Category Archives: pottery

Your mercury mouth

No prizes for guessing the theme of this lyrics quiz, which is a kind of follow-up to Rob’s. With a couple of exceptions these aren’t memorable lines in themselves, but a lot of them are in the vicinity of memorable lines; I think overall it’s pretty easy.

  1. And the whole world is on your case
    - “Make you feel my love” (JaneyG)
  2. Come here and step into the light
    - “Highway 61 revisited” (ejh)
  3. Don’t tell her it isn’t so
    - “If you see her say hello” (Rob)
  4. Even the nobles get properly handled
    “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (skidmarx)
  5. He was staring into space
    - “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” (chjh)
  6. He wasn’t too small and he wasn’t too big
    - “Man Gave Names To All The Animals” (JaneyG)
  7. Hunted like a crocodile
    “Shelter from the Storm” (chjh)
  8. I know that Fortune is waiting to be kind
    “Mississippi”
  9. I wait for them to interrupt
    - “I want you” (Rob)
  10. I’m a generous bomb
    “Please Mrs Henry”
  11. I’ve been to gay Paree
    - “Not dark yet” (Rob)
  12. It makes you feel violent and strange
    “No time to think”
  13. It’s so hard to get on
    – “Visions of Johanna” (ejh)
  14. Ninety-nine years he just don’t deserve
    - “Percy’s song” (Rob)
  15. One bird book and a buzzard and a crow
    - “Tiny Montgomery” (chjh)
  16. She’s so hard to recognise
    - “True love tends to forget” (JaneyG)
  17. There’s a new day at dawn
    “Where are you tonight? (Journey through dark heat)” – chjh
  18. When the children were babies
    - “Sara” (chjh)
  19. White ladder all covered with water
    - “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall” (Rob)
  20. You weren’t really from the farm
    - “(Sooner or Later) One of Us Must Know” (ejh)

Answers in comments.

Bonus question: what’s true (at the time of writing) of “All Along The Watchtower”, “Like A Rolling Stone”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Maggie’s Farm”, “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Blowin’ In The Wind” but no other songs? And which three songs are most likely to be added to this list?

Update 7 down, 13 to go (or 9 and 11 if Chris chips in his two guesses). Not that it helps, but #8 has been one of my favourite Dylan songs ever since I first heard it, at a folk club about five years ago; that folk club is also the only place I’ve ever heard #1, although I understand it’s become a bit of a standard. Apart from those, the only songs on the list with folkie connections are #4, #14 and #19; in the case of #7 I suspect a debt to “Lakes of Pontchartrain” (“If it weren’t for the alligators I’d sleep out in the wood”), but that may be a stretch.

Update 2 Ten of the remaining 13 songs first appeared on record within one five-year period. Hell of a period.

Update 3 9 down, 11 to go. (Five-year period: nine of the remaining 11.) Chris, do you want to take #7? (Never mind, chjh nabbed it.)

Update 4 7 left. Apart from #10, which chjh spotted as being on the Basement Tapes, they’re on five different albums, three of which have already had a track named (two tracks in one case).

Update 5 6 left; five different albums (including the Basement Tapes), two of which have already had a track named. (Nothing else off BotT, in other words.)

Update 6 Not done yet, but we’re getting there. Thanks to JaneyG for naming both the sublime “TLTTF” (there is some great stuff on Street Legal) and the ridiculous “MGNTATA” (the next line is “Ahhh…. think I’ll call it a pig”). Incidentally, the clues to the bonus questions, and my reply to comment 2, are all on this page (clicking on the titles is not required).

Absolutely final update Beans spilt. Sorry nobody got “Mississippi”; it’s a fantastic song, particularly if you hear it sung by somebody who’s still got a voice. “No Time To Think” is a great song, too – once again, I strongly recommend Street Legal, particularly the remastered CD (the mix of the original LP was dreadful).

The supplementary questions were about live performances. “All Along The Watchtower”, “Like A Rolling Stone”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Maggie’s Farm”, “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Blowin’ In The Wind” are the only songs Dylan has played live over 1,000 times – nearly 2,000 for the first two of them. Coming up on the rails with 900+ are “It Ain’t Me Babe”, “Mr Tambourine Man” and “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35″. “Please Mrs Henry”, “Tiny Montgomery” and “No Time To Think” have never been played live by Dylan; more intriguingly, “Percy’s Song” and “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” are among the songs that he’s played live precisely once.

Go! Goodbye!

“In the name of God the merciful, the compassionate, citizens, during these very difficult circumstances Egypt is going through, President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down from the office of president of the republic and has charged the high council of the armed forces to administer the affairs of the country. May God help everybody.”
– Omar Suleiman, 16:12 GMT, 11/2/2011

You can no longer depend on the land in which you were born.
You can no longer depend on any land in which you choose to place yourself.
You can no longer depend on the bed in which you lie by night, or the room in which you sit by day.
You can no longer depend on the pillow on which you lay your head.
You can no longer depend on your lover for anything.
You can no longer depend on the existence of silence in your mind when you close your eyes.
Go to England, baby-raper, false economist! Call yourself King Charles III.
Nobody will notice. Nobody will be alarmed. There is no constitution.
Go! Goodbye!
Goodbye.

They’ve done it; they’ve actually done it. It took eighteen days, but they’ve done it.

The significance of Mubarak stepping down as President today cannot be overstated. It marks the arrival onto the stage of history the Arab masses as an actor rather than the passive and infantilised observers they had been for generations. The stranglehold of dictatorship has been broken from below.

The Arab world shall never be the same. The remaining dictatorships and kleptocracies throughout the region have just moved closer to their end. In Washington, London, Paris, and Tel Aviv frantic efforts to adapt to a new reality will be taking place.
John Wight, Socialist Unity

You know something big has happened – or is starting to happen – when you get that sense that the power holders of the world are running to keep up. Something’s happening here, but they don’t know what it is…

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

Of course, what comes next is anybody’s guess, and it certainly won’t be the triumph of a movement of generalised occupation and the establishment of workers’ councils (which some of us were hoping for). This is where the real struggle starts. But that’s precisely the victory that’s been won: after 30 years of imperialist-imposed stasis, the people of Egypt have won the right to fight their own battles. A clock that was stopped half a lifetime ago has started again. This, perhaps, is why the Eastern Bloc parallels seem so appropriate. Here’s another, from 1989.

Nagy Imre, 1896 – 1958

These are the hard times. Not the remembered days
Of tanks in the streets and firing in the square;
When today was torn off from yesterday, when
The light of the day was broken, swept aside,
Reduced to painful breaths in a doorway
As the achieved future rolls on past you;
Not hearing your ruler confess imaginary crimes,
Starved in tie and glasses; sentenced; shot;
Buried under earth and a number. Now,
Thirty-one, thirty-three years on – these are the hard times.

For their future is over, and you are still here.
All that we do is watch, but we have watched
While their history moved on, while the decades
Ground into place, slabs across our memories.
It wasn’t enough – thirty-one years, thirty-three -
And they are tired and their future is over,
And people whose children lie in the empty coffin
Are still here. The present begins again for you
As we still watch. And these are the hard times.

Husni Mubarak’s future is over – the future so many people wanted to prolong, from the government of Israel to Tony Blair. The people he oppressed are still here. These are the hard times, right enough – but now is a time for celebration.

Bashkohuni!

Speaking of Albania, there was a sad little item the other day in the Cedar Lounge Revolution‘s continuing series of ‘Left Archive’ posts, viz. Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist), Red Patriot, August 1982 (including Communiqué of the Central Committee of the CPI (M-L) on the Occasion of the Party’s 12th Anniversary).

The Albanian connection is that the CPI(M-L) had been Ireland’s main (only?) Mao-line Communist Party, with an international orientation towards two countries – the People’s Republic of China and Enver Hoxha’s Albania. Nixon’s visit to China in 1971 led the relationship to get a bit strained, with the Albanians accusing their ally of revisionist tendencies. The death of the Great Helmsman in 1976, followed by an official visit to Beijing by the arch-revisionist Tito, led to an outright break (Nixon was bad enough, but this…!). In reaction, Albania declared itself the only Marxist-Leninist state in the world and China, understandably, turned off the aid tap. The Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) split in this period, with a pro-Albanian minority forming the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), who we met earlier. (Update 3/7/10 Many thanks to running dog in comments, who pointed out that this is wrong in every particular. The Bainsite RCPB(M-L) (Wikipedia) was founded separately from Reg Birch’s CPB(M-L), initially as the CPE(M-L); the RCPB’s current Web site (yes, they’re still going) translates the name of the party into Welsh, which may explain the name change. The CPB(M-L) in fact went with Albania as well. See also running dog‘s second comment, which came in while I was typing this update(!).) The Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist), on the other hand, also went with Albania, although not without having to expel a couple of dissident factions.

According to the poster on Cedar Lounge, the 1982 Red Patriot clarifies the self-perception of CPI(M-L) as it entered the 1980s. Or in other words, as it headed towards oblivion. Hoxha died in 1985, and then there was 1991; the Albanian Party of Labour rebadged itself as something innocuous involving the word ‘Socialist’ and lost power for good. A few years later the EU expanded eastwards and the word ‘Albanian’ started to appear in the press, generally accompanied by the word ‘immigrant’. It struck me that Albania under capitalism was causing more anxiety in Western Europe than it ever had under Communism, and I wrote this song: Continue reading

Never here, never seen

Time for a bit more Potter. (Past time, in fact – my Rowling-rereading-and-reviewing schedule is way out. I blame life.)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, like its precursor, was big but not that big, a success but not yet a phenomenon. While we’re aware now of the continuing and repeated elements in successive books – the relationships, the Sorting Hat, the compulsory Quidditch – it’s actually quite surprising, coming back to Chamber of Secrets, to see how little it had in common with the first book. Harry’s parents don’t figure at all, for example, and Voldemort only appears in the form of a Horcmagical object (more of that later). What it does have in common with Philosopher’s Stone is a plot consisting mostly of increasing suspense (cranked up really high this time round), resolved in a fast-paced action scene that doesn’t make any sense at all – not even after Dumbledore has explained it.

I began my review of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by challenging J.K. Rowling’s indignant denial that the book was “light and fluffy”. Chamber of Secrets certainly isn’t light and fluffy in any obvious way; the mood’s gloomy and oppressive, with the first stirrings of that “everyone hates Harry” paranoid atmosphere which dominates the later books. The monster-movie horrors of the climactic big fight are undercut by the sheer daftness of the plotting – it’s hard to care about a life-and-death struggle which the author seems to be making up as she goes along. But some of the plot twists along the way are genuinely grim (Dumbledore suspended, Hagrid sent to Azkaban, Hermione in a coma…).

So is this a major advance on the first book? Is this where Rowling steps free of the wish-fulfilment fantasy framework that Philosopher’s Stone inhabited -

Let’s say that there are these people who are not like us… and let’s say they can get whatever they want… and let’s say that there are good people and bad people, and the bad people are really easy to identify

- and begins to write, like le Guin or Pullman or even Tolkien, about real people who really get hurt? Yes and No – but mainly No. I don’t know how I’m going to assess the fifth and six books when I wade thrread them again, but my sense is that the books never quite get free of fantasy (in that weightless, narcissistic sense of the word). This is a strength as well as a weakness – it leads to a kind of restless, unsatisfied chewing-over of the conditions of fantasy, as if Rowling felt compelled to prove that it can’t work but couldn’t quite bear to abandon it. But it does mean that, thematically, the books are more or less variations on a master-theme. It also means that Harry isn’t likely ever to make it out into the real world, where lots of desires are impossible and lots of broken things can’t be mended – not even to the extent that Ged or Frodo manage it.

I suggested before that Philosopher’s Stone posed three questions about fantasy. First, is the hero superhuman, or is he at some level one of us – is he Sam Gamgee or Elrond, or somewhere in between? (Not that there’s necessarily a straight line from one to the other; Philip Pullman plotted some unsettling variants on this scale in the Amber Spyglass.) Second, does the hero’s special nature enable him to get whatever he wants, or will the world quietly, pointlessly get in the way? Third, does the hero have an infallible moral compass – are his friends good and his enemies evil? In that book, the answer to the third question was a definite “maybe”, while the second got a quiet but unambiguous No: Harry’s parents are dead and will stay that way. The answer to the first question was least satisfactory; the unenchanted human race is represented by the ghastly Dursleys, in comparison with whom Harry is simply loaded with midichlorians (and better looking with it).

All three questions are explored to considerably better effect in Chamber of Secrets than in the first book. The Dursleys are still ghastly, right enough, and there is still that slightly queasy adoption-fantasy sense that the Weasleys represent Harry’s real family, but this time round the wizard/Muggle divide doesn’t pass without authorial reflection. The issue is foregrounded through the revelation of the darker side of the Slytherin worldview, with Malfoy’s use of ‘Mudblood’ as a term of abuse for Hermione (Harry’s own parentage is thoroughly wizardly, of course). Slytherin was introduced in the first book as the house for cunning folk [who] use any means to achieve their ends (in the deathless words of the Sorting Hat) – and a house which might well suit Harry himself (who certainly isn’t noted for adherence to the rules). But all we really found out about Slytherin kids was that they tended to be ghastly over-privileged snobs, and that (according to the normally trustworthy Hagrid) there’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin. Incidentally, this untroubled mapping of the school onto the world at large is significant; at least, it’s another sign that, when we enter Hogwarts, we’re in the domain of fantasy. Rowling has said that, while she was planning the first book, I sat down and I created 40 kids who enter Harry’s year … I got 40 pretty fleshed-out characters (more details here); she doesn’t seem to have felt the need to draw any maps of the wizards’ world. Setting aside the question of whether the parallel British wizard society could possibly be sustainable on a birth-rate of 40 per year, you’ve got to wonder if Voldemort had any following outside Britain – and if not, why not.

In any case, it’s in Chamber of Secrets that we learn about Slytherin’s volkisch streak, and this in turn affects the way we think about Harry’s superior wizardliness. If Harry has something special about him – if the hero is endowed with superhuman qualities which lift him above our mundane level – then his gift can’t be something he was born with, or at least not something he could have been predicted to be born with. It’s no accident that the same book that introduces ‘Mudbloods’ also introduces ‘Squibs’, the unfavoured non-magical offspring of magical parents. (And there must be a hell of a lot of Squibs, unless the Weasleys are really way out on the right tail of the philoprogenitive curve – 40 per year, after all… They’d hardly need a Ministry of Magic, surely – a Greater Hogsmeade District Council would be ample. But never mind.) Hermione and Filch are both sports – magical ability comes and goes, and ultimately can’t be predicted from a person’s parentage or their external appearance. Magic itself is still pretty special – and the relationship between the magical world and ours isn’t any clearer in this book. Still, the disavowal of any idea of wizards as a separate caste does something to undo – or at least pull against – the sense that there’s a gulf of effortless superiority dividing Harry from the Dursleys, and other Muggles.

As for the question of the moral compass, this is the second of at least five books in which Harry’s loathing for members of Slytherin turns out to be misplaced. It’s a theme that gets predictable quite quickly – particularly when underscored by Ron’s stubborn failure to get it – but it’s interesting nonetheless. Rowling is emphatically not saying that Draco Malfoy is all right really, or (after the first book) that Snape is acting in Harry’s best interests. In this book it’s clear that Malfoy hates Harry because of school and social rivalry, and that he’s personally a nasty piece of work; his snobbish contempt for Ron is as telling here as his quasi-racist hatred of Hermione. (It’s somehow not surprising that real-world racism never rears its head at Hogwarts, despite the presence of Irish, Black and Asian kids.) However, it also becomes clear that he’s not working for the forces of darkness, as much as he might like to (or thinks he would). Similarly, Snape may have saved Harry’s life in the first book, but it’s clear that he means him no good. In particular, he would happily see him expelled – an unthinkable fate for Harry, as it would mean exchanging the charmed world of Hogwarts for the mundane (or hyper-mundane) setting of Privet Drive. But there’s disliking Harry and then there’s being evil; in this book Rowling insists that these are both real, but that they’re not identical. It’s a delicate balancing act – all the more so given that the nature of evil is never really spelt out, beyond the fact that Voldemort killed Harry’s parents and would like to kill Harry. It’s particularly noticeable that Dumbledore, in the obligatory but there’s still one thing I don’t understand scene at the end of the book, declines to draw the line distinguishing ‘evil’ from ‘Slytherin':

‘Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor. You know why that was. Think.’
‘It only put me in Gryffindor,’ said Harry in a defeated voice, ‘because I asked not to go in Slytherin…’
Exactly,’ said Dumbledore, beaming once more. ‘Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.’

Even if it’s tidied away at the end of the book, earlier on the Slytherin problem has productively blurred the line between the issues of heroism and morality, querying Harry’s claim both to superhuman heroism and moral certitude. The way in which this book tackles the question of omnipotence – does the hero’s special nature enable him to get whatever he wants, or will the world quietly, pointlessly get in the way? - also shows some overlap with the ‘moral compass’ question. Specifically, Harry’s key discovery in this book is that people get in the way – and that they do so in ways that aren’t, actually, evil. The key figure here is the ridiculous and worthless Gilderoy Lockhart. Rowling’s authorial tone with regard to Lockhart never wavers; he is clearly an idiot who has made a career out of his own vanity, and who gains Harry’s respect only by virtue of his position as a teacher. And yet:

‘Oh, there you are, good,’ said Mrs Weasley. She sounded breathless and kept patting her hair. ‘We’ll be able to see him in a minute…’

Why,’ demanded Ron, seizing her timetable, ‘have you outlined all Lockhart’s lessons in little hearts?’ Hermione snatched the timetable back, blushing furiously.

Lockhart’s not merely incompetent, he’s dangerously incompetent – as well as being untrustworthy and a fraud. But he does have lovely hair and a nice smile, and it would be nice to believe he was genuine – and for a lot of people that’s enough to be going on with. Female people, primarily. (Is anyone gay at Hogwarts?)

Like Malvolio, Lockhart is at once a figure of fun and an annoyance, and his comeuppance is just as thorough as Malvolio’s. The final twist of the plot sees him deprived of his memory, the very faculty that enabled him to stitch together the character he made of himself. As a result he’s deprived of all significance, sidelined and reduced to an amiable childlike state. It’s interesting that the book where Lockhart does his turn also sees the first appearance of a much more significant figure, Cornelius Fudge. In this respect Chamber of Secrets foreshadows the third book, in which the theme that Lockhart embodies in comic form is taken up in earnest by Fudge: this man may be complacent, self-seeking and incompetent, but people believe him – people who wouldn’t, necessarily, believe you. There is stuff out there that’s unavoidably in the way, stuff that you just have to work round; there are people out there who will get in the way, without necessarily being evil. Thematically, Lockhart is part ‘omnipotence’ and part ‘moral compass'; in both respects this book moves on from the first one in some interesting ways.

But omnipotence, morality and heroism aren’t what the book is about – at least, they’re not the point of this book in particular. The best way to understand what it’s about is to take seriously two comments Rowling has made about the original draft of the book. One was that the plot was originally planned to reveal information which she decided to hold back to a later book; the other was that the book’s original title was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but that she’d been forced to drop it when she realised it didn’t fit the plot. This clears up a couple of mysteries straight away: the similarity between the major plot devices of the two books is explained, as is the bizarrely creaky ‘Prince’ plot device used in the sixth book. (Admittedly this doesn’t explain why Rowling reused the title in the first place; I suppose she must really have liked it.)

As for the crucial information, I think the key exchange comes in that final exposition scene:

‘Unless I’m much mistaken, he transferred some of his own powers to you the night he gave you that scar. Not something he intended to do, I’m sure…’
‘Voldemort put a bit of himself in me?’ Harry said, thunderstruck.
‘It certainly seems so.’

By the time we reach the end of book six we know all about how, and why, “Voldemort put a bit of himself in me“. (Settle down at the back there. This is family reading.) For now we’re left with a revelation that complements the revelation at the end of the first book. There’s something about Harry which protects him from evil, and which derives from his mother’s self-sacrifice to save him from Voldemort. But there’s also something about him which derives from Voldemort’s attack itself; the implication is that this will tend to draw him back towards Voldemort and destruction, like a delayed-action homing device.

