XOM and the question of music

In Review: XOM’s Rockyoke

About 400 years ago, when I was an undergraduate, it was my pleasure to make the acquaintance of John Sloboda, professor of psychology with a particular interest in the psychology of music. For Professor Sloboda, music is “a way of defining community”:

My eyes were really opened to this when I went to Ireland for the first time a few years ago; in any pub or village hall you see people of all ages and ability making music together…in England we are deprived of something by the lack of a folk tradition in our society; the closest people seem to get to music here is karaoke!

https://web.archive.org/web/20060412171023/http://www.oxfordmuse.com/selfportrait/portrait57.htm

Part One: 30 August 2018, The Prince of Wales, Moseley

Late summer last, I was finishing off a short but demanding course in adult education while simultaneously bailed on a GBH charge, pending trial. My choir attendance had rather dropped off the agenda, and with my voice stressed from all the screaming, I was looking for somewhere to warm up it up again. Drinking at my local, I noticed an intriguing poster advertising ‘a night of sing-a-long fun featuring the very best in rock’n’roll anthems’, raising money for St Basils, a charity that works with homeless young people. The gig, apparently chaired by a band called XOM, gloried in the name RockyOke.

When the poster came up in conversation with a close friend, who expressed interest, naturally we made arrangements, and then forgot all about it. But as fate would have it, returning from a botanical excursion one afternoon, I bumped into another close friend, and into the Prince of Wales we shot. On ordering my pint I heard an unmistakable melody floating in: the opening riff from Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’. This struck me very deeply, and following the sound into the beer-yard, we came face-to-face with XOM.

Imagine my delight, and curiosity. Cinderella shall go to the ball! A sound-checking band, including one or two faces I recognised, rehearsing some of my favourite tunes of yesteryear. Lyrics sheets printed up and distributed around the yard. A mutual friend sat on a stool. The sun shone. The very gig I thought with which to warm my voice, and reconnect with community at this stressful time, despite my forgetfulness, had me blown in on the steel breeze.

In my own assault on the rhythm part of that intro, I’ve used the following sounds behind it, both licensed for use with Attribution: FM radio tuning by MrAuralization — https://freesound.org/s/269701/ – and Forest Nov NL 1pm 181107_1297.flac by klankbeeld — https://freesound.org/s/448280/

Maria, in charge of the venue, was checking decibels. Gentrification’s wave sometimes breaks, finding tension and conflict as new residents complain of noise from established music venues. Caveat emptor, a principle with which we are all familiar, sometimes seems in abeyance when considering new build flats next to musical venues, being ‘far from the whole position‘, giving residents an advantage in pursuing noise complaints, potentially affecting the music venue, and its musicians and audience, adversely. This came up last decade: when new build flats went up near the venerable Spotted Dog of Digbeth. One complaint, if I recall correctly, had a significant knock-on effect for their musical events, and the issue of new build flats next to established music venues, and the potential power imbalance, became a live one for all of us who, like Professor Sloboda, care about live music and its role in our society. The life of and around the pub made a great show of support for their side. Similarly, the Prince of Wales had made the issue public, perhaps wary of similar sonic trigger-dramas, and were keen to ensure decibels were monitored, and below certain limits. One sensed a little extra tension in the sound check, but the band’s sense of discipline and camaraderie in the face of modern Britain was immediately obvious.

And anyway, I’d been heartened by news earlier in the year of movement on this issue, after lobbying, in part by local councils presumably fed up of having to mediate such tedium. There was in 2018 a drift towards common sense from central government, on this issue at least, with reference to the perhaps less familiar principle of agente mutationem which, if applied in such cases ought to protect a venue from noise complaints, giving the new arrival the responsibility to mitigate any problems. This article on local.gov.uk covers the basics and provides links for further reading. But in short:


Jonathan Sandilands, maestro of the whole affair, later told me of the genesis of the idea. Inspired by a sing-along event staged by Moselele, Moseley’s premier Ukelele meetup, at the Prince of Wales, as well as previous charity gigs at the venue, Jon put forward the notion of a sing-a-long rock anthems gig.

Continue reading “XOM and the question of music”

Heaney’s ‘Bog Oak’

Since I mentioned my University days on Tuesday, I thought a relic of that time, on Seamus Heaney, who would have turned 80 last week, worth airing. I couldn’t bear to let this go, however, with all the undergraduate prose intact, so I’ve improved the grammar and tone. The essay attempts to see how Heaney brings ‘modern Irish problems into relationship with images from the past’ in the poem Bog Oak, which I reproduce below:

Bog Oak
A carter's trophy
Split for rafters,
a cobwebbed, black,
long-seasoned rib

under the first thatch.
I might tarry
with the moustached
dead, the creel-fillers,

or eavesdrop on
their hopeless wisdom
as a blow-down of smoke
struggles over the half-door

and mizzling rain
blurs the far end
of the cart track.
The softening ruts
 
lead back to no
'oak groves', no
cutters of mistletoe
in the green clearings.

Perhaps I just make out
Edmund Spenser,
dreaming sunlight,
encroached upon by

geniuses who creep
'out of every corner
of the woodes and glenne'
towards watercress and carrion.

Seamus Heaney’s Bog Oak came into the world at a crucial point in Heaney’s career and in Irish history. An early poem from Wintering Out, Heaney’s first collection since the beginning of the Troubles, and also Heaney’s first since moving away from Ulster. It looks back to the past for images for a new poetry and also I think back to Ulster in an attempt, as Ronald Tamplin (1989) suggests, to glimpse a new reality of Irish identity, a reading supported by Heaney’s oft-quoted view of poetry as “divination…as restoration of culture to itself”(1974) .

The reference to Edmund Spenser appears to set the poem in sixteenth century Munster, but that the poem concerns Ulster 1969 is clear: the final word ‘carrion’ guides such a reading. The description of the oak in the first stanza then becomes somewhat loaded: for instance, ‘split’ takes on obvious connotations. ‘Carrion’ is excellent, evoking not just death but horror, waste and decay. Heaney gazes homeward in loss and separation, mourning and sorrow.

A subtle manipulation of time through precise language seems to occur. The oak, ‘toughened survivor from Ireland’s pastcarries the longevity of trees; so as Heaney traces the oak, ‘long seasoned’, backwards through time and space, he turns to the past to try and discover poetry suitable – ‘adequate’ as he put it- to the present Troubles. The images he finds there are mostly inadequate- the wisdom of the dead seems ‘hopeless’ and these old fashioned representations of Ireland, rural carters and creel fillers, seem irrelevant.

In the third stanza Heaney is outdoors now (‘a blow down of smoke/ struggles over the half door’) and he looks back along the cart track, attempting to trace the oak all the way back to its roots.  But, ‘mizzling rain’ obscures his view just as time itself obscures our view of the past. Time meaning a changing culture which always constructs the past. The final three stanzas are full of these romanticised images of the past:

lead back to no
‘oak groves’, no
cutters of mistletoe
in the green clearings.

To make the point Heaney specifies that these images are not there. It is precisely these kinds of representations that are false and perhaps dangerous, an argument redolent of Brian Friel’s Making History. Heaney does discern a classic Romantic image – the sensitive male poet, ‘dreaming sunlight’, the phrase accurately and concisely invoking the false image of the poet constructed in the popular imagination unwittingly by the likes of Spenser, Wordsworth, (perhaps) Oscar Wilde, and the mass media.

Seamus Heaney as a young manInterestingly, at this point Heaney’s time-travelling stops in suspension then reverses into a forward direction by way of ‘encroached’,’creep’ and ‘towards’ (lines 24,25 and 28); now Heaney is looking forward to the future of Ireland. But why Edmund Spenser? Well, the reality of Spenser is very different from the image Heaney presents. Spenser’s non-literary career was as an agent of the Crown in Ireland as Lord Deputy. He also wrote a ‘View of the Present State of Ireland’, which, according to Garry Waller

argues for a vigorous programme of final conquest and subjugation of Ireland and the Irish, [and attacks] the ‘Old’ English preference for a degree of accommodation with the Irish chieftans, [describes the Irish as] barabarians, licentious, and while there were certain admirable or charming aspects of ancient Irish life (Spenser’s interest in Irish poetry and song is often mentioned by defenders of the View in this context), nothing short of force and thorough rooting out of Irish identity would allow the rule of English law to be permanently established

1994

The above seems pertinent. Spenser the poet’s interest in ancient Ireland and Spenser the public servant’s advocacy of genocide is just the kind of conflict which interests Heaney. So you see how the romantic image in the poem (‘dreaming sunlight – kissing carrion’) arrests the reader who knows Spenser’s position.

