Chris Guiton discusses Jaroslav Hašek’s comic masterpiece, The Good Soldier Švejk and his Fortunes in the World War, as tensions rise again in the Middle East
Albert Camus once remarked, “It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.” The latest round of violence in the Middle East should give us all pause for thought. As Lindsey German of the Stop the War Coalition said earlier this week, “The US has to accept that it can’t go around illegally killing generals.”
The situation has de-escalated in recent days. Iran’s response to last week’s assassination of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani was calibrated to satisfy honour while avoiding action that would automatically trigger another round of violence. But war remains a possibility in a situation that remains extremely volatile.
In situations like this, ordinary people often feel powerless. Sure, there are things you can do. Going to anti-war demonstrations, signing online petitions and writing to your MP amongst them.
But we are living in a world dominated by narcissistic sociopaths, who are deaf to reason. Who subscribe to the view that, as Bertolt Brecht put it, “What they could do with 'round here is a good war. What else can you expect with peace running wild all over the place? You know what the trouble with peace is? No organisation.”
Wars are easy to start but hard to stop. And sometimes you need to take solace elsewhere. I find dusting off a copy of Jaroslav Hašek’s comic masterpiece, “The Good Soldier Švejk and his Fortunes in the World War”, offers some relief.
Published in 1923, it’s an achingly funny anti-war novel which satirises the absurdity of war, stifling military bureaucracy and the pretensions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The story begins in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914, the trigger for World War One. The episodic plot continues through a series of stories revolving around Švejk’s encounters with a stream of policemen, judges, doctors and army officers as he’s sent to an insane asylum, drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army and experiences a series of adventures on the Eastern Front.
The weaknesses of officialdom are repeatedly unveiled through Švejk’s enthusiasm for obeying orders, no matter how ridiculous. An apparently hapless figure, his feigned incompetence is subversive. Švejk is a survivor and his seemingly endless good humour provides an unbreakable defence against a hostile bureaucracy.
Hašek's ironic comment about Švejk sums up the significance of his character:
Great times call for great men. There are unknown heroes who are modest, with none of the historical glamour of a Napoleon. If you analysed their character you would find that it eclipsed even the glory of Alexander the Great. Today you can meet in the streets of Prague a shabbily dressed man who is not even himself aware of his significance in the history of the great new era. He goes modestly on his way, without bothering anyone. Nor is he bothered by journalists asking for an interview. If you asked him his name he would answer you simply and unassumingly: 'I am Švejk….'
The subversive power of the novel remains instructive. We live in an increasingly post-truth world where populist politicians practice deceit on an industrial scale, aided by a mainstream media unwilling or incapable of challenging them. In such a world, Švejk’s refusal to be duped or silenced is as relevant as ever.
There’s even a dedicated group of enthusiasts, called Švejkologists, who continue to study this black satire. In these disturbing times, it’s important to find ways of challenging official narratives. As Edwin Starr put it in “War”:
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing listen to me
It ain't nothing but a heart breaker
(War) it's got one friend that's the undertaker.
See the Wealden Wordsmith for more pieces on the political power of literature, music and art.
Chris Guiton discusses Nina Simone's Mississippi Goddam
Every now and then a song comes along that defines an epoch. “Mississippi Goddam” by jazz and blues singer-songwriter Nina Simone was one such song. The song was Simone’s impassioned response to the racist murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963. And the subsequent bombing by a Ku Klux Klan member of a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four young African-American girls who had just finished Bible class.
She wrote the song in an hour, saying later, “First you get depressed, and after that, you get mad. And when these kids got bombed, I just sat and wrote this song.”
Simone first performed “Mississippi Goddam” at a Greenwich Village nightclub. But it got its major outing shortly afterwards at Carnegie Hall, New York, in March 1964. Performed to a largely white audience, this was a turbulent year in the Civil Rights struggle and the political context can’t have been lost on them.
An authentic voice
Simone introduced the song by saying, “The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddam. And I mean every word of it.” The place-names of racial injustice are skilfully woven into the lyrics:
Alabama's gotten me so upset Tennessee made me lose my rest And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.
Simone referred scornfully to the gratuitous insults that characterised racist language: “You're just plain rotten… You're too damn lazy”. But she reserved her real anger for the caution of public leaders:
You keep on saying "Go slow!" "Go slow!" But that's just the trouble "do it slow" Desegregation "do it slow" Mass participation "do it slow" Reunification "do it slow" Do things gradually "do it slow"
Her lyrics reflected a movement whose patience was running out:
I can't stand the pressure much longer Somebody say a prayer.
The song finishes on a sombre note, which reflected the deep divisions that scarred American society:
You don't have to live next to me Just give me my equality Everybody knows about Mississippi Everybody knows about Alabama Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.
The Carnegie Hall recording was subsequently released as a single. The reaction was swift. Radio stations in the South refused to play the song. Boxes of promotional singles were returned with each single broken in half. And several Southern states banned it, ostensibly because of the word "goddam”. Simone also found herself blacklisted by music venues.
But “Mississippi Goddam” struck an immediate chord with people in the Civil Rights struggle. It was a bold political statement, driven by an urgency uncommon in a jazz song. The song’s upbeat melody made an ironic contrast with the words. This was deliberate. As she sang, “This is a show tune, but the show hasn't been written for it, yet”.
Simone had embarked on a career in music at a young age. She hoped to become a classical pianist and attended the prestigious Julliard Academy at the age of 18. She applied for a scholarship to the equally prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. But was unsuccessful. As she said later, “I knew I was good enough, but they turned me down. And it took me about six months to realize it was because I was black. I never really got over that jolt of racism at the time.”
The power of song
The Establishment often sneers at ‘protest’ singers. You might argue this is a mark of their success. Artists as diverse as Billie Holiday, Pete Seeger and Bob Marley have used music to make pointed condemnations of racism, war and social injustice. And you know they’re on to something when the mainstream media do their best to ignore or deride an artist’s work.
Protest songs can be didactic, poorly written or simply dull. But the great ones stand out as subversive, powerful agents of change. As music critic Dorian Lynskey put is, “The political content is not an obstacle to greatness, but the source of it. They open a door and the world outside rushes in.” The song’s message, slipped in under the radar of commercial imperatives, is “the grit that makes the pearl”.
Some claim that protest songs have lost their power to connect with people as changing social habits – particularly the growth of social media – have eroded music’s political significance. Even veteran folk singer Billy Bragg, who himself wrote effective Thatcher-era protest songs, said, “Only the audience can change the world – not performers.”
But music has been an intrinsic part of the struggle for political and social change since the dawn of modern history. Protest songs might not themselves move the world on its axis. But they have the power to say something important about the times in which we live, generate a shift in people’s opinions and galvanise an audience in a way that cinema or painting can’t.
As fellow jazz singer Dianne Reeves said, “When I first heard Nina Simone, her naked truth shocked me. Whenever she sang, it felt like lightning bolts in my soul”.
“Mississippi Goddam” marked a turning point in Nina Simone’s career. She had made a conscious decision to use her music to tackle racism and participated actively in the civil rights movement. Speaking about this, she said, “I had spent many years pursuing excellence, because that is what classical music is all about... Now it was dedicated to freedom, and that was far more important.”
Her professional career undoubtedly suffered as a result. But the timeless power of the message in “Mississippi Goddam” – along with other civil rights classics such as “Backlash Blues” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” – still resonates with us today.
Nina Simone’s music continues to inspire listeners today. I’ll leave the final words to Simone, “You can't help it. An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times.”
See the Wealden Wordsmith for more pieces on the political power of literature, music and art.
Chris Guiton talks to Joe Solo about politics, music and his new single
The inimitable Joe Solo has a great new single out.
‘Let’s Kick Out The Tories (For Once & For All)’ is a re-recording of the song he wrote for the 2017 election. The song is an impassioned call to action. It reflects his burning anger at a government which puts ideology before the welfare of the nation. And at a party whose unforgivable greed, rank dishonesty and shameless hypocrisy has wreaked havoc on ordinary people across the country.
Joe nails it in a single verse:
“Austerity’s over!” The lies are well-drilled
Tell that to the people those policies killed
Out here in the real world, it’s not just a game
So rise up for our neighbours who died in its name.
We all understand the importance of this election. It’s a life-changing opportunity to build a fairer Britain that cares for the many, not just the privileged few, restore our public services and take serious action on the climate and ecological emergency. Let’s make history by returning a radical Labour Government and getting Jeremy Corbyn into No 10.
As Joe says:
Let’s kick out the Tories for once and for all
Come brothers and sisters and answer the call
Put your cross in that box, play your part in their fall
And let’s kick out the Tories for once and for all.
Joe has established himself as one of Britain’s best political singer songwriters, combining music with political activism. His songs champion solidarity, collective action and radical change. His energetic performances are legendary. So I took the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his current take on music and politics
How's your current tour/campaign been going?
I have been flat out all year and I was just getting ready for a rest when along comes a General Election! Not much chance of a sit down now.
‘We Shall Overcome’, the artist-led fight against austerity we started in 2015, has gone beyond its 1000th gig this year with an estimated £500,000 worth of food, cash, clothing and toiletries raised for those at the sharp end of Tory cuts. We extended it this year from an annual weekend to a full-on 365 campaign encouraging people to start events whenever and wherever need arose. It has been massively successful. But it means keeping on top of it all the time and the team at WSO Central has been incredible, making sure we get the word out as far as we can for every gig that pops up. Not easy, but sadly very necessary.
On top of that I've been up and down the land trying to fire people up and keep them fighting because this election was coming from a long way off and I hate to see pessimism and cynicism setting in when so much is at stake.
Why do think this is such an important election?
Like it or not this is make or break for socialism within the Labour Party. If we lose on 12th December there will be a change of leadership and the Labour Movement will lose its voice in parliament for another generation. If we win we have the chance to end 40 years of neoliberalism for good, and to totally transform this island, making it a better place for every man, woman and child. We have suffered too long. Enough is enough. There could not be more at stake.
How can we use music to get people interested in politics and get them out to vote Labour on 12th December?
Music makes you brave. I have witnessed this first-hand, every night I have taken to a stage in 32 years of playing live. When people raise their voices, and especially when they raise their voices TOGETHER, they witness, and play a part in something primal that is still there in the forgotten corners of our DNA. They see their own strength and feel their collective power. That is MASSIVE. I want people to leave my gigs undefeated, completely undaunted about walking back out into the world because they realise their own power to change it.
We need songs to raise our spirits and remind us of ourselves. It's like one of Newton's Laws. That energy cannot be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another. A good gig converts the potential energy in all of us into kinetic energy, and it is that kinetic energy which gets your heart beating and your blood flowing. It is THAT which will get people out of the door on December 12th.
How does the recent commemoration of the Peterloo Massacre demonstrate the importance of continuing to fight for our democratic rights?
The road to universal suffrage was a long one. The Peterloo bicentenary was a timely reminder that people died so that we could put a cross in a box and decide who represents us. As far as I'm concerned, if you use that hard-won right to place a vote in any box other than Labour, you are choosing to vote for the very forces which attacked and brutally murdered those in St Peter's Field in 1819. Why would you vote for your oppressors? It is beyond me.
We are at a crossroads, and 12 December will decide whether we can take this country forward out of the politics of despair and into a new era of hope and compassion. Or whether I have another five years of wearing out the UK motorway system trying to keep people alive.
Please get out and vote!!
Listen to Let’s Kick Out The Tories (For Once & For All) here. Sing it, shout it, share it!
Chris Guiton discusses The Story of Ferdinand, an anti-war allegory and a classic of radical children's literature
We were all children once. And we remember the stories we heard or read as we grew up. They helped shape how we view the world. They introduced us to different places, different cultures and different people. They opened our eyes to the richness and diversity of life around us.
Children’s books stimulate our imagination and provide a vital space to explore fear, hope and friendship. They help us deal with the inevitable challenges that life throws at us and prepare us for the adult world. As the great children’s writer Maurice Sendak said:
From their earliest years, children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.
Children’s fiction can also develop in other, more radical, directions. For many years, authors of children’s literature have sought to write stories that relate to children’s needs, desires and emotional capabilities. But which also seek to develop a sense of morality and social responsibility, and which offer a subversive perspective on the world.
I vividly remember my first encounter with The Story of Ferdinand. Written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson, it’s a wonderful picture book about a bull named Ferdinand who lives in the Spanish countryside. ‘Timeless classic’ is an over-used phrase, but this is an absolute treat. Published in 1936, it’s been translated into over 60 different languages and is still widely read today.
The story revolves around Ferdinand, a young bull. The other bulls like to fight each other all the time. But Ferdinand prefers to sit quietly under his favourite cork tree and smell the flowers. Ferdinand’s mother worries that he might be lonely but can see that he’s happy and leaves him be.
Everything’s fine until men arrive to select the biggest bull to fight in the bullfights in Madrid. Ferdinand makes the mistake of sitting on a bumblebee, which promptly stings him. His reaction is so fierce that the men choose him without a second thought.
The day of the bullfight dawns, with flags flying and bands playing. The Banderilleros, Picadores and Matador troop into the bullring. Closely followed by Ferdinand, who sits down and refuses to fight. He prefers to smell the flowers in the ladies’ hair. So they took him home. Where he carries on sitting under his favourite tree. The book finishes on a lovely note:
And for all I know, he is sitting there still, under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly. He is very happy.
The search for meaning
The story raises really interesting questions about identity, violence and power. But it does this without being preachy or self-righteous. It undermines authority by questioning the notion that you should always obey others who appear to be more powerful. Taken to Madrid against his will, he shows the value of having the courage of your convictions by refusing to take part in the bullfight, despite the increasingly angry provocations of the bullfighters.
It’s about finding yourself and being comfortable in your skin as you challenge conformity, celebrate difference and identify your strengths. Ferdinand was quiet and gentle and didn’t want to fight. He didn’t conform to traditional masculine norms. In doing so, he demonstrates the importance of querying stereotypes about gender behaviour in a patriarchal society. And the story also calls into question the wider role that social norms play in regulating our behaviour generally, to our potential detriment.
The book offers a pacifist response to violence. While violence can, of course, be justified in self-defence, some people argue that it is never right. Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian anti-colonialist who used non-violent resistance to lead the successful campaign for India's independence, called it his favourite book. In a society which often depicts a competitive, violent lifestyle as normal, this is a healthy message.
It also raises questions about animal rights. Most of us would agree that bull-fighting is a cruel, barbaric blood sport, which has no place in a civilised society. If taking Ferdinand from his home for our entertainment was wrong, it also suggests that we need to consider whether it’s right to exploit animals in other ways.
Unsurprisingly, the story was labelled as subversive and considered liable to corrupt young people because of its rejection of violence. Adolf Hitler called it ‘degenerate democratic propaganda’. The Spanish Civil War had erupted shortly before publication. And in the face of growing political tensions in Europe, the book was banned in both Franco’s Spain and Nazi Germany.
Children’s books have tremendous power to foster empathy, develop self-reflection and introduce children to new realms. The Story of Ferdinand is a playful, funny tale, beautifully illustrated, that has inspired and entertained children ever since it was first published. It can also be read as an anti-war allegory. We should all stop and smell the flowers!
See the Wealden Wordsmith for more pieces on the political power of literature, music and art.
Calum Baird’s new single Modern Man is a potent take on male identity.
The Edinburgh-based singer-songwriter and political activist writes about socialist and progressive themes in a deceptively simple folk music style. He describes Modern Man as a “critique of masculinity as a social construct and how the values and systems around it develop.”
The song focuses on the challenges faced by men forced to live up to society’s expectations about how they should behave:
Who can tell if I’m a man of brawn or a man of brain/Just as soon as I think I’ve sussed it out the parameters have changed again…I’ll never be the superhero that inspired me/I’ll never be the action man that society expects me to be.
Bucking gender stereotypes in a patriarchal society can be difficult. The capitalist media bombards us with messages designed to promote a toxic view of masculinity, perpetuate gender inequality and underpin the economic status quo. Men need to be empowered to question what it means to be a man today, to consider how gender roles affect all our lives, and to promote gender equality and the exercise of human rights for all.
Calum Baird ably links his personal experience to these issues:
I’m a modern man trying to navigate the world as best as I can/When it comes to ancient stereotypes I don’t give a damn.
He’s a fine singer and guitarist. And this is a great single. All power to him!
Modern Man is released on 20 September and will be available on all online stores for streaming and downloading. You can find out more about Calum here.
Chris Guiton discusses the Attica prison riot of September 1971, and Archie Shepp's creative response to it
In September 1971, the bloodiest prison riot that the United States has ever experienced took place at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York. Archie Shepp, one of the great American jazz saxophonists, was outraged by its brutal suppression. He quickly went on to record Attica Blues, one of his finest albums, in January 1972. He viewed the riot as a courageous rebellion against the shocking failings of the prison system. And dedicated the album to Black Panther member George Jackson and those killed in the riot.
The riot’s origins lay in the barbarous, dehumanising conditions imposed on the inmates, compounded by the overtly racist behaviour of the prison officers. Its spark was the fatal shooting a few weeks before of George Jackson, regarded by many as a political prisoner, at San Quentin State Prison.
Attica prisoners raise fists in support of demands made during prison uprising, Sept. 10, 1971.
Attica's inmates took control of the prison, taking 42 members of staff as hostages. They demanded to be treated with dignity and justice. The prisoners maintained calm and ensured the safety of the hostages. But negotiations broke down, and Governor Nelson Rockefeller (with the full support of President Nixon) told the state police to storm the prison and take back control. What resulted was a massacre; 29 prisoners and 10 hostages were killed in a hail of police and National Guard bullets.
Attica’s prisoners paid a high price for their rebellion. They faced beatings, torture and the denial of medical care. This was all accompanied by a media blackout designed to suppress the truth. In a later interview, Shepp commented on the significance of the uprising, which had become a symbol of the racial and political tensions which existed at that point,
It was a political time…the civil rights movement was happening, and of course the Attica Prison riot heralded the changing times. There was a lot of shit happening in that place, in that jail with the guards and everything…It affected a lot of people….It happened at a time when people were really beginning to pay attention to repressive regimes in the prisons, but also poverty and the lack of social opportunity. So, when it happened, a lot of people were enraged.
Shepp’s lengthy career has seen him span avant-garde jazz, R&B and the blues. He became a key figure in New York City’s thriving free-jazz scene in the 1960s, playing alongside Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane. He continued to push the boundaries, incorporating an increasingly Afro-centric approach as well as spoken word in his recordings. He also harked back to older jazz and blues traditions. In his later years, his style has become more reflective and he’s now something of an elder statesman of jazz. But he’s never lost the ability to produce powerful music that provides a sonic journey through the Afro-American experience.
He’s always been a politically engaged artist. And he has spent his life fighting for civil rights. Challenging the racism that disfigures American society. Asserting the original, and hugely creative role, that jazz plays in American culture. And damning its appropriation and commodification by the mainstream. As he once said,
In my heart I’m an African. They stole my land, but they’ll never steal my culture or my identity.
Attica Blues is a superb example of how he seamlessly weaves together his wide-ranging musical sensibility with a radical political message. In the process, he created something utterly unique. Intriguingly, Shepp defied expectations by refusing to create a simplistic musical polemic. The album offers the deep soul of his finest albums. But is also characterised by shifts of tone, poetry readings and an emotional power that underpins the content of every track. It highlights jazz's ability to act as a vehicle for social commentary whilst also creating great music.
You know you’re in for a treat with the title track, “Attica Blues”. Opening with the line, “I’ve got a feeling that something ain’t going right”, it balances righteous anger with a storming funk-based call for black liberation. Jo Armstead, once part of The Ikettes, delivers the lyrics as if possessed,
If I would have had the chance to make the decision Every man could walk this Earth on equal condition. Every child could do more than just dream on a star …And I would put an end to war.
William Kunstler, the lawyer who helped represent the Attica prisoners, reads “Invocation: Attica Blues”, a short poem about civil rights,
Some people think they are within their rights When on command they take a black man’s life. Let me give you a rundown on how I feel. If it ain’t natural it ain’t real.
"Steam" offers a complete mood change. A lush, slow number, given two haunting, string-soaked outings. “Invocation to Mr Parker” opens with a wandering bass line by Jimmy Garrison before asking, “where’s that driving music man who used to wail out back?”. “Blues for Brother George Jackson” is a lament as well as a classic groover, which pays tribute to the murdered George Jackson.
Kunstler features again, reading another poem “Invocation: Ballad For A Child, “I would rather be a plant than a man in this land…I would rather be a tree with branches and leaves that can grow free.” The theme is taken up in the tender, wistful “Ballad of a Child”. This is followed by the breath-taking “Good-Bye Sweet Pops", written by Cal Massey. It’s actually a homage to Louis Armstrong but feels absolutely right in this context. The album closes with another lovely Cal Massey tune, "Quiet Dawn", sung, in a slightly off-key and rather other-worldly style, by the composer's seven-year-old daughter.
Shepp’s solos on tenor and soprano are generally short. But there’s an insurgent quality to his gruff, expressive tone which is instantly recognisable. Significantly, the album cover features the iconic image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics raising their black-gloved fists in a Black Power salute during the US national anthem.
Shepp has always been interested in the improvisational and existential qualities of Black American music. He’s also concerned by America’s failure to understand its own political and cultural history, “Apathy is frightening. Because that allows the people to be disarmed, disengaged, turned around and ultimately dismissed.”
Shepp revisited Attica Blues with the release of I Hear the Sound in 2013. Using a new big band, featuring both French and American musicians, it’s a joyous reminder of the quality of the original material, interspersed with some additional cuts. He went on to tour it successfully. His abiding interest in conveying the lessons of Attica was as strong as ever. In the liner notes, he said, “Some gave their lives hoping to change the world. Unfortunately, not much has changed. Perhaps we are all prisoners.”
The influential political activist Angela Davis once said, “The events at Attica finally awakened greater numbers of people from their socially inflicted slumber.” Attica Blues provided Shepp with the perfect opportunity to give voice to the importance of the ongoing struggle for freedom and dignity in all our lives.
Chris Guiton discussses the politics of the moon landing in 1969
The first moon landing took place on 20 July 1969. The 50th anniversary of this incredible achievement has rightly been an opportunity to celebrate the skill and heroism of the two astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who planted the first human footprints on the Moon’s surface. We can also marvel at the massive technical effort required by the NASA team to get them there, and back, safely.
Their success is even more astonishing when you consider the primitive nature of the technology used and the huge risks taken as they, literally, journeyed into the unknown. The computers used on Apollo 11 had a fraction of the power that we take for granted in today’s smartphones. While, by the time the Lunar Module landed, they had less than 40 seconds of fuel left.
An estimated 650 million people watched the fuzzy images on their TVs of Neil Armstrong descending the ladder from the Apollo 11 Lunar Module onto the surface of the Moon. As he took his first steps, he uttered words that have entered the history books, "That's one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind."
Ironically, Armstrong’s first step onto the Moon wasn’t that small. He’d landed the Lunar Module so gently that the shock absorbers hadn’t compressed. This made his first ‘step’ more like a four-foot jump onto the lunar surface.
What did he really say?
But what’s really fascinating about his statement is the controversy that has surrounded what he actually said. And meant. The statement that millions heard doesn’t really make sense. The words “man” and “mankind” were often used synonymously. This renders a potentially inspirational statement meaningless.
But the addition of the one-lettered indefinite article “a” before “man” is all it took to turn this quote into the inspirational words we expected. Which was, presumably, what both Neil Armstrong and NASA intended in the first place.
The official NASA transcript of the Moon landing mission quotes Armstrong as saying, "That's one small step for [a] man. One giant leap for mankind." And, according to Armstrong, those were the words he meant to speak.
Various theories have been advanced to explain why we didn’t hear it in this form. They revolve around: technological limitations; a reduction in signal quality caused by radio static and the huge distance between the Earth and the Moon; and Armstrong’s Ohio accent, which may have elided the “a”. Detailed analysis of the original recording suggests that he didn’t say it. We’ll probably never know for sure. But does it really matter?
As Armstrong himself later said, “I would hope that history would grant me leeway for dropping the syllable and understand that it was certainly intended, even if it wasn’t said.”
And we can surely also recognise his intention to deploy the power of antithesis. This is the figure of speech that juxtaposes two contrasting elements in a sentence, playing on their complementary properties and creating, in the process, a vivid new image. In this case, emphasising the stark contrast between one individual’s experience of taking a simple step, and the symbolic significance for humanity of our landing on the Moon.
The statement is lodged permanently in our collective memory. Why? This is partly because of the optimism that surrounded science and technology at the time, and the role played by space exploration in giving expression to this. As Captain Kirk’s prologue put it at the beginning of each episode of Star Trek,
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!
The Space Race
Of equal interest is the political context of the ‘space race’, rooted as it was in the Cold War. The early successes of the USSR put the United States under intense pressure.
The series of Soviet “firsts” in space included:
- The launch of Sputnik 1 on 4 October 1957, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth.
- The first experiments with animals on orbiters to test the feasibility of manned space flight.
- The series of Luna probes from 1959, undertaking flybys of the moon, culminating with Luna 9 achieving the first soft landing on the moon and transmitting the first close-up photos of the lunar surface in 1966.
- Yuri Gagarin’s journey into space in 1961, putting a man into orbit around Earth for the first time.
- The first woman in space as cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova lifted off in 1963 in Vostok 6 for three days of Earth orbits.
These successes generated a combative response from the US. Their strategic priority was to beat the USSR and assert American technological superiority in space. President John F Kennedy said in 1961 that the US “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth”. The costs of the Apollo project were immense. But the race was on. And Kennedy framed the desire to explore space as an integral part of the pioneering spirit that underpinned American mythology.
As we know, the US won. The Soviet Union eventually pulled out of attempts to land men on the Moon, beaten by the better organisation and higher funding levels of the American space programme. They opted instead to focus on the development of orbital space stations around Earth, with results that continue to bear fruit, even after the end of the Cold War and the demise of the USSR.
Curiously, the gender implications of Armstrong’s statement are often overlooked. And, unsurprisingly, complicate things further. Though the word "man" was traditionally used in some contexts to refer to all human beings, male and female, usually in contrast with other animals, it is rarely used these days to mean "all humanity. "Mankind" kept a gender-neutral meaning in English for longer than "man" did. But no longer. These days, it’s rightly regarded by most people as sexist, with a preference for “human beings” or “humankind”.
Opposition to the Apollo space programme
Finally, the technological achievement of the Apollo 11 mission, shouldn’t blind us to the significant opposition to the programme in the US. It was dubbed a ‘moondoggle’ (a play on ‘boondoggle’, a wasteful, politically motivated project) by Norbert Wiener, an influential mathematician and philosopher. And was opposed by many American scientists worried about the massive costs incurred and its distortion of research and development priorities.
Many black commentators also questioned the use of public money to pursue the space race when so many African-Americans were struggling with poverty, inequality and discrimination. As jazz poet and rapper Gil Scott-Heron put it in “Whitey on the Moon”,
A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arms began to swell.
(and Whitey's on the moon)
I can't pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey's on the moon)
Ten years from now I'll be payin' still.
(while Whitey's on the moon).
The song challenged the argument that the moon landing delivered for all Americans. Food for thought as President Trump seeks to weaponise space, with the full support of the military-industrial complex. This will be profoundly destabilising, setting off another arms race, increasing global tensions and undermining the common development of what surely belongs to us all.
Chris Guiton explains the significant contribution made by Luton town to poetry
Over two hundred years ago, the Romantic poet William Blake wrote some of the most striking lines in English poetry:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand, And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an Hour.
This is the opening – and most often-quoted – stanza to Auguries of Innocence. It’s a poem full of paradoxes, juxtaposing innocence with evil and corruption. This particular stanza focuses on our ability as human beings to look deeply into the essence of something relatively small to reveal the riches of the universe. It’s truly profound, encouraging the reader to search for a deeper understanding of nature through the world immediately around us. One of the beauties of poetry is its potential to distil language, distil meaning and distil life.
Fast forward to the contemporary poetry scene, and this expressive power takes on new forms. The performance poet John Hegley writes distinctive poems which have a wry, poignant, often surreal quality to them. They are also nice and short!
He writes about dogs, glasses and underwear. Plus, of course, his upbringing in the unfairly mocked Bedfordshire town of Luton. And he’s adept at compressing meaning in the service of poetry; promoting a sense of wonder at how the word can unlock the world.
One of my personal favourites is simply called Luton:
Luton (a poem about the town of my upbringing and the conflict between my working-class origins and the middle-class status conferred upon me by a university education)
I remember Luton as I'm swallowing my crout'n.
Note the brilliant subtitle. It’s significantly longer than the poem itself! Does this make it unique? It’s certainly eye-catching. And the apostrophe in ‘crout’n’. This spelling is often missed from reprints of the poem. But it’s a crucial part of it.
What’s fascinating about this poem is how he packs so much substance into two short lines. He’s reflecting on class, identity and language. This can be a minefield as people often misunderstand the nature of class, the relationship between class and cultural identity, and the role that language plays as a marker of class difference.
Hegley is commenting on the mixed emotions you have on being pressured to leave your roots behind. And the risk of losing your own ‘voice’ in the process. Unsurprisingly, poets from working-class backgrounds often face exclusion from the mainstream poetry world. And find their contributions marginalised and defanged. How they tackle this, and retain a sense of their authenticity, is an ongoing challenge.
The culture sector has taken steps in recent years to improve its record on diversity and tackle the barriers that hamper participation by women, people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community and the disabled. The record is mixed. Some headline successes often obscuring the challenges faced by many to overcome the multiple obstacles placed in their path. But what’s less well understood are the barriers presented by class – and the social exclusion, poverty and inequality that goes with it – that constrain or prevent ordinary people from accessing or producing culture.
John Hegley was born in North London in 1953 but moved with his family to Luton when he was two. He worked as a bus conductor and a civil servant before going to Bradford University to study European Literature and Sociology. He was discovered by John Peel in 1983, as part of the band The Popticians, and has enjoyed a cult following ever since amongst fans of surreal and subversive comedy.
Hegley is an astute wordsmith. He uses short, comical verse to break down barriers to the enjoyment of poetry, encourage participation, and underline the role poetry can play in our lives. His wordplay has serious intent. By playing with language we help shape how we perceive and participate in the world.
His public performances are an absolute delight. He has a playful, collaborative approach, and rapidly establishes a rapport with an audience as he invites them to join in. He’s regularly visited schools to help teach children directly. He’s also taught creative writing at Luton University, which awarded him an honorary doctorate for twinning Luton and literature in the public consciousness. And helping tackle some of the negative perceptions of the town.
He’s done more than many so-called 'serious' poets to demonstrate to non-literary audiences – young and old alike – that poetry doesn’t have to be regarded as ‘high art’, part of an exclusive literary canon defined by the poetry establishment. But is something that belongs to all of us.
Hegley once said poetry has, "a darker, latent power within it that works when you're not expecting it. Poetry has a surface of significance which is a gift to us, but within that gift is something that hits you – wallop – and tears you apart."
At its best, poetry and the other arts have the potential to entertain and enlighten us. They can also provide a broader canvas on which to understand historical, social and political issues, assert our common humanity, and inspire radical change in the real world.
I’ll let John have the final word, “A poet can be a bit like a lightning conductor where people can share experiences. When it’s going well it can just all fit together. Like a haiku.”
Chris Guiton explains why it is essential that the labour movement uses a variety of political and cultural educational programmes to make the case for socialism
Antonio Gramsci’s profound insight that culture is a key site of political and social struggle remains as valid today as it was in the 1930s. Most of us on the Left understand that ruling-class ‘hegemony’ – the influence the capitalist class has over what counts as knowledge, beliefs and values in our society – is exercised through a range of civil society institutions, including the media, the arts, religion and education. And we recognise that while this power is not always visible, it is tremendously important in the manufacture of consent and conferral of legitimacy on capitalism and its current neoliberal manifestation.
So, it’s really encouraging to see senior figures in the labour and trade union movement talking about the need to reinvigorate political education. It has a crucial role to play in giving ordinary people the tools they need to analyse our current economic and political system and empower them to fight for a socialist alternative. But why is the cultural sphere so often neglected or sidelined in these discussions?
It might appear odd that this is even an issue. After all, the labour movement has a rich history of working-class self-education, delivered through trade unions, political parties, libraries, the Plebs League, the Workers’ Educational Association and other institutions, most of which engaged with culture in its various forms. But most of this activity started to decline in the 1980s as trade union education was depoliticised by its reliance on Government funding, adult and further education provision experienced a class-based assault on its very being given its association with working-class politics and emancipation, and the Labour Party neglected its roots and lost its political compass.
There is an urgent need to revive this tradition of working-class education, restore infrastructure and funding, and rediscover an understanding of its democratising potential. This is an essential step if we are to ensure that a campaigning Labour Party can both win and retain political power. It will help people challenge the neoliberal narrative that ‘there is no alternative’ to the capitalist status quo by fostering a counter-hegemonic understanding of how capitalism operates, why political struggle has always been required to secure democratic rights, and the challenges we face in confronting a system which is clearly rigged against ordinary people.
What is cultural education?
But why does cultural education matter? What is it exactly and how does it relate to political education?
The explosion of popular culture since Gramsci’s time of writing (the Prison Notebooks were written between 1929 and 1935) has reinforced the significance of his thinking. Corporate-driven popular culture – films, TV, music etc – produces bland, uniform cultural products that encourage passive, docile consumption of their anodyne pleasures; promotes an individualised, competitive view of life; and discourages independent, creative, critical thinking.
Historically, there has been a tendency on the Left to underestimate culture’s political importance. Its significance has either been downplayed, with culture seen as an act of often private and largely passive consumption, or it has been viewed in instrumental terms as a weapon in the political struggle for socialism. But a more constructive, utopian perspective also exists, based on the understanding that there is a dynamic relationship between the cultural struggle and the political struggle. As the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein once said, “The revolution introduced me to art, and art, in its own turn, brought me to the revolution.” Socialism, then, can ultimately be viewed as a weapon in the fight for an enriched and democratic human culture.
Building on the work of Gramsci, the Marxist theorist and critic Raymond Williams was keen to promote the concept of a cultural revolution to accompany the economic and political revolutions. He understood this as a ‘long revolution’ leading to socialism through the extension and deepening of cultural and educational democratisation. He sought to articulate the ways in which we might give voice to our lived experiences, currently marginalised by a hegemonic, capitalist narrative. A fully developed campaign for cultural democracy plays a key role here, becoming a mechanism for resistance to and change of the dominant culture in all its manifestations.
Challenging the appropriation and commodification of cultural activities by the ruling class starts from this understanding. The arts can take us into imagined worlds and enable us to understand how others live. Listening to the music of John Coltrane, reading the novels of Angela Carter or looking at a painting by Cézanne can provide pleasure as well as help people deal with the alienation and oppression they encounter in their everyday lives. Culture can bring us together in shared, collaborative activities which are enjoyable in their own right.
It can also take on a more explicit counter-hegemonic character, encouraging us to think critically, ask challenging questions and participate in the wider world. Watching the film of Paul Robeson singing “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” to a group of Scottish miners in an Edinburgh colliery canteen in 1949 brings into sharp relief the emancipatory potential of linking culture to politics. At its best, culture not only has the potential to entertain and enlighten us, but can act as a liberating force, providing a broader canvas on which to understand historic, social and political issues, assert our common humanity against the divisions of class, gender and race caused by capitalism, and inspire radical change in the real world.
Similar benefits flow from other cultural activities such as playing or participating in sport, working on an allotment and socialising in pubs, cafés and restaurants. As well as being satisfying in themselves, they can provide multiple opportunities for engagement with others, which reflect the fundamentally social nature of human beings, emotional growth, and the encouragement of a collective commitment to the common good. This is based on an understanding that culture comes in many shapes and forms.
However, it’s all too common for discussions on culture to become a vehicle for the delivery of elitist perspectives on the relative values of its different manifestations. The frequently expressed division between so-called ‘high culture’ and ‘popular culture’ conveniently ignores the barriers created by the Industrial Revolution to the production and enjoyment of culture by ordinary people.
It is clearly designed to exclude the working class from appreciation of a broad range of cultural pursuits, and disempower them by dismissing typical working-class cultural activities as having less intrinsic value than their upper-class counterparts. It is also an expression of snobbery, which says more about the person uttering it than the subject to hand. These are important points. Kurt Weill, the German composer and Bertolt Brecht collaborator, really nailed it with his comment, “I have never acknowledged the difference between serious music and light music. There is only good music and bad music.”
Let's return to Raymond Williams, who famously noted that ‘culture is ordinary’. His genius was to focus on the importance of people’s lived experience, as he explained, using ‘the word culture in two senses: to mean a whole way of life – the common meanings; [as well as] to mean the arts and learning – the special processes of discovery and creative effort.’ And to insist on the importance of both senses, in conjunction.
As the Left mobilises, and the struggle against neoliberalism intensifies, we’re presented with a fantastic opportunity to promote and reclaim working-class culture, rediscover the value of culture generally as a means of individual and collective empowerment, and learn how to use art and culture in the battle for hearts and minds that is crucial to effective political organising, campaigning and education. While class and capitalism shape our culture, the scope to develop an independent and potentially resistant working-class culture remains very much in front of us, as ordinary people continue to resist capitalist norms and create their own meanings.
The link between culture and education
How does the link between culture and education manifest itself? The Russian psychologist and teacher, Lev Vygotsky, was fascinated by the connection between them. As a Marxist, he believed that human concepts are rooted in social activity as humans are, fundamentally, social beings. A person’s understanding of the world is inextricably rooted in social relations, with individuals constructing meaning from their social experiences, and then acting upon them accordingly. Participation in cultural activity provides a means of knowledge construction, involving the shared transformation of meaning constructed with others, leading to further development and learning.
Paulo Freire by Luiz Carlos Cappellano
In a similar vein, the great Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, developed an educational method and approach particularly suited to labour movement and trade union education, because of its informal and people-centred approach, its emphasis on dialogue and its concern for liberating the oppressed. Freire’s critical pedagogy is based upon the core concept of ‘praxis’, defined as the uniﬁcation of reﬂection and action. The aim is to create a pedagogy that enables both teachers and students to critically reﬂect upon reality, take transformative action to change that reality and work to create a better world.
Crucially, it is a dialogue of equals, where informal education takes place on a dialogical (or conversational) basis rather than centred on a formal curriculum, located in the lived experience of participants if it is to have meaning for them and to help generate new ways of acting in the world. There is a clear focus on building a ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’, working with those who do not have a voice to develop an in-depth understanding of the world and the social and political contradictions that characterise capitalist society.
Inevitably, there are many people who find it difficult to make the connection between culture and politics. In the wake of Thatcherism, and the embrace of neoliberalism by the entire political establishment and much of the media, there are several generations of people who have grown up without the experience of political and cultural struggle.
This is often expressed as ‘what’s politics got to do with football’ or ‘I don’t understand modern art’. This means starting from an understanding of where people are and leading them towards a better grasp of how politics defines everything we do, including our access to, and participation in, art and culture, how much it costs and how it is organised. It means challenging the ‘pedagogy of repression’, where people are conditioned to think that they have no democratic rights, no agency and no power to fight for social change. Which, of course, explains why the Government fights so hard against anything resembling a critical pedagogy in our education system – because it emphasises critical reflection, bridging the gap between everyday life and learning, and underlining the link between power and knowledge.
Why we need a broad-based programme of political and cultural education
Clearly, the development and application of political and cultural education isn’t a simple hierarchical, top-down process. Ideas must come from below as well as above. If the Labour Party and other labour movement institutions are to engage with a broad cross-section of people and develop a genuine social movement, they need to recognise the power of grassroots activism and encourage debate, participation and collaborative working.
Trade unions, the Labour Party and other labour movement organisations such as Momentum, need to develop comprehensive programmes of political and cultural education which are accessible, flexible and relevant. Online learning can play an important part in this. But nothing beats getting together in a shared environment to develop an understanding of the politics of resistance.
So, the fact that the annual The World Transformed festival, which runs alongside Labour Party Conference, is being replicated in a series of events around the country is welcome. There is a marvellous opportunity here to reach out beyond traditional forms of political engagement and initiate a dialogue with people about what we want from society, the contribution that culture can make to the development of a better world, and how we radicalise everyday life and develop effective political strategies that deliver systemic change and fundamental shifts in power.
What might a typical programme of cultural education, nested in a larger political education framework, actually look like? There’s no uniform template for such a programme. But, building on existing good practice, it might include consideration of topics such as:
- How radical poetry, theatre, music and other forms of culture can help us understand issues around exclusion, poverty and inequality, give voice to the voiceless, promote community engagement and develop deeper levels of political consciousness.
- How art and culture can be used to understand and challenge existing power structures and create the space for radical change.
- How we balance what Marx called ‘necessary labour time’ with the free time to enjoy social and cultural activities that bring us together and allow us to develop our individual creativity.
- How pubs, clubs, cafes, community centres, theatres and other venues play an important social role, acting as the ‘glue’ that holds communities together, contributing to people’s happiness and wellbeing, and to social cohesion.
- How the commodification of sports such as football, which provide entertainment and emotional engagement for millions of people, is a classic example of the way neoliberalism erodes not just the social origins of the game, but potentially destroys it by subjecting everything to the search for corporate profit.
- How to develop local campaigns which bring politics and culture together and which rediscover, protect and develop working-class culture.
- How to challenge the negative role that the mass media (TV, radio, social media etc) plays in modern culture, bombarding us with a range of messages which promote competitive individualism, mindless consumerism and passive consumption of a culture designed to discourage dissent.
- How the systematic distortion of the news displayed by our largely right-wing newspapers and other media helps ‘manufacture consent’ for a reactionary political agenda.
More broadly, we need to think about ways of facilitating and encouraging a broad range of grassroots cultural formations and activities, which have the potential to link to political activism. The explosive anti-establishment energy unleashed by punk in the late 1970s was the DIY cultural ethic at its best. More recently, grassroots football fan clubs have made heroic efforts to challenge corporate control of the bigger football clubs and then gone on to build interest in more explicitly political campaigns against, for example, racism, sexism or homophobia.
There are multiple examples up and down the country of organisations delivering events which make the link between politics and culture explicit, in social clubs, festivals and political meetings. The challenge is to broaden and deepen this activity and develop approaches that liberate us from traditional, bureaucratic forms of political engagement, deploy innovative organising techniques appropriate to a 21st century environment, and which embrace a collectivist ethic whilst encouraging a diversity of approaches.
There are also many examples of organisations working effectively at various forms of cultural activity which don’t have an explicitly political flavour – whether learning to play a musical instrument, paint, write poetry, cook, play football or make films – for enjoyment, education or the value generated by doing things in a social environment. These activities are also clearly valuable. By providing platforms for people to share their work and ideas, and by encouraging people to do things socially and collaboratively, they build confidence, promote learning and open the doors to deeper levels of cultural and political engagement.
By establishing learning spaces that are outward-looking, creative and empowering, art and culture can do things that political information by itself can’t. It can help build the social movement vital to the success of socialism.
The challenge is how to build on these foundations in a way which promotes the potential for all types of art and culture to provide opportunities for the articulation of alternatives to dominant views of society, which breaks down the barriers between ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’ of culture, and which underpins the development of a politics of radical social and political change. Whatever solutions emerge, the process must facilitate and encourage the formation of new collaborative networks at local, regional and national levels which are democratic, participative and empowering. And which help develop a self-sustaining ecosystem of socialist and progressive groups working towards the common goal of a fairer society.
To return to someone we started with, Gramsci famously said, ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’
We are living in very dangerous times as the crisis of capitalism deepens, reactionary forces in society resort to increasingly desperate measures to cling onto power, right-wing extremism is on the rise and the smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party plumbs new depths. We are at a critical juncture in the struggle and the battle of ideas will only intensify. Poets, musicians, artists and others can shed light on the problems faced by society, offer profound new visions of a better world and act as harbingers of change. It is therefore essential that the labour movement seizes the opportunity to use a variety of political and cultural educational programmes to make the case for socialism.
Chris Guiton reviews a great new album by Robb Johnson called Ordinary Giants, and interviews the man himself.
The release of Ordinary Giants underlines Robb Johnson’s ability to write songs of great sensitivity which address big themes through the prism of ordinary lives. Based on the life of his father, Ron Johnson, who joined the RAF in 1939 and then worked as a teacher, it offers a fascinating perspective on the social and political issues faced by people over the last century.
A triple CD song suite, it’s a truly immersive experience which repays close listening as the story unfolds. It’s a testament to the lived experience of ordinary people as they experienced extraordinary times. Starting with the Armistice, and the false promises made to returning soldiers, it spans the experience of growing up in the interwar ears, the growth of fascism, the Second World War and the birth of the welfare state. In the course of the song suite we are treated to thoughtful glimpses into how people lived, felt and experienced the changing world around them as well as satirical asides about ruling class fear of socialism and their contempt for working class people.
The album is dedicated to his father and the generations who lived through these times to fight fascism and build a fairer society. These were people determined not just to win the war, but to win the peace as well. It reflects the struggles and disappointments of these years, as well as the aspirations and achievements.
The album is performed by a great cast of contributors, who’ve clearly added to the creative process, including Tom Robinson, Claire Martin, Boff Whalley, Roy Bailey, TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady, MP Dennis Skinner, FBU activist Steve White, Joe Solo, Tracey Curtis, Alan Clayson, Matthew Crampton and children from the school where Robb taught. Robb’s parents are sung by Phil Odgers (from The Men They Couldn't Hang) and Miranda Sykes (currently playing bass with Show of Hands). Musicians include Rory McLeod, Bobby Valentino, Jenny Carr, and Robb’s longstanding rhythm section, John Forrester on bass and son Arvin Johnson on drums.
The album is a celebration of our hopes and dreams, and our collective power to make the world a better place, characterised by recognition of our common humanity. It is a tremendous achievement, very much for our times as, once again, the politics of hope offers a society for the many not the few.
CG: Who are the main musical influences in your life and how has your songwriting evolved over the years? What was the spark that got you interested in the first place?
RJ: Well… I started out with Simon & Garfunkel & Pete Atkin… then I had the epiphany that was Ziggy Stardust, which was the gateway to Lou Reed & the Velvets, & Iggy & the Stooges. These are still pretty much my default setting; I still find I am likely to end up playing Velvet Underground bootlegs if I can’t think of anything else to listen to! I was at the Patti Smith Roundhouse gig that practically everybody who was anybody in UK Punk went to. I saw Tom Robinson in a pub in Hounslow, which was just the best gig ever, possibly. But by the time punk rock officially happened, I had accidentally stumbled upon folk clubs & acoustic music, & through that I became deeply in love with the work of black American musicians, blues singers like Howling Wolf, & that’s when I met my other default setting, Billie Holiday. It wasn’t until London Calling that I listened to the Clash, & realised what I had been missing.
There are other significant artists I should mention; one way or another I have been inspired by …Victor Jara, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Johnny Hallyday, Francis Cabrel, Bruce Cockburn, Wolf Biermann… & Chumbawamba, & Mick Farren (& thereby the Deviants & the Pink Fairies) have shaped my understanding of popular culture
I think the basic narrative of my songwriting has been firstly early punk rock… acoustic folk & blues & jazz….music from a diversity of cultures (before it became WORLD MUSIC - then I started listening to South African guitar bands in the 80s cos I was involved in anti-Apartheid gigs & activities, & also living in West London I started listening to bhangra bands, & being involved in Central American Solidarity groups / Nicaragua Solidarity. I listened to music from that region, including the fabulous Godoy brothers) – then I discovered the chanson, & that really moved my songwriting along I think. I also think it probably hammered the final nail into the coffin as far as any likelihood of popularity goes!
All those people & song forms have been sparks that have excited me…I suppose I grew up with the great legacy of Popular Song (my grandad had a piano that you pedalled to play music hall melodies… my dad played Hoagy Carmichael records, & loved Stephane Grapelli & Django Reinhardt) that then fed into the sixties & pop culture… it was just (to me) so obviously the cultural language you would use to make sense of the world. Plus it was obviously OURS. All you had to do was play a guitar & you could communicate. I am sure that I have always wanted to write – I enjoy trying to make the objective code of words express my ideas & maybe also formulate those ideas in beautiful structures. I found myself reciting Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” in my head the other day. I have always believed that had they been born in the 20th Century, poets like Andy, & Billy Shakespeare & Charlie Dickens would have learned 3 chords & formed a rock group rather than write poems, plays or novels.
There is also the alternative narrative that, having had the misfortune to go to an all-boys school, playing the guitar seemed the easiest way to get to talk to girls.
Your question has got me thinking though, about how someone who started off wanting nothing more than to play “Sweet Jane” comes to write 3 CDs worth of stuff about his dad & the Second World War & the welfare state. I suppose there is a link. I have always thought Lou’s “Berlin” a work of genius. Most “rock operas” & “rock musicals” are utterly awful. “Berlin” isn’t… it is a song suite – what’s the difference between a rock musical & a song suite?
The glib answer is that rock operas are awful & song suites aren’t… I think it is more something to do with the ambition of form… classic musicals - & indeed musical theatre – at their best have a nuance & a subtlety that ROCK finds difficult to cope with. Musical theatre – it is interested in songs… rock musicals & operas are fatally limited by the feeling that they need to ROCK!!!! I love rocknroll. But it is what it is - 3 chords & a backbeat, basically. Rock musicals are like folk rock, the very worst of both worlds. But – listening to the sort of songs you hear in musicals & in chanson, you get a greater sense of what SONG can do. It doesn’t have to do it all the time, but it is possible to use songs to freight both meaning & narrative – & sometimes also poetry & nuance, & complexity, too.
CG: Ordinary Giants offers a fascinating perspective on the social and political issues faced by ordinary people over the last 100 years. What inspired you to write it, and how did you go about structuring the narrative and developing the various themes?
RJ: Thank you for the kind appreciation. I think a significant function of art & entertainment is to engage with the social & political issues faced by ordinary people. The tradition of music generally labelled “folk” is particularly well-situated to do this as it is – or ought to be – the unmediated creativity of ordinary people that is independent of court, corporation & Simon Cowell. When you look at these issues from the perspective of ordinary people rather than from the perspective of court, corporation or Simon Cowells, you usually find a narrative that challenges the dominant version of events.
I hope that Ordinary Giants is not an exercise in “folk” nostalgia, but a retelling of what happened over these last 100 years that both challenges the oversimplifications of the official history imposed as the popularised version of events, & also provides a context within which you can better understand contemporary developments. That all probably sounds a bit ambitious for a bunch of songs & monologues… but the inspiration was probably significantly generated by that kind of awareness of what songs can do, & by the writing I had previously done where songs joined up to create a narrative.
I always try to think of albums – not just if they are conscious song suites – as being more effective if they have a sense of structure, a beginning – middle – end that makes some sort of journey. The obvious reference point though is the Gentle Men song suite, about my grandfathers & WW1. I was asked to write something based on the experiences of my grandfathers, who both were present at the 3rd Battle of Ypres, for the 1997 Passchendaele Peace Concert that marked the 80th anniversary of that murderous lunacy. Having written about my grandads & WW1, it seemed logical that at some point I would write about my father & WW2.
For a long time I didn’t want to start this – I sensed it would be a challenging piece to write, & I didn’t want to get it wrong! Then last year, in February 2017, a combination of events made me decide to start writing. Firstly I found myself with an appointment opposite the school where my dad was a headteacher, & secondly I thought if I started now, the album would be out in time to contribute to the political debate in the run-up to the 2020 election. A month later, clearly having got wind of this, Mrs May promptly called a snap election for June.
Initially, I structured the narrative as a series of songs that dealt with significant events or characteristics of my dad’s life. I decided on the title “Giants” as an ironic reference to Beveridge’s “5 Giants”, the social ills of Want, Disease, Squalor, Ignorance & Idleness that were seen as impacting upon the lives of the people in the 30s, & that the creation of the Welfare State was intended to eradicate. Later that evolved with the addition of the categorical, contradictory adjective “Ordinary”.
However, as the writing progressed, I found myself pursuing ideas & inventing & pursuing a wider cast of characters than I had initially anticipated. My dad grew up in the 30s in Heston, in West London. West London enjoyed a period of relative growth in the 30s, so I found that I wanted to invent a chorus that would reference the wider social conditions that my dad wouldn’t have experienced. I created monologues for a character I called Lou, based very loosely on my great aunt Gladys, who was the only member of my mum’s family who voted Labour. I decided Lou would need to be balanced by a right wing chorus, so I invented the Utterswines, a line of Daily Mail readers that end up by 2010 in UKIP.
I found myself pursuing characters too; the song about my dad’s first years as a teacher featured a character that I called Tony Smith. I then wondered what might have happened to those children like Tony Smith, the working class kids of Brentford whose lives the Welfare State was designed to improve. Tony apparently moved to Bognor, & brought up his granddaughter Daisy, & she then gets to reprise in 2009 the song of my grandmother in 1929, “Slow Progress”. I thought it would all be over by Christmas, but songs kept on emerging… one of the benefits of taking so long to write “Ordinary Giants” was that I could reflect on its shape & dramatic structure, & add in songs accordingly.
That’s how Boff’s song “Here Comes Mr Gandhi” originated: I decided there needed to be a song that reminded the audience that Churchill was viewed by pretty much everyone as a political disaster in the 20s & 30s, so I combined that with a song that moved the narrative out of the south to give the industrial north a voice. Just when the recordings were all but finished, my mum talked about a holiday in Eastbourne & day trip she took with her cousin to France in the summer of 1939, which ended up with their boat being caught in a storm. The song all but wrote itself.
It was very difficult to stop writing. I think I did become a bit obsessed with it all; I remember catching myself walking up the stairs to go to sleep after finally fixing up a date for Swill to sing yet another last song, chuckling weirdly to myself.
CG: The song suite features a great cast of contributors. Over the years, you’ve worked with an impressively diverse range of musicians. How do you think your music benefits from this collaborative approach?
RJ: “Ordinary Giants” depends very much on the contributors. I found myself – as well as chuckling weirdly – writing for singers & performers. For example, Swill, Phil Odgers, was just so brilliant as my dad, I kept adding songs & extra bits for him to sing. & Miranda Sykes as my mum, again, absolutely brilliant, so I wanted to write more songs for her to sing. They worked so well together; I had suggested they might try one song could be a duet – their voices interacted perfectly, so we turned another song into a duet, & Swill added beautiful backing vocals to Miranda’s song where the happy poppy 60s turn into the fragmented 70s.
I think competition is not conducive to either creativity in particular or society in general. I am appalled at the way the Right have re-introduced unnecessary & damaging ideas of competition into everything from education to cake-baking. Competition – like grammar schooling – is always presented from the perspective of the “winners”, whereas in fact the majority of participants end up losers – the percentage of us ending up with second class secondary modern education being about 80%.
As a musician, I delight in the process of interacting with other musicians. Magic happens when musicians play together, when voices sing together. I am very fortunate to have worked with lots of lovely creative people. Usually this has been around the songs that I have written, & I am always honoured by people choosing to sing them. These people – particularly singers like Barb Jungr, Roy Bailey & Maggie Holland – have also helped develop & encourage me as a writer & a performer. Working with musicians from different genres or cultural backgrounds has expanded my very self-taught understanding of music. Everybody brings their own perspective, experience & skills to those moments of collaboration. I suppose my songwriting tends to be quite an isolated process – working with different people helps to overcome my individual limitations.
I think effective cooperation & collaboration doesn’t mean we all do the same thing; like the concept of equality it isn’t effective if it is just envisaged as making everything the same. It is much more about contributing strengths together & compensating for each other’s weaknesses. Everybody has these attributes; competition – to return to the education analogy – simply tests what the test has arbitrarily decided to value. Cooperation involves engaging with you as a fully-rounded, 3 dimensional human-being. This seems to me a much better “challenge” than obsessing over who gets most votes on television. Of course, people might say – ah, but in the decades when pop music was such a vibrant cultural phenomenon, it was organised around the weekly publication of the pop music charts. But the culture wasn’t all only Top of the Pops. Top of the Pops was the muzak bizz’s attempt to re-present what was essentially a culture that they could only exploit rather than – as nowadays –determine & control. The Deviants & The Clash never appeared on Top of the Pops....
I nearly forgot – working with the Anti-Capitalist Roadshow, we developed a non-hierarchical collaborative way of performing… we sit in arrow on stage, we all take turns performing a song, & co-operate & join in or sit out if that is more appropriate to our individual skill set - & that I think is a very empowering way of performing. If I get the chance, I try to suggest this way of co-operative working (rather than sticking the “biggest” name/ego on last) in other performances too. Artists co-operating? No-one being the biggest show-off? Dangerously subversive or what?
CG: Culture is a key site of political and social struggle, which offers a powerful platform to challenge the prevailing neoliberal culture. We are very interested in what an incoming Labour Government would do to develop arts and culture policies which work for ordinary people, assert our common humanity against the divisions of class, gender and race caused by capitalism, which facilitate grassroots cultural formations and activities, and which inspire people to fight for a better world. What are your views on the culture policies that Labour might include in their manifesto?
RJ: I think Corbyn’s commitment to returning creativity to the school curriculum is the most effective long term strategy. It’s encouraging to see this in the manifesto – the arts pupil premium. Us humans are by nature creative & cooperative. As an Early Years teacher I saw this at first hand, & then a school system organised around measurable outcomes, a restricted curriculum & competition grinds those attributes out of us & trains us to be passive consumers of processed bilge rather than active, reflective creators.
Recently there has been something of an increase in cultural initiatives that obviously link entertainment to ideas, to politics – there have been the Stand Up For Labour gigs, & the wonderful grass-roots (is that becoming a bit of an overworked term? How about the more descriptive small-scale & local) We Shall Overcome nationwide collective of performers & performances. Labour’s decision to hold a festival last year was another interesting & empowering event (am I biased because I mc’d it? I don’t think so) which involved a really good mix of performers & a lively amount of discussion & debate too.
So these are healthy indications of a healthy resurgence of elements – participation & political consciousness – that have been missing from popular culture. I think festivals need to be treated with caution however; by their very nature they have a tendency to reinforce an unhelpful distance between performer & audience, & a tendency to celebrate the conventional. With all that investment that everybody is making, no-one wants to risk trying something that doesn’t work – which is why small-scale gigs & supportive situations (not another fucking open-mic session where the pub gets free entertainment all night & performers turn up hoping to be discovered & bugger off once they’ve had their go) are so important. We need spaces where as a performer, you can try something out, see how it works, for real, not just in your bedroom. As an audience, we need those spaces too, where we aren’t simply passively responding to a screen or a stream, but interacting with other people. For real.
I have just had a quick re-read of the “Culture For All” section of the Labour manifesto, & it seems a promising document. From my perspective, it looks like a set of proposals that may provide cultural workers engaged in those areas of culture where I work with an increase in venues & opportunities to be creative. It supports the idea that creativity is cultural work that ought to be appropriately remunerated – which is a better model than the present one whereby cultural work is the exclusive province of over-remunerated media-approved celebrities. I think that revitalising local communities & creating & supporting opportunities & spaces for performance (like the way the manifesto recognises the importance of pubs as community resources) will probably be more effective than anything administered by The Arts Council – but then that might just be me & my dislike of filling out forms & ticking somebody else’s boxes.
CG: The media often sneer at ‘protest’ singers, which I take to be a mark of their success! How do you personally combine your music and your politics, and what do think the role of musicians is in society today?
RJ: Indeed – I agree wholeheartedly: you know you’re doing something good when the capitalist bizz & media do their best to ignore &/or rubbish your work. Me & music & politics… well, that’s probably quite a complex question because – having somehow got this pigeon-hole “political artist” that’s primarily only what people hear, & what people expect to hear. Of course, what this really means is “left” or oppositional ideas – no-one ever talks about the politics of Rod Stewart’s work, because it subscribes to or can be recuperated by dominant conservative political values.
I suppose that my life experiences have confirmed in me an understanding of the world that considers every element of the human world is political, & freights political significance. When I was a student in Brighton, my friends in Hounslow who I played in a band with thought my interest in politics was something that was a consequence of my being a student, & that I would grow out of such views once I returned to the “real” world. Partly this was true – being a student allowed me to develop my thinking about the world, & afforded me more opportunity for reflection than my previous occupation, working in the carpet department & then as a toilet cleaner in Hounslow Co-op. But I had already joined USDAW, & had an instinctive dislike of the local Tory MP. & when I did finally get a job as a teacher in the “real” world, I found all the theoretical understanding of class & inequality operating for real upon the life chances of the children & the families I was working with.
So these perceptions started filtering into my songs. Thatcher & issues like apartheid & Nicaragua certainly accelerated this process; there were benefits, strikes, picket lines to play on… & in this context, pop’s perennial obsession with adolescent trouser-action seemed increasingly irrelevant. I mean… at the start of the pop culture social revolution, sex was subversive; now it just sells newspapers. And there is the problem of how do you continue writing pop songs if you DON’T die before you get old?
So – I mustn’t grumble: a capacity to write songs with a conscious political dimension isn’t all that I do, but it does mean I have kept writing & performing, hopefully refining & developing my craft, without ever having been limited to the expectations attendant upon fashionability or popularity. I think the function of musicians is simply the function of all artists – to create work that entertains (in the sense of it engaging & rewarding your sustained attention) & that expresses the artist’s perceptions in a way that inspires & moves & delights & empowers the beholder. Music has a particular language & effect &… portability that is distinct from – say – theatre or cinema or painting… you can’t dance to a painting, & you can’t sing along to a film, & you can interact with your audience directly in a way a playwright or novelist doesn’t.
CG: What are the sort of gigs you like doing best?
RJ: Pubs! Well… I like playing in Belgium too; it’s not just the beer, it is the fact that audiences – a generalisation – aren’t so tied to genres, but seem interested in a variety & diversity of musical languages. In the UK, you sort of get folk audiences or punk audiences or rock audiences…. which is also one of the reasons why I like pubs; people turn up, & there you are, like Robert Johnson, playing in the corner, doing your best to entertain people without insulting their or your intelligence (well, that’s my aim anyway). I have always been impressed by that kind of model, where there is not this massive distance between performer & audience, where the music is part of the audience’s weekly world, not some massive expensive annual festival where you’re stood at the back looking at the video screens with insufficient toilet facilities, or something disposable you watch like a far distant galaxy on television, or download, tinny 2D & disposable, onto your mobile phone.
Oh & of course, I like well-organised & well-paid gigs too, where people listen attentively. & I enjoy playing at Tolpuddle, & I enjoyed Labour Live, so I am not averse to larger venues. But I am happy playing schools, kindergartens & OAP homes too. I played Broadmoor a couple of times too. It is always much appreciated to be appreciated. Really, I just like playing & singing & … in my own little way.. entertaining people. All sorts of people, all ages. Without anybody’s intelligence or integrity being insulted. I like the sort of gig where you feel you have done the work to the best of your ability.
CG: What are your plans to tour Ordinary Giants?
RJ: Hmmmm… well, it’s a tricky one. We could tour a reduced cast version (full participants obviously 99.999999% recurring impossible) but it would be… ridiculously expensive, let alone difficult to co-ordinate. As indicated above, I think appropriate remuneration is due to cultural workers, & I also believe that everybody should be paid the same amount (here, equality does mean the same, to me, if you are playing in a band situation). Friends suggested I apply for an Arts Council Grant. I am always a bit reluctant to do this – folk music – it stands or falls on its own two feet, surely? It is not the province of kings or CEOs of Lottery Funding, surely? The Pink Fairies & The Clash never got lottery funding, maaaaaaan.
So I looked at the forms. I even made a start at filling them in. A fortnight later, when I binned them, the headache stopped & I got on with writing songs. I thought – Dickens didn’t finish “Bleak House” & think: right, now I must stage this with a cast of well-known BBC actors… I would love to see it presented as a stage performance, but – that’s certainly NOT my job at the moment. So I am back to my usual practice of emailing people & phoning people & asking for solo gigs & generally being ignored. But we are sort of sorting out a few gigs for next year that get as far east as Thuringen, including Belgium, & as far west as Vancouver Island, with Lewes & Leeds & Bolton & Glossop along the way.
Robb Johnson, Ordinary Giants: A Life and Times, 1918-2018, is released on Irregular Records.