Desert Island Discs with Kate Abundance (née Aldridge)

 

It’s 2027. Kirsty Young is still hotter than she should be. Kate Madikane is still…very Kate

Kirsty Young: My castaway this week is a lifestyle entrepreneur who managed to slot herself into the post Brexit malaise that hung over the UK in the years between 2017 and the present day. She has been lauded as Exporter of the year in 2025, with the expansion of her clothing lines, spa, retreat and lifestyle brands expanding in African markets and is still very much hands on as the head of her family business which runs, with the help of her daughters, Phoebe and Noluthando across the 2 continents.

Her foundation is a major player in women’s emancipation and development and she is herself a United Nations Ambassador.  She has celebrated a landmark birthday this year but is incredibly youthful in her outlook and approach belying her half century on this planet – Call me Kate – her autobiography was a smash hit a few years ago and she is no stranger to bringing her own flavour of personal reflection to her global brand Spiritual Home. We are excited to hear your desert island discs Kate Abundance.

Kate: I am delighted to be here Kirsty, I have no fear about looking back over the path that brought me to where I am today. I am truly blessed to have led a fascinating life and love to talk about my inspirations and motivations.

KY: Can I ask initially about your recent name-change? Listeners might know you as Kate Aldridge or Kate Madikane?

Kate: You can Kirsty – As I laid out in the book I realised that I have been attached to a series of men’s names in my life – was born an Aldridge, married a Madikane but I chose my own name Abundance to signal that finally – at 50 – I am able to receive the gifts the universe has for me, myself.

KY: And they certainly seem abundant Kate – is it true that you always wear your own line of clothing?

Kate: That is correct Kirsty – everything from these vegan shoes to sustainable denim jeans and this crisp white cotton t-shirt, the undies and even these ethical diamond earrings. I eschew fast fashion and have built my brand on simple, inexpensive, fairly traded pieces that never go out of style.

KY:  Wonderful, before we get going can you tell me a bit about your brand itself? It seems to wrap around one’s whole life – combining food, beauty, lifestyle and homewares and key trends in health and wellness.

Kate: There are those who deride the wellness industry as superficial and promoting vanity, or packaging  premium prices for non-essentials but I see it as more of a spiritual calling. but the best kind, with a lot of swaggy merch that you can sell.  I would never call myself a wellness guru but things really began to change for me in late 2017 when I met a few truly inspirational women who became generous  mentors and friends to me.  Through my work with social media thought leader gingham cloud I began promoting my small rural spa Spiritual Home on Instagram and before I knew where I was I was invited to a series of women-wellness networking events.  Into the vacuum left when Melisssa and Jasmine Hemsley gave up on the clean eating and fell off the wagon and into the pies I learnt that multi-platform branded lifestyle goods were the way forward, and at all price points! Spiritual Home has become a sort of one-stop shop for millennials, the premium wellness brand in the UK with our body scrubs and clay masks in Boots, our chia seed and coconut protein balls in Waitrose and our pube and body-hair curlers available online at –

KY: Other pubic hair curlers are available, this is still the BBC after all, despite assaults on our public service ethos by commercialisation you still are’t actually supposed to nakedly plug your own stuff you know?

Kate: Oh so sorry, my aunty Lillian said that this would be good for my profile – she loves the effects of the curlers – so much more natural than these dreadful Brazilian wax-jobs the young girls are into – such an extension of the male gaze straight from porn you know – I believe that bodyhair makes women powerful in their own right – and I believe that the tide might be turning if sales of my intimate conditioner are anything to go by –  oh sorry I realise how deeply uncool product placement is but I am my brand and can’t really help but drip that through my –errr – self.

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Edina Monsoon: an upmarket Kate

But we also bring our messaging around positive psychology, body image and blanace  to women with less disposable cash with a tie in with Poundland which, frankly is far more lucrative than the high-end stuff

KY: you’ve been dismissed by rival as a ‘pound shop Anita Roddick’ or a ‘cut-price Edina Monsoon’

Kate: Hahahah I hadn’t heard that last one – hilarious no I am not ashamed of making money in different market segments. It is just basic business sense  – turning over half a million units of Epsom salts flavoured with a trace of essential oils in a week is always going to return more than selling a facial in a spa for £500 a throw.  The aspirational part of the brand feeds the mass part – all tied together with PR to die for and creating enough surplus for the foundation and for me to donate my profits to charity. Philanthropy – good causes – self esteem –wellness – it is all a mutually reinforcing belief system. It sort of takes the Goop approach to its natural extension – total wrap around lifestyle branding.

KY: Well, quite. But looking over your early life it may not be always obvious that you had absorbed the business acumen shown by some members of your family, who had made their fortunes in more conventional spheres.

Kate:  Made and lost Kirsty. Fetishing land deals as my father did showed a very 20th century sensibility.  Adaptation is the key these days.

KY: …and you have most certainly proved adaptive – if I was talking to you as a 20 year old single mother or  a 40 year old college drop out it would be hard to predict this meteoric rise.

