Pearl O’Neill, RIP.

Well, tonight was a night and a half at the Maidenhead Folk Club where I go now and then. The room in the pub we normally used was packed full. Normally, this is good news. Singer’s night is £2.50 per head, £5.– if you have two heads. Today, it was not good news. Pearl O’Neill, the wife of Tony, who for years on end was chairman if the Maidenhead Folk Club, has died of cancer.

There is no nice way of saying a thing like this. Trained bringers of bad news hold that you don’t try to prepare people, because that just makes it worse. Drop the bomb, then pick up the pieces. I knew that Pearl was sick. She was in hospital, and the last night I was at the Folk, we recorded the session for her to listen to at the hospital. I sang “Black is the colour” for her, because I knew she liked that song. Today, I sang songs that you can really belt out because I didn’t want to go for the more subtle ones I do.

“Go to sea no more” was probably the very first song I sang at the Maidenhead Folk Club, more than ten years ago. I was heavily into Dubliners songs, with some Tom Lehrer on the side. It was in the Seven Stars pub, now defunct. The music was in a side room where the skittle alley was, and it had the most wonderful acoustics. We got pretty damn good at disassembling and reassembling that skittle alley and moving the tables around so we had a designated stage area. In Winter, it got bloody cold, but the landlord helped with one of those heat cannons that they have, and a rather wayward gas heater. I walked into the place, and Pearl saw me and my guitar and said: “You’re singing then?” “Yes,” I said. O shit, I’m in for it now.

Maidenhead Folk Club is an amicable bunch of people, quite ready to applaud at anyone who gathers up the courage to get up in front and sing whatever they do. I went every Thursday for a long while until I went back to the Netherlands. On that occasion, Pearl gave me a fierce hug and gave me an extra spot. When I came back from the Netherlands, I stayed away for a while, but finally found them again (Tony still has me on the mailing list). I actually live near now, and can cycle to the pub where we are now. I will make sure to go as often as work allows.

Pearl was without a doubt the nicest woman you could ever hope to meet. Friendly, helpful, a wicked sense of humour and a limitless source of enthusiasm for singing. Tony told us tonight that even in the hospital last week, she was trying to get the nurses to form a choir, and I have no trouble at all believing it.

Pearl will be sorely missed. I will miss her. Everyone who knew her will. I wish Tony all the strength that he needs in the difficult days ahead.

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