In Pursuit

When writing about Mark Brend’s excellent Undercliff a few weeks ago I made reference to a predilection for maps in crime/thriller novels and suggested there is a piece to be written about this. This isn’t it, but I should say that when it ever does get written there will be a reference to Allan Mackinninon’s 1947 novel ‘House Of Darkness’. The map in its frontispiece shows an area around the west coast of Scotland, taking in Loch Linnhe, Glen Coe and the hills of Morvern, for it is in this landscape that much of the action in the novel takes place. I believe Mackinnon wrote several thrillers set in the Highlands but this is the first I have read and it is rather fine and well worth tracking down. Early in the novel Mackinnon’s Colin Ogilvy character makes humorous reference to feeling as though he is in a story by Ambler or Buchan and of course these are entirely appropriate references for as the novel unfolds Ogilvy finds himself in an extended chase scene through the Highlands that could be straight out of The Thirty Nine Steps, and, like Ambler, Mackinnon himself spent time screenwriting for cinema.

Mackinnon conjures the misty grey dampness of the Highland landscape pretty finely, though this is never at the expense of driving the narrative onwards with a pace that, whilst never frenetic, is nevertheless speedy enough to keep us eagerly turning the pages. You might realistically argue that the denouement is pretty obviously signposted through the book and so hardly comes as a surprise, but I don’t think Mackinnon ever set out to make this a complicated fair-play mystery so its a moot point.

Interestingly, from a contemporary perspective, the underlying ‘plot’ is one which sounds remarkably familiar. It is painted deftly in a few paragraphs wherein Ogilvie and another character have a conversation in which references are made to politicians, government ministers, financial ‘players’, foreign powers manipulating National Interests, collapse of British economic prospects, nationalism and a minority plotting to make significant financial profit at the expense of drastically reduced standards of living for the majority. It’s like reading a précis of the past three years of UK politics in two pages and just goes to show that there is nothing new under the sun.

Now there may be nothing new under the sun, but in his sizeable ‘Underland‘ tome, Robert Macfarlane suggests that there is plenty new under the earth, and he goes to great lengths to share some of those peculiar landscapes and the people who inhabit and explore them with us. It’s certainly an interesting enough premise for a book, although where it falls on your personal continuum of appeal will likely fluctuate somewhat from chapter to chapter. The later chapters in which he seems to spend an inordinate amount of time on and around glaciers in Greenland, for example, leave me (ahem) cold, whereas those in which he explores points in/beneath the landscape that involve explicit human intervention carry much greater appeal.

Throughout the book there is necessarily a lot of crawling through tight underground spaces and lots of heroic walking across expansive icy wastes, and if I struggle, on a personal level, to understand and connect to those physical aspects of Macfarlane’s journeys to (literally) the ends of the earth and its subterranean depths, then I think I can at least grasp that behind these exploits sits some deeply felt need to experience some kind of blissful state. A pursuit of the Other, if you like. It strikes me too that there is a relationship between the physical activities and the act of writing, between the events/places and the reality of the book itself.

For the writing throughout Underlands is undeniably fine, the words and phrases often gorgeous, and it strikes me that the process of writing and of reading can itself be that vehicle through which we encounter the Other. Those moments where our conscious perception slips away and we fleetingly glimpse the essence of bliss. Words no longer forming thoughts and meaning but instead entering the realm of feeling and sub-conscious knowing. A deep connectivity that exists outside of everything.

Nevertheless I cannot help but wonder if some people never discover the thing through which they might encounter the Other. Do they even strive to uncover it, and is the luxury to even think about such things only open to us once our more basic needs have been met? Macfarlane, having journeyed many miles through inhospitable climes in order to witness the ancient handprints of our distant cave dwelling ancestors would doubtless point to this as evidence that this ‘luxury’ is in fact as basic a need as shelter. And if I’m almost certain he would be correct in suggesting this, I cannot shake the feeling that the unfolding movement to disconnect from the networks we have created for ourselves with technologies in order to reconnect with the networks nature weaves around us seems like a luxury of an educated middle class at best, and a hipster’s fashion accessory at worst.

If only Macfarlane had included some maps.

Mysteries of landscape

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.

Culbone church

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.

Still Feel Gone

“Falling out the window…”

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.

“Falling out the window…”

This is not ornithology

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.

