Friday, August 28, 2015

Sweet and Lovely

Having always preferred live music with beer-sodden carpet rather than rain-soaked earth beneath my feet, I have not been much of a festival-goer. A solitary trip to Glastonbury, when it was first sponsored by CND, and a more recent outing to a tiny festival with the whole family being my only previous experiences, a sudden desire to attend this year’s Green Man festival took me by surprise. Surprise is not quite the right word to describe my family’s reaction: with an undertone of horror, they made it clear I was on my own; but having managed to recruit two friends to go along with me – one a festival veteran, the other a festival virgin – last Thursday we set off on the journey from Sussex to South Wales.

The Green Man festival has been running since 2005 at the Glanusk Estate, a privately-owned country park, set amongst the verdant hills and spectacular mountains of the Brecon Beacons. The reason I had wanted to go was not just the splendid setting but the expressed passion for the event by regular attenders and the line-up which, in recent years, has seemed to consist entirely of all the musicians I had been listening to at the time. 2015 was no exception with a whole host of artistes pretty much reflecting my record-buying over the past 12 months.

The festival proper runs from Friday to Sunday but most people start camping on Thursday so there is a small line-up on that evening. By the time I had remembered how to put up my tent, we only managed to see the final act; but it was a great start as we were able to ‘have it large’ to Leftfield, who finished their set in the Far Out tent with Phat Planet, which seemed appropriate as it was already shaping up to be a Guinness-fuelled weekend. We spent a lot of time in Far Out in the next three days – its dark interior had a certain appeal and it was a good shelter from intermittent soakings from the Spanish Plume – and saw some terrific turns from the perky Teleman, the youthful and enthusiastic Hooton Tennis Club and the cosmic and eternal Sun Ra Arkestra, whose leader Marshall Allen is 91 years of age. Watching Sun Ra it seemed amazing, not just that their sound works, but that they all managed to arrive in rural Wales (Saturn is a long way, after all). Far Out was also the setting for an amazing performance from Canadian post-punks, Viet Cong, on Friday: I was familiar with their album but completely unprepared for the intensity of their extended version of its closing track, Death, driven on by Mike Wallace’s ferocious drumming.

Seeking respite, we fled to the Green Man Pub next to the Walled Garden stage. The Walled Garden was a more relaxed and intimate area and we had already heard the tender modern folk of Rozi Plain, earlier that day, and would see her there again the next day, this time playing bass for Kate Stables’ wonderful, This Is The Kit. Saturday in Walled Garden also saw a stellar set of psych folk from Jane Weaver but we had to miss out on one of my favourite bands on the same stage later that night. A small irritation at music festivals is that, occasionally, acts you want to see clash with each other. On the Saturday night at Green Man, I was presented with a three-way clash: The Wave Pictures in Walled Garden, The Fall at Far Out and Television on the main Mountain Stage. The fact that they were playing their debut album, Marquee Moon, in full made opting for Television an obvious but, nonetheless, hard choice.

The main stage is probably in the most idyllic setting of any music festival and Television held the audience there rapt with a no-frills, faithful rendition of the songs from the album. The only concession to live performance was a shuffling of the running order to enable the set to finish with a dazzling reading of the album’s title track. I bought my copy of Marquee Moon 38 years ago but, shamefully, only really started listening to it in the last 15 years. My year-zero punk sensibility had previously dismissed it as being too proggy; now, I think it is one of the greatest albums ever made.

The Mountain Stage was an enjoyable place to be and we spent a lot of time there on Sunday: firstly, when Matthew E. White played a superb version of the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat that brought out both the afternoon sun and my dancing feet, and secondly when the festival was closed with the impressive stagecraft of two big-name performers: the charisma and humour of Father John Misty and the surprisingly polished pizazz of St. Vincent. But what made Green Man 2015 so good were the performances of two lesser-known acts that I had been aware of but had not really listened to.

On Friday afternoon, Sweet Baboo – otherwise known as Welsh singer Stephen Black and his band - charmed us with his infectious and winsome melodies. If I Died…, Let’s Go Swimming Wild, Walking In The Rain and You Got Me Timekeeping, described by Black as their seven minute prog epic, were immediately memorable. Black appeared onstage again in the Walled Garden at tea-time on Sunday with The Pictish Trail, Isle of Eigg singer Johnny Lynch, for a relaxed and funny sharing and trading of songs (pictured).

The Festival Virgin insisted on only one thing during the four days: that we see The Lovely Eggs in the Cinedrome tent on Saturday afternoon. This meant missing the spectacle of Mark E. Smith being interviewed live onstage by Mojo magazine in the Talking Shop tent but I had heard a couple of Lovely Eggs songs and was prepared to make the sacrifice; and it turned out to be a sacrifice well worth making. The pop-punk couple from Lancaster – Holly Ross on guitar and vocals and partner David Blackwell on drums – were incredible. Full of energy and wit, they created instant crowd-anthems with People Are Twats, Fuck It and I Just Want Someone To Fall In Love With (“thousands of people feel like me!”). They electrified the audience and when they finished with the hilarious Don’t Look At Me, I thought they should have been carried from the stage shoulder-high and paraded around the festival site like victors.

There were non-musical delights on offer, too: we never quite made it into the comedy or discussion tents, and we had no need for the many children’s activities, but we did eat some great food. The Festival Veteran cooked us a tent-side breakfast each morning, which was shared with our neighbours, and the rest of our culinary needs were mostly met by one of the many independent caterers – there are no multiple retailers or corporate sponsors at Green Man – The Goan Seafood Company; their fish curry and mackerel masala dhal were particular highlights. Everyone we chatted to - and we had lots of casual conversations with people of all ages about music, beer, festivals and, of course, the weather - seemed to have eaten there. Green Man really was a joy: the food, the site, the music, the people – they were all perfect. Kids, you might be coming with me next year…

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Back to the Future

On holiday in Cornwall last week, my aged vehicle broke down. Happening near the end of our holiday, it was not going to be repaired in time so I spent a couple of days trying to make arrangements to get the car, two adults, three kids, two dogs and a pile of luggage back to East Sussex. Mostly, I was at the top of our holiday home desperately clinging onto a sketchy phone signal whilst I tried to coordinate a major breakdown service, a recovery firm and a local mechanic. It was not easy. It was a stressful time. At one point in the middle of all this my mobile rang and, desperate for good news but fearing it would be more bad, I barked “Yes!?” into the phone.

“Oh, hello. I’m phoning from the Jeremy Corbyn campaign team. I was wondering if we could rely on your vote in the leadership ballot?” said a polite young man.

“Yes you can!” I bellowed. “YES, YOU BLOODY WELL CAN!”

Taken aback by the blend of aggression and affirmation, I suspect he thought I was joking. I wasn’t. He had caught me at a bad time, but I was deadly serious.

Having re-joined the Labour Party at the end of April, the election defeat in May meant that I was quickly forced to consider who I would want the next leader of the party to be. I struggled to think of anyone other than Andy Burnham as a potential leader: working class roots, experience of government, still grounded; and as the candidates began to declare – some unfamiliar having risen without trace, others hamstrung by overleaping ambition – my mind did not change. That is until Burnham launched his own candidacy at a business consultancy specialising in tax avoidance, wearing a navy blue business suit and looking and sounding like all the other fortysomething showroom dummies – Cameron, Clegg, Miliband, Osborne – who have lectured us in recent years about the austerity medicine we all need to swallow: my heart sank.

However, due to the largesse of MPs who supported a widening of the debate, things started to look up: Corbyn got on the ballot at the last minute. Those MPs now probably regret their benevolence with him so far ahead in the polls, but this episode perfectly highlights the massive disconnect between the parliamentary party and its members. Of course, spin doctors, Labour grandees and faux-radical superannuated newspaper columnists are queuing up to tell us that a Corbyn-led Labour Party would be unelectable; and based on the profile of the recent voting electorate, they are right.

Elections have increasingly been dominated by older voters: the older the age group, the higher the turnout. At the last election, generations that had benefited from decent and available social housing, free further education, cheap home ownership and proper pensions elected the Tories. Manipulated into believing that the country can no longer afford these fundamentals of an equitable society, they pulled up the ladder. The reason Corbyn can win in 2020 is because he will be backed by a different electorate, one that supports those fundamentals for all. What he has done within the Labour Party – energising and attracting young people into politics – will be replicated across the country as those starting out in adult life will oppose their exclusion from education, housing and fair wages

It is not just the young who will win it for Labour. The sages warn that we have to tempt back Tory voters to win an election; this cannot be done with a left-wing manifesto, they say. But most voters do not think in terms of left or right-wing; they think in terms of policies. What Labour needs to go back to is its traditional beliefs. For a long time it has been drifting away from these (for me the New Labour nadir was not the Iraq war but super casinos; remember that idea?) and the number of people voting Labour fell at each election of the Blair premiership despite him winning three times. It is the voters who have deserted the party - not just to the Tories but to the SNP, UKIP and abstention - who will respond to Corbyn’s core Labour ideas for a future of investment not austerity; ideas which will build social housing, create manufacturing jobs, abolish tuition fees and run public services for people not profit. And I am sure that under a Jeremy Corbyn government, my car would not still be in Cornwall.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Trug Life

As August arrives, and harvesting begins in earnest on the allotment and in the veg garden, the most important tool in my shed comes into its own. The Sussex Trug, a lightweight and elegant basket made from willow and sweet chestnut, has the shape and capacity to spread the weight of the most bountiful crops. Coming from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘trog’, meaning wooden vessel, this highly effective design has been synonymous with Sussex for two hundred years.

It was in 1829 that Thomas Smith, widely thought to be the original designer, started making trugs in Herstmonceux. When he took his product to the Great Exhibition of 1851 it caught the eye of Queen Victoria; this royal endorsement brought it to the attention of the wider public, demand soared and the Sussex Trug was born.

Herstmonceux continued to be its home throughout the 19th and 20th centuries: Hormes House, a Grade II listed cottage where Smith began, still bears the royal crest and there is a small development of modern social housing in the centre of the village, called Old Trug Shop House, built on the site of a later workshop. It was here that I can remember seeing an elderly trug maker working outside as late as the 1990s.

Today, there are two trug makers in Herstmonceux: young upstart The Truggery, at Coopers Croft, has only been producing the distinctive baskets since 1899 and the successor to the original, Thomas Smith’s Trug Shop , is now at Magham Down. Young apprentices can be seen working at the roadside here, in warmer weather, producing trugs in the original way. The handle and frame of the trug is made first by shaving, steaming and bending sweet chestnut poles. Willow boards, made pliable from being soaked in rainwater, are then nailed to the frame to form the body of the basket; the feet are also made of willow.

My trug has endured 10 years of heavy and continuous work and is still going strong: it probably has another 10 year’s life in it yet. There are cheap plywood imitations available, but they lack durability and are not made in Herstmonceux, or even Sussex. If you want a garden trug for your veg harvest, it has to be a Sussex Trug.