Tag Archives: james robertson

The silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.

I’ve been meaning to get around to writing something a bit less ‘oh mama, can this really be the end?’ around here, something rather more reflective of my usual generally pretty chipper life and times. Only, over the last few weeks, life hasn’t been the usual, not really. It’s been just stressful and angry, lonely and hard, missing persons, and pretty awful overall, with bright spots cast by the wonderful people I try to surround myself with and by climbing high enough to get above the fog (literally, but also a painfully obvious metaphor, no?).
Also the damn wind won’t stop blowing, which I hate. It makes cycling, and indeed walking in the ‘wrong’ direction, feel like a chore – it can’t have been like this last April when I first got Leon (yes, I have been a cyclist for one year and one day!), now it just feels awfully inexhaustible, and exhausting. Although I have just recently gone caffeine-neutral as an experiment, so that might also not be helping. It is not good!

Anyway – to write, you need some inspiration, and I’ll be honest, I am truly spoiled for it. It’s spring and I’m springin Edinburgh where so much of the city is bordered in fantastic vivid sap green, everything that was so sad just a few weeks ago, so bleak and dried-up, has come to life and it’s all bursting with newness and potential. I guess that this is almost the best time of the year for that. Bright sunlight streaming dappled through these many leaves feels like a real blessing, all the better for its having been away so long. I hope I never lose the delight of witnessing this annual return to life. I mean, it’s been 25 years and, just as Samir said the other week, it just seems to get more miraculous and joyful each time, not less.

Apart from leaves, there’s friends and art. The quietly wonderful James Robertson, who I’m lucky enough to know in a professional capacity, brought a breath of fresh air, and the word ‘bawheidedness’, into the quiet of the Scottish Poetry Library (which is in itself a very excellent thing) with a bubblingly brilliant reading from the two latest pamphlets from his press, Kettillonia. Again, that warm feeling, like springtime, of newness out of the old, surprises out of the familiar.  Gordon Dargie read powerfully and passionately, and often funnily, of youth and young manhood; James read reflectively and raptly, soft echoes resounding in his words of lives past, glowing, glints.

He was kind enough to insist on presenting me with a copy of his book which I’d expressed an interest in. It’s gorgeous. I probably should read rather more contemporary fiction. Off the top of my head, novels that I’ve read that were originally published in the past ten years: Everything is Illuminated, if nobody speaks of remarkable things, The Good Mayor, and now half of James’ novel The Testament of Gideon Mack. I’ve enjoyed them all, in different ways. I’m sure there must be some others I’m forgetting (oh, something by Will Self, but those are all the same really), but yeah, the point is, I don’t do it much. There’s always just so many books I want to read and most of them aren’t contemporary, not really, now that the twentieth century’s been and gone. I suppose in a way that puts García Márquez, Heller, Kundera into the ever-stretching bracket of [the past] with the classics and epics; what chance do I have against the weight of all the past and all that’s never done nor dusted?

But to get to what was supposed to be the point: now there’s something that’s kept me inspired, kept spinning in my head, filling up those dry old channels which are usually full of crust and crud like thinking about work, conversations I have had, I might have, I didn’t have, wondering what people are doing, thinking, wondering what I’m going to have for tea tonight. These mental arteries like drought-stricken, dusty riverbeds are now green and overgrown (like the fantastic, lush peace of the huge half-forgotten cemetery, full of bluebells and birdsong, that I climbed into on Monday with Sarah) with thoughts of essential music, rhythms and patterns, colours; thoughts of Wounded Knee.

Wounded Knee is a downright incredible dude. For one thing, he’s amazing at communicating – getting across what he’s thinking and feeling to his audience, which is what makes him such a different prospect from an evening with most artists. I think it’s fair to say that the phrase ‘audience participation’ usually strikes a chilling chord of fear and horror in the hearts of all right-minded people (it was ruined at an early age by the multifaceted badness that was schools’ theatre), but somehow WK manages to make this feel like collaboration rather than participation, something much more natural and joyful, like connection. The bowling ball song and the birdsong, and ramsons (one of my favourite words and definitely one of my favourite smells, it’s a long story, but they’re the wonderful smell of the Hermitage in spring and summer, the cycle paths, the burn, the cemetery too, and I’ve long thought they’re the smell I will most miss if I ever go and live elsewhere. I’ve never been anywhere else where it’s so easy to surround yourself with that wonderful fresh greenness in the middle of a real, populated city). The sound, the fury, the sheer cathartic noise of a room full of young people really thinking about testicular cancer; screaming, a gong. Being more than the sum of our parts. The awareness, somewhere in the sidelines, of how odd it might look, if I could be outside looking in at myself, to be so rapt – wrapped – in the depth and sincerity and resonance of the unamplified songs of a man in purple underpants standing by a white wall.

The first time I saw Wounded Knee it was like falling down the rabbit-hole. It’s just like that, I guess, with the tangible texture and growth of his sound using loop pedals; the surprise of hearing something I never had heard —

The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.

Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next. First, she tried to look down and make out what she was coming to, but it was too dark to see anything: then she looked at the sides of the well, and noticed that they were filled with cupboards and book-shelves: here and there she saw maps and pictures hung upon pegs.

but this time, at the second Downsizesound, there was no electricity and no loops, it was more level, all of our many feet remaining on the ground, but a feeling more like finding yourself in a secret green glade – a blossoming arbour or a mossy clearing in a vibrant old forest – with one you just realised you love. Tapping in to something bigger and older and darker and more alive than any of us. Sharing time and sounds and silence. And knowing what someone means, or getting the impression that you know, insofar as we ever can know what anyone means, is just unbeatable.

Alasdair Roberts did wonderful things with words. I’m no music critic (as you’ll have noticed) and don’t really know how much I can say about him other than to say it’s really not often I come away from a gig thinking ‘that must be a bit what it must be like if you could be in a very small intimate space with some of the Decemberists’, or ‘that must have been a bit what it was like to see a young Bob Dylan’, and definitely not both at once, but this is what I thought about him. He also seemed to reference Yeats, bringing back welcome echoes of the first poem my mother ever read to me – ‘because a fire was in my blood’, I recalled happily at his tale of the hazel wood, and given the fortnight that had gone before this night, was it ever. I’d been thinking, talking about hazel trees just the other day, I perhaps ascribe too much significance to coincidence sometimes, but if I were you I’d not be surprised to see the image of some lucky Corylus avellana leaf coming soon to a ribcage near you. Alasdair Roberts sang, heartfelt and convincing and light (in the way that insect wings are light and beautiful, not beer or entertainment) songs of dowsing, really quite considerable gore, the three ages of man, sociopathy and saturninity (gosh I love that word. Word of the week, I think), among other things, and that is some feat.

An incredibly vivifying evening was brought to a close by the spirited Issho Taiko drummers – four people, many different drums, accompanied by accordion, flute, guitars played with skewers, xylophone. To say they had impressive technical skills is really not the half of it, the red-blooded forceful drumming coming together with the otherworldly melodies to bring about a breathtaking, haunting happening in the room. A deep, vital,  feeling suffused me, deep in my belly, the same place as sex or somewhere very near it. Joyous and uplifting, it just physically got to me: made me stand up straight, made me feel taller and kind of better, grounded, self-aware. It also underlined, or was, the reason for seeing this sort of thing (and no, I have no idea what ‘this sort of thing’ is either) live because recorded it’s like losing a dimension or two or three. Sometimes gigs can just be adding vision to sound, seeing people play songs you’ve heard before; this couldn’t have been much more different. It was adding vision and touch and experience to sound; feeling and hearing and doing something totally new – it was collective, people joining and working wonderfully together – which I think is both necessary and inspiring; exaltant, and in truth, revolutionary.
(And for more on that note: Nowtopia, which I should write more about but don’t have time because the Edinburgh book launch is happening right now! Read and learn and be the change.)

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