Saturday, 15 October 2016

Interview: THE BREEDERS (1993)


The BREEDERS tend to talk at the same time, and sometimes the 
resulting cross-talk makes as much sense as a Japanese VCR manual. 
 But the Barbie Generation has come of age. And it takes no prisoners. 
 An interview in which the Geekoid Heavy Metal equation is defined. 
 The secrets of sentimental Bikers, wankey Beatles lyrics and Tom Jones 
are discussed, and drummer Jim is sexually harassed…

‘I don’t understand this Who thing?’ complains Kelley Deal as the lights shriek and the feedback zigzags. ‘They what? – they recorded an album here?’

Well, no. Not actually HERE. Not here at the ‘Metropolitan University’. But yes – the Who did do a 1970 ‘Live At Leeds’ vinyl full of the kind of bombast and swagger that now sells like cold cakes. Of course, things have changed a tad since then. All that testosterone male Rock ‘n’ Roll braggadocio is deader than tank-tops, isn’t it? As hairy as a month-old turd.

By contrast, the Breeders ‘Live In Leeds’ can be as delicate as a moth. And simultaneously deadlier than bombs. In the earth-shaking stakes they’re probably somewhere around the 89-mark on the Richter scale. The levels of seismic activity that cause mass evacuation in Southern California. But they move through sheer swerves of volume into sudden halts and pauses, strange distortions and bursts of half-audible vocals, with Kim and Kelley Deal at the centre of the energy. Breeders are the quake epicentre of the Nineties main musical thrust – the female revision of Rock’s antique blueprints. An anti-matter inversion of all that frazzle-brained riffology. Aren’t they?

‘Rush. Ted Nugent. Michael Schenker. UFO’ enthuses Kim. The bands they saw during their formative years, ‘’cos they was RAAAWK!!!’

‘I saw Rush about thirteen times’ brags drummer Jim. ‘Black Sabbath. Ozzy Osbourne…’

But all those Dukes of Dork are Metal. All the worst excesses of politically incorrect unsound sound! The guys who savour guitar solos as if they’re blow jobs.

‘Ah. But there’s Cool Metal’ explains Kim patiently. ‘Mountain. Rainbow – that’s kinda cool metal. But then you have your Geek Metal too. Everybody else thought it was metal, but you didn’t like that. Geek Metal would be…’

‘Kiss’ suggests Kelley, delineating the Geekoid party line.

‘And who else – Night Ranger. That’s Geeky. Toto, Loverboy, Foreigner – YUGHK!’ She wrinkles her nose in disgust. ‘I’d like for Breeders to do a Ted Nugent song. But the thought of us doing a Foreigner song – UURRRGH!’ A pause for reorientation. ‘But I like everything. I think “Sleepwalk” is a pretty song (Santo & Johnny’s 1950s instrumental hit). I like the Chiffons “He’s So Fine”. And what’s that one that goes ‘…why do birds si-ing so-oh gay…’?’ She sings the song sweetly and directly at me, demanding identification.

‘I like Jim Morrison’ declares Jim. His intervention coming as a momentary distraction from Kim’s interrogation. ‘It’s just great pot-smoking music.’

‘Tanya likes the Doors a lot.’ Tanya is Tanya Donelly, one-time Breeder, now full-time Belly. But to Kim ‘naw, Jim Morrison just gets a little too weird for me.’

‘Too weird for YOU! How could THAT happen?’ howls Jim incredulously. ‘That’s impossible.’

‘‘I am the Lizard King?’ I ain’t buying that y’know’ she grumbles suspiciously.

--- 0 --- 

The Barbie Generation has come of age. And it takes no prisoners.

Kelley is reading the ‘Wordsworth Classics’ paperback ‘Fanny Hill: Memoirs Of A Woman Of Pleasure’. Her well-thumbed 99p edition of John Cleland’s Nineteenth Century soft-core is crushed down into the upholstery between us. Erotica, or proto-Feminism? I’m tearing up theory. Party lines are up for grabs.

Kelley’s dark hair shows the residue of recent perming. Kim’s is the same deep black, worn long and lank. She used to be a Pixie, and she’s all surface toughness, but fast and very funny too. Both Deal sisters dress on a casual overdrive. Consider the changing aesthetic of the female form from Titian to Allen Jones. The Deal’s come somewhere around ‘Minnie The Minx’.

‘New York is right here’ explains Kelley, indicating a position on an imaginary map printed in mid-air between us. ‘Right? And Pennsylvania is… here,’ one invisible step from right to left. ‘And Ohio is right HERE,’ an emphatic stab a further step to the left identifies home.

‘I’m right next door to Chicago’ adds drummer Jim (Macpherson), Breeder’s token male. ‘We’re just surrounded by a lot of cornfields.’

‘We have a rehearsal space downstairs in our house. Me and Kelley live together in Dayton, Ohio. Jim lives fifteen minutes away. Josephine… she lives fifteen HOURS away, in England.’

‘But she’s hardly ever home. She’s usually with us’ glows Kelley. ‘That’s the way we like it.’

Josephine Wiggs is no Pixie. Never was. But she’s got an M.A in philosophy from Sussex University, and she did cut three albums with her old band – Perfect Disaster, plus one called ‘Nude Nudes’ (1992, Playtime Records) as part of a duo called Honeytongue (with Jon Mattock of Spiritualised). She’s a calorie-controlled version of the Deal sisters, slimmer and more tightly focussed. ‘Do you realise, if I lived in Los Angeles it would take about the same time? A bit less. But not THAT much less. That is – if you could get a direct flight… which you can’t.’

