Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Semantic Interlude

I think that the really interesting question, however is is "how the hell could anyone have possibly thought that saying 'taxation is the same as theft' was a useful contribution to a discussion about the abolition of the 50p tax band, or indeed, anything else?"
If "stealing" means "taking something from someone else without their permission and not intending to give it back" then it is a no-brainer that there are lots and lots of times when "stealing" is very naughty; a few occasions when stealing is very good; and a number of difficult cases about which we can agree to differ. Coming into my house and taking my laptop would be in am example of the first kind of stealing (bad); taking a knife away from a homicidal maniac who was about to stab someone with it, or confiscating heroin from someone who was planning to sell it to small children at the school gate would be in the second kind of stealing (good); stealing bread in order to feed your sister's children would be an example of the third kind (debatable).

Or perhaps you would say: "Ah! But confiscating weapons or drugs, and liberating food to feed characters in long French musicals isn't stealing at all." In which case stealing doesn't mean "taking something from someone else..." It means "taking something you shouldn't have taken". If you go with that definition, then it would be completely untrue to say "Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor". If the rich were really that rich and the poor were really that poor then what Robin Hood did wasn't stealing at all. I believe that this really was the line taken by the medieval English church, in theory if not in practice: it was the rich man's Christian duty to feed the poor; therefore the food didn't really belong to the rich man; therefore it wasn't stealing for the poor man to take it, if he really was starving.

So: "Taxation is theft" comes out as either:

"Taxation is taking something from someone else without his permission. Taking something from someone without his permission might be right or wrong depending on circumstances; so I'll now have to explain what it is about the circumstances of taxation which makes it wrong, which is very much where we started."


"Taxation is taking something which you shouldn't take; which is as much as to say, I personally don't approve of or agree with taxation: so I will now have to explain to you why I don't approve of it or agree with it, which also takes us back to where we started."

I suppose it is possible that there could be a rational man who thinks that our society, pretty much uniquely in the history of the world, could get by without a system of taxation. (Is the idea that the police will send you a bill after they catch, or more likely don't catch, the guy who stole your laptop and gave the proceeds to the poor? Or that once we all have guns, we'll be able to defend our own houses and won't need policemen? Will there be people who can't leave there own homes because they can't afford the toll to walk on the pavement? Or what?) But "I don't believe in taxes because taxes are a form of theft" is a meaningless sentence, boiling down to "I don't believe in taxes because I don't believe in taxes."

See also "I don't believe in hanging / war / smacking foxes / hunting children because hanging / war / smacking foxes / hunting children is a form of murder / violence / not the sort of thing which is acceptable in a civilised society."

I find this kind of thing keeps happening to me. I think that it is quite possible that I am in fact the wisest man in Athens, or a corrupter of the nation's youth or something.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control. Sentences without verbs.

Some people were perplexed by Dave "Call Me Tony" Cameron's attempt to draw a line from what-he-calls-health-and-safety to rampaging mobs of poor people stealing plimsolls from shops.

We have all agreed that it's quite silly to require children to wear protective headgear when playing conkers, and the fact that no one does require children to wear protective headgear when playing conkers doesn't make it any less silly, but its quite hard to spot how that sort of things causes a riot. "It says caution, may contain nuts on this packet of peanuts! Quite unnecessarily! I think I shall go and burn down a theater!"  Was his idea that bobbies-on-the-beat couldn't go and club rioters like baby seals (as a certain columnist in a certain paper helpfully put it) because they had to fill out risk-assessment forms first?

Regular readers of this column, estimated to now to be well into double figures, will have had no problem spotting what was going on, and, come to think of it, don't really need to read the rest of this article. But for anyone coming here for there first time:

The right wing propaganda machine is heavily committed to a conspiracy theory in which Health and Safety, and Human Rights are -- along with Global Warming -- more or less synonymous with Political Correctness, and Political Correctness a cover-story for a secret communist plot to bring down Western Civilisation. What all four have in common is that they force people to act against something called Common Sense: indeed, believers in the conspiracy theory hold that Political Correctness means "whatever is contrary to Common Sense." I am sorry to keep banging on about this: but it really does seem to be the central unthink which is driving the far-right's project and Dave's speech about "fighting back" against The Riots is full of it.

He doesn't use the expression "political correctness gone mad" or "cultural marxism" in the speech, but he does directly claim that there are certain things which "you just can't talk about" nowadays. The things you just can't talk about are, of course precisely those things which Prime Ministers have been rabbiting on and on about since at least the time of Robert Walpole. (Note to self: Horace Walpole was someone entirely different.)
"We have too often avoided saying what needs to be said – about everything from  marriage to welfare to common courtesy.

Sometimes the reasons for that are noble – we don’t want to insult or hurt people...

So you can’t say that marriage and commitment are good things – for fear of alienating single mothers.

You don’t deal properly with children who repeatedly fail in school – because you’re worried about being accused of stigmatising them.

You’re wary of talking about those who have never worked and never want to work – in case you’re charged with not getting it, being middle class and out of touch."
So. The Conservative Party have never before talked about children doing badly at school, single parents, the family, good manners or right and wrong but under daring Dave they are jolly well going to start doing so right about now.

Note the passive voice, by the way: you may "be accused" of stigmatising less clever children if you notice that they are doing badly at school; you may "be charged" with being too middle class -- but there is no hint as to who the accuser or the charger might be. Non Specific Man is out to get us.  
To be fair to Cameron -- and just typing those words makes me feel dirty -- his comments on human rights are reasonably nuanced. Human Rights: Good Thing. Some People's Interpretation of Human Rights Act: Bad Thing. If he has got some concrete idea about how a "bill of rights" would differ from a "human rights act" then I'd be happy to listen, or at any rate, read a leading article in the Guardian by people who have listened on my behalf. [*]  I'm sure he didn't remotely want or expect that DAVE DECLARES WAR ON HUMAN RIGHTS headline in the Nasty Express.

Yet even here he can't help drifting into the language of the Conspiracy Theory.

The truth is, the interpretation of human rights legislation has exerted a chilling effect on public sector organisations, leading them to act in ways that fly in the face of common sense, offend our sense of right and wrong, and undermine responsibility.

It would be nice to hear one concrete example of how human rights have made public organisations do nonsensical things things and things which are plain wrong. He doesn't, because there aren't any.

However when it comes to health and safety, there is no nuance:

It is s exactly the same with health and safety – where regulations have often been twisted out of all recognition into a culture where the words 'health and safety' are lazily trotted out to justify all sorts of actions and regulations that damage our social fabric.

Exactly the same as what? Twisted by whom? Trotted out by whom? Damaged in what way? What is a social fabric, in any case?

Of course there is scope for grown ups to disagree about how dangerous a world we care to live in. Dave would presumably be quite happy for his child to lose the odd finger in a woodwork accident; someone else might think it quite sensible to make the teacher think before the lesson about what could go wrong and how to stop it from doing so. But how, forsooth, do we get from "We think there should be a qualified life-saver near places where children go swimming" to "damaging the social fabric" to "burning down shoe shops". 

The language veers toward the mystical. A vague thing -- "human rights" "health and safety" -- has a vague, metaphorical effect -- "corrosion", "chilling", "damaging the fabric" on a vague thing -- "society" (which does not exist but needs to be bigger). He can't give a concrete example of how we are more rusty or colder than we used to be; but he takes for granted that this cold rusty damagedness had something to do with a few hundred cross people causing a lot of damage. None of it makes the slightest sense unless you already believe in a literal Human Rights Brigade working to destroy civilisation by making us all reject common sense.

I don't know to what extent David Cameron believes in the Frankfurt Conspiracy Theory. (Melanie Phillips thinks he's one of those actively working towards the downfall of civilisation, remember.)  But the language -- of a creeping ideological thing that is chewing away at society and will shortly destroy us all -- clearly draws on the same mythology.
David Cameron is not Melanie Phillips., and Melanie Phillips is not Anders Breivik. But I am afraid that moderate right wing lunatic gives spurious credibility to violent right wing lunatics. It's no good being a little bit in favour of human rights, or a little bit skeptical of the idea that health and safety means the end of society as we now know it. You have to denounce the whole fantasy; just like you'd denounce someone who believed in the Procols ofthe Elders of Zion. There is no human rights culture. There are no elf and safety fantatics. There is no political correctness brigade. The Queen is not a telepathic alien lizard. Nothing is eating away at the fabric of society and no-one banned Christmas. Mild mannered politicians who perpetuate fantasy worlds are part of the problem.
[*] Surely a British Bill of Rights will either say the same things as the European Human Rights charter, or else different things? If it says the same things, then lawyers who are inclined to bring frivolous cases will be just as able to do so under a Bill of Rights than under a Human Rights Act. If it says different things, then UK citizen will have rights under the European Human Rights charter that they don't have under UK law; which means that they'll be able to be appeal to Strasbourg when they've exhausted the UK legal process, as they did before 1998. Have you thought this through. At all?

[**] Except in so far as "common sense" means "whatever I feel like doing at a particular moment". It is quite possible that Tony-Lite feels frustrated when he wants to grab a quick headline in the Nasty Mail by kicking a scary looking foreigner, possibly one with a prosthetic hand, out of the country and the courts insist on checking the letter of the law and hearing all arguments on both sides. But that's an argument against the whole idea of due process, not against human rights per se.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Remember, Tony Blair created New Labour because Britain was broken.

Specifically in order to deal with an outbreak of child on child murders in the north of England (outbreak being hear defined as any number greater than zero.) Regular readers of this column can undoubtedly set it to music. The murder of little Jamie Bulger was the Ugly Manifestation Of a Society That is No Longer Worth of the Name and a Hammer Blow to the Conscience of the Nation.

It is disingenuous to claim that this was just a single ill judged speech, though God knows its joyous to hear Tony admitting he was wrong about anything ever. But it was a central part of the argument behind a silly book called The Blair Revolution Can New Labour Deliver by someone called Mandelson. As PM, Blair said quite plainly that it was the problem of law and order that made him dream up New Labour.

Blair's solution to the collapse of society was elegantly simple. He dreamed up ASBOS and gave the police powers to march sub-humans to the cash machines and fine them on the spot. The idea was that letting bobbies on the beat dish out formal embarrassing punishments on the spot would replace the shame of being disapproved of by your neighbours.

He also changed the system of unemployment benefit so that unemployed yes people would no longer get help paying the bill by right, but would instead have do something to earn that yes payment -- whether doing unpaid work or attending a course or volunteering. There would be no third option of staying at home and doing nothing, remember.

And his other three solutions were education, education and education: compulsory literacy hours, because not all trained teachers realised that it was part of their job to teach children to read; parenting orders that would force feral families from hell to take care of their children in the approved middle class fashion; parents of truants deprived of welfare payments and kicked out of council houses; and compulsory citizenship classes in which feral chavs from hell would be have it explained to them straightforwardly that murdering toddlers was really not on.

So. No one staying at home doing nothing and getting paid for it; feckless parents punished; everyone made to feel part of their community; naughty people named and shamed and too embarrassed to get into trouble again; schools where children couldn't read properly closed down on the spot. A veritable New Jerusalem of common sense and hard work to replace the ugly blows of a broken hammer that is not longer yes worth of its y know conscience. Which stood for thirteen glorious years.

So tell us, Tony: how did all that turn out?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

just walked from temple meads to home along stokes croft. felt a white guy probably shouldn't go through st pauls by himself right now

everything entirely quiet, but there is a post-carnival feeling mixed with a sense of nervousness and a police presence like i've never before seen in this country

i nearly typed "my" country silly, silly me

it grieves me more than i can possibly say to see cafe kino, the "here" book shop, the arts cafe, the sally army shop and the croft vandalized (the croft isn't my sort of pub, usually, but they did a folk season a few years back and its the place i first heard all my current idols)

pretty much everything you people have read here over the last twelve months was written or at any rate drafted in kino so maybe you should feel slightly violated as well.

can't deny a certain schaudenfraud in seeing tescos boarded up again, I admit

presumably the guardian thinks its the fault of the tories and mail thinks its the fault of foriegners and melanie phillips thinks its the fault of the bbs and computer games. i have absolutely no intention of adding my voice to the storm of bullshit and anyway i wouldn't be able to make myself heard if i did

only set down this set down this

the may riots were largely about the inhabitants of stokes croft and gloucester road reacting to a percieved invasion of their community, by a nasty corporate supermarket and several hundred men with horses and judge dredd custumes. this was an attack on the community by people outside it.

at the time of the may riots there was a credible rumour - we should probably put it no stronger than that - that a tescos sercurity man had expressed the opinion that everyone who lived on stokes croft was street scum who should be killed by normal people

i don't often play on my r.p accent but i did get a laugh at the public meeting by saying that i didn't think that i fitted the standard imager of a street scum

certainly, there were lots of forum comments in the evening post, and on twitter, saying that the people who lived on the croft, the people who objected to tescos, the people who think that chris chalkley's campaign of purposeful graffiti and street art was a good idea were street scum, rats, hippies, crusties, dole monkeys etc etc and that after the riots the next step was to drive us out of the area

just be careful what you wish for, that's all

Thursday, August 04, 2011

As someday it may happen...

as some day it may happen that a victim must be found
I've got a little list; I've got a little list
of society offenders who might well be underground
and who never would be missed; they never would be missed

The BBC reports that "a Conservative MP...believes the death penalty is the proper punishment for certain crimes."

"Mr Turner, who represents the Isle of Wight, said "My instinct is that some crimes are so horrific that the proper punishment is the death penalty....A few people commit acts so evil they are beyond understanding, for example Ian Brady, the Moors murderer; Roy Whiting who abducted and killed eight-year-old Sarah Payne and, more recently, those who tortured and were then responsible for the death of Baby P, Peter Connolly."

There was a time when "Tory MP supports hanging" would not have been News: it was the sort of thing you'd take for granted, like "Labour MP Supports Trades Union" or "Bishop Believes In God". So I suppose we have advanced some distance since the 1980s.

But still, there is something morbidly interesting about the MP's remark.

