Minstrel's Tales

Stories From a Guitar Case

18/20 October: Our Ladys Convent High School for Girls

Posted: 24 October 2017

If your idea of a nun is a gentle, timid soul who spends her days in quiet meditation think again. And if you have an image of a figure clad in black and white then you couldn’t be further from the truth. At least the truth as in the shape of Sister Lizzy Chakkalakkal from the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary and who is principal at Our Lady’s Convent High School for Girls.

     Sister Lizzy is, not to put too fine a point on it, a force of nature. When faced with a mountain of problems she doesn’t sing about climbing that mountain. She doesn’t even try to climb it, she just picks up the hem of her colourful sari and bulldozes her way through. 

     I met Sister Lizzy when I went to do some work with the girls at Our Lady’s. As I waited in her office drinking sweet masala tea, I looked as the many trophies won by the school under her guidance and leadership and as I took note of the number of community projects she had inaugurated I began to get a sense of what kind of person this lady was. And I was terrified. I was ten again and waiting outside the headmaster’s office on account of some minor misdemeanour. And as we know when you are ten and waiting to see the headmaster there is no such thing as a minor misdemeanour.

     Suddenly, to my left, there was a blur of bright orange and there, sitting across the desk from me, was a small, slight, bespectacled lady looking as much like a nun as Julie Andrews dressed in curtains. 

     ‘So, Mister Bill, you are a very famous musician.’ It was a clearly a statement, not a question.
     ‘Well hardly,’ I stammered. ‘In fact not at all.’
     ‘No, no, no. You are very famous. I have read your web site. We are very pleased that you have made time to come and visit us at Our Lady’s.’
     ‘Honestly,’ I began, fearing that perhaps there was another ‘Bill Adair’ they were expecting. The real ‘Bill Adair’, maybe, ‘I am not famous. I……..’
     ‘Come,’ said Sister Lizzy, ‘ I will show you the class.’ It was fairly evident that as far as Our Lady’s Convent was concerned I was the famous Bill Adair and you cant really argue with a force of nature.

     I worked with some of the girls at Our Lady’s for two days and it was amazing. It has all been amazing. The children here in all the schools I have visited are so eager to learn and to take part it just lifts your spirit. And nowhere more so than Our Lady’s.

     On my last day at the school Sister Lizzy asked if I could arrive in time for the morning assembly. The school doesn’t have an assembly hall so it is held around the quadrangle with the girls gathered on balconies around the space. Hundreds of them cheering as I walked into the quad. They made me feel like a rock star and I just loved it. I sang ‘Glory of Love’ for the school and then a small group made up from some of the girls I had worked with sang what had come to be known as ‘Ally Bally’. It is at time like these that you realise that you are being given much, much more than you could ever give. 

     Later in her office Sister Lizzie told me about some of the other work she and her order are involved in.
     ‘Many families here have no homes. Poor families, widows, children, they all need a place to call home. That is a fundamental human right.’
     ‘And can you help in some way?’ I asked.
     ‘Oh yes,’ replied this humble little woman with a mischievous smile on her face. 
     ‘What do you do for them?’
     ‘We build them a house. At present we have completed 70 family homes in Kochi.’
     The enormity of what she had just told me took a while to sink in but she went on to explain in a very matter of fact way.
   ‘You just build them a house? You make it sound so easy.’

   ‘It’s not as big a deal as you think. We set up the House Challenge Project and we generate sponsorship from local business people and individuals to pay for a house to be built, then we give it to someone who needs it. Children need to be safe and to have a roof over their heads.’
     ‘And who do they pay rent to?’ I asked.
     ‘No one. The house is theirs. They pay for electricity and water but the house belongs to them.’
     ‘That is truly amazing,’ I said.
     ‘Not really. Anyone can do it if you have the support of people who are willing to share without expecting anything in return.’
     Sister Lizzy then showed me some of the houses they had built and they were beautiful. She went on to tell me that only the very best materials were used without any kind of compromise on quality.
     ‘These are poor people. They cannot afford maintenance and renovation. And they should have the best.’
     Apart from her constant knocking on doors to get support for the project, the last house was built with a single donation from a retired banker, Sister Lizzy, the other nuns, her staff and some of the older girls all take part in what they call the Birthday Fund where they donate the money which would be spent on celebrations or presents. Force of nature doesn’t even come close to describing this little woman.

     Her school currently has 2800 attending and the school is in desperate need to update and replace 30 computers and a printer in the school’s IT suite.
     ‘It’s in God’s hands,’ she says, ‘ and he will provide us with what we need. I have seen him working in the school many times. In the young girl who needed a sponsor for her higher studies; in the builder who called to donate cement we needed for the construction of a house which almost failed because of a shortage; in the group of young people who came to offer their services, working in any way they could. God is always here. Maybe that is why you are here. Maybe he sent you to us.’ I couldn’t be sure but I am pretty certain that she winked at me. 
     I am a big foggy about that kind of thing but I am in no doubt at all that as long as Sister Lizzy and her team are at Our Lady’s Convent High School, things will happen, work will get done and not just for the school, but for the whole of that community.

   Later on I did some more work with about 40 of the girls and we recorded and videoed a few songs which was terrific. I am constantly amazed at the way the children here just embrace singing. I thought such an enthusiastic choir deserved a name and so I asked the girls to suggest some. Quite a few names were proposed before we all eventually decided on ‘Angel Voices of Peace’. Perfect. Look out for their video on my Facebook page.



17 October; Armavathy Lower Primary School

Posted: 22 October 2017

Armavathy is in one of the poorest areas of Kochi and yet as soon as you step foot into its primary school you know that you are in a very special place. 

      Poverty is an acute problem in India. It is an inescapable fact that greets you everywhere you go. It is the way it is, the way it has always been and, according to some, the way it will always be. Some will say that India is this way because it is still shackled to a colonial bureaucracy and it suits politicians and officials to remain within its corruption and red-tape.  

     There are many who will tell you that they believe India is a kleptocracy, governed for seventy years by those who would maintain, and add to, the oppressive laws imposed by the British, in order to satisfy their own greed and exploit the natural resources at the expense of the poor. In ‘The Hindu’ it was reported that a huge majority of the people, and in particular the youth, are of the opinion that the rules and administrative systems, established by years of British rule and which were there to keep the country in order and in a state of slavery, are still there and that the laws enacted since partition are of the same kind, there only to strengthen this slavery and decrease individual freedom. As it was put to me in one conversation, ‘The police are here only for the poor. They don’t touch the rich and influential.’

     The World Bank recently stated that by any measure of human development India has the poorest indicators of social growth compared to most other developing countries and yet, in the same report, it says that it has the fastest growing economy anywhere in the world, a statement which is both true yet difficult to believe. Some say that the India’s failures to deal with these problems lie in its past with its history of invasion and dominance by other nations. Some lay the blame at the feet of religion  and culture, citing its caste system as fatalistic while some even say the climate is to blame as it has sapped the will of the people, leaving them no energy for anything other than acceptance. 

     Within all of this uncertainty and corruption you find places like Armavathy Lower Primary School where, for at least a few hours, children can find a haven from the dangers of the street and relax and just be children. 

     Armavathy caters for both boys and girls of all abilities and handicaps. I worked with a class of eleven year olds whose enthusiasm to learn and share was intoxicating. You have to ask yourself what these young people could achieve if given any of the advantages we have in the west instead of it being squandered by generations who fail to appreciate the value of what they have.

     Singing a few songs will not make things better for these children but when you look at the joy on the face of someone like Sandrima, a young girl whose body has been ravaged and twisted by cerebral palsy or you listen very closely and hear Joseph, so shy and backward and afraid that he can’t even look at his classmates, quietly singing to himself, you hope and pray that as India emerges as a leading economic power that somewhere within that growth there will be politicians and officials who will fight to put an end to this kind of poverty.


13 - 16 October; Munnar

Posted: 18 October 2017

I suppose if I was a superstitious type I would not have chosen to travel on Friday 13th.  I mean all that rubbish about it being a bad luck day is a lot of old wives tales. Isn’t it? What could possibly happen? As it turned out, quite a lot and what happened about a week before I was due to travel should have alerted me to revise my plans. 

     I was  in Fort Nagar, Kochi, visiting John Rumold and Noah Naveen, old friends from my last visit here. As we were chatting over a beer, you can always count on John to have a good supply of cold Kingfisher, Noah asked if I had any other trips planned.
     ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I am going to Munnar next Friday.’
     ‘Where are you staying?’ asked Noah.
     ‘The Plum Judy Hotel. Why?’
     Noah nodded and looked a bit concerned, probably in much the same way that his namesake looked when he was told to go and start stockpiling gopher wood.
     ‘Have you paid for it?’
     ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Why?’ Now it was my turn to look concerned.
     ‘It’s closed,’ said Noah. One thing about Indians is that they really know how to sugar-coat a bitter pill. Not.
     The long and the short of it was that due to a landslide the local government had closed the hotel until they were satisfied it was safe. Noah called the hotel and after a long conversation was able to tell me that inspectors were going to the hotel on the tenth and that it was expected it would re-open then.
     ‘Don’t worry. It will all work out in the end,’ Noah said, a statement which had a vague Marigold Hotel ring to it. And it took Maggie Smith and Judi Dench to fix that and, as things stood, I was right out of theatrical dames. 
     I spent a long week sending emails and making frustrating phone calls to Make My Trip with whom I had booked the hotel and eventually, late on the Thursday night, I received an email telling me that alternative accommodation had been made at the Parakkat Nature Resort and my trip could go ahead as planned. O frabjous day! Callous! Callah! I chortled in my joy. 
     The journey from Fort Kochi to Munnar is about 100 km and it takes, by bus, four and a half hours. It does take you through some amazing scenery but as most of the time you are holding on to the seat you don’t notice too much of it.
     I arrived at my hotel, tired, hot, desperately needing to go to the loo and have a shower. I cheerfully gave my name to the young woman at the reception and waited while she looked up my booking. It wasn’t there. Make My Trip had sent me an email about the change of accommodation but they hadn’t told either of the hotels. 
     ‘Please, take a seat in the restaurant until we can clear this up,’ the manager said, and so I sat and looked at the most breathtaking view over tea plantations and mountains. A view which, in normal circumstances, would have been wonderful, it was still pretty wonderful, if I’m honest, but all I wanted was a shower. And I ordered tea, well what else do you do in the place where they grow some of the world’s best.
     As I sat waiting for my room and my tea I wondered what kind of tea they would serve me. Assam, perhaps, or maybe something a bit heavier like Gunpowder Tea, strong and dark and smoky, the Laphroaig of tea, or maybe something lighter, a first flush Darjeeling, perhaps, guaranteed to get your tastebuds tingling. 
     What they brought me was a small pot of hot water and a Tetley tea-bag. This is not, I am sure, what the British tea planter A. E. Sharp had in mind when in 1880 he first planted about 50 acres of tea in what is now the Seven Mallay estate. Prior to this the region grew crops of coffee, cardamom, cinchona and sisal but these were abandoned when it was discovered that tea was the perfect crop for the region’s climate and terrain. 

     It was the job of another British planter, A. W. Turnor, to begin the large scale cultivation and in 1895 the company of Findlay Muir and Company entered the scene and bought 33 independent tea growing estates, including Sharp’s and in 1897 The Kannan Devan Hills Produce Company was formed. You might think that with all this history and all this tea it would be a simple matter to get a decent cuppa but clearly that was not the case. I did get my room though.

     Munnar, for all its plethora of high end hotels, is not really a tourist area. The town itself is a maze of dirty, busy streets and alleys with all kinds of stalls selling mostly fruit, vegetables, dried fish and plastic toys. You always know when you are about to come across a fish stall, the air quality changes quite dramatically and you are surrounded by a sort of blue haze. The town is here to cater, not for tourists, but for the local population, most of whom work in either tea plantations or, paradoxically, in one of the many hotels and homestays. That said Munnar still seems to be something of a must-visit destination and wherever you go you will see hot, weary backpackers looking tired and fed-up and more than a little bewildered. I could only take so much bewilderment and after about an hour I jumped into a Tuk-Tuk and headed for the air-conditioned comfort of my hotel and a Tetley Tea Bag.

     Before I left Munnar I visited the Tea Museum which was interesting enough and showed a very good documentary about how the tea industry has grown since A. E. Sharp first decided that this was definitely the place to have your morning chai. By far the most interesting exhibit in the museum was a proudly displayed certificate telling the world that on the 24th May 1902 Lodge Heather 928 was affiliated into the Grand Lodge of Scotland.


   That evening as I was having dinner the hotel manager approached me with the same kind of look I had seen on Noah Naveen’s face a week ago.
     ‘Bad news, I’m afraid,’ he said.
     ‘Tomorrow there is a transport strike and all buses have been cancelled. You have two choices.’
     ‘Which are?’
     ‘You could get a local open bus which will take about seven hours or you can stay another night.’
     Something told me that staying another night wasn’t being offered free gratis but the thought of seven hours in an old rickety bus with no windows was hardly appealing.
     ‘Are there no other options?’ I asked.
     ‘You could book a private taxi. That would cost you about 4,000 rupees (about £45).’
     It really was a no-brainer. Even in a taxi the journey could take up to four hours although the manager did say that because of the strike there would be very little traffic so it would probably take a lot less.
     Next day I left Munnar in my air-conditioned taxi which for some reason the driver was very reticent to use and preferred to drive with the windows open. He did, however, after much muttering in Malayalam eventually switch it on.
     The journey itself was not without incident as every time we entered a village or town we had to cross a CPI (Communist Party of India) picket line. I noticed that on every approach the drive would place on the dashboard a sign saying ‘AIRPORT’. I suppose this was to indicate to the pickets that it was not his fault he was breaking the strike, it was all the fault of the Western Capitaist in the back.


