This week, whenever I have had a quiet moment to myself, I have mostly been reading a book about W.H. Auden. Or more specifically I have been reading a book about Auden’s poem ‘September 1, 1939’. Although actually it’s not specifically about that poem, even though it is, and it’s not completely about Auden, even though it is. By which I mean that author Ian Sansom (yes, the same Ian Sansom who we looked at in the last Unpopular episode – he of the marvellous ‘County Guides’ mystery novels that are not really mystery novels) makes it partly about himself and partly about The Bigger Picture and partly about Auden and partly about poetry and partly about this particular poem. It is a great book, but I have to admit that it also makes me feel Really Stupid, and that in turn makes me sad and frustrated.
For whilst Sansom’s book is Not An Academic Text, it does throw in quite a few references to Academics and Academic Texts and Other Poets and Literature and Literary Criticism which, had I the time, energy and space I would probably rather enjoy following up. But I don’t. So I don’t. None of this is Sansom’s fault. Rather it is because we have navigated the second week of the New School Year and already I feel like I Have No Life. Or rather it is that life has already ebbed from my sickened body and left me a shattered husk. Not that I want to be overly dramatic.
I suspect that were I to be reading a similarly pitched book about Teaching and Learning then I would probably Not Feel Quite So Stupid, but frankly also strongly suspect that I would find such a book to be A Lot Less Interesting. Where is the Auden of the contemporary (Secondary) Education world? Probably busy being an Edu Twitter Celebrity.
The Point Of All This (and there may be one, so bear with me… equally there not be, so please feel free to skip to the latest mix of Unpopular music) is that whilst the past two decades of teaching may have left me Well Versed in an understanding of the Science/Craft/Magick (delete as appropriate) of Teaching, it has had a detrimental impact on my knowledge and understanding of Subject (both the ones I teach and others). It has, in effect, left me (feeling) stupid.
Not stupid in the context of the level to which I am teaching (I am pretty confident I could bring home a ‘9’ in the Art or Photography GCSE) but certainly in the broader, deeper context of my subject specialist knowledge. So whilst I am highly skilled (this is not the moment to be modest) at empowering students to think more deeply about the photographic texts that they are reading in order to get a level 6, or 7 or 9 at GCSE, what I/we lack as teachers is the cognitive capacity to ask each other those challenging questions about our subject. Or indeed to ask ourselves.
Which is why, to veer further into the somewhat tedious realms of Education for a moment (don’t worry, we’ll get back to Pop Music shortly), I have been increasingly thinking that more opportunities for subject specialist Continuing Professional Development is really critical to our survival as Teachers (or indeed as human beings). By this I do not mean CPD that focuses on Subject at the level to which we teach, but the deeper knowledge that draws us out and beyond the confines of School (we are not children, after all).
Where are the opportunities for our History teachers to talk/argue about the connections between 1970’s Britain and Our Present Predicament? Or indeed to argue about whose books are best: Dominic Sandbrook’s or Andy Beckett’s? Where are the opportunities for me to discuss with my Art colleagues the work of Robert Frank (including whether ‘Pull My Daisy’ is actually any good or not, and then to define what we mean by ‘good’) or to argue about the value of John Berger’s critical writing and whether it is still relevant to approach Art from a Marxist viewpoint in 2019? Let’s face it: Ten minutes over a rushed instant coffee between a quick pee and then dashing off to teach Year 7 doesn’t really cut it, does it?
Yet when Leadership discussions about Staff CPD take place we continually promote Skills Of Teaching as the Only Valuable Topics for Training. We say it is in response to What Our Staff Want but really, is it? Always? Again? And again? And even if it’s what they think they want, are they always right?
How do we build cognitive capacity into our daily grind such that we can enjoy the developing treasures of the subjects we fell in love with? (Because we DID fall in love with our subject probably long before we fell in love with the idea of teaching that subject). Didn’t we? (That’s a whole other question).
When I start to feel less stupid I will let you know.
And the Pop Music I promised you? It’s The Blue Aeroplanes again, who once upon a time took Auden’s ‘Journal Of An Airman’ text and made it into a terrific song on the wonderful ‘Tolerance’ LP. You’re welcome.
Undercliff 1973 – fariña (from Undercliff Suite. YouTube) End of a Holiday – Fairport Convention (from What We Did On Our Holidays LP. YouTube) Sprig of Thyme – Alula Down (from Betwixt and Between 5 tape. Bandcamp) Late Summer – HARESS (from Haress LP. Bandcamp) Midsummer’s Queen – Meadowsilver (digital single. Bandcamp) Gem – Rose McDowall & Shawn Pinchbeck (from Far From The Apple Tree LP. Bandcamp) Sonny Come Home – David Ackles (from David Ackles LP. YouTube) First Flush, Second Flush, Autumn Flush – Darren Hayman (from Songs Of High Altitude LP. Bandcamp) September Skies – Armstrong (from ‘Under Blue Skies‘ LP) Run Away – The Memory Fades (from Space Pilot EP. Bandcamp) Bloody Blighty – MICK TROUBLE (from It’s The Mick Trouble LP. Bandcamp) Last Resort – The Late Innings (from Wild Places LP. Bandcamp) Paintbox Ladies – Storm the Palace (from Delicious Monster LP. Bandcamp) Night Sweats – Lloyd Cole (from ‘Guesswork‘ LP) All Mirrors – Angel Olsen (from All Mirrors LP. Bandcamp) Footsteps – Modern Nature (from How To Live LP. Bandcamp) Sundown – Bruce Springsteen (from Western Stars LP) Honey From the Honeycombs – The Rubinoos (from From Home LP. Bandcamp) Starting to Feel Good – Fay Hallam (from Propeller LP) Hold On – Lesley Duncan (on Lesley Stop Lightly LP) An Image Is Different – R. Elizabeth (from Every And All We Voyage On LP. Bandcamp) Chicas De Madrid – Red Sleeping Beauty and Cristina Quesada (digital single. Bandcamp) Keep This Love – The Russian Futurists (from Reality Burger With A Side Of Life EP. Soundcloud)
Have you been following Ian Sansom’s ‘County Guides’ series of novels? If so you will have no doubt recently picked up the latest instalment ‘The Sussex Murder’. I admit it very nearly passed me by, for I do not get much opportunity these days to visit physical book shops and it is so easy to forget to remember to look for new instalments of things in the online world. I’m sure there are technologies that can help with this but frankly I am attempting to remove elements of technology from my daily existence. And no, the irony of writing and publishing this statement on a platform that relies on exactly those kinds of technologies is not lost on me, but as we have said many times in the past, in our lives we must embrace contradictions and cognitive dissonances or risk descent further into madness.
‘The Sussex Murder’ continues the adventures/travails of Swanton Morley (‘The People’s Professor’), his daughter Miriam and their assistant Stephen Sefton around the UK and further cements the notion of these novels as odd confections that blend humour, mystery and historical trivia with contemporary social and political commentary and critique. Should such a notion leave you a little cold, then it must be said that in Sansom’s hands the blending is done with remarkable deftness and lightness of touch. Sansom’s post-modern blurring of narrative boundaries is neither over-powering nor entirely invisible and for this he should be applauded. There are clearly clever on-going structural conceits taking place in these books (we slip between narrator Sefton’s ’then’ – in the case of ‘The Sussex Murder’ it is 1939 – and ‘now’, yet are never entirely certain when the ‘now’ is, except for that fact that our inner arithmetic suggests that ‘now’ must already be a ‘past’) yet it never even remotely feels like we are reading a stylistic exercise. The precision of language is admirable. Nothing feels superfluous. We move from here to there and everything we meet on the way feels valuable. This is a rare skill.
One of the historical criticisms of detective and/or mystery novels is often around a perceived lack of characterisation. This is never a line of criticism that I have held much sympathy with, for it’s often not true (Sayers’ development of Wimsey and Vane as characters is, I think terrific, and Christie’s key protagonists Poirot and Marple are marvellously convincing and intriguing) and anyway rather misses a point that characterisation is not what these books are really about. It’s like criticising Jane Austen for not leaving us enough clues to solve the puzzle. What puzzle? Well, exactly.
Nevertheless there is a sense that Sansom knowingly plays up to this kind of critique in the County Guides, for his characters do indeed feel largely like caricatures. Yet alongside this we sense them also tentatively developing through the series: With each new instalment we discover something new that both strengthens the cartoon yet also softens it. Small nuances are added. Doubts. Suggestions. Not least in the relationship between Miriam and Sefton where we wonder: Will they? Won’t they? Did they? Didn’t they? Backwards and forwards with nods to that suggested future-past. It’s hardly a strong Romantic Narrative Arc but I think it is all the better for that. Instead it is a ghost of a narrative, a dissipated vapour trail that might actually just be clouds.
In a short Q/A piece at the end of his recent novel ‘The Old Religion’ Martyn Waites suggests that “Brexit is the worst thing to happen to this country in my lifetime. And crime fiction should absolutely be discussing it.” One suspects this is something that Ian Sansom would agree with, for certainly ‘The Sussex Murder’ pulls on these points within the context of historical 1930s threads. To be fair, anything that casts a net back to the 1930s as a means of mirroring contemporary developments with regards rise of right wing extremism almost writes itself, which is itself quite terrifying, and one rather suspects that Sansom had this in mind when starting the series. Which either makes him remarkably prescient or a gifted historian, although perhaps there is an argument that says this amounts to the same thing.
On the subject of history, it is as vehicles for localised historical trivia that The County Guides novels really do excel. There is certainly a sense as the series unfolds that what Sansom is actually doing is writing these fictional guides into reality. Or writing realities into fiction, whichever makes most sense. Sansom has always been very strong at conjuring a sense of place, making one believe that his writing is rooted in the geography and detail of wherever his stories happen to be set. In ‘The Sussex Murder’ however he begins to unpick this imagined reality and reveals something of a process driven illusion behind it. It’s like Springsteen at the start of his Broadway shows. “I made it all up!”
It is not uncommon for me to read acknowledgements pages in books, and those in Sansom’s books are always a treat. They remind me very much of the rear cover of a fanzine I wrote back in the murky mists of time in which I refused to list ‘contents’ and instead listed ‘references’. It was all rather perversely or stupidly obdurate of me, but what else should a young fanzine writer be after all? Not that it made much difference in terms of limiting the audience, for it was at a time when all I could afford to do was photocopy ten copies for friends, all of whom were a relatively captive audience. Still, I believe there is something intrinsically thrilling about reading lists of reference points, not least because they are potential sources of connectivity pulse beats. Fragmentary (and ultimately illusory) connectivity, yes of course, but such is the nature of our cultural lives, and surely this is something to celebrate not denigrate.
Ian Sansom’s list of acknowledgements is certainly a source of such connectivity. It is a list of names and references where one finds oneself shouting ‘yes!’ Just like that Larkin line about Bechet:
“On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes.”
So there is, to take at random: Wes Anderson. Yes! Beth Chatto. Yes! Chas Hodges. Yes! Sean Hughes. Yes! Mark Pawson. Hell yes! Dominic Sandbrook… oh wait, hang on, I’ll substitute Andy Beckett there if I may.
And then there is ‘Swagger’. In a moment of personal interpretation I suggest to Sansom in an email that this may perhaps be a reference to the Blue Aeroplanes album, to which he responds that it isn’t but goes on to thank me for reminding him of the record. Yet if it had been it would not be entirely out of place, for it is a record that is, like Sansom’s ‘County Guides’ series, simultaneously of its time, out of time and timeless.
‘Swagger’ is of its time because if I am picking at threads of frustration it still sounds Very 1990, in other words a fraction too dense and a touch too heavy to my ears. Less so with each passing year, perhaps, and with each additional listening, certainly, yet I struggle still with personal demons and haunted memories (less so with each passing year, perhaps, and with each additional listening, certainly) that (dis)colour my feelings for certain songs and touches.
Blue Aeroplanes touted many of the tunes for ‘Swagger’ with R.E.M. on the ‘Green’ tour in 1989, and the two groups and records are almost inextricably connected in my conscious. In other words both ‘Green’ and ‘Swagger’ sound (degrees of) terrific in isolation yet suffer on subsequent revisiting of earlier works. This is in part down to personal context and taste of course, but I believe both groups earlier/earliest records are more beguiling, mysterious, spacious and brittle.
Yet ‘Swagger’ feels out of time because, disconnected from its original context it now feels oddly more savage than I ever remember. The mud has dried and fallen away revealing a ravaged body that is animated in a dance of wild abandon. Which, with respect to Wojtek Dmochowski, is perhaps not an altogether inappropriate metaphor.
The take on Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Applicant’ is a case in point. Where once I believed the song stripped power from Plath’s poetry I now do a double take and wonder what on earth I was thinking. It seems now that the song forces me to hear meaning afresh. It startles in a way I had not previously considered, with words and phrases gouging and scything with brutal precision. Langely’s delivery is singing-not-singing, poetry-not-poetry, walking the tightrope betwixt and between.
Singles ‘and Stones’ and ‘Jacket Hangs’ are tremendous Pop mementoes that, increasingly shorn of that personal antipathy reveal themselves as much more valiantly awkward and perversely assured than I ever remember. Blue Aeroplanes at their best always came complete with awkward pauses (and indeed awkward poses) and these songs now make me consider them as something like a Big Flame with their razor blades blunted just so (this isn’t a pejorative statement, though you may read it as such) and… Television hesitating. And who needs Television when you had The Subway Sect? Well perhaps there is something of Godard’s English language school of thought here too. The poetry of the everyday given an eloquent reading.
Today though it is ‘Weightless’ that gnaws most on my mind. Five minutes of ebb and flow, of building and decaying. Earlier we mentioned a sense of spaciousness missing in some of the production of ‘Swagger’ and perhaps it is no surprise that ‘Weightless’ feels like the moment where that emptiness most suggestively creeps back in. Even in the moments of meshing guitars and noise there is a sense of void into which Langley hurls his words. There is something compelling too in the way that noise falls from our ears to be replaced by a tinitus echo and Langley murmuring about how he “liked being weightless best”. Today too it recalls the epic unfurling of Felt’s swan song ‘New Day Dawning’ and there is nothing wrong with that at all.
So my ‘Swagger’ is not Sansom’s ‘Swagger’ and on reflection why would it be? Indeed on reflection even it if had been it would not and that is as it ought, for those notions of connectivity, powerful, invaluable and life-affirming as they are, in our worlds of books and records they are still and always transient pulses. Profoundly important, yes, yet essentially illusory. Weightless, indeed.
If you are anything like me (and the remote chances of your reading a blog called Unpopular, or indeed any blog at all in 2019 mean that you probably are, at least in part, and for which I feel enormous sympathy) you no longer buy much or indeed anything from The Amazon (either rain forest nor online global consumer behemoth). I humbly admit that I do still occasionally use it (the online global consumer behemoth, not the rain forest) for board pens and merino wool wash liquid, but for music and books I almost entirely rely on The Bandcamp, label or artist websites and The Hive (buying through which I can benefit both from cheaper prices and the insufferably smug feeling of supporting local book shops without having to leave the comforting seclusion of my own home). One thing I do use The Amazon (the online global…. blah blah blah) for though is keeping track of things that one day I should like to buy/read (and it is almost exclusively read). Well, what other purpose is that ‘Wishlist’ function for, after all?
If you are anything like me (and the remote chances of… oh, deja vu just kicked us up the arse, didn’t it?) then the very act of putting something in a ‘Wishlist’ means that it becomes increasingly unlikely you will ever actually get around to buying/reading said something. It’s just the way of it. If it is something suitably exciting you will just buy it anyway before placing it on the ‘to be read’ pile/shelves/under-the-stairs-book-store where it will also perhaps languish for some time. But at least it is there within relatively easy reach and will occasionally send out a bashful smile and a fluttering of eyelashes to tempt you. Or perhaps that’s just me.
All of which is by way of telling you that on recent perusal of The Amazon Wishlist I discovered that five years ago I had added to it Robert Irwin’s ‘Satan Wants Me’ novel. I have no idea why I would have added it at that point in time, although it is possible that it would have been thanks to a recommendation from my old Tangents writer friend William Crain. Indeed it was William who certainly recommended it (perhaps again) earlier this year after an exchange of emails and thoughts on Merrily Watkins novels, and it was certainly this double-nod of approval that led me to moving the book from the Wishlist to the Hive shopping basket as opposed to idly thinking ‘why on earth?’ and clicking the ‘remove from list’ button.
Published in 1999, ‘Satan Wants Me’ is an exploration of Satanism and the Occult in ‘Swinging London’ (or perhaps, more accurately, ‘Swingeing London’) written in the form of a diary. As a novel it is by turns threatening, illusory, educational and marvellously, darkly funny (on occasion even Laugh Out Loud so). Irwin weaves these threads with aplomb, never letting either one get in the way of the pacey narrative that drives the whole thing along. The diaristic technique is one guaranteed to appeal (from E.M. Delafield’s ‘Provincial Lady’ through Sue Townsend’s peerless Adrian Mole series to C.D. Payne’s outrageous ‘Youth In Revolt’, many of my favourite books have been penned in diary form) and if there is something of a lurch towards the last quarter of the book when the focus shifts somewhat (no spoilers!) then the diary format is hugely valuable in making it a success for it gives space for the brain to fill in the gaps. In this it is essentially like a comic-strip, where what is unseen and unspoken between the frames is as important as what is drawn and written. As an interesting aside, one of the characters in ‘Satan Wants Me’ crops up in a cameo role in Alan Moore’s ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ and Moore has called Irwin a “fantastic writer” so, as we are want to say, it all fits.
Hugely evocative of place and time, one is almost convinced (no, one IS convinced) that these are genuine 1967 diary entries, such is the deftly applied colour of period detail and cultural (particularly musical) reference. I say this of course as someone who would have been one year old in 1967 and therefore as someone with nothing more than mediated ‘memories’ of the time. Yet it is that very mediation of cultural reference that lends ‘Satan Wants Me’ its convincing patina of ‘authenticity’. One rather suspects that a lesser writer may have been tempted to pepper the book with more artfully crafted, dare I say it ‘curated’ references to lesser-known ‘underground’ music, films, books, whatever. And whilst Irwin does indeed make numerous references to records, they are convincing in so far as, to anyone from the twenty first century even remotely interested in music, they are easily identifiable and, more importantly, cross the gamut from what would have been vaguely ’underground’ at the time (The Pink Floyd, Hapshash and The Coloured Coat, The Incredible String Band) to mainstream Pop (Adrienne Posta’s terrific ‘Shang A Doo Lang’, Lulu, not to mention The Beatles and The Stones who would have a foot in both camps). What’s fascinating though is that in the context of these fictional diaries set in 1967, written in 1997 and read in 2019, all of these cultural references become (more or less) equal because they are equally distant and equally ‘important’. For pre-Internet, this is how music crept into our lives. A delicious blend of what we chose to put on the record player (if you are anything like me, perhaps more obscure and certainly more difficult to find) and what we heard from radio and television playing in the background (chart hits, both contemporary and from the past). No-one walked about wearing headphones in their own curated musical bubble (well, not until the Walkman plagued our lives). Open to everything.
Not that I am criticising The Interwebs, for without it I would hardly have been able to so easily investigate something of Robert Irwin’s life and track down more of his books, many of which appear to be non-fiction tomes about Arabic/Middle Eastern history and literature. Not something that I would normally rank highly in my personal areas of interest or taste, yet such is the accomplished appeal of ‘Satan Wants Me’ that I admit to finding myself tempted to add, at the very least, his ‘Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, Mystics and the Sixties’ to my reading shelves. As for his other novels, I will certainly take the time to seek out ‘Exquisite Corpse’, not least because I am intrigued to see what he makes of a fictionalised British Surrealist art scene and ‘The Mysteries of Algiers’ because it promises to be a thriller and you know I am a bit of a sucker for That Kind Of Thing and am intrigued to see how he measures up to Ambler and le Carré. I suspect too that the appeal of ‘The Mysteries of Algiers’ is largely fuelled by the immense pleasure of watching the wonderfully amusing ‘A Very Secret Service’ on The Netflix, a show dealing with the same issues of the Algerian struggle for liberation from France though, one suspects, from a somewhat different perspective. The only issue will be whether there will be enough space on the shelves/piles/under-the-stairs-book-store to accommodate all these, not to mention the metaphorical harrumphs and disappointed glares sent out by all the books already there, patiently awaiting their turn.
And anyway, with a new academic term looming and the hideous chants of Back To Work reverberating ever more loudly in the background, one needs something to look forward to, right?
If Satan Wants Me had indeed been recommended to me by my old Tangents writer friend William Crain I felt certain that it would most likely have been through his excellent (and idiosyncratic – which is why it is excellent) The Sound The Past Makes blog, perhaps complete with a marvellous mix of music. On delving back into the archives however (itself a terrific experience) I could find no such mix or reference to the book and so have taken it on myself to put together a ‘Satan Wants Me’ mix on The Spotify. It’s almost like being back in 1967.
NB: Yes, yes, I know the opening cut on the mix wasn’t released until 1969, but the Alan Price version of ‘Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear’ isn’t on the Spotify and anyway: HARRY NILSSON.
I do not often read books about music and musicians, but something about Robert Dean Lurie’s ‘Begin The Begin: The story of R.E.M.’s early years’ caught my interest. Certainly of the music I listened to during the period from, say, 1983 to 1985, those first three r.e.m. albums are the records that I would say still hold some kind of strange beguilement; are the ones that conjure strong personal memories and yet simultaneously manage to slip through the grasp of understanding and remain both elusive and illusive. Perhaps only the contemporaneous albums by The Go-Betweens are a match in this regard, personally speaking. In his book Lurie certainly does a good job of drawing together the threads of narrative that combined to mould the group and in so doing widely acknowledges the broader context of Athens and its artistic mythology. At the very least it had me scurrying back to play those old Pylon records, which still sound magnificent, and of course tangentially out to the Let’s Active records too and that is always a treat. It’s ‘Fables of the Reconstruction’, ‘Reckoning’ and ‘Murmur’ though that remain the ones that soothe and confuse in equal measure, and it’s to Lurie’s credit that he has made me want to immerse myself once more in the pleasures and pains held within their grooves.
Naturally I understand why Lurie’s book also takes in the ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ and ‘Document’ albums (they are the necessarily ‘bigger’ records that bridge to the ‘major label’ breakthrough to mainstream recognition), but I admit that whilst both those records hold some treasure (the gorgeous Pop tingle of ‘Fall On Me’ would be the prime example) they leave me mostly cold now. I’m sure I have said it before, but I am certain this is largely because on those records you can actually hear what Michael Stipe is singing about and, for the most part, stripped of the shivering uncertainty of meaning held in the previous records, it all feels somewhat flat and worthy. It’s probably why I found those later chapters in Lurie’s book to be increasingly less engaging, as r.e.m. grew into R.E.M. and, increasingly shorn of art-rock local folkloric roots, became more another example of rock orthodoxy.
I should point out that I have no problem with R.E.M. and their subsequent global success, just that personally I have no interest in the records that followed. I’ve not got a huge amount of interest in the artistic life of Stipe post ‘Fables’ either, and I admit that what I have seen of his own photography work has left me balancing on a point between vaguely interested and distinctly underwhelmed. Certainly I have found them less interesting than, say, Dennis Hopper’s (to pick another artist from another medium whose photography might otherwise never have seen the light of day if not for their ‘celebrity’). Much of the interest in Hopper’s photographs now is as documentary evidence of history and culture (his shots of Hell’s Angels and of Sunset Boulevard riots in 1967 are particularly fascinating) but there are certainly threads of creative exploration evident throughout those images collected in ‘The Lost Album’ that bear out what Hopper said about the camera being, in the years between 1961 and 1967, the only creative outlet he had and that making those photographs “kept [him] alive”. There is certainly something of the obsessive amateur in the work, and as a tangential jumping off point I admit I keep getting drawn back to a particular 1962 shot of Brooke Hayward with a doll’s head.
This shot of Hayward and the doll’s head is a tangential point of reference because it reminds me of the celebrated work of another ‘amateur’ photographer, Ralph Eugene Meatyard. And whilst I say celebrated of course I admit that I have personally only stumbled (if you will excuse the pun) on Meatyard’s work thanks to Lurie’s compelling theory about the origins of the r.e.m. band name. In brief the theory goes thus: Michael Stipe, as an art student with an interest in photography and folkloric/outsider art, would undoubtably have come across the work of Meatyard in his studies/explorations (there are strong connections between the aesthetic of Meatyard’s work and, say, Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden or R.A. Miller’s garden of whirligigs that feature in the early R.E.M. promotional videos); Meatyard signed his correspondence with his initials, in lower case (r.e.m.); in their early years the group’s name on flyers, posters etc was similarly often written in lower case… So is the connection between Meatyard and the origins of the r.e.m. band name real/true? In hindsight it feels like a pleasant detour in meaning if nothing else, yet also entirely in keeping with a group who, in those early years certainly, seemed keen to keep the mysteries caged.
Meatyard too kept the mystery caged, being famously mute when sharing his work with fellow members of the Lexington Camera Club and rarely if ever giving interviews or talking about his photographs. What he did say about his work however is intriguing, particularly in reference to any connection into the music of early r.e.m. Certainly the notion of his work as being “romantic-surrealist” dovetails neatly with many of the songs from those first three r.e.m. albums which are so often suffused with a haunting Otherness with Stipe’s lyrics out of focus and lacking much meaning beyond abstracted associations of sound. Meatyard said about his famous images of his family members dressed in Halloween masks that the masks and the doll’s heads were there to function as ways into the photographs but that the more lasting interest would be in the backgrounds. Certainly they are photographs that reward repeated viewing. Those first three r.e.m. albums work in a not dissimilar way, where melodies and the occasional clarity of a lyric pulls you into a song that rewards with textures and shifts of light and dark that reward repeated listening.
In his essay that opens the ‘Kentucky Renaissance’ book about the Lexington Camera Club, John Jeremiah Sullivan writes that “[In the South], perhaps, we imbue our artists with a unique luminosity. We need them. And when a community does manage to form, however loosely, there’s a glow. You’re huddling together inside something, inside a culture, but against something too.” and it strikes me that this could just as easily have been Lurie writing about the Athens musical community in the late 70s and early 80s. Indeed, it is the threads and connections Lurie traces between people from that period that are the most intriguing and engaging elements of ‘Begin The Begin’ and I admit that reading the book had me digging out that ‘Athens Inside/Out’ DVD again. And just as Lurie has me scurrying back to listen again to groups like Love Tractor, Flat Duo Jets and (especially) Pylon, so ‘Kentucky Renaissance’ has me eagerly seeking out Charles Traub’s ‘Edge to Edge’ landscape photographs and Cranston Ritchie’s wonderful experimental work involving panning and tracking. Then too there is the work of Robert C. May and particularly his shots of Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s son Chris (sans Halloween mask) from the early 70s which could easily be taken as blueprints for the Michael Stipe aesthetic from a decade later. Indeed, the shot of Chris Meatyard reclining on an old mattress illuminated from behind by a window apparently shorn of glazing but with a wrapped fragment of sheer curtain tied in its lower frame, might be of Stipe in the old church on Oconee St in Athens and maybe, if the shot was in colour, the light might be green just as it is in what is perhaps my favourite of all R.E.M. songs, the gorgeous ‘Camera’.
Not ever having been what one might call an obsessive about the group it was only on reading Lurie’s book that I came aware that ‘Camera’ is ‘about’ fellow Athens community member Carol Levy, a photographer who shot the band for the rear sleeve of their Hib-Tone debut single and who tragically died in a traffic collision just a day after the US release of the ‘Murmur’ album. Lurie suggests that “Carol Levy’s spirit hangs palpably over the origins of the Athens music scene virtually everywhere you turn”. It is tempting to suggest such a reading is informed at least in part by a knowledge of the tragic circumstances of her death (it is always easier to read significance into the lives of those who leave us young than in those who lead longer lives and -perhaps- fade from narratives) but then again, there is a photo much earlier in the book that shows Lynda and Cyndy Stipe dancing in a club whilst behind them, only just visible, is Carol Levy. There is an immediately energising vitality about this fragment of image that is inescapable, so perhaps there is something in what Lurie says after all. Certainly there is a significant sense of loss, love and presence in ‘Camera’ and it is to R.E.M.’s credit that it is a presence you sense without any knowledge of the song’s origins or meaning. Stipe has said that this pretty much ended his period of ‘autobiographical’ song writing, though the threads of personal meaning are always obtuse and broadly suggestive rather than explicit. To draw another parallel into the world of the Lexington Camera club, where Charles Traub talks about how “photography is about seeing what the world looks like as a picture” then perhaps these early r.e.m. recordings are about seeing what the world looks like as a song. Indeed, in her essay that accompanies the Radius Books publication of Meatyard’s ‘Dolls and Masks’ photographs, Eugenia Parry writes that “the photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard are mystery plays”. One need only change “photographs” to “songs” and insert Meatyard’s initials to see the sentence as an accurate description of ‘Murmur’, ‘Reckoning’ or ‘Fables’.
Maybe there is something in Lurie’s theory after all.
‘Begin The Begin. R.E.M.’s Early Years’ by Robert Dean Lurie is published by Verse Chorus Press ‘Kentucky Renaissance. The Lexington Camera Club and Its Community 1954-1974’ is published by Yale University Press in association with the Cincinnati Art Museum ‘Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Dolls and Masks’ is published by Radius Books ‘Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album’ is published by Prestel books
We are not really Festival People, The Duchess and I. Just seeing glimpses of the scenes at Glastonbury is enough to turn us into shivering balls of terror. There has always been something about the Port Eliot Festival however that has held something of a vague appeal, perhaps due to its relatively close proximity to home, and perhaps due to the fact that its setting always seems so bucolic. In a fit of mid-life-crisis-let’s-try-it-I-bet-we-hate-it hysteria then we spend our Christmas money on two adult weekend tickets (oo-er missus) and spend the following six months in various states of anxiety about What Will It Be Like and How Will We Possibly Cope. Then weeks before the off we learn this will be the last Port Eliot for the foreseeable and consider that Fate has played its hand. We spend the final week anxiously refreshing the Met Office website/app and entering a provisional itinerary in iCal. This is either A Sign Of The Times or a damning condemnation of the State We Are In. I cannot quite decide which.
During their Friday night performance on the Caught By The River stage, Geoff Barrow of the hugely entertaining Beak> makes barbed quips about Port Eliot being the most expensive festival in Britain (it’s true, food and drink prices are eye-watering) and about how everyone in the audience is from That London. Yet whilst there is certainly some truth in what he says, there are clearly many locals in attendance, both those genuinely from Cornwall and those ‘incomers’ from what my friend Rupert likes to call Kornawall. Our good friend Lizzie, who is kind enough to offer us a real bed in a real house (in the St Germans station) for the weekend (and in hindsight we willingly concede that without this luxury it is highly unlikely we could have lasted one night) grew up in the village and with her band Wurlitza takes us a through a nostalgic slideshow of the Elephant Fayre (precursor to the current festival) in the 1980s – as much a document of her childhood and teen years as a poignant full-stop on this particular festival chapter. It’s a lovely opener to the whole festival experience, and as the images slip past, and as I watch the people milling through the beautiful grounds of the Eliot estate over the coming days it occurs to me that whilst we can just about glimpse the ghostly presences of the transient travelling culture that Richard King writes about so well in his book ‘The Lark Ascending’ and that can be seen in Lizzie’s photographs, there is a much greater sense of this being one of the social meeting points that punctuate the year of the wealthy. It reminds me of something I read recently in one of Maigret’s cases (‘The Nahour Case’) in which he considers “people who were equally at home in London, New York and Rome, who took planes the way others took the Metro, who stayed in grand hotels, where they fell in with friends and established routines, whatever the country, and who formed a sort of international freemasonry”. At one point, as we stroll along one of the many paths through woods spotted with pop-up discos behind a trail of wagons festooned with fairy lights cradling bundles of babies, I spot a former Formula 1 team owner, sweater draped casually around his neck. Ah right, I think to myself, it’s THAT kind of festival. And of course it is, and it isn’t. Half an hour later we come across our friend Lizzie and her mate Frederick dressed as a boat, parading through the grounds complete with wind-up gramophone on deck. So, you know, it’s THAT kind of festival too.
Beak> then are certainly the most vocally cynical act of the weekend and perhaps it is no coincidence that they are also one of the best, delivering an incendiary, pummelling set of motorik rhythms and noises that howl and squeal like prowling rabid wolves. Self-deprecating and sharply abusive of their audience in the same breath, they could easily fall foul of their mouths if they didn’t sound so monumental. At times they make me think of Loop locked on a funky groove or Spiritualized with some anime. At times too they remind me of what Appliance might have grown into, had they been more open to freeform explorations or indeed had the time and opportunity that fate tragically took away. In any case, Beak> are a fluid maelstrom of noise and groove that locks onto our souls and swings us into the stratosphere. For a moment we believe in magic.
At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum but just as wonderful performance wise is Owen Ashworth, performing as Advance Base. I have loved Owen’s records since the days of Casiotone For The Painfully Alone (I quip to The Duchess before the show that knowing the name of that previous act should give a pretty clear idea of what to expect) but this is the first time I have seen him play. He is everything I could have expected. Charming, quiet and with that necessary intensity that comes from what one assumes to be an acutely introverted personality standing on stage performing. It’s that tension that invests Advance Base with the rare quality of mesmerising charm; a sound and structure so faint and simple you could so easily miss it. This is simplicity of song and performance that is so deceptively complex and difficult. Making something so close to nothing is the greatest challenge and Advance Base is as accomplished at this as any.
Not being entirely familiar with the structure of festivals I can only assume that elements of dissonance are somewhat fundamental to the whole experience. Certainly it is obvious when wandering the site, bombarded from all sides by seeping sounds of pumping beats, each ebbing and flowing with the passing of footsteps. And certainly that sense of disconnect is firmly cemented when Advance Base is followed on the same Walled Garden stage by The Loose Salute. We have been told they are tremendous and whilst the singer (draped in white silk) is perhaps just a touch overly vivacious and eager to please for my tastes I have to concede that they certainly are very good indeed. The programme has them touted as something akin to West Coast harmonic Pop but really they are closer to a country-tinged good-time bar band, and there is nothing wrong with that as far as it goes. Best moments by far for me are when the drummer takes the lead vocal role and only later, when I do some more digging do I realise it is Ian McCutcheon, formerly of the excellent Mojave 3. As we are wont to say, ‘it all fits’.
Vic Godard certainly seems to enjoy The Loose Salute, toe-tapping along in his deckchair, and we see Vic again the next day in what must be the most marvellously comic moment of the weekend when he wanders into the Caught By The River tent just as Jon Savage is talking about soft boys like The Subway Sect as part of a highly entertaining talk about his recent Joy Division book. It’s so well timed it just has to have been planned, yet it comes across as marvellously natural. The genuine warmth towards Vic from everyone in the tent is almost palpable, and even if many of us don’t actually make it along to see him play later that night we all wish him well.
Savage is, as mentioned, extremely engaging when talking about his recent Joy Division: An Oral History book. It may not be a book I have any great interest in picking up (I can’t help but feel I have learned all I really need/want to about Joy Division – a group I have always enjoyed but never been obsessively connected to) but Savage talks with confidence and obvious pleasure. For me the most intriguing points in the talk are when Savage talks explicitly about the presence of Curtis and of his connection/disconnection from the audience. At one point he describes hosting a session with a group of 16 year olds (presumably dragged along by their school as an attempt to invest them with some cultural capital) and how for the most part they listened and watched with an air of passive boredom (a look the Duchess and I both know so well from decades spent in classrooms). Only when they saw a film clip of Curtis performing did they all instinctively become animated, as though recognising some kind of Other energy that even through the medium of film and across the decades could throw out tendrils of power to tap into the very essence of being young, bold, anxious, invulnerable and fragile. Elsewhere Savage talks almost hesitantly about how he now believes Curtis to have been ‘channeling’ in his performance and writing, as in being a conduit to a spiritual realm. His hesitancy in saying this is understandable in this kind of broadly secular context, and goodness knows Savage must be keen to avoid being seen as some mad-cap loon who, like Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle believes not only in the spiritual realm but also in the reality of fairies at the bottom of the garden (in fairness, evidence suggest there are many in the wider Port Eliot audience who believe in the latter). Yet there is certainly too something about our age where a fascination with Otherness is quite compelling, however you might want to frame it, and there are surely threads from these notions of Spiritualism out into the realms of psychedelia and gnostic naturalism.
Sharing the stage with Savage is Lavinia Greenlaw, who proffers some eloquent memories of the late seventies ‘scene’ as a fan and participant. If her point about the lack of strong female voices in the received narrative of the Manchester scene is perhaps too quickly skimmed over, her quiet, carefully considered inputs are poised in perfect counterpoint to Savage’s more flamboyant and extrovert deliveries (at one point he hollers at some carousing, beer swilling lads outside the tent to “SHUT UP!” – and to their credit they do shuffle off rather sheepishly). I have to say I find her far more interesting in this context than when she reads some of her poetry earlier in the Caught By The River Poetry Hour. There is certainly something in the themes of her most recent work, “a meditation on the metaphysics of memory and loss”, that I want to engage with, but the reality is that I find my mind wandering, frustrated by the traditional sing-song-seriousness spoken word delivery that appears the default setting for any poet. It’s the same with Rachael Allen, although with Allen the content of the work completely passes by with barely a flicker of connection or interest. Of the three poets performing it is Will Burns who leaves the best impression, although this may simply because he is on first and because his work is succinct and short, giving less opportunity for the Poet’s Voice to grate. Admittedly the frustration with all of this surely says more about us than it does about the work but I cannot help think that it can’t just be the Duchess and I who feel this way. How many others are put off the very idea of poetry by stumbling on someone peddling those tiresome cadences in what feels like terminal repetition?
Onwards! Upwards! (interlude for gin and tonic and/or snooze in the shade of a tree looking down on the river Tiddy and/or a session in a hot tub with a glass of overpriced champagne because it’s THAT kind of festival interlude abruptly interrupted by roving pop-up disco Land Rover blaring ‘Hot In The City’ and accompanied by Young People tossing a large dildo in the air because it’s THAT kind of festival too)
In describing his favourite Punk groups Jon Savage talks about how he always valued those who seemed to have an ambition that outstripped ability. Watching Stealing Sheep perform it occurs to me that this might be something that could be applied here, but in a less positive way. For Stealing Sheep have always left me somewhat confused, and always ever so slightly disappointed. On record they often seem to be on the verge of something terrific. The puzzle pieces are all the right ones, but somehow when they are all slotted together the picture is unremarkable and disappointingly underwhelming. In their latest incarnation Stealing Sheep invest their melodic psychedelia with a heftier sprinkling of Disco and the decaying half-life radiation of late ‘80s Rave. Presumably there is also a significant amount of reference to Contemporary Pop Sounds but I wouldn’t know about that, and anyway, whenever I click on a video clip posted by friends frothing on The Social Media about How Great (insert name of Young Person Making Pop Music) is I barely last more than half a minute before blankly switching off and thinking ‘is that all there is?’ and before diving headlong into the pleasurable depths of knowing That Time Has Come when I no longer understand, let alone remotely care about what The Young People Like and thank goodness for that, pass the Calvados and another Maigret novel and here’s to the End Of The World. Sometimes watching Stealing Sheep I do think this is like Pipettes when they Went Disco but without the tunes and my mind wanders and wonders what Bobby is up to these days and yeah, wouldn’t it have been cool to have had Gwenno perform something here (I’m pretty sure she’s been at Port Eliot in the past, probably in the Caught By The River tent). My feet do tap and my hips do swing however, so I’m clearly not immune to everything on offer and my soul is perhaps not yet entirely shrivelled and dead. Yet.
The Duchess tells me afterwards that she realises she has heard Stealing Sheep on the radio in her motor car (I do not listen to The Radio except on my visits to Mr Fred the barber who has ‘6 Music’ on in the background as he clips on the #1 guard and asks me about the cycling) and that they always initially catch her interest but ultimately lose it. Later still she describes their stage performance as being like a 6th Form Leavers party, which I tell her is quite harsh but pretty much on the mark. In other words it’s full of Big Gestures, Hugs, Squeals and Sparkly Outfits but ultimately it’s all A Bit Obvious and (I can’t quite believe I’m going to say this in the context of The Most Expensive Festival In Britain) a bit cheap and vulgar. We agree that the blue laser beam lights are quite cool though.
So as we mentioned previously, Jon Savage made mention of soft boys in his talk about Joy Division and so by probably not-so-strange coincidence we rock up to witness another highly entertaining set by Robyn Hitchcock. The venue this time is the beautiful St Germans church, which, being at one time known as the Cathedral of Cornwall, is a step up from the little church in Newton Abbott where we watched him play last summer (supported of course by the beguiling and brilliant Left Outsides). There has always been a singular strain of English eccentric humour in Hitchcock’s work, but he seems to up the ante for the Cathedral/festival crowd, slotting extended surrealist/psychedelic tales of his wonderful cat Tubby’s adventures as the keeper of Bryan Ferry’s quiff gel between songs, much to everyone’s great enjoyment. In some respects though it’s a shame because it deflects from the dark charm that also inhabits many of Hitchcock’s songs and threatens to consign him (in some people’s minds perhaps) to the Siberian outposts of comic/gimmick popstarts. And that’s not a place I would recommend to anyone. At least though it’s always a little cloaked and treading on uncertain ground (at one point during the terrific ‘My Wife and My Dead Wife’ from 1985’s ‘Fegmania!’ set an admittedly hammered posh bird in the row behind us gasps to her friend and asks awkwardly “is it meant to be funny?” To which the answer of course is No. Yes. Yes and no. No and yes. Of course. Have another gin and tonic dahling). It seems to me rather that there is something charming in seeing Hitchcock playing the part of the ‘could have been bigger than…’ troubadour, carefully balancing on the tipping point between unsightly self-pity and self-aggrandising arrogance (I admit it was only on recently reading Robin Dean Lurie’s excellent ‘Begin The Begin’ book about the early years of r.e.m. that I was reminded how, in that period around the mid to late ‘80s Hitchcock was being positioned as strong contender for being The Next Big Thing in the US ‘alternative’ market). Transitioning between guitar and electric piano (provided, it later transpires, by our friend Lizzie – you remember, the one dressed as half of a boat) Hitchcock wraps us in a warming cloak courtesy of songs that are filled with wit, wisdom and surreal whimsy. He closes with a couple of older songs: the always-and-forever classic Pop sunshine sparkle of The Soft Boys’ ‘Queen of Eyes’ and a take on ‘Brenda’s Iron Sledge’ that shows the song can still pack a punch stripped of it’s full-band rock backing (although Hitchcock invites us to imagine this in his introduction to the number).
Wandering out of the church into the approaching sunset we pass an impressively large queue waiting to see/hear Simon Armitage read some poems in the Big House and we begin again to hear the clashing thumps and hums of attractions competing for our attention and it occurs to me that what I would really like to do is to take each of these experiences and isolate them into singular moments. Take them apart and spread them over a series of weeks, months, years perhaps. Give them space to breathe. But that wouldn’t be The Festival Experience would it?
We are not really Festival People, The Duchess and I, and as we drift off back to our Devon garden and our own cats (like Tubby and any other feline you care to mention they do love a good box to sit in) we nurse our numerous insect bites and agree that whilst it’s probably not something we would want to do again (just as well then that it was the last Port Eliot for the foreseeable) We Are Glad We Did It. In capitals.