The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, October 14, 2002
SAINT ETIENNE: A SLIGHT RETURN

“No, daylight was not the time to do this deed. He must wait for the night. Then, he could steal down to the landing-stage and, with only the moon for witness, send the Minnow to the bottom of the river. She would settle into the mud and be invisible before morning. She would have disappeared as inexplicably as she had come.”
(Philippa Pearce, Minnow on the Say, chapter 24: “Heigh-Ho!”)

We thought there was nowhere left for them to go. They had reached their terminus. The dying notes of “A Place At Dawn” suggested a place which would have no need for them come the dawn.

And yet…

“I had no idea we were so close to London.”
(Gabriel Syme in G K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday)

…you drift, you have to drift somewhere. Drift away from the sea as the wind directs you. Drift upriver, back to the place which you celebrated with such fearless playfulness a decade ago. But it’s not the same place, is it? It doesn’t mean you are dead, but you can’t get away from it…it’s different. It’s isolated. It’s the last beacon in the world. But you always thought that.

“He rises spluttering, the shirt sticking and rasping on his skin. Laughing with rage he pulls it off and wades out against the sea shouting, “You can’t get rid of me!”
(Alasdair Gray, Lanark, book 2, chapter 30: “Surrender”)

Although it was almost certainly not the intention, Julian Opie’s drawings on the sleeve of Sound Of Water reminded me of the A40 journey from London to Oxford. The deserted airport could be RAF Northolt. The distant hill, telegraph poles and isolated houses depicted on page 6 of the booklet brings so strongly to my mind the Lewknor turn-off. A life now spent. Only one way to go to escape the ghosts; back to London.

Back to a supposed brutality. Sleevenote by Mark Perry. Brutalist collages by Jakob Kolding: “HAVE THERE BEEN ANY ATTEMPTS, THROUGH PLANNING, TO EITHER DISCOURAGE OR PROMOTE CERTAIN PATTERNS OF BEHAVIOUR IN YOUR NEIGHBOURHOOD? [WHICH/HOW?]

Finisterre, the album title. A referral to a possibly obsolete shipping outpost. Literally, of course, it means land’s end, or the end of the Earth.

“But actually its artificiality is in its favour, for it induces in the composer a certain degree of stylisation that is often to be preferred to the verism of the nationalist composer.”
(Constant Lambert, Music Ho!, 1934, Part 3 (c), “The Cult of the Exotic”)

Lambert of course narrated the original 78 recordings of Walton’s Façade. I like narrations on records. Unwin on Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake; Viva on Escalator Over The Hill; the World’s Famous Supreme Team on Duck Rock. And here on Finisterre is a former Greek chorus of London; Michael Jayston. You will know the voice immediately. Veteran of a thousand commercial voiceovers, including some on Spitting Image, and the former voice on the ID jingles of pre-Top 40 Capital Radio. Something very precious to anyone who moved to London before about 1988 – the knowledge that we, and only we Londoners, had privy to this aspect of his activity, that this was ours, like the Evening Standard, dismal though the latter was even then. Now he is resurrected.

It begins with some crowd noises. Jayston asks, politely: “Have you ever been to a Harvester?” (waiting obviously for Jamie Fry’s plea to “take me to your Harvester” of six years previously). And then into the first song proper, “Action.” What a graceful return to life this song symbolises. This isn’t going back, it’s going deeper, more than A Little Deeper. An effortless grace of which only this group is capable; seductive but also looking for life. The link with Sound Of Water is explicit: “Drift along…What’ll I find there?” asks Cracknell. “I’m searching for all the people I used to chatter with.” Trying to claw her way back from Tankerville. It’s a cautious negotiation for re-entry into some sort of world. Note the ambient pauses just before the chorus.

“Back, further back…” urges Jayston. Back then it is to 1981 for the electro-chatter of “Amateur,” except that no electropop in 1981 could have sounded as full as this. A snapshot of various under-fulfilled lives, from poor Janine, finished off by a pyramid scheme (“…so who gives a hey?” breathes Cracknell with quiet insouciance), to punters who buy records purely on the strength of five-star reviews (hah!). “Tolerate all the people you hate…wear the pink and blue,” thereby paraphrasing both Super Furry Animals and Dollar, the latter’s doomed ballad sounding very similar in nature to this.

