Monday, 30 July 2018

Bretton Hall - a partial recollection

Many years ago I went to University, and I was rubbish at it. It's something I think about a lot. Not least because most people seem to look back at their college lives with wonder and moist-eyed nostalgia. They were all good at college. And so their joy makes me feel inadequate, and so I hate them.

The place I went was amazing. A place called Bretton Hall, in Yorkshire. A sculpture park, set in acres of beautiful countryside, like the set of some gothic romance. It was an environment for artists, poets and dreamers. And, in my case, idiots.

Oh, I was so stupid, back in the early 90s. You might think I'm stupid now, but that's nothing to the ramshackle idiot that presented himself to the English Lit course in September 1990. While just a few years before Bretton Hall had seen the likes of Mark Thomas and The League of Gentlemen - smart, creative people who used their studies as a springboard to works of greatness - now it was host to a man totally unequipped for the act of thinking.

For a start, I was Christian. I mean, really Christian. These days I have a faith that fluctuates and wobbles, in a kind of progressive, evolving response to all the reasons the world gives me to believe and not believe. In those days I was just a zealous dick.

And Bretton was not a place to be Christian. It was achingly right on, erudite and non-conformist. Basically full of hipsters. Everyone there was determined to be a rebel, and they all expressed that rebellion in very similar ways. Three years of non-conformity - an intellectual extension of that faux individualism that teenagers practice.

But at least they were living. And thinking. And accepting new ideas. My particular brand of naïve idealism was rooted in a kind of right wing, zealous evangelicalism. I was not long a Christian, and very caught up in an ideology which cared less about human lives and more about End-of-Days eschatology. It was a way of thinking that closed ideas down. Straightened things out. Crippled the imagination and the personality.

But at least my dress sense was great. 

Now, it wasn't absolutely, 100% awful. I wasn't Carrie's mum or anything. There were sparks of the stuff that I consider my better qualities. I was a bit weird, a bit funny, kind of pleasant company. And I had some good friends who tolerated my Hellfire rhetoric just as I tolerated their deviant lifestyle choices. But the better parts of myself - the parts that should have been unfolding and unspooling into a more mature version of the real me - they were cabined, cribbed and confined by my over-earnest beliefs.

Lots of things about this were annoying, and indeed still annoy me. Mostly, it strangled friendships at birth. Sure, some of the people there were irritating, but we were all irritating. That's kind of the point of being a student. There were some wonderful, creative, fascinating people on my course and I never really got to know them. They were, quite rightly, put off by a man who had come to arts college, yet resisted new ideas in favour of a homophobic reading of a book no-one cared about in the first place.

Secondly, and I must be frank about this, my puritanical childishness definitely closed the door to more than one potential romance. Oh, how I curse the abstinence-minded young jerk who, full of vigour and desire, chose to hammer down his natural instincts instead. It ain't healthy.

Ladies were very interested in this.

And lastly. If I'd not been so zealous, then maybe I could have made a better case for Christianity to the people I knew.

Because, although my Christianity was a thing of great idiocy and thoughtlessness, it was by no means the only dumb ideology in town. The oh-so-rebellious attitude I mentioned earlier was less harmful, but no less ill thought through. It was the kind of iconoclastic preening that dismisses anything conventional straight away, praising itself for its freedom of thought even as it creates its own shackles.

And this kind of thinking had no time for Christianity. Which I found tedious at the time and I find tedious now. Just as religious thinking can elicit total nonsense from otherwise intelligent people, so can opposition to religion. I had tutors, incredibly clever and well read people, who just stopped using reason when concepts of faith entered the discussion. Obviously it was all nonsense, because they were clever, and religious people were stupid, right?

Which, of course, forced me further into my corner. I already thought there was some kind of spiritual battle going on between faith and reason, and my church had a deep mistrust of intellectualism. These people were giving me no reason to believe that smart thinking and religious thinking could occupy the same space. So I suppose I became stupider, and more entrenched.

Some Christians, being popular.

So when I think of my time doing a degree, I have mixed feelings. There was a lot of good stuff too, of course. And if you went to college with me, you might feel rightly aggrieved that I haven't just written a big long piece about how awesome it was watching Terminator 2 with you and eating cheese on toast every night. And if you were a Christian there, you might remember how much you looked after me and tried to make me less of a dickhead. You did, fellow believers, and I'd have been a better man if I'd tried to be more like you.

