Wednesday, 30 June 2010
On our travels around England in recent years I have been making notes and taking pictures for a book, which unfortunately nobody wants to publish - let's say it's a little along the lines of the Christmas hit of a few years ago Crap Towns, but a bit more analytical. Based on this research I would say that my own top 4 would have to include:
Stoke on Trent
For the coveted top position it's pretty much level between Stoke and Corby. On our visit to St Austell a couple of years back we were greeted by a huge hole where the town centre should have been (and a frightening pair of mulleted and moustachioed locals at the bar in the pub where we were going to have lunch, but decided against it) - maybe SA looks better now after redevelopment, but I doubt it.
Obviously there are historic and economic reasons why these towns are in such a bad way: the dead steel industry in Corby, defunct potteries in Stoke and rapidly declining china clay trade in St Austell. At least Stoke had a superb pottery museum (free and almost empty when we visited on a Saturday); however, having walked around its centre with hundreds of abandoned shops and pubs and having driven around streets of wasteground and dilapidated houses, yours for under £50,000, it probably wins. Corby was a town with no centre - there are signs miles out directing you past acres of deserted steel mills to its heart and when you finally reach it there is no 'there' there. Telford is just horrible - the worst of post-modern kit architecture with tons of reflecting glass-clad office blocks - everything designed for car access and no soul; ironically Ironbridge the 'cradle of the industrial revolution' is only a few miles away. My pics above: top the throbbing centre of Stoke, middle Corby, bottom Telford
Monday, 28 June 2010
My wife and I often discuss the pisspoor nature of much contemporary media, especially the endless permutations spun from cop and doc tv shows and dismal sitcoms. Particularly risible are the attempts to combine them with popular topics such as gardening, food and property. It would appear - and I could be wrong here as I don't usually watch more than a couple of hours of tv a day - that while we have had chef detectives and gardening detectives we have not yet had an interior designer detective.
May I propose 'Morris' a six-part BBC Sunday night series in which interior designer, writer, poet and political firebrand William Morris finds time in his workaholic schedule to solve crimes and bring the perpetrators to justice. Not only do we have an influential interior designer as a sleuth, we have the added nostalgia value of the Victorian era that keeps the BBC costume department so busy. In one episode he could perhaps clear his friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti of the murder of a young model, or uncover the police killing of an innocent individual at a political demonstration; he could even pursue Jack the Ripper through the foggy streets of old Whitechapel. Maybe Colin Firth could don the beard and whiskers for the part, although Nick Frost probably has the more realistic figure. Damn it, I must start writing this now...if anyone else fancies doing it just remember to credit me with the original idea. If successful it could also be combined with that other sure fire hit Strictly Come Dancing for Strictly Come Morris Dancing.
To the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill last night to see The Necks. This antipodean trio have been winning critical plaudits for some years now - I have been meaning to see them for a long time and thanks to the adventurous booking policy at the De La Warr in recent months, I finally got the chance. About 150 people in the audience and the chance to sit very near the front made it an intimate show; as usual at this venue the sound was good - at the sold-out Richard Hawley gig here it was superb. The Necks (terrible name - is it because their necks are always on the line?) are famous for doing two sets of 45 minutes duration, both of which are completely improvised, not in the 'free' jazz style but in a more structured, melodic and purposeful fashion.
They are usually referred to as a 'jazz' band but I think they have more in common with minimalism, 'post-rock', electronica and dance styles such as drum and bass and early rave music. Certainly the line-up is classic traditional jazz trio: piano, double bass and drums, but the sounds they were producing were unlike virtually any other jazz trio I have heard, although I notice that more are going down this path: the Robert Mitchell Trio who I saw in Hastings a few months ago seem to be striving towards certain aspects of this trance-like sound. I liked the way that the piano player Chris Abrahams had his back to the other two so that any non-musical communication about a shift of tempo or similar development would have been very difficult to make. I briefly met the bass player and drummer in the interval, but he wasn't around; the way he plays must require immense concentration and discipline - Keith Jarrett is an obvious influence.
The first piece was more atmospheric with some interesting percussion from drummer Tony Buck seemingly kicking a collection of sleigh bells on the floor while metronimically tapping cymbals and rubbing another cymbal around a snare drum. After the interval the second piece was more hardcore with some very fast repetitive arpeggios and hammered notes on the piano backed up with a great riff on the amplified double bass and some inventive drumming that, combined during one elongated section, about half an hour in, reminded me of Mogwai when they really get going. There must have been various treatments being applied to the sound at the mixing desk (I couldn't see any effects pedals or other equipment on stage), because this was a lot heavier than the usual sound from a jazz trio and was certainly the highlight for me - it was at this point that the couple in front of me left. There is definitely a strong element of Philip Glass and especially Steve Reich in much of what they do; I was surprised that there was nobody there that I recognised from the Hastings Jazz Club which reinforces my belief that many jazz fans are just as conservative as rock fans.
