Friday, 9 March 2018

A national pride

It’s the connections that bring me to life. Not fate and faith, but coincidence and connection. I’ve been thinking about W.B. Yeats. Reading about Van Morrison’s album Astral Weeks, I saw it described as ‘Yeats-inspired’ and something fell into place.

I’ll tell you about my father, Patrick McGaughey, an Irishman who died in 2010. His favourite poem was ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ by Yeats, which was read at his funeral.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

I knew my father well and I loved him well, but I did not often see that side of him, just mere remnants. I knew him as an ex-husband, a Sunday father, a rugby fan, a barfly, a whiskey drinker, a struggling occasional accountant. I rarely saw glimpses of the youth where he may have been brilliant, reciting poetry, translating English into Latin, coming top in exams, excelling in sports. The Times crossword connected the young and the old – he could always do the Times crossword.

When we used to go to his flat off the Edgware Road (this would have been the late 80s) we’d listen to recordings of children’s folk songs by The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem – When I Was Young …, There’s a Big Ship Sailing, Shellakybooky ... etc and we’d sing them in the car. He was a terrible singer, it would amuse us to hear him sing.

It was a thrill for me years later, reading up on Bob Dylan’s early years in New York, to discover he was a huge fan of the Clancy Brothers and a good friend of Liam Clancy. They used to sing old Irish rebel songs in the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich village. The night would often finish with a rendition of The Parting Glass – on which Dylan based the closing track on The Times They Are a-Changin’, called Restless Farewell.

My father Paddy loved Yeats and the Clancy Brothers, he was a big, balding man with ginger hair who drank whiskey, had a good line in jokes, played for London Irish (The Exiles, as their romantic nickname still has it) 3rd XV in their amateur days at Sunbury-on-Thames. Have you got the picture, da big oodea? He was Irish. Thoroughly Irish. Even though he first came to live in England before he was 20, he remained wholly Irish all the way, would have been horrified if anyone had thought otherwise.

So now I’m going to talk about Irishness and me, as honestly as I can, because I know that someone who sounds like me, who has never lived a day in Ireland, can’t truly be Irish, I know the scores of people around the world playing on their overblown Irish roots are a bore.

So I’ll just tell you how it works for me. Some of this stuff I’ve only recently deciphered as an in-any-way unified set of facts.

I always called myself Irish. I had a choice of nationalities – born in England, Scottish/English mother, Irish father, I could have attached myself closely to any of those, or just gone with British. I haven’t really, in my deepest marrow, felt - specifically and precisely - any of them, but I’ve worked hardest at the “being Irish” bit.

In one sense it is inescapable – my surname is Irish and my face - barely congruent with the flat West London vowels that droop apologetically or project pompously from it, depending on mood - is Irish.

Somehow, I’ve never felt at all Scottish, though it was our mother who wholly raised us, though Edinburgh, rich in personal and familial memory, has always felt a second home to me, and St Andrews was indeed my home for four years. I love Scotland, feel kinship with Edinburgh and with Fife, but I’m not Scottish, I don’t seek to be.

I didn’t need to be. That part of my identity was sealed and certain. I was my mother’s child, taking in her warmth and wisdom every day. She was not and is not concerned with patriotism, actively rejects it if anything - none of that was a big deal. But throughout my life, I’ve gravitated towards ideas of Irishness, perhaps to make sense of and fill the space of the parent not there – if half of me was Irish, I needed to make it so myself, it wouldn’t take care of itself …

Sometimes this quest for identity was pretty desultory and embarrassing, whether it was evenings irritating the hell out of people by trying and failing to talk in an Irish accent, trying but often failing to wholeheartedly support Ireland when they were playing England at rugby,  or trying and failing to understand the first bit about Irish politics …

Plenty of peers were willing enough to take my affectations seriously, to the extent they’d call me a bog-trotter, a potato-eater, an IRA member etc. all in good banter! … funny times … Irishness was still not something to be entirely comfortable with in England in the 1980s. The oddest memory I have was on an “outward bound” type course, where one of the instructors used to be a soldier. He told us he’d served a couple of years in Northern Ireland, when a boy I knew, 10 or 11, a boy I was reasonably friendly with indeed, said to him merrily “Must have felt good to pump some lead into the Paddys, eh?” … This kind of grand witticism does not emerge in a vacuum.

So there was a perverse pride in Irishness as an outsider identity, but still not something I could quite put my finger on. I’d think of myself as London Irish, glad to incorporate the name of the club I’d spent many happy afternoons as a child, the unforgettable clank of boots on concrete reverberating in the tunnel, the moustaches and the bellies, the heady smell in the bar of beer, cigarettes, sweat and smoky bacon crisps, and the question “Is this your boy, Paddy?” at any given time being asked at seven different places in the same bar. Yes, this was Paddy’s boy.

Rugby was an internal struggle for me when I was young. I could not work out my approach to it. It was a point of contact with my dad (though his original sports were curling and Gaelic football) but too much enthusiasm was a betrayal of my mother. Rugby stole her co-parent for a decade.

Even when I was good at rugby, I was hesitant, could not throw myself into it whole-heartedly. And if there’s one thing you have to do with rugby, it’s throw yourself in whole-heartedly. So I became miserably bad at it, and resented it all the more. I maintained an interest in rugby enough to make good conversation, but football and cricket (and everything else!) were always my preferred sports.

I wanted to “be” Irish but also never wanted to fall into the traps of Irishness, as my father had done. I was my mother’s son, and I wanted to be conscientious, kind and clear-headed, as she was. Booze and fags, guilt and bullshit, I’ve managed to limit my input and output, thankfully.

There were other dangers in Irishness for his generation – I wondered what effect it had on him and 1000s of others not to be allowed to write with his natural left-hand. My own left-handedness is as central to my identity as my Irishness, perhaps even more so. I saw that the Catholic church had affected my father and all his siblings in some way. When I had faith as a teenager, it was a demonstrably Anglican faith, a diversion from the Catholicism I was born into.

I escaped all the dangers of Catholicism, real and spiritual. The Catholic boys’ school I left aged 8 turned out to be an institutionalized den of vipers. The Church of England boys’ school I went to had vipers of its own (which I also evaded) but I think it was less all-consuming, less systemic and less tied up with the culture and religion of it all. I anglicised as I grew up, I left behind Catholicism, and also, as I became a teenager, had less time to see my dad as often on a Sunday (the two facts distinctly connected, as it happens).

Yet still I would call myself Irish, still it was important to me, though I knew not quite how. There was a lot to contend with, a lot to try and understand, but it wasn’t until I was 21 that I heard a voice and an attitude which chimed with my own version of Irishness, the voice of a boy who grew up Irish in the west London suburbs.

I’d like to tell Kevin Rowland what he means to me one day. I saw him outside a pub in Shoreditch a few years ago, looking splendid, looking every inch like you’d hope he would. Not all his looks have been that well-received. In mainstream consciousness, he will forever be a curly-haired, unkempt gypsy in dungarees singing that incredibly annoying song, the song that two of my friends strictly (their only strict instruction) forbad me playing when I DJed their weddings.

I always knew Come on Eileen (who fucking doesn't), but it wasn’t until 2000 that I bought my first Dexys Midnight Runners album, encouraged by an enthusiastic review of a re-release of their debut Searching for the Young Soul Rebels. I bought it for a flat £5 from CD Outlet on South Street in St Andrews from Kenny Anderson/King Creosote (that’s a whole other rabbit hole of connections to go down).

I loved it instantly, and love it more to this day. The opening song, ‘Burn it Down’ is such a bold, abrasive yet inclusive tour de force. It accomplishes so much within one song, dismissing the music trends of recent times (prog, punk and ska), then, thrillingly, challenging notions of dumb Irishness by reeling off the names of great Irish authors (all to the accompaniment of belting horns, the sound of the young soul rebels). It sounds so personal to Rowland, like he’s shouting back at years of being called a stupid paddy at school in Wolverhampton then Northwest London. Oh yes? How about … Oscar Wilde … Brendan Behan … Samuel Beckett … etc

Rowland’s proud vision of the Celt in exile was one I could embrace. As I investigated Dexys further, I fell in love with his different iterations of Celtic soul, inspired by Van Morrison, whether as pastiche of American soul or closer in sound to Irish folk music, and his idiosyncratic lyrics, often seeming like lines from a personal manifesto he’d been building for decades: “Maybe it’s time you welcome the new soul vision”, “Now just look at me as I’m looking down at you”, Give me a record that cries pure and true”, “Bill Withers was good for me, pretend I’m Bill and lean on me” and from the epic Until I Believe in My Soul, so many, like the comically spluttered “on the train from New Street to Euston, trying to get the feeling back that I had in 1972” and “Gonna punish the body until I believe in the soul” – I loved the line, though I never got round to believing in the soul again, I was more inclined to punish the body until I could run 10 km in 40 minutes, but, you know, we can’t all be Celtic soul heroes.

