Contact – Big Thief (from ‘U.F.O.F.’ LP) You Let My Tyres Down – Tropical Fuck Storm (from ‘A Laughing Death In Meatspace’ LP. Bandcamp) Midnight Mist – Witch Hazel (from ‘Otherwordly’ LP. Bandcamp) Vacation – Sebadoh (from ‘Act Surprised’ LP. Bandcamp) D.I.S.C.I.P.L.E – Clinic (from ‘Wheeltappers and Shunters’ LP. Bandcamp) How Far – Sacred Paws (from ‘Run Around The Sun‘ LP) Don’t Cry For Me, California – Red Sleeping Beauty (from ‘Stockholm’ LP. Bandcamp) Sun Memory II feat. Rose Berlin – epic45 (from ‘Sun Memory’ EP. Bandcamp) Haiku – Katherine Johnson – Pam Berry (from ‘One Small Step For Global Pop’ LP. Bandcamp) Chronostasis – Deerful (from ‘One Small Step For Global Pop’ LP. Bandcamp) Qui A Su – Gillian Hills (YouTube) In Your Life – Adam Faith (from ‘Three Day Week: When the Lights Went Out 1972-1975‘ LP) Within a Dream – trappist afterland (from ‘Insects In Amber’ LP. Bandcamp) The Dukes of Stratosphear – Ralegh Long (digital single. Bandcamp) The Postcard – Stephen Duffy (from ‘I Love My Friends‘ LP) The Dystopian Days of Yore – Monnone Alone (from ‘Summer Of The Mosquito’ LP. Bandcamp) What Was That Sound? – Theatre Royal (from ‘Singles 2010-2018’ LP. Bandcamp) Light Bending – The Claim (from ‘The New Industrial Ballads’ LP. Bandcamp) Waylon Jennings Live! – The Mountain Goats (from ‘In League With Dragons‘ LP) Technicolor Summer Sunshine – Paul Den Heyer (from ‘Everything So Far’ LP. Bandcamp) There Goes My Miracle – Bruce Springsteen (from ‘Western Stars‘ LP) Devil May Care – Son Volt (from ‘Union‘ LP) After the Sunrise – The Grip Weeds (from ‘Trip Around The Sun‘ LP) Heavenly Day – Peter Perrett (from ‘Humanworld’ LP) If That’s Alright – Uncle Tupelo (from ‘Still Feel Gone’ LP)
There are barely twenty five people in the room, whose walls are decorated by randomly hung paintings and other decorative art forms, each firmly within the genre of what, in a heartless moment of dismissive judgement, I might term #earthyhippieamateurnonsense. With a hashtag because it’s the twenty first century and we are driven by its drum, aren’t we? The art is the kind of thing I remember seeing on the walls of Exeter’s legendary vegetarian restaurant Herbies back in the early nineteen nineties. I could well believe some of the pictures had been there for a decade or more when I saw them and could well believe that they adorn the walls still, casting an ageless aura of… what? Regret? Loneliness? Isolation? Inner peace and self-assuredness?
Perhaps I am a harsh judge of visual arts (though I suspect my friend Rupert, who I catch up with for the first time in far too long, would consider my judgements to be overly positive) but perhaps this is because it is a form I understand (to a degree). Perhaps if I were a musician, or if I understood the practicalities of making music, then I might be equally dismissive of the sounds that permeate the space throughout the evening. But I don’t, and I’m not, for most of the noises seem otherworldly, mesmerising and strange. Not quite strange enough perhaps for Rupert, whose tastes, whilst overlapping with my own, have always largely veered more towards the more, ah, ‘difficult’ end of the weirdshire spectrum, but in the context of a small room in the depths of Cornwall, certainly strange enough to be going on with.
Laurence Collyer hails from around Totnes (of course he does) and records and performs as The Diamond Family Archive. Subsequent exploration tells me that he sometimes performs and records with other musicians but tonight it is just Laurence accompanied by a few instruments, a small electronic box and a shallow wooden drawer full of effects pedals. The drawer is dusted at the edges with cobwebs, as though it has just been pulled out of a magikal map-chest in a shed, and whilst this might be a carefully designed piece of artifice it certainly is a useful piece in the puzzle where The Diamond Family Archive constructs itself before our eyes and ears as a audiological collage of creaks, cracks, loops and luxurious textures. It’s the noise of a madcap laughing, perhaps, but a noise where the tendrils knowingly draw themselves out to recognisable touchstones of drone, traditional folk and lyrical narrative. The collage aspect is important, for these are sonic constructions that are simultaneously abrupt (loops are created like tearing paper, source material seen upside down to remove obvious visual reference) and sensitive (loops interweave, each giving the other a breathing space). Indeed, this talk of collage reminds me of Alan Davidson’s Kitchen Cynics and of Davidson and Gayle Brogan’s collaborations as Barrett’s Dottled Beauty and of course these are concrete connections in this imagined landscape of the illusory. I had not heard (of) The Diamond Family Archive before tonight but I will certainly be hearing more in the future.
