Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Old Shrewsbury Show

On the 6th March 1878, the Home Secretary of the day, Richard Cross, using powers afforded him by the Fairs Act of 1871, abolished the Old Shrewsbury Show.  This great Shrewsbury tradition had been held annually up at Kingsland since well before Elizabethan time. Organized informally without any committee to run it, every second Sunday after Whitsun [ie. our modern Spring Bank Holiday] the Old Shrewsbury Show was like a force of nature: it ‘just happened’.

I know this because I’ve been reading a Shrewsbury Library publication on the subject [Victorian Shrewsbury - Studies in the History of a County Town, written by the Victorian Shrewsbury Research Group and edited by Barrie Trinder]. The celebration hailed back to the Festival of Corpus Christi, but at the time of the Reformation it lost its religious component.  Trade guilds were behind the Show, erecting arbours in the area now covered by Ashcroft Road and Beehive Lane, their masters, journeymen and apprentices processing up there to entertain the Mayor and Corporation with all sorts of feasting and fun. Without the Kingsland Bridge [which didn’t open until 1881] this must have been quite a trek, but people made it in their thousands.

I was astonished to read this. A Shrewsbury Show at Whitsun, attended by people in their thousands?  Why hadn’t I heard about it before?  And what had happened to it?  By 1866, when Headmaster Moss of Shrewsbury School [citing support from all ‘right-thinking people in the town, including ‘moralists, parents and educationalists’] suggested moving its location from Castle Gates, the writing was on the wall for the Old Show. The eyes of the great and good of Shrewsbury had fallen upon the land and Kingsland. It was far too valuable to waste on the Old Show.

Even so, how could Shrewsbury have allowed an institution that had taken place ‘time out of mynd’ to simply disappear?  Well, according to the case presented by the Chairman of Shrewsbury’s Quarter Sessions to the Home Secretary, it wasn’t just a trade fair but a pleasure fair attracting a lower sort of person and resulting in much drunkenness.  Not only did it have no necessary purpose, but it brought injury to the town and was the cause of immorality.

This was the voice of Victorian England speaking. Until then the police had turned a blind eye to the excesses of the Show, locking up the worst offenders and releasing them next day - in which respect the Show was no more outstanding an occasion than the Shrewsbury Races [yes, horse racing in Shrewsbury – we’ve lost that too]. However, battle lines had been drawn up. One one side were the companies and guilds that had always been at the heart of the Old Show, the Carpenters, Brickmakers, Shoemakers, Tylers, Plasterers and all the rest, and on the other were the great and good of the town, including the clergy [especially Julia, reformer wife of Revd Charles Wightman of St Alkmunds].  Even the good old Shrewsbury Chronicle got in on the act, in 1859 describing the Show as a ‘ridiculous pageant’ with its ‘usual array of drunken kings and factory queens promenading the streets’.  

But what was the Old Show like in its glory days? Apparently it kicked off with a procession that, in its heyday, including the Mayor and Corporation along with burlesque figures wearing huge comic heads. That would have been good to see [and courtesy of THIS LINK you can get some idea of it] The burlesque figures included Crispin and Crispianus, patron saints of shoemakers, Vulcan, who always escorting the smiths and Rubens, who lead the house painters.  Henry I always appeared, it being he who had first granted a charter to Shrewsbury. Cupid led the tailors, the Stag led the skinners, Henry VIII was in charge of the builders, the Black Prince led the cabinet makers and hatters, Elizabeth I the hair dressers and bakers and, finally, the flax dressers were led by Katherine of Aragon. 

Booths were erected on Kingsland for all of these trades to advertise their wares and entertain their guests. A contemporary record of 1846 describes Kingsland as a ‘tented field of glorious pastimes in all its enticing forms’.  These included ‘fun shows’, ‘shindies of every sort’, shooting, wines, cakes, comfits, beef and ham sandwiches, coffee, brown stout, beer and ‘backey’.  ‘Slapbangs’ were also on offer.

The Show had its ups and downs over the years, notably during the French Wars between 1793 and 1815, when only the apprentices went up to Kingsland - and their behaviour was described as ‘an undignified ritual’.  In fact in 1808, the Show was reckoned to be in such serious decline that a succession of revivals were instigated to turn around its fortunes.  Behind these were the various trade guilds and companies who were at the heart of the Old Show, and who now gave financial incentives to encourage people to ‘take treats at Kingsland’.

These revivals were greeted with some success. In 1831, not only the Mayor and Corporation attended, along with the representatives of eight Guilds, two County MPs and the Earl of Powis.  ‘The poor were fed with plenty, and the rich not sent empty away’.  However, the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 brought this to an end with the guilds losing their legal status, one result of this being that there was no longer a formal obligation laid upon the Mayor to attend.

Consequently, the show of 1835 saw only the Butchers’ Guild attending, along with a random assortment of apprentices from other guilds. No show was set up on the field, nothing but a solitary hobby horse – and [thank God, I hear you all saying] plenty of food. The dancing was remarked upon too.  

The fortune of the Show changed again, however, in 1849 when the railway came to Shrewsbury.  That year's Show was a huge success, so much so that afterwards its organization was taken from the guilds and put into the hands of a Show Committee.  Money-raising activities took place, supported by many of the county’s leading families and boosted by cheap trains from the Chester and Stafford lines.  The result of this was that visitors poured into Shrewsbury in their thousands.  In 1850, the Shrewsbury Journal reported that the railway station was ‘literally besieged all Monday morning [by then, out of religious sensitivity, the Show had moved from Sundays to Mondays] by crowds of people to view the ancient pageant of the Shrewsbury Show.’ The station became so crowded that one year later, ‘several females were placed in danger from the pressure to get into the carriage.’    In fact, every mode of conveyance, from carts to steam engines, were employed in bringing in the punters.  One train alone is credited with bringing in 2,900 people at one time.   Is that possible?  Have I read this right?  I read the figures again.  Yes, I have.

So how could such a popular Show come to such an ignoble end, only twenty years later?  In other words, what went wrong that the people of Shrewsbury fell out of love with their Show? A press report from 1870 describes it as this once famous Show, being celebrated with mimic pomp, the streets of Shrewsbury no more crowded than for a normal day.  Another recorded ‘just’ four thousand people coming in by train. Yet twenty years previously trains had been bringing in as many as thirty-two thousand.  Which is an extraordinary figure. 

What happened proves that we slick 21st century operators aren’t the only ones to have ever known about effective PR.  The Victorians knew how to run a successful campaign. And, then as now, people are easily swayed. 

