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Saturday, 10 October 2015

Bridget Marsden and Leif Ottosson on gold bars, embarrassment and review etiquette

Something new happened at my house - The Glamour Cave - in east London, the other evening: it hosted a folk gig. Yes: the Glamour Cave has finally done what it was born to do - at least it felt that way at the time. I met the musicians - Bridget Marsden and Leif Ottoson - when I was away on a work trip recently at the Stockholm folk festival, where I heard Bridget play and had my personal bacon saved by the two of them, when they gave me a lift very, very late one night.

I had to be a bit careful while the event was being organised and not mention it on social media as they said they weren't sure about the small print in one of the contracts they'd signed for their UK tour, which made it look initially as if a - possibly megalomaniac? - promoter had sole rights over their playing in London.

However, that turned out to be not the case, even in the mind of the promoter, and now the house concert is over I would love to sing their praises, mainly because they are magical. In fact I would have liked to have done it sooner and helpfully have promoted their tour but I've been ill and can only apologise for any difference it might have made, mainly to them, obviously.

I don't want to gush too much, though, because while they were here they said something that made me think about the ways in which gushing can be bad.

This is the thing. As the evening was starting up I put someone else's CD on the stereo: Richard Shindell, an American musician and friend of Show of Hands, who lives in Argentina. It was Courier, his live album, because it's one of my favourites. And found myself explaining, probably partly due to nervousness that no one would turn up to the house concert, that I'd managed to get myself in an awkward situation with Shindell by, I think, writing something overly empathetic. Read it and feel my girlish naivety.

So this is my embarrassing story. Shindell had played in Islington at The Old Queen's Head - the venue where Leif and Bridget were due to be the next night - and I'd gone along with a photographer  because, frankly, Shindell is fab and if you've never seen him and folk music is your thing, you really should. I'm doing it again. Anyway...

The last time he'd been in the UK I'd interviewed him and the result had been fulsome. In fact, it occurred to me when I saw him in the upstairs room at The Old Queens Head that he looked a bit embarrassed, especially for an American. Let's face it, telling an American you admire their work is not usually a problem.

We hung around: the photographer, David Firn, liked the music nearly as much as I did as it turned out, and managed to get one truly great shot of Shindell, above. We all left the pub at the same time.

"So where do you have to get to?" I asked Shindell.

He mentioned a hotel that we'd never heard of and said he had no idea how to get there but thought it was quite a long way, so we recommended a black cab. And then, in all innocence as one was passing with a yellow light on, hailed it. He climbed in, perhaps somewhat dutifully, looking back on it.

The next morning I looked up the hotel and realised that it was approximately 50 yards from The Old Queens Head and that there was *no way* he would not have known where it was as it had clearly been chosen for its proximity to the venue and that he must have left his bag there earlier. This filled me with a mixture of embarrassment and titillation.

Anyway. I told this tale to Bridget and Leif. "Aha," said Leif. "He suspected you of stalkerish behaviour." Apparently so, I admitted, slightly shamefaced. But not so much that I wouldn't write about it, obviously.

"Yes,"said Leif. "We once had a review that was so good that we didn't know what to do with it. I guess this is kind of the same thing."

Leif was being amazingly socially adept and trying to make me feel less awkward that I'd told the story. As an English person I have the ability to recognise this quality of emotional intelligence in others, even if not actually to reproduce it myself.

"This review. It contained so much praise that it was like a gold bar. We felt we couldn't show it to anyone because it would have been showing off. And we couldn't exchange it for anything because it was too much. 'Please can I exchange my gold bar for everything you have in your cash till?'"

Suddenly I saw the situation from the perspective of an unusually shy American or an average Scandinavian for the first time. You see? That's what folk's all about: learning about other cultures :-)

In the mean time please listen to Bridget and Leif because they are enchanting. Bridget is English and studied at Cambridge University and then music school in Stockholm, where she met Leif. And as a result their instrumental music has a really interesting quality that is something like listening to English being spoken as a foreign language by a Swede. Or vice versa. Some of the rhythms and cadences are familiar but many are not, so to an English folky it is both exotic and familiar.

 Love them. Love their emotional intelligence.

* If you'd like to do a house concert at The Glamour Cave you can contact me here. It could be fun. Also, if you would be interested in helping me livestream or record future events, same thing.

