Saturday, April 21, 2012

Cloudy Thinking

After the hot, dry springs of the last few years, we currently seem to be experiencing the right weather for the season. High winds, a mixture of sunshine and bursts of pouring rain - even hailstorms - are typically what make April ‘the cruellest month’; but this rapidly changing weather offers us not only the sunshine and soaking that we need for the fruit and vegetable crop to come on, but a feast of visual entertainment above our heads every day.

Lucky enough to live on a hill and have a ‘big sky’ above my garden, I stood at my back door yesterday evening for half an hour and watched rolls of harmless, fluffy white cumulus clouds on the distant horizon quickly obscured by waves of fast moving cumulus gongestus, sailing eastwards whipped along by the westerly wind and showering rain on the landscape. Ahead of them to the east, I could see the ridge at Netherfield still bathed in brilliant sunlight and behind them to the west, a blanket of low hanging stratus clouds tinged strawberry-orange by the setting sun. Directly above me, towering charcoal-grey cumulonimbus clouds had dramatically formed, darkening the sky and depositing ten minutes of heavy stormy rain that I was grateful for on behalf of my vegetable garden and allotment in this time of drought. This variety performance ended when the wind dropped and the skyscape returned to the benign scene of cotton wool clouds in the distance with the odd harmless cumulus humilis whizzing by to remind of the stronger currents higher up.

Clear, blue skies are thought of as perfection – “there wasn’t a cloud in the sky” – and the cloud is much maligned. This country has a rich and varied cloudscape and we should embrace this ever-changing canvas rather than treat clouds as a blot on our lives. This is a view shared by Gavin Pretor-Pinney in his 2006 book The Cloudspotter’s Guide, which is a lot more humorous than it sounds. Pretor-Pinney also set up the Cloud Appreciation Society, an organisation dedicated to fighting ‘blue-sky thinking’. As you would expect from the co-founder of The Idler magazine, his book is a paean to gazing upwards at ‘nature’s poetry’ and an antidote to the dynamism of the modern go-getting world.

I do like to watch clear evening skies sometimes in summer, but if it wasn’t for the jet planes gliding towards Gatwick with their lights winking there would be nothing to look at. I would much rather be trying to spot which cloud looks like a dog or a dinosaur with the kids, or taking inspiration from the beautiful wispy patterns of a high-blown cirrus sky. There is an unfolding drama above our heads and it’s free; watch the skies and enjoy some cloudy thinking.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Protest and Survive

At the end of the nineties, I went to a Nick Cave gig at the Royal Festival Hall that turned out not to be a gig at all but rather a sort of musical academic lecture on the nature of the love song. My mate, bemoaning loudly the pretension of it all, was shushed by the person in front but his reply – “come off it, he’s only a pop singer” – raised a laugh of wry recognition from others around. Bearing in mind this example of the intellectualising of pop music, I approached a talk in my local pub last night with some trepidation.

To their credit, the Bader International Study Centre at Herstmonceux Castle has launched a series of ‘Castle Talks in the Community’; the first was given by Nick Baxter-Moore, a lecturer in politics and popular culture, and posed the question ‘Where Have all the Protest Songs Gone?’ I need not have worried about pretension: in the packed function room of the Woolpack Inn, an audience of all ages was treated to an engaging meditation on the protest song from post-war American folk singers to contemporary popular music. Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, Baxter-Moore illustrated his chronology with snatches of songs.

Starting with Pete Seeger’s anti-war ‘Where have all the Flowers Gone?’, there was a clear sense that singers such as Seeger, Bob Dylan and their socialist contemporary Phil Ochs were galvanised by the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements, and the general mood of change in the 1960s. ‘Blowing in the Wind’ prompted some audience participation from dewy-eyed children of the revolution, as did Country Joe McDonald’s humorously ironic ‘Vietnam Song’. Baxter-Moore put forward the idea that protest songs that express a generic sentiment have greater longevity. Citing the example of Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ - a song that outlines a communist utopia – being played as Thatcher took the stage at a Tory party conference in the 1980s, he also held that these songs are open to wild misappropriation.

Tracing developments into the seventies and eighties with the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy, Baxter-Moore acknowledged the contribution of punk and hip hop to the music of protest. Beginning with a rendition of Billy Bragg’s ‘There is Power in a Union’ – a joyously surreal moment in an East Sussex village pub - things took a leftward step as he focused on the links between protest music and the labour/trade union movement. Bringing things up to date, last year’s public sector strike in Madison, Wisconsin produced ‘Union Town’ by The Nightwatchman, aka Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, a song of defiance that reminded me of the Strawbs’ 1973 hit ‘Part of the Union’.

Taking questions at the end, a member of the audience rhetorically asked if a protest song had ever changed anything. Making the point that protest songs are best at making people aware and think, more than effecting change itself, Baxter-Moore never actually answered the question. I would say that, arguably, 1984’s ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by Jerry Dammers’ Special AKA is the most successful of modern times. Protest songs do need to be popular to be powerful and Dammers’ was upbeat, danceable and it was a huge hit. It raised consciousness of Mandela and the struggle against apartheid and, ultimately, its sentiment was realised.

In answer to his original question, Baxter-Moore concluded that protest songs have not gone anywhere, they are alive and well; and he pointed to Ben Drew – better known as Plan B – and his upcoming song of rage against a government of rich boys and their demonization of council estates, ‘Ill Manors’. If post-riots, inner-city London is the natural fertile ground for protest, there is also the music of protest closer to home. Sussex’s finest, British Sea Power, recently asked the question ‘Who’s in Control?’ while rousing the apathetic – “did you not know everything around you is being sold” – and wishing “that protesting was sexy on a Saturday night”. And big-voiced Derek Meins, aka The Agitator (above), and his rabble rousing songs fired up the strikers before the big public sector march through Brighton last summer. But the best proof of the legacy of politics and popular music exists further along the south coast: any serious critic’s album of last year was Dorset-based PJ Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’, which uses imagery and experiences from the battlefields of the 20th century in its songs to question the priorities and moralities we hold dear in England today. We need protest songs; as Baxter-Moore said, they makes us think.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

At the Dripping Pan

Following the example of my dad, I have never tried to impose any of my tastes on my own children. He worked on the basis that you can lead a horse to culture but you can’t make it think (apologies to Dorothy Parker). His maxim was leave them alone and they will eventually come around to your way of thinking. I came around to some things slower than others: I was an adult before I realised how good all those thirties and forties songs he played were, but I was only six when I asked him if I could come too when he disappeared off to football every fortnight. And so it was that, just after my seventh birthday, I experienced the thrill of that first walk through the turnstiles of a football ground and the first sight of the lush, verdant pitch. It has been the same with my own sons: glimpses of televised matches, player sticker albums and my occasional trips to matches have all roused their curiosity and, aged seven and eight, for a while now they have been asking to go to a game. I could have taken them to an all-seated, multi-tiered amphitheatre of dreams named after a global corporation but I could not afford to and I did not want to; so instead, I took them to the Dripping Pan.

In the centre of town, a short stroll from the railway station, the Dripping Pan has been the home of Lewes Football Club – the Rooks - since its foundation in 1885. The name of the ground is believed to refer to the practice of extracting salt from River Ouse water by Cluniac monks on the site. However, behind the west terrace is the Mount, the possible site of a fortress built prior to Lewes castle, and it may be that the shape of the Dripping Pan – steep banks to all sides and the pitch below ground level – is simply because this was the excavation for the Mount. Whatever its origins, it is a natural stadium and has steep terraces at either end - one of them covered – and a stand on the south side. Only the north side has an undeveloped grass bank remaining but you can watch the match from the path at the top for that classic, ‘televised’ vantage point. We stood in the covered home end to take in the view of the Downs in the distance and best soak up the atmosphere of a Ryman Premier League clash against Hendon.

Having paid only £10 for me to get in - kids under 16 go free at Lewes - we had enough cash for the boys to enjoy pre-match sausages in a bap and chips from the food stall. I had a cup of tea – “help yourself to milk and sugar on the table” – before I had the obligatory pint of Harvey’s. The small knot of Hendon supporters were enjoying the local brew as well and were in full voice when they took the lead after 15 minutes; but the atmosphere was never unpleasant and when Lewes scored three goals in five minutes straight after half-time it was the home fans who were making all the noise. As well as standing up on a terrace, there was another aspect of the day that was a reminder of my earliest days of watching professional football: at half-time quite a few supporters swapped ends to be behind the goal their team was kicking into. There was an incredibly friendly atmosphere: supporters all seemed to know each other and I had no concerns that the boys were at pitch-level at the front of the terrace and I was standing at the back. They got particularly excited every time Lewes scored and came racing back up to dance around at the back in celebration. Despite Hendon pulling a goal back to make it 3-2 as four minutes of added time started, Lewes held on for the win and moved level on points with Hendon one place outside the play-off places. Lewes played some good football with Harry Harding and Peter Gregory standing out for the Rooks.

Lewes has been a community football club since 2010. As a not-for-profit, mutual organisation the club is owned and run by its shareholders, none of whom can own more than one share. Shares cost a minimum of £30 per annum or £1,000 for life. Shareholders can all stand and vote in elections to the seven-strong Board of Directors. The attendance of 648 at today’s game would indicate that pretty much everyone who is a member watches the matches. My £30 quid is in the post and I will be back with the boys on Easter Monday for a Sussex derby with Hastings United.