Kate: Well yes Kirsty but I am ready to speak openly about some very difficult issues from my life. At times it felt as though music was my only friend. I have had periods of my life where I have been absolutely desolate with depressions and I always had some specific songs that I kept with me even if I was separated from the people I loved, my children, my parents… myself even.

KY: Well lets start at the very beginning – You have written in your autobiography that your Home Farm childhood was not a happy one despite being part of an affluent and prominent county family?

Kate: Ugh, what does that even mean? That snobby nonsense about status. You are right to say that we were indulged with material things but we were starved in other ways.  My therapist told me once that “The children of lovers are always orphans” but just imagine all the drama and confusion of being the daughter of such flagrant and egregious philanderers as both my parents.  And the hypocrisy? Being part of a prominent county family played right into Jennifer’s rather controlling and perfectionist streak, which seemed to harden the more out of control her liasons felt to her and as for  Dad- well let’s just say through my whole childhood he was more interested in other women than little girls.  It was often quite chaotic and worrying for a sensitive child and sometimes I would feel very lonely and  weird, even as quite a young child.

Kate: God no – both Brian and Jennifer are quite selfish and the atmosphere was often quite tense between them in ways that we children couldn’t help but pick up on. I have had quite a lot of therapies over my life including a lot of counselling, past life regression, emotional release therapy, reiki, reflexology, and well… you don’t need to be a Jungian analyst to point out that people who struggled as much with marital fidelity as my parents aren’t exactly role models for either emotional open-ness, reliability or security.  I had a wonderful feminist therapist years later who pinned most of my later issues on fear of rejection and a struggle to trust people.  The sheer effort my parents put into expending all their emotional energies outside the family, had long-ranging consequences on all of us. It certainly is no coincidence that my other siblings are childless and that I have never lived with all 3 of my children in a family setting I have learnt that recent studies suggest that the subtle changes in an adulterous parent’s behavior can unsettle children, regardless of whether the truth leaks out and even if the children are too young to understand what is happening.

Against this backdrop, however  I have one very strong memory, however which sticks out where we were the big happy family that Jennifer imagined we looked like to the rest of the village  and it was a Sunday I couldn’t have been older than 3 or 4 and this funny marching song about Captain Beaky came on the radio – Dad seemed to know the words and sounded hilarious reciting them and we all did a conga round the kitchen pretending to be all the animals – cos I was small I was passed between Adam and Debbie, and Mum and Dad and I think Gran was there too.  We were all laughing together and pretending to play instruments and singing and fooling around.  The song puts me right back in the kitchen, in the early 80s…

  1. Captain Beaky

On reflection I was desperate for someone – Captain Beaky or anyone – to have any form of moral compass.  “he’d march the woodland singing songs that told how we had righted wrongs” wrongs weren’t righted much at Home Farm, more covered over, allowed to fester and denied.

KY: So not quite the idyllic picture postcard childhood then? But there were other sources of support available to you? Your half-siblings and your sister Alice?

Kate: Yes despite the 7 year age gap and the fact that we were so different as characters I have always been able to rely 100% on my big sister Debbie.  It was a huge source of pain to us both that life took us to different countries so often but I still text, message phone or whatsapp her most days wherever I am in the world.  She really understood, you see, the upset of being part of our family and how hard I struggled to trust and to love.  Debbie would always save her Just17 magazines and Smash Hits magazines for me and we would often read Smash Hits together poring over the lyrics of the songs, and taping the charts from the radio following along with the lyrics in Smash Hits, I remember all the lyrics from things like yazz and the plastic population, Frankie goes to Hollywood and We’ve got a fuzzbox  and we’re gonna use it – we liked the more obscure and female-led bands even then having graduated from Pepsi and Shirley, we liked Madonna of course and kylie but  the real stand-out that we enjoyed together was a singing along with our hairbrushes to   uh-oh we’re in trouble by shampoo – I remember their bubble gum smash hits cover and learning all the words – I must have been 10 or 12. Despite laughing with Debbie and singing into our hairbrushes it was far more my experience than hers- she wasn’t a rule breaker really, not a rebel like me and never in trouble. I on the other hand…

2. “Uh-oh we’re in trouble”, Shampoo

Kate: We went to see Shampoo together in Felpersham. Jennifer was relaxed about where I went as long as Debbie was firmly in charge and I flipped out over the energy of the live show – I was fascinated by the lighting rig, the crew, all the people behind the scenes.  For a girl bored by country life and insecure about her place in the world it seemed like a wonderful magical travelling circus… and planted a seed about performance, lights, camera, action and spotlight. This was in the period after I was expelled from Cheltenham Ladies College.

KY: you have been very open in the past about your teenage rebellion and drug use. I mean in the early nineties rave culture and psychedelia were quite mainstream and blended with youth culture but Kate you did take it to a bit of an extreme.

  1. “Little Fluffy Clouds” (long edit), The Orb 

Kate: well yes Kirsty – ‘when I was young and stupid I was young and stupid’ but you are quite right I definitely took my teenage rebellion to an extreme. I confused dangerous with interesting for a long time and had a whole series of totally unsuitable and careless men, Warren for example, who almost killed me in a stolen car. i simply couldn’t understand that I took risks from a deep sense of self loathing  The first time I ran off with the new age travellers after my GCSE results in 1994 it was a pretty shiny happy time – It wasn’t only about sex and drugs but there were all kinds of radical possibilities swirling around. It sounds silly now but it truly felt as if a new society were possible without ownership, patriarchy and boredom and loneliness – sharing and building and growing.

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Kate’s semicolon tattoo: a sign of a “punctuated existence”

Road protest movements were to show that a society not in harmony with the environment is a sick one.  Well I realise it sounds pretty naïve now but it has taken me very long time to realise that escaping Ambridge for ever beardier versions of Brian – self aggrandising swaggering narcissists, like Luther, Byronic, moody and infinitely physical who turned me on to all sorts of stuff but was a deeply controlling person I was so in awe of him and he taught me so much, but then  it took me a long time to realise that reading Schopenhauer on mescaline was all very well but if a man is taking your money to buy drugs – then the bohemian nature of the transaction is only skin-deep y’know. I do wonder what happened to Luther, did he burn brightly and extinguish himself? or is he a middle-aged guy somewhere? At least I didn’t bring him back to Home Farm like I did Jolyon Gibson, who I was foolish enough to install back in Ambridge, who was the ultimate trustafarian cliché. But there were elements of the lifestyle that were unfluffy in the extreme, there were times of utter abject desperation and totally intense union and camaraderie. I was on one drug or another every day of that time.

 

KY: And this changed – when?

Kate: When I started to feel that there might be worse things than being warm and safe – I also began to forgive my mother after a particularly intense series of revelations up a tree on a road protest at Newbury… Not really knowing what else to do I went home, took anti-depressants and tried to fit back into a straight and conventional life. my somewhat shattered sense of myself and my self worth. I had attempted suicide on NYE 1995 you see – just wanted to check out and make the madness stop. That is why I have this semi-colon tattoo Kirsty, it is worn by people who have reached that place and for whatever reason decided to go on. A punctuated existence so to speak.

  1. “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”, The Smiths

Kate: I became very obsessed with this song around that time – and it totally fed into my self-desctuctive state of mind – I became obsessed with the idea that “I just might die with a smile on my face after all” havi been far more into electronic music the way that a guitar gently weeps when you are down mirrored me at my lowest. Before I took the overdoes of Tamazepam on NYE 1995 I listened to the section of this song from 2 minutes in over and over and over again… you had to rewind the tape deck and it had a heavy clunking sound. I just stayed like that for hours and hours.

Oddly enough later talking to Roy about music became a point of connection, all those post-punk bands like The Cure, Joy Division it was music that was part of  the attraction of Roy at the beginning –  he was almost amazingly uncomplex and – despite some ugly friends – who no doubt are UKIPPERS in this day and age he adored me, helped to rebuild,  also we hit the road again but in a far more manageable form than the road protests had been concentrating on selling wholefoods in a van at the less chaotic and druggy fringes of the festival scene. That summer was one of the happiest of my life – we made an absolute killing, worked hard and I felt we’d found a happy medium between freedom and structure… the van pulsations was wildly popular.  Despite being really happy I sabotaged the relationship, it was never going to be quite enough for me to be on the fringes and I kept getting drawn back towards toxic people and scenes  having properly scared Roy with my consumption of various substances the happy days were over between us. He was only ever really a tourist I suppose.  However there has always been a piece of my heart devoted to Roy – and I have never been so grateful for the fact of his parenting of Phoebe- who – as everyone knows was born at Glastonbury in 1998.  It  was hellishly muddy that year but I managed to enjoy a few bands before my waters broke watching Jhelisa – I have always loved this song and it now reminds me of having Phoebe and the infinite possibilities of new life.

  1. “Friendly pressure”, Jhelisa

Kate: It didn’t last however,  I suffered terribly with post-natal depression, felt horribly trapped in Ambridge and with a disapproving Jennifer and extended family watching me with my new baby and again the old trouble began to flare – feelings of worthlessness and like I was going mad – which with PND I might have been. Later in therapy it was explained that the psychadelics I had taken with a developing brain, combined with post-traumatic stress from risky and terrifying behaviours around men and sex, and mixed in with the hormones of being a new mum were a very volatile chemical mix.  I did a flit with Phoebe to Morocco with some old mates but when she fell ill and I felt unable to cope I crashed back to Ambridge feeling even worse about myself.

KY: This was somewhat of a pattern for you? You found yourself drawn back to Home Farm but once there almost immediately want to set off again

Kate: Yes I hadn’t understood until my forties when I finally became more comfortable in my own skin then that it doesn’t matter where you are in the world – the one constant is yourself and how you feel in yourself.  That is why I embrace wellness as a philosophy – anything I can do to make people –especially young women – to feel more their best selves I will try to do. And I know that that stuff can’t be marketed and sold.   Single motherhood in Ambridge was absolutely awful – another grim period- I became convinced that just being in Phoebe’s life was irrevocably damage her in some way and just had to get away.  I sat at the airport repeatedly playing the cassette single of the Macy Gray song over and over again and sobbing.  “I try to walk away and I stumble”

But in the end  knew I was doing the right thing for Phoebe – It look me 40 years to forgive my mother for the things she did wrong and I truly believed that my absence would be better for her than my presence and so I boarded the flight.  This was 1999 and was the longest period I spent away from England and the past. I didn’t return until 2010.

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Macy Gray, “I Try”
  1. “I Try”, Macy Gray

Kate: I had a whole other life with Lucas in Africa but it took me more than a decade to realise I had exchanged one oppressive close-knit, enmeshed village setting for another, feeling trapped and miserable I fell passionately in love with someone outside my marriage – a friend of the family of all people – and they were all so horrified and disgusted in me that I had to go back to Ambridge again.

Again I had it – and I smashed it.

KY: And then what? What made you stop smashing and begin building?

Kate: Well this is a song from just around the time when everything started to come together for me – a song that reminds me of my daughters and feeling like the person I was supposed to be and pushing on and getting going! It makes me cross when people are just on a nostalgia trip y’know… bitching on about how music was better way back when…

Sometimes you need something completely fresh and new to shake you out of yourself and move on y’know?

  1. “He is the voice I hear”, The Black Madonna

Kate: The tune is just infectious isn’t it? It guess I was just ready to stop being a mess and start rolling up my sleeves.  And I coudnt be happier with the results. My pride and joy is to see Phoebe as the COO of the Foundation now, travelling the world investing our profits in women-led businesses and doing deals with governments, the United Nations  and other non-profits whilst Noluthando runs the production side from her base in South Africa.

That these two strong, proud and competent women are my daughters is the joy of my life and we have built adult relationships as women that I was unable to commit too when I was first their mother. I really only have a notional role with the businesses these days although I do keep a close eye on the spa business, still headquartered at Home Farm and, it is a true family affair as Debbie and Lilian are on the Board, as are my close personal friends; Stella McCartney, Amal Clooney, Melinda Gates and Hillary Clinton.   I hope that my story is one that can inspire women to transcend their emotional blockages, work through their childhood and adolescent issues and to take their places as world leaders, no matter what their start in life. I truly believe that everyone deserves to be able to flourish, and that women helping one another can create a kinder form of capitalism.

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“Jennifer took the loss of Brian’s money and his death very hard…”

KY: One person you haven’t mentioned Kate in this meteoric rise – your mother Jennifer – does she get a seat at the glittering table you have just described with world leaders and feminist philanthropists?

Kate: Poor Jennifer, no she hasn’t been doing too well these past few years, she took the loss of Brian’s money and his death very hard, and has been somewhat trapped in a spiral of guilt and self-loathing. We provide for her very well of course but the loss of face and status was all a bit too much for her.

And this brings me to my final track – the Pete Seeger version of Sometimes I feel like a motherless child. Another sad song I’m afraid but the lyric – sometimes I feel like a feather in the air, reminds me to forgive and forget.

  1. “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child”, Pete Seeger

KY: So Kate, you can take with you The Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare What book would you like to take to your desert island?

Kate: I would like Kirsty, a copy of the complete works of Robert Anton Wilson, he was hugely influential in the Spiral Tribe days but I was always a bit too distracted or off my face to read it properly – I would like to see if there really is anything to it.

KY: So if all but one of these tracks was washed away which would you keep with you?

Kate: Oh god – so difficult. I think I’d keep Jhelisa thankyou

KY: And for your luxury?

Kate: A lifetime supply of my own brand pants

KY: And on that note Kate we must end. Though I feel there is enough material here for several more hours we are at the end of ours. Thank you for letting us hear your desert island discs

KM: Thank you

Music swells

Thanks to Dr Nicola Headlam (@networknicola) for this Easter special guest post

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#nowlistening or #notlistening? Toby, Daft Punk, and the moon goddess

daft_punk_vibe-comWhen we observed in passing that Tobeeee had been enjoying Daft Punk bright and early before his gin sesh with Kenton last Monday, reliable music-detective @bramblybarb was right in there: “I love that song! Reminds me of a fab holiday in Turkey. Daft punk pretty much sums up Toby.”  And she’s got a point. Well—two actually (which is three more than Toby and Pip combined….) “Get Lucky” was always destined to be a classic party anthem, and Toby really is a daft punk. (That is: “punk” in the sense used in West Side Story more than that pertaining to the Sex Pistols.) In so many respects, it’s an entirely likely music choice for this player-of-players, whose reliable-partner act isn’t fooling anyone except Pip. “Get Lucky” in this sense—with its insistence on the feel-good factor and a “be who you are, do what you like” mantra—is surely an ideal theme tune for this neoliberalist twerp.

And he clearly loves the song, because only three days later he said he’d given a “rousing chorus” of it while collecting the all-important marshmallow leaves with Carol “The camomile tea pusher” Tregorran. And Pip’s notion that the song might not have been appropriate was perhaps the most useful thing she’s said all year, since many a listener might have suggested he try “Casta diva” instead, the soulful ode to the moon sung by the eponymous and tragic heroine in Bellini’s Norma (1831).

To hear Toby for a moment as Norma herself would be an intriguing idea—the druid priestess has two secret children by the leader of the Roman occupiers, and is forced to throw herself on a sacrificial pyre when the deception and betrayal are exposed. The long-standing speculations that the Gin King of Ambridge has a secret family in Brighton were not abated by the “confession” of a heroin-addled ex, and to a keen music-detective like myself, these marshmallow moments only bring the possibility of another generation of Fairbrethren back into focus.

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Bonfire Night’s coming early to Ambridge this year, as we eagerly await Toby’s self-sacrifice on the pyre…

Less transvestitically (Is that even a word? Ed.), Toby might remind us of the Roman, Pollione. This guy is a total jerk—also secretly the progenitor of the two sprogs, he has the added bonus of being on the side of the brutal invaders, and also a two-timing toss-bag, as he can’t seem to decide between Norma and her bezzie-cum-apprentice-priestess Adalgisa. Pip, alas, doesn’t seem to have any friends, with the exception of Alice, and although she went through a patch of REASSURING EVERYONE that SHE AND CHRIS WERE TOTALLY FAITHFUL in ways that threatened to foreshadow an affair, it all went a bit anticlimactic.

It takes a bit more of a leap to get anywhere near proper operatic on this one…from Toby to Carol, through John to Jennifer, and so to Brian and young Ruairi. And in the weaving and squinting that one has to do along such an operatic amble through Borsetshire, and in the incongruity that moments like Custardgate bring to this everyday tale of country folk, we find ourselves faced with the fundamental question about The Archers: is it, has it ever been, could it ever descend as far as being…a soap opera?

#nowlistening: Race in Ambridge

Last Tuesday’s episode left me reeling. Not at the all-too-vivid image of Jill in her see-through swimming cossie, imprinted as that now is on my poor innocent mind. Rather, I was suddenly stunned at the implications of radio as a medium without images. It’s obvious, really, but chatting about the aquaerobics class with my co-presenter, @emilybakermusic, I realized that I “knew” that the irresistible Leroy, was black. And when I thought about how I “knew” it, what I ended up questioning was how I “knew” Jill and Carol are white….

On reflection, the presumption came from two places: his name, and the music.

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Aunt Jemima: the quintessential Southern black ‘mammy’

A contraction of “Le roi”, the name Leroy (also Leeroy and LeRoy) derives from French, meaning “the king”. And from French, it passed into English culture, no doubt first with 1066 and all that, subsequently becoming popular in the nineteenth century. So far, so white, since the aristocratic history of Europe is hardly know for racial diversity beyond the Caucasian. But, along with names like Tyrone (a county in Ireland), Antwan (Antoine), and Jemima (as in Beatrix Potter’s Puddleduck), the name Leroy has made a long journey from one side of the Atlantic to the other, no doubt following the routes of the slave boats, and simultaneously landing the other side of a racial divide. That “Leroy” might connote blackness in Ambridge is then almost certainly a by-product of the Americanisation of British popular culture, in which films like Which Way Is Up (1977, in which Richard Pryor plays Leroy Jones), and baseball stars like Leroy “Satchel” Paige, have left their own “Leroy is a black name” trace.

 

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Leroy Jones: one contributor to the US image of Leroys as black interwar babies

But back to Ambridge FM’s raison d’être: the music. The end of the aquaerobics class (at 5:45) was signaled by the final bars of UK grime artist Sneakbo’s ‘Zim Zimma’ (2012), and the song taps into a rich intertextual world that signifies far beyond the obvious pun on the “zimmer frames” that many of Leroy’s clients might benefit from. As a genre, grime is quite particularly British; in this sense it differs from the black signification of the name Leroy, with its US origins, but it nonetheless shares an African/Caribbean heritage, albeit a specifically British version thereof. Deriving from a musical lineage that reaches back to Jamaica, through dancehall, drum and bass, jungle, and hip-hop, grime is characterized by quick-fire beats and often features rapped lyrics that focus on the gritty realities of urban life, spoken in a slang based on Jamaican patois. The genre has therefore grown up largely in highly multicultural cities, usually in communities with strong African/Caribbean legacies, and in this way, ‘Zim Zimma’ brings an intense sense of blackness to Ambridge.

And that jars uncomfortably—and indeed humorously—with Carol and Jill, who ooze rural middle-class whiteness. Yet there is nothing to tell us of their whiteness except their rural middle-classness: the 2011 UK census records 95% of rural populations as “White British”, compared with 84.7% of urban areas. Perhaps Leroy resides in the great metropolis of Borchester; perhaps he’s one of the remaining 5% of Ambridge. But we are no doubt also guided in our listening by a sense of ethnocentrism—a kind of default presumption that operates intensely in the white West that people we haven’t seen are themselves white: when was the last time any of us said, “You know him…he’s the white one?”. So I wonder: what might Ambridge look like if only 5% of its residents were white British? And if Leroy were the insider, while his (presumably?) white kingly counterpart–Rex (from the Latin)–were relegated to the aquaerobic outskirts?

#nowlistening: On automata and colonisation

As birds go, the cuckoo could use a bit of work on its public image. It probably wins the prize for most recognisable bird call: clocks, Beethoven symphonies, and Delius tone poems all make of the distinctive two-note pattern that gives the bird its name. But let’s face it: the eponymous clocks are hardly the most desirable home accessory in the twenty-first century. And what else is the bird so well-known for? The fact that female cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. Yup: they just waltz* right in and set up shop. Frances Pitt, in ‘The Scandalous Cuckoo’, calls them “lazy, idle, languid, flirty, promiscuous and reprehensible”. They’re ubiquitous, but no-one really wants them around. A bit like my weird uncle George at Christmas….

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So when the mellifluous strains of The Cuckoo Waltz played as Alice and Josh bickered over his setting up his office in the tea-room (at 10:35), we could safely presume a reference to the notorious squatting behaviour of the bird. More than this, though, an intertextual ear reveals further layers of meaning.

There isn’t space here to speculate over a storyline prediction paralleling the premise of the 1970s TV show for which this piece was the theme tune, although that would be an intriguing avenue to pursue. More interesting, perhaps, is to follow the trail left by the instrument on which it played last Tuesday: the accordion. Like the cuckoo, the accordion is ubiquitous, having emerged in nineteenth-century Vienna and spread the world over in all kinds of folk music. It’s never really taken off as a high-class instrument of classical music—not even half as successfully as other nineteenth-century inventions like the saxophone—and so it remains an instrument of the tango, of klezmer, of gypsies and brothels, or of the stereotyped dorkiness of folk clubs. Like the bird, then, the accordion is always weirdly out-of-place: exotic at best and antediluvian at worst. Moreover, like the cuckoo clock with its quaint moving bird popping out of the chalet every hour, it is fundamentally an instrument of automation. For although it has predecessors in ancient Chinese instruments like the sheng, the patent sought for the accordion in 1829 by Cyrill Demian included the characteristic feature of being able to sound an entire chord by pressing only one key. It is this feature that makes the accordion so portable and so useful. It is no accident, for instance, that the accordion’s Argentinian descendant, the bandoneón, was developed for use in churches without an organ, as this one instrument can provide a full accompaniment anywhere for any musical occasion, and still be carried home by one person.

accordion-beauty

So yes, the music points to Josh’s colonising of the tearoom without having bought anything for hours. And maybe it implies a future storyline in which he takes up lodgings in some newlyweds’ household, as in the ITV sitcom. But it also points to both cousins’ interest in the automatic, the futuristic, the technological, and even the extent to which that interest sets them apart from their respective family units. And so ultimately, the music encapsulates a particular combination of rural, automated, and always-slightly-out-of-place that applies equally to the bird (and the clock), the instrument, and both cousins.

Enormous thanks must go to @JoannaCDobson for amazing ornithological input, and @BramblyBarb for identifying the muzak.

* The question over whether this was intended as pun will emerge in a moment. It was.

 

 

#nowlistening: Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm

fffffThere’s a reason the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is one of the best-known fragments of his work. It’s one of the most famous fragments of classical music at all, and in it, Beethoven straddles the listening centuries, a compositional giant. These four notes stand in for everything we think we know about Beethoven: fierce, dark, aggressive, mysterious, irascible. It is the canonical work from the ultimate canonical composer. What is less well-known is that it premiered the same night as his Sixth Symphony. In many ways, the two works could not be more different: the Sixth is not called the ‘Pastoral’ for nothing. And it was the Sixth that Lilian and Justin enjoyed on Sunday night after their first weekend of freedom from Miranda.

Its full title is ‘Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Life’, and it’s apt indeed, as the work portrays the idealized countryside of Romantic thought. The five movements have names themselves: ‘Scene by the brook’, the second movement,e4a7d3cdae887e8fa06ec3e74d6a9c0c closes with a woodwind section imitating bird calls crudely enough even for Robert Snell to identify; ‘Merry gathering of country folk’ would be well-placed to accompany a maypole choreography by Linda Snell. Coming immediately after ‘Thunder. Storm’, it was the fifth movement to which the young lovers relaxed: ‘Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm’. Surely Miranda is that storm, and so we might assume that life at the Dower House will be full of Happy Ever Afters, the sort of ending found in the cleaned-up versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, themselves first published in 1812—contemporary to Beethoven’s symphony. But, as ever, there are clues at play if
we scratch beneath the surface.

Beethoven is known for a kind of cellular compositional style, in which a small fragment (like the opening notes of the Fifth) grows almost organically, and weave through the entire work. The Sixth is no exception, but here we can read the cells as a biological metaphor: Yvonne Frindle writes of “the infinite repetition of pattern in nature” to be found in the rhythmic cells. Nature is indeed nothing if not repetitive: the rising and setting of the sun; the turn of the seasons; the cycle of the weather, of rising and falling pressure, of evaporation and rain and evaporation again. So these lovers, with their newfound bliss, may well enjoy these “cheerful and thankful feelings” for now, but there is no maxim about the calm after the storm, is there? Are we to expect more turbulence for Justillian, perhaps a drawn-out and expensive divorce? And might it all draw out the darker side of Justin, whose own dyspeptic nature we have seen on more than one occasion? Perhaps we’ll be hearing the ominous opening of the Fifth before long after all….

#nowlistening: Kirsty falls apart

Well, Kirsty’s finally crumpled. We knew she would. Not that we wanted her to, especially after her pointed reference to everyone waiting for her to fall apart, but it had been brewing. Perhaps what tipped her over the edge, though, was not Fallon’s cricket faux pas, but Ray Charles and Betty Carter crooning Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” 6-and-a-half minutes into Tuesday’s episode.

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Ray Charles and Betty Carter

As @emilybakermusic has observed, mellow jazzy sounds have been a popular music choice on The Archers recently, and this track continues the trend. In some ways, though, it’s far from an obvious choice of song; as a classic love song, performed here as a duet as if to emphasise the romantic theme, it invites some rethinking of the words if we are to imagine them resonating with Kirsty’s position. But resonate they do, if we consider also the moments after she leaves the tea room, when she explains to Helen how she wakes up at night because the baby isn’t moving, only to find “it’s like losing him all over again.”

Written in 1944 by Cole Porter, and now part of what’s called the ‘Great American Songbook’, it’s been recorded innumerable times, both vocally and instrumentally, by many of the canonical names in jazz. (At the risk of an inappropriately amusing sidenote, it even featured on The Simpsons, in an episode with an apt title for our purposes: “Krusty Gets Busted”.) And so the song itself reiterates—keeps “saying goodbye”—across the decades, to the point that we think we know what it is “about”: romantic love. The familiar musical tropes are laid on thick in this performance too; velvety strings and lush harmonies are matched by Charles’s and Carter’s effortless vocals musing away at the melancholic lyric, and the song is only just raised up from suffocating smoothness by the occasional flick of a harp or a piano flourish.

In juxtaposing this apparent familiarity with Kirsty’s breakdown, the scene jolts us out of what we think we know—even about Kirsty. Throughout Helen’s catastrophic relationship with Rob, and in the witness box, and on the road in the rain as he tried to kidnap Jack, Kirsty was there—Helen’s stalwart defender. But here, it is Kirsty who turns instead to Helen, as the resonance of the lyrics becomes heartbreakingly clear. For in this moment, the song has to be reimagined. The voices may no longer be those of lovers, but of mother and (unborn) son, the latter finally acquiring the voice he never had, haunting Kirsty at night. The cloying soundworld of strings and choral harmonies become the suffocation then of Ambridge itself, with its small-world politics of cricket teams, fur coats hastily thrown on over a nightie, and gossip in the tearoom.

It is this disjuncture between the familiarity of the song’s message and the song itself on the one hand, and the radically reimagined context of Kirsty’s trauma that helps generate the emotional power in this scene. Here’s hoping that, From This Moment On, she can sleep All Through The Night, and find, At Long Last, Love.

#nowlistening: Purcell with Jenny and Fallon

“Land”, Jennifer’s absurdly vague theme for the party celebrating Brian’s vaguely absurd purchase, wasn’t much for Emma and Fallon to go on. They got there in the end, of course, with Jim’s help, and the cornucopia theme went down well enough. But what was the significance of the music Jennifer was enjoying a minute into Wednesday’s episode while Fallon presented the menu?

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Not to be confused with the composer

Jennifer might have meant ‘land’ in the sense of physical space, and Fallon turned to land’s physical capacity to nourish, but ‘land’ is also a cultural concept. In 1904, the German writer Oscar Schmitz described England as “Das Land ohne Musik”: “The land without music”. And so he identifies Englishness itself as lacking in original musical capacity.

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Last Night of the Proms: propped up by Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Parry, and other composers of the “English musical renaissance”.

 

Today, the English composers contemporary to Schmitz are at the centre of English musical identity. With Elgar’s pomp and circumstance and Parry’s new Jerusalem, they are the soundtrack of the establishment. Historically, Purcell stands apart, a lone English name in the musical canon. And his shadow looms long into the twentieth century over notions of musical Englishness. Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra; the main theme in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange; the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Love Is A Bourgeois Construct’: all of them start at Purcell.

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Tamsin Greig in between Debbie Aldridge moments, as Malvolia in Twelfth Night at the National

He is to music what Shakespeare is to theatre, and it is apt indeed that the opening of Twelfth Night accompanied the scene, for the quote is surely one of the most iconic of the Bard’s. With it, Purcell manages to piggy-back on the existing English-cultural capital of Shakespeare, and in turn it is the legacy of both of them that occupied the sonic space behind Jenny and Fallon. In Twelfth Night, the speech comes from the Duke Orsino, musing over an unrequited love; it’s very little to do with food, and much more to do with his self-indulgence, in love, food, and anything else going. Eventually, as @muchadoambridge puts it, “love conquers all and snobby authority (Malvolio) is put in its place”. Perhaps this foretells of Lillian and Justin’s ‘love’ triumphing, and Miranda-as-Malvolio being shot down. Alternatively, if Jenny’s party is itself all about her snobbishness and the importance of reputation, then perhaps it is her pride and her fall that are in such dangerous proximity.

If the Shakespeare text is Purcell drawing on the timelessness of what has gone before, his “Sound the trumpets” represents a point on which others draw in turn. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the castrato voice dominated the operatic stage and church music practice. These voices, preserved in their youthful state by medical intervention, were highly prized and highly paid, in Italy especially. Conversely, the adult male voice singing high without such intervention—what we now call the countertenor—was considered a pretence, a falsity (hence the word falsetto). But in England the politics of voice types were somewhat different, and it was the countertenor for which Purcell wrote this duet. By the mid-twentieth-century, both castrato and countertenor were voices of the past. But when, in 1943, Michael Tippett heard Alfred Deller singing in Canterbury Cathedral (perhaps the most ‘eternal’ of Christian structures), he pointed to Purcell as a point of origin: “I recognised absolutely,” said Tippett, “that this was the voice for which Purcell had written.” And so Deller acquired validation for what was then a very unusual voice.

Purcell stands not just for the imperial Britishness of Elgar et al., which rises and falls in violence, but for the timelessness of England, the unspoilt land, the beauty of rolling hills. In the context of The Archers, he stands for an idea of rural England as untouchable, sacred, eternal. This is surely the myth that Jenny Darling buys into—the inevitability of her lord, Brine, surveying his land; of her managing the household and organising the servant caterers; and of the entire social system of Ambridge relying on this feudal relationship.

Now, if they want any DJing for the party itself, they know where to find us….

#nowlistening: Take That, ‘Patience’

The assassination of JFK. The moon landing. 9/11. The death of Diana. Everything changes in a moment like that.

Oh, and when Robbie left Take That; that’s another one we’ll never forget. And it signalled in 1996 the end of the group, one of the most successful British boy bands since Jazzer’s uncles formed the Bay City Rollers.

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Note: “British” only incorporates “Scottish” when it suits the English. Andy Murray will confirm.

Since then, they’ve reformed as a foursome, welcomed Robbie back, lost Robbie again and Jason too, and enjoyed occasional visits from Robbie. The on-again-off-again history of the band is more flippety-flop than Adam Macy’s sense of fidelity.

Perhaps no surprise, then, that it was Take That’s “Patience” playing last Tuesday (21 Feb) when Tom resisted Pat’s maternal anxiety over his emotional state in the wake of Kirsty’s miscarriage, because she and the Sausage King are also in a perennial state of will-they-won’t-they.

Throughout the scene, the lyrics mirror Tom’s emotions: starting at the second verse lyric “I really wanna start over again”, later lines like “I’m trying to move on” and “I’ll try to be strong” similarly match Tom’s feelings about the situation. This is matched by a mirroring of pitches, as Tom’s voice weaves in and out of the voices of however-many-members-of-Take-That-there-were-that-day. The underlying awkwardness of the conversation gives plenty of space to hear the most anthemic section of the song too, as the chorus kicks in with the crucial sing-along moment. And the gentle clipping of Tom’s voice lends his speech an air of the same slow groove that the song is built on. So his speech altogether merges with the musical frame.

Beyond Take That’s apparently pathological inability to stay together as a band—and probably because of the long hiatus following Robbie’s departure—they operate now not as the boy band they once were, but a “man band”. In the fiction of rock authenticity, “masculinity” is basically left unscrutinised wherever possible, and the narrative is fundamentally about the male ego and the trouble women cause. For the boy band, by contrast, masculinity is far more fragile. Like Rudy Vallee and the crooners of old, the boy band’s narrative is about the vulnerability of masculinity in the face of love. The big rock gods straddle the stage declaring they’re “gonna give you my love” (presumably whether you want it or not…). The boy band instead sing of their heartbreaks, their capacity for fidelity, and their need for women to come and save them. For this boy-band-grown-up, such fragility is still at the forefront; at that anthemic peak, the vulnerable height of Gary Barlow’s vocal pitch plus the lack of discernible words render it more like a wail of heartache than the screaming sexual climaxes of Led Zep et al.

It is this new-millennium masculinity that now characterises Tom, wrestling as he is with his responsibilities and whether he can ever be happy now. His proposal to Kirsty—which once upon a time would have been the Done Thing—was roundly derided by Kirsty, Helen, and all of Twitter. And so he’s a man in crisis, just like men the western world over are—for they are caught between paleolithic ‘programming’, the demands of the patriarchal order, the internal contradictions of neoliberalism where the “do what you like” mantra fails to cohere anything, and the rise of ‘post-feminism’.

To be sure—we might even suggest that Lord Barlow could pop into Bridge Farm if he’s missing a member at any point.