I leave home with a small guitar and a backpack and lock the front door. I have been sleeping badly and last night only managed three hours, so went out running along the River Taff this morning to wake up and for a while it has worked. Now, stepping into the taxi, under a brooding grey sky, I am overwhelmed by a wave of tiredness that lasts from Cardiff to somewhere down the line in Somerset when my train crashes into a shopping trolley. It is dragged under the locomotive and passes undereath making the terrifying metallic scraping I remember when I lived opposite a scrapyard. The train stops and the driver gets out to inspect the undercarriage. There is no damage and we carry on. I am fully awake.
From Exeter to Axminster I stare out of the window, watching Devon fields stepping way northward under gigantic clouds, trees casting long shadows in the late afternoon sunshine.
Pete picks me up at Axminster station and drives me to the cottage where he lives with his wife, Wendy. They are the hosts of tonight’s gig and this where I will be staying the night. The house is cocooned in a Dorset valley surrounded by trees just starting to show Autumn colours. There is a log fire burning in the living room, the venue for tonight’s gig already set out with chairs. I met Wendy few years ago when she came on a life-writing course I ran in Bridport. It gives me great pleasure to know that what began as a writing exercise that weekend has become Under The Hen’s Bottom: Memoirs from an Ulster Childhood, a lyrical collection of life stories published by Magic Oxygen earlier this year.
After dinner I go up to my room to tune the guitar and warm up my voice. When I come down the room is full of people. I start with an instrumental then throw in an Irish song, Raglan Road, taught to me years ago by Billy Bragg, when I recorded him for a Radio 4 programme.
It is lovely to travel light and play without amplification, but a living room full of people does deaden the sound and maybe it is this, or maybe it is the tiredness, but half way through PoppySong I forget all the words. Someone suggests I sing ‘la la la’ until I get to a bit I do remember and this advice gets me back on track. People join in and sing when asked and by the end it feels like we are a small community by the fire in this cottage, deep in a Dorset wood. I couldn’t wish for any more.
Before I go to bed I stand on the balcony outside my bedroom and look up. I see bats and the winking lights of aircraft. Then as my eyes adjust to the night I see the Milky Way stretching across the sky to where it disappears in the dark silhouettes of trees.
On the road again.
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