I hope that you all had a good break over Christmas and New Year. I spent most of mine1 doing two things: a bit of DIY on the house and listening to music.
The DIY was long overdue. There always seems to be immense inertia surrounding making improvements to the house. First you have to decide what materials you need, buy those materials, find or buy the tools you need to do the job, do the job itself and then clear up the resulting mess. When I’m working, I never seems to have the time or energy necessary to get all that done in the brief time I have available. I think we’ve also been in a bit of a limbo where the house is concerned, as we had been thinking about moving. It therefore seemed to be a waste of effort to do a lot of work on it, so we put up with all the semi-broken, annoying or untidy things. Now we’ve decided that we can’t afford to move, but that we’ll put a little investement into changing those things about the house that we don’t like to make life more pleasant here. The break over Christmas seemed a good time to get stuck into some of the jobs.
First, our bookshelves and CD and DVD storage were overflowing. Again. Despite having a clear-out to make a bit of space, and buying more Kindle books or music downloads, we still needed more space. Books particularly are starting to pile up on every surface, making it hard to keep things tidy. I’m by no means a minimalist2, but I do like things to be relatively uncluttered. I made a trip to Ikea, and after an afternoon with the old allen key, we now have much better organised shelves. Plus, I got to spend a happy couple of hours re-arranging the CDs in alphabetical order, which was very satisfying. Mr. Bsag, meanwhile, put up a load of shelves in our garage, which has made the garage a lot tidier and better organised.
I also bought a new pendant light from Ikea. Like many houses in the UK, ours has one centrally placed pendant light in each room, which when switched on gives the room all the warmth and cosy ambience of a medium-security prison. In most rooms (except the kitchen, where we have replaced the lights), we rely on lamps to provide the lighting, but we needed a new light in the dining room. We wanted a low pendant light over the centre of the dining table so that we could see what we were eating and also see to read at the table. We fitted the light today, with only a modicum of swearing and bodging. It has made a big difference to the room, which is now much more pleasantly lit.
The final DIY job was to replace the interior door handles. The handles we had previously were — I suspect — the cheapest that the developer thought that he or she could get away with. They were fake brass, too small to comfortably accommodate even my tiny hands, and had sharp edges that have resulted in many scrapes and bruises since we’ve been here. The return springs were also starting to fail in a couple, so you had to turn the handle at least 90° to operate the latch. We ordered some nice matte chrome handles that were bigger, and had smooth, rounded handles and a simple, elegant shape. It turned out to be easier than I thought to replace them, and except for one tubular latch that fell apart when I removed the old handle, I finished the job pretty quickly. It has suprised me what a difference it has made. Using something that is uncomfortable and unpleasant looking several times a day irks you in a subtle way. It’s like wearing a slightly itchy jumper: most of the time you don’t notice the annoyance, but the discomfort builds up and irritates you in ways that are hard to put your finger on. The new handles weren’t very expensive, but they make the doors look much better, and they are a solid, comfortable, precise joy to use. As with all of the DIY jobs, I wish I’d got round to doing them before.
When not wielding a drill or screwdriver, I’ve been listening to music. I got a couple of great albums as presents this Christmas, which both happen to be folk, though recorded many years apart. I’ve been on a bit of a folk music kick recently, but I’ve had the first of the albums — Liege and Lief by Fairport Convention — on my wishlist for quite a while. This was recorded in 1969, and is often regarded as one of Fairport’s best albums. My lovely parents bought me a copy on 180 g vinyl, which is even more special. It’s a fabulous album, with some great material and wonderful performances. Sandy Denny had one of the best female voices in folk music (I think only Norma Waterson, Eliza Carthy and June Tabor could match her today), and with Dave Swarbrick on fiddle and Richard Thompson on guitar (let alone the rest of the band), it’s a fabulous sound. In contrast to The Watersons, this album was one of the early forays into ’electro-folk’ or ‘folk-rock’, which gives it a lot of energy and vibrancy. However, at heart it’s still folk, and so deals with the timeless problems and concerns of ordinary people. There’s a mixture of traditional folk songs (like ‘Tam Lin’ and ‘Matty Groves’), and some of their own composition (‘Crazy Man Michael’) which uphold the best traditions of folk while being modern songs.
My second album was Bending the Dark by The Imagined Village, who have picked up the baton and run with what Fairport started 43 years ago. The Imagined Village started out as a kind of folk supergroup, with members such as Chris Wood, Martin Carthy, Billy Bragg and many other luminaries of modern and not-so-modern folk. Now on their third album, they have settled into a proper band, albeit one whose members also go off and do their own thing, and whose lineup changes a bit from album to album. On previous albums, they have done as Fairport Convention did and mixed traditional songs (sometimes updated for modern times) with original compositions, but ‘Bending the Dark’ is all new compositions. However, true to traditional folk they still tell stories, and talk about what life is like for ordinary people. The other thing I love about The Imagined Village is that they reflect the cultural diversity of British people today. Some critics describe their music as World Music3, but it seems to me that people whose parents or grandparents originated from South Asia, Africa or the West Indes are British too, so including elements of dub or bhangra music just makes it proper modern British folk music. Anyway, whatever it is, it’s brilliant music. The songs are energetic, dark, joyful and melancholic all at the same time, and are modern while keeping a sense of rootedness to the past.