Monday, July 17, 2017

Engels in Eastbourne



In August 1895, the ashes of Friedrich Engels, co-author of The Communist Manifesto with his friend Karl Marx, were scattered into the sea from the top of Beachy Head at Eastbourne. This may seem surprising given that the philosopher, writer and businessman is more associated with Manchester, having lived there between 1842 and 1870, broken only by a five-year European spell in Paris, Brussels and Cologne.

Engels, born in Germany in 1820, was the eldest son of a textiles manufacturer. His wealthy father sent him to England to work in one of the family factories with the hope that exposure to the world of business would rein in some of his liberal political views; it had the opposite effect.

In Manchester, he met a young working class woman, Mary Burns, whose radical opinions were to be an influence on Engels. Burns was his guide to the slums of the city and enabled him to write The Condition of the Working Class in England. Published by Marx in 1845, it exposed the grim effects of capitalism. Engels and Burns stayed together until her death in 1863. They never married as they were both opposed to what they saw as a bourgeois institution.

In 1870, Engels relocated to London where Marx already lived and the two worked on Das Kapital, the masterpiece of Communist philosophy. It was in this stage of Engels’ life that his association with Eastbourne began. The two friends were great enjoyers of the Victorian seaside and they visited many resorts. Margate, Ramsgate and the Isle of Wight were all regular destinations but Eastbourne was where Engels holidayed for extended periods during the summers after he had retired from business. He often stayed at 4 Cavendish Place, just opposite the pier, and it was here that he spent the last few weeks of his life on doctor’s orders before briefly returning to London to succumb to throat cancer. Of all the places Engels had lived, Eastbourne was his favourite and his last wish was that his ashes be scattered there.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Woodlanders



In the summer of 1969, a young Sussex filmmaker took up residence in a van in a wood at Swanbrook, near Chiddingly. He was there to film a family - the Pages - who lived in an isolated and ramshackle house that had no electricity or running water. The head of the family was Mr Page, a gnomic man in his seventies, who lived with his four grown-up children - two boys and two girls - and earned a living repairing old farm machinery with his sons. His daughters kept house, such as it was, gardened and played musical instruments.

The 65-minute documentary that Phillip Trevelyan finally completed in 1971, The Moon and the Sledgehammer, offers a fascinating glimpse into a way of life that was already long dead when Trevelyan befriended the family having heard of them through an acquaintance. The film is shot using natural light, which gives it a magical, otherworldly quality; it has no narrator but is instead voiced with the family members’ answers to Trevelyan’s interview questions. However, Mr ‘Oily’ Page is its star and it is his expression of his rejection of modern technology and loyalty to traditional tools and mechanics that provides the film’s title – the first moon landing was a contemporaneous event.

The family’s self-sufficiency and woodland life seems idyllic and the film has acquired a cult following for its back-to-the-land ethos but there is a sense from some of Oily’s children that life was passing them by and they longed for escape. After Mr Page and his eldest son had died, the daughters were moved into social housing in the 1980s, leaving the remaining son to cling on in the wood. What has become of them now is not known; it is thought that, just like their simple existence, they have not survived into the 21st century.

The film and a documentary about its making are both available on DVD here.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Into the Blue



Stephen Black, otherwise known as Sweet Baboo, tells a very complicated tale of the opening number of his set at the Prince Albert pub: it was originally called Wild Imagination and was the title track of the new album; but Moshi Moshi hated it so much they wanted it left off. So Sweet Baboo retitled another song Wild Imagination, but he is playing the original on tour just to spite the record company. I can’t remember the new title of the original song but it was about trying to persuade Black’s three-year-old son to leave the house more and embrace the outdoors. Are you following this?

This deadpan comic explanation is typical of Black’s between-songs ramblings as he tells us about the space bongo - “people have been going wild for the space bongo” - played by multi-instrumentalist Rob Jones and how the band have slimmed down from a six-piece to three since their last tour. To compensate, he says, they have crammed the stage with equipment; as well as the keyboards and guitars Black and Jones have, there is another Jones - Paul - surrounded by more keyboards than Kraftwerk had between them at the Brighton Centre last week. When things go wrong - as they do a few times - it is all dealt with with good-natured forebearence and a lightning quick catchphrase, "ten years in the biz".

There are some excellent tracks played from Wild Imagination that show the sophistication of the arrangements, the simplicity of the sentiments expressed and the emotion of Stephen Black’s voice. The beautiful Swallows, with its plaintive refrain of “Oh, won’t you come back to me?”, is contrasted with the funk of Pink Rainbow; and songs such as Wild Imagination (the newly titled one) and Badminton capture the bittersweet essence of the Sweet Baboo sound from the previous two albums.

There is a trio of songs from those albums: the glorious Swimming Wild and If I Died from 2013's Ships and the sublime Walking in the Rain from The Boombox Ballads, the track that first caught my ear when I saw Sweet Baboo at the Green Man festival in 2015. However, the stand-out song last night was Clear Blue Skies from the new album. Formless and abstract, it rolls along, swelling and falling, with shimmering and mournful guitars underpinning a lyric of hope and sorrow: "let's rise/ into clear blue skies/ far from home/ clear clear blue/ let's not worry about tomorrow".

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Only Human



Gigs in big venues with prices to match are not where I usually find myself but, thanks to a spare ticket and the largesse of a good friend, yesterday evening I was in a very long queue to see Kraftwerk at the Brighton Centre. The anti-tout requirement for ID to verify named tickets, coupled with increased security searches in the current climate, meant the line snaked all the way to the rear of the venue; but it was a good-humoured queue and we ended up sharing bottles of Becks with a man from Hamburg and his grown-up kids. Very fitting.

A Kraftwerk performance is not an ordinary gig: seated in orderly rows, all wearing our 3D specs with faces raised towards the giant backdrop screen that dwarfs the band, when I glanced back we looked like a congregation come to worship. Calling Kraftwerk a ‘band’ hardly seems appropriate: arranged in a line across the front of the stage, the German quartet resemble operatives on a production line. And on the far left is the foreman, the septuagenarian Ralf Hutter, the only remaining original member since Florian Schneider stood down in 2008.

Having never seen Kraftwerk perform before, it was thrilling to experience those unique sounds in a live setting: the sub-bass was like a punch in the solar plexus and those familiar and much-sampled motifs from Trans Europe Express, Numbers and others were a joy to hear. I was delighted that all bar one of the tracks from 1978’s The Man-Machine LP were played: the title track, Spacelab, The Model, the beautifully evocative Neon Lights and The Robots make this, in my view, Kraftwerk’s outstanding album. Others will disagree, I am sure: there was a lot of warmth in the room for the quintet of tracks from 1981’s Computer World, if that doesn’t sound too oxymoronic, and Autobahn and Tour De France were greeted with cheers.

The 3D graphics were superb and when the curtain reopened for the first encore, The Robots, the band had been replaced by animatronic doppelgangers. Ralf’s, obstinately not programmed in the same way as the other three, stood motionless for the most part and only came to life sporadically to throw some limited shapes. When the curtain failed to close at the end of the track, we were treated to the sight of the showroom dummies being manually removed from the stage. It was a timely reminder that, for all Kraftwerk's automative imagery, they are only human and there are people behind this peerless music.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Waving Flags



The Welsh poet Owen Sheers' 2005 poem, Flag, has an epigraph from Christopher Logue's Professor Tucholsky's Facts. It reads:

'Each man had a liver, a heart, a brain,
and a Flag.
These were his vital organs.
On these his life depended.'

I am not familiar with Logue's poem but in those four lines he encapsulates the burning need for nationalism that is all-defining for some. Sheers' poem goes on, in a form reminiscent of Larkin's Whitsun Weddings, to chart increasing sightings of the Welsh flag from a westbound train. Sheers expresses both pride - "our flag" - and disappointment - "dreams of what might have been" - in his national identity but what is more interesting about the poem is the disparate places he sees the red dragon. We are used to national flags on public buildings - "glimpsed above a town hall" - but Sheers spots them "strung up on bunting...on the flat end wall of a Swansea gym...tied to the side of a SNAX caravan." It struck a chord with me because, not only have I noticed that any lay-by fast food van seems to be obliged to fly the Union Flag as it dispenses tea and burgers to the travelling public, but there seems to be an epidemic of domestic flagpoles in East Sussex.

There are not many villages in my part of the world where there is not at least one national flag being flown from a twenty-foot flagstaff in a front garden. In the centre of Cowbeech there is a cluster of three homes each with Union Flags atop pristine white poles; I am unsure whether this a demonstration of their patriotism or simply to let the neighbours know that, like the Queen, they are at home. In Pevensey, the Union Flags are complemented by many St. George's Crosses and, in Hailsham, the latter has been painted onto the entire end wall of a terrace of houses; this may be a football hangover from Euro 2016 or the owner could just be showing off on Google Earth.

Whether the increase in English flag-flying has been prompted by the rise of nationalism in Scotland and Wales in the wake of devolution, I am not sure. The spread of British flags could be a response to the fragile state of the Union but it is more than likely an expression of anti-EU sentiment and an affirmation of British identity in a post-referendum age. Whatever the reasons, I have to confess to feeling troubled rather than stirred by the sight of these flags. This is a shame but, their appropriation by the National Front in the 1970s and 80s, and the English Defence League more recently, have tarnished them in my mind.

The flag-flying is not all bad, however. There are a couple of houses that I pass daily where the owners seem to have an ever-changing supply of international standards - each day presents some sort of Boy's Own test in identifying flags of the world. But whilst one house has flown the rainbow flag on the day of Brighton Pride, the other was sporting a 'Trump for President' banner last November, an action that could not even be redeemed by their sympathetic flying of a Hartlepool United flag the day the County Durham team were relegated from the Football League.

Although Wemmick tells Pip, in Great Expectations, that he "runs up a real flag...and cuts off the communication" when he is at home, the practice of domestic flag-flying is something that seems to have been imported from the United States. There, however, the Stars and Stripes is enshrined in American life by a ritual - "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America" - recited daily in schools and government institutions. Ours is an old country and I think we will never see such widespread displays of national pride because we are a people who are too relaxed and recalcitrant. A pair of flags I enjoy passing by most of all are flown, I am sure, in precisely that spirit and are on display to puncture the whole puffed-up patriotism of domestic flag-flying: in Maynards Green there is a house that has a large Smiley flag at the top of its flagpole and on the road into Battle there is a lonely cottage that regularly flies the Jolly Roger.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sign of the Times



I had just put up my Labour sign for the County Council elections when the General Election was announced; with such a lack of awareness of local democracy amongst my neighbours, I am sure most of them thought I was just very keen to show my colours for June 8th. My hunch was proved correct when one of them asked where my "Labour thing" had gone after I had taken it down following the East Sussex vote for a respectful period ahead of the Westminster poll. In truth, I was glad to take the sign down - I wasn't looking forward to a General Election: the Conservatives' opinion poll lead seemed unassailable, Theresa May was positioning herself as Iron Lady II and they were set to put Jeremy Corbyn's perceived weaknesses front and centre of their campaign.

Against the odds, however, things started to change: Corbyn immediately looked relaxed and popular on the campaign trail in comparison to May's stilted and staged awkwardness; Labour produced a superb manifesto that promised to scrap tuition fees, protect pensioners and put more police on the streets - and it set out how corporations and the richest would pay for these policies; the Tories produced an uncosted dose of medicine born of the arrogance of a massive poll lead. Reaction was bad to their dementia tax, May u-turned and then lied about it: "Nothing's changed," she snapped at the journalists who had dared voice their derision. May looked weak and wobbly and Labour started to narrow the Tories' lead. Even the hiatus prompted by the terrible events in Manchester has not halted Labour's momentum (no pun intended); they have continued to close in on the Tories in the opinion polls with 24 a point lead now whittled down to single digits.

Be assured the Tories will throw everything at Labour in the final 10 days of the campaign - not about their popular policies but about Corbyn's strength to deal with immigration, terrorism and, of course, Brexit. Expect a desperate Tory campaign to focus on what they see as Labour's glass jaw - the manifesto has less to say on Brexit than other issues; but the die has been cast on our membership of the EU and it would have been a brave Labour leader who bucked the prevailing mood in its heartlands and stood on a platform of reversing the, albeit slim, decision of last June. Although the terms under which we separate from Europe are important, what is more important for Labour in power is to stop the dismantling of the welfare state and the assault on those on low and average incomes through poor employment conditions and frozen pay. If the Leave vote was an anguished howl of pain from 'the left behind', and the Conservatives are intent on delivering Brexit to satisfy them, there will be hell to pay in the wake of a Tory victory when ordinary people realise they are still no better off and quitting the world's second largest economy was not the silver bullet they thought it would be. A Labour government will deal with the lack of funding and investment that is the real issue that affects the marginalised. My sign is back up now.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Wild Abandon



When Sussex Sedition was a physical fanzine written by people other than just me, we had only one editorial policy: all pieces were to be celebratory; there was enough of the negative written word in the world, we decided, and we strived to only be positive. Continuing on my own with this blog, that has been difficult when it comes to politics but in the case of music it has been easier to toe the line: on the rare occasion I have been to a bad gig, I have simply not reviewed it, despite the still-burning desire to share my thoughts on a Jenny Hval performance in Brighton a couple of years ago. That said, I went to Thee Oh Sees gig at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill last night not expecting to write a review.

I have struggled for the past year to share the enthusiasm of friends, music writers and 6 Music presenters to understand the band’s appeal. I am as one with Marc Riley on most things but when I hear Thee Oh Sees on his radio show it sounds as though it is 1973 all over again – like punk never happened. I am immediately transported back to a time when my sister’s boyfriend lived at our house and would blast out his awful King Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator LPs. “You have to see Thee Oh Sees live to fully appreciate them” was the standard response to my complaints and so, when the band’s quickly sold-out Brighton show was transferred to my favourite local venue, I and a couple of other sceptics snapped up some tickets. In truth, I went to bury Thee Oh Sees, not to praise them.

However, even before the Californian band began their set last night, I knew that I was going to have to eat my words. With two drummers front and centre of the stage flanked by leader John Dwyer on guitar and vocals and Tim Hellman on bass, I could feel my sternum weakening when they were only going through their last minute sound level checks. When they began proper, it was an all-out punk rock assault; the energy was ferocious and there was an atmosphere of wild abandon that prompted crowd surfing, the like of which I have never seen before at the De La Warr.

