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Odd one out

 

When you are travelling, it’s often particularly satisfying to see very individual buildings alongside more generic designs. For example, the art nouveau buildings of Palma in Mallorca and the art deco Bacardi building alongside the local baroque in Havana in Cuba.

In Vancouver, Canada, a similar moment is experienced when you see the Marine building, its 1930 art deco features in marked contrast to the steel and glass towers of the present-day harbourfront business district.

 

 

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On the iron road

 

The Union Pacific and the Central Pacific companies jointly built in the 1860s the first railway to cross most of the USA. The Canadian Pacific joined the two coasts of that country in 1887. Amtrak now covers long distances linking many of the towns and cities in both the USA and Canada.

The Rocky Mountaineer was a later rail arrival, but has now run several tourist services on the west coast for 30 years. I joined in a journey from Jasper, Alberta to Kamloops, British Columbia and then down to Vancouver, about 500 miles over two days.

As well as dramatic scenery and the occasional native animal, we passed huge freight trains which carry such cargoes of potash, grain and cars in convoys of dozens of carriages.

 

 

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An earlier People’s Poet

 

Once upon a time, long before Carol Ann Duffy became Poet Laureate or Kate Tempest earned nominations for the Mercury Prize, Liz Lochhead was a young and modern and successful female poet. Her career progressed to the point where, to date, she has published nine volumes of poetry and many other writings, and was appointed as the second Scottish makar or national poet in 2011. She was always more part of a literary tradition than a performer tradition, so that may be why she has sometimes been an overlooked part of her country’s cultural life.

Her first volume Memo for Spring in 1972 introduced many of the characteristics of Lochhead poems which have remained fairly constant. A conversational, free verse style, using word play, alliteration and assonance, but only an occasional use of rhyme. Also a keen eye for the details of behaviour and relationships and fashion and place. As shown in the primary-school-age farmyard terror of “Revelation”, the more grown-up perspective of “For my Grandmother Knitting”; in “Box Room” , dealing with your boyfriend’s family, and “How Have I Been?”, coping with the break-up. If you were looking for influences from earlier poets, you might detect hints of T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman, Allan Ginsberg, Philip Larkin and Dylan Thomas.

The Grimm Sisters in 1981 introduced a new creative line, a feminist revision of fairy-tales and legends, nearly 20 years before Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife. For example, in “The Storyteller”, “Three Twists” about Rapunzel and Beauty and the Beast and several poems about “hags” and “furies”; the narrative of “Tam Lin’s Lady” and the Scots language of “The Beltane Bride” looked forward to how she might combine both in the play Mary Queen of Scots got her Head Chopped Off.

Lochhead wrote about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein in her first theatre play Blood and Ice. This was explored further in the next poetry collection Dreaming Frankenstein, with the title poem and “What the Creature Said”. “The Legend of the Sword & the Stone” draws on Arthurian imagery to depict sexual relations. “Fetch on the First of January” uses the Scots language again in a ghost story which recalls Burns’ “Tam O’Shanter”.

Dreaming Frankenstein also includes some poems about North America. For example, “Fourth of July Fireworks” hints at “The Waste Land” and The Great Gatsby. “Hafiz on Danforth Avenue” – subtle and engaging observation about life in the Greek area of Toronto – is set during December so vividly reminds me of my own winter work stay in the city around the same time.

Lochhead came to prominence at a time when arts organisations were keen to enlarge the audience for poetry through readings and book festivals. She was always a regular public reader, often alongside other central Scotland writers like Edwin Morgan, Tom Leonard, James Kelman, Agnes Owens and Alan Spence. After I heard her read aloud, her poetry on the page always retained that distinctive tone and pace and rhythm.

She ventured from readings into revue and early versions of what we later called “rap” – anticipating Kate Tempest, who nowadays enjoys a status in both literature and popular music. “Vymura: the Shade Card Poem” and “The Suzanne Valadon Story” draw on Lochhead’s visual arts background, while she produced a number of broader feminist satires like “Men Talk” and “Page Three Dollies”.

