Tablet 7

This Babylonian letter from the Manchester University Museum includes the injunction: “… don’t be negligent! Cultivate the field … and use (its harvest). Or give it over to other hands, in order that it may be cultivated!” 

Whose field are we on? Who gets to cultivate it, and how, and for whose benefit? 

 What have we sown? What have we grown?

I proudly sang the National Anthem at a Silver Jubilee party in 1977. As the ‘final’ line of God Save the Queen ended I drew a deep breath and launched into the second verse — including the lines ’Scatter her enemies / and make them fall /Confound their politics / Frustrate their knavish tricks’. And then the third verse, too before they put a stop to me and awarded me the prize cake with its silver fondant crown. I gleefully chanted, “Who won the war? Who won the war?” at my classmate Stefan, whose dad was a German emigré jeweller, with a group of fellow pupils in our primary school playground. I decorated a polystyrene straw boater and a piece of dowelling with red white and blue ribbon as part of my outfit for the Royal Wedding garden party we held in 1981. My mum sang me to sleep each night with a lullaby that ended ‘it is time for picanninies to go to sleep’, and I went on to sing the same words to my own children decades later. One of the books mum read to me had a refrain that I remember to this day: ‘Epaminondas, you ain’t got the sense you was born with!” At school, Mrs Wellington read us the ‘Little Black Sambo’ stories. At church we had little booklets of tear-out photos of babies and children – Sunny Smiles they were called, and we would ‘sell’ the photos to raise money for National Children’s Home. People would flick through and choose their favoured picture, leaving a booklet of stubs and the final unsold few: the ones who looked as though they might be a bit disabled or, of course, black. But we learned to love and care about the poor African children in those far away lands who were being won for Jesus (and being educated, and having wells dug for them, and being taught improved farming methods) by brave missionaries funded by the JMA (Junior Missionary Association). For collecting over £5 a year for them I was awarded the ‘JMC DSO’ – a medal looking like the Victoria Cross, and in subsequent years a ‘bar’ to add to the medal ribbon. I referred along with everyone else to ‘the paki shop’ and casually used terms like ‘wog’ and ‘coon’ and the N-word for black people, and laughed at jokes with punchlines like ‘Alcock and Brown – that’s my Rastus’. I remember a black cricketer, I think he was called Lloyd, coming from the West Indies to play for our local cricket club and him being a warmly welcomed and much loved character. He is the only black person I remember from my childhood. Of course, I had a spell collecting Robertson’s golly badges. I stood in genuinely awed and respectful silence at the parade of veterans on Remembrance Day as it made its way to the cenotaph on the park next to our house. Back then, it was a long procession, with plenty who had seen active service in both world wars. I was outraged when, occasionally, the wreaths that had been laid and remained there all year had been thrown about the place, and I remember me and a couple of friends putting them back and re-erecting all the little wooden poppy-crosses that had been trampled down in the flower beds around the memorial. I remember learning (or rather failing to learn) to drive in Nelson and my instructor directing me through ‘Little Bangladesh’ and joking he’d prefer it if I kept my speed up. I laughed along, of course. 

Getting on for half a century after many of these childhood memories, I currently have 298 ‘friends’ on Facebook. I’ve done a quick audit and as far as I can see, four are people of colour: one is black (mixed, I believe) and I think three are of South Asian ethnicity. Apologies to anyone if I’ve got that wrong or missed you out.

I have made several attempts to continue writing this piece over the course of several days, taking it in various directions, wondering where best to place my focus, but I have concluded that, for the time being at least, I should pause and think and try to engage more and posture (‘virtue signalling’ anyone?) less, apart from one thing I really wanted to include — and that is an apology to that lone black voice on my timeline for not doing more to amplify that perspective more before Black Lives Matter blew up in our timelines and on our news screens and, yes, I jumped on the bandwagon. I have previously ‘liked’ a number of her posts and comments that have dealt with issues around race, and have several times composed responses to people who have presented on her timeline arguments that display the (usually unwittingly) racist perspectives that she has to deal with on a daily basis throughout her life, but have always drawn back and not sent them, because I really don’t like an argument. Before I’d even heard of George Floyd, on the morning of 27th May (he was killed on 25th May) she posted:

“Seeing a different black man everyday killed by the police is so traumatic. It makes me scared for my family and makes me scared about the thought of raising a son 😖”

Well, I can imagine some people thinking this is hyperbole: a different black man every day? Really? Here, perhaps, is somebody who has been radicalised to unreasonably fear every policeman in the same way that we lefty snowflakes claim people have been radicalised to fear every muslim or black kid in a hoodie. And anyway, all of that is happening in America, and we’re better than that here.