12 October; Alice Delice

Posted: 15 October 2017

Coming across a genuine French café in the middle of Fort Kochi was not something that was high on my list but that is exactly what I found in Rose Street.
     Alice Delice is a delightful boulangerie run by Alice and Julien Flock who, after running their organic bakery business Paroles de Pain in Brittany for almost 15 years, decided to open up Fort Kochi earlier this year. 

     With its red checkered table cloths you would be forgiven for thinking you were sitting in a pavement café somewhere in rural France, an image which is enhanced the moment you step inside and see the display of freshly baked bread and pastries. Old black and white photographs of Montmartre, the Sacre Coeur and various Parisian street scenes cover the walls while, in a somewhat incongruous fashion, a portrait of Picasso shares a space with a carving of Ganesh, the famous Hindu elephant-headed god 


 I happily stumbled upon Alice’s one morning as I walked around Fort Kochi. That morning as I sat in the rear garden, a peaceful, cool haven, with a distinctly Mediterranean feel, I tried the Café Gourmand, excellent Café Presse with two different types of bread with unsalted butter, fresh butter as my grandmother always called it, some of Alice’s home made pineapple and ginger jam and a piece of chocolate brownie. Even before I had tasted it I knew I would be back again and again. 

 ‘Is your bakery in France in Paris?’ I asked Alice. A reasonable question I thought as we were surrounded by all thing Parisian. She shook her head.
     ‘No. Never in Paris. I was born in Paris but I do not like Paris. Our bakery is in Brittany. It is much nicer there.’
     ‘And why did you come to Kochi to open a café?’
     ‘We were here visiting and just fell in. Love with the town. It is a beautiful place.’
     Two days later I was back for lunch. I was going to a local school that afternoon so I had my guitar with me.
     ‘Will you play?’ Alice asked as she served me my lunch, a gorgeous platter of Salade de Fruits, a selection of freshly baked breads, Pain au Chocolate, croissant, more of the delicious jam and coffee and all for 300 rupees, about £3.50. 

     After playing a few songs in the café we moved outside where my playing seemed to generate quite a bit of interest from the locals. While I was playing a film crew passed. In Kochi there always seems to be a film crew somewhere making what they hope will be the next Bollywood blockbuster. 

   What do you do in circumstances when you are asked by a glamorous young film star, whose name I have forgotten, I am ashamed to say, but I am sure she doesn’t remember mine either, if she can sit beside you while you play? As I sang and played she posed and smiled. Film cameras rolled and stills cameras clicked, especially Alices’s who had decided that this was a sure fire way of getting some local attention for the boulangerie. This is the second time I have been filmed in Kochi. Last time I was here I was filmed by the BBC for their series ‘The Real Marigold Hotel’ chatting to Denis Taylor, Amanda Barrie and Lionel Blair but my role as ‘British customer in a  fruit and veg market’ ended up on the cutting room floor and I fully expect the same fate awaits this. Who can tell, though. I may be just about to make it big in Southern India as ‘vagrant itinerant minstrel’. Still we all have to start somewhere. 


11 October; St Josephs Lower Primary School, Kumbalanghi

Posted: 14 October 2017

No matter to which school I go in Kerala and, no matter the age of the children, two things are always the same; the warm excited welcome I receive from the children and staff and the smiling faces of the children, all eager to sing and learn new songs. 

     St Joseph’s LP School is set within the grounds of St Joseph’s Church in a quiet Ernakulam suburb and caters for about 40 children aged from 4/5 up to 10. I was working with a middle school class of 7/8 year olds who had, so Mary Jacqueline the headmistress told me, been looking forward to my visit for weeks. 

     ‘They are very excited that such a famous singer is coming to their school,’ she told me.
     ‘You must let me know when he is coming,’ I replied. ‘I would like to hear him too.’
     A puzzled look came over her face before breaking into a smile. ‘Ah. You are making a joke,’ she said.
     ‘Almost,’ I replied. 

     The children at St Joseph’s, as I have found everywhere, were amazing. Coulter’s Candy had been such a success I thought it might be worth trying something else in Scots and for that I turned to Matt McGinn’s ‘Coorie Doon’.
     Mary Jacqueline helped me explain that it was a lullaby being sung by a mother to her child while the child’s father was working in a coal mine. The children sang it beautifully and seemed to understand the beautiful poignancy of the verse;

    Your daddy coories doon, wee darling,
    Doon in a three foot seam.
    So you can coorie doon, wee darling,
    Coorie doon and dream.

     ‘Could you please do me a favour?’ Mary Jacqueline asked me.
     ‘If I can.’
     ‘Could you please teach the children ‘Silent Night’. We always sing it a Christmas and next time they sing it, it will remind of you.’
     How could I refuse. And so in a temperature of about 35 degrees centigrade, in India, in the middle of October, we began to learn and sing ‘Silent Night’. One of my most surreal experiences? Oh yes, definitely. One of the most beautiful too. 

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