29 July, 2011

And You Never Ask Questions When God’s On Your Side!

 I don’t know why people ‘blog’ – I suppose we each have our own personal reasons. For me, as someone who has always written lists and found it helpful to write things down when I am considering a problem – professional or personal – I find blogging helps me to clarify my thoughts or line of argument. I suppose that, by definition, anyone who blogs or writes articles in a newspaper or writes a book will be writing about something close to their heart and which has some relevance to them. It will, for some reason be something that they feel strongly about or which impacts on their  lives  in some significant way. Certainly, this is true for me - whether  others agree with me is, of course, a different matter!

In that context I have had on my potential blog list, for many months, the subject of today’s commentary (rant!?). In truth, I have kept putting it off – not because of any uncertainty or lack of enthusiasm,  but rather because I fear it might grow to be a very long blog and open a “can of worms”!

But, in the last week or so a number of events seem to have come together which have prompted me to air my views – the dreadful events in Norway of the last few days, an e-mail response to a blog that  that I recently  wrote, a small, unimportant happening in the Yorkshire Dales and booking tickets to see Bob Dylan! So, what of these disparate events and what thoughts have they forced into my mind?
Dylan and Baez - the voices of protest
and change

Bob Dylan is coming to Nottingham. As a rather tight fisted pensioner I found it hard to stump up the £70 per ticket for my wife and I to go and see this legend. I know I will be disappointed (although, of course, I hope not) - I know that Dylan at seventy (and a man  who has changed his musical style many times) is not the icon that he was to my generation of the 60s. I know that half way through the concert I will sadly think of my departed £140. But, forget that  – I will have seen Bob Dylan in the flesh – a voice I grew up with and was without doubt one of the formative sounds and features of my life and beliefs. Even if he stands silent on the stage I will be sharing the same space – ultimately worth every penny! I don’t know what he will sing but pray that some of the seminal sounds echo around the arena  - Mr Tambourine Man, The times they are a changin’, Don’t think twice it’s alright, Like a rolling stone, Masters of war, With God on our side................. songs that both defined a generation and changed the world forever.

The second event happened in Yorkshire a week or two ago. We were enjoying a few days on the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, combining it with attending a friend’s wedding. One day we visited Bolton Abbey – a lovely ruined abbey in stunning surroundings. As we walked through the grounds we passed a group of Asian people – an Indian family out for the day. They were taking a group photograph and as always happens one person – he taking the photo – could not be on it. I offered to take a picture of the whole group which they gladly accepted and saying “cheese” I snapped their smiling faces with the abbey ruin in the background. A perfectly ordinary thing. They thanked me and we went our different  ways.

But these two innocent and everyday (if seeing Dylan can be called “everyday”!) events  have become entwined with other events of my past week or two. Let me explain.

Bolton Abbey
A couple of weeks ago I received an e-mail from America – from a lady unknown to me  called Elizabeth Potter. I assume that Ms Potter had read one of my blogs and her kind e-mail mentioned what she called  the  “hostile” climate faced by many Muslims in the US following the 9/11 events. Now, I don’t have any direct knowledge of this – so I cannot (nor should I) comment – but Ms Potter referred me to a web site (http://myfellowamerican.us/)  which contained a short video. I watched the video which seemed to be a tirade of hate and invective – by both ordinary and prominent people  aimed at Muslims and people from other cultures. Again, I would stress that I cannot and will not comment upon views held by another nation, but what I heard was,  to say the least,  unpleasant and worrying. It reminded me of the sort of thing that we hear from our own National Front. The web site referred to by Ms Potter seemed to provide a positive opportunity for ordinary Americans to voice their more positive views about the cultural mix of their nation. I posted a short item on the site.

And then a few days ago the small country of Norway – a squeaky clean place, the envy of many because of its apparent social harmony  - hit the world’s headlines for all the wrong reasons. Many reasons have been given for the events, many words used to describe the actions of the killer but in the end whatever the facts we are in the realms of hate, extremism, retribution, intolerance and terror. Exactly what I had heard on the video only  few days previously.

You may now begin to see where I am going with this: issues of hate, extremism, cultural and religious intolerance on the world stage when only  a few days before I was taking photographs of a smiling family from a very different ethnic and cultural background to my own and probably who held very different religious affiliations. And yet this family, although from a different world to mine were doing the same ordinary things that we all do – enjoying a day out, taking a photograph of a happy day,  smiling when the photographer says ‘cheese’, smiling their thanks for my actions – all very normal.  The were just members of the human race doing what ordinary people do every day. In the dark recesses of my mind I began to feel the need to set my thoughts in order – where does hate and extremism fit into this equation? And, where does Bob Dylan fit in? 

Well, I don’t know what Dylan will sing in October but when I see him on the stage in my mind I will be going back to a night almost half a century ago, soon after I began to train to be a teacher. Each Tuesday night there was a folk club at the college. It was the early 60’s and protest was in the air – everyone  wanted to be Dylan or Joan Baez. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were only just  reaching their zenith. And one Tuesday night in that folk club  I heard for the first time “With God On Our Side” – not sung by Dylan, but by one of the students. To coin a phrase, it blew my mind. At the first opportunity I bought the LP so  I could listen to Dylan sing it – it has remained my favourite Dylan throughout the years  and no matter how many times I hear it still believe it has a message for today and is thought provoking. It is a song about war, hate, extremism  and unthinking patriotism and blind religious zeal. It is thought provoking even if you disagree with its sentiments.
Christian terrorist?

In this morning’s New Statesman (29th July 2012) Peter Wilby makes some very pertinent and potentially controversial  points about the Norwegian incident. Sadly, he is exactly correct in his analysis. He says: “When an attack comes from people with brown skins......it is ‘Islamic Terrorism’ and part of a worldwide conspiracy to overthrow civilisation as we know it. Brown skinned folk must be closely monitored and Islam’s books ...closely scrutinised for anything that appears to encourage or excuse violent acts......any Muslim killer is potentially an al-Qaeda agent,  When a Nordic white supremacist kills scores of Norwegians our responses are instinctively different....  Anders Breivik is an unhinged loner and misfit. The category of ‘Christian terrorist’ does not exist so neither the Archbishop of Canterbury nor the Pope is called upon to dissociate himself........” As I read Wilby’s comments I thought back to that ordinary Indian family on their day out in the Dales – they were not intent on destroying civilisation they were like me enjoying a day out and Bolton Abbey was a better place for the three ladies all in their brightly coloured saris. In a wonderful piece of irony, the thousand year history of Bolton Abbey began to fade with the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1539 – the destruction of a Christian place of worship because a Christian King was in dispute with the Christian Church of Rome! Unmitigated extremism, hate and prejudice – given  a veneer of political “respectability” by a politician. Come to think of it it’s not far removed from the warped reasoning that has been used to justify the “war on terror” or indeed some comments made recently by our own Prime Minister.
Only a few months ago our own PM, David Cameron pronounced that we needed a new kind of “muscular liberalism” and that a policy of “multiculturalism” had failed. A few weeks prior to that Chancellor Merkel in Germany had made much the same claim. Now I’m not sure what all these ‘isms’ mean – indeed, I could argue that nor does David Cameron – but that’s another blog! What I am sure of is that when David Cameron says (as he said in February)  that multiculturalism had weakened Britain’s collective identity and helped to make young British Muslims vulnerable to extremist ideologies and  that European governments needed to build stronger national identities that rejected “passive tolerance” in favour of “a more active, muscular liberalism” then I am immediately suspicious. Cameron went on to say: A genuinely liberal country....... believes in certain values and actively promotes them.  Freedom of speech.  Freedom of worship.  Democracy.  The rule of law.  Equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality.  It says to its citizens: this is what defines us as a society.  To belong here is to believe in these things.  Each of us in our own countries must be unambiguous and hard-nosed about this defence of our liberty.”

It would be very difficult to argue with these sentiments, and deep down I believe that Cameron is well intentioned but my worry is that using Cameron’s criteria I guess the Norwegian  killer Anders Breivik believed he was being ‘unambiguous and hard-nosed’ about defending his society’s liberty. His links with the Knights Templar, Freemasonry, anti - Islamic groups and other institutions and bodies illustrates well that throughout history, extremism and hatred has crossed  international boundaries and religions. The Norwegian tragedy underlined what every thinking person knew – that hatred and extremism is not the preserve of al Qaeda or any other religion. It is alive and well within elements of  Christianity.  I’m sure, too, that Breivik, described as a ‘fundamentalist Christian’-  was trying to reinforce what, to use David Cameron’s words,  ‘defined’ his society. Presumably this meant his  society’s perceived Christian values as well as political. Similarly, the invective and hatred I listened to as I watched the American video was, I am sure, profoundly believed by those who spoke it and represented their passionately held views.

Orangemen as I remember them -
 pure unadulterated  prejudice. Even
as a child I recognised it
Throughout the centuries when religion and politics become enmeshed the result is extremism. When  David Cameron, a politician, begins to make pronouncements on these, however well meaning, he should take very great care. Whether it be ancient Rome and the persecution of Christians, the bloody wars of the Crusades, the politics of sixteenth century England, the years of sectarian strife in Ireland or indeed the ‘war on terror’ the cause and the result is always the same - hatred and extreme actions.

 To take just one first hand  example from my own life. In past decades, in the UK we have witnessed terror and extremism emanating from Northern Ireland. Indeed, as  a child growing up in a Lancashire town I well remember each Whit Monday being a day of “parades” when it was not unusual for violence to flare up between   the various denominations in the town.  The churches ‘walked’ through the streets with their banners and flags. This would start at early morning and go on all day. There was often fear of trouble between the respective groups – C of E, Catholic, Orangemen, Methodists etc - all vying to put on the best parade with marching bands. Each year different churches were allowed to ‘walk first’ so that everyone had a fair chance. I was never allowed to watch the Catholics who were considered by my mother to be beyond the pale! But, I was always taken to see the Orangemen with their banners, drums, bowler hats, medals and sashes. These were “good people” I was told – they kept the Catholics and the Irish “in their place” mother would often say. I can vividly remember mother telling me, as we watched the Orangemen ‘walk’, sporting their orange sashes and swinging their banners, that if it wasn’t for the Orangemen we’d be "overrun by Catholics and Irish tinkers!” I spent a long time as a child trying very hard to work out the significance of banners showing a long dead king called ‘Billy’ fighting  in a river (the Boyne) in Ireland. It didn’t seem very relevant to my life in a Lancashire cotton town and I wondered why these nasty Catholics had to be “kept in their place” – some of my best friends, who I played with on a daily basis were Catholics! For me, however, I watched these middle aged and elderly men all dressed in black with grim faces and black bowler hats and found them rather frightening and disconcerting and totally out of place. In the years since the 1960s as ‘the troubles’ flared in Northern Ireland I have often looked at Orangemen like Ian Paisley and thought “you are the cause of the violence”. I do not condone the IRA but I can understand it – such an irrational hatred was visible on the streets of Preston all those years ago.  What has happened in Norway and what I heard on the video confirms that it is still alive and well today – and that it is not unique to nasty Muslims or Palestinians or Jews or Sikhs or Hindus or any other nation or religion. It is very much part of our own national make up and thinking and is rife in god fearing Christians as Anders Breivik has shown.

I do not blame religion for this.  I know of no religion which advocates violence and retribution as a justifiable course of action. It seems to me that all the world’s major religion are pretty unanimous in preaching a broadly similar message of peace, love, goodwill and tolerance. I am no expert but Jesus posed the question “Who was the good neighbour?” after telling the story of the Good Samaritan. The Qur’an preaches similar themes – one of its major teaching, I believe, says something along the lines that anyone who kills another kills the whole of the human race and anyone who saves another saves the whole of mankind. The exact wording I have used may have been wrong but that is the gist of it. The Jewish greeting is “Shalom” – peace. No, the problem is not religion – in my view – it is how people use religion to justify their beliefs, prejudices and actions. And, as I said above, when religion is linked with politics the result is extremism, hatred and prejudice.

I cannot speak for American society nor for that of Norway – although I suspect that in broad terms there will be very close similarities to ours in the UK.  But I would guess that my own experiences of the cultural mix of modern society is not untypical. For many years now I have quietly questioned the populist views expressed in our tabloids and by some of our more extreme politicians who view “immigrants” or people of different cultures as some kind of weakness and to be feared element within our society.

It seems to me that, like David Cameron, we can use all sorts of twee phrases like “muscular liberalism” to dress up what in the end is little more that good old fashioned prejudice. Unfortunately this ‘prejudice’ ensures  a total lack of clear thinking. When prejudice appears common sense and calm reasoned thought disappears through the window – I only have to think back to my mother’s comments and beliefs on the streets of Whit Monday Preston all those years ago to know that. I have, throughout my life, experienced other examples of non-thinking prejudice and the consequent lack of common sense which makes a total mockery of the prejudiced views that many in society hold.

I cannot be alone in noticing for example that when I attend my local hospital (as I do with great frequency) the hospital has a very significant proportion of people from different cultures working there – and I am so pleased for their skills, services and care. Our care homes for the elderly or other vulnerable people in our society are often staffed by a majority of such people – indeed some years ago when my wife and were visiting care homes to find a suitable place for my wife’s terminally ill mother the Director of one  home went to great pains to point out that so many of the staff were of different ethnic, cultural or national backgrounds, but, she said, were all excellent. And, having said all that, I am forced to ask the question “Why”? Have we in western societies forgotten  how to care? Are we so anxious to be off doing more exciting things than caring for our old or our mentally handicapped or our ill? Do we simply want these “other cultures” to do the nasty things that we will not do or because of the low wages paid cannot afford to do? It is a fundamental question that we need to ask about ourselves.

Or, I think back to a few years ago. It was the day after a terrorist attack in London. My wife and I were flying off to Italy on holiday and there was understandable chaos at the airport with massively heightened security. In the queue in front of us was an Asian family – father, mother and three teenage children. They were given a very thorough security check – the only conceivable reason being because they were Asian in appearance. They did not object and were very dignified.  Having passed through security we found ourselves sitting near the family in the departure lounge. I still remember with some embarrassment and self loathing the fact that as I stood there I felt, to my everlasting shame, suspicious of this family – were they terrorists in disguise? Immediately I had thought the thought  I dismissed it – the father could easily have been the doctor who had been treating my heart condition in hospital. But in that micro second, fear and unease had swept across my mind – and I did not like it, and I felt very guilty and slightly less of a human being.  And that is what feeds extremism – the video I watched, organisations of the type espoused by Anders Breivik and indeed the words of our own Prime Minister, intentionally or not, feed on the fears, the uncertainties and the baser instincts of mankind.

And then I think to a night in Singapore. My wife and I joined a queue for a taxi outside our hotel. A taxi pulled up and the elderly couple in front of us went forward to climb in. There was extended discussion as they got to the cab and the taxi driver waved his arms. The couple walked away and the driver signalled to us to come forward. We did so and told him where we wished to go and climbed in. “What was the problem there?” we asked. “Oh” said the driver, “I’m a racist – I don’t want blacks in my cab!” We sat horrified – extremism and hate easily crosses national boundaries and is not restricted to one colour or creed! His comments were excruciatingly laughable had they not been so frightening; his racism did not extend to refusing a white couple a ride in his taxi. Perhaps we should have exercised our prejudice and racism and demanded a white taxi driver!

But on the other side of the multicultural fence there are positives. My wife and I sat on a train travelling for Delhi to Amritsar. The carriage was full. Throughout the six hour journey the waiter had desperately tried to ply us with a selection of his curries, his drinks and his sweets –so anxious was he to please. Behind us sat an Indian family – mother, father, grandparents and several children.  About four hours into the journey a teenage girl from the family appeared at our seat with a piece of torn newspaper. In perfect English she shyly asked could she have our autographs. “But we are not famous” we replied, “why do you want our autograph?” She smiled and said “ But you are white, you are famous to us”. There was no answer to that - a very humbling experience. I tore pages from my Filofax and we wrote little comments and signed. Of course, within seconds the other children were there wanting autographs too.  No muscular liberalism there. No invective. No thought of them wanting to keep us whites “in our place”  as my mother wanted the Orangemen to keep the Catholics and Irish “in their place” all those years ago.

And when we got to Amritsar we enjoyed one of our lives’ great privileges and memories – visiting the Golden Temple. Yes,  a beautiful building and memorable for that but much more memorable for the atmosphere and belief of the thousands of Sikh visitors. To stand in the great food hall (my term) and be told “Yes, you are welcome to  sit and enjoy the food too if you wish – you don’t have to be a Sikh”; to see the obvious respect reverence and love that visitors had for their beliefs; to experience the kindness that we were shown that day was something to remember. Unlike my experiences at the airport when going off on holiday to Italy I felt no fear and unhappiness there  as I walked amongst thousands of Indian families and when we returned to our taxi to take us back to the hotel we were not refused because we were white.
Amritsar's Golden temple
A very humbling experience -
the Sikh holy book
These are isolated events – not things to build great theories on. Everyone will have similar or opposites to tell – but my main premise, for me holds true. Hatred, extremism, intolerance and the like is not the fault  of religions. It is a “people” thing and those that would shout loudest on these matters and (worse still) call themselves  “patriots” doing it in the name of protecting their culture or their liberty are to be treated with caution. My beliefs and my experiences lead me to believe that a society that is not tolerant and mutually supportive will fail. Perhaps there was a time when each nation could be an island to itself – it is my belief that this time is long gone – and a good thing too. And, I know a clever bloke like David Cameron would have an answer for this, but I find it slightly bizarre that in a world that is becoming ever more global in its outlook and systems he wants to invoke some kind of quasi-nationalism. I understand what he is saying but with the complexities of global commerce, the internet, the movement of people, the knowledge that people now have of other cultures and other places, then to coin Dylan’s phrase “The times they are a changing”. Indeed, it would seem to me that a society that cannot harness the goodwill and potential of all those that live there had, again to quote Dylan, “ had better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone”. There is not only  a moral imperative for us to get on together but a hard-nosed practical one.

It seems to me that a couple of quotes from the past say it well. President  Jimmy Carter (a man who was much criticised at the time but who history will, I believe,  prove to be a great president) said: “We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.”  Perhaps Carter was waxing lyrical and being idealistic but there are times when I feel we could do with a bit more idealism and aspiration in the world. And nearly three centuries before French philosopher Voltaire famously said (and I do wish my mother was still around to read this!) “If there were only one religion in England there would be danger of despotism, if there were two, they would cut each other's throats, but there are thirty, and they live in peace and happiness”. I wonder what the Frenchman would have commented today about western societies? And finally, from three thousand years ago Greek philosopher Diogenes said I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world” - a simple basic truth that we would all do well to consider in the interdependent, global world that we now inhabit. Two thousand years ago when telling the story of the Good Samaritan Jesus asked the question “Who was the neighbour of the injured man?” In today’s complex and ever smaller world who is my neighbour? – this blog may be read in the far corners of the planet and I am pleased to call whoever reads it “my neighbour” for my way of life depends upon the goodwill of many across the globe.

And, if you haven’t given up the will to live by now, back to Bob Dylan. In verse 6 of ‘With God on our side’ he says (and remember, this was the era of the cold war, the early 60s).

I've learned to hate Russians
All through my whole life
If another war comes
It's them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side.

I suppose that you could substitute any word for "Russians" depending on your preferred prejudice! – Iraqis,  Afghanis, Taleban, Communist, Indian, Irish, Muslim, Hindu, Catholic....... whichever you choose it’s still unadulterated prejudice - justified by nationalism, patriotism and religion.

The Winter Palace
But when I read these words I am taken back to a bright cold day a few years ago when my wife and I went on a short visit to the wonderful city of St Petersburg in Russia. We have so many wonderful memories our visit – standing by the side of the river and suddenly realising that standing at the side of us was a man holding a chain on the end of which was a huge Russian bear – out for its morning walk! Or sitting in the hotel in the evening reading a book I had taken with me – I had decided to read ‘Crime and Punishment’ in the city where it was written. Or seeing the treasures of the Hermitage. But one event stands out. 

We were at the Winter Palace. It was bitterly cold and we went into the little cafe for a cup of warming coffee. We spoke no Russian. The cafe was empty and the young waiter, with signs, asked us what we wanted. With the help of the menu and lots of arm waving coffee was ordered. When he brought our drink, in halting English he asked where we were from in England. “Nottingham” we replied – his face lit up and he proudly announced “Brian Clough – the best football manager. I watch Nottingham Forest on television”. He then went on to explain how he had spent time working in England and how he followed the English football clubs on his TV. It gave us happy memories of a wonderful place...........and yet only  a few years before, prejudice, extremism, politics and the like had dictated that we should consider bombing him and his nation out of existence. Ronald Reagan had a term for him and his countrymen an “evil empire” he called them. A few years later George Bush and Tony Blair were  talking about the Iraqi “axis of evil”. Hmmmm. 

As Dylan said “And you never ask questions when God’s on Your Side

24 July, 2011

San Francisco to Nottingham via Seventeenth Century London!

 This morning I travelled back in time three centuries and went to the other side of the world – all in a micro second! I stood on the steep hills of San Francisco admiring the cable cars. I walked through San Francisco’s Chinatown and, of course,  I stood and looked down on the great Golden Gate Bridge, the sun reflecting on the waters of the bay swirling beneath. And then, a micro second later, I stood on the streets of seventeenth century London. It was a chilly  but bright March morning. Solemn, silent crowds stood around me – many in tears. And then in the distance, I heard a solemn muffled drum beat, the crowds craned their necks............... All in a micro second! Let me explain!

I used to love gadgets. I could play for hours adjusting the setting on my stereo system. I could programme the old video machine like a whizz. I  used to love a car with a dash board full of dials and instruments like a space rocket. Now I just get confused! I just want things to work! I’ve just been trying to release a new tooth brush from its plastic packing – and filled the bathroom with expletives! But, of course, despite my failing abilities with modern technology I am also acutely aware that it is so much part of our lives. Where would we be today without it? Much technology is essential now to the maintenance of our  lives – in hospitals, in the kitchen, in industry – but other applications simply make our lives pleasanter. My Kindle, for example, allows me to take a very large library easily fitting into my pocket when I go off on holiday. My i-Pod allows me to carry nearly half of my CD collection within its 16 gigabytes – all in my shirt pocket! Over a week’s non-stop playing – operas, symphonies, pop, the entire works of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, hours of the output of JS Bach, all Bob Dylan’s output, Beethoven..............all in my pocket!
My mental picture of San Francisco.
In micro seconds the sounds of San
Francisco are in my Nottingham kitchen

I was thinking about this when I put my radio on at breakfast time this morning and it was at this point that  I was transported across the globe to San Francisco and then back in time to  seventeenth century London – all in a micro second! The tuner radio on my stereo system is internet based and is tuned in permanently to  1.FM – OTTO’S BAROQUE from San Francisco. The whole day and whole night non-stop baroque – no disc jockeys, only a very occasional advert from California. The music is an absolute joy – and coming all the way around the world. If I wish I can tune into stations in the middle of Africa or Russia  or far out on tiny islands in the Pacific. I can listen to news broadcast in Adelaide and hear the same things that my Australian friends are listening to. I just find it amazing! But, wall to wall baroque, all the way from America’s west coast  is, for me, wonderful! It might seem a bit sad, but as I listen I can imagine I’m driving along the freeway and approaching the Golden Gate Bridge, the sun shining and Bach playing on the car radio. I hear the one or two adverts on the station and instantly feel that in some small way I am part of the San Francisco community. The world truly is becoming a smaller place!

Well, this morning when I switched on,  a familiar and favourite piece came out of the speakers and into my kitchen. It was  music by Henry Purcell – the beautiful – Thou Knowest Lord from the Funeral Sentences for Queen Mary, written only a few years after America had been ‘discovered’ and certainly, California was unknown to Purcell. And yet here it was crossing cyberspace from San Francisco and arriving, in the blink of an eye, in my kitchen in Nottingham! What, I wonder, would Henry Purcell have made of it?
My radio station comes through
cyberspace from here

Purcell, indisputably the greatest English composer, was a child of his time and the story of his life and works tells of a different age and of some of the very  greatest events in the history of England. He was born in 1659 - a propitious time - and lived through some of the monumental events of English history - the Great Fire of London, the Great Plague, the rebuilding of London including St Paul's and  the restoration of the monarchy after the period of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. The restoration  heralded a period in which music and arts flourished again after institutional music of all kinds was stifled during the Commonwealth..  

