Friday, July 31, 2020

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Sunday, August 25, 2019


Some of my socialist friends have a bad habit of confusing "is" with "ought". Because the Church of England ought not to have any formal influence over secular life, they assert that the Archbishop of Canterbury is a person of no significance. Because the Queen ought not to have any political influence, they assert that she does not have any. 

Mr Nigel Farage is an extremely clever man; and unlike Mr Boris Johnson, he doesn't bother to hide it under a thin veneer of stupidity. (I don't think that Mr Donald Trump is as stupid as he seems, but then I don't think that anybody could possibly be as stupid as Mr Donald Trump seems.)

When the duly elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom resigns, the Queen invites another of our democratically elected representatives to take over the role; on condition that he or she can command the confidence of the House of Commons. Mr Callaghan replaced Mr Wilson; Mr Major replaced Mrs Thatcher; Mr Brown replaced Mr Blair; Mrs May replaced Mr Cameron; and Mr Johnson replaced Mrs May. The People elect their MPs, and the MPs choose a Prime Minister from among their number. That's the system. It might be better; it might be worse.

It is very dangerous to say "It is undemocratic for Mr Johnson to be Prime Minister having secured the confidence of a plurality of MPs but without a General Election". 

It is almost equally dangerous to say "It is undemocratic for Mr Trump to be President of the United States, having won the electoral college but not the popular vote." 

Both results show up idiosyncrasies in the two countries respective constitutions. As I understand it, the American system was designed and the discrepancy between "Electoral College Delegates" and "Popular Vote" was written in as a feature; whereas the British system evolved over centuries and the capacity for the Prime Minister to change without a popular mandate is a bug which only becomes apparent under stress.

But Mr Johnson is not the product of a coup. Mr Johnson is the product of the outworking of our unwritten constitution in the relatively unusual circumstances of an all-but-hung parliament. To call it a coup is to say that representative democracy is not real democracy; it is to say that direct democracy is the only true democracy; it is to say that there is such a thing as the popular will which is distinct from and maybe contrary to the results of the constitutional democratic process. 

It is that kind of thinking which got us into the present mess. 

Everyone quotes that essay in which George Orwell complained that people (already, in 1944) were hurling the word Fascist at anyone and anything without regard for what it really meant. Fewer people quote the bit where he says that it's pretty clear what people mean by the term:

"By Fascism they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class. Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers, almost any English person would accept 'bully' as a synonym for 'Fascist'."

Well: I think that all fascists are bullies, but I don't think that all bullies are fascists. I think that all fascists are racists, conservatives and authoritarians, but I don't think that all racists, conservatives and authoritarians are fascists. 

A judge was once asked to define pornography, and replied "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." This was not very helpful. 

But it would also be unhelpful to say "Since we can't agree on a definition of pornography, dirty books obviously don't exist." 

Boris Johnson is not a Fascist. 

Boris Johnson is not a conservative, or a liberal, or anything else. I doubt very much if Boris Johnson has a set of political beliefs in the way that Margaret Thatcher and Harold Wilson presumably did. 

Boris Johnson, like Tony Blair, is an artificial construct with no purpose except to become Prime Minister. In 2016, he claimed to be 50/50 on the European Question; but he has chosen to portray himself as a kamikaze Leaver for personal electoral advantage. (Jeremy Corbyn once said, under pressure from an interviewer, that he was 70/30 on the Question; a form of moderation and nuance which the right-wing media still attempts to portray as equivocation.)

It is not clear whether the entire political landscape is reducible to "Boris Johnson believes in Boris Johnson" or whether the Johnson-construct is being deployed on behalf of persons or organisations who do have a recognizable political ideology. 

The Left use the word "Orwellian" to describe the Right; and the Right use the word "Orwellian" to describe the Left. If either of them had taken the trouble to read Nineteen Eighty-Four they would know that Orwell was describing how political power always and necessarily works. The Party is indifferent to individuals and ideology; the Party exists only to keep itself in power.