Another impressive band with some similarities are The Bays (they claim to never rehearse, each gig is improvised and they don't release records, brilliant drummer) whom I saw with Herbie Hancock at a bizarre Barbican gig a few years back. I remembered that the first rock gig I ever went to was Tangerine Dream at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon (October 1975?) which was also apparently an improvised show; things are coming full circle.
Saturday, 26 June 2010
On Thursday I visited the Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill exhibition at the V&A. Sparsely attended - I much prefer shows like this to the blockbusters that dominate so many galleries these days - it was very interesting for me to see pieces from his wonderful collections. One object in particular has a fascinating history: Dr Dee's 'scrying mirror', the smoothly polished obsidian tablet that he allegedly used in his conversations with angels. It did not appear in The Dark Monarch exhibition (on the influence of magic and folklore on modern art) that I was fortunate to catch at the new Towner Gallery in Eastbourne earlier this year, but would have been very appropriate (instead it featured in the Moctezuma show at the British Museum, its present home).
I wanted to buy the Dark Monarch catalogue but was told that it had sold out despite having been reprinted owing to heavy demand. Fortunately I found a copy at work and have been leafing through. There is a typical 'artbollocks' essay of obfuscating pretension albeit with a few stimulating insights - the box containing the oft-used words in this context 'palimpsest', 'ontology', and 'valenced' is duly ticked. I had to look up the word 'nyctophobic'- it means fear of the night or darkness. We are also amusingly informed that, 'Table wrapping [sic] of the nineteenth century was the most immediate yet controlled mode of non-rational communication, structured and visionary' - an early Christo no doubt. There's an extract from Morrissey's autobiography that publishers seem frantic to get their hands on at the moment, especially Faber & Faber: 'History demands it; destiny commands it' no less, according to Lee Brackstone. I'm sure Mozzer will eventually pocket a tidy six (or even seven) figure sum for his Herculean labours.
I did visit Strawberry Hill many years ago when it was being used as a school and was disappointed that many of the idiosyncratic features that Walpole had introduced had disappeared, although it was still impressive. According to a short film shown in the exhibition the house has been restored and will open to the public later this year - a return visit will be necessary.
To the Hurlingham Club in Fulham last night for the Ski Club of Great Britain Summer Ball – my wife is a member. I remember when I was unemployed in the late 1980s I would take a long daily walk around Wandsworth that often included Wandsworth Park on the south side of the Thames. On the opposite bank I could see the sylvan grounds of Hurlingham; I later found out it was a private sports club which I would never have been able to afford to join; it seemed permanently off limits for the likes of me. Over 20 years later I finally got to walk around the extensive immaculate gardens, croquet lawns and tennis courts and stroll along the embankment on the north side of the river to look across to Wandsworth Park on a sultry summer evening - another ambition fulfilled.
We spent much of the evening sitting outside, the sandy ground and robust metal tables reminding us of many pleasant times drinking at night in French or Italian town squares. There were a lot of groups of single women on the look-out for a wealthy husband, although there didn’t seem to be many single men around. My wife was thrilled to see Graham Bell who presents ‘Ski Sunday’ on the television, but she didn’t get a chance to chat to him. Everyone had the smooth sheen of what Martin Amis called ‘the money glow’ and the only black people were behind the bar or carrying trays. Despite costing £80 a bottle the champagne was flowing freely - no sign of the effects of Cleggeron's Cuts here. The cheapest bottle of wine was £25 and a bottle of beer was £4.65; the promised ‘buffet’ turned out to be a small number of dishes served in bowls through the early evening with no dessert – I knew we should have had a pizza before we got there. I’m glad we went though – probably the only time I shall have the opportunity to see the place.
Tuesday, 22 June 2010
Sunday, 20 June 2010
This afternoon went to an open day at The Campanile, 11 Edward Road, St Leonards on Sea. We were aware of it ever since we saw a Jonathan Meades documentary on places called Bohemia (I've now found it on You Tube under In Search of Bohemia 3/3); it finished in a fantastic house in Hastings with a magnificent staircase and frescoed walls. There was a very atmospheric looking wood-panelled Gothic library that I wanted to write in - third photo above shows its present state. The poet Fiona Pitt-Kethley who lived there at the time, put in an appearance. The house is on the market for around half a million (out of our league) but we thought we had to see it.
