Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Gale Force

The persistent December rain has meant that orchards and fields, hillsides and woodlands have become sodden quagmires, almost impossible for walking. When I proposed to the family that the final walk of the year needed to be a rain-soaked coastline trek on sturdy pebbles, to blow away the Christmas cobwebs, my idea was met with dumb incredulity. Only the dogs seemed interested: but the short-legged one is Scottish and stubborn and I knew he would renege on his word as soon as he felt a stiff breeze; the long-legged one will go anywhere, in any weather, if it means being out of the house and getting sight of a sausage-flavoured dog treat; so only he made the cut. Luckily, he cannot understand the shipping forecast: “Thames, Dover, Wight: southwesterly gale force 8 increasing severe gale force 9 imminent; rough becoming very rough; rain or squally showers; moderate becoming poor.”

With trees blown down, homes flooded and power out in a host of places, there is much for people in south coast counties to worry about. If the litany of the shipping forecast can usually make the threat of force 12 hurricane winds appear benign, getting Alan Bennett to read it on Radio 4 this week was a masterstroke of panic management. His soft Leeds cadence made it sound as though we will never know fear again, even if the forecast was one from October. The roll call of sea areas – Forties, Cromarty, Forth…Sole, Lundy, Fastnet…Shannon, Rockall, Malin – is poetic balm to soothe the soul.

My plan was to start early on Cooden beach, in sea area Dover, and walk far enough west until I was in sea area Wight. If a trans-sea area walk seemed ambitious, the location of the boundary between the two, at Sovereign Harbour in Eastbourne, made it a reasonable round trip of 10 miles. But when I arrived at Cooden, it was high tide and the gale forecast for the coast was already battering the beach. The strip of pebbles between the crashing waves and the coastal road was so narrow that I thought the dog might be swept away or run over; but we made it through to the safety of the broader beach.

There is something strangely attractive about a coastal walk on a wild winter day: the lowering sky, the salty sea-spumed air limiting the vision, and the lack of any other people all make it a beautiful but desolate experience. And this morning’s Beaufort scale force 9 gale, although not quite full in the face, made westerly progress slow; even a solitary gull struggled. But we carried on past the caravan parks of Norman's Bay - as deserted as cemeteries - and the residents of beach-front houses, peering out anxiously at the turbulent swell.

I felt exhausted as we neared Pevensey Bay, but a fortifying glimpse of brightness between the clouds spurred me on. The tide having receded a little, we were able to walk on the more compacted surface nearer the shoreline and the dog even attempted a frolic or two. But as we left Pevensey, the coast curved southwards and the relentless gale became a headwind. With the return walk in mind, my resolve deserted me and, a mile from the harbour, we turned around.

With the wind behind us, we veritably sailed back to Cooden; and, of course, by the time we returned the weather was abating: “Thames, Dover, Wight: southwesterly 5 to 7; moderate or rough; rain then showers; moderate becoming good.”

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Ghosts of Christmas

Sussex duo, Vile Electrodes, have produced a seasonal slice of pop, with their latest offering The Ghosts of Christmas, that beautifully combines the Shangri-Las’ Leader of the Pack, Soft Cell’s Say Hello, Wave Goodbye and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. With a name punning the bohemian writer of erotica, Anais Nin, vocalist and sometime-milliner Anais Neon intones, in an unmistakably English accent, a festive tale of death and break-up to Martin Swan’s backing of swathes of shimmering analogue synthesiser.

Not being reality television contestants or having their track featured in an advertisement, the St. Leonards-on-Sea group are unlikely to trouble the Christmas number one slot; but not all festive songs are aimed at the mass market, especially ones about your true love dying on Christmas Eve.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Past is a Foreign Country

About a thousand years ago – well, thirty five but it feels ever so much longer – I wrote a punk fanzine, called Intrusion, with three of my mates. It started in 1978 and lasted for eight issues. It was standard Sniffin’ Glue-inspired fare: the first few editions were single-sided Xerox and it then moved on to the sophistication of double-sided printing. Pages were a mixture of hand-written and typed, with felt pen and Letraset headings. Photographs were rarely original and covers were generally cryptic collages. We mainly sold it through a small ad in the back of the NME, but Rough Trade and a couple of other record shops stocked it successfully on a sale or return basis.

Looking at the excellent Essential Ephemera recently, a blog that unearths forgotten fanzines from the punk era, I came across a post on a fanzine called Toxic Grafity. It prompted me to recall that we had helped its writer with his earlier version, No Real Reason. When I say helped, I think we were involved in getting the first issue photocopied; it then developed into a strong Crass/Poison Girls anarcho-punk fanzine with much more direction than our own. But it made me search online to see what place Intrusion fanzine had secured in the annals of punk. There were three results of my Google search: it had made it into that exhaustive document of punk, Bored Teenagers, and then there was a review, taken from issue 5, of a gig at the Croydon Greyhound on a Penetration fan website. The last result was on eBay; a punk memorabilia seller was offering a copy of issue 7 and there had been one bid of £10. Delighted to see that our modest offering still had currency in the modern world, I went up into the loft and found the bundle of fanzines that I have carefully kept. There, amongst copies of Sniffin’ Glue and Ripped & Torn, was one of each of the eight editions of Intrusion fanzine.

If the past is a foreign country, having your sixteen-year-old self reflected back at you through your juvenile punk ramblings is an uncharted corner of the solar system. It is a mixed experience - at once heartening, baffling and embarrassing. The writing was generally good and the content shows that we were not just playing at it. There were interviews with John Peel, the cartoonist Savage Pencil, band members from Siouxsie and the Banshees and Penetration, and lesser known south London local bands Rodney and the Failures and The Vamp (the latter featuring drummer Max Splodge, soon-to-be lead singer of top ten-hitters Splodgenessabounds). There were live gig reviews of all of those bands, and The Clash, Adam and the Ants, The Adverts and The Mekons, as well as quite perceptive pieces on the recorded output of Alternative TV, Wire, PIL and even David Bowie.

For a reason I have no recollection of, I was writing under the name “Andi Recondite” and some of the pages were nothing more than a puzzling collection of random images and scribbles. More embarrassingly, there was a lot of conflicting and shouty “punk’s dead/punk’s not dead” polemic, which got worse in the later editions and was probably the reason that the fanzine floundered. Interviews were generally typed-up verbatim, like a script, and were not that incisive. Cleary running out of questions, the Banshees started to interview us. (SEVERIN: What’s your favourite Banshees song? ME: All of them!) Oh, dear. But it was passionate, angry and – most importantly – self-produced. And there was some well-intentioned, but naïve, politics. Items on Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, articles on the Persons Unknown anarchist trial and an apposite picture of an imminent Premier Thatcher with a swastika on her forehead and the Mekons’ lyric “we know what we know and tomorrow is an empty day” underneath.

Issue 7, the one up for sale on ebay, does not stand out. Strangely, it has a cartoon drawing of the four writers on the cover (that’s me, second left) but, that apart, it does not seem to be different from any of the other editions. Maybe it is collectable because of the Peel interview, something he did not do that often. I remember we arranged to meet him in a pub around the corner from Broadcasting House, and he was mortified that The Adverts and Wire were in the pub. He was at great pains to point out that it was a coincidence, that he did not hang out with bands. This is borne out by the rather churlish revelations of Mark E. Smith and Morrissey that, despite being championed by Peel, they had little contact with him. I think they are rather missing the point; as are some others: when I went back to eBay, the winning bid, for an original edition of a fanzine produced by some teenage punks on a council estate, was an inexplicable £124.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hedge Fund

When you live on a hill – and a hill that has a windmill, to boot – common sense tells you it is going to be windy; and it is. Every October, when the change of season starts to make the air currents even stronger, stuff starts getting blown about: allotment sheds, greenhouse windows, television aerials - anything that sticks its head above the parapet. But instead of any forward-planning to make these features windproof, we instead have a retrospective emergency fund to cover whatever disasters winter can throw at us and, after the St. Jude’s day storm, we had to raid the shoebox under the bed yet again.

When an unstoppable force - such as the wind - meets an immovable object - such as a solid fence - one thing happens: the immovable object becomes movable. With a whole line of fencing down, we would usually have got the panels replaced but, realising that we have been repairing this ugly edifice every year for eight years, this time we opted for a more sustainable solution. The penny finally dropped, and the emergency fund became a hedge fund.

We could have taken the easy option and planted the dense and rapid growing cupressus x leylandii, but with 60 million of these conifers - one for every person in Britain - there are already too many dense, lifeless shrubs blighting the lives of people up and down the country. I once walked along the Tanat Valley to Lake Vyrnwy in mid-Wales, and the route took me past a Forestry Commission plantation of leylandii. It was eerily still and quiet, something I mistook for a calm serenity until I realised that it actually repelled wildlife - I could not hear the cry of a single bird.

Instead, we went for a mixed native hedge. Taking advice from English Woodlands, at the Burrow Nursery in Cross in Hand, we planted a mix of traditional deciduous trees such as hawthorn, hazel, hornbeam and beech, and included some laurel for year-round greenery. Planting was hard work but, with reasonably mature plants rather than bareroot stock, there should be a hedge that is established – and immovable - within two years; and it will be attractive to humans, birds, insects and small mammals alike.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

In the Belly of the Beast

Being the best band in the world that most people have never heard of, The National are now probably too big to repeat their 2010 visit to the Brighton Dome, or last year’s curating of an All Tomorrow’s Parties at Camber Sands; so, it’s to North London’s Alexandra Palace on a school night to catch the Brooklyn band’s major cities-only visit to Britain.

With a capacity of 7,500, Ally Pally is huge. My only previous visit was sometime in the 90s when Black Grape and 808 State topped an endless bill on a night that I dimly remember as a scene from an Hieronymus Bosch painting. Outside on Wednesday night, it was like a scene from the Pilgrimage of Grace as the grey and black-clad hordes traipsed soberly up the hill from Wood Green tube. Inside the venue, it felt like an evacuation centre: huddles of overcoated refugees spread out as far as the eye could see, patrolling high vis stewards everywhere and the smell of frying meat wafting through the air.

Being near enough to the front, it was possible to imagine that this was an intimate gig if you ignored the massive screens, either side of the stage, beaming images to people at the back. There was always a danger that the band’s subtle and melancholic sound, and Matt Berninger’s sombre baritone in particular, would get lost in such a large venue, but his voice is gratefully high up in the mix and the brothers Dessner and Devendorf sound terrific when they kick off with Don’t Swallow the Cap and I Should Live in Salt from this year’s Trouble Will Find Me album. Over half of the 25 songs played come from this album and its predecessor, breakthrough album High Violet, but favourites such as Mistaken for Strangers, Squalor Victoria and Slow Show from 2007’s Boxer get an airing too. There is the surprising inclusion of Apartment Story with Cardinal Song from the Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers album of ten years ago, the gorgeous Pink Rabbits and a very pertinent England – “you must be somewhere in London” – before they finish with the sublime About Today, from the Cherry Tree EP, and the obligatory Fake Empire.

The five-song encore includes a new song, Lean, recorded for the soundtrack of the latest Hunger Games film, a raucous version of Mr. November - the only song played from my favourite album, Alligator – and a heart-warming acoustic sing-along finale of Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks. After a two hour set, we are disgorged from the belly of the beast out into the chilly night air, to a spectacular view south across the capital, spirits lifted for the journey home.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Les Enfants Sauvages

When the debut single by Savages was released in 2012, one review said that it “makes us dream of what it must have been like to have been around to hear, in real time, the debut releases by Public Image Ltd, Magazine, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Joy Division, to feel, as those incredible records hit the shops, that unearthly power and sense of a transmission from a satellite reality." As someone old enough to have been around to hear and buy all of those records in real time, I sometimes feel that music is no longer tangible and rooted in experience, but is rather some sort of virtual heritage concept that can be plundered from any age; and it makes me feel old.

Savages, a London band who played Brighton’s Concorde 2 last night, are not old - they are very young; but their sound could have come straight from those defining years of post-punk at the end of the 70s. And it is a fantastic sound: thundering percussion from stand up drummer, Fay Milton; a rumbling bass that hits you straight in the sternum, from Ayse Hassan; powerful and strident - but highly emotive - vocals from Jehnny Beth; and stylish, coruscating guitar work from Gemma Thompson. It is Thompson’s playing that stood out for me: the searing and soaring trebly urgency of the Banshees and PIL, combined with a startling array of effects and noises straight from Martin Hannett’s box of production tricks; there was never a moment’s silence in the set as her guitar fed back and warped, even in between songs.

Most of the tracks from their debut album, Silence Yourself, were played last night and, with the addition of two new songs - the pleading and desperate I Need Something New and, closing track, the radio-unfriendly Fuckers - the pace was frantic from the start. The only change of speed came in the middle of the set: the mellow and atmospheric, Waiting for a Sign, was followed by a surprising cover of highly influential electronic duo Suicide’s single, Dream Baby Dream, from 1979. It was a vibrant and exciting performance and, watching the band last night - black-clad, gender-neutral, wreathed in dry ice, indifferent or diffident in front of the audience – I could have easily been in a reality from the satellite of 34 years ago.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

End of the Pier Show

Earlier this year, when Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds announced their autumn tour dates, I was relieved that they were not playing the awful Brighton Centre, where I saw them on their last tour in 2008. But the absence of any date in Cave’s adopted home town meant that I was forced to get a ticket for one of their London performances – a regretful decision when they subsequently added a date at the Brighton Dome.

Standing in the bar at the Hammersmith Apollo on Saturday night, I worked out that the last time I had been there it was called the Hammersmith Odeon and it was to see Lou Reed. That was 34 years ago to the month and, in the light of Reed’s death last weekend, it would be easy to be sentimental; but that gig did not go well: prominent in the backing band was cowboy-hatted bassist Ellard “Moose” Boles and his millinery seemed to have influenced Reed’s readings of his classic songs that night. Us young punks, there to worship at the altar of the Velvet Underground, fled into the night at the mellow country arrangements. Lest we forget, though, the first Velvets album was recorded in 1966. Go and listen to it again: while they were recording ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’, Britain was listening to Dusty Springfield.

Things have not changed that much; in fact, they have probably got worse. While Cave and the Bad Seeds are admired enough to sell out three nights at Hammersmith, Miley Cyrus is popular enough to top the charts; and it is Cyrus’s body that Cave imagines floating in an LA swimming pool in one of six songs from this year’s nine-track album, Push the Sky Away. But it is not just a new album set: Cave leads the Bad Seeds through a set of hell and damnation, from his back catalogue, that is exhausting. As well as brooding perennials Tupelo, Stagger Lee and Red Right Hand¸ we get the darkness of The Mercy Seat and Jack the Ripper, and a screamingly intense version of From Her to Eternity that is the climax of the first half of the performance.

It would seem churlish to complain when Cave is putting so much energy in as the full southern gothic preacher: prowling the edge of the stage, by turns frightening – “You! With your fucking iphone!” – and flirting with the audience, he shimmies and prances like Trinity in The Matrix about to do Kung Fu. And Warren Ellis’s demented fiddler, slashing at his violin, hair and horsehair flailing, is almost a match. But it is something of a relief from the fire and brimstone when Cave sits at the piano and plays the sublime Love Letter, from No More Shall We Part, and the little heard Far From Me, from The Boatman’s Call. These are the only songs from these two gorgeous albums before the darkness returns - “here comes Lucifer with his canon law” - with Higgs Boson Blues.

After a five-song encore that includes one of the Bad Seeds rare floor-fillers, Deanna, Cave has played for two hours at a mostly frenetic pace. At 56, this might be the last time he gigs night after night with such verve and intensity and, perhaps signalling the way ahead, he returns to the piano for the final encore, a beautiful new ballad that could have come straight from the end of Brighton Pier, Give Us a Kiss.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Out on the Streets Again

So, regretfully, we took industrial action again; for the third time in two and a half years, but the first time since November 2011. Then, it was against coalition cuts to the public sector, and pensions in particular. This time, it was regional action against every idiot idea Michael Gove is subjecting state education to: free schools, reform of GCSEs and performance related pay; and changes to teachers’ terms and conditions that would be like turning the clock back to the 1950s. Every advance that has been won by previous generations of teachers, he is seeking to overturn: agreed working hours, a limit on admin tasks, planned time for preparation and assessment, only rarely covering for absences and – get this - the right to a lunch break. When it was recently revealed that Gove has been having sweet nothings whispered in his ear by Dominic Cummings - one of those creepy, swivel-eyed, ideological policy wonks - some of this started to make sense. I don’t know what it is with the relationship between Tory ministers and their special advisers.

The timing of the strike turned out to be quite fortuitous as there were several blows to Gove’s free school policy last week: the Al-Madinah free school in Derby was given a dysfunctional rating in all categories, with the severest criticism reserved for the standard of unqualified teachers. That this should be a shock to Ofsted – untrained teachers not knowing how to teach – is baffling. Under Gove’s revolution, the only person in a free school who is required to be qualified is the SENCO (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator). Not even the Head needs to be a proper teacher and, as a result, there were two resignations of unqualified headteachers at free schools in London and West Sussex last week – both realised before the first term of the school year had ended that they were not up to the job.

If we were looking to Labour to offer a future to state education, we were quickly disappointed. The hope that many in education felt, when Ed Milliband shuffled the education shadow Stephen Twigg out the door, quickly dissolved as soon as his replacement, Tristram Hunt, started spouting muddled Tory-lite policy ideas. After the conference season, Milliband had firmly put Labour on the side of ordinary people, and the Tories on the side of business. All that has been undone in his reshuffle, with Hunt unable to articulate coherent opposition to Gove’s dismantling of inclusive education and Rachel Reeves, the new work and pensions shadow, scandalously trying to out-muscle the Tories with her threat to bully benefit claimants.

On the strike day itself, there were teachers’ rallies in Hastings, Eastbourne and Brighton. There was a tremendous level of support, with over 2,000 out on the streets again in Brighton, marching from Pavilion Gardens to the Brighton Centre to hear speakers from the NUT, the Fire Brigade Union - also having their service attacked - and Green MP Caroline Lucas. There is talk of a one-day national strike in education and other public services, next month. This will be difficult for teachers, who disrupt the school day reluctantly and for who the loss of another day’s pay will be a struggle in these tough times; but if we don’t stand up for ourselves, we will be like turkeys voting for Christmas.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Under a Slate Grey Sky

A mild, airless day at Pett Level. The shingle beach, equidistant between Hastings and Rye, is deserted. There is an ominous sky: slate grey stratocumulus. It strikes me that the most expensive pop music video ever made on an East Sussex beach could have been made today without David Mallet’s chiaroscuro effects.