Purcell’s father and uncle were both Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal and Purcell joined as a boy chorister in 1667.  In 1673 his voice broke and he received a bursary to continue his musical education studying composition and organ with John Blow.  In 1679 he succeeded Blow as organist of Westminster Abbey and from that time onwards wrote with equal skill and imagination for the church, the court, the theatre and for his royal patrons.
Henry Purcell - the greatest of
English composers - like Mozart
produced some of the world's
very great music and was dead
by his mid thirties.

For the whole of his musical life Purcell worked for and walked with kings. He served at the colourful court of Charles II. It is said that he was composing from the age of nine  and we know for certain that in 1670, aged eleven he composed an ode for the King’s birthday.  He looked on as the less likeable King James dug his own political grave. He was present as the ‘Glorious Revolution’ heralded the arrival of William and Mary. Throughout the period he composed for successive monarchs and state occasions and at the same time composed for the rapidly growing London theatre. He was London’s busiest and most sought after composer, adored and revered by his contemporaries. During his career he worked closely with writers of the day. He collaborated on several occasions with Thomas Betterton a distinguished dramatist and then with the great seventeenth century poet John Dryden, which led to two of his greatest successes The Fairy Queen and King Arthur. Although much of his life was spent composing sacred music and music for great national events he will forever be remembered for his opera Dido and Aeneas one of the formative pieces of the English musical tradition. And from Dido, his  composition Dido’s Lament: When I am laid in Earth has become one of the world’s great and instantly identifiable pieces – used throughout the world to mark  the mourning of the dead. Similarly his composition for King Arthur contains some of the very great English music for example the beautifully exquisite Fairest Isle or, the ahead of its time and atmospheric, ‘cold song’ in the Frost Scene. And, 250 years after Purcell’s death another great English composer, Benjamin Britten used Purcell’s Rondeau from Abdelazar as the theme for his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra – a piece that millions of young people all over the world have grown up with.

But, for me, of all the wonderful music composed by Purcell, one stands head and shoulders above the rest: The Funeral Sentences for the Death of Queen Mary. Purcell’s last royal duty was to provide music for Queen Mary’s funeral in 1695. The Queen had died of smallpox in December 1694 at the young age of 32. She lay in state until March 1695 and the music that Purcell composed for this solemn event is amongst the most stirring and moving in English music. From the opening muffled drum beats to the achingly beautiful anthem Thou knowest Lord, which came through cyberspace to my kitchen this morning,   Purcell’s affection for the young Queen is obvious. He had served four monarchs but Mary was the one to whom he was closest. He had  composed a birthday ode for her each year. Her death, to both  Purcell and wider English society, was the seventeenth century equivalent of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The Funeral Sentences are amongst the most beautiful and solemn ever written.  Although Queen Mary  had been Queen for only five years, Purcell and all England held her in very high esteem. The dignified simplicity, the beauty and brevity and the  quiet emotion of the pieces reflects Purcell’s own sorrow and restrained grief at his Queen’s passing.
A contemporary print of Queen Mary's funeral -
the black cloths and handrails clearly visible.

The court mourning and the lying in state were sumptuous occasions costing over £100,000 -  a huge amount in those days. In London black cloths were hung from the houses in even the poorest districts and black handrails were set up throughout the London streets. During the procession Purcell’s Funeral March was played and the Sentences sung by a following choir. The Sentences were sung again as part of the funeral service. I defy anyone to not be moved by the solemn drum beats at the start of the Sentences – indeed, I have read that for any percussionist, to play the drum beats of the Sentences is the greatest thrill and honour so evocative and stirring are they. When those drum beats floated out of my stereo speakers this morning my thoughts turned from  San Francisco, home of the radio station, to the streets of seventeenth century London, and I was there in the crowd waiting for the cortège to pass.

The great and terrible  twist in the tale was that Purcell did not realise when he composed the great piece that in less than a year he too would die and five days after his death the music that he had composed for the death of his Queen would be played again at his own funeral in Westminster Abbey. ‘The greatest genius we ever had’ it was eulogised at his funeral.  And again many thousands lined the London streets to pay homage.

The young Queen who so inspired
Purcell and who was so
loved by her nation
Purcell was 36 at his death. The cause is uncertain. Tuberculosis is often cited but the generally accepted reason is that he caught a chill after returning home late one night from a visit to the theatre and drinking with friends at an inn. His wife had locked him out and he slept out of doors on a cold wet night. He is buried adjacent to the organ in Westminster Abbey and at his funeral, the crowds again lined the London streets –as they had done a year before for Mary’s passing. And the same drum beats were heard across London.

Many musicologists place Purcell in the same bracket as Bach, Handel and Mozart – arguably the very greatest composers who have ever lived. It doesn’t matter, like Bach, Handel and Mozart his music has helped make the world what it is. For me I would place him adjacent to Bach and a little ahead of Handel and Mozart – but then I’m biased! Musicologists often make the point that Purcell, above all other composers, used language beautifully. His music is not just glorious music, the use and structure of his English adds to the music's beauty. Listen to Dido's Lament or Fairest Isle or indeed any other of Purcell's librettos and you hear English in its purest, most beautifully expressed form.  

And my Internet radio and my I-Pod
 and the rest of technology allow me to
share the royal barge with
King George 1st and listen as the
king did to Handel's great music in 1717
But, as I said when I began this rambling piece, what would Purcell have made of it? This seventeenth century man? When he composed his operas and odes and funeral sentences he could never in his wildest dreams have imagined that three centuries later his work would be crossing the world in micro seconds, from one continent to the next; sent from places that he was completely unaware of and being listened to by people like me in my own kitchen on the other side of the world. What would he have thought if he had known, or even suspected, that the whole of his life’s musical output could be easily stored on a tiny electronic machine that fits into the palm of my hand and with which  I can listen to his Funeral Sentences, his odes, his operas  as I drive or walk or lie in bed!
The young Glenn Gould records the Goldberg
in 1955. A recording which set the music world
on fire and established Gould as the
definitive interpretor of Bach. I carry it with me
always on my i-Pod

And think of what technology has done for us all. The advent of the early gramophone, the record player, the stereo system, the CD, the MP3 players, computers, internet.........the list is endless means that all this is accessible. I can bring the world of Purcell into my home. I can listen to the stirring muffled drum beats of the Funeral Sentences and hear what the silent crowd lining the streets of London heard  as the young Queen’s cortège  passed by. I can listen to Handel’s Water Music and almost be on the royal barge with Handel  and his group of musicians as they  float down the Thames entertaining King George 1st .  I can share a piano stool with the greatest exponent of Bach, the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould in 1955 New York, as his fingers fly across the keyboard recording the greatest and definitive version of what many regard  the most perfectly constructed and structured piece of music ever written – the Goldberg Variation. Or, I can be transported back to 1733 and stand in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig and listen to the first strains of Bach's great B Minor Mass as it is heard for the first time. The Mass, often referred to as the supreme musical achievement of mankind was finally completed by Bach seventeen years later - by which time he was blind and near to death. Technology allows me to re-enter that world.   And, I can listen to Beethoven’s Ninth and almost be there on that night in 1824 when it was first performed in Vienna.  As I listen to the final rousing chorus of Ode to Joy at the conclusion of the Ninth I can picture that first audience  applauding  and the profoundly deaf Beethoven still facing his orchestra, baton in hand, totally unaware of the tumultuous applause behind him. I can picture the contralto  on the night,  Caroline Unger, walking over and turning Beethoven around to accept the audience's cheers and applause. In my mind’s eye I can see what a witness on the night saw, "the public received the musical hero with the utmost respect and sympathy, listened to his wonderful, gigantic creation with the most absorbed attention and broke out in jubilant applause, often during sections, and repeatedly at the end of them." The whole audience acclaimed him  five times with standing ovations; there were handkerchiefs in the air, hats, raised hands, so that although Beethoven could not hear the applause he could at least see the ovation gestures.
A contemporary sketch
(made during the concert) of
Beethoven conducting the first
performance of the Ninth (1824).
Technology allows me to hear
what the audience heard
but was denied Beethoven
 because of his deafness

I can do all this because of technology!

So, although I may swear and curse when I fumble again with the hundreds of buttons on the  TV remote, or try to make sense of the DVD player’s menu; although opening the plastic packaging of my new toothbrush tests my patience and my stress levels are guaranteed to rise when I squirt beetroot juice all over me as I open the supermarket’s plastic packaging; although knowing which button on the washing machine I should press to get my clothes clean is a total mystery to me; I also know that technology has widened, enhanced and improved our lives enormously. It gives us opportunities undreamed of by Purcell and people of previous generations. With one click of a computer mouse I can access knowledge and information from all over the world. In my mind I can journey, as I soak up this knowledge, to the places from whence it came – San Francisco or seventeenth century London. I can reach into the inner most thoughts of people like Purcell or Bach who lived centuries before I was born and equally feel part of a community thousands of miles away from me as I listen to their local commercials, news and views on my internet radio. And then, with another click of the button, I can read about the beliefs and philosophies of ancient civilizations or the world’s greatest thinkers or the values and traditions of societies far from mine. I have instant access to the news - not just what my own newspapers tell me but what those of America, Australia, France, Germany, China, India tell me. This is power indeed. The events in England in the past few weeks relating to News International, the police and the government prove the point - knowledge is power. In Purcell's time monarchs were reluctant to give the masses knowledge by giving them the opportunity to read or access to education for they feared this would give them power. But today, the whole world, it seems has access, if they choose to use it, to knowledge and understanding.   And at a personal level  this power that we have been given also allows me to read the views of other bloggers – ordinary people like myself - and in doing so, I believe makes the world smaller and I hope more aware and tolerant of the views of the rest of humanity. It makes me realise what opportunities the young of today have to be the most knowledgeable, aware, understanding and tolerant generation ever – for what is an ‘information society’ for unless it is to make you knowledgeable and aware. And if you are knowledgeable and aware then I believe that you cannot be anything else other than tolerant and understanding.

It is truly marvellous.

20 July, 2011

"Our Society Stands for Democracy and Proper Drains"

The last two weeks, as revelation after revelation, has exposed goings on in the press, the police and government have been, to say the least, memorable and undeniably worrying about  the state of the nation. On more than one occasion in the past week or so I have felt quite sorry for TV newsreaders who seemed to be in the position of making it up they went along – so rapidly were the revelations coming! However, for me, a serious situation in the past two days has now descended into the realms of bizarre farce – and  I find this rather more worrying. It’s about the direction that our whole society is moving not just a few bent coppers, sleazy politicians, powerful media moguls and the like.
Shaving foam pies -
but where is the security!

Firstly, two days ago the two most senior police officers in the country were forced to resign. Whatever the rights and wrongs of their alleged involvement with misdoings both said that a major factor in their resignation was that they could not continue to devote their full attention to issues such as national and London security – especially with the upcoming Olympics. In this context, therefore we should be seriously worried that security was so lax at yesterday's Select Committee interviewing of the Murdochs and Rebecca Brooks that a man was easily able to ‘attack’ Rupert Murdoch with shaving foam. If the Met’s and Parliament’s ability to provide adequate security in a relatively small area of Westminster is so poor that the 43 year old wife of Rupert Murdoch seemed to be the fastest to react to the situation we should indeed be worried. One could not have written a  script for it. The culprit of the attack was not a highly skilled terrorist, trained to perfection in some remote place – he was a rather "sad", fifth rate night club comedian. How low have we sunk. But in the great scheme of things this is of little consequence.
Is this really a requirement
 of  press freedom? 

