Archive for the ‘Papa Burns’Category

Too Eager to Learn

This morning we were in a mob. At around 7.45 am, among a crowd of about a hundred people, we stood listening for a cue to start moving.  There were several false starts, moments when an individual at the front misheard the sign, and sent shockwaves of awareness that ricocheted through the rest of us. The crowd would contract, tensing up for a moment as if taking a breath. There would be a synchronised checking-of-watches, a universal recognition that we still had a few minutes to go, and then this giant organic entity would quietly relax. Conversation would restart until the next convulsion sent us all tensing up again.

We were waiting outside a building, and eventually a small door opened on the far right side. The moment which we had been standing in the cold with shower-damp hair and breakfast-less stomachs for had arrived. The crowd tensed up again but this time there was no relenting. We were caught up in the momentum of the mob, like invisible hands on a Ouija Board, nobody really pushing except everybody secretly pushing, semi-consciously willing the totem to shift. The rip tide dragged me toward the door, and as I got closer, the mass of bodies became more violent. People were swan-faced and tensely smiling, but beneath the surface their legs were kicking out for grip. A strategically placed shoulder blade here, an extended knee there: you did your best to politely screw over those around you, until finally, you reached the door. At the threshold came the final release, the champagne-cork pop that sent you sprawling into a foyer, half-smiling in concert with the co-conspirators around you, laughing inwardly at the others still engulfed in the maelstrom outside. You’d done it. You’d made it. Now you could find a desk and start revising.

That’s right. I WASN’T in line for tickets to a a super-awesome-trendy folk gig. I WASN’T queueing up to get on the last aeroplane out of volcano/blizzard-choked England. I was trying to get into the LIBRARY, and I’d been doing it every day for the last two weeks.

You probably think I go to a really nerdy university, where everybody is just so eager to learn that they stand outside in the cold every day at 8 am just so they can get hold of some juicy books on advanced trigonometry or neo-Marxian race-relations. The real truth, though, is that it’s exam season, and the Holy Place of Revision, the designated areas of worship where students come to pray that the Gods of Diligence might banish the Devils of Procrastination, happens to be the little wooden cubicles on the top floor of our main campus library. For the low, low price of a 6.30 am wakeup and half an hour of passive-aggressive shoving, you can slam down a backpack or jumper and reserve yourself a desk till midnight. At 11 am, the keen-eyed latecomers come to scavenge the scraps left behind by the early morning chaos, and they’ll pounce on any empty desk protected only by an ambiguous closed textbook. Vigilance is key; if you need an hour for lunch you must remember to leave an uncapped pen and a shuffle of half-finished notes to give the impression to envious passer-bys that you’ve only just popped off to the loo, that you’ll be back soon to reclaim your territory. Those among us who guard our desks in person, though, look up with sleep-deprived eyes and chuckle at the opportunistic scavengers. We know who the real hard workers are.

It is the library where I find myself now, condemned here not just because of the approaching exams but also due to a crashed hard drive that was conscientious enough to wait until I had finished my dissertation, but not enough to let me complete my exams too. I’ve given myself a guilt-racked hour to write a STFU post before I have to get back to revision. In the mean time, I have two textbooks on my desk to help me with my upcoming ‘Personal Life and Family’ sociology exam. One of them says ‘INTIMACY’ in big white letters on the cover, and I like to make sure it is especially conspicuous to anyone passing by.  ‘Oh, hello ladies. What was that? Yes, in fact I do know all about intimacy, I’ve even read a BOOK on it. What? You want my number? Oh sure, here it is…’


With all this research on the delicate subject of intimacy, I’ve had little time to do any on local folk happenings. With the chance (don’t even want to think about it) that my carefully cultivated collection of folk (blocking it out of my head right now) might actually disappear (no!) with the rest of my melted hard drive (now actually sobbing a teensy bit), I’ve lost everything I wanted to show you. Nevertheless, like your great  aunt always says, why BUY it when you can MAKE it? Though by now you all know my opinions of the self-promoting douchebags who don’t follow the rules of folk etiquette, I want to show you a tune that I’ve left my fingerprints on. Papa Burns recently wrote a song on the guitar, that I then added lyrics to, and we both set about recording on a makeshift little set-up in my bedroom in California. He and I would meet there after long days in the garden, and in front of a growing dissertation, respectively, and collaborate our folky minds to make something that eventually become a song we are really proud of.

Papa Burns is quick to point out that he thought his voice was a little shaky in parts, that he may have been nervous doing his first ever recording, that there are parts he’d like to have another go on. To me, though, it’s faultless. The whole song perfectly encapsulates my relationship with my dad, a silent collaboration and recognition that we’re always on the same team, that we both know what we like, that we both had the same thing in mind from the onset. He wrote a vocal melody and guitar parts, all I had to do was fill in the blanks with some lyrics.

And so while it may be a bit douchebaggy for me to be putting my own music on a website about good folk, in the end it really isn’t my music at all. It’s the kind of music that everyone who loves their dads would make if they were lucky enough like me to be able to sit down and write songs with them, and I kind of wanted to share that with you.

I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as we enjoyed recording it.

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The Charlatan – Patrick and Luke (right-click here and select save as)


05 2011

I Saw a Shadow Touch a Shadow’s Hand

Sociologist Manuel Castells talks about how as humanity gets increasingly computerised and networked, anyone without a laptop and a broadband connection is simply cut off from the rest of the world as it steadily ticks on without them. Certainly for the last few weeks this is pretty much exactly how I’ve been feeling.

I live on the west coasts of two different countries, splitting up my time between Bristol, England (where I study) and San Diego, California (where my parents live). Every summer I have to make the paradigm-shifting, Earth-shaking, jet lag-inducing transfer between these two countries and the process seems to knock me out for weeks. It takes a long time for me to acclimatise myself to student life: this morning I sat at the kitchen table till noon waiting for breakfast to appear in front of me. You forget how wonderful mums are until there’s eight thousand miles of ocean separating you from freshly ironed boxer shorts and bottomless cups of tea.

This time round, though, the shock of overflowing laundry bags was cushioned by a week of touring round the country with Papa Burns and the twin. We started near London and wormed our way up the M24, dropping in on relatives as we went and leaving them flustered and bewildered by our empty beds the next morning.

We finally reached St Andrews in Scotland, the fuzzy ginger hat of England, where I had to go through the heartrending process of parting with my twin sister, the person who has known me since my humble zygote days. Tears aside, St Andrews is a gorgeous town and certainly worth the visit. It’s basically where golf was invented and Papa Burns took us out to the Jigger Inn, the original pub built to service the course. Here the Luke Burns Food Awards saw some new winners, as I graced the burger I had for dinner a gold star in my Best Burger (In a Restaurant) category, while the sticky toffee pudding that followed received a nomination for Best Pudding (Non-Chocolate Variety)—but ultimately lost out to a lemon meringue pie Mama Burns made back in July ’08.

Leaving St Andrews, with the car lacking a passenger and a couple suitcases we made a good pace south, where I had to do a handstand in front of the Angel of the North. She was pretty much begging me to.

Note: If you can see your bellybutton from 100 feet, it’s probably time to start dieting

Now, my dad is originally from the north of England. For those reading this in America, you should probably know that regional contrasts are just as marked in the UK as they are in the States. The south has classically been labeled the ‘posh’ side of England, whereas the north has always prided itself on its abundance of coal mines, steel factories and trade unions. The time had finally come for me to acquaint myself with my northern roots.

I did everything I could to immerse myself in Yorkshire culture. I went to watch Rotherham, my father’s hometown with a team my dad has supported since the days footballs were still made out of leather, wolfing down vinegary chips and moaning with genuine northern exasperation at the nil-nil result. I discovered a whole slew of second cousins I had previously only ever seen in Christmas cards and photo albums, and was awed by their politeness as they lined up to thank my father for the sweets he had brought them (“Thank you, Ooncle Patch-rick!”). I chuckled conspiratorially with my Uncle Fred as we carried our overflowing plates away from the meat buffet of a local pub carvery, and then groaned quietly as I struggled to fit my stomach back into the rental car for the drive home. We also visited my German grandmother who lives in a home very close by and took a tour of the streets and fields my father played in as a boy.

It was this final part of my three days up north that really shook me. As we wandered around Rotherham, Papa Burns slowly brought me back in time. Starting with his elementary school, we traced a line downtown that culminated somewhere in the mid-19th century, outside a row of terraced houses that belonged to my great-great-great-grand-something. On this corner stood a sweet shop he ran and behind it, a cobbled square that I recognised from a black and white photograph taken nearly two centuries ago that hangs above my father’s desk.

A few minutes down the road stood a large brick building plastered with signs for DISCOUNT CARPETS—CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP! Papa Burns and I pulled back a rusting fence and stumbled into a graveyard next door blanketed by overgrown vegetation and beer cans. We had to be quick, we weren’t supposed to be there and the owner of the carpet store was apparently not a very nice chap. My father had just enough time to point out a crumbling chapel where his grandparents had married so many years before. The owner of the carpet store was looking to tear down the property, he told me, was trying to build a block of flats in its place, didn’t care about the graves or the chapel. Papa Burns’ efforts to preserve the area had been ineffectual, the neighbourhood was too rough to warrant a restoration grant and few people seemed that bothered to fight for it.

Suddenly a quiet voice called from around the corner, “You’re not supposed to be in here.” From the other side of the building emerged three tiny children. We were caught in a surreal moment, my father and I engulfed in the sadness of this crumbling building, trying to escape before we were seen and now suddenly being interrogated by a group of six year-olds brandishing sticks. After we explained the plight of the chapel at trembling twig-point, the little gang disarmed and enthusiastically promised to start a war on the chapel’s behalf. After seeing we got back to our car safely, they sped off to find bombs and missiles in the park across the street. Within this tableaux of young children and old buildings, of the overcast Rotherham sky my father spent his formative years beneath, of that same big man walking away from a town that was becoming less and less familiar, I felt I understood a little better the stolid, impassive qualities so often associated with people from the North.

On the drive home Papa Burns gestured at the long beams of light peaking round the corners of Rotherham’s greying buildings. He mentioned how the light in Rotherham had a certain slow, dreamy quality he has never seen anywhere else in the world. It was good to know that not everything was changing.

When I finally got to Bristol and said goodbye to Papa Burns, who had been my traveling companion for two weeks, I was struck by an unbelievable sadness. Just like I do every time I miss my dad, I hurried inside and put on some Paul Simon records.

If you’re in the mood for some good old-fashioned feeling-sorry-for-yourself then you can’t really go wrong with a bit of Paul Simon. My older sister remarked to me how great it is to discover an overlooked but entirely incredible song by musicians who have been around for forty years, whose repertoire you thought you knew off by heart. She sent me Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bleaker Street’ a week ago, and it’s been on repeat ever since.


10 2010