Drop the O’, You Don’t Want Enquiries – a Story of Irish Migration

Drop the O’, You Don’t Want Enquiries – a Story of Irish Migration

In 1844, just before the Great Famine hit Ireland, my Irish forebears left for London.  All I ever really knew was that, on arrival, the 5 year old Cathy, my great grandmother, asked “Is that the same moon as we have in Ireland?”… a story that was passed down over the years.  Since then I have discovered just what it took to make a new life in London.  This latest album is an 11 song cycle retelling their story.  If they hadn’t made it, there wouldn’t be a me.  Each track starts with a short narrative before the song takes hold.

Moving In

The first 3 songs set the stage:  Drop the O’ reminds us that the Irish weren’t popular, even though they virtually built Victorian London – so to help integration the O’Briens became Bryans and the O’Neilles, Neals.  As the song says, it isn’t easy being green especially when you’re Irish.  In Wherever the Moon Is (my favourite song on the album) Cathy asks her father the big question and like many children’s difficult but simple questions, each answer begs another, as her father seeks to reassure Cathy.  The image here is a contemporary painting of the very street they lived in, Lincoln’s Court, later to be replaced by the Peabody Buildings.   And in Rookery Rock we are reminded that their new home was the worst area of Dickensian London, close to the St Giles Rookery, often called Little Dublin or a variation thereof.  And I tell the story of their near-neighbour Ellen Donovan who lost her life trying to save children in the overcrowded firetrap where they lived, Lincoln Court.  Ellen is commemorated in a plaque in Postman’s Park, Little Britain, near St Paul’s Cathedral, which honours the people’s heroes of the time.

Settling In

The next three songs see my great grandparents, Cathy O’Neill and Charles O’Brien meeting, marrying, and starting a family – opening with the saddest song, Cathy Met Charlie. My father told me his father was one of four children, along with his two sisters and a brother.  Actually there were twelve, but eight died either within a week of birth or didn’t make it beyond five years old.  The font where they were christened is still there and is in the video.  But Charlie got himself a job as a street seller of fruit and vegetables – they did live close to Covent Garden after all – as I sing in The Costermonger’s Song. And the next song celebrates the work of the Irish labourer (Cathy’s father, a linen weaver in Ireland, may have been one of them) as they built Victorian London, in Building Boomers.

Was It Worth It?

But it clearly was really tough.  I was stunned when I found in a book the drawings of the firegrates of the very houses my family lived in: the old Georgian houses, No’s 6 and 7 Wild Court, grand in their day – and the only houses in the terrace for which any detail was recorded.  These houses were very crowded, and were demolished in the early 1880s.  The street, Wild Court, is still there, running West off Kingsway, Holborn.  Just as amazing was discovering that this Georgian terrace was recorded for posterity by an artist, complete with costermongers’ carts, before it was demolished – see painting above.  It made me think what Charlie and Cathy may have thought, looking at those firegrates, as they tried to Make It Worth It.

New Job, Two Weddings and a New Home

But make it they did.  Step One, in Hold the Front Page, was for Charlie and Cathy’s son Charlie, my grandfather, to get work in Fleet Street, as a compositor at the Pall Mall Gazette (now part of the Evening Standard).  Step Two, in At the Double, was to marry Londoners, which they did in a double marriage when Charlie and his sister Ellen O’Brien married the sister and brother Louisa and Tom Banan … a family from Sussex and possibly from Huguenot weaver families.  And Step Three, to get a better home, in the new Victorian garden city of Noel Park in Wood Green, where my father was born and where the ageing Cathy reflects on their lives in Come Into the Garden.

A Story For All Our Times

And I wrap it all up in Old Times, Modern Times, just a reminder that this is not an old story, it is a story of every age.  Listen out for little Cathy having the final word as the credits fade………….

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Hotel May Theresa: The Answer to Two Great Unanswered Questions of My Life

Hotel May Theresa: The Answer to Two Great Unanswered Questions of My Life

Great Unanswered Question 1: how will Brexit turnout?

Great Unanswered Question 2: What is the Eagles song Hotel California all about?

I’ve cracked the code:  Just read these lyrics, to the tune if you remember it……….. the bold words are all that I have had to change for it all to make sense!! I’ve posted someone else’s Youtube version of the original with original lyrics at the end. Enjoy!!  Welcome to the Hotel May Theresa!!

On a dark Dover highway, hands running through my hair

Warm smell of fajitas, coming from God knows where

Up ahead in the distance, I saw a red tail light

The lorries lined up, nowhere to go

I had to stop for the night

 

There she stood in the doorway

Heard the Division bell

And I was thinking to myself

‘This isn’t heaven, looks like Hell’

Then she lit up a candle, promised she knew the way

There were voices down the corridor

I thought I heard them say

 

Welcome to the Hotel May Theresa

Keep a straight face (keep a straight face)

I know it’s a waste

Doom and gloom at the Hotel May Theresa

Any time of year (any time of year) nothing to fear

 

Her mind you know it’s not twisted, won’t drive a Mercedes Benz

She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys, that she calls friends

How they dance in the Commons, Brexiters don’t sweat

Some dance the Remainer, some dance to forget

 

So I called up the Juncker

“Please listen this time”

He said “we haven’t heard that one before at least since half past nine”

And still those voices are calling from far away

Wake you up in the middle of the night

Just to hear them say

 

Welcome to the Hotel May Theresa

Keep a straight face (keep a straight face)

I know it’s a waste

Livin’ it up at the Hotel May Theresa

How the time flies (how the time flies), no more alibis

 

Mirrors on the ceiling,

Mogg champagne on ice

And she said, ‘we are all just prisoners here, of our own device”

And in Disaster’s chambers,

They gathered for the feast

Underneath the Speaker’s eyes,

But they just can’t kill the beast

 

Last thing I remember, I was

Running for the door

I had to find the passage back to the place I was before

‘Relax’ said the Euroman,

‘We are programmed to receive.

You can check out any time you like,

But you can never leave!’

 

with full acknowledgment to The Eagles and Hotel California

Now you know what the song was about!!  I did warn you before the referendum – see my blog of 7th June 2016, Check out time? Think again. Vote Remain, complete with The Eagles’s great punchline.  I stand by every word I wrote then.

Richard Rhys O’Brien

 

Women’s Boat Race 1927 Eye witness report

Women’s Boat Race 1927 Eye witness report

On March 15th 1927, 91 years ago, the first women’s boat race between Oxford and Cambridge took place on the Isis at Oxford.  It was Boats for Women as well as Votes for Women.  Margaret Teify Rhys, my aunt, known as Tiffy, coxed the Cambridge eight and in a forthright interview in March 1989 recalled the controversies and the highs and the lows of that time. On this first occasion Cambridge was represented by the the Newnham College boat, before other women’s colleges had begun rowing.  The interview by Alana Martin was broadcast on BBC Woman’s Hour to mark the first time that both men’s boats were coxed by a woman.

You won’t be surprised eyebrows were raised at the idea of women taking part at all.  You may have heard about the mismanagement and mix up over the rules.  They tried to keep it quiet, racing at 1.15 hoping that everyone would be at lunch.  I hope you will be entertained.

Richard Rhys O’Brien

The meaning of life: banish the audition blues

The meaning of life: banish the audition blues

This blog introduces the video of Audition blues, the second song on my first album, I know a little place.  Whilst it is inevitable that songs are influenced by the writer’s own life, I owe it my parents, family and teachers to confess that the first verse of my song is untrue – everyone encouraged me to keep asking questions, to understand what life may be about – even if there can be no definitive answer.  I don’t remember ever being just told “because”.  I was told, never be afraid to ask.

The circle of life

Curiously, the first image I chose for the song happened to be a photo I took of the first carving in the circle of life series from the Toshogo shrine in Nikko, Japan of the mother and her child – the mother looking to the future and the child looking with trust and perhaps for answers.  The next appropriate image for me is one of those wonderful open tree-lined roads in France, followed quite naturally by Le Penseur from the Musée Rodin in Paris, concluding with the almost endless beach at Le Touquet-Paris-Plage.

 

What now, what’s next?

The song, illustrated by some pilgrims in India streaming along the road in their bright yellow saris, alludes to the idea that life can be one audition after another, and to the idea of an afterlife “if we pass the audition, what’s the next part we play?”. Do we get a second chance? – “if we turn out a failure, can we re-audition someday?”  I will never know if the man in his red shirt whom I photographed high in a tree knew what he was doing or somehow had just taken a wrong turning!

