The Shoefactory is an amazing Arts Space created by two musicians, Nick Weldon and Andra Sparks. The building is Victorian, and in its industrial day was part of a complex stretching up Fitzwilliam Hill. The owners were the well-known firm of shoemakers, Horrell's.
There were once hundreds of similar buildings, large and small, throughout Rushden and out into Northamptonshire, for this county was for many years the centre of the shoemaking industry in England. The reason for this is said to be that Oliver Cromwell chose to have the boots made in this area for his New Model Army, because of the high quality of the cowhide leather available hereabouts. The military connection persisted, and during the Twentieth Century, many millions of army boots were made here, most of them in pairs. Now that the shoemaking industries have left England and Italy, and moved to the highly efficient workshops of the Far East, Horrell's old shoefactory now throbs with the sound of grand pianos.
Moving back in time, it appears that the area was once the location of an important Roman settlement. However, to understand more fully the complex make-up of the local inhabitant, we must look back into pre-history, to the time when, it is speculated by men of fuller and wiser imagination than me, an invasion took place of the area of nord-hamtun by a colony of nomadic extra-terrestrials.
Little is known of them, save that they were gentle and private beings, at least by contemporary standards, and also, by virtue of their long and difficult journeys through Space and Time, obsessed both with methods of transport and the planning of routes.
Presumably finding intrusive the rough and tumble ways of the locals, the invaders created a type of holding camp for the indigenous males, and this was known as Earthling Burrow. Some have deduced from this that the colonisers from Outer Time may have been exceptionally tall and humorous; certainly their characterisation of the hamtuns as small mole-like creatures is evidence of a light and ready wit, but I myself imagine the travellers to have been shape-shifters, rather than specifically tall. Or for that matter short. The female hamtuns, well known for their large proud bosoms, were in turn removed to a place known as Earthling Chests Here.
By Roman times, these names had become respectively, Irthlingborough and Irchester. But how much had their populations changed! It was inevitable, despite their physical separation, that the male and female hamtuns would find a way to have intercourse among each other. The back passages of the hamtuns are famous, and rightly so. A more surprising outcome was the gradual merging by sexual dalliance of the invaders with the earthlings, with the result, some many millennia later, that the Northamptonshire genotype contains the most perfectly balanced combination of the Ancient Celt with the Alien.
This may sound far-fetched. If the invaders were in fact so tall and so gentle, and the earthlings so short and fierce, how, you might wonder, might sexual intersection have been even possible between them, leave alone desirable? This is precisely what leads me to the theory that the extra-terrestrials were capable of shape-shifting, of taking on when necessary the persona of a smaller being, even of a mole. A proud bosom is a great incentive, wherever you live in Space and Time. And the evidence, after all, is around us still. How else must we explain the strange forehead, the jutting breasts, and the fiercely private nature of the modern hamtun? And what of his obsessive concern with means of transport? Surely this can only originate in the cultural psyche of the alien?
If we have no direct evidence of this from pre-history, we nonetheless have markers from the intervening periods. Here is a fragment of text from the Vatican Library describing an event in Northamptonshire at the time of the Roman Occupation.
The text is of course incomplete, and the dialect in any case somewhat indecipherable even by the most learned of contemporary scholars, but I have pieced together a simulacrum of the story.
A Roman centurion speaks. He addresses a native craftsman working far from his home.
"...do not let me interrupt your work, Plumbus Cisternius... (note -it was the habit of local craftsmen to take Roman names)...but I bring you news of tragedy in Hamtun. A charioteer has lost control on the dark bend by your house, which he has entered by the front window, spilling logs from the stove and setting a fire in which your wife and seven children have perished, by smoke and by charring".
"What was he driving?" asked the craftsman.
"I believe it was a fiat puntus turbum", replied the centurion, with compassion. "From last year".
"Strange", said the craftsman, "they usually hold the line well. Where was he headed?".
"Way beyond your village, they say", replied the centurion, 'for the settlement at Castor".
"Strange", replied the craftsman. "For there are safer and faster roads thereto, albeit less direct. Would he not better have taken the A14?".
