Archive for January, 2015

Churchill and his contradictions

25 January 2015

Winston_Churchill_1Everyone’s getting excited about Churchill, as we approach the 50th anniversary of his funeral in 1965, when Britain stopped for the day. And he is a genuinely interesting historical figure, full of contradictions. (I’ve written about him before here). In my upbringing, in a house infused by the mining culture of the north-east of England, his triumph over fascism as a wartime leader was always inflected by his history as Home Secretary, when he sent Metropolitan Police and troops into south Wales to “keep the peace” after rioting during a lockout at Tonypandy. (Churchill’s archive insists the notion that he sent troops to deal with the miners is a “myth”, but you can make what you will of his “personal message” to strikers: “We are holding back the soldiers for the present and sending only police.”)

And as Secretary of State for War in 1919, he sent 10,000 troops onto the streets of Glasgow in response to radical protests. It was “the largest deployment of British troops on native soil,” at least outside of northern Ireland.

It’s also true that had he died when hit by a car in New York in 1931 (curiously Hitler was also hit by a car in the same year), his career would be little more than a flamboyant curiosity: youthful promise, erratic politics, and some catastrophic failures. The Dardanelles disaster in World War 1 is still used as a case study in poor decision making.

Last year I found myself reading some of the history of Churchill’s “lost decade” in the ‘30s, in which he was right about appeasement and rearmament, foolish about India, and hopelessly misguided about the Abdication.

From that, some themes emerge. They’re below the fold.

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“The last time I saw Richard…”

11 January 2015

There’s something arresting about the opening line of Joni Mitchell’s song “The last time I saw Richard,” the final track on her 1971 LP Blue.

The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68,

And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday

Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe.

You know several things straightaway: The singer and Richard used to be in a relationship (otherwise why would she care, or remember where she saw him last), and that it didn’t end well, and that this was definitely down to him, not her.

She has your attention right there, right now.

“Richard” is probably Chuck Mitchell, briefly Joni’s first husband and also her musical partner for a short period in the 1960s. And in fact the song is a sustained piece of character assassination. A bit later on we learn that,

Richard got married to a figure skater

And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator

And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on

Even these days buying this stuff would be a pretty empty materialist gesture. But in 1971?

I was listening to Blue again after reading an article by Sean O’Hagan about Joni Mitchell’s golden period, broadly from Blue to Hejira. O’Hagan writes that on Blue she “single-handedly redefined the notion of the singer-songwriter.”

One of the reasons for this was her willingness to expose her intimate self in these songs. As well as writing about “Richard”, another, “Little Green”, alludes, cryptically, to her daughter, given up for adoption in 1965. Other songwriters were shocked. As O’Hagan relates, “On first hearing them, her friend Kris Kristofferson exclaimed: ‘Oh Joni – save something of yourself!'”