Giving up

Four years ago, I bought a five-string banjo. I had discovered the joy of bluegrass music and loved the sound of the banjo in it. I’ve been playing the guitar most of my life and finger-pick quite a lot, so I thought, How hard could it be to learn the banjo?


I started with some tutor videos on Youtube and practised a couple of rolls. I quickly realised that playing bluegrass banjo is very hard, with its pesky chanter string that’s high-pitched but positioned below the bottom string, and with the way the thumb tends to carry the tune, but still, I made a little progress. Then we moved house and I no longer had the space to have the banjo out, so it sat, neglected, in its case. In new year 2017 I resolved to give it another go (and went public with a blog post). I bought a tutor book written by Earl Scruggs himself, and tried practising a little every day. I did quite well and learned to play Cripple Creek by mid-February. The next section involved a lot of technical stuff, with roll after roll, and I hit that wall you hit in learning anything new, when it seems like you’re not progressing and it’s just too hard. I needed to have lessons but I couldn’t afford them and I didn’t think I was nearly good enough to start playing with others (whoever they might have been).

So the banjo stayed in its case. This summer, I decided that I was never going to play bluegrass banjo and it was just cluttering up the dining room, so I put it up for sale on Gumtree. No one was interested in the ad, so at Brighthelm Camp I offered it to anyone who wanted it, in exchange for a donation to our local hospice, and it was snapped up straight away.

Part of me felt bad about giving up. But a bigger part of me felt liberated. It felt like a burden of oughts and shoulds being lifted from me. It also felt like a movement towards simplifying my life, which I always find joyful. I’m sure it’s good to try to learn new skills and have new experiences and stretch yourself. But I wonder if it’s also good to be realistic about your limitations (of time and ability). I am naturally stubborn and don’t like giving anything up, so in giving up the banjo I also had to give up some pride and some ambition and I think (I hope!) I have learned a little humility as a result. I certainly feel lighter. Maybe the quest for a simpler life includes reviewing and simplifying not just possessions but ambition and dreams as well, where perhaps less can be more.


This is my new year resolution.There are many worthwhile issues in my life and my behaviour that I could address and maybe, by so doing, make a little positive difference to the world. But, as Rose Schneiderman put it, “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too.” So I’m going to learn the banjo.

img_20161231_200037I bought this banjo 3 years ago with money I was given by the churches I was leaving. I enjoy hearing the banjo, especially in bluegrass music, and I’ve been picking a guitar most of my life, so I thought, How hard can it be? The answer is, Very. I have struggled with the open G tuning and I can’t get my head, let alone my thumb, around the chanter string. I’ve wondered about taking off the chanter, tuning the top string up to E and just playing it like a ukulele (but in a different pitch, obviously). I’ve thought about trading it in for a 6-string banjo and playing it like a guitar. I’ve even thought about just giving up and getting rid of it.

But – full of new year’s resolve, I am not going to be beaten. I am going to set aside some time every day to practise and I am going to learn to play the banjo. I’ll report back to you in due course.

In the new world, we’re going to need stories and art and poetry and music, otherwise what’s the point? We’ll need bread, sure, but we’ll also need roses.


Why don’t I get out into the countryside more often?

On Monday, it was my day off.  My older son (just back from university for Easter) and I set out on our bikes.  We went down to the sea-front, along the eastern arm of Shoreham Harbour and crossed at the lock gates.  At Shoreham, we turned up the old railway line, now a trackway, and cycled along the river bank to Bramber.  Then through Upper Beeding, Edburton, Fulking and Poynings, where we had lunch at Rushfields Garden Centre and stocked up on supplies at their farm shop. Then we toiled up Devil’s Dyke and then coasted down back into Hove, barely having to pedal.

It was a dull day but mostly dry.  These little Sussex villages are so pretty and the countryside is just super, breath-takingly beautiful.  We really enjoyed our ride.   One of the things I love about cycling is that if you want to stop and look at something, you can.  You don’t have to find a parking space.  The freedom is half the exhilaration.  Physical achievement and going fast down a long hill combines for the other half.

Most of Sussex is covered by licences to explore for oil and gas through fracking.  I know that the landscape is already post-industrial (it used to be covered by trees – hence “Weald” from the Saxon for wood – which were cut down for ship-building, construction, iron-smelting and cleared for agriculture).  However, I think that it would be a crime and a sin to turn this beautiful countryside into a gas field – not to mention the harm that would do to the environment at large by burning all that gas and by the extra road traffic on the little winding lanes.  It seems a bit simplistic, maybe even sentimental, but is the beauty of the earth the best reason to look after it?