"I presume he wished to test the cornering of the apparatus at speed", replied the centurion. "A young man, obviously. Hot of temper and heavy of scrotum. His commander will make reparations to you on his behalf. For the charring. The damage. They say, by the way, that the charioteer was distracted by a woman naked in the road. On a large black horse. The hamtun breasts, you know. How they can bewitch a man!".
The text becomes garbled at this point, and it seems clear to me that at the mention of the bosoms, the craftsman finally understands the enormity of the centurion's message, and, realizing also what and how much he has lost, succumbs to a fit of incomprehensible sniffles and snuffles.
I hope that this short account of the origin of the hamtun hybrid is sufficient to throw light upon the psyche of his ancestor, this stranger dwarf in our midst who comprehends nothing unless it has an accelerator pedal, and whom we ourselves could hope to know just a little bit better.
The Shoefactory on Fitzwilliam Hill fell into disuse during the 1960s, due largely to the popularity of a singer named Sandie Shaw, who performed in bare feet. A wave of unshod hippy lawlessness spread through Europe and the World, and the Shoemaking Industry collapsed. Shortly afterwards, in search of wontons of mass destruction, the Americans invaded Vietnam.
Back in Rushden, the Shoefactory became a storage depot, then a furniture warehouse, and by a combination of gravity and neglect, was slowly drifting down the hillside towards a final resting place. In 1997, 115 years old, the building was bought by Carl Alban, and saved.
He and his family (wife Jacqui and young son Max) moved into a caravan in the factory yard, and began the gruelling process of her renovation (of the shoefactory, not of Jacqui). The building was cleaned, sandblasted, restored with basic utilities and made generally weatherproof. Three years later, with a stunning loft lounge, a 4 bedroom living area, a large gravel carpark and a courtyard garden, the Albans were knackered. Furthermore, any development of the huge and derelict warehouse area on the ground floor and of the attic, as well as being expensive, would also involve some specific decisions about the final use of the building. It was a good time to sell.
In 2000 Carl posted a picture of himself on an Internet Site. He was holding a pit bull terrier and the tattoos on his body were buffed and polished. Carl was looking good as well. "Make me an offer", read the caption, 'or the puppy gets it!".
The famous jazz pianist Nick Weldon was alarmed when he read this, for he was mild of manner, and somewhat intellectual in his demeanour. But his life partner, the Belfast singer Andra Sparks, found Carl's approach robust and instantly appealing. There was something about the man, she decided, that recalled her days under Ian Paisley. "We've been looking for a dream", she told him, on the day they first viewed the 9,000 sq. ft. property. "The finger points at you". And Nick's teenage son Felix, the third member of the household, and already an active drummer, was already marking out his own personal stage on the warehouse floor.
One family moved in. Another moved out. It was December, 2001. As the naive new occupants began a more detailed examination of the building, the true scale of their undertaking became clear. Three months later Nick and Andra appeared as celebrity renovators on the Channel 4 property programme Mad Twats.
1. Conversion of 3,000 sq ft warehouse into 6 separate areas comprising Entrance Hall, small studio, drum room, large storage area, kitchen with adjoining facilities, and finally the huge Clicking Room that serves as lounge, live recording room, yoga and pilates studio and performance space.
(...involving two new runs of double glazing in vast factory roof, removal of old asbestos roof and replacement with studio quality industrial roof, sealing and coursing of external walls, building of internal walls, rewiring, laying-in of underfloor heating, replacement of cast iron windows with modern units, laying of new floor and carpet, provision of internet, theatre surround sound and plasma screen, soundproofing, painting, hung with pictures and so on an so forth!)
2. Cleaning and renovation of existing working lift (sadly now defunct, and awaiting the repeal of European Health and Safety Laws)
3. Replacement of gutters and painting of external windows to the front.
4. Conversion of 1000 sq ft attic area into office, bedroom and home cinema areas, involving replacement of iron window frames with Velux units, laying of new floor and carpet, rewiring, replumbing, redecorating and so on.
5. Installation of second courtyard garden to the side of the Clicking Room
6. Installation of fencing and electric gate to main car park.
7. Acquisition, transport and garden stabling of Nobby, the Black Horse of Oundle.
Fortunately, a death in the family released some of the necessary quids. Another piece of luck was that Carl took pity on the new owners and at their request came back into the building he had loved to take charge of her final works.
As she was!
Once Upon a Time!
In the Beginning!
As it used to be!
In the Lift!
As it used to be!
Up in the Beams!
Up in the Beams!
Raising the Roof!
Pacing the Floor!
On the Scaffold!
After a While!
After a While!
Into the Light!
A Longer View!
What a Sky!!
With her friend Nobby!
...In the course of a long life devoted to the teaching, as well as to the playing, of music, I have identified among many students of improvisation a peculiar syndrome that I call the Jazz Tourette. This is, briefly, a stuttering, drivelling stream of notes having absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the underlying harmonies, rhythms or atmosphere, and which leaves co-performers and audience alike in a state of mystified muddle.
This syndrome arises very often among young musicians, especially the male ones, for they are impatient to be out and about and up and at 'em, and also among pianists, for they do not need to breathe. Of course, the young become old; the syndrome often resolves itself as sexual energy wanes. Otherwise, it is possible in the meantime to install a device into the pianist known as a breathenstoppen, essentially a mask with oxygen supply controllable by other musicians on the bandstand. One tune quote you'll start to hear a lot in the piano solos, for sure, is 'I was born to be blue'! But sometimes a few words in the right ear will be enough. Not in the left ear, though, as this one is better with music than with speech, and you are trying to get a point across, not a tune.
My old Dad used to tell me a story about two bulls walking along the top of a hill; one was old and grizzled, the other young and frisky. I often recount their conversation to my impatient young musicians, and to the pianists as well. A herd of cows waits placidly in the valley below. "Quick, quick", says the young bull, 'let's run down and fuck one of those cows!".
"No", replied the old bull, "let's stroll down and fuck them all".
The animals have the answer, you see. What a tragedy it is that Miles Davis turned down, in 1958, the offer of a Doctor Dolittle project with Gil Evans. And what a mystery! We know it wasn't for fear of selling out, as he was fresh from a huge commercial success with his modal interpretations of the grossly offensive racial stereotypes of the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. Harry Belafonte, for one, turned down that film. But how perfect, how strong, and how intimate would have been the match between the doleful eyes of the Doctor's animals and Miles's poignant, bleating tone! Perhaps he feared the intensity. If only he'd had the courage, though! We might have had more animal songs in the repertoire, and been all the better for it.
Ornette Coleman, true descendant of Charlie 'Bird' Parker, gets a Grammy for the Jungle Book!
But let me get back to Nobby, our shire horse in the garden. For a while he was known as the Black Horse of Oundle, and was the mascot of a well-known drinking house in that Northamptonshire town. He came to us, as though by accident, added on to a job lot of velvet pub seats we were buying for the Shoefactory. As we came to know him, his life story emerged, and we were amazed to discover that in coming here, he had in fact returned to his spiritual home. For Nobby had a strong background in jazz, having spent many weeks between the thighs of Sonny Rollins at the time of his cowboy album Way Out West. And the language and spirit of the music did flow through into him at that time, so that he is now himself a source of truth for all the aspiring musicians who come into our garden and sit astride or beside him, seeking remedy for their problems of intonation, timing and Jazz Tourette.
Only the other evening was I awakened by a cold draught of air coming into the Shoefactory through the magnificent Georgian front door that now yawned open, and found my partner, the singer Andra Sparks, in deep and intimate communion with him in the garden. She had wrapped herself around his neck, and was quite naked. "What are you doing, my love?", I enquired, as the moonbeams danced upon her bottom. "Asking for my starting note", she replied, as though in a dream. "I can give you that tomorrow", I said, "at the gig, and from the piano". "No, no", she chided me, it will be too late by then".
"Very well", I said, "Go Lady Diva!"....