Sunday, January 22, 2017

Do What Thou Wilt

On the 1st December 1947, a 72 year-old man died at the Netherwood Guest House on The Ridge in Hastings. He had lived there for two years and had been in ill health throughout that time; he finally succumbed to chronic bronchitis, pleurisy and heart disease. This was not an unusual occurrence for a seaside town boarding house with an elderly clientele. And this particular guest was typical: he had spent his days unremarkably, taking local walks and beating all-comers at Hastings Chess Club. What had marked him out from the others, however, were the parcels he received from around the world, occasional visitors from London and Europe and the fact that he spent the nocturnal hours in his room at Netherwood reading, writing and taking heroin.

The elderly man was Aleister Crowley and his incredible life had led him, not many years before, to be regularly dubbed ‘the wickedest man in the world’ by the tabloid press. An occultist, he had devoted his life to the search for wisdom through an exotic mix of mysticism, paganism, magic, sex and drugs - it was the last three that really got the press going. Born into a wealthy family in Leamington Spa, Crowley had rejected his fundamentalist Christian upbringing and, in his early twenties, joined The Golden Dawn occult society and was soon practicing ceremonial magic. His inheritance allowed him to travel and, after spells in Mexico, Egypt, India and China, where he studied religions and climbed mountains (he was a serious mountaineer), he published The Book of Law, espousing the idea that people should be free to follow their own will. This book, and its motto ‘do what thou wilt’, had supposedly been dictated to Crowley by a messenger from the Egyptian deity Horus and it became the cornerstone of his own religion, Thelema.

Crowley also established an order, the A:.A:., based in Victoria in London, where his religion was practiced. He had become interested in the ritual use of drugs – particularly hashish – in his search for objective truth and had been privately experimenting with bisexuality and sadomasochism. Influenced by his close links with a German occultist group, Ordo Templi Orientis, Crowley began to incorporate ‘sex magick’ – the use of sexual activity and arousal - into his Thelemic ceremonies. His spelling of ‘magick’ was to differentiate his sorcery from the popular stage magic of the early 20th century.

Crowley’s chaotic personal life – one of his two daughters had died of typhoid in Burma and his alcoholic wife had been institutionalised in Britain - worsened as his money ran out. He was a prolific writer of books on mysticism but also wrote poetry, plays and articles; and when war broke out in 1914 he travelled to the United States and earned a living there as a journalist writing for Vanity Fair and other publications. He became involved in the pro-German movement in New York and wrote for the propaganda newspaper, The Fatherland. This led him to be condemned as traitor in Britain but Crowley had been, in fact, working as a double agent for British intelligence.

Back in London after the war, he was prescribed heroin to treat his asthma and so began an addiction that would stay with him for the rest of his life. He published Diary of a Drug Fiend in 1922 and was demonised in the popular press as a result. This was compounded when details began to emerge of the goings-on at the Abbey of Thelema that Crowley had established in Sicily. Stories of degradation and depravity led to the Sunday newspaper, John Bull, declaring him to be 'a man we'd like to hang'. In 1923, he was deported back to Britain by the new young Italian Prime Minister, Benito Mussolini.

In the 1930s, Crowley continued his nomadic existence moving from Tunisia, to France, to Germany. He wrote his autobiography in Paris and exhibited paintings in Berlin before moving back to London at the start of the Second World War. After periods in Devon, Buckinghamshire and Surrey, he settled, for the last time, in Sussex in 1945. After his death, he was cremated in Brighton where one of the few mourners read from The Book of Law. The tabloids reported his final ceremony as a Black Mass but were disappointed in the lack of sex and drugs.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Fantastic Voyage

If I was a person who was uninterested in David Bowie, and I am prepared to concede there could be the odd one or two of them out there, then I may be a little puzzled over the intensity of the reaction to the release of his final two albums, his death last January and its anniversary this week. But I am passionate about Bowie and I have been unashamedly emotional since the song Where Are We Now? appeared online out of the electric blue on his birthday in January 2013. That morning, John Humphrys broke the news that put an end to my anxiety that Bowie was at death’s door: throughout the previous few years, I had been boring my family rigid with my fears every time I checked his frozen and unyielding website. To find out that he was making music, that he was in the world, was a relief; oh, the irony.

