Monday, 14 May 2012

New Formation

As some of you may be aware, there have been some changes in the band over the recent months. I have decided to part company with two sterling characters, Marti Bowley who was playing bass, and Pete Maidens who was playing electric guitar.

At the start of the year, I came to the conclusion that instead of leaping from one style to another I have no idea how to go about creating, perhaps I should linger a while and refine the sound I’ve worked on up until now. With that in mind, this year I want to concentrate exclusively on the ballads, and doing them damn well. No more over pronounced phrases, no more pomp, and a few changes in the formation of the band.

Marti and I had played together almost since I put the name Marmaduke Dando out there in 2007. Many of the armpits of London we trawled through whilst honing our instruments, often trying times, but always bearable with a level of camaraderie equal to the quality of this fine fellow. Unfortunately, in 2011, Marti came to the conclusion that he wasn’t as good as he’d like to be the double bass, and wanted to revert to his original instrument, the electric bass, in order to concentrate on something he knew he was good at. Despite protestations from myself, the rest of the band, and many of our close friends, there was no changing his mind. We tried to work the electric bass in to the band during 2011, but I felt toward the end of the year that it wasn’t quite the sound I was after. Even more so with what I’m hoping to achieve this year. Marti is a phenomenal bass player, and it has been a pure pleasure to work with such a high standard of musicianship.

Pete joined the band in 2010 on guitar and took to the role with great gusto and displayed a natural musical intuition I’ve not witnessed before. We played many a fine show together in the last 2 years, at festivals, on boats, in pubs, and yes, in a few armpits too. All of which were a rollicking good crack that wouldn’t have been the same had he not been a part of it. Yet again, a damn fine guitarist that I could not have been more lucky to have worked with.

In the new formation I’m looking to put together, there will be Andy still on drums, Sonia on the piano that will come out to the fore a little more than in the past. I’ll be taking on some light acoustic guitar duties and singing, hopefully, in a more natural style. I say hopefully, because having any objectivity about one’s own voice is near on impossible. It takes time and constant reflection, in my experience. I’ll also be adding a double bass player to this line-up, along with some softly blown trumpet.

I sincerely wish Marti and Pete the best in their onward musical endeavours. Chaps, it’s been an absolute pleasure.

London to Portsmouth on foot

“Off in search of Walden…again” responds my inbox automatically for the last week to anyone that wrote to me. It seems to be a recurring theme, this search for Walden. Walden was Thoreau‘s escape, a place where he found a spirituality with the earth that bore him. My automated responder however, suggests that I’ve tried on numerous occasions, and yet still haven’t found what I’m looking for. To be honest, I don’t think I even know what it is I am looking for. The throbbing void within me continues on without articulation, not having any terms of reference to cling to. Being bludgeoned by the Ultimate Truth of science and surrounded by a rabid commercialism from the moment I could speak, probably didn’t help. Growing up in a suburb outside of the city of Portsmouth, we didn’t do God and we didn’t do nature. We just did what we were told.

Last year, at the Uncivilisation festival there was a moment where I noticed my hometown on the distant horizon through a break in the trees. I was staggered that a place I’d come from and subsequently written off, could be so close to the euphoric experience I was having at the festival. It was then that I pledged to myself that I would walk to my old home, from my current one, from London, to Portsmouth. At first conception, this was purely to see what was there, to find out what was literally between the two cities, how the landscape changed from one county to another. It was an exciting prospect, and at that moment the great pilgrimage I’d dreamed up felt incredibly alluring and mystical. How tired I must have been with the common and acceptable forms of escape, that undertaking a walk through Surrey and Hampshire, would become romantic and even exotic.

9 months on and I finally decided to carry through with the plan. The original reasons for doing it, still held, but by this point, I had new ones too. It appeared to me before I took to the road, that all our experiences are basically the same when we consume from the market. Straplines and products all brainstormed in breakfast scrums, graphically designed and packaged up, and then sold on to us as a unique and mutually beneficial transaction. This walk was not designed, nor commodified in any way. Indeed, to most, it would no doubt be a deeply undesirable way of spending a week. It was not socially permitted, but it was still possible (legally, technically, physically etc), and therein lies its uniqueness, under lining all other motives. This journey was not only one of intrigue into the landscape of southern England, but an exercise in freedom too.

So off I went. I left Paddington on Day 1, while the heavens were wide open. “Come rain or shine”, my inner monologue was bitterly barking. Through the plush west London neighbourhoods, over the Hammersmith bridge, down through leafy Barnes, and onto Richmond Park. The grazing stags conjured images of Fenton’s rampage last year, and kept me chuckling all the way Kingston. An A to Z served me well up to Surbiton, where I had to change to an Ordinance Survey map. The walking turned drab through the suburbs of Long Ditton toward Clayton, so when I reached some green woods, I breathed deeper. Little did I know that I’d stumbled upon Little Heath, a site where The Diggers had cultivated common land to receive a security in sustenance that they were denied elsewhere. They ended up being denied here too, after they were driven away by the local lord of the manor. I walked on with this in mind, and just as I turned a corner from the plaque that described the history of the area, a huge private compound loomed menacing on the lane. Cargill, the gigantic industrial agriculture and food processing corporation decided to locate their international headquarters there. Warning signs of CCTV and guard dogs plastered the fence surrounding the Knowle Hill Park enclosure. Gerrard Winstanley, one of the most prominent voices of The Diggers, once declared “true freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth”. As my stomach turned, I felt he must have been turning in his grave. Not much has changed my dear fellow, not much at all.

I trudged on through Cobham and popped out in some fields just within the M25. There at the end of a lane where people walk their dogs, I camped for the night, under some trees by a stream. I’d chosen to settle just as darkness was falling so as not to be seen by many people. One curious couple out for an evening stroll hazarded a question as I was erecting my tent, “Are you nature watching?”, to which I replied dismissively but cheerfully with the briefest summary of this story so far. “Nature watching? Whatever can they mean…” I thought to myself as they walked away. “Is this some new middle class past time I haven’t heard of?”, and then unfortunately concluded, “well, yes, I suppose…I am Nature Watching”.

Sleeping lightly, I woke to Day 2 at 6am. A quick breakfast in front of the sunrise and then got on with the long day ahead. Walking towards the omnipresent roar of The Orbital, I crossed over and out, just past Downside. It was 8 o’clock in the morning and I was walking on A roads towards Effingham Junction. Lone commuters whizzed past me in their Beemas and Audis. Their off-spring were dressed up like their careerist parents and waiting in polite droves at the side of the road for the coach to take them to their assimilation centres. All day the poor bastards would be hammered with useless facts, then post school they’d be hammered in Jukus until their parents returned from the coal face, where they’d hammer them once more themselves before bedtime. Or most probably they’d outsource the hammering to the entertainment systems. Life in Horsley…the envy of the whole country, no doubt. Into the woods at the bottom of St Margaret’s Hill, scaled the incline to the church, then down the back alleys of Chilworth. On to some B roads through Godalming, popping flap jacks and boiled eggs into my mouth on every hour.

It was sunny on this day, so all my wet weather gear was in the pack, adding much more weight, and I could feel every gram of it desperately. I started obsessing about the contents of my pack, listing every item in my head, and assessing its true value on the journey. I began to realise, that what was making the walk unpleasant and even loathsome at times, was fear. I had an irrational sense of fear of the unknown, the fear of the elements. Totally rational in the modern sense of course, but in a greater context, it was ridiculous. It was the start of summer in England, not winter in Archangel. I was highly unlikely to come to a grizzly end at the hands of the elements. I was reminded of one Tweeter who wished me well but bade me cautious as “the country can be dangerous, you know, ticks and things”. Hmmm, ticks… quite. The focus of my anger shifted from the weight itself, to the causes of the weight. Why was I carrying water? There are no reliable streams and rivers in which to drink from in England due to industrial scale agriculture. This could be true, or it could be a disclaimer I was projecting. Who was to know? I’d been walking with friends in northern Sweden a few years ago, and we only carried receptacles, there were fresh streams all over the place. One only needed to bend down and scoop some up whenever thirst made itself present. I took it all for granted then, but certainly not now, with all this excruciating load bearing down on me. Allemansr├Ątten anyone?

Much to curse on the way through Witley, up to the quaint cottage lined viewpoint of Sandhill, where indeed the hill was made of sand. At Brook I devoured a pub lunch for dinner to give me the final push towards the Devil’s Punchbowl. Getting there would require crossing the infamous A3, the long standing road that connects London to Portsmouth. What I thought would be a very quick crossing, ended up taking an extra hour. With the recently finished Hindhead tunnel bypass, they had eliminated a couple of ancient footpaths. Where the map showed my route, there was a secure electric fence to keep me off the road and whatever else they had in mind. The end of the day thankfully turned into a relatively peaceful one. As I descended into the wooded caldera, the sun was setting over the woodland and the traffic noise receded enough for me to forget the day’s woes. I found a big fir tree and the bottom of the depression and set myself down to pass the night beneath it.

