Whitstable review: The Lynching by Jackie Walker

MP must defend Israel free speech

I went to see Jackie Walker’s one-woman show, the Lynching, at the Whitstable Labour Club last week.

Jackie Walker, in case you’ve forgotten, was the Vice-Chair of Momentum, the organisation created to support Jeremy Corbyn, before she was accused of anti-Semitism and suspended from the Labour Party.

The show is obviously still in its developmental stage, and a bit clunky in places, but there were some excellent bits. One in particular stood out: a small questionnaire she handed out during the interval.

It asked three questions: 1) If I criticise a Jewish person, am I anti-Semitic? 2) If I question the legality of Israel to exist am I anti-Semitic? 3) What do you think is meant by anti-Semitism?

I answered “no” to the first question, “no” to the second question and “racial discrimination against Jews” to the third.

Jackie pointed out that how we understand the answers depends upon the context. If the questions were asked of an anti-Semite, then the same answers I gave would, indeed, be anti-Semitic.

I think that was a really clever and subtle point, and it is in this context that the criticisms against Jackie Walker can be understood.

What was most important to me was the opportunity to hear first hand the words of someone who has been hounded so relentlessly in the press, so I was rather astonished to hear that there were voices being raised within the Constituency Labour Party at the fact that the show was allowed to go ahead at all.

Pardon? I thought we believed in free speech? Not so it seems. Or not when there is a slim majority to defend.

Here is Rosie Duffield’s response:

“I could really have done without all this within my first few weeks in an all-consuming new job where my priority is helping desperate, struggling constituents with their asthma-causing mouldy flats or grandparents who’ve been on trolleys in hospital corridors for more than a day.”

To which I reply: well that’s your job Rosie, it’s what you’re paid to do.

Meanwhile it is our job, as concerned citizens, to try to get as close to the truth as possible. Hearing both sides of an argument is the first step in that process.

*************

From The Whitstable Gazette 27/07/17

The editor welcomes letters on any topical subject, but reserves the right to edit them. Letters must include your name and address even when emailed and a daytime telephone number.

Send letters to: The Editor, 5-8 Boorman Way, Estuary View Business Park, Whitstable, Kent CT5 3SE

fax 01227 762415

email: kentishgazette:thekmgroup.co.uk

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Whitstable & Canterbury history: Watling Street by John Higgs

Age old question still relevant

Watling Street is a new book by John Higgs.

As the name suggests, it involves a journey along the old Roman road that stretched between Canterbury and Wroxeter, and which was itself laid over a prehistoric trackway which may have gone all the way from Dover to Angelsea.

That, at least, is the journey that our author takes.

Written in the same year as the Brexit referendum, John uses the symbol of the road as a way of examining the conflicts of identity that lie at the heart of the British psyche.

Who are we, exactly?

Picts, Celts, Romans, Saxons and Normans, Cavaliers and Roundheads, all fought for control of this road. More recently we’ve seen our country divided along ideological grounds, between Leavers and Remainers, between traditionalists and innovators, between those who “want our country back” and those who seek to give our land a new mythic identity.

The question is: what is the nature of the country we want back? And whose country is it anyway, given that most of it is privately owned and off-limits to the majority?

On the Canterbury leg of his journey John is accompanied by a certain well-known writer and postal worker of your acquaintance; which is how I managed to get a copy of the book before its publishing date.

Of course the most famous story about Canterbury is the one telling of the rivalry between Archbishop Thomas Becket and his former friend and mentor Henry II, which, as we all know, ended in bloodshed.

John and I use this story to illustrate the perennial conflict between politics and spirituality; between the ruthless politician willing to kill for his ambitions, and the spiritually engaged person willing to die.

In the process we draw parallels with a more recent conflict: that between Tony Blair, the politician responsible for the violence in Iraq, and Brian Haw, his most prominent critic.

Tony Blair, of course, is internationally renowned, while Brian Haw is in danger of being forgotten. It is this injustice that we seek to redress.

If you’d like to find our more about Watling Street, John Higgs will be appearing at Waterstones in Canterbury on Wednesday the 19th July at 6.30pm.

You may well spot a certain well-known postal worker in the audience.

*******

Links:

Podcast featuring John Higgs and CJ Stone talking about Brian Haw (plus oodles of other interesting stuff): https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/watling-street/id1257578517?mt=2

John Higgs writing about Watling Street for the BBC: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170710-the-road-that-led-to-1000-stories

John Higgs’ blog: http://jmrhiggs.blogspot.co.uk/

Oddfellow’s Casino – The Ghosts of Watling St (Official Video): song based upon Watling Street by John Higgs:

John will be appearing at Waterstone’s Rose Lane branch on Wednesday 19th July at 18.30. Details here: https://www.waterstones.com/events/watling-street-john-higgs/canterbury-rose-lane

Further appearances:

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Whitstable literature: Playing Possum by Kevin Davey

Another literary figure to watch

I’ve just finished reading Playing Possum by Kevin Davey. It is a new novel, set in Whitstable.

It is an intriguing book, but also quite disorientating as the story keeps fracturing across time and genre in a way that makes it difficult to know where you are.

thomas_stearns_eliot_by_lady_ottoline_morrell_28193429
“The central character is an American poet, Thomas Stern, who astute readers will quickly recognise as T.S. Eliot”

I suspect this is deliberate. The central character is an American poet, Thomas Stern, who astute readers will quickly recognise as T.S. Eliot.

Eliot’s most famous poem, The Waste Land, was supposed to have been written in a shelter in Margate, and it is to Margate that our fictional character is travelling before his journey is cut short and he finds himself in Whitstable instead.

The year is 1922, the same year The Waste Land was published.

That poem famously made use of overheard conversations and found quotations, and there is a fair scattering of this in Playing Possum too. Part of the pleasure, particularly for students of Eliot, will be in tracing the references.

The novel reads like a series of clues to a story you have to construct in your own head and is full of the most astonishing and vivid writing. It’s almost as if the author is channelling the spirit of the dead directly onto the page, as if he’s fashioned a time-telescope through which we can look in on the scene all those years ago.

Most of the action takes place between the Duke of Cumberland and the Bear and Key and many of the events really did take place. So there’s a film, The Head of the Family, which was shot in Whitstable in the early 20s, and a political rally under a gas lamp between the two hotels, in the place known as the Cross, the forgotten omphalos of the town.

The novel also cuts to scenes taking place in the present, with drunken conversations of the sort you would recognise in any pub.

Our town is currently marking its place on the literary map. Not only do we have Julie Wassmer writing detective novels set in Whitstable, and a thriving literary festival, but there are an ever growing number of writers and artists working here as well.

Kevin Davey is definitely one to watch.

You can buy the book here.

*************

From The Whitstable Gazette, 29/06/2017

The editor welcomes letters on any topical subject, but reserves the right to edit them. Letters must include your name and address even when emailed and a daytime telephone number.
Send letters to:
The Editor, 5-8 Boorman Way, Estuary View Business Park, Whitstable, Kent CT5 3SE,
fax 01227 762415
email kentishgazette@thekmgroup.co.uk

 

 

 

 

Whitstable Reviews: Swing Boys Swing by Nigel Hobbins

All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”

— Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

nigel
Photograph by Neil Sloman

Production

swing-imageSwing Boys Swing is another fine collection of recordings by the Whitstable based singer/songwriter Nigel Hobbins.

There are twelve songs in all. Five of them are co-written with Andrew Ling; one of them is a traditional number and one (The Spritsail Barges) based on an anonymous poem found painted on a bit of old plywood in a boatbuilder’s yard in Faversham. The rest are one hundred percent Nigel’s.

It’s impossible to categorise Nigel’s music, it is so uniquely his own.

There are many influences in here, all of which play a part. There are African-sounding riffs, Country Music choruses, bits of Cajun, bits of Soul, Jazz phrases, Reggae rhythms, Celtic folk and, I’m sure, a whole bundle of other borrowings from music forms from around the world, but it is all wedded to a deeply English – nay Kentish – sensibility.

It is music grown from the rich soil of rural Kent, from Challock, on the North Downs, where Nigel was born and raised, and Whitstable, where he has lived and worked and raised his children, with Christine his partner, these last thirty years.

You can almost hear the roots burying themselves in the English soil as the songs waft by on the summer air.

And that, indeed, is the quality of many of these songs: a kind of breeziness, a summeriness, a lightness of touch that can nevertheless lead you to some very deep places.

It is also almost completely production free. There’s not a hint of electronics here. It was recorded in a summerhouse in Challock, just Nigel and his guitar and the birds outside, and then lugged round to various people’s houses in Whitstable, where the other musicians added their tracks. And that’s it. No more. Simple, sweet, unvarnished music, played by artisan musicians accomplished at their craft.

I Can’t Explain

I Can’t Explain, the opening song, co-written with Andrew Ling, is unaccompanied except by Nigel’s jaunty guitar, and is the only one on which no other musicians appear. There’s an almost painful intimacy about it, both in the way that Nigel sings, very close to the microphone, as if he’s whispering in your ear, and in Andrew’s lyrics, which evoke the shy confusion of a love that reaches beyond words.

It is a beautiful start to a beautiful album.

Head Over Heels, the next song, is one of Nigel’s own. It’s a love song, but one that is characteristically Nigel. His choice of imagery is so down to earth it’s glorious. How about “my footings have all lost their firm foundations” as an illustration of the uncertainty of love? That reminded me of his Love Sick Brickie song from another album, in which he evokes the confused preoccupations of a bricklayer in love.

Or how about this: “as helpless as a fish served upon a plate”? That would be one of Nigel’s fish, then, caught by his own hand on one of his fishing trips.

But the line that made me laugh out loud was this: “Now the postman’s delivered next door’s mail, I open it and feel real bad.”

That’s me that is. I’m the postman who delivered next door’s mail. I’m always doing it, always sticking the wrong letters into the wrong letter boxes, being far too distracted half the time to make a decent postman, and it’s great to hear a mundane detail of my daily life make it into song.

What a song like this does is to redeem ordinary life, to give it the status of poetry. It takes a proper artist to pull that one off.

Down to Ground

Back Down to Ground, co-written with Andrew Ling, made me cry. It evokes the feeling of lost love, and the craziness and confusion that can accompany that, but adds a sort of kindly reminder that the world spins on regardless of our loss.

It’s in two distinct parts. One of them, bittersweet and sad, and sung in a minor key, evokes the loss and the pain and the confusion; while the other, the chorus, is bright and lively and full of verve and reminds us of the simple joyful pleasures of our remaining days upon this Earth:

Winter came and the stars wheeled on,
And the frost broke up the clay,
Swallows flew and the sun shone on
And the summer smelled of hay.

Very simple, very poignant, and sung with heartfelt emotion by Nigel, who has obviously experienced a loss or two himself in his time

I won’t go into every song line by line as that would probably spoil it for you. These are my thoughts, my emotions, and you will no doubt bring your own feelings to it when you listen to the album: which I heartily recommend you do.

What it does for me is to underline the absurd narrowness of contemporary mainstream culture. These are not only accomplished and wholly original songs, but they carry a depth that is all too rare in this age of prepackaged emotion.

It deserves to be heard by everyone all over the world, and not just the small audience in and around Whitstable, where it currently has its base.

nigel-the-dreamlanders-iii-1-of-1
Nigel and the Dreamlanders at the Whitstable Labour Club: photo courtesy of Nick Cordes: https://nicordes.wordpress.com/

Riot

I’ve saved the stand-out song till last. It is the one after which the album is named: Swing Boys Swing.

It’s not like anything I’ve ever heard before.

It’s about the Swing Riots, which began near Elham in Kent in August 1830 and then spread throughout the rest of the country over succeeding months and years.

It’s about a time of turmoil and violence in British history, the rising up of the poor against the greed and narrow-mindedness of their Masters.

It’s about Captain Swing, the fictitious person who signed the letters warning the magistrates, parsons, landowners and other worthies of the “consequences” if their demands weren’t met.

The song is very dark in atmosphere with some threatening undertones, which perfectly invoke the mood of a night time riot. There’s an eeriness about the song too. Not so much haunting, as haunted, it’s as if Nigel has channeled the grief and anger of these long-dead souls who, unable to feed their families, and incensed at the injustices bearing down upon them, took it upon themselves to do the only thing in their power to do: to smash and burn the symbols of their oppression, the threshing machines and farm equipment, the barns, outhouses and other property of the wealthy landowners who were busy enriching themselves off the worker’s backs.

It isn’t a song about history. It is history come alive.

Some things never change, it says. There are still people enriching themselves off the workers’ backs. The greed and narrow-mindedness hasn’t gone away and Captain Swing is ever on the alert for the shadow of injustice.

Featuring:

Nigel Hobbins - vocals, guitar, mandolin, bass, percussion
Andrew Ling - lyrics
Daren Reynolds - double bass, electric bass
Neil Sloman - tenor, soprano & baritone sax
Robert Jarvis - trombone
Diane Comley - vocals
Martyn Kember-Smith - fiddle
Joe Hand - banjo
Daniel Mackenzie - electric guitar
Will Glanfield - E flat clarinet
Mastered by Robert Jarvis

Tracks:

1. I Can't Explain (3:10) Hobbins/Ling
2. Head Over Heels (4:51) Hobbins
3. Swing Boys Swing (6:52) Hobbins
4. Back Down To Ground (3:22) Hobbins/Ling
5. The Dargate Stomp (3:39) Hobbins/Ling
6. Hares on the Old Plantation (3:14) Trad
7. The Spritsail Barges (4:06) Hobbins/Anon
8) I Will Never Forget (3:38) Hobbins/Ling
9. Vic Plums (5:23) Hobbins
10. So We Owe (2:51) Hobbins/Ling
11. Far Far Away (3:41) Hobbins
12. Beautiful Day (5:57) Hobbins

Whitstable Reviews: The Cheering Rain by Kate Adams

A foreign country

During the launch of her poetry collection at the Labour Club, Kate Adams read the title poem, The Cheering Rain.

Before she did she introduced the poem, saying that she was waiting for a publisher to confirm if it had been accepted for an upcoming anthology. She said that the publisher had asked her which country it was set in.

Birmingham,” came the reply, to a ripple of laughter.

It’s easy to see why the publisher was confused. The writer does indeed make Birmingham seem like a foreign country. There is an intensity about the poem, with its flashes of colour, with its sounds and its characters, with its running boys and its stall holders, which gives it the feel of a North African souk, rather than an ordinary street in the heart of industrial Britain.

Many of the poems have that feel. It’s like you are looking at Britain with new eyes, in exactly the way you would look if it was your first time seeing the country, as a visitor might see it: as an exotic land, as a place of mystery and wonder, confusing and obscure at times, frightening, but still vivid in its presence, with the presumption stripped away, so that all you are left with is the urgency of your immediate sense impressions.

This is the genius of these poems (if that’s not too big a word) that they offer us a new perspective, a new way of looking at things. All of a sudden we are seeing the world through the eyes of the migrant, through the eyes of the asylum seeker; we are hearing the thoughts of people for whom English is unfamiliar, people struggling to put into words their sense of dislocation, their sense of loss.

This is not surprising as the poems come directly out of Kate’s work as a volunteer with Kent Refugee Help. In this capacity she has worked with asylum seekers, both those held in Immigration Detention, awaiting deportation, and those who have been returned to the community under strict bail conditions, unable to work or to claim benefit, which is itself a form of detention, a way of separating the asylum seeker from the rest of the community.

A prison

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Dover Immigration Removal Centre

Kent Refugee Help is a small charity supporting detainees in Dover Immigration Removal Centre. At the start of the evening Kate showed a film commissioned by the charity, made by two students, Levi Roberts and Jess Dadds. The film simply shows the road up to the Removal Centre. It was made by strapping a camera to the roof of a car and then driving up the road. So we see the tree-lined road as it ascends the hill, until it gets to the Removal Centre. But there is a finality to this destination, as you see the huge wooden doors, the walls, the ditch, the bridge, the razor wire, the surveillance cameras. It is a forbidding place. The centre was built during the Napoleonic Wars to house French prisoners. Later it was a Borstal. Now it is a place to house failed asylum seekers before they are shipped abroad to whatever fate might await them; if not to torture and death, then certainly to the fear of those things.

So this is a prison from which some people will never return. It is a measure of our age that such places exist. And it is a measure of our failing humanity that we don’t even know they exist.

But for all the politics in these poems, they are not polemical. We are not being told what to think. Rather they represent lives as they are lived under these particular circumstances; a portrait rather than a manifesto.

The Cheering Rain refers to the sound the rain makes when it is beating on tarmac and canvas. It is like the sound of a crowd cheering. This is an upbeat thought. It creates a picture in your head of joyous celebration, and, while some of the poems have a melancholic edge, the choice of The Cheering Rain as the title points to the underlying message in all of these poems.

Because in the end, that’s what they are: a celebration. A celebration of culture, of language, of humanity, of colour, of individuality, of strength, of patience, of resilience, of difference.

Of life.

The Cheering Rain

Rain comes like a crowd cheering,
hard on tarmac, on canvas.
Everyone cheers with the rain.
A boy runs between stalls to a van

parked in a side street at odd angles.
A man laughs selling baskets of old tomatoes,
Fifty pence because it's Ramadan.
Rain comes loud, dousing
the sultry hours of an August day.
The rain is my unsteadiness,
I could be swept away.
The colours of vegetables flood -
green and scarlet peppers, iridescent
onions, humble brown potatoes.
I scarcely see them, it is simpler
to be with the rain,
the thrill of its sound is like a crowd roaring,
like somebody trampling.
We shelter together. You say,
I told you not to come at Ramadan.
I make myself into a desert,
a hard, dry place, safe from the passion
of water and sacrifice.
I cover my hair
and listen to the cheering rain.

From the back cover:

In The Cheering Rain, Kate Adams draws on her experience of working with refugees to create a patchwork of stories. Trapped and frustrated by faceless institutions and unfathomable systems, her voice is joined by the characters she has known. Filled with humour, warmth and courage, these poems remind us of the incredible limits of human endurance, and of the cruel machinery that changes lives in the twenty-first century.

“These poems convey fragments of memory and communication, those glimpses of broken lives, which are poignant, painful, and yet precious, for those who are in the limbo of exile. Kate Adams has a remarkable eye for the telling detail, and a sensitive ear for voices seeking to express themselves in an alien language. She has the gift of evoking experiences of other worlds, other lives and experiences, without distancing them, making them a part of her life and ours.”

Lyn Innes, Emeritus Professor of Postcolonial Literatures, University of Kent

“They are so wonderfully economical these poems, elegant, understated and quietly poignant, a few well-chosen words to conjure up whole vistas, whole countries, whole days, whole lives, with an eye for the small detail which seems to open up some echo of hidden emotion. It is the measure of a good poem that it stays with you like a song. I’ve been singing these poems in my head ever since I first read them.”

CJ Stone, author and columnist

“Opening Kate Adams’ exhilarating first collection is like emerging from a dark alleyway into the noise and colour of an African street market… but they are in her own country, England. She works on behalf of refugees and she is passionately involved with the people she works for.”

Hubert Moore, poet and writing mentor for refugees

KRH works in partnership with organisations in the Southeast which are active in promoting the rights of refugees and migrants:

Whitstable Reviews: It’s Only 8 1/4 Miles to Dreamland by Nigel Hobbins

Planet Thanet

nigel
Photograph by Neil Sloman

It’s Only 8 ¼ Miles To Dreamland is the latest CD from the inimitable Nigel Hobbins. It’s a varied collection of songs, from reggae, to English Folk music, to sea shanties, to Scottish laments, to country howls, some of them written by Nigel himself, many of them traditional, but all inhabited by Nigel’s character and sensibility in a way that makes them uniquely his own.

According to the sleeve notes, the title track took him 30 years to write. And not a minute too long, if you ask me. It starts with a bike ride in the 1980s, and an enigmatic sign on the end of a gable wall, and from there proceeds to the memory of a childhood day trip to Margate, complete with candy floss and ghost trains and rioting skinheads. This is classic Nigel territory: gloriously colloquial, wry, evocative, local – how many songs can you think of with a reference to “Planet Thanet”? – sung with a broad Kent accent, and yet full of the kind of nostalgia that any person anywhere in the world would recognise, it sets the scene for the rest of the collection. Where is “Dreamland” exactly? Is it only that well-known amusement park in Margate, or is it also somewhere else, somewhere not so easy to define?

The rest of the CD takes us into a variety of “Dreamlands”: from the poetic reggae of Midnight Whispers (an old composition from his days in the Ashford based group Emotional Play) to the jaunty blues of Itty Bitty Dan, written as a celebration of his kid’s love of food; from the atmospheric dirge of Lowlands Away, a traditional folk song about the drowning of the singer’s lover, to Milligan Schottishe, which is almost like a Wurzels song, complete with brassy jug noises and harrumphing chorus, all sung in a rich country burr.