 

Do we write for our audience or ourselves?

Then a little dig at the X Factor culture “when they see what they want will they know it” – in this video I went back to Shinto shrine in Nikko for the three monkeys who capture for me the idea of going before a judging panel. This 17th century wooden carving is the origin of the “hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil” proverb, the monkeys being Kikazaru, Iwazaru and Mizasru. How important is the verdict of the judging panel?  Do we write for our audience or for ourselves?  Selfishly I write first for my own pleasure – whilst there is great satisfaction if I get the bonus of others liking my work too! I am very happy that a friend told me he plays it a lot because of the meaning it holds for him.

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Kikazaru, Iwazaru and Mizaru, Hear no evil, Speak no evil, See no evil

Go with the flow

The images then indulge in a little poetic or visual licence, as the “river with rapids” and the “canyon with multiple bends” are accompanied by the peace and tranquility of the wonderful backwaters of Kerala in India and the elegant, graceful and dramatic Chinese fishing nets of Cochin (reported to be disappearing). As I wrote the song I confess that the image in my mind was of the (once mighty?) Colorado River running through the Grand Canyon to the Pacific Ocean – but I haven’t got good photos of that!

 

And the reason for living is…..?

So if you want to know the reason for living, well up to a point you will have to work it out for yourself. For me it lies in other people who I love and whose company I enjoy.  It lies in the wonderful colours and sights of the world.  It lies in the ups and downs of life and in the thrill of the chase often made greater by the effort it takes to succeed.  And it lies, most definitely, in words, pictures and music.  Write no evil, draw no evil and sing no evil?

You can’t sit out the dance

You can’t sit out the dance

For this little homily song on our journey through life, I have chosen a few pictures from my own travels.  This song niggles at me whenever I’d rather hide away from the world, trying to “sit out the dance”.  Perhaps subconsciously we write about the challenges we know from experience are hard to meet.  Having spent much of my working life helping people deal with the future, it’s always been worth remembering that whatever the future, or present, you have to work with it.  That way you also have a chance of shaping it! It’s not the first song I’ve written that has made me think I should practice what I preach!

Decisions, decisions

So we start with an obvious train-track image setting out clearly the long journey ahead: but I just love the chap standing bang in the middle of the tracks as if he is wondering what to do next – well, he is on the phone to someone trying to find out perhaps.  Of course the alternative could be to take the road on the left….

 

 

Some like to know where they’re heading

Some rather just leave it to chance

But however you tackle the future

You know you can’t sit out the dance

Rich or poor, you still have to play the game

Whoever you are, you still have to play the game you are in.

 

 

It may be a ball, with champagne on ice

It may be a barn dance, with the straw and the mice

Whatever your fancy, whatever your home

You can’t sit out the dance

Life keeps you jumping

I love this photo of the boys playing cricket on the endless beach of Chennai, India.  Wherever the ball goes or is coming from you have to play the game.  Though sometimes when you are young you are directed where to go, like these Japanese schoolchildren.

 

Life keeps you jumping, rest when you can

Between boredom and surprises, between dry toast and jam

Keep smiling and look forward, celebrate and applaud

All those who keep dancing, sweet lady, sweet lord

The dance of life follows many rhythms

 You can be on your toes, you can wallow in the mud, but you are still in the dance.

 

You may like the polka and wear little red shoes

Or something much slower, dance to the blues

Whatever you do, dance!

 

 

Move with your partner, sway with the band

Take your place for the dance

Thank you for reading and listening!  Enjoy the dance!

Ok, life’s a puzzle….

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The Art of the song

The Art of the song

This is the first of a series of blogs I will be doing in the coming months to introduce brand new videos for I know a little place, the first of my three albums.  Songs conjure up images in the mind of writer and of listener.  Here I have curated my own selection of wonderful images that have surprised me with their appropriateness for the lyrics. For me both lyrics and these artworks are depicting similar sentiments – even though I may being seeing something different in the Art from that intended by their great creators.  I hope you enjoy listening to this first song, Take it as it comes,  in the company of the talent of fourteen great European artists stretching across five centuries.

“All this will be ashes….”

My opening line “There will come a time when all this will be ashes” is more doom laden than I ever meant. To the rescue, Jacques Tissot’s 1868 depiction of Paris society in Le Cercle de la Rue Royale, sums up the idea that however smart we think we are, we won’t go on for ever.  Then Lawrence Alma–Tadema’s 1887 Women of Amphissa couldn’t be a better vision of passion spent. Next, Henri Gustave Jossot‘s 1894 series Artistes et Bourgeois satirises intellectual pretensions, as one asks “And your next book?” and the other replies “Oh, becoming simply Shakespearian!”  We are finally rescued from our musing as Brandenburgian Jacob Phillip Hackert’s fireworks explode Rome’s Castel Sant’ Angelo and allow us to celebrate, as they still do today.

Our transient life, with Tissot, Alma-Tadema, Jossot, and Hackert

“But until that time, keep an open mind….”

But we still search for knowledge. In La Tache Noire (or The Black Stain) Albert Bettannier, a French teacher tells his charges of the terrible loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Prussia in 1871. Then Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s depiction, of the trance-like spiritual transfiguration of Beatrix Portinari at the moment of her death, uncannily matches my words “when you see beyond” – though I wasn’t thinking of death particularly, but perhaps more the moment of insight, as in Joseph Wright of Derby’s “The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, Discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful Conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the Ancient Chymical Astrologers”. At this point Gabriel von Max’s book-reading simian is just the ticket to keep our feet on the ground – “but until that time, keep an open mind”.

Our search for knowledge, with Bettannier, Rossetti, Wright and von Max

“When time passes slowly….”

Verse three starts with the woman in the window  spinning yarn,  a good task to accompany reflection – by another artist from the Franco-German borderland of Alsace, René-Paul Schützenberger.  British painter John William Waterhouse’s moody young man in red depicts the Roman Emperor Nero reflecting on matricide. In the next frame there is more family trouble: I saw this stunning painting by Évariste Vital Luminais last summer in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Quimper, Brittany –  King Gradlon on the white horse is trying to save his daughter from drowning, not knowing she has become an evil woman – her death at least calms the seas.  The final artwork, The Travelling Companions, by the wonderfully named Augustus Leopold Egg, now in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, allows us to relax with our favourite book on our train journey through life, or even fall asleep to the dulcet sounds of my harmonica – whatever, “take it as it comes”!

The short and the long of it, with Schutzenberger, Waterhouse, Luminais and Egg

“Breathe the air around you………….”

After the musical interlude we can drift reflectively through the successive images of my own shadow in the Dordogne sun, of another Rossetti beauty struggling to raise a smile in the sun, of Shakespeare’s Shrew Katherina, (by Edward Robert Hughes), thinking what to do when she is not being given food. Finally, staying in thespian company at table, we spy on Mr and Mrs David Garrick enjoying tea in the open air at “Garrick’s Villa” by the Thames at Hampton, by Johann Zoffany.  “Breathe the air around you, take it as it comes”.

 

Reflect with me, Rossetti, Hughes and Zoffany

“All the contrasts…..”

For our final verse we flip from the bright noisy utopian colours of Wenzel Hablik, to the drizzle of Julius von Ehren‘s German city, the brightness of Henri Biva’s lily pond in the summer sun, to the complex 16th century Nicholas Hilliard miniature of a handsome man, possibly the Earl of Essex, leaning upon a tree amongst roses.

The contrasts of life, with Hablik, von Ehren, Biva and Hilliard

And relax with the coda: “take it as it comes”

The song finally closes as Charles Bargue‘s black dog and a white parrot play their own game of chess, the liveried footman paying no heed, as Etienne-Prosper Berne-Bellecour’s Normandy shepherdess calmly “takes it as it comes” in the fading light, and as Johann Tischbein’s Goethe reflects on the Roman campagna.

Take it as it comes with Bargue, Bellecour and Tischbein

Art enhances music

For myself, this song now has many new dimensions in breadth and depth.  If you had asked me to write a song to fit the paintings I’d never have got there – albeit just a hypothesis as I doubt if these nineteen images would ever have appeared together.  It’s been like curating my own art exhibition around a theme, with help from the internet, Wikipedia etc, giving us access to all these public domain images from around the world. I’ve learnt more about art and have gained new insights on my own songs!

Take it as it comes!

Mad about Models: Building Blog 5 Twin Towers to Single Arch

Mad about Models: Building Blog 5 Twin Towers to Single Arch

This fifth and final blog on selected iconic buildings of London modelled by Timothy Richards is of the now departed Wembley Twin Towers.  The model in its larger size shown here was presented to various dignitaries at the ceremonial events at the time of their demolition in 2003 – a noble souvenir of what had once been noble.  Smaller bookend versions are still available.

Resurrection unlikely

Unlike the buildings in my previous blogs, the Twin Towers are very unlikely to be resurrected, not least because very little remains of them. Nor did they find a new use which might have prevented demolition. However you could say that as with Temple Bar and Euston Arch, the idea of a highly visible construction lives on in the new Wembley Stadium Arch. I suspect more Londoners have seen the arch, albeit at a distance, than the towers – unless you were a football fan.

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A White Arch for Wembley

A new icon?

Of course the Arch may not become such an iconic building as the old Twin Towers, but usually that is for history to tell us. The world changes and certainly the Wembley area, like elsewhere, has seen its fair share of change over the years.

In the right light……

It looks good in the sunshine and with great lighting!

The tower that never was

In one sense the new Stadium Arch brings to Wembley what the Towers’ predecessor, Watkin’s Tower or Folly, tried to do.  This was the partly-built tower on the style of the Eiffel Tower, never finished and demolished in 1907, almost a century ago.  If completed like in Paris this would have been a landmark for miles. We might note that Eiffel’s masterpiece was not only completed (in 1889) but withstood plans for early demolition and still stands 127 years later. The Eiffel Tower was of course a pioneering construction, which is not something you could claim for Watkin’s Tower nor the Wembley Arch.

watkin_tower_first_stage
Went missing 110 years ago

Demolition blues

Compared to Temple Bar (200 years in Fleet Street, 125 years in a rural park, restored at the age of 330) and Euston Arch (125 years in place, 34 years underwater, another two decades so far in storage), the Twin Towers were mere 75 year old youngsters. Interestingly, like the Eiffel Tower, the 1923 Wembley Stadium, built specifically for the Empire Games, was slated for demolition in 1925, but was saved from this early demise. The stadium made it into the second Millennium, but though the plan to demolish the towers was first met with considerable opposition,  they finally succumbed to progress. The concrete icons eventually became mere rubble, just as the Euston Arch was used to plug a hole in an East London river. Plans to preserve some parts of the Towers for display have apparently been ground into dust.

A video set to music records the demolition, and much was made of the fact that it was a German digger that began the demolition. 1966 anyone?

A pile of rubble becomes a playground

What I do know, from researching this blog, is that every time I leave London on the A40 Western Avenue, not long after I have passed the Hoover Building of the previous Building Blog No 4 ,  I pass the main graveyard of the old Stadium, the rubble helping to build the Northala Fields mounds. Bet you didn’t know that either. The Twin Towers moniker hasn’t died totally, labelling some of the new tall buildings steadily surrounding the stadium.

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The Mounds of Northala

So thanks for the memory

The Twin Towers moniker hasn’t died totally, labelling some of the new tall buildings steadily surrounding the stadium. Likewise there is now a bar and restaurant, with a strong Irish and sporting theme, called Watkin’s Folly, and a Watkin Road. Perhaps the strongest memories will live on in the minds of the many thousands who enjoyed their football, watched the Empire and Olympics Games or listened to their favourite rock group under the watch of the twin towers of Wembley. And the models hold up my old books nicely.

That’s all folks, for now

That’s it for now for my five part series of blogs on a few models of iconic past and present London buildings, or more fully, buildings, towers and arches. Buildings that have been demolished, moved, relocated, resurrected, changed to survive or just plain disappeared off the face of the Earth … or have the Twin Towers just gone underground?  There’s more to our buildings than meets the eye.  And do take a look at all the other wonderful models that Timothy Richards has on offer!

The Five Building Blogs

  1. Temple Bar and the end of geography
  2. Euston Arch, a hub of controversy
  3. Floral Hall, Orchids to Oysters to Opera
  4. From Hoover to Tesco
  5. Wembley: Twin Towers to Single Arch