The Last House on Holland Island was inspired by a haunting photograph I found on the internet, of a house perched on the water like Noah’s ark, a flock of birds gathered on the roof. It was an incredibly evocative image. Sometimes when I looked at it I saw one of MC Escher’s impossible drawings, a building that could never exist. Sometimes it seemed Biblical. Sometimes it seemed apocalyptic, an alternate finale to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which a man and his son finally reach the coast only to encounter further evidence of the end of the world. Most obviously it evoked a world ravaged by climate change, a vision of the near future – or the recent past if you live somewhere like Indonesia, or even my own former home city of Carlisle. The birds could easily be mistaken for humans desperately clinging to wreckage.
At the time the photograph, and the story behind it, also made me think of my dad, a stubborn man who had been ill for a long time but was refusing to accept it.
The last house on Holland Island was built in the winter of 1888, in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA. At that time the island was a thriving community of fishing and boatman families, with around 70 homes. But in 1914 it began to sink into the water, not as the result of climate change caused by humans but because of post-glacial rebound, a process in which land masses rise and fall over thousands of years, as the weight of glaciers created during the last ice age gradually lifts. The west side of the island disappeared first, eroded by the tides, pushing the residents eastwards. For the next four years they desperately tried to protect their homes by building stone walls, but it was no use. In 1918, after a storm damaged the church, the last family gave up and abandoned the island to the water. Nothing more could be done. In truth, there was never anything to be done. Even in the 17th century, when European colonists first settled there – including Daniel Holland, who would give the island its name – the forces that would destroy it were already moving slowly and silently into place.
Almost 80 years after the final family left Holland Island, a man made one last attempt to save it. In 1995, Stephen White, a Methodist minister who had grown up on the island, paid $70,000 for the 1888 house, now the last building standing, and then spent 15 years and $150,000 trying to hold back the water with rocks, wooden breakwaters, sandbags, even a sunken barge. It was an extraordinary act of defiance against nature. But just as in 1914, it proved futile. White became ill and had to abandon his efforts and leave the island. Sometimes I find myself wondering how much Stephen White’s faith gave him solace, and how much it was a source of torment. I also wonder what it might have been like to grow up in that household, watching your father devote his life to such a lost cause, watching it slowly kill him. The photo I found on the internet was taken not long after White finally abandoned the house – you can still see the sandbags scattered around it.
As my dad became more ill he developed a habit of insisting he was unable to stand up properly ‘at the moment’, or was unable to remember simple domestic details ‘at the moment’, as if this was all just a phase. He would irritably blame others for the black holes in his memory: ‘Nobody tells me anything!’ became something of a catchphrase as he gradually slipped away from us, into the water of Chesapeake Bay. He was, obviously, afraid. For every moment when he seemed to be in complete denial, there was another when he would awkwardly silence the room with some morbid, apparently throwaway remark about how in about five years he’d be dead. He was very much like a man looking anxiously out of the windows of his home, seeing water in every direction, and grumpily announcing that he didn’t feel like going for a walk today.
The first time I sang the song in front of an audience was in February 2014, less than a month after my dad died. Since the song is about being afraid of my dad dying, and I was still in shock that it had actually happened, I should probably have cancelled the gig. Looking back, I can’t figure out why I didn’t. It was uncomfortable for me and probably awkward for the people watching.
That gig was the launch of The Winter of 88, my final album as Seafieldroad. The album’s title is partly a reference to the winter in which the Holland Island house was built, partly to the winter – exactly one century later – when I began writing songs on a cheap Yamaha synthesiser my dad had bought me as a Christmas present. There are, of course, also 88 keys on a piano.
My dad bought me the keyboard on the condition that I got music lessons; I agreed, a little reluctantly. I was 15 years old. I bought two tiny microphones and a cassette recorder, and resolved to make futuristic music. My role models were the Pet Shop Boys, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Depeche Mode, the Human League, Kraftwerk, anyone else making music with machines. It became an obsession. Every few months I would record a cassette full of new songs. Some people would call these recordings demos. Being a teenage megalomaniac living in a fantasy world, I decided they were albums. Each had a title and its own hand-made cover artwork. Each was mixed, once it was finished, on to a C60 cassette, so was more or less an hour long. Sometimes I’d enlist friends to play bass, or guitar (as long as it wasn’t too ‘rock’) or to sing. But mostly I made them on my own, creating all the music on my cheap little machine, a little boy dreaming of the future. By album number 14 or 15 I was so pleased with my progress that I was starting to make best of compilations, remix albums and singles too (on slightly shorter cassettes). I kept up this weird behaviour for about six years. By the time I was in my twenties I had recorded almost 40 hours of music, most of which has still never been heard by anybody.
In other words, my teenage years were largely lost to a musical instrument my dad bought me. The great irony of this was that he always seemed indifferent to the music I was making, because, to be fair, it was so alien to him. He liked classical music and jazz, the kind of music he played himself on the cello or double bass. He would be lost without sheet music and was always baffled that my brother in law, a successful professional musician, couldn’t read it. He was bemused by drum machines and pop music in general. He would complain that he couldn’t hear the words, or that it was rhythmically monotonous, or that it had no proper tunes. If this was the future, he didn’t want it. Since I idolised him, I found this incredibly frustrating.
Years later, I formed a band and somehow managed to get played on daytime Radio One, an impossible dream for the 1988 me. There were features and reviews in national newspapers and magazines. One of the songs was used in a movie. I proudly presented Dad with a copy of our debut album, The Regional Variations. As far as I know he didn’t listen to this either. The year it was released he wrote a newsletter for various family members scattered across the country. The Regional Variations – five years in the making, ten more if you include all those teenage recordings, and the achievement I was most proud of in my life up to that point – merited no mention at all. I was furious with him.
It is ironic that the album of mine that my dad would be most likely to enjoy was the one I finished just after he died. The Winter of 88 had tunes that he would recognise as tunes, proper instruments (a trumpet!), no drum machines whatsoever, and choral singing not unlike the music he would listen to at church, which sounded the way it did partly because I grew up going to that church too, and it seeped into my brain. I’ve often wondered whether this album was, subconsciously, my final attempt to reach out to him, despite the fact that when I was writing and recording it he was at a point in his life when music, of any kind, meant less and less to him. Was I turning into Stephen White, revisiting the scene of my childhood, stubbornly trying to rebuild something that was clearly already lost?
The Winter of 88’s physical release consisted of 88 CDs with handmade artwork – based on a collection of pebbles found by the seaside – not a million miles from the handmade sleeves of my 38 early ‘albums’. I had, in lots of ways, come full circle creatively. And like most musicians in middle age, I had stopped trying to write music that sounded like the future. Instead I was mining my own past, emulating the music that had stayed with me over the years, like Mark Eitzel’s 60 Watt Silver Lining, Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, the Blue Nile’s A Walk Across the Rooftops, and David Sylvian’s Secrets of the Beehive.
When I realised this, I felt like I should give up writing songs. It had become my Holland Island, I thought – a lost cause, obsessively pursued with ever diminishing commercial and artistic returns. I thought I should let the island sink and look for a new one.
And then my wife reminded me that this was grief talking. I had become so preoccupied with endings that I’d forgotten to appreciate the process. The point of making music, after all, is just to do it, for fun and excitement and self-expression, regardless of the results. I had forgotten that the first single Swimmer One ever released was called We Just Make Music For Ourselves, and that we meant it.
There is another way of looking at Stephen White’s story, after all – not as tragedy but as triumph. In the end he may not have been able to hold back the tide, but for a while he did. And ultimately that’s all any of us can do. As Sufjan Stevens sings so beautifully, we’re all gonna die. The final lines of The Last House on Holland Island – ‘all these islands will sink, all these houses will fall, we’ll build new homes anyway’ – can be read in two ways. You can conclude that building those new homes is futile, or you can conclude that staying defiantly hopeful, despite the odds, is what keeps us alive.