It’s only after seeing Alula Down perform that I realise I will have heard them before on the Weirdshire 2 compilation that I enjoyed greatly a year or two ago. In another of those strange coincidences that are not coincidences at all, whilst I listen to Alula Down perform I am minded of some of Alison Cotton’s solo work and of course there is an Alison Cotton (with Michael Tanner aka Plinth) cut on that same compilation. Alula Down too it seems are part of the Sproatly Smith collective and the Weirdshire scene out in what I admit I think of as the dark depths of Herefordshire, inhabiting the same magikal landscapes as the fictional presences in Phil Rickman’s novels. Indeed, upon subsequent meandering down avenues I discover that on volume 1 of the Weirdshire compilation series there nestles a tune by Lol Robinson and Hazy Jane II. Now I imagine that Jane Watkins is a fan of Sproatly Smith too, and rightly so. They even made a record called Thomas Traherne in 2014, which would have been the time I was first discovering Merrily’s world. As we are apt to say, it all fits.
On record Alula Down are delicate and dreamlike, quite clearly connected to established folk traditions. This is all fine, and their beautifully packaged Hopedowns set (in a little cardboard box with a pressed flower nestled inside next to the CD) is certainly well worth tracking down. Yet in a live context they manage to push the strangeness further, opening fissures in the aural landscape from which they tease threads of illusory pastoral calm. Birds sing somewhere to the left middle distance; amplified acoustic guitar feedback whines a mournful call; Kate Gathercole’s voice drifts to the centre, a wraith balanced on butterfly wings, just so. I believe some call the call of the Weirdshire sound ‘avant-folk’. If so, then whilst on record Alula Down feel more distinctly rooted in folk, performing live they are assuredly avant.
Elsewhere in my archives I have noted about how I was completely unaware of the Trappist Afterland records until my friend Phil tempted me to the depths of Totnes in April 2018 for a night of psych-folk (or folk-psych) wonder. Since then I have listened extensively and repeatedly and yet would still struggle to explain exactly what it is about Adam Geoffrey Coles’ songs and recordings that I find so captivating. Like the rest of this night’s music, it comes in from the very edges of my interests (musical, cultural, spiritual) and seems almost opaquely impenetrable. There is a denseness about much of this music that I find enormously appealing; a denseness that feels as though it hovers on the brink of consciousness; a denseness whose claustrophobic repetition is eased only by a lightness of touch that rests on our ears as though from sunlight glimpsed through the forest canopy. If there is an earthiness to this music it is an earthiness that does not need to use such irrelevant notions such as ‘authenticity’. We all know there is no such thing. There is only this and there is only that and sometimes the two are one. Perhaps this is the entire point. Perhaps it is this yearning for one-ness that underpins all. Certainly I hear it in the short set of gems Adam and his accompanying guitarist collaborator for the evening perform for us as Trappist Afterland. One by one they drip and merge into one rock pool of mesmerising psych(ik) reflection.
There are barely twenty five people in the room whose walls fade to irrelevance even as they contain the presence of something other. Out There is rain and darkening clouds. Out There is what feels like an eternity of irreconcilable difference and fundamental division. In Here is a warmth and an ageless spirit of, not defiance exactly, but selective disconnectedness. Out There exists but In Here is reality. Upside down, inside out. There is only that and there is only this and sometimes the two are one.
