Catch-up for my old 1970s Douro House workmates

I had a call from an old friend of mine yesterday who I worked with back in the 1970s. He is trying to fix up a reunion of a bunch of staff who worked in Douro House back then, in what was the Department of Social Sciences in the old Sunderland Poly. Of course, that building is now an Indian restaurant. Be that as it may, I thought I might provide a potted summary of what I have been up to since those days. Well, I shall miss out most of the work-related stuff going through to the point when I retired in 2006, and shall place the emphasis on what I have been up to in my retirement.

The first thing I need to clarify is that, although approaching the big 70 next year, I have no grandchildren and my daughter lives permanently in the States (in L.A.) My brother and his family live on the south coast of England and so, apart from the occasional Skype and phone call, family provides scant structure in my quotidian existence. My time and energy seem to be soaked up attending to myriad projects. So I do keep busy.

I have remained living in Sunderland, to this day, since 1976. We moved out of our old Alice Street house a little over twenty years ago and settled in a nice Dutch bungalow in the Barnes area. We have some garden and in the summer months I battle to keep it under some kind of control. However, I have decided that mowing the moss can be a rather pleasant activity, providing one can loosen up one’s concept of what constitutes a lawn.

Once I retired, contact with the Department of Psychology swiftly diminished to zero. I find that I have no regular local friends from the world of Sunderland University. Interestingly, I do still have some good friends who might be described as my old music mates, going back to the 1980s when I ran the Glebe Live Music club.

I never did succeed with my music, possibly because it is a bit of an acquired taste and my fan base would approximate to a niche market, with scant niche in the City of Sunderland. I no longer go out to play or sing in pubs. By and large, I found that to be an extraordinarily unpleasant musical experience; most of the time one would be completely ignored and quite frequently one could not be heard above the noise of boosy conversation, even with a P.A. system.

However, a new avenue opened up for me in January 2008. I started to stream live shows up to the Internet. I have converted what used to be my academic study into a music studio. I play into Second Life and do about five shows a week. Each show lasts one hour and the shows start precisely on the hour and finish a couple of minutes ahead of the next hour. The scheduling of live music is very precise. This is probably because both listeners and players are spread across all the time zones of the world. The music goes out absolutely live, but it is not broadcast. It gets streamed down only to folk whose avatars are present at the virtual venue. My avatar’s name is Fyrm Fouroux.

For each show I play a mixture of original songs and covers (probably about 50-50 but it varies). For the first 30 minutes I sing and accompany myself on guitar (I have a very nice electro-acoustic guitar which was hand-made for me by Mick McConway,  a mate of an old school friend of mine who lives in Gateshead). Then in the second 30 minutes of the show, I sing and accompany myself on piano (I have a very nice Yamaha Clavinova digital piano). I sometimes play a bit of mandolin but not very often. Anyway, since January 2008 I have played just under 1,200 one hour shows (one thousand and two hundred)!

Post-retirement, I went back to Sunderland University as a postgrad student for a year, to learn about animation and design. This proved to be very interesting. I had thought that I might make some short animations for some of my songs. In the end I decided not to go down that path, and so I only completed one year of the part-time M.A. They very generously awarded me a Postgrad Certificate in Animation and Design and I am extremely proud of that qualification. Once I got into the course, I realised that I could not draw! So I had to go to life drawing classes. I also had to learn a lot about painting and had some wonderful tuition in watercolour from the Illustration Tutor. The experience of turning up to the studio each day at 9.00 and working on sketches and stuff through to late afternoon was totally different to my previous undergrad and postgrad degree experience at Leicester and Sheffield universities where I studied academic psychology. Life in a studio is fascinating and I am really glad I have had that experience. In the end, I became more interested in painting and sketching than I did in animation.

I continued to pick up more tuition in sketching by taking a couple of 10 week courses that the Lit & Phil put on (the one just round from Newcastle central station). You can find a few examples of my sketches on my website. However, I think pencil sketches are especially difficult to scan well, so the digital equivalent is seldom as good as the original drawing.

Apart from all this, I became interested in writing conventional poetry (most definitely NOT free verse). I think there is a close link between structured poetry and song lyrics and I have been writing song lyrics since the early 1960s. Oh, that reminds me, John Coggrave gave me some really helpful advice on poetic form and structure and very kindly lent me a couple of brilliant tomes on the topic – that would be back in the 70s or 80s, I think. It was extremely good of him to go out of his way like that, because my general knowledge of English poetry is very scant indeed, and definitely not much beyond my old ‘A’ level.

Anyway, I stumbled across something called the Sonnet of Sonnets. You start with a master (or macro-) sonnet and then you write twelve more, each starting with successive lines of the original 12-line sonnet. So you end up with 13, in all. I decided to try to do one to cover my autobiography. It seemed like a good thing to do at that point in time, given that I had just retired. So, I had a sonnet written for all the various phases or episodes of my life. I remember sitting in a deck chair in my garden puzzling over these sonnets. It is a fact that the inclusion of some autobiographical content had more to do with conveniences of rhyme, than the importance of the original real life episodes, but I learned to live with that.

Once I had my sonnet of sonnets, I began to think seriously about writing an illustrated prose autobiography. This took me about two years to complete. I knew that I would never get a publishing contract since I am neither a celebrity nor a famous person. I therefore went down the path of self-publishing and made the book with I decided that I did not want to write about my family life in Sunderland and so I wrote it as Part One (1945 – 1980). I actually have no intention of writing Part Two. I made approximately 40 paintings and sketches for it. There were three portraits that I could not get right (of my friends from the Leicester University pyschology degree course) and for them I did resort to photos, but they were the only photos. Of course, I do use reference photos for my sketching but that is a different matter altogether. I was very pleased to finish this book. I ordered a stack of hardback copies printed on top quality paper, from Blurb, and sent them to the people who had featured heavily in my early years. That was not cheap, but it was what I wanted to do.

