Minstrel's Tales

Stories From a Guitar Case

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. 


02 October; Udaya Convent School

Posted: 2 October 2017


On the outskirts of Ernakulam there is a very run down part of town. You might call it a slum. For the people who live there it is home, even though home may be a shack at the side of the road, that it is a precious, joyous place is evident in the faces of the people you pass on the street. 

Hidden in a corner of the busy Udaya Nagar Road there is a small schoolroom where every day sisters from the Udaya Convent, under the guidance of Sister Anisha, provide somewhere for children to go to play and sing and dance away from the busy main road on which most of them live.

I was met today by Susheela Pai, a popular, well known performer and teacher of classical Indian dance who gives freely of her time and talents to teach the children the importance of dance and movement. Her philosophy about the importance of movement is summed up simply in a story she tells in which a small boy was wondering why his grandmother was always lying in bed. ‘She has air to breathe, and water to drink and she is fed her food of choice and she is surrounded by family who love and care for her so why is it that she feels so low?’ Susheela ends the story by giving the answer. ‘Because there is no movement. People must keep moving. It s as important as the basic necessities of life.’

The children here were wonderful. Smiling and happy and eager and willing to learn new songs, even songs in a foreign language. I was able to sit with about 20 children, aged from about 5 to 13 or 14 and we went through some of my favourite children’s songs from Tom Paxton’s ‘Going to the Zoo’ to Woody Guthrie’s ‘Car, Car’ to what is fast becoming a favourite everywhere in Kerala, ‘Coulter’s Candy’, changed to Chocolate Candy for ease of understanding. Children here love chocolate and they love the song. 

Ally, bally, ally, bally bee,
Sitting on your ama’s knee.
Crying for one rupee
To buy some chocolate candy

As we were getting to the end of our time together it was decided that I had to be taught a song in the local language of Malayalam, the only palindromic mother tongue in the world. It was a song about building a boat from the wood of the flower tree. 

Njanum, njanum, endalum,
Aa naalpadhu perum,
Poomaram kondu kapplundakki. 

Which translated means;

Me and my people,
Those forty people,
Made a boat out of the wood of the flower tree.

All things considered I think I managed not too bad.

In the film ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’, the unhappy Jean Ainslie (Penelope Wilton), recoiling in horror in India and retreating into a bitter negativity, asks Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) what it is he likes about India and what is it he can see that she cant. Dashwood replies, ‘ The light, the colours, the smiles. The way people see life as a gift and not a right. All life is here.’ Later on in the film Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) says, ‘India hits you like a wave. If you resist you will be knocked down. But if you dive into it, you will be all right.’

Everywhere you look in India you see that light and colour and those smiles. At every corner there is a potential wave coming right at you. Waves that take the form of sights and sounds and smells, some you wish you had no experience of, but waves that will knock you flying unless you meet them head on and dive in. And when you come up for air you know that whatever the wave it has enriched your life.


September 30; Kochi

Posted: 1 October 2017

Suddenly the first leg of my journey was over and I was carrying Passepartout through Dubai airport at midnight and trying to understand why, in such a religious country, the busiest temples were the ones dedicated to consumerism. And of course there is shortage of willing disciples eager to sit at the feet of the all-knowing gurus of greed and learn and feast. While waiting for my flight to be called I sat in a café and had a very bad, over-priced coffee and as I waited a husband and wife passed me. It was interesting to see that while she was wearing a full black burka, nothing wrong with that, her husband was wearing the very latest in western fashion complete with Nike trainers, skinny Levi jeans and a tight fitting GAP t-shirt. Nothing wrong with that either I just found it odd that while one partner adheres, or is made to adhere,I don’t know which, to a strict code of faith, the other seems to be able to please himself.

After a four and a half flight I landed at Cochin International Airport. There are three things you cant help notice about Cochin Airport. The first is that as you prepare to land you can see, shimmering in the sunlight in a green field almost 50,000 solar panels because in August 2016 Cochin Airport became the first airport in the world to be completely powered by solar energy producing 18 million units of power a year. In a country which has so much sunlight and where over 300 million homes still don’t have any access to power this kind of project could bring a little light into the lives of so many people.

The second thing that strikes you immediately you step out of your air-conditioned cocoon is the heat and humidity. It just reaches out and embraces you in a big ‘Welcome to India’ hug. It really is breathtaking.

The third thing you are aware of is that no one, apart from airport staff and travellers, are allowed inside the terminal building. Excited hellos and tearful farewells all have to take place on the other side of a perimeter fence patrolled by tall, turbaned security guards. Armed, bearded and Bollywood handsome it was clear that these men were in charge and that no one was going anywhere they weren’t supposed to. As I was just about to find out.

For some reason my e-visa had an extra didget in my passport number. I had written to the authorities who wrote back and assured me that I had nothing to worry about and that it would be accepted. Thankfully, after a bit of extra checking and some very disparaging looks from the immigration officers I was allowed in. I think I was so relieved I completely forgot to pick up my luggage and only remembered it when I was half way across the car park. Back at the arrivals exit where I explained to the aforesaid security guard that I had forgotten my luggage and could I go back and get it. Disdain is not the word to describe his look. More pity than anything else but I could tell he was really thinking that here was a nation of people who governed us for decades and they cant even look after their underpants. Thankfully he let me back and my case and I were soon re-united.

There is always a danger when you book a hotel on line that it will not quite match up to the glowing description on whatever website you found it. So far in my travels I have been very lucky and never had a really bad experience. That was all about to change.

What can I say about the Fort Castle Hotel that hasn’t already been said? Well, quite a lot, actually, if their website blurb is anything to go by. The building itself was stuck down a back alley which was essentially a dumping ground for anything and everything and the rooms were dirty and smelly with peeling, cracked walls and broken tiles on the floor and an air conditioning unit which was hopelessly inadequate although the manager assured me that it would function well with the door closed. The bathroom was filthy with more broken tiles and a shower that refused to work. To be fair the bed seemed comfortable enough and the bedding was clean but there was no way I could stay there. I can put up with most things but not having a shower that works is not one of them. I went to reception and cancelled my booking.

As we were sorting through the cancellation paperwork the elderly receptionist told me that his cousin had a nice homestay and they may have a room available. Calls were made and I was asked if I would like to look at what they called their penthouse suite. By this time I had been on the go for well over 24 hours and I had had to deal with immigration officals, armed security guards and a horrible hotel room. All I wanted was a clean room with a decent shower and a clean bed, but what I was shown was so much more. It was indeed a penthouse suite with a kitchen, a small sitting room, a lovely bedroom and bathroom, a balcony and fully functioning air conditioning and shower. I could have wept with joy. Reds Residency Homestay on the outskirts of Fort Kochi is a little gem and the hosts, Maryann and Philip d’Souza are a delight to know, helpful and welcoming. It made getting a bad hotel room worth it.

September 29

Posted: 1 October 2017

Ever since I was a boy I have suffered from a little known condition called dromomania. Severe as it may sound it is not at all life threatening, in fact many may say it is life enhancing. Dromomania is defined as an uncontrollable psychological urge to wander. There are many who are afflicted by this malady, and I include amongst my fellow sufferers Michael Palin, Paul Theroux and the incomparable Elizabeth Jane Cochran, who is perhaps better known by her pen name as Nellie Bly, an American journalist who is best known for a record breaking trip around the world in 72 days thus proving that anything Fogg could do, Bly could do better. One famous dromomaniac was a gas-fitter from Bordeaux named Jean-Albert Dadas who would suddenly set out on foot to places as distant as Prague, Vienna and Moscow without apparently any memory of where he had been or what he had been doing.

According to George Baillie in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, a frustrated dromomaniac if ever there was one, the three most exciting sounds in the world are anchor chains, plane motors and train whistles and there is certainly something utterly compelling about travelling. Busy airports and railway stations are places full of anticipation about what this particular journey may have to offer. Unless of course you have just missed your train or you have just been told that your flight has been cancelled indefinitely, then they become temples of frustration, but even those long delays and missed connections add to the overall excitement in travelling.

Little did I think as I left Glasgow airport last October, after returning from what was truly a life-changing experience in India, that in less than a year I would be making a return trip to Kerala to work with TAOS, a local arts foundation which aims to take music and art into schools in Kochi.

To help with this work and, like Phileas Fogg and Michael Palin before me I will need the help of my own Passepartout. Both of these legendary dromomaniacs set great store in their respective Passepartout’s and felt them to be absolutely essential to the journey. Fogg’s Passepartout was his valet/travelling companion, while Palin’s was a five man team for the BBC. Mine will be quite different. In fact it wont even be human. My Passepartout will be my Martin 00028 guitar, a beautiful blonde lady who may not be much good when it comes to helping to carry bags but is in a class of her own when my spirits need lifting.

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