Gerald English with The Jaye Consort: Medieval Music

This is the first record in the series that I bought myself, and still have in my possession. I can’t remember exactly when I got it, but I would have been in my teens, and do recall buying it from a record shop in the Arndale centre in Nelson. I’m not sure exactly what can have triggered an interest in medieval music, but it may well have been linked to a fascination with the history of the period and before (when I won the school Biology prize in 1983 I bought the book of Michael Wood’s ‘In Search of the Dark Ages’ with the book token. I suppose it was a bit of an odd Biology prize when I was presented with it at the awards assembly). I do remember that I sometimes used to tune in to Radio 3, although I’ve never developed a deep knowledge of classical music, and that it was most usually early music that I enjoyed. I remember hearing the name Emma Kirkby a lot, and being transported by recordings of her singing the music of Hildegard of Bingen. My lack of real knowledge was shown up when I started taping a Radio 3 recital on authentic reconstructed instruments, the shagbutt, minikin and Flemish clackett, only to find it was a repeat of a spoof originally produced by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1968 under the moniker Schola Polyphonica Neasdeniensis (and if anyone can find a way of getting this to play, I’d be really grateful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=irqERfuS-iQ). 

With regards to most music, regretfully, I’m really in the “I don’t know much about it but I know what I like” camp, and my knowledge of the ‘classical’ music field is still very patchy, but this record, when I go back to it, has elements that reach forward into all sorts of other things I’ve come to enjoy. There’s the sacred music here that reaches forward to Byrd, Tallis, Taverner and Palestrina, then on to John Tavener, Henryk Gorecki, and Arvo Pärt. There’s the world-music element, with many of these tunes apparently having common roots with Asian or middle-Eastern instrumentation, rhythms and melodies: the sleeve notes are testament to this, describing the sound as “not unlike an Arabian night-club band, and referencing instruments that are ‘played to this day in Tibet’. A particular favourite of more recent musical fusion that I discovered a few years later via John Peel was the German electro-rock-dance-world-fusion band ‘Dissidenten’, whose Krautrock underpinnings were elaborated by Moroccan musicians on their superb ‘Sahara Elektik’ album, and there other moments in this record that I think “that sounds like Tinariwen”, a Tuareg group that I’ve been fortunate enough to see play live.. One of my favourite bands from the 4AD record label that has been the source of my biggest musical obsessions, ‘Dead Can Dance’ drew heavily on medieval and world music: there’s a Saltarello on this album, and on their ‘Aion’ LP. My favourite musical artists by a far, ‘Cocteau Twins’ have, I’ve always felt,  a mediaeval feel to the rhythms and guitar treatment on their ‘Peppermint Pig’ EP, while the title of their song ‘Musette and Drums’ offers more than a nod in that direction too. 

Looking back at the roots of their nation’s culture is for some people a search for a an illusory purity (see all those social media posts featuring heroic knights of St George and white dragons). For me, this record was one of the first clear indicators of just how diverse the origins of ‘English’ culture are.

Those eyes, that mouth.

I have a singing voice that is adequate for holding a tune, but little more. One time, and one time only, have my vocal efforts been met with something like reverie from an audience. An audience of one, in the men’s toilets of a hotel in northern Finland just before Christmas 2003. We were, I suspect, both a little drunk. Certainly, I was, and he soon would be. Nevertheless, in my foolish attempt to mimic the oral ice-sculpture of Elizabeth Fraser singing Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren I must have channelled something that wetted a desiccated memory in my listener.

“What is that?” It wasn’t a casual question. “I’m sure I heard that in a pub in Leicester, must have been ten, fifteen years ago. Been wondering what it was ever since. Beautiful female voice; just an echoey accompanying guitar, I think.”

So yes, it was Fraser’s version: the one in my head as I drunkenly warbled that had somehow arced across the years and porcelain stalls to evoke the song that had lodged in his mind after just that one listen. In those days before Shazam and Spotify, we could be transported by a piece of music and despair of ever hearing it again. Yet just a couple of minutes later he was listening to the song, headphone-embraced, on a mini-disc collection of 4AD label artists belonging to a new-found friend I’d met just a couple of hours earlier. We’d spent the evening in the hotel bar sharing an obsession with Fraser’s band, Cocteau Twins, in a spiralling bliss of cloudberry liqueur.

But now, I am resisting the siren-song of the Buckley connection (Elizabeth Fraser would later record a beautiful unreleased duet – All Flowers in Time Bend Toward the Sun – with Tim Buckley’s son, Jeff, shortly before his river-bend drowning, as her relationship with Cocteau Twins bandmate Robin Guthrie, and subsequently the band itself, imploded). Instead, with oar-blades feathered, I’m striking out for that treasure hiding on the B-side of the transitional Love’s Easy Tears  EP, the song I return to most: Those Eyes, That Mouth.

I hesitate before daring to try and write about Cocteau Twins’ music at all, and especially Those Eyes, That Mouth. If I’m lending you my very heartbeat, even for just three minutes thirty-six seconds, what if it is, for you, an ice-pulse? The song is not one of their most popular and (if any are) crowd-pleasing pieces. It contains echoes of what the group were when I first fell for them, when music seemed the only thing that mattered, because the things that ought to matter were unobtainable or incomprehensible. And it contains the essence of what they would become, when life outgrew their music, yet their music swallowed that life. You can hear the transition just after the two-minute mark. A shard of ice shatters in a scrape of reverbed guitar string; Liz’s characteristically inscrutable lyric says, if only to me, “worthy of young men”; the rhythmically three-swept melodic guitar and multifoiled bass-line subtly change key, Liz’s voice ups out and away, “now we are reaching”, and that glass grenade shard of guitar falls like piled snow from the pines outside that Arctic hotel, the year our eldest child finally saw Santa Claus for real, and realised he wasn’t.

