28 November, 2016

Don't be "frighted" - be part of the great story that is Handel's Messiah at St Peter's Church Ruddington on December 12th (7.30 pm)

There are many pieces of great  music that I enjoy each year at Christmastide – Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Telemann’s Festive Suite, Corelli’s Concerto Grosso Number 8 ( often called  The Christmas Concerto) and many, many more – but above them all towers Handel’s great masterpiece the Messiah. Undeniably it is one of the very  great musical works.  It is, however, like other great pieces, more than simply a good piece of music. Just as with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Bach’s B Minor Mass, Bach’s St Matthew Passion or the Mozart Requiem it is something that reminds us what it is to be human – just small spots in a vast cosmos.  And it confirms to  everyone, even those of no religious affiliation or view, that there is something deeper and more significant about Christmas than just torn wrapping paper, bottles of wine, Christmas stockings or turkey and stuffing. Put simply, the Messiah reminds us of what we are about – or should be about - for those few days in dark December whilst much of mankind watches TV shows and binges upon his and her excesses.
I have seen and listened to the Messiah more times than I could possibly guess at. Indeed, it is one of the formative influences on my life – begun with an almost “road to Damascus” experience which brought me to classical music as a teenager (see blog: A night alone with Klever Kaff - May 2011). In the many performances I have seen and heard over the years some stand out – often for the strangest of reasons. A quarter of a century ago Pat and I were holidaying in Florence. It was Easter and we passed a church outside of which was advertised a performance of the Messiah. We went along that night and sat like many others on the cold stone floor surrounded by great Italian works of art that decorated the church. Throughout the three hour performance ordinary Italians popped in and out – many simply walking their dogs but grabbing a few minutes of wonderful music at the same time. It was quite magical. And then, as the opening bars of the "Hallelujah Chorus" struck up from the little orchestra, all the Brits in the church suddenly made themselves known – as if a switch had been pressed. We all stood to attention in the time honoured manner! Italians looked in confusion at what was happening when a third of the audience rose in unison and stood proud! Magic!
The story of the Messiah is, indeed, a magical and rich mixture of national and musical history, the great and the good, and the everyday. It stretches from great opera houses and theatres of the world to tiny village halls and churches; its story is the story of both Kings and humble commoners; it encompasses the great sopranos, tenors, choirs and orchestras as well as the keen amateur musician and singer. It is a Christmas piece and an Easter favourite, but also a piece for all seasons. Messiah is a piece to give us a sense of place in the great scheme of things, a work to spiritually refresh, inspire and to humble as well as a source of national pride.  Finally, it is at the same time, both part of our national history to call upon in times of fear or celebration as well as a part of our local life to act as a marker in each year and across the years. We all, no matter who we are or what we are, both own and profit from this wonderful work.

St Peter's Church Langton
I  came across a bit of the Messiah jig saw by accident one day a few years ago. I went, one afternoon, to visit a trainee teacher who I was supervising as she did her teaching practice in a small village school in Leicestershire. After watching her teach we retired to the school staff room to discuss her lesson. On the notice board there was a notice advertising a performance of the Messiah in the local church and as I read the notice I noticed that the performance included some very well known, international singers and players. I wondered how the church in so small a village could afford such great names - and then I read the small print.  It was to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the first church performance of the Messiah in England - the great and the good of the musical world were celebrating this very special event. The school was in the tiny village of Church Langton, the church where that first church performance took place was just across the road.

In the Spring of 1759, only a few weeks after Handel had died in London, a Leicestershire man and Church Langton resident and philanthropist, the Rev. William Hanbury, paid £500 for an organ to be built and transported to the local church of St Peter’s in his village - mid way between Leicester and Market Harborough. It is about 40 miles away from Ruddington, where I live. According to local records, the sound of the organ was a terrifying prospect
“....some of the common people were frighted and hurried out of the church with all speed....they thought the Day of Judgement was come indeed.....” After the tumult had died down and the villagers become used to the sounds of the organ and other instruments brought by Hanbury, the very first performance of the Messiah was given in an English parish church - on September 26th 1759. In the two day Handel musical festival that followed in the village records tell us that “the countryside flocked to the performance...accommodation of all kinds was at a premium, the price of food was nearly tripled, there were more than two hundred chariots, landaus and post chaises....” This little snippet of local history and music represents well, perhaps, the bigger tale of the music of Handel and especially that of Messiah
The Rev. William Hanbury - what a wonderful
tradition he started.
Hanbury was a wealthy man with great ambitions and aspirations and he not only began the Messiah's church performance. He had plans to build a Minster to rival the great York Minster in his village. He never realised that dream but he did endow his village with other things - most notably the school in which I had sat that afternoon and watched that young teacher teach. It was and still is known as the Hanbury School and was "founded for the education and religious instruction of boys and girls of this parish".

But back to Messiah. It was  composed in 1741 based on  a scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible, the Psalms and the Book of Common Prayer. Jennens, too, was a Leicestershire man - he lived only a few miles from Church Langton. It was first performed in Dublin on 13 April 1742, and received its London premier nearly a year later. After a modest public reception in London, the oratorio quickly gained in popularity, eventually becoming one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music.
Handel, of course, was a German – he became a naturalised Englishman and in his life time became almost more English than the English. He walked with Kings and composed some of the very great state music – much of it still with us. His Water Music, for example which was played a  year or two ago  as the Royal Barge floated down the Thames in the Queen’s Jubilee Year – just  as it had been played in 1717 for George 1st as he cruised down the Thames. Handel’s royal connections do not end there; our Queen, now in her 90th year, will one day be replaced and as the crown is placed upon the head of her successor the music that will be played and sung will be that of Handel – Zadok the Priest. Handel's impact on the life of his adopted country was, and still is, huge. 
Charles Jennens - a Leicestershire man
who gave Handel the words & idea

But although he walked with Kings he had to earn his crust and he composed furiously to earn a living. He was something of an impresario – putting on operas at a great rate. He owned shares in theatres – he was almost the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day! His fortunes went up and down and although he died a wealthy and respected man, like everyone else, he suffered success and failure. In an echo of today’s economically challenged times he lost a huge amount of money with the financial banking scandal known as the South Sea Bubble and, just as today, the fickle world of music with its ever changing fashions forced him to continually rethink his approach.

