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Thursday, 7 March 2013

Geoff Lakeman: folk patriarch and newspaper man

I'm sure he doesn't remember, but I met Geoff Lakeman - father of Sean, Sam and Seth - when I was a trainee reporter working out of the Bodmin office of the Western Morning News. There had been a huge drugs bust - some entrepreneurial soul had been growing acres of marijuana in poly-tunnels somewhere near Padstow - and the police were so proud of themselves that somewhat against the grain they'd invited us all down to have a look - and a sniff (it was powerful strong-smelling stuff, my lover). Geoff, the Daily Mirror's westcountry reporter, was working out of the back of his car using one of those enormous mobile telephones that resembled a brick. This was still practically science fiction in 1996 and left an ineradicable impression on my young mind.

"I was made redundant about eight years ago," he says on the telephone from his Dartmoor home, sounding genuinely like a man with no outstanding issues relating to that event. "They paid me to go away after 28 years on staff, which I wasn't complaining about, and then continued to pay me for another seven years while I freelanced for them. Stupid isn't it? After the Maxwell robbery the unions and company had to pursue about 40 different civil court cases around the world and got back about half of the missing £800 million that he half-inched. My pension, I'm relieved to say, is intact... for now."

Lakeman has led an enviable double life. As well as holding down a high-pressure full-time job on a national newspaper, he has also been a folk musician and is these days the patriarch of something akin to a musical dynasty. His three sons and their extended family are a mini Who's Who of the folk world: Seth has been nominated for a Mercury award, Sam is married to Cara Dillon, Sean to Kathryn Roberts, Kathryn's brother Jamie was up against her for a folk award this year... The list goes on. "In fact, the only member of the family who doesn't sing or play is Hannah, Seth's wife. She's a nurse," he said.

It's astonishing to me that that Geoff has had the time and energy to do both things - journalism and music - as his chosen trade is notoriously demanding all on its own. I remember whispers of his alternative existence among my colleagues at the WMN, which gave him something like local hero status in the office.

"But I don't think many people on the folk scene knew I was a journalist, even when I was on the Telegraph," he ruminated. There must have been some clashes between his two worlds, though? "Horrendous. Joy and I would be doing evening gigs, when I had already done a full day's work, and I would be paged. I'd have to rush off stage at half time, call the coastguards and police about some dramatic rescue happening 100 miles off Land's End, file the story by phone to a copytaker and then go back on stage to perform the second half.

"My worst experience was doing a lovely set at Dartmoor folk festival - in the middle of nowhere, where there was no pager signal (this was pre-mobiles). We started driving home in a leisurely fashion, only to be contacted by the office to say that Simon le Bon and his crew were upside down in their yacht after capsizing somewhere off the Cornish coast. So I drove like a maniac straight to west Cornwall to chase le Bon, who had been rescued by this time, only to have him, his wife and crew members promptly jump out of a hotel window to avoid me! Never liked his music anyway - although I used to play folk with his auntie in Cheddar. Christ... this is a load of old piffle, isn't it? God knows what you, or the rest of the world, will make of it."

Maybe go back to the beginning?

"I'm a Cornishman," he explained. "I was born in Penzance and brought up in Newlyn. I left school at 16 and became a cub reporter but grew up to the sound of male voice choirs. My mum went to school with Brenda Wootton and I used to take her daughter out.

"I eventually moved away and got a job at a news agency near Heathrow airport and then moved on to the Press Association, on Fleet Street. It was while I was there that Joy and I married - she was a teacher then. We got involved with the Herga folk club in Harrow, organising and playing, and there was this period when I was going off for PA for a month at a time, dodging bombs and bullets in Northern Ireland during the worst of the Troubles. Then I would come home and help out with the folk club: we'd be putting up Martin Carthy,  Dave Swarbrick... Peggy Seeger was sometimes around. So I had this strange double life.

"When I left PA I helped start LBC and was one of the first two independent radio reporters. I took a young Jon Snow on his first trip out of the office and eventually introduced him to some musicians in Northern Ireland. My time in Ireland meant that when Sam married Cara Dillon I already had all these Irish music connections lurking around in my past... It was the Telegraph that said would I come back down to the Westcountry?

"So we moved to Bristol, where we became regular players at several clubs in the city. And I'd been at the Telegraph for three years when I was poached by the Mirror."

Nice.

"We moved to Devon - to the village where we are now - and I just stayed with the Mirror. As soon as we arrived, various clubs were giving us bookings and in particular there was a Plymouth club called The Navy which was really good. Floor singers would have to book two weeks in advance if they wanted to get a slot. At that point Joy and I started having children."

Right. The kids.

"The three of them definitely chose their own instruments. Joy is a very talented violinist and probably that propelled Seth towards the fiddle. Sean definitely wanted to play guitar and then Sam took up the keyboards. Joy taught Seth the rudiments and then sent him to a teacher as he got a bit older. But we were still running folk clubs at that stage, so once a week we'd come home - even during their holidays and half terms - with musicians. So the boys were used to being around The Oyster Band, Peter Bellamy, Tom McConnville and Chris Newman. They were learning their instruments but also learning how to be musicians by a process of osmosis.