Orwell also liked a nice cup of tea, and thought that pub landlords ought to keep a supply of second class stamps behind the bar. In Animal Farm, Trotsky is presented as one of the good guys.

I grew up in the 1980s: everyone called Mrs Thatcher a Fascist, but she pretty obviously wasn't. She wasn't even particularly Right Wing by today's standards but that's the responsibility of that nice Mr Overton. Americans might be surprised to consider how strongly Mr Reagan's friend supported socialized medicine and how firmly opposed she was to allowing private citizens to own guns. She personally supported the death penalty provided she didn't have to take responsibility for restoring it; she was a big fan of corporal punishment but it was abolished on her watch. And she was a supporter of the European Union, although she thought it badly needed reform. If you had asked her how much she liked it, I like to imagine that she would have said "Seven out of ten."  

The Right say that the Left call everyone they don't like Fascists. The Right call everyone they don't like Communists. The far Right are probably best thought of as performance artists, acting out a parody of a Left which mainly exists in their own minds. ("We think that you think that everyone you don't like is Hitler, so we will say that everyone we don't like is Stalin. That'll show you!") Rupert Murdoch's front pages, which literally depicted Boris Johnson as the Unconquered Sun are best understood as caricatures of what the editor imagines communist propaganda to be like.

I was quite shocked to hear Mr Enoch Powell's infamous Rivers of Blood speech when it was reconstructed on Radio 4 a while back. I had previously only known it by reputation, and had somehow absorbed the idea that "it made some fair points about immigration and integration in unnecessarily provocative language."

The speech is in fact nakedly racist. It takes racism for granted; as a premise and a starting point. Granted that no-one would want a black person living next door to them or indeed on the same street and granted that no-one would want to rent property to a black person, then it follows that the 1965 Race Relations Act (the one which made "No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish" signs illegal) was as oppressive to white people as slavery had been to black people. This is literally what he said. This is what people who defend Powell as a conviction politician who spoke his mind are defending. 

But for all that Powell was a parliamentarian and a constitutionalist. He had complicated ideas about national identity and how it worked. Not great ideas: his theory of the Virtuous Institutions was only slightly more useful that Mr Norman Tebbit's Cricket Test. But he would not have understood the idea that a Popular Will existed separately from the Crown and the Commons and the Lords.

His essays on the New Testament are still well worth reading. 

Mr Farage has described Mrs May's compromise European withdrawal agreement as "the greatest betrayal of any democratic vote in the history of our nation." He specifically compared it to the treaty of Versailles.

This is very strange language for a British politician to use. An Englishman might very well see Versailles as a disastrous misjudgment: if only we had been more magnanimous after the catastrophe of the First World War than perhaps the rise of Hitler and the greater catastrophe of the Second World War might have been averted. But to describe it as a betrayal: isn't that specifically what the Nazis believed? Wasn't that indeed the whole point of the Third Reich (and the actual reason that they had little skulls on their helmets)?

And then we see Mr Farage walking onto platforms at rallies with air raid warnings playing in the background. This is not how British politicians behave. Give Mr Corbyn his due, he doesn't come on stage to hammers and sickles and the strains of the Internationale. Mr Farage is consciously portraying himself as the Little Guy who will stand up to the bullies and and get his revenge on the politicians who betrayed us in Brussels. 

Folk music is the kind of music listened to by people who say that they like folk music. Science fiction is the kind of literature read by people who say that they like science fiction. Fascism is the ideology espoused by people who identify as fascists.

There are no substantive arguments in favour of Brexit: or if there are, Mr Johnson and Mr Farage are not interested in making them.

The European Union is a very complicated collection of trade agreements and tariffs and employment practices and mutual immigration procedures which a non-specialist can't really have a very strong opinion on. Until twelve months ago no-one without a 2:1 in PPE had the faintest idea what the World Trade Organisation even was.

