Ten Album Challenge # 10 Show of Hands
This land is barren and broken
Scarred like the face of the moon...
My daddy grew up in Cornwall. We used to go on holiday once a year, to Perranporth; where Piran landed when he floated over from Ireland; and where the oldest church in England lies buried in the sand. It was a short trek through the Sandhills to find the marker. My mum invariably did her impression of someone doing an impression of Jimmy Durante. “I’m da guy who found da lost church…” There was a war memorial near Granny’s house: there was a space between Riddle and Roberts and Daddy always swore that was where his name was meant to have gone. He could point out a grave which belonged to a Rilstone who been with Wellington at Waterloo. (The grave yard was attached to the church; Daddy's family were distinctly chapel.)
Our tongue is no longer spoken
The towns all around face ruin
The Cornish landscape is still smothered with industrial remains; you could think they were castles or forts from a distance; the stone chimneys of empty tin-mines. Granny still made huge pasties like the miners used to take down the mines, but I don’t think anyone in the family was ever in the tin trade. It was said that the tin-miners would leave a little bit of their pasty for the piskies to eat. Every gift shop sold kitsch figures of Cornish piskies. I suppose minors are superstitious and the piskies were a kind of gremlin; although “leaving a bit of your pasty for the piskies” presumably just meant not eating the bit that your dirty miner's fingers had touched. Daddy joked about having rich relatives in Australia: my sister does actually own a little heirloom, a gold chain a fifth cousin or great-grandparent had brought back from South Africa. So there must have been miners a generation or so back.
Will there be work in New Brunswick
Will I find gold in the Cape?
Daddy was more worried about the lack of trains than the lack of tin-mines: the decimation of the local branch lines ripped the heart out of Cornwall. There is a strong connection between King Arthur and Cornwall. He was born in Tintagil, of course, and the local tourist trade has turned Tintagil Castle into Camelot, which it never was, not even in the most romantic legends. But you can easily imagine Uther handing the baby Arthur over to Merlin near those Cliffs. There was one summer when I was reading The Once and Future King and Quicksilver Heritage and the Old Straight Track and wanted to believe that there was something Celtic and mystical and Arthurian in my heritage. Devon is prettier; but they put the jam on the Scones first. Cornwall is wilder. Francis Drake was Devonian: so was Solomon Kane, the less famous Puritan version of Conan the Barbarian. My daddy's lost childhood; the lost world of pre-Beeching steam trains; Weslyean Sunday School treats with huge gigantic saffron buns; the Holy Grail; Joan the Wad; wildness and surf; cream teas; the Second World War...
If I tunnel all the way down to Australia
How will I ever escape?
One legend says that Joseph of Arimathea came to England to buy tin from the Cornish miners; and that one time he brought his nephew Jesus with him; and founded the first Christian church in Glastonbury, stopping off in Priddy along the way. “Priddy” was a magical name long before I came to live in Bristol: I go there every year for the folk festival now. I overheard the lady Vicar saying that her church was founded by St Joseph, but I didn’t pluck up courage to ask if she really believed that. I went through a stage, in the sixth form, of taking the Glastonbury magic very seriously; the Grail and the Ley Lines and Chalice Well. That was mostly supplanted by Malory and Parsifal. Tintagil is only a few minutes along the coast from Port Isaac, where a group of fishermen and lifeboat men used to stand on the beach and sing old shanties for charity, until a record promoter on a stag-night from London heard them and decided to make them famous and bought their pub. (This is not true. It is a good story.)
The soil was too poor to make Eden
Granite and sea left no choice
I moved back to the West Country; not as far West as Perranporth, but still Bristol, where the zider apples grow, the Summerlands, a bus ride away from Glastonbury. Avalon means Apple Island. I was in a writers' group called Words Allowed, and one time we did a joint story reading session with a black writers group in a night club on Stokes Croft. It was all good and interesting and I remember being amused to hear that young black people in St Pauls talk about “the Nation”, as in the Nation of Islam. This was before the Twin Towers. It was before many Somalians had moved into St Pauls. I remember one of the guys writing about needing to be positive about his heritage; he was quite uncompromising in his language. I am black; black is beautiful. I remember it crossing my mind: I would like to write a piece saying I am white, white is beautiful and realising that the only thing you could say in a piece like that is why you can't say that, which might, actually, be worth saying. You can’t write stories about being white because all stories are about being white except the ones which are not. Only nasty horrible people ask why is there no white history month and only nasty horrible people ask why there is no international men's day. White people don' need to be white: they can be Tikes and Scousers and Highlanders and Ulstermen and Cornish.
But visions of heaven sustained us
When John Wesley gave us a voice
I remember having those feelings when I was a kid. Other people came from a specific Town: I just came from the vast and amorphous London or the tiny and uninteresting Barnet which had nothing but a fair and a piece of rhyming slang. Other people had accents: I just spoke the way everyone on the telly spoke. There were people who said “maybe its because I’m a Londoner” and sewed buttons on their hats, but theat had no-more to do with me than kilts and shamrocks. Other people came from a country: I just came from England. I get how that works now: people from the South made everyone else talk the way they do; and people from Europe made everyone else dress the way they do. The nightclub was pulled down. In April 2011 they opened a new Tescos on the site of it.
Did Joseph once come to St Michael’s mount?
Two thousand years pass in a dream
Sometime in maybe 2007 or 2008 the Radio Derby’ weekly Folkwaves Show celebrated St Georges Day with an evening of English music: they had Ashley Hutchins doing a song about St George and the Dragon, and a version of a King of Rome because only an Englishmen would be silly enough to write a song about a pigeon and June Tabor’s version of Maggie Holland’s Place Called England. I only picked up on about a quarter of the references I didn’t realise that “Daniel” was Daniel Hooper — Swampy — but I utterly lapped up the low-level Electric Albion Imagined Village Englishness of it. Rise up George and wake up Arthur, time to rouse up from your sleep: deck the horse with sea-green ribbons drag the old sword from the deep. But the thing which made me absolutely sit up and take notice was a strange, triple headed song about how much folk music we have lost and how collective memory is part of who we are and how the English should embrace their folk traditions in the same way that other nations do. The specific occasion of the song was a remark by Tony Blair’s culture hating minister of culture that three folk singers in a West Country pub was his idea of hell — a remark he later, on fairness, retracted. The wider context was the Licensing Act that would have made small informal gigs subject to the same rules and regulations as performances in large scale venues. More generally it was about why the English seem to be ashamed of English folk culture and indeed of being English. And we're taught to be ashamed before we walk of the way we look and the way we talk; without our stories and our songs how will we know where we came from? I lost Saint George in the Union Jack, it's my flag too and I want it back. It had a jaunty autobiographical verse and an anthemic chant which turned into a sea shanty at the end. The band had previously sung about a flood which was “soaking the roots and the branches and rotting the buds” and another one about “the earth, the roots, the leaves and the bark” of an oak tree; but this song made the imagery unambiguous. Seed, bud, flower, fruit: never going to grow without their roots; branch, stem shoot — we need roots.“English identity” has become a massive political football and it was almost inevitable that Very Nasty People would try and claim the song. The same Very Nasty People are trying to claim the obsolete tradition of blackface Morris dancing right now.
When you’re working away in the darkness
Deep in the heart of a seam
White people have everything in their favour. White men have even more in their favour. Older white men have even more again in their favour. Straight old able bodied rich Christian cis men. Delete as appropriate. We have no right to sing songs complaining that our cows have got foot and mouth and their pubs are closing and to frame that as a kind of oppression. The coffin of our English dream lies out on the village green where agri-barons CAP in hand strip our green and pleasant land of meadow, woodland, hedgerow, thorn, what remains gets built upon. It's not a great idea to sing songs about the victims of Bristol's slave traffickers either, or to sing in the voice of the people whose songs Cecil Sharp didn't bother to record, because that's stealing someone else's voice It’s all so very complicated. Everything is problematic. Steve Knightley is very amused when Irish bands think that the Galway Farmer is a traditional Irish song, seeing as how he made it up out of his head. When I heard those songs on Folkwaves they seemed to suggest a way of doing English Patriotism that wasn’t angry or jingoistic but which was hopeful and consciously a bit silly. Morris dancing and ribbons and mumming plays. I think they played Kate Rusby’s cover of Village Green Preservation Society as well.
I dream of a bridge over the Tamar
It opens us up to the east
So: on St Georges day 2011 they opened a new branch of Tescos on Stokes Croft, on the site of the nightclub where the poetry reading happened. Some people demonstrated against it. The police tried to break the demonstrations up; they came in heavy handedly horse and nightsticks; some people in the squat over the road threw a brick; it developed into a full on riot; cars overturned; fires; the lot. Allegedly. The next weekend there was a folk festival in Bristol; at a venue named after a Bristol Slaver. All Friday evening and all day Saturday you would not have known that Bristol had spent the previous week on the front pages of every newspaper in the world. On Saturday evening Steve Knightley and Phil Beer stepped on stage to do their headline set. They launched straight into one of their lessor known songs. To the Cuthroats, crooks and conmen running this jail: is there anything left in England that’s not for sale? It has a line about school playing fields being sold off. Out on the playing fields…empty houses stand…they had to sell the land. "TO TESCOS?" Steve extemporised.
The English they live in our houses
The Spanish they fish in our seas
I’ve claimed that several different songs are my all time favourite song in this series of essays. Every act has popular songs that they have to sing at every gig: Show of Hands have nothing else. Every album adds a new one. Roots. Country Life. Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed. The Galway Farmer. Red Brick Wall. Battlefield Dance Floor. Santiago. Nowadays they tend to do two sets: a play-through of their current album and a greatest hits set. That night in Bristol they finished with a pleasant little number called Are We All Right? and then, to no-ones surprise, did an encore. They brought Fishermen’s Friends, the Shanty Band from Port Isaac near Tintagil onto the stage. It’s Fishermen’s Friends who are singing the shanty section of Roots, on the album, long before they were officially discovered. And they sang the song without which no Show of Hands gig is complete and I cried uncontrollably.
Where there’s a mine or a hole in the ground
That’s where I’m headed for, that’s where I’m bound
Look for me under the lode, or inside the vein
Where the copper, the clay, where the arsenic and tin
Run in your blood they get inside your skin
I’m leaving the county behind and I’m not coming back
So follow me down Cousin Jack.