Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Happy (belated) Birthday your majesty

On Sunday (25th March) the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, celebrated her 70th birthday. One of the highlights of my year in 2011 was a rare opportunity to hear her sing at a private function in New York. 

Adamant that the air-conditioning should be turned off so as not to damage her vocal chords (and who could blame her, you don't take risks with something as valuable as that) she took the stage with an ever-so-slightly stern demeanor. But before she had sung a single note, the room belonged to her. 

Seconds later she opened with 'Say A Little Prayer,' and there was a moment where time itself seemed suspended. Her voice, bright and warm and maybe a little softer than I expected, pulled us all a step closer. Perhaps she chose to attenuate her power so as not to overwhelm the small crowd, perhaps it is the inevitable process of change over the years. Either way, what could not be denied, was that whatever she held back in terms of raw power, she more than made up in flexibility. Dancing over the melodies with impossible agility. Never fussy, never showy but just occasionally flexing a musical phrase with such exquisite nuance that left you in no doubt as to who she was and what she was capable of.

It would be easy at this point to roll off a list of the songs she performed that evening. Songs she had indelibly marked her own, songs that only a fool would sing now for fear of unfavourable comparison.

Let us just say that if you're thinking of one right now, chances are, it was on the set-list of this private and intimate event. Nobody who had ever loved her remarkable back-catalogue would have been disappointed.

But it was a song that I personally had never heard from her lips, that will stay with me for ever. 

Towards the end the set, Aretha crossed the stage and took a seat at the keyboard. She sang 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' unaccompanied save for her own playing. It was sparse, honest and restrained. At the end of those brief, spine-tingling minutes I felt barely able to breathe.

It was so tender, so soulful that it really defies description and no superlative could do it justice. But what overwhelmed was the sense that this was someone who had got underneath music somehow. Become part of it's fabric, understood it more fully that most people understand anything.

We as a society, use the word 'great' so regularly now. Too often we carelessly throw it out to describe that which is merely competent, or worse, hyped-up mediocrity. 

But this was the real thing - unequivocally great. Great in a way that far too few things in life ever really are. To be within touching distance of that kind of greatness was simultaneously inspiring and immensely humbling.

Epic Road trip - St Patricks Day 2011

We had planned to set off at a real 'Richard Dawkins' of ungodly hours. But the combination of work, family and fatigue all stacked up and it was mid-morning before we finally began the epic road trip. Ahead of us was a four day journey to recce the eight cities for JL's upcoming "Big Ad Job" all to be done in a Mercedes van recently purchased for the task.

The date had been picked more or less arbitrarily to fit around JL's schedule and only the very vaguest of thought had been given to planning. So it was, that we found ourselves heading to Cork on St Patrick's day and Dublin a day later which coincided with the England/Ireland Six Nations Rugby match being played there that night.

We arrived at the ferry terminal near Pembroke a few minutes before the sailing. At the border control we were greeted by a female officer in uniform and 'standard issue' silly hat bearing the legend, "What's the Craick?" 

Given that we were driving a kind of van/people-carrier thing, there were lots of security questions to answer. It was at this point I was glad that we had been sarcastically congratulated by JL's agent for our choice of recce-day. Had we not known it was St Patrick's, turning up and being thoroughly scrutinised by a woman in comedy headgear might otherwise lead to the suspicion that our fuel-stop coffee had been spiked with windowpane!

Once we reached Cork, JL rustled up our location list and the pair of us set off on the recce. The surrealism continued unabated, there was a tractor tearing up and down the main drag, blasting past lines of people waiting to get into the bars and clubs. 

We worked hard, speed marched round all the locations on the shot list , took a handful of pictures for the mood-board and managed to do all this without succumbing to the siren song of the many lively bars we had passed. But after four hours JL made the executive decision that we were finished for the night and that frankly, it would be rude not to make a contribution to the local economy.

Drink was taken in moderation but this triggered JL's all-eclipsing need for fast-food. After I had encouraged him away from various kebab shops on health grounds, we eventually found ourselves in a bustling pizza restaurant where we seemed to be the only two individuals not dressed green, amber and white.

Back to the hotel, and the tractor was parked up with random passers-by having there photos taken with it like it was some exotic super-car.

Ah, what a magical night of romance for the couples making out amongst the onlookers and the fast food cartons.

Next morning we ambled along the road to a cafe and sat in the bright sun drinking coffee in the brisk March air before taking the drive to Dublin. The previous night seemed somehow removed as though we had spend an evening at an Irish theme-park.

It is often remarked that St Patrick's day is celebrated more enthusiastically in the US than in Ireland. I'm not sure that is true but it certainly has a more downtempo vibe. In Wicklow, where JL had family ties, the atmosphere was restrained and nostalgic rather than raucous.

That evening in Dublin, Ireland's victory over England in the six nations match had overtaken any thoughts of St Patrick. There were no available hotel rooms so we just worked through until the early morning ferry and decided to sleep on the crossing.

So after an excellent meal and five hours of walking the length and breadth of Dublin's city centre, we eventually found ourselves heading past the striking new theatre to the ferry terminal. 

Like the snakes, we had been driven out of Ireland by St Patrick - with a little help from a rugby match.

Friday, 2 March 2012

In memory of PC David Rathband

This morning (Thursday March 1st) the first thing I heard as I switched on the radio was the tragic news that PC David Rathband had been found dead in his home. 

Having been shot in the face at point blank range by gunman Raoul Moat in 2010, costing him the sight of both eyes, it was frankly a miracle that he survived at all. But exactly one year from that horrific incident, David was sat in a tiny hotel room in Greenwich, London, re-living the events which had left him fighting for every aspect of what he could no longer really recognise as his life. 

He described the last thing he remembered seeing, Moat's face over the top of the shot-gun, the look on his face, the flash (which he thought he may have felt more than seen) the searing pain and what he described as being the worst bit - the unbearable sound of the gun being fired into his head at close range.

What he was unfolding, had lived through in fact, has always been one of my darkest and most primal fears - to violently lose the visual world. 

Nearly as distressing were the nightmares he still regularly suffered, Moat's face swimming up through the darkness, horrible dreams of being at the bottom of an infinitely deep well, despairing of ever escaping.

The patience, modesty, and bravery that he showed during the interview and photos, made me vow to myself that I would never take another moment's eyesight for granted. 

But although his determination was extraordinary he was, unsurprisingly, a very troubled man. He spoke of how he felt abandoned, isolated, in some sense betrayed even, and despite his often cheery remarks and grim humour I was concerned at how fragile he seemed.

So it was a was with sadness but not surprise that I absorbed the news of his death this morning. As the day went on, bulletins informed us that David had been thought to have taken his own life. 

My sincerest condolences to his family, friends and colleagues and I hope that the brave way in which he fought to carry such an unbearable burden will be an inspiration if not a comfort.