The Hope Six Demolition Project – PJ Harvey

Back in 2011 when ‘Let England Shake’ was released, Polly Harvey expressed a wish to be a war artist, a song-writer in residence for the conflict that still consumed Afghanistan. The presence of UK troops in the desert habitat was frequently referenced, notably in ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’. Harvey’s planned role never transpired, with UK forces withdrawn and the people of Afghanistan left to conduct their own fate. ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ could be seen as Harvey adapting her job description to one of ‘reportage songwriter’, travelling to several locales, accompanying photographer/filmmaker Seamus Murphy, the man responsible for the evocative films that compliment every track on ‘Let England Shake’.

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England, yesterday

Maybe it’s this continuation of both the subject matter and approach from the previous record that means ‘Hope Six…’ doesn’t feel like a vast step up from 2011’s Mercury Prize-winning release. The thing that helped ‘Let England Shake’ was its tight focus on one or two connected subjects i.e. war and England. With her attention firmly on those themes, Harvey could make digressions and parallels but always keep her lyrics tethered to a detailed meditation on the ‘grey, damp filthiness’ of English culture. This was further enhanced by a cohesive new musical palette, although keen-eared fans will have heard harbingers of its sound coming in both ‘White Chalk’ and ‘A Woman A Man Walked By’.

Gone was Harvey’s theatrical bass blues howl, replaced with a lighter, more delicate voice at a higher register. Still she retained some of the ventriloquist act speaking in tongues, tics and squeaks that have been her trademark for a while.  The new vocal style  (Harvey calls it her ‘church voice’, good for singing ‘Jerusalem’, no doubt) continues on ‘Hope Six Demolition Project’ and it feels like Harvey is making a point about this new phase in her songwriting. She is no longer a spinner of fables and phantasmagoria, but an observer of the present day, a documentary troubadour. But it’s this insistence on veracity and simplicity that occasionally dents the album’s impact. In ‘The Orange Monkey’, Harvey seems to set out her MO for writing these songs ‘I took a plane to a foreign land/and said ‘I’ll write down what I find'”. Passing through various places and giving her impressions, at times the new lyrics feel as if they only observe the surface, and can veer close to the obvious.

I think Harvey is attempting to mirror the stark clarity of Seamus Murphy’s photography, and has decided to eliminate invented storytelling in order to hold true to that way of working. The listener is perhaps meant to read between the lines to find the impact these sights had upon Harvey, without the guidance of invented imagery or drama to convey their power. Perhaps though, even if fiction is ‘lying to tell the truth’, it might have served her better.  ‘Medicinals’, ‘A Line In The Sand’ and ‘The Community of Hope’ aren’t mistaken or misleading in their observations, just somewhat redundant. ‘Community of Hope’ talks of decay and social breakdown in a district of Washington State, but whilst the climactic refrain ‘They’re gonna build a Walmart here’ might’ve been cutting back in 1985,  today it’s just taken as read. ‘Medicinals’ sets up an interesting metaphor for history and progress, only to let it fall flat in the last verse. This is a shame because when Harvey’s eye chooses some really telling detail, the effects are strong indeed. ‘The Ministry of Defence’ pictures a diorama of wartime wreckage and shattered civilian ephemera, over-written by insistent marks of human survival. Likewise ‘Chain of Keys’ uses empty houses and overgrown gardens to hint at atrocities that will mark communities for ever.

Knocked back by the handful of misfiring lyrics, it took me a while to realise the true strength of ‘Hope Six Demolition Project’ is its music. Working with long time collaborators Mick Harvey, John Parish, producer Flood and the man for whom the phrase ‘super-talented multi-instrumentalist’ was invented, Terry Edwards, Harvey’s lyrics sit in distinct aural landscapes that open up further and allow deeper investigation with each listen. Saxophone is the latest in Harvey’s bucket list of musical instruments to master, following piano on ‘White Chalk’ and autoharp on ‘Let England Shake’. The brass supplants guitar effects pedals to drive the relentless extended intro to ‘The Wheel’, whilst the angular overlapping soloing in ‘Ministry of Defence’ combine with hammer-blow staccato guitar chords to conjure images of weapons firing and the results: twisted metal reinforcements exposed by mortar fire in a ruined building.

The drums on ‘Hope Six…’ are frequently martial in character, but there’s also a loose, clattering feel, the standard rock kit drum set up has been scattered across several players. It feels homemade, as if during her travels,  Polly has soaked up the sounds of public or folk music making in Kosovo and Afghanistan, as much as the sights. Insistent, slightly ramshackle, these rhythms could be drawn from weddings, funerals, festivals, marches and demonstrations. It was while watching Harvey’s set at Glastonbury this year that the new songs truly came into their own. Their syncopated energy hypnotises, and in the band Harvey has assembled she also creates a male voice choir for the ‘communal singing’ that she hoped ‘Let England Shake’ would inspire in audiences. The moment where this all comes together is toward the end of ‘River Anacostia’, with the crowd clapping a rhythm as the band come the front of the stage and sing a guttural cotton field chant. The longer it goes on, the deeper it goes into your ears and holds you until the song fades down to a standstill.

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‘Hope Six Demolition Project’ turns out to be a serious piece of work, albeit with flaws, showing an artist still moving forward musically if not on the lyrical front. If the album doesn’t make a bold statement of change in the manner of ‘Let England Shake’, I remember that ‘Uh Huh Her’, a release that appeared to tread water somewhat, was followed by the rug-pull of ‘White Chalk’. Maybe something like that album is brewing in Polly Harvey’s head right now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emma Pollock – Live

Emma Pollock

Regather, Sheffield, 20th May 2016 

At various points in Emma Pollock’s set, we’re told ‘I think you’re our favourite audience of this tour’ and ‘I think this is the smallest stage we’ve played on’. Are the two related? Regather’s gig space has the band almost on eye level with a small but appreciative crowd, instruments and bodies squeezed tightly in at one end of the room. It makes for an intimate and ultimately very friendly live experience.

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A warm, funny and self-deprecating stage presence, Emma Pollock doesn’t keep much distance between herself and the audience, physical or metaphorical. Earnest, emotive singing rides on tunes by turns urgent, plaintive and poppy. The audience laughs as much as they applaud.

Showcasing only her second solo LP since the demise of Glasgow band The Delgados, Pollock’s singing maintains a thread between that band’s distinctive and adventurous guitar pop, often augmented with strings and wind instruments, to today’s tunes which range from urgent reverberating electric riffs to forlon acoustic guitar and piano building a climbing frame for often deeply personal lyrics.

Between songs Emma sets up the story behind the next tune, or she would do were it not for gremlins chewing at the cables, first frustrating the drummer’s ‘Blue Monday’ synth beats early on. The good natured Sheffield ribbing that results diverts Pollock onto quite a different track and a ping-pong game of banter grows throughout the gig.

One fan right at the front manages to monopolise then hijack the to-and-fro. A gentleman of respectable years, resembling a South Yorkshire cousin of David Hockney who’s just stepped off the deck of a canal boat, he encourages Pollock ‘you can sing about whatever you like, lass’, to the band’s bewilderment. When the alcohol in his bloodstream really takes the helm and moves him to sing ‘I Belong to Glasgow’, Emma peers down at her guitar’s fret-board and mutters ‘Oh, you’re not coming on the van now’.

The rest of the crowd aren’t about to let an over-refreshed guest ruin the party though, and the tracks from ‘Searching For Harperfield’ and ‘The Law Of Large Numbers’ hold the crowd in rapt silence. The heartfelt meditations of ‘Intermission’ and ‘Dark Skies’ draw out strong applause. At the other end of the spectrum, the combative pop of ‘Parks and Recreation’ and ‘Confessions’ with its fully functional synth drum pulse get heads nodding and broad smiles. Caught off guard by another salvo of Sheffielder wit, Pollock throws back her head and guffaws; a musician with no use for studied cool, her openness brings the crowd into her songs and deserves far more listeners outside of tonight’s gig.

http://emmapollock.com

 

Stage Fiends

Extracted from a longer review on my previous blog, here’s my thoughts on the Phantom Band’s return in 2014.

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The Phantom Band

The Deaf Institute, Manchester – 5th June 2014

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Don’t look into its eyes!

The Phantom Band get a warm welcome from their audience tonight, fuelled partly by the unexpectedly long wait for the new album ‘Strange Friend’. With the room filled with expectant faces, first there’s a small glitch to overcome. What should be the opening synth pulse of ‘The Wind That Cried The World’ is winding down into the sort of electronic burp that Kraftwerk might make after one bier too many. ‘So much for an entrance’ singer Rick Redbeard notes drily, as keyboard warlock Andy Wake coaxes goodwill from his recalcitrant musical machine-minds.

As soon as the band launch properly, it’s immediately obvious the time away hasn’t been squandered. There’s no image or pose to the Phantom Band. Rarely do they throw any shapes on stage – guitarist Greg spends most of the gig with back to the audience, deep in communion with his amp – instead they just turn up and play. If that sounds dull, don’t be fooled. As their albums have followed a steady evolution rather than what-shall-we-do-next box ticking, so they’ve grown strong and assured as a live band.

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Next week on ‘Most Haunted’.

Aside from one ‘smoochy’ number that showcases the band’s folk aspect, tonight the Phantoms have a head of steam to work off. The new songs are powered by confident, practised musicianship like drummer Iain Stewart’s thunderous but precise stick work that propels ‘Clapshot’. The self-confessed ‘creative friction’ that’s the engine for The Phantom Band’s beguiling music leaves their varied influences open for all to see, but they rub up against each other so well that each song becomes region-free and suggestive of many different and inviting musical roads that could be taken. Songs like ‘Women of Ghent’ have at their core enticingly danceable heartbeats so that it’s in no way outlandish to imagine a Phantom Band remix album occurring at some stage.

Out at the front, Mr Redbeard’s voice ranges from deep valleys to airy falsetto, arms often outstretched to the audience, like an old school crooner in full serenade or a poet declaiming verse. Occasionally the songs control Rick’s hands so he seems to be conducting, or executing a bit of prestidigitation before yanking a white rabbit from under his baseball cap.

In harmony with support bands Plank and Alpha Male Tea Party, who eschew vocals entirely, The Phantom Band end on a purely instrumental note, swapping instruments, juggling guitars and percussion to deliver a rousing version of ‘Crocodile’ from ‘Checkmate Savage’, poignantly and mysteriously re-titled on the set list as….’Cry Wank’. That’s the spirit.

 

Tale of Tales – review

Tale of tales has a red, bloody heart that would keep beating even if ripped out. It bypasses the lace clad ‘fairy’ in ‘fairy tale’ and takes us for a wilderness trek through the dark forest that is the natural home of folk tales collected by the Grimm Brothers and the less well known Giambattista Basile.

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Director Matteo Garrone [pictured] combines several of Basile’s stories that dance between the plight of three royal families: Vincent Cassel’s lecherous, dissolute king, Salma Hayek’s desperately broody queen and Toby Jones as a foolish geek of a monarch, who neglects his daughter in favour of a pet flea.

A flea. You won’t get far in this film if you don’t roll with some of the more fantastical plot devices. The characters in folk tales are refreshingly direct in taking action to get what they want. The object of Vincent Cassel’s affections for instance, a haggard old woman who beguiles the king with just her beautiful voice, forgoes spa treatments for an extreme version of exfoliation – asking the townsfolk to flay her alive.

The colour red stains this film regularly – blood is never far from the surface, but often counterbalanced by a humour that acknowledges the extremes of love and death that drive these morality tales. It’s curious then how ‘Tale of Tales’ never fully drags us into its fierce and beautiful world. Weaving together separate tales means it’s inevitably a bit episodic, but the direction doesn’t mine deep enough moments of action and emotion to give satisfying landmarks in what becomes a rather meandering quest through these kingdoms.

A director like Guillermo Del Toro who similarly has one foot in ‘art’ and popular cinema managed this feat with spectacular results in ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, but here the monsters project far less threat and because of it, give the actors less to react against.

Let’s not cast aside ‘Tale of Tales’ like an unworthy suitor for a princess though – come to its bracing mix of pastoral beauty, artful design, wit and gore like you’ve stepped into a painting. Soak up the rich passages of colour and light in between the characters that are perhaps a little too sparsely placed across the composition.

It Was Acceptable In The Nineties #3: Carl Finlow

I still have the 12″ vinyl copy of the ‘On The Air EP’ mentioned in this piece, one of the better promo items I received whilst interviewing for the Big Issue. 

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Carl Finlow is a fan. Of music, technology and Star Wars. I know because the creative core of Leeds-based electro outfit Random Factor is talking to me via a bleeping, head-spinning R2-D2 phone. This love of gadgetry stems from Finlow’s childhood in Liverpool, when the house rang to the sound of electronica that his father borrowed from Widnes library, including Japanese boffin Isao Tomita.

“He re-orchestrated classical pieces by Ravel and Stravinsky in a studio full of Moogs” enthuses Finlow. “From an early age I remember listening to this weird music. My dad must have realised because in 1983 for my 13th birthday he got me this little Moog synthesiser”.

The warmth and raw textures of analog sound are a constant throughout Random Factor tunes. Finlow agrees it’s the ‘human’ element of analog synthesisers which explains their enduring appeal.

“Each machine is so individual, with its own characteristics and because it’s a beautifully simplistic sound; you have to work to get the maximum out of it”.

Moving to Leeds in 1989, Finlow arrived in the city at the height of the rave scene. The results of “trying to sound like Tomita” began to emerge under pseudonyms like Silicon Scally, Voice Stealer and Il-ek-tro. along the way he lugged his gear to techno gigs and played keyboards with Leeds baggy merchants Bridewell Taxis, before returning to commune with his machinery.

“To be honest, I’ve been a hermit in the last few years, the Mike Oldfield of electro” he laughs. “But the way things have been going with the music, it seemed like a sensible time to get back out on the road”.

It’s a wise decision. The new On The Air EP showcases Finlow’s loose-hipped electro, with harder-edge beats and spartan Moog riffs which demand you shake your bones. In particular the groove of ‘Lockdown’ conjures up a picture of Kraftwerk on pay-day, strutting through downtown New York. [Message to my 90s self: actually, the track in question is ‘Disconnect’ – AM] It’s both uptight and laid back, and delivered – unusually – with live keyboard performances.

An affable, regular-looking bloke sporting an Imperial Storm Trooper sweatshirt, Finlow isn’t exactly Keith Flint. How does he view bands like the Prodigy, who forsake the old rave nation idea of ‘the audience are the stars’ and return the spotlight to the stage?

“In a way I think it’s good because it shows an underlying confidence in contemporary electronic music” he says. “I’d rather it be on stage and on TV than not even spoken about”.

It seems ironic then that Finlow lives removed from all this culture, out in the countryside in Rothwell, just outside of Leeds.

“It’s a Pink Floyd vibe” he says gleefully. “My neighbours are 500 yards down a dirt track and the silence and beauty of the countryside is just great. We’re surrounded by cornfields, rhubarb and cabbages in an old farm house, with the studio in a barn”.

Here, Finlow can let the world pass him by if he chooses. He admits that given a spare moment, he’d rather compose in the studio, than check out other people’s work. Is it wise for a happening techno type to be this far off the beaten track?

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“I quite like the idea of remaining quite pure about what I’m doing” says Finlow, “surfacing for air every now and then to see what’s going on”.

With this slightly out-on-a-limb perspective, it’s no surprise that waving ideological banners around holds little attraction. “The majority of music is for people to sit on sofas and relax to. I’m not into direct messages”.

“It is ironic” he muses. “The amount that people are using computers is accelerating out of control. Human beings and culture can’t cope with how fast it’s going, but I’m right on the edge of it and I’m really enjoying it!”.

You’re a strange man, Carl Finlow, but we like you.

 

Haiku If You Want To

‘F’ challenged me in the comments to my Earl Brutus interview to squeeze out a haiku. Here’s one about a writer’s nightmare:

 

LOST LIMB

Hands mining pockets,
Blood spiked with adrenalin.
A missing notebook.

 

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Maybe ‘Lost limb’ is a bit over the  top. But losing a notebook, especially when it’s almost full of ideas I’ve been chewing on for a couple of months, is a short, sharp pain. So maybe it’s like losing a little finger at the first knuckle. Now, often the ideas that are taking shape in a notebook are also still rolling around the inside of my head bone, but it’s the observations, the day dreaming and the snatched overheard dialogue that are traumatically miscarried.

