All posts by tonyives

About tonyives

A Yorkshireman of a certain age who likes most genres of music and most makes of old car. Travel is a joy, not least to escape the British winter. Travel by bicycle is bliss and if I’m not lost in music then I’m lost in a daydream about a hot day, tens of miles to cover and the promise of a great campsite and a beer. I like to think I’m always learning and becoming wiser. On the latter point then evidence is in short supply.

Australia & New Zealand 2023

In the Mountains and Down The Coast – Day 4

It was goodbye to the serene and manicured Port Douglas as the sun was starting to heat up the day at 7.30am. As is the way in these parts the trades were all hard at work trying to get a head start on their jobs before the real heat kicked in. The ‘council’ workers were trimming, mowing and cutting: their work looked terrific.

The drive was slow as we hugged the coast line on a treacherously windy road. The sea was mill pond flat and the sun was glinting off the surface looking alluring and exquisite. The destination was Freshwater Station, on the outskirts of Cairns. We were catching a ‘scenic’ train that ascended 327 metres up to Kuranda. This town was historically important at the top of the mountain for bringing supplies to the many gold mines there. Latterly it was important for the Australian Armed Forces during WW2. The construction of this epic climb started in 1877 and it was initiated because there was starvation in these communities due to being cut off with harsh weather. The access to these settlements otherwise was tortuous. The railway was a solution. The epic feat of engineering came at a price. It resulted in 32 deaths from the construction and many more from disease. The length was 33 kilometres; involved 15 tunnels and 55 bridges.

The start

The workers were mainly Irish or Italian and the days terribly hard. I can’t imagine working in such perilous sheer conditions in over 30°C heat with mosquitos draining you. In fact, despite it being the wrong era and country, it all seemed redolent of ‘Bridge Over The River Kwai’. We wended our way up slowly, and later, down the climb. We were hauled by two diesels from the 1970s.

There were some dramatic sights on the journey.

At the top there were no gold mines but something much better: koalas. I’d long wanted to see these sleepy fellows. There was a sanctuary.

Thrown into this cornucopia of native wildlife were crocodiles, a cassowary, geckos, birds, frogs and some wallabies. A parrot befriended Mrs Ives.

He is helping Anna identify which one he is
And make it snappy….
A cassowary

There were lots of arts and crafts on displays and some of it was very pleasing not least the aboriginal art.

The return train ride was a little painful as the open windows of the early 20th Century carriages invited the mosquitos in and they dined royally on my legs. On arrival back at the station we turned the BMW south and hit the Cairns rush hour. We worked our way through that and were soon turning off the Bruce Highway for our B&B at Mission Beach.

The accommodation was fine and run by some Brits who seemed peripatetic judging by their time living in various parts of Oz, Texas and the Middle East. The room was delightful, as were the other facilities, but without air conditioning it was a hot little oven.

After checking in we did a quick turn round and went out to find some food. The B&B recommended a few spots and in the dark they were hard to find. However, we decided by default to go to the Mission Bay Tavern. We had no idea what it was like but from the road it was brightly lit and seemed a bit ordinary. However inside we truly fell on our feet. It was the classic Australian pub. By this time the temperature had plummeted to 27°C.

Beyond the pub were many diners at the back including us!

We had standard pub fayre along with some Castlemaine XXXX. It was grand! Any way after this it was back to sweat off the drink and food at the B&B room (sauna).

Australia & New Zealand 2023

Rain Forests and Coral Reefs – Days 2 & 3

Australia has a fearsome reputation as regards customs. Television programmes on British TV have ‘fly on the wall’ coverage of passengers opening their bags to divulge a pig’s head in aspic or snake testicle powder being confiscated as a health risk. With some excitement we were advised about a camera crew from Channel Seven filming another episode on landing at Melbourne. We did actually see the cameraman shooting and a customs officer wading through the suitcases of a traveller. He was probably in the process of giving up various body parts of pickled goat for the bin and receiving a large fine.

The journey continued as we had a further flight up to Cairns. This was a c1,500 mile domestic shuttle with Australian holiday makers heading north. At Cairns was the collection of the hire car. Previous experience has taught me not to select the smallest, cheapest car. It took a few missteps to learn this. I’d plumped for a Nissan Duke or equivalent. Imagine unalloyed joy when the key fob bore the BMW logo. Due to a shortage of motors I got an upgrade to an X3. Anna was less excited by my good fortune as I kept minimal attention on the road as I paired the iPhone with the car’s Bluetooth and looked for Car Play. This latter facility immediately enables the phone’s Sat Nav, music, UK radio and telephone. The first stop was to buy a SIM card for our stay. For $30 (£17) I got 40GB of data and free calls back to the UK. From here it was a drive of about an hour up to Port Douglas.

Our lodgings for three nights

We let ourselves into the flat and attempted to stave off going to bed until, in my case, 7pm! The next morning started at some time after 4am and shortly thereafter Anna revealed the day’s itinerary. It was heading north to the Daintree National Park. To get to there we had to take a ferry for 150 metres crossing of an estuary. For this we paid $45 (£25) for a return ticket! Clearly there must have been an error as I never meant to buy a share of the ferry company.

My latest investment

At the Daintree Discovery Centre we had a long conversation with a native (disappointingly not wearing a wide brimmed hat with corks on strings hanging down) about his move from Melbourne, his fireman grandfather from Hackney and his inexplicable enthusiasm for Arsenal. We ascended to walk a steel platform in the rain forest canopy. The graphics and accompanying audio explained the plants and animals that grew or lived here. It was very educational and thought provoking. The threat to cut down these forests globally is heartbreaking. (Australia would never contemplate such a thing.) The forests helpfully absorb CO2, have unknown, as of yet, medicinal properties in the plants and many unique species of animal. If the alternative is logging back to bare ground for cereal farming and cattle ranching it’s a terrible, irreversible, waste.

The canopy
They even care about mosquitos. (Yes, the little ba#*ards bit my leg! So much for playing nice.)
As with all notable Australian wildlife there were many signs and details upon this giant bird but no sighting, other than the stuffed one. I’m on the left.

However, as with all these natural world plights there are people involved. The average life span of an indigenous native in a rain forest is probably 20 or 30 years short of those in ‘civilisation’ and in those years they receive poor health care, little education and live in difficult environments of flooding, cyclones and diminishing stocks of food and space. The possibly patronising misty eyed view of their being ‘one with nature’ and ‘living the dream’ doesn’t wash. Imagine living in the 13th Century in your current location knowing what the 21st offers despite it’s tribulations? Clutching my hurting head with such profound thoughts we visited the beaches nearby and they looked like film sets for ‘Castaway’.

(Tom Hanks was just out of shot)

The next day saw us take to the water. We set sail for an hour and a half from Port Douglas to see the coral off the beach of Low Isles, so named by Captain James Cook. The catamaran had over 50 tourists on board. It was a brilliant day. The boat was luxurious and the crew fabulous. It appeared nothing was too much trouble and customer service was the name of the game. When we got there we were fitted out with snorkel, flippers, lycra suit, mask and in my case a life jacket. (Tony’s a poor swimmer and the crew decided in the sea I’d be best to have some buoyancy! By comparison Anna is part fish.) The lycra suit was mandatory to avoid jellyfish stings: ‘tis the season apparently.