In May 1980, David Bowie descended on this beach with a Pierrot costume, a cast of extras culled from Blitz - the New Romantic club du jour – and a JCB digger. Bowie had recorded his last great album – Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) – before the commercial highs and critical lows of the 1980s, and the first single from the album, Ashes to Ashes, was to be released in the summer. Bowie saw video as another emerging art form, rather than just an opportunity to act badly or Monkee around to shift some product, and he enlisted Mallet to help him produce four minutes of surreality that would be beamed into everyone's living room weekly on Top of the Pops, once the single became a number one.

Intercut with mostly black and white shots of Bowie in a padded cell, dentist’s chair and on alien life-support (natch) looking knowingly to camera, Bowie’s Pierrot strolls along the beach at Pett Level; flanked by Steve Strange and his muckers dressed as papal new puritans, and followed closely by the JCB, Bowie seems to be burying all that marvellous nonsense bookended by this song and 1969’s Space Oddity. The closing shots show Bowie being harangued on the beach by a representation of his mother – all bleached peach – under an artificial black sky, to the refrain: “my mother said to get things done you better not mess with Major Tom”.

Of course, he did get things done and 2013 is being heralded as the return to form of David Bowie; but this is to deny his bravura music of the 1990s – The Buddha of Suburbia and 1.Outside – and the noughties – Heathen and Reality. However, when the eight-year hiatus since his heart attack came to an end, with – bizarrely for me – an announcement on Radio 4 at 6am on a cold January day, it didn't stop me rushing downstairs to the computer to blub and snivel over the video of Where Are We Now? along with all those others for whom, at one time, only David Bowie seemed to know.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

State of Independence

The centre of Bexhill-on-Sea is one of those rare places these days that has not become a clone town. Not being chock-full of hospitality chains and multiple retailers – they have been mostly confined to the Ravenside Leisure Park on the way out of town – it has retained an air of independence and an appearance of spontaneity. Perhaps because of this, it has gained an unfair reputation for being old-fashioned; the reality is, this is what towns are like if they don’t allow the demands of rapacious profiteering to prevail.

Firmly flying this flag of independence is record shop, Music’s Not Dead. Situated at the bottom of Devonshire Road, a short shuffle across from the De La Warr Pavilion, Music’s Not Dead stocks a wide range of music on CD, including new releases and an extensive amount of artists’ back-catalogues. Prices of most discs are surprisingly cheap and there is also a large section of bargain CDs at three for £12. I did spot a vinyl section, but I didn’t go too close being an ex-vinyl junkie in remission. There is also an area where you can sit down and read music magazines.

The shop was opened a couple of years ago by Del Querns and Richard Wortley and they have established a welcoming place for record rack flickers to browse and buy. And they are clearly very knowledgeable: when I visited, I picked up a copy of The Broken Family Band’s 2007 album Hello Love for a fiver (cheaper than Amazon) and was recommended to check out the lead singer’s most recent venture, Singing Adams.

As an experience – be it buying a new release, coming across a forgotten album you had always meant to get or talking to people about music – it has to beat downloading tracks bent over a computer or waiting for the postman to arrive with that cardboard packet. And the best thing of all, if I had not popped into Music’s Not Dead, I would never have found out about the live music they put on: Turin Brakes are playing in the shop next Sunday, 29th September, at 4pm - and it’s free.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Downland: part eleven

Ridler’s gallantry – essentially survival with dignity – had earned him decorations and promotion by the end of the war; but neither of these would augment the back pay and pension that he had been demobilised with to ensure him a reasonable standard of living. Before the war, he had lived well until his father’s inheritance had come to an end. The life of a young gentleman had been an expensive one: houses, horses, tailors and travel had all drained his money away. With no further expectations, he was forced to accept the security of a commission as a second lieutenant to avoid humiliation and the pack of pursuing creditors. The same mistakes again would be the end of him. He had been determined to find a way to live where he would be master of his own destiny. Never again would he put his trust in arrogant fools like Townshend. He could not work for those whose privilege, power and incompetence were bare for all to see. He would set out alone. After handing in his army greatcoat and form Z50 at East Grinstead railway station, he had received another pound to supplement his meagre resources. And then he had bought a poultry farm.

Sergeant Terence ‘Shorty’ Short, a fellow traveller who had come through the march to Anatolia with Ridler, had a pair of elderly parents who needed to sell Postern Poultry Farm. Failing to be alerted by Shorty’s unwillingness to take it on himself, Ridler bought it for a song. But he had known nothing of keeping chickens and his heady optimism eventually turned to bitter failure. His fundamental error had been to try to fatten up layers to sell as birds for the table. The quality of their lays deteriorated in the process ,and his bread and butter income from delivering eggs to pubs and restaurants in the River Wandle valley foundered. And this sacrifice did not pay the dividend he had hoped for: never able to afford quite enough feed for the purpose, the fattened birds were little more than adequate at best, scrawny at worst. The long decline was arrested by an outbreak of avian tuberculosis and, after two miserable years, Ridler slaughtered the remaining birds, levelled the chicken sheds and left the land for his creditors to fight over. And then he had done what any level-headed, ex-serviceman, chicken farmer would have done: Ridler ran away to join the circus.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Blue Sunday

The dog days are fading and summer’s lease has nearly run its course. Larkin’s toad is about to squat on my life again. Walking the Seven Sisters with the sea on my left and ovine-trimmed grassland to my right, the first day of September sunshine was playing dreamily on the English Channel.

The further west I walked along the undulating path, the more people I encountered picnicking on the cliff top. Gazing out at the blurred line between sky and sea, the horizon only made distinct by the slow stately progress of the occasional tanker, they seemed transfixed by being at the very edge of the land.

The ground along the cliff top was dotted here and there with chalk stone patterns. These were clearly arranged by human hands but what I first thought were examples of Andy Goldsworthy-style land art, on closer inspection revealed themselves to be something more mundane: names, phone numbers, boy bands, slogans – the lingua franca of tourist graffiti.

By the time I reached the final sister, the eastward view back along the coast to Birling Gap was magnificently crowned by the silhouette of the Belle Tout lighthouse. But it was to the west, as Seaford Head and Cuckmere Haven hove into view, that the unlikely azure of the sea dispelled the Sunday blues and caused the spirits to soar.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Mad Jack

Whenever I step into my back garden, the first thing I look for is the sharp silhouette of the spire of St. Giles at Dallington, some five miles away on the horizon. It has become something of a superstition for me: if the church is still there up on the ridge, then the earth is still turning and all things must be in their rightful place – I am comforted. But this summer, I have been deprived of my little ritual. The tower and stone spire, both originating from the early 16th century, are being repointed and are currently encased in scaffolding and plastic, forming a blob on the far horizon that is indistinguishable from the trees.

The importance of being able to see the spire from home is something I share with ‘Mad Jack’ Fuller, the erstwhile squire of Brightling. Hopefully, it is the only thing we have in common. John Fuller, who died in 1834 at the age of 77, was a controversial figure: an Eton-educated Member of Parliament, he was also a renowned drunk, plantation owner and supporter of slavery.

At the age of 20, Fuller had inherited a large Sussex estate (that is now Brightling Park) and Jamaican plantations from his uncle. By the age of 23 he had become a Member of Parliament - firstly for Southampton, then Sussex. His political career was doubly notorious: he once had to be detained by the Serjeant–at-Arms after a drunken incident with the Speaker of the House and, in one of his regular speeches in support of slavery, he claimed that the slaves on his plantations had better living conditions than many of his constituents.

But Fuller also had a philanthropic side. He was a sponsor of the young scientist, Michael Faraday and commissioned paintings from the artist, JMW Turner. And locally, he financed the first Eastbourne lifeboat, built the Belle Tout lighthouse on Beachy Head and purchased Bodiam Castle to save it from demolition in 1828. But it was with his building of follies that he left an indelible mark on the landscape of East Sussex.

The most striking of Fuller’s follies is the 65 feet-high Brightling Obelisk which stands without inscription or apparent purpose atop Brightling Beacon, the second highest point in East Sussex. Equally pointless, is the two-storey Fuller’s Tower on the Brightling – Darwell Hole Road. More purposefully, Mad Jack was inspired by his friendship with the German astronomer Friedrich Herschel to build his own observatory. Now a private home, the silver dome can still be seen from the Brightling – Burwash road. Fuller ended up beneath another of his follies: his mausoleum, a 25-foot pyramid, stands in the churchyard of St. Thomas à Becket, Brightling.

However, Fuller’s Point is the most perverse of all his follies. Fuller had made a bet with a friend that he could see the spire of St. Giles at Dallington from his home in Brightling. On returning home he realised that he could not see the spire after all. Rather than lose the wager, he had a 35-foot stone cone built in a field within sight of his house. It is more popularly called the Sugar Loaf - named after the conical loaves that sugar was sold as in the nineteenth century - and can still be seen in a field on the Battle to Heathfield road at Wood’s Corner. Whether the friend was fooled, or Fuller gained any comfort from seeing the Sugar Loaf every day, are not recorded.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Downland: part ten

Since the end of the Great War, Ridler had struggled: his living had been piecemeal, hand to mouth. But the war had been a terrible time; the guarantees of his peace-time commission – pay, rations and billet – had been replaced by humiliation, death and disease. The Mesopotamia campaign had started with all the expectation and certainty of a British military operation: they had marched in to Basra and Kurna with little loss or opposition and had carried on up the Tigris to garrison the town of Kut-Al-Amara.

