Waterloo Sunset

Photographs by Adam Butler

Between school and university I had a temporary job. It was the best vacation job a student could wish for: Assistant Scientific Officer (or some such title) at the Laboratory of the Government Chemist. It was the lowest and lowliest grade of scientific officer but I was paid the same as the permanent staff, which I believe was £800 per annum in 1971 (and that included the “London weighting”). I spent that summer peering down microscopes, looking at fabrics under polarised light, to determine if they had the right proportion of natural and man-made fibres to qualify for import duty relief. It doesn’t sound very exciting but I got to analyse all sorts of things from samples of cloth to items of clothing (a whole Parka jacket, for example) to boots and shoes. I could probably still identify acrylic, rayon, Terylene, cotton and wool if pushed.

At that time the Laboratory was in London on the south side of the river Thames and, if the weather was nice, I would stroll along the South Bank in my lunch hour admiring the modern architecture of the Royal Festival Hall, the National Theatre and other buildings. The whole of the South Bank site was built using white concrete giving it a pleasing architectural coherence. From there Waterloo Bridge carried traffic across the river into the heart of the city and it, too, was white – concrete clad in Portland stone – another harmonious piece in the architectural jigsaw.

Waterloo Sunset - National Theatre

It was a time for looking forward. My childhood days were behind me; ahead lay university, a career and the whole of my adult life. Over the next few years I would be carving my initials in the tree of life, making my own way in the world, stamping my unique personality on things, becoming me. Like the white walls of the Festival Hall everything was fresh, new and exciting.

It was a short but stifling and sweaty train journey from where we lived in the suburbs to Waterloo station, which was just across the roundabout from the Laboratory. That summer I would travel up in the morning and return well before dusk at the end of my working day, so I didn’t see the sun setting over the river and the Houses of Parliament. I could imagine it, though. And whenever I heard the Kink’s Waterloo Sunset on the radio I could see the crowds flowing over Waterloo Bridge and spilling through the arches of Waterloo Station where the waiting trains soaked them up as if by capillary action.

Waterloo Sunset - painting

Waterloo Sunset rolls gently along like wise old Father Thames. In amongst the hustle and bustle of the rush hour it’s an island of calm contentment. For the songwriter and for the young Crotchety Man everything is as it should be.

As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset I am in paradise.

Postscript

I spent three more summers at the Laboratory of the Government Chemist: another stint in the textiles section, one in the inorganic chemistry lab and one in organic chemistry. I learnt a few things while I was there. 1) A career in the UK Civil Service would be secure but, ultimately, unfulfilling. 2) It’s impossible to stay clean when handling powdered graphite. And, 3) by far the most dangerous substance I am ever likely to come across is concentrated cheese essence; one good sniff and you’d be instantly rendered unconscious judging by the whiff I got as it was transferred into the fume cupboard.

 

Dirty Harry

Dirty Harry - Clint Eastwood

There is a comedy slot on BBC Radio 4 at 6:30 p.m. weekdays. One of the programmes is called “I’ve Never Seen Star Wars”. In it the comedian, Marcus Brigstocke, talks to well-known people and encourages them to do something they’ve never done before, especially if every other Tom, Dick and Harry on the planet seems to have done it, loved it and tweeted incessantly about it.

“You’ve never … seen Star Wars/tasted sushi/flown a kite?”, Marcus asks incredulously. “Why not?”. The answers are varied but mostly amount to “I wouldn’t like it”. Ignoring their protests Marcus invites his guests to have a go at several things they have never tried and interviews them again afterwards to see whether they enjoyed their new experiences.

Now, I must confess I’ve never seen Dirty Harry, the famous film starring Clint Eastwood as the tough cop Harry Callahan. If I was a celebrity and Marcus Brigstocke wanted to talk to me for his radio show I’d be glad to watch it – it’s certainly a gap in my education – but, for now, it remains on the growing list of things I missed. Someday, perhaps, I’ll watch it.

Dirty Harry - Demon Days (wide)

There is another Dirty Harry: a track from the Gorillaz album Demon Days. This Harry I know much better. He sits rather awkwardly, though, in the Crotchety Man collection. The album is the only one roosting in the Electronica/Dance pigeonhole tucked away at the back of the dovecote. It’s one of those CDs that only ventures out on high days and holidays but, when it does, it sparkles like the flash of a white dove’s wings in the sunlight.

Demon Days is one of the most original albums I own and originality is the first thing I look for. Well, the first thing I look for after a beat. And a tune. Dirty Harry has all of that. [rap mode ON] There’s a hip hop beat that propels the feet [rap mode OFF] but over the jaunty keyboard rhythm a choir of children sings a simple melody.

