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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.

* 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

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Are you a BBC folk awards judge who is proud to be associated with the awards? Why not out yourself?

I've moved caves.

The previous one was in Bethnal Green and I've made the long, arduous trek of a mile and a half to Mile End, where my new cave is, to be perfectly honest, much less cave-like while also containing far fewer fairy lights (so far). But the glamour is - obviously - eternal. I'm renting from some friends who've moved abroad and their place is blinking marvellous: I'd love to invite you all round but there's building work going on...

I mention this by way of an apology for recent quietness. There was an issue with wifi and a general sense of upheaval but I'm back.

And I have an idea.

A few days ago I fell to wondering why I hadn't heard anything about the folk awards this year, which made me slightly nervous as I'm perfectly well aware that if, for any reason, the BBC decides not to hold them a minority will inevitably point in my direction, on the grounds that rocking the boat is the worst sin of all. It wouldn't be fair but - hey - what is?

However, it turns out that the awards will be held in April 2015 instead of the usual February, which explains it.

So yes: the judging process.

You'll probably be aware that I've been waging a long and highly educational - for me - campaign to get the BBC to name its folk awards judges, who are currently anonymous while also enjoying strong links, many of them financial, to the folk music scene in the UK. Read about it again here.

What started as mere curiosity led to the realisation that the BBC is contravening its own transparency guidelines and then astonishment at its imperviousness to having this pointed out, publicly and repeatedly. In addition to a failed freedom of information request, pressure from national newspapers and magazines and three MPs wading in, including the chairman of the culture, media and sport committee, John Whittingdale, the BBC press office sent me an email this year saying that it intends to continue in its opaque ways. They seem not to mind that it undermines the credibility of the thing. Perhaps someone at the Beeb feels that the folk awards don't need any credibility?

Their line is that naming the judges would mean that people would be able to get in touch with them and lobby them - by which I can only assume they mean "play them some music" - and that this would be a bad thing. So from my point of view there are only two possible courses of action this year.

(1) I call on the BBC to anonymise every other judging panel they have, including Strictly Come Dancing. This would immunise them from the charge of hypocrisy, make it clear that they've publicly reversed their transparency guidelines and simultaneously prove that it is not laziness, corruption or just giving folkies the shitty end of the stick.

I touched on some of these issues in a blog about morris dancing the other day. I think the corporation's intransigence is, at least partly, a class issue. Don't let the BBC treat you like a second class citizen – for be in no doubt that if you are a folky this is what's happening. They are sending the message that you don't deserve the same levels of integrity that are commonly applied to public life: folkies are not worth it. Email Bob Shennan, the controller of Radio 2 on if you think this matters. If you don't: that's why it's happening in the first place.

(2) On the other hand, if you are a folk awards judge and would like to go on the record - and I suspect there are some because they've been in touch - please email me (again) and let me know. There are probably around 200 judges in total by now: I wonder how many will come forward?

So if you are a folk awards judge and would like to "out" yourself please email me here. If you are a folk awards judge who thinks this is a storm in a teacup then you can prove it by emailing me here. However, if you think it's important that the status quo be maintained I'd just bitch and moan about me on a web forum if I were you.

You could also email me if you know someone who is a folk awards judge, who you think may not have seen this post and I'll happily forward it to them without letting on who tipped me off.

This is going to get interesting.

* 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 at @emma1hartley

Monday, 20 October 2014

David Cameron and the border morris side: why is morris dancing so little understood?

'The demonisation of morris dancing is a peculiarly English form of class warfare'

David Cameron had his picture taken with some black-face border morris dancers last week and a kerfuffle ensued.

Was it racially edgy? Much of the mainstream media seemed initially unsure, being apparently unable to play the "some of my best friends are morris dancers" card: I can. (Stand up, James Creaser.) Moreover I was unafraid that border morris dancers blacking up their faces was racist for the simple deductive reason that you couldn't find a more politically correct crowd than folkies and morris dancers: the question of whether border morris is racist has doubtless been discussed over and over again and if it were an issue, someone would be calling for a ban. But they're not. So either it isn't racist or there isn't enough evidence to make a case. The interesting part was that the Guardian – the natural political home of most folkies – didn't sense this in its bones. It took a few days before Martin Kettle was able to say something less than standoffish about morris.

By that time border morris dancer James Bell had also written a frankly enormous blog post on the subject, in which he tied himself in knots and, in the process, posted a brilliant video of Christopher Walken dancing (thanks!). Because of James's direct involvement it's interesting to read what he has to say. But he basically didn't know if black-face was racist. What I learned from his peroration was, once again, that morris dancers are a very politically correct, extremely nice bunch of people who really don't want to offend anyone, which is kind of where I started.  

Every country's relationship with its traditional music and dance is essentially its relationship with its own past. The Germans have a huge problem with their folk music as it was recently appropriated either by the Nazis or the communists, depending on which side of the east/west divide they were on. But the English are nearly as uneasy, which takes some thinking about. 

I mean, how come morris dancing is so widely thought of as ridiculous? Is it really any sillier than dressing up in lederhosen, playing the bagpipes or any number of other European traditions?

I would suggest this: the greatest trick the British ruling class ever pulled off - as an intrinsic part of the steep class distinctions we choose to maintain in the UK - was making its underclass ashamed of themselves, the sound of their own voices and their traditions: hence the collective national cringe over our folk song and dance. What could be more embarrassing than morris dancing to anyone but the proudly thick-skinned and the contrarian? It's hard to imagine. If you attacked anyone else's folk traditions you'd be under suspicion of racism yet it's OK to attack the harmless pastime of your own underclass, branding it ridiculous over and over in order to try and suck the pride from it. The demonisation of morris dancing is a peculiarly English form of class warfare. 

Such is the success of this false class consciousness that even Terry Eagleton, the supposed Marxist, said in the Guardian the Saturday before Cameron's black-face episode that if he were king for a day he would execute morris dancers. Thanks a fucking lot, Terry. I mean, what kind of Marxist offers, even in jest, to execute a bunch of his own comrades? An English Marxist, is the answer. One who has been successfully denatured by the ruling class he once opposed. I know that most morris dancers are able to have a laugh at themselves but on this occasion I'm being humourless on their behalf because I think it's important.

The story of England's rural working class has always been a lot about emigration and exile, people turfed off the land and dispossessed: it's just that as soon as the English working class successfully left England they became American, Canadian, New Zealanders, Australians and more. We love our sailing songs because they're a massive part of our history and if there is any shame to be located in the morris perhaps it is that these guys with the hankies, these are the guys who stayed and tried to make a life for their families despite the desperate conditions that had driven their brothers and cousins abroad. They compromised and stayed. 

Still. There has been a folk revival over the last decade that could be partly attributed to the comfort that any kind of tradition provides during a recession, partly to that emanation of the English public school system known as Mumford & Sons and partly due to the relatively recent introduction of some folk music awards at the BBC: awards that are taken insufficiently seriously and need a big dose of transparency as a mark of respect for the musicians, the audience and the tradition.  

It's just ironic that it should be David Cameron who had his picture taken with the border morris side as - if we believe the narrative about concealment - he's the one they were blacking up to avoid.

* If you enjoyed this post you may also be interested in this about a wonderful film called Way of the Morris.

* 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 at @emma1hartley

Monday, 6 October 2014

John Ball and Sydney Carter: the motherlode of English folk politics

Sometimes, looking at David Cameron's gammony face, it is hard to believe that Britain has 700 years of revolutionary politics behind it. But it does.

It rustled in the William Morris undergrowth of my background. I've had three grandparents – one with us still – who were active in Labour politics and who between them had a collection of Labour movement pamphlets dating back many decades. From childhood I met words like "socialist" (which meant being nice to people, according to mum) and "Fabian" (those who believe in inflicting socialism on the working class because it's good for them, I gathered, unable to tell whether this was a joke. It was – but only a good one because of the truth buried in it). The words' competing nuances came to life around the family dinner table, especially with my grandparents after we moved to Norwich. The city was a bright red dot in a blue sea on election night, mainly as a result of the university based there, and until I moved away after school I was under the misapprehension that "Tory" was a term of abuse, not knowing that they also referred to themselves in this way. This makes me smile now.

As an undergraduate I worked for Harriet Harman as a researcher for a few months: months that I seemed to spend mainly retracing Harriet's movements, trying to find the spot where she had most recently abandoned her handbag.

One of my most treasured memories of my course at Leeds is of finding a first edition of William Morris's A Dream of John Ball in the stack under the Brotherton Library and realising that I knew it and its beautiful illustrations (see above) even though I'd never seen it before.

What I am trying to say is that Labour politics is my hinterland. And that hinterland is a dimension of this country that coexists spectrally, a misty gauze of hope and expectation that lies over the landscape, as much a part of Britain as the version of it familiar to bankers and property developers – more permanent because the need for it is greater.

And Sydney Carter's song John Ball is the motherlode of English revolutionary politics in folk music, it seems to me.

It kicks in after about eight minutes: my favourite version of the song so far, by The Old Dance School. At the Warwick folk festival in 2013 the song's harmonies rang in my ears in the beer tent for the best part of three evenings and I saw The Old Dance School play their powerfully ecstatic version of it more than once. I assumed to begin with that it was a traditional song because the lyrics seemed smoothed by time and their meaning evoked religion through the lens of ethical socialism. There were lots of versions...

It wasn't traditional though. 

What it is, is a story about John Ball, the hedgerow preacher who inspired the peasant's revolt in the 14th century, the ex-communicated priest who told his congregation that "Now is the time" in such a way that many of them laid down their lives alongside him and Wat Tyler. His revolutionary, proto-socialist ideas lived on after his death at the hands of Richard II and can be traced forward to the nonconformism of the civil war and from there to the new world. In a nutshell

"Labour and spin for the fellowship you're in. Labour and spin for the love of one another. When Adam delved and Eve span who was then the gentleman?"

Work for the dignity it gives you and to support those whom you love, and never forget where we all came from – and where ultimately we're all going. When The Old Dance School plays John Ball, a part of me would like to sing it with them but another chokes and wells up with emotion, making it impossible. It makes me feel a little foolish but there you go.

But far from being a traditional piece, the song was written by Sydney Carter – who is probably best known for also having written Lord of the Dance – and John Ball was written in the 1960s and recorded for the first time, I believe, by John Kirkpatrick and Sydney Carter in 1981 on the album Lovely in the Dance.

Sydney Carter died in 2004 after a long and eventful life. But, probably because I learned my politics from my forebears, it made sense to me to ask what kind of a man he was of his only son, Mike Carter, who is a consultant paediatric neurosurgeon in Bristol these days.

When I Googled Dr Carter there was a lot about parking fines at his NHS hospital trust: it seems that the same non-conformism that led his father to write so many songs that found their way into my hymn book at school – If I needed a neighbour and One more step among them – had led the son to be the kind of person who does not mind making some waves.

"It was a very corporate-minded trust that expected us to work on two sites but made no provision for parking," he explained when I caught up with him. "Eventually Jeremy Hunt announced that they had changed their tack."

Perhaps inevitably Carter is also a part-time musician, a multi-instrumentalist with Peter Mouse's House Band, which seems to do a lot of weddings and revels in the accolade of being Bristol's second-favourite covers band. "I knew the story of John Ball as I was growing up – I heard it from dad. And then we sang a lot of dad's songs at school. Mum was a teacher at Bessemer Grange Primary in Dulwich and even though the repertoire of dad's stuff is usually to be found in schools, ours was much greater than usual.

"John Ball was a preacher who was excommunicated for his anti-church views. He felt one should be living the life of Christ and that those who had everything and did not share it were not living the life of Christ. And he felt that the church at the time was supporting the rich and not the poor. This was at a time when the discrepancy between the lives of the rich and the lives of the poor was at its greatest ever. The Hundred Years War against France was going on and it was incredibly difficult to finance. There were three poll taxes – which were regarded as a terrible injustice by many people. This was a time, you see, when many were born into servitude and had no prospect of getting out of it.

"So in a way what John Ball was preaching was a form of liberation theology, of the kind that Cardinal Romero used to espouse in Latin America and a little bit like the present pope, who gets rid of all his riches and walks around in the streets of Rome." But there was very little precedent for it back then.

Carter said that he deals with his father's estate and the royalties due to it. "John Ball seems to be coming up more frequently all the time – it's great that it's been picked up by contemporary performers." The first version Carter mentioned was Chris Wood's, though he seems to hold a candle especially for one by Wood and Karine Polwart, which I can't seem to find on the web.

He also mentioned Crow on the Cradle, which is performed by Show of Hands.

And then wondered out loud whether they had picked it up from Jackson Browne, who sang it at Madison Square Gardens in 1969, after which it appeared on his live album.

"Dad and I were incredibly close. He was extraordinarily kind, incredibly intelligent: a polymath. He knew everything about everything, it seemed to me as a child, and came from a very humble background himself: he got to Balliol through a series of scholarships. He was very influenced by Quakerism but I'm not sure he would call himself a Quaker. He didn't think you should respond to authority unless it was in the right and that established religion was too didactic... A lot of his beliefs are my beliefs. I was brought up to call things if they were wrong."

Thoughtfully, Mike also provided this family snapshot, which includes his mum, Leela: he was an only child and this was, essentially, the fellowship they were in.

* If you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy this one, about folk music in Afghanistan. Or this one, which is about why the Germans have such a difficult relationship with their music.

* 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 at @emma1hartley

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Willows teach a crucial PR lesson at King's Place

The Willows played a late set - 9.45pm - on Saturday at the Kings Place festival this weekend that worked like coffee. Jade Rhiannon is their beautiful lead singer, with a highly distinctive and beguiling voice; there is a charming and eccentric guitarist, Ben Savage, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Rupert Grint; they have a fabulously musical brother and sister banjo and fiddle combo in Cliff and Pru Ward; and an absorbing and upbeat collection of songs that wraps you in a blanket of sonic joy: their four or five part harmony (the drummer, Evan Carson didn't seem to have a mic though I could be wrong) was transcendent. They're the real deal.

Their second album, Amidst Fiery Skies, is from a place where folk and bluegrass cohabit and has immediately taken up a residency on my multi-disk CD player. But it was interesting to hear about the problem they had with their first album. "We didn't put the name of the band on the cover," explained Savage. "Our PR went nuts when she found out: apparently that's a PR disaster. Rumour has it we'd be HUGE if we'd put our name on the cover."

It (above) was called Beneath Our Humble Soil, they have taken to using stickers bearing their name to compensate, and the absence of most of the salient information from the CD cover didn't stop it picking up some very nice reviews, from Bob Harris and Mike Harding among others.

Nonetheless it got me thinking because I have a related problem with CDs and it's do with the basics: there is a large-ish collection of CD covers in my front room that have become separated from their disks, and while some of it is due to negligence and enthusiasm (playing stuff to people without taking the trouble to replace CDs toward the end of the evening) there is a handful that I have been unable to match with their covers because the CDs have no information whatsoever on them. For instance, can anyone put a name to this - rather beautiful - orphan?

Or this?

It has a doodle of two large-headed humanoids and was apparently produced by Parlaphone - who should probably know better - but I'm having no luck finding its cover. This means that unless it's instantly recognisable when I play it - though it'll be hard to find a reason to do so since I don't know what it is - it's going to languish in a kind of musical no-man's land for the forseeable future.  

It crossed my mind that in the case of The Willows, the missing name on the cover could have been misplaced modesty, which is something one comes across quite a lot among folkies and frequently ties in with an anti-capitalist ambivalence about being better known (good) and making money (not entirely the point). Also there is often no one who thinks of their actual job as being to check this stuff at cottage-industry-sized labels. 

However, I spend a large amount of time making sure that all the basic information is present in newspaper stories and feel qualified to suggest that there are very few circumstances in which it is inappropriate to fully label one's output. And if in doubt, do it again: no one will complain.

Here's something else by The Willows to make up for my hectoring tone, which is certainly connected with annoyance about futile attempts to de-clutter The Glamour Cave. 

* If you liked this post you may also be interested in reading this post about Rodney Branigan, who deserves more attention than he gets.

* 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 at @emma1hartley

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Nancy Kerr: never underestimate Towersey's sweetest visitor

Not enough women hear themselves called geniuses. A lot would be embarrassed: as a group we're most often brought up to believe that modesty is the way forward, to having our triumphs mitigated and our disasters emphasised while, for the most part, being rewarded less fully than our brothers, underestimated at the outset and frequently discounted in the final reckoning. This is not something I would have written twenty years ago or something I was brought up to believe: it's something I've learnt.

Part of me wishes I could un-know it.

But Nancy Kerr brings the discomfort of this under-acknowledged truth into sharp focus. If the definition of a genius involves exceptional creativity resulting in a leap of insight, ladies and gentlemen, I believe we have a contender: no blushing, if it's all the same to you.

One of the UK's finest original folk albums of recent years has been Twice Reflected Sun by Kerr and her husband, James Fagan, for the explosive impact of the songwriting and its strong sense of two places - England and Australia. Kerr is English while Fagan, of course, is an Aussie. It was rightly honoured by the Radio 2 folk awards and has several songs on it that feel as if they will outlive us all. Kerr and Fagan each have a voice you would be able to tell from anyone else's, which multiplies their distinctiveness as a duo by several powers of magnitude. Couple this with Kerr's ability to play both ends of a fiddle simultaneously - drawing the bow with one hand while plucking with the other - and they're a proposition of unique and powerful singularity.

I came to the album - and Queen of Waters, above, about a canal boat - about three years ago at the Warwick festival, and loved it a lot, immediately. At the time Kerr could herself have been the Queen of Waters, so heavily pregnant was she, and Fagan left an indelible impression as a result of an overwrought and highly memorable conversation (for me, anyway) after the gig during which I was buying a copy of their CD and he was giving off static, jangling with nerves and anticipating the imminent arrival of their second child. He might be medically trained but when it's your own family I guess all bets are off. 

I saw Kerr play again this year at Folk by the Oak, as a part of The Elizabethan Session, and received a copy of her wonderful first solo album, Sweet Visitor, soon afterwards through the post, which I absorbed walking to and from work for several days. One particular thought jostled to the front, sat up and begged for attention though: while this was Kerr's solo debut it was not a departure from Twice Reflected Sun; the brilliant continuities and lyrical consistencies were far greater than the differences. Why was that?

"I also wrote all the songs on Twice Reflected Sun," Kerr nodded. We were perched on a sofa in a green room behind the CD tent at the Towersey festival and I was not-very-discreetly delighted by the significance of what she had just said.

Not that it had been a secret. Had I paid greater attention, the information was out there. But because several of the songs on Twice Reflected Sun were written in a male - even martial - voice, I had made sexist assumptions about the division of labour between the two of them - she and Fagan  - that were, quite simply, wrong. And that, I suppose, is how it all starts...

"That album really uncorked me as far as song-writing goes," said Kerr. "It was the first one I ever wrote and I was consciously doing some songs for me to sing and some for James. Sweet Visitor came about because James told me to sing them all, like other singer-songwriters. For Twice Reflected Sun I was trying to write in the way that the tradition behaves: it was quite abstract. And I think that's the case because folk songs trickle down through so many filters. The old ballads might tell a personal story but the proponent has often been lost, so the singer-songwriter becomes a very powerful agency."

It should be more widely known that you're the writer, I suggested, with all the leaps of imagination implied by that. She smiled wryly.

"A good friend said to me after he'd listened to Twice Reflected Sun 'Is that all going on in your head?' And it tickled me because it was just an inch away from 'your pretty little head'. But my mum is a songwriter and I grew up listening to Peggy Seeger's songs about being female. This gender thing can be quite subtle. You often get a man telling women's stories and it's an interesting perspective: the messages get altered when you give them a different context."

Sweet Visitor has a lot on it about London 2012?

"Yes. Radio Two commissioned me to write three songs about the Olympics, though the theme was a bit bothersome to me. I wasn't sure how to find my part in it. I'm not sporty and my writing is all about mood. Also a lot of folk relies on jeopardy, adversity and hard times, which is kind of the opposite to what the Olympics was about. But in the end I thought of my grandparents, who were from the East End, and I thought about the cost of this incredible event in their lives, then wrote about the Greek gods coming to the East End, all golden."

I love the folk rock track on there called The Bunting and the Crown: it pounds along a little bit like an early Steeleye Span track.

"It's about competition and how a lot of things come down to nationalism: I dwell a lot on music and identity, and nationalism is about power and a sense of power. But if someone's personal sense of power is derived from their country being better than someone else's I'm not interested. The Bunting and the Crown is about that not being important... I do like bunting though."

She giggled. It was infectious.

"But the main thing about these songs was that someone asked me to write them. It was a very big deal and the deadlines helped."

I hear you.

"I need deadlines. Your brain gets refreshed by them. I love a deadline and I have learned to make my own: if I say to James 'can you take the kids out for two hours?' I have to have a song by the end of it. After the Olympics, I wrote Sweet Visitor as if someone had commissioned it and then you could say that I was match-fit for The Elizabethan Session.

"There is a slight subtext to Sweet Visitor, which is that we are all visitors. At a time when there are a lot of questions about nations, heritage and where you are from - people fleeing terrible countries, trying to escape risk - if we realise that we are all where we are by the grace of coincidence or fate, that should make us behave better to each other."

When I'd told a friend I was hoping to catch you for an interview here, he said he thought you were Australian.

"I've spent a lot of my life in Australia," she said, her often deliciously flat vowels getting a twang for the occasion. "I get that whole emigrant experience. Where The Jacarandas Grow (from Sweet Visitor) is about asylum seekers in Australia and how a pretty wealthy country has closed itself off to humanitarian concerns."

Interesting. I saw a thing on TV recently about the British "orphans" who were sent there in the 50s and 60s, around 180,000 of them – and lots hadn't actually lost their parents: they were taken away from poor families, exported and then horribly brutalised in corrupt institutions, lots of them run by nuns and priests. Australia's got a small population and perhaps to have so many people to whom that happened so recently - a substantial portion of a generation - I was wondering whether it would have an effect on a country's public discourse as well as its family life?

"Maybe. We played a folk festival at a place called Fairbridge on one of those old sites – the institutions - south of Perth. It had a very peculiar atmosphere.

"James and I met in the UK, though, back in 1995. He was a medical doctor at the time and when he went back for his first year of being fully qualified I went with him. We split our time between Britain and Australia for several years: it was a constant round of festival summers on two sides of the world. So I do feel quite Australian and I got to really love the music scene there.

"It's not as easy for us to go back now that we have heaps and heaps of work, but we will at some point, when it fits in with schooling. We sing in a five-piece when we're there, with James's sister and his mum and dad, Bob and Margaret."

I wondered about the vast distance between England and Australia and the people whose lives are shaped by both places.

"It was really cool meeting James and realising how much we had in common, our backgrounds and references. I sometimes wonder how people make connections without music as an opener: there's a certain amount that's understood, that doesn't need to be said. I mean, I've been playing the fiddle since I was five. And I don't really know how to hold my bow properly, but it works for me. I'm really interested in the texture and the colour of the sound it makes: I like the little scrapes and growls and even if you are just playing one note, I love how you can change the tone. I'm an accompanist as much as anything."

once had a chat with Kathryn Roberts in which she'd said something about her husband and musical partner, Sean, that I'd misunderstood at the time. She'd said that he was at his best as an accompanist and, in my ignorance, it had crossed my mind this might have been a slight. Later I realised the opposite was true. Without collaboration music amounts to very little.

Kerr nodded.

"I like accompanying but it's hard then being a leader. When you're accompanying you have to put any ego away for a bit and play differently... but there is a lot of power in supporting something properly. That's why I love working with James: he knows where to pitch what he is doing. He doesn't just think about the notes, he thinks about the rhythm and the notes and about telling a story all at the same time. That's what I love in his music: with the right accompanist we can do anything."

I really wanted to ask this next thing because the song sets my imagination ablaze: I Am The Fox, from Twice Reflected Sun, was written for James's voice (though it was also served up convincingly as hard rock at a dreamlike late-night Towersey ceilidh by Fagan's excellent "metalcore dance band" The Glorystrokes). What alchemy could possibly have produced that slice of lyrical subversion?

"It was the cusp of the financial crash and for about ten minutes I thought maybe it was payback for capitalism... That was before I realised that the crap always trickles down and there were difficult times ahead. I thought that for once in my life, being a folk musician was not a ridiculous choice. The character in that song was partly Fantastic Mr Fox, Robin Hood and Reynardine. I thought that if you can't make money on the stock market then you might as well write songs about it."

I asked whether Now is the Time, from the new album, was a reference to John Ball, whose rallying cry those words were: I thought she might know this because the song about him by Sydney Carter is a part of The Melrose Quartet's set - the group being Kerr and Fagan's collaboration with fellow Sheffielders Jess and Richard Arrowsmith. In fact, Kerr said it was coincidence, that the song had been written about someone else. But she seemed very taken by what was evidently new information to her (about the rallying cry). I probably glowed a little when she mentioned my question while introducing the song at her album launch later.

Sophie Parkes' biography of Eliza Carthy, Wayward Daughter, is partly about how the two of you played music together as teenagers. Will there be a reunion?

"I don't think Eliza and I will work together in the future," she said, somewhat to my surprise. "There's something about identity in music: we were two women of exactly the same age. We don't sound similar, but we both sing and play fiddle, and people compared us with each other. It's very hard to be compared: I don't want to be compared to anyone. I found it hard back then: she was so successful so quickly."

That has an irrefutable emotional logic to it. In any case, I cannot resist the thought that, for Kerr at least, the time is now.

* Also from Towersey 2014 there is this, about Blair Dunlop believing that he invented determinism, this about Dunlop's dad, Ashley Hutchings, and the forthcoming film about his former wife, the folk singer Shirley Collins, and this short thing about Lau.

* 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 at @emma1hartley

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