In 2015 BBC-2 screened a fabulous one-off hour-long drama written by Stephen Russell titled ‘We’re Doomed!’ Even if it hadn’t been subtitled ‘The Dad’s Army Story’ most people would have be able to guess the subject matter; that is the gestation and debut of the BBC’s wartime sit-com about the loveable Home Guard troop of fictional Walmington-on-Sea, one of whom – Private Frazer (played to splendidly eye-rolling effect by the wonderful John Laurie) – never missed an opportunity to spout his dread fear ‘we’re doomed’.
Among the many things this 60-minute slice of affectionate nostalgia gave us – perhaps the best being the late John Sessions doppelgänger-accurate portrayal of Arthur Lowe – was the sight of a man being reborn. Playing Jimmy Perry, one half of the team that co-wrote the show, the other being David Croft, Paul Ritter brought to perfect life his role’s reluctant transition from anonymous jobbing actor to master comedy scriptwriter. Indeed, Ritter’s performance left no emotional stone unturned in this regard; we saw it all – the spark of an idea, the initially begrudging collaboration with Croft (Richard Dormer, also brilliant), the tantrums over failing to secure himself a part on-camera, and finally, his butterfly-like emergence as writer of consequence – and although the premise was simple – to tell the story of how the world of 1968 Light Entertainment threw up an unlikely TV hit – the real drama lay in Perry’s story.
One of the most affecting scenes in the film sees a tearful Perry confronting Croft over his refusal to cast him (Perry) as Private Joe Walker.
‘I didn’t even want to be a writer!’ he wails like a disconsolate child.
‘Look at the work,’ Croft replies, shoving a draft script at him. ‘You are one!’
I suppose the bigger message to be here is one of willingness to change, or, in Perry’s case, the humility to accept that, although you may have begun your career as something else, something you may well have believed you’d be forever more and, more’s the point, want to be seen to be, life sometimes throws you a curved ball.
Or rather you throw it to yourself.
History records that Jimmy Perry was a fabulous comedy script writer. Had he not embraced that side of his creative gift - by far the greater talent as he’d later admit - it might well have recorded him as little more than a mere bit part player in the now-forgotten sit-com ‘Hugh and I’ (actually it wouldn’t; the one episode Perry was in is now lost).
And think of what televisual gold-dust we’d have lost had he not formed a partnership with David Croft! That’s an alternative reality I, for one, would happily forego.
The moral of this story? If you’re doing something well never be afraid to admit that there might be something else you’ll do better.
And that brings me to this blog, a product of exactly that thinking.
Of course, I’m in no way equating myself or what I may write here with the creative level of a Jimmy Perry, but I’m aligning the two to illustrate that it’s entirely possible to get so far through a career and have an epiphany that changes it to something else.
I’m a musician by trade. And for more than half of my 25 year career I’ve been a writer too, originally almost by accident. Album sleeve notes, magazine articles and online pieces from my pen began around 2001. These were always only intended to be a sideline. And yet, the more I wrote the more I wanted to write and, even better, the more people appeared to want what I’d written.
The publication of my biography of the English saxophonist Tubby Hayes in 2015 (‘The Long Shadow of The Little Giant’) to generally high praise convinced me these early pieces hadn’t been mere lucky punches. Further writing work followed; a column in ‘Jazz Journal’, even more sleeve notes for boxed sets, LPs, and even a 7” single, the profligacy of which contrasted strongly with the paucity of my own recordings.
Is the reader sensing a theme here?
If so, they are way ahead of where I was circa. 2014.
Like Jimmy Perry I’d cheerfully (strike that; unwantedly, indulgently, boringly – take your pick!) tell anyone I met that I was deeply unhappy – no, offended – by those people who regarded me as more a writer than a musician.
‘I’m a MUSICIAN!’ I’d howl.
‘Of course you are,’ my patient interlocutor would reassure me, wishing I’d just shut up.
Well, this could only go on so long and, somewhere in the deep recesses of my being, I knew I was heading for the sort of showdown of self (or rather selves) with which many a psychiatrist is all too familiar. You could call it an identity crisis. Was I a musician who wrote, or a writer who played music? Who could say? Who knew? Who CARED?!
The end of this turgid self-indulgence came in 2019 when life threw me another unexpected hand; the terminal illness of my father, whose bravery in the face of a grim battle with inoperable cancer and irreversible liver disease was as harrowing as it was inspiring. It was also a life lesson which pulled me up short.
I had an option as to what I did with the rest of my life. He didn’t. I could carry on. He couldn’t. He was going to die and me, well, I had a life to lead.
I can’t say this caused a wholesale sea-change in the way I went forward ; I did much the same as I’d always done – I played gigs and wrote pieces on jazz – only now I was determined to embrace both and be unafraid to meet the challenges either might bring. This was playing the saxophone and writing sleeve notes, for goodness’ sake, not being asked to count off the weeks you have left to live!
One of these challenges, I’m rather ashamed to admit, was to overcome my fear – or rather suspicion - of Social Media, a platform I’d rejected outright from the start. I fact, I was downright hostile to it, and to my endless regret, toward many who used it.
2019 proved me wrong and having joined Facebook tentatively that spring by the summer I was regularly contributing observational pieces on all manner of things, most of them jazz-related, naturally, but all of them utilising a long-form style I quickly realised was unusual in such a setting.
In fact, it wasn’t the norm at all.
‘Your pieces are a bit like a blog,’ more than one commentator observed. ‘Why don’t you start one?’
Fast-forward to 2020 – the year in which the spectre of Covid-19 stilled us all – and with expressive options performance-wise now out, I started to have serious thoughts about doing just this, further fuelled by a welcome response to my ‘daily diary’ posts at the beginning of ‘lock-down 1’ which documented, among other things, the sadness, anger and frustration of watching my father die in our now surreal, oddly becalmed world.
Once I’d cleared the hurdle of that initial numbing grief, the summer and autumn of 2020 were virtually a ceaseless round of writing, either for record labels and magazines but, more often than not, just for myself. Indeed, at this time I wrote another book (yet to be published) which once again confirmed my suspicion that the writer in me was fast outgrowing the musician.
And so we come to this blog. The above is the story of the how of this undertaking, but what of the why?
Well, it’s easy. I love to write. I love the feeling of tapping into something that for years I never knew I had inside of me and which, for far too long, was something I blindly pooh-poohed – the ability to tell as story.
And I love to look at history – in particular the Social History of the UK in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, the time that frames so much of the art (both jazz and non-) that I enjoy.
So that is what this blog will be about; stories.
They may be about jazz (often) or something equally intriguing to me (films, books, travel, people). And they may take the form of a forensic examination of some little-known, dusty corner of the music, or merely be a celebration of the observational skill being a jazz musician gifts you. Sometimes they’ll be poignant, at others joyful, yet I hope that whatever my subject there’ll be wit, the provocation of thought in the reader and, crucially, well-crafted prose.
The most important thing though is that they’ll be in my voice, a voice I half-denied I had until recently; that of a writer. I also now know that the fact I sometimes pick up a saxophone doesn’t change that voice; I’d rather like to hope it enriches it and, who knows, maybe that works the other way round too?
So, welcome to my world, as they say.
It’s a pleasure to be read.