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ALISTAIR RUSSELL - Can't Do This On My Own 

ALISTAIR RUSSELL - Can't Do This On My Own 
Traditional Arts Development ISBN: 9781838294212 

Already fulsomely endorsed by the likes of Mike Harding “…a lovely read…”, Kate Rusby “…a must read for everyone who loves music, loves travelling…” and Ewan Robertson “…a fascinating insight into the adventures of a musician who has helped pave the way for so many of us…”, I can only add to what's already been said.

Alistair gives us the key to this book in his own summary: “All my life as a linguist, musician and sound engineer I've loved to meet new people from different cultures, to hear their stories and to chronicle them.” That comes across throughout this book, from appearing in Finland with an indigenous group attired in elk skins and horns blowing large Alpenhorns - “an acquired taste” - to the thoughtfulness of relatively impoverished hosts in Sri Lanka, to the opposite end of the scale in the USA where too much money and too little cultural introspection could lead to jarring exchanges: for example, from the hostess wife of a Texan millionaire, “Say, are you guys Bolshevists?” to an encounter with another fount of wisdom, “Seems like you guys don't like Margaret Thatcher? Over here we think she's great!”

Many readers will cherish this book for its account of the 13 Battlefield years but, for me, those aren't the best parts of the book (too much boozy laddish flavoured tales about sizes of hangovers among men who mainly weren't lads any more marred chunks of it for me). An insightful Alistair much earlier discussing the gargantuan drinking excesses of Hamish Imlach declares, “Such is the paradox of the alcohol based folk entertainer - he had a role to play, putting another brick in the wall of his own self-destruction, but deep down, he was in it for the music.” Now, for Alistair, “…after thirty years of enthusiastically joining in the boozing, I noticed my enthusiasm starting to tail off…” and the realisation that “…I had to get out of this bad behaviour loop.” Shortly afterwards, he quit Battlefield.

Alistair is a trained linguist but claims not to be a connoisseur of language as a tool for artistic expression. Too modest by half. The way he is able to articulate just the right phrase to capture a moment/situation, married to his genuine appreciation of ordinary people is what sets him apart from other chroniclers of the scene.

Just some examples. As a 16-year-old cycling around Britain, the account he gives of an episode with a similarly aged “berry brown” girl selling fruit at a roadside has all the painful sweetness of a Laurie Lee. Elsewhere, his employer on a German farm is economically but memorably dismissed as a “lean streak of disgruntlement”. A fellow car sharing hitch hiker is encapsulated as a “VERY confident young lady”, the capitalisation of “VERY” doing all that's needed here to produce a mental picture and a grin. His description of life on the dole in Middlesbrough during the Thatcher years juxtaposes the grimness of the signing on queues with humour in a manner reminiscent of Bleasdale - an acquaintance never short of a grandstanding gesture is asked by the brisk young woman at the counter if he's been looking for work, and addresses her, and the queue, with raised arms declaiming to the heavens… “WORK? WORK? BUT LASSIE, THERE IS NO WORK,” to, as Alistair puts it, “cheers and applause from the huddled masses.” Again, his sympathy with any American who “fears the sound of jackboots in the street” neatly sums the current political moment there.

It's this ability that lifts the book from being a mere travelogue with music. It will please a specialist audience, but it's my opinion that a wider readership awaits if he chooses to address them, as has been done by TV panel luminary Richard Osman, who has just topped the best seller lists with his first novel.

Think on't Alistair.

Hecor Christie


This review appeared in Issue 137 of The Living Tradition magazine