Always stand by your van

HEARTACHE SPOKEN HERE: An off-beat journey through Country and Western music, Britain and divorce by Stephen Walsh, Viking pounds 9.99

The subtitle only scratches the topsoil of Stephen Walsh's revealing and alternately funny/bittersweet account of life following cuckoldry. After he falls in love with the music of George Jones and Hank Williams, his wife (rechristened Ruby for literary purposes) leaves him for a Greek workmate and, smarting from the humiliation, Walsh takes off in a VW camper, with the aim of visiting Britain's cowboy and Indian population - native Americans have yet to stake their claim to the prairies of Colchester, Glasgow and Belfast. As he says, his life had become a C&W song: "Country music is good on divorces, not so good on weddings".

In clubs like the Lonesome Dove (Redruth), the Wagon Wheel (Reading) and the Buffalo (Barton Cross), middle-aged men and women dress up as riverboat gamblers, gunslingers and Calamity Janes (for "the ladies", it's either that or saloon gal) and play out fantasy lives involving false guns, fake accents and dodgy sub-Confederate imagery, in a fake old west sanitised by the imagery of Hollywood and Marlboro Man. Almost exclusively white, predominantly blue-collar and very often truck drivers, the inhabitants of this virtual Wild West reveal themselves through Walsh's savage pencil as a colourful but a pretty sorry bunch.

There's Ernie from Portsmouth, western dancer by night and spiritual- healer by day, who began seeing UFOs after a cycling accident and who progressed to healing after his dead wife surprised him under a tree in the garden. Bernard, Batley-born camp-site owner and malapropist, who used to play bass for Screaming Lord Sutch and whose dream to organise an open-air C&W festival in Cornwall is only matched by his hatred of the Cornish. Then there's Wild Bill Hickock-lookalike JB, head honcho in COWBOY (the Confederation of Western Buddies Of Yesteryear), who built his own full-size Wild West city in the wide open spaces of south-west England. The sad thing is that they all take it so seriously. "I'm a cowboy who happens to be a cook not a grill chef who happens to be a cowboy," says one.

Interspersed with all this is the sorry story of recriminations and squabbles that stem from Ruby taking her love to town. It takes a brave man to chronicle what went on, and not just because his own behaviour is less than wholesome: Ruby and her Greek friend appear - from Walsh's account, at least - to be as violence-prone as the James Brothers. Tit-for-tat guerrilla raids in which vehicles are clamped and speaker-wires disconnected are the best of it, attacks and threatening to spilt up the two children, the worst.

Most entertaining are the snippets from the lives of the Country stars. After a tussle with pills and the bottle (during which he "ended up talking in a quacking voice, like Donald Duck's"), George Jones became known as "No Show Jones" until he bounced back with a new career and the car licence plate: I DO SHOW; Tammy Wynette had to sleep with her grandpa until she was 13 years old. These are facts worth knowing. But this is not a book about mainstream Country music in Britain. Although Walsh doesn't make it plain, the term C&W covers two types of music: Country (as in Nashville, Hank Williams, George Jones, etc) and Western (Western Swing, as played by Bob Wills, Spade Cooley and Hank Thompson). The gun-toting gunslingers pictured here are as way off centre to the mainstream Country music scene as satanists are in Rock.

Despite minor niggles - some of the characters are so similar they merge together, and certain unexplained references (eg to CMT, "the Rebas and the Pams and the Mary-Chapins") need some prior knowledge - Heartache Spoken Here could well be Country & Western's Fever Pitch.

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