Next we have an instrumental, ironically titled “Language Lab” and prefaced by Jayston musing about “the perverse possibilities of the Barbican – you could be invisible here. You can get a notion of floating across the city.” Psychogeography, then, as Tradescant and Ashmole would have understood it. A curiously American-sounding instrumental, this, somewhere between Axelrod and Roy Budd, soundtracked by a poignant theme played by acoustic guitar, harmonica, synth bass and, eventually, strings. The tourists keeping the Museum of London afloat, its entrance floating surreally in midair. The elevated walkway offers colourful views of the Roman Wall on a clear May afternoon. You could float from the guillotine site at Tower Hill to the war memorial straddling Chancery Lane and never once notice the police discreetly tailing you because it’s May Day on Monday and you’ve been taking photos of the Nat West Tower and Leadenhall Market. The tune disappears amidst some whistling and Wren’s organ. Trying to find a reason not to throw oneself headfirst from the Whispering Gallery.

If Lucas Howard were to tunnel his weathervanes through the basement of the wrecked boat shed which Ms Dynamite inhabits on her sleeve, the results might sound like “Soft Like Me.” A pointed, south London rap by Wildflower, mulling over pretty much what Ms D mulls over on her own record, but countered here by Cracknell’s tempting/taunting calls of “Don’t you want to be soft like me?” The polar opposite to their previous excursion in this territory: “Filthy” with future Love City Groove rapper Q-Tee. Secretaries on the 39th floor of the Stock Exchange waving their Pret A Manger sandwiches at the unmarried mothers visualised distantly in the scrag ends of Shoreditch, in their shadow. On “Summerisle” we “return to the river again” – this most English of performances but with a considerably harder hip-hop beat than that used to back Wildflower. An acoustic guitar returns at the end, however, to lead us gently into a different backwater.

A piano chord which in itself could have been drawn straight from Joni’s “Blue” is quickly sublimated in a purposeful organ-driven rhythm in the song “Stop And Think It Over.” Here Cracknell is indeed back where she was, but the idealised fantasies of “London Belongs To Me” have faded with experience. The joy, if there is any left, will need to be hard won. She has returned to a former Other, or perhaps a new potential Other. “Could he be a lover?/Could he be a friend? (I want MORE)/Could I find another?” She needs a week to think things through. Maybe “if this night could last forever.” But how real is her enthusiasm for re-entering London? “There’s a ship on the ocean – feel I could float away.” That ECG bleeping ends the song, decisively, as if to say; there’s no life here. Or if there is, you bloody well find it this time.

“…But what really disturbed people was the package selling of things constituting their fundamental sense of identity. What a poor substitute nationalism is for that. It’s a brutalising process, similar to what happened to slaves taken from their own countries who become dumb and dazed because they have no future. Then the slave-owners point to them saying ‘Look, they’re little better than cattle. They have no initiative. They have no ambition. They are barely articulate. What good are they?’ It was not a problem, she reflected, one experienced in the Land of Dreams.

Madame Pearl spiritualist Tarot card reader palm and psychic reader healer and advisor superior falling phoenix voices in the city Jane up the Cally call it amoeba aesthetics
(Michael Moorcock, Mother London, Part 6, Chapter 2)

“Shower Scene.” Yes I thought they would get around to naming a song after Felix da Housecat’s reaffirmation of 1982. But this is Scott Walker instead of Miss Kittin – “In the rain, call my name.” Over and over, over a sad, restrained electro refrain.

“I don’t know I don’t know where’s the girl I love is she dead is she alive”
(Suicide)

You may have expected “The Way We Live Now” to be an equally lengthy response to Sound Of Water’s “How We Used To Live.” Not so – less needs to be said here. A Robert Wyatt-esque organ melody with a subtly discordant bassline eases into a chord sequence and rhythm of heartbreaking intimate grandiosity worthy of the Pet Shop Boys. Only at three minutes DEAD does a joyless and slightly sinister Cracknell come in to admonish you: “This time I’m going to say what’s been building up for days – WALK AWAY.” And then she does. You heard her. This time. More than any other time.

A plea from Jayston over the same organ which terminated “Language Lab”: “Our Father, who art in Heaven…please stay there.” Immediately we are into the “Sexy Boy”-type groove of “New Thing” which with admirable consistency segues into a classic Northern Soul chord sequence (“you think it’s such a new thing?” sneers Cracknell).

“Rock could be so good,” announces Jayston, “but we make it so rubbishy.”

Perhaps there are bigger issues at stake.

“But sit in London at the day’s decline,
And view the city perish in the mist
Like Pharaoh’s armaments in the deep Red Sea,
The chariots, horsemen, footmen, all the host,
Sucked down and choked to silence – then, surprised
By a sudden sense of vision and of tune,
You feel as conquerors though you did not fight….”
(Elizabeth Barrett Browning, from Aurora Leigh, 1856)

“B92.” “Hate and fear are taking over the city,” sings Cracknell. What’s the solution? “We’re swimming against the tide” (in the next verse we’re “salmon against the tide”) – “The Boys Are Back In Town and Nothing Can Stop Us Now. This is our Wall of Sound.” Music is our only weapon, then. Even if we have to quote from our own resources. There is a distinct defiance making itself known here. Manning tells Gladstone to go easy on General Gordon; Florence dies happy, a war is spared. A culture under siege – no, all cultures under siege. Hear the twirling of the radio dial at the song’s climax – Choral Evensong, ragga, AoR, hip-hop – this is what we are fighting for. It’s us or their water.

