In Memoriam: Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy, photo by Anna

Paul Murphy, photo by Anna

Whenever I heard someone ask Paul Murphy, the Birmingham-based and Belfast-born songwriter and storyteller whose death has sadly been announced today, what he did beyond music, he would respond simply: “I’m an educator.”

This answer was typical of Paul’s thoughtful and humane approach to every experience, concept and individual. He had an unerringly generous eye for the human condition, and understood that everyone is special in a way particular to them – that everyone has a story and a value. He was eternally curious about people and ideas, and implacably committed to social justice. Most importantly, he made this into art of quite remarkable emotional scope and reach: in his songs he was able to make an audience laugh and cry within the space of a verse.

Indeed, to see Paul perform was to become part of a community, however temporary. This is what he did – he connected. Though he received much deserved exposure for his role as frontman of The Destroyers, there was something alchemical in the intimacy of his solo work. Paul was able to hold an audience, but would never manipulate one: he was always in dialogue with people, exchanging ideas and emotions with them.

Anna, whose thoughts inform this piece as much as mine, has also written some words about Paul on Facebook which I think really capture something  important about the man, and I’d like to share them here:

I’m so saddened to hear of the loss of dear Paul Murphy. Such a beautiful man, with the most generous and open hearted spirit. He cared about people and he cared about the world, and making people and the world better. It was impossible to feel alone or forgotten in his company. He will be greatly missed. Bless you Paul, I’m so glad to have known you xxx

When Anna says that it was impossible to feel alone with Paul, she nails exactly his special gift not so much for making people feel special, which sounds confected, but for helping them appreciate their own value, for nurturing and encouraging them. This is why his death has prompted such an outpouring amongst all who knew him: the word ‘inspiration’ is included in almost every tribute because Paul was inexhaustably engaged in understanding people; for him everything and everyone was fascinating and worthy of closer inspection – and in that space of learning would be the key to unlocking both their and his further potential. This is a rare gift which he gave again and again to his audiences, to Birmingham’s musical community, and, to go by their remarks about him online today, to his students. It seems impossible that we can repay such bottomless generosity.

Except that, perhaps, we can – by taking him as a role model. One of the last conversations I ever had with Paul was about labour rights and immigration, and the injustice of blaming those newest to our land for its ills and wage deflation; Paul was sharing issues of political importance on social media until the very end; his Songwriter’s Cafe project provided a glorious and crucial platform for emerging and established talents alike to practice their craft. We can all be more open-hearted and more capacious in our sympathies, more creative and more curious; we can all take from the important sadness we feel for his passing a resolution that at least a portion of what he offered us will continue through us.

Anna and I would not claim to have known Paul as well as some; we spent memorable evenings with him, enjoyed parties in his company. Given how saddened we are by his passing – and we have both cried today – we can only imagine the grief of his family and closest friends. We are a small part of a much broader and deeper community of loss, which has been brought together by love and respect for this astonishing, incisive, humble man.

Knowing you, Paul, was a privilege and an education. May we all learn and grow always, as you inspired us to do.

After The Cotswolds

2015 in pictures

2015 in pictures

2015 has been an odd year in our household. And so much has changed in the past few months. It began on top of Cleeve Hill, watching the fireworks sprawling across Cheltenham. Cheltenham, that little town that has in so many ways shaped us, drawn us, entertained us, charmed us and betrayed us. At that time we wondered what the year would have in store for us, whether we’d be standing on that very spot in exactly twelve months time, or whether something different might happen. As 2015 unravelled, the year showed us both kindness and cruelty; it saw friends drawn closer, it brought challenges, not such great health, publications, new work opportunities, travel, and it brought change.

On our usual early summer break in Exmoor, we watched the sun set over the sea, and I genuinely felt the winds changing. Weeks later we had moved town, and so many of my dreams came true when I gained a post at the University of Liverpool.

Leaving Cheltenham was in itself a strange and disorientating thing. That small Cotswold town seems to have its own sense of gravity. People always say, ‘I love Cheltenham, what a lovely town’. And so it is. Not so much for the Georgian architecture, the many coffee shops and festivals (sounding like a travel guide here), although all those things are undoubtedly nice. But for us, our Cheltenham was the most amazing friends we made. The little back streets lined with cream-washed terraces, the seagulls who always seemed to be screeching in the sky, house shows, music, creativity and comrades. But as with any ‘prosperous’ or desirable area in the UK, the town had a cruel side – the sharp and competitive housing and rental market most especially (something I blogged and tweeted about a fair bit!). However many great coffee shops you have, they can’t take the sting out of the tail when you see so many people unable to make their way, or to carve out a small piece of the world in which they live. After publicly complaining about the lack of opportunity and affordable housing, it was something of an irony when we were given eight weeks to leave our home of five years so our landlord could sell it.

So we bid farewell to friends and communities (hard!) and moved north (although, we’re still loyal to our routes, and orbiting the Midlands somewhat!) to follow the job, and to try out pastures new. New little town, new friends being made, new walks and different streets to tread. It’s from here I write. So far it’s been good. But we couldn’t have done it without the support of family and friends. Who we will take with us wherever we go!

An Ode to Generation Rent

keysIn writing this post (the first on here in many months), I’m hoping that I may be able to externalise some angst that will help me alleviate my occasional boats of Zoopla or Rightmove addiction.  In the midst of the world news and the horror of world violence that infiltrates our everyday lives, the issue of first time buyers and the ‘generation rent’ movement seems somewhat trivial, yet the social injustice that is currently being meted out onto generations of young people in the UK does deserve some mention.  The reality of the current housing situation is that more and more people are facing debt (and once interest rates rise, risk of serious financial hardship), increasing rents are crippling many individuals and families, low numbers of decent social housing and increasing rates of homelessness mean we *are* in a housing crisis.  And I do think that, whilst many aspects of the housing market (increasing prices, problems with government policy) are well reported, others are less well heard – and a lot of these problems rest with poorly regulated estate agents and even vendors themselves.

There’s been a lot in the press over recent months about the well-documented problems in the current housing market.  The government’s ‘Help to Buy’ (also termed ‘Help to Buy-to-Let’ by some commentators) hasn’t worked as well as previously hoped.  Shockingly (please sense my sarcasm here) fewer than expected numbers of young and first time buyers have entered into the scheme (where you can now buy a home with a mere 5% deposit, the government adds some more and then the buyer clobbers an extortionately high rate of interest on the rest).  According to the Telegraph, over the past year, only 3% of buyers have been aged between 18 and 30 (down from 12% the year before), so the government’s plan has not really made it easier to buy your first home.  Or perhaps potential first time buyers (like us) have just lost confidence in the market.  This is Money reported earlier this year that the majority of traditional first time buyers (typically aged between 25-36) are driven to make use of the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ to help them buy their first home, and those who can’t fall back on such help don’t expect to own their home before the age of 35.  Then there’s the Generation Rent crowd, young people and families generally in their 20s and 30s who have been completely priced out of the market – who are demanding a fairer deal from the rental sector, based on the European model of longer term tenancies, and better rights for renters.

All these stories are well and good – and they deserve reporting.  Yet, from my own (admittedly small) set of experiences, I can identify other factors relevant to these discussions which often go underreported.  We have spent many months looking for our ‘perfect home’ (then we gave up on perfect, and went for ‘home’), we’ve spent years saving our deposit, hours looking around houses, nervously placed offers, met with the bank – before deciding that, ultimately, we are priced out of the market.  Actually, perhaps ‘priced out of the market’ isn’t the right phrase – it’s more a case of no longer being prepared to play games with estate agents, pay over the odds (or quite simply, way over the asking price), or to utterly cripple ourselves to live in a home about three times smaller than we can rent.  We’ve lost trust in the market.

Despite my occasional urges to paint a room yellow, to thump a nail into the wall to put up a picture, or to rescue hoards of cats, I do consider us lucky.  We have a home (albeit owned by someone else), fairly low rent and our letting agent does (most of the time) make the repairs we ask it to.  Unlike many renters, we do feel it is our home.  But it is frustrating.  The press reports the young buyers who can’t save deposits (and this is a genuine problem, especially when you end up spending your earnings on rent) – but they report less the potential buyers who have saved, but who meet a set of different difficulties.  For us (and many of our friends) what we’ve come up against is a market that is dictated by unscrupulous estate agents, buy-to-let landlords, vendors who bought when prices were cheaper and now want to make a profit and this unsquashable drive to see houses as ‘property’ and ‘investments’ – not the homes that we are looking for.  This is especially true in towns and cities considered desirable and expensive, where the significant demand for housing leads to a booming rental market.  Estate agents will accept the offers of those who are in the best position (often landlords, with higher deposits) – first time buyers who are looking for a home just aren’t as desirable to them.

We have a few friends who are in similar positions, and we share stories which are remarkably similar.  Offers refused, landlords outbidding us, ‘best and final offers’, ‘sealed bids’, accepting offers only to withdraw them later and demand more money, houses removed from the market and then added again six months later £20,000 more expensive.  Then on top of that, landlords who refuse to maintain their properties – despite asking for high rent.  We have friends who have bought ‘shared ownership’ houses, only to find that the council regularly puts up the rent, but refuses to help with maintenance costs, or to deal with cheap fixtures and fittings that inevitably break.

So, this leaves us all as ‘generation renters’.  And in the circumstances, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.  If we can campaign for better rights for tenants, and a situation closer to that in Europe (where renting is common) this will provide future individuals and families with expenditures that they can more easily afford and with the security of a home (and homes are important, as many people with children now rent – so being able to ensure children can continue to attend the same school is essential).  As well as the flexibility to adapt to the ever changing job market.  In the meantime, perhaps campaigners should lobby MPs and the government to crack down on estate agents who have no desire to help to contribute to a sustainable housing market, and see no problem with outstripping young peoples’ budgets.  Also, perhaps current and future vendors could think twice before selling to a landlord.

So, yes, ‘Generation Rent’ may (as one paper recently reported) walk through front doors owned by landlords each day after work.  But that doesn’t mean that that these doors don’t open into our homes.  And yes we should have greater rights.  And I do genuinely check my occasional desire to ‘own my own home’ with the realisation that, in the violent and increasingly uncharitable world we now live in, having a roof over your head makes you fortunate – you don’t have to own it, and the walls don’t need to be painted yellow.  But, if we’re still renting (as are many of our friends) who is buying?  And if we stay renting, and the rental market continues to grow, if it goes unregulated, and the numbers of social housing don’t increase and improve, things can only get worse for renters (as well as buyers, and most importantly those who can’t afford either).

SWC

I first heard of the Songwriter’s Cafe when I was 15 . At the time, I was devouring Ocean Colour Scene records, and in particular their more acoustic b-sides, and discovering through those quieter moments, and via interviews with the folky frontman of that Britpop behemoth, the stripped-down delights of  Harry Smith’s Anthology and Bob Dylan. In fact, I still remember coming across that first copy – vinyl, mind – of Smith’s compendium, in the wilds of Brum’s Virgin Megastore that was; its four discs were, alas, beyond my pocket-moneyed funds, but the packaging whispered all sorts of untellable tales.

Even without knowing about all the many other wonderful songwriters then plying their trade in Birmingham’s bars – from Mickey Greaney to Daniel Rachel – the Songwriter’s Cafe had for me a similar aura as that hallowed boxset: I discovered, by tracking down every mention of Simon Fowler’s movements, that he was a regular at an event held on a Sunday afternoon in the Factotum and Firkin pub in Birmingham city centre. Shyly, I wanted to go – even more shyly, when I read (whether true or no) that the venue was over-18s only, I gave up all hope. When I finally turned 18, the Factotum (it’s now The Sun on the Hill) had shut its doors – and so had the Songwriter’s Cafe.

This story is told much better, and characteristically rather more colourfully, by the SWC’s ringmaster, Paul Murphy, in Radio To Go’s recent documentary on the Cafe. Recent because Paul decided a few years ago to relaunch the event at a secret location in the Birmingham suburbs. 15 years or so after first hearing about it, then, I was finally able not just to attend but to play this hallowed Brum institution. The evening lived up to every possible expectation – intimate and encouraging, and serious about songwriting without being precious, its small silent audience and hand-picked roster of musicians makes for a quite unique experience. It is lovely.

Next Thursday is the 2012 season’s final outing – good news for Paul’s incipient aubergine allergy – and you really should tune in to listen. The line-up is always kept under wraps, but it’s not about who’s playing: it’s about the exchange that happens when they do. It’s special, and thanks go out to Paul, Valeria and everyone at SWC for inviting me to play – but most importantly for making the whole thing happen 13 weeks a year.

Mark your diaries for 2013.

 

A Resolution Worth Keeping

I’m not usually one for resolutions of the New Year kind.  The thought of making a long list of promises (promises you never keep) just doesn’t really appeal to me.  And the cold silver light of January days never really inspires me to make these changes either!  But, I’ve been mulling over a few resolutions this year (writing blog posts being one of them!).  This got me thinking about the only resolution I have made and kept: Resolution Veggie.

Having spent many years being an on-off vegetarian, at school, University and beyond – I could never quite achieve full vegetarian status.  Meat was everywhere: part of my family life and social life.   And my blatant inability to cook, or to dream up recipes that would be tasty and nourishing alternatives to meat, didn’t help me with my ever-failing mission either.  I’d always known, in my mind, that I wanted to give up, that I didn’t want to eat animals – and one Christmas I decided to forego the turkey (I never really got the relationship between turkey and goodwill to all, anyway!) and I’ve never looked back – or touched another morsel of meat.  Fish was a longer battle, for various reasons.

In the end though, this was the New Year’s resolution that was most definitely worth keeping.  And, if I ever felt like straying off the path of meat-free life, the publication of Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Eating Animals’ was there to strengthen my convictions.  It may sound like a terrible cliché, but that’s one book that has changed my outlook on the way we live and our food chain (it changed Dan’s too).   And since my initial New Year ‘conversion’, vegetarianism has opened many doors, friendships and cooking adventures.  When you turn veggie, you suddenly meet all these other people who share the same beliefs, and find all these amazing eating places you’ve never been to before – and people around you come over to visit, and share your veggie food – it’s infectious.

Lots of people, charities and groups talk about why vegetarianism works – animals, environment, health – all these are good and true facts.  But, putting the sadness of the meat industry aside for a moment, vegetarianism provides a compassionate and positive way to live.  I’ve learnt to cook so many more types of food now.  Gone is the meat and two veg option (although, nut roast and veg for Sunday lunch is yummy!) and instead we regularly draw inspiration from so many different culinary traditions.  And our veg box and fruit bowls are full to the brim with foods we’d never seen before.  Vegetarian food is more aesthetically pleasing!  The kitchen is cleaner.  It’s generally cheaper.  And we don’t eat anything with a face.  What’s not to love?

I’m not sure I’ll ever find a resolution to stick to so passionately again (my blog posts may peter out by February) but this is one change I’m so happy to have made.

9/11/11

I was at home.

It was the first summer of university, and I hadn’t yet returned for lectures. My dad called home to tell us to turn on the TV; at that stage, he’d only heard there had been a terrible accident in New York City. We were regular visitors to the States, and had many friends there; there was an awful immediacy to what we then witnessed live on the BBC. I have never quite been able to imagine that feeling magnified, as of course it must have been on the other side of the Atlantic.

A couple of years later, a friend thought back another decade, to the First Gulf War: with the precocious ignorance of schoolchildren, she and her class had laughed when they heard the first Gulf War had broken out. She wasn’t – we weren’t – laughing anymore. As much as I have some sympathy for Adam Kirsch’s assessment that America has been remarkable in its retention of liberal values during the last decade, I find it sadly difficult to think back to that first summer of university today without also thinking of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo. I think it’s possible to do this without doing a disservice to those who died on 9/11 as a result of a premeditated crime devised with the express objective of mass civilian death; it is possible to feel not resentful of today’s proper remembrance, but rather even sadder at their passing.

Today as ten years ago, then, I sit down at a keyboard and type, to American friends both present and past, that my thoughts are with them. As our understanding of the attacks has broadened in the last decade, thoughts can also be with the families of those of other nationalities who died that day … and who have died since. In this spirit, one hopes now for a less fevered, more filial, decade to come.

Fifty Miles of Elbow Room: The Podcast

Those highway reprobates,  the Brave Sons of Elijah Perry (with whom I am loosely affiliated), are tilting at the windmill of podcast infamy. 12-2pm every Sunday, they play Americana and bicker on rhubarbradio.com. In the absence of a listen again feature on that fine station’s website, they’re uploading each week’s show for your delectation and delight.

Scrummy.