"We had a family band..."

With a hint of impishness, he's provided this picture of The Lakeman Family Band, taken during a performance at the Who'd Have Thought It folk club in Milton Coombe in about 1990. 



This would make Sean, right, about 14, Sam, left, 12, and Seth, in the middle, 10 or 11. Ain't parents grand? That's Joy with the fiddle and Geoff at the back with the squeezebox: not that there's any mistaking who the daddy is in this picture. Uncanny resemblance, eh?

"Once we went on holiday with Chris Newman," Geoff continued. "I still think he's one of the best six-string guitarists in the country. Anyway, we would all go busking together on this holiday in France, so the boys were picking up some stuff that would be useful. Plus we used to make quite a bit of money...

"Then when they got to their early teens they started performing together as The Lakeman Brothers and at that stage we just let them have their own musical lives. Joy and I went on holiday without them once - we left Sean in charge because he was old enough - and when we came back they'd used this little recording studio we had in the house and made their first CD together, which was called Three Piece Suite.  

"I'd imagine it's a bit of a collectors' item now as it had all their own original music on there. They'd got Kathryn Roberts in to do some vocals but it was mainly instrumental. Seth wasn't singing at that time."

 

We had a brief discussion about whether it would be possible to upload some of the CD, which Geoff has a copy of at home, to Soundcloud so I could put a link on here. But the upshot was that the copyright of their early music is complicated these days and uploading it may make a rod for someone's back. Anyone know whether Three Piece Suite is available for listening to on the net?

"The CD got played on the radio and attracted some good reviews, enough to get them some slots at festivals. Then they met Kate Rusby and it all went a bit bonkers for a few years when they formed Equation. The rest is history, more or less."

 

He was off in a minute to play at the wake of someone he'd known as Dave the Heckler, he said, at the request of the guy's family. "Seth and Sean, who live in the next village along, have just flown off to Australia to play festivals for a month and I'm looking forward to playing a gig on Saturday at the Peter Tavy village hall nearby with Speakeasy, an old-timey jazz band I'm in."

 

I asked about the move between the Telegraph and the Daily Mirror all those years ago, provoking a profession of greater comfort at the left-wing paper. "I've always been a socialist and the Telegraph at that time was an arch Tory paper - these days it's just full of the crowd from the Daily Mail, isn't it? It was very much 'And will Mr Lakeman be writing today?' when I was there."

In fact, what I'd been wondering about was the difference between writing for a broadsheet and a tabloid? "The thing I was most grateful for after the move to the Mirror was that it didn't half hone my writing style. I became a far better writer, having to precis stuff down."

And what's he been making of the Leveson inquiry? Some of my thoughts are set out here.

"I've had the luxury of sitting through some of it in real time on TV and it seems to have got bogged down now with a whole load of irrelevant stuff... The money that changed hands: that was shocking. It's tempting to think that I'm being naive about it all - but then again I wouldn't have survived at the Mirror as long as I did if I were. But I had no knowledge of that kind of dirty dealing during the course of my life in journalism. 

"Phone hacking? I didn't have to. I was best friends with the chief superintendent of the local police force. When you went out on a job you banged on doors and within ten minutes people would tell you who you needed to speak to. I didn't have to go around hacking phones because if you have your contacts you can find out what you need to know. 

"I don't think many people I know could have been involved. I mean, you can't work for 48 years in journalism and be naive." This thought clearly haunts him. "And yet some of these things I have found shocking. I was disgusted by the venality and the sheer laziness of it all. 'I can't be bothered to get off my arse and talk to people, so I'll sit here and hack phones and eavesdrop instead.'" There was revulsion in his voice. 

"They've tried to smear and besmirch the Mirror, haven't they?" Well, I replied, Piers Morgan has certainly drawn attention to the paper by boasting, weirdly, how much he knew about phone hacking. "But they haven't come up with the stuff, have they? I don't see exactly why everyone else has been tarred with the same brush as News International. I'm almost glad to be out of it. I mean, I've had a fantastic career but it's moved on in such a way that I'm just glad I'm out of it now. I can immerse myself in music without worrying about having to make a living.

"Oh look!" he said suddenly. "Nic Jones is walking past the window." Jones lives in the same village as Geoff and Joy and I got the sense that Geoff was waving at him through the window. "I taught him to play the spoons, you know, but he's yet to do that at any of his gigs. I take him to the folk club in Bodmin, and to Totnes and Liskeard. He loves going and people love to see him. I call him 'The Nick Drake who didn't die'. "

Righto. I expect he loves that, does he?

"If Nic hadn't had his accident I think he would have just gone off like Richard Thompson and Ry Cooder: wouldn't have stuck with the folk so much. He's a big Radiohead fan, which tells you a lot about the kind of music he likes."

Trust a newspaper man to change the subject. I'm reminded nonetheless of an interview I did with Kathryn Roberts at the Bristol festival a couple of years ago during which she described her husband Sean's great strength as his ability to be supportive of others, musically and otherwise, something that impressed me more the longer I thought about it. I wonder now whether he gets it from his dad? Geoff Lakeman certainly appears to have done something right.

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