And I hope that's kind of who I've become. I've spent more time with Bretton students since I left than I did when I was there. And they are among the most giving, thoughtful, gracious people I could imagine. Creative in deed and in thought, they take the ethos of the college - now long gone - and make it live. Christian or not, they have helped me have an experience of Bretton Hall that stretches beyond my three tumultuous, confusing years of study. And for that I'm very grateful.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Lullabies For Parents

Almost everyone has children, don't they? It's one of those bleak realities of life that starts off as a horrible, shocking truth but eventually fades into a kind of irritating but tolerable background hum. You grow to realise that, every now and then, you'll have to spend time with some of your friends, and that time will be slightly spoiled by the awful, noisy, hellish creatures that they have spawned.

I've learned to live with this, over the years, and managed it through a brilliant long term plan. Simply have enough friends that you can duck out of certain friendships during those early, horrible years, when their house becomes a smelly, plastic nightmare zone and their conversations are all about how tired they are. Spend time with your other friends - those who have yet to plunge themselves into this child rearing hell, or those who had kids ages ago and are now blissfully free of the parasites.

All of which is to say, I am, probably, not the target audience for the album, "Lullabies For Parents", the new album by Ric Neale.

Do you know of Ric Neale? I've talked about him on here every now and then, and if you know the music scene in and around Leeds you've probably encountered his work. He writes lovely, clever, sort-of pop songs which he performs mainly, I think, as a way of giving audiences opportunity to gaze upon his chiselled face.

In no way do I envy his talent, full head of hair or apparently ageless countenance. No. I think it's fine that his albums probably had working titles like, "I Am So Best", "The Amazing Sound of Me" and "Great News - It's My Face Again."

OK. They're actually called things like 'Pencil'.
But my titles are better.

I generally content myself with the fact that, regardless of his talent and piercing eyes, his life is worse that mine. Because he filled his house with children, and so spends every day rolling around crying, covered in sticky goo, while I drink wine, read comics and laugh.

But now he's turned his existential misery into music, and it's very interesting.  It's an album about being a parent, and failing at being a parent. About weird little moments and thoughts and experiences that people don't tend to talk about. And I find myself surprised and moved by this album, which is surely not aimed at my carefree, nonsensical lifestyle. So... why?

Let's have a look at the tracks on the album, which I imagine had the working title. "Please Feel Sorry For Me - I've Made a Series of Terrible Mistakes"


Ric starts the album with a prologue, as if he was Kate Bush or something. This is surely the first step along a path that will lead, in a few years, to a 2 hour concept album called "Ric Neale's Musical Version of Open All Hours."

It's quite gentle, and lovely, and suggests that he knows exactly the frame of mind his target audience are in. Which is to say: horrified at the circumstances of their life, covered in sick and desperately looking for somewhere to hide.

Best line: They say it takes a village to raise a child, But I'm the village idiot." That's the kind of clever wordplay that makes me want to come back for more, not least because I hope he'll continue to call himself an idiot.

Round The Outside

The second track surges into an upbeat, thundering tune which is, I believe "the single." This one is about an experience that sounds absolutely terrible - going to some kind of kids group where everyone takes their children and watches them run around screaming.

Ric cleverly uses this as a metaphor for the pain of letting children make their own mistakes, and learning that the job of a parent is, ultimately, to become unnecessary. I am fully on board with the sentiment of this song, though I may have over-emphasised the 'Toddler Fight Club' element of the metaphor.

Best line: "I can hold your hand, I can't hold it forever, it's not what I'm there for." I actually felt a bit tearful at this line, but then remembered that I can spend my money on PlayStation Games, while Ric can't, and wouldn't have time to play them if he did.

"I am furious about having made this album"

I Am Letting You Down

This is probably my favourite song from the album.

