For the last three and a half years, I have been working some very eccentric and imbalanced shifts over a fortnightly cycle, which have essentially added up to a very heavy eight days followed by a very light six days.
Last year, my employers decided to consult over a massive, estate-wide shift realignment, producing a compact number of shift-patterns to choose amongst. All the available shifts, barring three, included working one day (or more) of each weekend, fifty two weeks a year. As this did not suit me, I selected the three shifts that gave me some complete weekends free. Two of these patterns were then withdrawn due to lack of interest: by default, I got my second choice.
Prior to accepting, we were all given the opportunity to request flexible adjustments. I sought a minor variation – that each Wednesday I work 11.00am – 7.00pm instead of 1.00 – 9.00pm every other weekday. That adjustment was rejected, and I appealed. My appeal was heard two weeks ago, and the decision has today been notified to me.
All three of the grounds on which I relied to support my appeal have been rejected as invalid. But my appeal has been upheld, and my shift-pattern will be adjusted as I requested.
The logic is incomprehensible, but I’m not arguing.
It has been another frustrating day and I’m running out of time.
Today is Leap Year day, February 29th, when women are traditionally allowed to propose to men. And it’s been all day, and not one of them has even approached me. I can’t understand it: I’m the perfect match for someone with very low standards and a high degree of desperation. It’s not fair: I am being victimised here, people.
And there’s only a couple of hours left, and then I’m stuck for another four years, dammit.
I appeal to your sense of justice, or at least abject sacrifice…
Properly speaking, An Infinite Summer should not be in this brief follow-up series of blogs. It’s a short story, albeit the title story in a short-story collection, and it isn’t even the longest story, that honour going to ‘Palely Loitering’, which I’ll also be looking at below.
But ‘An Infinite Summer’ is intimately bound up with Christopher Priest’s career, and despite its brevity, it deserves to be considered on its own merits. And in case anyone thinks I’m short-changing the other three stories in this collection, these are all early ‘Dream Archipelago’, from the time when the Archipelao was in its most inchoate state, when Priest saw it as having no collective geography whatsoever. These stories were collected in The Dream Archipelago compilation.
‘An Infinite Summer’ was written halfway through the composition of The Space Machine. Priest was approached by an importunate Harlan Ellison to contribute to The Last Dangerous Visions. After coming under some pressure, Priest set The Space Machine aside. He had researched Richmond prior to starting the novel, although in the end had avoided using the material, but now he found it invaluable to capture a mood that did not fit into his book, the sense of places being affected less by time than people.
Priest submitted ‘An Infinite Summer’ but, concerned at publication delays and growing suspicious of Ellison’s stories of ‘progress’, became the first author to successfully demand the return of his story, which he promptly sold elsewhere!
The story centres upon Thomas James Lloyd. We first meet him on a bridge over the Thames, in Richmond, in August 1940. He is a strangely young-looking sixty and prefers to wear dark glasses at all times. Through these, he can see freezers.
I am not talking about kitchen or industrial appliances, but rather of humans. Who or what these freezers are, and why their name applies, is of course not revealed initially, nor is it immediately apparent that these freezers, who seem to be interacting with the August crowd, are in fact invisible and inaudible to everyone but Thomas.
The answer lies in Thomas as a young man, aged twenty-one, fresh from Cambridge: intelligent, ambitious and in love, in June 1903. The story moves backwards and forwards between the two Thomases until we understand what has happened to both.
In 1903, Thomas is expected to become betrothed to Charlotte Carrington, but is instead in love with her young sister, Sarah. With the assistance of his cousin, Waring, who is accompanying him in taking the Misses Carrington for a walk in Richmond Park, Thomas contrives to speak to Sarah alone. It appears that his love is reciprocated and indeed Sarah accepts his proposal of marriage.
But by this point, we know what freezers are. They are humans, from an unknown future who, for reasons that are inexplicable, are seeking out scenarios, or tableaux as Thomas terms them. Perhaps it is a form of art, but whenever a freezer locates a suitable tableau, they will freeze it, using some device that does not yet exist. And as Thomas in 1903 reaches out his hand to clasp that of Sarah, we know what is to happen, that they are to be frozen.
What happens to things that are frozen? Time ceases to be for the participants. Moreover, they are removed from the timeline: only freezers, and those who are freed when a tableau erodes. Thomas alone emerged from his tableau in 1935, to learn that in 1903 he and Sarah simply disappeared. They were treated as having absconded, they were disinherited, their families’ lives were changed in an instant, disastrously.
Thomas has remained in Richmond ever since, close to Sarah, hoping that one day she too will return to life.
Now, this day, during War, a German plane flies overhead. It is shot down, the plane crashing in Richmond Park, close to Sarah’s frozen body. The Pilot bales out but, a few feet from landing in the Thames, disappears completely: frozen. But the tableau erodes within minutes, the shortest Thomas has ever seen. Proximity to the freezing gun determines the strength and length of the tableau. Thomas hurries to the Park, followed by a growing number of freezers. The plane has crashed close to Sarah. Already the grass is alight. Sarah is safe from this, but at last the tableau is eroding for her. Her skirt catches fire. Thomas forces his way through to her, takes her in his arms at so long last, but as she sees him again they are once again frozen, a new tableau. For this young Edwardian pair, denied their future, the summer is indeed infinite.
Though short and, when completed, a little slight, ‘An Infinite Summer’ rests on the mood of infinite time Priest successfully creates, the sense of stability that endures, both long before and long after the ‘present’ of the story. It’s a disturbing, unsettling, yet strangely serene tale, the sense of the Edwardian summer, that last arcadian time in British life as it is so often presented, pervades. Thomas and Sarah have all time, yet they have no time, their immortality not a blessing but a ruination of everything they had hoped to be to one another.
‘Palely Loitering’ is another matter entirely though it too concerns itself with Time Travel. Unlike the other three stories in the collection, it is not identified as a Dream Archipelago story, though the names at its heart, and the science that is at its centre are strangely non-English in a way that had me, at least, borrowing the later Archipelago’s blanket to cover it.
The story centres upon Mykle, who we first meet as the son of a seemingly Victorian family, son of a distant and stern father who holds a great post. Mykle has two sisters, Salleen (who is elder) and Therese (whose age is not specified but who is suggested as being very close to that of Mykle, perhaps a year younger). Mykle is ten at the story’s beginning, and its primary setting is Flux Channel Park.
But the story takes place in a distant future, of great scientific advance, an era of starflight, albeit one in which humanity has lost the urge to go to the stars. The Victorian atmosphere is an affectation, a fashion period, a reversion.
Flux Channel Park takes its name from a channel of Flux, a kind of silvery, almost gel-like fluid, that distorts both space and time. It had been used to launch a starship, seventy years ago, at speeds that had it escaping the Solar System in seconds. Where the starship has gone, and when or if it will return is unknown: the Flux Channel has become a public entertainment. Two bridges cross it at slight angles. One is the Yesterday Bridge, the other the Tomorrow Bridge. On the other side of each Bridge, the time is twenty-four hours different, forwards or back.
It is an annual treat for Mykle and his sisters to cross one of the Bridges each summer. But in the year the story starts, when he is ten, he daringly jumps from the Bridge, at an angle, crossing the flux-field and projecting himself into a much more distant future.
Beyond the bridge, he meets an older version of himself, a version in love with a girl who sits on a park bench, waiting for someone to appear out of the covered end of the bridge. Her name is Estyll (you can see why I keep thinking this is set in the Dream Archipelago).
Mykle will come and go across the bridge, across his leap into futurity, several times throughout the story which, like ‘An Infinite Summer’ is a love story. Mykle repeats over and over, encountering himself at different ages. On the right side of the Bridge, he grows up, succeeds his father in a very responsible job, marries and has children. For years, he forgets Estyll, who continues to watch.
But everything changes again when the return of the starship is announced. It will land in the flux, and so the Park will be closed, and access to the Bridges and that curiously time-indeterminate land beyond them, will cease. Mykle realises that thirty-two years have passed since he inadvertently jumped thirty-two years into the future, that that time – and Estyll – is now here, but cannot last long.
On the last possible day, he returns to the Park, crosses the Bridge again. Crosses and recrosses, into Past, Present and Future, dozens of his self gathering, watching. A meeting with Estyll must come at last, but it must come for the right version of Mykle and it must be arranged within the flux-field if it is to ever happen as it should.
As so often is the case with Christopher Priest, the story ends in a way that is final and which yet doesn’t deliver a resolution, leaving the reader to decide for him or herself what effect this has all had in reality, or even in which reality it exists. A Dream of Wessex had been written by this point. The Affirmation would follow. Christopher Priest’s career as the writer we understand him to be was opening before him. ‘An Infinite Summer’ and ‘Palely Loitering’, with their shared sense of formal times, their combined atmospheres of indeterminacy, of summer and of dreams, were essential staging posts.
The above title is a sub-heading on the Guardian web-site for this afternoon’s League Cup Final between the Scousers and the Bitters, a game I will not be watching because, you know, one of them has to win.
But as for where it will be won and lost, the answer’s obvious: at Wembley.
They’re not playing the bloody thing in Scunthorpe, you know.
Coming your way rather later than usual, on account of this having been a particularly shitty week and my having been too exhausted to focus when the latest two instalments of Trapped were first broadcast.
Perhaps it was just that I was watching in daylight for once, but the first of this week’s two episodes was surprisingly slow, nor did it do much to advance the story. Not that I’m complaining in the slightest, since it was also superb from start to finish. We left Andri, Sigurdur and his elderly Dad, Godmundur, being overwhelmed by a CGI avalanche that was not, frankly, of the best CGI. Not that this mattered either, not in the context of the aftermath, which was that the fall knocked out the powerlines, and the entire town of Siglufjordur got switched off in an instant: no light, no heat, no mobile phone signals.
This was a game-changer, and I’m only sorry that the power came back on late in episode 6, because the sense of claustrophobia, and the underlying notion that everyone in town was trapped with the murderer, was there to be ramped up.
But that’s not where the show went. True, it had Andri delivering a message to the community, in the Church, admitting that he, Hinrika and Asgeir have no answers, but promising that they will do everything to bring the culprit in, and in the meantime almost demanding that the town does not turn in upon itself in suspicion.
Instead, the majority of episode 5 concentrated on the three men in the snow. All three survived, but Godmundur had suffered a spinal injury. Whilst Sigurdur guarded him, Andri stumbled into the night, looking at the end of his tether, to seek help. In the end, this came in the form of the Ferry Doctor and a team of orange-suited helpers on jet-skis.
The conditions were hell, if hell can be constructed from snow, ice and wind. It was imperative that Godmundur not be moved, but with no form of aerial rescue remotely possible in the treacherous conditions, Andri took responsibility for getting Godmundur down. All it achieved was the old man’s death. But even in this taut, near-episode long diversion, the overall plot was served: Godmundur’s land, the vital parcel he was refusing to sell to the Chinese Conglomerate, passed into the hands of poor, pliable Sigurdur, he who is under that thumb of evil-plotting Mayor Hrafn.
What made episode 5 shine even more was that so much of its dangers and strictures was contrasted, in alternating scenes, with the local teenagers breaking into the swimming pool and having a candlelight pool party. Scarred Hjortur was dragged in by a couple of girls and, by implication, got his end away with the blonde one, though his attention remained fixed on young Johanna, niece to the unfortunate Dagny and wielder of a pretty mean bikini. Johanna even slipped off into the showers for some Icelandic snogging with one lad who, assuming she was into the kinky stuff, tied one of her hands. For a moment, it looked like sinister stuff might occur but some stern repetitions of ‘Untie me’ was all that was needed to quell the lad’s progress.
And meanwhile, little Hinrika – who is becoming a more formidable character by the episode, the more so for the deliberate choice of a non-beauty actress in a leading role – sat out events, cut off by the avalanche at Ragnvoldur’s cabin, keeping him company in the dark and learning several interesting things from his accounts of his telescopic voyeurism, including news of a public argument between Mayor Hrafn and Geirmundur, he of the purloined torso.
Yes, the compass needle of crime is swinging definitely in the direction of the ex-Chief of Police. Which is why it came as a bit of a shock when, in the closing minutes of the episode, someone known to our wife-beating Mayor but not to us fetched him a couple of hefty ones with a spade, sloshed good liquor all over the place, set it alight and then padlocked the suspect in his shed, to burn to death under the watchful eyes of the widow Kolbrun.
So episode 6 saw things back on track. Andri, despite no apparent sleep in at least 48 hours, soldiers on manfully, lumbering towards the truth. Little pieces of plot bubbled to the surface in his slow wake. Marie, unmarried mother of fatherless Maggi, seems particularly upset at Hrafn’s death: is she mourning a father figure, or is there a baser reason why Maggi’s father doesn’t come to visit him?
Agnes’ concern for her ex-husband grows to the point of a hug in the churchyard, witnessed by elder daughter Thorhildur, who accuses her of still loving Daddy. Even her elder sister, Laufey, is critical of her for running out on her marriage. Just what lies behind that?
Asgeir clears the pool of miscreants. He finds the Swiss Bruno Weisman, the missing passenger who was originally thought to be torso-boy but of more importance he finds the German tourists’ missing camera, and on it an accidental shot of Geirmundur arguing with someone else: Sigurdur.
Whilst the power is being restored, the winds ease sufficiently to enable the Reykjavik Forensics Squad fly in by helicopter, under the command of Andri’s antagonist, Detective Tressi. They land in the square, just as a chase comes to an end.
For Andri and Hinrika, visiting Sigurdur, have found Lrifur and Gudni just leaving, a pair who seemed concerned about Sigurdur’s reliability after his Dad’s death. And right they are too: no sooner is Siggi confronted with the film of his quarrel with Geirmundur than he throws a wobbler, leaps into his car and shoots off.
The chase is on. Thanks to Rognvaldur, our Police trio discover that Sigurdur has headed off into the fjord, with a rifle. Using the little police jet-boat, they shoot off into the middle of that magnificent scenery, board his boat and overpower him. Siggi’s been messing with the hold hatch. When Andri and Asgeir lift it, there is incriminating evidence within: a headless and limbless torso with multiple stab wounds…
On a wet January Friday afternoon, when work is not actually overwhelming, a man’s thoughts naturally turn to the Lake District, to the fells and mountains, and lakes and tarns of the most lovely corner of this Earth. This is even more so when memory is the only means by which I can access the vast majority of Cumbria. The increasingly grey sky of Stockport is rightly displaced by all the varied colours of a Lakeland day’s walking.
Ever since the funeral I attended last week, my late father’s been in my mind an awful lot. Nor can I think of Dad without thinking of the fells: after all, it was he who introduced me to walking in the first place, very much against my will and comfort. Nor was I the kind of child to keep such a thing as discomfort to myself, in stoic fashion.
We only got a couple of years fellwalking in together, before the pains in his shoulder led him to the Doctor, and to the long illness that ended in his death from cancer. At least I have the satisfaction of knowing that he’d seen me come round to fellwalking without complaint before he lost his own access to the high country.
Because our first walk, indeed several of our first walks, took us to the tops of various of the Lakes’ official Passes, I’ve always had an affinity with Passes as an acceptable destination for a day’s walking. Not in the same class as summits, of course, but any ascent that included a trip to the top of one of the recognised Passes had the extra cachet of following directly in my Dad’s footsteps.
Over the years, I’ve managed to ascend all the Official Passes, and in the case of those that carry roads, this hasn’t always been behind the wheel either.
Obviously, if we’re going to be technical about it, the first Pass I reached the top of was Dunmail Raise, and I have crossed it dozens upon dozens of times, as passenger and driver and, most recently on a double-decker bus (lower storey) in pitch black conditions, to the point where not only did I not see a single glitter of Thirlmere, I did not know we’d even set wheel on the Raise until we were roaring past Dunmail’s cairn.
But really Hard Knott was the first, and it was our first walk. It’s a motor pass, true, and one with which my parents had been familiar in their courting days, when my Dad’s method of transport was a motor-bike, and the actual condition and gradients of Hard Knott weren’t a concern. Neither he nor his brother, my Uncle, would ever take a car over Hard Knott, no matter how improved the surface.
It seems an odd choice, but it should also be borne in mind that it was not just I who was a fellwalking virgin, but also my sister, then aged five, albeit a very sturdy example of the five year old girl. Distance was an issue, and height.
We ascended from the Eskdale end of the Pass. It would be a few years yet, and beyond Dad’s time before I was able to exert what little influence I ever had to get my Uncle to drive through the very narrow bit of the Duddon Valley road, by Wallowborough Gorge, and enter the massively flat and empty bowl of the upper Valley. Cars would zip up and down the road, but Dad wanted grass under his boots, and so we took a line, or rather a series of lines, from the foot of the pass in Eskdale, and walked uphill, the tarmac and its manifold bends well to our left.
Dad would use a compass to take a bearing on a landmark ahead of us, a prominent rock, a bit of a bluff, and keeping to the bearing, would guide us to that mark, whereupon he would repeat the procedure. Although Hard Knott was a motor pass, the tarmac replacing the rough routes that pony ( ) had followed over the centuries, it was unusual geographically in not standing at the head of the valley, but crossing at an angle a low saddle on its southern flank. This left ample opportunity to make a gentle scramble over grassy fellside, slowly angling towards the col that completed the climb.
For the route home, we simply walked down the road. I was in a thoroughly petulant mood by then and when they proposed a detour to the Roman Fort, I refused to join the family and sat by the roadside, until I got bored sitting on my own and went in search of them. I couldn’t find them anywhere, but instead they found me, creeping up from behind and surprising me with a shout when I was stood in the middle of the bathhouse or something similar.
We did climb the Pass from the Duddon, though this time it was via the tarmac, and it wasn’t with the Pass as our destination, but rather as an approach to Hard Knott fell: the first summit we reached after Dad died. There was no alternative to the road on the east side of Hard Knott.
Despite the older generation’s reluctance, I have driven the Pass once, from east to west, as part of a very short cut from Ambleside to Wasdale: it felt very strange to enter Eskdale from that direction and have such a long drive down the valley so early in the day.
The last time I was at Hard Knott was in the relaxed circumstances of being Mr 214, and no longer seeking out Wainwrights. I parked at the foot of the Pass, in Eskdale, took a new line of approach to Harter Fell, then trudged the long, unfamiliar and, yes, rather dull ridge down to the Pass, crossing the tarmac and ascending the fell, before making my way home down the Pass.
From Hard Knott, we turned to Wrynose Pass, where the object of the walk, at least as far as I was concerned, was to see the fabled Three Shires Stone, marking the point where three counties – Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire – met. Wrynose was another of those Passes with which my Dad and Uncle were well-acquainted, from past days of the bike, and the convenience with which Hard Knott and Wrynose could be combined for a quick return from the coast.
Indeed, Dad told a wry story of returning over Wrynose one Sunday, out of the Duddon Valley, and finding a motorist pulled up short of the top, his radiator drained, and unable to move. Having assisted in getting him water, Dad leant a shoulder to push the car up to the top. Whereupon the driver took one look at the descent into Little Langdale and insisted on turning round and going back to the Duddon.
Unlike Hard Knott, there was no option for us to leave the tarmac and make our own idiosyncratic way to the top. So there we were, a family of five, all dressed up in proper walking gear, walking up the road to Wrynose. I sometimes wonder what the drivers who passed us, ascending and descending, thought of us, for of course just as there was nothing but the tarmac up, we had only the road for our retreat.
My only other visit to Wrynose came many years later, by car. From Ambleside, I used both Passes as a quick way through to Wasdale. Admittedly, the car I was driving was better than any my Dad or Uncle had access to, but whilst the roads are narrow, and some of those hairpin bends on the Eskdale side of Hard Knott, coupled with 1 in 3 gradients, are a bit dodgy, I found them nothing like the fearsome experiences they were made out to be.
With two successful walks under our belt, we set out to conquer our third Pass, this time a ‘proper’ Pass, being one that you could only reach with your boots on. Of course, it had to be Sty Head, and that gave me the objective of getting far enough around Great Gable to see something of its shyer neighbour, Green Gable.
We were without my Uncle on this occasion, just the nuclear family, and we set off from Wasdale Head, as we would do time and again, angling for that narrow valley below the long fall from the Napes ridges, leaving the level path along the valley, rising across those slopes, and reaching the edge of the scree field that the path has to manage at a constantly rising angle.
Here, my mother, not for the last time, took one look and decreed that my little sister wasn’t going across that. But the men of the family, a boy and his Dad, were entitled to continue alone, whilst the memsahibs retreated to the valley, and an extended spell of paddling their feet in the beck. Dad and I went on alone.
There’s nothing a small boy loves more, especially if he only has a sister/sisters, than to be alone with his Dad. There aren’t that many opportunities to be in a purely masculine atmosphere, and it’s an important part of your life to be tested only against Dad’s expectations, and to live up to that. It was especially so with my Dad, who never gave quarter, never played down in any game, always made sure that if I won, it was because I had deserved it, not had it handed to me, and that I knew the game hadn’t been thrown.
I wish I remembered more of that day, but that upper stage of Sty Head on the Wasdale side is simply an extended walk, often with little to see beyond the immediate horizon on a convex slope. I remember dozens of little cairns, at intervals, and Dad encouraging me to add a stone to them along the way: little markers for walkers caught in cloud that they were still on the correct path, though even then Sty Head’s slopes were as good as unloseable.
We got to the summit of the Pass, overlooking the Tarn, even advanced far enough for me to see a sliver of green fellside, peeking around Great Gable’s bulk, that was all I was going to see of Green Gable today. Dad was concerned about not leaving Mam and my sister on their own for any longer than was necessary, so we hustled back down to find them at the beck, their feet not too cold yet to stand more immersion whilst we had our turn.
I’ve returned to Sty Head on several occasions, though I’ve never again taken that slanting path across the scree. There was a later occasion when the four of us set off to trace the Valley Route to Sty Head, as revealed by Wainwright, only to give up when we ran out of flat valley, and another when we started that way only for Dad to divert us up alongside Piers Gill, an unplanned expedition that turned into an impromptu ascent of Lingmell: our second summit, and Dad’s highest point.
On my own, I’ve twice ascended Sty Head from Seathwaite, each time using the much more exciting Taylorgill Force variation. The one time I travelled by the true Sty Head route, from Stockley Beck Bridge, it was for the purpose of ascending Seathwaite Fell, in the company of a maybe girlfriend, and we broke off the path before reaching the point where the Taylorgill variation ends. We did return by that variation that day, the only time I’ve descended that side of the Pass.