Kim is unconvinced. ‘But yeah, I bet it probably would. Are you thinking of moving to Los Angeles?’

‘No. That’s just an example.’

Breeders interviews tend to be like that – slightly off-centre. Their internal dialogue is wondrous to behold. It’s a Living Soap Opera with gags, handbrake turns, and buckets of adrenalin to upset your every preconception. They don’t easily open their heads for inspection, not because they’re devious or evasive. Just that they tend to de-rail each other. While Breeders songs give tantalisingly distressed impressions of murky pasts. So let’s unzip the past, from where Kim and Kelley used to be an acoustic duo playing Truck-Stops.

‘In Dayton, Ohio? Yeah,’ from Kim. ‘If you were a guy in Spandex you could play the Bars. And if you did a lot of Night Ranger. You did a lot of .38 Special. You did a lot of Toto – that kind of thing. But there were some places we could play. We used to do an old Hank Williams song, “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)”. We did it recently as a ‘B’-side (of “Divine Hammer”, October 1993). And an Elvis Costello song – “The Angels Want To Wear My Red Shoes”. I remember doing that at Truck-Stops. We also did Delaney & Bonnie things. We did “Comes The Time”, the Neil Young song. And things that we had written. “Do You Love Me Now” (on ‘Last Splash’, August 1993) is from that time. You could play Country stuff. And you can do some Blues stuff. Biker guys – they don’t mind sitting down and watching pretty girls sing and play guitar. It’s a lot different to College-age-type kids who just think ‘there’s no fuckin’ way we’re gonna sit around listening to THIS shit’. But it’s weird because these tough big macho Biker guys – you know?, you could make them cry. You really could, and it’s so nice. There’s this song by… oh yeah, Little Feat! You know the one where they go… erm… TWANG TWANG T-T-TWANG AH-AH OW-OW AH-AH – right?’ She mimes with huge soulful emphasis, thrashing out monstrous chords on an invisible guitar as she memory-searches the title. ‘It’s called…’

‘....“Special”’ suggests Kelley.

‘Yes, that’s it. And it’s all about watching Mexican girls singing and playing in a Cantina in Mexico. How the guy finds all his answers when he sees them play…’ (it’s actually “Spanish Moon” on ‘Feats Don’t Fail Me Now’ (1974) ‘well I pawned my watch and I sold my ring, just to hear that girl sing, yeah yeah’).

And it goes on.

This is what life is like on planet Breeders.

--- 0 --- 

Memo to the serious reader: ‘Pod’ (May 1990, 4AD) – the Breeders first album, comes in a sleeve-shot that resembles one of those ‘naughty’ vegetables that people used to send in to the Esther Rantzen TV-show, and now stick on sniggery ‘Facebook’ posts. Those that resemble mutant genitalia. Built around a trio of Kim, Josephine, and former Throwing Muses sister-act Tanya, it can be a slow and grunge-heavy album. There’s a sharply faithful Beatles ‘White Album’ remnant, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” (but ‘…just towards the end there’s a section that we just don’t sing at all – ‘and when I hold you in my arms, and I feel my finger on your trigger…’, y’know, they’re going into those risqué really horrible things. Sometimes they did some really wanky things’). But the sharpest most perverse song is Kim’s “When I Was A Painter”. A massive snit of resentment exploring the shape of ravaged and hoary sexual relationships and the intricacies of gender politics.

But why ‘Pod’? It’s a title that sounds like something out of the ‘Invasion Of The Body Snatchers’ movie.

‘Yeah. It’s just self-loathing. A bunch of ugly stinking gross songs. That’s it!’

Steve Albini gets producer credits. But although the main-man of Big Black and Rapeman may be a sorcerer of sound with breathless credentials, can’t he also be… er, difficult to work with?

‘He was really great. He was fun. He’s funny. He’s a smart guy.’

‘A smart ass’ grins Kelley.

‘A smart ass too’ admits Kim. ‘But in a neat way. He’s different. Some producers really become a fifth member of the band. And they really, like, agonise over every decision. But what we had was… we’d go ‘do you like this guitar sound, or this guitar sound?’ And he’d go ‘I don’t give a fuck. It’s not my band! Do whatever the fuck you wanna do. Just tell me when you’re ready and I’ll put the mikes on.’ I can see how people might think he’s difficult. But, y’know – don’t hire him if you want a big fan. He’s not like that. So just don’t hire him.’

‘He can be difficult if you continue to disagree with him’ agrees Jo. ‘But basically, if you go in pretty quickly and say ‘oh, we’re going to do this, this and this’, then he’s not difficult.’

The resulting sides are immaculately twisted, and they shove Breeders way above the Pop Event Horizon. Outside of dildos and Tupperware, pieces of moulded plastic (and whatever it is CDs are mad of) have rarely been known to trigger such intense reactions. Now Tanya and Kim, Belly and Breeders, occupy different planets. But they still inhabit the same sonic solar system. Kelley joined Breeders in time for their ‘Last Splash’ album. It was her initial reading of another underground classic of erotica – a Marquis De Sade biography, that ignited “Cannonball”, the band’s first charting single (UK no.40, August 1993).

‘We just had this conversation about it’ relates Kim.

