William Walker, a quiet hero

 

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William Walker

 

Unless you’ve been to Winchester Cathedral, (and unless you’ve been to a particular corner of Winchester Cathedral), you probably won’t have heard of William Walker. He’s one of my quiet heroes.

In 1905 it was discovered that the retrochoir, the space behind the cathedral’s high altar, added to the original structure in the 13th century and built as a shrine for St. Swithun, was gradually sinking into the earth. (And yes, that saint: ‘St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain/ For forty days it will remain’ – water is truly inescapable in all this). The truth of it is that the entire structure of the cathedral, built on a bed of peat and gravel, is sinking, but for now, it remains relatively stable; the retrochoir, however, was on a comparatively uncompressed layer of peat and was sinking faster than the rest. Architects and archaeologists were called in to assess the situation and came up with an ingenious solution. Essentially, trenches, or drifts, 18-20ft in depth, were cut alongside and beneath the sinking walls and foundations, with the idea that the layer of compressing peat  – some four feet thick, and generally encountered at around 16ft – could be pierced, removed and new foundations built upwards from the solid bed of gravel. The main problem was that when the peat was pierced the drift would almost completely fill with water; laying concrete in these conditions was impossible.

Enter one William Walker, an already renowned diver and part of the famous Siebe Gorman Ltd group. Walker’s task was to enter the drift in his 200-pound diving suit, where, working in absolute darkness, he would scrape away the remnants of the layer of peat. The peat was then hoisted to the surface in buckets, and Walker would lay huge bags of concrete on the gravel floor, bags which could be slashed open and left to harden for a 24 hour period. These would seal the hole, the drift could be pumped free of excess water, and more traditional brickies could then enter the hole and complete the laying of new foundations beneath the cathedral.

If that sounds like a huge undertaking, consider that it took Walker, diving almost single-handedly, the best part of five years to complete. Five years of 8-hour days in the darkness, bumping into half revealed coffins (for these were old burial grounds) and wearing a massive encumbrance, the boots alone of which weighed 20 pounds each. And at the end of each working week he’d cycle home – 70 miles to Croydon. If the project was considered a total success, it is of course only a temporary reprieve: the cathedral, built on shifting ground and with an unpredictable water table, will eventually be pulled apart.

In terms of a suitable salute to Walker, this track, recorded by Oli Barrett, performing under his Petrels moniker, is just the thing. It’s from the Haeligewielle album, released in 2011, an album full of tracks broadly related to songs of water, songs of stone, and mostly based in the vaults of Hampshire’s haunted chalk halls. As the drones surge, Walker’s mantra, to hold, to hold, is almost submerged, but not totally. Not just now.

Alone I work, while all around me darkness swirls.
Of sinking stone.
I will not stop until all these walls have found their cause,
To hold.
To hold.

 

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No End

I awoke one morning last week, with the wisps of this evaporating in the last breaths of a dream. I was on a beach in the Mediterranean, aAlong which were strung low signs, calling people to come and celebrate leaving the EU. I tried to take a photograph of one of the signs when a wave crashed over me and washed me up the beach. As I came to rest, a woman was singing, gently, eyes on the middle-distance.

Did it really have no meaning?
Well, I never thought I’d hear those words from you
Who needs a meaning anyway?
I’d settle any day for a very fine view.

I think many of us have lost our belief in the power of language in the last few months. It feels epochal as if we’re about to shift (or have shifted) into a new space, a space that floats free of the old bonds.There has been a great, grand cheapening of the truth, the very grounds of meaning usurped by a new clowning mischief, irrevocably disrupted and unmoored. Maybe it’s a necessary corrective, a welcome into the epistemic uncertainty always experienced by those not in the slipstream of the seats of power. Whichever, it’s terrifying, and one finds oneself wanting to retreat into a space of monkish silence. To pick up the leaves, wander in the void of the woods among the simpler truths of those bare, ruined choirs.

I’ve travelled more than forty miles today, I must have grown some wings.
It’s strange how time just seems to fly away, I can’t remember things.
In a world of my own they say and who can blame them, they’re just not the same.
I’ve known about it all along though I thought I was all wrong, and it’s such a shame.

And beyond all of this, a friend and family member is in the reachless fathoms of dementia. He is cared for by the most extraordinary people, in the most extraordinary, selfless ways. He is an erasure, and they, in turn, suffer a kind of erasure themselves. But they continue to search for him and provide the softest, safest space for his gradual and terminal disappearing. Onward he goes, propelled by who knows what mysteries, into the trackless wild. K, as you go, they are there, they are there, and that heat you feel, that is they, brandishing the weight of love’s flaming torches.

The Voices of Anne Briggs.

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We all dream of escaping. If not in our waking lives, then subsumed, interred – to reappear in our dreamlives, in the whorls and ditches of landscapes where we run in the howling wind and hide. Hide. But imagine escaping as Anne Briggs did?

She was, by all accounts, a difficult creature, seemingly always already in the act of escaping: into unconsciousness, into the wreck of nature, into the sea. By 1973, leaving behind a small raft of recordings, she escaped fully – into the Hebridean blue, taking all that frail talent and running with it, into that same wind, into the far reaches of the north, deciding best to keep it buried: invisible, totemic – a Hadean lodestone for the curious, those seeking exaltation, beatitude.

Otheworldly is a horribly overused word, but in her recordings, and in this brief documentary it is how she comes across – a stranger, an eidolon, stripped bare by the gaze of the world. But the voice, the voice: that siteless, mapless expanse – there, there she is present, laughing into the void.

Five Nights of Bleeding

Madness, madness
Madness tight on the heads of the rebels
The bitterness erup’s like a heart blas’
Broke glass, ritual of blood an’ a-burnin’
Served by a cruelin’ fighting
5 nights of horror and of bleeding
Broke glass, cold blades as sharp as the eyes of hate
And the stabbin’, it’s

War amongs’ the rebels
Madness, madness, war

Night number one was in Brixton
Sofrano B sound system
‘im was a-beatin’ up the riddim with a fire
‘im comin’ down his reggae reggae wire
It was a sound checkin’ down your spinal column
A bad music tearin’ up your flesh
An’ the rebels dem start a fighting
De youth dem just tun wild, it’s

War amongs’ the rebels
Madness, madness, war

Night number two down at Sheppard’s
Right up Railton road
It was a night name friday when ev’ryone was high on brew or drew
A pound or two worth of Kali
Sound comin’ down of the king’s music iron
The riddim just bubblin’ an’ backfirin’
Ragin’ an’ risin’
When suddenly the music cut –
Steelblade drinkin’ blood in darkness, it’s

War amongs’ the rebels
Madness, madness, war

Night number three, over the river
Right outside the Rainbow
Inside James Brown was screamin soul
Outside the rebels were freezin’ cold
Babylonian tyrants descended
Bounced on the brothers who were bold
So with a flick of the wris’, a jab and a stab
The song of hate was sounded
The pile of oppression was vomited
And two policemen wounded
Righteous, righteous war

Night number four at the blues dance, abuse dance
Two rooms packed and the pressure pushin’ up
Hot, hotheads
Ritual of blood in the blues dance
Broke glass splintering, fire
Axes, blades, brain blas’
Rebellion rushin’ down the wrong road
Storm blowin’ down the wrong tree
And Leroy bleeds near death on the fourth night
In a blues dance, on a black rebellious night, it’s

War amongs’ the rebels
Madness, madness, war

Night number five at the telegraph
Vengeance walk thru de doors
So slow, so smooth
So tight and ripe and -smash!
Broke glass, a bottle finds a head
And the shell of the fire heard – crack!
The victim feels fear
Finds hands, holds knife, finds throat
Oh, the stabbins and the bleedin’ and the blood, it’s
War amongs’ the rebels
Madness, madness, war

Karl Blau

I’ve completely lost sight of how I used to find music, and, to a large extent, how I ever defined ‘what I liked’. Which, in its way, is kind of liberating. So, no idea how I finally came across Karl Blau, (especially as I’ve clearly been listening to him for years – via, at the very least, The Microphones), but this track is bewitching in its languid, basso-profundo ‘country-soul Isaac Hayes’ kind of fashion.