Five years ago, Noel Bowman left the Met for the peace and quiet of Melbury Abbas. After swapping London’s toughest beats for leafy North Dorset, Noel concentrated on his music. Now the former Metropolitan Police Choir member returns to Shaftesbury Fringe, after a year of polishing his performance skills.
It has been a busy 12-months for Noel, since his first Fringe gig in Swan’s Yard as Pegasus, a duo with guitarist Mike Botterill. He’s sung at a rooftop party overlooking the old city of Amsterdam, but one of his musical highlights was a moving occasion closer to home.
“The Fovant Badges are a local First World War memorial. Regimental badges were carved into the chalk face of the hillside by troops who were camped there during the latter part of that war,” explained Noel. “There was a huge Australian contingent and, apart from leaving their regimental badge, they also carved a huge map of Australia.”
“The perimeter of this map was 370 metres,” he continued. “I know this because I was involved in its restoration. We dug a trench that was one metre wide and 370 metres long. We had to fill it with chalk by taking wheelbarrows down a steep incline, tipping them off and then puffing our way back up the hill with an empty wheelbarrow, which was actually harder work.” Noel grimaced, indicating the discomfort he experienced during this exerting voluntary effort, before smiling when he considered the end result. “We made a really beautiful and unusual War Memorial.”
Anzac Day 2019 was on the 25th of April. It marks the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War and Mike sang at the commemorations. “We had a lot of Australian dignitaries and one woman came all the way from Australia, because her father had been stationed in this camp. It was a beautiful, emotional occasion. A lot of tears were shed,” said Noel.
Members of Dorset-based male voice choir, The Mill Singers, attended. Noel sings with the choir. They were accompanied by Shaftesbury-based folk duo Tattie Bogle. “It was an hour-long service, partly religious and partly celebrating what we’ve done,” said Noel.
Noel says he has become more confident about singing publicly since last summer’s Fringe – thanks to his Margaret Marsh-based singing coach. “I’ve been taking a lot of singing lessons. Samantha is my teacher. She’s taken me a very long way from where I was. A lot of my friends who’ve heard me singing with the choir were commenting on how my performance has improved. Importantly, my daughter, who is a semi-professional performer, said that my stage presence had improved dramatically. She came out and joined us. There’s nothing better than having your little girl coming up and singing with you,” he said.
There have been some good-natured artistic differences between Noel and Mike while the pair developed their fifteen-song Fringe set list. “Michael said we ought to have more happy songs and I said, ‘No! Death and destruction have to be the order of the day’. So we are alternating happy songs with terrible disasters and acts of destruction. We hope that the mixture works,” joked Noel.
He says that he comes from ‘a family of radical left wing pacifists’. He doesn’t label himself as such but says that he went on the Aldermaston ‘ban the bomb’ marches when he was young. He has fond memories of the days when the rallies sang the folk-influenced protest songs that made Joan Baez, Tom Paxton and Pete Seeger famous.
Noel explained that serving police officers ‘suspend’ their political opinion. Now retired, he can sing protest songs by singer-songwriters who wanted to effect political change. “I have one song I’ll be singing which reflects a very recent event, in a way. It’s called ‘A Town I Love So Well’. It is all about Derry. It was originally written when ‘the troubles’ were at their height. It was an optimistic song about how people looked forward to the time when people weren’t fighting and where this lovely town, which I spent a good deal of time in myself, will come to peace and will flourish again. Flourish it did, for several years after the Good Friday Agreement. And now, Brexit threatens all that,” said Noel.
Noel and Mike are performing their songs in the relatively passive listening environment of Swan’s Yard, outside Ugly Duckling Café, where people will be chatting and milling about. These songs contain powerful words. I asked Noel whether he should really be on stage somewhere where people can sit quietly and consider the sentiment.
“We’re trying to entertain but there are messages there. And if people want to hear them, that’s okay. If they don’t want to hear him, that’s okay, too. One of the things we ought to be celebrating is that freedom of choice. The beauty of having an audience that comes and goes is they don’t have to make a big protest to get up and leave. But we hope they don’t,” he said.
Noel says the duo wanted to perform at Swan’s Yard again because their 2018 gig there was successful. “We’ve stuck with the formula, but the truth of the matter is I would love to perform in a theatre. I’d like to put something together and have people pay to come and see me. Who knows what the future holds,” said Noel.
Pegasus perform in Swan’s Yard between 11.45am and 1pm on Sunday 7th July.