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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts from November 2021

Corvids, redux

No, I still can't tell the difference

As I have written more than once in the past, I can’t tell the difference between a crow and a raven. I still can’t.

Making a cup of tea today, I spotted a huge black thing in the garden out of the corner of my eye. Enormous, it was, or seemed to be at least, having a vicious fight with a seagull over some item of food. The seagull gave up, and the big black bird stalked the grass on its own for a little while. I snapped a picture. That’s got to be a raven, I thought, if it’s that size.

Sky beast

But looking at the picture, comparing it against identification guides, it’s obviously a crow. A big one, maybe, but not really that big in the photo. Still a crow. I still haven’t managed to genuinely identify a raven close-up, although not for want of looking. But then, when I do, maybe I’ll just assume it’s an extra big crow that time? Who knows? Certainly not me, at this rate.

Mid-November, got back on the scene

You know the saying about buses, of course. I hadn’t been to a gig for years until the amazing Echobelly one last month, but then only the other day another one came along. To the Trinity Centre in inner-city Bristol, this time, for Saint Etienne.

Ironically, although I’m now several hours away, this time last year I was living within relatively short walking distance of the Trinity Centre; in fact, it was on my walk to work. It felt slightly strange coming back into my old neighbourhood for the gig, parking in the big shopping centre on the edge of town and walking down River St, Wade St, down to Lamb St, exactly the route we used to walk home from the city centre. The Catholic church, with its sign “No parking except for priest & disabled” still unchanged. And then the Trinity, opposite the angular red-brick police station, standing up in the night like a worn and broken tooth.

I hadn’t done anything to find out who the support act for Saint Etienne would be, so was rather pleased to arrive and discover it was someone who I would have happily paid to see in her own right: Jane Weaver. She slipped onto stage in shiny silver trainers, taking up her spot behind her keyboard before starting to show off the range and the peaks of her amazing voice. “Hey up,” someone shouted from the audience in a vague approximation of Weaver’s Lancashire accent.

Jane Weaver

Lovely though it was to see Jane Weaver live, I wasn’t really there for her and her band. I’ve been a fan of Saint Etienne since their second album So Tough, the one punctuated with audio clips from classic British films like Billy Liar and Peeping Tom between songs. I can still, I think, remember lying on my bed listening to it for the first time, on a cassette I’d probably just bought from Our Price or Andy’s Records, holding the dark green inlay in my hand.* Naturally, when the band and their backing band started to file onstage, I was already excited. They opened with “Like A Motorway”, which I’ve mentioned briefly in the past before going into “Mario’s Cafe”, the opening track of So Tough. I was in heaven. If you’d ever told me, back when I first heard its opening words, that a few decades later I’d have been in the front row listening to the band play that song live: well, I’d never have believed you.

Saint Etienne seem a bit overlooked sometimes. “Are they French,” the guy on the merch stall had said to me whilst waiting for the card machine to work. “Someone behind the bar told me they’re French.” At the very point in time that British “indie” music flooded the world with guitar riffs, Saint Etienne released an album which mixed folk melodies with dance beats and dark, morbid lyrics.** Nevertheless, they have kept going, and rather than focus purely on music have produced what could almost be a gesamtkunstwerk body of art encompassing music and film. You could never mistake them for being French, when so much of their work is devoted to the psychogeography of the Atlantic Archipelago in general and London in particular. I first heard about The London Nobody Knows through Saint Etienne.*** They have started producing films to go with their music: the latest features landmarks such as the Humber Bridge and Scunthorpe steelworks. All that time, though, they’re still themselves. Just as essentially I’m still the same person as I was in 1993 when I first listened to So Tough, they’re the same band too.

Saint Etienne

The three band members do need quite a lot of backup, to reproduce their album sound when playing live. The three band members are supported by a five-piece backing band, including their regular second vocalist Debsey Wykes, formerly of the band Dolly Mixture—she’s been providing additional vocals for Saint Etienne tracks since at least 1993. If you weren’t a fan, if you didn’t know what you had come to see, you could be forgiven for not realising which of the people onstage are the core band, given that Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs both stay at the back of the stage behind their laptops and synths. Bob is older but is still one of the cutest-looking guys on the UK music scene; Pete now has the grizzled beard of a Victorian lighthouse keeper. They say nothing on-stage, other than a wave (Pete) and thumbs-up (Bob) when going on and offstage. Sarah Cracknell is left to stand up-front and do all the talking between songs.

Saint Etienne

If you were a fan, though, then the band had certainly put together a good setlist. This wasn’t one of those gigs where a band with a new album to promote will only play the new stuff and little else. If it had been, it wouldn’t really have been a very long gig in any case, because the new Saint Etienne album is only about 40 minutes long. The main set only contained a couple of tracks from it, with everything else spread across the band’s whole discography. I can understand why Sarah needed a lyric sheet for the complex spoken-word passage in “Girl VII”, one of the tracks included from the band’s first album Foxbase Alpha, recorded over thirty years ago now; if anything, the setlist was focused firmly on the band’s first ten years or so much more closely than anything since. They encored with new Christmas song Her Winter Coat,**** followed by their mid-90s hit He’s On The Phone, the band’s translated take on the mid-80s Étienne Daho song “Week-end à Rome”. “The thing to do when you’re really hot,” said Sarah between songs, “is put on a feather boa.”

Saint Etienne

A second, well-deserved encore, and the gig was over.

For some reason, I’d never ever thought, in my head, that I would get the chance to see Saint Etienne live. I suppose, subconsciously, I thought of them as too much of a studio band, too concerned with electronic effects, soundscapes and found sounds that would always work best in the context of recorded pieces. Naturally, they left out anything with a guest vocalist on it—apart from “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, which sounds just as good with Sarah replacing its original vocalist Moira Lambert, and “He’s On The Phone”, which did feel to have a bit of an empty hole without the French-language spoken-word passage originally provided by the song’s composer Étienne Daho. I didn’t mind; I don’t think anyone minded, although the wide range of people in the audience screaming out to request “Hobart Paving” as an encore were inevitably disappointed. I was tempted to shout out for “I Was Born On Christmas Day”, which also had a guest vocalist;***** but any band heavily-dependent on programmed music is going to be unlikely to be able do impromptu requests in any case. This wasn’t quite as thrilling a gig as the Echobelly one last month, or as intimate a gig as the Echobelly one either; but, as something I thought I’d never experience, as something that also touched on such a large proportion of my life, it’s definitely up there as one of the most amazing gigs I’ve experienced. Top five, say. Top five, definitely. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

* In the weird, associative way that memories work, I also associate my first listen-through of So Tough with reading vol. 1, issue 2 of Modelling Railways Illustrated magazine. Entirely plausible, because both are from 1993.

** If you didn’t follow the link, I previously described “Like A Motorway” as a brave attempt to revive the 1960s “death disc” genre: it’s about a woman breaking the news of her boyfriend’s suicide to people. “Hate Your Drug“, one of the B-sides recorded at the same time—it was released on the single “Hug Your Soul”—is a beautiful song which seems to be about a teenage girl in a coma following an overdose.

*** I thought I’d written about The London Nobody Knows here before, but it turns out I wrote about it very, very briefly on the old blog. So that can be a story for another day.

**** When I first heard “Her Winter Coat”, live at the gig, its slow buildup of instruments reminded me somewhat of the Belle and Sebastian song “This Is Just A Modern Rock Song”. The Hebridean video can’t really have helped with the association in my mind. It doesn’t sound anywhere near as similar on the recorded version of the track.

***** Tim Burgess, in case you were wondering. Yes, the “Tim’s Twitter Listening Party” guy. Oh, in case you didn’t realise, the title of this blog post is a lyric from “I Was Born On Christmas Day” too.

The old gods (redux)

Or, looking at the sky again

Back in August I talked about how Jupiter and Saturn were nicely visible in the sky, but not until well after The Children were in bed. Last night, though, we had a rare family conjunction of myself and The Children being in the same place, on a night when it was dark well before their bedtime, with a largely clear sky. So, the telescope came out.

This was the first time The Children had been able to use the telescope this autumn, the first time since a few abortive attempts just after moving house in February. I was impressed, to be honest, how over nine months they have grown that bit more mature to be able to use the telescope a bit better. Last winter, it was difficult to get them to stand still long enough to look through a telescope properly, difficult to get them to look through the eyepiece without grabbing onto it and swinging it out of position, and difficult to get them to wait patiently whilst I aimed and focused it. Now, though, they managed to do that with a few different things. FIrst we looked at Saturn, its rings angled and nicely visible; then at Jupiter and the four Galilean Moons. I couldn’t really see any cloud bands on Jupiter this time, unlike in August, but nevertheless the children were pretty excited.

There was a fair amount of patchy cloud; some constellations were visible but nothing exciting enough to hold The Children’s interest. In any case, it was almost bedtime. I left the telescope set up, though, and after a few hours the clouds had largely cleared and we went outside again. Orion was just rising; we looked at the nebula, and at Betelguese, and the Pleiades. The night sky, still just as it was last winter.

A prelude

Or, some prehistory

A couple of times recently, I’ve mentioned that I’ve been pulling data off the hard drive of my old desktop computer, nested inside which was the home folders from the previous desktop computer, and nested inside those, those from the one before that. So, lots of rather old files to go through, and there will be more photos to post I promise. One thing I’ve uncovered that I didn’t think I had, though, was a text-only archive of the posts from my old blog.

Back in August I noted that this blog had turned sixteen. This was, in a way, a slight piece of misdirection. I had another blog before that, hosted by an online friend, which had run for a few years prior. Next spring, it will be twenty years since I started writing that site; it lasted just over three before, due to one reason and another, I dropped it and began this one.

Looking back at some of the posts, for the first time in a very long time, I’m slightly surprised by the tone of some of the writing. I had essentially no filter, and openly talked about exactly what I’d been doing, where I would be, visits to the doctor, what clubs and gigs I would be at, things I would never think of mentioning now. I refer to myself by name, which I never do now.

This blog, since its restart, has tended towards fairly long, rambling, in-depth posts in which I can go into a single topic in detail; and partly that’s down to its publish process, which makes it straightforward and simple* to host and manage, at a cost of being slightly clunky to add a new article. Every new post, essentially, requires the whole site to be re-uploaded so that the menus on every page are still correct, and that takes time to do. So, I don’t tend to write small posts. The old blog, managed using Movable Type, was full of one-liner diary entries about what I’d had for my tea, or what clothes I’d just bought.

Not all of the posts are like that, though; aside from some of the very personal things, there is for example a very fun and cheery account of my first proper trip abroad. I think I might actually get around to doing something I’ve been threatening to do ever since this blog first started. The first post on this site is itself a piece of misdirection, claiming to be a clean fresh start whilst at the same time saying that earlier writing might at some point make an appearance. If I can edit them into a format that fits this blog—changing people’s names to make them all consistent, bringing in The Plain People Of The Internet to handle the “fake outside reader” voice which was already occasionally present—without actually losing their style and flavour, I might some time soon get around to doing it.

* Not to mention cheap.

Anonymous from Grimsby

Or, some foundational literature

If you read this blog regularly, or, indeed, at all, you might notice that up above, underneath the name, there’s a strapline. You might have even noticed that, by the magic of JavaScript, it changes to something different each time you load the page. Try it, refresh the page now, you’ll see it change into something else.

There are a few random straplines in there, and they change now and again. One that’s been in there for a while, though, is “Reconciling the seemingly disparate since 2005”. The year, of course, is when this site first started. The rest of it, though, comes from a series of books I first read when I was a child, and which I suspect were a fundamental part of my upbringing, or at least in my understanding of a comic plot. They are: The Bagthorpe Saga, by Helen Cresswell.

I say The Bagthorpe Saga was a fundamental part of my upbringing: in fact, I’ve only even read half of it. When I was a child I read the first five books, either from the library or in second-hand copies I spotted somewhere along the way. I was in my 20s before I discovered another five books had been written that I had entirely missed out on, when I randomly found one in a bookshop. We’ll come to that later on though.

Helen Cresswell, the author of the Saga, was active as a children’s author and scriptwriter from 1960 through to the early 2000s. From Nottinghamshire, she was an author whose work always seemed firmly rooted in the East Midlands, and who is sometimes more closely connected with supernatural fiction than with the farce-style comedy of the Bagthorpes. Her mid-1980s book The Secret World Of Polly Flint came with a map which fits perfectly onto the real map of the Nottinghamshire village where it is set; and her book Moondial, also turned into a famously creepy BBC series staring Jacqueline Pearce as its villain, is set precisely at Belton, near Grantham, inspired by the stories of the real ghosts that haunt Belton House. The Bagthorpe Saga doesn’t involve the supernatural, and is set in a fictional village, but nevertheless feels firmly as if it could equally well be set in Nottinghamshire or Lincolnshire. It starts out as the story of Jack, an ordinary boy stuck in the middle of a family of eccentric geniuses: his father a scriptwriter, his mother an agony auny, and all of his siblings blessed with various academic or musical talents. Jack has no talents, so his uncle comes up with a plan to make him the most special family member of all, by making him appear to be clairvoyant. Naturally, it doesn’t quite work out as planned. In the second book, a feverish competition-entering frenzy results in the family’s pet dog becoming a national star, and in the third, the whole family (except Jack) tries to break as many unlikely world records as they can think of.

I can’t remember how old I was when I first discovered The Bagthorpe Saga, but it was in the period when virtually all of the books I owned—the fiction at least—were second-hand ones randomly chosen by The Mother from the withdrawn stacks in the local library. She didn’t really care about content, theme, order, or anything I have ever been able to identify; so the first of these books I read was actually the third. I was dropped in mid-stream, into a book full of references to prior events handily flagged up by footnotes.* Nevertheless, I picked up on what was going on, and found the whole thing completely hilarious. The idea of a house as large as Unicorn House, the Bagthorpes’ home, was completely beyond my comprehension, as was the idea of a contemporary family having staff: the Bagthorpes have Mrs Fosdyke, a truly sublime cook whose horizons are otherwise inches from her front door.** This didn’t seem to bother me, though; I was bowled along by the sheer ridiculousness of the plots and the comedy set-pieces. Each book, in fact, is more a series of set-pieces populated by stock characters than anything else. Like the best sitcoms, the characters are almost always trapped, unable to escape their own personal torture. This is most literally true in the case of the paterfamilias, BBC scriptwriter Henry Bagthorpe. A common pattern in the books is for Henry to become steadily more angry and at the same time see more and more of his usual lines of escape blocked off by various comic events—his very final resort being leaving to visit Great Aunt Lucy in Torquay, a rich, elderly and morbid woman with numerous loudly-ticking clocks, all wrong, in every room of her house.

As a child I owned copies of the first four Bagthorpe Saga books, collected at various times in the wrong order from different second-hand stalls. The fifth one, I took out of the library. In it, the Bagthorpes decided to go on a “foreign holiday”, to a cottage in a remote Welsh village which turned out to be allegedly haunted. The fifth book also took a somewhat disappointing turn, at least as far as I was concerned. Whereas the first four books were all reasonably self-contained stories, all plotted with an opening, various acts and a climactic finale, the fifth wasn’t. The fifth just…stopped. Mid-story. No conclusion, no over-the-top set-piece denoument,*** just a stop, as if the story just fell off the end of the last page. Just an author’s note, something along the lines of “and there we will leave the Bagthorpes, stuck in this situation, until the next book.” I never did go and get the next book and find out what happened next.

A few years later, though, now grown-up, I was wandering around an Edinburgh bookshop. Idly browsing the New Hardbacks section (never actually intending to buy any), I discovered: a new hardback Bagthorpe Saga book! Bagthorpes Besieged is the ninth book in the series, and I immediately bought it, despite not having read the three in-between. It both starts and finishes mid-story, and has to begin with a quick explanation of where we are in the middle of the current plot. I don’t know if I was just older (I doubt I was wiser), but, although the same elements of farce are still all there, although the plotting is still tight, it seemed a little less fresh and a little less funny than the earlier books. There are a few too many moments when the cleverness of the plotting are carefully laid out, where Cresswell explains outright that character A is talking about character B but character C thinks A is talking about D, so everyone goes away with entirely the wrong idea of things. The events just seem a little too stereotyped and over-the-top. Maybe this is just age; but also, I imagine it’s hard to keep writing as many books as this with the same stock characters and still find new, fresh, ridiculous events for them to become embroiled in.

One aspect of this is that: if you work out a timeline, the events of all of the Bagthorpe Saga books (there were eventually ten) must only happen over barely the span of a year, maybe a little more. The series, though, still tries to stay contemporary even though the books were written over a span of about twenty-five years. This leads to slight oddities here and there. At the start of the series Mr Bagthorpe types all his work out himself and has a single copy of it, which in the mid-1970s was perfectly normal; by the end of the series it seems a strange anti-technology quirk.**** In Bagthorpes Besieged Mrs Fosdyke is an avid viewer of Neighbours, a series which didn’t even exist when the first books were written; in fact, one thing I found slightly odd even as a child was how little TV the family watched in general when in my own house it was on constantly every evening.

The Bagthorpe Saga might be something I have, understandably, outgrown over the years but it still was my main introduction to the world of the farce, and I do still have a special place for it somewhere inside me. Being a precocious nerd with imposter syndrome, I can sympathise with all of the main child characters one way or another: William the electronics geek and radio ham, Tess the oboeist and fan of literature, Jack always worried he’s not in any way special, and Rosie always desperate to catch up with the others and prove herself. Throughout the series, William Bagthorpe’s constant off-stage companion is his radio contact Anonymous from Grimsby, a believer in extraterrestrial intelligence who we never meet directly. Living near Grimsby myself, with my father constantly fiddling with his radio ham equipment himself, I did sometimes wonder if I could somehow slip sideways into the fictional world, almost in the style of Cresswell’s other creation Polly Flint. I never did; but then, I’d never really enjoy the life of Tess or William Bagthorpe. I’d rather just read about them and the constant catastrophes unfolding around them instead. I might not cry laughing at The Bagthorpe Saga any more, but I will always enjoy it whenever I return.

* like this one.

** I did say you can imagine the series being set in Lincolnshire or Nottinghamshire: Fosdyke is a very East Midlands kind of name. Fosdyke is a village near Boston; the Fossdyke is a Roman canal linking Lincoln and Newark.

*** Not to give away any spoilers, but the finale of the second book is particularly over-the-top: for one thing it occurs live on TV.

**** He does start using carbon paper after one particular catastrophic incident involving his four-year-old niece.

Postcards from the Western Edge

Some art I produced, a while ago now

Social media might have many downsides, but one of the benefits—of one of the megacorporations, at least, you probably know which one—is that it reminds you what you were doing On This Day so many years ago. Yes, I know, before anybody points it out, I could…

The Plain People Of The Internet: …look through the calendar pages in the menu on here and remind yourself?

Exactly, thank you for interrupting. But that’s not quite the same. For one thing, this site has had a few long hiatuses. For another, it’s carefully curated, it’s not full of…

The Plain People Of The Internet: You mean you actually put some effort into writing this?

As I was saying, this site is largely, at least in more recent years, more carefully-curated longer pieces of writing which don’t necessarily give me a reminder of what I was doing on any particular day. If you want the stupid jokes, the snapshots, the reminders of where I was on any given day, you have to head over to other social media. Which brings me round to: what I was apparently doing on this day in 2012. Making a drawing, which I’m still quite pleased with.

The ruined chapel

There’s a clickthrough on that, if you can’t make the text out. The shape of the building is based on the medieval churches of the Outer Hebrides, from numerous plans I drew when I was there around the turn of the century. The title and key read as follows:

Plan of Ruined 13th Century Chapel On Edge Of Cliffs Of Remote Despair

A: Ground level shelving steeply to SW
B: Surviving buttressing at base of wall
C: Collapsed archway
D: Possible aumbrey or similar structure
E: Surviving door post
F: Location where I buried the ashes of my heart
G: N. corner of wall destroyed by explosion of emotions
H: Here I slept until I could move again

When I drew this, I meant to draw more, but I never did. Nevertheless, I still do have the original drawing of this in the spiral-bound book you can see here. Maybe I should make some more at some point, when inspiration strikes me. Maybe I will.