In 1995 I was just beginning to discover music in the obsessive way that kids do. I’d had the benefit of receiving a fair amount of decent music through my parents – I can’t hear ‘Cloudbusting’ by Kate Bush without immediately thinking of my mother, or Billy Bragg’s ‘To Have and Have Not’ without picturing my dad. Growing up hearing Ian Dury, the Pistols, Stranglers, Cockney Rejects (West Ham fans, we were) and a ton of reggae almost certainly left a mark and doomed me to the life of a punk and ska fan. I don’t remember much folk music as a child, but in that year, my father bought the Levellers album Zeitgeist on CD, pointing out the lyrics in the car and the meanings of the song ‘Hope Street’, inculcating me further into a life of Tory-hatred (as any good parent should). Naff as it seems, I loved it. I had a few Blur and Oasis albums on cassette, bought from Our Price, but this was different. I had Dookie by Green Day, loved it and still do. But for whatever reason, Zeitgeist chimed with me on a deep level, and still chimes today. I could try and pretend things happened in a more acceptably fashionable manner, but they didn’t.
The closing song on that album, ‘Men an Tol’, remains an all-time favourite. It grabbed me immediately, before I really understood its meaning – or even what the Men an Tol was. (It’s hard to remember the time before a quick tap of the keys brings an answer to almost any question.)
There are lines in the song that stuck with me, stained me I'd say, and now seem completely apt and relevant to the fields of place writing and psychogeography I find myself so interested in:
I rest among what still remains
Of lives that passed before.
I find myself amazed again
At man’s pathetic score.
Years of knowledge
Wasted and ignored
Hearing those lines even now, I’m not ashamed to admit, gives me a bit of a chill. I got it. That feeling, that rare feeling, when you respond to something and understand it instinctively without, perhaps, even being able to rationalise it on a conscious level. If you can understand something emotionally years before you do intellectually, then that was true here.
That was the starting point into the music that is one of my key passions. Make no mistake, I really love this stuff. From the Levellers, I eventually found my way to a whole world of underground and sometimes visionary British music. I found Crass and Conflict, the Subhumans, Culture Shock, Radical Dance Faction, Zounds, The Mob, that whole swathe of British anarcho punk that still amazes me even existed. I discovered Oi Polloi, and through them I learned about the highland clearances and the actions the English had taken to eradicate the Gaelic language. I even learned a few words of Gaelic. I learned about free festivals, the new age traveller movement, the Battle of the Beanfield, the anti-road protests of the 90s, the Dongas tribe, Earth First, the ALF, Barry Horne, squatting, vegetarianism, veganism, anti-fascism, anarchist bookfairs, Reclaim the Streets, Red Action, zine culture, and most importantly, the DIY ethos.
I found the books on this later, expanding this knowledge massively (I'd recommend tracking down George McKay’s Senseless acts of Beauty and DIY Culture). But what brought me there was the music. It might be trite to say that at an essential level, punk in its many forms is a form of folk music; a way of recording a history and aspects of culture that may well be invisible or otherwise forgotten. If it’s a trite observation it’s also one I believe to be true (I would make the same assertion about hip-hop and reggae also).
Is it worth pointing out the link to the radical movements of English Civil War? Billy Bragg’s version of ‘The World Turned Upside Down’, Chumbawamba singing ‘The Digger’s Song’, New Model Army? I look back it and see the links all there, a gossamer mesh I was stuck in before I even knew it. I went and tracked down the film Winstanley and bought Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down because of the interest that had been sparked by these songs.
I discovered an entire history on my doorstep, an alternate history that perhaps I had seen snatches of, but wanted desperately to know more about.
I have a distinct memory of an area just outside the town of Whitstable, where I grew up, of a house in the way of a proposed road extension scheme. I dimly recall loud people, long hair, tattoos, slogan-daubed banners hung from windows. Later on, trying to track down any record of these road protests in Kent was much harder than I had expected. I found it in the end, but it reinforced the notion that everything is transient, and underground cultures especially were at risk of disappearing and being forgotten (especially in pre-internet days). I wonder what parts of our memories we edit out; cutting out the troublesome images and experiences that don’t fit into the narratives we are fed. I felt validated when I realised my memories matched up to some form of truth, that I could now contextualise what I had seen as a young boy and ground it in this parallel history I was mapping. Had I not known that, I would have been left with an image shorn of context, doubting in my own mind that it ever even happened.
