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Big Ol’ Jetliners


Play word association with Seattle and most people will come up with a combination of Nirvana, Hendrix, Starbucks and maybe rain (thanks, Frasier). But the list should also includes aviation, because Seattle is home to Boeing, and is one of the few places in the world where the public can get to see a commercial airliner being built. That might sound like watching paint dry (and, if you’re lucky, you might be able to see just that) but for anyone who loves what Steve Miller called big ol’ jetliners – or those who still can’t comprehend how those monsters can get off the ground – it’s a fascinating 90 minutes.


Forty minutes’ drive north of the famous Space Needle is the Future of Flight museum, which, more importantly, is the access point for the Boeing Factory Tour at Everett. And it is just that – a chance to stand in the largest building by volume in the world and watch the planes you might have flown across the Atlantic on being assembled. Illuminated by one million lights bulbs, it is the size of 55 football pitches (Boeing does love stats) and left to its own devices it has its own weather system, with clouds forming and rain falling thanks to condensation from the breath and perspiration of workers. Giant ceiling fans prevent this, but the warmth generated by bodies, lights and machinery means no heating is needed in this enormous shed.

The tour begins with a preliminary briefing (mainly – no phones, no photos, no fooling about) before visitors are allowed onto the factory floor (well, on balconies to one side) to watch shifts put together the 747, the 777 and the 787 Dreamliner. The number “7” prefix, by the way, indicates it is a jet aircraft, not a prop plane, a boat/submarine or, indeed, a spaceship.


       The sleek Dreamliner is assembled like a giant Airfix kit from components produced across the globe. The carbon/polymer resin fuselage comes over from Italy, the engines from the UK, and eight other countries contribute parts. Completed planes have to be towed over a bridge that crosses a busy highway to reach the Everett Field runway for their first test flights. This is now done at the dead of night – during daylight, drivers below were either alarmed to see a very, very low flying aircraft or slowed to gawp, and accidents were not uncommon. 

        The long line of partially completed 787s was certainly impressive – and there are yet more trundling along a similar production line at a sister plant in South Carolina – but it was the sheer size of the sole Jumbo on display that day that still inspired genuine awe. The one I saw was being lined up for final assembly prior to painting (which can add 1,000lbs to the weight), still clad in a protective green skin.


Boeing is down to producing just one Jumbo every other month as the order books switch to the 787s, even though the current 747 is much lighter and more fuel efficient than the original. Which is a shame, because I have a soft spot for it, being the first plane I flew to the USA on (who was it, when asked why they always preferred to fly on four-engined planes, replied “because they don’t make one with five”?). Speaking to the BA cabin crew about their favourite planes on the return trip this time, one them said that, despite its age, the majority of staff still love a Jumbo.

The coffee and the rain will always be there in Seattle, but the 747 will soon go the way of Cobain and Hendrix. Best get your skates on if you want to see this BFG of the skies being put together. 

* The Boeing Tour (001 425 438 8100/ is at Everett Field and costs £16.30 for adults, £11.50 for 15 and under. Holiday Autos (020 3740 9859/ has seven days’ car hire from £27 per day. If you aren’t renting a car, Viator (020 3318 0421/ has tours with transportation from downtown Seattle from £54pp. British Airways (0344 493 0787/ offers return flights to Seattle from London Heathrow from £640. Virgin Atlantic (0844-573 0088, will start flying the route from May 1, with similar prices. Further details at Visit Seattle ( or


Somebody call the cops….

…Kurt Elling has just stolen a show.

Well, that might be an exaggeration, as there were many highpoints to Guy Barker’s storming Big Band Christmas Show (not least seeing the leader play trumpet, a rare event these days, and the calibre of both the players and arrangements) at the Royal Albert Hall last night, but one of the earliest was Kurt Elling hipping and scatting into The Little Drummer Boy, backed by the two drummers who were another delight of the evening. It is featured, in a slightly politer version, on his new Christmas album, The Beautiful Day.

71kgeex1rl-_sl1200_I have been playing it all morning and was going to review it, but discovered Dave Gelly in the Observer had beaten me to it.

This album’s unlikely subtitle, Kurt Elling Sings Christmas, doesn’t signify wall-to-wall jingle bells. Read the three pages of notes if you want to know exactly where he stands, Christmas-wise. But if you want to hear a subtle, beautifully crafted and constantly surprising set of seasonal songs, just listen. The whole thing starts with bits of favourite carols, apparently thrown together at random, but in fact minutely layered. Along with his superb vocal technique, this artful casualness is one of Elling’s great strengths. From a funky New Orleans version of Little Drummer Boy to a breathtaking evocation of peace in The Snow Is Deep on the Ground, it’s flawless.

He is absolutely right. There’s Leslie Bricusse in there, Edvard Grieg and even Dan Fogelberg. As well as Kurt’s daughter Luiza. And it is great.  It makes most of the other jazzy Xmas albums in my collection look like tasteless kitsch (although I have a very soft spot for Jimmy Smith’s dramatic march into “God Rest..”, as played by Guy’s band at the concert).

Just buy it. And make sure you see him in concert next time he is over. And lobby for the Barker Big Band Christmas to become an annual event.

STOP PRESS: There WILL be another Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas Show next December.



Get Shirty!

I have had a shirt made for me just three times in my life. The first was at Gieves & Hawkes in London, the second in Hong Kong and thirdly, just recently, at Regent Tailoring in Salisbury. Three is not really enough, because a bespoke shirt is thing of joy, especially the pleasure that comes from having the perfect sleeve length. I would recommend it as either a personal indulgence (go on, you deserve it) or a gift (which mine was). However, one thing I would also advise is this: do your homework before you go and get measured up. I know very well that having a suit made is like the reverse of death by a thousand cuts – creation by a thousand questions, about jacket length, trouser width, pleats, ticket pockets, collar notches, button holes etc. etc. There might be fewer such decisions to make for a shirt, but I had forgotten that there’s still a bunch of them, starting with the very basic one: what colour?


I think even Don Draper might have rejected this one…

But that is just the beginning. It was my friend Jonathan Futrell who pre-warned me about one important aspect (he knows about clothes, fabrics, etiquette; check out his hip outdoor website – yes, those two words do go together here –, which displays but a fraction of his sartorial knowledge). As I wanted a formal shirt to wear with a suit, he cautioned against going with the modern trend of straight cut bottom/tail, on the grounds that they tend to pull out of the waistband of the trousers, which isn’t a good look.

There is one surefire way to prevent this, as used by Frank Sinatra. David Gale, head cutter at Turnbull & Asser, explained it to me thus: ‘It is called a quorn strap, like the hunt [and not the meat substitute], and it runs from the tail and is attached to a lower button at the front. It was originally designed for hunting, so the shirt didn’t pop out of the breeches, but in Sinatra’s case it would be so he could lift his arms on stage without the shirt bunching or coming adrift.’ As I reckon I am unlikely to be singing My Way on stage anytime soon – or, indeed, ever – I decided to go forego the strap in favour of traditional  shirttails.