As we rapidly approach the half way point of the year I am reminded that I started January by enjoying Geoffrey Household’s ‘Rogue Male‘. Mark Brend’s newly published novel ‘Undercliff‘ is the vehicle for this nudge of memory and I dare say that even if I had not known Brend to be a Household fan I would still have felt an undertow of ‘Rogue Male’ reference in the pages. Certainly ‘Undercliff’ is set in much the same landscape as that in which Household’s novel reaches its conclusion, although Brend settles just on the Devon side of the Jurassic coast, with Household’s ghost hiding out in the holloways of Dorset a pebble’s throw to the east. There is a structural similarity to the two novels also, with both using the first halves of their narratives to paint scenes, set connections and introduce characters before embarking on what is essentially a ‘chase’ in the second half. In ‘Undercliff’ this chase may be more muted than it is for the ‘Rogue Male’, but it nevertheless allows for much enjoyment in exploring a landscape of crumbling cliffs and densely woven undergrowth. In ‘Undercliff’ too the ‘chase’ is less animalistic and more informed by loosely bundled threads of investigation. These threads draw from notions of religion, belief, mysticism and the cult of the personality. They draw from notions of the simultaneous appeal of and repulsion from connectivity and community, of belonging and isolation. Where Household makes quite clear distinctions between good/bad whilst suggesting too that we all of us are rooted in the earth to which we all return, Brend instead leaves question marks hovering over everything. So whilst there are certainly mysteries in ‘Undercliff’, anyone looking for a puzzle to solve will perhaps be frustrated to find nothing quite so orthodox; whilst there are hints and suggestions of Magik at work these are never more than that, so anyone looking for something akin to a landscape hewn from conflict between Christian faith and a more ancient belief system such as Merrily Watkins inhabits may also find themselves faintly bewildered. ‘Undercliff’ instead treads more subtle ground and in this it feels very much a novel of contemporary flavours, even though it is set largely in 1973. So whilst there are some sensitive touches of historical contextualising (Brend’s descriptions of folk band The Flock are particularly fine) the novel as a whole seems invested with a sense of vague uncertainty. Characters seem caught between reality and fantasy, unable to judge truth from falsehood. Darkness seems always just round the corner, light just out of reach whilst we inhabit the realm of unknowing. As a first novel it is certainly one that suggests Brend has further treats to be unearthed and I heartily recommend it.
Less easy to recommend from my recent reading are three novels by E. and M. A. Radford that have been republished by Dean Street Press. My interest was piqued by an article in issue 80 of CADS, but whilst this estimable periodical is so often a source of enormously entertaining avenues of exploration, this one turned out rather frustrating. Perhaps those who favour the puzzle-based genre of detective fiction will find more in the Radford’s novels to enjoy but they left me rather cool. There are certainly few things that frustrate me more in mystery novels than the authors interjecting to tell me that in the chapter we have just finished I will surely have spotted all the necessary clues to solve the problem. Not that I mind writers breaking the fourth wall, as it were (Edmund Crispin does this with delicious dexterity), it’s more the insufferable smugness in a writer who seems determined to remind us that they have constructed a damnably clever puzzle. There is certainly a smugness about the Radford’s main character Doctor Manson which borders on insufferable and unbelievable. The influence of Holmes on the Manson character is clearly visible (I’m sure he says something is elementary several times) and I quite quickly found myself hearing him in my head as Basil Rathbone. In the CADS article Nigel Moss suggests that the three novels published by Dean Street have “strong plots, clever detection and evocative settings” and in this he is partially correct. Personally I would temper this by suggesting that the plots are confusingly complicated, the detection irritatingly clever and the settings less elegantly painted as they might be. ‘Murder Jigsaw’ is a good example of the latter. Set on the edge of Devon and Cornwall along the Tamar river, the Radfords sketch the landscape with a few daubs of colour, yet it feels always just a little clumsy and in many ways comes across as something of a pastiche of Cyril Hare’s marvellous ‘Death Is No Sportsman’ (written in 1938 – six years before ‘Murder Jigsaw’). Certainly Hare’s book is more adept at capturing the intricacies of fly-fishing without them ever feeling like insufferably detailed explanations of a favourite hobby, whilst his dry wit and more fully fleshed characters are immeasurably more convincing that the almost wreath-like presences conjured by the Radfords. Hare too is much more adept at painting convincing landscapes, and he does a grand job of showing off Exmoor in his final novel ‘He Should Have Died Hereafter’. With its traditional detective-novel mixture of real and imagined place names, the novel traverses the edges of Exmoor, up to what I read as being Dunkery beacon and down again to what is surely the hidden gem of Culbone church near Porlock. Sadly neither ‘He Should Have Died Hereafter’ nor E.C.R. Lorac’s ‘Murder In The Mill Race’ (just published in the British Library Crime Classics series and next up on my ‘to-be-read’ pile) subscribe to the less-well adhered to tradition of including hand drawn maps of the territory in their frontispieces. These little maps are always a delight and it please me enormously to say that there is one included in ‘Undercliff’; the more so because it unashamedly blends the real and the unreal together in just the way that Hare does in his Exmoor.
How could I resist this book of photographs made by Tim Carpenter and Nathan Pearce? Titled after my favourite Uncle Tupelo record, ‘Still Feel Gone’ is woven through with the same threads of motion and longing that are certainly at the core of many of the songs on that record and of many of my favourite moments in Pop and photography ever. In his terrific autobiography Jeff Tweedy tells us that the title of the album, and by connection then this body of photographs, is to do with the notion of returning home from touring but being unable to fully re-root oneself (you “still feel gone”). Homesick for motion. Motion-sick for home. Longing for the other, whatever the other is and whatever it is you currently have.
What I liked most about the Uncle Tupelo record is what I like most about Pearce and Carpenter’s photographs. It’s the way in which they touch on traditions (old, new, who cares) but are never slave to them. Tweedy and Farrar would plug into Dylan and D. Boon; Williams and Rollins. Fast. Slow. Fast, fast, slow. The songs would be in dialogue with each other. Balanced and tensioned just so. It’s the same with Pearce and Carpenter’s photographs which are presented in a double-sided format where each has his own side. There are nods to the traditions of American landscape photography with ghosts of Darius Kinsey, William Henry Jackson and a kind of inverted vision of Ansel Adams (Pearce in particular present us with some images that are hardly Adam’s grandiloquent expression of immensity but rather a more cautious appreciation of the wilderness) but there are also nods to Bernd and Hilda Becher’s typologies of industrial architecture. It all fits and yet it doesn’t quite. “The slides are upside down…” indeed. Flip. Frame. Click. Flip.
So here we pass close to the mountains rearing over a rippled lake. Here the clouds drift down the hillside and slip between multitudinous ranks of trees, each blurred with a breath as they remind us of their passing. Now we slow so that the camera frames a development of homes dusted with snow. Where are we? Why are we here? Big questions. Small questions. Just moving. Always moving. And here again, the railroad tracks paralleling across the frame to punctuate the journey. This is how we experience landscape. Moving. Passing through. Us and it. It and us. Permeating. A two-way process. This way, that way. Just like the book, which we flip round and begin again.
If Pearce’s photographs appear to be shot from the moving train then Carpenter’s may be made whilst trudging relentless on foot and his photographs are similarly punctuation marks on the journey. If Pearce’s images show the promise of a changing landscape then Carpenters insist on uniformity. Here are the railroad tracks. But railroad tracks are not railroad tracks are not railroad tracks. Things are the same but all things are different and all things are the same. Carpenter’s photographs of the tracks are punctuated by grain elevators and similarly agricultural-industrial structures. Sometimes these are close-to, other times as a distant presence on the horizon. Is that the same tower we saw a few pages previously? Didn’t we pass that same composition of telegraph poles a while back? Is this arrow-straight railroad receding to that vanishing point just an illusion? Are we really just going round in circles? Are some of these buildings the same ones Pearce has photographed from the train on these same tracks? Did Pearce pass Carpenter en-route? En-route to where? Back to the start and beginning again. Flip. Frame. Click. Flip.
Thinking about Phil Rickman’s Historical Paranormal Pagan Police Procedural Exorcism Thrillers starring fictional Deliverance Minister Merrily Watkins (as we were) I started tangentially pondering some of the artist Marcus Coates’ work from the turn of the millennium. I’d come across his work courtesy of Megan Calver, whose own ‘Throw Only To Alert Catcher’ we celebrated in the 50/50 series back in 2016. Part of Megan and her group’s work at that time involved lying on the sand at Dawlish Warren mimicking seals (because of course you would), itself an intervention with the landscape that would surely have been informed by some of Coates’, in particular his ‘Red Fox’ work of 1998 and the ‘Indigenous British Mammals’ of 2000. It’s Coates’ ‘Crucifixes for Various Amphibians’ work from 2000 however that most strongly resonates with some threads pulling through from the Rickman novels, specifically in the way in which these small sculptures made from lolly sticks, elastic bands and paperclips resemble strange pagan symbols that one might (but rather hopes wouldn’t) stumble upon within the depths of borderland forests.
Coates’ accompanying childhood recollections that contextualise these crucifix sculptures are certainly the kind of thing Merrily Watkins might stumble into as part of one of her ‘investigations’. The descriptions of 1972 summer days spent building dams on a stream and capturing toads on the banks and in the woods begin in almost idyllic tone, with Coates’ words certainly conjuring memories of my own times spent during what would have been the same years building dams on the Collennan burn that ran behind our house and alongside the golf course in order to catch eels. However, there the similarities end, for if we did to the eels what Coates and his friends apparently did to their captured toads then I have either long since forgotten or blanked events from my memory. Certainly the descent into darkness that Coates goes on to describe in his recollections is something I could not claim to have ever really experienced other than vicariously through other forms, in other words through books, poetry, songs and perhaps film. Film is certainly only a perhaps because the truth is that I have always found these kinds of ‘horror’ themes to be much more accessible through written rather than visual text, horror films not being high on my list of pleasures (guilty or otherwise). Coates’ macabre recollections however are certainly something I could imagine underpinning a ’troubled’ character’s backstory in a Merrily Watkins novel. Jane would probably fall in love with them.
Elsewhere in Coates’ work we see characters standing in shaded glades shouting colourful football terrace chants at the trees. These works are informed by studies of birdsong and they challenge our interpretations of birdsong as something ‘pretty’ and decorative. Indeed in much of Coates work there is an almost gleeful perversity in challenging perception of landscape and nature. Nature, Coates reminds us, is bloody and ugly and brutal and wholly unsentimental. There is an implicit acknowledgement too that the countryside we see around us, certainly in the UK, is barely ’natural’ at all but is rather the ongoing product of human intervention. We impose ourselves on the landscape. We bend it to our desire and portray it in ways which make us feel better about doing so.
Elsewhere I have seen Coates refer to himself as an ornithologist and I assume this is true if only because his birdsong interventions appear (to the lay-person like myself) to be informed from study. It is not a study I have ever been able to get enthralled by, despite trying in more recent years to spark an interest. David Callahan’s ‘History of Birdwatching in 100 Objects’ and Matt Sewell’s little bird illustrations sparked an idle wandering down this path (the temptation is strong to tell you I loved Sewell’s little illustrations and wooden sculptures years before his first book was published, but that would be my Indie-hipper-than-thou tendencies coming through and I have been trying so hard to fight those learnings) but the truth is that I quickly came to realise that I liked these mediated artefacts much more than the birds themselves. Callahan’s delicious plotting of ornithological history remains fascinating to me primarily because of the objects and their meanings rather than any connection to wildlife itself. Similarly Sewell’s illustrations are those of characters rather than scientific studies and I think this remove from the creatures themselves is what I connect with. Edwyn Colins’ studies of Some British Birds lean much less towards caricature than Sewell’s but still retain a certain distance from being informational studies. Then again, maybe I just like Edwyn’s drawings because he is Edwyn Colins, and maybe I just like Callahan’s book because he is the guy in Wolfhounds and Moonshake.
Thinking of music then, let’s remember that last time out we also thought about Nick Drake, and in my meanderings I told you about how I first heard Nick Drake in a house on the Bristol Downs in the late 1980s. Coincidentally (or barely coincidence at all when you think about it) this was also the first time I knowingly heard Bert Jansch. The ‘knowingly’ modifier is used because it is just possible I had previously heard some Pentangle songs, most likely the glorious ‘Light Flight’ which sounded so like a blueprint for the sound of Hurrah! And speaking of coincidences that are not really coincidences at all, later that same day we walked across the Bristol Downs to The Garden Flat (made famous by ‘Are You Scared To Get Happy’, Sha-La-La and Sarah records) and had tea with Clare and Matt. My friend Stuart was with us but I do not believe that on this occasion he indulged in treading biscuits into the carpet (this anecdote presented – very much tongue in cheek, honest – as another of those ‘Indier than thou’ references).
Bert Jansch did not immediately grab me at that time in the way that Nick Drake did, but in some ways I prefer listening to his records now. Perhaps this is down to a lack of other cultural baggage. In other words perhaps it is just that Jansch never quite became such a recognisable name in the ‘mainstream’ monoculture. In other words still, he never provided the soundtrack to a motor car advertisement (not that I’m aware of at least).
Getting back to birds (as we were a couple of paragraphs previously, sort of, kind of) then let us note that Jansch released a record in 1979 called ‘Avocet’ and it is really rather lovely whilst occasionally being a little peculiar and unexpected as many of Bert Jansch records are. The title song (the entirety of side one on the vinyl artefact) is eighteen minutes of elliptical guitar refrains, in places beefed out with mandocello, violins and flute courtesy of Martin Jenkins. I believe fellow Pentangler Danny Thomas provides bass on the record. Other wading and water birds on the record are captured in sparser lines. A few minutes of sonic sketching and then they are off. Quite delightful.
The 2016 reissue of ‘Avocet’ came in a deluxe art vinyl package (it would be odd if any vinyl reissue in these times did not have some kind of limited edition deluxe package) that included six illustrations/prints (one for each of the birds on the record) by Hannah Alice. I admit that the idea of switching these prints around so that a different one appears through the diecut frame in the sleeve troubles me somewhat, mostly because the title ‘Avocet’ would always appear above the illustration. Perhaps it could be read in a vaguely ‘Ceci nest pas one pipe’ Treachery of Images manner. This is not a lapwing; this is not a kingfisher; this is not an avocet. I’m not sure.
More convincing are the illustrations themselves. Like Matt Sewell’s drawings, Alice’s images concern themselves in finding the base identifying features of each bird type. Unlike Sewell’s little caricatures however Alice presents the birds less as individuals and more as diagrammatic idealisations. Flat planes of colour shaped just so. Not yet abstract but barely a few steps away. This appeals very much and feels more in tune with Jansch’s music than the slightly kitschy watercolour that graced the original record sleeve. For Jansch’s music here (and elsewhere) treads the line between naturalistic and abstraction with a fine sense of balance and poise.
And since we are still (just about) talking of our feathered friends let’s not forget Daniel Williams and his lovely exploration of birds in song on his Nightingales blog of a few years back, within which there are three Jansch songs included (‘Kittiwake’ and ‘Lapwing’ from the ‘Avocet’ set and ‘The Black Swan’, which perhaps is a song about Dawlish and perhaps is not). Dan’s blog is also very likely where I first heard (of) Rozi Plain, but that’s a story for another time (but don’t hold me to that).
May 9th – Will Burns & Hannah Peel (from ‘Chalk Hill Blue’ LP) Brambles of Dourlens – Bess of Bedlam (from ‘Folly Tales‘ LP) Conditions – Rozi Plain (from ‘What A Boost‘ LP) Wordlessly – Rose Elinor Dougall (from ‘A New Illusion‘ LP) Aerosol – Patience (from ‘Dizzy Spells’ LP. Bandcamp) Progress – The Shining Levels (from ‘The Gallows Pole‘ LP) Ray C – Sweet Whirl (from ‘Love Songs and Poetry‘ EP) Opus 18 – Vic Godard (from ‘Mum’s Revenge’ LP. Bandcamp) Am I Losing You – Memory Fade (from ‘She Loves The Birds’ EP. Bandcamp) In the Capital – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever (7″ single. Bandcamp) I Wanna – Mammoth Penguins (from ‘There’s No Fight We Can’t Both Win’ LP. Bandcamp) Mini Was a Preteen Arsonist – Martha (from ‘Love Keeps Kicking’ LP. Bandcamp) Younger – The Mountain Goats (from ‘In League With Dragons‘ LP) The Bluebell Wood – The Wild Swans (from ‘The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years’ LP. Bandcamp) Hello Sunshine – Bruce Springsteen (from ‘Western Stars‘ LP) Live Till You Die – Emitt Rhodes (from ‘Emitt Rhodes’ LP. YouTube) Live – The Bangles (from ‘All Over The Place’ LP. YouTube) The Conversation – Sacred Paws (from ‘Run Around The Sun‘ LP) Red Sleeping Beauty – Red Sleeping Beauty (from ‘Stockholm‘ LP) Ping Pong – Stereolab (from ‘Mars Audiac Quintet‘ LP) Pinch Disco – El Valerie (from ‘Electro Pampas’ LP. Bandcamp) Weight of the Planets – Aldous Harding (from ‘Designer‘ LP)
Phil Rickman’s novels featuring Herefordshire’s ‘Deliverance Minister’ (aka exorcist) Merrily Watkins were first recommended to me by a work friend and colleague back in January 2013 when the series was already eleven books old. She thought I might like them because they were vaguely in the ‘crime’ genre I was (and remain) firmly entrenched within but also because she said they were excellent evocations of place. Over the year that followed our commuting conversations would often dwell on Rickman’s books as I became drawn into the landscapes he was so clearly attuned to and in which my friend had herself grown up. Those discussion occasionally touched on the characters: how frustrating and annoying we found Merrily’s pagan-leaning daughter Jane (I’m willing to admit that Rickman paints her so irritatingly on purpose); how much we liked the way the light always glints on Gomer Parry’s glasses; whether you could hear Huw Owen’s utterances in anything other than a Geoffrey Boycott accent; how we wanted to give Lol Robinson a good shaking by the shoulders and tell him to Get A Grip.
Mostly though we talked about the landscape. The blurred borderlands where England becomes Wales and vice versa. No-man’s lands. Literally. Inhabited by ghosts of prehistoric landscapes and memories of not so distant histories (one of the finest, most harrowing of the Watkins series roots itself in the darkness of the history of Fred and Rosemary West’s murderous habits).
I did not know at the time how accurate those landscape evocations were (and, despite a short trip to Leintwardine at the tail end of the summer of 2014 – I have the leaflet from the St Mary Magdalene church as a reminder – I still don’t) but in reality it does not matter much. I’m sure too that my friend would attest that whilst a personal knowledge/memory of place can help with connections to fictional narratives, it is the skill of the writer in visualising a landscape that overrides geographical accuracy. As such Rickman’s geography may be filled with reference to real place names that you can (and I have) trace on maps, but more than this it is conjured by a deftness of touch that goes beyond descriptive prose and instead roots itself in atmosphere that is driven by thrilling narrative and fed by tendrils reaching out into folkloric mythology.
This thread of pagan folklore is rich in the Merrily Watkins novels and I admit that pull surprises me because I’ve always thought of those kinds of references as hippy nonsense. And whilst I can admit that yes, they intrigue me more and more as I get older, instinct (or habit) still throws up barriers to exploring things in more depth for fear of ending my days as a tragic raggedy beardy old man combing the streets of Totnes for magic crystals. But that’s my personal terror and I will address it as necessary. And much as I love Julian Cope and am intrigued by his mystical meanderings, I still can’t quite surrender my senses to the notions of Ley lines, dowsing and Earth Powers. My scientist brother would no doubt be proud of this restraint. Then again, with the mainstream reality of the world being so genuinely grim and gruesome these days there is certainly appeal in disappearing further into the realms of mythologies and strange alternative histories.
Rickman’s 2017 novel ‘Friends Of The Dusk’ certainly offers an alternative history for the foundations of vampire mythology, neatly shifting focus from the Gothic axis of Whitby and Transylvania to a much earlier and perhaps more ‘authentic’ interpretation rooted in the Welsh borderlands. Rickman amusingly uses this narrative arc to comment gently on the nature of more knowingly fabricated and exploitative fiction (the self-awareness is never far from the surface in this) and also on the nature of social media technologies. Through all this there is a developing sense of Rickman as Grumpy Old Man and I admit I find this rather appealing.
Appealing too in ‘Friends Of The Dusk’ are the references to castles in these borderlands. Literal points of power and control within the landscape, Rickman notes that most are entirely disappeared, recognisable only to those adept at reading earthworks and contours. There is something appealing in this idea of a secret language, of senses tuned to the shadow and texture of the visible as a key to unlocking the buried and invisible. For those of us of a certain age in the UK I am sure that this reference to castles will conjure memories of the short films produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the Public Announcement Film Unit and screened irregularly on the BBC when there were a few minutes to fill between scheduled programmes. There seems to be surprisingly little detail about these online, although the BFI does have one on Caerphilly castle available in its archives.
Elsewhere in the Merrily Watkins’ series there are references drawn in and out to all kinds of historical pointers. My favourites in these are the excavations of an Elgar narrative in ‘The Remains Of An Altar’; the aforementioned Fred West darkness that weaves through ‘The Lamp of The Wicked’; the secretive SAS in ‘The Secrets of Pain’; the transformation of Hay-on-Wye into a bookselling enclave and Eric Gill’s somewhat unorthodox activities at Capel-y-ffin in ‘The Magus Of Hay’; the nods out to MR James (yet another inhabitant of these particular borderlands) in ‘The Fabric Of Sin’.
Then of course there are the Nick Drake references. Whilst they are perhaps most explicitly explored in ‘The Fabric Of Sin’ they are all over the Merrily Watkins books, due in no small part to the character of aforementioned singer-songwriter Lol Robinson. Now many of the fictional songs and records referenced in the novels have been given physical form in a series of CDs by Allan Watson and Rickman, and whilst I’m quite certain that Merrily Watkins completists will have these on their shelves I really cannot encourage much more than a cursory investigation. Not my particular bag at all. Much more interesting, in terms of tangential artefacts, is the ‘Merrily’s Border’ book in which Rickman takes us on a tour around the landscapes of the novels. This book unpacks more of the historical and geographical references to the novels and is certainly worth tracking down. The photographs in the book may do little more than document place and certainly never get remotely close to capturing the same sense of claustrophobic pressure of the landscape that ooze from the novels (despite, or perhaps because of, some extreme solarisation effects thrown at some of the shots of churches and trees) but that’s a minor quibble as I am sure that the book was certainly envisaged as more of a guide book than an art form in its own right.
There is a short piece in ‘Merrily’s Borders’ about Nick Drake in which Rickman points out out that it was not until the mid to late 1990’s that interest in Drake really took off. I just about remember this time, for suddenly it seemed that everyone and their cat had a story about how important Nick Drake was to their sound and blah blah blah. There was even a commercial for a motor car that used ‘Pink Moon’ as the soundtrack wasn’t there? Rickman has amusingly trickled this reference into ‘Friends Of The Dusk’ when Lol Robinson has a track plucked for use on a banking advert. In the acknowledgements Rickman actually credits the great Tony Hazzard as being instrumental in sparking this story thread, but the synchronicity with the Drake narrative is certainly there. Oddly enough too in the most recent Watkins novel ‘All Of A Winter’s Night’ there is a neat personal synchronicity with my own awakening to the work of Nick Drake. In the opening to part two of the novel there is a quote from Rob Young’s tremendous ‘Electric Eden’ (the quote is about Cecil Sharp’s first experiences of Morris dancing), and it was in Rob’s parents’ home on the Bristol Downs back in the summer of 1987 or 88 when I first heard the ‘Bryter Later’ set and was blown away. What strikes me now thinking about this is that it would have been only 14 years or so after Drake’s early death: a timeframe that to a barely twenty-something seemed like a lifetime but now feels like the blink of an eye. I recall also being somewhat confused at the time because I had come across Young as a member of the group The Poppyheads, an act firmly categorised (perhaps unfairly) within the nascent ‘cutie’ realm. Indeed, earlier that same day we had indulged in a classic Revolt Into Innocence ritual by dropping into an afternoon cinema screening of ‘The Jungle Book’. What’s clear in hindsight however is that what made groups like The Poppyheads and, say, Razorcuts stand out was the way in which they were blending influences from the Punk canon (Razorcuts in particular initially drew heavily from Buzzcocks of course) with an interest in the psychedelic folk music from pre-Year Zero. Razorcuts would make these connections more explicit on their exquisite ‘Storyteller’ and ‘The World Keeps Turning’ albums and let’s not forget too that Gregory Webster had teamed up with Elizabeth Price to record as The Carousel, whose ‘Strawberry Fayre’ single was released on the English Cosmic Music label in 1988… The Poppyheads on the other hand never had opportunity to explore those realms in much more depth other than through the ‘Postcard For Flossie’ flexi on Sha-la-la and the three tracks of their ‘Cremation Town’ single for Sarah. It’s clear though that for Young the seeds (ahem) of ‘Electric Eden’ were already there in his record collection of the late 1980s and I would be lying if I did not admit to a degree of envy at the sheer depth and breadth of the intellectual thread pulling involved in making ‘Electric Eden’ such a formidable, informative and hugely enjoyable tome.
Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins novels are equally adept at balancing all of those qualities and in similarly pulling on intriguing threads within the realm of what I suppose you could call the Historical Paranormal Pagan Police Procedural Exorcism Thriller genre he has made his own. Rickman himself suggests that whilst there are threads that develop through the series (one of these is certainly the introduction of the Police procedural element via the excellent Frannie Bliss character) they can be read out of order without a significant loss of knowledge of the unfolding narratives. That said, I personally find it difficult to approach any series at any point but Book One (muddied ever so slightly in this case as the first novel ‘The Wine Of Angels’ sees Merrily Watkins yet to enter the Deliverance Ministry). The next instalment in the series is due in October this year. I heartily recommend you delve in.