His messmates took him up, and on the deck he died,
Down In The Lowlands Low,
And they wrapped him up in an old cow’s hide,
And they sunk him in the Lowland sea,
And sunk him in the Lowland’s low.
Start as you’re bound to go on. That’s my rule of thumb and I’m bound to stick to that too. My
thumb holding the pick that sounds the low E string. Without it – as anyone will tell you – the harmony is all to cock – a different kind of cock than that with which our story starts, but a cock that’s lopsided, limping. A right bloody shambles, as they still say in Lancashire. Yorkshire too, for that matter.
So. We start as we’re bound to go on, which, you might be surprised to learn, is with Lizzie being bedded by a man old enough to be her father (and her grandfather too, I suppose, once upon a time). It was from him that she first heard The Golden Vanity in a shitty little pub in Sheffield – and The Golden Vanity is a song that is known in Wiltshire, in Cornwall and in Lancashire (it’s the Lancashire one that mentions a cow’s hide), but we didn’t know that then. His name was Georgie Law, and he was pushing fifty back in 1975. Long dead now (too soon for any compensation for his emphysema, bronchitis, pneumonia – whatever – I’m a singer, concerned with a different kind of breath, from the diaphragm, not the throat). Lizzie and me had gone into The Sheaf Tavern for pints of Ward’s bitter. I remembered, in the 50s, downing a good ten pints of it there after a poorly attended gig in The Broomhill Tavern (a pub who’s atmosphere did nowt for me and which, anyway, had no rooms going). I’d met Georgie Law then, of course – a bright youngish man in his twenties, with a passion for songs that made him famous far beyond Yorkshire. Fairly far beyond – famous in Lancashire at any rate.
“Where art thou from, mate?” he asked me then (no, really, they still spoke like that there then, but only until they got to know you and were certain that you were convinced of their Yorkshire credentials) “And tha doesn’t need to pretend tha’s from Yorkshire anywheer – I can hear the West in your voice!”
So I put him straight, which is where he was anyway. “It’s nowhere you’d have heard of, “ I said to him “But it is in Lancashire. Just a village. Bispham Green.”
“East of Ormskirk, “ countered Georgie Law, “With a grand pub called The Eagle and Child (and I’ll tell you a tale about that).”
Of course, I nearly shit myself, since Bispham Green was (and is) 80 miles from The Sheaf Tavern and small enough to be called a Hamlet by mapmakers and daft buggers. And that was how Georgie Law and me came to pass a night together, how we got a taste for tales and ale (like I said, ten pints – possibly more – of the stuff) how I came to share a man’s bed for the first (and penultimate) time and why, eventually, I took no offence when the old rogue bedded my daughter twenty years later.
“Bispham Green,” Georgie said to me when we’d already had a bit too much to be entirely sensible “Is where that young lass was killed before the war.”
I nodded to him that it was, but I didn’t let on I knew any more about it than that.
“It’s always reminded me,” he went on “Of Death And The Lady.”
Now, I can’t remember exactly what he said about Death and The Lady but I know enough about the song to summon up something of what I think he might have meant. It’s a fine song and we still perform it to this day. In it, death comes visiting a fair young maiden (they always are fair and young – young by definition, or else a spinster, rather than a maiden) to tell her that her time has come, he’s come to lead her off into the great blue nothingness. Of course, she’s cheesed off about this, to say the least. Terrified too, since she’s not to know whether Old Father Time is going to lead her into the gates of Heaven or Hell. She pleads with him – she tells Death that her father is a rich man and can give him gold and jewels and bright red robes. But what use has the Grim Reaper for gold, jewels or bright red robes? Not much, if any. And he says as much to her. “Your time is come,” he says “Your time is come, your time is come and you must away.” And she pops her clogs not long after this. The song ends with the epitaph that is written on her tomb and which she insisted upon on her deathbed. I remember Georgie singing it out loud in The Sheaf Tavern, and no-one batting an eyelid:
Here lies a poor distressed maid,
Whom Death now lately hath betrayed.
So Georgie meant that Janey Swarbrick, the young lass killed in Bispham Green before the war, was betrayed by death too, in the sense that anyone who knew anything about the circumstances of her passing (and I knew more than most) knew that death had cheated her. Unless you think (and I’m sure you don’t) that 6 years is a fair number of years for a young girl to live.
And then we sank some more Ward’s bitter, me safe in the knowledge that Georgie Law and me were kindred spirits.
Georgie didn’t sing, or even mention, The Golden Vanity that night when we were both drunk and in our twenties. I know now why that was, but it puzzled me for a long time after he taught it to Lizzie. It struck me as such a beautiful tune – and one known in my own county – it made me more than a little nowty to think that he’d robbed me of it for nigh on twenty years – it would have gone down a storm in Knott End. But I know now that it was just because he didn’t know the song yet. And that (that and him bedding my daughter) I forgive him for. Mostly because I have no choice.
But on that night back in the 50s me and Georgie talked a lot about death. We talked about the Mystery Plays that we had both seen performed in York and how we’d both thought that to be terrified by them was a damn shame. The dialogue of those plays became, in time, the words for a good many of the songs that I have always made my living from. They were the closest to a mythology that we had, we said, and then we sank some more pints and settled more comfortably into each other’s company.
“English songs,“ Georgie said, “Are about sex, death, civil war or poverty. Most of them are about all three. Small wonder they’re getting to be so popular again now. Think what we’ve all just suffered.” He meant, of course, the war and then the rationing and the need that everyone had to identify themselves as English, English, English! For God and Saint Georgie!
Of course, eventually he persuaded me to get my guitar out and he treated The Sheaf Tavern to a fine rendition of Six Dukes Went A-Fishing, a song about a drowned Duke – but I was too pissed by then to ask which duke it was (and too red faced and sober to ask in the morning). Then, Georgie Law, he wouldn’t hear of me spending shillings on a night in The Sheaf Tavern, so we rolled out into the Sheffield night, singing The Rawtenstall Annual Fair and knocking dustbins over (can you hear the dogs barking and see the bedroom lights flicking, irritably, on?)
“Listen.” Said Georgie. “Listen.”
We were sat on the floor in front of the fire in his parlour, and drinking the whisky he had no reason to save til Christmas. I couldn’t hear a thing.
“I can’t hear anythin…” I said.
“Shhhh!” hissed Georgie.
“I can’t hear anything, Georgie,” I whispered.
”You need the quiet,” Georgie whispered back, “You need the quiet to hear the music.”
You have to understand that I was 25 then and willing to do anything that my father wouldn’t have done. That was why I made my living playing the guitar in public houses. But it was a pretty meagre living and you had to take pleasure wherever you found it. If that sounds like the words of a starving peasant from a Victorian melodrama, it’s meant to. If it doesn’t, it’s still meant to.
“The Earl of Derby,” Georgie whispered close in to my ear, “Had a wife who couldn’t give him an heir. Some people are kind – they say she was infertile – but anyone who knows the truth know she was either frigid…or not interested in men.”
“The same thing, surely,” I said.
“Not at all,” Georgie continued. “Poor Earl Derby – when the balls are full the brain is empty, and his balls were fit for bursting. So he had his rocks off with a serving girl – don’t they always in these old stories? – and she ended up having his child. But she couldn’t keep it – they’d have found some excuse to drown her or burn her as a witch.”
There’s no song about any of this, as far as I know – I always meant to write one (which is something else that I do now, but not that often).
“So,” whispers Georgie, closer still, “They have themselves a little conflab, the Earl of Derby and this serving girl. He tells her to leave the child in an eagle’s nest in the woods. She’ll do the rest. And the Earl takes his good lady wife out for a walk, to improve her complexion and maybe put her in the mood for a bit of bedroom action. Now, of course, she’s amazed and a little bit terrified to hear a child’s cries coming from the nest of an Eagle. She begs and pleads with her husband to shin up the tree to see what the hell’s going on. He does that – the Earl of Derby climbs a tree!”
At this point Georgie leans back and stares at me intently, just checking that I’m hanging on to every word of the story. Then, without taking his eyes off me, he refills my glass. Clever that. He leans back in close and puts his hand on my crossed leg.
“This, of course, gives the game away. The Earl of Derby would never have climbed a tree unless he was fully expecting to do so. Sensibly, Lady Derby doesn’t let on that she has him sussed. Hark! Shouts the Earl. Hark! There’s a babe in this tree! And he throws the baby down to his wife, which she catches. Just. And this near miss brings out her maternal instincts. So, of course, she agrees to adopt the child and raise it as their own.”
Georgie downs his whisky in one and nods to me to do the same. It seems like too much dramatic emphasis for a story I’ve heard a million times before. Still, my mother never told it like this, so I don’t let on.
“She knew what he’d been up to, you know,” said Georgie, matter of factly, “But who, back then, would want to admit that their husband preferred the charms of a member of the serving classes to their own? Everyone else knew and all. But who would risk eviction? So the present Earl Derby is descended from a foundling who is also not a foundling.”
“Our house,” I said, “The house I was born in. Our house was built by Earl Derby.”
“An Eagle’s nest,” said Georgia. “My little Laddie from Lancashire has flown the nest.”
“And look what he found.” I laughed.
There was silence between us then.
And then some more while Georgie filled our glasses.
“Let’s go to bed.” He said.
As I said, I would have been willing to do anything then that my father wouldn’t have done. There’s also, to be a bit pretentious for a moment, something about the lifestyle of the troubadour that invites dangerous acts that you wouldn’t normally consider. I have to admit, it was the best I’d had in my life thus far, but I’ve no desires in that direction now (as I said before, it was the first, and penultimate, time I’d shared a bed with a man) and neither can I bring myself to describe it to you. But you won’t be surprised to know that, after it, Georgie sang us to sleep. The song he sang was an old one called The Bay of Biscay:
My William sailed on board the Tender
And where he is, I do not know,
For seven long years I have been waiting,
Since he has crossed the Bay of Biscay-o
William returns eventually, of course, only in the form of a ghost – his cheeks are grey and cold and he has the smell of the ocean floor about him – his lady, because she’s mortal and fallible, still loves him but knows that she can never welcome him back like that.
Georgie’s choice of song was not so strange. I suppose he knew that that’s how he’d feel too, if he ever saw me again (which would turn out not to be for nearly twenty years). And we’d both have changed beyond recognition – he knew that too – we’d be men who no longer did things only because their starchy fathers (by that time long dead) would disapprove.
And, of course, my name is William.
Lizzie, my daughter, was just 16 when I saw Georgie Law again, in 1975. She wasn’t found, exactly, in an Eagle’s nest, but there was something prophetic about the wooing words Georgie chose all those years ago.
I met my wife, Ingrid, in 1960. That in itself is not so strange – a lot of men my age met their wives in 1960 – it was a good time for meeting wives. What is a bit more unusual is where Ingrid and I first clapped eyes on each other.
It was in a barn in Stavanger, Norway, and she was in labour at the time.
Whoah there, Willy, I can hear you say. This needs some explanation. You’re right. It does.
Back in the late fifties I was good friends with Ewan MacColl, who you will all know as the writer of songs like Dirty Old Town and The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (they weren’t his best, but they’ll be the ones you’ll know all the same!) In 1959 Ewan was invited to perform at a folk festival in a little Norwegian town called Kopervik the following spring, but he was busy making a Radio programme at the time. He wasn’t happy to have to turn it down, but he did have to turn it down nevertheless. But it made me think that a bit of Northern Europe would be good for my soul, which the English pubs, I felt, were slowly withering away to nothing. So I hopped on a motorbike (which in those days was a lot more easily done than now) and rode up to Newcastle.
(Two Newcastle songs. One, Blaydon Races, you’ll know you know. The other, Whittingham Fair, you’ll think you don’t. I’ll come to Whittingham Fair later.)
And then on a ferryboat to Stavanger, where I got drunk on half the money I’d allowed myself for the trip and spent the night in my sleeping bag on the harbour wall. You can well imagine that this was not the most comfortable night I’d ever spent, Stavanger being decidedly Northern Hemisphere in climate, but I liked the place and I had some days to fill before the start of the Kopervik festival. So I determined to find myself somewhere more sensible (but free – had to be free) to stay for a few days.
And, so (you have no doubt seen this coming) I found myself wandering into a small barn on the outskirts of the town and, like the Earl of Derby’s wife, heard a small child’s cries coming from an unexpected source – in this case, not an Eagle’s nest, but a cow stall. And there was Ingrid, having just given birth to a baby girl, but still the most beautiful girl I had ever laid eyes on, with her snowy white skin, golden hair and rosy cheeks. She was the classic fair maiden of the songs I had been singing for all those years. All I needed, I thought, was a milk white steed to mount her on, although it looked to me as though she might well have had her fill of that kind of nonsense. I watched her from the adjacent stall – she seemed to know what she was doing – cradling the new born on her naked breast – and the kisses. The kisses so gentle. It was clear to me that this baby would be better loved by its mother than the Earl of Derby’s serving girl’s child was. Then Ingrid saw me. She caught my eye.
Did she scream? Did she cry out? Did she make a fuss?
No. Of course she didn’t – or this particular tale would be over and done with now. She smiled and said something in Norwegian (which I still don’t speak because, as you shall see, I’ve had no reason to learn it).
There’ll be a better occasion soon to tell you what happened next, but…
Sorry. But she was too bloody beautiful to argue with.
And so, as you may have guessed (although I can’t hold it against you if you haven’t, as this story is pretty way out, I admit), Kopervik never had the pleasure of young (ish) Willy and his guitar. We named the child Elizabeth (after my Grandmother – and Ingrid wanted something “not so Norwegian sounding as Edel or Hanne or Siw-hege”), sold the motorbike and caught the ferry back to Newcastle. Which is the perfect time to tell you that, although you think you don’t know Whittingham Fair, I can assure you pretty confidently that you do. This is the first verse:
Are you going to Whittingham Fair?
