Archive for October, 2016
‘In that silence…’ A powerful and moving commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, from That’s How the Light Gets In.
Fifty years ago today, on 21 October 1966, at 9.15 in the morning, the children of Pantglas Junior School had just returned from morning assembly to sit at their desks in their classrooms when spoil tip no. 7 tore down the mountainside, taking just five minutes to smash through houses and the school, burying everything in its path in a sea of thick, black mud. By that evening, as miners from the nearby pits toiled under arc lights, scrabbling with their bare hands at the slurry, the village of Aberfan knew that 187 souls were lost, 116 of them children. A generation had been wiped out.
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I’ve been listening to a lot of Dylan lately. Early stuff – Witmark demos, basement tapes, that sort of thing. Raw and rough, but with such immense power.
Do his lyrics constitute poetry? I’ve often considered this question, and argued with others about it, not just in relation to Dylan but to other songwriters whose lyrics are held up as shining examples of the art. I don’t think there is any absolute answer.
Many brilliant song lyrics absolutely only work when they are sung. On the page they might seem flat and clumsy, but when you hear them they take wings and fly and soar and take your heart with them. To be a great songwriter does not require one to be a poet – Lennon & McCartney rarely achieve the kind of lyrical brilliance that I would want to defend as poetry; for the most part there are moments, rather than whole songs, as sublime as those moments are. The brilliance of Holland, Dozier & Holland does not lie in their lyrics, and whilst Smokey’s are witty and clever, and less prone to ‘confusion/illusion’, ‘burning/yearning’ cliches, I can think of no individual songs that I would want to present as poems. R Dean Taylor’s wonderful ‘Love Child’ works because of the way the lead vocal and backing vocals are woven together, especially in the coda where Diana Ross’s voice takes the melody with ‘I’ll always love you’, with the urgent rhythms of the backing singers pleading with the lover to wait, and hold on. On the page though, all that is lost.
So do I believe that Dylan is a worthy recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature? Yes, yes I do, despite all of the caveats that so often apply.
Firstly, the lyrics are quite clearly the driving force of his songs. Not accompaniments to the music, nor a vehicle for the voice (indeed the voice divides opinion considerably more than the lyrics), rather the reverse. Secondly, the immense variety of his work deserves recognition. Even just considering his earlier work, which is what I know best, you have the pared down, desperate simplicity of ‘Hollis Brown’, the jaunty viciousness of ‘Don’t Think Twice’, the surreal imagery of ‘Hard Rain’… Thirdly, these are words of visceral power that stay with you and whose portent transcends the time of their writing and the specific concerns that inspired them.
Take ‘Hollis Brown’. The relentless rhythm is matched by the relentless words, the repetition hammering home the hopelessness
You looked for work and money
And you walked a rugged mile
You looked for work and money
And you walked a rugged mile
This kind of repetition is a feature of many folksongs, presumably to help with their transmission in an oral tradition, but here it’s more than that. Hollis Brown walks his rugged mile, walks the floor and wonders why, and his babies’ cries pound on his brain, on and on until he can see no way out other than to spend his last lone dollar on those shotgun shells.
Critic David Horowitz has said of this song:
Technically speaking, “Hollis Brown” is a tour de force. For a ballad is normally a form which puts one at a distance from its tale. This ballad, however, is told in the second person, present tense, so that not only is a bond forged immediately between the listener and the figure of the tale, but there is the ironic fact that the only ones who know of Hollis Brown’s plight, the only ones who care, are the hearers who are helpless to help, cut off from him, even as we in a mass society are cut off from each other….
On the same album as Hollis Brown, there’s ‘Only a Pawn in their Game’.
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
The invocation of Medgar Evers’ name and brutal death set up expectations which are undercut at the end of the first verse as Dylan asserts ‘He can’t be blamed’. And the final verse contrasts Evers’ burial, lowered down as a king, with the unanmed assailant’s future death and his epitaph plain, only a pawn in their game. I know I was not the only person who found those words circling in my mind after the murder of Jo Cox, and again after the upsurge in racist harassment and attacks post-referendum.
Then there’s ‘Hattie Carroll’. That killer final verse:
In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom,
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warning
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished,
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance,
William Zanzinger with a six month sentence…
Oh, but you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears
If that weren’t enough the album also includes ‘With God on Our Side’, ‘The Times they are a Changing’, ‘North Country Blues’ – and from the viscerally political to the personal and the melancholy of ‘One Too Many Mornings’.
You’re right from your side
I’m right from mine
We’re both just too many mornings
And a thousand miles behind
which reminds me of Kirsty MacColl’s ‘You and Me Baby’
Except for you and me baby
This is journey’s end
And I try to hang on to all those precious smiles
But I’m tired of walking and it must be miles
That’s just one album, by a man in his early twenties. And his first two albums had given us the satire of ‘Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues’, ‘Hard Rain’ and, in real contrast to the melancholy and reflective farewell expressed in ‘One Too Many Mornings’, this:
I aint saying you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right
A much less well known song than some of those above, one which I might not have come across had Jimi Hendrix not covered it, is ‘Tears of Rage’.
We carried you in our arms
On Independence Day,
And now you’d throw us all aside
And put us on our way.
Oh what dear daughter ‘neath the sun
Would treat a father so,
To wait upon him hand and foot
And always tell him, ‘No’?
Tears of rage, tears of grief,
Why must I always be the thief?
Come to me now, you know
We’re so alone
And life is brief
Andy Gill, in his 1998 book, Classic Bob Dylan: My Back Pages, suggests a link to King Lear:
Wracked with bitterness and regret, its narrator reflects upon promises broken and truths ignored, on how greed has poisoned the well of best intentions’, and how even daughters can deny their father’s wishes.
and to the Vietnam war:
In its narrowest and most contemporaneous interpretation, the song could be the first to register the pain of betrayal felt by many of America’s Vietnam war veterans. … In a wider interpretation [it] harks back to what anti-war protesters and critics of American materialism in general felt was a more fundamental betrayal of the American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
Sid Griffin in his Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, the Band, and the Basement Tapes, noted the strong Biblical theme running through the song, particularly the ‘life is brief’ motif which links to Psalms and Isaiah, and Greil Marcus wrote that
in Dylan’s singing—an ache from deep in the chest, a voice thick with care in the first recording of the song—the song is from the start a sermon and an elegy, a Kaddish.
So should we worry that this prize is the thin end of the wedge, that, as some BTL commentators have claimed, this means the next Nobel Prize for Literature could go to Lady Gaga or Elton John, or whoever. Seriously? The prize has been awarded “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Who could really dispute that Dylan has done that? His influence on other musicians has been extraordinary and creative – Sam Cooke wrote ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ in direct response to hearing ‘Blowing in the Wind’; Jimi Hendrix drew on Dylan’s work to create his innovative take on the blues; John Lennon’s songwriting was challenged by Dylan’s songs to become rougher and edgier and to go beyond the teen romance preoccupations of the Beatles’ early ’60s output; Bowie parodied Bob Dylan’s 1962 homage to Woody Guthrie, “Song to Woody”, addressing Dylan by his ‘real’ name: “Hear this, Robert Zimmerman, I wrote a song for you”.
And undisputed poet Simon Armitage has talked about the impact of Dylan’s songwriting on his poetry:
1984 was also the year I started writing poetry. I wouldn’t claim that there’s any connection, that listening to Dylan made me want to write, or that his songs influenced my writing style. But I do think his lyrics alerted me to the potential of storytelling and black humour as devices for communicating more serious information. And to the idea that without an audience, there is no message, no art. His language also said to me that an individual’s personal vocabulary, or idiolect, is their most precious possession – and a free gift at that. Maybe in Dylan I recognised an attitude as well, not more than a sideways glance, really, or a turn of phrase, that gave me the confidence to begin and has given me the conviction to keep going.
Of course Dylan resisted being ‘the spokesman for a generation’ – who would want that pressure, that endless demand? In the past, too, he’s demurred at being described as a poet, calling himself ‘only a song-and-dance man‘. He’s been said to have chosen his nom de plume in tribute to Dylan Thomas, but has (at least sometimes) denied that. Indeed Dylan has given us many different narratives – that’s how he has defied definition, alternating between telling us stories about himself, often contradicting the previous story he told, and telling us nothing at all.
As is the case right now. From Dylan himself, on the subject of his award, not a word from this man of powerful words. An acknowledgement appeared on his website, and then disappeared again.
So who knows? And who, in any case, would want it to be any different?
According to our Prime Minister,
if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.
The examples she gives are of people who regard themselves as above the obligations and responsibilities to the communities in which they live and work, who identify themselves with ‘international elites’ rather than with ‘the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street.’ She talks of ‘the spirit of citizenship’.
Prime Minister : You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Those of us who identify ourselves as citizens of the world do, indeed, ‘respect the bonds and obligations that make our society work’. But we see those bonds and obligations as extending beyond the people who live around us, work for us, buy the goods and services we sell.
As a citizen of the UK, I honour my commitments and responsibilities to the country of my birth, the country where I have spent most of my life, where I have worked, paid taxes, and raised a family. But I also believe that:
In an increasingly connected world, local needs are intertwined with global needs. We are in the midst of serious challenges that threaten the whole world, and which require collective responsibility: climate change, extreme poverty, and the refugee crisis. Being a citizen of the world means acknowledging that we each have a part to play in solving these urgent global problems.
And in a world where 24 people are forced to flee their home each minute, the idea of a fixed national identity is sadly a privilege not all humans can claim. Where do you belong when your country is no longer your own? The tragedy of the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War is a moving reminder of the need to look beyond borders. We need an inclusive identity for all the world’s displaced people – one that encompasses our responsibility for each other, wherever we call home. Whether you’re a founder of a multimillion-dollar business, a Prime Minister, or a refugee with nothing but a mobile phone and the clothes on your back, you can be a Global Citizen.
I spent some of my childhood years in a newly independent West African nation. My parents flew out to Ghana in 1960, with three children under four years old. My father taught Physics and Mathematics to undergraduates at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology in Kumasi. He wrote a textbook for use in schools, recognising that those imported from the UK not only assumed resources far beyond the means of Ghanaian schools, but also assumed cultural references which would make no sense to Ghanaian children. He went on to train teachers in the north of Nigeria. And in his retirement, after years doing the same at Trent Polytechnic (now Nottingham Trent University), he set up an organisation to link retired educators with projects in developing countries, sending them out to work with local teachers to use their lifetimes of expertise where it was most needed, in countries such as Paraguay, Kosovo, Iraq, Liberia, India and Chad.
The country of my parents who instilled in me a sense of public service and of public servants everywhere who want to give something back.
So what was instilled in me by my parents was not only a sense of public service, but the belief that that does not stop at our coastline, that it’s not just ‘the people down the road’, but the people across the oceans who matter.
It’s not about ‘international elites’, it’s about refugees, about people who are persecuted because of their politics, their religion or their sexuality, about people who starve because the world’s resources are so unevenly distributed and because their own and other governments do not have the will to act, about people… About people.
Global citizenship does not mean what Teresa May thinks (or at least says) it means.
But there’s another troubling undertone here.
‘the people who are at home both nowhere and everywhere … the only ones who can be addressed as international, because they conduct their business everywhere’
‘International elites’, ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ who owe no loyalty to the countries in which they may live and work. I am not suggesting for a moment that Teresa May is deliberately echoing Adolf Hitler’s 1933 speech, any more than Amber Rudd’s proposal to require firms to list all of their foreign workers is consciously preparing the ground for yellow stars or their equivalent.
But the echoes are worrying. With the Brexit vote having been interpreted by the government primarily as a vote about immigration, and by racist bigots as a vote against foreigners of all kinds, with the plans to tighten even further the tests which would allow British businesses to employ people from overseas, and those which allow students to come from overseas to study here…
It seems that we are prepared to put into jeopardy our health services and the many other businesses and services which rely on overseas expertise, to put into jeopardy our economy, which gains so much from international students paying £20k a year in fees alone to study here, to put into jeopardy our research culture which thrives on the free movement of academics, all to reduce the net migration total.
Teresa May referred to the UK’s remarkable number of Nobel Laureates. But one of this year’s prize winners, Sir Fraser Stoddart, has reminded us that ‘recruiting from a wider pool and bringing in talent from abroad raises everyone’s standard’.
“When you get people from Messina or Madrid moving to a cold place like Sheffield, they’re serious about science,” he said. “It’s better for everyone.”
Sir Martin Rees, emeritus professor of physics at the University of Cambridge, and the Astronomer Royal, warns:
“The UK scientific scene is now much stronger than it was [in the 1980s] – thanks in part of the strengthening of science on mainland Europe. But there is a serious risk, aggravated by the tone of Amber Rudd’s deplorable speech on Tuesday, that there will be a renewed surge of defections, weakening UK science and causing us to fail to recoup our investments over the last 20 years.”
Amber Rudd spoke of the resident labour market test, which determines whether an organisation can recruit outside the UK (and, at present, EU).
The test should ensure people coming here are filling gaps in the labour market, not taking jobs British people could do.
But it’s become a tick box exercise, allowing some firms to get away with not training local people. We won’t win in the world if we don’t do more to upskill our own workforce.
It’s not fair on companies doing the right thing. So I want us to look again at whether our immigration system provides the right incentives for businesses to invest in British workers.
Most people hearing this will not know how onerous it already is to appoint someone from outside the UK/EU, how many hoops the employer will have to jump through to satisfy the requirements for a Tier 2 visa to be issued, and how many hoops the applicant will have to jump through. Amber Rudd knows this perfectly well, as do many in her audience. But none of that really matters – what it’s about is meeting this arbritrary net migration target, by whatever means.
She also tackled the issue of international students:
The current system allows all students, irrespective of their talents and the university’s quality, favourable employment prospects when they stop studying. … And foreign students, even those studying English Language degrees, don’t even have to be proficient in speaking English. We need to look at whether this one size fits all approach really is right for the hundreds of different universities, providing thousands of different courses across the country.
Her first point is moot. An international student can apply to stay on after their studies are complete under a Tier 1 Entrepreneur visa – if they have access to at least £50k investment funds to set up or run a UK business. Or, they may apply for a Tier 2 visa, if they have been offered a job by a licensed UK employer, and if they can rack up 70 points under the points based system (yes, we do have a points based system!), which requires them, amongst other things, to have English language qualifications at a suitable level, and sufficient funds in their personal bank account. And all overseas students have to meet English language proficiency requirements at a level set by their institution.
But important as it is to call her out on the inaccuracies in her statement, the really important thing is what underlies it. The assumption that students are flooding here, unable to speak the language, getting favourable treatment post-study, bringing their entire extended families with them – that they are a burden and a problem.
To quote Rudd:
try and stand up for a multiracial Britain and you are labelled part of the liberal elite; point out the £20 billion net contribution from immigrants over a decade and you are told you are not listening to the people; oppose hate crime and you are mocked for political correctness. It is easier to vilify foreigners in the new Britain than it is to espouse European values.
OK, not that Rudd. Her brother, in fact, who has founded an organisation called Open Britain, a place for those who find the denigration of non-British workers appalling and campaigning for Britain to be open and inclusive, open for business, open to trade and investment, open to talent and hard work, open to Europe and to the world.
For Teresa May and Amber Rudd and so many in the Tory Party (and elsewhere) EU migrants are a problem. Overseas workers and students are a problem. Refugees are a problem. Foreigners are a problem.
And the problem can be solved by ending free movement of EU citizens, if need be losing out on beneficial trade deals as a quid pro quo, by tightening up still further on the freedom of employers to bring in the skills and expertise they need to contribute to our economy and to our academic research, by reducing the numbers of students paying substantial fees and contributing to the local economy whilst acquiring skills and qualifications which might be useful both here and in their home country.
The problem can be solved by stating repeatedly that we are doing ‘everything we can’ (whilst doing nothing at all) to bring unaccompanied child refugees who have the right to come to Britain, out of the camp at Calais – due to be demolished shortly – and to safety with family here.
Meanwhile the children remain in the squalor and misery of the camps, prey to traffickers and abusers, desperate enough to risk and lose their lives in attempts to board lorries crossing the Channel. Every day they remain puts them at greater risk of harm, and increases their trauma. But refugees – even these children – are a problem, and therefore we stall and hedge and do nothing.
And whilst we make that arbitrary division between those who live and work here holding a British passport and those who live and work here holding EU or overseas passports, we are about to guarantee for Britons who have settled overseas permanently a “vote for life” in British general elections…
The word ‘cosmopolitan’ is often used in a way that perhaps feeds into Teresa May’s characterisation, of someone who is part of ‘a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call ‘global citizens’”.
But that’s a distortion of what it means.
Genuine cosmopolitanism is a rare thing. It requires comfort with real difference, with forms of life that are truly exotic relative to one’s own. It takes its cue from a Roman playwright’s line that “nothing human is alien to me,” and goes outward ready to be transformed by what it finds.
A global or world citizen places their shared humanity above nationalistic or local identities. They recognise our interconnectedness, and that the problems and threats we face – climate change, terrorism, the displacement of peoples through war and famine – cannot be solved other than by nations working together and that our response is hindered rather than helped by borders and barriers. Global citizenship only comes into conflict with national and local identities, and with the obligations and responsibilities of national citizenship, if that nation demands of its citizens allegiance to values which are inhumane.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, is about as cosmopolitan as anyone could be. His mother was English (daughter of Sir Stafford Cripps), his father Ghanaian. He was educated in Ghana and the UK, and taught in Germany, Ghana, South Africa and France as well as in the US. His family and that of his husband, Henry Finder, is scattered across four continents.
He defines cosmopolitanism as ‘universality plus difference’ asserting that the first takes precedence over the latter, that is: different cultures are respected “not because cultures matter in themselves, but because people matter, and culture matters to people.”
The foreignness of foreigners, the strangeness of strangers, these things are real enough, but Appiah suggests that intellectuals and leaders, on the left and the right, have wildly exaggerated their significance. He scrutinizes the treacly celebration of “diversity,” the hushed invocations of the “Other,” and the brow-furrowing talk of “difference.” In developing a cosmopolitanism for our times, he defends a vision of art and literature as a common human possession, distinguishes the global claims of cosmopolitanism from those of its fundamentalist enemies, and explores what we do, and do not, owe to strangers. This deeply humane account will make it harder for us to think of the world as divided between the West and the Rest, between locals and moderns, between Us and Them.
That the language around immigration is becoming ever more toxic is recognised across the political spectrum. What might have been unsurprising in a UKIP manifesto is now mainstream Tory policy, and whilst many in Labour have been quick and vigorous in opposition, the Party’s Press Office inexplicably seemed to think that pointing out the government’s failure to meet its targets in reducing net migration was the best response.
More hopefully, the Green Party, SNP and Plaid Cymru were unequivocal:
The narrow vote in favour of leaving the EU has now been interpreted as the pretext for a drastic cutting of ties with Europe… and as an excuse for the most toxic rhetoric on immigration we have seen from any government in living memory.
This is a profoundly moral question which gets to the heart of what sort of country we think we live in. We will not tolerate the contribution of people from overseas to our NHS being called into question, or a new version of the divisive rhetoric of ‘British jobs for British workers’. Neither will we allow the people of these islands, no matter how they voted on June 23rd, to be presented as a reactionary, xenophobic mass whose only concern is somehow taking the UK back to a lost imperial age. At a time of increasing violence and tension, we will call out the actions of politicians who threaten to enflame those same things.
It’s perilously easy to despair. But if we do, if we let the seemingly endless tide of sickening rhetoric and bad news overwhelm us and reduce us to silence and inaction, those who will suffer will be those who are already vulnerable, those who are already being told to ‘go home’, facing abuse and discrimination, those who are desperately trying to reach safety and encountering the impermeable indifference of bureaucracy, those who have made their lives and careers here and now feel unwelcome.
‘There is no us and them. It’s us and us. It’s all us.’