Saturday, 29 June 2013

Tending the family tree...

Families, past and present, are interesting concepts. Many of us define ourselves by our nationality, by our culture, by the configuration of our immediate families – number of siblings, birth sequence, presence or absence of extended generations. For me family was a pretty tight little island – two much older half-sisters (one gone now), only one grandparent alive during my very young childhood, parents gone much too early, and then I left America nearly 30 years ago and haven’t been back to visit very often since.

Things I regret: Not asking my parents more questions about their backgrounds – though I have the feeling that there were some topics they really didn’t want to discuss; not staying in better touch with cousins, aunts, uncles – though many of them died when I was quite young. We were not a family of letter writers. Well, I was in my day but with penfriends, not family members. And I’ve moved house so many times in the past 40 years that I’ve discarded or lost papers and mementos along the way.

In 2008 on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas Day for my non-UK readers) we were in a café in Kenilworth after watching a duck race (that’s another story…) and started talking about family history. My sisters had a different father who I never met – the family story I had heard was that when they were very small he was struck by lightning in a rowboat on a lake at a church picnic. Was this true? I wanted to find out more. I also knew very little about my grandparents and no knowledge of any of my family beyond my parents parents. On New Year’s Day 2009, still in our pyjamas, we sat on the sofa, fired up the laptop and discovered the joys of’s free two week subscription.

Things I learned: It’s good to have an unusual name with multiple spellings; Canadians are mad about genealogy; old census records are a fascinating read; California is much better than other states at putting up its birth and death records (more on this in a moment). When you find an interesting document or bit of data you react just like the people on the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are, except no one is filming you (thank goodness, considering the pyjama aspect) and you’re not famous.

I’d forgotten my father’s mother’s maiden name, but I found a Californian death record of his sister Rita. She had been a country music performer with her husband, who I remembered had an Italian name. The death record pulled all this together and also pointed me to two birth records, a daughter and son. The son was born the same year as me, I’d never heard of him. A search of his name revealed that he was also a musician. I contacted him through his MySpace page and discovered that not only had he played with Johnny Cash for a number of years, he also occasionally toured the UK with a singer, Eve Selis.

Eve visited the UK in 2010, but without her full band. We met her in a little village hall in Tingewick, Buckinghamshire. She is a powerhouse singer, a real force of nature. She is also one of the most outgoing, positive people I’ve met. If you haven’t heard her, you must do so now.

Finally last year in July my cousin Jim was on the tour and one of the gigs was in Oxford, near enough for us to go. And the band had an evening off in Stratford upon Avon, just down the road from us. We joined them for an Indian meal with lots of chat. I brought some papers and info about my father, the uncle Jim never met. Eve took a photo. Having so little close family, I’m not used to looking like other people. The resemblance is striking (see below).

Eve and band were in the UK this month and we got to see them again at The Stables in Milton Keynes (super venue, you must go there sometime). It was great to have the opportunity to chat with Jim again and the band was astounding, as usual.

Things that amaze: One of Alun’s early jobs in the 1980s was with the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, which took the area from countryside and villages to a modern urban centre. He hadn’t seen it years and we were agog at the huge-ness and “American-ness” of it; the amount of genealogy information available now on the internet – not only was the lightning story that started this search true (on-line newspaper archives, bless), but eventually I was able to go back through even more generations and the number of people I’m related to has increased exponentially. 

Does an interest or ability come from nature or nurture? I would have thought the latter, but my parents were not especially musical (OK, they would burst into song now and then, but neither ever played an instrument or performed), and I've flitted around the edges of the music world most of my life. We people are complex little pumpkins, aren't we?

Eve Selis and me, Tingewick Village Hall 2010
Title song from "Family Tree"

Cousin Jim Soldi and me, July 2012

We were at this gig in  2012 in Oxford...

Sunday, 9 June 2013

"Wouldn't it be dreadful to live in a country where they didn't have tea?" - Noël Coward

There is a running joke in my world that whenever someone mentions a place my usual comment is “There’s a really nice tearoom there…”. It’s a joke that contains a grain of truth. I’ve been lots of places (not all, obviously!) and have enjoyed many a beverage and meal in a number of charming tearooms. And coffee shops. Not to mention cafeterias, restaurants, bistros, diners, mobile coffee wagons, and…you get the picture.

But tearooms, yes. They’re lovely when done right. We took a trip to America in 2009 to visit family and friends. Before we went I trawled the internet for interesting tea-drinking establishments along our route from New Jersey to Connecticut to Boston to New York and discovered something strange – in the States “tearoom” doesn’t mean an attractive, possibly retro-decorated, room serving sandwiches, cakes, scones, perhaps the odd hot dish or two along with hot and cold beverages. It means a tearoom “experience” for which you have to book a group in advance and is usually connected with an event of some sort: a little (or big) girl’s birthday or an engagement do, sometimes with hats and dresses supplied. It was not possible to rock up and just drink tea and eat cake. One promising sounding place got a poor rating on a review site because it did not offer tea leaf readings! Oh my goodness, I remember them from my tiny-hood at my mother’s favourite after-shopping lunch place, Kelly’s in Philadelphia. Is this still a big thing? I was gobsmacked.

