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

Wednesday, August 07, 2019


Some people are organised. Even in a tent. They bought their eco friendly reusable cup on the first day, and have carried it with them for the rest of the week. I am not one of those people. Each day I go to the bar and ask for a pint of beer, and each day have to pay an extra pound for a eco friendly reusable cup. I assume this is helping the planet in some way.

Today I ventured up the Big Hill for the first time. The campsite is a way out of town at a place called Bulverton, and at the top of a big hill is the Bulverton marquee, aka The Young Peoples Tent. The Ham in Town does sit down concerts with your Julie Fowlis’s and your Martin Simpsons, The Bulverton up the hill lets you stand and bop to your Seth Lakemens and Peatbog Fairies.

Worth the climb. At 7pm Sam Sweeney was doing an informal meet the artist Q and A, mainly aimed at the young people who had been doing workshops all day. I hadn’t realized how much of Sam’s fiddle style he owes to Chris Wood (indeed I am inclined to forget that Chris plays the fiddle as well as sings miserable songs.) A young woman asked him about building a repertoire. He told her to play through the book of 1000 English folk tunes (it exists) in the bathroom, and when she finds one she likes, play it over and over. And if you find you are playing it differently to the book, he said, that’s “wicked”. It means the song is still alive.

Broom Bezums started off in the big dancing hall around 8pm. I’d forgotten how good they were. I’d forgotten that “Keep Hauling On” is originally their song, and Fishermen’s Friends were covering the Show of Hands cover. I never thought to see a grown up audience having such fun with Man Gave Names To All The Animals. Proof if proof were needed that Bob never wrote a duff song.

They were followed onto the stage by Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys who become more superlative every time I hear them. I could probably face life without the pop covers (yes, Sultans of Swing, very droll) but there is an absolute core of proper folk here. The swirling experimental weave around the House Carpenter may not be quite Trad but it is responding to the actual plot of the actual ballad. (Girl marries carpenter; girl runs away to sea with previous lover; previous lover turns out to have cloven hooves and a tail, everyone goes to hell.) But folk doesn’t get much more folky than a whole hall full of people singing Jackie boy / Master / Sing You Well / Very Well / All amongst the trees so green oh together. (Steve Knightley incorporates the same traditional song into his first world war ballad about a game keeper. It’s the folk process, innit?)

The tribute to Roy Bailey was a bit overwhelming. Received wisdom says that if the queue outside the theater has gone passed the lamppost, the people at the back won’t get a seat. The queue had reached that point an hour and a half before the doors opened. (And then, naturally, it started to rain.) Roy was not a song writer but an interpreter of songs, so a tribute show is necessarily a compilation of everyone’s favourite socially themed songs. Martin Simpson (his son in law) sang What You Do With What You’ve Got. Nancy Kerr sang Everything Possible. Robb Johnson sang We Are Rosa’s Daughter’s. John Kirkpatrick sang, er, Arthur Askey’s Busy Bee. If you have never heard the best accordion player making his box go buzz where you like but don’t sting
me, you have missed out. Sandra Kerr said it wasn’t fair to make her follow that, and Martin suggested that she sang Why Did It Have To Be Me. Martin Carthy provided guitar, but rather alarmingly, didn’t sing. Martin Simpson told the story of Roy briefly becoming lucid in the hospice and singing the final verse of “there’s always enough for a war, but there never enough for the poor”. And then everyone sang Rolling Home. Nancy and James had to sing from a sheet because, well, none knows the verses: Roy always sang them.

pass the bottle round
let the toast go free (FREE TOAST!)
health to every labourer
wherever they may be
fair wages now or never
let’s reap what we have sown
as we go rolling home, as we go rolling home.

Dry eyes were in rather short supply
dIary written in Cornish Bakery

Tuesday, August 06, 2019


So. A knight rapes a poor maiden and sensibly tells her his real name so she can name the child after him. So she tells the king and the king says he has to marry her. Just to rub it in, she goes to the wedding dressed as a lady and he has to go dressed as a page. A young man asks his sister why she looks so poorly. Because I’m pregnant with your child, she says. So he kills her. A man gets two ladies pregnant, marries one and the other hangs herself. So he runs away to sea. But her ghost comes after him in a boat and drowns him.

Ballads are great. An old guy at Woodlands did the most perfect Patrick Spens I’ve ever heard, in perfect Scots. (Man sails to Nor A Way, Man sails back from Nor A Way. Everyone drowns.)

Nick Hart also sings ballads. Nick Hart’s ballads take no prisoners. Even he admits that his version of Two Sisters goes on a bit. There is Nick Hart, there is a guitar, and in the Kellaway Cellar there is sometimes Ben Moss) as in Moore, Moss and Rutter) on a fiddle. There has been a generation of folkies adding twiddly bits and guitars and synths to folk songs; now there is Nick Hart singing them, sometimes even with that folkie nasal twang. Nick Hart is the Anti-Jim. He’s the most exciting thing in traditional folk at the moment.

The cashpoints are working again. I celebrated with a cup of coffee. (Nick Hart recommended Buzz, the coffee stand in the craft field. They are indeed excellent.)

Sam Sweeney or Robb Johnson? Robb Johnson or Sam Sweeney? Sam Sweeney made my favourite album of last year, one of the few instrumental albums I would listen to voluntarily. Robb Johnson is a marxist primary school teacher who has been called the best songwriter after Richard Thomson and ought to be twice as famous. I opted for the songs, because I felt a whole two hours of fiddle playing might be challenging on a Monday afternoon. Judging by the empty seats at the Manor Pavillon everyone else chose the fiddle tunes.

Sidmouth has a dinky little theatre, complete with comedy and tragedy masks in gold over the proscenium arch. It’s the only proper rep theatre still running in the UK. Over the summer they are doing Present Laughter and The Kings Speech and Run for Your Wife. (“And the terrible thing” said Satan “is that this could be heaven for some poor sod.”)

Robb Johnson does a one man history of the 20th century, 1918-2018, through the eyes of his father, who was shot down in WWII. He as repurposed “i’m voting Jeremy Corbyn” as “Atlee for PM for me.” Johnson is a proper socialist who believes in workers control and assumes that we do as well. His lyrics can be incredibly subtle and powerful, as in a description of his Dad from the point of view of one of the kids in his class; but he knows how to do anthems as well. His celebration of the 70 goes “all you need is love, all you need is love, all you need is love. And comprehensive schools.”

I really can’t be doing with Gaelic, so I went back to the theatre for a programme of Dartmoor Entertainment. Lots of jolly accordions. Jim Causley doing that one about the tin mines. Step dancing. And a literal jig doll. But no rape or incest.

Diary written on a bench outside Sidmouth Public Library

Monday, August 05, 2019


There are no cash points in Sidmouth!

At any rate none of the cash points are giving out money, and none of the shops are doing cash back. And most of the pie kiosks are cash only! Fortunately the bar at the Ham is happy with plastic.

I had forgotten that the best bit of the folk week is about 1030 at night after the big gig has finished, walking around the seaside streets following the sounds of diddly diddly dee and sea shanties into pubs which haven’t quite closed. There was a yeehar band singing Old Dan Tucker in the Duke on the sea front, and some guys sitting round a table in the Black Swan singing South Australia and Rock Me Mother Like A Southbound Train while another guy accompanied them on the hurdy gurdy. I had heard a couple of hurdy gurdy players busking no on the esplanade earlier in the day. And someone singing a Rock Me Mama co e to think of it. You can go for years without hearing a busker with a hurdy gurdy and then two come at once. The word “esplanade” makes me think of Jake Thackeray. To me the road by the beach is the promenade.

Oh yes, and I also heard my favorite act in the world singing my favorite song in the world. (“Terms and conditions apply.”’)
Steve Knightly (sans Phil and Miranda) called his show 50 Shades of Sidmouth. It was meant to be a retrospective on 50 years of coming to the festival. It started out in the vein of his 2017 solo show about his career, with stories about learning to play guitar by playing Dylan records at half speed and making the audience try to guess the lyrics of his first ever song. Before long he was bringing on friends from the old days . An old club singer gamely got through Paddy’s Sicknote. He was reunited with Paul Downs who played with him in his first band, Gawain. (They were big enough to open for Steeleye: I never knew that.) I felt that the Sidmouth narrative became a bit lost as the evening went on. His teenaged daughter helped him sing Let Me Feel Your Love, Edgelarks participated in The Keeper, and Sidmouth brass band came on for the last few numbers. Any show which ends with Cousin Jack on a brass band is fine with me me. Rather a jolly brass arrangement, I would have said, but very clever the way they worked the accompaniment in with Steve’s spoken improvised sections.

Instead of an encore, the entire company sang The Larks They Sang Melodians.

Auto correct wants me to change hurdy gurdy to hurry ghastly. Just saying.

Earlier in the day I went to a stripped down acoustic version of Merry Hell. Their acoustic version worked much better for me than their louder electrical version which I’ve heard before. Think Three Daft Monkeys with a bit of Oysterband and a bit even of Show of Hands. Come on England will probably annoy the same kinds of people who were annoyed by Roots. One of the reasons I relocated to the folk world is that it gives me a space to be patriotic without being, you know, patriotic.

So stand up, come on England, live up to your history
Your heart can't be held in a flag or a crown
Raise your teacups and glasses, you bold lads and lasses
And drink to the spirit that will never lie down

I asked a few years ago who was going to speak truth to power now Chumbawamba are gone. There was a moment where I thought Merry Hell were about to answer the question.

Best song of the day was Hannah Rarity doing an almost comprehensible Scots traditional number about an ugly witch who turns a man into a worm for saying so.

Diary written in Black Horse pub.

Sunday, August 04, 2019


NOTE:=You are almost certainly not the first person to have spotted that the word “folk” sounds a bit like the word “fuck”.

You all probably think I am mad. I passed on all the Big Venues again today (no one needs to hear the Spooky Men twice in a week) and hung mostly around the Woodlands Hotel. I have to remind myself that I bought a season ticket so I am free to choose what to go to, not to oblige me to go the most expensive ones. A blue plaque tells me that the Woodlands Hotel was a thatched medieval barn and then the home of one of Nelson’s captains. I think I listened to traditional music from 11.15 to 10.30. It’s a marathon, not a sprint and I won’t keep this up for a week, but I hate the idea of missing anything. Yesterday’s big hit Ragged Trousers we’re playing at every venue I went to. They did an astonishing things combining two versions of the Cruel Mother, but the ten minute introduction was probably as important at the song. . At the time the song was written, conceiving a child out of wedlock was a criminal offense and if a baby died there was a presumption that the mother had killed it. So a lot of women would have been burying babies near wells in forests and down by the greenwoods of ivy, oh. (I have probably heard the Flying Cloud as many times as I need to, though.)
I suppose I am search for the Great Folk Moment, that at some point in a pub someone unlikely will pick up a fiddle and sing the perfect Marty Groves and I don’t want to risk eating a pasty while it is happening.

The Woodlands hotel runs a two hour ballad session for all comers every evening, with a stern warning that only traditional songs are permitted. All the usual suspects appear — there will be a Bruton Town and a Fair Flower of Northumberland. The afternoon mini concert kicked off with a folk couple (Annie Winters and Paul Down, possibly) singing a song beginning “it is of two noble butchers” so I knew I was in the right place. I have heard stories in which a fair lady runs off with seven yellow gypsies, raggle taggle gypsies and someone called Black Jack Davey, but today the abductor was a dark eyed gypsy. The lady didn’t mind, as normal, and was quite looking forward to drinking the dew and eating the grass, which instantly set me thinking about whether gyspsys are stand ins for fairies. Almost certainly, now I think of it. Ballads are the heart of English music and these sessions are for me the heart of the festival. I wish i could hold a tune.

One of the formats for song hearing is called “an hour or so in the company of” which is pretty much what it sounds like, and informal session in which the singer can chat or play as the mood takes him. Today we had an hour or so in the company of Damien Barber and Tony Hall. Damien Barber is of course the brains behind the Demon Barbers dance group, but he’s getting back into solo performing. He said he’d asked for small venues but the Woodlands was packed. He ended the hour with Little Pot Stove. Tony Hall accompanied him on an ancient squeeze box. It just so happens that Tony Hall played that exact squeeze box with Nic Jones on Penguin Eggs.

As I say. Folk moments. You presumably think I am entirely mad.

Diary written at Wakey Wakey Eggs and Bakey.

Saturday, August 03, 2019


Oh the English, the English sunbathing and playing cricket on a pebbly shingly beach taking surfboards out into a calm sparkling blue sea that never saw the slightest bit of surf making the most of the relatively hot weather on the grounds that it will probably be snowing by the end of the week.

People behind me on the bus try too start rousing chorus of The Wild Rover, but’s dispute develops between proponents of the Irish version (wild rover! wild rover!) and the English version (no,nay, never).

The bar at the Ham (the main in town sit down concert marquee) is woefully inadequate for 10000 folkies all wanting real ale in the 15 minute interval. I was impressed with the lady trying to catch the bar staffs eye through the power of natural justice (no, i have been waiting longer,i was in the back row so i should have been served first.) Also impressed with people complaining to the stewards because they didn’t arrange different weather.

Sidmouth Toyshop may have missed an important memo.

The second Pre Festival gig features one Ralph McTell who needs no introductions but still gets one. It is apparently the 50th anniversary of That Song. Someone tells me that it was originally written to persuade a drug addict friend to turn his life around. I hope this is true because some people have taken it to mean “middle class people have no right to be depressed”. Because of That Song’s middle brow ubiquity, it is easy to forget that Ralph McTell started out as a disciple of Woody Guthrie, and when he isn’t talking about early bluesmen (“the ghost of Robert Johnson) he is lauding Bob Dylan (“the Zimmerman blues”). Rather a lot of his songs are about other singers and other artists — I am not sure that extending the “girl on the New Jersy ferry” incident to a whole song says anything which Orson Wells hasn’t already said just as well. The older he get, the more Johnny Cash I hear in his delivery. No one song will ever be as famous as Streets of London, but he can produce endless jaw dropping lyrics. “Dylan and Rotolo in a freeze farm photograph. eternally tomorrow” “she had us kind of hypnotized she made us hold our breath but if you want to love your life you have to flirt with death”,

A folk fan:

Up and coming and slightly intimidated Kitty McFarlane opened for him. She gets better every time I hear her. She has added field recordings of birdsong and nature sounds to her enigmatic mediative songs. The incredibly convoluted migratory patterns of European eels suggests migration in a wider sense, becoming a “a very, very subtle protest song.” The last known proponent of the art of weaving sea silk (silk gathered from clams) becomes a metaphor for women’s agency “until the time I am undone I’ll spin saltwater into sun”.

Lady Maisery are always wonderful. However, I have heard them quite a lot, so on a whim I let them be wonderful without me and headed for the more intimate Kellaway Cellar space. This turned out to be a Good Choice : three super traditional acts who I wouldn’t otherwise have heard.

Alice Jones comes from Halifax and does heartfelt cheeky northern songs. We had “from Hull and Hell and Halifax good lord deliver me” of course, and one I hadn’t heard before about weavers which went to Hard Times of Old England (so sing success to the weavers. the weavers forever, huzzah!) She also has a nice line in that “body percussion” thing where you accompany a song by slapping yourself round the face.

Jeff Warner has been singing traditional American songs and telling banjo jokes since forever. He oscillates between singing and speaking the words, occasionally pulls out a jews harp s raises playing the spoons almost to the level of a juggling act. Do you know, I don’t think i’d ever heard All About The Renters on Penny’s Farm before? (It was lovingly ripped off by Bob for Hard Time in New York Town.) We got a Loggers Alphabet and a deeply silly version of the Farmers Cursed wife.

Ragged Trousers do shanties. And other robust masculine songs, including a rousingly ranty Riggs of the Time; and their own version of a Chartist anthem. (“Have you noticed that chartist anthems never actually mention constitutional reform? I suppose nothing rhymes with “election”.)But the highlight was the extended ballad about the chap who is born on fair Erin’s shore , decided to make his living selling slaves, falls in with the pirates and ends up with a one way ticket to tyburn. This is what we come to folk festivals to listen to. The band were o intensely interested in the backgrounds to their songs and their harmonies were robust enough to knock the socks off any Cornish beach. I’m off to hear them again as soon as I finish breakfast.

Diary written at Fort Cafe

Friday, August 02, 2019


Sidmouth, please.
Single or return?
£7.10, unless you would like a daily rover.
No, I’m just going to Sidmouth
It’s just that the daily rover is £6..10.
Then what was the point in...
I recently came out as an introvert. Festivals are fabulous for introverts. I talked to a lady on the bus with jewelry all over her about social dancing, ceilidhs, and whether Molly Dancing is a thing, and a man n a Blackbeard’s Tea Party Teeshirt about Blackbeard’s Tea Party, but i don’t have to talk to anyone for a whole week.

My very lightweight very easy to assemble tent is very lightweight and very easy to assemble but turns into an oven when the sun is out. The sun is out, but I am not spending any time in the tent pin the hours of daylight.

The festival happens in pubs and marquees in the town, a regency seaside town that has something to do with dinosaurs. The campsite is out of town but there is an official shuttle. The official shuttle is part of the experience, how often have you been on a double deck bus full of Morris Dancers?

The music got off to a (rousing) (raucous) (up tempo) (not entirely folky) start with a standing ovation for Lindisfarne who I admit have up to now almost entirely passed me by. I know the very famous one, of course. (Does he really sing “i can have a wee-wee?”) They came across to me as somewhere between the Oysters and the modern Fairport. Very much the right kind of thing on the first day of festival, but actually I was more enamored of Miranda Sykes, who opened for the. Miranda is of course “the one with the double bass” in Show of Hands, and I remember not specially liking her in a duo with Rex Preston, but her solo act is a chain of well judged covers. We get Little Johnny England’s lament about, er, country life, and a wonderfully specific piece by the singers mother about the way Lincolnshire has change in two generations.

I may possibly have mentioned before that it isn’t a folk festival until a song has reduce Andrew to tears, but perhaps it was a bit unfair to choose Vin Garbutt’s “what’s the use of wings” as the second song on the week.

The headline in the local paper is, I swear, “Call for tougher sanctions on mobility scooters.”

Diary written in Browns Kitchen