Eventually I found what I was looking for, a culture more Albionic than anything British. When I moved to London in 2005, the UK punk scene was in a period of good health. Through following bands like The King Blues (I recall seeing them play at Barden’s Boudoir in Dalston supporting some American folk-punk band, when Barden’s was still a venue under a furniture shop) and The Filaments I discovered the underground-punk ‘supergroup’, Suicide Bid. Suicide Bid featured contributions from all manner of people (they led me onto amazing 90s acts like P.A.I.N), but most notably were the contributions by Jay Terrestrial, of the band Inner Terrestrials (and later the folk band Firepit Collective). Much more of this later.
It don’t mean anything to you
But it means something to me
– Cress, ‘Monuments’
I was lucky, viewing it in retrospect, having a father who felt it important to get outdoors, was a keen birdwatcher, had an interest in Celts and Saxons, Vikings and Romans. Perhaps I was even lucky that my parents were separated and so there was more impetus to do something with me and my brother, to take trips, go and explore.
I’d say I was lucky growing up in the part of Kent that I did, freighted as it is with history. But all of the United Kingdom is like that, choked with ghosts and heavy with memory. Stop anywhere and you rest among the remains of lives that passed before. The remains of cultures prior to our own can be thrilling, but they also stand as a stark reminder to something else (and very friendly to the mind of the punk fan): all empires fall.
So I could be talking about almost anywhere in the UK when I talk about the ancient places, crumbling ruins, medieval pubs and half-remembered stories that have fed into this rough idea that’s taking shape called ‘landscape punk’.
In the local area surrounding where I grew up (Whitstable, Kent), we had easy access to Roman ruins at Richborough castle, at Reculver towers and the walls built into the very fabric of the city of Canterbury. There was the Viking ship at Pegwell Bay. There was Canterbury cathedral, where you can stand on the spot where Thomas Becket had his head sliced open by Norman knights, then go stare at the armour of the Black Prince. There are the graves of Huguenots dotted over the city; the city itself that we all know from Chaucer, where as a young child I was taking, terrified, by the model figures of the leering medieval characters; the Canterbury Tales interactive tour which is still there.
Between Whitstable and Faversham are the haunted marshes of the hollow shore, where illegal raves take place and the wind howls over The Swale from Sheppey. In Whitstable itself, I can remember Peter Cushing traversing the town on his bicycle before his death in 1994.
In Dover there is the imposing Norman castle, the kittiwakes and fulmars, the ferry port, now such a focus of fear and strife.
Dover had an interactive museum, the White Cliffs Experience, that was possibly crap but that I thought wonderful. The waxworks of three spiky-haired Celtic warriors, skins patterned with blue whorls and awaiting Julius Caesar’s arrival, are seared vividly in me; so is the (now I realise spurious) diorama depicting the diabolical and bloody rituals of the druids. There were sections set during Blitz-era Dover, the sirens screaming and imitation smoke obscuring the view.
That sense of layers, of history so dense it became intimidating to pick apart, was drilled into me. The sense that there might be just be more to life, to reality, than our individual experience. I’ve always had the very real feeling that I am part of a continuity, that I am in so many ways a product of my environment and the history of the places that formed me – and in turn, I am part of what will go onto to influence the lives of future generations in ways I cannot possibly yet imagine. So when I heard ‘Men an Tol’ twenty years ago, it became linked to the landscapes I already knew, the remains and ruins of all those past cultures, and put me on a path that I am still on today. As the song says: It’s a different way of seeing.
I’m interested in what is important, not what is fashionable. Sometimes those two things are one and the same – right now there’s a current vogue for landscape writing and psychogeography, and a renaissance in what we can call weird fiction. These two areas of literature happen to be the ones that thrill me the most, which I choose to write in and inhabit. There will be a backlash at some point, then a re-appreciation, then a resurgence.
The trick is, I think, to stick to what you the individual thinks is important and follow those ideas, go down those paths whether or not anyone is going with you.
Things that are important persist; something I have always loved about the punk scene worldwide is its stubborn refusal to disappear. There are ebbs and flows, but after nearly forty years it still persists. There’s a reason for this that mere nostalgia cannot explain away. Good literature, the stuff that avoids trends, lasts also. I became fascinated with how all of these different strands of interest – landscape, literature, underground UK culture – might start to work together.