It won’t be you: Dr Benjamin Lawson’s lottery scam aims to fleece the unwary

There are some con artists who, it seems, never give up despite the repeated attentions of the media and, presumably, the authorities.

Take Dr Benjamin Lawson, whose doctorate I suspect to be as fake as the rest of his purported profile as ‘the Foreign Service manager of Zenith Financial Management’. This is a claim that may come as a surprise to a blameless company of independent financial advisers in Aberdeen.

Benjamin is in the habit of writing to people up and down the country to announce their good fortune in being awarded sizeable cash prizes ‘from the Postcode Lottery bid award International program’.

The letterhead boasts the logo of the People’s Postcode Lottery, which is real if a little less famous than the National Lottery, and in the example I’ve seen, an address at Zenith House, 429 Canada Square, London, E15 5FW. This does not exist. There is a Zenith House: a development of smart new apartments in Colindale, north London. And there’s a Canada Square in Canary Wharf, which is in E14.

The letter purporting to be from the People's Postcode Lottery

The letter purporting to be from the People’s Postcode Lottery

In the case of my mother-in-law, who lives in Carlisle, her share of a £45m pot amounted to £325,000. Tempting? Possibly. One snag, though. She has never knowingly purchased a ticket from the People’s Postcode Lottery. Benjamin has an answer to that.

‘Participants in this programme [at least now he’s corrected the spelling, but read on for more simple errors of English usage] were randomly selected by computer from database of the Electoral roll resident in the United Kingdom, winners in different categories emerged by computer random selection from pool of over 12 million names.’

My mother-in-law and the recipients of similar letters are invited to ring Benjamin to arrange ‘the processing and remittance of your money’. She decided not to take up the kind offer, but I couldn’t resist calling the number given in the letter for this self-proclaimed ‘Government-license Lottery Service Agency’. The letter says the company ‘has been marketing NationalLotteries to subscribers for over 23 years. Acting as agents on behalf of Lottery players around the world, ZFM makes it possible’. That must be when the ink or the imagination ran out. For the sentence ends in mid-stream of consciousness.

Somewhere in inner London, Benjamin answered the phone call to his number, 0207 060 5543. What usually happens next is that he invites you to send money to cover the processing costs of claiming your prize. Say £200. Pay up and, of course, nothing ever arrives. Benjamin pockets your money and moves on to his next phone number before you think to call the police or trading standards.

He told me he was with a ‘client’ who was making background noises that sounded uncannily like a small child, but would call back if I left my number. I declined, pointing out that he was known up and down the country to newspapers and trading standards officers for misrepresenting himself as an agent of the People’s Postcode Lottery and for attempting fraud. Curiously enough, he put the phone down when challenged about his scam.

So what do Cumbria trading standards say? Well, I reported the letter to the Citizens Advice helpline that now fields calls to this service. The call handler, Jon, seemed quite keen not to prejudge Benjamin’s blatant criminality. Must be the British sense of fair play. Case number noted, he suggested a call to Action Fraud, ‘the UK’s national fraud and cybercrime reporting centre’. Oh, another call centre. I lost patience after making two calls totalling about 10 mins. These were spent in a queue listening to the repeated message that Action Fraud can’t help to recover any money but trained agents will advise you on the next steps to take. Sounds more like Inaction Fraud.

From their quotes in previous news stories, the People’s Postcode Lottery are, rightly, heartily sick of having to explain that they have nothing to do with such letters.

And that’s where the matter rests. My mother-in-law’s too smart to be fooled, but others may be more vulnerable to this type of crime. There must be money in it, or the scams would not be worth the price of postage or paper. And because the sums stolen are individually small, there’s little chance of putting anyone behind bars.

There are variations on the theme. Sometimes the writer is one Baron Wheels, president, though of what isn’t clear. His agents include Anthony Stan or Martin Adams, on phone numbers with 0203 codes. So it’s like those famous letters from Nigeria, encouraging recipients to indulge in a little profitable money laundering. It’s too good to be true and you’ll lose money. And the criminals? They’ll be gone with the wind.

