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

Apricity



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.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Happiness



When Charles M. Schultz popularised the idea that happiness is a warm puppy, and John Lennon supplanted it with the parodic notion that Happiness is a Warm Gun, they were both wide of the mark. What the Peanuts cartoon strip and The Beatles' White Album shied away from is the universal truth that, in autumn, happiness is a full log store.

I have been filling my own wood store throughout the summer, just in case that dubious coldest-winter-ever story one mid-market tabloid newspaper has been running annually for the past four years, finally comes true. I have mostly stocked up with sweet chestnut, which spits a bit but that doesn't matter in a wood burning stove, and beech from a local sustainably managed woodland. Like ash and hawthorn, beech is one of the best firewoods: slow-burning with a steady flame and gives out a good amount of heat.

I had hoped to get some apple but the wood that has been seasoning for a year at the fruit farm where I rent my allotment has still not been cut up for sale; with the apple picking now in full flow, I am not sure the farmer will get around to it just yet. Although he mixes his loads with some alder - a poor wood that burns too quickly - it is a small price to pay for the fragrance of smouldering applewood throughout the house.

As our wood burner has a back boiler that heats our water and radiators, we burn a lot of wood during the winter. I did at one time try to reduce our wood consumption by buying a contraption that makes briquettes from old newspapers; but the process was such a faff it made more sense to simply recycle the newspapers. And, of course, burning wood does not release any more carbon dioxide than if it were to biodegrade naturally on a forest floor; this makes it a carbon-neutral fuel, provided it is obtained from a sustainable source.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Music Therapy



Friday evening, and after a hard week back at the chalkface, I was in need of a lift. With a few quid left over from the summer spending money and new albums out from Nick Cave, King Creosote and Pictish Trail, I headed down to Bexhill’s stellar record shop, Music’s Not Dead, for some – and I know it’s not a nice phrase - retail therapy. But as so often with Music’s Not Dead, you don’t just get to pick up the albums; there is always a warm welcome and sometimes you get to have some of the tracks played to you live by the artists themselves: music therapy.

Last night it was the turn of Isle of Eigg-based Johnny Lynch, AKA Pictish Trail and head honcho of the Lost Map record label, to perform in-store to promote his beautiful new album, Future Echoes. Supported on bass and keyboards by Suse from Lost Map band, Tuff Love, he delivered a short but diverse set, mostly from the album. The first song from Future Echoes was Until Now, a traditional and haunting number which highlighted Lynch’s voice at its tender best. We were also treated to Half-Life, the centrepiece of the album, with its nagging refrain of “we will always decay”, and the funky shuffle of Dead Connection which name-checked his label name throughout.

Using acoustic guitar, keyboards and backing tracks, Lynch is something of a sonic genius; it is this mixing of a folk sound with electronics that makes Pictish Trail stand out and, with the slow beats of Far Gone, he introduced us to Scottish hip hop, or ‘shop’ as he playfully branded it. I first saw Lynch at last year’s Green Man festival with Sweet Baboo, producer of Pictish Trail’s previous album Secret Soundz Vol. 2. They were something of a comedy duo on that sunny Sunday evening on the Walled Garden stage and Lynch was no different last night. His despair at the political climate in the wake of the EU referendum and his realisation, on seeing young people off their faces at Bestival, that he is not seventeen anymore had us laughing a lot.

It was a wonderful evening: ensconced in the shop, listening to great music and watching the surprised faces of passers-by in the twilight street outside. We got to have a quick chat with Johnny afterwards about the weather at Green Man, getting Sweet Baboo to come to Bexhill and his forthcoming Brighton gig with a full band. Then I was home in time to carry out my usual Friday night ritual: falling asleep on the sofa.

Pictish Trail play the Green Door Store, Brighton on Monday 10th October.

Friday, September 2, 2016

A Different View



Before appearing at this weekend’s End of the Road festival, former Fiery Furnaces frontwoman Eleanor Friedberger played a Music’s Not Dead promoted gig in the café bar at the De La Warr Pavilion last night. Over from the United States to promote her third solo album, this year’s New View, most of the set was drawn from this critically acclaimed album.

Recorded in upstate New York, New View is ostensibly a slice of 70s singer-songwriter soft-rock; however, it is an LP shot-through with strong melodies and infectious pop hooks, and this was particularly demonstrated last night on songs such as Because I Asked You and He Didn’t Mention His Mother. But what I really like about Friedberger – apart from her cool shoes and incredible voice - is her uncluttered guitar playing which gives the music a lo-fi slacker edge that makes it different from standard folk and Americana.

