross, which has digitised its prisoner of war records and sure enough there was an entry for John.

He had been captured on the 18th of November and was taken to Parmentier with a gunshot wound to the leg.

I turned back to the King’s Own war diary and found an entry for the 18th written this time in a shaky pencil:

“At 5:15am the battalion was drawn up on an advanced line. The conditions were bad, it started snowing just before the attack and observation was very difficult. At 6:10am our barrage was intense and apparently very effective, consequently the enemy sent up a number of flares. This, with the white ground, lit up all the surroundings.

The war memorial in Shaw and Crompton

The line advanced with Munich Trench as their first objective. The left half of the battalion was able to push forward and reach this first objective, but the right half was held up by intense machine gun fire.”

Somewhere, amid this freezing scene was John, aged just 22 and a long way from home.

Again, I assumed his trail would go cold, but an email to the Local History Office in Oldham returned a cutting from the Weekly Chronicle on John’s capture, which quotes from a letter he sent to his wife, Sarah, back in Shaw.

“I have been wounded and am a prisoner of war but getting along alright” he writes. “My left leg just below the knee has been amputated, but I am getting along nicely.”

It was his last message to her, coming after he had been reported missing and the newspaper describes the postcard’s arrival as being a ‘shock and at the same time a pleasant surprise”.

 It most have rekindled a sense of hope, but it was dashed when Sarah received the official confirmation, a week later, that John had died from his injuries.

Two years on, on Christmas Eve, at Holy Trinity Church in Shaw, Sarah remarried, to a twenty-two-year-old bobbin carrier from Heyside. If you close your eyes you can almost smell the scent of the candles burning and the holly boughs tied with red ribbons to the end of the church pews.

The person who filled out their marriage certificate, in neat black ink, accidentally wrote ‘spinster’ next to Sarah’s name and had to make a hurried correction, in thick lines, inking ‘widow’ over the top.

It’s hard to imagine what they were all thinking in that church on Christmas Eve – happiness at a new marriage one has to suppose – but it could hardly have been an unalloyed happiness. The bloodshed on the fields of France cast a long shadow for a long time over mill towns like Shaw and Crompton.

That shadow is gone now, but Shaw’s war memorial stands as a reminder not only to those killed, but of the psychological toll that war must have taken on those left behind.

Don’t look back: Seeing Bob Dylan at the London Palladium

I have been for the best part of two decades something of a follower of the life and music of Bob Dylan. I note this at the outset because I am long past the point at which I could have written about his music with any sense of objectivity. Dylan’s music is too wound up in my life, like an old cassette tape tangled in the wheels and cogs of my brain, so much so that writing about him with any element of detachment is impossible. His music was in my ears as I walked towards first jobs, first dates, found failure and celebrated successes.

Because of this, I don’t tend to write about him. There is nothing worse than a devotee of something endlessly harping on about how wonderful it is and how you should be liking it too. I sometimes think that only the music that you find by yourself, and learn to love by yourself, tends to stick around in your life for keeps. Recommendations from others always amass baggage as the years go by, so I’ve stopped giving them. A beloved band recommended by a former girlfriend will remind you of the break up. A recommendation from a late relative will remind you of their death. You ultimately look at recommended music through the eyes of the giver, whereas the music you find for yourself is truly your own.

So, why am I writing  about Bob Dylan now? Well, largely for myself. To get it out of my system. And, to put on the page an experience that I want to remember: going to see Bob Dylan at the London Palladium on October 20th 2022, for what I feel could be the last time.

As I sat in the theatre, waiting for the show to start, phone shorn from my hand and sealed in a magnetically locked pouch to stop people surreptitiously filming the famously truculent Dylan, I gazed up at the dusty gold leafed masonry of the Palladium, the closest thing that British light entertainment has to an Athenian temple. As I waited I wondered at the fact that the very same stones that made up the theatre’s proscenium arch, would have been the very same that my grandparents might have looked at as they sat in their front room in Shaw back in the 1960s and watched Bruce Forsyth perform on the same stage on Tonight at the London Palladium on ITV.

It was on the very same stage that John Lennon, as he performed with the Beatles on the 1963 Royal Variety Performance, asked the largely aristocratic audience to rattle their jewellery. This was perhaps one of the more subtly subversive comments to be made by a culturally prominent British person in the presence of royalty, and Dylan, as he introduced his band on the first night of a four night residency, referenced it by asking the audience if this is the place where you rattle your jewellery? Which is basically the equivalent of me staring up at the theatre’s bricks and wondering about my grandparents.

As you read this, it is about now that you may realise that I have written 600 words and barely any are devoted to Dylan’s music. That’s probably because, like I said, I can’t write about him. I don’t know how to distil what makes him appealing to me. Developing a deep connection with music is a mysterious alchemic reaction that no doubt has something to do with chemicals in the brain or the make-up of the soul. In other words it is not something that lends itself easily to description. It would be like when Victorian Egyptologists would open an old tomb – the dust and the spells quickly scatter when they see the light of day.

I’ve seen Dylan three times in the past. Once in Manchester (home of the Judas shout) once in Liverpool and now twice in London. I didn’t have to see him again. I knew exactly the songs he would perform because he never changes his set list anymore. And yet I had to go. I had to hunt down a ticket for a sold out concert, because I had to see him one last time.

