Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky is an entertaining, beautifully written trilogy of intertwined semi-autobiographical novellas which were published separately and centre on The Midnight Bell, a fictional London boozer near the junction of Euston and Tottenham Court Roads.
Though it had no wide reputation, all manner of people frequented ‘The Midnight Bell.’ This was in its nature, of course, since it is notorious that all manner of people frequent all manner of public-houses – which in this respect resemble railway stations and mad-houses.
The first novella, ‘The Midnight Bell’(1929), centres on Bob, a waiter and would-be writer, who becomes enchanted by a prostitute he serves in the bar – mirroring events in Hamilton’s own life. In the second, ‘The Siege of Pleasure’ (1932), the focus is on Jenny, the prostitute, and her fall from respectability. The final book of the trio ‘The Plains of Cement’ (1934),is about Bob’s colleague Ella, torn between the attentions of an older, wealthy man, and her unrequited love for Bob.
It is perhaps surprising that Hamilton isn’t better known or more widely read, he certainly deserves to be – his bringing to life of working class Londoners is superb with echoes of Dickens. The only negative for me is the lack of any real sense of place – the “Twenty Thousand Streets” are little more than street names, just a means of transporting the character from ‘The Midnight Bell’, to perhaps a cinema, a different pub or a Lyons Coffee House – they are rarely described, incidental to the plot.
OnBlackheath felt different to other festivals and concerts I have been to, I think it was because it seemed like the first real post-parenting one – the older children were both away and our youngest was out with friends, and, at 16 going on 17 and sufficiently ‘older and wiser’ to safely make her own way home in the early evening ( yes, I know that should be 17 going on 18).
An excellent prelude to Madness had been provided by David Rodigan’s DJ mix of reggae and ska classics which warmed up the chilly early evening in a way none of the earlier acts on the main stage had managed before.
Madness was J’s musical past rather than mine really – I was much less into ska than she was in her youth, but Madness, collectively and individually, are national treasures, everyone knows their music, everyone can sing along (even if I didn’t know all the words of every verse…)
The age of the audience told though – maybe a decade ago, certainly two decades ago, we would all have been bouncing/dancing throughout the set – but it was only for 30 seconds after each song was recognised and started, followed by 3 minutes of shuffling (out of time in my case) we just can’t keep up with the frenetic activity that we used to.
Almost predictably, the evening brought a few tears for me – it was one of the ‘times’ that Melody Gardot sung of which I wrote about a month or so ago. The trigger was about being still able to be there and being in love.
The Blackheath Society, amongst others, had forced the organisers to finish the set at 9:30 (and had set up a sound monitoring van between the festival site and the Village). Twenty five years ago I would have been outraged at this, but now, I was secretly quite happy – I was home before 10, sitting in a comfy chair with a glass of red wine. It seemed perfect – my younger self would have been quite depressed by the thought I would hazard.
99 Luftballons is probably the only music that I have bought for not entirely musical reasons, I was 23 and really old enough to know better…..but…
It wasn’t the only reason though – the song had a very clear anti-war message, which was slightly lost in translation with the English version, 99 Red Balloons. I was certainly aware of the differences as I recall the Guardian doing a piece on it. It was effectively a song about mistakes leading to nuclear war and was written against the backdrop of the Cold War and the nuclear re-armament of Europe. In Britain, this included the purchase of Trident, the basing of American Cruise Missiles at Greenham Common and the growth of CND, which I had supported since the late 1970s due to a fantastic article in the New Musical Express.
I bought the album expecting more of the same, it wasn’t though, and was quickly discarded and I probably didn’t listen to anything other than 99 Luftballons more than a couple of times. I no longer have the album; I assume that I must have traded it in for a pittance as a down-purchase on other second hand records at a small shop alongside a remote bit of Birmingham’s inner ring road.
Oddly, the song stayed in my subconscious, and it was one of the first tracks I bought electronically as I retraced my almost lost musical footsteps, it is one I still listen to a lot – it reminds me of Birmingham, particularly New Street where it was bought, and CND.
Some of my earliest musical memories are of brass band music from the annual Nottinghamshire Miners’ Rally in Mansfield; there was a procession to Berry Hill Park which went past the end of our street. From the corner I was allowed to watch the miners ‘marching’ up the hill coming from collieries from all over the country, but I would guess predominantly from the Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire coalfields. Many came with their brass bands; it was part of the tradition. Mining is part of our family history too – my paternal grandmother’s side of the family had come down to the Nottinghamshire coalfield in the late 19th century from that in County Durham, parts of the family having originated from the coalfield north of Newcastle. My middle name is even from one of the pits the family worked at in Northumberland.
The Youtube video below is sadly silent as it is gleaned from old cine-flims, but evokes the era
I assume the annual rally came to an end after the 1984-85 strike when Nottinghamshire miners carried on working – not that it did them much good, Thatcher’s Government closed the pits there and everywhere else in the country. Most of the Nottinghamshire mines had been closed before the 1990s were out – of the 24 pits in the county in 1984, 19 had been shut before the end of the millennium; the last, Thoresby, had its final shift in July 2015. Leaving Kellingley, near Pontefract, as the country’s last remaining coal pit – but that is due to close before 2015 is out.
The Clipstone headstocks (source)
I’ve no idea whether I saw Grimethorpe Colliery Band play whilst they walked up Berry Hill Lane towards the park, but they may well have done – they came to prominence in the early 1970s, winning the Granada TV Brass Band of the Year competition in 1972, which the footage below is from. The excellent film ‘Brassed Off’, with the sadly missed Pete Postletwaite, gave a semi-fictionalised account of Grimethorpe’s unsuccessful struggle against closure. 1972 would probably have been one of the last Notts. Miners Rallies that I saw – we moved from the house I had grown up in, opposite the brickworks and quarry, a year or so later. Hearing brass band music always makes me feel quite nostalgic both in terms of my own childhood but also of a lost industry and the heritage that went with it.