The campaign against the Show began, ironically enough, as soon as it began to show signs of revival.  Some of the town’s clergy attempted to persuade people not to go to Kingsland in 1849, and a letter from The Salopian took the Mayor to task for encouraging ‘beastly intoxications, horrid Sabbath desecration and tremendous oaths and cursing’.  Though the Show was now held on a Monday, Sabbath Day observers were offended by the fact that stallholders had to travel to the Show, and set up, on a Sunday.  An Evangelicism that wasn’t just local, but spread nationwide, had the town in its grip. It taught that people who indulged in all the attendant horrors of the Show were destined to eternal punishment. 

All sorts of evil goings on were cited. Fights were recorded, like the stabbing which took place involving Daniel Phillips, circus clown, and John Akers, Castlefields billard-marker, over a sixpenny seat. Mrs Julia Wightman's book, ‘Haste to the Rescue’ led the charge, claiming that ‘the love of money, not the love of the working class is at the root of the matter’.  Kingsland development plans loomed ever-closer, and what turned out to be the final Show was reported in The Journal as a ‘dingy’ affair. ‘We confess we regret the necessity that has arisen for the abolition of the ancient Pageant,’ said its editorial. ‘Not only for the sake of public morals and the reputation of the British… it is desirable that it should cease.’  

This wasn’t just a religious crusade then, it was a social one. The Show had been shorn of its ‘theatrical appendages’, but even so was regarded by many as unsophisticated and tawdry, providing no profitable entertainment. In 1874, the Journal reported that the Mayor would not lower himself to ‘drinking a tankard with a cobbler’. Once he would have marched in procession to the Show, now, as part of decent society, he regarded it as beneath him.  Moral issues had come in to play.  Town innkeepers were issued with warnings about what would happen to them if they infringed their licences during Show time. Gaming, be it as innocuous as thimble-rigging [don’t ask] was warned against. The companies’ arbours had all but disappeared and the feasting was little more than a profitable business for local publicans. 

Desperate attempts were made by Show organizers to introduce new novelities. Traditional burlesque figures were joined by contemporary ones from popular songs of the day, but nothing could halt the Show’s demise. The feeling in the town was largely that it provided no profitable entertainment and might just as well be closed, especially if the site could be used for something not just more edifying, but  more profitable too.

Enter the comprehensive building programme that created the upmarket suburb of Kingsland, connected to the town by its brand new Kingsland Bridge.  Enter, too, the first Shrewsbury Flower Show in 1875, and the Shrewsbury Regatta [so much more ‘manly’, dignified and physically demanding], which was held for the first time the year the Home Secretary finished off the Old Shrewsbury Show.   

And enter Shrewsbury School.  Headmaster Moss got his way in the end.  It’s hard now, looking at the Castle Gates Library, and then at the sprawling campus of the current Shrewsbury School, to believe that one could ever have fitted into the other.  But in 1882 Shrewsbury School left the old building in the heart of the town, which had housed it for the best part of three hundred and forty years, and moved out to Kingsland, taking up a position looking down upon the river and the town, where it still stands to this day. 

I’ve always reckoned that I know my Shrewsbury history, but plainly there are some gaps and this is one of them.  I’m well acquainted with Shrewsbury School’s previous home, now the Castle Gates Library, which has to be one of the most beautiful libraries in the country. But until this week, reading Patti Price’s sterling account in ‘Victorian Shrewsbury’, I never knew that the stately avenues and gracious buildings of Kingsland once hosted the Old Shrewsbury Show.  In fact, I never even knew there was an Old Shrewsbury Show.  Some historian, me.

Incidentally, Pattie Price was born in Montgomeryshire, but moved to Shropshire as a child. After graduating at King’s College, London, she became a teacher, her career concluding at the Priory Girls’ School, Shrewsbury, where she was Head of History.  Her excellent paper on the Old Shrewsbury Show, which I've drawn on extensively here, was first published in ‘West Midland Studies, Vol 11 [1978]’. Shropshire Libraries published ‘Victorian Shrewsbury’ - which included it - in 1984.  This is a book worth reading.  Do look out for it.  

Sunday, 26 May 2013

The Boys From The Bird's Nest

People are always talking about the boys from the Birds Nest.  They’ve done great things for the market... We’re so lucky in our town to have them... Let’s hope they stay... They’re great guys... Have I met them yet..? More to the point, when am I going to interview them..?

The Birds Nest in question is a sprawling café with sinking sofas, rustic tables and benches and even an old upright piano, clustered beneath a web of branches and a mesh of twinkling fairy lights. Not what you’d have expected to find in Shrewsbury’s indoor market once upon a time, but very much a part of the contemporary market, slap bang in the middle of jewellery and bric-a-brac stalls, a children’s arts and activities outlet, racks of old clothes, a hairdresser’s and the best independent book shop this side of Much Wenlock [and that’s the nearest independent bookshop to Birmingham, which apparently doesn’t have a single one].

A few days ago, sitting in the Bird’s Nest’s sinking sofas, eating cake and drinking coffee, I decided to fix up an interview.  Could we put a date in the diary, I asked? What was wrong with now, co-owner Victor Deng replied.  We retreated from the main bustle of the café to what had been its original site - a cosy corner with a sofa, a coffee table, a couple of armchairs and walls hung with local art [all for sale].  This had been where they’d started out, Victor said. They’d had seating for twelve and now they could seat sixty.  They’d only been in the market for two and a half years, and were proud of how things had grown. ‘To begin with there were just the two of us working the café,’ Victor said, ‘and a weekend helper.  Now we have four full-time helpers, three part-timers and a Saturday girl.’

It’s hard to believe the Bird’s Nest hasn’t been here for years. It’s very much a part of the market’s life.  At any one time you’ll find everybody from students and young mums to families and the old market regulars. Some might have thought that its buzz and sparkiness would be at odds with market life, yet the two have fitted together like a hand and a glove. Where did the idea for the Bird’s Nest come from, I wanted to know.  And why here?

Victor said that he and co-owner, Aaron Brown, had been looking to start a business for quite a while.  They’d both worked in the food industry for other people and now wanted something of their own. They’d had their own cash to put in, no need to go to the bank for funding, and a cafe seemed a good idea. Aaron’s girlfriend came up with the Bird’s Nest concept, and it was whilst trawling the region for the right location that Victor and Aaron discovered Shrewsbury.

