“Capitalism and power politics have made our generation creatively sluggish, and our vital art is mired in a broad bourgeois philistinism” – Walter Gropius
All the world’s a stage, and as all good Marxists know, we are now upon the farce stage. Those of us chalking up parallels between the UK’s current ethical miasma and BBC 2’s timely ‘Rise Of The Nazis’ are doubtless besieging bookmakers for odds on a Reichstag Fire moment, anytime soon. With billions of pounds sterling hedged on a No Deal Brexit, I’m reminded of the words of George Carlin: “If you can’t beat them, arrange to have them beaten”.
May you live in interesting times, indeed. What a time to be alive. What a time to be heading to Berlin for the first time since 1987. What a time to broaden the mind. As the minds of those that surround you are seemingly narrowing, like barges. On canals. At the brith of the industrial revolution. We know the price of everything, the Victorian Values of nothing.
Day-1: Bags packed. Backpacks loaded. We laugh like drains at recent social media threads on the incompatibility of elder states-people and daysacks. As if those of us who fought the Punk Rock Wars are unduly concerned about the considerations of the Twitterati in regard to the correlation between age and personal effects management. Keeping it real, and in the spirit of true adventure, we get my mom to drop us off at Warwick Parkway. Feeling like we’re almost sixteen again.
With low quality hot chocolates and overpriced pastries consumed, we board the 10:15am, bound for Marylebone. We’re soon trudging through London’s underground system toward St Pancreas, Lady Di leading the way, yours truly lagging behind under the weight of a loaded backpack, carrying a packed bag in each hand. I’m rapidly acclimatising to the drawbacks of train travel. Fully off my trolley: a donkey pulling a narrow boat along tubed towpaths.
With a butterfly stomach full of what I can only describe as actual excitement, we arrive at St Pancreas Eurostar terminal for a short wait under the designer arches. The check-in procedure was somewhat of a revelation. It’s been many years since I’ve been processed for the purposes of travel, and sometimes we forget how the relentless pace of technological advancement alters even the most mundane of experiences. As we are herded through luggage x-rays, biometric passport checks, facial recognition software, and sombre customs officialdom, I’m genuinely waiting to be ushered into a darkened room for interrogation. All rather unnerving, especially as we’re leaving the country!
Ensconced aboard, we are soon hurtling towards Paris at speeds approaching 300-kph. One moment everything’s gone dark, the next Lady Di’s nudging me: “Look, France”. Gard Du Nord is heaving, the temperature has risen by 10-degrees en route. I’m stuttering in French at a baguette concession. With our baggage camp established as we await our connection, we take it in turns to venture outside onto Parisian rues to sample the ambience. It’s been a while since I’ve set foot in Paris. We have history. I was run over by a bus here, back in the early seventies: breaking my arm; fracturing my skull; covering my pretty little face with ugly stitches. My late father genuinely believed I was never the same after Paris.
The journey to Köln was exemplary. Initially, I couldn’t fathom why the drinks and food were free, or why they kept bringing us hot towels and face wipes, until Lady Di confirmed that we were travelling first class. The last time I attempted to travel first class on a train I didn’t have a first class ticket, and ended up having a blazing row with a Virgin Trains conductor about the class system, discrimination, and how I was going to ritually destroy my copy of ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ via the medium of fire as soon as I got home.
We arrived at Köln to find our connection to Berlin delayed by a couple of hours. Unperturbed, we stashed our baggage, ably assisted by our first jovial German of the journey. He couldn’t have been more helpful, or more happy to have been able to help. As we exited the Bahnhof to emerge facing Köln Cathedral, the penny dropped: Köln was in fact Cologne. I’d been here before. Established in 1248 AD, the cathedral, and in particular, its steps, mark the cultural centre of this sprawling city. Crammed with young people enjoying themselves responsibly, the square flanked with packed bars rammed with people drinking responsibly. Cologne had an immediate air of welcome about it, so we wandered down to the Rhine in the balmy late summer heat, scoring ice creams and convenience unterwegs. Along the banks of the river, buskers busked, rappers rapped, glasses and bottles clinked, corks popped, laughter rang out from every direction, Cologne felt like a big fun place to be. We crossed the Rhine and marvelled at the symbolism of it all: Warwick, London, Paris, Cologne, everybody talk about pop muzik.
Back on the platform, the delay grew incrementally. German football fans had overrun the Bahnhof, making their ways home from the Rhein Energie Stadion. Lady Di was becoming agitated, her meticulous planning lost in translation. On the bright side, we’d eventually arrive in Berlin later than the scheduled 05.30am, which had to be a bonus. Eventually our tardy connection sauntered onto the platform, an errant engine by now, in the eyes of Lady Di. We loaded the donkey, jostled for position with beery replica shirts, and clambered aboard our specified carriage number. We were surprised to find our allocated cabin empty and waiting on location. Lady Di whooped in elation as we settled in. There were no bunks, just four seats and a table, but we had a sliding door, and curtain we could draw. The six hour crawl to Berlin began.
Much like teenagers on their first 18-30 holiday, we grew increasingly uncomfortable as the journey progressed. The initial joy at the deportment of our apartment turned to frustration and discomfort, as Lady Di laboured to locate a suitable sleeping position, and I lost myself in the rapidly turning pages of Max Porter‘s ‘Lanny’ (Faber & Faber): “There’s a village sixty miles outside London. It’s no different from many other villages in England: one pub, one church, red-brick cottages, council cottages and a few bigger houses dotted about. Voices rise up, as they might do anywhere, speaking of loving and needing and working and dying and walking the dogs. This village belongs to the people who live in it and to the people who lived in it hundreds of years ago. It belongs to England’s mysterious past and its confounding present. But it also belongs to Dead Papa Toothwort, a figure schoolchildren used to draw green and leafy, choked by tendrils growing out of his mouth. Dead Papa Toothwort is awake. He is listening to this twenty-first-century village, to his English symphony. He is listening, intently, for a mischievous, enchanting boy whose parents have recently made the village their home. Lanny”.
I have often heard people exclaim that a book was unputdownable, that they’d devoured it in one sitting, but I have rarely consumed a tome from cover to cover in the course of one day. ‘Lanny’ consumed me, an electrifying read that challenged my parameters of novelistic convention. An utterly beguiling tale that epitomised everything that troubles me about post-everything existence in UKPLC 2019 under Tory Austerity. The things we’ve lost, it’s always about the loss. As we lumbered through Dortmund, Wuppertal, Hanover, Wolfsburg, into the dawn, it dawned upon me we’d boarded the archetypal ‘slow train coming’. Each stop punctuated by an announcement in piercing, staccato German only (all earlier concessions to multiculturalism by now unforthcoming), that rendered anything but slumber practically impossible. Finally, around 2am, ‘Lanny’ completed, Lady Di faux-asleep in the foetal position, swaddled in hoodies, I too began the search for rest.
At around 5:05am, we discovered what it would have been like to have been escaping the Nazi regime back in 1940. Our cabin door was rudely wrenched asunder, and in burst a 6ft 5in German guy shouting at us, barking orders and gesticulating. At first I thought he was shouting: ‘Achtung! Achtung! Gott im Himmel. Papers; papers; where are your papers?’ In fact, he was merely pointing at our seats, as if to say: ‘these are my seats, I pre-booked them, please move now so my wife and I can sit down in accordance with the seating protocol of this sleeping carriage, as specified here, in writing, on these tickets’. It’s a scary language at volume, at 5:05am, especially to vulnerable English people faux-asleep in uncomfortable sleepers. Lady Di, rudely awoken, responded with relative ungraciousness, and our new travelling companions settled into their seats opposite us, uncomfortably. The atmosphere was interesting. Lady Di annoyed, myself amused. Everybody stared at their phones. I offered placatory solace: “we’ll be in Berlin within the hour”. The German guy, a literal man mountain, possibly once an East German shot putter at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, was soon on his feet. He returned a few minutes later with further exclamations at volume, which, by now fully awake, I instantly translated as: ‘the compartment next door is vacant, therefore my wife and I shall decant there forthwith, enabling your companion and your good self to return to slumber’.
We finally hit Berlin at 6:30am. The sheer architectural wonderment of Berlin Hauptbahnhof literally took our breath away on arrival. We wandered the concourse momentarily, clicking away on our phones, savouring the enormity of the journey, our amazement at having completed it with relatively little hinderance. For a few seconds we both looked at each other, as if to say: ‘what the fuck are we going to do now, at 6am, in Berlin? With all this baggage?’ We made our way down to ground level, exiting into the fresh morning air, the sun rising to the east, elegantly framing the iconic Berliner Fernsehturm in Alexanderplatz, build by the GDR government between 1965 and 1969. We were both genuinely elated: feeling like we were almost sixteen again.
We were soon aboard a taxi, cruising the short distance to the Maritim proArte Hotel Berlin, on Friedrichstrasse. We’d arranged for an early check-in, but we were still three hours early, even for that. We dumped our luggage at reception, and were duly invited to take advantage of the hotel’s breakfast facility. The sumptuous buffet arrangement boasted all manner of frühstück options: Brot and Brötchen, decorated with butter, sweet jams and local honey, thinly sliced meats, cheese, Leberwurst, a variety of eggs/omlettes, sausages, pastries, fruit, cheesecake, cereals. We adopted a ‘fill-up for free’ policy immediately, designed to reduce in-day sustenance costs accordingly, returning to the breakfast station repeatedly until we could gorge no more. Refreshed and refuelled, we headed off down Friedrichstrasse in search of Checkpoint Charlie: 7:30am. What I would be missing out on in terms of cycling whilst I was away, we’d surely be compensating for in miles walked.
Checkpoint Charlie proved illustrative of any return to Berlin for the first time, post-wall. The last time I’d approached this iconic sentry box I’d walked from the opulent West (‘You are now leaving the American sector’) to stare over the wall at the oppressed East (‘You are now entering the Soviet sector’). The wall now gone, no-man’s-land now occupied by fast food outlets, retail establishments and real estate, the vista was unrecognisable from the one I’d seen in 1987. A disorienting experience, especially in my relatively zombie state. The timing of our visit was perfect, however, as we’d discover a few days later, at peak tourist, you can’t see the checkpoint for the Charlies.
Wandering back up Friedrichstrasse it began to dawn on me that the cultural compass of Berlin had shifted to the East: from the left to the right, so to speak. I pondered the irony of a contradiction we would encounter in many guises in the coming days as the heat rose with the sun. We checked into our hotel room at 10am. Showered, snoozed, and back on the road by 12pm, we were determined to squeeze maximum lemon juice from every second. We struck out West from our base in the former East, impossibly excited. With the sun high in the sky and the temperature in the high twenties, the high pressure was set to last the duration of our stay. We ambled down to the Reichstag, wandered through the Tiergarten, and on to Brandenburger Tor. The gate itself was the setting for a performance that coming evening by the Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Kirill Petrenko. The stage was literally set, somewhat obscuring our photo opportunities of the Tor. Pre-recorded operatics blared from the speaker stacks as the final preparations for the evening’s performance were put into place.
Following the former course of the wall, we headed South, for Potsdammer Platz. My brain recalibrated rapidly, the disorientation of change was disconcerting. The last time I’d been here, I’d walked through the Tiergarten to stare over the wall at no-man’s-land and the East beyond. I recalled a graffiti legend I’d photographed in ’87: ‘They came, they saw, they did a little shopping’. Our route was fittingly punctuated by the Holocaust-Mahnmal, two thousand, seven hundred and eleven gray concrete stelae, erected in memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, this enormous site undulates as one walks through the stelae, subsuming the visitor like a maze.
