Minstrel's Tales

Stories From a Guitar Case

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. 

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: 09 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. 


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