Archive for June, 2011« Older Entries |
Wednesday, June 29th, 2011
In the 80s, even Wham! supported the miners. But tomorrow’s strike has yet to find any expression in the wider culture
Thursday’s strikes loom, and underneath the inevitable theatrics from both sides, there’s a sense of an achingly familiar problem: trade unions stoked up and ready for action, leaders talking in terms of a long march through the autumn and beyond, but no real sense that their case has even begun to cut through to the public. But nobody should be under any illusions about how crucial the coming months will be.
Note the words of one unnamed union official in Monday’s FT: “If there is a confrontation it will potentially decide the future of trade unions in the UK.” The last time anyone could say that it was 1984, and the defeat of the miners was about to open the way for just about every domestic upheaval Britain has experienced since.
Hats off to the J30 network for trying to build a bridge between the public sector unions and their wider supporters; it’s good to hear, too, that the TUC has been talking to UK Uncut. But as well as the more clueless aspects of their tactics (witness Unison’s Dave Prentis making a deeply clever appeal to middle Britain by citing such great popular touchstones as the general strike of 1926), the unions are held back by a bigger difficulty: the failure of the watershed moment into which we’re being pushed to find any expression in the wider culture.
The thought occurred to me again last weekend, when a tour of Glastonbury led to a depressing revelation. Though you could hear voices of protest in the far-flung Green Fields and from the stage curated by Billy Bragg, the rest of the site was as it would have been during the boom years.
As far as I could tell, on any of the main stages, not a single musician had anything to say about the cuts, banks, tuition fees, or Britain’s entanglements abroad. When Art Uncut’s attempt to bring the issue of tax avoidance to the Pyramid stage was met with a pretty brutal response, the silence from musicians was similarly overwhelming: to pipe up, it seemed, would threaten the weekend’s mixture of blood-pumping hedonism and balmy reassurance.
On this evidence we have a culture that either squeals with the joy of escapism or fuzzily yearns for tomorrow: it has lost the inclination to shout about the here and how. Even on the rare occasions when the real world does intrude it means almost nothing: witness the jump-cut footage of the Arab spring U2 incorporated into a rendition of their hit, Sunday Bloody Sunday – as usual, dissent and revolt remodelled as blank spectacle.
For any aspect of politics to decisively make it into the popular consciousness, at least some high-profile people beyond the usual suspects need to talk about it – particularly in an age when politicians are held in such low esteem. Were there more noise about the government’s quest to shrink the state and the injustice of many millions paying for the recklessness of a few, campaigning against those things might acquire some traction. But no: far too many of the voices that make up our culture have arrived at their own mixed-up version of the telescopic philanthropy Dickens sent up in Bleak House. Rather than averting their eyes from the problems on their doorstep in favour of “the left bank of the Niger”, their focus does occasionally fall on domestic matters, but never the ones most deserving of their attention.
Of late we have heard from Judi Dench, Mike Leigh, Kathy Burke and good old Sting about the allegedly pressing need to liberalise the drug laws. The campaign to replace our miserable electoral system with a slightly less miserable alternative brought out Eddie Izzard, Colin Firth, Helena Bonham-Carter, and more. Even when the famous and well-intentioned do talk about austerity, their priorities seem skewed, to say the least. Droves of authors have queued up to protest against the closure of libraries. In opposition to arts cuts, there have been noises off from the likes of Helen Mirren, Victoria Wood, Julie Walters, Kenneth Branagh, Maxine Peake, Jeremy Irons and Michael Sheen. An end to subsidised Shakespeare and free access to The Gruffalo, and they all go bananas. But what of benefit caps, or the iniquitous treatment being meted out to the disabled? If you’re outside the theatre’n'books paradigm, they’re not going near you.
Comparing modern realities with those of 25 years ago is a mug’s game, and the specialism of a certain kind of fortysomething. But that’s me, so what the hell: when the original Thatcherites were going about their work you could not move for benefit concerts, petitions handed in to Number 10 by star-studded entourages and interviews full of real ire. Strange but true: the striking miners were supported by Wham!, who pitched up at a benefit concert and declared their support for coal rather than dole by miming to Wake Me Up Before You Go Go. Katherine Hamnett reminded Thatcher of her opposition to nuclear weapons by wearing a huge “58% don’t want Pershing” T-shirt in the prime minister’s presence at Downing Street. These were the days of Hanif Kureishi and David Hare, Alexei Sayle and a long-lost Trotyskist trio called The Redskins. I have to say, I miss them.
Some 750,000 on strike and playing for unbelievably high stakes, a government pledged to complete unfinished Tory business – and still, a deathly cultural quiet. To explain the strange calm by citing the end of ideology is the cliched option, but that seems far too easy. Better to be more judgmental and talk about simple decadence, and a culture which has crashed out backstage – lost, and literally out of it.
Tuesday, June 28th, 2011
Anywhere but Westminster is six months old – tell us exactly where we should go next, and what you think the story should be
Comment is free’s Anywhere but Westminster series has now been running for six months. In our quest to take the temperature of Britain in 2011 and explore the increasing gaps between politics and real life, we’ve focused on an array of big issues, and been to villages, towns and cities in England, Scotland and Wales.
We’ve also been developing the crowdsourcing ideas on which the series is based. For our coverage of library closures, we visited North Yorkshire at the suggestion of a Comment is free user who had posted on the initial thread. In Inverness, we built part of our story about rising Scottish optimism around the Global Energy group for the same reason – as well as inviting the SNP to respond to some of your comments. The film and article about low pay in London and Swansea drew on the views and experiences of Comment is free users, as did our last story, about evangelical Christianity and social activism in Liverpool.
When we began the series, a first appeal for ideas and suggestions said this:
“We want to look at social changes that mainstream politicians always seem to understand long after they’ve happened. So, if where you live is changing fast, or stuck in a rut – or, just to maintain a note of optimism, being taken somewhere different by the efforts of people on the ground – we want to know.”
That still stands: this series is meant to be the antidote to the world as seen from Westminster and Whitehall, so if you think there’s a story that says something about where Britain is actually going, let us know.
So, a renewed appeal. This series is about society, and the economy, and what it is to live and work in modern Britain. Both culturally and geographically, the further we are from SW1, the better things seem to get. So: where should we go next, and what’s the story? This time, we’re after specific ideas rather than views and opinions. We’ll be regularly on the thread ourselves. And if you’d rather email than post here, you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sunday, June 26th, 2011
John Harris trudges through the mud in search of the squeezed middle and Glastonbury festival’s political soul, and talks to Billy Bragg and anti-Bono campaigners along the way
Thursday, June 23rd, 2011
Doctor Dee was a confidante of Elizabeth I, a mathematician and alchemist. Damon Albarn has written an opera about him and says the work has allowed him to express his patriotism
It’s Tuesday morning in the mess of glass, metal and international retail brands that is modern Manchester, though Damon Albarn has arranged to meet me somewhere very different. Just across the road from the city’s Victoria station is Chetham’s Library – the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, and a place once frequented by Karl Marx. Inside its reading rooms, there is a beautiful hush.
Albarn, currently sporting a thick beard, is here in connection with someone currently much on his mind: John Dee, the confidante of Elizabeth I, mathematician, navigational pioneer, alchemist and supposed magician who served as the building’s warden for 10 years at the end of the 1500s, when it was an adjunct of the nearby cathedral. By this time, having blazed an intellectual trail across Britain and Europe, Dee was at the end of his life, with plenty of controversy and emotional wreckage behind him. One biography sums up his presence in Manchester as a matter of “virtual exile, placing him far outside the orbit of the Queen and her court”. His existence here seems to have been forlorn and unproductive, and made yet more wretched by the death of Elizabeth in 1603. He returned to London two years later, but lived for only another three years – though at 82 he hardly died young.
Now, Dee’s ghost has returned to Manchester in rather more favourable circumstances. Albarn and the director Rufus Norris have built an “English Opera” entitled Doctor Dee around his story, which will be premiered as part of the Manchester International festival on 1 July. On the other side of town, a company of actors and dancers is deep in rehearsal, while elsewhere the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra is perfecting the score – any time now, they will be joined by a core of musicians, including Tony Allen, the 70-year-old Nigerian drummer whom Albarn credits with a “cosmic pulse”. Albarn himself will take an onstage role – delivering, he says, songs that draw lines between Dee’s time and our own, centred on “relationships, religion, hedonism, the reinvention of ritual . . . and politics, a little bit. There’s a lot going on.”
To make things even more interesting, the production is intended to evolve as it’s rehearsed and performed, which partly explains Albarn’s visit to Chetham’s library: when the chief librarian appears with a handful of books once owned by Dee and strewn with his annotations, Albarn reaches for an A4 notebook, and scribbles down at least one line he seems to think might help him with a lyric. “This isn’t like making a record,” he says. “It changes. And when we present it on that first night, it’ll still be in a state of flux.”
Alchemy and court intrigue, the linking of two Elizabethan ages, and music that fuses no end of influences: as the Guardian’s music critic Alexis Petridis put it in 2007, “to think Albarn was once compared unfavourably to Liam Gallagher . . . These days, that seems a bit like comparing David Bowie to Les Gray of Mud.”
The range of his recent(ish) work is dazzling. In January 2007, Albarn released The Good, The Bad and The Queen, created by a band including Tony Allen and the former Clash bassist Paul Simonon, and sprinkled with the same English mysticism that the music from Doctor Dee evokes. Later the same year, there was the premiere of Monkey: Journey to the West, the work of Albarn, the artist Jamie Hewlett and the Chinese actor and director Chen Shi-Zheng. In 2009, Blur temporarily reformed, crowning their return with a performance at Glastonbury; and in 2010, Albarn released the third album by his ongoing pop project Gorillaz, featuring, as always, Hewlett’s artwork. And now there is this – his bravest step yet away from the musical mainstream.
The genesis of Doctor Dee dates back at least two years. Alex Poots, the Manchester festival’s director, had approached the writer and graphic novelist Alan Moore with a view to involving him in a stage production, and Moore’s passionate interest in Dee led to a meeting with Albarn and Hewlett. Albarn had already begun to think about working on an unspecified “heartfelt English piece”, and learning about Dee’s story hardened his resolve – but Moore and Hewlett then dropped out, leaving Albarn in charge of the project.
“I knew I had a fascination with aspects of history that were slightly more esoteric,” he tells me. “I enjoyed history at school. I’d always had a sense of Pagan England. I have very clear memories of getting caught up in a TV series about Robin Hood when I was a kid. And I can remember having a strong sense of imagery from an old monastery in Sussex, near a house we were living in for the summer. This is all a personal thing: my relationship with these aspects of being English. But this story had so many catalysts: it didn’t seem like it would be too mad an idea to start thinking in musical terms.”
“I do harbour this feeling about my country, and it doesn’t come out that often, because I’m off doing other things,” he goes on. “Which is great, because that way, it gets stronger, and it’s nice to wait till it really needs to come out. So this is more than something I’m doing for a festival. It’s been brewing for ages, trying to find its essence.”
Albarn’s first source of information was The Queen’s Conjuror, a much-praised biography of Dee by Benjamin Woolley, published in 2001. “That showed me how little I knew,” he says. “The references go all over the place. So I began to say, ‘Well, this month I’m going to be reading up on hermetic tradition. Then cabalism, and then Celtic pagan tradition, then the origins of Christianity.’” He says he’s still ploughing through a mound of reading that may take five years to complete; the latest book is The Night Battles, an account of witch-hunts in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries by the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg.
Drawing one central storyline from Dee’s incredible story looks almost too challenging. His life moved from London, to Cambridge, to Belgium, on to the Elizabethan Court, and in turn to Central Europe. His range of expertise was extraordinary, in an era just before science and the occult began to be disentangled. Dee has been credited with the first use of the term “British Empire”; he certainly insisted that England had a legitimate claim to North America, and argued that territorial expansion had to be led by a navy. His story intersects with those of such major Elizabethan figures as Francis Walsingham and Walter Raleigh; he is also believed to have been the inspiration for Prospero in The Tempest, and possibly for Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.
So where to start? Two weeks before my visit to Manchester, as various rehearsals take place around Albarn’s HQ in west London, I talk to Doctor Dee’s director, Rufus Norris. Part of the plot, he explains, turns on Dee’s meeting with Edward Kelley, a mysterious figure said to be one of the Elizabethan period’s itinerant “skryers” – self-styled seers and psychics. The pair began supposedly communicating with spirits, and then angels – who, Dee claimed, dictated no end of material to him in their own “Enochian” language, which he transcribed using odd symbols somewhere between runes and Greek letters. Unfortunately, Kelley’s chief impact on his life was not nearly so other-worldly.
“It could be argued that in Britain, if not in Europe, Dee knew more than anyone else,” Norris says. “And yet he screwed up when it came to the most simple imperative – to look after the thing that’s closest to you. In their last consultation with spirits, Kelley gave him the message from God that they should share their wives. And everything fell apart from there. So in terms of how you find a narrative . . . well, the man learned a huge amount, he searched for more, and that search took him out on a precipice, and he fell off the end. It’s a tragedy.”
The songs that tell the story draw subtly on Elizabethan music, but also, thanks to Allen, on more unorthodox elements. Doctor Dee’s core arrangements are built around organ, harmonium, drums, acoustic guitar, a harp-like Malian instrument called the kora – and such European instruments as the viol and theorbo, the latter a lute-like instrument with a long neck. The music is elegant and full of a sense of warmth and intimacy. In west London I watch a piece called “Godfire” taking shape, intended to suggest both the coronation of Elizabeth I and the recent royal wedding – a reference that might make at least some of Albarn’s admirers a little uneasy (in 1997, he turned down an invitation to one of Tony Blair’s Downing Street soirees, claiming he was “now a communist”). Alluding to the wedding’s ceremonial fly-past, its opening line runs thus: “Hurricanes, spit and Tornado, growled over London today.” In Albarn’s telling, the song reflects the almost subconscious sense of nationhood that sits at Doctor Dee’s heart.
“It was strange,” he says. “That day, I was up at the top of my studio. My daughter and her mates wanted to watch the wedding there, because the studio has a big TV. So we were watching it, and I was also watching the fly-past happen outside. I’d just heard ‘Jerusalem’, and there were trees in the Abbey . . . I was moved.”
I say that he doesn’t strike me as a monarchist. “I’m not a monarchist. But I’m English. And I have an irrational emotion for my country.”
Next year, Doctor Dee will play at the London Coliseum, as part of the Cultural Olympiad. Once its Manchester run ends, Albarn is travelling to Congo, to play his part in a project in which DJs and producers will record and sample Congolese music, and aim to complete a record in not much more than a week. Blur, he says, may reunite again, to play their old songs in the US, though when I ask him about the possibility of new Blur songs, I get a mumbled “don’t know”. There is also final work to be done on a largely instrumental album made by Albarn, Allen and the Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Michael “Flea” Balzary.
And then? I ask him the question in west London, just after he and the musicians have run through another song. Albarn’s face breaks into a smirk. “Oh, something that’s the opposite of this. The most cheesy pop record ever.”
The world premiere of Doctor Dee: An English Opera is at the Palace Theatre, Manchester International festival, 1-9 July 2011. For more details visit mif.co.uk
Tuesday, June 14th, 2011
Evangelical worship gets many on the left hostile or awkward. So how do we respond to believers that save the destitute?
It’s a particularly remarkable feature of modern British life: the way that in certain circles even the mention of the most modest form of theistic belief is enough to bring down great torrents of hostility. Often the explanation is traceable to the liberal-left’s justified concerns about the blurred relationship between religion and state. But, in keeping with the drive of militant secularism to attack the very idea of God as much as what faith means in practice, much of the shouting is usually about philosophical fundamentals. The result: an ongoing scrap between equally staunch believers and non-believers, which arguably gets nobody anywhere.
When we asked our online readers to give us a steer as to the social role played by religion where they lived, it all kicked off again. “I don’t trust anyone who needs an instruction manual to tell them how to be good,” offered Newbunkie. “My personal view is that all religious groups should be banned,” said someone called Youbloodydidwhat.
In response there were slightly more measured claims of religion’s practical benefits. “I have seen churches set up hostels for the homeless because the local vicar has encountered so many people sleeping rough in the church porch,” wrote JonathanBW. “[They] establish credit unions to help people who are financially excluded … Most of this work does not involve any element of evangelism or proselytising.” Similar news came from Manchester, Northampton and Glasgow – and in response, members of the Dawkins-Hitchens tribe dutifully went ape again.
If many of them set foot in Liverpool’s Frontline Church, they would presumably explode. It’s a standalone evangelical organisation based on the forlorn-looking borders of Picton and Wavertree. Having arrived in Liverpool in 1991, it now draws about 1,000 people – whose average age seems to be around 35 – to the three services staged each Sunday. Recent visitors have included Nick Clegg, Chris Grayling and Cherie Blair; among the first members of the congregation I met the day I visited was a local Labour councillor. Here, God is not acknowledged in that rather bashful way one associates with the tea-and-biscuits model of Anglicanism but loudly saluted. “We are amazed by you,” goes one part of the apparently ad hoc liturgy. “We are in awe of you.”
Now, I am an unshakeable agnostic. There is something about the unabashed nature of evangelical Christianity that unsettles my very British sensibilities – and I reach my peak of awkwardness during a Sunday service that dispenses with the fusty business of hymns and holy communion, and instead builds itself on music that suggests a grim hybrid of Snow Patrol and LeAnn Rimes. There are collection buckets rather than plates; suggesting that Rymans may have an overlooked sacramental aspect, the flock are invited to write their highest thoughts on Post-It notes, which are then stuck to flip charts.
Drawing on the Book of Joshua, the presiding pastor, a former Bristol GP named Nic Harding, advises his audience to fix their sights on metaphorical mountains, parts of society where their beliefs might be brought to bear. The examples he offers might chill any non-believer to the bone: “Education, healthcare, politics, government – these are all areas where God says, ‘Who will claim that mountain?’”
In fact any mention of current affairs brings nonplussed responses from the congregation, and even the pastor tells me that politics is too “top down”, and that he wants instead to work against greed and individualism one soul at a time. By way of bowing to the inevitable, I also ask him about the place his church gives to such issues as abortion and gay rights. “To me, those issues are right on the margin of the things we should be focusing on,” he says. “The real issues are how we should express and find love for the outcasts and the downtrodden.”
This is where he and his people direct their work, as evidenced by Streetwise, a weekly operation in which a handful of volunteers take food, tea and condoms to the city’s sex workers. I watch them spend three hours in the encroaching dark as women in various states of drug-related distress flit between their van and streets where money has to be snatched from the jaws of occasionally life-threatening danger. They sometimes quietly pray for those they help, but they don’t evangelise. “We’re not bible-bashing,” one of them tells me. “Whether these girls come to church or not, it makes no difference to how we treat them.”
The next day I meet a former sex worker, now apparently off drugs, set on somehow starting college and a regular Frontline worshipper. “I was a prostitute and a drug addict for 11, 12 years – maybe more,” she tells me. “God is so forgiving – he wants me to win.” Wider society, she says, is “too judgmental … it’s: ‘That’s a prostitute, that’s a drug addict.’ They don’t want to know.” And how has the church helped her? “Oh, it saved my life,” she shoots back. “I would be dead if it wasn’t for this church.”
A question soon pops into my head. How does a militant secularist weigh up the choice between a cleaned-up believer and an ungodly crack addict? Back at my hotel I search the atheistic postings on the original Comment is free thread for even the hint of an answer, but I can’t find one anywhere.
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