Friday, 27 June 2014

Deep topographers; quote, unquote

“We are surrounded by the greatest of free shows. Places. Most of them made by man, remade by man.”

Jonathan Meades

“The search for Utopian landscapes is probably an endless one, but I do know that by staying in one place I will never find them.”

Werner Herzog

“With this stone and this grass, with this red earth, this place was received and made and remade. Its generations are distinct but all suddenly present.”

Raymond Williams 

“What I have tried to do is explore the natural history of this unofficial countryside, what it is, and how it works, not so much as an explorer as a curious passer-by. We begin again.”

Richard Mabey

"Take me back to beautiful England/ And the grey, damp filthiness of ages/ Fog rolling down behind the mountains/ And on the graveyards, and dead sea-captains."

Polly Harvey

“Higher worlds that you uncover/ Light the path you want to roam.”

Roky Erickson/ Tommy Hall


Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The Crossing: Heroic endeavour and a guilty pleasure

After watching Adam Nicholson’s excellent recent two-part exploration of the history of the British whaling industry, I felt suddenly impelled to dig out an artifact of my musical past: a slightly dog-eared vinyl copy of The Crossing, Big Country’s debut album of 1983. Now this record, this band has to be seen as something of a guilty secret. I generally take unspoken and surely pointless pride in what I would like to see as the discerningly eclectic composition of my record collection. But Big Country were not, and are not, in any way cool or leftfield, and still await any retrospective reappraisal. They are lumped together with the bombastic, anthem-fixated, Celtic-tinged serious rock that was a musical flavour of the month during the mid-eighties; briefly in the commercial slip-stream of the bigger beasts of Simple Minds and U2 before the latter went stratospheric and Bono began his one man mission to save the world. The apotheosis, or rather nadir, of this ‘big music’ being Simple Minds ridiculously po-faced single Belfast Child, Jim Kerr’s attempt to solve the Northern Ireland conflict through seven minutes of over-emoted platitudes backed by long-coated fiddle players.

And yet, I still have a lot of time for plaid-shirted Big Country and this album in particular. It speaks of a yearning for a vaguely heroic view of landscape and the great outdoors which I have never really shaken off since childhood tales of daring-do, hard though it is to reconcile with the liberal, progressive mind-set with which I generally try and approach the world. It is there in the name of the band and album – ‘Big Country’ and ‘The Crossing’ – conjuring visions of stoical pioneers crossing new frontiers and vast unexplored lands. It is there in the music: chiming, bag-pipe echoing guitars; a muscular, martial rhythm section; and Stuart Adamson’s gruff yet plaintive vocals and lyrics. Also the cover art, with Boy’s Own-like images adorning the sleeve: polar explorers raising the flag, stern and weary men around a camp fire, a great-coated hero fleeing rocks falling from a cliff. These images and the musical motifs contained within the songs call to mind the escapist backwoods adventure within the pages of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps, Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands or Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male; not to mention South, Ernest Shackleton's account of the gritty real life drama surrounding the 1914-17 'Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition' to reach the South Pole in the ice-bound Endeavour. Although more nuanced, layered and contemporary in approach, there are even echoes of this spirit in the content and tone of the Mountains of the Mind/ The Wild Places/ The Old Ways trilogy that Robert Macfarlane (himself a fan of Rogue Male) has so expertly put together in recent years.

Now, if this is all feeling a little testosterone-fuelled, please feel free to switch to something more well-balanced; I look forward to putting on some Patti Smith or PJ Harvey as an antidote as soon as I finish typing.

There was clearly something in the Fife water inspiring this post-imperial landscape-scale machismo as Stuart Adamson's previous band, the more credibly post-punk outfit The Skids were also at it, with their best-known single, Into The Valley, lyrically anti-war but sonically anthemic; taking the listener soaring above the mountain-sides. A melancholy strain seemed to increasingly pervade Adamson's lyrics and Big Country's second album, Steeltown, chronicled landscapes and communities suffering industrial decline, again in heroic and semi-mystical everyman terms: 'All the landscape was the mill/ Grim as the reaper with a heart like hell/ With a river of bodies/ Flowing with the bell/ Here was the future for hands of skill'. The band carried on touring and recording long after their brief period of commercial success, supported by a loyal cult following. As a sad post-script, Adamson committed suicide whilst on tour in 2001.

The link with the whaling documentary is somewhat tangential, but bear with me. As Nicholson's documentary illustrated, by the mid-twentieth century the large-scale whaling industry was essentially the mechanised destruction of huge numbers of blue and humpback whales for the sake of the production of margarine; an unsustainable, morally bankrupt and eventually unprofitable pursuit, which led to the near extinction of some of the worlds greatest mammals. There is really nothing noble or heroic about this; just another example of the exploitation of nature for crass commercial gain. However, this is not the whole picture. One thinks of the crews who set sail from whaling ports around the British coast and pursued their catch to the extremities of the oceans, uncertain as to whether they would return; or of the now perpetually rusting and rotting remains of the unimaginably remote Leith Harbour whaling station in South Georgia, from where the waters of the Antarctic were trawled: here there are the ghosts of the endeavour and ingenuity of the ordinary whalermen who sought their livelihoods in this harsh world. This is the very stuff that The Crossing feeds on; elegiac, unspecific evocations of the toil of the common man against a back-drop of unforgiving nature, social injustice and doomed chance, as a sample of the albums lyrics attests: Harvest Home ('Who leads the mayday feasting/ Who saw the harvest home/ Who left the future wasting/ Who watched the families go'); Lost Patrol ('There is no beauty here friends/ Just death and rank decay'); Close Action ('The continents will fly apart/ The oceans scream and never part/ Divided souls can never rest/ Must join the nations break the test').

The disused whaling station at Leith Harbour, Stromness Bay, South Georgia (image from
The whaling station when active (image from
An even clearer musical connection with the whalers comes from another album of the same period that I also still treasure: The Pogues debut Red Roses For Me, released in 1984. Shane McGowan's renegade Anglo-Irish rabble provide an edgier, rebel-folk angle on some of the same themes as The Crossing. Here there are beer-soaked stories of outsiders, exiles and navvies, making good or going to bad in their rough-hewn landscapes. In amongst the streams of whiskey and dark streets of London can be found The Greenland Whale Fishery, an old sea shanty (English rather than Irish as it happens) which appeared in print as far back as 1725 and chronicles a whale ships journey to 'a barren place ... where there's ice and snow and the whale-fish blow, and the daylights seldom seen'. As Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd state in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (1959): "Until 1830, the whaling ships put out each spring from London, King's Lynn, Hull, Whitby, bound for the right-whale grounds of Greenland. The best of our whaling ballads are about the Greenland fishery. After 1830, the fleets moved to Baffin Bay, and subsequently to the grounds off Hawaii and Peru, but still most of the songs the whalermen sang were of the Greenland days."

So, with a head full of paradoxical thoughts of noble industrial labour, Edwardian adventurers and whale ships in the heavy seas of Antarctica and Greenland, I'm sure I will continue to wear out the grooves of The Crossing; a guilty pleasure, a little piece of escapist nonsense hidden in the folds of my rational landscape. 

"400 miles, on fields of fire!"