“Look, no bunching!”

However, having got that out of the way with Jason Regent,  owner of the eponymous store and the man who was measuring me up, he had plenty more to quiz me on. I first met Jason a few years back when I was profiling him for GQ magazine and I wrote this:

“Regent, who worked at Ede & Ravenscroft (Est. 1689) before branching out on his own, often sounds like a mix of Jeeves the valet, Alfred the butler and a naughty uncle as he advises clients on the conventions of dressing for sporting or social occasions. ‘It runs in the family,’ he says, ‘My grandfather was butler to the Flemings, the bankers, which included Ian Fleming, and he used to pick me up at school in a Bentley, which at the time I thought was his. He would tell me things like, never trust anyone who is too polished, that old money is usually a bit scruffy round the edges. He also gave me the first puff on a cigar and drink of whisky. I think I was ten.’

       Born in Essex but brought up in Henley-on-Thames, both Regent’s personality and products effortlessly straddle town and country, traveller and toff, Glastonbury and Glyndebourne. The shop, which is a combination of Timothy Everest’s higgledy-piggledy Spitalfields atelier and the bric-a-brac emporium style of early Paul Smith stores, reflects this. It sells moleskin country trousers, but with a narrow, urban cut, sharp city suits but with roomy shooting jacket pleats and brilliant own-brand woodland boots with a tweedy upper section that really ought to give Hunter a run for their money as the preferred footwear of the country squire manqué. Plus there are little twists that make you smile, such as the tweed caps that can come, if you wish, with matching hip flask.”

All of which is still true, although Jason has recently cultivated a luxuriant beard that makes him look like an East London hipster who has suffered a sudden attack of good taste. So, Jason’s job, apart from getting your dimensions correct, is to guide you through the important decisions, asking if you want to close the cuffs with buttons or cufflinks (he isn’t fan of dual-purpose cuffs, but will make exceptions), what type of collar (I went for a Kent, named after the Duke, rather than the more cutaway New Kent) and buttons (do upgrade from plastic). Then there is the little matter of choosing your fabric….

Eventually, I got through this shirty Spanish inquisition and a month later the much-debated garment arrived. I’d say it fits like a glove, except it fits like a very well-made bespoke shirt.  It’s due its first public outing very soon at a Christmas party where, apparently, there will be be dancing.


Let’s hope I don’t regret rejecting the quorn strap.

Regent Tailoring (73 New St, Salisbury SP1 2PH, 01722-335151, Custom shirts from £130 (minimum order: one) .

Everybody Digs Bill Evans: Composer of the Week

Bill Evans is Radio 3’s Composer of the Week this week. It inspired me to dig out an old piece I wrote about him. The quotes from various pianists are from a few years ago when I last dusted it off, but they all remain bang on the money. It’s a long piece, but then so was Bill’s career. Although not long enough.


It is July, 1980. As the heat of the summer’s day fades, Simon Wallace, regular pianist at the soon-to-be-legendary Blitz Club, is standing on the corner of Poland and Oxford Streets, waiting for his girlfriend. A thin, middle-aged American, despite the warmth, wearing a thick overcoat, stops and asks for help: ‘Sorry, I’m kinda lost. I’m looking for Ronnie Scott’s jazz club. I’ve been there before, but I can’t seem to get my bearings.’

Wallace explains he is going to the club himself to see pianist Bill Evans, one of his heroes. Oh. Do you play? the stranger asks. Yes, Wallace replies, explaining that he, too, is a piano player, although not in Bill’s league, but has latterly become disillusioned with the music business. In fact, Wallace has just applied for a job as a proof reader in a solicitor’s office. The pair chat some more and Wallace notices how much the man’s hands shake as he lights his cigarette. Wallace’s girlfriend finally appears and the three set off for Ronnie’s. When they get to the club in Frith St, the American greets the owner and says: ‘Hey, Ronnie. I’ve got a couple of guests. Are they OK to come in?’

Ronnie Scott looks them over with his famously gimlet eye. ‘Sure, Bill.’

Only then does Simon Wallace realise the bearded, jittery American is none other than the legendary genius of the piano, Bill Evans.

Thirty-odd years later, the same club. Simon Wallace, now a professional songwriter and of late the piano player with The Waterboys, is sitting at the bar with me. Bill Evans is playing over the speakers – on Stolen Moments by Oliver Nelson – and Wallace is recalling the night he saw the great pianist take to the small stage.

‘It was just beautiful,’ he says, echoing what keyboard colossus Keith Jarrett said about the first time he saw Evans (when Jarrett was 15). ‘Astonishing. The place was packed with musicians. I stood next to Andre Previn for one set. For me it was life-changing. The next morning I called up the solicitor’s office and said: I can’t take the job. I have to keep at the music. The day after that a gig came in playing piano six nights a week.’

It is an Oscar Peterson tribute night at Ronnie’s, and again the place is full of musicians, both veteran and tyro. When I mention the name Bill Evans even the most reticent and taciturn of players dig into their satchel of superlatives. It seems for most jazzers, the first time they heard the man, either live or on record, is seared into their memory. As James Pearson, the house pianist at Ronnie’s, says: ‘Bill Evans invented the piano trio as we know it today. You think it’s been around forever, but that first trio set the blueprint.’

And the soaring edifice constructed from that blueprint is in rude health across the globe. In the UK we have Gwilym Simcock, blurring the boundaries by nudging piano jazz towards classical music, Neil Cowley pushing the other way into hook-laden riffs, Kit Downes gliding effortlessly between the two and James Pearson at Ronnie’s on blistering form. Manchester’s Go-Go Penguin bring Aphex Twin and Steve Reich to the party, with exhilarating results. Elsewhere, Keith Jarrett’s venerable The Standards Trio is still excavating the mysteries of the like of Lerner and Loewe; Sweden’s EST (sadly terminated by Esbjorn Svenson’s untimely death) added electronic textures to the format, while Norway’s Tord Gustavson brings hymn-like grace to his tunes. America’s The Bad Plus and Brad Mehldau Trio turn Abba, Oasis and Radiohead into harmonically complex three-part work-outs, while Australasia has the genre-busting Aronas and Trichotomy threesomes. Italians revere the Alboran Trio and the bands of Franco d’Andrea and Stefano Bollani. (Jazz is still huge in Italy: even Mussolini’s son Romano had a piano trio). The Igor Gehenot Trio from Belgium manages to conjure the spirt of Ahmad Jamal and keith jarret while adding something fresh. There are scores of others who could be added to that roll call, without compromising its quality.


Despite the apparent limitations of a piano-bass-drums set-up, each of the above demonstrates in a different way just how malleable the basic paradigm is, and every one of the outfits owes a debt to Bill Evans. Simon Wallace: ‘As Chuck Israels, one of his great bass players, says, in some ways Evans’ time still hasn’t come. You can build a whole career just exploring what he put down.’