To return to the image of the bog oak, Irish identity has survived the threat posed by Spenser but not escaped unscathed or unaltered by history; the ‘rape’ of Ireland and conversion to Protestantism evoked in Heaney’s later ‘Act of Union’ are what has led to the divided situation in the Ulster counties and its horrific consequences. In the poem, Spenser is ‘encroached upon by geniuses’, the days of the English are numbered as the forces of nationalism rise. Nationalism however, because of the complexity and unpredictability of history will play its part in the creation of the Troubles, creeping ‘towards watercress and carrion’. Heaney is aware, like Dennis Potter, of the subtlety of the problem of evil, that ‘a good act can lead to evil consequences’.

In conclusion, this clever poem follows lyrical conventions and subverts them, The final line creates an emotionally charged transcendent moment but, perversely and aptly it is one of death, sadness, and loss. The mood at the end of the poem I judge to be pessimistic in seeing Irish identity set back. The bleak, terse ‘Watercress and carrion’ suggest language cannot yet cope with the situation. But the insertion of ‘watercress’ is hopeful, yet at the same time suggests fragility. As if these two constituents of Irish identity in the context of the Troubles exist side by side, the first constantly threatened by the second. A poem of national mourning then (Heaney from Munster showing grief for the events in another part of his country), how far has Heaney come in these twenty-eight lines in his search for poetry suitable for the times?

Despite its evocative and complex nature I don’t find the poem a total success; the identity of the ‘geniuses’ is as uncertain as the relevance of ‘watercress’ until analysed. This uncertainty is to some extent the whole point but but the poem seems to come to an awkward stop. Anyway, if Heaney has not yet found the right poetic images and words to represent the times, he has certainly in his rejection of Romanticism demonstrated intelligently what is not appropriate or propitiate. Spenser’s presence achieves this especially well, ensuring the poem goes beyond Ireland. We may argue Heaney cannot assume an audience who would be aware of Spenser’s advocacy of the art of persuasion, but Tamplin resolves this for us: ‘a poet creates and leads a readership…it is not unreasonable that [Heaney] should hope that an audience might acquaint themselves [with the history] either from wanting to be in touch, or because they want to extend the knowledge they themselves can bring to their reading. The knowledge is good in itself…some have it before they first read the poem and others catch up…some of the audience is assumed and some acquired’. In this case, the Spenser effect is simply and starkly to show that a particular popular image is false and misleading. At the same time he has powerfully evoked the mood of a troubled place and people. Given recent events in Ulster we look forward to Heaney’s future work with excitement. If Heaney can catch this wave, as the Beach Boys might put it, he’d be sitting on top of the world.

Bibliography

Heaney 1972 Wintering Out

Tamplin 1989 Seamus Heaney

Waller 1994 Edmund Spenser: a literary life

Covid-19 in the UK

One week into the UK’s so-called ‘lockdown’, and I thought it would be good to look at the UK response to the virus, and round up some political and social developments within this benighted territory over the past few weeks. Coming so soon after last year’s late general election, which confirmed the Johnson administration in power, it’s difficult not to see the Covid-19 crisis as a test of this government’s mettle and fibre, and it’s an interesting political story. But much more broadly, I’m solidly of the opinion that this crisis presents an opportunity to consider, and reconsider, where we are as a society and as a culture, and specifically to refresh our political vision and ambition. Personally I find the idea of ‘going back to normal life’ horrifying; to even consider that option I’d call tragic, and a wasted opportunity. Going back to the interminable boom of traffic; the illegally filthy urban air, a killer in itself; to go back to how we were: now that’s what I call a zombie apocalypse. This crisis, it seems to me, exposes very clearly where the unacceptable has been normalised. To expect to go back to accepting the unacceptable is to lower ones expectations so far one might as well have no expectations at all.

The gathering storm

Think back to another age: mid-March, just about half a lunar cycle ago, when pubs were open and I could go see XOM play Pink Floyd at the Dark Horse. I do some work with the NHS, chairing a monthly networking meeting for service users and professionals, and it was around this time all ‘non-essential’ meetings and training within the Birmingham and Solihul Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust (try saying that after six jam sandwiches) were cancelled. Precautionary measures were being taken as the scale of the epidemic on the continent became apparent.

As an excellent round-up of the story of UK politics in the time of Covid-19, found of all places in the New England Journal of Medicine, reminds us, it was only around this time, March 12th, that Johnson held his first major press conference on the issue, but, despite increasingly concerned communiques since January from the UK’s public health community:

there was no appetite for banning mass gatherings, since we were told […] that doing so would have minimal impact […] there was no recommendation, far less any instruction, to shut down one of the busier weekends on the sporting calendar. Such inaction continued despite the prime minister’s warning that “many more families will lose loved ones before their time.”

[…]

In the absence of a government policy, the football authorities (both rugby and soccer) acted with admirable responsibility: they postponed the matches despite the financial losses…

Hunter, D. Covid-19 and the Stiff Upper Lip, 2020

Indeed, it now looks like civil society was way ahead of the government; but so were other governments.

Herd it through the grapevine

Sir Patrick Vallance, who going by the surname is affiliated with the followers of William the Conqueror, used to preside over R&D at big pharma company GlaxoSmithKline. These days however he slums it as the UK government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, and it was Sir Patrick who used the term ‘herd immunity’ to describe an aspect of the government’s strategy. Quoted in the Guardian, Sir Patrick argued:

“Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; […] to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission […] “

He added: “This is quite likely, I think, to become an annual virus, an annual seasonal infection.”

The Guardian, 13 March 2020

Regardless of the wisdom or otherwise of this approach, I think the term ‘herd immunity’ got people’s backs up: people don’t on the whole like being regarded as cattle. The public quickly got the impression the national plan was accepting “a large number of deaths soon, to ultimately get the population to a Covid-19–resistant state”. Some, including the Guardian, implied the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), the so-called ‘nudge unit’ which has been a feature of British politics since the ascendance of the Cameron/Osborne double-act, were partly responsible for fashioning a response based on behavioural psychology.

Regardless, the policy did seem out of step with other governments, as Eire and France had already by this point closed schools, universities, and moved to ban mass gatherings. The Guardian ran an Op-ed titled I’m an epidemiologist. When I heard about Britain’s ‘herd immunity’ coronavirus plan, I thought it was satire. Jeremy Hunt, former Health Secretary and the candidate Johnson had beaten in the final round for the leadership of the Conservative Party, and therefore the Premiership, registered his concern that more serious measures were not being taken, and government strategy at this point became politically untenable.

Their finest hour

In civil society, consciousness of what was before us became crystallised, focused. At the pub that weekend, there was talk of little else, and of making the most of a last opportunity to socialise. One colleague from another NHS Trust suggested that the usual tensions within the service had abated:

all parts of the service are now pulling together and coming into line in an unprecedented manner – co-operation and flexibility amongst front line staff has been extraordinary

Silver linings, unexpected consequences.

The Monday evening following I walked past the same pub, guitar in hand, and I caught sight of an MC of my acquaintance, so I went to over say hello. He was predicting the forthcoming lock-down, in characteristically Biblical tones. Noticing the guitar, he asked me if I had been practising. “No,” I replied, “I’ve just played an open mic in Kings Heath”. “We do what we do, don’t we” he observed stoically.

Johnson announced more stringent advice that Monday; the NEJM argues these vague announcements only added to the confusion. By Wednesday, March 18th, the government announced school closures for the end of the week. On March 20th, at the spring equinox, the NEJM could write:

Throughout the past few weeks, the U.K. mantra has been “we will act at the appropriate time according to the science.” Many clinicians and scientists have been pushing the panic button, but the alarm, if heard, was not acted on publicly until the third week of March. Everyone is hoping that their gut instincts, the experience of other countries, and now the models are wrong. What is not in doubt is that barring a miracle, a treatment, and ultimately a vaccine, the NHS in the United Kingdom is about to experience a challenge unlike any other in its 70 years of existence.

Hunter, D. ibid.

Four days later, the government announced the UK ‘lockdown’, to last a minimum of three weeks, with emergency legislation planned for later that week to enforce it. As has been pointed out though, these measures are less draconian than in other countries – there’s no actual curfew or travel ban as such, and the Civil Contingencies Act has not been triggered. The new regulations are however fairly strict, and and enforceable by new police powers:

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England)
Regulations 2020

Meanwhile, outside our island, news of riots and breakouts across prisons in South and Latin America reached me, as people began to take matters into their own hands.

Join me soon, when I’ll be looking at life since the ‘lockdown’ began. I’ll look at further political, social and cultural developments, as we begin week two, and try to ascertain what might happen next.