In the course of my autobiography, I had to try to come to terms with (and make sense of) the years when I was sent away to boarding school, from age 8-18. My father had died when I was a baby, and that was why I ended up where I did. I don’t think my particular boarding school was any different from most of the minor public schools of that era. The discipline was frequently harsh, sometimes brutal and occasionally sadistic. One had to speedily build a tough emotional shell in order to survive. I have heard it said that those 1950s boarding schools could be thought of as providing a good survival training for subsequent experience as a PoW, should that ever happen.

I was pleased to be done with the autobiography.  Apart from the painful memories of boarding school, I was also able to confront the  the infidelities of my first wife, retrospectively and more calmly. Although I do not wish to overstate the cathartic spin-off,  I think I was glad to get a lot of that stuff out of my system and it was only after I had done that, that I felt free enough to dabble in a spot of fiction writing.

I invented a character called Harold Hake and at first drew on quite a few of my autobiographical experiences to get myself started. However, those autobiographical links soon soon weaken and dissipate as the germ of the idea grows in ones imagination. In other words, I realised that I had to pepper my fiction with plenty of references to the real world, in order to secure the reader’s suspension of disbelief. But the great thing about writing fiction is that you can make anything happen because it is your book, your world. On this first attempt, I wrote about half a short novel (roughly 40k words). My academic editor at Palgrave/MacMillan very kindly read the draft. I was worried about my dialogue etc. She thought that was absolutely fine  but felt that the plot was all over the place. I never did nail that plot.

In the end, I read the manuscript on the Internet as a series of about 10 chapters or episodes, in the role of my avatar character, Fyrm Fouroux. I interleaved songs in the readings, whenever I could make a tenuous connection. Because I was reading the book, I could pause and comment on what was happening (to Harold Hake) within the book, from the perspective of Fyrm Fouroux. Indeed, Fyrm could even make some comments about the author of the book (John Smith). I read an episode a week each Sunday evening at exactly the same time, on the Internet. I think that was one of  the most bizarely creative things I have ever done. I am still virtual friends with some of the people who came to those sessions. It was not a large group, but they were wonderfully supportive to me and have continued to be so. I would like to try something like that again, at some point in the future.

So, I move on further. I now had some good experience of making a book and also self-publishing. I decided to work on a proper piece of fiction with the intention of self-publishing an e-book for Kindle readers on Amazon. I have just finished that book and it is now published as ‘The Hexington Hex‘. I used my sole-trader company Lewis Music to publish the e-book and am hoping that I shall, therefore, not be caught for 30% US witholding tax, that way. I got the idea for the book while I was out walking in some forrest over Hexham way. I then had the idea that my central character (who is called Craig Melcheter) would find a strange hexagon shaped broach or jewel in the undergrowth. This led to his discovery of the mysterious cult of the Hexington Hex – a highly secret society living in an almost parallel universe to the one we know and (possibly) love.  Here is a link to a fuller description on my website, and from there you can take a link to Kindle at Amazon. At present, Kindle is the only form in which the novel exists.

Well, of course, I think The Hexington Hex is a fascinating and exciting tale – but I would, wouldn’t I? Stil, I won’t say any more now. I have left myself an open door for a possible sequel if I do want to continue with it. But for the time being, I am proposing to follow up on a suggestion one of my music mates made to me while we were having the full English breakfast recently. He thought it might be interesting to make a song book of my original songs, and to illustrate it. This could involve quite a lot of work.

I have already started to put up some of my original songs on the Bandcamp website.

Bandcamp require good home studio recordings and they want artwork for the song, too. This suits me fine. So, the plan would be to have versions of all the songs up on Bandcamp, including the cover artwork. So people could download the songs if they wanted to, at a fairly reasonable cost. Then in the song book there would be the cover art for each song, plus two or three further sketches relating to bits and pieces in the song lyric. At present I only have about 6 or 7 songs up on Bandcamp. I hope to get a lot more up over the coming months. All the songs are copyrighted in London and I have the authority through Lewis Music to issue my own ISRC numbers. So, I think this project is do-able. My guess is that it might take two or three years to complete. And, of course, there could well be more new songs during that time.

I have been taking a weekly piano lesson since retiring. My classical playing/reading is pants, but my comping isn’t too bad (that’s where you play the piano as if it was a guitar, working from chord symbols, not from the written music score). That works quite well if the point is to accompany the song and not showcase the piano playing.

While on the topic of playing piano, sometimes I have a bit of fun at my shows. I put a kitchen timer on for 5 minutes, then I wear a blindfold (like an airplane sleeping mask) and improvise on the piano – sometimes doing some weird atonal stuff. The listeners know that however bad it gets, it won’t go on for too long because it stops when the timer goes off. And I get to have a cool experience!

I don’t think there is too much more to say at present. Oh, after I watched the film ‘Julie and Julia’ I bought the double volume set of Julia Childs ‘Mastering the art of French cooking‘ and started working my way through a fair sample of the recipes. However, I began to put on too much weight, so I abandoned that one. There was a time when I was a stick insect but, regrettably, that is no longer the case and I do have to keep half an eye on my weight. Fortunately, I gave up going to the pub several years ago and, to be honest, I really don’t miss it.

Now, this blog might seem a bit odd to some of my regulars because I have targeted it towards the folks I worked with back in the 1970s. Still, I hope some of it makes sense.  Speak to  you later, my dear blogophiles.

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