Eat your heart out Roman Abramovich

The coral was beautiful as we hovered above it. I drank probably as much sea water as the fish as I took some time to work out the top of the snorkel pipe should not be put in the water. There were many different types of coral and lots of tropical fish of many varied colours and sizes. I have to say it was just like the many documentaries I’m sure you’ve seen. Wonderful.

Outbound to the beach.
Low Isles

When we got back to boat we had a splendid buffet lunch and then went out again on the sea in a glass bottomed boat to see more coral and fish. Amongst the party were Americans and the question was asked ‘what species was Nemo?’ Other questions included ‘could you hunt any of the turtles?’ At this point I felt I could have made a living selling tickets for this dialogue.

‘Looking for Nemo’

Anyway to the accompaniment of live music we returned to shore. That’s another ambition ticked off.

Australia & New Zealand 2023

Getting there…

So as I’m sat here in Emirates Economy I thought I’d start to scribe. This is a 12 hour and 40 minute flight from Dubai to Melbourne and I’ve reckoned, in my jet lagged fog, that I should have enough time to pull together a few words. I’m sat in ‘stowage’ and the present Mrs Ives is sat about 8 yards above me in Business Class, no doubt quaffing champagne and perusing her sumptuous menu whilst luxuriating in enough space to park a double decker bus. Strange our estrangement, n’est pas?

Mine is the one to Dubai

By way of a stark contrast the bearded, tattooed millennial in shorts in the seat in front me shoved his seat into recline when the Fasten Seat belt light went out. As a consequence I’m about a foot away from the back of his seat. Clubbing him to death crossed my mind and I did recollect that historically entry into Australia for an Englishman necessitated a criminal record. I say club as we weren’t allowed to take on board anything sharp. However, as we’ve planned to be away for 5 weeks it’d likely make a mess of my availability for the duration.

Here I come

The trip involves flying to near the top of Queensland (Port Douglas) and driving down to Brisbane. From here we fly to Sydney. After a few days here we join a G Adventures tour in New Zealand where we’ll discover both islands. Overall a total of nine flights: Greta please forgive me. Quite an adventure. I was in Australia in 2020 when in a difficult conversation in the washroom at a campsite in Maryborough I was told by the travel agent to get back to Brisbane to fly out immediately. Delay might have led to my being in difficulty escaping during the Covid pandemic. It was not an easy project to return 150 miles south to catch a flight and organise a cardboard box for my bike whilst all the shops were shutting down and it was a weekend.

Yes, I know we need to address the elephant in the room or 8 yards above me downing Veuve Clicqout. I was scheduled to come out three weeks earlier and cycle from Brisbane to Cairns. Anna would join me after this 1,000 mile spin. A leg injury put paid to that and so I abandoned and rescheduled to fly out with Anna. As I was initially flying Economy and it also cost several nearly £700 to rebook the flights I stayed with Economy. Anna’s living the dream and spending some of her father’s inheritance to reach the colonies in comfort and indulging in that elusive blessing of sleep. When we meet at various airports I urge her not to worry and go into the executive lounges to enjoy the comfort, hot food and drinks. Frankly folks we can all agree that this magnanimous attitude makes me one helluva guy doesn’t it. (She never reads my blogs and so I can type what I like!)

Loading and still alone

(The leg injury has much improved although a hospital appointment is ahead. I want to be fit for some cycling in France in July and also to have the facility to burn some calories so that I can eat biscuits and sweets without feeling naughty.)

I’ve lost track of time on the flights through different time zones. I think it’s about 9am in York and early afternoon wherever I am! My night’s sleep the night before the flight was on the floor of a very cold room in Whitby. Copious revelry with pals, lots of beer and red wine the night before around the harbour’s hostelries wasn’t the best preparation for a gazillion hour set of three flights. However, I’m told I’ll get more sensible as I get older and grow up.

I think I’ve now had three meals. I won’t forget the last one, it brought on an unwelcome bout of nostalgia. The chicken and rice came in a thick sauce that had the pungency and taste of the spent gun powder you got on a strip from a cap gun. I appreciate that for younger readers this may mean little as they probably stopped selling cap guns in 1967. (Google will help.) If you’re none the wiser I think the clue lies in the words ‘gun powder’. Despite my 1960s and 70s boarding school mentality to finish up any food that gets put in front of you I had to admit Guy Fawkes would have been enormously disappointed at my abandonment.

Explosive and inedible chicken lurks beneath

The millennial girl next to me is a stone mason from Frankfurt. (Oh be fair no one could make this up). Her English is limited and my German non-existent. Had I known the German for chisel I’m sure the conversation would have flourished. She’s quietly impressive in that for the whole duration of the flight she hasn’t needed to visit the toilet once. On the other side of the aisle is a South African woman who is the regional manager for Massey Ferguson tractors in Africa. She’s heading to Melbourne for a conference. Some of you may know I once worked for Ford Tractors. So from here we gaily chatted about Power Take Off drives, the merits of four wheel drive and the regional peculiarities for homologation. I suspect disembarkation can’t come soon enough for her. The other passenger of note was a Brummie living in Adelaide who was returning back after having seen two home games for ‘the Villa’. We bonded over the frailties of our respective football teams.

I think I’ve got the measure of the Aussies and so future blogs may be salty. Then there’s the Kiwis to pick on. Fasten your seat belts….

Record Of The Week # 142

Elle King – Come Get Your Wife

King comes from a rock background complete with tattoos and piercings. On this country offering she brings blues and rock tinctures; this inevitably gives the album considerable attraction and personality. She’s got a slightly raspy voice that can hold and belt out a tune: more Etta James than Carrie Underwood. This is her third release and she works with Ross Copperman (Dierks Bentley, Keith Urban, Brett Eldredge, Darius Rucker et al), as the co-producer. The affair has a Bro-Country vibe in terms of hooks, pace and arrangements but Copperman isn’t afraid to use a banjo or fiddle to actually make this a proper country music record. This use of traditional acoustic instruments adds to the tunefulness but there are also some terrific rock guitar riffs throughout.

Dierks Bentley turns up on Worth A Shot and their voices meld well over a vibrant rock arrangement that seems typical of much of the album. It’s not their first duet, it follows Different For Girls from 2016. Miranda Lambert, a pal, also lends a voice on Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home). It’s the lead single off the album and has a great video. Whilst never clumsily resorting to vacuous Bro-Country tropes I really liked Try Jesus, it selects the Good Shepherd as Plan B after disillusion with the opposite sex – “I’m gonna try Jesus / See what all the fuss is about / Thinkin’ I should try Jesus / ‘Cause every other man let me down”.

Refreshing by their acoustic nature are Crawlin’ Mood and Bonafide. The weaving of fiddle and banjo is a great sound and it’s interesting to hear her in this different setting. She signs off with Love Go By, it’s wonderful blue-eyed soul. She sings the song and ushers in an irresistible gospel chorus behind her. The backing is dialed down so any emotion in her voice is upfront and clear.

