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Just after 9am on Friday we passed through Galashiels in the packed estate car and descended into mist where the A7 skirted the river Tweed. The market square with my lyrics to “Kayleigh” carved in cold damp limestone behind us and perhaps an omen missed as Elspeth and I headed South towards the border.
Shaun was driving the “clown carrier” and picking up Frank Usher and Gavin Dickie after collecting Foss Paterson and Gregor Firth so was already well out of my mirrors. We were all fully loaded with gear and merchandise and even had to send overflow bags with Hutch on the train. It was a laden caravan and I was running point.
The signal of Radio Scotland started to break up as we wound our way slowly through the border valleys in low visibility guided by the taillights of impassable trucks and wary cars stacked in unwanted convoys.
A scene of fresh wreckage washed by spinning blue lights of recently arrived emergency vehicles, our second of the journey, reminded me not to gamble on the pedals.
The weather wouldn’t break until Carlisle.
The motorway heralded a pick up of speed and the dash past familiar signs. Penrith; my old forestry college. Lancaster; where I heard “Script” had gone silver in 83; the turn off to Preston where I went every October as a boy to visit my Aunt and Uncle; Liverpool and Manchester and old haunts; North Wales, the road to Yatta and doomed romance and finally into the midlands where the Tom Tom counted down the miles and the signs for Leamington Spa loomed large and promising.
It was 2pm. My girlfriend was flying into Birmingham International airport from Frankfurt at 1. It was her birthday. We were both excited. This would be a fine weekend.
Elspeth and I checked into the hotel and a few dropped hints to a friendly manager at reception got me the keys to an upgraded room away from the party animals.
Yatta was already checked in with his family, Shaun was an hour behind and Simone was stranded at the airport station due to a line fault.I holed up in a nearby pub with Yatta and Elspeth. Pints and pork scratchings. Hutch and Lou arrived. The buzz was low but discernible.
My second trip to the station brought back Simone just after 4. I’d seen Karsten and a few Danish fans trudging with luggage along the bypass and at the station itself the Company Italy had just disembarked from the Birmingham train with my girlfriend. Excited chatter and hugs as the first elements of the convention gathered.
All our troops had arrived and were moving to the venue for load in. I parked the Volvo at the hotel, dropped of Simone’s luggage and soon after we headed off into town in the general direction of the assembly rooms. I needed to organise something to eat and wanted something special for her birthday. We’d been recommended a Thai restaurant which was relatively close and decided to book it rather than chance a table on a Friday night.
A short walk and the sight of a large carved White Elephant on the roof of a building identified the location and a reservation was duly made for later. I wasn’t sure which direction the venue was in and decided to ask for directions. Just a few doors down from the Thai there was a drum shop and in the window a guy was dancing. I stopped and went in the door to meet 2 guys and the dancer. I figured these people would know. Just as I asked one of them clicked and asked if I was Fish. It turned out he was a drummer and ex photographer whose first ever shooting assignment was Marillion in Bournemouth in 1983. He didn’t know the gig was on which wasn’t that surprising as the entire event had mostly been advertised solely through the web site and the Facebook / Twitter contacts with only a recent press announcement in the immediate run up to the convention. He was amazed I was there and I was as blown away as he was at the coincidence of the meeting especially with so much material from the 82-83 era present in the set. Another positive omen and he told me he would be at the show.
Simone and I traipsed through the darkening streets, re-familiarising myself with the beautiful town, into the park with its deserted bandstand, the grass and footpaths strewn with falling leaves stuck to the ground like a golden paper mache model under construction. Across the swollen river by the footbridge and around to the venue we entered the doors to discover the fraggles in action setting the stage, trailing wires to cameras in lowered trusses and building the back line for a possible sound check that evening. Shaun the FTC twiddled and fussed behind the out front desk and I was pleased to see Chris Brown on the lighting rig. He’d volunteered to take on LD duties for the weekend and had driven down with his wife Pat all the way from their home in Shetland via a family gathering in Edinburgh. She just wanted to open up her cabriolet sports car on some major roads after the frustrations of endless circles on the island! It was great to see them although Chris was struggling coming to terms with the board after years behind a literary desk rather than a lighting one. The technology was at first baffling but he would rise to the occasion over the convention.
Angus “Secret” Fearful had returned to the fold to deal with the video set ups and help out with the back line which Yatta was putting together like a kid with a Meccano set at Christmas, the drumkit being particularly fawned over with tender loving care as you’d expect from an ex-sticks man. The local crew were helpful and smiley as the last time I remembered and the venues monitor engineer, “Tattie”, was on the ball from the off.
The band had gathered but it was becoming obvious that the 10 o’clock curfew on our preparations was not going to hear a soundcheck. There was no point in hanging around and messages from the Viking contingent insisting on our appearance at their hotel where Mark and Julie Wilkinson were booked in seemed like a good draw. Simone and I passed the “Jug and Jester” but decided against a stopover pint as it was becoming rammed with Fishheads and I knew I would get trapped in conversations and greetings that could wait until tomorrow. We did manage a quick hello to Yatta’s wife Chris, daughter Karis and boyfriend Mark, swift to rub in the recent footy result against their beloved Wales! If I needed an excuse to leave I now had one! 🙂
We made our way into town and up to the Norwegian encampment with 2 hours before our dinner reservation. I’d been nervous if not paranoid for the last couple of weeks regarding any vocal strains, infections or lurgies and had banned a few friends from visiting the house when they contracted flu. It was going to be a demanding weekend for me and I was highly aware that people had traveled long distances to be part of this convention. I had to be fully fit. I didn’t need hamstrung on the first night and was prepared to sacrifice the desire to party down in order to stay on top of my game. The Viking gathering was a slight risk but as Mark and Julie were present I felt slightly safer than an encounter with the Norwegians alone.
We reached the hotel after a long walk to discover the lie! The Wilkinsons were still en route and Andreas and the boys were taking full advantage of Scandinavian economics in Happy Hour at the bar. There was already wobbling and semi glazed eyes as they had been on a bender since the morning which included invading a private quadrangle at Oxford university from an adjacent bar with an unlocked door on the journey from Stansted?? Chased out and beyond they had discovered beer at 2 pounds a pint in the hotel bar and were making full use of the opportunity presented to them. I didn’t need a diploma from the University of the Bleeding Obvious to recognise that this was going to get ugly! The arrival of the Wilkinsons seemed like waiting for Godot and the beer kept appearing at an increasing rate. As always the engaging Norwegians intermeshed with a local senior rugby team with potentially disastrous consequences but the horned jesters won them over with copious rounds and apologies for behaviour and the night burned bright. As much as I love their company I had to bid farewells to a tired bleary Annstein – the nominated getaway driver, Andreas who was sheets to the wind, a inanely grinning and babbling Morten, Stein with the permanent smile and the rest of this motley crew who were all destined for dark hangovers on the first day of the convention. Just as Simone and I left the bar we literally ran into Mark and Julie who had just arrived. Short sweet introductions to my lady and then we were off into the Leamington streets in a taxi. I felt sorry for the Wilkinsons who had just arrived to be greeted with a mob of gremlins intent on torching the night in style! I was determined to stay sensible.
It was Simone’s first Thai meal and we dined in peace and style. Just to escape the gathering demands of the weekend for a couple of hours and to sneak some private time was bliss. It had been a fine birthday and we wandered back to the hotel along dim tree lined streets as together as we could possible be. A short diversion into the hotel bar for a nightcap was enough to remind me of the temptations I had to avoid as members of our entourage gathered to overwhelm the bar staff. I had escaped the trap and lay in bed with my head full of worries and plans that could “gang aglae”. The band was up to speed after concentrated rehearsals but the new material that we were to play with Steve Vantsis hadn’t been touched for 3 weeks. I hadn’t worked with Mickey Simmonds for a few months on the last and only time we’d played an acoustic set together, the comedy segments with Will Smith had only been sketches of ideas texted in recent days as he’d been busy with filming and had just got back from LA; the sound check was at 10am and I’d been told that we were still a way to go on the PA set up; the Volvo was still outside in the hotel car park full of merch, I had an unwritten introduction to jam through, 3 hours of singing, 2 hours of miscellaneous banter to concoct and it was all being filmed and recorded! And on top of all that was the first ever performance of “Grendel” since 1983 and I had decided to open up the evening set with it!!!
Somehow I managed to sleep.