So we ate at the Reading Terminal Market, Pat’s King of Steaks, the Sycamore Drive-in Restaurant, Rein’s New York Style Deli, and some other places that will remain nameless because they were nice but unmemorable, good but I've forgotten their names, or not all that good. But no tearooms, not a single one, with or without tea leaf readings.

The very good news is that all over the UK there are delightful tearooms, most of which you can simply walk into without a reservation and eat delicious things.

This is one of them…

Alun and I recently took a short break in Durham, in the north, because we had been saying for a long time that we wanted to have a look at it, and we wanted to take a train trip to somewhere where we didn’t have to change trains (so a return to the Rye of our honeymoon was out). While we found that dinner in Durham was a bit of dilemma (lots of chain places or restaurants that looked like they hadn’t changed their menus or décor since the 1970s), the town is packed with nice tearooms and cafés. The best of what we tried was Tealicious. Funny name, super tearoom.

The room is painted in light colours and “girly” without being too twee, the food was very nice, indeed (photos below), the owner charming. And while the house speciality is proper leaf tea (we had a Miner’s Brew for two, guaranteed to put hair on your chest – strong but didn’t), no one offered to read our leaves, thank goodness. For heaven’s sake, what more would you want? 

About 10 years ago I started a tearoom sketchbook that I kept up sporadically, and have recently revived. Of course I didn’t have it with me that day in Tealicious. But I did take photos and promised myself that this blog would, at least some of the time, talk about tearoom experiences.

If you’re travelling around the UK and want to visit tearooms, ask me. I don’t wear this mantel of Tearoom Queen lightly.

PS: "High tea" is a sort of dinner. It's "afternoon tea" that you want, and don't let anyone tell you differently...

Very inviting...

Tea and scones of the finest (and please no discussion about the correct pronunciation of "scones").

A recent page from the Tearoom Tales.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

What is it? You know you want one...

You may or may not know that I play music enthusiastically if not particularly skilfully. It’s important to do things you like with no thought for the result. I remember reading a story a long time ago about a therapist who helped a gentleman get over his perfectionism. The gentleman wanted to paint pictures but felt he wasn’t good enough so he didn’t. After he completed his therapy he began to paint for pleasure, lots of paintings. The therapist had one of the paintings in his office, it was terrible, but on handing it over the gentleman said “I present you with…not my best”. It was hung in pride of place.

I took piano lessons for six years when I was little, gave it up at 13 because I really wasn’t getting much of anywhere, though switching from classical to jazz did help a bit. Then I had a go at guitar for a long time and even managed to play actual chords in an actual bluegrass band on actual stages in my late 20s. Then my musical engagement went underground for a long time, nearly 25 years. (I still have the guitar, it’s a really nice Yamaha that I got for a good price because the guy in the music store thought it was a less expensive model than it really was – but that’s another story).

Singing without accompaniment can sound a bit naff, unless you’re a very fine singer, indeed, and even then it can sound a bit naff. After watching the film “Walk the Line” about six years ago I became fixed on the idea of having an autoharp, like June Carter Cash played. And being an old 60s sort of person I admired The Lovin’ Spoonful, the only rock band with embedded autoharp player (and I always thought John Sebastian was really cute).

On with the quest. A quick internet search tossed up lots of autoharp sites and a lot of autoharps, some looking pretty cheap and cheerful and others, custom jobbies, rather expensive. What to do? A gentleman in Hereford was the ticket – Mike Fenton. Mike not only sells the very respectable Oscar Schmidt autoharps (and will replace broken strings if needed), he also conducts workshops and master classes, performs in schools and is a full inductee in the – wait for it – Autoharp Hall of Fame.
We contacted him, discussed my autoharping needs and for Christmas 2007 Alun bought me a very fine Schmidt 21-chord Centurion in a spiffy padded case. It has a lovely rich sound that less well-made harps don’t have.

It also came with an instruction book, “It’s an Autoharp” by Cathy Britell, named that because it was the answer to the question she was most often asked. (This eventually was my experience as well.)
If you play guitar you can get the measure of an autoharp in about 5 minutes. If you don’t play guitar it might take 10 or 15 minutes or so longer. Never was there an instrument that could provide such musical joy in such a short amount of time. 

Naturally, it takes a bit more time to play well, but even a beginner player can create recognizable music quickly. Anyone can strum, but it’s the picking that makes the most beautiful sounds.

It can go all technical, with chromatic models or diatonic models, you can even have left-handed harps made, but you don’t need to deal with that at first. 

Consider the autoharp. Once you play one you want one. Trust me.

It was a ukulele day at a local music shop, but I brought the autoharp as well. The shop manager had never seen one closeup before...

 John Sebastian himself will teach you to play!

Jo Ann Smith is a brilliant player.

Mother Maybelle Carter (June Carter Cash's mother) who was the inspiration for Mike Fenton and many other autoharpists.

Put "autoharp" into a YouTube search and prepare to be overwhelmed...