“The Great Gatsby meets The Wild Geese Uptown”

It was Port Eliot the weekend before last. I always enjoy this slightly deranged literary festival that manages to make even fashion people nice for the weekend, and this year was no different. It even marked the end of the biblical deluge we’d all been suffering for the previous three months.

I’d gone along as part of the brilliant and funny Caught By The River coterie, and hosted a conversation with Richard King about his book How Soon Is Now (read it, it’s great) which saw King tell funny and scurrilous stories about everyone from the KLF to The Smiths and explained why having a hit can be a disaster for an indie.

Caught By The River are a bunch of people I’m proud to be associated with, partly because, collectively, they’ve got more ridiculous music stories than almost anyone else, and also because they combine a serious love of music with a widescreen enthusiasm for the natural world. Down in their tent I heard Robert MacFarlane and nature soundman Chris Watson perform a reading and sound piece that wrapped around like a wave-lapped lullaby and I saw TOY frontman Tom Dougall (and his thousand yard stare) destroy the tent with a snaking mindbend of feedback and drone and tunes you wanted to adopt immediately.

However, the biggest mindbend came not from a bunch of bound-to-be-massive young and wild loopsters, but instead in a small white tent just across the green, hosted by Andrews of Arcadia. In fact, they bent my mind twice: first, when Andrews ran a series of slides and films that showed the tunny fishing madness that swept through the north-east coast of England in the 1930s. There were men and women, far out at sea in tiny white boats, dressed like they were about to go for tea with the captain, landing huge 700lb tuna in man V fish battles that sometimes went on for 14 hours. I’m going to blog more about this another time, but for the moment, let’s just say that it opened up a whole new world, and made this part of England’s past look alien and compelling and genuinely mesmerising.

The second Arcadian mindbend came from photographer Neil Thomson. He showed a photographic project he’s working on called Phantom Fields and Ghost Squadrons about the disused airfields that are hidden in the undergrowth throughout Norfolk and Suffolk. It’s a remarkable project that brings the relatively recent past into mesmeric rub with the future, and where’s he’s conjoured up the ghosts of stiff-upper lipped squadrons and jitterbugging GIs by photographing the fields that now cover the tarmac they landed on. Again, more on this later. For the moment, all you need to see if one of the photographs.

And if you’re wondering, it was Andrews of Arcadia who provided the title for this post. When he and Neil Thompson were interviewed by BBC Radio Cornwall, the presenter asked whether they’d donned their trademark look (roughly, from a laywoman’s point of view, original 1930s-early 1950s shirts and high-waisted trousers) just for the occasion. “We always dress like this,” said Andrews, dry as you like. “We’re like the Great Gatsby meets The Wild Geese uptown.”

All photography: Neil Thompson

Caught By The River

Last night I went to Rough Trade East for the launch of Caught By The River’s new collaboration with the original DIY record store, where their books and reading choices are available in-store.

I’ve known the latter for millions of light years thanks to our shared machinations in music and I got involved this year, hosting a panel at their stage at Port Eliot and contributing to their Music Reader. I admire their new nature-shaped venture, especially as we share a serious love and admiration for the works of Roger Deakin and Chris Yates.

I first read Chris Yates while I was at University in Manchester. My friend Alex (or Pez as he was mostly known) was from Leeds and loved fishing. He loved fishing so much that he would steal out to Alexanda Park in Moss Side for a spot of moonlight fishing. Anyone who knows Manchester will recognise how unusual this is. For those who don’t, replace the phrase ‘Alexandra Park’ with your local inner-city no-go zone that has a pond in it.

Pez loved Chris Yates and even though I knew eff all about fishing, I could see that this book was something special and I borrowed it off him. I haven’t read it since but I distinctly remember the enthusiasm rising off the pages: his clear and palpable love for the various lakes and fishing spots felt exactly like my enthusiasm for Chicago House records.

But back to Caught By The River. The cast (founders Jeff Barrett, Robin Turner, Andrew Walsh and angling writer John Andrews) sat on stools that looked like things an elephant might stand on at a gothic circus. They were self-deprecating (“really, this is the launch of a bookshelf”), funny and thought-provoking, especially when John Andrews read from their most recent book ‘On Nature’. He read letters from a gentleman by the name of Dexter Petley who talked about growing up in Kent and attending a Rural Secondary Modern, a school where history and biology were replaced by lessons in mixing compost and chitting tubers.

Then they called for Bill Drummond, lurking at the back in denim with a partially opened rucksack slung over one shoulder. He stood in front of the stage, read a paragraph or two, questioned someone about whether or not they were texting, and told us the updated version of the story. It was about damsons. We heard about his first taste of the fruit, in a restaurant, a moment which marked the beginnings of his first and only obsession with fruit. He told us what he found out about damsons: that they came from Damascus and had gradually inched their way across the globe. That they’d been cultivated in the Vale Of Aylesbury, used for hat dye in England, and exported to Germany to dye the uniforms of the Luftwaffe.

Then to the rucksack, from which he pulled out two of the huge scores he uses for performances of The 17. The instructions were simple: go to Damascus, find a damson tree, climb it, hum a tune and then plant a cutting from a tree in Aylesbury, and to repeat the process in Aylesbury. Then the Arab Spring happened and travel to Syria became difficult for different reasons. Through slightly circuitous means (a meeting with the lady who translated his 17 scores into Arabic and who’d managed to get out of Syria during the crackdown) he was given two Damascene damsons, which he put in his pocket, and then accidentally put into the wash. You didn’t find out if he dyed the whole load Luftwaffe blue, but he did produce a plant pot – and no sapling. I’d have brought along a dram of my great uncle Maurice’s damson vodka if I’d known.

Rough Trade was a cradle for punk back in the 1970s. It’s now one of the finest record shops in the world (and I say this as someone who still loves an old school Soho shop like Black Market or Sounds Of The Universe) that comprises cafe, meeting place, bookshop, poetry corner, performance space, and of course, place of musical discovery. Caught By The River made me think that Rough Trade’s already acting as the cradle of something elseā€¦ we just don’t know what it is yet.

I’m hosting a celebration of fanzine culture from the ’70s onwards at the next Caught By The River event on Weds October 12th with Geoff Travis, Andy Childs, Bob Stanley and Andrew Weatherall.

Port Eliot 2011

The best way to describe Port Eliot festival is like a huge, parallel universe Garden Fete.

It has the attributes of a rural summer fair (village ladies selling jam outside a chapel; bunting; people larking about in the river) but with these stock elements teased and twisted into a strange, funny and frequently quite feral experience.

I think my favourite half an hour of Port Eliot 2011 was when I was walking through the woods towards the river with my friends Chris and Diana. It’s a lovely view anyway, with the river either glassy with water or flat brown with mud depending on the tide, and a host of yellow and brown hills rising up behind and folding into each other.

It looked even better than usual because there were two shire horses leading a red and blue wooden cart, which had twelve men and women playing violins and pipes and drums, dressed as bus conductors, with big MOT discs as badges. I had no idea what the music was, but it felt like the kind of English jig that sent village fairs a bit mental in Thomas Hardy’s time and led to young folk being scolded by their parents. I swear, if these lot had come to my village in 1823, I’d have hopped on the back and begged them to take me with them, whether I was 15 or 59. The cart rolled along the length of the river path and then it was gone. I saw them again later, in a tent they’d named the Busk Stop.

The river sits at the bottom of the site, with a Isambard Kingdom Brunel viaduct spanning it over to the far right of the estate. It’s a kind of visual full-stop to the festival, an edge where you’d expect strange and interesting things to happen. At one end of the river there was the Cinema Paradiso, where they screened The Red Shoes and Great Expectations and where mozzies congregated. At the other end, before you headed back towards the house, was the Idler Academy where people were building coracles. In-between the two was the brilliant Caught By The River where Jeff Barrett and Robin Turner conjured up another year of musings and music that created a Venn diagram intersecting fishing, Sabresonic, hillbilly beards, cycling around England, bird sound DJ sets, fanzines and a 22-strong alt-indie girl group who sound like a fem-powerful version of the Polyphonic Spree, in ribbons.

I’ve been to Port Eliot three times now, but this was the first time I went as a performer. My job was to host a conversation about the underground press and the pre-punk fanzines that laid the foundations for influential zines like Sniffin’ Glue. I’d met up with the gentlemen of the panel a month or so beforehand to talk about what we’d talk about. I went up to the Heavenly offices in Portobello Rd and met Geoff Travis, who needs no introduction apart from the two words Rough and Trade; Andy Childs, who started his own underground rock fanzine Fat Angel and went on to edit Zig Zag; and Mick Houghton, who wrote the definitive book about Elektra and who ran his own Captain Beefheart-inspired fanzine, Fast and Bulbous, before embarking on a life-long journey in music as a journalist and publicist for people including Echo and The Bunnymen, Bill Drummond and Spiritualized. We sat around a big table and they told me stories. I learnt a lot, and I came away with a big fat pile of original fanzines that had been sitting in Andy Childs’ shed.

Reading these was instructive. You realise how much is left out of history, and how inaccurate received wisdom can be. The punk fanzines Childs lent me were brilliant but they weren’t cartoony punk. Chainsaw had an interview with Wire, conducted at the Red Deer, Croydon, which included this exchange:

Charlie Chainsaw: Do you want to make a lot of money out of your music?
Colin: Fuck that no. We’re not in it for the money.
Charlie Chainsaw: Well, Slaughter and The Dogs said they wanted to make a lot of money and any group that said they weren’t in it for the money were bloody liars.
Colin: Well fuck them. They’re Slaughter and The Dogs and they’re fucking wankers.

At the end, Charlie writes this brilliant line. ‘This is the interview. It’s by no means verbatim, but it’s the best I can remember through my alcoholic haze’. The DIY idea, written explicitly in the editor’s letter of Glasgow fanzine Ripped And Torn, was clearly true and believable to kids at the time. “Anyone can do this,” Tony D wrote in a green edition of his fanzine. “None of us have any training or special equipment. If you want to, you can do it too.”

We sat on stage and talked about the underground press. Geoff Travis, a man who pretty much defines the word ‘concise’, talked about Oz being sold outside his school gates. Andy Childs talked about taking his first editions of Fat Angel to the first Virgin Records store, above a shoe shop on Oxford St, and Mick Haughton talked about making zines simply because you wanted to – that the only impulse that mattered was the desire to do it, and to share the music you loved with other people, people you knew had to be out there.

It was great. Well, I enjoyed it anyway and it was a privilege to be able to share my small experiences of that impulse too. When Johnno and Paul started Jockey Slut in Manchester, and asked myself and Joanne Wain to be part of it, we were doing the same thing. We made the mag because no-one else was writing about house or techno in the way we wanted to read it. We wanted to share what we loved and we knew there must be people like us out there. Our world wasn’t properly covered in NME or Melody Maker, apart from ghettoised ‘dance’ pages, and dance music mags only seemed bothered about recurrent drugs features. We cared about Detroit techno artists like Underground Resistance, or New York house artists like Masters At Work and we wanted to be irreverent and funny. I’d never seen a copy of Sniffin Glue but I knew it had existed and the mag tagline ‘disco pogo for punks in pumps’ was an overt nod to our fanzine lineage. It’s something the influential acid house fanzine did too: Boys Own was punk in a million small ways and in one obvious way. In a nod to the possibly apocryphal Sniffin Glue article which printed three chords and told readers to go and form a band, Boys Own ran a piece which pictured a sampler, a drum machine and two decks, and told readers to go and make a record.

But anyway. I’m home now, and Port Eliot is over for another year. One thing I thought on the way home, and I think it’s also true of all experientially-rich events like it, is that there’s a shared experience and an entirely individual experience. I had a very different time to the people who hung out in the fashion area, and caroused with designers and baked hats. They had a different time to the people who milled around the flower displays and followed a naturalists thread, listening to experts talking about butterflies, or holding up machines that let you hear bats talking to each other. We were all there over the weekend, but we were also in different places.

I’m not suggest that anyone needs to go to Port Eliot next year. These things have a life and a lifespan and every edition of the festival will be different. Once it was the Elephant Fayre, and in the future it might well be something different. The point really, is that it’s entirely possible for everyone to create something special and beautiful if you put your mind to it. The St Germans family have a bigger and more beautiful canvas than most, but the idea remains the same, whether you’re inviting your friends round for an outdoor screening of a Werner Hertzog film in your yard, or if you’re turning a BBQ into an art event like my friend Al did earlier this summer. But then he also build a shed from doors he found in skips, so he’s living in that mindset already.

Right now. I’m off to find out more about Busk Stop.

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