Idle Hands/with support from: Best Available Technology/John T. Gast/Logos/Madteo/Ossia/Andy Stott
My love affair with the record shop began in earnest back in the early 70s, at an electrical store in Warwick called Bonel And Curtis Audio (Ltd). A friend of my mother’s, Tony Ayers, worked there, and he’d wink conspiratorially when applying unofficial discount to my meagre purchases, before slipping them into a brown paper bag. The shop itself stocked TV and audio equipment to the left of the store, with racks of vinyl grazing nonchalantly to the right. In those pre-punk days, much of their vinyl stock was classical, operatic or easy to listen to. Amongst the remaining racks of what was deemed ‘popular’ music at the time lay pockets of interest marked: ‘Black Sabbath’, ‘Led Zeppelin’ and ‘Deep Purple’. I can vividly recall the hours of pondering that would take place prior to a purchase, and the weeks of regret that would often follow. Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ (Vertigo) being one case in point: the moment I got it home I was annoyed beyond belief with the frankly ridiculous artwork, especially in comparison to the mystical allure of their iconic self-titled debut. It became the first record I ever took back and swapped, setting a precedent of obsessive compulsive behaviour that has mutated over the years, but remains stoically the same to this day.
By the time 1977 arrived, I’d amassed twenty-odd albums of pre-punk dinosauria. With cashflow a constant concern, I lugged my nascent collection down to Renton’s in Leamington Spa, where I proceeded to swap the entire cache for the debut LPs by The Stranglers, The Clash, The Damned and Wire. I’d entered the shop with my collection in a cardboard box, and left with it in a single plastic bag. In 1978, I became the ‘saturday boy’ at Discovery Records, in Stratford-upon-Avon, one of the new-fangled independent record shops that would fuel the punk rock explosion’s exponential growth across the nation. By the end of the year I’d quit college, and was soon managing the shop, whilst the owner expanded his empire in Leamington Spa, and later, Solihull. The 80s duly arrived, and Discovery ended in tears, for me – or, to be more precise: an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal, which I lost. I eventually landed a new position at Red Rhino (Midlands), aka Nine Mile, pulling and packing orders. Nine Mile were the Midlands hub of The Cartel: a co-operative organisation founded by a number of independent labels to handle their collective distribution, pooling resources and assets to enable them to compete with the larger distribution network of the major record labels.
Discovery was a right of passage, it felt like being at the centre of the universe when it almost mattered, as punk rock yielded to Two Tone, and the eclecticism of the post-punk era beckoned. There were queues around the block from 8am on the day The Jam released ‘Going Underground’ (Poydor) on double 7″. Our punk rock idols had begun to invade the BMRB charts, and TOTP was suddenly more interesting than the Old Grey Whistle Test. At Nine Mile I felt I’d arrived, my employers, Robin Hurley and Graham Jelfs, were positively parental towards me, and the kindly guidance of Simon Holland provided camaraderie that set the experience in stone as one of a lifetime. I pulled and packed thousands of records by the likes of New Order, Depeche Mode, The Smiths, Billy Bragg, The Sisters Of Mercy, and sent them out by courier van to the far flung corners of the realm. Nine Mile also founded Chapter 22 Records, with a roster that boasted Pop Will Eat Itself, The Wonderstuff, Balaam and the Angel and The Mission.
In time, the need for the kind of income that could support a mortgage reared its ugly head, and something inside me died. As my tastes evolved with the arrival of hip-hop, I began a long and fruitful relationship with Don Christie’s Records in Birmingham, purveyors of fine dub, hip-hop and house. The shop’s Rastafarian regulars weren’t altogether keen on the advent of hip-hop or house music, however, and the sound of teeth being kissed often accompanied my visits. My social anxiety struggled on occasion, but before long I’d worked out when the hip-hop/house distro van dropped by, and co-ordinated my crate digging accordingly. Trips to Birmingham were often twice or thrice weekly, in those days, combined with visits to Tempest, Swordfish and Plastic Factory.
Wherever I travelled back in the day, I would trawl the streets in search of vinyl emporiums. On my first visit to Bristol on June 10th, 1980, for The Clash‘s Coulson Hall date of their London Calling Tour, I climbed the stairs to Revolver Records for the first time. As Tom Friend captures thus: “Revolver was a really important shop. It was scary, because we were just kids, but it was great. A good friend of mine, Richard King, wrote the book ‘Original Rockers’, which I read and then immediately re-read; it perfectly captures that period in Bristol. You’d go into Revolver and be pretty intimidated, but would always find interesting records. There’d be a lot of records out the back that weren’t for sale, and Roger would say: ‘Come back later, I’ll tape it for you’. You’d go back at the end of the day and he’d put the record on a tape for £1. Later on, there was Purple Penguin, Imperial. They were important shops because it was pre-internet, pre-mobile phones. You just knew if you went there, there was a good chance you’d meet people you knew, other bands. It was a golden era”.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Bristol this year, and in particular I’ve bought a bunch of vinyl from Idle Hands, one of the city’s most vital establishments. Idle Hands takes me back to the days outlined above: the days of collectivism; the days before the internet and digital identity; the days when music could talk. Despite the ravaging passage of time, the song resolutely remains the same. Technology may come, technology may go, formats may change, but the humble record shop still has its role to play at the heart of any cultural enclave worth its salt. I spoke to Idle Hands’ proprietor, Chris Farrell, for his thoughts on Bristol’s cultural heritage, its record shops, and its current golden era:
trakMARX – Bristol’s record shop lineage, from Revolver through to Rooted, is steeped in cultural significance. What are your enduring memories of record shopping in the city, and what does it mean to Idle Hands to be part of this illustrious heritage?
Idle Hands – When I first got to Bristol in the early 2000s, it wasn’t always the case that I could find the records I wanted. The city was dominated by DnB and hip hop, and although I like both those genres, it was at the point when I had burgeoning interest in minimal house and techno. The stuff I wanted was hard to find. I wanted to be buying Panytec records, but most likely came home with some RnB from Virgin Megastore in Broadmead. The best shop at the time in my opinion was Imperial Music. I was lucky to get a job there in my 2nd year at uni. That opened the city up to me, and I met a lot of people outside of the student bubble. I got introduced to areas and clubs I hadn’t been to before. I’m still close with people who I met back then. I used to like ‘Eat The Beat’ too, it was probably a bit cooler than Imperial. It did deep house, broken beat, jazzy type stuff, and this being Bristol, it did DnB as well.
I was in there one day, I hadn’t been to bed and was quietly minding my own business listening to records in the basement level. I was listening to an electro record when another customer came and changed the speed on the record to make it faster, and gave me a grin, as if to say I was an idiot. I was a bit flummoxed (most likely stoned) at the time, but realised later they thought I had been listening to DnB at the wrong speed. That tells you a lot about the dominance that DnB had in this city.
One of the reasons I opened my shop was to keep some continuity with the shops that had been before, an unbroken thread if you like. That is still one of my motivations to this day. I had learnt the trade by working at a number of different shops. I think there are elements of each shop I worked at in Idle Hands. Rooted Records was the first place I had worked that actively wanted to link to the outside world, this was largely down to Pev. He had forged links with Disc Shop Zero and Hardwax, as well as having the attitude of celebrating Bristol, with his first label Punch Drunk. Mark Stumbles, who was my boss at Imperial Music, really knew how to run a record shop, and I’ll forever respect him for that. He has been a big influence on what I want to achieve with my shop. He was a right grumpy sod at times, but that was probably down to me being a 21-year-old wreck head. Pete at Replay was a very hands off boss, he left me to get on with managing a 2nd-hand shop in my mid-twenties, which has stood me in good stead.
trakMARX – Idle Hands began life as a label, before establishing itself as a shop in 2011. Considering the harsh economic conditions prevailing, and the number of record shops closing their doors across the UK, did it feel like you were taking a massive risk at the time?
Idle Hands – It did, but at the time I didn’t know what else to do. I’d been working in record shops for nearly 10-years at that point, and was already pretty much institutionalised. It felt like it might only last a couple of years, but I had to give it a go. It wasn’t that hard to set up, I got the shop fittings and a deck from Rooted as severance pay. I was able to sub-let the old DMT shop and live above the shop, which kept costs down. I didn’t have much stock to start with, but slowly built it up. The first couple of years were hard. I was skint. I know shops that have spent more on their in-house stereos than what I opened the shop with.
I had some lucky breaks in the first year with ‘Skins’ filming in the shop, and a friend put us forward for a number of things with a well-known energy drink company. If I hadn’t done those the shop would have closed within 18-months. DJ-ing helped me, too. The support and encouragement from friends can’t be underestimated, either – people like Rhythmic Theory, Sean Kelly, Shanti Celeste, Kowton, Andy Payback, Hodge – and a number of other close mates (they know who they are) really helped.
trakMARX – Bristol’s music culture is one of the most vibrant and diverse in the UK right now. Does it feel like Idle Hands is at the heart of the city, capturing the vibe of ‘being here now’?
Idle Hands – I think it would be arrogant of me to think that. There was a time when record shops were a clearer reflection of what happens in a city musically, but that was before the onset of the digital revolution. I try to reflect it as best I can by supporting Bristol artists and labels, but realistically I stock a small selection of what happens in this city, some of the best music being made in the city doesn’t even make it onto vinyl. There are a number of MC-based grime tracks that years ago would have been on vinyl or CD but they are more of a youtube thing these days.
trakMARX – Economically, times are tight, how difficult is it keeping your collective heads above water, both with the label and the shop?
Idle Hands – Time and money are a constant struggle. I don’t get much time off, and I can’t get ill – but if it was easy everyone would be doing it, right?
trakMARX – Idle Hands (the label) has dropped some sparklers this year – particularly in the form of K-Lone, Crump and Dan HabarNam – what constitutes the right profile for an Idle Hands release?
Idle Hands – Quite hard to say, really, when I know, I know. My mate Giz pointed out that I always go for quite minimal, sparse tracks, usually with some kind of dub influence.
trakMARX – Back in the days of Revolver, independent labels, shops, bands and artists communicated and collaborated through an interactive collective known as The Cartel (Rough Trade, Revolver, Backs, Fast, Small Wonder, Fast Forward, Red Rhino, Nine Mile, Probe, etc). It seems so antiquated now, considering the overarching connectivity of the internet, but does the same spirit of support for independents nationwide exist these days?
Idle Hands – I think it does to an extent, I chat to the other shops. I feel a kinship with shops like Tribe up in Leeds, they do a similar thing to us. Kiran who runs Low Company is an old mate. I chat to Rubadub a fair bit too, because of their distro. I’m friendly with the other record shops in Bristol. If I’m ever in another city, I’ll try and pop in and show some support.
trakMARX – Which other enclaves across the UK do you feel rival what’s coming out of Bristol right now?
Idle Hands – I don’t think it would be fair to say without getting out and about and seeing other cities. If I go and DJ in other cities you can get a sense of that by chatting to the promoters, but even then it is just a snapshot. I know Leeds has a really healthy club scene, played at Wire last year and that was good. I guess you just have certain cities that are a bit more musically minded than others and always have been – you expect to hear new producers from Glasgow or Manchester, and obviously London. I am aware though that Bristol probably punches above its weight in terms of size.
trakMARX – Bristol seemingly has a plethora of labels releasing consistently stunning product. Who’s impressed you this year?
Idle Hands – There are a ton of great labels here all doing good things, from Bokeh Versions to Futureboogie. In terms of newer stuff, my mate Dean has set up a label called Cold Light Music, three releases in, and each one is great. Another mate Yushh has set up Pressure Dome, which has galvanised an emerging 2nd wave of UK techno producers in the city, great to see her doing that.
trakMARX – We’ve attended a few memorable live shows in Bristol this year – particularly Ossia at the Brunswick and The Bug/Moor Mother at the Trinity – which have been the standout performances for you this year?
Idle Hands – Dancing to Eris Drew on a mid-week night was pretty special, if you haven’t seen her DJ, you really should. She’s so good, she can play tunes I don’t even like, and I’ll still be loving it. In terms of live music, I went to see Spectrum earlier this year, that was good, he still looks so cool. I was trying to see what shoes he was wearing, but couldn’t quite clock them. If anyone has an update on that, then please let me know, it might sound daft, but these things matter! I also really enjoyed going to see the Orb in Worcester, the city where I’m from. It was me and two old mates, it just made a lot of sense on that particular night, I enjoyed it maybe more than I maybe should have.
trakMARX – And finally, what’s the most satisfying aspect of your work with Idle Hands?
Idle Hands – I like seeing my friends get some success. If I can help with that, then great. On a day-to-day basis, I like the fact that in this little corner of the retail world it isn’t like selling potatoes, as I once heard Serge from Clone say. True, the accounting, ordering, and all the rest of it, is the same as any other shop – but we get to trade in people’s creative output; their passions, joy, struggles and dreams, all expressed in music. I think that is quite special.
This month’s soundtrack brims with promise. It’s been a busy month, strafed with quality drops from respected artists. Despite the ideological challenges 2019 throws up with alarming regularity, there’s always music to take away the disgusting taste of late period capitalism. Portland, Oregon’s Best Available Technology kicks us off with the 14-track ‘Broken Teeth & Dog Hair’ (Plaque). Collating data from the B.A.T. archives assembled over the last decade, accompanied by ‘Old Haunts’, a 40-minute cassette-artefact of meditative healing, the vibe is accommodating and expansive. Kevin Palmer has been releasing material under the Best Available Technology moniker since 2012, for labels such as Opal Tapes, Astro: Dynamics, Further Records, Working Nights, No Corner, 12th Isle and Styles Upon Styles. Working in the grubby, dubbed-up margins between the faders, Palmer conducts his brooding electronic manipulations with gritty aplomb. There’s a warmth here that fosters further exploration of those aforementioned archives. With his extended ties to Bristol coming not only through his work for Plaque, there’s a Best Available Technology v WithDrawn rekkid on the way in the not too distant future, so I’m reliably informed. Keep this frequency clear.
Two essential drops from the man like John T. Gast have brightened the campaigning gloom somewhat. Catching him destroying the sound desk live with Ossia at the Brunswick earlier this year was a major highlight, and this new brace repoint the cement in what has become a buy-on-sight relationship. ‘5GTour’ (5 Gate Temple) comes on CD and digi only, featuring 12 x ‘airplane tablet constructions’, issued in conjunction with 5 Gate Temple’s China/Japan tour, Nov 2019. It’s tempting to say this is Gast’s strongest material to date, but the man paints from a diverse palette, and whatever the perspective may be, the results are always a veritable mannerist canvas. Hitting the racks almost simultaneously, ‘Kings X’ (5 Gate Temple) arrives with more air in its tires, pumped up and floor bound, but still tinged with the spectral beauty that blessed his Kids C Ghosts‘ ‘Bankruptcy Dub’ (self-released) 10-inch back in May. Rack both up next to Tribe Of Colin‘s stupendous ‘Aquarius’ (Honest Jon’s), and set the controls for the heart of the sun.
Logos follows his magnificent ‘Imperial Flood’ (Different Circles) with this immaculately dressed four-track EP, ‘Fifth Monarchy’ (Berceuse Heroique). Strident by comparison, ‘Eska’ carries the heavy manners across a mass of Korged-up low end, both in its original form, and Ossia‘s devastating remix. Sandwiched between come ‘Dust’ and ‘Ghosted’, a pair of skanking steppers, squelching through spring-hiss-dread with menace aforethought, but no hint of malice. Another essential brace, two-by-two, we board the ark.
The sirens went off on Madteo for this soldier back in July, with the eclectic paranoia of ‘Forest Limit’ (DDS) on cassette. The cover to that bore the legend ‘may the bridges I burn light the way’, a sentiment I have been plagiarising the fuck out of a daily basis ever since. ‘Dropped Out Sunshine’ is Madteo’s debut album for Demdike Stare’s DDS label, delivering 12-slabs of freestyle fuckries on canary yellow wax over 4-sides. If ‘Forest Limit’ was claustrophobic and oblique, ‘Dropped Out Sunshine’ bathes in West Mineralisms, displaying a rugged kinship, but not biting. Warmly inviting, engagingly coherent and ultimately rewarding, Madteo has fashioned one of the strongest long players of the year here, maintaining DDS’s solid gold action in what has been a relatively quiet 12-months.
Don Ossia set the bar high back in February this year, with his flawless double-barrel meisterwerk, ‘Devil’s Dance’ (Blackest Ever Black). That record has held sway across the year for these ears, thus my anticipation ahead of ‘The Marzahn Versions’ (Berceuse Heroique) was palpable. Returning to Berceuse Heroique for the first time since 2017’s ‘Gridlock’, ‘The Marzahn Versions’ doesn’t disappoint, delivering four variations on two interpretational themes. My personal take: ‘Crowd Psychology’ marks out its territory from the get-go, a nigglingly insistent motif takes your ears hostage and refuses to negotiate. No one makes it go dark like Ossia right now, and the dubbed-up ‘Mob Psychology’ burrows ever-deeper into our collective psychological dissonance to highlight the dysfunction at the heart of project divide and conquer. ‘Hack Dance’, meanwhile, seemingly points both barrels at the billionaires that control the Divine Comedy we laughingly refer to as our free press: whirling dervishly, ever-downwards, towards Dante’s Inferno in purgatorial descent. ‘Hack Dub’ closes proceedings with the light of the dub shining in through the cracks. As Leonard Cohen once observed: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”.
Andy Stott returns with his first release since 2016, and his first EP since 2011, in the shape of ‘It Should Be Us’ (Modern Love), a double EP, comprising 9-tracks in its digital form, with one less on the double 12″ smoked out wax version. It’s been a quiet year for Modern Love, and ‘It Should Be Us’ fulfils a similar role to that of Demdike Stare‘s ‘Passion’ this time last year: marking time until Stott’s next full-length, scheduled for 2020. That said, ‘It Should Be Us’ is no stop gap: recorded earlier this year, its practically an album in its own right, running to 47-minutes on the digital version. I’ve previously been able to keep Stott at arm’s length, by and large. I enjoyed fleeting moments of both ‘Faith In Strangers’ and ‘Too Many Voices’ (both Modern Love), but nothing has previously hijacked my attention like ‘It Should Be Us’. Under heavy rotation in the tMx bunker, I’ve been inspired to reassess my relationship with Stott, an exercise that is proving how wrong ears can be at times. Both the title track here, and the closing ‘Versa’ are amongst the most sublime genius 2019 has yet proffered. Lauded, seemingly universally, Andy Stott has returned.
And finally, by the time we meet again, we will have decided who we want to dig us out of the mass grave dug by the Conservative party these past nine years. Exercise your right to vote by registering and casting. This is a pivotal moment in time for the UK, and for anyone in doubt of the need for real change: life expectancy predictions in the UK have fallen to levels last seen 16-years ago, as widening social inequalities lead to a rise in avoidable deaths in disadvantaged communities. Chose wisely. Chose life.
Pessimist/with support from: Anunaku/Bengal Sound/Cold Light/Drone/Nkisi/Slikback
“We are like soccer fans in front of a TV screen at home, shouting and jumping from our seats, in a superstitious belief that this will somehow influence the outcome” – Slavoj Žižek
HyperNormalisation, the entropic acceptance and false belief in a clearly broken polity and the myths that underpin it, is a concept originally coined by anthropologist Alexei Yurchak in his 2005 book on the collapse of Soviet communism, ‘Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation’ (Princeton University Press). The term was adopted in 2016 by British filmmaker Adam Curtis for his documentary of the same name, the trailer for which declares: “We live in a world where the powerful deceive us. We know they lie, they know we know they lie, they don’t care. We say we care, but we do nothing. And nothing ever changes. It’s normal. Welcome to the post-truth world”.
Over the course of the past 12-months, HyperNormalisation and its handlers have been slowly chipping away at our collective public consciousness on climate change. The rise of Extinction Rebellion mimics our sea levels. The melting hearts of silver surfers under pressure from autistic Swedish activists and striking schoolchildren imitate our ice caps. The vociferous bullying of climate change deniers echo the ominous crash of icebergs collapsing into our seas. Pensioners begin to glue themselves to inanimate objects in protest. As Žižek succinctly observes in his recent piece for The Independent: “Yes, it is a climate crisis. And your tiny human efforts have never seemed so meagre”.
Žižek identifies five HyperNormal strategies to distract us from the impending dread of ecological armageddon in this Society Of The Spectacle: ignorance will save us (the post-situationist meme: Nature, it’ll grow back); science and technology will save us; the market will save us; recycling will save us; regressive localism will save us. The latter plays perfectly into the HyperNormal objective of project divide and conquer, and it is this alone that has driven the emerging narratives throughout XR’s October Actions. Criticisms have duly fallen on XR like acid rain in an Indian summer: too middle class; too white; too old; too young; too autistic; too entitled; too deluded; too crusty; too radical.
As the core movement itself splinters in frustration, Canning Town becomes Gotham City, as rogue protestors in fine garments are pulled from the roof of a tube train and summarily kicked and beaten by an angry mob that’s just trying to get to work to feed their children in compliance with very system that oppresses them. This isn’t a comic, it’s a graphic novel. Rumours that Alan Moore has been approached by Dominic Cummings to script November and December cannot be confirmed at the time of going to press. Meanwhile, back at the plot, unsurprisingly Žižek’s proffered solution for an end to the global blame game is a worldwide agency to coordinate the necessary measures to save us, bringing us back full circle to a possible future communist international.
Following nine days of increasing repression by the Met, over a thousand XR activists languished in police custody as a result of Section 14 powers, amongst them Green Party leaders, Jonathan Bartley and Ellie Chowns, and eco-activist/journalist, George Monbiot. Met strategy had began in earnest with pre-demonstration arrests arguably on a par with the Orwellian concept of thoughtcrime: unspoken beliefs and doubts that contradict the tenets of the ruling hegemony:
“They took eighty-two laws/Through eighty-two doors/And they didn’t halt the pull/Till the cells were all full” – ‘Julie’s Been Working For The Drug Squad’, The Clash
Monbiot justified himself thus: “I feel we’ve got to make as much of a stand as we possibly can to prevent ecocide. Business as usual, politics as usual – that is ecocide. It’s the destruction of conditions that make life possible on this earth. I’m standing up against that and I’m proud to be arrested for that cause.”
Standing shoulder to shoulder with the celebrity arrests stood pensioners, the disabled, the young, nurses carrying their offspring, cyclists, even. Footage has emerged of heavy handed Met tactics that have seen bicycles ripped from their riders and wheelchairs confiscated from the disabled. On Friday the legal environment charity Plan B wrote to the Met commissioner citing what it claimed were ‘numerous instances of human rights violations’ by the police. Allegations included: “armed police, carrying rifles, stopping members of XR and ordering them to put their hands in the air; a plain clothes police officer attempting to incite violence in the crowd; arbitrary and aggressive use of stop and search powers; and officers forcefully removing tents without checking whether children or others were inside”. London Mayor Sadiq Khan took to Twitter on Tuesday evening to deny responsibility for the decision to introduce the deployment of Section 14 of the 1986 Public Order Act, created under Margaret Thatcher in the aftermath of waves of industrial unrest in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including the miners’ strike. “This draconian decision is a disgraceful suppression of our human rights,” Asad Rehman, head of War On Want stated, “but sadly it hasn’t happened overnight: from anti-fracking protesters to protesters against the arms trade to anti-racist campaigners, and of course to climate protesters, people are being consistently labelled as domestic extremists”.
The soundtrack to what promises to be a looming winter of discontent has been ramping up menacingly over the autumn following an unreasonably sublime summer. In a year dominated by incredible 45s, 10″ dub-plates, 12″s and EPs, resonant long players have been relatively thinner on the ground. With the bar being set at a challenging uber-high early doors by Ossia‘s cavernous ‘Devil’s Dance’ (Blackest Ever Black), we had to wait until June for a challenger, in the form of Pessimist & Karim Maas smouldering self-titled dystopian collaboration.
This debut long player on Pessimist’s own Pessimist Productions proved to be a slow burner. Initially out of step with the fleeting heat of early June, it is a record that has grown in stature accordingly. Refreshingly out of step with pretty much everything that surrounds it in the contemporary electronic genre pool, it’s practically impossible to pin down with either common or garden cliches. Pessimist (aka Kristian Jabs) has been making music for the best part of the last decade. We first stumbled across him in the dark whilst grubbing about in the margins as a member of Drum & Bass noire horde, UVB-76. A selection of previous outings for the likes of Ingredients, Cylon, CX Digital, Samurai Music, A14 and the aforementioned UVB-76 have been collected on the compilation ‘Pessimist Discography 2011-2016′ (Pessimist Productions) for anyone looking to fill the gaps. With the arrival of the second album in a year from the label, in the shape of Boreal Massif‘s ‘We All Have An Impact’ (Pessimist Productions), another collaborative creation, this time from Pessimist alongside Loop Faction, we felt the time had arrived to find out more:
trakMARX – 2019 has been a stellar year for Pessimist Productions. How’s it looking from where you’re sitting?
Pessimist: Thanks, man. From where I’m sitting, I’m just happy to be putting out exactly what I want. The Pessimist Productions thing was never meant to be about being a ‘label’ label. Kiran who runs Blackest Ever Black one day said to me: “how about you set up your own thing?” So we just did it without hesitation. I’ve been releasing music for basically 10-years now, and in that time one thing I’ve learnt is to trust your own vision, or at least surround yourself with people that GENUINELY believe in you, not for the hype, but for your vision, style and talent. That’s what I’ve done for a little while now, and it’s allowed me to be fully creative and do exactly what I want to do. So, from where I’m sitting, I’m just blessed to do exactly what I want, when I want, and make a living from it. I’m vibing!
trakMARX – Two collaborations on the trot: does this signify a game-plan for the label, moving forwards?
Pessimist: Nah man, there’s no ‘this is what my label is about’, the only thing is: it’s just music that I write, whether that be with friends of mine, other producers, or just me on my ones!
trakMARX – A No Fuss label? Could you expand on that?
Pessimist: No fuss, as in there is no grandeur concept behind the label, not to say that there is anything wrong with having a concept, but I often find it a bit corny. Its like just put out some music, and stop talking about some irrelevant shit. Me, as a person, I’m only interested in writing my music. I’m not a huge fan of performing; I’m not a huge fan of DJ’ing; I’m quite often not even huge on listening to music whilst I’m in writing mode, so I guess I’m no fuss in terms of I just want to create some music and get it out there for people to hear, no matter the style or whether I think it’s something that will be successful or not. It’s my vision, and that’s it.
trakMARX – The Karim Maas collaboration was a real slow burner here in the tMx bunker, it just keeps growing in stature to these ears. It’s a difficult record to define, in terms of genre. Are the implications of genre tags/versatility important to you?
Pessimist: At the end of the day people want to call something, ‘something’. I haven’t released an actual Drum & Bass track since my debut album in 2017, yet apparently every release I’ve done since then is Drum & Bass, haha. For a while now, I’ve been operating between ‘Genres’, and that’s not on purpose, it’s just me wanting to create music that is unique. If people then want to emulate that, and then it starts getting called a certain name, then that’s just the way it goes, people naturally name things. So, I don’t think it matters too much, it’s nothing to worry about, as long as you are actually someone who is creative and individual enough to break out of these silly names/tags. Calling this or that style cool in the moment is all bullshit. All these people that used to sneer with snobbery at Drum & Bass/Jungle because they thought they were on a higher level listening to 4×4 Techno/House are now the ones raving to Modern Jungle (which isn’t as good as old Jungle, by the way, haha) in some trendy festival in Europe. It cracks me up, man!
trakMARX – The organic drum sounds rolling through both records this year would appear to be dredging up the antiquated term ‘trip hop’, particularly with regard to the Boreal Massif album. What are your thoughts around this kind of word association?
Pessimist: It’s fine by me. I mean it’s obviously not Trip-Hop, but I completely get where people are coming from there. I’m from Bristol, my family is from Bristol, my Mum’s claim to fame is she used to go down to the Dug Out in Bristol and knew a few of the Wild Bunch, which obviously became to be Massive Attack. So, in a way, it makes me proud to be associated with something that is heavily linked to Bristol like Trip-Hop.
trakMARX – Considering the gravity of its subject, I had expected ‘We All Have An Impact’ to have been the darker of the two records, yet it’s brighter, both in appearance and sound. Is this significant?
Pessimist: Yeah, quite a few people have said that. I think it’s an album to offer hope, though. It’s not just like ‘ah mate, we’ve fucked the planet, let’s give up and all get smacked up’. It’s just shining a light on the fact that if we all shout about it enough, maybe the big multinationals might actually be forced to change their act. Also, the next generation of kids are being brought up from a young age with a lot more knowledge of climate change. Surely, as time goes by, the way we’ve been living will be looked back at as completely mental (which is already happening, to be fair). I think the Boreal Massif album reflects this.
trakMARX – The introduction of guitars and other expressive textures signal a departure of sorts, are these domains you foresee exploring further in time?
Pessimist: As mentioned in the first question, now I have my own label, I feel completely and 100%-free to write whatever I want. For years and years I was making moody and dark music, which is totally cool, but I almost fobbed off the chance of writing lighter music. It’s weird, because lately I’ve actually been writing the sort of music I’d listen to at home. I can’t sit at home and listen to heavy and dark music too much. I wanted to move away a bit from doing the dark stuff with these signature bass drones that everyone keeps going on about. It’s like, I’m not a one dimensional producer, there’s a million other things I’m capable of. I was working in the TV industry composing music for three years, and if there’s one thing you need to be good at to survive in that industry, it’s you have to be flexible and able to write in all styles!
trakMARX – Can you give us a little insight in to the collaborative process of each record? Did your approach vary from project to project?
Pessimist: The process was very similar on both records, actually. The majority of it worked as either Reuben or Coop sending over some hand picked samples, maybe a loop of a few elements, and then I would add to it and generally arrange the tracks. I guess it worked well this way, as both Reuben & Coop are more hardware focussed. They have very unique workflows to create their music, so it suited them doing their thing first, and then me completing the tracks. Plus, my personal favourite thing to do when it comes to making music is arranging it, you don’t need many elements doing anything complicated. To create great tracks, it’s very often all about how you arrange those parts, and get the most out of what you have (at least, that is my philosophy).
trakMARX – Given the constant evolution of your signature sound, I’m hearing a gulf opening up between your current material and the Blackest Ever Black S/T. I’m sensing a gradual shift away from some of the rounder aspects of your sound on that album?
Pessimist: Yeah, I think it’s a natural progression. I’m not TRYING to change or anything, it’s just that I have a very broad taste and love for music. I love making music, man, so I want to make different types of music. I don’t want to be this guy that makes a particular style of music, then goes to clubs on the weekend to DJ that particular style, it’s depressing, man. Maybe there is a slight timbre that glues all of my music together, no matter the style, but that said I’m fully committed to trying out different things. Just wait until next year, there’s some new stuff I have been working on under a new name that is TOTALLY different to anything I’ve done before.
trakMARX – And, finally . . . following your socials, it’s apparent that you are in possession of a solid social conscience. ‘We All Have An Impact’ is an unambiguous statement at a timely juncture, especially in light of current authoritarian clampdowns on Extinction Rebellion activists prior to the current round of actions. Are we on the cusp of a generational rebellion that can express itself critically through largely instrumental art?
Pessimist: I definitely think so, in terms of people in general are on this rebellion vibe right now. Not just climate change, look at who’s currently in power around the world. It’s almost as if we’ve woken up in a sitcom, watching Trump & Boris in the positions they are in, talking the shit they’re talking. Although Trump is extremely funny, in a satirical sense, it’s extremely frightening that a guy like that can come to power. Same for Boris Johnson, too. In terms of electronic music, I guess it would be nice to see more people actually representing their views through their music (not that music HAS to be politicised). That’s one thing I’ve found in recent years with electronic music, it’s pretty bland at times. Often, it’s just about people taking drugs at a club, or having sex in a club. There’s more to life than hedonism. That said, I completely support that, but there are other issues that need to be spoken about that are worth fighting for. Also, this whole obsession with looking the coolest on social media is a joke, and leads musicians to think they’re better than they are. I don’t think some of these artists realise that if they spent more time on their music maybe more people would actually care about, buy, or take interest in their music, rather than a picture of them wearing a hoodie, hahaha.
Anunaku – ‘Whities 024′ (Whities): One of the 12″s of 2019, up there with Y U QT, Porter Brook, Kids C Ghosts and Al Wootton. On a tip with Wootton’s ‘Body Healthy’ and ‘Selah’, lead cut ‘Temples’ is worth the admission alone:
Bengal Sound – ‘Young Skeleton’/’Coroners” (Innamind): Rapid follow-up to the simply stunning ‘Short Stay’/’Never Mind’ (Bandalu), Bengal Sound is a cornerstone of everything fine currently being built in the city of Bristol. Endlessly inventive, sumptuously subtle, intelligent nodding for the critical thinker:
Sunun – ‘CL003′ (Cold Light): 5-track EP from Sunun pushes the envelope straight through the letterbox of possibility. We weren’t that convinced by the ‘Ooid’ EP (Bokeh Versions), but the jazzed-up bass notes of ‘Away’ here send us somewhere totally cosmic from the get-go. All five cuts drip with stratospheric pressure under heavy manners. Step up to the dub plate time, Sunun has arrived.
V/A – ‘CL002′ (Cold Light): 4-track EP featuring BirthMark, WithDrawn, Sunun, VMO$ and Boofy: sultry late night/early morning vibes from the Cold Light collective. Beyond Manonmars rhyming from BirthMark and WithDrawn heralding a new dawn for British post-everything hip hop; further sonic adventurism at the edge of the outer reaches from Sunun; alongside standard uncategorised, mangled R&B from VMO$ and Boofy. Mandatory.
Both EPs available here:
Drone – ‘Horror’ (Sector 7 Sounds): Follow up to ‘Saphire’ has been building like a volcano waiting to explode on preorder for what seems like an eternity. It’s finally erupted, spewing lava all over the lowlands:
Nkisi – ‘Destruction Of Power’ (Collapsing Market): Eminently darker than her ‘7 Directions’ (UIQ) long player from January, ‘Destruction Of Power’ comes cassette-bound and heat-sealed in yet another desirable artefact from the always intriguing Collapsing Market:
Slikback – ‘Lasakaneka’/‘Tomo’ (Hakuna Kulala): Killer compendium of two previous EPs (plus three bonus tracks) from Nairobi, Kenya’s Slikback. Blending East African hip-hop and Congolese rhythms, with nods to US trap and footwork, Slikback is rightly venerated from Kampala to Berlin. This is the place to begin. Mastered and cut by Rashad Becker at D&M Berlin and pressed up in 500-pieces on purple wax, available via Boomkat:
“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.