I remember with the clarity of filtered memory my first playing of Those Eyes That Mouth, over seventeen years earlier, on the day it was released: October 13th 1986. Just a couple of weeks earlier I had arrived at university, sharing a flat with my best friend from home, a fellow Cocteaus fan. A few weeks later I would catch my first sight, through the window of that flat, of the girl who was to marry me; a little later in this same room, she would be among a bunch of us chatting together after an evening at the Brewhouse, exchanging lengthening glances that would have a friend later mock that I had stars in my eyes. Now, Russ and I danced round the room like the wise idiots we were, and as that guttering guitar sliced a bleeding smile across the upturned face of the song when the needle dialled two-thirds across the vinyl, laugh lines crazed our meeting eyes, and our tinderbox hearts blazed.

Other records might have done the same in those few years when we seemed to live whole lives by the day, but few other than Cocteaus songs continue to feel fresh and vital across the looped rope of time to the present, while still containing that half-gift of nostalgia. We need a word for the experience of compressing time that this music creates with all that sonic stuff there are no words for, because if there were words we wouldn’t need the music (and some ethnographers speculate – it seems to me more than plausibly – that perhaps we wouldn’t have words but for music). I think of the Portuguese saudade, mainstay of the Fado song tradition, and of the Welsh hiraeth – a longing, a yearning for an ideal of home, a heart’s ease, that perhaps there never was and perhaps never will be. This song, unlike most Cocteaus’ tracks, ends on a long slow fade, taking crystalline beauty with it, to who knows where.

Thirty-three years after first hearing it, as I listen to this song for the however-many-thousandth time, making coffee in the kitchen of our home, my wife approaches the doorway. She’s heard the music, sees me, and her arms come up, as if holding something, as if to a child, as if to a lover, as if to a friend. Before we embrace, for the first time in weeks, our faces crease, laugh lines haunting our smiles, and I look at her. Really look at her. It only takes a moment, in the collapsed time this music creates:

those eyes,

that mouth…

Tablet 7 – Black Lives Matter

This Babylonian letter from the Manchester University Museum includes the injunction: “… don’t be negligent! Cultivate the field … and use (its harvest). Or give it over to other hands, in order that it may be cultivated!” 

Whose field are we on? Who gets to cultivate it, and how, and for whose benefit? 

 What have we sown? What have we grown?

I proudly sang the National Anthem at a Silver Jubilee party in 1977. As the ‘final’ line of God Save the Queen ended I drew a deep breath and launched into the second verse — including the lines ’Scatter her enemies / and make them fall /Confound their politics / Frustrate their knavish tricks’. And then the third verse, too before they put a stop to me and awarded me the prize cake with its silver fondant crown. I gleefully chanted, “Who won the war? Who won the war?” at my classmate Stefan, whose dad was a German emigré jeweller, with a group of fellow pupils in our primary school playground. I decorated a polystyrene straw boater and a piece of dowelling with red white and blue ribbon as part of my outfit for the Royal Wedding garden party we held in 1981. My mum sang me to sleep each night with a lullaby that ended ‘it is time for picanninies to go to sleep’, and I went on to sing the same words to my own children decades later. One of the books mum read to me had a refrain that I remember to this day: ‘Epaminondas, you ain’t got the sense you was born with!” At school, Mrs Wellington read us the ‘Little Black Sambo’ stories. At church we had little booklets of tear-out photos of babies and children – Sunny Smiles they were called, and we would ‘sell’ the photos to raise money for National Children’s Home. People would flick through and choose their favoured picture, leaving a booklet of stubs and the final unsold few: the ones who looked as though they might be a bit disabled or, of course, black. But we learned to love and care about the poor African children in those far away lands who were being won for Jesus (and being educated, and having wells dug for them, and being taught improved farming methods) by brave missionaries funded by the JMA (Junior Missionary Association). For collecting over £5 a year for them I was awarded the ‘JMC DSO’ – a medal looking like the Victoria Cross, and in subsequent years a ‘bar’ to add to the medal ribbon. I referred along with everyone else to ‘the paki shop’ and casually used terms like ‘wog’ and ‘coon’ and the N-word for black people, and laughed at jokes with punchlines like ‘Alcock and Brown – that’s my Rastus’. I remember a black cricketer, I think he was called Lloyd, coming from the West Indies to play for our local cricket club and him being a warmly welcomed and much loved character. He is the only black person I remember from my childhood. Of course, I had a spell collecting Robertson’s golly badges. I stood in genuinely awed and respectful silence at the parade of veterans on Remembrance Day as it made its way to the cenotaph on the park next to our house. Back then, it was a long procession, with plenty who had seen active service in both world wars. I was outraged when, occasionally, the wreaths that had been laid and remained there all year had been thrown about the place, and I remember me and a couple of friends putting them back and re-erecting all the little wooden poppy-crosses that had been trampled down in the flower beds around the memorial. I remember learning (or rather failing to learn) to drive in Nelson and my instructor directing me through ‘Little Bangladesh’ and joking he’d prefer it if I kept my speed up. I laughed along, of course. 

Getting on for half a century after many of these childhood memories, I currently have 298 ‘friends’ on Facebook. I’ve done a quick audit and as far as I can see, four are people of colour: one is black (mixed, I believe) and I think three are of South Asian ethnicity. Apologies to anyone if I’ve got that wrong or missed you out.

