Saturday, August 27, 2016

Lost and Found

A stifling hot afternoon in the dog days of August was probably not the best time to go for a walk to locate some of the lost and abandoned places in the countryside around the Sussex village of Hooe. It was probably less ideal to take two of my kids – hot, bored and fractious at home – but the promise of a missing village and a deserted prison were too much of a lure for inquisitive boys. One of them told me, excitedly, he had seen an episode of The Simpsons where Bart breaks into an old prison and sits in the electric chair. I told him I could not guarantee methods of execution or that we would even be able to get inside.

We parked up at the Lamb Inn outside Hooe and then had to play chicken to get to the other side of the very busy A265 to access the footpath heading south through Hooe Level. Marked on the OS map in gothic font to indicate a site of antiquity, Northeye village was an island when this area was not marshland but part of the sea. Northeye was overcome by the waves in 1260 and nothing remains of the village now except an incline in the flat landscape and some barely perceptible lines in the grazing fields where the foundations of buildings once stood. We discovered this after negotiating the winding path that crossed and re-crossed this wetland’s network of intersecting drainage channels. “There’s nothing here,” the youngest sagely observed.

More recently, the name of the village lived on half a mile to the north-east. HMP Northeye opened in 1969 on the site of a radar station and was a category C prison that used the original RAF huts to house prisoners. It was expanded in the 1970s but there was a serious riot in 1986 in which nearly half of the prison was destroyed after being torched by inmates. The complex then became a training centre for overseas students for a time but is now abandoned. Having gone back across the A265, this time further east, we skirted around the perimeter and could see ghostly buildings through the faded green chainlink fence. With high summer vegetation dwarfing some of the structures, there was more than a hint of Satis House about the place.

With the day at its hottest and most humid, we still had one more stop to make on our circular walk. Heading north-west, up through higher ground, we eventually found the church of St. Oswald’s Hooe sitting in splendid isolation amidst fields of burnished gold. Not lost or abandoned, this still-used Norman church was more a victim of relocation. Originally at the heart of the village of Hooe, sometime in the 14th century the church found itself left behind as the residents began to settle further north at what is now Hooe Common. Why this happened is not entirely clear but it is thought that the original village was burnt down as a result of the Back Death. In the still of the afternoon, with the only movement a slight fluttering of the St. George’s flag atop the square tower, the boys were happy to shelter from the sun against the stone cold east wall as I explored the churchyard.

The final leg, with all three of us flagging in the heat, took us back down the hill to the Lamb Inn. Presented with the choice of a drink in the pub or driving to Bexhill for ice cream, democracy defeated me. The youthful block vote deprived me of a restorative pint of cider but rewarded my wingmen with Mr Whippy.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

So Funny It Hurts

A year ago, I was convinced that Jeremy Corbyn was the person best placed to lead the Labour Party and I cast my vote in the election accordingly. One year on, when my ballot paper drops through the letterbox tomorrow, I am certain that I will not be doing so again. The writer and actor Alex Andreou has set out an eloquent and lengthy exploration of the causes of his own disillusionment with Corbyn. I won’t repeat his litany of the shortcomings of our leader, but Andreou’s reasons for his volte-face chime very closely with my own and it is well worth a read.

For Andreou, it was Corbyn’s performance in the EU referendum that was the final straw; for me, it was his refusal to stand down when his own MPs overwhelmingly delivered a vote of no confidence in him. I do not think it matters how The Coup started – it’s called politics - but the fact is that scores of young and talented left-leaning Labour MPs also lost faith in the leader of their party. I know that the membership is now deemed to have holy sovereignty but we are a party that seeks parliamentary power to deliver our socialist beliefs and MPs need to be a well-led and cohesive force.

I suspect that Corbyn would have stood down but for John McDonnell; if you watch Jeremy’s video plea to members at that time, when he blinks at 1:38 you can just see HELP ME written on his eyelids. And for all the faux outrage over The Coup, we seem to forget that Corbyn is leader as a result of his own coup: pleading for nominations from MPs to broaden the debate and then very efficiently signing up thousands of supporters to deliver victory (marginally more full members voted against Corbyn than with him last year, but amongst supporters it was a landslide).

