EIBF Chapter 8: Fife Affirming

Although it wasn’t part of the Book Festival, just along George Street at lunchtime yesterday (Tuesday) at The Assembly Rooms, Steve Bell appeared with little fanfare (I had only noticed on Tuesday night) to entertain and inform a fairly small crowd an the subject “Rose Bladder — How did Cameron get to look like that?”

The title was a reference to the fact that David Cameron has for years been portrayed as a pink condom in his cartoons. He ran through the evolution of many of his characters – Cameron, Osborne, Blair, Dubya, Thatcher and others – concentrating often on his initial sketches taken at party conferences. It was there he first noticed the signature twitchy eye of Blair and the smooth, follicle-less skin of Cameron, and it was fascinating to see the evolution to the current incarnations.

There was plenty of laughter in the audience with each new cartoon displayed, and the palpable sense that the entire audience was glad that at least one person was regularly expressing his contempt for all these politicians with such skill.

Back at the EIBF The Skinny sponsored the big Scottish event last night, BBC Radio’s Vic Galloway talking about his new book Songs in the Key of Fife, a remarkably comprehensive history of Fence Records and its members. Having grown up in St Andrews alongside the Anderson brothers Kenny, Een and Gordon, counting James Yorkston as his oldest friend (“I’ve known him longer than my brother” he noted), Galloway probably knows more than anyone about the history of Fife’s DIY music scene.

The book weighs in at 371 pages and concentrates on the intertwining stories of the main figures in the scene – Yorkston, the Andersons, Steve Mason and John Maclean (of the Beta Band), KT Tunstall and Johnny Lynch – while making sure to namecheck or profile pretty much everyone else involved. Where normally music biogs tend towards hype and rock excess (and there is a little of this, particularly in the story of the Beta Band, gigging with Radiohead, and their profligate recording sessions), Galloway approaches it clinically, as a journalist, making sure every detail was right. At the event, chaired by Olaf Furniss, he revealed how it had been mainly written at his mother’s house to escape distractions, and he thanked her for the endless bowls of soup she made that he would down between five-hour writing sessions.

I got a few minutes with Vic before the event to discuss the book and have to declare my interest from the outset. I went to St Andrews at the time Skuobhie Dubh were peaking, and having moved to Edinburgh a few years after graduating, discovered many of my friends from that time were involved in what was morphing into the Fence Collective. So I’ve been to many Fence gigs and events, which is where I took most of the photos in this post. One of the things that struck me reading the book is that although I knew a lot of the stories, roughly, as do many people like me on the fringes, there is a huge amount of personal detail.

It’s the first time the story of Een Anderson and Kate Tunstall’s relationship has been put in print by someone who knows them, for instance, even though they are both understandably reticent to fill in the details. What I was surprised at is the depth in which he covers the history of Gordon Anderson’s illness. Although he’s clearly given his blessing to the project, will he really be OK with having all that in there?

“I have no idea. As far as I know he has a copy of the book, as do the other main protagonists. I don’t know if he’s read it, or if he’s happy with it. I know Kenny, King Creosote, is very happy with it. he texted me almost daily to say he’d got through another couple of chapters. I spent two days with Gordon at his cottage. He put me up, cooked for me, I count him as a friend an a massive fan of his music as Lone Pigeon and as part of The Aliens. 
“I don’t want to do anyone a disservice. The aim is not to be salacious or gossipy or sensationalist but if you’re going to tell the truth about people then there’s a bit of dark with light and if I was going to describe what happened to Gordon from the day he was born to today it would be a complete oversight to miss out ten years of mental illness. 
“A lot of it has been covered in newspaper articles and interviews before. I’m hoping that he’s going to read this, see that it’s an honest and hopefully tender portrait.”

I don’t think it sensationalises it, and it is admirably calm and non-judgemental, but the level of detail is what gave me pause. Vic said he’d spoken to Kenny and gone into a lot of detail and Kenny’s reply was: “No matter what you’ve written it will only scrape the surface.”

“The trouble with doing a biography is that as a journalist you’re writing honestly and not sensationally about it, but in this case they’re my friends as well, so I’ve got a double-whammy of paranoia.”

As the subject of the book is a relatively recent history and with so many people involved, it’s likely to be peer-reviewed very quickly (I noticed a couple of mispelled names, for instance), but seems to be very accurate even about minor events.

“I’d be gutted if it wasn’t accurate. I put a year and a half making the book, and that probably doesn’t include all the huge, lengthy interviews with everyone. Ten hours with Kenny, seven or eight with Steve Mason, probably the same with John Maclean, easily more with Gordon, slightly less with Een because he came rather late to the process, not replying to texts and calls before saying ‘of course I want to be involved’. I spent a day with him. There’s lengthy interviews, my own personal experience and anecdote, facts online and from record sleeves and so on. There’s 149,000 words printed in that book and I submitted 184,000, so it could have been even more in-depth. I say in the book that everyone could and should write their own autobiography because they could go into minuscule detail and even challenge my version if they so desire.”

“The Skinny recently described it as ‘a love letter to The East Neuk‘. It really is, although there are some cold, hard truths in there.”

One of the things I remember most about Fence gigs was that there was a real community spirit, so that even if you were not a musician you’re still part of it. Gigs would more often than not end on a mash-up, sung by everyone in the venue, of Kenny’s Harper’s Dough (with its simple refrain “You’ve got rise above the gutter you are inside”) and a song I think is one of Gordon’s called something like Don’t you Stop Trusting in the Lord. I’ve not been to many Fence gigs recently, but with Kenny off on his tours and Johnny Lynch (The Pictish Trail) living on Eigg, I wonder if that spirit is still alive, especially after the announcement last week that Lynch intends to close Fence and Kenny’s riposte that he intends to keep it going.

“There is that big feeling but there has been a split which I hint at in the afterword.”

Did you know that was coming?
“I knew, but didn’t know the details of what would transpire, who would do what. I knew about two months ago, but I had to finish the book.”

Was Johnny waiting for the book to come out?
“Maybe, but he was sorting himself out with what’s he’s going to do next. Fence isn’t over, but it’s going to scale down and become what it was about in the first place: Kenny and pals in the East Neuk of Fife putting on small gigs for the hell of it and releasing small amounts of CDs. Kenny doesn’t want it to be a big, flashy record label, and I don’t think Johnny does either. 
“There is still a community, I last went to the Gnomegame in April and it was like every other event I’d been to. King Creosote didn’t take part because the roots of this split were growing at that point. 
“Kenny’s Alter Ego Trading Company and what will be Fence will have that homespun, lo-fi self-made fun kind of vibe on a small scale in the East Neuk. I think Johnny with his Lost Map label and events that he’s already planning and organising will have it on a slightly bigger scale in different places: Eigg, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London Manchester…”

We moved on to discussing particular favourite moments at Fence events, mine being Allan “Gummi Bako” Stewart performing The Rainbow Connection in 2007 to a small crowd of very hungover people, me among them.

“I was in a band I talk about in the book, Khartoum Heroes, which was between Skuobhie Dubh and the beginning of Fence. Kenny cajoled me, almost bullied me into playing with them again and we played the Smuggler’s Inn in Anstruther. A tiny room, the place was absolutely rammed full of people who knew the songs from 17 years earlier. They were jumping up and down, the floorboards were bouncing, the band was even bouncing and it exceede all my expectations. I was almost in tears I was so full of joy.

“It’s always good when you see something unique. I like seeing the three brothers sing together. Whenever I get up and see them get up together and do Summertime Beeswing and Waterfall and Happy Song, usually Gordon’s songs. And a great headline set from Kenny always fills my heart with joy. It’s inspiring.
“I also like the quirkier stuff that they find on tour and bring up to Homegame, one-off gigs by people from Japan or Wales who blow everyone away.”

Then it was off to the main event, which I believe The Skinny have filmed, so keep an eye out for that.

I’ll be taking a little time off to prepare for the big weekend of comics fun at Stripped. Though there might not be much events coverage, I should be talking to The Etherington Brothers, Garen Ewing and Martin Rowson and, I think, Gary Northfield.

And on Friday evening, the 23rd, I’ll be talking to Kryten. Robert Llewellyn is visiting Edinburgh en route to a big SF convention in Glasgow, and is popping in to Looking Glass Books in Quartermile (just behind the Sainsbury’s) to talk about his updated autobiography, The Man in the Rubber Mask, and his utopian SF series News from Gardenia. Be there or be a smeeee-heeee.

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