Category Archives: Nostalgia

A nice bit of blue

I haven’t had much time to blog lately. The past few months have been swallowed up by the day job and house-hunting. But I did find time last Saturday to accept the kind invitation of the People for Portland Road/South Norwood Arts Festival, who asked me to unveil a blue plaque commemorating the site of the old Norwood (‘Jolly Sailor’) atmospheric railway pumping station.

Jolly Sailor pumping stationThis was one of three such pumping stations built to operate the air-powered railway line that briefly ran from Forest Hill (later New Cross) to West Croydon from 1845 to 1847. It was a key ancestor to the pneumatic railways later trialled by Thomas Webster Rammell, which form the subject of my novel Strange Air. Having spent so long researching the history of the air-powered railways for that book – and indeed having set some of my opening chapters on the Croydon line – it was a great privilege to reveal the plaque. All being well, it will provide a long-lasting reminder of the inspiring railway that once ran through the heart of what feels like a newly-invigorated South London suburb.

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London 2012, and the city that worked

My day at the Olympics ParkI look back fondly on the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics for all sorts of reasons: the astounding opening ceremony, the infectious joy and enthusiasm of the Olympic Park, the hugely impressive multi-platform BBC and C4 coverage and, of course, the frankly ridiculous number of unforgettable sporting moments.

But reflecting on the whole shebang one year on, there is one sensation that stays with me above all others: the fact that, for those fleeting few weeks, London felt finished.

Obviously, there were the Olympic-specifics – that bewildering infrastructure which took seven years to build, and which reached (mostly temporary) completion for those precious few weeks. But what I’m talking about is a more general phenomenon – perhaps one which only hardened Londoners can properly appreciate.

Because that sense of completion, of fulfilment, extended into every artery of the city. For two magnificent months, the things which are in an otherwise permanent state of flux – road works, construction sites and transport networks – suddenly stabilised. The constant forces of urban evolution were put on hold and, as if by magic, a city which normally exists in a perpetual state of self-improvement felt like it was, well, finished.

Not just finished, either, but functional. In all the years I’ve known London – right up to the day before the opening ceremony, and every day since the Paralympics ended – the place has never quite come together, whether because of line or station closures, road blockages, or just the constant drone and clatter of interminable building works.

But during the Games, all the city’s cogs turned to perfection. The whole Olympics undertaking was a masterclass in the execution of big ideas and fiendishly complex planning, but throughout it all no idea was bigger, no plan more intricate, than the city itself. And the city itself worked.

Coming full circle

I’m just putting the finishing touches to my new novel Strange Air – a historical ghost story set in Upper Norwood, which will be published in the coming weeks. The novel tells the true story of the Victorian Civil Engineer Thomas Webster Rammell, who was a tireless advocate of air-powered city railways as a safer, cleaner and more reliable alternative to those – like the Metropolitan – that were propelled by steam. For reasons that will become clear, Rammell’s story is intimately interwoven with the history and fate of the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, making it impossible to tell one tale without also recounting the other.

One of my remaining tasks is to touch up and double-check some of the book’s historical detail, particularly regarding the interior of the Crystal Palace as it was in its heyday. This in turn has led me back onto the internet – and into Upper Norwood library – rummaging through illustrations and photographs of the second (Sydenham) Crystal Palace.

And my goodness: what a joyful way to while away the hours / procrastinate as I contemplate a pile of editorial changes. I mean, just look at this:

Or indeed this:

Beautiful and intriguing all by themselves, the pictures are even more absorbing when you consider what the park is now – an eerie patchwork of half-forgotten schemes and dreams. Admittedly, I’m no great adventurer, but I can imagine few places where the immense contrast between past and present is so great and so tantalisingly documented; where the longing to go back in time, to see it all as it was, is so acute.

As you can tell, this latest bout of research has re-kindled in me the intense, melancholy buzz that fired me to write Strange Air in the first place. I am, in the best possible sense, ending where I began. And that’s not only satisfying, but also inspiring – so much so, that I’d quite happily go round and write the whole thing again, if only my editor thought it necessary. Alas, no such drastic overhaul is required, meaning I’ll just have to crack on and write a whole new ‘Crystal Palace’ novel instead.

In the meantime, click here to be kept up-to-date about Strange Air.

A happy Bandcamper

Looking back over my previous posts, I can’t help noticing how many have a nostalgic bent – a fondness for things lost or past, and a faint ring of disappointment that the world has to change.

In a way, this isn’t surprising. I’ve always been prone to the odd sentimental flashback. But what confuses me is that I’m definitely more excited than worried about where we are now – at least in terms of technology, and its unravelling possibilities.