Why? Because despite his new found penchant for predictability vis-à-vis his set list, he still remains extraordinarily unpredictable and at 81, vocally sprightly. In fact during the time I was in his company at the Palladium, I was given perhaps the best example of raging against the dying of the light that I have ever seen in an artistic sense. His voice was often strong and echoed around the theatre, transporting us all back to the days of the Rolling Thunder Revue, when he would spit out the words of Isis like bullets from a gun.

Amazingly, for an artist now in his 82nd year, it was his new songs that I wanted to hear him perform from his most recent album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, which was released during the pandemic and became a rare ray of sunshine during those grim months. The melodies captured on that 2020 disc to songs like Key West ( Philosopher Pirate) and Mother of Muses, have largely been altered by Dylan in the time that has followed, yet they remain sparse and, when performed live, are powered along by his hypnotic whispered phrasing.

Dylan has always employed jerky Chaplinesque movements when walking and performing and this now twinned with the stiffness of old age has lent him a frail and hunched frame, often barely moving from the cover of his piano at which he stands for the most part, while tending to sit down during instrumental breaks. At one point, towards the end of the set, he signaled towards a twitching red backcloth for a cup of liquid, which was swiftly delivered to him by a stagehand.

I came away bewitched by the current paradox of Dylan, the paradox of his current on-stage appearance, that despite appearing older than I’ve ever seen him, his voice seems to have found some kind rejuvenation.

A great singer, as has often been said much more eloquently than I am about to, does not have to sound conventionally good to be a considered great. Instead, a great singer can tell the story of a lifetime within the quality of a single phrase of a song. A great singer can carry you along with every emotion-drenched line, every word marinated in character and infused with the zest of an exciting life and it is these ingredients that have surely led to the latter-day re-birth of Dylan’s voice.

As I made my way to Oxford Street underground station, Dylan, true to form, had fled the theatre quickly and his tour bus roared past me, up Regent Street, as I headed home. If there is a pithy short phrase that describes the Dylan philosophy it has to be ‘don’t look back’ – keep moving forwards. It is a difficult philosophy to follow, especially as one gets older and becomes more susceptible to sentimentality and reminiscing. Despite being a former acolyte of the aforementioned ‘Dylan philosophy’, I must admit, I am finding the task more difficult these days and I felt a wave of emotion wash over me as I watched his bus disappear towards the BBC building, The Langham Hotel and his next date somewhere else across the country.

I doubt our paths will cross again, but it was a joy to see him one last time and pass on my thanks through a round of applause for a life well lived.

Five minutes with two famous water rats

In London – a city of some nine million people – I’ve always thought that it is strange that you can sometimes find yourself entirely alone in public. I felt this surprise recently while sitting in the central square of Hampstead Garden Suburb in the shadow of St Jude’s Church.

The vast prim and proper lawn of the square was deserted, and as I sat eating a picnic, stuffing my face, I wondered where everyone was. Given it was the hottest day of the year with the temperature edging 40 degrees and the sun not even over the yardarm – I concluded that I was probably the only person stupid enough to be out and about.

It was architectural writer Ian Nairn’s ‘Nairn’s London’ that had brought me on a sunny Monday morning to Hampstead Garden Suburb – which was built from scratch as a model community in the 1920s. Following his guidebook, which offers insightful, often catty, descriptions of some of the city’s best and least know landmarks, provides a wonderful way to explore London.*

Nairn was not that impressed with central square in Hampstead Garden Suburb. He said it suffered from a “central blankness of imagination” and lashed out at the design’s inhumanity because the square doesn’t have a pub and is instead filled with churches and institutes. It is a valid argument – especially on a hot day.

In my mind – in my heat-induced delirious fever dreams dreamed on that roasting central lawn – I was walking with ghosts through Hampstead Garden Suburb that Monday morning. Ghosts of all the famous people who used to live in that once fashionable area of the city. Maybe if I’d stayed around longer I would have spotted Tony Hancock on a park bench reading a script for the next episode of Hancock’s Half Hour of Robert Donat on his way to the studio. Maybe I would have rowed past Eric Coats, rowing across an imaginary boating lake, as By the Sleepy Lagoon played in my mind.

Sadly, these were just the daydreams of someone with an antique sensibility.

As I made my way back down Hoop Lane, I walked past Golders Green Crematorium, a bizarre looking nondenominational building that is based on the Italian architecture of Lombardy. I’m not sure what Nairn made of it – not much I assume – given it doesn’t appear in his guidebook. But I am easily swayed to investigate a graveyard of quality – so I had a quick look around.

I found myself in a little courtyard – as the soft chanting from a Hindu funeral drifted through the hot summer air – the walls of which were lined with monuments honouring the great and the good of British entertainment.

All generations were represented. The newest plaque was for Barbara Windsor and there is a corner dedicated to musical hell raisers, with one for Keith Moon and another for Marc Bolan. There is a jazz section too, I spotted a plaque for Tubby Hayes and another for Ronnie Scott. But the one that caught my eye read ‘This tablet is dedicated by the Grand Order of Water Rats to the Revered Memory of King Rat – Teddy Brown’.

