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 was the first song I wrote about living on the Isle of Lewis. In fact, it was one of the only songs I actually managed to finish during my first two years on the island. (Update: I’ve been a bit more productive since then.)

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 was technically my first Lewis song, some of my older music 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, made up of reworked versions of three Seafieldroad songs – the other two are The Coastal Path, from the second Seafieldroad album and A Port in the Storm from the third Seafieldroad album, The Winter of 88 – plus a new, very brief a cappella section and recordings of the Ullapool to Stornoway ferry, the beach at Portobello and my children singing. All the original songs documented particular points in my life and the idea in putting them together was to create a musical travelogue that begins on a beach in Portobello and ends on a ferry to the Hebrides. 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


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


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 – 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.

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 (another vote that didn’t go the way I hoped it would). I can’t think of anything more apt to be doing right now.

Day 46: Don’t Let The Winter Freeze Your Heart


If I’m honest, Don’t Let The Winter Freeze Your Heart was mostly influenced by A Winter’s Tale by David Essex. In fact, when I look back at all the other music released in 1982 that had a big impact on my later life – The Dreaming by Kate Bush, Sulk by the Associates, Big Science by Laurie Anderson, The Lexicon of Love by ABC, – I have to admit that this one song may have influenced my songwriting more than any of it.

A Winter’s Tale made a big impression on me as a ten-year-old. In particular I remember thinking that ‘the snow has covered all your footsteps and I can follow you no more’ was a really beautiful metaphor. The older me would think it was a bit creepy that a man was following his ex-girlfriend around through the snow, but there we are. What struck me most, though, was the sense of absolute resignation about the whole thing – ‘Why should the world take notice of one more love that’s failed? On a worldwide scale we’re just another winter’s tale.” This was someone who had been deeply hurt, admitting that in the grand scheme of things it didn’t matter, that they didn’t matter. How often do you hear that kind of humility in pop music? More often, pop singers talk about love as if nobody has been heartbroken before them, and as if nobody’s heartbreak is more important than theirs.

A Winter’s Tale was the first Christmas song that stuck in my head, and so it had a formative influence on my idea of what a Christmas song was. To this day, the only Christmas songs I really like – the only ones I believe – are the sad ones, like Stop the Cavalry or Fairytale of New York, or the weird ones, like Santa’s Beard by They Might Be Giants. My first attempt at writing my own Christmas song was a teenage home recording called Santa Claus Fell in Love, a tragic tale about Santa falling in love ‘with a girl who looked like Rudolf’, having a summer-long romance, shaving his beard off, then having to leave her with no explanation in the autumn because he couldn’t bring himself to tell her his secret identity. It’s a deliberately ridiculous song, written as a joke, but on some level I think it was really about my inability to talk openly about my own experience of panic attacks and depression.

Don’t Let The Winter Freeze Your Heart was my first proper attempt to create a Christmas ‘hit’, except that, being me, I thought the way to do this was to write a song about death and suicidal thoughts. One of the key lines in the song is “you know to survive you’ve got to keep warm but you just want to give up, cry, and throw the doors open”. It was only this week that I noticed there’s a similar line right at the start of A Winter’s Tale – “The nights are colder now, maybe I should close the door.” I don’t think I’d noticed how bleak that line is until now. What is this man doing leaving his door open when, in the very next line, he tells you that it’s already cold enough outside for the snow to completely cover up someone’s footsteps? Yes mate, maybe you should close the door before you freeze to death. But the way the line is sung suggests he’s going to do no such thing. In some ways, A Winter’s Tale actually reads like a suicide note.

As ever, I’m really not selling myself very well here. I’ll try and put a more positive spin on it. Don’t Let The Winter Freeze Your Heart is also intended to be a song of comfort. I would genuinely like you to feel better, feel less sad, after listening to this song. As the lyrics say, ‘you need to remember that the weather’s just weather and the chill of this winter will not last forever, so if you do one thing between now and Spring, don’t let the winter freeze your heart.” If the song is about depression it’s also intended to offer hope that depression passes, that you’ll feel better soon, that summer will return. It feels fitting, then, that its most high profile public airing to date has been as the soundtrack to a trailer for the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival.

There are two versions of Don’t Let The Winter Freeze Your Heart. The original version was on the Seafieldroad album The Winter of 88. For the version on the new album we added drums and percussion by Stu Brown, and a real accordion part courtesy of Hamish’s friend Kim Tebble. Towards the end of the mixing process Hamish messaged me to say that he’d also added in sleigh bells and tubular bells to make it sound more festive. “Our kitchen radio has been tuned to a Christmas station since December 1st,” he wrote, “so this may have influenced things. Struck me that this is the ‘big’ production of the record and your chance to make the lucrative Christmas canon.” I thought about this for a wee while and then asked myself, what would David Essex do? Aye, alright, I replied.


