Book Review: Utopia Avenue

From very little on this blog about music to a surfeit of musical goodies all at once! Alternatively, in book-only terms, we proceed here from a review of a book about an automated human to a writer whose first novel, Cloud Atlas, also featured a created hero (and a female one, at that).

Utopia Avenue is David Mitchell‘s eighth book and whose title is the eponymous band – the ‘strangest British band you’ve never heard of’ – emerging out of the Soho scene in the late 1960s. A four-piece (keyboards, guitar, bass and drums, with vocal duties shared between the first three who also contribute most of the songs), featuring one woman and three men with disparate class backgrounds, Utopia Avenue mix elements of folk, jazz, psychedelia and blues into a successful, and chart-busting, brew. The band were deliberately put together – curated, in modern parlance – by a manager seeking a new project after the break-up of a previous band: but Utopia Avenue are no Monkees put together largely for their looks: despite diverse backgrounds, all have pedigrees in their fields and no little amount of musical chops. Utopia Avenue play gigs, get noticed and signed, make a couple of records, be seen, and get the chance to try and break America before the band’s rising star is extinguished just as things start really coming together.

This being David Mitchell, we also have a sub-plot featuring some pyschosoterica – Mitchell’s term for the psychic abilities of some of his characters and the compelling good vs evil struggle in which they are engaged – although this does not include epic battles akin to The Bone Clocks, his previously published work. Mentioning that the character involved here is the guitarist, Jasper de Zoet, immediately strikes a chord for those familiar with Mitchell’s oeuvre, but this aspect doesn’t take over the novel and it reads well as a study of a genuinely terrifying mental illness and a character’s own neurodiversity, as well as the links between mental health and tortured virtuosity (Mitchell is currently reading about Vincent van Gogh, which may well indicate some planning for a future work). At the same time, the late 1960s provides some fruitful contextual background for the study of mind-altering abilities.

Each of the chapters is titled for a song on the two Utopia Avenue LPs and tells of a stage in the band’s development predominantly, but not exclusively, from the perspective of that song’s composer. This leaves the drummer (and the manager) somewhat unstoried (this is, of course, a running gag when it comes to drummers) although they each get one writing credit and thus one chapter. Nevertheless, both are well fleshed-out characters – indeed, Griff, as might seem befitting for the drummer in a band in a Mitchell novel (i.e. the one whose responsibility it is to keep time), gets a lot of very good lines during band interviews and press conferences. This sort of structure gives the work a clean, chronological progression (even if it does deal with only with a highly compressed period of time) in Utopia Avenue’s rise to fame – this is quite clearly (and deliberately) written about on the way up – and, as such, this is one of Mitchell’s more conventionally structured novels, as the writer himself has acknowledged. Nevertheless, Mitchell is careful enough to sow sufficient seeds of the many petty trivialities that end up destroying bands.

Where Utopia Avenue really scores, however, is its depiction of scene. There are three aspects to this. Firstly, Mitchell has evidently done a phenomenal amount of research into the period which allows him to describe the scene predominantly in London, but also in New York (the band stay at the legendary Hotel Chelsea) and at Laurel Canyon in the US, accurately and with impressive detail and yet without succumbing to nostalgia or sentimentality. In the process, he read 50-60 music memoirs, biographies and autobiographies (including, I suspect, Springsteen’s Born To Run). It might be true that, ‘If you remember the 1960s you weren’t really there,’ but there are enough accounts around to allow Mitchell to be absolutely authentic in his descriptive detail of the bars and the dives of Soho (this being a band, much of the action takes place inside and after dark), although Mitchell is also very capable of describing the dynamics and breathtaking stillness of nature at work. This is done with such an easy touch that the essential detailing never appears laboured.

Secondly, Mitchell took piano and guitar lessons some ten years ago because he knew one day he would be writing some kind of rock novel. Consequently, he can write with accuracy about musicianship and the creative process. This is as true of guitar tunings, for example, as it is of the on-stage scenes as the band are playing at gigs. I’ve never been in a band, though I have been around them, and the dynamics and conversations between and about the band members, both on stage and while endlessly travelling to and from gigs, ring absolutely true while rarely falling into cliche. Mitchell is persuasive in letting the reader develop the impression that this might well be the best band they’ve never heard.

On the other hand, for all the excellence of his prose, Mitchell is not a lyricist – song lyrics appear throughout the book as the band perform their songs, as they have to in order to provide at least a ghost of how the band sounded, but several are not particularly convincing either in themselves as songs or in terms of aiding the impression of the star quality of Utopia Avenue. As Mitchell notes, there is no speaker in a novel to let you hear the music – and putting one in presents real challenges which, here, he is not fully able to overcome. It is – without the music – a tough thing to do to write song lyrics.

Thirdly, authenticity is hugely increased by the appearance in the novel of a large number of well-known contemporary names and faces. All of Sandy Denny, John Martyn, Keith Moon, Francis Bacon, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Syd Barrett, Brian Jones, David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead – amongst dozens of others – have small walk-on parts and dialogue. This not only places Utopia Avenue at the heart of their milieu, while also increasing the accuracy of Mitchell’s scenic depiction, but also allows him to develop characterisation further as the members of Utopia Avenue become accustomed to their own growing stardom. At the same time, this adds additional strength to the novel’s exploration of the brief hopes of 60s musicians for a route to an alternative way of organising society – for a Utopia Avenue – before being dashed amidst commercialisation as well as rising violence.

It has to be said that this sort of placement doesn’t always work, either in terms of dialogue or in terms of accurate placement. Rick Wakeman appears on the first page of the novel – but he wouldn’t be building a reputation as a session man until 1969, after Utopia Avenue had already called it a day. Brian Eno also appears, not personally but in the sense of his description of the ‘scenius’ (the relationship between art and place); again, the period covered by the novel is simply too early for this. Mitchell does attach an acknowledgment that there are ‘lyrical anachronisms’ but invites us to look the other way on the basis that ‘music is timeless’.

That may be so, but I’m reluctant to call these – along with a small number of other aspects of dialogue that appear more 2020 than 1967 – as mistakes firstly because of the quality of the attention to detail that has otherwise gone into the work; and, secondly, because Mitchell is a writer whose work describes some aspect of people travelling through time. My suspicion, which is drawn not only from a desire to give Mitchell a bit of leeway on this, as he’s a writer I admire hugely, is that these things are not errors at all and may indeed be resolved in a later novel, perhaps in the Über-novel dealing with ‘unresolved characters with unfinished business’ about which he has frequently spoken in interviews and as he finds out more about his cast of characters.

For this is the thing with David Mitchell novels – not only is it a feature of his work that his characters (Levon Frankland, Utopia Avenue’s creator and manager; Luisa Rey, Crispin Hershey), places (Gravesend, here for Dean Moss, bassist, and previously for Holly Sykes in The Bone Clocks) and motifs (the ‘Star of Riga’; the Cloud Atlas Suite; the film PanOpticon; cats; butterflies; N9D) repeatedly appear and add richness to the ‘shared universe’ in which his novels exist, but he has his future novels already mapped out. As far back as 2014, for example, he was talking in interviews, and in a detailed way, of his next five novels (of which this is only the first). A writer who knows that much about his forthcoming works and who is in absolute command of his abilities as a writer tends not to make such basic errors, especially when the research is evidently otherwise so sharply on point and when such facts are easily checkable. I’m fully therefore expecting to see Elf Holloway, the woman keyboardist in Utopia Avenue, in one of these future books.

Ultimately, Mitchell has written a lucid, elegant narrative about people’s journeys of self-discovery and, in a musical context, of the connections they make which drive them in the process of making a band greater than the sum of its parts. He is a writer of great technique (repeating paragraphs at the end and start of chapters, for instance, thus creating a moment in and out of time for the ones in between). It’s no mean feat to extend such a narrative over a novel of some 560 pages without losing pace or direction, and to keep the reader turning the page and guessing as to the likely reason(s) for the band’s break-up. And, when it does, it has the capacity both to shock and to break your heart, as all great music can do. Pitch perfect.

NewMusicMondays – 14 September 2020

New Zealand-based The Beths follow in the strong power pop tradition blazed by Scotland’s Camera Obscura, Canada’s Alvvays and Australia’s Allo Darlin’ – bittersweet relationship observations shared in common, yet with a somewhat harder edge than all three. Even so, they (also) have melodic hooks galore, sharply yet painlessly so pointed as to be capable of being swallowed hook line and sinker, and brave octave leaps in the vocal line. Their second album, Jump Rope Gazers, was released in July but written last year and finished earlier in 2020 with the global march of Covid-19 already underway. It’s hard, nevertheless, not to see it as something of a metaphor for our times: on the standout track, ‘Dying to Believe,’ Elizabeth Stokes sings ‘I’m dying to believe/That you won’t be the death of me;’

while the title track, written as the band toured extensively away from home, envisages two people apart but still connected on the end here of a skipping rope but which stands as a metaphor for anything which links people and keeps them together – a phone line, a laptop-based camera link, good old fashioned mail. The whole album speaks of distanced relationships but of the ability of people to reconnect and to maintain whatever it is that holds them together no matter the time spent apart.

The Beths’ Bandcamp is well worth checking out; and note that their first album – the wonderful Future Me Hates Me – is available for pre-order again on another differently-coloured vinyl; this time on neon yellow splatter expected to ship at the back end of this month.

Second up this week is Khruangbin’s ‘Pelota’, off their new album Mordechai, released in June. Khruangbin have been around for a while – Mordecai is their third album – but despite raising quite an industry buzz over the last five years, their soundscapes have passed mostly rather over my head up to now. ‘Pelota’, coming over the airwaves on Iggy Pop’s show on 6Music last Friday, immediately strikes an evocative, haunting, late night guitar line straight from the heyday of Senegalese maestros Orchestre Baobab, before Laura Lee’s Spanish vocal and a Latin-oriented percussion take on the theme. There is a clever and rather liberating video, too:

Again, you can pick up more of Khruangbin’s work via their Bandcamp.

Orchestre Baobab, by the way, are shortly to release Specialists in All Styles, their 2002 re-unification album featuring also Youssou N’Dour and Ibrahim Ferrer, for the first time on vinyl, coming at the back end of next week. Sadly, Balla Sidibe, Baobab’s founding and sustaining light, died suddenly at the end of July.

