An occasional series of non-fiction travelogues – where rock music meets the ancient angularity of the world’s rock formations. Iggy alongside the igneous. Granite conjoining with Grand Funk Railroad…
- FAT WHITE MOUNTAIN MEN
Toward the end of 2019, MOJO magazine asked me to write a report on the Fat White Family playing live at Kendal’s Brewery Arts Centre – up on the edge of the Lake District’s rocky massif. It was an ideal job. In my teens the Brewery was the site of both revelry and melancholy, while the Fat Whites’ dirty-protest throb invigorates the often-insipid current rock diorama. This commission gave me a paid-for train ride from my home in Devon, taking me up toward the slopes of Helvellyn – the arête-edged and third highest peak in the Lakes.
Fittingly here, Fat White Family are occasional mountain men. A stirring short promotional film for the band’s latest album, Serfs Up!, sees them hauling a gilded throne to the heights of the Peak District – up through a steep-sided chasm called Luds Church, up to a rain-drenched ridge known as The Roaches. With the ascent completed, Irish-Algerian-British frontman Lias Saoudi sits on the now throne-surmounted summit, surveying all before him.
I meet up with Fat White Family for a quick interview as they get ready to soundcheck. Guitarist/singer Saul Adamczewski wanders in. “Flog Idles now!” he proclaims. “If we have one message, like Boris Johnson with Brexit, it’s flog Idles now….” The Bristolian nu-punkers Idles are a bête noire for FWF, who see their bigger-selling peers as virtue-signalling middle-class donuts. Arctic Monkeys previously suffered similar invective. But there’s more to FWF than rock slaggings.
The idea behind this narrative is to juxtapose rock music with another kind of rock – the immemorial geological realm of granite, slate and schist. I’m one of six siblings; my two youngest brothers are the two singers in the rock group British Sea Power. We grew up just outside Kendal, with Lakeland’s mountainous crenellations marking the skyline to the northwest. Up there lay the slopes, summits and shining waters – Black Crag, Black Sail Pass, Blackbeck Tarn. Inside our post-war council house varied music occupied the stereo – including Black Flag, Black Sabbath and Pixies frontman Black Francis.
Fat White Family are also sometime rock outdoors men. “We do like to go for a deep trek,” says Lias. “That’s always been a part of what we do. When we finished the first album, me, Nathan [Lias’s younger brother] and Saul moved to Barcelona. This was before anyone knew about the band. We ended up living up in the mountains, with a tent and a couple of pots, eating tomato stew every night. We’re big trekkers. I go trekking in the Peak District…”
“I used to go to the Lakes when I was a kid,” says Saul, “to some summer-camp thing. I also used to go to a forest school – my parents were quite hippie.”
I’m joined at the Kendal Fat Whites show by an old friend, Chris Hodgson, once a fellow pupil at Heversham Grammar School. Heversham was good place to get educated – an excellent state school, albeit with some public-school affectations. There were a few boarders and also a fives court – the racquet-less squash variant that originated at Eton and Rugby. At Heversham there was a branch of the Combined Cadet Force. Unbelievably, during our CCF service in the early 1980s, we were allowed to run around on the adjacent slopes of Heversham Head, shooting blanks from real-life Lee Enfield .303 rifles.
I only recall seeing two musical performances in my teens at Kendal Brewery. One was the North Carolina songwriter and singer John D Loudermilk, composer of The Everly Brothers’ 1961 UK number-one single Ebony Eyes. Loudermilk also wrote Indian Reservation, which became a hit for Paul Revere & the Raiders. Indian Reservation was later radically reimagined by the Slovenian art/music group Laibach – to me our most interesting extant artists (Fat White Family are also big Laibach fans). That’s quite some distance, from Loudermilk to Laibach. What a world. How often do you wonder if might all be a big joke? A vast prank enacted by some omnipotent off-world laff-master.
The other show I saw at the Brewery as a kid was a solo performance from the late Monty Python collaborator Neil Innes. I took my first girlfriend, a cool young Kendal woman. I have a vivid memory of her at 15. She is walking along the lanes singing guitar lines from The Fall’s Grotesque (After The Gramme) album. It was wonderful to be alongside this woman through verdant Cumbrian summers – in retrospect, occupying a space where Cider With Rosie blended with a more post-punk mood, one later encompassed by the title of Stuart Maconie’s memoir Cider With Roadies. To just lie in a Cumbrian field beside this girl seemed everything I could want. The stars were bright. It was now. Then, suddenly, it was later. But, eventually, she left me. I recall – annoyed a little even now – that in the post-break-up period she wouldn’t let her big sister drive me to a Teardrop Explodes concert at Lancaster University
It’s fair to say the Fat White performance at the Brewery is a more driven thing than the sets from John Loudermilk and Neil Innes. Throughout the show keyboardist Nathan asks the crowd, “Who’s got any drugs?” This isn’t a rhetorical question. Meanwhile, Lias’s naked upper torso bobs through the audience. He suggests some nude rock traffic cop, but one who knows only one place to go. Too far. Headlong down the path of most resistance…
After the show FWF berate the Idles some more. Saul also shows off a pro-am art installation he’s made. It consists of a 10-inch white-bread sandwich stack, two oranges and a big swastika, the latter made from teabags. On the two oranges are the words “Night” and “Swimming”. He says it’s a “shrine to REM”. This art-school trouble-making is maybe questionable, but it’s perhaps relevant here that previous FWF tours featured a stage backdrop with a pig’s head above a hammer-and-sickle. Thanks Fat White Family.
With the rock concert taken care of, it’s time to head on up for the rock of ages, the immeasurable infinities of geology. The next day I take the 555 bus into the heart of the Lakes and then further still – through Windermere and Ambleside, past Grasmere and up Dunmail Raise, up to the northern end or the lake Thirlmere. Even at £11.50 my Adult Explorer bus ticket is a solid bargain. Later, after I’ve checked into my accommodation and sat for a while, ale-fisted, in the ancient Helvellyn-side pub The King’s Head, I am able to use my Explorer ticket for a nighttime visit to Keswick. There I trawl the shores of Derwentwater, scene of powerful childhood reverie. How the lights shine pretty out on Derwent Isle. Shining, too, on the far shore, near the curving slopes of Catbells – slopes that are invisible in the dark but, almost certainly, still there. All of this on the same bus ticket. These are the things dreams are made of.
I was staying at Fisher Gill Camping Barn, £16 a night. It’s a pleasant dormitory, full of bunks. But, hey hosanna, on a rainy Monday and Tuesday in November, I had the place to myself. When I got back from Keswick on my first night, the farm’s kindly matriarch had lit the dormitory’s wood-burning stove. I fell into a fitful sleep, periodically waking then lulling myself back into slumber, either by means of James Ellroys’ American Tabloid or The Rough Guide To The Lakes.
I was up and at ’em by 8am the next morning. The rain had stopped for a while as I headed up the hillside path, past the roaring cataracts of the Fisherplace Gill waterfalls. But, as I walked across the side of Piketoe Knott, the thick drizzle returned. My mood was ecstatic even so. I was mainly dry inside my French army-surplus Gore-tex parka – £27.75 including P&P on the electronic Bay. I’d never previously been up Helvellyn. Not unless we climbed it during a school stay at Patterdale Youth Hostel. As a youthful 13-year-old I paid little attention to where our fell walks took us. I was more interested in a supply teacher’s copy of The Who’s Tommy album, on cassette. At the time this small rectangle seemed more boundless than the hills outside.
Though I’d never knowingly climbed Helvellyn, the name had long held my attention. Hel-vellyn! As a teen rocker this seemed on the more heavy-metal side of Lakeland nomenclature. Now, decades later, research tells me the name likely comes from the Cumbric (a northern variation on the Celtic language). It seems “Helvellyn” can be traced to the word “hal”, meaning “moorland”, and to “velin”, the Cumbric equivalent of yellow. Helvellyn doesn’t look very yellow today. But, apparently, colour in Celtic languages was seen differently from the way it is in modern English…
I follow a beck up toward Browncove Crags. The ascent is strenuous enough, the route littered with jagged intimations of Lakeland geology. The rocks of Helvellyn are part of the Borrowdale Volcanic Group. This was formed through volcanic action, around 450 million years ago. Even Iggy Pop, rock music’s closest analogue to the molten formation of igneous rock, hasn’t been around that long. Another of Iggy’s rocky counterparts features in Helvellyn’s geology – ignimbrite, a variety of the hardened volcanic compaction known as tuff. Iggy, ignimbrite, tuff… As I head up the slopes it all seems to make sense. The oldest rocks of all on Helvellyn are those of the Lincomb Tarns Tuff Formation, which includes the so-called Thirlmere Member. Thirlmere Member? Surely an invocation of Iggy’s famously substantial knob?
As I head on up the contours I flush a snipe, getting a fleeting view of the bird as it weaves away in flight. The snipe is also known as the Galloping Horseman of Lapland – due to the drumming sound it produces in the breeding season, caused by the air impacting on extended tail feathers as it dives in its display flight. It’s a common enough bird, but one I hadn’t seen for a year or more. I’d been longing to view again the snipe’s subtle brown-and-ochre camouflage. Today I only see a zigzagging silhouette, but, ooh, what a joy.
Coming up over Browncove Crag I reach the edge of a ridge. Here the rain pelts in from the east. As the crow flies, the summit of Helvellyn is now less than a kilometre away. But this ancient caldera – the lip of an extinct volcano – is covered in thick mist. The view over on Helvellyn is completely occluded, non-existent. Alone on the mountain and with the weather getting worse I decide to go no further – instead hunkering down in the lee of a big rock. Here I enjoy my tea and cake, taking in the clear view to the west – across Thirlmere and out to Bassenthwaite lake, north of Keswick.
I grew up adjacent to the Lakes. Like untold others I became enraptured by this place. I’ve occasionally pondered on the particular emotional and physical potency of this region. Wordsworth wrote of the Cumbrian lakes and mountains as radiating from a centre, like spokes on a wheel. This hints at the theatricality of the Lakes layout – as if arrayed for human inspection.
The highest Lakeland peak is less than a thousand metres. The Alps approach 5,000 metres. On a sunny day the majority of us can climb any Cumbrian mountain, whereas reaching the top of Mont Blanc means an expedition, backed by experience, planning and, quite possibly, a guide. Recently I climbed the 800 metres of Old Man Of Coniston. The sun was out. On one little ascent I counted over 50 people lined up ahead of me. When I reached the summit and then headed round toward Swirl How the view was glorious, overwhelming. An amazing panorama, but one that’s pretty easily accessible. I looked out to the endless sands of Morecambe Bay, to the concrete blocks of Sellafield nuclear power station, out over Hardknott Pass toward Scafell Pike and Great Gable. What a show. A different kind of thrill to anything you’ll get down in the valleys, down in the cities.
Back on the side of Helvellyn, I sit looking down over Thirlmere – a five-mile lake created from a smaller water at the end of the 19th century. Farms and houses were flooded to create a reservoir, to supply Manchester’s growing population. On one teenage birthday my parents gave me a Penguin paperback edition of the book The Shining Levels, John Wyatt’s account of living and working in the Lakes, at home in a woodland hut, with a roe deer as a pet. When I was managing British Sea Power, their second album was almost called The Shining Levels. To this day this phrase seems full of poetry, capturing the reflective magic of the Lakes. “I’ll be your mirror,” sings Lou Reed, “reflect what you are.” The Lakes, too, seem to reflect everything – what you are, and what you are not.
From the side of Helvellyn I descend across the steep, uneven Helvellyn Screes, over rushing becks and moss-covered rocks. Like many of us I’m getting older not younger. The rain is falling steadily. I fall twice. Nothing bad. But I’m left with a big souvenir bruise on my left buttock. By now my trousers are soaked. As I reach the sombre lakeside stretches of the A591 I decide to hitch the two miles back to my accommodation. As I confidently anticipated, a lift was soon coming. The third car stops.
In the afternoon I head back to Derwentwater. There I assemble an olden-days fibreglass Milbro-brand spinning rod, a compact travel rod I bought on eBay a few years ago and had never used. I was going fishing for the first time in about 30 years – well, fishing to some extent. I’d like to see a perch, but I don’t want to catch one. And there is little hope of that. All I succeed in doing is, five casts in, losing the beautiful gold spinner I’d bought 30 minutes earlier in Keswick – at Youdale’s, an age-old shop that sells newspapers, fishing tackle and a whole window-full of Kendal mintcake variants, in various unlikely sizes and configurations.
In the evening I’m back in The King’s Head, just up from the shore of Thirlmere. In the past there were two others pubs by this lake. The Nag’s Head closed in the 1930s. The Cherry Tree was documented by Captain Budworth in 1792. Budworth was a one-armed veteran of the siege of Gibraltar that started in 1779. He rivalled Coleridge as an early proponent of the idea of recreational fell-walking and mountain-climbing. In Budworth’s book A Fortnight’s Ramble To The Lakes, he writes of a hefty breakfast at The Cherry Tree: “Mutton, ham, eggs, buttermilk, whey, tea and bread… all for seven pence…” The Cherry Tree disappeared when Thirlmere was turned into a reservoir.
I drink my beer. How lucky I am. To have been in this land of lakes so many years ago. To be here today.
The MOJO review of Fat White Family at Kendal’s Brewery Arts Centre featured in the March 2020 issue of the magazine.
The Rough Guide To The Lakes – Jules Brown (Rough Guide, 2007).
Cumbria: The Lake District And Its County – John Wyatt (Robert Hale, 2004).