Sunday, December 4, 2016

Down By The Ocean

Sheffield’s Richard Hawley last played at the De La Warr Pavilion in 2009 when he had just released Truelove’s Gutter, possibly his most understated and subtle album. Playing to a thousand-strong rapt and adoring audience, a couple of songs in he asked us with genuine surprise, “How the fuck did we get to be so big in Bexhill?” Perhaps what Hawley had not realised that night was that it was not just Bexhill. Truelove’s Gutter went on to be named Mojo magazine’s album of the year and ever since he has stood alone as Britain’s chief purveyor of aching and melancholic alt country ballads.

Back in Bexhill last night, Hawley reminded us that he can rock out, too. 2012’s Standing At The Sky’s Edge was a step change towards a heavier – both lyrically and musically – sound and, beginning with the title track, he treated us to a handful of songs from that album, such as Don’t Stare At The Sun and Leave Your Body Behind You with their blissed-out psychedelic guitar outros. But it is on more delicate songs from elsewhere in his extensive catalogue that his tender and rich baritone really shines through.

Listening to last year’s Hollow Meadows in the past few days, it struck me what a fantastic album this is. So many of the songs already sound like copper-bottomed Hawley classics and his set last night contained a generous sprinkling of their magic. Starting with the beautiful I Still Want You and then Nothing Like A Friend, with its nostalgic refrain of ‘will these city streets remember us, we walked them long ago’ and its painful and profound observation that ‘in the end, the things that hold you in, are gossamer thin’, Hawley moved through a succession of heart-breaking songs. None more so than Tuesday PM, which he introduced as the quietest and most miserable song he’d ever written. He asked the audience to talk during it to detract from its misery but, of course, you could have heard a pin drop. But this did not mean that the mood was sombre: master of the expletive-laden quip, the very good comedian in him could not resist wrong footing us with a joke before What Love Means, an emotional and heartfelt response – ‘heart of mine made less, I’ll never forget the day you left’ - to his daughter leaving home. But perhaps the stand-out song on Hollow Meadows is more up-beat: Heart of Oak is a paean to folk singer Norma Waterson and a celebration of Hawley’s influences - it is not often you hear Wilfred Owen and William Bake referenced in modern music.

As the evening wrapped up, Hawley went back to the 2005 album that first drew praise and attention, when it narrowly missed out on the Mercury Music Prize, Coles Corner: the unmistakeable and poetically evocative title track - ‘hold back the night from us, cherish the light from us, don’t let the shadows hold back the dawn’ – and the stellar The Ocean, with its rousing and expansive soundscape and its refrain of ‘lead me down by the ocean', fitting for the seafront venue, crowned a superb night with the warm and witty Richard Hawley.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Hooks and Harmonies

Most great bands’ creativity depends on either one or two people: there are those that are beholden to a single song-writing visionary, such as The Jam’s Paul Weller, and there are those that are fortunate enough to have a writing partnership. These are either genuinely collaborative, such as Strummer and Jones, or a convenient handle for separate writers such as Lennon and McCartney. What is unusual is to have three equally strong but distinct songsmiths; when it comes to Teenage Fanclub this is precisely the case.

The Bellshill band’s albums have always seen the writing duties shared amongst their trio of guitarist/vocalists Norman Blake, Gerry Love and Raymond McGinley and this year’s superb album, Here, is no exception with a very exact and democratic four tracks apiece. Despite this demarcation of composition, Teenage Fanclub have always achieved a unity of sound and this was ably demonstrated at Concorde 2 in Brighton on Thursday night with crowd-pleasing numbers such as Verisimilitude, Ain’t That Enough and Sparky’s Dream from their mid-nineties salad days.

The gig was not an exercise in nostalgia, however, as half of the songs from Here featured in the set and showed that the Fannies’ fabulous grasp of melodies, hooks and harmonies is as strong as ever. There was the shimmering pop of Love’s Thin Air and the well-crafted sentimentality of Blake’s I’m In Love, which featured some gorgeously effortless lead guitar playing from McGinley. And, although I overheard one punter afterwards describe the new material as “more morose”, I think “mature” was the word he was grasping for. On McGinley’s Hold On, it is experience and reflection that shines through: “think of the ones you love and what they want and what they need...hold on to you life, to your dreams.” If this is the voice of middle-age talking, then Teenage Fanclub are talking to me.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016


A November Saturday morning, soon after sunrise: the ground underfoot still in shade, the first heavy frost of the season means that, as I walk through the long grass at the far end of the fruit farm, each of my footsteps emits a satisfying crunch. Higher up, the golden rays have turned the remaining leaves on the pear trees a burnished amber, and the alder windbreaks in the distance a deep vivid orange. More importantly, the early beams provide insulation against the morning chill; but at this time of year, the sun will not get much higher in the sky than this.

Heading south to the coast in the late morning, the sun's low dazzle reflected on the wet road ahead means that we are driving blindly along a snaking river of silver flanked by a riot of deciduous colour. Here, the usual yellows and oranges of early autumn are complemented by the rarer saffrons and maroons of the onset of winter. The saturated colours mean that everything is Ektachrome: all is viewed through the prism of fading memories, of the world viewed through childhood eyes.

At the beach, despite some nimbostratus rain clouds lurking threateningly in the distance and a persistent south-westerly blowing in from the sea, the sun is still strong and I can feel its radiance on my face. This apricity - the warmth of the sun in winter - is a welcome fillip. My new favourite word, the noun 'apricity' was first recorded by lexicographer Henry Cockeram in his English Language Dictionary of 1623 but has been rarely used since. From the Latin apricus - warmed by the sun - it also has a verb form, apricate, that means to bask in the sun. I only heard of the word recently as the title of Canterbury band Syd Arthur's latest album. Just as with most useful things I have learned about in life - books, films, politics - the language to describe the warmth of the winter sun came to me from pop music.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Bridging the Gap

Founded by the Duke of Richmond, whose Goodwood House home is in West Sussex, the Sussex Community Foundation has been active for ten years, raising charitable funds and distributing them throughout the county. It has made grant awards totaling over £8 million to more than 1,500 community groups and is currently administering a fund of a further £11 million.

Today, three years after its inaugural report into deprivation, the foundation has published Sussex Uncovered 2: Bridging the Gap and it notes that there is “huge disparity between different parts of Sussex.” Drawn from the Government’s own 2015 Indices of Multiple Deprivation, the report reveals that, despite its perceived wealth, Sussex has 26 wards in the top 20% most deprived in England, and Hastings is the 20th most deprived district out of 326 in the country. In terms of health deprivation, the data reveals that in some urban areas there is a nine-year difference in adult male life expectancy between the most and least deprived wards.

However, despite some large population concentrations in coastal towns, deprivation in Sussex is not confined to those urban areas. 25% of people in Sussex live in rural areas, higher than the English average of 17.6%, and for people there the most significant indicator of the economic downturn and subsequent government policy is that the average wage in Sussex is the lowest in the south east and below the average for England. This means that people living on low incomes in countryside areas face disadvantage in terms of transport and affordable housing and, although the level of homelessness has reduced in some urban areas such as Brighton and Hove, there has been an increase in rural areas such as Wealden.

Sussex has an unusually high elderly population, which accounts for some of the disparities in health and income deprivation; but it is the levels of child poverty that are the starkest indicators of a county of extremes. In some parts of Mid Sussex, less than 1% of children are growing up in poverty, a figure way below the 22% average for England. This is contrasted with many areas of East Sussex which are way above average: in parts of Eastbourne, 39% of children are in poor households; in Sidley, 47% live in poverty; and in one area of Hastings the level of child poverty is an astonishing 75%.

When the Sussex Community Foundation was set up, its founder called the levels of deprivation in Sussex “a scandal”. Ten years on, that a wealthy county in the south east of England can allow this situation to exist is just as scandalous. As the report notes, “the Government’s austerity policies have started to have a real impact on the lives of people in our communities and on the charities and community groups that support them.” Despite doing important work, organisations such as the Sussex Community Foundation cannot hope to stem the tide of deprivation and, unless cuts to mainstream services are reversed soon, the situation will not improve.

'Sussex Uncovered 2: Bridging the Gap' can be read here.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

One in the Eye

Half-term week. Three children to entertain, two of them studying the Normans at school, only one place for it: pop down the road and visit Battle Abbey and look upon the scene of the Battle of Hastings and William Duke of Normandy's triumph over poor old Harold, who had only been King of England for nine months.

Ordered by the Pope in 1070 to do penance for so much killing during his conquest, William built the Abbey to commemorate the battle, and the town subsequently grew up around it. The gateway to the Abbey is still an imposing presence at the end of the High Street but many of the original buildings are now gone or in ruins and have been since the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th Century. The Abbot's quarters were exempted from the destruction of that time and given to one of King Henry VIII's mates to use as a country house. Today, the building houses a private school. Nice to see that privilege succeeds privilege.

One building not spared demolition was the Abbey's church, the Church of St. Martin. William had built this with the high altar marking the spot where King Harold died in 1066. All that remains of the church now is a commemorative plaque where the altar stood and Harold fell. The myth - entirely derived from an image on the Bayeux Tapestry - that King Harold was killed by a crackshot Norman archer who managed to hit a bullseye is an enduring one with my kids and they were drawn to the plaque more than almost anything else.

The battlefield at the rear of the Abbey site was, of course, the biggest draw. Two weeks ago, there had been a reenactment here to commemorate the battle's 950th anniversary and, even though it was deserted when we went, the kids enjoyed gazing down across the valley from Senlac Hill, where the English troops had formed their shield wall, and imagining the advancing massed ranks of the French invaders.

Exiting through the gift shop, the kids could not be tempted by the Ladybird book of William the Conqueror despite my telling them, misty-eyed, that I had had that book when I was a child. Instead, they continued their gory fascination by buying sharp and barbed souvenir arrow heads. "Careful," I had to stop myself from saying. "You'll have someone's eye out with one of those."

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Long Goodbye

When the Brooklyn-based band Augustines announced recently that they were splitting up after six years together, my reaction was one of regret and gratitude. Regret that a band who have produced three great albums of poignant and impassioned rock music would no longer be around, but gratitude for the fact that I had a ticket for the sold-out first date of their farewell British tour in Brighton on Sunday night.

Already renowned for their intense live performances, in these circumstances, it was always going to be an emotional evening. At the start, lead singer and guitarist Billy McCarthy seems in danger of being overwhelmed by the occasion as his powerful voice hits the soulful and fitting peaks of The Avenue - "I wanna try somewhere new/ Where open land meets the sky/ And I can feel new" - but he is soon into his genial stride between songs. We are treated to wisecracks about bacon sandwiches and the band opening a bakery - "crumpets and trumpets" - and multiple thanks for the audience's support over the years.

Midway through the set McCarthy and multi-instrumentalist lynchpin Eric Sanderson are joined onstage by their friend Tom Zovich from their previous band, Pela. Drummer Rob Allen gives way to Zovich and they rattle through Waiting on the Stairs and Trouble With River Cities, songs from the old days. The reunion is clearly an affecting moment.

The presence of a trumpeter adds an extra dimension to the trio's sound in the same way that brass complements the live sound of The National and British Sea Power. But it is the huge soundscapes they create that make me think that Augustines deserve to be the biggest stadium band in the world. Not that I would wish that on them, as it's a largely perjorative term in my book; much better to see this band in a small, sweaty venue like Concorde 2.

There are so many anthems in the band's repetoire that there is little breathing space from the relentless passionate pace: Are We Alive? and When Things Fall Apart from the most recent album, Philadelphia and Chapel Song from their debut as We Are Augustines, Rise Ye Sunken Ships. But it is 2014's eponymous album that provides the majority of the arms-aloft singalongs: Now You Are Free, Nothing To Lose But Your Head and Walkabout have the audience bellowing in unison. It is a long goodbye as audience and band seem reluctant to be parted but the set eventually concludes - after an incredible two and a half hours - with the trio of Weary Eyes, Landmine and Cruel City. Even then, the audience stay in place singing the final song after the band have left the stage. They will be missed.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Down the Pub

Sitting in the warm glow of my local pub last Friday, chatting with a group of friends about subjects as diverse as music, food, racism and allotments, it struck me that I could not remember the last time I had done this. Usually when I am in a pub – and it is not that often these days - it is for either a meeting or a pub quiz; never without purpose, never just to relax, never only to drink and talk. And I realised that it is a shame, because there really is no better way to spend your leisure time.

One hundred years ago there were 99,000 pubs in Britain; now there is half that number and it is declining at a rate. Nearly 30 pubs close every week in this country and if that were to continue, there would be none left by 2050, That, of course, will not happen but the sharpest decline has been in the past ten years and it has been faster in rural areas than urban.

Home drinking has long been killing pubs but there are a number of other social factors involved in the waning of the local: a change in attitudes towards alcohol has seen less being consumed now than there was a dozen years ago (a fact I find hard to believe), there has been a significant shift in tastes away from beer (a fact my own experience supports) and the UK smoking bans of a decade ago excluded a significant group of pub-goers (a fact I am ambivalent about).

Then in the wake of the smoking bans the recession turned up; the subsequent austerity-driven real terms fall in wages reduced the amount of disposable income being spent down the pub and, together with other factors such as duties, taxes and planning regulations, this terminally affected the economic viability of many pubs. But this was not just confined to chains that would ruthlessly close any uneconomic pubs and sell them for development: closures have been split equally between the corporate and independent sectors.

Fortunately, in the ten years I have been living in East Sussex, I have not known any of the pubs in my area to close permanently. However, I do recall driving around with a group of work colleagues on a freezing Sunday night in February a few years ago trying to find a pub that had not closed for the night due to lack of customers.

There are two pubs in my village: one has just had a facelift, which can only be a good sign, and the other has been closed intermittently between landlords but now seems to be in a period of stability. I was in both of them last week: the former for a Wednesday night allotment committee meeting (rock ‘n’ roll, I know) and the latter was the scene of my purely social Friday night. Sadly, on both nights, the number of customers struggled to get out of single figures. My own culpability in the neglect of a key feature of the community made me feel guilty and I vowed to regularly support my local boozers. And more of us need to do it because, before we know it, they will be gone forever.