It’s a Grade II listed Victorian villa designed by Francis Fowler and built in 1865 by one of James Burton’s builders – Burton built much of central St Leonards. In 1873 London restaurateur Charles Verrey (see p91 of my Decadent London - Sherlock Holmes would send to Verrey's for food when he was tired of Mrs Hudson's cooking) moved in and decorated it in a theatrical manner with a marble staircase, frescoes, pilasters and rococo plasterwork with putti aplenty; he also had the library installed at the foot of a belvedere at the back of the house with views over the town and towards Beachy Head (very similar to the views from our front windows).
A later owner was Frank Frankfort Moore, a prolific writer who is unknown today. A well-connected man in his time, he possessed a collection of Italian art, which must have looked great in that house and a list of famous friends including the singer Jenny Lind (the name of one of my Old Town locals) who stayed there and presented him with a beautiful 17c carved wooden door that's still in situ, leading from the main hall to the kitchen.
Later the house fell into disrepair, although it looked in reasonable condition in the documentary (made in 1990). On today's visit there were signs of water penetration in some rooms, pretty much everything had been rendered in the modern minimalist style and only a few original features, such as a tiled bathroom, remained. The basement was an anonymously decorated flat where, I assume, the present owner lived. Apparently many of the pilasters, cherubs and painted panels had been removed in a ‘restoration’ in the 1990s – some seem to have disappeared, a few were to be found leaning up against a wall in a storeroom, others may be in the V&A. The listing requires that the marble staircase and Gothic library are retained and restored – at the moment it looks as if it will become a ‘boutique’ hotel. It would certainly require a lot of money to restore it to its glory, but I’m glad we had the chance to see it. All photos above were taken by me today.
Saturday, 19 June 2010
Friday, 18 June 2010
During my 3 month sojourn in Italy in 1985 for my History of Art degree one of the artists we had to concentrate on was Caravaggio. It seems that his bones have been recently discovered, another strand to his enduring legacy; he remains one of my favourites.
Sunday, 13 June 2010
Saturday, 12 June 2010
Thursday, 10 June 2010
There seems to be quite a lot of old music mentioned here, so let me recommend a new cd, actually I'm not sure if it's released until the late summer. 'Celeste' by The Soundcarriers is their second album, the first 'Harmonium' was great and this is possibly greater. Think The Free Design, Stereolab, lots of 60s psychedelic groups, I even hear Lush in the harmonies. This one is much freer and far out than their debut and all the better for it - definitely 'groovy'. Saw them live last year at Heaven supporting White Denim - unfortunately the exquisite harmonies on the record were not reproduced live as the girl on keyboards and vocals was out of tune throughout - a pity really as the bits where they didn't sing were impressive - my friend said it sounded like Quicksilver Messenger Service and I'll take his word for it. I was distinctly underwhelmed by the American White Denim who I had read were one of the greatest current live bands - their reheated John Spencer Blues Explosion act did nothing for us and we left for the Ship and Shovell after a few songs.
I was disappointed that the documentary makers decided to concentrate on subsequent artistic responses to the mysterious twelfth century event – village pantomimes, for example - rather then tell us the story in detail. They mentioned the accounts by William of Newburgh (1135/6-c.1198) and Ralph of Coggeshall (fl.1207-1226) but didn’t quote from them; despite the presence of the estimable historian and folklore expert Ronald Hutton I felt a bit let down. John Clark, who was a great help with my London folklore book has also written on the subject: John Clark ‘Martin and the Green Children’ Folklore vol.117, Issue 2, August 2006, pp207-14
Monday, 7 June 2010
Saturday, 5 June 2010
The area nearby was the epicentre of the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, culminating on 6 July that year in the Battle of Sedgemoor, where the Duke of Monmouth and his locally-recruited army were defeated near Weston Zoyland. James, Duke of Monmouth, illegitimate son of Charles II, was beheaded on Tower Hill on 15 July. He had been seeking to usurp James II who was seen as favouring Catholicism - 3 years later James went into exile abroad following the 'Glorious Revolution' of William III's invasion . The rebels who were captured were treated extremely harshly by Judge Jeffreys (George Jeffreys, first Baron Jeffreys (1645-1689), Chief Justice of the Kings Bench and Lord Chancellor from 1685, in the so-called ‘Bloody Assizes’ held in the district during September. 1381 were tried; most were convicted and sentenced to die; of these approximately 200 were executed; most of the remainder were transported to the West Indies.