Then the first comment below that post was from a white woman whose profile says she works at a bar in Doncaster. She has a son who, in his profile pic is a black kid wearing a reversed baseball cap. Her comment was “Shaqs been stopped by police 4 times these last two weeks. Twice when I sent him to the shop. Asking him his name or where he lives. I’ve been to the shop too many times to count & not been stopped once 🤔 xx”

Many of us – especially those of us who are white, even more so who are also male, even more so who are also economically comfortable (middle class, if you like)  really haven’t much of a clue about all this, and about the history that has led to it, or certainly not what it actually feels like to live with those experiences. Unless we make the effort to find out. And people like Lauren are, understandably, fed up of doing the emotional hard work of telling us and continually being ignored, rebuffed, marginalised, and patronised by those who claim to be ‘colour blind’ or insist that ‘all lives matter’ – never mind the explicit and overt racism on the one hand, and unconscious, internalised and structural racism on the other, that are still deeply ingrained in our culture. 

So, I will end here by saying that although Lauren is a former student of mine, I am quite certain I have learned more from her than she ever learned from me, and I will leave anyone reading this to think about the conclusions that can be drawn from my experiences in childhood and beyond: they certainly don’t inevitably lead in the direction of anti-racism, so if you have some unease about what’s going on, think I’m a woke SJW who needs to get real, or just don’t know how best to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement, well, join the club. Let’s talk.

U2: War

A number of artists that I listen to a lot, and are most representative of what I would want my music to ‘say about me’ will be missing from this list, because I am trying to identify the turning points: the music that opened doors. Sometimes, having walked through that portal, I found a mansion to explore and rarely returned to the entry point. So it was with U2. If this were a list of records that mean most to me, or that I listen to most often, U2 wouldn’t be represented. I left their records, including the first album I bought by them, ‘War’, at home when I went to university, and think I probably haven’t heard it start to finish between then and yesterday when I pulled it up on Spotify. But U2 were the gateway drug to the post-punk / indie / alternative music scene that has dominated my musical preferences to this day. Yes, I may have quickly rejected U2, but for a time they burned brightly as the first band to really give that all important adolescent sense that they were  speaking directly to me. (Incidentally, my friend Paul Lavendar recently shared an article that highlights why it became so easy to scoff at U2, but also offers a bit of a challenge to those of us who have done so: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/music/fintan-o-toole-bono-at-60-why-is-ireland-so-ambivalent-about-its-most-famous-son-1.4244508).

U2 were the first band that I saw live, on December 2nd 1982 at Manchester Apollo: the second date of their ‘War’ pre-tour where they showcased three songs from the upcoming album, alongside their existing repertoire from singles and their first two albums. I was a few weeks short of my fifteenth birthday, and it was easily one of the most exciting things that had ever happened to me (seeing Burnley play for the first time on January 2nd 1978 at Burnden Park runs it close). Posters and music paper articles and pictures of the band (in iconic photographs by Anton Corbijn) immediately began to cover my bedroom walls, and I wore the black sleeveless top I bought at the gig constantly when not in school uniform, and even when I was I  listened to them surreptitiously in class on my brother’s ‘borrowed’ Walkman using one of those white earpieces that looked a bit like a hearing aid run inside my shirt, up the back of my collar with my  hair carefully arranged to hide it. I made a handmade booklet of their lyrics, and carefully crafted cassette box inserts for the compilation tapes I made including the rare B-sides from singles borrowed from youth group friend Stephen Pratt who already owned everything they’d released, and was among the group who took me to that first gig. If their Christianity was particularly important to me at the time, they helped forge the link between faith and a social and political conscience. 

