HOW WE MET: JAMES HERBERT AND GORDON GILTRAP
Sunday 21 June 1998
JAMES HERBERT: I couldn't tell you exactly when we first met, because time's gone out the window for me, but it must have been about five years ago that I got a letter, a fan letter I suppose it was, from this person signing himself Gordon Giltrap. At first I thought it was someone having me on. I mean, Gordon Giltrap had been a hero of mine for years. He's a genius of the guitar. And for anyone who's seriously followed popular music over the last three decades, his sound is very special, unique.
Anyway, here he was writing to me about a book I'd done a few years before, called The Magic Cottage. In this book the protagonist was a session guitarist. Now I've got many friends in the music business and I play the guitar myself, so it was easy for me to write about. But Gordon had assumed from various details in the book that I was a musician as well as a writer. In fact I'm more of a semi- musician, a strummer. At art school I used to sing in a band, until another group called the Rolling Stones came along and made me look silly. But I still count it a passion of mine. I keep an acoustic instrument in my study for when I'm struggling with a chapter and get a bit tense. Just picking up the guitar and playing a couple of numbers puts me right.
But here was my guitar hero, making overtures to me. First he just said how much he liked the book. Then he said he was putting some tracks together for an album and was inviting various people to play along with him. Would I be interested in recording a number? So I wrote back and said: "I'm not that good, mate! But yeah, I'd love to do something." So he came down to my place, and we had a jam session. He was such a nice, gentle man; we got on very, very well. It didn't seem to matter that I was way below him in terms of what I could do.
We share a passion, not just for the music but for the instruments. I showed him my collection of guitars and told him about problems I'd had with them. I've got long fingers, but they're clumsy and not very strong, so doing a bar can be difficult, not as fluid as it should be. And Gordon said: "Well it's your guitars' fault, Jim, the action's all out!" And he took them all away with him there and then - my Fender Stratocaster, my acoustic guitar and a 12-string, and he gave them a makeover. I've since discovered that's typical of the man's generosity. When he brought them back they were like new instruments. Suddenly I could play 10 times better, and it completely revived my interest. I've improved no end since then.
Though the friendship gelled, we never got to do the disc. It turned out the record company wasn't interested, even after Gordon had got people like Brian May to agree to play on it. But we've jammed together informally several times now and who knows, one day we might lay a track down. In the meantime Gordon has become the sort of friend who understands instinctively where my boundaries lie. I'm a very private person, and my work is private too. I'm aware that he's interested in my books and where the ideas for them come from, but he doesn't push it, he doesn't probe. I make a rule never to talk about the book I'm currently working on. It dissipates the energy that should be going down on paper. And Gordon respects that. We just talk guitars.
I wish I could do as much for him as he's done for me. But I did redesign his letterhead. I once got a note from him with a logo printed at the top and I thought, I could improve on that. I used to do a lot of advertising artwork before I wrote books. So I sketched an outline of that trademark droopy moustache and long hair - it was only meant as a rough - and Gordon has been using it ever since.
It concerns me that someone with as much talent as Gordon has should ever have to struggle, so I was thrilled when he landed the part of the Troubadour in Heathcliff, and invited me up to see the show. I hear he's taken up classical guitar lessons in order to learn a regular technique. I can't understand why. His technique is irregular all right - he uses a weird combination of plectrum and the little finger of his right hand - but it's served him brilliantly all these years. I suppose you reach a certain age and you hanker after doing the things you haven't done. Just as I'm in awe of someone like him doing what I can't do.
GORDON GILTRAP: Jim claims to have forgotten, but I first wrote to him in the late 1970s. I'd released an album called Fear of the Dark and shortly after that he had a book published called The Dark which I read. I'd been a fan of his for years, so I sent him a copy of my album saying that if by any chance his book was ever going to be made into a film, this music would suit it perfectly. He did write back, but I don't recall now what the answer was. I made contact again in 1993, when I had this idea of doing a 25th anniversary album which was going to be called Giltrap and Friends. I'd read another book of Jim's called The Magic Cottage, a book about a musician. There were so many strong, accurate references to guitars in it that I thought: "This man has to be a musician himself." I wrote to him and said: "I'm sure you play guitar, so how about it?" This time I got a letter back within two days saying yes I like the idea, where and when? Unfortunately the album never happened - the concept changed and it ended up as Music for the Small Screen, all the stuff I'd written for TV. But from there he invited me down to his house in Sussex to have a look at his collection of guitars. They were in a bad state of repair so I said: "Let me take these guitars away and make them playable." I love doing that. I get almost as much pleasure out of fixing guitars as I do playing them. When I brought them back he was over the moon, and now he plays all the time.
We're both Londoners and from poor backgrounds, he from the East End, me from Deptford, and I think there's an empathy there. We're both self- made - only he's got wealth and fame, and I'm just a poor struggling guitarist who's got a name among the guitar fraternity. And we're both self-taught. I hadn't had a guitar lesson in my life until recently, when I hit a major birthday and decided I had to learn to read music properly and learn proper fingering. But that won't change the way I perform my own music - my totally incorrect technique is what's created my sound and style. So I suppose we both work outside the mainstream
We're both very single-minded. I've dropped in on Jim on a number of occasions when he's said: "It's great to see you, mate, but I can only give you an hour. I'm stuck into this book and I've got to keep the train of concentration going." He's very disciplined is Jim, always an eye on the deadline. You need to respect his space and his time. But he's been very supportive of me: I got him tickets for Heathcliff and he brought along two signed copies of 48 - one for me and one for Sir Cliff, who's also a big Herbert fan.
Whenever I have a new album released I make sure Jim gets one, because I know he loves what I do. Though he's also incredibly honest with me and tells me I'll never make a lot of money because I'm not overtly commercial. But I kind of knew that.
We mostly talk guitars. He's after a really nice, loud guitar, so I'll keep an eye out for him. There's such a lot of choice out there and just because the guy's got a lot of money doesn't mean he should be ripped off. There's no awkwardness on either side about his being so much richer than me. The friendship couldn't exist if there was. But what can you give to someone who's got everything? You try to pass on bits of yourself.
! Gordon Giltrap is touring his new album, 'Troubadour' (K-Tel), until 7 August.
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