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.