With Dan Rincon and !!!’s Paul Quattrone the dual drummers, this was the line-up that made 2016’s two albums, the band’s 17th and 18th in a 20-year existence, A Weird Exits and An Odd Entrances. What was surprising last night was there was barely a hint of the heavy prog overtones I had heard in their recorded output; instead, it was like Nuggets played by Johnny Moped with a hint of Warsaw and late Stone Roses thrown in. Dwyer used his strapped-high see-through guitar like a machine gun and, in a red and black striped jumper and cut-down jeans, looked like he was menacing the rest of the band to keep up with him.

It was a brilliant no-nonsense performance although, with little between-songs interaction, I have no idea what tracks they played; but as the 75-minutes without encore came to a close, my sympathy was with the drummers who were just showing the faintest signs of fatiguing at the merciless pace. Leaving the venue as converts, we hit the fresh air outside only to realise that the atmosphere and pace had also driven on our drinking at a similarly frenetic tempo.

Monday, May 1, 2017

On the Ballot



"We are now trying to build a Labour Party branch in my village – seven members and counting – with the modest aim of making sure there is always a Labour candidate on ballot papers. More importantly, it is vital that other views are always heard, even in these conservative rural areas."

I wrote the above words in May 2015 in the aftermath of the general and local elections. Labour had lost the former, but had not even managed to put up a candidate in the latter in my area of Herstmonceux. That was when a small group of new, re-joining and established Labour members started to have monthly 'Politics in the Pub' meetings. These informal gatherings were open to newcomers as well and, from this, we managed to dramatically increase membership in the village. Of course, there were one or two high-profile national events in the Labour Party that local membership levels benefited from at the time, too.

Last year, we joined with a neighbouring area and managed to form the Heathfield and Herstmonceux Branch of the Labour Party. And this week, we have one of the original members of the group on the ballot paper in the East Sussex County Council elections in the Wealden East division, which covers Herstmonceux. Our branch also has one of its members standing in the Heathfield and Mayfield division and, across East Sussex, Labour is contesting all bar one of the council divisions. For a largely rural and conservative area, this represents progression.

In reality, chances of success in these elections is confined to electoral divisions in Hastings and Bexhill; but what is important is that we have been able to deliver leaflets, meet people on the doorstep and outside supermarkets, listen to them and communicate Labour's core message of our ambition for a fairer society and the need to protect essential services in health, housing and education.

In two year's time there will be another round of district council elections and, between then and now, we will be moving on from our original modest aim by working hard on the concerns of ordinary people at the most local level so that, next time around, we can represent them.

Jane Vinnicombe and Dave Newman are the Labour Party candidates in the Wealden East and Heathfield & Mayfield divisions, respectively, for the East Sussex County Council elections on 4th May.


Friday, April 14, 2017

Never Stop



Danny Baker never stops. Over three hours onstage at the Royal Hippodrome Theatre in Eastbourne last weekend, with his Cradle to the Stage show, and he barely gets beyond his primary school years and a handful of reminiscences about great comedians he came across in the 80s. But then he has never stopped: nascent scribblings for Sniffin' Glue, a stint at the NME, yoof documentaries, prime time television shows, comedy writing, ground-breaking radio shows and, most recently, autobiography and its subsequent sitcom serialisation. Transferring the raw material from his autobiographies to a stand-up show was supposed to be his swansong before he retires to the Florida Keys but another tour is already booked for next year so that, despite his many digressions ("Now, here's a thing..."), he can at least get onto his adult life proper.

Once he actually starts his routine - we have a very engaging half-hour preamble about why he's actually doing the show - Baker tells warm and funny anecdotes about his dad, Spud, and family life in Bermondsey. These are extensions of the excellent Cradle to the Grave TV show and are all told with Danny's familiar amphetamine delivery: never missing a beat, never drawing a breath. There are great stories about kids and fireworks, insurance burglaries and his dad's general resourcefulness in always chasing the next pound note to provide for the family. It all paints a picture of life on a south-east London council estate in the 50s and 60s which stays just the right side of nostalgic. But when he mentions his mum's jobs at Shuttleworths and Peek Freans, I can't help but feel a little sentimental: my dad worked at Peek Freans when I was a kid and, such were the employee perks, that I was a teenager before I saw what an unbroken biscuit looked like.

After the interval, when he does move on to his career, he attributes his breaks to "dumb luck" - being in the right place at the right time and having perfect recall. Working on The 6 O'Clock Show, his forensic knowledge of obscure past routines enables him to make instant connections with irascible comedians Spike Milligan and Kenneth Williams when the pros around him are floundering. His love of comedy shines through: he talks about Max Miller albums as being more important to him than the contemporary pop music he and his friends were listening to growing up, and he seems genuinely in awe of the fact that he is on a stage where Miller once trod the boards.

He is a marvellous raconteur and, despite claiming to be out of his realm of experience, a natural performer. In fact, his avowal that he is new to the stage is not true: the first time I ever heard of Danny Baker was reading an account in the August 1977 Sniffin' Glue of him jumping up onstage at the Vortex the night Elvis Presley died to berate the punks, who had cheered the news, for being disrespectful to a true rebel. Hopefully, we'll hear that story on next year's tour; but I'm not holding my breath.

Cradle to the Stage is at the Theatre Royal, Brighton on 30th April.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Still Shining



I first heard of the Jesus and Mary Chain in early 1984 but I didn't know it at the time. At a party in London, a Scottish hairdresser called Alan, who had recently moved to the capital from his home town of East Kilbride, told me about two brothers he knew of who spent most of their time in their bedrooms listening to the Velvet Underground and writing and recording songs. They hardly ever went out as even the littlest kids on their estate would shout abuse at them because of their black clothes, backcombed hair and sunglasses in all weathers; but, Alan told me, they had formed a band and, because they struggled to get gigs, they were moving to London. "They're going to be fucking massive," Alan said. If he told me their band name it didn't register; but the other details did - they sounded so appealing. And within a few months, another Alan had stumbled across them and by the end of the year - on the back of a wave of feedback and riot-strewn gigs - I, and everyone, knew the name of Jim and William Reid's band.

It's been a long and winding road from that controversial genesis to their current tour, which took in the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill under a warm April sky on Thursday night: a now-classic debut album that stayed close to their early principles; a follow up with melodic Top 30 hits; success in the USA in the early 90s; sibling hatred and a final album recorded on separate continents before an inevitable split as the millennium approached. Then, a live reformation in 2007 followed by a decade of intermittent and sporadic activity before an unlikely new album release this March, 19 years after the last. Damage and Joy may have been a long time in the making, and the new songs rub shoulders with tracks from 10-year-old side projects, but it all hangs together to make a cracking album.

The set opener, Amputation, is one of Jim's older songs, previously released online under a different title, but it could easily pass for mid-period Mary Chain, a time well represented here with seven songs from the albums Automatic and Honey's Dead. Jim takes sole responsibility for vocals and apologises in advance for his singing on Some Candy Talking as he finds it difficult. There is no need, as his deep world-weary tone sounds perfect. A man next to me complains that the vocals are being drowned out by the guitars. They always were, I say; that's the point. William spends the whole set bent over his guitar, his frizzy mop back-lit Eraserhead-style. With an additional guitarist in the line-up, they create quite a racket; it's loud but not loud enough the same man complains; this time I agree with him.

There is nothing from Stoned and Dethroned or Munki but the songs from Darklands sound magnificent, especially the hyperbolic gloom of Nine Million Rainy Days which starts off the encores; but the encores are all about Psychocandy with a quartet of songs from their debut kicking off with the peerless Just Like Honey. And then we end up where we started with the new album: War On Peace finishes a stellar gig as Jim Reid opines, "I once shone but now I'm old." They might be older but they're still shining.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Great Grandaddy



Jason Lytle seems a little grumpy: the leader of Californian alt-rock band Grandaddy isn't making much eye contact and he dismisses the audience's early attempts to engage him between songs with a curt, "we've got to get to know each other first." And standing behind his keyboard, which acts as a barrier squarely set centre stage and front, you would be forgiven for sensing an air of detachment; at one point he squats down and, still playing his guitar, completely disappears from view for a couple of minutes.

No matter; the music was outstanding at Concorde 2 in Brighton last night: the band's sound was full and rich and the selection of songs stretched from their debut album, Under the Western Freeway, to this year's Last Place. But it was two of the albums in between - The Sophtware Slump and Sumday - that provided tracks greeted most ecstatically by the crowd. Openers Hewlett's Daughter and The Crystal Lake prompted instant singalongs and, after an interlude of new material, He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's The Pilot enthused those there for trademark Grandaddy songs of grandiose emotional sweep, and Now It's On had the crowd bouncing along to its anthemic chug.

The new album, their first since the band split in 2006 before reforming again in 2012 to play some live dates, picks up where the band left off. Some reviews have levelled this as a criticism but I think the new material is excellent. Four of the stand-out tracks - The Way We Won't, Evermore, I Don't Wanna Live Here Anymore and The Boat is in The Barn - were aired last night. The latter, a heartbreaking tale of lost love - "getting rid of all of me is what I figured, delete deleting everything that had occurred, that's when I backed away and headed out without a word" - was one of two encores and the other, reflecting the twenty-year spread of material, was 1997's Summer Here Kids.

With a back projection of slow-filmed natural and industrial landscapes rolling throughout the set, it was a visual as well as sonic treat. And as the set wore on and Lytle's mood improved, it was clear that problems off-stage had been the cause. Whether it was the early curfew - he bemoaned the fact that Concorde 2 turns into "some sort of disco fuckfest" when the band have finished - or that something had been "fucked up", was not clear; but whatever it was, he was keen to reassure us that we "had been great." As had they.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Unknown Pleasures



Having grown up on a council estate in the south-eastern corner of the capital city and always been a lover of the urban environment, it was a surprise to me on moving to the East Sussex countryside a dozen years ago to realise that my appreciation of the cityscape had been overtaken by the feelings the rural aesthetic could inspire in me.

Whereas in the city it was those large-canvas sights - the twinkling lights of the office monoliths on the Isle of Dogs viewed from Greenwich Park, the sunset view up and downriver from Waterloo Bridge – that stirred me, in the countryside it is the smaller-scale that stimulates.

Not for me Arcadian pastoral vistas and roses-around-the-door villages much-loved by traditionalists and those who would seek to preserve the countryside in aspic; instead, it is those minor details, the simple pleasures that take me unawares: a gently curving bend in an undiscovered country lane that hints at promise around the corner; a house on a rising piece of land newly revealed behind a freshly-cut hedge; an abandoned piece of agricultural machinery in a field symbolising the power of nature in its relationship with man. And on a spring afternoon this weekend, a just-ploughed asparagus bed, with its deep shaded furrows and sunlit ridges streaming away from me, reminded me that, in this week of weeks, the horizon is filled with the unknown.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Musical Education



One of my kids gave me a 'proud parent' moment last week. This was not one of those sports day/nativity play/school report type of reasons for a feeling of puffed-up pride. No, this was altogether more prosaic but no less important in my eyes. My 12-year-old son was doing his homework in the kitchen and listening to music at the same time. Nothing remarkable in that but what caught my attention was the song that was coming out if his iPad: as he wrestled with his algebra, he was doing it to the soundtrack of All I Want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit by Half Man Half Biscuit. I could not have been more happy: this was real education. He told me that he had downloaded that track and Time Flies By (When You're a Driver of a Train) to his Deezer playlist (no, I don't know either). However, he had not discovered these songs entirely independently as, with an eagerly awaited Half Man Half Biscuit gig coming up, I had been playing the Birkenhead band a lot lately; but it was nice to know that my children listen even if it's not to the "hang-up-your-clothes-and-tidy-your-room" stuff.

On Friday night, the gig finally came around at the Assembly Hall in Worthing, a venue I had never been to before; not surprising I suppose, as the forthcoming attractions flyer I was handed on the way in indicated that its bread and butter is tribute bands and revival acts. The latter is not a term that could be applied to Half Man Half Biscuit: despite splitting up in 1986 after only being together two years, they reformed in 1990 and have been making music continuously ever since. Favourites of John Peel, Nigel Blackwell's band occupy a unique place in punk and post-punk music with a repetoire of songs that don't take themselves or anybody else at all seriously.

Drawing on the minutiae of celebrity culture, the set starts off with Bob Wilson Anchorman and soon moves further into singalong territory with Fuckin' 'Ell It's Fred Titmus. It's not all minor telly stars and sportsmen, though; Blackwell is a sharp satirist, too. The perfect Paintball's Coming Home is like a musical Martin Parr photograph in its biting observation: "they go ten pin bowling after work and they're getting married on a Caribbean beach...they've got a German Shepherd dog called Prince, the one called Sheba died." And we all join in on the pay-off line, "If I'd known they were coming, I'd have slashed me wrists." There is a warmth to Half Man Half Biscuit songs as well, albeit a nostalgic one. We get a glimpse into that world of broken Subbuteo players and dodgy Scalextric transformers on Dukla Prague and the title track from the Trumpton Riots EP plays on our childhood memories; and pretentiousness is punctured with the rousing Joy Division Oven Gloves, complete with oven glove waving from the audience.

Clever and funny as the lyrics are, it is all superbly underpinned by the band's sound. Neil Crossley (who incidentally is the spit of Dudley Sutton these days - I'm sure there's a song title in there somewhere) and his rumbling bass combines superbly with Blackwell's choppy rhythm guitar and Ken Hancock's ("the first man in Wallasey to have a continental quilt") lead guitar to create a powerful post-punk racket; and as if to confirm it, they play a raucous cover of Camper Van Beethoven's mid-80s classic, Take the Skinheads Bowling - another one for my son's musical education.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

White Light



Shuttling backwards and forwards to Eastbourne on Saturday, ferrying kids to various activities, I was struck by how different the light could be over a stretch of 10 miles. The faint amber glow of warm spring sunlight up on the ridge above the Pevensey Levels soon turned to a smoky haze on the marshes and then numerous shades of grey that blended sea and sky as I reached the misty coast. Later in the day, the sun had conquered all and the sky was iridescent violet and peach.

With light on my mind and time to kill before my final pick-up, I was able to pop in to the Towner and view its current exhibition, A Certain Kind of Light. I always enjoy the hour before closing at a gallery as you can usually have the space pretty much to yourself; yesterday was no exception. Bringing together artworks from over six decades, the exhibition shows how artists have explored various aspects of light, from its power as a source of energy and illumination to its transient and transformative nature.

If the range of responses is broad, so too is the diversity of form: encompassing sculpture, installation, video, photography and painting, the exhibition is a stimulating and satisfying experience. David Batchelor's Festdella, a festive tower of illuminated coloured plastic bottles, greets you at the door signalling the warm and celebratory quality of illumination. I spent 10 minutes at Anish Kapoor's untitled mirror trying to work out whether it had a flat surface that gave a three-dimensional illusion or its concavity actually penetrated the wall; the notes suggested the latter but whichever it was, there was a typically enigmatic depth to the work.

Rachel Whiteread's semi-translucent resin cubes are more an exploration of space than light; moulds of childhood hiding places under chairs, they are reminiscent of her 1993 work, House, that mourned the lost space of the interior of a demolished house. Kate Paterson's Totality, a mirrorball reflecting eclipses around the gallery space was disorientating, as was Runa Islam's video loop of a photographic negative of a woman's intense gaze.

More traditionally, I enjoyed Roger Ackling's patterns of sunlight burnt with a lens onto driftwood and TV Room, Paul Winstanley's almost photographic monochrome painting of light reflecting from the screen and ceiling in a deserted television room in a University of London hall of residence. Another painting that stood out was Elizabeth Magill's haunting study in oils, Without, a deserted and darkened landscape lit only by the stars in the night sky.

As the five-minutes-to-closing announcement was being made, I had just reached the final painting. L.S. Lowry was famed for his populated industrial landscapes of his native North-West, but in later life he crossed country to paint a series of seascapes inspired by the North Sea. Seascape 1965 contrasts the grey of the sea and sky with the bleached crests of the breaking waves and an intense white light that radiates out from the barely perceptible horizon. For all its desolation, the light seems to signify that hope is out there somewhere.

A Certain Kind of Light is at the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne until 7th May 2017; admission is free.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Back to the Future



The Congress Theatre in Eastbourne, the largest on the south coast with a 1700-seat capacity, closed its doors last month whilst it undergoes an interior renovation and the construction of an adjacent welcome building that will house the box office and bar. Due to be completed in late 2018, the refurbishment follows the recent £2 million 5-year overhaul of the exterior. Opened in 1963, this Grade II* listed building has reached a point in its life where it clearly needs some love and attention.

The architects of the building were brothers Bryan and Norman Westwood. Up until then, their Surrey practice had largely been designing laboratories for research institutions and shops, most significantly for long-term client Austin Reed. Such was their expertise in retail design that they produced the definitive text, The Modern Shop, in 1952. After this, they were involved in a wider range of projects that saw them design Liverpool University’s arts precinct, housing for the Greater London Council and the Congress Theatre. It was the Eastbourne theatre that Norman Westwood was said to be most proud of.

Designed in 1958, the Congress was described by the late British-based American architect Rick Mather as having a “Festival-Hall-meets-East-Berlin interior and a dour exterior.” However, it reflected the prevailing trend of the age and its glass, metal and concrete frame frontage are a perfect example of post-war Modernist architecture, whilst its rear elevation owes much to the Brutalist school. Inside, its three-level foyer and the moulded balcony fronts and concealed lighting of the auditorium do, as Mather said, create a Soviet-style atmosphere. Indeed, the last time I was there was to witness the cultural orthodoxy of Reeves and Mortimer.

I first went to the Congress when I was on holiday with my mum and dad at Pevensey Bay. The building would have only been seven or eight years-old then and I do remember it being an exciting and impressive sight for a child of roughly the same age: towering above me on a warm summer’s night, light shining out from its pellucid front, it looked like the future. When I moved to East Sussex permanently a dozen years ago, time had dimmed that memory and the Congress looked as though it was something from the distant past. Next year, hopefully, the future will be back.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Sussex in the City



The common assumption is that modernism belongs to the city: as a form and a concept, it is popularly thought that modernist art, writing and ideas are essentially a reflection of the urban experience. There are dissidents, however: in The Country and the City, the Welsh cultural academic Raymond Williams rejected the opposition of the country as a pastoral idyll and the city as the heart of modernity. For Williams, the divide was a myth and there was an inextricable link between the two; he considered modernism a single tradition expressing a sense of common experience.

A new exhibition in London, in a neo-Gothic mansion by the Thames, would seem to support this idea of a link between the country and the city. Focusing on the extraordinary concentration of artists and writers in Sussex in the early 20th century, Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion challenges the idea of the countryside as an Eden and, instead, presents an area that inspired the experimental and the unconventional.

