Saturday, December 16, 2017

Warmth for the Soul

Last night might not have been the coldest of the season but this morning felt like the hardest ground frost of the winter, so far. The divots thrown up by the horses' hooves were frozen solid and I was making slow progress on the bridle path I was walking along. The sun was shining so I benefited from some apricity but whenever the path fell into the shade of hill or wood I felt chilled to the marrow.

Just below Comphurst, the path bordered open fields and there was a clear view across Horse Eye Level, Down Level and Glynleigh Level all the way to Shepham Wind Farm at Stone Cross. The three 115-metre turbines began generating energy at the start of the year after a five-year planning battle had been finally resolved when Wealden District Council's refusal of permission was overturned by the government's Planning Inspectorate. The inspector ruled that the farm's capacity to generate 7.5 MW of energy, sufficient to power 4,000 homes, and save 8,475 tonnes of carbon would make a material contribution to renewable energy objectives.

There is still some local animosity toward the wind farm on aesthetic grounds; but the sight of the turbines this morning, standing majestically in the shadow of the Downs, was undeniably beautiful. The contrast between the renewable engineering of the modern age and the timeless sward of the Sussex hills was warmth for the soul.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Stand-Up Guy

You are always guaranteed an entertaining time when you go to see Pictish Trail and last night's Melting Vinyl gig at the Rialto Theatre in Brighton was no exception. A bloody good job, too, as it was sub-zero temperatures outside and by the time I got to the venue I was so cold I was desperately in need of some winter cheer.

Main man Johnny Lynch was on good form, regaling us with stories of drug-addled audiences in Hartlepool, near death experiences in Machynlleth (I will refrain from writing how he pronounced it) and eco glitter from Bristol (the latter made from unicorns' tears, natch). In fact, despite coming from the far-flung Isle of Eigg, there is a real sense of rootedness in the whole country that comes from the band's relentless touring of these islands.

There was a smaller group of musicians for this tour - "I'm just wringing the final drops from the last album" - with Lynch assisted by Suse Bear on bass and keyboards and John B McKenna (AKA Monoganon - who was also the support act and inexplicably started his set wearing a terrible wig and ended it wearing a rather fetching cloak-cum-habit) on guitar. And it was not just the band that was stripped down: there were some beautifully spare arrangements of Lionhead, Easy With Either and Dead Connection from last year's Future Echoes album, and earlier songs from the Pictish Trail repertoire of folktronica.

Despite some provocative audience comments about the nature of familial relationships on the Isle of Eigg, Johnny Lynch (almost) refused to be dragged down to our level and maintained his dignity and humour throughout. I laughed like a drain at his between-songs repartee and the only other performer I have seen who comes close to being such a laugh is James Yorkston. Those Fence Collective guys: what are they like? They should be doing stand-up.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Last Resting Place

Grants Hill House in Uckfield, East Sussex was the place of the last confirmed sighting, in 1974, of perhaps this county’s most famous disappeared person, John Bingham. He arrived at the home of his friends Ian and Susan Maxwell-Scott, on Thursday 7th November, in a dishevelled and bloodstained state. Only Susan was at home to hear Bingham tell a distressing tale of how he had been walking past his estranged wife’s home in London’s Belgravia and had seen her, through the window, struggling with a man in the basement kitchen. He had scared the intruder off only to discover the bloody murder of his children’s nanny. He had tried to calm his wife but she had run into the street crying, “Murder!” Deciding that the scene reflected badly on him, he had fled.

Bingham was, of course, better known as Lord Lucan and his account of events was a complete fabrication. Despite a long campaign to portray his wife as mentally ill and an unfit mother, Lucan had lost custody of the children to her in an acrimonious court case the previous year. It was he who had murdered the nanny, Sandra Rivett, mistaking her for his wife in the dark. He had then violently attacked Lady Lucan but she had put up a fight and escaped to a nearby pub to raise the alarm. He had driven, in a borrowed car, to East Sussex.

Having arrived at Grants Hill House at a late hour, Lucan could not be persuaded by Maxwell-Scott to stay the night and go to the local police in the morning. Instead, he drove away in the early hours saying that he had to get back to London. He did not arrive and the car was found three days later, abandoned in the Sussex port of Newhaven; Lucan was never seen again. He was declared dead in 1999 and a certificate was finally issued last year. There were countless theories and unconfirmed sightings before then: he jumped from a cross-channel ferry; he flew to France from a Kentish airfield; he lived out his days in the southern African country of Mozambique.

However, there is one theory that places Lucan’s demise closer to home. In the late 1990s, Sussex police received a series of anonymous phone calls from someone who said they had been in the grounds of Grants Hill House on the night of 7th November 1974. The witness claimed to have seen two men shoot a third and dump his body in a cesspit. The caller refused to make a proper statement and the information was not acted upon. As the house had been demolished and the grounds redeveloped in the 1980s, a search for remains would have been difficult; but it might be that Grants Hill House is not only the place of Lucan’s last sighting, but his last resting place.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Blue and Green

Exactly a year ago, when I was writing about the obsolete word apricity - used to describe the warmth of the sun in winter - I was admonished by a correspondent who pointed out that, as meteorological winter did not begin for another week, I could not have felt the winter sun. My response was that there was frost on the ground, it was bloody cold and therefore, to my mind, it was winter and what little warmth the sun gave me was apricity.

Walking in the countryside around Alfriston yesterday, I could not make the same claim. Yes, the sun's rays were shining down but it did not feel at all like winter. With December just around the corner, it was a mild morning and, with the exception of the odd cold day, typical of how the weather has been for weeks, now. Worryingly, it is as if the climate became fixed in early October.

It all made for an idyllic walk as we left Waterloo Square in the centre of Alfriston and headed down to the Cuckmere River to follow its winding course away from the village and toward the sun. Apart from a cloud of smoke from a tree-feller's bonfire, the sky was clear blue and the gentle downland surrounding the valley a vivid green. This is the landscape that inspired the author Eleanor Farjeon to write the hymn Morning Has Broken in 1931; it could have been on such a day that she penned the line, "mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning".

Despite the weather putting a spring in our step, the path on the western bank was well trodden and muddy so, as we arrived at our turning point - the Litlington White Horse high above us on Hindover Hill - we crossed the river for the less heavy-going eastern side. The firmer ground underfoot and the sun at our backs both hastened our return to the village for a midday retirement to the pub.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Punk Rock Party

As soon as I got into The Haunt in Brighton, last night, there was something in the air. It wasn’t just the smell of sweat and damp in this cramped venue, there was an atmosphere, a buzz about the place. Whatever it was, it felt like a proper gig even before any band had come on stage. Despite it being early – to accommodate a 10pm finish - the audience seemed pretty boozed and there was a high proportion of ne’er do wells with a glint in their eye. When the music started, Welsh support band Seazoo were on and off in the blink of an eye but they made a joyful racket which cranked up the mood even more. We had no time to catch breath before they were very swiftly followed by the very lovely The Lovely Eggs. Perhaps the early finish was stoking the crowd: everything was condensed - we had to get our thrills while we could.

And thrill us The Lovely Eggs did. The harder edge that has always been in the Eggs’ music seems to be more to the fore, now. Songs like Goofin’ Around and The Magic Onion, from 2015’s This Is Our Nowhere, display a Sonic Youth influence on Holly’s guitar sound. These are longer songs and new material such as current single, I Shouldn’t Have Said That, and tracks from next year’s new album seem to be in the same vein. The sound was exhilarating, with David’s pounding driving it along under Holly’s fuzzbox guitar. Whether new songs or old favourites like Fuck It, the crowd were lapping them up and I could feel the floor bouncing under my feet.

Holly added to the atmosphere with a bit of audience manipulation: relegating the front row arm-folders further back, she brought forward the people who were partying the most; the atmosphere got even wilder. But the longer the set went on, the more Holly was struggling with her voice on the penultimate date of the tour. Despite this, when the set finished, they came back for an encore. Yes, an encore - their first in three years. The Lovely Eggs have long been opposed to fake encores, the kind where the songs are already on the set list and the band crouch at the side of the stage like “cavemen doing a shit” before going back on a few moments later. But last night in Brighton there was a real, spontaneous singalong encore of Don’t Look At Me to end the punk rock party.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Hearts and Minds

At the height of the 1984-5 action against the government’s programme of mass pit closures, I went to a benefit gig for the striking miners. Industrial punks Test Dept and the South Wales Striking Miners’ Choir performed at a packed-out Deptford Albany on an evening that was such a contrast of styles that it had no right to work; but it did. While Test Dept literally hammered out their heavy metal percussion, the male voice choir produced such stirring harmonies that it was one of the most moving and emotional gigs I have ever witnessed.

Public Service Broadcasting’s gig at the De La Warr Pavilion last night occupied some of the same territory. Where there was a powerful sense of defiance at that benefit over thirty years ago, PSB seek to celebrate the heroism and nobility of the South Wales miners on their recent album, Every Valley; and while the music and sampled voices on the album are incredibly moving, the visuals of the live experience are inspiring. From the two pithead wheels that flank the stage and the glow of Davy lamps hanging above it, to the film footage streaming on the backdrop and screens, there is almost too much for the eye to take in.

As the title of their debut album says, PSB are on a mission to Inform-Educate-Entertain and the opening two numbers, Every Valley and The Pit, with their accompanying public information film samples, do just that. Other songs win our hearts as well as our minds: Go To The Road has snippets of trouble ahead with its “united we stand, united we bloody fall” and “the way it’s going now we’ll be chucked on the scrapheap” samples; They Gave Me A Lamp, with its title taken from Phyliss Jones’ memoir of her time as a colliery nurse, gives voice to the role of women in mining; and the aggressive guitar-led All Out provokes memories of the 1984 strike with images of Thatcher’s mobilised national police force charging picket lines.

Popular songs from the previous two albums are also played. Night Mail and Spitfire (“this is a song about a plane”) from their debut, and Go! and the much called-for Gagarin from 2015’s The Race for Space. Despite their computer nerd image, the music is less synthesised than I had imagined from listening to the album: Wrigglesworth’s drums and J F Abraham’s bass drive the numbers along, while band leader, J. Willgoose, Esq. provides the overlaying guitar and keyboard motifs. With the addition of a trio of brass, it is an uplifting, and at times, almost funky sound.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Green and Pleasant Land

If I had gone to view A Green and Pleasant Land, the exhibition of British landscape photography currently at the Towner Gallery, expecting to be treated to a depiction of a bucolic pastoral idyll, I would have been sorely disappointed. This superb exhibition of images, from the 1970s to now, underlines the fact that the topography of this island is not defined by nature's scenic splendour but is shaped and marked by the multiplicity of human activity and endeavour.

This is a landscape that, above all, has been scarred by our place as an industrial nation. Using 1970 as a starting point, the exhibition reveals a world that has been lost and left behind. Ron McCormick's atmospheric shots of South Wales mark the beginnings of a post-industrial age and Chris Killip and Graham Smith's similarly monochrome images reinforce the idea of decline in our northern heartlands.

If I hadn't already realised the irony in the exhibition’s title, the work of Northern Irish artists Paul Seawright and Donovan Wylie confirmed it. Seawright’s large, full colour daytime shots of the scenes of past sectarian murders, denuded of their terror but given a sinister edge with accompanying text from newspaper reports, were chilling. And Donovan Wylie’s studies of army watchtowers in the lush, green countryside of South Armagh provided a stark reminder that for a large part of this timeframe, an area of Britain was under military occupation.

However, it is also leisure that defines our landscape: Simon Roberts and Melanie Friend both use a large colour format to show people at play on the Sussex coast, whether that be paddling in the sea or watching an air show in the skies above; and there is a quartet of early Martin Parr images – unusually for him in black and white. Three are unpopulated but the fourth, Beauty Spot - Brimham Rocks, is more familiarly what Parr is renowned for as he captures day trippers in the throes of their banality.

In the first room of the exhibition, it struck me that football is an activity that has had a dominating effect on our environment. In the words of John Davies, "we are collectively responsible for shaping the landscape we occupy"; and that most communal of sports features in two of his three stunning images on display. Agecroft Power Station, Salford dwarfs the two amateur football matches that are taking place on pitches alongside, and his Runcorn Bridge, Cheshire is underpinned by the football graffiti that litters the supports below. Placed alongside Robert Judges' eerie Football Pitch at Dawn, these images reinforced the prominence of the national game in our physical and mental terrain.

There are more traditional representations of landscape but even Fay Godwin, former president of the Ramblers Association, uses light and dark and open spaces under troubled skies to create a discomfiting tone. Over fifty artists are represented in this exhibition and the work is drawn largely from the Arts Council Collection. It is an excellent exhibition and it gave me a real sense of the Britain I have grown up in and the Britain I live in today - food for thought for the leaders of our country who seem to be some distance away from understanding our green and pleasant land.

A Green and Pleasant Land, British Landscape and the Imagination: 1970s to Now is at the Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne until 21st January 2018. Entry is free.