Thursday, February 26, 2009

Get On Your Boots

My boots, my sexy-sexy-boot-heels finger-snap their click-clack way across the vast granite flagstones – providing an ominous echo all through this huge, cathedral-like space.

High above me ancient oak glows golden-brown as if lit by a million beeswax candles; they constitute the largest hammer-beam roof structure in Europe and have been in-situ for the last eight hundred or more years.

Far away in the distance at the other end of the hall and underneath a colossal stained-glass window are a set of stone steps, nearly as wide as this veritable chamber of secrets is, itself. In the centuries that have passed, its walls – two metres thick and counting – have witnessed the great and the good, the finest minds and the notoriously fearsome pass through this space.

This is the room into which Sir William Wallace was dragged in chains to be ‘tried’ before the Lords of the land after being similarly hauled most of the way from Scotland to London during the fourteenth century.

Wallace hadn’t a hope in hell; his sentence a foregone conclusion before he’d even left Scotland – Edward Longshanks, the third of that name to rule England was not, by nature, a forgiving man; and any notion of clemency would have been a long way from his mind when the man who’d led the Scots in rebellion against the English (somewhat foolishly) walked into Edinburgh Castle, hell-bent on giving himself up as a bargaining tool with the all-conquering foe.

Scotland 0 - England 1(own goal scored by W. Wallace).

Wallace was duly convicted before being taken away to Smithfield to suffer (perhaps) one of the most gruesome deaths that middle ages England could conjure up – that of being hung, drawn and quartered.

In front of a baying crowd, he’d have had been served up the hors d’oeuvre by feeling a noose tightening around his neck prior to being hoisted high into the air to dangle; … slow strangulation.

If the executioner timed it absolutely right, he’d have been cut down while still, just about, breathing. At which time, he’d have been strapped – face up – onto a heavy oaken table with his legs and arms manacled.

It was, at this point, that it got a bit nasty.

The executioner would open up his bag of tricks to extract a few really rather disagreeable gadgets – hooked and barbed knives as well as sundry other instruments of sharp and blunt persuasion that defined his particular stock-in-trade.

Presumably each legalized slaughterer would have his own specific order of preference in terms of where to start inflicting real pain. Possibly it’d be the genitals first – one quick slice and… no more rumpy-pumpy for you boyo. Perhaps a hammer blow to the foot just to loosen things up a bit… then, maybe a pair of medieval piers would be used to remove toes or fingers… oh dear, did that hurt old boy, terribly sorry but… I do have a job to do so… be a good chap and lay still... only another nine to go.

This was, of course, simply the appetiser before the main course – since the general idea was to keep the victim alive as long as possible while inflicting pain in unfeasible proportions. The crowd, needless to say, found this hugely entertaining – those that hadn’t already passed out in their own vomit-pool of disgust, that is.

Because, eventually the subject’s stomach would be slowly sliced (drawn) open and… his entrails hauled out before… being messily brandished in front of his own eyes.

After which the quartering would occur; the victim (if he wasn’t already dead by now) would be be-headed and then his body would be hacked into four chunks – each body-part then sent to a main city in the land and displayed for all to see as a warning to others who may have been harbouring rebellious thoughts.

Charles 1st in comparison got off lightly – this is the chamber in which he, too was tried and convicted of treason; to become only the second reigning monarch to be executed. I suppose its debatable if Mary, Queen of Scots was actually a reigning monarch when she knelt at the block seventy-five years previously at Fotheringay Castle in 1587 but… in any event, on a cold and frosty January 1649 morning, Charles stepped onto the scaffold in Whitehall – not that far from where I’m standing now – and awaited the executioner’s blade.

Guy Fawkes was another who was tried and convicted here in this very same space – the bloke who got nabbed just before he could light the blue touch-paper that’d have set off the gunpowder kegs that he and his fellow conspirators had stored in the vaults right under the chamber in which I’m standing.

It’s a room that has also seen the laying in state of Churchill and that of the late Queen Mother; where Nelson Mandela has walked down those same steps that I can see at its far end – and which I’m about to ascend; where the Pitts, both Younger and Elder would have strode across the floor; the very same surface that Simon de Montfort – the founder of the parliamentary system would have walked over…

The same door through which I’ve entered has seen the likes of Sir Thomas Moore, Cromwell, Walsingham, Disraeli, Burghleigh, Gladstone, William Wilberforce – the prime mover behind the abolition of slavery in 1833 who died just three days after the Act was passed – Palmerstone, Walpole, Archbishops Cranmer and Wolsey among hundreds of other great statesmen and women pass through; a floor upon which Kings and Queens and world leaders have also stood – maybe all of them have gazed about them in awe at one point or other too.

Up the steps at the far end, the bearded wonder, his vegetarian assistant and I turn an abrupt left to walk down a short corridor flanked by marble statues of the nation’s most famous politicians through the ages. Behind them are huge friezes – painted snapshots of moments in long-ago time; a young Henry VIII receiving a deputation, Edward II being preached to… and, three more either side before… two small wooden signs that – in gold lettering – tell me that to my right is the House of Commons, to my left The Lords. This slimmer than one’d imagine corridor is precisely where Black Rod leads the assembled Commons before knocking loudly with his staff on the door to the Lords at the state opening of Parliament.

We walk on, then down steps where it says visitors must go and then turn right along yet another corridor from where rather yummy smells are emanating – to the right behind closed doors are the kitchens, to the left are the opened doors of the dining rooms. Black and white clad waiters scurry back and forth as people (politicians? – they must be, mustn’t they) pull up to their respective bumpers on the green-backed leather seats that align the long tables that, themselves, are groaning with cut glass and silverware.

Up another set of steps, left again along a short corridor, down again, take another left and… it seems we’re expected; this is the entrance to the BPI / ACM meeting at which Andy Burnham the Secretary of State for Culture, Music and Sport for Her Majesty’s Government will speak after the assembled gather round and listen to what the ACM’s founder, the BPI chairman and the lady MP for Guildford have to say.

Time to grab a canapé, a glass of the well-chilled and mingle.

Three canapés and two glasses of quality white later and I’m mingling like there’s no tomorrow. This evening’s headline act, (new) Labour’s front bencher has eloquently said his bit and already been grabbed by someone, I know not who… I watch like a hawk, figuring out the form; what to look out for in Spring – how to approach a Government Minister.

Taking up position Z on his left flank – like a submarine laying just off a convoy in a World War 2 Atlantic swell – fine tune my periscope-senses, pick my moment during a lull in their conversation and... strike.

First introduce N to B and then, its straight into the elevator pitch. He listens intently ignoring interlopers and would-be boarders, gets the plot in one, asks relevant questions and, as others jostle at my shoulder eager for their own five minutes with him, asks if I have any documentation with me. I do: Here’s one I prepared earlier, Minister… a little light reading for your journey home.

He grins in response, grips warmly, puts the envelope that contains the entire blueprint for Project-X into his inside suit pocket and, thanking me by name (which surprised me), promises to do just that.

Two and a half hours later and I’ve talked at length to a number of other key individuals who’ve gathered here tonight.

One such and I’ve been out on the Terrace itself, talking intently – away from the hubbub of the ACM Gospel Choir who are proving just why they only reached the semi-finals of the recently televised One Choir Left Standing.

The view from here is stunning; the backdrop of the gently flowing river while over my right shoulder, the London Eye lit up in electric-chair-after-shock blue, slowly turns – offering its passengers their own, extraordinary, vista of the capital.

My half-bearded companion out on the Terrace – with whom I’ve been communicating during the preceding twenty-four hours – has already pre-researched to the extent of finding Project-X’s home on the web, is very much a supporter of the initiative and eager to learn more. Thirty minutes later, one more envelope passes hands as we prepare to walk back into the throng.

The same goes for the Education Strategist with whom I meet next; we know many people in common which serves to break the ice, he gets the concept in moments and, after another sealed envelope passes hands, we part by agreeing to aim at fixing a further meeting later in the week once he’s had a chance to digest everything I’ve handed over.

A closing conversation with the BPI bod that I last met at the IFPI meeting – who, once again, assures me of their own support and… its time to retrace my steps back out through that great hall and head off into the unseasonably mild night air.

Needles to say, come 4am, and I still can’t sleep. My brain has been churning all night – not the usual nonsense that clogs up its wires; this is a realisation that we’ve genuinely reached the end of the beginning – part of a Churchillian quote I know which, I suppose, just goes to show that some of the rarified air in which I’ve walked earlier in the evening, has percolated my head.

That same thought process is confirmed when the bearded wonder and I catch up twenty-four hours later; he’s equally of the same opinion – there isn’t a single person who is other than totally supportive of Project-X… thus, now is the time to put the hammer down. I check-in with far-away… the same opinion is proffered; we’re stymied by one thing and one thing only – now, therefore, its time to become ridiculously pro-active on that front.

The bearded wonder also updates me – tho’ he probably shouldn’t since it’s all confidential for the moment – on matters pertaining to Island50: the list of gigs for May is starting to look quite tasty and intriguing; the book is now being printed which leads me to wonder just who its author actually spoke to and how complete it’ll really be while the exhibition is getting ready to roll-out and most of the major magazines will be running huge pieces on the anniversary with, at least one, cover-mounting a compilation CD – apparently someone, somewhere has trawled back through the catalogue and discovered… gems. What a surprise. May, so it appears, is going to be a busy old month… if, that is, one’s part of that circle.

At least this time around, I won’t loose any of my own (precious to me) archive – Island25 required as much memorabilia as was possible to accumulate and, naively and all too trustingly, I volunteered all that I had (which was considerable).

Sadly, scrapbooks came back with all manner of prized possessions – such as half a pair of Bob Marley Lyceum tickets – missing; some rare Black Swan singles disappeared altogether and… I learned an invaluable lesson – don’t let anything you value like that out of your sight.

However… the clouds within those thoughts lift as, the very next morning, I collect an eagerly awaited packet from very far away indeed; inside are two heavily sellotaped brown envelopes that eventually reveal the package’s true contents – a most looked forward to book that I’ve been examining in detail whenever I’ve come across a copy.

Its Yuri Grishin’s, wonderfully illustrated, self-published guide to Island album releases between 1962 & 1977.

I first tripped into Yuri’s own site last year while delving deeply into researching another project that my fertile brain had been concocting these last few months. Am I about to allude to exactly what that was (or, perhaps, still is) – no, absolutely no – not yet.

Anyhow… one research link led to another which led to another exploratory mouse-click and then yet again before… stumbling across a site announcing itself as one for real train-spotters. Here was a bloke in Moscow who not only collected records but compiled those collections by label into illustrated guides.

Would Yuri become my new best friend – I rather hoped he might and thus we began a bit of e-mail back and forth.

After a few hiccups not least caused by no access to one of my e-addresses and… I discover that Yuri’s resilient enough to figure out another manner in which to get back in contact within which, he’d agreed to forward on a copy of the particular tome that I’m so interested in.

Part of me is intrigued as to how a Muscovite has managed to collate such a difficult collection to compile – the label itself is, without question, the most collectable in the world and… even if you’re in Britain or America, the sourcing of old vinyl is difficult enough so… doing that out of Russia can’t have been easy.

Equals, his dogged determination is to be very much admired.

I guess it helps too that, besides being a collector, he’s also a publisher too – which means that from concept to realisation is an easier step than otherwise would be possible.

By Yuri’s own admission, this volume is flawed – there are a number of omissions (the vast bulk of which, oddly enough, I have squirreled away at Merle HQ in the dungeon there) meaning that Yuri’s book is by no means a completists’s dream but… even so, it’s better than anything that presently exists and, as it stands, has become an invaluable aid to any serious collector.

If I was to critique it in any manner then I’d offer up the fact that it being written in both Russian and English is unnecessary, that it is way-too top-heavy on detailing matrix-numbers, the cutting process of acetates and sleeve manufacturing (even though that appears to be Yuri’s big passion), but then, one has to bear in mind that this is a volume – as are his others on labels such as Harvest, Vertigo, Charisma etc etc – aimed at the truly dedicated vinyl junkie.

That said, its a great reference point as has been proved by the bods at Island itself who have been using it as their best point of referral (largely because their own archive is such a mess and no one currently there has much of a real history of the label) as well as the blokes at the Pinewood production company who’ve similarly been trawling it for background for their forthcoming BBC Island50 documentary that’ll be aired in May.

Collectable records (sic) is a growing business and Yuri’s grasped that bit of mettle with both hands…

I’m jerked back from perusing much-loved album covers by the ‘phone ringing; it’s the call that I’d been anticipating – during which the summons (for want of a better word which would, actually, be ‘invitation’) is issued; could I arrive at place Y tomorrow and present myself at the appointed hour to discuss… in much more detail… Project-X.


Drew said...

I've just read that a good half-a-dozen times, and it still elicits the same excitement as our earlier conversation.

The engines are rumbling.


Anonymous said...

Well..... what's happening????