Breeding time for the grey seals at Horsey

  • Seals at Horsey

    Seals 1

  • Seals at Horsey

    Seals 2

  • Seals at Horsey

    Seals 3

  • Seals at Horsey

    Seals 4

The grey seal colony at Blakeney in north Norfolk starred in the BBC’s Winterwatch the other day. Television cameras arrived to news that 2,426 pups were born there during the breeding season that began in November and has just about run its course.

I missed the TV programme but was lucky enough before Christmas to see and take a few photographs (see gallery above) of the smaller colony at Horsey beach, further round the coast towards Great Yarmouth. The rookery, or haul-out as the breeding site is known, stretched as far as the eye could see along the beach.

Volunteer wardens from the admirable Friends of Horsey Seals have taken over the work of Natural England, who apparently have other priorities, in roping off a walkway on the dunes at the back of the beach, themselves in need of careful management, and guiding visitors so that they can see the seals without disturbing them.

On the crisp, sunny day we visited there was a constant stream of people walking out to the beach and following the sensible advice, which includes keeping dogs firmly on a lead. Even so, there was the odd seal in the dunes to be skirted around. They do have a nasty bite and this is not the time to get up close and personal.

By now most of the pups will now have moulted their warm white birth coat for a mottled waterproof covering and, when they’ve exhausted the layers of fat they built up from their mothers’ milk, will have to take to the sea and learn how to fish for themselves.

The cycle will be repeated next year, which is necessary as more than half the pups will not survive their first year. The bulls turn up after the females have given birth and there can be a lot of aggression as they seek the best territory for mating.

For more information, see the Friends of Horsey Seals website:



Stevie Nicks: visions, dreams & rumours review

A Stevie Nicks promo pic by Neal Preston for Atlantic Records. More images at Stevie's website, the Nicks Fix,

A Stevie Nicks promo pic by Neal Preston for Atlantic Records. More images at Stevie’s website, the Nicks Fix,

Zoë Howe has penned a timely and
unsparing biography of the Fleetwood Mac singer and songwriter


The story of how Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks,
dropped by their record label after a debut album that bombed, joined down on
their luck British blues band Fleetwood Mac and conquered the world is the
stuff of rock and roll legend.


In 1974 drummer Mick Fleetwood was scouting for a recording studio
for the next album by a group that had already lost guitarists Peter Green and
Danny Kirwan. At Sound City in Los Angeles, he was impressed when he heard
Buckingham Nicks’ songs being worked on for a second album that they hoped would salvage their career. When Fleetwood Mac’s then lead guitarist, Bob Welch,
announced that he too was quitting the band, Fleetwood realised he’d not only
found a great studio sound but a replacement guitarist too. But, as Zoë Howe
records in her compelling biography of Nicks, he was told by record producer
Keith Olsen: ‘Lyndsey and Steve are kind of a set. You’re going to have to take


That was 31 December 1974, and by July 1975 the new line-up
of the band had released the eponymous album that was to mark the turning point
in their fortunes. Among songs that are instantly recognisable the instant you
hear them cued up on the radio was Nicks’ Rhiannon, a song about a white witch.
She only later realised the connection to Welsh myth in the Mabinogion.


The speed and economy with which that album was recorded is
in stark counterpoint to the tortured creation of the follow-up at the Record
Plant in Sausolito, where tellingly the Eagles were recording Hotel California
in a neighbouring studio. By the account here, it really did become a place you
could leave but never escape.

‘A bunch of rumours’

What bass player John McVie christened by noting that it sounded
‘like a bunch of rumours’ charted, as their songs had always done, the
turbulent relationship of Buckingham and Nicks. But now singer and pianist
Christine McVie found herself reflecting on the breakdown of her marriage to McVie, which had brought her into the band in the first place, and her attraction to lighting
director Curry Grant as recorded in You Make Loving Fun.