By the late 1730’s interest in grand Italian opera was declining – there was a move towards English language productions and although Handel continued to write and produce great opera he increasingly moved towards the English oratorio. In July 1741 Charles Jennens, a friend of Handel,  sent him a new libretto for an oratorio, and in a letter said: 
"I hope he [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other subject. The Subject is Messiah".
The music for Messiah was completed in 24 days of swift composition. Having received Jennens' text sometime after 10 July 1741, Handel began work on it on 22 August. His records show that he had completed it in draft by 12 September, followed by two days of "filling up" to produce the finished work on 14 September.
The great man's handwriting on the score

The score's 259 pages show some signs of haste such as blots, scratchings-out, unfilled bars and other uncorrected errors, but according to music scholars the number of errors is remarkably small in a document of this length. At the end of his manuscript Handel wrote  "SDG"—Soli Deo Gloria, "To God alone the glory". This inscription, taken with the speed of composition, has encouraged the belief that Handel wrote the music in a fervour of divine inspiration in which, as he wrote the "Hallelujah Chorus”, "he saw all heaven before him". The reality, however, is perhaps rather more prosaic! Many of Handel's compositions were composed within similar timescales – they had to be squeezed between theatrical and operatic seasons. There is significant evidence that Handel’s finances were at a low, fashions were changing and he needed a new idea to boost his bank account!  In short, for Handel and other musicians of the day, time was money! 
Handel agreed to give a season of six concerts in Dublin in the winter of 1741–42 following an invitation from the Duke of Devonshire, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and in early March it was further agreed to give a charity concert in April 1742 - the premier of Messiah.
Another successful concert!

He had been given permission from St Patrick's and Christ Church Cathedrals to use their choirs for this occasion - a total of 16 men and 16 boy choristers; several of the men were allocated solo parts. The women soloists were Christina Maria Avoglio and Susannah Cibber, an established stage actress and contralto, who had sung for Handel before. The charities that were to benefit were prisoners' debt relief, the Mercer's Hospital, and the Charitable Infirmary. In its report on a public rehearsal, the Dublin News-Letter described the oratorio as "...far surpass[ing] anything of that Nature which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom". Seven hundred people attended the premiere on 13 April. So that the largest possible audience could be admitted gentlemen were requested to remove their swords, and ladies were asked not to wear hoops in their dresses. The performance earned unanimous praise from the assembled press: "Words are wanting to express the exquisite delight it afforded to the admiring and crowded Audience" said one news sheet.  A Dublin clergyman, Rev. Delaney, was so overcome by Susanna Cibber's rendering of the aria "He was despised" that reportedly he leapt to his feet and cried: "Woman, for this, be all thy sins forgiven thee!" The takings amounted to around £400, providing about £127 to each of the three nominated charities and securing the release of 142 indebted prisoners.
This warm reception to Messiah  however, was not quite repeated in London when Handel introduced the work at the Covent Garden theatre in  March 1743. The first performance was overshadowed by the view that the work's subject-matter was too exalted to be performed in a theatre, particularly by secular singer-actresses such as Cibber. In an attempt to deflect such sensibilities Handel  avoided the name “Messiah” and presented the work as the "New Sacred Oratorio". Although the custom of standing for the "Hallelujah Chorus” originates from a belief that, at the London premier, King George II did so, there is no convincing evidence that the King was actually present. However, the first reference to the practice of standing appears in a letter dated 1756 – by which time the King had certainly witnessed the oratorio so there may be some truth in the tale.

During the 1750s Messiah was performed increasingly at festivals and cathedrals throughout the country and after Handel's death, performances were given in Florence, New York, Hamburg  and  Mannheim - where Mozart first heard it. These were still relatively small affairs involving twenty or thirty singers in the manner originally scored by Handel rather than grand “theatre” productions.
George Frederick Handel - what a treasure
trove he has left us!
But by 1784 a fashion for larger-scale performances began with a series of commemorative concerts of Handel's music given in Westminster Abbey under the patronage of King George III. A plaque on the Abbey wall records that "The Band consisting of DXXV [525] vocal & instrumental performers was conducted by Joah Bates Esqr."  In 1787 further performances were given at the Abbey; advertisements promised, "The Band will consist of Eight Hundred Performers". By the mid nineteenth century performances had become increasingly grandiose. Messiah was presented in New York in 1853 with a chorus of 300 and in Boston in 1865 with more than 600.  In Britain a performance held at the Crystal Palace in 1857 had 2,000 singers and an orchestra of 500!

Everyone, it seemed, wanted to get on the Messiah bandwagon! There were, however, growing dissenting voices towards the grand scale production. George Bernard Shaw commented, "Why, instead of wasting huge sums on the multitudinous dullness ..... does not somebody set up a thoroughly rehearsed and exhaustively studied performance of the Messiah with a chorus of twenty capable artists? Most of us would be glad to hear the work seriously performed once before we die."  Bernard Shaw’s plea was increasingly heard and although the huge-scale oratorio tradition was perpetuated by large ensembles such as the Royal Choral Society, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Huddersfield Choral Society in the 20th century, there were increasingly calls for performances more faithful to Handel's smaller concept.
Susanna Cibber - sang in the first (and
subsequent) performances. I wonder if her
sins were, indeed, forgiven!
Despite the popularity of the large scale production the tide was turning. The conductor Sir Thomas Beecham wrote that  "....after the heyday of Victorian choral societies.....[there was a] rapid and violent reaction against monumental performances....... [the Messiah] should be played and heard as in the days between 1700 and 1750".

And in the intervening years, the Messiah has increasingly “come home” – to village hall and parish church. We now have “sing along” Messiahs, hugely popular community Messiahs like our own annual Ruddington performance. At the turn of the millenium, choir members from throughout Nottinghamshire filled Southwell Minister to sing, and be inspired as the 21st century began by the well loved words and music. And what was begun in Dublin by Handel and continued only a few weeks after the composer’s death in St Peter’s, Church Langton courtesy of the Reverend Hanbury will be continued again over 250 years later in our own St Peters here in Ruddington when the Ruddington & District Choral Society lead the local community in the 2016 Community Messiah  .  And, of course, it will, too, be being heard and sung  in churches and village halls throughout the country. It has come full circle – to a village church in the middle of England just as Hanbury dreamed of when he listened that Messiah in his own village church in the middle of England in 1759. 
Of course, when the Messiah takes place in St Peter’s here in Ruddington on December 12th we cannot promise you “the Day of Judgement” feared by the villagers of Church Langton and we hope that you will not rush from our own St Peter’s “frighted” as did those villagers in 1759! We cannot promise that all your sins will be forgiven as was promised to contralto Sussana Cibber in Dublin! And we do not anticipate having to ask gentlemen to remove their swords of ladies remove their skirt hoops as Handel did almost three centuries ago! Nor do we anticipate the price of food in Ruddington tripling or that the “village be filled with landaus and post chaises” because of our concert!

But we do promise you the greatest oratorio ever written with which to begin your Christmas!  And in a week or two, on December 12th when I sit at the back of the church, having done my duty by selling tickets on the door, and my wife takes her place amongst the sopranos as they file to their places at the front of the church to begin the performance I will, I know, reflect upon the history of this wonderful and monumental work. I'll think of the men removing their swords in Dublin; the ladies being very immodest by not having hoops in the skirts; the village of Church Langton filling up with "more than two hundred chariots, landaus and post chaises" and I might wonder if I will be brave enough to stand up in the middle of the performance and shout to the contralto "Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee"! May be not! What I will undoubtedly reflect upon is how this work has been so much a part of my life and indeed the life of the nation for so many years.
St Peter's in Ruddington - be there on December 12th and
be part of the great story that is Messiah!
And, I will again marvel and think of what Mr Handel would have thought of it all today – his music being relayed electronically and instantly streamed into homes throughout the world!  Could he ever have forecast the impact that his work would have over hundreds of years in tiny village halls and churches like St Peter’s Church Langton and St Peter’s Ruddington, and in great concert halls throughout the world. I don’t expect he could have ever believed that audiences would stand to attention – even in cities like far off Florence - two hundred and fifty years after his death when his “Halleluiah Chorus” was sung. I don’t suppose that he could have ever have imagined that for many, like me, the opening bars of the Messiah would signal, that Christmas is again with us. What a wonderful heritage he has left us! So, why not come and join us - be part of the wonderful story of Messiah on Monday. You'll be very welcome, you won't be “frighted” but who knows – it may just be that all your sins will be forgiven thee!

22 November, 2016

"...You don't know what you've got til its gone……”

In the past few weeks a few words from two of the 20th century’s truly great hits have been haunting my mind; their words provoked by the appalling debacle of the Brexit vote and in the last few weeks the worst nightmare of most of the world’s population – the election of Donald Trump as the most powerful man in the world, President of the USA. I could not possibly add to any of the hyperbole and analysis that has taken place on these two game changing events except to say that in Saturday’s Guardian Conservative politician (and a woman I have little time for) Anna Soubrey, had it exactly right when she commented that we in the UK have “lost the plot”. I can only say that if that is true of the UK then the electorate of the USA have gone completely mad.
We now have the bizarre situation that the retiring President Barack Obama has been touring Europe meeting European and world leaders and, according to the political media ,“passing the baton of freedom” to Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany. Merkel herself has just announced that she will stand for a fourth term as Germany’s Chancellor and I for one am delighted. Despite our alleged “special relationship” with the USA - always a dubious privilege, but now a poisoned chalice in this era of Trump – we have, by our Brexit vote, lost all credibility as an international power who should be taken at all seriously. We are unquestionably quite unfit to take on the “baton of freedom” or any kind of leadership in the world. We, in the UK, are now led by a rag tag outfit of dangerous nonentities and political opportuntists while the USA is led by – and to quote the words of a normally charitable man, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams – “a man [with] a total indifference to truth (not to mention decency), no connected strategy but an incoherent series of crowd pleasing postures as if [his] aim was not to do anything as president simply to be president. It is the ersatz politics of mass theatre in which what matters most is the declaration of victory”.

