In the course of setting up an interview with Jim Boyes of Coope Boyes & Simpson fame, it transpires that he’s in Belgium. It transpires he’s not just out on tour or visiting, but calls the country home these days. He tells me, “We moved there permanently about three years ago after looking around for a way to downsize. We’d been living in a fairly big house and the kids had all flown and so had been looking around all over the place for somewhere suitable, including Belgium.” It’s not entirely surprising as he continues, “I’d been coming over regularly since the 70s, but since becoming involved in Peace Concerts Passchendaele, we’d got to know a lot of people over here and it was becoming like a second home anyway.”
I ask Jim how his involvement with the concerts started and he recalls, I’d released a solo album called Out The Blue, it was actually the first thing I’d done on No Masters, which I’d set up with John Tams. There was this guy in Flanders called Piet Chielens who wrote for the Flemish folk magazine called Gandalf and I’d known him since my time in Swan Arcade. He wrote a review of my album and there was a song on there called Down On The Dugout Floor that I’d written after a visit over there to play the Dranouter Folk Festival, staged near Ypres. He liked the song and when he started the Peace concerts contacted me and asked me if I’d be interested in going over and playing the concert with a few Flemish musicians.”
He laughs, “My immediate answer was, ‘Well yes,’ so we travelled over to meet him.” The timing was good and as Jim reveals, once they were there Piet asked if there was anyone else that Jim would like to involve. He tells me, “I’d just started working with Barry and Lester and the trio had been together for about six months, so naturally I suggested them.”
The first Peace Concert had been staged in 1992 and featured June Tabor, but it was the second staged in 95 that Jim is remembering. I suggest to Jim that the motivation is obvious and he agrees, suggesting that it’s never been more relevant, a point that he’ll return to. I wonder if there was ever a motivation to get musicians representing the warring European factions together on one stage with one voice and Jim acknowledges, “To some extent yes. It took many years, but we did eventually have a German singer called Thomas Fritz, who joined us and a group of French musicians, so I guess that put three of the main combatants on stage.”
Jim has been involved ever since and recalls, “I think we’ve played five or six of the concerts, plus the 10th anniversary show and one that Lester did on his own.” The evidence is there for all to see and hear in the recent release In Flanders Fields, a double CD set and around two hours of song. Jim explains, “Many of the new recordings on that are songs that have been included in the various shows and not recorded at the time for one reason and another. So it does represent a pretty comprehensive run through the repertoire that we’ve performed.”
I suggest that it’s also fairly comprehensive in covering so many different facets of the war. Realistically I know that it’s not possible in a couple of hours of song to cover everything, however well the material is written, but it does at least shine a torch on certain things that are easy to overlook. Jim agrees, “One of the things we’ve tried to write about is the people who were here on the spot in the first place. What it meant to them. So many had to leave their homes and once it was over, they had to return and make sense of it all, come to terms with rebuilding their shattered lives and repairing the damage.
“We worked at first with an iconic Flemish songwriter called Willem Vermanderere and he told us about all sorts of things, like the English words that have slipped into local dialect. There was a groove worn in the tiles on his floor, around the wood-burning heater that was made by hobnailed British army boots, it’s a tiny little connection that you’d never think of.” I guess it’s by paying attention to the little details that we manage to piece together the human story in the middle of what is unimaginable carnage and it’s these that ultimately combine to make In Flanders Fields such a powerful piece of work.
I ask Jim if he has any personal connection and at first he says no, although he’s thinking in terms of the cemeteries. But then the stories of his grandfather start to come out, a man who carried a back problem as part of one of his vertebrae was shattered by a machine gun bullet. It transpires also that there was a house not far from where they first stayed with Piet that became his regiment’s headquarters, he sounds resigned as he concedes, “Most families in the UK will find some family connection here.”
Barry it seems is a notable exception as his forebears where miners and therefore in protected occupations, barred from signing up. Lester on the other hand became the first member of his family to visit the grave of a great uncle killed in the conflict. Jim adds, “It’s when you start to appreciate the enormous scale of it all that it really starts to sink in.”
It’s the fact that so few family histories are immune to the effects of WWI that Jim identifies with most strongly and the act of remembrance should also be a potent reason not to do it all again. It is for this reason that the trio have played such an active part in the Peace Concerts Passchendaele programme over the years and are just about to embark on a concert tour of material from In Flanders Fields, which if The Guardian review by Robin Denslow is anything to go on, should not be missed.
Jim offers a little tempter revealing, “Obviously we can’t fit everything into the show, but we’ve tried to make the selection as varied as we can, but everything is tied together with spoken word pieces. A lot of them are lifted from the Ypres Times and I don’t know if you saw the Ian Hislop programme about that (trailer below), but it was a satirical magazine written by soldiers in the trenches. There are also some of the facts and history and war poetry in the mix as well.”
But that’s not all as Jim reveals the effect of his grandfather’s story, “It’s amazing what I discovered without really having to dig too deeply, but now I have researched his experience more thoroughly. The result was a concert that I performed with Belinda O’Hooley, which we’ve now recorded and are set to release next January, with a tour to follow that.” He continues, “I know this is the year that everyone thinks we have to get something out to commemorate the war, but I think as long as we continue we’ll always include it in or repertoire.” He makes a very valid point that the war lasted for four years and so over the next four, there will times when it’s right to commemorate different things.
We briefly discuss the other recent CD sets and I mention Robb Johnson’s Gentle Men, which Jim quickly reminds me was another Peace Concert. I suggest it’s probably a good thing to have other voices joining them with a common message. Jim agrees, “The more the merrier really, especially given the current political climate. If the futility of starting another one only crosses into a few people’s minds, then that’s a huge positive. In the Flanders Fields museum there used to be a huge panel on the way out that listed all of the wars that have occurred since the war to end all wars.” It’s a poignant point to bring our conversation to its conclusion and pause for thought.
Interview by: Simon Holland
In Flanders Fields is released today via No Masters
In Flanders Fields Tour
12/09 – Foundling Museum, London
13/09 – Folk at the Flavel, Dartmouth
14/09 – Bristol Folk House, Bristol
15/09 – Colchester Arts Centre, Colchester
16/09 – Leicester Guildhall, Leicester
17/09 – St Mary’s Church, Scarborough
18/09 – Drill Hall, Lincoln
19/09 – West End Centre, Aldershot
20/09 – David Hall, South Petherton
21/09 – Heeley Institute, Sheffield
04/10 – Derby Folk Festival, Derby
More dates and ticket links here:http://www.coopeboyesandsimpson.co.uk/