Monday, 19 December 2016

Well that escalated quickly…

Last year's end-of-term report seems so sweetly naive now. There I was in a deserted office (just like today, only it's a different building), reflecting on the excellent books and albums I'd bought, and the research I was thinking of doing. The only dark spots were the multiple funerals I'd attended and Labour's then-shocking defeat in the general election. And Syria…

This year? 2015 looked like a warm-up for 2016. And 2016 looks like a warm-up for 1938. Bigots and billionaires – usually the same people – running the UK, the US, Russia and lots of other places. Electorates the world over are looking to atavistic con-men to save them, despite these con-men largely being the causes of said misery. Generosity of spirit seems in short supply and the Cult of the Great Leader is recruiting, from the White House to Vice-Chancellors' offices across the world.

Trump reminded me of the late and very much unlamented Senator Bilbo, a man rather less endearing than the fictional character you first thought of. A few days ago Trump asked a rally to applaud the black voters who stayed at home on election day: Bilbo – a Senator and two-term Mississippi governor – appealed to
“every red-blooded Anglo-Saxon man in Mississippi to resort to any means to keep hundreds of Negroes from the polls in the July 2 primary. And if you don’t know what that means, you are just not up to your persuasive measures.”
Here's the Claibornes' song about Bilbo's campaign to prevent immigration. He particularly hated Catholics, black people and Jews) and tried to get 12 million black Americans deported to Liberia, taking advantage of Marcus Garvey's black separatism.

The main difference between Bilbo and Trump is that Bilbo had a long track record of (evil) service to his state and country: Trump's such a lazy autocrat that he has no such record. Like Trump, Bilbo was seen as dishonest and underhand: the Senate passed a resolution stating that he was:
unfit to sit with honest, upright men in a respectable legislative body
Bilbo was as thin-skinned as Trump too: on becoming Lieutenant-Governor he had the resolution stricken from the record.

So that's the USA. For a lot of complex – and not very complex – reasons they voted against the gradual and controlled triumph of financialised capitalism, drone warfare and rentier economics (don't forget that Hillary was 'proud' to serve on the board of Wal-Mart) and for demagoguery, racism, corruption and vicious self-interest. Over in the UK, the Great British Public voted against the aforesaid financialised capitalism, drone warfare and rentier economics and for demagoguery, racism, corruption and vicious, but deluded, self-interest. Only Brexit came without the laughs associated with the Trump campaign. Instead it was a grey and seedy return to the small-minded suspicion of the 1950s, wrapped up in an awful lot of sick-making hypocrisy about British values and now loyalty oaths, not seen since McCarthy or 1930s Germany. One assumes that Mr Javid will not be requiring his former colleagues to solemnly swear to pay corporate taxes.

In the plus column: I've been to Iceland, and met Liz Morrish, Richard Hall, Kate Bowles and her daughter Clem in the flesh. I read some good books and listened to some good music.

Hmm…the scales don't seem very balanced. It might be that the individualist pleasures of friends, books and music don't entirely outweigh the collective misery of a glob gripped by hatred and suspicion, but I get the sense that it's what most of us will do: retreat into a cosy cave in the hope that the storm passes rather than get out there to do something about it. When faced with climate denial, racism, economic hostage-taking, Syria and all the other evils abroad today it's much easier to treat power like the weather and behave as though there's nothing to be done other than wait it out. Sadly, I suspect that it doesn't work like this. If we don't get out there with our social/cultural/political sandbags, we're going to sink beneath the waves.

Happy Christmas.

Friday, 9 December 2016

At the revels

This week I have mostly been going to cultural stuff. And watching my friends and colleagues marking essays. As I'm on a sabbatical (cough cough) this is the first time since 2000 that I haven't had any. I miss the teaching, but marking? Not so much.

So last week it was a Beethoven and John Adams concert at Symphony Hall: the Leonore Overture was pretty enough (yes, I know this sounds terrible), the Violin Concerto was stunning – particularly good cadenza – and Adams's Harmonium was utterly wonderful - it draws on poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson to thrilling, gutsy effect. It's just a shame that the audience is reduced by a half whenever a living composer appears on the bill. The version below is from the 1980 CBSO performance under Simon Rattle. It was also lovely to see the James Ehnes, the Beethoven soloist sitting near us for the Adams half of the concert. That doesn't happen often.

I've also been to see a two-hander of Pride and Prejudice which worked wonderfully, went to the cinema for I, Daniel Blake which reduced me and everybody else there to tears (though we all enjoyed one character's devotion to Stoke City's Charlie Adam), and saw Pixies last night. Sometimes I worry about bands over the creative hill flogging the old favourites, but Pixies were utterly ferocious. The famous songs weren't reverently reproduced identically to the recorded versions, and new songs fitted well. The gig finished with their Krautrock b-side (considerably toughened up) 'Into the White' being delivered into a hall filled with blinding white smoke, which looked and sounded amazing, and also annoyed the ghastly folk who view gigs through their mobile phones. Which was a bonus.

Change of tone for the next couple of gigs: Oxford this weekend to hear my sister sing with the City of Oxford choir, including the modern masterpiece that is Lauridsen's 'O Magnum Mysterium', then on Tuesday it's back to Brum for the Tallis Scholars' Renaissance Christmas, which also features a contemporary piece, amazingly.

It's not all fun though - several Annual General Meetings and the like to get through first… Oh, and tonight's the very last All Hands On Decks, where failed or wannabe DJs get to torture the general public with 10 minutes of their musty vinyl. Not sure what I'll play tonight but it's bound to be something far removed from the soulful and groovy stuff everyone else likes. Why is it the last one? Perhaps because – like Mary Bennet – I have delighted them long enough.