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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (musicus simplex)

Soothing Savage Breasts

I don’t play a musical instrument and I’m utterly ignorant of the meaning that lies behind those little black dots that are connected to each other by slanting lines. They hang there on the telegraph wires of the sheet music, looking just like the flocks of birds that I see through my window, perched insouciantly on the power cables. What does it all mean? I have no idea. But though I may be unskilled as a practitioner, nevertheless, music has always been a hugely important part of my life.

It all began in the 1950s, as so many things do. I was a small child surrounded by a strange new world and looking to try and find my place in it. There was always a radio burbling in the background. I remember that radio well – it sat in pride of place in the lounge, a huge great monstrosity, a cabinet of highly polished wood with a fabric overlay in front of the speaker. It took several minutes to warm up and start working after it was turned on and it filled the air with the faint perfume of burning dust as it reached its optimum operating temperature. And then we were rewarded with the sound of a BBC announcer playing “Family Favourites” -- a record request programme through which lonely wives sent messages of love to their husbands serving overseas in the army, all wrapped around saccharine songs that were mostly sung by Doris Day and Frank Sinatra, Vera Lynn and Dean Martin.

The second world war was long over, but as the 1940s rolled over into a new decade the world was again going through a time of great political turmoil. When the politics turn sour, the armies move in. The British Army was a conscripted army, and it was fighting in trouble spots all over the world. In the Middle-East, Irgun and the Stern Gang were slaughtering British troops in the deserts of Palestine as the new state of Israel struggled to establish itself, and war was brewing in Korea.

I don’t actually remember those incidents – they happened just before, during and just after I was busy being born. But I do remember the struggles that followed on from them. I remember the small wars that were fought against the communist guerillas in Malaya and Aden, and I remember the atrocities committed by the EOKA terrorists in Cyprus where Archbishop Makarios preached the gospel of what later came to be called ethnic cleansing, as he exhorted the indigent Greeks to expel the Turks from the island that they’d lived in for generations. I remember the Mau-Mau fighting in Kenya to overthrow the dying remnants of the Empire and I remember the tragi-comedy of Suez that made Britain a little bit of a world wide laughing stock.

And all of those grim conflicts were surrounded by music as the radio played heartfelt wishes of love to our brave troops overseas. I absorbed it all. It was ubiquitous, it was all around me.

Growing up in England has always been hard to explain to people who didn’t do it. Neil Gaiman tries to come to grips with the theme in his new novel The Ocean At The End Of The Lane. It is the semi-autobiographical story of a socially inept child who lives a rich life inside the books he reads. I’m sure we can all identify with that!

But, of course, because it’s a Neil Gaiman novel, it’s got monsters and magic and mysteries as well.

The book is dedicated to his wife Amanda (who is American) and it seems to be an attempt to explain to her just why and how Neil is who he is. I think it succeeds brilliantly, on every level.

The story has a frame – the narrator, an old man, is revisiting the scenes of his childhood. And as he does so, he explains the scenes largely in the narrative voice of the seven year old child that he was, with the occasional flash forward to the man that he is. It’s a complex structure, but Neil carries it off brilliantly.

At the bottom of the street where the narrator lives is a farm and there he meets Lettie. She’s eleven years old, though it isn’t clear for how long she’s been eleven years old. There are hints that she might have been eleven for centuries. She lives at the farm with her mother and her grandmother who remember the old country. Both the old countries, the one that sank and the one that exploded. They take a bit of a shine to the young boy. Lettie shows him a small pond on the farm and explains that it’s really an ocean. And who is to say that it isn’t?

But the fabric between the worlds is sometimes thin and the boy gets a foot worm (yes, it’s as yucky as it sounds) which is a bridge that allows what I can only describe as a malevolent spirit to enter his life and seduce his father. It’s a crisis that the boy is not equipped to deal with, but the ladies of the farm, and the ocean, rise to the challenge...

Despite having a child as the narrator for most of the story, this is definitely not a children’s book. Many of the scenes are the stuff of which nightmares are made. Neil’s usual lightness of touch is missing and the themes are grim. The supernatural elements are overwhelming and yet despite this there is a extraordinary tone that I can only describe as quintessentially English. I had no supernatural incidents in my childhood but I grew up in a similar manner to the child in the story and I recognised so many of the bits and pieces of business that inform the world of the novel. I’m sure Amanda will completely understand Neil’s the writer’s explanation of Neil the man. I certainly did.

And meanwhile, for the rest of us, it’s just another bloody marvellous Neil Gaiman novel.

Subversive elements were starting to creep in to the music. Sometimes that old radio pumped out strangely exciting rhythms in between the standard fare of Vera Lynn and Dean Martin. Somebody called Bill Haley was singing something called Rock and Roll...

One, two three o’clock four o’clock rock
Five, six seven o’clock, eight o’clock rock,
We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight...

It made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Even as a small child, I knew that it was complete rubbish. But my goodness me, it was exciting rubbish. Sometimes I’d see Bill Haley on the television – he was at least as old as my parents, possibly even older, and an utterly ridiculous kiss curl of hair hung greasily over his forehead as he raved with artificial excitement through his strangely attractive song. Naturally, my parents hated him and they hated all the many imitators that sprang up in his wake. That’s what parents are for. But he was very hard to ignore, and his rock and roll was broadcast at such unpredictable intervals on the radio and television that you couldn’t help but hear it. I listened in swooning amazement while my parents grumbled and groaned as they waited impatiently for the next bit of Frank Sinatra’s crooning.

But rock and roll wasn’t going to go away any time soon. Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Eddie Cochrane roared across our airwaves all the way from America. But they were soon completely eclipsed by Elvis Presley, who was indisputably the uncrowned king of the new music. Pale British imitations followed in the wake of these musical giants – Joe Brown, Marty Wilde, Billy Fury, Tommy Steele and, of course, Cliff Richard who, at one point in his career, was actually regarded as a serious contender for the crown that Elvis wore, hard though that may be to believe today.

Teddy Boys stalked the streets of England wearing crepe soled brothel-creeper shoes and sporting heavily brylcreemed duck-arse hair styles, with outrageous quiffs sticking out stiffly into the sky; black and greasy phallic erections – proud boasts about the endowments that may or may not have been hiding behind the socks in their crotches. The teddy boys wore tight trousers and long jackets and thin ties and, when the mood took them, they beat up passers by and used their flick knives to carve each other up and to slash the seats in the cinemas where they watched crappy Hollywood exploitation films about their rock and roll heroes. Everyone was afraid of the anarchy espoused by the teddy boys and the newspapers were full of outraged editorials – hang, draw and quarter them! Put them in the army! And of course that’s where most of them ended up. Conscription was in all their futures, and the army shaved their heads, put them in uniform and sent them off to die in the steamy Malayan jungles and the dry Middle-Eastern sands. Their sweethearts, still at home, sent record requests to “Family Favourites” and slowly the radio began to play more and more rock and roll. I loved it all.

The great British heroes of this new sound were The Shadows. Originally they were just Cliff Richard’s backing band, but they made some hugely influential records of their own. They played instrumentals – after all, Cliff was the singer; trying to replace him would have been lèse-majesté. Their music was thrilling – The Shadows did things with their guitars that nobody had ever done before and that nobody would ever do again until, a generation later, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix showed the world how a guitar really ought to be played. But Clapton and Hendrix were standing on the shoulders of giants – Hank Marvin paved the way for that later musical revolution and The Shadows reigned supreme in British rock music until the Beatles pushed them to one side in the 1960s. The first LP record I ever bought was The Shadows Greatest Hits. I still have that record sitting in pride of place on my shelves and I still listen to it regularly. The tracks on it are just as exciting now as they ever were – Apache still sends shivers down my spine and I think it always will, even though these days I know I’m listening to it with rose coloured glasses over my ears, if I may be allowed to mix my metaphor a little bit. I knew the names of the people who played in The Shadows long before John, Paul, George, and Ringo usurped their throne and I still know their names today. But somehow the names of Hank, Brian, Bruce and John don’t have quite the same ring about them as once upon a time they did...

As the 1950s came to an end the communist guerillas retired in defeat, EOKA went quiet and the last traces of Empire turned quietly into the Commonwealth. The Israeli thugs legitimised themselves and one of them even managed to get himself elected as Prime Minister. But his past came back to haunt him when, some time in the 1970’s, he came to England on a state visit, full of pomp and circumstance. Unfortunately he was still under sentence of death in Britain after a trial in absentia, and a special act had to be passed in the British Parliament to pardon his crimes. Without that act being passed, the law would have required him to be hanged as soon as he stepped on to English soil – not the most diplomatic reception for a visiting head of state. He had the blood of far too many British soldiers on his hands and not everybody felt comfortable about welcoming him. But the reality is that yesterday’s terrorist is all too often tomorrow’s revered politician. The only difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter is whether or not you manage to win your battles...

The British Army mostly came home as the 1960s began, though there were still some overseas bases, most notably in Akrotiri, Cyprus and in Berlin. Conscription was abandoned. The Teddy Boys all got jobs as stockbrokers and something very special was starting to happen in Liverpool.

The history of rock and roll divides quite neatly into three distinct periods. Before the Beatles, during the Beatles and after the Beatles. Nothing else matters. The Beatles were the ones who made the new music grow up, and in its maturity they showed us that even though the music’s beginnings had been crude and possibly even simplistic, it was nevertheless capable of displaying subtlety and sophistication. Both musically and lyrically the Beatles turned rubbish into art and nothing was ever quite the same again.

Meanwhile, the brief tranquility that started the new decade didn’t last very long. Soon there was another war going on behind the scenes. But this one was fought in the jungles of Vietnam and it wasn’t our war, it was America’s war. We still had the moral outrage that almost any war engendered in us in those days. At that time and in that place it seemed axiomatic that war was immoral, and the Vietnam war was perceived as more immoral than most. But that moral outrage was tempered perhaps by the lack of a physical outrage. None of our soldiers were coming home dead in boxes. The same could not be said of America – there the war was extremely divisive, there was revolution in the air and sometimes even in the streets and amazingly the voices of the people were heard and they actually managed to bring down a government. President Johnson listened to to what was being said, realised what was likely to happen if he ignored those words, and wisely he refused to stand for a second term. He disappeared into obscurity and a bitter retirement.

And all the time the music played. It was hugely important for after all it was the chronicle of the times.

As the 1960s drew to a close, I was studying science at university, but only on the outside. On the inside I had an artistic soul. I was blotting paper soaking up cultural ink. Bob Dylan’s incomprehensible songs moved me almost to tears. Considered objectively his lyrics made no sense whatsoever. But that was never the point – they weren’t meant to be analysed. They could only be understood subjectively and emotionally and on that level their impact was huge. “Country Joe” McDonald taught me that political protest could be bitter, harsh and hilariously funny at one and the same time. There will never be a better anti-war song than his Feel Like I’m Fixing To Die Rag – Whoopee! We’re all going to die! And Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Buffy Saint Marie, Neil Young and Paul Simon proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that lyric poetry was still alive and well, albeit in a slightly altered form.

In England, this new sophistication manifested itself on John Peel’s radio show. Peel was a man of eclectic taste. Avant garde atonality rubbed shoulders with experimental jazz, traditional folk music and the heavy thumping rhythms of hard core rock, sometimes all at once in a single song!

It was John Peel who introduced me to Marc Bolan and Peregrine Took (yes, really!) in the guise of Tyrannosaurus Rex. Of course this was long before Bolan metamorphosed into T. Rex, sold his soul to the devil, and died young, handsome and rich, a casualty of, and the epitome of, glam rock!

It was on John Peel’s programme that I first fell in love with the inane caterwaulings of The Incredible String Band, and it was there that I followed the bewildering array of lineups who always called themselves Fairport Convention and/or Steeleye Span despite the fact that they were made up of completely different people almost every time they appeared.

By a strange coincidence, shortly after I wrote these words, I came across John Peel’s almost autobiography The Margrave Of The Marshes. I call it an almost autobiography because he died before he could finish the book and the last two thirds of the narrative was completed by his wife. She based her section of the book on an outline that he left behind which indicated how he saw the structure progressing, and she backed it up with material from the very detailed diaries that he kept all his life long. I expected that this curious half and half structure would be unsatisfying but actually it works really well and I devoured it avidly. Peel’s introductory third of his life story is, in it’s own dry, dead pan way, screamingly funny. Despite his expressionless voice, his radio shows were always very droll. There was a cynicism about his world view that sometimes sat uneasily in company with his hippy philosophy and lifestyle but it well suits the narrative of his life and allows him to distance himself from some of the more traumatic incidents that he relates; such as the night he got raped, for example.

The later sections written by his wife do not have the same tone (how could they?) but nevertheless they continue to inform and elucidate. It is abundantly clear that she really was his life partner and she understood him inside and out. That insight, coupled with her ability to explain her husband’s motivations, really illuminates the latter sections. I came into the book expecting to be disappointed, but I left it fulfilled, amused and above all well informed about the life and times of one of my heroes. Despite its mixed authorship, and curious structure it succeeds brilliantly. John Peel lived for music. It’s simple to say, but so hard to explain. Nevertheless, The Margrave Of The Marshes manages to explain it.

It was starting to become clear to me that I was looking for two things from my music – I was falling increasingly in love with lyrical sophistication but at the same time I wanted the accompanying music to be as subtle as the lyrics. I was losing patience with musical simplicity. I was becoming bored by the banal. I certainly understood the crude attraction of the hard core rock and roll that evolved from Bill Haley’s small beginnings – and those savage rhythms could still get under my skin in small doses. But all too soon my attention would begin to wander. The sound and the fury signified nothing to me any more. I wanted something other than sheer raw exuberance.