The entire adventure rests on the theory that the People's Will was irrevocably expressed through a binary referendum in 2016. The principal at stake is not how much ice you legally have to include with a mail-order kipper. The principal at stake is which is supreme: the People's Will or the Constitution. 

Let the United Kingdom split in three; let violence and civil war return to Ireland; allow Britain to suffer Greek levels of inflation and 80s levels of unemployment; all that, says Mr Johnson, would be preferable to saying that Parliament has the right to go against the Popular Will. 

We are too willing to concede this principal. We are too willing to say "Of course the Will of the People should prevail; but the People were misinformed; the votes were badly counted; there was some cheating and corruption; and anyway we know more now than we knew then: so perhaps the Will of the People has changed. Let's ask them."

If democracy means a mechanism by which citizens can sack their leaders and appoint new ones, then I am all in favour of democracy. If it means that the Will of the People is always to be obeyed without question, not so much.

Yes, apparently it really is order to buy a mail-order kipper.

Insert well-known quote from Ibsen's "Enemy of the People" in this space.

Pseudo-Dawkins has been known to wonder out loud whether people who believe in the miracle at Cana or the Prophet's night journey ought to be allowed to vote in elections.

So: there is a job vacancy for a British Hitler. Not an evil goose-stepping Jew-exterminating Hitler, but an heroic Hitler, a Hitler who personifies the Popular Will, who will strike a blow against the bureaucrats who betrayed the country, make the trains run on time, and generally Make England Great Again.

But the Establishment -- the elite, the people who hold the real power, the school teachers and Guardian journalists and nurses and lawyers; not the poor oppressed billionaires who run newspapers and shit in golden toilets -- will never permit a Man of the People to Make England Great Again.

The Speaker of the House of Commons is opposed to the people. The Judiciary are enemies of the people. The House of Commons are traitors. If we are going to overcome the corrupt establishment who betrayed us at Versailles, we are going to have to do it extra-constitutionally.

And that's a problem, because at the head of the British constitution sits the Queen and the one thing you definitely aren't allowed to do is speak one single word against the Queen. Even actual republicans, like Tony Benn, were very reluctant to say anything personally against Her Majesty. In 2015, Jeremy Corbyn stood politely to attention during the singing of the National Anthem while those around him were mouthing the words. Civilization very nearly came to an end there and then.

On August 12th, Mr Farage made a speech during which he pointed out that the Queen Mother had a relatively unhealthy lifestyle (she smoked, drank gin, and was overweight) but still lived to be 101. So, said Mr Farage, let us hope that our present Queen who appears to live a much healthier lifestyle will survive even longer -- perhaps forever -- because that way Charles will never be King.

Because that way Charles will never be King. 

As long as it is impossible to criticize the Monarch, you can't go too far in asserting the Will of the People over and above Parliament. The Queen has very little personal power, but the whole Constitution depends on the idea of the Crown. Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition: one day soon he will kiss the Queen's hand become her First Minister. You can't deny his legitimacy without denying Hers. If you set Parliament against People then you set People against Monarch. Oliver Cromwell understood this. 

But the Queen is now over 90. It is not too unkind to suppose that her reign may not carry on indefinitely.

So it is clear why someone positioning themselves as The Man of The People would want to lay the groundwork for attacking the next Head of State and the next Head of State but one while still appearing to praise our present Queen, may god save her. 

So how did the newspapers, even the ever so slightly republican and leftish newspapers, report the speech: 

Not "Nigel Farage criticizes Prince Charles".

Not "Nigel Farage hints that he may not accept the legitimacy of the next titular Head of State".

Oh no. To a man, they report "Nigel Farage says the late Queen Mother was fat."

Farage incorrectly referred to the Queen as "Her Royal Highness" as opposed to "Her Majesty." He believes that Prince Harry is third in line to the throne (after Prince Charles and Prince William) whereas in fact he is number six. 

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

In case anyone is still awake, this is a playlist of some of the songs I mentioned in my folk diary.

And this is a video of a man singing a song:

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Doomsday Clock #9 & #10

 You've been a Batman fan since you were a little kid; and a jobbing comic-book hack since you left college; and it has finally happened: you are going to write your very own Batman Story. (Page 1, panel 1: "The Bat Cave..." You've waited your whole life for this moment.) The most -- the very very most -- you can hope for is that it will be a story that is fondly remembered by future generations of Bat-Nerds. "Of all the stories in which the Penguin has kidnapped Barbara Gordon" you imagine them saying "That was definitely in the top fifty."

But that's not enough, is it? You don't want to be remembered as one of the good Bat-writers. The Bat-myth is much more important than any actual story: you need to leave your thumbprint on the Myth itself. You have to find some way of binding your successor: your Penguin story has to influence all other Penguin stories for as long as Batman endures. "That was the story which first revealed that the Penguin was Thomas Wayne's estranged brother and therefore Batman's wicked uncle" they will say "And now all us Future Batman Writers have to stick with that." (NOTE: That is a made up example. At least, I sincerely hope it is.)

But even this may not be enough for you. With the growth of the Insatiable Continuity Beast the truly hubristic Bat-scribe has an even more grandiose way of exerting control over the Tradition. If you are clever enough, and if you can get yourself commissioned to write this decade's Universe Defining Mega Continuity Crossover, you get to define what stories can and what stories cannot be told for decades, or at any rate weeks, to come. Penguins will live. Penguins will die. And the Bat Universe will never be the same again. You will be remembered as the writer who wiped out Earth-2 and thereby stopped the Future Writers from telling tales about a grey-haired Dick Grayson and the late Bruce Wayne's daughter. It was you who dissolved the multiverse so that no story involving the Flashes of Several Worlds could ever be written again.

Actually, the only thing which determines the influence one writer has on the writers who come after him is a certain sort of Darwinian fan consensus, survival of the least uninteresting. Frank Miller successfully turned Daredevil into a Ninja because the idea of Ninja Daredevil is manifestly more interesting than Very Slightly Grimmer Version of Spider-Man Daredevil. If the idea hadn't worked it would have been discretely forgotten. We can Crisis as much as we want to; but Superman's human parents will always be alive; because a Superman who can go and visit a sweet little grey haired old homestead in Kansas is much more interesting than one who swore to use his powers only for good on his father's deathbed. That is John Byrne's legacy. Everyone has forgotten his Krypton because it was krap.

Doomsday Clock #9 and #10 amount to two solid issues of exposition, building up to a sort of literary meta-theory about how DC Comics now work. Less of a joyless slog than the previous ten issues, I must admit: some of the ideas are borderline interesting, and Geoff Johns is unquestionably more comfortable writing about the DC characters than about Alan Moore's. But 40 pages of exposition is 40 pages of exposition, even if the ideas being exposited are not entirely uninteresting.

I thought that Grant Morrison was supposed to have sorted out DC cosmology a decade ago? (Hypertime, was it?) Are we already due for a meta-reboot?

We start with three wordless pages -- nine long thin panels -- showing different groups of heroes on different kinds of spaceships. One ship has Hawkman and Big Barda and Mr Miracle; another has some Green Lanterns and Wonder Girl; one has the JLA; another has Shazam and all the little Shazams and one even has Swamp Thing and John Constantine. (Does the idea of John Constantine on a spaceship to Mars go against the whole idea of John Constantine? Can any such character as Spider-Man continue to exist in a Universe where a character called Spider-Man can fight Thanos in Outer Space?) I thought this was quite fun; recalling the endless shifting battle fronts in the original Crisis on Infinite Earths, but it is also a pretty cheap way of getting my attention. Hey kid, here are some superheroes. And here are some more superheroes. And here are even more superheroes! Superheroes! Superheroes! Superheroes!

Last issue, Firestorm apparently lost control of his powers and nuked Moscow -- and incidentally put Superman in a coma -- which the Russians are treating as an act of War. But in fact the explosion wasn't caused by Firestorm: it was apparently caused by Doctor Manhattan. On Mars. Except it may not have been. So all the heroes who are still standing fly off to Mars to confront Doctor Manhattan. Batman isn't convinced this is a great idea.

Bits and pieces of what follows are not unfun. Green Lantern envelopes Mars in a big green sphere and Firestorm turns the atmosphere into something the humans can breathe. Guy Gardner punches Doctor Manhattan. One of the younger Shazams finds his nudity "gross". Doctor Manhattan provides a scientific explanation for "magic". Captain Atom kills Doctor Manhattan, but he gets better. Once everyone has had a go, Doctor Manhattan knocks them all out with pretty much a wave of his hand.

The next issue primarily consists of Doctor Manhattan talking to himself. Since he ran away from Earth-WM and arrived on Earth-DC he has been observing all the ret-cons and reboots from the inside. He arrives on Earth-DC in 1938 and hears news reports of Superman's first appearance. (A man in a wrestling costume so strong that he can lift a car!) But when he follows the news story up, Superman is not there: because his arrival on earth has been pushed forward to 1956 and then to 1986. Each time the date of Superman's nativity changes, Earth-DC changes around him. It's quite fun to see the different iterations of Superman laid out side by side -- Pa and Ma Kent finding a pointy space rocket in one of their fields; and Jonathan and Martha stumbling on a John Byrne incubation sphere; Superman's dad telling him to go to Metropolis and become a Superhero from his death bed; Superman's ageing Mum knitting his first Superman costume for him. Doctor Manhattan witnesses the first meeting of the Justice Society (which is of course a lot like the first meeting of the Minute-men, only less rapey). In one version they are waiting for Superman to turn up; in another version Superman is not invited because he doesn't exist.

Doctor Manhattan himself starts to deliberately affect changes in continuity. He prevents Alan Scott becoming Green Lantern; which appears to prevent the formation of the Justice Society; and due to some jiggery pokery with a flight ring that went completely over my head, he prevents the Legion of Superheroes from coming into being as well. He also seems to cause Superman's earth parents to die in a car crash just before he leaves high school, as foreshadowed in Clark's dream in issue #1. The result is that the Superman of Doomsday Clock is more detached from the rest of humanity than the standard DC version. More like Doctor Manhattan.

So, are you ready now: here comes Geoff Johns' Great Big Idea which will change the DC universe forever, or at least until next summer.

This could count as a Spoiler.

We all know about the Multiverse. Alongside our world, there is a world where Hitler won the war, a world where Rome never fell, and also billions of worlds exactly like each other except that one particular tree in the Bazillion rain forest has one slightly different shaped leaf. Up to now, the various version of DC mythology have been regarded as different branches of the multiverse. In one branch Superman is a muscular reformist who sends gangsters to the electric chair; in another he is a camp nice guy who does super-chores and frolics with his super-pets.

But no, says Doctor Manhattan: this world, the world of Doomsday Clock is the world on which all the other worlds are based. It is not part of the Multiverse. It is -- get this -- the Metaverse. It is the world all other worlds derive from. And Superman is crucial and central to the Metaverse.

What are the chances? DC's most famous super-hero is the central pivot point of the entire multiverse.

It's a not un-clever idea, I suppose, but its too...knowing. Too meta. Yes, obviously all worlds in the DC canon are copies and variations of one original DC universe; and yes, obviously that DC universe wouldn't exist if little Joey and Jerry hadn't thunk up Superman in 1938. But trying to make that a cosmological principal that is true from a story-internal perspective....? Its too much like someone in Thunderbirds saying "How come our facial expressions never change?" or DCI Barnaby becoming obsessed with the idea that Midsommer has been built over a Hellmouth because of its statistically improbable murder-rate. And if you aren't a hard core comic book fan, it's pretty impenetrable. It's one thing to tell a new reader "On Earth-X, Lex Luther is the goodie and Superman is the baddie." It's quite another to expect them to swallow "The multiverse reacts to this universe. There have been endless parallel worlds. None, fifty two. Dark multiverses all created by changes to this universe."

