Thursday, June 23, 2011

There's Still Power in a Union (2)

With a wave of industrial action expected this summer in response to the Coalition’s severe programme of budget cuts, we hear voices from the Right and the Centre calling for a further ‘tightening’ of union strike laws. We see no reason to change the laws at the moment, the Tories say (and the Lib Dems warn, as if they were reluctant passengers), because at the moment things are working fairly well, but we may have to review the laws at some stage if the situation changes. As long as the unions co-operate with us, in other words, they’ll be fine. If they don’t, we’ll start making their lives difficult.

That’s a fine example of democracy for you, isn’t it? They’re not doing what we want them to, so we’ll make it harder for them to defy us. They say the unions do not have a sufficient mandate from their members for the next wave of strikes. Most members, they point out, didn’t cast a vote either for or against industrial action. Perhaps. Although there are issues about how furtive a union member has to be in the workplace to avoid being persecuted by his bosses (if you don’t believe me, try it); a union member in this shiny new consensual age puts a bull’s eye on his forehead if he talks about anything other than sex, alcohol, football or promotion opportunities – so what chance does he really have to refine his views on this or that issue if he can’t discuss it with people who are facing the same problems? If an employee was allowed to vote on union issues at his workplace the response to a ballot would be 100% either for or against recommendations from the executive; and then you’d really have democracy. Which is what employers, and the Government, fear most. The new corporate model they both favour has employees settling disputes individually – never, ever, collectively – through HR Departments, which are staffed by ambitious young men and women of a corporate inclination drawing their salaries from the same company you’re in dispute with. I think anybody with an objective eye can see the Grand Canyon-sized flaw there.

I wonder, anyway, who this present Government are to wish to change laws to stop megalithic institutions acting without mandates. Most of the British population didn’t vote at the last General Election because they have come to see all politicians as liars and grifters. And the Conservatives still couldn’t get a Parliamentary majority out of the people who did vote. They had to form an alliance with a party even less popular in the country than they were to be able to govern. If irresponsible action taken without mandate results in a punitive tightening of the laws relating to that action, then David Cameron and George Osborne should be prevented from entering the House of Commons with all haste. And Vince Cable should stop bullying trade unions on television news or be let loose on the streets with no money, no credit cards, no mobile phone, no belt for his trousers, and told not to come back to Westminster until he has found his conscience.

There’s Still Power in a Union (1)

When my friend was talking to me about the problems at his job last night I thought, and said (not for the first time either), "If everybody in the workplace joined a union it would make England a different country overnight." And it would. Most bosses say they don’t recognise unions and won’t negotiate with them; but if everybody was in a union, they would have to recognise them. So why don’t people join unions when pay and working conditions are dreadful for so many? A common thing you’ll hear in objection to unions – from people who can be bothered to engage in a discussion about it – is that the unions are "in it for themselves". Some unspecified person at your or my union’s head office is cynically using the union cause to seek publicity and profit. Well, it’s natural they’re going to get publicity during disputes and negotiations because the media is following them around asking for interviews. But what sort of masochist do we suppose would actively seek the kind of vilification union bosses receive during strikes? The press hates them, everybody who is mildly inconvenienced by the action they’re taking hates them … and the scorn poured on them by the Government would be enough to drive most rational men into spasms of vengeful rage.

I’m not sure where the supposition that the union bosses are making large amounts of money comes from. At senior level they’re doing a job and getting a salary for it, I suppose; but shouldn’t they? You could hardly run Unison nationally and double as a junior office worker. I wouldn’t have a clue how much the union bosses get paid to do their jobs – obviously I’m not as well informed as other people – but I would bet they don’t earn anything like the money the boss of your company earns while he or she is paying you peanuts for breaking your rear-end for forty hours a week. And the stewards in workplaces sensible enough to be unionised, if there are any left, do what they do for free. I know, I used to be one of those dangerous rabble-rousers.

"Well, the unions did nothing for my Auntie Sophie when she fell over a wet floor sign and had to be off work for a week," people will tell you.

"They did nothing for me when I was dismissed for ‘continual absence’," someone else will say, even though he wasn’t a member. "’Continual absence’ my arse. Can I help it if I have recurring migraines and intermittent back spasms? And depression? And cholic?"