The joy of Nigel’s music is his ability to create brand new songs that have the air of something received, while also breathing new life into old songs. Away, Haul Away is an example of the latter: a sea shanty which Nigel has “Hobbinised” with some choice lyrics about his adopted town, you can hear the particular pleasure in his voice when he sings about the fate of King Louis of France: “the people cuts his head off and it spoils his constitution.”

Other songs about Whitstable include Knockhimdown Hill , and Golden Days When We All Get Paid , the latter a gorgeous evocation of the scene at Starvation Point in the 1800s, when hungry workers would line up by the harbour gates in search of paid work. These are both new songs with an old feel. There is something deeply rural in them, something local, something English in the old sense, like a cutting taken from an old tree and grown afresh, they call upon a sense of another kind of England than the one currently on offer: a more authentic England, an England of the soul.

The song Ignore The Rain, with which the CD finishes, has something of the same feel, but, with lyrics by the poet Andrew Ling – who is far less famous than he should be – it finds its locale in Gloucestershire rather than Kent. It rounds off the collection by evoking the feeling of the end of summer. And with the summer on its way, and this being a summer record, perhaps that is right. Perhaps we will always remember this summer as the one that brought us It’s Only 8 ¼ Miles To Dreamland ….

Waly Waly

But I think it is the song Waly Waly which most epitomises the bittersweet and eclectic mood of the record. A traditional Scottish lament set to an African accompaniment, it intersperses lyrics about lost love and despair with a jaunty upbeat brass tune which seems to mock the fatalism inherent in the song.

I loved the last verse –

I had two dogs under me Father’s table,
They did prick their ears when they did hear the horn,
When I am dead dear it will be all over,
And I hope my friends will bury me –

Followed by that jolly tune again, as if to say, “oh well, but we might as well enjoy ourselves while we are here.”

The juxtaposition of the dogs pricking their ears at the sound of the horn and the call of death reminded me of some ancient mythological motif.

And this is, indeed, the tone of the record: like an old story retold in a new context, it has a deep sense of rootedness arising out of the very soil of Whitstable, a sense of place, and of history. A sense of belonging.

Whitstable Reviews: The Humanoid Landscape by Fen Lander

Lightwaves

On Sunday 28th of August 2011 there was a Lightwaves festival in the Umbrella Centre on Oxford Street Whitstable.

I mention this for two reasons: firstly because I don’t think there had ever been such a thing in Whitstable before (or since) and secondly because my friend Joe Fenlon (pen name, Fen Lander) gave a talk on the Kentish Zodiac, and on his book, The Humanoid Landscape, which was launched that day.

Fen was the first speaker, at 10.30 in the main hall.

A lot of you will know Fen. He’s a Whitstable institution. A bit like the Dead Horse Morris, but without the bells, he’s been investigating the ancient past in this region for as long as I’ve known him. First it was the Whitstable alignment, then the Kentish Zodiac, but lately something new and wondrous has entered his conversation.

He lived in a shed in someone’s garden for about ten years. It was during this time that he came up with the idea for this book.

Crazy wood elf

I remember popping in to see him one day. This must have been about fifteen years ago now. He was in the garden, painting a picture. The picture was composed half of a map of the British Isles, and half of a figure like a baby which he was inscribing into the landscape.

“It’s really there, it’s really there,” he was saying, vehemently, leaping about in his bare feet like some crazy wood elf who’s consumed too much blackberry wine.

He was a bit like a mad professor, he says, shuttered away in that shed of his, with his compass and his maps, and his Anglo-Saxon dictionary, making huge leaps of the imagination, to come up with this fabulously deranged idea of his.

I won’t tell you what it is. You should buy the book to find out.

Suffice it to say that the book is unusual, written in a colloquial style, and that I guarantee you’ve never read anything quite like it before.

I already have my copy.

Fen Lander link

Whitstable Reviews: The Unknown at the Labour Club

There was a band on at the Labour Club this weekend, called The Unknown.

This was their 20th anniversary. They’ve played at the Labour Club once a year, every year, except for the year of the flood, since 1989.

