Walk into a pub in the Banana Republic, not far from the old Royal Marines Barracks on a Sunday afternoon, and you might be lucky enough to hear a woman singing some jazz numbers, backed by a pianist and a bass player.
She lilts out the numbers with a steady ease, lifting her smooth voice over the drinkers’ pints as they gather for a relaxed pubday afternoon, and weaving for a moment little pockets of joy and sadness, laughter and tragedy from that oh-so malleable raw material: sound.
“No Moon At All” – Helen MacDougall and her Musicians
This singer, with her dark hair and her lean figure I think of as The Southsea Birdwoman. She has sung in pubs and in clubs around the south of England, and she has played gigs to big audiences down at the Southsea bandstand. Thousands have basked on the grass by the sea, or danced swing, while her full band has filled the air with jumping rhythms.
But there is far more to the Birdwoman than being a singer. She is an unusual, massively gifted individual who has the hands of a builder, the muscles of an athlete and the voice of an angel.
Catch her on a summer afternoon down at the beach. She lives only a four minute walk from the solid shingle incline that shelves down to the sea. If you time it right, and the wind is in the right direction, you will find her taking wing on the waves – windsurfing over white horses, catching the air in her sail and scooting over the spray. Her tensed arms and her solid body taking on the elements, allow her for a moment to soar over the pale-green Solent on her single, white wing.
At work, you may find her in the trees, helping kids to find greater confidence by climbing with rope and harness up into the canopy. Or she may be at work building a bivouac, or showing kids how to light a fire and make artefacts out of wood: little pots from bark, perfectly made, with a lid and a base, as if a little craftshop has sprouted in a glade.
And at home, you may find her building her nest: hammering and sawing, making little additions to her home. The decking she built at the back of the house is a genuine feat of construction, with pillars of wood sunk deep into concrete, and a space where a tree has been given room to grow up through a hole specially cut. This is a sociable watering hole she has made, a lucky horseshoe of seats for friends to gather in the back garden on a summer’s day.
Indoors, for warmth in the winter, she has built a fireplace. She poured and set half a ton of concrete to build a suspended constructional hearth herself, and then put in place a cast iron Victorian fireplace. She has reboarded the downstairs floor, painted and decorated the whole house. Upstairs, completely unafraid, she took a circular saw to a wall in order to extend a room and build a clothes cupboard from the narrow space where an old boiler tank used to live. And she plastered over the place where the original door was so that it is now impossible to tell that it was any other way.
Consider her now: singing for all to hear, or flying on her windsurfer, or hopping high up in the trees – or again – building her nest – and now you understand why she is the Birdwoman of Southsea.