It was from U2 that I learned what ‘Bloody Sunday’ was; ‘New Year’s Day’ cemented the seemingly distant events of the Solidarity movement in Poland in my developing awareness of global politics, and when the single ‘Pride: in the name of love” was released it brought the civil rights movement belated to my attention. U2 did more than merely coincide with my shift away from the Conservative political outlook I’d grown up with, and the ‘noisy punk band from Ireland’ as Bono described them, were probably my first great love in music, if not the longest lasting,

Diverfity

Tablet 6

Keen eyed readers, of whom there is at least one, will have noticed that I’m not partial to keeping to the rules of these ‘challenges’ and today I deviate yet further, for this is not a clay tablet, but a stone inscription. The Behistun inscription, located in what is now western Iran. It is often known as the cuneiform ‘Rosetta Stone’, a comparison which itself betrays the imperialism that places Western culture as the norm against which others are measured (and invariably found wanting). It is a trilingual inscription, in Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian (a variety of Akkadian), and was instrumental to archaeologists in deciphering cuneiform script. As a not wholly irrelevant aside, the picture below (By KendallKDown – From my own collection, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8751106) shows damage to the inscription apparently caused by British soldiers using it for target practice during the Second World War.

What made it possible to decipher cuneiform was placing it alongside contrasting scripts in the same context and then comparing them with other scripts from different contexts. The diversity between the scripts is as important as their commonality. So, diversity is important.

In a previous post I mentioned Dominic Cummings’ most recent blog post, which is effectively a job advert for government advisors to join his team, and his frequent use of the first person suggests that he really does think of it as his team: “I’ll bin you within weeks if you don’t fit — don’t complain later because I made it clear now” he says, after already making clear that he will be avoiding “the horrors of ‘Human Resources’ (which also obviously need a bonfire)”. There’s impressive doublethink in seeking out ‘weirdos and misfits’ then indulging in a bit of macho posturing about ‘binning’ them if they don’t – erm – ‘fit’, but anyway. It sounds as though he’s aiming for some ’sock it to the man’ subversion of unwieldy and oppressive power structures there. Perhaps that’s the tone he’s aiming at. Except that now he is the man. And I’m not entirely convinced that tearing up a rule book designed to ensure fairness and equity in recruitment and employment practices is quite the way to go about ensuring diversity and fresh-thinking at the heart of the government machine (even if it may in places have ended up unnecessarily cumbersome, unwieldy and not wholly effective at achieving its aims). Because Cummings is all about diversity.

So long as it is his kind of diversity. So long as it is diversity within remarkably constrained parameters. He spells out fairly clearly what he means: “People in SW1 talk a lot about ‘diversity’ but they rarely mean ‘true cognitive diversity’. They are usually babbling about ‘gender identity diversity blah blah’. What SW1 needs is not more drivel about ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’ from Oxbridge humanities graduates but more genuine cognitive diversity.” Ooh – you can fairly hear the grinding of his teeth, and see the imprint of his nails against the palms of his clenched fists. ‘Babbling’, ‘drivel’ – the contempt is palpable. As so often the idea is rooted in potentially fertile soil, but the plant it has produced has mutated into something ugly, poisonous even. The logic, as far as I can find it, goes something like: studies have consistently found that the ‘performance’ of ‘teams’ has no strong correlation to diversity in categories such as gender and ethnicity, but is strongly correlated with diversity of ‘knowledge processing’ and ‘perspective’. This is summarised in a Harvard Business Review article (https://hbr.org/2017/03/teams-solve-problems-faster-when-theyre-more-cognitively-diverse):

 “Knowledge processing: the extent to which individuals prefer to consolidate and deploy existing knowledge, or prefer to generate new knowledge, when facing new situations

Perspective: the extent to which individuals prefer to deploy their own expertise, or prefer to orchestrate the ideas and expertise of others, when facing new situations.”

I can’t help wondering about the limited range of knowledge that can be called upon, and the restricted perspectives of ‘others’ whose ideas and expertise can be drawn upon if other aspects of identity than the purely cognitive are dismissed with no more than a petulant “blah blah”. 

I can, however, see all too clearly the effects of ignoring, dismissing, belittling, and indeed oppressing and violating  those whose ‘diversity’ doesn’t fit  (or even ‘misfit’) into the mechanisms that reproduce political and economic power. But then I suppose I would say that as one of those “Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties.” No wonder he doesn’t want any of us to apply. 

Yes: Fragile

I was undecided if and where Yes should appear in this list. I clearly didn’t get the memo that punk was supposed to have swept away everything that came before and in my early to mid teens I returned to my brother’s record collection, and began building on, and branching from, his taste by buying albums of my own. 

There were other acts of broadly the same time period and genre that might be less potentially cringeworthy to name here. For example The Strawbs were less pompous and more politically aware, while Jethro Tull had a wild-eyed strangeness that arguably has a more direct line to things I came to enjoy later. Quite why Yes were my prog outfit of choice, I’m not sure. I don’t think there is any time or place that they can have been regarded as cool. Okay: maybe that’s why. 