I have made several attempts to continue writing this piece over the course of several days, taking it in various directions, wondering where best to place my focus, but I have concluded that, for the time being at least, I should pause and think and try to engage more and posture (‘virtue signalling’ anyone?) less, apart from one thing I really wanted to include — and that is an apology to that lone black voice on my timeline for not doing more to amplify that perspective more before Black Lives Matter blew up in our timelines and on our news screens and, yes, I jumped on the bandwagon. I have previously ‘liked’ a number of her posts and comments that have dealt with issues around race, and have several times composed responses to people who have presented on her timeline arguments that display the (usually unwittingly) racist perspectives that she has to deal with on a daily basis throughout her life, but have always drawn back and not sent them, because I really don’t like an argument. Before I’d even heard of George Floyd, on the morning of 27th May (he was killed on 25th May) she posted:

“Seeing a different black man everyday killed by the police is so traumatic. It makes me scared for my family and makes me scared about the thought of raising a son 😖”

Well, I can imagine some people thinking this is hyperbole: a different black man every day? Really? Here, perhaps, is somebody who has been radicalised to unreasonably fear every policeman in the same way that we lefty snowflakes claim people have been radicalised to fear every muslim or black kid in a hoodie. And anyway, all of that is happening in America, and we’re better than that here.

Then the first comment below that post was from a white woman whose profile says she works at a bar in Doncaster. She has a son who, in his profile pic is a black kid wearing a reversed baseball cap. Her comment was “Shaqs been stopped by police 4 times these last two weeks. Twice when I sent him to the shop. Asking him his name or where he lives. I’ve been to the shop too many times to count & not been stopped once 🤔 xx”

Many of us – especially those of us who are white, even more so who are also male, even more so who are also economically comfortable (middle class, if you like)  really haven’t much of a clue about all this, and about the history that has led to it, or certainly not what it actually feels like to live with those experiences. Unless we make the effort to find out. And people like Lauren are, understandably, fed up of doing the emotional hard work of telling us and continually being ignored, rebuffed, marginalised, and patronised by those who claim to be ‘colour blind’ or insist that ‘all lives matter’ – never mind the explicit and overt racism on the one hand, and unconscious, internalised and structural racism on the other, that are still deeply ingrained in our culture. 

So, I will end here by saying that although Lauren is a former student of mine, I am quite certain I have learned more from her than she ever learned from me, and I will leave anyone reading this to think about the conclusions that can be drawn from my experiences in childhood and beyond: they certainly don’t inevitably lead in the direction of anti-racism, so if you have some unease about what’s going on, think I’m a woke SJW who needs to get real, or just don’t know how best to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement, well, join the club. Let’s talk.

U2: War

A number of artists that I listen to a lot, and are most representative of what I would want my music to ‘say about me’ will be missing from this list, because I am trying to identify the turning points: the music that opened doors. Sometimes, having walked through that portal, I found a mansion to explore and rarely returned to the entry point. So it was with U2. If this were a list of records that mean most to me, or that I listen to most often, U2 wouldn’t be represented. I left their records, including the first album I bought by them, ‘War’, at home when I went to university, and think I probably haven’t heard it start to finish between then and yesterday when I pulled it up on Spotify. But U2 were the gateway drug to the post-punk / indie / alternative music scene that has dominated my musical preferences to this day. Yes, I may have quickly rejected U2, but for a time they burned brightly as the first band to really give that all important adolescent sense that they were  speaking directly to me. (Incidentally, my friend Paul Lavendar recently shared an article that highlights why it became so easy to scoff at U2, but also offers a bit of a challenge to those of us who have done so: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/music/fintan-o-toole-bono-at-60-why-is-ireland-so-ambivalent-about-its-most-famous-son-1.4244508).

U2 were the first band that I saw live, on December 2nd 1982 at Manchester Apollo: the second date of their ‘War’ pre-tour where they showcased three songs from the upcoming album, alongside their existing repertoire from singles and their first two albums. I was a few weeks short of my fifteenth birthday, and it was easily one of the most exciting things that had ever happened to me (seeing Burnley play for the first time on January 2nd 1978 at Burnden Park runs it close). Posters and music paper articles and pictures of the band (in iconic photographs by Anton Corbijn) immediately began to cover my bedroom walls, and I wore the black sleeveless top I bought at the gig constantly when not in school uniform, and even when I was I  listened to them surreptitiously in class on my brother’s ‘borrowed’ Walkman using one of those white earpieces that looked a bit like a hearing aid run inside my shirt, up the back of my collar with my  hair carefully arranged to hide it. I made a handmade booklet of their lyrics, and carefully crafted cassette box inserts for the compilation tapes I made including the rare B-sides from singles borrowed from youth group friend Stephen Pratt who already owned everything they’d released, and was among the group who took me to that first gig. If their Christianity was particularly important to me at the time, they helped forge the link between faith and a social and political conscience. 

It was from U2 that I learned what ‘Bloody Sunday’ was; ‘New Year’s Day’ cemented the seemingly distant events of the Solidarity movement in Poland in my developing awareness of global politics, and when the single ‘Pride: in the name of love” was released it brought the civil rights movement belated to my attention. U2 did more than merely coincide with my shift away from the Conservative political outlook I’d grown up with, and the ‘noisy punk band from Ireland’ as Bono described them, were probably my first great love in music, if not the longest lasting,

Diverfity

Tablet 6

Keen eyed readers, of whom there is at least one, will have noticed that I’m not partial to keeping to the rules of these ‘challenges’ and today I deviate yet further, for this is not a clay tablet, but a stone inscription. The Behistun inscription, located in what is now western Iran. It is often known as the cuneiform ‘Rosetta Stone’, a comparison which itself betrays the imperialism that places Western culture as the norm against which others are measured (and invariably found wanting). It is a trilingual inscription, in Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian (a variety of Akkadian), and was instrumental to archaeologists in deciphering cuneiform script. As a not wholly irrelevant aside, the picture below (By KendallKDown – From my own collection, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8751106) shows damage to the inscription apparently caused by British soldiers using it for target practice during the Second World War.

What made it possible to decipher cuneiform was placing it alongside contrasting scripts in the same context and then comparing them with other scripts from different contexts. The diversity between the scripts is as important as their commonality. So, diversity is important.

In a previous post I mentioned Dominic Cummings’ most recent blog post, which is effectively a job advert for government advisors to join his team, and his frequent use of the first person suggests that he really does think of it as his team: “I’ll bin you within weeks if you don’t fit — don’t complain later because I made it clear now” he says, after already making clear that he will be avoiding “the horrors of ‘Human Resources’ (which also obviously need a bonfire)”. There’s impressive doublethink in seeking out ‘weirdos and misfits’ then indulging in a bit of macho posturing about ‘binning’ them if they don’t – erm – ‘fit’, but anyway. It sounds as though he’s aiming for some ’sock it to the man’ subversion of unwieldy and oppressive power structures there. Perhaps that’s the tone he’s aiming at. Except that now he is the man. And I’m not entirely convinced that tearing up a rule book designed to ensure fairness and equity in recruitment and employment practices is quite the way to go about ensuring diversity and fresh-thinking at the heart of the government machine (even if it may in places have ended up unnecessarily cumbersome, unwieldy and not wholly effective at achieving its aims). Because Cummings is all about diversity.

So long as it is his kind of diversity. So long as it is diversity within remarkably constrained parameters. He spells out fairly clearly what he means: “People in SW1 talk a lot about ‘diversity’ but they rarely mean ‘true cognitive diversity’. They are usually babbling about ‘gender identity diversity blah blah’. What SW1 needs is not more drivel about ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’ from Oxbridge humanities graduates but more genuine cognitive diversity.” Ooh – you can fairly hear the grinding of his teeth, and see the imprint of his nails against the palms of his clenched fists. ‘Babbling’, ‘drivel’ – the contempt is palpable. As so often the idea is rooted in potentially fertile soil, but the plant it has produced has mutated into something ugly, poisonous even. The logic, as far as I can find it, goes something like: studies have consistently found that the ‘performance’ of ‘teams’ has no strong correlation to diversity in categories such as gender and ethnicity, but is strongly correlated with diversity of ‘knowledge processing’ and ‘perspective’. This is summarised in a Harvard Business Review article (https://hbr.org/2017/03/teams-solve-problems-faster-when-theyre-more-cognitively-diverse):

 “Knowledge processing: the extent to which individuals prefer to consolidate and deploy existing knowledge, or prefer to generate new knowledge, when facing new situations

Perspective: the extent to which individuals prefer to deploy their own expertise, or prefer to orchestrate the ideas and expertise of others, when facing new situations.”

I can’t help wondering about the limited range of knowledge that can be called upon, and the restricted perspectives of ‘others’ whose ideas and expertise can be drawn upon if other aspects of identity than the purely cognitive are dismissed with no more than a petulant “blah blah”. 

I can, however, see all too clearly the effects of ignoring, dismissing, belittling, and indeed oppressing and violating  those whose ‘diversity’ doesn’t fit  (or even ‘misfit’) into the mechanisms that reproduce political and economic power. But then I suppose I would say that as one of those “Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties.” No wonder he doesn’t want any of us to apply. 

Yes: Fragile

I was undecided if and where Yes should appear in this list. I clearly didn’t get the memo that punk was supposed to have swept away everything that came before and in my early to mid teens I returned to my brother’s record collection, and began building on, and branching from, his taste by buying albums of my own. 

There were other acts of broadly the same time period and genre that might be less potentially cringeworthy to name here. For example The Strawbs were less pompous and more politically aware, while Jethro Tull had a wild-eyed strangeness that arguably has a more direct line to things I came to enjoy later. Quite why Yes were my prog outfit of choice, I’m not sure. I don’t think there is any time or place that they can have been regarded as cool. Okay: maybe that’s why. 

Moving from  mixed comprehensive to school to a boy’s grammar that was lost in time, just as pimply testosterone awkwardness kicked in may have had something to do with it. “I was into Yes when I was your age,” Charlie Tickner, our Biology teacher admitted when he saw the Roger Dean designed Yes logo meticulously graffitied on my exercise book. I read Tolkien and the Runestaff books of Michael Moorcock (but never made what might have been more credible leap from there to Hawkwind) and copied the style of Jon Anderson’s fey and faux fabula in my English lesson compositions for Boggy Morton, and copying the fantasy art style of Roger Dean (cf. a recent post) in art lessons and at the home of my friend Jonas who had an actual airbrush!. My brother only had a few Yes albums, but I spent my pocket money buying up the rest, mainly from John Phillip’s in Skipton, and I remember getting ‘Close to the Edge’ from a record shop on the edge of a market square somewhere (maybe Kendal?) on  a day-trip somewhere with mum and dad. The inner sleeve had the lyrics reproduced and my own handwriting changed overnight as I copied Roger Dean’s style, and from then on for years would always write with a narrow calligraphic nabbed fountain pen and write my d’s with a curved rightward flick from the ascender. 

By the time I really got into them, Yes had already disbanded (though they would later reform in various configurations I have had little interest in (if a band employs the singer of a tribute band to replace their singer, are they the same band or have they become their own tribute act? It’s a conundrum to make the Thesuss’s ship problem seem simple), and I felt a sense almost as palpable as grief that I’d been born too late to see them live. I remember my brother going to see them on the ‘Drama’ tour when Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman had been improbably replaced by The Buggles, and although I sensed that line-up was not really the Yes I loved, I still felt a crushing envy that he’d seen many of their best songs played live. 