Created by the Bulldog Trust and curated by Dr Hope Wolf of the University of Sussex, the exhibition contains works from the historical Sussex homes of artists such as Bloomsbury Group painters and designers Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant at Charleston, and the surrealist art and photography of Roland Penrose and Lee Miller at Farley Farm House in Chiddingly. Also featured is modernist art from the collections of Sussex galleries such as the Jerwood in Hastings and the Towner in Eastbourne, and museums at Ditchling and Brighton.

Many of the artists held and shared socialist beliefs and some saw Sussex as a retreat where they could rebel against traditional domesticity by living communally or alternatively. Sculptor Eric Gill was part of a Catholic community at Ditchling Common and his alternate lifestyle tested the boundaries of most people’s idea of common decency. What truly united the artists, though, was the pursuit of innovation and the production of work that challenged traditional ideas about the countryside in the modern age.

Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion is at Two Temple Place, Victoria Embankment, London WC2R 3BD until 23rd April 2017. Admission is free.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Understated



On stage at the Green Door Store in Brighton last night, everything about Nadia Reid’s set was intimate and understated: she asked for the stage lights to be dimmed an inch, for the monitors to be turned down a little and for the audience to shuffle a step nearer the stage to let the rest of the sold-out crowd in at the back of this tiny venue. And then there was the most intimate thing of all: Reid’s voice. Crystal clear and unaffected, she sings with a beauty and a purity that renders her folk/country songs tender and emotional without recourse to histrionics.

I was alerted to this young singer/songwriter’s debut album, Listen to Formation, Look for the Signs, early last year when it was given a glowing review in Mojo magazine. It was only when it failed to figure in 2016 ‘best of’ lists that I discovered that it had been released the previous year; further digging revealed that it actually came out in 2014 in her home country of New Zealand. That she had made such an assured and mature debut at the ridiculously young age of 23 was further evidence of her prodigious talent. Added to this, her admission that she took seven years to write the songs for the album meant that her debut was the sound of her whole adult life: small wonder it is such a considered and confident album.

With Reid on acoustic guitar and Sam Taylor accompanying her on electric guitar, they replicated the haunting Appalachian sound of the album superbly: Holy Low was dedicated to a baby in the audience (yes, a tiny baby) who was born to the sound of Reid’s songs and the sublime Ruby (“Where did my love go? He was the sailor of my ship”) was played at the audience’s request. Even though they were performing as a duo – it is financially prohibitive to bring the whole band over from New Zealand, Taylor told us when we chatted to him after the gig – rockier tracks, such as Reaching Through, were given full rein. The title track from the new album, Preservation, was an indication that the new songs are just as ethereal and, with her material attracting a lot of airplay on 6 Music, she may not be able to remain understated for much longer.

Preservation is released on Basin Rock on 3rd March.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Trudge Life



At one point on stage at the Con Club in Lewes last night, bass behemoth Jah Wobble chuckled to himself that he loves “trudging through the Wobble back catalogue.” If this was trudging, I highly recommend it. Him and his fantastic Invaders of the Heart propelled us through two hours of sterling musicianship, wise-cracking philosophy and some stellar tunes – all underpinned by Wobble’s low-frequency basslines.

It is not all sternum-shredding sub-bass, though: I last saw Jah Wobble in the early 90s when I went to a couple of his gigs in London at the Jazz CafĂ© and the Astoria. This was at the time of his commercial apex with the Rising Above Bedlam album and I remember, at the Astoria gig in particular, being almost induced into a transcendent state by the higher power of the rising and spiralling bass on Visions of You. The same happened again on that song last night and on the final encore, a rendition of Public Image’s Poptones, which must be one of the most gloriously hypnotic basslines ever created.

There were other examples of his work with PiL in the seventies: a drum and bass version of Socialist from Metal Box; a skanking version of the debut single; an epic treatment of the sprawling closer from the debut album, Fodderstompf – still with falsetto chant of “we only wanted to be loved!” But Wobble had a life beyond Lydon and Levene and has an impressive range of collaborations to his name: he has worked with Paul Oakenfold, The Orb and Primal Scream from the dance end of the spectrum and, from the avant garde, Brian Eno and members of Can. How Much Are They?, from his eighties' work with the latter’s Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit, gets an outing and Liebezeit, who passed away this week, is remembered fondly as “the best drummer I ever played with.”

These days, Wobble also strays beyond his own material: the Harry J. Allstars’ Liquidator gets the audience dancing – some of it interestingly interpretive – and features an interval with Wobble at a metaphorical mixing desk orchestrating an hilarious zoomorphic description of all the instruments in the band; and one of the encores is jazz musician Roy Budd’s theme from the 1971 film, Get Carter, with flashes of Jeff Clyne’s elastic bassline.

With a two-hour set and three encores, it was a great gig; band and audience seemed to really enjoy themselves and Wobble cut a dash in his trademark pork pie hat as he prowled the stage. At one point he even choreographed some moves with the guitarist and trumpeter - but they were swaying not trudging.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Do What Thou Wilt



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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Fantastic Voyage



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

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

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

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

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

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