Thursday, May 24, 2012

New of Momentous Importance

Where Dawkins Went Wrong

The Viewer's Tale

Fish Custard

Do Balrogs Have Wings?

with other e-book formats to follow shortly.


*"real time" reviews of Episodes 1 - 3

*that thing I wrote about the Hero's Journey

*parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 of "Little Orphan Anakin", though not necessarily in that order

*other bits and bobs

Only available on Kindle; other e-book formats and dead-tree edition to follow shortly.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Entirely possible that I'll write something in the next month. In the meantime, here are a few songs to listen to on the 14th May.


Playlist of Songs About, Er, Intercourse

Monday, May 07, 2012

It Takes All Sorts

Bristol Folk Festival
5- 7 May
Colston Hall

Bath Ales have ludicrously re-branded “Barnstormer” as “Barnsy”. I would no more order a pint of Barnsy than I would eat a Snickers bar. The organizers of the second Bristol Folk Festival had evidently taken to heart some of the complaints about last year's refreshments: the addition of a “beer tent” on the ground floor and some festival friendly snacks at the caff were a great help, although the Mexican frajita place over the road did very good business.

On Monday evening the compère does the Folks Men joke again. Everything is folk music, he says, because everything is written by and performed by folk, not by, say, plants or animals. So the Anglo Celt Sound System is totally folk.

They play a sort of young people's night club dance music; with that drum rhythm dominating everything, while a front man in a turban does his thang on one of those huge drums and another one plays Irish whistle or Northumbrian Pipes. I could recognise it has as having some connection to instrumental folk – several musicians all doing their own thing on their own instruments in such a way that it all comes together into a single thing that you dance to. In that sense it was quite similar to what the people in the bar were doing with fiddles and squeeze boxes. (Folk-buddy #1 claims that they even went into Cuckoo's Nest -- a Morris tune with filthy words that no-one ever sings -- but I had evidently stopped paying attention by that point.) The band definitely had a following: people were forming a queue an hour before they were due to come on stage. But I couldn't help noticing that other people were also leaving before the end.

Doubtless if you liked this kind of thing this would be the kind of thing that you liked. But it was a bit niche to finish the festival on. Last year we had Bellowhead and glitter coming from the ceiling. Everyone likes Bellowhead. This year we had a very good night club band; and a sense that the actual folk festival finished with Sam Sweeney and Hannah James doing their delicate traditional tunes and clog dancing (how can a form of dance based on having blocks of wood on your feet be so damn graceful?) before we let the Young People do their thing for a couple of hours before bed time.

Did I not once tell you to avoid anything with the words "Celtic" or "Fusion" in the main job description?

There was a big stand on the bridge outside the main hall selling "old fashioned" sweets – white chocolate things with hundreds and thousands on them, rice paper sherbet flying saucers, Hershey bars, multi flavoured pretzels. I liked the Finnish liquorice best; soft like a truffle, sugary on the outside, salted on the inside, a very strong liquorice taste without the chewiness I like the taste of salty licquice, by usually find that much salt is a little nauseous. I think that liquorice like porridge, should taste of itself rather than being used as a sugar delivery mechanism. I think the same thing about Krispy Kreme Donuts, but wouldn't go as far as putting salt on a donut.

When I said that I didn't like “Celtic” music, some people affected to believe that that meant that I didn't like Celtic music. Which would obviously be ridiculous. Sunday's headliner, for example, was the slightly too ethereal for my taste Cara Dillon, backed up with what (I am assured) was a who's who of famous Irish instrumentalists. I am no expert in what is technically known as the diddly-diddly-dee sub-genre (sub-sub-genre “look how fast I can play this damn whistle”) but that doesn't mean that I can't enjoy it. Ms Dillon, of course, didn't use the c-word. She called it “Irish music” or more specifically “this is a tune from County Tyrone.”

Ewan McLennan was by some distance the best thing I heard over the entire weekend. He came on to the stage and practically whispered "A Mans and Man For A'That". And then, in case we'd missed the point, played "Auld Land Syne" on his guitar. You forget that these tunes, belted out at so many drunken parties, have a real proper melodic beauty if you trust them. But the soft, feathery delivery could wrong-foot you: before long he's bringing the same style to protest songs; turning "Banks of Marble" from a rabble rousing soap box thumper into a meditation on injustice and then topping it with an almost too painful to listen to version of Old Man’s Song.

We're living on the Pension now and it doesn't go too far 
 Not much to show for a life that seems like one long bloody war
When you think of all the wasted lives it makes you want to cry 
 I don't know how to change things but by Christ we'll have tae try

Oh, and an audacious reworking of Bob Dylan’s Blues from the Radio 2 Freewheelin' project. Take a silly, filler song. Slow it down. Deliver the lines as if they mean something even if you don't have the faintest idea what. Someone said that he sang it better than Bob Dylan's version. I don't think that's true. I think that this sort of cover is always sort of kind of engaging in an inter-textual debate with the original. If we didn’t know how Almighty Bob sung it, we wouldn’t we gasping with amazement at Ewan’s reworking.

Celtic indeed.

I think that I shall become the kind of person who likes liquorice I shall make a big thing of it. It's the sort of thing you might right on a character sheet in an RPG to show that you have an interesting personality.

Luke Jackson was by some distance the best thing I heard over the entire weekend. I wish I hadn't raved about him quite so much after Frome, because the set he did in the more intimate Colston Hall 2 was on a whole different level. Five years from now, he will be the biggest thing in folk, unless they steal him from us an make him into a pop star. The photos on his Facebook page show signs that someone is trying to brand him, which would be a shame. There's an honesty, even a naivety to his performance; telling us that a particular song is the one that been in his act for the longest (he's not yet 18) or introducing a traditional number with “I'm not quite sure who wrote this.” He has a deep, mellow voice which lets him pull off an old spiritual like Poor Wayfarin' Stranger with an intensity that I can hardly believe. There's absolutely no sense that he's mimicking a more experienced singer: you feel he's felt it himself. But its the self-written songs which crystallize his own experience: climbing trees, riding his bike in the park, realising he's going to lose track of his three best friends, hearing people on the bus running down teenagers. They are so perfectly done that listening to them almost seems voyeuristic. He encores with Oakham Poachers ("Steve Knightley asked me to do something traditional”) and while its clearly a cover of the Show of Hands arrangement, it suddenly, startling goes into his own bluesy riff on the final line. Astonishing.

