Friday, 29 August 2014

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 6)


Everything's gone green.......

"You're telling me it's in the trees, in the trees. It's not, it's inside me now. You're telling me it's on the ground, it's all around but it's not, it's inside me." 
Ned's Atomic Dustbin - Grey Cell Green.

"You're telling me it's in disguise, well use your eyes. It's not, it's inside me now. You're telling me it's mother earth, some sign of birth. It's not, it's inside me."
Ned's Atomic Dustbin - Grey Cell Green.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Progressive Patriot - Billy Bragg


And talking of Billy Bragg....
In 2006 Bragg wrote a book entitled The Progressive Patriot which was ostensibly a wrestle with the issues of Englishness, identity and patriotism. Instigated by the sudden fashion for flying the St George's Cross during the European Football Championships in 2004, Bragg felt there was a need for a discussion about the use of this flag and what it was actually representing. In his and many other peoples' eyes it should be said, the English flag and in particular the Union Jack was a symbol of right-wing, xenophobic ideology, soaked in the blood of British Empire; flown proudly only by conservatives at the last night of The Proms or neo-Nazis, racists and Fascists belonging to any number of Far-Right organizations. The English flag, be it the Union Jack or the Cross of St George was the property of the Right and therefore a symbol of everything Bragg was against. When in May of 2006 the racist British National Party won seats on the Council of his then home town of Barking in East London, the need for a debate suddenly became more urgent.

This was never a book that was at the top of my reading list, hence only eight years later I finally get round to reading it and frankly, I'm glad I didn't rush out to buy a copy as soon as it hit the shops because to put it mildly and politely: it's fucking rubbish. Part biography, part history lesson, part would-be polemic; in the end it's just a mess of all these things that takes the reader nowhere apart from up Billy Bragg's arse.

From the start Bragg states his book is an attempt to go beyond the territories of the Durham Miners Gala and the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival and convince the majority that the Left have their interests at heart. His aim is to 'reconcile patriotism with the radical tradition' but what he actually means by this is hard to fathom because what writing there is about 'the radical tradition' is eclipsed by a never-ending history lesson throughout the book explaining how we all ended up here in this place called Britain. The history lesson Bragg conveys, however, is not that of the New Model Army, the Levellers, the Agitators, the mobs, the riots or the innumerable acts of dissent and sedition conducted in a bid to move things forward for the common man but the same history as taught in schools concerning the lives of Kings and Queens throughout the ages and the 'noble actions' of the Establishment, be they sanctioned by royalty or not. Bragg peddles the same history he says he's critical of and wishes to repudiate, so raising the question of what Bragg actually means by 'radical'. Which leads on to wondering about Bragg himself.

When writing of his family's background it's all very charming but really of no interest to anyone apart from himself and his die-hard fans. When he writes about his own life and influences such as George Orwell, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Clash he becomes more animated and his writing more enthused, particularly when touching upon the Rock Against Racism carnival of 1978 which he describes as a life-changing experience.

There are certain events that he neglects to mention, however, that calls into question the extent of the influence upon him of punk rock, The Clash, Simon, Garfunkel, Uncle Tom Cobley and all; one of them being that just three years after his life-changing experience of witnessing The Clash and his baptism into Left-wing politics he joined the army. How radical was that? This was in May of 1981, just a month after the Brixton riots when absolutely everything - including youth culture and punk rock in particular - was being heavily politicised through the policies of Thatcher in England and Reagan in the USA.
Four years later in 1985 there was Bragg again urging everyone to vote for Neil Kinnock - the same Neil Kinnock who had by then not only back-tracked on his support for unilateral nuclear disarmament but had spectacularly failed to support the striking miners. Was this again Bragg's idea of radicalism? It would appear so.

At one point in his book Bragg writes: 'It is a broadly accepted fact that, over the past fifty years, Britain has become a classless society'. Really? But if this is what Bragg believes then it perhaps explains everything about him and his politics. Class has got little to do with wealth which is why it's perfectly all right if Bragg moves from his native (working class) Barking, in Essex to a mansion-type house in a (middle class) village on the Dorset coast. Fair play to him. It's a bit disturbing, however, when he calls for a Declaration of Rights for the people of Britain to be drawn up and seems to have no qualms about who might conduct it. He seems to believe that such a Declaration would be perfectly safe in the hands of someone like Neil Kinnock, or perhaps Tony Blair, or even David Cameron. After all, Britain is now a classless society and the fact that practically everyone in any position of real power or influence is Cambridge, Oxbridge or Eton-educated shouldn't make any difference...

It's exasperating when someone like Billy Bragg is held up as a fine example of how a protest singer should be or when they're put forward as spokesmen for anything because typically all they point the way to is moderation, accommodation and ultimately commodification. Essentially they're nothing more than sops, foils and puppets on strings who at best can act only as stepping stones to either one of two things: further action as in whatever form might be suitable for the listener, even if it's simply reading a book to find out more about any given subject - or a one-way trip up the singer's arse. He might well be a nice guy in real life and everything but - based particularly on this book he's written and any number of his past endeavours - in the case of Billy Bragg it's unfortunately the latter.

John Serpico

Sunday, 17 August 2014

In Search Of Albion - Colin Irwin


An ex-Assistant Editor of the now defunct music weekly Melody Maker is commissioned to write a book about England so sets his controls for the heart of Albion and heads immediately for Padstow, in Cornwall, for the May Day celebrations. Well, you would, wouldn't you? He then heads up to Minehead for a supposed similar celebration then back down to Land's End. The title given to the book is In Search Of Albion and it's all an interesting and revealing start to Colin Irwin's quest to find the spirit of England.

In Padstow he encounters a massive celebration with obvious Wicker Man overtones though without the human sacrifice element. At least not until after dark when all the tourists have gone home. In Minehead he encounters a total lack of interest - in anything, really. And at Land's End he encounters trash culture in all its dumbed-down lowest glory in the form of a mini-fun park and a sign post where you pay £12 for the privilege of having your photo taken under it.

It's not clear what Colin Irwin was hoping to find in these places but in Padstow he certainly has some kind of epiphany because he bursts out crying at one point, overjoyed at the communal singing and the mass celebration of the Obby Oss. Whilst at Land's End he's left deflated and almost feels like giving up on his quest before he's even really begun. But therein was his problem. From the outset he needed to understand that his quest was going to be coloured by his own perception of what Albion might actually be because the truth of the matter is that Albion isn't embodied in any place as such but in a spirit. A tangible energy to be more exact brought about through the amalgamation of spirit, liberty and people. Because Albion is both within and without. It's of and in the past, the present and the future. It's beyond the forces of man-made law and control and it's certainly beyond the power game of money, which is why he wasn't going to find it under a Land's End sign post where people are charged £12 for a photo op. Albion is dormant and brooding like a heavy early-morning mist hanging over the countryside but also explosive and exuberant like a crowd of football fans celebrating a goal. It can sometimes be glimpsed at the last night of The Proms as well as down at the front of a punk rock gig. It can sometimes be glimpsed during an urban riot as well as at a lonely funeral service. Albion is like fish beneath the ice.

Colin Irwin's right in believing it can be represented in music but wrong to assume that it's got to be old English folk music as played on acoustic guitars and tambourines (or even on the shaking bells of morris dancers). No, it can also be represented by skinhead Oi! music as played by a band like Cock Sparrer, Anarchopunk rock as played by a band like Crass, space rock as played by Hawkwind, or even Techno or Jungle as played by any number of DJs.
It may be found in Padstow on May Day for sure, but it may also be found on the dirtiest, neglected council estate on a Saturday night down the pub. It won't be found on the playing fields of Eton or at the Henley Regatta or even within the confines of Buckingham Palace but it might be found on the casualty ward of a hospital, on a picket line of striking workers or even within the confines of Dartmoor Prison. Which, to his credit, is where Colin Irwin goes next to watch a Devon folk singer called Seth Lakeman play a concert for prisoners, and suddenly he's back on track. This is then followed by a search for the lonesome grave of Kitty Jay at Hand Tor, in Devon; followed by tales of Babbacombe Lee, otherwise known as the man they couldn't hang at Exeter prison of old. He then heads for Glastonbury (of course) before landing in Dorset for the Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival and it's here that he again becomes unstuck.

The story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs is one of working class defiance and is a landmark of British social history that should really be on the National Curriculum, but of course it's not. The annual festival is in commemoration of the martyrs and a celebration of English radicalism, and though Colin Irwin is sympathetic and a fan of Billy Bragg (who's there in attendance) that's about as far as his radicalism goes. Which isn't very far at all. In fact, if Billy Bragg is the start and end of anyone's radicalism then they might as well give up there and then, which essentially is what Colin Irwin does when it comes to the political aspect of Albion.
He has a conversation with some guy in the Martyrs Inn pub who tells him New Labour is anti-working class and that the capitalist Left should be rejected just as much as the capitalist Right, but rather than engaging with such an idea he makes light of it and feels a headache coming on. And therein again was his problem. From the outset he again needed to understand that his search for Albion was going to be coloured by his own perception of what Albion might be in a political sense. Because the truth of the matter is that whilst the Right wish to choke Albion with wires, strangle it with fences and stick it with knives; and whilst the Left wish to tame it and manage it through legislative coercion; Albion is in fact anarchic and free. Like it or not, Albion in a political sense is Anarchist, as alluded to in one of the greatest modern-day urban folk songs ever: I'm talking about Anarchy In The UK by the Sex Pistols. And as Johnny Rotten himself has pointed out, this isn't Anarchy as a middle class head game but Anarchy as a working class birthright.

From Dorset, the author travels on to Chippenham for some morris dancing, then over to the Isle of Man to discuss independence. Then to Manchester for the Chinese New Year celebrations, Burnley to discuss racism with Boff from Chumbawamba, Lancashire to find out about witch hunting and the tale of Alice Nutter (no relation to Chumbawamba's Alice Nutter), Baccup to witness the Britannia Coconut Dancers, Durham for the Miners' Gala Day, Cambridgeshire for more morris dancing with Pig Dyke Molly, then to Lewes for Bonfire Night. And quite a few other places in-between.

At times In Search Of Albion reads like a tourists guide to England and it must be said that at times it also reads like the opening line from that other great modern-day urban folk song by the Sex Pistols, Holidays In The Sun: "A cheap holiday in other people's misery." Particularly when he's in Durham. The jacket cover is pretty rubbish as well.
The author, however, manages to keep the whole book jovial and jokey and it's actually an enjoyable and interesting romp that should act as a prompt to further investigations into not only the places he writes about but also the customs, the history, the celebrations and the music he so clearly loves. He concludes by quoting a guy called Paul Wilson from the Wren Trust, a charity helping to promote Devon culture: "The thing is, the more we know about our own culture, the more secure we feel about it. And the more secure we feel about who we and the country are, the more we will understand and tolerate the culture of others coming in, and we can get rid of racism and the rest of it."
England "is not so bad", says Colin Irwin, as a final summing up of his quest. And he's not wrong. Whether he believes his search for Albion has been a successful one, however, isn't really made clear and whether he really understands why England "is not so bad" is another question entirely.

John Serpico

Friday, 8 August 2014

Mere Anarchy - Woody Allen


He is, of course, a genius. It's to be acknowledged, however, that not everyone finds him funny whilst at the same time others prefix the word 'genius' with the word 'comic' though personally I wouldn't equivocate. He's a genius and an artist to boot.

In a career that spans more than 50 years and includes such films as Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah And Her Sisters, Woody Allen has created a body of work that most other film makers can only stand in awe of. Director, actor, screenwriter, playwright, comedian, musician - he's all these things and more, and if this wasn't enough there's also his complicated and troubled personal life too.
It's for his films that he's obviously known but another string to his bow is that of writer and for many years he's been a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine, serving up short vignettes to its readership. Any publication in the world would happily accept a submission from Woody Allen but he chooses to stick with The New Yorker in the same way he chooses to dine at the same restaurant and to play jazz at the same bar. Though steeped in the influence of European art-house cinema and appreciated more on the Continent than in America, he's still at heart a native of New York who has the city's blood flowing through his veins. Or as he put it in the opening scene of Manhattan: 'He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. New York was his town and it always would be'.

Mere Anarchy is a collection of eighteen of his short stories, nine of which were previously published in The New Yorker and nine not published anywhere else before. At just 160 pages it's a relatively slim publication though this actually works in its favour, accentuating the fact that it's not anything overly ambitious. Essentially it's a collection of snapshots, observations and sketches that serves as a rebuttal to the oft-voiced criticism that Woody Allen has lost his sense of humour. His films may no longer be the stream of one-liners they once were but he's still a very funny guy who's able to concoct comedy from the most meagre and absurd sources, often being just an innocuous item in The New York Times.

On reading this collection it's apparent that he's very much a wordsmith who takes great joy in the English language, from New York slang terms to overtly highfalutin expressions. It's also apparent that he has almost a slavish attachment to specific themes; the obvious one being the neurotic, nervous intellectual who makes several appearances, alongside the mores of New York middle class society. As in many of his films there are also all kinds of intellectual references but it's invariably kept in check and prevented from entering the realms of pretentiousness by giving the characters the most stupid of names.

Though it's written by a genius, I would point out that Mere Anarchy isn't by any means a work of genius. In fact, it's more like bread crumbs from the table so I wouldn't urge anyone to rush out and hunt down a copy (or to even head over to Amazon). I would, however, urge the uninitiated to watch the films because - well, they're absolutely genius.
John Serpico

Monday, 4 August 2014

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 5)


"Never again."
Zounds - Dancing.

"Never, never, never again. Never."
Zounds - Dancing.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Ronnie - Ronnie Wood


If everyone has a favourite Beatle (even if it's Yoko Ono) does that mean that everyone also has a favourite Rolling Stone? If so, then I wonder how prominently Bill Wyman features? I don't wish to be unkind to Bill - particularly as the ravages of time have been unkind enough to him already - but what kind of person might cite him as their favourite? They'd have to be pretty perverted, I suspect.
No, basically it's going to be between Mick, Keith, Brian Jones or Charlie Watts. But then what about Ronnie Wood? Where does he fit in? Whose favourite would he be? And why?

Ronnie's a perfectly affable bloke, I should point out. He's a brilliant guitarist, a talented artist and he's a character. He's interesting. He's also strangely if not uncannily lucky, his autobiography being testament to this. The company he's kept over the years reads like an A-Z of the history of rock'n'roll and throughout his life he's more often than not been in the right place at the right time and even when he's not - as in missing a phone call from the Stones asking him if he'd like to join them following the death of Brian Jones - the opportunity seems to come around again even if it's five years later. Ronnie Wood is blessed; not discounting his talent there's no other explanation for it.

Born into a two-up two-down council house in a place called Yiewsly near Heathrow Airport, Ronnie was always destined to be either an artist or a musician - or both. His two elder brothers played in skiffle and R&B groups and when Ronnie formed his own first group he fell into the orbit of such Blues legends as Bo Didley, Memphis Slim, Long John Baldry and Muddy Waters. Encounters with Yardbirds guitarist Jeff Beck led to the formation of the Jeff Beck Group, which led to the Faces which led to the Stones which led to the company of the Good Lord Keith Richards. The Faces had a reputation for enjoying themselves whilst out on the road, for partying and trashing hotels, but it wasn't until joining the Stones that Ronnie discovered the true meaning of excess along with the newly fashionable art of freebasing.

Ronnie's descriptions of his childhood are all very charming and nicely written but in a book such as this what we all really want is sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. We want debauchery, we want decadence, and we want depravity. Do we not? So does Ronnie deliver? Well, kind of, to a point. He certainly doesn't shy away from anything risqué but then it would be a very slim-paged autobiography if he did. There's a few revelations and lots of tales of drug fun and games but you're also left with the feeling that a huge amount has been left out. Not that this should really be surprising, I guess, as his lawyers would obviously have gone through it before publishing. But with that in mind, it's also surprising about some of the stuff that has been let through.

So what do we get? Ronnie confirms that he was shagging Margaret Trudeau, the wife of the Canadian Prime Minister and says that they spent a lot of time in Keith's room - which, given Keith's reputation implies only one thing. There's nothing said about Britain's Princess Margaret, however, and her hanging out backstage with the Stones at Earls Court in the 70s.
We're informed that Bill Wyman wasn't just standing still on stage concentrating on the music but that he was always playing a game called 'Spot the tits', and that he'd always be ambling over to Ronnie and saying "Nice pair over there". Which begs the question as to what he saw in 14 year-old Mandy Smith?
We're informed that Tony Curtis liked his drugs and that according to Curtis, Marilyn Monroe was fucking everybody and in her early days would sleep with anyone to get a part in a movie. Christopher Reeve (aka Superman) liked to get 'out of his brain' apparently as well. There's a funny anecdote about Ronnie finding a little girl backstage at Wembley looking totally lost so he asks if she's alright and if she needs help in finding her parents? It turns out it's Kylie Minogue.

Some of the best anecdotes, however, refer to Keith Richards: Staggering down from bed one afternoon whilst staying at Ronnie's house he takes a look at a chirping pet budgerigar in a cage before opening the window and tossing the bird and the cage out. "What are you doing!?" they all scream. Keith thinks about it for a moment then mumbles "Nobody told me it was a fucking real budgerigar."
On another occasion, he's at their house again but this time Ronnie's mother-in-law is there too so Ronnie's wife says to Keith "Do me a favour, my mum's never seen cocaine before, please, please be really cool." So Keith replies "Don't worry, darling, I'll break her in gently." Come lunchtime after they've all finished eating, Keith pulls out a stash of coke and puts it on the table and announces "And now for dessert."

So yes, Ronnie Wood is an interesting bloke and Ronnie, his autobiography, is pretty amusing. He's not as interesting as Keith Richards, for sure, and perhaps not as interesting as Mick Jagger, Brian Jones or Charlie Watts. But certainly a lot more than Bill Wyman.

John Serpico

Friday, 1 August 2014

Alfie - Bill Broughton


The ingenuity of Bill Broughton was in his creating a character that was totally self-centred and utterly immoral yet charming and very, very funny. As played by Michael Caine, Alfie has gone on to become an icon of 1960s British cinema though for younger generations the re-make featuring Jude Law is perhaps better known than the original. Of the two films the 1966 version is the superior for a multitude of reasons that are just too numerous and too obvious to go into here.
It's a funny thing, actually, how films can be re-made but books are never re-written. Why is that?

The sexism displayed in Alfie is outrageous and many will nowadays find it repulsive but if you can get your head around it and view it as, for example, a comic device then Alfie stands as a brilliant book on a par with anything written by Sartre or Camus. I choose these two examples carefully because in my opinion Alfie is an English existential anti-hero worthy of as much consideration as any character created by these aforementioned authors.

Alfie is an Outsider in the classic Colin Wilson sense. He's detached from the everyday preoccupations of everyone around him and instead spends his time chasing a fugitive vision of freedom propelled by a nagging feeling of absurd hopelessness in the face of life: "But what's the answer, that's what I keep asking myself." he says "No matter which way you turn you're caught. I go through life with that question on my mind: what's the bleeding answer?"

Alfie's philosophy and world view is forged through the prism of a politically conservative working class life. He's a Cockney upstart who's out for a good time and - as Arthur Seaton put it in the film version of Saturday Night And Sunday Morning - all the rest is propaganda. He sees money as being everything and that as "nobody don't 'elp you in this life - you gotta 'elp yourself." He views coalminers as being the backbone of the country and civil servants as being a "steadying influence"; whilst the only way to keep people working is to scare the life out of them. He has little time for male friends, particularly for the blokey sort but spends his time instead with as many women as possible.
Alfie loves women and women love Alfie, the problem being, however, that he loves them for only one reason and that's simply as a way of bringing him pleasure. Respect for women just doesn't enter into it and in fact, his view of them is so primitive that it makes for high comedy. He calls women 'it' instead of 'her' or 'she' and to him they just seem born to suffer: "Never stop a woman from working." he says "If you do you'll get her frustrated. Poor bloody women, they don't half suffer one way or another, but what can you do? You can't argue with nature." He has little care for their thoughts and believes "There's nothing a man enjoys more than seeing a woman slaving away for him."

If his thoughts are shocking - "Know what, I sometimes think this world would be a happier place if all the sick people and whatnot dropped dead. When you get down to it they're only an encumbrance to themselves and everybody else." - then his actions are even more so. One of the main scenarios in the book is regarding a back street abortion which takes place at his lodgings. Alfie is the father and the pregnant woman is the wife of a fellow patient at the hospital where Alfie stays whilst suffering from tuberculosis. On inducing the woman, the abortionist hurries away and Alfie puts his coat on to do the same:
"You're not going," says the pregnant woman "You're not going to leave me, Alfie?"
"You'll be better on your own," he replies "It's one of them things where nobody can help you - and you've got to suffer it out on your own. Let go, Lily, and don't look at me like that, as if I wasn't human. I could flannel you, but where would it get us? If the pain comes on hard - stick a pillow in your mouth. That'll drown the sound."

This event in the end does have a profound shock on him and he decides to stop chasing "the birds" and to settle down with one of his flames. He sets off for her flat with a bouquet of flowers but when he arrives there he finds her in bed with another man - in the book, one of his so-called friends though in the film it's a younger man.

The book as does the film ends with Alfie contemplating the meaning of it all: "Look at me now. I've got some money, haven't I, and I've got a few good suits, a fair car, and I've got my health back. But I haven't got my peace of mind. And if you haven't got that you've got nothing.
But what's the answer? That's what I keep asking myself. I suppose it's what everybody in this life is asking themselves."
In the film, of course, Michael Caine finishes his monologue by asking "What's it all about? Know what I mean?" before Cilla Black enters with the theme song asking the same question: "What's it all about, Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live?"

The book doesn't provide any easy answers, and instead simply depicts the character of Alfie and poses the questions. His behaviour and his attitude isn't condoned or condemned though it successfully shows him as being a fool unto himself. The lesson Alfie fails to learn is to learn from his lessons and it's this which keeps him rooted in one place, condemning him to live what essentially is a very lonely life. The women too are also foolish for putting up with Alfie's behaviour and for entertaining his absurd opinions though they unlike him are able to learn and in the end move on to better things.

Both the book and the film have always been presented as bawdy comedies and whilst they are indeed both extremely funny and entertaining they are also - the book in particular - deeply philosophical. The Jude Law re-make has somewhat clouded the water by transforming the whole story into a romantic comedy set in New York but the original film is so much more than this and the original book even more so and is deserving of reappraisal.  

Know what I mean?
John Serpico