* Here's a story called This Nyckelharpa Kills Fascists about Swedish folk musicians taking on racism. 

* Here's a weird story about Richard Shindell and Doctor Who.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Making 'sense' of the Holocaust: they used music in the camps

This is a feature originally published in the Jewish Chronicle or The on 25/9/2015

“All I can do for my family who were lost is to say I am with you in spirit. I take on myself, as much as I can bear, the terrible despair and suffering and heartbreak and pain that was visited on you. Although it is only a feeble gesture, I stand with you at the moment of death, and create a living link with you. That’s all I can do.” Mark Forstater

Mark Forstater’s book, I Survived a Secret Nazi Extermination Camp, is a slim volume in three parts published by Psychology News. The first section is a brief introduction to the Holocaust, referencing the unique journalist and biographer Gitta Sereny. The second is a testimony for the Jewish Historical Commission by Rudolph Reder, one of two known Jewish survivors of the Belzec extermination camp in Poland: the other being Chaim Hirszman, who joined a communist militia in postwar Poland and was shot in 1946 before he could testify to his wartime experiences. The camp was “secret” in the sense that by the end of the war it had been covered over with flowers and trees, no visible trace remaining and those responsible for “vanishing” it had themselves been murdered at Sobibor.

Reder, above, had the role of “oven specialist” at the facility where an estimated 600,000 Jews were murdered, a skill that made him valuable to his SS captors for four months in 1942 until he was able to effect an escape so prosaic that “you couldn’t make it up” does it a disservice: he was taken into the nearest town as slave labour to pick up some supplies, whereupon his captors got drunk and fell asleep, allowing him simply to walk away. He spent the rest of the Nazi occupation of Poland hiding at the house of a woman who had worked for his family and whom he eventually married.

The third part, which is beautifully written – in contrast to the deeply troubling, matter-of-fact staccato of the second – describes Forstater’s rationale for taking on the project and the process that formed it. As a Jew from Philadelphia born in 1943, a baby-boomer who has recently been in the UK news for winning a court case against the Monty Python team, he says the Holocaust affected him hardly at all until he was 13 or 14 years old. “It all seemed to have happened very far away, to a people who lived in a black and white world, in grimy ancient ghettos. Here in peaceful and plentiful Philadelphia … it seemed an incredible – even an impossible thing to happen. It was no wonder everyone thought of Hitler as a mad man.”

He says it was not until the advent of the internet – and specifically Forstater’s discovery of – that the thing became deeply personal for him and he was able to trace a web of ancestors whose existence he had barely considered but nearly all of whom had perished at Madjanek, a concentration camp where Jews from Lublin were sent, and Belzec, its closest extermination camp. The chance discovery of Reder’s testimony in a museum gift shop “with the title Belzec printed in rough red letters on a glossy black cover” led to this project: Forstater realised when reading it that Reder had probably dug the graves and carried the bodies of his relatives. So, then, a retelling of his own stateside family history, done with an eye for the telling detail, has become a meditation for the extended family he never knew: the domesticity of 1950s and 60s Philadelphia a small compensation for the abrupt silencing of the massed ranks of European Jewry.

It is an extraordinary book. To say that the section containing Reder’s testimony – surely one of the pre-emininent documents of the Holocaust - is a “primary source” would be strange because the effect when reading it is of being crowded and jostled by the fictionalised versions of these events that have become standard fare – Schindler’s List, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. And yet there is something else.

Every so often the various lenses – the writerly eye or systems analyst – that we must use to view the horror of the events at Belzec, described here in almost unbearable detail, slip and the realisation that they happened to the person actually telling them to you is like a punch in the face, in the sense of a weirdly altered personal reality. To make the story make any kind of sense I had to focus on details.

And so I found myself dwelling on the bizarre idea that music was an integral part of the camp’s routine: that an orchestra of inmates playing instruments belonging to the dead accompanied the removal of bodies from the gas chamber. That the SS decreed songs should be sung on certain occasions and that one particular SS guard forced the orchestra to play a tune called Highlander Aren’t You Sad? over and over again.