For reading I took Somerset by Ralph Whitlock, one of a series of Batsford county guides published in the 1970s that I have collected over the years. On page 154 I found the following piece of folklore relating to Judge Jeffreys and the village of Stocklinch Ottersey. According to Whitlock, Jeffreys’ sister Mary lived there:
'It is said that she arranged to have the body brought down secretly, in a plain lead coffin, and buried there. Somerset people, however, got wind of what was on and waylaid the coffin. They broke it open, cut off Jeffreys’ head and hanged the body on gallows in Taunton market-place. By night, the body was retrieved and taken by stealth to Stocklinch, where it was placed, in its coffin, in the church vaults. In winter, the vault is flooded and then the coffin, leaden though it is, floats, always with its feet towards the entrance steps. The vault was sealed in 1934.'
This sounded intriguing – I then looked at the OS map and found that the village was less than 10 miles away, so we made a journey on Wednesday. The weather was gorgeous and the church was at the end of a quiet road in the middle of a sloping field with beautiful views that made for a perfect picnic spot (my photo above).
The name of the village comes from Old English ‘stoc’ meaning place and ‘hlinc’ a hill; in the 12th to 14th centuries the title or name ‘Ostricer’ (Hawker) was added to the place name, eventually evolving into Ottersey. Given its hillside location, St Mary’s was difficult to access in poor weather and eventually became redundant in 1973 - it was transferred to the care of the Redundant Chuches Fund, now the Churches Conservation Trust. It is occasionally used for special services and is still lit by oil lamps and candles.
Once inside I immediately noticed a memorial to Mary Jeffreys (d.1785) and there were other family plaques on the walls; the family burial vault is under the tower arch (my top photo above). According to the guidebook, ‘The Jeffreys family (unrelated to Judge Jeffreys despite local tradition) was prominent in the parish in the 17th and 18th centuries.’ I later found a family tree online. Clearly, the coincidence of surname was too good to resist the embellishments of local legend and folklore given the hatred felt towards Judge Jeffreys in the area.
In fact, following his capture in Wapping (more to follow) while trying to follow James II into exile, Jeffreys died in the Tower of London on 18 or 19 April 1689, a month short of his forty-fourth birthday. His body was laid in the Tower chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, reportedly next to the Duke of Monmouth and it was not until 2 November 1693 that his remains were removed to St Mary Aldermanbury, London, and buried by those of his first wife, as he had requested. St Mary Aldermanbury was hit by an incendiary bomb on 29 December 1940 and all traces of Jeffreys’ grave were lost. The ruins of Wren’s church were reconstructed between 1964 and 1969 in Westminster College Fulton Missouri, where Churchill delivered his ‘iron curtain’ speech in 1946.
Jeffreys' ODNB entry informs us that his effigy was gibbeted and burnt by a London mob in 1689. ‘Though dead, he was excepted from a general act of pardon the following year… Most important, pamphlets of all kinds poured scorn upon him. In particular John Tutchin's mythologizing account, The Western Martyrology, or, The Bloody Assizes (1689), permanently attached ‘bloody’ to the western assizes of 1685 and thus to Jeffreys's own name. This all but obliterated the memory of any finer qualities the judge may actually have possessed.' It concludes that, ‘Jeffreys is better known for his caricature than for his character.’
Friday, 4 June 2010
Two 45 minute sets with AH playing one of the smallest guitars I have ever seen - no machine heads natch - standing by an array of effects boxes at hand height. The music was pretty samey with jazzy chords superseded by speed-of-light soloing, although there was a nice sequence of atmospheric chording at one point. Gary Husband, another of my peers, has played with the likes of John McLaughlin, Jeff Beck and Jack Bruce and delivered a cliché-free drum solo in the last piece. Some of Holdsworth’s solos were very impressive, not going for the usual scales and shapes; my main gripe is that the sounds he was getting from his guitar were at times a bit, well, cheesy and took me back to the 1980s. Although he has played in Soft Machine and Gong there wasn’t much overt ‘rock’ in the music until the encore. The White Rock has to be applauded for putting on shows like this, although they can’t have made any money. Now that the major music venue on the pier has been closed for some time I’ll be interested to see who else plays here. The two previous gigs I’ve been to here were Steeleye Span and The Hollies.