The Last Of The Steam Powered Trains

The fifteen miles of the Exe valley, from Exeter to Tiverton, is one of the most beautiful stretches anywhere in the world. Trains used to travel the valley. From the end of the 19th Century up until the end of the 1960's they would travel up and down the single line track, going as far up as Dulverton on the edge of Exmoor. At some places in the valley you can still see the remains of where the tracks ran. Every time I see them I'm filled with an incredibly deep desire to see the steam trains on those rails once more.

It's not as though this is real nostalgia. I have never seen steam trains in this valley, have never seen steam trains in active service anywhere, and the tracks were ripped up decades before I ever moved here. It's not as though I have a love of steam trains either - I don't - and it's not as though I think that life was 'better' x number of years ago because again, I don't. No, this is something much more abstract, is something deeper and altogether more illusive and elusive. It's something to do with feeling a romantic, mythologized pull from the past; something to do with imagining a space that in fact exists outside of history. A space peopled only by some recognisable visual facets of history as a kind of fictional re-construction where meaning behind the images is dissolved to simple notions of naiveté and innocence; notions that any 'real' reading within a historical context would almost certainly never have.

It's this lack of 'original' context that intrigues me: a daydreamed retreat into personal space as a means of blotting out the more undesirable moments of the present. There's nothing new in this of course. It's been happening forever. I just find interesting that the recent predilection within media for retrospection without context seems to reflect a certain fear of the future. Gone are the times when it seems we could look forward to a gloriously liberated future where technology would free us from our drudgery (only the most myopically optimistic - and/or wealthy - seem to still think this way). Gone are the visions of utopian tomorrows where cars speed automatically along highways suspended from the skies and robots do all our housework. Instead, so sure are we that a better tomorrow will never come, we populate our daydreams of a better time with snapshots of largely imagined yesterdays. Our sci-fi futures are crudely collaged recollections of other people's pasts.

This fascination with a mythic past is of course terribly English, and terribly Suburban English at that. The white middle classes retreat to the suburbs and to the Country, 'escaping' to those imagined spaces of a green and pleasant land. As a result of all this, Suburbia has always had a somewhat suffocating patina. Especially for 'youth'. It's there in those tales of Jagger and Jones in the early days of the Rolling Stones. It's there in the Punk abandon of the Bromley contingent, out to shock Suburbia and society with their swastika armbands and sex shop leather and PVC clothing. And it's there in Patrice Chaplin's classic Albany Park, which is one of the greatest novels of youthful escape from the suburbs ever penned, although she has to defer to the sublime Shena Mackay as the mistress of suburbia, naturally.

The Kinks too of course tapped into all of this perfectly between 1966 and 1970, reaching their peak on the '68 classic Village Green Preservation Society. Ray Davies' songwriting in this time was peerless, and when he hit his stride just right he was the master of conjuring visions of that mythological England in Pop. What made him so special, and the best of those songs so fascinating, was that he would veer from scathing cynicism to heady romanticism with such great precisions and grace. The combination made for some truly wonderful album collections.

In 2002, we have July Skies. July Skies sound nothing like the Kinks, but the feel, the underlying ideas and essences seem to me to be very similar. I like the sound and the idea of July Skies mostly because it's apparently about making a present out of fragments of a past that are rarely visited by Pop artists - are rarely visited by 'youth'. I love it because it's the sounds of stretching out and of riding through country lanes seeing the world that's out there. It's the sound of Pevsner's English architecture; it's the sound of Stanley Spencer's Upham; the sound of walking the coastal path and peering into long-abandoned fortifications, dreaming of what might have been but probably wasn't. I love it because it's the sounds of my travels up and down the Exe Valley, dreaming of the last of the steam powered trains.

July Skies' singular sonic sculptor Antony Harding has said he was inspired by the guitar sounds made by Slowdive, but I never much liked Slowdive so I wouldn't know about that. For me, July Skies is more the sound of Seefeel without beats, with the only rhythm that of long breaths and butterfly wings beating in the sun. July Skies is the sound of Fuxa less their Felt keyboards; is Deebank's preacher in New England with slightly less polish; is Vini Reilly daydreaming of Jenny Agutter in The Railway Children. Is the sound of stained glass windows in the sky, no less.

Or, for further reference, what about the glories of those Blueboy instrumentals that graced their fantastic singles for the Sarah label; marvellous counterpoints to the soaring Pop brilliance of A-sides like 'Johnny Rave' and 'Popkiss'. Or, going back further, those early Ben Watt releases, which were similarly filled with eerie regret and melancholia, particularly the 'Summer Into Winter' EP with Robert Wyatt.

It's that sense of eerie regret and melancholia that makes July Skies so special. Because for July Skies it's not so much the artefacts of England's past that appeal so much as ghosts. Because where the like of The Smiths rose to infamy in the '80s by making such distinctive cultural references to a past inhabited by the likes of Billy Liar, The Leather Boys and Twinkle, Antony Harding instead refers to inanimate things that people landscapes, where the inference of meaning is left intentionally in the whispers of imagined ghosts. The ghosts, perhaps, of pilots in abandoned airfields, or of highwaymen left dangling in the breeze from the hanging tree. Or maybe just the ghost of the smile you saw in a pair of pale blue eyes one summer's evening so many years ago it feels like yesterday.

All of which, I know, disgusts as many as it enthrals. Which is as it should be.

With July Skies, Harding presents a welcome sound that is gloriously out of step with contemporary concerns, a sound that is as strange and wonderful as the notion of a sixteen year old playing 'She Paints' for nine hours straight. With July Skies we have the spectacle of our pasts, presents and futures coalescing in magnificent harmony through the fissures of time itself.

I can almost feel the steam in my hair.

© Alistair Fitchett 2002

July Skies' Dreaming of Spires album is available through Rocket Girl records.