Talking of sentimental, I took some pictures and put them into a film.  It’s a bit rough and ready, but I enjoyed putting it together and I hope you’ll enjoy watching and listening.  One day I might part with some money to upgrade this blog so that I can embed video.  For now, you’ll have to click this link.


In praise of cassette tape

This weekend marks 50 years of the humble cassette tape.

These days, we only have one cassette machine.  iTunes has changed my life, but it always feels, somehow, a little grey and flat.

In the olden days, I made a lot of cassette recordings.  To begin with, I used our battery-powered portable recorder, and placed the little mic on the loudspeaker in our dining room.  My dad hadn’t moved onto stereo, but anyway, the mono gramophone matched the mono cassette recorder.  The trouble was, the budgie’s cage hung above the loudspeaker, and as she couldn’t read the “Recording – Silence!” notice pinned to the door, she wasn’t silent.  One of those early tapes was The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper, and even today when I listen to the CD/MP3, it doesn’t sound quite right without the budgie’s cheerful chirping.

My dad gave in to progress in the end, which meant that I could make good recordings of records, or songs from the radio.  I would record a new LP on the first playing, and then wear out the cassette rather than the vinyl.   Using C90 cassettes meant that I could fit two records onto one tape.   Always having had a broad taste in music, some of the combinations are a bit incongruous, e.g. Beethoven’s 7th on side A and Dark Side Of The Moon on side B.   Want to listen to Pink Floyd?  Fast forward, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news.

Recording a tape was a technical challenge.   There was skill in getting the recording level just right, and skill in not missing the start of the record because of the leader tape.   There was also skill in working out the timing.  If the record was too long for one side of the tape, would I cut a track, or use a C60 and fill out the tape with something else, and if so, what?

I loved making compilation tapes.  This was where working out timing really became a challenge, especially if the record sleeve didn’t give timings for the tracks.  Making a compilation tape could easily be an evening or two’s happy labour to get it just right.  Each track had to be tested for correct sound level, and care taken not to record the sound of the needle going down onto the vinyl.   Getting the order right was important too, as changing it, once recorded, could mean re-recording most of the tape.  iTunes is just too easy.

Compilation tapes made good gifts for friends.  They could be for special occasions, or just for sharing music.   Compilations I remember include one for a friend going through woman-related troubles; for a friend moving to a northern town (The Goodies – Black Pudding Bertha featured, I think); and of course for Mrs Mabbsonsea when she was still Miss Briggs-nowhere-near-the-sea.

With a cassette, it was even harder to skip around or just play a particular track than with an LP.  The easy option, really, was to listen to the tape in its own sequence.  OK – this could be irritating, but it meant I used to listen to an album as the artist meant it to be – and some tracks need time to grow on you.  These days I’m too impatient, just pressing Skip and never listening to some tracks more than once, if that.  Cassettes meant a certain slow approach to music, I guess.

Well, I don’t suppose I’ll go back to cassettes very often.  But it’s nice to be nostalgic.  So in that nostalgic mood, I’ll finish by sharing with you the playlist of one of my favourite compilation tapes.  I made it in 1984, when, early on in my first full-time job, I bought a fairly good quality cassette deck with Dolby C and B(!)  It’s called “Classic Nostalgia”…

Side A: The Beatles – Something / Boston – More Than A Feeling / Eric Clapton – Wonderful Tonight / Joe Walsh – Life’s Been Good To Me So Far / The Beatles – Till There Was You / Lt. Pigeon – Mouldy Old Dough / Marmalade – Reflections Of My Life / Wings – With A Little Luck / Pink Floyd – Time / Gerry Rafferty – Baker Street.    Side B: Barclay James Harvest – Someone There You Know / Mike Oldfield – Five Miles Out / The Rutles – I Must Be In Love / Eric Clapton – Let It Grow / Dire Straits – Private Investigations / 10CC – I’m Not In Love / The Band – To Kingdom Come / Simon and Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water / The Carpenters – Yesterday Once More.

Indeed – Yesterday once more.  Happy days!



We all went to the Greenbelt festival last weekend and had a great time.  Highlights for me were hearing Graham Kendrick singing – on our wedding anniversary – one of the songs we had in our wedding service; night prayer under the night sky, accompanied by a celtic harp; doing some Sacred Harp singing (beautiful!); the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club on Sunday night; and Fat and Frantic under the blazing sun on Monday lunchtime.  I also enjoyed sitting in the Christian Aid tent drinking coffee and eating cake and chatting and then having another coffee.