In November 1915, General Charles Townshend had then led his troops into battle at Ctesiphon, the last major obstacle before the final march on Baghdad, with confidence. Having witnessed only surrender and desertion from the Turkish forces they had encountered so far, the ferocity of the battle - the casualties, the defeat and retreat - were a shock to Ridler. The British and Indians had lost more than half of their troops and were forced to return to Kut where thousands of Turkish soldiers had besieged the town. For 147 days they resisted the siege before the humiliation of surrender. 147 days of bitter cold, hunger and infection. And then Townshend simply capitulated, surrendered his command and abandoned his men to sit on the side-lines for the remainder of the war: a small island off the coast near Istanbul, use of a yacht, visits from dignitaries. Captivity in luxury was better for Townshend: after the war, when the treatment of his men at the hands of their Ottoman captors became clear, a death in disgrace.

Ridler had felt that treatment but the Indian troops had fared worse and, as they were marched from Kut to Anatolia, they were made to strip to the waist and walk bare-chested. Every village they passed through, people would flock to the roadside to stare at these half-starved Indian troops. Their rib cages pushing bleached bone hard against the paper thinness of their black skin, their pale eyes set deep in dark, emaciated faces and their abject submission to the will of their captors all made them a spectacle. In Aleppo, a guard made one captive dance, whipping at his ankles with a switch. Small boys, laughing with delight, threw pieces of bread. Ridler was spared this humiliation, but he too, had submitted to whatever was required to survive. Half did not see the travelling circus through to its end: 5,000 starved, tortured, beaten to death.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Holidays in the Sun

In his 1973 book, Anarchy in Action, Colin Ward argued that anarchist society “is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and its injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism.” He felt that anarchism was not some “speculative vision of a future society” but “a mode of human organisation, rooted in the experience of everyday life, which operates side by side with, and in spite of, the dominant authoritarian trends of our society.” For Ward, one of the best examples of anarchy in action was the allotment site, where ordinary people were the catalysts and designers of their own space and community.

The site where I have an allotment is leased from a fruit farmer by the parish council, who in turn rent plots to individuals. But the organisation of the site is carried out by an association of allotment-holders: mowing the communal paths and areas; maintaining the seed exchange; organising seasonal celebrations and events; helping or clearing struggling plots. Put simply - anarchy in action.

The allotment is blooming this year: an abundance of strawberries; a huge harvest of early potatoes; brassicas bursting out of their netting; plump beetroot; our best garlic crop yet; and with lush sweet corn plants and rampant pumpkin and squash stems yet to produce, it will be the best year we have had. With the sunniest summer since 2006, when we had a bumper vegetable crop in our garden, it is not hard to work out why. But it is not sunshine alone that has produced this exceptional crop: last autumn I bought a tractor load of cow muck from a local farmer and top-dressed the whole plot with it.

But the allotment really comes into its own when the kids are off school. It is an extra open space for them to relax and play in, or help with weeding and harvesting; and the site’s communal area can host impromptu football and cricket matches or shared family barbecues during the long summer holiday. This is, of course, the six-week break that Gove wants to move, reduce or traduce because he sees it as an anachronistic throwback to a seasonal rural economy. Well, some of us depend on these holidays in the sun and are still governed more by that cyclical, regenerative calendar than we are by the diktats of the hard-nosed metropolitan political elite.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Austerity Art

Sometime in 1974, when I was 11 or 12 years old, my dad took me to a new restaurant in Woolwich, south-east London. He had read about it as it was the only British outlet of a chain that was huge in the United States and, as we were passing through Woolwich on one of our regular Red Bus Rover trips around London that we took on Saturdays when Millwall were not playing in the capital, he decided we should give it a try. I have no exact memory of what we ate that day but I do remember my dad’s words as we left the restaurant: “Well, that was terrible; it’ll never catch on.” Typically, he was half right. It was terrible, but it did catch on. We had, of course, just visited the first McDonald’s in this country.

Where my dad was most at home eating when we went on a Red Bus Rover – a very early version of the Oyster card but for buses only – was at Jolyon on the corner of the Strand and Duncannon Street, opposite Charing Cross station. It was one of a chain of cafeterias that were successors to the Lyons teashops, or Corner Houses as three of the central London branches were known, that had dominated high streets for the previous 70 years. Struggling to maintain the demand for large-scale affordable dining that had grown out of the war-time canteen culture, the 1970s saw a make-over that relied on formica, brown geometric patterns and a funky renaming to reflect the founding father, Joseph Lyons. The re-launch failed and by the end of the seventies the Lyons name was most well known as a brand of ice cream. The restaurants never regained their place at the forefront of British life that they had occupied before, during and after the Second World War.

Just how integral Lyons teashops were to the post-war cultural landscape can currently be seen in an exhibition, The Lyons Teashops Lithographs: Art in a Time of Austerity 1946-1955, at the Towner gallery in Eastbourne. Facing a drab period where rationing still held sway and raw materials were prioritised elsewhere, J. Lyons & Co found an imaginative way of sprucing up their restaurants and illuminating the lives of their customers: they commissioned a series of large lithographs, from artists of the day, to cover the walls of the teashops. Over three series, in 1946, 1951 and 1955, 40 separate prints were produced by leading artists such as L.S. Lowry, John Nash, John Piper and David Gentleman. Most of the contributors had worked as official war artists, documenting daily life on the home front in a time of conflict, so the shift to peace time adversity was a natural one.

All 40 prints are on show at the Towner, along with some original sketches and paintings that informed the lithographic process carried out by commercial printers Chromoworks of Willesden. Depicting life in post-war Britain, they present a fascinating example of the power of public art. The most successful at the exhibition are those, such as People by Barnett Freedman and The Railway Station by Edward Arrdizzone, that provide a glimpse of the grind of the time – the crowds and careworn faces of that austere post-war world. East Sussex features with Edwin La Dell’s view of Hastings from East Hill and Clifford Frith’s brooding The River Rother at Rye. But for me, nestling next to each other in a corner of the gallery, the contrast between Carel Weight’s melancholic and autumnal Albert Bridge and the spirited and energetic Herne Bay Pier by Anthony Gross, shows the true resilience of ordinary people in an age of austerity.

Perhaps that resilience explains why the streets are not filled with people throwing bricks in protest at our current age of austerity - but it does not explain where the response of art is now. I cannot imagine the fast food heirs to Lyons embarking on a similar project - corporations regularly sponsor art exhibitions, but that is merely advertising. What J. Lyons & Co did was to directly commission, oversee and exhibit these artworks to enrich the lives of the ordinary people who drank their tea.

The Lyons Teashops Lithographs: Art in a Time of Austerity 1946-1955 is at the Towner gallery, Eastbourne until 22nd October 2013. £5.50/£4 concessions.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Crisis Management

It is a depressing fact that the most read item on this blog over the last three months is one I posted in October 2012 about Foodbanks in East Sussex run by the Trussell Trust, a charity working to combat poverty and exclusion through the provision of emergency food to those in crisis. This is not surprising considering the drastic changes to the welfare state which took place in April this year. Reductions in housing benefit, council tax benefit and child tax credit, the abolition of crisis loans for general living expenses and changes to the disability living allowance have made the lives of many ordinary and vulnerable people living in East Sussex intolerable.

Back in October, I wrote that Foodbank had doubled the number of people it had helped during the previous year at its 250 centres across the country, and that existing Foodbanks in Eastbourne, Hastings and Hailsham had become an essential part of life for thousands. There are now 325 Foodbanks nationwide and the Trussell Trust look set to increase the numbers they help by 170% this year. Here in East Sussex, an additional Foodbank has opened in Bexhill and is soon to be joined by one in Uckfield.

Food is donated to Foodbanks by individuals, businesses and local organisations; professionals such as doctors, health visitors, social workers and Citizens’ Advice Bureau staff identify people who are not managing and issue them with a voucher that can be redeemed for three days emergency food. Mostly, Foodbanks are being used by the working poor, the unemployed and the elderly who need to bridge the gap until the next payday, benefit or pension payment, or keep away from the clutches of payday loan companies.

If you are in need of help or want to donate or volunteer, local Foodbanks can be found here or at the following four locations in East Sussex:

The Methodist Church
Sackville Road
TN39 3JB
07866 570468

Albury House
1 Cornfield Lane
BN21 4NE
01323 409925

Sheriff Place
Rear of Link Shop
1 George Street
BN27 1AD
01323 844428

The Hastings Centre
The Ridge
TN34 2SA
07970 810008

Monday, July 1, 2013

Downland: part nine

Electric trams glide and rattle; an endless promenade. Their delicate waltz stretches the length of the street: from St. George’s Circus at the bottom, to the terminus at the top. From the overhead cables, sparks shower down outside the doorway of number 72 Waterloo Road. The cascade briefly illuminates the lettering on the window boards: ‘George Burchett – Artistic Tattooing – Crude Work Covered or Removed – Antiseptic Treatment’. It is late in the afternoon on a day late in November. Ridler is standing on the step; below him on the pavement is Gladys. She is impatient to catch the tram back home. Seventy-five times in six months they have made this trip; three times a week since 24th May 1934 – the date when Ridler had put his skin in Burchett’s hands with a formal letter of permission - they had travelled up from the clipped, suburbia of Raleigh Gardens in Mitcham, to the metropolitan mayhem of Waterloo Road. And now that it was finished, Ridler was taking one last look at this scene, taking in the sensual bustle before him.

Warm orange lights from shop windows reflect on wet glassy pavements. Angelic haloes of bright, white mercury street lamps plot a route that melts into a blue-grey infinity in the smoggy middle distance. Beneath the lights of this heavenly procession a more moribund parade: be-hatted travellers flood on foot to and from the railway, cheap cardboard suitcases hanging at their sides; passengers of a superior bearing, sweep through in Hackney carriages; market traders and barrow boys running their stalls from their pitches to the arches of their night-time perches. The carts’ clatter adds to the cacophony: steam trumpets from the engines above pierce the darkness; urgent bursts of the policeman’s pea-whistle direct the traffic at the junction with The Cut; the paper seller at the corner alternates his cry between “Star, News and Standard!” and “Germans re-arming, says Churchill!” The air is cold and damp and heavy with a sulphurous taste – the beginnings of a London particular from Bankside and the home fires burning in the Coin Street terraces. A hint, also, on the breeze of yeast and hops drifting downriver from the Anchor brewery to join the malodorous soup. He had known chaos nearly twenty years before - the noise and stench of war – and it was on its way again.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Fields of Gold

Who could have failed to notice the proliferation of fields of gold in the countryside this summer? At first glance, it looks as if crops of the ubiquitous rape have taken an even stronger hold of the fields and meadows but it is, in fact, the dazzling sparkle of the creeping buttercup.

The very wet weather last year, lack of spraying and compacting of the soil by cattle hooves, which stops water from draining away, have created favourable conditions for swathes of ranunculus repens on grazing land. And they have cropped up in other places: roadsides, gardens and village greens. There is even a clump tumbling into the water from the side of the pond on my allotment. So heartening a sight is this vivid display of wildflower in these days of uncertain climate – both meteorologocial and economic – that I am embracing the invader and letting it share my plot.

Others are not so accommodating. Being toxic to horses, cattle and sheep, fresh buttercups are a problem for farmers. That is why those yellow pastures are not inhabited by livestock at the moment; but spraying is apparently ineffective once the buttercup has flowered. So, we may as well enjoy the vista and let our children keep checking who likes butter.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Downland: part eight

As the hedgerows lining the road began to recede, Ridler could see the light at the entrance to his own landed estate: Deanland Caravan Park. And, passing through the symmetrically arranged white, beige, and beryl boxes, he found his own aluminium castle, his own Firle Tower: a 1951 Fairholme Romeo caravan. Through the net-curtained window, in the lit interior – the mantle of the bottle gas light shining brightly – he could see Gladys; reading glasses on, rollers in, reading Reveille. He could hear the low murmur of the radio set; home service or light programme? He could not tell. Probably the light programme. The Clitheroe Kid would have been on earlier. Gladys was persisting with it, despite refusing to find it funny because it had replaced her beloved Educating Archie at the end of its series. Every time that ventriloquist’s dummy had been left in a taxi or on a train she had worried herself into a frenzy. Ridler blamed himself; they had never had children. On the cover of Reveille was a picture of Elvis Presley, home on leave from the army. He knew that Gladys must be looking again at the spread of pictures of Presley posing in his colonial mansion and at the RCA recording studios. She had been just as interested earlier in the year when there were stills of him having his conscription haircut. The superficiality of the quiff and hips of this rock ‘n’ roller struck him as pretence compared to what he had done. Ridler had indelibly marked himself and, only fifteen years before, he had become the world’s highest paid showman. And it had led to here: a caravan near a village in the shade of the Downs. The trail of exile and exhibition, the path of failure and desperation, the sunlit peak of equilibrium and acclaim – it led to here. He took off his jacket, held out his bare forearms and examined his striated skin with its broad African equid brindling. He pushed down the handle with his tattooed hand, pulled the door out towards him and went in.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A Dickens of a Storm

As flaming June arrives, here is a salutary reminder that the midsummer month can also be as harsh as any in the cruellest winter. In June 1863 – 150 years ago – The Times newspaper ran the following brief story:

“THREE DEATHS FROM LIGHTNING. On Wednesday Mr WELLER, a shopkeeper in Glynde, a small village in East Sussex, accompanied by his wife and another woman, went to Brighton, about 11 miles distant, in a light cart, to transact some business. On their return in the evening they were overtaken by a severe thunderstorm that prevailed for several hours, and it is supposed that the cart was struck by the electric fluid, and the three inmates almost instantaneously killed, as their lifeless bodies were discovered at an early hour yesterday morning by a person who was returning from Glynde to Lewes.”

There are probably countless tales of tragedy such as this in national and local archives but what makes this stand out is that the storm, affecting a large area of East Sussex and Kent, coincided with one of Charles Dickens’s many late visits from his home, Gads Hill in Kent, to Brighton. He subsequently included it in one of his pieces of misery tourism. My first knowledge of it was when it was read to me by Andrew Brooke, erstwhile Sussex Sedition contributor and now resident of Somerset, as we stood in Glynde churchyard at the grave of the three victims as part of one of own misery walks a couple of years ago. Dickens, of course, brings the storm – its range, drama and tragedy – vividly to life, much more than an archival footnote ever could.

“Ranscombe Brow, a bold hill skirted by the road from Lewes to Glynde (the village of the glen), is situated about a mile and a half from Lewes, and commands, even from the road, an extensive view of the valley, both inland and seaward. The road winds through a wooded dell, and is darkened by very high and very thick hedges on both sides. Nothing can be seen except the sky. But, on issuing from between the hedges, and rounding the brow, an extensive flat landscape of pastures, watered by the Ouse, startles the view. The effect is striking, even on a fine summer afternoon, and must have been appalling in the night and the early morning of the 25th of June, when the darkness of night increased the gloom between the hedges, and when continuous lightning was enkindled all over the extensive view.

"Shortly after eleven o'clock on Wednesday night, a tradesman of Glynde, Mr. Henry Mocket Weller, aged fifty, conducted by one Mary his wife, aged forty-nine; and a young woman, Elizabeth Bingham, about thirty-five years of age; drove along this road from Lewes in a one-horse cart. Elizabeth Bingham was about to be married to Mrs Weller's brother, "after," as the local phrase describes it, "they had walked out together for ten years," and she was going to Glynde to make some preparations for her wedding. As he passed a policeman while leaving Lewes, Mr Weller said, " Good night ; it is very rough." At the Southerham tollbar-gate, Mrs Weller and Miss Bingham were alarmed, and Mr Weller was pacifying them. He was over-confident in the steadiness of his horse. Mr Weller sat on the right driving, his wife sat next him holding up an umbrella, and the bride on the left of the scat in the cart. On issuing from between the dark hedges and reaching the brow, they must have seen the whole landscape, the sky, the distant hill-tops, the pastures, the river, a-blaze with continuous lightning. I read the story of the catastrophe in the fresh marks on the spot. The horse, seized with maddening panic, had suddenly started away from the view of the lightning, wheeling the cart very sharply round, and springing up the steep embankment. The marks of the wheels and hoofs on the grass of the embankment, show that a terrible struggle ensued between horse and driver, the horse wildly plunging anywhere away from the storm, and the driver pulling the right rein to bring the horse down into the road. All three had tried to get down from the cart on the right side, together. The horse then fell over, capsizing the cart, and entangling all three under it. They were killed by the fall, the wheel, and the kicking horse…What a touch of pathos is added to the terror of these storms, when we remember their wrecked victims, the hopes they destroyed, and the homes they desolated! How are we to characterise the fool-hardiness which neglects all the known precautions against their dangers?

“More than three hours after the catastrophe at Ranscombe, a Lewes tradesman was driving home in a four-wheeled chaise. It was the darkest, coldest, most eerie hour in the morning, about half-past two o'clock. On the road at Ranscombe Brow, his horse shied. He applied the whip gently, but the horse would not advance. His son jumped down and tried to lead the horse, and then both father and son tried to lead the horse ; but he would not pass something on the road. It was very dark. They could see nothing. At last a flash of lightning showed a cart turned on the axle, and they discerned a woman lying close under it. The woman did not answer when spoken to, and they discovered she was dead. Another flash of lightning revealed another woman rather more under the cart. After procuring a lantern and assistance, and while drawing the cart away from the horse, a man was seen under the wheel. The forepart of the cart was kicked in.

“These three victims of this storm were buried in the churchyard of Glynde on the following Sunday. A long funeral procession, with about thirty couples of mourners, followed them from the village to the churchyard. The coffins, according to ancient Sussex custom, were carried on the shoulders of sixteen men, attired in long white smock-frocks, with black neckties. One large grave received all three, and they were laid down in the order in which they travelled. From a thousand to fifteen hundred persons were in the churchyard ; and a crowded congregation listened in the church, in tears, to a discourse reminding us that in the midst of life we are in death.

“This great storm left its mark at other places. At Maidstone and Herstmonceau, hailstones, or rather bits of ice, of oblong shape and broad as pennypieces, fell, breaking skylights. A policeman on duty at East Peckham was struck by lightning and seriously injured on the left side. A retriever dog was killed by his master's side at Hurstpierpoint. A poplar was shattered into splinters in the village of Kemsing. At Cuckfield, the lightning entered a cottage by the chimney, burned a small hole through the bedroom floor, passed through the sitting-room below, and left by the door, which happened to be open. At sea, four sailors were knocked down on board the Britannia collier, lying off Brighton. At Wilmington, the Eagle beerhouse was set on fire and gutted, the inmates escaping for their lives. At Spring Cottage, Fount Road, Tunbridge Wells, a man and his wife were struck in bed, the latter lying for some time insensible. None of the furniture in the room in which they were sleeping was injured, but the stone sink in the kitchen was shattered to pieces. In Ely Lane, Tunbridge Wells, the lightning struck a cottage, breaking pictures, damaging ceiling, and smashing panes of glass and a chimney mirror. A horse grazing upon the rocks at Denny Bottom either fell, being frightened, or was knocked or swept down from the rocks, and was fatally hurt. The lightning over the whole range of the storm scorched flowers, corn, especially oats and barley, although the damage was not considerable; and it positively benefited the hop bines, by debarring them of noxious insects.”

Friday, May 31, 2013

Sheer Folly

Coming toward the end of the Whitsun half-term week, I had had my relaxing and enjoyable fill of reading, family time and working on the allotment; but I needed to get out in the open country, feel the wind on my face and the sun on my back. My plan was to take a dog and walk along the ridge of the Downs from Firle down to Alfriston and back up again.

After the steep climb from Firle village up to the beacon, the panorama was a just reward: at Hastings in the east I could just make out the 16-storey Hollington tower blocks, like four fat white follies perched above the town; in the south, Newhaven harbour and the glacial curves of the infamous incinerator; in the west, nestling primly and properly, the town of Lewes; and to the north, the binary beacon of Crowborough and the land in between: Sussex spread out in the sun, its squares of wheat packed like London postal districts (oh! the glory of a reversed Larkin simile).

It was busy on the South Downs Way and there were too many distractions for Blackjack the dog: not people, but grazing sheep. So I eschewed the pint of Harveys – it was probably better that the solitary crumpled ten pound note stayed in my pocket anyway - and stopped short of Alfriston, slipping down to the safety of the green lanes and holloways, hard in the shade of the Downs, for the return walk. Coming down a steep chalk and flint bridleway we were met at the bottom by a sharp contrast: a boggy field hosting a swathe of flowering yellow flag irises.

The quiet of the byways was disturbed only once: an industrial-sized tractor, no doubt tending to one of the giant agri-business fields becoming more prevalent here, had us pinned into the cow parsley as it passed. As we neared Firle again, the tower kept appearing intermittently through the hedgerow. Unlike the Hollington tower blocks, Firle Tower is a real folly – it was never intended that anyone would have to live in it permanently. Built by the third Viscount Gage in 1819, the three-storey castellated turret was used as a gamekeeper’s lodge and a watchtower. Gage owned a similar building at Isfield to the north, and the two towers were able to signal to each other across the Laughton Levels; just to let each other know they were there, probably.

Back in the village of Firle, a group of decorators were eating their sandwiches, taking a break from re-painting the Reading Room. I tried to catch the conversation of these modern day ragged trousered philanthropists to see who amongst them was Owen, but they seemed to be discussing Britain’s Got Talent. I got Blackjack a drink of water, but resisted the lure of the Ram Inn myself and hung on to the tenner - as the Valentine Brothers sang thirty years ago, money’s too tight to mention.

Going back home through Laughton, I noticed that the Roebuck Inn had closed down. This not drinking is sheer folly.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Beauty and the Beasts

I get a long, and unapologetic, reply from UKIP head office. I had complained about their local candidate in the recent county council elections: his specious claims about levels of immigration into rural areas and, in particular, the line “they seem to be breeding more than the natives” to describe migrants in a letter to me.

The reply is from a man called Challice. It is full of the usual poison - the sort of stuff that you can find every day in the Daily Mail or on the Jeremy Vine show: scare-stories about Eastern European criminal gangs; the same old taproom casuistry and half-baked moans about Polish workers undercutting the indigenous population; no critique of the capitalist system that causes rampant and unchecked exploitation the world over; and no mention of the language his candidate used, which was the basis of my complaint in the first place. It is arrogant in tone: full of boasts about UKIP’s rise in popularity and concludes that if I do not like it, tough. The only point it does concede is that his candidate cannot write a coherent sentence.

I take the dogs for a walk through the local orchards to compose my thoughts and a reply. But it is blossom-time and, try as I might, I cannot focus on the bitter, rancorous notions of these uptight Little Englanders - they are at such a contrast to the beauty of the endless rows of white cherry and pink apple blossom. And, in the noonday sun, the overwhelmingly heady aroma of the blossoms makes any intention to write a lengthy response disappear. If UKIP have the time to write eight-paragraph emails, I do not: I have beetroot to plant.

So, when I get home, I send a short reply telling him to make the most of UKIP’s brief moment in the sun – it will not last. But then I remember that the candidate I complained about is now a councillor. Nearly two thousand people in my area voted for him on 2nd May to put him top of a poll of eight candidates. There is probably an historical precedent for majorities turning on minorities in hard economic times, but I cannot quite bring one to mind at the moment…

Perhaps I should not be so complacent. Perhaps in England we need to start following the example of the Scots in Edinburgh and let the Mosleyite Farage, and this other tribe of public school-educated bankers, know our feelings directly.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Downland: part seven

Striking out for home, the darkness enveloping him, Ridler re-crossed the deserted Lewes Road and immersed himself in the narrow lanes that would lead him back through the village of Ripe, past Deanland Wood and the old airfield, and to the caravan park and home. Second only to being on the Downs, these lanes felt like carefree liberty. The hedgerows, with the tips of hazel and blackthorn stretching overhead silhouetted against the star-studded sky, and the scent of hawthorn and dog rose filling the warm air, were a haven for Ridler, an enclosure of safe passage that would carry him home unmolested. He had rarely met a soul on these lanes and when he had, he was able to melt into thicket and darkness to keep himself concealed. The nearer he came to Ripe the more he felt at ease. He was tolerated in the village - some went out of their way to talk to him queuing in the post office or the village shop – but any voluntary encounters were borne of fascination rather than human decency. When he had first come here, they had sent a reporter and a photographer to the village shop. The picture of the cheery shopkeeper handing a packet of sugar across the counter to Ridler had been on the front page of the local newspaper. That was in stark contrast to the fearful, mute incomprehension he was met with from the grocer’s wife and daughter.

As he came into the village, he could see the lights from the Lamb and, through the windows, the drinkers finishing their last drinks of the night. He had timed his return well; half an hour later and staggering, swaggering farm labourers would be exchanging their final boasts and threats to each other in the street – always a danger. Two years before, returning from the Downs at this time, he had seen the Writer and his wife arguing drunkenly, violently outside the pub, the landlord standing imperiously on the step, the drinkers crowded at the windows. Judged and outnumbered, the Writer had started to run straight at Ridler, it had seemed, standing in the hidden shade of a yew; but he had passed by, only feet away, spitting curses and insults against his wife and the publican, and had staggered off toward Deanland Wood. Ridler recalled seeing the Writer there too, in that time before, creeping about the wood one afternoon with binoculars in one hand and a small book in the other. Ridler had guessed he was bird spotting but the unsteadiness of his demeanour and the noise he made with every twig-snapping step meant that any bird would have flown. The Writer had not even spotted Ridler close at hand among the trees; his powers of observation were surely dulled. He had seemed like a man numbed, in a trance. It was only later that Ridler heard of the nature of the Writer’s treatment and the reason for his stay in Ripe; but still none of this was able to explain the events of a year ago, up there, on the Downs. Ridler, looking back over the village, could just pick out the line of those hills in relief against the midnight blue starlit sky, high above the flat parochial fields the lane now led him through.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

True Colours

It being the run-up to the county council elections, there has been a smattering of leaflets coming through my door from political parties. Mostly they are the usual tired platitudes that local politicians think the electorate want to hear. The UKIP address, however, stood out for being at best misleading, at worst disingenuous as it implied that 40% of new housing in Sussex would be occupied by "immigrants". I sent a couple of emails to Wealden UKIP complaining that they were guilty of irresponsible scaremongering on the already contentious issue of rural housing development.

I had no replies to my emails but eventually received a hand-delivered letter from the candidate himself. It is quite staggering in its revelation of the party's true colours. I include it here in full, exactly as it was written:
“Dear Mr Watson,

Sorry for any confusion regarding immigration, with the numbers already here and them that may arrive one has to consider the growing population, especially when they seem to be breeding more than the natives, you are right in saying development is a contagious local issue, and we should be building for the local need, the water, the sewage and infrastructure are not up to coping with all they market houses they want to build, there are people moving out of London to get away from the immigrants in their area, so we don’t get those from Eastern Europe moving to East Sussex, but it is, but not always, the over spill coming here. Please fine enclosed a manifesto you may fine of interest.

Yours sincerely…”

If he was only guilty of comma splicing, malapropisms, appalling grammar and thinking the word “find” is pronounced and spelt “fine”, I would write him off as a harmless buffoon. But the ease and openness with which poisonous racism is used – and the misplaced confidence that it would be reciprocated by an elector - is astounding. I am sure we have known all along that UKIP is a lounge bar BNP – just look at their leader - but posing these days as a serious political party, I would be amazed if they expect their candidates to spout this sort of bile on their behalf; or am I being naïve? I have copied the letter to UKIP's central office, so I’ll find out…

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Six of the Worst

The charge sheet against Thatcher is endless but here are the worst of her crimes.

Right To Buy – the current government is desperate to reduce the huge cost of housing benefit. They seek to blame this on workshy layabouts dozing in bed and expecting the state to pay their rent. The truth is that it is so high because the working poor cannot afford private sector rents; and they are renting in the private sector because the social housing stock can only support the most vulnerable; and the social housing stock is so low because it was sold off under Thatcher’s Right to Buy. Just like the staff at the Ritz who found her body, we are all mopping up after Thatcher.

Privatisation – the fact that your water and electricity is supplied to you by some dodgy French company is down to Thatcher flogging off the utilities companies. And every year when your electricity goes up disproportionately and you get a hosepipe ban, it’s because the shareholders are lining their pockets with the profits instead of investing in the infrastructure.

Falklands war – Thatcher was hugely unpopular in 1982 and would have certainly lost the next election. The Argentine invasion of the Falklands provided a great opportunity for her to position herself as a popular vote-winning Boudicca figure. All she had to do was send the boys down to the south Atlantic to duff up an inferior opponent. It all went to plan until HMS Sheffield got hit by an exocet missile. 255 British soldiers died in the conflict and 300 (and rising) veterans subsequently committed suicide (yes, that’s true). Blood on her hands – still.

Miners' strike – Thatcher turned one group of public sector workers (the police) against another group of public sector workers (the miners). She mobilised the police as her own political militia to break a strike, destroy communities and divide a nation. She started today’s demonisation of the public sector by calling the miners “the enemy within”.

Greed - Some people of my acquaintance are mourning Thatcher. They bought their council house at a huge discount, and flogged it for a massive profit as soon as they could; they bought shares in every utility flotation so they could make a quick profit; they kept a small amount of money in every building society so they would qualify for the 200 quid bung when it floated to become a bank. They were not alone; these were the sort of people Thatcher appealed to - selfish and without morality.

Finally - Euripides said, “judge a man by the company he keeps”. Thatcher called Nelson Mandela a terrorist but regularly took tea with Chilean fascist dictator, General Pinochet.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Won't Look Back

Subway Sect were there at the beginning. They played the Punk Rock festival (which tradition demands I should have prefaced with the word “legendary”) at London’s 100 Club in August 1976 alongside the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned and the fledgling Siouxsie and the Banshees. Those bands all went on to burn brightly and, in the case of some, relatively briefly. Subway Sect released two singles in 1978: Nobody’s Scared, with its thunderous drumming, choppy guitars and accusatory lyrics - “No-one knows what they want/No-one even cares” - and Ambition, a Farfisa-tinged slice of infectious punk with the nihilistic, stylised warble of lead singer Vic Godard (“Nothing ever seems to happen to me”) on top. On the cover, there was a black and white shot of Godard, suitcase in hand at a grim London railway terminus, dressed as always in open-necked shirt, loose tie and suit jacket in various shades of grey. Subway Sect were always like that: dark, stark clothing and the haircuts of 1950’s angry young men. Then there was Godard: only two Ds in honour of Jean-Luc and he looked like the author photograph on the back of a French existentialist novel. These boys seemed to be a different kettle of fish.

1979 passed and nothing. The album the band recorded never saw the light of day and they split up. And then in 1980, What’s the Matter, Boy? was released, an album under the name Vic Godard & Subway Sect. Some of the songs were the band’s but with radically different arrangements and the album showed the influence of northern soul, 50’s rock ‘n’ roll and even earlier easy listening. I loved it: if Subway Sect were apart from the herd, this set Vic even further apart. Produced by Clash manager Bernie Rhodes it was probably intended to make Vic a star but it largely baffled critics and post-punkers alike. So Vic went back to being a postman in south London, something he would do intermittently over the next thirty years. In between, there would be albums and gigs; sometimes with the Subway Sect suffix, sometimes just in his name; sometimes with a lounge-jazz sound, sometimes with coruscating guitars. He has always worked with great people: Edwyn Collins and jazz musician Simon Booth from Working Week have produced albums; ATV’s Mark Perry, Polecat and Morrrisey collaborator Boz Boorer and Sex Pistol Paul Cook, have all featured.

On Friday night at the Green Door Store, an intimate underneath-the-arches venue, Cook was again on drums for the annual Brighton appearance by Vic Godard and Subway Sect, alongside original Sect bassist Paul Myers and more recent collaborators Mark Braby and Kevin Younger. Before they came on, we caught the tail end of the set by support band Asbo Derek (shamefully, it took me three days to get the joke in their name) and their perfect capturing of that spikey 1977 Television Personalities sound. And with equally humorous lyrics, they aimed their vitriolic barbs at targets such as Tory twit Eric Pickles, animal-loving but diversity-hating Brigitte Bardot and the Royal family. There was a fantastic moment during the song Backstairs Billy, an attack on the Queen Mother’s poor treatment of a legendarily promiscuous homosexual retainer (they can say that, they’re gay), when there was a collective gasp from the audience as they realised what lead singer, Jem Price, was going to rhyme the word “bedsitter” with but couldn’t quite believe it. Asbo Derek were a lot of fun and I wish I’d seen their whole set.

Older now but as dapper as ever, Vic takes the stage in grey Oxford bags, white open-necked shirt, cardigan and specs; only his nasal south London accent, when he speaks to the audience, gives away the fact that he is not a visiting professor. It is a tremendous set, spanning his entire oeuvre from rumbustious versions of those two early singles – Vic blasting out the harmonica on Ambition - to songs from his most recent album. The tapes of the original Subway Sect LP having been lost, in 2007 Vic recorded those songs as an album - 1978 Now – with the original Sect sound. Some of them – Out of Touch, Chain Smoking – featured on later albums with mellower arrangements but it is the spikier versions we get here.

Despite some repartee (I hate the word “banter”) between Vic and Paul Myers concerning the break-up of the original band (“You sacked me”; “No I didn’t”), they are enjoying themselves on the tiny stage. Seeing Paul Cook up close you realise what a great drummer he is. With a minimal kit, he is the mainstay of the northern soul rhythm that so many of the songs depend upon. There is plenty of nostalgia on offer: a poignant Empty Shell from the first LP, the rumba of Stop That Girl from 1986’s T.R.O.U.B.L.E album, and The Water Was Bad and Won’t Turn Back from 1993’s The End of the Surrey People. But it’s not all turning back; some of the best songs are the most recent: defiant opener Best Album (“we are not gonna leave until we’re done”), Back in the Community, a hymn to the vagaries of the prosaic working world, complete with On The Buses references to clipboard-toting Blakeys and oppressed Butlers, and the rollicking Rhododendron Town are all from the last album, 2010’s We Come As Aliens.

There is a great atmosphere as the set comes to a close but the late club night that is to follow dictates that there is only one encore. Then there is just time for a quick word and a handshake with the man before we head home. A new album is in production but, with only half the tracks complete, there is probably no danger of Vic increasing his average output of an album every five years.

Picture by Dave Stubbings

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Downland: part six

Irene Loftus could afford neither stone nor stained glass window to memorialise her son. That he had died at such a young age, thirteen years before, as the war was playing out its final stages and when Germany’s surrender was only two weeks away, seemed a cruelty beyond understanding. Rangoon. Irene was sure it had to be liberated, that it was an important part of ending everything, but it seemed so far away, so loosely connected to the war as she understood it. The Japanese she would never forgive, but God she could forgive; she had never lost her faith. Joseph Loftus had no known grave but Irene knew his name was on the Rangoon Memorial in Taukkyan War Cemetery, 6,000 miles away; and she knew his name was on the Firle war memorial she passed as she walked up to St. Peters church to light a candle for Joseph as she always did on his birthday.

Deep in reverie, reliving those years of change, Ridler had no time to move – to either hat or hiding place - when he heard the latch of the oak door lift and snap. As Irene turned to replace the latch she stared straight at Ridler; his straked skin, the broad dark stripes and serifs half in shadow. She had no understanding of what she was seeing; only that it was a giant, it moved, had a mouth, made sounds, reached out a similarly tainted hand towards her. The whites of the eyes, set in deep, intense contrast to the surrounding ebony stripes, disturbed her most. A baffled, breathless gulp of a scream disturbed the tranquillity. Ridler implored, but she was gone. He heard her quick feet scudding on the gravel as he too left the church; and as the gate onto the village cracked behind her, Ridler straddled the wall at the back of the churchyard and dropped into the estate grounds. He admonished himself as he walked quickly across the open parkland: how foolish to have put himself in that position again, so exposed to ignorance and misunderstanding. He could encounter hostility at the most unexpected of moments without putting himself at the very heart of narrow thinking. At least the woman had been brief and unsophisticated. A year ago, the Writer’s reaction had been the contrary: he had not run from Ridler and his utterances had been anything but brief. That had been his most alarming encounter and he still did not understand it, nor its aftermath.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Foliage and Fairy Lights

The Old Market in Hove was built in 1828 as a covered marketplace to provide fresh meat, fish and vegetables to the well-heeled folk of Brunswick Town, a Regency estate built a few years earlier between the villages of Brighton and Hove. The good people of Brunswick were strangely resistant to the market and it became a riding school in the middle of the 19th century. It was subsequently used as a warehouse until the 1980s, when it became the arts venue it is today.

The performance space is excellent: a wide 500-capacity room with a good view of the stage from wherever you stand. When we arrived there on Monday night, British Sea Power were already just over halfway through their five-song ‘mellow’ set that I had been warned they would play before the support act. Having already played the stalwarts The Land Beyond and Blackout, I got to hear two tracks from next week’s new album, Machineries of Joy. A Light Above Descending and Radio Goddard, with Yan on heartfelt whispered vocals, seemed to be – not surprisingly in the circumstances – from the mellower end of their trademark sound. With the stage bedecked with foliage and fairy lights, there was a hibernal atmosphere to match the never-ending winter outside.

Before British Sea Power returned to the stage for their main set, support act proper East India Youth played a short and intriguing set. The ‘youth’ in the name is not a collective noun. William Doyle, a sickeningly young solo multi-instrumentalist from Bournemouth, via East India Dock on the Isle of Dogs, is signed to The Quietus website’s label Quietus Phonographic Corporation. The three songs from his recent four track (one is a re-mix) Hostel EP are showcased here. The melodious Looking For Someone and Heaven, How Long?, a plaintive slice of shimmering beauty, sandwich the more experimental Coastal Reflexions, a litany of south coast train stations that has been described as the Pet Shop Boys meets John Betjeman. Using keyboard, bass, treatments and vocals, Doyle’s sound has been termed a sort of techno-prog; but there are waves of early New Order synths and a rich, clear voice coming through the krautrock rhythms that give his songs a pop sheen. His album Total Strife Forever is out soon.

Now in their tenth year, British Sea Power intended this gig as a warm up for April’s Machineries of Joy tour but anyone worrying that it would be a new album set would not have left disappointed. Despite playing eight out of the ten new songs, they play for two hours over the two sets and, with such a consistently high quality body of work to choose from, draw on all of the previous four albums, especially 2008’s Do You Like Rock Music? The new album’s radio-friendly title track kicks off a pacey main set that romps through barnstormers such as No Lucifer, Fear of Drowning, Waving Flags and Carrion. New song Monsters of Sunderland uses Phil Sumner’s trumpet playing to great effect and, on many of the older songs, he joins Noble and Yan on guitar to provide a behemothic sound. And if Abi Fry’s viola is a little lost in the guitar cacophony of these and new song K Hole, on other debuted tracks such as Spring Has Sprung and Loving Animals, it comes to the fore. With off-album favourites Bear and The Spirit of St.Louis greeted warmly by veterans of the live shows, it’s a crowd-pleasing set. There cannot be many better live bands around than British Sea Power when they are on this form.

When they return to encore with Remember Me and the racket of Favours in the Beetroot Fields from 2003’s debut album, and the apt “winter overture” of Larsen B from the Open Season album, there is no sign of Ursine Ultra, Mr Fox or Titan the robot. However, Hamilton is wearing a Bernie Clifton-style horse costume – of course he is - around which he struggles to play his bass. The word is that Machineries of Joy is the last album of British Sea Power’s deal with Rough Trade and, with drummer Wood relocating back up to Cumbria, could this signal the closing of one decade and the start of the next ten years?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Oh, Doctor Beeching!

Fifty years ago next week, Dr Beeching’s report, ‘The Reshaping of Britain’s Railways’ was published. The report’s recommendations, accepted by Macmillan’s Tory government, resulted in a third of Britain’s rail network, and more than half of its stations, disappearing by the end of the 1960s. The Beeching Axe, as it was popularly called, was the most decisive blow in the economic death of rural Britain.

Despite living in Forest Row, Beeching did not spare East Sussex. The Cuckoo Line, linking Eridge in the north of the county with Polegate in the south, fell victim to his axe. Those two stations survived, as they were connected to other lines, but the cuts sounded the death knell for the stations in between: Rotherfield and Mark Cross, Mayfield, Heathfield, Horam, Hellingly and Hailsham.

Named after Heathfield’s spring Cuckoo Fair, the defunct line south of that town eventually became the Cuckoo Trail in the 1990s after it was purchased by the county council and developed by the sustainable transport charity, Sustrans, as part of the National Cycle Network. Today, the trail provides 14 miles of footpath and cycleway, and has been extended down to Hampden Park in Eastbourne.

Although the tracks are long gone, there are still some signs that there was once a railway: some buildings, embankments and bridges remain and names –Station Road – betray the erasure. But for twenty years after the trains stopped running, there were even more solid reminders of the Cuckoo Line. Platforms, yards and siding sheds were all very obvious in the late seventies and early eighties when Chris Jennings was taking photographs of the remnants of the railway age. If you visit his website there is a particular selection of ghostly black and white images, shot on a sun-bathed day in Hailsham in August 1978, that show the abandoned railway about to be superseded by the overgrowth of nature.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Downland: part five

He stepped inside and, removing his hat and scarf, backed himself into the corner. Behind him the pair of windows with Matthew’s succour for strangers - the hungry, the thirsty, the cold and the lonely: ye gave me meat, ye gave me drink, ye clothed me, ye visited me. Tolerance, at best, was Ridler’s view of the hospitality that had been extended to him. This was a memorial to a Viscount’s son; retrospective earthly munificence enshrined in stained-glass - a guarantee of celestial immortality. But this felt like sanctuary; the shelter and calm tranquillity of the church.

To his right, at eye-level, was the memorial stone to Allen Cornelius Thorold Mann, son of Colonel J.R. Mann. It was too far away for Ridler to make out the inscription from his corner but he knew what it said; he had read it many times before. This Midshipman had been one of five hundred aboard when HMS Captain had foundered off Cape Finisterre in 1870. He was 19 years of age when he perished. Gladys had looked it up for him in Lewes Public Library: the ship had capsized because of design faults. Captain Cowper Phipps Coles had pursued his turret ship design in the face of naval opposition but had pushed his plan through by soliciting public and political support. Fittingly, he went down with the ship but along with four hundred and eighty others. That the folly of one could have such an impact on so many staggered Ridler. He had himself come from that background of privilege and expectation but any trace of this inheritance had long since dissipated as he set himself apart from all men; but these arrogant men in positions of power, they were still displaying their idiocy to the world.

Eden, only two years ago, had sent young British soldiers to invade Egypt and airmen to bomb Cairo. At least the villagers here - despite living in the thrall of a feudal estate - had recognised this aristocrat’s stupidity, riotously burning his effigy on Guy Fawkes’ night on the Downs that year. Ridler had seen this for himself when out nightwalking. They had looked like a torchlit mob; he felt that if they had caught sight of him, it would have been the peasants marching on Castle Frankenstein to lynch the creature. He and Gladys had seen that film at the magnificent Granada Cinema on Mitcham Road the year it had opened. The cinema was so opulent and ostentatious it had seemed like the new world had come to south London. That was probably three years before Burchett had started on his face and most of his work could be safely hidden. He could go out in public unnoticed then; by the time Burchett had finished, and Ridler had completed the transformation with piercings and dental work, America would be the only place he would find acceptance.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Hit the North!

At the top end of Hailsham High Street, next to the Green Chilli Indian takeaway, you will find Gallery North, a not-for-profit community art gallery. As well as exhibiting a wide range of artworks - paintings and photography to ceramics, printmaking, illustration and sculpture – by local artists, the gallery organises the annual Hailsham Arts Festival every September, and is an important part of the town’s landscape.

Not only does Gallery North support local schools and art groups, and run classes and workshops, but over the past year the gallery has worked with the town council to bring life to a high street blighted by recession and the economic vandalism that Tesco and Asda have wrought on the town. By displaying the work of local artists and craftspeople in the windows of the empty shops, they have revitalised the high street; and this has even extended to artists getting out onto the street to paint murals on boarded-up shop windows.

And this week, Gallery North has emerged from its deep winter hibernation with a new exhibition by East Sussex-based artists Liz and Roger Scott, Julia Desch and Angela Anstey-Holroyd. ‘Natural Textures’ is an exhibition of photography and textiles and runs to Saturday 27th April 2013. The gallery is open from Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 4pm and can be found at 70, High Street, Hailsham.

Friday, February 22, 2013

High Church Music

St. Bartholomew’s Church in Brighton, squashed in between the London Road and the railway station, is a monument to those architectural feats of the Victorian age. Built entirely of brick in a Germanic style, it is a pre-Brutalist slab that towers above those nearby temples of Mammon, Sainsbury’s and Costa Coffee. Designed by Edmund Scott, with much of the interior the work of the Arts and Crafts movement’s Henry Wilson, it was completed in 1874. Without spire or steeple, the 135-feet height to the apex of its roof gives St. Bartholomew’s claim to have the tallest body of a parish church in the country some weight. Whether this is true or not, it makes the place a bugger to heat.

There are few things in life that could persuade me to join several hundred other people on a perishing February night and sit for two hours in the nave of this church, where the temperature inside seemed no different from the zero degrees outside, but I Am Kloot are one of them. A curious choice for the sold out Sussex stopover of their short English tour, John Bramwell’s Manchester three-piece fit perfectly into this sacred setting, even if they don’t quite see it that way.

Why I Am Kloot are not better known is a puzzle. Bramwell’s gorgeous voice - a weary, reedy burr - and his nagging melodies have spun out across six studio albums since 2001. With sedentary bassist Pete Jobson and Captain Haddock lookalike drummer Andy Hargreaves providing the mainstay of their lazy, jazz-folk psychedelic sound, they only came to national attention when their fifth album, Sky at Night, was unsuccessfully nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. Augmented to a six-piece, the bulk of their set at St. Bartholomew’s is drawn from this album and their latest, Let It All In.

Seated near the front, the sound radiates up and out into the vast space but, as Bramwell notes, those at the back are probably hearing everything 18 seconds later. Bramwell is clearly discomfited by the sanctity of the venue – the band are the only ones in the place with an alcoholic drink – and continually gazes up to check that disapproval is not going to rain down on him. I Am Kloot have a celestial preoccupation: their lyrics are peppered with references to the sky and the stars – their heads are in the clouds. They open with From Your Favourite Sky, and Northern Skies is an early gem in the set. Bullets, Shoeless and Hold Back the Night (the night is another motif) feature amongst others from the new album and the set wraps up with a glorious trio of songs – Lately, Radiation and Proof – from Sky At Night.

When they return to encore with These Days Are Mine (time is also a recurring theme: "Isn't it rich? The future just keeps on coming"), Bramwell confesses that the band have struggled with the acoustics. What sounded spiritual and elegiac to the audience, was the sound of control spiralling away from the band and up into the heavens above.