Posted in Reading on Friday 21st April 2017 at 7:04pm
Most male mid-life crises follow similar and depressingly predictable patterns - they involve embarrassing encounters with much younger women, much faster cars and far more taxing physical pursuits than are ever strictly advisable. Then, somehow, they quietly slip into being either part of the subject's new, likely more insufferable identity - or perhaps simply disappear, not to be mentioned by those who witnessed the manifold indignities. My own mid-life crises have been a little different - and in terms of lasting impact, somewhat more prosaic. If you discount my dash across the ocean to marry someone a continent away - who was, it must be said, just a little younger than me - then the rest has been mostly about walking. Walking has become a structure around which I focus my reading, my writing, and most definitely my thinking. It gives form to my year as I trace the seasons via walks, and it allows me to calibrate my reactions to the sometimes confusing world around me. It is, it must be said, a solitary pursuit - but that seems to work just fine too. Walking provides space, time and context. In that sense it's a fairly mundane mid-life crisis to develop perhaps. Given that much of my recent walking has been in and around the environs of Epping Forest, this recently published book about Will Ashon's own mid-life crisis brings both reassurance and entertainment.
Ashon starts the book at a crossroads - he has given up his job to write, but he's not sure what to write about. He indulges himself in research which leads him nowhere and convinces himself that the book will, when it's ready, come forth. In the meantime, he is also a coward. This might sound like an unfair judgement - but I feel comfortable stating it because I share Ashon's particularly British type of cowardice. I too feel a cold sweat begin to break on my brow when I approach the 'Private' sign, or find myself obeying patently unenforceable prohibitions to the letter. For the walker, these matters can often make the difference between miles of detour and a straightforward path. Throughout Strange Labyrinths Ashon takes the detour - and it leads him to encounter a cast of forest-related characters which are unpredictably various, but share a curious independence of spirit which echoes the remarkable survival of Epping Forest into the 21st century.
The thread of the book, in so far as there is one, is Ashon's gradual accumulation of knowledge about the forest via a study of those who've walked it before him. He is ostensibly building up to spending a night in the tree-canopy, just him and the forest. Naturally, the fear of the dark, of the forest and ultimately of the unknown means this is put off again and again, allowing Ashon the space to explore the lives of outsiders who have used the forest as inspiration for the creative endeavours or cover for their nefarious deeds. Along the way we meet the ghosts of John Clare and Dick Turpin - both escaping capture and enclosure of different kinds as they haunt the forest floor. Ashon hits on another of my great fears here - treading in the footsteps of Iain Sinclair as he writes about Clare and not being quite comfortable with the process of re-walking ground already covered by another. However, Ashon's investigation of the beginnings and the later life of the asylum at High Beech add a great deal to Clare's forest narrative and he has nothing to fear. He also strays out of the forest to find Penny Rimbaud of anarchist second-wave punk collective Crass, who has occupied Dial House on the northern edge of the forest since the late 1960s, slowly turning the once-derelict farm on former GPO land into a centre for the radical arts.
Rimbaud provides a link to another collective occupying part of the southern reaches of the forest - the M11 Link Road protestors of the early 1990s. In particular, to the elusive and much loved Old Mick who was an ever present face in the coverage of the quite remarkable resistance to the road. Ashon delves into Mick's mysterious and unwritten past, unravelling a early life of not-so-petty crime which paved the way for an instinctive non-conformism, ultimately inspiring a generation of younger protesters to wage a non-violent - almost Situationist - campaign of resistance as spectacle. Throughout these encounters, Ashon's own quest - to turn his disparate researches into a coherent non-fiction work centred on the forest - begins to come good. He is at his most lyrical when he is describing the interior of the forest, and while like me lacking the technical names for the plants and trees, he manages to evoke the rather strange sensation of isolation despite being mere feet from the road which I too have experienced in the forest. He describes the litter and the trails left by temporary human habitation with as much care and precision as he does the flora and fauna. In that sense, this book captures the forest's present as accurately as it catalogues a version of its surprising past.
While this probably isn't the book Will Ashon set out to write - or even the book he thought he was writing for a good deal of the time he was working on it - this is ultimately a satisfying and erudite view between the thick foliage which sometimes obscures the true nature of Epping Forest. The forest is as much a hiding place now as it has ever been, and having hidden away from reality within its depths myself I can feel my own experiences echoed throughout this book. I'd urge anyone with an interest in the topography or the history of the forest to delve into Ashon's work - along with those who are curious about just why the edge of this ancient woodland has inspired so many unexpected characters.
Posted in Reading on Sunday 18th December 2016 at 11:12am
Over the past few years, as my explorations of the Thames have taken me further and further eastwards, I've begun to appreciate the estuary in a different way. It's fair to say that, until recently, the wide expanses of flat empty land almost terrified me. The broad sweep of silver sky broken only by marching ranks of pylons seemed endlessly and bleakly awesome. But it has also always drawn me - the edges of London blurring into the post-industrial wastelands of Essex and Kent are curiously intriguing to me. Haunted by Joseph Conrad and Bram Stoker, and never far from the weird rural gothic of rural eastern England, these white spaces on the map of the British Isles dared me to fill them in with detail. Rachel Lichtenstein's account of her own curious relationship overlaps with mine, but her gaze is firmly eastwards. Having grown up in Southend-on-Sea where the broad mouth of the river opens into the North Sea, her fascination is strongest when considering the remote forts which stride ominously across Shivering Sands, or the treacherous muddy reaches which can strand a cockleboat for hours during slack tides. Those familiar with Lichtenstein's style will be comforted - she writes primarily about people in the context of place, and the social history of the river and shore is never far from the forefront of her prose. She finds the families who trace back their generations in Thames Barge pilots, the women who have lost husbands to the unforgiving tides, and the eccentrics who choose to live out on remote broken outposts in the river - whether for art or solitude.
A theme worming through the book is the impact of the vast Thames Gateway port near TIlbury. This is variously described to her as an imposition on the delicate ecosystem of the river and a necessary evil to keep the seamen and dockers at work, even in now greatly reduced numbers. The impact on the lives of fishermen and their families, wreck-hunters and navigators of the complex estuarial sand bars is carefully catalogued. The sense is that no-one really knows how it will change the topology of the river despite mathematical modelling and careful studies, and this is echoed in the uncertain future faced by the people who live beside it. Lichtenstein is careful to tread the documentarian's path here - she hears and retells the stories, but doesn't wholly pass judgement. The estuary has changed immeasurably over the millennia - and her book is just a sliver in time, describing the latest shifts and changes.
Early in the book, Lichtenstein notes that little has been written about the Estuary as an entity - perhaps because London draws the heat? She interrogates the few sources available carefully, weighing their sometimes quaint historical evidence against what she hears from those who currently live and work here. While it appears true that few factual accounts focus on the estuary, she engages with those who have woven it into their art - not least with Iain Sinclair who trails the river east in his meta-fictions Downriver and Dining on Stones. He joins her at Tilbury Riverside, the former port and railway station where immigrants from the Commonwealth and beyond would arrive in the UK and commence their journey west to London. Her work with Sinclair here - and in earlier shared projects - has been neatly complementary. His topographical and historiographical work meshing with Lichtenstein's social history - bringing his sometimes breathtaking and overwhelming occultism down to a human scale. Together here, they play off each other's interests - Sinclair considering the tide of humanity arriving on these shores, while Lichtenstein looks for eerie geographical features - the stranded masts of the SS Richard Montgomery are unpredictable, decaying fuses signifying the knife-edge on which the estuary sits: politically, culturally and environmentally.
For me, and for other topographical obsessives perhaps, the book feels incomplete - the sinister reaches of the Thames between Purfleet and Greenwich largely unexplored for example. But for Lichtenstein the work is complete - bookended by two journeys: one a dangerous excursion which makes its mental and physical marks on her, the second a redemptive but still incomplete unravelling of the first some years later. In that sense Lichtenstein's broad descriptive sweep and sometimes unfocused prose style are perfect - this is a reflection on a season of life where the estuary haunted her. It is a reverie and an exorcism as much as a social history. A book focused on this very territory was always likely to draw me in - and while covering such an ambitious sweep in a personal account like this didn't feel entirely satisfying, it's certainly one of the finest books written about this weird and remarkable part of Britain. Given how the blank Essex skies often feel like an unpainted canvas, I suspect that anyone who has walked the shoreline will only ever be satisfied with their own version of the estuary. For now, this is a fine proxy.
Posted in Reading on Sunday 19th April 2015 at 7:04am
Books about music are always a little troublesome to me. I love books and I love music, but somehow attempts to mix the two are fraught with disappointment. As I've discovered and developed what I think is fairly respectable and eclectic musical taste over the years, I've often dabbled with the surrounding biographies and histories, but they've never quite filled the mysterious gaps for me. To be entirely fair, the reverse is often true too - music written around literature can feel awfully forced at times. I've often wondered though, why I'd develop such an aversion to the typical musical biography - and I think I can finally isolate my distaste: there are only two modes available to the musical biographer - building the mystery or knocking it down. Either drawing ethereal shrouds around a personality or a band, or promising to peel away the layers and leaving them - sometimes unfairly - exposed. Neither seems particularly satisfying to me, and neither produces much in the way of great writing.
However, Stuart David's account of the first year of Belle and Sebastian's stuttering, uncertain existence does neither of these things, and as such, it's an unusually charming and readable account of a band's formative steps. That said, the band doesn't really exist for a good part of the story, at least not outside of the unusually specific vision of David's former bandmate Stuart Murdoch, who is presented as a quietly eccentric but determined bandleader, bringing together a disparate and unlikely bunch of musicians around him to realise his plans. In any other setting, this would sound uncomfortably like the planned assembly of a manufactured band, but set against the backdrop of early 1990s Glasgow with its damp, foggy streets and crumbling bedsits it becomes a much more inspiring tale. Not least because it all seems so incredibly unlikely. As Murdoch's vision solidifies and the strength of his songwriting is slowly recognised, the rest of the band circle in the ever-complicated Glasgow music scene. David himself spends much of the book hedging his bets on a couple of other bands he's playing in finally 'making it' before finding to his surprise that Belle and Sebastian have attracted the attention of the outside world. Indeed almost accidentally the band have achieved what he's been struggling to pull off for years - which isn't always an entirely comfortable feeling for him it seems. As the band's seminal "Tigermilk" is released, the book ends with David wondering how he can have succeeded but failed all at the same time? This sense of quiet bemusement and surprise pervades his writing about the period, with the supporting characters from the government sponsored Beatbox scheme - along with a couple of veteran Glasgow musical luminaries - drawn as itinerant but amusing judges of the band's earliest missteps.
My own entrance to this odd world came a while after the book ends, but the descriptions of Glasgow in the fading years of the last century accord with my own happy, slightly awestruck memories of early visits to the city. Indeed, In The All-Night Café stirred recollections which I didn't realise had become memories just yet: picking up the album in a Birmingham record shop in 1997, buying it on a whim after a good few years of being utterly disillusioned with music, and stepping off the train at Glasgow Central a little later that summer feeling a little nervous and excited to be in the city. David's book is a celebration of these tiny memories - the small, at the time insignificant events which rarely enter musical folklore but seem awfully important to how Belle and Sebastian began. Key to this story is the tension between the two Stuarts - David clearly hugely impressed by Murdoch's innate grasp of melody and songcraft, but equally aware he is compromising his own creative endeavours to be part of the band. The clarity of Murdoch's vision and his urge to be heard by the right people in the right places occasionally jars with David's more traditional time-serving approach to finding recognition. Murdoch is presented as knowing his audience from the outset - understanding the bowlies and their tastes and expectations, and persistently seeking their ears. This utterly does away with the claims of 'wilful obscurity' or 'tweeness' which were sometimes levelled in the press of the day. Murdoch - and ultimately the band which coalesced around him - wanted to be heard and understood despite the prevailing view of how bands ought to form, slog tirelessly away and gradually earn their slice of success in 'rock music'.
Stopping as it does on the very brink of the band's early successes, just before the national recognition which would propel them towards creating two of the finest records of the late 90s, this book feels tantalisingly incomplete. Ultimately, Stuart David's road would soon diverge from the band and his own creative urges would see fruition in his novel 'Nalda Said' and in Looper. So, it's very likely that the next chapter won't be written - or if it is, will be written by a different voice, from a very different viewpoint. So this sits, rather like David's contemporary 'ink polaroids' - tiny chapbooks filled with snippets of descriptive prose - as a charmingly downbeat but amusingly drawn permanent record of fast-moving times, prone to shifting and reshaping to fit history. As he states at the end of the book, the inscription on the reverse of "Tigermilk" stating that the band formed over the course of three days in an all-night café had already begun to collapse into the myth of "one night". It will always be tempting to mythologise a band which, for a brief period during those late years of the last century seemed almost perfect.
But then weren't the Glasgow summers always sunnier back then too?
Posted in Reading on Sunday 15th February 2015 at 12:02am
By the time Simon Blumenfeld's writing career had begun, the East End he writes of in this - his final novel under his own name - had all but disappeared. In fact, this potted life story of Thomas Barnardo documents some of the changes which Blumenfeld would have seen himself, being born a son of Sicillian Jewish immigrants in Whitechapel. Through the eyes of his Barnardo character, Blumenfeld surveys the East End at the end of the 19th century, taking in its squalor and injustice and balancing it with the now familiar tropes of character and spirit to portray what must have seemed an impenetrable horror to the deeply religious Dublin medical student on his arrival in Stepney. It would be easy to characterise this as an opportunity for Blumenfeld to advance his communist views, but there is a tension here - while Barnardo wishes to see "No Destitute Child Ever Refused Admission" and is seemingly unconcerned with the underlying political and social injustice, he regularly debates this with Haddock - "The Black Doctor" who sees no hope without societal change.
Taking it's factual cues from historical and the public records of the remarkable Barnardo, the novel fills the gaps with surprisingly effective supposition and dramatisation. Barnardo himself is sometimes unsympathetically devout, but bristles with energy and indignation too. Filled out with engaging characters drawn from his real experiences in the East End, the sharply drawn dialogue and edgy cockney wit which Blumenfeld deployed in the earlier, more controversial "Jew Boy" return. The scenes in pub and music hall resound with a reality which stems from first hand experience - as Blumenfeld was for over thirty years a writer for The Stage, in fact attaining the official record as the "oldest living columnist" during his time there. Topographically, the novel is tightly secured into the triangle of Stepney, Mile End and Limehouse - areas Blumenfeld would know well, and from which he draws rich descriptions of places, some now changed immeasurably. When the novel does stray out of this liminal zone it is a little more fanciful and blurred, echoing the strangeness of wealthy London to those who lived their entire lives in the East, and equally the horror and disbelief the upper classes felt looking in from outside.
"Doctor of the Lost" tells a fair approximation of the sometimes forgotten life of the man behind the charitable juggernaut which now has a global reach. As a novel though, it works better - with many passages of wonderfully crafted descriptive work which provide Blumenfeld with the opportunity to explore his territory in the East End. It would be terribly easy to enter a debate about how much of it is truth - but the saddest truth is that the need for a Barnardo ever arose in Victorian London.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.