"You may now cross off "dead children" on your O'Hooley and Tidow bingo card" tweeted Folk-buddy #1. This was immediately retweeted by O'Hooley and Tidow. Twitter is a powerful friend and a dangerous enemy. At one level, live tweeting events like this is great fun; and occasionally helpful, when other twits tell you what is going on somewhere else. At another, it tempts you to spend the event in the twittersphere, not in the moment (which is always a problem for a writer, even without the 140 character limit). And the acts themselves are reading your tweets. Since Folk Buddies #1 - #4 refused to eat the Hershey bars I purchased from the liquorice shop I idly tweeted "I wonder if the band like American chocolate" "Yes please" tweeted back Mawkin "Enjoy the set..."Which is sweet: but it makes one immediately reluctant to tweet “this band sucked”. Actually, my general rule, being one who does not know anything about music but knows what he likes is to only review acts I've enjoyed. When I hear someone I don't think much of, I generally leave well alone.

(Which is not, by the way to be construed as meaning that if I don't review something I thought it was awful. I had a great time listening to Andy Irving at the the Folk House in May. He's one of my favourite singers. Specially liked his straight down the middle version of the It Was Sad When the Great Ship Went Down to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the wassisname, and his very traditional Stewball. I just didn't get around to putting pen to paper. I also failed to say anything about the very wonderful Monty Award Winning Chris Rickets at the same venue. His version of Leaving of Liverpool reduced the entire audience to tears, and I was impressed as hell that he finished up with What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor. Not ironically or post- modernly; he just seemed to trust the song. Neither Andy Irvine nor Chris Rickets were at the folk festival. Now I've confused everybody.)

Instrumental folk is not always my most favourite thing, but Mawkin do it better than anyone I've ever heard. That was precisely 140 characters, that was.

O'Hooley and Tidow were by some distance the best thing I heard over the weekend. The last time I reviewed them, I described them as "depressing" (a fact they apparently remember). Actually, this isn't entirely fair. I would now be more inclined to say "haunting". Some of their songs pass almost unnoticed at the gig and then come back and kick you in the teeth three days later. The musical setting of a sentimental Victorian poem called Little Boy Blue, for example. They hold it, as so many of their lyrics, at arms length; there is something detached, and therefore chilling, about their performance. The verse is pure sentiment; it could almost be an Edwardian parlour ballad. But in the middle of the song, something altogether more contemporary cuts in; with percussive piano and declarative singing, it's an unsettling ultimately very moving shift in direction. (Clever, too: the line "but as he was sleeping an angel song awakened our little boy blue" would have been cloying.) But the tune is deceptive; I suddenly found the melody (“what has become of our little boy blue”) drifting to the top of my consciousness a week later and making me feel sad for no reason at all. There own lyrics love to hold up the ordinary for observation: the astonishing song about the old couple's coach trip to Blackpool piles trivial detail on trivial detail ("and the handbag with the fiddly catch that sometimes nipped her finger / but it matched her coat and sunday shoes so it really didn't matter") with an urgent, driving rhythm. It ends "'Have you enjoyed your day trip?' Vera says 'It were real'." Lancashire people do use "It were real" to mean "I had a good time"; but the line is taken up and repeated over and over until it becomes a sort of Samuel Beckett existential yell at the universe. Or something.

I have also previously raved about Solarferance. Folkbuddies #1, #2 and #3 all bought their album, which proves that I was right. They are the ones who stand on the stage with Macbooks, making strange noises with mortars and pestles and musical saws and live looping them, while singing very detailed close harmony versions of traditional songs. I think Folk-buddy #1 is probably correct that they need to work on their stage personae; Nick in particular has a slight tendency to look like someone doing a send up of disc jockey; but it's early days and what they are doing is fantastically difficult. "I never had but one true love" is awfully clever, The multi lingual Cutty Wren is still the best thing they do; the point, at which, I think, they passed beyond being awfully clever to actually making music. 

Every folk festival, I assume, involves a young woman singing "I'm Being Followed by a Moon Shadow", "Streets of London" and "Leaving on a Jet Plane." I have no problem with this. I would be sorry if it didn't happen. The sense of being at folk festival is an important part of being at folk festival. I have more than once been in a not very pleasant venue drinking not very nice beer when a not very talented young man with a hat, beard and guitar sits on a chair and sings a not very good song about the banking collapse and how it relates to the young lady who is no longer dating him and thought "this is exactly what I signed on for". I described her on twitter as "charming". Folk-buddy #1 wanted to know if my liquorice had been drugged.

Show of Hands did a fairly restrained set. By their standards. Regular readers will be aware that last year's performances was the best set ever done by anyone anywhere and they made no particular attempt to top it. They are never less than very good. We had a Cousin Jack and an AIG, Phil got to do Jamestown and Innocents Song, Steve Got to Home of a Million Dreams (which I don't think is as good as he obviously does) everyone did Keys of Canterbury, and we wound up with Now You Know Will You Come Back To Me. There was a hen night. A group of young ladies with a big banner that read "Getting married but still in love with Steve and Phil". (There are some folk performers, such as Seth Lakeman for example, who you can easily imagine young ladies adoring for their boyish good looks. Phil Beer and Steve Knightley, not so much.) This rather boosted the party atmosphere. I don't think Steve did as much banter as he usually does, since he spent most of the period between the songs engaging in call and response with the girls. Which was fine. In fact it rather underlines what a showman he is; quite able to fool around with the hen party, and then dedicate his last song to them, and say "good luck for the big day" in a stage whisper before quitting the stage. Wanting to postpone the debate about whether objecting to the common fisheries policy -- or indeed listen to a song about a character who objects to the common fisheries policy -- makes one a Nazi, I hung around in the hall and had a chat with the ladies. They'd were serious Show of Hands fans. They'd been calling out for him to sing Poppy Day, which is an incredibly depressing song about a drug dealer and had been at the Albert Hall concert the previous month. They said Now You Know was their favourite song; I said that Cousin Jack always makes me cry because my Daddy was Cornish. We left feeling that we were the best of friends.

