Saturday, October 29, 2016

One in the Eye

Half-term week. Three children to entertain, two of them studying the Normans at school, only one place for it: pop down the road and visit Battle Abbey and look upon the scene of the Battle of Hastings and William Duke of Normandy's triumph over poor old Harold, who had only been King of England for nine months.

Ordered by the Pope in 1070 to do penance for so much killing during his conquest, William built the Abbey to commemorate the battle, and the town subsequently grew up around it. The gateway to the Abbey is still an imposing presence at the end of the High Street but many of the original buildings are now gone or in ruins and have been since the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th Century. The Abbot's quarters were exempted from the destruction of that time and given to one of King Henry VIII's mates to use as a country house. Today, the building houses a private school. Nice to see that privilege succeeds privilege.

One building not spared demolition was the Abbey's church, the Church of St. Martin. William had built this with the high altar marking the spot where King Harold died in 1066. All that remains of the church now is a commemorative plaque where the altar stood and Harold fell. The myth - entirely derived from an image on the Bayeux Tapestry - that King Harold was killed by a crackshot Norman archer who managed to hit a bullseye is an enduring one with my kids and they were drawn to the plaque more than almost anything else.

The battlefield at the rear of the Abbey site was, of course, the biggest draw. Two weeks ago, there had been a reenactment here to commemorate the battle's 950th anniversary and, even though it was deserted when we went, the kids enjoyed gazing down across the valley from Senlac Hill, where the English troops had formed their shield wall, and imagining the advancing massed ranks of the French invaders.

Exiting through the gift shop, the kids could not be tempted by the Ladybird book of William the Conqueror despite my telling them, misty-eyed, that I had had that book when I was a child. Instead, they continued their gory fascination by buying sharp and barbed souvenir arrow heads. "Careful," I had to stop myself from saying. "You'll have someone's eye out with one of those."

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Long Goodbye

When the Brooklyn-based band Augustines announced recently that they were splitting up after six years together, my reaction was one of regret and gratitude. Regret that a band who have produced three great albums of poignant and impassioned rock music would no longer be around, but gratitude for the fact that I had a ticket for the sold-out first date of their farewell British tour in Brighton on Sunday night.

Already renowned for their intense live performances, in these circumstances, it was always going to be an emotional evening. At the start, lead singer and guitarist Billy McCarthy seems in danger of being overwhelmed by the occasion as his powerful voice hits the soulful and fitting peaks of The Avenue - "I wanna try somewhere new/ Where open land meets the sky/ And I can feel new" - but he is soon into his genial stride between songs. We are treated to wisecracks about bacon sandwiches and the band opening a bakery - "crumpets and trumpets" - and multiple thanks for the audience's support over the years.

Midway through the set McCarthy and multi-instrumentalist lynchpin Eric Sanderson are joined onstage by their friend Tom Zovich from their previous band, Pela. Drummer Rob Allen gives way to Zovich and they rattle through Waiting on the Stairs and Trouble With River Cities, songs from the old days. The reunion is clearly an affecting moment.

The presence of a trumpeter adds an extra dimension to the trio's sound in the same way that brass complements the live sound of The National and British Sea Power. But it is the huge soundscapes they create that make me think that Augustines deserve to be the biggest stadium band in the world. Not that I would wish that on them, as it's a largely perjorative term in my book; much better to see this band in a small, sweaty venue like Concorde 2.

There are so many anthems in the band's repetoire that there is little breathing space from the relentless passionate pace: Are We Alive? and When Things Fall Apart from the most recent album, Philadelphia and Chapel Song from their debut as We Are Augustines, Rise Ye Sunken Ships. But it is 2014's eponymous album that provides the majority of the arms-aloft singalongs: Now You Are Free, Nothing To Lose But Your Head and Walkabout have the audience bellowing in unison. It is a long goodbye as audience and band seem reluctant to be parted but the set eventually concludes - after an incredible two and a half hours - with the trio of Weary Eyes, Landmine and Cruel City. Even then, the audience stay in place singing the final song after the band have left the stage. They will be missed.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Down the Pub

Sitting in the warm glow of my local pub last Friday, chatting with a group of friends about subjects as diverse as music, food, racism and allotments, it struck me that I could not remember the last time I had done this. Usually when I am in a pub – and it is not that often these days - it is for either a meeting or a pub quiz; never without purpose, never just to relax, never only to drink and talk. And I realised that it is a shame, because there really is no better way to spend your leisure time.

One hundred years ago there were 99,000 pubs in Britain; now there is half that number and it is declining at a rate. Nearly 30 pubs close every week in this country and if that were to continue, there would be none left by 2050, That, of course, will not happen but the sharpest decline has been in the past ten years and it has been faster in rural areas than urban.

Home drinking has long been killing pubs but there are a number of other social factors involved in the waning of the local: a change in attitudes towards alcohol has seen less being consumed now than there was a dozen years ago (a fact I find hard to believe), there has been a significant shift in tastes away from beer (a fact my own experience supports) and the UK smoking bans of a decade ago excluded a significant group of pub-goers (a fact I am ambivalent about).

Then in the wake of the smoking bans the recession turned up; the subsequent austerity-driven real terms fall in wages reduced the amount of disposable income being spent down the pub and, together with other factors such as duties, taxes and planning regulations, this terminally affected the economic viability of many pubs. But this was not just confined to chains that would ruthlessly close any uneconomic pubs and sell them for development: closures have been split equally between the corporate and independent sectors.

Fortunately, in the ten years I have been living in East Sussex, I have not known any of the pubs in my area to close permanently. However, I do recall driving around with a group of work colleagues on a freezing Sunday night in February a few years ago trying to find a pub that had not closed for the night due to lack of customers.

There are two pubs in my village: one has just had a facelift, which can only be a good sign, and the other has been closed intermittently between landlords but now seems to be in a period of stability. I was in both of them last week: the former for a Wednesday night allotment committee meeting (rock ‘n’ roll, I know) and the latter was the scene of my purely social Friday night. Sadly, on both nights, the number of customers struggled to get out of single figures. My own culpability in the neglect of a key feature of the community made me feel guilty and I vowed to regularly support my local boozers. And more of us need to do it because, before we know it, they will be gone forever.