Author Archives: Singing Bear

Politics: What Is The Point, Exactly?

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Many moons ago I was a member of the Labour Party; not just a ‘member’ but an ‘active member’ who not only paid up my annual subscription but attended ward meetings, sat on committees, posted leaflets, collected food for striking miners and knocked on people’s doors at election time asking for them which way they were likely to be voting. The truth is, I believed in all this stuff. This would have been the mid-80’s, when Britain was under the Thatcherite jackboot and was becoming one of the most divided societies in the western world. I called myself a Socialist (with a big S) and all these years later, when pushed, will tell anyone who wants to know that I am still a Socialist, though what has happened to my fellow travellers on the left I’m none too sure. You may well be thinking, ‘What was a hard-line socialist doing in the Labour Party at a time when Neil Kinnock was doing his utmost to rid said party of such evils unless it was part of some Trotskyist plot?‘ (you were thinking that, weren’t you?). Well, I wasn’t a Trotskyist and had no time for Militant Tendency or the International Marxist Group or Derek Hatton or Arthur bloody Scargill; I was just an average working class young fellow who was sick of things never changing for ordinary people, rising unemployment figures, lack of housing, an increasingly stretched NHS, shit state education and the rise of the Yuppies.

I believed that state control of essential resources and services to be used for the betterment of the lives of the poorer folk would be the best way forward for British society. Call me naive if you like but I still do. Where I do think I was wrong was in believing that the British political system could ever deliver this for the working class. I may have occasionally spouted off dreamily about the need for ‘revolution’ (although this was mainly to wind up any perceived old codgers I encountered) but, in the main, I did think that we’d eventually change things through the electoral system. How wrong I was.

It’s probably fair for anyone to observe that the reason Britain never made the necessary swing back to the left was because old style socialism was generally discredited and no longer desired by the British public but I think there was something else going on that has proved to be a far more potent weapon in the right’s determination to destroy leftist aspirations: the deliberate engendering of apathy amongst the working class. The growth in apathy took a number of forms depending on who needed to be inoculated with a dose of ‘couldn’t give a toss, mate’. On one hand, you had the so called ‘aspirational working class’ who had always, in the main, been solid Labour Party supporters but were not averse to the idea of buying their council houses, sending little Johnny or Jenny to private school give the chance, joining the golf or squash club, joining the ranks of lower management at the factory (‘Daddy, what’s a factory?‘) and taking their annual holiday in Spain or even Turkey. Now, taken individually, it could be argued that there’s nothing wrong with any of these things but when you put them all together as a ‘lifestyle’ there is an undeniably pernicious tang to such delights. It’s that little useless carrot that says, ‘You, too, can have all this…providing you are good girls and boys and keep supporting the status quo.’  Of course, you have to promise to take little care for your poor unemployed neighbour or the elderly couple across the road or the sick gentlemen on the corner; after all, didn’t Thatcher tell us that ‘There is no such thing as society’? What we had to accept for this golden opportunity to shine was that Darwin’s notion of survival of the fittest had to be allowed to do its work throughout the land – it was the only way. Many people bought into this crap.

The other side of this coin was aimed at the people who were perceived to be irredeemably out of the loop as far as the new social revolution was concerned: the long term unemployed, the poor, the unskilled workers, the ‘underclass’ (probably all pissed or on drugs anyway). It was vital to make these sections of society believe that there was basically NO HOPE for them within the normal political process, thus making things like taking an interest in current affairs, reading a proper newspaper (or reading of any kind), joining a political party or even bothering to vote  a complete irrelevance to such people. Providing they had TV, cheap booze, cigarettes, take away food outlets, football etc. then they would remain like passive sheep, ultimately to be herded (can you ‘herd’ a ‘flock’ of sheep?) to market or even the slaughterhouse. The relatively recent rise of the ubiquity of computer games, the internet and any other ‘must have’ gadget you can mention has only added to the weaponry of the Establishment in their struggle to make us drown in our own apathy. If this doesn’t work, flooding sink estates and inner city areas with cheap drugs should do it. (I’m only too aware that drugs are also prevalent in more rural areas these days as well but I hope you get my drift). Yes, it’s old Karl’s ‘opium for the masses’ but this time it really is opium or, at least, some sort of derivative. On the whole, however, the Sky Sports, cheap supermarket booze and The X-Factor is sufficient to do the trick.

