White Chalk

The muddled view of the English countryside has been discussed before, for example in the  For What Is Chatteris column. Sometimes seen as  mystical,  sometimes downright boring, sometimes the backdrop for a picnic or Sunday drive,  more often an arcadia  to escape to  from the dark satanic mills of urban life. Sometimes, though, it has been pointed out that it can be pretty grim and miserable- The Hard Times of Old England -  though I don’t think there is anything  about English rural life that quite matches the Violent Femmes’ Country Death Song in making  a cloud of gloom  descend  on the listener.  (The next track on the album this comes from starts ‘I hear the rain, I hear the rain, I hear the rain, got to feel the pain’)

I grew up in Dorset, one of the most rural of English counties, and my childhood was  spent in  Poole, Portland, Weymouth and around, a mixture of the English seaside and the hills and valleys of the inland countryside. An odd combination in a way – a Donald McGill postcard versus a chocolate box image. Plebeian  fish and chips, candy floss and donkey rides on one hand and the more genteel –superficially at least -  thatched cottages, village churches and County shows on the other. Some of the landscape remains pretty timeless.  Far From the Madding Crowd and The French Lieutenant's Woman were both filmed there and the famous Hovis advert from 1973 was not, as the ad implied, filmed somewhere  in a northern town like Hebden Bridge but the Dorset village of Shaftesbury.
Growing up there, I made little association between pop music and the places I lived then. Those I did have, in fact, could be  very convoluted. At a young and impressionable  age I once spied Dusty Springfield on Weymouth esplanade and asked for her autograph. She, however, declined the request and I became converted to the opinion that actually I liked Lulu better. Like everyone, a snatch of a song can bring back  childhood memories like Proust’s madeleine but that is because I heard the tune in a particular place at a particular time, not because the song was about that place. Songs were meant to be about faraway places with strange sounding names – Capri or Amsterdam, Honolulu or Siam, not Sturminster Newton or Blandford Forum. That would be both unthinkable and risible, as there is something intrinsically not rock and roll about Dorset .In fact, few English counties are. Carolina In My Mind sounds fine, Suffolk In My Mind doesn’t. Sweet Home Alabama –yes, OK. Sweet Home Buckinghamshire –not really. Songs about places like that  were either  the provenance of earnest folk singers in Aran sweaters and a finger in their ear or comedy acts. In fact, English rural life has provided a rich source of musical humour over the years, from Benny Hill’s Gather In the Mushrooms to The Wurzels' Combine Harvester  (a UK Number One in 1976) to The Darkness and English Country Garden. Other than that, there were The Yetties (a kind of Dorset Wurzels)  and Dorset is Beautiful. Oh yes, and Robert Fripp   and Al Stewart both grew up in the market town of Wimborne Minster, though its influence isn’t obvious in the music of either. (The town is best known for a model village, so that you can visit  Wimborne and walk round a set-up of Wimborne in miniature. I am surprised King Crimson didn’t do something to expand on  this theme)
Behind the rolling hills and the bustle of the seaside there was also an insularity. To some on Portland – an ‘almost island’ connected to the mainland by Chesil Beach – Weymouth, about 4 miles away with its fancy slot machine arcades and cinema, was a mixture of Sodom and Gomorrah, Gay Paree and Las Vegas. There were even stories of people who had gone from Weymouth on the steamer to Guernsey and had French food. Why would they do that when they could go and sit on the shingle at Dead Man's Bay with a bag of  Portland dough cakes?  In fact, those who lived on Tophill on Portland even  viewed those from Underhill with suspicion and vice versa.(The Donny and Marie Osmond hit, Morning Side of the Mountain,  comes to mind  here – “There was a girl, there was a boy, if they had met they might have found a world of joy. But he lived on the morning side of the mountain and she on the twilight side of the hill”.  Or if  he lived in Underhill and she lived in Tophill).It was uniformly white. The only black faces to be seen were on the Black and White Minstrel Show on Saturday night TV.
Yet there was also underneath it all at times something else,  a glimpse of  the past, of  the  lost wild gods of England and the distant echoes of  an old and forgotten  way of life. You could sense it on Chalbury Hill, looking out from the ancient  burial mounds across the  hills and hedges  towards the Roman road coming out from  Dorchester,  with the giant hill figure at Cerne Abbas, on the chalk cliffs above the fossils at Lyme  or in the small and eerie ruined churches standing on pagan sites. I once came across such a deserted church while walking as a child along the cliffs above Portland: peeking in the heavy wooden door to feel a sudden chill was the only time I have felt somewhere could really be haunted. Those feelings are captured in the song here, White Chalk from 2007 by P J (Polly) Harvey, originally from Bridport in Dorset. There is something haunting and unsettling about it, as there is about much of her music. On the cover of the album of the same name she is seated in white looking like a figure from a Victorian séance and the voice sounds as if from another dimension.
It is relatively rare that a song captures exactly one’s own feeling about a place, in such a perfect  match that the song and place become the same. For me, Waterloo Sunset does. Scott Walker’s Copenhagen does with a couple of lines-‘Copenhagen , you’re the end, gone and made me child again’  -  and an enchanting fade-out. And so does White Chalk, floating like a dream from a childhood memory : “White chalk sticking to my shoes. White chalk playing as a child with you. White chalk south against time. White chalk cutting down the sea at Lyme .I walk the valleys by the Cerne, on a path cut fifteen hundred years ago”. A memorable song about an English rural county after all and not a single joke about Farmer Giles’ giant marrow or a morris dancer in sight.


100 Miles To Liverpool

In the early 1980’s the Thatcher Government apparently discussed a novel idea for dealing with a city – Liverpool -  they regarded as a problem: the bright idea tossed about was shutting the whole  place down and moving its population elsewhere. It seemed a long way from the heady days of  less than 20 years before when the ‘Mersey Sound’ had London music  agents flocking to Liverpool to sign anything that moved and  even folks in deepest Dorset could go about saying “It’s fab gear, wack” without ridicule. As late as 1972 the lasting remains of this image could give Little Jimmy Osmond a UK Number One with Long-haired Lover from Liverpool without any sense of irony. (Unlike Stereo Total who dug up  Bonnie Jo Mason aka Cher’s  1964 Ringo, I Love You (Yeah Yeah Yeah)  in 1999, in what  one must assume is a kind of Gallic  joke)

In pop music history , of course, Liverpool has played an iconic role, with artists from there having had 56 number one hits. The Beatles weren’t the first successful pop act from the city -  Billy Fury, Frankie Vaughan and Michael Holliday had all had UK chart success before them -  but they did spearhead a new era in music, making Liverpool perhaps the equivalent of Memphis .Most of those following in the first wave of the British Beat boom, however, had little lasting musical  impact and soon either returned to a day job or found shelter in the supper-club and nostalgia circuit. Even in 2012 you can catch the Merseybeats at Skegness or Ilfracombe with half their original line-up from 1961  intact. The exception here  were the Searchers  whose 12-string guitar jingle-jangle sound on songs like Needles and Pins  and When You Walk In The Room  influenced ,in a neat but ironic little circle, the Byrds who influenced back the Beatles and thence a long string of acts from REM to Teenage Fan Club to the Smiths. (In an exceedingly trivial but entertaining diversion below,  clips show 4 different versions of  Love Potion Number 9 by the Searchers from 1964 to 2009, motivating the listener to wonder what it must be like to sing a particular  song every week for 45 years or so. The eagle-eyed viewer will spot that whilst the guitarist and bassist remain constant  there are 4 different drummers - ipedantic order, Chris Curtis, John Blunt, Billy Adamson and  Eddie Rothe. I sometimes wonder if I should get out more).

Few of these acts –or those that followed in the 80’s and 90’s - featured Liverpool as a place  much in their music. The first was probably Gerry and the Pacemakers with Ferry Cross The Mersey, followed by the Beatles with Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields, but most acts looked further afield for inspiration. As mentioned in the column on Manchester, many of the songs about Liverpool too  tended to  a  sentimental, even maudlin, view of the place not generally found  much with big English cities, where a harder edge is more common. Try transposing Ferry Cross the Mersey to the Woolwich Ferry and it wouldn’t work. Then there’s  the Leaving of Liverpool (the Dubliners, the Pogues), Heart  As Big As Liverpool (the Mighty Wah!), Liverpool Lullaby (Cilla Black, Judy Collins). The cynical might say people only get sentimental after they have left the place.

Some, however, stood outside the usual framework. Suzanne Vega’s  In Liverpool brought an outsider’s –and fresh – view:” In Liverpool, on Sunday, No traffic  on the avenue. The light is pale and thin…No sound down in this part of town, except for the boy in the belfry”. It was apparently inspired by finding the city not as glamorous as she thought it would be. There were also  a few that avoided the dangers of over-romanticising and  reminded the listener of Liverpool’s history as a major slaving  port, portrayed at the International Slavery Museum on the Albert Docks where nearby you can also see the Beatles Story or go on a Yellow Duckmarine ride. Again as previously mentioned in the Manchester column,  Liverpool’s The Real Thing brought out their 4 from 8 album with its trilogy of ghetto songs, including Children of the Ghetto, in 1977--- to lack of commercial success  after  their pop hits and , as Eddy Amoo remarked in a recent interview, “Children of the Ghetto finished us”  It was a step too far from the  image of the city that people wanted to see. Another Liverpool group, Amsterdam, however, had more success with  Does This Train Stop On Merseyside in 2005, “See slave ships sailing into port, the blood of Africa's on every wall. Now there's a layline runs down Mathew Street, It's giving energy to all it meets”.

The song here, 100 Miles From Liverpool, from 1995 but  originally recorded as a group track in 1986,  comes from perhaps an unusual direction -  from Alan Hull of  Lindisfarne, a group  closely associated with Newcastle ,on the opposite coast of England ,with songs like Fog On The Tyne and Run For Home. It chugs along as a road song like Driving Away From Home, with Liverpool the equivalent of Phoenix or Tulsa. It probably says more about Alan Hull than Liverpool  and there is a poignancy that comes not just from the regrets of some of the  lyrics but the awareness that the recording was done shortly before his death. Liverpool appears almost as a mirage, perhaps as Suzanne Vega had seen it: “But in my dreams I see Liverpool in lights, dancing in the streets 'til the early morning light. The tug boat on the Mersey joining in the Jamboree” .

You  realise things aren’t always as they seem. The Dakotas, who backed Liverpool singer Billy J Kramer on his hits as part of the ‘Liverpool Sound’ actually came from Liverpool’s great rival, Manchester. The Cavern Club that  the tourist sees today isn’t the original one but a rebuilt construction, like  Warsaw Old Town. Many of   the  grand and imposing buildings in the city centre weren’t philanthropic projects but built with the wealth of the slave trade and Caribbean plantation owners. As with most places, I suppose, we end up seeing what we want to see.


Trafalgar Square To Anywhere

One of the odd things about some places is that whilst they stay the same themselves, one’s perception of them changes from time to time –either because they appear and re-appear at different stages of the life cycle or because you experience them at different times for different reasons. An example of the first was mentioned in the column For What Is Chatteris, with the local park. “I sometimes thought about the families in the small park down the road from his house. The children went there to play on the swings and roundabout and eat ice - creams; a few years later they were back with their school or college friends, hanging about the park and War Memorial drinking cider and smoking; a few years after that they were back with their own children playing on the swings”. In the meantime the park itself hardly changed at all. There are songs about particular parks but one of the best park songs is a generic one,  Billy Stewart’s Sitting in the Park (covered in the UK by Georgie Fame) and it is rare that I can sit on a park bench anywhere without the tune going round my head.

An example of the second - where associations can come from a variety of things -is Trafalgar Square in London. Traditionally it has been where New Year has been celebrated and one of my stored memories of the place is coming through it after watching the Millennium firework display along the Thames. Traditionally too, it has been linked to the pigeons that flocked there to feed from the tourists before the move to eradicate them. I have a black and white photo of my sister aged about 8 standing in the square with a bag of bird seed bought from one of the vendors who used to be there and pigeons swarming all around. Genesis did a song about the birds in 1977, Pigeons: “Who congregate around Trafalgar Square taking pot shots at the tourists? Oh you've got to watch out, when you wander round the square in the morning, cos they're everywhere, they're everywhere”

In film and music it has often been used in the same way as Big Ben or Tower Bridge, as a iconic image that simultaneously denotes traditional and Swinging London - red buses and black  taxis circling the column and fountain, the epitome of where it’s at. I was once sitting in the square eating a pork pie and hard boiled egg and Paul McCartney drove  past in an open top sports car – it seemed very fitting to the setting. It was used in this sense in Bill Wyman’s Si Si Je Suis Un Rock Star, possibly the most entertaining song by one of the Stones outside of the group. The clip below shows Trafalgar Square in 1981. It also has the only instance I have seen of Bill Wyman dancing –sort of.

It is not just a tourist spot, however and since the Nineteenth Century it has been a focus for political demonstrations, where marches started or finished en route to Whitehall or Hyde Park  to hear speeches by Bertrand Russell or Tariq Ali or Tony Benn or George Galloway on nuclear disarmament or Vietnam or government cuts or Iraq. That aspect has cropped up in songs from time to time.  The Stones’ Street Fighting Man was supposedly inspired by a 1968 anti -Vietnam War demo that started in Trafalgar Square before moving to Grosvenor Square and the US Embassy. Chumbawamba were cynical about the place in Marching Round in Circles:” They let us make a noise ,they let us march around in a specially built police-cell they call Trafalgar Square”. More recently David Rovics claimed poetic licence with his Trafalgar Square:” Even the mayor came out, called him a criminal of war. Said "World domination ain't worth fighting for". They said "We don't like Dubya or his poodle, Tony Blair", on the day the statue of George Bush was toppled in Trafalgar Square”.

But beyond all these images it is a place on which people construct their own personal associations. Like Chris Difford in his own Trafalgar Square: “Every time that we scream and shout I’m the clown who’s wrong but when this is all over I’ll meet you in Trafalgar Square”. Or like the song here from 2007, Trafalgar Square to Anywhere, by Dave House,  a singer with echoes of Frank Hamilton of Waterloo Guildford. (He is from Kingston on Thames, itself not far from Guildford). Trafalgar Square here is an image familiar to many, the starting point for a possibly fraught journey home on a late night bus or tube. A little personal story set to acoustic guitar and cellos.

I suppose you might go to Trafalgar Square to look at Nelson’s Column. Oddly enough, though, that has been a mere backdrop to my visits there, feeding pigeons on a holiday trip up to London, on marches over the years, seeing a new millennium in or just sitting in the mid-day sun. Same place, just seen from a different angle each time.