Saturday, December 31, 2022
Friday, December 30, 2022
Rest in Rumpus, Vivienne! Number one at converting anger into creative output. Bugger Twitter, knit a jumper and wear it to a noisy march!
Inspiration to so many, including these women I think: https://domesticdusters.wordpress.com
Thursday, December 29, 2022
Yesterday was my birthday, and this year we decided to go to Brighton and paint plates. It was blustery beyond bluster: we had three umbrellas when we got there and only one survived the tempestuous weather.
Before lunch in a popular Mexican-inspired restaurant staffed by astonishingly passive-aggressive staff worth a sitcom of their own, we dropped in at the museum and looked that their small but perfectly-formed collection of ceramics for inspiration. I remember going there when I was an art student with my friend Judy Littman, who later became a successful fashion designer: we used to sketch the stuffed animals, which have now been moved to another site to glare at each other ruefully through glass eyes. Apparently the museum has been a refuge for later generations of art students too!
Painting plates was peaceful, with the storm raging outside. Painting ready-formed pottery with glazes is a mysterious activity because until the pottery is fired, you have no idea what colour you're going to end up with, or even what intensity that colour will be. We'll know in a week's time when we pick them up! The helpers were very amenable, and there was a nice atmosphere there despite the two women behind us who were having a display-conversation about their wonderful lives, and how everyone else fitted around them. It was a bit like having a radio play going on in the background, the second time in one day when life had a rather surreal quality about it. It was hard not to join in; when your head is in that drawing and painting zone (and music zone actually), you forget where you are sometimes. Dreamy.
The third surreal episode was when we couldn't find the door of the restaurant that we'd booked to go for dinner. Up and down the stairs to the beach, round the building... by then we were extremely wet and cold, but as soon as we were inside we hit an oasis of calm and wonderful food, some of the best I've tasted for years. Then I was given my birthday present- a trip to see Abba Voyage. I was gobsmacked! What a lovely surprise!
We even managed a walk along the seafront this morning. The weather (who, me?) was calm and even borderline sunny. We went into shops and looked at clothes and did lazy girl things like that, and then got the train home before we started squabbling. Well, almost.
Tuesday, December 27, 2022
I don't think people really believe that their dogs spend the entire time barking when they go out and leave them. Once, it was the people to the left of me who had a Springer Spaniel that barked and howled from the second they left it to the second they got back. It used to attack their letterbox, it was so desperate. I told them about it: surely their could hear it from the end of the street when they got back from work?
'Your dog barks all day'.
'No, it doesn't'.
Tempting as it was to call the RSPCA, I was mindful of the fact that the husband was very tall and very violent. That's why people don't report things, you know. Eventually they moved away, thank Dog.
Currently, I'm listening to the dog to the right of me, a yappy little Terrier who spends a lot of time outside in their back yard, desperately yapping to be let in. It's barking at a rate of roughly twenty BPMs (barks per minute), and I can tell the shape of their internal rooms by the reverberation. Given that these walls are four bricks thick, it must have a very loud bark for a very small dog.
I'm a barklistener. I can hire myself out to listen to your dogs' desperate barking for a huge fee!
A Christmas Rest
The night before I'd been to the Carol Service at the local church, which I've done every year since I've been here. It's almost like a meditation, a measure of the year before and the year to come. Alas, Rees-Moggism has invaded the church, and we were treated to a reading about the creation. I think not, St John's Church. I suppose that's one way of weeding out sinners who only attend churches at Christmas! I don't understand why people pick out the hate speech elements of religion to focus on, rather than the compassion and empathy parts. All of that wonderful singing by the choir, swirling into the rafters of the church and beyond, pinned to earth by a mortal agenda that sails rather too close to misogyny for comfort. Brrr!
I spent yesterday finishing books I'd been reading. One was a new crime thriller which was unputdownable until about three quarters of the way through, and then I think the author music have ingested a tab of acid. I'd been wondering how they were going to resolve the story, which was getting more and more complex. That book had to be abandoned, something I rarely do, and so I returned to Sasha Swire's memoir, Diary of an MP's Wife. It's not exactly gripping, but it's been interesting to read viewpoints from the sidelines of politics written by a very privileged woman who is quite politically informed, but also lacking in empathy. David Cameron landing on their lawn in a helicopter for his birthday doesn't make her blink an eyelid, and she doesn't think (beyond calling Jeremy Corbyn a Marxist) why there should be any appeal to the electorate of a left wing agenda. She quickly drops her former friend Amber Rudd because Rudd is a Remainer. I was curious to read the book and I'm glad I have; the subtext of nastiness threads throughout it. Both Cameron and Osborne drop her and her husband as soon as they can. The whole shebang is really about toadying and bullying, which I know happens in politics, and I'm glad I never followed that route despite being very tempted when I was young.
I have one or two amendments to do to the illustrations that I've just completed, and then I will prepare for the next episode, which I'm really looking forward to: portrait artist in residence for the Earls' Court Development Company. I have had so many ideas that it's been like holding back a thundering team of horses and I'v head to rein things in a bit. I'm going to keep a diary of what I do so that I can evaluate how it's going.
Saturday, December 24, 2022
Dolly Parton's Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol
Dolly Parton was a lifesaver for a member of my family a few months ago, so it was only logical that we should go along to the Queen Elizabeth Hall to see this very Christmassy and surprisingly un-camp version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
Oh so very apt for these times of Scrooges-in-government who can't see beyond the money signs in their eyes, it is a natural affinity for Dolly to have reworked this story, taking us back to Tennessee in the 1930s when protesting miners were simply shot and killed when they went on strike.
Hindered slightly at first by their fake Tennessee accents, the cast were exceptional singers and belted out Dolly's signature-style songs with aplomb. She is the absolute mistress of catchy songs. My favourite was Appalachian Snow, but the audience were singing a variety of the others after the show as they left the theatre. There was a live band who sat in the shadows on stage before occasionally joining the actors, with an absolutely exceptional fiddle player who took on quite a major role towards the end of the story. The re-working of the story worked very well, because it highlighted the appalling inequality that we really should have grown out of as a world society by now.
The audience was captivated. We clapped along to the songs and the emotional hit at the end, although expected, was surprisingly intense.
Good on you Dolly. What an inspiration she is: she is relentless in her campaigning for progressive thought and social change. That's what Christmas should be about, innit.
Thursday, December 22, 2022
Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty at Sadler's Wells
After missing a year due to ill health in the family, we relished this opportunity to return to Sadler's Wells this year to see Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty.
Bourne's dancers are wonderful; sometimes there are shortcomings in the narratives of the ballets themselves, but his success rate is so high it's always worth a punt.
It's always a bit disappointing when there's no live orchestra, and the recorded music was a bit loud at the beginning and a bit muffled in a later section, but that all paled into insignificance one the ballet started. The star of the earliest part was the puppet baby, a hilarious scamp that climbed the gold drapes and ran rings around the courtiers. Later in this section, we witnessed some fabulous dancing from the fairies, or vampires perhaps, who performed little cameos that demonstrated their gymnastic flexibility and poise. Then two creepy dancers with obscured facial features, males and female, joined the crew, prophetic of the darker turn that the story was to take later on. But first we were introduced to the suitor, the gardener, and his crush on the young princess.
At her coming-of-age party, she flirted outrageously with all the men, including the son of the Bad Fairy who had cursed her at birth. In drag, her reappearance as her own son was one of many sly little jokes in the ballet.
The thread all the way through was the heroine, Princess Aurora. Ashley Shaw's dancing was fresh, joyous and incredibly supple. I've read a couple of reviews of this version of the ballet, a really positive one in the Guardian, and a really negative one in The Spectator. I have to say that the guy from the Spectator must have been at an entirely different ballet. He criticised the 'jerky' (I think) movements of the dancers, where they are actually the most fluid troupe of dancers I've ever seen. Ashley Shaw was incredible, seeming to float weightlessly not only when dancing but also in contact with the floor of the stage, when she rose and fell from the challenging positions that the choreography demanded. I can say that quite honestly, this applied to all of the dancers. She was by far the most accomplished, full of infectious joy, but saying that puts her into stellar orbit. It's one of the features of all of Bourne's ballets that the dancers appear to be completely weightless. They must rehearse endlessly to do this; I've become an armchair critic of dancer interactions after becoming overly fond of the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing. There's a lot of charming clumsiness on that show. In contrast, to see the way the groups of dancers flowed and ebbed in this ballet was akin to someone blowing a pile of feathers and them floating gently in the air before settling quietly on the ground. I looked at their legs and feet: often black-clad, they were like spider legs, appearing to move slowly even when they were moving very swiftly.
And there was a vampire too, imparting eternal life on the hapless suitor outside the padlocked palace gates as he searched for the sleeping princess. The Bad Fairy's son was patrolling his hellish nightclub preparing to marry the reluctant princess when a last-minute rescue ensued, ending in a saucy bed scene that resulted in a vampire puppet baby. Awww!
What an entertaining night, not just in terms of Bourne's gothic revision of the story, but also in presenting inspiring dancing which can only be described as utterly lovely.
A cathartic performance, for sure.
Singing Christmas Carols at St Bartholomew's
St Bartholomew's is a very old church just across from Smithfield Market, which although it has ceased trading still smells strongly of raw meat. No such smell in the church, thankfully. My Champagne Friend had found this lovely carol service, after I discovered it was too late for us to go to Southwark Cathedral. No room at the inn there.
This was an American Carol service with unfamiliar melodies to familiar carols, and some truly beautiful choral arrangements sung by a choir with perfect pitch and such a skill for blending their vocal tones that it triggered a synaesthetic response and I imagined wood, and celery, and all sort of things. In one arrangement, a (presumably) assistance dog was moved to bark a couple of times. It was the tenor wot did it. The congregation smiled as one.
The readings were interesting too: lots of appropriate poetry rather than bible readings, all short and sweet and remarkably spiritual. There was almost a bohemian feel to the service, although the congregation seemed fairly straight. We finished off with the usual tunes to O Come All Ye Faithful and Hark the Herald Angels Sing. The familiar Christmas vocal strainers!
It was a unique and warm-hearted variation on the Christmas Carol Service theme. the boiler had broken, we were told, but woolly hats did the trick and warm hearts completed the vibe.
What a charming discovery!
Here's the church: https://www.nationalchurchestrust.org/church/st-bartholomew-great-smithfield
Tuesday, December 20, 2022
Terry Hall was a complete inspiration to me from the second I heard The Specials live in Brighton at The Kingswest complex, onwards.
I remember being thrilled once to see him walking out of Selfridges on London, tall and magnificent, his hair sprouting triffid-like from his head, doleful eyes lined in bright green eyeliner. What a dude.
About 18 months ago before I left my job, I was playing protest songs to a group of students who were difficult to get through to post pandemic. One of the songs was Ghost Town. They fell silent afterwards, and gradually turned to me. 'What was that? Who are they?', they asked. I told them about Two-Tone, and how well it had worked alongside Rock Against Racism, to change the toxic narrative that was bubbling up after Enoch Powell's rivers of blood speech. If you read the obituaries, you'll see how he was determined to put a different model of band together, because he simply thought racism simply wasn't fair. Brave of him and his mates. Our destiny as a generation was literally changed by pop music.
Terry Hall was a really important part of that. His vocal delivery was part of the message: I often used him as an example of a vocalist who didn't 'sing': he vocalised an emotion through lyrics rather than trying to make an aesthetic statement. I loved The Fun Boy Three too. Imagine making all that music out of such a childhood lacking in opportunity. Punk did that for people too.
Much more than David Bowie or Prince, he felt like a fellow traveller. It feels sad today.
Monday, December 19, 2022
I Got Home
I am just so pleased to have done the gig in Glasgow. Apologies to my pals for stressing them so much with my 'progress reports'. It was actually really heartwarming to see people and catch up with them, and of course to play the show.
I want to draw, but I'm too tired even for that. I managed to go to the shops, and also do the pile of washing that I brought back. It was so cold in the Youth Hostel where I stayed in Newcastle that I slept in my clothes. I remembered that the best places to eat and drink are Art Gallery cafés and not restaurants, unless it's Blakes in Newcastle. Shame on you Zizzi and Cote, and hats off, actually, to the shop Fenwick's in Newcastle (I'd do anything to get the recipe for the broccoli with... roasted hazelnuts? I don't know, but it was lovely), and hats off to the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland and the Fruitmarket Gallery. Boo to the curry restaurant that tried to bribe me to do a good review on Tripadvisor with a pen and two chocolates. Ring-a-ding-ding to Marks and Spencer's blueberries, and to Till for his amazing salad.
Ah, home. Draughty, small, cluttered, a bit gloomy. Guitar store and archive of many drawings; tins of black beans in the cupboard, piles of unread books. Moth holes galore, indoor plants putting on growth spurts at unlikely moments. The sound of traffic speeding past my front door, whooshing in the rain.
No Christmas decorations this year, and no cards either; the postal strike has meant no letters for three weeks so far. But there is a big Lindt chocolate Santa in the drawer. At least, nine tenths of one. Or seven eighths. Or three quarters... or a half.... or......
Friday, December 16, 2022
The Glad Café
This is nicked from my own Facebook page. I still can't believe that I got there! It was a wonderful night- big thanks to the Glad Café, to Howie and to the people who came out to see the gig. You were just great! This was my journey. I'm whacked out today, resting in Edinburgh and hoping to get home on Sunday. It was so worth the journey, though.
And thank you Kenji and Till for your kind hospitality too xxx
'Experience sent me to Newcastle Central Station two hours earlier than my scheduled train. Sure enough, it was cancelled and I got on an earlier one. Twenty miles south of Edinburgh we were told that the power lines had become damaged, and we were going back to Berwick and from there, to London King’s Cross.Then they told us that they'd make a stop at Dunbar, so people going to Edinburgh could catch a bus into town. Well of course the entire train decided to do that, and the queue for the single decker service was massive.
I already knew buses won’t take guitars, so returned to the station where the ticket guy was busy telling a group of tourists that they had got off the train voluntarily so they wouldn't help them.
Wednesday, December 14, 2022
Tuesday, December 13, 2022
I'll play this on Thursday evening in Glasgow, although not with the Horns!
Tickets here: https://www.wegottickets.com/event/560486
Monday, December 12, 2022
Ho ho ho!
So complicated: though I extended the journey either end of the strikes (Go RMT! I support you all!), I discovered that Avanti had helped themselves to another day at the end, thinking perhaps that the public might not notice because we are all so stupid. So I'm travelling over to Edinburgh next weekend to get a train back, and I thought everything was done and dusted until it started snowing last night! More than dusted with snow where I live up high in the suburban sky and sure enough, the tube services were suspended.
This meant a very much earlier start that I'd intended and a long lumpy bus journey, ventilated by the sighs of elders, and their mantra, 'It's ridiculous!'.
All the trains from King's Cross Station were either leaving late or cancelled. I'd had an email that my train was due to leave earlier than scheduled, but the train before that train was late, and the one before that hadn't even arrived. I heard an announcement for an Edinburgh train and belted along to the different platform, only to hear an on-train announcement that LNER passengers (or 'customers', if we use Thatcherese), would be charged extra. So I got off it again, looked more closely at my ticket and found that actually I was one of their customers.
But... travelling at the wrong time: the email had been about the cancelled train on a strike day, very possibly a ploy by LNER to avoid a refund. I was worried that the ticket inspector might insist on a fine but I also assumed correctly that he'd either ignore the mistake or not notice it. Once the train left the station, I could relax because the next stop was Newcastle, and here I am.
Naturally, I couldn't find the place where I'm staying at first, but I did find a bakers that sold genuine cinnamon buns. Three cheers for the Pink Lane Bakery! Here they are: https://www.pinklanebakery.com/shop/Cinnamon-Buns-p272615886
Despite the fact that I've just choked on my tea, I'm very happy to have got this far.
In my head: to get from A-Z, you have to get from A-B first.
Concentrate on that, and you should be OK!
Sunday, December 11, 2022
Link for Hello Goodbye Show
Saturday's show with Dexter Bentley, so cold and yet so warm. Four songs played live in the very chilly, and very sunny, studio, an interview with the genial host Dexter Bentley, and a track from my new album, followed by Montague Armstrong, also live.
Engineered by Julian assisted by Mia.
A little bubble of live music in a big frozen grey city!
Listen here: https://hellogoodbyeshow.com/2022/12/11/podnplay-10-12-22-ft-helen-mccookerybook-montague-armstrong/
Icy Day, I Icy Say!
Do come along on Thursday to The Glad Café!
I can't believe the twists and turns I'll be taking to get there, around strike days (I support you!) and intransigent rail companies who want to fleece the public to fill the offshore pockets of their shareholders.
Here's the ticket link: https://www.wegottickets.com/event/560486
Friday, December 09, 2022
That's Dedication for You
I support the striking workers, and I'm travelling around the strikes... so that's a week's round trip via Newcastle and Edinburgh for the last gig of my live shows year, on the 15th of December at the lovely Glad Café in Glasgow.
It's going to be snowing that day, too! Put your woollies on and come down early for a chat before the gig, doors open 7.30.
Howie is brilliant- we did three gigs together earlier in the year and I'm looking forward to seeing him play again. I'll throw in a bit of back catalogue Chefs and Helen and the Horns too, if you're up for that.
Great food, great music: what else could you ask for?
Tickets here and also on the door. Doors open 7.30, music starts 8.00 and finishes just after 10.
From January to March next year, I'll be taking up a post as portrait-artist-in-residence for the Earl's Court Development Company. This is going to be my studio, sunny, light (and empty so far) in the community centre.
I am so looking forward to it and the timing is perfect, because I've literally just finished the final drafts of the illustrations that I've been doing for the last three months for the Welsh/English children's book on sustainable clothing.
My head is buzzing with excitement and ideas....
Monday, December 05, 2022
Too tired to write about it today but it was such a jewel of an event, and everything round it was warm-hearted too. Here's some photos: part of Charlie Tipper's Christmas Stocking (;), Andy Strickland in the distance, The Lovely Basement, and me, but not necessarily in that order!
Here we go!
I was so delighted when Katie invited me back to Bristol to play one of The Lovely Basement's events again. The last one was in a different part of Bristol (I think) and was just as unusual. At the Knowle Constitutional Club (a repurposed Conservative Club, ho ho!), the afternoon had started with a series of poets, apparently very good ones, but I missed them because I was in transit. I did get there in time for a very charming set from the Reverend John Kincaid, followed by Andy Strickland, one-time writer for the Record Mirror (he reminded me that he'd interviewed me back in the day) who demonstrated the 'key for the magic chord cupboard' (copyright Kevin Hewick) style of guitar playing and songwriting, complete with a spot-the-Minnie-Ripperton interlude. Andy plays with The Chesterfields, who are now, of course, on my wish-list to see. The Lovely Basement also put in a fine set, with perfect interplay between Katie and Kevin's talking guitars. Katie has a lovely voice, low and sweet and really true to pitch. I always really enjoy their sets, and although the sound set-up was very simple, you could hear everything as clearly as a Christmas bell. Next up was Charlie Tipper's Christmas Experience, presenting us with their wall of songalicious sound. Thoroughly enjoyable, and very difficult to follow! Their songs just get better and better. I was lucky that the football was on and I played mainly to the bands, which mean that I knew I could coerce them into singing along to not only The Sea but also At The Bathing Pond.
The whole thing was done and dusted by seven p.m. which meant we could repair back to Katie and Kevin's, where they had made a truly delicious Chilli and we talked band talk deep into the night. What an inspiring project, to take on and revitalise an expiring and tattered club, rebuilding it from the ground up, with music as its foundations. Aren't people strong, and aren't the government weak? Oh Bristol bands, I love you!
Looking forward to seeing The Reverend John Kinkaid's Assassination of John Kennedy Zine next year, too.
Sunday, December 04, 2022
Dexter Bentley HelloGoodbye Show
Thanks to Dexter Bentley for playing Amazonia on his Resonancefm show yesterday.
Listen in next Saturday lunchtime for my live session on the show, and listen back to yesterday's show here:
Friday, December 02, 2022
Talking About Art And Music...
... at The Ritzy, Brixton, tomorrow at 3 p.m.
Tickets here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/blank-canvas-book-launch-tickets-473834089517?fbclid=IwAR1v8fdrUC8d0402uEzmLx4b67nIVdOPQcipu_M-nIU69b20WKh-QFEEdAE
Thursday, December 01, 2022
Christmas Pea Soup
Available from tomorrow, Bandcamp Friday. Limited edition 7" vinyl miniature album, high quality pressing on black vinyl, with individually painted (random colours) hand-stamped sleeve. Each one different random selection,. Not many of this release left.