Williams is right and what he says of Trump has resonance here in the UK with the language, politics and policies (such as one can identify them) of the political chancers that now are in charge of the Westminster madhouse. Over the past few days I have watched with no little horror as the graceless, narcissistic Trump has invited more and more extremist head cases into his tasteless Trump Tower lair and offered them jobs that will profoundly affect the world. I have watched in disbelief as nepotism has run rife through the American political landscape as his daughter, son in law and anyone else he fancies sits in at the top table – in some way, each of them now given that prerogative by his election to speak on behalf of millions of Americans. And I have sworn in exasperation as a failed UK politician, Nigel Farage and his henchmen have somehow infiltrated Trump’s circle and are now by default representing the views of the UK. To add salt to the wounds there is already talk of Farage being offered a knighthood or some similar award and of Trump being invited to dine with the Queen at Windsor. And a few minutes ago I read that Farage is castigating the UK government because they have "distanced themselves" from Trump's suggestion that Farage should be the next UK ambassador to Washington.This is the politics of the madhouse a thousand times over. It makes the court of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland look the epitome of sanity and good taste. No wonder Obama is touring the world pleading for some sane response from people like Angela Merkel – he certainly won’t get it from the current UK leadership. John O’Gaunt’s famous description of England as being “this royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle” is no more; we are rather this “septic isle”.
Tasteless and worrying - both the subjects and the lift

As I watched the unfolding picture of Trump’s “appointments” on TV and then watched “an ordinary American woman” sporting green lipstick and painted eyebrows that curled upwards into her hair line telling the world that Trump would solve all her country’s ills I could only reflect that here is the richest, and most powerful society that the world has ever known in terminal decline; what we have witnessed in the USA in the past few weeks is a mortally sick society. And although we in the UK have perhaps not yet reached so low we are certainly in extreme intensive care.

Watching  the megalomaniacal Trump/Farage and the rest reminded me of that other great mad leader, the Roman Emperor Caligula. Increasingly known for his narcissism, cruelty, sadism, extravagance, and sexual perversity he was finally assassinated by officers of the Praetorian Guard, senators, and courtiers. During his reign he killed off those who were close to him or whom he saw as a threat. He increasingly appeared in public dressed as a god and was self-absorbed, angry, killed on a whim, and sated himself on spending and sex. He was accused of sleeping with other men's wives and bragging about it, killing for mere amusement, and of incest with his sisters and prostituting them to other men. He sent troops on illogical military exercises, turned the palace into a brothel, and, most famously, promised to make his horse a consul. In the end he gave up on that whim and appointed the horse a priest. To raise money for his excesses Caligula began auctioning the lives of the gladiators and he caused starvation. Finally, at the games at which he was presiding, he ordered his guards to throw entire sections of the crowd into the arena during intermission to be eaten by animals because there were no criminals to be prosecuted and his notoriously short attention span caused him to be bored.

Donald Trump fits many of these excesses to perfection; his lack of attention span is well documented, his predatory sexual exploits the stuff of infamous legend. His narcissistic and megalomaniacal personality which has spawned the  grossly unpleasant Trump Tower, complete with gold lifts, would have been loved by Caligula. And Trump’s mad cap schemes and comments such as building a wall to isolate Mexico would have got the nod of approval from the ancient Roman. The world should be very afraid.
Trump with his worrying clan (Klan?)

But we are not. We laugh and mock him (and the UK equivalent Brexit crew). We shake our heads in frustration and sorrow that these dangerous clowns have taken power. But in reality we have done nothing. When the UK was politically mugged by the Brexit vandals they did exactly what Rowan Williams voiced: they displayed a total indifference to truth – promising and saying anything (extra money for the NHS and the like) to secure victory. Victory justified and justifies all in contemporary Britain and America. Trump has followed in Brexit's footsteps making outlandish claims and totally unsustainable and unreasonable promises. We now live in a post truth era,  and what have we done?  Nothing. President Obama has as always been dignified and correct seeing, what one can assume, is the greater good, the bigger picture, the human perspective. In a world today where outcomes justify all our actions the only questions that we ask are - does it make us richer, will we be healthier, can we gain an advantage from it, does it solve the problem, will the public buy it......... Obama has been one of the few politicians who has asked the greater questions that we seem never now to ask in this modern world; namely, is it right, is it good, is it worthy, is it honourable, is it just, is it decent? As societies the US and the UK have stopped asking these questions that are at the very root of our humanity and which separate us from the animals - we are no longer able to see their importance or verbalise our concern. If we had or did ask these important moral questions then  Trump, Farage, Johnson and the rest would never have emerged to gain the power that they have. We have largely lost our ability to think as humans and the rule of the jungle is increasingly filling our TV screens, our High Streets, our media and our governments.

Ensuring that there must be an ordered and legal transference of power as the US constitution demands Obama has played out his role to perfection - as he has done throughout his presidency. Hilary Clinton, albeit through clenched teeth, rightly gave a gracious speech to acknowledge Trump’s victory. But all the time the great, the good and we lesser mortals "do the right thing", the powers of evil – be they Trump or the  Brexit crew - assume more and more ill gained power. While democracy acts “correctly”, as the law demands, those with malign intentions – the Trumps, the Farages, the Johnsons and the millions who voted for them make the law look an ass by their disdain for its core principles of truth and integrity. And the rest of us stand and watch. And when the law tries to assert itself as the law lords did recently in the UK when they reminded the government of the need for following the law in regard to the Brexit parliamentary debate the right wing populist press, led by the rabble rousing Daily Mail and its neanderthal readers, howled in rage shouting down and vilifying our most senior judges. We should be very afraid.
Decent people are already missing Obama

As Obama toured the world’s capitals saying his farewells to world leaders last week an increasing number of people took to the air waves and to social media thanking him for all that he had given in his eight years in office. No, he didn’t fulfill all the promises of his first inauguration speech. Yes, I’m sure that he made mistakes and could have done better in some areas – he would, being a decent and humble man, be the first to admit to those faults. But his decency and basic goodness shone through. Suddenly, when the world woke up to Trump we all realised what we had lost. It was the same in the UK; David Cameron was disliked (by me especially) but he was not a charlatan or a chancer; he was not a blatant misogynist or liar. Donald Trump and to a lesser degree (simply because they are such a nonentities) Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have managed something quite unthinkable just a few months ago: they have made George W Bush look not only an intellectual but the epitome of virtue and goodness. As Hilary Clinton said in one of her speeches before the election she had always criticised the policies of George Bush but never his suitability or right to be president. She was right – and by implication Trump has no right or suitability for the post he is now about to take – whatever the election result. In modern parlance he, like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, is “not fit for purpose”.

