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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Post Category : Artistic : Page 1

Being on the fringes

Or, some reflections on Edinburgh

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe has been in the news lately, as many performers were upset that it’s not having an app this year, which led to news stories that some comedians are giving up on it altogether. Which made me feel a little bit on the old side, because when I lived in Edinburgh smartphones weren’t even a thing, an app was unheard of, and you navigated the Fringe using the official programme, ThreeWeeks magazine, and the hundreds and hundreds of flyers constantly thrust at you in the street. ThreeWeeks was the new, modern innovation at that point: I recall, when I first moved there, one of my flatmates proudly telling me about the new Festival reviews newspaper some friends of his—from the EUSA weekly freesheet Midweek—had started putting out when Midweek was closed for the summer.

This isn’t, though, meant to be a “ooh, now, back when I was a wee girl…” post, because generally I try to avoid that sort of thing as much as I can. I was struck by the idea that something like an app, that’s a relatively new part of a 75-year-old event, can now be seen as fundamental to it, and fundamental to the business models of the participants.

The idea that the Edinburgh Fringe has been too focused on big, headline names at the expense of the smaller performers is hardly a new idea: that, certainly, was around back then already. As indeed, was the worry that the Fringe had grown to the point it was all people think of when you mention the Edinburgh Festivals. Never mind the Edinburgh International Festival—the original “Festival” itself—or the Book Festival, or the Film Festival, when people hear “Edinburgh Festival” they think of the Fringe. Moreover, they tend to think of the Fringe purely as a comedy festival, ignoring the drama, dance, poetry and everything else that goes on in the thinner sections of the programme.

I agree entirely with the feeling in one of the articles I linked above, that the “spirit of the Fringe” is all about discovering something new, something exciting, something you’d never even heard of before: because when I lived in Edinburgh there was no way I could ever afford tickets to the big name stars in any case. The things I could afford to do were always those that I would never have dreamed of going to, such as when my friend W found a play at the International Festival that was offering tickets for only a pound or two if you booked them that day and agreed to sit on a beanbag on the stage behind the actors.* Because I couldn’t afford to attend shows I wrote a series of blogposts reviewing the quality of the flyers I’d been handed in the street instead, which attracted aggrieved comments from the performers of one show, I think assuming I was making fun of them being in Edinburgh. I do recall going to one show, a mid-afternoon spoken-word monologue just off the Grassmarket, purely because the performer was stood outside a few minutes beforehand trying to drag people in as he had no ticket sales at all for that particular day. The main thing I remember, though, is spending very late nights in the pub, as they had their licence extended to 3am for the duration. I probably was not doing my best work on Monday mornings. The spirit of the Festival, to me, is just being in the city that is for a few weeks full of an artistic energy, full of performers handing out flyers, some of them brilliant, some of them terrible, all of them offering something new and different and potentially exciting.

This is the thing with the Festival though: it has barely anything to do with the lives of normal everyday Edinburgh people, save for the place being more crowded than usual. I’m fairly sure most Edinburgh residents don’t really go to many Festival events at all, to be honest, and—at least going by my memories of the Edinburgh of twenty years ago—it has virtually no impact on the city outside of August. It comes, it goes, and the city moves on unchanged by it. The city in August has a completely different atmosphere to the city in June or the city in September, as if a cloud has briefly passed over the sun and drifted away.

* Almost all the dialogue was pre-recorded and lipsynced by the actors, with one character “played” by a mannequin, aside from at one climactic moment when the lead actor screamed aloud.

Provincial civics

Or, the Guardians of Knowledge

Back in March, I wrote about the architecture of Grimsby Central Library and all its surviving 1960s detail touches—the building opened in 1968 and many original details and interior fittings still survive. I briefly mentioned in passing the five gaunt, slightly macabre figures sculpted in relief on the south side of the building. Well, the other day I happened to be passing, it was a bright and sunny day, so I pointed my camera lens at them.

The Guardians Of Knowledge

These are The Guardians Of Knowledge, sculpted in the 1960s by Peter Todd, head of Grimsby School of Art, and moulded from fibreglass but made to look like bronze.

I’m disappointed, slightly, that as far as I know there aren’t any local myths of the statues occasionally coming to life and roaming the town in a ghoulish way. Maybe, on the right day of the year, if you are in the library late into the evening, the staff will give you a haunted look, with fear in their eyes. “Why stranger,” they say, “it’s a bad night to be lost in this town after dark. You had better find yourself a sanctuary.” For who really wants to be given knowledge by these fearsome, cadavarous figures, knowing the knowledge they receive may be a blessing but is more likely a curse?

Shocked, I tell you

I suppose we were going to take the Eurovision seriously eventually

Like half of the people in Europe, I was glued to the edge of my seat at midnight (UK time) last night waiting to see the final outcome of this year’s Eurovision. Like almost everyone watching in the UK—plus a few migrants elsewhere, like my friend SJ who moved from Yorkshire to Mexico—I was in a state of shocked disbelief that we were actually doing rather well at it all. We won the jury vote and came fifth in the popular vote, pushing us up to an overall second place. Really quite a surprising result compared to some previous entrants; see, we can do well in Eurovision if we actually take it seriously.

Of course, most of the songs I liked myself really got very far, but I’m used to that by now. Here are the ones I liked enough to make notes on, in roughly reverse order:

  • Finland I thought would do better, but clearly fans of The Rasmus didn’t turn out and vote for them.
  • Serbia—I rather liked their 19th century medical aesthetic, aside from the song being pretty decent too.
  • The Netherlands were the only one of the many many ballads this year to really make an impact on me, which was all down to the tune and the performance. For some reason, there’s something about the particular shape of the melody that I really liked. It helped a little that I know enough Dutch to pick up a handful of the words.
  • Moldova had an interesting modern take on The Ramones, almost like a mirror-universe Helen Love with a bit more folk violin. Apparently the song was something about trains.
  • And finally France were my favourites, with a Celtic rave that turned into some sort of summoning ritual along the way. I bet any BDSM people watching were looking at all the triskele symbols in the staging and going “hmm, I bet they’re kinky too”.

OK, two of my favourites (Moldova and Serbia) genuinely did also do well in the final results, and the Netherlands were middling, but France in particular came absolutely nowhere, which I thought was a terrible shame. Oh well, if my favourite song ever did come first, I’d start to worry about myself.

Too long to go in a cracker

Or, what to do if you find yourself trapped by an evil inventor with a passion for marine life

“Behold!” cried the Evil Villain Scientist, his voice screeching and cracking with excitement. “My latest invention, the invention which will let me take over the WORLD! They thought I was mad! They said it couldn’t be done! They said it would break the laws of physics! But here I have it! The Marine Life Invisibility Ray!!!”

“They’ll never let you take over the world, Evil Villain,” I mumbled around my poorly-attached gag. “The Marine Life Academy just won’t allow it. You’ll never get away with your ridiculous plan.” Secretly, though, I was worried. Any evil invention worthy of that many exclamation marks was going to be tough to beat.

“They’ll never have a chance to stop me!” he chortled gleefully. “They’ll never see me coming! And you, miss, are never going to escape from here, so I may as well tell you all the details of just what this invention can do. The Marine Life Invisibility Ray can prevent anyone from seeing any sort of aquatic animal life! It becomes completely invisible to the eye. Before the week is out, I will command a whole school of invisible trained dolphins, and the Academy simply won’t be able to see what’s coming for them. In a few days, I will control the world!”

I was in a sticky situation, I could see, but if only I could keep him distracted and talking I might be able to come up with a chance to escape. “It’ll never work,” I shouted. “Your gadget is never going to handle that. It’ll burn out after one trained dolphin at most, if it even works at all.”

“You doubt me, you stupid girl?” he screamed. “My little gadget? My machine works perfectly! Let me show you!!!”

One wall of the Evil Lair was entirely of thick, smooth plate glass, a window into the Villain’s main aquarium. Every imaginable type of marine life swam peacefully across his window, one side to the other, then circling to pass back again. Octopuses scuttled along the sandy bottom, and catfish clamped themselves to rocks. The villain swung the Invisibility Ray around on its mount, twiddled knobs, and closed a large, well-polished brass knife switch with a sharp electrical crack. A quiet hum rose from bass notes to treble pitch, and I felt the hairs on my arms stand on end as every atom in the air became highly charged. A warning lamp on the gun itself started to blink, and the Villain flipped the safety catch away from the firing switch.

“What shall we show you first, you silly little spy,” he said, panning the raygun side to side. “Look! A clownfish! One button press and…” he pushed the firing switch. I felt a disconcerting leap, as if the universe had suddenly jumped a groove. “…you can’t see any clownfish now!” The hum from the device rose back from bass to treble again.

“A clownfish is one thing, Villain,” I said, “but that won’t convince the Academy.”

“You think that’s all it can do!?” he shouted. “Look! A sailfin tang!” He fired again, and the small striped fish disappeared. “A yellow wrasse!” That jolt again, and the wrasse had disappeared. “A marble batfish!” Again the strange jolt, as if I had jumped from one world to a parallel one. “It’s completely foolproof! It will have no effect, no effect at all on land life, whilst making any sea life completely unseen!”

“Any sea life at all?” I asked. “Really?”

“Really. Any. You can’t trick me!” He cackled. “You really, really can’t trick me!”

“How about…” I said, trying to sound as casual as I could, as if I was picking something at random, “…how about that there?”

“That? That seahorse? Is a seahorse marine life? Is this the Marine Life Invisibility Ray? Of course it will make it unseen!”

“I don’t believe you,” I said, trying to stay calm. “Show me. Please?”

“Why, my dear,” he said, with a wicked grin, “it would be a pleasure.” He pressed the button.

With a terrible cracking sound, the thick glass of the tank shattered into large, jagged pieces, as the foamy salt water of the tank burst from it. Through the foam, I made out a large, dark shape. A loud “NEIGHHHHHH!” filled my ears. It sounded angry and enraged, and with very good reason. Without stopping to see if the Villain survived his trampling, I fled.

In the library

A Lincolnshire landmark

Yesterday I mentioned that the stack of unfinished and unwritten posts is still ever-growing, only, a few hours later, to come across a mainstream newspaper article discussing one of the things I’d considered writing a post about. The Guardian review of the new book from architecture critic Owen Hatherley opens with a discussion of a modernist building I’ve loved for a long time: Grimsby Central Library. In fact, I was in there only a few weeks ago, taking photos of some of the architectural details and so that I could maybe post them here at some point.

The seal of Grimsby by the library door

I first knew the place when I was a small child, when it still had something approaching its original layout. Children’s books in the basement, books on the ground floor, music and some of the non-fiction on the mezzanine, the reference library upstairs and an exhibition room above that. Nowadays the basement is Local History, Reference is on the mezzanine where Music used to be, and the upper floors seem to be closed and quiet, a partition blocking off what was originally a broad staircase. Nevertheless, for a 1960s building, an awful lot of the original detailing has survived. The Staff Lift looks still essentially the same as when it was installed, fifty-something years ago

Staff Lift

Similarly, the doors to the staff stairwell still have their original signage beneath more modern additions, and 1960 chandeliers still hang from the ceiling even if broken parts can no longer be replaced.

Fire Exit

1960s chandeliers

One thing it doesn’t have is the original shelves, which I rememeber surviving into the current century just about. They were tall, wooden, with a graceful curving profile when viewed from the side. Because of this curve, although the books at the top stood upright just as you’d expect books on a shelf to be, the books at the bottom were tipped back, tilted, so their spines were angled a few degrees in the direction of a standing reader. That little bit easier to see without bending down. I’ve never seen library shelves like them anywhere else, but I’ve always thought how ingenious they are.

It was over a month ago I took these pictures, so the librarians had put together a small display for LGBT+ History Month. I excitedly messaged a friend who used to work in the library back when we were both teenagers, just because we couldn’t have imagined it happening back then. I realise now it’s not just that we couldn’t imagine it happening, but that before 2003 it would have been illegal for an English public library to have a display about LGBT issues. Twenty years sometimes feels a very long time ago.

Book display for LGBT+ History Month

Incidentally, all my photos here are terrible quick phone snapshots taken whilst I was wondering round browsing the shelves. However, via Twitter, I did discover a blog post written by an archictecture fan a few years ago, with a whole host of much better photos of the place, particularly of the gaunt and haunting figures decorating the south side of the building, called The Guardians Of Knowledge; but also not forgetting something I remember very clearly from childhood, the floor of the foyer! Go and look!

Update, 9th July 2022: Since writing this post I’ve taken a photo of The Guardians Of Knowledge myself.

A brief note

Or, a number of notes played together and in sequence

Just a quick note this morning. A few months ago I went to my first gig in a few years, and saw the small, just-starting-out Casnewydd/Newport band Murder Club supporting the excellent Echobelly. Well, I’ve just realised that Murder Club released their first single last weekend, and you can buy it from Bandcamp. It’s really rather good, especially if you like shoegazy girl bands like early Lush. Go on, treat yourself.

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 aunt, 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 Rosie 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.