‘We both live in Birmingham,’ Victor said, ‘but we couldn’t afford Birmingham rents, so it was a matter of finding another location within commuting distance.  We looked all over, but knew as soon as we arrived in Shrewsbury that we’d found what we wanted.’

That was back in December 2010. Victor says they fell in love with Shrewsbury.  Now all they needed was to find a location for the sort of café they had in mind.  The market quickly presented itself to them as an ideal place. High Street rents were matchingly high, and the market seemed more exciting anyway. Its bustling environment was undergoing a time of change that made it open to the bohemian feel that Victor and Aaron wanted to create.  In one corner of the market in particular, old stalls were closing, new ones opening up.  Victor and Aaron set up the Bird’s Nest Cafe, and straight away people started coming in.  The word went out that there was a new coffee house in the market, and it was fun.  People came to take a look and stayed to eat. It wasn’t just coffee on offer, but good food too.

Everybody loves the Bird’s Nest’s food, which is made in house, brought in daily from their central kitchen in Birmingham.  And the cakes.  Don’t let’s forget the cakes, which come courtesy of Fabulous Joe Cakes in Birmingham and Cherry Bakewell in Wem.  My favourite is the beetroot and chocolate cake, and their pavlova is as pretty as anything you’ll ever see sitting on a plate.

 ‘But we couldn’t have done it without help,’ Victor said.  ‘Everybody got behind the idea that we wanted to create this homely, comfortable place. We were made so welcome and had so much support.  To begin with even our furniture was on loan, with price tags on it, courtesy of local shops.’

Shrewsbury’s indoor market is dotted with interesting traders and a diversity of businesses.  The building has a long history. Before the current market hall, built in the 1960s, was a Victorian one, but even before that there was a market on this site.  I can confidently say, however, that Victor Deng and Aaron Brown are the first Shrewsbury market traders to have held an Africa Day with live music, including a drumming workshop, African poetry and an African menu, which they served all week.

Shrewsbury Market is full of surprises. Victor told me that live music was always part of the plan. Africa Day was a huge success, and so have been the twice monthly Bird’s Nest Matinee Sessions that have also been set up, which include the spoken word and poetry too.  In addition, this year Victor and Aaron are planning to bring an African choir into the market.  An entire choir blasting it out in Shrewsbury Market – I can’t wait!  The event’s taking place on 12th June. The choir comes from Malawi. This is most definitely an event not to be missed.
What does the future hold for Victor and Aaron?  These are young men in a hurry, full of get-up-and-go and bright ideas.  They’re planning on setting up a smoothie bar, Victor told me, over the road from the market hall in Central, the building that used to house Claremont Baptist Church.  There’s lots of space available over there.  The whole place has been re-vamped and it’s flooded with light. Sounds like a great place for a smoothie bar, and who better than the Bird’s Nest boys to make it work?

In addition, they’ll be taking part in Shrewsbury’s first ever Food Festival, providing continental style breakfasts as part of the Food Safari. And then, if things continue to go well in Shrewsbury, there’s the possibility of opening up something similar to the Bird’s Nest in Birmingham too.  Already Victor and Aaron are taking the Bird’s Nest café on the road to festivals, providing vegetarian wraps and other good food.

I took Victor’s pic.  He called the girls together and I took their pic.  Then he called over Vincent and Alex and I took all their pics, laughing and looking like they enjoyed what they were doing.  Click, click, everybody was laughing by now, and people were looking on, the Bird’s Nest chirruping, the whole place abuzz.    

‘We’re so grateful to all those people who come and like the place and come back,’ Victor said.  ‘We’re just two young guys from somewhere else, and the market has embraced us whole-heartedly and the people of Shrewsbury have as well.’

The way he said it, you’d think their success was down to everybody else.  But Victor and Aaron have worked extremely hard for this -  and they show no sign of letting up. There’s an energy down at the Bird’s Nest café.  Everybody’s working hard.  Good for them. I wish them well.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

R.I.P. Lee Rigby

Coming out of Waitrose this evening, I found these.  I was glad I did.  I don't know who put them there, but I'm glad they did, and tomorrow I intend to put some there too. What happened in Woolwich the other day was just horrendous, truly horrendous, and it touches us here in Shrewsbury as much as anywhere else. Let's hope for peace for all of us - Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and everybody else.  And, especially now, peace for Lee Rigby. And for his family - heartfelt commiserations from us here in Shrewsbury. 


Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Want to Know What's Going on Inside Our Town's Music Hall? Here's Your Chance to Find Out

An extraordinary project is taking place in the heart of Shrewsbury and most people, if they’re anything like me, won’t know much about it.  I’m talking about the Music Hall, soon to become Shrewsbury’s Museum and Art Gallery.  Like many of you I’ve wondered what’s going on behind the old Music Hall’s dusty windows and closed doors. I’ve also wondered whether the move from the museum’s current location at Rowley’s House [such an iconic building on the Shrewsbury landscape] would be worth all the expense.

I have to tell you though, that I’m not wondering any more.  Last week, courtesy of Tim Jenkins, Heritage Project Manager, I was able to see for myself the changes being made to the Music Hall and catch the vision of what lies ahead.

And what a vision it is.  Even amid bricks and scaffolding, plaster lime washes, drilling, shoring and rebuilding, it’s obvious that something very special is happening in our town.  For two hours last week, as part of a small group, I picked my way through the vast open spaces that will soon be galleries housing everything from Shropshire’s prehistoric collection and its collection of Roman artifacts, right through history to the modern day.  There will be Medieval, Tudor and Stuart galleries. A large collection of paintings will be on show, some of which have never been exhibited before. A dedicated education suite, including lecture, conference and seminar rooms, is being built sponsored by the Walker Trust.  And right along the front of the building at first floor level, looking down upon the Square and the Old Market Hall, will be a gallery with the potential to house national and international touring exhibitions. 

Add to all of that a 13th century mansion of national importance – which is what we have in Vaughan’s Mansion – and it’ll be obvious that not only the exhibits, but the building itself will be important once the museum is open.  And, interestingly, if it wasn’t for the current building work, there’d be no Vaughan’s Mansion. Early in the building process it was discovered that over time [and due in part to serious manhandling in the 1980s], it had dislodged itself from the main body of the Music Hall and was tilting dangerously in the direction of the Benbow pub. Since then a vast amount of work has gone into saving it.  In addition, in clearing the ground around it, an ancient space has been re-born. The courtyard of William Vaughan’s mansion has emerged afresh from many years of being covered over by unsympathetic outbuildings. It’s set to become one of the major open spaces in the town centre.  

How much do you know about the old Music Hall? Like much of the Square, it’s situated on what was once an ice-age kettle hole, which means that building on that site has always been a bit of a geological nightmare. The original building was positioned between two higher parts of the Saxon town separated by the town pond in which nagging women were ducked [see my post on the subject, A Bog, A Square And One Big Stink].  In the 13th century the whole area was re-planned to create a new market place. The pond was filled in and its adjoining slopes terraced. Vaughan’s Mansion was built circa 1290 at one end of this new civic place, but hidden behind the street frontage. The classical frontage we now all see on the Square was built by the Haycock brothers, who were responsible for much of the buildings of that period in our town. Behind that frontage, to the left, stood the early Victorian Assembly Rooms. Then right across the building the Victorian Public Rooms were installed. In the cellar at the front of the building was a coffee house. And running through it all was what had once been the medieval passageway, Fire Office Passage, where ladders for the fire service were hung along the walls.

According to Tim Jenkins, when Fire Office Passage has been restored with York stone paving and lime washed walls, that old sense of public passageway will return to it.  You’ll probably know this part of the old Music Hall better as the entrance lobby leading down to the ticket office. Beyond that old ticket office, the Victorian staircase is being restored, and upstairs a view of the auditorium from gallery level was one of the highlights of the tour. 

It’s amazing to see some of these huge old spaces coming back to life. Maybe you’ll remember, as I do, the ceiling of the auditorium being painted a ghastly shade of murderous red. Almost none of the molding was on show.  Now it’s been restored to its original colours, and every last detail of decoration is on show too, courtesy of light pouring through windows that most of us will only remember as being blacked out.  It’s an incredible ceiling, and the auditorium beneath it looks pretty good too.  Once the Beatles performed in this auditorium. Soon it will be the museum’s main collections that are performing - all the way from mammoths through to Darwin.

This isn’t the first museum on this site, you know. In the 1850s, Shrewsbury’s first museum was opened here, one of the originals of its kind in the country. However, by this time, as part of ongoing work on the Assembly Rooms, a section of Vaughan’s Mansion had been destroyed.  This pattern continued, and right up until the 1980s a cavalier attitude to the value of Vaughan’s Mansion meant that much else was destroyed. In fact, according to Tim Jenkins, it was generally believed that in 1917 all of the roof of Vaughan’s Mansion was lost, but during the current building works the original 17th century roof over its west wing was found to be intact, if in desperate need of restoration. 

The mansion belonging to William Vaughan, wool merchant, has been carefully restored now, and is heading to be the jewel in the new Musuem and Art Gallery’s crown.  Its windows, walls and doors date back to 1290, its roofs to 1470 and 1623 and builders have introduced steel posts to stop the screen on its end wall from dropping through to the lower floor. When the work is finished, its gable end will be restored to its Jacobean splendour, and the craftsmanship of Shrewsbury’s 16-17th   century School of Carpentry will be on view.  In the undercroft beneath the mansion [where the old cinema was – remember all those films that used to break down?] massive two-and-a-half tonne beams have been installed to create a space where Shrewsbury’s Prehistoric and Roman exhibits can be shown.   It will lead out into Vaughan’s Mansion’s courtyard where there will be seating, an area for eating and drinking and space for performances.  This will be the first time in 150 years that this space has been opened out.  

I have to tell you that I’ve gone from wondering what the fuss was all about to thinking that Shrewsbury’s Museum and Art Gallery is really going to put our town on the map. What captured my imagination more than anything else [and a lot captured my imagination, believe me] was that gallery at the front of the building, designated for national and international touring exhibitions. It was the one thing above all others that stopped me in my tracks.  Currently the room is full of scaffolding and looks a mess, but the potential is undeniable.  The space is huge, and with its windows looking out over the Square and Old Market Hall, it’s going to be a beautiful room.

Already talks are under way with national institutions about the possibility of bringing major traveling exhibitions to our town. These would provide a fantastic draw for the museum.  Anybody coming in for them would find a wealth of other things to interest them, all housed in a building that’s of interest in its own right. We have plenty to be proud of here in Shrewsbury. Our Roman collection, courtesy of Wroxeter, is very fine.  We have the best Caughley and Coalport anywhere outside of the Victoria & Albert Museum. A year or so ago I glimpsed some of the collection of paintings that are currently stored in Rowley’s House, and what a fine collection it is. We even [if what I’m told is correct] have the bloody rag that once was used to wrap around Charles I’s severed head!

I am so excited by the potential of this Museum and Art Gallery.  What we have here could make a difference not just to Shrewsbury but the whole of Shropshire. For two hours last week, kitted out in jerkins, goggles, hard hats and hobnailed boots, our little group picked its way between builders and building work. We saw galleries, open spaces, teaching spaces and areas for cafes and shops. We caught a glimpse of the 1960s nuclear bunker that has always been a bit of a Shrewsbury urban myth - and yes, it really does exist, fitted to sleep twelve in the event of nuclear war, but containing one fatal flaw – a window.  We also saw the remains of the cells where prisoners were held for trial when the assize courts were held in the old Shirehall on The Square.

So what stood out most? I think for me it had to be that auditorium with the light pouring in.  Beyond its windows I could see the rooftops, ridges and chimney pots not only of Vaughan’s Mansion, but of much of our town.  It’s a living, vibrant town with a contemporary 21st feel, but I don’t think anybody in Shrewsbury would deny that it’s a museum too, in its own right.  We’re proud of Shrewsbury’s history and its fine old buildings, and here in its heart, we’ll soon have a Museum and Art Gallery to be proud of too.  

One of the aims of My Tonight From Shrewsbury was to get behind closed doors. Well, I’m telling you that behind the doors of the Old Music Hall, floors are waiting to be paved, walls to be lime-washed and galleries to house their first exhibits.  It may still look like a building site, but the lion’s share of work is done, the building has been restored and, in some cases, saved - and by Christmas this year it will be open to the public.

I can’t wait to see it in its final glorious state. 

-If I find out any more, I’ll keep you posted.

-If you want to see more, here’s a YouTube clip.

-The other members of the group photograph are John Long, David Waterhouse, Sir William Francis, Tim Jenkins and Howard Franklin  

Friday, 17 May 2013

Dan Cassidy the Fiddle Player

‘Dan travels the world with his fiddle, and in his spare time lectures on the positive aspects of sarcasm.’  These words are written in a book made for Dan Cassidy by his sister, Eva. I’ve heard the fiddle – and Dan’s occasional flashes of sarcasm - but I can’t say there’s been much sign of lecturing.  

The first time I ever met Dan was in Poet’s Corner in the Loggerheads pub. I sat with my family in one corner, talking about the amazing music of the Stanley Brothers, and this quiet, solitary man sat in the opposite corner looking in a bit of a fug.   Slowly it became apparent that he knew the bands we were talking about.  As he began to share his knowledge we realized he was an American.  He loved country music, and so did we. There was a directness about him - a way of saying what he thought and not holding back that we instinctively warmed to.    

Dan grew up with country music. Folk too. His father was a musician, though he had a day-job too, and his mother played what Dan describes as ‘good’ folk and classical music on the record player.  There was always a guitar on the wall, and Dan’s father played the banjo too.  He introduced his children to music through folk songs.  Very quickly Dan’s sister, Eva, emerged as somebody who could carry a melody.  She and Dan were very close.  Dan’s father admires him now for his sink-or-swim attitude to making music his career, and respects him for the lessons he’s learned in the school of hard knocks.  But he wasn’t so keen when first Dan set out.  To begin with, his son went off to Germany with an English outfit, the Bobbie Barnwell band and only just squeezed out a living, then he came back and failed to hit the big time in the US too.  What he needed were qualifications, his father said.  He should go to college, have a proper career.  It took Eva Cassidy to give her brother the encouragement that kept him going, propelling him into the musical career he has today.

Eva was a year older than Dan, a person of great courage and unswerving instinct who would never willingly do anything she wasn’t happy about.  She went on to achieve great things, but at that stage she didn’t have Dan’s confidence in terms of public performance.  It’s tantalizing to wonder what sort of band they’d have made if they’d started performing together at that stage. But when Dan left the US for a second time, determined to go it alone and make something of himself, Eva remained behind in suburban Maryland where they’d grown up .

The first place Dan headed for was Iceland, a country he loved. After his stint with Bobbie Barnwell, Dan had done some gigs in Iceland and had been impressed by how uncrowded everything was - a clear, unpolluted country with a creative vibe and comfortable affluent lifestyle.   

Now, courtesy of a one-way ticket, Dan was back with $500 dollars in his pocket and nothing else but his fiddle.  He had no band behind him this time, but he succeeded in infiltrating the Icelandic music scene as the only electric fiddle player doing it his way.  He may have been a big fish in a small pool, he said, but it paid the bills. He was never out of work.  Everybody wanted Dan Cassidy playing on their albums.  The money was good.  He found opportunities in Iceland that wouldn’t have been available anywhere else.

‘I had a second teenager-hood,’ said Dan.  ‘Iceland’s a place for hard drinking – and I drank hard.  People lived fast lives. Rejkjavig was a party capital – a regular free-for-all.  And that’s the way I wanted it. I didn’t feel squeezed in a country like that.  I didn’t feel part of the rat race.  Back in Washington DC I’d had to work as a courier eight hours a day, with a further three hours commute home afterwards. Any music I made had to be squeezed in after that, when I was exhausted.’

Back in Washington DC, Dan had played part-time in a couple of bands, but no way had he made the living he was doing now. One had been a 13-piece big band dressed in smoking-jackets playing 20s-30s music for the well-to-do.  The other was an all-black outfit, playing in a rough part of town, from which Dan would need escorting at the end of the night.  ‘I remember thinking if they accept my electric violin here, they will anywhere,’ Dan said.  And they did.  And here in Iceland, they did too. But this time they were paying good money for it. 

How easy had it been acclimatizing to Icelandic culture, I wanted to know.  Dan said the hardest thing about it had been the language, which he still struggled with.  ‘If you want to know what Icelandic sounds like, listen to Robbie Burns read by a Highlander,’ he said.  ‘The Viking influence is plain to hear in both of them.’

Dan’s home-base is Iceland to this day.  He’s married now and has a little daughter, Eva, who is seven years old.  ‘The day she was born was the day I laid off the booze,’ he said. ‘Drugs, the lot.  I cleaned up my life.  And it’s been that way ever since.’   Being a musician was a balancing job, Dan said. He was a family man.  He had a teaching job.  He played in Iceland.  He’d formed a swing quartet that toured Europe doing gigs.  Sometimes he worked on TV.  Sometimes he collaborated in other ways with musicians.  Sometimes he played alone.

But every year he comes to Shrewsbury. ‘It was Bobbie Barnwell who first brought me here.  I was with her band for three and a half years before returning to the US to that job as a courier.  Every six months she’d come back to this country for a short period, and because Shrewsbury was where she hailed from, that’s where I’d come too.’

These were difficult years. Dan had constant money problems and frequent immigration issues. He had trouble connecting with people too. ‘I was a troubled young man’ is how he now describes it.  As a relative newcomer to Shrewsbury Dan remembers trying to work his way into the local music scene.  St Patricks’s Day in the back room of the Seven Stars in Coleham is one occasion he won’t forget.  ‘It was a folk gathering,’ he said.  ‘I had this weird home-made electric violin, and Bobbie’s brother-in-law, Cedric, and I played some bluegrass together.  It wasn’t what people were used to hearing. At the end somebody went yeeehaaaa. I didn’t get the sense that it was meant kindly.’

After that Dan was on a mission to prove how versatile the violin could be.  ‘I wanted to be Dan Cassidy the Fiddle Player, not Dan Cassidy the Eejit,’ he said.  ‘In pub sessions, on TV and radio, doing rock stuff, Hendrix and all that, doing country & western – I was not an ordinary violinist and I was out to prove something.’

The friendship with Bobbie, Cedric and their families has grown over the years. Now Dan says Shrewsbury feels like a third home, and the Hickman/Barnwell clan an extended family.  Returning to Shrewsbury has about it a sense of touching base.  ‘I’ve grown to appreciate the beauty of Shropshire, and the history of this town,’ Dan said.  ‘There’s a sense here of natural protection against intruders.  I suppose the river gives it that.  It’s a fascinating spot.’

Since 2004, Bobbie’s nephew James has been playing in the Dan Cassidy Swing Quarter. Dan has watched him over the years turning from a little kid to a hulking six foot man. He’s seen him take up the guitar, learn from his dad, Cedric and, as Dan puts it, ‘take the ball and run with it’. For the past five years too, he and Dan have played UK gigs as Hickman and Cassidy.  Every year, the two of them fill the Adam Ballroom at the Lion Hotel. This year they’ll be doing the same at Henry Tudor House, playing on May 19th to what ticket sales tell them will be a full house. 