One work whose future reputation seems most secure is the play Mary Queen of Scots got her Head Chopped Off, first produced in 1987. It is studied currently in Scottish schools, was one of the few older plays to be revived by the National Theatre of Scotland and is accessible and engaging as well as literary and continually relevant.

Much of the richness of Lochhead’s ideas and writing seems to stem from her awareness of her identity as a middle-class educated metropolitan child of working-class parents, and from a wish to blend always these two parts of her life together. One example is the undogmatic and affectionate homage she pays to her family background and early schooling in what she once described as “a wee bilingual poem”: “Kidspoem/Bairnsang”.

The present-day media gives a lot of attention to individuals whom they perceive as cultural and political role models for women and for people from ethnic minorities or from unprivileged backgrounds – often applying the phrase “you can’t be what you can’t see ”. To Liz Lochhead’s generation of Scots, even if we’re not female: a large part of our life is documented here.

 

References :      Lochhead, Liz  (1984)   Dreaming Frankenstein and Collected Poems    Edinburgh: Polygon
Lochhead, Liz  (2003 ed)  True Confessions and New Clichés      Edinburgh: Polygon

 

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Eurovision, and the particular legacy of Brighton 1974

 

The weekend of the Eurovision Song Contest, the most well-known event of the European Broadcasting Union and popular music’s closest equivalent to an international celebration, is another suitable time to reflect again about the decades of changes in the music.

As I was growing up, it was obvious that the USA and the UK were the dominant forces in pop and rock music. Other countries’ artistes sometimes seemed to copy openly these countries’ originals; for example, Johnny Hallyday in France. If only more pop music heard in the UK was sung in languages other than English, I used to think, more young people would be encouraged to learn such languages. But such artistes never seemed to emerge into the music mainstream.  Artistes from other countries who enjoyed international status tended to be instrumentalists, like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream from Germany. World music artistes from the French- and Spanish-speaking countries remained a niche market. The music world became more European only with the rise of electronic dance music in the 1980s, building through the continental clubs of Ibiza and Ayia Napa and the Sónar festival of Barcelona, and most of this music was instrumental where any vocals in any language were unimportant.

 

Views of three cities which have hosted the Eurovision Song Contest: Amsterdam, and, below, Paris and Bergen.

 

In its beginning the Eurovision Song Contest was definitely a forum for western and central Europe. Political changes like the end of the Soviet Union and the enlargement of the European Union led to the event being hosted and contested by countries formerly on the fringes of and even outside the continent. The fifteen or so participants in the 1960s has now more than doubled to this year’s 40. Qualification procedures seem now as tortuous as for the UEFA Champions League or Formula One motor-racing.

In the 1970s, it was sometimes seen as ironic that, at a time when British pop/rock songwriters and performers like Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Elton John and David Bowie were so successful all around the world, none of these people represented the country in the Eurovision Song Contest. That was possibly because it was felt that the UK was doing well enough with acts who might be considered as our “second eleven”, like Cliff Richard, Sandie Shaw, Lulu and the Shadows. Whatever, it allowed our major figures to concentrate on their serious work in the important markets and stages.

The most musically significant of the artistes who have won the competition during its history is probably Abba, who won in Brighton in 1974. Although Scandinavian, they sang in English, following the dominant US-UK paradigm. Their Eurovision victory led to an international career and further decades of influence and homage.

 

The Grand Hotel in Brighton.

 

In the 1970s any self-respecting pop/rock producer or artist could compose a strong melody. Because it was a minimum requirement of which everyone seemed to be capable, it led to arguments among fans about which practitioners were the more culturally acceptable. Abba became an acceptable pop act for the musically snobbish – which most of us were at least some of the time. Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (occasionally assisted by Stig Andersson) wrote some great melodies and arrangements for songs like “SOS”, “Money Money Money”, “The Name of the Game”, “Take a Chance on Me”, “One of Us”and “Head Over Heels”. They also wrote lyrics in their second language which were at worst perfectly serviceable, and at best witty and sensitive.

Nowadays I am more interested in the European Broadcasting Union for their annual radio days of music for Holy Week, and Advent broadcast in the UK by BBC Radio 3, but a lifetime of listening to pop music has included at least a little attention to the Eurovision Song Contest. While it may not have helped to raise musical standards, it will still, in the middle of a period of European division,  remind viewers and listeners of ideas and a culture which they share in common.

 

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The difference between Jane Austen and Tracy Austin

 

The Open University is marking its 50th anniversary, so no surprise that the BBC screened a programme in celebration. Rather disappointing, though, that the programme made no mention of that popular play and film which was such a great advertisement for the OU, ie Educating Rita.

I first saw Willy Russell’s play during its first run in 1980 and on my first ever visit to London. Russell’s name meant little to me: what attracted me to Educating Rita was that it starred Julie Walters who I had liked in her first couple of TV plays by Victoria Wood . It was staged in the Warehouse, which was then the smaller of two London theatres run by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Since 1992, it has been the ever-more starry and successful Donmar Warehouse.

I remember that in general I enjoyed Educating Rita, and its story of working-class Open University student Rita and middle-class middle-aged alcohol-soaked academic Frank. Clearly, many others shared my opinion because the play transferred to the West End and later toured the UK. In its original cast, Julie Walters was, at least to me, better known than the actor who played Frank, one Mark Kingston. In fact Kingston, although not a star, was an established theatre and TV name, and it’s perfectly possible that he was chosen to reduce the pressure on the new play and the younger actress. On other occasions, though, the person who played Frank was usually better-known than the one who played Rita. When I saw the play in Glasgow during its tour in 1982, Frank was played by Tom Baker, well-known from Doctor Who on television, while Kate Fitzgerald was Rita. And of course, in the film directed by Lewis Gilbert in 1983, although Julie Walter’s stock was rising fast enough that she was chosen to reprise her stage role, she had a far lower status than did Michael Caine. That practice has continued when the play has been revived in recent years.

The film was rated highly enough at the time of its release to earn three Oscar nominations. It certainly seemed to reinvigorate Michael Caine’s career into some more varied roles and eventually into two Oscars. The original play with its two characters and one set was “opened out”, to use the popular term, with additional characters and additional scenes.

One of Willy Russell’s jokes which I didn’t grasp the first time was where Frank asks Rita, “Do you know Yeats?” and she responds in puzzlement, “You mean the wine lodge?” At that time that chain of pubs was not known in Scotland. So my artistic appreciation was definitely enhanced a day or two later when, exploring further the centre of London, I saw a sign for – Yates Wine Lodge. Nevertheless I was surprised that the joke remained in the film script:  would other audiences outside England not have been equally mystified? Especially when the film chose not to use what I feel is a better word-play joke with a wider reach – “an educated woman is the sort of woman who can tell the difference between Jane Austen and Tracy Austin”. Austin’s tennis playing career continued for ten more years after the film’s release, and she still appears on TV as a commentator and pundit.

There is one place where the film is immeasurably better than the play. Rita is a hairdresser, and the play ends with a scene of comic innuendo where she takes off her jacket as she says suggestively to Frank, “I’m going to take years off you!” – before revealing she plans only to cut his hair. In the film, this scene is the second last and the final one shows the neatly coiffured Frank revealing Rita’s successful examination results. A much more suitable conclusion to a drama about personal progress and empowerment through education.

 

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There be monsters

 

 

Some time ago, I discovered Stephen Prince’s website A Year in the Country.  It sought to investigate the strange, frightening and paranormal aspects of the English countryside through his own photography and also by analysing other artistic work such as the writing of Alan Garner and John Wyndham, films like The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, Winstanley and A Field in England, music by folk-rock artists of the 1970s and some later musicians like Kate Bush and Virginia Astley, and some neglected TV drama.

I have since found that Prince’s successful completion of one year has spawned several more, plus a published book and music production.

A recent musical work which fits perfectly into the ambit of A Year in the Country is Pastoral by Elizabeth Bernholz, who performs under the alias of Gazelle Twin. I was guided towards it by two trusted sources, the BBC Radio 3 programme Late Junction  and the online publication The Quietus, who both regarded it one of the best albums of 2018.

The title suggests its subject is a peaceful and stable English countryside. The landscape on the album sleeve evokes the sylvan landscape of painters like Claude Lorraine. The tracks have titles like “Little Lambs”, “Tea Rooms” and “Sunny Stories”.

 

 

However, Bernholz’ music shows that she does not believe in an idyll of stability and safety. It is cluttered and dissonant. Sometimes there are heavy bass-like beats, sometimes the sounds are higher-pitched and meandering. The instruments will mostly be keyboard synthesisers but others sound like the flute and the harpsichord. Singing voices are sometimes individual and female, sometimes in choral ensembles. Various speaking voices interject, both male and female, which are usually unhappy and anxious and angry: “it was much better in my day…the streets were safe then…trust no-one…picking the wound bleeds, pus flows…is it not just criminal…I don’t know what I’m doing here…dirty brawl by the town hall.”

The fools in Shakespeare’s plays are usually characters who disturb the equilibrium and challenge the established order, such as the fool in King Lear, Feste in Twelfth Night and Touchstone in As You Like It. The figure on the cover of Pastoral appears to be a contemporary equivalent, dressed in red and white motley but also with a baseball cap, a balaclava mask and training shoes.

The tone and atmosphere of Pastoral is similar to what I understand is the tone and atmosphere of Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem. Where the countryside is vulnerable to the modern urban infections of crime and drugs and where one larger-than-life individual demonstrates that the ideal of a settled community respecting tradition no longer applies.

Journalists are fond of linking every piece of contemporary arts work to the UK electorate’s recent vote to leave the European Union  and to the UK parliament’s debates and disagreements about how and whether this should be carried out. But it is true that the populations of small towns and villages are often older and socially conservative and that they did tend to vote to leave the EU as they seemed to feel membership was responsible for their poverty and deprivation and poor economic prospects.

The Gazelle Twin website describes Pastoral as “a deranged absurd reflection of deranged and absurd times”. Certainly an alternative vision for Easter and St George’s Day.

 

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The confusing shape of modern pop music

 

If you’ve been listening regularly to various types of popular music for 50 years, it’s hard to break the habit entirely, isn’t it? You want to keep up to date, to know what the current stars sound like.

And, actually, what the pop/rock mainstream sounds like is the way that it has sounded for a while. The only significant shifts in the sound of most pop music came when the practice of several acoustic or electric instruments being played together at the same time was gradually replaced by such things as synthesisers and computers and sampling, and with voices rapping rather than singing. Those changes took place only slowly and gradually from the 1980s onwards. It is probably true that this is today’s dominant popular musical sound, although other music is still regularly released which sounds similar to other styles of the 1970s or 1990s, such as heavy metal, punk, rhythm and blues, jazz and acoustic.

Writers much younger than me can feel a confusion in navigating the current scene. Kitty Empire admitted in 2017 that there was “(a) matrix of sameyness currently plaguing pop”.  Caitlin Moran made a similar complaint wittily in an interview at the Hay-on-Wye book festival in 2016. “There’s such a uniformity of voice and tone and subject matter across… pop music at the moment,” she said. “ (It’s either) ‘ everybody in the club tonight’ or a very sad man who appears to be sitting in a cupboard with a ukulele playing a very sad song or they’re taking bangers and saddening them, (for example) people are taking massive huge bangers by Queen and paying them very sadly on a ukulele”. Barbara Ellen wrote that the music scene was “almost as dominated by a smug clique of multimillionaire mega-artists as it was back when punk exploded”,  while, in a discussion earlier this year on BBC Radio 3, Luke Turner from The Quietus expressed concern that “ increasingly… this age of algorithms (feeds you) the blandest lowest common denominator rubbish” .