Potsdamer Platz is extensive, dominated by its impressive Bahnhof: an intersection at the commercial heart of the re-centred Berlin. Several sections of former wall are situated in front of the station, decorated with graffiti, surrounded by tourists armed with all manner of cameras. Trams criss-corse the square, cyclists race past at speed. You’ve got to be on your toes. With the heat bordering on oppressive, we opted to take the advice I’d photographed back in ’87, and entered the Mall Of Berlin for some retail therapy and sustenance. We spent the remainder of the afternoon hunting down one of Berlin’s three Camper shoe stores, before retracing yesterday’s steps along Friedrichstrasse to the Maritim proArte Hotel to sauna and swim.
Refreshed and eager for more, we wandered out East into the sunset, drawn by the talismanic Berliner Fernsehturm towards Alexanderplatz and the River Spree. We ate on the vibrant riverfront, entertained by a sax busker blowing cliched schmaltz. We both agreed we’d rarely felt this comfortable in a city. We ended the evening watching Berliners dance beneath a flower-decked wooden awning on a sand-covered square. They danced the tango, the waltz, the foxtrot, the quickstep, the samba, the cha-cha, the rumba. Older couples, younger couples, gay couples, unlikely couples, all filled with the joy of dance and their love of life. It was a moving experience, and we laughed as we watched, enraptured with the simplicity of unadulterated fun. Our first day in Berlin had drawn to a close. It had lasted 36-hours; we’d walked 15-miles, covering 39,421-steps. We felt like we were almost sixteen again. We’re both fifty six.
Day-2: The following morning we struck out East, to The Stasi Museum: a research and memorial centre documenting the political system of the former East Germany, located in the Lichtenberg locality, in the former headquarters of the Stasi, on Normannenstrasse/Ruschestrasse, near Frankfurter Allee. The bright yellow carriages of the U-Bahn trains set the tone for the day. Like a kid unwrapping a Hornby 00 Gauge on Christmas morning, it was love at first sight. Simple to to use, relatively cheap, clean and punctual, Berlin’s underground and overground rail network is a credit to the city. As we emerged from the U-Bahn onto Frankfurter Allee it felt somewhat akin to exiting the Tardis in 1987. This entire district was but a blank white space on the map back then, and as we made our way towards the museum entrance it was easy to imagine the bullets flying off the pock-marked walls of the surrounding tenements. Inside we discovered how the Stasi operated, examining their original technology: weapons, bugs, hidden cameras, infra red beamers for photography at night. One particular case study documented how the Stasi sent one poor woman insane by entering her flat daily whilst she was out, and simply moving her possessions around. I was reminded of Hans Weingartner‘s ‘The Edukators’ (2004), where Jan, Peter and Julie seek to unnerve the wealthy through their form of protest art: ‘Your days of plenty are numbered’. It struck me that the apparatus of state control remains fundamental, regardless of ideology. UKPLC 2019 may be infinitely more nuanced than the DDR, but we are intrinsically monitored, psychologically harassed and ultimately controlled by entirely parallel methodology. On floor two we entered the office of Erich Mielke, Minister of State Security and head of the Stasi from 1957 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The entire second floor of the building remains untouched since the days of the Stasi, complete with desks, chairs and filing cabinets. It felt like we were in an episode of ‘Deutschland 83′, I kept expecting Martin Rauch to walk in any second.
Returning once again to Potzdamer Platz, we headed South into Kreuzberg, in search of Köthener Strasse 38, home of Hansa Studios. Located in a former builders’ guild hall, famous for the acoustic properties of its Meistersaal, employed by the likes of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Depeche Mode to capture many of their finest moments, the studio used to be known as ‘Hansa by the wall’. On arrival it initially took a few minutes to recognise the building, it was only the giant image of Bowie in the window that gave the game away. The documentary ‘Hansa Studios: By the Wall 1976-90′ (2018) portrayed Hansa as an ‘outpost of Western civilisation’ on the edge of no-man’s-land, it was again impossible to reconcile that image with what stood before us now.
Day-3 was never going to be a walk in the Tiergarten. We set off for the Jüdisches Museum, back past Checkpoint Charlie, now overrun with tourists, surrounding souvenir shops bristling with business. Opened in 2001, it’s the largest Jewish museum in Europe. It consists of three buildings, two of which are new additions specifically built for the museum by architect Daniel Libeskind. Architecturally imposing, the modern elements are reminiscent of Frank Gehry‘s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. German-Jewish history is documented within the collections, the library and the archive, and reflected in the museum’s program of events. The experience was provocative and disturbing in equal measure, an installation replicating the arc of the searchlights in particular sent shivers down our spines.
Having remembered the victims, we made our way to examine the perpetrators at the Topography Of Terror, an indoor/outdoor exhibition located on the former Prinz Albrecht Strasse, the former site of SS Reich Main Security Office, the headquarters of the Sicherheitspolizei, SD, Einsatzgruppen and Gestapo. The site is flanked by the longest stretch of Wall left standing. Below the wall lie the remains of the basement level of the former site. We began by viewing chilling footage of the destruction of Warsaw, filmed form the air as it smouldered in ruins. Imagining what would have taken place within these walls was a dispiriting experience. The indoor exhibition further documented the rise and fall of the Third Reich in unflinching detail. The content was unremitting, we separated to digest at our own pace, meeting at intersections as we criss-crossed the voluminous weight of information on display. Within a couple of hours, the experience was simply overpowering. We both felt utterly drained by the horrors before our eyes.
“The ultimate goal of all art is the building! The ornamentation of the building was once the main purpose of the visual arts, and they were considered indispensable parts of the great building. Today, they exist in complacent isolation, from which they can only be salvaged by the purposeful and cooperative endeavours of all artisans. Architects, painters and sculptors must learn a new way of seeing and understanding the composite character of the building, both as a totality and in terms of its parts. Their work will then re-imbue itself with the spirit of architecture, which it lost in salon art.
The art schools of old were incapable of producing this unity—and how could they, for art may not be taught. They must return to the workshop. This world of mere drawing and painting of draughtsmen and applied artists must at long last become a world that builds. When a young person who senses within himself a love for creative endeavour begins his career, as in the past, by learning a trade, the unproductive ‘artist’ will no longer be condemned to the imperfect practice of art because his skill is now preserved in craftsmanship, where he may achieve excellence.
Architects, sculptors, painters—we all must return to craftsmanship! For there is no such thing as ‘art by profession’. There is no essential difference between the artist and the artisan. The artist is an exalted artisan. Merciful heaven, in rare moments of illumination beyond man’s will, may allow art to blossom from the work of his hand, but the foundations of proficiency are indispensable to every artist. This is the original source of creative design.
So let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen, free of the divisive class pretensions that endeavoured to raise a prideful barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline, architecture and sculpture and painting, and which will one day rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come”.
As we made our way around the architectonic building, every room delivered wonderments: the door handles; the light fittings; the hinges; the materials; the stairways; the banisters; the symmetry; the functionalism; the light; the reds; the blues; the yellows: it felt utterly contemporary, to the nth degree. Timeless design manifesting in total realisation of the principles of the original manifesto. Back out on Gropiusallee, we headed North West for the short walk to the Masters’ Houses. Built in 1926, at the same time as the main building itself, these four white, cubic forms establish complex connections between interior and exterior. Their lasting influence on modern architecture continues to inform the debate around standardisation in housing construction to this day. The Masters’ Houses are not only architectural revelations, they are the former homes of Bauhäusler artists Lyonel Feininger, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Lucia and László Moholy-Nagy, and Gropius himself. Flanked by pine trees, the Masters’ Houses remain the epitome of functional serenity.
With clouds banking in from the North, and the buzz of static in the air, we could feel the storm coming as we left the final house. The temperature was bordering on thirty degrees, something had to give. As we wandered the suburbs of Dessau in search of ‘The Box’, we realised we’d ventured off-piste. With the palpable essence of rain in the air, we Google-mapped our way back to the Bauhaus building, a matter of seconds before the storm broke. The blue skies of earlier that morning were now dark with cloud. Thunder and lightning danced across the horizon, as Bauhaus staff members rushed to close all those windows. We took sustenance down in the cafe, but the storm has set in. In only t-shirts and shorts, we were suddenly trapped in the Bauhaus building. We revisited the gift shop, I scored a t-shirt, then we retraced our steps, and toured the building again. When the rain eventually relented, we headed for the town centre, a mile-or-so’s walk to ‘The Box’. The building itself was a mass of glass, reflecting the obverse of everything that surrounded it. One day we’ll return to explore its contents.
Day 5: Having spent the first four days in the former East, we headed out West, via Zoologischer Garten Bahnhof, in search of Bikini Berlin, a retail and dining complex on Budapester Strasse boasting windows and a rooftop plaza with enticing views of the animals currently being held captive in Berlin Zoo. We watched bouncing baboon’s bottoms from the mall’s aisles. Baboons aren’t amongst Lady Di’s favourite creatures, but she did find them amusing. I was more concerned, on the other hand, about how sore their bottoms had to be to get that red, and pondered the genetic wisdom of evolution in that regard. Displaying dominance and sexual prowess is admittedly important for any species worth its survival, but there has to be a hipper signifier than a raging, raw, red bottom, surely?
Bikini Berlin was rammed with impossibly chic retailers punting expansive ranges of edgy garments, lifestyle accessories and accoutrements. I scored a couple of Berlin IND t-shirts for my girls, and we climbed to the rooftop plaza for a bird’s eye view of the bustling retail heart of the former West. We were soon lolling along Kurfürstenstrasse, shopping for further gifts for our families. Once part of the French sector of the city, Kurfürstenstrasse felt reminiscent of Paris in many ways. Block after block of exclusive designer outlets, all the usual suspects. For the first time this trip we suddenly felt like we could have been anywhere in Europe.
Hopping the U-Bahn back to Hauptbahnhof, we stuck out on foot in search of Hamburger Bahnhof, the former terminus of the Hamburg-Berlin Railway. Situated on Invalidenstrasse in the Moabit district, opposite the Charité hospital, Hamburger Bahnhof is a contemporary art museum (the Museum für Gegenwart), and is part of the Berlin National Gallery. The museum houses art from the 1960s to the present day: Pop Art, Expressionism, Minimalism. Paintings hang alongside sculpture, video installations and photography, and the museum showcases some of the most important examples of modern art from the past six decades in a 13,000-square metre exhibition space.
After a brief pit-stop chez Maritim, we set off by U-Bahn in the general direction of Kraftwerk Berlin for the opening night of Berlin Atonal. In a previous life, the building used to supply the people of Berlin with power to heat their homes. More recently, it has become the focal point of the Berlin underground techno scene. These days it’s known to both music fans and art enthusiasts alike, hosting a broad range of cultural events. The former Mitte CHP Plant has many different aspects. The building itself is simply an incredible space. Absolutely breathtaking. It was originally constructed between 1961 and 1964, before eventually being abandoned in 1997, when a new power plant in the vicinity rendered it redundant. The Mitte CHP Plant thus documents the evolution Berlin’s industrial history. In 2006, Dimitri Hegemann began the search for a new home for his Techno club, Tresor. Mitte CHP became available, and he duly opened up part of the plant’s huge empty space for his venture. Further extensions and renovations were carried out throughout the noughties, eventually the current exhibition space and venue known as Kraftwerk Berlin was finally opened to the public. We roamed every level on entry, a club experience the like of which neither of us have undertaken before. The main stage occupies the far end of the upper level, dramatic red lighting and lasers cutting through the dry ice miasma to pick out the distant roof high above us. With an early morning’s travel ahead of us, we were restricted to a few precious hours at Atonal, but we managed to catch impressive sets from UCC Harlo and Pavel Milyakov.