I’ve heard these criticisms of unions all my working life as I tried to organise in places where they had no union. The preferred topic of office or shop floor conversation was usually who was fucking who, but if I did manage to steer us onto unions for a moment the measure of the validity of the union was always what it could do for the person I was trying to recruit, not what it might do one day for everybody. And had any of these people who’d supposedly had negative experiences with unions ever done anything about it? Had they ever complained to the union? Had the few who’d actually been members at one time or another put themselves forward as stewards and tried to organise so that the union could negotiate with their bosses from a position of greater strength? Of course they hadn’t; they’d just sat back and complained about the terrible way they were treated like the majority of us do in this country about everything from the weather to the planned obsolescence of white goods. And then they’d dismissed the union for being unable to defend cases that were pretty indefensible in the first place and let their membership lapse.


Talking about trade unions with most people these days feels strangely like communicating down a tube from a parallel universe. It might sound logical to some when I say why unionisation is important, but for some reason the logic of it doesn’t apply in their reality. I’ve lost count of the number of people I gave union application forms to in my last job, but I don’t think any of the people who took a form actually joined; and then they were back complaining about pay and working conditions, harassment by the boss, even racism – all things a powerful union could have dealt with. Why is that? What is it that’s going on when a lot of people are experiencing some very real pain but they refuse to adopt the most obvious solution for dealing with it?

Fear and cynicism. Intellectual inertia. Most people can’t see outside the Capitalist ideological framework anymore and the revisionist historians have painted anything that isn’t supinely Capitalist as Communist. The majority have had their minds so corroded by mass media they don’t even see Capitalism as an ideology anymore; nor, for that matter, do they see Capitalism as Capitalism – it’s just the way we live: we work, we shop, we holiday, we work, we shop. And bastard bosses and ridiculous laws are part of that natural order. When an old grey-bearded pot-bellied curmudgeonly malcontent like me starts advising people to reject what’s being forced on them he might as well be teaching algebra in Japanese. To sea lions.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Jamie Cullum: The Triumph of the Dull

Last night, as I was waiting for my friend to arrive, I put the Radio Two Jamie Cullum Jazz Programme on for some diversion. Once again I have to conclude that he is the most boring man on radio. The dumbing-down of the jazz content on his show is bad enough – it avoids the seriousness of John Coltrane/ Sun Ra-era jazz the way Labour avoids any public connection with the unions – but Cullum’s vacuously enthusiastic twitterings drive me mad. The last time he was on I actually told the radio to shut up in an empty room. And then I turned it over. I should have known better last night too – same show, same presenter – but can I be blamed for my goofy optimism?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Eliza Carthy: Good Folk

Last night while I was doing other things on the internet I watched a programme about 'folksinger' (since we must classify everything) Eliza Carthy. It was narrated by one Tom Ravenscroft. He wouldn't be the son of grievously-missed John Peel (born John Ravenscroft) would he? or am I exhibiting a romantic side to my nature I would do better, in the defence of my hard-won image as an emotional ice block, to conceal? No matter. In addition to Mr. Ravenscroft, whoever he may be, the programme also featured Eliza herself (obviously, you might think, although if she gets very famous she will absent herself from such flummery), Billy Bragg, 'comedian's comedian' Stewart Lee and Eliza's parents 'folk legends' Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson. And I don't know why - who can say what happy commingling of astral forces and bodily courses makes these things come about - but from the beginning to the end of the show I was mesmerised by the music, the interviews, even the footage of green hills and long empty beaches that Eliza's words and singing were occasionally played over. Now, always one to be a decade or two (or three) late for the party, I have two new heroes: Eliza, who plays and sings so wonderfully - like John Peel my lexicon is limited when it comes to musical appreciation - I had completely forgotten about the other things I was doing before she'd even finished her second song; and her aunt (I think that's what she was) Lal Waterson, whom I've somehow contrived to miss entirely in thirty years spent mining the musical culture of the Sixties. That either tells you something about the androcentric nature of the music business and its new co-conspirator the nostalgia business, or it shows you what a sexist idiot I am. I can live with either, since it's not, I hope, too late for me. Lal seems to have written a body of marvellous songs in her too-short life, many of them strange and elliptical. The one in the show beguiled me utterly, whatever it was called! I will spend some time today and tomorrow looking up her songs on the internet, if they are available. Maybe there'll even be an album in HMV that an unrewarded, potless blogger can afford. Ask for details about my Paypal account in a private email, if you wish.

I was elated after the programme was over, as elated, actually, as only music makes me. So I didn't want to go to bed. I gave the kitchen a cursory clean and then I thought I'd sit down and see what the next programme would be. I had discovered the Eliza Carthy one by accident. Perhaps (he said, using a transparent rhetorical device) there would be jewels waiting for me in the next thing on the schedule. No. It was a multi-artist Celtic Connection 70th birthday tribute to Bob Dylan. Right up the alley, you might assume, of someone who confesses that 'The Times They Are A-Changin'' deprived him of his cultural virginity. But after hearing Carthy and Waterson play those traditional instruments and sing in those old English styles, Roddy Somebody & The Somebodies, the opening band, who did an extremely pedestrian electrified 'Subterranean Homesick Blues', were so flattening to my spirit I hated them. And then, of course, we saw the usual parade of talented artists gushing about Bob's genius and his unassailable body of work and how he has changed songwriting forever. That might be true, although I suspect it's cod history, but I didn't care anyway. I wanted to hear a fiddle. I wanted an accordion. I wanted something I didn't recognise straight away sung in a rich, accented voice that could squeeze and stroke the real human emotion out of the lyric. I wanted, in other words, folk music. I turned the Dylan tribute off half way through a lifeless and unconvincing 'Absolutely Sweet Marie', fed the cats, had a wee, and went to bed, where I wrote down the names of all the songs by Eliza and Lal that I could remember from the preceding programme before I turned out the light.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Winter of Discontent: Rubbish Piled Up in the Mind.

In keeping with my current political mood - which seems to have been provoked by the appalling spectacle of Mr. Cleggeron in white shirt, tieless, with sleeves rolled up (have we really reached such an idiotic and transparent low in political propagandising?) walking around a hospital ward "listening" to nurses and patients - I watched an old documentary about one of my heroes Michael Foot this morning. In doing so I discovered something I'd forgotten long ago: those "memories" anti-Labourites and lazy political agnostics who don't want their consciences pricked or their inactivity disturbed haul out every time you talk about the years immediately before Thatcher - the ones about "rubbish piling up in the streets" and "bodies not being buried" because of the strikes - were actually grossly irresponsible sensationalist headlines from a Tory Party Political Broadcast! I'm sure it happened in a few places - it wasn't just the businessmen who had genuine grievances in those difficult times - but how fascinating it is, and how frightening, that something the majority of people would have experienced on television has become part of our collective memory. Although half of the people who regurgitate the cliches are too young to have been doing anything other than colouring in outlines of Disney characters in big floppy books at the groaning end of the Seventies.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Tyranny of the Old

On Saturday that venerable old programme Desert Island Discs changed its format for a week and featured the 8 songs that listeners would wish to take with them to the hypothetical desert island. They had been writing and emailing their selections in for some time, it seemed. I immediately succumbed to the same temptation I imagine every other listener felt who hadn’t already sent in a selection and chose my own 8 songs, just for personal amusement (and to see if I couldn’t prove my intellectual and cultural superiority to my usual audience, the silent the walls of my living room at the Bard Gaff). This was the list I produced:

John Coltrane ‘Alabama’
Neil Young ‘Mansion on the Hill’
George Harrison ‘My Sweet Lord’
Elvis Presley ‘Mystery Train’
Bob Dylan ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’
Billie Holiday ‘Strange Fruit’
Fairport Convention ‘Mattie Groves’
Rolling Stones ‘Gimme Shelter’

(With Carl Perkins’ ‘Honey Don’t’ and Waylon Jennings’ ‘Honky Tonk Heroes’ waiting in the wings if any of the other bands couldn’t make it.)

Looking at my list today, and thinking about the artists and songs favoured by the listeners to the programme, I realised what a horrible display of middle- and old-aged complacency and close-mindedness both had been. Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ and Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (which ‘only an awful grouch could dislike’, said Miranda Sawyer, one of the guests on the show, much to the amusement of this awful grouch, who dislikes the song passionately) nestle in the BBC list alongside Edward Elgar and Beethoven. As far as I can recall, actually, there was nothing in the top eight songs voted for by listeners that came out after 1980. That’s 13 years before the birth of most of the people I’m studying with at the University. (At least I chose something from the early 90s, in Neil Young’s ‘Mansion on the Hill’, although as an artist he is really associated with the hippies.) I’m more than happy there was no presence of Madonna, Michael Jackson, or that scion of the Fiery Furnace Rihanna in either of our lists, but might there not have been at least one song by the Smiths, or Nirvana (to bring it back up to twenty years ago)? I’m no expert on things modern, musically – although seeing ‘d & b’ as I believe the youngsters call it, performed in the flesh had a surprisingly powerful effect on me – but if you don’t close yourself off to them, great songs are everywhere. It’s just that you might not hear them in the places you used to now that nostalgia has become an industry (Take That? Again?), genre programmes proliferate, and the traditional mainstream sources of new music have decided nobody wants to listen to anything that can’t be played at thunderous volume out of a shiney new growling open-top car by a bloke with greasy spiked-up hair and a miniature sculptured beard; or that gaunt lads in cheap trackie bottoms walking two Staffs on chained leads around the weedy, pot-holed streets of estates like the one I live on can’t enjoy when they skin up after the soaps have finished. My d & b experience, after all, took place in someone’s house, in a small room upstairs where an internet broadcast was going out. And I hear delightful music being played by buskers on the streets every day. (Okay, they’re usually playing other people’s songs, but you get my point. Don’t you? Don’t you?)

Paul Gambaccini, that unsurpassed near-Biblical authority on What’s Happening (he knew ‘Freddie’, we hear, so his titular right cannot be challenged), used the disparaging phrase ‘the tyranny of the modern’ to explain why Susan Boyle was in the list of top female artists that the listeners to the programme had voted for. But he expressed not even the faintest stirrings of boredom while discussing the inevitable occupation of the number one and number two positions in the male list by the Beatles and Bob Dylan (both of whom, apparently, are more important than Beethoven and Elvis Presley). I love the Beatles and Bob Dylan to distraction, as anyone who’s ever visited my Facebook page or talked to me for more than three minutes will know to their cost, and I am certainly not suggesting that older people should be self-consciously modern – it makes me cringe when people of my age say they like JLS, or whoever the current favourite manufactured moneymakers might be – but our claim to want another 1967 or another 1977 does begin to look a little dubious and self-deceiving when we continue to listen only to the purveyors of those musical ‘revolutions’ through and out onto the other side of dribbling middle age. Didn’t we watch our grandparents grow old with their Caruso and Frankie Laine LPs and feel, without acknowledging it, that they were throwbacks to some faraway dinosaur world?

If we love music and the effect it has on our lives we must be open. We must be receptive. That’s how we discovered new things in the first place. The good stuff seems thinner on the ground than it used to partly because we’ve grown older and are more rigid in our thinking, and partly because the Capitalist greedheads control the old media through which it was transmitted to us. But who said a song needs to be played to more than five people in a garage to justify its greatness? Who said a revolution needs to change the world of more than one person?

That was the thrill of rock and roll in the first place: you heard Elvis Presley or the Beatles or the Sex Pistols or the Stone Roses in a record shop and walked to the bus stop in the rain with your mind and your stomach turned upside down. You went back to your office job or your warehouse job the next day a hero. There could be a better songwriter than Bob Dylan scribbling out his or her first tentative lyrics in a basement two doors down from you right now. If there is she’ll probably be a checkout girl in Aldi in ten years while some group of profoundly uncharismatic late teens with made-up single names, whose every move is orchestrated by the next Simon Cowell, and whose songs are all written and produced for them by a record company hack who once had a track on a Wet Wet Wet album, make millions on tv talent shows and the giant stages of the world (if not Britain) (for a while). But hey, that’s rock and roll in the Corporate Age. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t give a Cadbury’s Twirl what the Saturday night armchair fatsoes who make demi-gods out of these ambitious no-hopers for a glorious six months think about music anyway. It's what we, the cognoscenti, know that counts.

Friday, June 10, 2011

When Grace Departed

Browsing around on YouTube this morning I found footage of Jefferson Airplane at Woodstock in ’69 singing ‘Somebody to Love’ (which isn't in the movie). What a mighty band they were with their powerful, complex, multi-layered songs and Grace, the most devastating frontman (person?) of the era - only the ingrained sexism and lack of imagination of critics and historians makes them say Jagger.   I flipped forward a little over a decade after that, drawn by a masochistic desire to wreck the high Grace's booming voice and startling blue eyes had put me on, and watched ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ by their Reaganite incarnation Starship. (Or were they Jefferson Starship? I dunno.) My memory of it turned out to be accurate: they were fucking hideous. Grace is still there out front but all of her charisma, all of the sexual power she had, is gone; and with her hair piled up on her head and a gaudy jacket on she looks like a groupie at an Elvis Presley concert. The rest of the band are dressed equally badly. And who are they?? Not at all the languorously cool, serious musicians of the Woodstock line-up (and if any of them are the same people time has played a cruel game with them). Has Grace just done a mid-period Dylan and hired a bunch of session players who’d do whatever she told them to? Did Grace even have any control over what she was doing then? I’d prefer to believe she didn’t. I’d rather think that the putrid recordings she made in the ‘80s were the result of some kind of terrible contractual impasse. But a lot of previously great artists were seized by madness in those days. It was as if the success of the new conservatism worldwide had convinced them that liberalism and non-corporate progressive rock and roll had disappeared forever, so everybody had to reposition themselves in the new world or starve. Even Bob Dylan had synthesizers on his albums; and he dressed himself up in his videos like an extra from ‘Miami Vice’.