Thursday, September 12, 2019


Didn't intend to write this.

Intended to write about Christopher Robin.

Wrote this instead.

If you want to read the beginning of the argument, which I wouldn't recommend, it is in the comment section beneath my piece about coups and referenda.

S.K is arguing that if you are not going to obey a referendum there is no point in having one; and that indeed going against a referendum involves a patronizing disregard for the opinions of ordinary people.

I invoked a famous play by Ibsen as a counter example.

The play is set in a beach resort. In Norway. At the beginning of the play, a pretty girl is eaten by a shark. The chief of police, having consulted with all the top shark experts, decides to close the beach, because the shark is bound to strike again. But the people of the town, who make their living selling ice cream and running hotels, have a meeting, and the democratic will of the people determines that the pretty girl probably wasn't eaten by a shark, or that if she was, there is no reason to think that the shark will come back, and that if it does, it is almost certainly a vegan shark. The police chief obeys the will of the people and the next morning a little boy becomes the shark's dinner.

This leads the police child to his famous conclusion:

“The majority never has right on its side. Never, I say! Who is it that constitute the majority of the population in a country? Is it the clever folk, or the stupid? I don't imagine you will dispute the fact that at present the stupid people are in an absolutely overwhelming majority all the world over. But, good lord! — you can never pretend that it is right that the stupid folk should govern the clever ones.”

There is also syphilis. And an excellent score by John Williams. Or possibly Edvard Grieg.

Now read on:

The proposition is "we must always obey the voice of the people". Once you have had a plebiscite you have to obey it otherwise there was no point in having a plebiscite in the first place and democracy falls.

This is currently the only argument being made for Brexit. No-one any longer pretends that there is any practical case for Brexit. The only argument anyone is making for Brexit is the democratic principal

Ibsen's story about the shark is an example of a trolley problem—a concrete ethical dilemma intended to interrogate a supposed moral principal.

Lots of people say that they believe in "the greatest happiness to the greatest number". We have to act like the sailor who found that both his remaining ships' biscuits had been nibbled by disgusting insects, and chose the lessor of two weevils.

But it turns out that if you give them a concrete example, a lot of people no longer chose the utilitarian path. Suppose you are the signalman on a railway and suppose that a train-full of children is hurtling towards a cliff edge. As signalman, you can move the points and divert the train onto a different track. But unfortunately a pretty lady has been chained to the other track by her wicked uncle, the Hooded Claw, who wants to steal her inheritance.

Do you pull the lever?

Most people answer "no". They think that if they were actually in that position they would rather do nothing and let the kids die than do something and directly cause the death of the pretty lady.

This doesn't prove that utilitarianism is wrong, exactly but it does prove that at some deeper level most people are deontologists.

"Oh, but as a matter of fact, a German officer is not in the process of raping my grandmother."

"But as a matter of fact I am not the acting Captain of a Star Fleet vessel, and my best friend has not been taken over by the Borg collective, so the question doesn't arise.

"No, you are mistaken, I have never been down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and even if I have I certainly have never seen an injured man lying by the wayside, so it's a silly question".

"I have never stolen a loaf of bread in my life, and so far as I know there is no-one living who is my exact double and even if there is they are certainly not in any danger of being sent to the galleys in my place. It seems like a very unlikely set of circumstances, if you ask me."

Well, quite. But hypothetical questions are interesting precisely because they are hypothetical.

In Ibsen’s scenario Roy Schieder has to decide between acting on his own convictions and on the advise of experts and closing the shark-invested beach or following the democratically expressed will of the people and allowing it to remain open. I asked SK what they would have done in the police chief's situation and they wouldn't answer.

I deemed that "not answering the question" was the same as "not pulling the lever". The beach is left open. A small boy is eaten by a shark. 

What follows from this?

Should we say "The policeman did a bad thing by obeying the will of the people: he should have ignored it and done what the experts told him and what he personally believed was right."

Or should we rather say "The policeman did a good thing by obeying the will of the people because the will of the people is always to be obeyed without question. It is better that one child be eaten than that the will of the whole people be circumvented."

Do we say "We should obey the will of the people even though it is clearly stark raving mad. The law which says 'obey referenda' overrides the one which says 'prevent children from being eaten by sharks'."

Or do we say "We should obey the will of the people because as a matter of fact, the people can never be wrong or mistaken. The fact that the people want a thing is sufficient evidence that the thing is right, and if the facts say otherwise than the facts are undemocratic."