Day-6: The sadness had begun to descend the previous evening, as we’d walked slowly back from our last night meal in Hackescher Markt, along now familiar routes. Neither of us wanted to leave. We’d fallen head over heels with Berlin. We were smitten. It had begun to feel like home already. We both agreed we’d never felt as engaged with a city in all of our respective travels. There was something encapsulating about the place, something undefinable. Checked out of the Maritim and loaded up like a donkey once again, we jostled for position with early doors commuters as we made our way to Hauptbahnhof and our train to Cologne. I was struggling to stay on my feet. I was being hit from all sides as I wobbled like a Weeble. Lady Di was in tears watching my plight. A quizzical look on my part brought the response: “We’re going the wrong way!”
Ensconced on our Cologne-bound train, I’d stashed the luggage just in time. As the train began to move, we discovered we were in a first class carriage: the wrong carriage. A helpful German couple explained that it wasn’t a problem, that we’d only miscalculated by one carriage, and that we could simply change carriages at the next stop, a mere ten minutes away. The train pulled in to the next station, I loaded up the donkey, we clambered out onto the platform, only to discover that the door was at the far end of the next carriage. We began to run the thirty-odd yards to re-board, but the guard was already blowing his whistle, seemingly oblivious to our plight. Lady Di began to pull out ahead of me, as we shouted at the top of our voices: “Wait! Wait! Waiiiiiiiiiiiiiit!”
Breathless and shaking with relief, we quickly found our specified seats, only to find them occupied. Lady Di politely remonstrated with the errant occupants until we were eventually seated in our allocated seats, with metabolisms returning to vaguely normal. I was finally able to pull out my return journey book: Benjamin Myers‘ ‘The Offing’ (Bloomsbury Circus): “One summer following the Second World War, Robert Appleyard sets out on foot from his Durham village. Sixteen and the son of a coal miner, he makes his way across the northern countryside until he reaches the former smuggling village of Robin Hood’s Bay. There he meets Dulcie, an eccentric, worldly, older woman who lives in a ramshackle cottage facing out to sea. Staying with Dulcie, Robert’s life opens into one of rich food, sea-swimming, sunburn and poetry. The two come from different worlds, yet as the summer months pass, they form an unlikely friendship that will profoundly alter their futures”.
Myers’ previous volume, ‘The Gallows Pole’ (Bluemoose Books), had captured my heart the previous summer, during our adventures in Brittany. ‘The Offing’ had me from the first page, as Robert Appleyard assesses the speed of the passage of our existence: “A few summers here, some long dark winters there; good fortune, infamy, illness, a little love, a little more luck and suddenly you’re looking down the wrong end of the telescope”. Here we were, careening back towards Blighty, frankly afraid of what would be left of our country on our return. Berlin fading into the distance behind us, six days that have felt so elongated in real time now compressed to the size of memories already.
As the pages turned, and the stations sped by, Lady Di became concerned at the time we were losing en route. The margin for error was slim, with 45-minutes at Cologne before we we due to board our connection for Brussels, and on towards Paris to pick up the Eurostar. Our 45-minute window slow misted up: 40, 35, 30, 25, 20, 15, 10. As we sat at a signal point the wrong side of the Rhine just outside Cologne, surrendering precedence to a regional train, our final ten minutes went up in the smoke of frustration as we pulled into Cologne only to wave at our departing connection. Lady Di was by now distraught, heated discussions with Deutsche Bahn Rail operatives furnished us with a rescheduled itinerary that suggested we present at the Eurostar Brussels terminal where we would be allowed to take the next Eurostar train directly to London.
After an hour and a half’s wait, we boarded a later train for Brussels. There were no seats available. We found ourselves scheduled to stand up for the duration of the three hour journey. I was not best pleased. The next carriage’s seats were taped off, apparently due to non-functioning air conditioning. I stashed the bags and slid under the tape. I was happy to ride seated, air conditioning or no air conditioning. A cohort of students followed my lead, and before long the closed off carriage was fully occupied. A DB employee arrived to inform us that the conductor was on his way, and that he was a stickler around occupied seats in carriages rendered inoperable due to faulty air conditioning issues. I watched with interest as the conductor approached. First he came for the students, but I did not speak out because I was not a student. Seat by seat students abandoned their positions to retreat past me along the train in search of further unsuitable places in which to perch. Eventually the conductor came for me, and their was no-one left to speak for me. I gave it my best shot, loaded with remonstration on DB’s performance-related failings and good old Anglo-Saxon verbiage. All to no avail: “If you do not move I will stop this train”. I moved from my seat to the arm rest of the single seat opposite, as the conductor huffed past. He duly seated Lady Di in the next carriage, leaving me to alternate between corridor carriage floor and arm rest for the remaining three hours.
By this time, I was beyond caring. I shared this space with a Macedonian tattoo artist who spent the duration of the journey showing a young Moroccan women with an obvious interest in tattoos You Tube videos of his tattooing skills, whist I chatted intermittently with a German psychology student en route to London to study. As we disembarked at Brussels, we stuck closely to several other passengers who had also fallen foul of DB’s scheduling program, in particular the lady who has been erroneously occupying our seats on the Cologne train. Like the Pied Piper, she led us to the Eurostar Hub where we joined the queue to plead for clemency. By this stage Lady Di was convinced we’d be made to pay for two new tickets, but one by one those in front of us in the queue began to be directed towards the check-in for the imminent train to London. Lady Di pleaded, whilst I began getting feisty in the background, but eventually sheer weight of numbers won through, and the by now lovely Belgian Eurostar employee issued us with boarding passes.
Careering across Belgium at 300-kph, bound for St Pancreas, the news broke that Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Cake Bumboys Vampires Haircut Inconclusive-Cocaine-Event Wall-Spaffer Spunk-Burster Fuck-Business Fuck-The-Families Get-Off-My-Fucking-Laptop Turds Johnson had announced his intention to prorogue Parliament. The Coup was underway. We issued an immediate statement: “In light of the right wing coup/ongoing establishment of the Fourth Riech in the UK, we have today approached the German authorities with the intention of defecting to Deutschland”. By the weekend, I was manning the barricades alongside comrades in what would become known as the Demo In Leamo. From Bodmin to Berlin, crowds vented their fury at Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Cake Bumboys Vampires Haircut Inconclusive-Cocaine-Event Wall-Spaffer Spunk-Burster Fuck-Business Fuck-The-Families Get-Off-My-Fucking-Laptop Turds Johnson’s ‘coup’.
“Fortified by laughter/galvanised by love/I am forever/in your atoms” – Romy Landau, 1940
Burial v The Bug (aka Flame 2)/exael/Kevin Richard Martin/Mr Water Wet/Pontiac Streator and Ulla Strauss
“Our own era is one haunted by the shadow of futurity, precisely because there is no future” – Eugene Thacker
When serendipity and synchronicity collide: there are times, wandering these ever-expansive rooms in this House Of Leaves, when my eternal search for the Navidson Record of legend is illuminated by a fleeting conceit that I may, one day, conceivably comprehend this endless quest. As I roam these never-ending corridors, I can find no evidence that this state of enlightenment has ever existed, for anyone, ever. I remain, to this day, as ultimately unsighted as Zampanò. Yet, in this very moment, I sense the merest glimpse of a golden thread, disappearing down a spiral staircase, in a darkened corner of the haunted ballroom.
Having been touched by ‘Solitude’, held in the vice-like grip of King Midas Sound earlier this calendar year, I found myself ensnared in the spider’s web of Bristol Sound recently, to witness the intestinal wobble of The Bug v Moor Mother at The Trinity. The gravity of bass on that night dwarfed the Archdrudian ‘brown noise of O’Malley‘, blocking the sunn 0))) from the sky, projecting, in its place, a single red light from stage left.
Listening intently, here at my desk, in the dying embers of this August day, I’m joining the dots: from Fisher to M.R. James; from 70s dub to Ossian concrete; from Felixstowe to Sutton Hoo; from Calanais to the Tate Modern; from Huerco S to Ghostride The Drift; from ‘Solitude’ to ‘Sirens’. Precariously placed: ‘On Vanishing Land’. Pondering profoundly, pretentiously, knowingly, absorbing variations in mediums, similarities in interpretation and tone. The wonderment that encroaches in these moments is the mystery that gives existence its meaning: “Radar. Send a few clicks into the unknown. See what comes back” – Mark Fisher
Digging in the crates as the nation burns, this month’s selections provide the soundtrack to this collapsing market. First up: back once again with their ill behaviour, The Bug and Burial return as Flame 2, with ‘Dive’/’Rain’ (Pressure). Renegade masters at the peak of their powers. ‘Dive’ bristles with low-key pathos and cinematic dread. ‘Rain’ falls harder, with sub-bass swelling exponentially beneath the scree:
D. Tiffany issues more “degraded and corrupted club tools for the adventurous DJ”, in the form of the second release on her XPQ? imprint: exael – ‘dioxippe’ (XPQ?). Following that OUTSTANDING Ghostride The Drift twelve earlier this year, ‘dioxippe’ duly delivers six-tracks recorded in Chicago between 2014 and 2016 by Naemi, presented here under the exael moniker. Scintillating stuff from one of the finest labels on the planet. Two twelves in, already buy-on-sight:
Kevin Richard Martin‘s ‘Sirens’ (Room40) has come late to my table, I’m not going to lie to you. As outlined above, on my return from Bristol that weekend, I needed something deep and meaningful as a memento of that gargantuan live experience. ‘Sirens’ fits that bill, documenting, as it does, Martin’s challenging journey into the world of parenthood, and, more specifically, his child’s difficult entry into this realm:
Mister Water Wet‘s ‘Bought The Farm’ (West Mineral Ltd) was a much anticipated release around these parts. As recounted last month, I grabbed my copy under difficult wifi conditions in Kirkwall, on the Isle Of Orkney, my first listen coming courtesy of the puny speakers of my MacBook. Needless to say, I’ve spent many high-fidelity-happy-hours with this record at maximum volume in the meantime, and it’s yet another spectacular release from this most excellent label. Brian Leeds can seemingly do no wrong. ‘Bought The Farm’ ably encapsulates everything that makes West Mineral Ltd such an exciting proposition. It’s refreshing to see the student paying tribute to the teacher. Paulo Freire would doubtless approve. Following four essential releases (five, if you include the bblisss compilation) in 2018, I’m expecting at least a couple of further gems before the end of play:
The label’s second release of the year arrived just a few weeks later, in the form of Pontiac Streator and Ulla Straus‘ ’11 Items’ (West Mineral Ltd). Following the brevity of last year’s ‘Chat’ (West Mineral Ltd), ’11 Items’ unpacks the potential in purposeful prose, over an hour’s worth of unbridled invention. Deliciously erotic, cheekily playful, consciousness-expanding in its psychedelic potency, this is music with a THC content north of 24%:
A slightly abridged column this month after last month’s epic travels, admittedly. Apologies if you’ve been left wanting more. We’re off to Berlin on further adventures in a few days time, more of which next month. In the meantime, we’ll leave you with one of the best documentaries yet on the evolution of dance music here in the UK:
“Sound is a blow delivered by air, through the ear, on the brain and the blood, and transmitted to the soul” – Robert Macfarlane
That time of year again. The 16th on the trot that I’ve holidayed without flying. I have a minute carbon footprint. Smaller than that of Alfie, our Norfolk Terrier, this year on board to partake in our escapades. Our plans are finely honed: hit the north; bother stones; listen to music; read books. Summon up the energy to face another 12-months in this economic anarchy. The perpetual search for possible escape routes from this most rat-ish of races. Solastalgia for an age yet to come.