David Bowie has been a constant in my life since I was ten years old. Not the legendary 1972 Starman Top of the Pops appearance for me, being July I was probably still out playing football when that was aired, Bowie first captured my attention in the autumn of that year listening to John I’m Only Dancing on Radio Luxembourg at a youth club. Two things stood out: the relationship confusion (“John, I’m only dancing/she turns me on/but I’m only dancing) and Mick Ronson’s stuttering guitar feedback at the song’s close. From there on in I was hooked: those seventies albums were my comforts in the misery of being a teenager. Bowie made it acceptable to be creative, different and even pretentious in a brutal time. I first picked up a guitar because of Bowie, he introduced me to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, and he turned me onto books with his trilogy of Orwell-inspired songs on Diamond Dogs. Most of all, he made me look at the everyday differently (“It was cold and it rained and I felt like an actor”) and he made the world romantic (“I’ll kiss you in the rain”). It rained a lot in the seventies.

Locked away in the back bedroom of a south-east London council house, I listened to little else until punk came along; but even then I never neglected Bowie and I wrote about him in the fanzine I produced with my mates. Expelled from school in late 1977, I then had to travel some distance to attend Bowie’s alma mater in Bromley for the fag end of my secondary education. I scoured the year photographs in the corridor and there was the class of ’63: rows of boys with short back and sides and National Health specs all facing the camera lens. Except for one. There was Bowie. Unmistakeable: level gaze, blonde quiff, left profile. He watched over me like a guardian angel for the torrid six months I was there.

It was only those two dreadful albums in the late eighties that caused me to temporarily lapse my faith; but in the nineties, a decade overlooked in the current reappraising of his career, his voyage was back on course again. In 1993, he released two fantastic albums: Black Tie White Noise and the largely ambient The Buddha of Suburbia. I had recently learned to drive (always a late starter) and that year, thrilled with the novelty of car travel, I used to take pointless journeys out of London with these as my soundtrack as I drove around the Kent and Sussex countryside. And when my parents died in 1999 it was his album Hours (“I’ve danced with you too long” - anyone who has not heard Something in the Air really should) and, a few years later, Heathen (“how I wonder where you are”), that I think of fondly now as my bereavement counselling.

Then came the hiatus, so thrillingly ended with The Next Day, and then the stellar swansong. I was in Victoria in central London on the day Blackstar was released and – a sign of the times, this - I could not find a shop anywhere where I could get the album; I ended up buying it in a supermarket when I got off the train back in Sussex. All that weekend the house was filled with the sound of yet another Bowie step change: the driving jazz of Donny McCaslin’s band mixed with the tender balladeer of old. And then on the Monday morning, it was Nick Robinson who broke the news of Bowie’s death. I was making breakfast for the kids and involuntarily burst into tears. They had never seen me cry before and were stunned. So was I. Not that I don’t cry - I do - but I have always thought that it would be unsettling for young children to see a parent so upset. Very quickly people were sharing their grief, and what Bowie had meant to them, publicly on social media. The trolls were not far behind, generally following the ‘it’s-not about-you’ line. But they were wrong: it was about us and it still is. Yes, a man had died and his family were grieving but so were we. Those of us, like me, for whom Bowie was important, were feeling the loss acutely. I realised that morning, he had been in my life longer than my parents had.

How could this be when Bowie was essentially a remote figure? I did not know him; he was a huge rock star; I had never even seen him live. Having been to countless gigs, the latter may seem odd; but when I reached the age of gig-going I was a punk and on the 1978 Low/Heroes tour he played Earl’s Court, the sort of impersonally large venue that belonged to a less egalitarian age. I declined. Then there was a gap of five years before he played live again and I got tickets to see him on the Serious Moonlight stadium tour; but in the wake of Let’s Dance, he had become massive in the mainstream. When one of my friends said I would hate sharing Bowie with so many thousands of Johnny-come-latelies, I sold my tickets. And then it dawned on me: I could never share him with anyone else. He was the most important cross-cultural person of the last 45 years but he was my mentor, my personal tutor; he enriched my experience of culture – of music, literature, art and film - and I think that is why I mourn him selfishly, as if he were mine alone.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Fog and Ice

The post-mortem having started in June, more than enough has already been said about the awfulness of 2016; and more than enough has probably been said in contrast in recent weeks as we desperately attempt to salvage something from the year; but every time we focus on the good – Sadiq Khan’s London Mayoral victory, the British Olympic team – more bad events that had momentarily slipped our minds – the Nice truck attack, the Orlando nightclub shooting – come swimming back into view.

