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
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.