Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Labour's class coalition coming unstuck over Europe

Labour’s pragmatism (or waffle/procrastination) over Brexit, argues writer Nick Cohen, is both psephologically illiterate and ideologically motivated. Of course trying to bridge different interests has a very long tradition in the party. A compromise among Labour’s class and ideological broad church brought majority Labour governments for at least some of the period from 1945-2010. On Europe, Labour has never been enthusiastic, preferring to try on this, as on many other major issues, to manage (or obfuscate) the deep divisions within its electoral and parliamentary coalition.

Gaitskell feigned ‘little Englander’ anger at a prospective ‘end of a thousand years of history,’ while Wilson only tentatively sought to get beyond De Gaulle’s ‘Non’ in response to Macmillan's speculative application. It was Tory PM Heath who forced through the UK’s membership of the then Common Market (with the backing of some dissident Labour MPs) in an exercise in executive chutzpah. Three years later Wilson foreshadowed Cameron by putting political convenience before national interest and held the UK’s first referendum on whether to leave the European project. In the 1950s and early 1960s Jim Callaghan had reflected the Labourite conservatism of the Party’s trade union base in being instinctively unenthusiastic about the Common Market. However, as foreign secretary and then Prime Minister in the 1970s, Callaghan understood that as a middle-ranking post-imperial power, the UK was either in the club or it was irrelevant. 

Labour leader Michael Foot had to swallow many of the ideological stances of a hard left that - as a parliamentary socialist, intellect and pragmatist - he usually had little time for. However Foot tried his best to manage the then intra-party coalition that was rupturing over Europe – and over much else. Kinnock and Smith took Labour back to its broad church position on Europe, defence, and the economy. Blair in turn maintained that traditional Labour pragmatism on Europe. However the desperation of party that, in Austin Mitchell’s famous words, was ‘prepared to eat shit to get a Labour government,’ meant that Blair and Brown could get away with upholding the neo-liberal abdication of national interest they inherited from Margaret Thatcher, even if much of the country baulked at their unprecedentedly supine and ill-considered Iraq policy. Blair was arguably an outlier in Labour’s tradition, although on much social and welfare policy, and on Europe, he was pragmatic. 

Corbyn though is the first ever Labour leader who's not a genuine managerial pragmatist. He’s also the first Labour leader since George Lansbury to have little interest in leading. Corbyn is rooted in the late 1970s and early 1980s hard left Labour ‘activist’ myopia that favoured ideological correctness over class compromise. Back in the day, a half-baked perversion of cod Marxist theory led the polytechnocrats and bourgeois militants of the Bennite left to believe that, from the ashes of the dialectical clash of the differing class interests that have characterised the Party from birth to government, a truly socialist (ruling) class could emerge to finally deliver socialism.

The spectacle of a Labour Party, a Labour Party, run by middle class activists purporting, Leninist-style, to lead the proletariat into the light, didn’t convince many of the working class, then or now. Nor did it attract many of the middle class: the support of sufficient white-collar workers has always been a necessary and important part of Labour’s coalition. 

Today, the ideological heirs of Labour’s early 1980s deviation into political irrelevance are prioritising their own version of the party’s historic pragmatic alliance. In their case however it’s a very unholy union of bourgeois leftist disdain for a ‘capitalist club’ (the EU) with the appeasement of Labour’s disappearing white working class voting base who are angry over immigration and the loss of national sovereignty.  

Labour might now decide that the middle class electoral swing to the pro-EU Lib-Dem centre (and the Green left) is so out-stripping the loss of (white) working class Labour voters to the Brexit Party, that it can no longer maintain the party’s historic fudge on Europe. However a firm Labour embrace of another referendum – because Tories aren’t going to vote for an early electoral Christmas, to paraphrase aspirant Labour Party leader McDonnell – could mean JC jettisoning his misguided version of Labour class pragmatism in favour of a stance that hardly convinces anybody.

Corbyn cannot seek to persuade 'decent moderate Tories' (to paraphrase Baroness Chakrabarti on the ‘Marr’ show) to back another national referendum if he doesn’t make clear how he wants actual or prospective Labour voters to vote. Likewise, he cannot present himself as the nation’s prospective PM in the event of a short-notice general election if he can’t say whether he wants Britain to be in or out of the EU. So, unless Corbyn intends to approach the next fork in the road with the response he’s maintained ever since the last EU referendum, he will be forced to break the Party’s historic class coalition and to prioritise the winning back of liberal middle class voters. However unless they are convinced by Corbyn's 11th hour decisiveness, then Labour might have kissed goodbye to the white working class and to the prospect of ever returning to power.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

'My Favourite Things'

Is a musically weak and lyrically inane take by Ariane Grande on the Rogers and Hammerstein original anything to be concerned about?

A billion streams cannot be wrong

She has released a (legal) update on an admittedly saccharine sentiment and a tune whose beauty was understood by John Coltrane among others…

and converted it into a putrid paean to materialism with a lame urban vibe and a trite melodic appropriation.

Is she to be applauded because those from yesteryear with a tad more talent are, as a consequence, being talked about?

Is the woman whose career, through no fault of her own, was boosted by evil murderers driven by ideological-based hatred, guilty of offering the world her tears and a tribute to gross consumption?

Or is she being ironic, like other pop commentators at the top of their game from decades past who’ve used their platforms to preach anti-material morals whilst creaming in the dosh?

Does pop do irony anymore?

Just how rich is this vacuous, soulless, to my, no doubt malign ear, production-line muzak babe with an average voice and very average tunes, going to be made by celebrating ‘bubbles’ and other of her favourite things?

I find it funny that everybody seemingly hates politicians; there all in it for what they can get, aren’t they; they betray the people; climbing the greasy poll and stabbing us and each other in the back. Yet none of them are paid more than £100,000 a year to represent our often squalid and prejudiced world views.

But millions will worship a singer who, to her credit, has the honesty to tell you about what she is more than able to afford, make a virtue of it, and take your money in the process. These are the people we like, aren’t they? They don’t exploit people or their position, do they? They don’t have power, right? They don’t look after themselves at the expense of others. They connect with those less fortunate than themselves. They (often) come from humble beginnings... whatever that means. They’re not glorying in the globally-sanctioned excess that makes a few rich and many poor……

I have never (except for maybe a few months when I was 19) favoured revolution. But honestly, if you forced me to say the kind of people who should be candidates for elimination – because that’s what happens in revolutions - then I wouldn’t hesitate …… and nor of course would those who killed the innocents at her Manchester concert. So we cannot go there.

But Ariane Grande is not an innocent; she is a fellow traveller in unbridled exploitation and a singer of some of its worst tunes. For which she is popular. So who is innocent then?

Thursday, February 14, 2019


Who has it?
Not me.
Though I could
If I chose
But I choose not to.
I choose to forfeit
My right to be myself
To determine my future
Because I am fearful of the consequences
Of doing so
Even though I know
In my heart of hearts
That I could be happier
If I did.

It’s the little things
That indicate the person who
Cannot choose to be themselves
Who almost wants to suffer
To be a prisoner
Of the one who tried to imprison him
All those years ago.
The prisoner who therapists said
Could take control
Because everyone is entitled
To be free
To be themselves.
But if I was myself
I would murder and maim
I would cut out the tongues
Of those who might disrespect me
Or remove their legs in case they might
Move close to me.

I have been let down
By my parents
By myself
By hope
By faith
But not by love.

I have not been betrayed by love
(Outside of the family)
But each morning I rise
And wonder how to fill
Another meaningless day
Until I die
In 20-30 years.
That’s less than the time since
We first met.
In less than that time
I will be dead
And I am told
That that time will be
What I make it
And if I breathe from my stomach
And focus on the positive
And connect with the unborn self
And am alive to the present
But this is the fucking present
Right now
As I type this
This is the present
Where I am centred
And want to weep
Because I will never have control
I have forfeited that
To all the other people I encounter
Who determine my life
And I let them
And I seem to be happy with that
Don’t I?

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Joyce, the Cavern and the Pool

I felt very disrespectful as I tried to tread Joyce off from the soles of my hiking boots onto the floor of the Cavern Club. Mind you this is no regular musical shrine. It's the almost original venue of the Beatles and other assorted beat combos from the ‘Pool. In fact it's the one over the road from the original, but it does go back to 1966 when, although the Beatles had long since left town, a local MP, Harold Wilson, was on hand to mark the opening of the new venue.

There had been quite a lot of Joyce spillage in the process of disbursing some of her ashes in as discrete a fashion as possible. We both then tried to cover up the evidence by plonking our backpacks on top of what stubbornly looked like a very bright, white, pile of powder. The whole point was to leave Joyce in a place she connected with. And in this shrine to the greatest pop band of all time, you could connect. I had been feeling a tad awkward about the total tourist excess of the venue, but, after some Theakston’s and a local singer offering ‘Norwegian Wood’ to some Scandinavian tourists, I had begun to feel better. As we prepared to climb the stairs out of the Cavern we trod heavily on the stone slabbed floor in the hope of leaving more of Joyce behind on this hallowed ground. Outside in Mathew Street, a middle aged bloke and his mother were about to go downstairs; he was telling security that ‘all this lot was her stuff’, and that he’d only come to Liverpool to remember ‘A Flock of Seagulls’. V and me laughed as this connected with our last trip to Liverpool with Joyce in 2015, although I’ve been a Beatles’ fan since I was a boy. We inspected the entrance to the renowned (upstairs at) ‘Eric’s’, a small venue where a good friend had seen John Martyn in 1979, and admired a new tribute to Submarine-era Fabs.

Downstairs at Eric's

Repairing to one of Liverpool’s oldest and most famous pubs, Thomas Rigby’s, V prepared a Cavern postcard as a memento of what we had just done; silver gel penning her Mum’s name to the photographed roster of performers who’d played there, and writing some words to her niece. Lunchtime drinking is a tricky exercise, though it’s one made easier when you’re on holiday. A very drunk woman held court at the bar, engaging with every man who entered, and we mused on the reality of her relationship to the silent, bearded, ‘guardian’ who kept her company with tall glasses of lager alongside her tacky-looking cocktails. I started trying to write some of these words into a newly-purchased diary before switching to doing it on my phone in the delusion that this would make me seem less of a middle class tourist desperately trying to be less self-conscious. Her rantings partly made me envious of her (drunken) honesty, and partly chilled me to the bone as I was reminded of past acquaintances. Her excess made me question what we were all doing in a pub at 3 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon? Getting pissed in order exorcise some personal demons or to just blot out some fucking anxieties or other. Walking off my pint of ‘Quagmire’, running-in at a not immodest 6% and supplied, appropriately enough, by ‘The Big Bog’, a local microbrewery, V and I departed from the street and headed to the Docks via a car park. A blind man looked in danger of walking into a lot of traffic so I offered him a slightly awkward helping hand, fearful of patronising him or compromising his independence. He though was grateful. 

On the waterfront; the revamped Albert Dock on such a winter's day

We walked to the embarkation point where the legendary Ferry still crosses the Mersey, where Joyce, V and me had laid out on stone benches in the unexpected heat of a spring day, waiting for our ship to come in. We had then crossed, in time-honoured fashion, to the other side of the River to Birkenhead and a vision of hundreds of new cars from Ellesmere Port ready for export. This time V and me just walked around Albert Dock and felt the intense, icy Atlantic blast. Nick and Joyce were to be fused together in the second ritual disbursal of the day, as V distributed the contents of a tiny jam jar down the side of the wharf, most of the ash falling in to the Mersey itself. We walked around some of the waterfront’s iconic buildings, new and old, and examined some of the newer iconic sculptures: oversized Fabs and a more impressive Billy Fury whose stone figure had fresh flowers laid under it, marking perhaps the great man’s birthday or his tragic departure at 43.

Billy Fury under a brilliant Mersey skyline
Around the city of Liverpool and on Albert Dock you can enjoy the wacky art installations, the Superlambbananas (see below). Images from the city’s musical heritage, its natural beauty, the local community or from a lamb’s world (a wolf) are depicted on their side. Walking around the gentrified warehousing that contains the Tate Liverpool, we mused on how the development of Liverpool seemed to lack the crass social engineering of London even if these riverside apartments were out of most people’s reach.

A Superlambbanana featuring The Real Thing, China Crisis and The Mighty Wah

A Superlambanana featuring Echo & The Bunnymen (and The Mersey)

Detouring back to the city centre, The Central pub on Ranelagh Street beckoned as I had hankered after going into it ever since that earlier trip to the ‘Pool’. A glory of mirrors and wooden cubicles; steady drinking but nothing too excessive. At least not until a female customer got into a telephone barnie with her boyfriend. Considerate-like, she conducted it outside the pub. Valerie surmised that she’d been let down just one time too many by some scally and wasn’t prepared to put up with his shite any longer. When the woman came back into the pub, this verbose and somewhat tired and emotional lady was refused another drink. On her way out, the disgruntled customer repaid the compliment with the ‘cunt’ epithet. ‘I don’t think she likes me,’ the barmaid mused afterwards.

The telescreen does nothing to spoil the view in The Central pub
Two pints each were sunk before we decided to find some food, having read that the bar Tess Riley’s was just around the corner, which it was but we had unintentionally diverted via the shopping mall and Radio City’s iconic tower until we eventually found the huge pub. It was absolutely rammed; folks even older than us were doing a kind of line dance in the bar area. No food was on offer so we quickly exited, deciding that we should bow to the inevitable, ‘The Richard John Blackler’ in Charlotte Row, otherwise known as Wetherspoon’s. Friendly service, easy to find a seat, adequate burgers with a complimentary pint; what’s not to like? We were then drawn to ‘Smokie Mo’s – JR’s’ next door, a music pub that featured a soul-based duo, Jo and Jake, who were performing on a stage in the window as we stood watching from the street. After a few moments we hurried in, only to find that their storming set had just climaxed with Jo’s powerful interpretation of ‘You’re My World’, a song made famous by local lass Cilla Black. We exited immediately and Jay, the other half of this excellent duo, gave us a wave from the window, appreciating our conclusion that there was obviously no point sticking around any longer.

What now? Other bars seemed tame after that, while an Irish pub, the one next to.. eh… ‘The Irish House’, was stuck in its seeming never-ending and pretty anodyne solo acoustic set mode. We stomped about before deciding to return to Smokie Mo’s when we heard another performer take the window stage. Though possessed of a powerful and impressive voice, overall Joanne Wenton (see picture below) didn’t quite make the impact of Jo and Jay, largely because Joanne’s uncanny ability to deploy original backing musicians came care of her laptop. But, hey, that’s the deal. How else are you going to hear a version of ‘Let’s Stay Together’ comparable to Tina Turner’s take on Al Green’s original just for the price of a pint and only minutes from Lime Street Station Liverpool? We danced to Joanna doing a cover of a song by a local act, The Real Thing, ‘You to Me are Everything (the Sweetest Song that I can Sing, oh Baby…oh Baby)’. Joyce would definitely have wanted it that way.

Joanne Wenton, 'The Queen of Soul', performs at 'Smokie Mo's -JR's'  
It had been an emotional day. We had made the pilgrimage to Liverpool’s most famous musical venue (and a few other haunts besides). For all the probable power of a cleaner’s hoover, it is quite possible that some of Joyce will remain in The Cavern Club, secreted between the cracks where the stone floor meets the old brickwork walls. Our work was done.

Don't stop the dance (@'Smokie Mo's - JR's')

Sir Harold Wilson and the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool

We were given a key to the joint entrance to rooms 100 and 101 in Liverpool’s most iconic hotel, The Adelphi. Four years earlier I had only managed to get as far as the plaque outside that very modestly marks the fact that Harold Wilson - the 20th Century’s most electorally successful party leader - had used the suite as his Constituency Room.

The entrance to the Sir Harold Wilson suite, replete with modest plaque

The dark wooden doors led you into two rooms that are virtually unchanged since the Labour leader had used the hotel to conduct constituency business for his Liverpool seat of Huyton, located close to the city centre where the hotel stands. Opening the door to the sitting room, we were struck by the large dark marble fire place, replete with electric fire that looked vintage 1960s, an original looking dining table and even a fold-out green beige card table. The sofa was decidedly of a different vintage. However the huge windows, subtly painted mock Georgian wall panels, and phenomenal ceiling plaster moulding that would in Harold’s time have sported a chandelier not an electric mock candelabra, made it easy to imagine yourself in a time when the PM needed somewhere very comfortable to, perhaps once a month, conduct meetings with local party officials and trade unionists or to simply be based for a night in advance of a Saturday morning constituency surgery in Huyton.

Harold's sitting room (Room 100)
Room 100 at the Adelphi was handy on election night too (1966) (c/o 'Harold Wilson' by Ben Pimlott, HarperCollins, 1992)

Harold’s bedroom was equally original, minus the bed with its mock leather headboard. The huge, fitted wood and marble washstand cum chest of drawers, replete with deco-looking chrome towel rack, and the large marble fire place were not only in place when Wilson used these rooms but when this incarnation of the famous hotel opened in 1914. 

Harold's washstand

A huge wooden, mirrored, wardrobe had certainly been in the room for more than half a century. It is hard to imagine that a hotel that for several decades has had a funding problem – one not remotely alleviated by its comparatively recent transfer to the ownership of the Britannia chain – would replace anything that wasn’t broken, save for maybe the odd light bulb and, sadly, the original carpet. 

Sir Harold Wilson's bedroom

The bathroom separated the two main rooms; its tasteful frosted glass lattice work door opened to a porcelain furniture set that may not have been 1914 but was probably at least 1950s. Valerie mused on the idea that Sir Harold had used the very same bath as her. From the bathtub you can look out via an enormous window to the rather grand building opposite that in Wilson’s time housed Lewis’ department store. Above the entrance to Lewis’ (now no doubt housing offices or flats) is a slightly odd but no less iconic stone sculpture of a naked male, which was referenced in a famous local tune popularised by a mostly local act, The Spinners. The sculpture almost matches the campness of a much smaller, metallic one depicting a naked young soldier sporting what looks like a Teutonic hard hat, which is located in the Adelphi Hotel ballroom.

The view from Harold's bathroom

When I booked the Sir Harold Wilson suite, I discovered the rather odd fact that it is actually known as Room 101. In fact it isn’t really known as the Sir Harold Wilson suite at all. The scouse-sounding and very helpful guy who took my phone reservation confirmed that he had typed into the booking that the ‘Sir Harry Wilson suite’ i.e. Room 101 had been requested. After successfully checking in to the suite we heard an older person’s voice outside the door informing her husband that Harold Wilson had stayed here, and evincing a disinterested response.

Wilson is mentioned on the Adelphi Hotel’s website, as is his ‘preferred suite’ where we stayed. However the Huddersfield-born man, part schooled in Liverpool, who represented a Liverpool constituency for 33 years, 13 of which as Labour leader and eight of which as prime minister, remains almost an incidental figure in the catalogue of famous people who’ve either made Liverpool their home or who were born and raised there.

