Thursday, October 23, 2014

Everyone has a good side, including Mike Read

DJ Mike Read has been in the news recently in connection with his support for the anti-EU and anti-immigrant party UKIP. Mr Read had recorded a pro-UKIP novelty pop single in which he sang a calypso style song in a faux West Indian accent. Among other things, the lyrics complain about the numbers of foreign people who have come to the UK. The combination of subject matter and Mr Read's accent led many to dub the song racist.

Mike Read is no stranger to controversy. Older readers will recall that he instigated BBC Radio 1's banning of Frankie Goes To Hollywood's 'Relax' back in the early 1980s.

Nearly all people have good and bad sides. Earlier this year, Ms Sarah Prior saw Mike Read's good side in action. She was out walking her six month old puppy Digby in Henley when the naughty dog decided to chase some ducks into the river Thames. Ms Prior called out in dismay as she saw Digby being washed away by the surging waters, with the dog showing no natural aptitude for swimming.

Fortunately for Digby, Mike Read happened to be passing. He immediately leaped into the water and rescued the bold puppy, earning Ms Prior's gratitude. Digby was none the worse for wear but his opinions on the incident have not been recorded.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

[folk horror] "A Fiend in the Furrows". A conference in Belfast. Part 2

I am recounting my experiences at one day of this conference on folk horror held in Queen's University Belfast. You can read part one here.

After that dramatic interlude we were back into the papers for a session devoted to music. Clare Button's paper "See Not Ye that Bonny Road?": Places, Haunts and Haunted Places in British Traditional Song dealt with varying conceptions of place in British folk music, whether specific places (songs about events happening in a particular location) to a more general sense of landscape and the countryside etc.. That transition occurs in tandem with the British folk revival and folk music becoming more curated and less folkish.

Button talked also about the second folk revival (roughly situated in the 1960s). This was even less rooted in the original folk tradition but more overtly political. She suggested that The Wicker Man and popular TV series The Good Life are both contrasting products of it.

I took away from Button's talk a feeling that I really should get round to reading the copy of Rob Young's Electric Eden that has been lying around Panda Mansion for some time now. Of records she mentioned, the recent Visionary Seascapes album by Jen Finer and Andrew K├Âtting also sounded like it would be worth investigating, as would records by Sproatly Smith. The consideration of place in music also put me in mind of the brilliant Hirta Songs by Alasdair Roberts and Robin Robertson (this being a record about the people who lived on Hirta from neolithic times to the 1920s).

The other music paper was The Minstrel’s Grave: Hauntology and the Folkmusic Traditions of the British and Irish Isles and it was presented by Eamon Byers, one of the conference's organisers. Beginning with a discussion of the history of the recording of folk music, Byers moved on to talk about the so-called hauntological music of artists on Ghost Box, in particular Belbury Poly. The work of these people has a particular type of retro modernist focus, attempting to evoke Britain from roughly from 1950 to 1979 (i.e. from the dawn and to the end of the post-war consensus).

Ghost Box artists seem in one way very removed from anything to do with folk music, given their retro-futurist approach and heavy reliance on computer technology to make their music. However is a kind of shared impulse in play given their curatorial approach to the past. And there are more direct crossovers, with Byers drawing attention to Belbury Poly's sampling of very early folk music recordings from 1908. As used by Belbury Poly, Joseph Taylor's treated voice now sounds like one of those spectral recordings featured on the celebrated flexi disc given away with The Unexplained.

I was reminded here of Broadcast's Trish Keenan. Her voice has continued to appear on new records despite her untimely death. I was also curious as to why Byers' discussion of Ghost Box focussed solely on Belbury Poly, with no mention of The Focus Group, the label's other main act.

The next session saw two creative types talking about their own attempts to create work drawing on folk horror ideas. Christine Stanton talked about her novel in progress, set in the 17th century about a bloke from what is now Indonesia, who is abducted and taken to England to be included as a live specimen in some rich guy's collection of curiosities (this kind of did apparently happen). The first part of the story is told from the point of view of the Indonesian (to use a term that would have had no meaning in the 17th century), who does not understand what is happening to him and thinks he has been abducted by demons. Later there is a switch when he first encounters the villagers living near the rich guy's mansion, who in turn mistake him for a demon.

Stanton talked about horror fiction as we know it only emerging with the Enlightenment, possibly as a reaction to the loss or marginalisation of a superstitious world view. As someone who has dabbled in the fictional arts, I was interested by her discussion of how to write from a 17th century point of view but in a way that is understandable by a modern reader.

The second person in this session was one Chris Lambert, who presented the results of his own investigations into the Black Meadow, a mysterious site of unexplained phenomena in the Yorkshire moors. Eventually he cracked and revealed what we were increasingly suspecting: that the Black Meadow is a fiction. He was nevertheless trying to accentuate the sense of horror by being completely straight-faced about it all, with much of the Black Meadow stuff being presented as faux documentary and referencing real things to make people wonder if maybe, just maybe it might all be true (an old trick; I remember being intrigued at the discovery that some of the books mentioned in H.P. Lovecraft were not merely real but available in the library of my university).

This whole Black Meadow business has spawned a whole multi-disciplinary attack, with books being joined by film clips and also music (of, naturally, the hauntological variety). I think this might repay closer attention, if only to see whether any of it as good as Lambert's poem 'Beyond the Moor'. This tells the story of a woman accosted by a rogue who threatens to rob, rape, and/or murder her. She replies to each threat that she is unconcerned, because she has been "beyond the moor".

That was it for the papers. After a great wine reception (thanks Folklore Society!) we had a performance piece called by Nick Freeman and Dan Watt called If You Go Down in the Mythago Woods Today: A Sinister Excursion. This featured the two blokes lost in the woods, fearful of encountering every possible folk horror menace imaginable. It was chortlesome. I particularly liked the gastropub joke. The suggestion that the Teddy Bears Picnic is an event of existential horror, something fearful as much as it would be wonderful, rang true with my memories of being a small child.

After Mythago Woods we had a concert by Sharron Kraus and Clare Button. Kraus sang and played guitar while Button provided additional vocals. They treated us to some of the songs from Kraus's forthcoming album inspired by the Mabinogion, that cycle of Welsh myths and heroic tales that include some early versions of the Arthurian stories. Kraus's songs are not narrative so much as describing situations or presenting character studies. I particularly like the one about the Mabinogion character who is just a bad ass who likes causing trouble and provoking discord. There was also one about someone meeting the enchantress Rhiannon, which sadly or otherwise in no way referenced Stevie Nicks.

And that pretty much was that. After Kraus and Button finished, my beloved and I made our way back into the centre of Belfast to grab some food before taking the bus back down south.

One overall impression I had of the conference was that its focus was very English. That is not really a criticism, as England is the centre of gravity of These Islands, but as the event was billed as being about folk horror in British and Irish fiction and music, more non-English stuff might have been expected. In fairness, though, my sense of an English bias may have been a false one derived from only attending one day, as the Friday and Sunday programmes featured a number of items looking at Irish subjects or authors (including a paper on Kevin Barry's brilliant novel The City of Bohane). It may also be that folk horror is a product of the alienations from the countryside that comes with industrialisation and urbanisation, so England is a more natural focus for this than elsewhere.

Still, while walking back from Queen's to the centre of Belfast I passed by a residential street adorned with Union Jacks, the emblem serving as a reminder that people like me were not particularly welcome there. It did make me think about the possibilities of an urban folk horror, given how there are many aspects of urban societies or subsections of them that are strange, mysterious and threatening to outsiders. The Fiend in the Furrows event took place in the film theatre of Queen's, which seems to double up as Belfast's art house cinema. They had a poster up for a forthcoming film about a British squaddie lost in West Belfast in 1971, and I wondered if perhaps that might be a film that future folk horror conferences would find themselves discussing.

See also:

Fiend in the Furrows website

Tales from the Black Meadow image source (Bandcamp)

Songs from the Black Meadow image source (Mixcloud)

Tales from the Black Meadow

Sharron Kraus

Scarfolk Council

Ghost Box

Hirta Songs


Sunday, October 12, 2014

[folk horror] "A Fiend in the Furrows". A conference in Belfast

This was a conference held in Queen's University Belfast. What first attracted me to this was the poster, with its stylised image from The Wicker Man. The event was billed as "presenting perspectives on 'Folk Horror' in literature, film and music" and promised papers on various kinds of weird fiction and films like The Wicker Man and A Field in England, together with musical and theatrical performance. By folk horror they seem to mean horror fiction or films that draw on disconcerting folk practices. Anything with strange "old ways" would probably fall under this banner.

I only found about the event just before it was about to go ahead. Unable to find affordable accommodation in time, I could only attend one of the three days, taking the bus to and from Dublin. This involved getting up very early and listening to the bus driver's choice of dreadful music radio until we crossed the border and the more appealing sounds of BBC Radio 2 came on. For your delectation I will now briefly outline my impressions of the programme items I attended.

The day began with a plenary address by Stuart McWilliams on Aleister Crowley. He was introduced by another fellow whose name I unfortunately did not catch, who ran through the biographical details of Crowley's life. As you know, Aleister Crowley was a famous practitioner of ritual magic and achieved such notoriety that the tabloid press at one point dubbed him "the wickedest man alive"; he seems to have referred to himself as The Great Beast, among other things. He also appears to have signed his name so that the first A looks like a giant penis.

McWilliams himself adopted a somewhat droll approach, initially talking about the hagiographical bollocks put out by some of Crowley's biographers: that he anticipated Einstein's theory of relativity, that his political and economic ideas could transform the world into a utopia, and so on. He then went on to talk about Crowley's portrayal in fiction, which began even in his lifetime with Somerset Maugham's The Magician, whose villain is clearly modelled on Crowley, whom Maugham had met in Paris. McWilliams delighted us with some scenes from a 1920s silent film adaptation of The Magician, which featured a bacchanalian orgy where, somewhat unusually, everyone present seemed to be having the most terrible fun.

McWilliams' most fascinating point was that people should pay more attention to how conservative Crowley was. He seems to have been defiantly anti-modernist in his cultural tastes. Despite, or perhaps because of, his relatively humble background he adopted all kinds of faux noble titles and acquired a stately home in which to live the life of an aristocrat. He delighted in the company of people from old money backgrounds (especially impressionable young ladies). His professed political beliefs were a bit slippery, but he was happy enough to write a letter to Henry Ford congratulating him on the crushing of labour unions, affirming that union busting was in accord with his own esoteric principles.

This was followed by a panel pairing Edmund Cueva and Darren Oldridge. Cueva delivered a paper entitled The Wicker Man: Nothing to Do with Dionysus? The title played on an Athenian saying about the theatre and the paper itself drew a line of continuity from The Bacchae by Eurpides and popular film The Wicker Man. The Bacchae is the one about the cult of Dionysus arriving in Thebes; King Pentheus tries to resist the cult and suffers a terrible fate. You can do a great compare and contrast job on the play and film, with Howie and Pentheus mapping onto each other (both representing state authority and inflexibility), though the difference is that Howie is an outsider while in The Bacchae it is the new cult's priest (eventually revealed as the God Dionysus himself (spoilers)) who is the outsider.

One thing I always love hearing about is how the ancient Athenians related to theatre, which at the time was a very new thing. Herodotus recounts a story of a play about a Greek defeat by the Persians that so upset the audience that the entire city was given over to grief for days after the play's staging (Herodotus did not see this himself). Cueva mentions another such story. Apparently at the first staging of The Furies by Aeschylus, when the actors playing the demonic Furies first appeared on stage, audience members were so convinced by the costumes that they thought real demons had landed and so fled the theatre in terror.

