Recommended CDs

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Davey Graham, Folk Pioneer, R.I.P.

Folk, Blues, and Beyond is one of those albums that changed the musical direction of a generation and is still cited today by anyone who really aspires to play the acoustic guitar. Most people find him, as I did, as a result of familiarity with the great Bert Jansch. Now I suppose the connection is at one more remove, but Bernard Butler, who worships Jansch, certainly knows him. And I suppose the proto-emo pissings of Neil Drake are where most younger people would have heard the influence of Davey Graham, even if they were unaware of it.

But everyone knows at least one tune of Graham's, Angi, as a result of its being covered by Paul Simon (who changed the spelling to Anji) and many others.

After the 60s Graham basically lost the next 30 years or more of his life to drugs, but he had returned to playing in recent years. A good job was done of issuing some of his old albums at the beginning of this century. They also issued "After Hours", recorded in a student's room at Hull University in 1967 after Graham's performance there the same evening. This is one of my favourite recordings by Graham. That's the sort of setting where you hear real music that no producer has sprinkled with so-called magic dust. Its release was a shot in the arm for anyone who's ever played a "concert" in someone's bedsit or student digs (I've spent some of the most enjoyable musical hours of my life in those settings).

Nowadays aspiring musicians make digital recordings on computers and upload them to MySpace. Graham belonged to that generation of musicians who paid their dues by busking their way around Europe (Ralph McTell is another guy who learned his trade this way, busking in subways or near cinema queues. McTell learned ragtime from a young American who'd studied with the legendary Gary Davies whom McTell met while busking on a freezing cold day on the Left Bank in Paris; you just don't get that sort of experience from the internet).

Graham's travels also took him to India, where he became one of the first British musicians to come under the spell of Ravi Shankar and Indian music generally (see under Harrison, George). Graham was one of the founders of British "folk baroque", which mixed American blues and English folk, renaissance and early classical music, plus what was not then, but is now called "world music." Thus we have lost not merely a fine musician, but a true pioneer.

At least we still have Bert Jansch, who now can quite properly be said to be the finest living British acoustic guitar player, a controversial claim while Graham was alive.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

On Milton's 400th Birtthday

Milton and the Sonnet

The following piece is heavily indebted to the Introduction to A Century of Sonnets: The Romantic Era Revival by Paula R. Feldman and Daniel Robinson, available in the UK from (hardback, softback) and highly recommended.

On His Blindness

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,-
Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?
I fondly ask:-But Patience, to prevent

That murmer, soon replies; God doth not need
Either man's work, or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best: His state

Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:-
They also serve who only stand and wait.

Milton wrote only 24 sonnets, but they were the last great contribution to the form before it fell into disrepute and neglect until the second half of the 18th century. Johnson dismissed the sonnet form altogether as being unsuited to the English language, and excepted not even Milton's contributions to the genre. Boswell records "a lively saying of Dr Johnson to Miss Hannah More, who had expressed a wonder that the poet who had written Paradise Lost, should write such poor sonnets: ' Milton, madam, was a genius that could cut a Colossus from a rock, but could not carve heads upon cherry-stones'."

To the 18th century, eager for satire, intellect and clarity, the eroticism of the Petrarchan sonnet as adapted to the English language by Surrey, Wyatt, Spenser, Sidney and Shakespeare (who developed a new form not until much later known as the Shakespearean sonnet) seemed morbid, its courtly tradition seemed quaint and obscure, its habitual tone of resignation unmanly and unsuited to an age of reason and confidence, its "conceited" imagery wilfully obscure and much too clever by half. Johnson's Dictionary defines "sonneteer" as a contemptuous word for a "small poet" and in his Essay on Criticism Pope writes,

What woeful stuff this madrigal would be
In some starv'd hackney sonneteer, or me

And George Steevens was praised by critics for omitting Shakespeare's sonnets from his 1793 edition of the collected works!

And yet Milton had already modernized the sonnet for the new age. He had moved it away from erotic themes, and beyond the purely devotional (such as Donne's immortal Holy Sonnets). His sonnets are either personal (but nonerotic) such as On His Blindness (see above) or Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint) or political such as On the Late Massacre in Piedmont or To the Lord General Cromwell. He created a model for a sonnet free of the burden of the Italian erotic tradition, suitable for public themes and for private themes other than love. While restoring the Petrarchan rhyme scheme in place of the Shakespearean form (indeed, five of his sonnets are in Italian), he abandoned its rhetorical division and made extensive use of enjambement. This can be seen very well in On His Blindness -- Milton uses enjambement not only between individual lines but between quatrains and between the octet and the sestet. The volta or "turn" begins after the second foot of line 8, rather than the beginning of line 9. These metrical innovations gave the sonnet the same taut, stately feel as his blank verse.

Nevertheless, an "18th century sonnet" failed to develop from Milton's innovations. When the sonnet returned to favour in the second half of the 18th century, it did so not as a vehicle for public or personal themes, but as part of the "Cult of Sensibility" and largely in the hands of female poets.

Ironically, it was Wordsworth, the romantic who broke with most of the traditions of post-Restoration poetry, who proclaimed himself the heir of the Miltonian sonnet. He praised Milton for his reforms, noting that they gave the sonnet "the intense unity...of an orbicular body, a sphere, or a dew drop." That master epigrammist Walter Savage Landor summed up Milton's contribution to the sonnet best in The Last Fruit Off An Old Tree (the first lines refer, of course, to Milton's sonnet to Cromwell):

'TWAS not unseemly in the bravest bard Milton
From Paradise and angels to descend,
And crown his country's saviour with a wreath
Above the regal : few his words, but strong,
And sounding through all ages and all climes.
He caught the sonnet from the dainty hand
Of Love, who cried to lose it ; and he gave
The notes to Glory.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

English Sportsmen in "Taking Moral Stand" Shock

In my last blog entry, I hesitated before congratulating the England cricket team for showing solidarity with their Indian counterparts at this terrible moment in India's history. At that stage, as Andrew Miller put it in on cricinfo, the Englishmen (and their admirable South African-born leader) were still one step short of a hero's welcome, having arrived at their training camp in Abu Dhabi, but not having fully committed to taking the plane from Dubai Airport to India for the resumption of their interrupted tour. But now that it has been formally announced that England will tour with their full squad, I can offer my warmest congratulations to every member of the team for standing up to terrorism and with their Indian fellow professionals, the Indian nation, and their touring supporters.

Press reports suggested that chief doubts surrounded two crucial members of the England squad, fast bowler Steve Harmison (who has in the past not required much incentive to quit tours and scurry back to his family in the northeast) and talisman Andrew Flintoff. Surely "Freddie" wouldn't jump ship? Not our Fred, who nobly stepped in on the last tour to India, when Vaughan was injured and stand-in captain Marcus Trescothick suffered the first onset of the stress-related injury that eventually ended his international career. Flintoff had been due to fly back for the birth of his child, but put the needs of the team above his personal concerns, an all too rare gesture in modern sport.

I don't imagine it took too many appeals from Kevin Pietersen to get Flintoff to do the right thing. Steve Harmison may have needed a little more persuasion, and I can imagine both KP and Freddie doing sterling work behind the scenes to get our sometimes reluctant fast bowler, but potential match winner, on board.

To announce that they will be arriving in India with their full squad (apart from the injured Sidebottom and Swann, who may arrive later) clearly raises the prestige of their decision to continue the tour. This makes the first time that a first-choice England team has toured India for many years -- there were players who dropped out in 2002 for "security reasons", when the world was just getting used to the idea that terrorism was no longer something that happened "over there", but a permanent feature of our lives that we must resist, or surrender everything that makes our civilization superior to the Islamo-nihilists bent on destroying it.

I have to say that the BCCI (Board for Control of Cricket in India) doesn't deserve this gesture; its shameless protection of Zimbabwe within the ICC, ignoring the fact that the Zimbabwean Cricket Board is merely an extention of Rubert Mugabe's Zanu-PF, is rife with finanical corruption and political interference, and chooses its team on blatantly racist lines, is a permanent and uneradicable stain on the reputation of cricket; the BCCI has sold its soul in return for Zimbabwe's vote within the ICC that allows India to run that organization as its own private fiefdom. For its role in propping up Mugabe's bloody dictatorship, everlasting shame should descend on the Indian board. Please spare me allegations of hypocrisy: there is no comparison between the MCC's embarrassing procrastination before doing the right thing over the Basil D'Oliveira affair and the BCCI's chronic and ongoing (and very possibly corrupt) opposition to the lancing of the Zimbabwean boil. The British were shamed into taking a stand against apartheid in South African sport; the BCCI have shown themselves to be quite beyond the reach of shame, and to have no interest in anything apart from maximizing their revenue from TV coverage.

But screw the BCCI and its narrow-minded, venal politicos; damn the bastards to hell; this is a gesture of solidarity with the Indian people, made for the good of cricket, the first time in a long time that anyone in the sport has taken a long-term, broad view for the good of the game.

Let's make no mistake too: it's a brave decision, even more than David Gower's decision to continue England's tour of India after Indira Gandhi's assissination in 1984. Then the act of terror and the ensuing unrest were confined to Indian nationals, or at least to non-cricketers: no one believed then that terrorists would lift a hand against the game of cricket, a second religion for Hindus and Muslims alike throughout the subcontinent. The main problem for Gower's team was going into a test match having been unable to practise for nearly two weeks because of a national period of mourning. The major danger to the players then, as Matthew Engel wrote in The Guardian, was incurring sunstroke beside their hotel swimming pool. (Admittedly, the crisis hit nearer home when, on the day before the Test match, Percy Norris, who had recently been appointed British Deputy High Commissioner to India, was murdered half a mile from the team's hotel, days after meeting the team.)

Even then, it took some aggressive persuasian to get some members of the squad to stay. According to Derek Pringle in The Daily Telegraph, team manager Tony Brown threw all their passports on a table and told those who wanted out to take theirs and 'piss off'.

One hopes that, even though there is a much clearer danger to Westernisers after the Bombay attacks, and even cricket may not be immune from the Islamo-nihililsts, such moral blackmail was not required this time. Kevin Pietersen had already shown that he has more subtle powers of persuasion in the summer, when he talked Harmison out of retirement from the one day game and Flintoff into batting at five in that format and six in the test match: excellent decisions that brought England victory in all the remaining fixtures of the summer bar the two that were rained off. It is to be hoped that reluctant members of the squad were persuaded by the force of the arguments rather than implied threats to their careers.

However this was achieved, Pietersen and no doubt others such as the England and Wales Cricket Board's managing director Hugh Morris, deserve enormous credit; and so do the rest of the squad, even those who initially dragged their feet. Because, make no mistake about it, it takes some courage to continue with a mere game after the atrocity that was inflicted on Bombay, where one target was the Taj Mahal hotel, where the team had been staying only days earlier, and where their kit was still awaiting their return, even as gunmen rounded up all the British, American, and Israeli nationals they could find and held them hostage.

However, it is not as though terrorism is something that happens far away to other people any more. In July 2005, terrorists struck in the heart of London right near the beginning of the Ashes tour. If the Australians had gone home then, we would not only have been deprived of one of the great sporting contests of recent history, but the terrorists would also have been emboldened to new atrocities by the success in disrupting the British way of life. What happened instead was a show of defiance by Londoners from all walks of life: on the Sunday after the atrocity, the nation commemorated jointly the anniversaries of VE and VJ day in the capital. As England and Australia began their one-day international at Lord's, the famous ground was buzzed by RAF jets. A million poppies were dropped from the London skies over Buckingham Palace to commemorate those who died in an earlier struggle with a different group of fascists. An anti-monarchist, I was nevertheless proud of our Queen for defying the terrorists and riding through the capital as scheduled in an open coach. As the Daily Record wrote,

Grief for those killed last week merged with painful memories of a city devastated by the blitz 60 years ago. It brought generations together. And the quiet dignity of the day sent a silent - but crystal clear - message to the world. Londoners said: our city will never be beaten.

It is clear that we have a duty to India as a fellow member of the cricketing commonwealth, to stand by it in its hour of need, just as Australia did with us.

In case anyone asks of me: What about you? Why aren't you in India right now? Isn't it easy to demand that other people make these sorts of decisions, which might potentially have tragic consequences for them and their families?

Well, I would be in India right now if I had the money and leisure to follow the England cricket team. ButI do have a little experience in being in a foreign country in the midst of an international crisis: On 30th April, 1986 I was studying in the city of Minsk in what is now the Republic of Belarus, when word got to us via some of the Russian students that there had been some kind of nuclear accident near Kiev.

The following day, we were evacuated from Minsk by order of the British Foreign Office; but none of us wanted to go. We wanted to stay as a gesture of solidarity to our roommates and fellow students. After all, they had nowhere to go. But we were bundled on an overnight train to Moscow, while our Russian friends waved us goodbye from the platform, tears in their eyes. My roommate Sergey was still on board the train, giving me last minute advice about eating more cake (I was terribly thin in those days), and had to jump off the moving train in the nick of time.

I should say that the British Embassy was absolutely useless in this whole affair: they had been unable to find us tickets to Moscow (the following day was May Day and thousands of people were travelling to the capital to take part in the biggest holiday in the Soviet calendar), but eventually our tutor Viktor Viktorovich, who had always managed to get us scarce opera and theatre tickets, came up with the goods. The Embassy got its collective finger out and got us a plane out of Moscow only when it became apparent that otherwise they'd have to allow a bunch of student oinks to stay overnight at the palatial British Embassy itself.

I can still recall our horror and disgust at the sensational headlines that awaited us when we boarded the plane, after hours of delay while we underwent compulsory medical checks by the Soviet authorities on the outskirts of Moscow. "Millions of Red Babies at Risk", "Students Escape Nuclear Hell-Hole..." The Soviet authorities in this pre-glasnost era were secretive, but the British press made up for lack of information with ghoulish and sensational speculation.

I read in The Times the next day that the Soviets had refused to allow our plane to leave Moscow Airport until Soviet sympathizers among the students (our group and another from Kiev) had been able to make propaganda statements. I can safely say that there were no Communist sympathizers in our group. We made a joint statement via the oldest member of our party (a retired subeditor in his sixties) that we didn't want to leave but were being forced to do so, and that we thanked our Russian friends for their hospitality and friendship, and hoped that they were in no present danger. The other group stated something similar. Nor had we been prevented from leaving until such statements were made; a Russian official merely boarded the plane and invited us to do so. A far longer delay was caused by British Airways's requirement that we doff all our clothes and put them into the hold, and wear BA tracksuits to board the train.

There were reporters on the plane from the Daily Mail who had boarded British Airways airbus in Gatwick without a visa in their bid for a scoop. But to our party's credit, we refused to talk to them or feed their desire for sensational headlines.

On arrival in Gatwick, after a rowdy flight in which the British Airways pilot had made the bold decision, which he later regretted, of making all drinks on board, including alcohol, free by way of apology to the passengers who had been waiting for hours on the runway while we underwent our checks and the rest (students + free alchohol + four hour flight is not a pretty mixture), we were met by a scum of journalists (my preferred collective noun for that profession). I pushed angrily past a Daily Express man who wanted me to tell my story.

When I got home, I started smashing up my room in a fit of rage. My parents couldn't understand why I was so angry: why wasn't I happy to have escaped from the potential danger?

Because for more than 48 hours, we had been helpless pawns in an international game, unable to do anything but obey orders. Because we had exposed to the sheer mindlessness of the British tabloid and broadsheet press. But most of all because we had been denied the opportunity to make a moral decision to stay with our friends and continue our studies in the face of unknown peril. At least England's cricketers have been given the opportunity to make this brave decision, and I salute them for it.

Now then. What about announcing a date for the postponed ICC Trophy tournament in Pakistan?

Friday, 5 December 2008

Bombay Burns and We Are All Indians Now

A few days ago an unspeakable attack was carried out on one of the world's most heavily populated, culturally and racially diverse, and cosmopolitan cites -- a city that I shall call Bombay rather than "Mumbai", the name it was given in 1996, for aesthetic reasons, though according to Christopher Hitchens, there are excellent political and anti-theist reasons for continuing to call it by its former name as well (I'm not entirely convinced he's right on this subject, but anyway).

The target was the city's most famous cultural landmarks in the first place, and anyone of American, British, or Jewish nationality in the second.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but it bears all the hallmarks of Al Qaida's filthy handiwork, and, according to the Indian authorities, there are unmistakable links too to Pakistan's ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence).

