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 fa├žade, 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.