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Tuesday, 30 October 2012

American lawyers take on Catholic church at Mike Harding's former school

Last year I wrote about Mike Harding's involvement in a campaign for an apology from the Catholic church in the diocese of Salford for the physical and sexual abuse that took place at his grammar school, St Bede's, when he was there.

Mike did the interview partly out of frustration with a more traditional news outlet, the Manchester Evening News (MEN), which had been telling him that they would publish something on the subject for many weeks but which, for reasons best known to itself, had failed to do so. There were several people who'd attended the school at the newspaper. Who knows what was going on...

For some reason or other recent events at the BBC involving Jimmy Savile and Newsnight reminded me of it.

Fortunately, once this blog post was published it was picked up by a variety of other media and the MEN's position, such as it was, was over-run.

Soon afterwards I was contacted by an American law firm specialising in abuse cases against the Catholic church and was able to put it in touch with Paul Malpas, a businessman and blogger from Ireland who'd been writing about St Bede's for some time. As a result of his blog he has a network of St Bede's old boys all over the world who'd also suffered at the hands of Monsignor Thomas Duggan (above, centre) and others at the school during the 50s and 60s, and who had got in touch when he started to write about what had happened to him.

And that was all, for a while. The wheels of justice, it's sometimes said, turn slowly.

Then last week, a combination of the abrupt announcement of Mike Harding's departure from BBC Radio 2's folk show after 15 years and the maelstrom of events that has engulfed the corporation about Jimmy Savile, made me think it may be time to find out what's going on in Salford?

"We have 15 claimants with actions against the diocese," said Jef McAllister, a lawyer with AO Advocates.

"We've written the pre-action letters notifying the church that we have a case and a very extensive one. The case is proceeding and the other side is writing back: we're hoping it will either come to a resolution or go to court. There's no suggestion that Salford is dragging its feet so far, although the institutional Catholic church doesn't rise to these cases very quickly, or with a great deal of compassion.

"Through Jeff Anderson this firm has a gigantic amount of experience doing similar work in the US. He wanted to expand internationally and you could say that we're his bulkhead in England. In addition to the Salford case we have five other possibles at the moment, including some inquiries this week that were probably prompted by the Jimmy Savile case. The Catholic church is involved in some of them.

"In Salford, we're getting the case together, getting the evidence straight. It wasn't just Duggan - other people at the school were involved. What quite often seems to happen in this country is that law firms will get started and get to grips with the details as they go along. But as we're the new kids on the block we wanted to show the full dimensions of the system that Duggan ran there.

"The abuse wasn't just an occasional thing for him: Duggan was systematic in the abuse of his power. He had what you might call 'feeders' who passed potential victims his way and he was vicious in kicking boys out of the school who might report him."

Is the BBC likely to face a similar case over Jimmy Savile who - like Duggan - is dead?

"It's inevitable. Essentially Jimmy Savile was having sex on BBC premises with children and there were people around who knew about it. There is an obvious institutional responsibility and it's not dissimilar to that of the Catholic church in Salford. I've heard lawyers on the radio say that they intend to sue the BBC and I think the BBC will react quite differently to the church when it happens."

Isn't this all going to rebound rather expensively on the licence-fee payer?

"In the first instance it would be an insurance company that pays. But it's not just the BBC that's involved. There's also Stoke Mandeville and that home for disturbed girls. The BBC has had the most publicity but Savile was ranging all over the land, able to convince everyone that he was an eccentric, nice guy. There was a  similar case recently in the US involving the Pennsylvania State University football team coach, Joe Paterno, and his deputy, Jerry Sandusky, who was just sentenced to jail.

"The positive outcome of all this, though, is that people now feel they'll be believed, people who've kept the shame and secrecy to themselves for years. The only thing that solves these problems in the long run is sunlight - being open about abuse - and the continued awareness of parents and kids, as well as people who might pass by in a corridor and wonder what's going on..."

The thing that's haunted me particularly about all of this appalling stuff with Savile is that there were children in care homes and elsewhere whose stories will never come out because their lives were blighted to such an extent that an existence that was already emotionally precarious came to a premature end. He deliberately chose children without proper adult supervision - substance abuse and suicide are often the result of a terrible childhood.

