Skies. The sun has deigned to shine unbroken on England for a handful of days and of course the media have hurled themselves wholeheartedly into the phenomenon by using the word 'heatwave' as often as possible. Strangely I have yet to hear the Martha and the Vandellas tune cropping up anywhere, but since I don't listen to the radio perhaps that's not such a surprise. I'm sure it's being played to death by dodgy DJs the length and breadth.
Blue skies of course generally make for fine days for bicycling, and if the thirty degree afternoons seem to you to be just a touch on the warm side for expending energy, just think of those heroes of the roads who have been trecking around France (and Belgium) for the past three weeks of the Tour De France. Seeing them ride day after day across mountain ranges has been in parts inspirational, unbelievable and downright baffling. Having ridden up a few of the Alpine passes in the past (when I was a whole lot younger, a whole lot fitter and whole lot thinner) it still beggars belief how they can ride over four or five of them in one day, and more to the point, do it at such an astonishing pace. And then do the same thing again the following day. My hat (or at least my Air-Piranha helmet) is off to them.
Did you know that according to some sources, riding and finishing a Tour De France takes a full year off your life expectancy? Having come perilously close to death already through cancer I don't expect that bothers Lance Armstrong too much, but you never know.
Going much slower uphill than Lance Armstrong of course has been me in the past week as I embark on my yearly summer struggle to retain some sense of self-worth and a semblance of visible cheekbones. Seeing those riders on the telly with their emaciated faces, hollow eye sockets and rake thin bodies has made me jealous again and reminds me that once upon a time I too was rollerskate skinny. Of course I don't want to be like those pro-cyclists with their zero body fat, falling foul to all sorts of bugs and colds every other week, but it would be nice to be able to look in the mirror and see a face that didn't look bloated and flabby gazing back. Hence the bicycle has been serviced, the lycra pulled from the wardrobe and the maps spread on the dining room table.
I love maps. I love poring over maps and imagining what the landscape looks like, finding strange names and wondering who on earth would live in a place called Cemetery Corners. Of course since Cemetery Corners is closer to the New Hampshire Exeter than the Devon, England one, I don't suppose I'll ever know.
Two years ago I pored over maps of the Teign valley (much closer to the Devon, UK Exeter than the New Hampshire one, which is handy for me really) and plotted a route that rises out of Exeter on the old Okehampton road (didn't Belle and Sebastian once sing about taxi drivers down in Okehampton? Well, I dreamt they did at least...) and then dives down the Teign valley, which is the most beautiful road in the world along with the one that winds its way up the Exe valley from Exeter to Tiverton, although the one down the Teign valley has much less traffic, and so I guess wins the battle. The road that follows the Teign winds through trees that form cool canopies, the tarmac speckled with sun light and the scent of all kinds of flowers whose names I will never know filling the air. You can follow the valley all the way to the coast of course, ending up in Teignmouth or, if you detour across Little Haldon, down in Dawlish, or you can do what I usually do, which is turn at Crocombe bridge and climb up through the narrow lanes through Trusham to the top of Great Haldon, with the gleaming white Lawrence Castle at its peak surveying the lands around. It's a magical landscape of hidden cottages no doubt housing centuries of strange secrets, and I love it. It's also the landscape of Tim Pears' wonderful In the Place of Fallen Leaves, which is a great novel that captures the spirits of love, longing and loss as admirably as Jane Gardam at her finest (say the classic Bilgewater, or A Long Way From Verona). I love it also.
Made up in. I've been listening again to the sounds of The Bats this morning, specifically to what would have been their UK debut single, 'Made Up In Blue' from 1986. It's a fine song, with magic melodic bass lines and guitars that sparkle like rains of crystal spires. The Bats of course were one of those wonderful New Zealand bands who made records for the astonishingly influential Flying Nun label and really I ought to track down more than the aforementioned single and the 1987 Daddy's Highway album that I own. And Bats vocalist Robert Scott may of course be more familiar to some as one of the guest vocalists on the Sixths' Wasps' Nests singing 'Heaven In A Black Leather Jacket', which is of course another cool connection.
Aeroplanes. I wrote an article about Bristol Bop Artists Blue Aeroplanes back towards the end of the 1980s where I called them the greatest pop group in the world. Shortly afterwards I wrote another where I called them the worst band of pretentious charlatans imaginable, and naturally for some people this change of face was somewhat difficult to understand, particularly since the records in question obviously still sounded the same. The reasons for the radical re-appraisal at that time however were less to do with sounds and more to do with sights and inferred connections than anything else, and actually were much more to do with the kinds of personal Pop experiences best left un-touched and buried where they currently lie (under a park bench in Edinburgh if you must know), but that's what it means to be young and in passionate love with Pop and if that's sad then call me sad. I don't care.
Of course I cared a lot. I cared a lot that where Blue Aeroplanes had once seemed to concoct strange confections in which guitars shattered into a billion shards of razor edged ice and words tumbled in manic troubled fountains of prose, they suddenly seemed to be stodgy and earth bound and, well, a bit ordinary. I'm not sure the word 'blame' is really appropriate, but maybe you could blame REM, who Blue Aeroplanes supported on their Green tour and to whom some of the Bristol band obviously looked to for inspiration and who at the time of course were well on their way to deforming from purveyors of strange new wave wildwoods Americana to Classic American Rock (with that all important 'alternative' twitch). Maybe you could blame Chris Roberts, whose purple prose in the Melody Maker at the time made Blue Aeroplanes out to be the saviours of Art Pop Bop Rock and Roll (when you could decipher it all, that is) and who perhaps set the sights of the public so ridiculously out of sight that Blue Aeroplanes could never reach so high. Or maybe you could blame Blue Aeroplanes themselves for believing all the hype and taking themselves so seriously that they lost all sense of proportion, lost all sight of the marvellous edges that had made their early records such delights.
And those first Blue Aeroplanes records were of course delights, and if it took me ten years to cast off the personal demons and ghosts that prevented them being played then it simply means they currently sound once more sweetly sparkling and stirring. Spitting Out Miracles is still my favourite, with a great range of moods and sounds ranging from the dynamic rush of 'Bury Your Love Treasure' through the title track's oscillating oddness (a stroll through Parisian side streets with a troupe of gypsy minstrels with Avonmouth accents), the sweetness and light of (west) Country tinged and twisted 'Cowardice and Caprice' to the folk sway of 'Days of 49' which in case you were wondering is an Aeroplanes original and not the traditional folk tune about the Gold Rush that Dylan does on Self Portrait. And for those fortunate enough to get the limited flexi with the album (or alternatively the astonishing Friendloverplane double album compilation) there was a Rodney Allen version for good measure. In fact the Friendloverplane collection was pretty much a classic introduction to the early years of the Blue Aeroplanes. It included the majestic 'Police (38 Divinity)' which was a tight mesh of guitars overlaying commentary of '60s US anti-war demonstrations topped off with Gerard Langley reading Gregory Corso's poetry, and what became for a while their trademark cover of Tom Verlaine's 'Breaking In My Heart' complete with a Thunderbirds sample as introduction and as many guitars as they could muster. Also included was the swinging 'Old Men Sleeping On The Bowery' which helped cement their love for New York mythology and the wonderful 'Etiquette!' which had typically chopping guitars and rhythm and which sounded like the dreams of Rimbaud. And wasn't the visionary Rimbaud surely an influence on the earlier (perhaps unfairly) criticised Chris Roberts, who weighed in with suitably abstract sleeve notes that talked of 'ravishing green fingers playing hoopla with halos' and a juggling octopus, which are words which really describe the fantastic swirls projected by the early Blue Aeroplanes better than any others. Of course as already hinted at, Blue Aeroplanes became less strange and when they called their fourth album Swagger it described their state perfectly, being all cocky rock and contemptuous posturing and didn't June Brides after all sing that 'to swagger is worse that to stumble'? Needless to say their new sound won them no more fans, and for the past decade it seems that although Blue Aeroplanes have continued to make occasional records, they have made little impact, and naturally I have had no real interest in hearing them. Things do change however, and I've just ordered their recent Weird Shit and Fruit albums. If they sound anything like the Blue Aeroplanes of old then I'll let you know.
Skies part two. If you are feeling fit and you're down in Devon you should try riding from Exeter to Tiverton along the old high road through Silverton and Butterleigh. It's a fantastic route, and from the top of the hills above Silverton towards Tiverton you'll essentially be following tracks laid down in the Iron Age, as you cross between the sites of ancient hill forts. The hill fort above Tiverton is at the top of a steep hill, and there are those who will tell you that this is the hill which JD Salinger refers to in his 'For Esme with Love and Squalor' short story. Others will tell you that the hill is more likely one south of the town, nearer the Knightshayes house which served as a hospital for US servicemen in WW2 but whatever. It certainly seems to be a well known secret that Salinger was stationed in the town for a while, and it's a fabulous story regardless. Daniel Handler would surely agree, as his Lemony Snicket alter-ego has a character called Esme Squalor in The Ersatz Elevator, which is the sixth book of his always entertaining 'Series of Unfortunate Events'. All the books of course are stuffed with post-modern references to books and although you could argue it's all a bit obvious and awkward at times, you should instead imagine the delights of being the children these books are more specifically aimed at discovering the connections later in life.
Movies. Has anyone been watching the telly and reflecting on how so many Pop videos these days seem to be a bit, well, raunchy? It's not that I'm getting old and crotchety (ahem) and I'm not complaining as such, but it's a little disconcerting. It's amusing/horrifying (delete as appropriate) to compare them with videos from, say, the '80s, where by comparison people (okay, specifically women) wore so many clothes. This train of thought sparked specifically by Destiny's Child and the video for 'Bootylicious' which is as fine a Pop single as you'll hear all year of course, it's just that the video makes me feel a bit hot and bothered, and in this heat that's all a bit unnecessary. It's just an incitement for folks to shed their garments and wander around in skimpy outfits, and you know that on the whole that's Not A Good Idea because although I care not a jot that the majority of the world's populace are less 'beautiful' than the likes of Destiny's Child or (insert your male equivalent here), I'm just not sure I want to see them walking down the High Street with next to nothing on. People should wear more clothes... roll on the winter.
© Alistair Fitchett