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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Post Category : Artistic : Page 1

Ahead of the curve

On never really understanding the popularity of something

It’s shaping up to be another quiet month on here. December is the tiredest month, after all: next week it’s Christmas itself, last week it was the office party, and in between I am at home worrying whether all the presents will get delivered in time. Time, then, to pull another old post from the backlog of drafts and get it into some sort of shape.

On Twitter over the past couple of years, it seems as if some arguments or some topics seem to come around, be propelled back into the spotlight, on a very routine and predictable schedule. An example in point: the multimillionaire writer Joanne Rowling, who seems to be unable to avoid the temptation to say controversial things on the internet which seem to have alienated huge swathes of her previous fanbase. As I said, Rowling is a multimillionaire, multimillionaires can afford expensive lawyers, and as such I am carefully stepping around the things she has said—which I, personally, have found genuinely very offensive—without describing or repeating them. In any case, offensive words are best left to wither away and drift off unheard into the wind.

The point of this post, though, is to write more about Rowling’s work than her political beliefs. It’s to say, out loud, something I’ve hinted at on here before, but never actually said out loud for fear of offending people. A dark secret, you could call it. I don’t have to go around throwing Potter merchandise or books in the bin, because I’ve never really thought Harry Potter was very good.

There, I said it. Harry Potter was never actually very good. I’ve kept quiet about this because I’ve had various close friends who, absolutely, adored it. My ex-partner H, for example, who had me take her to a midnight book launch event for the final book. Or Colleague Em, who I went to see one of the films with. I’ve still never seen all of the films, but did like their aesthetic* and did somewhat admire the way they turned a sow’s ear into, maybe not a silk purse, but something much more focused and better-structured than their source material.

My first memory of Harry Potter, the book series, is of seeing displays of the books in Waterstones in Edinburgh, back when the cover of the first was a slightly cartoonish drawing showing a steam train next to a modern InterCity one, so you can understand why it piqued my interest. I didn’t really find out what it was about, though, until a year or two later when the hype machine had started to kick in, and you started to see newspaper articles about how adults were furtively reading this “children’s book” on their morning commute. Part of that machine, you might have heard, was the whole story that she wrote the first book sitting in cafes in Edinburgh whilst living as a penniless single mother.

It was at this point I started to become wary. Back then, these stories often didn’t just talk about generic “Edinburgh cafes”. They talked about one specific cafe, Nicolsons, on the corner of Nicolson St and Drummond St. I knew it well: I spent four years studying within a stone’s throw of it, some of those years living within a stone’s throw of it too. I say “I knew it well”: I mean, I walked past it several times per day, and if you’d asked me directions to it, I’d have done fine. I went in it exactly once, the whole time I lived in Edinburgh, because when I lived there, it was the posh cafe in the area. It was the one that gave you mini doughnuts when you ordered a hot chocolate. It was certainly not one I could afford to go to very often. If I wanted to eat out I’d go to the City Restaurant,** or to a greasy spoon in Nicolson Square where I once received an unexpected shower from a sudden leak in the ceiling above me. If I wanted a coffee, I’d go home. Nicolsons? Too expensive for a student, even one with a grant and a part-time job. So I’ve always been somewhat suspicious.

Only today, as it happens, doing background reading for this blog post I discovered that Nicolsons belonged to someone in Rowling’s family at the time, and all of a sudden the story, or rather the promotion of the story, begins to make a little sense. I didn’t know that back at the time, of course; and a year or so before I left Edinburgh Nicolsons closed and was replaced with a Chinese restaurant. Other Edinburgh cafes picked up the mantle of claiming to be “the place where Harry Potter was written,” much as almost every town in Britain has a “Charles Dickens slept here” plaque if you look hard enough.

Aside from the whole question of where it was written, and how genuine that story was—which is somewhat irrelevant to the content of the books themselves—I was left entirely cold by descriptions of the story. Now, I can understand reading (or writing) books about magic. I can understand wanting to read P G Wodehouse, or to an extent even Enid Blyton.*** I was baffled by the concept of somebody wanting to write a school story in the modern, forward-thinking and progressive 1990s. Particularly a school story in which the boarding school itself was the place of safety, of order and authority, and of home. A book that posits that setting must surely be a deeply reactionary, conservative book, whichever political party the author is giving money to. Without ever reading the book, I already knew that much. As we’ve seen over the twenty-something years since, it turned out to be right.

You can see echoes of Rowling’s recent behaviour early on, in her response to whether or not it made sense for Kings Cross station to have a Platform 9 3/4, when at Kings Cross—like most large UK stations off the top of my head—platforms 9 and 10 face each other across a pair of tracks, rather than being back to back. From memory: her response was that she’d been thinking of Euston, from a time in her life when she regularly caught the train from there to Manchester. Which is fair enough, except that at Euston platforms 9 and 10 also face each other across a pair of tracks; and they’re only used by the local trains to Watford.**** It seemed odd at the time to double down rather than admit to a mistake or—as you might expect an author to do—admit to inventing something fictional in which the details don’t need to be strictly real and parallel with the real world. Nowadays, it seems more characteristic.

Harry Potter was an important part of many of my peers’ formative years. They—the ones that are my friends, at least—have distanced themselves from Rowling’s politics, and have learned to detach the art from its creator, much as I try to listen to the music of The Smiths without thinking of the politics of the lyricist. I don’t feel any pride in always being a wee bit suspicious of it, or in spotting these holes early on. Nevertheless, it does give me a slight advantage. Never having been fully into it, I don’t have to dissociate myself from it now. That’s something, I suppose.

* although A Series Of Unfortunate Events did the same aesthetic, better.

** Everyone who has lived on the South Side knows the City Restaurant; it’s an institution, although when I arrived in Edinburgh there were people who genuinely told me it just hadn’t been the same since they changed the chip fat in 1995.

*** I should add, I’ve never read any of Blyton’s “school stories”; the Famous Five books are all “what we did in our holidays” stories. I wondered even at primary school age, if you counted up the number of Famous Five books and the number of school holidays you get per year, surely they must be into their twenties by the end?

**** Edinburgh didn’t even really have a platform 9 back when Harry Potter was being written, in case you were wondering if that was the source. Back then, the only platform numbers under 10 were 1 and 7, a relict of the way train services eastwards and southwards from Edinburgh had been cut back in the 1960s. The track for platforms 8 and 9 survived, as little stubs used in the daytime to store the engines used by some of the overnight sleeping car trains to the north of Scotland which split or joined portions in Edinburgh in the middle of the night.

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.

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.

On Cleethorpes Beach (part two)

A postapocalyptic folk-art wonder

A month or so ago, I wrote about going walking on Cleethorpes Beach in the early morning, and I said at the time that as the tide goes out and comes back in, I would come back here with more to say about it. Well, I’m not the only one. Yesterday The Guardian published a travel article about just how nice a place Cleethorpes is to visit, including the beach of course, and including the thing I was always planning to write about in Part Two. So, before you click on that link there, read this first.

If you walk along the cycle path that divides dry land (and miniature railway) from marshland, and look out to see, you might from some spots see a flag fluttering out in the dunes beyond the marshes. If you wander along the tideline, let the marsh fall between you and the dry land, and wade across the beck, then you will start to see a strange, organic growth on the horizon, between the dunes and the smooth tide-washed sand, with flags flying above it. The flags are usually tattered and torn, because they don’t last long in such a windy spot.

A growth on the horizon

As you get closer it becomes a strange agglomoration, as if something has grown out of a strange affair between the sea and the marshland. Every surface is covered with something, with writing, with ornament, with rope, with decoration.

The bench

This is the Buck Beck Beach Bench, named after the beck which we waded across on our way here. If you look closely, you can see there are places to sit, although they are hugely overshadowed by all the other decorative parts of the structure.

The bench

It all started, apparently, a few years ago. A couple of the local dog walkers, who visit the spot regularly, fancied having somewhere to sit and take a break midway through their walk. They pulled together a few big pieces of driftwood, and made a rough bench, which they could sit on when passing. And from there: it just grew. More people added new parts, and started to nail and screw it together to make it a bit more robust. People started to bring decoration, to specially make signs with their name on and add it to the bench. Slowly, without any single guiding hand, it turned into the structure that’s there today.

