“On a fly-speckled summer’s eve
In the tenth long year of the siege
To the campfire gathered round we took our ease
And there were songs from better days
Black-slapping and glasses raised
The same worn-out stories told...”
In this adventure, Four Eyes went to see “anarcho-folk” outfit Blyth Power on Sunday 20th Feb and yet emerged clutching what follows in the place of a proper review...
‘Stitching In Time’, you see, is a song about something that took ten years. Which is fitting enough to make it the theme song for Blyth Power. Joseph Porter may have even written it ten years ago by now, for the band have been going for twenty-five. They’re here to do a benefit for SchNews, described by the Guardian as “the national newsletter of the protest movement”, who have themselves clocked up fifteen. It’s a night of longevity.
Many of the faces around me I must have seen for a similar length of time, and they look as flushed with drink as ever. And everything smells of bonfires, even though there isn’t actually a bonfire. It’s actually that sourceless smell of bonfires which acts as a Proustian cake upon me, reminding me of how long I’ve been going to such events. That smell is even more redolent of benefit gigs and drunken calls to arms than hearing earnest Crusties debate whether the Levellers “sold out” or not.
Mind you, the recent Damo Suzuki gig also nudged me along memory lane, for it marked my first visit to the newly opened Green Door Store. As things turn out, this is barely a venue at all; minimal furnishings, cardboard ‘glasses’ and crumbling brickwork residing under an overall sense of ramshackle. Everything seems to stay up and in place through a vague sense of good intention alone. Positioned not far from where all the old squat parties used to be, it feels more like a squat than any proper establishment.
Which of course is to say that I liked it.
Now squat culture might finally have had the clamps put on it by the Constabulary, I seem to keep going to things which remind me of it... last summer’s Brian Eno exhibition, Coachwerks, ’Before I Sleep’ at the Old Co-op building. Perhaps that’s no surprise, I was always most at home among the semi-derelict. I reckoned that the more impromptu a venue was, the more likely attendees were to be prompted.
(As I am getting on a
bit lot, however, I do not knock the presence of proper toilets. Back then, a squat venue was marked by blokes lined against an outside wall and girls sporting dissatisfied expressions. Spot that combination, and you knew a party resided within...)
But, toilets notwithstanding, isn’t all this squat-like something of a simulation? ‘Squat’ has become a ‘look’ not an activity, like the look of cassette tapes becoming a style icon once we stopped using them for listening to.
As well as recounting things that took ten years, Blyth Power do a song that disparages museums. Porter encourages us to let things rot into mystery, to allow Stonehenge to crumble, the past be past and time move on. As he’s a notorious history buff and (yes, really) trainspotter, I suspect disingenuity here. But I can see why he’s saying this now. If William Blake had been on the Blyth Power bill, he might well have reminded us of his adage - “drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.” (Quite possibly while smelling of a bonfire.)
At the time, we wanted our own scene, answering our needs and within our control. We didn’t want ‘leisure time’, marshalled by profit-hungry landlords and order-issuing doormen, we wanted free time. So we carved out that scene with the tools to hand, from what was available. The important thing was that impetus. What we carved was extemporised, never intended to be preserved.
In ’The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test,’ Wolfe mentions how the Merry Pranksters coined the style which were later taken up by psychedelic art. But their works were never considered, but always provisional; they were thrown up quickly for their events and then thrown away once that event was over.
What was once Brighton is now caught on the twin horns of yuppification and restrictive authoritarianism. And it’s very easy to eulogise a scene once it’s dying off. Like when a relative gets a terminal diagnosis, suddenly every previous complainant no longer has a bad word to say.
For example, a few years ago, an anti-yuppie protest was called. This seemed to mainly consist of people with coloured dreadlocks juggling badly on the Level. (Quite possibly whilst smelling of bonfires, I didn’t get that close.) Now, not only are there always people with coloured dreadlocks juggling badly on the Level, they seemed oblivious that this is precisely the sort of thing which attracts yuppies. You might as well shit to get rid of flies. The way to actually scare them off would be to hold a meat raffle on the Level, or develop some ruddy sunburn while loudly professing support for “our boys” out a-fightin’.
From the shores of Goa to Brighton’s North Laines, the alternative middle classes have always acted as a beach-head for their smart-but-casual brethren. Hippies would backpack to Goa and sleep on floors or beaches, prior to the development of package tours. Other hippies would hitch or bunk the fare to Brighton, to squat old cottages or rent crummy bedsits. Then, in less time than it takes a Crusty to drop his juggling sticks, that area would become ‘desirable’. Brighton’s original listings magazine, ‘The Punter’, the thing we’d once go through to circle all the punk nights, is now ‘The Latest’ - a style and property magazine.
Which raises the question, is what we want now really those same old worn-out stories told?
Perhaps not. But then again low rent was simply preferable to high rent. I took to that alternative middle class scene primarily because it gave me space to move in. (Or, if you prefer, having styled themselves the “outsiders” they found they’d talked themselves into putting up with even the likes of me. It comes to much the same thing...)
Blyth Power are a good case in point. For they’re not really any kind of a punk band at all, nor even ‘anarcho-folk.’ Joseph Porter had drummed his way through several anarcho-punk outfits, but Blyth Power marked the point where he hung up the shouty slogans to dry. They aren’t even folk particularly, more a literary, poetic take on Englishness - Seigfried Sassoon not Steve Ignorant. (Though that might make for an intriguing combination... “Stands the village clock at ten to three? And are we still banned from the Roxy?”)
You can hear it in Porter’s voice, which resounds with the echoes of meadows and woodlands, not some scratchy shouty thing that’s been scrawled on towerblocks. His shtick is to turn over images of a mythic Albion like a two-faced coin, never quite deciding whether they are history or chimera, an activity he’s been at a quarter-century without result. The process, you sense, is itself the point. It’s like he made songs as fields and arenas, where this irresolvable war inside him could be waged.
...which is, you see, what ‘Stitching in Time’ is all about, with its reworking of the legend of the Trojan horse. Anarcho-punk was only ever his Trojan horse, something he climbed inside (along with his “hand-picked volunteer force”) to get where he wanted to be. (This view was supported by the later compilation CD being called ’Ten Years Inside the Horse.’ Yes, of course the Greeks didn’t spend the whole siege cramped up in that wooden thing, just go with the poetry of it...)
Anarcho-punk had claimed you could be whatever you wanted, happily assuming that what you wanted to be was a leather jacket with mis-spelt rantings on the back. Porter seized this scene in the very place it never expected to be gripped – its word. Then, once inside, the first thing he did was drop the leather jacket and raze the city walls. He abandoned the instant hit of battle for the perpetuation which was war.
As I smelt those sourceless bonfires, I came to wonder...at this point, do we really need another benefit gig, another squatted social centre? I wonder how many there have been, since Margaret Thatcher first enclosed the commons all those years ago. All those programmes of events... by day organic gardening, tai chi and yoga, then by night ketamine-fuelled raving to dodgy deep house until everyone fell over. All those workshops which sought to ‘demystify’ this or that. When the only remaining mystery was whether the experiences were so familiar because they were being scripted from somewhere, or whether they just fell anew into that pattern with each extra recurrence.
...except, in the end, there’s no choice. Better the badly painted banners than another yuppie ‘apartment’ block, with the security camera that whirrs at you as you pass, like it’s frustrated it can’t actually shoot laser beams at you. Better the sourceless smell of bonfires and armpits long unwashed than the swoosh of credit cards and feeling of the ground going from under you as your area is pulled ‘upmarket’.
...which is, you see, what ‘Stitching in Time’ is all about. A man no longer young, trapped in a war that seems ceaseless, sick at heart of it all but knowing in his now-arthritic bones that the only way out is to keep fighting.
If the choice is all devils, pick the one you know.
“I remember when I was young
Each swift-sure javelin flung
Could take me right to the heart of the matter then
But now I’m older I’m not so sure
I’ve grown used to the pace of war
And the flesh that was muscle once
Has grown hard to squeeze
Into breastplates and greaves
In story now and song
Scamander flows along
Though the walls of the siege-bound city have fallen down
And though our arms are red with rust
Still in a patient God we trust
So for a cause long forgotten
Until Kingdom comes around
We’ll stand our ground”