Saturday, March 30, 2013

Old Song About Bankers On Reverbnation

I have been rummaging in the drawers (oo-er madam!) and I found the song 'Paradise Lost' which I wrote for a song-cycle called 'Herms', which was about the seven new deadly sins.
It is about greedy bankers and although I wrote it twenty years ago, it is just as relevant now, I think.

Fabulous Tracks

Friday, March 29, 2013

After Perthshire

After a sojourn in deepest, hilliest, frostiest Perthshire, I have returned home and now have to sort out  the email mess.
Please don't click on links if you get an email from my helen mccookerybook account! If you do so by accident, then please change your password and run anti-virus software.
This has happened to lots of yahoo users over the past few weeks.
It took seven hours to drive back, through some of the most spectacular countryside in the British Isles- Scottish mountains, border hills and then Lake District mountains.
Hats off to my rickety old car, square-set and low-slung, common as muck but a swifty little steed if ever there was one and with a boot so huge that even a duo-Offsprog quantity of silly luggage fits into it, with room to spare for disgusting sweets from the Crieff sweet shop and exotic crispbreads from the House of Bruar, coach-stop destination for thousands of Highlands day trippers.
I irritated my brother while on holiday by singing a version of 'House of the Rising Sun' that went 'There is a house in Blair Atholl, they call the House of Bruar...'.
Feel free to add verses about Johnstone's of Elgin knitwear, quilted jackets at every turn, lemon curd, and Walker's shortbread in collectible tartan tins. Oh yes, and stern German waistcoats in boiled wool, unfeasibly expensive shoes, and a floral blouse section that induces a migraine at a hundred yards.
Somewhere behind the massive faux Scots baronial sheds, there is a rather beautiful waterfall, the Falls of Bruar, which charmed the adventurous Victorians who celebrated it with etchings and delicate watercolours in the days before paint-by-numbers and digital photography.
I wonder what the Falls-fairy thinks of the ever-spreading consumer-cabins that crowd around her toes?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Footprints in the Snow

Deer, dogs, birds and a variety of trainers in the crunchy white snow; the horse hoof prints were carefully picked through the mud ( I don't think they liked walking in snow).
I will post them soon when time permits. I have been having Internet problems, hacked for the second time by that guy in central Russia who has a thing about Yahoo and it customers.
Out of the window I spy a peep of blue sky which I hope is the precursor of Spring. If I hold my breath for long enough, it might stick around...

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Like an Inuit, I now have 52 words for 'snow'.

Dusty Bin

It's amazing what you pick up at the Guitar Weekend.
There was a chap there from Deal in Kent.
'Ah', I said, I went to art college with someone from Deal who was a juggler and who later appeared in Rowntree's Fruit Pastille ads on TV'.
Later, during circle time, came the admission: 'I was the voice of Dusty Bin!'

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


I looked round an amazing wool shop today and imagined knitting socks in every shade of the rainbow, huge jumpers in flecked tweed, thick hats, waistcoats... There was so much choice that I couldn't decide what to buy and left empty-handed, but at leat my imagination got plenty of exercise.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Guitar Weekend

Strum-de-dum... I am learning chords that I never knew existed, and the names of chords that I thought i had made up myself. Wearing guitars like large necklaces, we wander round acknowledging each others' glazed nerd-expressions, talking about fingers, strings and necks, not sure where our bodies end and our guitars begin.
Inside, the hefty sofas absorb city stress and white crockery periodically appears next to coffee urns giving us all a timetable of caffeine regulation to punctuate our classes with Martin, Jim and Brian.
Outside, the gardens are white and the almost-black pines are festooned with snow.
The complex typography of bird-routes peppers the pathways in a spindly conversation between nature and need; the rabbits are below-ground and the fish are below-water. It is only the birds that show signs of life.
What  a lovely thing to do, all year, always: three cheers for the Guitar Weekends!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Face That Launched A Thousand Books

Today I went to the third book launch I've been to this year. It's only March and last year I didn't get invited to any book launches, so this is rather extraordinary to say the least.
This one was held at the 100 Club in Oxford Street and was the launch of Simon Frith (et al)'s  'The History of Live Music in the UK, Volume 1: 1950-1961 (Ashgate). Simon Frithnis an extremely accessible academic writer, probably because he used to be a rock journalist, and has championed research on the live music industry for many years from his eyrie in Edinburgh. This is an expensive book, but it's bound to appear in paperback soon, and I know it will be good.
There was a live jazz band swinging its way through lunchtime and an audience made up of academics, journalists and promoters, many of whom had been interviewed for the book. My PhD supervisor, the author Dave Laing, was there, and Stevie Wonder's tour manager Keith Harris. I talked to a venue promoter from Sheffield and his partner who was the official photographer for the event, and we hovered at the bar eating sandwiches and dropping bits of them on to the floor.
Simon Frith was delighted to stand on the stage at the club, he said, having never had the chance to perform there himself.
I haven't either, which is funny because at one time or another I think I have played at most of the mid-sized live venues in London, which seems an odd thought, sitting as I am watching Midsomer Murders with a cup of tea in my slippers.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Jefferson Airplane/Starship Night

Trees and the Slipway are also playing, and one other act to be confirmed.
Hosted by Acton Bell and me- come dressed as a hippy if you dare!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Animal Head

This is Offsprog Two's 'Hair of the Dog' papier mache head. She had a scary-looking giant pigeon, a goat and a pig too. They wouldn't fit in the car to come home from Leeds; it was stuffed with stuff, but the photographs survive and the goat stares balefully into my room from the landing, its nose reminding me for some unfathomable reason of our deceased  lilac-point Siamese cat, Jemima.
It's brilliant having arty daughters.

Technical Fault

I have just abandoned recording for the day. The fingers are behaving in a way that can only be described as 'sub-sausage' and the computer won't bounce tracks down properly. I have come to regard fret buzz in the way some people regard a houseful of mice, with a combination of fear and fury.
Part of the problem I'm struggling with is that I am trying to record old songs from way back when I used to play different chords and in a different picking style.
On the surface of it, the way I play now is more difficult, but it has become as natural as breathing and the way I used to... breathe has now become fiendishly un-natural.
I can think my way back to the day that I wrote each song and that helps; but my fingers just aren't playing ball today and nor is the computer, which is probably simply too clogged up with Stuff and needs a spring-clean.
On the good side of things I am now back in voice after being wavery and watery for the whole of February. I also know from experience that if I pick up the guitar and try to do this again tomorrow evening it might be as easy as pie.
Engineering and producing solo has its drawbacks; it's slow, difficult to drop in and tempting to start again from the beginning, and the only person there to make tea is you.
So you drink cold cups of tar that you have left the tea bag in too long.
On the other side it can be deeply therapeutic and semi-meditative as you sink deeply into the sound of whatever you are doing; time floats around you... well timelessly, as you listen into the combination of tones, melody, feeling...
I can also sense that part of today's irritation is my own desire to become a better guitarist.
I hugely admire Martin's ability to grab hold of anything and pour music on it with such a relaxed technical style that his playing looks and sounds so easy; I so wish I had more time to practise guitar, to sing, to write songs.
All these thing occur in snatched moments; when I first picked up my guitar again seven years ago, we had a very slow internet collection and I used to practice chord changes as it creaked and grumbled into life.
That half hour in between dropping the youngest daughter at school and leaving for work helped and a bout of 'flu a couple of years ago meant an enforced practice session of several days.
I would stir the spaghtetti sauce with a guitar slung over my shoulders and thirstily drink in anything I heard at gigs, memorising the sounds of chords and running them over and over again in my head on the tube as I travelled home, replicating them on the guitar when I got in.
It is not a torture, it is a challenge and sometimes it beats me (like today).
Oddly, though, the time I progressed most musically was when, as a bass player, I had two weeks off. When I picked up the bass again, it felt like my best friend and I could play as fluidly as anyone. It was as though the bass had decided to stop torturing me and start co-operating.
It's probably time that i gave my guitar a stern talking-to, I think.

Saturday, March 16, 2013


Offsprog Two and I have spent a substantial part of the day scrubbing a lunar landscape of slimy black and grey mould from the walls of her room, and bundling stuff up in bags to take to the laundrette. The room looks a lot better, but how long for?
The rags we cleaned with are wrung out, the bucket tidied away, and I'm home after a detour to catch up with Sally, who used to mix our live sound and who was just as much a Horn as the Horns themselves. We did a lot of touring together and Sally did most of the driving too. She was and is amazing; one of her claims to fame is telling Billy Bragg that it'd never work: he needed a band. She said today that later on when he became successful he had sent her a no-hard-feelings type postcard.
Sally managed to be funny and sane at the same time and was usually the only person on the little tour bus who was the latter.
What a strange life it was, driving up and down motorways, unpacking the van, blowing horns and singing at people and then getting back in the van and driving off again.

Friday, March 15, 2013


I haven't been posting as regularly as normal after spending the whole of February in bed with a virus, getting out for a gig and the occasional lecture and tutorial before heading back there to sleep for hours. When you get better from these things there is always half a ton of stuff to catch up on and a new sea of post-it notes has appeared on the table, some crumpled from lengthy stays in pockets.
We did a song-writing workshop at the University of the East yesterday and wrote a lovely song about a notebook that turned out to be a metaphor for someone's life. Looking at the sea of post-it notes, I can see how this works.
We sang in unison in a little enclave of creativity, walled in by pianos and drum kits and stacks of utility chairs, processing life's tensions and upsets and making something beautiful out of them.
No matter how disappointing everyday concerns can be, it is worth remembering just how powerful the  imagination can be when it's articulated by a little group of people playing musical instruments and singing.
Long live songs!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

It's Hellish for Hellebores

I felt so sorry for them, curled up against the cold wind on the windowsill.
I will have to ask them to leave the bathroom sink later but for now they can stay there.
The bathroom is freezing but not as cold as it is outside. It's almost as windy in here too (the draughts are so strong that one of the internal doors keeps blowing open and I had to sit wrapped in a blanket this morning).
Did you know that snowdrops have a similar chemical in them to anti-freeze?

Monday, March 11, 2013

In Which Moths Eat The Outside Of One Hat And The Inside Of Another

During the last cold snap. I bundled up all of my clothes and left them in bin bags in the cold, dry air at the end of the yard for a week at sub-zero temperatures to kill any moth eggs and larvae that might have taken hold of them since last summer.
I forgot two of my hats, which were nestled one on top of the other, and this is what I found yesterday: a hat wriggling and teeming with adult moths who in a matter of four weeks had reduced the hats to dirty, fluffy hat-rubble.
The top hat (not the Top Hat) had been decimated inside; and this, the underneath hat, which was the pride and joy of my 1980s years and which once belonged to a Louisiana Mounted Policeman (and which I bought because it reminded me of a vintage Girl Guide hat), was ruined.
Out for a walk in the bitter northerly wind today, I imagined a fast-forward-type event in which moths ate clothing so quickly that people going about their everyday business suddenly found themselves shopping, perhaps, in nothing but the Emperor's New Clothes. Makes yer think, innit?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Book Launch at The Bishopsgate Institute

The flow of life meanders in different directions.
Sometimes it's all lecturing, sometimes illustration, sometimes music, and most recently, it's been bookish in direction.
Hilda Kean, one of the editors of The Public History Reader (published by Routledge, and alongside co-editor Paul Martin) invited me to the launch of the book on Saturday at the Bishopsgate Institute.
The iPhone Satnav got me hopelessly lost with a curved and twisted green direction line that looked more like a letter of the alphabet than a route indicator; once I'd decided to defy it I got to this wonderful building that snuggles between two premises in the middle of the City of London and which must make the city itch as though from a flea-bite, being as it is the home to much old fashioned (and refreshing in these times) left-wing activity.
Hilda's talk had started by the time I got there but she was showing a lovely little clip of a man who took ANC leaflets to South Africa in a false-bottomed suitcase. I couldn't find the original film but he made a second clip which you can find here
Apparently a museum in South Africa contacted him as he had the only suitcase like this in existence, and he has sent it over to them now (and no longer has a home for his Christmas decorations).
People there had done all sorts of research, from talking to sugar plantation workers to researching Hogarth's London.
The photographer Colin O'Brien was there too and he talked about the cover photograph of two young London lads leaning up against a car as though it's their own. His website is

It was a white day outside- forbidding and cold- and there was something very peaceful about sitting on folding chairs in a bright basement listening to academics talking about the value of public histories, carving out a Gove-free area that values the ordinary as much as anything else. The City was filthy, grimy and covered with litter. It was also very, very crowded, but I managed to snap this corner arcade and the Victorian doors inside the institute.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Riot Grrrl Conference at the University of Limerick in April

International Women's Day

Women: there are different ways of looking at us- are we a problem with problems, or are we people with needs, rights and plenty to offer the human race?
Anyone who researches issues from a female perspective (whether they are male or female) has to think about these things.
Sometimes you feel negative and sometimes, positive.
I wrote Women of the World in a very positive moment and one day it will be properly completed (I've booked the trumpet player and bass player; still not contacted the drummer and lead guitarist).
You can listen here and download it free if you like it

Illustrations on Tumblr

I have uploaded a whole lot of drawings to Tumblr

Thursday, March 07, 2013

...and I mustn't forget Poor Lass

... a zine from Manchester which I bought and read. Take a look here

'It's Different for Girls'

Many thanks to Richard Cundill for sending me this book (and apologies for the poor photograph: I tend to do blog postings on the fly and I'm visiting students on work placements at the moment, all over London, so everything is double-quick).
It looks to be a fascinating history of the group, told by two of its members, and after I've read it I'll let you know more about it. The more histories like this that make it into print the better.
I'm reading The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest (edited by Ian Peddie) before I can get my teeth into "It's Different for Girls" because I'm lecturing on censorship next week.
I have just had an idea for a children's book too, after talking to Wilky on Monday evening. How I wish I had more time to do creative stuff!
Tomorrow is set aside for recording; I have built up a stock of guitar tracks and I plan to record a brand new song tomorrow.
Then I have to learn Volunteers by Jefferson Airplane, for the Jefferson Airplane/Starship night I'm hosting with Acton Bell in April. It will be a fab night!

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Rrrants at the Camden Head

Rrrants events happen in the smallest rooms above pubs in Camden, which gives them an exciting secret vibe and for the performers, an intimacy that makes you feel at one with the audience. This could be terrifying anywhere larger, but it actually makes for a refreshing feeling of authenticity and spontaneity in the London live music scene.
The first act was a three-piece close harmony group, missing the top piece but still beautiful singers. Their a capella style was fortiesish, but they did a cover of Amy Winehouse's Rehab that was very effective. I can't remember their name and I've checked on their poster- I'll find out because they really were very good. It was lovely to hear mature-sounding female voices that weren't desperately reaching for gospel or Britney; their performance was self-assured and I love the way they melted out of the audience on to the stage: Bravo!
 After that was a succession of poets (including the Anti Poet who host the show, and who performed their Gentlemen Duellers sketch, my fave, especially because I originally misheard it as Gentleman Jewellers and couldn't understand why there were no diamonds and emeralds in the dialogue). I liked Keith Jarrett's poem about the gay poem (yes, he did).
After a short break, the Caution Horses crammed the stage to overflowing and played their good-natured harmony pop. They nod in the direction of the Byrds and they play with a lovely gentle flow that Matthew's Southern Comfort could learn a lot from (I went to see them a while back and left in disappointment after Matthew's rant about pedal steel guitars and how he hated them; such a pity because the music had been great up till then).
Martin and I took to the stage. We started with Sunny and Blue, then Martin played Stansted Ground and I did Mr and Mrs Songsmith. Most of the songs were from Hamilton Square and Cafe of Tiny Kindnesses although we did the Cannonball Rag and The Airship Song. Martin had never played The Cafe of Tiny Kindnesses live before and he 'sang it lovely'!
 We have never played a gig billed as a duo and this was a good place to start. There was the odd stumble and fumble here and there but the audience was on our side and that helped.
Big thanks to Paul and Donna for inviting us to play!
We understand that they made a lot of money for the Bardaid Project that puts poetry books into schools that night. It was an honour to play.
Shouts to Wilky and Karen (and her mates) and everyone who came along to support us!

Monday, March 04, 2013


I'm not used to rehearsing songs that other people have written! More rehearsal today. It's the B minors that get me, but that's in my song.
Been sniffing Friar's Balsam to retrieve my voice- might have to ask Martin to take over the lead vocal of Steal You Away.
Rrrants, Camden Head, tonight at 9. Donations to charity that puts poetry books into secondary schools. AntiPoet and others also performing.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Mind Not On Job

Lyrics propped precariously on biscuit jar, pop shield held in front of mouth like Japanese fan, microphone in other hand. Get up and forget headphones on.
Biscuit jar crashes to floor; crashing sound comes through headphones with Logic Goldverb reverb added to it.
Mind not on job.

How Silly

I have set off the washing machine and I was going to record some vocals this morning at the kitchen table studio.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Ukelele Song: Baked Alaska

Funny... a friend noticed my pretend sheet music for the song and I'm recording the ukelele song Baked Alaska for him. I played the uke part on to my iPhone and put it into Logic and tomorrow I'll do the vocals (still a bit hoarse after the 'flu) then upload it to Soundcloud with the sheet music, which is really an illustration. I wrote the song in a fit of inspiration after seeing the fabulous Gluts (Gina Birch, Hayley Newman and Kaffe Matthews) do an open rehearsal and they very kindly learned the song so I could play it with them at Cafe Oto a while ago.
See here

Bedsit Disco Queen by Tracey Thorn

I have just finished reading Tracey Thorn's autobiography, Bedsit Disco Queen. Gina Birch lent it to me yesterday so it shows what a cracking good read it is.
There are all sorts of episodes that chime a chord- the violence in Hatfield, where the skinheads were notorious for wrecking gigs. I remember the Piranhas coming back and telling us about that. People forget just how violent young people could be in the past- and there's something of a pattern in unemployed young people + Conservative governments= violence. And I really enjoyed the description of the obnoxious Eric Heffer dominating the judging process of the doomed 'Song for Labour' competition.
It describes just how weird a life controlled by the music industry can be (and it surely is). It is perceptive, alarming and funny at the same time, and pulls the same sleight-of-hand that Abba-the Movie did; you're putting on the kettle and slicing up the raspberry cake, and then you suddenly realise that you don't really know anything about them at all. No secrets are spilled, no emotions laid bare.
On the other hand, the ambivalence about fame and its trappings feel very familiar to me.
I was hundreds of rungs further down the ladder (and strangely, just as with Martin and The Daintees, in spite of charging up and down the UK at the same time and playing similar venues, never played on the same bill), but felt that same introvert/extrovert thing and understand it.
She describes the feeling of playing at the Albert Hall, and then a few pages later, feelings of crippling shyness.
I enjoyed her performance on Later...with Jools and will check out her latest music. I have the single Night and Day which was given to me by Mike Alway alongside lots of other Cherry Red releases at the time. I played it a lot: it's lovely. But I never really got into their albums back then so maybe it's about time I did.
Why didn't I interview the Marine Girls for the Lost Women of Rock Music? I almost did, but they didn't cross over the noise threshold. I am glad Tracey has written this memoir because it adds to the interesting and perceptive body of work about and by female musicians.