Cornish choirman sings the praises of our city
AS the most familiar face of the Cornish male voice choir Fisherman's Friends, Jon Cleave is such a part of his homeland he almost appears to be chiselled out of the cliffs of Port Isaac.
But the gloriously mustachioed anchorman of the unlikely chart-topping a capella group spent most of his adult life here in Bristol.
He has been announced as the new ambassador for the Brandon Trust – the Bristol-based charity that helps people with learning disabilities to live in the community.
For the 53-year-old, it's an important opportunity to "close one of the circles of his life".
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Jon came to Bristol in 1977 to study for a bachelor of education degree at Bristol Polytechnic.
"I fell in love with the city," he says. "It was quite something for me to leave behind this little Cornish fishing village where I'd lived all my life, to find myself having the freedom and independence of living away from my parents in a big city like Bristol. There was so much going on, and I had a whale of a time.
"But when I graduated in 1981, we were in the middle of another recession, and there were simply no jobs to be found in teaching. Some of my friends had started working with adults with learning difficulties, at what was then Purdown Hospital, and they managed to get me an interview.
"It was a job I found far more rewarding than I think I would ever have found conventional teaching. They were about to launch a project to build a new centre for adults with learning disabilities on the site of the old Elm Tree Farm, and they asked me to get involved.
"The farm neighboured the hospital, and they were keen to get it running as a market garden and a place where residents at the hospital – many of whom had spent most of their lives there – could enjoy some occupational therapy working on the land.
"I set it all up with a group of other young graduates. We whitewashed one of the old barns and put a wood burning stove in, and each morning a dozen of the residents would leave the ward and come to the farm.
"We'd start the day with a big pot of tea in the barn, and then we'd get outside and start digging the fields, planting seeds, collecting eggs – whatever needed doing that day. The residents absolutely loved it – many of them were frankly institutionalised because they'd been there so long, and just to get out and work in the open air meant a lot to them.
"For me, it was the most rewarding job I ever had – I absolutely loved every moment of it. But I was on terrible pay – I was on a nursing assistant's wage. I was then engaged to my now wife Caroline, and I knew that for us to get married I had to be bringing in a better wage.
"So with a heavy heart I left the job and went to find a better-paid occupation."
Jon found it working as a policeman in Bristol – he spent the next eight years treading city centre beats, based at the Old Bridewell.
"It was the mid-1980s, a tough time to be a policeman," he recalls. "The Conservative government had brought in their Care In The Community policy, and big old institutions like Purdown were closed, while the long-term residents were effectively thrown out on to the streets.
"I remember driving around Bristol in a police car, and occasionally I'd see one of the guys from Purdown who'd spent time with me on the farm. They were broken men now, away from the institutionalised reassurance of the big old hospital.
"I used to think 'Christ, what the hell is happening here?' It was so bloody dreadful to see it."
Jon left the force in 1990 and returned to his home town – the picturesque Cornish fishing community of Port Isaac.
"It was where I was from, and I soon settled back here. It wasn't really on the tourist trail then – these were the days before Doc Martin changed everything down here," he laughs.
Jon and his wife Caroline opened a quayside shop selling tourist trinkets, and Jon developed another career as a children's illustrator – producing a successful series of books about seagulls.
He joined the local male voice choir, which performed on the quayside each Friday evening, little knowing how it would change his life.
But Jon's sleepy early retirement was cast aside in 2010, when the 10 Cornishmen (with a combined age of 549) were offered a £1 million recording contract with Lady Ga Ga's record label, Universal.
Their first album became a Christmas stocking filler phenomenon, and the story of the ramshackle bunch of Cornishmen making it big in the music industry captivated hearts around the world.
So much so, Universal Films – the sister company of the group's record producers – have chosen to make a Calendar Girls/Ladies In Lavender/Full Monty-style heart-warming Brit-com movie about the men.
"It's exciting to think there will be a film about us," Jon laughs. "The only frustration for an extrovert and keen am-dram thespian like me is that I won't be able to play myself – although we are going to get some sort of cameo roles.
"We have our second album recorded now, and it sounds great – though Universal want to wait for the film's release before they release the album, which is understandable, if a little frustrating for us, as the movie is still only in the tweaking-the-script stages."
But the brief hiatus in Fisherman's Friends activity will at least allow Jon to focus for a while on his new role as ambassador with the Brandon Trust.
"The amazing thing I've just learnt is that the old Elm Tree Farm site is now run as an occupational therapy centre once again, by the Brandon Trust.
"So as ambassador one of the first things I'm going to do is to come up and visit the farm where I spent that very happy year back in the early 1980s – I believe one of the chaps I worked with setting up the project is actually still there, so it will be fantastic for me to be able to catch up with him.
"It's a funny thing – you reach a certain point in your life when circles start to close," he adds. "I remember when we played the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury last year thinking that it was a circle closed – because the last time I'd been to the festival was as a bobby policing the crowds.
"Then for this offer to come through to be ambassador for the Brandon Trust, and only then to find out they've taken over the old farm where I worked all those years ago, well there's something terribly synchronistic about the whole thing. It will be another circle closed. That's a wonderful thing."