Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Our Friends in the North

My main aim for the next month is to avoid posting angry, embarrassing, ill-informed diatribes on facebook about politics. I'll almost certainly fail.

Something, somewhere infected me with the idea that, despite being a son of West London privilege (well, sort of) and having the least down-to-earth job it's possible to have, I'm truly, straightforwardly old Labour. Of the people, for the people. Slightly ludicrous, when you think about it, but that has become where I think I come from.

My parents weren't old Labour, no way - one is loosely liberal and floats slightly mysteriously votewise, but rarely Labour, I think; the other was somewhat horrendously right wing, bless him. But, me, I'm old school left-wing, not some clueless, toffee-nosed idealistic, do-gooding liberal, no, I'm of the soil, of the unions ... where on earth did I get this idea?

I worry that one well-made TV show had a far larger role in this lasting entrenchment than it ought, so perfectly did 'Our Friends in the North' catch this impressionable young fellow as he slipped awkwardly out of a teenage spiritual, gospel-based morality, into a young adulthood which still felt it needed some kind of meaning.

In some ways, I've always been left-wing. By which I mean I'm not a cunt .... no, stop, only joking ... I mean, I can't remember a time where I didn't think kindness and fairness and stuff were good things, but to me growing up it wasn't a political thing. I don't know who I'd have voted for when I was 15. Well, at mock school elections, I voted Communist when i was 12 (in fact, I was the Communist candidate, but I think i was joking) and ... not sure ... when I was 14, probably something silly - the winning parties at my school were Invade Europe Now and The National Front. I thought that was irony at the time, but now I'm not so sure.

But I got political quickly. I began to read the NME and they were all really left-wing by default and always slagging off Tories, and I watched, in early 1996, 'Our Friends in the North'. In case you don't know, it was a nine-part drama about four friends from Newcastle era where each episode was set in a different year, making reference very often to actual events. The years were ... ok, let's see if I get this ... 1964, 1966, 1967, 1970, 1974, 1979, 1984, 1987, 1996 (the present day). The four friends were played by Christopher Eccleston (probably the most high profile at the time, but still a new face), Gina McKee, Mark Strong and Daniel Craig, required to don various wigs and prosthetics (perhaps the show's only weakness!) to stay in character for over 30 years.

Supporting roles were played by various other excellent British actors, Peter Vaughan as Eccleston's father particularly memorably. I don't remember a performance that wasn't gripping though.

It was immediately hailed as a classic, and continues to be so, as one of the finest British dramas of all time. Many of the great shows (mainly American) since have gained strength over many series, but the nature and format of 'Only Friends in the North' meant it could only ever be a one-off series. There were nine episodes to get it right and that was it.

What did it do for me? I can't overstate it. It educated me. It was obviously a left-wing work, but not blindly so, it was brutal on the corruption within the Labour Party and the crushing of ideals, but it told me the truth about this country in a way I had really not been aware till then. Corruption, basically. Corruption everywhere. In politics, in business, in the police, in personal lives, of rising and falling hopes and ambitions.

The four main characters are, in some ways, archetypes - Nicky (Eccleston), the disillusioned left-wing idealist, Mary (Gina McKee) the clear-headed centrist New Labourite, Tosker (Mark Strong), the Thatcherite, Geordie (Craig) the apolitical one, the victim of circumstance. It's funny that apparently Eccleston and Strong did not get on at all - there characters are the most diametrically opposed throughout the film. Nicky is, if anyone is, the "hero", though some found him insufferably self-righteous and flawed.

At some points, it feels like a tragedy, a catalogue of missed moments, bad luck and despair. Good guys get their comeuppance over and over again, bad guys rarely do. The stuff to do with the Met Police in the 60s and 70s is some of the most depressing and brilliant television I've ever seen. It told me that this country is built on lie upon lie, secret circle within secret circle,  no good man on a mission will ever defeat it. Gosh, the more and more true that all seems now.

There are failed families, impossible parental relationships, sins repeated, hard lessons learnt. There are principled right-wingers and horribly corrupt left-wingers, but there is never any doubt, none at all, that the left is the truth, the cause. It's a given.

I'd have been left-wing anyway, of course I would, I probably overstate OFITN in my head, but that's how politics is for me too. Being right-wing seems ludicrous and unhuman to me, contrary to the very essence. It sounds daft in some ways, but I've never really looked beyond that.

I've watched Our Friends in the North three times all the way through and not really tired of it. It's still saddening and enraging - it ends with a bit of personal hope and a great deal of acceptance and resignation. It predates the Blair years ... gosh, if there were three more episodes, what years would they choose? ... Blair, the MP for Sedgefield, is a character ideal for Our Friends in the North - I think they might go for 2003 (Iraq war and protests being a significant backdrop), 2007 (Blair's departure) and 2010 (the end of Labour in power). Though 2015 seems rather a good one for it too, whichever way the next month goes ...

Saturday, 14 March 2015

My Favourites

This will be a very silly list which couldn't be as far from any idea of making considered judgements. These are my favourite people in music, and I've ranked them just to make it even sillier. I don't know any of these people, not even the tiniest bit, I don't know if they're nice or nasty, but I think,  if we consider ourselves serious music fans, sometimes we underplay the extent to which we sympathize with the people making the music. We think they seem nice or funny, they represent something, they have a story to tell. Bear in mind that, usually, to me nice means dryly humorous and self-aware, rather than "nice".

I like the music by most of these folk, though not all of them, I doubt they're all delightful. Dylan and Bowie have probably, for example, been sly, ruthless devils down the years, but, not only do I love their music, I love the way they present themselves, the searing intelligence, the way they've had people interested in what they're doing for 40/50 years without seeming to seek it, the ideas, all of it.

There are all kinds of things in play in this - it might just be an interview I once read where I thought "Oh, he seems decent" or it might be a recognition of their greater place in the world. Sometimes there is something genuinely heroic about people. It's such a daft list, but also, I hope, quite fun.

You'll note I don't like my rock'n'roll stars too rock'n'roll. Liam Gallagher, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, Pete Doherty, Axl Rose, heroes to some but they never meant shit to me. Nor Elvis... I did once read an interview with the Wu-Tang Clan where the ODB seemed the most grounded and witty, but, well, i think i got that one wrong.

 I'm not passing judgement on people's characters. I expect Bono really is a lovely chap - the reality of what people are like is somehow not key to this. It's just an honest look at the people who I've warmed to.

1.       Gruff Rhys
2.       Joe Strummer
3.       Debbie Harry
4.       Paul Robeson
5.       Emmylou Harris
6.       James Dean Bradfield
7.       Martha Reeves
8.       Bob Dylan
9.       Bill Withers
10.    Joan Baez
11.    Roots Manuva
12.    David Bowie
13.    Robbie Robertson
14.    Chuck D
15.    Mark Morriss
16.    Tom Waits
17.    Beyonce
18.    Bruce Springsteen
19.    Bill Drummond
20.    Jeff Tweedy
21.    Billy Bragg
22.    Jenny Lewis
23.    Paul McCartney
24.    Liam Clancy
25.    Johnny Cash
26.    Nick Drake
27.    Tim Wheeler
28.    Odetta
29.    Otis Redding
30.    Labi Siffre
31.    Warren Ellis
32.    Jason Orange
33.    Mavis Staples
34.    Dolly Parton
35.    Joni Mitchell
36.    Smokey Robinson
37.    George Michael
38.    Dusty Springfield
39.    Hamilton Leithauser
40.    Nick Cave
41.    Johnny Marr
42.    Paul Westerberg
43.    Janelle Monae
44.    Karen Carpenter
45.    Stevie Wonder
46.    Roni Spector
47.    Kevin Rowland
48.    Ghostface Killah
49.    Jimmy Cliff
50.    Stuart Murdoch
51.    Steve Winwood
52.    Badly Drawn Boy
53.    Leonard Cohen
54.    Damon Albarn
55.    Linda Thompson 
56.    Glenn Campbell
57.    Bernard Butler
58.    Nick Mason
59.    Jazzy Jeff
60.    Martha Wainwright
61.    Mos Def
62.    Darius Danesh
63.    Dionne Warwick
64.    Suggs
65.    David McAlmont
66.    Robyn
67.    Gil Scott-Heron
68.    Emeli Sande
69.    Pete Seeger
70.    Roy Orbison
71.    Bob Marley
72.    St Vincent
73.    Chrissie Hynde
74.    Lamont Dozier
75.    Pink
76.    Missy Elliott
77.    Neko Case
78.    Ella Fitzgerald
79.    Roddy Frame
80.    Tegan and Sara
81.    Carole King
82.    Steve Van  Zandt
83.    Edwyn Collins
84.    John Paul Jones
85.    Kate Bush
86.    MIA
87.    Alex Turner
88.    Nile Rodgers
89.    Art Garfunkel
90.    Laura Marling
91.    Solomon Burke
92.    Glenn Tilbrook
93.    King Creosote
94.    Loudon Wainwright III
95.    Vince Clarke
96.    Ian Stewart
97.    Carleen Anderson
98.    Sam Beam
99.    Eddy Grant
100.Josh Homme