The bench

You might be able to see changes between one of the photos in this post and the rest, because one was taken several months before the others: the tattiness of the flags is a clue. Some people must bring things a long distance, must bring hammers and nails to make their mark on it. Every winter parts get blown down or washed away, and each time people come and try to mend things, try to bring the bench back the same but different. A community has built up around it now to take care of it, to try to ensure that it is built up from wood and that plastic parts are if possible removed, and to generally make sure it stays safe and well-maintained.

The bench

If you are at the bench, it looks as if there is a tempting direct path straight back in a line to dry land. It’s not. What looks like a path actually leads straight through a bed of thick, sticky, black mud, as my friend Ms T. found when she tried it. The safe route is much longer and contorted, with a large double-back to it, and still is rather dangerous at times due to the creeks winding through the marsh, several feet deep at high tide. As I said I prefer to wade across the beck at low tide, when it spreads out across the sands into a delta a mere few inches deep. The most dangerous route of all is to cut directly across to Cleethorpes seafront, through a maze of flooded channels and sticky mud. There is a firm bar of sand out near the bench itself, but walking from that bar across to the Prom is much more hazardous than any other option.

Nothing lasts forever, of course, everything grows and then fades once more. Maybe the bench will become a victim of its own success, now it’s appeared in the national press. Maybe it will keep growing and evolving and changing until it is unrecognisable; until it will become almost a castle of gnarls and tangles, or picks up its feet and begins to walk. Right now, though, it is a lovely spot to visit, a lovely spot to clear your mind, a spot to sit and watch the waves go by. May it stay so, at least for now.

Dark therapy

Or, going to a gig for the first time in a long time

There’s nothing quite like going to see a gig, is there? I haven’t been to see a gig in years—let’s not even count them—but there’s still nothing quite like the thrill of going into the dark venue space and seeing the empty stage all set up and ready.

There’s nothing quite like going to see a gig in a little local venue, is there? I mean, the sort of venue that is a properly local space for new talent to practice and learn their stagecraft, the sort of venue where there isn’t a backstage, the bands have to squeeze through the audience to get on and off, and the stage is really just a raised area at one end of the room.

There’s nothing quite like going to see a band that you’ve loved for years, either, is there? The sort of band that you loved in your teens and you still love their new material now, because they’ve grown and developed as you’ve grown and developed.

So when I heard that Echobelly were playing Le Pub in Casnewydd/Newport, obviously, I had to get a ticket. I’ve been listening to Echobelly ever since their early single “I Can’t Imagine The World Without Me,” which I bought in cassingle format in its first week of release.* For my first gig in many years to be one of my favourite bands, at a tiny little venue, it seemed as if all the stars were in alignment.

The support were a local band called Murder Club, an excellent four-piece group who call themselves “the quiet grrrls of riot grrrl” and who might well end up being the next big thing on the South Wales music scene, even though it’s a crowded place. Their drummer was also doing duty checking tickets on the door, and their keyboardist said: “Thank you for coming to our gig!” to me as I went in. It was just a shame their set wasn’t a bit longer, because their songs were great.

Murder Club

After Murder Club had left the stage, the room started to fill up** as Echobelly started to put their equipment together. Until, finally, all went quiet, and the band squeezed their way through the audience and into position. And then, it was time.

Glenn and Sonya of Echobelly

Given what I said at the start, you can hardly expect this to be an impartial critical review.*** As soon as Sonya Madan sang the opening line of the first song—I think it was “Gravity Pulls”—I was bowled away. To hear songs I’ve heard the recorded versions of time after time after time, sung live, with the band only a couple of feet away from me, was almost overwhelming. I must have been grinning like a loon throughout.

“I can’t bounce about on stage like I normally would,” Sonya apologised. She’d fallen off the stage at their previous gig, apparently, and one foot was still recovering. Still, she managed to move about and take full control of the stage, even if she couldn’t really be seen from the back of the room. The whole band clearly loved being there to perform, and Sonya encouraged everyone to join in with a couple of the more anthemic songs, such as “Great Things” and “King Of The Kerb”. “We love to hear you sing along,” she said.

A couple of photographers were slipping in and out of the crowd, recording as much as they could. I did pull my phone out of my pocket every so often and try to take a quick snap or two, but as I was concentrating on listening to the music, the results are almost all terrible.

Sonya Aurora Madan

Bassist James of Echobelly

I wasn’t there to take photos, though, I was there to gather memories.

Sonya Aurora Madan

Sonya admitted they couldn’t be bothered—given the state of her foot—to pretend they hadn’t planned to do an encore. They played the “final song”, took their applause, then after some slightly comic and sarcastic chants of “More!” from the audience, went into the encore. The main set ended with “Scream”, the encore with “Dark Therapy”. Both are among my favourite songs of theirs, and I couldn’t have chosen better ones to end on. For my first gig in many years, it was a perfect night.

* It wasn’t the first Echobelly release, but it was the second single from their first album. They’d released an EP and another single before that.

** As an aside here, I’m always a little bit disappointed when people get tickets for a gig and only bother to see the headline act. So many people do it, and it’s such a shame, because it’s really important to support bands when they’re on the way up as well as when they’re at the top. Mind you, maybe I’m biased, because at the very first gig I ever saw, the support act was an unknown (to me at least) local band who went on to become major international stars.

*** You might also have noticed I didn’t give you any clue at all what Murder Club actually sounded like, which would make it a pretty rubbish review really.

Books I Haven't Read (part twelve)

A journey of discovering a book didn't need to be read

It’s always nice, when you go away and rent a cottage for a few days, to see if it’s been furnished with any interesting books. Sometimes you’re unlucky, and there’s nothing at all, or something worse than useless that charity shops would turn away. Sometimes, though, there’s something good: a book that makes you think “oh, I’d have read that if I knew it existed,” or something relevant to the local area. When visiting Calderdale a couple of years ago I found a fascinating book about the in-depth history of the parish we were staying in, right down to the surviving evidence for its medieval boundaries. Well, I thought it was fascinating, at any rate. Naturally, as you can’t take the books home with you, there’s a pressure to at least finish enough of a potentially-interesting one to see if you might want a copy yourself, or read the whole thing before you go.

For the past few days we’ve been staying in North West Wales, riding on trains, rambling about a bit, sending photos off to various people among the cast of characters that occasionally pop up in this blog. In the cottage we’re staying in there’s only a handful of books: some vintage ones clearly bought purely as ornament for an awkward corner, and a basket of a few local interest books, mostly fairly dull: technical climbing route guides for example. There was one, though, that looked like it might be an interesting read. If you’ve read the title, you probably guessed that I didn’t finish it. The Hills Of Wales by Jim Perrin.

Perrin has been an outdoor writer for many many years. He pops up fairly regularly in the Guardian‘s “Country Diary” column. I’ve never been able to read any newspaper’s “Country Diary” without thinking of Evelyn Waugh’s famous Scoop!, in which the hapless diarist is accidentally packed off to become a war correspondent, but Perrin is as far from the pale, inexperienced and incompetent journalist in that novel that you could imagine. He’s an elderly man, and has been walking the hills and landscapes of Wales for many, many years. Myself, I’m very interested in the hills and landscapes of Wales, so I thought it would be a natural fit.

The biggest structural problem I have with the book is that it’s collated from various short pieces of work written at scattered times over the last thirty years, rearranged and grouped together geographically, so that a certain block of landscape (Meirionydd, for example) is kept together in one place. This leads, though, to a lot of repetition. The same descriptive lines about each hill reoccur, the same anecdotes. Picking it up to read half a chapter at a time, without a bookmark, I found myself flicking back and forth unsure if a particular line was one I had read previously or not.

More than that though, I started to find the content of the book, on some level, distasteful. It’s something that I find in quite a lot of nature writing, unfairly or not. It is focused very much on a particular way of enjoying the countryside, one that is focused very much on personal remoteness and on a particular rural aesthetic. On the countryside being used in the right kind of way. Traditional farming: good. Authors and artists moving out to the country to get in touch with their underlying roots: good. Archaeology: good. Wind turbines: bad. Industry: bad. I don’t want to call this classist, I think that would be wrong, especially given the history of class involvement in the countryside right-to-access movement over the 20th century. It’s certainly, though, a very elitist view of the countryside, of the right reasons to be there. There’s no space in it for a lot of the people who use it, or a lot of the people who actually live there day-to-day.

So, I’ve given up on The Hills Of Wales before reaching the end. It’s a personal book, sure, but it feels such a one-sided book that I feel I could never be friends with it. I closed it, after another anecdote about a great countryside-loving man the author once knew, with the feeling in the end that all the hills of Wales were one and the same, with the same cast of artists and poets and romantic lone shepherds populating them. That, surely, must be the opposite of the author’s intention.

Yet another crafting project (part three)

Or, cross-stitching progresses

The post-house-move unpacking has reached the point now that most of the day-to-day things are all unpacked and sorted out. That doesn’t include all of the various bits of hobby equipment, but it does include the cross-stitch project that I’ve posted about a couple of times previously. Indeed, this weekend I reached the point that all of the cross-stitching itself was done.

Cross-stitching done

Hopefully you can tell what is it now: a group of Norman soldiers in the style of the Bayeaux Tapestry. If the pattern still looks a bit sketchy and incomplete in parts, that’s because this kit also includes a rather large amount of backstitch, particularly backstitched chain mail. We could be here some time. Still, I’ve made a start at least.

Some backstitched detail

So far it looks a bit neater than I was worried it might.

The other posts in this series are part one, part two and part four.

Changing tunes

Thoughts from the history of music

I mentioned the other day about having a backlog of ideas to write about without forgetting what they are. Some of them have been bubbling around for a few years now, when I’ve read a book or watched something on the telly. For example, a few years ago I was given a copy of the book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story Of Modern Pop by Bob Stanley. For the past thirty years or so, Stanley has been one third of the band Saint Etienne, who I’ve loved almost as long, and who right from their start in the late 80s have made pop music that cuts across categories, combining fantastically catchy pop hooks with lyrics that are pitched at just the right level between meaningful and slightly inane; but at the same time squeezing in London hip hop, club beats and art school sound collages. Their first album combines pop bangers like “Nothing Can Stop Us” with voice clips of Richard Whiteley and Willie Rushton; the second has excerpts from the 1960s British films Peeping Tom and Billy Liar, and a man ordering chicken soup.* Their songs “Like A Motorway” and “Hate Your Drug” are arguably the best attempt anyone has ever made to revive the 1960s “death disc” genre,** but at the same time they care as deeply about London psychogeography as Geoffrey Fletcher, Iain Sinclair or Patrick Keiller. In short, they cover such a broad area in their music, that it is not surprising Stanley wrote a broad, broad book.

Yeah Yeah Yeah is a history of British and American pop music from roughly 1945 to 2005 or so; the start and finish dates are a little vague, but it was intended to be the history of British and American pop music over the years that the 7” vinyl single was the dominant distribution format. Naturally, though, it is a history of pop music that doesn’t at all mention Saint Etienne; they are gracefully elided from the chapters they would naturally fit into. I wasn’t really surprised; it would seem a bit gauche to pretend to write about yourself in the same detached and journalistic style as the rest of the book. It left me thinking, though, how would Bob Stanley have written about his own band if he hadn’t been in his own band himself? It’s another of those impossible counterfactuals, one even more unlikely that most, but nevertheless I find it an interesting thought.

I personally became interested in pop music at the end of the 80s and the start of the 90s, something of a strange period that’s often considered a somewhat empty one, a period in which music was doing little more than treading water waiting for the 90s to start. Music from before that period is something I largely know about purely by the regular processes of cultural assimilation (aside from that covered in the folk-focused Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music by Rob Young). The Parents had a very curious, eclectic and limited record collection, which I naturally went through as a teenager, but it gave me a very one-sided view of things. The Mother seems to have been a sucker for the slightly-novelty single when she was younger: her 7”s included “Deck of Cards” by Wink Martindale, the original Doctor Who theme, and “Dominique” by The Singing Nun. She’s also rather liked rock or pop versions of older orchestral music; in the 60s she was buying “Grieg One” by The Second City Sound***, and at the start of the 80s she often listened to the band Sky, with their electronic versions of classical standards.**** Naturally, my knowledge of popular music from before “my own time” ended up being very strange, patchy, but with a deep knowledge of some curious corners. Yeah Yeah Yeah therefore was a fascinating synthesis, a map and a guide to a vast and complex landscape where previously I’d only seen the summits of the mountains peeking through the clouds.