It was post-punk indie music and its culture, spearheaded by John Peel on late night Radio 1, rather than punk itself that saw off, for a time, my love of Yes (or anything vaguely in the same generic ball-park), but as I got older and the importance of musical tribalism ebbed, and broadcasters I respected such as Fiona Talkington on Radio 3 and Stuart Maconie on 6 Music rehabilitated prog in general and Yes in particular as having a valid place in a musical history that no longer needed a year zero, I was able to return to Yes and to some of the bands they had led me to (I have a particular soft spot for Caravan’s ‘In the Land of Grey and Pink’, bought in Cardiff one teenage summer when I was staying with my sister, Jill), and to discover some of the interesting prog tentacles I was only dimly aware of at the time, perhaps from listening in the bath to Tommy Vance’s ‘Friday Rock’ show: such as Goblin, Van Der Graaf Generator, King Crimson, and the whole Krautrock scene in both its ‘space-rock’, electronic and motorik forms: Faust, Amon Duul, Can, Neu!, Tangerine Dream. I can also see something of a connection between the long form intricacy of Yes’s classic prog and much ‘post-rock’ that I came to adore, and the fragility of Jon Anderson’s strained high register vocals finds an echo for me in some of my favourite vocalists of more recent times: Jonsi of Sigur Ros, Thom Yorke of Radiohead and Jonathan Higgs of Everything Everything (although I’m not very musically literate, the ‘art rock’ characterised by the latter seems to be a fairly direct successor of prog with its intricate musicianship and and shifts of tempo and key.)

What I regard as the ‘classic’ Yes line-up toured for the band’s 35th anniversary in 2004 and fortunately my good friend (and, in large measure, musical mentor) Donald had followed a similar musical path to me, so we bought tickets. It ended up coinciding with a scout camp that my son Edward was due to attend, and so that I didn’t have to make the choice between them, Donald drove down to pick me up at the camp, I left Ed with other parents that I knew for the evening, and over two decades after I’d forlornly thought my dream of seeing Yes was over, I got to see them in their native habitat of a packed arena, complex with bombastic Roger Dean designed staging, before Donald drove me back through the night to a dark tent and a sleeping six-year old in the small hours of the morning. Yes’s setlist that night had three songs from ‘Fragile’ – the most from any single album – and that seems to be the best representative of their output for me, still carrying echoes of the psychedelia in which the band were formed, before they had developed the full-on pretentiousness that makes them easy to laugh-off, so that’s the album cover (Roger Dean, of course, his first for the band) you see below. Nevertheless, I will still defend ‘Tales from  Topograpic Oceans’ until, well, until I admit within seconds that it’s a pile of ridiculous pompous overblown bollocks. But I still love it. 

Outside of my ‘circle of competence’

Tablet 5

Here is another tablet from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s extensive collection. Dating from the 20th-19thC BC, the tablet is of a type used by the Assyrian merchants to track the income and expenses generated by caravan shipments, which traded in a range of goods transported by donkeys which were themselves valuable goods which formed a key element of the trade.

So: led by donkeys. You can probably guess where I’m going with this.

Many years ago, in a secondary school art class, we were asked to do a painting on the theme of transport. My favourite band at the time were ‘Yes’ and I plagiarised a painting of three cone-shaped planetoids hanging in space from the inner-sleeve of the ‘Yessongs’ triple-gatefold, on the spurious grounds that it represented space travel. As I was putting the finishing touches to my masterpiece, Mr Cawood disappeared into the storeroom and reappeared with a poster-sized catalogue of Roger Dean’s artwork that featured the very picture I had just copied. I was mortified, but instead of just admitting the obvious, I blustered the excuse that yes, I was a fan of Yes and had been inspired by Roger Dean, but didn’t have that particular album and the resemblance was just coincidence. It clearly wasn’t, but a mix of misplaced pride and deserved shame kept me from admitting what was obvious to me, to my teacher and to my classmates, and I even elaborated unnecessarily on the story with some nonsense about the rock-like structures actually being futuristic spaceships or something. It wasn’t for an exam or coursework or anything, and artists are continually drawing inspiration from the work of others and even doing direct reproductions of the subject matter and composition of others’ work, and I had adapted Dean’s work to make it fit the transport/spaceship theme. We hadn’t been specifically told we couldn’t copy someone else’s work or ideas, so I wasn’t breaking any rules. I even believed my own story, and felt angry and indignant, as well as humiliated, that Mr Cawood had confronted me in front of my classmates, and that they were taking the Mickey out of me for being ‘rumbled’ by him. This turn of events stung all the more because only the week before I’d been praised for my ingenuity and sensitivity when we’d been asked to interpret the transport theme in clay, and while others made crude models of sports cars and other mechanical conveyances that aren’t readily suited to the ceramicist’s art, I’d fashioned a rather lovely pair of feet.

I was reminded of this when reflecting on Dominic Cummings’s No.10 rose-garden performance, his stuttering, pause filled responses, and the look on his face under questioning. At the time, like many I’m sure, I was literally putting my hands on my head and screaming ‘What? You did what?’ when he told us he’d driven to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight. I am predisposed to despise Cummings for a variety of reasons, and over the past few days I have composed, in my head, what could have been a monumental essay on the dangers he and his ilk pose to our society. At times I have fantasised that I could whittle my thoughts into one of those social media posts that goes viral, and I have thought of all the approbation that would bring: the admiration of my friends, the congratulations of strangers sympathetic to ‘the cause’. But then I have thought of the vituperation of the trolls, the angry threats by direct message, and the silent contempt of those of my family and friends of a more conservative persuasion. And I am paralysed. Cummings needs to go; those who are directly or indirectly victimised by his ideas and those of the Tory ideologues need to have their voice heard and amplified. But who am I, I comfortably off, middle-aged, middle-class, Oxford educated white guy to weigh in with my hypocrisy? When people share posts showing ‘the media’ – that frenzied mob attacking poor Dom outside his house – crowding together without thought of social distancing to get their picture or quote, when all he did was, in his mind, seek to ensure the safety of his child (and I can actually believe he believed that’s what he was doing), then although it seems obvious to me that it’s not a fair comparison because they are not people with power helping to drive policy and decision-making, I can’t, in good faith say no more than ‘that’s different’ in response to their whataboutism. But any response that might make a difference takes effort, time, and perhaps above all empathy, and when I feel angry and hurt and indignant, that’s difficult to find.