I need a gun
to keep myself from harm

What’s this? Cheery kids extolling the virtues of carrying a gun? It would be frightening if it wasn’t so surreal.

The beat plunges on through an instrumental break.

Then some Bootie Brown rapper unleashes a stream of lines that barely scan, words that hardly rhyme and phrases that make little sense. Dirty Harry himself is speaking but he is contradictory or just plain incoherent.

You can’t conceal the hate that consumes ya.
I’m the reason that you fill up your Isuzu.

The rap stutters and splutters over the dulcet tones of viola, cello and double bass, as if classical instruments can give the words some meaning, or perhaps even some genuine profundity. It’s a delightful trick.

When Harry’s gibbering subsides the children return with their message of hope and reassurance. We need guns. Guns protect. Weapons are only for our defence. It stands to reason.

I need a gun
to keep myself from harm

Crotchety Man doesn’t buy that argument. But the music is a work of art, a juxtaposition of utterly contrasting styles that together create something new, stimulating and exciting. A dancing white dove among a flock of cooing grey pigeons.

Dirty Harry - Dove

To wrap up this post, here’s a Wikipedia nugget: In 2008 20th Century Fox conducted a poll of 2000 film fans asking for their favourite weapon from the silver screen. The .44 Magnum, as used (contrary to regulations) by Dirty Harry, came second. Marcus Brigstocke would, I’m sure, be delighted to know that the most popular weapon of all among filmgoers was the lightsaber from the Star Wars movies.

A Whisper …

Tuesday morning. Barney is almost here.

Whisper - storm UK

This year the UK’s Meteorological Office is naming the storms that hit us. Abigail, the first storm of the season, brought floods last week; Barney is now following in her wake. The forecasters have promised us strong winds and more heavy rain; there is likely to be some disruption to transport. But Barney isn’t as angry as Abigail and here in the East Midlands we will probably escape the worst of it.

Abigail, though, was noisy; she kept me awake at night. Blustery wind howled between the houses, whined through the trees and rattled the climbing rose against the window. What she was ranting about I do not know. One moment Abigail would rail loudly against some unfathomable injustice, another she would be quiet as if her anger was spent and she had forgiven us for whatever transgressions we had perpetrated.

It wasn’t the noise that kept me awake, it was the unbearable tension of the silence between the outbursts – the feeling that, any second now, Abigail’s temper would flare up again and she would burst into another tantrum. Restless hours went by as episodes of peace and turmoil alternated throughout the night. Abigail was a troubled soul and there was nothing I could do to help her.

Whisper - Tom Griesgraber

Crotchety Man’s Album of the Month for November is both a perfect accompaniment to quiet interludes and an effective antidote to the distraction of a noisy environment. It is A Whisper in the Thunder by Tom Griesgraber and, as it’s relatively unknown, I’ve awarded it the status of a Hidden Gem.

Tom Griesgraber is one of the foremost players of the Chapman Stick. The Stick comes in several different forms; the version Tom uses looks like the fretboard and head of a wide-necked 12-string electric guitar. Six of the strings are tuned in a treble register and six in a bass register. The strings are tapped onto the railboard and a large diagonal pickup converts the vibrations to an electrical signal.

The Chapman Stick is a versatile instrument. Because the strings are tapped rather than plucked it is possible to play bass, melody and chords all at the same time, like a pianist. Because the player’s fingers press directly on the strings the musician can easily bend the notes or introduce vibrato. As Emmett Chapman, its inventor, explains it’s an easy instrument to play physically, but far from easy mentally because it offers immense scope for expression.

In the hands of an expert like Tom Griesgraber the Stick sounds like a whole band and A Whisper in the Thunder illustrates this rather well. Although there are other musicians on the album they mostly contribute drums and percussion; Tom’s Stick and soothing synthesiser effects do the rest.

Whisper - glider

The result is mesmeric. We are up in a glider, its wings outstretched, almost motionless. We are floating in the silent sky; up here we cannot feel the wind. Green fields and forests sweep away below us over the hills to the horizon. Fluffy white clouds hang around us and drift by like airborne whales whose songs enter our brains without passing through our ears. Time has no meaning. All is quiet.

There are nine tracks on A Whisper in the Thunder. All are different, but all have that same sense of inner peace. Like Abigail in her quiet moments there is no thunder, only mother’s whispering as she rocks her baby to sleep.

Whisper - landscape

Wednesday night. Barney did come.

He was noisy for a while but he observed the midnight curfew, hurrying away again like Cinderella, and I slept soundly last night.

Imagine

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As I write this the death toll from the jihadist attacks in Paris on Friday night stands at 129. Another 99 people are critically ill and 350 altogether were injured. As I read the news bulletins the following morning my first reaction was anger. Then came a deep sorrow: for those who lost their lives, for their families and friends, and for the ordinary citizens of Paris who no longer feel safe in the city they call home.

As the news began to sink in I began to wonder how we should react to these latest atrocities. Getting angry will not help; it will only encourage radicalised Muslims to fight harder for their cause. Sympathy is well and good but it doesn’t go far enough. Surely, there must be something practical we can do – all of us, those with faith and those without – to counter the poisonous rhetoric and deadly attacks of militant jihadists.

But it isn’t easy. Military action against the armies of Islamic State is, unfortunately, necessary to protect those of other faiths (and none) but it won’t soften the hearts of the IS fighters. Killing Jihadi John may have removed a prominent IS spokesperson and executioner but it also created another martyr for them. In the eyes of Islamic State this is irrefutable evidence that the West is waging a war on Islam itself.

More laws and tighter regulations won’t help much, either. Shootings and bombings have always been against the law. Incitement to violence is illegal, too. (I can only speak of the UK and, of course, I am not a lawyer.) Further monitoring of electronic communications might help the police to identify potentially dangerous groups and individuals but it’s hard to draw up laws that are both effective and non-discriminatory.

Imagine - Au nom de quoi?So, what can we do? We can and should voice our opposition to the IS doctrine of intolerance and violence towards non-Muslims. But we must do so sensitively and with due respect to both believers and non-believers. The reaction around the world so far has been exactly right. People have lit candles, brought flowers and gathered together to remember those Parisians who died. Buildings have been illuminated in red, white and blue to show solidarity with France. Little things, thoughtful, peaceful responses, the perfect counter to the unmitigated violence perpetrated by a few religious zealots.

As my small tribute to the people of Paris I have chosen John Lennon’s Imagine for my Track of the Week. Like many of Lennon’s compositions it’s a song with a simple tune and powerful lyrics. It asks us to imagine a world without conflict:

Nothing to kill or die for

It would be a world of peace and harmony, and there would be no place for religion. It’s a sentiment that strikes a huge chord with Crotchety Man. It seems to have inspired a Parisian pianist, too. Here’s a link to a video showing him towing his piano through the streets and playing Imagine for the people gathered in a square close to the Bataclan theatre where most of the victims perished.

White Rabbit

Mrs. Crotchety and I were watching the news the other day. There was a piece about the holiday-makers stranded in Sharm el-Sheik after the recent plane crash in the Sinai. A rankled Englishman was complaining about the delay and lack of information. I noticed he was wearing a Hot Tuna T-shirt and remarked that there was a band with that name. Mrs. Crotchety feigned a little interest, the next news item came on and the incident was filed in my memory under “curious connections” with a use-by date measured in minutes.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On a completely different note, my Track of the Week is White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane. It starts with an electric bass rapping out a rhythm reminiscent of Ravel’s Bolero. There’s something bouncing down the path ahead of us, it says, and we must follow. For a bar or two it promises a simple driving rock tune but then there’s a dizzying key shift, up a semitone and back again. We have stumbled, tripped and fallen down a deep, dark rabbit hole.

The drums take up the beat and, as we look around, a psychedelic guitar riff leads us into the vocals.

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small.
And the ones that mother gives you
Don’t do anything at all.
Go ask Alice
When she’s ten feet tall.

We have plunged into Wonderland with Alice. It’s a world in which a caterpillar smokes a hookah; a world where cake makes you small and funny-tasting drinks make you tall. And yet, it is our world, too. A world where mother’s advice seems facile and mind-bending drugs offer excitement, adventure and fun.

The music shifts up again and becomes more urgent. On the chessboard the White Knight is talking backwards and the Red Queen screams “Off with his head!”. The sound crescendos ever larger. Things are getting out of control and there’s a hint of panic in her voice as the singer chants:

Feed your head… Feed your head… Feed your head…

Is she telling us to eat another magic mushroom? Is she telling herself to shake off her trippy haze and start thinking clearly? Or has she already slipped into insanity? We cannot know because here the song comes to its climax and ends leaving all our questions reverberating through our memories.

White Rabbit - wonderlandWhite Rabbit was written by Grace Slick in 1965 or 1966 before she joined Jefferson Airplane, but it is the Airplane version that is by far the best known. The single, taken from the album Surrealistic Pillow, was released in 1967 and reached number 8 in the US. The UK audience seems to have been almost deaf to both the single and the album although the single did scrape in to the top 100 at number 94 in June 1987. (There was a Jefferson Airplane compilation LP called 2400 Fulton Street released in March 1987, which might explain that 20 year delay.) Crotchety Man says that’s tragic; White Rabbit deserves to be in every music collection that includes psychedelic rock and it rightly has a place in Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Like most rock musicians in the late sixties Grace was well-acquainted with marijuana, LSD and other drugs. She was in rehab for alcoholism “at least twice”. Grace, however, survived her adventures in hippy era Musicland, making records with Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship and Starship until 1989 when she retired from the music business.

In her retirement Grace started drawing and painting. Her best-selling artworks are pictures of the white rabbit and portraits of the musicians she knew personally (Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrix and others). And there’s a connection between Grace Slick and that disgruntled passenger in Sharm el-Sheik airport… Slick’s paintings of former members of Jefferson Airplane, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, were used for the cover of an album called The Best of Hot Tuna.

Now that really is interesting, even to Mrs. Crotchety.

Fanfare for …

The ghosts of October have melted into the first fog of the autumn and November has arrived in our village.

Fanfare - EyesLast night the Crotchety Couple cowered inside while excited young voices passed by our house, rising to a crescendo and fading away again. Then, unexpectedly, there was a brisk rapping on the front door. Fear gripped my heart as I went to answer the knocking. Was I being summoned by a spirit of the night? Or, worse, was I about to be accosted by small children in Hallowe’en costumes demanding “trick or treat”? No, it was only our next-door neighbour asking for help with his computer.

Later, as the evening wore on and the likelihood of further visitations diminished, Crotchety Man’s inner tension eased. There were no further surprises overnight so, to celebrate coming through this ordeal practically unscathed this year, I think we should have a fanfare. I have never understood why some people like being scared but it seems to be a very common affliction. What better piece of music, then, than Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man?

Fanfare - BrassAaron Copland was an American composer, music tutor and conductor. He studied all forms of classical music, was taught by eminent music teachers and mixed with a wide range of contemporary composers. His best-known compositions were in an accessible contemporary classical style although his work was also influenced by jazz and the more avant-garde composers of the time, such as Schoenberg.

During the first World War the conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Eugene Goossens, had invited British composers to submit a fanfare to introduce each of the orchestra’s concerts in the coming season. The idea was so successful that he repeated it during the second World War, this time sending invitations to American composers. A total of eighteen fanfares were submitted, Aaron Copland’s being Fanfare for the Common Man.

The fanfare, as you would expect, is quite short – 3 minutes 16 seconds – and features just brass and percussion instruments: four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, a tuba; timpani, tam-tam and bass drum. It starts with the crash and rumble of gongs and kettle drums as if the town cryer is calling “Oyez! Oyez!”. Then the brass instruments blare out a triumphant message with a sonorous unison that fills the hall, carries through the windows and billows down the streets. Everyone in the neighbourhood hears the notes, understands the message.

The cryer moves on. As he repeats his words other voices join in creating rich harmonies. “Victories will be ours!”, he proclaims, and the message ripples out in ever increasing circles, fading away, leaving the populace uplifted and ready for the glory that is to come. It’s a stirring, patriotic piece; something to send off the troops as America enters the war.

Fanfare - ELPMany years later, in 1977, Emerson, Lake and Palmer recorded their own version of Fanfare for the Common Man. It wasn’t the first of Copland’s works to be given the ELP treatment (they had a version of Hoedown on their 1972 album, Trilogy), nor was it the only ‘classical’ piece to feature on ELP albums (their Pictures at an Exhibition album was based on a work by Mussorgsky). It was a natural piece for ELP to perform.

The ELP version of Fanfare was a surprisingly faithful rendition of Copland’s orchestral piece. The score was transposed to a key in which Keith Emerson liked to improvise, the brass instruments were replaced by Emerson’s synthesiser (a Yamaha GX-1 according to Wikipedia) and Greg Lake’s bass guitar was added. Then an improvised passage was inserted some two-thirds of the way through, extending the track to over nine minutes long. The theme, though, was entirely Copland’s and that feeling of triumph (or was it triumphalism?) comes across as loudly and clearly as ever.

Crotchety Man likes both of the versions described here. (There are a number of other versions, too.) The original is, perhaps, a little short; the ELP version perhaps a little long. Either way, they are exciting, stirring pieces full of life and exuberance; a stimulant as effective as any pill and much safer. Just the thing for dreary autumn days.

Fanfare - GhostOh, and one more thing… Aaron Copland died in 1990 at a place called Sleepy Hollow. Spooky or what?