‘I have a real following here in Shrewsbury,’ Dan said.  ‘I’ve made some great friends.  There’s always such a pull to come back.  Next year I’ll be celebrating my 50th birthday with a Dan Cassidy Swing Quartet concert in the Lion Ballroom. Then I’m taking my wife and daughter off on a cruise.’ 

Dan cracks a joke about financing the cruise, which is plainly important to him.  We both have a chuckle.  Dan’s sense of humour is very dry.  It’s also has a direct quality that he says he’s had to tone down over the years.  There’s a difference between what Americans and the British find acceptable when it comes to humour, he says.  A line that can’t be crossed, and it’s taken him a while to recognize it.  ‘I used to be quite tactless sometimes,’ Dan said.  ‘But I learned.  I’m better now.’ 

Dan said it was a profound experience first arriving in Shrewsbury, a young American in a foreign land.  He loved listening to people and hearing what their angle was, but more often than not it was very different to the angle back home. ‘It was as if I’d been living in a bubble all my life,’ Dan said.  ‘And now I’d broken out of it.  Americans are so used to saying they’re the greatest, and it’s easy to maintain that view when you never go anywhere else. As an American abroad you want to be patriotic towards the country you love, but you have to accept that things seem different from abroad.’

Currently Hickman & Cassidy are on a six-week tour of the UK.   They’re in the South-West next week, then Scotland the first week in June, including a concert on Skye.  Dan only does concerts these days.  He said his days of playing in bars whilst people talked over him were over. Playing concerts, he said, raised the bar.  It was extraordinary, for example, to find oneself in the Adam Ballroom knowing that Paginini had been there before you on that very same stage.  A hard act to follow – but Dan had never had a bad gig at the Lion Hotel.

Dan and James’s music is a mixture of swing, blue-grass, blues and folk.  They’re writing their own material too.  There’s more of it than they can fit into one show. ‘We’re not a cookie-cutter act,’ Dan said.  ‘We love and play old classics, but we do it our own way, and we do our own stuff too. James wrote a song about the Battle of Shrewsbury recently. You should get him to play it for you.’

Dan has always loved the combination of violin and acoustic guitar, he said, the one so lyrical, the other with its percussive element driving forward the beat.  ‘I find that blend of sounds intriguing,’ he said.  ‘And when you add in someone like James, who can really sing, you’ve got it all.  With Eva, I was used to working with a real high-calibre singer.  And what James and I have today is built on the foundation of that partnership.’ 

Eva was uncomfortable with gigging.  She honed her skills in the recording studio, Dan said, rather than the rough and tumble of live performance.  Not that she was the unknown she’s so often presented as in the Eva Cassidy myth.  On the contrary, she was on the verge of a contract with Blue Note when they suddenly got cold feet and said her style was too eclectic – the decision to pull out, Dan said, being one they regretted to this day. 

‘There’s a lovely film coming out about Eva,’ Dan said.  ‘Timeless Voice – Eva Cassidy’. It’s beautifully done. It’ll be on the Sky Arts Channel and eventually out as a DVD too.  All sorts of people are on it talking about the impact of her music at that very highly commercialized time in the business. And there are some lovely clips of her singing, of course. You know, she came to see me in Iceland a couple of times. People were mesmerized by her. Not only did they sit in silence while she sang, they wouldn’t even touch their drinks until she’d finished each song.  She had such a presence.  Her voice simply commanded attention.’

A moment’s silence falls between us. But Dan’s a natural talker in his own quiet way, a garrulous man you might almost say, and it doesn’t take much for him to be off again, telling me about one of his students, who is currently touring the world with Icelandic post-rock band, Sigur Ros, who are famous, amongst other things, for their bowed guitar. 

Teaching is very important to Dan.  His specialism, he said, was teaching classical-trained musicians how to play by ear.  There was very little, if any, curriculm for non-classical studies at Conservatory level, he said, yet an inability to play instinctively was a missing element in any musician’s education.  ‘Mind you, folk musicians can miss out too by sticking to the vernacular,’ he said.  ‘There’s a lot you can discover about folk by learning about Baroque music.  Either way, music students are limited if they adhere too strongly to one or the other, classical or folk.’

Dan runs Masterclasses on this subject, and hopes to develop these, introducing  young musicians to the range of possibilities bowed instruments can provide - especially the violin.  ‘Some day, if I live long enough,’ he said, ‘I’d like to change the way people think about learning stringed instruments.  I’d like to see them borrowing from the best of jazz, folk, classical, pop.  Teaching classes and performing go hand in hand.  There’s a golden opportunity, via performance, to inspire young musicians. And inspiring young musicians is what I want to do.’ 

We’ve been talking about the violin for hours, but only now do I get round to asking Dan how he chose it as his instrument. As a child, he said, he was always grabbing bits and pieces of music and making something of them.  But things really took off  for him when a violinist came to school and played a piece of music from a TV commercial.  Dan was inspired by the idea that the instrument could be fun, and not just arduous.  He was given a violin for his tenth birthday. Eva had a guitar.  Now they could play with their father – not as a family, because Dan’s mother and two other sisters didn’t join them, but as a musical entity within the family.  It became a part of who the Cassidys were.

‘Soon I’m going to be playing Eva’s music again,’ Dan said. ‘I’m really looking forward to it.  It’s a collaboration with a Dutch singer I met on TV in the Netherlands.  Margriet Sjoerdsma is her name.  We’re doing an Eva Cassidy tribute tour and concert, playing at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam.’

But wherever Dan goes, he’ll always return to Shrewsbury. ‘There are lots of chapters in my life,’ he said, ‘and in between them all is Shrewsbury.’  A lot of Dan’s lessons in life have been learned here in this town.  He arrived as a shy lad trying to find his feet. He used to drink heavily back in those early days.  It was a way for a shy boy to fit in socially. ‘I wanted to be liked,’ Dan said, ‘and I thought I could do that by getting drunk. When you’re young that’s a common mistake.’  

Dan has had thirty years of coming here. Shrewsbury, he says, is the place where he measures the changes in himself and charts his development as he strives to ‘prove his salt’. But he’s not the only one who has changed. Over the years, Shrewsbury has too. ‘When I first arrived here in 1984, Shrewsbury was a very different town to what it is now,’ Dan said. ‘For starters, there was no Pride Hill Centre, nor were there any wine bars or much of a night life.’ 

Back in those days, Dan sometimes sensed an unease that he could only describe as ‘bad energy’.  It was quickly sprung up, and quickly gone again, he said, but he’d never felt it anywhere else. He’d asked extensively if other people felt it too, and was relieved when a few folk said they had.  The balance to that, he reckoned, was that the town had a life about it, and creative flow, that he’d rarely felt anywhere else either. ‘This really is a very special place,’ he said. ‘That’s why I keep coming back. Eva would have loved it here, you know. She never wanted the big stage.  She would have loved singing at one of the music nights in the Loggerheads.  It was my dream to bring her over here.  In fact in her last letter to me she talked about coming to Europe. But she never did.’

I left Dan in Poets’ Corner, at the back of the Loggerheads, ordering their special sausage & mash lunch. ‘Good to see you again,’ I said.  ‘I’ll get James to send you his song,’ he replied.  And he did.. Here it is:. Thank you Dan, and James: 

We supported Henry in the war against Richard, 
And gave our lives fighting Glyndwr and the Scottish.
But by his word we found Henry, he would not stand.
What was promised was not given, no money, no land.
Earls we were,
Of Worcester and Northumbria,
With influence and power,
Betrayed we were,
By our King.

Died did we, in the battlefields of Shrewsbury.

We marched south through Cheshire, where we raised ten thousand archers. 
And our numbers grew with Welshmen from the Marches.
Then by the banks of the Severn, we spied Henry's army.
Drew our swords and knocked our arrows, just 3 miles north of Shrewsbury.

On that day, 
Shropshires fields were golden,
The summer sun was setting.
We set forth, 
To kill our king.

Died did we in the battle fields of Shrewsbury.

The battle would be won by the deadly English longbow.
Arrows filled the air and men lay stricken on the meadows.
And though our archers were the finer,
And their men fell like leaves in autumn.
One stray arrow struck Earl Percy, as he rode forth to give orders.

That single arrow, 
It ruled the fates of many,
Robbed us of our victory.
Defeated we were, 
By our king.

Died did we in the battle fields of Shrewsbury.

Died did we in the battle fields of Shrewsbury.

[copyright James Hickman]



Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Shiny, Shiny Great Gatsby Flapper-Girl Frocks

Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ premieres in London tonight.  I’ve been on the internet and  have picked up some of the excitement Leonardo di Caprio fans are experiencing as they wait for his red carpet moment.  I’ve also watched the film’s trailer on You Tube, and as a result can confirm that I’ll be going – though not tonight, and it’ll be to Old Potts Way, Shrewsbury, not the Odeon Leicester Square.  I’ve seen the Robert Redford film, so it’ll be interesting to find out what Leonardo makes of the part.  I’ve also read the book [by which I mean F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book, not Baz Luhrmann’s!].  In fact, over the years I’ve read it several times.

I love the writing of F.Scott Fitzgerald.  I even love ‘Tender Is The Night’, which I’ve heard described as ‘about nothing’.  I particularly love Fitzgerald’s long short story ‘The Diamond As Big As The Ritz’, but I love ‘The Great Gatsby’ too.  More than the story itself, it’s Fitzgerald’s cool, pared-back style that grips me.  But his classic tale of glamour and greed, privilege and decadence in the jazz age is pretty gripping too - and as relevant now, I’d suggest, when divisions between rich and poor are growing, as they ever were.

Over the coming weeks I’m guessing that interest in Twenties clothing, especially those of wealthy, party-loving women, is going to be booming.  I was on St John’s Hill today, in the vintage clothes shop, E. A. Jones, looking at Emilia Jones’s collection of 1920s dresses, jackets and coats. Some items are for sale, but most of what I’d come to look at and photograph form her own private collection. 

And what fabulous stuff she collects.  Where to start sharing it with you? Certainly this beaded, flame-orange dress from the early ‘20s is an important one in Emilia’s collection.  It was one of her first pieces, bought at a Christie’s auction when she was only fourteen.  Young, you might think - but Emilia was a collector before that.

‘It was through my dolls that I first became interested in clothes,’ said Emilia.   ‘My first doll was brought for me when my brother was born. I was two and a half at the time and I grew to love the clothes, the dressing of dolls and exhibiting them. But I was never interested in playing.  It was always collecting that I wanted to do.’

Now Emilia’s collection of dolls extends from the eighteenth century onwards.  Most are British or German, some are tiny, others almost life sized.  Emilia also collects early clockwork toys, which she says drive her poodle crazy.  And then there are the clothes.  Emilia’s parents are collectors too, and at around the age of twelve, inspired by her mother’s collection of period costumes, Emilia moved into vintage clothing. 

The purchase of the orange dress was a defining moment, however. Emilia had never bid in a big sale before.  She left commission bids on everything she fancied, with no idea how successful she’d be, and waited to see what would happen next.  It was really exciting to learn from Christie’s that many of her bids had been successful, and even more exciting when her purchases started turning up in the post, all individually packaged, carefully wrapped in layers of tissue paper. 

Emilia had bought a wide range of items from a variety of periods, and now found herself inspired to find out more about them and research the history of fashion. ‘But it was the orange flapper dress that turned me into a collector of 1920s clothing,’ she said. ‘The rest was interesting, but it was the 1920s I fell in love with.’ 

I looked around the shop, its rails hanging with dresses, skirts, blouses and coats, its walls with pretty frocks on hangers, its stands with jewellery and hats.  It was a perfect treasure trove.  I wanted to know how Emilia made her choices about what to buy.  Her shop was packed with not just clothing but pieces of period furniture and little knick-knacks, and downstairs I found a whole room full of vintage fabrics and another of men’s period coats and suits and assorted hats. ‘Of course I buy what I think Shrewsbury people will like,’ Emilia said, and I’ve been here long enough now to have an idea of what that might be.  But I’ll also try to buy things that are special, that belong to a particular moment in history like the 1780s dress I bought last week, and that lovely 1948-50 New Look coat on the rack over there.’  

All the while that she was talking, Emilia was taking dresses out of boxes, shaking them out of their tissue paper and hanging them up.  On one wall hung a shocking pink velvet coat [shocking pink as a colour was first named in the '20s by Elsa Schaperelli], lined with something soft and beige that looked remarkably like fur.  I had to try it on.  It felt like drowning in warm milk - a surprisingly agreeable experience. I thought it looked rather fetching as well, and imagined the stir it might cause if I turned up in Waitrose wearing it. Oh, for a bit of glamour in our lives!

Suddenly out of tissue paper emerged a beautiful black dress, as light and fine as gossamer, decorated with beads and tiny dots of silver. Its hemline was scalloped, beaded and embroidered and a sash hung down one side of it, creating an asymmetrical effect. Emilia said this dress would have come from the late 1920s. By that stage designers were getting away from the tape-chested androgynous look, waistlines were rising and the desired effect was becoming more feminine.

This dress was definitely feminine. Everything on it shimmered. I’ve seen butterflies in the jungle, and I’m telling you they didn’t shimmer more.  But then everything about the 1920s, apparently, always had to have a shine on it.   We moved on to a black flapper dress which was absolutely smothered in beads, its skirt made of rows of shiny silk tassles under which could be seen a flash of red silk.  Emilia dated it  around 1925.  The beaded orange dress was 1922, she reckoned, when the whole flapper thing was really kicking off.  Then there was a light, white, sleeveless dress beaded with silver, which she dated around1926. Then, draped over a dummy was a black long-fringed shawl covered in snow-white silk embroidery that shone like moonlight on a midnight lake.

On and on the items came - a velvet evening coat decorated with tiny flowers, which had been sold at auction as a 1970s coat, which Emilia said was a common mistake; a black velvet jacket with a quilted stand-up collar; a lilac and primrose frilled and layered fancy dress, trimmed with a hint of yellow down; a heavy black cloak literally smothered in the most intricate silver embroidery.  Talk about shimmering – it was hard to believe this piece wasn’t being exhibited in the V & A.

To begin with, E. A. Jones was very much a retro shop, selling to a young audience at the less expensive end of the market. Surprisingly, Emilia found that 1920s clothes didn’t prove as popular as Victorian or 30s and 40s items.  My guess is that after a few weeks of The Great Gatsby, this will change. By now, however, Emilia has developed a reputation for high quality garments with the sort of detailing and finishes that make them of value to collector, or to re-enactment enthusiasts.

There were a lot of these around, apparently.  Emilia said that frequently she attended events that might be anything from tea dances to weekend-long military re-enactments. One of these was coming up at Berrington Hall in June.  Last time Emilia was there, she said the front lawn was full of military vehicles, including a tank, and there was a fly-past of Hurricanes. ‘People come to these events dressed in the clothes of the day,’ Emilia said, ‘and they’re looking to buy more of the same.’

By the time The Great Gatsby has run its course, I’m guessing there will be ‘20s re-enactments too.  It was such an interesting time, Emilia said.  Certainly a time of dramatic change when it came to clothes. In a short space of time, hemlines shot up, arms and legs appeared and everybody wanted shiny, shiny clothes.  ‘Lots of glass, beads, sequins and metallic thread, ‘ Emilia said, bringing out a series of head dresses beaded in silver and bright colours and crocheted in gold.  ‘The flapper dress is very much a 1920s stereotype. It’s important to realize that not everybody dressed like that.  The whole flapper phenomenon was more of a showgirl thing. Amongst the wealthy, even in terms of evening attire, not everybody went for the full flapper look.  Clothes were being designed that were more beautiful and imaginative than flapper dresses. Some of the items here – the black evening dress with the scalloped edge, for example - aren’t what you’d call typical flapper dresses. But they are very much of the period.’

Today Emilia’s shop is a riot of periods. Rifling along the rails, I found Victorian lace nightdresses, satin 1930s knickers, a World War II ‘utility’ coat of a quality you’d never get today and a lovely lavender coloured 1930s evening dress. Emilia told me it was Madelaine Vionnet who first introduced this style of slinky, bias-cut evening-wear.  Plainly she knows her history of fashion. I loved the fact that all her clothes were labeled with where they’d come from, and when, and as much of their background as Emilia knew.

Emilia talked about how hard it was buying 1920s daywear.  She was always on the look-out for Chanel-inspired knitwear – sports suits, knitted skirts and jackets, and trousers for women. Behind her, as she said this, stood a massive wedding dress that was the polar opposite of Chanel.  It was a typical ‘Four Weddings & A Funeral’ meringue – a mass of swirling silk, net and God alone knows what else exploding outwards from a tiny waist. ‘Size 8, and taken in because, incredibly, it was too big,’ Emilia said.  ‘I didn’t know where else to put it but there in the window. Anywhere else, and it would fill the shop.’

Where did Emilia buy from, I wanted to know. She said some of her clothes came from France, others from the US.  American clothes were expensive, she said, because of customs charges. But there was a real difference between them and British clothes.   A 1940s American blouse would be more extrovert than a 1940s British one.  ‘The US one would be more confident,’ Emilia said, holding up an example to show me.  ‘The British one would be more demure.  The war hadn’t bitten so deeply over there, and it showed in the clothes.’  


There was a vast market in the US, Emilia said.  Vintage clothes that were hard to find here were readily available in the US, and the interest was huge. Many of Emilia’s clothes were bought online nowadays, rather than at auction.  She’d got to know a variety of sellers, not just in the US but around the world and in this country too. She knew what to expect from each of them, who to get in touch with if looking for something in particular. At the same time, she was working towards getting a name for herself as someone who sold exquisite, interesting things.

If you want to look at Emilia’s exquisite, interesting things, take a peek at her Facebook page, or better still visit her shop, E.A. Jones, on St John’s Hill.  Another way to find her is at some of the major antiques fairs.  Emilia was at one of the biggest, Antiques for Everyone at the NEC, back in April, and she’ll be there again in July.  Did she ever exhbit her collection, I wanted to know.  Emilia said she didn’t, but she did give talks.  The history of fashion up to the 1950s was her subject.  I bet she gives a fascinating talk. I’m sure she’d take bookings if you wanted to ask.

It’s time to pay up and leave. Not content with rifling along rails and chatting to Emilia over a cup of coffee, I’ve also been buying – a couple of small items that [just in case you get one for Christmas] I won’t describe here; also a green velvet Canadian coat that will be finish off my outfit for a friend’s wedding later this year. Given how much I love clothes, it’s amazing that this is the first post I’ve written on the subject for My Tonight From Shrewsbury. H & M, eat your heart out.  And French Connection, Fat Face and M & S too. Emilia’s shop, E. A. Jones, is to clothes what Shrewsbury Market is to fish, fresh meat, fruit and veg. In other words, this is the real deal - and I’ll be back. Oh, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, I’ve just started re-reading ‘The Diamond As Big As The Ritz’.