You had stories about the Flash, who was the fastest man alive. And then you had stories about the Flashes of Two Worlds, because, well, two versions of the same hero is obviously more fun than just one. And then you had more worlds and more Flashes and an annual cross-universe crisis. And then you had Crisis on Infinite Earths. We went from "parallel worlds are a plot device because a story with two iterations of the same hero in it is kind of cool" to "stories which are mostly about the idea of parallel worlds" to "stories which exist mainly to sort out the confusing tangle that all these parallel worlds have become." From stories, to stories about stories, to stories about stories about stories about stories...

So Manhattan is by himself on Mars, waiting to confront Superman. I suppose the only remaining question is "Will Doctor Manhattan's meddling leave us with a DC universe which is cynical and dark, like Watchmen" or "Will Doctor Manhattan realize his mistake and return us to a more hopeful, four-coloured comic-booky DC Universe."

There are still two issues to go.

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.
Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Lindisfarne *  Ralph McTell * Kitty Macfarlane * Jeff Warner * Ragged Trousers * Alice Jones * Mary Humphreys & Anahata * Annie Winter & Paul Downes * Damien Barber * Tony Hall * Sheenah Wellington * Eileen O'Brien & Connor Keane * Harbour Lights * Bill Murray * Hannah Rarity * National Folk Ensemble * Nick Hart * Merry Hell * Mike O'Conner and Barbara Griggs * Steve Knightley * Robb Johnson * Jim Causley * The Dartmoor Entertainers * Matthew Byrne * Martin Simpson * John Kirkpatrick * Nancy Kerr and James Fagan * Sandra Kerr * Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys * Brian Peters * Broom Bezzums * Rachel McShane and the Cartographers * Harri Endersby * Granny's Attic * Iona Fyle * Grace Smith * Thom Ashworth * Ben Walker & Rob Harbron * Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith * Blackbeard's Tea Party *Amethyst Kiah * The Shee 


It rained and it rained and it rained. Piglet said never before -- and he had been coming to Sidmouth for goodness knows how long... two years was it or maybe three? --  had he seen such rain. And first they cancelled the fireworks and then they cancelled the parade. Then they moved all the things from the Ham to the Bulverton. And then they had to close the Bulverton, 20 minute into Granny’s Attic’s set, because it wasn’t safe. The marquee, I mean, not the band.

My very small tent didn’t literally blow away. In fact I am quite impressed by the extent to which modern tents behave like Chumbawamba during a high wind. But in the end one of the polls split. It was, however, pretty dry, so I decided my best bet was to sit the storm out in what increasingly resembled a large flat canvass bag. I should probably have arranged an interview with the media about world peace.

I did get to hear Sid and Jinmy being relaxed and chatty, and the Shee singing Tom Paines’ bones and an American gospelly bluesy lady who wasn’t at all my kind of thing. but history will record that the festival should have ended with the Thunderbird barn dance last night.

Written in Subway near Exeter bus station (on an iphone)

Friday, August 09, 2019


Lady spent entire concert writing postcards and letters. Full on address book, envelopes, stamps on her knee. I found this both distracting and disrespectful to the band.

I am fairly serious: the difference between going to a concert and listening to a CD is that you are in a big room of people who all love the music and are all singing, or crying, or laughing, or stomping their feet. Kind of sacramental. One infidel spoils the magic.

She told me afterwards how brilliant the band was and what a great show it has been, so I couldn’t even decently “tut” at her.

I managed to hear eight different acts today, including four of my most very favourites. And also a lecture about Sabine Baring Gould, the Other Victorian folk song collector, who also wrote one or two moderately well known hymns. He realised (which Sharp did not) that the songs which “peasants” were singing at the end of the 19th century were in many cases not written by immemorial pagan bards in prehistory, but were for the most part seventeenth and eighteenth century pop songs.