The BBC’s Ian Youngs (or the sub-editor who chose the headline of his article) summarised the current period of popular music as “the collaboration age”.  This may be why, as pondered before,  new artists continually talk about “writing” their new album. Do they worry they have no distinct identity, or are not treated seriously enough? Invariably the released material has been co-written, even that of the most famous icons like Beyoncé, Adele and Ed Sheeran. This must surely be at least partly because competence in playing and a reasonable technical skill in composition are both nowadays rarer.

Even though we are in “the collaboration age” and the business of recording music is for most people still as much a team activity as it ever was, many more artistes today release their work under an individual name rather than a band name. 45 per cent of the most successful albums of 2018 appeared under the names of solo artistes,  whereas in 1995 the percentage was 34%
and in 1978 it was 26%. Although solo artistes often give themselves names which sound like ensemble titles apparently to distance themselves from the old 20th century singer-songwriter stereotype; people like Iron and Wine, Bat for Lashes, Gazelle Twin and Snail Mail.

So why does modern pop and rock music sound as it does? From the 1960s and throughout the 1980s (it will be a matter of readers’ opinion when this period ended) all musicians, geniuses or journeymen, could feel that they were creating something new and fresh out of the earlier genres of blues, country, folk, jazz, rock and roll and rhythm and blues.

But if you are a pop/rock musician in the 21st century, you must surely be aware you are standing on the shoulders of giants, to use Isaac Newton’s phrase. The artists from the past are often still around, their songs are recycled into “jukebox musicals” on stage and screen, documentaries are common on TV and radio, and tribute bands are widespread and accepted. This music of the past is still widely available, and, yes, it is generally of a high quality, which must be the reason that so many contemporary artists want to sound like people you’ve heard before. To give just a handful of examples which I’ve heard on the radio in recent weeks: Anna Calvi, Marika Hackman, Beirut, Pi Ji Ma, Julia Jacklin, Jordan Rakei, Big Thief, Lewis Capaldi, Tom Walker. That leads to the further consequence that reviews you read now explain the music of the present mostly by comparing it to artistes or songs from the past.

When I was young, music preferred by older listeners was orchestral and instrumental and long – although often tuneful. Our pop/rock preferences used electric instruments, shorter songs, vocals and lyrics. The abundance of newer radio stations and music festivals show that the latter has become the norm and the former the exception. Pop music has truly become the “popular” music, the mainstream music, the default setting for most people in the UK of all ages when they use the word “music”.

For me, personally, it is the music which is still usually called “classical” which I usually find myself listening to, whether by deceased composers or current practitioners like Roxanna Panufnik or Thomas Adès or Amanda Feery. Just because it is music I haven’t heard before and is generally considered to be worth some of my attention. Happily, a lot of such stuff is still available free on the internet, even as, encouragingly, ways are being found in the new technology world to provide non-celebrity musicians with some income.

Maybe the new technology will bring further new shapes to the pop music scene. As it did in the 1980s.

 

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What Carry On carried on from

 

In recent times I have acquired a greater tolerance towards the Carry On films. Whereas, once, like many people who thought of themselves as modern/intelligent/liberal/progressive, I believed they represented everything old-fashioned, unsophisticated, crass and unpleasant in British culture!

One reason for my change of heart has been an increased appreciation of the link between the Carry On series, all directed by Gerald Thomas between 1958 and 1978, and earlier British cinema.

Many of the regular actors in the  series – Hattie Jacques, Charles Hawtrey, Joan Sims, Bernard Bresslaw, Terry Scott – had begun their careers in the 1950s or even in the 1940s and had appeared in these other, better regarded, films. The most diverse career perhaps belonged to Kenneth Williams (performing with Maggie Smith, in Peter Brook’s The Beggar’s Opera with Laurence Olivier, directing plays by Joe Orton) –  but another of note was definitely that of Sidney James.

James’ early film career was varied and productive. He features in The Small Back Room, one of the films made by the great writing/directing partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the J.B. Priestley-scripted Last Holiday, two of the most fondly remembered Ealing comedies The Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt,  another famous comedy The Belles of St Trinian’s,  Carol Reed’s circus drama Trapeze, Basil Dearden’s boxing drama The Square Ring, the gangster Shakespeare Joe MacBeth. A later return to his native South Africa for the drama Tokoloshe suggests a continuing appetite to expand his range.

In these films he appears with stars like Alec Guinness, Alistair Sim, Burt Lancaster, Kenneth More, Laurence Harvey and Peter Sellers.

Alongside James’ film work was his fame as Tony Hancock’s regular co-star on Hancock’s Half-Hour, on both radio and television. In fact it was widely rumoured that James was removed from the programme at the star’s request because of his popularity.

The first Carry On film in 1958 was Carry On Sergeant. Those first few films bear closer resemblance to other British comedies of the 1950s like Doctor in the House or Folly to be Wise or Brothers in Law or Love in Pawn or The Galloping Major  in their tone and casting and observations of post-war British life than to the series’ broader, farcical later titles. James’ own first appearance in the fourth film Carry On Constable has him not yet typecast, playing a long-suffering but even-tempered police sergeant. Later he was invariably the manipulative, lecherous and cackling centre of his social group, whether in Tudor England, the Wild West, the Indian Raj or the contemporary Britain of either local government or the “permissive society”.

An interview with James’ daughter on Talking Pictures TV raises the point that, if James had lived longer – he died in 1976 – he might have benefitted from the new fashion of encouraging veteran comic actors into dramatic parts. Contemporaries of James who did benefit included Max Wall and Charlie Drake each in Samuel Beckett and Charles Dickens and Jimmy Jewell in Trevor GriffithsComedians. Later on, Robbie Coltrane, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Lenny Henry would all be able to combine careers in TV comedy and perhaps more challenging dramatic work. Certainly James seemed to have a reputation for being well-prepared and hard-working, and many stereotyped actors have flourished through a good script, co-operative fellow performers and an imaginative director.

Perhaps we see signs of what might have been in the few surviving episodes of his post-Hancock TV series Citizen James where the scripts present him with the opportunity to develop a character more fully. However, the stronger, richer version of his character is definitely the one created by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson in the first series, who is a disresputable Soho gambler and shirker of responsibility, in contrast to the more suburban and respectable man which he became later as written by Sid Green and Dick Hills. That makes Citizen James rather similar to his Carry On characters, so maybe that does clinch the argument that in the second half of his career James had moved into a productive routine which it might have been difficult to deviate from. But at least he seemed to enjoy and appreciate his career, which, by all accounts and tragically, his co-star Kenneth Williams did not.

 

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The ancestors of the Sex Pistols

 

I was slow to start record buying in my teens in the 1970s and most people I knew had larger record collections than I had. Nevertheless, by the time I was in my mid-30s, I was comfortable that, through the rigorous process of listening, buying, borrowing, reading and talking, I was as knowledgeable about the contemporary music culture as the next person. Except on one aspect. I hadn’t yet read the book which everyone agreed was the major piece of critical writing on the subject between hard covers: Mystery Train by Greil Marcus, published in 1975.

Three more decades further on, that gap remains; I still haven’t read Mystery Train. Now at least, though, I have read another of Marcus’ books, Lipstick Traces, first published in 1989. A fascination with both low culture (pop/rock music) and high (literature, visual arts) and an ability to combine the two within the same piece of analysis has always been Marcus’ stock-in-trade. As fellow journalist Kitty Empire put it, Marcus is “probably the rock and roll era’s most lateral thinker”.

Unlike many US journalists of his era, Marcus was just as impressed with UK punk music of the late 1970s as he had been earlier by Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan or Sly Stone. It is that era of music which formed the foundation of Lipstick Traces – although only the foundation. As Tony Wilson says at the start of the 1989 TV interview with Marcus about the book, “It’s got a picture of Johnny (Rotten/Lydon) on the front, but it’s about much, much, much, much, much more.” In that interview, Marcus summarises the book as an investigation into a long “heretical tradition”, which first took form in continental Europe as far back as the 16th and 17th centuries and then developed into the 20th century, especially around World War One in Dadaism and then again in the 1950s and 1960s in Situationism. Sometimes this tradition took form in political manifestos, sometimes in individual subversive actions, sometimes in works of avant-garde art, and one of its most visible later incarnations was the short career of the Sex Pistols and their manager Malcolm McLaren.

 

A San Francisco street, photographed in 2000. The Sex Pistols’ final concert in 1978 was at the now demolished Winterland Ballroom, a few blocks west of here, and is the starting point of  “Lipstick Traces”.

 

Marcus’ long narrative is not always easy to read. As he explained in another interview with Simon Reynolds in 2012, “I realised that I didn’t have a talent for extended narrative…I had to write (the book) in short fragments, maybe a page, maybe six pages. The book would proceed in these almost arbitrary sections, and that relieved me from having to write a transitional sentence. And in fact there pretty much isn’t one in the entire book; there are no phrases like ‘as we have seen’ or ‘and now’.  Every time I would start a new section I would title it after the first one two three words of the first paragraph.” However, you might well consider this individual literary style, plus a highly varied selection of illustrations, as perfectly appropriate for a book which spends a lot of time in the world of avant-garde artists and political anarchists.

 

The main façade of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, photographed in 2005. “Lipstick Traces” describes the incident on Easter Sunday 1950 when, during Mass at Notre Dame, four men, one dressed as a monk, walked onto the altar and read a sermon announcing “God is dead” and accusing the Catholic Church of “swindling (and) infecting the world (and) being the running sore on the decomposed body of the West.”

 

Some of Marcus’ musical favourites from the late 1970s and early 1980s were the less well known from the era, like X-Ray Spex, the Raincoats, the Gang of Four, Essential Logic; music which often included brass and jazz rhythms as well as guitars, drums and  vocals. This pushed me towards several more of the maverick outfits from the period whose names I knew better than their sound, like Rip Rig and Panic, the Pop Group, Shriekback, Durutti Column, Young Marble Giants, A Certain Ratio, Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. Some of the music relevant to the book is included within the frankly breath-taking Ubu anthology of avant-garde material compiled by one Kenneth Goldsmith. But, of course, in the wonderful modern world of the internet, audio and video files are also available on You Tube or elsewhere!

Marcus saw Lipstick Traces as his anti-Reagan book. Elsewhere in his interview with Simon Reynolds he describes the “depression” which he felt during that time in US public life and how he viewed the writing of the book as an “act of cowardice or betrayal” when he should have been joining in political activism.

Lipstick Traces certainly brought back many memories of my own 1980s. That was a time of the fresh popularity of Brecht  and Weill, the profusion of small touring theatre companies, writing about eastern Europe and the Middle East championed by Granta, the popular battleground of protests against Thatcherism and nuclear weapons, the politically engaged Mayfest arts festival in Glasgow, the contemporary art presented by the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow and the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh, the New Musical Express  with its mix of new music, old music, politics and wider culture.

It may be that such periods of political and cultural ferment belong to particular circumstances of the past. However, Marcus says that creative and valuable voices of protest come around often in forms you don’t expect. Perhaps I just have to look more closely.

 

Reference : Marcus, Greil (1989) Lipstick Traces : a Secret History of the Twentieth Century   London: Secker and Warburg

 

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The modern shape of the news

 

“Brexit continues to suck the life out of the British news cycle,” said journalist Andrew Neil on the BBC programme This Week recently. He might reasonably have omitted the last two words of that sentence.

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union after 40 years has been the main story for all of its news media for many, many months.

I am old enough to remember that the issue of membership of what was first called the Common Market has long been an issue of discussion and even controversy in UK politics. Margaret Thatcher’s successful Conservative governments of the 1980s frequently criticised the organisation even while they maintained membership. Divisions within the John Major government of 1992-1997 over the issue of the Maastrict Treaty led to the election of Tony Blair’s Labour government.

The major difference today is how much more ubiquitous and dominant are news programmes within national television. In the UK thirty years ago each weekday had about five hours of news within 36 hours of programmes on two BBC channels; nowadays we have the two 24-hour TV news channels provided by Sky and the BBC, plus nine hours of news each weekday on the two main BBC channels as well as the regular news bulletins on the other networks.

Both BBC News and Sky News tend to follow each other closely in the stories they cover and how they prioritise. The topics are often London- and Westminster-centred; also acts of violence, perceived terrorism, natural disasters. This has led to a climate where the same few news stories are endlessly repeated and the way they are reported uses the same language and the same people and the same video footage.

24 hours a day of TV is a long time to fill. So other resources have emerged to supplement. New media organisations like Spiked and Novara Media sprang up alongside the long-established but less popular print newspapers. Think tanks with different interests and shades of political opinion conduct research and write articles which the news media pick up on. Each of the two news channels has devised many programmes of political conversation. Unfortunately these have learned to prefer confrontation and shouting rather than clarity and balance. And there is “social media”, especially Twitter, which staff of both TV news and print newspapers have long used as a major source and which they also have adopted as their own principal broadcast conduit. The journalists do less independent research and reporting but more commentary and their language has become less nuanced and less temperate and less impartial.

We had political divisions in the past, of course. Industrial disputes always polarised opinion, especially the miners’ strike of 1984-85.  The British military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq led to sustained protests and arguments.

So, what about the discussion over leaving the European Union? It’s surprising to remember that during the campaign before the referendum in 2016, the word “Brexit” was almost never used: we all just talked about leaving or staying in the EU. Only when the incoming Prime Minister Theresa May said “Brexit means Brexit” did the word start to gain popularity and notoriety. Although, as conceded above, it is certainly an issue which divided opinion within political parties and within different geographical areas in the past, many of us have still been shocked about the extent to which it created hostility and hysteria and accusations of treachery within all age groups and social groups. Especially since the poverty and social problems which people were angry about had obviously been caused not by the EU but by the neglect of successive national governments, both Labour and Conservative. The TV producers’ fondness for headlines like “Brexit Crisis” and “Brexit Britain” and for raised voices and personal insults has allowed this evidence to be ignored, and for the actual closeness of the referendum vote to be forgotten.

A robustly free and impartial press is the feature of a just society and Amnesty International and kindred organisations remind us that in other countries more journalists are being intimidated, imprisoned and killed than ever before. However, I do feel that a large part of the blame for the anger, aggression and fear around “Brexit” can be fairly laid with our media, principally the television news programmes. Why might they have behaved as they have? Many possible reasons: technological changes within their industry, difficulties in coping with these, a long-standing gluttony for political drama, the laziness of individual executives and producers. What I am quite sure about is that we are not living through the finest hour in the history of the UK free press.

A perceptive reminder came recently from the Canadian academic Steven Pinker. Why, he wondered in his recent book, are people so unhappy, when all the evidence shows that the whole world is wealthier, healthier and more peaceful than ever before?

His answer: because the picture of the world which the media presents is so different. “Journalism has a built-in bias towards the negative, in that it covers events, and it is easier for something to go wrong very quickly rather than right very quickly.” An explosion or a terrorist attack can break out rapidly, but improvements in well-being arrive more slowly and gently and so are very seldom deemed worthy of a news report.

 

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