Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Hard as Iron

Walking from Stunts Green to Cowbeech and back again this morning, the ground was unyielding underfoot. After three consecutive nights of frost, and with temperatures barely getting above freezing in shaded areas during the day, the earth stood hard as iron. The long-legged dog took this all in his stride but the little-legged dog struggled: the deep ruts from tractor tyres on the farm tracks had been frozen into hurdles, the clods thrown up by horses’ hooves on the bridle paths had become boulders and the boggy field at the foot of Kiln Wood was an icy no-man’s land. I could tell by his Scottish Terrier grumbling and chuntering, as he tried to negotiate all of these obstacles, that he was not happy. It was only when we got onto the worn-smooth paths of Scrip Wood that he was able to make any progress without complaining about the weather, and I was able to enjoy the sight of the blanched north faces of the sloping fields, hidden from the eastern sun.

As we came back through the wood and passed the allotments, I was in two minds about the frost: the low temperatures might have finally killed off the legion of slugs on my plot but the winter digging-over, which I had aimed to finish before the year expired, was going to have to be postponed yet again. Having only recently harvested the last of the leeks, there is still a whole corner to be dug. Despite it being bathed in a bright but low sun, it’s unlikely that the earth will have warmed enough by tomorrow and, with another frost forecast for tonight, it looks as though I will be spared some New Year’s Eve digging. I had never envisaged seeing out the final afternoon of 2014 with heavy spadework, so my plan to be warming myself in the kitchen, as the interregnum between Christmas and New Year runs out, seems to be safe. And the little-legged dog will be with me.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Wan Light

Today is the winter solstice, when the Earth’s axis is furthest from the sun and, in the northern hemisphere, we experience the shortest day and the longest night of the year. But the solstice is not the point at which sunrise is at its latest, and sunset at its soonest. The earliest lighting up time occurred two weeks ago, and the latest morning appearance of the sun will not be seen for another two weeks. That is why mornings will continue to get darker into the New Year and why Celts and Pagans believed that the solstice marked the beginning of a period of time in which the sun stood still.

For 12 days, candles would be lit and an oak log kept burning to banish the darkness. Homes would be decorated with greenery, particularly mistletoe, and people would wait for the rebirth of the sun. They called this festival, Yule. There was nothing else to do at this lowest point of the calendar but eat the cured meat and pickled vegetables that had been preserved for the occasion earlier in the year. Oh, and drink. A lot. It sounds quite familiar.

When Christianity turned up, its main celebration was Easter. Having incorporated some of the Norse and Roman celebrations of the winter solstice, such as a decorated tree and gift-giving, Yule continued to be observed unaffected by Christianity until around 350 AD when Pope Julius I plumped for December 25th as the date of Jesus's birth; Christmas was born. It took a while longer to take hold in Sussex, of course, as the county was the last to convert to the new-fangled religion in the late 7th century.

Now, despite living in an established Christian state, hardly any of us go to church but most of us celebrate Christmas. There is nothing hypocritical in this; imagine what this time of year would be like if we did not have a fortnight of feasting and frolicking. It matters not what it is called; when the light fades outside, we need it blazing inside.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Second Class Post

On my drive home from work a few times recently, I became involved in a Mexican stand-off with a large TNT delivery truck in the narrow country lanes around the village of Bodle Street Green. With barely enough room for two cars to pass each other, this nine ton truck caused the closest you could ever get to gridlock on the road from Rushlake Green. Cursing modern satellite navigation technology for sending inappropriate vehicles along the most direct route, I thought no more about it until a later evening when I saw the TNT truck parked up at the top of Sandhill Lane. As I passed, I saw that the driver was emptying the Royal Mail post box and carrying out the last collection of the day.

Since Royal Mail was privatised on the cheap in 2013, by former Labour councillor and now coalition Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, Vince Cable, most of us will not have noticed too much change - except that the profit made by Royal Mail does not now benefit us as taxpayers but benefits anonymous shareholders instead (when I say “benefit”, this is a moot point: it was announced in November that profits have fallen 21% in the last six months).

What I was seeing on my journey home was one of the less visible signs of privatisation: parts of the service being sub-contracted out. But we will probably all be seeing more visible signs – or not – soon, as Royal Mail has warned that daily postal deliveries may not be sustainable in the face of competition from other private companies. Curiously, the private company Royal Mail says it is most threatened by is Whistl (sic), the mono-vowelled re-branding of TNT Post UK, a wholly owned subsidiary of PostNL, operators of the Dutch postal service. TNT has long been a friend of the privatisers and most famously drove their trucks through the Wapping picket lines to distribute Murdoch’s newspapers during the 1986 strike.

I am sure there is a perfectly good reason why Royal Mail’s biggest competitors were carrying out postal collections from rural post boxes on its behalf, but it seems a little strange to me. However, this is not the strangest thing about it: I was used to seeing postmen in their red-liveried Royal Mail vans, carrying out the last collection of the day from a string of post boxes attached to telegraph poles, embedded in hedgerows or, in one case, part of a garden wall – a very British image. And what strikes me as odd is that the forces of conservatism, the very people I would expect to uphold this idyllic scene, are prepared to forego it in pursuit of profit. However, this is all irrelevant now: despite the government’s assurances that privatisation would not affect the service, it is becoming distinctly second class. Late afternoon collections from post boxes in my area have ended; if you want to catch the last post, you have got to get down to the post office.

Saturday, November 29, 2014


St. George’s Church, in the Kemptown area of Brighton, was built in 1826 at the behest of Thomas Read Kemp. Kemp was building homes above the eastern cliffs in the early 19th century and, not content with knocking up a significant residential area and naming it after himself, he needed the pinnacle of any Georgian vanity development, a parish church. Not that the church belonged to the parish, or even the diocese. In those days, building a church was an investment opportunity with guaranteed rental income and the possibility of selling on at a profit. It was not until the end of the century when, after 50 years of private ownership by the Peel family, it was sold to a trust on behalf of the local congregation.

Fast-forward through a century of Christian worship to the diversification of the present day, and it is also a thriving community centre, café and music venue. Local promoters, Melting Vinyl, have been staging events at the 550-capacity brick and stucco neoclassical church for the past 13 years and the fantastic acoustics have lent themselves to the delicate and emotional sounds of Sigur Ros, Bonnie Prince Billy, Iron and Wine, Tindersticks and Edwyn Collins.

On Thursday night, Sharon Van Etten, an artist who wears her heart not just on her sleeve but as a jagged, broken crown upon her head, fitted perfectly into that roster of special performers. With their tender harmonies and slow-moving arcing melodies, Van Etten’s piano and acoustic guitar-led folk and country-tinged songs are so fragile and moving that, at times, they feel as though they will overwhelm you completely.

Van Etten’s breakthrough album, Tramp, produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner, first brought her to wider attention in this country in 2012. If The National’s involvement gives you some clue to the emotional timbre of her music, her support slot on Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds 2013 North American tour should confirm it. The New Jersey-born but Brooklyn-based singer is currently touring her fourth studio album, this year’s Are We There, and it is this that she mostly draws on for her set at St. George's.

With a four-piece band of keyboards, guitar, bass and drums behind her, Van Etten’s ability to describe the pain of everyday life on a grand scale gives her music an epic (the title of her second album) quality. Opening with the first two tracks from the new album, the tone of yearning and heartache is immediately established. On Afraid Of Nothing, she longingly sings “I can’t wait ‘til we’re afraid of nothing” and on Taking Chances, in her familiar second person, she reflects, “About to leave/Even I’ve taken my chances on you”. But sometimes the desire breaks through, as on the intoxicating Tarifa, when she simply declares “everyone else pales”.

In the middle of the set, Van Etten appears a little disconcerted: a broken guitarist’s string and being away from the States on Thanksgiving the explanation. But she is soon back in her stride, creating beautiful harmonies with keyboard player Heather Woods Broderick. In the gorgeous church setting, her repentance on Our Love – “I am a sinner/I have sinned” – seems wholly appropriate, as does the penance she catalogues on Your Love Is Killing Me: “Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you/Burn my skin so I can’t feel you/Stab my eyes so I can’t see you”.

When Van Etten returns, seated alone at the piano for a solitary encore of the overwrought “I Love You But I’m Lost”, the audience gets to its feet and crowds round the altar utterly rapt as she leaves us with “tear stains on the last page”. If those church-building men from the 19th century were so full of self-esteem and certainty, I am happy to give thanks to be living in a time when some of us are not afraid to show that we are mostly full of confusion and doubt.

Picture by Jason Smith

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Butternut Mountain

For the past few years I have been trying to grow butternut squashes with only modest success. When the kids were little, they preferred the more eye-catching pumpkin because of its Halloween association; but the butternut, with its comparative solidity and sweet nutty flavour, was always superior for us grown-ups. However, as the kids’ taste buds have developed, butternut soup, roasts and risotto have all become a key part of the family diet. And this year, for the first time, I have finally grown enough to see us through the winter. Twice over.