Held also in memoriam this week is Pete King, doyen of the British alto sax scene, who died on 23 August. You can explore his legend on plenty of YouTube videos but the one I come back to is his uplifting role on Everything But the Girl’s ‘Each and Every One’, which came out as the British jazz scene was starting to take shape in the mid-1980s and which song and album (Eden) was also my own founding introduction to feminism. Tracey Thorn might have intended this as a response to the Marine Girls’ music critics, but not least in an album context, its wider resonances are also clear:

‘Each and Every One’ might be best-known otherwise for its Latin groove, but it’s Pete King’s sax which gives it its joy. King appeared on all of EBTG’s first four albums, by the way, as well as on Amplified Heart. RIP to Balla, Pete and Toots Hibbert, who died at the weekend while awaiting the results of a Covid-19 test.

NewMusicMondays – 7 September 2020

Lockdown has been a challenging time for all of us including those furloughed and facing highly uncertain futures in workplaces that, where they are safe, will look very different to before; those freelancers in the entertainment industry left out of the scheme where my old union, Prospect, has been very active; and, most recently, the belittling of the contribution made by people working from home.

Music and has suffered more than most and while BBC 6Music – which I listen to frequently – is back to its normal schedule today, some of its DJs in the evenings are still likely to be recording their programmes from home (not at all phoning it in) for some time to come. Artists have suffered immensely from the loss of live music – music is meant to be played, not just listened to – and DJs for whom gig-going is a vital part of their own music appreciation have no idea what works well live. Indoor live music has returned, at least in some way, but it will not result in musicians being able to return to their living – with the model in the downloads era being based on touring and merchandise rather than sales of actual music – while the Musicians Union comments that the Cultural Recovery Fund, as with entertainment freelancers, is unlikely to reach the majority of musicians.

One of the DJs still recording from home, and whose programmes I pick up at least bits of most nights, is Gideon Coe, whose programme last Monday was a lockdown special featuring only music recorded by artists at home. This has been a real phenomenon with music recorded even on smartphones, while musicians zoomed their collaborations, and then despatched over the wires for mixing elsewhere. Thank goodness for fibre broadband: it does save a round trip between New York and London these days. Quite a bit of the programme was, quite frankly, a bit too trippy for me – but it did feature two Kathryn Williams versions of Bob Dylan songs – ‘Don’t Think Twice’ and ‘Not Dark Yet’ – recorded actually for an earlier special celebrating the release of Dylan’s new album.

I can’t link to the tracks directly – they were specially recorded for the Beeb and they’re not otherwise released. Neither does Kathryn seem to have recorded them previously, despite the prolific nature of her output, although I don’t know whether they have formed any part of her live sets. But you can pick up Gid’s programme at the website (for the next 23 days only) – these particular tracks are just a few seconds after the 2-hour mark. And if you enjoy them, Kathryn Williams’s Bandcamp is right here.

Now, I’m not especially a Dylan fan, and I’ve not heard either one before. But these strike me as being beautiful (and beautifully arranged) songs, the first apparently jaunty, the second dark and brooding, infused here with Williams’s own trademark soul-searching honesty and vulnerability, and taking Dylan back to his folky roots. Sometimes these recordings (or, at least, versions of them) do see the light of day in the end – and I hope something is being worked on for that because they deserve a wide audience.

Secondly, if you ever thought that The Stranglers’ ‘Golden Brown’ owed a bit of a debt to Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’, firstly you’re not alone; and secondly, musician Laurence Mason is here to help by bringing such a thing brilliantly to life. Mason’s rhythm section essentially plays ‘Take 5’ while the pianist (who may nor may not also be Mason) plays the distinctive harpischord riff from ‘Golden Brown’ and Mason himself contributes a lovely piece of alto work taking on the vocal line. The video is Brubeck and band themselves in action cut not faultlessly – it could hardly be – but well enough.

Recorded as a tribute to Dave Greenfield, who died earlier this year, this is one of those youtube phenomena – over one million hits for something recorded originally as a demo without an expectation of much in the way of feedback [EDIT 16/9/20 and now over 2.3m for the original video]. A release date was planned, and now brought forward – formally now for this coming Friday – and you can get it via Bandcamp right here.

Really must fetch down my own alto again from its temporary home on top of the bookcase right behind me…

Book Review – Machines Like Me

One of the UK’s foremost novelists, Ian McEwan has written 18 novels, of which Machines Like Me was the 17th. I’ve read many of its predecessors, and all since Enduring Love, but I only managed to catch up with this one in its paperback edition.

McEwan’s greatest skill as a writer lies in making us confront topical aspects of our own existence, whether it be terrorism (Saturday), climate change (Solar) or the extent to which the courts are able to adjudicate on matters of individual morality and belief (The Children Act). He writes most comfortably in terms of developing middle class characters, perhaps, but the situations which each of them have to confront are universal. He’s also of course no stranger to writing historical fiction, with many of his novels set at least partly in the past.

Told in ten chapters, Machines Like Me is no different in these respects. Charlie is a bit of a drifter but has come into an inheritance which he uses to buy Adam, an artificial human – a first (and limited) edition of ‘truly viable manufactured humans with plausible intelligence and looks, [and] believable motion and shifts of expression’. Together with Miranda, his upstairs neighbour and herself the daughter of a man of letters, he sets about creating Adam’s personality and the three set up an existence together. The novel is set in the 1980s, but an alternative reality, counterfactual version in which certain historical events have not happened, or happened differently. Most significantly, the Falklands War has been lost and, in the aftermath, Thatcher is facing political oblivion in the face of a Benn-led Labour Party; but, critically, Alan Turing, the wartime codebreaking and early computer genius of Bletchley Park, and a figure of long-standing literary interest for McEwan, has not committed suicide/suffered a careless accident/been killed by agents of the state but lives free and able to use his brilliance to develop and refine theories of the construction of artificial intelligence.

This has left the 1980s UK in a state of technological development much greater than we have even now, in the 2020s: autonomous cars, for example, have been on the streets since the 1960s – though Britain still suffers intense pollution – mobile phones are cutting edge rather than bricks; and Adam is here to carry out the tasks expected and desired of a creation deliberately constructed by humans.

Thus McEwan is able to confront the concerns now being raised by artificial intelligence – the future of work (and workers), and class, and whether and how humans can live alongside robots – in a way that does not potentially date by being set in the future and by concerns either that this or that event was ‘not going to be likely’ or which ‘did not turn out like that’. This is not science fiction and it does not predict; therefore, because the ‘facts’ of a historical novel are those which are set out within its pages, the morality issues which McEwan wants the work to confront are allowed to take their proper place at the centre of the novel.

Chief among these is the ability of humans and robots to live alongside each other and how those relationships can be regulated – the rights and responsibilities appropriate to each – within our existing understanding of the rule of law. This is not just a question of the lack of understanding of the illogicality of humans, and the question of ‘Who will write the algorithm for the little white lie?’; but also, and more critically, one of how the one can be held responsible for his or her actions vis-à-vis the other. In the process, McEwan raises issues of mental health – in a cutely aware nod to the demise in real life of Turing – as well as the moral choices we face when confronted with a dilemma. The shocking end to the work reveals the crucial truth present in all of McEwan’s novels – that you always have to be paying proper attention.

If the book is indeed a ‘novel about the power of novels… a celebration of the flaws that make us human‘ it’s only correct to point out the flaws in the work.

Firstly, the alternative reality 1980s is, in many cases, rather familiar – for Benn and Labour in the early 1980s, read Corbyn and Labour at the end of the 2010s – while there is also a reference to leaving the EU (to be fair, this was Labour Party policy at the time). Protest rallies and confrontations on the streets which set the popular background to events in the novel appear highly contemporary in the US (Black Lives Matter) and with the third Extinction Rebellion now taking place on the streets of London (and elsewhere), and convey the same impressions of social and political breakdown. Here, it is as if McEwan’s alternative reality was simply the product of reading today’s newspapers – and, probably, The Guardian – rather than one of powerful imagination. This does give a reminder of the contemporary nature of the conundrums that McEwan is raising – the novel is, after all, about the present not some alternative dystopia, but the counterfactual does appear to be somewhat easily, if not lazily, created.

Secondly – and somewhat stemming from the above – McEwan might well have set out both here as well as in Nutshell just to write, free of the detailed research that informed previous works, but there are several extended, McEwan-like discourses on different issues stemming from his research which are shoe-horned into the text and which disrupt the flow. The impression of wading through treacle is, when viewing the novel as a whole, fleeting – and, as above, the need to pay attention in a McEwan novel remains ever-present – but there is the thought that sharper editorial control would have produced a better, tighter novel.

Thirdly, Machines Like Me indicates a first person narrative, i.e. from the perspective of Adam, though the work is actually narrated by Charlie. It’s not that the title is odd – there is a reason for it, which appears late on in the text – but that the dialogue between Charlie and Miranda is curiously stilted. It doesn’t crackle with tension and desire, and neither does it convince. The characters simply do not leap off the page at you. This is particularly a problem when there are really only three characters in the novel (Turing is a fourth): the interactions that takes place between them is the novel’s only dialogue and thus greater emphasis is thrown on it. My impression throughout most of the work was that McEwan was running his own version of a Turing Test (whether you can tell the difference between a human and a robot mind) on the reader and that one – or even both – of Charlie and Miranda were also (earlier prototype) robots. This is not the case – but it’s as if McEwan has been unable to write dialogue between humans and robots at the same time, within the same novel, as between humans. It might well be that one of the problems of robots and humans living side-by-side turns out to be that dialogue does become stilted, but this doesn’t appear to be one of McEwan’s themes. Consequently, this leaves behind it the question that the dialogue is, disappointingly, awkwardly constructed.

Machines Like Me is a profound, uneasy and ultimately rather disturbing novel which thus fits rather well within McEwan’s 45-year canon concerning human beings in some way out of control. The questions that it raises are real and need to be confronted the closer we get to situations in which robots take a greater role in our actual everyday lives as opposed to simply in the manufacture of the products we consume. Autonomous driving (and the use of piloting software in aeroplanes) is a very real example of this, as indeed is the use of algorithms whether in the classroom or in the workplace. Whether we have the minds capable of producing answers to them – in government or in society more broadly – is an open question.