The words immediately piqued my overheated imagination. What was the Grand Order of Water Rats? In my mind, I sketched an image of a fraternity of sophisticated drunkards that rampaged through Soho’s pubs and caffes in the pre-war years and that Teddy Brown was a kind of Oliver Reed or Jeffrey Bernard of his day, tottering his way into a drink-sodden oblivion.

Some swift googling quickly revealed that I was wrong. The Grand Order of Water Rats are a group of entertainers, founded by music hall comedians, that do good works for charity. Every year they elect a ‘King Rat’ from their community and in 1946 the King Rat was an overweight xylophonist called Teddy Brown.

Brown, it turns out, was very famous in the 1930s, largely for his xylophone skills, but also for his girth, which appears in old black and white Pathe films to have been considerable. He was so fat, apparently, that he had to have an especially wide door fitted to his Rolls Royce, and in one Pathe skit he appears to get lodged in an elevator door.

Teddy Brown

Often nicknamed ‘The biggest musician in the world,’ – films of Brown, who was American and spoke like a Chicago gangster, tend to start with the camera panning upwards from his feet past his huge trousers – which could have doubled as an enormous wind sock at an airfield for zeppelins – before he starts tapping away at a jaunty tune on the xylophone backed by tuxedoed men playing double bases and saxophones.

It struck me, as I stood there learning about Teddy Brown and his giant trousers, that there were whole generations of wonderful entertainers like him that had cut a dash across the music hall stages of London, who now, like the stages themselves, were lost to history.

Teddy Brown died half way through his term as King Rat. He had a heart attack in a hotel in Birmingham. This prompted, one assumes, the Grand Order to gather a conclave to elect a successor. The Order plumped for Bud Flanagan, another renowned music hall entertainer of his day.

Flanagan was exceptionally famous in London, and the wider UK, in the first half of the twentieth century as a member of the Crazy Gang – a kind of home grown Marx Brothers. This group of vaudeville comedians appeared in music hall revues and made films, including 1941’s Gasbags, in which the Crazy Gang float into Nazi Germany in a mobile fish and chip shop attached to a giant barrage balloon. Out of the frying pan and into the Fuhrer.

That kind of dreamy scenario was also adopted by Flanagan in his work with Chesney Allen. As Flanigan and Allen – a kind of pre-war Morecambe and Wise – they made Dreaming in 1944, a film about a soldier who dreams a series of odd dreams while out cold on an operating table. They also recorded hugely popular songs such as Underneath the Arches about two down and outs sleeping underneath railway arches who ‘dream their dreams away’ and another song called Strollin’ about a man who knows his “luck is rolling when I’m strolling with the one I love.”

Strangely, or not, given apparent coincidences are often pre-engineered by people with poetic souls, a plaque at Golders Green memorialising Bud Flanagan sits almost directly opposite the memorial for King Rat Teddy Brown. The king and his successor brought together again in one place.

One has to imagine that the vast majority of London’s vaudevillians – a generation or two of wonderful entertainers worth remembering – ended up at Golders Green. That’s a whole lot of lost jokes and songs that are now a whole lot of lost ashes. But never mind, there are still little scraps of evidence of their existence that it’s possible to stumble across on a wander through North London on a summer’s afternoon. Just keep your eyes open and you’ll spot them too.

As an added bonus click here for a playlist featuring some of the songs that inspired this article.

* I would highly recommend Ian Nairn’s ‘Nairn Across Britain’ series in which he travels across the country looking at buildings that were, at the time, under threat. Many of the structures are now sadly lost, but the series is still worth watching all the same – particularly the episode in which Nairn drives from London to Manchester. In fact, I first discovered him in a YouTube video that someone had made of Nairn driving into Manchester as The Duritti Column’s Otis plays in the background.

The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? One answer to a perennial question

I must confess from the outset that for me there has only ever been one winner of the Beatles versus Rolling Stones contest – The Beatles – but every long-held opinion deserves an appraisal from time to time.

Let’s be counterintuitive for a second and start not with the music but with geography.

Naturally, as a Northerner, my love of the Beatles has surely been part fostered by the fact that the group launched their journey to world domination from the Cavern Club in Liverpool, which sits 46 miles away from where I was born in Oldham, Lancashire.

However, it recently occurred to me that by an unlikely quirk of fortune (or misfortune depending on how you look at it) I have come to know, over the past decade, the home of the Rolling Stones – World’s End in London’s Chelsea – much better than I have ever known Liverpool.

The first iteration of the Rolling Stones’ line-up lived at 102 Edith Grove in the early sixties, in a flat Mick Jagger and Keith Richards later described as ‘squalid’ and around the corner from a ‘cheap Italian joint’ – which I think just might still be in existence in the form of Mona Lisa on the King’s Road. The caffe still serves up bowls of remarkably cheap (for Chelsea) amatriciana festooned with long ribbons of English bacon, which should be enough to drive any self-respecting Italian mad.

It might be the only survivor from the days when World’s End was the beating heart of Swinging London. In the early 1960s, as the Lot’s Road power station belched out black soot that poured over the derelict bomb sites that would one day become Westfield Park, Vivienne Westwood arrived from Tintwistle in Derbyshire to set up a shop in World’s End, while local resident Christine Keeler set out on a liaison that would make political history.

