Orlando Weeks: sketching out a new life after the Maccabees

After 14 years playing indie rock, the Maccabees frontman has taken on something more sedate: an illustrated children’s book and new album, The Gritterman, which draws on his relationship with his grandad to explore ageing and obsolescence

Orlando Weeks is describing the revelatory moment his father looked at the main character of The Gritterman, Weeks’s first illustrated children’s book, and saw his own dead father looking back at him.

Although unaware of the resemblance until that very moment, suddenly, Weeks – who has spent the last 14 years as the frontman of indie rock band the Maccabees – could see it too. “I wasn’t consciously basing the Gritterman on my grandad. But there’s something in the way he looks that you can tell ...” He trails off, struggling to pinpoint the exact similarities between his character, who spends the winter gritting the roads and the summer selling ice cream, and his grandad Bill, who repaired traction engines and heavy farming machinery in Devon and Cornwall, and who died in his late 80s when Weeks was a young teenager. “When I knew my grandfather, I felt that he had been a big strong man and now was less of a big strong man. Age had taken some of that broadness out of his shoulders. And there’s something about the way the Gritterman looks ... there’s a shadow of a bigger, stronger version of himself, in the past.”

Orlando Weeks playing with the Maccabees at their recent farewell shows.
Orlando Weeks playing with the Maccabees at their recent farewell shows. Photograph: RMV/Rex/Shutterstock

The book – a touching Raymond Briggs-like story about an old man from a rural, working class neighbourhood, who is being forced by the council to retire from his job – might seem a surprising career move. But the public-school educated son of a public affairs consultant studied illustration at Brighton University, and was previously unable to figure out a way to combine his love of drawing and painting with his music career: “It’s something I’m annoyed I didn’t think of doing sooner.”

After the Maccabees announced they were splitting up a year ago, Weeks decided to work on a self-contained project to occupy his time before the band’s final gigs. The Gritterman was the result. It is accompanied by a soundtrack of original piano music and songs, which are written, played and sung by Weeks, and a reading of the book by the comedian Paul Whitehouse, who takes on the character of the Gritterman.

Weeks says the project was partly inspired by the similarity between his own circumstances and his father’s retirement. “I didn’t see my dad retire and think: right, I’m going to write an illustrated book. But I think it definitely played a part, along with beginning to question my own purpose and where my passions lie; thinking about how I fill my time, and seeing how he does. It’s very difficult, if you’ve invested in what you do, to allow yourself the freedom of not doing it any more, of not working all the hours that God sends.”

The plot follows the Gritterman on Christmas Eve, as he goes out alone to clear the snow one last time, before he must retire from the job he loves. “My dad was a lobbyist and worked in the arts. No night shifts,” he laughs. But when it comes to his grandfather’s physical, labour-intensive job, he acknowledges the similarities, and the Gritterman’s passion for gritting, in his trusty old van, seems to reflect Bill’s passion for repairing traction engines.

‘He was a gentle presence, and a very quiet man’ … a page from The Gritterman by Orlando Weeks.
‘He was a gentle presence, and a very quiet man’ … a page from The Gritterman by Orlando Weeks. Illustration: Orlando Weeks

“Grandad would make his own bolts because no one else made them big enough. There were constantly these enormous greasy cogs on the kitchen table, even though he had a workshop in his shed. It was chaos in there, and it was incredibly cool. I remember it smelt like an engine, of grease. Everything you touched never came off you.”

He recalls how, on his sixth birthday, he was permitted by his grandad to sound the whistle on a traction engine, a type of steam engine once used to move heavy loads on roads and to plough fields. “At the time, I wasn’t aware it was such a sweet gesture on grandad’s part, to let me pull that whistle. But I was the first person to do it, on an engine he had been restoring for longer than I’d been alive.”

Although he is very close to his parents, he says, he struggled to get close to Bill. “He was pretty stand-offish. He didn’t talk much. I don’t even think I heard him say that many words. He was a gentle presence, and a very quiet man.”

A page from The Gritterman by Orlando Weeks
‘Hi-vis is not romantic’ ... an illustration from The Gritterman. Illustration: Orlando Weeks

Weeks deliberately made the Gritterman laconic, too. “The more economical I was with his narration and his monologue, the more licence I had to be expressive and flowery with the songs. I felt I could get away with that because the Gritterman is so closed and bareboned in the way he communicates.” He also allows his main character to be romantic about snow and winter – and then illustrates their isolating effects on a lone individual in an English landscape. “Hi-vis is not romantic. I don’t think those spinning lights on vans play into a picture postcard idea of English winter. I liked that. I liked that it wasn’t obvious.”

In his own lifetime, Bill’s work became obsolete, rather like the Gritterman’s job in the story. “Got a letter from the council: Dear Sir... your services are no longer required,” the Gritterman recounts, adding: “I read somewhere that there’s a tarmac now that can de-ice itself. I’m not sure I want to live in a world where the B2116 doesn’t need gritting.”

On the Maccabees’ first album, Weeks wrote a song, Good Old Bill, about his grandfather’s death. Listening to it now, the chorus line, “The engine won’t start without him”, seems to take on a new significance. Weeks explains the inspiration for the song: “My grandad left one of his traction engines to a steam museum in Cornwall. In his final years, he’d go and visit it and help with the upkeep, that sort of thing. On the day he died, my grandmother got a phone call. It was the museum. For the first time, the engine he’d donated wouldn’t start.”

So what would his grandad think of the book? “I expect he would ask me: where is the manual where you learned to do this? He would find it odd that you just kind of do it, with your fingers crossed. But I know he would have respected how I feel about my work. And I think he would have been proud of me, and hoped that I was happy. He was a very kind man.”

  • The Gritterman is out now, published by Penguin. The album is available via download and music streaming services.


Donna Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Florence the superhero: the comics giving pop stars superpowers
The comic-writing duo behind Marvel’s Young Avengers are giving pop stars the superhero treatment. Enter the gorgeous, fantastical worlds of Phonogram and WicDiv

Emily Mackay

10, Aug, 2015 @6:00 AM

Article image
How the 20,699-word iTunes T&Cs became this year's hottest graphic novel
Snoopy contemplates pre-orders and the Hulk navigates iTunes Match … here Robert Sikoryak discusses his ingenious take on Apple’s Terms and Conditions

Sian Cain

08, Mar, 2017 @6:19 PM

Article image
The Maccabees review – farewell gig creates powerful fan communion
Re-energised and euphoric, the band sweep away any knock-kneed flimsiness for a full-bodied final bow

David Bennun

30, Jun, 2017 @11:17 AM

Article image
The Maccabees: 'After 14 years as a band we have decided to call it a day'
The group announce their split, saying: ‘There have not been fallings out and we are not leaving the group behind as a divided force’

Harriet Gibsone

08, Aug, 2016 @11:35 AM

Article image
Simon Hanselmann: 'I hate twee art. Life is not nice'
His cult comic Megg, Mogg and Owl riffs on depression and addiction. Now the TV networks want a part of it. Hanselmann speaks about his love-hate relationship with 4chan, breaking into building sites and life as ‘sentient meat’

James Reith

14, Apr, 2016 @6:00 AM

Article image
The Maccabees: the last of the British guitar rock headliners?
This week the London indie group called it a day. With a lack of bands big enough to top festival bills, is Britain’s stock in global music falling?

Mark Beaumont

09, Aug, 2016 @1:47 PM

The Maccabees | Pop review

Brixton Academy, LondonGiddy energy, brassy outbreaks and heroically bad dancing marked the Maccabees' graduation to playing big arenas, says Ian Gittins

Ian Gittins

05, Oct, 2009 @10:00 PM

Article image
Where there's Maccabees there's brass | Laura Barton

Laura Barton: The Maccabees sing songs about Lego and toothpaste. They are also being hailed as the saviours of indie. So why have they joined forces with a brass band?

Laura Barton

07, Jul, 2009 @8:30 PM

Article image
DC Comics pull cover of Batgirl menaced by Joker after online protests
Fans of female superhero distressed by misogynist tone of special edition artwork, while others say protest row has led to censorship

David Barnett

17, Mar, 2015 @2:17 PM

Article image
Gary Panter: the cartoonist who took a trip to hell and back
Dante and Milton are recast through the eyes of a redneck Jesus in Gary Panter’s latest graphic novel. He opens up about the nightmare hallucinations and comic-book disasters that led him there

Sam Thielman

18, Jul, 2017 @5:03 PM