Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Blasted Heath

Ashdown Forest is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, covering roughly ten square miles, on the higher ground right at the top of East Sussex. Stretching from Hartfield in the north to Maresfield in the south, from Wych Cross in the west to Crowborough in the east, it was originally an enclosed forest that was the preserve of the hunting nobility in the centuries after the Norman Conquest. Commoners were allowed to use the forest to collect vegetation for firewood and animal bedding, and to graze their livestock. Access was not open but was strictly limited via a series of gates, or hatches, that are still seen in existing place names, such as Coleman’s Hatch and Chelwood Gate.

There were constant tensions over Ashdown Forest, as landowners’ attempts to deny access were strongly resisted. This came to a head in the 17th century when the forest was divided, with just under half granted to commoners and the rest falling into private hands. To further protect the land for the people, Parliament introduced legislation in the 19th century and, at the end of the last century, East Sussex County Council obtained the freehold of the remaining common land and established the Ashdown Forest Trust to protect, in perpetuity, one of the largest open public spaces in the south east of England.

The ‘forest’ part of the area’s name is something of a misnomer, however: the areas of woodland are limited and, in the main, Ashdown Forest is not just open in terms of access. Writing in Rural Rides in 1830, the brilliantly acerbic reformer William Cobbett observed, “the forests of Sussex: those miserable tracts of heath and fern and bushes and sand, called Ashdown Forest”. Clearly not a fan, Cobbett is probably not alone in his initial reaction. There can be something of the blasted heath about the place, particularly on a day like yesterday when I was there: a fierce wind and a drop in temperature had turned July into September; but the views across the countryside were spectacular, the sense of space inspiring and kids and dogs ran free and untamed.

Ashdown Forest is probably best known today as the thinly disguised setting of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. The forest’s Five Hundred Acre Wood became the Hundred Acre Wood in Milne’s series of books and many of the landmarks in the stories – the Enchanted Place, Roo’s Sandpit, the bridge where Pooh and Christopher Robin played Poohsticks – can be easily located. Something of a Pooh tourist industry has grown up in Hartfield, the nearest village to Cotchford Farm, Milne’s home when he wrote the tales in the 1920s. Forty years later, the same house would be the scene of the death, from booze and drugs, of ex-Rolling Stone Brian Jones just one month after being booted out of the band for hedonistic excess. There is no Jones memorabilia in the local Pooh-themed gift shops.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Three-Song Wonders

When I saw the charming and disarming Wave Pictures in Bexhill last summer, they had finished recording their most recent album, at Billy Childish’s studio in Kent, only a few days earlier. Just one of the songs that lead vocalist and guitarist David Tattersall co-wrote with Childish for the album was played that night but, a year on, and with the album released earlier this year to critical acclaim, a trio of those tracks formed the centrepiece of their set at the Underground Theatre in Eastbourne last night.

Working with Childish has given the band’s songs a garage rock edge and, having played the provocative and raucous Pea Green Coat – “Everybody in the station wore black/And then there was you in your pea green coat” – requests from the crowd for The Fire Alarm are rebuffed with typically self-deprecating humour. “We can’t play those two back-to-back,” Tattersall explains, “because then you’ll realise they are the same tune - essentially, we only have about three songs.” None of which is true, but they launch into the album’s title track, instead, before completing the run of songs from Great Big Flamingo Burning Moon with The Fire Alarm, safely distanced from its ‘doppelganger’.

As well as the flamingo, other avian life is present: from 2012’s delicious Long Black Cars album, both Stay Here And Take Care Of The Chickens and Seagulls are performed; and The Wave Pictures’ recurring motif of the sea features on Blue Harbour, from Beer In The Breakers, with the wonderful lyric, “let my eyes slip away/ toward the coast around the pier/ all the things that brought me here”. Bassist Franic Rozycki’s phrasing in the song’s run-out is also a delight.

Drummer Johnny Helm demonstrates the power of his voice when takes the vocals on Atlanta, from 2013’s City Forgiveness, and again later in the set when they play an old song, Sleepy Eye, from 2005’s Hawaiian Open Mic Night album. We are offered the democratic choice of Helm singing that or Now You Are Pregnant, another old song, but the crowd opt for the former. Then there is more audience participation as we are given the tricky task of singing the chorus to Come On Daniel (“come on Daniel!”), and Daniel-time is completed with the obligatory Daniel Johnston cover, this time, I Killed The Monster.

Jointly promoted by excellent local record stores, Bexhill’s Music’s Not Dead and Eastbourne’s Pebble Records, this superlative gig is brought to a close with two numbers from City Forgiveness: the final song of the set is Lisbon, with lyrics - “It was one of those days/ the dead were digging upwards through the earth” - that perfectly demonstrate Tattersall’s gift for marrying the prosaic and the absurd; and the encore is The Woods, a frantic Velvets-style workout that crackles with intimate electricity. There is only a month to go until the Green Man Festival where I will see The Wave Pictures again. But I can barely wait.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

In the Cherry Orchard

Walking through the local fruit farm recently, I was diverted away from one of my usual routes through the cherry orchard because the groves of trees had been netted-off to keep the birds away from the ripened fruit. Inside the green mesh, I could make out just enough of the spectral forms of the fruit pickers to bid them, “dzien dobry!” It struck me that a place that I enjoy walking through in the spring as the delicate pale pink cherry blossom blooms, and eating the fruits of in the summer, represents something entirely different for these hard-working migrants.

Depending on your point of view, cherry trees are seen as symbols of either a regretful change or a positive awakening and rebirth. In Chekov’s play The Cherry Orchard, the titular trees perhaps represent both: to the orchard’s owner, Madame Ranevsky, they represent memories of her idyllic childhood before she had the responsibility of managing a large estate; the radical student, Trofimov, sees in the trees the harsh and brutal lives of the workers who pick the fruit; for the rich merchant Lopakhin, the massive orchard stands for the unwieldy wealth and stagnation of the aristocracy. And it is the low-born Lopakhin who buys the estate and has the orchard cut down at the end of the play, symbolising a break with the cruelty of his peasant upbringing and the ushering in of the Bolshevik era.

Back on the fruit farm, the cherry orchard offers much-needed work for those at the lower end of the economic scale; but the trees also represent a tiring and repetitive working environment, long hours, basic and crowded living conditions and low wages. Much as I love it, it’s time to fell the orchard.