Winter squashes, such as butternut, are originally sub-tropical: they are not keen on frosts and prefer a minimum temperature of 10C. This means that the outdoor growing window begins at the start of summer and ends with arrival of the first autumn frosts. This year, the weather has been so mild that the growing season survived the one slight frost in October and extended into early November. This probably explains our bumper crop of nearly sixty fruits from half a dozen plants; that, and the cow manure. Butternuts love a rich soil and I top-dressed the plot with a whole load of muck from a dairy farmer in the previous autumn, digging it in in the spring.

Plants can be grown from seed in a greenhouse in March or April or bought from a nursery in May, as I did. Either way, they can be planted out in June, well clear of any cold snaps. If there is one group of plants that I always water regularly on the allotment and vegetable patch it is the Cucurbits: if cucumbers, courgettes and marrows need to be well-irrigated, pumpkins and butternuts more so. And it is not just plenty of moisture that they need; some require quite a bit of room. The vines and tendrils will stretch up to ten metres from the plants, so training them to double-back is essential if space is at a premium.

Butternuts fall under the generic term of winter squash because of their late harvest and ability to be stored and consumed right through the darkest months. Once harvested, they should be allowed to cure outside for a week or two before being stored in a well-ventilated place at a temperature between 10C and 15C. An outdoor shed will become too cold once the lowest temperatures arrive; but if you can find the right conditions indoors, butternuts can keep for up to 6 months. Living in a small terraced cottage with too many children and animals, storage is an issue for us. This means that friends, family and work colleagues are currently reaping the rewards of the butternut mountain, which might just stave off a kids’ mutiny over the endless spicy butternut soup.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Ship Ahoy!

In the late afternoon drizzle, driving west out of Hastings towards Bexhill, a magnificent sight straight ahead of me distracts my gaze from the flat grey of the sea on my left. The bow and superstructure of an ocean-going liner, dazzling white in the November gloom, rises above me. Giving the impression that it has run aground on the St. Leonards’ shore, this vessel on the land side of the coast road is in fact the dry-docked, Art Deco edifice of Marine Court.

Built to a design based on the Queen Mary - pride of the Cunard White Star Line in the 1930s - Marine Court is a fourteen-storey building that is home to over 150 apartments. Known locally as The Ship, the design also features a tiered bridge and, at the eastern end, a restaurant and viewing platform that imitates the forecastle. The balconies on the steep elevation of the coastal side are reminiscent of the promenade decks of the Queen Mary.

The building has had a slightly perilous voyage since it was constructed in 1938: damaged by bombing during the Second World War, it was fully restored in the 1950s only to be the perennial loser in a constant battle to halt the erosive effects of the sea air on the facade. And architects Roger Pullen and Kenneth Dalgleish’s original nautical vision has been undermined over the years: a variety of replacement windows, alterations to residents’ balconies and a failure to maintain consistency in the ground floor shop fronts, have all disrupted the uniformity of design.

With the designation of Grade II listing in 1999, and the purchase of the freehold by the residents in 2010, Marine Court is finally getting the level of attention needed to preserve this iconic building. However, such work is expensive and the downside is that many residents are selling up as they cannot afford to pay their contributions towards the renovations required to maintain the building.

Monday, October 27, 2014

October Spawned a Monster

There is so much good music being put on at the De La Warr Pavilion at the moment, I feel as though I spend more time in Bexhill’s Modernist temple of culture than I do in my own home. There is nothing wrong in that only, having been there three times in twelve days already this month, my state of genteel poverty presents me with a dilemma over the forthcoming Belle and Sebastian gig.

Not actually a gig, my sojourn at the De La Warr started a fortnight ago at an interview and book event with Public Image Limited’s John Lydon, formerly Johnny Rotten of this Sex Pistols parish. Lydon was interviewed onstage by The Guardian’s Alex Petridis to promote his new ghosted autobiography, Anger is an Energy. When I say interviewed, Petridis only had to ask a few questions; getting John Lydon to talk has never been difficult. And he seems to know better these days that, when he is amongst friends, he doesn’t have to shock; having said that, he still gives good copy. He tells us that he believes in a society that looks after its weakest members; that Russell Brand is misguided and you must vote “for the least bad option”; that the best thing about Britain is its embracing of immigrants, like his Irish parents; and that punk had true gender equality. It would have been good to hear him play some music, but then I remembered that it was another interview with him, a long time ago, that caught my attention just as much as the Sex Pistols’ music. In a filmed piece with Janet Street-Porter for The London Weekend Show in November 1976, his expression of anger about the drudgery and low expectations society bestowed upon the young working class, resonated with my teenage self so much that – and I am not being hyperbolic here - it completely changed my outlook on life.

Three days later, and the De La Warr was hosting another Johnny. A few years after Lydon’s poetry had declared that there was “no future in England’s dreaming”, The Smiths gave us “the songs that saved your life” and, for many, their articulation of gauche awkwardness and personal desperation, was just as important and life-affirming as the Pistols. For all the pathos and bathos of Morrissey’s lyrics, what made The Smiths a great band was their cracking tunes. The architect of those, Johnny Marr, has spent most of the intervening years collaborating with others and being a general guitar for hire, but in the past 18 months he has released two solo albums. The title track from the most recent, Playland, is the impressive set-opener and then he does something unexpected: Panic is the second song in and, although I knew he would play Smiths songs, letting the audience know this early on settles things down – everybody goes on to enjoy themselves, most of all Marr, who is a virtuoso guitarist. When he takes off his jacket, very carefully folds it and places it on the drum riser, a friend remarks that it is a sure sign of a mature man. Upstarts from last year’s The Messenger album follows and then the set is made up mostly of songs from the new album, with a regular sprinkling of Smiths’ songs – Stop Me, Bigmouth Strikes Again (with lyrics archly changed from “Joan of Arc” to “Johnny Marr), There Is A Light That Never Goes Out – that are, inevitably, rapturously received. A version of Electronic’s Getting Away With It reminds me what an elegant song he penned with Barney Sumner and Neil Tennant, and the final encore, How Soon Is Now?, lets Marr show off that extraordinary guitar sound that used to frighten the life out of my oldest son when he was a baby.

If you can be fairly certain what you will get from Lydon and Marr, British Sea Power are a constant surprise. A long history of gigs in unlikely places, (only recently they played on a ferryboat to Brownsea Isand in Dorset), onstage bears and robots and diversions into instrumental film soundtracks all mark them out as one of the most innovative and idiosyncratic bands around. And last Friday night in Bexhill they presented Sea of Brass, a set of songs from their extensive 10-year repertoire rearranged for performance in collaboration with a full brass band. Touring the country with a variety of regional ensembles, London’s Redbridge Brass Band were present at the De La Warr. With the traditional BSP dressing of foliage, all 6 members of the band and the 28 members of the brass band, the stage was looking crammed; and if the visual senses had a lot to take in, the aural layers presented by the fullness of the sound were incredible. It was not unexpected to hear tender songs such as The Land Beyond, The Great Skua and Machineries of Joy working so well in this context but when the punk pounding of Atom features, and then a full ten-minute version of Lately, it is an absolute delight. I always enjoy British Sea Power when Phil Sumner’s trumpet and Abi Fry’s violin are high up in the mix and, with the guitars tempered for the occasion, they shine through and are beautifully complemented by the plaintive full brass. The whole thing is so bloody marvellous that it is hard to contain yourself: my brother-in-law, sitting next to me (the seats were in for this one), keeps throwing his arms up in the air in an almost involuntary spasm. They encore with Waving Flags, which is as amazing with brass as the version I saw them perform with the full London Bulgarian Choir at the Roundhouse in 2008.

At my age, it was a monster of a gig-going month and I was almost relieved my residency at the De La Warr had ended. But then talk of the Belle and Sebastian gig this Wednesday started, prompting me to ask myself the question: should I go and hear The Boy With The Arab Strap played live, or be a responsible parent and spend the money entertaining the kids during half-term?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

In the Shade of the Downs

In almost spring-like weather, with a fast moving wind sending the rainclouds scudding across the blush of a late afternoon sky, we set off on a brisk, short walk before the October light faded. Starting at Firle, we followed the old coach road eastwards towards Selmeston, zigzagging across the thoroughfare to dodge the water-filled potholes that littered the route.

We three had not been out walking in the shade of the Downs for a few years. The last time we were together, Sussex Sedition was a fanzine containing condemnations of the political class, exhortations of an anarchist life of sufficiency and tips on punk vegetable growing. All concealed beneath benign and bucolic cover art, we would leave copies in pubs amongst the leaflets for visitor attractions, guides to local arts festivals and copies of the Friday Ad and Magnet magazine – guerrilla distribution. But then life got in the way: relocation and redeployment sent us our separate ways and the effort of print gave way to the ease of the blog.

At the foot of Firle Beacon, having left the folly of Firle Tower behind us, we encountered two walkers trying to find the most direct way down to Charleston Farmhouse. They headed off according to our directions, but we soon realised we had sent them on a longer route. Not soon enough, though: they were already out of sight when we spotted the quicker path. And, with another cloudburst breaking overhead, we took the shortcut ourselves.

Charleston was the country home of artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and the meeting place of the Bloomsbury group that included writers Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster and Lytton Strachey. Now run by a trust, the house has a permanent collection of paintings, furnishings and ceramics, the garden is home to a diversity of sculptured forms and there is a splendid tea room. It was here that we were holed-up when the walkers we had met on the road came in, dripping wet and looking puzzled at our presence. We spluttered out an unconvincing tale, by way of an excuse, and hurried on our way.

