‘Wayward’ by Vashti Bunyan Published in 2022 by White Rabbit Books. Buy direct here.
These days it feels like everyone professes a love for Vashti Bunyan, but it should be remembered that for a long time it looked as though she would become a name lost in the dingy vaults of Pop and Folk music’s catalogue of scarcity, venerated by a few lost souls who would keep the faith in her through an underground network of Chinese whispers. It is entirely possible that I am misremembering this, but it did feel that for while in the late 1980s and early 90s her name was treasured, ironically, as some kind of obscure star of anti-stardom. In todays parlance, perhaps, as an icon of the anti-growth coalition. Yet somehow (inevitably, thanks to the Internet) that underground mythology of Vashti Bunyan took hold and grew to epic proportions. Bunyan was the one who turned her back on it all, who left it all behind, who disappeared ‘off grid’ (as no-one ever referred to it then) and eschewed Modern Life for something simpler. The one who made a quiet masterpiece of a record in ‘Just Another Diamond Day’ and then retreated into further isolation. Or so the myth went.
As time stretched onward then it seemed sometimes as though Vashti Bunyan had become a byword for pastoral whimsy, a lazy reference to throw in whenever someone heard a woman singing gently on top of a minimal backing. Me? Guilty as charged. But then again so what? Those are sonic references and inescapable, perhaps. And being lazy is sometimes undervalued. Of course it all misses Bunyan’s roots in London, the connections to Joe Boyd, Andrew Loog Oldham and the Stones, the influences of the stylish French New Wave. Which is partly why it was so pleasing to hear her in St Etienne’s ‘Finisterre’ film back at the start of the 21st Century. In a lovely extract she talks about her childhood love of farms and the countryside but concludes by admitting that she does love coming back to London. She loves the city. It’s also why her ‘Wayward’ autobiography is so compelling.
To call ‘Wayward’ an autobiography, though, is perhaps misleading because really Bunyan simply focuses on that period in her life for which she is most well known: following the hippy dream of a self-sustained lifestyle and writing and recording that classic album. It is certainly quite delightfully pleasing and illuminating to see the subjects of those songs fleshed out, as it were, and given solid context within the body of ‘Wayward’. The songs and the book work beautifully in harmony, each supporting the other, reflecting colour and detail back and forth like a comforting conversation by the fireside. Paradoxically, the two combine to peel away the layers of mythology whilst simultaneously adding new washes of magic. The fog clears and regroups in an instant. We glimpse the vision and then promptly it dissolves once more into different form.
A slim tome, ‘Wayward’ is a quick and delicious read that, again, paradoxically both amplifies and dilutes the mythology of that flight to the Hebrides by putting the story down in such an elegant matter-of-fact manner. You get the sense that whilst Vashti Bunyan knows this is a strange tale in many respects, it’s also not so strange at all. Perhaps at heart it is the typical story of all artists who necessarily fluctuate between needing to make sense of (their) life through their chosen medium, wanting others to notice that work, yet being also desirous of an existence outside of everything. Throughout the book there is a pull, a tension between opposites. Different ways of living. Alternative definitions of success playing against each other. Conflicts, ambitions, loves, fears, betrayals. Most of all, perhaps, the fear of not adding beauty and magic to the world. A simple fear, in some respects, but very powerful.
There is a heartrending part near the end of the book where Bunyan reflects on reading the only review of ‘Just Another Diamond Day’ she was aware of on its 1971 release. “[It] said it had made the writer feel depressed. I was reading it… and thinking, ‘I’ve just made somebody feel unhappy. I’m not doing that again.’ I remember vividly closing that paper and vowing I would not pick up a guitar again.” That Vashti Bunyan did not quite keep that vow for the rest of her life is to our great benefit, of course, but she held it for long enough for it to matter. That fragility of ego, the brittle heart of our hopeful dreams, is not to be underestimated. How many others have withdrawn after similar bruises and never resurfaced? In a contemporary world where anger and conflict seem to be encouraged as a means to drive monetary profits, perhaps it is worth remembering that kindness is a powerful ally in the face of darkness. Peace, love and understanding. An unattainable hippy dream it may be, but these days I’ll choose that over reality in a heartbeat.
‘A Very British Picnic’ Published in 2022 by Hoxton Mini Press. Buy direct here. This review was originally published by Caught By The River here.
‘A Very British Picnic’ is the eleventh instalment in a series so far dominated by London-centric titles (fair enough for a small press founded on the notion of celebrating personal locality and history), spreading its blanket on the ground to cover the fields, lakes, seasides, mountains and motorway verges of our sometimes green and occasionally pleasant land.
Defining the boundaries of ‘vintage’ can be a tricky business, but here the net is cast firmly within the twentieth century, with the earliest photograph from New Years’ Day 1900 and the latest from the splendid summer of 1983. In the former photograph rows of be-hatted Ladies and Gentlemen sit formally at wooden picnic tables whilst in the latter (one of the few colour images) two ladies sit amongst hay bales and prize cattle at a country show in Cheshire. Summer dresses, plastic bags and a cardboard box containing flasks of tea perfectly capture that particularly glorious summer in gorgeously warm hues. These two photographs might be more than eight decades (and two seasons) apart, yet both somehow capture the essential obstinacy of the British picnic. That sense of ‘we’re doing this because we said we’d do it, and nothing is going to stop us’ pervades many of the photographs in the book and is one of the qualities that lends the images an irresistible evocative energy. This obstinacy is fired at least in part by the ritualistic element of the British picnic, one that is rooted squarely in the metronomic daily punctuation of Taking Tea. Viewed from the 21st Century this can seem simultaneously quaint, inexplicable and strangely appealing; a yearning, if you will, for a sense of dependable structure imposed on an otherwise bewilderingly fractured life.
Another thread of imposed structure underpinning the photographs of course is that of Class. Here are Cecil Beaton and his coterie of beautiful young people taking tea (and champagne, naturally) in the bucolic surroundings of a Country House, whilst there lies a member of the Bedlington Miner’s Club, sated from his poke of chips and five cans of Harp lager. Elsewhere we find some of the newly minted Middle Classes of the early 1950s pausing from their caravan tour in a sun dappled glade, an image that contrasts nicely with a contemporaneous shot of a Working Class family (you can tell by the knotted hankie on dad’s head) feasting on Tizer and jammy pieces. All of these images remind us too that there is something exclusive, or at least excluding about the picnic group. Boundaries are clearly defined, not least by the postage stamp of blanket on which the accoutrements of the picnic may be elegantly arranged like a Cezanne still life, but also by the characters invited to the party, willingly or otherwise. The picnic, and the making of photographs, therefore, acts as both a democratising agent and a vehicle for reinforcing social divisions.
Regardless of Class, however, throughout these photographs the best times seem almost exclusively to belong to groups of friends rather than families: Liverpool F.C. fans outside Wembley Stadium in 1977; Young People in bathing suits partially submerged in the sea at Jersey in 1929, delighting in tea being poured into porcelain cups on a floating tea tray; their circa 1935 versions enjoying the hippest sounds emanating from a portable gramophone player in the dunes; Brownies in Richmond Park, 1937, the rain barely noticed in the face of the young deer that sniff their proffered sandwiches; the Bathing Suit Beauties Of Eastbourne Beach (imagined headline courtesy Tabloid Journalism 101) enjoying a bottle of lemonade or possibly something stronger, the distant lighthouse thrusting upwards as a hilarious symbol of rejected manhood (it’s not that small, it’s just further away…) and (my particular favourites) the women spreading themselves languorously on the rocks overlooking Cheddar Gorge in the mid 1930s. Even the numerable shots of toffs at Glyndebourne down the decades display a degree of elegantly muted mutual appreciation for their immediate context. In contrast, the photographs of families are full of downcast eyes, awkward poses, distinctly uncomfortable sons and daughters wishing they could be anywhere else. In many of these shots not even mum and dad seem convinced that there is much real enjoyment to be had, yet they (just about) grin and bear it regardless. That obstinacy again.
Naturally I admit I am projecting on this, as is our inevitable want when reading texts. I remember that my own family picnics, such as they were, seemed very much ad-hoc affairs. I’m not sure they were ever even referred to as picnics but rather as little more than tea breaks. Punctuation points on the journey, barely worth bothering about and certainly not worth celebrating as events in themselves. Sandwiches wrapped in tinfoil and tea from the tartan flask consumed swiftly before moving on again. Chances were we would not even make it out of car except for nipping behind some undergrowth for a wee. The closest anything in this book gets to my personal memories therefore is a 1959 shot of Carding Hill Valley in Shropshire where multiple cars are parked up and their inhabitants spill onto clumps of grass, barely a folding chair or wicker basket in sight.
Somewhere in an album at the bottom of my parents’ wardrobe sit photographs of my dad behind the wheel of various second or third hand cars enjoying one of his hand-rolled cigarettes and a steaming cup of tea. I have no idea where we might have been heading to, or home from, but they are nevertheless poignant mementoes despite, or possibly because of, their implied rejection of the traditional picnic rituals. Tucked away in one of those albums, however, also exists a photograph where I am standing on the periphery of a friend’s family group, perhaps looking longingly at the organised perfection of their setup: Blanket on the ground; willow basket with enamel plates and mugs; folding chairs for the parents. Inevitably, time showed this was all a facade. The apparent, projected order was built on chaos. Unseen whirlpools of tension would ultimately tear things apart. Our disorder on the other hand was, if not directly visible, at least not so carefully obscured. In hindsight I am rather glad of this.
Being Scottish (with a mix of Yorkshire – surely the ultimate source of obstinacy) it occurs to me that my family’s absence of organisation and ritual with regards to The Picnic suggests that the event, as idealised in collective vision at least, is therefore An English Thing. Indeed, a closer perusal of the locations pictured in the books does seem to bear this out, to the point that perhaps a more accurate title would be ‘A Very British (but almost exclusively English) Picnic’. There is just one photograph in Scotland (four walkers in 1937, stripped to underwear or more likely bathing costumes, taking tea on the snowy slopes of Ben Lawers in the Highlands) and one in Wales (a Classic Family Group of four photographed two years earlier at Little Orme, Llandudno). Both these photographs are worth closer examination for reasons other than their geographical anomalies, however, as they contain the essence of the photographer as the unseen protagonist and neatly illustrate the question of purpose and meaning in photography. It is of course possible that both pictures were made with tripods and timers, but the careful composition and staging suggests against it. Instead, there is a feeling that these, and many of the other photographs collected in the book, were made for advertising or editorial purposes, a suspicion borne out by a perusal of the credits. A few ‘name’ photographers stand out (notably, to my eye at least, Erich Auerbach and Tony Ray Jones) but the vast majority have come from picture libraries, advertising archives and the like. Indeed, I admit it makes me rather envious to think of the book’s curators searching such archives, seeking connecting threads to be pulled together from their thrilling finds.
It’s certainly clear that those curators must have had a great deal of fun in compiling the book, for there are any number of carefully considered juxtapositions which raise a smile. In one spread we find a couple of young children taking tea in 1947 in front of a miniature Wendy House, hemmed in by a white picket fence. Facing them across the page are a couple of bow-tied chaps supping wine some thirty years later with the impressive country house architecture of Glyndebourne floating in the background. They sit on the edge of a lawn, their feet dangling over the brick-faced retaining wall of the terrace, the pattern reflecting deliciously the faux-brickwork of the Wendy house on the opposite page. Overleaf, the precariously balanced Brimham Rocks photographed by Tony Ray Jones in 1968 find a lighthearted equivalence in the strange portable tiered plate contraption snapped at the 1933 National Exhibition of Camping. The lady demonstrating the device’s appeal does not seem entirely convinced, which is fair enough. Speaking of Jones, it is perhaps a shame that we don’t see his own iconic shot of a couple picnicking at Glyndebourne. Made a decade before the aforementioned shot of the chaps dangling their legs over the ha-ha, Jones’ photograph looked in the opposite direction, using the unseen drop in level to create the optical illusion of cows about to encroach on the lawn. It is such a playfully self-knowing photograph and would have fitted perfectly here.
Elsewhere in the book little batches of photographs are arranged with more obvious connecting themes. Here a sprinkling connected by the notion of dressing up (humans, a dog, some teddy bears), there a short sequence of picnics beside tents. The tent photographs are particularly delightful, with a spread showing some hippies at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival juxtaposed with a 1920 shot of three wee boys in Regent’s park, their makeshift tent of threadbare tattered rugs no doubt representing a magnificent teepee in a game of cowboys and Indians. Later in the book another tent makes an appearance, this time next to a 1930s aircraft, in which the protagonists have evidently flown to their chosen picnic spot. Two ladies in shorts fix tea, one of them handing the man the box of sandwiches. Well, he has been good enough to pilot the airplane, after all.
I could go on, for there are so many delicious photographs collected here that suggest innumerable tangential stories within the broader narrative of a historical social overview of Britain (okay, again, mostly England) during the twentieth century. For anyone who delights in the visual language of photography, then, ‘A Very British Picnic’ provides a tremendous time-machine in which to dart around the changing and timeless landscapes through which we might travel. An addictive and hugely enjoyable collection.
‘Blue Suede Clues’ by Daniel Klein Originally published 2002, reissued 2022 by Dean Street Press. This review was originally published as part of a longer blog post here.
So what did you do on September 19th 2022? Like many in the UK I am no royalist, yet I have no problem with many who are and have no issue with anyone who chose to spend the day on the streets of London or in front of television sets. For royalist or not, this has surely been a significant punctuation point in the history of the UK, for better or for worse, and everyone has their reasons. Me, I spent much of the day at the beach, skimming on a paddle-board over the barely concealed rocks of Branscombe Ebb at high tide and swimming in the sea at Littlecombe Shoot. Overhead the blue skies gave way to the growing threat of glowering grey clouds building above Coxe’s cliff. If one were given to looking for symbolism and metaphor in nature then there was much to take pleasure in. And then, in the afternoon, I read about The King.
Naturally there is only one King. Elvis Presley. The King of Rock and Roll. Hot dog. But did you know that he was also the King of private investigators? It is perhaps hard to fathom, but in the early part of the 21st Century, American author Daniel Klein made this astonishing discovery whilst engaged in some academic research into Presley’s life and career in the early 1960s*. How this escaped Peter Guralnick’s forensic two part biography of Elvis is anyone’s guess, but there you are. Yet rather than challenge Guralnick’s surely peerless work, Klein decided to place these new revelations into works of fiction, meticulously placing clues and references to people, places, events and artefacts that one would find in the pages of ‘Last Train To Memphis’ with these new discoveries. Originally published in the early noughties, Klein’s four novels have been republished by the fine folks at Dean Street Press and are well worth seeking out.
The books in the short series all take their title from familiar Elvis numbers, hence ‘Kill Me Tender’, ‘Blue Suede Clues’, ‘Viva Las Vengeance’ and (my personal favourite) ‘Such Vicious Minds’. One might well cringe and suggest that the pun is the lowest form of wit, or bristle in anger at the mere thought of poking fun at anything related to The King, but there might be an argument there that one might have no sense of fun and what, after all, is Pop culture without a hefty dose of fun and frenzy? Both those elements are certainly gleefully threaded all the way through ‘Blue Suede Clues’, a book that I have, to my surprise, thoroughly enjoyed racing through in the past few days. To say that I was initially sceptical about the idea of Elvis as PI would be an understatement, yet the surreal qualities of the situation really are hugely entertaining. Relax into it and suddenly it feels like watching Nicholas Cage playing Philip Marlowe in a film scripted by Ross MacDonald and directed by The Marx Brothers. One rather wonders what Greil Marcus would make of it all.
Naturally there is a lot of Elvis mythology in ‘Blue Suede Clues’ and I suspect that the entire quartet of books provides a pretty fine whistle-stop tour of the crucial ingredients of The King’s story. In ‘Blue Suede Clues’ then we delve into themes of sexual repression and confusion (there’s a lot of reference to Freud, which MacDonald would have surely enjoyed playing with in that imaginary script I mentioned); the tension of Presley’s tug-of-love between Ann-Margret and Priscilla; the connectedness of twins and the attendant feelings of loss and betrayal (Jesse Garon gets a lot of mentions, though disappointingly there is no sneaky reference to any Desperadoes); the importance of junk food, and hamburgers in particular (White Tower gets some excellent product placement, although at the time of the book’s original 2002 publication the franchise was in near terminal decline, so I doubt they benefited much from any publicity); and the incipient dependence on prescription painkillers (Klein traces this to an incident involving a stunt harness whilst Presley was making ‘Kissin’ Cousins’, the filming of which provides the contextual roots for the entire book). If one were being overly critical it would be easy to suggest that many of these historical references feel forced, yet in truth they are no more so than other such details dropped hamfistedly into period fiction. Indeed, Klein seems to positively revel in weaving his surreal fictional Elvis amongst these ‘real’ situations and people. There is an implicit understanding that with Fame comes the surrendering of ownership of one’s personality. That, indeed, personality is by default splintered, with the self necessarily becoming multiple (hence the appropriateness of the whole ruptured twin symbolism in Presley’s life). Except not so clumsily pseudo-psychological. Instead, hammy winks are thrown. We are all in on the joke. Hot dog.
‘Belle Nash and The Bath Soufflé’ by William Keeling Published 2022 by Envelope Books. Buy from Hive in the UK here. This review was originally published as part of a longer piece here.
At the end of July this year we spent a day in Bath. More than thirty years have passed since I’d last been in the city and, no-doubt thanks to its status as A Very Picturesque Place, it looked much as I remembered it. The gorgeous Bath stone glowed magnificently in the late evening sun and the ghosts of Regency elegance glinted in the side streets. Lovely. One thing that had noticeably changed, however, were the contents of so many of those classically proportioned buildings. Where once there were shops selling Things, now there seems to be an endless stream of cafes, wine-bars, restaurants and bistros; the Service industries fully in command of the High Street (and the alleyways). In Paris some fifteen years ago we overheard a young Australian woman complaining to her partner that “you can’t just go from eating place to eating place.” In the cities of the 2020’s, it seems, that’s largely all you CAN do. Progress, eh?
One shop that was still in the same place was Waterstones book shop. Thirty years ago I would have been hovering around the poetry section, picking out collections of Rilke, Baudelaire and Rimbaud (sometimes I want to slap my younger self around the head for being so insufferably earnest) but this time I didn’t wander far from Crime Fiction. Progress, eh? The contents of those shelves looked comfortingly familiar, but although there was nothing ‘new’ that grabbed my attention it did take me past a table displaying some ‘recommended’ titles. In prime position amongst these was a paperback sporting a faux-Regency period news sheet with a headline of ‘Belle Nash and The Bath Soufflé’. Perfectly pitched and positioned to appeal to the passing tourist trade, I’m almost ashamed to admit that the ruse worked, although I admit too that Jeanette Winterson’s cover quote suggesting the book to be “Funny, clever, silly in the right kind of way” also helped tip the book into my Summer Shopping Bag.
Winterson is certainly not wrong in her views on the book, although I’m not convinced that the ending is particularly “strangely moving” nor entirely as “unexpected” as she suggests. The book does, however, rattle along at a decent pace and is certainly deliciously funny, even if it is also a little eye-rollingly obvious in its ambition to transpose 21st Century liberal obsessions with sexual identity politics onto the early 19th Century. I’m sure that Daily Mail readers would detest it for its ‘wokeness’, which is likely as strong a recommendation as one really needs, I suppose. As a piece of historical fiction the novel is naturally fired through with delicious period flavour, although thankfully does not fall into the trap of peppering the prose liberally with specific references. Instead, author William Keeling (Esq) saves most of the historical contextualisation for a series of footnotes filled with historical trivia that punctuate each chapter. It’s the kind of non-fiction technique that one might expect from a former (Financial Times) journalist and it works particularly well given that the fictional narrator is himself allegedly re-telling stories written by his uncle, “The Late Dr. W.B. Keeling of Gay Street.” Covering such topics as English Folk songs; Mary Wollstonecraft; the decriminalisation (or otherwise) of same-sex relations; the height of Queen Victoria; “The worst Poet Laureate in history” (James Pye); Regency politics; The Vedas (as also mentioned liberally in Sara Gran’s terrific ‘Claire DeWitt’ trilogy which I also, finally, read recently); Slavery; the misogyny of Church and State and the fate of King Adolf Frederick of Sweden (a prototype for the Pythons’ Mr Creosote, that fate involved cream buns), these wittily condensed notes could easily make an enormously entertaining book by themselves.
As already mentioned, the story itself skips along at a rollicking pace, taking in such delights as disreputable merchants cutting corners to maximise profits and personal gain, corrupt city officials turning blind eyes in favour of similar personal gains, the dark underbelly of the working classes and the exploited poor turning sexual tricks to, ahem, service the aforementioned disreputable and corrupt ‘Gentlemen’ and the wanton hypocrisy of a society that celebrates systemic sexism and racism even whilst denying their existence. Sound familiar yet?
One could certainly argue that we don’t need a piece of comedic historical fiction/social political satire to alert us to the fact that such practices and attitudes are not only depressingly prevalent in the present day, but that neither are they particularly New. One could equally argue, however, that in such desperately depressing times as we seem to be inhabiting, we might as well have a bitter, cruel laugh at our own expense whilst Society curdles and crumbles around us. Progress, eh?
‘When Does The Mind Bending Start?’ by Gordon King Published 2022 by Bonnier Books. Buy from Hive in the UK here. This review was originally posted on the Unpopular blog here.
I miss The World Of Twist. I’ve got the t-shirt, picked up along with the expanded reissue of the group’s single LP ‘Quality Street’ a few years back. I hadn’t known that the artist Jeremy Deller was a fan though. I’d always had a lot of time for Deller and his love for The World Of Twist merely cemented that opinion. He opened the sleeve notes for that reissue with a few lines saying how he hated writing so that all he could say were that The World Of Twist were the Roxy Music of his generation. Which I suppose (since he was born a couple of weeks before me) means my generation. Or even My Generation. Whatever.
The line about Roxy Music opens up ‘When Does The Mind Bending Start?’, a biography-of-sorts of the band from guitarist Gordon King. Since the demise of WOT King went on to be a key element in Earl Brutus and The Pre New, both groups who, you know, if you know you know. Both made brilliant records and both were deliciously wild and weird. But still, they weren’t The World Of Twist, and King’s book, which is effortlessly engaging and remarkably evocative of the times, almost acknowledges this fact. He knows what we all lost.
The times, in case you need getting up to speed, would be the (mostly post) Madchester era of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and whilst the book is certainly peppered with references to the likes of Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and their ilk, it’s clear that for King and his gang of like-minded truth seekers, World Of Twist were always travelling a path apart. Outside of time and space, The World Of Twist were all about creating their own universe and mythologies. It’s clear, reading King’s tremendous book, that the ley line leading to the temple of Twist passed through the likes of Roxy, Eno, Hawkwind, Genesis, Yes and all points Prog before racing through key punctuation marks of the Punk and post-Punk deviants such as Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, The Fall, Magazine, Clock DVA etc. It’s a lineage that makes a lot of sense to me now, although at the time I would have sneered naively at the Prog references, locked as I was in the myopic, mediated falsity of a Punk Year Zero. No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones… blah blah blah. Being some years younger than King and perhaps immeasurably more naive, I had no concept of much music prior to 1977 or so when my mates started buying funny coloured 7″ singles at Speed and talking in riddles. So when The World Of Twist covered The Rolling Stones’ ‘She’s A Rainbow’, I could see by the writing credits on the label that it was a Jagger/Richards number and that by rights I should hate it, but… man, it sounded divine. Assuming that this was some groovy take that sounded nothing like the original (I must have missed the reviews of the single at the time that pointed out otherwise), it was a bit of a shock some years later to discover that it was in fact a very faithful facsimile pulled off with love and pleasure. Similarly, it took me years to realise that ‘This Too Shall Pass Away’ was a cover of a number by The Honeycombs, they of the magnificent ‘Have I The Right’ that for years I knew of only from the Dead End Kids, of all places. Says it all. All of which I’m sure makes it obvious that I was never hip enough to catch The World Of Twist playing one of their psychedelic extravaganza live shows, so it wasn’t until that expanded reissue that I picked up on the fact that they played The MC5’s ‘Kick Out The Jams’. I mean, of course they did. It made perfect sense. How could they NOT?
King makes it clear in his book just how important theatrical elements such as Brother J.C. Crawford’s evangelical on stage introductions to the MC5 were to the formation of The World Of Twist (and indeed, to Earl Brutus and The Pre New). In an early chapter entitled ‘Bill Nelson’s in His Tube’ (and incidentally, there is a massive 6CD reissue of Nelson’s Red Noise ‘Art/Empire/Industry’ set coming later this month on Cherry Red) King outlines his nine point plan for forming a band. Point eight is: “Conceptualise. This is essential. Amazingly, it’s the most neglected, overlooked part of forming a band, but you skip this step and you are doomed.” I suspect there is more than a touch of irony in there, as World Of Twist, Earl Brutus and The Pre New were conceptualised to the point of Fine (Pop) Art and were all, for the most part, doomed to the peripheries of ‘success’. Which, perhaps, is why there were all so interesting, ‘success’ being entirely defined by the criteria one chooses to apply after all. Certainly in terms of Chart Success, it was World Of Twist that came closest, with singles hovering tantalisingly close to breaking into the top 40 before falling away, deflated and sad like wrinkled balloons at a birthday party. They did the TV circuit to an extent too, with their performance of ‘The Storm’ on The Word being a particular triumph, enjoyed enormously by Holly Johnson at the time, as one would rather hope and expect. But if World Of Twist were, commercially speaking, not as successful as they (or their label, Circa) would have liked, conceptually they were worlds apart from the run of the mill humdrum of the rest of the charts. Conceptually they were way ahead. Conceptually they were the best band, the greatest gang on the planet.
The gang element was played out most perfectly on the photograph that graced the inner gatefold of ‘Quality Street’. Composed and shot by James Fry (younger brother of Martin Fry, he of New Pop Pioneers ABC) but conceptualised largely by King, it is a photograph that contrasts magically with the Georgian period-drama costume extravaganza of his main cover shot. From the Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells (I always thought it might have been Bath) Fry moves the group into some backwater back alley and captures the group looking like something from ‘Bronco Bullfrog’. ‘Iconic’ was made for images like this and King rightly proclaims it as “the greatest rock band photo ever shot”. The photo shoot appears in the background of the video for ‘Sweets’, where an impossibly young (and incredibly cool) looking Bob Stanley wanders past, Bob being the central character in the video playing the group’s biggest fan. It was hardly acting, for Bob was certainly a long standing fan. His CAFF label would release a World Of Twist 7″ and his Icerink imprint would give Earl Brutus their first outings. Later, Bob’s group Saint Etienne would write and record ‘Train Drivers in Eyeliner’ for their 2017 album ‘Home Counties’ in tribute to Nick Sanderson. Indeed, Saint Etienne were one of the few groups contemporary with The World Of Twist that one might have mentioned in the same breath. The mighty Intastella, with whom World Of Twist were almost inextricably linked at the time, and Denim also spring to mind. Maybe Luke Haines’ Baader Meinhoff and Black Box Recorder, although they were much later of course but imbued with the same spirit for sure.
Hardly the typical Rock Biog, ‘When Does The Mind Bending Start’ is nevertheless peppered with Amusing Anecdotes, but these are often delivered with a self-deprecating air of almost apologetic bemusement which makes it very easy to warm to King and the group. My favourite is one where King misses out by a few hours on joining the rest of the group as cameos in the background of a Rolling Stones video, although his tale of meeting a drunk Kris Novoselic runs it close and is typically good natured and measured. There’s a typical lovely warmth to his conclusion to this anecdote: “I never really got Nirvana, it all sounded a bit like The Police to me, but Kurt Cobain, for the few seconds I spent in is company, seemed like a nice lad.”
There’s no bitterness in the books towards the record label or to managers or ‘suits’ who tend to come off badly in these kinds of stories. There is even little irritation shown to The Media who, inevitably, turned on the group that they had previously championed. Indeed, King proudly includes scathing reviews of their final single, their cover of The Stones’ ‘She’s A Rainbow’ that initially appeared on the flip of first single ‘The Storm’. King even professes to the Melody Maker piece, which concludes that this is “A song for swinging-losers” is his favourite piece of WOT press. By this point in the story of course King appreciates that it’s all but over for The World Of Twist, the brief window of opportunity closing before their eyes. It might be the benefit of age or the calming balm of distance, but the book is imbued with a lovely sense of peace that is often missing in such things. A recognition that It Wasn’t To Be. That life moves on and that we take what treasures and pleasures from it that we can. Making things precious, or whatever.
It’s abundantly clear too just how much love King has for the characters who accompanied him on the journey with The World Of Twist, several of whom are tragically no longer with us. David Hardy, the band’s manager and, as King points out in the initial outline of characters, “the only adult in this story”; Martin Wright of Intastella and the incomparable Laugh; Nick Sanderson, who drummed with World Of Twist, Clock DVA, Jesus and Mary Chain and The Gun Club, fronted Earl Brutus and was the inspiration for the aforementioned ‘Train Drivers in Eyeliner’. And of course there is Tony Ogden, front man extraordinaire with his leather shirt tucked into white jeans, massive belt buckles shimmering under the mirror ball and fighting his way out of a tinfoil underworld, like Lou Reed boxing his way out of The Factory. If there is a regret in ‘When Does The Mind Bending Start’ it is perhaps that King and Ogden grew apart towards the end of The World Of Twist and that, in some ways, robbed us of some particularly special possibilities.
So I’ve got the t-shirt and now I’ve read the book. And I still miss The World Of Twist.
‘Passing Place’ by Sandy Carson Published in 2020 by Yoffy Press, Atlanta, GA. Buy direct here. Or in the UK from Beyond Words.
When looking at photographs or paintings it often strikes me that an artist’s relationship with place is difficult. Necessarily so, perhaps. There is something in the way an artist approaches place. The way they come to know it. It strikes me that difficulties particularly arise out of notions of being from, or of place. Familiarity. Comfort, even. Do these really breed contempt, or are they conduits to something special, perhaps? Possibly both, and probably neither.
Sandy Carson’s relationship with the (former) mining village of Newmains, outside Glasgow, is certainly complicated, as his 2020 work ‘Passing Place’ makes clear. It is a complex assemblage of archive and ‘original’ photography made by Carsons in and around the village, interspersed with sheaves of patterned tracing paper (the kind you used to get in wedding photo albums) and inserts showing scans of the worn and faded covers of prayer books. Many of these photographs are specifically of and about Carson’s mum, whose loss ‘Passing Place’ surely acts as an attempt at coming to terms. Also glued into the pages is a little black-paged mini-photozine which seems to act as kind of meta-book within a book, splicing in specifics that reference the 1994 knife attack that acted as the final spur for Carson to get out and take off for the U.S.A. It wasn’t his first brush with violence though. In 1990 another gang of neds/casuals (well, it might have been the same ones) had bottled him on the forehead, compensation from which paid for his first trip out of Scotland to the fabled Land Of The Free. Out of violence comes redemption, perhaps. Or at least some threads to weave into a rope with which to escape the locked room in the concrete tower, in which you leave the bloodstained sweatshirt with the puncture wound still visible. Photographing it first because you never know, and photographers make photographs, so…
So from one perspective I think it is possible to see ‘Passing Place’ as something approaching forensic documentation, but personally I find such an objective approach impossible. Well okay, let’s face it, my whole schtick is based on the notion that there is no such thing as objectivity and that all art is experienced subjectively, but there you go. So more accurate perhaps to say that I find it impossible to approach ‘Passing Place’ without experiencing a even stronger sense of emotional involvement than if it was, say, a collection of photographs of a suburb in Surrey. For I was born and spent the first five or six years of my life in a place not dissimilar to Newmains. New Cumnock, some 40 or so miles south west of Newmains, is an Ayrshire mining village that was once dubbed one of the toughest villages in Britain and, in 2013, won the accolade of ’Scotland’s Most Dismal Town’. In many respects I left it all behind early, but it might also be true to say that these things never leave you (alone). In late teenage years I’d play pool with my best friend in local bars out in my new coastal home town, backs against the walls and playing up to the accusations of being a “Fuckin’ Art School wanker” by playing Jesus And Mary Chain b-sides on the jukebox. Wee tough nuts with their tattoos of ‘Love’ and ’Hate’ in some weird homage to Robert Mitchum and ‘Rangers’ emblazoned everywhere else could barely disguise their hatred. Bet their PIN numbers were all ‘1690’. Ha ha.
Anyway, that whole sectarian shite still has the power to chill me to the core. Just looking at these photographs of Carson’s mum in a Rangers shirt and the old black and white shot of an Orange Walk is enough to bring on a mild attack of PTSD. Visions of neds leaning in and demanding to know who I supported, determined to batter me no matter whether I said Celtic or Rangers. A double battering and a kick in the nuts for daring to say I hated football. Still, I suppose I got off lightly compared to Sandy Carson.
I’m being harsh though, and I’m sure that Carson’s mum was a lovely lady. There’s a wonderful photograph of her watching the Tour de France on the telly, looking delighted at seeing Pierre Rolland win atop Alpe D’Huez in 2011. Carson’s notes at the end of book suggest this photograph was made in 2013, but, frankly, he’s wrong (Europcar didn’t win a stage in that year’s race) and I’ll fight him if he wants to argue the toss. Anyway, that photograph more than any other reminds me of my own mum, still going strong at 90 and still watching the Tour de France on the telly in the summertime. Chapeau!
The book includes some terrific pieces of text that help contextualise Carson’s work in time and space. Stephen McLaren offers a typically sharp observation on Carson’s place within the photography firmament, pulling in references from the likes of Martin Parr and (of course) Susan Sontag, whose point about how “The photographer both loots and preserves, denounces and consecrates” hints at that point about artists being necessarily both insider and outsider, lover and hater, saint and sinner. Daniel Kalder picks up on this duelling duality too in his excellent contribution to the book, using it as an excuse to use the phrase “Caledonian antisyzygy”. Aye, I had to look that up too.
Then, at the end of his terrific introduction, Carson’s “auldest mate from ‘mainsy” Allan McNaughton summons the ghost of Belle and Sebastian summoning the ghost of Bobbie Dylan in advising us not to look back. It’s good advice, but somehow we can’t help but do just that. Each time I visit my mum on the Ayrshire coast we drive inland to the ‘Old Country’, up through the scheme, past the end terrace house in which I was born and past the boarded up semi-derelict houses bordering the grassy void where my first primary school once stood. At the top of Cairn Hill the wind blasts through the remains of lime kilns that we used to call a castle. Broken bottles of Bucky litter the gutters. My mum certainly sees more pleasant ghosts here than I ever will, but even I am peculiarly drawn to the hollowed-out dereliction. It’s a dark seduction born of a security and relative wealth that I’m certainly grateful for, and a reminder that the world can turn on the head of a pin. Just like ‘Passing Place’.
‘Glasgow Cool of Art: 13 books of fire at the Mackintosh Library’ by Johnny Rodger Published 2022 by The Drouth. Available to buy direct here. A version of this review was originally published as part of a longer piece here.
In the parlance of the city in question, large swathes of Johnny Rodger’s ‘Glasgow Cool of Art: 13 books of fire at the Mackintosh Library’ make me feel ‘thick as mince’. That’s okay though, because it is also book that is by turns humorous, playful, and philosophically engaging. It is also, for me, enormously emotionally engaging (as indeed I’m certain it will be for any former alumni of the Mackintosh school) and this personal connection is heightened further, perhaps, by Rodger’s observation early in the book that for many years he had the best office location in Glasgow. Looking out from the brutalist Bourdon building across Scott Street, Rodger must have had much the same view as I did in my final year at GSA: the magical west facade of the Mackintosh building housing the fabled library.
‘Glasgow Cool of Art’ is necessarily then an emotional read, yet it is to Rodger’s immense credit that he balances this out with a great deal of considered research and philosophical reflection. Naturally a great deal of this reflection hinges on the fundamental question about What To Do With The Mackintosh Building, with the focus on the Library being a symbolic and functional vehicle for doing this. So there is much philosophical exploration about the nature of the physical and the ephemeral, about the nature of (architectural) drawing and where reality exists within (or without) that context. There is also consideration of the fundamental question of what we might mean by ‘ruin’, where Rodger uses a Graham Greene story about the demolition of a Wren house from inside by a gang of boys. I’m only intermittently convinced by Greene (and less and less as time goes by), so don’t feel compelled to read the text in question, but the questions that Rodger uses the story to frame within the context of the GSA are certainly interesting.
The whole book is one that treads the tightrope between academia and accessibility to great effect. Its structure is framed around the fact that only 13 books from the ‘original’ fire in 2014 were deemed to have survived, and this is a gratifyingly appropriate concept, arcing as it does between the worlds of architecture and fine art, academic exposition and entertaining literature. So whilst enjoyment of the book might inevitably be increased by a reader’s emotional connection to the specific physical spaces in question, it’s hardly a pre-requisite, for ‘Glasgow Cool of Art’ is a rich and rewarding exploration of thinking regardless. I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed being made to feel quite so stupid quite so much as when reading it.
‘Braw Concrete’ by Peter Halliday and Alan Stewart Published in 2022 by The Modernist Society. Buy direct here.
In recent years my tastes in architecture have mellowed significantly, to the point where these days I am more likely to prefer an Edwardian villa or a Cottage Orné to a Mies or a Corb. That said, I do still treasure the regular doses of Modernism that drop through my letterbox in the form of the Manchester based ‘The Modernist’ fanzine. The ‘Modernist’ team have also been responsible for putting out some terrific little books with specialist topics. Titles like ‘Towers For The Welfare State: An Architectural History of British Multi-Storey Housing 1945-1970’ and ‘M62: The Trans-Pennine Motorway’ might be niche, but they revel in those tight confines. Other books take a geographical delve into Brutalist architecture across the country. London has had a couple of titles to itself already, as does Yorkshire (one a County wide overview, another focusing solely on Sheffield). Birmingham meanwhile has a book covering its ‘Brutiful Years’, a play on words that is almost as cringeworthy as it is tremendously apt. The same could be said for ‘Braw Concrete’, a study of ‘Post-war architecture in Glasgow’ by Peter Halliday and Alan Stewart that was published a month or so back.
In this book Stewart is the architect rooted in Glasgow with an intimate knowledge of both the city and its buildings, whilst writer and photographer Halliday is somewhat of a Glasgow virgin, having visited the city for the first time as recently as 2021. Together they combine to create a book that bristles with a passion for the kind of brutalist concrete architecture many might see as dreich and depressing, but in which they see a resolute beauty. It’s hardly a book designed to appeal to those who consider the Anderston Centre a scabby concrete scrotum suitable only for filming locations for existential end-of-civilisation sci-fi flicks (did Scarlett Johansson devour unsuspecting jakies here? If not, it was a missed opportunity) but it’s none the worse for that. But for those who go all weak kneed at the sight of rain-damaged concrete (it’s the west coast of Scotland – is there any other kind?), ‘Braw Concrete’ is a treat for the senses.
Now, having left the wet and windy west coast of Scotland for calmer and warmer English climes back in the early 1990s, and having returned to Glasgow only irregularly in the intervening 30 years, it actually comes as quite a shock to realise just how utterly familiar the architecture captured in these pages is to me. Those pages travel roughly east to west across the city, starting with the old Stakis hotel on Ingram street before back-stepping briefly into Charlotte Street to visit the old Our Lady and Saint Francis Roman Catholic School from 1964. I only ever briefly ventured out east of Glasgow Green (usually getting no further than Billy Bilsland’s bike shop on Saltmarket) so I’m not too familiar with this particular building, but it does look terrific. Much more familiar to me in the 1980s would be the brown uniforms of the Charlotte Street School mingling with the green of St Aloysious on the Central Station forecourt, and of course the names of the school’s architects. Isi Metztein and Andy McMillan were names I heard whispered in the Bourdon Building, reverentially referenced as Glasgow’s Gods of Architecture. Being an ignorant dreamer with my heid in the clouds (and/or up my arse) I had no real sense of what that meant circa 1983-5 but it’s rather nice to be reminded three decades later that one of my favourite buildings in the city (the BOAC building on Buchanan Street) was “their only major commercial commission.” It is, as Halliday and Stewart insist, “a real belter.”
And speaking of the Bourdon Building, as we were, it’s here in all its glory, spread over twelve magnificent pages. Look! There’s the window I gazed out of back in 1983/4, and there’s the studio I inhabited in ’87/88. Crouched alongside the steep incline of Scott Street, the Bourdon Building flanks the original Macintosh school like a malevolent arsey janny with a septic plook on its chin. Fuckin’ brilliant.
Then there’s the Savoy Centre. As the writers point out, “Pevsner laments in the fact that a 1939 cinema was pulled down to accommodate it”, but (rightly) fight its corner by suggesting we “show a little respect to the aesthetically patterned concrete”, “the dashing 1970s signage embossed into it” and “the skybridge that sweeps gracefully over Renfrew Street”. A few years ago I picked up a lovely grey tote back with that memorable logo printed on it, in silent memory of the wee second hand record store that was hidden away in the centre and where I picked up innumerable bootleg tapes. So yes, I’m certainly with Halliday and Stewart on this one.
Elsewhere in the book there are treasures a-plenty. From the gaggle of Strathclyde University buildings clustered near George Square through the Scottish Ambulance Service Building to the Ministry of Defense’s Kentigern House, hunkering down on Argyle Street, there is something for everyone. Well, everyone who likes brutalist architecture. It all concludes in the west end with a collection of Glasgow University buildings that include the Rankine and Adam Smith buildings, the Queen Margaret Union and the magnificent Hunterian gallery/Macintosh House duet, the former with its cast aluminium Paolozzi doors, the latter like some weird premonition of a Rachel Whiteread sculpture. It’s a fitting end to a wonderful traverse of an addictive city. Grim reality porn for designers with grit in their eyes. Pure magic, by the way.
With his 2013 book ‘Concretopia’ John Grindrod took us on an illuminating tour of Britain’s Post War (New) townscapes. A place and time where mid-century Modernist style and a sense of social responsibility rubbed shoulders with seedy, greedy corruption, it neatly lays the groundwork for ‘Iconicon’, in which the author embarks on a journey around the landmark buildings of Britain from 1980 to the present day.
Structured in three parts that broadly mirror UK government shifts from Thatcherite Tory to Blairite (New) Labour and back again to Coalition/Johnson Tory, the book is as much about social and political history as it is about architecture; inevitably so as there is a intrinsic relationship between governance and building, be that in the form of predominantly public funded projects such as those to celebrate the Millennium or in the endless expanses of housing driven by private developers. Grindrod elegantly weaves each of these threads into the body of ‘Iconicon’ whilst also doing an admirable job of balancing historical context with architectural detail. Each element ably supports the other with seamless transitions, like an unlikely double act feeding each other lines. Or, in the language of architectural illustration, balancing the broad sweeps of exterior perspectives with exquisite pen drawings of entrance detailing. Just so.
Now during my own brief flirtation with architecture at Glasgow’s Macintosh School in the early 80s, one of the things I found most off-putting was the dryness of the writing about the subject. Inevitably this says much more about my ludicrously immature 17 year old self than anything else, but I really did long for someone to write about architecture the way ‘Smash Hits’ wrote about Pop music. John Grindrod doesn’t quite summon the spirit of Neil Tennant’s ‘Bitz!’ but there is certainly an agreeable degree of pop cultural reference threading through everything (Heaven 17, Blur and MGMT provide the titles of the book’s three sections, for example). So whilst ‘Iconicon’ may be less subjective than ‘Concretopia’ in the sense that it necessarily covers architectural styles straying from Grindrod’s core passion of Modernism, this pop-cultural influence means that a significant amount of the author’s personality still seems to seep through the pages. This is no bad thing.
The book starts in 1980, and whilst the polarising ‘greed is good’ mantra of that decade has made it very difficult to be objective in retrospect, particularly for anyone who lived through it, Grindrod manages to navigate through this landscape with a deft awareness of the opposing forces of hyper-capitalism/neoliberalism and social(ist) responsibility. In this he comes across very much like Andy Beckett in the excellent ‘Promised You A Miracle’, adroitly balancing an acknowledgement that some kind of transition to a post-Industrial (and, indeed, Post-Modern) society was arguably necessary whilst addressing the thought that perhaps Thatcher’s ideologically driven demonisation and demolition of working class solidarity was A Bit Much. Indeed, Thatcherism’s ‘Right To Buy’ flagship policy is in many ways the single common thread that unites each of the three parts of ‘Iconicon’; a spark that really ignited the peculiarly British obsession with Property (and it’s attendant, apparently self-perpetuating media circus) and where the economic cycles of boom and bust have arguably caused the most pain.
These days, meanwhile, it seems to be very fashionable to be unapologetically damning of Tony Blair’s New Labour period of government, yet Grindrod does a fine job of capturing the tangible air of optimism that pervaded the country after decades of Tory dissolution. At the heart of this period in the book lie the twin thrusts of devolved governance to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the Millennium projects, each of which are dealt with in enough detail to keep one engaged and informed, but neither are so lengthy as to leave one bored and anxious to move onto the next part of the story. It’s a tricky skill to master, but Grindrod has done so admirably.
As the book progresses through more recent times it naturally becomes much more difficult to be objective about political and social aspects within a broader historical context. Grindrod gives it a decent go, although it’s never too difficult to guess where his allegiances and sensibilities might lie. The chapter on the Grenfell disaster in particular does a masterful job of simultaneously breaking and hardening one’s heart, its place in our collective memory still too close and the emotions too raw to allow anyone off the many significant hooks that continue to dangle. With a righteous indignation and anger tempered by anguish at the human cost, Grindrod does a sterling job of placing the tragedy within both the political and building contexts, thereby once again illuminating the inextricable connections between the two.
It would be easy then to leave ‘Iconicon’ in something of a negative, even desperate frame of mind and it’s to Grindrod’s credit that he does not do so. Instead, like Barnabas Calder in ‘Architecture: From Prehistory to Climate Emergency’, Grindrod chooses to find fragments of hope and positivity in the work of young architects and planners working below the radar of our neoliberal overlords. There is a hope and a trust that these fragmentary independents may be united by something beyond the stifling soundbites of populism and are bound instead by the soft yet strong societal fabric of decency, kindness and mutual respect. Solidarity based on shared humanity rather than divisive ideology. One can’t help but look forward to the built environment such trajectories might lead to, and one rather hopes that John Grindrod will be there to write about them.
This month’s cover image is an original linocut print design. ‘Craigdarroch farm in the Afton valley, New Cumnock, Ayrshire’. It is available to buy mounted or unmounted from the Unpop Shop. This design is also available as a card.
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