Vespa Vita

With a twist of the throttle, I was free. 

All thoughts were forgotten as soon as the wheels started turning. My mind was left to focus on the passing sounds and sights of my journey.

Each pop and gurgle of the engine revealed a part of the scooter’s personality. It was enjoying the sea air blowing around it and the roads warming its tyres. The scooter was a Vespa Primavera 125cc, 50th anniversary edition (or ‘anniversario’, as Vespa call it), commemorating 50 years since the Primavera was first released in 1968. Often people will give their Vespa’s a human name, but I am not one to over-romanticise a piece of machinery. I’ve had conversations with traditionalists who say that automatic scooters lack personality. This is simply untrue. Once the engine starts, the Vespa comes to life.

As soon as I saw it in the showroom amongst the navy, black and brown (yes, brown) scooters, the light blue pastel colour jumped out at me. It was electric and illuminated that section of the room, and much to my dismay, having gone to the shop just for a look around, I left owning a Vespa. 

I made my way down Southend seafront, slowly pottering along and catching fleeting glimpses of the sea. I could have been anywhere.

My first stop was Old Leigh, what remains of the old fishing village in Leigh-on-Sea. The Vespa jolted rhythmically on the empty cobbled streets. In the height of a summer’s afternoon, the pubs and cockle-sheds which line the river are always heaving with customers. Today I was early, and there were only a few people out running or walking their dogs.

Recently, people have spotted seals by the marshland and mud-banks which jut out into the Thames Estuary. Apparently, the fishermen throw out their offcuts to them. I came to a stop and had a look, but there were none to be seen.

I spun around in the car-park by The Mayflower public house  and headed out of Old Leigh. 

The sun was out and a gentle breeze blew across the estuary as I returned to the seafront. As the afternoon was approaching, the streets were becoming busier and the air was getting warmer. I could smell the salt from the sea. The tide was slowly receding and children were making the most of the shallow water. 

I pulled into the motorcycle bay by Rossi’s. Rossi’s is the home of ice cream. It is a regional speciality and has been based in Essex since 1932. From the ice cream parlour, the original vanilla flavour is the one you must try, based on a traditional Italian recipe of fresh milk, double cream and butter. It’s still served scooped from the tin (avoid the soft-serve ice cream distributed from the machine).

I sat outside, with my 99, and looked at my scooter and the sun-soaked mud-flats behind it. This was the Vespa life.

Playlist for July 2017

In June, Leigh-on-Sea hosts the UK’s largest free folk festival. On Sunday, I wandered to the Crooked Billet stage to see Martin Carthy. The whole area was packed, which meant I had to stand behind a railing at the side. Carthy played, picking his guitar beautifully, and introduced his songs by revealing some of the deep history behind them.

Halfway through his set, someone squeezed past me with a slight shove. I turned round to see if I could move in and let the gentleman pass. To my surprise, it was Wilko Johnson.

I say it was a surprise because I would have thought the pairing was unlikely. Surely Wilko Johnson with Dr Feelgood was musically the polar opposite to Martin Carthy’s folk leanings. But as I pondered it, they aren’t so dissimilar: both are incredible guitar players; each of their music has a rawness to it; both arguably pushed music into a new direction (Carthy allegedly inspired Bob Dylan’s Girl of the North Country, Dr Feelgood inspired the punk movement). After Carthy’s set, I watched as they both shook hands and chatted. Two men, hugely influential in their own sphere.

As you may know, I wrote about Zoe Howe’s brilliant Lee Brilleaux biography a week or so ago. It’s safe to say that I’m on a Dr Feelgood binge and this playlist would always have been weighed down heavily by R&B songs. But after seeing Martin Carthy, I couldn’t resist putting some of his songs in too, as well as other folk artists.

Here’s the playlist:

  1. She Does It Right – Dr Feelgood
  2. Mother Freedom – Bread
  3. Hangin’ Out – Betty Davis
  4. Wild About My Baby – Slim Harpo
  5. Big Boys – Chuck Berry
  6. Messin’ With The Kid – Junior Wells
  7. Roadrunner – The Pretty Things
  8. Bill Norrie – Martin Carthy
  9. Poison – Bert Jansch
  10. Let The Good Things Come – John Martyn
  11. White Freight Liner (Live) – Townes Van Zandt
  12. Scarborough Fair – Martin Carthy and David Swarbrick
  13. Sally Free And Easy – Oscar Dowling
  14. Wrecking Days – Kitty Macfarlane
  15. The Bedmaking (feat. David Swarbrick) – Martin Carthy and David Swarbrick
  16. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood – The Animals
  17. The More I Give – Dr Feelgood
  18. Around and Around – Rolling Stones

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Lee Brilleaux: Rock ‘n’ Roll Gentleman by Zoe Howe

To an extent, I have an affinity with Dr Feelgood. I live within reach of the confines of the Thames Delta. Often, I walk to the bench dedicated to the memory of Lee Brilleaux, gaze over at Canvey Island, with the Coryton Refinery silhouetted on the skyline and imagine the bands exploits.

With this in mind, I have to admit that this review is probably bias. I know the place names referenced. I’ve had a drink in the same pubs which Lee Brilleaux did. I’ve tested his theory of Leigh-on-Sea cockles as a hangover cure. In short, I am a man of the Thames Delta.

Dr Feelgood were the pub-rock stars of the 1970s. If you watch any old footage of the band, your eyes will be drawn to two of the members in particular. Wilko Johnson and Lee Brilleaux.

First you watch the guitarist. On stage, Wilko Johnson is possessed. His eyes, wide, bulging. His guitar slung down, then lifted up, pointed at the audience like a machine gun. Jutting rhythmically on the strings, chopping. Somehow he is strumming the guitar and playing a solo at the same time.

Then, when the singing starts, your eyes flick to Lee Brilleaux. He’s charismatic, wearing a dirty white suit. Moody, aggressive. You wouldn’t mess around with him. He is hunched over the microphone, singing in a beer drenched voice, eyeing up the audience to see if anyone defies him. Occasionally, he dips his hand into his pocket to pull out a harmonica, as Wilko Johnson is blistering around the stage behind him.

Dr Feelgood – this Dr Feelgood, with Wilko Johnson and Lee Brilleaux – are surely unbeatable. Pre-punk, post-blues boom, their music is charged and at the time must have been a much welcomed antidote to the lengthy self-indulgent guitar vomit which was being spewed out from other corners.

Lee Brilleaux: Rock ‘n’ Roll Gentleman is a book that needed to be written. It is clearly well researched and will be the starting point for anyone wanting to find out more about Brilleaux in the future. 

Zoe Howe has done a tremendous job painting a picture of Lee Brilleaux. His stage persona is of course completely different to the man he was: kind, charming and a true rock ‘n’ roll gentleman.

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