A Review of Levitating in Lockdown by Nigel Hobbins
As I’m writing this we’re in the middle of the Euros. England have just won 2-1 against Denmark and football fever is in the air.
The Leader of the Opposition, the Right Honourable Sir Keir Starmer was spotted wearing an England shirt, cheering for the team.
Well I say “spotted”, but it was unlikely that it was accidental. It was much more likely a photo op than a chance encounter. It looked like he had been planning this for weeks.
These days, members of the ruling class have to appear to like football, otherwise people won’t vote for them.
A little while back, after England beat Germany 2-0, pictures of a little German girl appeared all over the internet. She was crying for her team’s loss. England supporters were sharing it about while describing her as a “slut”. She was all of eight years old.
Personally, I don’t like football. I don’t like the unthinking patriotic fervour it encourages. I don’t like the way it elevates your nation on the basis of your football team while denigrating other nations. I think all nations are equally bad.
To my mind, England isn’t a nation. It isn’t a government. It isn’t a flag. It is a landscape. It is a feeling. It is a tune that lifts your heart.
When I say “England”, then, I’m referring to the spirit that inhabits this landscape, these hills and rivers and lakes, these forests and gardens, this “green and pleasant land” which we call home. I’m not referring to a football team.
I said it was a tune. I mean that literally. Just as you can tell whether a tune comes from Scotland or from Ireland within a few notes, so you can listen to an English tune and know its origins almost immediately.
Listen to the second track on Nigel Hobbins’ new album and you’ll recognise it. It’s called Canterbury Bell. It’s a modern composition, written by Nigel, but it is unmistakeably English. You can hear it straight away. The fifth tune, Michaelmas Daisy, is the same. It’s a different tune but it is also unmistakeably English. Neither of them could have been composed in any other part of the world.
This is what Nigel does so well. He brings to life an old tradition, something with roots deep in our heart and in our culture, something so familiar and yet so all-pervasive, we’ve almost forgotten it was there. It is fanciful. It is light. It is joyous. It is life-affirming. It is merry, as England was merry in times gone by; in our imagination at least.
That’s a good word: “merry”. According to my online dictionary, it means “cheerful and lively” and is associated with times of festivity and joy. It also means to be a little drunk. Not drunk enough to fall over: just drunk enough to want to dance.
It reminds us of Robin Hood, and all those old tales of merry mayhem in the woods and on the commons, when England still had a common heritage to go back to. That’s where the merry-making would take place: at common festivals, on our common lands, where the commoners would sport and play and make fine music together.
That is the origin of football too. It was a game the commoners invented for their own entertainment, in the days before there was television or time. In those days everyone joined in and the game could go on forever.
That’s the spirit that Nigel can conjure with his music. The spirit of old England, of a spiritual England, another kind of England than the one the advertising men try to sell us. The mention of Robin Hood, that “free born Englishman of yeoman stock” as he’s described in the early texts, reminds us that one of the characteristics of this England is class consciousness. England is probably the most class-conscious nation on the planet. Whereas the Scots and the Irish identify their oppression through nationality, the English do it by class. Here in England, the ruling class have a different accent to the rest of us. They have different tastes, different clothes. They go to different schools. They have different incomes. They like different sports. They only pretend to like football.
Nigel does a good line in class-conscious music too. There’s a whole string of them, from Swing Boys Swing, about the Swing Riots, to Golden Days When We All Get Paid, about the vicissitudes of hired labour; from Fighting for the Garden of England, about development, to Tom Paine’s Bones (written by Graham Moore) about that old revolutionary Englishman who had such a profound effect upon the whole world. Most of Nigel’s songs are class conscious in one way or another.
The most nakedly political track on his latest release is called Finger of Blame. In it he broadens the definition of working class from the one that most football supporters would recognise, meaning white, to an all-inclusive term, meaning everyone who is under threat at this crucial time in history:
So if you’re a single mum, or an old person without a pension, if you’re homeless or a traveller on the road, if you’re disabled or been injured in this nation’s conflicts, a protester, gay, black or a refugee, look out for the finger of blame.
This is the voice of the true England, in my understanding: an open-hearted England that recognises all of us for who we are. This is the England that has provided succour for the oppressed throughout the ages, which has welcomed all to its shores. For we are a mongrel nation, born out of immigration, made up of all nationalities, all creeds, all proclivities, all races, all colours, and have been from our very beginning. Look at the England team. Most of them are the children of immigrants.
Our unifying traits are given to us by the landscape we inhabit: temperance and good humour. For this is a temperate land, green and rich and full of growth; it is a merry land, full of sport and dance with a lively sense of humour. It is not a land of prejudice and separation, which is an imposition of the ruling class — once the ruling class of the whole world, now the ruling class of an embittered and diminished nation. We are not the nation, we are the people. We made this land, not them.
As always when I write these reviews I’ve saved my favourite track till last.
It’s called River Fishing, and it is a celebration of a pastime that I know that Nigel takes great pleasure in. The pleasure is evident in the song.
Once more, it is one of those tunes that could only have come from these Isles.
The lyrics are an evocation of the art and science, the quiet joy and secret pleasure, of this most solitary of pastimes. Some of the words sound like an instruction manual on how to fish.
Fishing the river with a float and centre pin, As the mist rises in the reeds you choose your swim, Let the current guide your float, your reel will spin, To catch a roach or chub or a perch Would be a very fine thing. A gravelly run through reeds is good for dace, For bigger fish an overhanging tree is the perfect place.
While others are a beautiful evocation of the feeling:
As the light fades you make just one more cast, The wind has dropped and the river mirrors the sky, The moon has risen above the fields, Your sixth sense is heightened in the dim white light, As your float drifts down in the shadows it can hardly be seen, You strain your neck in the hope of catching the fish of your dreams.
But it’s that tune, again, which speaks most strongly of what is happening in this song. It is like the music of the river itself. It ripples and twists and catches the light on its surface. It sparkles and refracts with its constant movement. It shimmies and spins like the current. It weaves in and out of the song like a darting fish through the reeds. It captures the essence of the river in its flow.
This is an evocation of the river, one river, or many rivers, with which this land is blessed. Maybe it is the river Stour, which winds its way through the valley not far from where Nigel and I live. It’s the river that passes through Canterbury, the spiritual heart of this old England, where the Canterbury bells can still be heard, echoing through the hills, calling the pilgrims back to this sacred Earth.
The recording of most of these songs began in early 2020, with the intention of inviting fellow members of my band ‘The Dreamlanders’ to add their musical skills. However, the spread of the corona virus put pay to that and so during lockdown I instead spent the Spring and early Summer developing these recordings by myself. I did this whilst in isolation with my dog in an old summerhouse next to my vegetable garden and workshop in the north downs of Kent, UK.
I dusted down a second hand keyboard, which to my surprise spluttered into life after years in storage… So began an unexpected musical journey. I hope you enjoy Levitating in Lockdown.
releases July 30, 2021
All songs written by myself except ‘Rose of Allendale’ traditional & ‘Seagull’ written and composed in 1905 by E.W.Rogers & Charles Collins (my grandad would sing this song to my mum and elder sister whilst our dad was away during the second world war)
I am joined by Collin Lovatt on Drums and Percussion for the remix of the song ‘Bright about the Shadows’ originally recorded in 2002.
(C) all rights reserved
Album available here from July 30, 2021:
CJ Stone is an author, columnist and feature writer. He has written seven books, and columns and articles for many newspapers and magazines.
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