Days 72-73: All art is worthless / The winter of 88

My contribution to the Fatima meme – photograph by Krys Alex.

It’s just over two years since I began writing this song-by-song diary of all the music I’ve ever released, from Swimmer One’s first single We Just Make Music For Ourselves, way back in 2002, until now. I’ve finally caught up with myself, after racing through quite a lot of songs over the past few weeks like a marathon runner getting a second wind. If I’m going to continue with this thing I’ll need to write some more music. I’ve only managed to finish two new songs in the past two years though, so perhaps this is it.

It feels fitting to end this diary, for now, with All art is worthless and The winter of 88. Both are about the human compulsion to make and experience art. We Just Make Music For Ourselves was too, so I’ve come full circle.

All art is worthless was recorded just a few weeks ago and, in case it’s not obvious, titled ironically. I wrote it in the early days of the coronavirus lockdown, when everyone was conspicuously turning to art for comfort – social media was suddenly full of people’s favourite books/films/albums of all time lists – while thousands of actual artists were suddenly losing their entire livelihoods with no government support in sight. It was brutal and ironic and strange watching the thing that I and most people I know do for a living being simultaneously treasured and trashed. It still is. This week, #Fatima was trending on social media after people began sharing a government advert that crassly suggested a ballet dancer could retrain in cyber security. The advert predated the lockdown but the anger it’s generated is a sharp and necessary reminder of how bad things have become for art and artists.

All art is worthless emerged from this strangeness. It’s a song about the everyday ways in which art in general, and music in particular, impacts on our lives. A bittersweet call-back to a broken teenage heart. A funeral theme. An expression of solidarity. An anthem to spur you to political action. A warning. A reminder that you’re not alone. Is there any aspect of human life that isn’t shaped in some way by art? Is there any crisis in which we don’t turn to it for comfort and guidance?

The song finishes with a brief reference to my own compulsion to make art and my limited success at it – “I’ve only trod lightly, left a faint footprint, but it’s all that I can do”. This theme is explored more self-indulgently in The Winter of 88, written seven years before the lockdown. The song was named, in part, after the year I started recording music, 1988; there is evidence of this date online and it’s not pretty but whatever, I was fourteen years old. The number also refers to the 88 keys on a piano, the year 1888 – an obscure nod to when The Last House on Holland Island was built – and the 88 people who helped pay for the recording, whose names are listed out loud in the final section of the song as I raise a glass to each of them in turn.

I recorded The Winter of 88, the song and the album, at a point when it had become clear to me that my musical ‘career’ was going nowhere, after a decade of consistently good reviews, consistently minimal radio play, and negligible sales. An enthusiastic write-up in the Guardian or the Independent won’t pay the rental on your humble flat, but I figured there were surely enough people out there who liked my music enough to crowd-source an inexpensive album by pre-ordering it. If you’re reading this, perhaps you are the owner of a CD in a hand-drawn numbered sleeve, a thank you letter from me, an album on which your name features in the title track, and one of the 88 stones featured in the cover art, all retrieved from a beach in Croatia. If so, thank you again. I was incredibly grateful for your support and I hope you liked your stone.

Lyrically, the song is typically cheery Andrew stuff, one line even pointing out how we’ll all be dead by 2088. But actually I was trying to come to terms with my artistic and commercial irrelevance as much as my mortality. I wasn’t quite there yet and I’m embarrassed by some of the lyrics. “If no-one remembers we were ever here there’ll be echoes, there’ll be traces” was presumably supposed to sound philosophical but to the older me it just sounds desperate. ‘OH GOD SURELY SOMEONE WILL REMEMBER ME’ is the subtext. And the self-pity evident in “I’ll keep on singing into the void” is not flattering. I’m prouder of it musically, even if it steals ideas a bit too blatantly from the Blue Nile, but I kind of wish I’d written my funders a better song.

Perhaps that song is All art is worthless. Musically it was inspired, although it’s probably not obvious, by Thom Yorke’s The Dawn Chorus, a song that somehow conjures something incredibly poignant and powerful from a completely monosyllabic vocal and a series of short ambiguous statements. The Dawn Chorus makes me cry for reasons I don’t fully understand, and so I went on to write a piano melody which is more or less exactly the same all the way through, a vocal line that doesn’t vary much either, and, well, a series of short ambiguous statements.

Am I a better songwriter than I was in 2002, or in 2014 when I wrote The Winter of 88? I think so. In fact, I think All art is worthless might be one of my best songs, or at least one of my best Thom Yorke songs. If I’m honest with myself, I don’t think I’ll ever be completely ok with my lack of commercial success. But I’m also aware of how petty and self-absorbed that is, especially at a time when so many musicians are struggling to make any kind of living at all. I’m also fairly sure that success wouldn’t have been very good for me anyway.

And, in the end, I was never doing this for the sake of a career. I was doing it because, as All art is worthless concludes, ‘nothing else gets you through’. Writing songs is part of what makes me feel alive. It’s the imagining of possibilities. It’s how I pay tribute to people I love and have loved. It’s the preservation of memories. It’s how I experience and respond to and understand other people’s art. If I’d somehow managed to turn that into a career it would ultimately have been down to blind luck, and I’m not sure I would have had any clue how to sustain it, any more than I had any clue what to do when Swimmer One were briefly courted by a London record label almost two decades ago.

Thanks for reading, and for listening. I mostly just wrote this diary for me, but if anyone else likes it that’s a bonus.

Days 66-71: The robbery / Hear this sing / No running, no smoking, no bombing EP

“There are nearly thirteen million people in the world. None of those people is an extra. They’re all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.”  Synecdoche, New York by Charlie Kaufman.

The internet has made it loads easier to track down musicians’ demos, rarities and ‘bonus tracks’ – or B sides as old people call them. I’m not obsessive enough about any musician to bother, mostly, but I occasionally make an exception to nostalgically revisit my teenage Pet Shop Boys fandom. I loved that so many of their B sides felt like daring artistic experiments rather than leftovers, suggesting not only that they were bursting with ideas but that they were also quite canny when it came to choosing which songs to be single.

My own musical output is so obscure that it’s all rareties really. But to paraphrase Charlie Kaufman, perhaps no song is a bonus track and each one should get its moment as an A side. Also, I’ve already committed myself to an epic, song-by-song diary of my entire back catalogue and I’ve almost at the finish line, so let’s plough on.

Hear This Sing would later become The Last House on Holland Island, on the third Seafieldroad album. I’m not entirely sure what the original song is about since I didn’t write the lyrics; it’s a poem by Jennifer Williams, my flatmate at the time. It’s quite evocative though. I released it as a B-side to a single called There is no authority that we won’t argue with, and Gideon Coe, who had already played The Last House on Holland Island on his 6 Music show, played this version too instead of the A side, which suggests to me that either he really really liked the song or he just didn’t like anything else on the album. I was happy to get airplay either way.

The robbery is a song that didn’t quite make it on to the first Seafieldroad album. It’s about someone trying to convince their partner that the reason they have come home late to find everything smashed to pieces is not because they were having a jealous, paranoid tantrum but because a stranger broke in and did it. It’s clearly a lie, but as the narrator puts it, “aim for rock bottom and you might hit low”. It was supposed to be funny but in hindsight is actually a bit weird and bleak, which is probably why it didn’t make the cut.

If I’m going to be thorough, I should also mention Swimmer One’s first EP, No running, no smoking, no bombing, recorded in 2001, our first ever visit to a  recording studio. The title was based on a swimming pool sign aimed at unruly teenagers, which is a bit of an obscure joke but it made me laugh. The opening of the EP was also a joke. The first thing you hear is a slow, chiming guitar, suggesting this is yet another doomy, Mogwai soundalike band from Scotland, before the same guitar part is suddenly repeated but at twice the speed with a Motown-style rhythm section. The joke doesn’t work now but I remember thinking it was hilarious at the time, and was quite looking forward to wrong-footing music journalists with it. In the end though we decided the four songs didn’t quite achieve the standards we’d set for ourselves, sounding like demos rather than a finished product. So we decided not to release it, went back to the drawing board, and a few months later came up with our debut single, We Just Make Music For Ourselves. But it’s now on Bandcamp if anyone is desperate to hear it.

We later re-recorded the EP’s second song, How Could Something Like That Be Love, for our second single. And if you’re paying very close attention, you’ll spot that part of the lyric for Here, the opening song, was later reused in Regional on our debut album, The Regional Variations. I’m still a bit sad that we never got around to re-recording the closing song, Throwing Ideas in the Air Like Bouquets, which I loved. 

If I’m going to be really, really, dogmatically thorough, I should also mention the 38 hours of home recordings I made, between the ages of 14 and about 23, on an old reel to reel four track machine given to me by my German brother-in-law. Most people would call these recordings ‘demos’. Being a spotty teenage megalomaniac living in a fantasy world, I decided they were ‘albums’ – in which case I have recorded more albums than David Bowie and only slightly fewer than Cliff Richard.

Each ‘album’ was mixed, once it was finished, on to a C60 cassette, so is more or less an hour long. Each had a title (Boogie Atrocities, Boop Boop a Doop and Post Modern Ironing being three of my favourites) and its own cover artwork. Sometimes I’d enlist friends to play bass, or guitar, or to sing. But mostly I made them on my own. Each ‘album’ was quite different. Medicine was an acoustic guitar album recorded while stoned. Subtitles was weird, experimental soundtrack-style music. Others (quite a lot of them) were early attempts at synthpop. Some songs were two minutes long. Others were 12-minute epics. 

The first couple of cassettes are pretty much unlistenable. The next 11 or 12 are not very good. By album number 14 or 15, though, I was starting to get somewhere. I was so pleased with my progress, in fact, that I was starting to make best of compilations, remix albums and singles too (on slightly shorter cassettes). Who listened to this stuff? My friend Martin, sometimes. My mum, who had no idea what to make of them but smiled indulgently. My art class at school, on one occasion. But mostly just me. In short, rareties do not come much more rare than this. Or perhaps they do. I made so much music during this time that my unreleased output also includes bonus tracks and rareties, in an ever-decreasing circle of obscurity.

Except that, technically, this music is not ‘unreleased’ either, because I’ve since released some of it on Bandcamp – it’s free to download if you can be bothered. As embarrassing as much of my teenage output is to me now, I thought it would be nice to document the early experimentation that led to Swimmer One and Seafieldroad before the original tapes all wore out. You can hear traces of my ‘properly’ released work in a lot of it, even in the first one I ever made, Destination Fore, recorded when I was 14 and featuring lyrics by my friend Martin. In my teenage head it sounded like the Human League. In reality it sounded like a schoolboy shouting to a tinny Yamaha keyboard backing track. Definitely a B-side.

Days 64-65: All the things that make you want to disappear/The palace of light

I’ve been trying to write this song-by-song diary more or less chronologically, but I just realised I’ve ballsed that up by missing out two songs I recorded eight years ago for Whatever Gets You Through The Night. I also just spotted that I changed my numbering system half-way through. OMG, the whole thing is ruined now.

Ah well. Nothing ever works out perfectly, including success. Apart from that Ashton Kutcher filmWhatever Gets You Through The Night is the most high profile thing I’ve worked on as a musician, but turned out to be the end of a phase in my musical life more than a beginning. It was a big, ambitious project – a live show, a film, a book and an album, all featuring about two dozen Scottish writers and musicians brought together by theatre director Cora Bissett, my band Swimmer One, and the playwright David Greig, and all telling stories set between midnight and 4am. The show premiered at the Arches in Glasgow in 2012 and was revived at the Queen’s Hall for the following year’s Edinburgh Fringe. In between, the film toured Scotland and the album received very good reviews from Mojo, the BBC and elsewhere. The book, designed by StudioLR in Edinburgh, was a beautiful thing too.

I have fond memories of it all, despite having forgotten about it obviously. I loved the way the songs and pieces of writing all took on different meanings across the four different parts of the project. I loved editing the book and putting the tracklist together for the album, a dream job for a compilation nerd. And I loved being part of the show’s house band, playing piano for Rachel Sermanni and Ricky Ross of Deacon Blue – who was incredibly sweet and unassuming and brought his whole family along –  and on a hilarious Eugene Kelly song called Chips and Cheese, for which the whole cast did hammy dance moves and a brass section marched through the audience. A particular highlight was my one-year-old daughter joining us for the show’s Edinburgh Fringe run and being carried on stage each night for a brief moment of scene-stealing mid-show cuteness and narrative poignancy. Whatever Gets You Through The Night also temporarily cured my chronic stage fright. If you’re going to be performing alongside RM Hubbert, Ricky Ross, Withered Hand and Emma Pollock – that’s us all above at the Arches curtain call – then you’d better raise your game.

The Swimmer One song, All the things that make you want to disappear, was the show’s opening number – a decision that, if I’m honest, I had sneakily hoped to engineer by writing a lyric that sounded like an introduction, a journey into the night. I only wrote some of the lyric though. The rest, a vivid description of a dream, was written and sung by Laura, whose own song closed the show and also appeared on the album. All the things that make you want to disappear turned out to be the last song Swimmer One recorded, so the title is oddly appropriate even though that wasn’t the intention. What actually made us disappear was mostly just a lack of time; two members of a band having a baby together tends to make getting everyone in the same rehearsal room tricky. If there had been huge public demand for a new Swimmer One record we might have found a way, but there wasn’t, and our actual lives felt a bit more important.

My other contribution was a solo effort called The Palace of Light. Cora, who was directing the show, had wanted to use There Are No Maps For This Part Of The City, but since I was going to be sharing album space with some big names I was determined to write something new despite having very little time to do it. I sometimes wish we’d just gone with Cora’s plan, given that There are no maps is both a better song and a better recording. Apart from anything else, The Palace of Light ’s lyrics don’t really make sense. The song was inspired by a brief reference, in an article Peter Ross had written about a karaoke bar in Glasgow, to an underground toilet block that was apparently a popular cottaging spot. Because it had a glass roof that the sun would stream through, it was known as ‘the palace of light’, which struck me as a surprisingly poetic name for somewhere people went to have sex with strangers, and the phrase had stuck in my head ever since. The problem was that the song I ended up writing is set late at night, ‘after the clubs have all closed’, meaning that not only would the palace of light be completely dark, it would presumably be locked. The string arrangement is lovely though – it was a brass arrangement in the live show, which worked even better – and it was a safer bet for performing live, given that I’ve never once made it through There are no maps on stage without screwing it up, and it’s best not to do that in front of your biggest ever crowd.

At the time there was ambitious talk of Whatever Gets You Through The Night evolving into something else – an international franchise, perhaps, with us curating new gatherings of writers and musicians from all over the world – but instead the project came to an end soon after the show’s Edinburgh Fringe run, largely because we could never figure out a practical, affordable way to continue with something that relied on bringing together so many busy people. I was fine with this, which surprised me given how excited I’d initially been about its potential. Putting the whole thing together had been a wonderful creative experiment with multiple art forms and voices and felt really special. I enjoyed the show’s Fringe run too but ultimately it didn’t have quite the same thrill as the premiere at the Arches, partly because three sections I loved were cut. I understood why – the show was too long and probably too uneven in tone for an international sales pitch – but I had a nagging feeling that we’d lost something along the way. I learned that I’m not always great at the creative compromises required to make something properly successful. I also learned that it’s sometimes healthier to enjoy special things and then let them go and move on than it is to cling on to them.

Whatever Gets You Through The Night has had a couple of slight returns since. The original creative team briefly reunited for a project dreaming up imaginary shows for posters around Glasgow – ours was a Roald Dahl inspired site-specific theatre show in the Tunnock’s tea cake factory, with Momus as Willy Wonka, which I’d still love to do in real life. This year David adapted his opening piece for Whatever Gets You Through The Night as Bees, a short film for the National Theatre of Scotland’s Scenes for Survival series. And last year I created a one-off Hebridean version of the show with Emma Pollock, the Sea Atlas, Gaelic singer Ceitlin Smith, a Ricky Ross cover by me, and some of Daniel Warren’s films from the original project, which was a lot of fun to do. It wasn’t theatre – it was Cora’s magic touch that made the original show work and I wouldn’t have dared try to replicate that – but it was a good night. It’d also be fun to do a proper revival, for its tenth anniversary perhaps, with a new generation of Scottish writers and musicians.

Days 59-63: The sadness of the Peats / Anthem / Enchanted Alright / Walking on a Dream / What Happens Now

I’m mostly a horrible snob when it comes to cover versions. They’re fun at weddings, but artistically if you’re not going to make something completely your own then why bother? And so every time I’ve done one I tend to tie myself in knots trying to justify it. I’m about to do it again with  The Sadness of the Peats, from the new EP I put out today.

I love Peat and Diesel, and I particularly love Plateful of Sgadan, their cover of Brimful of Asha by Cornershop – which, to avoid confusion, is not the song I’ve covered. I did recently record a cover of a cover – my version of Camille O’Sullivan’s version of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem – for a theatre project I’ve been working on, but I wouldn’t dare do that with Plateful of Sgadan and would like to explain why. Bear with me here because it’s a bit of a tangent.

Some people might argue that Plateful of Sgadan isn’t a cover version at all. Musically it’s clearly Brimful of Asha but the lyrics are completely different. I’ve been told that a few younger Peat listeners have got very confused when they hear the original, perhaps assuming it’s some sort of weird tribute by Asian Peat and Diesel fans.

In some ways Plateful of Sgadan is a typical Peat and Diesel song, in that the band quite often cherrypick from other people’s music – usually it’s Scottish folk tunes, but the opening of Lovely Stornoway is clearly Summer of 69 by Bryan Adams and if the band were more famous they might have had a legal letter by now. What’s interesting to me about Plateful of Sgadan though is that, culturally, it does something very similar to the Cornershop song.

Brimful of Asha is full of very specific Indian references. It’s named after Asha Bhoslie, a ‘playback singer’ for Indian films, who sang thousands of songs that would then be lip synced by the films’ stars. The song refers to her as ‘sada rani’, which I’m told is Punjabi for ‘our queen’; the lyrics also mention Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi, two other playback singers. If you didn’t know all this, the song won’t make a huge amount of sense but, crucially, it doesn’t attempt to explain itself. It exists on its own terms, and if you don’t know what it’s about then you can go look it up.

Brimful of Asha was released in 1997, the year Tony Blair won his first general election victory, partly by piggybacking on Britpop, which by that time had evolved into a widespread, nostalgic and quite conservative celebration of British culture. When it comes to Britpop I’m generally with Tracey Thorn, who has pointed out how, in the eyes of politicians and the media, “the white boys with guitars were the Norm, and deviations from that were the Other, and certainly not the main story”. Ask most people to name a ‘Britpop’ musician and they’ll say Blur or Oasis, maybe Elastica or Pulp if they’re trying to impress you. But not many people would namecheck Tricky, Goldie, or Massive Attack, at least not if they’re white. So Brimful of Asha felt significant, especially after Norman Cook remixed it and made it a proper hit. It was guitar pop  that showcased a different, more inclusive kind of Britishness. Importantly, it’s as British as it is Asian, musically and lyrically. And it stood out because of the way it casually blended these dual identities together.

I would argue that Plateful of Sgadan does the same thing. It feels relevant here to mention that Britpop was also overwhelmingly English. Even Trainspotting, the 1996 film adaptation of a hugely significant Scottish book, had a soundtrack dominated by English musicians – Blur, Sleeper, Pulp, Elastica, Underworld etc – with room for only one Scottish band, Primal Scream. In the years since, though, something transformative happened in Scottish pop music, beginning in 1996 with Arab Strap’s The First Big Weekend. I still remember the first time I heard that song. Like a lot of people of my generation, I associated Scottish accents in pop with politics and the Proclaimers. This was something different, a song in which a young guy from Falkirk basically just blethered for a while about ordinary stuff – dancing, drinking with his pals, watching a football game and the Simpsons – and, just by doing it in a Scottish accent, with a throwaway reference to the Arches in Glasgow, made it feel exciting and subversive, especially in the midst of a big cultural moment that was being sold to us as British but was actually mostly English. What was striking, again, was the casualness of it. Why would you not talk about your life in this way, with your own distinct cultural references alongside ones from the ‘mainstream’, dominant culture? I heard the same quality in Cornershop a year later, and I hear it in Peat and Diesel now when they sing about herring and Big Macs.

These days, of course, it would be conspicuous if a Scottish band didn’t sing in their own accent. The bands that followed in Arab Strap’s wake – Frightened Rabbit, the Twilight Sad etc – have made it normal. And The Proclaimers, notably, are considered to be much cooler than they once were. I don’t think it’s insignificant that, when Trainspotting 2 finally came out, the most prominent band on the soundtrack were Young Fathers, who are from Edinburgh – and, in an interesting wee footnote to Tracey Thorn’s thoughts on the history of Britpop, are also two thirds black and have collaborated with Massive Attack.

In some ways, then, Peat and Diesel are nothing new. But they are doing for Scottish pop music what both Arab Strap and Cornershop once did for Britpop, in that, with their distinctly Hebridean references, they represent a different kind of Scottishness. Instead of Asha Bhoslie and Lata Mangeshkar, Plateful of Sgadan namechecks marag dhubh, the local minister, and “Shauny Beag from Carloway”. And the opening lines about Sunday dinner with Granny before church will have a particular resonance for anyone who grew up on Lewis. But like Brimful of Asha, Peat and Diesel songs don’t feel the need to explain themselves, they just are what they are. If you get the references, great. If you don’t, you can go look them up. It’s been lovely to see people all over the UK discovering and embracing Lewis culture through this band, and it’s gutting that the lockdown happened just as Peat and Diesel were on the point of properly breaking through; they already had gigs booked through to next year.

What, you might ask, has any of this got to do with me recording a Peat and Diesel song that isn’t even Plateful of Sgadan? The best answer I can come up with is that all this history was very much on my mind when I decided to cover Country Boy, the opening song on Peat and Diesel’s first album. The reason I wouldn’t cover Plateful of Sgadan, my favourite Peat and Diesel song, is that I couldn’t possibly cover it as cleverly as Peat and Diesel covered Cornershop. But I did feel like I could bring something new to Country Boy.

It was the lyrics that drew me to the song, especially this bit towards the end: “I know it isn’t normal and I know it isn’t right, any average man would get a fright. My head is in the clouds and my guts are on the deck, it’s seven hours to go until I lose the sweats.” I had many questions. Why seven hours specifically? At very least it suggests a long relationship with comedowns. What is he hiding from in his granny’s loft? What is he running away from with those magic mushrooms? Did something bad happen in the city that made him not like it? Is there a deep melancholy at the heart of Peat and Diesel that isn’t being talked about, and that someone who mostly writes sad songs could tease out?

I’m possibly reading far too much into this. Keith Morrison, Peat and Diesel’s producer, told me people are always asking him questions about details in the band’s lyrics and that the answer is quite often ‘because it rhymes’. But I thought it would be fun to find the sadness in the Peats, and so, while bored in the middle of lockdown, I posted a very sketchy version of the song online. Since Lewis is a small place it got noticed by the band quite quickly. One response from a Peat and Diesel fan stuck in my mind: “He sounds like he needs a whisky.” And they were right. It was too sad. Teasing out the melancholy in a Peat and Diesel song is one thing; making it depressing is another.

For the final recording, then, I added a rousing, anthemic second half with stamps, hand claps, and a completely different tune that I wrote myself. I like to think this is in the spirit of a band who take such cheeky liberties with other people’s music. I added a wee bit of Plateful of Sgadan at the end, a tribute to their tribute. I hope they like it. I also hope they don’t mind that I recorded it in the same studio, with the same producer, where they made their first two albums. I got a bit of a kick out of that, I admit, and couldn’t resist taking a wee selfie in front of their tour poster.

I’ve done a handful of other cover versions over the years. The oldest is Swimmer One’s cover of Cloudbusting by Kate Bush, which I’ve written about elsewhere. The second Seafieldroad album includes a version of Walking on a Dream by Empire of the Sun, because it was a song Laura and I used to dance about to in our living room and which ended up being the first dance at our wedding – the original version, not mine. I also did a version of What Happens Now by Kitchens of Distinction as a bonus track on the first Seafieldroad album, for no reason other than The Death of Cool is one of my favourite albums of all time and I’ve sung along to it so many times that I know all the words by heart.

Most recently I recorded Enchanted / Alright, a medley of Some Enchanted Evening by Rodgers and Hammerstein and It’s Alright With Me by Cole Porter, two classic songs that meant a lot to my parents. I have a better excuse for this one. Some Enchanted Evening (from the musical South Pacific) is how my dad remembered the dance night when he met my mum. It’s Alright With Me is how my mum remembered the same evening.  It was a bit of a family joke that they had such different soundtracks to the same event. The story behind it is that he was falling in love for the first time, while she was recovering from the traumatic loss of an ex-boyfriend who had taken his own life shortly after breaking off their engagement.

To Dad, Mum was the beautiful stranger glimpsed across a crowded room, whose “laughter will sing in your dreams”. He took the advice in the song (“When you find your true love…. Fly to her side and make her your own”) very much to heart; he wrote to her every day the first Christmas they were apart, soon after they met. To Mum, by contrast, Dad was the wrong face, the wrong time, the wrong place, but he was so charming that my mum decided that, as the song concludes, “it’s alright with me”. The loss of her first fiancé haunted my mum for the rest of her life, but it was Dad’s love for her, in the end, that helped her get over it, and they were married for over 50 years.

The idea for Enchanted / Alright came to me shortly after my mum’s funeral. Partly it was a way of saying a last goodbye to them both. Partly I just liked the idea of juxtaposing two very different love songs, one naïve and idealistic, one coloured by experience of heartbreak.

The moral of this story is that songs can mean very different things depending on how you sing them, which is why I like the whole Brimful of Asha/Plateful of Sgadan saga so much, and why I wanted to add a wee nod to it at the end of my cover of Country Boy. For the record, I don’t think The Sadness of the Peats is anywhere near as good a cover version as Plateful of Sgadan is. It’s probably another example of my tendency to critique pop music – at some length, as you may have noticed – rather than fully embrace it. But I’m quite pleased with it, especially the stamping and the handclaps, a multi-tracked me, jumping up and down and feeling very happy.

Days 55-58: Medicine / Findhorn / The world is just noise / The song that says they’re gone

A few weeks ago I had a tricky conversation with my children about death. We had watched Onward, Pixar’s latest film, followed a couple of days later by kids’ classic The Land Before Time. They were quite angry with me. Onward is about a dead dad who is briefly reanimated but only from the waist down; they were just about ok with the weirdness of this but not the ending, which – mild spoiler – doesn’t quite offer the proper reunion it seems to promise, a bold creative decision which I admired but they hated. I thought The Land Before Time might fix things, being a cute, sentimental classic about adorable dinosaurs, but I’d forgotten that the mum dinosaur gets killed off early on and just upset them again. Afterwards they demanded I find them a film to watch in which NOBODY DIES.

Except it turns out there are hardly any children’s films like this. After struggling for a while to find an option, I pointed this awkward fact out to them by listing some of their favourite films. The Lion King: dead dad. Finding Nemo: dead mum. Frozen: both parents dead. Paddington: dead uncle. Ice Age – dead mum. ‘ICE AGE?’ they exclaimed. They hadn’t even noticed, because it is subtly and sensitively implied rather than shown, but yes, the entire plot hinges on a dying woman handing over her baby to three animal saviours before she drowns in a river. ‘She’s gone,’ gasps Sid the sloth, as if the woman has magically got up and breezed off while nobody was looking for no reason whatsoever, but it’s very clear what’s happened.

Having got this far, I then attempted to explain that something sad or scary needs to happen at some point otherwise there’s really no story. Even when there’s no death in a children’s film there is an absence, usually of a parental figure, like the ill mother in My Neighbour Totoro or the missing father in ET. Most stories are about facing your biggest fears. They’re tools to help you grow up. They got it, kind of, but still wanted to see a film with no death in it.

If this sounds a bit much for a conversation with children, bear in mind that these ones lost two of their grandparents very early in their lives and have already had to process this, which was often a remarkable thing to witness. ‘Your dad is dead,’ my older son would often say, while I was in the middle of getting him dressed or pouring him some cereal. ‘When I’m a grown-up you will be dead,’ he would occasionally add, trying out the idea for size, testing my reaction. Sometimes he would experiment with different ways of saying it. ‘After all of the days we will disappear,’ he announced one day. Which is how my new album, and this website, got its name.

I mention all this because I’ve realised, while doing this song-by-song diary, that the thing I write about more often than anything else is death.  At first I told myself this must be to do with the death of my parents. Medicine, the opening song on the new album, was written immediately after my mum’s funeral and sets the tone for much of what follows. Much of my last album, The Winter of 88, was a response to my dad’s deteriorating health and, in hindsight, emotional preparation for losing him. This is most apparent on The World is Just Noise, a song about the impossibility of resolving old differences with someone whose memory is fading as they approach death, and Findhorn, an imaginary journey to the north of Scotland to scatter someone’s ashes, narrated by the person who’s just died. It’s also addressed symbolically on the album’s opening song, The Last House on Holland Island, which I’ve already written about elsewhere.

Actually though, I’ve been writing about death right from the beginning. In the press release for Swimmer One’s first single, We Just Make Music For Ourselves, I described it as something like a ‘euphoric pop song about the pointlessness of life and the crushing inevitability of death’. It was a joke, but also a reasonably accurate description of the song. Drowning Nightmare One, the opening song on Swimmer One’s first album, was set on a sinking ship whose passengers are all doomed. Dead Orchestras, which opened the second album, was about what we leave behind for our children when we’re gone. I could list lots more, but you get the idea. Death death death. In fact I could probably pick a song I’ve written at random and it would turn out to be about death in some way.

When I realised this I was tempted to do a death inventory of other people’s songs for comparison. It can’t be that unusual, surely? Instead I found some reassurance in the fact that, if I’m obsessed with death, then so are the people who wrote Frozen and Ice Age.

What matters, I think, is how you write about death. Ideally you should do it in a way that makes your audience want to hold more tightly onto every moment of their lives, to live them to the full. I’m not sure I always succeed in that, but I’d like to think I have my moments. However, if, like my kids at one particular moment in time, you’d rather not hear those kinds of songs at all, then fair enough, I have a Kate Bush cover you might like.

If you’re up for it though, The song that says they’re gone perhaps pushes the subject as far as it can go, in that it’s about human extinction. ‘The song that says they’re gone’ is the silence in the absence of all human activity, which, if you’ve spent any length of time in the countryside, you know is not silence at all but the hundreds of sounds you hear when you let your mind become quiet – animals, insects, plants, water and rock. I wrote this song over a decade ago but it resonates all the more with me now that I live in one of the quietest places in Scotland. I think of it, in particular, when I’m on the shore below our village, on a beach of countless stones that has been shaped, over millions of years, by the cliffs on either side of it slowly crumbling into the sea, the tiny fragments of rock gradually smoothed out by the water. When it’s warm enough I like to leave my bedroom window open at night and listen to this beach, the mighty crackle as the tide pushes the stones back and forth, sometimes damming the river that flows down to it, sometimes clearing a path for the water to rush through. Musically speaking, any sound made by humans during our existence here is just a tiny fragment of this infinitely bigger hymn, less than a single note.

A few months ago I made a wee video for the song while walking the dog up on the cliffs. The abandoned RAF base that’s up there seemed like the perfect setting for it. It’s a beautiful place, somehow all the more beautiful for the concrete structures spread across it, small monuments to human activity that has now ceased. Sometimes I think they look like gravestones, other times like skyscrapers, the biggest buildings people have ever made,  but seen from the air so they look tiny, dwarfed by a vast landscape. The RAF base was a radar station, a place designed for watching and listening. It still is, but now people come here to look out for eagles and whales, and the only sound is the wind, the sea, and the birds.

Days 52-54. Pulling ragwort on the Sabbath / Islands of the north Atlantic / The path, the beach, the sea

Pulling ragwort on the Sabbath is the first song I’ve written about living on the Isle of Lewis. In fact, it’s one of only two songs I’ve managed to finish since I moved here two years ago – both of which appear on a new EP that I just recorded at Wee Studio in Stornoway.

I did wonder about the title, given local religious sensitivities. Without it, though, I would basically have had to unwrite the entire song – a year’s worth of musical output, effectively – so I decided to keep it but write an explanation, and here it is.

As the lyric says, the song is a collection of ‘thoughts that go through my head as I’m pulling ragwort on the Sabbath’. Soon after Laura and I bought a croft here we discovered it was infested with ragwort, which, as any crofter knows, is toxic to sheep. The only way we’ve found to get rid of it without ruining the soil is to uproot it, flower by flower, which I did. Until the lockdown, though, the only day I could spend any amount of time pulling ragwort was the day when I wasn’t working – ie: Sunday, when according to some people you’re not even supposed to hang out your washing on the Isle of Lewis.

I was conflicted about this. While I’m not at all religious, I like and respect the fact that a lot of my fellow islanders want to keep Sunday special. I find it a huge relief from the insidious modern pressure to work and consume more or less constantly. Since I moved here I have made it a rule never to read work emails on a Sunday, and am happier as a result. Taking time to slow down, rest, and reflect is essential for human health. In fact, there are artists who, for different reasons, are currently exploring the idea of ‘rest as resistance’, such as Tricia Hersey and Toni-Dee, whose work I discovered recently via Emma Jayne Park, associate artist for the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival. Tricia Hersey is founder of the Nap Ministry, an organisation formed to explore “the liberating power of naps”, and recently took what she described as “an impromptu three-week Sabbath” in support of the Black Lives Matter protests. Toni-Dee’s work talks of “a push back against ableism, turning the weary body from an engine for capitalism into a site for rest and repose”. Emma herself is devoting much of her time to finding ways of ‘moving slowly’ in her work as a response to changes in her physical health.

It irritates me that arguments over Sunday openings are often caricatured as a fight between ‘progressive’ people and religious fundamentalists who want to chain up children’s swings. What is so progressive about non-stop work, non-stop consumption, and a benefits system that often seems designed to punish and stigmatise people who are unable to participate in this? Are zero hours contracts progressive? Or, for that matter, 24 hour shops or fast food? Alastair McIntosh, the Lewis-raised environmental activist best known for campaigning against a super quarry on Harris and in favour of a community buyout on Eigg, is against Sunday openings. When I approached him about adapting his book Soil and Soul as a theatre show, he was keen to establish right from the beginning that we wouldn’t be doing any performances on a Sunday. I agreed without hesitation.

Ragwort still needs pulled, however. This might not satisfy some Presbyterians – I’ve discovered that even their website is closed on Sunday, which is admirably committed – but my justification for Sunday weeding was that, while I might be physically exerting myself, this wasn’t ‘work’ in the usual sense, rather a way of mentally resting and reflecting and trying to be in tune with my environment. Also, the idea of a ‘day of rest’ tends to be based on an old-fashioned assumption that ‘work’ is mostly physical. My work is done almost entirely while sitting at a computer, dreaming up ideas, so physical activity that needs a degree of non-creative concentration – like pulling ragwort – is ‘rest’ to me.

And so a lot of thoughts were going through my head as I was pulling ragwort on the Sabbath. I thought about how crofting is a battle against nature that it’s delusional to try and win. Everywhere you go on Lewis you see abandoned tools and machinery, broken fences, crumbling croft houses, all with grass and weeds growing through them, reminders of the temporary nature of all human interventions in the landscape. I thought about how strange it felt to try and nurture the land by methodically murdering something. I thought about how when I moved here I’d idealistically and naively dreamed of somehow leaving my old self behind – to live a life with fewer deadlines, less screen time, fewer distractions from the stuff that really mattered – but had ended up bringing all of this with me. Well, of course I had. I was able to move to Lewis in the first place because, thanks to more widely available wifi, I could do my various jobs as effectively from an island as I could from a city. But I was still in those jobs and reliant on them for income. Also, since I was in the middle of a field worrying about being watched over by tutting Presbyterians, I thought a lot about my religious upbringing, why I had abandoned Christianity, and what it still meant to me.

Gradually, a song emerged, shifting through various different versions before I finally settled on this one. It doesn’t really have a conclusion, by the way. They are largely just thoughts I had, as I had them, edited into shape. I’m not claiming they’re original or particularly profound thoughts either. I just happened to write a song about them, because that’s what I do to try and process what’s going on in my head.

Pulling ragwort on the Sabbath is very much an incomer’s song. I wonder if I’ll look back on it with embarrassment after a few more years of living here, once I’m part of the furniture and no longer care what anyone thinks of me. But it’s sincere and, I think, well meant – it’s a long way from the snarky songs about religion that I used to write as a teenager. If it offends anyone, that wasn’t the intention. Honestly, though, is there any art that doesn’t upset somebody somewhere? And what would be the point of it if there was?

While this is technically my first Lewis song, some music I’ve made has predicted my move here in ways that are a bit eerie. I’ve already written elsewhere about Lake Tahoe, whose video now feels like a strange premonition of my future island life. There’s also Islands of the north Atlantic, a Seafieldroad song recorded five years ago and originally titled Isle of Lewis. This was long before we were even thinking about moving here, or anywhere really, but the lyric is about a family boarding a ferry for a new life. I chose the original title purely because I’d never been to Lewis so it felt more exotic than Skye, Mull or Arran. I basically wrote a fictional song and then my life made it true.

On After All of the Days We Will Disappear, the new album,  Islands of the north Atlantic became the final chapter in a song cycle called The path, the beach, the sea, a musical travelogue that begins on a beach in Portobello and ends on a ferry to the Hebrides. If you haven’t heard it, think of it as a prequel to Pulling ragwort on the Sabbath, which is now a part of that journey too.

Day 51: The white noise

The White Noise is the only remnant of an abandoned experiment from 2015, shortly after my final Seafieldroad album. At the time I was looking after a three-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son, often on my own while Laura worked full-time, and it was proving virtually impossible to spend any time with a musical instrument. But I still had some half-formed melodies buzzing around my head, so I decided it would be a great idea to record an album entirely consisting of a cappella songs, on the grounds that I could theoretically work on them while carrying a baby. I may also have been listening to Medúlla by Björk quite a lot.

As it turned out, though, I wasn’t committed enough to this supposedly brilliant idea to actually finish any of the songs. The White Noise is the only one we attempted to record, and Hamish’s scepticism throughout the whole process was conspicuous. No wonder. When I returned to the files a couple of years later, they sounded awful. The only part that really worked was the rhythm in the second verse, which I’d created by stamping and clapping my hands a lot. The first thing we did when we went back to it was start adding instruments.

Fittingly, it’s the instrumental version that has now been most widely heard, thanks to its inclusion in Danni the Champion, a new film Laura has made for the National Theatre of Scotland’s Scenes for Survival series, from a script by playwright Iain Finlay Macleod. Laura’s own song, Fois Anama, makes a much more dramatic and memorable appearance, but The White Noise soundtracks the middle section, as Danni – brilliantly portrayed by young Lewis actor Francesca Taylor Coleman in her first professional role – visits a Stornoway chip shop, gets drunk on the pier on a cocktail of vodka and brown sauce, and steals her brother’s car.

This was entirely Laura’s idea and, while grateful and flattered that she wanted to use it, I was a bit perplexed at first. The White Noise was written from quite a male perspective; it’s a song about anxiety and privilege, and the sense of guilt associated with feeling mentally unwell when you know your life is pretty good compared to a lot of people’s. The ‘white noise’ represents the static inside an ill person’s head, specifically an ill parent of young and exhausting children – I was getting around four hours of sleep a night at the time – but also the knowledge that ‘white noise’ is the only kind of noise I can make as a white man in middle age.

A teenage girl getting drunk and stealing a car, then, is about the last image I had in mind. But, as I’ve said a few times before in this diary, once a song is out in the world it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It works very well in the film, and if that brings a new audience to the song I’m certainly not going to complain.

Days 49-50: Clean pale hands / There is no authority that we won’t argue with

‘’As far as I can see, cancel culture is mercy’s antithesis. Political correctness has grown to become the unhappiest religion in the world. Its once honourable attempt to reimagine our society in a more equitable way now embodies all the worst aspects that religion has to offer (and none of the beauty) — moral certainty and self-righteousness shorn even of the capacity for redemption. It has become quite literally, bad religion run amuck.’ Nick Cave

My religious upbringing, and my abandoning of it, has seeped into a few songs I’ve written over the years. Clean Pale Hands was inspired by an encounter with a Jehovah’s Witness, whose devotion left me feeling simultaneously disturbed and envious. Would I be happier, I wondered, if I was that certain about the big questions of life and death? For a very short time during my early teens I was heading that way – hence the line ‘you might have had me when I was thirteen’ – but it didn’t last. There is no authority that we won’t argue with is a more defiant song – it refers to God as ‘some bastard in the sky’ which probably wouldn’t go down well at my mum and dad’s church – but also expresses a similar envy in its opening lines: ‘When the light fades, when the light’s almost gone, they’ll be happy, sure of what’s coming next.’ Is death less frightening, I wondered, if you’re not only sure there’s an afterlife but have a clear mental picture of what it will look like?

Ultimately, neither song is really about religion per se, more about certainty and my lack of it. As both songs suggest, I’m even uncertain about whether my lack of certainty is a good thing or not. My tendency in any conflict situation is always to try and see the opposite side of an argument. It’s served me well as a journalist – in fact it’s probably why I became a journalist – but it’s less helpful when talking to a loved one who is suffering and needs solidarity and support rather than a defence of the person who’s wronged them that’s presented purely for the sake of argument. Neither has it made me a very good political activist. To push for change, you have to be reasonably sure of the rightness of your cause. I rarely am.

Of course, religious belief has no monopoly on the kind of moral certainty I find limiting and often disturbing. I knew this from a young age, having discovered that Joseph Stalin was an atheist – I can’t remember how but probably from someone defending religion – but I’ve often found myself repelled by the moral certainty with which people who are, in lots of ways, political allies will argue particular points – that eating meat is morally indefensible, for example, or, more recently, that the police need to be defunded. By this I mean arguments that I feel some affinity with but to which there is clearly another, also persuasive side, as opposed to arguments I find repugnant on every level, such as Holocaust denial. Twice in my life I’ve joined a political party – Labour, and then the Greens – and abandoned them soon afterwards, both times after encountering people whose moral certainty – and whose inability to see the negative impacts it had, or the hypocrisies inherent in their position – bothered me too much.

I’ve been mulling over Nick Cave’s recent blog, quoted above, quite a lot. The blog has been divisive, understandably, because he’s discussing two phrases – ‘political correctness’ and ‘cancel culture’ – that are frequently used to muddy or distort an argument rather than try and bring any clarity or common ground to it. Assumptions have been made about what he’s saying, why he’s saying it, and who he is criticising. The argument has been amplified further by being published not long after an open letter in Harpers magazine, criticising ‘an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty’..

I’ve seen other variations of this claim, most recently in an article by Caitlin Moran observing that ‘this is, undeniably, a far more inflexible and judgemental era than when I was a teenager, or young woman’. It was conspicuous to me how carefully Moran was choosing her words; it was something I recognised. The issues here are complex, and the Harpers letter has provoked some strong responses, some of which I sympathise with, but my own recent experience on social media in particular is that cultural battle lines are constantly being drawn and you are expected to pick a side, not just in individual arguments but in your whole outlook on life. A position on one issue is assumed to reflect your position on numerous others. Your choice of particular words is assumed to be loaded with hidden meaning and intent. The words that jumped out for me in Cave’s blog, though, were not ‘cancel culture’ or ‘political correctness’ but ‘as far as I can see’. Not a phrase you see often on Twitter.

At the same time, I understand why some people have reacted negatively to it. If you feel constantly embattled, oppressed, discriminated against, by people’s language as much as their actions, then I can see why language might always look like a weapon, and why phrases like ‘cancel culture’ and ‘political correctness’ might provoke, regardless of what Cave understands them to mean or how he is using them, because of the associations they already have. It obviously doesn’t help when newspaper columnists report his comments like this:  ‘Snowflakes and cancel-culturists across Britain and the world were offended today – well of course they were – after a 62-year-old man called them out in spectacular fashion, leaving them without a moral or intellectual leg to stand on.”

This, as far as I can see, was not Nick Cave’s intention at all, and it’s telling that the columnist quoted above showed very little interest in the first – and, to me, much more important – section of the blog, in which Cave talks about mercy, a quality that both righteous newspaper columnists and angry Twitter activists frequently lack.

“Mercy is a value that should be at the heart of any functioning and tolerant society. Mercy ultimately acknowledges that we are all imperfect and in doing so allows us the oxygen to breathe — to feel protected within a society, through our mutual fallibility. Without mercy a society loses its soul, and devours itself. Mercy allows us the ability to engage openly in free-ranging conversation — an expansion of collective discovery toward a common good. If mercy is our guide we have a safety net of mutual consideration, and we can, to quote Oscar Wilde, “play gracefully with ideas. Yet mercy is not a given. It is a value we must nurture and aspire to. Tolerance allows the spirit of enquiry the confidence to roam freely, to make mistakes, to self-correct, to be bold, to dare to doubt and in the process to chance upon new and more advanced ideas. Without mercy society grows inflexible, fearful, vindictive and humourless.”

This actually reminded me of the best aspects of my religious upbringing. As a child I learned about mercy, forgiveness, and redemption from the Bible, and those values have shaped much of my life since, even if I’ve long abandoned the religious belief or reverence that went along with them. I still feel a lot of empathy with people who are religious. In fact, I’m just about to record a new EP whose opening song expresses some affinity with Presbyterians. But that’s a story for another day.

 

 

 

Day 48: Leave the stadium

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Hope’s the thing that kills you
Hope that someone else will change the rules
Time to leave the stadium…

I wrote Leave the Stadium seven years ago. Honestly though, it would probably feel like something from a different world if I’d written it a few weeks ago.

I’ve been procrastinating over whether to continue my ‘All of the Days’ song diary. On the one hand, I have more time to do it now we’re all in lockdown, even with three children constantly at home. On the other hand it feels ridiculously self-indulgent still to be writing wee think pieces about my musical back catalogue in the midst of a global medical emergency.

What is an appropriate artistic response to Coronavirus though, beyond trying to provide bored, scared and isolated people with some comfort food? For many of us, the immediate imperative response has just been to survive, move your livelihood online in the face of your entire income disappearing within days. People who commission art, meanwhile, are suddenly commissioning art inspired by the Coronavirus crisis, acting on the assumption that what arts commissioners should do right now is just keep on commissioning art. Is any of this going to result in good art? It might – some of the live-streamed shows I’ve seen so far have been lovely, communal experiences – but I keep thinking of a comment playwright David Greig once made, that the best new writing about the Scottish independence referendum would probably be done five or ten years after the referendum. In the heat of the moment, it can be hard to see what it is you’re living through.

Right now, I personally have no idea how to make something artistic about this strange, unsettling moment in human history. The ground beneath our feet is shifting so rapidly, day by day, that I can barely keep my balance. Every day some new event leaves you thinking “wow, really? THIS is who we are, who we’ve been, what we put up with, what we thought was ok?’ So many things about society that previously seemed impossible to change are suddenly up for discussion. I feel constantly dizzy. It’s exhilarating, in some ways – maybe Coronavirus is as much of an incredible opportunity for human evolution as it is a deadly emergency – but it’s also terrifying and overwhelming.

Does that mean I’m not a good enough artist? It’s occurred to me, and I’m sure a lot of people have experienced a similar anxiety. And it’s intimidating, watching a musical hero like Momus creating an entire album of witty, insightful rapid responses to life in lockdown within a matter of days while I’ve written absolutely nothing. But as a meme currently going round wisely puts it, “it’s ok not to be at your most productive in the middle of a global fucking pandemic”. And that applies even to those of us who are privileged enough not to be self-isolating somewhere cramped, claustrophobic or dangerous.

Anyway, perhaps a seven-year-old song can have as much to say about this moment as a song written in the middle of it. Leave the Stadium feels relevant just now, to me anyway. It was written not long after the 2012 London Olympics, a £9bn spectacle that seemed, in some ways, like a good metaphor for being seduced and abandoned by neoliberalism, encouraged to compete with each other for prizes but eventually realising we’re just running in circles, caught in a loop, “sold down a river of Coca-Cola”.

At the time I was still trying to process my feelings about Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, a celebration of British culture throughout history that Irvine Welsh later likened to “a Requiem mass for something that was lost”. Welsh told the Sunday Herald that it made him “really angry and really sad” and that Boyle had felt the same. As we publicly applaud the NHS from our windows each week, we would do well to remember that Boyle’s spectacular show was one of the biggest rounds of public applause the NHS has ever had. The sequence paying tribute to the NHS included hundreds of real nurses who had volunteered to be part of its cast of 10,000 volunteers, including staff and patients from Great Ormond Street Hospital. Boyle later claimed the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, put pressure on him to drop this part of the show. “They wanted us to reduce that or cut it or make them just walk around the ­stadium,” he told The Independent. The ceremony took place, of course, under a Conservative government. There have been three UK general elections since then, and each time Britain chose the political party that was, in all of its actions, least supportive of the NHS.

Leave the Stadium is a song that can feel hopeful or hopeless depending on what’s going on around you, especially the closing line, “time to leave the stadium”. In the short term, for me, that line meant abandoning my life-long support for the Labour party and instead campaigning for Scottish independence, which seemed to promise something different. After that campaign was lost, leaving the stadium sometimes represented giving up on politics completely. Now, I don’t know. We’re living in a moment of simultaneous emergency and opportunity. As Rebecca Solnit recently put it, “ideas that used to be seen as leftwing seem more reasonable to more people. There’s room for change that there wasn’t beforehand. It’s an opening.” In the UK the Labour party has a new leader who might actually make them electable again. Globally, this could be the wake up call that finally gets us to do something about climate change, after just a few days of lockdown transformed the skies above our cities beyond recognition. But it’s also an opening for people of all political persuasions, from US states using the lockdown to stop women having abortions to far right or religious organisations who benefit from spreading fear, confusion and apocalyptic stories.

I’m not going to start claiming this song was prescient or anything – I’m generally terrible at accurately predicting the future – but the lyrics in the climactic section of the song do seem quite timely in this era of ‘fake news’:

Since everything that we’ve been sold as a dream is just slogans and fakery
You’d think that by now we’d have got to a point where we don’t believe in anything
But somehow each day we still wake up and hope it will all amount to something.

Somehow each day I still wake up and hope it will all amount to something.

 

Day 47: This Road Won’t Build Itself

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The last days before Brexit seem like a fitting time to revisit a song about Scottish independence. This Road Won’t Build Itself was released in early 2014, a few months before that year’s referendum. To my surprise, it turned out to be one of very few new songs on the subject, even making it on to a ‘songs of the campaign’ poll run by Bella Caledonia – although it was easily defeated by the more rousing Son I Voted Yes by Stanley Odd. Otherwise most people seemed to be listening to Cap in Hand by the Proclaimers.

In fact there was a conspicuous absence of pro-Yes art in general that year. Alan Bissett had an explicitly pro-Yes play at the Edinburgh Fringe, crowd-funded by Yes supporters, but he was the exception rather than the rule. Even at nationalcollective.com – the website of an artist-led pro-independence campaign – there wasn’t much actual art. Instead, the site was mostly just a forum for debate.

My explanation for this at the time was that the independence movement bore almost no resemblance to the thing the No campaign was determined to paint it as – an army of sentimental nationalists – and that Scotland’s pro-Yes artists, knowing how the Unionist-dominated media operated, didn’t want to rise to the bait. Instead they were determined to win the campaign on the strength of its arguments – political, moral, and economic – rather than with rousing, emotional choruses. The year before the referendum I had a long chat with Ricky Ross of Deacon Blue, who was passionate about the cause but determined to engage with it in the right way – which, for him, meant talking to people individually and directly rather than preaching from a stadium. The playwright David Greig, one of Scotland’s most prominent pro-Yes voices, took a similarly low-key approach with projects like his Yes No Plays, and the Edinburgh Fringe show and podcast All Back To Bowie’s, all of which were designed to bring people from both sides together for lively discussion.

I like to think that This Road Won’t Build Itself represented a kind of middle way. It’s a partisan song, but it doesn’t hammer the point home. If you didn’t know it was about Scottish independence, you might not guess from listening to it. Even I didn’t realise at first what it was about – it happened subconsciously. It’s a song about raising children as much as politics. It’s about hope, defiance, and idealism, and about what people who feel those things find themselves up against. It could just as easily be about Barack Obama’s election campaign. The two were comparable politically – ‘the audacity of hope’ would have made a very good Yes slogan.

Five years on, and with calls for another referendum becoming louder by the week, I find myself wondering whether this time we need songs – and art as activism in general – a bit more. I’ve never felt less convinced that a political campaign can be won on compelling political arguments. In Britain the Conservative Party, led by a Prime Minister who is a proven and consistent liar, just won a huge majority following an election campaign in which his party lied consistently. The Brexit campaign was also won largely by lying, assisted by shadowy people like Cambridge Analytica who have been manipulating voters across the world. The new year began with Donald Trump ordering a political assassination in the Middle East which appears to have been completely illegal, and demonstrably lying about it, and his presidency is likely to become stronger, not weaker, as a result, regardless of any howls of protest from the left. In fact the White House seems to have barely bothered to try and justify it. How do you win political arguments with facts and figures if nobody seems to care what’s true anymore?

It’s strange looking back at the Scottish independence referendum now. The accusation constantly thrown at Yes supporters was that we were naive fantasists who thought an independent Scotland would be some sort of utopia. The extent to which that directly contradicted my experience was one of the main reasons why I felt so disillusioned with both politics – and journalism – after the result. What I’d experienced was a broad coalition of people – academics, economists, thinktanks and, yes, artists – who seemed genuinely passionate about making Scotland a better, fairer, more equal place to live, and were willing to work hard to make it happen. Talking to Yes campaigners, and reading their ideas, I was hearing exciting proposals for fairer tax systems, stronger communities, more inclusive education and childcare, green energy, and the abolition of nuclear weapons: a realistic, workable, tantalising alternative to neoliberalism. Not all of this was reflected in SNP policy, but a lot of it was, and it felt as if there was a growing grassroots movement that would work hard to ensure any future Scottish government (SNP, Labour, or whoever) lived up to this ‘early days of a better nation’ idealism – a movement that, I believed, would be more powerful and persuasive after independence simply by virtue of being geographically closer to the centre of power.

Faced with this, the No campaign mostly just jeered that it couldn’t be done because Scotland couldn’t afford it (despite plenty of economic evidence that it could), or because – hollow laughter – the European Union wouldn’t let it. Or, when it was trying to flatter us, it offered sentimental, nationalistic, patronising waffle about how wonderful the UK is.

And now? If anyone is being a naïve fantasist, surely, it’s the kind of Brexit voter who thinks that after January we will somehow be magically free from oppressive European bureaucracy rather than, well, enduring all the grim things that are actually going to happen.

Art often emerges from a place of helplessness – the only forum for expression for people who feel politically powerless. That was true of punk, in particular. I never felt like that during the Scottish independence referendum. If anything I felt empowered, emboldened. A lot of people I knew felt like that, at least for a while. David Greig fondly described it as a ‘summer of love’. And if you feel as if people can hear you speak, perhaps there’s no need to sing. Perhaps there wasn’t more art about independence, back then, because there was no need for it. Perhaps Scottish artists didn’t feel compelled to kick against an oppressive, unfair or just stale political system via their art because there was an enticing opportunity to challenge it in a more straightforward, practical way.

Now, I feel like singing. In fact I’m currently producing a theatre project inspired by keening, which is premiering next week, our final week in the European Union. I can’t think of anything more apt to be doing right now.