I found myself wondering whether, as Forstater says he was told, it is really possible for a person’s hair to go white in a matter of minutes (internet says no) and what it would do to one’s psychosexual development for one’s first sight of a naked woman to be in a picture of Belzec inmates running to their deaths, an experience Forstater describes having had while reading The Scourge of the Swastika by Lord Russell of Liverpool. I found myself wondering also, given Reder’s detailed descriptions of the behavior of some of the SS guards, whether psychopathy was a job requirement and how exactly the candidates for the SS were selected? How is it possible – though apparently it was – that Reder was an “oven specialist” and yet did not know about Zyklon B?

It is the issue of empathy that has stayed with me more than anything, though. Unavoidably the nature of Reder’s testimony is matter of fact: its value as a historical document being in direct proportion to its credibility. And yet in order to remember the events that he lived through without killing himself as many others did – Reder died in Toronto in 1968 - a deadening of the mind must have taken place. Would this be  a human strength or a weakness? Forstater’s warm rememberings of Philadelphia suggest that empathy is a joy and yet in the context of Belzec empathy would kill you. Moreover, what are the ramifications of this for modern Jewish identity?

Forstater has made something of enduring value here: he and Reder both survived Belzec in a sense. I urge you not to look away.

*      I Survived a Secret Nazi Extermination Camp is available from Psychology News ( There is an audio version read by David Suchet available on iTunes.

* If you appreciated this article you may also be interested in this, called Sound of Heimat. Or why the Germans hate their own folk music

Sunday, 2 August 2015

This nyckelharpa kills fascists: Swedish folk musicians stand up to the racist right

Several months ago I was sent an academic paper written by an American called David Kaminsky: hat tip Jim Good, a Canadian musician now apparently living in Berlin. This was a seriously international undertaking as the article was about folk music in Sweden and how it has become entangled - much to the disgust of many Swedish folk musicians - with the far-right.

Woody Guthrie, 1943

Kaminsky's article, published in the Journal of Folklore Research in 2012 and called Keeping Sweden Swedish: Folk Music, Right-Wing Nationalism, and the Immigration Debate, can be read here.

It's an interesting paper, though a little short on specifics. The gist is that Sweden's folk scene is vulnerable to the far-right - "Sweden for the Swedish" etc - as a result of a slightly half-hearted folk revival in the 60s and 70s that left the country's 19th-century nationalist folk repertoire mainly in tact, myth of cultural purity and all. Think less Dirty Old Town and more Green Grow the Rushes, O. I guess, according to this thesis, racists find it easier to imagine white people in an imaginary rural environment than an imaginary urban one.

The context is that Sweden currently takes more migrants as a percentage of its population than anywhere else in Europe and that there is an international migration crisis taking place: four million people displaced by the Syrian civil war alone, which puts the 3,000 people currently estimated to be camping out in Calais in some kind of perspective. It is, let's face it though, mainly a crisis for the migrants themselves, not for western Europe, which has the resources to help if it chooses. Sweden chooses to help.

An attempt to find Swedish folkies to speak to foundered initially in an illuminating way: my first Swedish folky, whom I shall not name, told me off roundly for not knowing enough about Swedish folk music to deserve to speak to him and for believing that the Swedish band Baskery - whom I first saw at the Shrewsbury folk festival in the UK - might qualify as a folk band. I say "illuminating" because it is easy to see that if a folk scene is elitist and exclusionary it could be easily captured by one group of people. 

However, through the miracle of Facebook and specifically by posting a question on this blog's Facebook page (followed by all the most cosmopolitan folkies), I found myself being handed between Swedes until I was in touch with Anna Gustavsson and Jenny Franke, who are directly involved with the "folk musicians against racism" movement.

This was a familiar idea to me as there was something similar in the UK abut six years ago called Folk Against Fascism, although this organisation doesn't seem to have adapted itself very well to way the UK immigration debate has evolved and the reality of the 2015 election result, in which Ukip received 12% of the national vote. I guess it's lucky that Nigel Farage has no interest in music.

Anna, Jenny and I organised a chat on instant messenger but unfortunately on Monday - the allotted evening - Jenny had to go and earn a living at the drop of a hat. So I spoke with Anna and this is how it went...

Tell me a bit about yourself, Anna: are you a musician?

Photo: Joel Höglund

"Yes, I play the nyckelharpa and am currently a student at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. I'm from the countryside outside of Uppsala - a small place called Börje - and I'm 24."

