Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper
Jerome Franklin-Ryan inside The Sweet Shop

Jerome Franklin-Ryan inside The Sweet Shop

Blessed quietness

HOT columnist Sean O’ Shea talks with Hastings singer and humidor consultant Jerome Franklin-Ryan about saints, songs and silence…

My first encounter with Jerome Franklin-Ryan was at the Stag Pub in Hastings Old Town late one Tuesday night where they normally have a folk music session. There is respect shown at the Stag when people are singing, and the hum of conversation commonly lowers to enable singers to be heard. This along with the friendly company and the smell of wood smoke from the open fire is among the pub’s many charms.

However, on this particular night, and as Jerome started to sing a song called Whitby Fisherman, the pub went completely silent. Even the cat stopped purring and you could hear a pin drop. Those familiar with the chorus joined in, and I felt so uplifted that I imagined for a brief moment that I was standing among the faithful at an ancient, forgotten holy place where our fragile connection to a transcendent reality had not yet been severed.

Jerome Franklin-Ryan

Jerome Franklin-Ryan - photo, Benjamin Smith*

Sean O’Shea (SOS): Your name in the old Greek is Hieronymos and in Latin Hieronymus or Geronimus which means sacred name.  This name was borne by the late Saint Jerome (342-420) who translated the Bible from Hebrew into Latin, was a lover of words and was reputed to receive visitations from the angels. How did you get called Jerome, and have you come across any angels on your travels?

Jerome Franklin-Ryan (JR):
I come from a strong Catholic background and I was born on St Jerome’s Day which is the 30th of September. I was a few minutes late, a habit I seemed to have kept since birth. I was supposed to have been born on the 29th and been called Michael.  As it is I’m Jerome Michael but it could easily have been the other way around.  It’s fitting I think as Jerome is often a French name and my mother’s family has a strong French influence.

Angels?  Yes, I’ve met a few. I am privileged to know and to have known some very kind and generous people.

SOS: You are almost a Hastonian having lived here since the age of two but you were born in London. What are some of your memories of your early years and of London?

JR: I still remember the walk from Manor House underground to my Grandmother’s flat up Seven Sisters Road and the area around Muswell Hill where we lived. Lord, how it has all changed! Gone are the small family businesses, the butchers on the corner of Stroud Green Road, the Jewish delicatessens, all of them.   On my arrival in Hastings I lived in a large house owned by my parents on St Helen’s Crescent which was a small independent school. Alexandra Park was my back garden and I spent most of my time there.

SOS: Was music an important part of your upbringing?

JR: Yes. My mother would play classical music to us in lessons in school as she was convinced it improved concentration and learning, besides it being simply beautiful.  I started singing at aged 6 and took part in the Hastings Music festival each year. My voice broke late which put the kybosh on my formal voice training. I would have liked to have sung professionally but it was just not to be. I now sing for my own pleasure and that of others.

SOS: You have an impressive store of songs committed to memory. Could you say a bit about the songs you enjoy singing and your musical influences?

JR: I was a choir boy and all the music had to be committed to memory and it was different for each major religious feast, so ecclesiastical music was a big influence.  I have always listened to classical and romantic music especially Mozart and his operas and masses. Opera as a whole is a major love in my life, above all in Italian which is the language of music and of passion!

My love of folk music came about from music lessons I took as a boy. My teacher liked them: uncomplicated, melodic, and good training for the voice.  I tend to pick up lyrics quickly. I usually know the refrain after three to four repetitions and the song within ten to twelve repetitions.  It all depends on how melodic it is and the visual imagery I can conjure up. Pictures are the key to how I memorise songs, my brain works very much on imagery.

A favourite song

Jerome singing at the Stag pub, All Saints Street

Jerome singing at the Stag pub, All Saints Street

SOS: I would like you to talk about the song Whitby Fisherman which you sing so beautifully and is acclaimed by devotees of the Tuesday folk night at the Stag. What is the origin of this song and when did you first hear it?

JR: It was originally a Methodist hymn called Blessed Quietness, which was composed in 1850 by Manie Payne Ferguson but the version I heard and fell in love with was called The Whitby Fisherman. The tune is the same but the lyrics were by Bill Sables who was a regular at Sidmouth Folk Festival for years.  I first heard the song there last year when it was sung by the Middle Bar Singers – all seventy odd of them – and it was magical.  I joined in within two verses!  Rob and Liz who I sing with in Hastings were there too, they helped me ‘bring it to life’ at the Stag.  They also introduced me to the Middle Bar Singers so without them I would never have come across it. Rob and Liz, I am indebted to you. Thank you both.

SOS: You are a lover of words like the aforementioned auld saint.  Would you like to tell us about your passion for language and some of your favourite books?

JR: I feel face-to-face communication is one of the most important things in life and language is the key to enabling this. Telephones, texting, and the internet are its undoing, which I find deeply depressing. Intonation, inflection and body language are lost, as is the ability to form cohesive sentences and convey meaning. The upshot of this is that relationships and understanding one another suffers.

Using your own language well is vital, and when we have such a rich tongue as English it is a tragedy not to use its vocabulary to the full. Text-speak is spawning a generation of people who can’t communicate succinctly without misabbreviating words!

I also make a point of trying to learn the local language wherever I travel.  Not only is this polite, but it helps you bond better with those you meet.

Books! I love books! I don’t have a bedroom, I have a library. Three walls of my room are given over to books. I read almost anything well written from the classics to modern fiction. Oh, and history, lots of history, as we can’t do well in the future without understanding the mistakes of the past!  My favourite books? Anything by R.L Stevenson as I love adventure, or Rafael Sabatini or Conan Doyle.  My favourite modern author is Arturo Perez-Reverte. He writes fiction so elegantly on all manner of topics from modern to historical, and there is always an element of mystery.

Quirky characters

Jerome outside The Sweet Shop

Jerome outside The Sweet Shop

SOS: You work in a sweet shop and tobacconist in George Street, Old Town, which hasn’t changed much since the beginning of the last century. I imagine you have come across some interesting characters in your time, and witnessed some strange and amusing occurrences in the shop and its environs. Could you describe some?

JR: We do attract some quirky individual characters and the great and the good. They fit the shop and they are as much part of the Old Town as is the shop itself.  I have served two Lords in the past year, a Time Lord, no less than Tom Baker to whom I tried to give jelly babies, and the Earl of Lucan (not the vanishing one!) who bought luxury cigarettes.  I also remember the man who tried to use his wife as a deposit on a new pipe! And there is Tristan the eccentric pipe tobacco enthusiast who spends ages picking a dozen blends at a time from our 60 strong range. The best memory for me is when the entire Skeleton Crew, (a pirate troupe founded by the late Steve Mayne who helped start Pirate Day) came into the shop and spent the evening smoking pipes and cigars with us outside on the pavement! The atmosphere was perfect.

SOS: I doubt if you are the sort of person who could contemplate entering yourself for X Factor, however what are some of your hopes for the future musically and personally?

JR: Well quite! Not my thing at all. X Factor is music and art all gone wrong in the name of commercialism. It defines the circuses part of the ‘Bread and Circuses’ mentality of society and governments today.  Musical hopes – to enjoy more of the music I love and a greater variety of music as I get older. I feel I have barely scratched the surface. To make some recordings in a minor capacity with some of the myriad of talented musicians I know locally. Having said that nothing beats a live session with everyone joining in, no matter how well they know the song or how good their voices are – sheer magic!  Oh, and to learn an instrument.

Personal aspirations – I don’t have many. It sounds trite I know but to be happy from day to day in my life and my work is most important, and right now I am just that.  I would like to travel a bit more and perhaps eventually get a small house abroad where I can hide and listen to music.   Above all a family would be amazing, if I can find a lady to put up with my eccentricities!

When we leave the shore at sunset
For to plough the Northern sea
It’s the sight of moonlit waters
That brings thoughts of home to me.


 Blessed quietness, holy quietness,
what assurance in my soul!
On the stormy sea, speaking peace to me,
How the billows cease to roll.

This is a link for a video of the folk group, Beggar’s Velvet singing acapella the original hymn, Blessed Quietness

Sean O’Shea, May 2013

Photos by Paul Way-Rider except * (by Benjamin Smith)

Posted 11:21 Wednesday, May 1, 2013 In: SOS

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