Today is the 60th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s first professional appearance on stage. He performed opposite John Lee Hooker at the famous Gerde’s Folk City in New York on 11th April 1961. In his autobiographical Chronicles Volume One (2004), the back cover of my copy of which I’ve photographed above, Dylan recalls that the co-owner of the venue, Mike Porco, signed for him as a guardian for his cabaret and union cards, becoming “the Sicilian father that I never had”. Dylan was still only 19 years old.
So today in between other activities I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan on Spotify. The tracks played were from a playlist on the app and should be visible on my blog site’s music feed.
Heft is a word used in North British highlands, such as the Cumbrian fells or Lake District where this novel is set, to describe an area of pasture to which a flock or herd of animals like sheep have become accustomed (‘ hefted’). In another meaning in English it also refers to weightiness; its use as a noun or verb now largely archaic, but it survives more commonly in use as the adjective often euphemistically employed to describe an obese person: hefty.
Towards Mellbreak is the first novel by Marie-Elsa Bragg, who is an Anglican priest and therapist as well as a writer. She identifies as half French and half Cumbrian, and brought up in London. Avid BBC Radio 4 listeners and alumni of Leeds University will recognise her surname as that of the eminent broadcaster and former University Chancellor Melvyn Bragg, the author’s father. Her mother, Marie-Elisabeth Roche, committed suicide when she was 6 years old.
I discovered this writer, and her novel, through a profile piece about her in the new arts magazine Monk; which takes a spirituality perspective on contemporary creativity. I chose to read Towards Mellbreak because of my own intense relationship with the Lake District in the years 1968 – 1977, as a frequent visitor and fell- walker.
The word ‘heft’ in both its senses sums up the book for me. It is the story of a hill-farming family struggling to retain hope of a future life in the land to which its members, as much as the sheep they love, have become hefted. It is a book with hefty themes; exploring the resilience and springs of hope to be found in the often hidden traditional resources of family memories, lifelong friendships and religious practices. These are sources of enduring strength which are invisible, to the governmental advisors and their ever-evolving policies. But ultimately remembering proves no defence against the perils of ignorance.
I cannot claim to have been a lifetime fan or follower of Joan Baez. Not in the way I kept up with Bob Dylan over the decades since I heard him first in 1969 when I was 13. There’s the issue for me. Dylan’s songs are best sung by Dylan. Why listen to others singing them? Baez sang a lot of Dylan. That was the casually uninformed view I picked up in my teenage years, and so Joan Baez’s music never was embedded in my formative experiences of musical discovery.
There was one exception though. I have possessed, in its original vinyl and cover, her album Come from the Shadows since the mid-70s. I don’t recall whether I was given it or sought it out. It made a profound impression. Certainly I recall it rarely strayed far from the turntable in my early student years 74 -77. Baez’s voice is unique and beautiful for sure, and listening to this album I appreciated it, but it was the social justice message of the songs which really hit me. “All the weary mothers of the earth” is a lyric which became one of my lifetime earworms, even during the two decades before Spotify and the vinyl revival, when the record player and vinyl albums languished in the loft.
Earlier this week I found myself reading Elizabeth Thomson’s paen to Joan Baez: Joan Baez The Last Leaf. It was the first full day of the presidency of Joe Biden. He, of course, is an exact contemporary of Baez, only a year or two younger than her.
So here I was reading a book written for Baez’s retirement from her professional career, not unreasonably at almost 80 years old, on the day Biden was entering the pinnacle and greatest challenge of his. Singer and politician are very different careers, as Bob Dylan’s story shows. So there might not generally be any cause for comment, except as this book sets out to make very clear, Baez, whilst a musician to her core, has always been more than that.
Not ever a holder of political office, she became both an active and an iconic leader nonetheless, in the groundswell for global social justice and human rights which began to rise in the 1960s.
More than a singer of protest songs, Baez both founded and funded charities and campaigns dedicated to a vision of a better social compact and world order, in particular based on principles of non- violence she had found in her family connection with the Quakers and her friendship with Martin Luther King. Without subordinating musical integrity to political messaging, Thomson argues, Baez placed her musical gifts , her celebrated fame as a performer, and her money in the service of the cause of global justice. Amnesty International’s growth in the US owes much to Joan Baez.
Notwithstanding Reagan/Thatcher and all that has followed of rampant neoliberal capitalism and the reactionary Right, reaching its noxious apogee, really a nadir, in Trump, the star of social justice has continued to rise. It is the true and only voice of the future, if human species self-destruction is to be averted. With the election of Biden and Harris this week that star shines again.
The poetic voice of social justice has been handed on rightly to the young generation, the likes of the astonishingly talented Amanda Gorman.
Admitting openly her unabashed admiration for Joan Baez as an artist and as a human being, Thomson wants to set on record the true wonder and power of Baez’s life work. Her book has done that for me. It has made me a little regretful that I forgot somehow to keep listening to Baez in the decades I deserted her work. Perhaps too it has been a wake-up call to me, and can be for all who hunger and thirst for justice, not to lose faith, especially now, that “we shall overcome”.
On National Poetry Day 2020 I share this poem I wrote after a visit to Peckham Rye on 28th May. It was the Spring holiday week; towards the end of the initial wave of Covid-19 deaths and the full lockdown restrictions in England had been eased slightly.
Wandering recently around the village of Sutton Courtenay, where our son and family live, I was intrigued by references to a place known as The Abbey. It turns out to be a centre of spirituality with a resident community. The building itself has a medieval foundation but has never been an actual abbey, rather a manor house.
Information about the founders of the centre at The Abbey, and its current mission, are found on its website as linked above. One of the founders was Anglican Bishop Stephen Verney whose writings influenced me in the early years of my ministry. I did not know, or had forgotten about, his role in this venture.
Today Lorraine and I were looking for a 4/5 mile morning walk in green spaces where we could stride out and enjoy the surroundings without having to keep looking down to watch where our feet were being placed and within a 30 minute drive from home.
The answer was found in the Ordnance Survey app where walks have been uploaded by users. This circular walk from the town of Hartley Wintney in Hampshire fitted the bill pretty well. Including an extra quarter of a mile each way from the car park to the designated start point it came to at least 5 miles. We dawdled occasionally in places to take in the scenery and read information boards – read the map etc – so it took a full 2 hours.
The walk mostly met our criteria. The first third crosses Hazeley Heath which has a wide level central path perfect for a vigorous pace and freedom to take in the panoramic view. Later sections of the walk included unimpeded field crossings – though these would not have been so easy after wet weather. On occasions close attention needed paying to the map. There are several three-way junctions with paths converging at close angles. It was very helpful to have our exact location in the OS map app on my phone.
Hazeley Heath is a nature reserve designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest run by the RSPB who are pursuing a current conservation program funded by the National Lottery.
I spent the morning with my wife exploring the village of Bray on the banks of the River Thames in Berkshire. I had never visited before even though it’s only a few miles from where I’ve lived for the last 23 years.
It turns out to be the place where The Cut, the river referred to in my post of 31 August, empties into the River Thames. This time I saw no fish as I peered into the water from a footbridge on a pedestrian route known as the Greenway.
In the churchyard at Bray we were delighted by a magnificent example of Magnolia Grandiflora which was in flower. Large blooms were close to the footpath so we were able to take in their heavenly lemony fragrance. As we stood admiring the tree a friendly fellow-walker approached us and asked if we knew what it was. He said that he walked through the churchyard every morning on a circular route from his home in Maidenhead. He had discounted the possibility that it was a magnolia as he thought they only flowered in Spring. He was very pleased to be more informed and he could not have chosen a better passer-by to ask than Lorraine!
Bray is home to two of only 5 restaurants in Britain which have Michelin 3 stars, The Fat Duck, and The Waterside Inn. Today was not the moment to visit either of those! But we did enjoy a relaxed pub lunch at The Crown, which has a very Covid- safe set-up in its garden, with a high airy canvas canopy over a spacious outdoor seating area.
There are lots of historic buildings and structures in Bray. We were charmed by the old Lych Gate for the churchyard, incorporated into a house still occupied today.