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.

 

Totnes has musical connections both ancient and modern. The currently thriving Metronomy originated in the Totnes area. The group’s first album took its name from a message that an enraged creditor once painted on knackered old cars which he left parked around town: “Pip Paine pay the £5000 you owe”. Totnes also has more tragic musical/vehicular connection. In 2010, the former ELO cellist Michael Edwards was killed in an archetypal freak accident outside Totnes. While driving along the Dartmouth road his van was crushed by a 600kg cylindrical hay bale that had rolled down out of field.

Jimmy Cauty, Bill Drummond’s co-pilot in The KLF, is from Totnes, and Jimmy’s life and times perhaps reflect the recent character of this place. As a teenager, talented draughtsman Jimmy drew some images based on Lord Of The Rings. They became smash-hit posters for Athena, decorating innumerable student domiciles. Jimmy also drew the cover illustration for the 1977 album The King Of Elfland’s Daughter – created by Steeleye Span members Bob Johnson and Pete Knight and featuring a remarkable array of narrators, including Christopher Lee (“The King”),  Alexis Korner (“Troll”) and P.P. Arnold (“The Witch”). Totnes, with several shops offering mystic crystals and books called things like Solitary Witch: The Ultimate Book of Shadows for the Young Witch, is also a home to Aquarian hippie whimsy. But, as with Jimmy’s work with proto-sampling audio-revolutionaries The Justified Ancients Of Mu-Mu, Totnes has also given joss-stick idealism a more incisive edge. Totnes is a key point of origin of the Transition Towns idea – the environmental and social movement based on making a transition to a less oil-based way of living. Such niche items as sustainably-herded reindeer-hide slippers remain on sale, but Transition initiatives have also lead to a huge proliferation of solar panels across Totnes roofs.

Totnes has its own currency – the Totnes pound. A little while ago optimistic souls also tried to set up a barter system. The scheme was abandoned because of a wild imbalance in proffered skills. There were lots of offers of massages, bicycle repairs and qigong meditation sessions. Not so many plumbers or car mechanics. How would things pan out at Drift Records? Would I be asked to swap a book for homeopathic pet care, pet pending? No need to worry. Drift is a little miracle – a thriving and distinctive record shop still operating in the year 2011, and in a town with a population of less than 8,000. Backed up by its smartly-stocked DVD-rental section, Drift doesn’t rely on bulk-discounted Michael Bublé. Or on tempting credulous souls with intimations of higher consciousness, reached by means of a CD of ambient mind-forest calm. As you enter Drift you’re greeted by neat displays of new vinyl  – The Dirty Projectors beside compilations of Factory Records 12-inch mixes.

I’m doing my reading today alongside a locally-based musician – Lux Harmonium, aka Luke Jones, a singer/songwriter based in Kingswear, just over the river from Dartmouth. Immediately, serendipitous vibes become apparent – via amazing ungulate-based coincidence. We must never underestimate the power of hoofed animals in contemporary sound. From the bovine bevy reportage of The Pigeon Detectives to the cloven-hoofed legions of black metal, examples are everywhere, including Drift Records. On the cover of Luke’s seven-inch single there’s a drawing of a donkey. The front of my book features the silhouette of a chamois, up on the mountain top. We pose for a photo, me in temporary charge of the ass, Luke with the goat-antelope of the Alps and Carpathians.

The Drift staff hand out free beer to the select audience crowding into the shop’s compact interior. I supply some wild-damson gin, made with fruit from Wiltshire. I read from the book’s introduction –  British Sea Power on tour with The Strokes, plus our dad’s remarkable 80-something conversion to the Butthole Surfers and Nick Cave. I was never a natural raconteur and my first book reading, in July this year, brought a fair bit of tredpidation. Talking? Could be tricky. Between the ages of 18 and 21 I was largely mute. Would book-reading be like my first remembered public address? This was at Edinburgh University in the 1980s, where I was proving unequal to the challenges of scientific research. I gave a short talk on the reproductive cycle of cicadas to about 15 people. The room span. Seconds and minutes wooshed and distorted, genuinely offering hints of a bad time on LSD. But book-reading proved OK. At Drift the small crowd seems too close and friendly to goof off with any arm-wielding invocations of Saxon or leading Dartmoor badger-man Johnny Kingdom. But it goes well enough. Then Luke plays some lovely finger-picking guitar on his new Guild acoustic. Sweet sounds and impressive craftsmanship.

A nice gent asks me to sign an old BSP beermat. A charming woman with a big smile offers me the choice of signing my book or a vinyl copy of the new Tom Waits album. I choose the book, sworn to continue my one-man battle against Waits and a career based on pretending to be a tramp. I’m asked to sign the book in dedication to the woman’s brother, Spider. Perhaps some reference to Spider Nugent, the long-gone eco-warrior from Coronation Street? The actor who played Corrie’s Spider went on to play Howard Devoto in the film 24 Hour Party People. Spider and Devoto then – a of mix of eco-activism and post-punk that’s maybe akin to Totnes momentarily blending with British Sea Power. Come what may, it’s been a fine afternoon, now moving into early evening. I say goodbye to Drift, ready for chips and Strictly Come Dancing.

Roy Wilkinson

MARKS
Venue: 9/10.
Reading success rating: 7/10.
Convenience for author: 10/10.