Monday, 22 February 2016

Andy Partridge: Songwriter

A shorter version of this interview first appeared in the February 2016 edition of Songwriting

Andrew John Partridge was born in a naval hospital in Malta in November 1953 but grew up in Swindon – a town he still calls home today.

Leaving school at 15, he followed the time-honoured route of all wannabe rockers by enrolling in Art College. In 1972 he met bassist Colin Moulding at Kempster's Music Store in Swindon, the two of them forming the nucleus of the band that would become XTC. Signing to Virgin Records in the wake of the punk/New Wave explosion, XTC issued 12 highly acclaimed albums, plus two as their psychedelic alter egos The Dukes of Stratosphear, and a slew of great singles before finally calling it a day in 2005.

An in-demand session musician, songwriter and producer, outside of XTC he has worked with a wide range of performers including Joan Armatrading, Ryuchi Sakamoto, The Residents, Doctor And The Medics, Blur, Terry Hall, Cathy Dennis, Sophie Ellis Bextor, Thomas Dolby, Peter Blegvad, Harold Budd, Jamie Cullum, Robyn Hitchcock, Pugwash, Meat Beat Manifesto and Lloyd Cole.

With a career that spans four decades, Andy is often compared favourably to the likes of Brian Wilson, Ray Davies and Elvis Costello. He was the recipient of the Q Classic Songwriter award in October 2014. Andy discusses his songwriting in depth in a new book (Complicated Game - Inside The Songs Of XTC), published by Jawbone Press in March.

Q: How did you get into making music?
A: My father always had an old battered acoustic guitar behind the sofa and after seeing the Beatle films and then being exposed every week to the Monkees TV show, Top Of The Pops and so on, I thought ‘this looks good; this is very attractive to me. I'd like to try this out’. The fact that girls screamed at young men with guitars pulled me in.

Q: What were you biggest musical influences?
A: My musical influences are many, many. I suppose the most powerful ones were the Beatles, the Monkees (Andy has a song You Bring The Summer on the new Monkees album, Good Times!, due for release in June 2016), the Kinks, the Small Faces, the Stones and an awful lot of 60's bands. I would fantasise about being in one of those type of groups, you know, making fake album sleeves for them, logos, drawing myself on stage and in the studio with 'them', whoever they were (probably the Dukes?). I remember writing essays in my school English book about being in a band. It was a total obsession with me: a 24-hour daydream every day. 

Later I realised how much my parents music went in deep too, with my dad's jazz records and my mums 'musical shows' which came out of the radio constantly at home. All went in the melting pot. Novelty songs were also a huge influence, which is why I think I took to psychedelia so much.

Q: Are there any current bands or musicians that inspire you?
A: There aren't any current bands, as I don't think anyone is doing anything new. The musical landscape is very conservative right now, and I may be passed being influenced. I hear quite a bit of XTC influence on lots of bands though.

Q: Who or what inspired you to first have a go at writing a song?
A: No one song or group particularly, probably one of the more colourful singles from ‘66 to ‘68. Oddly it took me ages to grasp that the missing piece of the kit I needed was to learn to write songs! I had the vanity and the drive, the ideas for presentation, the art side, I even taught myself to play a guitar… but not the song. That took years to kick in.

Q: Can you remember the first song you wrote?
A: Yes: I think it was called Please Help Me; it was truly awful formless rubbish in A-minor. Sophomore to the Nth.

Q: What would you be if you were not a songwriter? Would you have stayed working in graphic design?
A: I think so, but I have to admit what little experience I had of graphic work for 'the man' wasn't for me. It was too restrictive, not imaginative enough. I needed to fly in some way. Visually, musically, as a writer, even a sculptor. I had to be in control of my own creativity.

Q: Do you prefer writing to performing or recording?
A: Totally. The first spark of inspiration or creativity is the best. I found the repetition of performance boring; I get bored too easily. Even some recording can be boring if you aren't taking the initial idea higher.

Q: In 1982, after a decade on the road, XTC quit touring. Did it become easier or harder to write once you stopped playing live?
A: Much easier, as I had time, and I wasn't being pitched from wearing one head - the creative, private, naive, childlike one - to having to don the other head: the athletic, performing, public property, learn your lines, get through it alive one. Of course, stopping touring made me a figure of hatred and mistrust from the manager, who just wanted instant live shows cash, the record company who retreated from any promotion of the band, and the other band members, who probably thought that I was ruining their one shot at fame and fortune. I desperately needed a break: it was killing me.

Q: Where do you like to write?
A: Ideas come everywhere. Asleep, walking, messing with an instrument, hearing someone say a phrase. I also agree with Duke Ellington when asked about where did his inspiration come from? He said ‘fuck inspiration, just give me a deadline’. That always works.

Q: Is there a time of day when you find it easier to work?
A: Probably before mid to late afternoon, from waking until that 'slump' time.

Q: What part of writing a song do you find the hardest?
A: Freeing my head from the editor. The naive child in you is the creative one, the one who can put stuff together in new and exciting wrong ways. They can be the maker. The editor though is very needed, as they can sort all the gibber out into a form that can be accepted more easily by others. They are the 'straightener', but the editor and the creator don't get along. The editor puts too many restrictions on to the naive kid. I have to watch out for that. The better my editing skills get, the less the naive creator kid comes to visit.

Q: Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you deal with it?
A: Not to fret, and I get it a lot because of the editor problem. A deadline usually sorts it.