In the last calendar year, five criminals have been sentenced to the most severe punishment which a civilized country knows how to inflict: to spend the rest of their lives in prison. In England, we call this a "whole life tariff". In America it would be called "life without parole". The "tariff" is the least amount of time which the criminal will have to spend in prison before he can apply to be released. A less heinous murderer might be given a "life sentence" with a "twenty year tariff" -- in American terms, "20 years to life". (My knowledge of the American criminal justice system is based on once having seen an episode of a courtroom drama on Channel 5 while setting the video for something else, so it may not be accurate. My knowledge of the English system is based on Crown Court, and completely reliable.)

Presumably, it is these five individuals -- the ones who got the worst possible punishment under the present system -- who would become eligible for ritual asphyxiation should the Isle of White Terminator get his way. When someone talks about restoring capital punishment, you might expect that they would mean "I think that the ultimate sanction of life imprisonment should be replaced by the even more ultimate sanction of being killed."

But you would expect wrong.

Four out of the five people on the Terminator's shortlist were not sentenced to the ultimate penalty which is available as the law now stands. Roy Whiting, who we can all agree is really not very nice at all, was initially sentence to Life Without Parole by a judge; David Blunket, Home Secretary and Daily Mail fan, changed this to "50 years to Life", and it was further reduced to "40 years to life" on appeal. That's a long time in gaol, but falls short of "forever". The victim's mother thought that the sentence was far to lenient, and said that life should mean life. But it didn't and it doesn't. If Whiting didn't get the worst possible sentence in a system which excludes capital punishment, why on earth imagine that he would be eligible for the death penalty were it to be restored?

"Those who tortured and were responsible for the death of Baby P" were very nearly as nasty; but none of them was sentenced to life without parole. There was a very good reason for this: none of them were convicted of murder. They were convicted of other, lessor charges, like child cruelty and causing or allowing the death of a child in their care. Very serious and horrible, but not as serious and horrible as murder. The child's mother was sentenced to between five years and life in prison; her boyfriend to between twelve years and life in prison; the boyfriend's brother to between three years and life in prison. (*)

So: how is the Terminator's system going to work? Is his plan is to kill all the people who would otherwise have got "whole life tariffs" -- which would amount to 6 hangings so far this year, giving Texas a run for its money. Or his his plan to send people sentenced to "5 years to life", like the mother of Baby P, to our shiny new British death row? Another mad Tory (Phillip Davies) actually goes so far as to say that we should have the death penalty for all murder, in which case we'd be talking about more executions in England than in the whole of the rest of the world put together. (**) Have they actually thought this through? At all?

The Terminator is not completely without a heart. He is quite worried about executing innocent people. (I've never really understood this. If the death penalty is such a good idea, then surely you ought to be perfectly comfortable with a certain amount of collateral damage?)

"Like many people I have concerns about the possibility of wrongful convictions, so perhaps we should consider whether before a death sentence could be passed, a higher standard of evidence would be needed than 'beyond reasonable doubt' which is used to secure a criminal conviction. Some people have suggested that there should be proof 'beyond the shadow of a doubt' before a death sentence could be passed."

But, you utter cretin, that is precisely what "beyond reasonable doubt" means. In civilised countries "probably guilty" and "almost certainly guilty" mean the same thing as "innocent". A witness saw you running from the scene of the crime: but it was dark, and she didn't get a good look at you, so there is a reasonable possibility that she could be mistaken, so even though we think you dunnit -- even though we are pretty sure you did dunnit -- we have to find you "not guilty". "Pretty sure" isn't sure enough to send someone to prison.

How is the Terminator's new system going to work? A witness definitely got a good, long look at you and is 100% certain that the person she saw at the scene of the crime was you: there is no reasonable doubt that you were there. Aha -- but now we have to take into account unreasonable doubt. It's theoretically possible that you have an evil twin that your mother never told you about. And that your evil twin cuts his hair in the same way as you, and has a tattoo in the same place. I am found next to a murdered body with the knife in my hand; thirteen witnesses swear that they saw me stab the victim; and when the police arrive, I say "I'm glad I killed the bastard". Aha, but it's theoretically possible that a Cartesian demon caused all the witnesses to have a clear and distinct hallucination. So I am not guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt. So I walk free. Hooray! 

It's absurd.

I'd be fascinated to know which criminals who are currently languishing in jail Mr Terminator thinks are not guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt, and what he intends to do about it. Or maybe he really thinks that high security prisons are four star holiday camps which innocent people are quite happy to be sent to?

I am not going to waste your time with arguments against capital punishment, any more than I am going to waste your time with arguments against throwing people into ponds and burning them at the stake if they weigh as much as a duck. It's a comically farcical notion: England, a pariah nation, withdrawing from Europe and forming a cosy little thanatos club with Texas and Iran.

But why did the Terminator pick on Ian Brady (criminally insane), Tracey Connolly (not convicted of murder) and Roy Whiting (not given a whole life tariff) for his little list of people he'd like to kill? Why not John Cooper or Andrew Dawson?

So far as I can see, he is arguing, not just for the reintroduction of capital punishment, but for a complete rethink of how we define crime. At present we have an offence -- "killing someone" -- and we have a range of mitigating and aggravating factors which make that offence more or less serious. The Terminator thinks there is a special ontological category of "acts so evil that they are beyond understanding".

So how to we find out who fits into this special category of "evil"? If we wanted to put it nicely, we could say that evil people are the ones who attract a special degree of outrage and horror from the general public. Never mind what the law says about mitgation and aggravation and the definition of murder. Ordinary people are genuinely horrified by what Tracey Connolly did (tortured and killed her own baby, or allowed other people to do so); they are not particularly horrified by what John Cooper did (killed four grown-ups). If the law at present says that Cooper gets a worse punishment than Connolly, then the law is an ass. The law is there to express the emotions of the common people, not some hi-faultin notion of "justice".

If we wanted to put it less nicely, we would say that Sarah Payne, Baby P and the Moors victims are the kinds of  photogenic victim particularly beloved of the tabloid press. The Terminator is simply proposing that we should kill Murdoch and Dacre's favourite pin-up boys for evil. He's making a vaguely argument shaped noise in the hope that his picture will appear alongside that mugshot of Ian Brady in a funny suit, so he can say "Brady. Bad man. Me no like bad man."

Calling it populist bullshit would be unkind to both people and bulls.

And that's very suspicious. Three weeks ago, the News of the World got closed down and the whole world discovered just how filthy the organisation to which Thatcher, Blair, Brown and Cameron paid homage really was. Even in its death throws, the News of the World continued to position itself alongside the Sarah Payne brand. Two weeks ago two filthy tabloids were convicted of contempt of court (and eight had to pay compensation) for -- lets put this quite plainly -- attempting to get a man convicted of a murder which he had had literally nothing to do with. And this week, the lunatic fringe of the Conservative party starts drawing up a list of people they would like to strangle -- people whose only qualification is that they are hate figures of that same tabloid press. It's okay, they seem to be saying. The News of the World may have gone away, the bobbies may be arresting its staff, but we still have faith in its made up world of holy angels and evil monsters.

In the 1950s, we pretended that we had to kill people because it was the only way to stop people from killing people. Hanging was not about revenge we said, oh no, no, no, no, its all about protecting society. Alfred Pierrepoint changed his mind about capital punishment, rather late in the day, precisely because he didn't think it was really doing any good. "I have come to the conclusion that executions solve nothing, and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge," he is supposed to have said. But the Terminator has completely abandoned this utilitarian argument. He doesn't attempt to argue that a neck tie party on the first day of every month will make any difference. We know it won't: he knows it won't. Executions aren't meant to "solve" anything. 

So how does he work out who is in this special category of  "people I want to kill". This is the really scary part. You may remember that, earlier this year, David Cameron "argued" that we should choose one method of counting votes over a different method of counting votes because he had a "gut feeling" that system A was less British than system B. Not maths: not psephology; gut feeling. Similarly the Terminator knows that hanging is the proper punishment for some kinds because his "instinct" tells him that it is.

What does "proper" mean, anyway?  Appropriate? Conforming to acceptable social standards? Fitting? But to say that you think that people who talk in the dinner queue should be given a firm slap on the leg because a firm slap on the leg is the appropriate or fitting punishment for people who talk in the dinner queue tells us absolutely nothing accept that you approve of it. It's not an argument. It's a tautology. We should execute people for the kind of crimes that people should be executed for, because those are the kinds of crimes which people should be executed for. We have to kill people because some people should be killed. It's a bypass. You've got to build bypasses.

Some people, for example, Melanie Phillips and Anders Brevik, believe that a sinister cabal of Cultural Marxists (including the BBC, David Cameron, and Barak Obama) are on the point of bringing down Western Civilisation. Their plot, you will recall, is disguised as Political Correctness. Believers in the conspiracy say that Political Correctness is in direct opposition to something they call Common Sense: indeed, many of them define Political Correctness as "whatever goes against common sense". Common sense; gut feeling; instinct: things that I feel to be true, but cannot at any level, justify or articulate. Faith: not faith in God, or in an ideology, or a party line, or a leader -- faith in whatever happens to be going through your head at a particular moment.

"I did what I felt was right."

It is a strange vortex that we are being sucked into: a phantom zone where argument and logic and cause and effect vanish. Where there is no longer "morality" in the sense of "the codes taught by churches and philosophers". Where there is only the will of the people, schooled Rebekkah Brooks or Piers Morgan. Where we rewrite our judicial system from the ground up, not based on learning or study, or principle, or logic, or evidence or the teachings of some great man, but on common sense. Gut feeling. Instinct. What our genitalia tell us this morning. These are the kind of weird, emotion driven un-men who stalk the back benches of the House of Commons. Pray that they never get within custard pie throwing distance of the cabinet office.

(*) Ian Brady is a complicated and messy example, but also ancient history. He committed his crimes when capital punishment was in force, but was tried and convicted after it had been abolished; had he been tried a few months earlier, he would certainly have been hanged. He technically hasn't been sentenced to life without parole, but has confessed to murders other than the ones he's been convicted of; and in any case he's criminally insane. It's hard to know why anyone can be bothered to say "I think that a man in a lunatic asylum ought to have been hanged 40 years ago".

(**)  I expect he really means "We should kill everyone convicted of murder, but some crimes which are now called murder should stop being called murder." A bit like how "everyone should go to university" turned out to mean "we should start to refer to sixth form colleges, polytechnics, further education colleges and night schools as "universities"

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

What he said...

Monday, July 11, 2011

Would I Do It Again?

I think it's Parkinson's law, isn't it, which tells you that a job always takes longer than you thought it would, and this is true even if you take Parkinson's law into account.

Glastonbury is muddy. Really muddy. You just won't believe how deep and thick and sticky the mud is. You picture it as a music festival in a field, albeit a very big festival in a very big field. You don't realise that on Day 1 (Thursday) when the festival hasn't really started, that you are going to say "I might as well go and listen to Rory McCloud in the Avalon Cafe Tent." Rory is a man who plays the mouth harp and the spoons. And the guitar. And practically everything else. And has a band, consisting of clarinets and harps and what nots and thingamys. The Avalon Cafe Tent is the smaller of two performance areas in the Fields of Avalon; which is one of the smaller areas in the festival. (I don't think the BBC goes there at all.) But I still imagine that, on the night before the festival had even started, there were a thousand people crammed in listening to Rory. Or, rather, not listening to Rory. Everyone remembers that, in the very olden days, Beatles fans used to go to Beatles concerts with the express intention of not listening to the Beatles, of indeed, making so much noise that it was impossible for anyone to listen to the Beatles, even the Beatles. Glastonbury audiences regard acts as convenient breaks in the serious business of tromping through the mud did I mention the mud -- during which they can consult their programmes and talk loudly about which acts they've already seen, and which acts they are hoping to see, and which acts they are sorry to have missed. You might think it's hard to have a conversation over something loud amplified and electric, but it doesn't seem to deter them. They shout. But it occurred to me that this was about ten times the size of the audience which seemed like a pretty good turnout when I heard the redoubtable Mr McCloud singing about divorce and world peace and playing with a Mexican mariachi band in Bath last month.

I overheard a boy, perhaps fifteen, talking on the phone "U2 take to the stage on Saturday evening" he said. Take to the stage? It isn't clever to sound like a bad tabloid music correspondent even if you are a bad tabloid music correspondent; it's particularly not clever when you are on the phone to your mum.

So: by the time Rory has finished his set (and I repeat that the festival hasn't started yet) you realise that you are talking about, roughly, a 45 minute walk back to your tent. Through mud. Through the kind of mud into which you sink, ankle deep, at every step, more or less guaranteeing that at some point the quicksand is going to grab you and propel you forward so you are crawling though the mud on your knees; more or less guaranteeing that that the swamp is going to hold on to your boots and force you to walk a few steps in your socks. Tromping though unfamiliar areas called "Left Field" and "Green Fields"; finding that which ever way you are walking, there will always be at least 10,000 people walking in the other direction. It is genuinely quite scary to see a sign pointing to the field you believe to be quite near the one you left your tent in and see a vast lemming like migration walking towards you: do you wait 2 hours for it to clear; do you seek another one and get lost; do you force your way through the oncoming human tsunami. And once you get through the quick sand, you discover that "The tent with the orange flag, by the path, near the gate, overlooking the Big Top at the Dance Tent" which seemed easy to find in daylight looks a lot like 100,000 other tents. If you think "It would be fun to come in 2012", you must first contemplate me walking along a muddy path, holding one boot in my hand, at about 3AM, not entirely sure if I am even in the right field, saying over and over again: "This isn't fun. This is scary"

The mechanics of camping don't bother me particularly. I can go for a few days without washing my hair. I can happily sleep on an airbed, or, indeed, on the ground, although this is rather academic because the music goes on 24 hours a day and people coming back from Shangrila or the Hundred Acre wood are going to stand by your tent and shout at 4AM or 5AM no matter what you do. I rather wish I'd dispensed with the wriggling and rolling and just boldly stepped out of my tent and got dressed and undressed in the moonlight and the morning dew and let Nick take all the childish pictures he wanted. Oobviously, if you have a problem with outside toilets you shouldn't even think of going on a camping trip, but in fact the Bishop of Bath and Wells did a pretty good job of keeping the facilities as clean as any public loo is ever going to be.