“They’ll use up what we used to be.”
(Peter Gabriel, “Here Comes The Flood,” 1978)

“The More You Know” may well be the most disturbing thing SAINT ETIENNE have ever done. Over a fuzzed-up Joy Division bassline, balanced by a delierately atonal high-pitch synth note (genders), Cracknell whispers as though she’s about to crack your skull with her turntable. “This is how it’s all destroyed…when you give a damn,” she hisses, meaning not really because you must GIVE A DAMN or else you drown like Virginia in 1941 or me if I didn’t care.

“We ask ourselves about our identity only when we have nothing better to do.”
(Baudrillard)

Perhaps there is nothing better we could do than defend ourselves. Thus are we drawn to the astonishing conclusion of this record, the title track “Finisterre.” It largely consists of a spoken narrative, not by Jayston (apart from his final aphorism: “Use a bank? I’d rather die”), but by Sarah Churchill. Here we have a love letter to London which is fully the equal of what Tony Marchant makes Phil Daniel’s journalist say at the coda of Holding On, as well as paying explicit tribute to Sinclair and Ackroyd, and indirectly to those of us who daily followed the trail of Ashmole’s funereal cortege, going from Lambeth to Oxford, before the wind changed and we had to bring all the spoils back. “I love the lack of logic,” says Churchill. “I love the feeling of being slightly lost.” “Finisterre to Terradawn” sings Cracknell, “and start again.” As we must. Re-pave the landscape, redraw the city, redraw art from the perspective which suits it best, which is your own, by definition always your own. “Just suppose the 19th century never happened – just a straight line from Beau Brummell to Bauhaus.” And wasn’t Beau Brummell the subject of Virginia’s greatest essay? She will take Donovan over Dylan (I’d take Dr Dre over either, personally, but you have to admire her for expressing it). Note also the extremely subtle attack on the Countryside Alliance and everything others would wish “England” to stand for (which may well be the real motive powering this record; London is the future; “England” the gnarled and destructive distortion of the past) in her comments: “Five miles north there’s a town with silver birches, 27 churches, a look of horror if you drop an aitch…Round here it’s hoods up, heads down. They got it the wrong way round.” Inevitably she is bound to meet Mike Skinner wandering from the other direction and they will instantly recognise each other and embrace. AND ALMOST AT THE ALBUM’S DEATH SHE EXPRESSES THE DESIRED PUNCTUM OF MY LIFE: “I want to know the whole of the city WITH YOU.” You the listener, you the potential Other.

I said almost. Right at the end comes the punctum of the whole record. Emerging as though dredged up from the fathomless depths of water, gurgling its way back into life, is an old song. “This time, more than any other time, this time – we’ll find a way, this time…we’ll get it right.” We start again. It’s the England World Cup Squad song from 1982. Shiny yellow New Pop 1982. So let us, you and I, get it right.

“Again I see before me the usual street. The canopy of civilisation is burnt out. The sky is dark as polished whalebone. But there is a kindling in the sky whether of lamplight or of dawn. There is a stir of some sort – sparrows on plane trees somewhere chirping. There is a sense of the break of day. I will not call it dawn. What is dawn in the city to an elderly man standing in the street looking up rather dizzily at the sky? Dawn is some sort of whitening of the sky; some sort of renewal. Another day; another Friday; another twentieth of March, January, or September. Another general awakening. The stars draw back and are extinguished. The bars deepen themselves between the waves. The film of mist thickens on the fields. A redness gathers on the roses, even on the pale rose that hangs by the bedroom window. A bird chirps. Cottagers light their early candles. Yes, this is the eternal renewal, the incessant rise and fall and fall and rise again.

“And in me too the wave rises. It swells; it arches its back. I am aware once more of a new desire, something rising beneath me like the proud horse whose rider first spurs and then pulls him back. What enemy do we now perceive advancing against us, you whom I ride now, as we stand pawing this stretch of pavement? It is death. Death is the enemy. It is death against whom I ride with my spear couched and my hair flying back like a young man, like Percival’s, when he galloped in India. I strike spurs into my horse. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!

“The waves broke on the shore.”
(Virginia Woolf, conclusion of The Waves, 1931)


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