Some of Matt Sewell’s birds

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).


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.

The Poppyheads

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.

At the edge

Harry Gruyaert may not be a landscape photographer but as we have noted he is a great photographer of landscape. Perhaps the best proof of this is his ‘Edges’ collection in which Gruyaert selects and sequences photographs made at those points where land meets water meets sky. Land, Sea and Air as Appliance once sang, which is an appropriate reference after all since we have been musing somewhat on James Brooks’ work in recent weeks too. ‘Edges’ is a great book. It is one of those ‘chicken and egg’ collections. In other words it is one of those photography books where you see the relationship between time, intention and realisation play out in the unfolding narrative, where the ’story’ is one of endless, timeless variations on the themes of movement, stasis, flux and firmament. Gruyaert’s photographs map out our relationships with the sea as source of leisure and of commerce. They document the ways in which those relationships affect both the landscapes and the people in those edge lands. Here the cranes, docks and tough raggedy youth of industrial Galician coastal towns; there the glazed-in loneliness of wealthy retirees in a Le Touquet spa hotel. Always grainy, always underexposed. Just so.

Leafing through Edges I am reminded again of Rothko’s paintings. All the same. All different. The devils are in the details; in the subtle shifts of focus, light, shade, composition. Don’t mess with the formula. Don’t push the idea further than it needs to go. Explore the endless possibilities provided by minimal scope. At the edges. What else.

Well what else indeed, except that when I talk about edges I am of course tempted to listen to songs about edges. Making playlists is perhaps the curse of the hapless (almost exclusively) male trapped inside a world of books and films (or photographs) flailing around for a means of reaching a world that he knows exists yet cannot quite seem to reach (or even see). Should this be the case then my own list of songs at the edges (often, though not entirely exclusively, of the edges of landscapes) is shared here as a glimpse into that liminal borderland between my mediated (musical) understanding of that space and yours. And yes, you can expect more landscape themed mixes in the coming months.

Download as a ZIP file

River’s Edge – A Certain Ratio
From The Edge Of Maps – Cody
At the Edge of the Sea – The Wedding Present
Cliff edge – The Bats
Edge Of Town – The Bye Bye Blackbirds
At the Edge of the World – Billy MacKenzie
Water’s Edge – Tsunami
Edge of August – The Windmills
Darkness on the Edge of Town – Bruce Springsteen
At The Edge Of The Wood – Dead Meadow
On the Edge Of – Low
Edge of the World – Let’s Active
Edges And Corners – Standard Fare
Edge Of Everything – Colour Me Wednesday
Safe Around the Edges – His Clancyness
Living On The Edge Of The World – Bruce Springsteen
River’s Edge – Still Corners
Sea Comes At Its Edges – Starry Eyed and Laughing
Edge Of The Sea – Prelude
The Edge of Forever – The Dream Academy

Feeling the light. Or, Flanders, bicycles and the photographs of Harry Gruyaert

Last time out in this irregular ongoing series of landscape explorations we were talking about tangential connections and made mention of James Brooks and his Land Observations recordings. On one of these (2014’s ‘The Grand Tour’) there is a piece titled ‘Flatlands and the Flemish Roads’. I am unsure if Brooks intends this as anything more than a glancing reference to cycling, but its is entirely possible given that Appliance once recorded a piece called ‘Derailleur, King of the Mountain’. Certainly anyone remotely interested in the sport of cycling will immediately think of the likes of Omloop Het Volk (or Het Nieuwsblad if you insist), Scheldeprijs and the Ronde Van Vlaanderen when they see a reference to the roads of Flanders. That this immediate synaptic connection is to bicycle races rather than the WW1 fields of slaughter says much about cycling fans.

Harry Pearson says much about cycling fans, and Flemish cycling fans more specifically, in his new book ‘The Beast, The Emperor and The Milkman’. Subtitled ‘A bone-shaking tour through cycling’s Flemish heartlands’ it pretty much does what it says on the cover and is certainly entertaining in a semi-skimmed pocket-history travelogue kind of way. Hardcore cycling fans may find little new in the book but they are probably not the target audience anyway, so it’s perhaps a moot point. Certainly there were few names and anecdotes about Belgian cycling I had not stumbled on previously. What are new to me are some of Pearson’s musings on the history of Flanders, and if a little effort is also expended in an attempt to expand our knowledge of both this and of “famous Belgians” beyond Herge and Simenon it is an effort that is, to paraphrase the great honorary Flahute Sean Kelly, one that is carefully calculated.

It is certainly a shame that Pearson makes no reference, even in passing, to the great Belgian photographer Harry Gruyaert. Surprising too, for Gruyaert is famously fond of cycling and one of his quotes graces the back cover of the excellent ‘Magnum Cycling’ collection published a few years ago by Thames and Hudson and edited by Guy Edwards. There is a chapter of Gruyaert’s photographs in the book documenting the 1982 Tour de France and they are typically great shots. The best of the actual cyclists is surely one of the peloton peddling up a slope. Everyone is en danseuse apart from the man in the yellow jersey, Bernard Hinault, who sits resolutely in the saddle, leg muscles almost comically etched and bulging. Hinault too is the only one making eye contact with the camera, his piercing glare so sharp it’s a wonder the lens hasn’t cracked in terror.

That said, my favourite of Gruyaert’s cycling photographs is the last one in the book – a lovely shot of an elderly gentleman photographed against a wooden fence, from which dangle a couple of disembodied feet and lower legs. It’s probable that these feet (one in a Puma sneaker, the other in what appears to be something like a Hush Puppies desert boot) belong to young lads perched atop the fence watching the end of the first stage of the 1975 Tour and it’s an unusual Gruyaert shot because the gentleman (sharply attired in suit, tie and overcoat) is (like Hinault) making direct eye contact with us. Even more unexpected is that the photograph is in black and white, a startling shock given that Gruyaert is such a master of colour.

We looked at some of Gruyaert’s photographs during the year-long 50/50 project in 2016 so I will not dwell much longer on his photographs in the ‘Made In Belgium’ collection apart from to say that whilst they may not be landscape photographs per-se they are certainly images deeply suffused with a sense of place. Pearson makes the observation in his book that Belgium, and Flanders specifically, has transformed in wealth in the past few decades. With that in mind it seems clear that Gruyaert’s photographs are of a different Belgium, an older Belgium. They do remind me of Raymond Depardon’s Glasgow images and perhaps there is no surprise in that, for both collections are certainly now as much documents of historical, social and cultural threads that perhaps have unravelled, their frayed edges already misplaced amongst the murky mementoes of our pasts.

Today my favourites of Gruyaert’s photographs are the several shots which contain battlefield re-enactors. Here a cavalier atop his horse, the red of his jacket and scabbard an underexposed wound against a drab green hillside; there a row of riflemen with shouldered arms beneath the glowering grey of a sky that smothers the horizon. Elsewhere again there is the shock of ranks of marching figures in what, since this photograph was made in Waterloo, must be Napoleonic uniforms, backs to us crisscrossed with white straps and, in the gap between ranks, a motor car parked on pebbles, its yellow-green paintwork supremely evocative of the nineteen seventies/eighties. A small patch of sky shows in the background, this time the colour and texture of a Magritte painting. These are not soldiers, it seems to say. This is not a motor car. But this is, assuredly, Belgium.

On another day again my favourite photographs will be the ones made by the seaside, specifically in Ostend. The emptiness of the beach shelter and it’s electric red neon signs a back to front scrawl of light against the steel grey of the sea; the pale yellow columns and (again!) the reds of chairs in (yet again!) the void of a spa hotel; the nearly but not quite empty stretch of beach punctuated by the sharp imposing verticals of lampposts and a figure plumb centre looking out at the (yes, yet again!!!) concrete grey sea and a massive sky that blackens and breaks to cast a light that is almost apocalyptic. Anyone who has grown up by the seaside in the northern hemisphere can surely feel the bite of the wind in this photograph; can feel the whip of the sand as it skitters across the paving stones and into streaming eyes.

Gruyaert’s landscape photographs then are not landscape photographs, and this is their strength (analogous to Winograd saying that the key to being a great street photographer is not to call yourself a street photographer). They are instead photographs which show Gruyaert to be remarkably adept at seeing the essential qualities in the spaces around him and in capturing those essences within what would be, if he were a painter, a few deft brush stokes and decisive marks of colour. He makes landscapes out of details and details out of landscapes. He feels the light the rest of us barely see.