A Hard Bunch Of Old Folkers

Think 'Easy Rider' but with a jolly accordion soundtrack

Whitby Abbey
Geir Hval (www.MacWhale.eu), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This a true story, and for once I can be unusually precise as to the date: towards the end of July in 1983. I was living in North Yorkshire at the time, and me and the lass that I was with back then decided to have a few nights away in Whitby.

Have you ever been to Whitby, dear boy? Oh, you should go, you know! It’s enchanting! Simply enchanting! The ruined abbey stands atop the cliff, while the town tumbles down the narrow valley of the River Esk to the sea. The Esk, in point of fact, is the only eastwards flowing river in Yorkshire which debouches directly into the North Sea. All the others flow into the Tees or the Humber. Funny the things you remember after all these years.

Whitby is a nice little place. I’ve been there since, and it doesn’t seem to have changed much. Touristy in the summer, but a bit bleak and grim in the winter. Although I don’t mind a bit of bleak and grim, personally speaking. It chimes with my Byronic nature. I’d quite happily move back up there, but as Mrs B is of the opinion that the permafrost starts just north of Tamworth the likelihood seems remote. She has a deep and abiding aversion to the cold does Mrs B.

A very historical place too, is Whitby. The abbey was first founded in the middle of the seventh century AD by King Oswiu of Northumbria, although the remains are of much later construction. The abbey was the home of Caedmon, the first English poet whose name we know and whose surviving work is such a fine example of early Anglo-Saxon literature. Whitby of course owes much to the sea; there is still a small residue of the fishing industry and a fresh catch is landed daily, Captain Cook made his first sea voyage in a Whitby collier, and the ghost ship of Bram Stoker’s Dracula nosed its way into the harbour bearing its grisly cargo.

Close by is the village of Ugglebarnby which, to my mind, is one of the finest place-names in England. But I digress.

The run out to Whitby from where I was living was a nice one. The easiest way was to hop onto the A170 and head east until you could see the sea, then hang a left and ride up the coast until you got to where you were going. But if time was not an issue, you could cut north along the network of B Roads that run through the North Yorkshire Moors. This was a lovely thing to do. Little villages with names like Cockayne, Goathland and Fryupdale flashed by, the fields among the drystone walls were emerald green and the sky above was that brittle cloudless cobalt blue you only ever see in the North. 440cc of BSA’s finest blatting happily away between your legs and your bird riding pillion, her arms wrapped tightly around you as your two bodies sway in unison, leaning into the curves and responding to the serpentine rhythm of the road – Ah, me! But where did those days go? Please pardon my nostalgia, but sometimes I get quite overcome when I think about it all.

No full face helmets in those days, and no dressing up like a bloody Power Ranger either. Two pairs of jeans, army boots, a Hawkwind T-shirt and a leather jacket topped with a denim jacket with the sleeves cut off, which carried the embroidered patch of a local motorcycle club. I’d done them a favour by showing them around Amsterdam, and in return they offered me a kind of Associate status.

They were a great bunch of lads, and I had a cracking time with them. I lost touch when I moved down to Brum a few years later. I might still technically be a member, if they’re still going. Although I’d be in a shed load of arrears, and the one thing they were gently but firmly insistent on was prompt payment of dues. I also still have my old cut-off up in the loft somewhere. It is my intention, when I can persuade the NHS to give me a mobility scooter, to start wearing it again. It is important to have goals in life.

The sun was slipping towards a hazy sea and the walls of the abbey were painted ochre by the low rays as we breasted the last hill, and we coasted down into Whitby’s streets and tootled about until we found our accommodation. We had a quick wash and brush up then went out. We walked along the beach for a bit and looked for jet, we ate a fish supper on the esplanade, then we decided to visit a few pubs.

It became apparent to us, through the plethora of posters advertising the event and the fact that every boozer we entered had a folk group parping and yodelling away, that we had arrived in town on the weekend that Whitby hosted the International Sea Shanty Festival.

I won’t say that the Sea Shanty (or Chanty, either is acceptable to the connoisseur) is my favourite sub-genre of Folk Music, but neither do I bear it any particular animus. In fact I’m more inclined to be a sympathetic listener than anything else, it being a repository of our maritime history and an interesting example of the Call and Response form of vocal harmonisation, etc etc etc. This lack of ill-will to either the genre or its proponents is something which I wish you to bear in mind as our tale unfolds.

The ISSF is a big deal among sea shanty circles, and the ‘International’ tag in the title was no idle boast. There were groups from far away as Germany, Scandinavia and even Canada and the US. I heard a rumour that there was a group of Japanese performers in attendance somewhere, a thing which I would have paid good money to see. Mostly, of course, the artists hailed from the UK. And the performances were free, so all in all it seemed right up my street.

We walked into one particular pub. We got our drinks and sat down at the only remaining table, which was hard by a low dais on which a group was performing. They were an acapella trio, with the middle guy accompanying them on an accordion. There was absolutely nothing to distinguish them from any other troupe we had seen that evening. Three stocky guys, cable knit sweaters, cable knit beards and those Breton Fisherman’s caps that Donovan used to wear. I’d guess they were about the same age as I am now and, my goodness me, how old that seemed to me then. I was on my fourth or fifth pint by now, and I sat there bobbing my head in time to the music and feeling rather mellow. Then I became aware that my girlfriend was shifting in her seat nervously, so I looked up to see the reason.

You will indulge an old man’s vanity whilst I describe this lass, for she was well worth the describing. She was almost as tall as me and Junoesque in build, she had large dark eyes and long dark hair. She was of the tight jeans and biker jacket persuasion in her habiliments, and she was the sort of girl whose progress through a pub or other venue you could track by the Mexican Wave effect of blokes’ heads snapping round to watch her as she passed. She claimed to be unaware of this phenomenon, and even today I would still be slightly more than half inclined to believe her. She was, in short, the sort of bird who attracted attention.

“When you’re in love with a beautiful woman,” as the great psychologist and Relationship Expert Dr Hook informs us, “everybody tempts her, everybody tells her she’s the most beautiful woman they know.” Wiser words were never written. It was not uncommon, when we were out together, for some chap to swoop in while I was away at the bar. Normally her polite rebuff was sufficient, but even the most persistent would beat a hasty retreat when I hoved into view. I never blamed them, either: she was fit. And I’m an affable chap in any case, not prone to taking or seeking offence. You made your pitch, got knocked back and took it like a gentleman? Then no harm done, better luck with the next one and mine’s a pint. Ta.

But when a geezer starts making her feel uncomfortable, gets too close and touchy-feely or whatever and won’t stop, then it’s a different kettle of fish: a line in the sand. As a Twentieth Century Bloke, and a reasonably enlightened one at that, it was never a proprietary issue for me. But there is an atavistic response. You’re not going to just stand by and watch while some mug makes your bird cry, are you? There are boundaries that you cannot allow to be broken and still call yourself a man. Self respect and a damsel in distress. It’s your job to protect her.

I don’t know the name of the song that the trio were singing as I looked up at them, but I can remember the precise words. The lead singer called out “Be handy, boys!” and the other two responded ‘We’re handy!’. Or at least one of them did. The accordionist lustily brayed out “We’re randy!” and gurned at my girlfriend’s chest. There is no doubt in my mind about it. There was not much more than a six foot of distance or so between us all, and it was utterly unmistakable. And as I watched he did it again and, it being a repeated refrain type song, again. The other two guys seemed oblivious, lost in their own Sea Shanty world, but the accordionist was very much focused on my partner’s upper hamper. Then his eyes shifted and locked on my own, and he gave me a little smirk. Then he turned back to my girlfriend and did it again. If he had got down off the stage, put his head in between ’em and gone “Bubble-ubble-ubble” it could not have been more blatant.

Blokes have a non-verbal form of communication. It’s not sophisticated or extensive, but it generally does a job. And as the volume of the performance made speech redundant, it was a necessity at this precise time. I caught the accordionist’s eye, and made the gesture that means “OK, mate. A joke’s a joke but enough’s enough”. That is to say I bent my arms at the elbows and spread my hands out with the palms towards the floor, hunched my shoulders a little and made a wry grimace. Placatory, non-threatening. He gave me another smirk, then gurned with extra brio at my girlfriend’s bosom. I also clocked the fact that the other two were now staring at me levelly.

I am not a violent man, but I grew up in a rough and tumble environment and I am a pragmatist. Being able to look after yourself was a virtue, and that always seemed sensible to me. But I’ve never gone looking for trouble as I learnt early that trouble will, unerringly and in its own good time, come looking for you.

Some people enjoy violence, I do not. I prefer to avoid violence if I can but I have finely honed instincts in that regard. I know when it’s possible to defuse a situation and I’m good at reading people. I can tell who’s all mouth and trousers, and on more than one occasion I have convinced odds of 2:1 or greater that they might be best served by leaving me well alone. I know when humour might do the trick or when an emollient approach is best. I know when the time for talk is nearly over and a pre-emptive strike is called for, or when the only recourse is to get the duck out of Fodge as expeditiously as possible. And there was something about these guys that was setting alarm bells ringing.

I tried another gesture from the repertoire of non-verbal comms. The one that means “Hang on, I don’t know what the eff is going on but I don’t like it. Proceed at your own risk”: shoulders back, arms outstretched with palms diagonally upwards and an incredulous snarl on the face. Didn’t faze them for second. They carried on singing, didn’t drop a beat. The two singers stared at me stonily, and the accordionist smirked, gurned at my girlfriend’s knockers and then smirked at me again. I stood up.

I appreciate that this is terribly anti-climactic, and you have my deepest sympathies, but as I stood up so did my girlfriend. She grabbed me by the elbow and dragged me precipitately backwards to the exit. I was caught off balance, and backpedaled the length of the bar and into the street. It is a small salve to my dignity that all the while I was making the gestures that convey the message “Egad, Sirrah! Were it not for the fact that I am being propelled in retrograde motion by my fair companion, you and your ruffianly associates would find events taking a course which is but little to your taste!”

Or words to that effect.

To this day I maintain that it was a set up. The Rolling Stones used to do something similar on stage in the early days. They would flirt with the girls and taunt their boyfriends in order to provoke a reaction. Although why a Sea Shanty band would want to do this is utterly beyond me.

Had it come to blows, well, I genuinely don’t know. Honestly? I reckon I would have got a drubbing. This was practiced, they’d done it before and they weren’t backing down. These were serious blokes. Confident. Perhaps they’d ‘been something’ before they became an acapella group. It’s an interesting concept: a bunch of hard knocks turned Folkies, gigging on the Yo Ho Ho circuit and occasionally provoking mayhem. Under other circumstances we might have become friends.

I can picture the headlines in the local papers: Soft Southern Sh*te Gets Well-Deserved Knackering For Mugging Geriatric Folk Group. I can also hear the judge at the ensuing trial: “Eh, Lads! Tha’s ‘ad tha fun, now ’tis ma go”, before he turns to me and hands down the maximum tolerable sentence for whatever being charged with for having been provoked into attacking a bunch of beardy Cnuts will warrant.

A crossroads moment there, I reckon. And I reckon I had a lucky escape.

And I reckon they was as ‘ard as effin’ nails.

Author’s Note

The above was first published in May 2019, but fell victim to the Image Copyright firestorm shortly thereafter.  I have digitally reimagined it and present it here for a new generation.

Of course I could have done the decent thing and just resurrected it and slipped it quietly into the back catalogue without any fanfare, but I am a lazy man and shame is a commodity I long ago ceased to be able to afford.

And you’ll be seeing quite a lot of this sort of thing in the future, so be warned.

© bobo 2021

The Goodnight Vienna Audio file