SPOILER: Everyone knows that we will in practice go with the last option. The people voted to let the little boy go swimming. The people are always right. It follows that there was no shark. It follows that no child was killed. Richard Dreyfuss was engaged in project fear. The dead boy is Fake News. The body you saw being pulled out of the water was a crisis actor. This is literally what would happen and what is already happening. That is the world we are now living in. That is the inevitable result of blind allegiance to the people's will.

Of course, Ibsen's conclusion that majorities are always wrong is not literally true. If it were then you could infallibly arrive at the right decision in all cases by having a vote and going along with the minority view. I don't think that is workable. In a multiple choice question, would you go with the second most popular option, or would you go with the option which had least votes? Or do you look at what the majority votes for and do the opposite? And anyway, pretty soon, people would be smart enough to work the system and refrain from voting for the position they agreed with. Like when Miles Morales deliberately got 0% in a test and the teacher realized that the only way of doing that was by knowing all the correct answers.

Anyway, the claim is not that the majority is always wrong, only that it is never right.

So: the example of the shark establishes that it is morally justifiable to disobey the will of the people when the will of the people is fucking stupid. (This would also apply in the case of, say, a health spa where the water was infected with tuberculosis. Just saying.) That is: there is at least one circumstance in which the will of the people should not be obeyed. So the proposition "the will of the people must always be obeyed" falls: the most we can say is that the will of the people must usually be obeyed, or that it must be obeyed except in the most exceptional circumstances, or in short that the will of the people must sometimes be obeyed and sometimes not.

So, very boringly, the question becomes "how do we find out that if this is one those cases where the will of the people should be disregarded?". And the boring answer is "By looking at the evidence; by asking hard questions of the experts; by applying our innate moral judgement and whatever moral authorities we believe in; by discussing it in great forensic detail in a committee or a court room."

A long time ago, about last Tuesday, none of this would have been necessary. We would not have had to introduce sharks and TB infested water and out of control trolley cars into the question. We would merely have pointed out that referenda would not have approved the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the extension of the franchise to women, or the abolition of hanging. In those far off days, no-one would have dreamed of saying that we should have carried on locking up gay people on general democratic principles. At least, no one worth paying any attention to. Nowadays populism is all the rage and it is only a matter of time before someone says that it was undemocratic of Wilberforce to abolish the slave trade until this drastic step had been approved by the will of the people as expressed in a referendum.

Interestingly enough, SK says that the hyper emotive question of capital punishment is one which it would be sensible and reasonable to put to a referendum. And indeed, people who like strangling people have been saying for sixty years, very probably correctly, that a referendum on the subject would result in a pro-strangling majority.

It seems to me that this is a desperately bad augment and demonstrates the exact problem why referenda are never a good idea.

Capital punishment, simply as such, does not exist. What exists are particular laws and constitutions which allow people to strangle other people under certain specific circumstances. If you repealed the 2001 Human Rights act and restored the death penalty for high treason, piracy, naval sabotage and impersonating a Chelsea pensioner, then you would have "brought back" capital punishment. If you repealed the 1963 murder act and restored the death penalty for five specific and rare categories of murder, you would have "brought back capital punishment". The state of California has capital punishment: it asphyxiates serial killers at the rate of about one a decade. China has the death penalty: it thinks nothing of shooting several hundred people for tax evasion and corruption every Monday before breakfast. A certain vocal minority of Boris Johnson's supporters thinks that Remain voters should be hanged, specifically from lampposts. (Which seems a little impractical. They ought to watch that film with Timothy Spall.)

So: you can't simply have a referendum on "capital punishment". So far as I can see you have two options. Either your referendum says "the next time the government reconsiders the criminal justice laws, do you give them permission to consider strangulation as one possible criminal penalty for certain crimes?" The government would then go away and look at all the arguments in favour of capital punishment, of which there are none, and say "We've had a very good look at this, but we've decided that the present system of life without parole being the worst possible punishment is working just fine."

The other option is for the government to have the long, boring discussion first, and to come up with a parliamentary bill which includes strangulation as one of the options. They could then ask the public to approve or disapprove of that specific law. So the question is not "in a general way, would you be okay with us occasionally strangling someone?". It would be more like "do you endorse section 53 of the criminal justice (strangulation) bill?".

I understand that this is how the Irish system works. They don't take a popularity poll. ("Gay marriage—love it or hate it?") They say "Here is a new law that the government has written, which changes the definition of marriage in the following way, with lots of dull small print about divorce and adoption and inheritance. Do you endorse or reject this new law?"

Now, the Irish system has the advantage of not being obviously insane. But legislation is by definition long, boring and difficult to understand: so you are asking Seamus Public to endorse or reject something he has probably not read. The MPs have spent hours and weeks and months in committees listening to evidence from lawyers and psychologists and people who have been murdered, and gone through the law with a fine-tooth comb to make sure that every single word makes legal sense. How is it sensible to give people who were not at the meetings the final say?

And then what happens next? Suppose the motion put before the Popular Will is, in effect, "go through Criminal Justice laws; delete 'life imprisonment'; replace with 'death sentence'." Does this bind all judges for the rest of time to hand down death sentences where they would previously have sent people to jail? If a judge hands down a lessor sentence, or accepts a plea of mitigation, or if the Queen or the Home Secretary commute a sentence, is the Daily Hate within its rights to say "Traitor! Enemy of the People! Hanging Means Hanging!" And what about five or ten years down the line? After the tenth or twentieth innocent person has been strangled? Is the government of the day entitled to say "we've looked at the evidence, this isn't working, we are going back to how we were before and sending murderers to prison"? Is the Daily Hate not allowed to say "the people gave you a one off irrevocable instruction to start strangling people: if you go against it you are an enemy of the people!"

Enemy of the People is the title of the play about the shark, incidentally, although most experts now think "a public enemy" is a better translation. There's also one with a duck in it.

There is more.

SK says that the question of capital punishment could reasonably be put to a public vote because it is a question without a correct answer. It depends on fundamental moral values, apparently. 

This is of course exactly what people who are on the losing side of an argument always say. No-one ever says "Oh, I am afraid I just have a gut feeling that the world is round and there is no way you can convince me otherwise, nor should you want to. We will just have to agree to differ." It is Tony Blair, when his positive case for invading Iraq falls apart, who says "I just happen to kinda feel sincerely that killing Saddam is the right thing to do, and only God can judge me." It is David Cameron when he has exhausted the sensible arguments in favour of first-past-the-post elections who says "This is not the kind of question that you can answer rationally. I just know deep in my heart that single transferable vote is unBritish".

I reject the idea that one's support for or opposition to capital punishment necessarily rest on unarguable moral assumptions. I think that one can demonstrate that capital punishment is wrong in principal and useless in practice by the use of logic, evidence, moral principles, and common sense. Hanging enthusiasts would doubtless wish to point out flaws in my logic, challenge my evidence, and cast doubt on my moral principles: this precisely proves the point that it is the sort of question about which you can have an argument. (It was Prof Lewis's go-to example of "a question on which good people can disagree", a thing which is "not certainly right, but not certainly wrong either".)

It may perhaps be true that some people maintain their support for or opposition to capital punishment regardless of the arguments one way or the other. This may be what SK means by "fundamental moral values". One guy says "I know that capital punishment has no tendency to reduce the murder rate; is more expensive than prison to administer; and will certainly result in the killing of many innocent people; but I don't really care, I just kinda like the idea of bad people getting strangled." The other guy says "I know that natural justice and retribution are sound moral principles; I accept that some people are so wicked that they will never reform and I concede that killing someone is hardly less cruel than incarcerating them for life, but I don't really care, the idea of the state employing someone to ritually strangle other people disgusts and appalls me." If anything, these are aesthetic premises rather than moral ones. I think that killing someone in cold blood is ugly; you think that the suffering of a bad person is beautiful.

You might, I suppose, go a stage further and say that all of our so-called-arguments are really only ever post-hoc justifications for our aesthetic preferences. You say that you are concerned with deterring crime, but really, you just have a gut level liking for hanging people. I say I am concerned with the possibility of killing an innocent person, but really, I am just squicked out by the idea of executions. It might even be that all arguments are like that. We just as well abandon all that pesky evidence and logic and vote with our guts.

That's another reason why referenda are so dangerous. In order to justify them we have to reduce complicated questions to gut feelings and then say that gut feeling are the only feelings which matter.

I think this country has had quite enough of experts.

I agree with A. J Ayer that moral questions can't be answered in a vacuum. The question "Is capital punishment right or wrong?" is literally meaningless: you have to ask "Is capital punishment right or wrong according to Christian morality?" or "according to the universal declaration of human rights?" or "according to the principle of the greatest good to the greatest number?" So it might be that after carefully weighing up all the pros and cons we find that I am opposed to capital punishment because I am a Christian, and you support capital punishment because you are a utilitarian. But it doesn't follow that no communication is possible and we might just as well have a straw poll and find out whether my lot outnumber your lot. We could have a grown-up discussion about whether our present constitution requires us to base our decisions on Christian or Utilitarian principles; and if that fails; about how we decide which set of principles should be enshrined in the constitution; and whether that is itself an ethical question, and so on "back to the original and highly controversial creation of the universe".