There is a problem with Cummings, and it isn’t primarily that he drove 260 miles to Durham when most of us were staying at home regardless of circumstances. It isn’t even that he told a stupid and implausible fib about ‘testing his eyesight’. In his circumstances – as I did in that art room – I may well have done the same. The real problem with Cummings is easy to overlook in the hot air of the media fire-storm, but fortunately (though you might not know it from looking at Facebook) the media is still more than face-mask comedy and clickbait memes. There are plenty of places you can see evidence of this but if you’re genuinely interested in Dominic Cummings, this might be a good place to start: https://members.tortoisemedia.com/2019/09/18/190918-cummings-and-i/content.html?sig=V3ep8Di90VEsADMEg8fZ7UUHeKwBE-FtKNLriRS7hGY

Or you could go directly to the words of the man himself. Since long before anyone had heard of coronavirus, I’ve been reading Cummings’s blog. I was talking about it with my son, now himself a Civil Servant as it happens, at Christmas. You might have heard about it yourself now, as his editing of a post about the risk of pandemics to include a reference to coronavirus that wasn’t previously there, has made the news. The blog is fizzing with really interesting ideas, many of which I think deserve to be at the heart of government thinking and decision making, such as the importance of evidence-based decision making and the contribution that things like AI and machine-learning could make to more effective governance. I find much of what Cummings writes convincing, and much of what I have, after further thought and reading come to find unconvincing, I nevertheless find seductive. I can really see the appeal of Cummings to the class of people that constitute the current Government, perhaps because I am a cigarette paper’s width from being like them. But go and read, carefully, the most recent post on Cummings’s blog, written shortly after the Conservative government was returned to power (https://dominiccummings.com/2020/01/02/two-hands-are-a-lot-were-hiring-data-scientists-project-managers-policy-experts-assorted-weirdos/) and if you don’t begin to see serious dangers in having such a person at the heart of government, with the influence he clearly has, then come back to me and we can talk substance. Spoiler: it’s not the ‘weirdos and misfits’ thing I have a problem with.

Buzzcocks – Singles Going Steady

I was perhaps a little too young when punk came along for it to work its full effect (as some of my later choices will attest), but its energy and iconoclasm did manage to reach beyond its urban heartlands and into my pre-teen consciousness. Aged I suppose nine or ten, I began to tag along to a Christian youth fellowship my sister Jill was involved with (weirdly, in retrospect, it was called ‘Snuff’, which really does sound punk, but actually stood for ‘Sunday Night United Friendly Fellowship’). There I developed one of those brief infatuations with someone older that is entirely platonic, but nevertheless life-changing. At the same time that I was being lured onto the shoals of God-bothering by newly written ‘choruses’ by the likes of Graham Kendrick that have since become staples of bland mainstream worship, I was being tossed in the turbulent waters of a pre-pubescent identity crisis to the soundtrack of The Members, The Membranes, The Stranglers, The Sex Pistols and — most importantly both at the time and for my eventual preferences — The Buzzcocks. My mentor was a guy called Andy Brennan. He was a lot older, and already working, I think. I copied as many of his affectations as I could: wearing no socks, and having my housekey and wallet strung on a shoelace tied to my belt loop. I couldn’t procure any velcro fastening trousers (“Much easier for taking a leak,” he told me in the public toilets of a Lake District car-park on a Snuff hiking trip), but (on the photo that is currently my Facebook profile pic) I did wear a tartan shirt emblazoned with a Buzzcocks button-badge and a nappy pin.

At first I was oblivious to the significance of the cultural rupture that punk (supposedly?) represented, but I started to get the hang of it when I proudly showed Andy the blue vinyl 12” of Mike Oldfield’s disco-influenced ‘Guilty’ that I’d bought, and he laughed right in my face. Soon I was buying punk singles from the racks in Slater’s, alongside the kettles and radios and vacuum cleaner spares, attracting reprimands from my sister for having the Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ (‘she ain’t no human being’) cover on display (“What will mum and dad say? That’s just disrespectful”) and tittering with schoolmates over lewd and crude Stranglers’ lyrics — “Shiiiit, there goes the charabanc. Looks like we’re gonna be here all summer, well what a bummer” — though at the time I’d no idea what a ‘clit-OR-is’ was. At a Kelbrook Village Hall disco, I even won a punk dancing contest: while everyone else merely pogoed, I added ‘dead ratting’ to the repertoire, (as taught, of course, by Andy) falling to the floorboards and thrashing epilectically. I won a mug with a smiley face on it, which wasn’t really very punk, but then nor was I, and I’m sure the award was more of a joke than a tribute.

It is The Buzzcocks that find their place in this list, not only because they were my favourites at the time, but because their mix of playful irony and serious anger, brash racket and perfectly crafted pop polish are strands I’m still attracted to. Howard Devoto, who sang on their debut ‘Spiral Scratch’ EP would go on to form ‘Magazine’ – an important band in my later return to post-punk and Indie, and the ‘Cocks influenced many of the artists I would come to adore later, in one case coming full circle when Mike Joyce of ‘The Smiths’ played drums when I got to see The Buzzcocks for the one and only time after one of their many reformations. I also got to see Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto share a stage at the weirdest gig I’ve ever been to, along with other (anti)heroes, Mark E Smith and John Cooper Clarke, at a chaotic ‘celebration’ of punk at Manchester’s Bridegwater Hall in 2004.

Most of my punk and new wave records were 7” singles. It would have been quite a collection but I sold most of them when I had a regression to prog in my mid-teens. I have a particular memory of buying ‘Everybody’s Happy Nowadays’ b/w ‘Why Can’t I Touch It?’ on a trip to Scarborough, when I also annoyed dad by buying a job lot of empty 7” picture sleeves that I covered a wall of my bedroom with, along with a huge poster of Debbie Harry. When we got home I spent an evening playing the two songs repeatedly, back to back. The Buzzcocks were very much a singles band, so the record that represents the initiation of the punk strand of my musical taste has to be their 1979 compilation, ‘Singles: Going Steady.’