The first of my literary companions set the tone for week one: ‘Underland’ (Penguin), Robert Macfarlane – “A journey into the worlds beneath our feet. From the ice-blue depths of Greenland’s glaciers, to the underground networks by which trees communicate, from Bronze Age burial chambers to the rock art of remote Arctic sea-caves, this is a deep-time voyage into the planet’s past and future. Global in its geography, gripping in its voice and haunting in its implications, Underland is a work of huge range and power, and a remarkable new chapter in Macfarlane’s long-term exploration of landscape and the human heart”.
Friday: Le grand depart. We broke out of the Midlands, at a disabled snail’s pace, at rush hour, at the close of a particularly challenging week. Unweather engulfed us. Inclemency prevailed. The so-called summer had thus far failed to materialise. A schoolboy error plonked us amidst a traffic situation. The wrong exit at a roundabout. The M42, a stone’s throw away. At a virtual standstill, inching towards the M6, wasting valuable solstice sunlight. I’d taken my eye off the ball early doors, and now we were drowning in frustration. It felt like a heroic escape from a collapsing system. The irony of salvation through the M6 Toll did not escape us. Socialist principles often evaporate when faced with a five-mile tailback into Coleshill.
Post-toll, the M6 flowed with relative ease. My co-pilot, the gracious Lady Di, took the opportunity to check up on the accommodation she’d booked for the night, in an incident that became known as Kendalgate. Consulting her plastic document wallet, she produced the details of our hotel in Kendal, the gateway to the Lakes. The only drawback being that we’d planned to stay in Keswick. A somewhat flustered Lady Di duly cancelled the Kendal booking in an excruciating conversation with a less-than-pleased Kendal hotel proprietor, who stressed the he was only a family business, and that it really was poor show that he hadn’t been notified earlier. The apologies were profuse, but charming, and thankfully the Kendal hotel owner, a family man, reneged on his documented policy to charge for all cancelations, and we collectively heaved a large sigh of relief. Kendalgate resolved, technology soon booked us a room at the Royal Oak, in Keswick.
By eight PM, we finally reached our solstice destination. Castlerigg is perhaps the most atmospheric and dramatically sited of all British stone circles, with panoramic views and the mountains of Helvellyn and High Seat as a backdrop. It is also among the earliest of British circles, raised in about 3000 BC, during the Neolithic period. The site was buzzing, with around a hundred-or-so solstice revellers. Alfie stretched his paws with glee and left his mark accordingly, as Norfolk Terriers do. He’s always greeted with affection by most everyone he meets, and collected observers of ancient tradition proved no exception. People sat in small groups, a collection of tents surrounded the perimeter. The odd whiff of weed hung in the air, a priestess conducted rituals, intensely (incensely?), and people measured things. As the sun slipped across the blue of time towards its eventual resting place in the western sky, we hugged the stones in this magnificent forever archive, greedily ingesting the energy of our ancestors. We spent an hour or so marvelling at the majesty of the circle, and the genius of the setting, before issuing forth in search of sustenance and the Royal Oak.
Returning to the car, we encountered a sizeable, avuncular gentleman, surveying the site from a bridleway to the east. He was a drone enthusiast, intent on capturing some of the solstice revelry on digital recorder. He was the Lost Dog Man, locally renowned for finding lost dogs on moors with his drone, a fact later corroborated by the corporate identification on his company car. He was indeed a professional. He gave us a (not so) brief run-down on the fine art of locating lost dogs on moors with the aid of drones, including detailed information on the breeds most likely to go missing, and his prowess in the local press. Alfie seemed disinterested, however, but saying ‘goodbye’ to Lost Dog Drone Man wasn’t as easy as you’d think. Finally, we accepted directions to a highly-rated chip shop in Shapp, some 30-miles south, just to end the conversation, before heading the other way, to Keswick. Sustenance consumed, we made our way to the Royal Oak, some 6-miles west. The Royal Oak turned out to be an award winning hotel, unfortunately said award was won in 1957. Essence of moth ball hung evocatively in the air: no wifi, no TV, no phone service, in every room. Crest-fallen, somewhat, it felt like someone would rush in and inform us the NHS had just been founded, and that if we trusted in Aneurin Bevan, everything would be alright. Apparently we’d pitched up in Royston Vassey, and Tubbs (Glenda?) explained they’d soon be getting the internet hard-wired into every room, eventually. Stuck between a bed of rock and a hard place, with a constant red light shining in the corner of the room (Roxanne, turn it off): no sleep till Ullapool.
Saturday: The Royal Oak breakfast experience began amongst a collection of UKIP members, who rustled their Telegraphs loudly, as if they were in the green room at a recording of Question Time. An East-European waiter wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer to the egg question. It took some considerable effort to escape with mere cereals and toast. He seemed genuinely aghast that we wouldn’t be eating any sausage, egg, bacon or black pudding. Leaving the Royal Oak finally felt like an exorcism, and we’d bearly been there 12-hours. A brief interaction with Keswick’s National Trust long-stay-extortion car park was rudely interrupted by a return to Glenda: once more into the Royal Oak breech. Lady Di had forgotten her charger. A brief lakeside dog walk and a Keswick petrol queue later, we hit the wide open road north. Soundtrack: Anthony Naples, Bicep, DJ Nature, Djrum, Loidis, Y U QT:
It’s funny how quickly one can get blasé about stunning scenery. The further North we pushed, the harder the sun tried, the more breathtaking the views. Past Glasgow, Stirling, Perth, and, eventually, Inverness, we pit-stopped at Tore, to take on fuel and water. A mile-or-so up the A835 to Ullapool, we found an ancient woodland walk, to stretch our legs and Alfie’s paws. We’d been on the road for five hours, and our destination was less than an hour away now. We finally rolled into Ullapool, a village of around 1,500 inhabitants in Ross and Cromarty, around 6pm. The sun lit the sky to welcome us. The forecast had looked gloomy from a distance, but our Ullapool joy on arrival was unbounded. We located the Yellow House, our tastefully appointed home-from-home for the next two weeks, possibly a reference to the 1888 oil painting by the 19th-century Dutch Post-Impressionist painter, Vincent van Gogh. Initial village explorations included: sunset on the sea loch of Broom; a so-near-so-spa branch of Tesco; a quayside walk; the Taste Of India; and Kelman Duran‘s ’13th Month’ on the balcony, still light at midnight. Arrivistes, at last.
Sunday: The sun had got its hat on by the time we left the Yellow House. Alfie walked, and ritual hot chocolates consumed, it was time for Ullapool Tourist Information, with John. It turned out to be a fortuitous intervention, had we left it any later we’d have failed to book ferries for our trips to both Orkney and Lewis, jeopardising the pre-booked hotels that awaited us on both islands. Disaster averted, we hit the road to the Summer Isles, exploring the amazing rock formations and landscapes along the Rock Route, as we travelled through the North West Highland’s Geopark. We passed Strathcanaird, carved in ancient times by an immense river of ice, and Stac Pollaidh, the remains of a mountain the weather is gradually eroding. The beach at Achiltibuie provided the first WOW! moment of the holiday. The Coigach peninsula has a superb choice of sandy beaches, but Achiltibuie has it all: rolling downs, leading to acres of dune-flanked golden sands, complete with snaking estuary, the incredible heights of the Geopark in the near distance. Alfie tore across the sands with lightening speed, a recent diet leaving him both trim and agile. He may well be an ATT (All Terrain Terrier), but sandy beaches are fast becoming his preferred surface. Sat beneath the dunes, looking out to sea in blazing sunshine, we could have been just about anywhere in the Mediterranean, except there was no one else in sight.
We moseyed onwards to downtown Achiltibuie, in search of refreshment. After a couple of false starts, we were eventually pointed in the direction of the green Community Hall adjacent to a ‘council estate’ (his words), by a helpful young chap on a bike. We scored ginger bread cake, lemon brownie, oodles of hot chocolate, and sat watching the Summer Ilses for a while, to make sure they didn’t move. The council estate to our left reverberated with the sound of children having fun playing outdoor games, in much the same way Lady Di and I remembered playing as children, 50-odd years previously. It was comforting to feel that little had changed in Achiltibuie since the mid-70s, although I’m sure they didn’t have lemon brownies back then. Returning to Ullapool, a Tesco fishing trip caught our supper of chilli and lime salmon and a spot of extreme salading. Alfie evening-stretched via riverside walks and harbour strolls, we settled down for a double bill of ‘Years And Years’ on BBC iPlayer, followed by a late night rewind with Ossia:
Monday: Awoke to rain. Morning mood: Sarah Davachi‘s ‘Pale Bloom’. Undeterred, we kept things local, and headed upwards. After three days in the car, it was time to stretch some leg muscles, so we made our path by climbing it. Ullapool Hill proved a short but steep ascent, revealing superb views over Loch Broom. At its highest point, the outcrop of Meall Mor revealed stunning views inland to Loch Achall and the surrounding countryside. The rain fell consistently throughout the morning. We met a group of stoic Scottish hillwalking folk on the ascent. Lady Di commented that it was a lovely climb, but wet. The Scots answered: “This isn’t wet”. We found some stray Americans wandering at the summit, they seemed lost: I asked their captain what his name was, an’ how come he didn’t drive a truck. He said his name was Columbus, an’ I just said ‘good luck’.
With the rain still falling, we returned to the Yellow House, drenched, for sustenance, showers and shelter. We spent the afternoon with the finale to ‘Years And Years’. We’d both become extremely fond of the show over the previous week, one of the most compelling series in recent memory. A crescendo of emotion welled up inside me in response to the denouement, nothing short of acute. I was literarily shaking, holding on to Lady Di’s hand for grim death: tears in my eyes; fear in my heart; a keening suggestion that this was possibly more premonition than mere fiction. They say impending truths are normalised as art prior to their execution, a trailer for the inevitable. Though there were holes in the surround sound, technologically, lets call them inconsistencies in the fine art of progress, the whole hung together with suspended belief. I forgave it its foibles, and instead harvested the possibility: good will transcend. I wonder what happens next? PM soundtrack: Pessimist, Kelman Duran, bblisss comp, Loods:
Tuesday: AM soundtrack: Burial, exael, Ghostride The Drift, Sam Binga & Marcus Visionary. We set off back down the A835 towards Inverness under grey skies, to where the River Ness meets the Moray Firth. It’s the largest city in the North, the cultural capital of the Scottish Highlands. We took on reasonably priced fuel, hot chocolate, and wandered the austere streets of the Old Town in search of the Harris Tweed shop, before heading out to Clava Cairns, three 4,000-year-old tombs surrounded by standing stones. Clava is a type of Bronze Age circular chamber cairn, named after the group of three cairns at Balnuaran of Clava, 8-miles east of Inverness. There are about 50-cairns of this type in the Inverness area. The cemetery has remained a sacred place in the landscape for millennia, renowned amongst stone bothering communities for its energy levels. The site provides many clues to the funerary belief systems of Bronze Age society. What remains today would have once been part of a larger complex. The site itself is surrounded by trees, planted by Victorians in an attempt to enhance the site’s Druidic vibe. It’s a unique setting, a truly magical place. We wandered from cairn to cairn, hugging stones, soaking up energy, before striking out on foot for a mile or so to a forth cairn, Milton Of Clava, and the remains of a medieval chapel.