I would like to say that it is still possible to feel a ribbon of throbbing cultural energy flying through the World’s End – but sadly it appears to have long since moved on – in fact, anyone innocent to the area’s history today would surely pass through it without giving it a second look.

I felt somewhat the same when I lived in Marylebone in a top floor flat at 14 Devonshire Place. On sunny days when my room would swelter, I would climb out through the bathroom window and sit by the chimney pots. I could see all of central London from there, including at the bottom of my street, the roof of number 57, the house where Paul McCartney lived with Jane Asher in the early 1960s.

McCartney wrote Yesterday in that house. The melody came to him in a dream. Virginia Woolf walked down Devonshire Place and Wimpole Street too. Florence Nightingale set off to the Crimea and into legend from a house on the street behind and Stephen Ward lived in Wimpole Mews during the Profumo affair. And yet, if you walk down the street today, all you will sense is a whiff of anesthetics seeping out of all the expensive dental clinics that now call the street home.

One thing that does strike me as interesting about 102 Edith Grove in Chelsea though, is that there is no exterior evidence that the building played any role whatsoever in the early years of one of the most famous bands in history.

Which is strange given that if you go to practically any location associated with the Beatles, be it Strawberry Fields or Penny Lane in Liverpool, or Abbey Road or 57 Wimpole Street in London, you will find a landmark covered in international graffiti messages and crawling with people taking photographs. Outside 102 Edith Grove there is nothing.

I suppose that is because the Beatles are a spiritual band  and people need something real to hang on to in the fab four’s absence – whereas the Stones are very much still a physical group. In fact, the band played a four hour concert in Lyon in searing temperatures at the start of this week on the latest leg of a convoluted European Tour. The Beatles, on the other hand, exist only in our imaginations, frozen in time forever on a London rooftop on a frigid January lunchtime in 1969 – the last time the group played in public.

If you are going to attempt to form any argument that the Stones outshine the Beatles then the case has to rest on the Rolling Stones’ longevity.

By 1968, the year the flower power dreams of the early 1960s were disintegrating, the Beatles released the brilliant White Album, which is a culmination of all the extraordinary influences that Paul, John, and George soaked up over the previous decade. They would release one more album while still together, Abbey Road in 1969.

The Stones, in 1968, released Beggars Banquet the first of a four album run that would culminate in 1972’s sublime Exile on Main St. It is a musical journey that charts not only the tumult of 1968, but 1969’s Altamont Festival in California –  the blood splattered concert headlined by the Stones that was policed by rampaging Hell’s Angles and which, unsurprisingly, became a vortex of violence that ended with four people dead.

It is the Stones – not the Beatles – that charted the collapse of the 1960s into blood spilling and recriminations, as well as the hedonistic selfishness of the early 1970s. While the Stones were at the very centre of that whirlwind the Beatles were in full retreat mode with Paul McCartney recording his lo-fi solo debut before disappearing to the seclusion of his Scottish farm.

The Stones – as a fully functional touring group –  would go on to age in public, to experience tragedy, to pick up drug and drink addictions by the bucket load, to enter middle age and old age as one collective that has told, over the years, the story of a lifetime, an extraordinary multi-decade story, a multi-century story, while the Beatles are frozen in time.

But. There was always going to be a but.

There is the music to consider. When it comes to the music, for me, the Beatles will always tower over the Rolling Stones.

The Rolling Stones were and remain a brilliant rock and roll band, with a love of the American blues combined with a dash of jazz, which was provided by the wonderfully self-effacing Charlie Watts in his Huntsman suits. By the way, I must say that although I would champion John, Paul and George any day over Mick and Keith, when it comes to Charlie versus Ringo, for me, Charlie wins it hands down.

The sound of the Rolling Stones is a potent, delicious mixture, but the recipe has largely gone unchanged since the early 1960s. It can, if you listen to album after album, start to sound a little painted by numbers, a little similar.

The Beatles, on the other hand, have something the Stones never had, a genius for melody provided largely by Paul McCartney. They were also willing to experiment. You won’t find a musical dream so all encompassing, so downright strange and wacky, so hypnotically brilliant as A Day in the Life on a Stones record. You won’t find anything close.

The legend of the Rolling Stones will live forever, but it will be the Beatles’ songs that people will still be singing a thousand years from now.

All music matters – not reputation

Karen and Richard Carpenter during the Carpenters international tour in 1972

Having a good taste in music is like having a good taste in wine – it takes time, effort and practice to acquire. Sometimes though, people just want to get sloshed and then vintage, vineyard and finesse count for little. It is the same with music, one day we want to appreciate, explore and learn, while the next we want to party, dance, wallow and weep.

Musical snobbery – a crime of which I have been guilty – is just as tiresome as wine snobbery – and ultimately just as useless, because a person needs a rounded appreciation in order to cater for any mood.

Yes it is fun, advantageous even, to develop a good taste in music and it is wonderful to adventure through the esoteric fringes of the musical universe. But, this is not a trip that should be taken for the sake of building street cred or while chasing some impossible definition of that ultimately undefinable word “cool”.

The truth is that some wonderful things are not cool and never will be, but you may still need them in your life. If you define yourself by “cool” alone then you will miss out on so much that is good.

I was thinking about this recently while I read Why Karen Carpenter Matters by Karen Tongson. It caught my eye because it finally confirmed my long-held – often privately long-held – belief that the Carpenters deserve a bit more respect from toffee-nosed music connoisseurs.


Well, first of all, there are only a handful of bands in music history – and the Carpenters are surely one – that are so distinctive, so immediately recognisable, that you place them as soon as you hear a few seconds of a song.

For some reason, I have always had a kind of strange photographic memory when it comes to the Carpenters. The moments – entirely innocuous – when I have heard a song of theirs in public are seared into my brain and I cannot explain why.

Most recently, last Christmas, I heard a song of theirs playing in a pub in Yorkshire while I was ordering lunch, and I remember sitting in Bermondsey in London, in a tea-total hotel bar, sipping a glass of hot chocolate as Superstar came over the sound system.

Why do I remember these things? I have no idea.

All you need to hear though is the drifting harp at the start of Superstar – which sounds like the start of an underwater scene in an old movie set in a kingdom of mermaids – to know exactly who you are listening to. Then along come those minor oboe chords that lead us to the deep, deep sounding vocal, “long ago, and, oh, so far away, I fell in love with you after the second show…..”

I only recently discovered that the song is a cover of one originally written by Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell. It sounds so much like a Carpenters song. It sounds like the pinnacle of Carpentry.  But that is the hallmark of a brilliant artist, someone who can entirely inhabit something that is not their own and then record the definitive version.

I mean, technically, Frank Sinatra was a covers artist, but he often recorded what ultimately would become the most famous version of whichever song he touched, such was his talent.

Karen Carpenter has gone down in history as a tragic figure, a tragic singer of sad songs, when in fact she was an exciting, young, vivacious woman and something of – which the Tongston book highlights -a feminist hero.

Karen Carpenter on stage

I’ve always thought that she deserved a lot more respect for not only being a singer, but a drummer too, and not only that but a singing drummer all at once, a very rare feat in music and one that few do well, with only Ringo Starr, Levon Helm of The Band and The Velvet Underground’s Moe Tucker coming immediately to mind.

And not only did she just sing and play the drums. She sang and played the drums with a voice that could stop a room, one of the most note perfect voices in music history.

She also – rather marvellously – upended the assumption formed by her supremely talented and dorky older brother – Richard – that he was the musical genius of the family, only to be lapped several times over when his sister’s extraordinary vocal gift became apparent. Ouch.

We can’t kid ourselves though. The Carpenters have baggage. They were safe, unthreatening, apolitical in an era when it was almost impossible to be so, plus they were white, as white as white can be. And, let’s not forget that they played at the Nixon White House in 1973 and were introduced by the president as ‘the best of young America’, which is not exactly the kind of endorsement that does wonders for your image.

Yes, they could be corny, but they produced music with a unique sound, music that makes you feel something, be it good or bad. Music that sounds perfect, yes, but as we all know, came from a struggling central source.

It is perhaps that we know the tragic end of her story that we can feel the same way listening to Karen Carpenter as we do when we hear John Lennon sing (Just Like) Starting Over.

If either Lennon or Karen Carpenter could win the chance to start over, it is doubtful that either one would want to be famous all over again.

Oh, and John Lennon was a Karen Carpenter fan, by the way.

It is rare that my increasingly irrelevant and out of touch musical opinions gain any justification through books published or articles written, but in this case, the Karen Carpenter case, I was right. Karen Carpenter matters.

In fact, I would say that all music matters, no matter what its reputation, from Harry Styles to Wolfgang Amadeus, as long as it makes you feel something.

So what’s next? I’ve always said Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat is one of the best pop songs of the late-1970s. Maybe ever. So, Al Stewart matters?

And what about Rickie Lee Jones? Rickie Lee Jones certainly matters. I mean, have you ever heard Pirates? Now there’s an album to savour….

Concrete Feathers and Porcelain Tacks – The Photographers’ Gallery

There is a lot to say about Rochdale.

Economically it is one of the most deprived areas in the UK, but culturally Rochdale is anything but.

Byron, the legendary romantic poet, owed his title – Baron Byron of Rochdale – to the town. Gracie Fields, one of the most internationally famous actresses and singers of the 20th century was born in Rochdale, and most famously, the town gave birth to the modern Cooperative Movement.

The pioneers who founded it based the Cooperative on the ‘Rochdale Principles’, the most crucial of which states that each cooperative has to be run democratically by its members and that membership should be open to all no matter what race, religion, sex or sexuality a person happens to be.

Rochdale’s community is a patchwork quilt of numerous sections. The town is extraordinarily diverse, and despite well-documented problems over the years, Rochdale’s community has remained largely tightly knit.

While other nearby towns, such as Oldham, saw a fraying and an erupting of racial tensions in the 1990s and early 2000s, Rochdale retained a sense of togetherness – despite its many adversities – to offer a welcoming home to people from all over the world.

For example, at a time when the very existence of Ukraine as an independent nation is being threatened by Russian troops menacing its borders, it is important to note that Rochdale has long been a safe harbour for Ukrainian people in times of strife.

Rochdale was the first town to recognise the Holodomor Famine – a man-made catastrophe caused in part by Joseph Stalin’s decision to single out Ukraine for harsh treatment in order suppress an independence movement – as genocide.

The famine killed as many as ten million Ukrainians and there is a memorial stone commemorating the event in front of Rochdale Town Hall.

It is Rochdale’s community that multimedia artist Helen Cammock pays tribute to in her exhibition ‘Concrete Feathers and Porcelain Tacks’ which is now in its final days at London’s Photographers’ Gallery.

The exhibition, which was put together in cooperation with Rochdale’s wonderful Touchstone Gallery, uses film, photography, text, song and performance to present all the different facets of Rochdale’s bustling community in one place.

Cammock uses the Cooperative Movement and the town’s proud industrial heritage as a starting point and uses this base as a way to examine the power and potential of a social collective.

An immersive, nearly two-hour film, forms the centrepiece of the exhibition and it features people working together to make the town a better place, while outside the projection room objects that are referenced in the film are on display.

A Ukrainian choir is featured singing a traditional song on a bandstand in one of Rochdale’s many parks. In another section Sultan Ali is interviewed, a man who went from growing up as a shepherd boy in Sahiwal in Pakistan to becoming Rochdale’s first Asian Muslim mayor in 2003.

Rochdale resident Pete is also featured, a retired joiner, who speaks of his attempts to re-wild an abandoned patch of scrubland close to the town centre. His success is evident, as he lists the countless numbers of wildflowers, butterflies and birds that he has spotted in the years since he began his work.

A Bangladeshi artist is depicted showing the sewing machine skills – a nod to Rochdale’s textile industry- that were passed down to her by her parents and grandparents. Her knowledge has proved to be an inspiration for her artwork and she is pictured using an antique sewing machine by the side of Hollingworth Lake – a popular local beauty spot.

The conversations depicted between the residents capture discussions about the future and the past, the good and the bad, but most importantly they focus on common experiences.

All stills from Concrete Feathers and Porcelain Tacks, 2021 © Helen Cammock 
Courtesy of the artist

“The spaces we inhabit are different shapes to everyone. The comfort we enjoy is not the same from one community to the next – from one home to the next,” Cammock comments.

“But some strive more for a sense of collective parity. The Rochdale Principles embody this notion of a shared role, responsibility, and stake in what little or great opportunity and subsistence a community generates.”

This is an exhibition that proves that despite Rochdale’s often harsh industrial history and the problems that still confound the town and its community to this day, a sense of humanity, humour and warmth still shines through.

Does Manchester look as good as Los Angeles on film?

There is a story – I’m not sure how true it is – that Tony Wilson – the famous Mancunian music impresario behind Joy Division and New Order, wanted to fly a film crew over Manchester in a helicopter at dusk to ascertain if the city looked as sexy as Los Angeles in the moonlight.

LA has long appeared sultry on celluloid, but has Manchester? The answer, in case you are wondering, is yes.

To me, Los Angeles has never looked better than in Robert Altman’s 1973 film of the Raymond Chandler detective thriller The Long Goodbye. Altman’s detective, Philip Marlowe, played by Elliott Gould, is a man out of time. He’s a man who has seemingly been asleep for thirty years only to wake up in a spinning world of non-existent morals that he does not understand.

To support this picture of Marlowe as a chain-smoking Rip Van Winkle, Altman’s detective lives in the High Tower in Hollywood Heights, with its tall turreted lift shaft that leads to several nautical style art deco residences on a palm-tree covered hillside.

From his chaotic hilltop flat that he shares with his cat, Marlowe can see all the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, which is captured in soft, hazy colours on film by the inventive cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond.

Does Manchester have an equivalent of LA’s Marlowe? Well, yes. Just take out Elliott Gould and replace him with Stanley Baker, the great Welsh actor, who played Detective Inspector Harry Martineau in the 1960 Val Guest directed film noir Hell is a City, which was shot in Manchester.

Just as The Long Goodbye tries to create a colourised film noir, Hell is a City does the same in 1960s black and white. Just as the characters in The Long Goodbye step out of seedy shafts of light, so do the characters in Hell is a City, only the light is distinctly Mancunian. Just take out the sun-streaked haze of the Hollywood Hills and replace them with the rain-soaked gloom of Saddleworth Moor, where one of the film’s key moments takes place.

Hell is a City’s climax sees Martineau clambering over the rooftop spires of the Palace Hotel on Oxford Street as he hunts down an escaped convict, all guns blazing, as the smokey dirty urban sprawl of early 1960s Manchester hums beneath him. 

Los Angeles just like Manchester is urban sprawl. Los Angeles in the time of Altman, and before, was choked by smog, just like Manchester was choked by smoke from its factory chimneys.

Manchester, in fact, sounds very similar to a description David Lynch once gave of LA. “I know a lot of people go there and they see just a huge sprawl of sameness,” Lynch once said about the city, “but when you’re there for a while, you realise that each section has its own mood. Even with the smog, there’s something about that light that’s not harsh, but bright and smooth.” Just like in Manchester when those endless grey slate rainy days bring a sense of warmth and homeliness through familiarity.

Jumping forward a few years to 1969, Manchester’s next significant appearance on film comes in 1968’s Charlie Bubbles. This film was directed by and stars Albert Finney as the eponymous Bubbles, a successful London writer, a Mancunian exile, and another man like Marlowe, trapped in a world he doesn’t understand, asleep on his feet.

So he heads back home to rediscover his childhood in Salford and he takes his assistant, Eliza Hayhoe, who is played by Liza Minnelli, back with him. Did you know that Liza Minnelli once clambered over the ruins of a bulldozed Salford street? The answer is yes, and she appeared to enjoy it.

Aside from witnessing slum clearance in Salford, Charlie is also seen sauntering past the under-construction Piccadilly Plaza Hotel an appearance of the brutalist architecture that would come to dominate the northern look for the rest of the century, which is not something Stanley Baker would have recognised as he tumbled across the Palace roof. However, Altman’s Marlow would have seen some similar brutalist designs such as the Liberty Savings and Loan on the corner of South Beverly Drive and West Pico Boulevard.

We end where we began, with Tony Wilson and the band he made famous, Joy Division. The life of Ian Curtis is perhaps best depicted in the stately black and white of Anton Corbijn’s 2007 film Control, which almost sees Manchester appear like the monochromatic images of Berlin that were seen when David Bowie was making Heroes in the 1970s.

The most recognisable image of Joy Division is the picture of the group crossing the Epping Walk Bridge which stretches over Princess Street in Hulme. The street leads towards the city centre and the raised road that encircles the city known as the Mancunian Way or ‘the highway in the sky’ as it was called when it was built in 1967. 

It is another element of Manchester that could perhaps be compared with the freeways of LA that segregate rich and poor neighbourhoods to this day. The poor and the glamorous living at close quarters is what is so often captured in films about Manchester and Los Angeles, but in both, it has always been in the underbelly where the magic happens.

Bice Lazzari: Modernist Pioneer – The Estorick Collection Reclaims an Unsung Female Hero

Abstraction of a Line No. 2, Astrazione di una linea n. 2, 1925, Private collection, Rome

As anyone with an interest in early to mid 20th century Italian art will know, the Estorick Collection in Islington’s leafy Canonbury Square is a treasure trove.

From the musical swirls that flow from the fingers of a shadowy pianist in Luigi Russolo’s Music, to the piercing eyes of a woman in a multi-coloured hat and a single pearl earring in Umberto Boccioni’s Modern Idol, the Estorick Collection certainly boasts the highlights of Italian Futurism and Modernism on its walls.

The museum’s programme of temporary exhibitions tends to delve deeper though, to cast a light on early to mid twentieth century Italian artists that are not as well known.

In Bice Lazzari: Modernist Pioneer, which opened on 14 January 2022, the Collection’s galleries turn to an inventive abstractionist in an exhibition that aims to reclaim an unsung Italian female hero.

Lazzari’s status as a relative unknown outside of her home country is unfair, given the self-made nature of her artistic success and the battle she had to wage to achieve it.

Untitled, Senza titolo, 1966, Private collection, Rome

“As well as being under appreciated internationally, I would say that Lazzari is neglected in Italy too,” Roberta Cremoncini, director of the Estorick Collection, told me. 

“Women tended to be pushed towards applied art rather than art itself. She decided that she wanted to be an artist in her own right, yet she remains little known. 

During the 1960s there was a lot of exchange between the British and Italian art worlds, but with the reduction of the Art Council’s budget everything became much more insular and Italy turned to the United States to show off its post-war rejuvenation.”

Bice Lazzari, born a Venetian in 1900, opted to study design and applied arts at the Venice Academy of Arts, rather than follow her heart and study art itself. She had an intention to make her own living from her craft, despite her parent’s desire to see her become a teacher.

“When my father died in 1928 I had to face life on a practical level,” Lazzari wrote. “So rather than walking around with a painting under my arm, I took a loom and started making fabrics, scarves, bags, belts and carpets, in order to continue living in the climate I so adored – namely, freedom.”

Blue Architecture, Architettura azzurra, 1955, Private collection, Rome

It was the art world that provoked an inescapable fascination in her though, and she would display her interest in abstraction through the designs that she completed for clients.

Her desire to break into the male-dominated Italian painting world would constantly be frustrated, firstly by her natural shyness that she struggled with all her life and led to a description of her as being ‘like a piece of ice in which a flame burns’. 

Lazzari’s shyness is reflected in her work. “Her art is very sophisticated in a way,” Cremoncini adds, “it is very polished and fine and it is not disruptive so it didn’t come to the foreground very easily.” 

Her progress was also disrupted by the arrival of fascism and war in the 1930s, which prompted Lazzari to turn to illegally imported art magazines for fresh inspiration.

Acrylic No. 5, Acrilico n. 5, 1975, Archivio Bice Lazzari, Rome

When her art found full flight after conflict concluded in 1945, she created intricate, geometrically abstract work, comprised of lines and marks which seem to move across the page like notes on a symphony’s score, reflecting her time spent at a conservatoire as a child.

Towards the end of her life, her work became increasingly simple, and as time wore on and her eyesight started to fail, her only artistic tools were a red and white pencil with which she created pieces with a remarkable sense of symmetry and harmony.

Lazzari in her studio on the Fondamenta Cà Rezzonico, 1920s

“Her work has a special feeling to it,” Cremoncini concludes. “It is very subtle and extremely accomplished. Her paintings are poetic, you can grow into them. Your first impression might be to see a few lines on a canvas, but if you look more closely you will see that there are a series of layers to be discovered.”

The independent nature of Lazzari’s work is perhaps best summed up in her own words: “For many, the only way to survive artistically is to establish a continuous dialogue with oneself,” she wrote, “a challenging monologue to build’s one’s own art.”

Bice Lazzari: Modernist Pioneer runs at the Estorick Collection until 24 April 2022. 

Looking Back On My Interview With Bill Fay

In 2010, Bill Fay was considered to be – within the narrow confines of the UK’s folk-rock scene – a reclusive musical enigma of almost Salingeresque stature.

In the early 1970s he recorded two albums and, after being promptly dropped by his label, he disappeared into obscurity in north London.

The two records that he left behind, over time, presumably through accidental dusty record shop discoveries and later CD reissues, began to build a small army of followers.

His first record, the eponymously titled ‘Bill Fay’, with its hymnic devotional songs to nature, and its darker follow-up, ‘Time of the Last Persecution’, have a style entirely to themselves.

In 2010, Bill commenced what would become an unlikely comeback, by releasing a series of home recorded demos that he had completed during his years in seclusion.

The album was released by Coptic Cat, a label that was founded by David Tibet of Current 93 fame. 

Spying an opportunity to get a chance to speak to the man himself, and solve one or two mysteries in the process, I got in touch with David to request an interview with Bill.

I was, to say the least, not hopeful of success. But, a reply did come, as well as a request for questions with the caveat that there were no assurances that they would be answered.

Luckily, Bill liked the questions and called me to discuss them. The results of the conversation became an article that I wrote for Flux Magazine, which was at the time a print publication based in Manchester.

When I emailed Bill to tell him that the article was done and the magazine was printed, he told me that he would go to his local WH Smiths to see if he could find a copy, which is a part of the story that makes 2010 sound longer ago than it really was.

Bill’s music is timeless though and the adulation that he received, including an article in the New York Times, for the two albums he released after 2010, with American record producer Joshua Henry, was richly deserved.

Looking back on my interview with Bill, eleven years later, many of his answers seem to me to be rich in a wisdom that is hard won. I have included a few answers from the interview below: 

Your music has always been about returning to nature. In Garden Song, you sing about planting yourself in the garden. Are beauty and nature and our relationship with them things that still inspire you?

For me, Garden Song was the beginning of seeking something deeper. I came to feel that we were largely in our day-to-day lives asleep to a greater reality. I believed there was something to find out, but more than that, I felt strongly that you could actually find out, which was a big step for me.

I felt that we as human beings had named things like a tree or a butterfly and in the act of naming them, we had explained them away. I came to feel that we were living in one sense within the restrictions of our own heads.

So, I started to pay more attention to nature. I didn’t run to the mountains or anything, I mean that I would sit on the top deck of a double-decker bus and look at things, trees, for example. Part of your head is saying ‘why are you doing this, it’s only a tree’, but I kept looking, to try and understand more and get outside of my own head.

How did you channel this thought process into your song writing?

What used to happen back then and to some degree still happens, is that a song is a vehicle, a means of expressing, where I’m at inside.

Just as I sing in Garden Song, ‘I’ll wait for the rain to anoint me and the frost to awaken my soul.‘ It was that waking up that was important to me, connecting with the real world around us of living things. I did come to feel an enormous strangeness, the connection that I began to feel with the living world was very vivid.

Aside from nature, I also get a sense that some of your music is inspired by the wartime generation, your parent’s generation and the wars that they fought?

I have always been grounded in the 1914 generation, the generation that fought the First World War. I remember my old Aunt May and her sister looking after my Uncle Will after he was poisoned by mustard gas in the trenches. He used to just sit there all day in a chair and they used to look after him. My song ‘Sing Us One of Your Songs May‘ is loosely based on that.

May would sing the old songs like ‘Sunshine Of Your Smile’ and I would play the piano to accompany her singing. She never married and May and her sister went through life looking after their mum and dad and their brother. It was another generation, which was just not confronted with the same things I was in the 1960’s but I felt amazingly linked to them.

It seems to me that your songs are written more from a spiritual angle than a political one, although you came of age in an era when political and protest songs were very much in vogue. Do you avoid politics?

I suppose my songs can be political, sometimes, just think of The Sun is Bored on my first record and ‘the minister for good taste’ that I sing about. There is a political aspect sometimes, but I don’t often find modern politicians inspiring.

I am sure that there are good politicians though. I do remember fondly the old Labour politicians, like Manny Shinwell, and people of his ilk, who said they wanted to bring about heaven on Earth, but it was as much as they could do to prevent hell on Earth. I could say a lot politically, I have a lot of political anger, but I do understand that a lot of the issues that politicians deal with are very complex.

Your third album Tomorrow Tomorrow and Tomorrow ends with the line ‘Nothing has changed, only me, the world’s still the same, but I’m not the same.‘ Are you still changing? Still searching? Or have you reached a level of contentment?

I don’t think that the level of contentment you speak of exists. I don’t think you can be content when there is so much wrong in the world. I do think that you have to strive to keep awake to all the things I was talking about earlier. Nature will always inspire me. It’s great just to see a robin sometimes! There are such miraculous little things in the world.

In day-to-day life you can quite easily become not as connected as you have been in the past, so there is always a feeling within me that I need to stay awake to the full picture, no matter what the distractions.