When Rumours was released I was an undergraduate student at
Leicester University, growing my hair and listening to Yes and Bowie and
Supertramp, but also beginning to hear the first releases of the Clash, the
Damned, the Jam and, soon after, the Tom Robinson Band and Blondie. Yet I look
back now and realise that there was much more confected anger in much of punk
rock than in Lindsay Buckingham’s snarling putdown of Stevie in the track Go
Your Own Way, with the line ‘shacking up’s all you want to do’.


While politics moves on, and the sloganeering of some
records now sounds dated, the personal always strikes chords with the listener.
That’s probably why so many bands of that era have been forgotten, while the
Mac can still sell out stadiums (and may also explain the similar longevity of
Abba’s songbook).


But Nicks, this book reminds us, also managed to develop a parallel
career that eclipsed Buckingham’s own solo efforts, despite his claim to have
polished many of Nicks’ rough diamonds into platinum-earning songs.


It all kicked of with Bella Donna, produced by Jimmy Iovine
and boasting Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around, a rock duet with Tom Petty that
proved how well their voices were matched.


But there were also hints in her three-chord tricks and the
way she marshalled her female backing vocalists that Nicks had a country
sensibility, a way of reaching to the roots of ordinary people’s emotions that
would create for her loyal following.


And as well as the well-known affairs with Eagles Don Henley
and Joe Walsh her work with Fleetwood Mac and in her own right brought her
musical relationships with Dave Stewart, Rupert Hine, Sheryl Crow and Bob
Dylan, to name a few.


The true fans would stick with Nicks through the lean years,
when drugs took their toll and the music suffered. But the story here is also
of how she pulled back from the brink.


Tickets have just gone on sale for a Fleetwood Mac tour that
will bring the mid-70s line-up to the UK in May and June next year. If you want
to know why they sold out so quickly, this book is as good a place as any to
start to understand what was going on behind the lines of music and, as the
index records too, the lines of cocaine that could so easily have turned this
story of a brilliant career into another paen to wasted youth.


Stevie Nicks: visions,
dreams & rumours by Zoe Howe is published by Omnibus Press at £19.95 in



Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible

I noted a while ago on Facebook that I’ve been neglecting my blog. Even the tweets have been a little erratic of late. There’s a simple reason. Summer is the season in which freelance journalists are most in demand to cover for staff (or increasingly other freelances) taking holiday.

So this blazing hot summer, I’ve been a reporter for a recruitment news website,, for which I covered a ‘talent management’ conference to hear a BBC human resources executive explain why long serving staff will be shunted aside to bring on new recruits. I’ll come back to that another time, but it was a not untypical example of workplace ageism from people who really ought to know better.

I’ve also finally made a foray into fashion after 30-odd years in the game, spending three days subbing The Fashion at the Guardian, long enough to know I won’t be on trend this autumn.

And I even tried a day at the Methodist Recorder. Nice people, but I’m from the Stephen Dawkins side of the argument, so it felt a bit hypocritical. Then again. earlier this summer I had a cordial chat in Chancery Lane about working on the UK website of Voice of Russia, which now seems to have been merged with RIA Novosti news agency and rebranded Russia Today (but please don’t confuse with RT on your TV). Not the best time to take the Putin rouble, though there is undoubtedly a need for a balancing voice to far right Ukrainian propaganda.

This is, I think, the first summer in which there has hardly been a silly season to speak of in the media. Wherever you look, the news has been too damn serious for much of the time whether in eastern Europe or the Middle East, in particular. Perhaps the Pope has a point about a creeping third word war.

Closer to home we have the referendum in Scotland. I’ve read Iain Macwhirter’s column in the Herald today, and suspect that were I a Scot I’d be a Yes voter who really wanted devo-max. But that just seems to have been beyond Westminster’s imagination. As, let’s face it, had been the need to rebuild the North’s infrastructure to rebalance the economy away from London until, ooh, the last week or so. Funny how elections concentrate the mind.

This has all been on top of work at the Observer on news and the New Review, the Guardian including the obituaries department, and Public Finance magazine which, coincidentally, also runs a column by Iain Macwhirter and deserves a wider readership among anyone interested in the business of goverment. End of plug and nearly the end of the holiday season.

I intend that normal service will be resumed with more frequent posts. But first, I’ll be tasting the fresh air and fine food of Cumbria. Then I’ve two magazines to produce…




Le Tour meets God’s Own County

As I pulled in to photograph this colourful display at Pool-in-Wharfedale the Sky team flashed past on a PR run. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

As I pulled in to photograph this colourful display at Pool-in-Wharfedale the Sky team flashed past on a PR run. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

I’ve twice in the past week driven along part of the first stage of the Tour de France, between Harewood and Skipton in Yorkshire, the county of my birth. It was great to see the enthusiasm with which God’s Own County has seized on the opportunity to host Le Grand Depart.

Shop windows in towns such as Ilkley and Otley showed the art of window dressing is alive and well; yellow painted bikes of all shapes and sizes were placed along the route, in hedgerows and gardens and attached to house and pub walls. Addingham gets two bites of the bike-shaped bunting, as it’s where the route of stage 2 crosses that of the first, round the Dales route between Leeds and Harrogate.

This being Yorkshire, there was also evidence of the entrepreneurial spirit of local business people and farmers. Fields along the route were either fiver-a-day parking for visitors to avoid the tow trucks keeping the roads clear for the peloton, or temporary camp sites for spectators. Every pub seemed to have a roster of live bands cued up to play, and there were other cycling events taking places either side of the tour.

As it happens, I live just off the third stage in South Woodford, a few metres from where the Cambridge to London stage passes. I’m sure there’ll be crowds on the day, but there’s not the same scale of local engagement with the race that’s apparent in Yorkshire. So well done to the Village Bookshop in Woodford Green for its window display and to Woodford Motor Company for plonking a yellow bike on a car roof.

It’ll be a grand day out whether you are in Yorkshire or London.

The Tories are coming for Church End with lies and damn statistics

In my little corner of South Woodford in the borough of Redbridge you can always tell when there’s an election coming up. The Tories start taking an interest in Liberal Democrat-held Church End ward.

This time round they’ve begun campaigning a little earlier, with three candidates making more of an impression than their predecessors. Perhaps they scent weakness with the announcement that a long-serving LibDem councillor is standing down while another has been cast adrift over poor attendance.

So there have been more editions of In Touch, the Tory newsletter to rival the LibDems’ Focus. There was also a residents’ survey that asked a couple of soft questions about local affairs: what did you like or dislike about living in Redbridge?

Then it got down to the nitty-gritty with a selection of touchstone Tory national issues: getting the economy moving (scrap the deflationary policies sooner was my retort); reforming welfare so that working always pays more than a life on benefits (a nod to Iain Duncan Smith, Chingford and Woodford Green MP and architect of the bedroom tax, possible the worst policy since poll tax).

Then, in the battle for right-wing votes, controlling immigration to take the pressure
off public services (failing to notice the dependence of the NHS on migrant
doctors and nurses and cleaners and … you get the picture).

Oh, and another one for the Ukip tendency, a referendum on EU membership. I wonder how many local residents work in the City for banks that will up sticks to Frankfurt the moment we quit Europe? Step forward local Tory candidate Tom McLaren of Commerzbank’s ABS Management team. I think that’s something to do with packaging up debt and flogging it off. Really useful banking.

Other leaflets have sought to take credit for the campaign to strip Funkymojoes, the pub that thinks it’s a West End nightclub, of its late licence over the misery caused to elderly residents of neighbouring flats.

They’ve also tried to frighten local businesses into thinking that Church End is a hotbed of criminal activity. A bit rich, coming from the party that’s cut police numbers and closed police stations across the capital.

There was even a poor quality YouTube video of some drunken shouting that appeared to be an issue for Redbridge housing department. That would be Tory-controlled Redbridge housing department.

It all seems to be directed at obtaining a controlled drinking zone, as if the place was overrun with drunks.

Rogue statistic

One leaflet got very excited about 48 car crimes in three months that targeted £1m worth of cars. That would be at an average of £20,833 each, which seems a bit unlikely. I suspect a rogue statistic there.

Another seems to think we should cheer the Tories for not implementing further cuts at Redbridge Drama Centre, again after local uproar at a Conservative proposal.

Local economic policy seems to consist of 30 minutes of free parking in the George Lane shopping street, to which the council has been dragged kicking and screaming after Wanstead businesses demanded some respite from the parking attendants.

But it will make for yet another photo opportunity with IDS, perhaps orchestrated by Joel Herga, the young PR man who has worked for several Tory MPs and is another of the candidates. I’m sure local politics will be good for his CV until a safe seat comes along. The third candidate, Emma Best, appears to have little troubled the search engines.

Quite recently there’s been a letter to individual voters. I don’t think everyone got one. But I’ve seen a copy.

It certainly takes a spin doctor to suggest that the LibDems have ‘parachuted’ in replacement candidates. Richard Hoskins’ retirement after 24 years of service is also hardly evidence of the local party ‘imploding’, as the letter suggests.

The latest Focus reveals that the LibDems are putting up sitting councillor Hugh Cleaver, who was elected in 1990; a 35-year resident of the ward and former parliamentary candidate in Geoff Seeff; and a 25-year resident in Deborah Prince, legal director of the British Heart Foundation.

And it is stretching credulity to suggest that the temporary swimming pool in neighbouring Wanstead, installed as part of Boris Johnson’s Make a Splash programme, justifies the claim that ‘the swimming pool many of you asked for is now being built’. Or is that referring to plans for a permanent pool in the south of the borough for which no site has yet been agreed, according to local newspaper reports? It may be the next set of elections before we can take a dip there.

The local elections are on May 22. Please vote.

PS. While the LibDems have parted company with Nicola Sinclair, they have at least not had to apologise for claiming she failed to attend a licensing hearing about Funkymojoes. That has been left to the Tories, apparently ignorant that in Redbridge councillors do not sit on licensing hearings for their own ward.


PPS The latest, very glossy, Tory leaflet admits they have had little success with the farmers’ market for George Lane after eight months’ effort. This would of course compete with the excellent greengroceries at Fiori’s and the International  Supermarket as well as the national chains M&S, Sainsbury and Waitrose.  I am not surprised that Sainsbury’s are refusing to back this endeavour. I am just astonished that the Tories, of all people, appear surprised by this expression of capitalism. Perhaps they’ll learn to hang on to more municipally-owned land in future.

I must acknowledge that we are told more about Emma Best in the latest leaflet. She went to school in Wanstead and is working for Crossrail while studying for a degree. Don’t know if she lives in the ward.







Greek efficiency drive puts squeeze on extra virgin olive oil

Olive trees in Tseria, a village in the Taygetos mountains. Photograph by Paul Nettleton

Olive trees in Tseria, a village in the Taygetos mountains of Greece. Photograph by Paul Nettleton


It may be a cynic who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing, but politicians often seem to fit Oscar Wilde’s description rather better.

Take the current proposal to ‘modernise’ the Greek economy by permitting the adulteration of one of the country’s great contributions to our food, the extra virgin olive oil produced with care, skill and not a little love by small producers across the country.

The idea, if you can call it that, is that by blending the olive oil with cheaper vegetable oils, manufacturers will be able to produce in greater bulk and penetrate new export markets, including the all-important China.

The only sop to the agricultural co-operatives and the single estate producers is that the blends would have to be clearly labelled as such.

The irony of Greeks having to ruin perfectly good olive oil in the quest to sell to a supposedly communist nation that makes its money by undermining the industries of the ‘free’ world with cheap plastic knock-offs should be obvious.

The proposal ranks with the ruination of the British loaf through the Chorleywood bread process or the threats to ‘improve’ competition by removing the purity laws that govern the production of German beer.

Apparently it’s all the result of an efficiency study commissioned by the Greek government from the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, in Paris. It delivered 328 pages recommending changes to regulations for commonly used products.

‘A cause of war’

One politician is quoted by the Associated Press on as calling it ‘a cause of war’. As if Greece needed another set of bright ideas imposed from outside the country.

I noted last summer that craft beers are beginning to make inroads into Greece. In the UK, they’ve rescued many a pub that the big ‘hospitality’ chains can’t sustain now they’ve been divorced from the brewing of their primary product – beer.

Perhaps the Greeks would be better advised by a delegation of Shoreditch’s finest from London’s micro-breweries than a bunch of economists trained at the École Nationale d’Administration.

Among the best of the Greek olive oils are those pressed from the koroneiki olives grown in and around the Mani peninsula in the southern Peloponnese. These are not the big, tasty purple Kalamata olives you buy to eat, but they are just as vital a crop for the local growers.

You can find these oils in UK supermarkets if you are prepared to look beyond the ranks of Spanish or Italian blends (the latter often including Greek oil bought in bulk and shipped across to give some flavour to the Italian stuff). It’s well worth the effort.

Better still you should travel to the Mani, see the olive trees in the foothills of the Taygetos mountain range and taste the oil in the local cooking. Though beware, some tavernas are shipping in sunflower oil in the alleged interests of healthy eating. I suspect that was another diktat from Athens.

Missing: a UK government policy for maxed out families

So the latest economic statistics show that a broadly based recovery is taking hold in the UK. Phooey!

Even with the best gloss on the percentage growth figures, total GDP remains below that before the crash of 2008.

And the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, has been casting about for a form of words to explain why interest rates cannot rise even when unemployment falls below 7%.

Of course, the latest jobless statistics were published before a couple of high street banks announced a further cull of staff.

You only have to look at continuing falls in house prices in regions such as the North-east of England to know that recovery is still to arrive outside London and the commuter belt.

But that’s all right. Transport for London has been told to expect treble the predicted number of commuters to arrive daily at stations such as Farringdon when Crossrail opens. That means more house price rises in the South, boosted by the Help to Buy scheme that has already delivered more Stamp Duty to Treasury coffers. Yes, with one hand George Osborne gives, with the other he takes away.

Meanwhile, the rest of the nation suffers a brain drain of the brightest and best. And small- and medium-sized companies still cannot borrow the money they need to expand, which just exacerbates the problem.

At least the government has a policy on that issue. What goes unmentioned in ministerial comments about the economy is any policy to deal with the drag on recovery, and the personal tragedies, represented by household debt of £1.4 trillion. There are nine million people living with serious debt, according to the government’s Money Advice Service.

Christmas spending

It’s not as if ministers don’t know the scale of the problem. I imagine Iain Duncan-Smith still reads the reports published by his Centre for Social Justice. The staggering figure above came from Maxed Out, a report written by a Labour former minister, Chris Pond, which put the average household debt at £54,141 compared with £29,000 a decade ago.

That figure might well have increased after the Christmas spending enabled by payday loans. During Debt Awareness Week this month, the StepChange debt charity reported that it was approached by new clients owing £230 million.

In the absence of a policy, the top result on Google when you search for ‘UK government policy personal debt’ is headlined Options for paying off your debts. We all paid to bail-out the banks and endured the so-called Great Recession from which the wealthy appear to be recovering considerably faster than the rest of us, helped along by a cut in the top rate of income tax. But there’s no bail-out for families trapped by debt that they were encouraged to accumulate, nay had thrust upon them by the banks and credit card companies during the last credit-propelled ‘recovery’.

So what’s the government’s answer? A rise in the minimum wage to restore its lost value. Peanuts compared with the national wealth squandered on saving the RBS group etc etc. Oh, and more cuts to benefits to drive people into Mac jobs on zero hours contracts.

But the bankers must have their bonuses, or the service economy of the capital might suffer. Heaven knows what hardship City traders might suffer if all the Polish plumbers and Bulgarian baristas went home.

Household debt

What won’t happen soon is any meaningful reduction in household debt, and particularly the consumer debt that has trebled since 1993 to reach £158 billion. That’s bad news for the high street and bad news for manufacturers looking for domestic sales growth. It will also mean more family breakdown and more personal insolvencies. Perhaps it’s time for a national policy on debt forgiveness for families.

I don’t doubt that jobless statistics will shortly record a reduction to below 7%. But how many of the people losing their jobs in the months ahead will be joining those scraping a living in the growing army of the self-employed? Or eking out an existence on a pension taken too early, because some employers just don’t take on older workers.

And what’s ahead for those in work? Not much in the way of pay rises so far, with increases in wages running at 0.9% while inflation under the Consumer Prices Index is at 2.1%. I don’t know whose cost of living that index records, but it doesn’t match the increases in my energy, food or travel bills.

Still, the dwindling band of full-time staff can make up some of the shortfall by working longer hours, filling the gaps in the workforce by those let go, under contracts of employment that invite you to ‘be helpful’ with catch-all job descriptions. Oh, and don’t forget to clear the kitchen sink before you go home.




Electric musings: on Wintersmith and Peter Knight’s departure from Steeleye Span

There’s an argument that many bands outstay their welcome, clinging on past some notional sell-by date for rock and rollers to have new music worth sharing with an audience.

So when violinist Peter Knight announced, on the eve of Steeleye Span’s tour to promote their Wintersmith album, that he was leaving when the tour finished, it could be seen as going out on a high.

Will the loss of Knight’s distinctive fiddle playing and writing spell the end for the band? Too early to say, but I’ve a suspicion there’ll be more to come, with newcomer guitarist Julian Littman finding his writing feet and, perhaps, former member Bob Johnson continuing to contribute songs too, even if ill-health stops him touring. Just listen to Littman’s Dark Morris for the continuation of Steeleye’s tradition of marrying ‘folk’ with hard rock riffs – the best example since Thomas the Rhymer in my book.

The Wintersmith collaboration with SF author Sir Terry Pratchett to capture his Disc World in music deservedly reignited fans’ enthusiasm for a stalwart folk-rock band that has sometimes seemed content to rework old favourites from the tradition rather than explore new ground.

Those critics who cared to listen to Wintersmith ladled out the superlatives and there has even been some radio play outside the folk ghetto. If Steeleye had been ageing Americans, they’d have got a whole lot more attention in the press and on TV, but UK media folk always seem embarrassed by any mention of Morris dancing.

Yet this is a world away from the twee olde English folk that, for some, is still represented by All Around My Hat, though it didn’t seem to worry guests John Spiers and Jon Boden when they ran back on stage to join in the encores at a gig at the Barbican before Christmas.

They’d already brought additional muscle to the live performances of songs from Wintersmith that were only lacking labelmate Katherine Tickell’s Northumbrian pipes to capture the full impact of the album.

At one point on stage there were so many pieces of percussion being played by so many people during Knight’s instrumental The Dark Morris Tune, that I was reminded of a Yes performance of Tales from Topographic Oceans at the Rainbow in the mid 70s. But perhaps that shows my weakness for a concept album.

Here are Maddy Prior’s thoughts on Knight’s departure and Wintersmith in an interview with Emma Hartley from her excellent Glamour Cave folk blog.

It’s always possible that Knight will change his mind and return to the Steeleye fold, though his comment that ‘enough is enough’ and complaint at the lack of democracy in choosing the album cover art suggest otherwise. But Maddy Prior and Rick Kemp in the past have taken time out and returned. In the meantime, Wintersmith’s closing song, We Shall Wear Midnight, is a fitting lament to his contribution to the band and a fine tribute to Pratchett.

PS: It’s both amazing how close Erasure’s rendition of Gaudete is to Steeleye’s unaccompanied version (ignoring slight differences of pronunciation), and how sinister Vince Clark’s keyboards sound. Almost a Wintersmith outtake…

 Update February 27: Just caught up with the news that Steeleye have added a new violin player, Jessie May Smart, for live dates in 2014.

Gavin Sutherland: Tango at the Lost Café – review

There must be a temptation when you’ve written a worldwide hit, in Gavin Sutherland’s case Sailing as performed by Rod Stewart, to sit back and watch the royalties roll in.

Yet Sutherland has quietly kept exploring his bluesy roots and mastering the art of musical understatement in his solo recordings. More recently he’s explored social media to collaborate on projects with friends and family.

Sutherland writes on his website of not having been sure where his music was heading until he chanced upon a tango session at Mike’s Old Bus depot in new Pitsligo, next door to the Lost Café in New Pitsligo, near Peterhead.

The CD he’s produced after being tutored around this Aberdeenshire dance floor by a young woman called Kirsty is perhaps his most complete work since the days of Sutherland Brothers & Quiver. He even looks the part on the cover, a touch Mr Del Monte.

Like Diamonds & Gold from 1999 and 2008’s The Deal, Tango comes from the less is more school of rock. Laid back much of it sounds at first hearing, but there’s a deceptive beat that could have you up and on your feet with the right partner in the right place.

A hint of JJ Cale

There’s more than a hint of JJ Cale in the backing tracks crafted by Sutherland on guitar, bass, drums and even sax.  Drummer Billy Rankin (I think it’s the one who played in Brinsley Schwarz and Ducks Deluxe, and not the former Nazareth guitarist) is on four tracks and former bandmates Tim Renwick and Willie Wilson contribute guitar and mandolin parts by email on the title track.

Gavin Sutherland comes over a little Mr Del Monte on the cover of Tango at the Lost Cafe

Gavin Sutherland comes over a little Mr Del Monte on the cover of Tango at the Lost Cafe

The sum of the parts is all the greater because of the economy of the playing by a cast of Sutherland’s musical friends – a brass fill here, a deft vocal harmony there – including backing vocals from his brother Iain on the rocking Two Tone Shoes (Let it Roll) and harmonies from Americana singer/songwriter Nancy K Dillon (a satellite contribution from Seattle) on Something I Said, an achingly lovely song that would be a number one hit in a just world.

Sutherland’s lyrics match the playing, making their point then moving on to the next number. The inane tweets of people with nothing to say but a determination to say it anyway are skewered in The Tweeter.

There can be few songs where the writer is ‘standing in the Co-op in the under 10 items line’ with ‘a two for one for coffee and a special on Italian wine’. He knows this is too much information. ‘There’s nothing happening but I think you should know, I’m gonna tweet, where ever I go.’

Sutherland has played three rare gigs with three different line-ups since the album slipped out with too little fanfare in the summer. His life and his music is clearly rooted around his north-east Scotland birthplace now, but this isn’t backward looking. Tango was recorded by James Hunter at Arc Recording Studio, located in a country park at Mintlaw. The studio is mainly used for traditional Scottish music but was one of the first in the country to embrace 5.1 Surround recording.

The Sutherland Brothers, with or without Quiver, were one of my favourite bands of the 70s and watching SB&Q perform was a highlight of my time as a student journalist with Ripple at Leicester University. Now I’m just hoping the gap before Gavin Sutherland’s next album is not so long.