We headed back through Inverness on the A82 to skirt Loch Ness. It’s difficult not to be overawed by this massive body of water. Every time I return, it just seems to get bigger. We abandoned a visit to Urquhart Castle when we saw the number of coaches in the car park, and returned to Drumnadrochit for a pitstop and cafe lunch. Considerable interest in Alfie from a group of fellow small dog enthusiasts resulted in a kerfuffle as we left, leading to the loss of our hallowed road atlas: an incident that would come to be known as Atlasgate. We walked off lunch with a climb through dense woodland to the impressive Divach Falls, before a short drive to Corrimony Cairn: a ‘Clava type’ cairn in a remarkable state of preservation. The site itself demonstrates the impressive skills and insightful planning of its builders. Considerable resources went into its construction, and unlike at Clava, much of the passage’s roof survives. The cairn is situated in a secluded glen, surrounded by birch woods and cultivated farm land. The reemergence of the sun blessed our visit. With no one around, Alfie ran wild, clambering up the cairn to join us on top in locating cup marks on the now-dislodged capstone.
The return leg to Ullapool allowed us to plan the next day’s route to Skye. Kamikaze Space Programme‘s newly captured ‘Dead Skin Cells’ (Osiris Music) twisted and bent the Toyota’s speaker system. Powerful rays refracted around mountains to cast shadows across the glens. Vast bodies of water shimmering and glinting with this crisp golden wonder. The hubble bubble of the rushing burns. White frothing crowns on the brown water beneath. The journey punctuated by photo calls to capture this unprecedneted beauty. PM sound-system bangers: Anthony Naples, Kelman Duran, Manonmars:
Wednesday: Early start on the road to Skye. Finally overcoming my antipathy towards Rupert Murdoch, and taking the plunge. You can never get complacent with the scenery in the North West Highlands. Every route, every direction, every climb, every bend, every dramatic descent: differing perspectives, stunning views. The sun was high in the sky. Eileen Donan Castle literally shone, reflecting sunlight, nestled atop its island setting. The site was overrun with tourists, coaches rammed the carpark. We walked back across the road bridge to stretch Aflie’s paws, snapping the castle and the village of Dornie from across the water. The castle itself sits upon the Isle of Donan, most likely named after the 6th century Irish Saint, Bishop Donan, who came to Scotland around 580 AD. The first fortified structure was built here in the early 13th century, protecting the lands of Kintail against the Vikings who raided, settled and controlled much of the North of Scotland and the Western Isles, between 800 AD and 1266. From the mid 13th century, this area was the quite seperate ‘Sea Kingdom’ of the Lord of the Isles. The sea was the main highway, the power of feuding clan chiefs measured by the number of men and birlinns at their disposal. Eilean Donan offered the perfect defensive position. Although impressive externally, the massively reconstructed castle we see today offered little of interest to us internally. We fought our way through the hordes of American, Japanese and European visitors, past the drab Victoriana and mock medievalism, both keen to press onwards on our journey, and mindful of Alfred, dutifully sulking in the car. He doesn’t like being left alone. He does like: sniffing other dogs trails; leaving his mark according; and chasing cats, for whom he reserves a pathological hatred.
We could see Skye Bridge in the distance as we honed in on the Kyle Of Lochalsh. It’s an impressive structure, spanning the 1.5-miles across Lochalsh, at a height of 30m. Built in 1992, it was initially a toll bridge. Construction brought much controversy back in the day. John Major’s government allowed it to be privately funded, granting a licence for the private company to charge tolls. It was said to be the most expensive road bridge in Europe. Locals on Skye set up a campaign group called SKAT (Skye and Kyle Against Tolls). After years of campaigning, legal challenges, and the establishment of the Scottish parliament in 1999, cross-party agreement soon made it a priority to abolish the tolls. On the 21st of December 2004, the bridge was purchased by the Scottish Government, and has been toll-free ever since.
After grabbing some scran and a quick wander around Portree, we headed out for the Old Man Of Storr. The Storr is a rocky hill on the Trotternish peninsula, some 8-miles west of Portree. The hill presents a steep rocky eastern face overlooking the Sound of Raasay, contrasted by gentler grassy slopes to the west. We arrived to find cars parked haphazardly on both sides of the road. A gleeful traffic warden was having a field day, issuing tickets akimbo to all cars parked on the Raasay side of the road. We luckily conformed by parking Storr side, and began the 674-metre climb to say hello to the old man. As we climbed, the clouds began to break up. The sun that has drenched our approach to Skye was burning through, even in this most stubborn of environments. At a plateau around 500-meters, Lady Di and Alfie elected to rest up, whilst I forged onwards and upwards, in search of that iconic shot that would prove I’d made the climb. Gazing down from this height, back across the Sound of Raasay, the enormity of the Western Highlands is mind-blowing.
With the sun now back in full force, we made our way across the midriff of Skye, towards the Fairy Pools at foot of the Black Cuillin hills, near Glenbrittle. The Black Cuillins were absolutely mesmerising as we approached, their colour flitting from every angle in the evening sunlight. I was picking out purples, silvers, pinks, whites, stopping every couple of miles in lay-bys to capture their brilliance in differing combinations. We’d heard a lot of hype about the Fairy Pools, thus our anticipation and excitement duly grew as we closed down those last few miles. The beautifully crystal clear blue pools of the River Brittle are genuinely stunning. We were blessed with perfect weather conditions, t-shirts and shorts, walking alongside French, Spanish, Italian and Japanese families, in idyllic surroundings. A group of teenagers Wild Swimming reminded me of my own forays into the art, on the Ardèche at Pont d’Arc, back in 1978. The blue of time, the speed at which it passes: the blink of an eye. The hours we spent at Glenbrittle will stay with me till the end of my days, rarely have I felt the all-encompassing perfection of this planet’s natural infrastructure engulf me so totally. The return journey to Ullapool sped by, dwarfing the duration of the outbound in our perceptions, which is often the way. The outbound is all about the wonder of the new, the homebound the return to sender. We arrived back at the Yellow House at 10.30pm, it was still light. Lady Di knocked up some scran, and we ate with the buzz of satisfaction that we’d achieved another milestone. We’d covered over 10-miles on foot during the day. Just time for some Burial before interring bed-wards, shattered:
Thursday: We arose early, once again, and hit the A835 north, in search of our ferry to Orkney. Sat-nav confusion approaching Lairg created the illusion of an ever-expanding journey. Our ETA just got later and later. I drove with growing ferry-related stress. I’d forgotten to take my CBD capsule at breakfast, and my brain was working overtime to quell the ensuing waves of anxiety. By the time we joined the A9 on the east coast, Lady Di was requesting a pit stop. I was striving to snatch back precious minutes from the ETA, and she needed convenience. I shouldn’t have worried, we eventually made port at Gill’s Bay, near Wick, with ten minutes to spare. The crossing was set to take an hour, as opposed to the 90-minutes I’d sailed in 2016, from Scrabster to Stromness. The ferry set sail at a clip. The sea was choppy, we pitched and yawed. By the time we entered Scarpa Flow, sheltered by the islands of Mainland, Graemsay, Burray, South Ronaldsay and Hoy, the sea had calmed, and the sun had broken through. We docked at St Margaret’s Hope at 2.30pm, and made for Kirkwall. We stopped off for a beach walk behind the first blockade we crossed. Alfie charged across the sands, every bit as gleeful as he had been at Achiltibuie. Pit-stopping in Kirkwall to browse and refresh, it felt incredible to be back on Orkney again.
Filled with hot chocolate and cake, with new jumpers, t-shirts and gifts to boot, we drove out to Stenness in deteriorating light. The Stones of Stenness today consist of four upright stones up to 6m in height, in a circle that originally held 12-stones. The focus of the interior is a large hearth. The stones were once encircled by a large ditch and bank, the form of which has been lost over time to ploughing. I mapped out the landscape for Lady Di from this vantage point with excitement, the Ness Of Brodgar being one of my most favourite ritual landscapes in the world. We walked down to the nearby neolithic settlement of Barnhouse, a village ostensibly as important as Skara Brae, but markedly less impressive, in terms of remaining archaeology.
With a 6pm-visit booked to view the 5,000-year-old Maeshowe, one of Europe’s finest chambered tombs, we drove the short distance to the visitor centre. All was quiet, too quiet. The last time I’d been here the carpark had been rammed, consistently. We soon discovered the visitor centre had been moved since my previous visit, due to concerns over traffic access to the site. The new visitor centre was a mile-or-so back down the road, in the village of Stenness. Ironically, from there, we caught a bus back up to the site of the original visitor centre to begin our guided tour. From the outside, Maeshowe looks just like a large grassy mound. The word ‘howe’ comes from the Old Norse for ‘hill’. Each wall of the 10m-long passage is formed mostly of a single, gigantic sandstone slab, up to three tonnes in weight. At each corner of the central chamber is a magnificent upright standing stone. The floors, back walls and ceilings of the three side cells are each made of single stone slabs. Fighting off midges, flailing our arms wildly, we wandered up to the Ring Of Brodgar, an enormous ceremonial site dating back to the 3rd millennium BC. Originally consisting of 60-stones, only 36 survive today. At least 13-prehistoric burial mounds can be found in the vicinity of the site. A large rock-cut ditch surrounds the stone circle.
Back in Kirkwall, full of fish and chips, we checked into the Kirkwall Hotel. Once ensconced, I logged on to Boomkat to grab a copy of Mister Water Wet‘s much anticipated ‘Bought The Farm’ (West Mineral Ltd.), one of our most treasured labels. We hunkered down on our surprisingly comfortable hotel bed for that all-important-first-listen, albeit on the puny speakers of my MacBook. We were not disappointed, but I’ll explore this release, along with Pontiac Streator and Ulla Straus’ ’11 Items’ (West Mineral Ltd.), in more detail next month:
Friday: We awoke to sunlight, with blue skies dominating the horizon. It had been a disturbed night’s sleep for me, with Orcadian revelry emitting from the public bar of the hotel until the wee hours, an observation I found repeated man times on the Kirkwall Hotel’s Trip Advisor profile. Lady Di had slept through it all, largely due to the industrial ear plugs she employs to drown out my horrendous snoring on a nightly basis. We breakfasted heartily, before engineering Aflie’s stay at the Kirkwall for free due to my interrupted sleep. Orkney’s a different place with the lights on, and our return to the Ring of Brodgar enjoyed perfect conditions. We parked up roadside, just past the Ness Of Brodgar, an archaeological site covering 2.5-hectares between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness, thought to be up to 7,000-years-old. The site is open for further excavation through July and August every year. I’d managed a guided tour of the dig on my last visit, but this time we’d missed out by a matter of days. As we approached the Brodgar stones, coaches began to pour across the Ness causeway. We’d soon be swarmed by hordes of Danish, Norwegian and American tourists. We circled the stones twice, snapping away furiously. I got some excellent shots, the light was perfect. The site is swamped in heather and gorse, and the purple of the flowering heather adds another dimension to the palate of colour on show in bright sunlight. The spirits of the ancestors were with us today.
Skaill Bay, our next destination, provided another glorious beach walk for Alfie to practice his (by now) trademark sand shuffle. He was getting faster and faster, and slowly learning not to drink the seawater. Above Skaill beach, nestled within the dunes, lies Skara Brae. Long before Stonehenge or even the Egyptian pyramids were built, Skara Brae was a thriving village. First uncovered by a storm in 1850, Skara Brae is the best-preserved Neolithic settlement in Western Europe. The site includes a replica Neolithic house, showing how its interior might have looked 5,000-years ago. A pathway leads down to the ancient buildings, the prehistoric houses still contain stone dressers and box-beds. We chatted with one of the guides, originally from Nottingham. He’d moved to Orkney eight years ago, and lucked out with employment here at Skara Brae. We chatted about the pros and cons of emigrating to Orkney, it’s something Lady Di and I have been considering. He talked of a complete change of life style, a slowing of the blue of time. Apparently, we’d hit pay dirt with the weather. On Orkney, you can bank on sunshine for about seven days per year.
We returned to the Stones of Stenness to photograph them in sunshine. Sheep lazed in the shade of the stones. With Maeshowe behind us, Stenness in front of us, the Ness and the Ring Of Brodgar to the right, the entire ritual landscape came alive with sunlight, framed in blue. We ventured down into Stromness, the second most populous town on Mainland. I’d not spent time wandering its streets before, and I came to the conclusion that I’d prefer it to Kirkwall in terms of a possible relocation option. We even found an impressive, recently renovated, 4-bedroom, 3-floored town house for sale. By the time we’d driven back through Kirkwall on our way to St Margaret’s Hope for the return ferry, our attempt to see the Italian Chapel built by POWs in WW2 was foiled by deteriorating weather. Mist and fog had descended on Scarpa Flow, and we literally couldn’t have seen the Chapel clearly had we been standing directly in front of it. The return crossing was smooth and uneventful. An hour later we were back on the road to Ullapool in bright sunlight, it had been the hottest day of the year thus far in Scotland. Sound-system bangers: Kamikaze Space Programme, Rainer Veil, Anthony Naples:
Saturday: Designated no-driving day, stipulated following the previous two days exertions behind the wheel. My left arm had picked up some kind of RSI from all the gear changing. The day commenced with Mister Water Wet pouring from the beatbox we’d rigged to the MacBook in the Yellow House. We spent the day reading, wallowing in the sun, wandering Ullapool market, raiding Tesco, cooking, and relaxing. Sound-system bangers: Nammy Wams, Idealist, Kamikaze Space Programme, Pessimist, Ulla Straus, Sir Hiss:
Sunday: A lazy morning amidst weather front deterioration. Return of the unweather. The blue of time rescinded behind ominous cloud formations. Clinging to the glen’s sides. Hangers-on. Scruffy, fluffy, sticky plasters, slowly peeling themselves away from the gorse skin of the surrounding hillsides. exael on the sound-system AM: chased down by Hank Jackson, Galya Bisengalieva, Funky Doodle. With ‘Underland’ nailed and in the can, Macfarlane’s most complete and satisfying work to date, we broke out of the Yellow House post-meridian: a 6-mile river walk, with supporting gorge and falls, through Auchindrean, Cuileig and Inverbroom. As we stood watching the power of water crashing down at speed from heights of thirty feet, a large dark object sprung from the foot of the falls to the top like an Excocet missile. I’d just seen my first salmon, on its way back to its spawning grounds. Incredible, an experience of serious jealousy on the part of Lady Di, who’d missed it. The evening was spent cooking, eating and reading. I’d been awaiting my next book since 2014’s ‘Perfidia’, the first novel in James Ellroy‘s second L.A. Quartet. Time for a change of pace and style. Sound-system PM: Sam Binga & Marcus Visionary, Helm, Loidis, Demdike Stare, Dead Boy, Xyn Cabal, HXE, Sam Binga & Marcus Visionary, K-Lone, Huerco S, Skeptical:
“January, ’42. L.A. reels behind the shock of Pearl Harbor. Local Japanese are rounded up and slammed behind bars. Massive thunderstorms hit the city. A body is unearthed in Griffith Park.The cops tag it a routine dead-man job. They’re wrong. It’s an early-warning signal of Chaos. There’s a murderous fire and a gold heist exploding out of the past. There’s Fifth Column treason – at this moment, on American soil. There are homegrown Nazis, commies and race racketeers. There’s two dead cops in a dive off the jazz-club strip. And three men and one woman have a hot date with History. Elmer Jackson is a corrupt Vice cop. He’s a flesh peddler and a bagman for the L.A. Chief of Police. Hideo Ashida is a crime-lab whiz, lashed by anti-Japanese rage. Dudley Smith is a PD hardnose working Army Intelligence. He’s gone rogue and gone all-the-way fascist. Joan Conville was born rogue. She’s a defrocked Navy lieutenant and a war profiteer to her core. L.A., ’42. Homefront madness ascendant. Early-wartime inferno – ‘This Storm’ (Penguin) is James Ellroy’s most audacious novel yet. It is by turns savage, tender, elegiac. It lays bare and celebrates crazed Americans of all stripes”.
Monday: Lazy days. Lazy ways. Steps, rivers, wagging tails. Dodging showers. Lewis-bound on the evening tide. AM sound system: Batu, Burial, Al Wooten, Abul Mogard, Bengal Sound, Finlay Shakespeare. Steps, stock-up, pack and roll. Load the sled and slide dock-wards: 5.30pm sailing to Stornaway. Kwells necked, high seas: rough crossing. Parents guide children toilet-wards at haste. The sounds of mewling and puking. My head in ‘This Storm’. My stomach calm in my lap. Alfie distraught in Lady Di’s lap. Braver dogs nearby, seemingly très nonchalant. Dock, Stornaway: 8.oopm. Dusk town walk and fish supper. The light is ‘un’-real. A purple hue. Purple haze. Converse with a reasonably drunk local whilst waiting for scran. This just in: the legendary Stornaway Black Pudding industry is a scam. No abattoirs left on the island. No pigs on the island. Puddings imported from Holland. Packed on Lewis. Shhh. Keep it strictly shtum. Caladh Inn check-in. First TV in weeks. Frank Lloyd Wright documentary: “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you”.
Tuesday: Up and atom. Sled parked quayside. Walk and load. Risen and shining. Chasing down holes in the cloud. 12m-west of Stornoway off the A859, Calanais: an extraordinary cross-shaped set of standing stones. Erected some 5,000 years ago. Patrick Ashmore, who excavated at Calanais in the early 1980s knew the score: “The most attractive explanation is that every 18.6-years, the moon skims especially low over the southern hills. It seems to dance along them, like a great god visiting the earth. Knowledge and prediction of this heavenly event gave earthly authority to those who watched the skies”. The stones were originally set sometime between 2900 and 2600 BC. A 4.8m-tall monolith stands at the heart of the monument. Lines of smaller stones radiate out to the east, west and south. An 83m-long avenue runs to the north, formed by two lines of stones that narrow as they approach the circle. A small chambered tomb lies within the circle. There are at least 11-smaller stone circles surrounding Calanais. Lady Di is blown away. We hug stones. We snap. We hug. The energy at Calanais is palpable. The sun emerges. Burning off patches of cloud. Revealing the blue of time behind the curtains. The heat is intermittent. But when it hits you it sears. Coats on. Coats off.
Back on board the sled, we cruise the short distance to Gearrannan Blackhouse Village. This coastal crofting community is situated in a secluded bay, within the district of Carloway. Traditional methods have been used to recreate the drystone masonry and thatched roofing of the original croft houses, with the discreet integration of modern conveniences. We amble through the village. Down to the pebble-dominated beach. No sand for Alfred. No scampering. The terrain is tough going. Even for an ATT. On the road out of Gearrannan we are beckoned by a local brandishing an Eagle Owl. We idled the sled and partook. Lady Di became an Owlstress. Alfie remained in the sled. Eagle Owls can take out ATTs. One final Stornaway stroll. Late for 2pm return ferry, so we opened the gate and let ourselves in. Admonished by dock-based ferry professional. Sternly. Kwells necked. Books out. Porpoises stage-right. Bring on the dancing horses. Dock, Ullapool: 4.30pm. PM soundtrack: Anthony Naples, Helm (Beatrice Dillon remix), Jabu, Tilliander, Sophia Loizou, 4 6 2 5, Kulør 001, 154, Manonmars, Logos, exael:
Wednesday: Pea-souper. Zero visibility. Hilltops missing from vista. AM livener: Augustus Pablo – ‘King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown’. Late strike out on a costal 6-miler in search of Rhue lighthouse. Ship wreck alley. Graffiti on an abandoned hulls states: ‘Repent’, ‘Rust’, ‘Fuck CID’, ‘Fat’. We run out of path, forced to hill hike north in search of tarmac. We encounter a local codger and engage in bin chat. Easy enough to start, more difficult to end. We eventually see him three times in total on our walk back into to town. He waves each time. We’ve bonded. PM soundtrack: Demdike Stare, E.B.U., Eli Keszler, Bristol Pirates, Logos, LKJ In Dub, Ghostride The Drift, Hiroshi Yoshimura, Jay Glass Dubs, John T Gast:
Thursday: Pissing down. Wind-raised choppy sea loch. Campers below us fight their tents. We sympathise from a safe distance. Snug in our Yellow House. A lazy AM Twitter purge scythes followers akimbo. Block and roll. Strictly upbeat tempo sound system, infusing insurgent spirit against inclemency: DJ Nature, Sam Binga & Marcus Visionary. PM road to Gairloch amidst frequent showers. Big laughs as we encounter Laide Bay. The Love Croft, sung to the tune of ‘Love Shack’ by the B52s. We hole up a while at Achnasheen and beach walk in the drizzle. Alfie scoots across the sodden sand. The river water feeding the bay temporarily confuses him. Is this OK? Back on the road, the view down from Achnasheen pass to the beach is one to treasure. In Gairloch we dry out and consume at Hillbillies Coffee, Bookstore and Trading Post. We score a duo of hiker’s vegetable soup and homemade fresh bread combos, avec le grand chaud chocolate. Included in the deal: the finest cheesecake ever made. On the back nine, we take a brisk Lael Garden forest walk, before a final visit to the Taste Of India. Back at the Yellow House its refresh browser time: repeat. Eventually I score a copy of Ossia’s live cassette on Tape Echo from Rewind Forward, a live recording from the ‘Devil’s Dance’ album launch in Bristol earlier this year. A gig Lady Di and I attended. A copy for posterity was obviously de rigeur. PM sound system: Ossia, Rainer Veil, Sarah Davachi, Shinichi Atobe, Pendant, Pontiac Streator & Ulla Straus, Crump:
Friday: Awake to no rain, but rain awakes soon enough. AM download of the Félicia Atkinson‘s long-awaited ‘The Flower And The Vessel’ (Shelter Press). First play: vast. This motherload is going to take mucho appraisal, baby. Constitutional AM walk. Swollen rivers, raging flows. People and small dogs, persistently sodden. Only partially downtrodden. Lady Di departs for emergency vet visit: suspected tick invasion. Possible faulty tick collar and subsequent action against homeland vets. Lady Di returns with placatory cake. False tick alarm. We eat cake. We drink tea. We wonder why anyone in their right mind would go camping. We ask the big questions one asks at the close of a holiday: are the skies crying because we’re leaving? Or are we bringing the atmosphere down because we have to leave? PM soundtrack: Félicia Atkinson:
Saturday: Reluctant farewells. Goodbye Yellow House. The long and winding road south. Past those local scenes that have become our own. Torn from situations that have become comfortable. Alfie’s supplies are low, so a pit stop at Pets At Inverness is required. We take on reasonably-priced fuel at Morrison’s, and point the sled south. The hundred-or-so miles from Inverness to Perth is slow-going. The sun’s back, though, and reports are coming in of blue skies south of Perth. We pit stop for croissant and chocolate chaud, and Alfie leaves his mark in Perth. Dumfries bound, expectation mounts for our neolithic pièce de résistance. Skirting Dumfries, we hit the road to Cairn Holy. The skies are by now electric blue. We pick up glimpses of the coast ahead, the sea shimmering above the green of the coastal downs. The two cairns of Cairn Holy are impressive survivals, particularly Cairn Holy I, with its concave façade of tall pillar stones. Their landscape position is equally impressive, situated on a hill offering fine views over Wigtown Bay. The site is frequented by a legendary figure known as Cairn Holy Joe – one Joseph Proskauer (from Westbury, New York), who “lives with his wife and many other creatures, slightly below the surface of earth, toward the point where the sun sets in the dark days of winter – as seen from Cairn Holy”. Joe describes the site itself as “three instruments, each resonating with their environment: cairn; world; participating observer – the sophistication of the site in relation to cosmic activity: near perfect alignments of sun/shade – not a single stone seemingly set without a specific significance, in alignment, shape or quality of stone”. We arrive in perfect conditions at around 5.30pm. We soon spot a figure flitting between the stones, measuring, photographing intently, jumping fences, gathering angles. As I made my own photographic journey around the stones, the figure commented to Lady Di that I seemed to know what I was doing, engaging us in conversation. Before long, I asked: “Is your name by any chance, Joe?”
Indeed, it was. Joe asked us many questions. How we felt looking at the stones, and the surrounding area. He asked us what we thought the shapes, the spaces, and the placement of the stones might mean. What they may have been used for by the people who put them there. He was interested in how we interpreted the site; how it made us feel; what we noticed. A Welsh chap called Andrew was also present. We borrowed his orange twine to mark out positions on the forecourt floor. Joe held the twine in line with markings inside the right-hand flanking upright, guiding me to mark positions on the floor with stones. From these positions we photographed, we clicked (subsequently capturing some incredible unexplained phenomenon in the form of ‘green energy arcs’ in several shots). Intense experience. Energy incarnate, energy abundant. We walked a few hundred yards up to Cairn Holy 2, a slighter but none-the-less impressive cairn, iconic from certain angles, before returning for a few final words with Joe and Andrew. Joe gave me his e-mail address for future correspondence, and I’ve since located him on social media. A conversation has begun about the possible meaning of the photographic anomalies. I remain enchanted at this prospect.
We bade our good byes, and boarded the sled. South, down to Wigtown Bay, for a final beach walk. You could say we left the best till last. The Solway Firth lapping against acres of expansive sand. Flanked by dunes, ships and yachts akimbo. Alfred scampered his best scamper yet. An ATT with a beach fetish. They call this place Secret Scotland, we learnt later. They are not wrong. We will be back. Within the hour, a Dumfries fish supper. We ate in in the sled, accompanied by blaring four-to-the-floor bass drum boogie, issuing from the riverside Dumfries hostelries. Only slightly alarmed, we retreated to the altogether more refined ambience of the Holiday Inn, Dumfries University.
Sunday: Sunrise sunshine. Campus stroll and full Scottish breakfast. 8-miles due south, our final historical interface: Caerlaverock Castle. Moated, two-towered, triangular. Caerlaverock Castle positively glowed in the urgent morning sun. Besieged and captured on numerous occasions, two sieges stand out: the first, July 1300, involved Edward I himself. The small garrison surrendered within two days of facing the full might of the English king’s army. The second, in 1640, was the castle’s last. It was brought about by Lord Maxwell’s loyalty to Charles I during his struggles with the Covenanters. The garrison held out for 13-weeks before surrendering. We walked the grounds, down to the site of the original castle, once served by a costal inlet and dock. The sea some miles away these days, but for how long?
Those final miles across the border lands were our last of relative sanity for six hours. We hit the M6 with 180-miles left to travel. We ground to a halt. The collapsing system we’d escaped two weeks ago was waiting here for us now: M6 hell. The journey went on, and on, and on. So much so, that by the time we reached home, all three of us had M6-lag. It felt strange to be back. Adrift from the dramatis personae we’d become so accustomed to over 16-days. The leafy Warwickshire lanes felt somehow drab by comparison. It was going to take a while to re-adjust.
They say that it is easier to imagine Boris Johnson as a human being than it is to imagine a Christmas without John Lewis. This is the twenty-first century. New technologies should be liberating us from wage slavery. Automation: the yellow brick road to equality for all. Prosperity, liberty, luxury, happiness, solar-powered renewable energy, in every social home. Electric cars, efficient public transport, automated production lines pumping out ever-cheaper produce. The death of fossil fuel dependence, wave farms, wind farms, sun farms. Rapid advancements in genetic and synthetic biology. Revolutions in healthcare, food production and nutrition. Together, we can feed a world of 9-billion people. Together, we can create meaningful freedom, for everyone.
As the crisis in capitalism reverberates in our ears like a death knell, the need for a coherent response from the left has never been greater. The Marx revival continues apace amongst emerging media platforms, challenging the hegemony of the right-dominated MSM. Novara Media is one such organ, a vanguard committed to fighting interpassivity: waging war on the war on terror; the war on drugs; class war. Above all, Novara symbolise a hunger for a post-oligarchic system cleansed of all corruption. A new form of scapegoatery to take down those hiding in plain sight.
To truly achieve a Benthamite ambition of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, it is imperative that the left break ranks with lumbering public perceptions of Marx as abettor to totalitarian terror, to define new possibilities for the virtues of democratic socialism. Capitalism wastes time, energy and resources to cement a pyramidic hierarchy for an ever-diminishing elite. It reduces us all to beings so disempowered by the sheer complication of surviving within the system, that we either master it at the expense of others, or become slaves to the rhythm of mass exploitation. In the Olympic stadium of free-market dominance, only a minority make the podium. Socialists, meanwhile, believe in concepts outside of the Olympiad market place: time and space; self-determination; opportunity to embrace Socratic examined lives.
The co-founder of Novara Media, Aaron Bastani, sets out his stall for a future with a sociological imagination with ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’ (Verso). Over the course of 243-pages, Bastani deconstructs the possibility of FALC as the triumvirate of: ‘Chaos Under Heaven'; ‘New Travellers'; and ‘Paradise Found’. “We are set for peak human”, he expounds, “our technology is already making us gods – so we might as well get good at it – it’s time for us all to stop waiting and make history once more”. Critics and pro-capitalists the globe over will be falling over themselves to deride such wilful optimism. Cultural commentators with vested interests lining up to pour scorn on the suggestion that the human race is capable of saving itself. Climate change, resource scarcity, surplus populations, technical unemployment, all apparitions of left wing scaremongery.
Whatever the naysayers may say, our societies are closer to making these technological leaps than most people realise, and the neo-liberal right are planning to shape the Third Disruption in the image of private accumulation and corporate power. In order to avoid a mutually assured JG Ballard-esque ‘Cocaine Nights’ dystopian future, we must transcend our collective totalitarian memories of socialism as a failed experiment to embrace the pure humanitarian philosophy at the beating heart of Marx’s theories. Although he is no Mark Fisher, Bastani’s unabashed love of neologisms express the post-everything passion required to liberate human consciousness from the norms of capitalist society. To step outside the confines of established sociopolitical hegemony, to become comfortable with being uncomfortable, we must accept that the very act of disturbing normalcy is essentially disturbing. As Fisher states in the introduction to ‘Acid Communism’, the challenge facing the left is: “not to recover our ‘lost’ identity, to free our imprisoned nature, our deepest truth; but instead to move towards something radically Other”.
Agrippa – ‘Dead Weight’ (Par Avion): Third vinyl instalment from Par Avion, celebrating label co-honcho Agrippa’s unique production style: wonky, rolling, polyrhythmic techno. Sombre, reflective, and at times erratic, these four cuts further enhance both his profile as a producer of worth, and Par Avion’s profile as a label-of-note, in a teeming Bristolian underground awash with quality and innovation. Alongside brethren Henry Greenleaf and Meta, Agrippa is keeping it dreader than dread. These boys know what they’re doing.
Galya Bisengalieva – ‘EP Two’ (Nomad): Expanding on the incredible promise of ‘EP One’, Kazakh/British violinist Bisengalieva pushes the envelope yet further for her sophomore EP, collaborating with avant-turntablist Shiva Feshareki, to delve ever-deeper into the well-worn furrows of left field interest. Featuring three new pieces and an Actress remix of ‘Tulpar’ as a digital bonus, there are no available clips as yet, so you’ll have to make do with a clip of ‘Tulpar’ from ‘EP One’.
Burial – ‘Claustro’ (Hyperdub): The South London don returns to the fray with his first new material in two years, a high-tempo 2-step affair, complete with looping R&B refrain. A killer bass synth rises and falls below furious hi-hats, as pitch-shifted vocals fly left and right to nitrus oxcidic effect. Ostensibly a return to the Burial mapped out on ‘Untrue’, maybe a prelude to a follow-up long player? We’ve waited far too long.
Sarah Davachi – ‘Pale Bloom’ (W.25TH): Quietly Canadian Davachi seemingly releases a brace of long players a year. In the last 12-months or so, we’ve gained ‘Let The Night Come On Bells End The Day’ (Recital), ‘Gave In Rest’ (Ba Da Bing), her collaboration with Ariel Kalma, ‘Intemporel’ (Black Sweat), and now ‘Pale Bloom’, for Superior Viaduct imprint, W.25TH. Whilst recent outings have mostly focussed on the meditational and quasi-religious import of organ drones, and the role of scared space in creating devotional ambience, ‘Pale Bloom’ returns to her instrument of origin, the piano, to reinterpret J.S. Bach through a psychotropic kaleidoscope on side 1’s ‘Perfumes I-III’, before cutting loose again with drones and mangled strings for the La Monte Youngisms of side 2’s expansive ‘If It Pleased Me To Appear To You Wrapped In This Drapery’. Possibly my favourite Davachi release thus far.
Kelman Duran – ’13th Month’ (Apocalipsis): Released digitally back in 2018, and now available on double clear wax, Kelman Duran’s epic ’13th Month’ is an impressive sample-driven journey through 90s hip-hop beats towards 00s reggaeton dembow. Inspired by time spent with the Lakota people on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, ’13th Month’ refers to the lunar structure of the Lakota people’s calendar, the album is Duran’s intimate response to the experience. References to Biggie Smalls and 2Pac bring both sadness and anger to the mix, ’13th Month’ is a vast progression from his patchy debut, ‘1804 KIDS’ (Hundebiss).
K-Lone – ‘Sine Language’ (Wisdom Teeth): Trippy, b-boy-baiting break-beatery from Bristol stalwart, rhythm research and development expert, K-Lone. Broken beats for big rigs. Dropping vocal samples onto pulsating electro-break mechanics like napalm, Charlie don’t surf, K-Lone don’t stop. Dropping the science like Galileo dropped the orange.
Anthony Naples – ‘Fog FM’ (Incienso/ANS): “A house music transmission filtered through fluorescent static, from a station out of place and time” emerges from the miasma, equipped with strident baselines, crisp motifs and dub-house atmospherics, challenging Shinichi Atobe‘s ‘Heat’ (DDS) as one of the finest outings in the discipline in recent memory. With nods to Naples’ compadre-in-sound, Brian Leeds‘ output as Loidis, ‘Fog FM’ presents celestial crescendo after celestial crescendo in an orgy of scuffed-up clubbery.
Pessimist and Karim Mass – ‘s/t’ (Pessimist Productions): UVB-76 Music/Ruffhouse compadres Kristian Jabs and Tom Cooper unite to throw down the gauntlet to Ossia‘s masterful ‘Devils’ Dance’ (Blackest Ever Black) in the album-of-the-year-thus-far stakes. Dread electronics, broken hip-hop, demonstrative dub and sooty drones, manifesting as 12-untitled cuts of menacing experimentalism across two sides. Play loud. Rewind.
SSTROM – ‘Drenched 9-12′ (Rösten): SSTROM is the project of Hannes Stenström, onetime member of Sweden’s Slagsmålsklubben, one half of enigmatic techno duo SHXCXCHCXSH (SHX). ‘9-12′ is the culmination of his ‘Drenched’ triumvirate on Rösten. Impressively prolific, Stenström’s work ethic cannot be questioned, his robust dub techno veers off the page towards psychedelia at times. Collectively, ‘Drenched’ is an enormous statement of intent.
Ulla Straus – ‘Big Room’ (Quiet Time): Pennsylvania-based producer and sound artist Ulla Straus follows recent contributions to the legendary ‘bblisss’ (bblisss) compilation and her collaboration with Pontiac Streator for West Mineral Ltd with this 8-track cassette release on NYC’s Quiet Time tape label. Straus cites her influences for the collection thus: “keeping pictures on a wall left there by someone else”; “daydreaming about something not real”; “hearing a friend walk through the front door”; “letting a plant die”; and “the silence of a room when the box fan is turned off.”
Batu/DROOGS004/Harrga/Heith/Helm/HXE/Jook/Kids C Ghosts/Rainer Veil/Xyn Cabal
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”- Audre Lorde (1988)
Deaths by drug overdose, suicide or alcohol-related conditions amongst middle-aged men in the UK have now surpassed those of heart disease. Originally dubbed ‘deaths of despair’ in the United States by Nobel Prize winning economist, Sir Angus Deaton, the phenomenon has now crossed the Atlantic. According to a new report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) published on May 14th, deaths of despair amongst middle-aged British men have been rising steadily since 2010. In 2017, they drew level with deaths from heart disease, they are now chasing down deaths from cancer. Deaths of despair amongst women are also rising, but at a notably slower trajectory.
Deaton links US deaths to the current epidemic in over-the-counter/prescribed opioid painkillers; economic factors; faltering standards of living; the erosion of social institutions such as the church, trade unions, love and marriage. Although there is no comparable research yet here in the UK, opioid-related deaths have risen from 800-a-year in the mid-1990s, to 2,000-a-year currently.
Home Office data supports the premise that UK deaths of despair began to rise significantly in the mid-80s, around the time of the Miner’s Strike and Thatcher’s crushing of the British Trade Union movement. The subsequent decline in traditional manufacturing industries and the rise of service industries has consequently affected gender roles that have held sway for generations. In 2004, female employment rates were notably lower than those of males. In 2019, the IMF report suggest that this no longer the case, implying that women can be more employable than men in today’s marketplace in certain demographics, where traditional male perspectives of gender privilege are duly being challenged.
With deaths of despair spiking again post-2010, another causational candidate becomes apparent: austerity. The wholesale dismantling of the welfare state has included the introduction of draconian measures in controlling unemployment. The use of sanctions against those who fail to meet strict job-searching requirements have made the experience of looking for work progressively more soul destroying. With societal inequality at an all-time-high, and social mobility akin to Victorian Britain, the final solution of Thatcherite values in the UK circa 2019 are manifest in death and despair.
In a society that profits from your self-doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act. In a society that has destroyed all adventure, the only adventure left is to destroy that society. Self-love, therefore, becomes a subversive act. In order to heal Broken Britain, we must first heal ourselves, heal from within. We are conditioned from birth to serve others before ourselves. We are taught that any other way is selfish. We are instructed that hard work, stress and efficient production values lead to success. We are told that exhaustion is evidence of our true worth. We are indoctrinated to disengage from our feelings, to deny our emotional truth. To eschew wisdom in favour of logical, rational thinking. We are not educated in emotional first aid. Our mental health services have been in decline for the last twenty years. The NHS is under attack, privatisation by stealth.
To reclaim the power of self-love, we must begin by writing ourselves new stories. As Ben Okri states: “A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves. Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose its moorings or orientation. Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart larger”. We need, therefore, to rewrite our own stories. We need to care for ourselves first. A complete and vibrant version of us renders us better for others. To be the best human being possible. The best version of ourselves yet. To fully realise our sense of purpose and potential, we need to show up, slow up, and pay heed. We need to care. We need to hone our present-moment-awareness, about what we’re thinking, feeling, experiencing, and about what others are thinking, feeling and experiencing around us. Human beings are social animals, isolation is the enemy of collectivism. Collectivism is the enemy of surveillance capitalism. Our connectivity to our fellow humans is imperative for our survival. Learn to notice self-as-context. To recognise our role as the micro within an ever-expanding macro. Our gut feelings tell us exactly what we need. We need to reconnect to the infant in all of us. Rediscover the imaginations that ignited our childhoods. We will need to be brave to crack these well-worn grooves in our cultural and personal narratives. To put ourselves first: to practice healing as a subversive act.
Music can help us to heal. Music therapy has demonstrated efficacy as an independent treatment for reducing depression, anxiety and chronic pain. Music has positive physical effects, it can produce direct biological changes: reducing heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels. When we listen to music, our brain releases dopamine, essential for the healthy functioning of the central nervous system. Music effects emotion, perception and movement. Music can recall associated memories, instigating positive transference. Music can physically heal us too: Fabien Maman, a musician and acupuncturist, devised the Tama-Do Academy based on his extensive research, that showed that human blood cells respond to sound frequencies by changing colour and shape. His findings demonstrate that sick or rogue cells can be healed or harmonised with sound.
With his first outing for the label since 2017’s ‘Murmur’, Omar McCutcheon (aka Batu) returns to Bristol’s Timedance with ‘False Reeds’. Crisp, spacious, deft of touch. Light, lush, insanely groove-worthy, Batu fleshes out the bare bones of his practice with arguably his finest work to date:
UVB-76 Music imprint DROOGS are back once again with their ill behaviour, this time in devastating effect, with this invigorating double-header from Holsten//Artilect. Holsten pretty much decimates the lower-end frequency delivery mechanisms of your speaker systems, along with any relative sense of bon homie you may currently enjoy with you neighbours, with sub-bass action of Brobdingnagian proportions. This one shakes the flying ducks off on the other side of the wall. Artilect, meanwhile, mines a late 90s seam, in a simmering display of static-laden intensity. Four slabs in, this label can do no wrong:
I’ve always been a sucker for the French language as a vehicle for radical discourse. From Metal Urbain to Rixe, the propensity for the Gallic tongue to convey the purity of disdain is unbridled. Miguel Prado (Nzumbe) and Dali de Saint Paul (EP/64, Viridian Ensemble & DSC) are HARRGA (‘a burn’ in the Moroccan Darija dialect). Formed mid-2017, ‘Héroïques Animaux de la Misère’ (Avon Terror Corps) documents their industrialised rage against the escalating Migration Crisis in incendiary fashion:
Shapeshifting is at the heart of Milan-based Heith‘s debut 12″ for his own Saucers label. Following-up his ‘Laguna’ debut for Haunter Records, and a handful of CDRs and 12″ releases over the past five years, the fractal 5-track ‘Mud’ EP blends experimental electronica with approximations of traditional elements with a vaguely Hispanic bent, to fashion an evocative and complete experience that is proving to be a true slow-burner with all who stumble upon it:
If you, like me, saw 2015’s ‘Olympic Mess’ (Pan) as a watershed of progression for Luke Younger‘s Helm, prepare to be dumbfounded by ‘Chemical Flowers’ (Pan). Composed in isolation at NO Studios in Essex, The Lowest Form bass-slinger and one-man-electronic-orchestra has excelled himself beyond all compare this time out. From the Alternative TV ‘Nasty Little Lonely’ quoting vibe of ‘I Knew You Would Respond’, to the bookended return to ‘Olympic Mess’ pastures of the titular closer, Younger drags rural nuance from urban decay in a festival of maturity that exemplifies his dedication to practice. Aided and abetted in these pursuits by string parts arranged and recorded by JG Thirlwell, additional cello played by Lucinda Chua, and saxophone by Karl D’Silva, Younger has crafted a post-everything masterpiece that elevates him beyond contemporary compare to a pantheon of his own:
London-based HXE (fka HEX) follow their previous outing on Liberation Technologies with the 4-track ‘INDS’ (UIQ). Continuing Lee Gamble‘s fine run of late, with essential recent releases from both Zuli and Nkisi, HXE’s enigmatic take on liquid industrialism provides concrete evidence of electronic salvage and deformity in practice. In collaboration with Paris-based sculpture artist Anita Molinero, ‘INDS’ inspires visual expression through sonic construction:
Brighton’s Jook finally delivers the much-anticipated ‘Flying Nimbus’ (Sector 7 Sounds) for the Bristol-based grime label. This one has pinged around the underground in the form of advance war dubs, nestling in the sets of the chosen few, for what seems like eons now, so its overground emergence can be rightly heralded as cause for celebration. All killer, no filler: and while the title track pushes all the low-end buttons for bass-mongers, its ‘Gold Rush’, for this soldier, that really sets this exemplary release up as future classic :
Catching John T. Gast in support of Ossia at the ‘Devil’s Dance’ album launch in Bristol back in February was a life-affirming moment. He seemed genuinely shocked post-set when I pounced to rain down the plaudits directly into his visage. Genuinely unassuming, a beacon of modesty, I’ve been mighty impressed with his body of work over the past few years, a real underground talent who’s doubtless happiest where he is. Anything he’s had his hands on has become a buy-on-sight scenario, and this 10″ dub plate from Kids C Ghosts – ‘Bankruptcy Dub’ (5 Gate Temple) – is no exception. Burialesque in many facets, but in no way homage. Follow the bread crumb trail, invest in the future:
Cinematic, expansive, inventive and eminently loveable, Rainer Veil‘s 5-year absence from our senses is brought to a close with the shockingly consistent ‘Vanity’ (Modern Love). Emerging with seemingly little fanfare from the contemporaneous commentariat, ‘Vanity’ is nothing short of exultation in excelsis: “Tracing rapidly mutating electronic forms, from ringtone hooks to latinate rhythms and Razor synth edits, ‘Vanity’ explores an instinctive swell of ideas and influences in perpetual and unstoppable forward motion, a sequence of flash frames captured and distilled for posterity” – Boomkat:
Finally, Athens-based Xyn Cabal debuts in fine style with the 5-track ‘Perfect Oracle’ (Death Of Rave). The imprint itself has long been a synonym for quality, and I’ve been an avid consumer of much of their output in recent times. Reminiscent in atmosphere and intent to Croww‘s 2017 for the label, ‘Prosthetics’, ‘Perfect Oracle’ has been years in the making, and the attention to detail across the EP surpasses that of many a long player elsewhere. Marshalling sub-bass loops, clattering rhythmic nuance, Messier 87 intensity darkness and Arabesque vocal samples, ‘Perfect Oracle’ is simply Delphic, in every sense of the term: