Walking home

About a month ago I got back from heaven. I’d done something I’d promised my self I would do for at least ten years and the thing I was afraid of didn’t happen. It was so, so much better than I could even imagine. And for once, the best things in life were free.


Every year for the past thirty-odd years, jazz manouche fans and musicians make thier way quietly and un-announced to the place where Robert Louis Stevenson, Django Reinhardt and Monet once lived. At different times of course , but the three of them had that in common. Must be funny, Abba told us, in a rich man’s world but Django was never that rich. He was born in 1910. He died in 1952. He came within a whisker of dying several times before that. You can find his history on line but I found him years before the internet even existed, thanks to British Rail.

While Jimmy Saville was feeling-up crippled patients in Stoke Mandeville and leering ‘ow’s about that then, guys and gals?’ an ad agency came up with a better idea than fronting a celebrity pervert: just show some pictures of a train rolling along and play the most complicated, most relaxing, happiest guitar music ever written or played.

And he still spoils everything. He spoils learning and playing my beautiful Hofner Verithin guitar, (the one that makes girls actually stroke the thing) not just because he didn’t much like electric guitars but because even though he only had two working fingers on his left hand he played approximately four zillion times than I’ll ever play. You want to talk about guitar heroes like Clapton or Page? Please do while I die laughing. .Listen to Django Reinhardt play and you can’t switch Radio 1 on for a month or more. Ther’e no moronic repitition. No children’s skipping rhymes masquerading as popular culture. No whiny nonsense about how haters gonna hate but baby you save me, or as they say in Scotland, any a that shite. There aren’t even any words in almost all his songs apart from Nagasaki where as is well-known, the fellows chew tobaccy and the women, well the women wiggy-waggy woo. Until they got atomised, obviously, but the song pre-dates the hiatus.

I went to Fontaineblue with a friend and learned the thing about the Django Reinhardt festival the hard way. It’s not at Fontainebleu. I’d bought tickets for all four days. I won’t be doing that again. Not just because most of the acts, certainly the ones the guests in the corporate hospitality tents had come to hear and be schmoozed over were nothing, absolutely nothing to do with his music, but more because the real festival is free.

We got the Eurostar to Paris then a commuter to the town. We got an AirBnB that we wouldn’t have looked at twice in England. We bought fresh croissants for breakfast and spoke O-Level French and didn’t, for once, buy espadrilles. Luckily, because we did what Django did; we hired bicycles one day and walked the next, 8km past the railway station at Avon, along the banks of the Seine to Soissons.

If you’ve got a thing about stateless refugees, or gypsies, look away now. Django Reinhardt was one. So was his wife. So are most, if not all, the real musicians who pitched-up in the camp on the north bank of the river; so were their ancestors who were put, as Django was going to be, into more sinister camps in the war. These were beautiful, handsome, proud, wistful, quiet people a million times removed from the travellers with dogs on a bit of string shambling around the west country. And they played. They played double bass, violin, melodica and guitar all without sheet music, for hours at the camp and in the village, free. For the joy of it. A whole day’s fabulous music was ours for the price of coffee and pastis and marguez, salad and frites – a bill for all of that music and food for the better part of the day for less than 2 Euros.

In the evening we wandered back to the paid-for festival to hear big names hamming-up what sounded like the incidental music from ancient episodes of Starsky and Hutch. We felt the same then as I feel now, as I’ve always felt Django Reinhardt’s own unique music. There is nothing like it. There never will be again.

 

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One good thing

My doctor told me I might just possibly have a brain tumour, but not to worry. To be fair, she phrased it slightly differently, telling me if not to park that thought, which is about as effective as not thinking about elephants, then that we could think about that after the results of an MRI scan, which she far from comfortingly scheduled urgently.

While I bravely primed the people who might have some passing interest in my untimely demise on the offchance that at least some of them might rent their clothing while I could still witness this event, I did some fairly serious thinking about stuff. The best thing I did was to buy two tickets to the Django Reinhardt festival at Fontainebleu.

Assuming I don’t fall off a ladder or get run over, it seeming statistically unlikely that I have a brain tumour rather than just an irritating form of tinnitus, in July I’ll be sitting in the sun with a friend listening to how back in Nagasaki the fellows chew tobaccy while the women wiggy waggy woo, and rather hoping there might be some of that in the offing shortly thereafter despite previous assurances to the contrary. Now all I have to do is find-out how to get there without bankrupting myself on Eurostar. I’ve outlived Django already. He died of a brain heamorrage long before MRI scanners had ever been thought of. Nine seconds of searing pain and no more. There are much worse ways to go.

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It Had To Be You, Django

It Had To Be You, Django

What is there to say, Django Reinhardt?
You take forever now to smoke
That cigarette on the album cover.
A perfect swirl of smoke
Rises past your svelte lapel.
It all went pretty well that evening,
Even from here I can tell.
You did the gypsy thing
The jazz thing, the war thing
And now I’m older than you then
I still can’t do the guitar thing
The way you did with just two fingers.

Your wife made trinkets out of celluloid
Shirt collars, the same stuff they used to use
For film and like old pictures always could
It can burn. And then it did.
The caravan you lived in,
You two crazy kids in your teens,
The whole thing caught light
And as you saved your wife
You lost your hand; or at least some fingers.
You thought it would change your life
And it did but not the way
Anyone might have thought.
You were a gypsy jazz musician.
You looked like a Jew;
That’s what people said in those days.
Some places they still do but you,
When the Nazis came you got lucky.
Hitler might have detested jazz;
And Heydrich, the Reich Gaulieter of Bohemia
And Moravia wrote the rules but the guys
With the boots and the guns, the farm boys
And the doctors, the fliers and the sailors
Listening to Lili Marlene and Bing
And Miller and Dorsey, all of that swing thing
They liked that stuff. They were hep to that jive,
Man. Betty Grable! What a dish!
That music swung too, so Django, you didn’t
When nobody would have taken bets on you
Coming out the other side of that war.
Nobody at all. But someone looked after you.
You hid in plain view, playing at the Hot Club de Paris,
Not down some alley off a half-forgotten street
In an unfashionable arrondisement.
Not you. You were still up there with your name
In lights same as it was with you and Grapelli,
Back before; Someone else
With a pressing reason to leave Paris fast.
But it worked out somehow.
Nobody knocked on your door
In the small hours or if they did,
Only for friendly reasons
And with some pressing urgency,
The way it is sometimes.
Someone was looking after you.
And then June ’44
And America and electric guitars
That you never really liked
Listening to you, it’s plain that’s true.
The fluency still there but the sound flat.
Maybe nobody knew what electric guitars
Were for back then. Maybe even you.
Transatlantic meant a week on a ship before
You came home again to Soissons-sur-Seine.
Thirty seconds of pain before
You put down your guitar for good.
You played better with two fingers
Than most people learn to play in two lifetimes,
That sound that people danced to, crooned to,
Swooned to, the forever sound of golden years.
In an imaginary past full of promises
That no-one meant to break, but still.
You know how it goes. You do now, anyway.
You played Limehouse Blues for a place
Where now you need a million,
To even think about it. That’s blue.
Nagasaki for a somewhere else
We don’t like to talk about too much.
You told us, back in Nagasaki
Where the fellers chew tobaccy
The women wiggy waggy woo. And maybe they do.
So I’ll see you in my dreams, and in nuages,
In a Sentimental Moon, Beyond The Sea,
In Echoes Of France with those Swing Guitars,
Swinging In Springtime. It had to be you.
Django. Didn’t it? That and Stephan’s Blues,
Double Whisky, Christmas Swing. Just for Fun.
Oubli. Parfum. Swing 39, 41 and 42.
All of these your tunes. It just had to be you.

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Before the war

 

You know who they are. Everyone knows who they are. They're you.
You know who they are. They’re you.

Before The War

 

Before the war in our hearts

We kissed on the platform.

The guard blew his whistle.

Wooden doors slammed shut

Minding our fingers.

My hand on your waist.

Your fingers on my shoulder.

Remembering other times

And our hands and hearts

And when I remember that now

I know it didn’t happen.

There were no steam trains

Long before you were born.

I didn’t wear a hat or a British Warm.

You didn’t wear an A line skirt

And a long woollen coat

And we weren’t afraid of babies.

There were plenty of things

We were afraid of

But not that. And we didn’t talk

About them anyway, so it didn’t matter.

It wasn’t as if they could get in the way.

There were no cheery porters

Carrying our bags for a tanner tip.

‘Blimey, thanks guvnor,

You’re a gent and no mistake.’

It wasn’t ever that way in our lives.

Django Reinhardt didn’t play as our Blue Train

Wheeled down to the Cornish Riviera

We didn’t take the Boat Train to the Continent

Via Harwich, tapping our feet in memory

Of Sidney Bechet on clarinet at the Trocadero

The night before; via all the places

Where once other heroes queued in line

Embarking or demobbed, waiting patiently

For their lives to begin again,

The ones that could.

So why do I remember it this way?

You’re still here. We are, maybe.

Who is it talking to me?

Why do I seem to see a woman’s face as if in fog

Sometimes until I look again

And there’s no-one there?

There never was.

Who is it calling to me, telling me be nice

It doesn’t matter, nothing does?

Only love. Take care.

Make love, take love while it’s there.

Call the ceasefire.

Agree terms, an honourable peace,

Even unconditional surrender

If you mean it. But stop the fighting.

Put up your bright swords

Put down your arms

Put your fingers on each other’s lips

And kiss. Do it now.

While your hearts are still bare.

 

(c) Carl Bennett 2014

 

Just to clarify, no, I haven’t had a massive bust-up with anybody. Quite the opposite. This is a poem. It’s a first take, down in one like a Saturday night cocktail. It probably needs a bit of tweaking. But like any fiction, while it might call to you and I hope it does it isn’t real. But as the other Bladerunner said right at the end of the film, then again, what is?

 

 

 

 

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