Between 1995 and 1998, I tried to prove my friends right and earn a fortune in IT but unfortunately I failed. One evening in early 1998, having a drink in a pub in Twickenham with four teacher friends, I realised that I missed teaching and decided to leave my IT job and return to the classroom. After two unsuccessful interviews in Heathfield and Haywards Heath, I finally got a job at Oakmeeds Community College in Burgess Hill, about two miles from where Roo and I lived.
When I started, in September 1998, I had to manage a team of eight Maths teachers. Seven of these were brilliant teachers and wonderful people. They could not have been more welcoming, friendly, funny, hard working and dedicated. One of them (let’s call her Agnes) was none of these and nothing typified her character more than the day I returned to work having suffered the death of both my parents within eighteen days of each other. Agnes told me what she thought about my Year Seven scheme of work and it wasn’t complimentary – you might call it an attack. Luckily she left the school within a year, probably to teach in a coven in Salem.
Department meetings were great. I had plenty of ideas and every member of the team always nodded in agreement with everything I said. Tony, the world’s nicest Welshman, was an enthusiastic nodder and was extremely supportive of all of my ideas. As it happens, nobody in the team ever did anything I suggested and just carried on teaching in the excellent way that they thought best. Curriculum development soon took a back seat as I realised I was fighting a losing battle, but in the best possible way. I really liked everybody in this team – apart from Agnes, obviously.
I soon found out that Mark was a good guy. He was a very imaginative teacher, popular with the students and he had great musical taste. He played drums himself and was always on the lookout for great gigs. He introduced me to The Unthanks, he loved “World Music” and we had many a great evening in The Greys watching Jackie Leven, Mike West, John Townes van Zandt, Peter Bruntnell, James Walbourne, Sharon Lewis, Luke Doucet and The Believers amongst others. Unknown to me at the time, my friend Peter was also at some of these gigs but this was before we resumed contact.
I didn’t find it easy to start teaching at Oakmeeds as the students were slow to welcome new teachers but sitting in the staffroom at break chatting to Mark about music was always a treat. In 2004, I turned fifty and, unnecessarily, Mark gave me a present, “Up All Night” by The Waifs. It’s brilliant. Just listening to it now, I realise that I have forgotten how good it is. Mark told me that it was the biggest selling album at Glastonbury in 2003. I’m not sure what that means, how they know, or if it’s important.
The Waifs consist of Vikki Thorn, her sister Donna Simpson and Josh Cunningham. They augment this trio with other musicians for records and tours. Vikki Thorn and Donna Simpson grew up in a town called Albany in Western Australia. It is on the South Western tip of the state and is over 400 km from Perth. They met Josh Cunningham in 1992 when they were playing in a town called Broome which is also in Western Australia but nearly 2500 miles North of Albany. Coincidentally, Broome is where Melissa, a good friend of Roo’s, lived for a few years. In the last twenty eight years, The Waifs have released eight albums. I have three of them and they are all excellent. Their musical genre, as described on Wikipedia, is “folk-rock” and that’s pretty accurate.
“Up All Night” was a very successful album and its success encouraged Bob Dylan to invite them to support him on tour in Australia and subsequently in the USA including a gig at The Newport Folk festival. Whilst on that tour, Donna Simpson met and later married Ben Weaver. When Paddy and I were in Oxford, Mississippi, Dave Sickman of The Hackensaw Boys wrote down a list of artists we should check out including Ben Weaver which is why I bought his 2002 album “Hollerin’ At A Woodpecker”.
“Up All Night” opens with a song called “Fisherman’s Daughter” which features an acoustic guitar, a restrained lead acoustic guitar, a wailing harmonica, some understated percussion and some lovely vocals and harmonies from the two sisters. Donna Simpson sings “I don’t like gold and I don’t like pearls. I’m just your regular West Australian fisherman’s daughter. I’m a middle class folk singing guitar playin’ girl.” Her father was a fisherman at the delightfully named Cosy Corner Beach. She is a girl and she does sing folk music and play guitar. As to whether or not she likes gold or pearls, there is no evidence either way. The second verse discusses her dreams of buying a “1962 ruby red interior R series Valiant, mother of a car”. Played live, an extra word is added after “mother”. The song builds wonderfully well with Josh Cunningham’s guitar playing soulfully before the song pauses and the first verse is repeated. It’s a lovely song.
“London Still” is delightful. It’s written from the point of view of an Australian girl living in London and leaving a phone message to a friend in Australia. She has just been to a market in Camden and bought some Motown records. She’s happy – she’s got herself a lover in London but she dreams that “if I ever come home and I, I think I will, I hope you’re gonna wanna hang at my place on Sunday still.” Josh Cunningham’s guitar is excellent once again.
In “Since I’ve Been Around”, Josh Cunningham takes the lead vocals. I always imagine that it’s actually Shane Warne, the great Australian spin bowler, who is singing. He has a very strong Australian accent. It’s a charming song in which the singer returns to his home town to find that many things have changed, many people have left but some things are the same. An old girlfriend has left town, a favourite pub has closed down but the hospital where he was born is still there and the river where he used to play still has small children splashing around in it. At the end of the song he wonders whether he should stick around. It’s a song full of memories, regrets and hope.
That’s just three tracks but the whole album is brilliant. It’s welcoming, friendly, funny, hard working and dedicated. And there’s no track called Agnes.