Archive for July, 2008

Once an activist…

13 July 2008

There’s a heartening story about the veteran American singer and radical, Pete Seeger, who’s now 89, in an article by David Rothenburg in the current issue of the ecological magazine Resurgence. It turns out that six years ago, at the age of 83, he instigated an annual river race – ‘the great Newburgh to Beacon Hudson River Swim’ in his home town of Beacon to celebrate the fact that the river was now clean enough to swim in – while also trying to raise money for a lined swimming pool in the river so it was safe for everyone to swim in. Words like redoubtable and irrepressible come to mind.

(The picture is of Seeger, aged 79, singing at a concert to honour Woody Guthrie. It is from Woody Guthrie Links, a treasure trove of Guthrie-related material.)


Wimbledon as alien experiment

12 July 2008

With perfect timing, with the final episode of the Dr Who series looming later that day, the comedian David Mitchell conjured on Wimbledon finals weekend the thought that Wimbledon was so, well, extra-terrestrial that maybe it was being used as a lab by aliens:

Everything’s been freshly painted, and it all matches; there are flowers in pots that have never been pissed on; alcohol is freely available but there’s not a trace of vomit – it’s quite simply how things should be. It’s so perfect, it’s like a slightly unnerving sci-fi utopia – you expect to discover at any moment that the place is kept going by burning baby brains, or that some horrible tarantula master race is secretly farming everyone, but they’ve discovered that we become more delicious if we’re stuffed with strawberries and champagne and kept in a permanently good mood.

It reminded me of Isaac Asimov’s deft short story Jokester, in which a man whose only social skill lies in telling jokes decides to find out where jokes come from. Of course, he discovers that they’re being used as a tool by another race to experiment on humans – and the minute he finds this out he can’t remember any joke

Watching the Gypsy Kings

12 July 2008

The Gypsy Kings seem completely familiar now; they have been completely incorporated into our aural landscape, in the land of adverts and TV music and Magic radio, which is probably why a colleague of mine seemed surprised that I was going to see them. It’s hard to remember what a surprise they were twenty years ago when their flamenco/roma sound hit the mainstream. Watching them live, it’s possible to regain a sense of the strangeness of the sound. 12 musicians, of whom seven or eight are playing guitars on any one song. And five or six of those guitarists are playing rhythm, creating a wall of guitar sound, and the rhythms are those complex staccato flamenco rhythms, and from this, the solo guitars and the vocal lines emerge. The vocals, of course, are often as influenced by Arab music as European. (I’m not going to get into the largely sterile arguments about their relationship to ‘authentic’ flamenco).

Interestingly, it’s hard to see this on the videos, because they focus, of course, on the singer and the soloists and rarely give a picture of the whole stage. There’s a bit of a sense of it in this youtube clip from a gig at the Royal Albert Hall.

Harold Wilson vs Tony Blair

5 July 2008

Francis Beckett contrasts Harold Wilson with Tony Blair in a review in The Guardian: not to Blair’s advantage:

The children of the 60s and those of the 70s thought New Jerusalem was around the corner, its arrival hindered only by the conservatism of Harold Wilson’s Labour governments. They did not realise that they were living in New Jerusalem and that their generation, which benefited from this dazzling array of freedoms, would, within 20 years, destroy them. Nor did they realise – for they had never heard of Tony Blair – how lucky they were to have Wilson to hate. Wilson courageously kept Britain out of Vietnam, founded the Open University and made such cautious moves towards greater social equality as were allowed by the difficult economic circumstances.

Proud of having conquered their inherited inhibitions, the 60s and 70s generations thought, in their innocence and foolishness, that there was little else to conquer. Their parents had battled for healthcare, for education, for full employment and economic security. These battles having apparently been won, the young fought for, and won, the right to wear their hair long and to enjoy sex. These were the battles that the young Blair fought and won at a stifling old-fashioned public school, Fettes, at the end of the 60s. He rejected the statism of the Attlee settlement. It is precisely because Blair is an authentic child of the 60s and 70s that he threw away. Labour’s chance to change the Thatcher settlement of Britain’s affairs. He had no quarrel with it. The children of that time saw themselves as pioneers of a new world – freer, fairer and infinitely more fun. They were wrong.

The review is also good on the unions and the 70s:

[Alwyn] Turner shows how all the signs of their demise were evident in the 70s. Doom-laden books of the period included Anthony Burgess’s novella 1985, published in 1978, which predicted a dictatorship by the unions. Turner’s account of the Grunwick strike portrays the sad reality: that both the unions and their enemies thought the unions had power, but when unions had to protect workers against really bad employers who fired them for joining a union, they failed.