Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left – AOTM May 2019

Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left – AOTM May 2019

On 3rd July 1969, Nick Drake’s debut album, ‘Five Leaves Left’, was released . It sold poorly for the times, sales totalling about 6,000 records. A combination of Drake’s reluctance to tour, bad luck, and perhaps the complexity of the music meant that he was far from an instant hit. It was only after his death, at the age of 26 from suicide, that a substantial following began to grow. As the lines of the penultimate song on the album had so eerily predicted:

‘Fame is but a fruit tree

So very unsound.

It can never flourish

‘Til its stalk is in the ground.’

Fast forward almost half a century to December 2016, a date of considerable less importance to the world (but of tremendous personal significance for myself), and to an Oxfam charity shop in Balham, south west London, when I was first shown a recording of Drake’s music. It was for me an instant hit. A number of things were immediately recognisable in the music, first of all the sensitivity of the Drake’s voice. I had never heard someone sing so softly and yet with such clarity. Secondly the skill and complexity of the guitar playing. Finally there was the poetry of the lyrics. A number of the lines already stood out to me like this one from ‘Time has told me’:

Time has told me

You came with the dawn

A soul with no footprint

A rose with no thorn’

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                       Nick Drake (1948-1974)

That day I rushed back home to buy Five Leaves Left on Itunes (remember this was B.C. – Before Cedric, and consequently no Deezer). The album still stands out to me as an all time favourite, which is why I am so grateful for the honour of paying to tribute to it. A number of aspects are worth mentioning besides the enormous talent of Drake himself. The string arrangements are stunning, all completed by Robert Kirby (a friend of Drake’s from Cambridge), aside from the one on ‘River Man’. The supporting musicians, assembled by legendary record producer Joe Boyd, are incredible and the recording itself is superb, thanks in large part to sound engineer John Wood.

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Years later, John Wood (left) and Robert Kirby (right) on a documentary discussing their friend Nick Drake’s music and life

I think to give you a glimpse as to why this album is so dear to me, I should discuss some of the songs in greater detail. The opening track ‘Time has Told Me’ is a particular favourite of mine, I have always loved the twangling electric-guitar of Richard Thompson (from band Fairport Convention) on this track, and Drake’s lyrical delivery. The words themselves appear to sum up a love that could not be, and there are some tremendous insights like this one:

‘Your tears they tell me

There’s really no way

Of ending your troubles

With things you can say’

Then there is ‘River man’. Perhaps, the very greatest on this album, and possibly the best Nick ever wrote. It’s in 5/4 time, established throughout by Drake’s faultless guitar line, giving the song its asymmetrical but constant rhythm, like the flow of a river. Composer Harry Robertson provided the string arrangement this time (the young Kirby felt uneasy arranging in 5/4 time). Drake mentioned composers like Ravel and Debussey as a template for the arrangement, and no doubt this influence can be detected by the cognoscenti, but it is also worth mentioning that Robertson was credited as composer on a number of horror films at the time. Perhaps this is in part what gives the arrangement such a haunting feel. The lyrics expand on this atmosphere, with lines like:

‘Betty said she prayed today

For the sky to blow away’

There clearly is a macabre feel to the song, and it’s not surprising that people have interpreted the ‘River Man’ of the title as Charon, the boatman of the Stygian flood that divides our world from that of Hades.

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Another favourite of mine is ‘Fruit Tree’. This time the arrangement is by Kirby, who said in an interview that this was just about his favourite he did for friend Nick. I would generally agree (which is a tough call given the high quality of his other arrangements). His use of the oboe and cor anglais in this song is particularly impressive and adds to the wistful melancholy.

Fruit tree has some of the best poetry of the album. Its tempting to read into the words a kind of premonition of the Nick Drake story. A tale of fame that was unsound because it could only truly flourish after his death. Yet when Drake recorded this album we know he was still fairly confident of success. It’s better to see in it a young man, wise beyond his years, steeped in the poetry of the English Romantics and French symbolists, making a universal statement, with language such as this:

‘Safe in the womb

Of an everlasting night

You find the darkness can

Give the brightest light.

