I’ve done an album. You might have heard. I appear to have been going on about it somewhat.
But, as part of ‘doing an album’ – which I hope does not become known as ‘doing a Momo’ or anything like that in the future, implying as it does that completing another epic and completely pointless creative project has finally turned my name into a verb for folly – I have also ‘done an album cover’.
On this album cover is a circle. A thick circle like a perfect letter ‘o’ with an icon of an aircraft in the bottom of the ring. It’s a kind of logo, really, in homage to airport signage and travel iconography, all of which has long prompted me to feel strangely rude.
Now, it was only after I’d taken delivery of the printed preview covers that I realised how jolly clever I’d turned out to be.
So clever, I’d not noticed myself planning it. Though I have vowed now to tell everyone it was indeed a very consciously planned bit of symbolism, obviously. Because this little logo does rather represent the fact that the music itself comes full circle, starting and ending on the same little riff of music.
Interestingly, after almost two weeks of this little musical round trip being out there among its very first reviewers, freed from the bonds of the studio and taking first skittery Bambi steps out into the jaws of the wild, I find myself pondering the idea of coming full circle.
I watched a BBC4 documentary yesterday. The kind that stops me in my tracks when I see it on the iPlayer – and which makes the lovely first lady of Momo glance heavenward and leave the room.
I scooched into bed with the laptop to indulge myself for 80 minutes, during a lazy Saturday recovering from staying out way past our bed time – watching the blessed Annie Mac DJing in town. I can’t imagine that we didn’t just blend in naturally with everyone else there at the Orange Rooms, you understand, but I now wonder with hindsight whether being old enough to be everyone’s parents does, in fact, show. Especially if you’re a parent that really gets off on black and white archive documentaries about Zeppelins.
D’you think that stuff shows? Okay, so I’ll admit that tweed was probably a little hot for the occasion anyway.
Yes – Zeppelins. Or, in this case, one particular Zeppelin.
Airships are another weird fetish that I suspect more people share than I once knew. I have said many times, and you have probably heard me do so wistfully yourself, while you left the room, that I have a memory of the old Goodyear blimp droning over my primary school in Bournemouth one summer.
It haunted the south coast that year I recall, and the balmy evening when it actually slid very slowly behind the trees in our back garden was like some kind of moment of worlds meeting worlds – where heavenly creatures reveal themselves to little boys and descend into their little fenced existences for a fleeting, orb-eyed moment, exhilarating their little legs into carrying them indoors shouting: “Mummymummy! You’ll never guess what’s in the garden Mummy!”
I wasn’t dragged through the catflap in an orange hue, thankfully. And Mum didn’t have to run outside and scream at a Wyoming skyscape and then climb Table Mountain to get me back. We went outside and looked up and the sheepish blimp took an underpowered age to move off, I seem to remember. Which was just fine.
Which was, in fact, just wonderful.
The hook is, I guess, that airships are a giant, floating, looming, spellbinding reminder of a different age – an age that had technology we now don’t. Like the seventies and Concord, or the sixties and the moon rockets. Or the eighties and Betamax video recorders – we used to be able to do this amazing stuff and now we simply can’t. Isn’t this a bit remiss?
Isn’t this a crying shame, in fact?
Or were these things all gigantic, indulgent follies?
Well, the ardent pragmatist in you is protesting that no it isn’t a shame and yes, these things were a waste of rich people’s money. So boo hoo. And you’re right.
But. I will have to bind and gag my lefty self here and say something awkward. Stop squirming, lefty self.
Some of the coolest things Personkind has ever actually built could only have happened thanks to the vanities of rich people. Stinking rich people.
The Renaissance may arguably have been started by a local chap called Frank, pulling on some humble hessian and popping out to the job-seeking poor massing outside 12th century Florence to lift their spirits with a few creative skits but, let’s face it, the whole idea would basically be nowhere now without your Sistines and your St Peters and your dirty-great statements of power and cash.
The Uffizi and all the galleries of Europe would be two-thirds empty today, had it not been for bored rich bastards calling over the casually creatively colossal talents of Michelangelo and the gang and asking them to spruce up the back bedroom.
And St Francis himself was, after all, the bored son of a wealthy cloth merchant. How else d’you think he could have afforded all those pets?
The pyramids. The palace of Versailles. Jay Leno’s car collection – so many wonderous testimonies to human ability were actually built on the backs of slaves by rich men showing off.
The problem with stuff built for rich men showing off – apart from the whole slave thing – is that a defining element is always key: economy. These things invariably need impractical great glumps of cash pumped into them to keep them afloat.
Hydrogen certainly did not bring down the Zeppelins. Heavy money bags did. Or, to be more precise, the market for very expensive, very slow air travel very quickly sprung a leek and shriveled.
Really, did you need to spend all that extra time and airfare dragging a lounge pianist and a baby grand to Rio with you?
Ditteke Mensink’s film isn’t about airships. It’s about one particular airship and one particular journey it took – perhaps the spiritual daddy of them all, the Graf Zeppelin and her circumnavigation of August 1929.
I’ve read about this epic tale before. I remember Hugo Eckener laying his reputation on the line by trying to prove that one of eccentric old Baron Von Zeppelin’s weirdly compelling aeronautical grandchildren could even make such a trip. Eckener was a journalist on Friedrichshafen’s local rag, when he was sent to interview the crazy bloke who kept testing giant floating sausages over the lake.
Slowly captivated by the clunky poetry of the technology, young Hugo kept hanging around the Baron’s workshops, getting to know how to pilot these giant silver fish. Twenty years later, he was himself the face of the Zeppelin corporation and, in a way, an ambassador for his tentatively re-asserting homeland.
An interesting dynamic for the tireless Eckener turned out to be how his passion for this mode of travel – which may well have ended up as much a passion to see Germany symbolically reinvigorated and freed from reparation – found itself at the mercy of rich, powerful men. A few years later, Eckener was not happy about having to put Nazi swastikas on the fins of the mighty Hindenburg – and in 1929 he was not happy about having to shift the centrepoint of the Graf Zeppelin’s epic circle of the globe from his little Bodensee town to New York, at the behest of William Randalf Hearst. But the newspaper mogul was now paying for this adventure – and for a lot of global exposure. So Hugo sucked it up. Like a sensible old hack.
What I didn’t know was the too-good-to-be-true Hollywood human dimension to the trip. Lady Grace Drummond Hay.
On a trip that was entirely a PR stunt for various posturing chaps on a giant sausage, she was the only chick on board. And like a typical chick, she missed the point and spent the whole time mooning about an ex boyfriend. Cuh.
Of course, it didn’t help that he was on the bleedin’ blimp as well.
Grace was, of course, the meaningful heart of the expedition by the end. I think she made the most of those windows. And her telegraphed articles back to Hearst and the NYT turned out to be newspaper gold, transforming her into a star by the time she landed back at Lakehurst.
Her frank personal memoirs, ably voiced by Poppy Elliott, structured Mensink’s film and told of a young woman determined to be strong in a man’s world, but torn by a love that could never fully be. Which you are not to dismiss as soppy narrative slop there, I should say.
There this woman was, poised to be the first to circumnavigate the globe and to scoop her own story as a journo, and at the last minute, good old uncle Bill Randy wheels in a ‘mentor’ to go with her. And, pausing not a grumpy old bastard’s moment to reflect on how dispiriting, sexist and patronising this is for the girl, wheels in specifically, the love of her life – Karl Henry von Wiegand. A man with a troubled marriage, with whom she had had an affair a while before. And over whom, she had been struggling to get ever since.
Go figure. Poor thing. Actually, poor things. Locked up in a balloon for 21 days, trying hard to both be stoic and good, but breaking apart inside as the world slid by silently underneath – this wouldn’t be a Club 18–30 holiday for anyone. Tensions of many kinds stretch tautly across the story.
And, in fact, I wonder how he felt in the years afterwards. For they continued to work together, weirdly, and were even interned in a Japanese war camp together during WWII. She subsequently died of something tropical when they were released in 1943. He brought her ashes back to England after her funeral. And went on to live with the memory of this beautiful, eloquent, famous woman, the unattainable love of his life, until he was 84. As he said to her at the end of the Graf Zeppelin trip: “My dear trust me, you’re the lucky one.”
Looking through two different ages of image degredation – bleaches, speckled film and low bandwidth pixelation, the images are still moving. But it is definitely another world. A world of lobsters over Siberia and of a privileged, Modern world, slipping over the real world at a safe, well table-serviced altitude.
Still, it’s quite a story. Against the odds, and despite a few hairy moments, the Graf Zeppelin slid into Lakehurst, New Jersey after 21 days. She’d circled the Earth and made it back in one piece to a hero’s welcome.
She went on to have an unblemished service record across the Atlantic, as all civil Zeppelins did for that brief interwar period of history that is now gone.
This is a film of 80 minutes about a trip of 21 days.
I picked up a copy of The Golden Age of Exploration afterwards and looked again at the logo on the front, of a big circle round the Earth, and I wondered if I have come full circle in my thinking about this 80 minute record of 21 tracks.
Putting yourself out there is risky. Embarking on an adventure of PR can wind up with you looking an idiot. Or looking dead, if you’re really flying a home-made balloon contraption over the Himalayas.
I’d not remembered what it is like to put out a creative statement – to step up and have the nerve to tell people you’ve made something. Something of and for you. Just you. Not for a client, to fit some brief. Just, y’know, an exploration of your soul, ‘n’shit.
I had not, I should say, taken note of how much opinion I myself have on everything creative I’ve ever bought and loved. Turns out lots of people do this. And it’s harder to take than I remember, despite being apparently mentally prepared before hand that I walk a lonely creative road.
When young Calvin Harris blared in capitals all over Twitter that reviews of his new album this summer were all done by rich kids and idiots and that they should try putting two years of love and heart into a thing and then have rich idiots stamp all over it casually, while texting their rich mates about where to have lunch, I felt his pain. And I replied in Tweet by telling him he should try putting seven years of love and heart into a thing and then have “no bastard to listen to it”. Think that helped the boy calm down.
Hearing a good number of reviews from good chums honestly giving me feedback over the last fortnight, I have honestly wondered what to change about the record. Is the mix, after all, too rich?
I’m not sure what’s tougher to suck up – that one person says “blimey, it’s just too long, mate’ or that another doesn’t mention it at all. A surprising number of chums have, it seems, lives of their own to get on with, rather than a burning desire to call the bloke who works from home and thinks too much to tell him his home-made record has shifted their view of the universe on its axis. Funny.
Bless me, I’d hoped that more of them would feel excited enough to let me know either way, though. Or it may be that some can’t find the words and are hoping I’ll never mention it. Either way, I didn’t think for one moment I’d be up at night worrying about it.
But here’s the thing. Underneath the shock of completing something and having loved ones actually get to hear it and form a passing opinion on it, even one of indifference, I think I am back where I started. Back to thinking that the record I made is, um, almost exactly as it should be. I think I do know my creative mind. Even if it turns out I’m trapped in it.
Feedback has been so far very mixed on the negative front, and pretty universal on the positive. I can’t yet say for certain that I haven’t embarrassed myself – the real hope and fear – but I strongly suspect that I haven’t. No more than ususal. Not in the music, anyway.
I think… it’s good. And deliberate sounding. And likeable. And distinctive. And very ‘me’, apparently. And for whatever flimsy or solid reason, some at least seem to just love it.
You have to set out, in order to arrive. Adventure is risky. And I am a total idiot. But even if your passion is for a thing that ultimately has no sustainable future, that can’t ultimately stay afloat, you have to follow your heart and take a risk.
And so you learn. And hopefully enlarge your view of the world.
Maybe I’m right back where I started. But maybe that’s okay. I feel fuller.
I may be fool. But I think I can’t wait to set out again.