The Lark Ascending is the third book from Richard King, once again music is a key ingredient in the narrative that unfolds before us. In his last book, Original Rockers, the starting point of the journey was the virtually windowless couple of rooms, that made up the legendary Bristol record shop, Revolver Records. This time Inspiration is taken from the wide open spaces of the British countryside over the last century or so. He looks at the relationship between the public and the space around us, using music as the bridge to guide us on this journey.
It’s a trip that takes us through many differing forms of music. The etherial beauty of the Vaughan Williams piece that gives the book it’s title, to the notorious “repetitive beats” that saw the countryside become a battleground in the 1990’s. Indeed one of the main themes of the book is the continual way the public have needed to challenge the powers that be, in order to access this landscape of ours.
It’s a heavily researched book, that still retains the feel of a conversation with a friend. It’s fascinating to read of the mass trespass by the young people of Kinder Scout in the Peak District in 1932. We see the rise, and potential fall, in the ability of the wider population to share the splendour of the natural world which surrounds us.
I must admit that when I was a child, my parents would occasionally send me out of suburban Bristol to stay with grandparents in the small village of Oldbury-on-Severn. At that stage in my life my relationship with the country side was not great. My Grandfather would take me on early morning walks across the fields to the edge of the mighty River Severn, often collecting mushrooms to have for breakfast and carefully avoiding the horses and cows which would occasionally take rather more than a passing interest in us. To me though, it was a dull and lifeless place. Where were the other kids that I could play football with? Why was the grass always too long or too muddy. What was the point of it all? My sister on the other hand, loved her trips out there, forming a bond with nature that burnt intensely through her life.
This passion, and a healthy disregard for conventional life, resulted in her spending time in the communal world of mid 70’s West Wales. It’s an area that is covered extensively in the book with lots of space devoted to John Seymour and his back to the land revolution. This coincided with an influx of people looking to to escape the structured uniformity of much of Britain at that time. The amusement and bemusement of the locals, desperately looking to modernise their lives, had for people like my sister who lived in the Gwaun Valley area of the Preseli Hills for a rustic life, was never far from the surface. King’s book captures this brilliantly, linking it with the movement of musicians like Donavan, The Incredible String Band and McCartney to far flung areas of the country.
As you you probably expect the influence of folk music is noticeable and often political. There is a truly head spinning chapter on the breakaway scout movement from between the wars called Kibo Kift, bonkers and eventually over nationalistic, they revered native and patriotic music to a potentially unreasonable degree. There is also a lovely section of the wonderful jazz score created by Stan Tracey for Under Milk Wood, a key part of the British jazz scene in the mid 1960’s. Truly atmospheric and engaging. Delicious music for a place that never really existed, other than in the mind of Dylan Thomas.
The later chapters of the book are, for me, the most thought provoking as King covers the 80’s movement to the countryside of the inspirational Greenham Common Women and than the new age travellers and the free festival scene. The Greenham story is remarkable, all the more so as it feels oddly unheralded. That this floating group of women, who refused to have a spokesperson and play the normal media game, were able to win against the might of the British government and the USA military. There is talk of the songs they sang to confuse an occupying force that were ready for conflict. The festival scenes section does not end well, the truly grim Battle of the Bean Field, shows the state flexing it’s muscles against those that dared to love and live, a different type of life.
This is also the cue for the start of the process to take back control of access to the land.A process that comes into sharper focus with the birth of the rave scene and thousands people heading to the country, with no control during increasingly tense months of summer and beyond. It’s interesting to note though the crossover between the pastoral progressive music of the Canterbury scene in the 1960’s and early 70’s and the gently seductive post rave music from the likes of Ultramarine. The link to countryside remain stong and potently inclusive.
As with Original Rockers, King takes an key incident, be it a place, a song or a person and skilfully weaves a story together. Not many books about the countryside come with a discography at the end, but it’s a lovely addition which truly gives a sense of time and place. This is a beautiful piece of social and cultural history about two of things that define the shape of the British identity. Landscape and music, belong to us all. Sometimes we need to fight quite hard to remind those who the rule the nation of this simple notion.