A Crossing Bell

I rang the bell. I had been about to pass it, having heard it rung, mostly by children, almost constantly for the past two days. Something called me back, to approach it. Maybe it’s because no one else was around and I saw my chance. I rang it. It sounded louder than when other people rang it. I felt naughty somehow. So I rang it again. It had a clarity, as though it had found exactly the right points around it to bounce from to make itself sound important; drew them in like coordinates of the perfect pitch then sent them pealing out to the clouds.

The bell is A Crossing Bell – an art installation at Tilbury Cruise Terminal by Professor of Sound & Landscape Angus Carlyle who has worked in residence at Metal, an arts organisation with a big heart in a big house in a pretty park where I am lucky to work. He is also a part of Estuary Festival. Passengers are invited to ring the bell while offering a prayer for a crossing – their crossing or someone else’s, a friend’s or a stranger’s; a prayer to ward off the bad or wish for the good. Angus’ hope is that the bell’s unamplified peals suggest other crossings, other times and other places. And they do.

I only remembered then as I rang it that right there, down to the deck to the waters between Tilbury and Gravesend, that my dad had been moored here in the 60s. I have the last diaries he wrote as a teen in the Merchant Navy. 1964. After months of sailing more exotic waters – Biscay, Suez, Arabian Sea, Muscat, Persian Gulf, Abu Dhabi, Calcutta, Trincomalee, Colombo, his list goes on – they drifted… into Southend-on-Sea. My hometown. A strange town that Dad could not have known then would be the place he’d later move to in his fifties to be near his daughters, and then soon after where he would take his life. He stayed four days in 1964 then sailed on to Tilbury, and one night – “went ashore to dance in Gravesend with lads. Got really pissed.” The next morning, he got up at 8.15, and “just read papers all morning.” Then the diaries come to an end, and as far as I know he never wrote any others. Or certainly none that he kept and passed on. Perhaps these were the only ones that he wasn’t ashamed of. The ones that only chronicle small details of ship life – no truths of his character or feelings at all that might be of use in the puzzle of a dead bi-polar man.

I had just been thinking the week before, as I walked past the road where he lived and died, that I felt pretty cool about him being dead, now. I felt tough. Over it. Cool. I walked past – as I do most days, I live a few roads away now – and felt ‘nothing’.

But I didn’t feel nothing when I rang the bell. It was like a brass hammer to the sky, cracking open the clouds to say hullo to my father, there on the very waters where he had written in his tiny blue scrawl. Maybe only meters away from where I stood, now, ringing it. Maybe if I could call to him back then – me on the deck, him rocking in his bunk – he could have heard me. Was his ship that close? If only time could allow me that experiment. Distance and time and death. Science. What huge impassable relentlessly factual things keep people apart.

Earlier that morning I had been up at 5am for a dawn performance by a vocal artist named Caroline Bergvall, who wove her mesmeric voice with that of a vocalist Peyee Chen and a backing track of collected sounds. Raga Dawn. My job was to capture it for other people, but towards the end I just lay down on the deck behind the audience, my spine falling between one of the broad gaps in the planks, the breeze surging up through the fibres of my jumper to my skin, and the sound of the heavy lapping water beneath my head. What do we think in these moments of reflection? Our thoughts trip on to one thing mostly. To how we feel, to people, to those we have lost. To love. To loss. To death. I often wonder if anyone can ever pass truly blithely through life without thoughts of death; whether it is a dialogue that can be completely avoided. Whether the ‘mentally ill’ can shut out awareness of it with a complete efficiency that we, the ‘more normal’, the ‘well’, cannot.

I suppose it comes as a not-too-great surprise that artists are drawn to water and to death. It tells not only stories, captures our thoughts, loves, and fears, but it also inspires a sort of peace that must be made before we ourselves go. A peace with ourselves. Estuary Festival is full of work by countless artists of dizzying various disciplines that observe a similar theme, but it is this piece – A Crossing Bell – that spoke to me, because it spoke for me.

I didn’t tell Angus during our multiple chats as he milled around in a nice blue jacket that I had rung his bell and been moved. I felt shy. I don’t know why. Maybe I just wanted to keep it for myself. Between me & Dad & the river.

The bell did its job. A hullo was said. And a small patch of the Thames that was new to me became familiar, like Dad was with me for a while, strong and tangible as bronze, invisible yet potent as sound waves saying “I was here.”

 

 

Estuary Festival runs until the 2nd October in various places in Tilbury, Gravesend, and Southend. For more – go here.

For more on Angus Carlyle, go here. And the bell – here.

For Caroline Bergvall & Raga Dawn, go here.

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Poem: Grey Timebends

I wore my glasses to see it better

but there are sea mists today

that occlude ocular aids. 

Nature as boss,

as it should be.

We can barely see the great chimney –

tallest man in any room –

our changing estuary did not feel like putting on a show.

The rest of the sky stayed crisp as a child’s crayon line

while the small patch set aside for devastation pulled tight

Constable’s blend, blurred hues and grey timebends.

It’s all a haze. Shy.

Seems only right

the crematorium curtains should be pulled before the smoke.

It falls.

A late blow shakes the sky.

It’s half-fallen before the thunderchime like a military gun 

Speaks up for the river,

the buried munition 

of hundreds of years of man’s wars and progressions and explosions,

dredges up the voices of the silent hulks teeming with weeds & fish & lost trinkets & buried time.

The ghosts shriek together and then are silent.

It falls.

Rubble to be settled

and moved by machines by men who want it gone.

Today. Not tomorrow.

Minutes.

Four minutes and it’s gone.

A train runs to time.

Boats glint like brass buttons in funereal mud.

Dogs turn their noses up to the drift blow and close their eyes.

People start talking again, begin to move.

Disappointed there was 

‘not more to see in an otherwise clear sky’.

Schoolchildren on a day trip to see destruction,

who will forget they ever came,

clamber back up the hill, 

their minds not even on what will be constructed there next.

Landscapes change.

This was never theirs.

Voyeurs of a part of us,

Gone.
  

life & death & secrets & sharing

I managed to find a quiet spot, in the shade of a little bush that sounded like it was whispering. Leaves that flickered in vertical half-rotations like the royal wave. Lots of people had come to the cliffs to watch the chimney get blown into the ground. There was the polite general hubbub of strangers standing together. A group of school children talked loudly and laughed rudely a little way along, their nascent brusqueness carried by the strange echo power that playgrounds have; the bell jar blare transported for an hour while they watched a great landmark get felled.

The ‘chimney’, which sounds so domestic as to conjure Edwardian images of fireside toast and jam, was the big industrial bugger over on the Isle of Grain that has been part of our skyline for decades. I wasn’t particularly attached to it. It was in Kent for a start. If I was attached to it from the Essex side I’d just be a bridge. I don’t think I could take the pressure. (Though it would be cool to charge a toll.)

So I wasn’t especially sad that it was coming down. Primarily because its presence was mostly symbolic of the damage we do to the world. The arrogant phallocentric pollution by man for his own needs. But I was drawn to its demise because it was a significant change on our horizon. That thing we see and choose to see and live to see things in. I am drawn to change. I fear it less than I used to. I think I wanted to say goodbye to something in which was stored a part of us all. If buildings can absorb our lives to take on an energy of their own that can be read by strangers – sad-happy-eerie houses-castles-asylums – so too can industrial monoliths be totems, gathering places, patches of energy drawn out of every eye that has fallen on it, an upright solid pool of all the thoughts that have been directed its way, of all the stirrings of a million hearts that have been flung out to this tall beast, when people sat here on the cliffs, by the water, looking out. Sad or happy or in love or in need of adventure or solace or change, or simply time to be quiet, and alone, to think.

As a kid I used to gaze across thinking Kent was France, and that therefore that must mean the chimney was the Eiffel Tower. How romantic it seemed, if slightly different to the pictures. Less pointy on top. More concrete. But tall enough for me to believe. How close it was. I always thought that walking there would be entirely possible one day if I picked just the right tide time to navigate the muds across.

Would we all have been drawn to watch this chimney fall if it hadn’t been framed by the vast blues and greys of the estuary, that tandem of water and air? If it had been inland or surrounded by similar structures would we have gone, watched; felt anything? I don’t think we would. The water and the sky are its frame, and in this instance the frame is the artwork.

I’ve been working on a big Festival that is celebrating the Estuary and its wealth of history and stimuli that find their way into our day. Spread across three weekends, the programme is staggering. Artists and writers of so many disciplines it’s hard not to feel like you have been wasting your time being utterly dull & fruitless. I have learned so much about the river that I love, that I see everyday but do not take the time to learn about. The estuary is teeming with life and death and secrets and a need to share itself. Just like us. We are life and death and secrets and sharing.

The festival, and the razing of the chimney, have made me realise quite how much of my life runs alongside this river.

My common journeys mostly run in parallel lines with it. I travel along it, not up and away. All my haunts and walks are in the narrow strip about ten streets deep directly up from the seafront. I go between my hometown and London, the train I get on chugs and drags and hurtles along the river. Is that the river that does that? Can a river keep you to it, like magnetised water? The whole flow of the town seems to run a similar current to it, bending not with the sideways sway from bank to bank but the larger push-pull between the sea and the source.

Could I leave it? Would I ever want to?

Towns change, rivers change, people change. Life has its own tides. Some we can fight, some submerge us, some we drift and float and spin with. Once it’s part of your life the river runs through you.

Metal‘s Estuary Festival runs across 3 weekends from 17th October to 2nd October in various venues in Southend, Tilbury, & Gravesend. 

Photo credit: Simon FowlerSimon’s stunning exhibition on the Estuary can be seen here.


  

The Beach Boys Are In Us

I don’t want to alarm anyone but The Beach Boys are in us. Like, right now. All the time.

Even if you hate them, you cannot fail to know them and know that their sound is Their Sound. No one sounds like The Beach Boys.

Few – and growing fewer – of their fans were around for the first wave of Beach Boys love. I wasn’t a teen growing up in the 60s. I was a 90s girl, and although I didn’t own one of their albums for years, their songs became part of me in that cultural osmosis that we can’t avoid even if we want to. Music finds its way in, like moisture.

One of the most evocative songs of my junior school days was Good Vibrations. I was in a play about the whales that got stuck under the ice in Alaska, aptly but not mathematically-correctly named ‘Whale’, singular. I remember nothing about the play other than: 1) it made me sad because the whales were not happy under the ice and eventually died and 2) we couldn’t get real whales. And – 3) – we used The Beach Boys. When you do a play about America and you are not American but you want the play to seem American and you want to create the illusion of America, what do you do? You use the Beach Boys. And I loved it. Loved them. So much. They made me sway and feel a youthful lightness in my heart I had no need of augmenting with carefree music because I was already young. They made me feel a better kind of young. They made me reach for harmonies. It made me try to figure out similar harmonies to completely inappropriate tracks. I was one of those annoying girls who soften the best songs with their adolescent goo tones because they can’t sing rock, and it was all The Beach Boys’ fault. Why didn’t all songs sound like this? I embarked upon finding the inner Beach Boys in all music –  even during my Rage Against The Machine phase. I truly believed that somewhere inside all of this noise was a lotus-like harmoniousness waiting to burst out. Which is balls-out bunkum. Some music is hard as fuck and that’s the point of it and Christ we need that too. But I didn’t know it then. Since that play, The Beach Boys have been a thing in my life. That joyous sway in the heart. The ‘other place’ness. The American teen dream and the waves and the sixties and the innocence and the surfing.

I DON’T EVEN SURF. BUT THE BEACH BOYS MAKE ME FEEL LIKE I CAN. Heck, I don’t even think The Beach Boys surfed. They rarely even dressed for the beach. Except Dennis, the tousled stud. Those preppy bumclench trousers would have lasered off their gonads if they’ve tried to do watersports in them. Maybe that’s how they got the high notes. So for a band that’s predominantly famous for songs about surfing, not being all that surfy but making other people feel surfy is quite a feat. No one else could pull such blaggardry off. It would be like Mumford & Sons banging on about cricket in three out of five songs or Adele writing an album called 3-1 about football results. The Mumfords don’t bat. Adele doesn’t do keepy-uppies. It would be ludicrous if her biggest hit was a belting ballad about Milwall. But The Beach Boys owned surf. They owned that spirit. And they instilled that spirit in millions of others across the world, some of whom have never seen an ocean or sat on sand. That is an epic achievement. *High fives The Beach Boys*

The Beach Boys also make you yearn for things you wouldn’t normally yearn for, like hickeys under the boardwalk, malt shakes (hooey), and public proposals when you are not of legal age. All that nonsense that sweeps around inside you like West Coast waves of imagination when you listen to them. Wouldn’t It Be Nice makes me want someone to get down on one knee and propose to me with a Hawaiian flower garland or a Cadillac tyre. I’d wear it, I actually would. Don’t Worry Baby makes me want to worry, like really demonstrably worry about everything, just so I can have someone sing that song to me. And I’m still really hacked off I’ve never had a friend called Rhonda. Even though Rhondas seem to take bloody ages to come to your aid when you need them.

And as with all songs you love with a fierceness, you get protective over them. When Richard Curtis used God Only Knows in Love Actually I almost kicked off. I hated him for it. “Don’t use that song, Richard – it’s not yours you schmaltzy twit. It’s mine. It’s everyone’s. But it’s not yours”, I bellowed in my head the first time I watched that atrocity, and again when I watched it, guiltily, for the thirtieth. And of course – that’s why Richard Curtis used it. Because God Only Knows with its ascending harmonies and its guileful magical repetitions evokes powerful emotions; emotions so powerful by a song so powerful the rest of the film somehow gets protected by some sort of by-product forcefield from its own shitness.

Despite all this, seeing Brian Wilson could so easily have been something I missed. I saw the tickets come on sale at my local theatre. I emitted a little ‘ooh’ at the delicious unlikeliness of Bri sticking even one Californian toe in Essex, then I cracked on and forgot to buy any. They sold out, fast. Luckily a friend had a spare and with that casual exchange I had a night I will never forget. Brian Wilson was coming to the Cliffs Pavilion. That means, essentially, The Beach Boys were coming to Southend. The West Coast, the Westest, further than Cornwall and then a few more thousand miles across another continent, was coming to our little oft-derided seaside town that I happen to love. That’s BIG.

I instantly wanted to go to the theatre and paint the dressing rooms. I’ve been in there. It’s alright for others, they can Flashwipe their own lavseat, I haven’t got time to look after everyone, but now Brian blinking Wilson was going to be shuffling around, humming like a total cutie, sitting on the same seats as mortals. I wanted to sneak in and steamclean everything, knock down some partition walls to give him more space. Make our beach better. He was going to judge our beach.  A BEACH BOY WAS GOING TO TAKE ONE LOOK AT OUR PEBBLES AND WONDER WHY ON EARTH WE DIDN’T GO TO THE EFFORT OF ENSURING THE REQUISITE PHASES OF GEOLOGICAL CRUMBLING TO MAKE IT NICE FOR HIM. Then I realised that Brian Wilson wouldn’t care about all that tosh. Because Brian Wilson is hard.

But Brian Wilson is not hard.

Seeing him sitting at the keys on the stage made me do a little heart vomit. He looked so…old and frail. He stopped the opening of one song because he had heartburn. A dude trotted on stage to give him some liquid medicine which I hoped was hard liquor or the elixir of life to give him a little pep, but I suspect it was just swanky Pepto Bismol. But he did it. I heard the whole of Pet Sounds, live, plus extras. And it was amazing. And I cried. It was The Beach Boys. Well, Brian & Al Jardine. The others are…busy. (Not dead. Busy. The Beach Boys do not die.)

I turned round in the middle of Wouldn’t It Be Nice to watch the thunderous crowd behind me, up on their feet, arms in the air, singing. There in the air was everyone’s lives pooled in an invisible collective – all our memories stored in these songs, our youths, the youths we never had but imagined, the better young people that live somewhere inside us, the surf and the sea and the young love and the promise of growing old with that person The Beach Boys tell you you will find, were all there as we grew 90 minutes older and younger together.

I had an awful thought in the middle of the almost eerie You Still believe In Me, that this might be the last gig Brian played. A horrible guilty longer-than-nice thought about him just lying down afterwards and never getting up again. In bloody Southend. Later, in the bar, friends said they’d thought the same. I either hang around with some of the most maudlin people ever, or there really was a quiver of something frail in that tender-boisterous wall of joyful air that night, and we all felt it.

I walked home holding a mug with his face on. Not because I don’t think mass-produced merch is the complete antithesis of the artist’s soul, but because that mug was the closest I’d ever get to hugging Brian Wilson.

Few people get to play. Fewer get to play to millions across the world be it through machines or live. Fewer are remembered for very long. Fewer still get a chance to play themselves out. Brian Wilson will play himself out, and leave us the songs, on loop, ascending in endless harmonious thirds around the world, forever. The Beach Boys are in us.

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