Up The Woods #3

I’ve been writing each month about learning about trees. This third column first appeared on Caught By The River, as will each of the monthly posts. Illustration Matt Sewell.

I am now on first name terms with a whole swathe of common and everyday trees and a number of not-so-common ones growing in my part of south east London. I’m on nodding terms with the copper beech on the road to Lewisham; with the ubiquitous rabbit-eared horse chestnut; and even the frog-footed (distinctly non-native) ginkgo that sits on the hill that takes you out of Blackheath and back down to Lee Green. I’m now at the tree-language equivalent of being able to say please, thank you and ‘two bottles of beer’.

In my notebook, I’ve been keeping a list of trees I now recognise and the list is growing. I’m pretty confident with ash, and can almost tell an oak from a distance. It’s something about the slightly diffuse shape of the leaves that makes it look hazy against the horizon, unlike a beech, whose rounded leaves cup and curve the light more softly.

This week I grasped an important technical point: tree people describe leaves as ‘pinnate’ or ‘palmate’. It took me a while but I get it now: palmate just means that the leaf is shaped like your hand, with five fat fingers radiating out from a palm, like horse chestnut, or sycamore. Pinnate describes leaves that grow with their own little stalks off a long pin-like stalk, like ash or rowan.

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It really helps to understand this, because it’s a way of sorting and seeing families of tree types. Imagine for a minute you’re standing under a tree and it’s got palmate leaves that look a bit like a sycamore. It could be a sycamore or maybe a London plane, or perhaps a maple. Once you’re in the right general area (big tree, palmate leaves) you can start to find the detail. If you can see round, brown spheres hanging from the branches like woodland baubles, then it’s a plane. If it’s got seeds shaped like dolls-house coat hangers then it’s a sycamore, and if it’s got neither, and slightly smallish leaves then it’s a maple. I gave myself major bonus points when I stuffed a sycamore-ish leaf with a red stalk into my bag and worked out that it was probably a red maple. They’re all over the place in Lewisham! Who knew that the blue borough was a hotspot for Canada’s national treasure? If I’d have known earlier in the year, I’d have been up Mountsfield Park, fighting off the Staffie owners who hoist their dogs onto trees to strengthen their jaws, to do a bit of sap-tapping for my Saturday pancakes. I am told, also, that early birch leaves are good for a nibble, but that particular experiment will have to wait until next spring.

I’ve taken a scatter-fire approach to learning what the trees are called, using different resources including badgering people I know. I haven’t yet found a British tree book I really like, although I did get an excellent guide to New York’s wooded inhabitants when I was in that city last month. The trip included a feverish, flu-dosed afternoon lying on the grass in Central Park underneath a tree with paper-round seed pods which I eventually discovered was an elm. This felt like a bittersweet win: not only did I solve the puzzle of this particular tree, but it was an English tree in New York, and one that’s almost gone from our landscape, bar the 15,000 trees saved by Brighton Council during the Dutch Elm Disease epidemic of the 1970s.

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My New York book has been surprisingly useful, along with my trusty, basic Woodland Trust swatch of obvious trees, and a bit of internet, despite the fact that most tree ID websites are crap. There’s also my newly-developed habit of borrowing leaves to take home. I have a growing collection of faded leaves in small piles around the house, like chlorophyll cairns.

The problem with tree books is that the specimen they photograph is just one tree on one day and it’ll look different in June than it will in January. Young trees look different from old trees. No two trees look exactly the same so it’s hard to identify a tree from one single picture. I’m sure there are good apps but I left my iPhone in Rwanda (it’s a long story) and have been using a second-hand blackberry in the interim – a phone whose crappiness is perversely attractive in a world where the internet is everywhere all the time, hence still using it a month down the line even though it drives me mad.

One tree that’s hard to miss in south London is the sycamore. In fact, so many of these have self-seeded that they’re mostly considered a weed. Consequently, I had no qualms uprooting the skinny specimen on the builders hardcore and inch of soil on the side of my ’60s maisonette, where weeds fight (and win) a battle against the random plants I’ve chucked at the ground.

I have to make a confession here: I am no stranger to arborcide. When I moved in, I cut down three massive leyandii that were growing in my tiny yard because they provided so much shade that not even ivy grew. It was my own personal Scandi forest that turned my sunny and optimistic abode into permanent gothic gloaming, and they had to go. The trees had the last laugh, though. A year after they were felled, I got a man called Andy to come round with his stump grinder. One of the tree-shards flew up like a wooden Cruise missile and struck the middle of the patio doors, transforming the pane into a spiders web of shattered glass.

Learning about trees has made me notice more than just the species. I am suddenly aware of bad pollarding, like the leylandii in front of my house – yes, another one – where my neighbour hacked the top third off, leaving a jig-jag of brutalised trunk exposed on one side. On the other hand, I find myself noticing a particularly beautiful crown, like the tree on the corner of my friend’s road. I don’t what it is, but it’s in flower now and reminds me of a pretty child’s head after she’s had curlers and ribbons put into her hair. I’m not sure I’d have even noticed it before.