Whilst all this is going on, the political classes become harder and harder to tell apart, no matter what they happen to call themselves; they rip the nation off royally (I haven’t even mention the role of ‘Royalty’, have I?) with their expenses claims, tax dodges and cash for questions, knowing full well we are all too drugged to the eyeballs on all the crap they’ve sold us to care one way or another. On top of that, whenever they decide that its high time we helped the US invade yet another country (Syria, are you ready?), we’ll not only go along with it but we’ll supply the cannon fodder too. Of course we could go on and on complaining about the state of the NHS, mass immigration, the genuine threat of militant Islam, gypsies on your doorstep nicking the lead off the school roof, the crumbling education system, homelessness, the EU, unemployment,  paedophiles in the higher echelons and anything else but they now know that we are far too apathetic to really do anything about it whilst we still have out iPods, iPhones, 44″ HD screens and ‘East Enders’ three times a week. This is what it’s all about, folks: behave yourselves and you can have your crap and eat it but if you do have the audacity to try to change things through the political process they won’t even have to kill you (unless that happens to be convenient) because they’ll merely corrupt you

I can hear you saying, ‘We know the problems, what’s the answer?’ Currently, I can see no answer. Join UKIP? Fine if you want a re-run of Nazi Germany. Think I’m exaggerating? Wait until they form a coalition with the EDL. Change the Labour Party from within? No chance – the politics of common sense and the average British person is anathema to the chattering classes of Miliband’s crew; they’ll ensure you are silenced before you can say ‘Clement Attlee.’  How about the Green Party? Do you really want to spend weekends camping with the neo-fascists of the expensive hand-kitted jumper from Peru brigade? You could head for Stornoway but that’s my dream and I bet the bastards will be there as well. No, the only thing to do right now is live our lives in as Dadaesque fashion as possible, making a mockery of the whole stinking cesspit until the system eats itself and we can rise from the ashes and establish a true socialist Utopia of peace, love and equality. Don’t expect too many to follow, though, because they are all too busy on their iPads booking tickets for ‘Glasto’ (maaaan) – though I expect that sold out a long time ago, baby.

Merde to la revolution! (for now).

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100 Years of Woody Guthrie: Billy Bragg Live in Treorchy, 12.9.12

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This year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great American folk singer, Woody Guthrie, an occasion that has prompted Billy Bragg to perform concerts in each of the nations of the UK, at the behest of Guthrie’s daughter, Nora. Bragg and Ms. Guthrie have worked together now for a number of years on the Mermaid Avenue albums project which has seen Billy and US band, Wilco, putting music to previously unrecorded and unseen Guthrie lyrics. The two original Mermaid Avenue volumes have recently been joined by a box set of the entire recordings with previously unissued tracks and a DVD of the fine Bragg-fronted film about Woody’s work, Man In The Sand. Here in south Wales, we were fortunate to get the show on our doorstep at the great little Parc and Dare theatre in Treorchy. Here’s my reflections on an evening of Guthrie via Bragg.

First off, support act, Martyn Joseph, well known in these parts, but not so well recognised in the rest of the UK, put on a fine but all too brief performance that perfectly illustrated that all one needs for a good night’s entertainment is a man, his guitar(s) and some very good songs. Joseph did almost come to national prominence in the 80’s when he was being promoted as a rising pop star in an unfortunately AOR mode but he has since come to see that his strengths lie very much as a more straight-ahead singer-songwriter. Songs like ‘Cardiff Bay’ and ‘Dic Penderyn’, whilst obviously displaying local affiliations, touch on universal themes that made me draw comparisons with the likes of Tom Russell and, if I may be so bold, Springsteen. Indeed, Joseph acknowledged his debt to The Boss with a strong version of ‘The River’, which was not out of place alongside songs of his own like ‘Arizona Dreams’ and ‘Lonely Like America’. I will certainly say I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the man’s set and could easily have listened to him for another hour or so.

Billy Bragg, probably the UK’s best known Guthrie promoter and preserver of the spirit of Woodrow, walked onto the very bare Parc and Dare stage and sat with two acoustic guitars and a supply of tea to lubricate his throat. I’ll admit that I had hoped he would be performing a whole range of Woody’s songs but from the off it’s clear that he intends to, more or less, stick to the Mermaid Avenue material, although we do get a couple of original Guthrie gems in the shape of ‘Slip Knot’ and ‘Deportees’ before the night is over. Still, one can’t complain because he certainly did great service to Woody’s words with his music and his performance to night is as strong as you would expect. Favourites like ‘Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key’ and ‘She Came Along To Me’ are all present and correct and Billy does a good job in showing the uninitiated a wider view of the art and character of Mr. Guthrie with laugh-filled talk of Woody’s obviously masturbatory fantasies about Ingrid Bergman. Bragg is a very engaging host but I did find it slightly ironic that even though he had prefaced the evening’s performance by saying how he wanted to get right away from the academic style of presentation that so often dooms the discussion and playing of folk song, his approach was sometimes more akin to a lecture than the proto-punk rock spirit of Woody himself. I’m sure if we’d had the  chance to see the legend in the flesh for ourselves he would have been jumping around the stage and firing off songs left right and centre in a fashion closer to Bragg’s own punk heroes, The Clash, than that of someone just signed up to the ‘Pete Seeger School of Earnest Folk Singers’. For this audience member, Billy only really seemed to truly get the adrenaline (his and ours) running when he jumped into ‘All You Fascists’, the aforementioned original Woody classics, ‘Deportees’ (one of the encores with Martyn Joseph) and ‘Slip Knot’ or, the final songs of the entire (long but I ain’t complaining) night, his own ‘Don’t Buy The Sun’ and ‘Waiting The For Great Leap Forwards’. Indeed, with these final two tunes, where Billy talked of the new revelations about the Hillsborough football ground tragedy, he truly began to channel the spirit of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie. I will also add that throughout the whole show we were kept highly entertained not only by the songs but Bragg’s own abilities as a raconteur. If you’ve never heard the hilarious tale of his stay at Morrissey’s house with Paul Weller, Jimmy Sommerville and the rubber bed sheet, I’m sure you’ll find it on YouTube.

To sum up: a very solid night of entertainment and edification in celebration of the life and work of one of the most important singers and writers of the twentieth century which would have benefited even more from an injection of Bragg’s own spiky spirit and a step away from the traditions of the Folklore Society or The Smithsonian Institute.

One Giant Leap: Neil Armstrong R.I.P.

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Sad news reached us today of the passing of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the Moon. Mr. Armstrong’s death makes it feel like the Apollo space program has been shunted even further back into history and 1969 seems ever longer ago (which, of course, it always is but you know what I mean). There seems to be an increasing number of people who no longer believe that humans have ever really reached our nearest space neighbour as the ‘Moon landings conspiracy’ gathers speed year by year: whilst I’m as open as the next freak to many a possible conspiracy in this strange world, I, for one, firmly believe that old Neil and Buzz did successfully make that journey, to be followed by further missions up until NASA called it a day after Apollo 17. I’ve read some of the conspiracy stuff, of course, but I don’t think much of it really makes a lot of sense, whereas, for the US to put a fellow on the Moon made a lot of sense at the height of the Cold War. It’s probably arguable that we didn’t learn a fantastic amount that we couldn’t have done by using unmanned probes but I’d have to leave that one to the experts. No, the main point was, at least that summer of 1969, to put a man on the Moon.

I have very vivid memories, as a wide eyed (shortsighted) eight year old, of watching those very hazy pictures beamed down to us from the Sea of Tranquility. It all seemed so incredible and of true significance in terms of human endeavour. Even as a young child, I somehow sensed that life would never be quite the same again and, for good or ill, I’d argue that it hasn’t been. It does seem a terrible shame that our taste for space adventure seems to have lessened considerably since those heady times but, with the massive economic and social problems that the world has faced in the intervening years, one can understand how space exploration has slipped down the ladder of priority somewhat. However, at some stage, mankind will quite probably have to get out there again and we can only hope that it will be for the benefit of us all that the next Neil Armstrong takes off for the stars. I salute you, sir.

Hidden Gems: Obscure 45’s No. 2: The Sea Urchins

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Continuing our series of those unjustly long forgotten, ‘should have been massive’, singles from days gone by, this is ‘Pristine Christine’ by The Sea Urchins. Coming on like something from the classic hey-day of post-punk, this was in fact, recorded for the seminal Sarah Records label in 1987 by a bunch of lads from West Bromwich. I suppose it fits that whole ‘shambling band’, ‘jungle jangle’ vibe of the period but, to these ears at least, is superior to almost anything until the Stone Roses upped their game and could still give anything by them a run for their money as well.

Take one flock of pigeons, apply cat and retreat.

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We have recently witnessed the unedifying spectacle of a famous and fabulous wealthy footballer of some ill-repute being taken to court for allegedly hurling vile racist abuse at another footballer of slightly lesser fame and ill-repute, who is blessed with a relatively thinner bank account: a pretty sad reflection of modern day Britain but also a small storm in a small cup of tea. Should the case have ever come to court? I really don’t think so. Of course, racial abuse is unacceptable and the idiots that indulge in it are beneath contempt but I doubt this was a good use of court time. It did, however, at least ensure the debate about racism in British society is kept high on the agenda, for which we should all be grateful. In the fall-out from all of this, following the collapse of the case against the alleged abuser, we now find that someone has called another footballer who was a witness at the trial, a ‘choc ice’.

There are a lot of things I would want to call this, again fabulously wealthy and publicly lauded, player: ‘choc ice’ isn’t one that would immediately spring to mind but that’s hardly the point. ‘Choc ice’, we have to assume, is a term meant to denote ‘black on the outside and white on the inside’ and is akin to the already commonly used epithet, ‘coconut’. Again, this isn’t a very nice thing to say about someone  but should it be enough for the police to start snooping around? Surely not? Hang on, though, because the Derbyshire Constabulary think differently. A foolish man used Twitter to compare said player to a chocolate covered vanilla treat and the police are called in. Over the years I have lost count of the number of times that I have phoned the police to tell them that gangs of youths are vandalizing our local park, verbally abusing members of the public, dealing in drugs, partaking of underage drinking and just generally making damned nuisances of themselves: what has been the response of our local boys in blue? Not very much. If they do turn up it’s usually hours after the events have come and gone. How many times do we hear of old people being beaten up in their own homes, women attacked on the streets and burglars and thieves just generally doing as they wish? Far too often these days. Now, without wanting to sound like Richard Littlejohn, it has to be said that someone is getting all their priorities wrong here. You just cannot start prosecuting people for saying things you don’t like, even if their views hurt someone’ s feelings. The only way to defeat racism is to hold it up to the light and reveal it for the rank madness that it is. Make these people look like sad losers, fools, nutters or whatever but using the courts to ensure we all think the ‘right way’ has dangers all of its own. Besides, do you really think that calling a rich footballer a ‘choc ice’ on an internet forum is a real crime? Time for a reality check.

Paint The White House Cream

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After weeks of trying, constant delays and rain, I have at last completed the painting of our house exterior. I think this is about the fifth time I have done this job since we moved in about 16 years ago, which may seem a little over the top but we get quite a lashing here from the Welsh winds and weather. I hope I won’t have to take it on again for at least another three years. It’s not as if it’s a straight-forward job: there’s the actual back wall of the house, part of which is very tricky to get to, even with a long ladder, due to the awkward positioning of a satellite dish (thanks, Sky); then there’s the kitchen extension bit, the bathroom (downstairs, I know) and, finally the bloody shed (breeze block) and a large wall that drops down to the (ahem) ‘lower patio’ (don’t that sound posh?). In brief, it takes forever (which is not brief at all). On top of that, what with my dad breaking his collar bone, my mum needing very regular care and the kids, the dog and Uncle Tom Cobbley, it’s dragged on and on this time around. Anyway, I finished that little job this morning. Now for the next twenty million other things.

I bet you really wanted to know this, didn’t you? Okay, it’s not inspired stuff but it’s what we all have to deal with. Now, how do we find a way to turn the mundane into some kind of magic? If we can’t find it there, where can we find it? It must all be in our spiritual/mental attitude, I suppose. My next big DIY task is to entirely redecorate the living room, which is a long, long overdue project. I’d put it off indefinitely if I could but I can’t, so I have to find a way to take it on with the correct mental approach. It’s not just papering and paint, either: there’s a bit of plastering, some skirting needs replacing and the ceiling will need attention – and I don’t even enjoy this kind of work. Okay, some folk love it all but I feel I have better things to do with my time – listen to music, read books, walk the hound etc. I must meditate on all this. If you have any tips, let me know.

I had hoped to entertain you with a clip of Mr. George Clinton at this point but I can’t work out how to embed a video on this here blog site, which is a tad problematic.