In his paper Filming Magic: The Problem of Belief from Witch finder General to A Field in England, Oldridge talked about the problems we have engaging with folk magic beliefs in fictions when we no longer believe in such things ourselves. He cites the Witchfinder General film, in which the eponymous witchfinder is portrayed as a smarmy hypocrite where it might have been more disturbing to paint him as the sincere opponent of evil the historical character he is based on seems to have been. Likewise, for all its engagement with the strange to us beliefs of the 17th century, A Field In England somewhat cops out by introducing magic mushrooms as a partial explanation for the supernatural elements. In contrast, The Wicker Man presents the islanders as true devotees of their strange religion, not as sadistic maniacs or hypocrites.

We then broke for lunch, which was buffet style and included in the admission price. Jurassic Park! After some slight confusion over which items contained the flesh of dead animals I ate my fill, particularly enjoying the vol-au-vents. These edible treats were followed by a theatrical one, the Wireless Mystery Theatre's adaptation of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's Green Tea, which marked this year being the 200th anniversary of Le Fanu's birth.

Green Tea is an odd beast (like the demonic creature revealed as its villain), alternating between psychological horror (the growing sense of the terror stalking the vicar at its centre, coupled with an ambiguity as to whether the whole business is the product of mental illness) and bumptious comedy (coming from the self-important and largely ineffectual Dr Hesselius, who narrates that story as a case history). I myself have always thought that the vicar's dread contrasts with the somewhat comedic nature of the monster that is tormenting him (as in I could imagine a demonic monkey being more of an entertainment than a torment). Like so much horror, the vicar's doom is the result of a seemingly trivial choice, in his case a fondness for excessive consumption of green tea.

This production was very enjoyable. Even though it was presented as a radio play, it still managed to have a dramatic quality, thanks to the quality of the actors' performance. The live musical accompaniment was also highly effective.

Come back soon when I will reveal the full horror of the afternoon programme of this terrifying event.

In the meantime:

Fiend in the Furrows website

Richard Wells (he designed the poster)

Aleister Crowley - the Great Beast (Crowley signature image source; French)

A Field in England

[exhibition] "The Vikings" in the British Museum

Earlier in the summer I paid one of my visits to London. While I was there I visited the British Museum and had a look at their exhibit on the Vikings. I was a bit underwhelmed by it, partly because it was far far far too busy and partly because it did seem to be an endless succession of coins and swords in glass cases. Also, how interesting are the Vikings really? At the end of the day they were just a bunch of smelly hessians from the far north who contributed little to the advance of human civilisation.

The one detail I was interested by was the revelation that the Vikings were not actually that good at fighting (or, rather, no better than anyone else). There are apparently any number of accounts of them being stuffed out of it when they found themselves fighting on even terms with their enemies. The exhibition illustrated this with a load of Viking skeletons retrieved from a mass grave where some of the less fortunate nordic raiders found themselves. In retrospect, exhibiting a load of dead people like this for us to gawp at may have been a bit tasteless.

more Vikings (Battle of Clontarf re-enactment)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

"From Hell" Chapter 4: a re-enactment

When I was in London earlier in the summer I embarked on a strange adventure. This was an attempt to recreate the journey of Sir William Gull (Queen Victoria's physician) and John Netley in Chapter 3 of From Hell. In that book by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, Netley drives Gull around London in a carriage to a series of sites of strange historical significance; when the sites are joined on a map, they make a five pointed star. I did not have a carriage at my disposal so I made the journey by public transport and on foot. But I was not travelling alone, as I had two companions: Dr Kenneth Maher and Mr Chris Gilmour.

We assembled at Marble Arch. This is not a site mentioned in From Hell, but it made for a convenient meeting place. From there we made a short walk to the Mayfair house that in 1888 was the home of Sir William Gull. Our journey proper began here.

Our first proper stop was Battle Bridge Road, beside King's Cross station. Here the Romans crushed the rebellion of Queen Boudicca and with it the last vestiges of the matriarchal society that once dominated the world (or so Gull declares in From Hell, a work some have described as a fiction). There is a tradition that Boudicca herself is buried under one of the station's platforms, though I did not verify this myself.

From there we went to Albion Drive and viewed London Fields. This is basically a park in east London. In From Hell, Gull links London Fields to the Saxons and stuff, though I think the place may have been visited primarily to make a point on the pentagram. Iain Sinclair apparently lives nearby, which may not have given the place spooky London significance in Gull's time but does in ours. London Fields is also the title of the great novel by Martin Amis; I was disappointed not to see somewhere in the vicinity where the ancient game of darts could be played

We used the Overground to travel to and from Albion Drive, which ate up our time as that service is somewhat infrequent. It was therefore quite some time before we reached our next stop, Bunhill Fields. This is an old graveyard in the City in which a great many famous people are buried. Gull remarks on the obelisk that stands over the grave of Daniel Defoe, comparing it to that of the church of St. Luke's, but I think he is more interested in the plainer grave of the visionary William Blake.

While in Bunhill Fields we encountered a demonic squirrel who was rather forward in his attempts to beg for food, but alas we had nothing for him. We then walked on to and past the previously mentioned church of St. Luke's. The spire here was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, and Gull sees it as a clear symbol of worship of the sun and the male generative organ.

We walked on. This stretch involved a lot more walking than expected and extreme measures were required to maintain discipline. As we progressed, we caught a glimpse of the Shard in the distance. That did not exist in Gull's time but I suspect that the good doctor would have approved of its totemic power.

Our next actual stop was Northampton Square. Gull points out to Netley that this was named after a prominent freemason, seeing this as a matter of considerable significance. He does not mention that at one stage in history everyone of consequence was in the freemasons, to the extent that everything in London is probably named after someone who was "on the square"; I suspect this is another stop chosen simply to make the pentagram more convincing.

We broke for lunch in the vicinity of Angel tube station. We had burritos, which I do not think Gull would have enjoyed.

From there we made our way to another Hawksmoor church, St. John Bloomsbury. Its strange spire is said to be modelled on the tomb of Mausolus in Halicarnassus. It is one of the triumphs of 18th century neo-classicism and I encourage all London residents and visitors to have a look at it.

A jaunt west to Earls Court (site of an ancient occult event of some sort) brought us to a third point of the star. In the book, Gull and Netley stop here and have a kidney pie for lunch. We saw a branch of Greggs which may have been the very place where they ate.

By now we were conscious of the latening hour. We pressed on, making our way to the Thames Embankment to see Cleopatra's Needle (actually another obelisk erected to honour some Thotmese fellow a thousand years before Cleopatra was born). At this point Mr Gilmour had to bid us farewell: he has an inability to cross running water and could not join us on the next leg of our journey, which would bring us across the Thames.

Dr Maher and I do not fear water. We pressed on to Hercules Road in Lambeth, where William Blake once lived. The house is no longer there and a block of council flats sits on the site.

And unfortunately that proved to be the end of our journey. We had made three of the star's five points. The last two would have involved journeys out east as far as Limehouse and down south to Herne Hill (a place largely beyond the reach of easily understood public transport). Making it to these would probably have taken more time than we had spent on the others so far. The hour was getting late so we decided to call it a day.

Perhaps in some future time I will make the attempt again.

See also:

Pentagram image source

More of my pictures

From Hell Chapter Four Walking and Riding Tour (An American gentleman made his own attempt to complete the Star in 2008)

Stefani Chaney's Map of Chapter Four in "From Hell" (danger: there is at least one inaccuracy in this map, as it has the wrong St. Anne's church tagged)

Sir William Gull (Wikipedia)

John Netley (Wikipedia)

Saturday, September 20, 2014

[Theatre] "Titus Andronicus"

During the summer I went to a performance in Shakespeare's Globe of William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. That is the one with a pretty extreme level of violence that for a long time was considered more or less unperformable; as tastes have changed it has in recent year become a bit of a staple. The play follows the eponymous character, a Roman general, as he gets caught up in a vicious blood feud with the captured Queen of the Goths. This eventually features people being butchered and fed in pies to their parent and, most notoriously, the rape and mutilation of Lavinia, daughter of Titus.
Titus Andronicus was apparently Shakespeare's first big hit, and I can see why. It is loud and brash and never short of action. I can also see why it fell out of favour. Aside from its shocking violence, it seems to lack any obvious moral or intellectual point to it. People keep striking out at their enemies and in turn suffer terrible responses to past slights, with no great sense that there is any good person here. Nor is it offering us any obvious message about the evils of blood feuds. Titus himself occupies the central role that a heroic figure should occupy, but he is terribly tainted by the violence around him, violence that he too is happy enough to dish out for reasons that to us are somewhat bizarre (he kills one of his sons in a brawl and eventually murders his daughter to avoid being depressed by her crippled figure).

You can see, though, why this has become a popular play again. For all the high culture associations of Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus offers the violent thrill of a gangster drama or the brutal struggles of unsavoury yet compelling characters served up in something like Game of Thrones.

Music is a big thing in Globe productions, usually with some approximation to an Elizabethan ensemble playing in a box behind the actors. They went away from that for this, with the music being more based on drums and strange long pipes. And they were often played in the audience, combined with the banging of metal on the wheeled metal towers that they would occasionally push through the crowds, with actors on the back. Naturally I was standing, and having to continually jump out of the way of people who were playing the part of thugs a little too convincingly was all part of the fun. The dance at the end (all Globe plays end with a dance) seemed a bit wilder than usual, maybe deliberately designed to remind of one of those mediaeval dances of death.

All in all this was an engaging trip to the theatre, but I think Titus Andronicus could be filed under enjoyable trash rather than something that is actually good.

image source (Independent)

Friday, September 19, 2014

[Live] Matmos

Back in early summer I found myself in London. After meeting people in pubs for drinks and stuff, my friend Mad King Ken and I went off for some nosh and headed out to Cafe Oto to see Matmos.

Pro-tip - if you are going to Cafe Oto, go down early enough to get a seat or don't bother going. The flat floor and low ceiling makes watching from the back a disengaging experience. We enjoyed this occasion a lot less than the night we went to in January.

A support act was on when we came in, some geezer who was making connections on some huge analogue Bond villain computer from which noises approximating to music were emanating. It looked stunning, but the more of it I heard the more I suspected that it was all just noise with nothing of a truly musical character to it. I am sure there are people who like listening to unmusical noise, but I am not one of those people and I was happy when this fellow ceased his labours.

Matmos themselves we were seeing more or less completely on spec. We had enjoyed visiting Cafe Oto in January and "Ken" was interested by some of their music when he listened to it on YouTube. But in Cafe Oto, looking at them from the back of a crowded room, we wondered if they were really all that. The first tune seemed to be like some kind of art project thing, some recorded voice talking away about stuff (possibly gay stuff (not that I am against that kind of thing, in its own place, between consenting adults)) with some more unmusical noises associated with it. The next track was something a bit more dancey and I think maybe if I was i) not old and tired and ii) somewhere you could dance I might have enjoyed bopping to at least some of it. I can't remember the third track, but it must have been a real corker because after it I said to Ken "maybe we should split". And so we did.

But as we went on our way, we had to accept that we would probably have enjoyed all this a lot more if we had been sitting down, able to rest our weary bones while drinking a beer or two. Matmos themselves seemed like an interesting twosomes, one a bit of a New York Muscle type in his vest, the other demonstrating that making music is a serious business by dressing like someone who has important matters to attend to in the office. It might well be that their music would repay close attention, but stuck at the back of Cafe Oto we were not in a position to give it that.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

[film] "The Double"

This is a film by everyone's favourite Richard Ayoade and is adapted from the 19th century novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The film is set in a strange retro-futurist version of the 1980s, but it is still easy to see its origins in the kind of novel that begins with a table of ranks of the imperial Russian civil service.

The film features Jesse Eisenberg as an office drone in a large company. His life is not one of success, either professionally or romantically. One day finds that a new employee has joined the organisation, one who looks exactly like him (and is also played by Jesse Eisenberg) except that the Double is suave, confident, popular and a go-getter. They are initially friends but soon become rivals, as the Double starts stealing his ideas at work and moving in on the attractive lady colleague (played by Mia Wasikowska) that the main character has been ineffectually dreaming about. As is the case of films and books about doubles, there is a certain ambiguity as to whether the Double is a real person or the product of the main character's fevered imagination. Either way, Eisenberg is great in both roles, especially when he is playing one of them impersonating the other.
Some have compared The Double to Brazil, and it is not easy to see why. Aside from retro-future settings (albeit different retro-future settings), both films have a distinctly paranoid and borderline dystopian air. The Double also has a claustrophobic feel, with no exterior shots (or no exterior daylight shots). But I think the film is still its own thing. It does not really have Brazil's conflict between humdrum reality and the romantic world of the imagination. Instead it follows more in the tradition of its source material through such 20th century writers like Kafka, presenting us with the surreal tale of a put upon man ground down by rules and the need to conform. I liked it, but maybe that is because in many ways it resonates with my life.

image source (Wikipedia)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

[Live] Alasdair Roberts and Robin Robertson: "Hirta Songs"

This was an event organised as part of the Dublin Writers Festival, one of those things that always looks interesting but with which I never properly engage. It was the presentation of a song cycle about people who used to live on Hirta, an island in the St. Kilda archipelago. Alasdair Roberts is the Scottish folk singing sensation with whom I am increasingly fascinated. Robin Robertson is a poet who visited the island and who may have been the initial driver of the project. I think maybe that Mr Robertson must have written the words of the tunes with Mr Roberts then setting them to music, but they left their writing process opaque. At the event, Mr Robertson introduced each song and talked about the general subject and then left Mr Roberts to sing it, accompanied by his astonishing guitar playing; the only exception to this was when the poet read some of his own poems that had not been set to music.

St. Kilda is very remote. Apparently it takes several hours to get to it from the Outer Hebrides. The evening presented a portrait of the life lived by the St. Kildans from neolithic times to the 1930s. The people on Hirta lived not by fishing or farming but by predating on the gannets and other seabirds who nest on the other rocky islands of the archipelago. They would boat out to the bird island and then climb up the rock face to catch the birds in their nests. The first song tells the story of a man who lost his footing on the cliff, falling hundreds of feet into the water below. The St. Kildans never learned to swim, but the faller's death was delayed by all the dead seabirds stuffed into his belt, whose buoyancy gave him a temporary reprieve from drowning. His friends could do nothing but watch as he bobbed up and down in the water before eventually going under. What was striking about all this was that the song ran against the grim subject matter, with Roberts being characteristically jaunty in his singing and playing in the face of the awfulness. This would not surprise anyone familiar with his work.

Other tunes evoked different aspects of life on the islands. Something of a tension is created between the pagan ways of the islanders and the god botherers of the Presbyterian Church (or the Kirk, as it is known in Scots English). The Kirk did its best to stamp out pagan practices and enforce conformity to reformed Christianity. This conflict is explored in the song 'The Drum Time', about the Kirk's successful extirpation of the islanders' traditional musical practices. That is one of the few tunes on which Roberts' jauntiness cracks and the music mirrors the sadness of the lyrics.

Roberts' music also goes a bit sadface on 'Exodus', about Hirta's final evacuation in the early 1930s. By then the population of the islands had fallen below a viable level. Increasing awareness of what the world had to offer made the islanders less inclined to remain on a rainswept rock in the middle of the Atlantic, and they petitioned to be taken away to the mainland (which in this context might still have meant an island in the Outer Hebrides). 'Exodus' gives a sense of how terribly wrenching it must be to forever leave somewhere that has been the home to your forebears since the dawn of time. For me the sadness of the parting was conveyed by the grim detail that the islanders had to drown their dogs before departing, as they could not take the animals with them (for reasons that were not explained).

I have said more about Mr Roberts than Mr Robertson here, which is not too surprising as it was the singer's past musical form that attracted us to this event. I am also not known for my love of poetry. However, Mr Robertson deserves his own praise for the lyrics he has written to this. There were also a couple of poems he recited himself that were very effective; the unaccompanied spoken voice suits the bleak subject of life on Hirta. 'The Well of Youth', an account of a haunting, was particularly striking.

We bought the record after the concert and it is as beautiful listen, with the tunes featuring a slightly expanded line-up. But beautiful as it all is, I am glad that I am not living on Hirta.

map (St. Kilda, National Trust for Scotland)

Hirta Songs record cover (Stone Tape Recordings)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

[Live music] The Sisters of Mercy

This is a concert I went to back in July.

You know these people. They are a famous goth band from the past whose heyday was the 1980s. They have not released any records since the early 1990s. I refer to them with plural pronouns, yet the passage of time has seen the Sisters of Mercy become just the one person, Andrew Eldritch. He recruits various session musicians and the like whenever he decides to go on the road. Mr Eldritch does not tour very often which makes me think he must be independently wealthy or something. Or maybe he has a job in the City and just tours as the Sisters as a hobby.

The last time I saw the Sisters, they were playing in the Olympia. I was up in the Gods, which made for an alienating experience. The sound was not great either (not a surprise for Olympia concerts). Together these made for a less than satisfactory night out. This time they were playing in Vicar Street, a venue famous for its excellent sound and for its open floor plan that allows anyone determined enough to get up to the front. So I decided to give them another go.

I met my gothic friend Angela in the Lord Edward for a pre-concert drink. It was not busy. There were folk-trad musicians playing there in an unobtrusive manner. It was nice.

As expected, the crowd in Vicar Street was a load of people in their 40s with who don't get out much. There were some younger sexy goth ladies, or maybe it is a wonder what extreme make-up can accomplish. But mostly it was old people like myself.
Mr Eldtritch is himself getting on a bit. He has now lost his hair and seems to have compensated by growing a little goatee beard. He was entertaining to watch. Belying his austere reputation he eschewed static poses and did a lot of posing around and jokey working of the crowd. In some ways this led to cognitive dissonance (I would have expected him to have remained stock still, surrounded by dry ice), but it was amusing.

The sound however was disappointing, with most of the songs sounding very thin and like the palest shadows of their recorded versions. Given how reliant the band are on programmed bits and bobs this did seem a bit poor, suggesting a certain laziness on their part. There were some odd choices about the band's line-up too. With Eldritch were a couple of session guitarists, at least one of whom was a bit of a pretty boy. They had no bassist; classic Sisters tunes are very bass-heavy, so this must have played a large part in making everything sound a bit thin.

The crowd was surprisingly stinky. The hot weather must have caught people unawares and they had not adjusted their bathing habits accordingly. As the event went on, many became over excited and tried to relive their youth by aggressive moshing. It seemed a bit too much to me and it was noticeable how almost uniformly male the moshing zone was. As is the way of these things, I don't think the intention was to push women from the front but it had that effect to at least some extent.

Overall I was underwhelmed by the experience. The weak sound and lack of bass made many of the songs almost unrecognisable, or recognisable only as thin and ineffectual versions of their true selves. This did not come across as a band trying to reinvent their old tunes, more as a band making a pig's ear of them. Having now definitively filed the Sisters of Mercy under bands who have duff live sound, I cannot see myself going to see them again in the future. It also put me off seeing the reformed Jesus & Mary Chain, who played here recently.

The Sisters of Mercy in the Olympia

Eldritch Panda (Giant Panda Zoo)