I’ve watched my life go by in those 20 years.

I was there for their first gig. I designed the poster. It was a front cover from one of those 60s science fiction magazines, called “Secrets of the Unknown”. The title was written in bold 3D letters. By the artful use of tippex and crayon, I blocked out the words “Secrets of”, just leaving the name of the band.

The picture showed the silhouette of a figure radiating like the sun, with other figures standing back, shielding their eyes. So that was the impression you were left with: that this being was “the Unknown” – a mysterious, radiating stranger – and that he made people stand back in awe and fear and wonder.

I was proud to have been involved with setting up that first gig. The Unknown are special in that they are one of the first bands in the world to include people with learning disabilities.

Andrew Walpole, one of the founder members, band arranger and mentor, says they are called the Unknown because they are, in fact, “unknown throughout the world.” Also the name hints at unknown potential.

They were formed out of the Camden Society music workshops, begun in 1986. When people were ready with a song they could join in with the staff and volunteers, who had a working band at the time, called Who Cares Anyway. It was out of this that the Unknown were formed, in 1988, and they’ve been playing ever since.

They’ve played in a variety of exotic venues, including a monastery, a converted convenience, a city farm and a party boat along the Thames, but their favourite spot has always been the Whitstable Labour Club.

The band consists of Annette Schmidt (shakers) Andrew Schmidt (bass guitar) Sally Wilson (vocals cabassa tambourine xylophone) Tony O’Brien (drums) Angela Davies (vocals whistle) & Andrew Walpole (old enough to know better).

They play an eclectic mix of covers and standards, obviously reflecting their differing musical tastes, from Robert Johnson through Richard Rogers to fifties rock and roll. Included was a very spirited version of Achy Breaky Heart sung with joyous gusto by Sally Wilson, and Andrew Walpole singing his version of Fleetwood Mac’s Man of the WorldAlso several requestsJohnny B GoodeCharlie BrownTicket to RideCrazyall performed with spirit and panache.

1630881_f260They also do over 20 of their own numbersSome of these have been used in a recent award winning film about the Camden Society’s history, as well for the head office phone on-hold filler!

The rhythm section are remarkable in their pin-point accuracy and in their ability to shift to Andrew Walpole’s lead. They are truly the powerhouse of the band.

Particular mention has to be made of Tony O’Brien’s drum playing which, as well as being spot-on rhythmically, is also amazingly complex and diverse in his use of the full range of his kit. He says he had some lessons last year, funded by SHAPE, an organisation for empowering deaf and disabled people through the Arts, but it is clear that he is a gifted player anyway.

Andrew Schmidt, too, is a master of his instrument, and plays with cool style and presence.

Sally Wilson, the lead singer, conveys her feeling for the music with great spirit and obvious enjoyment, which is very infectious. She is also a very good dancer. Annette Schmidt keeps perfect rhythm and an entertaining commentary throughout the performance.

But the high point of the evening, for me, was Angela Davies’ rendition of The Only Living Boy in New York by Paul Simon.

I have to say I was almost moved to tears by this.

Angie can’t learn lyrics. It is probably the only sign of her disability. Aside from that she is an open, friendly, funny, up-front individual with a very good voice.

But she can’t learn lyrics. Consequently Andrew Walpole has to sing the words into her ear, which Angie is then able to hear and duplicate.

But seeing them there, it was like they had become temporarily melded into a single individual, as if his voice was passing through her ear and then out of her mouth. It was odd and disconcerting to watch, but very moving at the same time. It was as if Andrew was holding her psychically and she had become, through her openness and susceptibility, a temporary instrument for his voice.

Andrew Walpole says this about the band: “Disability is just incidental. Like any emancipation you’d hope the day will come when integration is natural and needs no comment. We’re very simply enjoying and working at being the best band we can be.”

They have an album out, called Unknown Ground, two tracks of which were chosen for the first UK compilation of musicians with learning disabilities: Wild Things Vol 1 sounds of the disabled underground. They are currently working on a new album.

Hopefully they will still be appearing at the Labour Club in 20 years time.

Hopefully I will still be around to see them.

  • CJ STONE
    “Stone writes with intelligence, wit and sensitivity” Times Literary Supplement

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Piet Clark for the photographs. You can see more of them here.

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