Q: How is your health currently? Is the tinnitus causing problems?
A: I get heart palpitation problems and quite a few complications from IBS or similar. The tinnitus is a pain, but doesn't stop me creating. I'll just never trust anyone with my headphone volume again. The other things put the brakes on more, also the 'everyday life' stuff that you have to do: the shopping, the cleaning, blah blah blah. That stuff eats up so many days. Generally I've never been a healthy chap, I'm more the ill weed who forged his own school sick notes to avoid sports.

Q: What comes first: the melody, chords, lyrics or the title of a new song?
A: Hopefully all of that. The best ones have all of that mostly arriving simultaneously. If they don’t then a good technique might be to take the chord change you are liking and describe to yourself what it makes you think of. The description of this then can make the lyric. It's like you have started to paint some stage scenery and saying what that looks like becomes what the actors say, their lines. That works for me. Also, reams of loose written jibber. Exploded poems, prose, brain vomit. If I get a load of that out and written down, I can always go back days later and find good couplets, titles or even the bulk of a lyric. The trick is turning off the editor, or censor.

Q: Where do you draw your inspiration? Does having synesthesia (a neurological phenomenon in which sounds or words appear as colours) play a part in the songwriting process?
A: Synesthesia is very helpful, especially in describing what it is the chords you have played look like in word form. Inspiration can come from anything though. Some things that are good triggers are ...trying to write a song like one by another artist you admire, you know, 'in the style of' one of your favourites.  This can lead you down some great creatively wrong thinking alleys. That can work well. Repetition is big for me, to find a musical phrase that I can leave playing around and around whilst you go into a kind of trance and skate verbally over the top. That's been very productive for me; bring up songs like River Of Orchids (from XTC’s 1999 album Apple Venus Volume One), Battery Brides (a track from the band’s 1978 album, Go 2), Travels In Nihilon (Black Sea, 1980), Stupidly Happy (Wasp Star, 2000)... loads really. That’s a favourite technique.

Q: Your lyrics are very evocative. Do you have a particular favourite lyric or song that you have written?
A: Probably the ones that stand up alone on the 'poetry' front: The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul (from 1986’s Todd Rundgren-produced Skylarking album), Easter Theatre (Apple Venus Volume One, 1999) and Across This Antheap (Oranges and Lemons, 1989) are three that could be appreciated without hearing the music I think. I love lyrics, from any writer, that are pungent and can work on the poetry level. Rook (from the 1992 XTC album Nonsuch) is a good lyric too I reckon.

Q: Is there an XTC song that you’re most proud of?
A: Maybe Easter Theatre.

A: Is there a song you’ve written that you feel you did not do justice to in the recording studio, or anything you demoed but didn’t record that you regret leaving to one side? Personally, I think Everything (originally planned for Oranges and Lemons, 1989) cries out for the full XTC treatment!
Q: I really wanted to do them all, but time and costs meant that many fell by the wayside. Spiral (initially released as a digital download with Apple Box, 2005) would have fit well on Wasp Star and I was crushed that we never got to do Wonder Annual on Nonsuch, which I had a real soft spot for (Partridge’s demo appears on his 2002 demo collection Fuzzy Warbles Volume One). We actually started Everything but it was never finished, not sure why; maybe it just felt too old by the time the next album came around? The group’s way of democratically voting for songs meant that many favourites fell between the cracks for both Colin and I. We should have done This Is The End (a song Partridge wanted to use as the closing track to Oranges and Lemons: it appeared on the 1992 fan club cassette The Bull With The Golden Guts, and on Fuzzy Warbles Volume 3 in 2003), but it was voted down. Jump (issued as the B-side to the 1983 single Wonderland) could have come out better. Part of me thought that may have even been a single, but it was rushed and sounded weak.

Q: Some of your songs - Across this Antheap, Respectable Street (from 1980’s Black Sea) for example - feature a kind of prologue which later re-occours as a bridge with very different dynamics. Is that an influence you picked up elsewhere?
A: Probably from the show tunes my mum would like. That's an old Hollywood trick.

Q: Is there a band or artist that totally nailed their cover of an XTC or Andy Partridge song?
A: The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul, the version by Ruben Blades, was thrilling to hear; also Sarah McLachlan’s version of Dear God (XTC’s breakthrough hit in the US; originally the B-side to the 1986 single Grass) was rather haunting, maybe better than ours?

Q: Is there a song that you wish you had written?
A: Thousands. I sometimes think my whole career is made of me chasing after writing a song as good as Autumn Almanac by the Kinks, which haunts me still. Rain is my favourite Beatles number: a droning nursery rhyme, but magical. I hear the fingerprint of that in Towers of London (from Black Sea). Oh lord, too many songs! So... yeah, a thousand fold.

Q: You usually write alone, but have at times collaborated with other writers. Do you prefer writing alone or collaborating?
A: It's a different discipline. The two are very, very different things. For yourself you can vanish in silence, thought, tinkering, trying stuff out... sometimes for years, on a song, but if you are collaborating you have to be 'present' and compromising. I thought when XTC fell apart I could step into a career as a songwriter for hire, which I've tried to be, very unsuccessfully I must add, for the last 10 years. It seems to me that I'm constantly writing for others, only to have them reject what I do - only for them to go, in my ears, to record far inferior material with other 'hipper' writers. Maybe I am too odd for a lot of the others I have worked with? Consequently I have a vast backlog of demos of stuff written for others that they haven't used. One day I may use it myself. Who knows? My writings for others tend to be straighter than what would thrill me.

Q: Do you prefer to work with people you already know, or are you open to working with other people?
A:  I can be OK with both.

Q: You’ve had mixed experiences in the past when working with other artists. Do you find it easier or more beneficial to work with people as a songwriting collaborator, as a hired musician or as their producer?
A: Production is generally not for me. It's too much baby sitting/social worker for bands and not enough creativity. I don't think I have enough of the patience gene and can get very bored waiting for bands/artists to come up to just average. Some of them have unworkable egos where they think that they're so fucking good... but they aren't! They struggle to reach acceptable – but I'm not naming names! I have better luck with being a hired musician, but I'm not that great a player. At best I can be inventive or 'distinctive'. The songwriting thing is my best side; that is what I'm good at.

Q: What instruments do you use to write?
A: Mostly acoustic guitar, but keys now and then.

Q: Do you ever de-tune/re-tune for songwriting or chording inspiration?
A: I had a big phase on doing that in the 80's; I don’t do it now.

Q: How do you record spontaneous ideas?
A: I have a shed at the bottom of the garden for multitrack recording, but for just day-to-day ideas I still use an old cassette machine, as it's instant. I tried using digital recorders but by the time you'd set the file destination, the recording bit rate, mono or stereo etcetera, you'd forgotten the idea. Grab it quick.

Q: I know that you usually work up demos at home, but do you ever write in the studio?
A: Never. I have too much fear and respect for the cost of studios and others time, not to waste it. I always have 90-something percent of any song prepared by the time it even gets to a pro studio. The last thing you want to be doing is working out parts with the studio clock ticking and engineers drumming their fingers. The only times I've done this is where the improvisation is integral to the project, say for Gonwards with Peter Blegvad and Stu Rowe (released in 2012) or Monstrance (2007) with Barry (Andrews, former XTC member and Shriekback front man) and Martyn Barker.

Q: What advice – if any - would you give to an aspiring songwriter?
A: Where to begin? Keep your song short: two minutes is a good thing to aim for. The classic pop bands knew that and so did the classical composers. Their best works are strung together chunks of short ideas. Learn and copy from the masters: Lennon and McCartney, Bacharach and David, Ray Davies, Brian Wilson, Rogers and Hammerstein, anyone you respect really. Find out what makes them tick. Remember that you will write 300 or more songs before you start to get decent at it; the ten thousand hour rule applies here too.

If your chords don't move about much, then make your melody mobile... and vice versa; busy chord changes often need a static melody. Never use lazy rhymes in your lyrics, but be creative and make sure they all rhyme well. Anything else will judder the brain to a halt. Try to start with the title line and give them the gist of the song in the first two or three lines. Be concise and never commit the sin of boring the listener.

Q: If XTC had continued after Wasp Star, what direction do you think you and Colin (and possibly Dave) would have gone? Did you have any ideas or songs in the bag for a follow up?
A: I think we had about run our course, and it was a good long run too. I have to admit, I loved writing for XTC and now I don't have my troops, or Indians, this chief is more than a little lost, I must confess. They were such good natural players and music fans. I miss them but the male marriage is over. I've read people say ‘Oh Andy drove the band away one at a time, till there was just him’. That is so far from the truth. I thought in terms of a band, a group, never the solo thing, right from being a schoolboy.

We had a very long career and those that left did so for their own reasons. I never threw anyone out, that's not my way. If the others had of been into it, I would have kept going till I dropped dead. They were my band.

Q: You were approached by Disney to write songs for the movie version of James and the Giant Peach, but didn’t get the gig; you also wrote the theme tune to the US TV series Wonderfalls. Would you ever consider writing for film again, or perhaps the theatre?
A: I have written a couple of film ideas out but neither are musicals. They're pretty good. Opera intrigues me, as I love the scale of it but not the musical forms. They frequently have crap songs, not up to my standards. One opera in a hundred has maybe one good tune, otherwise back to the drawing board with you! Maybe I could change that?

Q: Is there anyone you would like to work with, or anyone no longer around that you would like to have had the opportunity to work with?
A: Odd choices, but here goes: I would have loved to have written some stuff for the Cramps, but seeing as Lux is solid gone... or work with Iggy Pop on an album of material. Elvis Costello intrigues me: he has good lyrics but is lazy with his melodies. I could help there.

Of course working with Macca, Ray Davies and Brian Wilson would be interesting, but they don't need me so what's the point of those particular fantasies? I would like to steer Bowie back to classical song shapes, but he's doing fine. They are all the silly dreams of a pop fan. (note: this interview was conducted less than a fortnight before David Bowie passed away)

Q: Are we ever going to see a ‘proper’ Andy Partridge album?
A: I don't know, as the 'being a pop star' dream faded a long time ago, leaving me with nothing other than the freaky ability to write a decent song. I seriously don't know. I'd like to try my hand at being an alcoholic for a while, but I think I'd get bored with it too quickly!

For a real insight into the songwriting mind of Andy Partridge a new book, Complicated Game - Inside The Songs Of XTC, is a must-read. With a forward by Steven Wilson – the guitarist and songwriter who has been working with the former members of XTC on a series of 5.1 reissues of their back catalogue - Complicated Game offers a unique insight into the work of one of the world’s most influential and original songwriters.

Complicated Game - Inside The Songs Of XTC by Andy Partridge and Todd Bernhardt, is published in March 2016 by Jawbone Press: ISBN 978-1-908279-90-3

Monday, 19 January 2015

Swallows and Amazons Forever!

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Good Bristol magazine

The Divine Comedy frontman returns in Bristol to relaunch Swallows and Amazons.

Neil Hannon is no stranger to Bristol: the Divine Comedy’s leader has brought his band to the city on a number of occasions, playing venues as diverse as the Trinity Arts Centre, the Anson Rooms and the O2. More recently the Irish-born songwriter’s presence has been felt, thanks to his collaboration with playwright Helen Edmundson and the Old Vic’s Artistic Director Tom Morris, through his compositions for the smash-hit musical Swallows and Amazons, which returns this November by popular demand.

Based on Arthur Ransome’s classic 1930 children’s novel, Swallows and Amazons is a story of an idyllic era, of endless summer evenings and the beauty of youthful imagination. In the story Captain John – the eldest of the Walker siblings - and his able crew set sail on an exotic adventure to Wildcat Island, encountering savages, capturing dastardly pirates and defeating their mortal enemies.

Neil first became interested in the idea of writing a musical after Tom Morris approached him following a Divine Comedy gig in London. “I was trying to find more books to read to my daughter,” he says. “She let me read Swallows and Amazons to her, and about halfway through I thought ‘this might work’!” However the first song he composed for the musical – Island Life – ended up not being used, finding a home instead on the Divine Comedy album Bang Goes the Knighthood.

Launched in Bristol in 2010, Swallows and Amazons proved a resounding success and the show has since toured the UK to great acclaim. With this in mind, Neil has decided not to try to alter it too much. “I’m always very dubious of tampering,” he admits. “It’s like when you come to play songs from an old album. I might think that the music I’m making at the moment is very different from that, but you’ve got to think of the people who might really love that earlier album. So we shall re-jig a couple of arrangements but not really tamper with the original at all, because it worked so well.”

A real treat for the family, Swallows and Amazons is a huge celebration of childhood and children. “My daughter came to see it last time and loved it,” Neil says. “I’ve seen children in the audience who I thought were far too young, but they’re always rapt.” There are plans afoot for the trio to collaborate again, but first there’s still the day job to consider. “It should be out next autumn,” he says when asked about the next Divine Comedy album. “It’s all written, I’m just working on the arrangements!”

Neil and the Old Vic have also launched a competition, open to all school choirs - primary and secondary, big and small - in the Bristol area. Choirs are invited to send in a recording of any song that takes its inspiration from a life on the open waves - anything from nursery rhymes to pop songs or choral works. The winning choir will be chosen by Neil, a former choirboy himself, and will get to perform their song at the Old Vic in December.

“I can't wait to hear what these choirs do with their song choices,” he says. “My main problem is just being jealous of people in choirs. I can just about remember the awesome feeling of being part of that great noise.”

Swallows and Amazons runs from November 27 – January 17 at the Bristol Old Vic, King St, Bristol. Tickets start at just £5, with discounts available for family and group bookings. See website for dates of signed, audio description and captioned performances.

Box Office: 0117 987 7877,

Closing date for the Bristol Schools Choir Competition is November 10.
Send recordings (video or audio) to or post to Swallows and Amazons Choir Competition, Bristol Old Vic, King Street, Bristol BS1 4ED

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Wiltshire's Wares

The following article originally appeared in Essentially Catering, a national magazine for caterers and food retailers.


It may be characterised by high downland and wide valleys, by the ancient stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury and by the famous white horses carved into its hillsides, but Wiltshire is as famous for exceptional food and drink as it is for its stunning countryside. Darryl W Bullock sampled the culinary delights of this West Country heaven for foodies

From the former railway town (and now buzzing modern metropolis) of Swindon to the Cathedral city of Salisbury and Wilton – the ancient capitol of Saxon Wessex – Wiltshire’s rolling hills, chalk plains and river valleys are home to a wealth of producers, offering food and drink of the utmost quality.
The county is awash with some stunning cheesemakers. At Loosehanger Farmhouse Cheeses in Redlynch, Ness and Gwyn Williams have developed an award-winning range of original recipes that capture the flavour and characteristics of the pure Ayrshire cows’ milk used as the basis for all of their cheeses. Old Sarum, a velvety cheese with blue-green veining and a natural grey rind, was crowned Best Blue Cheese at the 2007 British Cheese Awards, and many of the dairy’s other cheeses are equally highly praised.
In the village of Hamptworth, the shelves of Lyburn Farmhouse Cheesemakers must be groaning under the weight of the dozens of awards their cheeses have garnered over the years. Situated on the very edge of the New Forest, Mike and Judy Smales make superb cheese, and the Old Winchester (described by The Sunday Telegraph as “delicious, strong and characterful”) and garlic and nettle varieties deserve space on any discerning cheeseboard.
Highgrove foodsHighgrove foods
Visit any farm shop or deli in the region and the chances are that you’ll come across a product or two from Highgrove Fine Foods, which has nothing to do with HRH’s Gloucestershire abode. The company’s ever-expanding range includes anything from goose fat (essential for the perfect roast spud) to clotted cream, casserole sauces and 100 per cent natural sea salt. You may also find some of the excellent English wines produced by a’Beckett’s Vineyard of Littleton Panell near Devizes. Earlier this year a’Beckett’s won gold for its Estate Rosé as well as taking the top trophy at the Wessex Vineyards Association Wine of the Year Competition.
There are plenty of other top-rated drinks suppliers in the region, such as Stonehenge Ales, which opened for business in 1984 in an old water-powered mill (and former electricity generator) in Netheravon. The brewery recently added to its distinguished list of accolades with a gold award at the SIBA South West Beer Competition 2008 for Danish Dynamite, a strong and fruity golden ale.
Tracklements Cranberry & Orange SauceTracklements Cranberry & Orange Sauce
With products in more than 1200 speciality delicatessens, butchers and farm shops across the UK, another name you’ll find it hard to avoid is Tracklements, which produces award-winning chutneys, relishes (including the wonderful, gold award-winning Onion Marmalade) sauces and mustards. Founded in 1970 in Sherston by William Tullberg, the company is now run by his son, Guy, who heads up a team of about 50 staff. Each day they produce a phenomenal 10,000 jars from a range of more than 50 different products, using traditional methods and recipes. New for autumn is sweetcorn and crabapple relish, and they’ve a great selection of Christmas essentials too, from gift boxes to le parfait jars of cranberry and orange sauce with port.
Being one of the country’s most landlocked counties, you’re not going to find any locally caught seafood. However, Wiltshire is home to Trafalgar Fisheries, one of the longest-established commercial fish farms in the UK. For more than 30 years Trafalgar has been producing and processing rainbow, golden and brown trout and, in 1999, was awarded Soil Association certification for both their brown and rainbow trout. Over in Mere, Chris and Janet Wood of the Mere Fish Farm (01747 860461) raise and smoke their own rainbow trout, producing delicious terrines, smoked trout parcels and miniature roulades, which you can purchase from their stalls at the Salisbury and Warminster farmers’ markets or direct from their farm.
Venison filletVenison fillet
With acre upon acre of rolling green pasture, it stands to reason that Wiltshire houses some excellent meat producers. One that makes great use of its close proximity to the New Forest is Newhouse Venison, of Gill’s Hole Farm, Redlynch (01794 884543). The company supplies top quality wild venison and an excellent range of sausages: old English traditional venison, venison with port and redcurrant, wild boar with cider and apple and the unusual hot venison firecracker. Ted Clancy, a licensed game dealer from Mere (01747 860121), sells everything from venison to wild boar, pigeon, rabbit and even squirrel at many farmers’ markets in the area – subject to season of course.
Will and Dawn Hawking run Marshfield Ice Cream, one of only a handful of ice cream manufacturers in England based on a working farm. “We milk 200 Friesian cows to produce the organic milk we put in our ice cream,” says Dawn. “We do not use any artificial additives or colouring and try to source local ingredients where possible. The brownie we use in our Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream is made by Marshfield Bakery, less than half a mile from the farm.” This small family business tripled capacity last year, extending the factory into the adjacent stables, and they’re constantly improving their range. Earlier this year the newly launched Blackcurrants in Clotted Cream flavour took gold at its debut Great Taste Awards outing.
Maggie Ramage cakeThe aforementioned Marshfield Bakery was started in 1984 by Paul and Lynne White from the kitchen of their house in Marshfield High Street. The bakery offers a mouth-watering selection of handmade cakes and biscuits – including the West Country-inspired Heritage range. “A great favourite at Christmas time is our delicious mince pies,” says sales director, Ben White. “We make our own mincemeat, chopping up apples, oranges and lemons ourselves, and use handmade butter pastry rolled out by hand.
“Staying in Wiltshire has definitely been beneficial to our growth,” Ben adds. “By doing so we have been able to continue to use locally sourced ingredients and keep our loyal staff. Wiltshire has a great food identity and we are proud to be part of it.” 

Fostering in Your 50s

The following feature first appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of We Are Family magazine

We Are Family readers Andrew and Iain are a couple in their 50s living in a small, rural community in Wiltshire. They foster Steven*, 10, whose disruptive behaviour led to problems at home and school. This is Steven’s first time in care and he is the couple's first long-term placement. We talked to Andrew and Iain about their experiences as foster carers.
Iain: It always interested me. I knew I could never have children but felt that I had a lot to offer in terms of support and understanding. I had been going through the process as a single man, but then Andrew and I met up again (they had known each other previously).
Andrew: I wanted kids too, and had been quite involved with my nieces and nephews. When Iain and I got together we were told that we would have to wait two years to make sure our relationship was stable before we could apply as a couple. There were never any issues about us being older (Andrew was 50 when they started the process and Iain was 48).
I: Some of the parents who’s children were to be fostered might have had an issue with us being a same-sex couple. Strangely enough Steven was given to us because we're a same-sex couple: the understanding was that two men were better suited to deal with this particular child. We’ve had that before: people have said it's a positive as some kids can manipulate male and female couples against each other. Sometimes they don’t have respect for women because of the environment they’ve been brought up in. With Steven it doesn’t even come into his head that we’re a same-sex couple.

A: Often when you go to an agency as opposed to a council you get kids with more challenging behaviour, or older ones - the kids that the council can’t place...

I: We knew that, but didn’t really appreciate what the difference was. We decided to use an agency and were quite open to what age child we would be offered, but because I’m a smoker we couldn’t have any under-fives. We don’t smoke in the house, but that’s the rule. Boy or girl, we weren’t bothered.

A: We did respite fostering initially so we’d had some experience with kids of different ages. It's like a holiday for those kids: they can be on their best behaviour. We were warned that one kid was very difficult, and were told to fasten the bookcases to the wall, remove ornaments, but he was fine. He was hyper: he didn’t sleep. Respite fostering gave us a bit of an idea about what we would be dealing with. What it didn’t prepare us for was the day-to-day; if you’ve got a kid for a week or two there’s an end in sight but it’s different when you have one long-term.

I: The same with rules: in respite fostering you can tell them that you’ve been told that they have to have their bath at a certain time, to go to bed at a certain time, but when you’ve got a child with you longer term it’s your own rules. If you don’t get it right at the beginning it’s hard to implement rules later.

A: Kids are very good at remembering. ‘Oh, you let me do that last time...’

I: You have to be consistent. It's good to have a key word or sentence that you can use between you. I could be dealing with Steven and Andrew walks in and wants to pipe in; it’s good to have a saying like ‘have you checked on the chickens?’ which actually means ‘shut the f*** up’! Always show a united front, even if you want to kill each other. In front of the kid you have to go along with each other. They pick up on a lot.

A: Initially one kid didn’t want to go out at all, he didn’t want to go to school, all he wanted to do was play computer games and not communicate with us or his social worker.

I: He wouldn’t shower, he wouldn’t walk the dogs; he wouldn’t put his shoes on to go out... he was in his own world. Even if you sat with him he wouldn’t communicate.

A: He hadn’t been in care before and didn’t want to be here. He was going to a safe place: if I don’t engage with the outside world then it’s not happening.

I: He was withdrawn at home before, and he’d been verbally and physically aggressive. His family couldn’t cope. At school he would act out big time: if he didn’t want to do something then he wasn’t going to do it. But he’s not like that now. He’d never been taught the importance of doing his school work, but he’s got so much potential. He could do it, but he was scared of failure so he’d give up. There was no routine, no structure at home, and getting that structure, that nurturing is what they need. But he’ll never blame his family: he feels guilty that he’s having a better life... it’s all ‘I hate you, I want to go home’. They’re not fighting against you, they’re fighting against the world.

I: When you take on a kid you don’t think about the little things. You can’t stop for a coffee when you’re out and about; kids don’t want to do that. You spend a lot of time in soft-play centres!

A: The rewards come from small things: with Steven the look on his face when you tuck him in at night, or his wanting to sit next to you on the sofa. Seeing him chat with people in the village and achieving little things he’d never done before, like sledging or talking to a horse.

I: Steven’s doing great at school now. It’s early days, but he’s showing great potential – considering how much school he’s missed. He’s a bright kid, he just needs reassurance and clear boundaries. We got him into swimming: he hated it at first because he had major body issues, but now he loves it. Every Saturday morning he comes out of the pool beaming! This is not the same boy that a report was written about a year ago.

A: Everybody in the community has been really supportive. We only moved here a month before we got Steven. Everybody likes him. We had another child with is for respite fostering recently and Steven was brilliant: he took on the big brother role. It was great for both of them.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

Monday, 12 January 2015

50 Years of Wrong Corrected by Two "I do's"

This article originally appeared in B-24/7, December 10 2014

The first civil partnership conversion ceremonies have taken place in England and Wales today. Bristol writer Darryl W Bullock was among the first to convert his civil partnership into a marriage. 

At the age of 50 I’m finally allowed to get married. 

It has taken me half a century to reach the day that most of us enjoy in our twenties or thirties: a day that, growing up, I believed I would never see. Today I, a man, married another man. 

None of your mimsy blessings (I’ve already had one of those), nor your second-rate Civil Partnerships (two of those, with a dissolution in the middle); today I am – for the very first time in my life, equal to you. 

Finally, after years of protesting and campaigning for the right to be allowed the same matrimonial status as everyone else in this country, I can stand before a registrar, in front of my family and friends, and officially become someone’s husband. 

It’s been a hard-won battle to get here: strenuous lobbying by the moral minority almost scuppered the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill as it passed through Parliament in 2013 but, thankfully, common sense - and a recognition that yes, actually, gay people do deserve to be treated in exactly the same way as everyone else in the eyes of the law - prevailed. 

We've had 'same-sex marriage in Britain since the end of March, but it has taken the Government nine months to work out how to couples who are already in a Civil Partnership can convert that relationship into a fully-fledged marriage. 

Which is how Niall and I ended up returning to the Bristol Register Office suited, showered and shaved(ish), six years and four days after we were last there, to correct what a friend of mine refers to as an 'administrative error'. 

A short ceremony, little more than exchanging one document for another, four pound coins pressed into the palm of the registrar (if you upgrade before December 9, 2015 the basic ceremony is free; you still have to pay for the marriage certificate), a few photos and it was all over. 

Five decades of injustice corrected with two simple "I do's" spoken in front of a few friends. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to find the words to explain how empowering and important those two words are – or that brief ceremony was - to me. 

I’m equal. Finally. And that is something to celebrate. 

Warminster - Rural Wiltshire Town

The following article originally appeared in the April 2014 edition of My Wiltshire magazine.

Although it was first settled in the Saxon period – in the centuries before the Norman conquest – as the nearby Iron Age forts of Battlesbury Camp and Cley Hill prove, people have been living in and around the historic market town of Warminster since prehistoric times.
Situated on the edge of Salisbury Plain, near the head of the Wylye Valley, Warminster is a friendly little town with splendid Georgian architecture and more than its fair share of listed buildings. It is also home to around 18,000 people.
Coming in from the west, past the impressive façade of Warminster School (established 1707) and the unusual three sided obelisk (erected in 1783 on what was originally the town centre) the first thing you discover is the number of unique shops.
Although, like many places, its streets have been ravaged by out-of-town shopping malls, Warminster is still home to a number of distinctive retail businesses and, despite the bite of recession there are signs of rejuvination, with smart delis and coffee shops leading the vanguard. Taste Deli (26, High Street) for example, where you can pick up local cheeses and honey, organic specialties, teas, coffees, homemade cakes and, I’m reliably informed by one of their regular customers “really great sandwiches.” Specialist shops do well in Warminster: the town has several thriving businesses which can each boast over a century on the High Street/Market Place thoroughfare, including Cordens (hardware and household goods), stationers and printers Coates and Parker (where, since 1881, the Warminster Journal has been published) and bike shop Bachelors. Several antique dealers and traders are located on Silver Street.
There are a couple of historic coaching inns in Market Place – the Old Bell Inn and the Anchor Hotel – each dripping in character. Both still possess the huge gates through which once passed horse-drawn coaches carrying the great and good to the town, with the Bell – which dates back to 1483 and is Warminster’s oldest surviving inn – also boasting a characterful collonaded entrance. Many of oldest buildings in Market Place owe their origin to the corn market days when they were used as stores and warehouses by the traders who came to buy and sell at the market. A bronze statue of a girl sat high on a stack of grain sacks gazing dreamily towards Copheap, the hill to the north of the town, stands in the Cornmarket shopping arcade, reminding visitors of Warminster’s history of trading grain: carrying on that tradition, on Friday mornings a market is held in the Central Car Park – where you can also find the Tourist Information Centre, Library and the Dewey Museum. The Museum houses a display of local history and geological specimens and has a unique collection of Salvation Army ephemera. A Farmers Market is held on the third Friday of every month outside the library.
One of the jewels in the town’s crown has to be the Lake Pleasure Grounds. Just a few metres from the town centre, the Grounds feature tennis courts, a refreshment kiosk, a bandstand, a boating lake, a children’s playground and a skate park. Smallbrook Meadow, at the far end of the Lake Pleasure Grounds, is a nature reserve managed by the Wildlife Trust where, on a good day, you can see kingfishers, dippers, dragonflies, damselflies and warminster-monumenta host of wild flowers and plants. If it’s too wet head for the Athenaeum on High Street, which combines theatre, cinema, art gallery, coffee lounge and bar – and is the official base of the town’s own film society.
Warminster is great base for exploring the surrounding countryside. Bath, Frome and Salisbury are close by, then there’s Westbury, with its famous white horse hill carving, the world-renowned Longleat House and Safari Park and Stourhead, with its magnificent landscaped gardens. There are plenty of historic sites and buildings to discover in the villages around Warminster, including the ruins of St. Leonards Church at Sutton Veny and the 12th century chapel of St. James at Tytherington. You’re within easy distance of ancient monuments including the Avebury stone circle, Stonehenge and Glastonbury Tor, and the villages of Sutton Veny and Codford St. Mary, where many of the Australian servicemen (and the two nurses) who lost their lives to the flu epidemic during the 1st World War are buried. Warminster has a strong connection to the military, with the population of the town swelled by the thousands of men and women, including members of the 1st battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment, who live and work in Battlesbury Barracks.
During the mid-1960s the town became the centre of a UFO mystery, with both unidentified flying objects sighted and unidentified sounds heard.
Many believe that the frequency of the UFO sightings was because Warminster is so close to Salisbury Plain and has other military camps around the town, but for a number of years there was even a UFO centre in the town and a number of books and articles have been published on the mysteriously-named Warminster ‘Thing’.

Must Do

The Blue Plaque Trail. If you want to discover more about the town’s historic sites then grab a copy of the Blue Plaque Trail guide book from the Tourist Information Centre (Central Car Park), which has information on 22 of Warminster’s most interesting buildings. It’s a quid well spent!

Where to eat

The Cornmarket Café Bistro

Cheap and cheerful, with food – from sandwiches and baguettes to a full English – served all day. Kid’s portions available, open seven days a week.
4-5 Cornmarket, Warminster BA12 9BX. Tel: 01985 212150

The Snooty Fox

Great food, from pub grub favourites to full a la carte. Chose to eat in the restaurant, casually in the bar or, if the weather allows, al fresco in the garden. Food served lunch and evening (closed Mondays).
1 Brook St, Warminster BA12 8DN. Tel: 01985 846505

The Magpie

Cute little artist’s studio and gift shop with its own small and funky tea shop.
6 East St, Warminster BA12 9BN. Tel: 01985 216497

Ruby’s Bistro

Small but perfectly formed restaurant where everything – right down to the biscuits that come with your coffee – is home-made. Closed Sun & Mon evenings.
28 High Street, Warminster BA12 9AF. Tel: 01985 217373

