Thursday, 30 September 2010

Railway Lines & Ley Lines.

Curious how you pull one memory out the hat and it tugs another out after it. After writing a blog entry a few weeks ago about Lee and I doing a 'play' in our RE class, I recalled that we were assisted by a classmate by the name of Stuart Lynn. He played a very creaky melodic accompaniment to our rendition of 'Yessir that's my Saviour' on his violin.

Then, tugging again at the Hat of Memory, I recalled that Stuart and another lad in our class, Trevor Wherret, went out cycling each weekend around South East Essex on their Raleigh bikes, [with Sturmey Archer three speed gears in the rear wheel hub, of course]. It's forty odd years ago but I presume, probably correctly, that they were clad in navy blue anoraks, black leatherette gloves and flapping grey flannel trousers held in check by cycle clips. I suspect that pockets held neatly folded linen handkerchiefs, Vic inhalers, neatly coiled pieces of hairy string, blue Bic pens, leather purses containing florins, half crowns and threepenny bits and other useful items.

Not an unusual activity for schoolboys of the period. All over the country similarly clad lads on identical bikes were pedalling away in all weathers burning off their adolescent energies. However the Wherret and Lynn* outings were unusual. They were conducted according to a strict timetable, the timetable of Avery Rail.

Avery Rail was a transport system that comprehensively covered every town and village from Wickford to Shoeburyness. I believe that Canvey Island was excluded for technical reasons - not suitable terrain for track laying- and also, I surmise, because of the steepness of Benfleet Hill and the wildness of the natives.

Avery Rail rolling stock, naturally, went along at the speed of a Raleigh bike. There was a summer timetable and a winter timetable. There were branch lines, termini, bus links, Sunday and Bank Holiday services. Stuart and Trevor made maps and painstakingly wrote out pages and pages of timetables. These were complete with asterisks and addenda, and so just as confusing as real timetables. At each station Stuart and Trev would dutifully halt their bikes for a prescribed period of time so that passengers would have sufficient time to embark and disembark.

An immense amount of work went into their project. It was a magnificent, if obsessive, feat of imagination, a psychogeographical artifice of the finest kind. It was also admirable because it was so useful for the community providing, as it did, safe, affordable, reliable transport. It was a stark contrast to the contorted cartography that Lee and I developed with our 'Map of the World' but we, nevertheless, considered their project to be a thing of wonder worthy of a wider audience.

However I have to confess I am not entirely free of obsessive behaviour. I used to spend an inordinate amount of time studying Ordnance Survey Maps. Actually, to be honest, I still do, especially when I'm a bit under the weather. I find examining, say, a tract of moorland in the West of Scotland soothing. I find going for imaginary walks around rugged declivities and along meandering burns strangely fulfilling. There are the delightful names you come across, too, Nick of the Balloch, the River Stinchar or -my favourite- Ferret of Keith Moor. The latter is a tract of drab heather moor just south of Greenock in case you want to know.

Essex O.S. Maps do not reveal much in the way of spectacular scenery. However if you take a ruler and a pencil you can find lines of mystic power, Ley Lines. There seem to be lots of Ley Lines in the Southend area with Rayleigh and Rochford as particularly significant foci.

After I first found these in the early Seventies, I pointed them out to my friend Roy Carrington , the Thundersley Mystic, who nodded knowingly and said 'there's definitely something there'. They confirmed his contention that South East Essex was an area where 'The Higher Energies' traditionally manifested themselves. Hence the the Canewdon Witches, Cunning Murrell, the Black Dog and the traditional name for the area: The Witch Country. There certainly is something in the air but whether or not it corresponds to Roy's spiritualist/theosophical viewpoint I've no idea. Until the coming of the railways in Victorian times it was a backward area of marsh, woodland and scrub well off the beaten track, a fecund area for the breeding of superstition.

My researches included treks across the area in straight lines. This helps one induce the psychogeographical trance prescribed by Iain Sinclair for such expeditions and brings to your attention all kinds of previously unnoticed trees, graffiti, buildings and so on. I found these treks an enjoyable and welcome distraction, on my periodic visits to see my parents after I had left home, from the sense of suburban claustrophobia I used to endure in their Hadleigh bungalow. But the mystic revelations they I hoped they would induce never materialised. Interestingly [well to me] years later I was visited by dreams of brick pathways stretching from East London [Ackroydish, eh!] down to Essex. So the area does have a strong hold on my imagination.

Curiously, there were no ley lines going through Canvey Island. Roy Carrington was perceptive on the matter of Canvey. It's a low place, he remarked, nodding knowingly. Perhaps that's why it produced such amazing music.

I googled Trevor Wherret in the process of writing the above. Sadly the first item that came up was his obituary. He was a keen numismatist and had planned to make a film on the coins of Essex. I remember him as another outsider at school. The book in my satchel was the Tibetan Book of the Dead, in Lee's, The Good Soldier Svek, and in Trev's Tristram Shandy. He was a unique individual. I'd like to say something like God bless you or rest in peace, but I can't find the right words. All I can say is that I feel sadness. Here we are in this strange, ugly, beautiful world in which we occupy ourselves for a few years with work, reproduction and fantasy, then we leave. I've no idea where to, perhaps back into the strange imaginative matrix from which our souls originally emerged.

* I always remember school friends by their surnames, as we were called by them by our teachers. We used elegant variations amongst ourselves, 'Slashcroft' in my case,for example.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Indulging in meandering ruminations...

Just in from a wet windy day [ you don't have to read this, it's just the meandering ruminations of tired marketeer] and feel as though I'm about to drop. [ Add your own self pitying whinges here, about half an hour's worth]. OK that's moaning done with.

Sausages and mash now, with onion gravy.

Monday, 13 September 2010

'I'm a Hog for You Baby...' / 'To His Coy Mistress'. Compare and contrast.

Mister Cunnington, my English teacher in the Sixth Form, is someone I feel very grateful to. He opened my eyes [or should that be ears?] to the Metaphysical Poets, Andrew Marvell, in particular. I remember reading Marvell's 'The Garden' in one of his classes and discovering there a magical world of wit, sensuality and mysticism. Here is the fifth stanza of the poem:

What wond'rous Life is this I lead!
Ripe Apples drop about my head;
The Lucious Clusters of the Vine
Upon my Mouth do crush their Wine;
The Nectaren and curious Peach,
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on Melons, as I pass,
Insnar'd with Flow'rs, I fall on Grass.
It has a gorgeous, lip smacking texture. It's a verbal opiate carrying one off to Eden. Every so often, when no one is around, I indulge myself and read the whole poem out loud in a big, booming, slightly slobbery, voice.
Mister Cunnington was old and tweedyand spoke with a gruff voice, like Badger in Wind in the Willows. His wife taught Domestic Science. She had silver hair and a little daub of red lipstick on her thin pursed lips. I don't know why but one of our gang wondered, in the way callous schoolboys do, whether or not they ever had sexual, ahem, whatsits. This lead to some detailed discussion. Various conjectures were developed over several weeks. Lee, being an energetic and imaginative lad, worked on a kind of speculative choreography of what their sexual encounters might consist of. This grew steadily more obscene and surreal as he responded to the approbation and applause of his chums. I don't want to go into too much detail, but will say that the final performance involved lots of rolling up of sleeves, the ejaculation of faux Yorkshire exclamations such as ' EEE LASS! COOM HERE!' , much sprinting up and down and some violent jerky movements that left Lee sweating. It was the kind performance that critics refer to as 'bravura'.

After watching Dr. F. perform the quintessential 'I'm a Hog for you Baby' on the OCC film, I experienced a sense of deja vu. Then made the connection. Lee was using some of the same choreography that he had developed at School in response to our conjectures about Mr. & Mrs C! I was delighted at this thought. I, sort off, stretching the truth a little, could now claim that I'd watched Lee develop his act. Contributed a smidgeon even!
So thanks to Mr. Cunnington and his Missus for providing such diverse inspiration. And apologies, too. I'm sorry that we were such horrible schoolboys. I have to admit, though, that I still grin like a Cheshire Cat whenever I see a recording of Dr. F. , in their pomp, doing 'The Hog'.
The final lines from Marvell's ' To His Coye Mistress' come to mind:
Let us roll all our Strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one Ball:
And tear our Pleasures with rough strife,
Through the iron gates of Life.
Thus, though we cannot make our Sunne
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
An appropriate sentiment for the band in their prime -and Lee especially.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

From the South Side Jug Band to the Incredible String Band.

!Warning: philosophical reflections!

A brief note on my worldview. To me there is no such thing as a time or a place without a person present. Hence psychohistory and psychogeography are the proper subjects for human study and contemplation. A time and a place are just hypothetical constructs without the presence of a person, that is someone present to experience whatever is there. Likewise there cannot be a person separate from a time and a place. The concepts of time and place are unfathomable. None of us really know what they mean. Experienced directly time and place can exhibit a delightful and numinous quality.

!End of philosophical reflections!

My parents were typical East Enders: they aspired to semidetached respectability, never did the Okey Kokey, never used Cockney slang, considered punctuation, grammar and a knowledge of Scripture to be essential ingredients of the good life. My father was a devoted fan of West Ham. Leyton Orient was his second team. Cricket was his greatest pleasure though; he was a devoted follower of Essex County Cricket Club.

I was a great disappointment to him. I had no interested in sport in my teens. What's more when I was fourteen I started making visits to Canvey Island. A place that my parents regarded as 'common'.

However I found my visits to Canvey refreshing. The sea air, rural squalor, anarchy, and jollity provided a kind of vitamin supplement for the soul. You could hang out on the sea wall and there'd be people to chat to and banter with. In Hadleigh, where I lived, there was no street life. There were trips to 'the shops', to Belfairs Woods and Sunday School. [ I was made to go to Sunday School until I was fifteen! That shows we are talking of 'an historic era' now!]. But there was nothing happening for a teenager. So getting the 3A bus down Benfleet Hill and crossing over to the Island was a treat, an escape. Playing with the Jug Band in the Canvey Club was simply great. I loved walking around there and just looking at scruffy shacks that some people still lived in and was intrigued by strange manifestation of religion present there. I recall the Jug Band having its photo taken outside 'The Assemblies of God'. Crazy evangelism intrigued Lee. It was part of the world of the Blues he was exploring.

My Jug Band career was intermittent. Lacking musical talent and not doing my homework for Lee - he wrote down chords for me to learn and lent me books and records- it petered out after a year or two.

I was, anyway, getting into other things. A book on Yoga, James Hewitt's 'Teach Yourself Yoga', to be precise set me off on the quest for Spiritual Enlightenment. I also discovered 'The Incredible String Band' and spent many hours listening to Robin Williamson warbling away mystically in a thin quavering voice All this world is but a play, be thou the joy..oooo...ful play er....Ducks on a pond, ducks on aaaa... pond.....It's the Haaaaalf Remarkable question. I loved it. I know lots of rock fans will think it fey, naff, daft and worse, but I loved it, and importantly it got me out of the chronic existential gloom that afflicted me.
As I'm writing this I'm Youtubing some old ISB stuff. It's bringing a smile to my face. That's quite something for a cynic like me who habitually talks with his tongue in his cheek.
Last year an oldish bearded Scotsman in a tartan waistcoat stopped at my stall on Melton Market to buy a present for his wife. It was Robin Williamson, and a very nice chap he was, I'm glad to report. Lovely musical cadences ran through his speech. We went to his gig in the evening at a local village hall. I enjoyed it. Robin's principal instrument was the Welsh Harp, the sweet romantic tone of which contrasted nicely with Robin's voice which was, I am glad to say, no longer the thin hippy thing it had been but grown up, gruff and flecked with experience, some of it, no doubt, hard.
And all a long way from Canvey Island. But Robin has that quality that Lee had, even if their music was so different, of a having a special energy and colour. I'm trying to think of other people who I've met who have this same quality: they are few and far between. I must make a list.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Psychogeography, Sweyne School and an Armpit

There's times and places I return to when I'm half asleep.

Fairlie Glen in Scotland, for instance, when I was twelve. Where I used to crawl about in bracken, guddle for trout, climb trees and play 'commandos' with my friends. The rocks there fascinated me: grey basalt -frozen lava- towards the Kaim Hill, the waterfall over the Old Red Sandstone outcrop, boulders covered with bright green lichens, mosses and liverworts. The air was redolent with the aroma of pine trees, sodden peat, rotting leaves, fungal growth. There seemed to be a magic there that I could never get hold of, a magic that went beyond the merely rural and picturesque to include the terror of geological timespans, the power of Vulcanism and the bloody story of Scotland. This magic feeds my soul to this day.

When I was thirteen my family moved to Essex. I felt lost. The new landscape had none of the hard rocky bones of Scotalnd: it was clay, gravel, sand and mud which induced in me anomie and fretful boredom. In my new school, Rayleigh Sweyne, I felt out of place. Having a mild Scottish accent didn't help. Inevitably there was piss taking of the Where's yer kilt 'aggis? variety, but nothing as bad as what I had endured in my Scottish school. Words are just not as bad as the street ju-jitsu of the Scottish playpark which includes advanced spitting techniques. I was a victim somtimes because, in Scotland, I sounded English, my mum being from Forest Gate and my Dad being from Upton Park. It's hard to fit in the West of Scotland when your Dad's brought you up to sing 'I'm for ever blowing Bubbles' and those around you are singing 'Scot's wha hae wi Wallace bled.'

The horrible feeling of being an outsider I felt seemed part of the landscape visible from my new classroom: ribbon development, sour pony paddocks, stunted oaks, thickets of thorns concealing refuse chucked from passing vans, transport cafes...The only verticals were the electricity pylons that looked as though they had wandered in from all over the country for some tedious meeting. Sweyne was OKish academically I suppose. But it's Headmaster's humanistic vision of his pupils becoming good citizens who wouldn't litter, who had nice careers, who played the violin in their spare time who knew who T.S. Eliot was and understood the Periodic Table, just added to my sense of alienation.

I felt trapped. Fortunately in class 3B I made some good friends; John Wardropper [aka 'Crusher'], Roger Hare and Lee J. Collinson. Thirteen year old Lee loaned me his copy of Catch 22 , a thick Corgi paperback with a black and red cover. I just did not 'get' what it was saying at first. Then I had one of those great penny dropping moments of my adolescence. I 'got it', as they say these days.* Catch 22 become a reference book. With it's help we could chart our way through dull school days. Lee was Yossarian, of course. He had the same intelligent scepticism, the same sense that institutional life was crazy and that, for the sake of one's soul, must not be accepted as reality.

Our gang developed, called variously the Lovely Club, the Weasel Club or the Utterly Club depending on our whims and fancies. A uniform of waistcoats, pocket watches, cufflinks, ties worn like cravats emerged. There was some fighting, vandalism and general antisocial behaviour, but nothing really serious. The main thrust of our activities was the indulgence in gags, jests, mockery and the creation of little acts and stories. Lee and Crusher used to do an American style Evangelical rant preaching the saving graces of the Deity Charlie Pill . It was deeply offensive to anyone with strict and conventional relgious views and meant to be. There was elaborate Scotish rant that Lee and I developed featuring, myself as Hellfire preacher. We persuaded our RE teacher to allow us to perform it as a short play. This included a version of 'Yessir that's My Saviour!' with Lee playing the banjo and astounding the class with amazingly high energy solo. I concluded with the old gag about God on His Throne being distracted by the shrieks of Sinners burning in Hell. They bang desperately on the hatch next to throne. God opens it. The Sinners cry: Oh Lord! We didna' ken! God looks down at them, screws his face up into a Glaswegian grimace, tells them: WELL YE KEN NOO! And slams the heavy hatch shut, trapping a few fingers as He does so.

This stuff filled a void for me. I found a new kind of magic, one to do with words ideas and fantasies. The secret was: You can imagine anything you like!

Somehow the dreary landscape receded and I felt better. In fact I think the landscape helped. It was so soul destroyingly dull we had to create our own world. And we remapped the real one too! [ See previous entry 'The Map of the World'.]

The armpit? I'll have to talk about that next time.

*I don't actually like this phrase 'getting it' but it's useful little cliche and I can' think of another expression just now.