Day 45: A port in the storm


A Port in the Storm is about walking along Portobello beach late at night, trying to lull my baby daughter to sleep. She didn’t sleep easily, and cried loudly and often, so I would put her in a sling or in the pushchair and head for the promenade, partly to give her mum a break, partly to steady my own nerves.

The sea seemed to soothe her, and I often wondered why. Perhaps she would have calmed down anyway, just from the walk, but I think the sea helped, its sound and its smell. It certainly helped me. It’s a primal experience, looking out at the place where life on earth began – probably – especially if the stars are out too, and especially if you have a baby in your arms. In the song there are various conflicting thoughts swirling around my head. The sea is comforting – I felt a strong sense of connection on those nights to the beginnings of the universe – but also frightening. We were always keenly aware in moving to Portobello that we were choosing a home that could be underwater in a few years’ time; on a stormy day at high tide the waves would crash dramatically on to the promenade. Portobello was becoming quite an aspirational place to live at the time, and the expensive new seafront homes being built on the prom, battered by saltwater even before they were finished, seemed like a textbook example of climate change denial; they reminded me of things I’d read about the madness of building more and more luxury homes on the Florida coast. We were in a wee flat in an old tenement block two streets away from the seafront, but still not far above sea level.

It’s interesting how your perspective on a song can change over time. A Port in the Storm was initially called When The Big Flood Comes until I decided this was too bleak, focusing on death and the end of humanity in a song that’s mostly about love. More recently it’s become simply The Beach, the middle section of a song cycle on the new album, called The Path, The Beach, The Sea. I like that a song written about the beginning and the end of life is now part of a bigger journey, just as our own beginnings and endings are only a small part of a bigger picture.

I also changed the lyrics in the final section. Originally it went ‘please give my daughters a port in the storm’, a plea addressed to the islands of the Forth – Inchcolm, Inchkeith, Inchgarvie – that you can see from the shore, and to whom I’d sometimes talk in the absence of other company. By the time I was making After All Of The Days We Will Disappear, though, I had two sons as well as two daughters, and it became ‘don’t be afraid of the ocean, we’re going home’.

By home I partly meant the ocean. I had an image in my head of humanity being swept away by floods but returning, in death, to the place where we started. But I also meant our new home in the Outer Hebrides, which faces the sea but from a much higher vantage point. Not that we’re immune from climate change here – the weather is famously fierce and likely to get fiercer, and who knows what will happen with the gulf stream? – but it feels more like home than anywhere else I’ve ever lived, and with an even bigger and more humbling view. Instead of Inchkeith, Inchcolm and Inchgarvie we now look out on the Flannan Islands and, on a very clear day, St Kilda. Beyond that the closest land to us is the Faroe Islands and Iceland. And you can see far more stars here than I ever could from Portobello.

The baby daughter of the song is seven years old now. Sometimes she asks me to play her ‘Beau to the beach’. She still doesn’t like sleeping.

Day 44: The Last House on Holland Island


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 LiningTalk Talk’s Laughing Stockthe 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.

Days 36-43: Cramond island to Portobello beach

At this point I’m going to cheat and write about eight songs – the whole of the second Seafieldroad album – in one go. It’s not that I’m not proud of these songs individually, it’s just that they’re all about the same thing. Basically Seafieldroad, the album, is an eight-song love letter to my wife Laura – or, as she was at the time, my fiance. And I’m not going to write eight blogs about that. Some things are private, even for a singer-songwriter.

The album opens with Cramond Island Causeway. For the benefit of readers who don’t know Edinburgh, just off the village of Cramond on the outskirts of the city there’s an island you can walk to at low tide, along a causeway of jagged triangular structures that look like the spine of an ancient sea creature. At high tide, though, the island is cut off from the mainland. People who don’t know this can get stranded there. One time I remember some teenagers had a massive party and ended up with their faces all over page three of the Scotsman after getting hypothermia and having to call the coastguard.

When I wrote this song we were living in Leith and would sometimes cycle to Cramond; it was inspired by one particular journey there, on Laura’s 31st birthday. My memory is a bit blurry now, but we were making an art project at the time that involved hiding secret messages in outdoor locations, so we probably did that. Lorn Macdonald made a very beautiful video for this song, in which Laura and I are played by two people much younger than us and the beach is in Orkney instead of near Leith. It’s like an arthouse film version of us, and actually much sadder than the song was intended to be. By sheer chance, Laura owns a summer dress exactly like the one the girl is wearing in the video, which freaked us out a bit when we first saw it.

Cramond appears again in The War Planes Are Blitzing The Town; in fact the song was originally called Cramond Island Causeway 2. I changed the title to avoid confusing people, but the new title probably ended up confusing people anyway, since the song is actually much more about Cramond than Cramond Island Causeway is. The lyrics refer to the war fortifications on the island, a series of concrete bunkers that had anti-aircraft guns on them during World War Two. It’s a song about emotional battles – the war planes are, obviously enough, not actual war planes, they’re all the things in life that make you feel under attack, or oppressed, or isolated. I liked the image of someone feeling lonely and lost, fighting off their own personal war planes from a metaphorical island, and someone who loves them swimming out to the island to be with them, shooting anti aircraft guns by their side. The line ‘Leith must be protected’ has a double meaning – it was the Leith shipyards that these guns were protecting during the war, and it was our home and our life in Leith that I was fighting to protect in the song, in what were stressful times for both of us.

What Became Of Pinky And Honker is a simple love song, deliberately so. The title comes from Laura calling me Honker. Not because I smell, but because when I have a cold I make a slight honking sound with my nose. I wanted to give her an equally silly nickname as revenge, but the only thing I could think of was that she was wearing a pink beret at the time. None of this has anything to do with the song really, I just liked the image of two characters called Pinky and Honker going off on some adventure and leaving their frustrating working lives behind, as we often wished we could. The title has a double meaning – Honker is imagining his old workmates wondering what became of Pinky and Honker, but he’s also feeling vulnerable and wondering whether Pinky is going to stay with him.

If Pinky and Honker did go on that adventure, it was probably to Siberia, as described in There Is A Train That Goes Thousands Of Miles Away, which was going to be called Trans Siberian Express until I remembered that Momus had already written a song called that. Early on in our relationship Laura and I talked a lot about saving up money in a jar so that one day we could go in this epic train trip, ending up in the Far East. Sadly we never managed to put enough in the jar to go to Siberia. We went to other, less expensive places instead, and eventually ended up in the Hebrides, which to a lot of people in the UK might as well be Siberia. Maybe one day we’ll still make that trip.

On the subject of cold places, I Just Want To Sledge With My Baby was a jokey title for a sad, sober song. It was written one incredibly cold, bleak winter, when the snow drove Scotland to a standstill – hence the line ‘the radio is saying make no journey you don’t need’. Musically this is probably my favourite moment on the album – there are shades of Steve Reich in the arrangement, an influence all the way back to Swimmer One’s first single. I remember feeling especially proud of the second section, where the line ‘we’re climbing up the hill’ is accompanied by an ascending chord sequence.

You Are The Only Place On The Map was a sequel to There Are No Maps For This Part Of The City from the first Seafieldroad album. As you can tell, I really like maps as a metaphor – finding routes through life, drawing your own emotional maps, that sort of thing. If There Are No Maps was about the beginning of a relationship, this rejoins the same couple a bit further down the line as they try to keep things together in challenging times, to find new routes through their lives and their relationship. There are references to various places we’d been together, from Turin to Aberfeldy and Manchester, subject of an earlier Seafieldroad song. The end is basically one big apology. I can’t actually remember what I was apologising about now, but thankfully it turned out ok.

The Coastal Path was originally called Seafield Road – after the street in Edinburgh – until it dawned on me that a song called Seafield Road, by Seafieldroad, would result in even more confusion than two songs called Cramond Island Causeway. Seafield Road is not a pretty road. It smells a bit from the nearby sewage works, and mostly consists of warehouses. It was, however, the quickest way to get from our home in Leith to one of our favourite places at the time, Portobello beach, so we would often cycle along it when we first got together, drinking fizzy wine and eating fish and chips on the beach when we got there. I thought this was a neat metaphor for the fact that the road to happiness isn’t always beautiful. Sometimes it is noisy and ugly and smells a bit. At the beginning of the song, Honker seems a bit worried that it’s not going to work out between him and Pinky. Perhaps there are too many emotional obstacles in their way, between them and the beach.

It’s strange listening back to this song now, knowing that not long after the album was released we would get married on that beach, and that for three years after that we would live in a flat two minutes’ walk from it, and that our first child would learn to walk on it. It’s also strange listening back to the album’s closing song, Walking On A Dream, knowing that it would later become the first dance at our wedding – the original Empire of the Sun version, not mine. A happy ending.

On the new album The Coastal Path has taken on a new meaning again. It has become a beginning, the opening section of a song cycle called The Path, The Beach, The Sea, the start of a new journey to the Hebrides. And it’s much more embellished than this simple, bare version, which feels like a sketch now, an enthusiastic first run at something ultimately deeper and richer, like the beginning of a relationship. At the end of this album though, Pinky and Honker haven’t got married yet. They are talking a lot, making plans, walking along the coastal path, by an old rail track, holding hands, the sound of the waves mixing with the sound of the city traffic, the beach just starting to emerge in the distance.