Tuesday, December 29, 2015

In the Ravilious Room

2015 was the year in which one of East Sussex’s most famous twentieth century artists became the property of the whole country. When I say ‘the country’, I mean that London finally caught up with the simple beauty of the paintings of Eric Ravilious. Ravilious, Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition, was the biggest-ever showing of his work and was a sell-out this summer; the public, the art world and the media were united in praise for this largely unsung watercolourist.

In his delightful end of year review, The Guardian’s Ian Jack wrote, “He is an easy painter to enjoy … bright and tender even in his depictions of war. His pictures give the viewer the permission to like England and to mourn it”; but not all is from a lost age. If his work as a war artist portrays the nation at a particular point of conflict, other images capture a timeless essence of England: his paintings of Sussex, the South Downs and the South Coast capture a landscape that is largely unchanged.

Born in west London in 1903, Eric Ravilious grew up in Eastbourne where his parents ran an antique shop. A scholarship boy, he was educated at Eastbourne Grammar School and Eastbourne School of Art before moving on to the Royal College of Art. Ravilious excelled in a variety of media – ceramic design, wood engraving, book illustration – but it is for his watercolours that he is mostly remembered.

At the start of the Second World War, he was commissioned as a full-time war artist; his watercolours recorded the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force in action from a number of postings around Britain and abroad. In August 1942 whilst based at Kaldadarnes in Iceland, Ravilious was on board an aircraft that went missing. After a four-day search, the aircrew were declared lost in action. Ravilious’s body was never recovered; he was 39 years old.

The Dulwich exhibition may now be over, but Eastbourne’s wonderful Towner Art Gallery holds one of the largest public collections of Ravilious’s work. The permanent Ravilious Room contains watercolours, books about the artist and a unique archive of associated materials. Currently, there are Ravilious works on display that have been loaned from Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum and it is the perfect reason to visit, particularly in this interregnum between Christmas and New Year.

When I was there today, it was one of the loaned paintings, Train Landscape, that especially caught my eye. This popular work dates from 1940, when Ravilous spent a day travelling up and down the Eastbourne to Lewes line painting the interior of the railway carriage with the landscape viewed through the window. However, the figure in this watercolour is of the Westbury Horse in Wiltshire and not the Long Man of Wilmington that was in the original work. Ravilious was very interested in the hillside chalk figures of the South Coast and painted several, including two viewed from trains; but he was dissatisfied with both and wanted to discard them. It was Tirzah Garwood, married to Ravilious, who cut and pasted together the best parts of both works to create such an enduring image of England.

Towner Art Gallery is open Tuesday to Sunday, and Bank Holiday Mondays, between 10am and 5pm. Admission is free. The gallery will be closed on New Year’s Day.

Note: The Ravilious Room will be closed from 26 January to 5 February 2016, inclusive, to change the works on display.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Fairytale of New Cross

If you already feel as though Christmas has been going on for quite a while now, that is because it has: the reason for this is because no one can agree when Christmas begins, anymore. Is it when the first mince pies appear in the supermarkets? Is it when the John Lewis television advert is first broadcast? Is it when you put your tree up? And when is that supposed to be? Is it as soon as December arrives? Or is it twelve days before Christmas? There is certainly a class dimension to Christmas, these days: lower down the social scale the plastic tree will have been up since mid-November and the kids will be opening their presents in the dark at 5am on the big day; at the top of the class ladder, the Norwegian spruce will go up on Christmas Eve and the poor little blighters will have to wait until after Christmas luncheon for their gifts.

I, of course, know exactly when Christmas begins: it is the precise moment at which you hear, for the first time that winter, James Fearnley’s piano introduction to The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York. This song is the greatest Christmas single never to have topped the hit parade: it chimes with the reflective and bittersweet mood of the season and has never turned stale. What its ubiquity has done, though, is render almost all Pogues' songs as Christmas songs: Misty Morning Albert Bridge, Rainy Night in Soho, London Girls – even A Pair of Brown Eyes – all sound festive to me at this time of year. So when the Christmas music comes out in our house, alongside the Sinatra and Elvis festive albums and assorted seasonal compilations, there is always a Pogues’ Best of. This year, there was a bonus: when I saw James Yorkston play in Bexhill earlier this month, he performed two songs that The Pogues have also covered, I’m A Man You Don’t Meet Everyday and The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. The Pogues are one of those bands I have never stopped listening to; they are a perennial soundtrack to the past thirty-odd years and I associate them with nothing but good times.

The association probably began in February 1980 in The Wellington pub, just around the corner from the Lyceum Ballroom in London. A mob of us were carousing before a Joy Division gig and a big-eared, broken-toothed bloke came over to us and snarled, “You lot seem to be the only people in ‘ere having a fuckin’ good time; do you mind if I ‘ave a drink with yer?” We were a raggle-taggle bunch of punks, proto-Goths, football hooligans and longhaired hippies but we all recognised Shane MacGowan, either from his status as a face on the fledgling punk scene or his band, The Nips. He never mentioned who he was and neither did we - back in those egalitarian times, bands and fans were all the same – but we had a good time getting drunker together.

A couple of years later, I was squashed in the basement bar of the Hope and Anchor on Islington’s Upper Street, waiting for a new band called Pogue Mahone to come on stage. I had been told they combined punk and Irish folk music and were worth seeing - I didn’t think it sounded too promising; but they were incredible and there, on stage, was Shane again, standing next to a bloke repeatedly hitting himself on the head with a tin tray as the musicians behind them played with phenomenal speed and energy. I had never seen the like.

Further down the line, in the late 80s and early 90s, there were all those gigs at Brixton Academy which became annual fixtures at either Christmastime or on St. Patrick’s Day. The evening would always begin in the Canterbury Arms behind the police station, and each would end up as raucous as the last. I am quite sure I can recall one performance when Shane wasn’t even there: Joe Strummer was on lead vocals, instead, and there were several Clash songs in the set. I might have dreamt that, or just fabricated it, but I think it’s true.

More recently, as the fin de si├Ęcle became the new millennium, The Pogues were a consistent feature of the football routine. The Amersham Arms in New Cross, south-east London, an Irish-run pub and music venue, always had plenty of Pogues on the front bar jukebox and, as the pre-match drinking session was winding up, their version of Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town was a regular rallying cry before the game. And I think that is why I most associate The Pogues with good times. Those were the last days free of the weight of responsibilities: before kids, before teaching, before genteel poverty; when all I had to worry about was getting out of bed early enough on a Saturday morning to get to the pub on time – what seems now, like a fairytale existence.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Coast to Coast

At the De La Warr Pavilion last night, on a mild but typically breezy winter evening, the air of the eastern seaboard of the British Isles washed in to meet the southern coast of England. Record shop and music promoters, Music’s Not Dead, treated Bexhill to their final gig of the year with Fife’s James Yorkston, and his moving modern folk and self-deprecating anecdotes, supported by Lincolnshire’s Elle Osborne and her more traditional songs.

Osborne and Yorkston are both products of collectives: Osborne is part of the Nest Collective, a London-based network promoting musicians and events formed in response to the resurgence in folk music in the early part of the 21st century. Yorkston was a one-time member of the Fence Collective, the name given to musicians who were associated with Fence Records, an independent record label based in the coastal town of Anstruther and Cellardyke. A stellar roster of musicians were connected to Fence: KT Tunstall, Rozi Plain, The Pictish Trail and King Creosote who, in his more prosaic identity of Kenny Anderson, founded the label in 1997.

Fence Records no longer exists, but many of the acts can be found on other independent labels, primarily Lost Map and Domino. It is Domino Records that have released most of Yorkston’s albums and caused him to wear his “funky dude jumper”, last night. So named by his youngest child, it chimed with an early meeting Yorkston had with a Domino exec who wrote down a single word on her pad: “funky.” When he saw “Domino x 4” on last night’s guest list (they weren’t there), he felt there was only one garment to wear.

If that anecdote seems digressive, it is because it is typical of Yorkston’s rambling between-songs stories. There are tales of agoraphobia, recurring smoke alarms and a farcical episode, involving a painted-shut window and a pigeon in a Birmingham hotel room, that is worthy of inclusion in Lucky Jim. It almost seems as if there are as many stories as songs; but when he is singing, it is with all the poignancy and tenderness of the music I have been listening to for the past year on 2014’s The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society album.

The beautiful Broken Wave (A Blues For Doogie), about the death of a friend and musician, is followed by Fellow Man, a song that Yorkston says began as advice to his son - “my fear is I may transfer my fears to you” - but ended up somewhere else - “I’m full of love for my fellow man.” Yorkston says that he would like to write songs about the terrible mess of the world but feels that others seem to do it so much better. As an example, he then performs a heartrending version of Eric Bogle’s anti-war ballad, The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.

Earlier in the evening, Elle Osborne had opened her set with an arrangement of another heart-breaking song, the traditional ballad, Annachie Gordon. Osborne was born to the folk tradition: her ancestors were fishing folk from Yorkshire and Suffolk who latterly congregated on Humberside and, when the fishing industry declined in the 1970s, came ashore and became folk singers. She taught herself to play the fiddle, growing up on Lincolnshire’s North Sea coast steeped in folk music. Everything sung by the people is folk music, she told us - football chants, hymns, carols – and, as if to underline the point, she sang a festive folk song, In The Bleak Midwinter, which the audience joined in with.