Friday, 8 April 2016

London Plane

London Plane is the second track on the album Folklore by Big Big Train which will be released on 27th May 2016

Following on from David's blog about the title track of the Folklore album, this is the second in a series of blog posts about the songs on the new album which will lead up to release day on 27th May.
Like many Big Big Train songs, this one started with the title. I can’t remember where I saw or heard the phrase London Plane but it immediately struck me as an odd, and interesting, combination of words so I made a note of it and, when we came to write some new songs for the Folklore album, started to read up about the London Plane.
The London Plane is the classic city tree. It is resistant to pollution and is a common feature in the parks and streets of London and other cities. It grows to over 100 feet. It was first cross-pollinated in around 1600 and became widely planted from around 1700. It may have been discovered by the marvellously named (and spectacularly bearded) John Tradescant the Younger.
No London Plane tree has ever died of old age, so it is not known how long their natural life span is. As they re-grow vigorously when cut down, they can almost be said to be immortal.
I have written a few songs with a London theme in recent years so I began to think how a song about a tree named after the city might work. I decided that I would use a single tree as a 'witness' to the history of London over the last few hundred years.
I spent some time wandering around the city to find a good location for my tree (it didn’t necessarily have to be a real specimen, but I wanted to find somewhere where such a tree may have existed and where interesting things would have happened in proximity to the tree.) A couple of early favourite locations, including Mount Street gardens and St Pancras Old Church were eventually discarded in favour of York Watergate.
York Watergate was built at almost exactly the right time as a starting point for the period of history in the song. The Watergate was at the edge of the river Thames until it was left stranded by the building of Victoria Embankment. It is now landlocked, but a tall tree near the Watergate would still be in sight of the river and at the centre of the metropolis.
There are, in fact, a number of large London Planes close-by the Watergate and for the purposes of the song, I decided that one of these would be ‘my’ tree and that it may just have been a sapling when the Watergate was constructed in 1626.
So, the device in the song is that some of the human stories of London from the mid 1600’s to the present day are told, in a roughly chronological order, from the perspective of a London Plane tree growing alongside York Watergate.
I must stress that I made no attempt to anthropomorphise the tree (by law, since the late 70’s, progressive rock bands are not allowed to stray onto Tolkien-esque territory so there would be no ‘ents’ in this song. ) Instead, the tree provides the song with a perspective and an element of stasis around which time passes as England's river flows nearby.
And the passage of time is the main subtext of the song. I am 50 years old now and I am all too aware of how quickly time seems to pass and of how fragile life is.
I won’t explain all of the references within the song, but it is worth saying that Skylon makes an appearance and that this will be the subject of another BBT song which will feature on an EP we will be releasing in 2017. The EP will also include a piece which was written as a prelude to London Plane called Turner on the Thames.  
Finally, the vinyl version of Folklore includes two additional tracks: Mudlarks and Lost Rivers of London (originally released only on the Wassail EP). We have taken the opportunity to sequence London Plane, Mudlarks and Lost Rivers so that they form one side of the vinyl double album as a ‘suite’ of London songs.

13 comments:

progzilla said...

'By law, since the late 70’s, progressive rock bands are not allowed to stray onto Tolkien-esque territory so there would be no ‘ents’ in this song.'

This is true - after the case of the Crown Vs Hansson in 1973, it is now illegal to use Tolkeinesque imagery in Prog music! B->

Racing Hippo said...

What a cracking idea!
I'm still fairly new to London (having been working and living there during the week for three years) and am fascinated by the lesser-known history of the city.
So I'm really looking forward to hearing thiw!

Tobbe said...

Wow, Greg! You just keep on to amaze me how meticulously you create your lovely songs. This beautiful back story really strikes a chord with me and reading it just saved my day actually... I love it...

Phil Ball said...

Really looking forward to hearing this - I have great views of some huge London Planes from where I work in central London. Intrigued to learn that they have never been known to die.

Lawrie L . said...

Ahh , just for being an incredible band and people , many thanks . Cannot wait to get this album , it'll be an experience worth the wait .

Anthony, Colvill. said...

Whilst the anthropomorphism is to be avoided, the placement of a natural observer from outside the human context allows us to use our imaginations to place the human condition is something we can relate to. Love the imagery Greg, it makes you wonder (well at least me) what if all history was recorded by natures observers how different our interpretation of past events would be. The polar bear observing the arrival of the Vikings in Greenland; or perhaps the observations of the oak tree finding itself as host to a king. And if the trees could speak, irrespective of man's legal representations, would they not be Tolkien loud and clear?

Roy Hunter said...

Lovely tale Greg... "Battlefield Band" did a similar thing with a yew tree (which still exists - I visited it a few years ago) in a churchyard near Ormiston in East Lothian... It told the tale of English/Scottish warfare, religious fervour of the Scottish Reformation and other incidents...
Real kudos to you wonderful people with that talent to create such interesting and poignant music!! :D

Andrew J Norton said...

And no coincidence the vinyl will be released by Plane Groovy methinks ... really looking forward to hearing this

Craig Farham said...

Fantastic idea. Trees really are wonderful beings, and I really do think they take in their surroundings and internalise them (without resorting to Tolkeinisms). They also influence their surroundings in a very real sense, converting photons into useable fuel and oxygen.

Have you read Ursula Le Guin's story "The Direction of the Road", which describes relativity and relatedness from the viewpoint of a (conscious) oak tree? When I read it years ago, my view of trees was irrevocably changed. One of my all-time favourite reads...

Spike said...

Every day is an education with Big Big Plane, I mean Train. I shall view these creations with renewed interest as I go about my frequent meanderings through London Town.

Martin Haskell said...

Fabulous! My day job is working for one of the London boroughs in the parks department, and in my time I've planted hundreds of trees.

Giving life to something that will hopefully outlive us all and carry on growing and evolving as the river of constant change flows unrelentlessly past is a huge pleasure for me.

One of the things that gives me great comfort and pride is the 'Tree of Heaven' I was allowed to plant by my mother's (and now sadly father's) grave way back in the late 1990s, it has grown from a puny bare root stick that fitted in my car to be a magnificent tree that gives shade and a magnificent burst of autumn colour to the landscape.

John Croasdale said...

York Watergate - that takes me back to my walk to work at my office in Cecil Chambers on the Strand in the 80s. It is a strange and incongruous sight in its locality, as I recall. Im looking forward to hearing all about the subsequent history of the immediate area. Will Mr Bazalgette make an appearance , I wonder?

Graham Smith said...

One of my favorite things about Big Big Train is that so many songs are rooted (forgive the pun) in real history and artifacts.