Brian Hinton & Geoff Wall’s Ashley Hutchings:  Always Chasing Rainbows 

02It’s been several years since the publication of Ashley Hutchings: The Guv’nor & The Rise Of Folk Rock, the first volume in a trilogy of books covering the life and astounding career of AH. So rich and multi faceted is the story that the first book only made it as far as the early 1970s. However, the amount of time since its release may have led many to think that the story would remain unfinished, but fear not! Volume 2, Ashley Hutchings: Always Chasing Rainbows was launched at this year’s Cropredy festival and proves an equally fascinating and well-researched book.

However, the one obvious difference is the format. For various reasons, the authors decided that paper was not the way they wanted to go this time, and so instead it is presented as an e-book on cross-platform CD ROM. The book is presented in two “acts” — separate PDF files — on a disc that looks like a vinyl record (even the playing side is black), housed in a cardboard sleeve. It’s an entirely appropriate presentation, though it’s still hard to believe something so small can hold so much information. Overall, 435 pages and more than 400 photos are included, many of these previously unreleased and in colour, unlike the previous volume.

Even though e-books are hardly new, this is the first that has come my way, so various differences, advantages and disadvantages became apparent fairly quickly. The first is the sound of page turning replaced by the sound of the disc whirring; an aesthetic difference only but still noticeable. The portability factor inevitably comes into play as well — the disc itself is portable enough but to read it away from the home computer, a disc and laptop are obviously more cumbersome than an “old fashioned” paper tome. However, if it comes to a choice between a self-published CD ROM and not being published at all . . . the answer is easy.

One real advantage of the format is the ability to easily search for a word or key phrase rather than endless page turning; another is the ability to fit in so much information in one place.

But enough about the format. What of the book itself? In short, it covers the period 1974 to 1992, which incorporates much of Ashley’s best-known work, and quite a lot of lesser-known side projects. Actually, “in short” is an impossible concept when it comes to this book. Without too much exaggeration, Ashley fits more into a year or two than many people do in half a lifetime, and when Brian Hinton and Geoff Wall put their energies into finding out as much as possible about each album or major life experience, then you can be sure there will be a lot of well researched, authoritative information to digest.

Subjects include the Etchingham Steam Band, the Albion Dance Band, the years in the National Theatre and the apparently amicable split that created Home Service, By Gloucester Docks I Sat Down And Wept, the ever-changing line-up of the Albion Band and much more. Such a description really just scratches the surface of an entirely engrossing story, written with obvious respect for its subject. It could even be called scholarly or poetic in places, but is written in an easily readable way, with a strong feeling of “what happens next?” occurring regularly in the reader.

Many previously unclear segments of his life are clarified here, either in terms of timeframe or explanation in greater detail than ever before. Various interesting vignettes include the Albions being expected to pay to support Billy Connolly in 1977 (though ending up playing for free), Jo Lustig’s attempt to manage them, money squabbles in the Lark Rise line-up, Shirley Collins interviewed by police at a train station at 2am after a gig, the varying nature of original reviews of the albums.

One recurring theme is the many love affairs of Ashley Hutchings, and their effect on his music. The more obvious include Shirley Collins and the real-life love interest behind By Gloucester Docks; the latter is actually tracked down and interviewed for the very first time, leading to a far better understanding of the work. With regard to Shirley, one thing that can be said is that it’s to Ashley’s credit that he allowed the true story of his leaving (and a similar story with Judy Dunlop after the birth of their son Blair many years later) to be put on the public record, rather than keeping it under wraps.

“Some people think I’m a sensitive soul, others think I’m an insensitive brute. I think they’re probably all right,” is how the man himself explains it.

The amount of research done by the authors is certainly impressive, with a lot of items coming from Ashley’s personal collection. Rare photos include a gig in the Falkland Islands in 1990 and a 1983 performance with Alan Prosser from the Oyster Band deputising on guitar for the evening (to pick out just two from a few hundred!). And even lesser known, unrecorded works are explored in depth, e.g., “The World Turned Upside Down” from 1978 and the transcript of a 1991 Scottish radio presentation “The English, A Beginner’s Guide.”

A small issue I had with volume one is repeated here — occasionally, when Ashley or one of his many cohorts are quoted, it is not always immediately apparent if the quote is recent or taken from one of the many earlier articles unearthed for the project. The context usually makes this plain but now and again, it’s really not clear either way. It’s by no means a major point but can be noticeable. Also, in a couple of places, the proofreading is a bit shabby, but when one considers the huge amount of work put into the whole thing, such transgressions can be easily forgiven!

It’s impossible to summarise such a massive book without missing important points or interesting details, so maybe a few personal observations can do the job to some degree. I found Always Chasing Rainbows to be engrossing all the way through. Apart from the man himself, there is an amazing cast of other players (John Tams, Phil Beer, Dave Whetstone, Shirley Collins, Simon Nicol, etc, etc), and the diversity of work from music to theatre to spoken word to radio, etc is fascinating to read and unravel.

It’s a personal and honest telling of the story of one of the most important figures in folk rock, and is pretty much what you’d want an Ashley Hutchings biography to be. It certainly needs to be read more than once to get a clearer overall picture, so numerous are the many interlinking and recurring facets (all the different performances of Lark Rise through the years for one). The reader will definitely have learned much more about his inspirations, motivations and so forth by the last page.

Reading about albums such as Rise Up Like The SunShuffle Off! and 1990 invariably had me wanting to hear the music again, such was the effect of learning about the circumstances of their genesis and recording.

So how does Ashley himself come across by the end? There is no way one could describe him as modest, but then he does have a lot to be proud of! Friends and family give further insights into his character, which shows human flaws along with the obvious tenacity, talent and doggedness that have propelled him through so many artistic highs – and not so highs – over the decades.

If I had to summarise in one sentence — this is a book that will make even the most enthusiastic follower of Ashley Hutchings or English folk rock realise there is a lot more to the story than they imagined!

Always Chasing Rainbows is available for £12 UK incl P&P, or £13 Rest Of World incl P&P from Geoff Wall, 5 Sunvale Close, Sholing, Southampton S019 8LX, Hampshire UK or e-mail. Monies payable to G. Wall.

Only 500 copies have been made. A paper reprint is possible but if so, it will be in an edited format.

(Stick It In Your Ear, 2007)