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To you, with regard

So what have I been writing about, these last couple of months (to a lack of interest which has, frankly, exceeded my low expectations)?

Well, I’ve been thinking about death; about the way that death affects us and appears to us; and about what we can infer from that about life and how to live it. Just the big stuff, then.

In post 1 I talked about the impassable, indescribable devastation that is being bereaved, before mentioning a curious experience which I and others have had after losing a loved one, and which seems oddly to be evoked in the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. As I said in post 3, it’s as if for a moment someone is telling us “it’s all right”; let’s not beat about the bush, it’s as if they’re telling us “it’s all right”. I talked about this in more depth in post 8, suggesting a possible psychological mechanism for it while also accounting for my sense that it’s an essentially benign, constructive experience.

More broadly, what’s interesting about experiences like these is what they tell us about how we imagine personal survival, or rather how we imagine personhood: that intuitive sense of individual identity as something essential and even indestructible. I talked about this sense of there being an irreducible core of individual identity – the soul, roughly speaking – in post 2, with a bit of help from Neil Hannon. In post 4 I contrasted Emily Brontë’s frankly panpsychist articulation of her own sense of irreducible identity with Robyn Hitchcock’s frankly materialist version; I discussed these, together with George Eliot’s unsatisfactory but intriguing attempt to square the circle (eternal life, but not for people), in post 5.

As well as being a useful corrective to the mystical individualism of Emily Brontë, George Eliot’s social perspective – her sense that we may live on through our influence and our contribution to the continuing life of the human race – connects with another intuition: the sense that, if we are each an individual with a unique identity, it is possible for us to develop those identities while living together. The sense, in other words, that it is possible for humanity, as a whole, to be humane; to be kind. I pursued this sense in post 6 through some of the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, as well as relating it to the person-centred psychology of Carl Rogers (Rogers and Vonnegut are a good fit).

All of which is a kind of backdrop for the thought-experiment which I’d been carting around since last December, which I revealed to the world in post 7 and then debunked in post 9. Post 7: suppose that we survive eternally after death, our identities formed by the life journey we completed before dying. Wouldn’t we find ourselves suddenly in the benign presence of everyone there is – our worst enemies included? And doesn’t this give us the strongest incentive to live at once the fullest life and the best, kindest life we possibly can? (See the post to have it set out in detail.) Post 9: suppose, conversely, that our life journeys come to a full stop when we die and our unique identities are mercilessly snuffed out; doesn’t this indescribable, impassable devastation find its repressed reflection in fantasies of eternal, harmonious, individual survival? And doesn’t the ridiculous horror of death actually give us an even stronger incentive to live a fuller and a kinder life, while we can? Again, see the post to get the detail (and for a rebuttal of the Atheism Fallacy of which I am rather proud).

On a personal(!) note, I started this series rationally convinced that the Heaven fantasy I’d come up with was just that, a fantasy; all the same, I found it a very appealing fantasy, and did wonder if dwelling on it over several weeks was going to induce some sort of conversion experience. I’m glad I risked it; here at the end of the series I’m more certain than before that this life is all we get. If we want a moment worth waiting for, we’re going to have to make it.

 

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To you, with regard (9)

Let’s put the lid on this series, and when I say ‘put the lid’ I mean ‘pull the rug’. (This is the hand, the hand that takes…)

A number of things follow from the thought-experiment I’ve been developing. If, after you die, you are going to be uniquely and recognisably you for eternity, it follows that you should spend whatever life you’ve got becoming the best you that you can – the most fulfilled, the most fully actualized, the version of you that you would want to be if you had the choice. You are, after all, not going to get another chance; once round the circuit and that’s what you’ve got – that’s what you are – for ever and ever and ever. Secondly, if you’re going to be you for eternity along with everyone else, it follows that everyone else is going to count for exactly as much as you do. Moreover, on that immaterial, timeless plane their equal value with you will be inescapably obvious; empathy won’t be optional, over yonder. This rules out pursuing (what may appear to be) self-fulfilment by hurting other people, as doing so will land you with an eternity of apologies – an eternity of genuine pain, really. Thirdly, if everyone’s around forever, it follows that everyone who has ever lived or ever will live is (always already) around forever: when you check in, you’ll be rapidly introduced to your grandparents and great-grandparents, but also to your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, in whatever level of fulfilled self-actualization they (will eventually have) achieved before (they will have eventually) died. And it pretty much follows from this that, if you ever get the feeling that somebody up there likes you, you’re right, and you may well be feeling Somebody’s empathetic vibrations. (Blessed are they that mourn, for they will be comforted.) Only that Somebody isn’t Him, it’s just them; to put it another way, it’s just us.

Put all of that together and it follows fairly directly that – to quote myself – it’s a good idea to be accepting of other people, to live as fulfilled a life as you can, to honour your parents, to have kids, and to harm other people as little as possible, and in particular not to find pleasure or justification in harming other people. It also follows that there is no need to suppose there is a God.

Now, let’s say that none of this is true. Syllogism: animals die, their bodies rot, and no trace of them is ever perceived again; human beings are animals; therefore… Alternatively: everything that exists can be observed in some reliable and predictable way; evidence of survival after death has never been reliably and predictably observed; therefore… Let’s say that death is the end – of everything we know, think of or can imagine. No eternal presence; no timeless, dimensionless tuning-fork note; no reuniting with lost ones, meeting heroes, apologising to enemies; no warm buzz of omnidirectional empathy. Our existence through time isn’t superseded (sublated) into eternity, it comes to a stop and is cancelled in a single terminal moment. Our unique identity isn’t perfected and eternally preserved, it’s lost amid a million others and eventually forgotten, with a million others. What follows from that? Where’s your laundry list of moral precepts now?

One answer – widely attributed to atheists but mainly espoused by depressives, cynics, libertines and revolutionaries – is that if nothing lasts, nothing matters: you’re never going to be held to account for what you do, so why not do whatever you want? What’s interesting about this answer is the bad faith that lurks within its apparent logic. Look at the disjunct between the two groups I mentioned just now – those who are supposed to believe that they can do whatever they like without any comeback, and those who actually hold this belief and act on it. Revolutionaries and suicides believe that there is no future; suicides and cynics believe that nothing they do really matters; cynics and libertines believe that conventional morality is bullshit; libertines and revolutionaries believe that their own goals and desires are the truest morality. Most people in those groups probably do share the two key beliefs that death is the end and that there is no God to sit in judgment on us – but this basic atheist credo clearly doesn’t get us all the way to suicidal depression, revolutionary fervour or libertinism, or even to outright cynicism. On the contrary, one can believe that human life is made all the more precious – and the challenge of living fully together all the more important – by the fact that there is no life beyond this one and no chance of coming back for another try: you get what you get, and that’s it.

Hence the suggestion of bad faith. To spell it out, if we’re saying that if nothing lasts, nothing matters what we’re actually saying is that if nothing we can know lasts longer than human life – and if there is no agency higher than human life – then nothing matters more than my own decisions and impulses. Syllogistically, I would be bound by a higher morality in my dealings with other people if there were a God or an afterlife; there is no God or afterlife; therefore… The problem with this train of thought is that, unless you’re going through a crisis of faith, the belief that there is no eternity and no God doesn’t come as news: if you hold that belief, you already believe that that’s how the world is. But this means that the first half of the syllogism collapses: it’s like saying “if 0=1, morality is true”. (Don’t take my word for it, check it yourself – can’t argue with the maths.) What you’re really saying is, lots of people tell us what to do on the basis that there’s something higher and more permanent than the lives of people in society; there isn’t; therefore we can do as we like. It’s bad logic, apart from anything else: you’re jumping over the step where you establish that the lives of people in society don’t have any intrinsic value.

Which brings us back to our laundry list. If each individual is unique and intrinsically valuable, but each one of us is snuffed out, annihilated, when we die; if each person’s life is a unique journey to self-actualization, but each journey stops, never to be resumed, at the instant of death, however soon it comes; what follows from that? (Apart from a strong urge to put back my head and howl like a dog for my father, for my mother, for Madeleine, for Les, for every friend and relative who’s gone before and been taken too soon.) If my life is this bizarre hybrid of a treasure and a bad joke, and if everyone else is in the same position as I am (and I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t), then surely Eliot Rosewater had it right:

At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

What I’m suggesting is that the whole idea of unique individual souls living on eternally – an idea which I’ve developed in a particular way in these posts, but which in itself is fairly uncontroversial among Christians – is an inverted reflection of the unbearable reality of death: death which ends time and extinguishes the individual. But this cuts both ways. Assume, in a kind of melancholic fantasy, that there is a God and a Heaven but that human life has no access to any of it – that some other beings are up there casting down their crowns around a glassy sea, while we poor homo sapiens die and rot – and certainly our lives would seem to be of little account. If there is nothing but human life (bounded by death), though, the scale we need to be working on is, precisely, the scale of human life bounded by death. And if, while we’re here, we’re each unique and valuable; and if, while it continues, each person’s life is a journey of self-actualization; and if each individual is ridiculously fragile and each life is absurdly unrepeatable; then it seems to follow – with, if anything, even more force – that it’s a good idea to be accepting of other people, to live as fulfilled a life as you can, to honour your parents, to have kids, and to harm other people as little as possible, and in particular not to find pleasure or justification in harming other people.

And when we die?

Tonight we fly
Over the houses
The streets and the trees
Over the dogs down below
They’ll bark at our shadows
As we float by on the breeze

Tonight we fly
Over the chimneytops
Skylights and slates
Looking into all your lives
And wondering why
Happiness is so hard to find

Over the doctor, over the soldier
Over the farmer, over the poacher
Over the preacher, over the gambler
Over the teacher, over the rambler
Over the rambler
Over the lawyer,
Over the dancer, over the voyeur,
Over the builder and the destroyer,
Over the hills and far away

Tonight we fly
Over the mountains
The beach and the sea
Over the friends that we’ve known
And those that we now know
Over their homes
And those who we’ve yet to meet
We’ll fly

Over the fathers
Over the mothers

And when we die
Over the sisters
Over the brothers

Oh, will we be that disappointed or sad
Over the children
Over the lovers

If heaven doesn’t exist?
What will we have missed?
Over the hills and far away
This life is the best we’ve ever had.

If you have been, thanks for reading these posts. I may publish a short round-up with links to earlier posts, but apart from that I’m not intending to continue the series. Normal service – i.e. closely-argued political nitpicking – will resume shortly.

To you, with regard (7)

BUFFY:
Wherever I… was… I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time didn’t mean anything, nothing had form… but I was still me, you know? And I was warm and I was loved… and I was finished. Complete. I don’t understand about dimensions or theology or any of… but I think I was in heaven.
After Life (BtVS S6E3), script by Jane Espenson

Right, that’s enough background reading. Here’s the thought-experiment that sparked all this off, when I wandered into it late last year. Let’s assume that there is such a thing as Heaven, and let’s assume that conventional wisdom about Heaven has more or less got it right. By which I mean, not the clouds or the harps or the pearly gates or any of that apparatus, but the basic setup. What do we ‘know’ about Heaven? (I’m leaving Hell out of consideration for the time being, although I will come back to it. For now let’s just assume that everyone goes to the same place.) There are two key things, I think. One is that we go to Heaven as individuals – identifiable individuals, even; you are still you, your grandfather is still the person he was, and so on. The other is that Heaven is a place out of time; it’s eternal.

But what does ‘eternal’ mean?

Here there are many many sheep
And the people only sleep
Or awake to tell how gory and gruesome was their end
And I don’t have many friends
And it’s really very clean
And I’m thinking:

Juliet, you broke our little pact!
Juliet, I’m never coming back.

Up here in Heaven without you
I’m here in Heaven without you
Up here in Heaven without you
It is Hell knowing that your health
Will keep you out of here
For many many years
– Sparks, “Here in Heaven”

Well, it doesn’t mean that. Eternity can’t mean that time passes, for everyone but you, and you see it pass – watching while your children and grandchildren grow old, waiting for your double-crossing lover to get hit by a bus, etc. Why not? Because if you see it passing, it is passing for you (“oh look, now my widow’s got a new man – wonder if this one will last”); it’s just that its passage matters less to you, not least because you’ve got an infinite supply of it. And that would open up a whole range of possibilities which, I think, take Heaven in the ‘wrong’ – counter-intuitive – direction. For a start, if time can pass in Heaven, things can happen – and that means that Heaven can change, which probably isn’t something we want to allow. Take C.S. Lewis’s ‘worlds within worlds’ vision of Heaven in The Last Battle:

About half an hour later—or it might have been half a hundred years later, for time there is not like time here—Lucy stood with her dear friend, her oldest Narnian friend, the Faun Tumnus, looking down over the wall of that garden, and seeing all Narnia spread out below. … Then she turned inward again and stood with her back to the wall and looked at the garden.

“I see,” she said at last, thoughtfully. “I see now. This garden is like the stable. It is far bigger inside than it was outside.”

“Of course, Daughter of Eve,” said the Faun. “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.”

Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the stable door! I see … world within world, Narnia within Narnia….”

“Yes,” said Mr. Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”

Further up and further in! But those woods – I can’t help thinking of Minecraft. Could you cut down the trees? Could you use the wood to make things? Could you cut down all the trees, pave Paradise and put up… well, presumably not. But what if you’d been a handyman in life and building an infinitely extensible log cabin was your idea of heavenly bliss? What if there were lots of people like you? Come to that, what if you had really happy memories of a car park and wanted to recreate that in heaven? Really, there’s no way of having large numbers of people coexisting, over indefinitely long time periods, without conflict developing and leading to at least relative unhappiness.

This is the case even if we aren’t talking about resource conflicts – in other words, even if we drop the rivers and woods and sea and mountains and assume there’s nothing there but people, perhaps sitting on clouds. Being reunited with lost friends and relatives has always seemed like one of the most appealing things about Heaven, closely followed by the chance to meet and get to know the heroes you never did know in this life. But if it all takes time, it could get awfully frustrating: what if Guy Debord or John Lennon wanted to talk to someone else (their own lost friends and relatives, maybe)? What if there were so many people wanting to talk to Picasso or Gandhi that you ended up getting stuck in a celestial signing queue? (“So amazing to finally meet you! Love your work!” “Yeah, great. Thanks. Who’s next?”) It starts to look as if Ron Mael had the right idea all along – eternity, if you think of it in terms of endless amounts of time, would get boring.

So eternity has to mean, not infinite time, but no time (Uchronia?) – and not a hack like “waking up to the same day over and over again” (which, as we know, would get a bit nightmarish after a while) but actually no time passing. When I imagine this kind of infinite stasis I picture the sound of a tuning fork: after the first impact it suddenly sounds as if that tone has always been there and will never fade away – 100% sustain, no attack or decay. Nothing happens, nothing changes. What’s interesting about this is that if there is no time, there can be no energy and hence no matter – whatever it is they do, sub-atomic particles take time to do it (or: they do it within a four-dimensional space-time reference frame). This in turn means no space; imagine space with no photons to traverse it and no matter to bend it out of shape, and what you’ve got isn’t just a void but a dimensionless void.

In Heaven, then, there is no space or time; there’s no light, no matter to be lit by it and no void to be dark. But there are (ex hypothesi) people – identifiable individuals; after spending however-many years looking out through a pair of eyes down here, your consciousness and character – whatever makes you you – is translated at death onto this timeless, spaceless plane. Now what? What logically follows from these (not particularly outlandish) premises about the afterlife?

You’re Already There. We know that there’s no time in Heaven. But that must mean, not just that when you arrive you’re there forever, but that when you arrive you will have been there forever. Which means that Heaven’s always already populated, not just with everyone who’s ever lived, but with everyone who ever will have lived. That family reunion will reunite you not just with your long-lost ancestors but with your descendants, even those born long after you died. For they too will, eventually, die – which means, from the perspective of eternity, their death has already been taken into account.

We Are What We Will Have Been (so we must be careful what we will have been). There are no concertinas in Heaven (yes, I know) – mainly because there’s no space, no matter and no time. But if I were to die tomorrow I would – theoretically – enter Heaven as the kind of person who plays concertina, and be that person for eternity; I’d also be the kind of person who had acquired that kind of musical knowledge at a fairly advanced age, and regretted not having done anything about it earlier. Whereas if I’d died ten years ago I would have (eternally) been the kind of person who vaguely wanted to learn another instrument and regretted not doing anything about it. In this way of thinking, the fulfilment that you’ve achieved by the time you die is yours for eternity – and so are the regrets you die with. If what you are – eternally – is in some way determined by the life you’ve lived, it’s pretty important to live a good life, whatever ‘good’ means in this context.

Try Not to Sin. The specific idea of sin, as distinct from ideas of wicked or wrongful action, is that a sin is something that goes on your record: your sins weigh you down. To paraphrase the previous point, if who you are for eternity is who you are when you die, you don’t want to die with too much on your conscience. So if it’s a good idea to get round to the things you keep meaning to get round to, it’s also a good idea not to do things you’ll regret – a category that includes things you think you shouldn’t be doing. This would also suggest a reason for thinking that suicide is a bad idea – it might get you there a bit sooner, but you’re better off staying here a bit longer and arriving in a better state, if that’s possible.

Getting to Know You. There isn’t a lot to do in Heaven, but why would there be? There’s no time and no space and no matter; as such, there are no material wants, no scarcity and no competition. There’s no advantage to be gained over anyone else, no risks and no opportunities, nothing to hope for and nothing to fear; there’s nothing to buy or sell, nothing to organize for or take part in. What there is is people: everyone who has ever lived or will ever have lived. Think of those long conversations with strangers, at the heel of a party or in the middle of a long journey, when there’s nothing to do but talk – about yourselves, what you’ve been doing, where you’re going, what you care about and hope for. Imagine having that kind of conversation with your Mum and Dad (finally); and with your long-lost ancestors, and with your descendants; and with your heroes; and with the people who slighted you and let you down in life, and with the people you slighted and let down. Not to mention total strangers – all those unique, irreplaceable individuals who happened never to come into contact with you. The moment of entering Heaven would feel like the longest and most exhaustive ‘meet and greet’ anyone could imagine. And the moment of entering Heaven would also be the eternity of being in Heaven.

Time (And/Or Something Else) Heals All Wounds. If you would meet and get to know multiple billions of people in a moment out of time (or an aeon), you would also be changed in the process: a single, irreversible and unavoidable process of change. Imagine what happens, in this model, when somebody dies feeling hatred for others, or any of a number of other emotions that wouldn’t have any function in Heaven. What are you going to feel towards the rest of humanity, when you’re sharing eternity with them (with no material wants, no advantage to be gained over anyone else, etc)? Nothing but curiosity, wonderment, fellow-feeling and love, surely; something a bit richer than Vonnegut’s two mutually-triggering signals of presence and recognition, but in that basic form. If someone dies after a life of feeling nothing but love and benign curiosity towards all their fellow humans, they’re basically going to fit right in. (Not that my thought experiment is telling you how to live your life, or anything.) But if someone dies after killing another person, or multiple other people – what would that reunion be like? Imagine Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting“:

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

Like that, but not ending – as the poem ends, a couple of lines later – in a sleep that envelopes both the dreamer and the dead man in his dream. Like that, in fact, but not ending at all. Imagine going to your death a righteous, ideologically-justified killer, and then meeting your victims individually and getting to know them, to the point where you can experience the equal value of each one’s life with your own. Imagine the horror of that. Learning to relate to people you’d hated, feared and wronged, and relate to them as valued equals; feeling hatred, fear and righteous anger, then feeling the horror of what those emotions had led to and feeling them boil away; feeling the weight of what you’d done, perhaps for the first time; feeling the burden of guilt and feeling that in turn burn away in a kind of acid bath of pain, sorrow and forgiveness. Imagine that whole process condensed into an instant, so that your experience of entering Heaven would be an experience of hatred, confusion, horror, self-hatred, guilt and pain, culminating in love, acceptance and fellow-feeling. Then imagine that instant smeared out across the infinite expanse of eternity.

Now generalise from killers to everyone who’s ever done anyone any harm.

Heaven Is Other People, Hell Is Just You. Everyone, on this model, basically gets forgiven – what is there not to forgive anyone for, when everyone concerned is a massless, positionless entity on a timeless plane? – but the pathway to forgiveness runs through guilt and horror. Horror, that is, at yourself and the harm you did to others when you were alive: the more harm, the more horror. Have I just reinvented Hell? Hell, no (if you’ll pardon the expression) – but Purgatory, maybe. It’s a process of love and acceptance, fundamentally; it’s just that, for some people, getting to love and acceptance would in itself be an ordeal.

Lonely Planet. So Heaven would be this humanity-sized static hum of mutual recognition signals and general benevolence, coloured to a greater or lesser extent by the anguish caused by each person’s own deeds while alive. The good end happily and the bad – the bad also end happily, but with more difficulty. Moreover, given that the whole of the human race is represented on the eternal plane, what we have there in aggregate is total knowledge of the course of every human life, together with the capacity (or at least the certain knowledge that somebody has or had the capacity) to change or have changed any detail at any time. Benevolence towards humanity combined with omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence (exercised through human agency): out there in Uchronia, the timeless human race as a whole loves you, wishes you well, knows exactly what you’re going to do and can transform your life at any moment, although it doesn’t generally intervene directly in this world. What does that remind you of?

This model of Heaven – which is to say, a couple of ‘common knowledge’ precepts about Heaven taken to their logical conclusion – seems not only to work without God but to culminate in something with properties that are very much those of God (if we set aside the whole world-creating part – and even that works metaphorically). We can even imagine, pushing the conceptual boat out a bit further, that subjective experience of (awareness of? contact with?) the benevolent eternal background hum of humanity could be mistaken for awareness of, or contact with, God.

To sum up, then: if you take it that individual identity survives death, and that it does so on an eternal plane, it follows that it’s a good idea to be accepting of other people, to live as fulfilled a life as you can, to honour your parents, to have kids, and to harm other people as little as possible, and in particular not to find pleasure or justification in harming other people. It also follows that there is no need to suppose there is a God.

(And the truth is as great as belief is.)

NEXT: So I said, “OK. Who is this really?”

To you, with regard (5)

All I ever been is me
All I know is I
And I will turn to nothing
In the second that I die

– Robyn Hitchcock, telling it like it (spoiler) probably is.

What interests me about that formulation is that the scepticism about the afterlife goes along with a strong sense of self – an awareness that whatever any one of us has experienced, wherever we’ve been, whatever we’ve done, ‘I’ have always been there. Whoever you are, there’s a unique consciousness looking out at the world through your eyes; it’s you, it always has been and it always will be – until you aren’t any more.

So on one level Robyn Hitchcock has a surprising amount in common with Emily Brontë: they both express a fascinated, wondering awareness of what it is to be here, what it is to be an ‘I’. On another level, of course, their disagreement is pretty fundamental. Emily Brontë envisages, not only her own removal from the scene, but the disappearance of the world, the sun, the universe; and she looks on it all with equanimity:

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

For what thou art is also right here:

Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

She pictures God as ‘resting’ by stepping his energy down to the level of creatures such as her – very much as matter effectively slows down spacetime from its default setting of c – while at the same time linking them back up to the source of all energy. Consciousness of self, for Emily Brontë, is consciousness of something immeasurably – infinitely – greater than her physical existence. Death is nothing to fear, because strictly speaking there is no death to fear: all there is is return to the source, reuniting the spark of creative power that looked out through her eyes with the vastness of the power that had created the world she saw.

When I was doing English Language O Level one of the exercises we had to do was ‘précis’. Tell me what this 500-word piece is saying, in 100 words; when you’ve done that, do it again in 50 words. Generally the source texts were on the flowery side; you’d get very good at skipping to the end of sentences, then working back through the sub-clauses and checking if any of them were needed. George Eliot’s poem reminded me of that. It’s 43 lines long, and a précis would look something like this:

O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live

In good deeds, deep thoughts and generous impulses.

That’s heaven: to continue to have an effect in the world
Helping to make people’s lives better and better,
Ultimately bringing about the ideal state of affairs
Which we failed to achieve in our lives.
After the body dies, our better self
(Generous, contemplative, religious)
Will live on.

May I reach that purest heaven
Inspiring others to good and generous thoughts
(Lots of others, including people I don’t know).
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

Apologies to any George Eliot fans or poetry-lovers, but I think that’s the gist of it. Here’s the question (and you can check back with the original): what kind of survival is George Eliot talking about here? “So to live is heaven”, “This is life to come”, “that purest heaven”; is the ‘choir invisible’ Heaven? Or is it some more diffuse blending into the enspirited natural world, such as might appeal to a panpsychist like Emily Brontë or the young Wordsworth?

I think the answer is ‘neither of the above’. This poem is often linked to the closing lines of Middlemarch:

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Alexander broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

And, I think, rightly so. George Eliot’s imagination was social, as full of people as Emily Brontë’s was full of landscape. She envisages herself as living on, in a pure and near-eternal state, among other people, for as long as other people exist – or rather, through other people. Read the poem through carefully and you’ll see that there’s no reference to continuing subjective survival, no sense that Mary Anne Evans’s consciousness will continue after the heart in Mary Anne Evans’s body has stopped beating. The continuing existence George Eliot hopes for – the glorious, near-eternal, purest-Heavenly continuing existence – is the continuing existence of her influence on other people, as experienced by those people in their own lives. She hopes to have been a good enough person for her memory to inspire other people to be good, and to have been a wise enough person for her insights to help other people to be wise. And – this is the crucial, very George-Eliot-ian point – she recognises and gives thanks for all the other people who have already gone before: all the other people whose good deeds have inspired her to be good, whose insights have helped her to have insights of her own. She presents the history of humanity as a continuing story of collective improvement, continually renewed, and continually spurred on by the example of those who have gone before. It’s a big picture; something well worth aspiring to be part of. But it offers no glimmer of hope for the person who was looking out through Mary Anne Evans’s eyes. Yes, we will go on, as a species – not forever, but for a good while yet. But the same can’t be said for you as an individual: when you’re gone, you’re gone. It’s also worth noting briefly that, as well as there being no sense of personal survival, there’s no reference to God here – you aren’t there, and neither is anyone else (just us).

Schematically:

Robyn Hitchcock Emily Brontë George Eliot
Where do we start from? Me (“All I know is I”) Me and God (“Life, that in me hast rest”) Us; society, humanity
What happens after death? Nothing; we cease to exist There is no death, only reunion with God Nothing, but people remember us
Is God there? No Yes, and He’s right here too! No
Is there any point?
No, there’s just this life Yes, but it’s a mystery Yes, people will remember us

Three views of personal immortality or only two? I’ll leave it to you to decide.

It’s worth mentioning, incidentally, that Robyn Hitchcock has written about death and the afterlife several times, usually not in quite such clear-cut terms; perhaps “Where do you go when you die?” was a response to over-enthusiastic readings of some of his earlier work on the subject. Well, call me over-enthusiastic, but I have to say I prefer this (musically as well as in other ways).

When I was dead I wasn’t interested in sex
I didn’t even care what happened next
I was free as a penny whistle
And silent as a glove
I wasn’t me to speak of
Just a thousand ancient feelings
That vanished into nothing
Into love

NEXT: science fiction, with space travel and everything!

To you, with regard (4)

Three views on personal survival after death. (I was holding this post back until I had time to write some commentary, but if I do it this way you can decide what you think about them before I tell you what I think.) They date respectively from 1845, 1867 and 1998.

So: have a read of this.

No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear

O God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

Got that?

Now, take a breath and have a go at this:

O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge man’s search
To vaster issues.

So to live is heaven:
To make undying music in the world,
Breathing as beauteous order that controls
With growing sway the growing life of man.
So we inherit that sweet purity
For which we struggled, failed, and agonised
With widening retrospect that bred despair.
Rebellious flesh that would not be subdued,
A vicious parent shaming still its child
Poor anxious penitence, is quick dissolved;
Its discords, quenched by meeting harmonies,
Die in the large and charitable air.
And all our rarer, better, truer self,
That sobbed religiously in yearning song,
That watched to ease the burthen of the world,
Laboriously tracing what must be,
And what may yet be better – saw within
A worthier image for the sanctuary,
And shaped it forth before the multitude
Divinely human, raising worship so
To higher reference more mixed with love –
That better self shall live till human Time
Shall fold its eyelids, and the human sky
Be gathered like a scroll within the tomb
Unread for ever.

This is life to come,
Which martyred men have made more glorious
For us who strive to follow. May I reach
That purest heaven, be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardour, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty—
Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,
And in diffusion ever more intense.
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

And you know what to do with this:

Homework question: was that in fact three different views of personal survival, or only two? If two of them agree, which two?

To you, with regard (2)

THE STORY SO FAR. At the back end of last year (shortly before reading The Thing Itself) I had a weird idea – and though the dream was very small, it would not leave me…

A riddle:

I’m the darkness in the light
I’m the leftness in the right
I’m the rightness in the wrong
I’m the shortness in the long
I’m the goodness in the bad
I’m the saneness in the mad
I’m the sadness in the joy
I’m the gin in the gin-soaked boy

I’m the ghost in the machine
I’m the genius in the gene
I’m the beauty in the beast
I’m the sunset in the east
I’m the ruby in the dust
I’m the trust in the mistrust
I’m the Trojan horse in Troy
I’m the gin in the gin-soaked boy

I’m the tiger’s empty cage
I’m the mystery’s final page
I’m the stranger’s lonely glance
I’m the hero’s only chance
I’m the undiscovered land
I’m the single grain of sand
I’m the Christmas morning toy
I’m the gin in the gin-soaked boy

I’m the world you’ll never see
I’m the slave you’ll never free
I’m the truth you’ll never know
I’m the place you’ll never go
I’m the sound you’ll never hear
I’m the course you’ll never steer
I’m the will you’ll not destroy
I’m the gin in the gin-soaked boy

I’m the half truth in the lie
I’m the Why not? in the Why?
I’m the last roll in the die
I’m the old school in the tie
I’m the Spirit in the Sky
I’m the Catcher in the Rye
I’m the twinkle in her eye
I’m Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly”
Well, who am I?

Apparently Neil Hannon’s Mum got the answer straight away; I suspect his Dad did too.

NEXT: late Romantic poetry, Rogerian psychotherapy and The Sirens of Titan. Not necessarily in that order.

Woke up sucking a lemon

Adapted from original material by Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood

Adapted from original material by Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood

I’ve now written four follow-up posts to this post on David Goodhart and Eric Kaufmann. I think by now I’ve said all I want to say on the subject. (I hope so, anyway – I’ve written 18,000 words already.) As a final postscript, these are some notes on reactions to the original post.

There was quite a lot of reaction to the post, and almost all positive; it was endorsed on Twitter by Frances Coppola, Declan Gaffney, Peter Jukes and Jonathan Portes, as well as being mentioned favourably on Stumbling and Mumbling and the Cedar Lounge. (Not a peep out of Wren-Lewis, though. Maybe another time.) I didn’t link to the column I was quoting, or name its author, the researcher he quotes or the latter’s institution (David Goodhart, Eric Kaufmann and Birkbeck respectively); I liked the idea of challenging (and hopefully demolishing) DG and EK’s arguments without actually giving them any publicity. Nevertheless, within 24 hours the post had come to both their attention, and I had my first critical readings – both from the authors and from their Twitter followers, although the latter didn’t say much about the post. (They were a charming bunch. One @-ed me in on a tweet telling DG I was a loon ranting into the void and advising him not to bother with me; he had an egg avatar and a timeline that seemed to consist mainly of insulting public figures and then complaining that they’d blocked him. I tweaked him a bit, asking who he was and how he was so sure I was a ranting loon. In reply he insulted me at some length, so I blocked him.)

The reactions from EK and DG were interesting. If you look at the original post you’ll see that I’ve retracted one point and expanded another quite substantially; each of these amendments was necessitated by a brief tweet from EK, and one which (in both cases) didn’t sink in until a couple of hours after I’d first read it. I still think his report’s dreadful, but on the detail level EK is clearly not someone to trifle with. DG’s response was interesting in a different way. When I accused EK of purveying unreliable stats, he reacted to the accusation by looking at my underlying argument, spotting the flaw in it and pointing it out to me; hence the retraction. When I accused DG of making a claim that’s straightforwardly false (In several UK cities, the white British are now a minority), he said nothing at all. He did respond to me, but not on that point, and not to very much effect. He challenged my point about the supposed rights of minorities, albeit rather feebly (as we saw earlier), but that was about it in terms of references to the post. Other than that, he accused me of facetiousness, pedantry and point-missing; he subtweeted me twice (that I know of), lamenting to his followers that he was having to argue with people who didn’t believe there was such a thing as ethnicity and/or believed that mentioning ethnicity was racist; and he repeatedly accused me of calling him a racist, and (for good measure) of calling “about 90% of Brits” racists. (This led to some short-form sermonising from one of DG’s followers about all these Lefties calling people racists all the time.) Needless to say, I hadn’t called anyone a racist. I tried to keep up the pressure – although most of the time it was more a matter of trying to keep him on topic – but it was a singularly unedifying series of exchanges. DG eventually cut it short, after replying to his egg-shaped follower and agreeing that I wasn’t worth bothering with.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning one other response – if it was a response; it may just be a curious coincidence. There’s a guy out there called Stuart Russell, who was formerly employed as press spokesman for the BNP; in that role, for reasons best known to himself, he went by the name of ‘Phil Edwards’. Russell seems to be rather proud of having a doctorate, as (unlike most PhDs I know) he uses his title routinely; his friends even seem to call him ‘the Doc’. I don’t know anything about this doctorate, and I’ve got no reason to believe it’s as fake as his pseudonym. I do know that if Russell was ever an academic it was a long time ago; company listings show him running a fireworks company in the early 90s, apparently alongside his father (search “Stuart Harling Russell” if you’re curious). Naturally the doctoral affectation carried over to his pseudonym, so Dr Stuart Russell became Dr Phil Edwards. Some years ago I tried to get the Guardian to refer to the man by his real name – instead of referring to him by my real name – but without much success. Anyway, Russell left his post (voluntarily or otherwise) when the BNP imploded in 2007 – and he was 64 then – so I hadn’t given him much thought for the last few years.

What should appear in my inbox, just as the DG/EK post was trending, but an email from “Dr Stuart Russell”, with some links to a purportedly libertarian site set up by Kevin Scott, formerly of the BNP (or “Kevin Scott BA Hons” as the site refers to him; they do like their credentialled intellectuals over there). A few hours later somebody else – a regular commenter on Chris Dillow and Simon Wren-Lewis’s blogs, whose name I’d last seen attached to a pro-DG comment on one of Chris’s posts – mailed me, claiming “Kev Scott asked me to send you the attached un-PC article in the Financial Times“. The attached article, of course, was the one by DG that started all of this. The question is whether my correspondent thought he was writing to Russell, a.k.a. ‘Phil Edwards’. (He clearly didn’t realise he was writing to me.) But if so, who did Russell think he was writing to? Has he retired and handed over to a new ‘Phil Edwards’, à la Dread Pirate Roberts? All very odd. What’s interesting, of course, that people in the ex-BNP area approve of DG’s column; if DG is sincere in wanting to hold the line against racism, it seems that racism is now so extreme that even fascists oppose it. Or rather, it seems that ‘racism’ defined as something distinct from ‘racial self-interest’ – which is the only form of racism that DG wants to oppose – is so extreme that even fascists are happy to oppose it.

In the mean time, someone identifying only as “Stu” (surely not?) has popped up in comments on the most recent post in the series, arguing strenuously and at some length against free movement in the name of workers’ rights. I may develop my own position on this one more fully another time; then again, I may not (there are other things to write about, after all). All I’ll say here is that one can champion the interests of the workers of one’s own country without being any more left-wing than Otto Strasser. When I see it asserted that “Socialism in a national framework is the only vehicle for positive progressive change“, I don’t think further debate is going to be particularly productive.

In another part of the nationalist field, Pat Kane put this interesting question to me:

As you’ll remember, my take on Harris’s calls for Labour to tell a “national story”, replacing nostalgic dreams of full employment with “ideas of nationhood and belonging”, wasn’t positive. In reply to Kane, I don’t see it as civic nationalism, because I don’t see that political forces in England are operating in a context where civic nationalism has any work to do. Civic nationalism, as distinct from ethnic ditto, comes into play when you’re building a new state and new institutions, and in that – necessarily short-lived – context it can be a powerful, transformative force. Once your state’s there, though – as the English state effectively already is – civic nationalism is a force for conservatism, for the preservation of the status quo. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily – it’s not a force for reaction, as ethnic nationalism so often is – but it’s not radical, progressive or creative. In fact, the danger with civic nationalism is that after a while it’s not anything, and its structures and tropes get taken over by the angrier and more energetic forces of ethnic nationalism (federal Yugoslavia and Serb nationalism, Britain and English nationalism). That’s not to say that ethnic nationalism is inherently a bad thing, either. It’s not a bad thing when it’s in the hands of powerless and/or minority groups, used to combat political exclusion and repression; as such it can be a force for justice, or at least for the disruption of injustice. But, by the same token, ethnic nationalism in the hands of the boss nationality is poison. Which is precisely why DG and EK’s legitimation of majority-group ethnic nationalism – White racism, in other words – is so dangerous.

Spitfires

As you can see, I’ve changed the title of this blog (although not the URL). I’ve got a bad habit of picking titles and catchphrases which are resonant but gloomy – the title of my book is a classic example. “The gaping silence never starts to amaze” is a nice line (it’s from a fairly obscure song by the Nightingales) but I thought we could all do with something a bit more upbeat. “In a few words, explain what this site is about.” says the WordPress rubric; I think the new title and strapline are a bit more informative, too.

The reference is to a song which a friend reminded me of (inadvertently as it turned out).

I first heard this song at a local folk club about a year ago, and it’s grown on me since then. It seems like a good song for where we are now; where we’ve been since the 16th of June 2016, really.

Spitfires (Chris Wood)
Sometimes in our Kentish summer
We still see Spitfires in the sky
It’s the sound.

We run outside to catch a glimpse
As they go growling by
It’s the sound…

There goes another England:
Sacrifice and derring do
And a victory roll or two.

From the drawing board to the hand of the factory girl
Upon the lathe
It’s the sound…

It’s ordinary men and women
With an ordinary part to play.

Theirs was a gritty England:
“Workers’ Playtime” got them through
And an oily rag or two.

But sometimes I hear the story told
In a voice that’s not my own
It’s the sound…

It’s a Land of Hope and Glory voice
An Anglo klaxon overblown
It’s the sound…

Theirs is another England:
It hides behind the red white and blue.
Rule Britannia? No thankyou.

Because when I hear them Merlin engines
In the white days of July
It’s the sound…

They sing the song of how they hung a little Fascist out to dry.

The gate to the law

The other day I was reading what I believe is the latest (and trust is the last) instalment in the long and almost epistolary debate between Matthew Kramer and Nigel Simmonds on the inherent morality of the law. (Nothing to say about that at the moment.) After following a few footnote references a song came unbidden to mind:

O Lord, won’t you buy me a sub to Jurisprudence?
The papers of interest are so multitudin’s!
Worked hard all my lifetime – ain’t no Homo Ludens –
So Lord, won’t you buy me a sub to Jurisprudence?

Or, more wistfully,

I often dream of reading Jurisprudence
I recommend it to selected students
I dream of it constantly
Accessed through the British Library,
Oxford or Cambridge,
Or Birmingham…

My institution, in other words, doesn’t subscribe to the journal where some of the key debates in a topic that fascinates me are being carried on. (As indeed most institutions don’t – the list above is exhaustive as far as I know.) There’s a simple solution, of course; it’s called an inter-library loan. The only problem is the opportunity cost – by which I don’t mean the (fairly trivial) effort of going to the library and filling in a form, but the fact that deciding to do so would inevitably remind me of all the reading I’ve already got queued up (physical books included). So for now those papers by Simmonds, Gardner, Finnis et al are just going to have to wait.

Getting introspective for a moment, Jurisprudence and its non-availability are a bit of a Russian doll for me. A series of worries and fears are nested behind my resentment of not being able to get hold of it: the suspicion that if I had those papers I wouldn’t get round to reading them; and that if I did it would just be an intellectual hobby – I wouldn’t actually be able to use them, e.g. by writing anything (or anything I could get published); and that, if I wrote something properly theoretical and got it published (which is a big if), I still wouldn’t be in the kind of job where writing this kind of stuff was expected and approved. But perhaps those aren’t independent worries; perhaps it’s just an inner voice saying yeah, but it wouldn’t work… And actually that’s precisely what I don’t know. (More to the point, I don’t know how going down that route would work, or what precisely it would lead to.) So perhaps I just need to give it a go and see what happens. Including an ILL for an issue or two of Jurisprudence – at least, once I’ve got through the backlog.

I’m also wondering about further qualifications. Getting a Graduate Diploma in Law would take two years of fairly intensive part-time study (where the year runs October-June). I could do the same thing by taking Open University modules; this would take four years of what would also be fairly intensive part-time study (year running February to October). Comparing the OU option with the GDL, the prospect of taking twice as long for the same qualification at once attracts and repels me: it would be a good learning experience, but do I want to commit that much time and effort? There’s also the fact that, while getting some Law under my belt would suit me personally, it wouldn’t benefit me greatly in the job I’m actually doing – and doing the degree would make me ineligible for research funding from some sources, which would be a positive disadvantage.

Don’t know where I am with that; all comments welcome. In the mean time, here’s the abstract of a paper I’ve just had accepted for publication (Journal of Criminal Law):

New ASBOs for old?
The Anti Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) was designed as a civil/criminal hybrid, preventive in structure and with a largely undefined object. After 2002, legal challenges to the ASBO led to the use of justificatory arguments from cumulative effect, and to the introduction of new measures which offered to regulate anti social behaviour in more legally acceptable forms. The Coalition currently proposes to replace the ASBO with two new instruments: a post-conviction Criminal Behaviour Order (CBO) and a wholly-civil ‘injunction to prevent nuisance and annoyance’ (IPNA). While the CBO and IPNA build on this history, it is argued that they do not represent a new approach to anti social behaviour so much as a continuation of the ASBO by other means.

And the abstract of a paper I’ve just submitted to a conference next year on “Penal law, abolitionism and anarchism” (feat. Joe Sim and Vincenzo Ruggiero):

Law after law? Abolitionism and the rule of law

Liberal legal theorists have argued that the law has an inherent morality (Simmonds 2007), making it an intrinsically valuable social project, and that the institutions and practices making up the rule of law encapsulate key virtues of the concept of law (Waldron 2008). However, the rule of law as we know it is predicated on two concepts which are alien to anarchist and abolitionist perspectives – the state, its authority ultimately guaranteed by unchallengeable coercive power, and its antagonist the rights-bearing, self-interested individual. Can we think in terms of the rule of law without invoking state coercion or competitive individualism? Is the morality of law an ideological construct specific to the era of capitalist competition, or does it embody ideals which would remain valuable in a society not predicated on capitalist economics and state coercion? If we assume that such a society would have its own (rule of) law, how do we envisage transitional or prefigurative forms of law? This paper suggests some provisional answers to these questions, drawing on contemporary jurisprudential debates and on studies of the alternative legalities imposed by gangs and ‘armed struggle’ groups.

Now I just need to write one explaining the connection between those two…

The most cruel

Growing up in the 1970s, it’s hard to overstate how important the cause of Chile was. 11th September 1973 was, I suppose, a “naked lunch” moment – a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork; we knew who was on whose side, and what they were willing to do.

Joan Jara:

on the 18th of September … a young man came to my house, said, “Please, I need to talk to you. I’m a friend. I’ve been working in the city morgue. I’m afraid to tell you that Victor’s body has been recognized,” because it was a well-known — his was a well-known face. And he said, “You must come with me and claim his body; otherwise, they will put him in a common grave, and he will disappear.”

So then I accompanied this young man to the city morgue. We entered by a side entrance. I saw the hundreds of bodies, literally hundreds of bodies, that were high piled up in what was actually the parking place, I think, of the morgue. And I had to look for Victor’s body among a long line in the offices of the city morgue, recognized him. I saw what had happened to him. I saw the bullet wounds. I saw the state of his body.

And I consider myself one of the lucky ones, in the sense that I had to face at that moment what had happened to Victor, and I could give my testimony with all the force of what I felt in that moment, and not that horror, which is much worse, of never knowing what happened to your loved one, as what happened to so many families, so many women, who have spent these 40 years looking for their loved ones who were made to disappear.

But the real significance of 11th September wasn’t the treachery or the horrors of the coup itself, or the years of brutal misery that followed. The coup mattered because of what it destroyed: the beginnings of a radical social experiment, bringing millions of people a chance of a decent life, some power over their own lives, a bit of confidence in the future. The sheer joy of that period has never been captured better than in this song (which I’ve cited before but not linked). Listen to the middle eight – it’s as if Victor Jara’s saying, you get it now? being alive is good, being in love is great, but this – this is happiness! this is how we were meant to live!

Forty years after that hope was destroyed, let’s celebrate it. (Translation in comments.)

Maria,
abre la ventana
y deja que el sol alumbre
por todos los rincones
de tu casa.

Maria,
mira hacia fuera
nuestra vida no ha sido hecha
para rodearla de sombras
y tristezas.

Maria, ya ves
no basta nacer, crecer, amar,
para encontrar la felicidad.

Pasó lo mas cruel,
ahora tus ojos se llenan de luz
y tus manos de miel

Maria…

Tu risa brota como la mañana,
brota en el jardín
Maria…

Thousands or more

So, what have I been listening to lately? Funny you should ask. Here’s about a year’s worth of recent listening, focusing mainly on new(-ish) releases.

It doesn’t seem very long ago that a friend at the local singaround told me that he was thinking of starting a record label. I thought this was a ridiculous if faintly brilliant idea, and took care to avoid either encouraging him (in case he did it and it was a disaster) or discouraging him (in case he didn’t and it would have been a brilliant success). Well, he did it, and the Folk Police imprint is the result. I think we’re looking at ‘success’. (Artistically, anyway; as I understand it he’s still got the day job.)

One of the first Folk Police releases, Oak Ash Thorn is a collection of Peter Bellamy’s settings of poems by Rudyard Kipling, originally released on two 1970s albums – Oak, Ash and Thorn and Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye. The roster of acts contributing is the proverbial who’s who of contemporary folk: the Unthanks, Jon Boden, Fay Hield, Emily Portman, Cath and Phil Tyler, Trembling Bells… the list goes on. The songs are terrific; the performances are technically superb and the production is pin-sharp.

But what does it actually sound like? I’ve listened to it a lot, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t entirely aimed at me. Take the introduction of Sam Lee’s Puck’s Song. It’s a fine track – Sam’s got an extraordinary voice, and his arrangement is strong enough to influence my own take on the song, more or less despite myself [*]. But he opens the track with a bit of scene-setting found footage – a random bit of speech from Bob Copper, the sound of a lark and a clip of the Coppers singing a completely different song. To me it’s a distraction at best and embarrassing at worst; it just gives me the impression that the artist thinks he’s discovered this amazing new thing called ‘folk music’. This music and its practitioners really aren’t as ancient, or as alien, as all that; I’m only two degrees from Bob Copper myself, and I suspect Sam Lee is too.

Reverence for folk music, that’s what I don’t like – particularly when it takes the form of reverence for folk-rock (Trembling Bells, the Owl Service). It’s noticeable that several artists, the Unthanks and Emily Portman most obviously, take the songs slowly and delicately, without much volume but with a kind of anxious solemnity; anything less like Bellamy’s delivery of his Kipling songs would be hard to imagine.

Pace suffers most of all. Few go as far as Lisa Knapp does with The Queen’s Men – slowing down the song until the tune is lost completely – but most of the songs are taken slower than the originals. (Although Oak, Ash and Thorn and Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye were unavailable at the time this album was made, they have since been re-released – and very fine albums they are too.) Even Rapunzel and Sedayne’s Harp Song of the Dane Women – one of the better tracks here – is taken at walking pace, giving it a kind of incantatory stillness but losing the headlong weirdness of the original.

There is some excellent stuff on this album; Tim Eriksen is on noisy form, Olivia Chaney is in good voice and Jon Boden gives what’s surely the definitive reading of Frankie’s Trade (other readings are available; here’s mine [*]). It’s well worth getting if you know about Bellamy, and a must-have for anyone curious about the Bellamy/Kipling oeuvre. Even the stuff I don’t much like is good, and lots of people will like it more than I do. I guess I just find it a bit, well, polite. (James Yorkston’s Folk Songs album had a similar problem for me; Musgrave [*] shouldn’t be subdued. Brutally murdered, yes.)

You can read much more about this album, and hear the tracks by Jon Boden and Emily Portman, here, and you can buy it here (£10).


My feelings about John Kelly’s second album For Honour and Promotion are less mixed. Not entirely unmixed: I’m less keen than John on songs with lines about “dear old Erin” (By the Hush) or songs in which the singer reminisces about having his way with girls by way of a combination of persuasion and judo: the words “her feet from her did glide” or similar appear in two different songs on this album, which for me was one too many. Also I can’t hear The Days of ’49 without hearing in my mind’s ear what Peter Bellamy (him again) did with it, in comparison with which anyone will suffer. But these are very minor cavils about a truly outstanding album.

John has a rich and expressive voice, accompanied on this album by his own harmonium, harmoniflute [sic], guitar and cittern; he also delivers one song unaccompanied – a superb version of When a man’s in love [*]. Whether you call all the songs on this album ‘traditional’ is one for the taxonomists, but they’re certainly all old; John lists sources including “the Scots Musical Museum (published in 6 volumes between 1787 and 1803)” and “Tipperary man Charles Kickham (1828-1882)”. As you can see from the track listing, there are English and American as well as Scottish and Irish songs here; other sources cited include the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs and the Mudcat Café.

If I start listing particularly good tracks it’ll be hard to stop, but I will mention three tracks with harmonium accompaniment: I’ve never heard a better version of The streams of lovely Nancy [*], and John’s treatments of Greenland Whale Fisheries and Canadee-i-o are a revelation. Both of these songs are taken surprisingly slowly; I’m not sure why this works as well as it does, but I think it’s something to do with the unselfconscious passion with which John delivers the songs (no solemnity here). The Child ballad Mary Hamilton [*], accompanied on cittern, is hypnotically brilliant, gripping the listener despite its considerable length. But if I had to single out one song as the best thing on the album it would be As I was a-wandering (often attributed to Burns, although John’s notes don’t mention this) [*]. Accompanied on cittern, John’s rendering of this song is simply one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard, in any genre.

UPDATE I’m delighted to be able to say that John’s Web site now includes clips of several songs from this album, as well as some from his (excellent) first album. Have a listen.

You owe it to yourself to hear this album if you’ve got any interest in traditional song – and if you haven’t, you should hear it to find out what you’re missing. It can be obtained from John for £10 plus postage; write to harmoniumhero at hotmail dot com.


Back to Folk Police for the label’s very first release, at least according to the catalogue number: Rapunzel and Sedayne’s first commercially-available album, Songs from the Barley Temple. I’ve got another personal connection to declare here, as I know Rachel and Sean personally & have shared quite a few singarounds with them; the night when the lights went out, a couple of verses into R+S’s Green Grow The Rushes-O, will live in my memory for some time.

As will this album, which I played until I’d worn it out with over-familiarity. (I’m planning to go cold turkey for a while and rediscover it some time next year.) It’s wonderful. Some may find the sleevenotes a bit pretentious, and to be honest I may be one of them – when Sedayne describes Porcupine in November Sycamore as an “old-time field holler in the Javanese Pelog mode” I’m left none the wiser, and I could have preferred something a bit more straightforwardly informative (perhaps along the lines of “Robin Williamson didn’t write this, but I bet he wishes he had”). But the song is superb, which is the main thing; on the album it’s 6 minutes 47, and the first time I heard it I was genuinely disappointed when I realised it was ending. (The album closes with a reprise of the song, which doesn’t seem self-indulgent or excessive; it’s just nice to hear it again.)

This isn’t an album of new compositions; only two and a half songs here are originals, while a third – Outlaws – is a setting by Rapunzel of a poem by Bonnie Parker (of ‘and Clyde’ fame). Most are traditional. Some are ‘standards’ (e.g. True Thomas [*] and a terrific Blackwaterside [*]); some are less familiar (Handsome Molly, Katie Kay, Robin Redbreast’s Testament), while one standout track is a highly unfamiliar version of a trad ‘standard’, Jim Eldon’s Owld Grye Song (more commonly known as Poor Old Horse [*]).

The songs were recorded ‘live’ and without overdubs, making for a surprisingly narrow sound palette – ‘surprisingly’ inasmuch as it doesn’t sound narrow! Rapunzel’s banjo, Sedayne’s fiddle and their voices – solo and in close harmony – are supplemented on different tracks by drum, harmonium and overtone flute, as well as by the semi-random burbling of something called a Kaossilator (which can be heard to good effect on Porcupine and Owld Grye). An unpredictable combination of elements – Rapunzel’s pure voice and banjo, Sedayne’s drones and free improvisation, the passion for the old songs which they evidently share – blends to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s a terrific album. Read another review, find out more about Rapunzel and Sedayne, and buy the CD (£10). Incidentally, the vaguely Wicker Man-ish phrase ‘Barley Temple’ has much more prosaic origins; Sean is a demon anagrammatist, and a big fan of a singer who’s already been mentioned in this review.


As it was released in 1993, this album doesn’t really belong in this post, but I’m going to include it anyway. I was slightly into folk back in the mid-1970s but only quite dimly aware of it between about 1975 and 2005; this has meant retrospectively discovering the entire careers of an embarrassing number of quite major artists (notably Nic Jones, Tony Rose, Tony Capstick and of course Peter Bellamy). What’s been even more embarrassing is the realisation that I’ve also missed out on another whole generation of folkies – essentially, people of around my own age, who started working after the Revival had more or less ebbed away, and most of whom are still going. Among whom, Jo Freya.

A caveat of sorts: as you can see from the cover art, one of these things is not like the others. This looks like the kind of generic album which used to be on sale in places like Past Times; this isn’t too surprising, as it was sold through Past Times. Gef Lucena’s Saydisc label produced a number of similar albums, including Traditional Songs of Wales (sung by Siwsann George) and Traditional Songs of Scotland (sung by Ray Fisher). In the case of this album, Gef Lucena was also responsible for the production, the arrangements (on all but one track) and the sleeve notes.

So maybe this album isn’t so much Jo Freya as Gef Lucena And Friends, Featuring Jo Freya. Either way it’s pretty good. It includes 21 songs (count ’em), covering most of the angles in English song: love (I Live Not Where I Love [*]), war (General Wolfe [*]), love and war (The Green Cockade [*]), religion (The Carnal and the Crane), magic (the Broomfield Wager), sex (Maids When You’re Young), work (Fourpence A Day)… Jo’s in good voice throughout – on some very varied material – and some of the settings, played mainly on strings, concertina and recorders, are terrific. I particularly like the songs featuring Nigel Eaton’s hurdy-gurdy – the thoroughly daft As I Set Off For Turkey in particular – and the unaccompanied William Taylor [*], which was sung and arranged by Jo and her sister Fi Fraser.

This isn’t an album to frighten the horses (or cows); it’s tastefully done, and both the backings and Jo’s vocals sometimes sound a bit reined-in. But quiet and tasteful arrangements can work extraordinarily well in folk – think Shirley and Dolly Collins – and this album includes some really memorable versions of great songs: General Wolfe, Rounding the Horn [*], All Things Are Quite Silent, As Sylvie Was Walking, A Sailor’s Life…

You can see what Jo Freya’s been up to since 1993(!) here. You can buy this album (and much else) directly from her.


Another Folk Police album? Hey, why not.

The Woodbine and Ivy Band are a kind of Folk Police house band; their debut album features ten traditional songs, each with different lead vocalists and very different sonic atmospheres. Some singers – Olivia Chaney, Elle Osborne, Fay Hield, Rapunzel and Sedayne – also appeared on Oak Ash Thorn; others include Jackie Oates, Jim Causley and Pinkie Maclure.

The album that resulted is, frankly, rather special. The producer, Peter Philipson, clearly set the controls for the heart of the Seventies, but without confining himself to the ‘folk’ shelves: the Roaming Journeyman (sung by James Raynard) is essentially “Hawkwind play trad”, while Derry Gaol (Jackie Oates) sounds like a long-lost track from an early Robert Wyatt album, complete with Mongezi Feza-esque overlapping trumpet lines. A lot of work and a lot of listening has gone into this album: no two tracks sound alike, from the tremulous hush of Under the Leaves (Elle Osborne), through the none-more-Wicker-Man Gently Johnny (the Memory Band’s Jenny McCormick), to the kitchen-sink alternative-Christmas-single Spencer the Rover (Fay Hield) [*].

There isn’t a weak track on here; my personal favourite, though, is Poor Murdered Woman [*], in which Olivia Chaney’s beautiful and affecting vocals are perfectly paired with a backing dominated by trumpet and pedal steel.

You can read more about this album, and hear Gently Johnny and the Roaming Journeyman, here. Buy it here (£10).


Folkies are weird. When a (relatively) young and hip band like the Futureheads released Rant – an album of unaccompanied singing, including three no-messing folk songs – I expected it to be greeted with wild huzzas; at the very least I expected an approving nod or two. (Admittedly, folkies aren’t the only people who sing unaccompanied, but we do do a lot of it; I still think it’s the only way to deliver some songs with big choruses, and some solo songs for that matter.) Instead, one of the two folk fora [Lat.] that I frequent ignored it completely – not out of pique, as far as I can tell, but because the regulars genuinely hadn’t noticed it. At the other, it was greeted with a rather ungracious note about how certain traditional songs had become clapped-out and unlistenable through overuse, specifically including two of the three traditional songs on the Futureheads album.

Well, I like it. As well as those three traditional songs – The Keeper, The Old Dun Cow and (hidden track) Hanging Johnny – the album includes four of the Futureheads’ own songs and a scattering from other sources, ranging from Richard Thompson to the Black-Eyed Peas via Sparks (The No. 1 Song in Heaven). (They don’t do Hounds of Love, but you can’t have everything.) As far as clapped-out songs are concerned, incidentally, I do know The Old Dun Cow back to front, but I’d actually never heard The Keeper before I got this album; it may have been done to death in the 70s and 80s, but I wasn’t going to singarounds back then. Nor indeed were the Futureheads.

It’s a nice album. The louder and more aggressive songs perhaps work better – there’s a limit to how much sensitivity and restraint four blokes can deliver – but the arrangements are interesting throughout and the harmonies are spot-on. In conclusion may I say, in my role as an ageing bearded folkie, that it’s an Encouraging Sign when A New Generation discovers (cont’d p. 94)


The Magnetic Fields’ Love at the Bottom of the Sea is a short album consisting of 15 short songs (they range from 2:01 to 2:39). Seven are sung by the songwriter Stephin Merritt, the other eight shared between Claudia Gonson and Shirley Simms. A bit more Merritt would have been good – he has a beautiful singing voice. The sound palette is rather insistently synthesiser-heavy; TMF haven’t used any synths for their last few albums, and this is the return of the repressed, or something. According to the booklet there are a whole range of instruments being played here – guitar, piano, autoharp, cello, trumpet, flute, violin, accordion, musical saw… I’ve only been able to make out the first five of these, and some of those have been processed to the point where they sound like synth patches; presumably the rest are even lower in the mix. The dominant sound of the album is the swish, blatt and scronk of the more experimental end of mid-80s synth pop.

But all you really need to know is that there are songs on this album with lyrics like this:

“A pity she does not exist, a shame he’s not a fag.
The only girl I ever loved was Andrew in drag.”

“I’m gonna fly back to Laramie,
Let Laramie take care o’ me till they bury me.”

“Oh if only you were the only boy in town
For then I could not play the field and let you down
I would not go half-mad
For each passing lad
With eyes of blue, green, grey or brown…”

“I have taken a contract out on you,
I have hired a hitman to do what they do.
He will do his best to do his worst
After he’s messed up your girlfriend first.”

Not to mention a brief, sad, funny song called (self-explanatorily) I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh. (If that title on its own makes you laugh, you’ll like this album. It still gets me every time.)

‘Witty’ is one word for writing like this, but I don’t think Noël Coward [*] ever had this kind of emotional range; there’s frustration, bitterness and rage in these songs, as well as multiple shades of love and lust. This is great songwriting; even the slightest songs give you something to think about, and the best wring your heart out. Another time more acoustic instruments would be good, and more vocals from Stephin, but still – a fine album.


Have I mentioned the Folk Police label recently? They’ve got a compilation album out, you know. No, not that one; this is an album associated with a one-day “Weirdlore” festival, which was scheduled earlier this year but unfortunately didn’t happen.

“Weirdlore: Notes from the folk underground”: what’s that about? Nobody seems entirely sure. What you get here includes three songs about witchcraft, one about shape-shifting, one about tree-worship and one about moss. One song is about Grendel and one about Loki; there’s a song in Cornish and an instrumental with a title in Anglo-Saxon. So that’s ‘weirdlore’ for you, perhaps.

The CD booklet includes some rather unhelpful stuff about what this genre isn’t, which sometimes gives the impression of being written by people who don’t actually like folk: this isn’t “the narcissistic mid-Atlantic songwriter strummery, the same-old same-old bearded Folkistani clichés or the Coldplay-with-banjos syndrome”, nor is it “over-serious wickermania, twee faux-pagan pholklore and retro-folkadelia” (Ian A. Anderson). May I also add that these aren’t folk singers “sitting in a dilapidated pub somewhere churning out endless verses about someone with a stupid name getting garrotted” or “bottom-of-the-bill nobodies, with a battered acoustic guitar, bleating on about their crummy lives”; nor indeed are they “Mumford & Sons, Laura Marling et al pick[ing] up multiple Mercury and Brit nominations along with their royalty cheques” after making music that “has, wincingly perfectly, been dubbed The New Boring.” (Jeanette Leech)

For me all this prompts two questions: “so what do you like?” and “are you sure you ought to be listening to folk music?” Call me excessively logical, but it seems to me that if I wanted to hear music that couldn’t be confused with ‘bearded Folkistani clichés’ and ‘endless verses about someone with a stupid name getting garrotted’ I’d be best off avoiding English traditional songs altogether – and if I didn’t want to hear anything even slightly resembling ‘narcissistic mid-Atlantic songwriter strummery’ from ‘bottom-of-the-bill nobodies with a battered acoustic guitar’, cutting out songwriters playing acoustic guitars would be a good move. (And if I really hated “twee faux-pagan pholklore and retro-folkadelia” I probably wouldn’t listen to many songs about witches and moss.) The thing is, there’s an awful lot of music out there that passes the no-beardie, no-strummery, no-faux-pagan tests with the greatest of ease: I’ve listened to a lot of Underworld and cLOUDDEAD in my time, a great deal of Faust and Soft Machine, and a fair bit of Bach. So why on earth should I listen to folk, if most of it’s so bloody awful?

What seems to be at work here is a rhetorical device that people often use to promote a new variety of something to a sceptical audience, outflanking the punters’ resistance by endorsing their prejudices instead of challenging them – “Don’t like folk? Think it’s tedious rubbish? Well, you’re right – most of it is tedious rubbish! But not this kind of folk…” (See also BrewDog.) I think it’s a really bad idea, on more than one level. Most obviously, it’s not doing any favours to all the other folkies in the world; you’re either on the bus or yah boo sucks, boring same-old twee Folkistani nobodies! (See also BrewDog.) I also think it’s not a good look on an emotional level: it’s based on maintaining a constant level of negativity, with every blessing offset by a curse, instead of trying to move the conversation away from what’s bad altogether. Plus it plays havoc with your critical vocabulary: once you’ve come out with blanket condemnations like the ones I’ve quoted, what will you do if you hear an unknown singer-songwriter with an acoustic – or a bearded folkie doing a full-length Young Hunting [*] – and you actually like what you hear? (Answer: you’ll probably end up using the word “different” a lot, falling back if necessary to regroup at “indefinably different”.)

On a more positive note, Ian Anderson describes music of the ‘weirdlore’ school as “diverse, original, fascinating and occasionally delightfully eccentric stuff” which is “indefinably [sic], umbilically connected to our sometimes odd English folk traditions or reflect[s] their spirit”. So I guess that’ll have to do: it’s all different, it’s original, it’s indefinably umbilically connected. Weirdlore: it’s new, it’s interesting, it’s vaguely sort of folk…ish.

I should probably review the album, shouldn’t I? There’s a fair amount of reverence on display here, unfortunately. Unlike Oak Ash Thorn, there aren’t many acolytes in the temple of folk-rock on this album, but there are several people who have looked back a little further – to West Coast psychedelia, to Roy Harper, to Nick Drake, to early Jethro Tull (sorry, Ian) and especially to the Incredible String Band. There are a few introspective finger-pickers, singing about who knows what; then there are those three songs about witches, along with several others whose sound can only be described as “wifty-wafty”. Several of the contributors here seem to have watched The Wicker Man a hundred times without ever getting as far as the last scene. (Christopher Lee’s the villain, people! It’s a horror film, not a holiday programme!) Moving up the scale a bit, there are some acts – Wyrdstone and Foxpockets in particular – who are basically doing interesting variations on indie; I’d give them a Peel session, or whatever the equivalent is these days.

And then there’s the really good stuff. In roughly ascending order: Pamela Wyn Shannon‘s Moss Mantra is hypnotic, magical and rather funny – although, given that it comes from an album called The Phantasmagoria of Plant Mantras, not all of these effects may have been intended. Alasdair Roberts‘s Haruspex of Paradox – the song about Loki mentioned above – is entrancing; it very nearly justifies that awful title. (Let’s not revive prog, eh?) Hora by the wonderfully-named Boxcar Aldous Huxley is a rackety rendition of a traditional Eastern European dance tune, featuring klezmer-ish clarinet and musical saw. (‘Hora’ is a style of dance – it’s a bit like calling a track Jig.) It sounds great – reminiscent of Barry Black, one of the great lost albums of the 90s – although the folkie old fart in me can’t help thinking they’d sound even better if they put some hours in, found some dancers to play for and did it properly. (My daughter, who dances to this kind of thing, heard it and said “yes, if you sped it up it would sound like a hora”. Out of interest, I’ve tried speeding it up using Audacity; about 60% faster, it sounds terrific.) Harp and a Monkey are an odd band, who seem to look back to an altogether different corner of the 1970s. Forty years ago the Northwest of England was awash with folk acts, mostly playing working men’s clubs, with a bias towards jokey and local material. This was where Mike Harding came from, not to mention Tony Capstick and half a dozen other ‘names’ who you probably wouldn’t have heard of. Singing topical and political songs in their own accents, with a folkie d-i-y vibe (a child’s xylophone is a central part of their sound), Harp and a Monkey seem to evoke that lost period in British folk and bring it into the twenty-first century. Unusually, on this album they perform a traditional song – the shaggy-dog story/dirty joke The Molecatcher. They claim, scrupulously, that the chorus and some of the verses are their own additions; I would never have known. A terrific rendition – more please. Sproatly Smith are a wonder and a mystery; I don’t know who they are, how many of them there are or what they play. The image which came to mind on hearing their Rosebuds In June, and which has refused to be dislodged ever since, is “it’s like something from the Wicker Man, if the Wicker Man had been a 1960s children’s TV series about time travel”. On reflection… yep, that’s precisely what it sounds like. Finally, there are Rapunzel and Sedayne, appearing for the fourth(!) time in this post, and on this occasion playing an absolute blinder. R+S excel themselves with The Innocent Hare – a lolloping, languidly exuberant reading of a hunting song from the Coppers’ repertoire. Sedayne’s fiddle and the interplay of his and Rapunzel’s voices have never sounded better; it’s a wonderful track. (The hare gets away, in case you were wondering; the hunters give up, go off to the pub and drink her health (hares are always female). Happy ending!)

My advice? Bearing in mind my own strictures on people who accentuate the negative, let me just say that an EP consisting of the six tracks listed in the previous paragraph would be worth a tenner of anyone’s money. (It would also have a much more cohesive sound and feel than the full album. Just saying.) All that and another nine tracks, several of which are thoroughly listenable (I am available for ads and poster campaigns), and some of which you’ll probably like more than I did. Yours for £10 from Folk Police.


When it was released last year, every review of King Creosote and Jon Hopkins’ Diamond Mine seemed to include the word ‘folk’; one even described the songs as ‘typical folk songs’. This sparked off the original idea for this post, which was going to set Diamond Mine alongside John Kelly’s album and perhaps one of the Folk Police ones, with a view to working out what ‘folk’ meant in this context.

Then I forgot all about it, and ended up writing a review of eight different albums without even mentioning this one.

First things first: the first song on this album genuinely sounds as if it could be a traditional song, or at least a song written in the neighbourhood of traditional songs. At least, it does to begin with:

Today John Taylor starts his month away
On a boat 110 miles East of Aberdeen
A dozen men, thirty days with 24 hours in each
Of shattered boyhood dreams and not much sleep

I’d much rather be me.

No! Tell us about John Taylor! Tell us about the life of a North Sea fisherman! Don’t tell us how you feel about it all – why would anyone care how you feel about it all, especially when all you can think of to say is that you’re glad it’s not you? We know that already – that’s practically the entire point of telling us about a hard life like John Taylor’s, to sympathise with him, praise his fortitude and endurance, and thank the Lord it’s him going out there and not us. “I’d much rather be me” – is that it? Is that the depth of your imaginative identification? What a falling-off – a verse and a chorus and we’re out of Shoals of Herring territory and into me-me-me. Bloody singer-songwriters…

Such were the thoughts that went through my head, particularly when KC got through the second verse and embarked on a ruminative section built on the tried and tested “I’d much rather be me”.

Hey ho. There are seven tracks on this album: an opening instrumental, John Taylor’s Month Away, then four deeply personal songs written in chains of semi-private semi-metaphor (“For after our accident we lost our no claims/And now I hate those pastel shades”). The last song, closing the album, is the shortest and simplest, and perhaps the best:

It’s your young voice that’s keeping me holding on
To my dull life, to my dull life

Beautiful and affecting. And this is, above all else, a beautiful album. KC’s voice is the voice of an angel, and Jon Hopkins’s arrangements and production are elegant and sometimes startlingly inventive. (My Blackwaterside is heavily influenced by the production of Your Young Voice.) The whole album has a still, untroubled atmosphere; songs emerge from the hush and gradually merge back into it. But the songs themselves – wordy, playful, always spoken by an “I”, always addressed to “you” – have more in common with the songs on the Magnetic Fields album than with any of the traditional songs I’ve mentioned. (The situations in the Magnetic Fields songs are fictionalised vignettes described straight, in the show-tune style; the KC songs take real situations and describe them opaquely, in the singer-songwriter style. But the two forms are very closely related: they’re both about revealing while not revealing, and in both cases what’s being revealed and not revealed is an emotion felt by the writer.)

Interviewed in 2008, James Yorkston disclaimed the label of ‘folk’ for his own work:

Folk is a word that means something different to practically everyone you ask, from the music in the fields passed down from mouth to ear to all the different music that’s out there. For me the word “folk” has always meant traditional folk so for me the word “folk” doesn’t describe what I do because I write pop songs, even though they’re not very popular. One may say it’s folk and that’s one’s opinion and that’s fine but it’s not my opinion, folk has always meant traditional folk. It’s not a big thing, it’s not a war cry or anything.

To put it another way, if Diamond Mine is folk, then ‘folk’ means two completely separate things. It’s simpler and more straightforward, surely, to say that KC also writes pop songs, even though they’re not very popular. Still – nice album.


So, to sum up, “Buy my mate’s records.”
– Not entirely! Four of these nine albums are on the Folk Police label (and I paid for all of them except Weirdlore). Hand on heart, the Woodbine and Ivy Band and Rapunzel & Sedayne CDs are great albums; the other two I didn’t rave about particularly. The one album you should get before any of the others is John Kelly’s.

He’s not a mate as well, by any chance?
– Well, I know him to talk to. I’m more of a fan.

While we’re doing Qs and As, what’s so great about all this traditional stuff anyway?
– I always say it’s the words, which may explain how I can rave about John Kelly and Stephin Merritt in the same post. Listening back to some of these songs, it occurred to me that that’s literally true – often what anchors a song in my mind is a single word, usually one that’s not quite right. Boney’s Lamentation: “We marched them forth in inveterate streams“. Inveterate streams! The Innocent Hare: “Relope, relope, retiring hare!” Relope! More generally, what you get quite consistently in traditional songs is turns of phrase which snag in your mind because they’re just rhythmically and musically perfect. The Innocent Hare is full of them; a favourite of mine is “Go tell your sweet lover the hounds are out”. Why ‘sweet’? Why does ‘sweet’ make it such a good line? Lines like this have been polished through repetition and re-remembering over the years – polished till the pebbles shine.

The songs aren’t all that great, though. And they haven’t all been preserved through oral transmission for any length of time, for that matter.
– Everyone’s a musicologist all of a sudden.

No need to get narky. I’m arguing with myself, remember.
– I’m hardly likely to forget.

Yes, well.
– Moving along. There’s obviously something about the impersonality of traditional songs – the way that they’re not in the singer-songwriter style – that appeals to me. This may not apply to anyone else, but then again it may: I suspect that once you’ve got the taste you never quite go back. But I think what I really love about folk music is that it’s a participative art form, based on a collective sharing of the material: Jo Freya sang William Taylor, so did John Kelly and so have I. They’re totally different renderings – they even have different words and tunes to some extent – but it’s the same song. And the song’s still there for the next singer to pick up. That’s the real point of all those asterisked links up there; they’re not (just) a cheeky attempt to drive traffic to my 52 Folk Songs site. Everyone can contribute; everyone can do the very same songs. Folk is really unusual in this respect. When singers contribute to an album of songs by Leonard Cohen, you get a Leonard Cohen tribute album. When singers contribute to an album of traditional songs, you get a folk album.

And what do you get when one person records a traditional song every week for a year?

52 Folk Songs, of course. Six download albums are now available, with two more to come; some of them are quite good and all of them are remarkably cheap.

Moving along… Final question: why now?
– The idea for this post has been buzzing around for a while, which is probably why it’s ended up being so long. It had to be written now because I’ve just succeeded in tracking down a copy of the Magnetic Fields’ monumental triple album 69 Love Songs – in name at least, a definite influence on my own project – and expect to be immersed in it for some time. Which means it’s going to be Goodbye, Piccadilly, farewell, Leicester bloody Square on the trad front for a while.

You think it’s going to be good, then?
– I already know five of the 69 songs, and three out of those five are among my favourite songs in the world. I think it’s going to be good.

Enough?
– Or too much.

Do you really want to be

Quoth John B, in comments on something else entirely at B&T:

Anyone who a) has career aspirations when they’re 17 and b) they’re not vet, doctor, scientist, writer or pop star, is a disturbing weirdo.

adding

+ ACTOR & sportsperson, on reflection, but that genuinely is about it

I’m not sure, for two reasons. One is that being 17 now really isn’t what it was when me and thee were lads (unless thou art significantly younger than me). Snagging another B&T comment:

Life may have changed I suspect – or at least the balance of ‘acceptable to express hopes for the future’ may have altered amongst 17 yr olds. All this endless droning on about (i) the skills based knowledge economy and wot not; and (ii) the need to up our national game vis a vis the Asiatic surge to 21st Century dominance may have had its effect.

I’m certainly teaching students who have a much better idea of where they’re going than I did at their age. Come to that, my son has a much better idea of where he’s going than I did at his age, and he’s not even in Sixth Form.

More importantly, I’ve got a nasty feeling the disturbing weirdoes always did have the right idea. When I was 16 my career aspirations went something like this (in order of decreasing desirability and increasing realism – i.e. mentally insert “and if that doesn’t work out…” after each one).

  1. Poet, famous for writing poems that everyone thinks are brilliant, paid to write more poetry. Something like Dylan Thomas, only not drunk all the time. Not sure if anyone does that these days, but if they don’t I will.
  2. Rock star, kind of post-Bowie, bit intellectual, bit arty, costumes and dancing and so on. Something like Peter Gabriel. I could definitely do that, I’ve got the voice and I can learn the songs and everything.
  3. University lecturer. That would be OK, I’d be good at that. English or poetry or something. I could definitely do that.
  4. Journalist maybe? Can you get a job in journalism? What would you actually do?

By the time I was 21 and finishing my degree I’d crossed off 1. and 2. Unfortunately I’d also crossed off 3. – I’d got a look at the way graduate students studying English literature seemed to live, and decided it was simpliciter sanguinarius atrox (Joyce): privileged, unreal, pointless. Like the Leyton Buzzards, I didn’t want to end up posh and shirty – I wanted to work and get my hands dirty, or at least work at a proper job with an ordinary employer and a salary and hours of work and everything. Looking back, I’m not at all sure what was behind this impulse, although I think the Buzzards could have given me a clue if I’d listened more closely[1]. In particular, I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me that lecturers were employees too – and that graduate students, who weren’t even that, actually had things pretty hard. Really, I had it backwards – it’s not a life of privilege undercut by arid scholasticism, it’s a life of penury compensated by doing work you love. Perhaps the real problem was that I was in the process of falling out of love with Eng Lit, and it didn’t occur to me then to look further afield academically (and see [1]).

Anyway, I ended up as a journalist (and in answer to my teenage self, what you do is anything and everything that they ask you to do). After only nine years of writing for a living I managed to work my way into academia, and little more than five years after that I had a proper job. (Criminology, it turns out, is where it’s really at for me. Criminology and sociology. Sociology, criminology and the law. Criminology and socio-legal studies, and that’s my final offer.) Oh, and I’d worked in IT for eleven years before I managed to get into journalism, and I was on the dole for a good six months before I got my first programming job.

In short, I went into university with unrealistic dreams and came out with a goal that was realistic – there were lots of jobs in computing – but almost entirely wrong for me. (It wasn’t all bad. Coding can be fun, database admin is a good job in many ways and data analysis is brilliant.) It took me a good few years to get the boat turned round, and the key move was one I still look back on with mingled pride and horror, as it involved resigning from a perfectly good job with only a couple of months’ work lined up. (Twelve years on, I’m still not earning as much as I was paid at that job, even in cash terms.) It’s worked out, though, pretty much; arguably I should have stuck to one of my dreams all along (#3 would have been a good choice).

I don’t know, though. Settling for a job I didn’t enjoy, on the vague pseudo-radical grounds that most people had jobs they didn’t enjoy (and see [1]), wasn’t a good idea. The problem is that #3 and #4 were dreams, just as much as #1 and #2 – they were careers that were just going to happen to me somehow. I remember thinking that a medical student friend of mine was a bit strange because his dreams seemed to be so specific – from about 20 he knew what branch of medicine he was going to go into, how high he was going to rise (consultant), how much he’d be earning and what car he was going to drive. I realise now that they weren’t dreams, they were plans – and they were going to get him into his ideal career in a lot less than 20 years. (And yes, he is a consultant, and if he doesn’t drive that car it’s because he’s traded up.)

Still, who wants a life that’s been planned out? Me, I’d much rather be happy than right any day.

[1]

Don’t want to end up posh and shirty,
I want to work and get my hands dirty.
Middle-class boy brought up like me
Got to do something to earn credibility.
Don’t want my friends all looking at me
As a hoity-toity, airy-fairy,
Arty-farty little twerp!

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.

You are the fairest creature

Listen, if you can (the audio may be taken down before long), to this. It’s one of those traditional tunes that seem to do everything that a tune can or should do, twining around the scale like ivy and resolving back where it started. It’s a particularly fine rendition by Jon Boden, with a harsh, keening fiddle accompaniment (played by Jon) which perfectly accentuates the darker notes of the song. I think it might be the best thing Jon’s done all year.

If it has been taken down, have a listen to this:

That is a beautiful song.

Now listen to this:
Scritti Politti, “Hegemony”
There’s no getting away from it – at some level that’s the same song. (And yes, Googling establishes that Green Gartside was a folkie in his youth, and specifically a huge Martin Carthy fan. There’s a small puzzle here, though, which is that Carthy didn’t record the song until 1980, after Scritti Politti had recorded “Hegemony”. He did sing it as part of the score of the theatrical version of “Lark Rise to Candleford”, which was staged at the National Theatre in 1978 and 1979; perhaps Green was in the audience. Either that, or he heard Peter Bellamy’s version, released in 1975.)

I’m slightly staggered by this. Picture a fan of cutting-edge contemporary art who turns his back on the edgy echo-chamber of conceptual this and reinterpreted that, and rediscovers craft – good stuff well made. And imagine that, a few years down the line, he’s appreciating a particularly well-made pot, when he realises that it’s a Grayson bloody Perry. That’s me that is. Here’s a song which does what folk songs do, and does it so well – a slow, deliberate melody; lyrics that say one or two simple things, but simple things that have stayed true; a spare, delicate arrangement. No anxiety, no uncertainty, no rough edges, no contemporary resonance that wasn’t equally resonant 200 years ago. And here’s a song which is pure punk (intellectual wing): it’s all uncertainty and rough edges, an urgent, gabbled bulletin from the front line of one man’s confrontation with the world that faces him. And it’s the same bloody song.

As it happens, although I was vaguely into folk in the 70s – and I did see “Lark Rise” – I never really heard that much of it: Steeleye, Pentangle and, er… By 1979 I had given up on it altogether, partly in reaction against Steeleye’s new direction but mainly because the cultural earthquake of punk had seemed to make it utterly irrelevant. So I never heard “Sweet Lemany” until after I’d got back into folk, 30 years later, in search of the well-made pots of the tradition. Even then I only heard it at singarounds; it was only when I heard Jon Boden’s version last week that I really listened to it. And suddenly I’m back with Green in 1979, agonising over the production of meaning and semantic instability in ‘beat’ music in that legendary Camden squat, and I’m in my room at Cambridge poring over the sleevenotes and feeling his sense of the utter necessity of intellectual work and his despair at the isolation it brings with it –

About the university the pages let you down
It helps you find your way around in any English town
About the university the pages are in French
It helps you find your way around in any English town

And then I’m not.

As I was a-walking one fine summer’s morning,
Oh he fields and the meadows they looked so green and gay;
And the birds were singing so pleasantly adorning,
Right early in the morning at the break of the day.

Hark, oh hark, how the nightingale is singing,
And the lark she is a-taking her flight all in the air.
On yonder green bower the turtle doves are building,
The sun is just a-glimmering, Arise my dear.

Arise, oh, arise and get your charming posies,
They are the fairest flowers that grow in yonder grove.
I will pluck off them all sweet lilies, pinks and rosies,
All for my Sweet Lemeney, the girl that I love.

Oh, Lemeney, oh, Lemeney, you are the fairest creature,
Yes, you are the fairest creature that ever my eyes did see.
And she played it all over all upon her pipes of ivory,
Right early in the morning at the break of the day.

How could my true love, how could she vanish from me
Oh, how could she go so I never shall see her more.
Well it was her cruel parents who looked so slightly on me,
And it’s all for the white robe that I once used to wear.

In retrospect there’s something nightmarish about the political life lived with the kind of intensity that Green appeared to advocate back then. Certainly there’s a nightmarish quality, rather than a hopeful or liberating one, about the idea that everything could and should be transformed, from the conventions of pop songwriting to the living conditions of the band – after all, what if you forgot something, or allowed your guard to slip, and the old world crept back in? (“And ‘common sense’ is things just as they are”.) But if you get to the point where everything is a problem, the problem that you need to deal with is all yours. Green has dismissed the recordings of this period as “some anti-produced labour of negativity, kind of structurally unsound and exposed, by design and default … evocative of extraordinary times and a bit winceworthy”. For all that he’s the artist, that seems more like a list of symptoms than a description of the condition. I think something like “Hegemony” is best seen as the product of an attempt to fuse three things – the music, the politics, the personal sense of urgency and wrongness – which didn’t really belong together and certainly didn’t fit together. It struck some extraordinary sparks – thirty years on I still know “Hegemony” word for word, which is saying something given that I’m not even sure what all the words are – but it couldn’t ever work. The trouble was, the fact that it didn’t work chimed with the personal sense of the world’s wrongness, which was validated by the politics, and round the process went again.

I remember reading an interview with Jackie Leven, in about 1980, in which he talked about having worked his way to a place where he’d regained his innocence – “waking up a virgin the morning after the gang-bang” was his image. Green recovered his psychic virginity by journeying into shiny manicured pop – a long way from the anxiously self-deconstructing racket of “Hegemony”, and a long way from “Sweet Lemoney” too. As for me, Scritti Politti’s first few releases meant a huge amount to me at the time, and an important time it was too – Green was a lasting intellectual influence on me, just before Raymond Williams and a couple of years ahead of Guy Debord. So it’s interesting – and somehow at once chastening and heartening – to think how much of the power of those songs came from the music; and how much of the music, in this case, came from a song that had nothing to do with the manufacture of consensus and a lot to do with love and flowers.

“Hegemony” is still strange, powerful and unsettling; some of the songs Green wrote a couple of years later, on the cusp of his rediscovery of pop, are amazing (“The ‘Sweetest Girl'”, “Lions after slumber”, “Jacques Derrida”). But I’m going to stick with Limandie, playing on her pipes of ivory at the break of day. For all the tradition-garbled pastoral imagery, that song’s still about something true – and it’s something much more livable-with than “Hegemony”‘s anguished protest at the impossibility of changing everything immediately. The old songs endure, with their strangely elaborate melodies, their stock of familiar images and their tiny repertoire of subjects – love, sex, babies, death. They’re songs to remember.

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.

A gift from the Queen

Drink to the men who protect you and I!
Drink! Drink! Drain your glass! Raise your glass high!

I’ve lived through several Remembrance Days, you may not be surprised to learn, and for most of those I’ve refused to wear a poppy. (And it did feel – and continues to feel – like a refusal, not a free choice.) Initially this was because I felt I was being asked to endorse Britain’s role in the Falklands conflict and the Irish war: both the British Legion and the government seemed actively to encourage a blurring of the line between the dead in the World Wars and the very different Fallen of the 1980s, which I thought was pernicious. Still, for a few years in the relatively peaceful 1990s I did wear a poppy on November 11th, with the Second World War and more particularly the defeat of Fascism in mind. But for several years now we’ve been back in a period of imperialist war, and I prefer not to celebrate it. I do mourn the dead – including the British dead – but for me they’re dead in a cause that’s pointless at best, barbaric at worst; and you can’t get a poppy with “End this slaughter now” written around the outside.

On the topic of poppies and neutrality Owen is impressively logical:

The red poppy, as the white poppy-producing Peace Pledge Union points out, occupies something of a privileged position among emblems of charitable causes. If you’re a police officer or a TV presenter for the BBC, you’re not allowed to wear a wristband, coloured ribbon or any other kind of symbol that shows your support for a charitable or political cause, and especially not a white poppy, but red poppies, and red poppies alone, are fine.

There are two possible justifications for this that I can see: one is that the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal is neutral in a way that other charitable causes aren’t; the other is that the Poppy Appeal is, out of all the charitable causes in the world, a uniquely commendable cause.

Neutral?

all charities are legally required to be politically neutral, but if you can’t wear an AIDS ribbon or a Livestrong wristband on the BBC then clearly that kind of neutrality isn’t sufficient. But the Royal British Legion clearly doesn’t meet this requirement; the Poppy Appeal is manifestly not even politically neutral; every year the RBL creates ‘Fields of Remembrance’ which are intended as a “tribute to the memory of ex-Service men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect their country.” This year there will be one at Wootton Bassett, where the bodies of members of the armed forces killed in Afghanistan are brought. This implies that every British serviceman or woman killed in the line of duty, in every conflict the UK has been involved in between WWI and the present day, was a necessary price to pay to safeguard our national security. Regardless of whether you believe this to be true or not, it’s quite clearly not a politically neutral position.

And as for whether the Poppy Appeal is uniquely worthy of our support – well, why would it be?

I’m sure the justification most people would give, if asked, would be something about the fact that servicemen and women put themselves in the line of fire to make the rest of us safer

– but this brings us straight back to the assumption about “all conflicts which the UK has been involved in being justifiable on national security grounds”, which is awfully hard to demonstrate with regard to (say) Suez, or the Malayan insurgency (Britain was agin it, in quite a real and tangible way).

The logic is impressive, but I think Owen misses a couple of obvious counter-arguments – one which I’ve already touched on, and one which Will sums up:

Wearing a poppy is quite a unique thing. There aren’t many ways that the British are able to symbolise a positive relationship to nation without descending to nationalism, to recognise the honour of the military without veering into militarism. It also has a beautiful ambiguity. It may represent something very patriotic and proud, or a form of pacifism. It needn’t mourn the dead of any particular war or even any particular nation. It may even represent mourning for the horrors of the twentieth century more generally. It’s not irrelevant that most of those who have died in war over the last 100 years did not go into the military as a career, but were dragged into hellish territorial disputes. Some people might feel particularly moved by those conscripts, others won’t. These various ambiguities allow people to congregate symbolically without being defined symbolically.

The poppy is about “a positive relationship to nation” and “the honour of the military”. It celebrates membership of a nation state with armed forces, with all the ambiguities and differences of emphasis which that allows: for different people, the same symbol can commemorate an imperialist adventure carried out by professional soldiers and a continent-wide war to defeat Fascism waged by a mass army of conscripts. But these different forms of commemoration remain within the framework of the nation-state: my 1990s anti-Fascist poppies were, precisely, celebrating the role of the British Army in licking Hitler.

This is why it’s beside the point to point out that very few people actually believe that every British serviceman or woman killed in the line of duty, in every conflict the UK has been involved in between WWI and the present day, was a necessary price to pay to safeguard our national security – and that anyone putting forward this hyper-militarised view of the world would scarcely qualify as “politically neutral”. The implicit argument here is not that the nation-state is neutral with regard to politics, but that it’s prior to politics: the British state, and the armed forces which underwrite its monopoly of legitimate force, are the precondition of any kind of politics in Britain – and of any kind of public sphere. We are not saluting those who died for no good reason in Iraq or Afghanistan or the Falls Road, but the men who protect you and I. (What we are certainly not doing – and here I entirely agree with Will – is saying that we think being injured is bad and being killed is even worse: an even more pre-political appeal, and one which evacuates the actual poppy ritual of what little politics it still gives houseroom to.)

And it’s because the poppy is a salute to the armed forces – our armed forces – that (coming to my second argument) neither wearing a poppy nor refusing to wear one is a free choice, in the sense that it’s a free choice to wear or not to wear a pink “breast cancer” ribbon or a Help For Heroes wristband. To say that the nation-state is prior to politics – to say that we enjoy British democracy and British liberties – is to say that we, as members of that nation-state, bear allegiance to the ultimate authorities of the state, and the armed forces which are both symbol and last-ditch embodiment of their power over us. (I lived in a Forces town as a child; if nothing else, it leaves you with an abiding respect for the armed forces’ ability to get the job done – whatever the job might be.) And if we bear allegiance, then, once in a while, respect should be paid. Declining to wear a poppy is opting out of allegiance to the state: it’s either an explicit protest or rather distastefully eccentric – after all, why wouldn’t you? (I see this in my children’s reaction to my failure to wear a poppy; I really should make my protest more explicit.) (I’ve never worn a white poppy, incidentally. The white poppy still has an air more of eccentricity about it than protest, perhaps because it says that the wearer wants to join in the ritual of commemoration and yet withdraw from it – like joining a march but insisting on making up your own slogans.)

The danger in all this is that sometimes the most useful thing we can do is not to pay respect to authority – and the time of war may be one of those times. In January this year I was in a pub when a loud and emotional argument broke out between a drunk and a squaddie who was about to ship back out to Afghanistan, where he’d recently seen his best friend killed. He was holding his drink quite well, but he was obviously quite well gone himself. The argument consisted mainly of the squaddie taking exception to everything the drunk said, and trying to shut him up by the drunk man’s usual method of talking over him, very calmly, very loudly and at great length; the drunk responded with the even drunker man’s tactic of carrying on regardless, in the blithe confidence that if he went on talking for long enough everyone in the world would agree with him. It was a fun evening. (I wouldn’t have minded so much, but we were trying to have a singaround at the time.) Anyway, nothing the drunk said upset or offended the squaddie so much as his profession of support and sympathy – “We’re all behind you, mate, we want to get you out of there and get you home safe and sound.” Big mistake. They had a job to do, we were told, and they were going to get it done. Anyone who said different just didn’t understand. There was a job to do, the army had been sent out there to do it and they were going to stay there till the job was done. They had a job on hand, the job was going to get done and they were going to make sure it got done.

From within the armed forces, of course, this is very much how you’d expect the world to look: they’re an instrument of the state and they’re there to get the job done, provided the job involves either weaponry or boots on the ground. The danger of paying respect to our state and our armed forces is that we as citizens buy into this heads-down goal-oriented mindset: theirs not to reason why (why Iraq? why Malaya? why Ireland?), and ours neither. Support the troops, we’re urged – and we’re asked to support them in just the same dogged, unconditional way that they’re told to do their job. But that way, our sympathy for the poor bloody infantry leads us to echo their unquestioning support for the goals they’re asked to achieve – and that’s precisely what we as civilians shouldn’t be doing. They don’t have the luxury of asking whether they should be going where they’re sent, but we do – and we owe it to ourselves to use it.

So: because I don’t think the British nation-state is prior to the politics that matter, in a way that my working-class ancestry decidedly is; and because, while I mourn the loss of life in Britain’s current imperialist adventures, I can’t endorse them; and, above all, because there is a war on, and I believe this is precisely the moment when spaces for debate and dissent most need to be opened up: for all these reasons, I’m not wearing a poppy.

Update A song for today.

Musicians are cowards

Arcade Fire, or rather the popularity and critical esteem of Arcade Fire, mystify me. I mean, they’ve got that big, soaring, early-Springsteen-ish thing going on, but… well, is that it? The other day I looked at some of their performances – well, a couple: I watched this performance from Jonathan Ross’s programme, then I watched one of the Glastonbury performances, and then I just got tired. (Nice to see a hurdy-gurdy on stage, I’ve got to admit, although playing it in heels was surely a bad idea.) Partly I wanted to stop before I was tempted, even out of morbid curiosity, to click on the link that said

Arcade Fire & U2 – Love Will Tear Us Apart

Ugh.

A couple of years ago I wrote a parody of the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens. I sang it at a local folk club a while ago, and found myself introducing it with a version of one of Tom Lehrer’s lines – “And if you get the urge to sing along, would you please repress it.” I got the laugh, but that phrasing stuck in my mind afterwards. One of the great things about singing with other people is precisely that you don’t repress the urge: you let rip. It’s easy to assume that there’s something regressive or infantile about this. Certainly it feels as if there’s something sophisticated and adult about sitting in silence and not joining in, but the reverse isn’t necessarily the case. What you’re singing when you let rip isn’t necessarily “la la la”, or “no nay never” for that matter; it can be

With my hump along, jump along,
There drives my lad along:
Pretty, Sparkle, Berry!
Goodluck, Speedwell, Cherry!
We are the lads that can follow the plough,
We are the lads that can follow the plough.

(The tune is equally fiddly.) To be part of a roomful of people singing that is an accomplishment, and takes a bit of practice, but when you get there it’s deeply satisfying – in a way that’s not at all repressed. (We are not the lads that can follow the plough, clearly, but I don’t think this is much of a score against folk music; the crowd at a Queen gig was not in fact going to rock anyone, after all.)

What’s this got to do with Arcade Fire? I believe that rock music is deeply involved with the kind of repression I’ve referred to: it challenges it, but in a very compromised and uncertain way. In other words, a lot of rock music has an anxious quality which isn’t contradicted by, but goes hand in hand with, a certain kind of soaring exultation: Can we (and you in the audience) break down our self-imposed expectations and make a hell of a lot of noise together? No we can’t… no we can’t… but right now you and me We Can! Hell Yeah Yes We Can!… and rest. And repeat. If you can wrap it all around some vague transformative rhetoric – Can we make the world a better place? No we can’t… but right now We Can! – then so much the better.

There’s something deeply spectacular about this, in the sense of grafting a sense of active – and rebellious – participation on to a state of passive spectatorship which is never really challenged. This, I think, is the real fraudulence of presenting Bono or Chris Martin as a political figure: their entire career rests on acting out the impression that repressions are being triumphantly overcome, in a performance which by its very design challenges nothing in the outside world. To take this as a basis on which to mount some sort of rhetorical challenge to real oppression and real injustice is deeply confused, and self-deceiving on the part of everyone concerned: it’s as if Peter Falk and Telly Savalas were holding press conferences demanding better crime detection.

That U2 collaboration tells its own story; it seems to me that the sound of Arcade Fire is very much the sound of imagined triumph over imagined repression, in a style that goes back to “Born to Run” and beyond (even in 1975 I remember thinking that this Springsteen person sounded awfully old-fashioned). Arcade Fire really remind me of someone else entirely, though. I mean, look at them: there’s about twelve of them on stage, most of them playing un-rockish instruments, several of them female, and they make a lot of use of choral vocals and drones. And their album art looks a bit eccentric and home-made, and their songs seem to encapsulate unsettled states of mind, with a vague radical edge. And they’re from Canada. Specifically, French-speaking Canada. More specifically, Montreal. In short, what Arcade Fire really made me think was that there was a market for something like Godspeed You Black Emperor!/A Silver Mt. Zion* – something a bit like that, only upbeat, marketable, radio-friendly: a Lloyd Cole to their Orange Juice, a Kasabian to their Primal Scream.

What’s interesting here is that GYBE!/ASMZ never do that repression/release/exultation thing: the sound they make is loud, challenging and exhilarating, but there’s nothing apologetic or anxious about it, and no sense that We’re Changing The World Right Now! It’s just a great big sound, and it’ll sweep you away. The music’s powerful in an honest, unpretentious way – something that GYBE!’s ‘post-rock’ shares with equally uncompromising forms of music like thrash, or most kinds of dance music. But even so, there’s a lingering sense that the music is there to overcome your resistance: listeners are envisaged as those willingly repressed audience members, holding it together and not letting down their guard, with a lot of the pleasure coming from an almost masochistic submission to the overwhelming power of the music. As I get more involved with folk music – and, probably not unrelatedly, as I get older – this seems like going a rather long way round: wouldn’t it be simpler just to drop your guard, willingly and cheerfully, and take the risk of looking a bit stupid for the greater good of unself-conscious pleasure?

To put it another way, is there anything in the world better than what these people are doing? Take a look at this. We’re still in Montreal, the instruments are not rock and it’s a big group (23 people including two dancers), but you could never mistake them for GYBE! – let alone Arcade Fire.

Anyone who doesn’t smile during that clip deserves to have Laughing Len quoted at them – “You don’t really care for music, do you?” Music you’re actually making, with or without a clogger in a white mini-skirt calling the tunes: there is nothing like it. (And, as that clip illustrates, it actually does change the world.)

*I love them dearly, but there is no way I’m going to follow them through every twist and turn of The Re-Naming Of Thee Bandes. GYBE! and ASMZ to me they will always be. (And let’s face it, you’re not going to think I’m talking about anyone else.)

The real thing, yeah

[Crossposted from Oh Good Ale]

Following the lead of several beer bloggers, here’s what would be on my ideal jukebox.

I’ve got quite mixed feelings about background music in pubs. (I exempt music sessions and singarounds, which are about making music rather than having it in the background, and which don’t invite an audience: if you’re listening, the chances are you’re also playing or singing.) The only kind I can’t stand is the kind that’s too loud to hear yourself speak; I don’t even like that kind of volume in a club for as long as I’m not actually dancing, and in a venue where you can’t dance it seems downright perverse. I’m not crazy about piped music, or amplified live music for that matter, where it’s loud enough to be intrusive; too much of that and you start hankering after silence. But relatively quiet music can make a good backdrop to a drink and a chat.

The big exception to the rule about intrusively loud music is the jukebox, which I appreciate at more or less any volume. Really, the jukebox is commodity capitalism in musical form: it delivers music in discrete packages, each of which can be purchased for the same fee, and by doing so it generates both demand and competition: if you don’t like what someone else has put on, put your hand in your pocket and buy your own choice. All the same, there’s something liberating – empowering, even – about being able to turn your desire for music so quickly and easily into effective demand: a good jukebox lets you dredge up the song that’s going through your head, be it a B-side or a buried album track, and fill the room with it almost instantaneously. It’s not a million miles away from the buzz of singing a new song at a singaround – although obviously in that case there’s more effort involved, and no money changing hands.

Anyway, here are some songs I’ve filled rooms with in the past and hopefully will do again.

Van Morrison, “Astral Weeks”
“Where immobile steel rims crack, And the ditch in the back roads stop…” What’s it mean? What’s he going on about? Half a minute later it doesn’t matter. Bliss.

the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want”
For a long time I couldn’t pass the Crescent in Salford without going in, and I couldn’t go in without putting this on the jukebox. (To be fair, I only went down that street about once a week.) “I went down to the demonstration, To get my fair share of abuse…” Them weret’ days.

Wizzard, “See my baby jive”
The greatest single ever released. If it doesn’t lift your mood a bit you may be dead.

Radiohead, “Paranoid android”
Sometimes it’s not about lifting the mood. “From a great height… From a great height…”

Mott the Hoople, “All the young dudes”
This single had almost mythical status when I was growing up, largely because nobody I knew had a copy. If you ever found it on a jukebox, what a song. My friends and I were fascinated by the spoken passage that you can just make out in the fade – “I’ve wanted to do this for years… There you go!

David Bowie, “Sound and vision”
I think we don’t always hear how weird this single is. It sounds as if the elements of a pop song have been shuffled and then put back together; they’re all there but nothing fits properly. It’s only let down by patches of downright ineptitude – he should have got rid of that saxophonist.

the Phantom Band, “Throwing bones”
Today on this programme you will hear gospel, and rhythm and blues, and jazz. And folk, and angsty singer-songwriter introspection, and quite a lot of Krautrock. And Scottish accents.

the Pet Shop Boys, “Left to my own devices”
There had to be some Pet Shop Boys (at least, when I’m in a pub there often is). “Being boring” and the wonderful “What have I done to deserve this” were strong contenders, but this won out – the eight-minute album version, of course. (You may detect a theme emerging here. By my reckoning these eight tracks come in at 47 minutes.) Strings by Trevor Horn, rap by Neil Tennant:
I was faced with a choice at a difficult age
Would I write a book, or should I take to the stage?
But in the back of my head I heard distant feet:
Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat.

You can’t say fairer than that.

All your bedroom queries

Nice to see WorldbyStorm lighting on the Passage the other weekend. I started composing a comment after I’d listened to a couple of the tracks and rapidly realised I had far too much to say. Only one thing for it, really…

For a band by whom I own virtually nothing – one 7″ single, bought long after the event, plus one track on a ubiquitous compilation – the Passage have meant a remarkable amount to me. I think this is largely because the band crossed my path on four separate occasions – which, in fact, corresponded to four distinct versions of the band (there were six in all).

First, there was “New Love Songs”. Continue reading

In dark and empty skies

Nineteen years ago today, Peter Bellamy ended his life.

I didn’t pay much attention to folk music between about 1976 and 2001, so Bellamy’s death in 1991 passed me by. More to the point, I’m afraid that Bellamy’s career passed me by; I remember hearing one track by his unaccompanied vocal group The Young Tradition, but at the time I just didn’t get it. (Who would want to sing folk songs unaccompanied, in a raw and unadorned style that harked back to the way people used to sing them? What can I say, I was so much older then.)

After I started getting back into folk music, and in particular after I started spending time on the Mudcat, I began to hear Bellamy’s name dropped. I followed up a few suggestions and rapidly realised I’d been missing something big. Bluntly, anyone who thinks they know about the folk revival of the 1960s to 1980s and doesn’t know about Peter Bellamy is a bit like a classical music expert who’s never heard of J.S. Bach.

It’s hard to overstate Bellamy’s achievement – although not, sadly, his success. For me he towers over Ewan MacColl, and may even have the edge on Dolly Collins. Consider: here’s Bellamy in the role of (in his own words) “boring bleating old traddy”, singing a song from the Copper Family repertoire with Louis Killen singing harmony.

Here’s one of Bellamy’s settings of poems by Rudyard Kipling, sung by the Young Tradition (the poem can be found here).

And here’s an eighteenth-century broadside ballad sung by June Tabor:

I lied: “The Leaves in the Woodland” is a Bellamy composition – words and tune. It’s one of the highlights of his extraordinarily ambitious 1977 “ballad opera” The Transports, which tells the true story of a couple transported to Botany Bay in the late eighteenth century. In 1977 I had other things on my mind, musically speaking, and with one thing and another I didn’t hear The Transports until quite recently. I’m regretting that now – it’s stunning. It’s through-composed (music by Bellamy, arrangements by Dolly Collins) and played on period instruments; the lead roles are taken by Mike and Norma Waterson, with supporting parts for June Tabor, Nic Jones, Martin Carthy, Cyril Tawney and Bellamy himself, among others.

But the songs are the thing. Most folkies, even those most immersed in the traditional repertoire, never turn out more than a couple of songs which can be sung alongside traditional songs and not stand out. Exceptions are rare and striking (Tawney, MacColl, Dylan before he got bored and moved on). In The Transports, Bellamy basically wrote a whole album of them (a double album in its time – the CD version is 75 minutes long). Not only do his songs sound like long-lost traditional ballads, they each have a place in the plot of the opera – and in most cases advance it. The most remarkable example is “Roll down”, a shanty (sung by Cyril Tawney) which has entered the repertoire of contemporary shanty-singers like Kimber’s Men, despite the fact that its lyrics include a fairly detailed account of a transport ship’s voyage from England to Australia.

Not every song is as strong as “The Leaves in the Woodland”; come to that, not every singer sounds as good as June Tabor (Mike Waterson’s singing on this album is something of an acquired taste, to say nothing of Bellamy’s own). But The Transports is a towering achievement in anyone’s language. And I’ve scarcely scratched the surface of Bellamy’s traditional work, or his long and fruitful engagement with Kipling, to say nothing of his love of the blues and his ear for a cover.

I suppose I should say something about Bellamy’s politics, although it’s hard to know what. His father was Richard Bellamy, a fairly high-ranking member of the British Union of Fascists, but it would be absurd to label Peter Bellamy as an extreme right-winger. Certainly he was never on the Left, and regarded the radical wing of the folk revival with suspicion and hostility; I think he’d have agreed that traditional songs were songs of the people, but interpreted that last word more in patriotic than class terms. (What he would have made of the Imagined Village is anybody’s guess.) But at the end of the day I think he was genuinely uninterested in politics; a cultural patriot rather than a political nationalist. That he was a personal friend of Dick Gaughan speaks volumes; according to Gaughan, Bellamy “spent his life in the place Hugh MacDiarmid called “where extremes meet”, the place where I believe all artists should live”.

Bellamy’s suicide, at only 47, remains a tragedy and remains a mystery. Dick Gaughan commented,

it is my belief that Peter never quite produced the masterpiece which his talents suggested; he came close on many occasions but always gave the impression that each was just another step on the road to truly finding his real voice. I have a suspicion that frustration with this search may have played a part in his death.

“Try again, fail again. Fail better.” We all fail in the end, God knows, but few musicians ever tried so hard or so persistently, or failed with such superb results, as Peter Bellamy.

“Bernard, Bernard, he would say, this bloom of youth will not last forever: the fatal hour will come whose unappealable sentence cuts down all deceitful hopes; life will fail us like a false friend in the midst of our undertakings. Then, all our beautiful plans will fall to the ground; then, all our thoughts will vanish away.”

Peter Bellamy, 8/9/1944 – 24/9/1991

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