Saturday, March 31, 2018

What's Going On: Keeping It New in my Fifties

Leah Song of Rising Appalachia

Poetry is my vocation but music is my love. Music even gave me poetry, in a sense. I'd read one poem I loved before, but only one: Dryden's 'MacFlecknoe', which succeeded where others failed because it had fart jokes and a reference to people chucking their poo into the Thames in the morning. But listening to the words of Bob Dylan, I woke up to poetry's incredible possibilities. I also first encountered Allen Ginsberg in Dylan's movie 'Renaldo and Clara'.

I don't listen to Dylan anymore. There seems no need, I exhausted my appetite for his take on the world a long time ago. Other musical heroes have faded (Neil Young, for example) while on certain days I still listen to some. When Willie Nelson has a new one out, I always try to hear it. Partly that's because of Willie's amused detachment from the business he's in. He doesn't need fame for personal completion.The other reason is that he doesn't do the same thing repeatedly. In the last few years we've seen a reggae album and duets with Snoop Dogg interspersed with peace songs and dark meditations on death.

My creativity and my sense of personal well-being rely on my involvement with other artists; not as much as they depend on my relationships, but art is significant. Music, however, has changed. Just not in the way we think. Some younger people I've spoken to say it isn't as good as it used to be. And people in their forties and older, many of us, are convinced it's not. 'In our day you could see the Sex Pistols and the Jam on the same edition of "Top of the Pops",' they say. 'Now everything is Ed Sheeran and Adele.' I've even expressed that view myself on occasion and retreated into old musical habits to hide my mind from the over-produced commercialised garbage played ad nauseum on the radio. Crosby, Stills and Nash are vastly more appealing to my ears than anything I've heard on Heart Extra.

The thing is, you won't hear anything on the radio that will shake you up or thrill you or liberate you, not anymore. (There wasn't that much of it in the old days either.) It's true what the jaded nostalgia buffs and old cynics say about the music business being swallowed by the capitalist ethos of (in Jim Morrison's words) 'money beats soul every time'. If the record companies can't make money from an artist they won't sign him or her; and if artists doesn't bring a radio station listeners, it won't play them.

What those of us of an advanced vintage often forget is that we no longer need radio stations, or even music shops, to act as our intermediaries when it comes to music. The internet has been unwelcome, in a way, for artists with multi-million dollar recording contracts. Columbia police YouTube like Chinese secret police in Lhasa and insist every upload of a Bob Dylan song (Dylan, the scion of Woody Guthrie) be deleted for copyright reasons. Artists without contracts, or artists recording on tiny labels, however, can put their music online and be heard, potentially, almost anywhere in the world. And as listeners we can hear almost any musician in the world, if they have access to a camera.

So lately I've been doing just that, going online to see what, and who, I could find. There are probably a hundred different platforms I don't know about, but YouTube is the one I've been using for my investigations. The results have been extraordinary. It turns out there is a whole generation of young artists who I'd never even heard of making fresh, honest, soulful, brilliant new music. You will never see most of it on tv, and if some of these men and women get within five miles of a giant concert venue it will be when they are busking for pennies from Sheeran fans. But that isn't important. It's the music that's important. Which sounds dreadfully purist and not at all the sort of sentiment you're supposed to indulge in now, but I think people should be purists about their art. Power subjugates and controls first by making us cynical.

Here's one band I found during my searches for new music online. Even their name would prevent them from being played on the radio, unless 'on the rag' means something different on the other side of the water. Seeing how they rattle out 'Something Smells Like Fish', though, I have a feeling that exclusion from mainstream radio wouldn't bother them a bit. They look like they're having a party out on the street.


The most polished and realised of the bands is Rising Appalachia, at least from the searches I've made. They have had some success already, and they come with a complete environmental and spiritual vision for the world. I thought they were my discovery until Martyna, a hippie friend, told me she listened to them every morning. Then I found out one of my other Facebook friends was an admirer too. They do have music out. I've looked for them on Amazon to see if they had a cd I could buy. Unfortunately, they're all in the £15-25 range, which is a little out of my league. 

I could go on for much longer about the fantastic music that's being made right now, and how inspiring it has been for me creatively to find it. But I don't want to tax the reader's patience. I'll end with one more video, this one featuring the most raggle-taggle gang you'll ever see knocking out a great performance on the street. They're the Rail Yard Ghosts and they kick serious musical arse.