And the one that really got me, that sent shivers down my spine like nothing else, in ‘My National Pride’ from the album Don’t Stand Me Down – “my national pride is a personal pride, where I come from” he sang. It seemed counter-intuitive and I questioned myself, thought myself a hypocrite for this emotional response. Pride and patriotism were and are both concepts I’ve fled from, even reviled … and yet … it was personal, that was the point. He might as well have been sing “my personal thing is a personal thing, where I come from”.

I couldn’t pretend to be Irish like real Irish people, or indeed to be a proud Englishman, because I wasn’t, but I came from somewhere, I identified with something, and it was allowed to be personal, it didn’t have to be about a proscribed collective identity. I also, though, identified with Rowland’s admission that he’d originally called the song Knowledge of Beauty rather than My National Pride because he was ashamed of expressing his pride. Some wags would call that pretty irish.

They played that song on xfm after Ireland had put up a good show in the 2002 World Cup, and it made even more sense. The Irish football team was, after all, for all the mongrels – since the Team that Jack Built in the late 80s, every kid with an Irish grandma could be proud of the green. Well, so could I. I watched Robbie Keane’s late equalizer against Germany that year in O’Neill’s on Shaftesbury Avenue, full of folk drinking Guinness at 9am – doesn’t get more cod-Irish than that …

I was working in Blackwell’s, Charing Cross Road, that year, listening to Dexys all the time, but, as a perfect example of how botched and skin-deep my Irish epiphany was, when the store had an “Irish offer” for St Patrick’s Day, I bought Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan, A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle (fine so far) and Full Time by “Irish” footballer Tony Cascarino, a book whose most striking revelation was that Cascarino actually has no Irish blood in him at all. No, I did not suddenly (or ever, actually …) become an expert in Joyce and Beckett – that would be far too much like hard work.

But I reached out for and found the connections everywhere. I loved that the song Reminisce from Don’t Stand Me Down refers to a young Kevin walking down the Edgware Road, that least glamorous thoroughfare within touching distance of Central London where Paddy McGaughey made his home from his divorce until his death, full of shisha lounges on the main drag, while the pubs on the side streets were filled with skulking old Irishmen complaining about all the immigrants! Ha …

I’d worked in a hotel just at the Oxford Street end of the Edgware Road a few years before, a massive great cube of a hotel, doing night room service down its endless corridors to get some money together for my gap yah in Africah, Kenyah, to be precise. Rilly rilly cool.

Needless to say, I did not set all this hard-earned cash aside for the big trip. I had my own money like I’d never had it before and I was going to spend and spend big! The tape section of Virgin Megastore Marble Arch knew not what hit it - £6.99 for Blood on the Tracks, £6.99 for Blonde on Blonde, £6.99 for What’s Going On, £6.99 for Astral Weeks, this fabled masterpiece by Van Morrison.

I’d already listened to a few of the fabled masterpieces. Pet Sounds I had loved, but I cannot say it took me to another place. It was beautiful and brilliant but the lyrical concerns were very much earthbound. And for all the exquisite arrangements, they were all pop songs. God Only Knows and Caroline No are beautiful pop songs, but they’re pop songs.

Astral Weeks was something else. It still is. I’ve been listening to it (along with Dexys) as I write this piece, trying to let it help me take me everywhere I need to go with it.

When did I first lose myself in it? In the rain outside London Bridge station, perhaps, meeting some fellow travellers I was going to walk with (again to raise funds) from Southwark Cathedral to Canterbury Cathedral. I waited in the wrong place (no mobiles), Astral Weeks on my Walkman, not a thought in my head, and delayed Le Grand Depart by an hour. The 100s of time I’ve been through London Bridge since, I still chuckle about it.

When else? Oh, let’s die in the shame of the cliché. Me and my friend Wieland, living in our little place (we named it 61: Momentarily Hard Chemka, the wags we were) on our hillside in Taita, southern Kenya, gifted with a little verandah (sounds colonial and luxurious, I assure you it wasn’t) from which we could look out and across, all the way to northern Tanzania I reckon, we’d sit, suddenly with all the time but none of the necessary distractions, and talk and talk, often about music and literature, in both of which Wieland was a thousand miles ahead of me. Sometimes, his taste and his art was a little hemidemisemiquaverous for my understanding, but we found plenty of common ground, and we also found someone we could rather foolishly buy weed from. I don’t know quite what possessed us. Neither had ever done such a thing before in the safe confines of West London, but, you know, time stretches out up those sides…

So, to cut a long sub-story short, the first time I got stoned, we were listening to Astral Weeks, and at one point, when I was feeling a bit queasy and bewildered, I thought of that bit in Beside You where Van sings “you breathe in you breathe out, you breathe in you breathe out, you breathe in you breathe out and you’re high, high on you’re high-flying cloud”, but instead of being high on my high-flying cloud, I vommed, vommed on the low-lying ground.

But that, disgusted reader, did not put me off those Astral Weeks. Anything but. In those long unlit evenings of staring at those same stars in that same sky they’d be seeing back home, I remember Wieland telling me he’d taken to composing more than writing because there were things he could express with music more than he could with words, and I can see how that’s true of most words. It’s true of my words, it’s true of Kevin Rowland’s words, much as I adore them, it’s even, mainly, true, of Bob Dylan’s words, but I didn’t find it to be true of the words Van Morrison found for Astral Weeks. They contained an inimitable, mysterious, spectral poetry, a transporting grace and vision. It felt with Astral Weeks like the words were the music and vice versa.

I can see now how it was inspired by Yeats, perhaps by the Lake Isle of Innisfree. They share a yearning for a rural idyll, a wonder at the power of nature. Yeats was apparently inspired to write The Lake Isle of Innisfree while walking down Fleet Street, dreaming of an island on a lake in Sligo from childhood holidays. Astral Weeks seems a paean to various aspects of Morrison’s childhood in Northern Ireland, both rural and urban – yet also refers to his present, on Ladbroke Grove of all places, another of those glamourless but glorious West London thoroughfares, not so far from Fleet Street or the Edgware Road.

I imagine now my father walking down Edgware Road (or indeed Fleet Street) thinking of the Lake Isle, perhaps the real one, on Lough Gill in Sligo, or his own personal lake isle. There’s a good chance he did holiday in Sligo as a child – he took one of my sisters and I there in the summer of 1985 on a little round-Ireland jaunt, when I was 6 and she was 8.

We took the ferry at 3am from Fishguard to Rosslare (I still remember looking at my watch – 3.07, I’ve never been awake at 3.07 before, I mistakenly thought) and started off in Cork, made our way up the West Coast, a day or so in each place, but the longest and most memorable bit was in Sligo.

We stayed in a village called Rosses Point. I remember there was a pub and fish-and-chip place, and I remember running up and down outside the pub pretending to be various second-tier West Indies fast bowlers of the era – Franklyn Stephenson, Winston Davis, Anthony Gray, that kind of thing, you know? That was perfectly normal behaviour for a boy who spent most of the trip inventing, ball for ball, test match innings of Chris Broad and David Gower and writing them in my notebook.

Across the bay from Rosses Point were a couple of islands – the larger was called Coney Island (not, actually, Van Morrison’s Coney Island or Lou Reed’s Coney Island (baby), but still …), the smaller called Oyster Island, and we were able to stay on it for a night or two, on a farm belong to a friend of my dad’s. There were a couple of hens called Maggie and Scargill who shat on the floor everywhere and I kept on worrying they were going to shit in my bed, there was a woman who kept on telling me I was a girl, not a boy, and there was an extremely tall boy called Fenton. Who the hell’s called Fenton? I thought, a question I would not have answered until a dog chased some deer across Richmond Park decades later.

It was a memorable time, a memorable place, we’d occasionally talk about it, my father, sister and I. He’d report back to us on the wellbeing of the island’s owner long after we’d forgotten what he looked like.

As children, we went far and wide with my father, often to Dorset, often to Sunbury, up to Radlett in Hertfordshire, or all around London. As I got older, our meetings were more concentrated on the Edgware Road - the Duke of York, Windsor Castle or Royal Exchange.

We’d met around Christmas 1996, after my months of working in the Mount Royal hotel, just before I was due to head out to Kenya. Over the course of the early evening, my dad became unusually regretful and melancholy, you could say speaking to me man-to-man for the first time. I don’t remember all the details, but I remember I ended up, though not openly, angry at him for about the only time I can remember. There’d be plenty of disappointment, pathos and pity, but I generally had no use for anger. I felt unwritten rules had been broken this time, though, and, when it came to it, I didn’t want to hear his side of the story.

I sat in that olde Celtic bistro, McDonald’s, by Marble Arch (where I’d also often go before a shift at the Mount Royal), recalibrating and sobering and seething in a way to which I was unaccustomed. I had my own way to go. Right then, I had my own shit to deal with, mainly panic and reluctance to be heading out to live somewhere (I knew not precisely where) without electricity and running water for 8 months.

Well, it turned out all right. We were given a nice little house with a verandah to live in, on a hillside, and though there was no electricity and running water, there was a post office and we could buy Fanta and boiled sweets.

The Taita Hills were wildly beautiful and notably verdant. That lush fertility was somewhat under threat when we arrived, though, in the middle of a drought, we were told. The last rains hadn’t come, and so people were very hopeful the downpours would start soon.

Crops were suffering, livestock was skinny, water was rationed. It was quite a change of environment, but I had my tapes, I had boiled sweets, I had Wieland to talk to, I had letters to write and receive. To my shame, the letter I sent to my dad in the first week, to which I was puzzled not to receive a response, was to the wrong postcode, so took a couple of months to arrive. Stupid.
The rains stayed away. Week after week. Everyone was getting worried. It doesn’t take long to feel, inescapably, part of things. There were weird consequences. One night, we looked across the valley at the forest of Choke [pron:Chok-ay] and it was on fire. What the hell? We discovered the next day that the fires were lit deliberately by superstitious locals trying to summon the rain gods. Though Christianity, fearsome fire-and-brimstone Christianity, was dominant, out in “the villages”, the deeper villages, existing faiths still had a place.

An even graver threat, or what seemed like it, emerged from the forest. This is going to sound silly, I know. But it didn’t feel silly at the time. A python was found near our house and we were told by a friend of Wieland’s (probably rather gleefully and mischieviously) that the drought and the accompanying lack of food were driving the pythons out of the forest to look for fresh meat.
I mean, it wasn’t nonsense. Kids in my class saw pythons, there were black and green mambas around in any case. But suddenly, something vaguely present became a powerful and pertinent threat. There I was, in late February 1997, enduring several sleepless nights in a row with a Victorinox penknife in my hand, blood chilling at every rat, beetle, bird I could hear, thinking a cohort of malevolent hungry pythons were going to come sliding over the gap between the wall and the corrugated roof.

I had my “Common People” moment. Hang on, I can just go home now, can’t I? Or maybe spend a few days in a nice hotel in Mombasa or Nairobi. But I also felt I couldn’t. That was not allowed.
Anyhow, can’t quite remember how, but we stopped worrying about pythons. Then the rains came. First there was a little harbinger, while we were at a wedding in the nearby town Wundanyi, a sudden blast from the heavens, people suddenly laughing and crying and dancing with joy, then it was over after 15 minutes. Then nothing for another week.

Then, March 8th, the rains came for good. A real rain, as Travis Bickle would say. And stayed. Not 24 hours of every day, but plenty of every day, and with an unimaginable force.

When I think of Taita, I think of music. I think of my tapes, the select few I could pack, in the days before mp3s. Above all, there was Astral Weeks and Blood on the Tracks. I think of Shelter from the Storm when I think of Taita.

Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood,
When blackness was a virtue, the road was full of mud,
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form,
Come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm
In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes,
I bargained for salvation but they gave me a lethal dose,
I offered up my innocence, but got repaid with scorn,
Come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm

And I think of all the songs from Astral Weeks – the title track, Beside You, the astonishing Madame George and The Way Young Lovers Do, and above all, Sweet Thing

And I will drink the clear clean water for to quench my thirst
 And I will never grow so old again, And I will walk and talk in gardens all wet with rain

The atmosphere was thick with religiosity, powerful certainty, condemnation and salvation, spirits and demons, death and suffering, my own fall from faith and occasional attempts to rediscover it the key, underlying psychological current to all of it. There are more stories to tell.

I could take every diversion. Sometimes I do. You might well feel I’m already taking too many diversions here, I’m losing the thread, but this is how my mind works, making these connections, re-examining events, and more than you’d think I find something in the diversions and the coincidences and the reminiscences.

But, right now, I’ll not tell all the stories, all the preachers and the demons, the bishops and bureacrats. I’ll just remember a funny day in March 1997, shortly after the rains began in earnest, walking down into Mbale listening to Astral Weeks on my Walkman, listening to Sweet Thing and I thought I’d keep walking, I think I thought I was challenging God or something, and it started raining a little, and I kept walking, further than I’d walked before, and the rains grew and grew, and you can guess the rest, and I laughed and I felt happy (though with a slightly urgent need not to let my Walkman, my main source of comfort, get drenched). I got soaked, the kind of soaking that stays in you for weeks, soaked and consumed like a baptism, a rebirth.

I walked back up the hill, smiling, people laughing at me as they passed or looked out of their homes, finally feeling at home.

When we returned home (as in home-home, London home), shortly to head off for university in St Andrews, my mother bought me various works of African literature. The stand-out was the classic Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I loved the phrase “things fall apart”. Simple, says it all.

Oddly, I didn’t investigate its provenance. I used it all the time, assuming it had started with Achebe.
You may already know, or have guessed from the way this story’s working, that it’s a line from W.B. Yeats. From his poem The Second Coming – the first verse goes …

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

…the poem has been quoted regularly in the last year or two, naturally enough. It was originally written just after World War I, at the beginning of the Irish War of Independence.

Yeats sounds like a bit of a dude, doesn’t he? But don’t look too hard at his politics. The Irish nationalism led, as he got older in the 1930s, to a strong interest in far-right authoritarianism.

Dude! I had the same sense of disappointment when I found out my own dad’s proud Irishness went along with some strongly, ahem, conservative views. Is that what those rebel songs are about, really?

A perfect example of that same disappointment applies, for a great many, to another of those Anglo-Irish boys, Steven Patrick Morrissey, the son and the heir of a slyness which might well be criminally vulgar, with his Irish blood, English heart, and undeniably repugnant views on plenty of the rest.

Still, what a list of exile hearts who’ve enlivened British pop music for decades – Lennon and McCartney, John Lydon, Kevin Rowland, Elvis Costello, Shane McGowan, Morrissey and Marr, the Gallaghers. Must be something in the water, or the crossing of it …

As I write this, I feel like new boxes keep on popping up I’m struggling to shut – I want to connect everything. That’s who I am. Some of these connections run deep. Some of them don’t amount to much more than “look, here’s one person in music who once met another person in music, isn’t that amazing?” But I feel a responsibility to keep on making the connections, my mind over-running.
It’s my job, after all.

But notwithstanding that, it’s always been my way. I hate the word trivia, because for me, knowledge isn’t trivia, I only care about the nugget of the fact in as much as it leads to another fact and something that means something. I’ve always tried to make my quiz rounds join up, I’ve wanted to create a unity. Only Connect seems a good place for me to be at the moment. My inner monologue as a job.

I’m drawn all over the place at the moment – I’m thinking about this funny but lovely clip of Van Morrison and Bob Dylan singing Crazy Love in front of the Acropolis,

and I remember the day I went to the Acropolis was the day I first listened to Live Forever (probably on the same shitty Walkman that accompanied me through Mbale), the song by those other Anglo-Irish boys where the roots run the deepest, the one which still touches me despite everything.

And I’m back thinking about Coney Island, not the one off Sligo or Van Morrison’s off County Down, where he’d go on holiday as a child. I’m thinking about Coney Island, Brooklyn, where I went once with its half-empty boardwalk, the bone-rattling Cyclone and its attractions like “Shoot the freak, live human target”.

I’m thinking about that lovely film Brooklyn starring Saoirse Ronan, that ever-living tale of Irish emigration, of the diaspora, and of the conflict vital to so many of these works, between city and country - Astral Weeks, Innisfree, Brooklyn, like Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, which I loved as a classicist (though, it was, depressingly, loved by another of those far-righters, Adolf Hitler), like Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes (who explicitly reference Innisfree on their Helplessness Blues album)  and Nick Drake, like Thoreau and countless others, they’re about the pastoral idyll.

Mine’s a city boy’s pastoral idyll, of course. Born in Hammersmith. Grew up in Ealing. My dad was born in Dublin, grew up in Cork, moved to Shrewsbury as a young man, then inner West London, settled in Ealing, then back to inner West London. A fairly classic route for a 20th century Irishman.

They almost took the other classic route, the McGaugheys, I recently discovered – almost moved en masse to the USA (I think my grandfather John McGaughey went out for a year to size it up, then decided to come back).

Aah, into the west, far and away. In The Commitments (which I’m quite sure gave a lot of people of my age their main education on Ireland in the early 90s) when Jimmy first hears Deco singing, drunk, at the wedding, it’s a lovely touch that he’s singing Letter from America by The Proclaimers and that’s “something approximating music”, that rich, bittersweet love song for the Scottish diaspora, the other side of the Celtic soul (Dexys and the Proclaimers toured together).

“Looked over the ocean, tried hard to imagine the way you felt the day you sailed from Wester Ross to Nova Scotia”

Or Cork to Nova Scotia, or Cork to Ellis Island.

Besides the Barrytown Trilogy (The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van), Roddy Doyle also wrote The Last Roundup trilogy, which starts in Dublin with the Easter Rising, then takes the journey to America in the 1920s, then comes back to Ireland for the last one, The Dead Republic. I also love, of recent times, the novels of Colum McCann, particularly Let the Great World Spin and Transatlantic which cross continents, oceans and generations in examining the relationship between the USA and Ireland.

In Let the Great World Spin (one of the finest novels I’ve ever read), McCann’s muse is New York City, pre and post 9-11.

The connections are going to keep coming – they’re going to spill over now, I warn you, and dominate the text. I’ll start with that London public schoolboy Shane McGowan and his equivalent of Kevin Rowland’s Come on Eileen, which, in the public consciousness, dwarfs every other slice of brilliance in his career, Fairytale of New York with Kirsty McColl, the daughter of Ewan MacColl, who wrote Dirty Old Town (famously covered by The Pogues) as well as The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face about Peggy Seeger, sister of folk legend Pete Seeger, who (a bigger) legend has it tried to cut Dylan’s cable with an axe at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

Ewan MacColl was no fan of Dylan either, called his poetry “punk” (not in a good way) and “10th rate drivel”. Dylan’s relationship with the folk purists could be a tricky one clearly. Dominic Behan, a friend of MacColl, accused Dylan of plagiarising his The Patriot Game for With God on Our Side - well, of course he did, Keats and Yeats were on his side, eh (there’s a brief, drunken reference to this in one of hotel room scenes of Don’t Look Back).

Behan’s brother Brendan was one of the definitive tragic Celts of New York. I bought his Borstal Boy at the same time I bought that Tony Cascarino book. Both classics in their own way!

Borstal Boy is one of the most subtly beautiful books I ever read, full of honesty, humour, love and repressed emotion. It’s got a kick like Brokeback Mountain. (though the film version boasts Danny Dyer rather than Heath Ledger).

Behan did a lot of his drinking as a celebrity Irishman in New York, moving in the same circles as the young Dylan, but died back in Dublin in 1964, having failed to stay sober for a stretch in the Chelsea Hotel.

Another Chelsea resident was Dylan Thomas (if only there was some connection between him and Bob Dylan, eh, now what could it be …). My favourite “staring me in the face” discovery of last year was that Annie Clark took her stage name from a line in one of my favourite songs, There She Goes My Beautiful World, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds:

Karl Marx squeezed his carbuncles while writing Das Kapital
And Gauguin, he buggered off, man, and went all tropical
While Philip Larkin stuck it out in a library in Hull
And Dylan Thomas died drunk in St. Vincent's hospital

The soundtrack to the recent Dylan Thomas in NYC film Set Fire to the Stars was by that other magical, mystical Welshman, Gruff Rhys. It also struck me that Dylan Thomas died in St Vincent’s Hospital on 9th November 1953, which happens to have been Patrick McGaughey’s 14th birthday.

I saw Annie Clark, having only lately adopted the St Vincent moniker - inspired by Dylan Thomas in a Nick Cave song – what could be better? - in 2006, supporting, and then playing in the band of, Sufjan Stevens, when he was touring his stunning Illinoise album.

She sang this lovely, wry song Marry Me John and clearly she’s someone who knows how to join the dots too. This John/Johnny appears in Prince Johnny and Happy Birthday Johnny on her last couple of albums. It’s a sweet and sad trilogy of songs. Also, on her 2017 album MASSEDUCTION is New York (of course) where she sings “New York isn’t New York without you, love”. Some say it’s about a famous girlfriend, or maybe David Bowie, but it could just as well be about Dylan Thomas or Brendan Behan or any other victim of the city.

And, though there’s no particular Celtic connection (I’ve been trying to avoid that juxtaposition!), Nick Cave has a way of pulling details together as well. I noted, on his extraordinary Girl in Amber

from 2016’s Skeleton Tree, the lyrics build on the notion of the world spinning, and that final “Let the world turn” and I think of Let the Great World Spin and I wonder if Cave, like Colum McCann, is referencing Tennyson’s Locksley Hall.

Anyway, I cannot let the world spin, I have to stop it and examine it and join the dots between different parts, that’s my constant cause.

So let’s spin to 26 September 2005, almost exactly, fact fans, five years before Paddy McGaughey died in St Mary’s Hospital. Another gig at the Barbican, a tribute to Bob Dylan and a cut above the usual. A well-selected group – there’s a branch for almost every one of them.

The compere was good old Billy Bragg, who gets himself everywhere. Well, there’s the Kirsty MacColl connection of course, the great big Woody Guthrie connection (which he proudly recounted got him a mention in Dylan’s Chronicles), consequently the Wilco connection.

Wilco have toured with Dylan and Jeff Tweedy collaborates regularly with Mavis Staples, who has not only toured herself with Dylan lately, but also turned down a marriage proposal from young Bob in the 60s.

Another funny little Billy Bragg connection is when, at the Fleadh at 2004, he’d described young Irish singer Damien Dempsey as “the new Bob Dylan” – (Dempsey put on a rousing set in the tent that day, Dylan was headlining though, there was, not surprisingly, nothing explicitly Irish in his set). Well, Dempsey could bellow a nice tune, but, lyrically, let me say, he was no Bob Dylan. He was no Billy Bragg. One of his best songs begins “Lord, won’t you give me the strength to be strong and be true …” The strength to be strong, eh? That’s some strength. I enjoyed him enough to go see him at the Borderline a few weeks later, though, whilst ignoring the support act, an as yet unknown James Blunt. Another songwriter who is not … quite … Bob Dylan. Anyway. Back to the Barbican.

Other turns included Roy Harper, who rather incongruouslyly took the opportunity to talk about England’s recent Ashes win and sang When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease, Martin Carthy, who was a friend of Dylan when he first toured England and told a story of feeling queasy at the Troubadour (which I’ve done myself!), a very nervous Willy Mason who sang the ineffable To Ramona, though not his own Oxygen, which I love pretty much as any Bob Dylan song.

There was KT Tunstall, then at her commercial peak. This gives me an opportunity to shoehorn in a little about another Celtic wonder, James Yorkston, one of my true beloved north star songwriters. Tunstall often sings backing vocals on the albums of King Creosote and James Yorkston. I’ve written enough elsewhere about all the little details of the Fence Collective, but right now I want to focus on Yorkston’s ability to unite elements, to feel like he’s speaking to write directly to me.

He’s another writer who regularly contrasts some country idyll to the trappings of the city, without denying the latter’s attractions. Like King Creosote but even more so, he makes me remember the Fife coast with love, the sound of the sea, the freezing wind, the fishing villages. One of his greatest songs is When the Haar Rolls In a mini-Proust (ha, like I’ve read Proust!) in seven minutes (the Haar being the sea mist that rolls in from the North Sea). But the first song I heard of his, and still the one I love the most, is St. Patrick. Well, why wouldn’t I? That’s the last track on my Celtic Soul playlist. Soul can be a gentle incoming tide as much as anything else.

And there was Bob’s old chum Liam Clancy, a teller of well-worn tales, for sure, but still one hell of a singer (Dylan himself said he was the best he ever heard). He didn’t sing Shellakybooky, disappointingly, but he did sing The Parting Glass. Phew.

And there was Odetta, another hero of Dylan’s from a totally different background, a fearsome and brilliant performer of folk blues, now frail but still providing a beautiful version of Mr Tambourine Man.

In the encore, Liam Clancy and Odetta sang ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and I pondered on my dad’s Clancy Brothers records, and recalled my mother had a couple of Odetta records.

It still baffles me a little how these two disparate individuals got together and stayed together long enough to have four children, I’ve never really looked for answers and wasn’t finding them here, but I smiled to think, as Liam and Odetta warmly embraced, as their voices blended to sing the definitive protest song, that here was at least a little something for my inner book of connections …(What about Breakfast at Tiffany’s … no … you’ve come to the wrong place … speak no more).

Another little point before I draw this whole thing to a close – it’s important not to overlook the “soul” part of the Celtic Soul. Roddy Doyle, in The Commitments, talks about it in famously explicit terms, and Colum McCann also clearly links Ireland with Black America in Transatlantic where he writes about the time Frederick Douglass (“he’s doing a great job”) spent in Ireland in the 1840s. Neither Van Morrison nor Kevin Rowland pretended they were inventing something wholly new – they were proud of their influences, whether Jackie Wilson, Bill Withers or Geno Washington. Bob Dylan’s debt was to Leadbelly, Odetta, The Staples Singers as much as Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams.

Mike Scott, another purveyor of a version of Celtic Soul he called ‘The Big Music’ sang his most famous song The Whole of the Moon as a tribute to Prince. Scott’s The Waterboys, a few years ago, released an entire album where they set the lyrics of Yeats to music. Some of it’s pretty good, I’m not sure that the version of The Lake Isle of Innisfree does all that much for its legacy.

As I said at the start, the poem was read on the day of my father’s funeral, in October 2010. That was at the crematorium. At the church earlier, a large catholic church just off the Edgware Road, I’d delivered the eulogy. I’m a pretty cool cat, I thought, I won’t have any trouble holding it together.
Well, the priest didn’t help. As I walked casually, coolly to the lectern, he wrong-footed me somewhat by saying “Don’t you think Paddy’s son David looks like Wayne Rooney” as if he was saying I looked like Brad Pitt or David Beckham. Larks!

Well, I did all right. The laughter, the tears, you know … I wanted to reference the talented man that my father had been, rather than dwell on too many negatives. I recalled the time he’d turned up at a Boys vs Dads match at Ealing Cricket Club, having barely played cricket before, and smashed his over-confident son all over the place. I recalled the last time I’d seen him, three days before he died, outside the Royal Exchange, he was still having a go at the Times Crossword … and still smoking … and drinking … (Rage, rage, if you must, Paddy …).

I finished off by reciting The Parting Glass (I stopped short of doing it in my best Bob Dylan impression). I’d been doing pretty well until then. My uncle Conor told me as I was introducing it, he was just begging me internally not to, knowing what would happen … well, it got read one way or the other.

Of all the money that e'er I had
I spent it in good company
And all the harm I've ever done
Alas it was to none but me
And all I've done for want of wit
To mem'ry now I can't recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be to you all

Of all the comrades that e'er I had
They're sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e'er I had
They'd wish me one more day to stay
But since it fell unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all

So there we go, there’s this tale done. I wanted to let loose my inner connector, to tell how we can find out truths about our own and other people’s lives in songs, poems, books and films, that none of it is trivia, it’s a whole joined-up reality. I had a pretty simple few links at the start, but it’s grown exponentially, as it inevitably would.

I don’t know if I feel any more Irish now for writing it, but I’ve made some nice connections. Coincidentally, I’ve been getting the documents together to finally become a real life Irishman (and European, of course …). Wish me luck.

Friday, 23 February 2018


I've been wanting to have a crack at writing this for a while, but I started writing haikus about sport in my spare time instead, so here's this, just fitted it in


He sang for me a thousand times, and I,
In turn, without a word, kept safe the boy,
All plump and green, already bold, but shy
not armed with ancient songs – yet - to deploy,
from north to east, across each land and sea.
He would be heard, sung back, acclaimed, adored,
His loves ransacked for clues. Yet first was me
And I have, largely, gladly, been ignored.

He spoke of me, his eyes a childlike blaze,
He sang for me a thousand times, I know.
We loved; from me he learnt to bend a phrase
So each would feel addressed, embraced – just so.
The curse; this gift it left the man defiled
But I, his mountain nymph, I’ll take that child.

Contempt & Privilege

These two words seem to hang over so much of modern day political and social discourse, and they also play a large part in my own life, so I thought I’d have a go at writing about them, both as separate concepts and in terms of their relationship. This will be more of a personal essay than polemic, though there’ll be an element of both. I am, and have always been, a person of both contempt and privilege. What do they gain me? What do they cost me?

In recent years, we have heard a lot about male privilege, white privilege, cis privilege, and plenty more. I am, ostensibly, a beneficiary of almost every imaginable privilege – white, male, British, southern, heterosexual, public-school educated, old enough to avoid tuition fees, young enough to avoid national service, physically able, intellectually capable, employed, married … perhaps we’ve moving away from the idea of traditional privilege at the end, but I think plenty of people who do not fit in to those categories will feel themselves heavily discriminated against.
In some ways, these privileges are absolute. Any attempt to mitigate should be seen as so much whining. Equally, if we assume that every individual that falls within those categories assumes them and uses them to triumph at every turn and in every circumstance, we lose sight of the nuances that take people’s lives in different directions and bring about changes of attitude.

The single area of my life which points most conclusively to a life of privilege is my place amongst the 7%, the true ruling class of Britain who attended private school. And not just any private school, but one of the most prestigious, St Paul’s, which lies only behind Eton College in terms of the number of people it educates who go on to positions of power and influence in Britain.

[Incidentally, I just want to mention a brilliant point my wife made to me recently, which speaks so clearly of the patriarchy. Eton, which overwhelmingly crushes St Paul’s and all other schools in terms of how many people from it go on to high office, has no female equivalent. St Paul’s does, so do lots of the other big public schools, there are plenty of prestigious girl’s public schools, but Eton, the seat of power, sits above it all, and it’s for boys. The odds are forever stacked]

So I’ll start there, where my privilege developed … and my contempt.

I was lucky to go to St Paul’s School. I didn’t always feel lucky, but I was lucky. Anyone who goes there has countless opportunities other people don't get. I was also lucky because throughout my 10 years there, my education was overwhelmingly subsidised by an assisted place. I’m the youngest of four children, and we were all put through public school by our mother through scholarships and assisted places.

In relative terms (and not even just in relative terms, though I don’t want to load that point) my family was not wealthy. I didn’t have everything my classmates had. My parents also divorced when I was 5 which is perfectly common now, but, actually, back then, in the 80s, it seemed pretty rare. I am pretty sure, at various times, I was the only boy in my class from a single-parent family.

I was fairly bright, especially when I was young. In fact, not to mince words, I was exceptionally bright when I was young. I say that not to look good (saying it makes me look like a dick!) but because it’s actually an important part of this story. Around the age of 6/7/8, I was the best at everything. I think I assumed I would go on being the best at everything.

Here’s where the contempt part comes in. Maybe I was born contemptuous, maybe something happened to make me that way. It can be a massive drag. When I say I’m contemptuous, I’d say the most common complaint I’ve had from people is that I act like I’m better than everyone else, that I’m judgemental and pompous and condescending, that I don’t respect other people’s opinions. It’s been said too often, by people that do like me and people that don’t like me, to disregard it (“well, in fact, you say I’m condescending, and I really appreciate your input, but you’re wrong and you’ve not thought it through …” etc).

Incidentally, alongside people thinking I’m contemptuous, the other lasting tropes in terms of my interactions with people is being treated like I’m a) miserable or b) have learning difficulties. Any way you look at it, I’m not getting the details of social interaction quite right!

I don’t know the whole truth of it. Maybe it’s just how I act, an accident of physiognomy and body language, maybe there’s plenty of truth in it. Maybe I never got over being good at things when I was little. Maybe, as we got older and I was caught and overtaken, due to a combination of people’s growing at a different rate, simply being around more people, my complacency, others’ hard work, more successes being achieved by personality and presentation, I stuck with the idea that, intrinsically, reduced to basics, I was the real clever one and if I set my mind to it, I could outgun them all again.

 I do sometimes wonder if other people regularly and clearly see something beyond my own consciousness and understanding which translates what I imagine to be most innocuous comment into “if you knew how good I was at my times tables when I was six, you’d treat me with more respect, you fucking peasant!”

Suffice to say, a privilege I’ve always lacked is the ability to make friends and influence people with ease. You learn to make the best of it and to make what virtue of it you can. But often I’ve looked on groups of people, just getting on with people, smiling on cue, chatting about inane shit, with envy. Of course, mine is not a rare condition. Nearly everyone would admit to some form of social anxiety at some point in their life. Not everyone covers it by acting as if they're better than all that, but plenty do.

However it’s cost me, I look at my contempt now and I find value in it. I trust it in a way, I think, that a lot of people don’t trust theirs when they feel it. Sometimes it seems to me that there is both too much passionate fury and too much equivocation, where a bit of dry contempt would do much better.
Silly as it sounds, it is my experience of privilege that enables me to trust my contempt. The first people I disdained, the first people I looked down on, were the young elite, the young, rich, intelligent men who would go on to positions of power.

If you’re going to disdain, at very least disdain sideways, preferably upwards. That’s what I learnt. My ghastly condescending attitude, my superiority complex, in those early years, it was directed at people who were as male as me, richer than me, as smart or smarter than me, better than me at many things, would go on to be more successful than me.

I don’t think I’m a snob. I don’t even think I’m quite a misanthrope. Contempt is not mutually exclusive with either a sense of pathos or a sense of social justice. Indeed, both of those can sometimes feed contempt more than anything else.

I’m not going to pretend I was a warrior for social justice at my school, that, back then, my contempt was fighting the good fight. But I did know a few things my schoolmates didn’t. I remember (this was when we were 17/18, so youth was no real excuse) having a conversation with a boy who said he would vote Conservative because people get what they deserve in life, that his parents had worked hard for what they had, and that they weren’t rich, they just did ok for themselves. I asked him what he thought the average wage for an adult in the UK was (this was 1996) – he said £90 or 100,000. I felt contempt.

As I got older at school, and a little less “ashamed” of not coming from a rich family and of having an assisted place (weird, it’s now something of a point of pride, but not something I wanted to let on for many years at school), I also began to notice and confirm others from poorer backgrounds who had help with their fees – there were more than you’d think, and often they shared a similar character type – a cussed awkwardness, a certain edgy smart discomfort with what was around. Most of them worked damn hard . I am still somewhat ashamed that I did not always, that at times I wasted the opportunity given me.

So, I guess I am, after all, saying privilege can be relative, and that, in my own life being, at various points, a twist on outright privilege, my being an outsider of sorts in the relative homogeneity of a West London boys’ public school, I trust and have always trusted my contempt.

In some ways, sure, I’m “liberal metropolitan elite” (a term which should only ever be used with disdainful irony), I’m the lucky few, but equally, I’ve flitted up and down the scale of what that means, and I very often find myself looking up. It also helps that, despite the state of near-iconic perfection I reached when I was 6 years and 4 months old, I have failed and fucked up many, many times in my life, I am terrible at many, many things, and yet my contempt stays with me. So I trust it.

Disdaining upwards or sideways is usually easy – rich, selfish people, entitled people who don’t understand how lucky they are, there are plenty of them to go round. There are plenty of Toby Youngs and Boris Johnsons to disdain. That’s not to say I’m above twinges of depressing ingrained snobberies and prejudices. But there’s no grace, no truth, in disdaining downwards. There are no uglier words than “chav” and “pleb”.

This “metropolitan liberal elite” stuff, it’s designed to make people doubt their contempt, even when contempt is the best and truest possible response. It’s the tack that Trump uses to divide and conquer. In America, it's clearer and clearer that it’s a blatant lie and only a blatant lie – Trump voters are not the worst off, they’re the whitest off. Whatever a couple of journalists going to a couple of towns in Pennsylvania may tell you, all studies have discredited the notion that the driving factor was not white identity (amongst various other unpleasantnesses …)

Brexit is trickier. The “working class revolt” thing has some credence here. On balance, poorer people voted for Brexit – I’ve seen a few statistical studies (not that I’ve really understood them) drawing different conclusions, but there is something unpleasant in the blanket “stupid little Brexiters” line.

But hopefully contempt holds strong. Not contempt for the people fucked over and spat out by society over and over again who saw a glimpse of vain hope, but specifically in the decision they and millions of significantly less fucked-over people took and how they came to take it, of the people who pushed for that decision, who dissembled to win the decision, the false perceptions of what is failing society that drove that decision.

Time for a slightly shit analogy but one that’s stuck with me – when I was failing, desperate and bereft, in my attempt to be a primary school teacher 13 years ago, the brilliant teacher I was shadowing at the school in Peckham I’d been assigned, which had been the worst in the borough but was gradually climbing thanks to a superb head and several committed staff, gave a boy who’d been stealing little bits and bobs the firmest, most fearful telling off.

Afterwards, we started talking about him, and she told me both his parents were heroin addicts who’d died, he was brought up in poverty by his grandmother who was now ill. I asked if she softened her disciplinary line in cases like that. No, never,  she said, I’d be doing him a disservice if I did. She was right. I’ve no idea what’s going on with that boy now, but he was well served by that teacher. She was kind and loved by that class; but she expected the same standard of behaviour from all of them, she expected them to think for themselves and to try to make the right decisions.

Look, this isn’t some call for hard-line education, I’m a soft hippy when it comes to things like that, but she did not patronise him, make out that what he was doing wasn’t as bad because he’d had a tough life. People who voted for Brexit made a shitty call, for themselves, their neighbours, their children, for everyone. You can be more sympathetic with the reason some people did, but it was still a shitty call.

Apologists say there are lots of different reasons people voted for Brexit and some people did it for good reasons. But, here’s a test – was the decision of anyone, one single person who voted for Brexit, all these things? A) Kind b) Open-minded c) Cautious d) Hopeful e) Considered f) Fact-based and economically sound.

Really? I do not see how they could have been, not all of things, or even more than half of them, even amongst the most thoughtful Brexiters. Whereas I think a large number of people who voted to Remain will have passed all those tests. I mean, mine wasn’t, I’m not going to lie. I voted Remain because I am, at heart, a woolly internationalist who doesn’t believe in borders and thinks we should all live in eternal peace on our yellow submarine. I’m an idiot masquerading as a clever person. I think the brief intermissions where I can clearly see my own blustering idiocy may be the only thing that redeem my contempt.

Or perhaps I voted Remain because, despite everything I’m saying, I’m as conservative as anyone else. Because, as with most people of privilege, the system and the status quo has worked for me. I’ve been able to do the subjects I wanted, play the sports I wanted, say the idiot things I’ve wanted, I’ve been able to fail repeatedly but still get another shot, I’ve been able to be lazy, so lazy, when I was young and not be chastised for it. Few things stick in the craw more than wealthy people of my generation having a go at benefit scroungers. Everyone should be allowed some time mucking around and doing nothing useful when they’re young. An arts degree at university, long summer holidays not working … that was my privilege, as it was for many others. But it’s benefit scroungers who are lazy, apparently.

And I’ve been able to feel guilty and furtive about my posh education, to complain about it and claim I may well have been better off without it, but, then, at a few appropriate junctures, I’m as happy to play the old school tie game as anyone else. That’s the definition of privilege, right there.

I’ve been very lucky … now, a lot of that luck isn’t down to privilege, it’s down to … well, luck, but nevertheless one can say those circumstances have protected me against some pieces of bad luck that befall others.

People like me still dominate all the conversations. Even now. I would hope only that a viewpoint, an attitude, humane, contemptuous or both, is not defined by that essentially narrow experience. Where I feel contempt, I need to ask whether those I feel contempt for are those trying to lay siege to the status quo or those trying to protect their position in it. I also need to question whether my own thinking is any more logical, any more rounded, than what I feel contempt for.

There's a place for contempt - truly, I think some people try too hard to find balance and mutual understanding in certain places. Equally, for me, it's something I truly can't escape, just like the privileges I was born into.

Friday, 9 February 2018

One Step Beyond

In all of this, I've never really written in depth about the first band I loved and listened to regularly, the only band I loved really between the ages of 8 and 14 (which is, ironically, the only period they weren't active as a band). Madness, I call it Madness.

It's a common thing, I think, to underestimate what you loved as a child, to believe yourself above that now, to hold a residual affection but see your adult crazes as all together more deserving. Not that I've ever stopped liking/loving Madness, but I tend to look at my main musical journey as starting with the Jam and Bob Dylan when I was a teenager.

But the more I think about Madness, and more importantly, the more I listen to them again, the more magnificent they seem to me.

They're in the lineage of great, chart-topping south-eastern rock/pop bands - The Kinks, The Jam and Madness, Blur [yes, there are a lot of others excluded, but I don't think they're quite in the same line ...]

And I've also realised how similar their story and career is to my favourite British band of the last two decades, the Super Furry Animals.

Both are underrated, perhaps because of their consistency, longevity and lightness of touch, both have kept almost exactly the same line-up throughout, both have had an exceptional long run of chart singles (Madness of Top 10s, Furries, conversely, of Top 40s which didn't reach the Top 10), both are seen as singles bands yet released great albums, both have massive live followings, both have a mastery of many styles, yet are often put in one box. Madness, called a ska band, yet really a ska, pop, soul, funk, jazz, rock band. SFA, called a Britpop band but a psych rock, powerpop, soul, folk, techno band.

Madness are/were much more successful than the Furries, it's incredible how many hits they had in the early 80s, and how many of those hits are still well-loved today. There's also far more to them than some would say - there's pathos and sharp lyricism in My Girl and Embarrassment, and pure memorable pop songs in Our House and Baggy Trousers.

But perhaps the most impressive thing about Madness is that their two greatest albums are 30 years apart. Firstly, from 1979, their debut, One Step Beyond, which is probably the definitive Madness package, with so many classic album track character sketches, like Bed and Breakfast Man, In the Middle of the Night and Mummy's Boy. And secondly, from 2009, The Liberty of Folgate, a stunningly accomplished concept album about London, which concedes nothing in terms of ideas, arrangements and, most importantly, melodies, to their younger work. I've been listening to it recently, and there are simply no end of memorable pop tunes on it. NW5 may be up there with My Girl has their most perfectly realised poignant pop song.

Perhaps it is both to Madness's benefit and detriment that they don't repay overly deep analysis, at least from me. I saw them once, at Benicassim in 2006 on a blazingly hot afternoon, and it was joyous, 50,000 people watching a band in their element. Being "fun" and "entertaining" is tied up in their identity, and they've never really strayed that far from that, but there's always a lot more to them than that.

Here would be my Best of Madness:

Bed and Breakfast Man
Our House
Shut Up
The Sun and the Rain
Michael Caine
Baggy Trousers
Believe Me
Forever Young
Driving in My Car
In the Middle of the Night
My Girl
My Girl 2
Never Knew Your Name
Wings of a Dove
Tomorrow's Just Another Day
Waiting for the Ghost Train
The Liberty of Norton Folgate

Friday, 19 January 2018

Bob Dylan: Pop Songwriter

Some people, famously, go to Bob Dylan concerts and complain about him not playing the songs they want him to play, which I've always thought is a bit silly, because it is a bit silly.

Equally, it's not like if someone wants Dylan to "play the hits", "the hits" don't exist.

It's something I oddly never really noticed but Bob Dylan wrote a lot of pop songs. He wrote a lot of songs which people have turned into pretty basic big hits.

There are a surprising number of hooks and big choruses.

Some of Bob Dylan's pop songs are quite untransferable - eg I Want You and Like a Rolling Stone - people have covered them, but really and truly, there's not much point, they're his and his alone - lyrically, there's not much you can do with them. But there are quite a lot of his songs which have quite universal, generic sentiments, and people have had their merry way with them.

Almost none of these are the Bob Dylan songs I love, so it's not necessarily surprising I hardly noticed this until recently, but anyway, maybe some people go see Bob Dylan hoping that this will be the setlist.

Mighty Quinn
This Wheel’s on Fire
To Make You Feel My Love
Mr Tambourine Man
All Along the Watchtower
Just Like a Woman
It Ain’t Me Babe
Lay Lady Lay
If Not for You
Forever Young
Knockin on Heaven’s Door
I Shall Be Released
Ring Them Bells
Tears of Rage
Blowin’ in the Wind
Baby Stop Crying
I Threw It All Away
I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight
The Man In Me
Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine
Maggie’s Farm
You Ain’t Goin Nowhere
Rainy Day Women
Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You
If You Gotta Go, Go Now
New Morning
All I Really Wanna Do
What Good Am I

Thursday, 14 December 2017

2017 Music

Righto, time for my annual music rundown. As usual, it’s worth pointing out that I’m not a music journalist so a) I don’t get the time to listen to everything and b) I really haven’t a clue what I’m talking about … but, you know, I do my best.

The last two or three years before this one all produced, in my view, at least a couple of “masterpieces”, truly great, wholly fulfilling albums. I don’t think there were any this year, but there were lots of very enjoyable ones, and even more good songs.

I’ll start with one of those previous masterpiece-makers, Kendrick Lamar. This year’s ‘Damn.’ was pretty much as acclaimed as 2015’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ but didn’t engage me nearly as much. Whereas TPAB had several moments and songs which made you stop in wonder at his virtuosity, for me, although ‘Damn’ is very solid and enjoyable, the only absolute stand-out is ‘Duckworth’, the last track. Many disagree with me. And, in any case, something like Damn, stylistically different, less overtly ambitious, was probably just the right way to follow up a behemoth like To Pimp a Butterfly.  But it did also contain the first great mistake of his career … the words “featuring U2”. Just kidding but not. I doubt Kendrick ennui will set in just yet, though. He really does strike me as (potentially) the greatest rapper that’s ever lived, though I’m a bit out of my element there … (Element, there)

Having said that, I was listening to a lot of hip-hop for the first half of the year – everything else felt like a bit of a desert. That changed as the year went on, as more of the indie rock’n’roll big-hitters of my young adulthood returned to the fray.

But, then again, how many of them produced their best work? I felt that a lot of folk who were making wonderful music 10 years ago were making ok music this year … Fleet Foxes, members of Midlake, Franz Ferdinand, Grandaddy, Band of Horses in the “supergroup” BNQT, The National, Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, The Shins, Iron and Wine, British Sea Power, the New Pornographers … I mean, it was nice to have it, very nice in some cases, but in pretty much every case it felt like diminishing returns to me.

I’ve seen LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream near the top of a few of this year’s Best of lists, but I was a bit exhausted by it. And the best song on it, Call the Police, owed a lot to All My Friends. I mean, if anyone’s allowed to rip off All My Friends, it’s LCD Soundsystem, but it just reminded me what a monolith that song is. I kind of wanted everything else on the album to sound a bit like All My Friends too (which it didn’t) but also wanted them to come up with some new form of greatness. Maybe they did. Some people thought they did. There were other good songs, but I thought a lot of the songs drifted grumpily and not as many lyrics stood out as I’d have hoped. Still, you know, pretty good …

As for Arcade Fire, they’re a rum bunch, eh? I said earlier in the year that they were the new Coldplay (in a bad way) but really they’re a bit more like that lost Manics period at the turn of the century, when they had a brief run of pretty terrible albums full of ideas that sounded great on paper, with great titles and political import, horribly executed. Thankfully, the Manics recovered and had a lot of greatness and good will in the bank already, but, to me, Arcade Fire have only one properly executed album and a few other good tunes. I mean, there are some decent tunes on Everything Now, not least the title track (why not rip off ABBA, everyone else has done it?) but not enough, and really, that Infinite Content bit is the worst section of recorded music ever created, and kind of annuls anything decent on the album anyway.

OK, I’ll be positive before I’m negative again. The St Vincent album, Masseduction, is great. Another smash. My only downer on it is that it’s a bit backloaded. The real heart and heft is in the second half, I could skip a few of the earlier tracks. But New York and Happy Birthday Johnny … beautiful …

Another album I’ve loved is The War on Drugs’ ‘A Deeper Understanding’. Which is funny because when their last album ‘Lost in the Dream’ was one of the critical hits of 2014, I tried but just didn’t get into it at all. And in some ways, ‘A Deeper Understanding’ was just more of the same, but more so, but this time it was just what I needed – in fact, you could say it reignited my dwindling love of rock music. Obvious to say it, but just shows how much supposed “judgement” comes down to mood and circumstance. Anyway, windswept/epic/driving rock/big production/atmospheric/homage etc ….take your pick.

I actually preferred it to the National’s ‘Sleep Well Beast’ which I didn’t think I’d be saying. Though it was a big success, for me the National were slightly the victim of their consistency on this one. Probably my least favourite of their last five albums – I felt like there were too many hooks but they weren’t particularly strong hooks, and I felt almost all of the madness and the seediness was gone, as well as the grand swell of emotion. I mean, it’s still a strong album. I just love the band so want them to shake the world.

Fleet Foxes/Father John Misty – in the end, wasn’t really sold on either album, but I think Josh Tillman’s voice really sets my nerves on ends, whereas Robin Pecknold’s, and the accompanying harmonies, remains a thing of beauty, so I’ll take the Foxes, even when trying a bit too hard and being a bit confusing, every time.

But talking of rock music, how long since there was a great British rock album? I mean, look, I know I’m getting old, but I’m not really missing out on something, am I? I was perusing my lists of favourite albums over the last few years, and apart from Blur and Teenage Fanclub, which hardly counts, I have to go back to the last Arctic Monkeys album for anything vaguely youthful, and they hardly count either.

Is there still room for a band to come out like Doves, not for kids but not too middle-aged, fully formed on arrival, capable of going big but not earth-shaking? Just a really good British rock band. I mean, Elbow are in the same bracket … I confess I quite liked the Elbow album, I always do, though it only ever gets a couple of weeks of listening from me, and this one was even more soporific than usual … he can always pick out some lovely lines though.

... I’m not that middle-aged, as I say, I was listening to all that hip-hop and the r’n’b for a while. Jay-Z … well, that’s middle-aged hip-hop. I enjoyed his conscious, confessional, humble good guy act on ‘4.44’ – the fact is he remains a master rapper – just the smartest guy in the room with the neatest lines, and an ever-arresting frame of reference and candour. The music was unflashy but very enjoyable too.

Of the younger guns, I quite liked Tyler the Creator and Vince Staples – the latter is another real craftsman, but he didn’t blow my mind at any point on ‘Big Fish Theory’ – it seemed a little unambitious to me – but I guess that’s his gambit – no bullshit. Fair enough.

I really enjoyed his song – Ascension - on the Gorillaz album ‘Humanz’ too. I’m a little baffled as to the lukewarm reception Humanz got. Seems like Albarn’s too much of a good thing at the moment, but I thought it was really great – have enjoyed it more as the year’s gone on – maybe a few tracks too many, but his tribute to the great boybands of the early 2000s, ‘Busted and Blue’ was a particular favourite (sorry, horrible niche joke). But, yeah, I reckon if this had been the first Gorillaz album or by a new artist (not that a new artist could have gathered the array of guest stars) it would have been acclaimed as a tour de force.

There was a good Noel Gallagher collaboration in it too, and whaddayaknow, decent music by both Gallaghers. I mean, Liam Gallagher got knocked into some pleasant shape. Good for him. And that Noel Gallagher single is a hoot. He remains quite the most flagrantly derivative writer though. Everything, like, every second of his whole album, sounds like something else. Weird to even be mentioning them really. Back to what’s coooool.

Erm … protest music. Protest music is always cool. So I’ll start with my favourite song of the year. Let’s kill the unbearable suspense. ‘Pa’lante’ by Hurray for the Riff-Raff is by far my song of the year and in fact my favourite song for many years.

It’s a pretty simple song, a New York Puerto Rican protest song with a structure a little similar to ‘A Day in the Life’ – it’s a song for the times, a song to give cynical people a sense of purpose, it’s a marriage of the personal and the political, it’s a call to the lead singer Alynda Segarra’s family and compatriots, but really it’s a call to anyone. She sings, sings like hardly anyone ever sings, with her whole body and being – like Janis Joplin or the Proclaimers (don’t laugh …) or Kurt Cobain. It’s fiery and anthemic and what I’ve been listening to over and over again all over. The album from which it comes, ‘The Navigator’ is pretty great too – maybe the magnificence of ‘Pa’lante’ unbalances it for me a tiny bit, but that’s churlish.

Another great protest album is by Mavis Staples – If All I Was Was Black, a joy of an album, which feels like the apotheosis of her extended collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy – every song is angry, humane and exuberant. Tweedy also produced another of my albums of the year, a self-titled work by American folksinger Joan Shelley. I preferred them both to the latest Wilco album.
Talking of protest, Joan Baez wrote a song called Nasty Man – it was a bit of fun. And Bob Dylan did a triple-album of Frank Sinatra covers….

All I wanted from you this year, boss, was not a triple-album of Sinatra covers. I loved the first Sinatra covers album. Put up with the second. But this one. Didn’t listen to it. Did not. Shan’t. First of your albums I haven’t listened to. I listened to the Christmas album. And the Christian albums. But not this. You can still write, dude. Clearly you can. You can still operate. The production, the sound, the arrangement of these covers albums is rather lovely. Come on, do a protest album. Be a sport, point your finger, steal from the papers, do your most protesty protest songs. I mean, I know it’s ludicrous to expect anything from a 76-year old multi-millionaire contrarian plagiarist, but, damn, if Bob Dylan did an album of protest songs for the Trump age, my heart would jump for joy.

But anyway, enough of that old dude. I’d say the young’uns have won the year by a long way.
Still young Laura Marling, six albums in, the most consistent songwriter in Britain. Each album she does I hope might be a full-blown classic, and there hasn’t really been one yet, but Semper Femina is definitely one of my favourite two or three of hers, a low level concept album full of marvellous songs. I think this one reminded me more of Joni Mitchell than anything else she’s done.

Also reminding me of Joni Mitchell but in a different way was Lorde on her album Melodrama. This is my album of the year. It is a collection of exceptional pop songs – “bangers” or “choons” as I believe they’re called – with lyrics that are astute, funny, poignant, entirely believable. It is an unrelentingly enjoyable album. Lorde is a pop artist but I’m quite sure if she released a stark acoustic album it could also be a classic. When I said there were no masterpieces this year, this was closest. I only think she could do something even better next time.

Another Antipodean album full of great tunes was I Love You Like a Brother by Alex Lahey – much more guitary and lo-fi, just a refreshing bit of powerpop, a little like Courtney Barnett but less droll.
Who else was great? Phoebe Bridgers and her superbly-titled debut Stranger in the Alps, Valerie June’s The Order of Time, Margo Price, American country star, bettering her debut by a long long way. Allison Crutchfield, Waxahatchee, Aimee Mann, Lydia Ainsworth, Tara Jane O’Neill, an awful lot of good albums by female singer-songwriters this year.

And Taylor Swift? Don’t know yet. I don’t think the world needs me to listen to the Taylor Swift album. I did listen to Ed Sheeran’s album, though. Reassuringly awful. But that Harry Styles single, which I managed to avoid for most of the year, I just listened to it, it's threateningly enjoyable, isn't it?

I thought Sampha was a good winner of the Mercury Prize – there are a few lovely songs on his album ‘Process’. Stormzy’s album I found ok, very listenable, a pretty blatant and successful pitch for mainstream success. I only recently listened to the J Hus album ‘Common Sense’, which, especially in the first half, is a real blast. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Loyle Carner’s ‘Yesterday’s Gone’ is also a tremendously warm and endearing album, but, though it’s not an album, Dave’s ‘Game Over’ EP is the real standout from UK hip-hop this year. I’m thinking there is a major star going to emerge there. His flow, his insight, his storytelling are a complete breath of fresh air.

I've only just listened to the Moses Sumney album 'Aromanticism' properly - really striking, lovely songs, a voice notably similar to David McAlmont.

Another album I’ve really liked lately, despite the dreadful name and the fact I don’t really like “ambient pop” is the self-titled work by Cigarettes after Sex, which is very melodic and surprisingly biting.

Right, I’m just rattling off the names of acts you may or may not believe exist now. Here’s the only bit anyone’s going to read...

My Favourite Albums of the Year

  1. Melodrama - Lorde
  2. The Navigator - Hurray for the Riff Raff
  3. Humanz - Gorillaz
  4. MASSEDUCTION - St Vincent
  5. If All I Was Was Black - Mavis Staples
  6. The Order of Time - Valerie June
  7. A Deeper Understanding - The War on Drugs
  8. 4.44 - Jay-Z
  9. Semper Femina - Laura Marling
  10. Joan Shelley - Joan Shelley
  11. Goths - Mountain Goats
  12. Process - Sampha
  13. Yesterday's Gone - Loyle Carner
  14. All American Made - Margo Price
  15. Aromanticism - Moses Sumney
  16. Stranger in the Alps - Phoebe Bridgers
  17. Damn. - Kendrick Lamar
  18. Cigarettes After Sex - Cigarettes after Sex
  19. Common Sense - J Hus
  20. CTRL - SZA
  21. Sleep Well Beast - The National
  22. I Love you Like a Brother - Alex Lahey
  23. Big Fish Theory - Vince Staples
  24. Crack-Up - Fleet Foxes
  25. Little Fictions - Elbow

My Favourite Songs of the Year 

  1. Pa'lante - Hurray for the Riff Raff
  2. No One Know Me Like the Piano ... - Sampha
  3. Happy Birthday Johnny - St Vincent
  4. Duckworth - Kendrick Lamar
  5. Only God Knows - Young Fathers
  6. Green Light - Lorde
  7. Nouel - Laura Marling
  8. Call the Police - LCD Soundsystem
  9. New York - St Vincent
  10. Ascension - Gorillaz ft Vince Staples
  11. Liability - Lorde
  12. Astral Plane - Valerie June
  13. Bagbak - Vince Staples
  14. The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness - The National
  15. We Were Beautiful - Belle and Sebastian
  16. Question Time - Dave
  17. Marcy Me - Jay-Z
  18. Everything Now - Arcade Fire
  19. Strangest Thing - The War on Drugs
  20. No CD - Loyle Carner
  21. Smoke Signals - Phoebe Bridgers
  22. Sign of the Times - Harry Styles
  23. Chained to the Rhythm - Katy Perry
  24. Fireworks - First Aid Kit
  25. How I Met My Ex - Dave
  26. Dum Surfer - King Krule
  27. Quarrel - Moses Sumney
  28. Heatstroke - Calvin Harris
  29. Nothing Not Really - Laura Marling
  30. Holy Mountain - Noel Gallagher
  31. Common Sense - J Hus
  32. Hot Thoughts - Spoon
  33. The Story of OJ - Jay Z
  34. Chanel - Frank Ocean
  35. Heartbreak (Wild Hunger) - Hamilton Leithauser and Angel Olsen
  36. Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds - Mountain Goats
  37. Undercover - Kehlani
  38. Man's Not Hot - Big Shaq
  39. To Know Your Mission - Jens Lekman
  40. Untouchable - Eminem
  41. Hopper - Paul Weller
  42. There's a Honey - Pale Waves
  43. Living in the City - Hurray for the Riff Raff
  44. Mildenhall - The Shins
  45. Perfect Places - Lorde
  46. Do You Still Love Me? - Ryan Adams
  47. Fool's Errand - Fleet Foxes
  48. A Million Miles - BNQT
  49. Kindling - Elbow
  50. To Hold and Have - The Dears