That's the kind of band they are: not necessarily my favourite song writers (1) or my favourite live act (2), but never failing to catch the mood of the hall (angry last year, festive this year) and create a corporate experience. Godlike, in other words.

Lucy Ward is beautiful and lovely and funny and clever and I think I am probably in love. She drew a little heart on my CD and was just as lovely meeting the fans off stage as talking to them on stage. The picture of her on her album makes her look like a fey Monroe-ish starlet In real life she has bright blue hair and says that the best thing about Shrewsbury is that every third shop sells cakes. (She lived on macaroni pie during the folk week, apparently.) She has a sense of humour and comic timing which makes you think that she could probably hack it as a stand up comedienne if she wanted to; but in between the bubbling are some very dark songs. Alice in the Bacon Box is about a lady who ends up in the workhouse because someone takes her cardboard box away. Its based on a true story. She's good at making unexpected turns, as with her “traditional English song by Jarvis Cocker” which she does so well and, er, audibly that it made me go back and listen to the original. The recording which catches her stage act the best is Maids When Your Young, which is sung with an absolutely conspiratorial level of filth which is a joy to behold. She was by some distance the best thing I heard over the weekend.

Many people thought that Lady Maisery was the best thing over the whole weekend. There was a squeeze box, clog dancing and a strange Norwegian thing which may really be called "diddling" in which you sort of sing instrumental numbers. And there was a song about a fairy.

Dan Walsh plays the banjo and Will Pound plays the harmonica. Half way through, Dan did his banjo solo. You know that thing where the music gets so quick that's its obviously the climax, and everyone claps, and then he gets even faster? He did that three or four times. Brilliant (and he was properly playing a tune as well, not just showing off.) It was obviously the best bit of musicianship anyone did over the whole weekend the whole weekend (seriously).

"Hmm...8 out of ten" said Will when he returned to the stage.

Some years ago I was involved in the design of a computer game about pirates. There were different kinds of pirate ships, each with different attributes. (It was, as I may have mentioned before, described by the Daily Telegraph as "adequate".) In several years of writing documents and setting up auto-correct functions, I still discovered new ways of miss-spelling "manoeuvrability".

I feel very much the same way about liquorice

I didn't get very near the free stage this year because there was so much going on in other place, but would award several points to an Irish student Celidah band, quite possibly called Really Potcheen, who did things like Galway Girl very nicely and honestly. They described New York Girls as a Bellowhead cover, which says something about the nature of the Tradition.

And the Appliejacks who did appallachian clog dancing. At one point, the nature of the venue meant that the music from upstairs and the music from downstairs was in competition. English Morris dancing and American clog dancing. On Sunday, the man with the big Indian drum taught some of the morris dancers how to dance. 

Now, that's what I call fusion.

(1) Chris Wood
 (2) Chumbawamaba

Thursday, May 03, 2012

speaking of national anthems: that Nobel Peace Prize would make a nice birthday present, wouldn't it?


Sunday, April 15, 2012

I wish I’d kept the Private Eye cartoon of the publisher holding a large manuscript with the title “Bugger All.”

“Actually, Mr Frobeshire”, he is saying “when we said ‘write what you know’…”

Of course, we know what “write what you know” means: it means “write what you know and not what you read in some book”. You don’t have to be a vampire to write a teenaged vampire novel (though it probably helps) but for god-sake don’t set it in a trendy high school in California if you went to a bog-standard comp in the north of England. You’ll end up looking like a wally. (See also under Rowling, J.K.)

I mention this, because regular readers may have spotted that I am terribly reluctant to write about what I know: the interesting stuff is what I don’t know. On an average day, I work out what I think about DC’s opportunistic piece of shit Watchmen knock offs in the act of writing essays about them (essay = trial run). On a good one, I catch the eureka moment of consciousness on paper. I still think that the “What I really think about Matt Smith” piece is the best I’ve ever written.

At some point, I’m afraid I am going to have to come back and have another go at the marriage thing, which ought to be interesting, because I’d like to figure out what I think. I’m a bit reluctant to do so because I don’t know where I will end up; and I’m fearful of colliding with the brick wall of people who already know, and who, indeed, have declared in advance that no other viewpoint is conceivable. Go one way, and I’m actively working towards the downfall of western civilisation; go the other, and I’m simply a Nazi. A while back, I wrote a few lines on one of those forums about what I understood Clause 29 to have been, and why I think it came about. “A small-minded over-reaction to the use of some arguably age inappropriate sex-ed material in junior schools”, I think I said. Whereupon I was roundly accused of supporting genocide, or at any rate, supporting people who supported genocide.

You can see my reluctance.

But here is one thing I'd have to sort out before I started. I'm asking the question, you understand, because I don't know the answer, not because I do.

What does the Church of England think about voluntary celibacy in marriage? 

And come to that, what does the Church of England think about the voluntary separation of married couples?

See, if I’ve got this right, the Church of England thinks that God invented marriage for three purposes - Procreation, Sex and Companionship. There was also a sort of big meta-reason: he intended the relationship between a married couple to be a sort of icon of the relationship between Jesus and the Church. 

This iconography does not, incidentally, make marriage a sacrament in the way that solemnly re-enacting the Last Supper is a sacrament: note that the prayer book has a Sacrament of Holy Communion, a Sacrament of Baptism, but a service for the Solemnization of Marriage. Very clever people who say that the Church of England regards marriage as a sacrament may be making an honest mistake; people who talk about marriage “having a sacramental dimension” (very probably “in a very real sense”) are deliberately trying to throw dust in your eye.

Not sure where they got the “first, marriage was ordained for the procreation of children”, part from, either. The Bible seems pretty clear that God made Eve because Adam needed a helper, and that they only “knew” each other after they’d been kicked out of the garden. But going to the Bible to find out about Christian marriage will tie you up in knots: the Old Testament seems to regard polygamy as permissible but inadvisable; the New to regard marriage as a necessary evil.

So anyway: what’s the Church’s position on non-consummation: if two consenting adults get married, is sex compulsory? And what happens if a married couple lives apart for some reason: say if a woman chooses to marry a sailor who is only allowed to come ashore for one day every seven years; or even if a prison visitor chooses to marry a convict who he will never live with or possibly even touch? Unusual set ups, certainly: uncommon, inadvisable, but does the church forbid them or say that the couples in question are not really married?

Come to that, what happens if a couple who don’t really like each other marry — say, because their parents really want grandchildren, or because the future King of England has pretty much got to have a beautiful Queen, or because one or both parties is pregnant, or even to secure a dowry or an inheritance? I mean, these may all be really, really bad ideas, and the Church might counsel against them, but are the couples in question Not Really Married? And suppose, while continuing to dislike each other, they stick to their vows, stay together, and make the best of it. Married, or not married? You tell me.

You see where I am going with this. Marriage was ordained for three purposes: babies, sex, and companionship. Certain Christian factions appear to be arguing that a proposed new kind of marriage is a contradiction in terms; an impossibility; a sin and (in some cases) the harbinger of the end of western civilisation -- because it can’t possibly produce babies. Logically, they must mean either that if you remove any one of three elements from the prayer book then what you are left with is not marriage; or that you can have marriage without sex, or marriage without companionship, but you cannot have marriage without babies. (Which is a problem in itself, because the church does, I believe, permit very old people to get married if they want to.) Or else they are working from some source of ecclesiastical authority other than the Book of Common Prayer. (Johnthelutheran helpfully points out that the prayer book definition is taken for granted in actual English law.)

I am not terribly interested, for the moment, in finding out what the Church of England ought to think; or hearing arguments for an against disestablishment; or hearing from people who think that what the Church of England thinks is bronze age savage sky fairy sky fairy sky fairy wobbly sets wobbly sets wobbly sets. I’m interested, for the moment, as a point of information, in finding out:

a: what the church of England does in fact teach about voluntary celibacy and voluntary separation in marriage and

b: when, or on what basis it was decided that Cranmer made a Mistake and that marriage was ordained, not for three reasons, but only for one.

I’m sure this stuff must be written down somewhere. In a book.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Friday, March 30, 2012

So, Obviously, Don't Pay Any Attention To Me

Isambard Folk Award
Colston Hall
March 30th

The Isambard Folk Awards, named after the fella who invented bridges, are a newcomers thang. Anyone can send in a CD, the five best get to perform at the finals; the judges say how terrific the standard has been and that music isn't really a competition anyway, and the winner gets to appear on the main stage at the festival next month. All jolly nice. Fairly certain I was the only person in the audience who wasn't in, related, or at any rate connected to, one of the bands.

I was pretty sure I had it down to a two horse race between Solarferance and Misshaped Pearls. Solarferance did a sort of folk electronica, somewhere between the early Jim Moray and Duotone: that thing where the musicians are playing acoustic instruments and then mixing them live on stage with apple macs, so they end up accompanying themselves and creating what soundscapes. The process may have been taken slightly to an extreme: not only was the good old Cutty Wren accompanied by a mortar and pestle and musical saw, but it was also sung simultaneously in English and Welsh. (So we now know that the Welsh for "Milder and Mulder" is "Dibber and Dobber".) And when your act positively invites comparisons with Mr Moray, maybe its a little courageous to attempt Lucy Wan, without a rap artist but with a reel of sellotape. However Nick Janeaway and Sarah Owen can actually properly sing and the wierd sounds they produced were genuine response to the songs themselves. I particular liked the fading reverberations of "...and what will you do when your father gets home?" in Lucy Wan . (In real life "wait til your father gets home" is proverbially said to a naughty child who has catapulted a pebble through the dining room window; less often to a lad who has made his sister pregnant, chopped off her head and spoiled her pretty bodee.) Much my favourite act, partly because it wasn't like anything else and partly because, in a funny way, it was the most traditional thing of the evening. 

But I fully expected the judges to give the prize to Misshaped Pearls, a big seven piece world music ensemble with a Taboresque leading lady who offered complicated instrumentation of Latin lyrics by Ovid and finished up waxing all south American with something which I didn't get the title of written by a Mexican nun. Not precisely my sort of thing, but awfully polished and professional, with a big rich sound that was arguably closer to being actual music than the first lot. 

On balance, I ruled out the opening act, Common Tongues, who seemed to be doing very pleasant, singery songer-writery acoustic rock; very listenable to but quite like a lot of other things I'd heard somewhere. I also didn't think that the rather interesting Welsh five piece Evening Chorus, who started out doing close harmony that veered dangerously in the direction of the barbers shop, but then expanded into long drawn out complicated multi-layered rambles, putting me rather in mind of Alasdair Roberts at his more expansive, would get it.

"Either the clever electronic people", I said, "Or the big world music band, with just a small chance of the interesting Welsh five piece."

So, naturally, the judges gave it to Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker. Josienne is a lady who sings semi-traditional songs with her hands, squeezing out an awful lot of emotion and drama, as if she was personally gutted by the fact that her Donald works on the sea. Ben plays fantastically detailed tinkly-tonkly guitar, counterpointing her music rather in the manner of Mr Martin Simpson, who he lists as an influence, as does everybody else. 

I can only suppose that the judges gave it to them because they were clearly the most talented people in the room. If not necessarily the cleverest or most innovative. 

Which is, like, crazy talk.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Yes, I Think It Would Be A Good Idea

Tony Benn & Roy Bailey
St George's Bristol
29 March

I am guessing that one or two of the congregation at St Georges on Thursday night already knew what Ghandi said when someone asked him what he thought of Western civilisation. A lot of them had probably heard of Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers. But when Tony Benn tells an old political story, you clap anyway. I wasn't quite clear if we were clapping the actual passage from Soul of Man Under Socialism which he read out, or the sacred name of Oscar Wilde, or Tony Benn, national treasure. It didn't really seem to matter.