NewMusicMondays – 31 August 2020

Two more tracks for you this week – though the second choice is not exactly ‘new’ – it’s a bit of a Bank Holiday (if you’re in England and Wales) treat… Read on!

First up is Kronos Quartet (and friends), whose Long Time Passing pays tribute to the music, political philosophy and social impact of Pete Seeger, who would have been 100 in 2019. The Quartet’s typical line-up, with two violins, viola and cello, is supplemented here with a range of other vocalists. The album, due out in October, features 13 songs written or popularised by Seeger, either independently or as part of The Weavers, and includes ‘If I Had A Hammer’, a riotous performance of which I have somewhere on an old cassette tape when Seeger, otherwise shut down by Senator McCarthy’s ‘Unamerican Activities’ Committee, was taking the message around university campuses (to no little acclaim).

Here, however, is ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’, Seeger’s lament of the cycles of violence and brought brilliantly to life by having a different vocalist for each verse. This was the first single off the album, although released just last Thursday was the union battle anthem ‘Which Side Are You On?’ turned here into a jig with the aid of Seeger-style banjos.

 

The second track up, and courtesy of information from Marc Riley’s 6Music programme on Wednesday last week, is T. Rex’s ’20th Century Boy’, famous for Mickey Finn’s handclaps, a misheard lyric and a top-of-the-class straight A guitar riff which somewhat blinds us to the fact that it’s nearly fifty years old.

But also – catch the ‘backing’ vocalists stridently pile-driving the tune on over the top of Marc’s own lusty vocal line. Gloria Jones, perhaps, Marc’s girlfriend at the time, and a noted Northern Soul singer (‘Tainted Love’) and producer? Nah – no less than Sue and Sunny. Who you might ask? Well, backing vocalists with a quite astonishing list of hits and acts in their credits, but also for three years members of Brotherhood of Man. (No, not quite this one, though; the earlier incarnation up to 1971 and whose big hit was ‘United We Stand’ – once again driven along by the powerful vocals of Sue and Sunny).

Little known fact about me: I once won a Brotherhood of Man LP in a local radio comp.

Dance floor fillers

6Music put out one of its regular tweets this week looking for listeners to supply their top tracks for doing x, y or z thing: this time looking for tracks to fill a dance floor – six of them, of course (they’re nothing if not clever, 6Music’s social media team).

Usually, I resist this sort of thing on the grounds that these things change from day to day anyway, depending on the mood – but supplying half an hour of half a dozen absolute dance floor bangers turned out to be, a day or so later, to be irresistible. So, here’s my choices – at least, as of yesterday evening after a few glasses of something cold:

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

And, having got them there, I’d keep this particular crowd there with Sister Sledge, Stacy Lattisaw, the Pointer Sisters, Brothers Johnson, McFadden & Whitehead, Gary Byrd….

NewMusicMondays – 24 August 2020

A friend said to me yesterday that there really isn’t enough music on this blog. Checking back my posts, the last music related item was a book review back in May; and, before that, a gig review last September.

So, in the attempt to remedy this clearly appalling state of affairs, and to help soundtrack your week, I’m going (unless otherwise derailed) to add a series of posts over at least the next couple of weeks linking to different pieces of music which are currently hitting the spot from artists that I don’t otherwise know a lot about.

First up this week, we have Bai Kamara, a guitarist who grew up in the UK and currently based in Belgium, where he’s lived for the last 25 years. This track has a strong Chicago blues vibe while the style recalls John Lee Hooker’s scene in The Blues Brothers (as ‘Street Slim’, apparently); but this was shot in Freetown, Sierra Leone and the ‘blues’ of the lyrics is entirely contemporary. Features plenty of distortion, too, for those who like that sort of thing. This is off Bai’s album Salone, released back in January.

I heard this on DJ Ritu‘s ‘A World in London’ show to which I’ve been a regular listener over the last ten years. In these times, Ritu is sill managing to put the show out on Mixcloud and, with a slight twist, features a few oldies alongside plenty of new stuff to compensate for the lack of live guests. And welcome to the long-awaited new website, Ritu!

The second track this week is by the retooled Nick Pride & The Pimptones and is an out-and-out Northern Soul stomper with a fresh pop soul sensibility. It’s got crashing drive, horns and a shimmering vocal line with cutely observed lyrics of love and (potential) loss. The band are straight out of Newcastle, soul music centre of the UK, and I heard this of course on Craig Charles’s 6Music show on Saturday (at about 1:34:45, just after Etta James and just before Craig’s ‘Talcum Time’, if you want to catch it in context). It’s off the forthcoming album Ideology.

Enjoy!

A wee bimble* up Beinn Mhor

* Not really. For a fuller explanation, see also the opening chapter of Simon Ingram’s Between the Sunset and the Sea.

Beinn Mhor (= ‘Big Mountain’) is the highest of the three major peaks on South Uist (and correctly called Gèideabhal) – it’s on the right-hand side of this picture I took looking south-east across the machair almost exactly a year ago last August:

South Uist Hills 2

While generally enjoying a bit of hill-walking, the stars are rarely aligned sufficiently to do very much of it; and so, when such an opportunity presented itself last Sunday ahead of a week-long trip down to Perth (where the schedule has been a little hectic), we jumped at the chance. Now, Walk Highlands describes the walk linking all three peaks as a ‘rough, tough but magnificent hillwalk… Beinn Mhor has a spectacular summit ridge…’; while Mike Townsend’s Walking on Uist and Barra describes the ascent of Beinn Mhor itself as requiring ‘the calorific output of many Munros’ (he has also described the journey from left to right, via the south-western slopes of Beinn Mhor, i.e. to Taobh a Tuath Loch Aineort, as ‘not one to replicate in reverse‘ although I think he was thinking more of ensuring that transport was available there rather than having to repeat the journey to the starting point.)

The route that most people take up Beinn Mhor is via Sniseabhal starting from the A865 main road, which essentially follows the broad shoulder seen below the summit in my first photo and then on up the ridge to the top. The view from Loch Aineort, which is the other side, shows it as a sizable wall of some impressive bulk (Loch nam Faoileann – Loch of the Seagulls – in the foreground):

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Note the three landslips on the centre right, to the right of the main summit and the amount of scree and loose rock below the outcrops of the summit ridge. (Pic reproduced by kind permission!)

Beinn Mhor is only 620m above sea level (2,034′ in old money) – a bimble, in ordinary terms – but, secondly only in the Outer Hebrides in height to An Cliseam (799m) and dwarfing Eabhal on North Uist (347m) – which dominates the header pic at the top of this page – this is clearly not a walk to take lightly. Thus advised, we set off, assured by some decent equipment, including map and compass, proper provisions and warm clothing, as well as by a mutual pact of quitting without question should one of us no longer fancy it. Following a short section through a lovely, largely natural woodland out on to the open moor, our route, broadly, was to follow the obvious burn dominating the lower slopes (Allt Bholagair) and then strike a traverse right across the rocky section, hoping to find a grass path, towards the large outcrop on the centre left.

The lower sections are, even after warm, dry-ish weather, slightly marshy in places and, despite a few squishy bits, largely safe to cross. The absence of any sort of path, exacerbated by the lack of (m)any walkers over the five months of lockdown, made it difficult to pick a route and our initial approach to the lower slopes, characterised by knee-deep, tussocky grass, largely ungrazed by sheep, (dryish) peat bog and detours around streams and negotiating deer fences, was long and slow, and which actually meant we didn’t get close to the burn until much higher up. Hearing the call of eagles even in the woodland, no fewer than three appeared, circling above us as we took short breaks (and clearly eying up potential carrion).

But the really difficult bit was the final traverse – rocky, and so precipitously steep that hands and feet were both required to make any progress. While looking to exploit what we hoped were grassy paths, it quickly became clear that going up a grass slope is more difficult than a rocky incline, so we tended to rest on the grass sections, on our backs, rucksacks wedged into rock holds, trying not to contemplate either the drop visible below our feet, given the angle, or that we didn’t know what the top actually had in store for us, before crossing over to the rocky section for the next bit. Not for the faint-hearted, this was a climb – not a hillwalk – in which the higher we went, actually the more impossible it became to keep our promise to call it off if necessary, not because we were nearing the summit but because getting back down again the same way was even more potentially tricky than getting further up.

Eventually, more exhausted and relieved than exhilarated, we reached a grassy plateau just below the main summit, where the main views are pretty spectacular:

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Looking north and a bit west to Beinn Corradail (right of centre) and Thacla (left of centre)

IMG_5807 (2)South over Loch Aineort to Beinn Ruigh Choinnich (though a bit murky) and then down to Barra

Our route down again was intended to take us south along that summit ridge (which apparently presents ‘no difficulties’ according to Walk Highlands) before turning west back to the starting point but, to be honest, we were a little tired and, despite the fine, sunny weather, didn’t really like the look of it, especially the sharp drop to the east (to the left of the ridge):

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Perhaps it would have been different had we not had such a tough scramble over difficult terrain to get up this far. So, proper ‘top’ omitted, we still had the challenge of getting off the mountain safely, which we achieved by heading north-west towards the Sniseabhal route and then walking in a long arc curving south again to omit the worst of the top part of the climb before determinedly following Allt Bholagair’s delightful course (including waterfalls) as far as we could back to base. From a more comfortable vantage point for photographs, here’s the view north over Loch Bi and the machair up to Ardivachar:

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And south to the fish farm (‘caught in the cold waters around Scotland’) – noting the angle of the hill in the foreground, the angle reflecting the one we climbed:

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Ahead of us lay the remaining lengthy yomp downwards over peat bog, uneven ground where a twisted ankle in hollows made invisible by the long grass was a frequent threat (though not as much of a menace as the midges out celebrating a calm evening and, worse, ravenously hungry flies which, evidently, hadn’t had a thing to eat for weeks), before arriving back to the woodland and to the calmness of Loch Aineort (better view of Beinn Ruigh Choinnich in the background):

IMG_5860 (2)Overall, a grand day out – but a long and tiring one (from parking the car at 11.45 until returning to it at 8.15 – much longer than the 5-6 hours expected: it took us five hours to get up!) and one in which disaster could have happened at several points. No phone signal was one thing (though people knew where we were), but the other was that we saw absolutely no-one, and no signs of anyone, all day: eagles, sheep and – I think – a young dotterel were the only living things of note (no deer! no rabbits!).

From the perspective of these enthusiastic, but cautious, amateurs, general advice would be to stick to the Sniseabhal route – less direct it might be, but somewhat less challenging in terms of the final approach to the summit. Do go and visit the woodland, though – it’s ace and offers stunning views over the sea entrance to Loch Aineort from the woodland paths up the lower slopes of Beinn Bheag Dheas.

Just add time

This is probably the last of this sort of post for a while, not because I’m stopping brewing – far from it – but, well, there’s probably more interest in the taste of the beer than in the actual brewdays; and, shortly, I’ll be able to brew much bigger batches of beer (up to 30 litres at a time, rather than the 4.5 litres I’m currently used to) so the brewing posts will anyway be less frequent, and more selective as regards what I’m brewing, while I work my way through each batch that I make. But it’s still quite magical to turn such few, standard, even humdrum ingredients into something that tastes wonderful, and using just a few pots and pans, too.

For those interested in what my beer tastes like, I’ve added a separate page via the links on the left giving some tasting notes (or, otherwise, via this link).

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So, this one was supposed to be the first one of me making small quantities of my own beer, rather than from pre-supplied specific kits, mixing up a bit of this and a bit of that as regards the malt with some of these hops and fermenting it with a drop of that yeast. Beers that will have their own names, and labels, and legends…

Intending to brew a few darker beers, I ordered from my usual supplier some speciality grains (amber malt and chocolate malt; and some crystal malt – all in roughly equal quantities), as well as some flaked oats, on top of a base load of pale malt (the lot totalling about 9kg); but, unfortunately, I ordered through a a ‘recipe builder’ under which my supplier simply assumed that I was making one large batch of beer and mixed all the grains together in one bag. My problem, of course – not theirs; I just didn’t understand how the thing worked. I can work with this mix, alright – but it will make some very dark beers and my idea of drawing on appropriate quantities of different barleys to make a stout, a porter and an oatmeal stout, for comparative purposes, is now out of the window: they will all be oatmeal ‘dark beers’ of one description or another, and no further customisation will be possible, not as regards the grain bill, anyway.

As you can see, I have some hops both from the UK (Target and Challenger) and from the US (Columbus and Mosaic) – some 50g of each; and a few different packets of dried yeast, both new and also with some left over from previous brews, carefully stored in the fridge. And I can attempt other customisations, with the following top of the list. I have enough malt to make probably five 4.5 litre batches, depending on how strong I brew:

1. a basic ‘black beer’, probably with an advanced hop profile, so in line with a black IPA

2. a raspberry oatmeal stout, with the raspberries added as an aroma steep after the boil

3. a porter-style beer with the addition of some chocolate and some coffee, along the lines of Harviestoun’s Old Engine Oil, which is one of my favourite beers (Target hops should add the liquorice notes, too)

4. a vanilla and bourbon stout, with the late addition to the fermenter of some vanilla pods steeped in bourbon

5. a low-alcohol stout (2% ABV or lower) – something I’ve been researching for some time. Should be possible to lower the amount of malt, while still retaining flavour with the darker malts and judicious use of hops both in the flavour and the aroma.

But – these are just some early ideas: do point me the way of something else you think I should be crafting in this sort of style via the comments!

That 30 litre capacity, by the way, will be via one of these Danish-origin shiny all-in-one systems, selected after some fairly exhaustive research and not least on the back of this Pub Sheds Review. This is now working its way to me – at least, once the supplier gets some more in stock; Covid-19 lockdown having wiped most such systems from the marketplace as a result of the increase of interest in home brewing. You don’t need one of these things to brew beer, essentially – but it does make brewing slightly larger quantities much easier in terms of the handling of the grains and the boil.

But, until that comes, I’ve got a few stovetop brews still left – and probably starting this weekend, after another busy week of editing coming up. Furthermore, I’ll probably still continue to do things that way when I want to try out something new (rather than risk being left with a full quantity of beer that, for one reason or another, doesn’t really work). Just now need to pick some of the beers that I’ve enjoyed the most, and start to dream of a production line in full swing…

Book Review: A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles

When you can’t travel anywhere, reading a book which takes you on a journey, both metaphorically and vicariously, is not a bad substitute; and Ned Palmer‘s wedge of the shared history of the islands and nations which makes up the British Isles made for an interestingly reflective companion during the period of Covid-19 lockdown.

Palmer’s work is part-travelogue, part-paean to cheese and part-reference work. Nine of the ten chapters record a different period in the history of these islands, each featuring a ‘signature cheese’ curated to illustrate different aspects of cheese-making thought to be typical for the period covered by the chapter but which, crucially, is very much a modern cheese. This lends a contemporary relevance to ancient history which is an effective way of relating the circular, repeated aspects of the story of our history. Part of the description of each chapter is a visit by Palmer to the farm, accompanied by some hands-on cheese-making alongside those who count among the leading makers of the cheese of that style. The tenth chapter, something of a catch-all series of more or less tasting notes for the author’s favourite cheeses that didn’t make it to signature designation, is a rapid catch-up with ‘post-modern’ cheese-making in which experimentation, innovation and small-scale production, and the tidal wave of choice, contrasts heavily with the lost, grey-brown years of wartime mass production and rationing.

This is a socio-economic history and a consciously non-kings-and-queens trawl through the shared history of these islands. It’s one for cheese-lovers, certainly, as Palmer carries the historical aspects of his work somewhat lightly, as well as with a degree of somewhat whimsical humour. That shouldn’t disguise the depth of research that has gone into the production of this work (there is a reference to the Rare Book Reading Room at the British Library), and there is quality in the observations for example of the impact of the Black Death of 1348-1350 on land prices, wages and the fortunes of the peasantry amidst the decimation of the population, as well as the subsequent reactions of the landed classes and the Church. Nevertheless, there is a certain amount of unthreaded disconnectedness in how the tale is leavened, given that the author is not a trained historian (but a philosopher) and this sometimes means that some of the more astonishing aspects of the tale might almost be missed.

For instance, in dealing with the significance of the arrival of the railway, Palmer notes that the sudden ease of transportation that this brought, as well as the typically poor quality milk in London resulting from shortcuts in cattle feed and agricultural land being snapped up by developers, as well as a bout of disease, soon wiped out milk production in London to the point that there was no cheese-maker left in Derbyshire living within five miles of a railway line. This covers so much of importance, and which has continuing relevance to our contemporary history – the switch from agrarian to service economy (and, perhaps in the future, back again); the extent to which William Cobbett’s ‘Great Wen’ sucks everything in amidst the lack of an effective regional policy; the mistreatment of animals; the stupidity of an economy based on a market which makes it more profitable for farmers to sell milk rather than make cheese; the problems to production diversity of the relentless search for efficiency; and the ravages of an industrial development financed by private interests with little thought to the apparent wider implications of their self-serving investments – yet all this is conveyed in the matter of four paragraphs (pp. 243-244).

The notion of cream being skimmed off the milk to make butter for the rich, while the poor had to make do with Suffolk Bang – a virtually inedible cheese, being ‘rock hard and tasteless’ and made from the skimmed milk left behind, and which had to be warmed before it became edible, is clearly worth more than a sidenote in any history.

There are frequent references to the scale of cheese-making which, before the advent of factories, provides some hint as to the importance of cheese both in the diets of working people and to the broader economy (as well as armies), as well as to regular imports of cheese from Europe – a process which has been going on to supplement, or perhaps supplant, domestic cheese-makers for at least 500 years.

And don’t get me started on the implications of imports of agricultural products from the US, something which I was startled to find has a history of more than 160 years as the UK emerged from the Corn Laws and the Navigation Laws into a burst of misplaced, foolish enthusiasm for free trade. Look for Velveeta (liquid gold) on your shelves, coming soon – a cheese so good it has to have its own – magnificent – social media department.

Palmer certainly knows his cheeses, however – and I don’t doubt that he also knows his beer, too.

For some cheeses, as he acknowledges, beer is actually frequently a much better pair than the more traditional wine – but both cheese and beer share a history (and not just in the proper recipe for Welsh rarebit). Both were originally discovered six or so thousands of years ago by some happy accident – or, perhaps, were both the result of periods of experimentation with food which provide a circular note of interest given what is happening today; both provide some aspects of the reasons why humans stopped being hunter-gatherers and started to settle in particular locations; both feature in the religious history of these islands in which the rituals and predictability of monastic life lend themselves as well to brewing as to cheese-making; and both came to feature in more recent history as the role and preserve of women, with women and girls as dairyhands (until being squeezed out by men as dairies were professionalised (pp. 236-237)) and also as alewives (with, in the latter case, the better women brewers featuring displays of hops in their windows which were, in several respects, the precursors of pubs).

Furthermore, the production of cheese and beer featured, for thousands of years, an unknown, but key, ‘magic’ ingredient whose actual nature was not discovered until the work of Louis Pasteur until as recently as 1857. Pasteurisation itself has caused controversy in cheese-making as in brewing; while the modern diversity of cheese production, with hundreds of farmhouse manufacturers now present in the UK making a huge variety of cheese, can be easily compared with the surely unrivalled period of experimentation with flavour additions in brewing, and the explosion of small-scale craft brewers, which is now going on. Furthermore, both have recovered, hugely, from the nadir and threatened extinction of 1970s mass production, ‘government cheddar’ on the one hand and Watneys Red Barrel on the other, as the result of desperate campaigning activity by a handful of committed activist-organisers aware that the love of their lives was on its uppers.

No such similar book telling the tale of the British Isles through beer appears to be around – at least, none that I can find in the last ten years that have been significant enough to be reviewed by Roger Protz, at any rate – and I can feel more than a twitch of researcher/writer curiosity.

But that’s really rather beside the point here: Ned Palmer has produced a useful reference work which, while his enthusiasm for cheese and people lends itself rather more naturally keenly to more modern times, and the more practical aspects of cheese-making, nevertheless conveys a history of complexity and rich detail of the frequently disregarded socio-economic aspects of history.

Now, where again has my travel ID gone?