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