I found what I was looking for in folk music. The British folk heritage is a very rich one. Some of the songs tell stories (and we all love stories), some of the songs are bawdy jokes and some are sad refrains. Some are full of bizarre surreal images and some are straightforward dance tunes. That’s a very large pool to splash around in. No matter what your mood, there will always be some music to suit it. Political statements sit comfortably alongside love songs and the events taking place in the world are encapsulated in wry couplets.

Many of the contemporary musicians that I was coming to love seemed to feel quite at home in that tradition. Paul Simon had a huge reputation in British folk music circles long before he hit the big time in the world at large. Even Bob Dylan, who was just embarking on the very first leg of his perpetual world tour, would occasionally pop in to some of the larger clubs when he happened to be in town. I found I was listening more and more to people who described themselves as folk-rock musicians; though sometimes they got pompous and called themselves progressive-rock musicians instead. But I found it always amounted to much the same thing in the end.

I spent the 1970s travelling the wilds of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire seeking out folk clubs in the small back rooms of dingy pubs in tiny villages. The folk clubs were a young man’s paradise. There was always lots of beer of course, and there were always lots of girls as well. Unfortunately most of the girls wore knitted jumpers and seemed to think that the answers to life the universe and everything could be found in astrology and homeopathy and if all else failed, they could always go and hug a tree. But you can’t have everything and, on the positive side, they generally showed a very pleasing willingness to take their knitted jumpers off for me with the absolute minimum of persuasion on my part. And there was music as well! Icing on the cake!

Sometimes I even read a book.

The Blood Of Gods is the fifth novel in Conn Iggulden’s Caesar Cycle. It takes place shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar and tells the tale of the power struggles that lead to the rule of the triumvirate. As you might expect, it finishes with the battle of Philippi where Brutus and Cassius met their fate. It’s a familiar tale – read all about it in the Shakespeare play – and it is to Iggulden’s credit that he manages to make a story that is so well known still seem gripping and exciting. We all know how it is going to end, but it’s the journey to that end that matters.

This is really Octavian’s story. He starts the novel as a penniless youth on holiday in Greece with his friends Agrippa and Maecenas. We follow his rapid and dramatic rise to power and by the end of the book he is an Emperor in all but name. The triumvirate rules uneasily and we have not yet had the tale of Octavian’s split with Mark Antony and Antony’s defeat at the battle of Actium. Perhaps Iggulden will write this story in the next volume (or perhaps not – The Blood of Gods has been announced as the completion of the series. Oh well, we’ll see).

Part of the cleverness of this novel is the manner in which Iggulden is not afraid to take on scenes which are so famous that they have descended into cliché. Somehow he manages to shed a whole new light on Mark Antony’s oration at Caesar’s funeral. I was dreading that scene; but he carries it off brilliantly. I can’t help but think that Shakespeare would have approved.

And so the wheels are set in motion and the plot lumbers on towards the final confrontation at Philippi. But the devil is in the details and the details of this story are truly fascinating. Even if you haven’t read the earlier books in the series, you really should read this one. It works well as a stand alone novel and it is truly superb.

Well anyway, that was then and this is now and something has happened to the music. These days I’m older and more cynical. These days it seems to me that, by and large, all art aspires to the condition of muzak, to mildly mis-quote Michael Moorcock, and certainly when I hear soppy strings playing Beatles music in hotel lifts I do sometimes wonder if it was all worth while.

What once seemed new and dangerous, and even revolutionary now seems to be mainstream and harmless. The times are just as turbulent today as ever they were in the past. New armies are fighting the old wars all over again on some of the same old battlefields, and the same propaganda is generating the same kind of headlines that I was reading in my newspaper fifty years ago. It seems that nothing much has changed in any fundamental way.

That doesn’t invalidate the music of course. But perhaps the music is diminished by what some might perceive to be a failure of intent. Or, more likely, perhaps it never was as important or as clever as once upon a time I thought it was. It seems clear that neither I nor the world ever really learned anything that mattered from it.

I’ve never stopped listening to music of course, and I never will stop listening to it. Old music, new music even Morris Dancing music; it all has its place in the pantheon. I still love it just as much, and it’s still very important to me. But I no longer think it’s important to the world, and nowadays I get the sense of things passing me by.

Perhaps I’ll let Jethro Tull have the last word. It’s very hard to express what I’ve been trying to say succinctly, but I think that Ian Anderson beautifully summed up the decades of my life, the songs that I listened to and the contradictory, turbulent times that generated the songs, when he stood up on one leg, tootled his flute and sang:

So you ride yourselves over the fields
And you make all your animal deals
And your wise men don’t know how it feels
To be thick
As a brick.

Neil Gaiman The Ocean at the End of the Lane Headline
John Peel The Margrave of the Marshes Corgi
Conn Iggulden The Blood of Gods HarperCollins
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