Words Words Words

Author: Ashley Hutchings
Published: Talking Elephant
Website: http://www.talkingelephant.co.uk

This slim yet heavy-duty, ringbound A4-landscape volume could, I guess, be regarded as a coffee-table book (do we still have coffee-tables these days? - well, if Les Barker can have occasional tables, then I suppose…). It reprints, in a consistent, entirely plain and reader-friendly font-size and sensibly well-proportioned page layout, a goodly selection of song lyrics, album sleeve-notes and poems all written by the redoubtable Ashley Hutchings.

Ashley's status as "godfather of folk-rock", pioneer, mover-shaker and enabler, is both legendary and steadfastly ongoing (and in no dispute); but surprisingly little has been vouchsafed in terms of pinpointing the essence of the man himself (Geoff Wall & Brian Hinton's commendable "volume 1" authorised biog of the Guv'nor, published around a dozen years ago, went some way towards getting much of the factual stuff straight and scotching some misconceptions along the way, but of necessity concentrated more on Ashley's impact on the scene through which he moved and shook, and revealed comparatively little of the private individual). Here, we focus in on Ashley through his central, lifelong self-confessed passion for words, one which he's harboured, and naturally, automatically nurtured from an early age, beginning with the love of reading aloud and an all-consuming delight in the very sound of words and progressing through the limited scope of journalism to "proper" wordsmithery in the art of songwriting.

Thus, Words Words Words, in assembling for us conveniently under one purple roof the man's own carefully chosen selection from his own immense and diverse output, giving representations of each creative muse; it mines the rich seam that represents the kernel, "in a very, very small nutshell". And in doing so the reader gains an accurate and surprisingly intimate knowledge of the man's intellectual psyche. The frontispiece comprises just four singularly telling quotes from folks who know/knew him and/or whose lives his own has intersected and impacted; these together convey the essence of the man, summing him up so much better than any number of flowery or academic cultural assessments (and this despite his undoubted achievements in the arena of scholarship).

Fittingly, the anthology begins with About Dawn (a poetic reminiscence inspired by his first professional years with Fairport Convention, and first recorded by the Rainbow Chasers band in 2005), and ends on the full-circle sentiment of The Show Goes On (as indeed it does, not least with the multi-headed hydra of The Albion Band). The first section of the book consists of song lyrics, and is by far the most comprehensive, nay exhaustive, with no fewer than sixty contrasted examples - most, but not all of which can readily be recalled from associated album releases but many, perhaps surprisingly, gaining a new perspective by being presented here in "cold" print shorn of their musical dimension. They're grouped, according to Ashley's own foreword note, under the criterion of "instinct rather than logic", which is not as arbitrary as it might seem and makes sense especially appreciating Ashley's penchant for expressing and translating age-old stories into a current idiom through the media of plays and film. For the book's not just a convenient anthology, but on another level a stimulating and enjoyable mind-game, where the reader is challenged and invited to spot the copious knowing cinematic and theatrical references couched within. This rationale also applies to Section 2 of the book, subtitled Album Sleeve-Notes, which seems at first glance just to be a fairly random and very selective Cook's Tour (yes, I feel sure Ashley would appreciate that analogy!) of reproduced highlights of Ashley's contributions to this difficult (and undervalued) sub-genre of creative writing. These prove Ashley's inherent skill in evoking, via a combination of acutely felt reminiscence and sometimes heady stream-of-consciousness prose, a philosophy and/or an era that so accurately complements the album encased within - from the eponymous Fairport Convention through to Street Cries and including the masterful ruminations of By Gloucester Docks I Sat Down And Wept. (It may be a moot point here, but I believe Ashley's puckish foreword note confuses the issue a little by implying that this selection of album sleeve-notes comprises a "whole group of surreal pieces each in the style of a … writer from the past", but surely this description refers not to the whole section but only to the specific entry for the Ashley Hutchings Dance Band's 1996 album A Batter Pudding For John Keats). Lastly, in the short pre-finale section, Poems (from which Ashley carefully draws the distinction from Song Lyrics), we find some of Ashley's most touching and endearing (and literate) creations, inspired and informed by heritage and history - including several examples where he rose to the challenge and discipline of writing about something contemporary but using the 14-line structure of the Elizabethan sonnet.

Words Words Words is a handsome volume, one that presents not a trendily soundbite-bitty cobbling-together of assorted writings with no substance beyond the physical page, but a genuinely imaginative and thoughtful collection, robustly and attractively housed: one that provides a sufficiently rounded (and yet necessarily selective) pen-picture of the man behind those words - for which reason alone it deserves your patronage.

David Kidmann

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