Sid and Jimmy (Aldridge and Goldsmith) in combination with Nancy and James (Kerr and Fagan) is as good a double bill as you can get, and very possibly the best ticket of the week. Sid and Jimmy are up for a folk award for their traditional Norfolk love song “the Reedcutters Daughter”. They’d obviously been told to cut the chatter . Sid in particular was not allowed to talk about soil erosion or environmental issues. So they chattered about not chattering. But truthfully they need to rebrand themselves as folksingers and story tellers: each song has a narrative associated with its genesis which audiences need to hear. A little like Simon and Garfunkel, they don’t exactly sing harmony but their two voices some how merge into one perfect voice.

Nancy and James did Hearts That Long for the Land and Farewell to the Gold and Robb Johnson’s Herald of Free Enterprise, which is somehow improved by no longer being topical. And then they did Dance To Your Daddy and melted everyone’s hearts.

The weather arrived. There is apparently a serious danger that the Ham Marquee may blow away. They have already had to cancel the fireworks. I felt that spending a whole evening looking as if I’d fallen in a swimming pool was probably not going to be too much fun, so I stuffed dry clothes into my bag and changed at the top of the hill. Which actually made me feel quite smug. And dry. (Remind me to write an amusing essay about Modesty one of these weeks.)

Lady interrupts my writing to ask if she can sit at the empty table, because she lives here, and tells me that if I lived here it would be worth getting a loyalty card. When she first lived here no one locked their doors because their were no baddies, but it’s not like that now, oh dear me. She is in a choir, because she lives here.

Blackbeard’s Tea Party are basically my favourite band in the world. They started out, a decade ago, as a not un Mawkinish acoustic set up, busking in front of a church in York, but album by album they have become folkier and rockier. They now have two drum kits and arrangements which slip into the realm of self parody, in an entirely good sense. But there is still folk fiddle and folk accordion and a mostly traditional set list. Chickens are on rafts, diamonds are bound for the Davis Straits, Captain Kidd leaves William Moore in his gore and the landlord endlessly refills the flowing bowl. The lead singer and accordionist is a part time morris dancer who leaps around the stage and into the audience. They are a brand, a cult, a phenomenon, and they never forget it is folk music.

Today has been designated their tenth birthday, and there are balloons and party hats. Not only do they do a full electric set, but after a brief break they come back onto the stage and provide ceilidh music until 1 in the morning. In keeping with the ten-year-old birthday theme, they come on dressed as creditable Thunderbirds characters, to the International Rescue theme. The caller has been prevailed onto to dress as Jeff Tracey. In the interval, as is traditional, a rapper side do a demonstration. They do a full sword dance routine in the style and costume of the Tellytubbies. We take our folk seriously.

Before Blackbeard start, Thom Ashworth does a set. I heard him earlier in the day in the Bedford. He explained that he was in receipt of a bursary from Cecil Sharp House to research what it means to be English in a post colonial world. (I mean there are lots of things I am angry about and would like the money to make an album, he explains, but you can’t put that on a grant application.) Quite a tough gig, I would have said, being one man with a guitar in front of an audience who are waiting for the madness which his Blackbeard’s Tea Party.

He opened up with Alan Tyne of Harrow, one of the best highwayman songs and certainly the one with the best tune. (He sings “now in Newgate I am bound and by the law indicted / to hang on Tyburn tree’s my fate of which I’m much afrighted.” Nancy and James always sang it as “by the law convicted” which doesn’t rhyme. Jim Moray thinks Alan Tyne of Harrow may be closely related to an Irishman called Valentine O’Hara.)

There’s a man on the stage. Singing a song about a highwayman. A song that generations of singers have sung. A song which is very largely speaking for itself.

“But being of a courage keen and likewise able bodied,
Well, I robbed Lord Lowndes on the King's highway with my pistols heavy loaded.
I clapped my pistols to his breast which caused him for to quiver,
And five hundred pound in ready gold to me he did deliver.”

I don’t think I experienced a more perfect moment over the whole week. At that moment I would happily have hugged him, or prostrated myself before him. (Rest assured I resisted the temptation.)

At 2am my tent was still standing and reasonably dry.

Diary composed in Mocha

Thursday, August 08, 2019


Nine days is quite a long time to spend listening to folk music, sleeping in a tent, and living on coffee and beer. Seasoned festival goers speak of the Wednesday Wall. So I decided to take it a little easy today, and started out at 930 with a lecture on Cecil Sharp followed by an 11.15 talk on Sydney Carter.

The first talk was called “Cecil Sharp - Saint or Sinner”. The conclusion, was (spoilers follow) “a bit of both”. There is a definite problem with English folk music being mediated through the mind of one Victorian gentleman’s idea of what folk music is supposed to be; but the specific accusations of cultural appropriation and exploitation of his sources are wide of the mark. He did record some songs from black people and some religious songs; he made friends with a a lot of his informants, stayed in contact with them and sent them generous presents. And “Aryan” didn’t means then what it does now.

Brian Peters knowledge and enthusiasm made what could have been a dry talk very engaging. He (Mr Peters) popped up again the Woodlands ballad session later in the day and sung all 100 verses of Child Ballad 56. Boy marries girl, other boy smuggles dead leper into girls bed, boy condemns girl to death, dwarf turns up and chops other boys legs off. Seriously. One of the absolute highlights of the week. Is there are technical word for that near chanting performance that traditional ballad singers do?

Sydney Carter once wrote a song about a lady folk singer who became an exotic dancer in Camden town. (“I used to play the fiddle / now I dance with a snake around my middle”). That one didn’t make it into the hymnbook. We start with John Ball and finish with Lord of the Dance and in the middle there is one I had entirely forgotten about a latter day innkeeper who will let baby Jesus in if he comes back “but we hope he isn’t black.” A lot of Carter’s songs were quite saucy; I knew he worked with Martin Carthy (who is the only person who can really make Lord of the Dance work) but was completely unaware he had had a long partnership with Donald (Flanders and) Swann. I didn’t think a lot of the early songs and poems stood up that well -- there was a sense of looking into a time capsule. I didn’t know he’d had the idea of the man who lives backwards before either Martin Amis or Alan Moore. The speakers are keen to play down Carter as an “official” Christian: he didn’t mind his songs being sung in church but was adamant they weren’t hymns; he thought the Church’s Christ was one more idol and that Jesus had been one of many manifestations of the eternal Dance. Well, maybe: but Lord of the Dance and a Bitter Was the Night and Friday Morning and Judas and Mary seem pretty steeped in mainstream theology to me. When I was growing up the Methodist Hymn book had a note in it explaining why Lord of the Dance was not too upbeat to sing in church.

Rachel (formerly of Bellowhead) Macshane is fabulous. Tune laden versions of mostly folk standards — Sylvia the female highwayman who nearly shoots her lover to find out if he’s a real man, the girl who shoves his sister in the river and a slightly less filthy Mole Catcher (by comparison with Nick Hart’s version). I love Martin Simpson to bits, and he was so lovely about the fact that so many people were turned away from the Roy Bailey show, and I will listen to him singing Never Any Good forever. His version of Carthy’s version of Rosselson’s Palaces of Gold is still chilling, and he has correctly redirected it at Grenfell Tower. (It was originally about Aberfan.) But I am starting to think that I have heard enough very fast very twiddly bluesy riffs about characters called One Eyed Bugsy McHarp.

Harri Endersby is, I fear, the kind of singer song writer who appeals hugely to people other than me. Granny’s Attic are sensational. I am reliably informed that Iona Fyfe is the best young Scottish female ballad singer on the circuit. She is very, very Scots, and I fear that by the time she took to the Kennaway Cellar stage, the Wednesday Wall had finally caught up with me....

Diary written in The Chattery