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Parallel Winter: An Essay On The Season By Richard Youngs
The Quietus , November 19th, 2014 16:20

Before his appearance at Platform's celebration of the year's darkest, coldest quarter in Glasgow this weekend, the prolific singer-songwriter takes a moment to reflect on how a flu jab, a family away holidaying in Portugal and a lonely recording session in 2011 forever changed winter for him

My relationship with winter changed irrevocably in October 2011. It wasn't even winter. We were still in daylight saving time. The sun had yet to travel further south, the temperature had yet to bottom out. And the events that recast a large chunk of the year were far from spectacular.

I confess that in my time I have entertained a false romanticism toward winter. It's hard to escape the legacy of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Cards depicting cosy firesides, ornately decorated trees, robins perched on snowmen are all-pervasive. Were there a card in the shops, grey with the reality of our climate, it would sell only to a select demographic. How can you feel good about the seeming persistently dark, cold, damp days? Sometime ago winter lost its charm. I have adopted a fatalistic attitude. Winter is uncomfortable, but what can you do? This week in October had the answer.

As an intense young man I made a record called Advent, then a few years later one called Festival. They were made in similar circumstances - the Christmas trip back to the parental home, a week where my thoughts inevitably turned to making music - my stash of recording equipment had yet to find its way north. I had played a trick with myself that winter was something I enjoyed. In fact, I was pretty hardcore about it. The dreicher, the better. It appealed to my desire to be different. Nowadays I know I'm different - hey, isn't everyone? - and I don't need to try hard. But, I believe I may've made these records as a perverse celebration of the more uncomfortable aspects of the season.

Don't get me wrong. There are many good things about winter. The crisp mornings, when they happen, are a delight. Any excuse to cook up vast quantities of soup in a pressure cooker I also welcome. And, as a parent I have discovered the joy of sledging. I would like to think that I am no longer a victim of a blanket acceptance of all things winter, I believe that a certain realism has come to bear upon my attitude. After all, what else is it than that point in the calendar at which the northern hemisphere tilts furthest away from the sun? Nevertheless, there remains the issue of how to cope with its worst excesses.

Back to October 2011. It was school half term. My wife and son were joining her sister and her sister's partner on holiday in Portugal. Sadly, I was unable to get annual leave from my part-time day job.

I had recently been given McCartney II. This had been a formative album for me. Its release coincided with my first access to a reel-to-reel tape machine. Paul was a millionaire pop star living in the Mull of Kintyre. I was a spotty adolescent domiciled in home counties' suburbia. We had little in common other than a desire to record instruments, then change their speed and pitch using modern recording technology. Of course, he had a 16-track STUDER and his microphone selection was somewhat higher-end than mine. But, bored by everything else, messing around with music became my rebellion.

Returning to the record decades later was a joy. While not offering the kind of revelation it once had, it did suggest to me a coping strategy for the week ahead: to go on a recording bender.

There's a school of thought that anyone entering a recording environment should have the material in place and be ready to rock. Given the expense of studios this is probably prudent economics. The aesthetic argument is strong too. It's hard to conceive of a straight-ahead rock album being improved through studio trickery. Why mess when a great band has great material and engineering expertise at its disposal?

Being a home recordist of the non-rock variety, however, I am liberated from such concerns. It's more a matter of laying hands on an interesting piece of kit, and then getting my mind in place. We're talking focus rather than psychedelics. A major lesson of adolescence was learning to deal with boredom. The trouble is often an inability to concentrate. If the mind is fully occupied on any matter small or large, then a lack of external stimuli is irrelevant. Boredom disappears. That's the theory...

I grew up for a bit in the Fens, and the musical ideal in those pre-punk revolution days was Pink Floyd. They strike me as such a Fen band. Their peak era - post-Syd and up to Meddle - was the sound of four guys making music. Nothing else. Once they became a song delivery mechanism, circa Dark Side Of The Moon, I lost interest. What's more, I have always loved the John Cage notion of having nothing to say, and then saying it. Aside from anarcho-punk I've never much enjoyed songs with a message. Though, incidentally, I've always found those Crass records so sonically exciting. My enforced empty felt like the perfect setting to undertake some kind of Cagean Floydian musical hybrid form of exploration.

For the week ahead, I had borrowed a Moog Source, along with a nice ribbon microphone from one friend, and a guitar amp from another. A Gaelic phrasebook became the lyrical starting point. It was a reminder of a time when, in a bid to prevent my mind ossifying, I chose to do a night class to learn the language. I wanted a challenge. Having no head for vocabulary, a stubborn English accent, and no talent for mimicry, it was doomed to failure.

As I noodled away on the synth accompanying a compilation of avant-garde accordion music I'd got out of the library, I felt I'd been cheated of a much-needed break. Out of sheer something-to-do-ness I recorded a pass of noodling, dropped the rather arid accompaniment, then what-the-fuck speeded the damn synth up. Whether I liked it or not this was going to be my starting point. I had hours on my hands. I had to do something. In reality I was lonely for the first time in years. I realise with the benefit of hindsight, it may have made more sense to hire a box set or go down the pub, but I was desperately seeking inspiration and couldn't see the bigger picture.

But, that's by the by. The enforced week-long empty wasn't just recording. I had a day job to go to for three of the days. I had food, I had sleep. Tragically, though, little else occupied my time and my mind. There was, however, one appointment I had lined up.

Ever since catching whooping cough, aged two, I have been prone to chest infections. Especially in winter, after colds. The one time I got flu, I was living in Nottingham and was offered hospitalisation. I took the line: if I'm going to die, I want to die at home. Given this medical history, I am now offered a flu vaccine. I'd secured a jag for the Monday of my week home alone.

It'd been hosing down the past two days, ever since my family had gone to the sun. We video-linked one another, and I could see they were way more comfortable than me. I had little sympathy for the fact that the swimming pool was unheated. On the third day of rain it was time for the flu vaccine. This still strikes me as some kind of symbol for the week. Somewhere in me I have a heartfelt song entitled 'Flu Vaccine In The Rain' that captures the climactic injustice that is Scotland.

Unhappiness can reach a tipping point where it is no longer a force for creative good. It felt like I'd gone beyond this point.

At the end of the week my people returned. They were glowing with health and happiness. They bore me a gift of locally-produced sea salt, with which - deep within - I was overjoyed. I reciprocated with a slight grumpiness - the result of too many late nights spent agonising over EQ or some such absurdity - and an uncharacteristic chattiness - the result of too few people around.

Winter became official with the turning back of the clocks, and the deal was sealed with a cold or two. Later that winter I fell victim to chicken pox. I had thought I was immune. How else could I reach middle age and not have had it before? I wound up in an infectious disease unit with the inevitable chest complications. Released in time for Christmas, I nevertheless suspected that things could have been different had I too had a blast of dry, heat before the onset of short, wet cold days and increased heating bills.

So, now I make every effort to have a pre-winter holiday. I firmly believe that a dose of southern sun before the worst excesses of the Scottish climate is a positive influence on both physical and emotional health. In 2012, we all went to Portugal. In 2013, we chased the sun off the coast of Africa. As I write this, we're just back from the Canaries. Winter holds no fears for me. I know what it is, and I will deal with it. And, now, instead of Gaelic, I think I will try to learn some Spanish.

Richard Youngs plays Wintersong at Platform in Glasgow, alongside Grumbling Fur, RM Hubbert, Alasdair Roberts and more, this Saturday, November 22; for full details and tickets, head here

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