The word that comes to mind when I hear Dead Queen on the Espers II album is coruscating, it’s a song that swoops, sparkles, gently tilts you back into somewhere else. It’s epic and grand in scale but never verbose; a song full of glistening beauty, gentle and lilting but also one which subtly loops and returns throughout to something that touches on night dreams.
And I seem to find it hard to travel beyond it on the album; where do you go after something like this? It’s such a complete, swirling world of a song.
When I hear it I think of semi-lost privately pressed psychedelic/acid folk records from somewhere in the 1970s (and the phrase space rock seems to wander into my mind) but this is no straight replucking or homage; in many ways it shines a beacon as how to look to and draw from earlier source material but to bring it into today and your own vision.
Now, there has been much written about Espers and their connection to what has sometimes been labelled freak folk. You can easily have a wander through the ether to search out those stories (or via Jeanette Leech’s Seasons They Change book). This small piece of writing isn’t intended to retell or retread that ground, it’s just a small corner of the world where I might politely suggest a seeking out of the song and letting yourself step into it. Well worth eight or more minutes of your time.continue reading
Day #131/365: John Benjamin Stone; records of folkloric rituals, traditions and light catching from other eras…
Back mostly in the 19th century John Benjamin Stone made a photographic record of the folk customs and traditions of Britain, alongside documenting wider sections of people on these shores and cultures across the world.
The people, times and places in his photographs seem as though they belong to somewhere now impossibly distant from our own times; the physiognomy of those portrayed, their stances, their very being have gained layers of difference and otherlyness as the years have gone by.
His work is well worth a wander, an explore and a gander… it can also be seen as a precursor to journeys through the English ritual year and across these lands by the likes of Homer Sykes, Tony Ray-Jones (something of a favourite around these parts: see Day #19/365) and Sarah Hannant (see Day #66/365)… and as I mentioned back not too long ago on Day #127/365, it felt like seeing a glimpse backwards and forwards to his photographs in part of Robin Redbreast (Day #127/365).
I have no idea how I came across this. Maybe I was looking up Lutine’s version of Died Of Love and stumbled across it that way as this album/10″ also features the song (see Day #50/365).
I don’t know all that much about traditional folk that was revived in the 1950s and 1960s. No particular reason, it’s just not something I’ve tended to explore all that much. This album, originally recording in 1956, is music which could probably be connected with such things though and it felt like a real find; there’s a playful, sometimes cheerful, sometimes wistfully sad delivery to the songs that just makes my hair stand on end.
The opening lines to the record are “If all the young men were like hares on the mountain, then all the pretty girls would take guns and go hunting” which makes me smile and laugh.
The songs are presented simply, just Ms Copard’s voice and sometimes guitar accompaniment and that’s all they need and apparently it features the first recorded and commercially released version of that heading towards the toppermost of the poppermost songs Scarborough Fair, so I guess as a record it has a certain cultural historical importance.
Here a not-to-be-a-hit version of that hit record sits in amongst songs that I first discovered via more contemporary people such as The Owl Service, the aforementioned Lutine, Anne Briggs and so forth. It was interesting hearing some of their earlier incarnations and wondering how these versions may have somewhere along the line come to influence the songs future existences.
Finding the record on vinyl can be done but it’s a reasonably rare item, particularly on these shores. Time to save up the pennies and all that, though it is more easily available in shiny modern form (and even, curiously, on cassette).
See more about the record here.continue reading
A curious thing Robin Redbreast… it’s a 1970 television play but it only still existing as a black and white recording and the well spoke diction of some of the cast makes it feel like it’s from an earlier, pre-pop culture explosion era.
Sometimes when unearthing and perusing cult artifacts they can be interesting in terms of their subject matter, their style etc but not necessarily stand up as pieces of work/drama in themselves.
Robin Redbreast wasn’t one such time. It’s a piece of work which still draws you in, entertains, grips and unsettles you.
The story involves a London based television script editor who decides to stay in the country house that her and her partner owned after they separated. Her and her friends are outsiders, visitors to the countryside; city sophisticates, all cocktails and slightly groovy clothing, who consider themselves slightly above the local rural folk.
The main female character becomes pregnant via a local man, although she’s bored by him and his intellect, after a one night stand. There are folkloric/ritualistic shennanigans connected to her pregnancy and coupling, possibly instituted by those local rural folk, possibly as part of a tribute to the land and ensuring it’s fertility (and to a degree in this sesnse the film reminded a touch of Nicholas Roeg’s 2007 kitchen sink/realist style folk horror film Puffball).
Now, if any of that plot sounds slightly familiar, it may be because in terms of it’s themes it’s not all that dissimilar to The Wickerman. It’s easy to assume that Robin Redbreast may have influenced The Wickerman but without talking to that film’s creators that’s hard to know for definite.
It does tread similar pathways but that may have been coincidence or it may be part of the way that similar themes can appear in different people’s work around a particular time in culture, even though they are not directly connected with one another.
Sometimes it’s as though something is in the air and in that sense Robin Redbreast could be seen to be part of a cultural arc that took in folk horror films such as The Wickerman, the esoteric wanderings of folk music at the time and an interrelated interest in the otherly side of the landscape which was expressed in television flickerings which looked at such things, ie Pendas Fen, The Changes and The Owl Service.
It isn’t an especially visual representation of folkloric rites as say The Wickerman is (apart from one brief moment which could almost be a Benjamin Stone photograph or modern day reenactment); it doesn’t have the broad cinematic sweep or cult musical accompaniment of that film but this is a different creature. It’s a more intimiate, enclosed, television play with I expect a relatively small budget, a small cast and a quite limited number of locations but none the worse for it.
It’s intelligent television and well worth a visit. View more here.
As an aside, why did the semi-abstract Play For Today opening titles feel like coming home when I watched them? Are they somehow or other ingrained in my consciousness from a really rather young age?
Mind How You Go 4 x fabric pin badge pack/set.
Limited edition of 52 sets.
Each set is hand signed and numbered.
4 x 25mm / 1″ printed fabric button/pin badges in a see-through pack with printed card header.
Conventional pin badges have a transparent plastic cover over the front. These badges are made with the design printed onto fabric, with a matt finish, which gives them a more natural, tactile feel and you can see the weave of the fabric.
Available at our Artifacts Shop.continue reading
This record, with music by David Cain and “poetry” by Ronald Dunan, is one of those shake your head and be pleasantly slightly stunned moments in culture.
This was music for “designed to stimulate dramatic dance, movement, mime and speech”. It was part of series of radio broadcasts by BBC Radio For Schools called “Drama Workshop”, which apparently was a a creative drama programme for children in their first and second years of secondary school.
Well, I guess then it was at least aimed at 11-12 year old. Still rather odd and surreal but probably not quite as nightmare inducing as if it was say for 5-8 year olds.
Why do I say that? Well, to a minimal Radiophonic musical backing (or is it a suite of Ghost Box Records recordings that fell back through time?*), here are a selection of the lyrics:
“Like severed hands, the wet leaves lie flat on the deserted avenue. Houses like skulls stare through uncurtained windows. A woman dressed like a furled umbrella, with a zip fastener on her mouth steps out of number 53 to post a letter. Her gloved hand hesitates at the box. Then knowing there will be no reply, she tears it up and throws it in the gutter. And autumn with it’s pheasants tail consoles her with crysanthemums.”
Pardon? That would be a touch odd for a later 60s psychedelic album or performance piece, let alone something aimed at schools.
“An empress with an endless train walks the broad valley, she holds no sceptre, wears no crown, moving so proudly. White swans and modest little boats follow her slowly, thus the royal cortege goes down to the indifferent sea. Her way is lonely.”
Her way is lonely? Why is her way lonely? These things can prey on a young mind.
I think I would probably file it alongside the likes of the TV series of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service as things which are possibly a little to otherly for their intended young audience (though that’s in large part why they have gained cult appeal over the years): “I am the wolf in every mind”? Blimey.
The albums songs (and I use that word fairly loosely) are divided into twelve months and four seaons but I only ever seem to properly listen to July and October on the album. I’m not quite sure why but I will find myself humming the beep like refrains to those two songs as I wander along and it’s always those that I return to.
The original version of the album, if you should be able to find one, is likely to cost you a fair few pennies. Fortunately it has been re-released by Jonny Trunk. Here’s him on the album:
“This album is a “cult” classic in many ways. Always a little devil to find, I first posted it up on the Recommendations pages in 2003. This was one of three copies I’d found with Martin Green at a Tonbridge Wells record fayre in the late 1990s. Several people in my small circle of peculiar musical chums also came across it, and by the mid naughties it was coming across as a major influence on retro futurism and the new fangled scene they named hauntology. This comes as no surprise as the album has several layers and levels to it; it is weird, spooky. unsettling, very British, has an unusual whiff of childhood to some, it comes scattered with pregnant language and is full of unexpected metaphors, pagan oddness, folk cadences and insane noises. Does it get any better? Considering this was an LP made for children’s education and improvised dance, I think not.”
Peruse the album and read an interview with David Cain by Julian House of Ghost Box Records/Focus Group at Trunk Records here.
In a way it could be seen as part of mini-genre of school music related oddness. That would probably take in a couple of other Trunk Records releases (the Classroom Projects compilation and Carl Orff & Gunild Keetman’s Music For Children/Schulwerk) and probably the granddaddy of all such things The Langley Schools Music Project Innocence & Despair (a sixty strong group of Canadian schoolchildren reinterpret David Bowie, The Carpenters, Brian Wilson and more).
(As an aside, whenever I hear the version of Space Oddity from The Langley Schools Music Project I’m always transported back to the English seaside, in particular a studio flat I shared, lived and worked in for a brief year or so: it was on a compilation that somebody had done for the gal I was living with… the flat was all corridor, long, thin and tall and it would drift up from the decades out of the room where she worked.)
In many ways such school albums/the music contained in them could be seen to genuinely be folk music, in the sense of being music from the people, by the people, generally unmediated by outside concerns (or if they were, they seem to have sidestepped them to leave precious unfettered musical snapshots).
*Adding to that sense is the aforementioned interview between Julian House and David Cain, that the sleeve notes for the re-release were written by sometimes Ghost Box traveller Jon Brooks (The Advisory Circle). Or indeed the post on the album’s re-release at the Belbury Parish magazine, where Jim Jupp says:
“Its an album that’s very much part of the DNA of Ghost Box; the perfect example of the spooked educational media we reverence and reference so often.”
View more here.
Day #122/365: A trio or more of Fine Horsemen via Modern Folk Is Rubbish and through to patterns layered under patterns…
One of the songs which captured my ear and mind a fair old bit in various versions during the planning and preparing for A Year In The Country was Fine Horseman.
It’s a song full of yearning; a romantic, pastoral dream of a song but those dreams are tinged with a darkness, an unsettledness that is always only just at the edges of it’s story.
I think the version I’ve probably listened to the most is The Owl Service’s, on their Wake The Vaulted Echo EP (their first release?), closely followed by June Tabor & Maddy Prior’s version in their Silly Sisters incarnation and then possibly Anne Briggs version. All fine horsemen indeed.
The Owl Service’s version on this EP is a soft, lilting thing that transports you elsewhere, all gentle shades of twilight…
I first heard the Silly Sisters version on one of the ether’s goggle boxes and I’ve always liked how one of the comments below it said something along the lines of “whatever planet this was created on, I want to live there”. It does indeed feel like it’s been slightly borrowed from somewhere else…
While the version by Anne Briggs… well as there usually is with her music, there’s a clarity, purity and beauty to her singing that always leaves me wishing that more of her work had been committed to the old ferrous reels over the years.
I’d been meaning to write about this song for a while and I think what reminded and prompted me to put pen to digital paper is a recent flurry of activity from The Owl Service in the ether of late. In particular their Modern Folk Is Rubbish compilation, which apparently contains the reference versions of pretty much every traditional song they’ve recorded so far.
Fine Horseman was written by Lal Waterson and her version, made with her brother Mike, can be found on the compilation, alongside a fine collection that takes in Anne Briggs, Shirley Collins, former children’s TV presenter/sometime witchery duo Dave & Toni Arthur, The Pentangle, The Young Tradition, Fotheringay, Peter Bellamy and… well, basically enough fine not modern folk to keep the ear and mind occupied for a while and as a collection it could well serve as an introduction to certain strands of English folk and folk rock.
Some pathways. Mind the brambles…
Listen to Silly Sisters version of Fine Horseman here. Listen to The Owl Service’s version… well, on the soon to come repressing of the She Wants To Be Flowers But You Make Her Owls archive collection of their work, which can be perused here (alongside a later version of Fine Horseman, which you can listen to and a free “Best Of” style album). Or indeed read a review of the Wake The Vaulted Echo from the time of it’s release via the good folk at Terrascope here.
Information on various other Fine Horsemen can be found here.
And I’m not quite sure why, possibly it’s when it wanders off into a guitar solo towards the end or maybe it’s the sense of other/hidden worlds but Silly Sisters version of Fine Horseman always tend to remind me of the soundtrack to the classic rather dark and rather intelligent BBC conspiracy series Edge Of Darkness: a world full of patterns layered under patterns and secrets buried out beneath the landscape.
I’m wary of being all “Oh, in my day it was all fields around here” but it seems that television of this level is something of a rarity today. Just reading about it now still managed to send shivers up the old spine.
As a final note, if you should like Modern Folk Is Rubbish, you might well appreciate a peruse of The Owl Service’s Acid Tracks compilation, which is subtitled “An introduction to the roots of psych-folk”. Read more about that at Day #107/365 or at Stone Tape Recordings here.
I think the first time I became aware of Skeletons was when I picked up a postcard for it at the independent cinema in my once home town…
I was drawn in by and to it and I couldn’t say why. I didn’t get to watch it until it came out for home perusing but recently I was able to see it at a cinema… I was curious what I would think of it now that to some degree I’ve been spending this year in amongst various otherly, separate or fantastical landscapes.
Briefly the plot involves two suited, slightly shabby or even seedy in one case, privately contracted investigators who walk through the English countryside to visit couples and others who want to exhume the secrets and skeletons in one another’s closets before say getting married. This is done via visiting a form of portals to the couples lives accessed via the cupboards in their houses, which allow the investigators to view and experience the hidden parts of their customers* lives.
Things are complicated though because one of the investigators is a glow chaser – he is hooked on visiting scenes of his own childhood and such behaviour can corrupt their official contracted viewings.
They are asked to help locate the lost husband of a wife who has a daughter who will nolonger speak. However, the home where she lives is situated on a path which misdirects the readings they need to take… I won’t go into it more as, well, I would be ruining the plot.
It’s a curious item in the pantheon of British film; one which at first glance has some visual similarities with realist film but which is actually a journey through a fantastical world, one set alongside but slightly apart from the “real world” but it’s done in a subtle, not fully explained way; the science, methods, techniques, the organisation they work for etc of the investigators is just taken as is: people contract them to do their work, what they do works.
(As an aside, I suppose you could slightly link this to a film like The Wall/Die Wand – see Day #13/365; pastoral science fiction as a genre, set in a landscape where the fantastic happens/has happened but where the reasons, whys and wherefores are not fully explained.)
Their working methods seem curiously lo-fi and understated for what is actually quite a mind-blowing activity: the ability to step into and view the lives of others at different times and places. Their work isn’t shown in a big budget flash-bam-whallop way though, which seems to line up with and compliment the lo-fi techniques of the investigators**.
I wondered if on re-seeing the film I would connect it with views of otherly goings on in the landscape which can be found in a small section of British television in the late 1960s and 1970s (The Owl Service, Children Of The Stones, Penda’s Fen). No, not exactly but…
Well, one thing that surprised me was just how similar it was to the late 1970s British television series Sapphire and Steel. I don’t think in a deliberate manner (indeed when I asked the director at a Q&A about it, he was aware of the series but couldn’t remember it particularly).
Both series and film deal with a pairing of investigators who in some ways could be said to be working with problems based around a modern updating of supernatural concerns; some place where science and the preternatural combine and co-exist, where a domestic freezer can be reconfigured to freeze malevolent spirit creatures from the beginning of time or valve like instruments can measure the readings required for screenings and visitings of other times and places of people’s lives.
And both series seem to exist a time and place of their own imagining: yes, Sapphire and Steel is rooted in the 1970s via the colours and light trails of its video recorded existence but really it could be at almost any time in the last century.
In Skeletons there is little reference to the contemporary world: the instruments they use could be post war, the suits the investigators wear are contemporary-ish, the aprons and goggles they wear for protection when carrying out their viewing seem to hark back to some earlier later mid-twentieth century industrial Britain when men sweated in jobs that were “the backbone of the country”. Their boss could have tumbled from the parade ground of a 1960s comedy (and is a standout turn as it were), there are no mobile phones or computers. We hardly see a car. It’s now but not.
Geographically also it’s largely isolated in its own time and space: almost all of the film takes place in the countryside and the investigators seem to walk to wherever their next job is, over stiles and down railway tracks which seem to be free of their rolling stock.
One of the only references to modernity are the power station cooling towers that background one of their homes but even then what decade are we in? Such modern-day monuments, their design and utilitarian stance tend to make me think I’m looking at a scene from previous decades, nearer to the 1970s than today.
Skeletons was released in 2010, written and directed by Nick Whitfield. It’s well worth an hour or two of your time and I expect a few more hours after that while your mind wanders amongst its stories.
Something of a gem in amongst British film, one which in part deals with the sense of loss associated with unrecapturable moments and people in our lives, the way we humans can want to try and revisit the gossamer strands of those now gone butterflies. However, it’s not a heavy or dark view of such a subject. It’s humorous, touching, fantastical, intriguing.
*One thing I’ve just wandered: how much are the investigators paid for their services? Is it a reasonably well recompensed thing to do? Are they paid in monetary form? We never see the exchange of lucre during the film.
**Actually, just looking the film up I saw it described as “a very British Ghostbusters”. I thought that was quite lovely. If you were to put Ghostbusters through an English pastoral filter, it might just come out a little like this.continue reading
This album was made by Michael Tanner with Steven Dacosta, accompanied by Nicholas Palmer and Julian Poidevin…
Now with somebody like Michael Tanner who has put out/collaborated on a fair few records (there are 20 releases to listen to at his ether victrola, over 50 records listed here), it can be a little hard to know where to start a-listening…
Well, near the start is probably not a bad idea. And with that…
Wintersongs. This is lovely album to drift off into. I suppose it could be loosely described as a kind of folkloric or pastorally themed ambient or even soundscape album but I don’t think it’s an easy piece of work to pigeonhole in such a way.
It wanders through a landscape not dissimilar in parts to Virginia Astley’s From Gardens Where We Feel Secure (see Day #118//365); like that album it could be seen as a soundtrack for the landscape of these isles, one that is in parts gently melancholic but also subtley magical… and on a track like Bracken it almost feels like a walking companion for the From Gardens album.
However, like From Gardens Where We Feel Secure this isn’t a twee trip through the land; while in parts it may be a journey through a certain kind of pastoral reverie there is also something else going on amongst the hills and trees. There’s heartbreak in the pathways of it’s songs at points; Hearth makes my mind wander towards losses along the byways of life…
In the sleevenotes Michael Tanner seems almost apologetic, though fond of this early work of his:
“these were our first attempts at making a record. and although i say it through squinted eyes, the naivety which used to make me run for cover is now kind of endearing…”
The album has gone through various incarnations over the years since it was first released: as a cassette in 1999, CDrs in 2002/2006 by Dorset Paeans and then Rusted Rail and of late a limited edition vinyl record release by Kit Records, housed in a rather lovely and lovingly produced linocut sleeve.
As an aside, the instruments listed in it’s making include glockenspiel, trumpet, clarinet, guitar, clocks, fireplace, ring modulator, birds, teapot, train, voices, piano, garden, sleigh bells, cymbals, melodica…
My first proper listening probably added a few more instruments to that mix: I was sat outside letting my mind wander over the valley in front of me as the album played.
The birds in the trees around me were singing and chirruping their hearts out, local dogs would break into barking, cars would pass, the neighbours were nattering and the wind was gently rustling. At points I couldn’t tell quite which sounds were on the album and which in the world around me; as the sound of somebody’s footsteps played I found myself turning round thinking I had a visitor coming up the steps to my side and the album became almost like a live field re-recording, which seemed kind of fitting in a way as the first time to properly appreciate it.