Eight of the tracks are co-writes with Nashville ‘A listers’, this calibre of collaborator has ensured that the album contains some excellent compositions. If King has a history in rock then taking that stage and studio experience and applying it to something like country pop works out to be a fine marriage. King’s been around for many years, paid her dues and had radio Number 1’s in a number of rock genres. Clearly country is now her career and I wish her success, this is a fine release.

Record Of The Week # 141

Various – Stoned Cold Country

“It’s a love letter to the Rolling Stones from Nashville” says the curator, and the man behind the project, Robert Deaton. Apparently it ties in with it being 60 years (and nine months) since the Stones performed their first gig at The Marquee in London. Their catalogue is a wonderful tour of American roots music whether it’s pop, blues, soul or rock n’ roll but the country music connections are less convincing despite Gram Parsons being a one time buddy of Keef and a few tracks here and there. (Their tongue in cheek pastiche, Far Away Eyes, off Some Girls remains a favourite of mine.) If there’s a challenge in taking a selection of terrific vocalists and unleashing them on a few of the greatest rock songs ever written it’s that some of the charm is in Jagger’s idiosyncratic and unique delivery.

All the arrangements are beautifully constructed with formidable musicianship. The creations are broadly faithful to the originals if updated and I was impressed by the ‘no expense spared’ approach to strings, B3 organs, horns, girly backing vocals etc. In the blurb there’s no appearance of one of the English (US) language’s most pernicious words … ‘reimagining’. I’m pleased about the absence of desecration but this approach makes it karaoke with artists lending their voices.

The album starts very strongly but then starts to drift to still crafted but less memorable tracks. Few tracks have country flourishes although pedal steel can be prominent as on Maren Morris’ wonderful Dead Flowers or Little Big Town’s sterilised Wild Horses. The combination of The Brothers Osborne & The War and Treaty is inspired as this gospel infused version of It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll (But I Like It) is truly epic. Ashley McBryde really leans into (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and she should wave the fee for having had so much fun. Brook & Dunn, blues guitarist (Nashville?) Marcus King, Steve Earle do memorable versions of their covers and Lainey Wilson brings her sensational southern drawl to the funeral paced You Can’t Always Get What you Want and captures the essence of the song.

It’s a really nice album with few songs you’d skip. I’m sure many artists couldn’t believe their luck being invited and paid to sing songs they’ve probably played sometime in their career. If you like the Stones and country music fill your boots. I did!

Record Of The Week – # 140

Bruce Springsteen – Only The Strong Survive

The Boss’ catalogue stands up there with the best of popular music. However, I lost interest in him in the 80s and Bruce, in fairness, has ploughed on ever since with fairly crafted affairs that always have something to say. I’m unenthusiastic about older artists’ recorded output after their peak. I mean who wants the latest Neil Young, Elton John or Paul McCartney offering?

However my interest was piqued when, on social media, I saw a clip of Springsteen bashing out that hallowed Northern Soul classic Do I Love You (Indeed I Do). It’s a remarkable soul number that gets you from the first few bars. Ironically the composer and performer, Frank Wilson, decided with Tamla Motown, not to release the record in 1965 and destroyed all but 5 copies of the 250 initially pressed. As the record seeped out and became a Northern Soul staple it was re-released in 1979 and everyone could get a copy. Of the 5 original remaining 1965 copies one fetched near £26,000 in 2009.  That’s ridiculous for a 7 inch single but also testament to the magnificence of the record.

Springsteen has done the song justice and with his lion’s roar of a voice. Throughout the reproduction is faithful to the originals. The producer, Ron Aniello, has played most of the instruments – bass, drums, guitars, percussion, keyboards, vibraphone etc. and the only other players are the backing vocalists and the E Street Band horns. With such a construction it’s clear Aniello has listened closely to these 60 and 70s originals and, in effect, paid homage.

The curation speaks of Springsteen’s youth and what he heard of the radio. In fact I feel the same with versions of What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted (jimmy Ruffin), When She Was My Girl (The Four Tops), I Forgot To Be Your Lover (William Bell) and Someday We’ll Be Together (Diana Ross and the Supremes). All these played on my Triumph Herald car radio, crackling on AM. However it’s the former member of the Impressions, Jerry Butler, who provided the title track and also Hey, Western Union Man that are newer delights to my ears.

Springsteen has a majestic voice that’s maybe short on subtlety or sweetness but here he lives every song and has the range to sit above the arrangements and literally take your hand and lead you onto the dance floor. I’m not sure I’ll be listening out for the next Springsteen release but this, however, is a 5 star gem.

Knees, Taxis & Words – Week 4 : 2023

Well it’s been a long time ‘no write’ and we’re well into the new year! All is well and good in the House of Ives yet, sadly, not on the mobility front. I should be jetting off in mid-February to cycle in Australia before Anna joins me. However, problems with a calf muscle and knee have stopped that. How I got this injury in late December is a true mystery but it’s been quite a blow for a bloke who likes to ride his bike or even take a long walk. In showing my knee to various people the last doctor was curious as to why there was no hair around my knee on what was a previously hairy leg? Ruefully I told him that one physiotherapy session resulted in surgical tape being applied to the area to help the healing process. That was fair enough but eventually removing it was more painful than the injury.

The issue arose after painting a kitchen ceiling with three coats of white emulsion at the Favourite Eldest’s house in Reddish. I really have no idea what I did wrong but there you go. I’m trying to be patient and stoic with my inactivity (yet others around me may disagree.)

I don’t often have to take tests or examinations at this age but I stepped up to get a Private Hire Licence. This is the same as a taxi licence in many ways but different in that I am not allowed to pick up random folk, it all has to be pre-booked. Why? I hear the nation ask. This means I can now drive the tour bus on my guiding trips with up to eight passengers. Learning not to swear (aloud) at other motorists with a bus full of paying guests will be a bigger test.

Probably like you I’ve always thought it was a doddle to get a licence. Far from it, I’ve taken a medical, had a driving assessment (I had to pass), taken a series of tests where I had to achieve a pass mark – Highway Code, numeracy (I got one wrong!), council policy on passengers and safe guarding. I also had a DBS check and demonstrated that I was proficient in English. A fair bit of this was done around Oxford and so some travel was involved. Next time you take a taxi then you’ll know that your driver has jumped through hoops to be your chauffeur.

Tour guide wise I’m scheduled to lead five tours, starting in June, in the Yorkshire Dales. Check out Jules Verne. After learning my trade last season I’m feeling confident and looking forward to getting out there again.

Wordle, is that a thing for you? Anna, I and our favourite eldest do it first thing every morning . Our average scores are very similar. So out of a maximum of six allowed attempts, to get the five letter word, we, on average, complete it in just under four. (That’s been worked out based on our hundreds of goes). Anna usually completes it last, after we’ve circulated our scores, and if she’s finding it hard asks me for clues. Obviously I view this as cheating in this very competitive morning mental exercise and don’t help her. However, she’s probably the best out of the three of us (but don’t tell her).

Tony’s not really a doggy person. The spaniel ignores indifference…

Despite my hobbling it’s been a timely opportunity to arrange holidays going forward. We’ve now got pencilled in Australia (without bike), New Zealand, Scotland, France and Spain. That takes us up to October. Part of my Spanish jaunt is with three old friends. The first of which I met in 1974 Neil) and the other two I met in 1978/9 (Tim and Paul).  We go back a long way and our three nights in Malaga will provide a good opportunity to catch up. I’m good at staying in touch with old friends.

Records Of The Year 2023

I have to start by telling you that I’ve written 30 album reviews for Country Music People (CMP) this year. I receive records/files to review from the magazine. In addition but not for review I ask for lots of major artists albums and recommendations from the editor. As a consequence my list is distilled from a lot of music. I add to this my own purchases or streamed favourites.

Not many of the albums make it to be my ‘Record Of The Week’, and amongst the discarded artists are some platinum acts, which is a measure of the disappointing quality that’s been coming my way this year. However, I’m happy to volunteer these as my best of the year.

1. Ashley McBryde presents Lindeville

With the world now at her feet McBryde convened a Nashville workshop with other artists and friends; this was the result. Anna and I saw her at Leeds University in the spring and the former refectory where I saw B B King, The New York Dolls and Sparks amongst many others was sold out and jumping. So Leeds does Country music, obvs. Here are a set of vignettes about small town America dripping humour, heartbreak, getting by and nostalgia. The production values and variety of country sounds are exceptional.

2. Molly Tuttle – Crooked Tree

As I mainly write about Americana for the magazine I regularly get the acoustic roots genre of bluegrass to write about. Frankly, it’s like lager, always consistent but never memorable. I have a theory that his other writers have vetoed receiving it! However, I’ve found complete joy with this release. This is a wonderful combination of melody, voice, musicianship and stories. Truly vibrant and refreshing. She’s a star, look out for her.

3. Jaimee Harris – Boomerang Town

This Texan bowled up to The Crescent in York last month and her brief set was wonderful with confessional and intimate songs about small town America. Her voice is a delight and she can write and play a tune. I think she’s destined for a lot of recognition and success with this album.

4. Amanda Anne Platt – The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea

Platt has been on the periphery of real stardom and recognition for years and despite a long time band behind her she’s the lead and writes and sings interesting Americana Country songs that come together like a series of short stories. Her tunes and lyrics on the 20 track album are excellent and a new release from her is like a much anticipated meet up with a dear old friend.

5. Kameron Marlowe – We Were Cowboys

Commercial Country Pop isn’t my bag generally. I have visions of no one listening to this easy sound on the radio as they flip burgers in South Carolina or take the kids to school. This may not be his time but if the next album is anywhere near as good as this he’ll be cluttering every US country radio playlist. He’s got a terrific voice, better lyrics than most bro-country and some great tunes.

6. Bruce Springsteen – Only The Strong Survive

The Boss has been granted an indulgence by his record label and this three sided LP is a selection of Soul music covers. His bellow of a roar, some well chosen classic songs and a faithful creation of that 60s sound make this a compelling listen. Maybe I’m a Soul boy at heart (where are my dancing shoes)?

7. Mary Gauthier – Dark Enough To See The Stars

This is a quote from Martin Luther King , which took Gauthier’s fancy to include. She’s a unique artist that draws you into stories with raw and disarming emotion about events and times that we all know so well. The lyrics border on poetry and the tunes fit like a glove.

8. Willie Nelson – A Beautiful Time

‘A legend’ doesn’t do his stature justice. This album of crafted tunes veers lyrically dangerously close to a valedictory with his reflection on a long and successful life. Sentimental, humorous and full of wisdom. I’d usually be suspicious of the creative merit of an album made by a chap 89 years old but class will out. Beautiful indeed.

9. Edgar Winter – Brother Johnny

Thanks to the Mighty Jessney of Vixen 101 fame I get to listen to a lot of blues. A lot of it is rollicking and heartfelt fun but not all of it sticks in the memory. Winter now a sprightly 75 released a tribute album to his blues legend brother, Johnny, who died in 2014 at the age of 70. (Frankly, judging by what Johnny ingested or drunk during his life it was a miracle he clocked up such an age!) This is a 17 track tribute with a list of guitar wielding guests that can’t be beaten: Joe Bonamassa, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Billy Gibbons, Joe Walsh etc. A complete joy.

10. Various Artists – Something Borrowed, Something New: A Tribute to John Anderson

If you haul out John Prine, Tyler Childers, Luke Combs, Ashley McBryde, Eric Church and their like and pair them with this strong Country songwriter’s catalogue then you’ve nailed one of the albums of the year. Unlike a lot of tributes then Anderson is still alive and this compilation is a terrific introduction to his talents

Record Of The Week # 139

Jaimee Harris – Boomerang Town

(I went to see Mary Gauthier play a club in York and supporting her, and also playing acoustic guitar for her, was her partner Jaimee Harris. (There’s a review of the gig on the website) Mary was good Jaimee was similarly memorable and coincidentally Harris was releasing a new album at the time. This is that album. A true find.)

Surprisingly this is only Harris’ second album. When you hear the depth and quality of her songwriting you’ll realise she has a lot to say with a wonderful engaging voice that trills. The aching melodies colour these vignettes perfectly. A berth on the prestigious Thirty Tigers label suggests her opportunity has come. Originating from Waco, Texas, she’s steeped in the great pantheon of singer songwriters from the state; this knowledge informs her songwriting and not least the lyrics that seem seldom to waste a word.

The ten songs here are adapted but autobiographical about her life and demons. There’s a deep dive into her personal troubled history of addiction (The Fair and Dark Haired Lad) and often coping with loss (Fall (Devin’s Song). A further song about death, How Could You Be Gone, is one of two co-writes with Mary Gauthier and this song has already appeared with Gauthier taking the lead on her own 2022 Dark Enough to See The Stars. It’s an unusual take on grief as the narrator wanders around the funeral of a close friend in a distraught state attempting to cope with their bewildering loss and the stultifying demands of the occasion.

The songs are acoustic based with sparse additions of strings or electric band accompaniment. It all creates an intimacy for her confessional story telling. Her title track, Boomerang Town,relates the story of an early life of two young lovers. With her plaintive tones she paints a bleak picture of a grinding and hopeless life in a small town and the overwhelming desire to escape. However, it appears futile to have such an aspiration. I immediately thought of Springsteen’s The River with its protagonists’ early demise and the inevitable life of drudgery preoccupied with existence rather than living. You’re left thinking ‘what might have been’.

Two songs seem to be lighter and let some sunlight into this often-intense listen. Good Morning, My Love has a beautiful tune and as she plays guitar Mark Hallman plays a selection of keys to sweeten the chorus. Love Is Gonna Come Again is an uplifting ballad giving reassurance to the listener that despite their low state then things will get better. Courtney Marie Andrews has recently arrived as an Americana songbird with a considerable gift as a songwriter; I’d now add Harris as a contemporary.

Confessions of a Tour Guide – Part 4 (Final)

In my last blog (about being a tour guide this year) I write about some guest foibles and the highlights and that all tour should finish with tips!