But, we watch and allow it to happen. Like turkeys voting for Christmas.

A few weeks ago Theresa May, the UK PM, took exception to one of the well used comments current in today’s UK, especially amongst those like me who are horrified at the Brexit vote. Many of my persuasion are of the view that we prefer to be seen as citizens of Europe or even the world rather than what we will be categorised as, once Brexit takes effect, citizens of the UK . May suggested that “to be a citizen of the world is to be a citizen of nowhere”. Well, Theresa May is entitled to her view but I am not bound to subscribe to it and as Obama passes the torch of freedom to Angela Merkel I, for one ,will be far more interested in what Frau Merkel has to say about the world and my place in it than I will about what May, Trump, Farage, Johnson or any other of these charlatans utter. My reason? – simple. I’m sure that Merkel has her faults, she is a politician so we should all have a healthy skepticism but, her defining qualities are decency, humanity, a large measure of integrity and truth, and most important she displays all the necessary qualities to prove that she is a human being. I find those qualities in very short supply or non-existent in Brexit and Trump land. So, Mrs May, unfortunately I might not legally be able to call myself a citizen of Germany but I can, indeed, be a citizen of a Europe or world perceived and led by Angela Merkel once she takes the “baton of freedom” from Obama.
Passing the baton? Let's hope so.

I started this blog by confessing that a couple of songs had been going through my mind in recent days. I have not forgotten. Two of the very great songs of the 20th century and a time when things were simpler. In 1970 Joni Mitchell brought us Big Yellow Taxi.....and the words that keep going through my mind from that wonderful song:

“Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Til its gone
They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot”

And the other? From Don McLean’s mighty 1971 hit American Pie a song about which Ph.Ds have been written as to its meaning: the death of the American dream with the death of Buddy Holly?......or was it (as is my firm belief) Kennedy? Or was it both and was McLean forecasting the demise of that great country and which we are now witnessing with the rise of Trump? Whatever, the words of McLean’s fifth verse seem prophetic and so apt for Autumn 2016 in both the USA and the UK:

“…..I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred store
Where I'd heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn't play
And in the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died
And they were singin'
So, Bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my chevy to the levy
But the levy was dry
And them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singing this'll be the day that I die….”

"You don't know what you've got, Til its gone” and “The church bells all were broken, And the three men I admire most, The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost, They caught the last train for the coast, the day the music died ………".  Can there be a sadder but more telling and accurate commentary upon the terrible times in which we now live? I think not. We should all be beyond angry at what we have allowed to happen.

11 November, 2016

A sad sense of déjà vu.

In July 2013 I wrote a blog in which I voiced my concern about the declining quality of understanding and engagement of significant portions of the electorate with regard to making sensible, considered and valid assessments of political policies and politicians. I further worried that it seemed to me that many voters were apparently less able to ask pertinent questions in order that they understood exactly what was on offer from politicians, the media, and what the implications might be of this or that policy. In April of this year, 2016, with a referendum looming in the UK about membership of the  EU - an issue that would profoundly effect for generations the very essence and soul of our country - and in America the certainty of a new President on the horizon I again voiced the same concerns. In both blogs I raised the spectre of what I suggested was an electorate of Homer Simpsons and the consequences that might have for good government and leadership in both the UK and the USA.

It has been, three years after I first blogged on this subject, with a sad sense of both déjà vu and “I told you so” that I have viewed the political stories of the last few days and weeks. The UK has voted for Brexit – to leave the EU, and Americans have voted for Donald Trump as their next president. Social media and the press have had a field day. In the wake of Trump’s victory we were told that the TV show the Simpson’s, with its usual unerring insight, forecast the rise of Donald Trump sixteen years ago. No one can say we were not warned. When I wrote my blog in 2013 and again in April of this year I received several critical emails telling me that I was absolutely wrong (they were less polite than that!) – and totally out of order to criticise the abilities of the electorate to make wise decisions or to draw the conclusions that I did. All I can say today is”I told you so” . And for those who criticised me, it sounds even more today than previously as if my critics wished to shoot the messenger rather than accept the reality.  

What, only a few months ago, seemed an impossible nightmare has come to be. The Brexit vote and Trump’s election success have caused shock waves through both the political establishment and wider society – and in my view we ain’t seen nothing yet. There will be short term anger and protest but the real fall out will develop over months and years; our respective societies have been fundamentally changed. In the interim, however, every political pundit on the planet and every grumpy old man like me seems to think they know the reason for these political shocks: the inequalities in society, a rebuff to the establishment, the lack of an effective left, the rise of the have nots, fear of globalisation, job security, austerity, the financial crash,    .....and so it goes on. Each and every one of these analyses has undoubted validity but for me there is still one overriding reason: the “Homer Simpson society”. We have managed to create in both the UK and the USA societies where to know little and care even less is seen as a virtue. This same effect is spreading through other societies too – but we are at the forefront.

In his book The Price of Civilization  American economist  Jeffrey Sachs discusses what he calls “the epidemic of ignorance” pervading western societies but especially the USA.  He suggests that “in America the growth of untrammelled commercial TV and its “race to the bottom programming” based upon “lowest common denominator entertainment rather than instructive public education; the growth in internet use and, at the same time, the demise of newspapers and reading as an activity has meant that citizens are increasingly ignorant of basic facts about important issues”. He comments “It would be a profound irony if the new information age coincides with the collapse of the public’s basic knowledge regarding key issues that we confront as individuals or citizens.........The insulated mindset of individuals who know precious little history and civics and never read a book or visit a museum is fast becoming a common, shame free condition.  Sachs further says that, in America, at least, academic scores are declining. “If this be the case” he argues “then the consequences for individuals and the society will be profound”.   Ignorance, Sachs says can threaten the very soul of society: “....when the country must grapple with complex choices about taxes, spending, military involvement and outlays and all the rest, the lack of basic knowledge becomes dangerous. A poorly informed public is much more easily swayed by propaganda and much less able to resist the dark manoeuvrings of special interest groups that pull the strings in Washington.”   In short, in the highly complex and interlinked world in which we all now live where what happens in one corner can, because of the instantaneous connections that exist, profoundly affect what happens elsewhere. When one country sneezes others, through the power of technology, catch a cold. The consequence of this is that the decisions that we make, the policies that we follow can and do affect others – and the decisions that they make affect us – in ways never before possible because of the instant and global nature of the world. Added into this complex web is the fact that there are simply more factors to consider and more complex factors; life is no longer simple. The people that we elect and the policies that we adopt have, therefore, to be fit for purpose in the world that we now inhabit – and that means that those who elect these people and subscribe to these policies they too must be for purpose otherwise good government collapses. We must, in the modern world choose our leaders and our governments wisely – not to do so endangers us.

In my view Sachs is undeniably correct. People may not wish to hear this message, some, indeed may find it offensive but in the end if individually and collectively large numbers of electors are, through intellect, basic knowledge or attitude, unable or unwilling to bother to discriminate effectively between the virtues, qualities, disadvantages or dangers of different ideas, policies, politicians, or media presentations then society is indeed threatened.
Big business reinforces the dumbed down message too

This is not about being “brainy” or having “qualifications” – it is about the degree of interest and importance that one attaches to something and consequently the amount and time and effort one is prepared to put into finding out the important issues, rather than Homer Simpson like just relying upon prejudice or the talk of the barman. Finding out things, doing a bit of sensible reading round and so on, however, takes time and effort which in contemporary England (and I think Sachs would argue the USA too) far too many are prepared to give – it is considered boring, hard work, useless, or a waste of time. We increasingly live in a society of wanting it easy – we watch the TV simplified adaption of the book rather than read the book; we want TV documentaries that explain things in user friendly language because we cannot be bothered to work at the vocabulary; instead of “experts” fronting documentary programmes we now have celebrities giving a dumbed down voiceovers - we live in  a society where the celebrity is more important than the message. In 1972 the BBC produced a magnificent TV retelling of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It was twenty, hour long episodes. Last year they showed a new production – it had been reduced to six episodes – a travesty of Tolstoy’s mighty novel because, it was suggested, viewers are no longer capable of the required attention span of former years. In our own daily life we say of our children and grandchildren “All I want is for him/her to be happy” – really? - what a total lack of ambition or challenge for the child? It seems to me to be the most pathetic and patronising thing one could say about one’s offspring; in reality one is suggesting that being happy is the only thing of which they are capable. Say it to Chinese, Japanese, Indian or any other Asian parents and they would look at you askance – “how can you have such low ambitions for your child?” they would rightly ask. As societies both the UK and the USA are setting the bar ever lower for themselves. Homer Simpson doesn’t want to be bothered by hard questions, he doesn’t do ambition – he wants his beer, his TV and his ball game.  We laugh at him and the scrapes that he gets into – but in reality we are laughing at ourselves.

Our TV is filled with increasing amounts of dross requiring little or nothing of the mind or the viewer. In the UK each night is filled with a diet of cookery programmes which don’t actually tell you how to cook but allow you to watch others entertain you cooking in a competition to see who comes top – and then, as happened  only a week or two ago when the final of the Great British Bake Off was reached, it made headline news on the BBC. People felt that it was so important it made headline news and the front pages of allegedly serious newspapers! Or we have endless programmes of the X Factor talent show type or the mindless Strictly Come Dancing variety where even ex-senior politicians now take part ( such as Ed Balls – former potential Labour Party leader) and to the joy of millions people tune in – it’s only a bit of fun, they say; but Balls freely admits that although he enjoys it, it is also a vehicle to allow him to reconnect with the people. Again, the results of programmes like this are headline news in the media. What on earth is going on! In modern Britain and America the name of the game is entertainment rather than instruction, challenge or widening horizons
Hi, my friend, I'm Nigel, your friendly bar man.
Have a drink, it's on the house and then I have
something to tell you...

And there is another dimension to this. The vast array of channels and programmes available mean that when combined with on demand TV we watch only what we choose, like and know. At first this might seem attractive – indeed it is. But “on demand” means that in allowing us to be selective about what we watch it also means that we can also choose to omit what we don’t like or what doesn't interest us. In other words reinforcing what we like and know but not exposing us to what is new and different! The world of the internet – Google, Wikipedia and the rest – allow us to find specific items in whatever we are interested in – but at the same time be quite ignorant of the bigger picture. In the past people browsed newspapers and books and in doing so picked up on other things that might not have been immediately of importance or interest but quietly became part of their experience. Similarly when we had to watch TV as it was broadcast one could be exposed to other things when the TV was on and maybe we weren't actually watching it. For example, mum and dad watch the news and the children play in the back ground – but all the time just maybe they are “soaking up” bits of information about the world. Similarly, internet enthusiasts might be in contact with like minded people on the other side of the world – indeed via this blog I know this to be the case – but again this is a form of self reinforcement of what we know or like rather than a widening of our horizons. We like what we know and we know what we like – what we don’t know or don’t like is potentially and subconsciously excluded. In an age of information and widening horizons we are potentially limiting our horizons and making ourselves ignorant!

Modern technology and the consequent untrammelled choices that have been brought with it have caused a rush to the bottom for programme producers; programmes are easy, requiring no input or little thought, just low level entertainment. The name of the game is ratings. What is hard or challenging attracts only small numbers of viewers or is not “demanded” so we get entertaining cookery programmes rather than instructional ones. We get hours of cheap talent shows of the X Factor type rather than Young Musician of the Year; we get glitz and banality of Strictly Come Dancing rather than an insight into ballroom dancing; or we watch the Apprentice rather than receive information about how to succeed in business; and we follow Gareth  Malone’s Choir competitions rather than see a production of La Boheme. I am not suggesting that we live on a diet of opera, drab documentary and high brow productions but we are increasingly supplied with only things that the majority will watch and we increasingly approve of and choose to “demand” these low brow programmes. One can imagine that if Homer Simpson thought he might take up ballroom dancing, he might watch Strictly as his guide rather than attend a class; if he wanted to open his own business he might choose to watch the Apprentice and think he was on an MBA course. This is where we are at: whole swathes of the population increasingly cannot discriminate what is worthy and of value – and can’t be bothered to find out. And what is really worrying is, as Sachs suggests, ignorance is becoming a shame free condition; the result is that our society is in serious decline and danger.
Look what a regular guy I am

Comedian Alexei Sayle wrote this a few months ago: “...programmes such as X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and Strictly have come to dominate prime-time viewing.......Noam Chomsky says the media’s function is to “amuse entertain and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfil this role requires systematic propaganda.” Thus the propaganda role of the talent show is to promote the idea of simplicity over complexity, of popularity over talent, of banality over genuine invention because complexity encourages critical thought and critical thought is the enemy of authoritarianism........”

Quite, and when everything is reduced to its simplest, lowest level terms there is no place for shades of grey, everything is black and white. You have won or you have lost. I am right and you are wrong. The message is reduced to its simplest format. If you are not with me you are against me. Thus, Sayle went on: “Tyranny is the removal of nuance.” And over the past months throughout the Brexit campaign and during the American presidential race everything was reduced to its lowest terms by Donald Trump and his English counterparts: Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove and the rest of the right wing politicians and media. 

If an electorate is increasingly tuned in only to the simplest messages then Sachs is right. If the world is increasingly populated by Homer Simpson clones unable to ask pertinent questions or use their knowledge and minds to critically consider and make judgements upon what they are presented with by peers, politicians,  and the media; if these Homer Simpsons know what they like and like only what they know and are interested only in lowest common denominator views and entertainment then society is at risk of a scenario where  powerful lobbies and potential extremism and evil will flourish. It is easy to influence the unthinking and, as Edmund Burke reminded everyone almost three centuries ago “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”.
Simple, repetitive reinforcement of a bit of propaganda

And this is where we are at. In April of this year, it seemed the prospect of a British exit from the EU led by political misfits like Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove was an impossible nightmare and that in America a megalomaniacal reality TV show star with no political experience, or personal grace, or wisdom would become the next  president and thus the most powerful man in the world was laughed at. We all mocked and said no electorate could be so utterly foolish to be taken in by these obvious con men. But the electorate, vast swathes of whom were clearly unable to discriminate between good and bad, worthy and unworthy, false and true were taken in or simply too uncaring to question or find  out and it has, indeed, spoken. Democracy has had its say; “Cometh the hour cometh the man”; we are now not only ruled by the mistaken and the unwise but have reached this low point because millions are wilfully unwise and uncaring; Homer Simpson man has won. Dumbed down land has arrived. We are all losers in the race to the bottom. We have got the politicians and the policies that we deserve – and we should be very afraid.

As I sat at breakfast on the morning of Donald Trump’s victory my eye was drawn to a letter in the Guardian which reduced me to a further level of despair and anger at what we have allowed our society to become. The letter related the comments of American journalist Dorothy Thompson who met Hitler in the 1930s as he was rising to power. The letter explained that Dorothy Thompson was a pioneering American journalist who in 1939 was recognized as the second most influential woman in America next to Eleanor Roosevelt. She was the first American journalist to be expelled from Nazi Germany in 1934.
The sharp end of what these political snake oil salesmen create. Their
simple messages are working with the mindless mob.