Did you have a chance to read the essay by David Kaminsky?

"Not the whole text, but some of it."

And what did you think of it? Is his analysis correct? He was saying that there is a problem in Sweden involving folk music and the far-right. 

"If that is his analysis, he's right. That was the start of the folk musicians against racism movement."

Could you be a little more specific? 

"It began really when the leader of the Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Åkesson wore a traditional costume when entering parliament in 2010."

"Many parliamentary people have worn the national costume to the opening but when Jimmie Åkesson did it in 2010, it became clear that the aim was political and that the clothing was worn not only as formal wear. The same has been done by the deputy speaker, Björn Söder [another Sweden Democrat], and various Sweden Democrats also did this at public meetings, electoral work and the like."

The Sweden Democrats are the far-right party?

"Yes exactly. I believe the English organisation Folk against Fascism has a similar story. It's not only happening in Sweden. Many countries in Europe struggle with this."

Folk against Fascism was a response to a rightwing politician turning up to some gigs and his party selling folk music on its website, I understand.

"Right wing is also a nationalist party?"


"In that case, it seems like the same kind of issues."

But the British National Party - which is specifically what Folk Against Fascism was against - was never a big political force in the UK: it didn't have any MPs. So I think it is a bit more serious in Sweden?

"Yes, you have a different way of counting votes I think, so it's maybe harder for new parties to enter the parliament? Since they are in the parliament in Sweden it is, I believe, more serious."

Do you know what percentage of the vote the Sweden Democrats got in the 2014 election?

"About 12 %, I can check up the exact number. They are the third biggest party now..."

That's interesting. It's exactly the same as Ukip - our most prominent far-right party - but because of our electoral system Ukip only got one MP out of about 650. 12% is quite a lot.

"Yes, they doubled at the election last year. Before that they entered the parliament with 6%." 

And does the government change every five years?

"Every four years. Here's last years result. So 12.86 % ..."   

And apart from the leader of the SD turning up in national costume, have there been other events that have made folk musicians alarmed?

"Nationalistic papers have visited folk festivals in Sweden and sent 'journalists' to report about the 'true Swedishness' of the event and written about how good and 'white' the folk scene is."

I think David Kaminsky mentioned one of these at the beginning of his article.

"But do you mean only Sweden Democrats or the other nationalistic parties/forces also?"

How many are there?

"We have some more parties, which are not in the parliament. National Democrats and The Swedes' Party."

And do they all have an anti-immigration agenda?

"Yes. One National Democrat tried to infiltrate Umeå folk music association to ban all world music bands at the big folk and world music festival in Umeå one year."

Wow. That's serious. So he/she didn't want any non-Swedes at the festival?  

"Not performing at least. It didn't get through, of course. But it's really terrible that it even happened."

Could you send me a link to something that was written about that?

"I was told this by a friend from Umeå, who said it was 2009-10. I have tried to find anything written about it but not succeeded. I will write to see if she has a link. I do have an article about the Swedish party coming to another festival."

Where was that one?

"Korrö, in the south of Sweden. What I think is important to say, is that the folk music scene is progressive in many ways. And such a long way from the narrow-minded thinking about folk culture that these nationalistic organisations have."

Sure. It's unusual to be a musician and be rightwing, perhaps?"

"Yes, it's not very common."

Are there any right-wing Swedish bands?

"Noooo. Not folk music at least. Maybe some rock bands? There/s a band called Ultima Thule that I think is a right-wing band. But that's more rock I think. That's the only one I know but I'm sure there are others."

So there were no folk musicians who expressed any sympathy with the right of these "national socialists" to be at the festivals?

"No. I know of one folk musician who is a Sweden Democrat. But otherwise I feel that we are united in our cause of developing our culture in many ways, and being a progressive movement."

Which year did folk musicians against racism start? 


And are you an official of the movement?

"I'm not sure what an official is, but we have no one in the movement with some kind of title like chairman."

So how did it start?

"We are a so-called grassroots movement: it actually started with some students at the Royal College of Music. But now there are people all over Sweden that are in this all together. Everyone can join if they have the same beliefs as our statutes."

Are there membership cards?

"No, it is very unofficial."

It has a Facebook page?

"We mainly communicate on a Facebook page. "

Your Facebook page has more than 5,000 likes! 

"We are better at keeping the Facebook page, but here's a link to our website too."

So is folk music closely linked to wearing traditional costumes in Sweden? We don't really have this in the UK. Is it usual for Swedish folk musicians to dress in traditional costume?

"Well, it depends, but if you are at festivals in the summer you will definitely see some costumes. So it's a part of the folk culture 'kit'. Some people like to wear them, some don't. I believe it's different to England."

And does folk musicians against racism (FMR) organise any events?

"Here is a video of one of them: an anti-racism demonstration on the subway. It was in response to the Sweden Democrats talking about organised begging there."

How frequent are these events? Could I go to one this month in theory?

"Yes, we organise not only demonstrations and debates but also concerts with themes including 'Folkculture without borders'. This month, yes! We are on at a folk festival in Stockholm: we have a tent there with information about us and will have some different things going on. Me and Jenny (mostly Jenny) are doing this festival - Stockholm folk festival - in a week. And I have been organising a meeting at Womex in October, but that's not settled yet."

Is there ever any trouble at the events?

"The events I have been to and organised have been peaceful, but I know of one in Gothenburg where musicians played folk music while Jimmy Åkesson was talking. I was told they were described as 'left-extremists' afterwards in the newspapers. Also, we had to stop playing when we demonstrated in the subway (video above), but there has been no violence that I know of. People are often very happy and it's a nice vibe around our events - though they are serious." 

So what happened at the Swedish Democrat rally in Gothenburg?

"There is a short paragraph about it in the article, which is from May 2014. The FMR people turned their backs and played their instruments, it says. They were demonstrating against nationalist forces attempting to kidnap the concept of folk culture. FMR wants to show that folk culture is about equality and diversity. Then Sara Andersson and Ebba Larsson danced - they also turned their backs to the SD's meeting. 

"The article quotes Sara Andersson saying: 'For me it is important to stand up to SD, to stand up to the normalisation of the party that has taken place, even though they have a fascist ideology. I'm not sure if it benefits the matter, or if it benefits SD. I really do not know why, it's just a feeling I have, it feels wrong to yell aggressive things."

I guess that's why they were playing instruments instead? And did Jimmy Åkesson respond?

"According to the article he said 'I could hold my speech, but it was bad that the police could not prevent all the yelling and screaming,' before he hurried off to the plane that was taking him to Stockholm for Saturday's third and final appearance in the run-up to Sunday's EU elections. 'I hope that all those interested in our message could hear what I was saying. But the police must ensure that those who simply want to prevent or sabotage our meetings do not get as much space'."

The whole event reminds me of this event in the US, where a tuba player followed a Ku Klux Klan march

So do you agree with David Kaminsky that Swedish folk music is vulnerable to nationalist politics because there was no real folk revival in the 60s and 70s? 

"He said that? There was a huge folk revival in the 60s and 70s! It was part of what we call the 'green wave' - you know the hippies and environment and unisex and anti-nuclear movement?"

That sounds very like what was going on everywhere else in the world. So could you give me an example of something from the Swedish folk revival of the 1960s and 70s?

"This is one of the most influential bands in the Swedish folk music scene from that time."

And what is the translation of the title please?

"There lived a farmer at the harbour, I think that would be. Or seashore maybe."

And the musicians are called Folk & Rackare?

"Yes, it's a band."

What does rackare mean?

"Buster/rascal. A person that likes to joke but also can be a bit mean? Maybe, its kind of an old word that we don't use any more."

It crosses my mind that maybe she is making Kaminsky's case for him? And what is the best band on the Swedish folk scene at the moment in your opinion?

"We have Väsen and Frifot, but they have played for 25 years now...

Do you know Baskery?

"No. English band?"

Swedish. They went down a storm at the Shrewsbury folk festival.

Are you surprised? I think I have discovered is that the definition of "folk" is pretty different in Sweden and the UK. When I contacted Baskery about this they told me that they also do not consider themselves to be a folk band, although they play folk festivals in the UK. 

"Never heard of them, but I like it! In Sweden we have a quite narrow meaning of folk music - it's often the same as traditional music."

And that's Kaminsky's case in a nutshell. I sent Anna videos from YouTube of Bellowhead and Seth Lakeman, both of which she liked very much. But she also said that even Bob Dylan would struggle to get himself a "folk" tag in Sweden and would, instead, be called a "troubadour".