I think my favourite thing was listening to Harry Bird and the Rubber Wellies.  I sneaked away from the big communion service on Sunday morning (which, to be honest, I found a bit dull and ‘worthy’) to see Harry Bird & his great little band.   They do a lot of audience participation, and it’s all great fun, with songs about subjects as diverse as disarmament, pirates, cycling and beard snoods.  Some of the lyrics are very thoughtful.  The song “Dirty Hands” moved me more than the proper worship had done, with the chorus: “There’s only one thing I want when my time on this earth ends: a pair of dirty hands, oh Lord, and a clean conscience”.   It’s worth clicking on this link to see a video someone’s made to go with the song: Dirty Hands.  If it doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, you should check if there’s enough dirt under your nails.  I love the idea that the cleanliness of my conscience is in inverse proportion to the cleanliness of my hands.  I love the idea, but I’m not sure that the dirt is all in the right place.

With my little ukulele in my hand

I bought my little ukulele about two years ago, with some money left to me by my late father-in-law.  If I’d known how much pleasure it would bring me, I’d have bought one years ago.  I don’t know what it is about a ukulele that makes you feel good, but it works.

I have enjoyed listening to some ukulele music, not least The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.  Their performances are sheer fun.

On the technical side, I like the way that you can completely change a chord by just moving one finger.  Little things please little minds, I guess.  It’s a four-string thing – doesn’t work on a guitar in the same way.

But, more than anything, it’s just fun to sit and strum or pluck.  So, to really give you something to laugh at, here’s a video of me playing Joe Brown’s classic “I’ll see you in my dreams”.


The sound of drums

The garden is an oasis of peace and quiet.  As I walk down it, often I can feel the stress falling away. When I had my little breakdown three years ago, the garden was a great source of healing.  My habit most mornings is to sit down at the end of the garden with a coffee and then pray.  If it’s rainy I sit in the shed, which is down at that far end.

The wild end of the garden
The wild end of the garden

Sitting in the garden early this morning with my coffee, across the birdsong and the peaceful rustle of the leaves in the breeze came the sound of drumming.   Our neighbour behind us put up a shed last year at the end of their garden.  It’s a luxury shed, with a slate roof and velux windows, so I’d hoped it was an office of some sort.  Now it seems like someone in the family has taken up drumming and has been sent out to practise in the shed.

I know how much enjoyment you can get from playing music.  I know that there is nothing like being in a band.  I know that the band practice is usually at the drummer’s house (or garden shed).  I have played with some drummers who needed to practise more.  I know that drums have to be hit, not tapped, and that electronic kits are rubbish.  So I have every sympathy with the drummer in the garden, and also with the rest of their family not wanting to have to put up with drums in the house.  I feel very mean about feeling angry about drum practice wrecking my peaceful garden (coming on top of another neighbour who plays country and western hymns at high volume).

It’s a challenge to me.  This morning, I felt like living in a cabin in the woods, miles from anyone, had never been more attractive.  But that’s not a way to build a viable future for the world.  We all need to learn to get along together so that we can all (including, of course, animals and plants) flourish.   There is a time for drumming, but there is also a time for silent out-doors coffee drinking.  The big flaw, I think, is that I have never talked to those neighbours in six years of living here.  I don’t even know their surname.  That’s modern suburban living for you.  I talk about community but really, I would rather live in isolation from others and their noise.  Perhaps negotiating creative co-existence at the end of the garden is an opportunity to reach out beyond my bubble and build a bit of what I say I believe in.  On the other hand, drummers are a bit scary – there’s something of the animal in them.  It’s often easier to stay with broken-ness than to grow, as I was preaching last Sunday (John 5.1-15)



Out with the old, in with the new

This past week I had to say goodbye to two faithful old companions.

The first was my fault.  At Easter, I took my lovely 6-string guitar out into the driving rain to play at an early morning outdoor service.  It’s never been the same since, and in particular, won’t keep tune.  So, after 25 years of pleasure and pain and every emotion in between, and nine months of umming and ahhing, I’ve replaced it.   I feel like a traitor.  That old guitar has been brilliant.  It’s seen me through some hard times, and accompanied me through many good times.   Sometimes I’ve thrashed it as hard as I could while splattering it with tears and finger-blood.   Other times it was sweet and gentle.  It just took what I gave and was always ready for more.   Until I got it soaked, idiot that I am.

My trusty bike was simply old and worn out.  I’ve tried hard to keep it going, but it got to the stage where it was making less and less sense to keep spending money on it.   It’s been a faithful workhorse over fifteen years, for nine of which it was my only means of private transport.  It carried all three children (mostly not at the same time), groceries, books, timber, small trees … and me, of course, for miles and miles and miles.

Happy memories.

Their successors have a lot to live up to.

It’s amazing how attached I have become to a wooden box and an arrangement of steel tubing.