So there I was, in the pub toilets, trying to get a bit of peace and calm inside my brain. Could I remember the tune? The words? The noise in the bar area was making it very difficult; sea shanties, jigs and reels, a song about someone's daughter getting into a car with Jimi Hendrix accompanied by one bloke on a zither and another on the spoons. My mum was beside herself. We were all a bit chuffed, actually, about what a top night it was turning out to be. We, that is me, mum, Alan and Dawn had come out to this pub, the Shroppie Fly for their weekly folk session after a lovely day spent walking around the village of Audlem on the Shropshire/Cheshire border. The sun had come out and we and my mum and dad – down for a flying visit – had partaken of the local tea-shop, the local charity shop and the local damsons. Audlem has obviously been hit in the past by some sort of damson-based cluster bomb, there are so many of these bad boys in and around the village that I soon stopped feeling guilty about cramming my bags full of them in a fit of “forager's fever”. (You always get that when you are suddenly faced with a scrumptious great glut of something...there is an odd panic that sets in about getting enough of the wild comestible in question).
Something of the same fever had hit me earlier in the local charity shop. It was a tiny building, all higgledy-piggledy as though a giant baby had constructed it whilst playing stacking with crumbly white play-blocks. It was called “Audlem for Cancer Relief” I think. It was obviously independent but displayed in its window a giant cheque for £20,000; last year's contribution to Cancer Research by the people of this tiny village. This is an incredible sum considering not only the size of Audlem but also the fact that in this miniature Aladdin's cave of trinkets, jam kettles, crockery, clothes and kindly, wizened old ladies (the staff), the judicious punter could walk into the shop as I did, rummage around for a bit and walk out wearing a silk polka-dotted cravat and carrying a set of 6 solid silver soup spoons, a tin opener and a set of camping cutlery all for the princely sum of £1.70. My mum bought two lovely woolly cardigans and a giant suitcase and struggled to break the £3 barrier. One particular Yoda-like lady minding the shop (“Got a good few bits there, you have”) shuffled out from the shadows just as we were leaving and beamed “Come back tomorrow, we are having a sale!”. We did and they were, unbelievably. I couldn't find anything on sale that I needed as badly as a cravat and soup spoons though, but I did manage to walk off with two old mirrors and a 1970s pillar box red sun lounger for free when I passed by later after they were closed and saw them propped up by the bins. I really should go back and make a donation...
So back to the pub. I was a little oiled up on whiskey that night. I'd only had three but that's all it takes to make everything go pleasantly wonky (like the little charity shop!). The warm amber buzz in my veins was mingling nicely with the gentle joie de vivre that a day spent in the sun with loved ones in a small village whose buildings waddle their way round windy streets and damson trees to the water can bring. It was lovely. And then there was the music. Most of it was good, some brilliant. At the beginning of the evening there were five or six musicians sat around the central table playing, then gradually more and more players and singers drifted in with their instruments and their beers. Every song begun was joined by a dozen instruments as soon as the chords became clear and was lifted by a myriad voices at every chorus or refrain. It was wonderful. Not showy, not ponderous, just a lovely easy collaboration. The four of us would drift in and out of conversation as the music dictated; sometimes we'd be silent, lost in a mini-reverie. It was a fantastically relaxing evening. Imagine my irritation, then, when a renegade bit of my brain – a troublemaker from one of the less lazy, bumbly corners of my cranium pipes up and says:
“You going to sing, then?”.
I ignored it. Sometimes the best thing to do if you want a quiet life is ignore the annoying stuff and hope it goes away. It didn't.
“Come on, your mum'd love it. She said as much.”
“Shut up. I am listening to this man singing about his big sailing ship.”
“I know you want to”
“You do. You do, you do, you do,do,do.”
“I do not. Piss off.”
“Come on, you lazy tart, why don't you just do it? S'easy. Do Chastity Belt, they'd love a bit of it.”
“No, I am enjoying myself. I don't need to be involved to have a lovely time (this was true). I don't need the hassle.”
“You're scared, aren't you?”
“Nooooo, (this was untrue) I just don't want the hassle.”
“You should be bloody scared.” Chimed in another bit of my brain, this bit probably lives on its own under a dripping concrete bridge lit by a single street lamp somewhere, “These people are all a lot older than you, they probably know loads of stuff about folk, loads of songs, they'd probably sneer at you, listen to you for half a verse, then judge your voice, choice of song and general cheek to be beyond tolerance and go out and build a big Cheshire-style Wicker Man to burn you and your entire family in”.
“Ha! Ha!” put in the renegade “NOW you're scared!”.
“I am not bloody scared. Shut it both of you. I am going for a slash.”
“We're coming with you”.
That is how I ended up in the toilets of the Shroppie Fly trying to exercise a bit of mental control. By this time, several other bits of my brain had come to join in the debate – like a run on the soap box at Speaker's Corner. The annoying thing was: I knew I would do it. Even though the very thought of going in there, sitting back down at my drink, waiting for a lull between offered songs and then having to gather up all my anxieties, fear and self-consciousness into one bundle, shove it kicking and screaming under the bed in my head, take a deep breath and start singing in front of a room full of strangers, all locals, all of whom had been coming to this folk session for years and who might already have a Wicker Man handily stowed in the boot of the car made me feel sick. But this is the curse of the performer. 49% of your brain votes against doing stuff like this for all of the reasons above (and more). But they are narrowly outvoted by the 51% who love the challenge. Who will do anything for a dare. There is really only a tiny bit of egotism in there really if the truth be told. Most of it is being unable to walk away from the challenge once you've put it in front of yourself. Stage fright is basically the manic, outraged screaming of the 49% who are convinced it would be a Bad Idea. They will stop at nothing to get you not to do it; they will make you sick to your stomach, make you forget the words or the tune of what you were going to do in order to scare you into chickening out, they will convince you of 1001 things that will go wrong, not can, WILL.
But that just makes the 51% even more pig-headed and stubborn.
Defeated by the 51%, me and the 49% trudged back to my seat and took a big w=swig of my whiskey. Then, in the very next lull between tunes, before I had mentioned anything to my companions to warn them, and certainly before the 49% could do anything about it, the 51% opened my mouth and made a loud sound come out. The room turned to watch me in surprise – but it looked like pleased surprise. I found that I was singing a song called “My Grandma Lives on Winson Green”, a Brummie folk song about going out with boys in them days. When I got to the chorus, twenty or more voices joined in; it was like being thrown high in the air from a blanket held by twenty pairs of hands. I finished to loads of applause and cheering, the 51% beaming smugly at the 49% with an “I told you so”. I felt everso chuffed inside. I had another gulp of the amber stuff. It did nothing to calm the burning in my cheeks, ears and tummy even though I was, according to a group of boaters who stopped me outside the paper shop next day to talk to me about it, apparently very calm and professional-looking.
You see, I am no Great Singer. This much is true. But I love giving people a story – to a tune or not – and I am a stubborn cow.
Later that evening they asked for another song from me. I did Chastity Belt. They loved a bit of it.