Ode to Sussex

Shirley Collins – All in the Downs: Reflections on Life, Landscape and Song (Strange Attractor Press, 2018)

The 2017 documentary the Ballad of Shirley Collins followed the cult English folk singer as she recorded Lodestar, her first album in nearly four decades. Filmed largely around her home in Lewes in East Sussex, and the surrounding area, the film told the remarkable and poignant story of how Collins lost her voice – leading from her withdrawing both from performance and recording for many years – and unexpectedly found it again.

All in the Downs acts as a thoughtful companion piece to the film, with Collins drawing out her experiences in greater depth, writing from her own, opinionated perspective. It follows a previous volume of autobiography, America Over the Water, published in 2004, which told the story of Collins’ travels across United States with the musicologist (and her then partner) Alan Lomax. All in the Downs, by contrast, remains closer to home to focus on Collins’ career in her own right, and the way in which it was informed by her early years in the working-class seaside town of Hastings, East Sussex and later in her retreat from the town and city back to a rediscovery of the rolling countryside of the Sussex downs.

All in the Downs shares with the film a strong sense of loss and absence; it begins with a chapter on the breakdown of Collins’ second marriage, as a major contributory factor in the loss of her voice, before detailing her relationship with her father, who returned from the Second World War only to leave again, and the premature death of her sister and artistic collaborator, Dolly.

As well as sharing her personal and professional memories, All in the Downs offers a rich glimpse into the shared experiences of mid-twentieth century Britain, from the freedom of a semi-rural childhood, to post-war culture and politics, to the sometimes difficult personalities of the British folk scene, to work and motherhood. Looking back, Collins can’t help but reflect, sometimes caustically, on how places, lifestyles and entertainment have changed (not to mention what passes as ‘folk music’ these days!).

Above all, All in the Downs is an ode to the south eastern English landscape, showing what we can learn and pass on about the places around us by paying attention to working people’s voices. It’s written with the passion and in-depth expertise of someone who has dedicated her life and career to understanding, interpreting and transmitting traditional song, the words of which run through the book entwined with her own.

– Natalie Bradbury

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Terse Wisdom

Wiley – Eskiboy (Heinemann/Penguin)

This book looks like a biography. A big, Christmas or birthday present biography. It is solid, it has the name of a star written across the front of its glossy dust jacket in Helvetica bold and a striking, masculine portrait. It could be the ghost written biography of a footballer.

It couldn’t be further from one. The first thing Wiley says is that he hates biographies.

The writing is terse. Matter-of-fact statements which belie a great deal of depth and understanding. You can hear him speaking, like you can hear Miles speaking in his autobiography, but Wiley is rooted, and there is warmth.

This book has two poles. At one pole it is straightforward, ‘keeping it real’, or whatever label you want to put on that from the culture. At the other pole, the book structure works like a prism. We see key figures in the story of Wiley’s life move from Kent to London and back, but we see them do this through different eyes. Producers, family, friends, crew members. Wiley himself is at least three different people, Richard Cowie, Kylea, Wiley…

Hackney, Shoreditch, Canary Wharf, Tower Hamlets and Bow. Rinse FM and other pirates, mandem, Roll Deep Crew, Dizzee Rascal. These are all faces of the prism. But it is the story that could be about anyone that is the most honestly told and vital:

‘In my generation no-one knows what they’re doing. Our parents parents were different – they came from the West Indies to England to work. They just had to be on point.’

In some ways, then, this is everyone’s story, the big story Zygmunt Bauman writes about: The hell of choice. But this is also just the story of some. Estate kids. Black kids. Those with the odds stacked high against them. Wiley cites crack cocaine in the 80s as a big breaker of communities: ‘All kinds of fuckeries’, he says, and he doesn’t need to say more than that. Four words. See how much he shifts by not messing around with it.

Wiley’s mum’s brother was murdered in an argument and they all moved to Kent. In Kent, they experienced racism. His sister came home from school having been called a ‘Paki’ by an Indian boy. We somehow get all the geographical relations of white flight and the strange disorientation of moving from city to country, London to Kent, in just a couple of pages.

The book covers early days early on, and recent times later on, but aside from this generalism it is essentially non-linear. There are interludes in interview form. As though this bloke Richard Cowie has asked people he knows about this character Wiley, becoming a journalist in his own life.

There are poetical interludes. As Linton Kwesi Johnson says, this is where poetry is in Britain, UK hip hop, grime, dubstep. This is also where the prophetic tradition that the first wave of incomers brought with them has gone. It was always a partly colonial prophetic tradition. Is it a coincidence that Roots Manuva – Rodney Smith – was brought up by a poor tailor and preacher? No. There is a tangible line across generations:

‘The hardships and struggles at that time were the usual struggles: money, the streets. Even then, not really being safe. People hustling. There were still people trying to lean on you for whatever reason.’

It could be Curtis Mayfield, it could be Eldridge Cleaver or Bobby Seale, it has their directness and hard won wisdom. Like them, Wiley understands the old ways of channelling different impulses:

‘Back then, I realised quickly that a loss is sometimes just a loss. If you’re caught up in any violence or drama, you think that if you take a loss, you have to go out and get a win. That’s the way the world is. But sometimes you have to let it go. Use the energy you have for revenge and channel it into something you enjoy doing. That energy can be cold like ice, and people can get hurt. You just say, “No I am not having it”, and people go to jail, or people get killed. Or the energy can be hot, and you can succeed. That energy can take you all the way to the top. Don’t move backwards, move forwards. Get on with life. Literally I found a way to use the energy I had productively.’

But as you can see this isn’t some indulgent journey of self-creation, not for the people from those estates. This is survive and thrive or die. The usual routes out are here for black youth: football; music; it’s the same story that goes back to the thirties, to America, boxing and other activities, or selling drugs. School is explained as a stark binary, exams, university, or ‘other’, and there’s a heaviness about taking the path to ‘other’:

‘Every boy when he goes into the world has to find his own path. People show you stuff, both good and bad, and you need to decide what to do and what not to do. I was very lucky not to go to prison. I knew what drugs were before I got into the game. There is a lot of money in drugs. Anyone who goes into it will find it hard to come out, because of the money. That’s why people end up in prison. The risks go up as the money goes up. But drugs are not good, and that’s it. Don’t take drugs. Trust me.’

These are things that people who haven’t lived it only know – if we’re really honest – because they happen to have watched The Wire:

‘Streets are crazy. No matter how bad you are, you can’t avoid it. There are no rules. There is no ring, no boxing gloves. It’s more dangerous than anything. You can get shot, stabbed, hit with a hammer. Anything. Not just London, either. Anywhere.’

There is a moment, where the future could be drugs, and he surges into music. You can’t do both, he says. He talks of his dad, a stable presence, of good parenting, being surrounded by great music. The roots in jazz are chatted through – and punk actually – through to Smiley Culture and Tippa Irie, through to Jungle in 1995 and 1996 and he’s waking up.

Wiley minutes the realisation – a delicious moment – that with Jungle their accents were now allowed, ‘a London someting rasta’, and on it goes, Bashment, Grime, Dubstep:

‘When it started Grime was a young black man’s punk rock’ Wiley explains. ‘The grime nationality is rude boy, now. And anyone can be a rude boy, you get me. It’s not just for black kids any more. It’s for everyone: black kids, white kids, Indian kids, Turkish kids, Moroccan kids. It’s a release.’

On one level, this book does everything those who arrive at it with expectations will want: Rinse and the pirates; clashes and dissing Kano; Dizzee.

But it has many other layers, it does such a lot more, and it never breaks with its straightforward style while doing it. It combines the most economical talk with a non-linear, prismatic structure.

It isn’t Ulysses, but it doesn’t have the clichéd symphonic rise and triumphant end section of the usual biographies. Towards the end, we find Wiley in a panic as a motorcyclist looks as though he’s going to shoot him, a vignette that shows fame doesn’t bring serenity. But we also find him creating in real time, every day, spitting into his iPhone, hundreds of recordings, sketchbooks becoming bigger things.

This book is a snapshot of the early twenty-first century. It tells you what it is to live precariously. Everyone lives precariously now, but some, as Orwell might have said, more so than others. It is about not being risk averse, although in a context where you either make yourself buoyant or you drown. It moves from poverty to excess. It is the story of a journey through everyday multiculture, generational cliffs and British class. But it is also about London black history, the river and the routes back to the Indies, to the Caribbean.

Everyone should read this – and it arrives right at the moment we need it most – just when the island appears to be turning inwards and moving backwards, this book shows you how to turn your heart outwards and move forwards.

– Steve Hanson

Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way

Miranda Doyle – A Book of Untruths: A Memoir (Faber & Faber 2017)

Miranda Doyle’s ‘A Book of Untruths’ is subtitled ‘A Memoir’. In many ways, it shares key characteristics with this familiar genre – it begins in childhood and progresses through school and early adulthood (Doyle’s accounts of her miserable schooldays, by themselves, make a valuable contribution to a body of work on the privations of boarding school; one of the most notable comparisons it invites for me is Roald Dahl’s classic memoir ‘Boy’).

It explores fractious family relationships and issues such as adoption, infidelity, illness, grief and divorce, alongside bigger issues of gender, power, identity and class. It questions the role of institutions such as the church, schools and marriage in our lives, and the place of social mores and prejudices in perpetuating their more negative elements.

It takes skill to craft something new and relevant out of familiar and universal experiences such as these, but Doyle’s memoir had me hooked from start to finish.

Her family – like all families – is dysfunctional in its own unique way, but Doyle’s words place us there, in her memories and experiences. Powerful emotional responses to fear, indignity and injustice resonate through the pages, still as strongly felt as decades ago when they occurred. Richly observed period details of 1960s and 1970s Britain, together with family photographs, further serve to bring Doyle’s words to life.

Where ‘A Book of Untruths’ diverges from the conventional memoir is in recurrent sections analysing what it means to tell our life story, incorporating aspects of psychology, science, social research and history, which punctuate and illuminate the main narrative.

Doyle raises questions about what it means to tell the truth about ourselves, our past, and our relationships with those in it – truths which, we are reminded, often depend on who is doing the telling, and who is listening. In writing her perspective on these events, it seems like Doyle is seeking to understand the motivations of those people who surround and influence us from an early age, those relationships and experiences that shape us and turn us into who we are, and how our thoughts and actions live on through others’ perceptions and memoires of us once we are gone.

Of course, the book isn’t just a memoir of Doyle; it tells the stories of her parents and her siblings, too (or Doyle’s version of them) – how could it not?

One of the aspects of the book that both gave me a jolt, and resonated with me the most, was Doyle’s matter-of-fact, unflinching descriptions of sexual assault, the positions of influence held by the men who perpetrated them, and the situations in which they came to take place.

I read ‘A Book of Untruths’ some months ago, yet in these times, when the population is only just beginning to wake up to the prevalence of harassment and abuse as part of women’s everyday lives, Doyle’s experiences, and the ways in which she has told, contextualised and reacted to them, have often returned to my thoughts.

‘A Book of Untruths’ shows that there is scope yet for the rediscovery and development of an old form, the memoir. For those whose interest is piqued as much as mine was, there is also a dedicated website (www.bookofuntruths.com) to further explore the series of ‘lies’ around which the book is structured.

– Natalie Bradbury