Wolfhounds – Ropeswing
Harry Gruyaert – Bruxelles
In a 1987 (or perhaps it was 1988) issue of ‘Underground' magazine there was a terrific article about a McCarthy and Wolfhounds tour in Europe. Richey Edwards once told me that reading it changed his life. It did not quite do this for me, yet there are moments even now when I’d tell you that the records of McCarthy and Wolfhounds meant the world to me; that they shaped and sculpted that world by both informing and focusing thoughts of Political, social and aesthetic form. Wolfhounds in particular delighted my sonic palate with their discordantly melodic guitar Pop. Theirs was a Pop that, like Wire, was taken apart and put back together at slight angles. Just so. Not quite. And…
‘Bright and Guilty’ was their second LP and perhaps my favourite. It certainly contains the Wolfhounds song I most regularly revisit. ‘Ropeswing’ is a disarming evocation of childhood, one that intelligently acknowledges the tension between self-mediated fictions and realities. Perhaps it is a strange song to have sung in one’s early twenties, yet in truth there is no other point in life when that distance between youth and age seems so simultaneously vast and alarmingly small. Frustrations still simmer and the memories of the void of responsibility can feel so alluring. So alluring indeed that perhaps they even blind us to the memories of the flipside, which is that searing anger at one's impotence in the face of authority. What Richard Hell once described as "all that bullshit" of being a teenager. Wolfhounds singer David Callahan sums it up as prosaically as Hell when he sings, simply: "Sometimes I hate it and sometimes I want to go back” before pointing out that "It’s when the job ties you down and the strings of your life go slack.” Never been there? Never felt that? I envy and pity you in equal measure.
‘Ropeswing’ is also perhaps the Wolfhounds song that most explicitly tips a nod to Callahan’s love of nature and as such it is a song that I have always felt sits almost magically apart within the Wolfhounds singularly impressive canon of work. The lines about “the long grass” being “ghostly and solid with frost” resonate strongly. For many years those lines and the song in general recalled for me early ‘80s years out in Fullarton Woods in my home town of Troon. Football on the terraced lawns of the long-demolished house; hide and seek in the dense bamboo; and yes, the ropeswing hung from the tree over the remains of what I now realise would have been an icehouse but what in our young imaginations was of course a dungeon. In our late teenage of course there was an afternoon spent with my much-missed friend Scot and a gaggle of Prestwick girls, all of us hiding from the pressures of school exams and finding release in the pleasure of doing nothing very much at all. Now however the song’s lines mostly remind me of moving to the country from the city some ten years ago. December frosts lit up the mornings and accompanied freezing walks to the river. ‘Ropeswing’ reverberated in my head and heartstrings.
In those recent years too I have tried to find interest in wildlife but I will be frank and tell you I find it impossible. Despite living in the countryside I find that I have zero interest in knowing anything about the details of the nature I find myself surrounded by. Instead I find most pleasure and fascination in the human interventions: Pylons; roads and trackways; isolated cottages and derelict barns; abandoned railways and tucked away chapels. Yet despite, or possibly because of this, I have found Callahan’s 2014 book ‘A History of Birdwatching in 100 Objects’ to be a fascinating and thoroughly engaging read. Perhaps you have read it? I recommend it as highly as the entire catalogue (old and new) of the Wolfhounds, and there can be no greater praise than that.
Perhaps you have been devouring the current reissue programme of George Simenon’s ‘Maigret’ titles by Penguin? If so then you will assuredly also have been thoroughly enjoying the exposure to the photographs of fellow Belgian Harry Gruyaert, whose work has been gracing their covers. I will admit that these ‘Maigret’ covers were my own introduction to Gruyaert’s work and admit too that I have since delighted in discovering those works within several published collections. Notable amongst these is ‘Made In Belgium’ which collects many of Gruyaert’s images of his homeland.
This particular shot of Brussels was most likely not taken in 1989, but I am choosing it nonetheless. Cropped (as with all the book covers) it graces the twelfth Maigret novel ‘The Shadow Puppet’ and it is a perfect shot for this purpose since the landscape orientated composition is effectively cut in half by the red and white striped pole. It is a bold compositional move, and such obvious delineations rarely prove so effective. One of the reasons it does so in this example however is the contrast between the two halves of the same scene: The right half filled with fore and middle ground, the left punctuated only by the motorcyclist in the background and the vertical strips of light and colour. Interplay of positive and negative space is impressive, with the off-white form of the wool-clad figure on the right reflecting the similar yet inverted shape on the left framed by the two poles and the diagonal white of the crossing marking. To my mind too there is a strange juxtaposition of time: The figure in white seems somehow old fashioned, or at least, in the words of Jane Gardam’s ‘Bilgewater’, “fashioned old” and in contrast to the motorcyclist who appears utterly contemporary. There is delight too at the detailing in the colours. Just look at how the yellow of the motorcyclist’s scarf picks up the yellow bollard (and/or vice versa). You get the feeling that this could be an Edward Hopper painting, a sense that is exaggerated in the ‘Made In Belgium’ book by its juxtaposition with a perfectly Hopper-esque shot of a lone(ly) figure draped over the table of an otherwise empty railway carriage where the red (the red!) additionally nods to Eggleston (of course).
Elsewhere in Gruyaert’s photographs of Belgium the reference to painting is equally strong, yet rather than making explicit aesthetic connections it is instead the sense of careful attention to composition and detail that invokes this link. Gruyaert’s photographs are perfectly poised images that seek out the everyday and present them as the unusual; they seek out the unexpected and present them as the ordinary. Of course men dressed in Napoleonic War uniforms parade in the streets. Naturally a pair of enormous pink ladies underwear should be suspended from the restaurant ceiling. It all conjures an image of Belgium as being unashamedly quirky: A country and a people comfortable with themselves; who value tradition and yet appreciate individualism and anti-establishment behaviour in equal measure. This, I think, is at the core of the character of Maigret too, and it is a tension that weaves its way through all of Simenon’s books.
Naturally too the Belgian connection appeals to cyclists the world over and I admit to feeling that pull. The country is in the very DNA of the sport, after all. Imagine my delight then to see that in the recently published ‘Magnum Cycling’ collection there is a wonderful collection of Gruyaert's shots from the 1982 Tour de France and a quote from him graces the cover: “Even now I feel if I don’t have my bike then I’m not very happy. I love it: It’s a way of looking at the world, extremely quickly.” As a friend of mine is given to saying: It all fits.