Tabloid 'news' - and what
our society seems to want
 to read about
Secondly, as I write this I am watching the Prime Minister’s statement to the House as he seeks to defend his role especially in relation to Andy Coulson. Cameron is, I believe a victim of circumstance here – had Tony Blair or Gordon Brown still been PM they could very easily have been in Cameron’s position – they cosied up to the Murdoch empire in the same way that the Conservative Party has done. But for the life of me, whatever excuses and good reasons Mr Cameron gives for appointing and not sacking  Andy Coulson one thing totally baffles me. In my teaching career I have, on  many occasions, been in the position of reading letters of job application and reviewing CVs for would be members of staff. I have written countless references for people wishing to apply for a post elsewhere. Had anyone applied for a job as a teacher and said that their last position was as editor of the News of the World – a newspaper which fills its pages with scurrilous innuendo and unpleasant sex stories -  I would have undoubtedly concluded that whatever academic qualifications, experiences or otherwise they possessed they essentially were unsuited and unacceptable as a teacher. And yet, this aspect seems to have been totally disregarded. People who have "earned their crust" in this dubious manner are welcomed into the highest corridors of power!. Indeed, as the revelations have unfolded in recent days it seems that the police and government have filled positions with ex-News of the World employees all with dubious backgrounds. Whenever I complete a reference I am asked the same question – "can you recommend this candidate unreservedly?" It is a time to express reservations and provide an assessment of the worthiness of the applicant to fill the position.  Presumably Andy Coulson’s referees made no reservations or if they did they were ignored. There is something very wrong with the moral compass of some of our nation’s major institutions when, although 'security checks' are undertaken, no-one seems to ask the question, "is this a fit and proper person to hold the position".
The Mother of Parliaments. Hmmmm!

Thirdly, the quality of debate and comment seen in Westminster is unendurably depressing. I often wonder what a visitor from another planet would make of it. One can dress it up with all sorts of names and virtues – adversarial politics, Mother of Parliaments, democracy at work – but in the end it is not an edifying sight. The quality of debate borders on the banal. We have a Prime Minster who seeks only to defend his position, we have political point scoring and hypocrisy by the shed load. What has happened to the  brilliant minds and the great orators - great politicians who were capable in a few short words of inspiring a nation or bringing down a government. Where are the Thomas Rainsboroughs, the Oliver Cromwells, the Winston Churchills, the Enoch Powells, the Nye Bevans the Michael Foots? It is, perhaps, a measure of how far we have fallen when, as I wrote in another recent blog, the grandson of Winston Churchill, Nicholas Soames, MP for Mid-Sussex and recently created Privy Counsellor is best known  as "the most sexist" MP, with several female MPs stating that he makes vulgar comments to them.  Soames makes repeated cupping gestures with his hands, suggestive of female breasts, when women are trying to speak in parliament, in order to distract them. He allegedly harassed  Alistair Campbell by telephoning him and saying "you sex god, you Adonis, you the greatest of all great men." Unfortunately he made  a mistake -  he was actually speaking to Campbell's young son.  But Soames is not alone – you need only watch and listen to any debate. I have heard no-one yet who I would willingly "follow into battle" – and when people feel this then democracy and government are at risk for cynicism, disaffection and corruption are the beneficiaries. Despite the trials of Parliament over the past few years with the expenses scandals and the rest, our elected representatives have not learned. The conduct of members of both parties in the Chamber is a disgrace. I’m  watching  the Prime Minister and see in him the many little boys I have told off in school playgrounds over 40 years and who always  used feeble excuses like "he told me to do it" or "it wasn’t me sir" or "I didn't mean it, it just sort of happened" – a manifestly pathetic response from a man who is supposed to lead the nation. Like Manuel in "Fawlty Towers' he says '"I know nothing." And I see the rest of the chamber behaving like a baying playground mob witnessing a playground scrap. We are lead by a set of  third rate nodding donkeys with little brain and even less moral fortitude. And we call this democracy. And this in a debate about the very nature of power, influence, good government and indeed democracy.
Hateful politics
but total integrity and
brilliant mind

Oh for a Foot in today's public life
And fourthly, the whole debate and scandal revolves around something we call "press freedom". There is common agreement and  offence that in the case of News International and perhaps other tabloid organs press "freedom" has become press "excess". We have much hand wringing  and debate about the need to monitor and police the press. This is such a complex area that I could not even begin to understand how this can be done with some measure of success. But the real issue for me here is that the tabloid press only pursues its current policies of publishing scandal, innuendo, scurrilous stories and the like because the readership is interested and will buy. What have we become as a society when this is seen as worthwhile "news" or "entertainment". We have grown into a society with a very shallow and strange value set – it can be seen nightly on TV or in the News of the World; it can be seen when millions will tune in to watch "Big Brother" or will buy a magazine like "Hello" and think that it is of some worth. And people like Rupert Murdoch simply feed the beast – he is doing what all good business men do – spotting a hole in the market and filling it. That is the worrying thing - if society did not have the insatiable appetite for the stuff of the tabloid press then we would not be in the situation that we are today. We all want press freedom – it is a cornerstone of free speech but like free speech and other rights and privileges we enjoy  it has its limits and responsibilities. Freedom of the press is not and should not be a right to print or report scurrilous scandal, items of doubtful moral or ethical content or to provide justification for actions that are illegal. In her evidence yesterday Rebekah Brooks commented upon her (and the News of the World’s) various campaigns – such as that against paedophiles and the introduction of "Sarah’s Law". Brooks stated that these things were every close to her heart, she thought it was the right thing to do, she saw it as part of her role to mount these campaigns to change the law. Well, I’m afraid I have to disagree with her – her role as an editor is to report the news not make the news. It is for her to provide facts – no more no less. She is not an elected representative, her opinions and viewpoints are no more or less important than those of any other member of the community.  
Is it the Met. or is it the Keystone
Cops - at the moment it's a bit
difficult to tell!

In this morning’s Guardian Marina Hyde likened the whole debacle of the past few days in Britain, Westminster, Fleet Street and Scotland Yard  to  "slapstick" . She was right. Yesterday a number of commentators used the phrase "banana republic" –a  crooked police force, bent politicians, unelected people wielding power, "Keystone Cop" security, shady meetings and entrances through the "back door" and "shaving foam pies". And indeed that is what we look -  a banana republic. A country that could once hold its head high and be a world leader for its values and integrity is now reduced to this. Unfortunately the solution will not be found by simply tweeking a few new rules, by being a bit more "transparent" (God, what a meaningless and truly awful non-word that is – is David Cameron on a commission bonus for the number of times he can utter it within any given thirty second period!) or by having a few public enquiries. No, things will only improve when the whole of society starts to look hard at itself and to re-asses what it values and aspires to. I see no prospect of that happening.
Thomas Rainsborough
- great exponent of  individual
liberty and responsibility
in society

On the Today programme this morning a  representative of UNICEF spoke with sadness,  despair and  no little emotion about the situation in the Horn of Africa. He despairingly pointed out that while a state of famine had been declared in  a huge area of the world we in this country are more besotted by a plate of shaving foam – the newspapers are so full of the Murdoch fiasco that humanitarian issues are being squeezed out. He is right and it reflects our values  – and says much about the society we now have. Even in the Guardian I have to go to page 20 before I see any mention of the famine – and then it is a full page advert by UNICEF not a piece of reporting. Prior to that I have eleven pages of reports and analysis of the Murdoch happenings, two full pages of adverts for mobile phones, a whole page devoted to whether "Adele" (who the hell  is "Adele"? ) can win the Mercury pop award, and various other page fillers. There is no reporting of the situation in the Horn of Africa. The Telegraph does slightly better – they fill the first nine pages with the Murdoch reports and provide  about half a page of news of the famine on page 16.

In the sport section of the Guardian, the major headline is about the  need for lie detectors in international cricket to help stamp out corruption.  Even the majestic game of cricket, the ultimate sport of gentlemen, sportsmanship and high moral standing – now needs lie detectors. But even this has links with the current political crisis – cricket like most other sport is now the plaything of big business in general and Rupert Murdoch in particular. His sponsorship of the game has made greed and the chasing of money as the prime motivation. Should we be so surprised? Can we sink any lower? 

I don’t blame the Guardian  or the Telegraph – I’m sure other papers are the same – but it reflects our strange values. A major article in the Guardian is the reporting of the £14 billion pounds paid in city bonuses – a quite legitimate piece of reporting – but what a crass and unsound society we have  created where it is accepted that these values can appertain when huge areas of the world starve. Earlier this week we heard of the couple who won £161 million on the Euro Lottery – well, good for them, but what does it say about society as a whole. No, we have created a society whose values are so perverted that things are going to go badly wrong  and it is taking up more and more of our time and effort to sort them out.

As I watched what I will loosely call the "debate" in the House today I felt real sorrow for the Speaker, John Bercow in trying to keep order amongst the rabble. It was just like watching an inexperienced teacher trying to control an unruly class (a thing I have done many times). In the end he was always going to lose – he kept having to remind the class to behave, and of course, like unruly pupils they soon forgot and began shouting and cat calling again. Mr Bercow and the class would, I’m afraid, have failed their OFSTED inspection. How sad that our elected representatives at the Mother of Parliaments are so badly behaved. But a good teacher would have known what to do and would have been helped by the school ethos which would have had high expectations for its pupils and implicit and explicit sanctions for the teacher to use. And this is the problem, be it in parliament or the press or the police or wider society the high expectations have gone – the "ethos"- and the result is episodes like News International, the appointing of undesirables like Andy Coulson to high position, bribery and corruption. Whether it is in parliament, in the city centre, in the newspaper, on TV or in the high street the expectations for quality, high standards of behaviour and relationships, gracefulness, rather than gracelessness, sportsmanship, courtesy  and the rest have been slowly and irrevocably replaced by crassness, low expectations and a quick buck. Mr Murdoch’s press (and the rest), the behaviour in the Met, the actions of politicians and the rest merely reflect wider society’s mores, values and expectation.  It’s just what happens on the playground when the schools ethos, expectations and values are not of the highest – the bully and the mob take charge – and it is happening on our society.
Jonathan Swift - he would have
seen through the hypocrisy
 of today's politicians and society

The term "banana republic" was used to describe the situation. It’s an  apposite  analogy but far more serious than that. I prefer to think of Jonathan Swift and his tales of Gulliver. Swift, the arch critic and satirist would have been scathing of the whole affair, the pathetic response of our leaders and the state of our society. The attitude in the House and in  wider society is reminiscent of Gulliver’s escapades and adventures with the  Lilliutians, the Brobdingnags, the Laputians, the Houyhnhms and the Yahoos. Swift would have recognised the small minded Lilliputians in our society and parliament, he would have derided those in our society and media who, like the Brobdingnagians, exhibit themselves and others for money.  He would have condemned  a society which increasingly acts like the Laputians blindly following hedonistic and unnecessary schemes, values and life styles (will "Adele" win the Mercury prize when thousands are dying of hunger and the famine and this is not even reported in a responsible newspaper)  – the modern equivalent of the Laputian’s pointless quests such as extracting moonbeams from cucumbers or – and here is a terrible irony - uncovering political conspiracies by examining the excrement of suspicious people (hence the term muckraking – which is what the last few days have been all about). Or, finally, he would have seen in our society, our press, our parliament and the police – and many other facets of our national life – evidence to support his vision of the Yahoos – as deformed base humans.

Back to the trough guys
I have just read that this evening, David Cameron spoke to members of the Conservative 1922 committee – the senior back bench committee of the Party. Reportedly "he was not asked a single question about the scandal, he was adamant that he would not apologise for trying to get the media onside ( I wonder what this implies) for the run up to the election, he received the warmest ever reception including 40 seconds of table banging".Well, that’s all right then. The problem’s over - except it isn't. It sounds to me as if it's "Back to the trough guys!"

I will end with two of my favourite quotes. Poet John Betjemin once famously said "Our nation stands for democracy and proper drains!" In the current state of society and democracy how right he was – we need drains as never before - as a society we seem to be peering into a swirling cesspit and effective drains would seem to be an essential requirement! Bent coppers, sleazy politicians and law breaking journalists float in the cesspit but they are only a small part of the bigger picture. And, what I find really frightening, is that as  society we seem to take great pleasure in reading about it and watching it in our tabloids and TV screens! And people like Murdoch, Brooks and the rest feed on this and give us more of what we want.  Tabloid papers and people such as Rebekah Brooks  hold up their hands in horror,  point fingers of disdain, claim the moral high ground - but as a society we are incapable of changing our habits and they know it.  And the second quote?  Social researcher and academic Richard Titmuss famously said "Without knowledge of wind and currents, without some sense of purpose and value, men and societies do not keep afloat for long, morally or economically, by bailing out the water". All we have done for years is bail out (a commission here, a bit of transparency there, a public enquiry instituted) and society has sunk lower and lower in the water. News International and all that goes with it is merely a reflection of this. We will not  right the ship until the whole crew, the whole of society re-assess what they are about – and that, I fear, is beyond us all.