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.