Guest Foibles

One of my opening questions at the briefing is “what are you especially looking forward to during the week?” The men have no particular idea having scanned the itinerary months ago and probably having forgotten it by now. This can be true for the females but less so and there are always a couple of activities that excite. One was the Pilgrim’s Walk across from the mainland to Holy Island. This can only happen when the tide is out. I had one lady say that she’d gone into remission with breast cancer and this had been an ambition before and after her treatment. I was happy to help although the magic of the walk always escapes me. On both walks I’ve had two women fall over on their faces in the mud half way across. As a guide you’re horrified but they both saw it as hilarious and are probably still dining out on the story.

Nearly smiling. Two and half miles of waterlogged sand…

One guest advised that she needed to find a hairdresser to wash her hair. I half understood this. Obviously I have little fleece but having three females in my life I am always staggered by what they put on their hair let alone what they pay at the hairdressers. This was difficult to resolve as we were deep in the Dales and finding a sheep shearer might have been easier. One guest wanted details on what professional women’s football games were on in London at the weekend. Of course you can look at Google but where are the grounds, how do you best get there and how much?

The Highlights

I mentioned that a well curated tour is the most vital thing for success., followed by some decent weather. To think my ‘office’ was Hadrian’s Wall, the Northumberland coastline, Alnwick Castle, Malham Tarn, the Black Sheep Brewery or Fountains Abbey then you can appreciate that there was pleasure in introducing the guests, mostly southerners, to the magnificent landscapes. I never tired of that despite repeat visits. I have a sketchy knowledge of the history but that is improving and I enjoyed learning more, in fact I could have a dart at Mary, Queen of Scots, as my specialist subject on Mastermind. I did tell the other guides on our shared WhatsApp group that excitingly she stayed at one of the attractions I was taking the guests to. Quickly one wiser sage came back and said ‘Tony, she stayed every where!’ True, was in exile in England for 18 years and rolled from one stately pile to another with her entourage of over 50 people. She could fund this number as she was a widow of a former King of France on a very good stipend…enough now Tony.

There is considerable pleasure to gain command of the tour. You start hesitant but eventually you not only know where to go and what to say but you also get sufficient knowledge to deal with changes and variations without due concern. Another thing is that if the tour goes well for a couple of days the guests build up confidence in you and then if things go wrong they’re more forgiving and tolerant.

The ruins of Bolton Abbey, the Yorkshire Dales

Some guests are hilarious and or interesting. One American guest took it in her stride a night when the party took on itself to go for a pizza in Settle. The Italian owner was cook, wine waiter and maitre ‘d. He was also a wind bag who took ages to do any of these jobs. This led to delays in the food arriving. It was my night off and so the next morning they all told me about this frustrating night. Were they unhappy? My American guest described this as ‘dinner and a show’ in terms of entertainment!

The amazing Gordale Scar, in the Yorkshire Dales

Often the news headlines would be discussed at breakfast. I kept quiet as my politics were usually not theirs but there was one sad story about an aggressive dog being put down for some terrible attack. The consensus was that the owner should have been destroyed instead! Another guest produced a video on his phone of his dog. I was encouraged to have a look, not an obvious delight for Tony. To my amazement his dog was walking on a tread mill! This is how it often took its exercise. He also recounted a story where his wife popped out for an hour and a half forgetting that the dog was on the tread mill. When she returned Rover was still plodding along!

One driver who was with us for a few days was seemingly relaxed and experienced. However one incident was very tense where he met an oncoming car as he finished crossing a single lane bridge. The woman in the car was gesticulating suggesting he was wrong to not give way. This was a strange point of view given the size of the bus and the fact he was already on the bridge. Anyway, cringingly he stopped beside the grumpy driver, wound down his window and started to debate the merits of her analysis. Fortunately it was relatively brief and the guests thought it was hilarious. I can smile now but surely keep your emotions under control with drivers you’ll never see again and you’re with a bus full of customers? 

Warkworth Castle on the Northumbrian coast

There’s only a certain amount you want to learn about guests and certainly only a limited amount you want to tell them. However, conversations start and you can end up down a proverbial rabbit hole. One British resident male guest had a career in IT and ended up a US national. As ‘I peeled the onion’ of his life it had started with a period of time as an ice cream salesman in Kansas. If this wasn’t a very baffling progression then he had chosen to remain a dual national. From here a detailed expose on the tax realities of such a status were revealed. The gist being that Uncle Sam got first dibs before HMRC swept up the balance of the due levy. From here another conversation of why retain both citizenships ensued. It never came with an answer I thought was compelling but there again stuff like Brexit or Scottish Independence never hinge on the logic of monetary arithmetic do they.

As a guide then most of the other professionals you deal with whilst out and about are usually on your side and one meeting that touched me was at Hardraw Force Waterfall in the Yorkshire Dales. Leading the party I turned up at the counter to pay for the guests to walk up to the waterfall. The lady behind the counter was a little terse and sought our help on using the technology to pay for the visit. I also needed a receipt and this was another challenge for her. Anyway we did the transaction and the guests went up to see the attraction whilst I stayed behind. It transpired that she was nearly blind and that using the technology was a bordering on impossible. She told me she had terminal ‘blood cancer’ and that the treatment had led to her blindness. She owned this attraction with her family but she’d had to manage the admissions for the day.

Within Alnwick Castle on a private tour

As I helped her she was so grateful and I was offered chocolate bars and coffee for free. Frankly I was so glad I’d helped let alone needed to receive any gratuity. As they say ‘be slow to judge people’.

I must mention the camaraderie of the guides. This wasn’t just when working together but before, after or during a tour you’ve always got someone to ask about lunch solutions, train pick ups, walking short cuts, rescheduling and the like. If you have the experience then you’re happy to share and you know the pressure the guide is under time wise so that everyone responds with alacrity.


I worked for two tour operators on the four tours. Each operator’s brochure mentions tipping the guide/s on the holiday. Personally whatever I might receive then it was never going to be used to pay a bill or change my life. However, it does provide a fillip and boost for feeling you’ve done a good job. Everyone likes a ‘pat on the back’. 

The amazing Vindolanda

Before I started there were folklore stories about Americans being very generous and I knew what Anna and I had tipped on our holidays. Surely it’d be a pleasant surprise when they personally sought me out to press cash into my hand before they left? No, frankly it was miserable and I mainly came away thinking that the British were simply mean. The older the guest the lower the tip (or non existent) and as you’ve read then those are the guests who you help most, ask the most questions (sometimes repetitively) , re-arrange dining arrangements for and you have to listen to most to as they regale you with endless anecdotes. The simple fact is that many are lonely and this is a social event as much as a, say, sightseeing or walking holiday.

On average I received less per guest than they spent on cheese, as gifts for family and friends, when we visited the Wensleydale Creamery. For the hours spent, and the care given, this is awful. On my last tour I received no tips. In fact that’s not quite true as one guest organised a cash transfer for me. However, I needed a bank account in the country they originated from to access the dosh. I didn’t and so it remained uncashed. On this last tour I helped and accommodated one guest whose infirmity made their attendance very risky given the unavoidably difficult terrain we visited. If they had taken me to one side, at the end, and simply given me a heartfelt ‘thank you’ for my care it would have been lovely. If there’s one ‘take away’ from guiding then I shall have little or no expectation of gratuities on the next tour!