Having met Hitler Thompson later commented “No people ever recognise their dictator in advance … When our (American) dictator turns up you can depend on it that he will be one of the boys, and he will stand for everything traditionally American. And nobody will ever say Heil to him, nor will they call him Führer or Duce. But they will greet him with one great big, universal, democratic, sheeplike bleat of “OK, Chief! Fix it like you wanna, Chief! Oh Kaaaay!”  Were Dorothy Thompson alive today she would surely say “I told you so”  as she watched Donald Trump and surveyed the American political scene of November 2016 or maybe even the British experience.  She didn’t use Trump’s mantra of “Make America Great Again” nor did she refer to Nigel Farage’s preferred TV pose for the electorate of standing in a good old English pub, with beaming smile and pint in hand: just, one of the boys, like you and me, “have a beer old chap”, whilst saying to millions of sheep across the UK “We want our country back” – an easy to remember and vacuous slogan for unthinking minds to latch on to. You get the point - dictators and extremist politicians and ideas creep into our politics, our homes and our minds as "good blokes" and "salt of the earth people", they are everything to everyman- they are Mr Ordinary and because of that we should know them and fear them.
Just like your mates in the pub - a good bloke. Except that he
is pursuing a very carefully planned and insidious campaign
to win your mind......and you make it so easy: you don't ask hard
questions, you don't challenge you simply follow and repeat
his words.

Would be dictators and extremists like Trump, Farage, Johnson or Gove and the rest of the Republican and Brexit crew come not calling themselves Führer. Nor do they come as conquering heroes with the beating of drums and brass bands. No, the uniforms, jack boots and black shirts come later after the softly, softly groundwork when they have established themselves as essential parts of ordinary life. They come as Mr Ordinary, whispering, what they tell us, are self evident truths and which everybody might relate to. They come telling you what you already subconsciously often want to hear, whispering, what they say everybody would agree with.  Their power is their ease of words and ability to talk to and continually repeat their message to influence the common man. Boris Johnson has one of the most carefully cultivated personas of the day – and because of it he is supremely dangerous. “Look at me”,  his persona suggests “I’m a  cuddly buffoon, quite harmless you know. Everybody’s mate, good for a laugh. I don’t mind people laughing at me. I know it gives me more power over you since you like to be entertained and have a laugh. I know that in Homer Simpson land having a laugh and not thinking too hard about boring things is what it’s all about. Leave it all to me. And while you’re having a laugh at me, my message will creep into your mind, it will be simple and seem so right......because after all, I’m Boris, your mate. One of the boys, such a buffoon, couldn’t possibly do any harm, have a beer pal.....”  Today, I have just read the Johnson has chastised those in Europe who are anxious about the declared policies of Donald Trump; Johnson tells us, in the sort of language and words meant to appeal to Homer Simpson, “It’s time that we snapped out of the general doom and gloom about the result of this election and collective whinge-o-rama that seems to be going on in some places”. As predicted simple words, simple idea, no nuance, easy for Homer Simpson acolytes to remember and repeat. The vocabulary of the bar and the locker room; simple, uncomplicated, not intended to induce critical thought. And the message is, as Alexei Sayle suggested, without nuance, it is little more than the propaganda envisaged by Noam Chomsky: simple, repetitive, easy to understand and repeat. It requires no thought and its simplicity is crucial because, as Chomsky argues, “complexity encourages critical thought and critical thought is the enemy of authoritarianism........” . It is the message of the mob.
Goebbels knew all about manipulating minds - he was
the undoubted king. He could make millions do
exactly what he wanted so very easily.

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief, knew all this and was an expert. He said: “If you tell the same lie enough times, people will believe it; and the bigger the lie, the better... There is no point in seeking to convert the intellectuals for intellectuals will never be converted. Always speak to ‘the man in the street’ and arguments must therefore be crude, clear and forcible, and appeal to emotions and instincts, not the intellect.....Truth is unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology".

And we have made it easy for these peddlers of untruths, of disharmony and of division to gain the footholds they crave. The mindless sheep who couldn’t be bothered, who listened to the snake oil salesmen while having their beer and mindlessly watched Bake Off and Strictly Come Dancing or laughed at Trump’s locker room misogynistic and xenophobic banter (to use his defence) and were taken in by the easy slogans and half truths. They have danced to their music with wide eyes, open ears but closed brains, never thinking, never questioning; thinking only of themselves and their own prejudices and having that laugh. And we, who should have known better, have done nothing to halt this slide
Doesn't look like a dictator or a misogynist or a xenophobe.
Just a regular guy - even down to his baseball cap - which,
of course, carries his simple subliminal message

In years to come we will look back in both regret and horror at the self harm that we have inflicting upon our two once great and honourable nations. We have become societies in terminal decline. The parallels between the election of Trump and the promotion of Caligula to be Emperor of Rome as that great Empire declined two millennia ago are both stunning and frightening. The nations we are bequeathing to our children and grandchildren, where ignorance and an insulated mindset are prized more than learning, insight, questioning, and high ideals, and where ignorance is a shame free condition, are now savagely poorer places - not in the economic sense but rather in the spiritual, humanitarian, cultural, social and political sense. And in the end these virtues are the things of humanity that matter - not wealth or trade agreements or balance sheets. They are the virtues that people have, over the ages, fought to preserve, defend and attain. They are the virtues that define us as human beings. They are what mankind has striven for throughout time – to be better men and women and to make the world a better place for our children. The lauding of division and hatred and the rise of all the other things that define Brexit and Donald Trump diminish us all. But even more worrying is the thought that our children and grandchildren may grow up not knowing any different.  They may grow up believing that the Trumps, the Farages and the Johnsons of this world are what  constitute good leaders; they may grow up believing that the X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing  or the Great British Bake Off  is high culture and worthy of their minds; they might think that the Sun or Daily Mail newspapers carry truthful unbiased news and comment; they may grow up thinking that misogyny, xenophobia, division and a callous disregard for humanity are normal and acceptable aspects of being English or American. And they would be wrong about all these beliefs – but, sadly, that is where we are at.

Our children and grandchildren will not thank us or forgive us for our actions this year of 2016.