So as we move in to 2021 it's time to reflect on the plague year that has been. It's probably safe to say that 2020 will be a year that we shall all remember and for so many thousands that will be with sadness at having lost loved ones or livelihoods. For others the effects of long-covid may remain and who knows how the virus might mutate or indeed whether it has relatives waiting in the wings. One thing I think we can say with some certainty is that somewhere within the year we have all changed - we have had to re-evaluate, adapt and contemplate - and as with all challenges we have the opportunity to emerge wiser, stronger and kinder (for that is surely the underlying message of the obligatory Tiger King). With this in mind, here are a few of the things that shaped me and allowed my limited mental wellbeing to remain relatively unscathed;
Create The Space
Going in to furlough we had the realisation that access to venues and galleries would be at best limited in the coming months and with that in mind I set up the Isolation Arts Cafe page on Facebook - a virtual venue-gallery. The importance of art (be it creating or appreciating) in mentally challenging times is so important and whilst I knew that some folks would really appreciate a virtual space to gather, share and experience, I really had no idea back then quite how positive a resource the page would become for so many (currently 1.9k followers). From first time artists to old hands, regular gig nights and postings in their thousands covering painting, drawing, poetry, photography, music and more. Maintaining the page has helped keep me sane and I think offered many others an essential creative outlet. If you haven't visited do pop by and feel free to contribute or just to browse the now extensive galleries.
Back in January 2020 we were half way through recording the new Los Chicos Muertos album and had started some demo recordings for Skull Puppets. Whilst I have managed to snatch a few between lock-down meet ups with my musical compadres, gigs and recordings have all been postponed or put on hold. Having friends who are excellent at managing the recording process I have never really indulged in a home recording set up over the last 20 years (since my 4-track cassette unit expired). What I had aquired recently though was a decent little MP3 recorder, so time to reconnect with my lo-fi soul. With isolation I found that I was writing more poetry along with some lock-down blues tunes. My poetry and music have largely sat in separate boxes in the past though I'd been mulling trying to integrate the two a little more for some while, and so mouseclubvirusblues was born. A few years ago my wife and her dad built a little summerhouse at the bottom of our garden so as spring blossomed around this became my studio space and the recordings flowed. Despite the modest recording techniques I was pleasantly surprised at how well these recordings were recieved, garnering spins on various folk, blues, acoustic and poetry radio shows and podcasts.
3. That thing you've been meaning to do for years...
Unexpectedly I found myself being asked to contribute to a a variety of poetry events and pages which was a real joy. Sometimes this would be a written poem or two with a complimentary (lomo)photo whilst others required the recording of video performance sets. With the sudden growth of the virtual festival and gig scene I found myself quite busy contributing to these events and gaining some heart-warming reactions and response. One interview and reading was with the Spoken Label podcast during which Andy N asked if I had plans to publish a book in the near future - the seed was sewn. I had last published a tiny tome of poems around eight years ago and since then had mostly confined my sharing to The Poetry Underground page that I'd set up partly for that purpose. Now, with this time on my hands and with (virtual) gigs on the horizon, what better time to put together that poetry book that had been on the back of my mind for so long. With the help of my daughter Emelia I started assembling the book and exploring printing and distribution options. I also contacted the wonderful Isabelle from Fly On The Wall Press to help out with spreading the word. Released on December 7, The Sound of Revolution was eventually released in to the world, both physically (right here) and also in ebook format on all the major digital distribution sites (so cool to discover you available at FNAC online!). It's been lovely recieving reviews, comments and (thankfully) orders for the book. Amongst the kind words I think my favourite review so far has been from the excellent Bunny's Pause page which truly moved me; "Beat poetry at it’s finest, a sound that urges you to join in the revolution. This collection inspired me to join the revolution and speak up amongst those brave enough to make a stand. Revolutionary dear reader. " I already have some more readings and interviews planned for 2021 which I'm very much looking forward to.
4. Keep up the struggle
If we are to emerge from the pandemic to a place of greater hope and a safer, kinder world then we need to maintain a focus on just what that revolution looks like. With that in mind I attended our local BLM protest here in St Albans - all appropriately socially distanced. There was a huge turn-out for this moment that felt like a powerful and much needed turning of a page. Huge respect to all who organised, spoke and continue to work and strive for a more equitable planet. I was able to provide a virtual gig in aid of St Albans for Refugees for their Midsummer Melody Virtual Festival. It astounds me that in this time of interconnectivity and global sharing that vitriolic nationalist blame culture is still sadly alive and well in both the ramblings of social media and the voices of certain elected representatives. The biggest threat that we face as a planet of course remains the environmental crisis and the effects of global warming so I was happy to be able to attend the London XR Actions a few times. Again, social distancing and mask wearing were stictly adhered to and this latest uprising was a positive, articulate and focused reminder to all that the New Normal needs to be built on radical and effective change!
5. Sometimes the TV is your friend
Like so many we indulged in a few Netflix binges this year including Tiger King and The Social Network, but what really got us hooked were those Scandi-noir treats that we had somehow missed first time round. All 4 seasons of The Bridge kept us on the edge of our sofa in to the wee small hours on many a night. So well written, filmed and acted - such wonderful and engaging characters, inventive and intiguing plot-lines along with beautifully shot cityscapes - genuine quality TV. Having fallen in love with The Bridge and requiring a further fix, the only thing to do was work backwards and indulge in The Killing. We have just finished season 2 and whilst maybe not quite as out-there or quirky as The Bridge this series is still equally compelling and should see us through January. Saga Norén and Sarah Lund, we thank you!
6. To soundtrack these strange days
So much wonderful music that we have been listening to this year, but just a few of the albums that have excited and delighted;
Porridge Radio - Every Bad
Heralding from Brighton I believe, this is a wonderfully fresh noisey and exhuberent album brimming with cool hooks and energetic angst. I don't take much stock by the Mercury Music Prize but this contender is definitely one worth taking note of!
Kate Rusby - Hand Me Down
The wonderful Kate Rusby folks up an eclectic selection of covers from Manic Monday to Friday I'm in Love. Kate's unique vocal style combined with some excellent musicianship make this an irresistible treat. The idea for a covers album came about after Kate was asked to contribute a cover to a radio show the previous year and came up with her gorgeous take of Don't Go Away (featured on Philosophers & Kings). Class!
Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher
Having fallen toatally for the Stranger in the Alps album this year's follow up didn't disappoint. Maintaining that dark air of brutal honesty and pared down alt-folk arrangement this further cement's Phoebe's growing reputation as everyone's favourite new awkward kid on the block!
The Bobby Lees - Skin Suit
For pure garage-punk thrills (much needed this year) this incendiary 4 piece straight outta Woodstock blew my socks off. A raw, edgy, cool blast of untamed energy that'll make you grin like a mad thing!
Also worthy of mention; Matt Berninger's Serpentine Prison is a sweet, suave and sumptuous affair. Bruce Sprinsteen's Letter To You is I think his best offering in quite some years and finds the band on fine form. Of couse you already love PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love, but the demos album is itself impeccably cool and wild and wonderful. Suzanne Vega's New York Songs and Stories is a great reminder of how amazing and inspiring this chanteuse remains. Along with that weird virus thing 2020 will be remembered as the year it became OK to admit you kinda liked Taylor Swift as she dropped the genuinly lovely Folklore. I'd always thought there were some great songs hiding behind the saccharine production and finally lock-down enabled them to emerge (along with my patent influence in the combination of old cardigans and rusty harmonicas!). So I'm happy to confess I've been humming this one a fair bit!
7. Appreciating some places closer to home
Not being able to get over to the continent for either a holiday or to tour with the guys was tough. The positive though was that we explored some wonderful spots closer to home. Firstly a weekend in Aldeburgh proved a perfect break. Maggi Hambling's Scallop, the grave of Benjamin Britten and Snape Maltings were all sweet spots in their own way, but really it was the excellent service and hospitality at The Brudenell that made our stay - great food and wine sitting out listening to the waves. In the summer we took a week in Penzace (and a night in St Ives) to gently explore Cornwall. Penzance itself is a great town, with lovely pubs and restaurants - and (this year at least) not overcrowded or over-run with tourists.We were also so lucky that there was a great Grayson Perry Exhibition in town. From there just tiny hops to great Standing Stones, Tin Mines, Mousehole, St Michael's Mount and Lands End (to be almost blown off the cliffs). Whilst a little more bustling, St Ives was a pleasure as well and whilst The Tate was great, The Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden was really the highlight here. Also from one of the many excellent little independent shops here, Justine bought me a gorgeous copy of Kerouac's Dharma Bums (which has been my book of the year!). I'm so glad we made these trips - both inspiring and relaxing!
8. Stay kind and empathetic
At times, this one can feel weirdly challenging if you engage with social media, read newspapers or watch the news. The temptation to hammer on the Caps Lock and scream in to the abyss can be uncharacteristically appealing - but resist. Even when an old friend starts espousing those rather questionable theories and views , take a deep breath and move away from the un-friend button. These are strange times and for those feeling anxious and lacking a sense of self-determination and control it's easy to get pulled towards fringe arguments and extreme conspiracies. Somehow on the other side we need to build bridges between some quite polar extremes and find common ground on which to build. Sometimes of course simply attempting a diplomatic and sensitive discourse with those that may have crawled in to a dark and uncompromising rabbit hole can be enough for them to deem you the enemy and you may find yourself un-friended - but hey, at least you tried. So as we move in to 2021, remain loving and kind - be that dharma bum - Maitrī!
I'll leave you for now with one of the poems I wrote earlier this year - The New Normal - with hope that 2021 will be a good year for us all.
Stay safe, stay creative!
The New Normal
Stand back for a moment
Close your eyes
Take a breath
We are at a crossroads
The world has taken an unexpected pause
And never have we had such opportunity
To begin a brand new normal
Look through your window
At the clear blue sky
Step outside and inhale an air
Untainted by traffic and industry
Listen to the birds chorus their approval
And smile at the impulsive caring
We now afford each other
Does that old normal
Of fossil fuels and plastic seas
Hold any sense of warm nostalgia
Do you long for the fight and clamour
Of eternal economic growth
GDP at any cost
Continents on fire
Floods and feuds
Flags and broken promises
Gated territories and hate speech
Fleeing hordes from war torn worlds
Washed up on beeches
Whilst we turn the page
To more of the same
We have taken the homeless from our streets
And housed them
We have offered help to those in need
Looking out for our neighbours
Both at home and overseas
We have recognised the fundamental importance
Of those that care for others
For the future of our children
And the wellbeing of our elders
That a society can be measured on its empathy and love
And when bold solutions are required
To face down global threat
We are able to come together as one planet
And say enough is enough
You will not defeat us
Have we learnt these things
Have we really changed
What will be the new normal
Are we brave enough
To take this moment
And let it live