As a companion piece to my “liner notes” post on English Electric—Part 2, here is a compilation of some virtual “liner notes” that expand a bit more upon the ones that are already available at Big Big Train’s album page for English Electric—Part 1:
1. The First Rebreather is “the true story of a man called Alexander Lambert who dived heroically into the flooded Severn Tunnel in 1880. The navvies who built the tunnel and who were hard-drinking fearless chaps were terrified that the river would break in and drown them all. However, when the tunnel flooded, the water was found to be fresh rather than tidal. The navvies had, in fact, struck an immense underwater spring which flowed through a fault in the rock (they called it The Great Spring). Conventional diving equipment was used to try to close an iron door in the tunnel to hold the water back. The equipment failed due to the air-hose continually being snagged.
The tunnel engineer had heard of a man called Henry Fleuss who had developed an experimental diving apparatus called a Rebreather (in effect, it was the first aqua-lung.) Fleuss was persuaded to make an attempt on the tunnel but was so frightened that he turned back and said he would not return to the darkness ‘for £10,000 or more.’ The equipment was handed over to Diver Lambert who carried out a number of dives which involved swimming 1000ft up the flooded tunnel in complete darkness. Lambert, The First Rebreather, confronts his fear in the tunnel whilst the workmen await his return.
‘The first rebreather’ is a strange phrase which sounds almost super-heroic which, indeed, Lambert was. So, I decided that, for the purposes of the song, The First Rebreather would be seen as a sort of superhuman creature come to save the navvies from the Great Spring.
Lambert would, of course, have looked very odd in his diving gear and, to the superstitious men, I’ve imagined that he would have looked like a Mummer (also known as a Souler). Mummers’ plays generally feature a character who brings back to life a dead person, so that fitted quite nicely as Lambert tries to bring air back to the lungs of the tunnel.
In the song, The Great Spring has also become a character. I remember being frightened as a child by the story of Beowulf swimming into the mere to slay the beast and again, I’ve used that imagery. In Beowulf, his men waited by the water for him to return. He returned ‘at the ninth hour’. The closing vocal section of the lyrics is about the workmen waiting for Lambert to swim back to the surface. As The First Rebreather is also a direct follow-up to Winchester Diver, I have also worked in some references to The Divine Comedy.” [GS]
2. Uncle Jack is about David Longdon’s uncle, John Henry Herring, who was a collier who “worked in the pits around the Heanor (Derbyshire:UK) area. He spent so much time beneath the ground that he truly valued his time on the surface. Jack would walk his dog (Peg) and would take notice of all that was happening around him in the natural world. The changing of the seasons, birdsong, woodland wildlife and the ‘bustle in your hedgerow.’” [DL]
3. Winchester From St Giles’ Hill is about the mutual influence of geography and history; namely, “the development of the city with its place in the landscape.” Greg Spawton explains: “Winchester is a beautiful and historic city in the south of England. St Giles’ Hill lies to the east of the city and forms part of the western edge of the South Downs. From the top of the hill you can see all of Winchester, and the song is an historical view of the development of the city and of (as Peter Ackroyd calls it) the ‘long song’ of England.
Winchester stands at a number of crossroads in time and provides a narrative of British and English history in miniature. There was a prehistoric settlement at Oram’s Arbour, then it became a Roman town and afterwards, a Saxon capital and stronghold. The Normans built a castle and a massive cathedral. It became a centre of learning with the opening of Winchester College and, in Victorian times, the railways came and with them the modern age.” [GS]
4. Judas Unrepentant is about Tom Keating, “an art restorer who eventually turned to art forgery after failing to break into the art market. He was on a personal crusade to destabalise the art world by forging works to fool the experts. He deliberately planted clues in the works that would reveal them as forgeries. He also cunningly managed to falsify provenances for his forgeries.” [DL]
5. Summoned By Bells is about memories from Greg Spawton’s mother “who grew up in a working class area of Leicester called Highfields.” After a family trip to revisit the area, Greg was inspired to write the song by this episode: “As we drove away, we stopped to let a young girl cross the road. If we had been able to stand in that spot 70 years before, that little girl could have been my mum on her way down to Spinney Hill park. With this image in my mind, more clear to me than the changes in Highfields, was the golden thread of continuity running down from the past.” [GS]
6. Upton Heath is “a moment of calm amidst the frantic, flamboyant and epic moments elsewhere. Some Big Big Train songs can be lengthy, dynamic and intense, Upton Heath is none of these things, it is uplifting, relaxed and has its own sense of peace.” Note that “Upton Heath is a place in Dorset, UK and Greg has chosen this title because it is one of his favourite places to go walking.” [DL]
7. A Boy in Darkness is about the children and young people employed in the colleries who “were expected to work down the mines in hard conditions once they had left school”, as well as all “children who suffer at the hand of those to whom they are entrusted.” David Longdon says the song’s message is: “Don’t be afraid to shine bright light into dark corners.” [DL]
8. Hedgerow picks up where Uncle Jack left off, with “a collier’s love of nature, seasons and hedgerows”. David Longdon explains: “It is about my Uncle Jack once again only this time it focusses on the contrast between his life on the earth’s surface and his working life below. The song has an anthemic feel to it as it develops. It includes great musical contributions from Rachel Hall who adds layered violin. Backing vocalists Lily Adams and Violet Adams reprise their nursery rhyme-like list of the sort of things that you would expect to find in a British hedgerow, previously featured in Uncle Jack (track two).” [DL]