In response she sent this by a band called Hoven Droven, which is at the most non-traditional end of the Swedish folk scene.

  And then this

Which would probably tip over into being called "world music" in the UK. In response I sent this

which has elements of both but which, in my mind at least, remains folk music rather than world music on account of it being a traditional English tune. Not that it matters much...
* If you enjoyed this post you may also like this, called Sound of Heimat. Or why the Germans hate their own folk music Or there is also this called Afghanistan, where a violin may arouse
* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Thursday, 25 June 2015

If you only remember three things about the EU...

This EU in-out referendum makes me suspect that the grownups don't know what they're doing. I can see how we got to this point but it seems absurd that something so fundamental should be up - not just for for debate but possibly even - for reversal. It is doubly absurd because David Cameron has said that he will be campaigning - as you would expect of a conservative - for the status quo. So why are you doing this? I mouth at the television, wishing heartily that he would fight his internal party battles on his own time.

I like referendums, me

Bewilderment is, it seems to me, one of the main forces behind this referendum. Some - many - people are bewildered by the EU. And a knowledge gap makes a person suspicious: "Am I being taken for a ride? Is this organisation I don't fully understand responsible for my personal woes?"

Getting your head around the European Union is hard because the organisation is unique: there are no good metaphors for it. This is its genius - it is an unparalleled work of political creativity - as well as its greatest problem. Because in politics a gap in understanding means there is also a democracy deficit.

It also suffers from a deficit of explanatory reporting, reporting that deals with first principles. But having a ballot without understanding the issues sucks meaning from the event.

So here's a contribution.

Brass tacks, the EU was created to prevent us killing each other. For a millennium European wars destroyed the continent's quality of life every couple of generations or so: we had two pulverising, global conflicts that began in Europe in the 20th century alone and the unprecedented human misery that they engendered produced the European Community, given to a still-shocked continent in the spirit of "never again". This began with a coal and steel community involving those two old foes Germany and France: France became a market for German manufactured goods and Germany a market for French food. And economic connections – business to business rather than government to government - also worked politically.

In the last 70 years there have been no major European wars and, as a result, large numbers of people - vast swathes of the population, in fact - exist who would otherwise have died in trenches or, as a result of their forebears' death, would never have been born at all. This is an extraordinary thing, a historical anomaly. As a generation, we are what the EU has made us. It always strikes me as ironic that the members of my own family who are the most anti-European are also those who would have been most likely to be conscripted in the event of another massive European war.

This historically unprecedented peace and prosperity was what Jean Monnet had in mind at the start. Now, for the first time in a millennium, there has been no pointless pan-European war for nearly a century.

Ask yourself honestly whether without EU economic co-dependence you would trust our domestic political leaders not to lead us to war against each other: think about what else they have involved our armed forces in over the last 25 years, the fact that Cameron is playing domestic, party politics over this international issue in the first place – why doesn't he just have more humility? - and then truthfully tell me that you think our national security would be safer without the EU.

Second fundamental: the common agricultural policy is a sophisticated mechanism for making sure we don't starve. Scarcity causes disputes and without food security, peace would be impossible: people do nearly anything if they are hungry enough. Europe's complex network of subsidies means that when a harvest fails at one end of the continent no one starves because we have slack in the system and the only "crisis" to speak of involves pricing. Europe subsidises its food production, which makes it more expensive than food in most of the rest of the world, but - guess what? - we can afford our expensive food due to the prosperity that our long-term political stability has given us. Moreover the percentage of our income spent on food is diminishing.

Europe is the envy of large parts of the rest of the world. Refugees from war-torn regions - places without justice - fling themselves at our shores, wanting the peace and prosperity that we take so readily for granted. But take a long look at them on the television news – we really shouldn't.

Thirdly, the EU is not a fortress. It has a mechanism for spreading its peace and prosperity. New countries can join but only once they have already remade themselves in the EU's image: having leaders invested in democracy and public service is the only way to get there. Historically speaking, this is an entirely new strategy for spreading ideas at a national level. And think of the ramifications. Turkey's drive for membership is idling at the moment. But if, one day, it did join, it has borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran. Because of the European Union it is possible to imagine a day when global democracy is more than a dream. I guess at that point some rebranding would become necessary.

