Monday, February 23, 2015

Four Seasons in One Day

Saturday morning, out early with the dogs: there was a February crispness in the air but there was no frost; the birds were in full voice and their song resonated through the calm of the morning; the buds on the apple trees were visibly becoming more swollen. This all lent the day a spring-like quality, the first this year that showed signs that winter will soon surrender its lease.

But as I reached my turning point at Cattle Wood, the greying sky began a sleety rain that quickly transformed into giant flakes of snow that slapped into my face as I headed home. The wintery snow did not settle on Windmill Hill but, once indoors, I could see the fields up on the higher ground of the distant ridge at Dallington standing out, bright white, under the leaden sky.

Within an hour the snow had stopped and, by late morning, the clouds had disappeared and a warming sun had started to beam down. The tarmacked surfaces of the wet lanes dazzled in the sunlight and steam began to rise from the fields as the rays penetrated the sodden soil. By lunchtime, splitting logs and making kindling, I was down to summer shirtsleeves in the balmy outdoors.

Yet, as the afternoon wore on, the shadows lengthened and the lack of cloud cover caused the temperature to tumble. As the light faded, spirals of grey trailed up from chimney pots and the air was filled with the smell of wood smoke from lighting fires as people started to settle down indoors at the autumn of the day. By nine o’clock at night, bringing in more firewood, I could feel the crunch of the frost forming underfoot.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Dark Times

There was a glorious moment at Concorde 2 in Brighton last night when a grinning Kate Tempest had just taken to the stage. As the beats boomed across the sold-out venue, and Tempest spat out the opening lines of Marshall Law - “Everywhere is monsters/tits out, wet-mouthed, heads back/shouting and screaming just to prove they exist” – we grinned back and a palpable wave of anticipation ran through the crowd: we felt we were in for something special. And that is exactly what we got.

Like the first part of her Shakespearean namesake, South London poet and rapper Kate Tempest is certainly sharp-tongued. However, she is no foul-tempered shrew, just angry at the way we are living now; but with her skill in creating stories that reflect the struggle of life, there is undoubtedly something of the Prospero about her contained in that chosen surname.

At 29, Tempest is already a veteran of hip-hop open mic nights, a published poet with her collection Everything Speaks in Its Own Way and a performed playwright with Wasted. In 2013, she combined the latter two disciplines in Brand New Ancients, a theatrical spoken word piece that won the Ted Hughes Award. And then last year she followed this all up with Everybody Down – a statement not a command – a concept album with Tempest’s Becky and Harry at the centre of a cast of characters all trying as best they can to avoid snagging on the tapestry of life.

These are dark times, Tempest tells us between songs, we are living in a state of emergency and it feels like the end of the world; but hardly anyone is talking about it and those that are, we are not able to understand – is she referring here to a certain verbose Lothario turned revolutionary? She bemoans the fact that we no longer seem able to rely on artists to reflect the times, to contextualise events; but in that same opening song she observes: “CEOs and these modern day Scrooges/…meant to be hard times, right, a recession?/but these guys are buying more than ever.” She seems to be doing a good job, from the platform of popular music, of articulating against the neo-liberal philosophy that the world is yours - unless you are ugly, poor or sick. And in Lonely Daze, a catalogue of how hard it is to get a job, to fall in love, to stay honest, there is resonance in the refrain of “will it be this way forever?/these are stressful times.”

Despite the serious message, it is also a party. There is a band of three on percussion, samples and beats, and a soulful backing singer who perfectly counters Tempest’s rapid-fire delivery. At one point, we all sing Happy Birthday while the percussionist films the audience from the stage so he can send it to his mum. And there are some nice Darth Vader vocal treatments on Chicken for the character of David – “even David’s enthusiasm is boring” - the personification of low expectations and conformity who is told “as long as you live for other people’s opinions/you’ll never be more than afraid.”

Fear is something Tempest identifies as one of capitalism’s desires. That and turning against, and blaming, each other. One of her poems is an appropriation of the opening of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by smartphones.” She is also well aware of the roles of greed and technology in keeping people in their place. The chorus on the infectious Circles illustrates that entrapment and the lack of a way out: “I go round in circles/not graceful, not like dancers/not neatly, not like compass and pencil/more like a dog on a lead, going mental.” And the potential for that rage to turn to violence is neatly summed up in A Hammer – “When all you’ve got is a hammer/everything looks like nails.” Tempest says she does not have the answers but she is able to brilliantly elucidate the frustrations of this life; this is my job, she says.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Be Still My Beating Heart

When I received notice of Ladybird by Design, an exhibition at the Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion of illustrations from Ladybird books from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, I suffered a Proustian rush. Brought on by my ability to immediately conjure up in my head the covers of The Night Sky, Tricks and Magic and The Story of Cricket, I could almost feel the neatness of those compact, slender hardbacks and the soft sheen of their matt covers. Ladybird books loomed large in my early years, and not just because of my childhood hobbies: with the clear font and white space of the left-hand pages and the full-colour illustrations on the right, I learnt to read whilst immersing myself in the simple life of Peter and Jane, and their mum and dad, in the Key Words Reading Scheme series of books at school.

If I was suffering from nostalgia just thinking about Ladybird books, when I walked into the exhibition space at the De La Warr I thought I might either pass out or burst into tears from the sudden resurrection of long-buried memories. With over 200 original illustrations exhibited from the imprint’s heyday, and several walls full of original Ladybird books on display, I was staggered by how many images were familiar to me and how many of the books I must have read at home or at school.

I had two of my kids with me and they were slightly bemused by Harry Wingfield’s series of illustrations for Shopping With Mother, that depicted Peter and Jane in a succession of High Street shops with their mum. “Why didn’t they just go to the supermarket to get all that stuff?” the ten-year-old asked. But they were hugely impressed with the skill of John Berry’s hyper-realistic images for the People at Work books. With their photographic quality, they were convinced that some were not illustrations at all. And they enjoyed Ladybird’s embracing of technology, in the white heat of the 60s, with the technical imagery of the How it Works series.

Although the first Ladybird books were published in 1914, it was in the 1960s that a clear mission to educate and inform children about the world around them emerged. Where else would you find a series of books on the public services of gas, electricity and water? And the domestic world they depicted would have been familiar to most children. The illustrations on display from one of the readers, Things We Do, were reassuringly recognisable and would have been so forty-five years ago: paying the bus conductor, making a go-kart, going to bed.

This is a superb exhibition, not just for the nostalgia trip (I overheard more than one visitor exclaim, “I had that one!”), but for the high quality design, printing and illustrations. Charles Tunnicliffe’s seasonal What to Look For images are things of beauty and I think, looking back, the reason the Ladybird series made such an impression on children of the 60s and 70s was their remarkable vibrancy. At home, television, books and newspapers were monochrome; and outside in the streets things were no different. Watching the 1967 documentary film The London Nobody Knows recently, I realised that when I was a child – despite the Swinging Sixties - the buildings and people around me must have still been very much immersed in colourless post-war drabness.

At the end, the kids had scooted ahead of me and I found them in the foyer seated at a long table reading actual, physical Ladybird books. As I scoured the table for familiar titles, I spotted – be still my beating heart! – two of my three favourites: Tricks and Magic and The Story of Cricket. As I held the books in my hands, and the kids hopelessly bombarded me with requests for sweets and drinks, I found that to open them, and turn back the pages of time, would have been too overwhelmingly embarrassing in a public place.

Ladybird by Design is at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill until 10th May 2015.