Safe in your place deep in the earth

That’s when they’ll know what you were really worth’

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The Drake family gravestone in Tanworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire, both parents outlived their child

Great art has the power to change us, or so they say. But sometimes with our favourite artists we find they have not changed us, but rather that they have acted as a mirror, reflecting back to us an undistorted image of ourselves. I have found this to be the case with Nick Drake. I do not believe I have changed after listening to his music, rather I believe it has always had such a strong effect on me precisely because it has spoken to me as I am, not as I might be. All art is a game at communication, and its aim is the same no matter the medium: to let us know we are not alone. For myself and many others since his tragic early death, Drake’s music has helped us feel that we are not alone. I hope that this article will encourage someone new to discover Nick. Perhaps, they will find as I have found, that he is:

‘a rare, rare find

A troubled cure

For a troubled mind’.

Motel Studenac – (a meal time of sensations rather than thoughts)

Motel Studenac – (a meal time of sensations rather than thoughts)

And so it was time for us, on the eighth day of our holiday, to descend upon the town of Trebinje in search of decent grub and (in Cedric’s case) a respite from all the driving. As we made our way down the long and winding path to our destination it was fair to say there was a healthy amount of scepticism regarding the spot for lunch selected that day. The road was not exactly uncluttered with detritus and it was rather narrow in places. But when we eventually arrived at Motel Studenac all doubts were immediately caste aside as the magnificence of the place dawned on us.

 

Motel Studenac is a restaurant, spa and hotel situated by the cooling banks of the river Trebišnjica. The photos will tell the story better than any  words I might be able to marshal into place, but, nevertheless, I should say this was a truly picturesque setting.  Complete with a farm for fresh fish within the beer garden. One does not always appreciate the chance to ogle at a dish alive and swimming before eating it, but this time I did, realising just how fresh the fish would be.

Before we go onto to discuss the food, I think a short aside regarding the geographical location is warranted. Trebinje is a small town in the Republika Srpska, the autonomous region of Bosnia and Hercegovina controlled by the Serbs. Bosnia is one of Europe’s poorest countries, with the world’s highest youth unemployment rate, burdened with memories of the violent ethnic conflict of the 1990s, and struggling with the societal illnesses of widespread corruption and nepotism. Yet it is also a country with tremendous natural beauty (mountains, rivers, forests and waterfalls), and a people who are charming in their own mad and wonderful way. It is well worth visiting, but not for the driving!

Now back to the restaurant. To start with, I ordered the veal broth (called a čorba in Serbian). This was exquisite and I was provided with a healthy amount of it, with the option of topping it up. Louise opted for the fish soup which was also tasty. I cannot for the life of me, remember now what Cedric ordered. Perhaps he will forgive me. The table was provided with a large supply of fresh bread, which I always think is the mark of a fine establishment.

For my main course, I went for the trout. It was superb, and although I was unable to remove Schubert’s “die Forelle” from my head or perhaps in part because, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Cedric opted for the smocked neck with soft cheese instead. His excuse was that he did not like fish! I must say I was shocked to find that the man who had driven me with astonishing levels of care and skill across three countries (through some of the most shocking conditions for driving known in Europe, I might add), had, despite all his manifold talents and virtues, the mind of a fussy four year-old. But then again it was his loss. He was fortunate that the smoked neck was also excellent.

I’m afraid I’m not going to discuss the food anymore. This is partly because my meagre descriptive abilities will always fail to capture accurately the pre-eminent qualities of the food, but mostly because I have forgotten what else we ordered. I’m pretty sure we all had three courses. That will put into context the next fact, the meal cost us 90,80 Bosnian Convertible Marks. In other words, just under 40 squid. I’ll give you a few moments to recover from that extraordinary piece of information.

At the start of the holiday, our friend, and intellect, Louise, quoted from Keats, saying ‘Oh for a life of Sensations rather than thoughts’. I cannot say that this sentiment sits terribly well with me, having been brought up since early childhood to praise above all the intellectual life and mistrust all sensual indulgences. Still it must be said that the sensations enjoyed at Studenac were superb, and my thoughts were few in number, as I relaxed on that sunny spring afternoon beside that cooling river.

 

Lake Skadar – Boat Milica Tours (Excellent Family Run Boat Tours)

Lake Skadar – Boat Milica Tours (Excellent Family Run Boat Tours)

Random Montenegrin (and no friend of the Boat Milica team): Do you speak English?

Cedric Conboy: Not a word.

It is fair to say that Montenegrins have many admirable attributes, but one of them does not appear to be an appreciation for the finer points of English wit. This exchange, together with others, helped Cedric earn the epithet “Pičko” (or perhaps pička, I may have misheard) amongst the vultures who congregate by the banks of Lake Skadar selling boat tours. I will leave it to the discretion of Cedric’s audience to decide whether they wish to research what “Pičko” means in the local dialect, but needless to say it isn’t the sort of thing one ought to start calling one’s grandma.

Luckily we already had a tour booked, with Boat Milica Tours, run by a local family. Jelena the wife does the talking in English, her husband Andrija (born in Virpazar on the banks of the lake) steers the boat and provides comment in Montenegrin, and their children help out when they can. One cannot but heap praises upon this family team. Jelena is an excellent tour guide, her knowledge of the area is superb, she is friendly and honest, and knows just when to provide information and when to leave her guests to sit back, relax and enjoy the lake. I was particularly touched at the effort the family made to supply us with coffee.

Both husband and wife, clearly have a great love for nature. Andrija, for example, was keen to point out the different kinds of birds that live on the lake, which Jelena translated for us. As Jelena explained the lake has been kept free of the development, which has to some extent crowded the bay of Kotor, meaning it remains a tranquil spot, perfect for lovers of nature.

One of the highlights of the tour was our visit to the Monastery at Kom, built between 1415 and 1427. An orthodox monk, who we met, lives on the island Monastery (in the periods of drought it is actually connected to the land). I was blown away by his warm hospitality. He provided us with food and homemade “Rakia” (rakia or rakija, the word meaning spirits, is synonymous with the Balkans, comes in many varieties and is typically distilled at home). I was moved beyond words by this welcoming, as I felt at last a real part of the Balkans.

This tour was an incredible find by Cedric and I recommend it to anyone. It was my favourite part of an epic trip which I will never forget. By the end of the holiday, my only regret was that we could not continue travelling on. One is reminded of the lines from Tennyson’s poem Ulysses, in which the Homeric hero becomes the perfect archetype for the yearning wanderer:

“I am part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades 

For ever and for ever when I move. 

How dull is it to pause, to make an end, 

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!”

 

The Church – Rather Good (Birmingham)

The Church – Rather Good (Birmingham)

Dear Readers,

I have been attending Church on a daily basis recently, and not because Lent has encouraged me to take my religious profession more seriously. You see the Church is a pub, and a rather good one too. At its altars one tends to drink of beer not wine, unless one is an outrageous degenerate in which case one imbibes Cider.

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Let’s begin with the beer, the essential element of any pub. There are several; I have opted every time for a pint of the Tighthead. A real ale, of course, with a rather rich flavour. As I haven’t tried any of the other beers, I cannot say whether they hold up to scrutiny as well, but I suspect as much. Cedric no doubt will chalk this up to my lack of adventurous spirit, but as he has ordered a pint of Aspall’s cider every time, I feel on this occasion he has no foot to stand on.

Of course, I realise, dear readers, that I may have made a blunder. You see without realising it, I have in the space of two paragraphs twice insulted cider drinkers. Rest assured I do not wish to unduly censure those bibulous connoisseurs, like my father, who indulge occasionally in a pint of cider alongside a healthy diet of bitters and other more traditionally correct drinks. I tolerate such acts of folly with a wry smile and occasionally offer a gentle witticism along the lines of: “so when did you become a farm labourer”. No, my opprobrium, rest assured, is levelled solely at those infantile entities who refuse ever to graduate from drinking alcoholic apple-juice, to try a nice pint of real ale.

Anyway, back to the review. We have on occasion been known to order some food at the Church. The first time we went for the pizza. I cannot confess to be an authority on pizza à la Cedric, but I do know a good one when I see it, or rather eat it. It was perhaps not pizzeria standard, but it was a very worthy pizza pie (as the colonials would say), and homemade too. On other visits, we have ordered chips and halloumi fries. I have no idea what halloumi is. It seems to be something vegetarians go in for, but don’t let that put you off. These particular fries are exceptional, they were really meant for Cedric, but I must say I took a fair few for myself in a most dishonourable manner.

Overall the Church, is an exceptional establishment. The staff are warm and friendly and the whole place has a traditional feel with a modern twist (to coin a pretentious phrase). It looks like a pub, sounds like a pub (without the modern trend for loud annoying music), and on closer inspection is a pub. A very good pub that is.

Rustique (Unique and very Chique), York

Rustique (Unique and very Chique), York

Dear Readers,

I’m at a bit of loss on how to proceed this week. You see for the last two reviews I’ve been riffing off the theme of the ghastly places I’ve visited, which has done a good turn for my meagre writing abilities. My righteous indignation at Milton Keynes in particular got the creative juices bubbling nicely, and I found that each word proffered itself to me with an ease that would make many a superior writer cry out in envy. No doubt my reading public is settling down at this very moment to this blog, thinking to themselves ‘Ah we’re in for a treat here, let’s see how St Nick skewers the latest locale’. Alas I am unable to oblige.

You see this week I was in York. York is one of England’s great cities, and I say that as a patriot, fully aware of all of England’s resplendent glories (and also its perishing defects). The Minster is architecturally stunning, the shops are full of quality, the station is impressive, and as I hope to convey to you in part, many of the eateries are bloody good too.  One particular restaurant was suggested by my good pal, and proprietor of this blog, Cedric. Its name was Rustique.

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I have become a zealot for Rustique. Facing out towards Castlegate, its street front is unassuming but what lies within is anything but. The food was superb, the atmosphere just right, and the alcohol flowing as it should. I went there with my dear parents, but the place is just within the budget for the student diner (depending on the student) and one may dine there even if the Paterfamilias is not forking out the necessary funds. To start I had the moule marinieres a la creme which I thoroughly enjoyed. For my main course I opted for the Steak Frites. Jolly excellent I must say. The frites were a particular highlight. They were thin, crispy and went delightfully well with the steak.

The judicious thinness of the chips reminds of something. It is never my desire to disrespect the auspicious proprietor of this blog, but try as I might I cannot stop myself at times from taking a few jabs at the sterling chap, worthy as he is, and I feel just such a moment has arisen. You see, although there is no doubt that Cedric is one of nature’s great suggestors, he is on occasion known to hold some rather unsound opinions. Whether it is through some taint of his upbringing, or perhaps the jejune concoction of Macedonian and Albanian that runs through his veins, I am not sure, but whatever the reason maybe, he doesn’t half have some strange ideas. One silly notion he is got in his head is that baths are immoral. The other is that chips should be chunky.

Now, I’m sure, dear reader you like me, are still reeling from the shock of this revelation, but if I might suggest one way you might re-cleanse your soul, is by visiting the grand city of York and tasting the frites at Rustique. Rest assured they are thin, as nature and nature’s god has commanded. Everything else about the place is superb, this is the very best restaurant I have had the pleasure to review so far on this blog, and another brilliant suggestion by Cedric.