Sunday, March 18, 2018

Discovering India


This is Gaurav Maurander. I bought a cd of his for 50 pence in a Northampton charity shop yesterday. 'Neemrana: A Musical Journey in India.' I didn't know anything about him, but I liked the image on the front of the disc. It had several people seated on a stage playing traditional Indian instruments: the sitar, the tabla, the sarod, the tampura. There was no evidence anywhere of anything remotely modern or intrinsically Western. It was unlikely, therefore, to be one of those ghastly cds you buy in alternative shops which drown traditional Asian music in soporific synthesisers and rain sounds as a relaxation aid. It was also, as I've already mentioned, only 50 pence, so if I'd guessed incorrectly I wouldn't be too much out of pocket.


The album, I'm happy to report, is a joy, although the liner notes reveal that there's a strong Western connection. The collection of musical pieces that comprised the tour from which 'Neemrana' derives were all composed by Gaurav, but he was asked to write them by two French musicians, and most of the musicians on the tour were French. The last track 'Pahadi-Dhun' was recorded in France too, although the rest are from performances in India. 


Musical criticism isn't my forte, as readers of Suffolk Punch will know. Largely this is because I haven't got a clue about the technicalities of musical composition; if I knew the vocabulary of music, in other words, I might be able to talk about it better. And I understand that traditional Indian music is extremely complicated. Watch, as I have, Ringo Starr and George Harrison discussing how maddeningly elusive mastery of Indian rhythms is in the Scorcese documentary 'Living in the Material World'.


All I can say about 'Neemrana', then, is that it sounds like the India of my mind (I've never been): I don't know how, but the music evokes great heat, flat landscapes and slowly winding rivers, the air pregnant with ancient deities; it also captures the busy-ness of teeming cities. Which is precisely what I want from Indian music. The dance beats that I hear on the BBC Asian Network give me nothing I can't get on mainstream English radio; and I've rarely danced in the fifty three years I've been on the planet.

With time to spare, and curious enough to know more about Gaurav, I entered his name into the search bar on YouTube; unsurprisingly, perhaps, he's there. Each video of his also suggested numerous other traditional Indian musicians I was equally unaware of. This made me realise something interesting. I'm a relatively intelligent, open-minded and culturally aware man. But there are whole areas of the arts I know nothing about, and the determining factor in my ignorance, other than laziness (which would prevent me from digging for information hidden by the cultural selections made by an ethnocentric media), is obviously race. The only sitar players I could have named before yesterday were Ravi and Anoushka Shankar. Perhaps I need to stop expecting that my artistic inspirations should like quite so much like me?

Here's Roopa Panesar, a musician who, my research this morning shows, is well known enough to have been featured on Radio Three - not that I had a clue. I'll be on YouTube again tomorrow looking for more.









George Orwell: When the Etonian Reared his Head

Reading Orwell's 'Down and Out in Paris and London' for the second time, I notice something I didn't see the first time around: his upper-crust Englishness. I'm no Orwell expert, but like everyone who grew up in the political Left, I have a certain sentimental view of him as a champion of the working class; as a libertarian; as an egalitarian; as someone who crusaded for the binning of the old world order.

'1984' and 'Animal Farm' certainly show us a man opposed to totalitarianism, and only a dogmatist would believe that was the province of politics in the East. But traditional English values seem to run through Orwell, at least pre-war Orwell, the way a seaside town's name runs through a stick of rock.

You can see the Old Etonian in his generalisations about race. He expresses a peculiar belief, for example, that Americans know nothing about 'good' food:

They would stuff themselves with disgusting American 'cereals', and eat marmalade at tea, and drink vermouth after dinner [...]. Perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not.

Another pearl of wisdom is that women aren't given the job of chef in Parisian hotels because they are less able to co-ordinate the preparation and delivery of multiple simultaneous orders. The most surprising comment, however - at least for me - was this one about waiters:

[...] They work fifteen hours, seven days a week, in many cafes. They are snobs, and they find the servile nature of their work rather congenial.

Only an old Etonian, or the equivalent, could believe that. Hard work and long hours might be congenial to those who are amply rewarded, but no one who's getting paid a pittance wants to spend the best part of every day working his arse off for someone else, even if he or she does think it might be an investment in the future. 

None of the above observations diminish either my enjoyment of the book or my respect for Orwell (perhaps my respect for him is diminished a bit). He was a man of his time, and in any case, I feel I know him a little better by reading them. Many offspring of the upper classes have felt compelled, in the last 200 years, to take up the cudgels on behalf of the worker.

In the current climate of the Labour Party, however - the party which lionises Orwell traditionally - I think about the comments I've quoted, and other, frankly rather racist ones that I couldn't find as I leafed back through the book, and wonder what the reaction to them would be from Labour members if he were alive today, and he posted them on Twitter. The anti-Americanism might meet with tacit approval; even Americans have had the gravest doubts about their country since the election of Donald Trump. But I suspect there'd be considerable public condemnation and expressions of regret by party members about the rest of his remarks, even if they did fall short of calling him a Blairite, which is the usual, habitual response.



Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Lynching of Radclyffe Hall





Radclyffe Hall may be the least remembered of all the Western writers, poets and playwrights whose life and works were pilloried and forced to endure protracted legal battles in the last couple of centuries. Every person with an interest in the arts knows about Oscar Wilde, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg. But Radclyffe Hall? My own guilty confession is that I didn't even come across her name until Ginsberg mentioned her in a BBC interview in 1995 or '96. 

Why is she lower on the literary radar when her book 'The Well of Loneliness' caused a scandal and was prosecuted, and ultimately banned, under the Obscene Publications Act? One answer leaps to mind. Any man whose novel was condemned by the Home Secretary, now or historically, as 'gravely detrimental to the public interest', would be celebrated for all time. Radclyffe Hall was a woman, though, and a lesbian. Or, as she liked to call herself, an 'invert'. The book, which I haven't read, seems to have been a plea for these inverts, presenting them as suffering outcasts who deserve tolerance and understanding rather than the condemnation of the upright heterosexual world.

Can't argue with that, you might think, sitting here in the somewhat brighter light of 2018. But 90 years ago lesbianism, while not strictly against the law like male homosexuality, was seen as vile and corrupt, a degenerate practice that went against nature and would certainly lead astray any impressionable young woman who was exposed to it. So when Radclyffe Hall, already a successful novelist with a public profile, wrote a book on the subject, the moral guardians of the age went into overdrive, using tactics that wouldn't have been out of place in Soviet Russia to suppress it.

Hall had intellectual opinion on her side, but only in the sense that the academic and creative heavyweights of her day generally supported her right to publish. According to Diana Souhami's biography 'The Trials of Radclyffe Hall', Leonard Woolf didn't like the book, Cyril Connolly thought it 'brave' but humourless and boring, and Virginia Woolf thought the campaign to defend it a distraction, and wished it had never been written.

Woolf would defend 'The Well of Loneliness' in court, however, which H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle both avoided even promising to do by announcing that they had left the country. John Galsworthy, who amusingly was the President of the PEN Club, said he was too busy to go to court and that anyway, literary freedom of expression was not at risk from the Government's attempt to ban Radclyffe Hall's book. The only notable author of the time who agreed to appear for the prosecution, supporting thereby the view that its content was obscene and all copies in existence should be burned, was Rudyard Kipling, creator of Mowgli and Baloo. Kipling also wrote 'The White Man's Burden', one of the most racist poems I've ever fouled ten minutes of my day with, so perhaps there should be no surprise.

At the trial, despite the presence of Woolf, E.M. Forster and 'almost every author of repute', in Sheila Kaye-Smith's words, the case was lost. Sir Chartres Biron, the judge, responding to a reasonable request by the defence to call expert testimony, made the outrageous declaration, 'I am here to decide whether this book is obscene or not.' And perhaps to no one's great surprise, after an appeal that was also lost, 'The Well of Loneliness' was 'consigned to the King's furnace.'

The extracts I've read from Hall's book have more in common stylistically with the writers of a previous age than the experiments and innovations of her contemporaries; by all accounts extremely conservative (quite an irony), only a few years later she developed a virulent anti-Semitism and a naïve infatuation with Mussolini. She was, however -- not that such things are excusable -- molested as a child, and forced to live in a world that regarded her natural sexual orientation as perverted and sinful. That would do great damage to most of us. Being different, or feeling different (sometimes not the same thing), in a society that favours conformity is a well of loneliness that drops very deep into the ground.

Do you remember a time when you sat down and decided whether you were going to fancy boys or girls? No, me neither. What worries me, when I read about Radclyffe Hall, or I consider what happened to Oscar Wilde, is that the tides of political reaction sweeping across the world may take us back to the days when people could be brutalised by the state, as they were, for loving in a fashion proscribed by the authors of a 2000 year old book. Which is the more offensive anyway, a novel that celebrates the diversity of love, or a spirit manual that calls it an abomination when the participants in the exchange can't populate an already over-populated world with more children?








Sunday, March 04, 2018

David Ogden Stiers


David Ogden Stiers, who played the fabulously snotty, secretly fragile Charles Emerson Winchester III in M*A*S*H, has died. God, I loved that show with its brilliant word play and unrestrained self-righteous liberalism. Winchester, of all the main protagonists, was perhaps the only unapologetic Republican in the 4077th (Margaret Houlihan started that way, but softened considerably as the show matured); and yet, because of the depth David Ogden Stiers brought to the characterisation, not to mention his fabulous comic tone and timing, he was always my favourite. I saw a little piece of myself in Winchester too, with his habit of taking refuge from the world in music and the sublimities of art. We did it for different reasons, but there were many times when I too would sit alone in the tent listening to Dylan or Ginsberg while people lived and laughed on the other side of the canvas.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Northamptonshire Cuts: Does Anybody Read These Days?



It was World Book Day on Thursday. People are sceptical about most World-- or International Anything Days, or Months, seeing them as tokenistic or politically motivated. But World Book Day has really caught on. Schools encourage children to dress like their favourite characters from books, which in some at least will foster a connection between reading and fun, perhaps even self-actualisation. The media discusses books on World Book Day as well. It's the one time of the year when reading in the traditional way isn't presented as archaic, the province of social rejects or old people with their lives long behind them.

In Northamptonshire, World Book Day happened to fall in the week when the county council, who have made themselves a national embarrassment by ruining the county financially, announced their new post-calamity budget. Which is worse than a calamity; it's closer to a kind of social Armageddon for the poor, the lonely and the vulnerable. To balance the books the council is axing subsidised bus services, which at a stroke isolates those who don't have cars and can't afford taxis. It's also promising to close 21 of Northamptonshire's smaller libraries.  

I was in a rage about this when I heard the news. People told me it was okay, though. Nobody used libraries anymore. Most didn't even read books anymore. The proof of it was that the smaller libraries were often empty when you went in. I don't know about that. We often generalise about things we've only experienced once or twice. Thinking libraries are always empty because you once saw an empty library is a logical fallacy, like believing nurses all stand around talking to each other when they should be caring for patients because you walked into the ward once at handover.

I have no idea whether we read more, or less, than we used to. The majority of travellers waiting in bus stations seem to be looking at their mobiles these days; but when I was younger they would have read newspapers anyway, not books. There were only ever a handful of people reading novels. It was the same among your friends and family. One liked magazines; one listened to music; someone else loved movies and television. Books weren't the popular choice even in the 1970s.

But people always read. I discovered my passion for books in the mobile library that came through our village every Friday afternoon when I was a boy; and children are still learning to love them today. A child I tutored a few years ago brought David Walliams novels to every one of our sessions just because he liked holding the books and talking about them. His parents had fostered this appreciation of books by buying new ones for him as a reward for academic success.


What about parents who can't afford to buy books, though? Where are the academic stars or the fanatical book hobbyists of the next generation of working class kids supposed to come from if they don't have access to books? I hear the people I spoke to on this subject last week saying they can read their books online. Perhaps they can with some books, if the books are available online, and if they have access to the internet. Some do; some don't. It isn't as ubiquitous as we might suppose among those who are struggling just to stay afloat. It's also hard to believe anyone would fall in love with reading by holding a kindle.


And what about older people, many of whom won't have internet access, and will need the connection with the outside world that going to the library for a book every week provides? Northamptonshire County Council, it seems, doesn't care. Go to one of the major libraries, I can imagine them saying. A fine solution if you are physically able, if you can afford the fare, and if the Council hasn't cut the subsidised bus route out of your village.




Sunday, February 11, 2018

Laimutis Balys Svalkus


This is Laimutis Balys Svalkus, the poet I wrote about a few days ago. I found his grave by chance in Kingsthorpe Cemetery while visiting Lucia Joyce's stone, as I occasionally do ('I used to haunt graveyards when I was in Paris,' as Allen Ginsberg once said); and I was surprised because histories of Northampton, even the better ones, never mention this man's name. Information about him online seemed sketchy as well. He was clearly known, which hoists him above most poets immediately, but internet searches yielded little in Lithuanian and nothing in English.

Until, that is, this afternoon, when Northampton-based housing campaigner Norman Adams sent me a link he'd found with some biographical information about Laimutis, and images of the covers of his publications. Thanks again, Norman! The text is still in Lithuanian, but it's a start. A photograph says a great deal more about a person than his or her gravestone. And the Lithuanian Embassy hasn't even answered my enquiry, at least not yet. 


Here is the link, for anybody who wants to look at the books. If anyone can translate the text, or point me towards English translations of one or more of his poems, I would be particularly grateful. I can't pay you, but aren't we all in this game for love, not money?



Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Task: Newton, Cowper and the Civilisation of the West

'This morning buryed a woman slave (No 47) Know not what to say she died of for she has not been properly alive since she first came on board' -- from the diary of John Newton.
                           
February 15th this year, I discovered yesterday, is an important anniversary. It will be 250 years since William Cowper and Mary Unwin moved into the large, imposing house that still looks down over the market square in Olney, Buckinghamshire. Today their home is the site of the Cowper and Newton Museum, a memorial not only to the life of the poet, but also his friendship with the composer of 'Amazing Grace', who as an Anglican clergyman, ministered to the spiritual needs of the parishioners in Olney. Newton had an earthly agenda as well as a heavenly one. He wanted to rid his society of slavery, which he himself had practised before entering into the priesthood; and Cowper, as his friendship with Newton grew, would prove to be a more than capable initiate into the work, testifying against slavery in a series of poems that warned his readers of the inhumanity of a system still accepted as a perfect profession for a gentleman.

But ah! what wish can prosper, or what prayer,
For merchants rich in cargoes of despair,
Who drive a loathsome traffic, gauge, and span,
And buy the muscles and the bones of man?
The tender ties of father, husband, friend,
All bonds of nature in that moment end;
And each endures, while yet he draws his breath,
A stroke as fatal as the scythe of death.
The sable warrior, frantic with regret
Of her he loves, and never can forget,
Loses in tears the far-receding shore,
But not the thought that they must meet no more;
Deprived of her and freedom at a blow,
What has he left that he can yet forego?
William Cowper ‘Charity’ (1782)

It was an unpopular message in a country profiting so handsomely from slavery, and initially, despite his fervent belief in its wickedness, Cowper resisted putting pen to paper on the subject. In the British parliament, MPs laughed when they heard testimony of black bodies being thrown overboard from slave ships as useless cargo. They were among the men making vast sums from the kidnapping and inhumane transport of imprisoned Africans. Our own previous prime minister David Cameron had alleged connections to the trade. His family, many generations ago, made their millions from the murderous exploitation of human souls -- or so it was said. Cameron himself would neither confirm nor deny it.

                                            
                              design by Josiah Wedgewood

Once the requests of friends (you have to imagine Newton among them) had helped Cowper overcome his initial reluctance, he wrote several poems against slavery, describing the horrors of the slave's experience so vividly it was as if he'd lived it himself. Did his lifelong struggle with depression (Cowper's more conservative admirers speak of a tendency to melancholy) give him at least a partial insight into the catastrophic psychological impact of the slave's abduction and torture? Or perhaps it just made him more inclined to empathy? The experience of personal suffering can lead either to great kindness, or great cruelty.

John Newton had left Olney by the time 'Sweet Meat has Sour Sauce', Cowper's most famous anti-slavery poem, was written. A BBC page claims churchgoers in the town were tired of his 'hectoring' sermons. It seems just as probable that someone on an evangelical mission like Newton might have found rural Buckinghamshire a little too far away from the action. He did, after all, exchange Olney for St Mary Woolnoth in London.

In London Newton met again an idealistic young MP, William Wilberforce; he had known him when the latter was a child. Wilberforce took up the abolitionist cause with such a fervour, it came to dominate his life, affect his relationships and take a toll on his health. He was supported in the herculean task of ending slavery by Newton, who became his spiritual and moral guide. But there were many others working for the abolitionist movement. Poet Hannah More was one. Olaudah Equiano was another. The latter wrote 'The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano', which, with its graphic account of the slave trade from an African perspective, was a key text for the movement. The veracity of the text, or at least a part of it, has been debated since, but the power of the narrative can't be argued.

Slavery was abolished, technically, by an Act of Parliament in 1807, once again in February, and Newton lived to see its abolition, despite being almost blind and at the point of death. It continued in the British Empire until the 1830s, at which point all slaves still held were emancipated. Among those compensated by the British government for the loss of income that emancipation represented was the Anglican Church Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, which owned sugar plantations. It seems Newton's very fine example was lost on some senior members of his own church, who, I would add, are not cut from the same ideological/ moral cloth as the people who administer Anglicanism today. If they were, you have to hope, they would be driven off the land like thieves.


 Cowper

Cowper never lived to see the fruition of his own work against slavery. He died in 1800 at 61, after the death of his wife Mary left him 'a mental and physical invalid' ('Romanticism' ed. Duncan Wu). Newton died in 1807. He was buried in St Mary Woolnoth; but his mortal remains were disinterred subsequently and returned to Olney, where he now lies in a corner of the graveyard of the church of St Peter and St Paul. His bones rest beneath an impressive monument 'erected by public prescription', his vast contribution to the effort of civilising the Western world finally appreciated by a significant minority, even if the job itself, as Newton would agree, is still woefully unfinished.