Alex Webb, once of the Barbican’s Contemporary Music Department and now an educator and author (the show café Society Swing is his), and a talented pianist and songwriter, agrees: ‘His work is an absolute textbook for piano players – you never get to the end of studying Bill Evans.’

Yet Evans’ repertoire was very narrow: there are some originals (Nardis, Waltz for Debby, Letter to Evan) but mostly he calls upon The Great American Songbook, material that can, in other hands, veer into cocktail jazz. Don’t ever say that to a Bill Evans fan, though, as I learned to my cost at Ronnie’s. ‘There’s too much going on, musically and intellectually, for it ever to be background music,’ argues Ian Shaw, one of our finest jazz singer-pianists, who also saw Evans at the club in 1980. ‘The harmonies, the passing chords, the touch, just the sound he got from a piano. He could take a song like Some Day My Prince will come or My Foolish Heart and turn it into a musical goldmine.’

It’s thirty-three years since Evans played his last gig at Ronnie Scott’s, one of his favourite venues. (John Fordham in Jazz Man, his biography of Ronnie, tells a knock-about story of the absurd lengths Scott and Pete King went to, trying to find a piano deemed worthy of Bill when he first played there.) Two months later he was dead. But still his name is treated with respect and awe by musicians. Keith Jarrett was once asked a question about technique and he replied: ‘Are you talking about Bill Evans or the rest of us?’

Yet Evans is not a universally familiar name outside the jazz ghetto, the way Miles, Brubeck, Coltrane or Ellington is, even though Bill is the backbone of an album you very likely own – even if you hate jazz – Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue.

Despite being pivotal to that record’s development and sound, Evans is not an icon of cool like Miles. He wasn’t a snappy dresser (dark suit, white shirt, tie) and for most of his life he looked like George McFly, as played by Crispin Glover in Back to the Future. Miles would strike photogenic poses; the bespectacled Bill would hunch awkwardly over the keyboard, cigarette drooping from his mouth, as if trying to locate a soft heartbeat from within the piano.

With Evans, image is nothing. It’s all about the sublime music, his achingly lyrical introspection, the way he can take a well-worn, familiar theme and give it a tension and beauty that at times are unbearable, perhaps all the more if the listener knows that his personal history is coloured, like so many jazz stories, by tragedy: early death, squandered talent, hustled cash, hard drugs, cheated wives, suicide and racial tension all play a crucial role in his tale.


BILL EVANS WAS BORN in Plainfield, New Jersey in 1929 to a Russian mother and a Welsh father. Mom was an amateur pianist; dad was a professional alcoholic and golf course manager. Gifted enough to be able to play violin and flute from an early age, he learned piano from his older brother Harry and by the age of 12 he was depping for him in local bands. The kid quickly gained attention for the way he could invert and substitute chords and phrases, bringing freshness to tired, over-worked tunes. At the same time, he was going through his mother’s collection of sheet music and absorbing influences from Ravel, Debussy, Satie, Bach and Stravinsky, as well as honing his boogie-woogie. He later admitted he played up to six hours piano a day.

By the early fifties he was performing regularly in dance bands and developing his lifelong interest in Eastern philosophies; by the middle he was recording his first pieces for release and by end of the decade he had fallen into the trap that snared so many of his jazz generation: he became a junkie. The piano and heroin would be twin mistresses for the next dozen years.

His first album as leader, in 1956, was called New Jazz Conceptions, not all of which was entirely new (you can hear Bud Powell, Erroll Garner, Nat Cole and others in there), but it did contain his classic piece Waltz for Debby, a gorgeous little jewel of a song that he would come back to time and again. The album was well received by the critics, but sold less than a thousand copies.

Still, the next call was from Miles Davis. Although by this time Evans was a full-blown junkie, that didn’t trouble Miles too much. He had himself been in thrall to heroin, as had the group’s saxophone giant John Coltrane. They could handle that. What proved more difficult was handling Bill’s colour.

Miles later explained why he hired this gangly white boy: ‘Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano.. he had a sound that was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.’

(To see what Miles mean listen to Peace Piece on his second solo album, the prophetically titled Everybody Digs Bill Evans.)

Evans was to last just 10 months in Davis group before he claimed to be ‘exhausted from all the travelling’. But the effort of feeding his drug habit must also have taken his toll, as would another aspect: many fans objected to Evans because he was white, because he have the ‘gospelly’ sound of Red Garland – whom he had replaced – or because his playing was too ‘delicate’. Which was just another way of saying ‘too white’ again: all those European composers had left their mark. Despite sterling support from the ensemble, the pressure got to Evans. As Miles wrote in his autobiography: ‘Some of the things that caused Bill to leave the band hurt me, like that shit some black people put on him about being a white boy in our band.’


Whatever the real reason – and it might well have been a combination of factors – by November 1959, Evans was gone, replaced by Wynton Kelly, who had the right skin tone and sound for the critical fans.

There is another, positive side to this, of course. Aron Ottignon of the trio Aronas is a talented young pianist from a musical family (dad used to play with Manfred Mann, sister Holly is an accomplished jazz singer) who won the New Zealand under-25s National Jazz Musician of the Year when he was just 11. His thrilled piano teacher gave him a copy of Explorations by Bill Evans. ‘He had his incredible touch, it brought a tear to my eye every time I played it. But just as importantly, here was a white guy – a white guy! – who could swing. He made me believe I could too swing if I wanted if I dedicated myself enough.’

In and out of Miles group, Evans helped convinced several generations that being black wasn’t essential to becoming a serious jazz player.

Race might have driven them apart, but Miles and Evans weren’t done. A few months after he left the band, Evans got a call from the trumpeter, saying he was putting together an album that would take him in a new direction. As he would later write, he wanted to build that recording around the piano playing of Bill Evans. The project didn’t even have a name, but it was to go on to become the best-selling jazz album ever.

KIND OF BLUE is the subject of two excellent books, one, simply named after the album, by Ashley Kahn and the more recent The Blue Moment by Richard Williams. The former is brilliant in elucidating what went on in the studio and how the tracks were put together; Williams does a fine and entertaining job of placing the recording in a larger context, even if sometimes his claims for its universal reach seem a little strained. Both, naturally, agree on the pre-eminence of the album, regarding it as a bona fide masterpiece.

Bill Evans appears on all but one track of Kind of Blue, Freddie Freeloader, the first number recorded (but the second on the final running order) which features the more conventional piano of Wynton Kelly. In fact, this bluesy number is the most straightforward track: the rest of the album bears the subtler, more cerebral influence of the white boy Kelly replaced.


Although Miles had experimented with ways of creating new musical scaffoldings for his players on previous recordings, Kind of Blue is the first entire album based entirely on modes or scales. A modal approach gives players amazing freedom from having to work with the ‘changes’ or chord structures of the conventional songs which were usually the basis of improvisation up to that point. KoB shifted the rules, not just for jazz, but for rock: years later bands like the Allman Brothers and Butterfield Blues Band heard the record and realised you could jam all night on those exotic scales, although not always to the audience’s benefit (on the plus side, Smells Like Teen Spirit uses a modal tuning). ‘Serious’ musicians such as Terry Riley and Philip Glass also took note and assimilated the lessons of Miles’s explorations. Chick Corea has said that Kind of Blue ‘practically created a new musical language’.

Apart from great performances across the board by the band, the album is certainly full of influential and memorable motifs, many that involve Evans directly: So What, with its intriguing, out-of-time intro; the hypnotic rolling ostinato underpinning All Blues and what Scottish pianist Tom Gibb calls the pianist’s ‘rhapsodic moment’ on the final bars of Blue in Green. Over and over, I have heard players tell me that it was that latter track which turned them on to Bill.

Neil Cowley, formerly with the Brand New Heavies, who now leads his own trio and is, like Evans, classically trained:

‘The first time I heard Bill Evans was in a flat in Walthamstow when I was a young musician, hanging around with musos. It was the last 30 seconds of Blue in Green by Miles Davis that was played to me on a tape player. As everyone commented on the economy of his expression, I sat rather quietly, musing on the fact that the last gig I’d done with this particular band of musicians, I’d tried to play just about every note on the piano as fast as humanly possible. So I hated Bill Evans for the humiliation. But of course, it was the best lesson of all: to strive to say something real, with one note if need be, knowing that it was actually learnt and understood, over and above trying to emulate ‘flashness’ with a thousand notes and saying absolutely nothing. Blue in Green taught me that.’

It is also the most contentious track, because, as is often the case in improvised music, there was some dispute over the exact authorship. Evans insisted it was his: ‘In a sense me and Miles co-composed [side two’s] Flamenco Sketches but Blue in Green was all mine.’

When he later re-recorded the tune Evans credited it to the pair of them. Miles, though, was adamant: ‘Some people went around saying that Bill was co-composer of the music on Kind of Blue. That isn’t true; it’s all mine and the concept was mine.’ Then again, it wasn’t the only accusation of co-opting Miles suffered in his career.

Whoever made the music (and the Davis estate conceded Evans’ contribution in 2002), neither could guess at its lasting impact or the 3 million-and-counting sales KoB would generate or the fact it is number 12 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums.

Drummer Jimmy Cobb, the sole surviving member of that group of seven musicians (Davis, Evans, Kelly, Coltrane, alto player Cannonball Adderley, and Paul Chambers on bass), has always insisted: ‘To me it was just another Miles Davis recording and one that everybody played well on. If Miles had even had an inkling of what was going to happen, he would have asked for a truckload of money and four Ferraris sitting outside.’

No doubt so would Evans. A considerable proportion of his money at that time was going on drugs. He was married, but his wife Ellaine was on heroin, too. Not that he was a nasty junkie. His approach was passive-aggressive, mostly without the aggressive. His producer Orrin Keepnews said: ‘Bill was a sweet guy would just hang around the office till you felt sorry for him and gave him an advance.’ The advance inevitably went into his arm.

However, his friend the great jazz writer Gene Lees also described how when Bill once received a very large upfront payment for a contract, they scrupulously went around and paid back every friend he had hustled for cash, including Zoot Simms, who had forgotten all about the six hundred dollar ‘loan’ he had made to Evans.

But in between the troughs of a troubled personal life, Evans moved on from Kind Of Blue, back to the small group setting that would dominate his career, to create what is still considered the greatest three-musician partnership in late 20th-century jazz – the so-called First Trio – and which produced one of the most captivating and best-loved live recordings in popular music.

THE VILLAGE VANGUARD is still in the same crepuscular basement it’s occupied since 1935, still doesn’t take credit cards or serve food and is still steeped in legend about the musicians who got a start there. The owner Max Gordon once asked Miles to back a support act. As Miles wrote: ‘So I told him I didn’t play behind no girl singer.. So Max said, “Her name is Barbra Streisand and she’s going to be a real big star.” So every time I see her today somewhere I say, “Goddamn,” and just shake my head.’

But the club is also known as an important rite of passage. If you can put ‘Live At The Village Vanguard’ on your record, you know you have moved up several rungs of the jazz ladder. Over a hundred albums have that coveted impreteur, but the reputation is actually built on a handful of genuine classics, from Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Brad Mehldau and, at or near the top of the tree, Sunday at the Village Vanguard by the Bill Evans Trio and its companion piece Waltz For Debby.


The trio was Bill plus drummer Paul Motian and a young bassist called Scott La Faro. They were booked in for a two week residency at the club in June, 1961, after they had been playing together off and on for two years. Producer Orrin Keepnews chose to record the last day of the run, because there would be a matinee set on the Sunday as well as the evening show, so there would be two complete takes. ‘Why did I choose the final day of the two weeks?’ he asked himself later. ‘Talk about living dangerously.’

He needn’t have worried. Ronnie Scott’s house pianist James Pearson: ‘Those albums are really remarkable because for the first time there are three players sharing the spotlight. Before Bill Evans’ trio, the drum and bass were just there to keep time or to support the piano, but that isn’t the case here. Scott La Faro, in particular, is just right up there.’

Kit Downes, one of the UK’s brightest piano stars, says: ‘Out of all my records, Sunday at the Village Vanguard is probably my favorite – sensitive but yet powerful, loose but tight, educated but still natural – Bill Evans really embraced the things that I love most about any kind of music.’

And, even more impressive, as Evans once revealed: ‘We never rehearse. Never have. We just go up on stage and play.’ Which made the band’s achievement even more incredible.

Two weeks later the 25-year old La Faro was killed in a car crash. Evans went to pieces and didn’t – couldn’t – touch a piano for months. He told Gene Lees that he felt guilty because his addiction meant he hadn’t made the most of his time with La Faro. When the first Vanguard album came out, it was a memorial to the bassist, and opens with his tune Gloria’s Step (on which the Evans biographer Keith Shadwick says La Faro is ‘mind-bogglingly creative’) and the selections were those that best showcased the young man’s playing over the two sets.

Whether that first trio would have survived for much longer is open to question. La Faro was increasingly appalled by Evan’s addiction and frequently tried to make him give up, but to jazz fans his death is a Jimi Hendrix, Richey Edwards or Kurt Cobain moment, full of what-might-have-beens and cruelly curtailed talent and opportunity.

IF EVANS HAD ENDED his career there and then, he would still have had a firm, guaranteed place is the jazz pantheon. But he struggled on, playing in trios with other hugely inventive musicians, recording groundbreaking multi-tracked albums (Conversations with Myself), solo albums (Alone) and duets (notably with guitarist Jim Hall and sax great Stan Getz). His life was still blighted by drugs and he couldn’t escape the physical consequences: at one point one of his hands had swollen to twice its normal size and he had constant trouble with his bloated ankles and feet.

