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Long entry this time - there's a lot to tell.

This is a Richard Thompson song and I mus confess that although I think he's an excellent songwriter, I am not great fan of his own singing, or, for that matter, of Linda Thompson's singing either. But a few weeks ago, there was a programme on the BBC of Richard Thompson covers and although many were very fine indeed (I loved the bluegrass version of "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" and Elanor Shanley's version of "Galway To Graceland"), the one that brought my heart into my throat was Roy Bailey's singing of Beeswing, from his album Coda.

Roy Bailey is an English folksinger, part of the socialist tradition of folksingers (like Ewann McColl) from the 1950s and 1960s. In the 2000 Honours List, he received the MBE for 'services to folk music'. He returned this award in August 2006 in protest at the government's foreign policy. Many of his songs reflect his beliefs and sympathies. He has the most magnificent voice. In 2001, he recorded what he expected to be his final album - Coda (hence the name). Fortunately for all his fans, he's made several more since then. But Coda is the one that contains his incomparable version of Beeswing.

To understand why it means so much to me, this time I think I need to give you the lyrics:

I was 19 when I come to town
They called it the Summer of Love
They were burning babies, burning flags
The Hawks against the Doves

I took a job in a Steamie
Down on Cauldrum Street
I fell in love with a laundry girl
Was working next to me

She was a rare thing
Fine as a beeswing
So fine a breath of wind might blow her away
She was a lost child
She was running wild,
She said As long as there's no price on love, I'll stay
And you wouldn't want me any other way

Brown hair zig-zag round her face
And a look of half-surprise
Like a fox caught in the headlights
There was animal in her eyes

She said, young man, oh can't you see
I'm not the factory kind
If you don't take me out of here
I'll surely lose my mind


We busked around the market towns
And picked fruit down in Kent
And we could tinker pots and pans
And knives wherever we went

And I said that we might settle down
Get a few acres dug
Fire burning in the hearth
And babies on the rug

She said young man, you're a foolish man
It surely sounds like hell
You might be lord of half the world
You'll not own me as well


We was camping down the Gower one time
The work was pretty good
She thought we shouldn't wait for the frost
And I thought maybe we should

We were drinking more in those days
And our tempers reached a pitch
Like a fool I let her run
With the rambling itch


Last I hear she's sleeping out
Back on Derby beat
White Horse in her hip pocket
And a wolfhound at her feet

And they say she even marriend once
A man named Romany Brown
But even a Gypsy caravan
Was too much settling down


And they say her flower is faded now
Hard weather and hard booze
But maybe that's just the price you pay
For the chains you refuse

She was a rare thing
Fine as a beeswing
And I miss her more than any words can say
If I could just taste
All of her wildness now
If I could hold her in my arms today
Then I wouldn't want her any other way

So why this song?

It brings back memories for me, of the mid 1980s. I was in my twenties, with a good job in teaching, a motorbike, a nice flat and a cat. I was involved in campaigning against nuclear weapons (the Ground Launched Cruise Missiles, which were based at Greenham Common (and soon to be based at Molesworth). Not only was I involved in the campaigns, I was also starting to work as a journalist, writing articles for the New Statesman. I travelled around on my motorbike, travelling to protests, to peace camps - and it was at one of these that I met Paul. A classic troubled middle-class drop-out - he had got into trouble early on, and never really got out of it. He was living on the margins of society, and he was sassy and wise in the ways of the road. He was also witty and intelligent in an understated way. And he was also quite jaw droppingly good looking - he looked alarmingly like Richard Gere circa American Gigolo.

What drew us together? Well, you can see my reasons above. For him - I'm not so sure. I think he was attracted by my enthusiasm, and by what I was trying to do. I think he was flattered that I regarded him as more knowledgeable than me about some things, because he liked teaching me, and I liked learning. There was also the fact that I supplied him with a secure place to live - although that was not enough to hold him; the last time I saw him, he was happy enough back on the road. It was, indeed, not a long-lived affair; our lifestyles were too divergent. Beeswing reminds me of that summer we were together; he was the wild child, not as fine as a beeswing - but in a way, had I made other choices at that point, taking other paths, I might have travelled that road. As it is, it is a Road Not Taken in my life.

But while we were together, he opened my eyes to other possibilities - the life of people who took to the road and lived in battered old lorries, buses and vans, travelling from place to place, drifting from summer festival to summer festival, always being harassed by the police, being moved on as they looked for somewhere to over-winter. It led to me being in the right place to witness the Battle of the Beanfield, and to write an article for it for the New Statesman.

I was actually working on an article on the new anarchism and the Peace Convoy. As they were headed for a free festival at Stonehenge - and the police had vowed to stop them - it seemed a good place to get material for my article. I had no idea then that it would be the one of the biggest stories I got to cover. The New Statesman were ecstatic at having a reporter on the spot. And I ...

I remember after it was all over ... the long line of hopeless men, woman and children, cowed and beaten, their homes destroyed ... waiting to be loaded into the police vans. I went to hug one woman, and the freelance journalist I was with pulled me back, lest I should be arrested too. But I knew some of those people - I had shared their fires and their bread when I was with Paul the summer before.

That was the same summer I got to speak on the main stage at the Glastonbury Festival - a singularly muddy year. I was speaking immediately before the Pogues were due to sing - most people just wanted to hear the Pogues, and were not impressed by having to listen to a peace campaigner. 20,000 irate Pogue fans are not a particularly friendly sight - but I launched into a speech about what had happened at the Battle of the Beanfield - a complete rabble rousing speech - and ended up being loudly cheered. Very intoxicating.

It was, however, a very muddy year, and we all walked around in Wellingtons, sucking and squelching in the mud. An hour before I was due to speak, I slipped over in the muddy and fell full length in the mud. Everyone shrieked when they saw men, men and woman alike. But someone pointed me in the direction of the hot showers. A wonderful invention. Essentially, it was a large tent, some twenty foot square. The ceiling was criss-crossed by a number of tubes - these were pierced so that when hot water (heated over a wood fire in a vast cauldron) ran through the pipes, heated water sprayed over the people in the tent. It was heavenly.

But Beeswing reminds me of what still stands out in my mind as the strangest story from that time in my life.

I had spent time with the convoy and travellers at the Rainbow Village at Molesworth, first at the Green Gathering there with Paul, but later on several times on my own with friends I had made there. In the depths of winter, I slept in the huge free food kitchen that had been constructed there from trees and tarpaulins - a really magnificent two storey structure with a huge kitchen fire and a central fire, neither of which ever went out. It was like a medieval meadhall in size, shape and function - although the materials were only traditional in part. I remember the bread oven - it was a trench dug in the ground, with a fire in the base. Over this was a metal dustbin (garbage pail?) on its side, with a metal shelf fitted inside to hold the bread. Once the lid had been put on the bin, it made a great oven.

And it was always warm. When I stayed there in the winter, it was the warmest place to sleep, on the hearth there, wrapped in rugs.

In February 1985, the camp was destroyed when the army arrived to construct the perimeter fence for the cruise missile site. A very good friend, Brig, told me how he was pulled down the kitchen himself with the help of another old stager, so that it couldn't be mis-used once the Rainbow Villagers were gone. I had been planning to write an article about Molesworth; suddenly it became urgent. I wrote an impassioned account of what had happened, of what the Rainbow Village had been. It was, perhaps, my most successful article. It was readout on the newsround up on Radio 4, including the Houseman verse I had concluded the article with:

"That is the land of lost content
I see it shining plain
Those happy highways where I went
And may not come again."

I tried to keep in touch with the Villagers and find out what was happening. On evening, someone phoned me with a message from Gillie, one of the villagers that I knew. The person who spoke to me was slightly giggly - it seemed a little odd, but I was grateful for the message as I was planning to travel up to meet the Peace Convoy (as they now were) on the road.

I found them parked in a hidden layby, as the phone message had said. I made my way to Gillie's lorry, a lovely place, plain on the outside but hung with silks on all the walls, with thick carpets and huge cushions that Gillie made herself. It was an amazingly sybaritic setting for Gillie herself, who was a beautiful Pre-Raphaelite of a woman, with long deep auburn hair, a young son and hordes of adoring young men to whom she was a cross between unattainable Lady and den mother. I had tea with her and played with the boy, and by and by she said, "Were you surprised to hear from Ros?"

"Ros?" I said. I hadn't known any villagers called Ros.

"Yes," said Gillie, amused. "She says she knew you from college. She's one of the clowns."

I was familiar with the clowns, of course, inhabitants of the Village notable for their bright clothing and their painted faces as they acted as entertainers in the Village. I felt a sense of shock. The only Ros I had been friendly with at college had been a woman I'd directed in a play - a quiet, shy woman, one of the academic stars of our year, who had gone off to do a Masters in Eng Lit at Sussex.

Still feeling dazed, I left the lorry and followed the direction Gillie had given me. And by and by, I came on a group of the clowns - plainly dressed for once, but sitting on a dusty verge and painting each others faces amidst lots of laughter.

And there was Ros.

What I remember most was the sense of dislocation. I had become slightly involved in this life through my relationship with Paul, my peace campaigning and my journalism. But despite the fact that I was seen as a sympathiser and a welcome visitor (as opposed to the despised 'tourists' were seen as coming only to gawp in their ignorance), I had never been more conscious of how alien, how different their lives were from mine, than when I saw Ros squatting on the roadside with her painted face.

She was a rare thing
Fine as a beeswing
So fine a breath of wind might blow her away
She was a lost child
She was running wild,
She said As long as there's no price on love, I'll stay
And you wouldn't want me any other way

And, like the singer of the song, I wish so passionately that I could taste that wildness again, the wildness that I turned my back on over twenty years ago.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
29th Dec, 2006 10:33 (UTC)

Thank you for sharing this, Mel.
29th Dec, 2006 14:50 (UTC)
Mmm. Loved that song before your commentary. Now I will think of you every time I hear it!
29th Dec, 2006 20:34 (UTC)
Thanks for a great entry.

I know that feeling: lives brushed against each other at a certain time, and then go off in totally different directions. Then, years down the line, you meet someone or something from that period, and you wonder what would have happened only if...
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )