Tots TV … what happened next!?

Retro post from : June 2014

I’m a Tot,

Je suis une Tot,

Tilly, Tom and Tiny,

We’re the Tots on Tots TV

When son#1 was very little, one of his favourite TV programmes was Tots TV. We owned most episodes on VHS and I had to watch them many many times! If you don’t remember Tots TV, it had three main characters … Tilly, who was French, Tom and Tiny … and they lived in a secret cottage in the woods!

Ultimately they grew up, maybe fame went to their heads, they left their secret cottage and perhaps moved to Hollywood where they discovered drink and drugs and never returned!

TotsTV-04Their cottage? Well it sits unloved and derelict in a copse in a middle of a field on a farm in Warwickshire.

I’ve not got out exploring much over the last few years, courtesy of a dearth of stuff local to me and generally too little time. However, after 9+ years of the Vee being my “daily” driver, I finally gave in and got a second car this year, for local stuff but also for business miles that I’ve always tried to avoid in the Vee. It’s a mighty 3-cylinder 1.2 Polo, nicknamed “The Beast”. Cheap for me to run but more than comfortable and capable on the motorway for business trips, and ideal for son#1 to drive in evenings/weekends since he’s 17 this year! Given a first business trip North in it, it seemed rude not change out of my suit and negotiate irate farmers, barbed wire fences and rampant nettles and brambles to pop in and relive the old times.

In a remarkable coincidence, some other famous children’s characters from this era lived in the corner of the next field! The Teletubbies!

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Spires – The Whisperer

If you want to you can shortcut reading the rest of this rambling post, and simply take it from me that The Whisperer from Spires is the most beautiful and overall amazing progressive metal album you’re going to hear this year!! Epic is an oft overused word these days, but not by me, and this truly is an epic album! Simply spend £6+ for the digital download and have your ears (and possibly your musical horizons) expanded.

If you’re still reading, I will openly admit that I’m a huge Spires fan, so clearly any claimed objectivity is underpinned by huge subjectivity. I discovered them by way of my friend @LennyLaw, who’d heard a track from their debut album played on Radio 6 and said I’d probably like them given my love of Opeth and similar bands. He wasn’t wrong and, whilst clearly I’m not going to attempt to diminish Opeth’s global mega-metal-stardom, I love Spires even more since, put simply, they’re even better!

I think it’s fair to say that the fundamental anchor point of Spires is progressive death metal, in as much as they at times use growled lyrics and blast beats, but they self-declare as simply progressive metal. What is important is that this is music with huge dynamic range, and that’s what’s always key to me. No standard song structures here! Quiet to loud; slow to fast; growled to clean lyrics; brutally heavy to light and dainty; multiple achingly beautiful complex solos; and all in the one song. This is the sort of stuff that’s only possible with talented musicians at the top of the technical scale, and Spires are that!

I played their debut album, Spiral of Ascension, to death and if only the CD player in the Vee could scrobble you’d see the impact of me listening to the same album on repeat for about 6 months whenever I was driving. Amongst that album probably Broken Hourglass got the most plays, with its guitar solo at the end being enough to make me feel like giving up pretending I can play guitar!

A while later they brought out a great acoustic EP, Lucid Abstractions, that broadened their sound and that I naturally bought, along with a band T-shirt which is pretty rare for me! I’d worn that T-shirt to various other bands’ gigs, but didn’t think it likely I’d get to wear it to a Spires gig since they’re Manchester based and most of their mini-tours haven’t made it down to the south coast. However, I felt very lucky when they announced they were playing The Face Bar in Reading in September 2013, and so of course I was there along with son#1. It was a great night of music from various bands including Mark Their Silence and Collibus, naturally finished off with an awesome set from Spires! Great kebab afterwards too!

Between then and now, there’s been a bit of change in the band. Sadly just as they began to record their second full album, original guitarist Paul Cuthbert decided to leave the band, courtesy of a move down south and to concentrate more on family life. That Paul (since the vocalist, guitarist, producer and band founder is Paul Sadler) was replaced ably by a new recruit, Richard Corrie. Also, as is the vogue currently, to help finish off the new album there was a Kickstarter campaign run by the band to support mastering and pressing. I enjoy funding things on Kickstarter anyhow, but clearly this was a no brainer for me … “Limited edition 6 panel digipak first issue of the album, including exclusive artwork, and 6 page lyric booklet. SIGNED BY THE BAND (!), Plus T-shirt featuring the album artwork.” = sorted!

The Whisperer was released on Monday 10th November, and I was itching to get my hands on it!

As is the aim with sophomore albums, Spires have moved onwards and upward. The songs are bigger and the instrumentation broader and bolder. The Whisperer builds from Spiral of Ascension, but also Lucid Abstractions with strings and piano and some female vocals. It’s got a beautiful melancholy about it, and regularly has me eyes-closed in awe of how moving it is (to me). The seven tracks vary between 2 minutes 43 seconds and a whopping 20 minutes 57 seconds. This is adult music!

