My introduction to Hannah Peel came when Spotify, with a knowing smirk on its grubby little face, subtly placed ‘Archid Orange Dwarf’ into my path, before scuttling back off under its (Christian/Soft/Country) Rock.
As always, the great and wise algorithms plan played out exactly as intended; I tripped over ‘Dwarf’ and fell, headlong, tumbling helplessly into a fugue of reminiscence.
I am a man of quite selective tastes when it comes to music, but hells-teeth, I do love a brass band.
I remember being very young; young, but old enough to play out with my mates. Summer; blue skies, bright, hazy days that lasted weeks and weeks – and every so often – the distant sound of horns. The music would rise and fall, seeming to travel unseen through the village, fading away into nothing.
As I came up, and the net widened, I learned that the annual coming of the horns was the colliery band, marching through Murton to ‘Durham Big Meeting’ (Durham Miners Gala). I had no real concept of what the ‘big meeting’ was in those days, but as soon as the horns and brass began their lilt, my mates and I would run to ‘The Terrace’ (the main street in the village) to see the band, and it’s many followers, march.
It worked like this: the band would assemble, along with the colliery banner held high, they would March to Durham, and the village would follow along in their wake. Once there, much merriment would ensue. It was around ten miles to Durham, and probably something like a three-hour walk. I never made the walk myself, but judging by the crates of lager being carried by the good men of the village, I imagine by the end it was more of a stagger. I believe originally, the big meeting was an actual meeting – a chance for the collieries surrounding Durham to come together and celebrate their hard work, and for the captains of industry to plan and build bonds.
All the pits are gone now; empty shafts filled only with shattered dreams, but the sons and grandsons of former pitmen still make the walk each year. The villages March to Durham, talk about the old days, drink and fight.
The music of the colliery band was filled with pride, tradition, sorrow and hope in equal measures. To me it’s always seemed such a juxtaposition; these proud musicians; suited, booted, almost military in stature; gold buttons on their lapels glinting in the morning sunshine – followed close behind by the broken men (and some women) of the village, the lager forming a protective liquid-layer, thinly veiling their own pride, tradition, sorrow and hope.
So when I hear a brass band, I’m transported back to those summers and filled with the grim pride that comes with being the son of a pitman. ‘Dwarf’ is layered with all of these feelings and emotions, but is loaded heavily with that Hovis-advert-awe and breath-catching-rising-hope. That sense that perhaps something important was taken away, but in that loss, something even more important, something even more powerful was uncovered and surfaced. It gives me a sense of real optimism and perseverance found along the terraced streets of the Durham collieries, a belief that things can and will be better.
I only recently started to delve into the back catalogue of Hannah Peel, and I’ve been thrilled (think that’s the first time I’ve ever typed the word ‘thrilled’, but it’s the right word) to find a similar thread running through her work.
‘Dwarf’ belongs to a larger piece from 2027 titled ‘Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia’ that is grand, cosmic, harrowing and humble. Listening to it makes me think of the pit-heaps and the allotments, of the universe and the future, and it makes me feel very small but very proud. I’d highly recommend it.