1. The First Rebreather
“This man will walk into darkness/ One foot in front of the other/ Into the unsounded depths”. “English Electric, Part 1” is the celebration of the working men and women that built the English landscape, both physical and cultural. These people were hard workers, clever swindlers, and men of the mines; however, they were all ready and willing to roll up their sleeves.
“The First Rebreather” is the true tale of the first aqualung, an underwater breathing apparatus. Back in 1880, the Severn Tunnel filled with not tidal water (as the people supposed), but fresh water from an underwater spring. The flood of water needed to be stopped soon, and the normal hose-laden equipment just didn’t do the job.
So, the people contacted one Henry Fleuss, whom had created the first aqualung. He tried, but was so frightened that he refused to have another go. In stepped good old Alexander Lambert, a diver that fearlessly dove into the tunnel to close an iron door that would cut off the water.
Lambert is the first rebreather. He was the first one to have the guts to use this device for good. He fought his own fear and weakness to come to the aid of those who couldn’t help themselves. “Man all alone in the darkness./ Here he comes: the first rebreather.” Alone in the watery void, Lambert wrestled with himself so that others could be saved. He sacrificed his own whims on the altar of common good.
The sign of true man—a true hero—is the courage shown when the situation calls for it. Many ran. Yes, even the inventor of the device excused himself. Yet, Lambert stood on his on two feet, and strode purposefully and confidently to do what needed to be done. That is a man. That is a hero.
2. Uncle Jack
The second track on Big Big Train’s “English Electric, Part 1” is a tribute to David Longdon’s uncle. Uncle Jack was a quaint man, it seems. He worked in the coal mines from a young age. This is very difficult work, as my own grandfather worked in the coal mines as well. Unfortunately, my grandfather died of lung cancer long ago, so this is a constant reminder of the courage and guts it took to work hard for one’s family.
Uncle Jack was not one to be depressed by his situation. He loved hedgerows, a line of close-knit shrubs that section off fields. These hedgerows are representative of a whimsical, old-fashioned, country era through which Uncle Jack loved to walk and explore. Along his side, he kept his faithful dog, Peg. He loved to absorb the nature around him: the flowers, the insects, the trees, the fruit, the animals. He loved it all, and he was at home here.
“Uncle Jack knows/ A song of the hedgerows”. I can’t help but smile when I hear this track, as I miss people like Uncle Jack. I miss people that love nature for its beauty and simplicity. There’s a world of wonders around us, but we (including me) often forget to stop and enjoy it. Some might think of Uncle Jack as a simpleton or hick, but I’m here to tell you that he is way more intelligent than I am. I get too busy, rush around, and stress myself. Uncle Jack? He enjoyed life. He was curious and adventurous. He used his time to enjoy life! He knew where the truly beautiful things could be found. They are all around us: Can we stop and smell the roses?
3. Winchester from St. Giles Hill
The third track on our spotlight album is “Winchester from St. Giles Hill”. I think that title is pretty self-explanatory. Just imagine: Take the directions that BBT is giving you to the top of the hill. Turn, and view the city of Winchester in all its quaint glory. Such a city deserves a little bit of nostalgic whimsy.
Winchester is sometimes forgotten among the other more famous cities, such as London and York. However, if one wishes to explore the history of England, simply watch Winchester through the ages. It was the site of a prehistoric settlement, “Others came before, to Oram’s Arbour”. It was a Roman town at one time, and later even became a Saxon stronghold. Still later, the Normans conquered the area, and built the immense cathedral there. And now, the city remains. It is a monument to the passage of time, and a reminder of the draw of this beautiful land.
Yes, this song is a tribute to the past, the present, and the future of this great city. It reminds us that our past is important. Unfortunately, many today care nothing for history. They don’t give two hoots about their ancestors; or the sweat, blood, and tears that built them everything they have and hold dear. BBT is giving us this gentle history lesson to remind us to care. Care about your past. Teach your children. Pass it on. Tell the stories. Take your children to see places such as the sight of Winchester from St. Giles Hill. Show them how to reach within themselves to show appreciation, to nurture an attachment to the land and its people, and to love their heritage. Heritage: It’s vital to our future.
4. Judas Unrepentant
The fourth track on “English Electric, Part 1” introduces us to another hero, of sorts. Well, more like an anti-hero. “Judas Unrepentant” is the story of an art forger in the 1960s by the name of Tom Keating. Tom was an art restorer, but he just wasn’t making it. He couldn’t get into the “mainstream” of art where one makes the big money. “Expressing contempt/ For greedy dealers/ Getting rich/ At the artist’s expense”.
Yes, Tom was furious at not only his own unsuccessful business, but at what he saw as the core of his problem: greedy dealers that would make more money on art than the artists themselves. So, Tom went on a personal crusade to forge paintings. He wanted to destroy the balance in the market by peppering it with forgeries. However, he always changed something or left a mark so that he could prove it was his own forgery.
“Venetian expertise/ Inspired by Titian/ Which he modified/ Fine tuned along dutch lines”. You see, he had somewhat of an honorable goal in forging and changing these paintings, though it was certainly fueled by revengeful thoughts. However, in 1970, The Times ran an article that voiced suspicions about apparent forgery in the market. Good ol’ Tom knew his gig was done. He turned himself in; but, with a stroke of luck, his case was dropped because of his age and health.
Sometimes I feel like Tom. I certainly don’t know much about modern paintings, but I do know about music. It irks me to see bands have to go into debt so they can make music for a label. Sometimes, the band makes nothing at all from their own music. Sometimes, they are even in the negative. Now, labels are important, yes. But it still bothers me to see unimaginative people lord over others that have nothing but ideas. I like to buy from the artist, if I can. It’s not always easy, but I hope that Tom’s rage can be a lesson to us: Support artists as much as possible.
5. Summoned by Bells
This fifth track was my least favorite on the album from the get-go. However, as I write, this is my favorite track on the album now. It’s amazing how music can evolve in your mind. Speaking of evolution, this track is about the evolution of places that we know.
Specifically, this track is about the Highfields area of the city of Leicester. Guitarist Greg Spawton’s parents grew up in this region, and this track is an ode to the change that this place has experienced. “Took a little time/ to find the past/ to walk the roads/ we used to know/ that lead us home.” They reminisce about the town where they were young; where they had fights and young lovers. This place was magically ordinary. It held (and still does) a mystical homely quality that only our hometowns can have.
Yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same. “Early evening, midweek/ in a market town/ walking down those/ same old roads/ we know.” Those same old places and roads are there. Some of them are rundown. Some overgrown. Some are even gone now. But the place is still the same. The place remains. And the charm and the comfortable feelings are still there.
This song means much to me. I miss my hometown. I was born in Akron, OH (my current residence) but don’t remember much about it in my youth. For most of my life, I lived in a small country town called New Baltimore, OH. I’m not even sure I can call it a town! I miss that place. And when I go back to the old ice cream shop, or when I go take my kids to the rickety old playground: I can’t help but feel both comfort and sorrow. Sadness because everything has changed so much. Comfort, though, because it’s pretty much still the same. It’s a strange, strained feeling that I never expected to have. But Big Big Train has captured it perfectly.
6. Upton Heath
“All that we are/ And all we shall be/ Walk with me/ Up on Upton Heath”. This beautiful ballad is really nothing more than a nostalgic pining about friends, fresh air, and the Dorset countryside. Sometimes, we don’t need a massive philosophical beast. Sometimes, we don’t need a dark trip through the mind of a depressed man. Sometimes, we just need a breezy, flute-laden stroll in the sunshine; nothing on our minds, except friends. BBT are capable of producing any kind of lyrics they want, and sometimes they just want to reminisce. This takes a kind of maturity that only comes with age and experience: the ability simply to enjoy the good things in life. I assure you: We all have our own Upton Heath.
7. A Boy In Darkness
“A Boy in Darkness” is the second-to-last track on “English Electric, Part 1”. It, however, is also my second favorite track on the album. This song was one of the first that I was able to decode lyrically, as I can really feel the emotion in this song.
This track is about a story that coal miner Uncle Jack told David Longdon. It’s about the horrible conditions that many children had to endure in the mines during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. Little or no concern was paid to the welfare of the kids, as they were seen as just another worker and just another money-maker. In fact, the first verse of this song, “His name is Godfrey Fletcher/ Eleven years old/ Worked these pits for nearly three years/ Does not know the alphabet/ Cannot read in the least”, is part of a Sub Commissioner’s report on the condition of the child workers. This was written in 1842.
The conditions were indeed terrible. I remember reading about these child miners, as they would drag loads of coal through tiny, dark tunnels. They had no skills. They really had no hope. They were just money-makers. “The seam they work is more than a yard/ The headway here is nearly four feet/ He hears the eerie sound of the whistling wind/ Deep down here in the dry and the heat”.
In the end, this track is about, according to BBT, shining light into dark places. These places still exist. Children are still enslaved, abused, sold as sex slaves, and used all over the world. Yes, even in the most civilized places. But, I think it’s more than that. Those children are the more obvious victims, but I see the need for light in other places, such as the public school systems of the US. These places are often dark and are honestly completely hopeless at this point. Kids all over the world are seen as nothing more than patrons of society. Patrons of globalization. Their humanity, their spirits, their minds, and their souls are all lost in the mad scramble to make money or get famous, but they all simply serve an agenda.
“Misplaced blind faith/ In church and state/ Tied up in too much red tape/ If help comes, pray not too late.” I, as a Christian, will still be the first to tell you that even many churches are included in these dark places. These 19th century kids were often compelled to work, even at the behest of the church. Even at the rule of the state. They had no one. I feel that this is still true today. Can we find the real balance? Can we start treating others as the eternal beings that we are? Why do we use others so? We have minds and spirits for a reason, and I don’t believe they should ever be crossed so as to take advantage of their owners. So many dark places. So little time. So little help.
“Hey/ Come on and see what I’ve found/ Too many hours spent under the ground/ Hey/ Come on and see what I know/ Get out in the fields/ And out of the town”. The final track on BBT’s masterpiece is a return to the fields with Uncle Jack. It’s as if BBT is telling us that, after the darkness of the previous track, the answer to man’s inhumanity to man is a return to the fields. A return to the appreciation of our blessings.
Too many hours spent underground, inside, and in town: Maybe we need to go back to our roots. I think that may be the point of this entire first part of “English Electric”. BBT is telling us that, with all the darkness in this world, perhaps the answer is to revisit the Uncle Jacks of the world, those people that are beautifully simple and vastly wise. Maybe we need to remember our hometowns and our pasts. Maybe we need to find those people that are courageous in a raw and noncommercial sense; true heroes that ask nothing in return. Maybe simple is better.
English society, whether the English want to admit it or not, is quite similar to my own in the US. We have such an amazing past, fantastically honorable people all around us, beautiful small towns, and hard workers. Yet, we still take it all for granted. We still decide that it’s just not enough. Man’s depravity is still an issue. But we are capable of combating it! With God’s help, we can return our thoughts to the innate beauty in our societies. We need to push back against the dark corners of our minds and of our cultures, and we need to embrace once again the people and places that we so cherish and that are part of who we are.
Big Big Train in January 2013
Wonderful and insightful review of a sublime album. Thank-you!