Those who doubt that Al Qaida are waging a nihilistic, cultural, religiously-motivated war against the whole world have to answer why their targets are always symbolic buildings, multi-cultural communities, and cosmopolitan cities. These Islamic nihilists loathe such culturally diverse centres with every evil fibre of their rotten beings. They advocate not only religious exclusivity, but racial and cultural exclusivity also. As Hitchens wrote in Slate magazine:

...what's at stake is the whole concept of a cosmopolitan city open to its own citizens and to the world—a city on the model of Sarajevo or London or Beirut or Manhattan. There is, of course, a reason they attract the ire and loathing of the religious fanatics. To the pure and godly, the very existence of such places is a profanity. In a smaller way, the same is true of the Islamabad Marriott hotel, where I also used to stay. It was a meeting point and crossroads for foreigners. It had a bar where the Pakistani prohibition rules did not apply. Its dining rooms and public spaces featured stylish Asian women who showed their faces. And so it had to be immolated, like any other Sodom or Gomorrah [the Marriott Hotel was bombed in September this year].

That of course was also why the World Trade Center had to be destroyed -- those who point out, correctly, that many of those killed in the WTC on 9/11 were Muslims, as well as Christian and people of other religions and none at all don't always make the connection that this is the very reason why the WTC was so offensive to the Islamic nihilists: it's not that they didn't realize that Muslims were also present in the building: they did not class those persons as true Muslims because they were working alongside the Infidel.

And that's why one of the world's most admired buildings, the Taj Mahal also had to burn:

Just because America has elected a liberal president, and mirabile dictu, one with a brain to boot, does not mean that he won't have to deal with the same problems as Bush contended with so ineptly. Moreover, in the light of some of Obama's campaign trail comments about Pakistan, the involvement of the ISI, if proven, could have serious implications for future U.S. foreign and military policy. In what many portrayed as a major blunder and sign of his lack of experience in foreign affairs, Obama implied that he would be willing to extend the hunt for Al Qaida within Pakistan's borders if that country did not fully cooperate with the war on terror.

He also indicated a willingness to contemplate a surge inside Afghanistan -- quite a volte face for someone who staked so much political capital on his ab initio opposition to the Iraq war. And yet, if his strategy is to withdraw from Iraq while shoring up the allied effort in Afghanistan, he cannot ignore Pakistan, which is effectively the Taleban's hinterland. But such a policy is fraught with danger, in that Pakistan is already notoriously volatile and possesses (like India) nuclear weapons.

One of the earliest indications of Obama's politicals skills will be his handling of the Pakistani issue. Can he bring the Indian and Pakistani presidents together? Can he organize a collective miltiary responce with broad international backing if necessary? It's a real tester for the new President's early days.

In the meantime, all the rest of us can do is offer India our solidarity. In this respect, I am delighted by the news that England are to return to India to play their rescheduled test matches against India, though I won't say too much at this point in case they back down. If it goes ahead, as it should, it would be a clear sign that we stand shoulder to shoulder with the Indian people in their hour of need.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Always look on the bright side of life

Ever since I quoted that Edwin Muir poem the other day, the Google ads on this blog have been about nothing else but grief counselling and will making.

So in a bid to dispel the gloom, I hereby offer, courtesy of youtube, Eric Idle's classic song about looking up even when things are looking down. I dedicate it to all those facing hard times due to the world economic downturn. Indeed, our governments have decreed that pessimism is unpatriotic, and we must all feast in the time of plague and above all, spend, spend, spend our way out of recession! So let the Clown spread a little optimism.

In case that doesn't work, here's a version of the song that Idle may have been parodying. Irving Berlin's Let's Face the Music and Dance was written for the film Follow the Fleet in the middle of growing economic depression and the looming spectre of war in Europe. In place of Fred and Ging, here are Strictly Come Dancing's own Anton du Beke and Flavia Caccace, and for double the fun, Vincent Simone and Erin Boag. This was a gloriously cheeky routine, one of my favourite dances by the professionals on my favourite show.

Did you know Anton du Beke's real name is Tony Beak? That certainly brought a smile to my face!