Toby Litt

Chris Watson – ‘Embleton Rookey’, Stepping Into the Dark. I played this most days, when I sat down to write the book that turned into Wrestliana. Like Laura Cannell, the sound of the rooks overhead took me somewhere closer to William Litt (my great-great-great grandfather, and author of the original Wrestliana) than where I was. Chris Watson (who does sound for David Attenborough) is an amazing musician. I liked that feeling of gloaming he captured. William Litt (1785-1850) lived most of his life in the west of Cumberland, near Whitehaven. It’s very exposed country, where the natural world feels like it has something against you.

Laura Cannell – ‘Conversing in a Dream’, Beneath Swooping Talons; Richard Skelton – ‘River Song’, Landings.  As well as Chris Watson, I needed some music that would take me out into the countryside – particularly the harsh, exposed-to-the-sky countryside. I didn’t find a lot of Cumbrian music (I’m sure there is some). But I did find Laura Cannell’s East Anglian exposures and Richard Skelton’s from the West Pennine Moors.

Nic Jones – ‘The Drowned Lovers’, Penguin; Eggs Kate Rusby – ‘Annan Waters’, 20. Wrestliana took quite a lot of on-the-ground research. I was listening to my iPod on the train from Carlisle to Whitehaven, to stay with Bill and Margaret Hartley, my distant cousins, and main informants about the life of William Litt when – without really thinking about it – I dialled up Kate Rusby’s version of ‘The Drowned Lovers’. I came within sight of the Solway Firth, the wide waters that separate England from Scotland on the western coast. It was only when I the music reached the second verse that I realized something: the two lovers cruelly drowned in the song are called Billy and Margaret. I thought this was a good sign. (I can’t find the Rusby recording on Spotify, so here’s a couple of other songs instead.)

Nick Drake – ‘Time Has Told Me’. There are two artists I listen to all the time, whatever I’m writing – Nick Drake and Cocteau Twins. I listen to them as I kind of life-support. Nick Drake has seeped into my idea of Englishness, of what it means to be an Englishman. A talismanic essay for me is Ian MacDonald’s ‘Exiled from Heaven: The Unheard Message of Nick Drake’ in The People’s Music. I often reread it. I think it says something very true about what Nick Drake was trying to achieve. Wrestliana was, I suppose, my attempt to listen to what time (the time of my family, the male line of it) was telling me.

Cocteau Twins – ‘Pepper-Tree’, The Pink Opaque. I associate the ticking on this song with the various grandmother and grandfather clocks that ticked, and tick, in my grandmother’s house, in my parents’ house. In a perhaps-imaginary spooky BBC TV series I saw back in the 1970s, some middle-class children travelled into the past through one of these clocks. Writing Wrestliana forced me back into my own childhood, growing up for the first five years above an antique shop, and after that in a house full of Georgian furniture (my father was an antique dealer). Eventually, I realized that I only feel truly at home when surrounded by old stuff, preferably made of wood.

Shield Patterns – ‘Bruises’, Mirror Breathing. I am always looking for extensions to Cocteau Twins. Because I can only listen to their albums and live bootlegs so often. Sheld Patterns was one good alternative.

Martin Carthy – ‘Scarborough Fair’, Essential. The more I went on with Wrestliana, the more I found myself listening to English fingerstyle folk music – Nick Drake leading me back to Nic Jones, Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy. I bought myself a good guitar and taught myself a version of this. The first few notes are true trance.

Nic Jones – ‘Canadee-i-o’, Penguin Eggs. William Litt spent the last quarter of his life in exile, in a small village north of Montréal. I had to make my own trip to Canadee-i-o, to try to find his grave. Shirley Collins, ‘Just as the Tide was Flowing’ A lesson in simplicity and sophistication.

Joshua Abrams – ‘Blanes Echo Blirds, Bleeze Echo Blouds’. This is the only Joshua Abrams recording I can find to link to. I played his album –recorded with Natural Information Society – Magnetoception, to give me forward energy when things got difficult.

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, Symphony No 10, I. Adagio For when I was writing, and didn’t want lyrics in my head, this was often what I played. It’s oceanic, and has a sense of summing up a whole life.

Peter Gabriel – ‘Solsbury Hill’, R-Kive. The lyric ‘Hey, he said, “Grab your things I’ve come to take you home”’ gets me more than just about anything else. There were a few times in my life when I wanted to hear this particular sentence more than any other. I write about those times in Wrestliana.

Lady Maisery – ‘This Woman’s Work’, single. Wrestliana is a very male book. And a couple of years of that can become a little tiresome. This was always an antidote.

‘Disco/Very’ – Warpaint, Warpaint. To decompress, and to come back from the past, I listened to Warpaint. They have the best rhythm section I know. They’re great to dance to.

  • To read the first chapter of Wrestliana, click here
  • To buy a copy, click here