Saturday, November 28, 2015

Iron in the Soul

When I wrote about Hastings Pier at the beginning of last year, there was a campaign in place to attract ordinary people to be investors in ‘the people’s pier'. That community share scheme was seeking to raise the remaining money needed for the refurbishment of the pier, which was largely destroyed by fire in 2010.

Having successfully secured all the funding, the Hastings Pier Charity has been overseeing reconstruction work throughout last year and this. While some work, such as reinstating the buildings on the pier, is relatively straightforward, the structural work is much more difficult. When construction is complete in time for the next summer season, 72,000 metres of new timber will have been used, 500 deck beams installed and 350 lattice girders will have been replaced.

The heart and soul of the job has been dealing with the condition of the 143-year-old cast iron columns that support the pier. Some of these have been eroded by marine growth and any that need replacing require pile driving work on the seabed, which can only be carried out at low tide.

Up on the pier itself, work will shortly start on the seating in the arena, the large performance space that will be a major focal point for the re-opened pier. Occupying such a prominent place in the musical history of Hastings – the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, the Sex Pistols and The Clash all performed on the original pier – it is hoped that the refurbished venue will host some prominent musicians next year: one high profile name that has already been mentioned is East Susssex's very own Nick Cave.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The World Outside My Window

Solitary walking opportunities being limited of late by the demands of work, family and a pair of dodgy knees, pulling back the curtains on the first frosty morning of the season, the world outside my window was too much to resist. The early sun was casting long shadows across the fields but was bathing the trees and the distant ridge in a golden glow.

The parish being too big to beat the bounds in a couple of hours, I headed out of Windmill Hill through the hollow by Rocks Farm Shop with the intention of a more modest circular walk. The incline up to Bodle Street Green felt long and laboured at first but the freezing air soon had a restorative effect and, by the time I reached St. John the Evangelist as the dwindling faithful were arriving for the early service, I was well in my stride. This early-Victorian church, fronted by an attractive split-flint gable end wall, was largely re-built after a fire in the 1920s.

After walking through Bodle Street Green, past the pub with the eponymous white horse painted on the roof, I turned left into Chilsham Lane at the Ebenezer Strict Baptist Chapel. If this sounds as though I am making it up, or that I live near Silas Marner, I am not. Such a building exists and, as usual for a Sunday morning, there were a lot of cars parked outside indicating that this faith is popular. These orthodox parishioners are known as Strict and Particular Baptists and are affiliated to the magazine, The Gospel Standard, which has been publishing hyper-Calvinist theology since 1835. Be careful out there.

Chilsham Lane was frozen with run-off from the fields but I managed to negotiate its entire length - past the farms, stables and high-hedged houses - until I came to Stunts Green. Here, I took a quick diversion to my allotment to break the ice on the pond for the wildlife, and the soil with a spade for some leeks. Too cold to do any other work on my plot, I headed down towards Herstmonceux. The pubs and restaurants were all shuttered and the village was quiet save for the sporadic trade at the two rival village shops; I bought a newspaper in one and some milk in the other. By this time, the sun had climbed higher and I felt that my walking worship had paid sufficient thanks for the beauty of the day - and it had been more glorious than any religious service. I arrived back home in time for a late breakfast and to read of the rectitude of dropping bombs on Syria.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Humour and Heartache

After five years of celebrated success since his debut solo album, Queen of Denmark, John Grant still seems to have a deep well of wounding experience to fuel his song writing. In Brighton last night - one of only two British dates this year to support new album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure – he opened his set singing bitterly from the album’s title song: “they say let go let go let go, you must learn to let go, if I hear that fucking phrase again, this baby is gonna blow.” Whilst it was good to hear that the pain and anxiety of relationships is still present, that the humour endures was even more reassuring. And Grant’s ability to contextualise his misery – “there are children who have cancer, so all bets are off, ‘cause I can’t compete with that” – means that he is not guilty of the charge of self-pity.

Despite the abiding timbre of his material – the new album’s title is a mashed-up translation of Icelandic and Turkish proverbs meaning ‘mid-life crisis nightmare’ - Grant seems happy and relaxed on stage. He has a glint in his eye and tells the audience many times how pleased he is to be here. Dressed in a Piccadilly Records t-shirt and baggy jeans, he alternates between standing centre-stage and sitting at his piano next to fellow keyboard player, Chris Pemberton. And when he introduces his band, he is thrilled and honoured that he has an ex-Banshee on drums: “Yes, that is fucking Budgie!”

Having been released only a month ago, it is testament to the quality of the new album that the tracks played from it last night seemed so familiar. The simple, yet beautiful, Down Here has a glorious chord change into a chorus that laments, “what we got down here is oceans of longing, and guessing games and no guarantees”, and Snug Slacks, with its hilarious lyrical riff on Joan Baez, Joan As Policewoman and Angie Dickinson, sees Grant pursuing his love of mutant disco funk. The sumptuous Geraldine, the album’s closer, already sounds like one of Grant’s epic, sweeping ballads and the set’s final song is Disappointing, the recent Number 1 hit single in Grant’s adopted home country, Iceland. No More Tangles, another new classic, features as one of the five songs that make up the encore.

Not that the new material entirely dominates: 2013’s Pale Green Ghosts provides the expansive It Doesn’t Matter To Him, with its long and haunting synthesizer outro, Glacier and GMF. Grant’s voice is superb on these two remarkable songs and the title track of his debut album; and Queen of Denmark is made all the more dramatic for Pemberton’s blasts of discordant synthesizer that lead the band through the song’s histrionic crescendo. I last saw John Grant at Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion in the spring of 2014 and I thought that performance could not be bettered; but at the Dome last night, he surpassed my expectations with a staggering two hour set full of humour and heartache.