So next year? Well, I’m up for it and I’ve ‘learned’ my territory so that it should be less time consuming pre-tour and generally less stressful. During the winter I’m taking the necessary steps to get a Private Hire licence. (This is expensive and onerous but the land agent is helping financially.) In the uncertain world of recession and global headwinds who knows how the opportunities will work out but I’m hopeful it continues.

Confessions of a Tour Guide – Part 3

This is Part 3 of my experiences of being a tour guide in 2022. In this blog I’ve attempted to tell you about the detail that goes on in running the tour that maybe the guest doesn’t see. Also the problems!

Guide Challenges

On my first tour I was supporting a lead guide. A nice easy introduction to this tour guide malarky? Not exactly, I was on the train between York and the start in Newcastle when later that morning I got a text. The lead guide had a puncture, he was 20 miles away from the Station and may be late. Don’t panic! Each tour has an itinerary and whilst there is some spare time it is quite tight with distances to drive. What would I do with the guests as our bus and lead guide were absent?  Anyway, the puncture, early on a Sunday morning, got fixed and by the skin of his teeth he turned up with the bus. The guests never knew about the issue. As this was all happening I was investigating taxis to transfer the guests to a pub 40 miles up the road where the bus might catch up with us.

As a guide you have an itinerary. It appears simple just to follow it when you turn up? However, it doesn’t run without a lot of intervention before and throughout the week. On Day 2 of this first tour we came under pressure as the guests worked out that the promised private guides, in the brochure, at the attractions weren’t in place. On this tour the guests, especially the females, knew exactly what they were entitled to. As a consequence one guest went ballistic and rang the tour operator to complain. Overnight the problem was sorted but the guides were left looking hopeless and that the decisions lay elsewhere. Needless to say the complainant was a generally disagreeable lady who took great delight informing the group that she had resolved the matter and that through her intervention it was all sorted. Strictly this was true but in reality she enjoyed being the battle axe that put things right and basking in the glow of her heroism. Separately I had caught her privately and apologised for this embarrassment. She knew the guides had no involvement in this omission but she didn’t have the grace to acknowledge our discomfort. (Overnight the guides without knowing her complaint had raised the matter with our management as well.) Your next thought is why did this happen in the first place? The land agent had failed to do this; maybe as a cost saving?

A view from Dunstanburgh Castle near Coaster

Our management (land agent) similarly were graceless. Whilst the next private guide at a castle was organised for us the lead guide was left to sort out a private guide at a further attraction. Where do you start when you’re driving the bus, handling guests and frankly very busy? To his credit he sorted it and that was another thing learned.

The guide tour information, prior to a tour, involve some details on the guests. However, some detail is missing including their health. Frankly as far as the tour operator is concerned then providing you’ve signed the disclaimer about your health, and have travel insurance, you can paraglide with one arm and a fear of heights as far as they’re concerned. I discovered on one dangerous section of a very wet and rainy part of Hadrian’s Wall that my 80 year old guest had a replacement hip and shoulder. I spent two and half hours as I helped her and waited with eternal patience for her to complete various sections privately calculating how long it would take the air ambulance to reach us from Newcastle.

Barter Books in Alnwick. A terrific second hand book shop (and great scones)

On two of the four tours I was sharing the same hotel as the guests. This was terrific for convenience but on two other tours I was located over 10 miles away. In one Airbnb I shared with a guide he got the proper bedroom and I got the spare box room with a child’s bunk bed solution. This wasn’t ensuite and required my going down the stairs through the lounge and then the kitchen to reach the loo. Being of a certain vintage this was necessary during the night. Clearly whoever booked the accommodation just did a crap job and I had three days (and nights) of this nonsense.

After a 12 hour day welcome back to my sleeping hutch with obstacles

However this was ‘topped’ by my turning up at a hotel specified in my joining instructions on another tour that was not only wrong but in the wrong town! I had checked in early and had just enough time to get to the correct hotel with the guests none the wiser. My last land agent problem is that those who book things in detail have no idea of the geography or distances. We took a train at a time decided by the land agent from Settle to Garsdale. I was suspicious this was the wrong train time but as a bus was hired to meet us at the other end I went with it. The bus collected and dropped us off as requested and we walked into Hawes. Sadly there was too little time for a Wensleydale Creamery tour and a sit down lunch. Knowing what I know now I’d have shortened the walk but sometimes you’re in the thick of a cock up when Plan B is impossible to deliver. (In fairness the guests were all on my side by then and I received forgiveness.)

Studley Royal views

Some things are also just sent to try you. The Queen’s Funeral fell on the Monday of a tour. This shut a number of attractions on the day. Worse was that it shut the cafes for lunch. This meant some itinerary juggling and the creation of a picnic. Where to get sandwiches? And, oh yes, one guest was on a gluten free diet! Knowing this was falling on this date I came armed to the tour with fruit, crisps, thermos flasks, a gluten free loaf and chocolate biscuits. The hotel kindly made the sandwiches and filled my thermos flasks with coffee and fresh milk. However this illustrates the tour ‘starts’ for the guide some days in advance.

All aboard

Obviously many things got easier on subsequent tours including remembering names of the guests. I had one tour with two Jennys and a Jane. I’m sure that the Jennys got called Jane and Jane Jenny. On the final night I commented that we should have been together for another week, not least, because by the end of week two I would know everyone’s name.

Walking down the rocky path from Malham Tarn I got a call from the ‘office’ asking in a reasonable way about the high hotel bills I was incurring with the guests? I didn’t understand. It turned out that two of the guests, albeit, strangers to each other, should be sharing. You’ll know that there is a premium for a single room supplement. Two guests had simply kept quiet when checking in and the hotel had given them single rooms. I should have known there were sharing guests but my information wasn’t clear and I never thought to ask/check as it’s unusual. I was all for turfing them out of their single rooms immediately but the hotel didn’t have accommodation with two single beds. In this situation the wider good of the party, its bonhomie and atmosphere comes into play and I was told to leave it be. Frankly I was enormously upset at the deception.

The castle on Holy Island, Northumberland

I mentioned that the females have a detailed knowledge of what the tour has included and what they pay for. At one castle I entered the ticket office to advise the person behind the counter that the guests would pay for themselves. ‘Ah’, she replied to me, ‘We have written down that we should invoice the land agent’. I thought that was wrong but didn’t have the operator’s brochure to hand to confirm it was wrong. Rather than have an embarrassing stand off with the guests and castle staff I waived them through. Of course checking later I was right and they should have paid and they probably all knew.

Inside Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland

I only point out these two issues to highlight that an assumption that the guest is kind and honest could be over exaggerated for the naive and trusting. You’re by yourself as regards the policing of all this when you’re out there leading a tour.

In my last blog I write about the highlights and some of the things the guests might ask you and gratuities (or not).