* My book about European history and politics - Did David Hasselhoff End the Cold War? - is available on Amazon as a paperback or as a download.

* If you enjoyed this you may also enjoy A necessary outbreak of journalistic self-loathing, which is about phone hacking

* This article was republished in The Spectator here

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Changing Room's wreckers: real or imaginary?


song called Wreckers ("we're the Moonfleet crew") by The Changing Room arrived through the post: hence the otherwise gratuitous picture of Ray Winstone looking a bit moody in a doublet in the recent mini-series of Moonfleet. Although the song was provoking, with its Cornish pirate-style vocals by John Cleave of Fisherman's Friends, back in December I was living in a house-cum-building-site and, with the best will in the world, finding it hard to concentrate on anything apart from wild speculation about what kind of animals – cats? birds? badgers? – the builders would accidentally trap in the house next. Seriously.

However, the song – which is on The Changing Room's first album, Behind the Lace (just out) – preyed on my mind, with its wholesale retelling of the wrecking myth ("We plan by day, we move by night, Beware the lure of the wreckers' light") . This is because about 20 years ago I had a newspaper job in Cornwall where I spent time mulling over what the editor called "westcountry-ness". I was a feature of the Truro, then Bodmin offices of the Western Morning News (WMN) from 1995 until 1997 and our boss, Barrie Williams, would come down from Plymouth from time to time to tell us about the direction the paper was supposed to be taking.

He'd done some market research, much to the hysterical amusement of my older colleagues, and believed that the WMN's fastest-growing group of readers were recent arrivals to Devon and Cornwall from elsewhere in the UK, usually cities. They were most often attracted there not by the quality of life for - then as now - unless you're wealthy, the cost of buying housing in Cornwall is ridiculous. No. Many of them, Barrie thought, had been attracted by the idea of the place: something a bit wild, full of myths and legends, fluffy little bits of celtic fringe, mystical bollocks about piskies, pirates, wreckers, smugglers, Tintagel, the beast of Bodmin and the witchcraft museum in Boscastle. The readers, it seemed, really liked the part of Cornwall that was essentially fictional.

My gnarly male colleagues were uniformly unimpressed by this theory: Robert Jobson, David Green, Colin Gregory and Michael Taylor (whose name is always pronounced very loudly and in a pronounced Northern Irish accent in my head, on account of that being how he spoke) thought it was ridiculous. Between them they had about 120 years experience in Cornish journalism, they knew where the bodies were buried, and they thought Barrie would probably blow over.

However, I was young and keen, and Barrie had just given me a job. So I set about doing as I was bidden – looking for the kind of stories the editor had mentioned – and hit the trail of Daphne Du Maurier quite hard. Other areas potentially of interest, I decided, included Poldark, a New Age conference in Polperro where David Icke sometimes spoke and Mayday in Padstow, which I explored in addition to the usual round of court hearings and council meetings.

During the course of these endeavours I soon met Daphne Du Maurier's son, Kits Browning, who lived overlooking the chain-link ferry in Fowey. Browning was a charming old gent - probably not that old, I realise now, but I was very young - and going to visit him was such a pleasure for a cub reporter in bad shoes (they always seemed to be soaked through), that I went as much as possible. His place was warm, dry and civilised, I always got a cup of tea and he was a good talker. I suppose I was slightly starry-eyed about his famous mother.

So, perhaps inevitably, when I heard Wreckers the other week I thought of Jamaica Inn, Du Maurier's novel that did its bit to cement the reputation of the Cornish as semi-feral pirates and thieves who would cut your throat for a barrel of something that had washed up on a beach.

I'd once tried to write something about wreckers as a reporter, you see. In my imagination wreckers were men and women who would actively lure ships to their doom on rocky shores by moving lights around at night-time to misrepresent where the land was – but the whole idea had been thoroughly squashed, in the sense that there was no truth in it, by someone who knew whereof they spoke, making it impossible to go any further with a good conscience. The more interesting question immediately became how these stories got started if there was nothing in them?

So, when The Changing Room's single arrived, I thought I'd ask Kits whether his mum had ever discussed with him the aspect of her work that involved mythologising Cornwall? His phone number was the same the same 20 years on – yay! – but slightly disappointingly his response was: "No, sorry. Mum never really discussed that kind of thing with me. I was probably too young." A brief catch-up convinced me that, in search of something interesting and fact-based to say about wreckers, I should try the academic route.

Professor Philip Payton of Exeter University wrote a rather fab coffee table book about the history of Cornwall.

In fact, there it is on my coffee table, wearing a Changing Room beermat.

I emailed Payton, who had once sent me that book in the post, while all the time using the web to find out things about wreckers that were basically unavailable 20 years ago, on account of the internet being very much in its infancy.

The Shipping News, a wonderful Pulitzer prize-winning novel by E. Annie Proulx, was mainly set in Newfoundland, and Proulx's wreckers, from memory, were rumoured to be cannibals. Intriguingly, the entry about wreckers in Wikipedia is nearly all about North America – so the legends seem to have have currency wherever there are rocky shores.

Professor Payton, however, is an expert on the westcountry. He replied to my email, saying: "All that false lights and deliberate wrecking is a myth, really a result of the romantic re-invention of Cornwall by late Victorian and Edwardian novelists and writers. There is an excellent and very comprehensive book by Cathryn Pearce called 'Cornish Wrecking 1700-1860: Reality and Popular Myth' which deals with this. It'll be in the British library."

But was I right to think that "false lights" would never have worked? I understand there was an episode of the BBC2 series Coast that dealt with this? Surely any helmsman would just steer away from any kind of lights? "'False lights' would only work when a ship was in close in shore, due to the low visibility of lanterns before electricity," he said.

"Such ships would be making for harbour or running along the coast, in which case they would have a good idea of what lights to expect and to look out for. But if, by mischance, a ship was run close on shore on an unfamiliar coast then 'false lights' would be superfluous, as the ship would probably be wrecked anyway. The main reason why 'false lights' were unnecessary, though, was because wrecks were so commonplace along the Cornish coast."

No luring required.

Cathryn Pearce's book was indeed in the British Library and I spent a happy half a day splashing around in the warm Gulf Stream of Cornish history – although Kent also seems to have its share of wrecking stories.

Pearce is very thorough. She points out that "wrecking" can refer to a lot of different things, including "harvesting" goods that the sea threw ashore and "salvage", in which locals tried to save the lives of  shipwrecked sailors in the days before the RNLI. This was in addition to the "mythic wreckers" and "plunderers" who were rumoured to be prepared to attack a boat for its cargo but for whom there is very little historical evidence. In fact only one person was ever hanged in Cornwall for the crime of "wrecking", his name was William Pearce (maybe some relation?) and he was 82 years old when he died in 1767 near Launceston. His alleged crime – for he claimed he was innocent to the last - was to have helped himself to small amount of cotton from a beached wreck. His great age meant he was slow enough to catch, I guess.

The bigger story that unfolds in Cathryn Pearce's extremely readable book is about a fight of epic proportions over the legal right to shipwrecked property in, what was to all intents and purposes, a free-for-all and propaganda counted for a great deal. Eighteenth-century Cornwall was a part of the world where laws written in London were often confused with local custom and habit. Cornish landowners would claim a portion of any cargo that washed ashore and the locals acquiesced. Except when they didn't. And there was the rub.

The way Pearce tells it, the stories of the feral, murderous, immoral Cornish men and women that gained traction in popular fiction demonised ordinary people because it suited a coalition of landowners, shipowners, investors and insurance companies who were – unusally for them – the financial losers of the situation.

It also suited fiction-writers, fiction-readers and eventually even the Cornish themselves. Pearce writes: “As other marginalised groups have done, [the Cornish] have attempted to ‘own’ the myths through a retelling of the stories in their own way, whether in the yarns told to willing listeners, or through more permanent means of literature, theatre and film.

Yet defensiveness is also apparent… wrecking is a sensitive subject. At the root of Cornish defensiveness is the accusation that they lured ships ashore using false lights, not that they were involved in the plunder of shipwrecks."

It's not surprising. There's a huge moral difference between picking things up off the beach and murdering a ship's crew. Aside from anything else, Methodism was pretty big in Cornwall.

I like a good pirate story – and The Changing Room are from Looe, so I'm sure they've heard a few. But give me the complicated truth any day.

Since I can't find a video of The Changing Room to embed, here's Show of Hands playing Tall Ships Medley.

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