I remember now that I had the same experience of clarity increasing with knowledge when I decided to learn about clouds a few years ago. I had no handle on them apart from in the broadest sense (that one looks like a dog; those ones are orange and well emotional) and then after a few months they took on their individual beauty. Look how that Lenticularis sits in the sky, just there by itself like a gorgeous, soft UFO! Or, see that pretty piece of Vellum lounging next to a bunch of puffy Cumulus! Naming allows you to engage, and to like things more. It’s probably the same with people. I remember talking to a community worker on an East London estate who’d dealt with tensions simply by introducing residents to each other. The renegade kids became people with names, and the shouty, aggressive adults became people with names and everyone got on a whole lot better.

One final thing: I just read Jay Griffiths’s book, Kith. Some of her prose is a touch too pixie for me, but she has some wonderful things to say about childhood, the woods, and the roots and routes of words. The words tree, endure, tryst, trust and truth, she says, are all related to the common Indo-European, doru or dreu.

Trees, you see. They’re at the root of everything.

Up The Woods with Caught By The River

I’m very proud to be part of Caught By The River and very proud to be part of their summer festival events. Usually we’d all be heading down to Cornwall for Port Eliot but this year the good people of St Germans are taking a break. Instead, we’ll be at the new Open East festival at the Olympic Park and I’ll be hosting a panel on London’s influential pirate broadcasters.

I’ve also been writing a column for them on my mission to learn about trees. It’s called Up The Woods and you can read the first two here and here with lovely illustration from Matt Sewell. Column #3 coming next week.

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“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

An Antidote To Indifference

The always-interesting folk at Caught By The River have just released their next edition of An Antidote To Indifference. I’ve written something for them on nightclubs that explains how an illegal WWII jazz club in occupied Paris invented the disco as we know it and there are gorgeous illustrations from Kavel Rafferty as well as words from Andrew Loog Oldham, Jon Savage and author of the excellent How Soon Is Now, Richard King.


I’m doing this talk at Rough Trade East in a couple of weeks on fanzines from pre-punk til the modern day. Andrew Weatherall, Bob Stanley, Geoff Travis and Andy Childs will be taking part, talking about the part they played in DIY world, whether it was ‘60s rock ‘zine Zig Zag or acid house irregular Boy’s Own.

Getting ready for a session like this requires some proper research, so I’ve been reading books (the Boy’s Own and Soul Underground anthologies amongst others) and I’ve been keeping my eye out for current examples of the fanzine imperative, something Caught By The River’s Robin Turner called “an ever-present and excitable urgency to pass on newly learnt information to as many people as possible.”

This is precisely what I found in a gorgeous sun-bleached surf fanzine called Kook, which I came across in The Ship, a delightfully grown-up men’s clothes shop-stroke-vintage skate ‘n’ surf treasure trove in Greenwich Market.

I haven’t got a ruler to hand but it looks like a slightly slim-line Berliner, filled with beautiful photography, illustration, neat design touches (the lines and dots, dominos and cross-hatching that appear subtly throughout). Even better, the words are wonderful. I particularly enjoyed Rui’s article on how surf-board shaping has become popular in Portugal, Cyrus Sutton’s article on creating surf experiences in the street with a 50ft piece of tarpaulin, and Rebecca Jane Olive’s piece on how the idea that surfing and freedom are linked isn’t always right: “When I choose to take some time away from surfing, it sits on my shoulder whispering in my ear, nagging me, asking questions and making demands… At times I think we’ve all been fooled. Surfing isn’t freedom, it’s a trap.”

Kook is entirely propelled by the fanzine impulse. On the back, in the box titled ‘Kook Needs You!’ (people who do fanzines always want to reach out to like-minded folk) they say it quite explicitly. “Kook is created and produced for the shared joy of creating and producing something different. It is not for profit. If you would like to submit content for Kook 3, please get in touch.”

I found another piece of DIY publishing recently. It’s not exactly a fanzine, more a cross between treatise and graphic novel, but hey, who’s checking? It was about the size of my hand (properly pocket-sized), bound in blue blotting paper and contained a cod-scientific argument against spending too much time on the internet. It was called Social Notworking and the final page contained a 2nd Class stamp and an exhortation to go and write to someone. I would post a picture, but I leant it to my friend and I can’t find anything about it online.

I’ve never been convinced by the argument that blogs have taken over from fanzines, especially as so many blogs are transparently CV-angled. There are blogs that are propelled by the fanzine imperative (Paul Byrne’s testpressing.org and Matthew Hamilton’s AOR Disco come to mind) but I’ve never bought into any idea that suggests that a new technology (blogs) will destroy an old one (print). Video didn’t kill cinema. On-line shopping didn’t kill physical retail. All that happens is a constant realigning of everything, all the time.

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 else… 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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