Tuesday, 20 December 2016

My Songs of the Year

I managed to get to three gigs this year. It doesn't sound like many, and indeed it isn't many, but three tends to be about my average per year. At the beginning of March, I went to see LĂ„psley in Bristol. This was followed two and a half months later with a visit to Bristol again with my mate Simon (who's just turned 50!) to catch Slow Club prior to the release of 'One Day All This Won't Matter Anymore', their third album.  Then, if you think things couldn't get any quieter on the gig front, things did get quieter.  All my focus was on getting everything finished and signed off at Bath stonemasonry college, and then barely a week later - in the second week of July - I was off to London for the start of the Prince's Foundation apprenticeship in traditional building skills.  This has taken me all over the country, but the apprenticeship was based in East Ayrshire in Scotland for the first three months.  

I listened to a massive amount of music while I was in Scotland.  Many of my fellow apprentices (as well as some of the students of the summer school, including Blythe and Charlie) had a similar taste in music as I did.  This made for a great exchange of music throughout the three months that we were there, particularly while we were cooking.  I knew it at the time and it's even more apparent now: being around so many like-minded people in terms of both profession and philosophy, and being in the supreme comfort of The Bunkhouse, it really was a dream situation.  

While I was there, I managed to spend three weekends in Glasgow, the second weekend of which I managed to see Angel Olsen at SWG3 in Glasgow.  Her third album, MY WOMAN, had been released the month before and the acclaim for it spread like wildfire.  Like many other indie music lovers, I knew about Angel Olsen, but this album sent her into the musical stratosphere.  It's extraordinary, and is easily - easily - my favourite album of the year.  The gig was by no means perfect, but Sister, the album's masterpiece and the centrepiece for that night's performance, was probably the best live performance of any song I've ever heard.  Whatever higher place great songs are plucked from, this one came from there, and taken from the very very top of it.  I'm convinced it will become a classic as more people listen to it - it certainly deserves to be regarded alongside some of the very best.  Spotify has provided a "Your Top Songs of 2016" playlist and this song tops the lot.  I'm not going to argue.  Tops my most played list and wins by a country mile.  Wins my Song of the Year on my Album of the Year as well.   

The collaborative album 'case/lang/veirs' by Neko Case, k.d. lang and Laura Veirs, was another marvel of 2016.  To be honest, I've not been able to get beyond Laura Veirs' Best Kept Secret, a wonderfully upbeat song that really captures a mood.  It has a killer first verse, which I was really touched by it when I first heard it. 

December: I was lost in darkness that I couldn't shake,
Called you in California and you answered right away,
You answered right away,
You picked up right away. 

I can't say why this verse resonated as much as it did.  That I guess is the wonder of music.  Perhaps it's the way that Veirs sings it, but hearing this was a tonic that I felt could cure most ills.  A shoe-in for best lyrics I've heard this year.    

CocoRosie's Heartache City is another album I've not heard very much of, other than a song I got obsessed with in July and there's been very little let up since.  Although a 2015 album, I'm not restricting this list to songs and albums released this year.  If I first heard it this year, that's good enough for me.  Lost Girls is a collage of a town or city's dark underbelly, of night-time scenes, focusing mainly on the story of a prostitute. It starts as a very competent spoken word piece and slips effortlessly into full song.  There's no linear narrative so it's quite disorientating - more a collage of things gathered, cut out and stuck back together.  The only disappointing thing about it is a single forced rhyme, which is such a shame for a song that is otherwise perfect.  But I am fond of repetition in things, and this part of the song has that on full display.  I could dwell on the lines "witches displeased by their own magic" and "Shaman women fuming with shame" for a very long time, but for the purposes of this blog entry I will give you the whole part of the song and then move on.  

Witches confused by their own magic, 
Witches displeased by their own perfume, 
Shame-locked women, 
Shaman women fuming with shame, 
Love-locked women, 
Women their own magic women.

I was introduced to King Creosote by J.J, a fellow apprentice and the person who came with me to see Angel Olsen in Glasgow.  After a spot of shopping in Ayr, we walked to the seafront and as we sat looking out over to The Firth of Clyde, he put on 'Diamond Mine', an album that King Creosote did in collaboration with John Hopkins.  We sat on the tidal wall and considered the sea in our different ways.  A strip of flamingo pink light sat along the horizon and disappeared behind the Isle of Arran.  As we all sat along the tidal wall, John Taylor's Month Away came on and I thought it was the most beautiful song I'd ever heard.  This would be an overwhelming favourite for my best lyrics of the year.  The way King Creosote sings it - well, it's just heartbreaking and perfectly evokes what it must have been like for those men.

A dozen men, thirty days with 24 hours in each
Of shattered boyhood dreams and not much sleep.
I'd much rather be me.
For once I'd much rather be me.

I was first made aware of Tindersticks through a video that the YouTube music channel La Blogotheque recorded of Hey Lucinda, a song that appears on their 2016 album 'The Waiting Room'.  Subsequent research found that Tindersticks have been going for a very long time, but they've flown under my radar until early this year - that is, until Lhasa de Sela's luscious vocals reached my eardrums.  I was hooked instantly.  I was sad to find out that she died in 2010, so the recording is at least six years old.  I love a male-female duet and this is among the best of them.  Like all great art, the song gives the listener space to think.  And major props to the video that accompanies it - it really complements the sleepy elements of the song.  I actually bought the album for Simon - my gig friend I previously mentioned - without really knowing whether or not it would be his thing.  When I heard The Waiting Room, I knew I had to buy it for somebody and I knew Simon had the necessary musical tools to understand why. 

My cover of the year has to go to Slow Club with Seasons (Waiting on You).  Although not released this year, discovering this was a revelation.  I got obsessed with Future Islands' original during the second quarter of last year (between visiting my brother in Coventry and our trip to Poland), but I discovered Slow Club's cover of it shortly after going to see them earlier this year.  To my mind, Rebecca Taylor  - one half of Slow Club - is a national treasure, possessing one of the best voices these shores have to offer.  There are many covers of Seasons (Waiting on You) on YouTube, but in my opinion this one's by far the best.  The Jinx, a song from Slow Club's new album, should also get an honourable mention.  It's one of the highlights of the new album and stands alongside some of Slow Club's best work.  

Other honourable mentions (to be extended as I think of them):

Haunted Head by Ezra Thurman
iT by Christine and the Queens
Nothing's Gonna Hurt You Baby by Cigarettes after Sex
Kerala by Bonobo
Red Earth & Pouring Rain by bear's den
The Jinx by Slow Club 

Saturday, 3 December 2016

I'm at a party somewhere in Brazil

not the sit down one or the dancing one but the one where you're stood up and the waiters come round and serve you little things on trays so you feel like some sort of posh giant when you eat them and it's all very civilised and I find myself in a group of people with good hair and tailored suits who know which way round their business cards will be when they take them out of their inside pockets and they're talking about scuba diving and one of them starts talking about a dive he did off the coast of Wherever and everyone nods like they all did the same dive and felt the same thing and they keep nodding and they all nod so much that I think all of their heads are going to fall off and when the guy finishes I crack my best joke and say why do scuba divers always fall into the water backwards and when I say the punchline a woman near to us laughs at the very moment she takes a sip of her wine and the spray goes everywhere and I mean everywhere all up the wall on some curtains a vase a passing waiter and on most of the people in the group and everyone goes quiet and turns to her to give her the evil eye as they dry their faces with their handkerchiefs before turning back but I can't turn back because I know who she is and all I can do is smile because the woman responsible for giving most of my group a Prosecco shower is Elizabeth Bishop and she's just laughed at one of my jokes and all the suits are staring at me as I'm smiling at her and they're expecting my little comedy act to continue because they're holding me at least 40% responsible for what just happened which I know will be reflected in the dry cleaning bill but I can't do anything when Elizabeth Bishop has just laughed at one of my jokes and I feel myself melting like I'm stood above one of her flames and she's captured all the gravity and I've forgotten language altogether because I'm looking at Elizabeth Bishop and Elizabeth Bishop is looking at me and I want to thank her not just for laughing at that stupid joke but for everything so I remove myself from the group and half walk half float towards her hoping that the ability to talk sufficiently restores itself and my chest is fit to burst and I stop in front of her still lost in a realm where everything is either a laugh or a smile and just as I open my mouth to speak my alarm goes off and I have to get up for work.  

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Bus Stop II - Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire

For all the second-hand excitement of The Burning Bus Saga, it was not the most interesting thing to happen during that very cold morning at the bus stop.  Within the curiousness of the situation, I got chatting to the young woman sat next to me who was also a prospective passenger of the troubled S3 to Oxford.  In our abundant Englishness, we exchanged a polite word about the weather.  Within the space of a minute, she told me that in this cold her left foot always gets much colder than her right one.  I considered this for a second with a nod and a thoughtful expression, but I couldn't relate. I didn't tell her this, but I have always had excellent circulation.   

In between short bursts of her Snapgramming her Instafriends on Tweetchat, the conversation moved onto hands.  No one here knows me, I thought.  I'm going to throw a pebble into The Lake of Surrealism just to see what happens.  
"Imagine if you were an alien," I said.  "And you came to inhabit a human's body.  How weird would it be to see hands for the first time."   
She considered this for a second and looked at hers.  She was unfazed.  "I have hands like my dad.  But smaller and without the hair."  

I took out T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone from my backpack that I'd bought while I was staying on the Dumfries House estate in East Ayrshire.  I'd found it in a charity bookcase in the local Tesco.  Any book is a bargain for £1, but this one has proved its weight in gold.  Some of the description is just sublime.  It's a 1984 paperback edition and rather unassuming in its well-read tattiness, but it's provided hours and hours of entertainment.  I urge you to read it if you haven't already.  

I read a page or two and then went back several pages to re-read a passage from the previous chapter.  Wart and Kay join Robin Hood and his gang of outlaws on a mission to rescue some locals who have been captured by the "Anthropophagi", a group of cannibalistic creatures whose arms and legs and heads don't follow conventional rules and look rather fearsome as a result.  The two young boys go with Robin Hood's band of Merry Men in a quest to save their friends.  The group's silent approach through dense forest is one of the most exhilarating passages of literature I've ever read so I decided to share my enthusiasm for it and read a passage to the young woman sat next to me.  I was careful to choose  aline that captured my imagination the most and this was what I read to her: 

"In the night mystery a hundred men breathed on every side of Wart, like the surge of our own blood which we can hear when we are writing or reading into the late and lonely hours.  They were in the dark and stilly womb of night."

"Imagine being so quiet that you can actually hear your own blood coursing through your veins.  I don't think I've ever been that quiet," I said.  And this was perhaps the last thing I said to her, because a moment later a friend of hers came to wait at the bus stop and he spoke of things rooted in The Here and Now and in accordance with established and accepted patterns of communication, rather than matters that would light a fire in the imagination - a fire, I hasten to add, that was perhaps not too dissimilar to the one that was at that moment engulfing our unseen bus. 

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Bus Stop - Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire

I had some frightful luck with the bus yesterday.  I wanted to make as good an impression as I could with Bernard, the gentleman who'd very kindly taken me on as his stone letter carving apprentice.  I had pushed the Prince's Foundation for this placement and I'm glad I did.  I feel very honoured to be here.  To be around and learn from someone who works in a most noble and skilled craft is a source of energy that I will carry with me for a very long time.  

I got to the bus stop for 8:00am.  I wanted to get a head start on drawing my L's and E's before Bernard arrived.  I wanted more practice, wanted to feel the good drug of progress in my veins and the skill in my hands. I wanted to feel the fullest weight of its expression.  I wanted to be the one who takes the panorama of the kingdom of language that exists within it.  What are you saying, Tom?  Does that even mean anything?  Take a breathe.  Keep it simple.  Okay: so in short, I wanted to live in a single letter for an extra hour.   But I had to get there first. 

Ten or fifteen minutes or so after the bus was due to arrive, we were told by a passerby that it had broken down and had italicised its state of brokendownness by filling with smoke, and that its Emergence From Wherever was left in considerable doubt.  In spite of this woman's plummeting faith in public transport and a token disgruntlement of a situation that didn't transcend the borders of the inconvenience it caused her, she may have been secretly thankful of her escape, though as she walked out of the scene I fear I may now never know.  So the unseen bus I had intended to board was now decidedly still, and if these accounts were to be believed, and there was no reason why they shouldn't have been, the fated bus would maintain a similar degree of stillness for a while.  

So we waited.  I thought about it for a while.  Even in this technologically advanced age in which we are free to broadcast a picture of our dinner to everyone we've ever met, the only thing anyone can really do in this particular bus-smoking situation is get off as soon as possible and walk.  Even for the posh sort - and there are a lot here - it must be a stretch even for them to complain to a driver with a smoking bus as the backdrop.  Subsequent passersby provided important eyewitness accounts of the advancing seriousness post-evacuation.  "Fire," one woman said as she passed.  "The bus is on fire.  It was smoking but now it's on fire."  I responded in the only way this Englishman knows how.  "Gosh," I said.   


Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The Goose Hoose

The Goose Hoose came together like a dream. The build was expected to take around ten weeks, but we had it wrapped up in five. It was a quick turnaround time by anyone’s standards, not least by a set of apprentices, some of which had no prior experience in stone masonry. Under a different set of circumstances, the build might have taken us longer, but the combination of certain things made it feel as if we were working within a slipstream. First and foremost, the guidance from Daryl, our building tutor and my BFF, was outstanding. He's been a force for good as the captain of Team Stone and is a real credit to Dumfries House. His knowledge and efficiency sometimes made my head spin. Secondly, there was a really nice set of dynamics within the team, which created a cohesive, positive atmosphere right from the off. Everybody mucked in, everybody did their bit, and at the end of it, we all sat on the roof with a glass of Prosecco and toasted to a job well done. 

We toasted to what had passed. An enormous amount of stone had been measured, cut, squared and shaped in extraordinary plumes of sandstone dust within the banker shop. And when that stone had been worked - be it quoin, jamb, voussoir, string course, coping or crow step - it was taken on the short journey to site where it waited patiently for the softness of a lime mortar bed in The Goose Hoose. A small sea of mortar had been mixed and poured into wheelbarrows and buckets ready to be scooped out by hungry trowels. Stones were bedded and sometimes re-bedded, lines were run, levels were leveled, hammers swung, stones teased, tapped and tempted into plumb, square and level. Noses were crinkled, heads were scratched, hmms were hummed. We laughed, we sang, I told stupid jokes. Then Prince Charles came along and gave a nod of approval. 

Monday, 15 August 2016

Day 1 and an Ode to Departed Friends

And so it begins. The live build. There were 27 of us during the summer school and that has now reduced to 11. I loved every single one of my summer school friends, and I actually found myself becoming closer to them in the three weeks that we were together than I did during my three years of stonemasonry training at Bath College. Leaving the office and retraining as a stonemason was a great decision on my part, even if I do say so myself, but the summer school was something else. It was a series of magnificent flashes of colour, setting itself aside from every other experience I’ve had up to this point. It was so unique and went by in such a blur that I was afraid that it might have been part of some elaborate hoax, a drug-induced coma or worse: a dream. When Christian and I got back to Dumfries House on Saturday evening after two weeks off, we were glad to find that everything we had remembered was still here. Gradually, as our newest friends began to arrive over the course of the weekend, the dream steadily restored itself to reality. These people were real, and it was also a relief to find that they shared a similar fondness for those who have now returned to their normal lives. The people I’d written about had not been imagined. They were were real and so the strength I gained from getting to know them was real. Future posts will be more focused on the live build, but this post is an ode to them.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Day 0 and the Raleigh Wildtrack

I knew I needed a mountain bike for the live build, but I’d left buying one until the last minute. It wasn’t through want of trying – I’d visited half a dozen bike shops in the area over the past few weeks in search of a suitable one, but there was one problem: my taste for mountain bikes was still firmly rooted in 2000. The turn of the century heralded the beginning of a passion for bicycles that is still firmly with me. So I preferred the retro style that I grew up with. The new style was too flashy for my taste and the tubing was far too thick. At the age of 14, my school friends and I would cycle through Upton St Leonards, up a very steep hill called Portway to Painswick Beacon. It took an hour or two to cycle right to the top, but it was worth it. It was in this area that I found a freedom in cycling down its wooded trails. You can’t beat the exhilaration of cycling fast down a hill and I wanted to capture some of that excitement while I was at Dumfries House. I visited the Gloucestershire Bike Project, a local charity that restores and sells donated bicycles. They had plenty of great bikes, but not one that quite suited my needs: I was looking for a mountain bike that was simple, sturdy and had a retro feel to it. And it couldn’t be flashy. I didn’t want to attract any unwanted attention. As I left their warehouse, I saw a blue Raleigh Wildtrack that was bound for sale on the Internet. It was perfect. And only £95 – a quarter of what I was looking to pay. I don’t think I would ever fall in love with something so cheap. I bought it there and then. The only thing I had to change were the tyres. The ones that it had were brand new, but they were too knobbly for my liking, so I bought some ones that were good all-rounders for road and trail riding. I’ve already been to the local Tesco on it and I’m still in love. My love of bicycles has been thoroughly renewed. And what better to do it than through a charity.