I guess the truth is that progress doesn’t really lend itself to binary emotions; it’s rarely so simple as x being sacrificed for y. It’s more dialectical than that. What may appear to have been lost often resurfaces later on, in an improved form, having been ousted by something less satisfactory in the meantime.

Take, for example, the emotional experience of hearing about and acquiring new music.

When I was growing up, hearing about a new release by a favourite artist meant a strange mix of surprise, information overload, and gratification that was neither instant nor massively delayed. With less information at my fingertips, I rarely had any advance warning, so by the time news reached me, not only did the details arrive wholesale, the thing was actually available to buy.Yes, I had to wait until I had enough money, and a way of getting to the shops, but that only filled me with the best kind of anticipation: a few days, maybe a fortnight at most, before the treasure could be obtained.

In the 2000s, some of these emotions fell by the wayside; others were distorted out of all proportion. Powered by the exploding internet, new releases were announced months in advance. Anticipation, not immediacy, became the marketers’ watchword, with promoters devising ever more atomised campaigns in which information – album name, tracklisting, artwork – was revealed with self-defeating sluggishness. As the internet evolved, the moment of musical discovery itself became frustratingly piecemeal. Teaser tracks were leaked – intentionally or otherwise – long in advance, and lead singles were sent to radio months before they were available for purchase. It became increasingly hard to ‘discover’ an album with anything like the same surprise and satisfaction I’d known as a kid.

Even now, in the 2010s, the music industry seems dazed by the internet. The flip-flopping over ‘on-air on-sale’ sits awkwardly beside bands throwing out their releases with almost excessively little fanfare. Having been dazzled by over-experimentation, many still seem unsure what emotions they want to stir in their audiences.

There are, however, notable exceptions, and my favourite is Bandcamp: a versatile online platform for artists to air and sell their music directly to fans, with an elegant emphasis on the power of an immediate digital download to bankroll a later physical release. I’ve bought several albums on this model, and each time the emotional experience has been the perfect blend of ancient and modern – a heady mix of immediacy and anticipation.

I mention it now because one of my favourite artists – the brilliant folk singer Chris Wood – has just signed up, announcing on Twitter last Thursday not only the release but the immediate availability of his new album.

The surprise was sprung. and it was the perfect Easter gift. Granted, I’d known the album was coming – unlike, say, Jim Moray’s Skulk, which I knew nothing about until the moment it was available – but I’d assumed None the Wiser was still several months away, to be announced weeks in advance. But no. The actual release came pretty much out of the blue.

What really makes Bandcamp work, however, is that these immediate emotions – surprise at the news, delight at getting to hear the whole album right away – are followed by anticipation of what’s still to come: a physical release, complete with artwork, liner notes, the whole shebang… On top of which, there’s the investment of dealing directly with the artist, and contributing to the CD that will follow.

It’s a great system, and I’m a big fan. Though not a model that will work for all artists, for whom massive marketing budgets can still be justified, I reckon Bandcamp and its ilk are here to stay. And the reason is simple: because they restore excitement to a process which, by rights, really should be exciting.

Why ‘A List’ is more than just ‘a list’

Amazing news this week that the mighty Bellowhead (epithet increasingly mandatory) have been catapulted to the dizzy heights of the Radio 2 ‘A List’. It’s the latest in a long line of achievements for the scintillating eleven-piece folk-rock/folk-pop/folk-funk/folk-punk/folk-disco/folk-folk juggernaut. Previous watersheds have included an oddly seminal gig at the Royal Opera House, several Jools Holland ‘Later’ bookings, a show-stealing turn at the BBC Proms, a South Bank Centre artistic residency, and their forthcoming appearance in Richard Curtis’s new film About Time.

Bellowhead, pictured in Haynes Lane, Crystal Palace, as part of the publicity for Broadside. (Photo by Paul Heartfield – click for website)

The ‘A list’ accolade has been bestowed upon the band’s new single ‘Roll the Woodpile Down’, taken from their current long-player Broadside. Released in October last year, the latter gave the band its biggest success to date when it entered the albums chart higher than any other indie folk album in the history of everything, everywhere.

For my money, this latest breakthrough is even bigger. We live, after all, in an age where the meaning of the charts is increasingly hard to pin down. The albums countdown in particular – like LPs themselves – has come to feel endangered and dysfunctional. For many albums, pre-orders have a disproportionate impact on first-week chart placings – and since many quickly fade from view, initial entry points aren’t always the best gauge of popularity.

The singles chart feels similarly anaemic. Even though individual songs are still coveted as the ultimate unit of pop – perhaps more so than at any time since the 1950s – and though the magnificent power of standout singles to penetrate the collective consciousness remains immense, the inclusion of digital downloads and back-catalogue tracks has made the Top 40 irritatingly whimsical. The magic has been further diluted by the ubiquity of subsidiary charts – iTunes, Amazon MP3 – not to mention the publicising of the once top-secret midweeks.

Bruno BrookesThe upshot of all this is that I, for one, find it harder to make the kind of fanatical, emotional investment in the chart that I did as a kid – that highly-charged, partisan passion that had me screaming at the radio when Kylie lost out to Yazz & the Plastic Population, one unforgettably hot and sunny dark Sunday in 1988 (I know, I know – but I was young and infatuated, ok?).

Of course, my loveless relationship with the 21st-century charts isn’t just the result of seismic shifts in how music is consumed. It may be as much – if not more, if not all – to do with being increasingly dull and middle-aged. But I don’t think the loss of mystique is entirely down to perception. Instead, I suspect it’s part of a broader, internet-led, democratising trend for transparency in all things. Whether it’s prompted by DVD special features, exposés of parliamentary scandals, or the uncovering of dark media arts, people nowadays are simply savvier about how the world operates.

Thanks to Simon Cowell and his ilk, this is especially true of the music business. Everyday pop discourse is shot through with knowledge of promotional tactics, commercial pressures and financial considerations. Artists talk about their careers like proud project managers, discussing their identity and place in the market with cloying self-consciousness, while fans are encouraged to think in similarly prosaic terms. You may hear the odd bit of music in X Factor guest-act intros, but the effect is overwhelmed by crashing statistical captions bragging about units sold, awards won, and hits had – a vernacular mimicked on the forums of the ‘latter-day Smash HitsPopjustice, where the tone is often an emotion-laden derivation of industry-speak.

And that’s really the key shift here. As a kid, the charts were just there. Yes, I understood what they represented, but the thrill of taping the Top 40 on a Sunday evening was at least partly conjured by suspense, surprise and the mysterious, unknowable ‘otherness’ that distinguished my favourite popstars and the realms in which they existed.

But that world is gone. In its place is a more pragmatic and, yes, adult understanding of how things work, which in turn has brought a changing sense of what represents success for my favourite acts. And that’s why, ever since I fell in love with them at Scala in 2005, I’ve always seen the Radio 2 ‘A List’ as Bellowhead’s ultimate destiny. Yes, they may yet go on to grander and greater things (and I’d bloody love them to have a number one) but for me, as a fan, this is the moment: a justice-done symbol of acceptance – of a trad folk act welcomed into the mainstream – which has left me feeling every bit as proud and triumphant as when a favourite single hit the top spot in the charts of my childhood.

Lost and pound shops

A belated happy new year to all readers, and especially those followers who came on board after Bard to the Future was Freshly Pressed in mid-December.

I thought I’d begin 2013 with a little postscript to one of my most-viewed posts in 2012: namely, my paean to the much-missed Blockbuster on Westow Hill, Crystal Palace.

Several people got in touch after I lamented the closure of our local, impossibly large and unusually peaceful video rental haven, asking what was to become of this prime Upper Norwood retail unit. For several weeks, rumours grew that it was to become a Poundland, or some other variety of 99p/£1 store, and so finally, over the weekend, it transpired.

I was passing on Saturday afternoon, and managed to grab this picture of some tasteful signage being – well, not so much erected as plastered all over the window to the detriment of any daylight whatsoever.

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I’m no expert on the different denominations of pound shops, so I defer to Hermit’s superior knowledge on Virtual Norwood, where he confidently asserts that this is to be a Poundmart, not a Poundland.

But in truth, of course, as both his and my photo illustrate, it is neither. It is, in point of fact, a Foundmart, since that what the sign is poised to say. (I confess to quite liking the stance of the poor chap in my picture, captured in the first throes of his perplexity over the unfortunate positioning of the frame.) I wonder what a Moundfart – sorry, Foundmart – would sell? Presumably piles of ‘lost and found’ junk. Bits and bobs of unrelated goods, thrown together for no good reason other than their being too cheap for people to bother re-claiming.

What’s that, you say? Pretty much like a Poundmart? Alright, then. Poundmart it is.

Frivolity aside for a second, though, I’m conscious that not everyone is particularly enamoured by the ever-increasing ubiquity of pound shops and their ilk. Personally, I see them as serving a purpose, and am not averse to nipping in to pick up supplies (e.g. batteries) which are either shamelessly overpriced elsewhere, or tricky to find. The latter, in particular, is where they fill a crucial void – a void, very specifically, left by the late-lamented Woolworths.

Like Top of the Pops, I always think it’s one of the great mysteries of the past decade that Woolworths was allowed to fail. As the ensuing influx of pound shops demonstrated, there remains a huge market for odds-and-sods shops, filling the gaps left by bigger, brighter stores, and selling everyday stuff that is either needed urgently or best bought in person – and therefore not suited to purchase online. I’m no retail expert, but I do think Woolworths might have survived if only it had made it deeper into the recession – while also giving up on entertainment sales, where the web was clearly so much better.

After all, Crystal Palace-wise, there’s not a huge world of difference between what the Woolworths on Westow Hill had become and the Poundstretcher that took its place. It’s just that one, like Blockbuster, had fond sentimental associations (at least for me), while the other – in its unambiguous functionality – feels lifeless and unromantic.

As the poor guy in my photo would surely appreciate, it’s just a matter of perception.

Harking back to the disaster decade

Growing up in the 80s was a strange business on all sorts of levels. But speaking as one who reached the most impressionable age – 9, 10, 11-ish – in the latter part of the decade, there was one respect in which it stood out more than most.

I mean, of course, the disasters. That extraordinary series of accidents and incidents which mars my otherwise magical memory of those ineffably exciting years. Perhaps it’s just a case of perception, and the apparent pile-up is merely a reflection of just how impressionable I was. But even looked at objectively, there’s been no other period in my lifetime when so many catastrophes – encompassing such a horrifying range of settings and scenarios – unfolded in so short a time.

The-Hillsborough-memorial-002

What exactly am I referring to? Well, I probably wouldn’t include, say, the 1983-1985 Ethopian famine, since that unfolded over a longer period and lacked the suddenness needed to crash into a young boy’s mind. My disaster decade probably began with the Challenger Disaster in January 1986 – truly, stuff to stir the imagination of a seven-year-old – and continued with the Zeebrugge ferry tragedy in 1987. After that, in rapid succession, even for a kid experiencing the giganticism of time, there was the King’s Cross underground fire, the Piper Alpha explosion, the Clapham Junction Rail Crash, Hillsborough and the Marchioness disaster.

There may be others I haven’t mentioned; there may be some I have which don’t quite compare in scale or circumstances. Either way, it was a vivid, terrifying time, and I remember wondering what grimness could possibly be coming next.

Of course, having been young at the time, my lingering memory isn’t so much in the detailed, scandalous specifics of how each event unfolded. It’s more in half-remembered news reports or glimpses of where I was when I heard the news (the front garden, helping to a paint a fence, when Hillsborough happened). Above all, for me personally at least, it’s in that most ephemeral of responses to disaster: the charity pop single.

It was the fashion at the time. After Band Aid and USA for Africa, it became the default response to tragedy. There wasn’t a single for each of the major disasters – though the Pet Shop Boys’ King’s Cross offered an eerie, unofficial pre-echo of the underground fire – and, in truth, the majority of charity singles, then as now, were prompted more by ongoing campaigns (Comic Relief, Sport Aid, the GOSH Wishing Well appeal) than specific tragedies.

But whatever the context, I remember being very keen to collect these records. I still have the Zeebrugge and Hillsborough seven inches, plus virtually all the campaign records up to the early 1990s. I don’t want to overstate my youthful altruism, but it definitely felt like a positive way of responding to the horrors of what I’d seen on TV. I don’t suppose I really understood how it made a difference any more than I questioned the charitable integrity of participating artists. But that wasn’t the point. As a music-loving 10-year-old, the only action I could take was to march down to W H Smith, Our Price or Woolworths and spend my pocket money on a single. So that’s exactly what I did.

I mention it now because of The Justice Collective’s newly-released version of He Ain’t Heavy (He’s My Brother). As I bought my copy on Wednesday, it occurred to me that this kind of charity single – celeb-packed, event-specific – felt like something of a throwback: an old-fashioned way of answering injustice and suffering.

And then I realised: what could be more apt? The legacy of Hillsborough’s outrageous aftermath has been the inability of the victims’ families to move on from their grief. They have been frozen emotionally in time by a web of conspiracy, deceit and lies. So it’s only fitting that He Ain’t Heavy feels a little anachronistic. By harking back to those heady, frequently horrifying days, the single reminds us where these people have been trapped all this time. Its release, one hopes, will bring another wave of catharsis to match those brought about by the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, and the quashing of the original inquest verdicts.

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