Monitoring The Transmissions triptych print set. £25.00.
Monitoring The TransmissionsTriptych Print Set:
Monitoring The Transmissions (#2)
Once Dark, Now Stilled
The Departure Before The Storm
Limited edition of 31 sets of prints. Each print is signed and numbered.
Size Per Print 42 x 16 cm / 16.5 x 6.3″ (includes 2cm/0.8″ unprinted border).
Printed with archival Giclée pigment inks on Hahnemühle Photo Rag 100% cotton paper.
Free UK/International shipping. Ships rolled in a strong poster tube.
Available at our Artifacts Shop.continue reading
File under: Trails and Influences: Touchstones. Case #19/52.
I’ve just put the album on and it’s like saying hello once more to a very welcome old friend. It’s the very definition of bucolic and is an album which summates England’s pastoral, edenic dreams…
I first listened to music from this album late one hot, hazy, balmy summer night and I was just transfixed and transported. Appropriately I think one of the first songs I listened to was It’s Too Hot To Sleep, which is a gentle lullaby of a song, all lilting and the soft hoots of owls; which in a way could describe much of the album.
The title says so much about being English, some of our needs and wants, the small spot of greenery which accompanies our domestic castles in which, well, we can hopefully feel secure.
I think I came across the album via Rob Young’s Electric Eden book (well, I’ve not mentioned it for a while, so it’s probably due for one). It features in probably one of my favourite sections of the book: The final Poly Albion gathering of writing, in the chapter Towards The Unknown Region, wherein he considers more the outerlying areas of the music and culture which has sprung forth from secret gardens, the more hauntological side of things, the spectres of the land in cathode ray transmissions, Ghost Box Records and the like.
In this section when describing the music in the album he begins by saying that it “doesn’t go anywhere”, in I think an attempt to show the albums ambient, non formal song structure. It’s an interesting choice of phrase as it also suggests how as a nation we sometimes hanker after these unchanged, unending idylls where we can lock the gates, rest, slumber and dream, with the rambunctious march of progress safely held at bay even if just for a moment.
Although the album largely a suite of music which invokes such an Albionic Arcadia, conjuring up lives spent in timeless English villages, it’s not merely a chocolate box or twee reverie; there’s a sense that there is a hidden reverse to that dream, that the nightmare may well intrude on that eden… and that comes to pass as The Summer Of Our Dreams gives way to When The Fields Were On Fire, which is a darkly ambient piece of quietly unsettling pastoralism, which though the album was originally released in 1983 wouldn’t be a surprise to find on a more contemporary Ghost Box Records release or maybe nestling away in an outtake from Coil’s Horse Rotorvator.
It possibly wanders some of the same fields as the outer regions of an alternative albion which could be found in say The Wickerman or some psych/acid folk music but here while the sense of an idyllic rural eden has a otherly quality it’s not overt; more a kind of wistful nostalgia or reverie, even where it is most present on say When The Fields Were On Fire.
The music? How to describe it? It’s an ambient mostly instrumental work but very melodic, the main instruments seem to be piano and a touch of woodwind instruments but the sense is largely one of music which has been painted and layered rather than played and made; rurally collected field recordings of the English countryside being a large part of the pigments and paint it uses.
Ms Astley, all I can say is I salute you for this piece of work.
The album is out of print. It can be found second-hand, although you may well pay a pretty penny for a CD copy.
And once again: Rob Young’s Electric Eden here.
As a final note, below is the text from Electric Eden on From Gardens Where We Feel Secure; “Furtive music hiding in the shrubbery” is a good concise way of describing the albums subtle pastoral otherlyness.
A Year In The Country: Work
This is part of a triptych that accompanies images D and D/2.continue reading
The phrase Soft Estate refers to the description given by the UK Highways Agency to the natural habitat that the motorways and trunk roads it manages occupy; an often unstepped on hinterland that most of us only view as a high-speed blur from the corner of our eyes as our transport travels down these autobahn edgelands.
Soft Estate is also the name of a book/project/exhibition by Edward Chell, which interacts with and documents these verges and landscapes; literally interacting with as some of the work is printed using road dust from such places, other work uses (I assume) engine oil, features plant life illustrations from these verges laser etched onto brightly chromed exhaust pipes or uses the same materials and colours as road signs themselves.
I only really quite recently came across his work but I very much connected with it, in particular his oil on shellac on linen prints; I thought I saw an echo of my own imagery, spirit and inclinations there, although to my knowledge neither of us had seen one another’s work when embarking on making it.
Indeed there is a ghostly, spectral quality to these paintings; they are literally hauntological in that though they are created in contemporary times, there is something about them that makes them seem like documents of a modernities future and past.
They’re just a lovely capturing of the point and spirit at which nature tumbles alongside and into mankind’s march of progress.
And there is a meditative, calming sense to them. I’m not quite sure why but they ease the soul and provide a moment’s respite.
This post/page is largely concerned with Edward Chell’s own artwork, as featured prominently in the Soft Estate book.
However, the book is also a collection of essays and effectively an exhibition catalogue, albeit one which exists as a handsomely produced artifact in its own right.
It includes a piece of writing by Richard Mabey, one of the original authors on what have become known as edgelands (the overlooked landscapes at the edges of town and cities; often undeveloped or transitional/liminal areas where nature meets industry and bleeds into the ragged edges of urban development). The inclusion of his writing here can be seen as providing a continuing line from and through considerations of edgelands in their various forms. Peruse the reprint of his Unofficial Countryside book at Little Toller here.
I may well return to the book around these parts later in A Year In The Country. In the meantime, if you should like to peruse a more in-depth consideration of the book and it’s themes then a visit to Landscapism’s page on it here may well provide such sustenance or in more concise manner New English Landscape’s thoughtful review of the book can be visited here.
View Edward Chell’s superlative oil paintings and other work at his site here.
As a final point, some of Edward Chell’s work has been installed in Little Chef restaurants. For those of you who don’t know these places, they are British roadside family cafes/restaurants. As a child we would visit them occasionally (which was a real treat back then before the days when eating out had become more the norm) and they were one of the first places that I ever ate and tasted what I suppose could be considered more American style burger and chips. Though they were served on a plate with knives and forks in a more traditional restaurant setting. Another transitional/liminal point I suppose.
I don’t know how many of them still exist but I rarely see them anymore and when I do I always have a momentary frisson of excitement, I’m back to being that kid looking forward to visiting them. On those rare spottings they feel like endangered species, a quaint remnant of times gone by before the ubiquity of transnational chains and the utilitarian installations of motorway service stations.
It made me smile to see his work here. A nice, humorous coming together of cultures.
I go into this in more depth in the About page but one of the roots of A Year In The Country and the way it intends to express a duality about a sense of bucolic pastoralism (the countryside as both an idyll and a place of otherlyness) comes from my experiences around and discovery of the possible end of the world via nuclear annihilation in my youth, during one of the peaks of the Cold War.
It was a simple thing really; the rest of the family were playing Monopoly (at which my dad no doubt won, possibly via £500 notes hidden under the board) while I watched something like Panorama or some similar weekly news topic program which just happened that week to be covering a potential nuclear conflict, the UK government’s Protect And Survive program (leaflets/adverts on how to protect you and your family from a blast with the power of over a hundred suns by whitewashing your windows and hiding behind a mattress leant against the wall)…
Where does the countryside/landscape come in? Well, at the time we were living in a small country village which only really had one lane and as I mention in the About page, by day I was living a Famous Five-esque existence of bike rides, rolling down hills and trying to dam rivers… by night my mind would be full of childhood fears, which after watching the program above took on a very contemporary conflict directed form.
The discovery of the possible end of the world was compounded by both the office on our forecourt (my dad was one of two local village bobbies) and a friend’s front room (his house was attached to the local Tourist Information centre) having old-fashioned bakelite looking nuclear air raid sirens in them; smallish things about the size of a microwave oven just sat on shelves with notices on the side explaining what noises they would make when the silver finned harbingers were about to fall from the sky into these mole-hilled fields or the winds were to carry their after effects.
All of which kind of blew my young mind. It was probably both exciting and terrifying. I still find it hard to type the actual terms which refer to the type of weapon, those wind-borne after effects etc.
One of the things that really stuck with me was the fact that in Switzerland every house had to have a fully stocked and functioning air raid bunker. I suspect that I really wanted us to have one.
It’s a bizarre idea really; digging up your idyllic back garden to install an underground haven to protect you from the end of the world, which in real terms won’t actually do that, it will just delay the inevitable
The two weeks or so shelter they would give you before air filters, power, food etc ran out would be unlikely to be of much genuine use in terms of long term survival as the world you emerged into would most likely be poisoned, destroyed and have a blackened sky from the debris thrown into the atmosphere.
Around the same time as discovering the above, the countryside/edgeland landscape around me seemed to be scattered with crumbling and discarded military emplacements, weapons, crashed planes and the scarifying mythology of air raid bunkers which we would descend into, knowing not what we would find (but I expect hoping they would contain a ghost or two).
It’s curious how these things still remain and survive over the years in the countryside (as I type there is a WWII air raid shelter not twenty yards from me in the back garden); probably the march of redevelopment and modernity is not so all-consuming in such parts* of the world and so such things are left alone until needs be, quiet reminders or ghosts of conflicts both real and feared.
And ever since there has always been a fascination at the back of my mind with the mysteries of bunkers and the sirens of impending doom. Such things still have a power to haunt me; occasionally around these parts the wind will carry the sound of the klaxon call that declares they’re about to blow up part of a hill for quarry excavation and my mind holds it’s breath for just a moment as the young me wanders if this is the sound that means it’s time to head for a bunker.
Perhaps part of A Year In The Country is hoping to lay these ghosts that still inhabit the back of my mind to rest a little, even if just personally as it’s in the face of the continuing physical, corporeal presence of the roots of those fears.
The end of the world via the weapons which the Swiss still have their bunkers to defend them is now rarely spoken of but the weapons still exist and the ghosts of that once more prominent fear are still dotted around the world in bunker havens, both those instigated by families/individuals and projects built by governments/institutions.
One document of these havens/ghosts is the book/project Waiting For The End Of The World by Richard Ross, from which the images on this day are taken.
One intriguing thing about some of these photographs of domestic shelters are the details of the way they have been made to feel homely and how their aesthetic consideration is often given to their entrances, in the face of and opposition to what their occupants would be faced with if their intended purpose was ever called upon.
That’s not said in a mocking manner but with a sense of genuine affection for the foibles, eccentricities and concerns of people. How it is pictured in some of the photographs makes it seem not all that different to the urge to create your own jam or any one of a hundred other quaint, homely hobbies…
To semi-quote Virginia Astley; From Gardens Where We Hope To Feel Secure.
View more of Richard Ross’ work here.
*Having said which, I did visit a nuclear attack bunker buried underneath Berlin a few years ago, a spectral reminder of the Cold War. It was full of outdated technology, still fully functioning and maintained, designed to hold 20,000 people in the near dark and almost total humidity, without medical care. Row upon row of metal bunk beds. Not a fun place. They had a short video that showed the attack sirens sounding and the bunker door slamming shut. I still think of and pity the young student guide who in a tremulous voice said that it didn’t get any easier watching this sequence of events day after day…
Trails and Influences: Electronic Ether. Case #14/52.
“Landscape-based anxiety… rendering strange and dangerous what many think of as the ideal community… the first great ‘strange village’ movie in British cinema… secrets lurk in the Cornish countryside, atmospherically presented even though the filmmakers never went anywhere near Cornwall… a skin for dancing in… it is not the landscape itself that is the source of unease but rather the savagery of the people who occupy it… takes place entirely in France, yet it presents a rural setting as alienating as anything presented in other rural horrors and refracts it through a distinctive English sensibility… A desolate and appalling landscape… for here there really are witches and demons on the loose in the English countryside… This is still Britain but it is also something else… I will never forget the way I felt when I came out of that film…”
Now if any of that intrigues or draws you in for a night of stealing glances away from the flickers of the screen, out of the windows at a landscape full of a darkness unlit by sodium orange… well then a visit to the BFI’s 10 Great British Rural Horror Films may well be on the cards (as may be a debate on what you would’ve/should’ve been included etc).continue reading