There was one more example of father and son exploration that was Pass related, though I can’t really count this as a success. One of our regular, relaxed expeditions was into Mickleden, although we would rarely go further than the weir on the beck, just after the accompanying wall from the Hotels had ended. This once, we had wandered on, through that vast flatness, to the foot of Stake Pass. Dad, feeling energetic, proposed a fast ascent with me, whilst Mam and my sister strolled back towards the weir.
And it was indeed a fast ascent, faster than my liking, especially as Dad insisted on using the proper zig-zags whilst I would have headed for the shortcuts that still littered the slope, on the grounds that they were, well, shorter.
But Stake Pass is an exception to the rule that Passes cross ridges at low points. Once we hit the end of the climb out of Great Langdale, we were faced with an undulating moorland, not noticeably lower than the indefinite lands to either side. How far it was to the highest point was impossible to guess and, just like Sty Head, Dad was determined not to abandon the ladies any longer than it needed, so we shot back down again.
It would be many years until I finally reached Stake Pass’s top, when it would be the last Pass summit I hadn’t previously reached. I’d completed all the Wainwrights and was in that comfortably relaxed state of being able to choose my walks just for the fun of it, so I decided to take a long way round circuit of the Langdale Pikes, gaining the heights by Mickleden and Stake Pass, and it’s not that far distant after all high point, before turning west towards the Pikes.
There would be few other occasions when we would set out to reach the top of a Pass as the objective of our day, and this would not be until after Dad was gone. But he did lead us up one further Pass, in an unexpected corner of the Lakes, as a means of ascending our third fell, and his last: his last walk in the Lakes.
I never understood why my family insisted on confining themselves to so small a part of the Lakes. Almost without exception, our walking was done in the arc between Langdale and Wasdale. In the car, we’d go as far as Grasmere and Keswick, and there was that rainy day when, just to appease my desire to see some of the more remote lakes, we did that tour of the western side of the District.
And on our last holiday with Dad, we wound up at Buttermere, intent on climbing Wainwright’s favourite fell, Haystacks, for which we would first ascend Scarth Gap Pass.
Scarth Gap’s reputed to be one of the easiest Passes to ascend, and it must be on the Ennerdale side, since there’s only about four hundred feet drop to the Black Sail Youth Hostel. I’m bound to say that I didn’t think, in 1968, that it was as easy as it was cracked up to be, but then the general family consensus those days was always that if Wainwright said it was easy, it was hard, and if he said it was hard it was bloody difficult!
Like Hard Knott, the Pass doesn’t lie at the head of the valley, but crosses the southern ridge, between the irascibility of Haystacks and the prestigious High Stile range. By my later standards, it isn’t a difficult ascent, though I’ve only ever after used the Buttermere side of the Pass for descents, coming down off the ridge on either side after great walking days.
Back in 1968, my Uncle was unwell, so he went no further than Scarth Gap, but we went on to the summit. It didn’t impress Dad as much as he hoped: for him, Lingmell was a far better summit, but he never had the chance to explore further. I would have to do all that for him.
Of course, there was one other Pass in that sector of the Lakes with which I was by now familiar, and this was Honister Pass. I had heard some horror stories about it from Dad and his brother, so it came as a massive surprise, that day of the rains and the tour of the Western Lakes, that when we reached the dark and damp end of Buttermere, my Uncle should so blithely follow the road half left, into Honister bottom.
My memories of that first visit colour all my experiences of Honister, even the ones in good weather. There was the long, slow, almost interminable approach along the valley, with little or no gain in height until the road leaps across the bridge and starts to furiously ascend, among narrowing cliffs, the winding line laid out above, the clouds drifting in between the crags, the gradient worsening at every twist, until it’s a struggle just to keep going long enough to get to the top.
The first time I tried Honister in my own car, I failed. I was driving a Datsun Cherry that had problems and it simply couldn’t take the first slope beyond the bridge, and the traffic kindly waited whilst I turned round and retreated. I’ve never had problems since, but I have also never been able to reach the top without dropping down into first gear for that final rise.
I haven’t tackled the Borrowdale side of the Pass, which is where the steepest gradients lie, just above Seatoller. I’m fine driving down them, but in this instance, I have always adhered to familiy advice and never tried to get up there.
The one time I have had to ascend Honister out of Borrowdale, I had to do it on foot. I was climbing Great Gable, from the Pass, working my way up over Grey Knotts, Brandreth and Green Gable, but in order to sweep round and include Base Brown, I parked at Seathwaite, and walked back to the main Borrowdale road, on a lovely September morning of golden delight.
My original intention was to catch the Mountain Goat bus service to Honister, except that such a service did not then exist. I then proposed to hitch a lift to the Pass, except that the only drivers who did not studiously ignore my existence were the ones with full cars, who could afford to pretend regret. So I ended up walking it, just like Wrynose. It wasn’t too painful, especially once we had cleared the steep bit, through the trees, and I was wandering almost at leisure through the hanging glacial valley above, but it made for a long and wearying prelude to a long, strenuous walk on a hot day, and was not to be recommended, and certainly not repeated.
I break my walking career down into three unbalanced phases. The first of these are those brief, initial years with my Dad, who I remember being the one who took most of the initiative, even though his brother was six years older than him (though that might be the boy in me speaking: at that age, your Dad is always the one in charge). These were the years of being just a boy: your parents decide and you go along with it without complaint (ahem), because that is what life is. You don’t get an opinion, and you don’t expect to.
His falling ill put an end to the Lakes and walking for the next couple of years. We did manage a week away in September of 1970, four of us now, not five, with my mother and Uncle as collaborative powers in charge: a necessary break after the stresses of a horrendous summer in which Dad’s condition deteriorated badly and the last week was nothing but chaos. It meant a chance to put on boots again (and anoraks and waterproofs, for it was cold and very very wet).
The second phase began in earnest the following year. It was business as usual, only with Dad no longer part of us. I was growing into my middle teens, and I was starting to have opinions and wishes of my own. I had read and re-read the Wainwrights so often that it no longer surprised any of my family when I recognised photos of places in the Lakes we had never seen. And after my high-speed sponsored walk for school, I was starting to feel confined by the slow pace and limited ambitions of the older generation.
In short, I was becoming a teenager.
But to be honest, the family’s ambitions were extremely limited. We had proven ourselves capable of reaching the summit of fells over 2,000′ in height, and there were ample below that level, but somehow or other, we could never manage the energy to climb more than one top in a week’s holiday.
I wanted to do more, I wanted to go further afield. There was three-quarters of the Lakes out there that we were deliberately ignoring. Indeed, we were not even getting the most out of our regular haunts. It would take until 11.30 most mornings to even get out of the cottage, and there was an obstinate refusal to even consider where we might then want to go before that point.
And I was slowly growing tired of being treated as if I were still ten, instead of closing in on the end of my teens. I left school, I went to University, I was still being told what to do, where to go and where to stand. We set out to climb Coniston Old Man one day, by the Quarry Path, but the clouds closed in below the summit. I was sent ahead to see whether we were near the top: we were no more than one hundred yards away so I dutifully returned to say how close we were, only to find everyone packing up to go down.
A few times, we reverted to our old type and set off to climb a Pass. One of these was Grisedale Pass, which we approached from the Grasmere end (naturally: Patterdale, no matter how beautiful, was beyond our bounds). It was a greyish day, and I remember some rain and cloud in the upper stages, as we worked our way up by Little Tongue Beck. Technically, we didn’t even reach the top of the Pass, going no further than the col overlooking Grisedale Tarn, where the highest point of the Pass lay beyond it, at the head of Grisedale itself.
We crossed over the top of Great Tongue to return, an extremely rare instance of our not simply turning round and going back the same way we have climbed. For some reason, I took myself out in front, leading the way, letting the other three tramp on behind me, ten yards to the rear. I enjoyed the descent, indeed I came down with so much spare energy to burn that I could seriously have turned round and gone back up again.