Despite being supported on tour by only two of the musicians who recorded the album, they are a comfortable and accomplished trio; at times songs effortlessly segued into each other and, for the uninitiated, it would have been hard to tell where one began and the other ended. The personal lyrics are mostly dense, past tense narratives and, on stand-out song Sweetest Girl – “sweet girl with a broken heart, stop crying so I won’t start” – heart-breaking.

There was also a version of the Fiery Furnaces’ Evergreen and, on the theme of colour, Does Turquoise Work? from the new album was put to the audience for their opinion (personally I thought no, but it was a split decision). Friedberger recommended the video for the latter song, a piece of animation by bassist Jonathan Rosen, and I do too. You can watch it here.

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.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fear and Loathing



Just over a week ago, a colleague and I were handing out Labour In For Britain leaflets outside the village hall before an EU referendum hustings meeting, one of a series of debates organised by the local MP in the run up to the vote. Rural Sussex is not natural Labour territory but most people politely took a leaflet; some were actually enthusiastic, a few declined and two were downright hostile. The first gave us a Tebbitesque "On yer bike"; the second, an elderly woman on two walking sticks, took me aback when she snapped, "No! You've come here mob-handed because you're scared you're going to lose!" Scowling and muttering, she hobbled off into the hall.

In the meeting, after pitches by Leave and Remain speakers, the MP invited comments from the floor. Amidst a succession of muddled points about sovereignty, the likelihood of Turkey joining the EU and the veracity of the £350 million per week figure, the elderly woman made an aggressive contribution of telling clarity: she wanted to leave the EU to keep out immigrants, to reduce the threat of ISIS and to take back control. It was easy to recognise its source: a lethal cocktail of tabloid rhetoric, vintage Boris Farage and plain fear. What she said encouraged others: a young woman, who confessed she was not old enough to vote, bemoaned the loss of the British Empire and laid this at the EU's door.

The next day, I became involved in a debate on social media (not something I usually do) with a Leave campaigner who had used an image of British servicemen returning from the war in support of an out vote. I pointed out to him that the EU existed to ensure that there would never be a European theatre of war again and my late dad, who had lost his mum in the Blitz and then been involved in the bombing of Dresden, was a passionate supporter of the European project having seen at first hand the suffering on both sides. I was told to bugger off and that people like me were giving away British freedom.

A few days later, I overheard my children discussing the referendum debates they were having in their classes at school. They were talking about the minority of kids who supported 'out' and the reasons they had given; immigrants, and the need to "keep them out", was the constant justification. My oldest two, aware enough to not want to stereotype the outers, were skirting around the issue. It fell to the youngest to articulate what they were all thinking: "All the mean kids are supporting Leave," she said.

Mulling over all of this the night before the murder of Jo Cox, my wife and I were puzzled that we seemed to have reached a point where we are living in a climate of bitterness and resentment. Politics had clearly failed a section of the electorate but that did not entirely explain the quick conversion to anger and hatred; sections of our own community seemed to be bound up in a straitjacket of fear and loathing.

When politicians talk of immigration it is either to fudge or inflame. The worst examples of print media - The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Express - have been doing only the latter. When I spoke at the hustings meeting, I said that immigration is a two-way street: there are 2 million Britons living and working in Europe and, like it or not, we are living in a smaller world; the NHS would not have survived without immigration and our ageing workforce needs migrants more than ever. I was applauded by some for my comments but when I looked across at the elderly woman she was snarling not smiling.

There is a need for honesty about immigration, not undeliverable promises and certainly not the hysterical hyperbole that some politicians and journalists have been peddling of late - they should hang their heads in utter shame. Jo Cox's assassin had seemingly flirted with neo-Nazism for 20 years; something made him violently snap now and the febrile atmosphere of our current culture and politics cannot be discounted in this.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Almost Blue



The possibility that the Conservatives contravened the laws on election expenses in key seats during last year’s General Election is a story that is not widely reported in the mainstream media, being largely confined to Channel 4. To be charitable, this may be because investigations by a number of police forces are still on-going, or that other news outlets are unwilling to run with a rival’s exclusive. However, it is a story that is gaining traction as the number of investigations has been slowly increasing and recently expanded to include Sussex.

There is cap on local spending by candidates in parliamentary elections and, in an investigation by Channel 4 News reporter Michael Crick, evidence was uncovered of the Tories incurring costs for activists who were bussed in to assist in marginal constituencies; these costs had not been declared in their submitted election expenses. The police have asked the courts to grant them extra time, in addition to the one-year limit, to investigate these allegations, a move that was unsuccessfully challenged by the Tory Party in one constituency.

With nearly 20 police forces throughout England now working on cases of potential electoral fraud, Sussex Police today applied for extra time to investigate the expenses of Conservative Maria Caulfield who won the Lewes constituency from the Liberal Democrats last May. The result was one of a number of surprises in East Sussex – where the Tories astonishingly won six out of eight seats to turn the county almost blue - as sitting MP Norman Baker’s majority of 7,500 was overturned.

It is now possible that opposition parties in other East Sussex constituencies will ask the Electoral Commission to look at the expenses of unanticipated Tory victors: the Liberal Democrats also lost Eastbourne by a wafer-thin majority; Labour missed out in the marginal seat of Brighton Kemptown, which was held by the Conservatives with a majority of less than 700 votes; and the Hastings and Rye sitting MP, cabinet minister Amber Rudd, unexpectedly increased her slender majority over Labour from 2010.

With the possible outcome that some election results from May 2015 will be declared void, a government with a working parliamentary majority of only 16 may soon find that the EU referendum is not their biggest problem.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Together We Stand



To hear Jeremy Corbyn speak about the European Union as a force for social justice yesterday evening was to remind me that, up until now, the debate over the EU referendum has largely been a battle of swinging dicks, trading hypothetical consumer testing points. In a race to appeal to the electorate’s lowest common denominator – what’s in it for me? – it was refreshing to hear a high-profile politician outline what is in it for us.

Corbyn was sharing the stage at St. Mary in the Castle in Hastings with Judy Rogers, a local Labour councillor, and Shakira Martin a vice-president of the National Union of Students. Their compelling stories underlined Corbyn’s point that other voices were not being heard in, what has boiled down to, a playground spat between two Old Etonians.

Rogers outlined the struggle, throughout her career, to achieve pay equality with her male counterparts and Martin, a young black single-parent who was involved in Corbyn’s leadership campaign last year, spoke of the power of education to transform the lives of people in her position.

Taking his cue from these confident women, Jeremy Corbyn outlined a positive view of the EU and defined Britain’s Tory government as the real institution of restrictive self-interest. Rather than focus on business, he proposed a vision for a reformed EU that builds on the great strides in social justice already made in the areas of employment rights, human rights, climate change and air and sea pollution.

It was a message that is not heard often enough in the referendum debate as it fails to permeate a mainstream media obsessed with personalities, conspiracies and splits. Corbyn refuses to play that game and instead invokes the spirit of Robert Tressell by emphasising that we can only move forward if we work together, and that we will only go backwards if we stand in isolation.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

In the Shade of the Wood



Below the crest of Cowbeech Hill, snaking between Stunts Green and Studdens Farm, there is a winding green lane that skirts a dark and shady wood. The wood is private and the single gate that provides a way in clearly states this in blood-red lettering. It is a shame because, peering through the silver birch and ash trees that line the lane last week, I could clearly see that the floor of the wood was still carpeted with an impressive swathe of bluebells.

Britain's woodlands are becoming increasingly closed off to the public. In recent years there has been a boom in dividing up forests and woods into smaller plots for private sale. Masquerading as the redistribution of ownership away from big landowners, most of the companies selling parcels of woodland are, in reality, attempting to maximise profit on large land purchases.

Some private owners do manage their small woodlands for the benefit of others: Powdermill Wood, near Battle, where I buy logs, is run along sustainable lines and is open to all - walkers, kids and dogs. However, others are not so forward-thinking in their management of nature's resources. At Pondtail Wood, north of Brighton, campaigners have been demonstrating against the systematic destruction of ancient woodland. The owners have been felling and burning masses of trees in direct contravention of planning controls in an area which is situated within the South Downs National Park. Their motives can only be guessed at but, despite the intervention of the park authority, the vandalism has continued.

Back in the green lane, spring moves towards summer: the overhanging canopy of trees from the wood grows denser and, on the other side, the fruit farm is in bloom. The land bordering the track might be out of bounds but, whilst there is still access to these ancient byways that have connected villages and farms for thousands of years, I can enjoy a wood-shaded walk in air fresh with the scent of apple blossom, without the need for trespass.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Sound and Vision



When music and film usually come together, the latter is produced first and the soundtrack is created as a response to the visual imagery. In the case of Tindersticks' most recent offering, The Waiting Room, the opposite is the case. Having completed the recording of their eleventh studio album, the band commissioned a range of international directors to make short films, each using one of the album's tracks as inspiration. The result was that some editions of The Waiting Room came with a DVD of their work and the band's current tour, a string of dates around Europe, were billed as cine-concerts. One of those dates was part of the Brighton Festival where, on Sunday night at the Dome, Tindersticks performed the whole of the album against the stunning cinematic backdrop of the films.

Before the night at the movies began, they treated us to a short set of songs from previous albums. Ranging from 1995's She's Gone and Sleepy Song to Medicine from 2012, they demonstrated just how long Tindersticks have been chroniclers of lost and faded love. Stuart Staples' breathy croon is as impressive in a live setting as it is on record and the band, featuring original members Neil Fraser on keyboards and David Boulter on guitar, provided the trademark Tindersticks' sound of delicacy and restraint; it was only on 2008's Boobar Come Back To Me that the musical arrangement allowed for some free rein and the band cut loose.

After a twenty-minute interval, the group returned to the stage to a recording of The Waiting Room's opening track, Follow Me, and an accompanying film of light and shade made by Staples and his artist wife, Suzanne Osborne. The next hour was a dizzying mix of music and images with highlights in Were We Once Lovers? and Pierre Vinour's endless loop of urban traffic, and Gabraz and Sara Nao Tem Noame's film for We Are Dreamers! that juxtaposed a lone shovel-carrying female in a ballet with a giant earth-moving machine that was reminiscent of the famous footage of Tiananmen Square.

However, the evening's most startlingly beautiful pairing of sound and vision was Rosie Pedlow and Joe King's film of almost static Martin Parr-like gaudy coastal amusements with Hey Lucinda, Staples' album duet with, now deceased, Lhasa De Sela. With Staples taking both parts, the nagging refrain "our time is running out" fitted perfectly with the images of faded seaside glamour. With the cinematic experience ended, there was time enough for a trio of songs from the 2012 album, The Sometime Rain, to complete a spectacular evening.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Red Wine Smiles



There was a wonderful moment in the middle of The Lovely Eggs set in Hastings last night: in celebration of the band's anniversary, they play a couple of quick 'old' numbers; the thirteen-seconds-long Muhammad Ali And All His Friends segues into the twenty second burst of fury that is I'm A Journalist. The latter, singer and guitarist Holly Ross says, is for anyone who has a shitty job. After asking the audience who has a job they hate, they then repeat the song with personalised lyrics for a civil servant called Keith - only at a Lovely Eggs gig would this happen.

The Lancaster punk duo - Ross and partner David Blackwell on drums - have been around for 10 years, releasing four small-label albums, a raft of singles and gigging regularly to critical acclaim. But despite the connections and endorsements - Gruff Rhys has produced them, Chris Packham adores them - they have stayed faithful to their "we do exactly what we like" ethos and remain a true underground band. Having seen them perform at the Green Man festival in Wales last summer, it was a delight that one of the 12 dates on their UK tour was just down the road at the Carlisle, the rock pub on Hastings seafront.

"We like your town," they tell us of their first visit to the Sussex seaside resort. They have spent a lovely day eating Morrisons' sandwiches in Alexandra Park - they were surprised that it is just as bloody cold down here as it is up north - and having their tea in Super Pizza. They have their three-year-old son on tour with them and they'll be up again at six in the morning - so no moaning from the audience about gigs on a work night.

There are those in the boozy crowd who are new to The Lovely Eggs, but they are clearly captivated from the beginning by the clever, funny and touching lyrics and the sheer joyous racket that two musicians are able to make; wherever I look, I see smiling faces. Fuck It, I Just Want Someone To Fall In Love With and People Are Twats are instant singalongs and touch upon universal themes; and as if to prove the point, a twat wanders onto the stage towards the end of the set only to be sent away with a flea in his ear from Holly. With no fake encore (see their website and sign the petition), the hilarious and ever-popular Don't Look At Me - "look at us with our red wine smiles" - provides the rousing finale.

Earlier in the evening, local band The Sine Waves had treated us to a highly impressive collection of space-age surf punk instrumentals. With lab coats, masks and some interesting radiophonic sound effects, they seemed as though they had stumbled straight off the set of The Quatermass Experiment.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Making Mischief and Merry



A male face, with a beard of foliage, peers out of a surrounding of leaves and vines with narrowed eyes and an expression that is either anger or laughter; the folkloric figure of the Green Man is hard to define. Ostensibly a pagan symbol of fertility or a sprit of nature, he is most often found carved in wood or stone as an architectural ornament in churches - or on the signs of many eponymous pubs.

As an emblem of rebirth associated with the growth of spring and the onset of summer, the Green Man is also something of a Puckish figure. Robin Hood and Peter Pan are sometimes claimed as distant relations, as is the Green Knight from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In this 14th century Arthurian romance, Sir Gawain is challenged and tested by the laughing knight who, at the tale's conclusion, is revealed to be something of a shape-shifting trickster.

A closer relation of the Green Man is Jack in the Green. The English tradition of making garlands for participants in May Day parades developed, in the 17th century, to the extent that the leader became covered from head to foot in flowers and leaves; this figure became known as Jack in the Green, a riotous and ribald character. The Victorians frowned on such anarchic behaviour, of course, and May Day parades were sanitised as Jack was supplanted by the more anodyne May Queen.

In recent years, however, there has been a resurgence: mostly revived by local Morris dancers, there are now a dozen Jack in the Green parades that take place throughout southern England each May Day. The most prominent are at Deptford in London, Whitstable in Kent and Hastings.

Hastings' Jack in the Green May Day festival is a four-day hedonistic affair in the Old Town area of the East Sussex resort. The long weekend of merriment, music and Morris dancing includes performances by the Copper Family and Now and Then, and culminates on the Bank Holiday Monday with a wild costumed parade. Setting off in the morning from the fishermen's huts at Rock-a-Nore, Jack is attended by his mischief-making Bogies and other characters, such as Black Sal. The procession finishes with revels on West Hill and the day concludes with the slaying of Jack to release the spirit of summer.

Hastings Jack in the Green May Day Festival is on 29th April - 2nd May 2016. There is more information here.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Tomorrow the World



The last time that Ben Watt was in Bexhill-on-Sea was for an in-store performance at the Music's Not Dead record shop to promote his 2014 album, Hendra. So impressed must he have been with people and place that day, that he returned to Bexhill last night to open the tour for his follow-up album, Fever Dream, with a Music's Not Dead-promoted gig at the De La Warr Pavilion. Watt says that he has had his arm twisted by shop proprietor, Del, into starting his world tour here and his band’s next stops will be London and Tokyo. Such is the bathetic life of international musicians: today Bexhill, tomorrow the world.

Although Bexhill is getting used to visits from big names these days - John Lydon's Public Image a few months ago, Tom Verlaine's Television soon – we are not too spoilt to be thrilled that Watt has Bernard Butler in tow as part of his band, along with sometime Everything But The Girl drummer Martin Ditcham and Aussie jazz bassist, Rex Horan. This is the band that recorded the new album and they sound like a tight unit from the off. The interplay between Watt and Butler’s guitars is a delight and Horan, mostly playing upright bass, underpins their folk/jazz/rock sound perfectly.

Opening with Bricks and Wood from Fever Dream, the new album is complemented with regular double backs into Hendra: Young Man’s Game and Golden Ratio follow before Faces of My Friends and the excellent Between Two Fires provide an indication of how good Watt’s new songs are. Having had a 30-year break in solo activity after his debut North Marine Drive in 1983, Watt has now produced two albums in three years. Explaining this, he recently said, "I felt compelled to write more...I feel I have somehow tapped into a nucleus of myself again lately."

The lively Nathaniel, one of my favourites of the 2014 crop of songs, then ushers-in recent single Gradually, a tender meditation on love growing apart slowly over time, with its desperate refrain of “barely getting through”. After more new material, there are two of the most delicate songs from Hendra – the title track and The Levels - that deal with bereavement after the loss of Watt’s sister.

The set builds to a close with a pair of older songs – 25th December, from Everything But The Girl’s Amplified Heart album, and the beautiful Some Things Don’t Matter from North Marine Drive – before finishing with Fever Dream. On the new album, the title track has a contribution from Hiss Golden Messenger's M.C. Taylor and one of the encores, New Year of Grace, features a Marissa Nadler vocal. The second encore, and final song of an exceptional night, is the piano-led Forget with the pertinent line, “the Sussex Downs after rainfall is as lovely as it gets.” How could Tokyo compete with that?

Fever Dreams is released on 8 April 2016 on Unmade Road.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Close to the Edge



I have an old black and white photograph of myself taken - out of focus - at Beachy Head by my dad on a Kodak Instamatic camera, probably in 1971. I am standing close to the cliff edge, rictus grin of fear frozen on my face, pointing down at the sea 500 feet below. Barely discernible at the bottom of the photograph is the tiny smudge of a lighthouse. Out walking to Birling Gap recently I came across, not only that lighthouse, but another that I have no recollection of from that family holiday forty-five years ago.

The Beachy Head lighthouse is an enduring image: with its red and white marker stripes and its position nestling close to the coastline at the foot of the high cliffs, it has entered our collective consciousness. Ask any child to draw a lighthouse and it is likely that they will produce something like this 140-foot structure that shines a warning light nine miles out to sea just west of Eastbourne.

For the past thirty years, the lighthouse has been automated; throughout the years before that it had been maintained and operated by a team of at least three keepers since its construction in 1902. But the perilous Beachy Head cliffs were not just a 20th century danger to shipping: there had been numerous shipwrecks there during the 17th and 18th centuries which led Sussex Member of Parliament ‘Mad Jack’ Fuller to fund the construction of the first navigational aid for mariners at Beachy Head in 1829, the Belle Tout lighthouse.

The Belle Tout was originally made of wood but the decision was soon taken to invest in the construction of a permanent granite structure. However, it was not a great success as a lighthouse: its location at the top of the huge cliffs meant that it was not easily seen by shipping close to the shoreline and it was eventually replaced by the current sea-level lighthouse.

Despite this, the Belle Tout still exists today but not as a functioning lighthouse. Currently a bed and breakfast hotel, it has had many incarnations since it was decommissioned: private residence, historic monument and film location amongst them. It is perhaps best known as the setting for the BBC’s 1986 adaptation of Fay Weldon’s novel, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, starring Julie T. Wallace and Patricia Hodge. What is most remarkable about the Belle Tout lighthouse, though, is its escape from coastal erosion: in 1999 the building was moved, whole and intact, away from the crumbing cliff, using hydraulics and rollers, to a new location 50 feet further inland. I know what it is like to be too close to the edge.


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Under the Crescent Moon



As a fingernail moon snagged on the cobalt sky and
scudding clouds crested on the high-blown night,
I came to you too late.

As the fading curtain fell to reveal a wave of stars and
a shower of illumination strafed the hardened crust,
I came to you too soon.

As the rising sun breached the curve of the earth and
a fragile hoar frost conceded to the dawn of the day,
I came to you on time.

In the sharp thin air of that tranquil morning,
With gales of ragged breath unfolding at your door,
I came to you.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Beautiful Truth



Every once in a while in music, something comes along that makes you want to shout about it to the world. You become a bore to your friends and family as you take every opportunity to shoehorn it into the conversation, no matter how tenuous it may be. I find it happens less and less as time passes but that thrill of listening to a new album, connecting with it instantly and knowing that - as a whole - it is a work of staggering brilliance, never diminishes despite its infrequency.

Such a thing happened to me a few months ago: hearing a Bill Ryder-Jones track on an end-of-year music magazine compilation CD, I went straight out and bought the album, West Kirby County Primary, that it came from. From first play, I fell in love with the contrast between the tender delicacy of its whispered ballads and the scuzzy lo-fi of its slacker rock. Then I started to mention it. To everyone. And that was when I knew how good Bill Ryder-Jones is - because they all came back just as evangelical about his music as me.

Later, I found out that I had missed seeing Ryder-Jones live by minutes at last summer's Green Man festival in Wales: arriving at the main stage on the first afternoon to await Sweet Baboo, I was unaware that he had just left the stage; I could have been smitten much sooner. So when last night's gig at Brighton's Green Door Store was announced before Christmas, I snapped up some tickets.

Ryder-Jones is modest and unassuming from the start: he thanks us for coming out on a night when there is football on the televison and apologises for not being good at "banter" between songs. We don't care. The songs are so breathtaking live: he has the audience spellbound with the hushed fragility of album-opener, Tell Me You Don't Love Me Watching, and gives us an early treat with the glorious druggy fug of Catherine and Huskisson, one of the album's stand-out tracks.

The set is not all drawn from the current album, though. There is a new number and a quintet of songs, including the beautifully evocative The Lemon Trees #3, from A Bad Wind Blows In My Heart, Ryder-Jones' previous album which is currently on heavy rotation at my house. Wild Swans, with its restrained Northern Soul tempo and recurring refrain of "don't tell me that it's over", is particularly moving.

Halfway through the set, Bill's band - fellow Wirral natives, By The Sea - leave the stage and he performs By Morning I and, as the focus once again becomes West Kirby County Primary, Put It Down Before You Break It accompanied only by his guitar. The latter song feels as though it will fragment under the weight of its own emotion as he sings, "And now I'm throwing up/ Because the things I'm thinking/ Are things I'd like to keep from sinking in." "I'm alright, y'know," he reassures us between songs but the writing is so raw and confessional that we feel for him.

When the band return, there is a run of oustanding songs - Two To Birkenhead, Wild Roses, Daniel, Satellites - to close the set; Ryder-Jones dedicates Daniel to his brother and, from the lyrical content, it is hard not to be fearful of the tragedy it contains: "Like some unopened birthday card I keep you boxed with my unwanted memories/ Daniel belongs to the ocean." And as it moves from bereavement to depression, the narrative switches to a convenient objective voice: "If you take the pills you might not get so ill/ Let's make it easy for you Bill."

The lyrics are personal and heartbreaking and, as he sings on Wild Roses, Ryder-Jones is adept at "turning stories into beautiful truth." A founder member of The Coral in his mid-teens and having left the band ten years later, Ryder-Jones has had his share of difficulties with drink, drugs and a troubled state of mind. But he has no illusions about the romance of music: in a recent interview he declared, "You've already fucking lost if you're involved in it [music]. Artists aren't happy. People who love music aren't happy." I just hope that such a tender soul manages to not snag on the sharp edges of this jagged world.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Love Life



Early in their set at Bexhill's De La Warr Pavilion last night, Savages' lead singer Jehnny Beth emphatically proclaims, with all the force and passion of her vocal delivery, that "love is the answer". A line from the opening song of new album, Adore Life, it is a sentiment that is quickly compromised as the evening progresses. On Sad Person, Beth observes that "Love is a disease/The strongest addiction I know." And it is this contradiction that is at the heart of Adore Life. If the first half of the album's title is in Beth's native French, then this collection of songs would seem to be about the joy, pain and intensity that necessarily accompany a love life.

If only love was as black and white as Savages' image: the monochrome album artwork and the chiaroscuro setting of their live shows creates an aura of studied cool; but this is belied by Jehnny Beth. Cajoling the audience into participation, laughing at a false start and even a spot of crowd surfing ("I can't believe you dropped me!"), there was no distance, only enjoyment in an energetic performance. Perhaps buoyed by the brio of support act Bo Ningen and their Japanese acid noise, the audience respond in kind.

It is over two years since I last saw Savages live and, that night in Brighton, they were full of the post-punk vigour of their debut album, Silence Yourself. Few of those songs featured last night, although the frantic Patti Smith vitality of Husbands is greeted rapturously by the crowd; but the new material shows a band developing. T.I.W.Y.G. sounds as incredible live as it does on record and, on Adore, they demonstrate a sound maturing to include flourishes of light and shade. Gemma Thompson still paints a remarkable sonic landscape with her guitar and Ayse Hassan's rumbling, sternum-shaking bass is much more to the fore. Underpinned by now-seated drummer Fay Milton's rapid-fire staccato drumming, Savages are a tight unit and, after perennial favourite Fuckers, they unite in a sisterly bow to take the audience's acclaim.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

On the Wagon



We are currently in the period of Lent, the six weeks or so that fall between Ash Wednesday and Easter in the Christian calendar. As a reminder of the forty days and nights that Jesus spent resisting temptation in the wilderness, Christians observe episodes of prayer and fasting during Lent. More popularly, it is about ‘giving something up' and, these days, that is more likely to be chocolate, swearing or social media. Lent is also intended to prepare believers for Easter and the solemn marking of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection and all that.

There is no biblical precedent for Lent: like most events in the Christian calendar it is an appropriation of a Pagan festival. The Anglo-Saxon word 'lenctene' referred to the time of year when the days started to lengthen and, after a winter confinement of feasting and wassailing, a period of moderation was required if the land was to be prepared for sowing in the spring. The day before Ash Wednesday is variously called Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras; which one depends on where you are in the world but, whichever it is, it is a carnival day that is the last hurrah before a lengthy period of hard work and abstinence.

With the advent of sponsored 'dryathlons', there is currently something of a trend for this period of temperance to be earlier in the new year; but this is too soon to be on the wagon: January, when the light is thin and the days still short, is precisely the time when we should be holed up at home drinking our way through the most dismal of months. But as the first signs of spring appeared this week, it was a reminder that Lent is a call to lay down the bottle, take up the hoe and get back to the land. So, in the spirit of Paganism, I've given up the booze and started preparing the soil on the allotment. It's tough, but at least the digging is bearable.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

New Dawn Fades



It seemed like a chink of light: last month, the Conservative leader of East Sussex County Council, supported by the leaders of all of the other political groups on the council, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister decrying the fact that cuts to services being handed down by central government would begin to hurt swathes of ordinary people. Councillor Keith Glazier outlined to David Cameron that there were no choices left to make: important frontline services were being cut.

The authority has already made cuts of more than £78 million since 2010 but must now make a further £90 million of cuts by April 2019, including £40 million from its adult social care budget. The Council has now raised its council tax by 4%, including a 2% levy to be spent on adult social care services, and has withdrawn funding from sheltered housing projects, adoption and fostering services, and voluntary groups providing support to the vulnerable. In an area with an ageing population these cuts would, in Councillor Glazier’s words, “significantly reduce the quality of life for many people in East Sussex”.

It was perhaps David Cameron who started this quiet Tory rebellion himself. In November of last year, he hilariously wrote to the leader of his own local Conservative county council complaining about cuts to day centres, libraries and museums in Oxfordshire. The Prime Minister urged the council to make back-office savings, instead; there are none left to make, came back the reply. Then Cameron’s aunt and mother weighed in to the debate, the former calling cuts to children’s services in the area “a great error” and the latter signing a protest petition. And rumblings of discontent were heard in other Tory shires as austerity suddenly looked like something that does not just happen to other people.

If we thought this heralded a new dawn of protest amongst Conservatives, it quickly faded. With a Commons vote on the local government finance settlement imminent, a £300m relief fund was announced last week to buy off a number of Tory MPs gearing up to vote against the government. In a blatant act of nepotism, this extra money will mostly be going to Tory-run counties in the south of England: analysis shows that 83% of the two-year fund will benefit Tory areas. Whilst the most deprived councils in the country – all Labour run – will receive nothing, Cameron’s Oxfordshire will receive £9m and East Sussex £5.44 million. This may have headed off disquiet for now – the amounts of relief are small compared to the scale of cuts to be delivered – but local Tories will need to develop stronger spines if they are to stand up for ordinary people.


Saturday, January 30, 2016

Big Night Out



In the 1980s, I used to watch a lot of stand-up comedy at venues around south-east London, such as the Tunnel Club in Greenwich, Woolwich Tramshed and Deptford Albany. One night at the Goldsmiths Tavern in New Cross, I saw an act I had never heard of before who was billed as Vic Reeves: Britain’s foremost light entertainer. I would like to say that I was ahead of the game in spotting a nascent comedy genius but, in the interests of truth rather than myth, I have to confess I was completely unmoved. In an age of hard-edged political stand-up, I found a man in a suit with a toy monkey unfunny, childish and silly. Hey, ho: we cannot always be right.

When Vic Reeves reappeared a few years later on Channel 4 – now with Bob Mortimer - in Big Night Out, the surrealism, the repetition, the ridiculous characters and, above all, the playfulness with language, were a different proposition entirely. And then, with The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer and Shooting Stars, the duo became part of the British comedy pantheon. They then branched out into television drama and sitcom with Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), Catterick and, most recently, House of Fools.

Last autumn, the pair were set to celebrate 25 years of their partnership with a large venue tour of Britain when the trials of middle-age intervened. Bob Mortimer, complaining of chest pains, was admitted to hospital and underwent triple bypass heart surgery. Having made a swift recovery, the tour has been re-scheduled to start tonight in Leeds. Last night, they played a low-key warm-up show at Eastbourne’s Congress Theatre and, as they took the stage, Mortimer checked his heart rate. Reeves assured him, however, that he would be fine as long as it did not exceed 1,000 bpm.

In a two hour performance, with interval, many of the favourites from across their shows appeared: The Man with the Stick, Graham Lister and Novelty Island, Mulligan and O’Hare, Dr Shakamoto, The Dove from Above and – my personal favourite - frying pans. There is something about seeing Tom and Jerry cartoon violence made flesh and I thought I was going to be sick with laughter as they repeatedly smashed each other in the face with (almost) impeccable timing until Vic pummelled Bob to the ground with a fire extinguisher. Bob, of course, emerged from behind the desk with a massive and distorted head.

It was not all nostalgia for the largely forty-something audience, though: new sketches were projected on to the back screen during costume changes. One, sending up urban free running, was hilarious: “Banksy! Bollards! Graffiti! Stairwells!” With physical comedy that is almost as energetic as it was 25 years ago, I do hope Bob will be okay on their hectic 15-date tour that finishes in London the day after their St. Valentine’s gig in Brighton. As long as he follows Vic’s sound medical advice, he should be alright.