The extent to which these motifs represent moral complexity, or fictional maturity, is debatable. As I wrote in the context of the first book, it’s arguable that Rowling is only going to leave the safety of comfort-zone fantasy for the equal and opposite safety of the discomfort zone – a fictional world whose heroes can be relied on to be powerless, unheroic, misguided and doomed. Lily’s shielding love and Voldemort’s contaminating Horcrinfluence are both all too compatible with a vision of Harry as an impotent plaything of fate, suffering horribly for his failure to attain the proper level of fantasy heroism. Whether they’re also compatible with Harry living in a real world – albeit a real world with magic – is much more debatable.

I can turn you into gold

As a genre, fantasy has something in common with utopian fiction. Utopias begin with a challenge – Let’s say that everyone’s happy – and then set about answering the questions that challenge provokes. The interest of a utopia is precisely which questions the author believes need to be answered: is it “Who will do the dirty jobs?” or “What about men?”, “What about the idlers?” or “What about aggression?”? The way these questions are answered – and the way they’re framed in the first place – tells us what the utopia is about, what drives it and sustains it – and by implication tells a story about what matters to us, in our world.

Fantasy fiction works a similar trick, at a less exalted – or perhaps simply a less programmatic – level. Let’s say that there are these people who are not like us… and let’s say they can get whatever they want… and let’s say that there are good people and bad people, and the bad people are really easy to identify… I think that something like this set of assumptions lurks behind a lot of fantasy fiction, a kind of unacknowledged comfort zone that the narrative quietly hankers for. The skill of fantasy is then to pull against the tug of wish-fulfilment and play with these assumptions, thinking about their implications and their limits, working out whether people could actually live with them – and if so, how. And, again, the specific questions that get asked (“what about death?”, “what about science?”, “what about pride?”) tell us what the fantasy is about – and, for the author, what matters in the world out here.

So, about Harry Potter…

I’m surprised when sometimes people say to me, “Oh, you know, the books are getting so dark.” I’m thinking, “Well, which part of ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ did you think was light and fluffy?”
- J.K. Rowling, interviewed 16/7/05

Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy – until he is rescued by a beetle-eyed giant of a man, enrols at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, learns to play Quidditch and does battle in a deadly duel. The Reason: HARRY POTTER IS A WIZARD!
- back cover copy, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, paperback edition (43rd printing, Dumbledore picture)

Fluffy, perhaps not – but that blurb is a perfect example of how the Harry Potter books might be read as ‘light’. Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy – until he is rescued - and boom, we’re off. Everything from there to the climactic caps and exclamation mark offers to lift the reader into unbounded fantasy, far from the ‘ordinary’ world of work and pain, love and boredom. (The threat implied by that duel might have done a bit of anchoring, if only it hadn’t been a deadly duel – the two words cancel each other out.)

That’s just a blurb, but I think the books are heavily involved with this weightless, comfort-zone version of fantasy – and that it accounts for a lot of what’s most disappointing about them. By which I mean, most of what isn’t plot or character, and some of what is. From the first chapter of Philosopher’s Stone, we’re encouraged to invest in Harry as a boy who has survived real traumas and will face more – “The boy who lived”, with all that that phrase implies. Yet Harry’s surroundings are pure wish-fulfilment. In an interview a while ago, J.K. Rowling said that she’d acquired an instant fan base among enthusiasts for boarding school education and believers in magic[k], and that she had no interest in either topic except as a fictional device. I thought at the time that this was an extraordinary admission – it’s hard to imagine Anthony Buckeridge or Geoffrey Willans disclaiming any interest in schools. But then, Hogwarts isn’t like any other school – even Linbury Court or St custard’s. Those schools are described with an odd combination of quaint specificity and fantastical exuberance, which echoes the collision between childhood creativity and institutional routine. There are things you must and mustn’t do, places you must and mustn’t go, people you must respect and obey and avoid; how it all fits together is for you to find out – or imagine, in curlicues of private mythology. There’s little of this about Hogwarts: the exuberance is all in the real magical trappings of the school, while the quaint specifics are all perfectly logical. As a school, Hogwarts is identifiable as a fantasy above all because it makes sense – there are things the teachers would rather not share with Harry and friends, but there’s nothing that in principle they couldn’t understand. Even the Jennings books are truer to the limits and the mysteries of childhood experience.

As for magic, to say that magic is real at Hogwarts isn’t to say much more than that wishes come true there. Rowling’s bluff scepticism about magic outside fiction contrasts oddly with peers like Ursula le Guin or Philip Pullman. Le Guin has always taken at least as much interest in fictional ethnography as in plotting, while Pullman concludes “His Dark Materials” by saying that magic is real, here, now – it’s just that in our world it’s called shamanism or the I Ching. Set against Ged’s trances or Lyra’s reading of the alethiometer – or even the solemn, meticulous cod-Tolkien of something like Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series – spells like “Expelliarmus” or “Wingardium Leviosa” seem like awfully thin stuff. (Perhaps in the seventh book there’ll be some explanation of why spells are written in something that looks like Latin but isn’t. Or perhaps not.) There are odd moments when both the magic and the school setting come to life – think of Neville’s trouble with passwords or Hermione’s “Wingardium Levio-sah!” – but they’re all too rare.

Despite all this – and despite a writing style in serious need of fluff removal – the books remain interesting, in large part because they do think about the implications and limits of fantasy. What’s particularly interesting is the way that the three themes outlined above recur from book to book, sometimes being waved away in one book and chewed over more seriously in its successor.

In this respect, it has to be said, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone doesn’t begin well. One of the key questions on the frontier between fantasy-as-speculation and fantasy-as-wish-fulfilment concerns the status of other people. To put it bluntly, are they real – specifically, are they as real as me? The fantasy setting offers plenty of opportunities to answer this in the negative, by allowing the reader to identify with the exceptional characters rather than the mere ordinary real people. Consequently, from an egalitarian perspective, many fantasy narratives are marred by either Tory paternalism (use your gifts to serve the less fortunate) or fascism (you have been raised up as a leader). Both Pullman and le Guin find ways around this trap. (It’s worth noting that Tolkien avoided it completely, by vesting paranormal powers in divine beings and consecrated objects – and dissociating heroism from both.) Rowling walks straight into it, in the opening words of the first book.

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

Perfectly normal, thank you very much – reading that last phrase I can just see Michael Palin in a flat cap and Terry Jones in a skirt and a hat with cherries on top. It’s a caricature of a certain kind of English middle-class normality, so broadly drawn that it hardly qualifies as satire and – by 1997 – very tired. The Dursleys, in short, are unreal from the word go – even before the relentless accumulation of negative character traits that follow in the next four chapters. They are the worst surrogate parents Harry could possibly have had, the least deserving of any kind of respect, consideration or reciprocity. The wizard/Muggle distinction gets more interesting in later books, but as far as Philosopher’s Stone is concerned the Muggles par excellence are the Dursleys in all their grotesquerie. Which means that the people who matter are the people who are not like us – or at least, not like them, those boring ordinary people who go to work and watch TV. Score one for wish-fulfilment.

The book’s answers to the other two questions I’ve suggested are a bit more interesting. Yes, HARRY POTTER IS A WIZARD!, but it doesn’t follow that Harry can get whatever he wants – because what Harry wants more than anything else is to be reunited with his parents, who are dead. (And dead, at least in this book, is dead.) One of the weirdest and most moving moments in the book is Harry’s encounter with the Mirror of Erised, a kind of psychological version of Larry Niven’s ‘droud':

‘It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. … However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.’

To be presented with an image of our desires – and to sit before it, entranced – is quite a good image of the spectacle, as the situationists conceived it. It’s also a horribly telling critique of comfort-zone fantasy, that place where considerations of what is real or even possible don’t apply. It’s just a shame that the Mirror of Erised chapter is also the set-up for a really awful with-one-bound plot device (not to mention being one more example of Rowling’s tin ear for language).

The other big question is that of distinguishing between good people and bad people – or rather, between ‘good and bad’ and ‘friendly and unfriendly’ – or rather, between he’s a bad man and I don’t like him – or rather, between he’s a bad man and he doesn’t like me. (This last one is quite a lot to ask of a twelve-year-old; unsurprisingly, it’s a bit beyond Ron right to the end of this book. But then, that’s what Ron’s for.) As that awkward statement and restatement might suggest, this is a question that Philosopher’s Stone chews over thoroughly; it’s not what the book’s about, but it’s the main running theme. As you’ll know if you’ve read this far, we’re talking about Snape here (with whose help this theme will run and run). By the end of the book Harry has learned that Snape genuinely hates him; that he had some reason for hating Harry’s father, if not Harry himself; that, despite all this, Snape didn’t actually want Harry dead, and had in fact saved his life; and that somebody else was trying to kill him. It’s a shocking and persuasive demonstration of the difference between ‘evil’ (will kill hero if possible) and ‘unfriendly’ (will mark hero’s homework unfairly, but will save hero’s life if necessary). It’s only a partial break with comfort-zone fantasy; it’s still assumed that ‘evil’ and ‘death of hero’ imply each other, which clearly isn’t necessarily so (couldn’t Snape hate Harry enough to kill him, without necessarily being in league with the forces of evil? come to that, couldn’t the forces of evil do their evil work without Harry’s death being involved?) But it is a partial break – a tear in the fabric of the comfort zone – and more, and worse, will follow.

And what the book’s about? Love; specifically, Lily’s love for Harry, which saved his life and continues to protect him from Voldemort.

‘Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realise that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign… to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection for ever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good.’

Something so good as the self-sacrifice of a mother you never knew… There’s something slightly queasy there. Here’s another quote from that July 2005 interview:

Don’t you want to ask me why James’s death didn’t protect Lily and Harry? There’s your answer … because she could have lived – and chose to die. James was going to be killed anyway. Do you see what I mean? I’m not saying James wasn’t ready to; he died trying to protect his family, but he was going to be murdered anyway. … she was given time to choose. James wasn’t. It’s like an intruder entering your house, isn’t it? You would instinctively rush them. But if in cold blood you were told, “Get out of the way,” you know, what would you do? I mean, I don’t think any mother would stand aside from their child. But does that answer it? She did very consciously lay down her life. She had a clear choice. -

And James didn’t

Did he clearly die to try and protect Harry specifically given a clear choice? No. It’s a subtle distinction and there’s slightly more to it than that but that’s most of the answer.

Love as self-sacrifice – or rather, self-sacrifice as love, as a gesture of love so powerful that it enfolds the loved one forever after. This is a fantasy, but it’s a mother’s fantasy, not a child’s. It’s also rather morbid, and makes me wonder what’s in store for Harry’s emotional development. The other implication of that phrase “the boy who lived” is that the remainder of Harry’s life is a postscript to his first encounter with Voldemort, or at best a working-out of unfinished business. I wonder if Rowling is going to allow Harry at least to think about adulthood, and leave his mother’s sacrificial embrace behind – or will he always be the boy who had been loved? We know now that he’s never going to get together with that nice Hermione Grainger, but is anybody going to stay the course – or get the chance?

This doesn’t sound like an important question – it sounds like I’m reducing fantasy to a soap opera plot, and taking that more seriously than it deserves. But it is important, because it brings us back to the nature of fantasy. The other side of comfort-zone fantasy is the fantasy of a world where the hero is special because he’s marked out for destruction, he can’t get anything he wants and the difference between good and evil equals the difference between him and everyone else. Call it the fantasy of the discomfort zone. It’s an unrewarding, masochistic style of fantasy, but no less popular for that. Let Harry’s life be a vapour trail that streaks from one self-immolating explosion to another, and the only progress we will have made is from weightless comfort to ungrounded discomfort. Tolkien, le Guin, Pullman – all of them have faced up to the idea of a fantasy-figure embarking on a life after fantasy, and in the process drawn attention to what their fantasies were really about (humility and pride, death and fear, desire and science). I hope Rowling can do likewise.

[Sharp-eyed readers will have noted the lack of specific references in this post to the second and subsequent books. The plan is to write a separate post on each one, although hopefully not at quite this length. Stay tuned, and so forth.]

The world looks so tiny

Jamie:

Back in the eighties when China was inviting “foreign friends” over, mainly to teach, as a means of preparing the locals for the forthcoming golden horde of businesspeople they weren’t too scrupulous about checking credentials. There was an absolute infestation of evangelicals, often in posts at fairly prestigious universities for which they had no qualifications whatsoever. “Plate tectonics later – but first, Jesus!”

This kind of thing is partly a by-product of evangelism being banned in China. Partly also it’s because the thought of 1.3 billion hellbound souls just gets evangelical sap rising. It’s a particular obsession in the US. None other than Henry Luce said that the great mission of the United States was to Christianize China.

Back in the early 70s, when I last went to church at all regularly, there was a hymn called “Thy Kingdom Come, O God” which used to come round from time to time. The last verse goes after the following fashion:

O’er heathen lands afar
Thick darkness broodeth yet:
Arise, O Morning Star,
Arise, and never set!

Apparently more recent editions bowdlerise the first line to “O’er lands both near and far”, which dodges the point rather neatly.

I don’t know if hearing that hymn at a formative age had anything to do with it, but a friend’s younger brother later got religion in a big way and trained as a missionary. I was slightly startled by this, but much more so by his first posting, which was to a village in India. (No, look… they’ve got a religion, they’ve had it for ages and they seem quite happy with it… and I mean, different religions, they’re all different, kind of, different pathways to the same… obviously you think Christianity’s the best pathway and I respect that, but…) Still, it’s not often these days that you get the chance to meet someone with a different mental universe, so I suppose we should be glad that the evangelical Christians are around.

The idea of the historic American mission to Christianise China also reminds me of the Early Modern trope of the conversion of the Jews, as mentioned in Marvell’s “To his coy mistress”:

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.

The thinking here is, obviously, that the Jews won’t convert until the second coming of Christ and the end of the world.

But then came Zionism – Christian Zionism, in particular. (Regina Sharif’s Non-Jewish Zionism is terrific on this, if you can get hold of it.) For evangelical Christians, the rise of Christian Zionism meant that the Jews weren’t available for conversion any more, even in imagination. (Another church-going memory is of a visiting preacher praying for “thy people Israel”, who were having a bit of trouble in Lebanon at the time. I was taken aback – didn’t our status as Christians rather depend on the Jews losing the franchise? – but apparently this kind of eschatological double-vision is quite common in some quarters.) The enthusiasm of parts of the American Right for Nationalist China – their willingness to give the Kuomintang practical as well as financial support, and to withhold recognition from the People’s Republic until long after the game was up – has always intrigued me; it’d be interesting to see if the KMT fan base had much overlap with the Christian Zionist lobby. Perhaps, in the American evangelical imagination, Luce’s vision of the conversion of the Chinese took the place of the conversion of the Jews – although, the American evangelical imagination being what it is, it was seen not as an ineffably distant prospect but as a project to be brought about as soon as possible. Lucky Chinese.

And feel your lumps

Go and sit upon the grass and I shall come and sit beside you…

Back in the early seventies a couple of forward-looking sixth-formers at my school booked a series of acts, with varying degrees of success; Hatfield and the North were very nearly booked at one stage, but they ended up with Keith Christmas. I always wanted to be like those sixth-formers, but by the time I got there respect had given way to derision; they shouted at me in the corridors, in other words. (They called me ‘Medusa’, which was literate at least.) Anyway, Keith Christmas was pretty good; he could certainly bring off the long hair. The Albion Dance Band (as they then were) were also good, although I’d been hanging around all day with the people doing set-up and was out of my head on London Pride by the time they came on. And then there was Ivor Cutler, who disappointed some by not bringing his harmonium and disappointed me slightly by giving half a set to Phyllis April King (as she then was). I was prepared for the writing, as one of my sisters had left a copy of Cockadoodledon’t! at home. The writing was good.

But Ivor Cutler is dead.

Years later I saw Ivor Cutler again; at least, it was either him or an elderly man of medium height who was determined to look as much like Ivor Cutler as possible. Our paths crossed on a bridge over the Thames – one of those railway bridges with the fenced-in pedestrian section to one side. (Blackfriars, Waterloo, I don’t know.) I contemplated saying something but rapidly realised that I didn’t have anything more cogent to say than “Hey, you’re that Ivor Cutler, aren’t you?”. (Unlike my sister, I had never purchased any of his works.) I didn’t say anything.

But Ivor Cutler is dead.

As you’ll read in his interview with the Wire, Ivor Cutler wasn’t entirely pleased to have his contribution to Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom described as his own work. His own work was quite different. Wyatt later paid him a greater homage with his version of “Grass”, a.k.a. “Go and sit upon the grass”: a wonderful, hilarious and highly meaningful song about the path to enlightenment, which I have myself sung in public to great acclaim. (I made somebody cry with laughter – of which I have to say I am rather proud. Thanks, Ivor.)

Ivor Cutler is dead.

He has left a gap. The gap has many shapes; one of them is this. That’s a good gap.

And we shall talk…

Younger than that now

There’s some good stuff from Ross McKibbin in the current LRB:

the two major parties fundamentally share the same ideology. Despite assurances that the political elite is interested only in what works, this is the most intensely ideological period of government we have known in more than a hundred years. The model of market-managerialism has largely destroyed all alternatives, traditional and untraditional. Its most powerful weapon has been its vocabulary. We are familiar with the way this language has carried all before it. We must sit on the cusp, hope to be in a centre of excellence, dislike producer-dominated industries, wish for a multiplicity of providers, grovel to our line managers, even more to the senior management team, deliver outcomes downstream, provide choice. Our students are now clients, our patients and passengers customers. It is a language which was first devised in business schools, then broke into government and now infests all institutions.

But this rings oddly false:

there is still a sense in which the Conservative Party is not of the real world. Its infantile reaction (fully shared by Cameron) to possible reductions in the British EU rebate – like its attitude to Europe generally – is not the behaviour of a party which wants to be taken seriously.

I’m enough of a Marxist to get extremely twitchy when I hear the word ‘infantile’. Even if we could forget Lenin’s infamous use of the term, ‘infantile’ wouldn’t be a term that belongs in serious political discourse. It’s not criticism so much as gatekeeping: you and I, responsible adults, have our legitimate disagreements within the spectrum of legitimate and responsible politics, but as for them… dear oh dear, why don’t they just grow up?

It was (for obvious reasons) several years ago that Roy Jenkins appeared on Desert Island Discs and nominated a ghastly piece of Stalinist choral kitsch as his first choice (“And every propellor is roaring/Defending the USSR!”). It dated back, he explained, to his undergraduate days, when he indulged in “infantile leftism”. Which struck me.

Our Infant
Tell me, Vladimir Ilyich: when you swam
Those bright days, history running fast about you;
When you stood war from the green West, from the frozen sea;
When the paint was flaking, when last month’s posters
Flapped torn in the streets; when time resumed
And progress was stemmed; were you the only adult?
Were they children, who in that dawn saw other days,
Who would unwire your fences, lift the webs
Necessity had placed with your hands:
Were these people children, infants to be corrected? For they died without descendants, these children,
Soon after you died old. The young webs,
The temporary fences lived and flourished
Till a nation’s leader walked in the dark West,
Walked among the nations as an equal.
It was a glorious nation in its new,
Iron adulthood: a land of strength,
A young triumph over the old world;
And that great baby there was singing its song.

How young he was then! How childish to suppose
There was ever a young dawn in this dull world,
How rash to support the new ruler over the old!
Now, old in the old West, he looks back
On a life well-aged, on the drift of time
That has borne him into this maturity:
Now no bright dawn, now no land of glory
Singing in his voice; now in adult tones
He walks in adult passages, swaddled
In the soft belief that nothing could be better,
Drinking the sweet medicine of no change.

In most areas McKibbin has a sharp eye for New Labour’s ‘market-managerialism’, but when it comes to the EU he’s also drunk his medicine. But in a way that’s only to be expected. Hugo Young’s ‘blessed plot’, the entrenchment of unaccountable bureaucratic power at the European level, preceded New Labour – and seems likely to survive it.

I wouldn’t pay him any mind

Ellis:

Nobody I know ever buys a volume of poetry.

Me. I bought two volumes of poetry just the other week – Getting the hang of it and Singing the city, both by Colin Watts (who brought them along to a reading I attended). I can recommend both of them, despite the unfortunate fact that the city in question is Liverpool (is there any city in Britain less in need of celebration?)

Modern poets aren’t saying anything anyone wants to read. Pop music has pushed poetry into obscurity. The only people who buy poetry are students, forced to do so for their courses, Eng Lit graduates, and people who themselves write poetry.

Well, all right – Ellis isn’t actually wrong as such. (I’m a folk singer and, in a small way, a performance poet; I’d gone along that night primarily to do one of my own pieces, and was pleasantly surprised that Colin’s work was actually worth listening to and reading.) But isn’t this a bit like saying ‘the only people who read blogs are people who themselves write blogs’? In other words, even if it’s true, is it a problem?

I used to take poetry very seriously indeed; I used to aspire to be another Browning – or Tennyson at a pinch – with my poems appearing in the broadsheets and my collections selling the way celebrity biographies do now. Perhaps needless to say, I used to look on the poets who actually achieved success and gained a wide audience – from Pam Ayres right up to John Cooper Clarke – with the grestest of disdain: performance poetry? what would that be? It came as a disappointment to realise that, by and large, poetry was read by people who read poetry magazines: the conversation that was conducted in poems was no longer happening in the mainstream press, and the sheer brute genius of my poetry wasn’t going to make it happen there. But the point is – the point always is – to find where there’s a conversation happening and see if you can contribute to it. If you want poetic conversations, you can find them; they may not look like you expect them to, though.

Some are mathematicians

Or: of Dylan and Dylanophiles. Scorsese’s No Direction Home is glorious, although I think the BBC’s decision to show it in two halves is debatable; after Part One I was left wondering how, having got as far as 1966, they were going to fit the next 39 years of Dylan’s career into Part Two. I was still wondering when Part Two ended. Apparently what happened after 1966 was that Dylan had a motorbike accident and stopped touring; after that some other events may have taken place, but apparently we can’t be sure at this stage.

No Direction Home both was and wasn’t a revelation. I’ve been a Dylan fan in a small way for a long time, although ‘fan’ doesn’t seem quite the right word: he’s just there, monumentally. I realised during the programme that I’d heard far too little of his early stuff; album purchases are going to be required, but I can’t decide whether to start with Bob Dylan and make up the gaps chronologically, or just go straight for Blonde on blonde.

Still, hearing some of his stuff from 1965-6 for more or less the ahem first time koff had the advantage of giving me some idea just how strange a departure it must have seemed at the time. One point which Scorsese’s film underlined was that going electric wasn’t the only break Dylan made. In one of the many post-concert vox pops – some of which, to judge from the accents, must have been at the Free Trade Hall gig, although Manchester was never credited on the titles – a disgruntled fan curtly dismissed the second-half electric set before excoriating Dylan’s solo set at some length: his singing was out of tune, his rhythm was off and he kept playing that bloody harmonica… And, you felt, he kept playing those weird new songs. One telling moment during the electric set saw Bob pouring oil on troubled waters by announcing that the next number was a protest song. The effect was immediate: the booing died away; there was an anticipatory hush and some scattered cheering. Then the band started up. Playing “Leopardskin Pillbox Hat”. You’ve got to love him for that.

Which isn’t to say that ‘protest songs’ were a wrong turning for Dylan – any more than the repertoire of traditional songs that got him started, and led naturally into the ‘protest’ phase. On the contrary, Scorsese’s film suggested that breaking with the ‘protest’ repertoire was the single most important, and most creative, thing that Dylan ever did – but that the energy released by that break came only partly from Dylan’s discomfort with being seen as a ‘protest singer'; partly, it grew from his success in that role.

Clearly, I’m not the first person to notice that several of the songs on The times they are a-changin’ can be called political. Still, I think it’s worth stressing that they should be called political – particularly in the current climate of Arnoldian, high-culture Dylanophilia, which fits Dylan’s own claim to a kind of apolitical humanism only too well. (I’ll come back to last week’s Dylan tribute concert further on, but really – what was Barb Jungr doing? I’d come close to losing the will to listen during Odetta’s languid take on “Mr Tambourine Man” – not a particularly frisky song in the best of readings – but dear Lord, Jungr’s “Like A Rolling Stone”… How does it feel? It feels like I’m watching a rich kid’s drama school audition, actually.)

Retrospectively, anyway, Dylan likes to present himself as doing no more than stand up for universal values – for justice against injustice, freedom against tyranny – and perhaps some of his ‘protest songs’ can bear that reading; “Blowin’ in the Wind”, with that weirdly complacent dying fall closing each verse, for one. (Although, as Mavis Staples pointed out in Scorsese’s film, the first two lines meant something quite specific to Black Americans at the time.) But “The Times They Are A-Changin'”?

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

Rhyming “heed the call” with “Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall” – in other words, Heed the call and get out of the way – is not the work of a disengaged prophet of peace and freedom. And that’s not to mention “Masters of war” or “The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll”, let alone “Only a pawn in their game” – a deeply political response to the murder of Medgar Evers, one of the most scandalous events of those years. Dylan didn’t give a voice to a generation; he gave a voice to a movement, and the movement gave him the world he needed to write about. According to Joan Baez, Dylan wrote “When the ship comes in” in reaction to being refused a hotel room (very Pirate Jenny); but I think that very exorbitance – so familiar from his later work – only came to him in the first place through his engagement with something much bigger.

After that, and because of that, there was more he could do; the 1966 tour was when it started. The songs the Free Trade Hall audience wanted to hear were what enabled Dylan to write the songs he played there – and kept the audience from hearing them. It was extraordinary seeing those images of thousands of fans queuing to see Dylan, only to turn on him when he started playing. It would be silly to invoke the Golden Bough or Orpheus’s sparagmos, but still – there’s something singular, and singularly intense, about the anger of the betrayed fan. In after-show footage Dylan looked both shaken and perplexed – All the booing! Why are they booing, man? Most likely, from that point on, they’d go their way and he’d go his.

They weren’t just booing, mind you. At the Free Trade Hall, the legendary shout of “Judas!” was followed, from somewhere else in the auditorium, by “You pillock!” (This may have been aimed at the first heckler rather than Dylan, it’s hard to be sure.) On the Scorsese film, we heard one heckler call out “Go home, Bobby” (nasty little diminutive there); later, as Dylan settled himself at the piano and adjusted his vocal mike, somebody called out “Try switching it off.” (And yes, these were people who’d paid for tickets, queued up, etc – they’d probably queued up for tickets, come to that.) It may be a Manchester thing. In my experience, Manchester audiences have a good line in heckling; for some people it’s an integral part of the evening’s entertainment. I wasn’t into Dylan at the time of the 1966 tour and didn’t live in Manchester; otherwise I might have been at the Free Trade Hall that night, if only I’d been more than five years old. But I did see Robyn Hitchcock, years later, take the stage to be greeted immediately by a double-act of hecklers:

Heckler 1: “Here he is, the man himself.”
Heckler 2: “He’s got a beer-gut!”
H1: “He’s a footballer.”
H2: “And a very good one!”

I don’t think Robyn Hitchcock is easily fazed, but they did it. He quelled them later, though. The two of them had started outbidding each other in guesses as to the precise length of the grotesquely elongated legs of the hallucinated Scottie dogs encircling the protagonist’s deathbed in that night’s introduction to “The Yip song”. (As one might.) Robyn broke off to interrupt them (“Eight feet!” “Ten feet!”), saying with some dignity, “No – you can say that, but it doesn’t make it true. Because this is how it was.” They shut up after that.

Robyn, coincidentally, was one of the three best acts at the tribute concert last week, although for some unknown reason they limited him (uniquely) to one song; he did what I took, rather embarrassingly, for one of his own. (Still. Hands up who’s got Time out of mind…) The other two were Martin Carthy (his “Hattie Carroll” was dreadful, but he did a wonderful “Scarborough Fair”) and K T Tunstall, who played the first two tracks of Blood on the Tracks – yes, starting with “Tangled up in blue”. (She made a pretty good fist of it, I have to say, as well as disrupting an increasingly precious evening with some welcome amplification – 39 years on, had we learnt nothing?)

I confess I was outraged when KT announced “Tangled up in blue”: I couldn’t imagine anyone but Dylan singing it (it’s so personal, so autobiographical) Listening to the song and re-reading the lyrics afterwards, I realised that I’d been thinking of it as a straightforward narrative with a couple of flashbacks – and that it’s anything but. It’s actually quite hard to say what happens in “Tangled up in blue”, and it’s impossible to say in what order it happens. Even the one reasonably clear section (narrator goes to topless bar, gets picked up by waitress) is impossible to place: has he found “her” again or is this their first meeting? The dialogue suggests both, at one point in two successive lines -

“I thought you’d never say hallo,” she said,
“You look like the silent type”

- which makes it impossible to settle on either. Straight after that, we’re into

I lived with them on Montague Street

Them? She was married when we first met, which would fit – but We drove that car as far as we could… sounds like a different episode from She had to sell everything she owned… – and neither of them sounds like Her folks, they said our life together/Sure was going to be tough. (Is he even talking about the same woman?) It’s an extraordinary piece of writing: not so much like a story, more like knocking a box of slides on the floor and describing them as you pick them up – but with none of the tricksy coolness that image suggests.

What sticks in my mind from “Tangled up in blue”, apart from a couple of wonderful lines in the first verse, is the way it ends. We’ve had

music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air

and the narrator has… just kept on:

The only thing I knew how to do was to keep on keeping on

Then there’s this strange writing-off of an entire scene, casual, almost playful in its phrasing, but at the same time stern and unmistakably final:

All the people we used to know, they’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians, some are carpenters’ wives
Don’t know how it all got started, I don’t know what they’re doing with their lives

What they’re doing with their lives Living them, you feel like replying – and it got started when the movement circus left town (or got beaten, or got co-opted – either way, it wasn’t there any more). Living, is what they’re doing with their lives – it’s mundane and it’s limited, but what else are you going to do?

Me, I’m still on the road, heading for another joint

Yes, on one level it’s tired old rock troubadour imagery; yes, it would be interesting to compare it with the amount of time Dylan spent touring that year, let alone the time he spent on the road in any meaningful sense. But on another level, damn it, he’s right. Social movements change lives, both in the experience of the movement and more permanently: new forms of sociality, new forms of communication, new ways of conceiving and portraying the world can survive a movement’s ebb. Anyone who lived through the Civil Rights movement and then returned to their studies (or their husband’s carpentry), unchanged by what had happened, had missed out on something. And they’d missed out in a way that Dylan (for all his self-seeking arrogance, for all his ambition) didn’t miss out. One of the many achievements of that movement was turning Bob Dylan into a poet.

What I tell you three times is true

Ellis Sharp, whose Marxist surrealist fiction deserves better than lazy tags like ‘Marxist surrealist’, has a fascinating post here about Robert Lowell’s poem “The Fens”. It’s a short poem, so I’ll include it here:

The Fens
(After Cobbett)

From Crowland to St. Edmund’s to Ipswich
The fens are level as a drawing board:
Great bowling greens divided by a ditch –
The grass as thick as grows on ground. The Lord
High Sheriff settles here, as on a sea,
When the parochial calm of sunset chills
The world to its four corners. And the hills
Are green with hops and harvest, and a bitch
Spuddles about a vineyard on a tree;

Here everything grows well. Here the fat land
Has no stone bigger than a ladybug,
No milkweed or wild onion can withstand
The sheriff’s men, and sunlight sweats the slug.
Here the rack-renting system has its say:
At nightfall sheep as fat as hogs shall lie
Heaped on the mast and corncobs of the sty
And they will rise and take the landlord’s hand;
The bailiff bears the Bell, the Bell, away.

From Robert Lowell’s second collection ‘Lord Weary’s Castle’ (1946)

There’s nothing much I can add to Ellis’s discussion of the poem’s language, its politics, its roots in Cobbett’s writing and his politics. But I can throw some light on that mysterious last line, which – with its onomatopoeic repetition of “the Bell” and that weird, mythic capitalisation – seems to evoke everything from the Bells of Aberdovey to Lewis Carroll’s Bellman. Ellis:

The landowners rule the Fens through their complete social control and their lackeys. The bailiff is the sheriff’s agent. To bear the bell means to take the prize. (The notes to the ‘Collected Poems’ say of this line: “See the anonymous ballad ‘The Baily Beareth the Bell Away’”, but what you see when you do isn’t explained. This is irritating since none of the ballad collections I’ve consulted contain it.)

In an online nursery rhyme collection, I’ve found a piece titled “The Bailiff Beareth”:

The bailiff beareth the bell away,
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay,
The silver is white, red is the gold,
The robes they lay in fold;
The bailiff beareth the bell away,
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay;
And through the glass window
Shines the sun.
How should I love and I so young?
The bailiff beareth the bell away,
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay.

And so it ends. I don’t know if it’s a fragment of a longer piece; I certainly don’t know what it’s ‘about’. It is an extraordinary piece of writing: a kind of verbal stained-glass window pieced together out of luminous, resonant images, and written almost entirely in the kind of poetically heightened language which has always seemed archaic but never actually been in common use (“pass us my robes, love, it’s time I was off to lay the lily and the rose”). Perhaps it’s about a girl being given in marriage and seeing herself as property being confiscated from her family home. Or perhaps that’s an over-intellectual reading, and it’s simply ‘about’ the lily and the rose, silver and gold, the window and the sun – and the sad alliterative fall of the bailiff bearing the bell away.

It’s beautiful, either way. And it’s another way in to what Lowell was trying to do with that poem, it seems to me: to write something that could carry both types of workload, functioning as a constellation of luminous images and at the same time as a critique of rural property relations. An exercise, as Ellis said, but an interesting one – and a reminder of how political good writing can be (and vice versa).

(Incidentally, I’ve never knowingly read a damn thing by Lowell before this poem. Thanks, Ellis.)

They’re only dropping peppermints and daisy-chains

To whom it may concern:

  1. What the Attorney General said (see also the full documents linked here and Brian Barder’s two prescient commentaries)
  2. “…at the stinking heart of what remains of the British body politic”
  3. A catechism for the unconvinced
  4. Adrian Mitchell told you so
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