Since then, I’ve enjoyed better times with Grisedale Pass, on my own. The only other time I’ve climbed it from Grasmere was in identical conditions to that long-removed family expedition,, and by the same ascent and descent, but in between I scrambled up the cloud-shrouded slopes of Seat Sandal, aware I wasn’t going to get any view, but still getting some enjoyable walking in on a day when views were never going to be part of the parcel.
But I’ve both descended and ascended the Pass, to its true summit, on the Patterdale side, which is much more lovely and, in its views of the Hellvellyn range, and the chance to visit the Brother’s parting, more exciting approach. I do wonder about my family at times. There was a long, slow descent after walking in the Hellvellyns, the day I met Harry Griffin, a day when I took the long stroll to the south side of the valley back home, under a burning sun, glad of the frequent patches of shade from the clumps of trees down that flank, and a Saturday morning ascent, aiming for Fairfield and St Sunday Crag: this was the day of the Manchester Bomb, about which I knew nothing until the 4.00pm radio news, driving towards Shap and the M1 home.
Ennerdale from Black Sail
We were in more familiar territory in Wasdale when, probably as a result of the little influence I could bring to bear, we foresook Sty Head one day for Black Sail. I was allowed to lead the way for most of that: the little climb over the lip of Mosedale, the zig-zags to pass the moraines at the bottom of the upper valley, the long, smooth ascent between grassy flanks and the gate in the ruined fence on the top that I insisted on using, because, of course, I was that kind of person.
I went back twice on my own, both times with the same purpose, of using Black Sail as a starting point for the ascent of Pillar, and some limited form of the Mosedale Horseshoe. The first was a breathless, airless day, hot and stuffy, guaranteed to drain energy like pouring out a bucket. I was already having serious doubts about my ability to progress when, in the upper stages of the Pass, I twisted my ankle, the weak one, the left one, which put paid to it. I just about got to the top of the Pass, and its lonely gate, and after a good rest limped on as far as the top of Looking Stead, though the view of Ennerdale was small consolation. But it was only getting hotter: I remember the slow, dismal return with Yewbarrow, directly ahead, looking like a cardboard cut-out in the flat air.
I had better luck next time, going on to a magnificent day visiting Scoat Fell, Steeple and Red Pike, although I lacked confidence when it came to descending Dore Head and ended up circuiting Yewbarrow to get back to Wasdale Head. One thing that amazed was that, despite seeing a few people on Black Sail, I had the entirety of Pillar’s magnificent east ridge to myself, not a soul in sight on that long ascent, until I reached the sturdy summit.
Given my family’s natural gravitation towards Coniston, it’s both unsurprising and surprising that we should find ourselves setting off to the top of Walna Scar Pass, the surprising element being that we left it as late as we did.
We were very familiar with that side of the Old Man, Torver to Goatswater being one of our regular repeated walks, and we had once used the first part of the Walna Scar Road, from the gate above the lane descending into Coniston Village, to reach Cove Moor and find the tarn that way. But one time we simply crossed our old route, and continued onwards, passing Cove Bridge and gradually approaching the towering wall of the ridge descending from Dow Crag. The final, sweeping pull up onto the col was steep and eroding, though much firmer underfoot than it would subsequently become. I was eager to go on, head up the ridge towards Dow Crag, or at least one of its subsidiaries, but no go: back to the car and the Village.
I would make my way back to Walna Scar for one of my earliest walks once I began to visit the Lakes alone, this time eagerly pursuing that ridge, and rounding Goatswater for the Old Man at last. This was the early part of the infamous day when I found myself very carefully descending that very steep slope into Boulder Valley.
And when I summoned up all my energies and did a complete round of the Coniston range, starting with Wetherlam and ending with Dow Crag, I came down onto Walna Scar and turned for Coniston with relief that had to be tempered by the badly eroded, loose state of the upper slopes of the Pass. Sadly, I have never experienced the Duddon side of Walna Scar.
In the end, family holidays came to an end the moment a concession was made to me. In August 1975, for the first, and only time, we moved our base of operations to the north east of the Lakes, taking a cottage between Penrith and Ullswater. This was specifically to indulge me, by taking us into regions I had never been before, but had been asking to see for, literally, years. I was nineteen, about to go into my final year at University, and I had been away, only two weeks previously, on my first holiday with ‘the lads’: a week in Blackpool, making decisions for myself.
On our first day after arriving, we climbed sweet little Hallin Fell, overlooking Howtown, and returned via a bustling Pooley Bridge. My mother, who I think was resentful at not seeing the same old familiar places, acted horribly towards me, in public, treating me as if I were younger even than my sister, only just turned twelve the previous month. Later that day, having been in the Lakes for little more than twenty-four hours, I took her on one side and told her that I would not be going on any family holidays in future.
Yet even with that undercurrent bubbling away, we had our most successful week ever, at least with me in tow. It would end up on Helvellyn, at the far end of Striding Edge, with Mam deciding that my sister was not going to be risked climbing down the ten foot chimney that gets you off the Edge. I was thunderstruck at the walk ending so limply, but Mam surprised me by releasing me to go on alone, to reach the summit and return on my own recognizance, and I swarmed up the face to the edge of Helvellyn’s top in ten minutes without even breathing hard.
But even by then, we had collectively climbed another fell, and what’s more we had ascended and descended by different routes, both of which involved recognised Passes: the first time we had climbed two fells in the same week, and I had finally added the last Lake to my list of sights.
On the Wednesday, we went to Haweswater, at long last no excuses about it being too far to drive. To justify the drive, we actually set off to climb Harter Fell, from the car park at the head of the valley. To ascend, we used Gatescarth Pass, ascending through grassy valleys, angling around the bulk of Harter. Disappointingly, Longsleddale was not visible behind its gates, and we used the now-abandoned trackless route following the fence over Adam-a-Seat to reach the third cairn and that spectacular view of the lake. It was blowing a howling gale by then, and the summit was so far along the ridge to the south that I think Mam and my Uncle decided it was easier and quicker not to retrace our steps, but to descend onto Nan Bield Pass, and follow the lovely, winding route down by Small Water.
I certainly had no inkling until the summit of Harter that we were not just going to turn round and go back, so this was an added bonus.
I have, of course, been back to both passes on my own, funnily enough to the blander Gatescarth more often. Once I had a car, and the freedom to drive anywhere I chose, I paid that visit to lonely, sweet Longsleddale, wandering along its eastern ridge, the very edges of Lakeland, and coming down to Gatescarth Pass off Branstree, to return to Sadgill.
That was the day I’ve previously spoken of, when the path direct from Gatescarth to Harter Fell’s third cairn appeared out of nowhere, when the eternity of the fells presented itself to me in a new and unconsidered sense. And one of my best days ever, when I ascended High Street by Long Ridge and Rough Crag saw me swing round by Mardale Ill Bell to the top of Nan Bield, but instead of descending there as I’d planned, time and energy combined to carry me on over Harter, to Gatescarth, and a return to Mardale Head by the way I’d only before climbed.
The only other time I’ve walked Nan Bield was, in a sense, a failure. I had planned to walk the Kentmere Horseshoe, but found myself with only the energy for the eastern ridge, and had to descend Nan Bield into the long, empty valley. Yes, I have descended both sides of Nan Bield, without ever ascending it once.
After the end of the family holidays, I didn’t return to the Lakes for six years, paying a brief, October visit in my first car, getting used to negotiating Cumbrian roads whilst they were quiet, and not getting into my boots until 1983, and even then for just a couple of short, individual walks.
But being master of my own motor meant that I could explore the motor passes that Dad and my Uncle had refused to go near. The main one that this left me was Kirkstone Pass, which I tackled impromptu one week, when I had booked out of my Keswick room on the last day. I drove leisurely down Patterdale, seeking one last visual feast, and sort of seduced myself into tackling Kirkstone, from its steepest side, in a fully-laden car. There’s been a couple of times when I’ve needed first gear just to cover the final slopes, especially when the car’s packed, but I’ve crossed the Pass multiple times by now, from either side, without difficulty. Indeed, there’s absolutely no reason to worry at all about the Troutbeck side, where the gradient isn’t steep in even one place. But my family…
On the other hand, there were Whinlatter and Newlands Passes, in the North Western Fells, routes from Keswick (more or less) to Lorton in the one case, and Buttermere in the other. Whinlatter is a pussy cat, and I have criss-crossed it over and again, and stopped at the Visitor Centre at the top on several such visits (and been through the human-sized artificial Badger Sett twice, which played merry hobb with my mild tendency to claustrophobia).
Newlands is a different kettle of fish, though it has a lovely approach through the low, wooded mouth of the Newlands Valley, before the road itself takes off along the valley of Keskadale Beck. It’s a bit of a bugger to drive from the Newlands end, thanks to a ninety degree right hand bend just below the final pull up to the Hause. A car with a decent engine that is not following a driver scared out of their mind can get up a good deal of useful momentum for that final slope, every bit of it it has to relinquish in order to get round that bend without overturning his car. I have yet to be able to get back into Second Gear to reach the Hause, and have always taken this as a signal to pull in to let the engine have a breather.
I have never attempted to cross Newlands from Buttermere. It’s bad enough going down something so unremittingly steep as that, with brakes fully locked at every moment in order to stay in control: I do not need to force my car up that.
Once I settled into being a lone walker, going where I chose, when and at what pace, I grew ever more ambitious in my walking, and set out to visit all of the Wainwrights. In due course, this would involve visiting the very small number of official Passes that I had yet to experience.
The doyen of them all is, naturally, Esk Hause. It’s not just that it’s the highest of them all, though it’s very rarely walked as a pass from Eskdale to Borrowdale (so little so that, after centuries, there is still no actual path from the cairn at its highest point into the fastness of Upper Eskdale itself). Esk Hause is a walker’s Mecca, the hub for so many adventures on the highest of highest ground in this country, the rough and wild heart of the Lakes
I have never climbed the pass from Eskdale, though I’ve frequently trodden its first section, on family expeditions to Throstlegarth, and once beyond, above Esk Gorge, to within sight of the Scafell massif. The Borrowdale arm of the Pass is much more familiar, though I’ve only ever climbed Grains Gill from Seathwaite, on the day I nearly got heat stroke on Glaramara, and descended by that route once, after visiting all three of the Pikes.
It’s a magnificent route, either way, appropriately rough underfoot, in classic rock conditions, a narrowing, straight-edged valley aimed at the heart of Great End.
The highest path in regular use as a Pass in Sticks Pass, between Legburthwaite, near Thirlmere Dam, and poor unfortunate Glenridding in Patterdale. Oddly, unless you allow the Taylorgill Force variation on Sty Head, Sticks is the only Pass I have climbed from both directions, ironically within less than six weeks of each other in the late Summer, early Autumn of 1993.
The first of these was a frustrating day. I was planning to end my regular September holiday with a Big Walk: the Helvellyn Range from Sticks Pass to Grisedale pass, from Glenridding. The day started sunnily, though the cloud was blowing briskly across Raise as I approached: long, straight, airless walk to Glenridding Lead Mine, the zig-zag scramble up the slag heap behind, the eerie emptiness of the still-damp basin that once housed Sticks Reservoir, and the overlong winding in the confines of Sticks Gill East until reaching the long, open top.
But the cloud never blew off the tops, Helvellyn was in deep cloud, but nonetheless receiving a continuous stream of visitors, so I had to retreat. And a month or so later, planning a Sunday on the Dodds, I used the other side of Sticks – which is frankly bland and featureless – as a stepping stone to Stybarrow Dodd. I remember virtually nothing of the ascent.
Long before that, and in a back-handed way, I had introduced myself to Coledale Pass, the fourth of those Passes to cross my beloved North-Western Fells. Though it’s a brilliant access to the highest fells in that smooth, clean-lined area, I’ve never ascended either side of Coledale, though I’ve used it as a means of descent from the fells after glorious days.
The first of these was decidedly unintended. I had planned for a full Coledale Horseshoe, one August Saturday when I planned to weekend in the Lakes, but low cloud interrupted me on Hopegill Head after a stunning climb of Grisedale Pike and, with droplets clinging to my beard, I was forced to abandon my plans and drop down to the Hause.
I was sufficiently far beneath the cloud to get an idea of the geography, though it was not until I could descend in sunlight that I began to properly understand it. Instead of the usual single path from one end to the other, the ascent out of Coledale turns out of the Hause and into the shallow upper valley that leads to the plateau between Eel Crag and Grasmoor, whilst the continuation of the Pass is a turn-off, towards and into the confines of Gasgale Gill.
The Coledale descent involved two wide swings round the twin Force Crags before crossing the beck and following the old miner’s road to the diggings. It at least gave me the most perfect circular walk, since the mine road ends at the little roadside quarry turned car park, and I even ended up arriving at the other side of my car from whence I started.
In contrast to the spaciousness of Coledale, Gasgale Gill is a place of confinement, winding, quiet, in places almost ravine-like. I’ve returned along it twice, on the second occasion managing, on level grass a hundred yards from my car, to turn over my left ankle so painfully that it took two years to clear up fully, and effectively put an end to my squash playing career in the process.
I didn’t go anywhere near Greenup Edge until the last but one walk at the end of the Wainwrights. With Ullscarf as the destination, I set off from Stonethwaite. This is not the most exciting of approaches, although Standing Crag is a bit of a fun scramble en route.
Above it, Greenup’s most infamous characteristic starts to make its presence known and just gets worse. It is wet underfoot, and stays so. There would seem to be absolutely no drainage of surface water, in defiance of everything known about geography. A short cut can be made, cutting out a substantial corner and the actual top of the Pass, which is as close as it comes to walking on water without being the head of a major international religion, but given my family background, that option was never tenable. I did not stay long at Greenup’s top, in fact I didn’t stop moving, and neither would you. Nor have I returned.
I’ve saved Scandale Head until last because it was the last Pass, even though I had visited its top as long ago as the late Eighties. Scandale Head – which is also known as Caiston Pass, after the steep beck that guides the path on the Patterdale side – is pretty much an unnecessary pass, especially for the walker. It runs parallel to Kirkstone, separated only by the bulk of Red Screes/Middle Dodd. And it took unusual circumstances for me to find the need to use it.
I did collect the little group of fells around that side of Kirkstone, making a horseshoe out of Caiston Beck. Up by High Hartsop Dodd and Little Hart Crag, a traverse across the top of the pass to Red Screes, and down by Middle Dodd. So, in counterpart to Sticks where I’d ascended the pass from both ends, I had been at Scandale/Caiston’s summit without ascending – or descending – it from either direction!
An impromptu chance to rectify that came up in 1997 when I’d driven up to the Lakes for a day’s walking, with Blencathra and Narrow Edge as my goal. Unfortunately, it was too cloudy at that end of the District, so I pounded south over Dunmail Raise, in search of better weather.
I’d not long since completed the first draft of my Even in Peoria, which climaxed with a fight in cloud on Red Screes, so this seemed a chance to do some research for the Second Draft. I checked a few things about Grasmere and the road to Ambleside, and then set off for Red Screes via Scandale Head.
I was familiar with the lower section, having used it a couple of times previously to access the Fairfield Horseshoe, but this time I avoided the temptation to cross the High Sweden Bridge and continued up the increasingly drab and featureless valley to its top. From Hard Knott to Scandale Head had taken just over thirty years.
The ascent to Red Screes from the pass was interrupted by a descent of the cloud onto the top 2 – 300′ of the fell, but then I was probably the only walker on Red Screes that day who not merely didn’t mind having no view but who was positively delighted. My summit fight scene took place in low cloud: the scene was perfect.
My eventual trip to the moorland top of Stake Pass came a year or so later. Walking Passes had begun as a stopgap activity, an easy breaking in to none-too-strenuous routes suitable for two young children (not that one of those children agreed). Collecting the Passes was never an end in itself, yet my instinct towards completism, that has never left me throughout my life, demanded that one day I should visit all of them.
And now I have.
Lost 70s Volume 6 consists of 22 tracks. It starts and ends in the late Seventies but in between I’m still lurching around heedlessly. There’s a lot of early Seventies stuff again: I was still learning what I liked and didn’t then, and a lot of music from that time sank into memory and has had to be teased out by one means or another. The closer we get to the middle of that decade, the more familiar stuff became to me, and the easier to mental hand. There’s also a long instrumental section in here that was fun to extend.
This is not the original version of the compilation. After getting very sloppy in curation and including a number of tracks several times on different volumes, not to mention including too many tracks by the same artist that would be better grouped, I re-burnt the entire series, filling in spaces with tracks that had not been available when the original compilation was created.
Shake Some Action (demo version): The Flamin’ Groovies
The perfect opening track. You listen to this and you want more. But there was so much I had to say about this song that I said it under the auspices of The Infinite Jukebox – which naturally includes every song in this series of compilations – and which you can read here
The b-side to ‘Shake Some Action’, thus making the record close to being the most perfect 7-inch ever released. Where the A-side mainlined on its own speed, ‘Teenage Confidential’ was slow and stately, almost a ballad, a teenage lament whose every note is picked out with an individual clarity that creates a Wall of Sound out of sparse instrumentation echoing in some empty space, a great distance instead of the cramming in of instruments into every corner. ‘Don’t take her word’, the singer pleads, the Groovies behind him on their best and formal behaviour. This is crucial. ‘If you do, we’ll break up girl’. It is really as important as that. Nothing more than the end of the world. ‘The Things she says could be untrue/and those kind of words could make you blue/and there’d be nothing I could do.’ He’s at her mercy, and at the mercy of claims another girl is making. He’s anxious that his girl should shut her mind to what she might hear, even though these things ‘could’ be true, in which case he’s scuttling to cover his ass. But the music is as high and wide and tense as any that has ever been recorded and the urge to join in the band’s chorus is irrepressible, and whether he deserves it or not, this simple song is a complex melodrama and when the music’s as good as this, you are on his side…
I remember this song from an old taping off the radio, recorded from an old-fashioned radio my Dad had built into the bottom half of a bedside cabinet, possessed of a plastic facade full of old, vanished station names, irrelevant to my determined tuning to Radio 1. It was old, it was decrepit, it was on its last legs and the signal kept slipping, or it might be blurred by static fuzz. The burst that cut across most of this precious recording nearly blotted out the sound at one point, before abruptly dying out for the last chorus but that was my only tape of the song for a very long time and it’s hard not to anticipate the sound when I play it now. I know little of Almond Marzipan, except that they were a six-piece band who appear to have only recorded two singles: four tracks, three of them very good. They were already out of date in 1970, a good, not spectacular, late-Sixties pop band of the kind that had already been displaced by the swerve towards ‘heavier’ music. It’s bright, it’s breezy, it has a decent energy of its own and some good horns supporting a belt it out chorus. Boy asks girl for a chance, he’s hooked on her and he hopes she’ll get hooked on him. Maybe she did: he’s sweet and naïve and no doubt he’ll grow out of it one day. It took me longer than most.
This track is currently not available on YouTube
Belong Belong: Black Swan
My first flush of pop enthusiasm had me bound to Radio 1 for the whole of 1970. During that year, we had an Election, and Ted Heath won. As a consequence, come December, we were facing powercuts that would plunge the house into darkness, leaving us reliant on on candles for light and conversation for entertainment. On the one hand, I did have a Xmas present transistor radio, which ran on batteries. On the other hand, Radio 1 was still in its infancy during which it wasn’t allowed to stay up after 7.00pm. In this manner, I discovered Radio Luxembourg. And certain European bands who were definitely not getting airplay on Radio 1 daytime. One such was a seeming band called Black Swan, with a very intriguing single called ‘Echoes and Rainbows’. In fact, they were a pseudonym for French singer/songwriter Billy Bridge (real name Jean-Marc Brige) and the single sold a million across Europe. I bought my copy one day, browsing Shudehill Record Stalls and found that I enjoyed the brighter, poppier b-side even better.
This track is currently not available on YouTube
Green-eyed God: Steel Mill
This is another from that early 1971 evening investment in Radio Luxembourg. Just like Black Swan, I thought that Steel Mill were a Dutch progressive band, but they turn out to have been from London all the time. The full-length version of this track would turn out decades later to be a raucous, electric, noisy, unstructured epic. But the edited version they put out as a single (which I also picked up at Shudehill in due course), was considerably different. It’s smooth and cool, loping along comfortably to a solo flute which blows us onwards, until, with a shuffle of drums, a voice enters singing a simple, almost nursery rhyme verse. A slashing, squealing electric guitar solo interrupts, before the song cools down again to flute and easy rhythm. I loved it, and it’s great to this day. Apparently, it got to no 51 in the UK – when we only had a top 50.
Rescue Company No. 1 came back in 1971 with a follow up single that, in contrast to ‘Gotta Find You’, got a lot of airplay but which still didn’t generate a chart placing. If you could compare the tracks, which you can’t because this is the only one available on YouTube, you would not associate them with the same band. This Rescue Company No. 1 did exist, and I saw them play this on Magpie one fine Tuesday evening. It’s a classic pop song, with a clear fuzz-guitar riff and a big singalong chorus, completely commercial. The band went on to record a couple more singles, plus an album before vanishing. So did the master-tapes so the compilation CD available has had to be mastered from the records themselves.
We’re still in 1971, where this sprightly acoustic lament by Paul Brett Sage got an unconscionable amount of airplay, and even a very late in the summer TOTP appearance (complete with horribly recorded backing track which let it down badly). Paul Brett wasn’t really a singles artist, and ‘Goodbye Forever’ was uncharacteristic, but it’s shuffling beat and its tale of having to leave a relationship before the woman goes so far that he ends up crying was a part of that hot summer, as essential to it as hot pants, and it still has me wanting to join in whenever I hear it.
Kevin Coyne was a favourite of John Peel, extending out of the mid-Seventies into the punk era. I found most of his work tuneless and incomprehensible, and the subjects of his songs seemed to always be about depression and mental illness. He was just so not my type of musician. But this track, a single in 1978, was yet another proof of the theory that you should never discount anyone totally, because here was a song with a discernible tune, a driving acoustic guitar, a bubbling organ line that didn’t interrupt a song that kept returning to the insistent promise that Kevin would go too. Where he would go, I never quite determined, but the song made me want to follow, if only for the time until I could wind back the tape and play this again.
This is the first in a sequence of instrumentals cutting through the heart of this compilation, no two of which sounding remotely the same. I included the b-side to this, the original track, on Lost 70s 4, but this was the side that got the sporadic airplay at the back end of 1971, beginning of 1972, the record that spent 13 weeks on the top 50, without ever climbing above 31. The genius behind this was French keyboard-player/writer Mike Steiphenson, who discovered the original tapes and laid down a rocketing musical line, based around clavinet and electric guitar, but with an underlying hammered piano. The genius lay in finding a tune that so perfectly fit the original, unaltered drumming and I would have not necessarily killed, but at least seriously maimed to see something so attuned to my already idiosyncratic tastes cross that line and storm into top 30 consciousness.
You know this well, Love Sculpture, Dave Edmunds, Khatachaturian taken at breakneck speed with raucous guitar. Spontaneous Combustion covered this in late 1973 and it’s fair to ask what was the point, given that it’s a virtual note-for-note replica, only a little more sedate and collected. It’s b-side, ‘And now for something completely different…’ was the same tune and the same arrangement, only slowed down to half pace. It’s not Love Sculpture, and you wouldn’t choose it in preference to the original, but there were parts of the Seventies where there was precious little good stuff around and it’s not as if there’s anything bad about this version.
I’d been hearing this 1978 track a lot when I compiled this disc, resurrected for a TV commercial and given a new lease of life. I’ve heard very little of Santana apart from this slow, sensual, guitar and organ solo, an unexpected hit, and smooth and slinky as this is, it hasn’t tempted me to explore further. It’s a beautiful change of pace in this wordless section.
The first bona fide big hit of this compilation, ‘Jig-a-Jig’ was a 1971 top 4 hit for a band embarrassed by its belated success as it no longer represented their ‘sound’. It was an Irish jig, played on a highly active fiddle, crossed with a rock section in the middle that dispensed with the formal tune for some energetic guitar and a more rock-oriented fiddling, before looping back into the jig-with-handclaps until the end of the song. A novelty hit, and nothing to make the Chieftains quiver in their boots, but a breath of fresh air that late summer, when you could stop the Radio 1 DJs talking halfway through it.
I admit a cheat. Mike Steiphenson was the genius behind ‘Burundi Black’, which was a complete one-off. Sometime around 1973, I heard, once or twice, an instrumental that I was sure was called ‘Rainbow’, but not often enough to tape. In the YouTube era, I went trawling for Mike Steiphenson tracks and found this lovely, loose, bubbling track, which I had never, to my knowledge, heard in the entire Seventies.
A return to vocals. Curved Air had had a massive hit in 1971 with ‘Back Street Luv’, which I enjoyed even before seeing Sonja Kristina performing it. Their follow-up wasn’t even announced until the following year, and nobody seemed clear on its correct title (it was ‘Farah’s Concern’ at one point). It didn’t get any airplay and I didn’t get to hear it properly until the 2000s. Not really fair when the band went to the trouble of recording a deliberate, no-album single, and not fair on a perfectly decent, well-sung song, although it lacked the atmosphere and the solid structure of ‘Back Street Luv’. Singles were not the band’s natural metier. How could you say anything worth saying in only three minutes?
Many years after the fact, I found that one of the leading lights of this oddball little pop song was none other than Radio 1 Breakfast DJ and all-round pillock, Mike Read (though I can’t be too hostile, given that I won an album off him playing Reverse Beat the Jock at Manchester Poly, preparatory to a Buzzcocks gig that was part-live on his evening show). And, to be honest, had I known of this at the time, I would have had nothing to hold against him anyway. There’s not much tune to this song, and there’s more phasing than was proper for a record in 1975, but it was a pleasing oddity that year and I could have stood hearing it more often than I did. Besides, if the band had made it, might we have been spared the Frankie Goes to Hollywood debacle, or, more seriously, ‘The UKIP Calypso’?
Back to Marvin, Welch and Farrar. My mate Alan, the ELP/Yes/Olivia Newton-John fan bought this album for the John Farrar connection and I heard it round at his house a few times. ‘Galadriel’, taken from the Lord of the Rings character of the same name (I had only recently read the book and was full of all things Tolkien) was clearly intended to be the centrepiece track, the stand-out, and I very much remember it as such, with its slow, sweeping movements and its sonorous chants. The reality, many years later, does not live up to the memory, and if I were to reburn this disc, I would now leave ‘Galadriel’ out, for its feeble horns and its galumphing middle section. Nice harmonies, but not much more to it, and the remove has not treated it kindly.
Ok yes, this is a novelty record, albeit novelty in concept but not necessarily in execution. Pan’s People need no introduction to those of my generation, they were the legendary five-woman dance troupe who were mainstays of TOTP from the last Sixties through to 1975, certain of whose performances, if the files of these were wiped from the net in an unusually specific digital crash, could be reconstructed by direct brain transfer from the memories of gentlemen of a certain age. ‘You can rock’n’roll me’ was a perfectly decent song with a perfectly decent chorus and there are no obvious deficiencies in the young ladies’ singing, although it can’t be said that any of them have particularly strong voices, but the idea is enjoyable and it would have been nice to have seen what they could have magicked up for this has they ever been granted a TOTP performance.
The Ellis of the band name was Steve Ellis, he of Love Affair and ‘Everlasting Love’ fame. Like so many late-Sixties pop-stars, Ellis had gone heavy, or at least serious. The original title of this atmospheric, slow mover with its limpid and drifting guitar solos was a somewhat dull extract from the lyrics, but some inspired member of the band jokingly referred to the track as ‘El Doomo’, and for once the unlikely title was adopted and was perfect in every respect. Ellis sings longingly about his confusion in the face of what might seem to be love, but about which he cannot be certain, and the band surround him with a low, loose, yearning sound. It had nothing that would make any Radio 1 DJ outside of Johnnie Walker play it, but if more of them had clubbed together, this might have penetrated public consciousness. As it was, another flop, a great song lost on Philistines.
Whoops a Daisy: Humphrey Ocean and The Hardy Annuals
And abruptly we segue into the end of the Seventies, that part of the decade that is a different world from the traditional Lost 70s context. This is a very silly song and the lyrics are eminently suggestive of an Ian Dury influence, and indeed, Mr Ocean was an artist friend of the Bard of London. Musically, there’s none of the Blockheads’ funk and more of Thirties-frillery as Ocean sings a sweet song about being in love and too shy to do anything about it. A delight.
Wreckless Eric was on the legendary Stiff label, and part of the Bunch of Stiffs Tour. He recorded this subterranean song and thus made a contribution to the happiness of humanity, despite never recording anything else that was remembered by anyone outside his circle of committed fans. ‘Whole Wide World’ is an unusual kind of love song, lugubrious both musically and of vocal style, a paean to commitment based on a rather nasty piece of encouragement by Wreckless’s mother: There’s only one girl in the world for you: she probably lives in Tahiti. So young Eric commits himself to travelling the world over to find her, accompanied by a deep bass sound and throaty chorus which was distinctive all right, but may not have had much appeal in Tahiti, assuming he ever got that far.
Derry’s Good Vibrations Records discovered the Undertones. They also discovered the Outcasts who were always regarded as a more serious, adult punk band. This glorious single was the antithesis of that notion, a plain, simple song about a girl the singer loved but he’s too shy to approach. He daydreams about her in school. The sentiments are pure Undertones but the voice is darker and more despairing and the music has a punch in its heart that is a world away from Derry’s finest. It’s still a bloody great record, three minutes of pure punk pop, spinning the insoluble question: what’ll I do, do, do? I’m self-conscious over you. Nobody has yet found an answer.
We close with something of an oddity. Master Switch appeared out of nowhere with this driving song, with a loud, buoyant chorus and stirring guitars, and then vanished completely. Apparently, they recorded an album which was never released, and which has still not yet been heard to this day, though the band’s leader still intends to get it out. It’s what I once said about the Undertones, inaccurately as it turns out: that the glory of punk and new wave was that bands didn’t have to gig for three years and pay their dues, that some bands have three minutes of genius in them and this way we could hear those three minutes without a career having to be built upon it. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you three minutes of genius.