The Telephone Reel

Gary Hastings and Cathal McConnell. Photo: Alan Whitsitt

The Telephone Reel

In his latest column, Ciaran Carson considers the mix that makes the session

She was a youngish fiddler, a newcomer to the session and appeared not to know too many of our tunes, ‘our’ referring to the older regulars, Bernie, Deirdre, Spike the fluter and myself. No harm in that. When the time was right we’d ask her to play one of her own, and join in after a few bars if we knew it, and if we didn’t we might nod appreciatively and murmur a word or two of praise at the end of it and ask her what it was, or had she a name for it, or we might not, all depending. But for now the music is beginning to come together, everyone listening out for the others, getting into the groove, when the newcomer puts her instrument to one side, produces a mobile phone, and begins to fiddle with it. The light comes on to show the phone is on. She is not talking into it but holding it in our general direction. I see Spike raise an eyebrow. I give Deirdre a nudge and catch Bernie’s eye. We exchange meaningful glances as we play away, knowing we are of the same unspoken mind: that it would seem we are being recorded and transmitted.

As I sat down at my Mac to write about it last week, wondering how to elaborate on this breach of fundamental etiquette that the music is for here and now, to be engaged with for the dynamic of the ongoing moment between these four walls, to be enjoyed for what it is and not to be broadcast to the outside world, lamenting the days when tunes would still be beeling around in your brain as you lay twitching in some strange bed the morning after the great session the night before and the only record of the music was your memory, my email beeped to announce an incoming message and I opened it up. O serendipity. It was from my old friend Gary Hastings, great flute-player and now the Venerable Gary Hastings Archdeacon of Tuam, Domestic Chaplain to the Bishop of Tuam and Prebendary of Kilmeen, Kilmoylan and Taghsaxon, and no less a flute-player for all that. And it was from Gary that Deirdre and I got ‘The Telephone Reel’, so called because Gary got it from Cathal McConnell lilting it down the phone to him, and neither of them had a name for it. The phone didn’t even belong to Gary’s house but to his granny’s, three doors down from him on his street in East Belfast, which shows how long ago that was, when phones were few and far between and used only for purposes of dire or musical emergency: instruments so unfamiliar that they would indeed be known formally and unabbreviatedly as ‘telephones’.

I’ve just written the above paragraph when I remember that Paul Jennings has a piece about the telephone. This is the all-but-forgotten old-fashioned English humourist Paul Jennings who back in the 1950s and 60s wrote a very funny column in the Observer, selections of which would be published later in book form with titles like Oddly Enough, Oddly Bodlikins, Next to Oddliness, and I Said Oddly, Diddle I?, to name but some. So I go to my collection of Jennings books – they’re located on one of three shelves above the cistern in my toilet, a space whose dimensions approximate those of a telephone box – and open one at random. Serendipity again: the page I’m looking at is the one I’ve been looking for. The piece is called ‘Far Speaking’, and its first paragraph deserves to be quoted in full:

There can be few words more seen and less read than the instructions in public telephone boxes. When we have pulled on three sides and at last found the one that opens, that is our last conscious, willed act; the rest is reflex. We stand on the little square of concrete, in our private world, our whole attention already on our correspondent; we are irritated by any delay, such as the maddeningly unhurried ratchety noise that goes on after we press Button B, as though very leisurely mice were hauling up tiny sacks with a block and tackle. We are certainly in no mood to read instructions. Hardly anyone would admit to having actually learned to telephone by reading the instructions from scratch. 

I am in no position to scoff at the antiquated notion of learning to telephone; I have only recently learned to text, and many of the features on my mobile are a closed book to me – as indeed, are most of the features on my Mac, which I generally use as a simple word-processor. I don’t know if I like easily portable instantaneous far-speaking, and I certainly don’t like the idea of being contactable at any hour of the day by whomsoever wants to get in touch with me for whatever reason. My mobile is habitually switched off. Like the old telephone, it is largely reserved for emergencies. Then again I use it for talking to Deirdre – briefly – when I am away from home and away from her. But never for music.

In any event, attached to Gary’s email was a lovely piece of writing about what a session involves, and what kind of people might be playing in them. For example, ‘a German brain surgeon, an American tree surgeon, a JCB driver, a professor of chemistry, priests and members of the medical profession, and a fiddle player who, it is rumoured, once played the guitar with the Who, and had been an airline pilot, which is why he never flies now if he can help it, and had been an archaeologist, and used to make stained glass, and plants trees, though you wouldn’t know it to look at him, and a powerful fiddle player he is too’. In any given session you might indeed find such characters, or you might not. You never know who might drop in. ‘The mix,’ says Gary, ‘is what’s important’, and you never know what the mix is going to be until it happens – I’m paraphrasing here – and on any given night you don’t know in advance what kind of music will be played, whether it will be good or bad or indifferent. But there’s no doubt that it will be different, because even if you play the same tunes you played last week you won’t play them the same, which is why you keep on playing them, because they can take it. And this is me talking now and not Gary, though we’re saying the same thing. We’ve shared the same space many times.

And then ‘there’s the noise, and the smoke, though there’s none of that now, and people standing tight against another, and stale drink and fresh drink and spilled drink, and drink in glasses and drink in bottles, sweat coursing down faces, a wall of sound and bellowing laughter and high-pitched laughter and roared conversations and jokes, and stories, and drivel, and drink’, though the best session he was ever at there was nothing drunk but tea, and that’s a story for another time. Then there’d be the session after the session where you’d be taken to a place you’d never been before and never would be since. ‘Come here and tell us this’, says Gary in the voice of one of those ould boys who are about to present you with some class of a conundrum, ‘do only musicians go down these roads, between tall hedges, and into the back rooms of small bars?’

The next article in this series will be called ‘The Small Back Room’.


Published on 1 July 2008

Ciaran Carson (1948–2019) was a poet, prose writer, translator and flute-player. He was the author of Last Night’s Fun – A Book about Irish Traditional Music, The Pocket Guide to Traditional Irish Music, The Star Factory, and the poetry collections The Irish for No, Belfast Confetti and First Language: Poems. He was Professor of Poetry at Queen’s University Belfast. Between 2008 and 2010 Ciaran wrote a series of linked columns for the Journal of Music, beginning with 'The Bag of Spuds' and ending with 'The Raw Bar'.

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