Friday, December 29, 2017

The Last Post

At a New Year’s Eve gathering in 2009 I was asked by one of the other guests what my top five personal highlights of the year had been. Feeling put on the spot and under pressure to come up with some things that made me seem like an interesting and well-rounded person, I said: a good harvest at the allotment; my middle child starting school; witnessing Gary Alexander's wondergoal at Wembley; seeing Richard Hawley play live; standing at the Hardy Monument on the top of Black Down Heath in Dorset. My questioner smiled and reeled off her own (which, I then realised, had been the real reason for asking me): getting an HD TV; getting a new car, getting new double glazing; getting a smartphone; going on holiday abroad. As the general conversation then centred around holidays and cars, I sat there feeling stupid: I had come across as earnest and worthy and entirely out of step with everyone else’s mood. It was at that moment that I decided to start a fanzine.

Reflecting on my humiliation, I thought that there was much to be said for celebrating the simple things in life and, with two friends, launched Sussex Sedition. The ‘sedition’ of the title was to go against the prevailing materialistic thinking and the ethos was to be positive - there were enough bitter words out there already. Drawing inspiration from writers such as Kathleen Jamie, Tom Hodgkinson, Roger Deakin and Iain Sinclair, we wrote in praise of the pleasures to be derived from the world just outside our windows. Early articles covered vegetable growing, walking on the Sussex Downs, and British Sea Power. It was a desktop production - printed cheaply by a local firm - and distribution was something of a guerrilla operation. It was available free from those tables of leaflets and magazines that pubs always have - sometimes with permission, sometimes without.

After a few quarterly issues the, albeit small, cost of production became prohibitive for a bunch of cash-strapped public sector workers and Sussex Sedition ceased to be a physical fanzine. Wishing to continue paying tribute to the revolution of everyday life, I kept the name going as a blog with a few posts each month. Using the natural and man-made landscape of East Sussex as the mainstay, the blog also strayed into politics and music. What I found incredible was how many more people would read an article on popular music than, say, buttercups – who knew? Pieces I have written on Sleaford Mods, Vic Godard and Augustines have been the most-read by a long way. In fact, the review of Sleaford Mods’ Brighton gig in 2015 is the piece the frustrated NME journalist in me is most proud of – writing it took me right back to my punk fanzine days.

It has been a joy to write this blog for the past six years and I have received some lovely comments from people in response; but today I am writing the last post. I have embarked on a more substantial project and I need to focus all of my writing attention on that. I had thought about trying to collect the pieces together in some sort of bumper retrospective issue of the printed fanzine but instead I think I will simply leave them here in cyberspace - floating like defunct satellites in real space, blinking as they orbit the earth – just in case anyone picks up their signal.

Finally, most things make me think about music and, talking of satellites, three of my favourite songs have that word in the title. Therefore, apropos of nothing in particular:

Satellite of Love by Lou Reed – I was probably about thirteen when someone told me that David Bowie and Mick Ronson played on an LP by Lou Reed. When you are obsessed with a singer, you tend to explore anything associated with them and I went out and bought Transformer. It is an album I have been playing ever since and one that sent me down the back-doubles of discovery to the Velvet Underground. Satellite of Love is my favourite track: often in the shadow of the hit single Walk On The Wild Side or the beautiful Perfect Day or the pre-punk Vicious, it is the most tender paean to love and jealousy. And if you ever heard it sung by the late, great Kitty Lux of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, you are lucky too.

Satellite by Sex Pistols – the B side of Holidays in the Sun, the sheer racket and sense of everything being on the verge of collapsing into chaos make this my favourite Pistols’ track. Lydon is at his most demented: he spits out his feelings towards people the band met at those early gigs in London’s satellite towns over Steve Jones’ fantastic reverb-drenched guitar and Paul Cook's phenomenal drums. Recorded in the capital in June 1977 at the height of the bands’ justified paranoia over Jubilee fascist thugs, you can hear Lydon’s frustration in the outro as he repeatedly smashes the microphone on the Wessex Studios’ floor. It leaves me exhausted each time I hear it.

Satellites by Bill Ryder-Jones – 2015’s West Kirkby County Primary is probably my favourite album of recent years. Its combination of hushed ballads and fuzzy rock was a revelation to me; with an honesty bordering on confessional, its songs are both painful and liberating. Satellites, the album’s penultimate song, slowly builds its tale of regret – “I'm stranded in the dark/ of everything I've loved and went and tore apart/ I got lost in myself and time got lost as well” – to a stunning slacker crescendo.

So, it ends with music; and, for me, everything does. In truth, I do not think I have encountered any problem that could not be made even a little bit better by listening to the songs that saved your life. See you on the other side.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Warmth for the Soul

Last night might not have been the coldest of the season but this morning felt like the hardest ground frost of the winter, so far. The divots thrown up by the horses' hooves were frozen solid and I was making slow progress on the bridle path I was walking along. The sun was shining so I benefited from some apricity but whenever the path fell into the shade of hill or wood I felt chilled to the marrow.

Just below Comphurst, the path bordered open fields and there was a clear view across Horse Eye Level, Down Level and Glynleigh Level all the way to Shepham Wind Farm at Stone Cross. The three 115-metre turbines began generating energy at the start of the year after a five-year planning battle had been finally resolved when Wealden District Council's refusal of permission was overturned by the government's Planning Inspectorate. The inspector ruled that the farm's capacity to generate 7.5 MW of energy, sufficient to power 4,000 homes, and save 8,475 tonnes of carbon would make a material contribution to renewable energy objectives.

There is still some local animosity toward the wind farm on aesthetic grounds; but the sight of the turbines this morning, standing majestically in the shadow of the Downs, was undeniably beautiful. The contrast between the renewable engineering of the modern age and the timeless sward of the Sussex hills was warmth for the soul.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Stand-Up Guy

You are always guaranteed an entertaining time when you go to see Pictish Trail and last night's Melting Vinyl gig at the Rialto Theatre in Brighton was no exception. A bloody good job, too, as it was sub-zero temperatures outside and by the time I got to the venue I was so cold I was desperately in need of some winter cheer.

Main man Johnny Lynch was on good form, regaling us with stories of drug-addled audiences in Hartlepool, near death experiences in Machynlleth (I will refrain from writing how he pronounced it) and eco glitter from Bristol (the latter made from unicorns' tears, natch). In fact, despite coming from the far-flung Isle of Eigg, there is a real sense of rootedness in the whole country that comes from the band's relentless touring of these islands.

There was a smaller group of musicians for this tour - "I'm just wringing the final drops from the last album" - with Lynch assisted by Suse Bear on bass and keyboards and John B McKenna (AKA Monoganon - who was also the support act and inexplicably started his set wearing a terrible wig and ended it wearing a rather fetching cloak-cum-habit) on guitar. And it was not just the band that was stripped down: there were some beautifully spare arrangements of Lionhead, Easy With Either and Dead Connection from last year's Future Echoes album, and earlier songs from the Pictish Trail repertoire of folktronica.

Despite some provocative audience comments about the nature of familial relationships on the Isle of Eigg, Johnny Lynch (almost) refused to be dragged down to our level and maintained his dignity and humour throughout. I laughed like a drain at his between-songs repartee and the only other performer I have seen who comes close to being such a laugh is James Yorkston. Those Fence Collective guys: what are they like? They should be doing stand-up.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Last Resting Place

Grants Hill House in Uckfield, East Sussex was the place of the last confirmed sighting, in 1974, of perhaps this county’s most famous disappeared person, John Bingham. He arrived at the home of his friends Ian and Susan Maxwell-Scott, on Thursday 7th November, in a dishevelled and bloodstained state. Only Susan was at home to hear Bingham tell a distressing tale of how he had been walking past his estranged wife’s home in London’s Belgravia and had seen her, through the window, struggling with a man in the basement kitchen. He had scared the intruder off only to discover the bloody murder of his children’s nanny. He had tried to calm his wife but she had run into the street crying, “Murder!” Deciding that the scene reflected badly on him, he had fled.

Bingham was, of course, better known as Lord Lucan and his account of events was a complete fabrication. Despite a long campaign to portray his wife as mentally ill and an unfit mother, Lucan had lost custody of the children to her in an acrimonious court case the previous year. It was he who had murdered the nanny, Sandra Rivett, mistaking her for his wife in the dark. He had then violently attacked Lady Lucan but she had put up a fight and escaped to a nearby pub to raise the alarm. He had driven, in a borrowed car, to East Sussex.

Having arrived at Grants Hill House at a late hour, Lucan could not be persuaded by Maxwell-Scott to stay the night and go to the local police in the morning. Instead, he drove away in the early hours saying that he had to get back to London. He did not arrive and the car was found three days later, abandoned in the Sussex port of Newhaven; Lucan was never seen again. He was declared dead in 1999 and a certificate was finally issued last year. There were countless theories and unconfirmed sightings before then: he jumped from a cross-channel ferry; he flew to France from a Kentish airfield; he lived out his days in the southern African country of Mozambique.

However, there is one theory that places Lucan’s demise closer to home. In the late 1990s, Sussex police received a series of anonymous phone calls from someone who said they had been in the grounds of Grants Hill House on the night of 7th November 1974. The witness claimed to have seen two men shoot a third and dump his body in a cesspit. The caller refused to make a proper statement and the information was not acted upon. As the house had been demolished and the grounds redeveloped in the 1980s, a search for remains would have been difficult; but it might be that Grants Hill House is not only the place of Lucan’s last sighting, but his last resting place.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Blue and Green

Exactly a year ago, when I was writing about the obsolete word apricity - used to describe the warmth of the sun in winter - I was admonished by a correspondent who pointed out that, as meteorological winter did not begin for another week, I could not have felt the winter sun. My response was that there was frost on the ground, it was bloody cold and therefore, to my mind, it was winter and what little warmth the sun gave me was apricity.

Walking in the countryside around Alfriston yesterday, I could not make the same claim. Yes, the sun's rays were shining down but it did not feel at all like winter. With December just around the corner, it was a mild morning and, with the exception of the odd cold day, typical of how the weather has been for weeks, now. Worryingly, it is as if the climate became fixed in early October.

It all made for an idyllic walk as we left Waterloo Square in the centre of Alfriston and headed down to the Cuckmere River to follow its winding course away from the village and toward the sun. Apart from a cloud of smoke from a tree-feller's bonfire, the sky was clear blue and the gentle downland surrounding the valley a vivid green. This is the landscape that inspired the author Eleanor Farjeon to write the hymn Morning Has Broken in 1931; it could have been on such a day that she penned the line, "mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning".

Despite the weather putting a spring in our step, the path on the western bank was well trodden and muddy so, as we arrived at our turning point - the Litlington White Horse high above us on Hindover Hill - we crossed the river for the less heavy-going eastern side. The firmer ground underfoot and the sun at our backs both hastened our return to the village for a midday retirement to the pub.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Punk Rock Party

As soon as I got into The Haunt in Brighton, last night, there was something in the air. It wasn’t just the smell of sweat and damp in this cramped venue, there was an atmosphere, a buzz about the place. Whatever it was, it felt like a proper gig even before any band had come on stage. Despite it being early – to accommodate a 10pm finish - the audience seemed pretty boozed and there was a high proportion of ne’er do wells with a glint in their eye. When the music started, Welsh support band Seazoo were on and off in the blink of an eye but they made a joyful racket which cranked up the mood even more. We had no time to catch breath before they were very swiftly followed by the very lovely The Lovely Eggs. Perhaps the early finish was stoking the crowd: everything was condensed - we had to get our thrills while we could.

And thrill us The Lovely Eggs did. The harder edge that has always been in the Eggs’ music seems to be more to the fore, now. Songs like Goofin’ Around and The Magic Onion, from 2015’s This Is Our Nowhere, display a Sonic Youth influence on Holly’s guitar sound. These are longer songs and new material such as current single, I Shouldn’t Have Said That, and tracks from next year’s new album seem to be in the same vein. The sound was exhilarating, with David’s pounding driving it along under Holly’s fuzzbox guitar. Whether new songs or old favourites like Fuck It, the crowd were lapping them up and I could feel the floor bouncing under my feet.

Holly added to the atmosphere with a bit of audience manipulation: relegating the front row arm-folders further back, she brought forward the people who were partying the most; the atmosphere got even wilder. But the longer the set went on, the more Holly was struggling with her voice on the penultimate date of the tour. Despite this, when the set finished, they came back for an encore. Yes, an encore - their first in three years. The Lovely Eggs have long been opposed to fake encores, the kind where the songs are already on the set list and the band crouch at the side of the stage like “cavemen doing a shit” before going back on a few moments later. But last night in Brighton there was a real, spontaneous singalong encore of Don’t Look At Me to end the punk rock party.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Hearts and Minds

At the height of the 1984-5 action against the government’s programme of mass pit closures, I went to a benefit gig for the striking miners. Industrial punks Test Dept and the South Wales Striking Miners’ Choir performed at a packed-out Deptford Albany on an evening that was such a contrast of styles that it had no right to work; but it did. While Test Dept literally hammered out their heavy metal percussion, the male voice choir produced such stirring harmonies that it was one of the most moving and emotional gigs I have ever witnessed.

Public Service Broadcasting’s gig at the De La Warr Pavilion last night occupied some of the same territory. Where there was a powerful sense of defiance at that benefit over thirty years ago, PSB seek to celebrate the heroism and nobility of the South Wales miners on their recent album, Every Valley; and while the music and sampled voices on the album are incredibly moving, the visuals of the live experience are inspiring. From the two pithead wheels that flank the stage and the glow of Davy lamps hanging above it, to the film footage streaming on the backdrop and screens, there is almost too much for the eye to take in.

As the title of their debut album says, PSB are on a mission to Inform-Educate-Entertain and the opening two numbers, Every Valley and The Pit, with their accompanying public information film samples, do just that. Other songs win our hearts as well as our minds: Go To The Road has snippets of trouble ahead with its “united we stand, united we bloody fall” and “the way it’s going now we’ll be chucked on the scrapheap” samples; They Gave Me A Lamp, with its title taken from Phyliss Jones’ memoir of her time as a colliery nurse, gives voice to the role of women in mining; and the aggressive guitar-led All Out provokes memories of the 1984 strike with images of Thatcher’s mobilised national police force charging picket lines.

Popular songs from the previous two albums are also played. Night Mail and Spitfire (“this is a song about a plane”) from their debut, and Go! and the much called-for Gagarin from 2015’s The Race for Space. Despite their computer nerd image, the music is less synthesised than I had imagined from listening to the album: Wrigglesworth’s drums and J F Abraham’s bass drive the numbers along, while band leader, J. Willgoose, Esq. provides the overlaying guitar and keyboard motifs. With the addition of a trio of brass, it is an uplifting, and at times, almost funky sound.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Green and Pleasant Land

If I had gone to view A Green and Pleasant Land, the exhibition of British landscape photography currently at the Towner Gallery, expecting to be treated to a depiction of a bucolic pastoral idyll, I would have been sorely disappointed. This superb exhibition of images, from the 1970s to now, underlines the fact that the topography of this island is not defined by nature's scenic splendour but is shaped and marked by the multiplicity of human activity and endeavour.

This is a landscape that, above all, has been scarred by our place as an industrial nation. Using 1970 as a starting point, the exhibition reveals a world that has been lost and left behind. Ron McCormick's atmospheric shots of South Wales mark the beginnings of a post-industrial age and Chris Killip and Graham Smith's similarly monochrome images reinforce the idea of decline in our northern heartlands.

If I hadn't already realised the irony in the exhibition’s title, the work of Northern Irish artists Paul Seawright and Donovan Wylie confirmed it. Seawright’s large, full colour daytime shots of the scenes of past sectarian murders, denuded of their terror but given a sinister edge with accompanying text from newspaper reports, were chilling. And Donovan Wylie’s studies of army watchtowers in the lush, green countryside of South Armagh provided a stark reminder that for a large part of this timeframe, an area of Britain was under military occupation.

However, it is also leisure that defines our landscape: Simon Roberts and Melanie Friend both use a large colour format to show people at play on the Sussex coast, whether that be paddling in the sea or watching an air show in the skies above; and there is a quartet of early Martin Parr images – unusually for him in black and white. Three are unpopulated but the fourth, Beauty Spot - Brimham Rocks, is more familiarly what Parr is renowned for as he captures day trippers in the throes of their banality.

In the first room of the exhibition, it struck me that football is an activity that has had a dominating effect on our environment. In the words of John Davies, "we are collectively responsible for shaping the landscape we occupy"; and that most communal of sports features in two of his three stunning images on display. Agecroft Power Station, Salford dwarfs the two amateur football matches that are taking place on pitches alongside, and his Runcorn Bridge, Cheshire is underpinned by the football graffiti that litters the supports below. Placed alongside Robert Judges' eerie Football Pitch at Dawn, these images reinforced the prominence of the national game in our physical and mental terrain.

There are more traditional representations of landscape but even Fay Godwin, former president of the Ramblers Association, uses light and dark and open spaces under troubled skies to create a discomfiting tone. Over fifty artists are represented in this exhibition and the work is drawn largely from the Arts Council Collection. It is an excellent exhibition and it gave me a real sense of the Britain I have grown up in and the Britain I live in today - food for thought for the leaders of our country who seem to be some distance away from understanding our green and pleasant land.

A Green and Pleasant Land, British Landscape and the Imagination: 1970s to Now is at the Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne until 21st January 2018. Entry is free.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Gather Ye Chestnuts

With time to kill whilst one of my kids was engaged in Sunday morning sporting activities in Waldron, I took a stroll up towards Cross-In-Hand and stopped off at Selwyns Wood Nature Reserve, run by the Sussex Wildlife Trust. With a dog in tow, the 30-acre wood was perfect for a Sunday morning walk and I seemed to have it all to myself; in the 40 minutes it took me to make a circuit, I saw no-one.

Sloping down to a ghyll stream at its centre, the wood has a network of narrow winding paths under the cover of a dense canopy of trees. Up above is home to the usual woodland birds - willow warbler, chiffchaff, nuthatch and marsh tit; down below, the area around the stream attracts dragonflies and, especially at this time of year, various species of fungi.

Elsewhere, the forest floor was covered with burrs from the sweet chestnut trees that, along with beech, seem to dominate. I prised open a few of the spiky capsules to reveal the glory of the shiny, dark brown nuts inside. This immediately sent me back in time: eating roasted chestnuts sold from a brazier on late Saturday afternoons in the autumn and winter was one of the joys of going to watch football when I was a kid; and in the more recent past, taking my own kids to Greenwich Park on Sunday afternoons and seeing members of the local Chinese community gathering chestnuts for a more sophisticated culinary use was a heart-warming sight.

Back in Selwyns Wood it was not all autumnal damp and dark: coming up from the stream, the path suddenly opened out into daylight to reveal an area of heather, glowing brightly purple in the October morning sun. I sat on a rudimentary bench and soaked up the rays for a time before plunging back into the wood to add to my pocketful of chestnuts. If it's cold enough to light the stove tonight, the kids might get to sample a taste from my childhood.

Selwyns Wood Nature Reserve, Fir Grove Road, Cross-In-Hand, TN21 0QN

Friday, September 29, 2017

Something Special

Facing a three-way clash on the Saturday afternoon at the recent End of the Road festival, I used Luke Rhinehart's The Dice Man method of making a choice and ended up seeing all of Bill Ryder-Jones, most of Nadine Shah but none of DUDS. I bitterly regretted missing out on the Mancunian band, whose 2016 EPs, Unfit For Work and Wet Reduction, I had heard on Marc Riley's show. However, on returning from the festival I found out they were playing in Brighton in a mere few weeks, so all was not lost.

That date rolled around last night and I went off to the Green Door Store expecting to hear the quirky guitars and skittering post-punk rhythms of their previous output. I was not disappointed: there was clear evidence in their sound of angular bands like early XTC and Scritti Politti; but what I was not expecting was how dynamic their stage performance would be and how their music seems to have moved on in the past 12 months. To begin with, they have expanded from a band of four to a seven-piece, incorporating vocals, two guitars, bass, drums, percussion, trumpet and cornet; also, they massed on the tiny stage all dressed in identical dark grey short sleeve shirts and trousers, making them seem like a gang and creating an imposing presence; and the sheer ferocity of the playing took the breath away.

With the expansion of the band, DUDS' sound has developed into a full-on dissonant No Wave experience. Incredibly tight, the bass, drums and percussion were a rhythmic assault and the discordant guitars and blasting brass gave no let-up: with no song longer than a couple of minutes, their brief and relentless - and encoreless set - left the audience exhausted and in no doubt they had witnessed something special.

They finished with No Remark, the opening track of their just-released album, Of A Nature Or Degree (12 tracks, 23 minutes). I picked up a copy at the merch stall afterwards and, chatting to the band, it came as no surprise that their music is characterised by short bursts of rhythmical energy when they cited The Contortions, Blurt and Wire as influences.

Of A Nature Or Degree is out now on Castle Face Records.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Day of the Hunters

A few Saturdays ago, residents of the village where I live were woken early in the morning by the roar of 4 x 4 engines and the clatter of horses’ hooves. Not unusual sounds in the countryside but it was the multiplicity of the vehicles and the mounts that disturbed the sleep of so many: the hunt had arrived. By the time I was out walking my dogs, members of the East Sussex and Romney Marsh (ESRM) hunt were gathered on local farm land, with hounds, preparing to hunt. They were not alone: a group of protestors from the South Coast Hunt Saboteurs were there to monitor their activities.

When hunting with dogs was made illegal in 2005, hunt associations invented trail hunting as a means of continuing to operate. Trail hunting involves hounds - still trained to follow live quarry - following an animal-based scent in areas where the presence of live quarry is likely. In its 2015 report, Trail of Lies, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) concluded that trail hunting is overwhelmingly being used as a smokescreen to continue illegal hunting. Detailing evidence from over 4,000 field reports by hunt monitors, the report said that most hunts were not even bothering to lay a trail and were encouraging hounds to hunt live animals and claiming any kills as accidents. The IFAW report concluded that “trail hunting is primarily a false alibi to avoid prosecutions of illegal hunting, rather than a harmless temporary simulation of hunting before the ban.” At its Annual General Meeting next month, the National Trust will vote on a resolution to end the practice of granting licences for trail hunting on its land. The proposers cite evidence that illegal hunting is taking place on the Trust’s land under the guise of trail hunting. You do not have to attend the AGM to support the resolution; I have just supported it by returning my postal proxy vote and all National Trust members can do the same by 13th October.

It goes without saying that fox hunting is ritualistic cruelty and this anachronism was rightly outlawed by The Hunting Act 2004. However, it seems that it is still taking place and the South Coast Hunt Saboteurs claim that the ESRM were cub hunting when they were in my village earlier this month - the riders were certainly wearing the tweed jackets associated with this type of hunting. Cub hunting is particularly barbaric: young foxes are flushed out of woodland coverts and hunted down by young hounds as part of their training. Even in the hunting world cub hunting is a sordid secret and is given the sanitised title of ‘autumn hunting.’

There was much discussion on our village social media forum after the visit of the ESRM. Of the comments criticising the hunt, some were from principled opponents of hunting but many were from villagers who were simply put out by the inconvenience of the hunt’s arrival in the village: noise, traffic and disruption. But hunting was always about authority and asserting the right to ride roughshod over ordinary folk. However, there was support for the hunt on the forum; people spoke of upholding tradition and the threat to long-established rural ways. And then things got nasty and the administrator closed and deleted the thread as comments from some of the hunt supporters had become abusive and aggressive; well, there you go.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

At the End of the Road

You know a festival is going to be bloody great when the Thursday evening warm-up acts are so good they could easily suffice as the final night line-up. The Wave Pictures/Slow Club supergroup, The Surfing Magazines, get things going nicely in the Tipi Tent with amiable Dave Tattersall’s frantic bluesy guitar work before we dash off to catch The Moonlandingz stomping it up all over The Woods stage. Back in the Tipi Tent Bo Ningen are utterly mesmerising: I have seen the Japanese noise monsters before but at Dorset's End of the Road the frenzy they whip the audience into is without precedent.

The sun was shining brightly at the Garden Stage at lunchtime the next day but Julie Byrne was being a bit precious about some sound problems and played only a truncated set. This was a shame as her album of delicate folk, Not Even Happiness, has been one of the most played at our house this year. A bit later on the same stage, Ryley Walker had no such problems and delivered a blistering set of freeform folk jazz. His band, particularly the bassist, were full of energy and I suspect Walker himself was full of “pints of beer the size of your arm” that he expressed his love of. Over in the Big Top, Aldous Harding’s gothic folk was captivating but the lure of Parquet Courts was too much as their Modern Lovers/Velvet Underground New York sound drifted across the site. Mac DeMarco was the Friday night headliner but I found it difficult to concentrate during the Canadian singer-songwriter’s set as my mind kept drifting back to the band I had just seen in the Tipi Tent. Housewives, a young South London five-piece, were late replacements for Mdou Moctar, who could not appear due to visa problems. They played a bewilderingly intense set of experimental music that left the audience reeling. Their disrupted time signatures and sonic weirdness was one of the best things over the weekend and I can only compare their performance to This Heat, who I saw at the ICA in the early 80s.

Saturday dawned with clear blue skies and a shimmering heat haze and Sinkane, with their blend of afrobeat and reggae, got us all dancing. But I had a horrible dilemma hanging over me: with Bill Ryder-Jones, Nadine Shah and DUDS all playing at the same time I was spoilt for choice. In the end, I caught all of Ryder-Jones' set before legging it up to the Garden Stage to catch most of Nadine Shah; I missed DUDS but, fortuitously, they are playing Brighton later this month. Bill Ryder-Jones was immaculate: playing intimate, tender songs on the largest stage at the festival takes some guts but, mixed with powerful slacker anthems such as Two to Birkenhead and Catherine and Huskisson, he pulled it off - must be time for a new album, though, Bill. Three albums in, Nadine Shah is firmly in her stride: Holiday Destination, which made up the bulk of her set, is a jagged slice of post-punk anger about the xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment that seems to define the modern world. By the time I got into the shade of the Big Top stage, I realised that the heat of the day had caused me to visit the cider bus a few too many times. Let’s Eat Grandma were two teenage Kate Bushes let loose in the music cupboard and were very entertaining. Saturday night wrapped up for me at the main stage with Ben Bridwell’s Band of Horses, the perfect band for that twilight moment at a festival: in the fading light, spine-tingling melodies and harmonies rang out across the site on numbers such as St. Augustine, Is There A Ghost, No One’s Gonna Love You, Funeral and, standout track from this year’s Are You Ok? album, In A Drawer.

I was woken on Sunday morning by the patter of tiny raindrops on my tent and, from then on, the drizzle never really went away. But if clothes and boots were damp, spirits were not. A band completely new to me, Nova Scotia’s Nap Eyes, were a delight on the Garden Stage. Their lo-fi guitars and post-punk drums were the perfect canvas for Nigel Chapman’s weary Lou Reed vocals. Nadia Reid’s folk was mature and hypnotic but she still has to sell a lot more tea towels and tote bags to be able to bring over more of her band from New Zealand than just guitarist Sam Taylor. The Tipi Tent was a lock-out for teenage (mostly) girl band Girl Ray, and deservedly so. Their infectious indie-pop melodies lifted everyone’s mood and their set was as fantastic as their album; Don’t Come Back At Ten must be one of the tracks of the year. I was eating my final Goan fish curry of the festival when The Jesus and Mary Chain came on but their white light drew me down to The Woods stage. The resurgence of the Mary Chain has been one of the highlights of the year and the once contrary band now seem like elder statesman of alternative rock. Jim Reid oozes effortless charm (“I hope we’ve been able to cheer you up a bit”) as brother William and his guitar are lost in a Spectoresque wall of sound. Nine Million Rainy Days was apt, Just Like Honey was timeless and the opening line of the closing song was perfect for the captive audience at this superb festival: “I love rock 'n' roll/And all these people with nowhere to go.” I wouldn't be anywhere else; I have already bought my ticket for next year.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Border Control

I am in a cottage garden steadily cutting my way through overgrown hazel and hawthorn to re-establish a path that runs along the back of the property. The garden overlooks a field of ripening squash; on the distant horizon, a large dairy herd is lazily chewing grass; the sun is shining and I can feel its late August warmth on my face. I am working outdoors and it is idyllic; I couldn't be happier.

There are, of course, some downsides: rain is forecast tomorrow and I am due to be clearing stinging nettles for someone who has lost control of their borders; I am using some slightly scary and intimidating machinery; I know that, come next month and the one after, wetter weather will appear and the work will become harder and then it will dry up altogether for the winter.

However, I have spent a working lifetime in offices and classrooms and the claustrophobia has overcome me. In a world that has become increasingly complex and hard to fathom out, the pleasure I derive from simply trimming a hedge, strimming a verge or cutting back summer's faded blooms is infinite.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Mellow Vibes

I have stopped rubbing my eyes when I see who's playing at the De La Warr Pavilion, these days; such is the venue's ability to attract artists - Television, Public Image Limited, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Nelly - who seem at odds with the image of Bexhill-on-Sea as a seaside retirement town, that I am no longer surprised when the likes of Nashville alt-country legends Lambchop roll in to town. Kurt Wagner's loose collective were a distinctly country outfit until the Nixon album of 2000 earned them critical acclaim in this country and the addition of that audience-broadening 'alt' prefix (man, how I hate that 'alt' abbreviation in the current political climate).

Last night, Lambchop were not so much a collective as a trio with Matt Swanson on bass, Tony Crow on piano and wisecracks ("He's from Kansas." "I'm not in Kansas anymore!") and Wagner himself on occasional guitar, drum programming and vocals. On the sleeve notes of last year's album, FLOTUS (not Michelle Obama but an acronym of For Love Often Turns Us Still), one of Wagner's credits was for 'vocal processing' and many of the tracks featured a treated version of his tender voice. Most of the set last night was taken from FLOTUS and the vocoder was much in evidence; it fits perfectly with Lambchop's current sound, which has developed into a repetitive laid-back groove that could be termed soul but would best be described as unique.

Opening with Writer, the set also featured Old Masters and a truncated version of superb eighteen-minute album closer, The Hustle. There were treats from other albums, too, including 2B2 from 2012's Mr. M with it's wry observation, "Yeah, I think it's England/ the dogs they bark at no one". It was an evening of gorgeous mellow vibes and they returned for two more songs by way of an encore. Wagner asked for requests and refused Up With People ("no chance of that until we get a new President") but granted My Blue Wave from Is A Woman, their best album according to my mate, Dave. As if to doff a baseball cap to their soulful antecedents, they finished with an intimate cover of Prince's 1980 song, When You Were Mine.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Courgette Cornucopia

A few years ago, a friend of ours started to behave strangely. Towards the end of the summer term, she would hover around the gates at school pick-up time searching out faces she knew and then thrusting packages into their hands. We would often open our front door to find these packages left, unbidden, on our doorstep. In the summer holidays, even our kids would return from playing at her house with her children, laden down. We would catch sight of her in the village 'cooeeing' friends from a distance as they scuttled into homes and shops. People started avoiding her. We started avoiding her. The thing is, you can only have so many courgettes - and we had enough of our own. What our friend had done was start a vegetable garden at home and, being a novice, plant twelve - yes, twelve - courgette plants. Unable to keep up with the courgette cornucopia, she had been pushed to the brink in trying to find good homes for her produce.

It is a familiar feeling for even experienced home or allotment vegetable growers. A glut is always a risk in a good growing year and courgettes, in particular, have become something of a standing joke. However, getting the plants up and running is not always straightforward. Courgettes can sometimes suffer from germination problems but, providing seeds are not too old and are not subjected to extremes of temperature or moisture, it's hard to fail at this stage. So already there are too many plants and the temptation is to plant out more than are needed to insure against failure. Poor weather, especially high winds in May, can damage young plants and dry spells present difficulties, too: courgettes require plenty of water as well as sunshine to succeed. Pollination can also be a problem when honeybees are not as active in bad weather. One year, I had to hand-pollinate my courgette plants by rubbing the pollen-bearing anthers of a male flower into the centre of a female flower; I didn't know where to look.

This year, we may think we are having a rubbish summer because of the poor weather of the past few weeks but we had a warm May and a flaming June and above average rainfall in both and, as a result, courgette plants are thriving: we currently have a continuous crop from the three plants in our vegetable garden that is just about right for a family of five - but it still feels like we are eating a lot of courgettes. Regular harvesting and consuming is the key and, to get the full benefit of the fruit's flavour, courgettes should be picked when they are not much bigger than a Mars bar. We stumbled across a recipe book by Elaine Borish a few years ago called, What Will I Do With All Those Courgettes?, which has proved invaluable. At the moment, we are eating a lot of vegetable curry, which utilises the courgettes and some of our second early potatoes and also takes care of that other glut we are trying to manage: runner beans.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Postcards With An Edge

Vintage postcards seem to be a thing these days: no bric-a-brac stall or antique shop is complete without a box of random postcards from the second half of the last century to thumb through and intrude on the past life of people we have never met; Tom Jackson's Twitter account and recently published book, Postcard From The Past, features a series of front images, each accompanied by a very funny Victoria Wood-esque sentence - "Went to see Connie in her new bungalow", "The sight of my box made me homesick for you", "It's all lager and cigars here", etc - from the message on the reverse; and now, tucked away in the first floor gallery at the De La Warr Pavilion, is Roy Voss's delightful exhibition of postcard collages, All The World's A Sunny Day.

Displayed in linear fashion around three walls, Voss's postcards have had a single word cut from the message, and then reversed, so that it appears at a seemingly random point in the front image. Sometimes the word relates literally to the picture, as in 'long' on a postcard of the world's longest pier at Southend-on-Sea, and sometimes a pair or series of cards form a more allusive narrative. I enjoyed the humour of the words 'trip' and 'fall' on postcards of the Matterhorn and Snowdon, respectively, and because of its local interest I was drawn to the dark edge given to adjacent Beachy Heads with the addition of the word 'on' at the cliff top on one, and 'off' at its foot on the other. In fact, Voss seemed to favour prepositions with 'up', 'down', 'over' and 'out' appearing on several images in the exhibition.

As Voss has used postcards from 1960 to 1980, the images had a youthful familiarity for me and I may be guilty of rosy nostalgia for a means of communication that seems to be coming to an end; but the exhibition also resonated less happily with me because of the memory of having to force out every single word on those postcards I was made to write to relatives on childhood holidays.

All The World's A Sunny Day is at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea until 8th Ocober 2017.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Engels in Eastbourne

In August 1895, the ashes of Friedrich Engels, co-author of The Communist Manifesto with his friend Karl Marx, were scattered into the sea from the top of Beachy Head at Eastbourne. This may seem surprising given that the philosopher, writer and businessman is more associated with Manchester, having lived there between 1842 and 1870, broken only by a five-year European spell in Paris, Brussels and Cologne.

Engels, born in Germany in 1820, was the eldest son of a textiles manufacturer. His wealthy father sent him to England to work in one of the family factories with the hope that exposure to the world of business would rein in some of his liberal political views; it had the opposite effect.

In Manchester, he met a young working class woman, Mary Burns, whose radical opinions were to be an influence on Engels. Burns was his guide to the slums of the city and enabled him to write The Condition of the Working Class in England. Published by Marx in 1845, it exposed the grim effects of capitalism. Engels and Burns stayed together until her death in 1863. They never married as they were both opposed to what they saw as a bourgeois institution.

In 1870, Engels relocated to London where Marx already lived and the two worked on Das Kapital, the masterpiece of Communist philosophy. It was in this stage of Engels’ life that his association with Eastbourne began. The two friends were great enjoyers of the Victorian seaside and they visited many resorts. Margate, Ramsgate and the Isle of Wight were all regular destinations but Eastbourne was where Engels holidayed for extended periods during the summers after he had retired from business. He often stayed at 4 Cavendish Place, just opposite the pier, and it was here that he spent the last few weeks of his life on doctor’s orders before briefly returning to London to succumb to throat cancer. Of all the places Engels had lived, Eastbourne was his favourite and his last wish was that his ashes be scattered there.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Woodlanders

In the summer of 1969, a young Sussex filmmaker took up residence in a van in a wood at Swanbrook, near Chiddingly. He was there to film a family - the Pages - who lived in an isolated and ramshackle house that had no electricity or running water. The head of the family was Mr Page, a gnomic man in his seventies, who lived with his four grown-up children - two boys and two girls - and earned a living repairing old farm machinery with his sons. His daughters kept house, such as it was, gardened and played musical instruments.

The 65-minute documentary that Phillip Trevelyan finally completed in 1971, The Moon and the Sledgehammer, offers a fascinating glimpse into a way of life that was already long dead when Trevelyan befriended the family having heard of them through an acquaintance. The film is shot using natural light, which gives it a magical, otherworldly quality; it has no narrator but is instead voiced with the family members’ answers to Trevelyan’s interview questions. However, Mr ‘Oily’ Page is its star and it is his expression of his rejection of modern technology and loyalty to traditional tools and mechanics that provides the film’s title – the first moon landing was a contemporaneous event.

The family’s self-sufficiency and woodland life seems idyllic and the film has acquired a cult following for its back-to-the-land ethos but there is a sense from some of Oily’s children that life was passing them by and they longed for escape. After Mr Page and his eldest son had died, the daughters were moved into social housing in the 1980s, leaving the remaining son to cling on in the wood. What has become of them now is not known; it is thought that, just like their simple existence, they have not survived into the 21st century.

The film and a documentary about its making are both available on DVD here.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Into the Blue

Stephen Black, otherwise known as Sweet Baboo, tells a very complicated tale of the opening number of his set at the Prince Albert pub: it was originally called Wild Imagination and was the title track of the new album; but Moshi Moshi hated it so much they wanted it left off. So Sweet Baboo retitled another song Wild Imagination, but he is playing the original on tour just to spite the record company. I can’t remember the new title of the original song but it was about trying to persuade Black’s three-year-old son to leave the house more and embrace the outdoors. Are you following this?

This deadpan comic explanation is typical of Black’s between-songs ramblings as he tells us about the space bongo - “people have been going wild for the space bongo” - played by multi-instrumentalist Rob Jones and how the band have slimmed down from a six-piece to three since their last tour. To compensate, he says, they have crammed the stage with equipment; as well as the keyboards and guitars Black and Jones have, there is another Jones - Paul - surrounded by more keyboards than Kraftwerk had between them at the Brighton Centre last week. When things go wrong - as they do a few times - it is all dealt with with good-natured forebearence and a lightning quick catchphrase, "ten years in the biz".

There are some excellent tracks played from Wild Imagination that show the sophistication of the arrangements, the simplicity of the sentiments expressed and the emotion of Stephen Black’s voice. The beautiful Swallows, with its plaintive refrain of “Oh, won’t you come back to me?”, is contrasted with the funk of Pink Rainbow; and songs such as Wild Imagination (the newly titled one) and Badminton capture the bittersweet essence of the Sweet Baboo sound from the previous two albums.

There is a trio of songs from those albums: the glorious Swimming Wild and If I Died from 2013's Ships and the sublime Walking in the Rain from The Boombox Ballads, the track that first caught my ear when I saw Sweet Baboo at the Green Man festival in 2015. However, the stand-out song last night was Clear Blue Skies from the new album. Formless and abstract, it rolls along, swelling and falling, with shimmering and mournful guitars underpinning a lyric of hope and sorrow: "let's rise/ into clear blue skies/ far from home/ clear clear blue/ let's not worry about tomorrow".

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Only Human

Gigs in big venues with prices to match are not where I usually find myself but, thanks to a spare ticket and the largesse of a good friend, yesterday evening I was in a very long queue to see Kraftwerk at the Brighton Centre. The anti-tout requirement for ID to verify named tickets, coupled with increased security searches in the current climate, meant the line snaked all the way to the rear of the venue; but it was a good-humoured queue and we ended up sharing bottles of Becks with a man from Hamburg and his grown-up kids. Very fitting.

A Kraftwerk performance is not an ordinary gig: seated in orderly rows, all wearing our 3D specs with faces raised towards the giant backdrop screen that dwarfs the band, when I glanced back we looked like a congregation come to worship. Calling Kraftwerk a ‘band’ hardly seems appropriate: arranged in a line across the front of the stage, the German quartet resemble operatives on a production line. And on the far left is the foreman, the septuagenarian Ralf Hutter, the only remaining original member since Florian Schneider stood down in 2008.

Having never seen Kraftwerk perform before, it was thrilling to experience those unique sounds in a live setting: the sub-bass was like a punch in the solar plexus and those familiar and much-sampled motifs from Trans Europe Express, Numbers and others were a joy to hear. I was delighted that all bar one of the tracks from 1978’s The Man-Machine LP were played: the title track, Spacelab, The Model, the beautifully evocative Neon Lights and The Robots make this, in my view, Kraftwerk’s outstanding album. Others will disagree, I am sure: there was a lot of warmth in the room for the quintet of tracks from 1981’s Computer World, if that doesn’t sound too oxymoronic, and Autobahn and Tour De France were greeted with cheers.

The 3D graphics were superb and when the curtain reopened for the first encore, The Robots, the band had been replaced by animatronic doppelgangers. Ralf’s, obstinately not programmed in the same way as the other three, stood motionless for the most part and only came to life sporadically to throw some limited shapes. When the curtain failed to close at the end of the track, we were treated to the sight of the showroom dummies being manually removed from the stage. It was a timely reminder that, for all Kraftwerk's automative imagery, they are only human and there are people behind this peerless music.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Waving Flags

The Welsh poet Owen Sheers' 2005 poem, Flag, has an epigraph from Christopher Logue's Professor Tucholsky's Facts. It reads:

'Each man had a liver, a heart, a brain,
and a Flag.
These were his vital organs.
On these his life depended.'

I am not familiar with Logue's poem but in those four lines he encapsulates the burning need for nationalism that is all-defining for some. Sheers' poem goes on, in a form reminiscent of Larkin's Whitsun Weddings, to chart increasing sightings of the Welsh flag from a westbound train. Sheers expresses both pride - "our flag" - and disappointment - "dreams of what might have been" - in his national identity but what is more interesting about the poem is the disparate places he sees the red dragon. We are used to national flags on public buildings - "glimpsed above a town hall" - but Sheers spots them "strung up on bunting...on the flat end wall of a Swansea gym...tied to the side of a SNAX caravan." It struck a chord with me because, not only have I noticed that any lay-by fast food van seems to be obliged to fly the Union Flag as it dispenses tea and burgers to the travelling public, but there seems to be an epidemic of domestic flagpoles in East Sussex.

There are not many villages in my part of the world where there is not at least one national flag being flown from a twenty-foot flagstaff in a front garden. In the centre of Cowbeech there is a cluster of three homes each with Union Flags atop pristine white poles; I am unsure whether this a demonstration of their patriotism or simply to let the neighbours know that, like the Queen, they are at home. In Pevensey, the Union Flags are complemented by many St. George's Crosses and, in Hailsham, the latter has been painted onto the entire end wall of a terrace of houses; this may be a football hangover from Euro 2016 or the owner could just be showing off on Google Earth.

Whether the increase in English flag-flying has been prompted by the rise of nationalism in Scotland and Wales in the wake of devolution, I am not sure. The spread of British flags could be a response to the fragile state of the Union but it is more than likely an expression of anti-EU sentiment and an affirmation of British identity in a post-referendum age. Whatever the reasons, I have to confess to feeling troubled rather than stirred by the sight of these flags. This is a shame but, their appropriation by the National Front in the 1970s and 80s, and the English Defence League more recently, have tarnished them in my mind.

The flag-flying is not all bad, however. There are a couple of houses that I pass daily where the owners seem to have an ever-changing supply of international standards - each day presents some sort of Boy's Own test in identifying flags of the world. But whilst one house has flown the rainbow flag on the day of Brighton Pride, the other was sporting a 'Trump for President' banner last November, an action that could not even be redeemed by their sympathetic flying of a Hartlepool United flag the day the County Durham team were relegated from the Football League.

Although Wemmick tells Pip, in Great Expectations, that he "runs up a real flag...and cuts off the communication" when he is at home, the practice of domestic flag-flying is something that seems to have been imported from the United States. There, however, the Stars and Stripes is enshrined in American life by a ritual - "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America" - recited daily in schools and government institutions. Ours is an old country and I think we will never see such widespread displays of national pride because we are a people who are too relaxed and recalcitrant. A pair of flags I enjoy passing by most of all are flown, I am sure, in precisely that spirit and are on display to puncture the whole puffed-up patriotism of domestic flag-flying: in Maynards Green there is a house that has a large Smiley flag at the top of its flagpole and on the road into Battle there is a lonely cottage that regularly flies the Jolly Roger.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sign of the Times

I had just put up my Labour sign for the County Council elections when the General Election was announced; with such a lack of awareness of local democracy amongst my neighbours, I am sure most of them thought I was just very keen to show my colours for June 8th. My hunch was proved correct when one of them asked where my "Labour thing" had gone after I had taken it down following the East Sussex vote for a respectful period ahead of the Westminster poll. In truth, I was glad to take the sign down - I wasn't looking forward to a General Election: the Conservatives' opinion poll lead seemed unassailable, Theresa May was positioning herself as Iron Lady II and they were set to put Jeremy Corbyn's perceived weaknesses front and centre of their campaign.

Against the odds, however, things started to change: Corbyn immediately looked relaxed and popular on the campaign trail in comparison to May's stilted and staged awkwardness; Labour produced a superb manifesto that promised to scrap tuition fees, protect pensioners and put more police on the streets - and it set out how corporations and the richest would pay for these policies; the Tories produced an uncosted dose of medicine born of the arrogance of a massive poll lead. Reaction was bad to their dementia tax, May u-turned and then lied about it: "Nothing's changed," she snapped at the journalists who had dared voice their derision. May looked weak and wobbly and Labour started to narrow the Tories' lead. Even the hiatus prompted by the terrible events in Manchester has not halted Labour's momentum (no pun intended); they have continued to close in on the Tories in the opinion polls with 24 a point lead now whittled down to single digits.

Be assured the Tories will throw everything at Labour in the final 10 days of the campaign - not about their popular policies but about Corbyn's strength to deal with immigration, terrorism and, of course, Brexit. Expect a desperate Tory campaign to focus on what they see as Labour's glass jaw - the manifesto has less to say on Brexit than other issues; but the die has been cast on our membership of the EU and it would have been a brave Labour leader who bucked the prevailing mood in its heartlands and stood on a platform of reversing the, albeit slim, decision of last June. Although the terms under which we separate from Europe are important, what is more important for Labour in power is to stop the dismantling of the welfare state and the assault on those on low and average incomes through poor employment conditions and frozen pay. If the Leave vote was an anguished howl of pain from 'the left behind', and the Conservatives are intent on delivering Brexit to satisfy them, there will be hell to pay in the wake of a Tory victory when ordinary people realise they are still no better off and quitting the world's second largest economy was not the silver bullet they thought it would be. A Labour government will deal with the lack of funding and investment that is the real issue that affects the marginalised. My sign is back up now.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Wild Abandon

When Sussex Sedition was a physical fanzine written by people other than just me, we had only one editorial policy: all pieces were to be celebratory; there was enough of the negative written word in the world, we decided, and we strived to only be positive. Continuing on my own with this blog, that has been difficult when it comes to politics but in the case of music it has been easier to toe the line: on the rare occasion I have been to a bad gig, I have simply not reviewed it, despite the still-burning desire to share my thoughts on a Jenny Hval performance in Brighton a couple of years ago. That said, I went to Thee Oh Sees gig at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill last night not expecting to write a review.

I have struggled for the past year to share the enthusiasm of friends, music writers and 6 Music presenters to understand the band’s appeal. I am as one with Marc Riley on most things but when I hear Thee Oh Sees on his radio show it sounds as though it is 1973 all over again – like punk never happened. I am immediately transported back to a time when my sister’s boyfriend lived at our house and would blast out his awful King Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator LPs. “You have to see Thee Oh Sees live to fully appreciate them” was the standard response to my complaints and so, when the band’s quickly sold-out Brighton show was transferred to my favourite local venue, I and a couple of other sceptics snapped up some tickets. In truth, I went to bury Thee Oh Sees, not to praise them.

However, even before the Californian band began their set last night, I knew that I was going to have to eat my words. With two drummers front and centre of the stage flanked by leader John Dwyer on guitar and vocals and Tim Hellman on bass, I could feel my sternum weakening when they were only going through their last minute sound level checks. When they began proper, it was an all-out punk rock assault; the energy was ferocious and there was an atmosphere of wild abandon that prompted crowd surfing, the like of which I have never seen before at the De La Warr.

With Dan Rincon and !!!’s Paul Quattrone the dual drummers, this was the line-up that made 2016’s two albums, the band’s 17th and 18th in a 20-year existence, A Weird Exits and An Odd Entrances. What was surprising last night was there was barely a hint of the heavy prog overtones I had heard in their recorded output; instead, it was like Nuggets played by Johnny Moped with a hint of Warsaw and late Stone Roses thrown in. Dwyer used his strapped-high see-through guitar like a machine gun and, in a red and black striped jumper and cut-down jeans, looked like he was menacing the rest of the band to keep up with him.

It was a brilliant no-nonsense performance although, with little between-songs interaction, I have no idea what tracks they played; but as the 75-minutes without encore came to a close, my sympathy was with the drummers who were just showing the faintest signs of fatiguing at the merciless pace. Leaving the venue as converts, we hit the fresh air outside only to realise that the atmosphere and pace had also driven on our drinking at a similarly frenetic tempo.

Monday, May 1, 2017

On the Ballot

"We are now trying to build a Labour Party branch in my village – seven members and counting – with the modest aim of making sure there is always a Labour candidate on ballot papers. More importantly, it is vital that other views are always heard, even in these conservative rural areas."

I wrote the above words in May 2015 in the aftermath of the general and local elections. Labour had lost the former, but had not even managed to put up a candidate in the latter in my area of Herstmonceux. That was when a small group of new, re-joining and established Labour members started to have monthly 'Politics in the Pub' meetings. These informal gatherings were open to newcomers as well and, from this, we managed to dramatically increase membership in the village. Of course, there were one or two high-profile national events in the Labour Party that local membership levels benefited from at the time, too.

Last year, we joined with a neighbouring area and managed to form the Heathfield and Herstmonceux Branch of the Labour Party. And this week, we have one of the original members of the group on the ballot paper in the East Sussex County Council elections in the Wealden East division, which covers Herstmonceux. Our branch also has one of its members standing in the Heathfield and Mayfield division and, across East Sussex, Labour is contesting all bar one of the council divisions. For a largely rural and conservative area, this represents progression.

In reality, chances of success in these elections is confined to electoral divisions in Hastings and Bexhill; but what is important is that we have been able to deliver leaflets, meet people on the doorstep and outside supermarkets, listen to them and communicate Labour's core message of our ambition for a fairer society and the need to protect essential services in health, housing and education.

In two year's time there will be another round of district council elections and, between then and now, we will be moving on from our original modest aim by working hard on the concerns of ordinary people at the most local level so that, next time around, we can represent them.

There are Labour Party candidates in the Wealden East and Heathfield & Mayfield divisions, respectively, for the East Sussex County Council elections on 4th May.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Never Stop

Danny Baker never stops. Over three hours onstage at the Royal Hippodrome Theatre in Eastbourne last weekend, with his Cradle to the Stage show, and he barely gets beyond his primary school years and a handful of reminiscences about great comedians he came across in the 80s. But then he has never stopped: nascent scribblings for Sniffin' Glue, a stint at the NME, yoof documentaries, prime time television shows, comedy writing, ground-breaking radio shows and, most recently, autobiography and its subsequent sitcom serialisation. Transferring the raw material from his autobiographies to a stand-up show was supposed to be his swansong before he retires to the Florida Keys but another tour is already booked for next year so that, despite his many digressions ("Now, here's a thing..."), he can at least get onto his adult life proper.

Once he actually starts his routine - we have a very engaging half-hour preamble about why he's actually doing the show - Baker tells warm and funny anecdotes about his dad, Spud, and family life in Bermondsey. These are extensions of the excellent Cradle to the Grave TV show and are all told with Danny's familiar amphetamine delivery: never missing a beat, never drawing a breath. There are great stories about kids and fireworks, insurance burglaries and his dad's general resourcefulness in always chasing the next pound note to provide for the family. It all paints a picture of life on a south-east London council estate in the 50s and 60s which stays just the right side of nostalgic. But when he mentions his mum's jobs at Shuttleworths and Peek Freans, I can't help but feel a little sentimental: my dad worked at Peek Freans when I was a kid and, such were the employee perks, that I was a teenager before I saw what an unbroken biscuit looked like.

After the interval, when he does move on to his career, he attributes his breaks to "dumb luck" - being in the right place at the right time and having perfect recall. Working on The 6 O'Clock Show, his forensic knowledge of obscure past routines enables him to make instant connections with irascible comedians Spike Milligan and Kenneth Williams when the pros around him are floundering. His love of comedy shines through: he talks about Max Miller albums as being more important to him than the contemporary pop music he and his friends were listening to growing up, and he seems genuinely in awe of the fact that he is on a stage where Miller once trod the boards.

He is a marvellous raconteur and, despite claiming to be out of his realm of experience, a natural performer. In fact, his avowal that he is new to the stage is not true: the first time I ever heard of Danny Baker was reading an account in the August 1977 Sniffin' Glue of him jumping up onstage at the Vortex the night Elvis Presley died to berate the punks, who had cheered the news, for being disrespectful to a true rebel. Hopefully, we'll hear that story on next year's tour; but I'm not holding my breath.

Cradle to the Stage is at the Theatre Royal, Brighton on 30th April.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Still Shining

I first heard of the Jesus and Mary Chain in early 1984 but I didn't know it at the time. At a party in London, a Scottish hairdresser called Alan, who had recently moved to the capital from his home town of East Kilbride, told me about two brothers he knew of who spent most of their time in their bedrooms listening to the Velvet Underground and writing and recording songs. They hardly ever went out as even the littlest kids on their estate would shout abuse at them because of their black clothes, backcombed hair and sunglasses in all weathers; but, Alan told me, they had formed a band and, because they struggled to get gigs, they were moving to London. "They're going to be fucking massive," Alan said. If he told me their band name it didn't register; but the other details did - they sounded so appealing. And within a few months, another Alan had stumbled across them and by the end of the year - on the back of a wave of feedback and riot-strewn gigs - I, and everyone, knew the name of Jim and William Reid's band.

It's been a long and winding road from that controversial genesis to their current tour, which took in the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill under a warm April sky on Thursday night: a now-classic debut album that stayed close to their early principles; a follow up with melodic Top 30 hits; success in the USA in the early 90s; sibling hatred and a final album recorded on separate continents before an inevitable split as the millennium approached. Then, a live reformation in 2007 followed by a decade of intermittent and sporadic activity before an unlikely new album release this March, 19 years after the last. Damage and Joy may have been a long time in the making, and the new songs rub shoulders with tracks from 10-year-old side projects, but it all hangs together to make a cracking album.

The set opener, Amputation, is one of Jim's older songs, previously released online under a different title, but it could easily pass for mid-period Mary Chain, a time well represented here with seven songs from the albums Automatic and Honey's Dead. Jim takes sole responsibility for vocals and apologises in advance for his singing on Some Candy Talking as he finds it difficult. There is no need, as his deep world-weary tone sounds perfect. A man next to me complains that the vocals are being drowned out by the guitars. They always were, I say; that's the point. William spends the whole set bent over his guitar, his frizzy mop back-lit Eraserhead-style. With an additional guitarist in the line-up, they create quite a racket; it's loud but not loud enough the same man complains; this time I agree with him.

There is nothing from Stoned and Dethroned or Munki but the songs from Darklands sound magnificent, especially the hyperbolic gloom of Nine Million Rainy Days which starts off the encores; but the encores are all about Psychocandy with a quartet of songs from their debut kicking off with the peerless Just Like Honey. And then we end up where we started with the new album: War On Peace finishes a stellar gig as Jim Reid opines, "I once shone but now I'm old." They might be older but they're still shining.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Great Grandaddy

Jason Lytle seems a little grumpy: the leader of Californian alt-rock band Grandaddy isn't making much eye contact and he dismisses the audience's early attempts to engage him between songs with a curt, "we've got to get to know each other first." And standing behind his keyboard, which acts as a barrier squarely set centre stage and front, you would be forgiven for sensing an air of detachment; at one point he squats down and, still playing his guitar, completely disappears from view for a couple of minutes.

No matter; the music was outstanding at Concorde 2 in Brighton last night: the band's sound was full and rich and the selection of songs stretched from their debut album, Under the Western Freeway, to this year's Last Place. But it was two of the albums in between - The Sophtware Slump and Sumday - that provided tracks greeted most ecstatically by the crowd. Openers Hewlett's Daughter and The Crystal Lake prompted instant singalongs and, after an interlude of new material, He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's The Pilot enthused those there for trademark Grandaddy songs of grandiose emotional sweep, and Now It's On had the crowd bouncing along to its anthemic chug.

The new album, their first since the band split in 2006 before reforming again in 2012 to play some live dates, picks up where the band left off. Some reviews have levelled this as a criticism but I think the new material is excellent. Four of the stand-out tracks - The Way We Won't, Evermore, I Don't Wanna Live Here Anymore and The Boat is in The Barn - were aired last night. The latter, a heartbreaking tale of lost love - "getting rid of all of me is what I figured, delete deleting everything that had occurred, that's when I backed away and headed out without a word" - was one of two encores and the other, reflecting the twenty-year spread of material, was 1997's Summer Here Kids.

With a back projection of slow-filmed natural and industrial landscapes rolling throughout the set, it was a visual as well as sonic treat. And as the set wore on and Lytle's mood improved, it was clear that problems off-stage had been the cause. Whether it was the early curfew - he bemoaned the fact that Concorde 2 turns into "some sort of disco fuckfest" when the band have finished - or that something had been "fucked up", was not clear; but whatever it was, he was keen to reassure us that we "had been great." As had they.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Unknown Pleasures

Having grown up on a council estate in the south-eastern corner of the capital city and always been a lover of the urban environment, it was a surprise to me on moving to the East Sussex countryside a dozen years ago to realise that my appreciation of the cityscape had been overtaken by the feelings the rural aesthetic could inspire in me.

Whereas in the city it was those large-canvas sights - the twinkling lights of the office monoliths on the Isle of Dogs viewed from Greenwich Park, the sunset view up and downriver from Waterloo Bridge – that stirred me, in the countryside it is the smaller-scale that stimulates.

Not for me Arcadian pastoral vistas and roses-around-the-door villages much-loved by traditionalists and those who would seek to preserve the countryside in aspic; instead, it is those minor details, the simple pleasures that take me unawares: a gently curving bend in an undiscovered country lane that hints at promise around the corner; a house on a rising piece of land newly revealed behind a freshly-cut hedge; an abandoned piece of agricultural machinery in a field symbolising the power of nature in its relationship with man. And on a spring afternoon this weekend, a just-ploughed asparagus bed, with its deep shaded furrows and sunlit ridges streaming away from me, reminded me that, in this week of weeks, the horizon is filled with the unknown.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Musical Education

One of my kids gave me a 'proud parent' moment last week. This was not one of those sports day/nativity play/school report type of reasons for a feeling of puffed-up pride. No, this was altogether more prosaic but no less important in my eyes. My 12-year-old son was doing his homework in the kitchen and listening to music at the same time. Nothing remarkable in that but what caught my attention was the song that was coming out if his iPad: as he wrestled with his algebra, he was doing it to the soundtrack of All I Want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit by Half Man Half Biscuit. I could not have been more happy: this was real education. He told me that he had downloaded that track and Time Flies By (When You're a Driver of a Train) to his Deezer playlist (no, I don't know either). However, he had not discovered these songs entirely independently as, with an eagerly awaited Half Man Half Biscuit gig coming up, I had been playing the Birkenhead band a lot lately; but it was nice to know that my children listen even if it's not to the "hang-up-your-clothes-and-tidy-your-room" stuff.

On Friday night, the gig finally came around at the Assembly Hall in Worthing, a venue I had never been to before; not surprising I suppose, as the forthcoming attractions flyer I was handed on the way in indicated that its bread and butter is tribute bands and revival acts. The latter is not a term that could be applied to Half Man Half Biscuit: despite splitting up in 1986 after only being together two years, they reformed in 1990 and have been making music continuously ever since. Favourites of John Peel, Nigel Blackwell's band occupy a unique place in punk and post-punk music with a repetoire of songs that don't take themselves or anybody else at all seriously.

Drawing on the minutiae of celebrity culture, the set starts off with Bob Wilson Anchorman and soon moves further into singalong territory with Fuckin' 'Ell It's Fred Titmus. It's not all minor telly stars and sportsmen, though; Blackwell is a sharp satirist, too. The perfect Paintball's Coming Home is like a musical Martin Parr photograph in its biting observation: "they go ten pin bowling after work and they're getting married on a Caribbean beach...they've got a German Shepherd dog called Prince, the one called Sheba died." And we all join in on the pay-off line, "If I'd known they were coming, I'd have slashed me wrists." There is a warmth to Half Man Half Biscuit songs as well, albeit a nostalgic one. We get a glimpse into that world of broken Subbuteo players and dodgy Scalextric transformers on Dukla Prague and the title track from the Trumpton Riots EP plays on our childhood memories; and pretentiousness is punctured with the rousing Joy Division Oven Gloves, complete with oven glove waving from the audience.

Clever and funny as the lyrics are, it is all superbly underpinned by the band's sound. Neil Crossley (who incidentally is the spit of Dudley Sutton these days - I'm sure there's a song title in there somewhere) and his rumbling bass combines superbly with Blackwell's choppy rhythm guitar and Ken Hancock's ("the first man in Wallasey to have a continental quilt") lead guitar to create a powerful post-punk racket; and as if to confirm it, they play a raucous cover of Camper Van Beethoven's mid-80s classic, Take the Skinheads Bowling - another one for my son's musical education.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

White Light

Shuttling backwards and forwards to Eastbourne on Saturday, ferrying kids to various activities, I was struck by how different the light could be over a stretch of 10 miles. The faint amber glow of warm spring sunlight up on the ridge above the Pevensey Levels soon turned to a smoky haze on the marshes and then numerous shades of grey that blended sea and sky as I reached the misty coast. Later in the day, the sun had conquered all and the sky was iridescent violet and peach.

With light on my mind and time to kill before my final pick-up, I was able to pop in to the Towner and view its current exhibition, A Certain Kind of Light. I always enjoy the hour before closing at a gallery as you can usually have the space pretty much to yourself; yesterday was no exception. Bringing together artworks from over six decades, the exhibition shows how artists have explored various aspects of light, from its power as a source of energy and illumination to its transient and transformative nature.

If the range of responses is broad, so too is the diversity of form: encompassing sculpture, installation, video, photography and painting, the exhibition is a stimulating and satisfying experience. David Batchelor's Festdella, a festive tower of illuminated coloured plastic bottles, greets you at the door signalling the warm and celebratory quality of illumination. I spent 10 minutes at Anish Kapoor's untitled mirror trying to work out whether it had a flat surface that gave a three-dimensional illusion or its concavity actually penetrated the wall; the notes suggested the latter but whichever it was, there was a typically enigmatic depth to the work.

Rachel Whiteread's semi-translucent resin cubes are more an exploration of space than light; moulds of childhood hiding places under chairs, they are reminiscent of her 1993 work, House, that mourned the lost space of the interior of a demolished house. Kate Paterson's Totality, a mirrorball reflecting eclipses around the gallery space was disorientating, as was Runa Islam's video loop of a photographic negative of a woman's intense gaze.

More traditionally, I enjoyed Roger Ackling's patterns of sunlight burnt with a lens onto driftwood and TV Room, Paul Winstanley's almost photographic monochrome painting of light reflecting from the screen and ceiling in a deserted television room in a University of London hall of residence. Another painting that stood out was Elizabeth Magill's haunting study in oils, Without, a deserted and darkened landscape lit only by the stars in the night sky.

As the five-minutes-to-closing announcement was being made, I had just reached the final painting. L.S. Lowry was famed for his populated industrial landscapes of his native North-West, but in later life he crossed country to paint a series of seascapes inspired by the North Sea. Seascape 1965 contrasts the grey of the sea and sky with the bleached crests of the breaking waves and an intense white light that radiates out from the barely perceptible horizon. For all its desolation, the light seems to signify that hope is out there somewhere.

A Certain Kind of Light is at the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne until 7th May 2017; admission is free.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Back to the Future

The Congress Theatre in Eastbourne, the largest on the south coast with a 1700-seat capacity, closed its doors last month whilst it undergoes an interior renovation and the construction of an adjacent welcome building that will house the box office and bar. Due to be completed in late 2018, the refurbishment follows the recent £2 million 5-year overhaul of the exterior. Opened in 1963, this Grade II* listed building has reached a point in its life where it clearly needs some love and attention.

The architects of the building were brothers Bryan and Norman Westwood. Up until then, their Surrey practice had largely been designing laboratories for research institutions and shops, most significantly for long-term client Austin Reed. Such was their expertise in retail design that they produced the definitive text, The Modern Shop, in 1952. After this, they were involved in a wider range of projects that saw them design Liverpool University’s arts precinct, housing for the Greater London Council and the Congress Theatre. It was the Eastbourne theatre that Norman Westwood was said to be most proud of.

Designed in 1958, the Congress was described by the late British-based American architect Rick Mather as having a “Festival-Hall-meets-East-Berlin interior and a dour exterior.” However, it reflected the prevailing trend of the age and its glass, metal and concrete frame frontage are a perfect example of post-war Modernist architecture, whilst its rear elevation owes much to the Brutalist school. Inside, its three-level foyer and the moulded balcony fronts and concealed lighting of the auditorium do, as Mather said, create a Soviet-style atmosphere. Indeed, the last time I was there was to witness the cultural orthodoxy of Reeves and Mortimer.

I first went to the Congress when I was on holiday with my mum and dad at Pevensey Bay. The building would have only been seven or eight years-old then and I do remember it being an exciting and impressive sight for a child of roughly the same age: towering above me on a warm summer’s night, light shining out from its pellucid front, it looked like the future. When I moved to East Sussex permanently a dozen years ago, time had dimmed that memory and the Congress looked as though it was something from the distant past. Next year, hopefully, the future will be back.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Sussex in the City

The common assumption is that modernism belongs to the city: as a form and a concept, it is popularly thought that modernist art, writing and ideas are essentially a reflection of the urban experience. There are dissidents, however: in The Country and the City, the Welsh cultural academic Raymond Williams rejected the opposition of the country as a pastoral idyll and the city as the heart of modernity. For Williams, the divide was a myth and there was an inextricable link between the two; he considered modernism a single tradition expressing a sense of common experience.

A new exhibition in London, in a neo-Gothic mansion by the Thames, would seem to support this idea of a link between the country and the city. Focusing on the extraordinary concentration of artists and writers in Sussex in the early 20th century, Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion challenges the idea of the countryside as an Eden and, instead, presents an area that inspired the experimental and the unconventional.

Created by the Bulldog Trust and curated by Dr Hope Wolf of the University of Sussex, the exhibition contains works from the historical Sussex homes of artists such as Bloomsbury Group painters and designers Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant at Charleston, and the surrealist art and photography of Roland Penrose and Lee Miller at Farley Farm House in Chiddingly. Also featured is modernist art from the collections of Sussex galleries such as the Jerwood in Hastings and the Towner in Eastbourne, and museums at Ditchling and Brighton.

Many of the artists held and shared socialist beliefs and some saw Sussex as a retreat where they could rebel against traditional domesticity by living communally or alternatively. Sculptor Eric Gill was part of a Catholic community at Ditchling Common and his alternate lifestyle tested the boundaries of most people’s idea of common decency. What truly united the artists, though, was the pursuit of innovation and the production of work that challenged traditional ideas about the countryside in the modern age.

Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion is at Two Temple Place, Victoria Embankment, London WC2R 3BD until 23rd April 2017. Admission is free.

Saturday, February 11, 2017


On stage at the Green Door Store in Brighton last night, everything about Nadia Reid’s set was intimate and understated: she asked for the stage lights to be dimmed an inch, for the monitors to be turned down a little and for the audience to shuffle a step nearer the stage to let the rest of the sold-out crowd in at the back of this tiny venue. And then there was the most intimate thing of all: Reid’s voice. Crystal clear and unaffected, she sings with a beauty and a purity that renders her folk/country songs tender and emotional without recourse to histrionics.

I was alerted to this young singer/songwriter’s debut album, Listen to Formation, Look for the Signs, early last year when it was given a glowing review in Mojo magazine. It was only when it failed to figure in 2016 ‘best of’ lists that I discovered that it had been released the previous year; further digging revealed that it actually came out in 2014 in her home country of New Zealand. That she had made such an assured and mature debut at the ridiculously young age of 23 was further evidence of her prodigious talent. Added to this, her admission that she took seven years to write the songs for the album meant that her debut was the sound of her whole adult life: small wonder it is such a considered and confident album.

With Reid on acoustic guitar and Sam Taylor accompanying her on electric guitar, they replicated the haunting Appalachian sound of the album superbly: Holy Low was dedicated to a baby in the audience (yes, a tiny baby) who was born to the sound of Reid’s songs and the sublime Ruby (“Where did my love go? He was the sailor of my ship”) was played at the audience’s request. Even though they were performing as a duo – it is financially prohibitive to bring the whole band over from New Zealand, Taylor told us when we chatted to him after the gig – rockier tracks, such as Reaching Through, were given full rein. The title track from the new album, Preservation, was an indication that the new songs are just as ethereal and, with her material attracting a lot of airplay on 6 Music, she may not be able to remain understated for much longer.

Preservation is released on Basin Rock on 3rd March.