If that’s true of Liverpool, it’s much more so nationally. In 2006, a decade after his death, a metal sculpture of Wilson was unveiled in Huyton by the then Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair (the only Labour leader to serve more years as PM than Wilson). Blair is reported as saying that his fondness for Wilson was because he was the first ‘modern British prime minister’, more or less code for the fact that he was (more or less) working class. Wilson was a ‘modern prime minister’ because unlike every predecessor save Lloyd George, and patently unlike Blair (or his successor but one, Cameron), he wasn’t privileged. Wilson’s immediate predecessor as Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, was, according to Wilson's biographer Ben Pimlott, superiorly conscious of the huge class gulf between them, while some of the upmarket press mocked Wilson for being a philistine. Yet he had a first class brain, got a first class degree from Oxford, and founded the Open University – the only Wilson policy legacy that Blair noted. Only a year before Blair unveiled the sculpture, he gave a speech to the Labour conference in which he attacked the Wilson-led Labour governments of the 1960s for being responsible for Thatcherism by failing to understand the depth of economic and social change. Ironically, just prior to entering No 10 for the first time Wilson urged change on both sides of industry in his famous ‘White Heat of Technology’ speech. As prime minister Harold Wilson would be weakened by often senseless industrial action; his successor and close colleague Callaghan was destroyed by it. However Mr Blair’s simplistic attack on, in effect, Wilson’s legacy was rich coming from the man ultimately responsible for fiscal mistakes that subsequently helped undermine the Brown Government amidst global economic meltdown. In supposedly praising Wilson, Blair failed to mention the neo-colonial American war that he kept British troops out of (Vietnam), in marked contrast to the one Blair sent British troops to fight in (Iraq). If, as the comment attributed to Churchill has it, ‘to govern is to decide’, then Wilson’s decision to in effect break with Washington (and for which the UK economy was punished by the US) was very much about governing - and doing so in the national interest.

Perhaps you don’t get remembered or properly respected as a British prime minister for the wisdom of what you didn’t do – as opposed to the damage caused by much of what you did (Margaret Thatcher). However Wilson did much in general to expand higher education and its availability to people of his background. A BBC story written in 2009 about long abandoned car production in the Merseyside town of Speke begins with a reference to what it calls ‘the dark days of the 1970s’. While there was much industrial action, there was also much less inequality pre-1979, and, for all the faults of Wilson’s public housing and welfare programmes, far less homelessness. As we walked around the centre of Liverpool the number of very visible homeless people on the streets was shocking. No doubt they congregated in the centre to try to tap visitors coming out of pubs, but their plight in the middle of winter was, and is, very real.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

'V' performed by Jonny Magnanti at the St. Leonard Pub

Jonny Magnanti is the first actor to interpret Tony Harrison’s still controversial poem,‘V’. Like Tony Harrison, Jonny Magnanti had a working class upbringing in Leeds. In his familiarity with the Leeds dialect, its cadences, and the reality of what for some at least is everyday speech, Magnanti took us right to Harrison’s parents’ municipal graveyard, daubed with swastikas and profanity and littered with discarded cans of Harp larger. For nearly an hour in three separate performances this week, thirty-odd people in the St Leonard pub in London Road were drawn-in to Harrison’s (or was it Magnanti’s?) private world where a painful internal dialogue took centre stage.

Years before he wrote this poem in 1985, Harrison had sometimes used vernacular language in his poems so that people like his parents would not be alienated from them. Returning to Leeds for the first time in years, this middle aged man was seared by his visit to his parents’ desecrated grave and by the poverty and desperation of a city wilfully run down like the surrounding pits where the bitter confrontation of the Miners’ Strike raged. However the vernacular in ‘V’ came largely from the skinhead, the ‘yobbo’ that Harrison’s poem says he (or Magnanti) could have been, had not education taken them both to a different creative and material dimension. When speaking in the poet narrator’s voice, Magnanti delivered powerful and highly evocative poetry of a different kind, where the damp stone of the graves was suffused with images of coal’s prehistoric geology and an eternity of unity as all bodies secrete together in an undifferentiated carbonic mass. The skin dismisses this part of Harrison’s delivery, contemptuous of this elitist ‘c***’. 

It’s probably debatable whether Harrison or Magnanti ‘but for the grace of God’ would, minus an advanced education, have become Nazi skinheads. In the mid-80s I remember unemployed northerners on the edge of, or fully absorbed in, the black economy down south. They were angry but very unlikely recruits to that particular form of working class politics. The dramatic effect, however, of the polarity that Harrison writes, and Magnanti so powerfully vocalises, is mining a rich seam indeed.

The strike of course hangs heavy over the poem and this performance, as it does any recollection of the 1980s. Fetch Theatre, who produced the performance, include brief audio interludes that politically and musically soundtrack the decade. Margaret Thatcher’s voice, and its dogmatic and propagandist interpretation of what the strike was about, still cuts to the quick in its absolutist sense of what she believed, or wanted, to be at stake. A warmer voice of a striking miner paradoxically becalms with its moving assertion of the social dimension to what some saw as just an economic issue.

Harrison wasn’t expressing the ‘V’ for ‘Versus’ sentiment that united many young Leeds men with their football team, and much else in their culture, against whoever they were ‘losing to’ that week. Harrison’s ‘true’ voice says that the reference to Leeds football club, ‘United’, that had been spray-painted on his parents’ grave could perhaps be left there. While having no religious faith himself, he says that it could be a sentiment of hope that they would, someday, be together again. More broadly, the poet expresses in ‘V’ the wish that his nation could be united; not divided down the middle in what is presented as a wilful exercise in class politics.

Magnanti gives expression to Harrison’s guilt upon making one of his rare homecomings; not privileged but having escaped from the miserable powerlessness that the poem argues spawns such ‘yobbos’. The occupants of these tombs – butcher, baker and publican - would have wanted such vandals punished, Harrison’s non-skin voice observes. His own Dad, elderly and isolated, had felt increasingly alienated too, not recognising the city he grew up in and uncomfortable at the presence of ‘coloureds’ (his father’s most ‘liberal’ term) whose culture he didn’t understand and whose shops obliged him to walk ever further for a tin of baked beans. Leeds was, according to ‘V’, ‘beef, bread and beer’ and that is what was being played out, positively and negatively, among the tombstones. There is much humanity and realism in Harrison’s poem and in Magnanti’s telling of it, including language and sentiment that can still be shocking, but now perhaps for an otherwise very sympathetic audience.
Jonny Magnanti in 'V' - a portrait by Peter Mould www.stagesnaps.com
I don’t think the poem’s telling is intended to evoke some guilt in the audience. However Magnanti’s delivery and the audio soundbites combined to trigger in me sharp memories of the class-conscious politics of the time. I felt a familiar conflict between total sympathy for miners resisting deliberate and spiteful socio-economic engineering and contempt for those whose cynical political calculations helped lead them to defeat. Thatcher’s self-serving ‘enemies of democracy’ rhetoric aimed at working class industrial action did have a ring of truth for some, like me, on the compromising, trimming, centre-left. The poet detected where the Labour leadership was heading; two references to the Leeds MP who led the Labour Party when Harrison was a much younger man, Hugh Gaitskell, and his ‘smooth’ appeal to what the ‘other side’ wanted to hear, were signposts of what was beginning to happen when ‘V’ was written.

If this performance of ‘V’ still makes people uncomfortable, for the contemporary resonances of its subject matter, for its explanation of where social resentment can come from, and because of the disconnect that perhaps many of us feel from those at the sharp end, then it only proves the poem’s abiding power and particularly this performance of it. 

Jonny Magnanti said to me afterwards that the Leeds LitFest have not only thrilled him by inviting him to perform ‘V’ there, but have asked him to sit on a discussion panel about it with Tony Harrison. ‘You couldn’t make it up,’ he said. You couldn’t make up the language and concerns of ‘V’ up either. Rooted in the real and poetically connecting to other possibilities: not ‘Versus’ but ‘United’.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Supertramp's 'Breakfast in America' reconsidered

Perhaps it’s a matter of age, temperament, and the amount of your adolescence that you spent hiding from your parents. Confident ‘rock’ albums of the 1970s, whether by pre-punk behemoths Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin or punk posers like The Clash, are these days widely accepted in polite, white, male, middle-class circles. However Supertramp’s ‘Breakfast in America’ (released March 1979) had what for some was a more appropriate soundtrack to ‘suburban’ bedroom angst than the shed-load of pop platitudes that still pervaded about rebellion, ‘frontlines’ and class conflict (including from Pink Floyd). Such bourgeois issues usually didn’t penetrate the minds of those living in net-curtained semis, where entertainment was of the family variety and politics was what two parties usually only did every four or five years.

Album cover of 'Breakfast in America' (released on A&M Records; artwork by Gothic Press, London)

To be fair, Supertramp had, since ‘Crime of the Century’ in 1974, been chronicling, among other things, late teenage fears and, sometimes, coping mechanisms. On ‘Breakfast in America’ however we get the band’s principal singers and songwriters, Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies, in two set-piece lyrical and vocal contests over meaning and materialism in the west. On ‘Goodbye Stranger’, Rick Davies semi-ironically trumpets every young man’s apparent desire for personal freedom of a decidedly non-political kind, while Roger Hodgson’s backing vocal offers some salutary ripostes on the essential emptiness of such a lifestyle. On ‘Child of Vision’ it isn’t so much America that is being taken down by Hodgson with a Christian disdain for hedonism and other sins of Mammon, but the west in general. 

This connected to a me as a schoolboy in Sussex, England who was beginning to question the values he had been brought up on, but who didn’t relate to those for whom calls to ‘destroy’ or ‘revolt’ had provided an effortless, and essentially meaningless, release. Unlike the Sex Pistols’ single, ‘God Save the Queen’, which was banned two years earlier, ‘Logical Song’ was a Top Ten UK hit that actually addressed the stigma that anyone who sought to articulate their social disconnection could be made to feel, rather than moronically equating an economically-struggling social democracy with a ‘fascist regime’. Hodgson expressed what some school kids were feeling, using adjectives shocking to a BBC Radio 1 audience and that admittedly ‘O’ Level English students would be more comfortable with. However he wasn’t being pretentious. When Pink Floyd celebrated illiteracy, and got a surprise Christmas Number One on the backs of working class kids from a north London primary school, they most definitely were.

Above all perhaps, ‘Breakfast in America’ is strong on ‘hooks’, big on ‘catchy’, and shows a band at the peak of its powers. It was to be a pretty abrupt downward trajectory after this album, but then Supertramp’s ability to melodically sing about insanity, adolescence, and loneliness was more at home in the 1970s. At the time that ‘Breakfast in America’ came out, the American rock critic Robert Christgau begrudgingly conceded its musicality but then held it against Supertramp when he claimed that tuneful vocals and beat weren’t the same as feeling and rhythm. Perhaps these things are in the ear of the beholder. However there is emotion aplenty on this album – in voice and subject matter - and ‘Child of Vision’ positively swings. ‘Take the Long Way Home’ chronicles personal alienation; ‘Lord Is It Mine’ has Hodgson laying himself emotionally bare. Alone and in need, he thanks God for giving him hope and teaching him humility, but wrestles aloud with his inability to sustain his faith. Using the ugly language of today: this ‘impacted’ me at the time. The whole of ‘Breakfast in America’ still does, forty years later.