Sleeve notes

Records are more fun when you can see them.

I am in the process of moving house, again. Ever since university, this has involved lugging around huge piles of records to which I rarely listen; I haven't even any idea what the vast majority of them are. I'm thinking of getting rid of most of them. Curb your gasps - I won't be disposing of my 180-gram version of Nina Nastasia's On Leaving, but there has to be a cull: my arms hurt.

The main downside to this is that I'll miss the sleeves. I wander around record shops looking at all the bright colours, moody photos, funny shapes, sultry portraits and bad haircuts, wondering what these albums sound like. On many occasions, I have spent my earnings on these treasures only to return home to discover that I already owned them as faceless computer files.

So I thought I'd look up a few of my favourite new faceless albums. I'll now describe some of them to you, so you'll know what to look for when you're out shopping. On the first, there's a black-and-white drawing of a girl sleeping on a lion. This image doesn't relate well at all with the music inside. The band is called the Finches and their album On Golden Hill (Ulrike Records) is a very pretty and dreamy record that does, indeed, promote the joys of sleep, yet nowhere in the music is there a sense of the kind of anxiety one would feel should one try to take a nap on one of nature's most dangerous creatures. The album is simple and short but very sweet. I think a lion would enjoy it. And, come to think of it, I could imagine trotting around on a lion's back listening to this, perhaps gently stroking its mane.

The Babies have a great new album out. It is also called The Babies (Shrimper) and the sleeve is a rather chaotic thing: lots of junk displayed on a wall, postcards of the American wilderness, religious iconography, fairy lights and home-made models of pyramids. The Babies is a desperate, lost and tired-sounding record, but in the coolest possible fashion: it's full of great, lazy-sounding pop songs. It is also the perfect record to run away to, if anyone is considering that.

Next, a photograph of five serious-looking men sitting outside with a menacing-looking dog, all staring straight at the camera and, consequently, at you, almost daring you to listen to the album. It's called Mortika - Recordings from a Greek Underworld (Mississippi), a compilation of 21 underground Greek folk songs about drugs, sex, crime, poverty and heartbreak. I don't speak Greek, which makes it impossible for me to be shocked by the stories told in these songs.

What I am left with is a series of very innocent, lovable and scratchy-sounding archive recordings that could quite easily be about hugging your mum, eating sweets or doing charity work. Song titles such as "Hash Smoking Chicks" are the only indication that this might not be the case. Many of them are very suitable for dancing along to, but my favourites are those that are so worn that, at times, you can barely hear anything. They fade in and out as though the music is being played from another building and snippets of it keep managing to drift in through your open window. Bliss. l

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This article first appeared in the 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage