John Forrester

From R2 January 2015 about John Forrester

“I’m not really a folk musician, but when you have an acoustic guitar in your hand you kinda get thrown into that. I love folk instruments. I love acoustic guitars, uilleann pipes and bouzoukis. But I’m coming at it with a noisy indie attitude. The two worlds colliding in a way.” Despite playing in Robb Johnson’s band, and for folk-rock legends Press Gang, John’s origins are in loud guitar music. His first band, The Colour Mary, played indie guitar rock in the early nineties alongside bands like The Stone Roses and Ride.

The song writers who have helped form John’s writing are “anything with a bit of passion in it and that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. When I first fell in love with the acoustic guitar I loved the Waterboys’ This Is The Sea and Mike Scott’s writing is a big influence. More recently Nick Cave who is an unbelievable song writer; no one can touch him, the way he forms stories.” On his latest album, Outsider, ‘Magpies’ builds on the gothic imagery you might expect of a Cave song: “The magpies are therapists and counsellors.  I work for a mental health charity and at a meeting someone’s story was being discussed and it occurred to me that she had been through the system over and over again and nothing was working.  She really did have a weak heart which explains the first line of the song.  One of the therapists described himself as a magpie therapist, taking bits and pieces from all over the place.  I saw someone constantly going through the rigmarole of hospital and people asking questions with clipboards but never giving you anything.”

On first listen it seems that the songs reveal a lot about John personally but he says: “People have said that Outsider is an intensely personal album, but I don’t really see it that way.” The mistake is assuming that the first person songs actually relate to John’s own life whereas he is often telling other people’s stories, but with total conviction and understanding.  There are, however, songs from his own experience such as the uplifting ‘Riding Trains’. “That song is how a certain year felt. It actually woke me up at 3 o’clock in the morning and made me get up and write it. The song is about being tired of having to put on a brave face and get on with things and being a bit travel weary. It refers to Berlin and actually being trapped on a train going round the city when I was trying to get to the airport.” The contrast between the lyrics of alienation and loneliness with the joyful music was not deliberate: “The music was just there and putting the accordion on it cheers it up! There is a bit of a juxtaposition.”

Not every song arrived fully formed but “three songs were just there on three consecutive Sunday mornings. ‘The Wrong Side Of The River’ I was about to give up on when old friend Andy Webb turned up with his guitar and we knocked it into shape. I start with a notebook and note down lines and then try to marry it up with bits and pieces I’ve got. When it comes to song writing I think of the Tom Petty quote that song writing can’t be explained and it’s not something you want to ‘look in the eye’.”

John is working on a new, more intimate album for next year. “Outsider was very much an album of motion and I see the next one being a bit more claustrophobic. I want more space so I can relax into the song writing. Maybe just me. Lots of ideas and bits of paper.  I am thinking of recording it myself over the year as songs come rather than all in one hit.”

Peter Tomkins

Joint Enterprise

The original version of an article subsequently edited for publication in The Leader magazine published by the Association of School and College Leaders

Montsaye Community Learning Partnership

Jason Cumming, the Principal of Montsaye Academy in Northamptonshire and a trustee of the Montsaye Community Learning Partnership Multi-Academy Trust (MCLP), is unpacking what makes the trust distinctive: “No central team. No CEO. We are working together and there is collective decision making rather than a centralised model. Only take 2½% of school budgets and it is all spent on resources to support schools. Money that should be spent in the classroom is spent in the classroom.” Ann Davey, Executive Head of Havelock Infants and Havelock Junior Schools picks up the theme: “We developed from the existing Area Improvement Partnership and are all about providing continuity for students in the local area. They are our students and we want to work together to support them and the local community.”

Academies and School Improvement

The notion of academisation as a ‘silver bullet’ for all education’s ills has been under fire of late. In June Brian Lightman responded to the Education and Adoption Bill: “Schools fail for a number of reasons and simply changing their structure may not address the whole picture” and in July The Sutton Trust published their second report on the effectiveness of the academies programme, Chain Effect, which made a number of recommendations the first of which was “the Department for Education (DfE) should expand its pool of school improvement providers beyond academy sponsors, including developing new school-led trusts and federations.” Internationally Michael Barber and John Hattie have independently questioned the efficacy of a focus on structures rather than learning, and in July Hattie counted academisation as one of his distractions from school improvement: “It is ironic that a popular solution to claims about ‘failing schools’ is to invent new forms of schools. But, given that the variance in student achievement between schools is small relative to variance within schools, it is folly to believe that a solution lies in different forms of schools.”

In The Guardian in January former Education Secretary Estelle Morris argued that the government’s academy programme missed a crucial dimension, the local community: “There were no glory days when schools and their communities were as one, but the language and policies that now dominate the schools debate don’t even seem to recognise that community is something worth achieving.” More recently Ian Comfort, CEO of the largest academy chain, was quoted as saying: “A headteacher that joins a multi academy trust really has given up a lot of direct control over their own school.”

Local solutions to national agendas

Cumming is clear that the driving force for the trust was the changing educational landscape: “All but one of the secondary schools locally had converted to academy status and this had opened the door to a number of national academy chains. The landscape at that time was clear to all. We had a choice: we could allow ourselves to become fragmented, either by forming stand-alone academy trusts or by allowing schools to be picked off one by one by larger chains interested in expansion.” It was a time to take control of the situation and to act on three key principles:

  • A local solution: Engaging with the community to benefit all the students in the towns of Rothwell and Desborough;
  • ‘Earned autonomy’: Relationships built on the twin principles of trust and collaboration, the MAT intervenes internally in schools only when issues arise;
  • Improving teaching and learning through collaboration and shared expertise.

A local solution

Cumming is clear about the moral purpose: “The decision was pretty easy: we decided to form into a tight knit group and support each other. We wanted to be able to work together to improve the quality of education for all children in all of the schools, to ensure a seamless journey for children from 4-19. By working closely we expected to share best practice, utilise resources more effectively and support school improvement across the group.”

Davey agrees: “Our Area Improvement Partnership was all about the community – students and families as they moved through the schools. We really liked the local feel of it and this what we wanted to preserve. We wanted to make a difference for our students. We were driven by a moral viewpoint.” She is definite the MAT has made a real difference to education in the area; recent positive Ofsted inspections would not have been achieved without collaborative school support.

Earned autonomy

Peter Leaver, the Business Manager at Montsaye, took the lead developing a governance framework that would ensure that schools retained their autonomy. The answer was a Strategic Advisory Board (SAB) “made up of the Heads and Chairs. A non-executive board that provides school level input into the Trust Board, mainly around standards and other localised issues.”

Davey agrees “the Strategic Advisory Board was key. The discussions were around how we were going to make this equal. Once the schools knew they were all represented on the SAB then they were happy: although it wasn’t the final decision making body it had influence. It wasn’t the big secondary school wanting to take us over; we were equal partners.”

But as Davey explains this has meant a big change for individual schools: “Previously we were independent schools who might have been working together, but we weren’t accountable for each other’s results. That was comfortable. We realised that it would have to be more than that and there would be some uncomfortable moments. To be autonomous we also had to have the teeth as a Trust to say, ‘That’s not good enough and we need to do something about it.’ That’s the only way to retain our autonomy. Unless we are prepared to do that, and unless we have the bodies in place to do that, then this won’t work. It might be hard, but it is better we are tough with ourselves than let someone external take us over.”

Cumming agrees: “The trust has the power to intervene where required. This is more easily enacted than the LA was able to do. By close monitoring we have been able to ensure quality. We intervene where there ware issues; and indeed have done so. The advantage we have day to day over traditional models is strong relationships between the schools within the trust so there is plenty of support to ensure schools are improving: heads meet regularly and support each other. The trust monitors closely the progress of students and deploys additional resources into schools that need more support.”

The MAT’s role in addressing underperformance has been tested by a difficult situation where it had to “find its teeth” and stand firm about what needed to happen in the face of opposition from one of the governing bodies. Davey believes that turning around underperformance won’t be easy, but will be “far easier with the support of the trust.”

Collaboration and shared expertise

One of the key decisions was to employ an external School Improvement Partner with a dual role to monitor and ensure accountability and to develop systems for collaboration and training. Tracey Briggs is clear that her role is about ensuring collaboration between the schools occurs: “We don’t have to all do the same thing, but we do have to all come from the same place. We have established principles which are then applied appropriately within each school in its own context.”

If things aren’t working effectively then the trust’s first response is that “all the schools rally around to support. And where things are working well than that good practice is shared.” But this is no wishy washy collaboration as, unlike in previous models, the schools cannot back out and must maintain their joint accountability for the outcomes.

A model for change?

In ASCL’s Blueprint for a Self-Improving System collaboration and partnership are key: “There is a strong correlation between collaborative cultures and system success. We believe in continuous improvement through principled strategic partnerships.” This is precisely what the MCLP is working towards.