‘I haven’t – like, read his actual works’ admits Kelley with a devious smile. ‘But I saw (Pasolini’s 1975) movie of his ‘120 Days Of Sodom’ and it was like ‘my gawd!’’

‘I can invent my own fantasies, thank you. I don’t need to READ through that.’

Take these words – and stick ‘em in your head. Kim Deal can think around corners. It was Kim who wrote the Pixies bristling “Gigantic”. Her songs manipulate the complex exchange rates between energy and intelligence, combining the mind-bending with the mundane. The Breeders make violence graceful.

And… Frankie Lymon.

‘Why do birds si-ing so-oh gay…’ I suddenly worry Kim’s question through to its conclusion. The song she can’t name is “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” – originally recorded by Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers. He was a star in 1955 at the age of fifteen, a junkie at twenty, dead of an OD in 1968. One of Rock’s early casualties…

--- 0 --- 

‘Women DO throw their underwear at Tom Jones, you know?’ muses Kelley in wondering disbelief. ‘Why? That’s an interesting question.’

The Breeders might be at the quake epicentre of the female revision of Rock’s antique blueprints. But the amused fascination with that old frazzle-brained riffology remains – from the Who, to the ludicrous posturing of Tom Jones.

‘I saw him in Manchester’ admits Kim. ‘At the ‘Apollo’. And talk about sexual imagery on stage! Here was Tom Jones, and his trousers were so tight he could hardly MOVE. So that when he reached down on one knee to pick up a Lady’s underwear…’ She mimes it out in very slow, very careful, exaggerated slow motion, as the rest of the assembly disintegrates into hysteria. ‘He picks up the Lady’s underwear, he wipes his brow with them, and then he gives them back to the woman.’

‘But then there’s Marky Mark!’ and his Calvin Kleins.

‘Yeah, he’s got into a lot of trouble. If he doesn’t take his pants down and show his underwear, they don’t want him to perform. Now THAT’S a fuckin’ problem, don’t ya know? WE don’t get any sort of things like that. THEY’VE got the problem! And have you noticed recently how many guys are taking their shirts off? Evan Dando. The guy from Depeche Mode. Even the guy from Tears For Fears opened his top button. Why?’

‘You’re getting the wrong idea’ grins Jim slyly. ‘When I take my shirt off on stage, it’s because I’m burning up.’

‘Naw Jim, we’re talking physique here. When you do it we’re not talking about the same thing’ insinuates Jo mischievously.

‘Now THAT is sexist, Josephine’ scolds Kelley.

‘No, it’s not sexist. It’s cool.’

‘Naw – it’s English.’

‘We’re just kidding around here’ assures Kim. ‘Of course, Jim’s not uncomfortable. But what is a joke to you might not be to someone else. You have to ask ‘is it appropriate’ or ‘is it inappropriate’? Does it make somebody uncomfortable…’

I came here tonight to sniff out the critique of the Nineties main musical thrust, and I wind up with the Geekoid metal equation, the secrets of sentimental Bikers, wanky Beatles lyrics, Tom Jones, and the inappropriateness of sexism. But is Jim uncomfortable? More sexual harassment is yet to be inflicted upon his uncomplaining person.

‘…Another good album cover-picture was for Tad’s ‘Eight-Way Santa’ (1991)’ opines Kim as the internal dialogue goes on, faster and more CD-interactive than I can type it. ‘It showed a guy and a girl in a Trailer Park. Me and Jim will do it… I’m the guy – he’s the girl…’ They get up. Jim more than a little apprehensive and unsure what’s expected of him. Kim begins to embrace him. ‘I can’t do it, you’re too big’ she complains. ‘Anyway – the guy had his hand on her breast.’

‘Jim can do that for you’ suggests Jo enthusiastically,

‘OK. Here, I’ll do it for you’ leers Jim, suddenly warming to the game.

The tableau mutates into a writhing skirmish of crawling limbs as Kim continues to talk unperturbed. ‘He just had his hand on her breast – right? It was so… sleazy. The band had just picked the picture up in a garage sale. The album was released, the radio played it. Then the couple in the picture sued – they’d become Born Again Christians, and they don’t like their photograph being used.’

Things subside from active tussle to more normal levels of the Breeders Living Soap. ‘After that they had a big contest’ she resumes. ‘The slogan was ‘TAD NEED A NEW ALBUM COVER PICTURE, SEND IT IN TO THIS ADDRESS’ and blah-blah. I was going to take a picture of myself and send that in.’ An imperceptibly reflective pause, ‘But it was just one of those things that I never did.’

Memo to the Serious Reader: I get the impression there aren’t too many other things Kim Deal’s never done.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Gig Review: THE BREEDERS Live in Leeds

at ‘Leeds Metropolitan University’, Yorkshire 

Watching Breeder Kim Deal chain-smoke is an entertainment in itself. Gripping cigarette between teeth whenever a vocal break provides an opportunity, her face contorts with effort, her mouth a figure-of-eight around the cancer-stick. Then she’s exhaling and wheezing huge plumes of noxious fumes as if it provides some kind of psychological life-support system. And not having mastered the old Blues-player’s art of temporarily impaling the smouldering butt on guitar-neck strands during songs, she hastily drops it to the floor when her voice is needed, to be retrieved later, perhaps re-lit, or failing that – the crush-pack on the amps is plundered for a replacement. And then another.

There’s no Dry-Ice for the Breeders, but that’s hardly necessary when Kim’s on stage. Breeders are the Music Press ‘Girls De Jour’, but they don’t really need that either. Kim wears a shapeless blue top and jeans with few concessions to presentation. But for the driving instrumental “Flipside” a jive two-some from support band Luscious Jackson provides ragged choreography. ‘They’re great’ enthuses sister Kelley Deal, ‘they’ll do ANYTHING! There – that’s ruined THEIR reputation!’

The bitching cross-chat is almost as much fun as Kim’s ciggy-juggling. ‘It’s not that I’m playing WRONG’ explains bassist Josephine carefully, ‘it’s just that we’re both playing different SONGS.’ For Aerosmith’s “Lord Of The Thighs” Jo snatches vocals. She ‘oozes it, no, she vocal stylises it’, before she switches to drums for “Roi” which Kim announces as ‘a solo acoustic’ (!). Democratically Kelley also gets to sing “I Just Wanna Get Along”, while even Roadie Simon gets a credit, a nudging piss-take for having his Patsy-Kensit-lookalike girlfriend printed across his T-shirt.

Breeders are (largely) from Dayton, Ohio, although solid drummer Jim MacPherson is from Chicago, and Jo Wiggs from fifteen hours away in Brighton, England. Kim arrives by way of her vital role in the Pixies, with Breeders starting out as a side-project (inaugurated with Tanya Donelly of Throwing Muses) between their ‘Surfer Rosa’ (4AD, March 1988) tour, and the release of ‘Bossanova’ in August 1990. An outlet for Kim’s songs which, largely, Pixies couldn’t find space for. Tonight the Breeders are touring their second album – ‘Last Splash’ (4AD, August 1993), their first with their current line-up.

John Lennon’s “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” is crammed full of unpolished arpeggios at strobe-speed. The twitchy rhythms of “When I Was A Painter” come in hot pursuit. And their Marquis De Sade-inspired single “Cannonball” is threaded on sadistically oscillating guitar figures that chew their way into your head like a particularly vicious hang-over. Breeders are self-contained and ideally gig-friendly. They close with “Lime House”, the penultimate cut from their debut ‘Pod’ (4AD, May 1990) – the Steve Albini-produced album that Kurt Cobain frequently claimed as his favourite all-time vinyl. And between cigarettes, Kim is one hell of a singer.

From first to Last Splash…

Thursday, 13 October 2016



OK, so maybe this second issue - two sides of A4, was something of a seat-of-the-pants stop-gap shot. Launched in Spring 1971, with a useful round-up of other counter-culture alternative publishing projects, it nevertheless catches something of the grimy flavor of the time.

I never actually thought much of the name 'Ludd's Mill', although I concocted a selection of dubious explanations for it. I always preferred the title I attempted to infiltrate later as 'publisher', which was variations of 'Eight Miles Higher'. As Steve Sneyd later explained it to me, it was something of a random serendipitous bodge of a process anyway. Pre-launch, the collective was sitting around in the bar tossing around semi-serious suggestions, while Steve - taking the minutes on a notepad already full of poems-in-process, quotes and mystic diagrams, jots them down at angles that cram them into available white-spaces. There was 'Thud!', there was 'Trouble At Mill' - sniping at the Northern Industrial dramas, and there was 'Ned Ludd' - semi-legendary leader of the Luddites. Somehow these titles tended to merge and overlap as the liquid evening progressed, to somehow emerge in the mutant 'Ludds's Mill' configuration. I was never a Luddite. Whereas I approve the idea of direct action, I'm also fond of the way the technology can ease us into tomorrows…

But stick with the story… it gets better...

Friday, 30 September 2016


                                                    (September 2016)

trackless tracks
sniffed out betwixt
the cracked crevices
of dry-stone terraces
breeze sighs and ripples web-net
skirts around ancient olive trees,
another wrap of shadow
closing around my shoulder,
invisible ghost fingers looming
on the nape of neck, closer,
tar-blacker than night itself
dryads and tree-nymphs
fear-bug tease at glimpse’s edge
off the photocopied map
through an arch of limbs
to the secret waterfall…
squint high and it glitters from sun
in a golden cascade direct from
eyeless velvet cloud-strands
into elfin glade and cave-mouth
lizard-dart small creakings,
a pupa-snore and a snuffle of
pebbles worn marble-smooth,
butterflies skim swirling
flits like Aphrodite’s fingertips
around spray-wet weed…
those endless spills were
falling before I met you
as we stand and kiss,
they’re falling now
beyond our parting
into separate myths,
falling for, you with another…

Thursday, 29 September 2016



In Ian Serraillier’s wonderful juvenile novel, 
the three Balicki children cross war-torn 
Europe, with Jan’s precious box containing 
‘The Silver Sword’, and ‘when their spirits 
flagged, it gave them hope 
 and inspiration to go on…’


‘Warsaw is full of lost children’ says Jan.

Within juvenile fiction, there’s a runaway-orphan sub-genre, those tales of the child removed from parental control and thrown back onto its own resources. For the comfortably loved child reader it provides teasing glimpses of a luring freedom from adult authority figures, with the added frisson of danger and fear at the loss of that safe protection.

As an ten-year-old I watched the BBC-TV dramatisation of Ian Serraillier’s ‘The Silver Sword’ in which the three Polish Balicki children – Ruth, the eldest at fifteen, Edek two years younger, and five-year-old Bronia, accompanied by the enigmatic Jan, cross war-devastated Europe in the hope of a rendezvous in Switzerland with their lost parents. It made a powerful impact. A wide-ranging highly-engaging adventure. Deepened by the mystery of whatever Jan’s precious box contains. ‘Warsaw is full of lost children. They’re dirty and starving and they all look alike.’

The first of seven episodes, adapted by CE Webber, was broadcast on Sunday evening, 17:40, 24 November 1957. It follows ‘Circus Boy’ starring Mickey ‘Dolenz’ Braddock (future-Monkee drummer), and ‘Sooty’ with puppeteer Harry Corbett. Produced by Shaun Sutton the serial featured Melvyn Hayes as the sickly Edek. Hayes had already featured in TV’s ‘Quatermass II’ (1955) and as young Victor in ‘The Curse Of Frankenstein’ (1957), but is now best remembered as camp ‘Gloria’ in ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ (1974-1981). Jan was played by Frazer Hines, a future companion to Patrick Troughton’s ‘Doctor Who’, and an ‘Emmerdale Farm’ regular. Pat Pleasance was Ruth, with Ingrid Sylvester as little Bronia. Patrick Cargill and Shaw Taylor were also there, as a black marketeer and a German officer respectively.

Barry Letts & Frazer Hines in the original BBC-TV production

I bought the book on the strength of the TV series. But re-reading it now I’d forgotten how the first five chapters – dated to early 1940, concern father Joseph (played on TV by future ‘Doctor Who’ producer Barry Letts). He’s a headmaster whose primary school undergoes forcible Nazification, with Polish textbooks replaced by German language. He defiantly turns the classroom Hitler portrait to the wall, for which he’s snatched by Storm Troopers and incarcerated in the Zakyna prison-camp. As Serraillier explains, this is a real camp given an imaginary name. Actor John Woodnutt – who was, for a while, our near-neighbour in East Yorkshire, could also be seen as a fellow prisoner. Following an elaborately-detailed escape, involving a catapult made from pine twigs and the elastic sides of his boots, it takes him four-and-a-half weeks to tramp all the way to the ruins of Warsaw. 

Piers Sandford’s line-drawings reproduced in the 1993 Puffin Modern Classics edition shows the silver sword, a paper-knife Joseph had once birthday gifted to his wife, it’s about five inches long with a brass hilt engraved with a fire-breathing dragon. Joseph rediscovers it in the dynamited rubble of their former family home. His Swiss-born wife – Margrit (Gwen Watford), was forcibly taken as a foreign-worker to Germany. The children, he’s told, are presumably dead.

It’s then he encounters ‘a small ragged boy’ with ‘fair wispy hair and unnaturally bright eyes.’ Jan has a wooden box under one arm, and a bony grey kitten under the other. He’s reluctant to even admit his name, and has no surname. ‘I have my grey cat and this box.’ He lives by his wits. But Joseph trades the silver sword for a promise. That if ever the street-wise waif meets the three Balicki children, to tell them that their father Joseph is going to Switzerland to find heir mother. Jan grabs the sword, pops it into his little wooden box, and runs off into the ruins. Yet he returns to help Joseph hop a freight train travelling west.

It’s only now that the narrative – composed of economically stripped but wonderfully vivid word-pictures, returns to explain the fate of the children. Serraillier’s prose interrogates the reader about the night of the Storm Troopers – ‘had they taken his wife away? Had they returned and blown up the house with the children in it?’ Then supplies the answers. Edek – who was a member of the Boy’s Rifle Brigade at age twelve, had used a gun during the Siege of Warsaw. Now he shoots from his bedroom window, wounding one of the Nazis bundling his struggling mother into a van, and then shoots out the rear tyre. Anticipating reprisals the three children escape through the attic window and perilously cross the adjoining roofs before their home is dynamited.

Swiftly and pragmatically they adapt to surviving in the city ruins. Ruth, serious, intelligent and self-assured, starts a school. Edek scavenges, smuggles and thieves from the Nazis, until he’s eventually apprehended. Serraillier’s skill lies in reducing vast global conflict down to a shifting background, through the perspective of a confused war-child. Even the Nazis are shadowy bogey-men to be feared, but almost peripheral. ‘The war will end’ the children are told, ‘be patient.’ While they survive from day-to-day, as child victims of warfare always have, and continue to do so in the Syria migration and beyond.

The summer of 1944, and following the Warsaw Uprising, the city falls to the Soviets. But more significantly, Bronia and Ruth find a pale and ragged boy lying on a heap of rubble. The kitten has gone, he now has a fiercely-protective cockerel called Jimpy, but this is Jan, who has the silver sword safe in his precious wooden box.

As a child of the immediate post-war years I was bored and resentful of the reverence and force-fed respect I was expected to pay to the sacrifices and heroisms of events that had occurred before I was born, the fabricated swell of patriotism for ‘The Dam-Busters’ (1955) or ‘Reach For The Sky’ (1956), and the gratitude to aging icons Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Montgomery for saving our freedom. There were war-stories in the comics I read – Frank S Pepper’s long-running ‘Rockfist Rogan’, or air-ace ‘Paddy Payne’ on the cover of ‘Lion’, ‘Commando One’ or ‘War Eagle’ in ‘Comet’ where bull-necked Nazis exclaim ‘Gott in Himmel’, ‘Dummkopf’ and ‘Das Englander’. But I always preferred the fantasy or Sci-fi strips, or the Vikings and Roman epics.

‘The Silver Sword’ was different. This is no comic-strip heroism, it’s a human story. ‘War does strange things to young people’ writes Serraillier, and the enigmatic pickpocket Jan provides the perfect focus. Traumatised and damaged, yet fiercely resilient, he trusts, and has an affinity only with animals. An alienated outsider, surly, sullen and uncommunicative, he’s needy, yet wary. The Russian Ivan assists Ruth’s school with food and writing materials, and helps trace lost brother Edek to the Posen transit camp. Yet to Jan, all soldiers are to be hated, whether Nazi or Russian ‘they’re all the same’. And it’s in a tussle with Ivan that the contents of Jan’s box are revealed – and Ruth recognises the silver sword.

Switzerland is ‘millions of miles away’ argues Jan, ‘and you’ll have to walk. Without any shoes.’

Birds make their nests among the ruins. For there are no trees left now, as Ruth and Bronia – with Jan, leave Warsaw to begin their long journey towards their Swiss ‘Promised Land’, via Posen. But Edek is no longer there. He’s escaped. Instead, they meet him by accident in the same Kolina soup-kitchen that poor Jimpy’s neck is broken in the crush for food. But this is a thinner, sicker Edek, who relates his tale of escaping German slave-labour by hanging suspended and freezing beneath the carriage of a speeding train.

They reach the lunar landscape ruins of Berlin on a refugee train, and Jan adopts a new animal companion – Bistro, an escaped zoo chimpanzee with a taste for cigarettes. They cross the Elbe, watching the Red Army columns descend upon ‘towns littered with the debris of war, upon a people numbed by defeat, living from day to day, with no thought for the future’ (descriptions based on eye-witness accounts in J Stransky’s ‘Wind Over Prague’). And across into the US zone where Jan works a scam to switch rail-signals to red, halting the goods train long enough to plunder it.

The narrative is straightforward, delivered in bite-size chapters. Except for the section in the form of a letter from English Army Officer Mark, to his wife Jane, describing his encounter with the ‘family’. And another from the point of view of Captain Greenwood of the US Army of Occupation, as he attempts to resolve the train-theft incident. Individuals are largely decent and well-intentioned, while overwhelmed by the humanitarian disaster that’s inflicting the devastated kleptocratic continent. From the Bavarian farmer who helps them and conceals them from a Burgomaster intent on repatriating them to Poland, to Joe Wolski, the jovial Polish-American GI who drives them towards the Swiss border.

First published in 1956, perhaps the atrocity inflicted by the Red Army’s block-by-block advance through Berlin was not widely recognised at the time. Or perhaps Serraillier’s vision also carries it’s own truth. Born on 24 September 1912, the oldest of four children, he was educated at Brighton College and St Edmund Hall, Oxford. He was also a Quaker and an activist with the pacifist ‘Peace Pledge Union’. An anti-war commitment recognised by a November 1940 tribunal, granting him conscientious objector status enabling him to contribute to the war effort through school-teaching. Written on an old Remington typewriter in his study across five long summer holidays, ‘The Silver Sword’ first appeared in a Jonathan Cape hardback with dust-jacket art by C Walter Hodges – the edition I originally owned. But it was a slow-burner, accelerated by the positive reception given to the BBC TV serial. In truth, there were only two channels. Up against the fledgling and still-patchy ITV network, the Sunday evening slot – later occupied by the five-part ‘Stranger On The Shore’ serial (from 21 September 1961), guaranteed mass juvenile audiences, and constituted something of a generational rite of passage. It was redone again by the BBC in eight episodes, from 22 August 1971.

I clearly recall the black-and-white TV sequences dramatising Chapter 22, ‘The Farmer Hits On A Plan’, and Chapter 23, ‘Dangerous Waters’, as the four children use two ancient canoes to navigate the Falken River down to its junction with the Danube at Falkenburg. Ruth losing control of the canoe she shares with Bronia as they pass beneath the bridge-span, and shots being fired at them from the night as the current grips them and surges them forward.

Then the final torrential storm that threatens to smash their venture into tragedy on Lake Constance, which forms the border to Switzerland itself. Jan rising to the occasion, retaining the silver sword, but sacrificing his precious box to the waves in his striving to save them. A decisive act of commitment binding him to his new-found family. To his daughter, Jane Serraillier Grossfeld, the book ‘is about the triumph of hope over despair’. In a ‘Peace News’ retrospective, poet Jeff Cloves observes that it ‘insists the best human values can never be extinguished by the worst. Ian Serraillier’s children are believable, their adventures not too far-fetched and their inevitable recovery of their parents will bring a lump to the throat of any reader – no matter how hard-hearted and unsentimental’ ( ).

Although a work of fiction, ‘The Silver Sword’ was rigorously researched and includes strands of the authentic. He used photo-spreads from ‘Picture Post’ and news-accounts in the Quaker periodical ‘The Friend’, as well as official Unesco publications as reference points, sellotaped into his large hardback school notebook. As a young man he’d also canoed on the Danube, and his first teaching post was at an international school on Lake Geneva. The characters are underscored by Red Cross records and, as Jane Serraillier Grossfeld points out in her essay appendaged to the Puffin Modern Classic edition, the real Edek did not survive the tuberculosis that was the legacy of his escape from German-slavery. And there’s nothing as patronizingly simple as a clear-cut happy ending. The delinquent and disturbed Jan – ‘that charming bundle of good intentions and atrocious deeds,’ finds difficulty adapting to peacetime, his psychic scars healed by working with animals. Ruth, forced into premature adult responsibility beyond her years, clings to her Mother. But they add their talents to the creation of the real-life Pestalozzi war-orphans village in Switzerland.

Warsaw was full of lost children. Four of those lost children, removed from parental control and thrown back onto their own resources, cross war-devastated Europe. Ian Serraillier wrote other books, poems, and retellings of classic folklore and myth, including ‘The Ivory Horn’ (1960) – his versions of the Frankish ‘Roland’ legend, ‘Beowulf’ and the tales of Chaucer. He also co-founded Heinemann’s ‘New Windmill Series’ of children’s book with his wife Anne Margaret Rogers. But, although he died 28 November 1994, ‘The Silver Sword’ is the work into which he most engagingly pours his beliefs, and the book for which he’ll be long remembered.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016



For those who care about such things as historical accuracy, no, I was not remotely involved in the first issue of 'Ludd's Mill'. As the editorial explains, it sprang out of a collective - which was the cool thing to do in 1971, orbiting around a series of live readings in Huddersfield under the 'Inner Circle' banner. Because he'd had previous experience, editing 'Riding West' magazine, Steve Sneyd assumed more of the responsibility for the finished product than its supposed co-operative nature would seem to indicate. Some of the contributors here would never be seen again…

Unlike later issues, the first incarnation of 'Ludd's Mill' is mimeographed, which leads to poor and spotty reproduction…

Apart from the cover-art, there's no illustrations - and visuals were to become a vitally important aspect of future issues…

In keeping with the counter-culture ethos of the time, 'Ludd's Mill' was intended to be street-sold and busked at live events locally, it was art news-bulletins of what was happening strictly at the moment, with no aspirations to posterity…

I was not involved. I was still in Barnsley with the 'Styng' underground tabloid newspaper, and the 'Sad Traffic' arts magazine from which it had grown. But I was starting to poke around interesting events, and this issue of 'Ludd's Mill' found its way onto the exchange/reviews pile scattered across the floor. And I make contact…

Yes, some of the stuff here is very much of its time, and maybe apologies are due. But there's also startlingly good material here that deserves to be preserved, and re-read (if you can't decipher it, individual pages can be blown up into legibility)… and how come there are eleven pages? Well - page two was blank, to allow for the cover-art…!

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Interview: LINDA EM


Linda Em is an enchanting genre-spanning chanteuse. 
Her debut album ‘Shadow Lands’ is well worth seeking out 
 (2015, Talking Elephant Records
This is the full version of an interview done for 
the excellent ‘R2: Rock ‘n’ Reel’ magazine, subsequently 
edited down for publication due to space restrictions

An ‘em’ is a unit used in typography, equal to the currently specified point size, therefore one ‘em’ in a sixteen-point typeface is sixteen points. Linda Em’s name has nothing to do with typography. ‘No it’s a name my friend Sonja put on me. I wanted to abbreviate my surname and she said why not just Em. It also works because I use a lot of E minor chords.’

Minor chords. Major talent. Now auburn-haired Linda’s talking about her debut album, ‘Shadow Lands’ (2015). There’s a kind of literary-connection with CS Lewis about that title. ‘Yes I’m aware of that, it crops up a lot… even in ‘Game Of Thrones’, which is also my kind of thing, pretty addictive, epic and mythological with strong female warriors.’ Although there isn’t a song called ‘Shadow Lands’ ‘it is a word used in one of my lyrics. “Run Higher” is a strange song, inspired by an American man who threw himself off the JPMorgan building in Canary Wharf (‘he couldn’t stand the pressure in his head, so he flew’). I pass the building a lot, its very sad that people are pushed to such actions.’

The video for “Run Higher” shows Linda pensively adrift in the city-commuter flood beneath the Shard skyline. She’s lived in London since the 1980s, making sense of its contradictions with a voice that betrays the edge of Eire in its country-huskiness, yet quietly urgent as she moves from corner to corner, melding Celtic roots with influences ranging from the smoky blues end of the folk spectrum informed by literate classic singer-songwriters. Think Kirsty MacColl, then think again.

At first it seems maybe such songs have matured over a considerable period of time, literate yet Pop-melodic, from slightly nasal Blues to slow sin, accented by Folk-violin. There are lots of frail clear-voiced girl singers in the quasi-Folkie thing, who have perfect voices but little character. Linda’s USP is that her voice is not like that, there’s more breath of experience there. That’s what makes it stand out. There’s even a weird claim on her website that she’s an ‘aged soul honed by a life lived…’ ‘Yes, and no’ she parries. ‘I’m not sure how accurate that is, maybe it’s more a little insight into my person? I am an aged soul, I guess. I’m thirty-four but have a hankering and a taste for all things that came before me. While my peers were reaching for Prodigy I was listening to Janice Joplin and Carole King. As a child it was Fifties, Sixties and Seventies vinyl compilations that my mother had, I would play them on our radiogram. My Dad was a big Hank Williams fan. I also adore old movies, I find them very comforting especially on a rainy day, the comedy pairing of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn used to make me laugh hard!’

“Muse” opens with Matthew Mason’s resonant drums and Chris Wyatt’s guitar shimmering like steely knives, leading into fifties Pop-catchy harmonies, while never less than lyrically enchanting. Amplified with stridently echoey Spector-pacing on the CD, there’s a plaintive quality to the unplugged “The Busker” video-clip found on her Facebook page, done live at the Limehouse Queens Head with only Terence O’Flaherty guitar – revealing its interpretive layers, her fingers illustrating the lyric, weaving shapes in the air. It proves the strength of the song in that it can be interpreted in such different ways. ‘Thank you for that, I mean if a song can work completely stripped back we know we’ve achieved something. That’s what’s interesting about narrative in song, and that chanson idea of a song being lyric-driven. Listeners want to know what happens to the protagonist. I was brought up listening to my grandmother singing trad Irish and I’d find myself drawn into the journey of the people she was singing about, as in “Spancil Hill”. Another good example is the folk song “Tom Dooley” – a bit morbid, but it certainly had me visualising Tom Dooley’s demise.’

Linda’s “The Brig Hannah” follows the same narrative troubadour Folk-tradition as that Kingston Trio hit, Jane Miller’s violin adding trad-depth to the exile’s storytelling. A style that’s currently eclipsed by the more personal confessional style of songwriting. ‘Oh eclipsed I like that’ she laughs. Although Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs did a lot of early story-telling songs. ‘Yes well I’m a big fan of Dylan’s writing and Leonard Cohen… but then hey, who isn’t?’ “The Brig Hannah” is about an actual event that took place in 1849. The ship was traveling from Newry to Quebec when it sank off the gulf of St Lawrence, and Captain Shaw really did desert them (‘I see you steal away’). It struck me as very sad and I was inspired to write.’

The other half of her ‘we’, is Chris Wyatt, who founded and runs the Redbridge Music Lounge community resource, and plays in a Traveling Wilburys tribute-act – the Traveling Tilburys! ‘We’ve been working together for some time, Chris and I. We’ve developed a sound that brings our wide influences together, and it’s still maturing. I develop the narrative in the song and melody, then I’ll go to Chris and we’ll build around it. I do input on production, I most certainly have strong ideas, but Chris is like a musical architect, he’s somehow able to see my vision and bring it to life. He has a vast understanding of music, I feel we’ve come together at just the right time.’

‘The songs themselves? I get inspired by many different things especially the ‘real world’, “The Dockers Tavern” is about an actual ‘beer-stained’ public house I used to work and occasionally sing in, it was frequented by aged seamen and colourful characters. While “Monday Night” isn’t actually my song, it was written by Chris and his then-band just after John Lennon died, in response to his death, and if you listen closely you can understand that from the lyrics.’

We work pretty quickly together, it was more a case of deciding what to leave off the album. I have an increasing amount of material. I have words written everywhere (‘keep spinning those words out’). I’ve certainly lived a little, my writing comes from genuine experience, and a good dose of hindsight. At a certain age you kinda realise that life happens and you just gotta get on with it. I feel “Blue Girl” echoes my philosophy on life…’

Around this point, the conversation gets to be less a formal interview, and more a two-way dialogue. I point out that – personally, I have a passion for old SF and strange off-trails writers, odd poets and Literary weirdos. I’m assuming Linda is fairly literate too, from her articulate and well-crafted lyrics…? ‘Yes I am fairly. I took a strange left at the traffic lights, into dark humour, it all appeals! I’m kinda word hungry, always open to literary weirdos and defo odd poets. I topic-jump a lot. I’m actually trying to re-read a selection of Ted Hughes poems, and reading about ‘Granuaile’ – Ireland’s pirate queen Gráinne O’Malley (circa 1530 to 1603). I’ve also been digging around the Harry Smith ‘Anthology Of American Folk Music’ (Folkways 1952, CD set 1997) and the connection he had with Allen Ginsburg.’

Owning up… Allen Ginsberg was a great influence on me when I was starting out, freeing up line-lengths and loosening up form. The only Ted Hughes I could really get into was the ‘Crow’ sequence, but that is brilliant. For a lyric-writer I guess all this stuff feeds in and informs the way Linda expresses words in song… all these things interact and feed off each other... ‘I’ve always found – with writing poetry, that I lack the discipline, so lyric writing frees that up. I noted Ginsburg’s connection with mental health, which is something that interests me, how crises spawns a certain kind of creatives, like Sylvia Plath – who I do really enjoy! As a teenager I was completely fascinated with the Hughes-Plath dynamic. ‘Birthday Letters’ (Faber, 1998) was like Pandora’s box to me. I was at a folk art exhibition at the Tate and I saw an old tapestry of a fox, which triggered the memory of the poem, the thought-fox so for the past few months I’ve been revisiting Plath and Hughes intermittently. Yes, ‘Crow’ is a masterpiece, but then I’m intrigued by the crow in mythology anyway especially Celtic.’

Linda has taken time learning her craft, and it tells across the album’s ten diversely engaging tracks. It’s a debut album to return to. ‘I kissed the blues’ says “Blue Girl”, so ‘if you’re gonna rock me, Baby, make it good.’ Minor chords. Major talent.

Published (in abbreviated form) in:
‘R2: ROCK ‘N’ REEL’ Vol.2 no.53 September-October
(UK – September 2015)
CD review in:
‘R2: ROCK ‘N’ REEL Vol.2 No.52’
 (UK – July/August 2015)