News and dispatches

13-20 September 2012: Kidderminster to Poland

An occasional series of on-the-road reports – live on tour from the book-reading sector...

On this excursion I read aloud maybe five pages from a book. Amazingly, this was enough to sanction travel on rail, road and aeroplane – across the ages and across the European continent, back to those distant days when the massive 4-6-2 configuration of the steam engine called Sir Keith Park would occlude the morning with vapourous pre-Beeching bewitchment. Back, further, to times when rail transportation across Europe had its lights dimmed by the darkest airs. But, as ever, joy runs parallel with terror. On an early stage of this tour my friend Newcastle Mark drove us into the Welsh sector, on through the Berwyn mountains, on past Blaenau Ffestiniog. How these hills summon the weightless wonders of a Cumbrian childhood. Those never-to-return times when we would lovingly consult the Rufus Wainwright Guides To The Lakeland Fells – the same as Alfred Wainwright’s guides. But with Turkish delight and a Burberry brolly in place of Kendal mintcake and ice axe.

My book-readings itinerary included the construction of actual funktioning robots and ended to the east, heading down past the Silesian voivodship, reaching the preserved remains of Auschwitz. One is, of course interested in modern history – ie the Second World War. Telescoping from the Battle Of Britain-class locomotive Sir Keith Park to a decommissioned concentration camp might be seen as some kind of historical supermarket-sweep – a one-week travel pass to what Russia knew as The Great Patriotic War. The global conflict my father remembers as the mystifying vortex that whisked him from the streets of Sunderland, depositing him the Dutch East Indies to drink Onka Donka beer, a brew that, legend had it, could send you blind. 

This book-reading jaunt, in fact, started with a British Sea Power show on the genuine olden-days Severn Valley Railway. This rail route first opened 150 years ago this year. Today the line has been reactivated and is run as an attractive ‘heritage’ railway, reaching from Kidderminster in Worcestershire to Bridgnorth in Shropshire, the latter the celebrated home county of BSP keyboard man Phil. For years now BSP have been cruelly pigeonholed as history-fixated rockers, a band obsessed with the past. How better to quash this reputation than have the band play at the Severn Valley’s old Kidderminster station  On the platform stands a Fry’s Chocolate slot machine from 1962. Today you can buy a Milky Bar by inserting an old-times sixpence, which the station staff will hire to you for the purpose. There is booze and food available – at the King & Caste pub and Valley Suite, respectively. And on the horizon looms more elaborate fare. In the restaurant car, one might droolingly anticipate the Shrewsbury Saloon Christmas Special – “Roast Turkey & Cranberry Sauce... Panache of Vegetables... Hot Buttered Potatoes... Cheeseboard and Decanter of Ruby Port...” Yum yum – if you don’t mind gnawing on the carcass of our avian pals, domesticated by the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica 2,000 years ago, and associated with their trickster god Tezcatlipoca, perhaps because of the poor old turkey’s perceived humorous qualities. But, c’mon kids, even the venerable Morrissey knows better than that in this day and age.

The BSP show took place on the big station concourse at Kidderminster, exposed to nature at the sides but protected above by the big glass canopy. My only performance role on the night  was reading a few questions for a prize quiz on rock and railways. Which member of Jane’s Addiction was NOT on heroin? Who suggested that we ‘Rendezvous on Champs-Elysées’ and ‘Leave Paris in the morning on T.E.E’? Then travel  ‘Back to Dusseldorf City’ to ‘Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie’?

A galvanising BSP performance fired out into the Midlands night. The new tune Machineries Of Joy seemed to sound out particularly strongly. But it seems other machineries of joy went unexploited. At the concert’s conclusion one of the station staff popped over for a word. ‘You’ll have to let us know next time. If you’d wanted we could have had one of the engines fired up behind the stage as you played...’ Oh no! 