Bibliography

Association of School and College Leaders. (2015, June 3). Academisation is not a magic wand. Retrieved from Association of School and College Leaders: http://www.ascl.org.uk/news-and-views/news_news-detail.academisation-is-not-a-magic-wand.html

Cruddas, L. (2014). Leading the Way: Blueprint for a Self-Improving System. Leicester: Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

Hattie, J. (June 2015). WHAT DOESN’T WORK IN EDUCATION:The Politics of Distraction. London: Pearson.

Hutchings, M., Francis, B., & Kirby, P. (July 2015). CHAIN EFFECTS 2015. London: The Sutton Trust.

Morris, E. (2015, January 27). Schools need to be part of a community, not stand alone. Retrieved from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/jan/27/schools-need-communities-local-authorities

Wiggins, K. (2015, July 17). Academies boss: Maintained-school headteachers have more freedom than those in academy chains. Retrieved from TES: https://www.tes.co.uk/news/school-news/breaking-news/academies-boss-maintained-school-headteachers-have-more-freedom-those

 

 

The Goldilocks Approach to Marking and Feedback

Published in The Montsaye Approach Volume 1 2015

It might have been one of the new Principal’s more radical decisions, but she was convinced that the teacher recruitment crisis necessitated innovative and unusual solutions. There had been some disquiet amongst parents when she appointed the first woodland creature, although Miss Tiggywinkle had proven a popular choice amongst the students who had selected Textiles, but by the time the three bears took on the English department most parents tended to agree that their mix of clear explanations and threats of savage, bloody violence was just what the school needed.

Goldilocks had been preparing her Controlled Assessment on Of Mice and Men and was keen to receive some feedback on her key paragraph about the treatment of Crooks. Initially she approached Papa Bear: he liked students to feel that he was in charge and was always prompt and direct with his feedback. Goldilocks trusted his opinions and wanted to see what he thought of her efforts. When he returned the work the next lesson she read it eagerly:

Feedback 1

Goldilocks blushed as she read it. Papa Bear seemed to have really liked her work and appreciated the amount of work that she had put into her draft. But Goldilocks was an ambitious student and wanted to get the highest possible mark and, after looking at Papa Bear’s feedback, she wasn’t really all that sure what she needed to do now.  How could she make it even better?

Mama Bear might not have been as confident as her husband, but the one thing all the students agreed on was that she cared for them and would spend a long time marking their work. Goldilocks looked at her feedback from Papa Bear and thought maybe Mama Bear would give her some better ideas about what she needed to do. Making sure Papa Bear didn’t notice she crept up to Mama Bear and gave her a copy of her paragraph on Crooks. Mama Bear promised to skip lunch and get some feedback to Goldilocks that afternoon.

On her way to registration Goldilocks picked up her work and, whilst Chicken Licken called the register and set up an experiment on gravity, she scrutinised the work Mama Bear had returned:

Feedback 2

Well, thought Goldilocks, she had certainly made some very detailed comments. She had set Goldilocks some targets about what she needed to do so as soon as she got home she sat down to improve her work.

After reading the comments Goldilocks was clear about what she needed to do, but the more she thought about it the less certain she was about exactly what she needed to do. She found some quotations, but she wasn’t really sure what ‘look at the language and form of those quotations’ really meant.

Goldilocks had one last chance. Baby Bear was quite a young teacher and seemed to spend a lot of time working with individual students rather than watching the class like Papa Bear or chatting to individuals like Mama Bear. When she handed over her work Baby Bear said he’d look it over and get back to her with some ideas about what she could do.

The next morning Goldilocks collected the work at the start of the lesson and glanced it over:

Feedback 3

At first Goldilocks was confused. Why had Baby Bear written questions on her draft? Surely that wasn’t any use to her as she needed answers about how to improve. She slammed down her pen in anger.

But Goldilocks was an eager student and really wanted to do well so she read the feedback carefully. As she read it she began to think about what Baby Bear was asking and realised that this was making her think about what she needed to do to improve her work. She thought of some quotations and started thinking about the words: why had they been chosen? Soon she realised that she felt confident about her work and knew where she was heading: the best possible grade she could manage.

She knew that, for the rest of her time in the class, she would always ask Baby Bear to look at her work. His feedback, she thought, was always ‘just right’.

 

Peter Tomkins

 

WB Yeats

Published by Zig Zag Publications on their Poetry site

Yeats is sometimes, misguidedly, defined by his lifelong infatuation with a woman, Maud Gonne, who rejected his proposals of marriage on at least four occasions. He then proposed to her daughter, and was again rejected.  These biographical details convince many casual readers that Yeats was clearly an ineffectual aesthete whose art arose from his personal failings.  This view of Yeats, however, as a tortured artist blind to how ridiculous he appears to other people misses the greatness of Yeats’ work which arises because he is all too aware of how ludicrous he appears to others .  His poems are laden with self mockery, poking fun at his own pomposity.  In Broken Dreams, for instance, he becomes the ‘poet stubborn’ writing of Maud’s beauty when ‘age might have chilled his blood’.

My first experience of Yeats was during my first English Literature A’ Level class: the very first text we were given was Leda and the Swan.  I remember Mrs Smallwood asking my class what we thought the poem was about.  Well, I read it through twice and was immediately struck by, firstly, the power of the language and, secondly, the horror of what was happening.  The rest of the students were looking blankly at the poem so I struggled to explain what I thought was happening, although I was shocked by what I read: a woman was being violently raped by a swan.  Over the years I have come back to the poem and  I now realise that the shock is not the act of rape itself, but the suggestion that Leda may be complicit in it, that her ‘vague fingers’ may not want to push Zeus from her ‘loosening thighs’.  It is this courage to look with unflinching honesty at the difficult, complex and, sometimes, very uncomfortable truth that characterises Yeats’ work.

Yeats was not afraid to say publically when he was wrong or when he didn’t have an answer. Easter 1916, possibly his most famous poem, and certainly one of his most oft quoted, begins with an acknowledgement that he was mistaken to scorn the leaders of the uprising and ends with his failure to explain the significance of the event beyond his belief that a ‘terrible beauty’ had been born.  Through exposing these frailties and accepting that he has no more answers than his readers, but doing so with a mastery of structure and language of exquisite power, makes him to Irish literature what Shakespeare is to English literature.

Should we be grateful that Maud Gonne still rejected Yeats even after their one night of consummation? If she hadn’t she would not have been his unobtainable Helen of Troy and we would not have that rich vein of mythology, complexity and longing which marks the greatness in his poetry.  His logic may sometimes have been inconsistent; his ideas may, at times, have been bizarre; and some of his greatest poetry may have arisen from a misguided obsession but there is no doubting the power of his writing.

About the Author

 Peter Tomkins is an English teacher, writer and consultant. Through his career as a Head of English, Vice Principal and Headteacher he has always reached back to poetry to show him the way forward.

Guy Clark

From R2 Magazine – July 2013

The old saying that a bad workman blames his tools can never be levelled at Guy Clark. He also made the tools. A skilled luthier he regularly plays guitars he has made on his own workbench. Crafting a guitar from maple and rosewood, sawing, sanding and gluing are precise processes where small changes alter the tone and the quality of the sound. It is just this subtlety and precision that characterises Guy’s song writing and performing. In his hands a song is no mere entertainment, however entertaining it may be. A Guy Clark song is a thing of beauty created by an expert craftsman. The song, however, should not be considered a delicate work of art, more the work of a skilled artisan that, rather than being admired, should be sung and performed.

Guy released his first solo album, Old No. 1, in 1975 when he was 33. Although it’s been 38 years since then it still comes as something of a shock when I realise, as I am setting up my call to Nashville to discuss his latest album My Favourite Picture Of You, that he will be 72 in November. Hell, it wasn’t me, it was my step-daughter who always wants to know who I am interviewing now and rushes off to the internet to look Guy up on Wikipedia. It made me think: Guy is the same age now as Johnny Cash was when he died. The parallels began to pile up in my mind: the bass baritone voice, the championship of the individual; and the honesty and integrity in the work.

What Guy has never needed, however, is the Rick Rubin driven resurrection of a fading reputation. Guy has not needed to reassert the honesty and integrity of his work as no one would have ever thought to doubt them.

What saved Johnny Cash from an earlier death might also be what has kept Guy working steadily amassing an awe inspiring body of work. Behind the Hollywood jazz of the Cash/Carter love story June Carter did provide, in Shakespeare’s words, Johnny’s ‘ever-fixed mark’ and Susanna Clark seems to have done the same for Guy. Guy’s contemporaries have not fared so well. Townes Van Zandt’s personal life never achieved the same stability and throughout Steve Earle’s multiple marriages I wonder if even he kept track – I’ve just googled it to save you the trouble and it’s seven marriages and six wives, you do the maths.

It is a song to Susanna Clark that provides the title of My Favourite Picture Of You. The album cover places the ‘Polaroid shot someone took on the spot’ in direct centre, partially covering Guy’s face in the background. Susanna died from cancer in June 2012 and Guy has created in this song a fitting and blisteringly honest memorial to his wife, herself a writer of songs and painter as craftsman like as Guy himself. The song was inspired by an idea that co-writer Gordy Sampson brought to Guy one day and he was immediately drawn to the picture of Susanna on the wall. Typically of Guy this is no artistic portrait created in some photographer’s studio; this is rather a photograph that captures a moment, and not necessarily a comfortable one. “Townes (Van Zandt) and I were drunk again in that shack [in the background of the photo] and Susanna walked in on us, turned around and walked straight back out.”

 

I didn’t ask if the song was written before or after Susanna died. Somehow it didn’t seem appropriate – so much for your fearless reporter. But does it really matter? This is a song that reveals the depth of love and how it triumphs over the day to day frustrations of being with another person: ‘You never left but your bags were packed, Just in case.’ The song completely avoids sentimentality and even when Guy uses the metaphor of an angel he does so obliquely: ‘the one where your wings are showin’, Your arms are crossed and your fists are clinched, Not gone but goin’

A stand up angel who won’t back down.’

 

Guy’s voice is distinctive. Whether he is singing or speaking and the growl that I hear over a trans-Atlantic line from Nashville could be no one else. It sounds like gravel drenched in whisky and bourbon. Beneath that growl, however, you feel the warmth that comes through as he sings and a sincerity that assures you he will tell the truth; a greater capacity for truth and a more blindingly perceptive self-knowledge than even Johnny Cash. Just listen to Johnny Cash’s cover of ‘Let Him Roll’, Guy’s timeless song of the aging wino’s love for his ‘Dallas whore’. When Johnny reaches the line ‘He said, “Son”; he always called me son’ Johnny can’t resist the schmaltz of the line – in the video he virtually winks at the listener as he sings it; but when Guy sings it we know he is simply stating the facts – no sentiment, just fact.

It may be apocryphal but Guy has previously been reported as saying that he writes songs “to stop me blowing my brains out.” It certainly seems that he is driven to write, even when that writing can open wounds that a more careful person might keep closed. A song on the new album underlines the toil of crafting songs and the toll it can take personally on the writer. In ‘The High Price Of Inspiration’ Guy says how inspiration ‘always leaves me broken, But I keep comin’ back for more.’ “The song seems to suggest that the process of song writing is almost painful,” I suggest.

He hesitates for a moment and then his slow, precise drawl comes back down the phone line. “Pain?”

I quote another line from the song. “’Inspiration with no strings, Is what I’m looking for.’”

You can hear the chuckle in his voice at this line. “I thought that about caught it. I was really pleased with that.”

In ‘Desperados Waiting For A Train’ from Guy’s first album he presents his childhood friendship with his “grandmother’s boyfriend”, a ‘drifter, a driller of oil wells’, who runs ‘his fingers through seventy years of livin’’. The friendship between the young Clark at the start of his life and the old man approaching the end of his reveals something about the essential humanity contained in Guy’s songs. Now it is Guy himself running his fingers through seventy years of living. His role in the development of other artists from Townes Van Zandt to Steve Earle to Rodney Crowell has been well documented, although he tells me he “never wanted to be a mentor to anyone.” It’s the inequality of the word mentor that seems to trouble Guy and he settles on describing how they “collaborate,” a more equal relationship.

Over the last thirty years Guy’s writing has becoming increasingly a collaborative process. From the time he moved to Nashville in the 1970s his home has hosted, if that’s the right word for such informality, gatherings of musicians and songwriters as recorded in the 1970s documentary Heartworn Highways. On his last few albums every original song has credited other writers, a cast of the finest, mainly Texan, songwriters. Guy tells me that his favourite song writing partner is Rodney Crowell, although all those he writes with bring something different. I ask Guy why he favours writing with others. You can hear the smile in his voice as he answers: “You can sit by yourself in a room and work for hours on that lyric, but you will only know if it works when someone else hears it and tells you.” He tells me it is the process of shared song writing that he enjoys: the way that two or three people can be more creative than they ever would be individually. It is the interplay of ideas that create the song.

Guy says that collaborative writing can range from an equal working together to produce a song to inspiring each other or putting the finishing touches to an unfinished song. Songs on the new album have arisen from all these processes. ‘The Death Of Sis Draper’, for instance, was written with Shawn Camp and kills off the character of Sis Draper, the fiddle player who ‘fiddled way out west.’ I had assumed that Sis was a fictional creation, however Guy tells me she was the woman who taught Shawn Camp to play the fiddle. Even writing this now I wonder whether Guy was leading me on; Sis Draper is just the kind of character you expect to find in one of Guy’s vignettes and, therefore, as ‘real’ as the aging lift operator in ‘Let Him Roll’ or the woman leaving in ‘She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’.

Just reading Guy’s album and song titles tells you that he views song writing as a craft every bit as workmanlike as his guitar making: see 2006’s Workbench Songs  and Sometimes The Song Writes You from 2009. Guy tells the story of how he built his guitar building workbench one day when he realised that his eight track home recording studio had not been switched on in a year and was “covered by a fine patina of dust.” The day he removed the recording equipment and replaced it with his guitar making workbench was “one of the best days of my life.” It’s not that Guy doesn’t see the value of the recording and production process, more that his interest lies in writing songs and performing them.

The care with which Guy crafts his songs can be seen in the releasing of new material. Since releasing Old No.1 he has released a further 12 albums of new material as well as a handful of Best Ofs and live recordings. A new record comes out every three or four years and when I suggest he seems to have picked up the work rate of late he corrects me, “It might seem like that. But the tribute record (2011’s This One’s For Him) wasn’t really me and the concert recording … well I didn’t even know they were recording that until afterwards.” There’s no rush with Guy. It takes time to craft a song.

Even when the song has been crafted he is very self-critical and the ‘keep’ rate of his songs is not high. The Keepers live recording from 1997 provides an insight: not only does the album title reference indirectly the many songs that haven’t been ‘kept’ but Guy also shares with the audience that ‘That Old Time Feeling‘ is the first song he wrote that he felt was good enough to keep. I ask Guy about his ruthless self-editing. Does he ever recycle the ideas and phrases he has excised from one song for another? “Well, if I thought that the words were good when I put them together then I thought that for a reason.”

 

No one chooses words with greater care than Guy Clark. I suggest that this love of words might arise from the part poetry played in his childhood: he has previously spoken about coming from a home where poetry was read aloud. He hesitates and then agrees. He tells me that the selection of the right word is the key to conveying precisely his ideas. This resonates; there is so much in Guy’s writing which suggests great crops of planted but unstated meanings, like the moment in ‘Randall Knife’, Guy’s intensely moving song about his father’s death, when we are told that the knife was made for ‘darker things’ and we sense the unspoken horrors that the knife may have been used for in wartime; or in ‘Rain In Durango’ on the latest album where we are told that we ‘can’t tell the tears from the rain, If you ain’t walked a mile in her boots’ and we need no more to know the entire heart-breaking back story.  It’s no wonder he is due to pick up the ‘Poet’s Award’ at the Academy of Country Music’s Honors event in September; Hank Williams is the other recipient of this award.

 

When I ask about the poets he enjoys and the ones who have influenced his writing his first choice is Dylan Thomas. Initially the choice of a Welsh poet was surprising, but Thomas’ economy with language reflects the spare quality of Guy’s own writing. Language choices driven by the feelings generated rather than what the word means. Or maybe it’s the wildness of Dylan Thomas that attracts Guy: the drinker and bar stool raconteur. The final song on My Favourite Picture Of You, ‘I’ll Show Me’, is an ironic ode to the self-aggrandising drunk lurking inside too many of us. ‘I kinda see myself as a young Richard Burton, Readin’ Dylan Thomas to some Welsh coquette, Drinkin’ whiskey in a Swansea tavern.’

 

Guy’s experiences in the singer-songwriter milieu of the 1960s that canonised Woody Guthrie have generally been overshadowed by his role in the development of a country tinged Texan tradition. The honesty and integrity of his songs, however, leave us in no doubt his sympathies lie with the ordinary working men (and women) who populate his songs. On My Favourite Picture Of You are two songs that seem to channel more directly the spirit of Guthrie. Guy explains how both songs “started from news stories I saw on the TV.” ‘El Coyote’ tells the story of illegal Mexican immigrants abandoned in the back of a lorry under the baking desert sun by El Coyote, the human trafficker spooked ‘at the first sign of trouble’, who leaves them to die. You find many emotions in Guy’s songs but anger is rare; however you can feel the righteous anger in this song and in ‘Heroes’, written with Ray Stephenson and Jeremy Campbell, about the unspoken victims of America’s conflict in Iraq, the American soldiers who have killed themselves since returning from the war. “More soldiers committed suicide after returning than were killed in Iraq,” Guy tells me. You can hear the indignation in his voice, although whether it is shock at the number of deaths or at what his country allows to happen it is difficult to tell. But it is clear that it is the human suffering that moves him most; compassion for the soldier who ‘brought the war home with him’.

 

When I ask Guy if he ever thinks about the fact that his greatest success as a songwriter has been achieved when others have sung his songs, like The Highwaymen’s version of ‘Desperadoes Waiting for a Train’ and Jerry Jeff Walker’s version of the same song and ‘L.A. Freeway’ he seems to bristle a little over 2000 miles of satellite connection: “Well I think I can sing my own songs.” And with more honesty, integrity and soul than anyone else, Guy.

The Men They Couldn’t Hang

From R2 Magazine – December 2014

1984. Not a great year musically? True there’s much that is best forgotten, but in the crevices that were opened by the punk explosion of the late seventies those energised by The Clash were taking that energy and, rather than applying it to raw rock and roll, were creating fusions with other musical traditions. Often the original intent of those who formed these bands was that they would burn bright in the instant, revolutionise the musical landscape – and, who knows, maybe the world – before burning out just as rapidly. Who knew they would still be a creative force thirty years later?

The Men They Couldn’t Hang formed from the remnants of a number of bands, including Shanne Bradley from Shane Macgowan’s Nipple Erectors. As Phil ‘Swill’ Odgers tells it: “Paul and I knew each other from a band we had in Southampton in the punk days: Catch 22. Just like TMTCH we had a string of drummers; my brother Jon in Catch 22 was also the original drummer with TMTCH for the first five albums or more. I met Cush when I moved to London and we started busking together. I learned three chords and we hit the Hammersmith subways. After a while Paul joined in and it all went from there. We gelled through a common interest in music, a serious lack of cash and nowhere to live. It’s a winning combination. Time moved on and the combination of personalities and shared experience just locked in. We love each other and work so well together it still amazes me; the sum of the parts and all that stuff….”

Singer and guitarist Stefan Cush agrees that somehow the “collective psyche” of TMTCH is responsible for this longevity, however multi-instrumentalist Paul Simmonds’ explanation betrays his penchant for the gothic: “TMTCH is like Hotel California. You can check out but you can never leave.”

They weren’t the only band furrowing the rich seam linking punk and folk music, many like The Pogues achieved more mainstream success, but TMTCH seemed to connect more directly with the political undercurrents that ran through the folk tradition from Guthrie and Seeger to Gaughan and Moore. Rather than jumping on some cow-punk bandwagon there was a genuine awareness of the historical roots of the music: “I’ve always been interested in the folk scene and was brought up on a diet of Scottish folk when I was a bairn in Oban which stuck with me”, says Swill. “The birth of punk was my musical awakening and I would listen to John Peel avidly on my little transistor radio when I was a teen. Punk has got to be the same as folk in as much as it’s the voice of the people. Punk inspired me and gave me the confidence to get on stage and sing in front of people.  I’m not a big fan of the idea that you have to be a musical academic in order to write and perform – whatever it is, if it comes from the heart then it hits home. I love to be somewhere where people of all ages just suddenly get up and sing.”

Paul Simmonds, who has penned the majority of TMTCH’s songs, has always explored history for its contemporary political parallels: “I think history illuminates the present and the future. It’s not about sitting down and trying to write a lecture. Most of the time I’m trying to educate myself and sharing the process. If people can use songs as a gateway to knowledge then that’s brilliant. If there is an exciting story to tell then that’s really the key. That’s folk music really: telling tales and yarns, making our history exciting and vivid, as if you are right there in the moment. That’s the intention. I do research thoroughly too. I recently wrote a song about the English Civil War that had a verse about Quakers in Cromwell’s Army. A guy wrote to me saying that was impossible; they hadn’t been named at that point. Maybe he is right but I still went online and found an excerpt from the Oxford University Press history of the Civil War which clearly stated that there were Quakers in the ranks of the Parliamentarians. I showed it to him too! If I ever slip up I just pull out the old Bob Dylan quotation: ‘Songwriting isn’t just about what happened. It’s also about what should have happened and what could have happened.’”

There was a time, around the late eighties, when TMTCH were nearly famous. Despite being a paean to revolution the superb ‘The Colours’ charted and, although even typing this now seems surreal, I saw TMTCH support David Bowie at the Milton Keynes’ Bowl. But by the end of 1991 the band had called it a day. Swill says of this close call with fame: “We were too busy to notice the potential. Also there were other driving forces at work, our hormones had seriously kicked in at that time, we must have been late developers or maybe it was that we had never had those opportunities before. Our manager was not happy with some of the life choices we made.” Somehow the band couldn’t let them go, and after Swill and Simmonds regrouped in Liberty Cage and performed together as a duo – Preacher Jethro Brimstone and the Watermelon Kid – and in 1996 TMTCH reunited permanently.

Over thirty years the band has worked with a wide range of collaborators. Swill mentions how “working with Nick Lowe, producing and playing, was amazing. We also collaborated with country singer Lucinda Williams, she sang joint lead vocals on ‘Kingdom of the Blind’ for our album The Domino Club but her vocal wasn’t used. How stupid was that?  Recording now lost! I duetted with Michelle Shocked on a campfire type tape, recordings also now lost. Have worked with Mick Thomas and various members of Weddings, Parties, Anything. Billy Bragg joined us on stage a few times and so did Elvis Costello. The Pogues too come to think of it. All of those were great experiences.” Cush adds: “As a band we tend to plough our own furrow. However we’ve always had a varied host of friends, family and musicians featuring on every album we’ve recorded, from members of The Pogues on Night of a Thousand Candles to Nick Reynolds from Alabama 3, blowing sublime harp on new album The Defiant.” Both mention “the ubiquitous Bobby Valentino” on violin.

The Defiant is a definite return to those folk-punk roots. Cush explains: “Our latest offering was a conscious effort to return to more acoustic and folk orientated roots. We’ve always incorporated our own ident of folk sensibilities on each of our albums . That said, our output in the nineties and noughties – Never Born To Follow, Cherry Red Jukebox, Six Pack – featured a more abrasive sound, reflecting the harsh urban experience of the times. Also we had two hardcore rock drummers on board.” Swill adds: “I think The Defiant encapsulates our ethos: it’s folk, it’s punk, it’s rocking.” Simmonds’ favourite track on The Defiant is ‘Silver Chains’ which “has come out exactly the way it was intended. That’s pretty rare.” Swill acknowledges Simmonds’ as a “genius songwriter” on ‘Scavengers’ as “it’s just so right for us. To be fair though I’m very fond of Cush’s ‘Turquoise Bracelet Bay’. Proud of my own ‘Raising Hell’ too.”

Cush, Swill and Simmonds, whilst maintaining their commitment to TMTCH, have solo projects and side bands. Often this has involved bringing their bandmates into their own projects. “In my mind TMTCH is very different to any of our solo records in as much as when you record solo you are, for better or for worse, holding the reigns. It is what it is. What I miss on solo recordings is the ability to turn around to Cush or Paul or Ricky and say, ‘How was that? Does it work?’ or to get a compliment or back-up from someone in the band,” Swill explains. “It’s often hard when you’re on your own to even know if it’s any good. Sometimes you get those ‘eureka’ moments where you just know you’ve done something really good, but other times you just can’t tell at all. I think that’s why some people spend way too long on recordings. I guess I miss the comradery. I also miss going down the pub after and gabbing about it until the wee hours.” The solo projects can also enrich TMTCH as Swill describes: “recently I was extremely privileged to have Eliza Carthy and John Jones join me on Godforsaken Voyage and that showed me a whole fantastic new way of working. I learned a lot from them.”

It is, however, the passion and the rabble rousing that is the key to the longevity of TMTCH and to the commitment of their fans. In The Guardian Robin Denselow describes The Defiant as “impressively energetic, rousing and angry.” Swill is initially uncertain of his favourite TMTCH track, “I still have a warmth for ‘The Greenfields of France’ for many reasons”, but finally settles on ‘The Colours’ “the reason why is I love to hear a TMTCH audience singing along with us and to watch a passionate crowd sharing that emotion.” Simmonds’ picks “the live version of ‘Whisky With My Giro’ from 1985 – it’s on the 5 Go Mad On The Other Side compilation we put out. It’s such a shot of pure adrenaline. If I wasn’t playing guitar on it I would have been jumping around down the front.”

Peter Tomkins