Saturday, 23 May 2009

An evening with Hank and Reg

Why are so many otherwise courteous people provoked to a sneer by the mention of country and western music? So they don't like it - who says they should? It can't be the false view of history or the occasional emotional excess - the people who sneer at country music are often happy to praise Madame Butterfly and Turandot or the operas of Handel and Wagner.

I'm not a fan or an expert on country music but for years I've felt uncomfortable about the sneers it receives. It's not just about disliking the music; people who dislike other kinds of music (free form jazz, punk, string quartets) are able to say so without a sneer. If challenged, the sneerers may say that country music is too simple and too direct as though simplicity and directness were faults. Or they say that it's a conservative genre. Many genres are predominantly conservative; if that's the case with country music, it also gave voice to a number of radicals from Woody Guthrie to k.d. lang.

Country music - like the western novel and film - is a large, baggy genre which allows its creators, performers and audiences to interpret it as they choose. It's also accessible and the majority of its fans in Britain are probably working-class. I suspect class is what causes the sneer. Country fans are knows to have a good time - sometimes they dress up and dance. Their pleasure doesn't need intellectual interpretation; intellectuals and critics struggle to find complex words to account for simple directness. It's easier to say that country music is beneath criticism than to admit that it may be beyond the critic's capacities.

I was hesitant about attending a concert by Hank Wangford and Reg Meuross. It was at a small local school theatre which doubles as a community theatre and cinema. I'd heard of Hank Wangford - I think I heard him on the radio decades ago - and that meant he must be famous. I didn't know what to expect but thought I might go - to support the theatre and extend my knowledge. "Hank Wangford's allright," the sneerers said. "He doesn't take country music seriously."

But making jokes about country music isn't the same as sneering at it. Hank Wangford knows the history of couintry music and treats it with respect as well as humour. He treats his audience in the same way - we're in on the joke and enjoy the music.

Reg Meuross was an unfamiliar name. At the beginning of the concert he was silent between songs, as though he was there simply to support the more famous Hank. But gradually he began to introduce songs - as Hank put it, "the spotlight of fame" turned to him. I instantly warmed to his stillness on stage, his quiet sense of humour, his love of history, the songs he wrote and his high tenor voice. There's a cross of folk with country music, which is as it should be - genres don't stay still but evolve in relation to one another. Reg's voice blended wonderfully with Hank's and he shone in solos.

I haven't suddenly remade myself as a country and western fan - I'm still listening to opera, folk, jazz, string quartets and the Beetles. But I've found Hank and Reg's music on-line and am planning to add some of their songs to my MP3 player when I've worked out how to buy them online. First choice from Hank is "Lonely Together", a witty and self-aware song about misery in a relationship. And I don't know how many times I've played Reg's song "Worry no more" - it's definitely a song I want to take with me when travelling.

I'm so glad I spent that evening with Hank and Reg. I wonder if they'll be visiting again.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

The all-purpose May Day march

It's May. Some of the empty shops have unexpected blossoms: bright new businesses nestling in bankrupt empty caverns and urging sunlit strollers to enter and buy. I have little hope they'll make it through next winter but there's something appealing about their optimism, even though I doubt a champagne bar will succeed in a suburban high street.

All over Europe, yesterday was May Day. In England, they waited till today for the marches and the holiday is on Monday. I read about Nottingham's march on Indymedia and decided to join in.

We assembled in Brewhouse Yard at the bottom of Castle Rock against a background of caves. There were flimsy but colourful stalls with banners, books and badges. A van was selling vegetarian food and the Clarion choir was preparing to sing.

Sometimes Nottingham's May Day marches have a focus - I've been on one which was against the war in Iraq - but this year all sorts of people were involved. The campaign against privatising the Post Office had top billing but there were marchers from several trades unions, peace groups, and left-wing organisations or parties. I was offered a CND placard, against the renewal of Trident, and agreed to carry it. That made it hard to take photos.

We ambled cheerfully through Nottingham, led by a samba band. Caught in the middle of the crowd of people and banners (police estimates reckoned about 500 of us), I couldn't see the band or many of the marchers. My view was largely of the backs of banners, police (with numbers and earpieces securely in place) and smiling crowds. No-one seemed greatly perturbed at the slight delay we caused - instead bystanders stopped to read the banners, raised their phones to take photos or even started dancing along to the samba band. Occasional attempts to start chanting slogans foundered. There was some annoyance at bankers but this didn't flower into anger. Instead brief conversations sprang up in which individuals shared their concern. But conversations subsided. We were enjoying the sun, the crowds, the company and the walk.

It was a short amble, causing no difficulties for the small children in family groups or the people in power-wheelchairs. We passed the edge of the Market Square, the Robin Hood statue beneath the castle and the abandoned Lace Centre before re-entering Brewhouse Yard. Then the marchers looked at one another's stalls, queued for vegetarian food and sat on the grass to hear the music and speeches.

I deposited my placard and bought a veggie burger before wandering round the stall. I paused for a while to talk to people at the Refugee Forum, still collecting for the destitute asylum seekers whose poverty shames us. I accepted a leaflet for the campaign to free Hicham Yezza. Like many people who are arrested with a great fanfare on terrorism charges, he's now been imprisoned on visa irregularities and is threatened with deportation. And I spoke to a fellow Quaker behind the stall for the City of Sanctuary campaign, which asks, simply, that we make refugees and asylum seekers welcome.

There was a speech by Alan Simpson, one of the few Labour MPs I would vote for. Unfortunately he's not my MP and he's retiring at the next election. He spoke passionately about the environment, but I was enjoying the sun so much my concentration wandered. I couldn't focus on the songs (by Red Banner) for long either. I wandered off to inspect the trades union banners, now propped against the caves that were carved from the sandstone centuries ago. (No-one lives there now.) I wondered briefly what the march might have achieved. At least we all enjoyed it - and the event was encouraging. I felt less alone in my concerns. And so, encouraged, I slipped away.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Laureate thoughts

The announcement will be made in Manchester today. If the newspapers are correct - and they've been announcing this for a week - the new poet laureate will be Carol Ann Duffy.

Ten years ago, newspapers carried the story that Tony Blair had personally vetoed her appointment because of her relationship with Jackie Kay; apparently he didn't think Middle England was ready for a lesbian poet laureate. Back in 1999, when Blair was widely viewed with admiration, it shocked me that nobody made a fuss - and that Andrew Motion was willing to accept the post.

As a republican, I have serious doubt about the post but my favourite would have been U.A. Fanthorpe, whose death was announced last night. I suppose Blair would have vetoed her too on the grounds of her 44-year relationship with Rosie Bailey. He might even have vetoed her on the grounds of her poems, if he knew enough about poetry. In Fanthorpe's popular "Not My Best Side", the unpleasant young St George who, like any New Labour apparatchik, has passed all the right training courses and gained "diplomas in Dragon/ Management and Virgin Reclamation," insists that he has to kill for the sake of "job prospects/ In the spear- and horse-building industries". Finally the righteous defensiveness gives way to his real attitude: "What, in any case, does it matter what/ you want? You're in my way." Someone as sharp and perceptive as that might be too drily subversive for the laureate post.

I had the good fortune to encounter U.A. Fanthorpe (and Rosie Bailey) on a few occasions, usually at their readings. They were good readers. Rosie, a poet herself (published as R.V. Bailey) provided a second voice in U.A.'s poems. Readings were never over-solemn but always filled with jokes and wit, just like the volumes of poems. But I had the sense of a moral compass which could be sharply critical of injustice but was always courteous to fellow human beings. U.A. will be much missed.

Perhaps it was as well for her poetry she didn't gain the laureateship. Her poetry - which seems so quiet and direct but lingers to provoke thought - was free to take its own path. The constraints of the laureateship rarely suit poets. At least Carol Ann Duffy won't be limited to the trivia of royal weddings. There are bigger subjects to deal with: war, financial crises, pandemic, environmental disaster.

But these aren't necessarily the subjects that will be best for Duffy's poetry. Most poetry is oblique and celebrates language through an indirect engagement with contemporary events. Occasionally a poet is appointed whose talents mesh with the subjects requiring poems - Dryden, the first laureate, was genuinely concerned with writing poems about public events. But these days the poets who address big subjects directly - including the performance poets Benjamin Zephaniah and Linton Kwesi Johnson - probably haven't made the shortlist. A performance poet would fit the job well - imagine how a performed poem might liven up a coronation, royal wedding or the opening of parliament. An official performed poem might be a greater youtube success than Gordon Brown. A visual poet might be even more fun, livening up official documents or creating public, official installations.

But the laureateship remains an establishment post and I expect the Prime Minister prefers a poet whose work can be confined to the pages of a book. He was unlikely to be as adventurous as the city of Glasgow, which appointed Edwin Morgan as its first laureate.

I suppose I should feel relieved that, at last, a woman has been appointed. It's taken a long time - long before women were allowed to vote, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Augusta Webster were suggested as candidates for the role.

Congratulations to Carol Ann Duffy - and to every poet writing today. The laureateship is an entertaining sideshow. May society become more just and more merciful - and may poetry flourish.