A very short walk on from Charleston is Tilton House. This was once home to one of the Bloomsbury set’s regular - but unlikely - associates, the economist John Maynard Keynes. It was Keynes who went against free market thinking in the 1930s and pioneered the theory that only state intervention could sustain employment and secure recovery from depression. Keynesian economics had been adopted as the policy choice of most western governments by the middle of the 20th century and, having fallen out of favour during the rise of 1980s’ monetarism, returned to prominence in response to the global financial crisis of 2008.

Now a yoga retreat, Tilton is not open to the public; but we ventured past the ‘PRIVATE’ sign and up the drive, anyway, so that we could get a good look. No sooner had we taken in the Georgian façade, than a burly beard in a cheesecloth shirt bounded up and asked if he could help us. When we responded that we were fans of J.M. Keynes on a pilgrimage, he was immediately disarmed and shuffled back inside to his meditations. With the sun now low in the western sky, we headed back up the coach road to Firle, to contemplation of a more satisfying kind: a pint of Harveys at the Ram Inn.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The State We're In

We live in an age where politicians seek to claim the future by harking back to the past. UKIP present us with a return to a time when Britain stood alone and aloof in the world and the only foreign workers were at a safe distance, in far flung corners of the Empire. The coalition government, under the guise of financial probity, seeks to shrink the welfare state and invoke a positive image of an age of austerity. There are few people who lived through the inter-war years of the 20th century, now articulating their experiences. One who is, though, is nonagenarian Harry Leslie Smith, a staunch defender of the welfare state. In his recently published book, Harry’s Last Stand, he details the grinding poverty of life before the state’s safety net existed.

Reading Harry’s book made me think of my own father’s life. Had he not died in 1999, he would be a similar age to Harry. He was born in 1922 in Deptford, south-east London, the only child of an Irish mother and Scottish father. His parents had both come to London with siblings to escape the poverty of their homelands but discovered that life was only slightly better. They lived in two barely habitable rooms and his father worked, with little job security or reward, in the butchery trade; there was never enough work or food. When my father was a baby, he contracted polio. The doctor, that they had to pay to visit, said that he would probably die – an older infant sibling had previously succumbed to the disease. But his mother nursed him with drops of brandy and he survived - a withered upper arm being the permanent reminder of his narrow escape.

When my father was 15, his father died. A stomach-ache, that they could not afford to be treated by the doctor, turned out to be peritonitis. His mother, working in a variety of badly paid menial jobs, needed my father to work as well so they could support themselves. Then, during the Blitz of the Second World War, his mother was killed. She had been fixing the blackout curtain to the window, when an unexploded bomb from an earlier raid went off in the ruins of a house opposite. She was thrown across the room and had seemingly survived, but died two days later from internal injuries. His Aunt, not having heard any news from her sister during the bombing, travelled from safer south-west London to find her 18-year-old nephew had been sleeping through air raids under the kitchen table, alone in his damaged home. Taken in by his Aunt, he then joined the RAF and survived the war despite being sent on countless raids as part of the crew of Lancaster bombers.

With the end of the war, and the creation of the welfare state, my father’s life would, thankfully, never be the same again. Marrying my mother, he then brought up his own family of four children – all born safely in NHS hospitals and well-educated in state schools - in a newly-built council house. During some periods of unemployment he was supported by the state; he never thought of himself as a scrounger – he was just glad that he could feed his family when times were hard. When he had a stroke in retirement, he recovered in a dedicated NHS stroke unit and, when he was diagnosed with cancer, spent his final days receiving the best care in an NHS hospice. Not quite 'from the cradle to the grave' for my father, but hopefully it will be for his children. Sometimes it pays to remind ourselves that the state we're in is worth defending.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Austerity Isn't Working

With Members of Parliament having recently heard that they will be awarded a 10% pay rise next year, the rest of the workers in the public sector will reflect on their own lot. Having just come out of a three-year pay freeze, this year's and next year's 1% rises look positively generous by Gideon Osborne's earlier standards. But compared to MPs, it really isn't funny that workers in the NHS, education and public services have experienced a pay cut of up to 20%, in real terms, during the life of this government.

It is mostly women, in part-time work in the child and adult care sectors and administrative jobs in vital local services, who are disproportionately affected by government pay policy. The Child Poverty Action Group recently reported that 60% of children living in poverty in Britain today have at least one parent in work. Maintaining - and effectively reducing - low levels of pay does nothing to restore a healthy economy. The government's mantra of getting the deficit down rings hollow when Osborne is missing both his deficit reduction and borrowing targets this year - austerity isn't working.

With none of the various Tory parties prepared to stand up for the low-paid, it falls to workers and their unions to stand up for themselves. As next month promises industrial action by Unison and the PCS public sector unions, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has announced a mass march and rally in central London on Saturday 18th October as part of its Britain Needs a Pay Rise campaign. Eastbourne Trades Council is arranging free train travel from East Sussex to London; local trade unionists and their families can book their places here and make their voices heard in the capital on the day.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Rusty Sword of Truth

In the graveyard of St. Mary Magdalene church in Whatlington, a village hard by the A21 two miles north of Battle, there is a small unassuming gravestone bearing the legend “valiant for truth”. Having ploughed miserably through John Bunyan’s allegorical A Pilgrim’s Progress a few years ago, because I thought I should, I recognised the phrase as the name of a character appearing towards the end of the pilgrim’s journey to the Celestial City: Valiant-for-Truth is engaged in a single-minded pursuit of the truth.

The trusty sword of truth was not something I associated with the occupant of the grave, the writer and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge. As someone born just over fifty years ago, I was familiar with Muggeridge for his regular appearances on television in the late 1960s and 1970s. But, picking up on the responses of my mum and dad, I formed the impression that he was a figure of fun.

My view of him as a pompous moraliser was cemented around the time I became an adult, when he famously appeared with the Bishop of Southwark on the television chat show Friday Night, Saturday Morning to take on two of the Monty Python team and denounce their film Life of Brian as blasphemous and “tenth-rate”.

However, having read Muggeridge’s obituary – he died in a Hastings nursing home in 1990 at the age of 87 – I realised that his Christian evangelism was something that only developed in the late sixties. Prior to that, he had been an acerbic and rebellious journalist, challenging the social order of Britain and the world in the middle part of the 20th century.

Born in Croydon to socialist parents – his solicitor’s clerk father later became an MP in Ramsay MacDonald’s second Labour government – Muggeridge was fervently left-wing in his youth. And when the Manchester Guardian posted him and his wife, Kitty, to Moscow in 1932, the Muggeridges’ admiration for the Soviet Union was such that they intended never to return to Britain. However, the widespread famine he discovered that year, and the censoring of his journalism, quickly disillusioned him. On his return, he wrote Winter in Moscow, a fictionalised condemnation of Stalin’s system.

Continuing his journalistic career before and after the Second World War, there was no target too sacred for Muggeridge - his agnosticism and republicanism were constant themes. In a 1957 article entitled Does England Really Need a Queen? he denounced the monarchy as “a royal soap opera” and caused an international controversy. And in 1965 he courageously attacked the virtual sainthood bestowed upon the assassinated John F. Kennedy as hypocritical. However, in 1969 he hung up his sword, published Jesus Rediscovered and began to attack the permissiveness of society, hanging-out with that monumental figure of fun Mary Whitehouse and her Festival of Light reactionaries.

Picture by Lori Oschefski

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Born To Be A Rebel

It is surely a testament to the brilliance of Vic Godard that, nearly forty years - and almost as many incarnations – after the first gig by his band, Subway Sect, he still has the enthusiasm to be an energetic and creative musician and performer. On stage at the Brass Monkey in Hastings last night, as part of the Trash Cannes punk festival of music, film and art, the ever-contrary Godard threw himself into both the Northern Soul sound of his new Edwyn Collins-produced album, 1979 Now, and the raucous coruscations that made Subway Sect the most interesting of the crop of bands from ’76.

After a tentative start with an instrumental-cum-soundcheck, the first half of the set was mostly made up of a selection from the new album, which is a re-working of songs that Vic and the Sect wrote in 1979. Some – Holiday Hymn, The Devil’s in League With You – surfaced on later albums, but others, Happy Go Lucky Girl and the amazing Born To Be a Rebel, appear on the new album after a 35-year hibernation. Having been performing the tracks live, and recording them at Collins’ studio, over the last couple of years with the core band of Mark Braby, Kevin Younger and Yusuf B’layachi, they sound tight and impassioned.

When Vic announces halfway through that things are going to sound rawer from here on in, you realise why Edwyn Collins describes the Subway Sect as “the best punk band - fact.” They rip through early classics such as Chain Smoking and Parallel Lines and, as Vic straps on his guitar, he recounts a Spanish soundman telling him “the band make the music, you make the noise.” Introducing the debut Sect single, he says to forget about Mark E. Smith and How I Wrote Elastic Man, he wrote Nobody’s Scared as a distillation of an essay on Jean-Luc Godard he penned at college in Ealing - that’s how. With the line, “no-one knows what they’re for, no-one even cares”, he could have written it today for our listless times. It is the song’s second outing of the evening: fantastic support band, the New York Dollies, a female ukulele doo-wop trio (oh, yes!) covered it in their set of punk classics. If that seems improbable, the Dollies reminded me that the sound of the Ramones and the New York Dolls was more rooted in the 50s and early 60s than in the 70s.