Moving from  mixed comprehensive to school to a boy’s grammar that was lost in time, just as pimply testosterone awkwardness kicked in may have had something to do with it. “I was into Yes when I was your age,” Charlie Tickner, our Biology teacher admitted when he saw the Roger Dean designed Yes logo meticulously graffitied on my exercise book. I read Tolkien and the Runestaff books of Michael Moorcock (but never made what might have been more credible leap from there to Hawkwind) and copied the style of Jon Anderson’s fey and faux fabula in my English lesson compositions for Boggy Morton, and copying the fantasy art style of Roger Dean (cf. a recent post) in art lessons and at the home of my friend Jonas who had an actual airbrush!. My brother only had a few Yes albums, but I spent my pocket money buying up the rest, mainly from John Phillip’s in Skipton, and I remember getting ‘Close to the Edge’ from a record shop on the edge of a market square somewhere (maybe Kendal?) on  a day-trip somewhere with mum and dad. The inner sleeve had the lyrics reproduced and my own handwriting changed overnight as I copied Roger Dean’s style, and from then on for years would always write with a narrow calligraphic nabbed fountain pen and write my d’s with a curved rightward flick from the ascender. 

By the time I really got into them, Yes had already disbanded (though they would later reform in various configurations I have had little interest in (if a band employs the singer of a tribute band to replace their singer, are they the same band or have they become their own tribute act? It’s a conundrum to make the Thesuss’s ship problem seem simple), and I felt a sense almost as palpable as grief that I’d been born too late to see them live. I remember my brother going to see them on the ‘Drama’ tour when Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman had been improbably replaced by The Buggles, and although I sensed that line-up was not really the Yes I loved, I still felt a crushing envy that he’d seen many of their best songs played live. 

It was post-punk indie music and its culture, spearheaded by John Peel on late night Radio 1, rather than punk itself that saw off, for a time, my love of Yes (or anything vaguely in the same generic ball-park), but as I got older and the importance of musical tribalism ebbed, and broadcasters I respected such as Fiona Talkington on Radio 3 and Stuart Maconie on 6 Music rehabilitated prog in general and Yes in particular as having a valid place in a musical history that no longer needed a year zero, I was able to return to Yes and to some of the bands they had led me to (I have a particular soft spot for Caravan’s ‘In the Land of Grey and Pink’, bought in Cardiff one teenage summer when I was staying with my sister, Jill), and to discover some of the interesting prog tentacles I was only dimly aware of at the time, perhaps from listening in the bath to Tommy Vance’s ‘Friday Rock’ show: such as Goblin, Van Der Graaf Generator, King Crimson, and the whole Krautrock scene in both its ‘space-rock’, electronic and motorik forms: Faust, Amon Duul, Can, Neu!, Tangerine Dream. I can also see something of a connection between the long form intricacy of Yes’s classic prog and much ‘post-rock’ that I came to adore, and the fragility of Jon Anderson’s strained high register vocals finds an echo for me in some of my favourite vocalists of more recent times: Jonsi of Sigur Ros, Thom Yorke of Radiohead and Jonathan Higgs of Everything Everything (although I’m not very musically literate, the ‘art rock’ characterised by the latter seems to be a fairly direct successor of prog with its intricate musicianship and and shifts of tempo and key.)

What I regard as the ‘classic’ Yes line-up toured for the band’s 35th anniversary in 2004 and fortunately my good friend (and, in large measure, musical mentor) Donald had followed a similar musical path to me, so we bought tickets. It ended up coinciding with a scout camp that my son Edward was due to attend, and so that I didn’t have to make the choice between them, Donald drove down to pick me up at the camp, I left Ed with other parents that I knew for the evening, and over two decades after I’d forlornly thought my dream of seeing Yes was over, I got to see them in their native habitat of a packed arena, complex with bombastic Roger Dean designed staging, before Donald drove me back through the night to a dark tent and a sleeping six-year old in the small hours of the morning. Yes’s setlist that night had three songs from ‘Fragile’ – the most from any single album – and that seems to be the best representative of their output for me, still carrying echoes of the psychedelia in which the band were formed, before they had developed the full-on pretentiousness that makes them easy to laugh-off, so that’s the album cover (Roger Dean, of course, his first for the band) you see below. Nevertheless, I will still defend ‘Tales from  Topograpic Oceans’ until, well, until I admit within seconds that it’s a pile of ridiculous pompous overblown bollocks. But I still love it.