In the morning, it was raining drizzle, but the great boughs of the Fir kept much of the discomfort away whilst packing up. Day 3 was to be just as arduous as the previous, with the aim of getting past Petersfield in the most pleasant way possible. I hiked out of the Punchbowl, touched Hindhead’s eastern flank and walked towards Haslemere. The morning traffic here was gridlocked, and it looked like this was typical in the town. I staggered slowly past every jammed vehicle and came to a traffic information sign saying, “The weekend of the X this road will be closed for engineering works”. Directly beneath it was another official sign, with an air of desperation yet no hint of irony, saying “Stay calm and keep shopping in Haslemere”. I groaned onward out of the town, down the country lanes of Lynchmere, getting lost for a while, but finding my way back through a golf course, and into The Black Fox for a pub lunch. Inside, a surly Scottish landlord with no interest in anything and contempt for everything, serving the retired elderly folk and their retired adult children who Were Driving. On to Rake, Hill Brow, stepping down into an Ancient Woodland. This was a most agreeable hour passing through Durfood Wood, listening to the bird noises reverberate under the canopy, and for once on this trip, the number of non-coppiced trees outnumbered the coppiced.

Shortly after, at Durleighmarsh there were fields as far as the eye could see, and as I climbed up a style I became momentarily awestruck. The onward footpath went straight across a field of brilliant yellow flowering crops. The mid-afternoon sun was dazzling, the skies were raging blue. It was glorious. It was the kind of thing I wanted to tell everyone about when I returned home. But then I realised as I walked through the mono-crop of oil seed rape that there was nothing close to pretty in this scene. Biofuel, state backed with a minimum percentage mix for every diesel pump in the country. Land devoted to gross misuse in order to keep England and its people dependent on world markets. Coupled with the construct of private property to spin matters with an air of legality, the perfect corrupt system before my very eyes. I looked down at the ground beneath my feet, there was no weed, no insect, no nothing, but a hard barren looking soil and the Rape thrusting skyward. God knows how many tonnes of fertilisers and pesticides they spewed across these acres to grow diesel for the utterly pointless journeys of millions. As I crossed the field a mantra sprung up in my head that I couldn’t banish, “Rape by name, Rape by nature. Rape by name, Rape by nature…”. On and on it went like some inane pop song you just can’t shake, all the way to the Petersfield suburbs.

Here the houses began to look familiar to me. They had that classic non-design look of the 1960s that they used to throw up all over the south coast of England. They looked just like the house I grew up in, I was clearly in Hampshire now. Waves of fatigue set in as I approached the centre of Petersfield. I’d had enough of the meticulously planned and commodified countryside, of the sprawling listless boon docks, and the pockets of sham arcadia. I was at the end of my tether here, I was ready to submit and flee back to the warm artificial bosom of the city. I promised myself, as soon as I was the other side of the A3, again, I would pitch up and pass out.

Thankfully as I hobbled out of the way of the speeding traffic on the London to Portsmouth highway, I had a second wind. I realised the sun was setting, and that Butser Hill was within sight. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to settle down at the top to see the Meon Valley fade into the gloam, I thought. I slid quickly into the rhythm of a march and powered through the little lanes around the hill for the last 4 miles of the day. At the summit there were dog walkers and children and their nannies, all about to clear out and leave me to the highlight of the trip. I leaned back on my pack as if it were comfy old sofa, fired up the primus with some stir fry noodles, and watched the sun dip slowly down over Hampshire. My body utterly exhausted, and my brain a total void, I could barely comprehend what it was I was experiencing. What was this country I was born into? How did it form my character? Where was its true essence? What was relevant? What was the Ultimate Truth? What was to be done? Staring gaga 93 million miles into space, no answer came back. Once dusk set in I moved across to the other side of the hill, overlooking the A3 and Portsmouth, the final destination. I thought perhaps it would be nice to see the sun rise, for consistency’s sake, if nothing else. There I pitched on the hillside, the twinkle of the city of Portsmouth in the distance.

The morning was overcast, so the sunrise wasn’t to be. Day 4 I hoped, would be fairly leisurely, as I was close to the end and wanted to dawdle a little in my old haunts. I descended the hill along more narrow country lanes, brushing past the site of last, and actually this year’s Uncivilisation festival too. There were few people around, a man from the council needlessly strimming a grass verge, some dustbin men collecting refuse at the birthplace of cricket, The Bat and Ball. I entered the back of Denmead just before midday, and detoured into the cemetery to find my Dad’s aunt’s plot. As I was looking for her stone, here were two more men strimming the grass, this time around the graves of dead people and making an ear splitting infernal racket. I frowned. Surely this is no way to tend to a site where we have buried those we have loved and lost. A few moments later I chanced upon an epitaph, and stood a while processing the inscription, “…who leaves behind a loving family…will be dearly missed…always in our hearts”. It was at this point that I lost it. Emotion for the first time during the whole trip overwhelmed me. It was an immense sadness for the loss of something I’d never even known. A lack of comprehension of what it was I had and hadn’t witnessed in the last few days. All of it bound up in association with the empathy I felt for the relatives of the deceased’s headstone I was reading.

I struggled out of the cemetery without any composure, the men from the council strimming away with their ear defenders on, completely oblivious. To the nearest pub, the White Hart I believe, for an ale and a hearty lunch of something welcome but ultimately forgettable. Back on the road, through the Forest of Bere, and up to Southwick, the last village before I had to climb the Ports Down Hill. With plenty of time left in the day, I took another pint in the Red Lion, a respectably carpeted establishment unfortunately under the tyranny of the F*llers pub co. Over the 4 days I had exchanged curt pleasantries about the weather with the odd person, but somehow I’d managed to get this far without an actual conversation with anyone. It wasn’t until the landlady of the Red Lion struck one up with me, that I realised how completely alone I had been. The presence of man could be felt all over the countryside in multiple ugly ways, but there was barely anyone there actually living. Most had gone there to die, to play golf, or to commute, if there’s even a difference. And it made the whole place dead as a consequence. We acknowledge the hyper atomisation in the cities, but it’s here in the countryside too. I warmed immediately to her, and was so grateful for the grain of humanity she extended toward me after these barren 4 days on the road.

Slightly buoyed from social interaction and a couple of pints of HSB, I walked out of Southwick and up the hill through the country lanes that would lead to Portchester, passing through more fields of rape as I ascended. As I came up to the summit of Ports Down Hill, the city of Portsmouth the relentless outer sprawl lay before me. I walked down the hill a little watching this horror unfold, and came to a footpath and a plaque announcing Portchester Common. I’d grown up in Portchester for 16 years of my life and I had no idea there was an area of it devoted to the commons. Not that I was missing much. Portchester Common was a squalid little field with a few scrub bushes, dissected in two by the M27 motorway, trampled down by pylons and telegraph poles, and completely forgotten by the people of Portchester. What a site to behold standing in the middle of it, a spaghetti of cables overhead, cars below, and a maritime scene in the distance to rival Pearl Harbour post-attack in its ugliness. I sobered up pretty quickly and clumped down the hill to the house where I grew up.

It was still there, a few modifications, some decking, net curtains, what you’d expect. I walked down the lane that ran along the side of the house, and heard kids laughing in the back garden. Yes, despite the conditions, moments of happiness were possible here. I was heartened. Onward, down to the old schools where the trees had grown so tall, and yet were just saplings when I was a boy. They’d painted my junior school a mixture of turquoise and green on the panels that clad it. I stood grinning at them thinking, “That’s a nice colour. What a lovely colour for the little ones.” And I meant it. Down past the last pub of the town to be converted into a Co-operative supermarket, down past the petrol station upgraded to an M*rks and Spencer supermarket, toward the Wicor Rec. Along the harbour front towards Cams Estate and its golf course. Stopping briefly to read a historical plaque about the area, “Fareham once had a thriving ship building industry in the 1800s due to the local availability of timber…but the industry died when there were no more trees left in the area”. No doubt some local politician was championing it at the time with the tedious idiom, “jobs and growth”. I got to Fareham in the late afternoon, and spent the night at my aunt’s house, weary, spent, and desperate for a bath.

The next morning was the final and 5th day. I had just a few miles to complete, most of it along one long A road to the Gosport Ferry. My aunt and her dog accompanied me for the last leg. There’s not much to say about these last few miles. They were dreary except for the odd colourful glazed tiling of a Gosport pub. We reached the ferry terminus, crossed Portsmouth Harbour, and that was the end of it all. Within minutes I was on a train bound north to London, flying roughly through the route I’d walked for 4 days, in 1 hour 30 minutes.

So there it is, an account of London to Portsmouth on foot, by a curmudgeon to rival all curmudgeons. Maybe. I tried hard to be objective on the road, and as far as I’m concerned I was. But ultimately, this is what I found, this is what I saw, and this is how I interpreted it. Call me a cynic, call it inevitable progress, but the facts remain. It’s ugly out there. Any perceived spots of beauty are nothing more than contrived, artificial, essentially a Disneyland. This is no path to genuine fulfillment of the human soul. All we can hope for in our unlucky generation is some rabbity flea bitten compromise. Theodore Roszak summed it up perfectly in the first line of his essay entitled ‘Where the Wasteland Ends’: “If it seems cranky to lament the expanding artificiality of our environment, the fact underlying that lament is indisputable, and it would be blindness to set its significance at less than being the greatest and most rapid cultural transition in the entire history of mankind.”

This conclusion could have been derived at before, clearly, as it’s no secret that England is an industrial wasteland. I just desperately wanted to be surprised, and I’m deeply saddened to say that all it did was meet my expectations.