Friday, July 29, 2016

Feel the Love

The world might have seemed like a shitty place in 2016, but that has not stopped John Grant travelling its length and breadth to perform. As he says on It Doesn’t Matter To Him, “I get to sing for lovely people all over this lovely world.” And starting off in the Far East, the American singer-songwriter opened the year playing China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, moved on to a couple of shows in his home country, before dates in Europe and Scandanavia.

Lately, Grant has appeared at major British festivals such as Glastonbury, T in the Park and Latitude; all in all, he has been a busy boy. But last night at the De la Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, a venue he first played two years ago, it felt like a homecoming. “It’s so good to be back in this amazing building,” he told us. You can have the world but sometimes you just need Art Deco architecture and an adoring audience.

Since launching a solo career in 2010 after the dissolution of alt-rock band The Czars, Grant has produced three albums worth of sumptuous ballads, emotion-drenched confessionals and stomping disco floor-fillers. On his return to the De La Warr Pavilion, last years’ Grey Tickles, Black Pressure album dominated proceedings, as it had when I saw him in Brighton last November; but there was still room for classic tracks such as Glacier and GMF from middle album, Pale Green Ghosts, and an incredible rendition of the title track from his debut, Queen of Denmark.

All of this was rapturously received by the audience who immediately responded, not only to the rich timbre of Grant’s sonorous baritone, but to the band’s accomplished sound. With a rhythm section of ex-Banshee Budgie on drums and Jakob Smári Magnússon on bass underpinning Pétur Hallgrímsson’s versatile guitar and Chris Pemberton’s virtuoso keyboards, the band radiated warmth and solidity. After an encore which included a moving version of The Czars’ song, Drug, Grant asked, “could you feel the love coming from us tonight?” We could – and it was reciprocated.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

When the Finger Points

Fingerposts, guide signs that indicate the direction and distance of towns and villages, have been a feature of the English countryside since the 17th century, when they were placed at significant crossroads by order of local magistrates. In the late 18th century, parliamentary legislation made it compulsory for all turnpike roads – roads maintained by the collection of tolls - to feature fingerposts.

The size and style of fingerposts varied widely until 1921, when the familiar wooden design we see today was handed down in a parliamentary circular. It said that fingerposts should have 2 1⁄2 or 3 inch high black upper case lettering on a white background affixed to a white supporting pole. That model has remained ever since, except for a few years when this enduring feature of rural roads disappeared altogether.

Early in the Second World War, German invasion was an imminent threat. Whether by air or sea, the government made plans for such an eventuality. In Angus Calder’s 1969 book, The People’s War: Britain 1939-1945, he details the lengths the authorities went to to frustrate any invaders: ‘To prevent gliders landing, fields, downland, golf courses and recreation grounds near the south and east coasts were scattered with timber baulks, or with an extraordinary variety of improvised hazards.’ As well as filling fields with old cars and broken-down farm machinery, Caulder also notes that railway stations within 20 miles of the south coast had to have all naming signage removed. But it was the fear of enemy parachutists that had the most significant effect on the people’s daily life.

In May 1940, the government ordered that ‘no person shall display or cause or permit to be displayed any sign which furnishes any indication of the name of, or the situation or the direction of, or the distance to any place.’ All over Britain, street names and sign posts were removed. In towns and cities, this presented some difficulties but, in the countryside, the removal of all fingerposts made navigation almost impossible. It was the armed forces themselves who requested their restoration. Military drivers were ‘subjected to bafflement and nervous exhaustion if they ventured into unfamiliar territory’ and, after an absence of three years, fingerposts were returned to rural roads.

Despite their simplicity and elegance of design, it is possible that nowadays fingerposts are simply an anachronistic feature of the heritage industry. In his new book, Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Our World, Greg Milner notes that anyone on Earth with a smartphone knows exactly where they are and where they are going. With 75% of adults, and rising, in this country owning one, perhaps the days of the fingerpost are numbered. In a parochial illustration of the global reach of GPS, when I was at the end of my road preparing my phone to take the photograph at the top of this page, someone from a passing car shouted at me, “Pokemon Go!”

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Wild in the Country

On my way home at dusk, recently, I was driving up the curving incline of the road between Little Iwood and Great Iwood, just outside Rushlake Green. As I came around the bend, something large was in the road up ahead of me but the brief sweep of my headlights failed to reveal its true form. As I got nearer and slowed to a halt, I realised it was a buck, an adult male fallow deer, and it was showing no intention of getting out of my way.

Not for nothing have my children nicknamed this stretch of road, Deer Country. Since I left London over ten years ago, I have seen more deer on the roads in my part of East Sussex than I have seen foxes. I was given some early advice by a neighbour on the matter: if a deer runs across the road in front of your car, stop and wait; others will be sure to follow. It has turned out to be good advice: many times, I have stopped at the sight of a running deer only to see two or three follow in its wake. Stories of fatal accidents – both to driver and deer - are legion in this area.

The closest I have come to a deer-related accident was when I used to travel to work on a motor scooter. It was dark, and I thought I had seen something whizz across the road in the distance. I slowed, stopped and waited - but nothing happened. Then, just as I was about to pull away, there was what can only be described as a stampede of deer – some, adult males - across my path. Had I not stopped, I would surely have been trampled underfoot.

Deer roam wild in the countryside of East Sussex, particularly in large and sparsely populated areas; but they are also found close to towns and villages. They are overwhelmingly fallow deer, although there are some roe deer living in Ashdown Forest. The fallow deer population has increased dramatically in the last thirty years due to milder winters, falling demand for venison and the changing attitudes of landowners: more farmers are prepared to tolerate grazing deer in woods and fallow fields.

Back at my most recent encounter, the deer was snuffling at something on the road surface. He did not seem to be alarmed by the glare of my headlights or the idling of my engine. Just as I was wondering what to do next, he lazily looked up and stared in my direction. Illuminated in the bright light, with his stately posture and towering antlers, he looked magnificent. After a few more seconds of stand-off, he then sauntered away into the wood. I waited a few moments, and then drove away slowly, happy to have shared the road with such a beautiful creature.