What is the bass guitar for?


I have learned that a musical friend, Mr N.F., is playing bass in a new band. He is coming to our leaving party later on today. I will ask him what he thinks the bass does.

Though not as musical as Mr N.F., I too was a bass player once. One of your jobs is to support the drummer by underlining the beat. The drummer is clearly in charge here. According to his obituary in the Times, Jaki Liebezeit, the drummer in Can, chased the group’s bass player round the studio with an axe because he thought he was “playing too many notes”.

I think you have a second job as bassist, though: to tell the story of the song. To tell people where it is going, how to feel about it, how to dance to it.

Listen to Axelle Red’s Sensualité. I have it in a live version. There is some percussion ticking. The song starts when the bass comes in, duetting with the singer, asserting that this is a serious dancing song. The song has a lot of changes. Each change is flagged up by the bass as it comes along.

I am changing jobs. It looks as if the new place runs along fine. I wonder what I will be able to contribute.

Axelle Red concert Flagey 219 3.JPG

On Friday night we went to see Axelle Red. Drums, a terrific lead guitarist, Axelle from time to time on rhythm guitar, and a keyboard player.

Travelling Companion said there was something missing, vim, energy, bounce, even when she did the songs we know, even when she did Sensualité. It was the bass I said.

Sometimes you find out what you do by seeing what happens when you don’t.

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(Bassist at a barn dance at the Kam Club)



I did indeed discuss the matter with Mr N.F. He didn’t share my high-falutin’ notions. I believe he thinks that the bass is there to add tone, like a tuba he said, not content.

I don’t claim we can hear the past or see it. But I say we can listen and look. (Hilary Mantel)

When Travelling Companion and I went to the US last summer, the west coast detective stories I found on our shelves were a perfect preparation.

books about the West Coast I read before going to California 818 2.JPG

Now, we’re moving to Holland and I’m packing up books.

I have found myself holding onto the American thriller writers – John Sandford, Sarah Paretsky, George V Higgins, Mary Wings, how could you not?. To the free library box on Rue Vanderkindere, from where they are taken really quickly, went most of the British – Val McDermid, P.D. James, Dan Kavanagh and Benjamin Black. This has felt right.

Then over the weekend I read Pat Barker’s latest historical novel, The silence of the girls. It is about Briseis and Achilles, and the end of the siege of Troy.

It made me think of Barry Unsworth’s The songs of the kings, which is about Iphigenia and Agamemnon, and the beginning of the siege.

It made me think of Henry Treece and Geoffrey Trease, who I read as a child, of Rosemary Sutcliff (The eagle of the ninth) and Mary Renault, who I read then and read now, of William Golding (The double tongue), Robert Graves, Robert Harris, Bernard Cornwell (the Uhtred books), Conn Iggulden (the Wars of the Roses). And, by the way, of Shakespeare.

They have all written books I love about ancient and medieval history.

I wondered for a while if by contrast modern history lies so thick on the ground that you don’t need novels to see it.  But that’s not true at all. Think of Hilary Mantel – not just Wolf Hall, but also her book about the French revolution, A place of greater safety. Think of A.S. Byatt (Possession – The children’s book), Barker again (the Regeneration trilogy), Sarah Waters, Helen Dunmore.

These are all British writers, I realised with a bit of  surprise. Few American equivalents come to mind. Ursula Le Guin’s late ancient Greek book, Lavinia, which is thin. Gore Vidal’s Narratives of empire, which only I seem to love. Best of all, John Williams’ Butcher’s crossing, an environmentalist text from 1960 as well as a great historical novel.

Am I just not coming across American historical novels? or is it Americans for tecs, Brits for history? And what about other countries? I don’t know enough to really comment. (The leopard, said our friend Barbara P immediately.)

If Britain is indeed more fertile than the US in historical fiction, why?

Hilary Mantel gave the BBC’s Reith lectures in 2017, on historical fiction.

In imagination, we chase the dead, shouting, “Come back!” We may suspect that the voices we hear are an echo of our own, and the movement we see is our own shadow. But we sense the dead have a vital force still – they have something to tell us, something we need to understand. Using fiction and drama, we try to gain that understanding. I don’t claim we can hear the past or see it. But I say we can listen and look.

Have we Brits more dead to chase?