Savoury, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.
Remember my name to the fair maid who’s there –
She once was a sweetheart of mine.
The tune’s a whole lot faster than the song it reminds you of, but it’s the same tune nonetheless. You’ll notice there’s no parsley in it either, savoury being so much the better for warding off Old Nick. I sang the song to Ingrid and Elizabeth, as a lullaby, on that first night we spent at a bed and breakfast place in South Shields.
“We’ll go to Whittingham Fair, my darling,” mumbled Ingrid, smiling and half asleep, “And we’ll find you your sweetheart, if she’s still there, and you can see for yourself if she remembers you. But first, Willy, we need a car…”
“Less chance of that,” I said, gently stroking her forehead, “Than that acre of land between the seashore and the sand.” But she was fast asleep.
And that’s how Lizzie came to be my daughter, though I can’t explain how she came to have the voice of a Nightingale, or her natural gift for learning songs – Ingrid couldn’t hold a note, let alone a tune. But you should, if you haven’t, hear our Lizzie sing. The Golden Vanity is, of course, her speciality, but she can turn her vocal chords to anything, can my lass. I’ve even seen grown adults with a tear in their eye hearing her sing The Raggle Taggle Gypsies. It’s her gift and good luck to her – she deserves it, the life she’s had.
It was in the first summer that Lizzie finished school that she started gigging with me – and I know there’ll be some of you that think the pubs I play in are no place for a sixteen year old lass, but she looked eighteen and she had the soul of an eighteen year old by the age of fourteen. And they paid more to hear her sing anyway, on account of the fact that we’d committed her voice to vinyl, so to speak. So it was, in the summer of 1975, that I met with Georgie Law again and Georgie Law taught Lizzie to sing The Golden Vanity.
He recognised me before I recognised him. True to form, he put his money down on the bar in The Sheaf View and he bought three pints of Ward’s Best Bitter.
“Three pints,” he said to the Landlord, but looking me square in the eye, “One for Georgie Law and one each for the Lassie and Laddie from Lancashire. It looks like he needs it – he’s too old to be blushing, your father, isn’t he love?”
“What you blushing for, Dad?” said Lizzie, but of course I didn’t tell her then.
“Oh William, William, why are you so cold and grey?” Said Georgie Law.
“The grave has changed me, Mary” I said. And nothing more was mentioned.
Of course, the three of us got on like a house on fire and it was clear from the start that our Lizzie fancied him. And, like I said to you before, I didn’t mind and I soon came to forgive Georgie Law for the fact that he fancied our Lizzie in return. By that time, you understand, we could afford hotel rooms, and Lizzie had one of her own, which she gratefully shared with Georgie Law that night. I don’t know what he whispered in her ear, but it’s not too hard to guess.
“And the poor drowning boy,” he’d have whispered, “Knew that his time was up when the Captain smiled down at him cruelly from the side of the ship. His shipmates tried to pull him in, but it was too late and the fishies got him. Still – he got his revenge – he haunted the Golden Vanity until the day it sank, vanishing without trace….in the Bay of Biscay.
“Let’s go to bed.”
And, afterwards, Georgie Law would have sung The Golden Vanity as a lullaby and, because she’s my daughter, for real or not, our Lizzie remembered it and has remembered it to this very day.
The next morning Georgie asked me to have one last pint of Ward’s with him before we left for Hull.
“The grave has changed you, William,” he said, “And no doubt it has changed me too. But, you should know, that the William I knew nearly twenty years ago has never been a cause of regret to me. Not once. Nor, I hope, I to him.”
“She’s the love of my life, Georgie, that girl,” I said, “And her mother has been taken from me, just as you were. Don’t take her from me too.”
But Georgie Law just laughed – not an evil, cynical laugh, but an understanding one. “That was below the belt, Willie,” he said, “I wasn’t taken from you like the girl’s mother. I’m still very much alive, Willie, boy.”
“So’s her mother, Georgie.”
Not so long ago, I heard our Lizzie on the radio giving her version of the tale – she’s old enough now to delight in it, rather than being shamed.
“There’ll be many mothers and daughters in our line of work,” she said (and by “our line of work” she meant music), “Who have bedded the same charmer with a guitar or a cracking set of pipes. But I think we must be the only singing father and daughter in the world who’ve spent the night with the same old, late miner from Sheffield, God rest his soul.” And then she laughed, her mother’s laugh which is rasping and contagious.
Then, of course, she sang a song. And, again of course, the song was The Golden Vanity.