The Complete Mr Fox

Ok, I give in (sort of). After being nominated for the ‘album cover challenge’ several times and usually ignoring the request, while enjoying looking at the contributors’ choices, I’ve decided that now my big brother John has tagged me, that I’d better do as I’m told (sort of).

The usual format of this (as if you can possibly have missed it) is to post the cover of a record that has been influential on your music taste, one a day, for ten days, with no further comment, and the latter condition is one of the reasons (sort of) why I’ve never done it before. I can’t just post the covers and say nothing about them (as you are about to find out, in spades)! Imagine ‘Desert Island Discs’ without the chatter about why they’ve been chosen. And usually people end up discussing the music and its significance in the comments section anyway, so I reckon I might as well just save you the bother by telling you why they’re there up front. Also, I haven’t planned this out in advance so I might decide I’m done before 10, keep going beyond 10, get bored part way through and give up, have a hiatus of a few days while I think about my next choice, or do a Christopher Kenworthy and post a load all at once out of impatience.

Then there’s the whole nomination thing. Whenever I fail to respond to one of these ‘challenges’, I always feel really terrible that it will be taken as a snub. Then I feel really terrible that I’m narcissistic enough to think that anyone will give a hoot whether I respond or not. Then I feel terrible that I have such low self-esteem as to think no-one will care. Then I feel terrible that I don’t really feel terrible at all, as I’m not that bothered about anyone else’s feelings. Then I feel terrible that I don’t care enough about other people’s feelings, but am nevertheless hypersensitive about what they think of me. So every possible nomination I might make feels like I’m treading a minefield. “Why’s he nominated her and not me?” I imagine someone thinking indignantly. Or “Oh, he’s trying to smarm his way back into my good books after that arsey put down on that meme I shared.” Or, “Ant who??” Maybe it’s unusual to overthink things this way, but I’m pretty sure I can’t be the only one. Can I? Regardless, it all means that I still haven’t decided whether I’ll not bother nominating at all, or maybe set up some arbitrary criterion that minimises the sense of me choosing people by ‘preference’. (People I’ve never met in real life like Julie Matthews? People who I’ve got no real idea of their music taste already like Michael Hackfort?) ’.

Now I’ve reached this point, to be honest, the music choice is starting to look as irrelevant as my choice of Sumero-Akkadian clay tablet, but I will push on regardless. I’ve decided that I should only include albums that I can clearly feel have a direct link to my music taste now. So that cuts out some early favourites from when I was a child. I remember first getting really ‘into’ music with Pete Addison when we were in primary school. We were both the youngest of our families and influenced by older brothers. Queen, Elton John and Rush are things I recall listening to with him that I wouldn’t be that bothered about now. We even went through a bit of a spell of writing songs together, though neither of us played instruments so all ‘performances‘ were a cappella and emphatically without an audience. I can even remember the entire lyrics and tune to a song we wrote about then Radio 1 breakfast show DJ, Dave Lee Travis. I think we might even have sent him a tape of it, though I don’t think he played it.

It was my brother John’s music collection that I really started getting interested in (having already divined that my other brother’s taste wasn’t up to much – sorry Iain, but Supertramp? Really?!). Perhaps I got a little too interested in his records for John‘s liking, after I actually cut-out all the badges and moustaches and epaulettes and stuff from his Sgt. Pepper LP. On reflection I’m lucky I didn’t get an actual battering for that. I was a bit unsure where to start this musical journey, though. I nearly plumped for Bo Hansson’s ‘Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings’ (I nicked the portrait of J R R Tolkien that came with that, too), which tied in with my brief obsession with all things Middle Earth, and whose moody Hammond organ and synth-driven instrumental is not that far removed from a lot of the post-rock/ambient-ish stuff I listen to now, and which influenced the more dramatic Nordic soundscapes of the likes of Anna von Hausswolff, whom I saw live a few years ago supporting Efterklang in Halifax Minster. Other choices I considered were from the folk-rock genre, such as Fairport Convention (which John chose for one of his own ten albums), and Steeleye Span.

However, the record I’ve gone for is one that admittedly I haven’t actually listened to that much over the years but which can still both take me right back to playing it while still in primary school back in the 70’s, but doesn’t feel to me to belong specifically to that time in the way the more mainstream choices might have done. It is music that I can imagine, if I hadn’t heard it before, discovering on Stuart Maconie’s ‘Freak Zone’ on BBC 6 Music, or ‘Late Junction’ on Radio 3, and thinking that it’s the sort of thing I’d like to check out further. It is definitely a folk-rock record, and while that isn’t a genre that is itself central to my taste, this has a sense of the uncanny, drawing on traditional music but giving it an intense and experimental twist that links to the more obviously ‘proggy’ stuff I would get deeply into in my mid-teens (before rejecting for a time – more of that to come), and the self-consciously subversive yet affectionate mining of a specifically English tradition that is associated with the ‘hauntological’ movement that my great friend and musical mentor Donald would turn me on to in the noughties. I’m pretty sure that the album pictured is the one that John had and which I therefore played. It is a compilation of the two full length albums released by a band led by husband and wife duo, Bob and Carole Pegg. Guys, gals, and non-binary pals, I give you: The Complete Mr Fox:

That joke isn’t funny anymore

“I have been nominated to post 180 Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform tablets that profoundly influenced me, at any point in my life. One each day, for 180 days. I was instructed to post each tablet without explanation”

Day 1

I know it’s supposed to be ‘without comment’ but I’m sure you’re itching to know more about me, especially my thousands of new followers. This neo-Babylonian list of expenditures, probably from Sippar, Mesopotamia (modern Tell Abu Habba) takes me right back to spending several sleepless nights researching coffee machines. I eventually settled on a Gaggia Classic (pre 2015 model with the solenoid valve). Of course I modded it with an after-market Rancilio steam wand. Happy days.

