Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale

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Procol Harum : Millennium Concert Weekend

John Lock reports


Procol vocal : a variation on about the only PH headline I can remember ...

The Guildford weekend was the first chance I have had in ages to have a completely off-the-wall weekend out of sight but not out of mind. It involved staying up very late, practising my extremely rusty (acoustic) guitar playing (but to no good effect, as it turned out), eating hot dogs at 2 in the morning and camping in bright moonlight on top of a hill next to a ruined chapel.

But more of that anon.

I turned up in Guildford on Saturday with very little idea of how things were going to pan out. I was going to go to the 'Palers' Convention' but as I'd never been to anything like it I had various contingency plans to go back to London on the train if the Convention was dull and dreary (or unduly retrospective or adulatory); to stay with some friends in Guildford if I was still there after the last train back to London or if the whole thing kicked out to stay up all night if needs be ...

Saturday also coincided with a sort of town Open Day and so on Saturday I wandered around Guildford looking at some of the Tudor buildings that were opened specially for the day (pictures here). Mostly in the High Street. You stepped across the threshold into one of these places and went back centuries while the 20th century went on outside. These included the half-timbered Guildhall, still functioning as a mayor's court, an early 17th century hospital still functioning as almshouses, a medieval stone vaulted undercroft, a chained library in the local grammar school (founded at the behest of Edward VI) with the earliest printed book dating from 480 (Surrey's school library service has something to answer for here), going up the medieval keep of the castle which gave an amazing view of the aforesaid chapel (St Catherine's) perched on an outcrop across the valley of the River Wey. There was also a small late 16th century manor house called Braboeuf (not grand like Hatfield House) but with original panelling including some secret panels which bounced open when you pressed hidden knobs. I thought such things only happened in Carry On ... films. A wonderful time. In never knew Guildford could be interesting. It was a pity time was so short. (A pity there were so many hills).

And so on to the Palers' Festival ...

I arrived at the Civic still with my emergency life support system on my back and very little idea of what I would find. I suspect most of the others were in the same position. It felt like a complete throwback to the freshers' night at university. Now I should say straight out that I enjoyed this event. However as an opportunity I think that this event was a bit wasted - it was a chance to meet and greet people you had never met - and may never meet again - and I think that the musical interludes should have been just that tad shorter (I had been expecting something more free-form and impromptu) and there should have been more facility for the audience to mingle. I would rather have seen the rehearsals. After all if I want to hear note-perfect versions ... I also felt that the emphasis on the concert format inadvertently created a two-tier event - those who had rehearsed hard [sic] the previous day and a 'captive' audience. Although I talked to a few people it wasn't as many as it could have been, and enjoyable as the performance I felt I was watching other people having more fun than me!! C'est l'histoire de ma vie. Like Neil Innes, I think people should suffer for their music.

I much preferred it back at the Jarvis hotel - the food was very welcome and an inspired idea. Unfortunately my night lights came on as everyone else faded out. I phoned my friends and told them they could go to bed as I wouldn't be round and then carried on merrily till after 3 am, and a somewhat bizarre round-table conversation of the ways in which PH could change your life. I am still really intrigued about the body language of people who meet on line through 'chat areas'. (You know how we use body posture when talking on the phone - what do the on-liners do when they meet? Do their fingers twitch as they talk to each other? Tell me - I need to know ...) Talking and watching the videos (I saw the group several times in my student days, but only one line-up, so it was strange to see the music being performed by different people) However after the ?fourth video version of A Salty Dog it was time to go. Feeling kind of sea-sick ...

And so up it was that later ... down the deserted High Street past the mill, across the Wey up the hill to St Catherine's Hill and contingency plan No 3. I wandered through the woodland, putting up the tent on the top of a hill in the bright moonlight next to the ruined St Catherine's chapel, just ghostly, surrounded by oak trees with a clear view across rural Surrey. All very silvery and atmospheric. Given the weather before and after the weekend, very fortunate. Merciful heavens, as they say. And sleep.

But not much of it. On Sunday morning (so they do exist!) I visited a book fair in the Civic Centre where we had been the night before and found 2 books I'd been looking for for ages including the snappily-titled potboiler Medieval Medicine in Illuminated Manuscripts. The pictures make you wince. Things you'd like to do to your worst enemy (but wouldn't like to watch). I succumbed to some siren's blandishments and accepted a slice of sponge cake, the effect of which was to reduce me to a state of soporific stupor for the rest of the morning.

Then on to the festival proper. Unlike many other Palers my day centred on the Drama Stage (though I did venture down to the goodie bar to pick up a t-shirt) in a state of chronic fatigue, consuming large quantities of banana milkshake and orange juice (separately) and accepting chemotherapy from a Sainsbury's angel cake. Those colours are bright! High spots were seeing Gilbert & Sullivan's Trial by Jury for the first time (great judge!), a poem called Up the Duff by a New Age poet (from Woking, where it's at), and a man dressed as a vicar inadvertently falling off the back of the stage in the middle of Ayckbourne's Gosforth's Fete. I won't say which of the acts I fell asleep in. If only because I can't remember. But there was more than one.

Then down to the main stage and the pre-concert warm-up. Choirs, singers and orchestras came and went, culminating in a group called Procol Harum playing with an orchestra and a choir, followed by a quick trip behind the scenes to see the fireworks better. Sadly I then had to get back to London in order to be clean and presentable next day so I missed out on the last evening. I suspect it was very much my loss.

And to think I nearly missed it all.

I was most taken aback at how far people had come to attend the concert. (I think some of them were quite taken aback as well). Also how diverse a group they are. Until that weekend I had never met anyone unconnected with the group who knew anything about PH. I have now met lots who know everything. I was also taken aback at how much it obviously meant to them. It was clear from talking to some of them that this was something really much more profound than a trip to a concert and nigh impossible to convey in words.

You can't help but feel it.

Thanks John!
The idea of the free-form jam
had to be abandoned when the first twenty participants
came forward by e-mail let's hope
we get to play together
next time.


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