Ian Preece loses himself in the Neo-Sillitoesque backstreets, pubs, chip shops and grimy bedsits of the latest solo offering from Tindersticks’ David Boulter.
‘I came home to the midlands for a few days at the end of September. Not that there is any home, for my parents are dead . . . Butterley, Alfreton, Tibshelf . . . the country is the same, but scarred and splashed all over with mining settlements.’
It’s not what you’d call a particularly healthy trait, or pastime, but – a bit like you might pick up Thomas Bernhard, or Pessoa – I’m finding myself increasingly drawn to the later writings of D.H. Lawrence where, caught up in the scrimmage of life, bemoaning the state of man (and woman) hollowed out by nonsense in the newspapers and at the cinema – and the kind of ‘shallow consciousness’ that proclaims an Englishman’s home his castle, and that you must ‘get on’ – he casts about in the shadow of Crich Mount, in the Derwent and Amber valleys, in the Notts–Derbyshire mining communities, the country of his heart, looking for that spark or the ‘sensuous flame of life’ – but is mainly consumed with contempt, and shocked at striking miners picking blackberries rather than dealing with all that instinctive, elemental struggle down below. ‘I feel I hardly know any more the people I come from, the colliers of the Erewash Valley district,’ Lawrence wrote, in ‘Return to Bestwood’ (1926). ‘They are changed, and I suppose I am changed. I find it so much easier to live in Italy.’ Used to the blue skies and blazing Sicilian sun, he even rails at the quality of hazy sunshine in the East Midlands: ‘I cannot, cannot accept as sunshine this thin luminous vaporousness which passes as a fine day in the place of my birth.’ My granddad’s dad was the gardener at the pit offices in Eastwood where the young Paul Morel/Lawrence collects his dad’s wages in Sons and Lovers: he would have planted those ‘tiny pansies and forget-me-nots [that] Paul always examined on the grass border and big grass bank’ – before being summoned inside into the stifling, terrifying world of ‘colliers in their pit-dirt’. My granddad himself retired from a life down the pit in 1975, and grew up on the same street in Eastwood as Lawrence. Twenty-five years younger, as a boy he remembered the by then already fairly infamous writer coming back ‘home’, probably in 1926 – so I think I can be forgiven. For Lawrence, the sight of a miner quietly contemplating the ineffable beauty of a rose bush, or the rhododendrons growing in his back garden, was as profound an antithesis to the mechanised, dehumanising 20th century you could find. We can only imagine what he’d have made of a society that’s handed over control to a bunch of algorithms.
What the hell, you’re probably wondering, has all this got to do with David Boulter’s (of Tindersticks) new solo record? Well, the answer is: quite a lot, and twofold. Firstly, to borrow a quote from John Berger writing about the photographer Paul Strand: ‘Such photographs enter so deeply into the particular that they reveal to us the stream of a culture or a history which is flowing through that particular subject like blood.’ Boulter is from Nottingham originally, and, on his new spoken-word LP Lover’s Walk, as he walks over Mapperley Top, through streets of dwellings in Sherwood (described by Alan Sillitoe as being ‘a flood of small houses packed together like the frozen teeth of sharp waves’ in the black ocean of night) and across Valley Road in the north of the city, he’s surprised to notice the tracks for the miniature steam railway that ran around a strip of grass and trees by the ring road are still there, but not ‘the man dressed in his British Rail uniform. Whistle and cap.’ Nor the little train: ‘How many times had I watched it trudge around this little patch of grass. Belching steam and smoke [and running] around the park under the little bridge, stopping at the miniature signal box before pulling back into the station.’ That’s a bit of a madeleine for anyone from Bulwell, Basford, Sherwood or Arnold – or anyone who ever tried to get round the ring road to City Hospital or the Fiveways pub in Nottingham (apparently the piano bar in there was one of Alan Sillitoe’s favourite hangouts) – and is indicative of how skilfully and novelistically Boulter boils down a story to its place and to its essence. (And, god, here we are: lamenting the passing of a miniature railway engine.)
And, secondly, my guess is, having lived now for a quarter of a century in Prague, Boutler might be going through his own Lorenzo moment, in a quieter sort of way, happy in exile but also harbouring a low-lit flame to revisit the haunts of his past. His last solo record Yarmouth, on the estimable Clay Pipe label, was a gorgeously elegiac re-creation of lost childhood holidays in the East Anglian resort: sun glinting off the morning mist over the North Sea, that first glimpse of the flower clock, newsagents that sell beachballs and Dinky buses as well as papers and confectionery, the roofs of static vans as far as the eye can see; bingo and ice-cream parlours and rollerskating in the Tower Ballroom; egg and chips and fishing-tackle shops in the rain; the same guesthouse every summer for 15 years – all refracted through ambient washes of Boulter’s mid-1970s Lowrey organ and keyboards and field recordings of seagulls and the ocean.
Likewise, in the breakfast room at the B&B in Matlock Bath, where the young couple of Lover’s Walk are spending an illicit weekend, having had a pint in Nottingham station before catching a train to the Derbyshire Dales the night before, you just know there are uncomfortable glances and silent harrumphs from elderly guests who have been visiting the Matlock Bath illuminations every year since the end of rationing. The guesthouse owner might put Radio One on for the young couple, still eating their tomatoes and beans once the pensioners have left to visit the flower show in the Grand Pavilion or the pools and grottos in the Derwent water gardens – but then again, he might not, as the previous night, when the lovers had arrived, Boulter notes: ‘He asked if we’d eaten, adding that the kitchen was closed.’
The pair ended up in the chippy across the road, eating cod roe and greasy chips as the streetlights and lit pub windows were reflected in the rushing dark waters of the Derwent below – ah, hang on, that’s Paul Morel again in Sons and Lovers, who after a walk with Miriam from Haggs Farm, breaks into a currant loaf while sitting on a bridge over the Derwent before they and their companions have to wait an hour for a train at Ambergate station, watching ‘excursionists returning to Manchester, Birmingham and London. “We might be going there – folk might think we’re going that far,” said Paul.’ ‘When we first started to tour,’ Boulter told the Concrete Islands website, talking about his early life in Tindersticks, ‘I finally understood my feelings about being British. In fact, I didn’t feel British at all. I embraced European culture from a young age. I felt truly European in my heart. I think in twenty years’ time I won’t recognise Nottingham. And there may be nothing left there for me.’
Lawrence, of course, went on, tempestuously railing, never happy till setting off again – perpetually setting off, arriving and leaving – to Croydon, London, Cornwall, Munich, Naples, Tuscany, Ceylon, Perth, Taos, San Francisco, Mexico, before succumbing to tuberculosis in the South of France. Boulter’s couple from Lover’s Walk face a depressing, more predictably quotidian reckoning back in Nottingham, and it’s not long before ‘a shit kicker’ like him is ‘back on the estate’ – more ‘The Ragman’s Daughter’ or Up the Junction than The Plumed Serpent.
Boulter has been round these neo-Sillitoesque backstreets, pubs, chip shops and grimy bedsits with such lovelorn tropes before, not least in ‘Chocolate’, the spoken-word opening to Tindersticks’ The Something Rain – and then there’s the ‘Christmas tree lights in faraway windows’, and ‘tiger-striped fishes’ in the psychedelic fish tank, all ‘tails and fins and bubbles’, and the coaching ‘of a non-league football team in a Cornwall seaside town’ of the Boulter-penned ‘My Sister’ on the second Tindersticks LP, from as far back as 1995 . . . but here, on Lover’s Walk, there’s something almost purer, more smoothed-over and bleached out; less forensically detailed in its all its down-at-heel sad everydayness – but still as beautifully melancholic, if not more so in its simplicity.
I took out the book and the bottle of vodka from my case, leaving the socks and underpants where they were . . . She was asleep. I picked up my book, but knew the light would wake her. I smoked another cigarette by the window. The street was almost empty. Someone was singing, a woman’s laughter encouraging the tuneless song. The only other sound was the river. In its endless rush through the rocks.
Boulter doesn’t mumble like Stuart Staples, and his voice is lighter, but still soft and recognisably East Midlands – so where some spoken-word albums can be too much, this is an easy-listening experience. I won’t reveal the ending of the tale of Lover’s Walk, but to say the couple are reunited in the most bittersweet of circumstances would be putting a positive spin on things.
Yarmouth was hardly Diamond Dogs or even the second side of Low – the more lugubrious stretches perhaps suggesting Mablethorpe in January; on good speakers with a decent hi-fi the skittery clacking, gulls and waves breaking of ‘Across Sand to Sea/Crab Claws’ make for a quiet, pointillist masterpiece – but there was a warm loungey, slightly spacey undertow and a nice tempo to much of the understated LP. Lover’s Walk is starker, more minimalist still, the fragments of vocalisations and Alexander Hledík’s violin and Vladimir Boriš Secký’s flute slightly more to the fore but sculpted around the spoken interludes. But as the analogue valves begin to glow and the foot pedals scuffle on Boulter’s Lowrey organ, and the violin almost soars on ‘Hands Held Across the Table’, and Secký’s flute supplies a kind of Harold McNair Kes-like soulful wistfulness to the opening and closing tracks . . . well, the flowers suddenly burst into bloom and all feels well in the world, and there might be a happy ending after all.
As it is, we leave the protagonist lighting a cigarette and sipping a pint of Guinness in a beer garden across from the gates to the hospital. He stares at the pub drainpipe and remembers he painted it himself, in his old job as a painter and decorator, finishing up on a Friday night before he headed home for a bath and a night out in town, and caught ‘That Look, That Smile’ across the bar.
‘Lover’s Walk’ is released on The Spoken World records; ‘Life with a Capital L: D.H. Lawrence, Essays’, chosen and introduced by Geoff Dyer, is published by Penguin (2019); ‘Understanding a Photograph’ by John Berger is also edited and introduced by Geoff Dyer and published by Penguin (2013); ‘Yarmouth’ by David Boulter is released on Clay Pipe Music; ‘The Ragman’s Daughter’ by Alan Sillitoe, Pan paperback (1967): ‘Sons and Lovers’ by D.H. Lawrence, William Heinemann (1913)/Cambridge University Press (1992).