If I am disillusioned, I fear that others are deluded. We have experienced a lifetime of losing on the left and Corbyn suddenly makes us feel like winners. Indeed, the mailshot I have just received from his campaign is branded with the slogan Winning Values; but these victories are all inward looking. Corbyn wins the right to automatically be on the ballot: victory! Corbyn defeats the legal action to make him seek nominations: victory! Corbyn’s slate is elected to the NEC: victory! New members win the right to vote in the election: victory! All this winning but there is absolutely no sign that the people – the voters - share the new-improved-size Labour Party’s love for Corbyn. His supporters point to some average mid-term election results but the pattern shows that Labour is in danger of becoming a metropolitan party: there have been some devastating council by-election losses in provincial areas as well as damning national opinion polls.

I do not think Corbyn is interested in becoming Prime Minister; what is important to him is leading a party of political purity: the means has become the end. I support his core ideas around employment, housing and transport but Owen Smith has done more to present how these will be realised in the past few weeks than Corbyn has done in the past year. A more effective and efficient leader will be able to communicate the policies that, up until now, have been hidden behind the person. The problem is, Labour has become ‘Just Jeremy’ and this is not entirely his fault.

The worst part of the mess we are in is what is being ascribed to Corbyn by those who follow him. If it wasn’t so tragic it would be funny - or do I actually mean that the other way round? My main reaction to recent events has been to find them incongruously funny – I cannot take Jeremy Corbyn seriously anymore. The more po-faced and humourless his adoring Momentum masses become, as they spiral towards electoral oblivion with their matching graphic design, the more hilarious it gets; and I keep being reminded of two comedy films from that most politically significant of years, 1979.

Whenever I see footage and images of the mass Corbyn rallies, presented as proof of just how popular Jeremy is, I immediately think of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Graham Chapman, playing the eponymous hero mistaken for the saviour, is pursued through the streets by a horde of persistent and devoted pilgrims that he cannot shake off – “Now, fuck off!” “How shall we fuck off, O Lord?” – and he has to fall back on his mum to convince his followers that “he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!” And whenever I see Corbyn interviewed, delivering messages that a year ago seemed refreshing but now, with hindsight, seem rudimentary and ill-thought out, I am reminded of Peter Sellers’ character, Chancey Gardener, in the film Being There, where the statements of a simple gardener - “as long as the roots are not severed, all is well” - are taken for words of profound wisdom by the political class. Both of these films are perfect metaphors for what is happening in the Labour Party at the moment. I have no idea how this movie will end, if indeed it ever will, but once you have seen the emperor naked, there is no going back; you have realised the joke and it is very funny – but it is so funny it hurts.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Golden Songs

When Ryley Walker came over from the United States two years ago to play at record store and gig promoters Music's Not Dead's third anniversary celebration in Bexhill, the halfwit in me meant I did not go. Only having heard of him fleetingly when his debut album, All Kinds of You, had come out a few months earlier, I passed up the chance to see the Chicago-based musician for a fiver at the modest Albatross Club on the seafront on the grounds that Bexhill was about to host relatively expensive appearances by British Sea Power and Johnnies, Marr and Lydon. With hindsight, it was clearly my loss.

Last year, Walker's soulful bluesy folk - music that seems to draw most comparisons with Tim Buckley and onetime Hastings resident John Martyn - began to attract more attention. Second album, Primrose Hill, garnered glowing reviews and featured in many end-of-year best album lists, with Mojo praising his "wild complexities of sweet melody and song" and comparing his guitar playing to Bert Jansch. And now, as if to compound the Pentangle dimension to his sound, Walker has been touring with that band's legendary double bassist and sometime John Martyn collaborator, Danny Thompson.

There was no Thompson at Hastings' cathedral-like St. Mary in the Castle last night but this did not detract from the quality of Walker's performance. With the Norwegian duo of Julius Lind on electric bass and Stale Solberg on drums, the trio showed that Walker has quickly moved on from last year, with the bulk of the set made up of songs from forthcoming album, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung. And the songs were golden: highlights included The Halfwit in Me ("about being a dummy in Chicago"), The Roundabout and Sullen Mind. Walker's acoustic guitar shimmered and soared and his freeform interplay with Solberg's percussive idiosyncrasies was joyful.

Naturally funny and engaging, Walker was effusive between songs and expressed his love of seaside towns, drinking and eating fish 'n' chips but said that he fears violence from seagulls more than almost anything else in the world. There is a sense that he enjoys being permanently on the road and when he (sort of) name checked Music's Not Dead ("Music Stays") he asked where the late bar was. Finishing with a stellar version of Primrose Green, there was just time for one quick encore before the drinking could begin in earnest.

Earlier, Brighton-based Holly Macve had played a short set of haunting songs accompanying herself on guitar. Recently signed to Bella Union, I saw the 21-year-old support John Grant last year and was struck by her mesmeric and ethereal voice - a real talent destined for great things.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Feel the Love

The world might have seemed like a shitty place in 2016, but that has not stopped John Grant travelling its length and breadth to perform. As he says on It Doesn’t Matter To Him, “I get to sing for lovely people all over this lovely world.” And starting off in the Far East, the American singer-songwriter opened the year playing China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, moved on to a couple of shows in his home country, before dates in Europe and Scandanavia.

Lately, Grant has appeared at major British festivals such as Glastonbury, T in the Park and Latitude; all in all, he has been a busy boy. But last night at the De la Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, a venue he first played two years ago, it felt like a homecoming. “It’s so good to be back in this amazing building,” he told us. You can have the world but sometimes you just need Art Deco architecture and an adoring audience.

Since launching a solo career in 2010 after the dissolution of alt-rock band The Czars, Grant has produced three albums worth of sumptuous ballads, emotion-drenched confessionals and stomping disco floor-fillers. On his return to the De La Warr Pavilion, last years’ Grey Tickles, Black Pressure album dominated proceedings, as it had when I saw him in Brighton last November; but there was still room for classic tracks such as Glacier and GMF from middle album, Pale Green Ghosts, and an incredible rendition of the title track from his debut, Queen of Denmark.

All of this was rapturously received by the audience who immediately responded, not only to the rich timbre of Grant’s sonorous baritone, but to the band’s accomplished sound. With a rhythm section of ex-Banshee Budgie on drums and Jakob Smári Magnússon on bass underpinning Pétur Hallgrímsson’s versatile guitar and Chris Pemberton’s virtuoso keyboards, the band radiated warmth and solidity. After an encore which included a moving version of The Czars’ song, Drug, Grant asked, “could you feel the love coming from us tonight?” We could – and it was reciprocated.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

When the Finger Points

Fingerposts, guide signs that indicate the direction and distance of towns and villages, have been a feature of the English countryside since the 17th century, when they were placed at significant crossroads by order of local magistrates. In the late 18th century, parliamentary legislation made it compulsory for all turnpike roads – roads maintained by the collection of tolls - to feature fingerposts.

The size and style of fingerposts varied widely until 1921, when the familiar wooden design we see today was handed down in a parliamentary circular. It said that fingerposts should have 2 1⁄2 or 3 inch high black upper case lettering on a white background affixed to a white supporting pole. That model has remained ever since, except for a few years when this enduring feature of rural roads disappeared altogether.

Early in the Second World War, German invasion was an imminent threat. Whether by air or sea, the government made plans for such an eventuality. In Angus Calder’s 1969 book, The People’s War: Britain 1939-1945, he details the lengths the authorities went to to frustrate any invaders: ‘To prevent gliders landing, fields, downland, golf courses and recreation grounds near the south and east coasts were scattered with timber baulks, or with an extraordinary variety of improvised hazards.’ As well as filling fields with old cars and broken-down farm machinery, Caulder also notes that railway stations within 20 miles of the south coast had to have all naming signage removed. But it was the fear of enemy parachutists that had the most significant effect on the people’s daily life.

In May 1940, the government ordered that ‘no person shall display or cause or permit to be displayed any sign which furnishes any indication of the name of, or the situation or the direction of, or the distance to any place.’ All over Britain, street names and sign posts were removed. In towns and cities, this presented some difficulties but, in the countryside, the removal of all fingerposts made navigation almost impossible. It was the armed forces themselves who requested their restoration. Military drivers were ‘subjected to bafflement and nervous exhaustion if they ventured into unfamiliar territory’ and, after an absence of three years, fingerposts were returned to rural roads.

Despite their simplicity and elegance of design, it is possible that nowadays fingerposts are simply an anachronistic feature of the heritage industry. In his new book, Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Our World, Greg Milner notes that anyone on Earth with a smartphone knows exactly where they are and where they are going. With 75% of adults, and rising, in this country owning one, perhaps the days of the fingerpost are numbered. In a parochial illustration of the global reach of GPS, when I was at the end of my road preparing my phone to take the photograph at the top of this page, someone from a passing car shouted at me, “Pokemon Go!”

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Wild in the Country

On my way home at dusk, recently, I was driving up the curving incline of the road between Little Iwood and Great Iwood, just outside Rushlake Green. As I came around the bend, something large was in the road up ahead of me but the brief sweep of my headlights failed to reveal its true form. As I got nearer and slowed to a halt, I realised it was a buck, an adult male fallow deer, and it was showing no intention of getting out of my way.

Not for nothing have my children nicknamed this stretch of road, Deer Country. Since I left London over ten years ago, I have seen more deer on the roads in my part of East Sussex than I have seen foxes. I was given some early advice by a neighbour on the matter: if a deer runs across the road in front of your car, stop and wait; others will be sure to follow. It has turned out to be good advice: many times, I have stopped at the sight of a running deer only to see two or three follow in its wake. Stories of fatal accidents – both to driver and deer - are legion in this area.

The closest I have come to a deer-related accident was when I used to travel to work on a motor scooter. It was dark, and I thought I had seen something whizz across the road in the distance. I slowed, stopped and waited - but nothing happened. Then, just as I was about to pull away, there was what can only be described as a stampede of deer – some, adult males - across my path. Had I not stopped, I would surely have been trampled underfoot.

Deer roam wild in the countryside of East Sussex, particularly in large and sparsely populated areas; but they are also found close to towns and villages. They are overwhelmingly fallow deer, although there are some roe deer living in Ashdown Forest. The fallow deer population has increased dramatically in the last thirty years due to milder winters, falling demand for venison and the changing attitudes of landowners: more farmers are prepared to tolerate grazing deer in woods and fallow fields.

Back at my most recent encounter, the deer was snuffling at something on the road surface. He did not seem to be alarmed by the glare of my headlights or the idling of my engine. Just as I was wondering what to do next, he lazily looked up and stared in my direction. Illuminated in the bright light, with his stately posture and towering antlers, he looked magnificent. After a few more seconds of stand-off, he then sauntered away into the wood. I waited a few moments, and then drove away slowly, happy to have shared the road with such a beautiful creature.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Welcome In

With my anxiety over the EU referendum reaching fever pitch, what I really needed to do on the eve of polling day was get an early night. What I did instead was go to the best small venue in Britain (as voted by the NME), have a skin full of Sussex Seacider and listen to rousing anthemic music that celebrates the heritage and diversity of our island life.

The mighty British Sea Power rolled into the excellent Tunbridge Wells Forum last night as part of a series of dates to road test new material. Despite seeing the band many times in recent years, I did not see them at all last year - and how I have missed them. Opening with the title track from 2013’s Machineries of Joy album, they immediately had the sold out crowd on their side. With all six band members on the tiny stage, there was no room for bears or robots but there was still some space for their customary foliage.

Seven or eight new tracks were aired and, although Yan did not introduce them, we had been promised numbers with working titles typical of the band, such as Electrical Kittens, Telstar II, Tropical Banana and Kugelschreiber Hotdog; that eclecticism was also reflected in the more electronic elements of the songs. It was not all new material, though: in a two-hour set there was plenty of room for BSP favourites.

Remember Me, voted one of the top ten songs of the 21st century by 6 Music listeners, was greeted rapturously by the audience and, when Hamilton took over vocal duties from his brother, we got rousing versions of No Lucifer and Carrion. By this time things were starting to get hot and sweaty - there was moshing, stage front - as the band ramped up the tempo. Old live favourite, The Spirit of St. Louis, even led to accusations from keyboardist Phil Sumner that Noble was rocking out like Guns ‘N’ Roses.

The song I desperately wanted to hear was Waving Flags and, of course, British Sea Power did not disappoint. This inspiring hymn to tolerance – “welcome in/from across the Vistula/ you've come so very far” - with its open-minded attitude, had the audience bellowing along with arms aloft. At this momentous, and somewhat poisonous, point in our history it was life-affirming to hear European immigration validated rather than demonised.

Earlier in the evening, support was provided by ex-Hefner frontman Darren Hayman as part of his audio-visual project, Thankful Villages. Thankful, or blessed, villages are places where every soldier returned alive from World War I. There are 54 in England and Wales and he is visiting each one to make a piece of music and a short film. With just a guitar and some spoken audio for accompaniment, he played a short set of poignant and tender melodies celebrating rural life.