(And unlike some people I am not offended by the presence, or indeed existence, of bands I don't want to hear. Glastonbury has not lost it's credentials as a music festival because it has appearances by novelty acts like the Wombles. [Blah, blah, blah excellent composer; blah, blah, blah Art Garfunkle; blah blah blah, Steeleye Span.] Mr U2 may be old and unhip but you don't have to listen to them if you don't want to: you can listen to one of the other 150 bands playing at the same time.)

So: granted that the entire lower half of my body is caked in mud; and granted that wellington boots are the least practical garment ever devised by man; and granted that it is either raining, or, worse not raining; I'm now standing in, say, the main Avalon Stage; or the main Acoustic Stage; or the Left Field Stage. And I am listening to Chumbawamba, or Pentangle, or Mr Billy Bragg. I rapidly came to the conclusion that the Avalon area was the best sub-festival: two tents, both of which likely to playing music I was prepared to listen to; a medieval themed real ale tavern; a cafe selling coffee and baguettes and home made muffins, and some toilets less than five minutes walk from the stage which no-one else seemed to know about. At such points, it became very nearly possible to forget the mud, and have a positively Good Time. I certainly heard a lot of bands that I would have travelled a long way to hear; a lot of bands who, since they were playing, I was very happy to listen to; and, of course, one or two bands that I would have been perfectly prepared to walk several miles through a swamp in order to avoid. The sensible approach is clearly to pick a stage on which there is a band that you would quite like to hear, head for that stage, and stay there all day, listening to whatever happens to be happening there. (My only subsequent disasters were when I violated that rule. On Friday night, I somehow found myself on the periphery of a vast crowd listening to Primal Scream on the main stage. The main stage was roughly as far away from me as my bedroom is from Cafe Kino. There were some pretty light shows, and the act seemed to be performing with some enthusiasm, but so far as I could tell, what they were playing was lift muzak. And when it finished, I was part of a crowd of 50,000 all of whom were trying to get away. This. Is. Not. Fun. This. Is. Scary.)

Wonderful moments, then, encased in mud and unpleasantness and generally being quite scared. (Not that I really ever thought I was in any danger. It's astonishing how good natured everyone is. When I found myself both literally and metaphorically stuck in the mud in the medieval themed tavern, four total stranger helped to pull me out. I'm sure if one had actually fallen down in the middle of a crowd, the crowd would have parted and helped one to one's feet. But being in the middle of a swamp in the middle of a crowd is just. not. fun.)

Best Moment

Chumbawamaba walk onto the main Avalon stage. All five of them are wearing T-Shirts reading "Bono: pay your taxes".

I do not particularly care, or indeed know, about Bono's tax position. In fact, until this weekend, I didn't know he sang in a group called U2, and still am not sure if it's Bow-no or Bonn-oh. But I love, adore and respect this side idolatry the fact that Chumbawamba make every show they perform a political "happening", and somehow manage to do so without seeming preachy. Possibly because the songs are so sweet and fine: I imagine they could charm even a died-in-wool liberal democrat. After the t-shirts, the act was almost redundant, but they ran through a nice greatest recent hits package -- the Last Nazi and Charlie and El Fusilado and an entirely redundant thing about Joe Hill that I've never heard before.(But then, that naivity is part of the package: they give the impression of reading a news item or the story of an historical injustice in the morning and turning it into a bouncy, poignant akapella secular hymn by tea time.) This was their first gig for over a year, and Boff hadn't quite straightened out all the words of all the songs in his head. But that's part of the package as well. I love them to bits.

The world is riddled with maggots
The maggots are getting fat
Their making a tasty meal of all
The bosses and beaurocrats

They're taking over the boardroom
And they're fat and full of pride
And they all came out of the woodwork
On the day the Nazi died.

Best Moment

Shortly after Chumbawammba, did hie myself forth to the Left Field area to hear Billy Bragg doing his thing. Never heard him live before. Hadn't been 100% sure if this was my best choice (I would also have liked to hear Mumford and Sons, who were on at the same time) Billy takes to the...walks onto the stage and immediately goes into the first bars of his thumping version of The World Turned Upside Down, which, if my I-Pod is to be trusted, is my 3rd favourite song [*]. And so on through a mixture of his teenage angst numbers (Milkman of Human Kindness, Walk Away, New England, of course) and his political songs. Which Side are You On introduced with a heartfelt rant about the coalition("It breaks my little heart to hear George Osbourne saying that we're all in this together that's not what his side believes: it's what our side believes"); There Is Power in A Union introduced with an equally heartfelt rant about the need to plan and organize: the anti-cuts demos didn't just happen, did they? Mostly, he didn't even bother with the choruses of his songs: just point the mic into the audience and let us do the work. The rabble is suitably roused. Why is there not one single professional politician who can communicate a political message with this clarity and conviction?
There is power in the factory
Power in the land
Power in the hand of the worker
But it all amounts to nothing if together we don't stand
There is power in a union.

Best Moment

I decided that I ought to at least see something on the Pyramid Stage, that's the big one, the one the BBC refers to as "The Glastonbury Festival". Sunday morning offered a sequence of acts I positively wanted to hear: Fishermen's Friends; Don McLean, Laura Marling and Paul Simon. (Also an American acoustic band called The Low Anthem who I believe I enjoyed but can't remember anything about.) I decided that the Best Plan was to proceed to the stage well before kick off, and take a position right at the front, scarcely more than a hundred yards from the stage.

The atmosphere was most jolly, with people from Westovingland waving St Piran's crosses, and a young lady who used to hear Fishyfriends in St Ives before they were famous. My view of the Friends themselves hasn't changed since I saw them at the Brizzle folkfest: they are a very good choir with lots of personality, but I don't quite see how choruses of What Shall We Do With Drunken Sailor and Sloop John B, however rousing, amount to million dollar commercial success for what is basically still a rather good shantyband. Added to their repertoire since I last heard them is a piece called Cousin Jack, which I may have previously referred to, a not even slightly traditional song of the Cornish diaspora, originally performed by Show of Hands, a west country folk band who I may possibly have mentioned. It worked wonderfully in the context of the sea -- well pool -- of white-on-black crosses in the audience, and those of us who knew the song dutifully raised our hands in air and bellowed along loudly and tunelessly. I was the loudest and tunelessest of all; it never fails to bring a tear to the old Rilstonian eye.

Where there's a mine or a whole in the ground
That's where I'm headed for, that's where I'm bound...
I'm leaving the county behind, and I'm not coming back
So follow me down, cousin Jack.

As the song finishes and they go into the cough-sweet joke ("no, we're not going to talk about sucking on a Fishermen's Friend, that joke  always leaves a nasty taste in my mouth") I notice that standing right next to me in the mosh is, er, Steve Knightley (The man who wrote the song. Do try to keep up.) So, of course, I turned round and asked him if he didn't think that the song Roots equivocated slightly over it's definition of the term "English."
Course I bloody didn't. I said "You should be up there, sir" and "It's great to hear them singing your song." He said "We will be...." (I did make it back to Avalon for Show of Hands own set, which was terrifically tight greatest hits sets, with very little chatter so none of the 45 minutes was wasted: the Fishyfriends were in the audience. There's something lovely about that, isn't there?)

Up to and including Mr Don McLean, I was finding the atmosphere in the Pyramid "mosh" quite congenial. It amused me that there were posh-girls who'd come to see Bouncy and were planning on sitting there, with their backs to the stage, through six or seven acts that they weren't interested in, just in order to be at the front for their idols. (They didn't seem to have heard of Don McLean, or even of American Pie.) But they lent us their seats between acts, and were bubbly and friendly. I don't think I could have had that kind of devotion, even if the top of the bill had been someone I really wanted to hear, like Bob Dylan or, well, Bob Dylan, actually. I am male and might have survived 12 hours without a trip to the lavatory, but I don't think that I would have especially enjoyed doing so. If you were watching the BBC coverage, then the man with coloured dots painted over his face who knew all the words to Vincent was standing just in front of me. I heard Don McLean live once before, a billion years ago, in the 90s. He wasn't very good: came across much too much like a man in his 40s still trying to do the songs he used to do when he was a man in his 20s. (The medical term is "Paul McCartney syndrome".) He's now a man in his 60s who is absolutely comfortable being a man in his 60s, dark glasses and face-lifted features, slightly paunchy, coming to the middle of the stage with his guitar and not moving and letting the songs do the work. Obviously one is supposed to be rude about him because he's mainstream: I myself went through a stage of saying that American Pie is really only Desolation Row re-written by someone who didn't understand Desolation Row. But he was terrific. Quite bravely, he stayed away from a "greatest hits" set. There was an impeccable Vincent, of course, and a 13 minute long reading of American Pie which only slightly outstayed its welcome. (Having gone right through the sing it fast sing it slow one more time thing, he decided that what we really wanted was to sing the first verse again.) But I give him a lot of points for not ending the set on his Famous Song, but sending the band off stage and finishing up with a slow sad one (the one about the man who builds a beautiful house on the beach). Not charismatic, perhaps, but a showman. Not Dylan, but still a poet. And when no hope was left in sight on that starry, starry night, you took your life as lovers often do...

But by the time Laura Marling took to the...started to sing, things were getting uncomfortably crowded, the sun was in my eyes, and one felt that two thirds of the crowd weren't listening to her delicately understated but maybe not especially festival friendly set. She's about 17, sings folk-Americana that sounds like Dylan-at-70, and is quite wonderful. There was more air available for Paul Simon, but the general feeling was that his set was too challenging for a festival, and of course, he doesn't sing any of the old ones I know because he stole them from English folksingers. Glad I'd heard him, though.

In my boundless naivety I had imagined that most of the people who wanted to hear Paul Simon and Don McLean would leave in order to avoid Pendulum and Bouncy. Possibly a thousand or so did, but then, three thousand or so were trying to get in at the same time. Rather surprised the organizers allowed that kind of thing to happen: I'd have thought it was dangerous. I don't think that at any point I felt that I was in mortal danger of being crushed to death by rampaging mobs of Bouncy fans, but not a pleasant experience.

So. I've done the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury and never have to do it again... Unless Steve Knightley's really up there next year, of course, obviously

Best Moment

Pentangle on the Acoustic Stage were unquestionably the best bit of music that I heard during the festival. Not as nice as the Avalon stage, on the grounds of being up a hill, but it had a similar feeling of being a self contained festival, with its own bar (sans slough of despond) and it's own eatery, serving the largest pieces of carrot cake ever exhibited in captivity, and run by by a religious group that wants to restore primitive New Testament Christianity...good luck with that.

Heard "Jacqui McShee's Pentangle" in Bath earlier in the year. They were sort of perfectly all right. This was Ms McShee with the complete original 1960s line up John Renbourne (guitar), Bert Jansch (guitar) Danny Thompson (cello/bass) and Terry Cox (percussion.) This was an absolute revelation; expecially, from my point of view, because they stayed very close to their old traditional brief, with readings of blood curdling ballads like Bruton Town, Cruel Sister, Demon Lover and Hunting Song. Jacqui's ethereal voice hovering above the tinkling folk jazz cadences. And then Renbourne, who is no spring chicken, sat on the floor to finish the set with his electric sitar. If anything felt like being in Glastonbury, when it was 1968 and everyone was a flower children, this was it.

Best Moment

On Saturday night I heard a group called Flogging Molly who are like the Pogues only without the subtlety. The atmosphere before hand was lovely. I found myself chatting to the other guy who had heard Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs (a traditional skiffle band) in the morning and thought them brilliant. Since I had also thought them brilliant, there was an immediate connection between us. Unfortunately, I had been at the acoustic tent all day, where the expected reaction to, say, Thea Gilmore singing the whole of John Wesley Harding to go "Jolly good! Jolly good!". I had not realised when, taking my place toward the front that everyone was planning to signal their appreciation of Flogging Molly by jumping up and down. Specifically, jumping up and down on my jacket.

Would I do it again? There is no doubt that it has a special atmosphere: everyone has a sense of being "at Glastonbury". The aforementioned Nick correctly noted that any band could guarantee itself a big cheer by telling the audience that they were at Glastonbury. It's hard to get tickets. The state-controlled media goes on and on about it for a week. So there is a real sense of being special, being important, being privileged because you are one of only a hundred thousand people watching Primal Screen on big TV screams. The sheer amount of music available is exhilarating: there is nowhere else where you find yourself thinking "Let me see: shall I go and listen to Bellowhead, or Suzzanne Vega, or maybe take a punt and hear the Streets." (Oh yes, I have heard of the Streets. Bob once played a track about a young man whose girlfriend had left him, and whose friend was trying, not very successfully, to cheer him up.) On the other hand, you don't enjoy Suzzanne Vega more because you are missing Bellowhead; in fact, because the whole thing is so huge, you perpetually find yourself thinking that somewhere there must be this really terrific gig that no-one told you about. (The rumour that Paul McCartney had helicoptered in, done an unannounced gig in a cafe, and helicoptered out seemed plausible at the time, as did the one about the Prime Ministers aid being found dead in a toilet.) If it hadn't been raining and muddy I would probably have had more fun wandering around the Stone Circle and the Green Field and just stopping and listening to whatever seemed to be playing in bars and tents I seemed to be passing. As it was, I felt reluctant to stop and just listen to the patch of Johnny Cash-ish Americana I heard issuing from the Jack Daniels bar because I was forcefully swimming through the swamp to get to the people I actually wanted to hear in thirty or forty or fifty minutes and was a afraid I might not make it.
So on the whole, yes, I would go again, but I think I would do it differently. Travel by coach to get the perks of being a "green traveller". Arrive first thing on Wednesday, to give me longer to explore the festival before the actual music started. Pitch my tent in Avalon (now, there's a phrase I don't often get to type), near where the acts I want to hear are playing, with no need to venture near John Peel or the Dance Village; and stay away from the big stage even if there are acts I want to hear there. Don McClean was unquestionably very good. A highlight. But if I'd missed him, I could have heard the Wombles.[**]

Did I mention that it was quite muddy?

Punks Not Dad - New Forbidden - Rory McCloud - Coccoon - Stonefield Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs - 3 Daft Monkeys - Katzenjammer Chumbawamba - Billy Bragg - Primal Scream - Kassidy - Isobel Anderson Emily and the Woods - The Webb Sisters - Thea Gilmore - Pentangle - Guillemots - Flogging Molly - Fishermen's Friends - The Low Anthems Don McLean - Laura Marling - Paul Simon - Show of Hands - Imelda May -- Suzzanne Vega
[*] Since you asked: Word Bomber (Chumbawamba); Roots (you know who); the World Turned Upside Down; Muir and the Master Builder (Dick Gaughan); Brother Gorilla (Jake Thackray); Hollow Point (Chris Wood); Botany Bay (Mawkin:Causely); Albion (Chris Wood); The Devil and Pastor Jack (Dick Gaughan); The Little Pot Stove (Nic Jones.)

[**] I had my reivew all prepared: "I have now met Tom Baker, and seen the Wombles perform live, so coul my ten year old self please fuck off and stop bothering me."

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

follow my twitter feed for my exciting adventures in Glastonbury. at least until the charge runs out on the phone.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dick Gaughan

Bristol Folk House
11th June 2011

A Dick Gaughan gig is not for the faint-hearted.

He performs for ninety minutes straight, not singing so much as snarling. His voice has become more and more like a growl as he's got older, but that suits the angry tone of the songs. Fine old rabble-rousers like Tom Paine's Bones jostle with melody-free rants about former comrades who abandoned the Cause. ("I used to see you salute that poster of Che Guevara / I guess it wouldn't look too chic in the house you live in now"). But just when you are starting to wonder if he Dick an endless supply of shouty revolutionary anthems he sits down, chats about General Humbert and the 1798 rebellion and launches into an exquisite six minute Irish lament on his acoustic guitar. 

The invective kicks in early. He starts, as he always does, with the non-specifically inspirational battle hymn "Now what's the use of two strong legs if you only run away and what use is the finest voice if you've nothing good to say...." and then sings a story, new to me, about a man who finds that his vast wealth is no use to him after a shipwreck. ("Think of your favourite banker!") And thence to another new one about some unspecified people entirely failing to notice that their world is collapsing around them. "They all sang Hallelujah as the waves engulfed the land..." "At the time of the last election I decided to write a song venting my anger at a wee institution called New Labour" he explains "but I realized you couldn't write a whole damn song about New Labour..."

Although he claims not to use a set list the evening covers most of the most famous musical bases: we get Song for Ireland, Now Westlin' Winds ("I couldn't imagine not singing it"), Games People Play and the incomparable Both Sides The Tweed. He says he stopped singing the latter for a decade because he couldn't quite work out what it was about: the penny dropped when he heard the quote about it not being our differences which divide us, but our inability to embrace those differences. Prejudice is the most contemptible thing in the world: the one thing he really hates. (Well: one of the things he hates. He's half Irish and half Scottish and thus a passionate advocate "of English independence." The best thing about getting old is that no-one tells him he'll become a Tory when he grows up. "I hate all that patronising shit." But God escapes relatively unscathed this evening: no Pastor Jack or Stand Up, Stand Up For Judas or Son of Man although Old Tom Paine does tell us to kick off religion and monarchy.)

Any performer in this vein risks turning into the parody folk-singer who hates poverty, war and injustice "unlike the rest of you squares". You hate prejudice do you? Pretty controversial. And don't think much of rich bankers? Or New Labour? Very brave of you to say so. His signature song -- which, astonishingly, he says he hasn't sung for years -- assures us that he could sing happy songs if he wanted to "But that wouldn't help those in trouble / That wouldn't help make their pain disappear / And the homeless, the workless, the hopeless and helpless / Wouldn't be any happier, would still live in fear." Indeed, and will Sir be walking on water after Sir has finished singing?

But it doesn't feel like that when you're caught up in a Gaughan performance. Because the anger is so genuine and unaffected. Because the songs are so perfectly crafted. Because for every full-blown rant there is a lyrical traditional poem and that authentic snarling voice soars above the delicate guitar melodies and Robert Burns seem to become a living presence in the room.

Let virtue distinguish the brave
Place riches in lowest degree
Think them poorest who can be a slave
Them richest who dare to be free

We read that Mr Dylan was unhappy with the job-title of "protest singer": he thought of himself as just a singer. Dick Gaughan quite happily proclaims that it's his job to make people feel angry and sad in order to make the world a better place. There's a thin line between protest singer and preacher; between bard and prophet. But isn't the really great preacher the one who reminds us of the platitudes, the obvious truths that we're always in danger of forgetting?

When you're called for jury service
When your name is drawn by lot
When you vote in an election
When you freely voice your thought
Don't take these things for granted
For dearly were they bought...

Thank god that there are still guitar wielding prophets like Dick Gaughan.

Angry Scots-Irish Playlist

Jim Moray

Chapel Arts Center, Bath
10th June 2011

It would be terribly easy to underestimate Jim Moray.

The write up on the Bath "Listomania" website, said, in effect "Wow. He does, like, folk songs. But he does them, like, modern." Which he certainly does. But that's hardly a U.S.P, is it? I am told that folk singers were using electrical guitars as long ago as the 1960s. It's not exactly unusual to see an act with a modern drum kit. Where, exactly, are all these po-faced "protectionists" who think that songs should stay exactly the same as they always were?

When I first heard Jim (at Folk By the Oak in 2009) I said -- terribly unfairly -- "Oh...he's just singing standards that no-one else would do, and sticking electric beats behind them. Sort of folk mash up. Quite clever if you like that sort of thing, I suppose." Subsequently, I spotted that he has a voice, as the young people say, to die for. Which he does. He really, really does. His second encore tonight is Valentine (a "morris-waltz-lullaby") full of a poignant urgency which breaks out into bitter-sweet joy in the final stanza. I assume that the refrain "Throw the oats against the vine" means something extremely rude. It leaves the audience feeling warn and lovely, coming as it does after the more obvious show-finisher in which we have all sung about quiet and witty girls by the quayside to the point of exhaustion. And there's a casual informality ("I'm Jim...") to his stage persona which makes it impossible not to like him.

But none of this remotely gives him the credit he deserves as musician, an arranger of music and (it's now very clear) a student of folk music. There's no Early One Morning or Barbary Allen in tonight's set, but there's a fascinating version of an obscure Child ballad called Lord Douglas. He describes it as a work in progress: "cut down from the original 300 verses to only 238",  a composite of  21 different versions incorporating material from a cognate Icelandic saga. The more familiar Rufford Park Poachers is described as "cover version" of a song recorded in 1909  "on wax cylinders". He cares about this stuff.

He takes to the piano for a long Lord Bateman (not as good as Chris Wood's version, but basically, what is?) -- and Vaughan Williams Captain's Apprentice "a jolly song about torturing children" which he thinks inspired Britten's Peter Grimes. There's certainly something operatic about his piano style, sweeping up and down the scale, and weaving in out of the melody. But most of the act is done with a three piece band -- a melodian, a hurdy-gurdy and a freak-out drummer, with Jim himself on electric guitar. The traditional instruments lead and dominate the sound leaving the drums and the guitar to provide seasoning and interpretation of what's basically still a very traditional sound. One only has to watch the way he counts the band in, whisper comments and signal to them to see that Jim is the auteur of the music: not merely a singer with a band, but a conductor, arranger, producer even.

You could write off the four TV screens as gimmickry, a way of saying "this isn't how you imagine folk music!" It's quite fun to be looking at images of pretty girls on a quayside when he's singing about pretty girls on a quayside, though I wasn't quite sure whether the image of Jim stroking an urban fox had much to do with anything. But the screens come into their own in songs like Lucy Wan, perhaps the most representatively off-beat of Jim's numbers. It's one of the most viciously nasty folk songs in the repertoire: about a boy who makes his own sister pregnant, murders her to cover it up and then runs away to sea. The obsessive (almost psychotic) call and response rhythm of the original is transformed into Moray's characteristic keening delivery, so that the verse sounds more like a lament than murder ballad. But his performance is juxtaposed with a modern version of the same story, perpetrated by a Bristol rap artist improbably called Bubz.  "So he has taken his good broadsword / That hangs down by his knee / And plunged it into fare Lucy's heart / To spoil her pretty body"  morphs into "We screwed / You creamed / I stabbed / You screamed" ...." Bubz's contributions appear (as part of a video in the style of a news broadcast) on the TV screens, so that Jim is effectively singing a duet with a recording. As a piece of conceptual art, it comments cleverly on the idea that modern yoof music is frequently condemned for being violent and misogynistic, even though much worse stories have formed part of English popular songs  since the year dot. But the more I hear it, the better it works as a piece of music in its own right. The two versions of the story start quite separate, but by the end, the rap rhythm is existing, quite happily, behind Jim's traditional singing. Jim makes it appear that controlling the electronics, working with the band and singing along with a partner who isn't actually there is easy. I would wager that it isn't.

Is Jim Moray really the biggest thing to hit folk in 30 years? I don't know: there have been an awful lot of acts since 1982. It is very tempting to point at the jiggery pokery and the occasional weird mash ups and say that he's mainly a novelty act or an iconoclast, a man who uses TV screens and rap artists to deliver a well deserved shaking to all those people in po-faced sweaters who don't exist but would jolly well deserve to be shaken up if they did. There may be a small element of that, for example, when he decides to play a Fleetwood Mac song on the banjo. But he's mostly a musician.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Alasdair Roberts

Chapel Arts Centre, Bath
9th June

Most artists wind up their acts with something catchy and happy which the audience can sing along to so they leave with the gig with a spring in their step. Alasdair Roberts chooses to end his act with the Cruel Mother, a charming little ditty about a lady who strangles her babies and goes to hell. (Some people have tried to rehabilitate her, pointing out that in the Olden Days, baby-strangling may have been the only viable form of contraception but it's still not an obvious crowd-pleaser.) Granted, we get to sing-along-an-infanticide but it's not the usual "down in the green woods of ivory-oh" refrain. Oh no. Mr Roberts has dug up a version where the refrain goes: "The sun shines down on Carlisle Wall / And the lion shall be lord of all."  Which doesn't seem particularly relevant. He thinks the lion may be a celtic sun god, which hardly helps at all. Oh, and despite having two very good accompanists in tow (Rafe Fitzpatrick, double bass, Stevie Jones, fiddle) he sings it unaccompanied. He's tall and thin; his long guitarist's fingers are clenched like claws; his arms flail as he intones or chants the horrible words until I almost thought he was gong to go into convulsions.

It was in short, absolutely magnificent. As good a piece of straight ballad singing as I think I've ever heard. Readers of Twitter will already be aware that I was ****ing gobsmacked: I can't remember when I've been this enthusiastic about a performer after one hearing. (Mr Chris Wood was and is something of an acquired taste.)

Much of the rest of the evening is equally Scottish and equally miserable. We hear about Bonnie Suzie who was burned (in Dundee) for the unpardonable crime of marrying an Englishman; and the martyrdom of little St Hugh of Lincoln. Roberts is very much concerned about the provenance of his traditional songs. If he is going do a standard like Golden Vanity (the one about the cabin boy who single-handedly sinks a Spanish Galleon while sailing in the low coun-tree) you can be sure it is going to be based on a specific recording made in Edinburgh in 1901. 

But mostly he sings his own songs. Jaw-droppingly brilliant songs. (Literally so: Bristol's leading folk-journalist may be able to provide a sketch of me sitting at my table, open-mouthed, ignoring my beer.) When looking for someone to compare him with, I keep coming back to the Incredible String Band. Much tighter, more focussed, more sober, not to say dour, than the ISB ever were: but the same complex, rambling, freeform songs that take you on a melodic journey, you aren't sure where to. The same preoccupation with the mythic. The same slight tendency toward the overblown lyric. (I scribbled "the psychopomp of the cosmogenic egg" in my notebook at one point.) Some singers introduce songs by saying "this is about the miners' strike" or "this is about growing up in Scunthorpe". Alasdair says things like: "This is about Anankey, who in Greek mythology is the mother of the fates and the holder of the spindle of necessity." But you never feel that the words are taking over. The mythological song starts with an instrumental passage, almost like a Sydney Carter carol; from which the hymn to Ananke seems to arise naturally. "Who is the threader of the needle and who is orderer of all our states; who is the holder of the spindle and who is the architect of all our fates": he sings.  (You can hear the tune in the lyric.) Each gnomic question is repeated over and over, with it's own little tune, and the piece seems to end in a joyful chant "It is Anankey, it is Anankey, by whom we are all begot". (How many lyricists would say "by whom"?) The obligatory Scottish Folksong About Scotland which ends the first set consists of four or five seperate melodic gems, strung out on an end-of-the-pier fiddle-tune. The music-hall melody masks the cynicism. "It's nice to be here on edge of empire.....Oh Caledonia, my Caledonia!...Can't you get over your tiny self?"

It's not really like a traditional song: it's not really like anything else I've ever heard. But it seems to follow some kind of traditional logic: as if he's absorbed the old music's structure and is now freed up to do his own thing within it. (Different from Ian King, who opened for him, who takes traditional songs like Death and the Maiden and uses modern musical styles to explore their potentials.) One thinks of T.S Eliot's Tradition and the Individual Talent, doesn't one, where the most original poet is the one most influenced by all the poets who came before him? I think it comes down to a  particular way of marrying words and music -- or, let's be more specific -- of marrying poem and tune. Becuase tunes are what it's all about: mostly happy tunes, dance tunes, jigs and reels and carols. At times, you almost feel that you are listening to instrumentalists -- a slightly "out there" scottish celidah band, perhaps -- making beautiful music which just somehow happens to perfectly synchronize with the verses of a young poet with a beautiful voice. Or else that your are listening to a poet singer and the instruments just happen to be imitating the rhythms of his voice. Which makes it sound almost Wagnerian. Is that how traditional songs work? The words and the tune equally important; the words telling the story and leaving the singer little scope to pour his emotion or his experience into the lyric because the expression, the emotion, is already there, encoded in the melody. I'm tempted to wonder whether this two pronged attack was what made the performance so very, very powerful: whether simultaneously attending to dense meaningful words and complex melodic tunes draws the audience into a kind of fugue state.

Not wishing to come over all po-faced, but I find myself falling back on metaphors of possession and shamanistic ecstasy and speaking-in-tongues. Some people talk about "the tradition" as if she were a living thing which can speak through a performer who honours her. That was what this evening felt like. As if the Muse had literally taken possession of this thin, wiry guitarist.

Did I mention that I was ****ing gobsmacked?