It is undeniable - 2016 has been a terrible year: it started with the loss of our brightest lodestar who, having shone once more, shockingly fell from earth a couple of days later; and the year comes to a close, after a series of seismic political events, with the feeling that human decency is firmly out of favour. Unquestionably, it has been a year that is difficult to make sense of and, although I have had plenty of time on my hands over the Christmas break to read, listen, walk and reflect, I am no closer to having any idea what 2016 meant and what 2017 will bring. So, I stopped thinking too hard when out walking the dogs this week and, instead, enjoyed the weather and landscape on my doorstep.

I started my walk under a clear blue sky, tramping across fields as hard as iron under early morning frost on the way down to Wartling Wood, skirting Herstmonceux Castle on the way back and resting at the top of the ridge above Herstmonceux Place. There is some history between the two buildings: the 15th century moated castle was ransacked by its owners, the Hare-Naylor family, in 1777 to provide the interiors for their new country house over the hill at Herstmonceux Place. The castle won through in the end, however: in the 20th century, it was restored to its former splendour and the Georgian house suffered the ignominy of being divided into flats.

By the time of the final leg of my walk, up through Comphurst Wood to home, I was tired but bathed in warm December sunshine. I took this route each day this week and it felt good for the soul. That was until today: this morning the woods and fields were wreathed in a dense fog and the air was palpably icy on my face. I completed my usual circuit but the sun did not break through, the landscape remained unilluminated, and I returned cold and unsatisfied from a disorientating and claustrophobic walk. It was hard not to feel that this was a more fitting end to 2016. Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Village People

In the years after the Second World War, Pestalozzi Village was established in the East Sussex countryside at Seddlescombe, just north of Hastings. It was to be a haven and home for displaced and orphaned children from refugee camps around Europe. The children lived at the village in small groups of their own nationality, were educated in their native tongue but also taught English. Once they had an adequate grasp of the language, they attended local schools. The main criterion for a child’s selection was the absence of proper family care and some British children from deprived backgrounds were also given the opportunity to live at Pestalozzi.

The community was named after the 19th century Swiss educational reformer, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi who believed that divisions in society could best be closed by educating the whole person – their head, hands and heart: academic and practical education took care of the head and hands, the warmth of the surrogate family that the community provided took care of the heart. A Pestalozzi Village had been established in Switzerland straight after the war, and the British version was founded soon after by Dr. Henry Alexander, a Jewish refugee who had settled in Britain in the 1930s. Having found asylum in this country from the trials of pre-war Nazi Germany, he was keen to provide sanctuary for those caught up in the aftermath.

The project had a high profile and captured the imagination of the public, who supported fundraising on a large scale. Pestalozzi was also feted in the media as a ground-breaking and worthy initiative. As the original European children reached adulthood and moved out into the wider community, the profile of the village began to alter. Although Pestalozzi took in refugee children from Tibet in the wake of the famine and Chinese oppression that had killed thousands of people in the early 1960s, the focus changed to educating children from the developing world and then returning them to their own countries to utilise their skills. And this is broadly how Pestalozzi continues to operate: providing tertiary education scholarships to visiting students from around the world.

I am not sure that anything like Pestalozzi could be founded now. I saw a cartoon recently called Post-Brexit Nativity: it depicted the innkeeper on stage telling a bewildered Mary and Joseph that there was no room for them. The watching audience were in agreement: “Hear, hear!” they cried, “You tell them!” they shouted, “We’re full!” Sadly, in today’s climate, it looked all too true. We are now a long way from the post-war spirit of compassion and goodwill. It appears that many of us are not prepared to accept people - and we have to remember that they are people - of different nationalities and beliefs who are seeking refuge in our country. Nowadays, it seems, we turn our backs on the troubled quarters of humanity rather than welcome them in. Merry Christmas.

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.