Wargames in the midlands 1 (/2) – Chesterfield and Bakewell

Derbyshire is in the middle of England; the Peak District National Park is in the middle of Derbyshire. From where I grew up near Manchester, we came into the Peak District from the north west, heading by train or my Dad’s car for Buxton and the Goyt valley and Edale, at the foot of a hill called Kinderscout. (My Auntie Nell, who worked in a pub in Edale at the time, made sandwiches for the Kinderscout Mass Trespass in 1932.)

Last weekend, though, I got into the Peak District from the opposite direction, the south east. After work I got the train from Brussels to London and on to Chesterfield. The British train was the old type when you open the door by opening the window and turning a handle on the outside. I remember how you could jump off and onto the platform while the train was still moving.

On Saturday morning a kind fellow wargamer gave me a lift to a tournament in Bakewell (theme: the Mediterranean, 400-275 BC), where I came ninth, with my Macedonian army, in a field of 22.

opponent Bakewell DBA wargame 219.JPG

(People say De Bellis Antiquitatis is a game of luck, but I never win tournaments, and it’s usually the same people who finish above me. One of those this time was my friend Richard P. He is an ornithologist and in an interval between games informed me that what, in my recent blog from Alkmaar, I called hooded crows are in fact jackdaws.)

Bakewell, which I didn’t photograph, is pretty yellow sandstone.

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Chesterfield, though, is red brick and terracotta. It could be Stockport or Oldham or another town near Manchester.

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It is reputed for a cliché (crooked spire) just like Alkmaar (cheese market).

The town centre felt prosperous although the local football team, allegedly known as the Spireites, were relegated last time to the Vanarama National (a league that is non-league) and look like going down again to the Vanarama North where they will have the pleasure of playing against my team, allegedly known as the Hatters. (I am kept up to date about this by my brother-in-law, a determinedly demoralised Chesterfield fan.)

Apparently nights out in Chesterfield are not as rowdy as they used to be;

people going out Friday night Chesterfield 219.JPG

but pubs still have bouncers.

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The restaurant tram of Brussels (also Gaudí – Barthes, Poulantzas, Althusser, Feyerabend, Foucault – Laurent Binet)

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Yesterday at a quarter to eight, Travelling Companion and I waited with our old friends M.I. and K.I. in sharp cold at the Palais de Justice tram stop for the restaurant tram. Along it came and thirty-four of us climbed on board.

dining tram Brussels 119 2.JPG

It is wonderful. For two hours it clatters around a long circuit, past Flagey and Montgomery and the Tram Museum and Wiener and back up Avenue Louise, while you eat and drink. In another country the food on such a vehicle would be, at best, OK.  In Belgium, if it wants to survive – and it has been going for six years – the food has to be magnificent. The octopus, cooked for three hours at 75°, was the best I have eaten.

(Another octopus story: https://wordpress.com/post/paulhhodson.wordpress.com/2811)

The thing about Belgium, said a Belgian colleague who I told about the tram, is that there is an extensive middle class that likes good food and is willing to pay for it.

I asked for pepper. The waiter came back to inform me that the chef considers that his dishes are seasoned as they should be. If I insisted it was possible but not certain that the chef would relent. I did not insist. Travelling Companion recalled a time in Cannero, on Lake Maggiore, when I asked for white wine with my cheese and the waiter refused to serve it.

I am fond of trams so I was surprised to find only one tram quote on my hard drive. It was from a review in the Spectator a couple of years ago of a book about the Sagrada Familia, recording that Antoni Gaudí was run over by a tram in 1926. This fact had gone out of my mind, although Travelling Companion remembers that his body remained unidentified for several days.

This reminded me in turn of the fact that Roland Barthes was run over by a laundry van in 1980. I remember this because of Barthes’ preoccupation with everyday things,  and as one of the oddly appropriate fates of French intellectuals around that time. Nikos Poulantzas, whose Marxist analysis concluded that the working class could not win, committed suicide in 1979. Louis Althusser, who emphasised our inability to make choices under the iron hand of historical inevitability, murdered his wife while mentally ill in 1980. Paul Feyerabend, my favourite, the cheerful anarchist philosopher of science, survived the decade – but I’m cheating because he wasn’t French.

I know about these people because at about that time, I fancied myself becoming a postgraduate student of structuralist political philosophy or something of the sort, sitting at the feet of Michel Foucault at Paris VIII. I’m glad I found a job instead.

Laurent Binet’s book The 7thfunction of language begins with the laundry van and carries on funnily about all these people. I think it is better, fuller, than his other book HHhH.

A couple of years ago this art work was shown in the street next to ours in Brussels: