Friday, 6 July 2018

100 Nick Cave Songs

Here are my 100 favourite Nick Cave songs, in order. They're by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds unless otherwise stated.


  1. People Ain’t No Good
  2. Girl in Amber
  3. There She Goes, My Beautiful World
  4. The Ship Song
  5. Into My Arms
  6. The Mercy Seat
  7. Darker with the Day
  8. The Sorrowful Wife
  9. Stagger Lee
  10. The Weeping Song
  11. Skeleton Tree
  12. Jubilee Street
  13. Love Letter
  14. Straight to You
  15. Higgs Boson Blues
  16. No Pussy Blues - Grinderman
  17. Distant Sky
  18. Babe, I’m on Fire 
  19. Brompton Oratory
  20. Oh My Lord
  21. Far from Me 
  22. Push the Sky Away
  23. No More Shall We Part
  24. We Know Who U R
  25. God is in the House
  26. Nobody’s Baby Now
  27. Nature Boy
  28. Lime Tree Arbour
  29. Where do We Go Now But Nowhere
  30. Where the Wild Roses Grow (with Kylie Minogue)
  31. Are You the One That I've Been Waiting For?
  32. Still in Love with You
  33. Hallelujah
  34. Jesus Alone
  35. Henry Lee (with PJ Harvey)
  36. Bring It On (with Chris Bailey)
  37. I Need You
  38. We Call Upon the Author 
  39. West Country Girl
  40. Red Right Hand
  41. Idiot Prayer
  42. From Her to Eternity
  43. Tupelo
  44. As I Sat Sadly By Her Side
  45. There is a Kingdom  
  46. He Wants You
  47. Get Ready for Love
  48. Palaces of Montezuma - Grinderman
  49. Right Out of Your Hand
  50. Magneto
  51. Hide it All Away
  52. Papa Won't Leave You Henry?
  53. Get it On - Grinderman
  54. Death is Not the End (cover, with various)
  55. Release the Bats - The Birthday Party
  56. Gates to the Garden
  57. Breathless
  58. Black Hair
  59. Stranger Than Kindness
  60. Rings of Saturn
  61. More News From Nowhere
  62. Do You Love Me?
  63. Everything Must Converge
  64. Mermaids
  65. Sweetheart Come
  66. The Carny
  67. Anthrocene
  68. Babe You Turn Me On
  69. O Children
  70. Up Jumped the Devil
  71. Wonderful Life 
  72. Finishing Jubilee Street
  73. 15 Feet of Pure White Snow
  74. Shoot Me Down
  75. The Lyre of Orpheus
  76. Wide Lovely Eyes
  77. We Came Along this Road
  78. Heathen Child - Grinderman
  79. Lay Me Low
  80. I Let Love In
  81. Dig Lazarus Dig
  82. Water's Edge
  83. Lament
  84. Messiah Ward
  85. Easy Money
  86. O'Malley's Bar
  87. Worm Tamer - Grinderman
  88. Jennifer's Veil - The Birthday Party
  89. Jesus of the Moon
  90. King Ink - The Birthday Party
  91. Come Into My Sleep
  92. City of Refuge
  93. Today's Lesson
  94. Song of Joy
  95. Nick the Stripper - The Birthday Party
  96. The Hammer Song
  97. The Singer
  98. Sad Waters
  99. Junkyard - The Birthday Party
  100. Green Eyes


Monday, 2 July 2018

UNDIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY


Quite fun to write little things like this. This is, obviously, about that awful guy. I can't write his name. The Foreign Secretary.

UNDIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY

This will all end happily,
As everything has done for me
From birth to school to public life
This world’s the butter -  I’m the knife.

This will all go swimmingly
Like everything involved with me
The dirt flows off, to god knows where,
I’ve never been inclined to care.

Indulgence brought impunity –
Each crime an opportunity
To line my stomach, free from shame,
Play dumb, accept no crumb of blame.

The hubris of a flattered child
Will not allow that I’m reviled –
My self-regard survives, unharmed,
I feel charming, I am charmed.

For I have set the people free
From red tape and bureaucracy
And still, the ingrates chirp and chide –
Their dull despair my point of pride.

In time, those left in the lurch will
Grasp that I’m their circus Churchill -
All my shames and falls and slips
By rote-learnt rhetoric eclipsed.

I’ve dodged or charged from post to post
Pursued, not caught, by bitter ghosts,
Of love and war and money lost,
Mine to spend is theirs to cost.

There is an alternative draft –
I made a joke and no one laughed
I owned up when the fault was mine
I had the honour to resign.

My face was gaunt and stained with shame,
I realised this was not my game
but people’s lives and nation’s fate
I realised it a day too late.

I took that draft, made sure it burned,
At once, my ripened hue returned.
For I have set the people free
From ever being rid of me.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

200 Bob Dylan Songs

There's a commonly expressed theory that pop artists, even the most renowned of them, really only have a maximum of ten truly great songs in them.

Anyway, here are my 200 favourite Bob Dylan songs, from 1 to 200.

  1. Idiot Wind
  2. To Ramona
  3. Isis (live unreleased version)
  4. Blind Willie McTell
  5. Like a Rolling Stone
  6. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
  7. Mississippi
  8. Simple Twist Of Fate
  9. Visions Of Johanna
  10. She's Your Lover Now
  11. Hurricane
  12. Every Grain Of Sand
  13. One Too Many Mornings
  14. Workingman Blues #2
  15. Lay Down Your Weary Tune
  16. Boots Of Spanish Leather
  17. Most Of The Time
  18. Love Minus Zero/No Limit
  19. I Threw It All Away
  20. Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
  21. Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts
  22. Mr Tambourine Man
  23. Not Dark Yet
  24. Shelter From The Storm
  25. Blowin' in the Wind
  26. I Shall Be Released
  27. Tangled Up In Blue
  28. When The Ship Comes In
  29. Masters of War
  30. I Feel a Change Comin' On
  31. Positively 4th Street
  32. When The Deal Goes Down
  33. You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go
  34. Subterranean Homesick Blues
  35. One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)
  36. As I Went Out One Morning
  37. Series of Dreams
  38. A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
  39. Chimes Of Freedom
  40. Spanish Harlem Incident
  41. Girl from the North Country
  42. Brownsville Girl
  43. With God On Our Side
  44. Ballad of a Thin Man
  45. Talkin' World War III Blues
  46. The Man In Me
  47. I Want You
  48. Up to Me
  49. Just Like a Woman
  50. Long and Wasted Years
  51. It's Alright, Ma, I'm Only Bleeding
  52. Dear Landlord
  53. What Good Am I?
  54. Standing In The Doorway
  55. Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
  56. New Morning
  57. Gates of Eden
  58. I Shall Be Free
  59. Restless Farewell
  60. Shooting Star
  61. All I Really Want to Do
  62. Changing Of The Guards
  63. If You See Her, Say Hello
  64. My Back Pages
  65. Baby Stop Crying
  66. Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again
  67. Baby Let Me Follow You Down
  68. You're a Big Girl Now
  69. Must Be Santa
  70. Highway 61 Revisited
  71. Only a Pawn in their Game
  72. It Ain't Me Babe
  73. Nettie Moore
  74. I Shall Be Free No 10
  75. Bob Dylan's 115th Dream
  76. Ring Them Bells
  77. Angelina
  78. Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues
  79. Gotta Serve Somebody
  80. Trying to Get to Heaven
  81. Dark Eyes
  82. Moonshiner
  83. Quinn the Eskimo
  84. Bob Dylan's Dream
  85. Tombstone Blues
  86. Romance in Durango
  87. Soon after Midnight
  88. Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands
  89. Death is Not the End
  90. Ballad of Hollis Brown
  91. Red River Shore
  92. Percy's Song
  93. Queen Jane Approximately
  94. I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)
  95. Life is Hard
  96. Why Try to Change Me Now
  97. It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry
  98. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
  99. Spirit on the Water
  100. Song to Woody
  101. Make You Feel My Love
  102. Paths of Victory
  103. Where Teardrops Fall
  104. One More Cup of Coffee
  105. The Times they are a Changin'
  106. Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance
  107. Tears of Rage
  108. I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine
  109. Pay in Blood
  110. Knockin' on Heaven's Door
  111. John Wesley Harding
  112. Desolation Row
  113. Mama You Been On My Mind
  114. Oxford Town
  115. North Country Blues
  116. Love is Just a Four Letter Word
  117. If Not for You
  118. Love Sick
  119. All Along the Watchtower
  120. Jokerman
  121. Buckets of Rain
  122. Corrina Corrina
  123. Forever Young
  124. Disease of Conceit
  125. Motorpsycho Nightmare
  126. Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)
  127. Sugar Baby
  128. Sara
  129. Moonlight
  130. Dignity
  131. Roll on John
  132. Fourth Time Around
  133. Down the Highway
  134. Most Like You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine
  135. Mozambique
  136. Duquesne Whistle
  137. She Belongs to Me
  138. Things Have Changed
  139. Precious Angel
  140. Early Roman Kings
  141. I Pity the Poor Immigrant
  142. Ain't Talkin'
  143. Meet Me in the Morning
  144. I'll Be Your Baby Tonight
  145. Lay Lady Lay
  146. Solid Rock
  147. Drifter's Escape
  148. Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window
  149. Can't Wait
  150. Goin' to Acapulco
  151. Po' Boy
  152. Tell Me That It Isn't True
  153. Bye and Bye
  154. Temporarily like Achilles
  155. Shenandoah
  156. Who Killed Davey Moore
  157. Maggie's Farm
  158. Abandoned Love
  159. He Was a Friend of Mine
  160. Tomorrow is a Long Time
  161. Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat
  162. Caribbean Wind
  163. You Ain't Going Nowhere
  164. If you Gotta Go, Go Now
  165. Rank Strangers to Me
  166. Let Me Die in My Footsteps
  167. Stay With Me
  168. This Wheel's on Fire
  169. I'm Not There
  170. Beyond Here Lies Nothin'
  171. Black Diamond Bay
  172. Man of Constant Sorrow
  173. That Lucky Old Sun
  174. High Water (for Charley Patton)
  175. Slow Train Coming
  176. I'll Keep it With Mine
  177. Cold Irons Bound
  178. Forgetful Heart
  179. House of the Rising Sun
  180. Honest with Me
  181. Cry a While
  182. On a Night Like This
  183. Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With you
  184. Walls of Red Wings
  185. Thunder on the Mountain
  186. Rainy Day Women #12 and #35
  187. Joey
  188. I and I
  189. Day of the Locusts
  190. No Time To Think
  191. Scarlet Town
  192. Tweeter and the Monkey Man
  193. When I Paint My Masterpiece
  194. Watching the River Flow
  195. Born in Time
  196. Mixed Up Confusion
  197. Crash on the Levee
  198. Under the Red Sky
  199. Silvio
  200. Hark the Herald Angels Sing




A Bob Dylan Album

Much though I respect the man’s stubborn muse, I have ended up imagining in pretty considerable detail the album I wish Bob Dylan would make, wherein, compelled by the tragedy of Trump’s America, Bob returns to his protest routes, while combining elements of his austere early-60s roots with echoes of the mid-70s “Rolling Thunder” tours.

The album will be co-produced by Dylan and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, with backing vocals/duets by and with Mavis Staples and Emmylou Harris:

It is called:

Same Times

Track Listing:
Side 1:
Poison in the Water
The Deal Won’t Go Down
George Zimmerman Blues
Imperceptibly Like a Swamp
For Every Wall a Thousand Tunnels
The Cruel Landlord
The Ballad of Colin Kaepernick

Side 2:
Draining the Delta
Golf Club Incident
Ain’t Gonna Wear (a Long Black Trenchcoat)
If I Pardon Jack Johnson
The Plague that Never Fades
Talkin’ Red Cap Blues Part 3
Bob Dylan’s Last American Dream

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
And
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
 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

Echo

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

ECHO PASSING


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.