When I saw Vic Godard last year at Brighton’s Green Door Store, 2010’s We Come As Aliens supplied the majority of the set; but only two numbers, Best Album and Music of A Werewolf, featured from that album last night and there was a little gem in the appearance of Common Thief from “an obscure album, Log Term Side-Effect”. Not obscure round our house, Vic! And as befits the headliners of a festival that is a celebration of art school punk, the nihilism of legendary Rough Trade single, Ambition, brought down the house.

1979 Now is released on 6th October on AED.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Brown Sugar

Walking through my local orchard, I noticed that the rows of heavily laden Discovery and Cox’s Orange Pippin apple trees were interspersed with the odd Russet tree. Distinctive for their leathery brown skin, they stood out, not just for their appearance, but for their infrequency. Growing odd cultivars from the same flowering group amongst the main crop ensures good pollination and a better yield. Being my favourite apple for its nutty aroma and sweet white flesh, I scavenged a few windfalls even though they were not yet quite ripe.

When I asked the fruit farmer why he does not grow more Russets, he said that at Farmers’ Markets they are popular, but the supermarkets will not buy them from him. The average shopper has become so conditioned to the idea of a shiny rosy apple that they baulk when confronted with a dun-coloured fruit with a matt finish.

The alienation of the Russet is not confined to its fruit. When I arrived at the fag end of a fruit tree sale at a local nursery recently, there were only two apple varieties remaining – a Laxton and a Herefordshire Russet. Even my own kids, who I thought were free of aesthetic prejudices when it came to food, pleaded with me not to buy the tree with “the brown apples”. The thing is, they had eaten peeled Russets as toddlers and loved their sugary taste. So I ignored their sensibilities and bought the Russets. If they were good enough for Shakespeare ("there's a dish of leather-coats for you" - Henry IV) and the Victorians, who knew them as the best tasting apple, they should still be good enough today.

Monday, August 25, 2014


In two weeks’ time the Trash’d New Wave Festival 2014, the third Trash Cannes festival, will be coming to a close with RAW, a showcase of local young punk bands. Not that this is just a music festival: Trash’d also incorporates art, literature, film and fashion over four days at a variety of venues in Hastings.

An independent festival, it is directed by filmmakers and writers Keith Rodway and Garth Twa. Rodway was part of Mark Perry’s The Good Missionaries and is a product and resident of Hastings. Twa has written for, and about, film and has worked at Universal studios. With a mandate of ‘informed irreverence’, the pair founded Trash Cannes in 2012 with festival patron TV Smith, one-time frontman of first-wave ‘one chord wonders’, The Adverts.

This year’s not-for-profit festival begins at the Memorial Art Gallery on the evening of Thursday 4th September, with a free exhibition of artist Cat Rosseiter’s work, and continues at the Stade Hall on the Friday night with an alternative fashion show, a programme of film talks and a screening of Sam Harris’s film, Arthur Sleep, with a live score. The following afternoon sees a return to the Memorial Art Gallery for Saturday Salon, a set of talks on literature, music and Garth Twa on twenty years in Hollywood.

The festival’s set-piece, Punky Monkey Night at The Brass Monkey in Havelock Road, looks like a real treat: there will be a Q&A with Nina Antonia, music journalist and author of books on the New York Dolls and their guitarist Johnny Thunders, and a screening of Danny Garcia’s recent documentary, Looking For Johnny, telling the story of Thunders’ life, career and early death in 1991. Live music will be supplied by The New York Dollies, a ukulele doo-wop punk covers trio, and headliners the sublime Vic Godard and The Subway Sect, who were on the bill of the seminal punk festival at London’s 100 Club in 1976. Godard’s 1993 solo album, The End of the Surrey People, featured a tribute song entitled – of course – Johnny Thunders. There’s a theme there…

The new bands appearing on the final night will play to a panel of musicians from Alabama 3, Ruts DC and The Wedding Present, and the festival will be brought to a close with a gig by locals The Fabulous Red Diesel and DJ sets until late. Shot through with the spirit of art school punk, Trash’d promises to be diverse, original and affordable.

The festival runs from 4th – 7th September 2014. Times, venues and ticket information can be found on the Trash Cannes website.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Over The Hill

When the marriage of Glaswegian folk and blues singer John Martyn, and his wife Beverley, broke up at the end of the 1970s, they were living in Heathfield. Interviewed in 1981 by Chris Salewicz of the NME, Martyn reflected on the fact that he had returned to Scotland whereas his wife still lived in the East Sussex town. “I don’t know how she can stand it,” he ruminated, “I suppose she has learnt to live with middle class ponces.” Hmm…

If that sounds as though Martyn was never at home so far from Glasgow, it could not be further from the truth. From the age of five, he had divided his time between his estranged parents’ homes north of the border and in the home counties. And in the first half of the seventies, Martyn and his own young family lived on the Sussex coast. Indeed, his time in Hastings probably saw Martyn at the peak of his creative and commercial powers.

Having already been an important figure in the British folk scene from the mid-1960s onwards recording as a duo with Beverley, Martyn’s sound took a distinctive turn when he experimented with guitar delay effects and a slurred vocal style, and teamed up with jazz bassist Danny Thompson. This new and unique sound was first fully heard on the 1971 album, Bless the Weather; but it was the next album that was his apotheosis: 1973’s Solid Air, with its title track dedicated to friend and regular visitor to the Martyns’ Hastings home, Nick Drake, was a huge critical and commercial success.

However, Martyn’s prodigious appetite for alcohol and drugs had become a central feature of his life and, on the beautiful Over The Hill, his paean to Hastings’ West Hill, he was at his most confessional:
Can't get enough of sweet cocaine, get enough of Mary Jane/Going back to where I come from, going rolling back home again/Over the hill
Although his lifestyle had caused the family’s life to become increasingly chaotic, Martyn was still self-aware enough to realise where his priorities lay:
Been worried about my babies, been worried about my wife/ Just one place for a man to be when he's worried about his life/ I'm going home, over the hill
The image of the troubled troubadour, returning home over West Hill, is a powerful one.

In an attempt at a new beginning, the family moved 15 miles inland to Heathfield in 1975. But what was intended as salvation was merely a postponement of the inevitable; by the end of the seventies, Martyn had left Sussex behind. He continued to record, perform and consume consistently throughout the following decades, until his death in 2009.

Once their young children had grown, Beverley also returned to music, latterly with this year’s The Phoenix and the Turtle album. And most recently, the young man who visited the Martyns’ hill-top Hastings home to stare out to sea for hours on end has propelled Beverley into the headlines. The ownership of early demo tapes, long in the possession of the Martyns, has been called in to question by the estate of the legendary Nick Drake.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Art and Ice Cream

The East Sussex Open is an annual exhibition, at Eastbourne’s Towner contemporary art museum, to showcase artists from across the county. Based in the largest gallery space in the area, the ground floor Exhibition Halls, it always provides a wide and interesting mixture of artistic forms; and the 2014 selection, ranging from traditional painting to large installations, does not deviate from this stimulating breadth of media.

Having to entertain the kids for the whole day on Saturday, I gambled on children’s intuitive appreciation of art to help me navigate this year’s collection. Whilst I was taking in Susan Crossett’s watercolours of rural landscapes, and Tom Banks’ eerie dark and depopulated St. Leonards’ street scenes, the kids were fighting over who should wear the headphones to accompany Flats, Gallit Shaltiel’s stop motion animation of a man trapped in a concrete structure.

It is perhaps a given that moving images and three-dimensional pieces will appeal more to younger minds; but whilst I was drawn to David Jones’ video installation, Jacob’s Ladder, an endless loop of empty London Underground escalator advertising frames, and the humour of Sam Carvosso’s Sculpture Falling on Lemon, the children were studying photographer Alex Currie’s urban landscapes, in particular the “sausage of snow” covering the stairs of the M61 Rivington services.

When it came to the installations in the centre of the gallery space, the children all enjoyed Anna Gonzalez Noguchi’s Tsumumi: To Wrap, a scarlet binding between the two main gallery pillars; but it was her arrangement of a chair, table, armbands and coffee cup that prompted a furious debate between the kids on the nature of conceptual art. The middle one was particular fervent, and a little too Daily Mail for my liking, in his questioning of the artistic nature of the piece; and when the oldest offered the suggestion that the title, Support, meant that it was about things we need to get by, he was still not satisfied.

The youngest came to the rescue by dragging us off to see contributions by two artists from Project Art Works in Hastings. Albert Geere is an 80-year-old artist with profound learning difficulties, who has lived in institutions since he was two. The primary geometrics of his painting Storm, Sky, House had especially appealed to her seven-year-old eyes. Then there was an exhibit in the name of Andrew and Eden Kotting. I had first come across this father and daughter team after reading an Iain Sinclair essay about them in the London Review of Books in 2006. I had then seen Andrew's 1996 film, Gallivant, documenting a coastal journey around Britain by his grandmother and seven-year-old Eden. Eden was born with Joubert Sydrome, a rare neurological disorder, and has collaborated with her father on a number of projects. Now 26, Eden’s series of canvases on show at the Towner – Stargeezers - depict religious zealots gazing at the heavens and is accompanied by a short film, shot by her father, showing Eden at work.

Wrapped up in the film, I had let the kids give me the slip but I quickly found them again, at the making table in the foyer, expressing their own artistic talents; fairies, war and Daleks abounded. The debate about Gonzalez Noguchi’s installation was still raging, so we took it across the street to the Favoloso ice cream parlour and worked our way through four large helpings of support.

The East Sussex Open runs at the Towner contemporary art museum until 14 September 2014. Entry is free.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Greenhouse Effect

Nestling at the bottom of the garden, squashed between the fence and the vegetable patch is our greenhouse. It’s been through quite a bit in the time we have had it - footballs smashed through it, glass blown out during storms, numerous coats of Coolglass applied and removed – and it’s looking a bit worn these days: one pane of glass is held together by tape and the door has to be practically picked up to get in or out; but it is probably the most valuable piece of technology we own.

If a vegetable can be started off in the greenhouse it hugely reduces the risk of failure due to frost or pest, so pretty much everything we grow starts here: carrots, leeks, beetroot, sweetcorn, pumpkins, squash and brassicas begin life in trays or pots before being planted out at the allotment. Potatoes, garlic and onion sets are obviously sown straight into the soil, as are parsnips which never survive transplanting. And crops for the kitchen garden at home – broad and runner beans, peas, courgettes, lettuce – all start out on the greenhouse shelves to keep them clear of mice and slugs in their early days. Only radishes, rocket and spinach are sown into the soil.

Once the seed operation of late winter and spring is over, the shelving is cleared and the greenhouse becomes a jungle of summer produce. There was a time when we planted sweet pepper, aubergine and plum tomato plants but, even in the greenhouse, their fruits were slow to reach maturity and we decided to concentrate on faster growing plants – cherry tomatoes, such as Sweet Million, and several varieties of cucumber – that we could eat at the height of summer, rather than in September. A small corner is given over to Cayenne pepper plants to feed the family chilli addiction.

I cannot remember how much our greenhouse cost but I know that we got it at a cheap price in the winter from an ailing DIY and garden chain. It was a painstaking process assembling it, and it is a job for more than one person, but it has been worth it as the heart of our vegetable growing for the past eight years.

Greenhouses are generally available at no cost on Freecycle or the Friday Ad if you are prepared to dismantle and re-assemble yourself.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Bus Stop

In yet more evidence of cuts to public services under the guise of ‘austerity’, East Sussex County Council (ESCC) is seeking to reduce its subsidy for bus services from £2.9m to £700,000 by April 2015. The proposals will see fares rise by 30%, services reduced and people in rural communities increasingly isolated. Some routes will change from a daily service to twice-weekly, and Sunday services will be cut.

As usual with ESCC, this latest proposal will particularly affect the most vulnerable: teenagers, young parents, those with disabilities, senior citizens and those on low wages for whom private transport is unaffordable. At a time when the council has ploughed £56m into the building of the Bexhill Link Road, such an attack on essential services for ordinary people seems inexplicable. But if you go to the ESCC website and take a look at the councillors in the key positions of power, you will see why. Middle-aged, male and well-fed, they could not be less in touch with the man on the Clapham omnibus if they came from Jupiter. It is, of course, East Sussex that is projected to soon have the first town – Uckfield - where nobody under the age of 45 will be able to afford to live.

I suppose we should always expect little thought for the less well-off from the nasty party: after all, it was Thatcher who said that any person still travelling by bus beyond the age of 26 should consider themselves a failure. But what of the ‘People’s Army’? The swathe of UKIP candidates elected to the county council last year are surely sticking up for ordinary folk? Of course not. Standing on a narrow policy of opposition to the EU and immigration, when it comes to a real issue that affects the daily lives of the people they are supposed to represent, they are clueless and powerless.

East Sussex County Council is consulting on its proposals until 28th September 2014. You can read the details and voice your opposition here.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Joyous Sound

Being a teacher of English Literature, I am often asked by students why everything they study is so miserable and serious. Happy and funny doesn’t make for greatness, I patronisingly say. And I have mostly thought that what applies to literature, also applies to music. Then I saw The Wave Pictures at the De La Warr Pavilion and I knew I was wrong. The London-based three-piece of David Tattersall on guitar and vocals, bassist Franic Rozycki and drummer Jonny Helm have a stripped simplicity, with their lack of effects pedals and crash cymbals, combining with witty and bittersweet lyrics to create a life-affirming sound – the joyous sound of greatness.

In January this year, Marc Riley’s radio show put me onto their single, Orange Juice, a collaboration with Stanley Brinks. With its defiant refrain of “But I’ll get by with a little bit of you”, it became an anthem to spite the endless wind and rain of winter and was played constantly in our house to the point that my seven-year-old daughter could sing every word. (I did have lie to her about some of the lyrics, though.) The single sent me to The Wave Pictures albums in their own right. They have been prolific since the start of the century and there are about a dozen of them. How could I have missed this band? I started with the two most recent albums, 2012’s Long Black Cars and last year’s City Forgiveness; and then I got lucky on two counts. Firstly, as I was playing the albums to death, the wonderful Music’s Not Dead record shop announced they were bringing them to Bexhill; and when they played on Friday night, most of their set was taken from these two albums.

There cannot be many better backdrops for a gig than a calm, millpond sea in the fading summer sunlight but, in the upstairs bar at the De La Warr, that is exactly what The Wave Pictures take the stage to. They immediately begin a running joke about Rozycki’s fondness for Bexhill as the place where he once spotted Keith Chegwin in the street. But the humour is not just confined to the between-the- songs chat, of which there is much. On the gorgeous Missoula, Tattersall sings “You make me feel like dancing/Naked across the motel room/My beer belly bouncing in the afternoon”, and the bathos is matched on latest album opener, All My Friends, beginning “Once I dreamed I saw your face on a carton of milk/Once I dreamed I spilled the milk all down my shirt”.

When it comes to the music, The Wave Pictures are very accomplished and simple does not mean samey; the guitar sound is at times clean and chiming, at others dirty and swampy, sometimes capacious and sprawling but all perfectly complemented by Rozycki’s meandering high-end bass runs. At various times in their set I am reminded of the Violent Femmes, Television, the Velvet Underground, Jonathan Richman; all great, all American - the City Forgiveness album was written on a six-week road trip around the States and it shows.

What is so incredible about the band is their infectious enjoyment of what they are doing. They never seem to stop smiling and nor do the audience. When the refrain in Spaghetti, from the Long Black Cars album, rhymes the title with “forget me”, I realise I am grinning like an idiot every time. And to add to the mood, in the middle of the set up pops a cover of the colourful and schizophrenic Texan musician Daniel Johnston’s Casper the Friendly Ghost.

Tattersall has an engaging and heartfelt voice but when Helm takes the vocals on the plaintive Atlanta, he shows that he too can be soulful and emotive; and even more so when he steps from behind his kit to sing two ballads. The swapping of roles does not end there: Tattersall takes bass (“I’m not very good on bass”) so that Rozycki can do a noodling guitar solo which he mostly gets right - their humour is also considerably self-deprecating.

My third stroke of good fortune may not be luck but judgement; two songs of theirs that I adore feature at the end of the set: Never Go Home Again, with its Bhundu Boys guitaring and visions of life on the road “There are bed bugs in my bed/There’s a headache in my head/Everything is in its proper place/And we wear the last town on our tired faces”, ends with a mass audience singalong. And when they return for the encores, their final song is the magnificent The Woods, a Modern Lovers guitar riff overlaid with near-hysterical lyrics taut with sexual tension.

This was my gig of the year so far; but with Music’s Not Dead and the De La Warr Pavilion bringing such good music to Bexhill there could be more greatness to come - but I’m pretty sure none of it will make me feel as happy as The Wave Pictures did.

Picture by Dave Stubbings

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Eyeless in Bexhill

I had been playing the eponymously titled debut album by Eyes & No Eyes for the past week and I was intrigued to hear how they would replicate their impressive sound in the confines of a record shop in-store performance. But at Bexhill’s Music’s Not Dead yesterday, replete with drums and amplification, they demonstrated the full range of their tender sonic landscape.

Playing six tracks from the album, they opened with the wintery Hidden Thieves – “the snow it falls upon your street/betrays the movements of my feet” – with singer and guitarist Tristram Bawtree evoking the vocal fragility of Nick Drake over a mesh of guitar and cello. Cellist Becca Mears underpins the band’s sound in the same way that John Cale used strings to create the sonorous and brooding cacophony of the Velvet Underground. With shifting time signatures and improvised lead-ins, the set veers from genre to genre – folk, psychedelia, be-bop – but never quite settling in any.

At the centre of their set is Rust, with Thomas Heather’s thrilling drums and Marcus Hamblett’s intricate bass combining to create the sort of exciting experimental rhythms that New Order discovered in their earliest work, post-Joy Division. On Old Crow, Bawtree belies his youth sounding positively world-weary – “the things I’ve seen, boy/you won’t believe” – and set closer, and album opener, the sprawling Breathe In has the band at its most mournful and powerful. Bawtree’s guitar work is by turns delicate and abrasive as the song builds to a pulsing climax.