I can't remember when Tony Benn became a national treasure. In the 80s, the smart thing to say was that there were only two decent politicians, Tony Benn and Enoch Powell, the honest commie and the honest fascist. There may be something in that, in as much as they both regarded saying what they thought as more important than advancing their political careers. Although Benn worked pretty hard at advancing his political career, as well. If he had succeeded in replacing Dennis Healey as deputy leader of the Labour Party in 1981, as he very nearly did, then the whole political landscape of 21st century Britain would probably be exactly the same.

He's very frail now: he had to be helped onto the stage, though he stood up to speak. The idea was that he would do some political readings and tell some political anecdotes; and Roy Bailey would sing some protest songs in between. The whole thing was meant to add up to an informal history of the radical movement in England. Bailey's opening number was a powerful rant about English school history lessons, somewhere between "What Did You Learn In School?" and "1066: And All That." The songs were meant to reflect what Benn had been talking about, so if Benn spoke about the Peasants Revolt Bailey would sing "With Ball and Tyler, Wraw and Lister, Grindcobbe and Jack Straw"; if Benn spoke about the Diggers and Bailey would (of course) sing "In 1649, to St George's Hill..."  But fairly rapidly, this format broke down and Benn just talked and Bailey just sang songs. It worked just fine. 

We probably already knew that his mother thought that the Bible was the story of the conflict between the kings, who had the power, and the prophets, who preached righteousness, and that he decided when he was very small which side he wanted to be on. We'd also heard the one about the women who tied teddy bears to the fence outside Greenham Common (which contained enough weapons to blow up the whole world several times over) and were sent to prison for a breach of the peace. He would wound up his section ("that's all I have to say to you...") straight after the interval, leaving Bailey to fill the second half by himself. It wasn't clear if Benn was too tired to carry on, or had merely lost his place in his notes. I think this meant that Bailey had to resort to standards he wouldn't otherwise have sung, but he knows one or two protest songs so this was hardly a problem. He had to work quite hard to persuade the audience to join in. (His slow, thoughtful World Turned Upside Down is just as valid as Billy Bragg's electric one or Dick Guaghan's snarled one, but harder to sing along to. In the interval a local choir, possibly the Roving Blades, sung Ye Diggers All Stand Up without any provocation at all.)  But with a bit of prodding, the Bristol culteratti were persuaded to agree that wherever workin' men are out on strike, Joe Hill was probably at their side. Rosselson was well represented, of course, not only "World Turned Upside Down" but also a very touching "Palaces of Gold". (I couldn't place the very touching ballad about the old man who lives as a recluse because "they say that in his younger day he loved another man" but it sounded Rosselsonian to me.) So was the aforementioned Robb Johnson: we had the repetitive, rabble rousing "Medals Bloody Medals" and a more thoughtful piece about Vic Williams, the soldier who became a conscientious objector during Blair's war, which I felt summed up the political message of the evening rather well. 

The enemy ain't the other side wherever they draw the line
The enemy is the ruling class who draw the bloody line

I've been at revivalist meetings. They usually involve a good looking but learned preacher talking for an hour and half about the second chapter of Nehemiah, with references to the original Greek. And I'm not sure why everyone complains about preaching to the choir. The choir aren't necessarily particularly religious, they just joined up because they like singing. Benn's beliefs become progressively narrow as he gets older: he reads from Utopia and the writings of the Diggers about how there should be no private property and how everyone should share everything and how real wealth would be not having to worry about the future because the state will take such good care of you when you get old. He gets a big laugh by saying that crazy ideas like giving women the vote were once dismissed as "Utopian". He assures us that Cromwell solved the house of Lords by making a law that said "The House of Lords shall no longer meet, either here or anywhere else". Everyone agreed that war was a jolly bad thing. Nelson Mandela was included on the list of non-violent protesters. I don't know if everyone in the audience was really a pacifist communist. I don't know how Oliver Cromwell would have got to to abolish the house of lords and the royal family if he'd been a pacifist. I don't know if there is really any hypocrisy involved in swearing allegiance to the Queen and then trying, democratically, to replace her with an elected head of state. I'm not sure that the army is the best career to go for if you are a conscientious objector. It didn't actually seem to matter terribly. 

Benn was pleased that the concert was taking place in a former church because the progressive movement has been bound up with religion from the very beginning; whether we are talking John Ball and the peasants' revolt, the conscientious objectors who felt that they couldn't be warriors and followers of the Prince of Peace and the Diggers who talked about a creator-of-reason rather than the traditional Christian God. But this doesn't prevent Bailey finishing the evening by belting out the violently anti-religious (and very good) "I ain't afraid of your Yahweh, I ain't afraid of your Allah, I ain't afraid of your Jesus" to thunderous applause.

In his last illness, a male nurse told Bernard Shaw that he had to get better because he was a national institution. "You mean an ancient monument" snapped Shaw. Well, quite.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

How Do You Spot An Irish Boomerang?

Ron Kavana
Cellar Upstairs Folk Club
17 March

St Patricks night in the Cellar Upstairs Folk Club, hidden away in a back street near glamourous Euston Station, was a bit special. I was there because I wanted to hear Mr Ron Kavana who regular readers will remember won the Monty Award for Best Gig of the Year in 2010. Irish guy with guitar. He sings traditional Irish songs: ("the Night the Goat Got Loose on Grand Parade") and traditional Irish songs he wrote himself ("Reconciliation") and modern old fashioned protest songs. ("We laid the last old soldier to rest today / a lingering relic of the older way") 

There don't seem to be too many opportunities to catch him live: he describes himself as having "gone amateur" and complains at some length about the pricing policies of the CD sellers: there was no point in him selling copies of his new collection of Irish folk music, or his epic musical history of Ireland, because Amazon and HMV are selling them to the punters for less than he could get them wholesale. Not quite as intimate a gig as the one in the Bristol pub; possibly the St Patrick Nights atmosphere didn't lend itself perfectly to his intimate, meditative, interpretative singing-around-the-songs style of delivery. He suggested that the audience join in with Mountains of Morne in whatever key, rhythm or tune we liked. Some members of the audience took this a little literally and decamped to the bar when they were politely asked by the regulars not to drown out the act. 

There appeared to be some controversy about whether, as Ron thinks, the stanza which says

I've seen England's king from the top of a bus
And I've never known him, but he means to know us.
And tho' by the Saxon we once were oppressed,
Still I cheered, God forgive me, I cheered with the rest.

is the heart of the song shamefully omitted by some performers; or whether in fact he has discovered or interpolated a treacherous new verse. Obviously, I've never been oppressed by Oliver Cromwell and shouldn't have an opinion, but it looks to me as if the whole song, with or without the "bus" verse is about assimilation: Paddy tells Mary that this London is a funny old place, but he's not actually planning on going home any time soon. 

But very much the star of the evening, from my point of view, was the actual club: an old-fashioned folk club of the sort that I didn't think existed any more. Upstairs in a pub; a little room that had that complete lack of atmosphere normally associated with church halls. Very friendly: lots of people chatted to me. Give or take a loud lady, lots of appropriate singing along with the act. And, before each of Mr Kavana's sets an open mic in which regulars at the club got up to sing. Every one of whom was worth listening to, and several of whom you would have happily paid to hear. Didn't get any names down, unfortunately: there was a dotty fellow who did comic readings of cod Oirish poetry; a couple who did traditional Irish songs; and a fellow who sang "Price of My Pig". But the thing which really blew my head off were the two old time fiddle sets -- that very delicate, understated, polka style violin -- performed by a a very elderly gentleman with the remains of an American accent. He turned out to be (I had to come home and check, but I'm right) Tom Paley, usually referred to as "the legendary" whose been active in traditional American music since the 50s and once performed with Woody Guthrie. It really isn't every club where you get a bona fide legend playing support.

At the end of Ron's set there was still raucous Paddy's Night noise coming from the downstairs bar, so he wave persuaded back onto the stage to do his famous Midnight on the Water (recorded by the Watersons among others) his meta-song incorporating the traditional American waltz tune. Mr Paley couldn't get his fiddle tuned in time to join in; but someone spontaneously accompanied him on a musical saw. 

I don't think the existence of this club is quite enough to make me relocate to London. I see they have one Leon Rosselson (who he? ed) playing there in June.

It doesn't come back, but it sings about how it's going to some day. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Jewel in the Crown

Martin Carthy 
Kings Place London 
16 March


He comes out onto the stage; peers out into the audience; says "Hello!"; pauses to re-tune his guitar. And straight into "Come, listen to my story, lads, and hear me tell my tale, how OVER the seas from ENG-LAND, I was condemned to sail". And we're off on another mixture of long, long ballads, give away comic songs, and "The Fall of Paris". At one level, he's a showman, of course he is – the walking onto the stage at the opening of the second set and reciting a Victorian music hall monologue (this time "Me Mother Doesn't Known I'm On the Stage") has been honed over many decades of gigging, of finding out what works and what doesn't. He always opens with Jim Jones because he's found that Jim Jones is the perfect song to open on. But it's still the naturalness which floors me; that sense that he'd be singing these songs even if the audience hadn't turned up.

He does the one about the Blind Harper who stole the kings favourite horse, which is one of three he regularly claims as his favourite; he does Patrick Spens which he says has only recently come back into his repetoire. Everyone jokes about folk songs which go on for ever and ever; but in fact, songs like Sir Patrick really, really gain from being song in full. It takes 25 verses.  (Martin Simpson rattles through in a dozen or so.) Because it's a story, and leaving in all the verses makes it clear and easy to follow; we're in no doubt about why the King needs Patrick to set sail in such a hurry, nor why he has to come back in an equal rush.

He winds up with the best double-whammy you could hope for; the epic Prince Heathen and the silly Feathery Wife; both, in different ways, about love: the evil domineering love of the satanic nobleman for lady Margaret; the devoted love of the nagging wife who comes up with the ruse to free the farmer from his faustian bargain.

I spent some time in this forum earlier in the year trying to answer the question "What is a folk-song, anyway?" Carthy's Prince Heathen could stand as a test-case. It's Carthy who matched the words to the incongruously jolly tune; its also Carthy who adapted Child Ballad 104 (I looked it up) into modern English. 

The Child version has the refrain:

"O bonny may, winna ye greet now?"
"Ye heathenish dog, nae yet for you."

which Carthy freely turns into

"O lady will you weep for me? Lady tell me true"
"Ah, never yet ye heathen dog, and never shall for you!"

Sometimes he's fairly close to the original:

"A drink, a drink, frae Prince Heathen's hand,
Though it were frae yon cauld well strong!"
"O neer a drap, Prince Heathen," said one,
Till ye row up your bonny young son."


"A drink! A drink! The young girl cried
All from Prince Heathen's hand!"
"Oh never a drop Prince Heathen cried
Til you wrap up your son!" 

But sometimes, he's bringing his own imagination to the printed text:

He's taen her out upon the green,
Where she saw women never ane,
But only him and 's merry young men,
Till she brought hame a bonny young son.

Becomes the horribly brutal:

So he's laid her all on the green
And his merry men stood around
And how they laughed and how they mocked,
As she brought forth a son

But it's recognisably the same story; except, of course, that he's changed the ending: Carthy rightly feels that after the Princess has kidnapped lady Margaret, wiped out her entire family, raped her, and imprisoned her in a dungeon, its unacceptable for Anon to imply that, in the end, his heart was softened and they lived happily every after. Traditional song or new song? For all we know, the anonymous source who submitted the "traditional" version to Mr Child might have interpreted and earlier version just as freely.

A lot of Martin's identiy as a folk-singer continues to depend on the idea of source-singers: for every song reconstructed or re-invented out of a printed source, there is one that he got from an old recording on a wax cylinder. His My Bonny Boy is Young But He's Growing comes off a recording Vaughan Williams made of a pub landlord in 1907. He kisses his fingers to show how beautiful the long dead singer's voice was. (*)

"These songs are the real crown jewels" he says before Prince Heathen "And this is one of the jewels in the crown." His own acoustic guitar is "in hospital" but his guitar maker has leant him a beautiful instrument to use in the interim. At the end of the song, he allows the guitar to take the bow and acknowledge the applause.

(*) You can listen to it here, through the wonders of the internet. In places it sounds uncannily (even disturbingly) like Mr Carthy's version. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


When you saw Star Wars, you honestly felt that you would give anything to find out what the Clone Wars were and to see Obi Wan Kenobi in the days when he was a hero and all the Jedi Knights had Swords and the Old Republic. 

But that "honestly feeling that you would give anything" is precisely the emotion that made Star Wars the Best Movie Ever, and actually telling you what the Clone War were like removes that "honestly feeling you would give anything" feeling and actually ruins Star Wars forever. Watching a lady not quite taking her clothes off is far more sexy than being on a beach where no one is wearing anything at all. 

The Star Wars prequels were just a very bad idea. As it was, they were a very bad idea  poorly executed but they would have been an equally bad idea even if they had been very well executed indeed. Their one redeeming feature is that they were George Lucas's really, really bad idea. It was George Lucas who created Star Wars to begin with. He didn't just dream it up: he actually thought up the characters and wrote the script and worked with the actors and model makers. So of course I was interested to find out our George Lucas imagined the Jedi Knights at the height of their powers and the Imperial Senate and the pre-lapserian Darth Vader because he created the whole idea of the Jedi Knights and Imperial Senates and Darth Vaders in the first place. If the movie had been made by Some Other Guy then it wouldn't even have had that excuse. I like the Jedi Council scenes because they tell me what George Lucas thinks the Jedi Council should look like. Some Other Guy's version would have exactly the same validity as the version of the Jedi Council that me and Jeffrey made up in the playground of East Barnet Lower school in 1978 with airfix spacemen and toy action figures. (Less. Less.) Even if the films had actually been really rather good. Especially if the films had been actually really rather good. Especially if the films had been actually really rather good and George had specifically said that he thought they were a really, really bad idea.


Whenever I re-read Watchmen, Doctor Manhattan's very tactful phallus reminds me of the  enormous anatomically correct cock in the movie. Something that I hardly noticed in the comic has become funny, or embarrassing, offensive or whatever the hell the socially approved way of reacting to an enormous blue willy is. 

The movie changed the comic. It did. It just did. 

Read Frankenstein without thinking of Boris Karloff. I dare you.


Does DC comics appalling opportunistic piece of shit corporate Watchmen rip off really matter?

No. In the total scheme of things, of course it doesn't.   

Monday, March 12, 2012


Harry Potter and the Da Vinci code are not reducible to the MSS that J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown submitted to their publisher. This is true even if the published text was very close to those MSS and not, as sometimes happens, co-authored by their editors. At the very least, several hundred people were involved in drawing covers and typesetting and printing and physically manufacturing the object that you bought in Waterstone. And someone else created the marketing campaign; decided that it would be cool for bookshops to open in the middle of the night to sell the first editions; carefully honed the Rowling persona; spotted that a series of school based children's fantasy stories might be the sort of thing that kids would want to read. No-one but JK Rowling could have written Harry Potter but if JK Rowling hadn't written Harry Potter, some other publisher might have identified some very similar author to place at the center of a very similar maelstrom.

It is tempting for a writer to think "It is my words that the Public wants, and all the publisher does is put them in the hands of the reader."

It is equally tempting for a publisher to think "I make beautiful books, and one small part of the process is the artisan who I hire to write the words which go into them."

It is tempting for an actor to think: "I have a special talent: people come to see me act, and the director's job is simply to decide where I should stand so that the audience can hear me declaiming.

It is equally tempting for a director to think: "People have come to see my version of a play, based on my knowledge of literature and stage craft. An actor is simply a skilled individual whose job it is to read the words and perform the gestures that I am tell him to."

Would it therefore be unreasonable for the theatre architect to say "I am in the business of giving people an exquisite evening. You create a beautiful building, and then you hire anyone to sell ice cream, pour drinks, and strut about on the stage?"


You can sometimes get a very small child to eat his greens but arbitrarily declaring that these are special Tellytubby greens. It works better if the person performing the alchemy is Mr Sainsbury: the spinach that was wrapped in official Tellytubby packaging really does taste better than the kind which Mummy says came all the way from Tellytubbyland.

I am sometime told that Peter Jackson's parody of Lord of the Rings has to be judged on it's own terms: it doesn't matter whether or not it is an accurate translation of Prof. Tolkien's book.

It is certainly true that Lord of the Rings works very well as a Hollywood pop corn flick. I would place it almost precisely on  a level with the Pirates of the Caribbean series, full of sound and fury but signifying less and less as it goes along.

This is not to deprecate Lord of the Rings. I like the Pirates of the Caribbean series very much indeed. They provide a huge dollop of cutlasses, cannons and eye patches, wrapped in the illusion of a narrative, and enough macguffins and plot coupons to propel the ships from exotic location to exotic location. They are, in short, exactly what you want from a pirate movie. 

I feel much the same way about Lord of the Rings: it is the Goonies with dragons, ill matched semi competent protagonists dropped into the middle of a story in which far too many precipices collapse underneath them and far to many dragons drop rocks on them for anyone to have any chance to work out what is actually meant to be happening. 

Saying that the Lord of the Rings is to be judged on its own merits is the same as saying that Jackson, having made his big budget cartoon, used the name Lord of the Rings to give it a quite spurious gravitas: that the Lord of the Rings movie is only a Lord of the Rings movie in a manner of speaking, just at the Tellytubby spinach is only Tellytubby spinach in a manner of speaking.

If I say this, I am accursed of snobbery by the meta geeks.  

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Can anyone remember who the Ghost Rider was, or what comics he appeared in, or what kind of villains he fought? (It was a rhetorical question, Nick. Please sit down.) I believe he had sold his soul to the devil, as one does. Gary Friedrich didn't dream up the idea of the Faustian Pact: Christopher Marlow did. He didn't come up with the idea of the heroic stunt-cyclist, either: that was Evel Knievel. The not-that-bad-movie did indeed make use of the idea of the stunt cyclist who sold his soul to Beelzebub and then tried to use his evil hell fire powers for good (or something). But what everyone remembers about the character is the guy in biker leathers on the harley davidson with the flaming skull where his head ought to be. It is, how you say, iconic. 

Stan Lee, as everybody knows, believes that comic book characters have an essential, platonic being outside of the actual stories they appear in. He believes that these platonic essences are created in a single, metaphysical, quasi-divine act, which only he has control of. He calls this unified act "dreaming up". Once the "dreaming up" has been done, the character has existence, and any one of a number of different hired hands can do the donkey work of putting it on paper. There's no actual work involved; the demiurge just sits in his armchair and has creations. On this view, the person who came up with the elevator pitch "He's kinda like Dr Faustus, only on a bike" "dreamed up" Ghost Rider, and everything else (drawing the pictures, thinking up villains, making up words for him to say) was just dot-joining that any artisan could have done. I believe that there are sincere differences of opinion about who did the original up-dreaming in this case. 

You might think that 90% of the success of Spider-Man came from Stan Lee's funny speech bubbles, and only 10% from Steve Ditko's design the costume. You might think it was 50/50 or 60/40. No-one apart from Walt Disney's legal department doubts that two people were involved. It seems to me that 100% of the success of Ghost Rider as a comic book and 100% of the reason it was turned into a not-too-bad movie was the physical design of the character: the idea-of-the-Ghost-Rider is the guy on the bike with the flaming head not Satan or Mephisto or Zathros or anything else. In which case, if anyone "created" the Ghost Rider, it was not Mike Friedrich or Roy Thomas but Mike Ploog, who drew the actual pictures.

It will be remembered that in 1969 Stan Lee allowed Cadence Industries to believe that he was sole creator of all the Marvel characters and Ditko and Kirby were merely hired illustrators. This applied even to the Silver Surfer, even though Stan had said over and over again, that Kirby created, and therefore presumably "dreamed up" the character without input from him. It is perfectly true that Stan Lee's inferior 1970s version of the character added lots of elements which had not been part of Kirby's original conception, and that it is this inferior version which still appears in comic books today and was used in the the not-completely-awful Fantastic Four movie. It is also clear that the three Spider-Man movies were based on John Romita's version of Spider-Man, which was inferior to Ditko's tio the point of being parodic. 

It is not to be suggested that Lee had no imput into the creation of the Silver Surfer; only that, by his own arguments, he didn't dream him up. This is not to argue that Steve Ditko was the sole creator of Spider-Man; Mike Ploog the sole creator of Ghost Rider or Jack Kirby the sole creator of everything else; only to argue that the concept of "dreaming up" is palpable bullshit. The idea of Spider-Man, or Ghost Rider doesn't exist apart from actual Spider-Man or Ghost Rider comics: the people who created them are the people who did the hard work of drawing and writing, not whoever it was who happened to have first pitched "What about a guy on a bike with a skull instead of head." 

Sigh. No, I don't think that Marvel Comics should pass 100% of the profit from The Avengers movie to Jack Kirby's estate. 15% would be fair; 5% would be a realistic. 1% would be a nice gesture. At this stage of the game it would count for more if Kirby's grandchildren joined Stan Lee on the red carpet, and if Stan Lee said "Me and your grandpa created these characters together" or even "I suggested this idea to your grandpa, and he created the characters, and I thought up things for them to say" which everyone knows is the truth. But even that can never happen, because Stan Lee's faith-position conveniently matches the legal fiction that characters have essences and those essences are created and owned by corporations and buildings and legal entities, not by human beings with stuff they want to say.


What were the Daleks?

Were they

1: A script written by Terry Nation

2: A prop designed by Raymond Cusick

3: Characters in a children's television programme directed by Verity Lambert

4: A cultural phenomenon which began in 1963 and was over by 1968

Once you've framed the question in that way, the answer is pretty obvious. "The Daleks" were an ambience, an atmosphere, a period when, wherever you looked there were Dalek toys and Dalek magazines and Dalek soap and Dalek colouring books. Those of us who came in during Jon Pertwee sometimes feel that we missed "the Daleks". BBC props moving around a quarry just don't have much to do with Daleks. Re-runs of Peter Cushing movies on wet Sunday afternoons and dog-eared Dalek comic books seem to bring us closer. But no collection of ephemera can really recreate the Daleks. We weren't there when they happened.

Similarly, people of my generation have seen The Beatles reduced to 15 very good CDs, 2 very good movies and Magical Mystery Tour. This has practically nothing to do with the Beatles, although Hard Days Night goes some way to telling us what the Beatles would have been like had we been there. The Beatles were a moment when people were wearing particular clothes and watching particular cartoons on TV, and incidentally stopped rationing sweets and hanging people. The fact that John, Paul, George and Ringo also happened also to sing some quite good songs was neither here nor there. People only went to Beatles concerts in order to shout them down. 

Or again, the 12 action figure that were sold in 1977 were not an adjunct to Star Wars. They were Star Wars. Star Wars was a particular summer, which included Star Wars toys (if you had lot of pocket money) Star Wars bubble gum cards (if you didn't) Star Wars comic books...oh and also a film. (Remember, if you are British, Star Wars was a comic first and a film second. One of those big Treasury Editions they don't make them like any more.) You saw the film once, or, if you were particularly sad, five times. You read the comic every day for a month. You played with the toys until you got too old for them. George Lucas's attempts to deny that things like The Star Wars Christmas Special and Christmas In the Stars ever happened represents a blatant falsification of what Star Wars was. Is.

Can you get "Force Blades" on ebay? Not reproductions of lightsabers that actually look like lightsabers -- actual 1970s force blades. The real thing. 

One imagines the Beatles and Star Wars and Spider-Man putting their essential being forth into the surrounding culture until they themselves no-longer exist. (This is a reference to Tolkien. It would take too long to explain.) Everyone knows what Mickey Mouse looks like: hardly anyone has seen an actual Mickey Mouse cartoons. Disney rather discourages it. A strange composite Winnie the Pooh -- definitely not A.A Milne's character but not exactly the the Disney character either -- seems now to have an existence outside of the original stories. It is very common to find young children who are crazy about Spider-Man, but who have never seen a Spider-Man comic or scene a Spider-Man movie.

Spider Man isn't a superhero: he's a lunch box.