“I was born in Bristol but when I was eight we moved to Castle Cary. I’ve always thought of myself as a South Somerset man. We used to go to Yeovil to see the optician or to go to the cinema. On rare occasions we’d go back to Bristol or cross the county line to Sherborne, in Dorset, to buy school uniforms. I went to school at Hazlegrove House in Sparkford and then to Kings School, Bruton. I felt just as much at home in Dorset as in Somerset, as we’d often go on day trips and outings to Weymouth or West Bay.
It seems I did quite well at school and it seemed logical to try to get into university. There was one particular English teacher who saw potential in me, although I don’t think I realised that potential until after A Levels. After university I went to London. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. I was interested in filmmaking but it was very difficult to get into the industry in those days. I thought of joining the BBC or the British Council (because I wanted to travel), but instead I went to Greece and taught English for a year in Corfu, where I met my wife, Maria. I then returned to study filmmaking at Bristol University. In August 1969 I got married and was employed by the British Council, where I was given additional training in educational television and film production.
My first posting was to Ethiopia, as a producer of television programmes, a British aid and technical assistance project. It was widely believed that the media could make up for the shortage of teachers, not just to teach the children, but that you could, in the process, actually train many hundreds of teachers. I also shot some film of the famine at that time, and when it was shown on schools TV in Addis, children and parents were asking ‘what are we going to do about it’. It was only later when Jonathan Dimbleby made his documentary, The Unknown Famine, that the rest of the world saw what was going on. So I was there at the beginning of the revolution, when Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown and we had the Derg ― the provisional military government. It quickly became difficult to operate. The Ethiopians suffered what was called the White Terror and Red Terror. People started killing each other on the streets, settling old scores. I spent five years there and then I went to Nairobi and did a similar job, seconded to the Voice of Kenya and the Institute of Mass Communication. We made 16mm films about modern methods of teaching science and other subjects, and training new Kenyan staff at the same time.
After Nairobi I went back to London as a media consultant and editor of a journal called ‘Educational Broadcasting International’. I travelled to places like Ghana and Singapore, running courses in filmmaking for development purposes. In 1980 I was offered the job of British Council Regional Director for Northern Greece. We had a large cultural and English teaching institute in Thessaloniki. The role involved a mixture of cultural relations work, arts and staff management. One evening our building was bombed. We were actually showing Death on the Nile. Somebody must have put a bomb in the dustbin outside the library. Luckily nobody was killed. It was never clear who did it. We must have seemed a soft British target. Two years later one of my friends was assassinated in Athens. He was the Deputy Director; he was going home at lunchtime, and he’d given a lift to one of the Greek librarians. He was shot through the head when stopped at a traffic light and the bullet killed the librarian too. For many months my wife, children and I were given police escorts armed with machine-guns.
For a while, life seemed as insecure as it had been in Africa, where we had barred windows, to deter thieves from breaking in. During the early days of the Ethiopian Revolution we woke up to the sound of volleys of rocks being hurled onto our tin roof ― very disorientating with a young baby in the house.
In 1986 I went to Czechoslovakia as Director of the British Council/ Cultural Attaché. There, the Secret Police ― the StB ― took a much greater interest than I appreciated. Almost every place I went they were recording and following me. Some days, I was to learn, as many as 27 different cars and agents followed me, swapping over every ten minutes. Many years later, after the fall of Communism, I was given access to the StB files and there were about 1400 pages of reports on me. What a waste of effort! I was just a very straightforward British Council cultural relations worker. I’ve written a book about it but it’s not been published yet. It’s provisionally called The Secret Journals of the Poets’ Revolution. Unfortunately I missed much of the Velvet Revolution as my posting came to an end and I was on a three-month research trip around Eastern Europe when it all started unravelling. I was back in Prague for some key events, and I did watch the Berlin wall come down in November ’89, from my East German hotel room.
I was touring Yugoslavia when things were beginning to heat up there; I interviewed people who were predicting violence. Back in London, I became Head of the East and Central Europe Department and Deputy Head of Europe Division. For nearly three years I had various HQ policy roles, which, at a time when it seemed as if there was a revolution happening every five minutes, with many new building projects, it was a highly pressured, very busy job – and in the days before we even had computers and email. I went to Moscow, Ukraine, Georgia and many parts of the region. It was interesting to be at the centre of it all when these changes and revolutions were happening or just stirring. I went to Albania before we had diplomatic relations with Tirana.
Every posting was like a totally different life. I then spent seven years in Australia and had a leading role in developing and managing the British Government’s first big international campaign ‘newIMAGES’ – which set out to try and modernise the whole bilateral relationship across the board, between Britain and Australia. After that I was posted to Sweden ― so from Sydney to Stockholm ― both beautiful cities by the water, but they couldn’t be more different.
Throughout my career I’ve helped promote the arts, theatre, literature, classical orchestras etc. I’m quite eclectic in my tastes, but I think I always loved rock and roll from the early days of Little Richard and Chuck Berry. I remember buying an early 78 of Elvis’ Blue Suede Shoes in a shop in Bristol where they had these little listening booths. I was absolutely hooked from about the age of twelve. At Hazlegrove we even formed a trio called the ‘Hazlegrove Hepcats.’ By the time I went to Oxford I’d already started collecting blues records by John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Howlin’ Wolf. I did some backstage interviews for ISIS, the university magazine, at the American Blues Festivals. I met Howlin’ Wolf and Sleepy John Estes and then, when I made a film in 1964, I managed to interest John Lee Hooker in recording the blues soundtrack I’d written for the film. I’m not a trained musician. I do play some raw, basic blues. It would be generous to say that ‘the lad’s got the soul, if not much technique!’ I’m better on the blues-harp.
I did record my own CD at the Sun Studios in Memphis. The studio wasn’t exactly as it had been in the ‘50s, but it still makes recordings. I recorded there on the 50th anniversary of what many consider the true birth of rock ‘n’ roll, exactly 50 years to the day since Elvis had made That’s Alright, Mama in that same studio. I felt that the spirits that had been there at that historic moment were in there with me. I included my version on the disc and all the songs were a tribute to all the old blues singers who’d recorded for Sam Phillips before he discovered Elvis, Jerry Lee, and Johnny Cash. It was a heartfelt tribute to rockabilly blues, and, for me, it had a very meaningful sense of musical history. Another kind of revolution.
The poet Michael Rosen once played a track from the CD (On the Memphis Road!) on the BBC’s Home Truths in 2005. On the same programme, a week earlier, he’d made the comment about me (as a student at Oxford), that ‘at the touch of a plectrum Jim could transform himself into a Mississippi Delta blues-singer’. Perhaps we’re all capable of many types of self-transformation.
I still keep pretty busy. We’re at the shortlisting stage of a Dorset poetry, prose and photography book project, Dorset Voices, due to be published in 2012 by Roving Press. I recently performed in a blues and gospel-blues concert, part of a music and arts festival hosted by the Anglican Church in Corfu. My wife Maria’s novel, The Cat of Portovecchio, Corfu Tales has recently been published in Greek translation. My most recent publication, The Ionian Islands and Epirus, A Cultural History (Signal Books) was the outcome of years of research. We are both currently engaged in research for new books.”