I am sure that Eyes & No Eyes would be even more impressive in a larger venue. However, being charmingly vague about future live dates, the Brighton band could only recall one imminent gig, next week at Bethnal Green’s Sebright Arms; but on the second day of their "two-day tour of East Sussex” (they had played the Café des Artistes in Lewes the night before) there was plenty of evidence that there will be an opportunity to see them on a bigger stage quite soon.

Picture by Dave Stubbings

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Orwell in Eastbourne

By its very nature as an old and established seaside resort, Eastbourne can boast some high-profile cultural connections: literary giants Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll were regular visitors; the artist Eric Ravilious was a life-long resident and the biologist T.H. Huxley retired there, as did the journalist and literary critic, Cyril Connolly. But Connolly had lived in the town earlier in his life, at a residence he shared with a more renowned contemporary. If you walk along Summerdown Road, one of the well-heeled, tree-lined streets of the Old Town area, you will eventually come across a detached house with two rectangular blue plaques, one of which contains Connolly’s name and that of the writer, George Orwell.

The house, formerly the Headmaster’s lodge, is all that remains of St. Cyprian’s preparatory school. The main school building, where the two writers boarded between 1911 and 1916, stood to the rear of the house. It was destroyed by fire in 1939 and, subsequently, the school was closed and the playing fields sold to Eastbourne College. That less is made of Orwell’s connection to the town is probably due to the fact that he hated his time at St. Cyprian’s and, in a long autobiographical essay, laid his feelings bare. Such, Such Were the Joys – the ironic title coming from one of Blake’s Songs of Innocence, The Echoing Green – was published after his death to a polarised reception.

Writing over 25 years after the experience, Orwell’s detailing of a life of insanitary conditions, inhospitable dormitories and inedible food was recognised by some, but not by all. And it was his view of the violent regime of Mr and Mrs Wilkes, nicknamed Sambo and Flip, handing out humiliating punishments to some and lavish praise to others, that most divided former pupils. Accusing the Wilkes of fawning over the students from rich families, Orwell felt that as a scholarship boy he was cruelly treated. When he first arrived at the school as a seven-year-old, he was beaten with a riding crop so viciously that it broke. But it was his realisation that paranoia and fear were deliberately deployed by those supposed to be taking care of him that made Orwell understand the power of hierarchies. Friendless and spied upon, loneliness and a broken spirit were the outcomes.

Some of Orwell’s time in Eastbourne found its way into his fiction: in his ‘fairy tale’, Animal Farm, the local village is named after Willingdon, just to the north of town; its pub, The Red Lion, is where Farmer Jones gets drunk; and Manor Farm, where the revolution takes place, is based on Chalk Farm on the edge of the Downs. If Orwell used simple landmarks that he would have come across on ‘character-building’ walks for settings in Animal Farm, the area had a more profound effect on his final novel. The Last Man in Europe was Orwell’s original title for Nineteen Eighty-Four, and it perhaps gives us a further clue to how he felt about his time in Eastbourne. Exposed as a young child to an authoritarian regime that was, by turns, caring and violent, the sense of isolation and powerlessness that Winston Smith feels in Orwell’s most well-known novel can be traced back, in Such, Such Were the Joys, to his five long years at St. Cyprian’s.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Doing Politics

In last week’s European election in the Wealden area of East Sussex, where I live, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) came top of the poll. With 16,000 votes, UKIP were just ahead of the Conservatives; the Greens, Labour and the Lib Dems mustered 10,000 votes between them. The change from 2009 seems to be that UKIP have taken a couple of thousand votes from the Tories and, probably, some of the protest vote that previously went to the Lib Dems and the Greens. I am under no illusions about this; I live in a deeply conservative area. Although not far from London, it falls in a large gap between the main routes out of the capital down to Brighton and Hastings. It is very easy to become frightened of things like Europe and multi-culturalism when you have little experience of them.

UKIP’s ‘success’ should be put in context, though: because of the low national turnout, only 9% of registered voters supported them; but that is still more than each of the main political parties. The ‘Russell Brand effect’ has been blamed for spreading political apathy amongst potentially progressive voters: his admission that he has never voted has been cited as a validation of failing to engage in the political process and a contributory factor in letting UKIP in. In recent years I have been an advocate of not voting as I felt that the choice between three privileged, middle-aged men in navy blue business suits is no choice at all. Little did I know that another one would come along - this one in a mustard-coloured suit with a pint in his hand - and convince some people that he offers an alternative.

However, UKIP are not an alternative; they are a negative, backward looking party. There has been no successful political philosophy that advocates a return to the conditions of the past – only disastrous failures such as the Nazis and the Khymer Rouge. And because of that, UKIP do need to be challenged and confronted. There were two things this week to re-invigorate the political will. Firstly, David Runciman, in his essay exploring the choice between boring old politics and the revolutionary allure of technology, said “only politics can rescue you from bad politics”; and quoting Malcolm Gladwell’s appropriation of Gil Scott Heron’s aphorism – “the revolution will not be tweeted” - he made the point that, whilst social media is a powerful tool, “political change requires more lasting and durable connections”. Secondly, the leader of Podemos (We Can), the new anti-austerity party that managed to come third in the elections in Spain, explained the party’s philosophy as “citizens doing politics”. Pablo Inglesias added, “if the citizens don’t get involved in politics, others will”. Others, such as ex-public schoolboy commodities brokers posing as men of the people. The situation is clear: if we are going to deal with the ‘bad politics’ of UKIP, to stop their attacks on the welfare state and society’s weakest, we need to be ‘doing politics’, not just tweeting to the converted.

Exhortations to ‘get involved’ can often sound cliched and meaningless; but to ‘do politics’, to build on the support of the 25% that didn’t vote for reactionary parties in my area, and to capture the imaginations of the 62% that didn’t vote at all, means engaging with the process by joining a political party. The Green Party has branches in Hastings, Lewes and Brighton, and the Socialist Party is also active in Brighton. Let’s not bother with the Lib Dems, but how about this for a radical idea? The Labour Party: the largest progressive political party that has a history of building a fairer society and opposition to the repression of minorities. It is the only political party I have ever been a member of but its continuation of Thatcherite privatisation and vanity warmongering drove me away. How about getting involved with them again? Pushing from the bottom to promote those positive ideas that we know are popular with a majority of people: large-scale building of social housing and common ownership of utilities and infrastructure. So...?

Friday, May 23, 2014

Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience

When Ben Watt explained the genesis of the title of his new solo album, Hendra, tracing it back through his half-sister’s house and road in Somerset to the old Cornish word ‘hendre’, meaning ‘home’ or ‘home farm’, I understood why the singer, guitarist, producer, DJ and record label-owner had just arrived from the Charleston Festival. Performing in Bexhill yesterday evening, his gift for telling stories, either through song or speech, was plain to hear. At Charleston, the East Sussex home of the Bloomsbury group, he had been reading from Romany and Tom, the written story of his parents’ lives. Having now added literature to his oeuvre, with two published books, the former Everything But The Girl musician has established himself as a true polymath. And the fact that the wonderful Music’s Not Dead record shop, already promoting gigs at Eras of Style and the De La Warr Pavilion in the town, had persuaded Ben Watt to do an in-store is testament to their importance to live music in Sussex.

Arriving with a trio of guitars – “one of these is older than me” – and an amp, Watt treated the packed shop to an eight-song set, mostly drawn from Hendra. Having spent the past ten years immersed in the world of dance and electronica with his Buzzin’ Fly label, he is now on the more traditional ground of singer-songwriter and has been working with Bernard Butler and Dave Gilmour. Performing without a band, and experimenting with some open and interesting tunings, yesterday was a reminder of what a distinctive guitarist he is; and his plaintive voice perfectly suits his songs of grief and loss. His half-sister having inspired some of the album – he played the title track and The Levels, both dealing with the aftermath of her death – others, such as Golden Ratio, are inspired by the landscape. Although, Forget, which tells of walking on the Sussex Downs, was omitted due to its reliance on piano.

Growing older and having to leave the past behind is clearly another preoccupation: the beautiful Bricks and Wood, which didn’t make it onto the album, tells the story of an impromptu visit that Watt and his half-brother made to the now-derelict family home; and Young Man’s Game – “one more chance to leave a mark” - is a paean to the limits of middle-age. But the past doesn’t get left behind entirely. Defining his new material as songs of experience, Watt also reached back to his songs of innocence. Two tracks from his last solo album, 1983’s North Marine Drive, were played with that distinctive jazz-folk guitar sound of his debut all those years ago: the title track - inspired by the Scarborough coastal road, and to a lesser extent, a residential street in Bridlington, Watt tells us - and set-closer, the gorgeous Some Things Don’t Matter – “this boy, caught up in the wheels of fate” – that is, perhaps, rather a song of prescience.

Picture by Dave Stubbings

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Going Underground

Looking north-east from where I live, away from the Downs and instead to the ridge above Battle, there is a dark, imposing hump on the horizon. Not quite as striking as Firle Beacon to the south-west, its covering of dense woodland makes it an ominous prospect, nevertheless. However, Darwell Wood, an ancient broadleaved woodland between the villages of Netherfield to the south, and Mountfield to the north, is a different prospect up close.

This privately-owned – but with public access - wood offers beautiful walks under a dense canopy of oak and hornbeam. A Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), it is home to many species of breeding birds, including woodpeckers and nightjars. At this time of year there are displays of wild garlic and bluebells, and the paths are criss-crossed by many streams that flow into the Darwell Reservoir. But it is not just natural history that makes the wood a fascinating place.

When the reservoir was created in 1949, Darwell Furnace Farm, along with a number of cottages, was consigned to an aqueous grave to supply water to Hastings. As the name of the farm suggests, this site had previously been part of the Wealden iron industry that was active from before the Roman invasion, peaked in Tudor times and finally declined in the 19th century, when it could not compete with the new Ironmasters of the Midlands and the North.

However, Darwell Wood did not stop being part of Sussex’s industry. From 1876, the soft mineral, gypsum, was mined at Mountfield and, from the 1960s, at Brightling to the west. The sulphate was transported from Brightling, to the British Gypsum plant at Mountfield, by an overhead cableway that ran through the wood. In 1989, this was replaced by a covered conveyor belt that snakes three miles through the trees to this day. Mining ceased at Mountfield in 1993, but the Brightling mine is estimated to have at least another twenty years of life providing the raw materials for the cement and plasterboard industry, and employment for 130 people.

The modern countryside very often seems to be the preserve of NIMBYs desperate to protect chocolate-box views and pastoral scenery without a thought for the infrastructure of jobs and services that ordinary people require. A few years ago, whilst walking in Somerset with friends, we came down from the Mendip Hills through Mells, a village replete with Range Rovers and Farrow and Ball paintwork, and stumbled upon the extensive remains of Fussells’ Victorian iron works in woodland on the banks of the river. It was hidden away - an embarrassment that was not part of the bucolic narrative – because rural industry, particularly in the south, is something that most like to pretend does not exist. But the countryside is not natural: it is a landscape shaped by people who have worked the land, over-ground and underground.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Decent Thing

Once every three weeks on a Saturday, I go down to a warehouse on an industrial estate on the edge of a small East Sussex town and spend the morning sorting out tins of soup, baked beans and other non-perishable foodstuffs. I then transport stock, for the week ahead, to the distribution centre in the middle of town. I am joined in these tasks by three other people and we are all of us volunteers for the Trussell Trust, the Christian charity that operates Foodbank, the largest network dealing with food poverty in this country.

Food is donated to Foodbanks by individuals, businesses and local organisations. 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. You cannot walk into a Foodbank off the street and get free food. You have to have been referred by an agency, such as a GP practice, health centre or Citizens Advice Bureau that has identified you as being in crisis and issued you with a voucher for three days of emergency food.

Last weekend, no doubt in response to the Trussell Trust’s recent revelation that it has provided a million food parcels to those in need in the last year, that bastion of investigative journalism, The Mail on Sunday (MoS), sent a reporter to a Citizens Advice Bureau in Nottingham to test the system. Having told a series of lies – he was unemployed, had two children, had fuel bills to pay - the intrepid reporter was given a voucher and then collected his food from the local Foodbank. The story was written up with the heading How MoS Reporter Got Three Days of Groceries…No Questions Asked, despite then detailing the questions about personal details, income and diet that the reporter was asked and dishonestly answered. The piece then put forward the specious argument that this one instance proves that Foodbanks are patronised by none but the undeserving poor. As a charity and not a statutory body, the Trussell Trust would not have the level of checks of a benefits agency; there is a clue in their name.

As well as being the sort of casuistry we expect from the DMG Media stable, it is such a low blow against good people. My fellow volunteers at Foodbank are all Christians from local churches. I am not a Christian; I volunteer because the previous pieces I have written about Foodbank have been the most read posts on this blog, and I thought I should do something practical instead of moaning about poverty from the comfort of my keyboard. All of the Foodbank volunteers I have met are kind, well-meaning people, mostly in their sixties, and small ‘c’ conservative in their views; they are doing what they would see as the decent, Christian thing – “I was hungry and you gave me food”.

Any system is open to deception but the process of obtaining help with food is not one that most people would expose themselves to lightly. There is stigma attached to accepting charity, and the admission that you are not able to feed your children is a particularly difficult one to make, even to the most sympathetic ears. However, some good has come of the Mail on Sunday’s plumbing of the depths. The social media backlash against the paper has manifested itself in increased donations to the Trussell Trust’s JustGiving campaign; since the story appeared, £50,000 has been donated in just two days.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

What a Waste

I don’t know why I’m surprised that BBC2’s The Big Allotment Challenge was a big pile of stinking manure. After all, this is the broadcaster that has put competitive misery into making cakes and cooking dinner with the stressful The Great British Bake-Off and the dour MasterChef; but I thought allotments had moved on from the image of an old boy in his cycle clips gazing anxiously and admiringly at his highly polished giant onions ahead of the village show. However, halfway through Tuesday night’s programme, I stopped watching after the allotmenteers’ radishes were judged on their shape, perfection and uniformity. The judges didn’t even taste them – and this a salad vegetable that you eat raw.

I have blogged before about the forward-thinking site where I have my plot and how it is important as a source of food and community. There are annual prizes for the best-kept plots, to encourage people to keep on top of their allotments, but there are no competitions for the biggest or most pristine produce to intimidate beginners, or those who simply want to get cheap food out of the ground. Although plots are rented from the parish council, the day-to-day management of communal areas and the organising of community events are carried out by members of the allotment association.

The worst thing about The Big Allotment Challenge is that, in a contradictory age of food poverty and food waste, it perpetuates myths that growing food is difficult because it has to look perfect. Growing radishes is the simplest thing: throw some seeds on the earth, lightly cover them with soil and a few weeks later, tasty radishes. Supermarkets and growers waste tons of food every year because of their perception of the superficial demands of the customer. A programme like this should have been an opportunity to show that growing food is easy and inclusive. Sadly, that opportunity has been wasted too.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sceptred Isle, Watery Neptune

Despite last year’s Machineries of Joy being British Sea Power’s bestselling album since 2008’s Mercury-nominated Do You Like Rock Music?, they chose to build on this new success by playing only two tracks from their most recent product at their showcase London gig at Koko last night. Having opened up their tour set list to suggestions on social networking a few weeks ago, they presented a set from the rockier end of their repertoire, laced with some forgotten gems. It is this lack of music-biz cutting edge that inspires devotion to the Sussex-based band.

Opening with the ethereal instrumental Heavenly Waters, a tune only to be found on US versions of their debut album, the band quickly ‘krank’ it up with a lively quartet of tracks. Beginning with Fear of Drowning – the lyric “tonight I'll swim from my favourite island shore” reminding us of the band’s preoccupation with this sceptred isle and watery Neptune - and ending with the riotous Atom, the sequence prompts an outbreak of serious stage-front pogoing; not moshing - surely BSP are a punk band at heart…

Before lead singer Yan switches to his brother’s bass to allow Hamilton to deliver his more fragile vocals on a run of mellower songs, the band perform We Are Sound from the neglected Valhalla Dancehall. Their Britishness is set in a European context less celebrated than that of the welcome and tolerance of Waving Flags: the opening line, “oh come now, you can barely string two words together/and you think Europe's own worst spectres are coming back to haunt us all”, tilts at the insular narrowness of some who seek to define the current national view.

After a rare outing for the title track of 2010’s EP, Zeus, with its puzzling couplet, “Rick Stein, pleased to meet you, I did not mean to be so rude/ I just didn't know that you were so famous for your food”, the band’s peerless first single, Remember Me, ushers in a crowd-pleasing home straight of Waving Flags, Carrion and All In It, broken only by the epic swirl of instrumental, The Great Skua. This sequence of anthems turns the audience, in the former Edwardian variety theatre, into a sea of surging singalong. When they encore with the title track of 2004’s Japanese import, The Spirit of St. Louis EP, the buoyancy is momentarily lost; but when the “easy, easy” terrace chant of No Lucifer heralds the onstage appearance of mascots, the Bi-Polar Bear and Ursine Ultra, the triumphal mood is restored for a raucous finale.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Sunday Stroll

Coming down a steep track off the South Downs Way near Lewes early yesterday evening, I thought my kneecaps might shear off or my calves burst open. My usual idea of walking is a maximum of 8 miles with at least two pub stopovers on the way; but yesterday, as one of seven walkers helping two friends train for Herculean walking feats later in the year, we covered the 20 miles from Birling Gap to Kingston village. It was not a Sunday stroll; today, I have been mostly nursing sore feet. Hopefully my younger, fitter friends will not be feeling quite so much pain. One will be walking non-stop from London to Brighton in May for Great Ormond Street Hospital; another will be scaling the peaks of Ben Nevis, Scafell and Snowden in 24 hours in June to raise money for the Breast Cancer Campaign.

The day had forecast rain, but it was dry as we assembled at Birling Gap at 10 o’clock in the morning. The car park was busy with walkers being dropped off and, as we set off along the Seven Sisters, it was like the first day of the sales. But the walkers had thinned out as we neared Cuckmere Haven and, by the time we crossed the East Dean Road with the first 5 miles behind us, we only came across the occasional dog walker as we skirted Friston Forest on the 3 mile trip up to Alfriston for a lunch stop. Across the valley we could see the Litlington White Horse, one of only a dozen in Britain outside of Wiltshire. The current horse dates from the 1920s and superseded the first chalk horse, carved a hundred yards higher up Hindover Hill to celebrate the coronation of Queen Victoria. In the village of Litlington itself, we passed Clapham House, once the home of George IV’s mistress, Maria Fitzherbert. He secretly married her, in a ceremony which was later declared invalid, and she bore him children - nobody is sure exactly how many. He eventually dumped her, of course.

At the Star Inn in Alfriston, we were greeted at the door by a large carved wooden statue of a lion’s head. The dependable Kev Reynolds informed us, in his guide The South Downs Way, that it was a figurehead plundered from a Dutch ship wrecked in Cuckmere Haven in the mid-19th century. Inside, we were greeted by a live musical duo that serenaded us with a selection of hits from the 1980s as we had lunch and a restorative pint. It was all a little Phoenix Nights. Coming out of the pub and sitting in the emerging sunshine by the war memorial, as others stocked up on chocolate and energy drinks in the village shop, I could understand how Eleanor Farjeon was inspired by the beauty of the village to write the hymn, Morning Has Broken.

Having thought I might take an early footbath and stop after 8 miles, the brightening skies convinced me that carrying on for another 12 would be a good idea. However, once we were high up on the hills above Firle and Newhaven, the threatened rain looked as though it would finally close in on us. The honeycomb dome and pencil chimneys of the Newhaven incinerator seemed to be permanently on our left and, however much progress we made, we could not seem to put them behind us. The rain held off but a battering cross-wind made the going tough. Once we had crossed the River Ouse near Rodmell - where Virginia Woolf filled the pockets of her overcoat with stones and fatally waded into the depths (an action some of us could sympathise with at that point) - we knew that we had less than five miles to go; but aching limbs and flagging spirits made it a long final leg. Despite this, we all of us made it, limping into The Juggs pub at 6.30pm to be revived with a feast of beer and chocolate.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


Tomorrow, I won’t be in my classroom. Instead, I will be taking part in national industrial action for the fourth time under the coalition government, and will be at a rally of striking teachers in Brighton. It has got to the point where Michael Gove’s stewardship of the state education system has been so divisive, it is quite hard to separate out all of the wrongheaded decisions he has made. What is clear though, is the impact those decisions are having.

We now have a GCSE system in disarray. Constant disparagement and change has left students unsure of the worth of the qualifications they have studied for. Subjects such as Art, Music, Drama and Design and Technology, that fall outside of the notional ‘English Baccalaureate’, have been traduced and reduced, and core subjects have been tampered with mid-stream to the point where students sitting the same English exams at two different points in the year were being assessed on an entirely different basis. But meddle enough with a system, say it was broken all along, and then any changes you wish to make will look like the cavalry. And next year, the tier-less, 100% exam-assessed, one-size-fits-all GCSEs, so reminiscent of the ‘O’ Levels Gove sat at his Aberdeenshire independent day school, will come galloping over the hill to make it all better.

Making it all better was what academies and free schools were supposed to do; but they have just ushered in inequitable selection, unqualified teachers and education for profit – in short, all the things the Tories love about private schools. And this is what Gove is really all about: replacing the inclusive ethos of comprehensive, state education with the rancorous mantra coined by Gore Vidal: “it is not enough to succeed, others must fail”. Everything that has helped to widen access to academic qualifications - modular courses, second chances at exams, an element of teacher assessment – are anathema to Gove and his fan club. ‘They’ must not be allowed to succeed – just sup up their beer and play their bingo.

Back in 2011, it was changes to teachers’ conditions that prompted strike action. Paying higher contributions for a lower pension and working to 68 represented a retrospective and punitive change to teachers’ contracts. Since then, a freeze that has seen pay fall by 15% in real terms has further eroded conditions and is having a real effect on recruitment to the profession. Presently, 40% of new teachers are leaving within 5 years and this will only get worse.

Those teachers who stick it out are already finding the job changing rapidly. As Ofsted inspections narrow their focus to the policies, systems, data and audit trails that schools have in place, what takes place in the classroom – helping young people learn and develop - becomes less important. The Department for Education’s own workload survey, that they were reluctant to publish, revealed that secondary school teachers work an average of 56 hours a week. Most will teach lessons for 22 of those hours. Much of the remaining time will be spent planning and marking; but increasingly teachers are being expected to form-fill, box-tick and number-crunch. And that’s why tomorrow, in protest, I won’t be doing any of it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Homo Longis

It is not known with any certainty when the Long Man first gazed down from Windover Hill on the South Downs, just north of Eastbourne. Local legend says that the faceless and unclothed figure, supported by two staffs, was a prehistoric fertility symbol sanitised by the prudish Victorians; for some, he was originally a helmeted and armed Roman or Anglo-Saxon warrior; while others insist that he was the work of artistic medieval monks from nearby Wilmington Priory. Whatever the genesis of the Long Man, with his 235-foot frame he is an enigmatic giant, standing guard over the village of Wilmington and travellers on the busy A27 beyond.

Having seen him from a distance many times, I naively thought that his outline was downland chalk; but walking right up to him for the first time last week, I discovered that he is in fact painted concrete. This was confirmed by The Sussex Archaeological Society website: the Long Man has been made from pre-cast blocks since 1969, replacing yellow Victorian brick. Prior to that, he was only visible as a grass outline – another of his names is the Green Man - accentuated in certain lights or by a dusting of snow. This is supported by the earliest pictorial record of the Wilmington Giant, an 18th century illustration by the surveyor, John Rowley. His drawing, from 1710, suggests that the figure was an impression in the grass rather than a solid outline; it also reveals that there were once facial features and a helmet-shaped head gives some credence to the idea of a first millennial warrior.

The most enduring interpretation, though, is as an ancient Pagan site of worship. At dawn each May Day, or Beltane, Morris Men still perform their ritualistic dance, and there are regular gatherings throughout the year to celebrate other festivals in the neo-Pagan calendar. However, there is no evidence to suggest that there was any connection between those who observe pre-Christian rites at the Long Man, and an incident in 2010 when an erect phallus - in the style of Dorset’s Cerne Abbas Giant - was added to the Long Man a few days before the summer solstice with a football pitch marking machine.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Funny Guy

Standing in the queue to get a beer at the De La Warr Pavilion last night, I started to get beard envy. My permanent three-day stubble was no match for the thick, dark lustre of the hipster beards that seemed to be on display everywhere I looked. If I were to attempt such fulsome whiskers, they would be a very unedifying grey and ginger piebald affair. Luckily, American singer-songwriter John Grant seems to be the sort of person who would not be impressed by tributes to his own facial hirsuteness. If the lyrically acid put downs directed at those who have wronged the Denver musician are anything to go by, he is not one to suffer fools gladly.

In ‘Black Belt’, from his 2013 album Pale Green Ghosts, he addresses one of his past tormentors: “You are supercilious, pretty and ridiculous…Etch-a-Sketch your way out of this one, reject.” Coming halfway through a beautiful set at the De La Warr, it was a perfect example of the second-person accusations that fill Grant’s lyrics as he seeks to come to terms with a past of growing up gay, failed relationships, drink and drugs, and a present of being HIV-positive. But set to a thumping electronic beat, it was musically atypical: most of the songs are tender piano-led ballads, with sweeping classical crescendos and sudden bursts of retro synthesiser.

Grant’s relocation to make music in Reykjavik, after the demise of his band The Czars, is well documented. He seems to be at home there and has acquired new friends: the five Icelandic musicians that worked on his last album are all introduced by name with perfect pronunciation. But there are no backing vocals from Sinead O’Connor: she is at home, Grant tells us, waiting to pass a kidney stone. Ouch. I know this from experience.

Despite the deeply personal confessional balladry, and Grant’s rich baritone voice, it is not all sombre. The bitterness is often contrasted with moments of absurd humour. ‘GMF’ is driven by a melody that could have been written by the Carpenters but is hilariously juxtaposed by potty-mouthed lyrics. I sing along to the chorus -"I am the greatest motherfucker that you're ever gonna meet" – with others queuing for another beer, one of whom tells me the song is a favourite with the community choir she sings in. Referring to a time when he suffered from low self-esteem, he dedicates the song to those people who seem to have too much of it. And there are funny couplets: “I should've practiced my scales/I should not be attracted to males”.

In the heartbreakingly stunning ‘Glacier’, the penultimate song in the set at Bexhill, the pathetic metaphor descends hilariously to bathos: “This pain/ it is a glacier moving through you/ and carving out deep valleys/ and creating spectacular landscapes/ and nourishing the ground with precious minerals/ and other stuff”. Grant closes the set with the title track from his first solo album, ‘Queen of Denmark’, with the frustrated and self-deprecating line, “I had it all the way up to my hairline/ which keeps receding like my self-confidence”. And then he goes and encores with Abba’s ‘Angeleyes’; funny guy.