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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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The influence of Katherine

 

The name of James Hilton is rather forgotten now, his having died in 1954, but novels like Lost Horizon and Random Harvest were popular enough to be transferred quickly by Hollywood into films which were regularly on TV screens during my youth. The Hilton novel which has held its reputation longer than others is possibly Goodbye Mr Chips. Its 1939 film version, directed by Sam Wood, earned six Oscar nominations and a Best Actor prize for Robert Donat. Stuart Orme’s British television version, first screened in 2002, is still regularly shown, at least partly due to the continuing popularity of its lead actor, Martin Clunes.

Hilton’s novel tells the story of the 60-year long career of a schoolteacher named Chipping at a boys’ boarding school called Brookfield. This is another one of those narratives through which the events of World War One cast a long shadow. A startling scene towards the end has Brookfield attacked by enemy aircraft and describes Chipping’s courage and humour in the face of this. It is sobering to realise that, just a few months after the first screening of Sam Wood’s film, and even before Robert Donat had received his Oscar statuette, its audience was facing, in real life, a second war.

More significant even than the 1914-18 war for the lead character is the period of two years during the 1890s. During this time, Chipping, by now in his mid-40s, meets on holiday a young woman called Katherine Bridges. They marry and enjoy a life together which is happy but tragically short.

While Chipping, or Chips, the nickname given by Katherine, is present throughout the whole narrative, Katherine’s own presence is brief. The allegorical significance of her surname is never openly commented on, but it seems likely that Hilton wants the reader to see Katherine as the force which directs and guides the middle-aged Chips to the second, more rewarding, part of his life.

In the novel Chips is trying to save Katherine from a mountain ledge but he hurts himself in the process: “Thus he found himself the rescued instead the rescuer”. In the 1939 film director Sam Wood shrouds Chips in mists on the mountain and it is Katherine’s voice which guides him to a safe place.

 

A scene from the Lake District photographed in 1996. Chips meets Katherine while on holiday there. “He went up… with Rowden, a colleague; they walked and climbed for a week, until Rowden had to leave suddenly on some family business. Chips stayed alone at Wasdale Head, where he boarded in a small farmhouse. One day, climbing on Great Gable, he noticed a girl … ”

 

Chips has always been shy of women, and Katherine is more intimidating than most. She is an example of “that monstrous creature… the New Woman of the nineties”. She is a political radical who believes women should have the vote, an admirer of Shaw and Ibsen and William Morris, who enjoys cycling and is unafraid to visit a single older man alone in his lodgings. However she also believes that teaching is a noble and important profession and is attracted to Chips’ gentle manner and to his opinions which, although old-fashioned, are held honestly. To the modern reader it still seems an unlikely match. The 2002 TV version felt it necessary to add a scene where she leaves Chips a book by Shaw as a farewell gift, which encourages him to cycle after her in a classically bold romantic gesture. Her fatherly group leader cautions, “I hope you are not going to forget yourself, my dear”, to which she calmly replies “I believe I already have”.

Married and at Brookfield, Katherine is popular with other teachers and all the pupils. Hilton says she is also popular with other teachers’ wives – but both TV and film versions felt it too complicated to introduce such characters. The novel mentions the school concerts and the prize-giving garden party, the TV version shows afternoon tea and picnics. She organises a football match between Brookfield and a mission school in working-class Poplar in east London, which is remembered years later by one of the Poplar boys when an adult. (The TV producers perhaps felt there had been enough scenes of sport already when it was decided to change the latter social inclusion initiative into a dance with a nearby girls’ school).

Hilton says that Katherine often asks Chips to be lenient in dealing with pupil misbehavior – because she understands that the boys had often been sent to boarding school against their will and that living together with others was “an unnatural arrangement” – but she is described as shrewd enough to realise that leniency is not appropriate in every situation. The TV version shows her use the Aesop’s fable of the sun and the north wind in her argument against “uncivilized” bullying to the shocked Brookfield headmaster, which the latter recalls when he compliments her later at the mixed gender dance.

Katherine’s death in childbirth is dealt with briskly by Hilton and in both adaptations. Chips refuses to take any time off after the tragedy and returns immediately to his class. Because it is 1 April, the pupils have already organized an April Fool’s joke which he tolerates. Hilton adds that Chips “nearly” says “ ‘you can go to blazes for all I care. My wife is dead and my child is dead and I wish I were dead myself’ ” –  but he is held back by social formality and professional dedication.

The story is still only half-way through, and Hilton makes clear that Chips’ continuing popularity and status and success within the school is due to the influence of the deceased Katherine. So although one theme of the story could be said to be tradition or service or the English class system, another could certainly be the positive influence which one person can exercise in unlikely circumstances when will and effort are applied.

For me, Hilton’s most insightful description is that Katherine’s “radical-socialist… idealism” has combined with Chips’ more conservative “maturity” to produce “an amalgam gentle and wise”. With the new century, despite the pain of his bereavement, Chips gains “a mellowness (and) harmony” and becomes “supremely and confidently himself”.

 

Reference:  Hilton, James (1980)   Goodbye Mr Chips    London: Coronet

 

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Missing the message

 

Judee Sill was one of the musicians signed to the David Geffen’s new Asylum record label in the 1970s, alongside Joni MitchellJackson Browne, Linda Rondstadt and the Eagles. That she is less famous than those artistes is largely due to the fact she released only two albums and died prematurely, at least partly from drug use, in 1979.

However, I clearly remember the first single released from her debut album being played regularly on the radio: “Jesus was a Cross-Maker”. This was the golden era of the singer-songwriter and also the time of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, Christian narratives welded to pop/rock music. Equally the gospel influences of black soul artistes like Aretha Franklin were often admired and copied by white musicians from different traditions. The title of “Jesus was a Cross-Maker” certainly made this listener (plus many 1970s music show presenters ) think this song was one of those examples.

Sill’s singing and playing were very attractive, but these distinctive features and the song’s brisk tempo led to another consequence which is familiar to anyone who has listened to and loved pop/rock music any time during the last half-century: you cannot hear every word of the lyrics.

It was many years later, in the internet era, when, finally seeing the lyrics written down, I realised that the title phrase is the only reference to Jesus and that the lyric does not seem to have any particular Christian meaning or relevance.
One interpretation offered by Michael Crumsho in the Dusted music website is that the lyric is about “gaining higher momentum from the lower periods in one’s life, spurred on from the fact that Jesus Christ was in fact (depending upon your views of Jesus as a historical figure) a cross maker.”

Artists from the past who have died young or who are perceived to have become neglected are often the features of TV or radio programmes which blend factual information with the presenter’s autobiography or personal exploration. Judee Sill was the subject of such a programme in 2014 presented by the journalist Ruth Barnes.

This programme provided some new information about “Jesus was a Cross Maker”. John David Souther, another West Coast musician of the period with whom Sill was having a relationship at this point in her life, said that Sill specifically told him that the song was written about their relationship. So that might mean the song’s references to “bandit” are metaphorical references to Souther’s emotional influence over her rather than recalling her own dramatic youthful criminal exploits. It probably means that the reference to “Jesus” does not directly point to the Bible, although another contributor to the programme suggests that Sill had a genuinely wide interest in religion and spirituality which informed many of her lyrics.

The present-day internet allows many free opportunities to remind ourself what Judee Sill sounded like. Unlike Ruth Barnes, I tend not to regard her as a forgotten major figure, certainly not as important as Joni Mitchell. However, it is certainly easy to appreciate her songwriting as better than that being produced by most 21st century artistes, and to wonder whether that decline in quality might be caused partly by the erosion of the literary and cultural foundation once provided by the Bible and other religious texts.

 

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Outsiders

 

Happy New 2019!

You often read or hear journalists or actors or others in the public eye choosing their own favourite hero or heroine from literature or drama. A recent example was the journalist Rebecca Nicholson, who discussed her attachment as a young reader to Roald Dahl’s Matilda. A perfectly reasonable choice. Although I was a bit puzzled and sad that she felt obliged to apologise for not choosing the media’s standard example of Harry Potter. “It may well be a generational thing – I came to Harry Potter too late,” she explained.

J.K. Rowling’s hero is actually not unusual for being an orphan or an outsider. Children’s literature (or, to be specific, literature we often read first when we are children) is full of orphans and other isolated and lonely and bullied and neglected children – even in older and less fashionable books. For instance, David Balfour in Kidnapped, Tom Sawyer, Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables, Carrie and her brother Nick in Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War, Billy Casper in Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave. And there are plenty of longer lists elsewhere on the internet.

It is because these characters are alone or neglected that they often display the courage and independence which we as young readers warm to.

Nicholson added, “When books for children are at their very best, they give power to those who feel different and strength to those who might, for reasons they do not know yet, feel like outsiders.” I was struck by her use of the word “might” and the subsequent phrase “for reasons they do not know yet”. In the current public concern about the mental health of young people, there has been a lot of discussion about children who feel neglected or misunderstood or outsiders. This has sometimes even led some adults to encourage such anxious young people that they will be happier if they change the gender which they were born into.

My view is that all people at some time in their childhood feel like outsiders. No matter how happy or comfortable their childhood, no matter how many friends or siblings they have, no matter how wealthy or caring their parents. It’s a natural part of growing up. That feeling may last for weeks or for years, at one particular occasion in your life, or regularly and for some time. But it will happen.

Obviously the more often such feelings of loneliness or isolation or anxiety or confusion occur and the longer they continue the more likely this should be considered a specific problem which a caring adult should do something to solve. But it may be that the adult has only to wait – and encourage the child to develop those qualities of courage and resilience and independence displayed by all of those loved literary characters.

 

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Some Leaf Collecting highlights from 2018

 

Leaf Collecting is now six years old. Many thanks to all its readers.

Here are a few cultural highlights from its writer’s year.

Several fine artistic commemorations of World War One : Colin Matthews’ No Man’s Land, James McMillan’s oratorio All the Hills and Vales Along at the Cumnock Tryst, the exhibition Brushes With War, the art of the serving soldiers of the conflict largely drawn from the collection of Joel Parkinson at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery.

Other music: a recital of piano music of Edvard Grieg by Rune Alver at the concert hall at the late composer’s house in Troldhaugen, Norway; and Scottish bands the Van T’s and Vegan Leather.

Theatre/TV : the brilliant all-female Shakespeare trilogy of The Tempest, Henry IV and Julius Caesar directed by Phyllida Lloyd; and one of its antecedents, the Peter Hall/John Barton The Wars of the Roses.

Visual art/TV : my first full viewing of two famous TV art documentaries Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing – the reputation of each well deserved – and one of the best modern arts TV presenters, Lachlan Goudie, in Painting the Holy Land.

Radio: as always, BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction – if only more of 6Music was like it!

Journalism: The Tablet and The Messenger of St Anthony, two stimulating publications covering spirituality, world affairs and culture.

Film: the most rewarding have usually been older ones from sources like Talking Pictures TV, but it was certainly good to enjoy Spike Lee back again in the centre of critical and popular attention with BlacKkKlansman. 

Some encouraging news from different sources: the anti-gun protest actions after the Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School shooting in the USA; the work done by the Independent Workers of Great Britain trade union; the imaginative alliance between the Church of England and the Government to mount transmitters and aerials on the spires and roofs of historic church buildings.

One very bad thing which got better: the overlong closure of the essential Centre of Contemporary Arts in Glasgow after the Glasgow Art School fire – resolved now, happily.

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The crowds arrive

 

St Francis of Assisi is usually credited as the inventor of the crib as a spiritual and devotional object at Christmas.

A few centuries later in another part of Italy, at the palace of the Reggia di Caserta, was built one of the largest cribs and nativity tableaux in Europe.

 

 

Mary and Joseph are hidden among dozens of figures, showing the town of Bethlehem crowded both for the census and then with successive groups wanting to visit the baby Jesus.

 

 

 

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