But perhaps there are "beliefs" which are even deeper and holier and more axiomatic than "I am a Christian", "I am an humanitarian", "I am a Tottenham Hotspur supporter." Perhaps we are looking for a unified field theory of morals. If you say "Anyone who has killed anyone else must be killed", I can say "And why do you think that?" If I say "No-one should kill anyone else under any circumstances", you can say "And what would happen if everyone agreed with you?" Perfectly good questions with perfectly good answers. As long as you can carry on asking questions, you haven't got to a first principle. Why is the sky blue? Because of the way the atmosphere refracts the visible spectrum. Why does the atmosphere refract the visible spectrum in that way? Because of the chemical properties of the gases which it is composed of. Why is the atmosphere composed of those gasses...

But if we keep digging for long enough, perhaps we will discover some fundamental bottom level gut
level archetypal irreducible heartfelt foundational beliefs that can never change or be questioned. Maybe it is like, I don't know, gender, or your True Name: a thing which is part of you on the inside and which no one else can know or challenge. The Bishop of Woolworths talked about The Ground of Our Being and said that these irreducible heartfelt foundation beliefs are what we are really talking about when we talk about God. And perhaps your fundamental bottom level gut level archetypal irreducible heartfelt foundational beliefs are different from my fundamental bottom level gut level archetypal irreducible heartfelt foundational beliefs. Perhaps my FBLGLAIHFB says that what is ultimately of value is Freedom. And perhaps your FBLGLAIHFB says that what is ultimately of value are Extensive Collections of Different Varieties of Rare and Exotic Newts.

Newts versus freedom.

Freedom versus newts.

Across such a chasm there can be no further communication.

Whereof we cannot speak thereof we should be silent.

I'm done.

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

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

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Pour cowslip dew into my cup; a puritan am I!

Morris dancing is a mostly English tradition of highly stylized folk dance. It is definitely old -- Shakespeare's Dauphin mockingly compares the English preparations for war to a Whitsun morris dance. But like most things in the English folk tradition, it is not as ancient as we like to pretend: it goes back centuries, not millennia. I think I am correct in saying that without exception, present-day Morris sides all go back only to the Victorian folk revival; there are no places where there is a continuous tradition going back to the fifteenth century. Almost certainly it wasn't an ancient pre-Christian fertility dance, but it's quite fun to pretend that it was. Everyone involved seems to agree that on one level its quite silly: beery men with bells on their fingers and toes and waving hankies in the air -- but its also colourful and fun and almost always involves good tunes. The idea of a lot of groups of people taking a lot of trouble to keep up a tradition which is on the surface a bit ridiculous seems a properly English thing to be doing.

Every few years someone in the unfolkie media spots that a few Morris sides perform with black make-up on their faces.

I am not sure whether anyone is really (as opposed to theoretically) offended by the sight of fat white people with boot polish on their faces waving handkerchiefs in the air. (I thought that all the most important philosophers of the age were agreed that there was no such thing as giving offence or if there was it didn't matter?) But I am completely certain that no serious harm is done to the Tradition if the flanneled fools leave the boot polish off. I didn't see a single black face side at Sidmouth; I think all the Border groups have taken to painting their faces red or blue or green. Which definitely offends no-one and is actually more fun.

The etymological fallacy is just as much a fallacy when applied to folk traditions as when applied to -- well -- etymology. A word means what you mean by the word, and what other people understand you to mean by the word -- not what Simon Heffer says the word "originally" meant. Grammar nerds may or may not be correct in saying that at one time decimate meant "to reduce by one tenth": but right now it means "to lay waste to" because that is how people use it. They are both wrong and offensive when they claim that wog is not "really" a racial slur because it "originally" meant Worshipful Oriental Gentleman.

Blackface Morris may not originally have had anything to do with making fun of black people. I am inclined to think it did not. The boot polish represents the fact that the people who invented the dances were coal miners, or chimney sweeps, or people who didn't want their wives to spot them Morris dancing after curfew. But it doesn't make a blind bit of difference what it originally meant. What matters is what "white men doing song and dance routines in black make up" means right now.

Yes, there is some evidence that prick and cunt were at one time perfectly neutral medical terms for those particular parts of the body. No, that doesn't mean it's fine to say them kids TV.

"Blacking up" means a great deal more than "I am playing the role of a person of a different race from the one I happen to be." It means something morel like "I am well aware of the whole patronizing black-minstrel tradition and the whole sorry history of white people appropriating black people's art and I don't give a damn. My right to wave hankies in the air with black boot polish on my cheeks is more important."

God knows, it's not a great idea for a European person to pretend to be an Asian person either. There was a Doctor Who story in which that happened: I forget the title, but I understand that it still polarizes opinion. But "yellowing up" does not carry the same cultural baggage as "blacking up". I think that's why Johnny Depp got away with playing a Comanche where he would never in ten million years have got away with playing a Negro.

I don't think that it follows that you can merely add the suffix -up to the name of a particular group and take that as incontrovertible proof that no-one outside that group can represent a member of that group on stage or screen. I don't know if Christians can ever properly understand what it is to be Jewish. Probably they can't. I don't know if  Jews can convincingly play Christians. (I might be inclined, like Laurence Olivier, to ask "if they have ever considered acting, darlingBut I am pretty certain that it is not helpful to accuse Kenneth Brannagh of "Danishing-up" or "wearing Dane-face" to play Hamlet.

There are exceptions and special cases and everything is a negotiation. Yes, I understand, you are constructing an authentic historical re-enactment of a festival in fifteenth century Shropshire and you want the Morris dancing to be exactly the way it was then, period instruments and period shoes and period face paint and all. No, that isn't at all the same thing as some big beery guys doing a country dance on a windswept Devon seafront. Yes, I get that your movie about the antebellum South included a loving recreation of a minstrel show; no that doesn't make the Black and White Minstrel show perfectly okay. If a lady can play King Lear, Prospero, or Hamlet, then a white man can probably have a go at Othello. But probably not with boot polish.

"But then won't all the racists just gravitate to the historical re-enactment events?" Aye, there's the rub. I came across a YouTube stream in which a fellow was working his way through the complete songs of Stephen Foster, Camptown Races and Hard Times Come Again No More and all. He explained that since this was partly an historical endeavor, he was singing the songs as Foster wrote them, while acknowledging that some of the language was offensive. Sure enough the comments section filled up with white people saying how wonderful it was to hear Oh Sussanah! with the n-word intact and how great it was to be standing up to the force of political correctness etc etc etc.

A man in the Guardian -- where else? -- went a bit further. He managed to go from "blacked-up Morris dancing has quite definitely had its day" to "the whole idea of folk music is inherently racist." This seems to be a caricature of a liberal position, the sort of thing that the sort of people who read the Daily Telegraph imagine that the sort of people who read the Guardian would think Yet here it is in, er, black and white:

But former Green councillor and parliamentary candidate Ian Driver has been campaigning for years against the way Broadstairs folk week supports blacked-up morris dancers. He calls the festival “institutionally racist” and says the organisers are all white and the acts are 90% white even though there is African-Caribbean, Hispanic and Eastern European folk music which would better represent the local area.

It is entirely true that from an ethnomusicological point of view, a traditional Afro-Carribean drum performance "is" folk music whereas Richard Thompson singing Meet on the Ledge is not. This is precisely as interesting a distinction as the pub bore who explains that there shouldn't be a Star Trek panel at the Science Fiction convention because there is no proper scientific rationale for warp drive. Yes: by one definition science fiction means "stories based on solid scientific conjecture". And those definitions might be quite helpful if you are writing your thesis. But what people at the science fiction convention are interested in is "stories about robots and space ships and aliens and shit, and, incidentally, dragons and swords and magic as well."

The line between folk music and not-folk music is very wobbly and entirely arbitrary. No-one raises their eye-brows if someone sings a Johnny Cash number or some blues tunes at Sidmouth; Jackie Oates includes a John Lennon cover in her set. But folk festivals play the kinds of music which the kinds of people who go to folk festivals want to hear; and there is a pretty broad consensus of what kind of music that is. There is a clear connecting line between English, Scottish and Irish folks songs; and between them and Canadian and Appalachian traditions; and between that and the singer-song-writers who were influenced by that tradition. The people who want to hear Nick Hart singing Child Ballad 10 demonstrably also want to hear Ralph McTell singing Streets of London. They mainly don't want to hear Dakhabraka's high octane purist baiting sound clash. And I suspect that man singing John Barleycorn with a violin in his ear would be laughed off the stage at WOMAD. A huge festival like Glastonbury represents a much wider range of taste.

Would it be a good idea if everyone had much broader tastes? Yes. Would it be a good idea for folkies to sometimes listen to something other than folk music? Maybe. Is it unhealthy to only read superhero comics? Probably. Would it be a good idea to insist on seminars on Racism in Mansfield Park at Comicon and panels about the Anti-life Equation at the Jane Austen Conference? Actually, that might be a really cool idea: get everyone to step outside their comfort zones. I'd like to imagine that that comic book nerds "get" Jane Austen better than the Eng. Lit. profs. "get" comic books, but I think it would probably be the other way round. Is it rather more important for white people to listen to non-white music and read non-white literature than the other way round? Yes, definitely: because everything you read or listen to or think about is part of "white culture" except when you make a conscious effort for it not to be. That's what "privilege" means. Is it institutionally racist for straight white middle class home makers to mainly read books about straight white middle class home makers or at any rate the kinds of books which straight white middle class home makers tend to like? That sounds an awful lot like political correctness gone. an attempt at political hyper-correction.

Not too long ago I mentioned to a friend that I was bingeing on Karl Ove Knaugsgaad, who they happened not to have heard of. I described the books, and they respond "Ohhh...Fathers and sons... It's a bit straight white male, isn't it?"

To which my only available response was to point to myself and say "Er...Hello."

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

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

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Downfall Meme

Tolkien didn't like pantomimes. He thought that A.A Milne had completely missed the point of Wind in the Willows; he thought that Macbeth was better on the page than on the stage. Fairies and witches and talking toads should, he thought, be left to the imagination.

That said, he sold the film rights to Lord of the Rings in 1968 for the princely sum of £10,000. Cash or kudos, he is reported as saying: if you are going to make a rotten film of my masterpiece, I expect to be well paid; but if it's going to be a good film, you can have it cheap. £10,000 was quite a lot of money in those days.


Game of Thrones has established that we are all prepared to watch seventy-hour TV adaptations of  big-long books, so many big-long books are inevitably going to be adapted. Dune and Earthsea and Watchmen and a new Hitchhiker loom on the horizon. How quaint, how retro, how six-months-ago it now looks of the BBC to have rattled through twelve hundred pages of Les Miserables in hardly more than six hours.

The Lord of the Rings is unquestionably very big and very long. It has dragons and battle scenes and wizards. People who are not specially interested in fantasy have heard of it. Christopher Tolkien has withdrawn from the fray. Tolkien Estate: The Next Generation is less unamenable than he was to enormous cheques  respectful dramatizations of Grandpa's works. A seventy hour TV series is an inevitability.

Speaking for myself, I think some Dragon Fatigue may be kicking in. I watched Game of Thrones: I watched most of it twice and I stayed awake through nearly all of it. I thought it was fabulous; I didn't even specially object to the ending. But, you know, there was a hell of a lot of it. Maybe I'm ready to go away and read Chekov for bit?

Same goes for superheroes. The Eternals and the Fourth World were the two best things Jack Kirby ever did, which is to say, the two best things which have ever been done, but I greet the news that they are both being turned into movie-films with a certain ennui. Darkseid is not DCs version of Thanos; Thanos was Marvel's version of Darksied. So many Tweets.

But there is no avoiding it. Amazon have to make a Lord of the Rings TV series, and I will have to watch it. 

When I heard that Amazon were going to make a Lord of the Rings TV series, I naturally assumed that this meant that Amazon were going to make a Lord of the Rings TV series. But nothing could be further from the truth. What Amazon are actually going to make is a TV series called The Lord of the Rings, in which they will be contractually prohibited from including any scenes or characters from Tolkien's novel.

It's not as mad as it sounds. In fact, the more I think about it, the better I like the idea. 

It is very nearly 20 years since Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring. (Some of the perpetrators are still at large.) It's 5 years since I sat in the back row of the Bristol Odeon whimpering "please, please, make it stop" at Jackson's infinitely prolonged Battle of the Five Armies.

Twenty years is no longer a very long time in popular culture. When Star Wars came out, Forbidden Planet (1956) looked quaintly dated and antediluvian. But the Fellowship of the Ring does not remotely feel like an Old Movie. I suppose it is because of DVDs and Netflix: everyone who is interested in that kind of thing has seen Lord of the Rings, even if they weren't born when it first hit the multiplex.

Jackson has defined what Middle-earth looks like for the foreseeable future. Any new version of Lord of the Rings would be in competition with his imagery. No actor wants to spend seven seasons being not quite as good as dear, dear, Sir Ian, and no special effects guy wants his Balrog to be unfavourably compared with Weta's.

If you are one of the sixteen or seventeen people who still read books, then of course, you would like
to see the Lord of the Rings adapted by someone who isn't Peter Jackson, which is to say, properly. That was my main reaction to Game of Thrones. Every time there was a ten-minute council scene or fifteen minutes of character development or a battle that mostly took place off screen but still felt dirty-nasty-scary-brutal I asked myself why the Lord of the Rings couldn't have been done in that style.

Leisurely pace. Multiple plot lines. Slow burn character development. Naked ladies.

But with the Jackson thing fresh in our minds it makes perfect sense not to rewind and start the whole long slow trek to Morrrrdor all over again.


At the end of the First Age the humans who helped the elves defeat Sauron's boss Morgoth were given a wondrous and improbably star-shaped island called Numenor to live on. But Sauron infiltrated the kingdom in the form of Santa Claus Annatar the Gift-Giver and corrupted the Kings. He eventually persuaded one of them to launch a military invasion of the Undying Lands -- with the intention of stealing immortality from the gods.

This does not go well. The entire island is destroyed. Numenor sinks to the bottom of the sea. They don't even have time for a second referendum. Tolkien tells us that in the Numenorian language, The Downfallen comes out as Atalante, and he swears he didn't do it deliberately.

A few survivors come to Middle-earth ("with seven stars and seven stones and one white tree"). They found Minas Tirith, and defeat Sauron all over again. It turns out that this era -- known as the Second Age -- is going to be the setting for the new TV series. 

And why not? The lord of the rings was a title given to Sauron: the full title of Frodo's book is "the History of the Downfall of the Lord of the Rings". The Second Age is the era when Sauron rose to power and suffered his first defeat. The story of the Second age has much more right to be called the Lord of the Rings than the Lord of the Rings does. 


The Second Age takes about 4,000 years of chronological time. The story takes up about 40 pages of Christopher Tolkien's synthetic Silmarillion; but Tolkien left many other notes and adventure seeds and hints which Chris has spent half a century decoding. The Unfinished Tales contains a few lines about each of the reigning kings of Numenor. [**] 

"Tar-Ciryatan...scorned the yearnings of his father and eased the restlessness of his heart by voyaging east and north and south until he took the scepter. It is said that he constrained his father to yield it to him ere of his free will he would, in this way (it is held) might the first Coming of the Shadow upon the bliss of Numenor be seen."

Cecil B Demille said that he could get a movie out of any two pages of the Bible: it wouldn't be hard to spin a 45 minute TV episode out of that one paragraph. Tolkien left us reams and reams of this stuff. 

No-one thinks that there is anything odd or funny about historical fiction. If they weren't allowed to make long, dull T.V shows about Thomas Moore and Anne Lister BBC 2 would pretty much go out of business. At one level, historical fiction is all about making stuff up: we don't know what Thomas Moore said to Henry VIII on the fifth Tuesday of 1531, so someone who is a good historian and a good storyteller has to imagine it. But we do know lots of facts about Harry and Tom and lots of facts about the world they lived in; and a decent historical novelist sticks to those very closely indeed. So the instructions "make a TV series about an era which Tolkien only sketched out; without deviating from the historical notes he left behind" seems entirely comprehensible. Pseudo-historical fiction; historical pseudo-fiction.

(Yes, there is some historical fiction which pretty much dispenses with the facts and just spins a yarn about that time Queen Elizabeth I dressed up as a boy and traveled along the Spanish Main with her lover Francis Drake. That's the kind of historical fiction which the Tolkien estate has not commissioned.)

Apparently, Amazon have strict instructions to keep their hands of the First and Third Ages. This also makes a great deal of sense. Doubtless the rights to make pseudo-historical drama about other sections of the Legendarium are going to be separately parceled out. An epic movie about the doomed love of Beren and Luthien is entirely feasible, although I still think it would go better into an opera. Who wouldn't want to see Turin Turanbur do his dragon-slayings-sister-screwing routine on the big screen? I am less convinced that the story of Feanor and the holy gems -- the backbone of the Silmarillion -- is adaptable. The early First Age material is too much about gods and immortals and millennia flying past between paragraphs. A big special effects scene in which Satan and the Cosmic Spider drink the light from the Two Trees before the Creation of the Sun and the Moon risks turning into mere spectacle with UltraMagnus and Godzilla riding in at the last minute to save the day. Its the difference between Mr Demille making a movie out of Judges chapters six and seven and thinking he can film the book of Revelation. 


Once a scene has been visualized, it can't be unvisualized.

When a film gets it disastrously wrong, not much harm is done. Probably no-one finds Peter Jackson's winged Balrog interposing itself between them and a re-reading of Tolkien's text: Jackson's creature had pretty much nothing to do with Tolkien's description. But when a film-maker gets it right, or, worse, nearly right, then film and book are entangled for all time. Jackson's visualizations of Hobbiton and Minas Tirith and maybe even Lothlorian are very good; so that's what Hobbiton and Minas Tirith and Lothlorian look like from now on. Gollum is Andy Serkis and will always be Andy Serkis even though Peter Woodthorp did it better.

So. If Amazon's visualization of the Second Age is silly and dull and camp then we can ignore it and the Akallabeth will be the same as it always was. But if it is very good indeed then the lives and the histories of the Kings of Numenor, which Tolkien only hinted at ,will be fixed and crystallized in the form Amazon Prime gives them. When we re-read the Unfinished Tales we will always be thinking "oh, that was the one played by Sean Bean; that was the Kenneth Brannagh cameo; that was the really cool special effects sequence..." The better and more faithful it is, the more likely we are to end up with a secondary canon, consistent with, but distinct from, the words which Tolkien actually wrote.

Does the Legendarium weave its spell because it is so fragmentary? Is the point of the Second Age that it is four thousand years which Tolkien gallops over in a few pages? Are those kings and queens with strange names fascinating just because we know so little about them? Is Atalante a powerful idea just because it isn't embodied in a proper narrative?

We have asked the same question about the Phantom Menace and Before Watchmen and Doomsday Clock and Christopher Tolkien asked the same question about the Silmarillion itself.

And yet: the Silmarillion is very condensed; very dense; very inaccessible; a book which is often said to be unreadable, especially by those who haven't read it. 

And it is full of this kind of thing.

And Isildur said no word, but went out by night and did a deed for which he was afterwards renowned.

For he passed alone in disguise to Armenelos and to the courts of the King, which were now forbidden to the Faithful; and he came to the place of the Tree, which was forbidden to all by the orders of Sauron, and the Tree was watched day and night by guards in his service.

At that time Nimloth was dark and bore no bloom, for it was late in the autumn, and its winter was nigh;

And Isildur passed through the guards and took from the Tree a fruit that hung upon it, and turned to go.

But the guard was aroused, and he was assailed, and fought his way out, receiving many wounds; and he escaped, and because he was disguised it was not discovered who had laid hands on the Tree.

But Isildur came at last hardly back to RĂ³menna and delivered the fruit to the hands of Amandil, ere his strength failed him. Then the fruit was planted in secret, and it was blessed by Amandil; and a shoot arose from it and sprouted in the spring.

But when its first leaf opened then Isildur, who had lain long and come near to death, arose and was troubled no more by his wounds.

It may be a disaster of Hobbit trilogy proportions. But surely no ageing fan-boy can fail to be excited by the thought of a 45 minute end-of-season cliffhanger based on that paragraph?

[*] Jackson's Lord of the Rings was a moderately unsuccessful attempt to film Tolkien's unfilmable novel but, if you ignore some lapses of taste, it was a very good fantasy movie. I place it roughly in the same category as the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, speaking as someone who really, really likes the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. The Hobbit, on the other hand, was a bad adaption, a bad movie, a bad computer game, a bad theme part ride, bad, bad, bad. It makes Jackson's sacrificial butchering of King Kong look like a masterpiece. I have not yet seen the one in which world war one soldiers are chased across the landscape by sentient cities.

[**] And also linear measurements. 5000 ranguar make 1 lar, apparently.

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

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

Sunday, August 25, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boris Johnson is not a Fascist. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because that way Charles will never be King. 

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

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

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

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

Not "Nigel Farage criticizes Prince Charles".

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

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

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

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Saturday, August 10, 2019

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


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

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

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

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

Friday, August 09, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diary composed in Mocha

Thursday, August 08, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

Diary written in The Chattery

Wednesday, August 07, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 06, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diary written on a bench outside Sidmouth Public Library

Monday, August 05, 2019


There are no cash points in Sidmouth!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diary written in Black Horse pub.