Once, I managed to wipe my hard drive of all my writing. With the help of a disc recovery program I salvaged some of it, but an entire draft of a TV drama idea vanished. However it turned out to be one of the better things that could have happened. I was forced back onto the original idea, and  the spine of the story, without the accumulated – and it turned out not very good – writing I’d already done. Losing the draft was like an exceptionally brutal bit of editing. I wouldn’t recommend it every time.

It was acceptable in the Nineties #2

…being  a piece on a ‘Battle of the Bands’ run by Leeds City Council that was maybe missing the essential spirit of pop music:

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“Thank you Leeds!’ An amplifier squeals as a sweat-drenched singer sloughs off his guitar and the drummer hurls his sticks into the crowd, a parting gift to the fans. 

Wembley Arena it isn’t, it’s the Duchess of York pub on a chilly January night where the heats of the Bright Young Things contest are being fought out.

“There was a gap  and we needed to fill it” explains Krista May of Leeds City Council. “We realised that we don’t really do anything for musicians that play guitar-based music”. Hence Bright Young Things which, for the past five years, has offered young bands a bridge from draughty garages and pub function rooms to the prestigious stage of the city’s Town and Country Club, where the national final will be held on March 14th.

As well as the chance to tread in the footsteps of their idols, the bands are competing for £2,500 worth of top-notch musical gear. But the route to that ultimate end, maintains May, is as important as the goal itself.

“The bands get to learn what it takes to be in a band, if that’s what they seriously want to do as a career” she says. “They have to realise the amount of work that’s involved in rehearsing, getting a following, getting an image and the realms of promotion”.

The two Yorkshire bands that have reached the final, Brass Monkey and Brace, have taken this message to heart. Brace drummer Rob Atkins anticipates the final with a mixture of nervousness and elation. “It’s a fantastic opportunity” he says. “This is really big league stuff for us. Playing at the Town and Country Club us fantastic because we get very cramped in smaller places and also the style of our music sounds better in large venues”.

Bouncing back after a previous unsuccessful shot at Bright Young Things, Brass Monkey stormed through the heats, their furious energy channelled by a relentless schedule of practices and gigs. Guitarist Jamie Gill is practically frothing at the mouth in his eagerness to take the Town and Country Club stage. “We’ve got some trampolines lined up and we’re gonna get [singer] Danny Call to ride on stage with a BMX bike and throw it into the crowd” he jokes (I think).

Check out many a band in a pub and it’s rare to escape the well-worn rock formulae of Oasis or The Verve. Call admits that Brass Monkey is working in a crowded arena. “During the Battle of the Bands at Harrogate we felt like an Elvis impersonator in an Elvis impersonation contest” he says. “It’s very difficult to deviate from the norm, because there’s so many male guitar bands around”.

The fact that Bright Young Things reflects the preponderance of all-male guitar groups is perhaps the event’s greatest weakness. With one or two notable exceptions, few of the bands display true originality. Of course it’s unrealistic to expect fully formed genius, but at least a willingness to (figuratively) bite the heads off fruitbats and throw colourful tantrums might signal that pop music isn’t just fit for the soundtrack to yet another car ad.

By contrast, a contest like Bright Young Things works to a highly pragmatic brief, as May confirms. “If a band are going to succeed they need to see themselves as a package, a product that’s either going to be saleable or not” she says.

Perhaps the confidence gained from Bright Young Things might encourage bands to experiment, before the industry ignores them completely, or worse still, rewards them for being so well-behaved.

 

It was acceptable in the Nineties #1: Earl Brutus

For my first ‘archive’ post, here’s my first published interview for the Big Issue In The North, Earl Brutus. Conducted in 1997 during the ‘Britpop’ musical bull market, just as the band put out their second album on Island Records.

“Pop music is wasted on the young” snarls the voice over the phone. “With all these pathetic New Wave bands hovering around, we couldn’t sit back and grow old gracefully! It’s impossible, when you know you’ve got something to offer”.

Jamie Fry of Earl Brutus talks about pop music with the knowledge of his thirtysomething years, but the unbowed spirit of someone half his age. The ‘something to offer’ is a raucous press-gang of sweaty, spanebintscangled guitar and the old-school modernity of programmed beats. Come Taste My Mind, the next single, is as good an example as you could wish for.

“I suppose it’s quite arrogant really. It’s about being fiercely ambitious and ultimately having nothing….about having a perception of yourself that’s completely wide of the mark…but it’s all done in good spirit, as everything is in Earl Brutus”.

The single has a bruised, head-spinning makeover, courtesy of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s William Reid. Fry is clearly delighted with the result.

“It’s a pop song. The whole point is to put yourself in someone else’s hands and let them do it, and not be mixed by committee, not have twelve people sitting the desk, levelling everything out”.

With the possible exception of Shin-Yu, the band’s safari-suited “human ornament”, Earl Brutus have accrued a strong musical heritage in bands as diverse as World of Twist, Clock DVA and Jo Boxers. A more image-conscious group might have covered their tracks, but Fry sees their mongrel pedigree as an advantage. Their age and experience (“We didn’t fight a war, we were too young for the Beatles….which is great”) also puts them in opposition to the narrow membership qualifications for pop stars.

Unlike younger bands, Earl Brutus draw on an idiosyncratic pool of influence. As well as the bilious energy of punk, another archetypal 70s group inspires them. “Kraftwerk were the ultimate pop group for me; four blokes dressed immaculately, looked brilliant, stood brilliantly…their songs are so simple and yet they have so much emotion in them”.

Fry sees part of the band’s function being to dig up their own roots for others to see, although one name on his list could give the overly fashion-conscious an embolism. “Gary Glitter made some absolutely brilliant records in the early 70s…” [this interview took place just as the first rumours about Glitter were starting to emerge. AM] and the stack-heeled stomp of the troubled glam grandad pounds through several Earl Brutus songs. Their gigs begin with the sound of a musical compass spinning crazily, wedging the likes of Glitter up against Tricky or Bowie’s Laughing Gnome. Is this their own private school of cool?

“As you go through your revivals, you might find a nice pair of jeans or a Fred Perry to wear, but it doesn’t mean you’ve got to buy the Parka, the scooter, or the beads and flowers” says Fry. “You just scavenge your way through the best bits”.

Much of Earl Brutus’ growing reputation comes from their live performances, where their gleeful demolition of their equipment and derisive puncturing of their audience’s cool leads some to believe they’re up for a fight, an idea that Fry is quick to deflate. “If it takes a few pyrotechnics and a few pints of lager, and a bit of shouting down a mic to get people excited, then it’s a reflection of the miserable world we live in. We’re into destruction, but we’re not into violence, in the slightest”.

An example of their ‘spirited chaos’ happened at Reading Festival, courtesy of two ’”total grunge merchants” from Seattle.

“We went on at two in the morning after the festival” he says, “and these two guys got on stage and started smashing our gear to pieces. The guys lost it, but in a kind of good way”.

If this sounds like a tiring occupation, Fry seems prepared to “do a Bowie” and stay in for the long run. “I wouldn’t be surprised actually if we were 50 and still kicking around. I think we provide a service and until a group as fired and full of life as ours is comes along, then we’ll have to carry on anyway”.

 

Placeholders In The Heart

This blog is entitled ‘birobasher’, because of the countless number of them I’ve emptied, broken or lost filling notebooks with ideas and thoughts meant to become finished work. The notebooks, papery removable flash drives from the USB socket in the base of my skull.

I’m an aspiring writer (yeah, one those people) taking the opportunity of unexpected thinking time and mental freedom afforded by redundancy, to get something not just written, but finished. This blog is intended as a place for me to ‘think out loud’ about writing, including my own. Apart from showing any progress in my own screenwriting it will include reviews of film or TV with particular reference to the script, as well as prose stories and even the occasional haiku.

But in addition, I will be publishing an archive of my arts journalism from the 90s, in particular from The Big Issue In The North. This is instructive as much for me as anybody else: when I read through my old work, I’m glad that my writing has changed over the years, even though I’ve not done nearly as much of it as I would like. This also causes me to wince now and then and mutter ‘Wouldn’t do it like that now’. But that’s a good thing, all told.

Watch that cursor blink.