CJ Stone's Britain: Wet blanket (Ely & St Fagans)
First published The Guardian Weekend October 26 1996
Steve thought, “Van Morrison is friends with someone who lives in Ely. Well Van Morrison could be my friend too.”
And we’ll walk and talk in gardens wet with rain,
And I’ll never ever grow so old again.”— Van Morrison: Astral Weeks.
First of all you have to know the characters if you’re going to understand this story. Most of you will have heard of Van Morrison, no doubt. He seems to have had a poetic obsession with images of rain, as the above quote will testify, and which may become significant later in this story. Not everyone will have heard of Robin Williamson however. He was a member of the Incredible String Band, a spectacularly popular Folk/Rock/Poetry duo in the ‘60s, who just as spectacularly bombed into glum obscurity in the mid-‘70s. Both artists are still active. Van Morrison is also notoriously uncommunicative.
My friend Steve was Robin Williamson’s secretary for a while. He used to go round to Robin’s house and type up letters and file correspondence and answer the phone and such like. He was also a devotee of Van Morrison’s music; a fan, you might say. And one day he was round at Robin Williamson’s house when the phone rang.
“Hello. Is Robin in?” said the voice from the other end.
“No. Who is this speaking please?” said Steve, in his best, efficient secretary’s voice.
“It’s Van Morrison.”
Well you can imagine it. It’s Van Morrison on the end of the phone. THE Van Morrison, Steve’s hero. Steve was just dumb-struck, stunned by the enormity of the occasion. He started to babble down the phone.
“Oh, um, yeah, like, I’ve, I’ve always been a, well, like, a great fan of yours,” he said.
“Yeah?” said Van Morrison.
“Yeah, yeah, really, yeah. So what… um… what shall I… er… is there any…” and on like this: a string of incomprehensible gibberish.
“Just tell Robin that I’m in the area and that I’ll call again later,” said Van Morrison.
“Oh yeah, right, right, yeah, I’ll do that,” said Steve.
“All the best,” said Van Morrison, and put down the phone.
Well Steve was really excited, of course. He thought, “wow, wow, that was Van Morrison on the phone, and he spoke to me, and he said ‘all the best’. Van Morrison said ‘all the best’ to me. This is brilliant. I’ve spoken to Van Morrison.”
Sometime later in the year Robin Williamson was holding an out door concert in the grounds of the folk museum in St Fagans near Ely. That’s where Steve lives: in Ely. It’s this huge council estate on the outskirts of Cardiff, the size of an average town, but with only a dozen or so shops and two pubs to serve the whole, sprawling mass of it. It’s a nice enough place in it’s own way, surrounded by tree covered hills and served by a spectacularly expensive bus service (£1.20 each way into Cardiff city centre). Most of it was built in the 20’s and thirties and the houses are functional but pleasantly spacious, with arched porches and high, sloping roofs. It’s only a ten minute walk away from St Fagans - a comfortable suburban village - but a world away in terms of its culture.
Steve and his son, Isaac, decided to go along to the concert, having been provided with tickets by Robin Williamson. It was a spectacularly dismal mid-summer’s day. The rain was slashing from the sky, the lawns were swampily sodden, and the concert was moved into a marquee tent. You could hear the rain beating on the canvas as it collected in huge pools on the marquee roof. Well after the concert was finished Steve noticed two men standing by one of the exits. One of them was Van Morrison. Robin Williamson went over to talk to them. Steve was overhearing the conversation. Van Morrison was introducing the other man to Robin Williamson, saying that he lived in Ely. So this was his cue. He thought, “Van Morrison is actually friends with someone who lives in Ely.” And lying behind this thought, maybe, the optimistic thought, “well Van Morrison could be my friend too.” (Someone later told him that Van Morrison likes Ely because it reminds him of the place where he grew up.)
“So you’re Van Morrison then,” said Steve, as if Van Morrison needed reminding of the fact. This was a bad start, and Steve realised it immediately.
“Yeah?” said Van Morrison, indifferently.
“Oh yeah. I spoke to you before.”
“Yeah, from Robin’s. I’m Robin’s secretary.”
“And I’ve always been a great fan of yours.”
“Yeah, I love your music.”
Like I said, Van Morrison is notoriously uncommunicative. That’s all he said, just “yeah?” - like that, part question, part statement, part yawn, as if he didn’t care one way or the other.
“Yeah?” he said once more, as Steve wondered what more he had to do to engage his hero’s interest. Things were not going at all well. At which point Steve’s son, Isaac, came over.
“Dad?” he said.
“See this rope?” he said, pointing to one of the guy ropes just outside the marquee.
“Well can you put your face by it?”
This “yeah?” business was beginning to dominate the afternoon. Steve was starting to sound like Van Morrison. Maybe it was catching. Maybe it was the consequence of walking and talking in gardens all wet with rain.
“Well go on then,” said Isaac.
So he did. He put his face by the guy rope, just as his son had suggested he do. It hadn’t even occurred to him to ask why exactly Isaac wanted him to put his face by the guy rope. His son asked him to do it, so he did. And he’s leaning down just outside the marquee tent, with his face in front of the guy rope, and Van Morrison and Robin Williamson and Van Morrison’s friend from Ely all looking on, all slightly bemused, wondering what this babbling madman was up to, but kind of fascinated, kind of knowing in that prescient way that something peculiar is about to happen, as Steve’s son grabbed the guy rope and twanged it, and a veritable deluge of rainwater which had been gathering on the marquee roof all afternoon cascaded down over Steve’s face and down his neck and all over his clothes. No one said a word. They just stood and looked at him. Robin Williamson, the man from Ely, and Van Morrison, Steve’s hero, a world-famous singer/songwriter of almost mythic stature, all standing staring as Steve’s son shrieked with delight, and Steve stood up to brush the water from his face and adjust his sodden clothes.
“Er, oh, er, Isaac,” muttered Steve, mortified, “um, we’ve got to, er, we’ve got to go and, um… Come on.” And he grabbed Isaac’s hand and slopped uncomfortably away towards the exit, not daring to look back.
And that’s the end of that story. Splosh.