It’s such a strange thing, the whole Reluctant Ramblers shebang. An idea that probably sounded weird when John and Colin came up with it but an idea that’s grown into something vital and powerful and real. The reality is in the long, hard walking, where every step is a reminder of what that idea is about – reconnecting with the earth. And hopefully it’s also in the concerts, in the connection between the people on stage and the audience.
There’s a lot of this ‘re-connecting’ stuff going about right now. It was inevitable that the boom of online digital communication would eventually result in people getting fed up of living most of their social lives through a screen. The Situationists in the 1960s – a disparate bunch of intellectual anarchists – wrote about a world where the ‘spectacle’ of living would overtake real, actual living; that we would live our lives through adverts, images, pop and sports stars, slogans, brands, anything but the physical coming-together of people. They were right. But what they didn’t write about was what would happen next, when that bubble of clicktivism looked ready to burst. About what might happen when people started to reject the saturation of social media and looked around for something real, something tangible and physical.
In its own small way, that’s where John Jones and the Reluctant Ramblers and its big bunch of fellow-walkers comes in, or rather, goes out – out to the hills and away from the wi-fi connection. Up to the commons, down through the valleys, poking in and out of empty churches, winding through huge forests and somehow making it all part of a love of music. On the rambles, the music and the walking inform each other, every day. And it’s all a joy. Sometimes it can be a slog, a route-march, a rain-soaked or sun-blasted stomp, but it’s always still a joy.
The countryside around the Welsh borders this time baked in the sunlight as 40 or 50 not-so-reluctant ramblers joined John and Colin as they wove a path between musical stop-overs in Breweries and halls. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to be in the right place and time to join John on the first Reluctant Ramble. The concept was weird then, and it’s still strange today, but now there’s a pattern and an ease to it all due to sterling organisational work done by all sorts of people under the guiding hand of Tom. A more mild-mannered tour manager you’d struggle to find, which is why he’s a pleasure to work with. He walked, too, when he could fit it into his schedule, even having to join John on a heads-down charge to get to one of the venues in time, resulting in a headlong (and headfirst) sprawl into a stony track. Then there was his redoubtable assistant Fran, who seemed to spend the entire week ferrying bags, people and instruments between obscure grid references.
The venues were all great, too – three breweries and a village hall – brilliant audiences that welcomed the madness of this growing band of determined walkers and their ever-changing house band. Since neither Al Scott nor Dil Davies could make it this time, Lindsey had to anchor the band armed with only a double bass, a smile and a pair of bare feet. Tim Cotterel’s fiddle was just perfect. Rowan was in her element, back into the fold with an EP’s worth of new songs. JJ seemed to take it all in his stride, and after all he’d done this several times. And for myself, I really enjoyed the playing, knowing I could rely on the incredible Benji to cover all the guitar bases and exercising my right to sing the low/bass harmonies on almost all the songs, since there were three other people grabbing the upper registers. If in doubt, aim low, that was my motto. Soundman Tim was probably edging off the bass dial on his desk to avoid the sub-sonic tremor. Or maybe not.
The walks were full of people I haven’t met before, and the lovely thing about walking is that (and I heard this being posited as a theory on Radio 4 a while ago) when you converse, you don’t look into your companion’s eyes. You talk whilst looking forward, so you don’t get the intensity of face-to-face conversation and neither do you get the nuanced facial expressions that accompany speech. So there’s a different way of talking, having to explain things, asking more questions. Walking with strangers means you can pick up conversations and drift in and out of them depending on how fast you walk, when you stop, where you have to go for a pee, that sort of thing. Don’t get me started on how men feel able to just pee behind the nearest small bit of shrubbery while women have to make hundred-yard detours to find a secure and private spot of woodland.
I should bring this blog to its final destination now, even though there are actually many many miles to go. I could write for days and not get to the bottom of the post-Situationist concept that is John Jones and the Reluctant Ramblers (how many times have I suggested John change it from ‘Reluctant’?). But just to say, in conclusion, stumbling down some tree-root path through a pine forest, what a wonderful and fascinating thing this all is. And how lovely it was, walking in lines and circles around the Welsh border, how strange and tiring and funny. How beautiful to be part of something that at the same time connects us to other people and to the earth beneath our feet… and to then be able to sing about that experience.