The fact he lived so long is probably down to two people: Gene Lees, who as well as putting lyrics to some of his songs, nurtured and protected him, and his feisty manager, and later producer, Helen Keane (whom Lees introduced to Evans). Both believed in his talent, and both tried to free him from his addictions and to keep the loan sharks at bay, men who, in shades of the busting of Paul Newman’s thumbs in The Hustler, would threaten to smash his fingers.

He did eventually free himself from dependence on drugs, and so did his wife, but then in 1973 he met Nenette Zazarra and fell in love with the younger woman. Ellaine Evans threw herself under a subway train when she realised her man had gone. Evans slunk back to the numbness of narcotics after that, before finally getting clean.


Creatively, the 1970s were full of other kinds of highs, usually with bassist Eddie Gomez and various drummers, but Evans’ style of music was now moving out of fashion. Miles’s In A Silent Way/ Bitches Brew axis had spawned jazz-rock; synths and electric keyboards were in vogue and Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever were the big, bombastic stars. While they sold out stadiums and drained National Grids, Evans was still exploring the Great American Songbook in small jazz clubs or at festivals such Montreux, where it was often the electric warriors who were treated with suspicion, not a man at a grand piano. He did try varying his line-ups (and even used the electric piano here and there), but shied away from suggestions that he make a rock album or somehow pander to the market. But this integrity counted for nothing with the public, and his critical and popular standing slipped.

In 1975 Evans recorded and performed with Tony Bennett, who had seen him at Ronnie’s in London and conceived the idea of a stripped-down piano/voice album. Ian Shaw is a huge fan of the duets: ‘Evans’ “comping” has these little chordal, semi-quaver footsteps between the melodies of the most beautiful collection of love songs, somehow lush yet harmonically playful. He gives a dream accompaniment for any jazz singer, although many purists thought Bennett wasn’t that at all.’ And at that time, before his current International Treasure status, Bennett was seen as decidedly old school, and the collaboration seemed to confirm to younger jazz fans that Evans was of the past.

But what all this means is that the Evans catalogue is remarkably pure and unsullied, light on embarrassing follies or crass commercialism. Even when a particular setting doesn’t work, or it’s not a sparkling night for the band, you hear an artist doing what he wants to be doing, following his creative urge, rather than what he feels he should be trying.

And listen to what the current generation of piano talent, in the form of Jamie Safiruddin, pianist with the very up and coming Ben Cox Band, has to say about those two Bennett albums: ‘Evans achieves an apotheosis of jazz artistry and accompaniment, which are the ideal contrast to Bennett’s powerful but succinct singing. Evans’ uniquely rich sound, deftly virtuosic touch and playful rhythm create a broad and innovative palette with which this great master pays perfect homage to the melody, the lyrics and the song.’

By the end of the decade Evans had formed another in his sequence of trios, with Marc Johnson on bass and Joe LaBarbera on drums. It is now known as the Final Trio, and Bill Evans declared this unit to be the closest yet to his seminal La Faro/Motian line up. This was the group that played at Ronnie’s in July 1980 and you can hear them there on a hard-to-find album called Letter to Evan, the title track of which is dedicated to his young son with Nennette. That record and – especially – others taped later at The Village Vanguard give the lie to the theory that his talent was ossified or dissipated, for the standard of playing and the communication between the band – albeit it in a different way to that of the First Trio – is often exceptional. True, the repertoire has hardly widened, but at his best he is still finding fresh things to say and different ways of attacking songs. One surprise is the speed with which Evans occasionally performs, there are sudden bursts of high-energy single lines or a flurry of chords as a theme is stated and dismissed. This is probably because, by 1980, he was using cocaine.

Separated from his second wife and son, depressed by the suicide of his brother Harry at 52, living alone, consuming coke – which he thought ‘safer’ than heroin – at a prodigious rate, a twilight figure in his own country (but not in Europe, where he was still revered), Evans’s life was yet again a grueling dichotomy, with professional joy contrasting with a rapid personal decline. His physical condition deteriorated throughout the summer of 1980; at the end of it he asked Joe LaBarbera to drive him to hospital, as he was having severe stomach pains. He died in Mount Sinai on September 15th.


SINCE HIS DEATH Evans’ reputation has been restored and grown, dozens of recordings have been unearthed, and without doubt there is now a cult of Bill Evans, the lost, tortured soul, not dissimilar to that surrounding Nick Drake (albeit with considerably more recorded output). This annoys Gene Lees, who describes the adulation given to every last note his friend ever played as ‘morbid bordering on necrophilia’. He simply says: ‘Bill Evans was incredibly talented and equally incredibly self-destructive.’ Perhaps the two were interwined, somehow, like a pernicious DNA.

Evans for sure would be dismayed that his chaotic personal life sometimes gets in the way of appreciating his music, just as he would agree that not every night he played was worth preserving. Evans’s early-sixties bassist Chuck Israels reckoned the real magic, the almost telepathic interplay of three world-class musicians at the top of their game, only happened consistently about once every thirty performances. Still, that was never for want of trying.


In his autobiography, The Good Life, Tony Bennett tells of a call he received from Evans in 1980 while the singer was playing a small town in Texas. Amazed that his friend and collaborator had tracked him down in the boondocks, Bennett could tell Evans was sick and both knew that the end was near. Not surprisingly, the pianist was in a plaintive, ruminative mood. ‘I wanted to tell you one thing: just think truth and beauty,’ Evans told him. ‘ Forget about everything else. Just concentrate on truth and beauty.’

Truth and Beauty: two things you’ll still discover on any Bill Evans album you care to play.

That’s One Hell Of A Medallion

I have been working on a piece about photographer Karlheinz Weinberger for Bally, the Swiss shoe company. Weinberger photographed a youth tribe in Zurich in the late fifties and early sixties called the Halbstark (the Half Strong). They were a local take on a melange of rockabilly/biker/Brando/Elvis/Dean influences, featuring huge belt buckles and medallions of their heroes (which included Gene Vincent and early Cliff Richard). The full piece, with more of Weinberger’s photos, will be in the Bally Journal in January (

weinberger_img4.jpg c. Estate of Karlheinz Weinberger.


There is a good piece by Andrew Marr in The Sunday Times today about his affection for the Polish community and its long history in this country. I have been working for two years or more on a film about the crucial role Polish pilots and ground crew played in the Battle of Britain and how, at the end of the war, an ungrateful 56% of the British public thought they should be repatriated (back to suspicion, arrest and sometimes execution in communist Poland). This is only a working title and mock-up poster:



But post-Brexit the story seems even more relevant than when we started. Filming is expected to begin next summer. Here’s hoping we get one like 1940 (in terms of weather I mean).


This is an extended version of the obituary of John Debenham Taylor that appeared in The Telegraph. John helped me with several novels, notably Early One Morning, The Last Sunrise and, especially, Dying Day. There will be a memorial service for him at St Paul’s in May.

Like the majority of the officers of his generation who had served with the Secret Intelligence Service (popularly known as MI6) John Debenham Taylor, who has died aged 95, was famously tight-lipped about his time with “the office”, as he referred to it. However, shortly before Christmas, in his last interview, he was filmed for Legasee, a splendid project to record on camera the memories of those who had been involved in the Secret War, as Debenham Taylor had, in the 1939-45 conflict. (See www.legasee,  During the filming he admitted that, post-war, some (in fact, all) of his career had been with SIS.

       Off-camera he talked about the early years with the organisation, but only events which he no longer considered sensitive, including three years in the Control Commission for Germany in the late 1940s, This was a time when the Cold War was at boiling point, with West Berlin blockaded, supplied only by an Allied airlift. He spoke of the twin perils of visiting the opera in the East (this was well before the Wall went up)  – the unfeasibly tall hats of Russian officers’ (which they refused to remove, thus blocking the view) and the suffocating pall of body odour, thanks to the chronic shortage of soap. “A bar of Lifebuoy went a long way in securing whatever you wanted over there,’ he said.

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       Under some gentle probing from the Legasee cameraman, he told of a remarkable operation involving a stable of prostitutes that he was ‘running’ in the hope that the girls would persuade (for substantial bonuses) Russians to defect or spy or, at the very least, obtain some pillow talk. Did it work? “Not really, but we probably gave them some terrible diseases,” he said.

       It was typical of Debenham Taylor, a noted raconteur, to finish such a story with a self-deprecating punch line. In fact, his family-eyes-only memoir reveals a much darker cat and mouse game. “We were using a White Russian as head agent.. and I recall nights spent on stations and road junctions keeping rendezvous near the Russians sector to which we hoped one girl or another would turn up, complete with a Russian. None was ever forthcoming, however, and I have often wondered if the whole thing was an elaborate con – either by the head agent, or the girls, or both.”

       If all this sounds like something from Len Deighton’s Game, Set and Match trilogy, this is hardly surprising, as Debenham Taylor’s life was the stuff of fiction, from Alistair-Maclean-like secret missions to Finland, through the Quiet American-era Vietnam, to the politics of what Le Carre dubbed ‘The Circus’. His career in subterfuge spanned from the beginning of World War Two to the collapse of the Soviet Union, making him, perhaps, HMG’s longest-serving secret servant.

       Major John Debenham Taylor, TD, OBE, CMG was born on April 25, 1920. His father, John Francis Taylor was from Suffolk agricultural roots and, after schooling at Aldenham, Debenham Taylor joined the Eastern Counties Farmers Cooperative Association Limited in Ipswich (where he played rugby for the YMCA) in 1936, before moving to Great Yarmouth. There, convinced a war in Europe was inevitable, he joined the Territorial Army in February 1939; when war broke out in the September he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the regular army (Royal Artillery) and was assigned to an anti-aircraft battery at RAF Duxford. This was the “Phoney War” and he described his time as “agreeable but unexciting” (apart from losing his virginity in a telephone box in Tenby). And then, on November 30, Russia (allied at that time with Nazi Germany) invaded Finland.

       There was great sympathy for the beleaguered Finns in the UK. An International Brigade of volunteers was raised (which included in their number the future actor Christopher Lee) and Great Britain surreptitiously sent Blenheim bombers and a consignment of antique field guns and howitzers across. The Finns, however, had no experience in using the WW1-era weapons and RA volunteers were requested to travel to Helsinki. Debenham Taylor was selected and, as it involved travelling through neutral Sweden, was duly de-commissioned from the army and re-born as an employee of Vickers Armstrong. Kitted out in warm winter clothing from the Army and Navy Stores in Victoria Street, a small group travelled to Stockholm and then on to the Finnish capital, arriving as an armistice was signed.

       Debenham Taylor stayed for several months, with visits to Jyväskylä and the Karelian Isthmus, demonstrating the guns and time in Helsinki compiling manuals and “picking up local girls in the café above Stockmann’s department store”. The trip gave him a taste for travel and clandestine work that remained with him for the rest of his life.

He subsequently left Finland by cargo boat from above the Artic Circle, carrying with him via “diplomatic bag” a variety of captured Russian weapons, including an anti-tank gun, for the War Office to analyse. The boat passed within miles of the Norwegian coast just as British troops were being evacuated from Narvik and the aircraft carrier “Glorious” was sunk, but Debenham Taylor knew nothing of this. He was in agony below decks, having an enema administered. As he says in his private memoir: “I had become terribly constipated on a diet of reindeer and porridge with no fresh vegetables.”

The full story of the Finnish adventure only emerged some seventy years later when Debenham Taylor was interviewed by an author writing a novel about the early days of Special Operations Executive, the sabotage and subversion unit primed by Winston Churchill to “set Europe ablaze”. The novelist wrote to the Finnish Embassy suggesting Debenham Taylor’s efforts be recognised and a new Winter War Commemorative Medal was struck and he was invited to the embassy to receive it from the Finnish Military Attaché. Thanks to a similar intervention by his brother-in-law, he later received the Artic Star for the voyage back home to Liverpool from northern Finland, in a cargo boat carrying captured Russian ordnance.

Quietly posted back into the army, Debenham Taylor served in gun batteries in Aden (where he shot down an Italian bomber), Egypt and in the Libyan desert. In the latter he was part of Operation Battleaxe in mid-1941, designed to raise the siege of Tobruk, which he was convinced failed “in large measure due to the use of the German AA 88mm AA guns used in an anti-tank role, as I have always believed our own 3.7-inch AA guns should have been.”

However, Finland had given him a taste for intelligence work and in 1942, using contacts in the War Office, he was duly accepted into the Secret War. Although he hankered for an operational post, initially he was used as an instructor on an intelligence course at Oxford – a course he had only recently graduated from. In 1943 he moved into Carlisle Mansions, a large apartment block off Victoria Street in London, where he became part of the planning for OVERLORD, the invasion of Europe.

His ambition at the time was to move to SOE (although it was never referred to by that name) and in particular the “Jeds” or Jedburghs, three-man teams (an SOE operative, an OSS officer and a Free French agent) would be parachuted behind enemy lines to co-ordinate the French resistance in acts of sabotage. His request was refused, however, because, in the event of his capture and torture, he knew too much about the OVERLORD strategy.

Instead, by now a captain, he took a posting to Beaulieu, which was SOE’s ‘finishing school’ for agents in the New Forest, although still with one eye on active service abroad once his D-Day knowledge was no longer relevant.   He described this as instructing on: “burglary techniques, mostly copying or making replacement keys, and a technique for opening handcuffs of certain types, using a clove hitch knot of catgut.”

In late 1944 he was offered a staff appointment with promotion to Major     at SOE’s HQ in Colombo, Ceylon, the base for operations in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, mostly monitoring Japanese troop and naval movements. After peace was declared his war continued in Surabaya, mounting intelligence operations against a nationalist uprising intent on violently resisting the returning Dutch colonialists.

       When SOE was hastily wound down, Debenham Taylor let it be known he would welcome the opportunity to move across to SIS, which he duly did.  He then became something of a Zelig-like figure, popping up in pivotal moments of late 20th Century history, as this sketchy summary of his career from an intelligence website suggests:


This discreet officer, former SOE agent during the 2nd World War, is successively stationed in Germany 1947 50, 50 in Thailand and 52 in Hanoi from 52 to 53 .It is back to Bangkok 54 to 56 and then to Singapore from 1958 to 1960 where he meets Maurice Oldfield (later Director or ‘C’ of SIS). He is chief of station in Kuala Lumpur from 1964 to 1966 and Controller of the Asia division from 1966 to 1969. He is posted to Washington (1969-72) and when he left Washington he was appointed head of the station Paris, still under embassy counsellor coverage.


From witnessing the defeat of the French in  Vietnam to fighting the Malayan uprising, from the height of the Cold War in the USA, the declaration of independence by Rhodesia and onto negotiations for the UK to enter the Common Market, Debenham Taylor was in the thick of it. Happiest of these postings were Washington (where he was befriended by J Edgar Hoover and was instrumental in a number of high-level Russian defections) and Paris with his wife Gillie (Gillian May James), a family friend whom he had married in 1966. He said of Paris: ‘It got off to a rather drama-laded start, with the imminent arrival of the Queen and Prince Philip, which meant going through the packing cases of our newly-arrived possession from Washington in a frantic search for my medals, as the visit inevitably involved both white- and lack-tie functions”. These medals included an OBE (1959), CMG (Companion of St Michael and St George) and Territorial Decoration (both 1967).

       When asked directly, of course, he would always claim to be a Foreign Office diplomat, which was indeed his official status, although in later years the mention in passing of people he had met (Kim Philby, Nicholas Elliot, Jomo Kenyatta, J. Edgar Hoover, Dick White, who was MI6 chief 1956-68) suggested the truth of the matter. He struck me as a far less gloomy version of John Le Carre’s George Smiley – one who was happily married and with a fine line in self-deprecating anecdotes – yet who shared the fictional spy’s discretion, doggedness and sharp intelligence.

It is little wonder he found his later career behind a desk at SIS in London a little tame. There were those who tipped him for the role of C, but his horror of what he witheringly called  “admin” probably precluded him from the post. After several false starts, he finally retired in 1990, firstly to a wing of Gunton Hall in Norfolk and latterly to part of a splendid Arts and Crafts House (originally built for Lord Tate of Tate & Lyle) in West Sussex.


John, Christmas 2015, shortly before he died.

       He gave his recreations in Who’s Who as “walking, reading, history” and he devoured any books on areas where he had served, with an unforgiving eye for inaccuracy or exaggeration. He was particularly pleased to discover in James Holland’s detailed account of the North African campaign (Together We Stand) that the historian agreed that the failure to use the British AA guns was a great tactical error.

       His final task with SIS before retirement was extending the official history of MI6 but, as befits the man, that story, and his remarkable role in it, remains under lock and key. He is survived by his wife Gilly, daughter Catharine and two grandchildren, Saskia and Charles.


John Debenham Taylor (April 25, 1920- January 30, 2016).




If you have handled a letter recently you will be aware that the current commemorative stamps issued by the Post Office feature Ernest Shackleton and the 2016 Endurance expedition, one of the great tales of Antarctic survival. I featured Shackleton in a novel about Captain Titus Oates called Death on the Ice (it was big in New Zealand, where Captain Scott is still revered). During the research for that, I came across a snippet that has finally surfaced in my new book, The Sign of Fear. Ernest Shackleton had a brother, Frank. And he was a master thief. Allegedly.

160107_Shackelton_setNot that the more famous Shackleton was any saint. The family seemed to have a blind spot when it came to handling money, and Ernest often set sail with creditors on his heels. But Frank took this flirting with legality one step further – he stole the Irish Crown Jewels. Or so some believe.

The Irish Crown Jewels were not like the version held in the Tower of London. They were not there for any monarch – there was no actual crown – but were ceremonial regalia mainly used when investing Irish peers (also known as the Order of St Patrick, now defunct). They consisted of heavily bejewelled star, a diamond brooch and five gold collars, and all were property of the Crown, hence the name.

This collection as held in a strong room in the Office of Arms at Dublin Castle and in 1907 they disappeared, thanks to what looked like an inside job – there was no sign of forced entry and all the doors and the safe were unlocked. Suspicion fell on Frank Shackleton who, thanks to a friendship with the Duke of Argyll, the King’s brother-in-law, held an honourary position at the castle and lived within its walls. Why Frank? Possibly because, although famously charming and witty, he was also a practicing homosexual and was deemed, according to one newspaper, to keep company unlikely “to inspire confidence among the police or the public”. In fact, there was no solid evidence against Shackleton, just plenty of prejudice, and he was exonerated by the subsequent investigation.

Front Page Copy

But Shackleton did fall foul of the law. In 1910 he was declared bankrupt, owing £10,000 thanks to some dodgy business dealings, and in 1913 he was convicted of defrauding a young woman who had foolishly entrusted her inheritance to him. He was sentenced at the Old Bailey to 15 months hard labour.

In fact, according to Irish historian Tomas O’Riordan, Shackleton was already badly in debt, mostly to London moneylenders, in 1907 when the jewels were stolen. He  was also implicated in the theft by Sir Arthur Vicars, the man in charge of the keys to the strongroom, who claimed Shackleton must have taken impressions when a guest at his house. However, O’Riordan suggests that Frank was immune to prosecution thanks to his royal connections – and possible knowledge of potential scandals, such as the rumoured orgies at the castle involving the Duke of Argyll and other notables – and states that “Shackleton still seems to be the most likely mastermind”.

On release from his hard labour, his brother Ernest secured Frank an office job in London and he changed his name to “Mellor”. He lived in Sydenham and subsequently Chichester and died in 1941. And the jewels? They have haven’t been seen since the night of June 11, 1907.


* The Sign of Fear, which features cameos from both Ernest and Frank Shackleton, is out now from Simon & Schuster (



Ian Shaw has won the BBC Jazz Awards “Best Vocalist” twice and is critically lauded by the press – “Has few rivals” (Sunday Times); “Our finest jazz singer” (Time Out); “A recipe for bliss” (The Telegraph). Is he really that good? Listen to John Fordham at The Guardian:

“Shaw’s humanity, technique, wit and willingness to take an insane gamble has always kept him in the jazz loop. What you get with Shaw is always really him – sometimes funny, sometimes resigned, sometimes wounded, sometimes over the top, but always technically perfect.”

Ian Shaw (with the fabulous Liane Carroll at the piano)

Ian Shaw (with the fabulous Liane Carroll at the piano)

Yet these days when he packs up his music at the end of a gig (charts for The Great American Songbook, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, as well as his own compositions), Shaw is likely to be heading for a place that sees few UK musicians of any stripe – “The Jungle” in Calais, the multinational camp for refugees, migrants, call them what you will, who hope to cross to the UK.

For the past three months he has been visiting regularly, initially because he was outraged by the conditions in the camp he saw on television. Once out there – having taken out much-needed clothes and sleeping bags – he discovered there were decent players among the refugees who had lost their instruments along the very tough way. So later he loaded his car and took over drums, guitars and basses (including one that once belonged to Jack Bruce of Cream, donated by Jack’s family). But he now also helps build, fund, organise and raise awareness of what is going on just a few miles from the Kent coast. And he has put his money where his mouth is. There has been one benefit already, at The Vortex in Dalston, with Sarah Jane Morris and Carleen Anderson, and another is due at Phoenix Artist Club, Soho (Nov 18th, two shows, fabulous line-up, £25, see All the money raised goes directly to helping the refugees (“I’ve spent all my own,” Shaw confessed from the stage of The Vortex) in practical ways.

Ian Shaw with Georgia Mancio, who will appear at one of the Phoenix shows

Ian Shaw with Georgia Mancio, who will appear at one of the Phoenix shows

Shaw is keen that people know about life in The Jungle, to share the story of the people he has met and the sometimes terrible things that have happened and are happening (the camps are being de-populated, but the refugees are being moved to windowless containers). He is also keen to refute what he calls the “vile lies” about the camp, such as the inhabitants having so many clothes from charities, they burn them for fuel. In fact, charities are very thin on the ground – there isn’t a large UK one active in The Jungle at all. Just an ad hoc group of musicians (as well as a larger contingent of non-musicians) who aren’t doing it for the cameras or some high-profile telly marathon.

From the creation of sublime music in a slum camp to the building of a church from bin bags, from professors to war-battered paupers, Shaw has seen all sorts. And he will be over there in the coming months because, to quote Game Of Thrones, Winter Is Coming, and things aren’t going to get any better. If you wish to help, and get a great gig in to the bargain, head for the Phoenix next week. And he still needs musical instruments.



You have to work hard to reach the finest view of New York’s Hudson Valley. The trailhead to the aptly named Overlook Mountain can be found just outside Woodstock, opposite a Buddhist Temple and you soon find yourself praying for good karma on the hike up. It is a rocky and relentless two-and-a-half mile climb, with barely a flat section until near the top, when you reach the spooky, eerie husk of a once-glamorous hotel. Its roofless hallways and public spaces are now full of trees and creepers and (a warning sign suggests) timber rattlesnakes. Take it as a waymarker that the end is nigh and move on, rather than explore its unstable interior.


       At the summit of the trail is a small sign pointing through the undergrowth. “Scenic Outlook”, it says, and you damn well hope so after that climb, where you have mainly been looking at a solid wall of trees on either side. You struggle through the brushwood until you find yourself on a rocky outcrop, with the valley spread out below you, the wide, silvery ribbon of the Hudson itself on the left, the glistening waters of the Ashokan reservoir on the right and what feels like the whole world at your feet. It is both sudden and breathtaking and I can’t recall such a sneaky reveal of a fabulous view outside of the Grand Canyon.


       You can gild this particular scenic lily by taking the steel staircase (if it is open – it’s manned by volunteers and usually weekend-only) to the restored firetower, which adds in a portion of the Catskill mountains to the north, humped like a series of green-backed cetaceans. I asked my wife if she thought the view was worth the long hike and the rickety steps up to the tiny cabin of the tower. “It’s worth the plane ticket over,” she replied. It was an opinion she was to revise on the return leg.

       The walk down was not that much easier than the ascent, but we were elated at having made it to the top on a hot, enervatingly muggy day. We were talking loudly and joking about rattlesnakes when two hikers who had halted some way ahead waved for us to stop. We did so. The man drew a finger across his throat. I instantly thought of Cabin In The Woods or any other number of city-folk-in-the-wilderness movies.

       But my wife hissed in my ear: “Oh my God, it’s a bear.”

       And so it was, a handsome black bear, inspecting the ferns, shrubs and trees that lined the side of the road about twenty metres to our right. Not a huge bear maybe, but when it reared up against a tree trunk, large enough to make knees knock. Every now and then it glanced our way or at the other hikers. It gave a few desultory sniffs of the air. It was a fine time to remember the half-eaten sandwich in my backpack.

bear photo

       Discounting the grizzly, which this was definitely not, there are two types of bear you are likely to encounter in the US, the brown and the black. “With one of them you make as much noise as possible and wave your arms,” I authoritatively whispered to my wife. “The other you climb a tree or play dead.”

       ‘Which one do you do for a black bear?” she asked.

       “I don’t remember,” I replied.

       Quietly, so as not to disturb our new ursine chum, she gave me a dead arm.

       All I could really recall was that a black bear can run at 35mph. A rough calculation suggested this was about 30 mph that I could manage uphill, even with a bear on my tail. We were stuck on that path for the time being.

       I subsequently discovered that there are at least 8,000 black bears in New York State. The population is growing and interactions with humans are increasing. So this year the autumn hunting season was extended into what amounts to a cull. Until the end of September, hunters were allowed to kill bears with “bow, crossbow, muzzle-loader, shotgun or rifle” in areas designated by the Department of Environmental Conservation. But I didn’t have any of those particular weapons on me and, besides, the innocent bear was mostly minding its own business. Mostly. Every now and then it would wander onto the track then, as if catching an elusive fragrance, it would be drawn back to a particular tree and start inhaling and snorting loudly.

       We were standing there for close to twenty minutes, waiting for this tree-junkie of a bear to get bored. Eventually, it looked up into the branches of its favourite trunk and, with an ease I still can’t quite comprehend and a speed that was both impressive and terrifying, it began to climb. With the crack of claw on bark and the odd grunt, it was soon in the upper branches, swaying like an overgrown, swarthy koala.

       ‘Not the climb-a-tree-to-escape species, then,’ I offered to my wife, whose expression suggested she thought my zoology degree was a waste of three years.

      It was time to go. We set off using a speedy gait that was a combination of Olympic race-walking and Lee Evans at his most hyperactive. We warned those coming from the car park that there was a bear in the air. Several, who had encountered bears before, turned back. Others, including a pair with what looked to me like a tasty morsel of a dog, carried on regardless.

       Later, nursing a slightly unsteady beer in a bar in Woodstock, I asked my wife what she made of the experience. “I was wrong about the view,” she said. “It was the bear that was worth the price of the plane ticket.”


  • I travelled as a guest of Virgin Holidays (0844-573 0088,, which has a week’s fly-drive to New York from £929pp, including flights and Alamo car hire. Advice on what to do when you encounter a bear can be found on The best course of action is to back away slowly. Attacks are rare. If you are attacked, with brown and grizzly bears, you play dead. With black bears, you shout and make yourself seem as large as possible. Don’t climb a tree.