Crotchety Man was always small in stature. He came from small stock. Even his surname is thought to have come from the French for ‘low’. (The Norman Conqueror throws a long shadow in these parts.) Small he was, but not stunted – more pigmy than masai, more hobbit than dwarf, everything in proportion. Inside that small frame was a keen intellect and a determination not to be pushed around. There was just enough fire in his belly to avoid being picked on at school; there were softer targets for the bullies and practical jokers.
The little man could stand up for himself but he was socially inept. He was a nice kid who had no idea how to make friends. Did he feel inferior because he was physically small? That might have been part of it but there was a deeper flaw, too. To him people were a mystery. All around him boys and girls would chatter amongst themselves never saying anything important, never saying anything particularly interesting. Why would they do that? It made no sense. And yet, that’s what friends did.
The mystery was still unsolved by the time Crotchety Man, now officially an adult, went to university. For a guy who doesn’t know how to make friends being plunged into a whole new social environment is frightening. And Oxford colleges had their own peculiar slant on life. There was a new social etiquette to become familiar with. They called it ‘tradition’ but it was more a way of differentiating themselves from the less gifted, ordinary townsfolk going about their business in the city in which the college buildings were immersed like currants in a fruit cake. The distinction between ‘town’ and ‘gown’ was very real.
You will not be surprised to hear that the Crotchety student felt very much a cultural outsider for the four years he studied biochemistry at Keble College. When details of the 1972¹ College Ball were announced he was both excited and terrified. Oxford college balls were, and still are, grand affairs. Keble was founded in 1870 and, because college balls were not held every year, there had not yet been one to celebrate the centenary. The coming ball was going to put that right and it would be especially grand.
The little Crotchety man read the details in horror. One night in June the college would be swarming with men in dinner jackets and black ties and women in ball gowns and jewellery, all drinking, joking and having fun right outside my room overlooking the quad. It would be impossible to ignore and hell to sit through. The solution, of course, was for Cinderella to go to the ball. But the tickets were priced far beyond the empty pockets of a lad subsisting on a student grant. Besides, big boisterous occasions like that were well beyond his meagre social skills, those in his small circle of acquaintances declined to go and, worst of all, he had no lady friend to take. How would you feel as a little man on his own in the midst of all that merriment? It was a recipe for complete humiliation.
1972 was the year that Wishbone Ash released their most successful album, Argus, and were at the peak of their career. How the Keble Summer Ball organisers managed to book the Ash to headline the event I will never know, but they did. “Poor little Crotchety will go to the ball”, he thought to himself. But the problems seemed insurmountable and soon all the tickets were sold.
Those few students who had rooms in college but were not going to the ball presented an obvious problem for the authorities. To ensure there were no gatecrashers the students were required to remain in their rooms for the duration of the festivities. It felt like house arrest … with added mental torture in the form of distant loud rock music filtered through walls and doorways so that it boomed unmusically and fought with the dissonant sounds of the baying mob on the lawns below. This must have been how General Noriega felt when U.S. forces bombarded his last refuge with loud music in December 1989. Noriega surrendered after a few weeks; Crotchety Man only had to suffer for one night.
In spite of all this Crotchety Man bears no malice towards Wishbone Ash. The band has undergone many changes of personnel since 1972 but they are still going. I dare say the current line-up is effectively a tribute band for the heady days of the early seventies but that’s not necessarily a bad thing and I shall probably go and see them when they come to The Flowerpot in Derby this November. In the meantime I shall remember fondly the twin lead guitars, vocal harmonies and fluid bass lines of one of the best rock bands around in my student days.
The Wishbone Ash brand of rock was both melodious and thoughtful, as if blending a little folk and a smidgen of progressive into good old fashioned guitar-based rock. For my Track of the Week I give you Blowin’ Free from the Argus album of 1972. Here’s a live version from, I think, 2009.
- I think it was 1972. It couldn’t have been earlier because I was at Keble from autumn 1971 to summer 1975. It might have been later but that seems unlikely.