Ruthless Window by James Walsh: the story of a debut album

The problem with life, like history, is that it’s just one thing after another. I’ve always struggled to process things while they’re happening, both in terms of what I’ve done (good and bad) and what has been done to me (ditto).

Time whooshes by like one of Douglas Adams’ deadlines, and so it’s taken me over a month to write about my debut solo album, which was released in early February and “officially” released[1] a couple of weeks ago.

It’s been a surreal experience, particularly in terms of people a) seeming to like it and b) expressing this by buying it and telling me how much they like it.

Like a lot of people I am a complicated mix of anxiety, terror, self-doubt, fear, and occasional bouts of extreme creativity and self-confidence. When I sat down in cold, cold January with the idea of writing a new song every day until I had enough to release an album, I wasn’t being serious.

It was an ironic joke to tell friends: “ah, another lockdown, guess I’d better write an album”; a sequel to that period in my early twenties when I told everyone I was writing the next great American novel.

Well, it turns out that somewhere in the depths of my subconscious, somehow, I wasn’t being ironic. I have written and recorded the album; and, more unexpectedly, at least to myself, I have had the confidence to tell the world about it. Want to listen to it, or even buy it? You can!

I wrote a bit about the genesis of the album on my bandcamp page, and I also gave an interview with Phoenix Remix about how the thing came together, so I won’t repeat myself here. But if you are interested, do click through and read about it all.

The most exciting thing so far has been hearing back from songwriters and musicians who I have long respected, telling me the thing I have done is good. You see – and this might be linked to some of the things listed above – I sometimes find it very hard to accept that anything I have done has worth. This is a longstanding issue, and something I’ve been talking through with the appropriate professionals.

But if Chris T-T, Elizabeth out of Allo Darlin’, MJ Hibbett, and Tjinder Singh out of Cornershop[2] say they enjoyed it, then I will have to bow to their superior talent and experience with regards to my songs’ objective worth.

I also had the very surreal experience of hearing my song on the radio, specifically White Heat, on the Folkhampton show. Given Top of the Pops no longer exists in any meaningful form, getting on the radio is probably the most exciting thing that could ever happen, and I am so happy and grateful for this to be a thing that happened.

I’m very grateful to all the people who have taken the time to listen, especially those who have got in touch to tell me what they thought about it. Some friends with excellent musical and production talents have already said they’d like to be involved with the follow up, so hopefully that will be something that will happen later this year.

And – who knows – maybe I’ll even get on stage and do some live dates.

I must also thank Bill & Ruth, whose spare room and conservatory doubled as recording studios, and also Ruth and her cat made their way onto the recordings. Probably the funniest thing about recording the album where I did is that Bill is a ridiculously talented guitarist, and did I ask him to play on any of the songs? No I did not. He’s a teacher, he seemed busy. But I hope he will on the follow up.

[1] I posted about it on Twitter.

[2] Ok, technically, the first three liked it, and said so. Tjinder just said it was good I was keeping busy.

I walked to Canterbury in the snow by mistake

I walked to Canterbury today, to make the most of the snow and its hated enemy, the sun. A lot of my life is staring at slightly differently sized rectangles of light. I sleep surrounded by them, and I spent my days pressing bits of them with my thumbs.

I’m sure this is a lifestyle a lot of us are familiar with at the moment.

I set out with no particular direction or destination in mind, but with a dim sensation that my day would be a failure unless I could stomp across a field of virgin snow. This I achieved by heading through the yard of St Martin’s church in Herne, following a footpath which eventually opened up into the field I had been tingling about.

I also met a horse.

The horse was guarded by a do not feed the horse sign, but clearly someone with a handy hay supply had ignored it. And that’s the problem with signs: some people see themselves above them.

One regular whinge from this rambler, repeated in many a furious blogpost, is how easy it is to feel hemmed in on public footpaths, which are often narrow paths surrounded by barbed wire to stop Johnny Public from meandering out into private land, a concept we all know is very important to us capitalists. Snow makes it much easier to lose one’s path, leading to a freedom usually limited to walks on the downs, the moors, or in the mountains.

Snow falls on Herne Bay: midnight edition

I went back out, because the snow was still falling. I haven’t experienced many snowy beaches in my lifetime, so it felt good and right to run along this one while it is conveniently a few streets away.

The bright lights of the big city.

I ran to the pier along the shoreline, and then beyond, to the clock tower, before heading back up the middle of the road, as pavement and tarmac had become one thanks to the fresh, soft covering of frozen water crystals.

Snow falls on Herne Bay

I am told it doesn’t snow very often in the Bay, so here are some photographs for the public record, so that future historians can pore over the dusty pages of WordPress for evidence of such an event.

And while you’re here, future historians: how do websites gather dust, exactly? Or is this a knowing reference to the likely impermanence of internet based journals? Get back to me with the answers within the next two hundred years.

Wonder who these belong to…

Next Level Sketch: happy birthday to us

A year to the day (ish), I was on stage with Mr Euan Brown introducing Next Level Sketch’s debut show upstairs at the Miller. It’s all a bit of a blur now, so present James is relieved that past James wrote up a minute by minute live blog of the whole event. Quite how he managed to do this while also compering, performing, doing the door, and schmoozing, I will never know. Cynics will probably say he simply wrote it up after the event, but January 2021 isn’t the place for cynicism.

It’s nice that we’ve been able to mark the anniversary with a new podcast episode, containing some of our best material yet. And frankly I find it all a bit miraculous that we’ve managed to keep the thing going, through the various lockdowns, the blurring of work and home life for so many of our contributors, and the jarring pivot from stage to audio based writing, performing and production. We’ve all been figuring out as we go, and we’ve built new relationships and found new writing and voice acting talents as we’ve gone.

Onstage in October with Maddi and Jess.

We have lost a few people from that original group. This is only natural for a project like this, as you’d expect some churn as people’s capacity and interest waxes and wanes like a moon made of punchlines. That said, I really hope of those I see in those photos from a year ago, smiling awkwardly and with relief after our first successful show, make it back into our orbit whenever it is we are allowed back on stage again.

As someone who is still relatively new to the world of sketch comedy, I was overwhelmed by how generous everyone is with their time and their talent. I went to as many shows as I could, and was beginning to meet other sketch humans and help our own night – unique, at the time, as a space for new, non-revue style sketch comedy in London – get a name for itself.

Of course, as with the rest of the cultural sphere, this all ground to a halt in March, and we remain unsure what the world will look like in future. The pandemic, on top of a decade of austerity, has merely accelerated long term trends against people having the money, time and inclination to do this kind of thing.

But even if it’s just silly wigs and jokes about pirate Jesus, the arts feel more crucial than ever as we emerge, blinking, from this surreal and terrible year. As long as venues exist, I’m desperate to support them, either with my own individual custom or by putting nights on of my own.

Tonight I am starting a level 2 stand up comedy course, via Hoopla Impro. Mr Nick Hall, our tutor, is an excellent comedian and offers really useful feedback. I’m not sure stand up is my medium, exactly, but it’s a good opportunity to learn more about the mechanics of joke writing and to continue the search for my inner clown. Who is he, and what does he want? And more importantly, how did he get in there in the first place?

Of course, the whole thing has to be on dreaded Zoom, including the performance at the end. Depending on how the next six weeks unfold, I may even invite people to watch it.

Further up and further in

I wrote up a blog post about going for a walk, climbing a tree, nationalising the golf courses, poorly maintained public footpaths, and how leaving a town or city via any means other than the car makes you feel like a second class citizen.

Unfortunately all of this was lost, thanks to the vagaries of WordPress. So instead I’ll post some photos and tweets from the walk, and you can fill in the narrative gaps via the fertile power of your mind.

The remains of Hampton-on-sea.
His ‘n’ Hers.
Spot the public footpath.
The public footpath continues to be elusive.
Chestfield golf course, like all golf courses, should be nationalised like sausages.
Underneath the golf, a dual carriageway thunders.
I wrote a postcard from the boughs of this sturdy tree.
Tricky.
Finally free from golf.
Winter light.
Last orders, please.

Walthamstow Wassail 2021

Sunday was the 11th Walthamstow Wassail: online this year, like so many other events and traditions that break up the year and help give life some narrative and meaning.

Conspiracy theorists view Covid as an agent of state control, and vaccines as containing microchips designed by billionaires to make the masses more pliant.

These people are idiots, but one unfortunate side-effect of the pandemic has been to miss out on many of those communal, strange, and anarchic coming together of peoples. The wassail is just wandering along some streets, insulting local cheese makers and singing to apple trees, bees, friends, neighbours, and bemused locals. But it’s also a tiny act of rebellion and eccentricity in our increasingly homogenised city.

We sang the Apple Tree Wassail and a Georgian new year chant, but all the friends I had met in previous years, clutching mulled cider in front of a bonfire in a stranger’s back garden, or in a strange boudoir upstairs of the local pub, were all trapped in little rectangles on my screen. Due to internet lag, they, like me, were singing on mute; we were together, but oh so apart.

On the other hand, the online nature of the event meant we had participants from as far away as Canada, a mythical country over the seas. And it meant that Anna, who introduced me to this lovely community, was able to follow along with her daughter from her new home of Glasgow.

Credit to Lucy, the mistressmind behind the Wassail, and the other organisers for keeping the tradition going this year, and for marshalling online events so efficiently.

I am lucky enough to be living in a house with an apple tree in its garden this year, so I was able to stick some toast in its branches and some apple juice in its roots.

Waes Hael! See you all in a year’s time for another celebration of the cyclical nature of existence.

The all-seeing eye of Lucy, some toast, an apple tree.

Walking to Sainsbury’s

After a few days of not leaving the house, I went to the Sainsbury’s on the other side of town. A big box by the dual carriageway [1], the trip to this mahoosive shop felt a bit like a holiday, or at least a day trip. Such are the narrowing of one’s expectations during a pandemic.

Big fan of concrete water towers.

Usually I cycle, but I decided to walk this time. It’s not like I was in a hurry to get back.

I tried to keep to back streets, and crossed the road whenever I saw a pedestrian coming the other way. I’m not quite sure if this is a sensible precaution or Covid paranoia, but either way it kept the excitement levels up, as I played human frogger between the drivers, many of whose cars were seemingly built without indicators.

It wasn’t a pleasant walk. Much like pretty much every British town, Herne Bay is not designed for pedestrians.

One mysterious side-effect of my crash last summer is how it’s made me a much more anxious urban walker. The noise of revving engines, speeding, idling, phone use at the wheel: all these behaviours stress me out a lot more than they did before. Which makes sense, except: the crash occurred while I was on a bike. And on a bike, I feel as confident as before. Why is that not the case when I’m on two feet?

I think the answer is the illusion of control. I am what the kids like to call a “vehicular cyclist” [2]. Young [3] and fit [4], I can keep up with traffic, take the lane when necessary, and “keep my wits about me” in the manner Boris Johnson, the stupid person’s idea of a clever person, said was needed to cycle safely in London [5].

This doesn’t stop people from left hooking me, or driving into the back of me, or speeding and losing control of their Audis. But it does at least make me feel less passive, and therefore – logically or otherwise – more in control.

When I’m walking, I feel quite the opposite. Whether it’s inching into the road to get around vans parked on the pavement, or trying to navigate a busy roundabout with zero pedestrian crossings, post-crash I have never felt more vulnerable.

Good luck crossing here.

With this, I’ve probably been given an early insight in what it’s like to be an older pedestrian. When the time provided to cross at the lights is never long enough; when your wheelchair or mobility scooter is constantly forced into the road due to drivers parking on the pavement. And when the infrastructure, impatient and angry drivers, and our car-centric culture all combine to make you feel less and less inclined to step outside your door.

Some members of my family think of me as a “cyclist”, and like to hold me responsible for the naughty, annoying, and in some cases even illegal actions of other cyclists. But you can’t write to the chief cyclist and ask them to tell us all to wind our necks in. I am not responsible for anyone apart from myself, just as a car driver is not responsible for any other car driver.

But “cyclist” *has* been a big part of my identity over the years. And I refuse to be bullied off the road by irresponsible drivers. But I am also a pedestrian; a lover of long train journeys to the coast, and of sitting on the top deck of a bus listening to a podcast or quietly writing down overheard conversations to anonymise and stick in my writing. Heck, I’ll even ride a hovercraft if I’m allowed.

The bike is just one of many modes of transport I choose to employ. And once we finally emerge, blinking, from this terrible pandemic, we need to do everything we can to make walking, cycling, scooting, hover boarding, and even pogo-sticking the obvious, pleasant, and most direct options for local journeys.

And eventually, maybe, the fear will recede and our cities, towns and communities can re-emerge and recover from the virus of motor vehicles.

Des res on the path to the megastore.

Footnotes

[1] Whereas a duel carriageway is where you fight dandy highwaymen.

[2] If you design cities so that only people on bikes acting like cars can cycle, your city is not going to attract a lot of cyclists.

[3] Ish.

[4] Ish.

[5] Johnson later U-turned, as he is wont to do, and did eventually commission some genuinely segregated cycle lanes, to his eternal and only credit. But it took a heck of a lot of protest and campaigning to achieve even those meagre concessions. There’s so much more that needs to be done.

Christmas cards 2020

I never used to send Christmas cards. They seemed one of those weird doomed middle class traditions, where you go to quite a lot of effort to say nothing at all.

Then I realised this was, like a lot of my pretentions, self-defeating nonsense. I sent a bunch this year, though still not as many as I’d like. I always try to make the inside of them better than the standard “To X, Merry Xmas, Love from X and the children / pets”.

But this year I drew the cards too, because shops are scary this year and best avoided. More scary than usual, I mean.

Below are some of my high quality designs.

I realised Jesus was suspended in mid-air, so provided Him with a stepladder.
Easily done.
Ditto the golden retriever: I miss you, boy.
Wide faced Santa Link.
Amiga v cat.
Eigg.
I don’t see Hobbes complaining, and he’s had it *much* worse.

Ramsgate International Hoverport

Hovercrafts exist in the British postwar imagination alongside Concorde and the Post Office Tower as avatars of the rapidly arriving future.

These ludicrous metal beasts, dreamed up by some archetypal crackpot inventor, brought Europe closer, but were also a symbol of British exceptionalism. Sure, the French have some nice wines, but do they have planes that can take off vertically or enormous air cushion based cross channel vehicles? Of course they don’t [1].

Space for up to 30 cars!

Sadly, hovercrafts haven’t made it into the modern age as a viable form of mass transit. They consume vast quantities of kerosene, passengers remember the noise and the vomit, and hover stewardesses recall slapping panicking passengers in the face. The service from Pegwell Bay was wound up by the early eighties, and today the only passenger service in Britain is from Southsea to the Isle of Wight.

Armed with that other postwar symbol of modernity and freedom – the car – my household took a trip down to the bay to walk among the concrete ruins.

At the time of writing, the border with France was closed, due to a scary new Covid variant. One couldn’t escape Brexit island even by ferry. Our route took us past Manston airport, which was packed with many hundreds of lorries unable to make the journey from Dover.

After parking up, we made our way down past what would once have been the foot passenger entrance, which came down past the Viking ship – a gift from the Danish government – via a bridge over the now abandoned service road.

It is now a bridge to nowhere. The modernist terminal building – which can be glimpsed in this Pathé clip of Prince Philip opening the hoverport – mouldered, collapsed and was finally demolished.

A cafe, a bar and a viewing platform were all available for the modern traveller.

Looking out across what would have been the car park from my overgrown footbridge, you get a good sense of the scale of the operation. Pegwell Bay was once some Gerry Anderson set made real; you can almost hear the triumphal Thunderbirds music as you look across the weeds, moss and crumbling concrete.

We walked away from Ramsgate, towards the first of the two hovercraft “landing” strips. You can still see the approach markings, and enjoy the smooth concrete emerging from the calm waters, or even pretend to be an arriving hovercraft yourself if you’re in the mood for it.

What’s sad is the terminal building was relatively intact until the nineties. It would have been great for it to be salvaged, and perhaps reopened as a combined birdwatching and community centre, with cafe and hovercraft museum. This could have been connected up with Ramsgate town centre via a monorail operating along the old service road.

Until then, this remains a wonderful spot for watching the birds and wandering the remnants of Britain’s postwar optimism. There’s even a roundabout that has been reclaimed by nature, which struck me as an oddly reassuring monument to a better future.

It also reminded me of Chernobyl.

[1] The hovercrafts were run by a Swedish company.