The last portion of the book, though, I found less satisfying. Not just because Saint Etienne weren’t in it, but because in general my own musical tastes have tended towards the slightly niche and obscure, and those particular niches just don’t get swept. In particular I used to be a big fan of Belle and Sebastian. More recently I have gone back and explored some of their own influences, such as Felt, or some of the bands which recorded on the Sarah Records label. These are niches that tend to be seen as not just obscure but wilfully obscurantist, even though that is a very long way from the truth.***** I wasn’t surprised that my own particular hobby-horses were not deeply investigated, but it felt a shame that the 90s in general seemed to be quickly skimmed over. Possibly this was because Stanley felt unable to handle the days of the CD single; I wondered more, though, if it was a general reluctance to deal with the area he felt personally involved in.

The rise of streaming services is often given as something which has fundamentally changed the popular music landscape; and it is indisputable that the music scene today has changed completely from what it was 20 years ago. Personally, though, I feel the change wasn’t driven so much by streaming, but by communication; by MySpace letting every single band in the known universe put up their shopfront and become known across the world. It immediately broadened the scope of every music fan: the trickle of information about new bands that came from the weekly music press suddenly became an unstoppable flood. I, for one, felt that in 1995 I could at least be aware of all the bands in the genres I cared about, but by 2005 that was becoming completely impossible. I can also see how, if you were to write a book about pop music, continuing it past 2005 would seem impossible too.

When I reached the end of the book and read the acknowledgements, I wasn’t surprised. Yeah Yeah Yeah was put together with the help and influence of a number of key members of the ILX forums. Personally, I haven’t used ILX for more years than I really want to think about; but when I saw many named I recognised from ILX in the back of the book, I suddenly realised why some of the book’s arguments and standpoints felt so familiar to me. Of course, given I was a fan of Stanley’s music all along, given I have always been a fan of syncretic, holistic thought and of “reconciling the seemingly disparate”, I would have agreed with much of it in any case. As books go, this one will be staying on the bookshelf.

* One piece of trivia I only discovered when fact-checking this post: the woman on the sleeve of their first album, Foxbase Alpha, is apparently also the woman who says “Can I take your order?” on “Chicken Soup”.

** Yes, it’s a real genre. You probably know the most famous “death disc” track, “Leader Of The Pack” by The Shangri-Las. Incidentally Saint Etienne’s discography is awfully complex and only partially available on streaming services; “Hate Your Drug” was a B-side to the single “Hug My Soul” and an album track on some versions, but not all, of Tiger Bay—it wasn’t on the original UK release. For reasons I have never understood, the rear sleeve of “Hug My Soul” features a black and white photo of a kitchen with random items labelled in Icelandic.

*** If you’ve never heard of The Second City Sound, it’s OK: I suspect The Mother only knew of them because she lived in said second city and they were a local band.

**** Later on still, when she no longer came across new music herself, I managed to get her into William Orbit and The Penguin Cafe Orchestra: I figured they were exactly the sort of thing that would follow on from her previous musical habits.

***** Incidentally over the years I’ve seen many people say they thought Belle and Sebastian would have been a perfect Sarah Records band, if Sarah had still been around when the band formed. I don’t think is true at all; moreover, I feel anyone who says that can only have a wild misunderstanding of Sarah’s aims and purpose. That, though, is a topic too large to fit into this footnote.

Yet another crafting project (part two)

Things slowly take shape

There are lots of ideas I’ve had for things to write on this blog, that are slowly building up, and that I haven’t written about—in fact, I’ve added two more whilst drafting this paragraph in my head. They all involve lots of effort, though, lots of planning and drafting and assembling ideas; and right now all my energy is being taken up by work and by various other things. So when I sit down in an evening, I don’t have enough process space left in my head to write anything in-depth on here. Instead, I’ve just been getting out the cross-stitch project I wrote about last week, because it’s nice and easy to get it out of its back and sit on the sofa methodically counting and sewing and counting and sewing.

Last time, I said I’d let you guess what it might be, when it was basically nothing more than a blue banana shape. Now, if you ask me, I think it’s much much more obvious.

Now that has to be a bit clearer than before

However, I’ve spent hours poring carefully over the pattern that came in the kit, planning which part to work on next and double-checking I’ve put all the stitches in the right place. To me, it’s inconceivable anyone wouldn’t be able to recognise what it is, but I’m rather biased.

The other posts in this series are part one, part three and part four.