Deer Shed Festival 2013: Day 3 Roundup

By on Monday, 12th August 2013 at 2:00 pm
 

Sunday is always chill-out day at Deer Shed, and the lineup today bears this out, with spoken word replacing the second stage, and less guitars all round. Indeed, more than once was the opinion mooted that Sunday’s main stage trifecta of AlascA (Amsterdam-based multi-instrumental folk), Moulettes (whose violin, cello and bassoon overlaid with a female duet take the string-based ensemble to places never before suspected possible) and the genteel lilting of Fifer King Creosote neatly summarises the ideal vision of Deer Shed’s musical programming. But in parallel were two world-class multimedia performances in the Big Top tent. Despite a gulf in musical styles, Public Service Broadcasting and The Unthanks (presenting ‘Songs From the Shipyards’) are thematic bedfellows, both utilising the emotional power of historical events to both inspire the music itself and take part in directly it via audio samples and video clips.

I’ve already reviewed Public Service Broadcasting at a recent headline show – suffice to say that the reception at Deer Shed was no less rapturous than that in Newcastle. People just lap them up. What does become apparent on a second reading is the subtle differences in each performance – it’s easy to assume that given the sequenced and sampled nature of the songs, that they sit within a rigid framework. However, on careful examination, it’s clear that Wilgoose and Wrigglesworth are delivering a genuine performance, with all the natural variation that implies. Even more impressive, then, that they can manage such a note-perfect performance every time. The only slight slip-up this time around was the demise of a snare drum skin, and even that mishap was an opportunity for more merriment from the now-famous sampled voice. “Silly boy!”

‘Songs From The Shipyards’ is a collection of songs, mostly covers, chosen to accompany a compilation of short films curated by Richard Fenwick, telling the story of the past century of British shipbuilding, with a particular focus on the Swan Hunter yard at Wallsend in North Tyneside. Arranged chronologically, each section has a title (“Taking on Men”, “Big Steamers”, “The Strikes”), and most have an accompanying song of the same name, although some sections retain the narrative soundtrack of the source film. The visuals are deeply compelling in themselves: the immense physical presence and forthright majesty of a newly-built ship towering over rows of humble Tyneside terraces is unforgettable; the very enormity and power of heavy engineering writ large on a cinema screen is a thrill in itself. But The Unthanks’ poignant performance heightens the mood and deepens the emotional response – over the course of the hour the 100-year history of modern British shipbuilding is laid bare, from the early glory days to its slow, painful decline.

The Unthanks have an otherworldly knack of taking a song about what on the face of it might appear a dry or unglamorous subject, and by their powers of delivery elevate it to as glorious a height as is possible in music, comparable in emotional impact with midnight Mass at Westminster Cathedral, or the Berliner Philharmoniker delivering the final bars of Ravel’s Bolero. In other words, the definitive performance of a piece, by which all others must be judged. In a nice plug for Deer Shed, Mark Radcliffe had already tweaked the expectation skywards in demonstrating what The Unthanks are capable of by playing ‘King Of Rome’ in its full 7-minute glory on his 6music show just a few days before, a song which begs the question: if grown men can be brought to tears by a song about a single pigeon, how much more impactful can a 1-hour cycle about events which involved thousands of people be?

The performance is intended to be taken as a whole, but one can pick out moments of particular note: local singer-songwriter Jez Lowe’s ‘Black Trade’ enumerates trades long forgotten: boilersmiths, platemen, riggers, coppersmiths; skills which used to be commonly found within shipbuilding communities, giving each specialist a sense of pride and place – now, if they exist at all, it is only in tiny pockets of endeavour, a loss which, like so much described here, has had a profound effect on the very fabric of society. ‘Big Steamers’ takes Rudyard Kipling’s peerless words, profoundly evocative in their sense of time and place, and frames them in a delicately unsettling call-and-response arrangement:

[call]
Then I’ll build a new lighthouse for all you big steamers
With plenty wise pilots to pilot you through

[response]
Oh the channel’s as bright as a ballroom already
And pilots are thicker than pilchards at Looe

all accompanied by Adrian McNally’s grand piano which gathers in portent as the song reaches its uncomfortable denouement. A true highlight in a figurative sea of excellence.

This year marks 110 years since the zenith of Wallsend shipbuilding – the birth of Cunard’s pioneering ocean liner RMS Mauretania, a ship who not only held the Transatlantic speed record for an impressive 22 years, but played a significant part in the success of the Great War effort as a troop-, and latterly hospital-ship. Indeed, the grandeur and optimism of Tyneside shipbuilding truly belongs to the pre-WWII period. By 1966 the government’s Geddes Committee found that British prices for tankers and bulk carriers were uncompetitive, and the industry was rife with inefficiency and industrial disputes. Governments of all stripes tried various means of artificial support: Conservative Edward Heath included support for shipyards in his ultimately futile package of generous Keynesian giveaways in 1972, none of which were enough to give the economy any more than a brief respite from its downward slide, or indeed save his own political fortunes. Even if the shipyards had been in tip-top condition, the further deterioration in the British economy under the watch of the wafer-thin Labour government of Heath-Callaghan, culminating in 1978’s “Winter of Discontent” and the three-day-week, would have been enough to discourage even the most enthusiastic customer of Tyneside shipbuilding from placing an order.

In a move guaranteed to bring even more disruption to an already unstable industry, Labour’s 1977’s Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act brought swathes of Britain’s heavy manufacturing under forced public ownership, a move too rich even for champagne socialist Alfred Robens, ex-chairman of the National Coal Board, who previously oversaw a more than 50% reduction in Britain’s coal mining workforce. Quite why the government at the time thought they could run shipbuilding better than the private owners is unclear. What is apparent is that all they touched turned to rust: in just five years of public ownership half of Britain’s shipyards had shut, and a mess of recrimination festered over compensation for the forced takeovers. After building over 100 warships, including HMS Illustrious in 1978, and HMS Ark Royal in 1981, Wallsend’s shipbuilding came to an ignominious end in 2006 with the half-finished RFA Lyme Bay being towed to Govan for completion after delays and cost overruns. To date no further ships have been laid at Wallsend, and it is unlikely any more will.

Richard Fenwick’s selection of news footage touches on the industrial disputes that inevitably rose during the industry’s slow but steady decline. We see picket lines, dire warnings of the potential consequences of strikes and workers’ opposition to modernisation; most poignant is a section which shows unedited soundbites from the workers themselves. They are clearly being prompted, given lines which on paper sound optimistic, but their unconvincing delivery tells a very different story. Margaret Thatcher even pops up as the pantomime villain, but in truth no government could have stopped the rot: even if Thatcher had been minded to prop up the industry with subsidy, European rules forbade it. Not a restriction that the Far Eastern shipyards suffered, and one which highlights Britain’s uneasy subjugation under the European parliament which continues to this day.

Even though on the surface this is a story about Tyneside and its people, the same arc of proud rise followed by slow, bitter collapse can be traced through the majority of once-great British industry. Given Britain was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, single-handedly inventing modern industrial practice, it is a particularly cruel irony that those skills that she taught the world should be used to destroy their practice in their seat of invention. The consequent loss of employment and income has done untold harm to countless regional communities, a great many of which now linger in a curious netherworld of state-sponsored vacuity from which it is next to impossible to escape.

Wallsend itself survives as a community, but only just. The once-proud shipbuilding workforce has either retired early, or moved on to take lower-skilled and lower-paid employment elsewhere. Many ex-labourers are resigned to a lifetime of benefits and poor health, having no useful skills outside shipbuilding and being too old to retrain. Diabetes is rife; the local discount bulk snack-food shop does a roaring trade, dishing out refined sugars and saturated fat to a population either too ill-informed to know better, or too bitterly resigned to care. Many school-leavers face a dismal prospect of menial work or call-centre purgatory – the skilled apprenticeships provided by the shipyards are sorely missed.

Thusly, ‘Songs From the Shipyards’ is an important piece of living history: a fine tribute to a once-proud industry and the people that served it. Never again will their like be seen again; the world has moved on, and it is the responsibility of everyone to move with it. The region is lucky to have such a vigorous history, and such fine musicians to remind us of it. Not only remembered, but celebrated.

As is the Deer Shed way, no sooner had such cerebral thoughts coalesced, they were rudely set aside in favour of constructing a novel yet vaguely functional monotonal wind instrument from an enormous pile of plastic plumbing pipes. Earlier I had shared in the wonder of an 18-month-old boy watching a vintage tractor drive a machine which crushed large stones into smaller ones. Rather a highlight of the weekend, both for him and me. The soft play area was very popular, to say nothing of home-made elastic-band-propelled buggies, and a tree made out of plastic piping with CDs for leaves. A number of mysterious machines made an appearance throughout the weekend, best described through the power of photography, but particularly notable was the bench upon which two humanoid robots sat perfectly still – until an unsuspecting human sat between them, at which point their heads turned towards you in a gently unsettling manner. For the older kids there was soldering practice, Raspberry Pi programming, actual robotics, and a brilliant Scrapheap Challenge.

As we ambled away from the site to begin the journey home to the comforting strains of King Creosote, it was time for reflection on how Deer Shed 2013 had treated us. There were some hiccups – the bar was too small and ran out of several beers, the campsite shop was deeply underwhelming, and it did actually rain a bit on Sunday morning. But everything else was as pretty close to perfect as a family-friendly festival gets. 2013 might be the year that Deer Shed comes of age – the biggest crowd, some site jiggery-pokery, but they didn’t lose the essential friendliness, and even cosiness, that defines the event. Well done to all the organisers, and the numerous volunteers who worked all weekend to things running as we were all having a great time. Early bird tickets for 2014 go on sale in September for what will undoubtedly be a bargainacious price – snap them up and I’ll see you there!

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3 Responses

2:02 pm
12th August 2013

New post: Deer Shed Festival 2013 @DeerShed: Day 3 Roundup featuring @PSB_HQ @The_Unthanks: http://t.co/jygl5rPfdz

2:37 pm
12th August 2013

New post: Deer Shed Festival 2013 @DeerShed: Day 3 Roundup featuring @PSB_HQ @TheUnthanks: http://t.co/jygl5rPfdz

10:21 pm
12th August 2013

RT @tgtf: New post: Deer Shed Festival 2013 @DeerShed: Day 3 Roundup featuring @PSB_HQ @TheUnthanks: http://t.co/jygl5rPfdz

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like no-one's watching.

TGTF is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington, DC. She is joined by writers in England, America and Ireland. It began as a UK music blog by Phil Singer in 2005.

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