An aspect of many places, commented on in previous columns, is that they can hold the past and present simultaneously. London, in particular, has always been a good example of this, where you can quickly move from the present to find a hidden square or side street that seems little changed since the London of Dickens or beyond, or a park that seems a hidden world away . The best songs can enhance this perspective –as with Cath Carroll’s London, Queen of My Heart, taking the night bus from Camden over the ancient plague pits.
In some ways this searching of the past by pop songs can seem odd. Pop music’s initial concerns were very much of the here and now but at some point - maybe it was with Sgt Pepper - artists started taking off into past centuries. Strange instruments like harpsichords and dulcimers started to appear on pop records. One musical path headed back to the 19th Century English surreal whimsy of writers such as Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear: the spark was the Syd Barrett - dominated Pink Floyd first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the title taken from a chapter of Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows. Another path at the turn of the sixties went further back to a courtly Elizabethan age, perhaps kicked off by the Stones and Lady Jane. Sandy Denny brought her song about Mary Queen of Scots, Fotheringay. to the Fairport Convention album, What We Did On Our Holidays. Soon after she named her own group after the song, their first album depicting the group members dressed up in cod mediaeval clothing. Around the same time the folk rock outfit, Trees, brought out The Garden of Jane Delawney, also drenched in echoes of the 16th century.
The song here, Kew Gardens, is not time - bound and could be set at any time in Kew Gardens’ history, with the same kind of courteous and graceful feel of the songs mentioned above. Prominent in the musical backing is the recorder, previously associated with the mediaeval court or small children playing in school concerts. It was written and first recorded by Ralph McTell, of Streets of London fame, before being picked up by Mary Hopkin and is very characteristic of some of his work: veering to the whimsical but carried by his ability to tell a descriptive little story in 2 or 3 minutes (In the 1980’s he featured in an oddly compelling children’s TV series, Tickle on the Tum, in which he appeared in a grocery shop in a fictional village every week to showcase songs like this one). In this case, the musical vignette is a brief and rather sad love story-that-never-was against a backdrop of the Pagoda and the griffin statues outside the Palm House.
This version is by Mary Hopkin, released as a ‘B’ side in 1971. She holds a comet-like place in pop history. Her debut single in 1968, Those Were The Days, was the first release after Hey Jude on the prestigious Beatles’ Apple label, was produced by Paul McCartney, went to Number One and sold over 8 million copies worldwide. By 1970, after 3 or so smaller hits, her chart career was over. In some ways, she seemed out of time, like this song and Kew Gardens itself. She was too late for the pop folk boom of the mid-60’s, too early for the singer-songwriter genre of the 1970’s and caught between the rapidly diverging worlds of rock and pop. Her crystal-clear voice was not dissimilar to the early Marianne Faithfull and she recorded some of the same sort of folk tunes that Marianne Faithfull had in the mid-sixties. Image-wise, however, she was the opposite, marketed on TV variety shows and in cabaret as a ’girl next door’ with family appeal.
She also suffered, I think, from associations with two shows: Opportunity Knocks and The Eurovision Song Contest. Opportunity Knocks was a long-running talent show on British TV in the 1960’s and 1970’s, with winners chosen by public vote. These included a singing dog and, for 6 consecutive weeks in 1964 when the Beatles and Rolling Stones were topping the charts, by a bloke twitching his muscles to the cha-cha-cha sounds of Wheels by The Stringalongs. This can be glimpsed on the clip below. (This is from 1978, by which time he had been doing the act for 14 years. Viewers were less demanding then).
Mary Hopkin won the show in 1968 but, as another winner/subsequent chart act, Sweet Sensation, found later, that did not help in giving wider musical credibility. Neither did being the British entry for the 1970 Eurovision contest with Knock Knock, Who’s There – it took Abba winning in 1974 to turn that view of Eurovision around.
Her gentle and rather wistful style, however, is perfect for a song about Kew Gardens, where it is easy to feel you have gone back to a more sedate age of the Victorians or Edwardians as you stroll along tree-lined walks or through the elegant buildings. I first went there as a young child and three things stuck in my mind. 1) The entrance fee through the turnstile gates was 1p, which even then struck me as good value. 2) The Chinese Pagoda there seemed wildly exotic, as though suddenly transplanted from China itself ( I am sure that a group in the 1970’s put out an album with them standing by the Pagoda on the cover and claimed that they had recorded it in China). 3) In one of the cafes I was served, I believe for the first time, the dish called ‘salad’. This was both unexpected and disappointing, being the great British Salad of the time – some lettuce and tomatoes, a piece of ham, a chopped hardboiled egg and Heinz Salad Cream. Years later, however, on a family visit there, we spied a much more fitting meal for Kew Gardens: seated by the river was a group dressed entirely in white - white suits, white flowing dresses – with a hamper picnic of smoked salmon, strawberries and cream and champagne laid out on the grass. Somehow it did not seem out of place.
The song, in some ways, is a period piece but then so are parts of Kew Gardens, with the Walled Gardens and Queen Charlotte’s Cottage and the maids of honour cakes in the tea room on the road opposite the entrance. Go through the gates - you can then find what ever age you want as you wander round the gardens.