Sunday, 6 May 2012

Adventures in Levenland: Celebrating Jackie Leven

A report on our Easter escapades in Levenland, which probably won't help to demystify any of the list correspondence from that time, but wouldn’t we all rather be mystified than demystified anyway?

After our experience with Dave Davies last year, this seemed like a cinch – no pre-payment, a fraction of the price, no terms and conditions, no cloak and dagger, just a ‘let me know when you intend to get there’. Mind you, Jackie never really played the star card and only occasionally the hero one.

What worried us was that all these people knew each other and had been congregating as/at the Church of Leven for nearly ten years. We were the strangers on the square. Although a very welcoming group, they were very different to us; we must have seemed like we were from the Stone Age, having only succumbed to a mobile phone last year, and that because a friend bought one for us. It’s not an iPhone or a smartphone or anything like that. We can text, take pictures, but rarely give out the number so hardly ever get any calls. Every time someone calls, there’s some confusion over how to answer it, usually resulting in the caller getting cut off. As for laptops, tablets, iPads, don’t go there. We’re from a long line of Luddites, deeply entrenched in the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ school. We still have vinyl, for God’s sake.

Phil said the cabin might need to be spruced up a bit (note woodland reference).

But soon we had it looking like this.

The location was lovely and the cabins were triangular (A-frame we were reliably informed) although there was no triangular honey from triangular bees. We were warned that a dangerous cupcake- crème egg-eating ogre was en route, the indomitable Emjay. The men took refuge behind a forest of laptops. The ladies were braver and offered tea and biscuits. We eschewed the forest and wandered out into the ancient woodland. What an idyllic setting – bluebells, the river, birdsong.

Weirdly nearly everyone there (with a couple of exceptions) had only started liking Jackie around the early 2000s, at exactly the time we stopped going to gigs for some reason or other, and none were Doll by Doll fans. Felt a little guilty that we hadn’t seen Jackie live for so long. Our loss of course.

Good Friday
A singer-songwriter called Jinder (don’t ask, we did, and forty minutes later …) was kind enough to visit in the afternoon and sing us a song he’d written for Jackie, so far entitled ‘A Song for Jackie Leven’, part-tribute, part-manifesto. Very moving; some of us cried. ‘In the meantime, I’ll work hard to see, that you weren’t the last of a dying breed.’ Bless you.

A trip to Portsmouth to see him play a full gig in the evening followed. We enjoyed the other acts too – Piefinger tried hard to engage with an audience whose main concern was to shout loud enough to drown them out – they were Jayhawksy, pretty harmonies and a ukulele. Bemis were met with an extreme lack of interest by the rest of the Levenites (despite their partiality to one of our number, he knows who I’m talking about), who interacted via phones with the list and each other throughout their set (hmm – wouldn’t have got away with this if it had been Lee Griffiths – you’d definitely have got ‘the stare’) but I actually really enjoyed them. Great spirit and camaraderie when they took the stage and their enthusiasm was infectious. Plus their harmonies were lovely. I liked their own material as well as the covers. And I never thought I’d be in a pub in Portsmouth, dancing to ‘The Stray Cat Strut’! Not in 2012 at any rate.

Easter Saturday
Walked to Botley (recently featured on ‘Countryfile’, a UK TV show, as the perfect village, according to William Cobbett), where Jackie lived. Not sure how long it usually takes Phil but with a group, it was a two-hour trek, partly owing to the cross-examination he received on the John LeBourne Incident – a tragic tale in which a poor upstanding family man is vilified and slandered although all the evidence against him is purely circumstantial. Phil has been reading the Botley Parish Register and informs us that people used to die in entertaining ways. Wonder if they thought, God, so and so’s death was so dull, I must make mine more entertaining. The more intrepid of the party climbed trees. Our leader was on hand to identify every flower: from wood anemone, butcher’s broom, dog violet ‘to the humble forget-me-not’ (‘Standing in Another Man’s Rain’).

Met up with some late arrivals at the Deep Pool, yes that Deep Pool and at the Leven local, the Brewery Bar, including Adrienne and Hollie, surely the best-behaved dog in the universe. During the meal, Deborah, Jackie’s partner, arrived, with her new dog, Treacle, and she was gracious enough to supply a carrier bag of items for a Lucky Dip. I was fortunate enough to get some of Jackie’s guitar strings, which I will treasure; wore them as a bracelet to the Dave Davies weekend the week after. Other people got Doll by Doll or Remember badges. She also let us leaf through some of the great man’s notebooks: fascinating stuff, with shopping lists intermingled with poetry and commentary on life. I was very touched because his handwriting is so familiar to me as he sent me a lot of faxes in the days before he had email. Somewhere, an inveterate hoarder, I still have them all, on yellow fax paper. Such a distinctive hand and such exciting times.

Repaired to the centre to eat, watch Leven videos, and then (the) Lee Griffiths played a set, including a cover of ‘Wish You Were Here’ (mention that for my Dad) and ‘Meet Me Halfway’; I remember when he first played the latter at a Castaway party. Great stuff. Ambience had been supplied, with tables of candles either side of him and, after I’d fetched my Parka, I was fine but everyone else was freezing so we adjourned to the largest cabin. Lee is a revelation to me – what a lovely guy, what great stories.

During the course of the evening, Phil’s dark secret is revealed. He used to be in a band, The Dead Trout. With that name, you can tell they didn’t covet success. And they got their wish. But, undeterred, the more curious among us, and let’s face it, the more masochistic, discover that we can still subject ourselves and our enemies to the joy of their music, if we really try.

Easter Sunday
Today we walk in Jackie’s footsteps, encountering the sights he’s described in various Deep Pool pieces – the white horse – it breaks my heart to leave this friendly animal alone, especially as it follows us to the far reach of its lonely field, the abandoned train engine, the graffitied tunnel, the ‘rickety bench’ (so shaky that only Lyn dares sit on it), the Romany encampment.

Jackie wrote:

The more adventurous of our expedition set forth to investigate and brought back photographic evidence.

Yes. The steam engine turns out to be of the Thomas the Tank variety.

A compellingly powerful illustration of how we make our own myths.

Soon we are overtaken by the Gary Numan Crash Team Investigators (identified by Phil’s sighting of a Tubeway Army badge or could he be pulling our legs?), our progress being more peripatetic and desultory than theirs. But do they climb the forbidden bridges? Do they heck? Or did they? No way of knowing as they left us for dust ages before. Gratuitous Tubeway Army link for my sister-in-law.

Yes, Phil leads us across bridges clearly barricaded as unsafe. Undeterred, we follow. He knows best.

Later, Lyn comes down to the main cabin, with a robin standing in her hands. This bird sat outside the window, and didn’t move when she approached and spoke to it. When she put her hands down behind it, it hopped onto her palms, and doesn’t seem to want to leave. We worry that the bird is injured in some way although it looks fine. Decide to put it back on the grass by the cabin, to see if it can fly. On our way back up, it takes off. Just dropped in for the photo opportunity. I like to think it was Jackie’s spirit that came by to tell us he was ok and no longer constrained by any physical impediment, now free to come and go at will. The more prosaic say it had flown into the window and was stunned – but why get on someone’s hand? Whatever, it was a pretty special encounter. I’m on the side of magic and poetry. Honestly, can't you hard men believe in fairytales?

Along the trail, I learned that it’s protocol (whenever I use that word I feel like I’m in a Bond movie) not to use your real names on the list and am asked to choose something. Opt for Wyrd Syster(s). Now I’ve just got to start using it.

Thanks to: All the people who provided plentiful food on a tight budget and introduced us to Manchester tart, to Phil who organised everything brilliantly, kept us on track as well as leading us down the garden path a few times. It was great to meet everybody. Emjay wasn't frightening at all.

Photos of the miraculous robin and Thomas: Lord Oates, Captain of the QEII.
Next stop: Exmoor and random ramblings on Satsang II. For more on this, see bashful.

Other Leven blogs can be found at The King of Love Has Died Exit Wound and I Never Saw the Movie and Jackie Leven'.

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