Minstrel's Tales

Stories From a Guitar Case

10 October; The Vypeen Island Ferry

Posted: 13 October 2017

The ferry from Fort Kochi to Vypeen Island is an eye opener on all sorts of levels. First there is the craft itself. Old, rusty and looking as though it should have found its way to the breaker’s yard long ago or, at the very least, taken out into the Arabian Sea and quietly scuttled. Interestingly the ferry I was on displayed a brass plate which, if it was to be believed, stated that this particular ferry was built in Belfast at the Harland and Wolves Shipyards in 1957. As we left port it flashed into my mind that that was where they built the Titanic. 

     The second thing you notice, simply because you have no choice but to become part of it, is the complete disregard for anything remotely concerned with health and safety as foot passengers, motor cyclists and cars all push forward to get on board at the same time. It is even worse when it docks as disembarking foot passengers leap forward to get off even before it has docked properly and tied up. If they had a mind to I suppose they could just as easily jump off mid-crossing as there is nothing between them and the ocean briny except the angle of the on/off ramp which is only slightly higher than deck level. 

     The crossing itself only lasts about ten minutes but it was still a bit unnerving to notice the complete absence of life jackets or any kind of buoyancy aid or any kind of information should an emergency occur and the ferry sank. Needless to say, it didn’t sink and I made it to the island and back without encountering an storms or hurricanes and without any kind of trouble form marauding pirates or denizens of the deep.

     After such a perilous voyage some kind of sustenance was required. In the absence of lime juice or a tot of rum I made my way to the Killian Hotel where I had arranged to meet Dave Rees-Jones and Debbie Aldous from Birmingham who were on their last night in India. I met Dave and Debbie when they came to my concert a few nights before when they told me about the Killian Happy Hour which is actually the Happy Two Hours from four til six. This, I reasoned, was a deliberate marketing ploy on behalf the hotel management; they provide somewhere to go for a cold beer in the heat of the afternoon which somehow seamlessly becomes evening. By this time, of course, you are quite settled and you may as well stay on and have dinner and enjoy the rest of the night during the ‘unhappy’ hours. 
     After a starter of pakora and Kingfisher, the beer, that is, not one of our brightly plumaged feathered friends, I had a delicious fish curry. Kochi is, after all, a fishing port, famous for its Chinese Fishing Nets, so it seemed only right and proper that I sampled the local fruits de mer. Served with rice and chapati it was quite outstanding, especially when washed down with an ice cold Kingfisher Blue. Just the thing for a hungry and thirsty sailor type on shore leave. R. L. Stevenson summed it up perfectly:

    Home is the sailor , home from the sea,
    And the hunter home from the hill.

     I woke up about four o’clock with my stomach telling me that my fish curry was perhaps not quite as magnificent as I had thought. It felt as though one of the Kingfishers had taken flight inside my large intestine.  I had a fitful couple of hours sleep before I eventually got up and staggered to the loo where I found that things were just as I had feared; my insides seemed to have melted during the night. Time for a couple of charcoal capsules, I think.  

09 October; The St Thomass High School for Girls Collective

Posted: 11 October 2017

Today I returned to St Thomas’s with a plan to get both my groups of girls together and create The St Thomas’s High School Girls Collective. And my girls didn’t let me down.

     My idea was that I would spend some time with each group of girls and then bring them all together in a massed choir and to record and video the result. If nothing else it would be fun.

     I had thought that we would all just get together in the classroom we had been using but Sister Agnes had other ideas. 
      ‘You can use the main auditorium if you like,’ she told me.
     ‘Great,’ I said even though I had no idea what the main auditorium was like. 

     As it turned out it was amazing. We had a huge stage to work with and it was pretty obvious to everyone just how things would be set. Me in the middle with all the girls grouped around me. Val Doonican eat your heart out.

     We had a ball and the girls sang their hearts out. It was hard to believe that just two days before these young girls had never sung anything in English never mind something in a Scottish dialect. We managed to record everything and eventually I hope it will make its way onto these pages. In the meantime, enjoy the photographs.


06 October; Udaya Convent School

Posted: 9 October 2017

I was wakened about two o’clock by the mother and father of all thunderstorms. My homestay is across the street from the Indian Navy’s gunnery school and for a few minutes I thought that perhaps we were in the middle of some night time training exercise. 
     I lay and listened to the magnificent storm raging outside, illuminating my room with unfailing regularity. Between the tympani of thunder claps and lightning flashes I could hear the rain pounding down outside. I lay listening for a while wondering whether or not it would be wise to go up onto the roof to experience the storm first hand when suddenly my alarm clock went off and it was 7.30. I had been lulled to sleep by a thunderstorm.
     Expectantly I rushed out to the balcony, expecting to see torrents of water cascading down the road only to discover that everything was just as it was with no sign of any storm. Maybe I had dreamt the whole thing.
     ‘Did you enjoy the storm last night?’ asked Philip as he served me some Masala eggs.
     ‘I was beginning to think I had imagined it. It all looks the same.’
     ‘That is how it always is. Rain and storms at night. Nothing to see the next day. The ground here is so hard and baked that it just soaks up the water like a sponge.’

     After breakfast I got a taxi back to the Udaya Convent School. I wanted to take a walk and have a look around the neighbourhood so I got there about an hour early. As I am getting out of the taxi I check the temperature, mid morning and its already 31 degrees centigrade. Outside the heat hits you like a sledgehammer and I begin to wonder if a walk is such a good idea.

     In 1957 Kerala’s Legislative Assembly was amongst the first states to return a democratically elected Communist government and as you walk along Udaya Nagar Road it is clear that the Communist Party still has huge support. Hammer and sickle flags are evident everywhere but here, in one of the poorest parts of Kochi, the people you meet are quick to tell you they are tired of the old systems and the need for change. 

     ‘It is either the Communist Party or the Congress Party,’ says Mr Khan, who makes a living recycling cardboard. ‘The Communist Party and the Congress just fight each other ad do nothing for the people. It is time to give the BJP, the Baharatiya Janata Party, a chance.’
     ‘Will that make things better?’ I ask him.
     He shrugs. ‘It can’t be much worse,’ and he waves his arm up and down the street.

     In such poverty and squalor you might think it would be difficult to find any joy anywhere, but the human spirit is made of sterner stuff. In the street people greet me as I walk past. Women, elegant in their colourful saris, standing in groups talking and smiling, nod to me as their beautiful children gather round looking up at me with big, brown laughing eyes

     ‘Hello, sir,’ they say.
     ‘Good morning,’ I reply. 
     ‘You from?’
     ‘From Scotland.’
     ‘Ah Scotland. Very beautiful country.’ 

     In the school room, after singing with the children, I decide that I would like to take a series of portraits and with the help of Esha, a young volunteer with the most amazing voice, we get them lined up.

Having your photograph taken is a serious business and they are all very excited. Eventually we get through them and I have a unique portfolio of  young people who will never see their portrait but they are all, each and every one of them, a valued contributor and I thank them. 


05 October; St Thomas's High School for Girls

Posted: 5 October 2017


The promised heavy rain during the night hasn’t materialised and I wake up to another very heavy, hot day. At breakfast I chat with another guest, a young man named Philip from Dorset, who is travelling the length and breadth of India on his bicycle. He is aiming to get to Goa, about 700 miles away, to join his parents there next week.
     ‘Will you make it?’ I ask him. ‘What about the heat?’
     ‘I should do,’ he replies confidently. ‘It’s really nice when you are pedalling, it’s only when you stop that the heat hits you.’
     I wish him the best of luck and go and wait for my taxi.

     Today I am at St Thomas’s High School for Girls where I will take two classes, one group aged between 7 and 11 and another between 12 and 16. I have to admit that I am a little nervous. Dealing with giggling teenage girls is not something I have any experience of; at least not since I was teenager.

     My first class of about thirty girls is shown into the room by one of the sisters who run the school and I am once struck by how polite the girls are. As they pass me each girl bids me good morning. When everyone is seated one of girls steps forward and presents me with a red rose.
     ‘Happy Teachers’ Day, sir,’ she says. ‘Welcome to our school.’
     ‘Happy Teachers’ Day, sir,’ echoes her classmates.
     ‘It is National Teachers’ Day today,’ explains Sister Agnes. ‘They are very pleased that you have chosen to spend it here.’

