Monday, March 28, 2016

Close to the Edge

I have an old black and white photograph of myself taken - out of focus - at Beachy Head by my dad on a Kodak Instamatic camera, probably in 1971. I am standing close to the cliff edge, rictus grin of fear frozen on my face, pointing down at the sea 500 feet below. Barely discernible at the bottom of the photograph is the tiny smudge of a lighthouse. Out walking to Birling Gap recently I came across, not only that lighthouse, but another that I have no recollection of from that family holiday forty-five years ago.

The Beachy Head lighthouse is an enduring image: with its red and white marker stripes and its position nestling close to the coastline at the foot of the high cliffs, it has entered our collective consciousness. Ask any child to draw a lighthouse and it is likely that they will produce something like this 140-foot structure that shines a warning light nine miles out to sea just west of Eastbourne.

For the past thirty years, the lighthouse has been automated; throughout the years before that it had been maintained and operated by a team of at least three keepers since its construction in 1902. But the perilous Beachy Head cliffs were not just a 20th century danger to shipping: there had been numerous shipwrecks there during the 17th and 18th centuries which led Sussex Member of Parliament ‘Mad Jack’ Fuller to fund the construction of the first navigational aid for mariners at Beachy Head in 1829, the Belle Tout lighthouse.

The Belle Tout was originally made of wood but the decision was soon taken to invest in the construction of a permanent granite structure. However, it was not a great success as a lighthouse: its location at the top of the huge cliffs meant that it was not easily seen by shipping close to the shoreline and it was eventually replaced by the current sea-level lighthouse.

Despite this, the Belle Tout still exists today but not as a functioning lighthouse. Currently a bed and breakfast hotel, it has had many incarnations since it was decommissioned: private residence, historic monument and film location amongst them. It is perhaps best known as the setting for the BBC’s 1986 adaptation of Fay Weldon’s novel, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, starring Julie T. Wallace and Patricia Hodge. What is most remarkable about the Belle Tout lighthouse, though, is its escape from coastal erosion: in 1999 the building was moved, whole and intact, away from the crumbing cliff, using hydraulics and rollers, to a new location 50 feet further inland. I know what it is like to be too close to the edge.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Under the Crescent Moon

As a fingernail moon snagged on the cobalt sky and
scudding clouds crested on the high-blown night,
I came to you too late.

As the fading curtain fell to reveal a wave of stars and
a shower of illumination strafed the hardened crust,
I came to you too soon.

As the rising sun breached the curve of the earth and
a fragile hoar frost conceded to the dawn of the day,
I came to you on time.

In the sharp thin air of that tranquil morning,
With gales of ragged breath unfolding at your door,
I came to you.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Beautiful Truth

Every once in a while in music, something comes along that makes you want to shout about it to the world. You become a bore to your friends and family as you take every opportunity to shoehorn it into the conversation, no matter how tenuous it may be. I find it happens less and less as time passes but that thrill of listening to a new album, connecting with it instantly and knowing that - as a whole - it is a work of staggering brilliance, never diminishes despite its infrequency.

Such a thing happened to me a few months ago: hearing a Bill Ryder-Jones track on an end-of-year music magazine compilation CD, I went straight out and bought the album, West Kirby County Primary, that it came from. From first play, I fell in love with the contrast between the tender delicacy of its whispered ballads and the scuzzy lo-fi of its slacker rock. Then I started to mention it. To everyone. And that was when I knew how good Bill Ryder-Jones is - because they all came back just as evangelical about his music as me.

Later, I found out that I had missed seeing Ryder-Jones live by minutes at last summer's Green Man festival in Wales: arriving at the main stage on the first afternoon to await Sweet Baboo, I was unaware that he had just left the stage; I could have been smitten much sooner. So when last night's gig at Brighton's Green Door Store was announced before Christmas, I snapped up some tickets.

Ryder-Jones is modest and unassuming from the start: he thanks us for coming out on a night when there is football on the televison and apologises for not being good at "banter" between songs. We don't care. The songs are so breathtaking live: he has the audience spellbound with the hushed fragility of album-opener, Tell Me You Don't Love Me Watching, and gives us an early treat with the glorious druggy fug of Catherine and Huskisson, one of the album's stand-out tracks.

The set is not all drawn from the current album, though. There is a new number and a quintet of songs, including the beautifully evocative The Lemon Trees #3, from A Bad Wind Blows In My Heart, Ryder-Jones' previous album which is currently on heavy rotation at my house. Wild Swans, with its restrained Northern Soul tempo and recurring refrain of "don't tell me that it's over", is particularly moving.

Halfway through the set, Bill's band - fellow Wirral natives, By The Sea - leave the stage and he performs By Morning I and, as the focus once again becomes West Kirby County Primary, Put It Down Before You Break It accompanied only by his guitar. The latter song feels as though it will fragment under the weight of its own emotion as he sings, "And now I'm throwing up/ Because the things I'm thinking/ Are things I'd like to keep from sinking in." "I'm alright, y'know," he reassures us between songs but the writing is so raw and confessional that we feel for him.

When the band return, there is a run of oustanding songs - Two To Birkenhead, Wild Roses, Daniel, Satellites - to close the set; Ryder-Jones dedicates Daniel to his brother and, from the lyrical content, it is hard not to be fearful of the tragedy it contains: "Like some unopened birthday card I keep you boxed with my unwanted memories/ Daniel belongs to the ocean." And as it moves from bereavement to depression, the narrative switches to a convenient objective voice: "If you take the pills you might not get so ill/ Let's make it easy for you Bill."

The lyrics are personal and heartbreaking and, as he sings on Wild Roses, Ryder-Jones is adept at "turning stories into beautiful truth." A founder member of The Coral in his mid-teens and having left the band ten years later, Ryder-Jones has had his share of difficulties with drink, drugs and a troubled state of mind. But he has no illusions about the romance of music: in a recent interview he declared, "You've already fucking lost if you're involved in it [music]. Artists aren't happy. People who love music aren't happy." I just hope that such a tender soul manages to not snag on the sharp edges of this jagged world.