Archive for May, 2012

The song of John Ball

26 May 2012


I’ve been listening to Chris Wood’s version on his Trespassers CD of the song ‘John Ball’, written in 1981 by Sydney Carter (who also wrote ‘The Lord of the Dance’) to mark the 600th anniversary of the Peasants’ Revolt in England. Ball was a radical Lollard priest who had been expelled from the priesthood and jailed for asking questions about equality in the eyes of God, and he gave the sermon to the peasant army as it was camped on Blackheath, overlooking the City of London.

His sermon started with these words:

“When Adam delved, and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”

This sentiment would have chilled the beneficiaries of England’s hierarchical and feudal society. After the revolt had been put down – its leader, Wat Tyler, tricked into negotiations – Ball was arrested and hanged, drawn and quartered as a traitor.

But the phrase, and the radical idea embedded within it, has echoed down the centuries, to the Diggers, to Tom Paine, to the Chartists, to William Morris, even, it seems, to the Occupy Movement. We still remember him, more than 600 years on, and have long forgotten those who had him killed.

The picture at the top shows John Ball addressing the rebel Peasants on Blackheath. It is published by Wikimedia Commons and is used here with thanks.


Going Dutch

14 May 2012


I went on the ‘Go Dutch’ Big Ride demonstration organised by the London Cycling Campaign a couple of weeks ago, which, despite the rain, was billed as the largest cycling demonstration ever to take place in London. The ride went from Park Lane to the Victoria Embankment, all on roads specially closed for the duration, taking in Piccadilly, Trafalgar Square and Whitehall as it went.

The theme – you might have guessed this by now – was that if conditions for London’s cyclists were a bit more like those in the Netherlands, more people would cycle and the government and the Mayor might hit their cycling targets.

So I was amused to read a few days later in Bella Bathurst’s eclectic but entertaining Bicycle Book that when Holland plays Germany Dutch football fans chant at the German supporters ‘Give us back our bicycles’. Beating the Germans is something of a special occasion for the Dutch, especially at football, as Simon Kuper relates in his book Football Against The Enemy.
And sure enough, this chant dates from the war years, by Bathhurst’s account. In 1942, during the German occupation, the Nazi authorities confiscated Dutch bicycles both to stop the Resistance from using them to get around, and because they were running out of transport.

“No other German enactment has called up such bitterness in all ranks of society”, wrote a German officer. “The Dutchman, who is practically born on a bicycle, views the seizing of that bicycle as practically the worst thing that can happen to him.”
Of course, the London Cycling Campaign is right. Dutch-style cycle facilities in London would improve the city’s cycling numbers. But culturally, we have a little way to go just yet.

The picture at the top is from the ibikelondon blog, and is used with thanks. There are also images of the day at Ben Brown’s photostream on flickr.

Another country

7 May 2012


I’ve had the miners’ strike more on my mind since I went to see the Jeremy Deller exhibition at the Hayward Gallery a couple of weeks ago, because the exhibition includes his famous reenactment of The Battle of Orgreave, when police cavalry charged protesting strikers.

So when The Guardian published some poems from Jubilee Lines, edited by Carol Ann Duffy (she has commissioned a new poem for each of the 60 years of the Queen’s reign) I turned first to the mid-80s. Sean O’Brien, whom I’ve written about here before, a child of the north, had claimed 1985 with a tough and unforgiving poem called ‘Another Country’:

Whenever someone sagely says it’s time to draw a line,
We may infer that they’ve extracted all the silver from the mine.

O’Brien’s poem starts with a epigraph from Auden, ‘Get there if you can’, the title of a 1930 poem. Here’s an extract:

Power-stations locked, deserted, since they drew the boiler fires
Pylons falling or subsiding, trailing dead high-tension wires;
Head-gears gaunt on grass-grown pit-banks, seams abandoned years ago;
Drop a stone and listen for its splash in flooded dark below…

Auden was born in York and brought up in Birmingham, but was fascinated by underground workings and mining machinery. This early poem – not included by him in his Collected Poems – was written on a visit to the north-east of England, where O’Brien now lives and works. It is one of several from the period that dealt with the decaying or lost landscapes of the early industrial revolution.

There are obvious echoes here of the industrial landscape that Britain has lost since Thatcher’s campaign de-industrialise the country (I use the word ‘campaign’ with care here) of which the calculated destruction of the National Union of Mineworkers was such an exemplary part. And echoes too, in O’Brien’s title, of the famous opening line of L.P. Hartley’s novel of loss, and of class antagonism. London, now, is the other country, as it milks the rest of Britain of resources.

But no matter what you do, history doesn’t vanish. (I had this argument once with an uncomprehending career coach who told me I could put the history I was embedded in to one side and simply ‘move on’ in the modern, deracinated, non-place manner. I was uncomprehending too). And this is how Sean O’Brien ends his poem:

Where all year long the battle raged, there’s “landscape” and a plaque,
But though you bury stuff forever, it keeps on coming back:

Here then lie the casualties of one more English Civil War,
That someone, sometime – you, perhaps – will have to answer for.

No matter how hard you try to tramp it down, the dirt insists on coming up through the roots.

The image at the top is a screenshot of Mike Figgis’ film of Deller’s reconstruction of The Battle of Orgreave, from the Bureaux blog, and is used with thanks.