Delightful Devizes

This article first appeared in the April 2014 issue of My Wiltshire magazine
Lying at the very heart of Wiltshire, the charming market town of Devizes has a history which stretches back at least as far as the Roman invasion.
Devizes: Market Town
The first Devizes Castle was erected shortly after the Norman Conquest and provided one of the area’s main landmarks (today’s castle is a Victorian building, erected on the site and now privately owned), and Devizes is one of the few towns in the country that has kept its medieval street pattern. Boasting nearly 500 listed buildings, possibly the highest concentration of such important architecture anywhere in England, there are still fine examples of Tudor and Georgian construction throughout the town.
Approaching Devizes from the west, one of the first things you encounter are the historic Caen Hill locks along the Kennet and Avon Canal: 29 locks with a rise of 237 feet over two miles. Caen Hill Marina itself provides mooring for almost 250 boats, and you’ll find colourful narrowboats and barges tied up along the canal bank all year round. If you fancy a day (or longer) on the water, canal boats can be hired from the following three businesses; Below the locks is Foxhangers, above the locks are White Horse Boatsand Devizes Marina, have everything you need.
wadworth-horsesDevizes is dominated by the presence of Wadworth’s Northgate Brewery, which proudly overlooks the town from one end of the Market Place. The new Visitor’s Centre traces the history of brewing in Devizes – Wadworth’s own history spans over 125 years – and the brewer’s famous shire horses still make daily deliveries in town. The Market Place itself is home to many of the town’s coffee shops, restaurants, pubs and shops, as well as a bustling outdoor market which was established by Royal Charter in 1141 and is still held every Thursday. Just off to the left of the market is The Shambles, Devizes’ historic indoor market, where you can buy everything from fruit and veg to flowers and fresh fish. Open every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, many of the traders in The Shambles have been working there for years. On the opposite side of the Market Place, next to the Bear Hotel (which has stood on the site since at least 1559 and was once an important coaching inn), you’ll find the Corn Exchange, where regular flea markets, collector’s fairs and live concerts are held.
The town has managed to hang on to many of its small, independent businesses – several of which you’ll find in the pedestrian-only streets radiating from around The Shambles. Take a wander down the 15th Century St John’s Alley where, occupying a wonderfully unspoiled example of Tudor architecture, you’ll find milliner Joan Pressley Hats where you can not only get your hats sorted for that special occasion but, if you wish, spend a night under the ancient wooden beams: they also offer bed and breakfast! Need a new outfit to go with that hat? Spirit Fashion (3 High Street) offers a fabulous mix of stylish clothes and accessories for all ages, and Lovely Shoes in nearby Maryport Street will sort you out with the perfect pair of heels and perhaps a matching bag too. While you’re shopping, why not take advantage of the professional fitting service at Mystique Lingerie in Little Brittox? At The Emporium (7, St John’s Street) you’ll find a wide range of gifts and homeware items, and the Bluestone gallery in Old Swan Yard is recognised as one of the foremost craft galleries in the South West, with a wide choice of high quality original work on offer.
devizes-bakeryA haven for foodies, apart from all of the glorious fresh produce you’ll find on market day in Sidmouth Street there’s Walter Rose and Son, the town’s long-established independent butcher and winner of the Best Butcher’s Shop in the South of England. You’ll often find Salisbury-born celebrity chef Tom Kerridge there: the Cook family supply most of the meat for Tom’s famous Hand and Flowers pub. Just one mile from the town, Poulshot Lodge Farm Shop sells locally sourced beef, pork, lamb and poultry, with 90 percent of the meat coming from the Hues family’s own farm, where they have been rearing livestock for almost 50 years. Take a break from your shopping at Emily’s Tearoom, in Maryport Street, situated in the North wing of the 300-plus year old Three Crowns Brewery. A trip back to a bygone age, there are home-made scones and cakes, soups, sandwiches, a range of daily specials and your tea is served in fine china cups. If you’re looking for something more substantial then head for The Bistro at Vaughan’s Kitchen in Little Brittox, where chef/proprietor Peter Vaughan also runs an excellent cookery school on Hopton Industrial Estate, Devizes, or Dolcipani in Old Swan Yard, where Sicilian-influenced dishes vie for your attention alongside the famous, freshly-baked breads and cheesecakes.
Each year the Devizes Festival brings an amazing variety of music, literature, theatre, dance, poetry and comedy to the town. Now celebrating its 32nd anniversary, the festival has grown from just a couple of days to two and a half weeks of top class entertainment: this year’s festival takes place June 4-22. The annual Devizes Carnival and Street Festival, with its colourful floats, musicians, marching bands and street performers, is held at the end of August.
In nearby Rowde, the Rowdey Cow Cafe and Ice Cream Parlour offers up to 16 different flavours of fresh ice cream made on the farm from their own cows’ milk. The café itself serves up scrumptious cooked breakfasts, lunches and teas seven days a week, using the best local produce.
kac-bargeIf you’re looking for a unique place to stay whilst exploring Devizes, Rosemundy Cottage is an environmentally-friendly, four star Bed and Breakfast situated right next to the glorious Kennet and Avon Canal. A relaxing base for both leisure and business visitors, the award-winning Rosemundy Cottage is within easy reach of the area’s many tourist attractions. Just a mile outside Devizes, in the hamlet of Roundway Village, you’ll find Southdown Bed & Breakfast, which also offers award-winning four star accommodation and is perfect for cyclists and hikers wanting to discover the gorgeous local scenery.
Whether you’re looking for a new carpet for your home or a contract floor for an office, factory, hotel or pub HallMark Flooring in Market Place can provide everything you need. With fully-qualified and highly-experienced fitters and service personnel HallMark pride themselves on providing quality, value and convenience to their customers.
The Wiltshire Heritage Museum, which also acts as the town’s Tourist Information Centre, has the finest Bronze Age archaeology collection in England with much material from the World Heritage Sites of Avebury and Stonehenge, including dozens of spectacular treasures worn by people who worshiped inside the stone circle. At the other end of town the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust museum traces the history of the canal from its earliest days to its decline and its rise to glory again thanks to the Canal Trust.
With so much history, it should come as no surprise that the town has its own ghost walk, hosted by local blacksmith John Girvan, or that the area abounds in stories, myths and legends. Perhaps the most famous story is that of the Moonrakers: a group of smugglers had hidden contraband barrels of French brandy from customs officers in the Crammer, a pond at Southbroom, Devizes. While trying to retrieve the barrels at night, they were caught by excise men, but the quick-witted smugglers pointed to the moon’s reflection and explained that they were trying to rake in a cheese which had fallen in the water. The excise men laughed at the stupidity of the yokels and went on their way – but it was the Moonrakers who had the last laugh!
The perfect centre for trips to Bath, Stonehenge, Avebury, Salisbury, Marlborough and Swindon, the countryside surrounding Devizes offers stately homes, picturesque villages, wonderful waterways and fantastic walking and cycling as well as some truly great pubs – a visit to the King’s Arms in All Cannings on May 31 is a must: the pub is hosting a fundraising concert starring the Boomtown Rats and Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel.