The 70s folk singer who re-emerged in the early 00s recounts her extraordinary existence on the road – and the sexism of the hippy era – in this spare, riveting memoir
Vashti Bunyan is a singer whose times have always come slowly, as though in thrall to some kind of cosmic jet lag. Decades after her winsome, haunting debut album Just Another Diamond Day was released in 1970 – sinking without trace – Bunyan went online and discovered that her abject failure, as she had understood it, was now a cult artefact changing hands for silly money.
So scarred had Bunyan been by the lack of validation at the time of Diamond Day’s release, she had put music away for an entire lifetime, never even singing to her three children in her otherworldly soprano. Unbeknown to her, she had since become a legend in alternative folk circles.
Upon her re-emergence in 2000, Bunyan shared with fawning journalists the extraordinary story of her flower child-era journey from London to Scotland by horse and cart that formed the basis of Just Another Diamond Day: a hippy dream that actually happened. Even better, Bunyan then embarked on a second musical career. The title of this riveting memoir is taken from a song on Bunyan’s second LP, 2005’s equally wonderful Lookaftering.
“I wanted to be the one with road dust on my boots,” yearns the title track, “and a single silver earring and a suitcase full of notes.” That song – and Bunyan’s memoir – tells of a countercultural dream gone awry as disillusionment and traditional gender roles clamped down on her youthful waywardness.
Blossoming once again in her own time, it has taken another 20 years for Bunyan to write her story down in spare, often luminous prose. “Berneray [in Scotland, where Bunyan lived for a time] held its ancient history near to the surface. With no trees, the only verticals being the new electricity poles, Viking days hung in the air with nothing to absorb them.” And also: “We were two idiot dreamers who chose the wrong island to carry out those dreams upon.”
The bare bones of the story will be familiar from the Diamond Day myth: in 1968, in pursuit of a simpler life, Bunyan and her then-partner, an artist, set off for singer Donovan’s place in Scotland in a cart pulled by Bess the horse (“Jog along Bess,” Bunyan sang on the album) with Blue the dog, writing songs as she went. “Towards a Hebridean sun, to build a white tower”, as one song had it.
Naturally, their plans hit bumps in the road from the off. The horse they had bought as Betsy (the receipt is included here) turned out to be a decade older than advertised when she was re-shod and the blacksmith at Truman’s Brewery in Brick Lane, east London, recognised her. The fact that the now ex-brewery still had a stable full of dray horses feels extraordinary in itself – 60s London often feels like ancient times in this book. That sense of dislocation is redoubled by the pre-industrial, back-to-basics existence Bunyan and her other half-embraced.
They kept clean in rivers, ate little but lentils, pooped in holes in the ground and favoured flowing Victoriana in their dress. Encountering as much suspicion as they did curiosity, they came to depend on the kindness of strangers – and the Traveller community. Bunyan’s mother’s grandfather had been a Romany, a fact painstakingly suppressed by the family that, somehow, did not pass unnoticed in the byways of northern Britain.
Even before they set off, you boggle at some of their choices. In 1967, the pair lived inside a bush on Bromley Common for a time. Later, as the miles grew longer and heavier, the pair decided to get poor Bess pregnant. When they finally arrive at Donovan’s mythical redoubt nearly a year later, having overwintered in a house lent to them, there is nowhere for them, or Bess, to stay. They eventually end up on Berneray – the island they “carried out their dreams on” – where the God-fearing locals mostly spurned them, although some were kind.
Throughout, the sexism of the times is breathtaking. Bunyan’s boyfriend “offers her” to Donovan. Her fledgling music career was dictated to her by men; many of the arrangements on her album repelled her. When she gave birth out of wedlock, there was considerable pressure to have her children adopted.
Bunyan’s life has had numerous acts since then; she recounts these faraway exploits with an awareness ripened with time. The educated way she and her then-partner spoke, for instance, may well have helped keep the police off their backs and unlock some of the kindness they received. Ultimately, though, Bunyan’s story is riveting, and her eventual rebirth as an artist, a triumph of playing the long game.