Monday, February 25, 2013

"I wrestled Rachel Unthank" - Part 1

being a true and frank account of how I spent a weekend in the company of popular singing group, The Unthanks, having them teach me songs and oblige me to engage in activities including the aforementioned bout of wrestling with Ms Rachel Unthank herself, with descriptions of divers other occurrences and prodigies.

A Gentleman.

Yes, readers. The headline is true. But how did this event take place? The answer lies in the January of 2012 when my beloved went on a singing weekend with the Unthanks, an event at which they teach attendees songs and cook food for them. She liked it well enough to want to go back this year. In a fit of madness I agreed to go with her. The event takes place in a farm just outside the small town of Seahouses in Northumberland, near to the famous island of Lindisfarne and its ancient monastery.

I tend to forget that the Unthanks are not actually a household name. So for the benefit of readers who have never heard of them, let me recap - at the core of The Unthanks are two sisters, Rachel and Becky Unthank, with the line-up filled out by Adrian McNally (Rachel's husband), Niopha Keegan and Chris Price. Rachel and Becky come from a local family of folkies and I think Adrian also has form in that area, though he may also be classically trained and stuff.

The day we were due to arrive was a Friday, coinciding inconveniently with an apocalyptic fall of snow across much of Britain. We were flying into Edinburgh and getting the train down (Newcastle is closer but only Ryanair fly there and that cockfarmer Michael O'Leary is not getting any of my money). Getting to Edinburgh was unproblematic - the snow was falling far further south and there was no sign of the white stuff there though the city was rather cold. When our train pulled out of Edinburgh, though, it seemed like we were entering a new climate zone, with the fields already covered in snow and increasing amounts of it falling from the sky to replenish stocks.

Things really were starting to look alarming when we arrived in Berwick (the nearest station to Seahouses). We arrived at something like 5.10 pm and had a taxi booked for 5.30 pm, but as we came out of the station we were greeted by a worried taxi driver. "You're the people who booked the taxi? We must go now!" He was mightily afraid of being trapped out in the wilds by the weather.

As we drove off, the weather got worse. It was dark now, but the heavily falling snow was greatly reducing visibility. Soon it reached the stage where we could barely see anything at all, which was somewhat disconcerting. The only thing that really kept us on the road was there being a car a bit ahead of us whose lights we could see through the blizzard - as long as the driver pointed us at the lights we would probably remain on the road.

Thankfully, the weather lifted before the car in front either reached where it was going or drove into a ditch. We also received useful text message updates on which road to use from the Unthanks and from popular author Anna Carey (whose sister was in the car with us). So we arrived eventually, safe and sound, with barely a moment to throw our bags down before we joined the other singing weekenders.

At this point we were at something of a disadvantage, because they had mostly arrived a bit earlier and had done all their saying hello to each other. They had also already done their vocal warm-ups and started learning songs, so we had to dive in fresh. I must confess to feeling somewhat awkward and did wonder whether I had made another terrible mistake. I was wondering why I, someone who has not sung properly alone or with other people since leaving school, had decided that it would be a good idea to go to a singing weekend with people who know about this sort of thing. I was not even as big a fan of the Unthanks as I think everyone else present was. But I soldiered on.

Most of the time the songs were being taught to us by Rachel and/or Becky Unthank, but some of the more nautical tunes were served by George Unthank (their father) or Jim "Shanty Jim" Mageen, both of whom are in local maritime folk group The Keelers. I will now describe some of the songs we learned (using my commemorative A Singing Weekend With The Unthanks booklet as an aide memoire).

'Gower Wassail' - a song about going around in winter (possibly around Christmas) scabbing food and drink off people. Slightly mournful.

'Unst Boat Song' - we join the terrifying world of three part harmonies for this song from Unst, which was in the mysterious language of Norn, thanks to the Outer Hebrides' long period of Norwegian rule.

'The Bonny Fisher Lad' - this is about some young lady who has fallen in love with a fisher lad. It is surprisingly sweet and unmiserable, unlike other Unthanks tunes. By now these three part harmonies were seeming like no problem.

'The Young Banker' - We only sang the chorus for this, and here are the words to it:

Young banker he had such a handsome face
And all around his hat he wore a band of lace
Beside such an handsome head of hair
For my young banker I will go there

Apparently the banker in question is actually a navvy and not a gentleman who issues loans to people. This tune is rather jaunty so now whenever my beloved and I see some young fellow with an extravagant coiffure one of us says "Ah, the young banker".

'Sea Coal' - a proper whingey Unthanks tune about having to choose between buying sea coal (the cheapest and smokiest coal available) or food to eat. It also boasts a complicated three-part harmony and a delayed joining by the bass singers that at least one person got wrong every time.

'Pull down below' - 'Pull down below is a sea shanty of the call-response variety, which would probably have been a work song out at sea. As is often the way of these things, the lyrics are a bit irrelevant, but it does feature the great chorus:

Way eagle alley - pull down below!
Eagle alley in the valley - pull down below!

Pulling down below was obviously very important in the age of sail.

'Johnson Girls' - this was another sea shanty, again of the work song variety, with lyrics about how these Johnson Girls are mighty fine girls ("walk her round, honey, walk around!"). I think this might have come from the Caribbean and it sounded a lot like the chain-gang work song that starts off O Brother, Where Art Thou? It also reminded me a bit of the version of 'Black Betty' on Nick Cave's Kicking Against The Pricks, and not just because some of the lyrics are a bit rude.

'Chicken on a Raft' - the official hit of the weekend, at least here in Panda Mansions. It is another nautical tune, though not a work song this time. Nor is it a trad. arr., having been composed by one Cyril Tawney. Although not obviously a work song, it does have a call and response element, with every second line being "Aye oh, chicken on a raft!".

But what is this chicken on a raft? Well, according to Jim Mageen, it is a dish often served for breakfast in the Royal Navy of the past, being a fried egg served on fried bread. I feel that the Unthanks missed a trick by not serving it to us for breakfast, though when we subsequently had it back in Panda Mansions it was slightly underwhelming.

OK, maybe I do not actually need to list every song we learned. What else would you like to know about the weekend? What were the people like, you ask? Well, they were an interesting cross-section of society. I think they were disproportionately female but surprisingly even in terms of age distribution. While most people were involved in singing to at least some extent, there were a few people like me for whom this was all a bit new. All of the people I talked to seemed pretty nice, apart from [REDACTED].

When we were not singing we did a lot of eating and drinking. Adrian oversaw the food preparation, and tasty it all was too, with adequate compensation made for those of us with funny eating habits. There was loads of beer and wine we could drink too. OK, so we had to pay for the bouze, but it was pretty cheap and the beer was mostly local real ale (including on draft a variety never before seen outside the pub in which it is brewed, or something). We also went for a walk through the wintery landscape, down to the beach where we froze our nadgers off singing some of the songs we had learned. From the beach we walked to Seahouses and took over a local pub, singing more songs for the bemusement of anyone who had been planning a quiet afternoon pint.

But what happened in that pub? And when will we hear the details of this alleged wrestling incident alluded to in this piece's title. Alas, to find out you will have to come back tomorrow for Part 2 of I wrestled Rachel Unthank. Or click here.

Some Links:

I mentioned above the recording of 'Black Betty' by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Maybe you would like to read my review of the album from which it comes.

Chicken on a raft (possibly the world's greatest website)

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