Lyrically, it's very smart, managing to remain heartfelt and poignant while also playing deftly with language. Sometimes a smart metaphor can sound a bit too clever, and maybe clinical, but just listen to this:

"If this is a gift then I am covered head to toe in sellotape and untied bows,
If it's a jigsaw I can't even find the corner pieces,
If it's a journey I'll be found along the fold inside a map that's upside down"

A lovely, slightly bleak, series of images that sum up the difficulty of trying to work out how to be a parent, and feeling like a failure. For other parents, I imagine it is a great relief to have those feelings articulated, and to know they're not alone. For childless drunks like me, these are lyrics which go some way to explaining why new parents suddenly stop coming round to play "Who can drink the most wine?"

Nice tune, too.

Best line: "If this is magic, I'm left sawn in half and disappearing"

Asleep in the Car

Now this one does feel like a lullaby. Soft, melodic and a bit waltzy. That's right - waltzy. Music science, right there. It's a delicate song, full of love and tiredness.

There's also, though, a sort of hollow eyed, edge-of-the-tether feel to this song, a sort of crazed desperation which runs like the hum of an engine under the whole album. There's an interesting tension in these songs between - at one end - the total devotion a parent has to their child and - at the other end - the strong possibility that the parent might drive the car off a cliff if just one more bastard thing goes wrong.

Best line: "I would keep going all night if I could, Cos I know the briefest of time in control of our world feels so good".

"How often do I moisturise? Glad you asked"

Grown Up Now

In many ways this album is a departure from previous Ric Neale albums, which had themes like, "Ladies, your lord and master is here," and "Please could you all just skip to the end and make me your king already?"

However. By this point in the album, Ric can contain himself no longer, and feels the need to reassert that he is, indeed, the best. Yes, he may have spent several songs admitting to the existence of human weakness beneath his Cyberdine Systems T1000 exterior. But let's not forget that he is also the greatest person anyone has ever met.

This song charges through a list of reasons why being a parent is worthy of applause and medals, and why Ric in particular should be given a crown. Not a bad sentiment, though it did rather leave me exhausted, and very glad that my main responsibility is organising the BluRays into alphabetical order.

Best line: "I'm gonna take out the bins on Tuesday night, I'm gonna put in the wash and get it dry"


This song takes us back to the power children have over their parents. I've heard about this, and I'll be honest, it terrifies me. Quite apart from the financial and time based reasons to avoid parenthood, I must confess to some fear at the emotional hold the little beasts have. It sounds like it makes a mess of even the most carefully controlled personality, and given how difficult I find the end of Toy Story 3, I'm not sure I'm capable of coping with such nonsense.

Lovely song, humming at the edge of self control.

Best line: "I'm breaking down. Is this how I'm supposed to feel? I'm welling up at Christmas adverts on TV."

"I have some issues with the quality of this piano."

You're Probably Doing Fine

Best tune on the album, I reckon. Clever and playful, demonstrating a deft melodic touch that will play in your head for days after hearing.

And a well placed last(ish) track, taking the angst and turmoil of the preceding songs and allowing the listener to breathe out a little. In the end, it seems, we just do the best we can. There's a nice dig, in here, at the surface-level gloss of perfection projected by some parents, and it's here that I find my strongest connection with these songs.

Everyone else seems to be doing better, don't they? Thinking purer thoughts. Doubting themselves less. And here's us, muddling through. Not with parenthood, in my case. But other stuff. And I'm a great fan of art that says, "Hey - we're all a bit terrible at living, but that's OK. And admitting it is good."

Best line: "I can't compare myself to all those doe-eyed mums on Facebook. They're probably every bit as lost. I'm doing all I can to balance magic and logistics. It isn't much but it is everything I've got."


And here we are, at the end. Ric is clearly very pleased with himself for writing something so brilliant, but manfully resists the urge to just smash his fists on the piano keys, singing, "That was amazing!" nineteen times.

Instead we get a sweet little coda, reminding us that yes, children are alright, I suppose. Very wise, because if his kids ever accidentally bang their heads, the rest of this album might otherwise provide interesting listening for social services.

The imagery here broadens in scope, taking in fragments of days and memories, the tumble and spin of slowly and constantly becoming a parent. A becoming that, it seems, will never end. We fade slowly out. We fall asleep.

Best line: "Loving you is protest against underhanded greedy hearted plans and wars and cheating."

Listen to 'Lullabies for Parents' at