I’m not going to go through each track, but here’s a bit of a feel of things. The opener, Ethereal Organisms, starts with beautiful deep cello before being joined by acoustic guitar and then violin with a mournful eastern European vibe, and then we’re off, building into an increasingly heavy track of the sort you might expect from a progressive metal band. Then at halfway you’re suddenly into complex clean interweaving guitar lines underpinned by great bass lines and subtle drums, the strings return, and then just like that we’re back into the world of heavy again! Track 3, Surrogate, is gorgeous classical guitar which builds to when the strings come in to wind around that guitar with more European sadness. Straight off the back of that, the awesome Primal Revelation opens with a scream of feedback, double bass drum pedals pounding away and a growl of lyrics, then around 2 and half minutes in it’s like the “stoner metal” pedal has been hit, everything slows down to a wonderful bending crawl before a simply gorgeous whammy-bend-ladened solo leads into a dainty minute of calm. Then we’re off again into left and right and left again screaming metal solos, finishing with a rising growl! Track 6, Elsewhere, wouldn’t be out of place on a 70s’ prog rock record from somebody like Gentle Giant! Building from vocal harmonies, you get intertwined acoustic guitar parts, then piano, then the strings build, the vocals harmonies return, ending in a fade out to lapping water. And finally to my second use of E-word in this post – the title track The Whisperer. Take all the light and shade we’ve seen across the album, and put it into almost 21 minutes of epicness! To add to everything there’s a nice bit of a djent tone in the tail end too with some 7-string guitar layered with bass showing through I reckon. Tracks at this length are a bit difficult to play on repeat, but I’ve found myself doing just that!

And there you have it! My first ever “serious” album review. Hopefully other similarly rave reviews will follow from reviewers who actually matter, and I’ll naturally be looking out for others’ opinions, but ultimately I don’t care! I absolutely love this album! The only sad thing to report is that the mini-tour that Spires are supporting the release with doesn’t get any further south than Brum!

Crookham Court School

My exploring life is littered with numerous places I never quite got around to, and then it was too late. Crookham Court is one of those, and I paid the price since this was basically a fail! I’d most seriously intended to go last year when it was seemingly wide open for ages, but I dragged my heels where I’m always busy and then heard it’d been properly secured so forgot about it again. However, last month I’d been up the A34 for a few days and so whilst pondering things I could do on the way home remembered Crookham Court. Naturally a quick search showed that it’d been more accessible a month before, but yet again I was too late! Even so I decided I’d check it out …

There’s a rather dark cloud over Crookham Court, or more specifically its later life as a boarding school.

Crookham-56The current Crookham Court was built in the mid-nineteenth century on the site of a previous manor house that was destroyed by fire. As was frequently the way with grand family mansions, the current building grew over the remainder of the century with several further phases of building. Also as was often the way with such mansions, at some point it stopped being a family home. Given the proximity of RAF Greenham Common, for a while it was a school for the children of the nearby RAF personnel. Whilst most recall Greenham Common’s active use being into the early 1990s, the RAF actually departed in 1964, before the base was resurrected in 1967 by the USAF courtesy of the needs of the Cold War. Likewise post-RAF Crookham Court was resurrected as a independent boarding school for boys.

Crookham-05That boarding school was operational from the early 1960s, but in 1988 several cases of child sexual abuse involving staff members came to light. The school featured in a BBC investigation on the programme That’s Life, leading to three members of staff being convicted in 1990, including the owner of the school! The school closed in 1989. Another member of staff was convicted in 2012. Needless to say the school’s notoriety features in several bits of scrawled graffiti.

My approach was pretty amateur to be honest. I took a quick look at the aerials, could see that there were houses by the entrance and actually through the site at the bottom, and so didn’t come in that way. Initially I couldn’t even get near since the road past was closed by the police courtesy of an accident! Ultimately I found somewhere appropriate to park up, and it wasn’t too difficult to find my way from there. The trouble was that main building was still totally sealed up, well certainly to somebody on their own. I did find one possible way in, but it was a drop-down one-way route and even then I suspect blocked once inside, and when you’re on your own you can’t take such risks. So instead I mooched around various outbuildings, and at least got my first smell of exploring in a while. The largest outbuilding had most notably been used as a science classroom which was cool, but with hindsight I totally missed out one end of that building that I reckon was used as a chapel or similar from others’ pictures. The most edgy moment? I approached the outdoor swimming pool, heard a buzz, and suddenly realized I was stood half-a-metre away from a very active wood hornet nest in the wood cladding of a building!

I’d still love to see inside the mansion proper, so next time I’m that way might try my luck again!

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Space travel takes real courage but is important!

It’s not been the best of weeks for space travel! It goes without saying that the saddest news was the crash of Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo with the resultant death of the co-pilot Michael Alsbury, and the serious injuries to the pilot Peter Siebold. I suspect it’s going to put back Richard Branson and the Virgin Galactic team’s goals of regular suborbital space flights by several years! Then earlier in the week there was the failed launch of the Antares rocket heading to resupply the International Space Station. Thankfully this time there were no injuries, though you’ve got to assume that somebody’s wallet will be hurting and I don’t know what the impact is on those up in the ISS?

Salyut 7 from Soyuz T-13
Salyut 7 from Soyuz T-13 –

However, the above two incidents were not the initial reason for this post. Instead I happened upon the following remarkable article about a madcap Soviet mission to rescue a space station and it got me thinking. Take a few minutes to read it, and then consider just how courageous those cosmonauts were, along with the reality of space travel and heading out into an environment that only wants to kill you in an almost Heath-Robinson-esque tin can!

Another article this week that also got me thinking was this one about the likely need for us to grow the role of insects in our diet given the fact that our ability to feed the Earth’s growing population is going to come under ever increasing pressure.

And then chatting to my bro-in-law yesterday about the above topics along with the post I made a while back about our galactic importance, he made the important point that in many ways that our being a spacefaring species is likely to become increasingly important to deal with our population growth. So when insect burgers prove not to be enough, the requirement to find new lands or indeed new planets for us populate will become a necessity. Thus as much as people bemoan the cost and risk of space travel, the cojones of those who do push the boundaries of space mustn’t be forgotten and we should be grateful for the future of humankind that some people still want to boldy push onwards. It seems that being a slightly maverick billionaire (them not me) helps with that drive, since in addition to Branson, just so happens that Elon Musk has been talking up planetary exploration again recently too, so maybe just within my lifetime (which is another topic for another day) …