Day 2

This tablet from Warka in Iraq (from the collection of the NY Meteopolitan Museum of Art) is an administrative account concerned with the distribution of barley and emmer. I have to confess I didn’t know what emmer is, embarrassingly enough. I’m sure the rest of you are aware that it’s an ancient grain, and with the explosion in baking during the lockdown (we’ve even bought a Kitchenaid mixer!) I’m sure there are plenty of people enjoying emmer loaves with their breakfast this very morning, now that esoteric flours have been made readily available by the likes of Dove’s Farm (though I see they’re out of stock of their whole meal emmer flour at the moment). Anyway, I digress, because what this tablet really brings to mind is my childhood breakfast ritual. I had to use the shallow white rimmed bowl which was a perfect fit for three Weetabix to lie flat, side by side. The spoon had to be the rounded one with the dimpled decoration on the handle-end and the silver plating largely rubbed off the inside of the spoon-bowl, showing the warm (brass?) metal underneath. It was used first to sprinkle a decent layer of sugar across the three biscuits, then it was essential to have an unopened bottle of milk so that I could pour the creamy top of the milk over the middle Weetabix before moving first to the one on its left, then the one to its right, before eating in the reverse direction to the milk pour.

Day 3

This tablet from the collection of the British Museum (not currently on display) was found by the remarkable polymath, Sir Austen Henry Layard, at Kuyunjik, near Mosul. Layard is also credited with discovering the site of the biblical Ninevah, and believed that the Syriac Christian communities were descended from the ancient Assyrians who would have produced this tablet (which is particularly distinguished by being bilingual in Sumerian and Akkadian). One wonders what he made of its content, which the museum catalogue describes as: “incantations against the evil ‘asakku’ demon, which together with many other malevolent forces has attacked the sufferer in the head. The first spell describes its evil effects, and the second is recited over a kid, as a substitute to which the evil is transferred so that it can be effectively banished.” As a keen comparative religionist he must surely have been struck by the parallels with the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. I’m not sure that I have ever been attacked in the head by a demon, though, conversely, I was once ‘slain in the Spirit’ at a Mission England crusade in Barnoldswick in 1984. At least that was what I believed to be happening at the time. When I hit the deck (assisted by a couple of volunteers enjoined to catch slayees as we fell) I recall wondering how long was a seemly time to remain prostrate in order to avoid scandalising the faithful by appearing less than suitably zapped, given that any supernatural effects appeared to have worn off somewhere between the vertical and the horizontal. I had expected to be seeing visions of glory or something, but the cracked paint on the ceiling of the former Majestic cinema failed to resolve into the form of the face of my Lord, or any other edifying manifestation.In due course, I would come to conclude that Catholics had the right idea by employing experts in the power of the ocular such as Michaelangelo to ensure that ceilings, where appropriate, should convey a more reliable sense of the numinous, regardless of the emotional state of the viewer.

Day 4

I’ve skipped a (Welsh) couple of days, I think. And I’m vanishingly unlikely to make it to the full 180 tablets. Yet I haven’t thrown the towel into a laundry bin of self loathing. Yet. Must be all the mindfulness self-care stuff that Spotify has been throwing at me.

So, here we are with this delightful tablet from the John Rylands Library collection in Manchester, which includes a very rare example of a building-plan on clay. The assumption is that it’s the plan of a temple, and it includes captions giving the lengths and thicknesses of the walls. The outer walls are three cubits thick, and the inner, two cubits, which strikes me as quite hefty (though I haven’t delved too deeply into mural architecture). I suppose they didn’t want their gods to escape. Given that surviving reliefs from Sumerian and Akkadian temples show them doing stuff like chasing dragons around with thunderbolts, I suppose that shows a degree of prudence that is also spoken to by the very survival of so many cuneiform tablets, most of which detail contracts for the transfer of oxen and the like that it’s frankly difficult to get too excited about (though I am now working on it).

When it comes to religious buildings it is probably elevations that hold more interest for me than plans, and in any case if you get high enough you can see the horizontal shape spread out below, as well as how the building relates to its wider environment. In 1988 towards the end of my first trip abroad, Inter-railing with Angela, I scaled the 533 steps to the top of the world’s third highest church, Cologne Cathedral, and looked out over the Europe we were leaving behind. I have climbed 7/8 of the way to the top of Durham cathedral tower with Katie, only for her to bottle out and refuse to go any further; Ed & I took turns to wait with her in a little niche off the spiral stairs so we could at least have a quick look out from the top, and see the Wear loop its way 270 degrees around the city like a gated moat.

But the most memorable time atop an ecclesiastical structure, at least with the benefit of the hindsight that is memory, was on the unassuming roof of Pusey House in Oxford. I was up there with Nick Penfold during a break in preparations for our college production of Murder in the Cathedral that was to be performed in the chapel. I was co-directing, and Nick set-building. We had been loaned keys that got us to places not normally accessible, including the roof, so up we went and got a view of our college that not many would have had, over the top of Vinson Block into the quad. Nick was a good friend. A really good friend. Not long before, I’d spent much of the Easter vacation at his home in Hale Barns. A few short years later, he got his first proper post-graduation job as a writer of technical manuals (the important bit was ‘writer’), bought a motorbike, and rode it up the M6 towards a wedding in Scotland where he never arrived. Nick’s death was when I discovered what grief was. Is there a height from which he looks down and sees the plan I can’t? We’d both had similar Christian conversion experiences and involvement in evangelical groups in our teens. We’d both lain on our backs on a summer night in Wellington Square drinking cider and concluding we could no longer be sure.

But I’m with Thomas Hardy, and his oxen: hoping it might be so.