From Bethnal Green to Elephant and Castle: the language of place, the roots of English music and its twisted offspring

Two rather different evenings yesterday and today. Last night I was at St John’s Church in Bethnal Green to hear three talks on the Language of Place and some folk music from the Memory Band; tonight it was the irrepressible Fat White Family at the Coronet in Elephant and Castle. East London, South London – out of my comfort zone. I need some West London gigs!

The Language of Place event was organised by Faber Social, a branch of the well-known publisher. The speakers were Nina Lyon, a new name to me, who has just had a book called “Uprooted: On the Trail of the Green Man” published; Ian Sinclair, who writes really interesting books about London and its surrounds, its recesses; and Will Self who writes on the edge. The host described the latter two as writers of psychogeography – I think I know what he means!

Nina Lyon was a bit nervous and spoke fast, but the extracts from her book were engaging, and I liked the concept of pursuing the Green Man, a mythological essence of old Britain, a symbol of the heart of our culture, our environment. Ian Sinclair wrote a book I read a couple of years ago called London Orbital, which chronicled his journey on foot around the M25, the outer London ring road, a monstrous motorway. It was done in stages with different friends. It was a discursive book, full of digressions, occasionally irritating; but fascinating about what lies in those suburban spaces. Last night he spoke with wit and passion about his London, about a walk at night along the length of the London Overground, from Hackney to the West. Odd characters were encountered, night characters, London’s static, invisible people. And someone was taking pictures of pigeon nests, hidden in the brickwork of bridges, with cameras on fishing rods!

And then Will Self. Amazing. He immediately announced he had bad vibes. In this august Anglican Church! Whether it was the modern, rather disconcerting paintings of Jesus’s end or the terrible history of the Bethnal Green tube station, where hundreds of people died in a stampede down the steps during a German bombing raid on World War II, was not entirely clear. His delivery was spaced-out, unpredictable and very striking. And funny. Eventually he read a passage from his book “Umbrella”. It was a one man play as he assumed the accents of his early 20th century London characters. It was compelling.

Must do more of this sort of thing.

The writers were the main attraction for the audience, though my friend Paul had suggested going because of the Memory Band, whose singer is a friend of his. I hadn’t heard them previously, but liked the combination of traditional folk melodies, often instrumentals, and some wistful ballads. I thought the violinist was especially good, creating a real atmosphere of times memorial. Hence the name of the band, I guess. I shall definitely be exploring their recordings.

And then… the raucous, wild, weird, anarchic, rocking Fat White Family. I often describe bands by comparing them with others from the past. I haven’t a clue how to do that with FWF. I suppose Iggy and the Stooges are an influence; maybe Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa too. They took me back a little to my old favourites, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, but really they are like none of these. They are rock’n’roll, twisted out of shape, kicked up the arse, lagered up. There is psychedelia. They do work up a rocking rhythm too – maybe there’s even a bit of dance culture in there.

The singer, Lias Saoudi, looked pretty different to when I saw FWF at Latitude and on the NME Awards tour last year at the Forum in Kentish Town. Resplendent in a baggy white suit and shorter hair. No shirt and the jacket soon came off, and later the shoes and socks. Mercifully not the trousers this time! The lead guitarist, Saul Adamczewski (who has had drug problems), too had shorter hair and even sang something resembling a ballad at the end. With off-kilter guitars of course.

All the favourites, like “Auto Neutron” and ‘Touch the Leather” and recent release “Whitest Boy on the Beach” (great title) were played and there was plenty of moshing at the front. Lias had a good time crowd-surfing, all flailing arms and legs. Yeah, this was raw rock’n’roll. Highly entertaining, but to be be enjoyed in smallish doses at my age, I think. If you gave me the choice of seeing the Memory Band or FWF tomorrow, I fear I would plump for the folkies. Even though I recognise that it is likes of Fat White Family that make rock’n’roll a living, breathing force, even today.

Great to have both though!

And if there is anything I will remember from these two evenings it will be the sheer presence of Will Self as he spoke. A force of nature. The language of time and place…

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. I’ve written a novel called “The Decision”, a futuristic political thriller, and first of a trilogy. I’m also the author of a book on music since the 1970s called “ I Was There - A Musical Journey” and a volume of poetry about youth, “Growin’ Up - Snapshots/ Fragments”. All available on Amazon and Kindle.
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8 Responses to From Bethnal Green to Elephant and Castle: the language of place, the roots of English music and its twisted offspring

  1. Dood says:

    Nice one, John. Good to see you’re keeping yourself busy.

    Today is full of coincidences, and this was another one – two days ago I finished Iain Sinclair’s London Overground. I agree with you entirely on him, and think it’s a case of more of the same – by turns lyrical, maddening, didactic, poetic, overblown, beautiful….you just can’t get one without the other with this guy.

    One of the best aspects of the new book are his excursions into literary and artistic lives as he makes his circuit of the Ginger Line – Angela Carter in Brixton; J.G. Ballard’s Millennium People (set in a marina modelled on Chelsea Harbour); Leon Kossoff in the East End, Blake in Battersea – he writes brilliantly on these inspirational London figures. Will Self is also name-checked on several occasions, and Sinclair is clearly a fan.

    Self is of course himself (him – Self) lyrical, bombastic, poetic, pretentious, overblown, etc., so they’re real kindred spirits.

    I’ve read all Sinclair’s non-fiction London books, and I think Lights Out for the Territory is probably my favourite. Having said that, it was the first, too, so maybe this was before my patience started to get tested.

    As for the music, it’s more WTF than FWF for me – I can’t get my head round this lot. I clearly need to explore them online, so thanks for the tip. (And did Grantham pitch up in his suit?)

    • John S says:

      I’ll have to try more Sinclair, even though it occasionally drives you mad. As for Will Self, I once started one of his novels and gave up – must try harder. But spoken, it – he – really came alive. Coincidentally, I had a little party at work tonight to celebrate my book. I read a few extracts and found myself oddly moved by the act of doing so. And a lot of people wanted to talk about it afterwards. A new experience for me.

      If you listen to FWF, listen to the first album, Champagne Holocaust (not a great title) plus the single Touch the Leather, as the second drifts a bit. But like Will Self, they are best experienced live.

      Jon G had to drop out due to work, so it was the lone groove. But had a Weissbier and Currywurst first at Zeitgeist, got slightly lost around Elephant and Castle (alien territory) and then really enjoyed the gig.

  2. dc says:

    what sections did you read out John and how did you choose which ones to read?
    Must be like picking a single off a new album.

    • John S says:

      Island Club disco, close encounter with Thom Yorke, part of 2015 reflections. First always makes me laugh (and others too); second also fairly amusing as well as recognising one of my favourite bands; 2015 piece ended with Bataclan and how music helps the recovery. And it was a chance to plug the virtues of Daisy Vaughan! I didn’t dare tackle Bruce as I feared I might get too emotional. But like you say, it could have been anything. I may try out a few on the assembled throng tomorrow if there is demand. Maybe bits that people are in – but not Scarborough!

  3. dc says:

    Anything but Scarborough. Btw there’s a country music festival on all weekend at the O2:

    right up your street cowboy!

  4. Resa says:

    LOL Fat White Family, and you make them sound pretty good!
    Okay, I just picked up “I Was There” from the post office! Yahoo! 639 pages, including the Index.It will take me a bit to read it, especially since I’m just starting a show & have a lot of scripts to read.
    Nonetheless, read I will.
    Thank you, John!!!! ⭐

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