Mary Gauthier at The Crescent, York – November 23, 2022

Mary Gauthier saunters on to the stage and puts her hand over her eyes, looks out to the couple of hundred fans packed into York’s bijou venue, The Crescent, and asks, “York, have I been here before?” the audience chuckles. She picks up her guitar and continues, “I can’t remember where I’ve been…. but it’s good to be back!” and then we’re into The Meadow from her last release Dark Enough To See The Stars, the first of 13 songs and brief readings from her book Saved By A Song. This was the ninth gig on a 10 date tour of England with one appearance in Edinburgh.

Her life story has been tumultuous starting with her adoption and leaving home as a teenager. At a young age the path took in substance misuse, halfway houses and gaining acceptance for her sexuality before study, opening a restaurant and eventually pursuing her music career. She was 36 before releasing her first album. Now a multi award winning sexagenarian her demons have been long cast off and, with the audience in the palm of her hand, she seems wise, compassionate, comfortable, a poet yet still an independent, offbeat observer of life. Dark Enough To See The Stars, covers love and contentment but she’s sensitive to the recent loss of dear friends and the dislocation and challenges of modern times; this pours out from her songs. This includes the profound anguish and mental scars faced by returning soldiers from war zones. For her 2019 Grammy nominated album, Rifles and Rosary Beads, she worked with veterans, active military and their families. They were paired with songwriters and the result was an intimate and cathartic collection of songs. She sang The War After The War and Bullet Holes in The Sky, back to back, with an explanation of the project and how privileged she was to be involved. Her abiding memory was of everyone’s desire for peace.

Gauthier plays acoustic guitar with her partner, Jaimee Harris, also on acoustic and vocals. Harris takes the guitar lead when required and her singing voice adds a little sweetness and melody to Gauthier’s gruffer tones. Throughout Gauthier provides the background to many songs and dips into her book to explain her views on the world or her history. Within Nashville there was a community of artists she came to admire and dearly love. The loss of John Prine ands Nanci Griffith were blows and touchingly she recounts her first group song writing session with artists she was in awe of. They all played a song and eventually it comes to her turn to sing one of her own compositions.  She borrows a guitar, plays and then after finishing she starts to hand this upmarket guitar back to Nanci Griffith. Griffith backs away and insists she keeps it. From here we’re into a lament for these friends with Till I See You Again;she singsMay you rest in gentle arms till I see you again.”

The performance is near seamless, sentimental, illuminating and populated with some wonderful songs. In such a small venue disappearing from the stage to regroup for the encore is silly and so as the delighted audience hoot, holler and clap she raises her finger to indicate there will be one more song, Mercy Now. From here it’s to the back of the room to sign the merchandise and greet the fans as we file out in to the chilly air.

(The very talented Jaimee Harris played for a too brief 30 minutes, with a handful of songs, mainly from her upcoming album Boomerang Town released in February. That is something to definitely look out for.)

Confessions of a Tour Guide Part 2

Following from Part 1 I’ve continued to write about other aspects and experiences of my inaugural year of being a tour guide.


I was ‘selected’ and went through to training because I came across as having an outgoing personality (who could engage with guests), was demonstrably organised, physically fit, appeared trustworthy, had an attention to detail, was customer focussed and displayed some energy/enthusiasm for the tours. This is my conclusion at least! Whilst it reads well then I feel most folk have these attributes. However, you do need some agility and emotional intelligence to ‘read the room’ with a tour party and prevent or resolve challenges.

Kissing dummies for CPR training. Hope for a quick death beforehand should I ever need to get near you….

It started in February with a reconnaissance trip, with other newly hired guides, around Northumberland and very briefly in Yorkshire. We visited the walks, towns and attractions (albeit usually just to the outside of these great buildings.) The days were chilly, wet and bleak and we ended up with a curtailed programme as Storm Dudley blew in and we spent (too) little time in the Dales. The other guides were experienced, with other operators ,and I was the complete newbie. From here there was the plan for me to obtain a Private Hire licence so that I could drive the guests around in a small minibus. This was aborted after starting out to complete the process in Newcastle. You needed detailed street by street knowledge of the Toon to get qualified, I was never going to achieve that. Each council have their own specific requirements and other councils don’t necessarily stipulate this. This meant, this season, I’d be relying on other guides to drive or we’d have to use taxi minibuses.

Llama walking is on one of the tours and Anna took me along to get the experience. Okay, it was her birthday! (My boy was called Dec. Yes, I know, Ant and Dec)

Two other sets of training were mandated. First was obtaining an Outdoor First Aid Certificate. This was 16 hours of kissing dummies (or cardiopulmonary resuscitation – CPR) in the Peak District. It was a long two days and involved pretending to be half alive rolling in the grass whilst another course member had to establish your cause of injury as you lay ‘comatose’ (avoiding the nettles.) Anyway, I got the Certificate and if problems arise then I’m ‘off Go’ but apart from the responsibility of giving First Aid I’ve come to learn that the paperwork is horrendous if a guest has an episode or accident (on behalf of the tour operators.) I now request all guests mind their feet and take no risks just to protect me from endless form filling (rather then their health.) Some laugh at this but I’m being serious! I learned many things I never knew and in many ways I think all folk should do some First Aid training.

….and here’s a doggy on a kennel near Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales

Lastly, I had to complete a five hour online course for one operator. Most of it was about adopting their ethos and procedures. I suppose the issue is that the guest has bought one of their holidays and the operator wants consistency and maintenance of the brand equity. However this was a global operator and so much seemed irrelevant. Having been on similar tours overseas many issues and processes are different and it all seemed ‘box ticking’ as it wasn’t appropriate in the UK. For example the guides were meant to check the accommodation prior to arrival. In a shack in Nepal this seems a good idea but is it relevant with the equivalent of a Premier Inn in Northumberland?

On a walk near Rothbury, Northumberland

So that was the formal training but separately I must have visited the Dales on four separate occasions to familiarise myself with the sights or experiences eg. Fountains Abbey, Bolton Abbey, Aysgarth Falls, llama walking, location of hotels etc. This is time consuming and personally expensive in terms of car miles (round trip of 120 miles) but it was vital to give that, attempted, seamless experience and to be able to field those inevitable questions.

Guide Guidelines

It was important to develop a good relationship with all the guests and have a decent daily conversation with each one. However, there are inevitably places ‘not to go’ such as politics. Innocently you can be drawn into conversations on Boris Johnson or economic policy! If all that merits a swerve then you also may need to be discreet on your own life. I’m not sure if I was stalked or I let it slip about the blog but one lady kept coming up with cryptic comments about my writing. You have to remember that you spend around 12 hours a day with these folk and keeping mum on everything isn’t easy if they’re inquisitive.

Craster kippers

Our old friend GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) was high on the list of the operator. We were instructed not to share information between guests. So we always sought consent prior to any data sharing. Frankly, the guests had no concern about giving their telephone numbers not only so that we could have a link in case problems arose but also to set up a WhatsApp group. On WhatsApp, which it seemed 90% of the guests already had, we all shared, during the week, photos, restaurant options, menus and occasionally advance notice of coming weather especially if it was wet! Some women start the holiday with the usual ‘I don’t want my photo taken’, ‘bad hair day’, ‘wrong clothes for a photo shoot’, ‘I always look terrible’ etc. So, of course, I respected their wishes but after a couple of days they’re scouring WhatsApp for all the photos and asking to be included. They’ve now worked out it’s a great way of quickly passing the best images on to family and friends and they’ve relaxed to be a bit more confident in the group. Needless to say I quickly deleted all this information post tour.

Sheep dog handling demonstration just outside Hawes. A little wet but wonderful to behold.

I always was kept in mind of playing the role of Mr Carson, the butler from Downton Abbey. That is, you’re not part of the group but you are ever present literally opening doors for them as they walk serenely along, answering all sorts of questions with supposed authority, operate as the very personification of discretion, be able to communicate on their level but never let it turn into a conversation where you let slip your wealth or superior travel experiences, be prepared to resolve anything no matter whether it is large or small, attempt to be invisible and whilst you’re ultimately in charge you’re never as important as the guests. Again I know, Tony ‘Humble’ Ives does seem like a long week for me but it wasn’t. You’re working, and as we all do, you adopt different behaviours in a work place.

In my next blog I write about the challenges. There are quite a few!

Record Of The Week # 138

Billy Strings – Me/And/Dad

Terry Barber, Strings’ stepfather, fulfilled everything a biological father could when he entered young Strings’ life; not least, got him interested in bluegrass music. Ever grateful, Strings has now ‘ticked off’ his bucket list making an album with him. With a stellar back up band they’ve recorded a selection of traditional and cover songs. Strings’ nimble fingers continue to make magic on his acoustic guitar and it’s a sound that fans will recognise and like.  This follows just over a year from Renewal, an album that cemented Strings reputation as one of the most interesting americana acts around. His emergence and promotion has helped bring bluegrass, as a genre, to a new audience.

His recent albums, whilst bluegrass, do dabble with other roots sounds and he’s not averse to a little folk or other worldly sounds. This variation with its unexpected twists, for me, is the hook with Strings. Me/And/Dad is a very traditional sound. Vocal duties can be shared and Barber’s rendition of Life To Go, originally by George Jones as straight country with pedal steel and a honky tonk piano, is a triumph as his care worn, strained vocals deliver the misery of an inmate reflecting on the wasted life and the fact that he’s not coming out ever again. However, family devotion can go a little too far; his mother Debra joins the duo on Heard My Mother Weeping and her vocal is badly out of tune.

All the tracks are hand picked and have been road tested over decades; it stood to reason the selection would delight. However, the album is truly elevated by the playing of Rob McCoury (banjo), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin) and Grammy winner Michael Cleveland on fiddle. Throughout they all have their own space to solo but come together eventually to fit together like a glove. Your mind will wander to the young Strings sitting at Barber’s knee with a large acoustic guitar under his arm learning this catalogue of bluegrass. It was an important education and aside from the show of gratitude and affection it’s somehow appropriate that Terry now gets a short time in the spotlight.

Confessions of a Tour Guide – Part 1

A good friend, Peter, asked if I was interested in becoming a tour guide? He was recruiting for the ‘land Agent’ he was working for. Land agent? If you were to pick a holiday that included a tour guide then that guide probably won’t work for the company you bought the holiday from but for their contractor or land agent. (The guide is often assumed, by the guest, to be a tour operator employee. Nope.) Peter seemed to have had a good time, got to ride a bike for a week and earned some money. I thought what’s not to like if you had the spare time? I signed up (but I ended up on walking tours!) 

Bamburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast

So I thought I might write up a blog after a season of four separate tours in Northumberland and Yorkshire. Friends are always interested (and think they might like the idea of guiding.) There have been a lot of things to learn including the sights/attractions to swot up on, walking routes to know the stiles, streams and hazards and the location of every toilet on a day out! I never had a concern about dealing with the guests. I had been, with Anna, on similar types of holiday in Sri Lanka and South Africa, I knew the type who took these holidays and in many ways they were like me in interests, age, income and fitness. However, the statistics show, it seems that many are single and female. They are between 50 and 70 years old and 61% of my guests were. Of course all the guests were strangers to me to start with and expected a seamless experience from Sunday to Friday. Is that what happened? I thought I’d break down, in a couple of posts, the tours and my journey to competence.

On the Bolton Abbey Estate path to the ruined Abbey in the Yorkshire Dales

Before we do this then it does beg the question how many guides are my age? Err… not many I expect, the mould seems to chuck out 25 to 40 year olds who are outdoor types and actually live on the money they make. This is difficult I can tell you. This isn’t lucrative but if you want a part time, outdoor job with beautiful scenery and attractions it ticks many boxes. They typically work across many land agents and try and have a full diary during the season. I was happy to have a few weeks work: after all I had my own holidays to fit in!

Cragside House, Rothbury

You need to be fit, able to cope with five or six hours sleep per night, be highly organised, prepared ‘to go the extra mile’, sociable and able to talk with all sorts and not least able to lead and to be agreeably compliant, in the background, but often at critical points confident to be strict. I had been on this type of holiday, had several degrees from the University of Life, knew the parts of England I was working in, I was always eager to learn a new skill and very happy to be outdoors.

The Tours

Black Sheep Brewery Tour in Masham, North Yorkshire

I had three walking tours that were between five to eight miles worth of walking usually toward or around coastlines, castles, abbeys, waterfalls or in one case, happily, a brewery. The other tour was not as energetic and was focussed on the sights and had better dining and lodgings. The tours were curated between two operators and the guests had paid starting at £1,500 each for the pleasure. It was five nights each time and the size of the parties were four, twelve, eight and five, the low numbers are not lucrative for the land agent but their contractual commitment means they must proceed. (For the guide it was easier to organise a smaller group.) The accommodation was hotels and the day started at around 9am. Nothing on the itinerary started at the hotel and we had to drive to the start of a walk or sightseeing opportunity. Lunch was usually taken at a cafe, always reserved in advance and we’d be back at the hotel around 5pm. Restaurants were pre booked and the guide attended dinner although the rules were that we could have a night off. I didn’t always take mine. 

Dunstanburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast near Coaster

It was tiring as you’re always thinking ahead, stopping older guests walking out in front of traffic (!), dealing with changes or closures, trying to motivate the stragglers on a walk whilst not delaying the fit walkers who wanted to push on, dealing with hospitality issues such as tables, ordering and organising the bus to drop off or pick up in busy places, sorting out various tickets to the attractions when you arrived. All the time you’re working on creating a happy holiday. On one long walk, without a cafe break, I produced cream cakes much to everyone’s delight or attempted to add something extra to a tour that they call a ‘twist’ and didn’t expect. For example, Barter Books in Alnwick is always such a solution. Frankly despite all your hard work then dry and sunny weather and a well curated tour are the major ingredients for success. After the tour finishes the operator contacts the guests separately and requests the guide is ‘marked/rated’. The land agents pore across the feedback with interest. You’re always having your performance monitored.

In my next blog I’ll highlight some of the training and guidelines to operate by….