     I am tempted to tell Sister Agnes that if she was a nun in an order in Scotland she would probably be Sister Senga but, excellent as her English is, I didn’t think she would understand. I turned to the rows of smiling faces, holding up my rose like some kind of trophy.
     ‘Thank you all very much. I am very pleased to be here today.’ A statement which brought me far more applause and cheering than I have ever had at a concert. It was all a bit overwhelming, completely unexpected and in its own way very humbling.

     I am sure that when Robert Coltart wrote the original ‘Coulter’s Candy’ in the 1800’s he had no idea that one day it would be sung in schools in India in the 21st century. But that has proved to be the case and proves to be just as popular with children here as it ever was with children in Scotland. It is just one of those songs, the perfect mix of words and music, that make it easy to learn and easy and lovely to sing. If ever I release a song in India, this is the one it will be. 

     Now bearing in mind that these are young girls whose first language in not English and who have never heard the tune before, the response to the song was amazing. Not just in the very quick way they learnt the song but the beautiful way in which they sang it. Sweetly, tunefully and their lovely Keralan accents giving something to the lyrics which you had to hear to fully appreciate. 
     During the hour we had, we sang our way through a few more songs and each time they sang along as if they had known them all of their young lives. As we neared the end of the class, without any kind of introduction, and as a sort of test, I began to play ‘Coulter’s Candy’ and immediately they sang along. These are the moments you treasure. These are the times when you think that maybe you have done something right.

     After a break, Masala tea served by a nun in a white habit, and that’s not something that happens to you every Diwali, I spent some time with the older of the two groups. And they weren’t at all giggly. 

     I was curious to see if ‘Coulter’s Candy’ would work with teenagers. Would they like the pure simplicity of the tune? Would they be embarrassed by the thought of sitting on their Ama’s knee? Would they like to sing at all? As it turned out all of those fears were completely unfounded, so much so that I thought we might try something a little more ambitious.

     Anna Tabbush’s ‘The Tree Song’ has always been a great favourite of mine ever since I heard it sung by Pandorra’s Handbag at a Burns Supper in Yorkshire. No, really. Anyway I put some words on the blackboard, sang it through and then took the girls through the song, line by line. The result was truly astonishing. Sure the timing wasn’t exactly as it should be and the melody wasn’t quite there but these girls had the song. 

     Sometimes, something will happen that stops you in your tracks. You will experience something you know will never happen again in quite the same way. And that is what happened when I decided to teach the class my own ‘Sail On’.
     I can’t begin to describe how I felt to hear these not-at-all giggly teenage girls singing one of my songs. For a few minutes I was at once proud and emotional and totally at one with a group I had only just met an hour before. That’s what music can do.

     Later I told Sister Agnes that I was very impressed by the singing of both groups.
     ‘It’s because they have a hunger for it,’ she told me. ‘They have very little exposure to the arts and especially to the arts from Western cultures. They are hungry for more.’
     If these children are hungry then I am so pleased and feel so privileged to have been able to help feed that hunger.


03 October;SIM Cards and Tea Pots

Posted: 4 October 2017

Woken at 5.30 by the sound of construction traffic on the road outside. It feels very heavy and muggy in the room and I am reminded that this is the start of the second monsoon. Already the temperature on my clock reads 31 degrees. It is going to be hot and humid.

     Cheese omelette, toast, fresh pineapple and watermelon for breakfast and Maryann has made coconut pancakes, light crepes filled with sweet, shredded coconut and covered in syrup. Absolutely delicious and about as far removed from a fried breakfast as you can get. Her husband Philip sits down to join me and we chat about food and visiting tourists.
     ‘The French are the worst,’ he tells me. ‘They never want to try anything. All they want is demitasse café and croissants.’
     ‘Who are the most adventurous?’
     ‘Oh the British,’ he laughs. ‘Visitors from the UK are happy to try anything. Not so much Americans. They like the idea but not the food.’
     I spend the rest of the morning trying to source a local SIM card so I can stay in touch easier with my contacts here. The whole process takes some time and for some reason on the form I have to give my father’s name and place of birth. I eventually get it sorted and for a month I have unlimited calls to anywhere in India and unlimited internet access, and all for 500 rupees, about £6.00.

     For lunch I decide to head to the Tea Pot Café on Peter Celli Street. Tea is definitely the name of the game here. With a name like The Tea Pot Café I don’t suppose you would expect anything else. Tea pots are everywhere. They hang from the ceiling and sit in rows on every available surface. All the tables, apart from a large glass-topped centre piece which has as its base the huge root of a tea bush, are fashioned from old tea chests on top of which sits a precariously balanced piece of wood.
     With all that clutter it is only to be expected that the café is a bit dusty. The walls are cracked and broken in places and the photographs recall a bygone age, never to return. Strangely all of that just seems to add to the chaotic charm of the place.
     On the other hand the tea is excellent and for less than the price of a High Street latte in the UK I enjoyed a large pot of Assam tea and a toasted cheese sandwich. Old and dusty it may be but on a hot, sultry day The Tea Pot Café is a place of calm, cool refreshment.

     The afternoon was largely spent at the David Hall, I am due to play a concert there on Saturday night, for a photo shoot for the New Indian Express. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but Milton, the photographer, knew exactly what he wanted. 
     ‘Please sit,’ he said as he indicated a chair in the centre of the lawn. ‘And could you please sing and play while I photograph you.’
     ‘You want me to sing and play? Can’t I just mime?’
     ‘No, no, no, sir. Please sing and play properly. It will all be captured by the camera.’
     And so I sang and played for almost an hour as Milton snapped away and moved me around to various positions in the garden. I was exhausted.
     At the end of the session I chatted to an American lady called Linda who told me that she lived half the year in India and half in New York. She was utterly devastated by the news about the mass shootings in Las Vegas and she didn’t try to hide the fact that she thought the gun lobby in general, and Donald Trump in particular, were stone raving bonkers.
     ‘It’s all driven by money,’ she said. ‘You are very lucky to live in the UK where there are proper gun controls.’
     We chatted for a few minutes more about various gun related atrocities, including the awful events that happened at Dunblane Primary School. I left feeling quite drained, and realised that it probably had nothing at all to do with the weather. 

     Earlier in the day I had noticed a sign outside Oy’s, a café in Burgher Street popular with backpackers, advertising dinner that night of traditional Kerala food served by the ladies of Kochi. This was far too good an opportunity to miss so I duly turned up at the appointed time only to be told that no dinner was being served.
     ‘We only are open for breakfast and lunch,’ I was told by a smiling waiter.
     ‘But the sign,’ I said pointing to the blackboard.
     ‘Ah yes, sir,’ he said, wagging his head, ‘that is an old advertisement. We just haven’t got round to cleaning the blackboard.’
     Fortunately Oy’s is directly across the street from one of my favourite haunts the Kashi Art Café, famous for its thirst-bursting ginger tea and amazing chocolate cake. Akin, one of the waiters I had got to know on my last trip, recognised me and came to my table pointing and smiling.
     ‘Iced tea, iced tea.’
     ‘Thank you, Akin. Some iced tea would be lovely,’ I told him, secretly thrilled to be remembered. 

     Finding somewhere to have a beer in Kochi can be a bit of a challenge as in 2014 the Kerala government introduced a 10 year plan in an attempt for complete prohibition except in five start hotels and the state run liquor outlets. It isn’t quite clear yet just how far the government will take this legislation as more and more tourists head for the state. It is feared that, apart from the effect this may have on tourism, any kind of prohibition could create a black market in the sale of alcohol, and we all know how well that worked in the past. Ali Capone is just waiting on the sidelines.

     One place you will always manage to find a Kingfisher perching on the cold shelf is the Old Harbour Hotel on Tower Road facing the famous Chinese Fishing Nets. Elegant, stylish and still retaining in part shades of colonial Britain, I sat in the gardens under a clear navy blue sky eating tapioca chips, nursing an ice cold beer and listening to live Indian music and I asked myself, does it get any better than this? Not really, I had to answer. 


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