The Welsh record label Ankst once released a compilation called A Miserable Nation Obsessed By The Past – not further skewed comment on BSP’s historical fascinations, rather a jocose damnation of the whole Welsh nation. The all-new Festival No.6 at Portmeirion made Wales seem the inverse of miserable. No.6 was set around Portmeirion, the amazing folly-in-extremis created by the late architect Sir Clough William – the gorgeous Italianate seaside village that became the backdrop to The Prisoner on the television. As I gave a reading on the Estuary Stage, hosted by Caught By The River and the Faber Social, there was a glorious view across Cardigan Bay, out to the sunlit hills of the Lleyn peninsula. Indeed, No.6 has the most striking festival setting this observer has ever encountered. One and all are recommended to book up for 2013, pretty much whoever’s playing. The only downside was that I was on the festival site for a total of three hours. I saw none of New Order, Primal Scream, Spiritualized, British Sea Power or The Brythoniaid Welsh Male Choir. Unbelievable but true, I’d been booked to do a reading in the Netherlands the next day, at Incubate festival. But BSP kindly agreed to join in during my reading from my book Do It For Your Mum at Portmeirion. The band illustrated allusions to Welsh buses and Jerry Hall with snatches from songs such as Fear Of Drowning and A Lovely Day Tomorrow.

After scrambling away from Festival No.6  at 6pm prompt, I spent the night at Liverpool John Lennon Airport, ready to board an 0620h flight to Amsterdam. In keeping with the grave cultural presence that is the Lennon air-hub my hotel room featured an interactive hologram – Oasis’s much-missed Bonehead sonorously reciting the script from Yellow Submarine, in its entirety. Inspired and not at all tired, in the morning I leapt onto the EasyJet Airbus A319 fun-liner. 

On arrival at Amsterdam Schipol we were whisked by car to Tilburg, an agreeable destination in the Netherlands’ sometimes overlooked deep south. I say ‘we’ because I’d been allowed to bring my glamorous friend TV Clare. Wunderbar! Survivors of previous DIFYM readings will know that Clare’s live-on-tour flute interjections are often the only good thing going. With woodwind on tap we were ready to assail the lowlands with the most rhetorical question of all: ‘TILBURG, DO YOU THINK WE STILL KNOW HOW TO ROCK YOU!?’ (voiced, of course, in the heroic neutered-tomcat tones of Marc Storace, frontman with Swiss metal legends Krokus). 

Wonderfully, we were able to get our reading duties out of the way on the Saturday afternoon. I read the bit about the time BSP were playing Amsterdam and, refreshed on wild-style mushrooms, I became convinced Ruud Gullit was at the show and went to ask him if he would make a record with BSP. In Tilburg Clare enlivened events with a superb rendition of Hocus Pocus by Dutch music-giants Focus. Not one of the Dutch audience identified the tune! Wake up Netherlands! We had no such problem when we went to Germany and Clare knocked ‘em and socked ‘em with a Scorpions medley of Big City Nights, Lovedrive and Don't Make No Promises (Your Body Can't Keep). The book-reading led into a panel discussion on whether or not the internet is a good thing for rock, hosted by Richard Foster of My co-panellists were John Doran of The Quietus and John Robb of The Membranes and many decades of multifarious musical catalysis. John D was very funny and informative on why the web is for wankers. John R fought a resolute one-man rearguard pn why the internet is ace. Work done we fled the building, ready for a time-honoured Dutch wikkid party weekend, yeah? Frites laced with mayonnaise and fun. Perhaps too much fun it would emerge...

Incubate festival takes place at various venues in the centre of Tilburg.  It’s a wondrous multimedia treat, a lustrous gem on the global festival schedule. This year’s attractions included Mogwai, Laibach, the Buzzcocks, Can’s Damo Suzuki and cultural commentator Simon Reynolds. But, perhaps more than known names, Incubate centres on a mass of intriguing prospects spread across a range of inviting venues: Sex Worker, Kumbia Queers, Silver Apples, Busdriver, New Bleeders and ‘Open Film: Experimental’. Plus a perhaps unexpected booking for the south London reggae MC Tippa Irie, best known for his 1986 hit Hello Darling. 

A nice young Dutch couple took us to an excellent bar, with endless alfresco tables. They explained that it’s Mark E Smith’s favourite Tilburg hostelry. Why, we asked, did the Fall frontman chose this bar in particular? ‘Well, of course,’ answered one of our new pals, straight-faced. ‘Because it is Tilburg’s leading alcoholic attraction...’ Thus, with some slight eccentricity of Anglo-Dutch translation, was born Tilburg’s Leading Alcoholic Attraction. It became our home for the rest of our stay. 

My friend and fellow journalist Ian Harrison was also at Incubate. By the time we arrived Ian had already done his live-to-audience interview with Damo Suzuki. Clare had also featured with Damo, playing in one of the varied scratch bands that Damo assembled and led in concert across Incubate’s three-day schedule. So, by Sunday, all our official business was out of the way. We were greatly looking forward to British Sea Power and Laibach. But, first, we were led to the see the invigorating Wolvon – a Dutch rock trio who flail around full of charm, like a trashing landed eel or a cheerier Nirvana. With an ebullient and perma-smiling singing drummer.

BSP played a lovely, graceful set at the excellent NWE Vorst venue. By the end, however, the air of calm had been shattered by robotic insurrection. Unwillingly to learn from past misadventure I’d decided it might be a good time for the return of the DIY android auxiliaries which occasionally help conclude BSP performances. Again unwilling to take instruction from the past I’d had a quick gobfull of special mushrooms – marketed as Space Shuttle and promising to “take you out of this world!” I roped in Richard Foster to help assemble our in-concert droid duo – working with cardboard, silver foil and the NWE Vorst’s well-stocked backstage supplies of glue, paint and drinking straws. The result looked like a joint production from Fisher Price children’s toys and the kind of nice old Dutch hippie you might see by Amsterdam’s canals, flogging orange caps with dreadlock extensions.

As BSP started into a visceral set conclusion, Richard staged a bravura display of revolting machinery – a You Tube version of Asimov’s I, Robot made on a £2 budget. After hornpiping away like a tin-plate Larry Grayson, Richard began to rip asunder his own metallic carapace, pelting the audience with the robo-bits and anything else to hand – beer cans, rolls of gaffer tape, a big glass of whisky rightfully belonging to BSP viola supremo Abi. My robot merely staggered about, intimating malfunction and knocking over a nice ceramic/resin sculpture of a baby cow. Falling with modest force the cow shattered instantly, bringing a horrible sinking feeling. Full of remorse I launched myself into the audience and, shedding a wake of tin foil, crawled through their legs to exit stage left. As ever, the overall effect is best captured via a Google translation of a review from the Dutch publication Oor:

‘British Sea Power is in the NWE Vorst also a mess of Sunday afternoon. In this setting is how many great singles group has written since 2003. Two drunk Brits storm in aluminium robot suits the stage. Robot 1 (called 'Yes') starts soon his suit to disassemble with hands and teeth and Robot 2 (called 'No') falls on the audience then he's vermin. The sweaty band members now fill the lost body fluids with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label. This is rock and roll people, damn good rock and roll.’

After the swarf has settled, BSP relax in the venue’s nice garden – smoking, calm, oblivious to the am-dram mechano-mess appended to their set. Cruelly the band have to depart Tilburg within 30 minutes of their coming off stage, ready to race for Calais and a trans-manche train back to Britain. We lucky festival-goers, however, have one more night – a night that centres on the boundless infinities of Laibach.

As Laibach take the stage at Incubate’s biggest venue, the 013 Dommelsch Zaal, it seems that combining fungal intoxicants with Slovenia’s leading quasi-militarist, quasi-totalitarian synth-orchestrators is a very good idea. Fronted by the great Milan Fras with his stylised Slovenian miner’s headgear – plus his sternly beautiful female co-vocalist Mina Spiler – Laibach lay forth their hugely subversive socio-musical agenda: titanically provocative cover versions alongside their own bracingly avant-garde early-days electro-acoustic interludes. The merchandise stall looks like a props store from Sir Ian McKellen’s fascistic 1995 film version of Richard III.

In the moment, bolstered by comradeship and organic inebriants, Laibach seem more mesmeric, more revelatory than ever. Milan’s gravel-voiced oratory acquires the command and control of some classicist master – an ost-modern Paul Robeson perhaps (not for the Laibach the catch-all jargon of the ‘post-modern’; they come enmeshed in the ancient futurities of the east...) Mina seems more glacially enchanting than ever. Her voice is full of alpine allure. Her neat military cap suggests some Tito-era tour guide conducting us all to a glorious socialist-realist hereafter. Blasted with wonky reverie our party decides to try and make her momentarily abandon her stage solemnity. A smile maybe? Stood down the front we wave fondly, furiously. There are between-song chants of ‘Mina! Mina!’  Finally, in a quiet moment, a big broad Boddingtons-advert proclamation of ‘By ‘eck Mina, you are bloody well gorgeous!’ Throughout she remains oblivious, imperious, magnificent

As purring filtered synth blasts surge through my banjo-ed central nervous system, an audacious array of images are beamed up on the big screens. For a startling, scolding reworking of Dylan’s Ballad Of A Thin Man they project Bob’s cryogenic 1960s phizog. During the soundtrack selections from the recent Nazis-from-the-moon film Iron Sky there’s footage of one of Hitler’s V2 rockets. But the ‘Are Laibach Nazis?’ questions seems to have little purchase today. As Laibach have pointed out, ‘We are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter.’ Of course, Hitler <was> a painter, but, by consensus, a poor one... Nowadays Laibach seem a detoxifying and admonitory presence – using the most extreme symbols of nationalism to catalyse examination of the nationalism and global power-play of our own era. Deeply deadpan humour is never far away. After all, the the Nazis really did get to moon. Or, at least, their rocket scientist Wernher von Braun led NASA’s lunar programme...

Laibach close with Geburt Einer Nation, their uproarious remake of Queen’s One Vision – sounding like Leni Riefenstahl somehow choreographing a May Day parade in Moscow. At moments like this, to this reporter at least, Laibach seem the most profound, most compelling artists of this era – in any medium. Mind you, at the age of 14, I felt the same way about Queen’s A Night At The Opera album. Hang on, no, actually, I still think that...

After the show there is more fun with Laibach. Ian Harrison is scheduled to interview Laibach spokesperson Ivan Novak for MOJO magazine. Variously and harmoniously pixilated we decide that, no, we shall all interview Ivan. We will form the ultimate interrogatory troika, embracing this historic discourse with the gravity it surely warrants. How Ivan will love our questions! The interview location is decided on – of course, Tilburg’s Leading Alcoholic Attraction. We get Ivan a double Dalwhinnie single malt. Cool, calm and seemingly gently amused, Ivan tolerates a confused spectrum of questions:

What’s Mina up to? Will she come out for a drink? Are Laibach satanists? Could Laibach ever do a reggae album? Would they have a guest vocal from Usain Bolt? Ivan gives the reggae question due consideration. Then he replies as if he’s been contemplating this idea for years. ‘A reggae album? Yes, why not. In fact, we are doing exhibitions in a mining museum in Slovenia. And the people who organised it, the mining collective, they wanted to surprise us for the opening. They brought in this mining orchestra, a brass band. They were playing our songs, but with brass, reggae versions...’

Eventually Ivan tells us there have only ever been three significant groups in the history of modern music: The Beatles, Kraftwerk and... The Rolling Stones. The latter selection leads to insurrection in the interviewer corpus. I can’t believe it! Queen are much better! Jagger is a wanker! Brilliant – a free-ranging dialogue with one of contemporary expression’s most rigourous thinkers devolves into a big-gobbed round of Boys Talking Rock... But for me the night is not yet over. 

As we walk round around the edge of Tilburg’s main square I stop for a chat. Then, noticing that my friends have walked on, I run across the square to catch up. As I reach the far side of a cafe area, in the dark I fail to spot a low chain stretched between posts. I launch into the air, Keystone Kops style. Then I come crashing down on my forearms and knees. In the instant I barely notice the impact. But I wake the next day covered in bruises of a kind I’ve never previously witnessed. The bed is soaked in blood, like a crime scene.

The next night I leave from Amsterdam, on the sleeper train to Warsaw. In an age of melting ice masses, I try not to fly. So, while I’m on the continent I’m taking the opportunity to grab a brief trip to Poland, a country I’d never previously seen. On the Deutsche Bahn Nachtzug from Amsterdam to Warsaw the friendly old German guard ushers me to my delightful cabin. By means of gesture and the four of five words that constitute our common Anglo-German vocabulary he explains that the chocolate bun is completely free of charge. How lucky we Europeans are, to be living now and not then.

In Warsaw I randomly wander up to the Palac Lazienowski, formerly a royal palace, built in the 17th century. It’s a nice spot, in parkland, high on a hill looking over Warsaw. Parts of the building are now an art gallery. Again, without any aforethought, I wander in to an exhibition of three living Polish artists, who I’ve never previously heard of. As I stroll among the captivating film works of one Jósef Robakowski, born in 1939 in Poznan, I seem to hear some familiar music. At first it feels like something humming away in the subconscious. But, no, it’s here, in this room. I move toward the source of the sound, locating some black-and-white footage of troops and tanks – a Soviet-era May Day parade. But the footage has been given a startling new soundtrack – Geburt Einer Nation by Laibach... Wow! It seems a remarkable, even eerie coincidence. Many miles to the east, Laibach are still present, looking over our collective shoulder.

The next day I head for Krakow. En route I realise that Auschwitz is only seventy kilometres west of my destination. On arrival in Krakow I get on another train. As I walk from the station toward Auschwitz a steady drizzle falls. It’s a dull, leaden day. Nonetheless this place seems as much humdrum as desolate. Neat modern coaches full of visitors pass me on the road. Adjacent to the former concentration camp there’s an art-deco-styled restaurant called Art Burger. Which doesn’t seem to sell any burgers. It feels odd – what looks like a fast-food outlet looming over this most infamous site. Maybe there’s even an echo of some particularly bleak internet humour – the time when a website ran an item about the ‘MacDiddly’ chain opening a burger outlet at Auschwitz. The skit was headlined ‘Arbeit Macht Fries’, of course a play on on the way the slogan ARBEIT MACHT FREI sits in wrought metal above the Auschwitz entrance.

Auschwitz is a place so grave it maybe makes any visitor feel they’re somehow making a significant step in just getting there. I only visited the Auschwitz part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex (the orderly brickwork administrative centre, as opposed to the wood-hut extermination camp of Birkenhau). For what it’s worth the thing that most struck me about the Auschwitz buildings was how not-unattractive they seemed, how free of any overpowering aura of ultimate evil. The red bricks and neat architectural detailing almost suggest some model village, built for the workers by a philanthropic industrialist in the north of England. Did this all really happen? How did people build such pleasing, reassuring structures and then use them to co-ordinate such terrible, bewildering initiatives? Even the barbed-wire fences and tall slatted sentry boxes seemed calm, at peace, hinting at railway museums and woodland rambling trails. There were quite a few birds on the wires, great tits and redstarts. Birdwatching At Auschwitz? Maybe there’s one for the future, one for Laibach or Anselm Keifer, or some other artist drawn to the historical black holes that this place is emblematic of.

I spend the next day in Krakow. The castle and cathedral at Wawel Hill are fascinating, grandly historic. The rain pours down. In the castle courtyard water gushes down in big torrents, streaming out of gargoyle-mouthed spouts. It’s like an even more portentous take on a scene from John Schlesinger’s film version of Far From The Madding Crowd – the bit where water gushes down on poor Fanny’s grave. But the main square in Krakow feels theme-park-esque. Prominent is a branch of the Hard Rock Cafe. Western tourism has clearly long since become a lubricant here. There are even signs of perplexing nationalist incursion. One bar/niterie rejoices in the name of English Football Club. 

It’s been a trip that will be difficult to forget – and a trip that still keeps giving. Three weeks later I’m still aching from my fall in Tilburg. An infected elbow slowly deflates under the influence of antibiotics. The microbes are being beaten down by a bipartite attack of flucloxacillin and phenoxymethylpenicillin. Something else arrives. A bill for 139 euros – for a broken ceramic cow. ROY WILKINSON

For fascinating further reading on British Sea and Incubate festival, please follow these links:



British Sea Power at Krankenhaus, 2 April. Photos: Giles Pattison

An occasional series of on-the-road reports – live on tour from the book-reading sector...

The annals of DJ-ing and mixology are, of course, full of misadventure and tales of synapse-spangled turntabalists attempting a mix between a bin lid and a pizza. Who could forget DJ Derek Dahlarge’s cock/cranial mishaps on Ibiza – the near-mythical incident where Derek was sitting on the beach one day and decided to super-glue a dildo to his forehead. This was followed by a week of exclusive bookings at the likes of Pasha and the Manumission Motel, all fulfilled with a Monstro Grand Slammer stuck to his brain-box. There was also the time producer/DJ Adrian Sherwood was so refreshed at Glastonbury that he mixed the entire On-U Sound set using only his forehead. Last Friday there was modest addition to such DJ tomfoolery.

Krankenhaus, British Sea Power’s monthly club night in Brighton, is acquiring a reputation as an exhilaratingly varied hotspot. The second Krakenhaus night, in February, featured the Brighton & Hove City Brass Band, a mass ping-pong game, free choc ices and a Japanese Queen tribute band. Plus BBC 6Music DJ Shaun Keaveny's brass-assisted free-improv performance of the theme from All Creatures Great And Small. And two blasting sets from BSP, exit pursued by bear and foxes. All this for £12.50.

As well as writing Do It For Your Mum, the BSP-themed family/rock/forestry memoir, I used to sometimes DJ at Club Sea Power, the band’s original Brighton club night. On such occasions I would assume the DJ alter-ego Old Sarge. With this rich history at my back I was booked to DJ at the March Krankenhaus – assisted by DJ co-pilot SAS Dirtyman, aka Ian Harrison of MOJO magazine. Our official billing: “1.30am-3.00am – DJs Old Sarge and SAS Dirtyman, incorporating the Girl Brutus Time-Travelling Tanz Team”.  


Learning to read

An occasional series of on-the-road reports – live on tour from the book-reading sector...

Saturday 21 October
Drift Records, Totnes, Devon

Roy at Drift Records

The author is out on the road – or, at least, 500 yards up the road, along past Sammy’s Cafe and the Animals In Distress charity shop. Today’s reading is at Drift Records in Totnes in south Devon. This is where I live, evacuated here from London two years ago by my excellent current wife. It’s rewarding terrain, for sure. From the top of Totnes the peaks of Hay Tor are visible in the distance, rising tumescent on Dartmoor, surrounded by both mist and thriving naturalised populations of black panther, snow leopard and ocelot. In his 12th-century book Historia Regum Britanniae, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that "the coast of Totnes" was where Brutus of Troy, mythical founder of Britain, first landed on these islands – kick-starting a nation and, more importantly, catalysing the eventual formation of the mythical late-20th-century yob-rock titans Earl Brutus. Let us raise a glass to their dear dead frontman Nick Sanderson, rocker and railways employee, the self-styled Train Driver In Eyeliner.


Quietus and Q websites feature DIFYM

The Quietus are currently featuring an extract from Do It For Your Mum here:

And Q magazine’s website is running an extract here: