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IAN GREEN - Fuzz To Folk

IAN GREEN - Fuzz To Folk
Luath Press Ltd. ISBN 1-906817-69-3 

Before I start this review, let me whisper a word to you Folkies who are possibly proposing to buy this book to feast on a plethora of anecdotes about the Movers and Shakers on the UK Folk scene.

And my advice is this: buy it, and you will find plenty of such content.  But the book is so much more than a trip down memory lane of Ian’s quarter century running Greentrax, Scotland’s leading traditional music label.  To give you an indication: Part 3 (of this four-part book) deals with his Greentrax years, and covers 111 pages of the 334 page book.  One third of it, in other words.

But guess what?  Having read the whole book, I would not want that percentage any other way. 

For what gives this book its gravitas, is the fact that it presents the real man, warts and all.  And spends 73 pages in Part 1 telling us about his boyhood and early manhood up to his marriage; and a further 61 pages describing life as an Edinburgh copper.   

In truth, these were the building blocks that maketh the Folk Music entrepreneur: that were – as he so neatly puts it in his book’s secondary title – the Trax of My Life.

And what interesting tracks he has made in Life’s journey.  The book has a lyrical start, evoking a fairly rural (eve-of-WW2) upbringing in his native Moray Firth.  He uses the occasional dialect word – no problem for me as I used to sell wine in all the towns across that wonderful coast from The Broch to Inverness – that might slightly puzzle the general reader, e.g. a word like “loon”, but they are sufficiently few not to need a glossary.

He vividly brings it all to life: especially his schooldays and his description regarding the sadistic headmaster and the corporal punishment inflicted on him.  It truly made my throat go dry, and thank heavens such nutters are banned from using the tawse today.

He then describes a succession of house moves as his head-gardener dad moved around Scotland.  He talks fondly of family and friends (now long gone) and really takes us right up to his National Service and his arrival in Korea, immediately after the signing of the armistice to end the “Korean War” conflict.  Along the way, he raises the eyebrow only occasionally with the odd remark – like his suggestion that after the formation of the National Coal Board, miners had less pride in their work – which might well have been the case, but my experience as the son of a Rhondda coal-face worker who died of pneumoconiosis at just 56 – is that in South Wales, miners felt real pride that they were now working for the common good, rather than to boost the fortune of the (often ruthless) mine owners.

But when it comes to the Korean War, this book really takes off.  I really loved that section.   Here he is sailing down that narrow strip of water, The Suez Canal.   The top deck of the ship is assigned to officers’ wives, and is out of bounds to Ian and his mates.   It will be a long time before I get out of my head the picture he paints so vividly on page 64:

“The sight that so often greeted us, and offended the sophisticated ladies above, was something else though.  As the troopship slowly passed the Arab labourers, fighting the never-ending battle against silting, they downed tools, lifted their clothing to expose themselves and gleefully waved their sometimes erect ‘private members’ at the women, to their extreme embarrassment, while we all roared with glee!”

Follow that!  But follow it he indeed does, with equally vivid anecdotes like the instance where he and a mate do a runner in Singapore and leave their rickshaw driver unpaid.  Such a confession after all these years, takes some guts.

Talking of the other sort of “guts”: I love his description of mass vomiting over the side of the ship in rough seas as “Calling for Hughie”.  And love even more, his account of life in Korea in those troubled times.  He speaks compassionately about the extreme poverty amongst the villagers he encountered there, but is never far away from a delicious anecdote or three … e.g. spotted by an officer, urinating into the barbed wire (because the latrine was full to overflowing), he was sentenced to dig a new lavatory in his free time.   He was given the exact dimensions that the latrine was supposed to measure, and was warned that if he was so much as an inch out, he would have to fill it all in and start again.  This took several evenings of his off-duty time. 

Extraordinary stuff.  Then he tells about being arrested by two Redcaps for being out of bounds, (but fortunately is allowed to go free without charge).  Never a dull moment.

And it ends with - perhaps most extraordinary of all - him getting a glowing Certificate of Service reference when demobbed in 1955.  He returns to Edinburgh and marriage to the love of his life June, and a life in the police because it paid more than his dad’s profession, where he’d undergone an apprenticeship of sorts, pre National Service.

I did not expect to enjoy his account of his life as a policeman, but I found it strangely gripping: it was a whole new world for me.  Certainly he opened up the mysteries of the Police Box to me.  I had seen these now increasingly obsolete structures in the past, but had not the slightest concept of the purposes they could be put, including his description of both a male and female uniformed officer being caught in flagrante delicto !  (Strike that “uniformed”: make it “out of uniform”!  Ha!)

Certainly, one can well understand why Ian rose to the rank of inspector.
He comes over throughout as a deeply decent man.    I’d like a little bit more perhaps on how a fairly liberal chap can cheerfully raid a porno magazine emporium, and then run a police folk club that features guest artistes who would presumably find such censorship anathema!  But hey, that’s my problem.

And then we come to the final music section.  This is an absolute delight: anecdote follows anecdote, fascinating fact follows fascinating fact.

There is no point in me attempting to give you a flavour of it: if I do I will get carried away and this 1600 word review, will quickly become a 10,000 word article.   Suffice to say that one is struck by just how nobly Ian speaks of the famous Folk names he has encountered along the way.   A good word to say for just about everyone.  Only Johnny Silvo - and also executives from the EMI company - seem to have rubbed him up the wrong way.

He finishes the book off with a miscellany of stuff regarding his recreation.  His many varied holidays with June; his love of dogs; his taste in radio listening and television viewing; his misfortune in buying a nightmare Mercedes and his good fortune in seeing the light and switching to BMW; his trenchant views (and in my opinion, views that are wholly justified) on the BBC Radio 2 Annual Folk Awards; his attitude to uninvited sales calls to his home telephone, etc., etc., … I could seemingly list 101 items more that he has strong views on.  Views I don’t always agree with, but they are views that make a compelling read.

The book is handsomely produced and contains some of the most inventive use of old photographs I have seen in many a year.  It has also – praise be – been well edited. The only spelling errors to catch my eye were a “Low and behold” (sic) on page 106, and the final n missing off Nairn on the following page.   And I will hush my mouth about the “craic” on page 259.  I guess the battle is lost on this Lallans word.  I think it went over with the plantation, spelt the conventional English way, but a few decades back, the Irish Tourist Board gave it a bogus spelling and tried to pass it off as Gaelic.  And like the sheep we are, we in Great Britain have all followed suit like suckers.

I end this review of a truly grand read with a twinkle in my eye.  Look, I know that Ian is a generous guy, but what has he got against rickshaw men?
Like I told you, on page 66, he did a runner when he was about 19, in Singapore.  Well, blow me, on page 308 he must have found the son or grandson of that rickshaw driver, who has now gone up in the world and is driving a motorised Tuk Tuk in Bangkok.  The guy drives Ian and June “for miles” to the restaurant, and wrongly thinking they were lost and being abandoned, Ian sends the chap packing, penniless.  The bloke disappears shouting oaths in English at him, for his refusal to pay.

And then, no sooner has the Tuk Tuk man gone from sight in high dudgeon with his tail between his legs, than Ian walks a couple of yards and sees the restaurant he’d asked for!

And like in Singapore all those years previously, he again feels bad about it.
(You should, my dear fellow.  But now’s the time to repent: just stay away from rickshaws Ian!) 

But don’t ask me to stay away from this book, or feel bad about anything. 
It is a really life-enhancing read.  I commend it.

Dai Woosnam

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