Recently I’ve been revisiting and rather enjoying the two Sufjan Stevens albums dedicated to American states: Michigan and Illinois. You may well have heard them, but if not I’d highly recommend them. There is much to be enjoyed beyond Sufjan’s admirable pedagogic intent. You have to credit his chutzpah, though you sense he has bitten off more than he can reasonably chew: he still has 48 to go, if you include Delaware, so he needs to pick up the pace a little. Furthermore, recent non-geographically-themed releases seem to be distracting him somewhat from the Herculean task he has set himself.
Anyway, the little man’s big ambition has inspired me, and I’ve begun to plan a series of albums dedicated to England’s green and pleasant counties. Whilst significantly smaller and generally less populated than America’s states, there are almost as many, so it’s fair to say I’ve got about as much work to do. As of the most recent amendments in 2009 there are currently 48 geographical or ‘ceremonial’ counties of England. I didn’t know, for instance, that the City of Bristol is a county – who knows what other informative pearls my research may uncover.
Like Sufjan himself, I intend to start the series with my place of birth: Cumbria, the third largest county geographically yet one of the most sparsely populated. There are clear parallels: like Michigan (aka the Great Lake State), Cumbria is famous for the Lake District national park. I’m hoping to interest the Cumbria tourist board in providing some funding. Here are some of the song ideas I have so far:
An epic opening fanfare celebrating Kendal Mint Cake, the sugary confection favoured by mountaineers. I’ll thread in a bit of history about its invention and the emergence of the ‘big three’ manufacturers (my dad favours Romney’s). It sports a slightly tangential middle 8 recalling the fateful occasion when South Lakeland Leisure Centre changed its name to the more familiar Kendal Leisure Centre.
A jaunty piece in 5/4 time recommending some mountain walks that offer breathtaking views of the Lakes. Did you know that Cumbria contains every peak in England over 3,000 feet above sea level? I might pepper this song with an illuminating autobiographical anecdote of how I climbed the Fairfield Horseshoe this summer.
A baroque harpsichord-led waltz explaining the attractions to be found at Muncaster Castle, winner of the Cumbria Tourism ‘Large Attraction’ award 2011: it features a cracking owl sanctuary, a less than demanding maze and ‘heron happy hour’ at 4:30pm daily when the local wild herons show up on the lawn for feeding. Lovely stuff.
Obligatory ode to the Romantic poet William Wordsworth. I expect the lyric will borrow heavily from that “I wandered lonely as a cloud” poem. I may use the recent floods in Cockermouth as a metaphor for how Wordsworth flooded the English language with nice poems.
To the tune of ‘John Henry’ this folky number lists the achievements of notable art critic, progressive social thinker and philanthropist who spent his last years in Coniston. I gloss over the frankly unfounded accusations of paedophilia.
A singalong romp that draws on a chant sung by supporters of Carlisle United FC, who I briefly supported as a teenager and occasionally still refer to with affection as ‘the lads’. The first verse focuses on the remarkable statistic that The Foxes have won the Football League Trophy more times than any other team, while the second verse is devoted to Rory Delap who spent his early career at Carlisle honing his trademark ‘long throw in’. Delap continues to taunt defences with his long-range missiles for Stoke City.
A homely banjo tune (a duet with Sufjan himself) which takes its cue from the song off Illinois where Sufjan audaciously makes every line rhyme with ‘Decatur’. For my Cumbrian version I have substituted Decatur for Whitehaven, a small coastal town near the Sellafield nuclear power plant. Rhymes I have so far include: shaven, raven, craven, misbehavin’, brazen (half rhyme).
This segues seamlessly into…
An instrumental interlude paying tribute to the brave folk of Whitehaven, the town chosen to pilot the switchover from analogue to digital television. At the end of the 18-month pilot period 81% of the Whitehaven residents interviewed claimed they experienced no problems with the switchover. Following the successful completion of the pilot digital television was rolled out nationally to the enjoyment of television audiences everywhere.
A loving ode to two famous scientists who lived for a time in Kendal, now commemorated by a blue plaque: John Dalton, sometimes referred to as the ‘Father of Modern Chemistry’ (though personally I think that honour should actually go to Anton Lavoisier); and Sir Arthur Eddington, Einstein’s chum who led an expedition which provided the first experimental evidence for the theory of general relativity.
Once I’ve completed this I plan to work on Yorkshire, a double album.
Max, November 2011