Book Review # 73

The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews


The Great Wen
The Great Wen



A book, or a story, needs some type of descriptive framework to give a sense of place, time, background etc.; a local newspaper does not. Its stories are usually told coldly, factually and, apart from the inevitable court case, rarely revisited. People appear for fleeting moments of dubious notoriety and then return to obscurity, the paper itself destined for the pet tray or recycling. Because it is ‘now,’ and about our immediate surrounding, we ‘know’ the background, we have an idea of place. With three or four copies of my local Herald Express a total stranger could possibly work out, by the mention of tide timetables, house and holiday let prices and the entertainment guide that the paper’s target area is a seaside resort that has seen better days and is a cultural backwater. We can glean that, and possibly more, but not quite why the area has slumped to the level of a holding pen for the Jeremy Kyle/Jerry Springer show.

      To all intents and purposes The Great Wen is a local paper. Of sorts.

      A subheading states ‘The London Sinister Exaggerator’. There are news items, interviews, an entertainment guide, comment, gossip and so on but it is also strikingly apparent, from layout alone, that this particular London paper is for no known community of that city or our times, past or present. There is a serious doubt it is even from the same planet.

      The layout lures you into a false sense of time. The imagery—photos and drawings plus various fonts—would, with the absence of the glaring colour, evoke the Victorian/Edwardian eras; this appears to be backed up by the text.  The lead story in issue two has a quote from a certain Bill ‘Big Fig’ Ure:

It’s been hairy I can tell thee. Long hard days of grind and frit, and nights where hunger’s molars chewed. Sometimes sir, we had nought more for our bellies than a single blackberry, nor not even a rosehip for our tea. And also attacked too all the while we was, by all manner of diverse outsidethelaws, wild beasts and even, near the Ford itself, bluenose Atrebates raiders. Then we even by the wayside lost two poor Gush fearing souls. Though the Watery Lord did finally prevail and B Crew hath been duly delivered. But we shall that road sir, trample ne’er again and not no more neither.

Seems fair enough, obviously language from times past but what Bill is talking about are the horrors his team faced building the Highway from London to Oxen Ford (Oxford?). On a later page the botanist accompanying the team recounts the diverse and incredible animals found outside the city. Ure’s “Gush fearing souls” —plus a prayer on page 6 to Gusherati, rejuvenator of the metropolis—also point to a society whose god, or gods, are unknown to us. It is also a place where rock bands from the 60s, 70s and 80s play and even release records already long forgotten. It is a place where the local music festival now has an urchin crèche and live music and hangings can take place on the same stage. So although we are getting a dim idea of the society this paper is aimed at, the only thing that now seems certain is that this is not the Victorian era. Oh no sir.

      And I thought Torbay was weird.

      Is it even London? Yes; other photos, modern ones, usually a double spread, indicate it is London, but a lost one; one where hospitals used to be, and one where ghosts cross roads or, where the images have been viciously scraped with sharp instruments, defaced and toyed with. Another has a run-of-the-mill photo of Londoners on the street. A word made out of spirals and a clock hand takes a bit of time to decipher but turns out to be ‘Morning’; then attention is drawn to a small, sharp golden pyramid about to be trodden on by an oblivious passer-by.

      If some of the images have been desecrated then, in a sense, so has the text. The fonts used are not the friendliest around. In fact, it would seem on the front page that all the vowels come from a different font, one that looks like it was used in a 1970s science program. This same font is then used for complete stories giving the reader a migraine in the process; some titles even use italics leaning left in one line and right in the next, producing a herring-bone effect and about as easy on the eye as a Bridget Riley—oh how we enjoy the pain of art. Mixed fonts and mixed sizes all add to the fun and at times the page can look like the aftermath of a Harry Hill ‘QuarkXpress or InDesign. Which is better? FIGHT!’ with Photoshop left to pick up the pieces. Nevertheless, the final result does make The Great Wen a visual feast.

      The small images and quotes that litter the page gutters and white space takes time and consideration, this is not random. In issue three which has a feature on the Tyburn Festival—twenty years of ‘singing and hanging’—a noose turns up among dried flowers on the back cover and in an interview with another non-entity, the quote marks at the end look like the boots and trouser cuffs of a hanging man. Clever little themes or lucky accident?

      So using the ‘Herald Express detection method’ one begins, after three issues, to get a sense of familiarity and, although all is still as clear as a muddied lake, to see connections. Issue two brings news of the disappearance of soloist and prima donna Delicia Deepool, and in issue three this is now the cover story with, as in our universe with its Cult of Celebrity, all the usual sad riff-raff ghouls coming forward to offer ‘help’; as in purely to get a mention in the paper, to get a breath closer to a celeb. So although this world we are slowly uncovering fills us with unease, it does have some link to our own experiences.

      Then there is the name itself. In the 1820s The Great Wen was a name given to a huge monster that was slowly devouring the countryside around it; yes, the monster was indeed London. This Great Wen though is out of whack with those times and seems more frontier town with Bill Ure and his courageous gang off fighting mud, trees and all manner of diverse outsidethelaws in an unexplored hinterland whilst poor Delicia is possibly a victim of the usual evils of such a heathen, un-Gushtian place. This Great Wen, this record of monster London, could, therefore, very easily really be a paper from a parallel universe.

      Except for three things.

      One, the metatags (which Google robots pick up) used in the source coding of the website state:  "A strange and curious ezine compendium of a non existent London - concerning news not breaking, bands not playing and gossip never spoken." Damn, if it had said something like “The electro-quill version of The Borough of Peckington and Coxcomb Town Gazette. All that is fine for Gush fearing gentlemen, and fair ladies, to peruse at their leisure,” I would have been a little worried.

      Two, the final words of issue two are “The one duty we owe to history is to reshite it.”

      And three, although not seen by these eyes for well over twenty years, I happen to know the creator of this strange beast.

      Tim Harrison was, back in the early 1980s the front man, singer, cover designer and lyricist of one of the UK’s great lost bands, The Dancing Did. Lost but by no means forgotten. At about the time The Great Wen, issue three, was being completed, at the start of 2011, the rock magazine institution NME (New Musical Express) decided to add the Did’s only album ‘And Did Those Feet’ to their 100 best LPs You Have Never Heard. So glowing was this retrospective review that if it had come out in 1982 then the fate of the band would have been very, very different.

      Lack of time and money made the album a hurried affair. Musically it now sounds a bit dated, maybe a tad confused and certainly never fully captures the raw magnificence of their live work, but what still shines through are the brilliant lyrics, a fact not missed by the NME who quote more than a line or two, a rarity in most music reviews.

      Harrison certainly had a flair for an opening line: take the menacing Unctuous prattling pecksniffs quake and quail and quiver, as the Badger Boys glide down the street like pike in an empty river or the more dainty Take good care of your petticoat Alice, if you want to play cricket with your brother. The songs were of rural themes but set to rhythms far outside of folk or even rock traditions and without using the obligatory violin, penny whistle or bodhrán. If you want your ‘folk’ music to go beyond the tedium of the likes of Mumford and Sons, then the Dancing Did make a good starting point. [I should point out that the name is not some arty use of auxiliaries but a shortened version of ‘Didicoi’, a Romany word for gypsy used around Dancing Didville, AKA Evesham, Worcestershire.]

      If you wonder what all of this has to do with The Great Wen, it is a single not on the album (but luckily included on a recent CD reissue) that pulls this review together. Easily in my top 5 all-time best singles ‘The Green Man and the March of the Bungalows’ laments the battering and destruction of rural ways. The Green Man Used to be so strong…used to be so happy, used to be so He! He! He! and continues:

Bonfire beacons used to blaze upon the hills
When I was in my prime
But now my green strength has been slowly sapped
after crime after crime after crime
after time after time after TIME.

My forests are razed and my fields are attacked
my bridges are burned and my sackcloth is sacked
My ceremonies are stilted and my maypole has wilted
New fangled fireworks replace children who sing
…and there’s too many bungalows being built for my liking…

Who is doing the razing? The sacking? The burning? Why, surely not our hero friend Bill Ure. Is this the Great Wen meeting The Green Man head on?

      In some respects, very possibly.

      The Did’s sympathies certainly lie in the rural camp and, though of urban origin, with a reference in the aforementioned prayer to the city as ‘shitty’ the Great Wen appears to also be leaning that way. Both, as a concept, seem concerned with, or at least draw attention to, the fate of rural Britain and its destruction by a non-caring populace. A populace more interested in a leaking aquarium or a found eyelash of a missing singer. But one is not necessarily a continuation of the other; Did lyrics told stories, set scenes, embellished and gave life to characters, The Wen remains a newspaper forcing us to imagine what the story is behind the cold facts as given, and its characters, when interviewed, are odious, self-important and vacuous with no story to tell.

      To create the lush visuals is one thing, but to then restrict the creative possibilities of the writing to sustain the ‘deceit’ must be quite frustrating, and a lot harder than meets the eye, especially if one can read Rail Trail in last Saturday’s Herald Express. I can randomly select any sentence from the article and give you an instant cure to insomnia.

Even on a Saturday afternoon numerous goods trains were running, we crossed 4-6-0 No6978 Haroldstone Hall on a southbound coal train, and 4-6-0 No 6874 Haughton Grange southbound on a mixed freight.


Return home that evening was on the last possible train, the 4.30pm from New Street, hauled by diesel-electric No D35 and changing at Bristol onto the 7.15pm to Newton Abbot hauled by diesel-hydraulic No D822 Hercules.

     All this, and lots more, were from notes taken on Saturday, November 23 1963, when Harrison was still playing with wax crayons, to be regurgitated nearly 50 years later to whom? Are there really that many trainspotters reading the Herald? Truth really is stranger, sadder and far more insane than fiction, and I believe this demonstrates just how clever and focused Harrison has to be.

      In a 1982 interview Tim Harrison said of the music industry “…everyone I’ve met is a fucking idiot,” and continued, “I’d seriously consider another medium because this is too bloody vulgar for us.” Nearly 30 years later (Didn’t you use to sing with the Dancing Did?/ I said sure did, sure did) Harrison has found his medium and a new voice. The Great Wen is art, it is design yet anti-design. It is lyrical nonsense yet fantastically creative and full of inventive and creative dabblings despite the self-imposed constrictions placed upon it. The Great Wen is beautifully disturbing; it is half-way mad yet verging on genius, a bugger to get your head round but, by Gush, it is free!

Final note: There is a huge amount of people out there who would love the Dancing Did to reform, if only in a studio context to get some of the later work out and maybe to rethink and record a lot of the earlier. Difficult, I fear. Playing live would therefore prove even more impossible, not for lack of will, but because of the Great Wen. Should the Dancing Did ever perform live again I demand, and fully expect, public hangings to share the stage. Burn the witches, burn the bungalows. MGS

The Great Wen: FREEE Issue three out now; four should be on its way. All available at

The Dancing Did: And Did Those Feet. Reissue on Cherry Red includes bonus tracks and some live stuff that shows just how noisy those bloody Wasp synths could be in the hands of a certain Martyn Dormer.

The only known live footage of the Did is them at the Marquee. A single camera is all you get but worth a visit. The Green Man and the March of the Bungalows

That glowing NME review plus other links.

Sadly for all you insomniacs or anoraks out there, The Herald Express does not have Peter Gray’s Rail Trail articles online. There is a letter though which proves these articles really do exist. Letter.