Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Ramases in Felixstowe

Ramesses II, commonly known as Ramesses The Great, lived probably beyond his ninetieth year and ruled Egypt probably for over sixty years. Many of the most famous monumental sites in Egypt were constructed by slaves under his orders and to his glory: the rock temples of Abu Simbel, the temple to his consort Nefertari, and the complex between Qurna and the desert now known as the Ramesseum. Ramesses died in about 1213 BC, a twentieth century postmortem revealing many battle wounds and healed fractures, crippling arthritis, and a mouth abscess severe enough to have killed him.

Over three thousand years after his death, it is said that Ramesses II appeared to Martin Raphael, a Sheffield-born ex-Army PT instructor, who, like the pharaoh, had also achieved success in the construction industry, most notably through a central heating business in Scotland. Ramesses announced that Raphael was his reincarnation and was to tell the world, no matter how resistant it might be, of the truth of the universe. This, Raphael, duly renaming himself Ramases (an adjustment of spelling which, I note, retains the first two letters of Raphael, Martin), did through, principally, two albums of music released in the 1970s which have attracted considerable interest as we rescue and reexamine psychedelic and progressive rock.

The first of these, Space Hymns, was recorded with the collaboration of the four musicians who would go on to be 10CC, along with extensive vocals from Ramases’ wife, now known as Selket after the scorpion god of Egyptian mythology. The liner notes embedded within the spectacular fold out Roger Dean designed sleeve dedicated the work to the earth people who have the ability to reflect on and shape their destiny. The earth is a vantage point from which both macrocosm and microcosm seem the same: as so many particles in empty space. The album is, in many way, a hymnal to this empty space and the kinds of reunifications required if we, the earth people, are to save ourselves and the universe.

Now, let me listen to Space Hymns for you. This is how I hear it. The sun is fading, wreckage strewn, the earth is losing life and light. The Life Child who came to free our spirits, we left hanging on a hill. The singer is visiting from a forgotten place, is lost here on earth, a place where people sing too but only the very last song, their very last chance. Ramases plaintively wonders how he will be able to communicate with the people of the earth when he has travelled so far across the universe for so long. While uncovering molecular delusions, amidst the plainchant, sitars and the lost cries of a prayer caller, he robustly oaths fuck. He’s touched the sun. He’s dedicated his many journeys to Quasar One. He’s seen a balloon off the surface of the moon and advises it to take it easy but the balloon, the earth people’s planet, explodes at the end of the song. Ramases’ fear for the earth and its hard to reason with inhabitants ultimately leads him to implore Jesus to return. With the right kind of acceptance of time, the seasons, the rotation of the earth and our humble place, we might just be able, face-to-face, take our place with the giver.

Ramases is a weary cosmic traveler. While he has hopes, it is his fears which are most articulated and worked through. He seems as a melancholic angel, witnessing and lamenting the desolate scene before him, hardly able to intervene beyond a call to faith.

A little after the release of Space Hymns, Ramases and Selket moved to Felixstowe in Suffolk, some twenty miles from where I live now. Felixstowe in the early 1970s had the recognisable mix of Victorian grandeur and lively vulgarity typical of an English seaside town. In 1891 the Empress of Germany, Queen Victoria’s daughter, visited and took the spa water. In 1970 you could still believe that she might return to the neat cliff side gardens and perhaps, as the spa itself no longer existed, take in a show at the Spa Pavilion, where the most polite of British music hall veterans were in summer variety. At Cordy’s Alexandra Restaurant, austere ladies in lace pinafores would bring you an assortment of cakes and neat sandwiches on gilded trolleys. To the other side of the pier, out of genteel sight, were Charles Mannings' amusements: a waltzer, dodgems, slot machines, a crazy house with a cakewalk exit where I was humiliated as a self-conscious child, and a precarious wooden big dipper. Still further, around Languard Point by the confluence of the Rivers Orwell and Stour, were, sheltered, the small docks and various military and otherwise secure establishments on the dunes and marshes.

I would visit my friend Adrian with my bass guitar, hit the root note of a chord, gaze in wonder as Adrian arpeggiated lightspeed up and down the neck of his Gibson SG copy, wait for my next opportunity to pluck hard, while dreaming of the indulgent low frequency promised land of jazz rock. On one visit, Adrian took me to see a recent acquaintance, a musician living in Stanley Road. We walked past the Bartlett convalescent home onto the promenade, up Bent Hill past the Grand Hotel, then a little along the cliff top to Stanley Road. Ramases, extremely tall and dressed in extravagant purple robes, played us a number of songs he was working on for an album which, he told us, would feature members of the Royal Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestras. He sang to simple strumming on an acoustic guitar.

Although we did not believe him, the album Glass Top Coffin was released in 1975. Let me now try to listen to it for you. A desert island set in a warm blue sea turns out to be a refuge in the mind, the mind of the singer alone. In fear, of darkness, loneliness, cowardice, in fear, of both thought and intuition, we seek the tangential intimacy of a kiss. A majestic hymn implores sweet reason to come to the singer who otherwise is dogged by open questions of identity, knowledge, sexuality. Whispering over lazy, lush melodies, Ramases urges us to step into the river of life even though it is so cold. There are stepping stones to help us. A sailor’s golden galleon is anticipated to rescue the singer’s solitary soul, a soul who has lost judgment through distance: a dove flying high to whom all seas seem the same.

Ramases cannot solve the soul’s dilemmas of attachment and separation, even at the point of death and beyond. As a corpse, he wishes to still see his friends through a glass top coffin. He wants to still be there as best he can. He wants to linger. Even heaven has a glass roof, a beyond where his loved ones can be seen fleetingly, still, even in death, parted. Although the melody is gently rocking, this seems unutterably bleak to me. It is easy to miss this if you seek to assimilate Ramases to some conventional idea of the hippy-trippy. Most of his space imagery is about solitariness, separation, loss, vast expanses of very little, people who will not listen, whole planets that will burst like balloons. He calls for reason, humility, momentary intimacy, and for god’s return. I am sure not every listener hears Ramases this way but he seems to me to offer the thinnest of hopes through faith and through faith alone. Both albums end with an anticipation of god’s return. In the reprise of Golden Landing we hear: Beautiful light, you come to me.

In the late 1970s, my friend and collaborator in Tonesucker, Terry Burrows, bought a 1960s Epiphone acoustic guitar from East End Bargains in Ipswich. The guitar played very nicely but someone had scrawled Ramases on the lower bout below the sound hole. On the basis of this blemish, Terry negotiated a good price and has played the instrument for nearly 30 years since. Terry tells me that, even though he foolishly tried to remove the inscription and refinish the wood, a well known admirer of Ramases has offered him anything, but anything, in a swap deal. But not even the Ferrari he could have tempts Terry. As a wise second hand shopper at East End Bargains, Terry asked for the story of the instrument. The salesman knew nothing save that it was a woman who sold the guitar, her husband’s guitar, as she could not keep it after his suicide.

Last weekend, I went to Felixstowe to take some photos for this piece. These days, the natural heirs of musical hall, the Chuckle Brothers, play at the Spa Pavilion, but to the under tens. The Alex is now a cafĂ©-bar. The Grand, now Cork, Hotel offers a regular karaoke night. The Bartlett convalescent home has just been closed in an attempt to ease the region’s health care debt. Felixstowe pier, once one of the longest in the country with a train running its length is now unsafe with only a tiny portion beyond the sea edge being used as a pedal car track. The larger toys at Charles Mannings are all dismantled. The cliff gardens are still splendid. The Peters ice cream still delicious. What is more, the docks, following dramatic expansion in the 1980s, are now comparable in traffic to those at Hamburg, Rotterdam and Antwerp.

The walk up Stanley Road is not how I remembered and number eight seems like a too modern house. I am now suspicious of my memories. Perhaps I never visited Ramases. Perhaps I never heard him play early versions of songs from Glass Top Coffin. Whatever made me think his robes were, specifically, purple? But the otherworldy conviction, the story of the two orchestras, the strum, did I make all that up?

No matter. Some things end up much better if we allow ourselves an initial gullibility. I treat Ramases as a fan would. I do not doubt that he was the reincarnation of Ramesses the Great (and not, rather, Ramesses X who oversaw the slow corrupt break-up of the kingdom of Egypt through ineffective rule). For the moment, I take this builder from Yorkshire to be a substantial theologian who poses questions of faith in, perhaps unwitting, stark terms. I regard the melody the choir sing in Golden Landing to be one of the most beautiful. I must not doubt that I once met him.

If we permit ourselves to be taken in, then we can see Ramases, usefully, as a model suborderly citizen. He is betwixt and between: identities, historical epochs, world locations, faiths, musics, planets, incarnations. To me he is as local as a tall man in Stanley Road Felixstowe, as a guitar I have held, as the sound in my ears right now, yet as distant as a pharaoh, an Army PT instructor, as Abu Simbel or the sun. Ramases’ music is culturally pliable. Ten years ago, I would have said it was twenty years out of date. Now it seems contemporary. Ramases offers us an exemplary suborderly life. I do not believe that suborderly lives have to tragic but with Ramases I cannot yet convince you.


Mr Sushiboy said...

Beautiful and fitting. [Incidentally, as the owner of the "RamGtr" - as it became known throughout communications between myself and the "well-known collector" - I should mention that at the time of purchase, East End Bargains would have housed most of Ram's music and recording equipment. I recall the owner telling me that his wife had brought all of his stuff in for sale. Perhaps some investigation into ley lines between Stanley Road and the shop (Spring Rd or Foxhall Rd?) would be in order.]

cyberviking said...

Very good story, and it shows that [hi][story] is not linear. Reality tends to re-connect, like chainmail. There's no escape. OTH, we can always be sure that whatever happens, is for [hi][storical] reasons.
Reading this blog, I was first thinking "What medication are U on?", but after enduring the full text (and images) I realised that you're on to something higher, more spiritual and still trivial. That's beauty.

John Bowers said...

Thank you very much Mr Sushiboy and cyberviking. cyberviking: I do think that things which are spiritual and trivial are worth a good look. Similarly, things where history intersects the tangled web of everyday life. These are not empty sets, they are the fullest.

Mr Sushiboy. A number of online sources claim that Ramases died in the early 1990s. On your account, this must be false. Yes?

John Bowers said...

A correspondent of mine, Tim Fenton, has drawn attention to a news item on the BBC website featuring a mention of Ramesses II and some interesting findings when his mummy was forensically examined. This is making me think that a Suborderly piece on 'origins' might be a good idea some day. Take a look at

Lui said...

John, that was just beautiful. I like criss-crossings that life paths take sometime...

John Bowers said...

Thanks very much Lui.

kai said...

How remarkable with all these black-and-white photographs of Felixstowe, a town that I have never even seen pictures of before, but which is for me ever associated with the garishly-coloured flying boats of WWI vintage:

John Bowers said...

kai. This is very interesting. I did not know that Felixstowe was the location of the British Seaplane Experimental Station in that era. Hence the name of flying boats. The East of England is extremely important in 19th/20th century military history of course. Bawdsey Manor. Orfordness. Martlesham. But I did not know about the seaplanes. Thanks. A wikipedia link for those interested:

greekchap steve woods said...

I knew Ram also, interesting that you wirite on him so long after his time..I was also a good friend in felixstowe for several years he loved the summer..
we three Sel,Ram and myself used to swim at old felixstowe.He had a holiday house there and we would picnic and swim to the other side of the river to Bawdsey..he was quite a wit, and a decent guy.
I saw him a few days before he tragically passed away. I have often thougth of him and Sel. thanks for reminding me of him.
I can remember his song "if i had a silver dollar"...unpublished.
It still runs through my mind..and reminds me of the days.. nice to see your tribute..

John Bowers said...

Thanks very much for your interest in my piece greekchap steve woods. All of the people I have talked to who met Ramases speak well of him. It is good that there is still interest in him and his music. We must do our best in various ways to keep that going. Thanks again, gsw!

Mary Epworth said...

This piece, and all the comments, are really beautiful.

I love Ram's music.

John Bowers said...

Thanks very much Mary. Your appreciation of this piece means a lot to me.