"Yes. In the Salford case that there were boys who committed suicide and some who are alcoholics - who never recovered emotionally. But a much wider point is that Duggan's victims were grammar school boys in a time and a place where, even if you were from a working class Catholic family, if you could get a place at St Bede's it was a passport to a different kind of a life. To university.

"When Duggan's victims decided to take themselves out of St Bede's - or Duggan kicked them out - no one would think of saying anything against the school or him. They would drop out and become construction workers. The results have been life long."

McAllister says that he doesn't have a precise idea how long it will take to achieve some kind of resolution for the old boys of St Bede's. "But within a year would be my estimate."

Meanwhile, here's a poem by Mike Harding on the subject, reprinted here with his permission.

Dead Man in Langho, Lancashire

There's no one dancing on your grave today, unless
This summer breeze fretting about your plot
Is counterfeit, shapeshifter, and is not
The wind but the troubled restless ghosts
Of those lost boys whose lives you stole.

They had no voice then in those howling days
In that palace of bad dreams, the college
Where your bloated, princely power held sway;
In those fear carpeted corridors, your tear-tapestried room,
Oak panelled oubliette, reeking of beeswax.
It was a Catholic Cockayne, sure, only Bosch
Could have dreamed up such a world.

You took their glass-clear souls
And dragged them silently crying -
Hypocrite priest, demonic spider, cassocked fraud -
To the torments of your own foul, stinking pit.

And at the monstrous altar's benediction,
In your princely pomp you stood, a pink-faced toad
Preened and pampered in your silver buckled shoes,
(And let us never forget
The powder for your shining dome)
In a wash of candlelight and frankincense,
And held the monstrance aloft
The servant of the Carpenter in gold
Embroidered thread and precious stones.
Far louder than the rest, you, Man of God,
Sang out in tuneless tenor from your throne
A cant of love and light, humility
And charity - turning litany into lies.

Forgiveness not my gift, I travelled here
Only to bear witness to those days;
And as I stand at your graveside,
Your name in stone telling no tales,
An old man, alone and hatless in the sun,
I see that there is no one in this place today,
Unless the summer whispers on the breeze
Are revenants, the wandering unquiet souls
Of those once beautiful lost boys:
Deacey, Larkin, Allen and the rest,
Who know no rest, are now one with the wind,
Back from the dead to dance upon your grave.

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Sunday, 28 October 2012

What does the Mike Harding early day motion mean?

On Friday the internet lit up with the news that an early day motion about Mike Harding's sacking from BBC Radio Two's Wednesday folk show had been tabled at the House of Commons by Kevin Brennan, who recently set about revivifying the all-party folk arts group.

An Early Day Motion is designed to draw attention to an issue without meaning that it will necessarily be debated on the floor of the house, though some EDMs have gone on to be discussed in that way.

The text of this particular EDM reads: "That this House pays tribute to Mike Harding for his contribution to folk music in the UK and his 15 years presenting on the BBC Radio 2's folk music programme; expresses dismay at the manner of his sacking from the programme; and calls on the BBC to review its commitment to showcasing the variety of folk music championed by Mike Harding."

I thought it was worth checking out what Brennan meant by the last part, as it could be open to a number of constructions. Reviewing one's commitment to something doesn't imply any particular outcome...

"Mike was shabbily treated by the BBC," Brennan said. "So I gave him a call. What I intended by that last part was that I hope the show will continue to have a proper diversity of music and not become some kind of middle of the road thing. It was as a result of a comment that Mike made, that he hoped that wouldn't be the outcome of all this. There's no point having a folk show if it becomes something you could hear elsewhere and that he hoped that the show would continue to serve the folk world."

Simon Mayo and Chris Evans have been known to play the odd folk track. But surely there's a case for having more than one show devoted to folk on the BBC, since the listenership has increased so dramatically on Mike's watch?

"Perhaps. But it's also only an hour a week at the moment. Maybe there's a case for having something a bit longer," said Brennan. "At the very least they need to at least keep the quality of what's there already.

"But overall my concern is less about the Radio 2 thing because they have genuinely been committed to carrying it on. And the folk awards have been very successful. When I spoke to Radio 2 they have been very keen to keep going.

"But what people I've spoken to in the folk world have been most concerned about is that there are fewer regional folk programmes than there used to be. It's difficult to nail down why this has happened but we need to think how to prevent it happening again in the future. It's an issue I've raised with the BBC.

"I'm not against widening the boundaries of the genre and there is also a concern about whether English folk music should get a better hearing than it does. We need to make sure that we're hearing all elements of traditional music."

All concerned - including Harding - seem resigned to there being no chance of his getting his old job back. "But I'll be writing to the BBC to formally express my dismay that it was really badly handled," said Brennan.

The EDM was co-signed by two Labour MPs - David Anderson (Blaydon) and Jenny Chapman (Darlington) - a Lib Dem, Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) and a Scots Nationalist, Pete Wishart (Runrig).

The challenge, then, is to find a Tory folky... The search goes on.

* Check out Brennan busking Heart of Gold here. If you have a folk-related issue that needs raising, he has invited you to write to him.

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Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Blair Dunlop hits the open road

Blair Dunlop is quite a confusing proposition if you don't know anything about him. I'd been vaguely aware that he was on at Cropredy last year and what I heard seemed extremely competent - as you would expect from someone on a festival's only stage - but I was only half listening.

Then there's the fact that his website comes with a quote from Q magazine, which suggests that he's been around for a while - lots of bands would be delighted to have one of those, even though it's short. I also remember thinking that he was in a different league musically when I saw him do something assured alongside Ashley Hutchings at Cecil Sharp House last year but didn't realise he was Hutchings' son until some way through the set and, as a result, put that particular issue to one side.

However, since it's relevant now, here's what I think: you can't help who your family is. I've sort of followed in my father's footsteps - as has my sister - so I have some empathy. When you see people making a living doing something, it's easier to consider it for yourself than a trade of which you have no experience. Also, life has a way of telling you whether you're any good at what you do, which is a separate issue to why you started and - especially in a very competitive field - early advantages soon melt away. I'm going to shut up now.

Anyway, I had an idea that Dunlop was quite young - the elfin stature and hair gel issues gave it away - and associated him in an Americana-ey way with the wonderful ahab who I guess are hovering somewhere around their late twenties, early 30s. That was especially the case after listening to what is described on his website as Dunlop's "new" album a few times, with rising excitement.

So it came as a bit of a shock to realise that it is, in fact, his first album. And that he is only 20.

I say it was slightly shocking because Blight & Blossom would be an excellent record for someone who has ten years on Dunlop - for a first outing it is nothing short of miraculous.

OK, everything about the production values, from the mixing to the memorable cover art by Elly Lucas, speaks of a lifetime's experience - presumably not his - and the sleeve note thanking Richard Thompson personally for the dark, dark song Seven Brothers, as well as the picture of the two of them on Dunlop's website, well... I guess it would be worse to be ungrateful.

Yet there's so much here that can be nothing except Dunlop's that these trappings are as a beach hut to a tsunami.

Two major points.

Firstly, although there is a version of Black is the Colour on here, there is nothing niche about this album. Folk may be where his family comes from but it took me a while to realise that the open road, big sky feel to several of these tracks is not exactly Americana, although there's definitely a slide guitar on Less the Pawn. It is the sound of gilded youth and ambition in the 21st century, the noise that goes with having everything to play for and the wind in your hair. It's the sound of being young, Dunlop makes it resonate and it is, quite simply, thrilling.

Secondly, this is only possible because he is already an extremely accomplished guitarist. And because when you put this together with sinuous musicality, a precocious wisdom, lyrically speaking and some terrific arrangements, the result is an album that rings like a bell. With Blight & Blossom he seems to have made something true.

The standout tracks for me are Bags Outside the Door - a statement of intent par excellence - and Less the Pawn, which is a young man's song about a world that was already fucked up when he got here. But there's plenty more where that came from. The album as a whole is a grower and I predict that Blair Dunlop will go on to write some songs that will outlive him by a great many years, which seems like an odd thing to say at this early stage. But still...

* There are three more songs from the album on Soundcloud.

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Thursday, 11 October 2012

Change at the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards

Some of you know that last year I wrote quite a lot about the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards. I hadn't intended to... it just kind of snowballed. 

It started as a mild curiosity about how they're run and ended with an unsuccessful Freedom of Information request for the names of the judges - which are still secret - and the story being followed up in the Guardian and The Independent

If you don't know what I mean and would like to find out, or if you'd like to recap, you can read about it here and follow the links at the bottom from one post to the next.

I'd always intended to do it all again this year if it didn't work the first time (and the names of the judges weren't made public), but this year with variations and a bit more creativity. 

So a couple of weeks ago I wrote some emails and made a start. Then yesterday... 

My phone went. The reception wasn't very good because I was on a number 214 bus heading up the City Road but it turned out that it was Fergus Dudley of the BBC Radio Two compliance department. 

This was curious because I hadn't actually tried to contact him. I'd tried him last year but he'd never returned any of my calls so I'd given up, imagining an empty space behind a desk, perhaps a shirt lying Reggie-Perrin-like nearby.

Yes, he said. I'd emailed him about two and a half weeks ago and he was returning my message. I've since checked and my memory wasn't deceiving me. What had actually happened was that I'd emailed Kelly While at Smooth Operations - the contracted in private company that organises the awards for the BBC (and films the Cambridge festival for Sky, among many other things). 

I'd also rung her twice in two days this week because, having left for it a decent period, it was time to follow up the email.

So my reward was a phone call from Fergus Dudley at the BBC. Since cynicism is useless in these situations, I'm trying to be surprised that the interests of a senior producer from Smooth Operations - who receive public money to make the folk awards for the BBC - and the person employed to hold the company to account find their interests so closely aligned that they forget who's who.


He was returning my call, he said.

Thanks. I was wondering whether the BBC will be making the names of the 170 judges of the folk awards public this year?

No, he said. You see (after a scramble through my bag the notebook was out) there was no need for this because the Brit Awards don't make the names of their judges public. And neither do the Oscars or the Baftas.

None of those three awards ceremonies are run by the BBC on public cash are they, I responded? So they're not subject to the same guidelines about transparency. We moved on.

To begin with it felt like a re-run of a slightly daft conversation I had with John Leonard, who runs Smooth Operations, last year. I suppose it's possible that Dudley had looked at the post I've just linked to - which is about that conversation - before ringing. "If the names of the judges were known," he said, "people would lobby them. And some artists wouldn't have the time or the money to do it."

"But, " I said, feeling trapped in a time warp, "the only way one could meaningfully lobby a folk awards judge would be with a copy of one's music. And sending something from Soundcloud or Bandcamp by email is completely free and it travels along broadband wires at the speed of light." What's next?

"Not everyone is across that technology. It's a small industry," he said, taking my breath away, before adding that he thought it was important that the 170 judges were "specialists in the folk area who have the reputation to make these decisions".

Why? Don't you trust anyone else to recognise good music when they hear it?

"You have to have have people who are involved in the industry."

Why? This means that your judges have a financial interest in the outcome. We got really stuck here. He didn't seem to accept that working in the folk world is the same as having a financial interest in it. 

"I never said these people have to have a financial interest in the industry," he said. It began to feel as if the conversation was unravelling.

"They fill out a form declaring their interests," he continued, apparently unaware that this is not the same thing as making sure that they don't vote for any of their mates' bands. After all, declaring one's interests to person or persons unknown is valueless unless the information can be used to hold the judges to account for their subsequent decisions. And since we don't know who the judges are... Oh! Here we are back at the beginning again. 

And then just when it was all starting to sound terribly, well, terrible...

"But there will be some changes this year."


"We will be taking two of the awards away from the larger panel, to be decided by a smaller panel whose names will be made public. And one of the awards will be decided by a public vote. We are doing this because we'd like to make the awards more acceptable to the wider Radio Two audience."


"I can't be more specific about who the people on the smaller panel are at the moment. I don't need to tell you that and it hasn't yet been issued as a press release. But we've taken action following your considerable interest last year in the way these awards are run. We have opened it up."

Is this perhaps a prelude to making all of the names of the judges known in the near future? 

"Every two years we review the way the process works. We will be reviewing it again next year and it's possible that we will make this list public. Maybe we will and maybe we won't."

And breathe...

This is good. It's promising. 

However, fobbing people off with a small change after a larger one has been asked for is an age-old tactic.

Some observations.

Large organisations change slowly. I know I wasn't the only person to have raised the issue of the transparency of these awards over the years and don't deserve all the credit for these small changes. I hope they are the beginning of a larger change in the culture of the awards and will result in complete transparency about the judges' names next year. But it's also seems possible that the question of financial interest in the outcome will remain - since Dudley for one doesn't seem to understand that making one's living in any industry is the same as having a financial interest in it and that this, in turn, is a corrupt and conservative force on the awards. There must be other people at the BBC involved in the decision-making process and perhaps they do understand - Dudley wouldn't tell me who he answers to. But I'm guessing that the controller of Radio Two, Bob Shennan, is his line manager.

Secondly, when Dudley told me that what we were talking about was "a small industry" I thought uh-oh. If he thinks the folk awards have been catering only to a small number of people since they started in 2000, that accounts for a lot. The aim should surely be to show off the best of British folk, defined as broadly as possible without making the term meaningless, and promoting it to anyone who takes an interest. And by that I mean the world's music-lovers. The awards should feed people's souls while spreading the word about British folk, which will ultimately benefit everyone involved. And that means promoting fresh takes on old music with as much vigour, creativity and enthusiasm as we can muster. No more Don McLean and his ilk please... for any number of reasons.

This country's creative output is one of its great exports for reasons involving language, culture and history. We should see these awards in that context and be prepared for interest from everywhere. The British folk scene is stuffed with world class musicians who barely make a living and there's just no excuse for it.

Thirdly, the more transparent the folk awards are the better for all concerned. It's to be hoped that scrutiny will mean better communications, the weeding out of any judges who don't leave their homes or use the web, the resulting exposure of  the judges to more and a wider variety of music and that they will not feel able to restrict themselves to voting only for the bands they've seen and heard the most of during the previous year.

There's something in the air. Let's see what it is.

* Read last year's posts about the folk awards starting with this one and following the links at the bottom to the next.

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Monday, 8 October 2012

Show me the way to Lau-Land?

Sometimes you can tell from looking at someone's work - or hearing it - that you would like them if you met them. That's what happened when I saw the promotional work Kings Place had done for Lau's upcoming week there: the pictures of the band on the front of and inside its autumn brochure were so curious, so idiosyncratic and so memorable that when I looked at them I knew they'd been shot by someone who takes enormous pleasure in their own work.

Because that kind of enthusiasm is infectious.

So it was great when Nick White, the photographer in question, agreed to a phone interview in the spirit that he was as keen to find out why the pics had turned out the way they had as I was. "It'll be like therapy," he said.

Among my enthusiasms for the pics is that that they're brilliant marketing: Lau's album launch for Race the Loser at Kings Place sold out weeks ago and it's not for a couple of weeks yet. Moreover it's uplifting to see something practical done so well that it transcends the everyday and becomes art, like applying the abstract ideas of physics to the making of a beautiful bridge. Or listening to Lau.

Everyone who's serious about what they do wants to work with other people who care about their craft - there is a nod of recognition, a respect for another's trade that comes with experience. You might not know how the other person does what they do, but you learn to appreciate high quality work when you see it.

Marketing, PR and the other behind-the-scenes stuff of the music industry are what often makes the difference between commercial success and failure and the carelessness with which the folk scene often deals with these matters is a constant source of frustration to me, media creature that I am. I often feel like a distantly related adult watching a teenage girl who doesn't understand that she's beautiful and as a consequence has low self-esteem, throwing her life away. I like this music and I want everyone else to like it too - it's just that most people will never hear it because, metaphorically, it won't brush its hair and leave the house.

However, Nick White's Lau pictures are the most striking piece of folk music marketing I've seen since this.

So how did the idea of Lau-Land emerge?

"I'd done some work for Kings Place before - for a jazz player called Django Bates (above) and the Brodsky Quartet (below)," he said.

"When they asked me to photograph Lau I have to admit that I knew nothing about them, so I listened to the band's music quite a lot to come up with some ideas. Then I spoke to them. The whole idea was that Lau-Land is a special place that they go off to explore - like Victorian explorers. Darwin and the Beagle were going through my head.

"I went to the Red Sea a while ago, to a place called Paradise Island which had a sign with big lettering. I took a picture.

"I really liked the fact that it was taken from the other side, so it was clear that I was actually in Paradise. I sent this picture to the band and I think they took the initiative and had a big sign made saying 'Lau-Land'. I'd like to take the credit for that, but I'm not entirely sure it was my idea. I'd be really interested to hear how they remember it...

"Anyway, originally the idea was to use the sign the other way around, so that they were in Lau-Land. But that was a bit weird and hard to explain, and it got dispensed with early on." Have a squint at the top of that cliff.

"For the picture for the front of the brochure (above) I said 'Let's get lots of stuff in there', things that they might have brought back from Lau-Land. The accordian hands were Martin's idea: he had a toy accordian and said 'I could just have them as my hands'. But there was only one accordian, so I had to shoot him twice and then stick the prints together later. In fact I shot all three of the guys separately and put together a montage in the studio. That picture is actually five different shots - including some extra cliff on the right.

"And we have these little, mysterious things - things from Lau-Land. So there's the arctic fox and the pheasant - and no, it wasn't a live arctic fox. They were both stuffed. Originally I'd wanted to graft the head of the fox on to the pheasant and vice versa. But it would have been too much work and, anyway, I always put more detail into these pictures than people actually notice..."

I asked him some more about the arctic fox. There was a pause.

"You know what? I think I must have been thinking about Philip Pullman's Northern Lights trilogy when I came up with that. One of the characters - Mrs Coulter - she has an arctic fox or a snow leopard as her daemon, doesn't she? There you go... I said this would be like therapy. But you can attach any symbolism you like to any of this. It didn't mean anything specific - like Paul McCartney not wearing any shoes in that Abbey Road Beatles' cover and a myth springing up that it was supposed to be symbolic that he'd died."

White said that most of the snaps had been taken on the windswept Scottish coast back in spring and that the weather had turned nasty.

"There was a lot of walking around with equipment and then the weather suddenly changed and became grim and miserable with driving rain. It was too far to carry all the bits and pieces and too wintry to put the sign up. They didn't enjoy it much - you can tell from the expressions on their faces.

"The band had different attitudes towards the photos. Martin was up for it. Kris just wanted to get it done. And Aidan wanted the whole thing to look more like an indy band shot."

What does an indy band shot look like?

"It's three blokes of a certain age standing around, trying to look interesting. The photographer has to do the rest. Oh - and they're usually dressed in black."

Here's an out-take that didn't make it into the brochure.

"It's not really what I do best," explained White. "There's a whole school of indy band photography that was done most successfully by Anton Corbin, a photographer who worked for NME in the late 80s and early 90s. He was responsible for U2's image round about the time of The Joshua Tree. He also did a lot of shots of Joy Division. But it's not my thing."

So what is your thing?

"My favourite shot is actually one that the band isn't in. It's the map.

"I asked the band to come with some made-up place names, so all the 'places' on that map mean something to at least one of them." I was beginning to see what he meant about "more detail than most people ever notice".

"And that box is something that I really like because I struggled with it and it took a long time.

"The box came from a car boot sale, the plant picture was cut out of The Observer's Book of Cacti and the idea was to make the three of them - there are tiny little images of them there - look like explorers in a flying machine. Their basket was made out of an air mail envelope and the top part came out of an old boiler at my studio - the shell-like metal object. I was thinking about Jules Verne, I think."

I pointed out that there is also a dirigible in the Northern Lights books, belonging to the American, Lee Scoresby. White was delighted.

He said that early on he'd also had an idea of somehow making the three members of Lau look like standing stones because he'd been thinking about The Wicker Man, but that this had been stomped on, on account of it being a "folk cliche" of which the band would have none.

And he mentioned an enthusiasm for Kit Williams's visually stunning 1970s book Masquerade, in which the reader had to piece together a series of pictorial clues with the aim of discovering where a piece of buried treasure shaped like a rabbit lay, somewhere in England. I had a copy of the book as a child and well remember the day I heard that the treasure had been dug up in a park somewhere.

In this spirit he left me with this: "There's a passport stamp on the left-hand side of that box with a date on it. Can you work out what the significance of the date is?" It's November 24, 1859.


* You could explore Lau-Land at Kings Place from Wednesday October 17 until Saturday October 20th, where there will be a series of Lau-related events, including the album launch, which is already sold out.

* Nick White would like to do more work with bands. Here's his website.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook news feed, you could *like* its Facebook page. Or follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

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