Sunday, 30 August 2009

Jeffrey Lewis and the Junkyard, Trades Club, Hebden Bridge, Thursday August 27

Jeffrey Lewis must be the hardest working man in indie. Relatively unsuccessful in America, the New York singer-songwriter and comic book artist has built up an ever growing and well deserved fan base here over the past few years by embarking on a seemingly perpetual tour of the UK (the bohemian life of a sleeping on fans’ floors and appealing for a place to spend the night at the end of gigs is well documented in his comics, including one overnight stay in a Manchester halls of residence).

He was last in Manchester only a few months ago, but no matter how many times you’ve seen him before, Jeffrey Lewis is ever entertaining. This is partly because he has a huge amount of material to choose from, including a library of ‘films’ - large, travel-worn comic books flicked through to a half-spoken, half-sung accompaniment, a collection of timeline songs documenting everything from the story of the Fall to the history of punk, and even an album of Crass covers.

There is still room for surprises, though. Starting at the Trades Club with a rap about mosquitoes, Jeffrey Lewis flits between introspective guitar and voice based folk songs, swinging pop tunes like Posters and noisy, squalling punk with the tap of his foot on a guitar FX pedal.

For a while a lone troubadour with a guitar covered in an ever-changing crust of stickers, Lewis has been touring with his brother Jack recently (Jack Lewis and the Fishermen Three provide the support, Jack's Pavement esque pop punk contrasting with his brother's erudite, thoughtful wordiness. Jack Lewis's band swap singers and mutate into the slower, more countrified Fishermen Three from time to time, and later members from both bands adorn Jeff's set with drums, trumpet and keyboard).

What makes Lewis' songs stand out over those of his brother, though, is his poetry and imagination. His songs are highly personal narratives, like windows into his life, from The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane, a cautionary tale of an acid trip gone wrong, to a wry acknowledgment of a 2.3 Pitchfork review. His subject matters are instantly familiar, but somehow he makes every day things like instant noodles sound just as interesting as more conventional comic book topics like zombies.

The thirty three year old admits the past year has been tough for him (Broken Broken Broken Heart reminds us of his publicly documented split with former girlfriend and band member Helen), and the transient lifestyle has obviously had its effect on him, not least in his thinning hairline.

For this reason, Roll Bus Roll, from latest album ’Em Are I, is the highlight of the night. Starting slowly with Lewis’ clickety clickety guitar, it builds momentum to imitate a rolling bus journey. We can all recognise the ‘rolled sweatshirt’ that ‘makes the window soft’, and the end of youthful freedoms that whiz past. Jeffrey Lewis sings ‘I wasn’t designed to move so fast, I wasn’t designed to have so much past’, but he makes it through to the end, and still appears to be enjoying every minute of it.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Thomas Paine - Champion of the Common Man - at Salford Museum and Art Gallery

‘Government in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one’. These words, written by the political thinker Thomas Paine over 200 years ago, still ring true today, and a new exhibition about Paine’s life at the Salford Museum and Art Gallery reminds us of what we have learned from him. The words, which are among Paine’s best known, are taken from the book with which he made his name in 1776, the hugely influential Common Sense.

A foreword to the exhibition by Tony Benn sets Paine up as a ‘symbol of change’. Benn argues Paine’s dictum that ‘God did not make rich and poor. He made man and woman’ is just as true now, and points out that with the British political system in a time of great uncertainty today, we could do well to look again at his theories. We’re told Paine, who argued for an elected head of state, the welfare state and end in state involvement in trade, would be ‘shocked’ if he knew that there is still no world peace, and that Britain still has a monarchy, unelected peers and no written constitution.

In Rights of Man: Part One, Paine argued that ‘the idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges or hereditary juries’. His warning against a government that is ‘accountable to nobody and not trusted by anybody’ is just as relevant today, with growing calls for electoral reform and confidence in politicians plummeting with every new scandal and blunder.

Paine was a great advocate for the need for a written constitution, saying it should codify ‘everything that relates to the complete organisation of a civil government, and the principles on which it should rule and by which it should be bound’.

He would be dismayed that so many of his beliefs, which we take for granted today, were only achieved in relatively recent times: universal suffrage, free universal education, old age pensions and the abolition of slavery and the death penalty (the death penalty was only abolished in Britain in 1969, France in 1981 and still has yet to be ended in America).

Born in in Thetford, Norfolk, in 1737, the son of a corset maker, Paine took advantage of a grammar school education to become versed in reason and science and debate the ideas of the Enlightenment. The exhibition sets the scene of a grim eighteenth century life which was at the mercy of the wealthy and aristocratic. In Thetford, out of a population of 30,000, only 20 men could vote. Public executions were common, with the condemned having no right to defence. Unsurprisingly, Paine had a thirst for adventure and, after meeting Benjamin Franklin, set off for the New World, where he became a campaigner for revolution.

Paine was a passionate driving force behind the American and French revolutions, as well as an advocate of Irish Independence; in Common Sense, he claimed ‘we have it in our power to begin the world over again’. He convinced George Washington of the need for revolution, to end American’s governance from afar by the British monarchy, and even coined the phrase United States of America. He also spent time in France, where he wrote Rights of Man: Part One as a retort to the conservative thinker Edmund Burke’s attack on the French revolution.

Yet the exhibition, which is comprised of material from the archives of the nearby Working Class Movement Library, argues that Paine’s most important legacy is his championing of the rights of the common man; Paine said we should endeavour to ‘make our fellow creatures happy’, and that man should ‘respect his neighbour, to do as he would be done by’.

Paine wrote his books in plain English, and produced inexpensive editions of his works which became best sellers and were read aloud to the illiterate. As well as early editions, the exhibition displays cartoons and satire based on Paine’s work. Naturally, this spread of ideas panicked the establishment, who tried to prosecute Paine for libel.

The exhibition also displays works by Paine’s contemporaries, alongside writers and movements on which Paine had an influence, including Chartism and women’s rights. Paine was an inspiring individual: he was also an inventor, and the exhibition shows it wasn’t just his political ideas in which he was ahead of his time - he invented an innovative bridge, the design of which is still in use today.

There are plenty of fact sheets and lists of quotes to take away, as well as recommendations for further reading in the WCLM’s archives. As Veronica Trick, volunteer co-ordinator at the Library, said: “If our Library had a patron saint it’d be Thomas Paine. He’s so much the starting point, both chronologically and ideologically, for working class history.”

Thomas Paine, The Voice of the Common People
Salford Art Gallery
Peel Park
M5 4WU
Until November 22

Working Class Movement Library
51 The Crescent
M5 4WX

Friday, 7 August 2009

Waiting for the blackberries to grow

Long before the blackberry was a type of communication device, and before the ‘pick your own food for free’ movement became fashionable because of the recession/ a general concern about where our food comes from, blackberries were the original free food. The summer tradition of scouring the nation’s hedgerows and fields for ripe blackberries has even given birth to its own verb, blackberrying - or, to pick the fruit of the bramble.

Blackberrying is as much a part of the English summer as summer fetes and swimming in the sea. Our summer may fluctuate between broad sunshine and torrential rain, yet I like to think this is helping the blackberries along. I have spent many a lazy day wandering canal side and through the countryside with a bag in hand, eating some guiltily along the way yet returning home with handfuls of delicious food, squishy but not soft, sweet but not too sweet.

In his poem Blackberry-Picking, which concerns a childhood blackberry picking memory, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney places the blackberry at the heart of summer, describing the ‘sticky’ juice of blackberries as ‘summer’s blood’. He makes it sound almost intoxicating by describing it as ’thickened wine’, going on to explain how its juice creates ‘stains upon the tongue’ and leaves the eater hungry for more. Blackberrying is an annual summer tradition, a rite of passage even, something to be looked forward to through the spring and early summer months, to be shared with family or someone special. He sums up the suspenseful summer feeling of waiting for the white flowers to give way to hard green berries that turn red and then, finally, into a ‘glossy purple clot’ ready to be eaten. The poem ends with a change of mood - like the summer, the edible life of the blackberries quickly comes to an end - they can only be picked for a short time, that comes around just once a year, like the all too short summer itself.

Similarly, the American writer Sylvia Plath found inspiration in the fruit for her poem Blackberrying. Blackberries are popular in England and America, where they are also grown commercially, although apparently the type of blackberries that can be bought in shops are blander and less flavourful. In Plath’s highly sensual poem she describes the excitement of the blackberry picking experience by telling of a ‘blackberry lane’ that has in it ‘nothing, nothing but blackberries on either side’. She paints pictures of ripe blackberries as ‘big as the ball of my tub’, ‘fat with blue-red juices’. Her blackberries too are alive and rich, giving a ‘blood sisterhood’ to those who pick them. (Rich in vitamin C, blackberries are a type of antioxidant and during the first world war children were given time off school to pick them so their nutritious juice could be sent to troops.)

My first summer in Manchester I spent hours picking my bounty along the banks of the Ashton Canal, culminating in the bushes of Phillips Park out by Sportcity. I was stunned at the riches on offer - Manchester blackberries are giant and juicy and, in the areas I went, completely unharvested by anyone else. Blackberrying is often a competitive business - in my hometown down South, I have often arrived at the best bushes, which deliver year after year, too late, finding only stumps - yet Manchester’s are ripe for the picking.

If you don’t have a park or canal near you (in South Manchester, I imagine that Chorlton Ees would be ideal), the chances are that you can find them in you back garden/ in your nearest alley way. Bramble bushes are weeds that tend to spread and take over any patch of uncultivated land, from wasteland to neglected gardens.

To pick blackberries, it’s advisable to wear long sleeved clothes - but nothing that could get caught on the bushes or is easily plucked - and closed footwear. Also, wear dark colours if possible and preferably old clothes as blackberries stain easily (in the old days, the juice were used as a dye). I generally use carrier bags to collect the fruit, although you can use any kind of container, from Tupperware to old ice cream tubs.

Blackberries can be picked in August and into September, although in English folklore they should not be picked after Michaelmas (October 10) as it was said the Devil had contaminated them with bodily fluids. Even today, children picking blackberries are told only to pick from the higher branches where dogs can’t reach them when urinating. On that subject, it’s also best to avoid picking blackberries by busy roads, although it can be tempting as they ripen earlier from the pollution, and to wash blackberries before use.

Once picked, blackberries will keep in the fridge for a day or two, but can also be frozen. Blackberries are good turned into jam and in cakes, buns and pies, as well as served on their own or with ice cream and custard. The classic blackberry dish is, though, undoubtedly the crumble.

The crumble is one of the easiest, cheapest and quickest, yet tastiest and most impressive dishes that can be made. It’s virtually impossible to get it wrong, as it contains just four basic ingredients, which you probably already have in your cupboard - butter, flour, sugar and fruit.

Blackberry crumble for two

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees c
200g blackberries (if you fancy it, substitute half the blackberries for apples, plums or another fruit of your choice)
60g sugar
30g butter (or vegetarian/ vegan equivalent)
60g plain flour

Extra adornments such as ginger/ cinnamon/ oats for the topping, as desired

Grease some kind of ceramic baking dish with butter. Cook the blackberries in a pan with a little water and half the sugar (or more, depending on how sweet/ tart you want the mixture) until soft. Place in the bottom of the baking dish. Place the butter in a large pan and add the flour, rubbing it into the butter until it resembles bread crumbs. Mix the rest of the sugar in. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the top of the blackberries ensuring all areas are covered and press it down a bit so it forms a tidy topping. Bake for 30-40 minutes until the crumble starts to go brown on top.

Best served with custard.

If you’re feeling adventurous, you could make blackberry brandy for the winter, which is delicious as a fruity accompaniment to Christmas cake and ensures the summer lingers on through the cold months. This is my grandad’s recipe.

450g blackberries
225g sugar
1 litre gin

Wash blackberries and put in a large sterilised jar. Pour in sugar and gin, seal, shake well. Store in a cool, dark cupboard and shake every other day for a week. Then shake once a week for two months.

Monday, 3 August 2009

The Shrieking Violet printed version

This is the paper version of the Shrieking Violet, a 16 page free fanzine of which there are 30 copies around Manchester. It features creative writing by Emma Tillyer and Rebecca Willmott, an article on regeneration in north Manchester by Alice Ruth White, an article on how feminist Sex and the City is by Olivia Singer, illustration by Stephen Marshall and a front cover by Dominic Al Bhardi, as well as a B of the Bang obituary by me, an article on blackberry picking and recipes and articles on street names and canal boat names.


The Shrieking Violet issue 1 can be read online here (pages unfortunately not in right order):

To request a paper copy email, or alternatively download and print this PDF (some of the formatting went a little funny when I converted it to PDF, I don't know why) here. To assemble your Shrieking Violet zine, print the pages double sided and fold them into the correct order.

For the best Shrieking Violet experience, pages 7-8 should be read whilst listening to the jangle pop tune Streets of Your Town by 80s band the Go Betweens, transporting the scene from Australia to Manchester:

"Round and round, up and down
Everyday I make my way
Through the streets of your town

Don’t the sun look good today?
But the rain is on it’s way"

This should be followed by the Scottish jangle pop tune Charlotte Street, by '80s indie band Lloyd Cole and the Commotions.

Seek and Ye Shall Find