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.