Book Review: “Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy”

A review I wrote of John Gurney’s recent book. N.B. This review has appeared elsewhere.


‘Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?’

– Gerrard Winstanley (The New Law of Righteousness, 1649)

For those familiar with the excellent (if rather odd) 1975 film Winstanley, these lines may ring out in actor Miles Halliwell’s serene, well-spoken, home-counties voice. While we can never know what Winstanley really sounded like, enough is known of his life to give a fascinating insight into much of his personal and political journey. Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676) was of the ‘middling sort’, a cloth trader from Wigan who moved to London, lost his business and became one of the founders of a lasting radical tradition: that of the Diggers.

As John Gurney points out in the introduction to his recent book, the time seems ripe for a reappraisal and wider dissemination of the thought of Winstanley. Issues of gross inequality, pressure on the natural environment, the oppressive role of the state (and its favouring of the wealthy), and the alienation of people from the product of their labour all gripped Winstanley, and they of course remain key problems for the contemporary left. This volume cuts to the heart of Winstanley’s thought on these topics and many more, yet it goes beyond the work of one man and successfully puts the Digger movement in its historical context.

After a stirring introduction, the second chapter gives a good outline of the material links between Wigan (and Lancashire more generally) and London through the burgeoning textile industry and its associated guilds; this was the tumultuous world of early mercantile capitalism. Winstanley’s retreat from London, caused seemingly by failure in his chosen trade, led him to Cobham in Surrey. His radicalisation there took place during personal economic difficulties but Gurney sensibly declines to assign direct causality; we should not automatically assume that it was only because the system failed for Winstanley that he turned against it.

Indeed, Gurney’s excellent contextualisation of the religious (moral) framework embraced by Winstanley and others suggests that egalitarianism was a growing concern at this time. This is a similar line to that taken by Christopher Hill, whose work should probably be read alongside Gurney’s biography. Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down (1972) paints a broad picture of the many contemporary political and religious radicalisms which erupted in seventeenth-century Britain. While Hill covered the Diggers only relatively briefly, Winstanley emerged, according to Gurney, as ‘the real hero, and the true revolutionary’ (p.7).(1)

The third chapter traces intellectual parallels and antecedents relating to Winstanley’s ‘Digger’ writings, but again Gurney declines to speculate on direct influences, instead pointing to the more general milieu of common radical and millenarian ideas. Gurney identifies two major innovations in the Digger movement, both important strands of Winstanley’s works: the consistent complaint that the English were still living under the Norman Yoke (that is, an aristocratic, arbitrary elite imposed from without), and the failure of that elite to honour the social contract. Winstanley argued that the common people had opposed the king with both money and blood, and had paid a disproportionately high price in both.

There follows a very useful summary of the longstanding historical debate over the precise relationship between the Diggers and the Levellers. Gurney’s approach is rather unusual but refreshing; he essentially tells us that the issue is not all that important, and certainly should not obscure the radical demands of either group. Much of the confusion centres on a particular Winstanley pamphlet called The True Levellers Standard Advanced (1649). Note the lack of apostrophe; Gurney suggests that it refers (in the singular) to Christ, the True Leveller. This would negate a great deal of historical debate over why the Diggers (who did not seem to refer to themselves by that name either) had given themselves a name so close to that of an already-existing radical movement, the Levellers. Gurney also brings out very well the viciousness of the attacks on Winstanley himself, on his livestock, and on the land used by the Diggers.

Leftist traditions are divided over whether Winstanley represents a true precursor to later incarnations of socialism or communism, but Gurney makes a powerful case for the Diggers as genuine proto-communists. It is difficult to argue with this, though some leftist traditions of course do; Winstanley favoured a national strike, attacked wage labour, believed that all things are held in common and railed against the clerical and secular authorities and their wealthy masters. That said, readers may find it a step too far when Gurney insists that Winstanley’s final important work, The Law of Freedom (1652), fits with this radical set of ideals. There are bold attempts to smooth the differences between the earlier and later Winstanley but those extracts from The Law of Freedom included (in a very fair and even-handed manner) by Gurney still convey a retreat into a more conservative and patriarchal line of argument.

Finally, we should remember to look a bit further afield. The context of the outbreak of radicalism is not only the ‘English Revolution’, as Christopher Hill dubbed it, but a wider series of economic and social upheavals ranging across Europe during the transition from late feudalism to early capitalism (c.1350-c.1700). However, the intricacies of these conflicts are often lost to modern leftist traditions because of their close ties to religious conflict. Beginning with the Peasants’ Revolt in England and the Wycliffe-inspired Lollard movement, the continuing outbreaks of rebellion by the poor, often supported by radical dissenting clerics, spread across Europe and reached a numerical peak in the enormous (but relatively little-known) German Peasants’ War of 1524-26. In this conflict we may find many strands of egalitarian and millenarian thought which later were fused with the specific English complaints about the Norman Yoke to form a hotbed of radicalism in the 1640s. It is very hard to read Winstanley’s work without thinking of Thomas Müntzer, for example. Müntzer, a cleric, was beheaded in Thuringia in 1525 having proclaimed ‘omnia sunt communia’ (‘everything is common’, usually taken to mean ‘all things belong to all people’); a Winstanleyian sentiment to be sure.


1. Hill went into greater detail in The Religion of Gerrard Winstanley (1976).

Published in: on August 19, 2014 at 10:48 am  Leave a Comment  


We saw a fantastic deal on ducks at our local butcher – four for a tenner. They weren’t too big but we thought the price was too good to miss out on (it worked out about the quarter of the price of prepared meat).

The birds

The birds

The only problem was they were intact (aside from the shot wounds or broken necks); we had a long evening of plucking, eviscerating, cleaning and butchering the ducks, but at the end we had eight breasts, eight legs, a huge pot of carcasses for stock plus some interesting other edible bits: hearts, gizzards and liver.

Plucking the wing

Plucking the wing

The first stage was plucking a band around the wings which would allow us to cut them off later.

Removing the down

Removing the down

Next came the more general plucking of feathers; once the top feathers are pulled, there is a layer of dense down underneath. This got everywhere of course.

Pile of feathers

Pile of feathers

We wondered about using the feathers but adding them to the compost would probably have attracted foxes, so we bagged them up for disposal.


Finishing the pluck

Once the birds were plucked (the one above was the most successful!) we cleared up a bit and got ready for the evisceration, which we would need to do before we could butcher the meat.

Off with her head

Off with her head

The feet and wings came off first, then the head. This was the moment to pay some sort of muted respect to these beautiful iridescent birds. As meat goes, this is pretty happy stuff – one moment they were evidently stuffing their crops, then in a flash, oblivion. No lifelong corralling or drawn-out sadistic death.



Digging the organs out of the body cavity was next, using two probing fingers. First the gizzard (on the far right in the picture, more on that below); then the guts, being careful not to perforate them; the lungs; then finally the heart and liver.

Gizzards and hearts

Gizzards and hearts

The guts and lungs were discarded but we kept the gizzards and hearts and a bit of liver (though the liver was very fragile). We had a chicken the other day and will combine the leftover hearts and livers from all the birds in a dish.

Inside the gizzard

Inside the gizzard

Cleaning and preparing the gizzard was probably the most interesting and fiddly bit of work. You have to split the casing, then clean out the grit and other contents. The texture of the inside is remarkable, like a gnarly old heel or piece of crinkled leather.

Prepared gizzards

Prepared gizzards

You can see one of the gizzard linings on the bottom left, they are remarkable. Tough as old boots. This is carefully sliced off leaving some rich, deep burgundy gizzard meat.



We then had four gutted ducks, ready for filleting, along with a bunch of gizzard halves and some hearts and liver.

The fruit of labour

The fruit of labour

So that’s what we ended up with: eight legs for confit, eight breasts, a pot full of carcasses for stock, and a few bits of offal. About four hours’ work (and a ten quid outlay), but most of all a good lesson into the process and reality of meat preparation. I was a bit rubbish at plucking but I’m sure I’ll improve…

Published in: on October 21, 2013 at 10:07 am  Comments (2)  


I managed a brief rush through the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at the Tate last week. Much of it was familiar to me thanks to the prevalence of the more labour-oriented and allegorical works among the municipal galleries of our provincial cities, though I’d also been to a wonderful Holman Hunt show in Manchester a year or two ago.

My opinion on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had, before I went to the Tate exhibition, been rather fixed for some time: that William Holman Hunt was the only true master among them, that Ford Madox Brown (not a PRB member but a close associate and prominent in the Tate show) had moments of genuine greatness, that John Everett Millais could paint but perhaps wasn’t so hot on composition/subject selection, and that Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of the biggest hacks going, the Damien Hirst of his era.

This show, while enjoyable and rewarding, did nothing to alter my opinions (except perhaps raise Millais somewhat in my estimation). Holman Hunt towers above the rest, a real artistic giant, oozing pain and piety but melding his palette beautifully and imbuing the whole enterprise with a real heft. Of course everyone loves The Hireling Shepherd, The Light of the World and The Scapegoat, but I’m was most taken with The Shadow of Death and Isabella and the Pot of Basil.

Madox Brown has a few absolute gems. The Last of England has long been a favourite (those who know me won’t be surprised), but Work and The Pretty Baa-Lambs are both wonderful; Work and An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead draw me in particularly for their London-explorer interest.

Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents (or Christ in the House of Bobby Charlton as it was always known in our house) was another highlight, though it dawned on me that as a child I always thought the dark-haired youth on the left was Jesus and that the stigmatised boy in the foreground was an interloper who had wandered into the workplace.

I can take or leave Burne-Jones and the rest of the mythological guff, but Rossetti really takes the biscuit; I think he’s a really terrible painter. The hype machine around him reminds of me of Damien Hirst and the Emperor’s New Clothes of crap Brit-Art. I almost said Rossetti reminds me of Peter Doherty, but that strikes me as rather unfair on the latter, for while he similarly is claimed as a sort of fin-de-siecle polymath, he at least is pretty good at one of his trades.

Anyhow, all told, I didn’t learn a great deal (which saddens me in a big exhibition) but then the boy was shouting his head off all day and we couldn’t linger, so perhaps I missed some subtleties. I’d never pass up the chance to see the wonderful Holman Hunts and Madox Browns though, so it was very much a worthwhile visit.

Published in: on January 19, 2013 at 9:33 am  Comments (3)  
Tags: , ,

Hunt & Windsor: A Synthpop Phenomenon?

Don’t know why I thought of doing this, but it seemed very fitting when presented with this photo.

The artist formerly known as Prince Harry, and some right hunt.


Published in: on August 3, 2012 at 7:46 am  Leave a Comment  


Saw the wonderful Yndi Halda at Hoxton Hall last week, showcasing some new songs in gig which (along with the previous night) was raising funds to pay for a new album. The recent material was fantastic, and it is always a heavenly and transcendental pleasure to hear an old favourite like ‘Dash and Blast‘. Their new bassist fitted in very well indeed too. Here are some pics:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Published in: on July 26, 2012 at 7:54 am  Leave a Comment  

The Literal Collapse of Social Democracy: Robin Hood is (Nearly) Dead

I wanted to write a long and probably boring piece on this, but I don’t have time, so thank your lucky stars. The basic points I wished to convey were as follows, in shameful brevity:

1) Robin Hood Gardens, the Smithsons’ (subjectively) beautiful but (objectively) run-down social housing development in Blackwall, east London, is due for demolition. Built for ‘the socialist dream’ and now, in classic neoliberal fashion, a public good which has quite intentionally been allowed to malfunction and decay in order that a private alternative would seem attractive. See also, for example, inner city state schools, and, shortly, the NHS. When Jonathan Glancey went to visit in 2009, he took a rather skeptical view, but almost all of the documented complaints refer to maintenance, not architecture. When I visited, the streets in the sky concept – which I love – was in full swing, with groups of kids playing football and cycling up and down.

2) Social democracy and the welfare state as a linked pair of historical phenomena seem to be just as run down (or to have been run down just as much!) as Robin Hood Gardens. In the cases of Italy and Greece elected governments were earmarked by the EU for demolition and replacement with private-finance friendly technocratic post-states. In Britain we are consensually daydreaming our way to something similar. Here was a physical representation in east London of the grand political shift of our era.

3) But wasn’t the social democratic ideal always like the Robin Hood of legend? Couldn’t a capitalist welfare state only ever survive as long as there was money coming in, strongarmed from the rich in times when there was gold sloshing around to be thrown at foreign wars and other follies? What happens when Robin Hood is dead? Weren’t such handouts always dependent on the goodwill of an enlightened member of the nobility (the mythical Loxley, the actual Beveridge) to sweep crumbs from the table into our grateful paws? Where do we go next?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

(Note, there are two photos of nearby, more modern buildings – hopefully it’s obvious which ones!)

So I went to look around and take some pictures before it is gone. A few things struck me. In relation to the surrounding monstrosities of Canary Wharf (and other faux-marble or glass-and-steel yawnfests slightly further north), Robin Hood Gardens is a fine piece of architecture. It is elegant, sweeping and open, with its deck access ‘streets in the sky’ and setting around a shared garden. It’s not too high so even in early spring (when I went) the sun comfortably enters the communal space. The ratio of windows to wall is extraordinary compared with most more recent mass housing (whether social or yuppie). Even in its decrepit, boarded-up state, there is something friendly and hopeful about it. It’s a great shame that it has been deliberately run into the ground. I really liked it.

Published in: on May 15, 2012 at 3:04 pm  Comments (3)  

ATP: The Mangum Edition (pt.III)

Moderation on Saturday night was rewarded with the aforementioned fried breakfast, albeit a day late. We decided to start our musical day at 4.30 with Lost in the Trees, so there was plenty of time for a yomp out to the moors. We drove off through Dunster and parked up near Dunkery Beacon, meandering up to Somerset’s highest point on foot and lounging for a while in the sun. There was incredible dense cloud all over the coast – Minehead was cloaked in thick grey fog as we left – but it was gloriously sunny up on the high ground.

From Dunkery Beacon

After that we drove down the Exe valley to Dulverton and gorged ourselves at the Bridge Inn (highly recommended) before winding back up the western side of Exmoor to Exford and then on to Porlock. After tea and cake, we hot-footed it back to Minehead where the thick fog remained – not having lifted, we assumed, since the morning.

Butlins peeking through the fog

So back to the music, and we raced over to Crazy Horse for Lost in the Trees. Though we only made it for twenty minutes, they were comfortably the standout ‘discovery’ of the weekend for me. I say ‘discovery’ because (like the astonishingly prolific Mount Eerie) they’ve been around a good while doing their thing – I just didn’t know about it. And I would describe their thing as a stripped-down, more avant-garde expedition into similar territory to Arcade Fire. A largeish but not unwieldy lineup of talented multi-instrumentalists (quite a common occurrence these days, isn’t it?), LITT create strongly melodic pieces with plenty going on underneath, and seem to explore grey areas between melody, counter-melody and harmony (counter-harmony?!) to great effect. One memorable sonic trope was the doubling up of violin and high voice; the frisson comes from the difficulty in finding the line where one ends and the other begins while knowing both are producing notes in the same range. The textures weren’t overly lush but were full and always intriguing, with some unusual combinations (and the unexpected appearance of a French Horn!), while the songwriting ranged across bleak (though ultimately very human) themes.

Lost in the Trees

It was upstairs next for the Magic Band. I didn’t really know what to expect as my knowledge of Beefheart is concentrated on that one totemic album, Trout Mask Replica. It was actually a great gig: Feelers Rebo and Eric Klerks traded slide riffs and took turns to show off their blues chops; Rockette Morton kept up a constantly mobile bass barrage; and drummer Craig Bunch gave them all a solid basis on which to work, bursting through where invited with some raunchy fills. On vocals, and at times doing an uncanny channeling of the Captain, Drumbo strutted around in full declamatory pomp, taking the sticks for one song and showing how he got his nickname. Sometimes there was an element of chin-stroking indulgence but on the whole it was a lot of fun.

Psych-Blues from the Magic Band

We stuck around at Centre Stage for the Sun Ra Arkestra, which like the Magic Band is an entity birthed from a now-departed prophet. This was another of the weekend’s standout shows, for while it feels like the Arkestra have toned down some of the wilder space-jazz of their early days – indeed, this was more like experimental big band with some free jazz interludes – they came up with an hour of wonderful performance. In fact it’s really sui generis because there’s some fusion bass going on and also – especially in Marshall Allen’s use of the EVI – something deeply proggy. The visual spectacle has always been part of the show with the Arkestra and here they glistened under the lights like space gods, though since Sun Ra himself ascended I’m not sure how seriously they take all that. Standout players were Allen (usually on sax rather than EVI), young pianist Fariz Abdul-Bari Barron  and the extraordinary Knoell Scott who danced (breakdanced wouldn’t be a stretch) like a man possessed. In truth though, the SRA is far more than the sum of its parts; a festival theme is emerging of holistic musical experiences and like Boredoms, A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Joanna Newsom – even the Fall – this was about the wall of sound; also this show had the distinction of being second only to Group Doueh in sheer danceability.

Sun Ra Arkestra

After that, I stuck it out for about quarter of an hour of the Magnetic Fields but it really wasn’t my cup of tea. I found their amusing clever-clever cabaret schtick a bit cloying, and for all of the lovely arrangements, the Neil Hannon identikit vocals and raised eyebrow lyrics were a bit precious. Instead we gradually drifted down to Tall Firs. They were pretty good, maybe a little the worse for wear by the time we got there, but engaging enough. They played some beautiful guitar, like some of the quieter moments of Slint or something else Pajo-ish, but the very mannered vocals got a little wearing. I’d actually forgotten that they did Too Old to Die Young, which I have a vague recollection of having liked for a while. Anyhow, I’m not dashing out to buy their albums but I enjoyed the set and particularly the instrumental mix which was rather lovely.

Tall Firs

I’d taken a bit of an attitude towards Jeff Mangum from the start as I (perhaps unfairly) associated the poor scheduling and somewhat thin line-up of this ATP to his caprice, but I got even more annoyed by the strictures around his sets – ‘no cameras, cameras will be confiscated if used’ signs everywhere, an insistence on emptying the large venue and then refilling it with enormous queues, a late-in-the-day delay to his set – it all smacked of an egotistical diva (or someone wracked with worry, which in fairness, he may be). I like the stuff I’ve heard by Neutral Milk Hotel but I wasn’t bothered enough for it to outweigh the diva-like behaviour which is precisely the opposite of what ATP seems to me to be all about. I didn’t even try, then, to get in to see him. I plumped for Group Doueh downstairs in Reds. Yet the Spirit of Mangum even pervaded my experience of that show, as due to his (again very last minute) worry about noise from downstairs, we were all locked out queuing for half an hour until he had finished up on the Centre Stage. I don’t know if it was him or his management or the organisers responsible for all this, but it was really poor. Anyhow, it meant I could only see half of Group Doueh as I had to be up at five to drive home (whinges over), but that half hour of Western Saharan joy was one of the best things I’ve seen in ages. Bamaar Salmou is incredible on guitar – as several people pointed out he’s probably quite influenced by Santana, but his impassive delivery gives him an almost surrealist air. The vocals and drums were tremendous too, and while there are some slight echoes of Tinariwen – moreso Tiris actually – Group Doueh have made their own sound and it’s just brilliant. Like LITT this band were completely new to me and one I will most definitely explore further.

Group Doueh

Overall it was a cracking weekend. The lineup was noticeably thinner than my previous visit (see here for parts one two three and four of that write-up) but the quality was consistently good. Sunday night ended up probably being my favourite, but highlights for the weekend were as follows:

Hall of Fame (Music):

1. Joanna Newsom 2. Group Doueh 3. Lost in the Trees

Hall of Fame (Total experience):

1. Joanna Newsom 2. Boredoms 3. Sun Ra Arkestra

Hall of Meh:

1. Magnetic Fields 2. The Apples in Stereo 3. Jeff Mangum (in absentia)

Published in: on March 14, 2012 at 10:06 am  Leave a Comment  

ATP: The Mangum Edition (pt.II)

Saturday. I was supposed to be making black pudding, eggs and beans for everyone to fuel a trip out to the moors, as I said, but I was in bed feeling very sick indeed until lunchtime. It was A Hawk and a Hacksaw that dragged me out of my self-pity, and after I had dressed (as usual) like an extra from Edwardian Farm, we trundled gingerly over to Crazy Horse to hear the duo playing their soundtrack to Parajanov’s 1965 film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. It was a bizarre affair made more so by my headspun state, but compelling and quite charming. Jeremy Barnes (formerly of Neutral Milk Hotel) laid down low accordion chords and bass drum beats as a context for both his right-hand melodies (which came in a startling variety of tones) and Heather Trost’s beautiful, highly emotive violin. They picked up on actually existing sounds and added new material as deemed appropriate in a mix which was really quite unsettling. At times it was difficult to hear the divide between live and taped music which made it pretty unique, particularly with the seemingly bonkers visuals going on behind them. The richness of the sound and coruscating interplay between instruments really intrigued me, and I’ll certainly seek out some of their other work.

Beside the seaside

I was still feeling ropey, so we went for a walk by the sea and had an ice cream before heading in to hear – and, equally, to see – Boredoms. This was an extraordinary show, but so desperately loud that I lasted only an hour before having to retreat from multiple blasts on a banshee-like whistle which gave me a little Orestian insight. Goodness knows what heights of total sonic onslaught were reached by the group in the remaining thirty minutes. Five drummers were arranged in a circle around vocalist, physical performer and eight-guitar-chimaeric-monstrosity-whacker-in-chief Yamantaka Eye, who could later be found graffitiing price lists at the merch stand. Eye’s atavistic, Munchian wails bubbled up from somewhere truly primeval as he crouched and grew with the swell of the serried ranks of guitarists and other contributors. In one piece, or section of a piece, the drummers circulated a fill, speeding up and slowing down to emulate a chewed tape in conjunction with some synth pitch bend. At points, Yoshimi P-We traded vocal riffs with Eye, cutting across the top of his earthy bellowing like a strong sea breeze. This show was unlike anything I’d seen or heard before, perhaps as if Sonic Youth had been cloned five times, arranged as an orchestra and locked away for a week with a Japanese Schoenberg. Apparently they are named after a Buzzcocks song. An extraordinary hour of noise-art-music creation which seems like it couldn’t exist outside of ATP, though of course it does.

Boredoms: A sonic youth orchestra

After such a singular encounter, the relative simplicity of upbeat shufflers The Apples in Stereo came as a bit of a let down. There wasn’t anything necessarily bad or wrong with them – at times they brought Supergrass or Weezer to mind – but their late ’90s optimism hardly sat well with the rest of the weekend’s offerings. There were a couple of endearing anecdotes, a lot of four-chord pop tunes and a general air of a job well done, but I was ready for something a little more ethereal. Fortunately it was time for Joanna Newsom.

Joanna: Winsome

I had managed to catch a bit of her first set on the previous evening – including about half of my favourite of her songs, Emily – and, though not one of those Newsom puritans, I was keen to catch the second set. It turned out to be a transcendental experience, every bit as impressive an aural onslaught as that of Boredoms but emanating only from the mouth and hands of one extraordinary musician, lyricist and performer. The end of Have One on Me was a real highlight, as was the wry balladry of Monkey and Bear. I didn’t know the newer material – three records’ worth! – of Have One on Me, but what I heard was great, as were the versions of earlier treats from (especially) Ys and The Milk-Eyed Mender. (There are recordings of one of her songs from ATP, as well as those by The Fall and Low, here). Probably my highlight of the weekend, all told.

