Saturday, October 31, 2015

Keep the Tears at Bay

Walking along Pelham Place in Hastings, it would be easy to pass the entrance to St. Mary-in-the-Castle, the arts centre, exhibition space and music venue, without even noticing it. Even if it did catch your eye amongst the other shopfronts of seaside gift shops and cafes, it would not yield a clue to the architectural delights that lay behind it. Only if you crossed the road to the seafront promenade and looked back would you be able to take in the full splendour of this Grade II listed Neo-Classical church. Flanked on either side by the Regency buildings of Pelham Crescent, it nestles beneath the cliffs and the ruin of Hastings Castle above. Built in the 1820s, it ceased to be a place of worship in 1970 and there followed years of neglect and decline until crescent and church were both refurbished in the late 1990s.

Once inside, and when you have negotiated a series of mazy tunnels with the familiar sandstone walls (parts of the cliffs were excavated during construction), you emerge into a spacious auditorium with stalls seating and a box pew gallery under the domed church roof. It was in the gallery that I sat last night, soaking up the aesthetic splendour of the venue and the sorrowful sound of The Unthanks.

The Unthanks, a modern folk group that perform and record arrangements of traditional songs, folk arrangements of other artistes’ modern songs and their own compositions, originally formed as the all-female Rachael Unthank and the Winterset. It was with their second studio album, the Mercury Prize-nominated, The Bairns, that they first came to the attention of a wider music audience. Since then, they have shortened their name, changed their personnel and released a string of studio and live albums. Currently celebrating their tenth anniversary, last night they demonstrated the wide range of projects they have been involved in during that decade.

Their eclectic set covered much ground: arrangements of heart-rending traditional songs such as I Wish, from The Bairns, and Annachie Gordon, from their Here’s the Tender Coming album; sea shanties and Newcastle shipyard songs; their versions of Antony and the Johnsons’ Man is the Baby and Elvis Costello/Robert Wyatt’s Shipbuilding; First World War poetry set to music; the instrumental title track of most recent album, Mount the Air. The range was exhausting and, at times, the lamentable timbre was almost overwhelming. Annachie Gordon, typically, tells a story of forbidden love, forced marriage and death.

Hailing from Northumberland, The Unthanks are something of a family affair: fronted by vocalist sisters Rachael and Becky Unthank, their musical lynchpin is Rachael’s husband, Adrian McNally. At times, The Unthanks have been a ten-piece but last night they were slimmed down to five, with multi-instrumentalists Niopha Keegan and Christopher Price completing the line-up. The Unthank sisters are quick to stress that they are not musicians; but it is their voices – tender and haunting – that define the band’s forlorn and emotional sound. Indeed, they confess that so tragic are most of their songs, they struggle to keep the tears at bay themselves.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Every Picture Tells A Story

Looking at a feature in a national newspaper at the weekend, where mere mortals reflect on being caught in the periphery of a well-known photograph, I idly remarked that I had once been in a picture accompanying a gig review in the NME. Within moments it had been found on the internet and my kids were incredulously asking if the teenager in the photo was the same person as the middle-aged man sat before them. It was.

At the start of January 1978, Siouxsie and the Banshees played two consecutive nights at the Nashville Rooms, just around the corner from West Kensington tube in London, and I was there on the second night. The Nashville was an excellent venue: small, intimate and already revered as one of the few places that had hosted early punk gigs. I would later see The Ruts there – when there was a riot caused by fighting punks and skins – and one of the Psychedelic Furs’ earliest gigs.

Siouxsie and the Banshees did not have a record deal at the time but, like Adam and the Ants and The Slits, their music was familiar to us through the sessions they had recorded for John Peel. We had already seen the Banshees a couple of times: their gigs were always full but, provided you got there early and queued, you got in; there was no advance ticketing in the punk rock revolution.

I remember the night at the Nashville, well. The Banshees seemed to have developed from earlier gigs: the set still contained favourites Love In A Void and Make Up To Break Up, but the sound was starker, more angular, especially on newer songs such as Metal Postcard and Suburban Relapse. And they looked different: Siouxsie was Siouxsie, but the band was all dressed in black; there was not a hooped t-shirt to be seen. The word ‘Gothic’ was first used in connection with modern music to describe Joy Division, but I think Siouxsie and the Banshees can rightly be credited with inventing what we now think of as ‘Goth’.

In the photograph, I do not seem to have quite caught this new mood. There I am at the front, grinning at the camera. Smiling was not something I would do much of in the following years, as I firmly pinned my colours to the mast of gloomy post-punk. I had gone to the gig with my best mate, Ian. I was 15, he was 16. We had made the cross-town trek from south-east London and it is very likely that our mums and dads thought we were at each others’ houses - that old one. Ian is to the left of the man with spectacles in the picture. I can still recall that we were puzzled by his presence: in our youthful arrogance we thought, why would a middle-aged man be at a gig like this? That I still think of the music of the Banshees, Wire, PiL and Joy Division as the most remarkable I have ever heard probably answers that question.

It is an old saw that every picture tells a story, but what puzzles me about this one is the story it does not tell. When we look at the past, we are often guilty of compartmentalising events, constructing a linear narrative. But when we look at actual dates, we realise that our lives were not like that, that different episodes were actually concurrent. This photograph was taken on the 7th January 1978; a couple of days before that, I must have had my first day of six traumatic months at a new secondary school having been expelled from my old school before Christmas. There is not a hint of that trouble in my face: I must have been full of piss and vinegar - or something else.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Common Ground

Although it seems like it has been around for much longer, Apple Day – a celebration of British apples - has only been in existence for 25 years. The charity Common Ground held the first event on 21st October 1990 to raise awareness of the range of apples produced in the UK. Common Ground hoped to tempt people away from the anodyne uniformity of the supermarket Braeburn by drawing attention to some of the other apples grown in these islands: there are approximately 2,300 varieties to choose from and many of these are specific to local areas.

Local Distinctiveness is an idea that underpins the work of Common Ground. In aiming to explore and promote the relationship between nature and culture, the charity identified the importance of apples to local landscapes, communities and food. Since then, they have used the apple as a symbol of physical, cultural and genetic diversity in their work. Common Ground was founded in 1983 by environmentalists Sue Clifford, Angela King and Roger Deakin. Clifford and King still run the organisation but Deakin died in 2006. His legacy lives on, not only through Common Ground, but in a trilogy of books that contain the very best writing about our relationship with nature. If you have not read Waterlog, Wildwood or Notes From Walnut Tree Farm, I highly recommend any, or all, of them.

Apple Day has grown since its inception to the point that it is celebrated all over the country on various dates, mostly in the latter part of October; but sometimes it is earlier, sometimes it is not a day but a weekend and sometimes it is a festival. Most Apple Days involve buying, eating and drinking and usually have apple-related games: in many places you can stock up on lesser-known varieties, sample apple-based recipes, drink cider and compete at apple peeling or bobbing.

My nearest Apple Day takes place at the local allotments. The Herstmonceux Allotment Association’s (HAA) event has run every year since 2008 and tomorrow morning I and my fellow allotmenteers, friends and families will band together to pick apples on the fruit farm that houses the allotment site. Being paid the picking rate by the farmer for each giant crate filled with Cox's Orange Pippin, it is an opportunity for the HAA to raise some funds and a fantastic way of getting the community together on the common ground of the harvest. Most years, we have been blessed with glorious autumn sunshine and have had some idyllic Apple Days (above); but on two occasions the weather was unkind and we all got soaking wet. The forecast for tomorrow looks bright, so we are hoping for a good turnout as we need to raise enough money to buy a new mower for the paths. We will pick for two hours in the morning and then retire to the communal plot for soup, apple bread and cakes, and a game of pin the stalk on the apple. And we might drink a bit of cider…