Snowed In

I managed to get stuck in England this weekend – and once again was able to enjoy snow in Oxford… despite the fact that it took me 10 hours to get back to Paris on Sunday, Saturday was a most enjoyable day to be a weather refugee. Snowmen constructed, snowballs were thrown, and port and mince pies were served in the Middle Common Room at Teddy Hall.

Ants in their pants

In a previous life I lived for a few years in England. During that period I participated in the extraordinary project that called The Original Rabbit Foot Spasm Band. Some might consider this an obscure claim to fame: however it has been scientifically proven that on days when US Air Force cargo jets are not taking off from RAF Brize Norton, the ORFSB is in fact the loudest human-produced noise in Oxfordshire.

Of course, it took my departure from the UK for the guys to really find success, and these days they play regularly outside their native county, including London’s 100 Club, the Glastonbury Festival, and pubs in the less smelly parts of Berkshire. Earlier in the year they even managed to find enough money for fuel to drive down the A40 to Cheltenham for the annual Jazz Festival:

Their first album, Gin and Sympathy, is a good introduction to the band’s music, and certainly offers 350% more fun for five quid than you can get on Park End Street on a Friday night.

Stylistically, the Rabbits plant one foot firmly in the traditions of pre-war jazz. (The other foot is firmly pushing through the crowd at the bar to order another pint). Semi-autobiographical originals (Booze Cruise and Nappy Head Rag) sit alongside classics like The Saints and I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire, as well as a Sheik of Araby who seems singularly proud of his lack of underwear.

And yet there is a serious project behind the band’s exuberant, devil-may-care stage persona. This band shows that jazz played in the old style can be not only be fun, but actually attract young audience in venues normally reserved for rock acts. I am reliably informed that at their gig at The Cellar in Oxford on Friday night, the queue to get in stretched well out the door.

The band’s singer and pianist, Stuart MacBeth is involved in an advisory capacity at the British National Jazz Archive, and it is his deep knowledge and enthusiasm for the music and its history that offers authenticity to what might otherwise be perceived as a novelty act.

Despite the reverence for tradition, the Original Foot Spasm Band are a thoroughly modern, networked outfit. You can pick up a digital copy of Gin and Sympathy on Bandcamp (for just 5 pounds), and follow the band on Twitter and Facebook.

Stornoway: Beachcomber’s Windowsill

It must be time to check in with Stornoway again. At the end of May they released their first full-length album, Beachcomber’s Windowsill on 4AD. Which is nice.

For those who already own Stornoway’s independently released EPs, many of the songs will already be familiar, but new standout tracks like Fuel Up and I Saw You Blink make this album well worth picking up. Alexis Petridis at The Grauniad liked it, in any case.

Here’s the band playing “unplugged” in the fernery in Oxford’s Botanic Gardens. They may not be the most innovative group out there, but they’re still probably my favourite British band right now. And I think I want one of those squeezy portable harmoniums…

Oxford State of Mind


Summer in Oxford: a rock band plays to the cows in Port Meadow

Over the weekend I was back in Oxford to catch up with some friends. While I don’t miss England that much, I do miss Oxford and its mix of grand architecture, rural landscapes and casual intellectualism.

While I was walking around town, I took some video of life on the river and in Christ Church Meadow. Hopefully it gives an impression of a lazy summer weekend in the most beautiful town in England.

The song I’ve used as soundtrack is “Summer’s Here” by Zim Grady, a band from Abingdon.

Return to Stornoway

I’ve only heard Stornoway play live once: it was midnight in a rain-soaked field last year just off the M40 near Aylesbury or Thame or somewhere. In any case, it was dark and wet. There were 15 people in the crowd and the band was almost drowned out by the rave tent next door. It was hardly an auspicious evening.

But something about their music must have stuck: possibly the strong melodies and their ability to look and sound like a folk-rock band without being a folk-rock band. I came home, bought all their mp3s (all eight of them), wrote a blog post, and now their song Here Comes the Blackout is one of my top-played tunes on last.fm.

So having followed the band for over a year now, it’s gratifying to see they’re building some solid buzz: they played Glastonbury this year, became the first rock band ever to play a concert in the Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre (oh to have seen that gig!), and most recently appeared on Later with Jools Holland:

Although they’re not signed and have no album out yet, their song Zorbing is already an anthem on the Oxford scene. It’s a piece of music which typifies Stornoway’s approach: apparently ramshackle, amiably round-vowelled, but cleverly structured and very catchy. It’ll be interesting to see what 2010 brings for these chaps.

Chima Anya in London Town

Here’s the next chapter in the story of the hip-hop boys from Oxford, GTA, who we’ve mentioned a few times on the blog. MC Chima Anya has now moved to London, where he’s working in a children’s hospital (remember Dr Anya is a trained medical professional by day, and rapper by night), and breaking into the London scene as a solo artist.

His new single is New Day, featuring Soweto Kinch, and produced by some bloke called Astronare, about whom I can find nothing on the web. The video looks a lot more slick and professional than the previous “home-grown” clips filmed around Oxford… you could say it’s a big step up.

Soweto Kinch (born in London but growing up near Birmingham) has a bit of an Oxford connection too. A pretty handy jazz saxophonist and rapper, he also has a degree in Modern History from Hertford College, Oxford. Now, whatever you think of jazz, hip hop or Oxbridge education, you’ve got to admit that that’s a pretty cool CV.

Anyway, if you’re in London in August, you can catch Chima Anya’s album preview gig at The Gramaphone, 60-62 Commercial Street E1, on Thursday 27th August.

The Silent Traveller in Oxford

In Oxford last week, I spent time browsing second-hand books on the third floor of Blackwells. The rest of the store is slick and modern, but the top level of Blackwells, with views onto the quads of Trinity College, has a creaky wooden floor and that hint of dust and mildew that makes it somehow an isolated eyrie of an older Oxonian age.

Lapwings Over Merton Field – Chiang Yee

One book immediately caught my eye – a 1946 edition of The Silent Traveller in Oxford. It was written by the Chinese artist and author Chiang Yee in 1942 while he was living in Oxford, after his flat in the East End of London was destroyed in the Blitz. As a registered “alien”, Chiang Yee couldn’t leave Britain in wartime, and so took rooms in Southmoor Road in Jericho.

First published in 1944, Chiang Yee’s account of 1940s Oxford is particularly interesting for me. My father was born in Oxford during the war: my grandparents worked for the Food Ministry, and had their London offices relocated to Oxford, out of harms way. So thanks to Goering’s bombers, Dad was born an Oxonian.

(Oxford was not targeted by the Luftwaffe during WW2 for a number of possibly apocryphal reasons. The one I like best recounts that many high-ranking Luftwaffe officers were German aristocrats who had studied at Oxford and could not bear the idea of bombs raining down on the Turf Tavern.)

From a Railway Bridge Near Lake Street – Chiang Yee

Chiang Yee was (a little like me) an accidental expatriate in Oxford. The “foreign-ness” of his eye is reflected in his colour plates and ink sketches that accompany the text. The landmarks and characters are all in place, but somehow Chiang’s Chinese art transforms familiar views of the city into something more ancient and timeless.

The blackout curtains and ration-books are gone, but today’s Oxford seems little different to the city described by Chiang Yee 65 years ago . In the 21st Century, peacocks still strut on the roof of the Trout Inn, crowds still line Magdalen Bridge on May Morning, and the 8.05 “down train” to Paddington is still full of be-suited commuters and the occasional tweedy academic departing for an errand in London.

Despite the hardship and tension of the period, Chiang’s Oxford is a harbour of peace and reflection. The war is barely mentioned – the undergraduate population is depleted by conscription, a bomber wheels lazily over Port Meadow, and the Cockney accents of Blitz evacuees mix with shopkeepers’ Oxfordshire burr on Cornmarket. But Chiang’s attention is drawn more to the landscape, nature and cityscape.

Chiang’s eye for detail and contemplation is quite disarming. His writing captures perfectly the shift of seasons against the colleges’ grey stone. Several paragraphs are spent describing the facial expressions of a duck and the delicate dance of crocuses in the wind. Verses from Li P’o, Longfellow and Shelley enter his consciousness while wandering up the banks of the Isis towards The Perch.

Peacocks at Trout Inn – Chiang Yee

I have read many excellent books about Oxford (Jan Morris’ Oxford is still the essential primer). But Chiang Yee’s is definitely the most charming: it’s available in a 2003 reprint, but I think the 1940s Methuen  editions (“printed in complete confirmity with the authorized economy standards” as stated the frontispiece) are quite hard to come by now. This was a lucky find!

Ice

For many parts of the UK, it’s been the coldest week for 30 years. In Birmingham temperatures got down to minus 9. The canals are still frozen and the geese and ducks in Cannon Hill Park are struggling to find a patch of water to swim in.

I wish I could have been in Oxford this week – Port Meadow froze and people were skating on it! Percy at Oxford Daily Photo has posted some photos and some nice images have been uploaded to Flickr by Isisbridge and robbie_shade.

Saving Morris Dancing

In the news this week: The Morris Ring (England’s national association of morris dancers) is worried that Morris Dancing will die out. Apparently there aren’t enough young people wanting to join Morris sides around England, and in 20 years time “there will be no Morrismen left.”  The dancers think that youngsters are embarrassed to be seen walking around with bells on their ankles, leaping about with handkerchiefs and hanging out with 50 year-olds.  Well… yeah, OK.

I have one suggestion for saving morris dancing: make morris dancing a competitive inter-school event.  You can laugh if you want, but it might just work. I think of an example from New Zealand. Every year, the Auckland Secondary Schools Polyfest brings together students from across Auckland to perform Maori and Pacific Island dance and music.  It’s held in a stadium over three days, and thousands of people turn out. There’s food and market stalls.  Schools enter performance groups in competition, the contest is fierce, and resultant quality of performance is often amazing.

I’m sure that people will complain about full curriculums, a lack of teacher time, and the plethora of other school activities that fill up pupils’ days.  But there are numerous benefits:

  • daily exercise for Albion’s famously rubenesque youths
  • building teamwork and school pride
  • creating awareness of local history
  • providing links between younger and older people (a relationship that in the UK seems particularly dysfunctional)
  • claiming back pride in English traditions from the BNP and the Daily Fail

The Morris Ring needs to stop moaning and get a little creative.  It’s just a matter of packaging the concept in the right way. Some gutsy morris side should get a sound system and dance at the Notting Hill Carnival.

The competition element is key, it seems to me. If getting kids interested in Morris traditions seems a challenge, why not look at combining traditional elements of Morris with breakdancing, or rap? Or martial arts?  If people are worried that about diluting or destroying traditional practice, then create ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ disciplines.

But if a school competition doesn’t work, it’s worth trying the other ultimate motivator: beer. Morris dancing is often preceded or followed by a trip to the pub (or the dancing happens at the pub). This makes it a pastime that is eminently suited to the English temperament – and pubs aren’t going out of fashion with the young, at least last time I looked.

The fact that morris dancing has even survived in such health into the 21st Century is a small miracle.  It’s one of the few traditions in the UK that is identifiably English (ie. it’s not Scottish, Welsh or Irish).  Living in Oxford for several years, one got use to seeing morris sides from all over the country dancing in the streets for the Folk Festival or on May Morning.  It’s worth finding a way of keeping  morris alive and relevant.

And if anyone thinks morris dancing ain’t funky, check this out:

Hip-Hopius Oxoniensis

GTA The Way

Earlier last year we talked about Oxford hip hop crew GTA. We quite liked their unashamed Thames Valley accents and Stax-sampling beats. The good news is that their début album The Way is now available everywhere.

Here’s the video for their new single Breakthrough:

As you might expect from an album recorded in Oxford, there aren’t too many stories of ghetto life to be heard here. MCs Chima Anya and Ineff are mostly interested in addressing their experience as young men growing up, finding their way in life (Chima is a junior doctor, Ineff is an accountant), running round town and chasing women.

And GTA are keen to point out, The Way is about life, it’s not about the town they’re from. Even if Ineff claims that “We’re the biggest thing outta Kidlington man” there’s little name-checking of suburbs or housing estates. As Ineff continues, there’s no point in giving shout-outs to a town that’s already world famous:

There’s a list of places that are simply blazin’
But I’m not gonna list the places
If you wanna know ask Tourist Information

The attitude is 100% positive, they both seem to know they’re lucky to be making beats and rhymes. And best of all it sounds like the guys had a lot of fun recording the album.

The Way can be picked up as an mp3 download Amazon or iTunes, or you can buy a CD for 10 squids via their Myspace page.