We got to Mount Eerie

We skipped Low to eat some chalet cuisine, though Butlins’ cookware proved too fragile for our purposes. After loading up, we headed in to Mount Eerie, on this occasion embodied only in main man Phil Elverum and his lush 12-String. He was totally endearing, and had the audience held rapt even when he stumbled. He wrung an incredibly complex canvas out of his guitar, with high echoing noise and low bass interventions upon which his effortlessly smooth voice sat well. Though lacking the fullness of some of the recorded work, this show was another apogee of ATPism. I thought he was really good and as with AH&AH, I am keen to hear more, but time was getting on and we needed to head over to the main stage for Yann Tiersen…

That's Monsieur Tiersen to you

Our collective knowledge of Yann Tiersen‘s work was that he was big in France and had probably made a fortune off the back of Amelié, but that was really it. Such ignorance proved no barrier to enjoyment, and while there were the strains of familiarity in those songs which traded in his French rural/gypsy-folk sound, there was a hell of a lot of other stuff going on. Jarresque synths, some almost Killers-ish dance-rock and a defiantly continental euphoria meant that the set was often just at the edge of naffness, but it never really got there. The violin-based material was just fantastic and everyone involved was superb, often on a number of instruments. It felt like a trip through a whole gamut of genres, each mastered and assimilated by someone who is evidently a tremendously talented arranger as much as anything else. A lot of fun, and a great choice for the main Saturday evening slot.

Demdike Stare... at their laptops

All of which magnified the abject crapness of Scratch Acid, who were – sadly – jaw-droppingly bad. I can see the theoretical appeal, with first-wave punk vocals over hardcore backing, but the execution was just risible. The highlight was a genuinely great stage dive from frontman David Yow, fully supermanning it – or should I say Daleying in this Olympic year? – into the pit. We didn’t linger too long, and headed down to experience the doomy electronica of Demdike Stare. Waves of noise and walls of disturbing visuals piled up, each threatening to take a more recognisable form – dub, techno, photomontage, cutup, screensaver (to be a little cruel) – but never settling. For the sober observer there wasn’t much to chew on – it was an interesting, holistic vision of an audience experience, but completely devoid of hooks. Still, it was interesting. The coldness was what undercut it, an overwhelmingly digital performativity which I always felt I could obtain in their existing (and impressive) online presence. The appeal of the dance floor was greater though, and we ended the day throwing ourselves around to some cracking tunes selected by Justin Spear. I’d assumed from his staggeringly abrupt segue ‘technique’ that DJing wasn’t his forte, not knowing that he was best known precisely for that talent in conjunction with Stereolab. Ah well. He played the Slits, Devo and Roxy Music so what more can you ask.

(final part tomorrow)

Published in: on March 13, 2012 at 4:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

ATP: The Mangum Edition (pt.I)


I returned today to London along the fog-clad lateral trunk that is the M4 having spent the weekend immersed in the fascinating (if uneven) Jeff Mangum-curated edition of All Tomorrow’s Parties at Butlins, rescheduled from its original December date. Here are some thoughts and pictures on the music and other excitements of the last few days.


Matana Roberts, performing with Seb Rochford

We didn’t arrive until early evening on Friday, too late for the first couple of acts but in time for a mesmerising set from Matana Roberts, with drums from Seb Rochford of Acoustic Ladyland and Polar Bear fame. They made for a beguiling combination, Rochford barely breaking through a polite (though no less delicious for it) experimentalism which kept his explosive tendencies in check. This allowed Roberts to explore a vast range of tones and dynamics on saxophone, equally comfortable producing a classically-perfect richness or a swampy, liquid rasp. Great stuff, though the feeling of ephemerality often associated with improvisation was only made stronger by the unique setting.

Young Marble Giants

Young Marble Giants were next, and the contrast between their colossal youth and their actual existence was palpable. Not age but demeanour seemed to define them as tourists on a trip through their own pasts, but they breathed life into every rediscovered song. They looked sometimes utterly cool, sometimes vulnerable and sometimes amused, sounding at all times that delicate balance of teenage bedroom, bus shelter and boardwalk. N.I.T.A. – here in its 1980 vintage – was particularly wonderful, a bizarre coach trip soundtrack perfect for an imagined early Reeves and Mortimer effort.

The Fall

An exquisite twenty minutes of Joanna Newsom – of whom more in the next installment – was followed by The Fall. Now, I had been perhaps more excited by seeing the latest merry band of pirates assembled by Captain Mark E. Smith than anything else at this festival, but as a cautionary tale I must alert you to the dangers posed by the Exmoor Beast. I was rendered a gibbering fool by this delicious, treacly brew and the hour of thumping declamatory rock ranting passed in a flash. None of my all-time favourite Fall tracks had appeared until the final offering, a glorious pound through Theme from Sparta F.C. We live on blood indeed.

Problem was I had a hell of a thirst on

I had one more act in me before I hit the sack, and it must have taken something special from Thurston Moore to keep me vertical. I’d like to say I remember ringing, rangy guitars, shuffling drums and fragile eternally-youthful vocals, but all I really remember is promising everyone I would be up at eight to make a cooked breakfast and drive us up on to the moors. You may surmise how that went. Sonic Youth are among my heroes but I will need to pay their (former) members reverent homage some other time I’m afraid… (to be contd.)

Thurston Moore

Published in: on March 13, 2012 at 12:09 am  Comments (2)  

Weekend highlights

Apologies for blog silence lately, I’ve been caught up with a good deal of other stuff. I will soon post some sort of highlights of 2011 cultural list, but in the meantime, here’s three great things from last weekend:


1) On Friday we saw The Artist. Now, I hardly need to add my name to the veritable chorus singing its praises, but I’m going to anyway. While it’s not *quite* the epoch-making piece some are making it out to be – I feel it is too specific a pastiche to be anything more than a curiosity, albeit an excellent one – it is still a wonderful cinematic experience. Bursting with joy of an almost prelapsarian variety, there is both genuine warmth and craft in this film, something which can’t often be said. And with dancing, high drama and a performing dog, there is something for everyone.


2) On Sunday it was off to Covent Garden for Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Though there was the slight disruption always caused by a cast illness, this jolly behemoth nonetheless rolled along in most entertaining fashion. Of course there are some unsavoury aspects – the auctioning of a daughter, some fairly bald nationalist supremacism – but it’s a piece of its time which itself is harking back further. It’s about as unlikely a place to lodge modern sympathies as there is in the operatic canon, but that’s a decent enough excuse to set them aside and enjoy the wonderful music. On top of some beautiful singing from the principals, there were a couple of outstanding set-pieces: the riot at the end of act two was raucously hilarious (with some neat aesthetic games) and the pageant which closes the opera was a real feast for the senses. Well, for two of them anyway.


3) Finally, on Monday night we got around to seeing The Riots at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre. It had transferred there from the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn for a limited run and is only on for a couple more nights but I would strongly urge anyone to see it. Given the rapid disappearance of last summer’s riots from the political agenda (and the media more generally), the performance of this series of testimonies is timely and important. It includes recollections from participants, police, politicians and other commentators, crucially laid out in chronological order giving the close reading of the events which the glib media coverage at the time utterly failed to do. Beyond the richness (and depressing bleakness, in truth) of the testimonies, the subsequent Q&A session gave an opportunity for the audience to contribute their own memories and opinions. Much of the discussion focussed on what had gone wrong – social issues, the police etc – but sadly there wasn’t enough time to look for solutions. The lingering anger and upset in the Tottenham community was palpable, however, and most agreed that it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see similar scenes before too long.

Published in: on January 11, 2012 at 9:16 am  Leave a Comment  
%d bloggers like this: