Simon Morris

Ray

In late December the news arrived that Simon Morris, erstwhile singer and leader of The Ceramic Hobs among many other things, had died.

Writing about someone in the aftermath of their passing seems a silly thing to do.  Words fail us: they just don’t have the gravity, they float away.  Best just kiss: keep it simple, stupefied.  However, once our words have settled from their flailing, they can help to point towards things that matter.

Many people knew Simon much better than I, and for longer, but – his having left his fascinating imprint upon my window – here is my take.

When I needed somewhere to store a stack of stuff after I had pulled the rug from beneath my own domestic circumstances, Simon was the first to step up and offer his spare room and garage.  At that time, though we had a musical association, it wasn’t as if we knew each other particularly well.  He thus accommodated my clutter with never a chunter, for as long as this was needed (it turned out to be several years).  This was emblematic of his generosity with his space and time: the arrangement of visits to him would tend to be accompanied by his promise to take us on a maraud somewhere scenic – and it was on those jaunts that his delicate attunement to nature, and sense of curiosity, even a quiet awe at everything he noticed, really came to the fore.  These were the times when Simon’s being-himself came across to me most fully and clearly: he seemed to be there as man and boy all at once, fully in the moment, enthralled yet serene, very much in touch.  Messages he sent from, or following, holidays to wilder places likewise sang with the music of the creatures he’d seen, the climate and the way he’d felt it; he spoke with great enchantment about that area of woodland visible across the fields from his front window, where he and friends would go after nightfall to make music together.  His sense of joy at recounting an unplanned walk which took him away, alone and anonymous, from a foreign city and into woodland is particularly memorable.  His essential tenderness likewise came across in his tales of late-night waltzes with his loved ones to particular songs that we shared a high regard for.

Discussions with Simon could cover any ground; he was among the most open minded of people one could ever hope to know, his perception and appreciation expansive.   I’ll always remember with affection, too, his ready sense of irreverence, his keeness to lark and laugh: a serious sense of fun.  Simon was a most creative dramatist of human absurdity, of the lunacy underpinning mundanity, adept at subverting darkness with his own beams of light and heat.  I see him chuckling through his vape as we discussed shared experiences of certain intimate medical procedures; and bandying around favourite jazz and rap lyrics, spontaneously spoof-reading his way through the drama of disintegtration that is “The Message” over a rudimentary drumbeat.  There was the afternoon we tittered ourselves as silly as a pair of tipsy tweens listening to an Oi LP; an evening wedged up at the front with him and another friend, a bunch of sweaty moshing ageing fanboys romping and jumping, pointing and shouting, at one of the last performances I saw The Fall do.  And his basking in a golden afternoon in Hoylake, delightfully infusing his roaring and screeching with the bliss and tranquility of the day, channeling the sun.

I’ll remember Simon with great fondness, and a sense of thanks that he invited me in for a time; there’s an accompanying strain of sadness regarding the sense he sometimes exuded of being distant and inaccessible – and, pluming from this, a plaintive sense of helpless bewilderment about …  it all.  Inevitably, the sunshine has its shadow. 

The last time I saw Simon was early in 2019: he seemed happy and hopeful, was apparently well settled into writing his unsettling work and spoke of it with evident pride, and talked about some opportunities that were about to open out to him.  “Our paths will cross again” was just about the last thing he said to me: my life lacks some significant dashes of colour as a consequence of a fact that this now can’t happen. 

do nothing: an invitation to the church of stop chopping

Adam Nedman

The word “love” has long been graffitied on the brick of a nearby clock tower; it had, until sometime recently, been there for at least the few years that I’ve lived hereabouts.  Today, on a local mosey, I saw that this four letter word had been censored, cleaned away.  

It was only later in the same walk that I realised that this seemed to be the sole graffito to have been cleaned away locally of late: many tags, signatures, and other street obliquities remain scrawled on the suburb’s various surfaces.  I am, generally speaking, welcoming of it: I’d much rather graffiti than advertising.  (‘Love’, the only missive to be effaced – imagine!).

On another recent jaunt in the area, I came across a somewhat distressed woman, de-littering a freshly-shredded hedgerow by the river in an agitated manner.  My remarking on my sadness at seeing what had evidently happened to this patch of ground – trees cut down, bushes ripped out and dumped, the bramble angularly slashed – brought forth from her a torrent of pained outpourings regarding the desecration.  “Neanderthals!”, she cried, explaining that, having tried in vain over several years to persuade the Council to come and free this patch from litter, she was alarmed to see their workmen turn up and instead begin liberally lopping, chopping and tearing, inflicting upon the area a treatment as savage as it was pointless.  (Neanderthal man and woman, it must be said, might well have treated the land with greater respect – but one appreciates, I think, what the woman was expressing through her use of the term).  It’s worth pointing out that this is not a piece of land which is near to any residences, and has no other reason for being manicured as some showpiece; neither is it being prepared for any building work.  It’s purely the occurrence of natural habitats along a riverside, adjacent to a sizeable area of rough grassland.

Similar examples can be found of public authorities, and their hired hench-forces, taking it upon themselves to do precisely what isn’t necessary.  The detritus of our neoliberalised existences accumulates in gutters, gardens and hedges; polluters are left to idly belch as they see fit; the city street is everybody’s flytip.  Meanwhile, Councils up and down the land waste their time, and our money, in busybodying themselves with nature.  They send their troops to engage in the futile and carcinogenic glyphosating of  ‘weeds’; trees are pruned and hedges hacked, and at the wrong times, when they are growing or when birds want to nest.  Grasslands are often mown to within millimetres of their life: even if this does not kill the grass outright, it is left much more vulnerable to drought; its roots are stunted and struggle to bind the soil, which is at greater risk of being washed away by rainfall; and the danger of flooding is increased.  Further, the biodiversity upon which we depend is instantly lost.  (Conversely, when such areas are left and life allowed to take its course, the natural assets we are increasingly aware of badly needing – soil, trees, insects – spontaneously flourish …  These incidences seem small matters – but writ large and expanded across nations and continents, they have significant impact; and in any case, I care about every chaffinch that bids me visitation).   

There is perhaps more going on here than simply the need for folk to be given things to do by which they can earn money (etc etc, world without end, Amen), or a ritualised fixation with an idea of tidiness as a measure of local character.  The philosopher E.M. Cioran wrote much about humans’ perceived need to impose themselves through any form of doing upon each other, the world, and time; he described this as a form of inherent vanity, a seemingly inevitable offshoot of our notions of ourselves as selves.  “Contaminated by the superstition of action, we believe that our ideas must come to something” [his italics], writes Cioran in the pointedly-entitled essay ‘Thinking Against Oneself’ in the collection ‘The Temptation To Exist’, in describing what he referred to elsewhere in the same tome as “the idolatory of becoming”.  (I have sometimes mused on the notion that the simple, even puerile need to have something to do may be a major factor in many acts of murder).  In this sense, Cioran paints a colonialist instinct as intrinsic to us: the question is to what extent, through awareness and restraint, we can offset this.

We live in a society with a strong bias towards doing, and being seen to do, one abetted by the ubiquity of functional accessories: “What if our reveries were not productive? …  What if we lay back on a lily pad, with nothing to do?  Would someone call the police?”, enquires Richard Seymour in concluding his book The Twittering Machine.   And in the neoliberal era, wherein we are primed to compete and to be wring as much from the earth as possible, it may be that desecration and domination is a yet more likely expression of this ‘need’ to seek recognition (from self and others) via activity.  (Note that there are generally higher rates of violent crime in more unequal societies, in which the spirit of competition is enhanced). 

The overall effect, if not the underlying aim, of such neo-Neanderthal nature-cowing as described herein is the extension of the project of humanising the world as much as possible.  Only latterly have the ecological needs, and perhaps natural rights, of other forms of life begun to be spoken of in the same breath as the grand plans humanity has for earth and space.  It remains the case that our distorted sense of self-significance, and our perception of our own force of life as being individually possessed, rather than part of a universal energy, provokes our craving to make our mark (concrete is required for us to leave a lasting imprint) – to take some ownership of, or some virginity from, the world; be the user, not the used.  One might think that by now we’d be getting the message that our human dominion over nature only serves to threaten our own survival; however, this perhaps fails to account for the deeper drives that are in play, acknowledgement of which may be key to our safe collective passage into a habitable future.

The spontaneity of love, and love of spontaneity, will each be required in this quest: thus, plans are afoot to re-inscribe that four letter word upon the brick of the clock tower, and to undertake geurilla planting of trees and wildflowers along a nearby riverside path.  Further to which, in that patch of land, there may really be nothing for we humans to do.  

wilderness, weather and the function of tape hiss: Fergus McCreadie Trio at the Pianodrome, Edinburgh August 2019

Jasmine Ames

This year’s Edinburgh Fringe saw Scottish pianist Fergus McCreadie’s Trio perform at the Pianodrome, a hexagonal amphitheatre fabricated entirely from old pianos.  It made for a space of somewhat spellbound homeliness: soles creaked across lushly veneered wood panels, the glow of standard lamps lending a brooding lustre to the grain, and rows of ivory and ebony teeth grinned from all sides.

It’s as if the arena in which the Trio performed, in being assembled from old instruments, itself embodied the close relationship between music and landscape (and the way that one can become the other); this connection was further acknowledged by the Trio in that their set was comprised of pieces inspired by aspects of Scotland’s natural environment. 

Indeed, McCreadie and his band soon transported us outside, beyond our interior, urban setting.  The whirling, flailing-then-settling air of their sound, and the physicality of McCreadie’s playing, each conjured thoughts of wilder environs.  McCreadie himself appeared to be engaged in an elementally turbulent relationship with his instrument, at times so tender as one almost too reverent to address the keys, whilst at others stabbing at it in sustained, shuddering spasms.  Perhaps he is, in part, under the spell of the increasingly extreme manifestations of weather we have been experiencing.

The lines upon which McCreadie’s Trio expand are earthy, rather than ornate, a simplicity which speaks of open, unpopulated and uncultivated expanses.  However, the dynamics of their playing supply the finer, shifting details of the scene.  The pulses and grooves into which they lock are never left to set, but are built up then stripped down and away, then reappear in morphed form; drums clatter, whisper and stumble, always just loose enough to complement the windsweptness of the sound; the bass is a bough bending and dipping in a gale, in the face of which McCreadie grimaces and flails.

And yet when, back at home, I listen to the trio’s debut LP Turas I find that, though it features the same tunes, it does not convey the same sense of living landscape.  On CD, the spaces the trio leave seem comprised only of the antimatter of digital zeroes; no cross-breeze corrupts them, and in this emptiness the players’ expressions are left sounding somewhat abashed.  Reflect upon other listening experiences, what strikes me is that pretty much any music which utilises space as an instrument in itself seems, when digitally rendered, partly nullified as a consequence of its blank representation of those ‘silences’ amidst and around sound.  The dimensions of pauses are constrained and flattened, made like exhibits behind glass, with only the straight outlines of hollow shapes left behind; those lingering indistinctions which would inhabit the space, and which provide music with much of its mystery, are eradicated.  It’s a bit like the censorship of questions, or having one’s subconscious switched off.  This is, for me, why a fair chunk of hip-hop, jazz or reggae on CD sounds much inferior when compared with the vinyl versions.

Perhaps the isolative acoustic treatment of many recording studios creates dead zones; or maybe it is largely the digital process which causes these quelling effects – when the CD was first launched, one selling point claimed for it was its lack of ‘surface noise’.  However, the world which is home for humanity and its music evidently has a surface; we can’t stand without the land (and as aforementioned, Turas is compositionally inspired by it …  “life has surface noise”, as John Peel said once, “it’s alright by me”).  The capacity to ‘feel the dirt’ of a recording in our listening can be a way for us to feel our feet on the ground; thus, the warmth of analogue equipment may be required to provide some recordings with, at least, that sense of movement lent by the audible sound of electricity.  What we often mistakenly refer to as ‘silence’ is, of course, in fact full of particles of sonic soot and grot: as John Cage acknowledged in composing 4’33”, the absences within music need to be empowered for a perfomance to be real – a key aspect of any landscape is space, after all.  If we can’t have McCreadie and co recorded out on a moorland somewhere, then let’s at least sense the heat from those tubes.

I’m unsure as to what process was used for recording Turas; I can only register its effect upon me.  There’s a second LP on the way, apparently, and one hopes that captures more of their glint, gust and shudder.  In the meantime, they are worth witnessing wherever they can be found out here in the wild world: their music is landscape, rather than postcard – and, just as a tree needs muck for its roots and a breeze to twitch its limbs, this landscape is best apprehended when one is surrounded by and contained within it, feeling its forces ripple and shiver the skin, fully inhabiting its space.

a sardonic anthem to cliquery: on The Great Unwashed’s ‘Born in the Wrong Time’

Ray

The Great Unwashed’s ‘Born in the Wrong Time’ made a strong impression on me from the first time I heard it …  I found myself craving its rustic, unassuming push-and-jolt (it seems to me a kind of uncanny waltz-in-4/4); I loop-listened, ushering it under my skin, to the point whereby I was bound to ask myself why I was doing so.  Only when scrutinising it beat by beat whilst talking it over with a friend did the reasons become clear.

It’s the lyric, I think: it sketches the attitude of the in-crowd to an outsider whom they consider hapless and helpless, and perfectly depicts it in the la-la-la of a breezy 140 seconds.  As the song progresses, this effetely jaunty singalong takes on a more acidic irony as we increasingly sense the true flavour of the narrator’s disposition towards the ‘different’ – as the song says, those whose “form of socialising is a bit too strong” …  Yes, s/he is alright but they, y’know, express themselves too keenly, evidently care about things, maybe a bit too much (for them?  for us?)  … perhaps they bring up things that we find difficult to answer or explain, aspects of ourselves or our worlds which we would rather ignore …  you know the type … . 

…  But no – it’s not just the lyric: it’s also the way in which the music illuminates its message that, sadly, the unfortunate subject of the piece is simply beyond help.  When zoned in upon, the mono-tonous peal of the arpeggiated guitar manifests the narrator’s shrug, carries the resonance of their impassive, dazed straight-ahead gaze; likewise, the plod of the drums, broken only by the flashing jab of snare at “but he’s … already taken”, models their failure to break stride, the walking-on-by.  There is, too, a non-committal, baleful tone to the narrator’s expression; their sympathy for the outcast seems infused by apathy, their energies primarily purposed with asserting that their marginalisation is no one’s fault – it’s arbitrarily inherent, a stroke of ill luck.  Y’know, s/he’s, like, “just one of those people born in the wrong time”.  That’s all.  Aaah.  Nothing we can do.  Indeed, their suffering is diagnosed as self-inflicted, nothing to do with others’ willingness or otherwise to reach out, and beyond their ken (thus futile to enquire into) – “he seems to like hurting himself”.  (It’s an apposite comment for our age, wherein ‘mental health’ issues are largely fetishised in the mainstream as biochemical accidents afflicting individuals.  Distress is still much less considered to be a more or less inevitable effect upon central nervous systems of psychically unwell societies – those broadly characterised by an individualism tending towards sociopathy; unhealthy imbalances of power within the family and beyond; the active fomenting of precarity, and undermining of community; similarly deliberate and sustained attacks on one’s ability to focus attention; and accelerating catastrophic decay of the natural world).

The folksy ho-hum of both the narrative message and its musical accompaniment  cannot effectively conceal an underlying cruelty, however: the sneer behind the narrator’s wan grin is progressively revealed in the insistent repetition of the in-group’s cold final solution to the problem of the troublesome wrong-timer.  The group don’t deign to speak to him: rather, they are “pushing his bags out the door” – indeed, it can be inferred that the unfortunate one isn’t actually present whilst their belongings are being symbolically exiled.  There’s perhaps a veiled threat of violence, too, in the narrator’s assertion that “I’d give him something … “.  

Lest we were in any doubt, the final syllable of the song, on its final beat – the slamming door of “pushing his bags, OUT” is snapped like a dictator’s command.  It is indeed the final word on the matter; there will be no further discussion, nothing to be considered or understood, no way back.  Get your stuff and fuck off: we just want to have our good time.  And you – YOU – are not in our time.  The protagonist is exiled not just from a certain space, but also from the moment in which they exist; effectively, the narrator’s intent is to annul their existence.

I know someone who lived in a large shared house, wherein the often brutal interpersonal culture made full participation too stressful for them.  Still, whilst keeping a lower profile, they created no problem for anybody and continued to be co-operative and considerate towards others.  After some months, they received a letter – signed not by any individual, but merely “The Household” – which explained that ‘they’ didn’t feel my acquaintance was a suitable housemate; therefore, when would they be moving out?  When my acquaintance (who understandably, having settled and made connections in the area, was loath to move) complained about this to the Housing Association, one of the clique of roost-ruling residents came forward to expound this reasoning: “I just want to hang out with my friends and have fun”.  Well, I don’t think the fleeting presences of an outsider was stopping you from doing so – was it?  Was banishment required?  Must a zone be purged, perceived as ‘pure’?

I think back to the sometimes brutal in-/out-group culture of playground days, and wonder whether those in-crowders I knew at school engaged in excluding others simply as a way of seeking to safely navigate their experience of being a kid – or whether some continued to cling to the ‘in’, and prohibit the ‘other’, as adults.  I recall all the occasions upon which I myself have spoken or acted to exclude, either because I didn’t (feel I) had the time for what the other was carrying – or because to do so seemed to elevate me, scored me a point.  And I think of all the folks, facts and factors that society “pushes out the door” in order that we can evade difficulties of feeling, decision and action.  

With a bitter drink, let us all toast our inner fascist.