This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show.

It’s funny what floats up to the surface of the memory when you’re bored. I was stuck on a train the other day and the words I couldn’t get out of my head were the repeated cry of a poet three thousand years ago: “How long, O Lord, how long?” Now, I guess his plight was more existentially challenging than mine; but, they were the words I couldn’t shake off.

A bit like the blues, really.

I well remember sitting in my car on holiday listening to Eric Clapton’s album Pilgrim. I was haunted by one song in particular which went by the miserable title of River of Tears. That perfect combination of weeping guitar and a voice wrenched from the depths of the heart tore through my soul. It still does nineteen years later.

What is it about the blues that cuts through the rubbish and distractions of a busy mind and brings tears to the eyes?

The other day I was driving through the Yorkshire Dales on a gorgeous sunny day – someone has to do this job – listening to the new Imelda May album, written after her divorce and coloured by the sadness of loss. Where did my tears come from?

I think what’s going on here is quite simple – and common. Life is a rollercoaster of joy and sadness, hope and despair, creativity and loss. We all know what it’s like to run through the daily routine only to have it disturbed by unwelcome news or worse. We discover that we are not in control after all and that we are more fragile than we thought we were. It’s as if the veneer of self-sufficiency is stripped away and the rawness of reality exposed.

And that’s why the blues get straight through the skin and move the heart. It’s why the words of the poet, the Psalmist, offer a vocabulary for when words fail us: how long, O Lord, how long? And, I think, we can find amid the pain that we are never alone in this experience – that it isn’t to be feared – that even God cries out in cross-shaped grief.

Or, in the words of Imelda May: “I’m damned if I show it but I can’t shake this feeling away.”

Given the awful news in the last week of deaths in Afghanistan (6 British soldiers and then 16 Afghan civilians), I wasn’t sure what to write for Pause for Thought on this morning’s Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2. How do we address something like this in a couple of minutes in the context of a lively, fun show?


I immediately thought of the blues – I was downloading an Eric Clapton CD to my iPad at the time. Whihc is why I began my script as follows:


You know what it’s like when you listen to an album time and time again, but you never really take any notice of the song titles – and then you have a look at the back of the CD box… and you wonder what you’ve been listening to? Well, I was getting an Eric Clapton album onto my computer (Me and Mr Johnson, if you must know) and, apart from the epic They’re Red Hot (er… let’s not go there), the one that caught my eye was the intriguing Milkcow’s Calf Blues. I still don’t know if this refers to the baby cow born to the milkcow, or the lower rear leg muscle of the cow itself…

The blues often have odd titles. When I was a teenager I played trumpet in a jazz group and one of my favourite tunes was St James Infirmary Blues – a Louis Armstrong classic. I have no idea which St James Infirmary it referred to, but I guess it wasn’t the one in Leeds.

The thing about the blues is that they always dig deep into human experience and the everyday stuff of our lives. Like the Psalms of the Old Testament, they lend a vocabulary to the profoundest – and often most painful experiences of loss and love and longing. They give a voice to those bits of life we find it hardest to express – especially if such expression makes us sound weak or miserable or, worst of all, a failure.


I have written about the blues elsewhere. The power of the blues is in the raw honesty, the lack of fear of exposure or ridicule. They often strip away the veneers of human self-sufficiency. They go deep. Try listening to Clapton’s River of Tears (on Pilgrim) and you hear the music weeping.


Anyway, how should we apply this briefly to events of the last week – especially as the news came in this morning of an appalling tragedy in Switzerland in which 28 Belgian people were killed in a coach crash, 22 of them children?


In a week in which six soldiers were killed in Afghanistan – five of them from West Yorkshire – and a rogue American soldier systematically killed 16 innocent people in Kandahar, and the dreadful news from Switzerland this morning, perhaps we need the blues to give us a voice. Otherwise, how do we say something useful about such horrors and the agony of sudden loss?

There is a time for simply voicing the pain – not trying to make some sense out of it. The psalmists cry out at the injustice of this world – the same now as it was three thousand years ago – and tell us that God invites us to be honest, not correct.


It doesn’t exactly nail theodicy. But it is a rather feeble example of how to try to say something useful when rationalising is inappropriate, but something needs to be said that shines some light on our reaction to events that tear at our heart. The context shapes the content.

It’s a bank holiday, the weather is mixed, the house is empty and I am trying to put off doing some work.

I’ve been reading up on some of the responses to the Mark Thompson speech at the Edinburgh Television Festival the other day. The Guardian leader gets it right: the debate is not just a little skirmish between a couple of bruisers, but is of huge significance for our society as well as the media: ask the Italians if Berlusconi’s media dominance is just a personality matter. It is also interesting that Murdoch’s newspapers seem not to have carried Thompson’s speech or addressed the issues – which speaks for itself.

However, the gaps in today have made it possible to catch up on some new music. This is an unashamed plug for three very different bands.

Whatever the Weather is the title of the latest offering by Nottingham-based ska band Jimmy the Squirrel. Ska is the sort of music you can’t help smiling to – even when the lyrics are miserable. It’s like a fun version of reggae. I have to declare an interest in this band, though, because the songwriter and singer is my son-in-law, Liam O’Kane. But, I wouldn’t dream of plugging his stuff if I thought it was rubbish or I didn’t like it; after all, I have my own critical credibility to consider! (Er… hmmm….) This band – which has a great reputation for ‘live’ gigs – is getting better with each album and deserves a wider audience. Fantastic, fun stuff.

I remember getting into big trouble for suggesting that 19 year old Alexandra Burke couldn’t possibly sing Leonard Cohen’s epic song Hallelujah because she hadn’t lived long (or hard) enough. I maintained (and still do, for what it’s worth) that some songs bear the depth of experience and can’t be sung by someone who hasn’t been there. For example, would Bob Dylan’s Modern Times album be worth listening to without that rugged, rasping voice? Some of the great blues music is the same: a 19 year old Londoner couldn’t do justice to any of John Lee Hooker‘s stuff.

So, I was a bit surprised to hear the eponymous debut album by Bournemouth-based blues band Paint it Blue (name nicked from the Rolling Stones?). They have a great local following and I haven’t heard them live (I was sent a copy of their CD); but, the idea of just-post-teenagers doing justice to the blues was questionable. Until I heard the album, that is.

The music is tight, the technique sound and the music mostly original. The moody voice of singer Hannah Robinson puts into question the ageist prejudice I mentioned earlier: her voice might yet be young and have years of maturing ahead, but she grabbed my attention – she has a rich, working voice that allows an unexpected emotional depth. This is an unassuming band that, again, deserves a wider audience. Turn down the lights, turn up the volume, open a bottle of Rioja…

Crowded House have now put out their second CD, The Intriguer, since they re-formed. I hadn’t had a chance to listen since it came out a couple of months ago, but it was worth the wait. I could listen to Neil Finn’s voice all day and his astute lyrics are always intriguing. But, even if the sound is typically Crowded House (what else should it be?), they play a damned good tune. I love hearing good acoustic music, too, and these guys have it all: melody, harmony, rhythm and wit. Even if, as they sing in Amsterdam, “the grey men are shadowing us”, music like this breaks out into the daylight of simple creativity.

The bank holiday work-avoidance strategy is paying off. Now for Cockburn, Clapton and Springsteen…