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Thursday, 24 October 2013

Elvis Presley: Lost in a dream

I was listening to the car radio when Elvis Presley came on singing a fairly nondescript song – GI Blues. 
It came as a shock – as it always does – how good a voice he had. That night I delved into my DVD collection. It’s a perennial complaint in my family that every year I ask for a DVD, which they claim I put on a shelf and promptly forget. This is a canard. It’s a case of waiting for just the right moment – and one had come now.

I played Elvis’ 1968 comeback concert and was bowled over by two competing emotions. The first, and let’s get this out of the way, was how phenomenally beautiful he was. After such a long time, seeing him come alive on a large screen TV was like seeing a demigod, and at the same time an animated Tussaud’s mannequin. It was a Rorschach thing. 

In palmistry the lines on the left hand show your inborn potential. The lines on the right palm show what you have/are doing with it. They tend to coincide but not always and never exactly. It was a bit like that with Elvis’ face.
Disc One showed him performing with his band surrounded by a very strange audience. It was so prim and proper, well behaved children with their parents sitting behind, most of them corporative insiders, I’m sure. There are two kinds of audiences, the kind Hitler, the Beatles and the Stones enjoyed where the performer feeds from the energy of the crowd, and this kind of audience – respectful and all of them feeding from him. Elvis was singing to the un-dead all coiffured and well-dressed.

 Back to the face. In every disc the camera panned lovingly over Presley’s hair and face but in that first disc the camera occasionally zooms into his right profile, which is – the only word for it is – weird. His eyes, nose, lips and chin look as if they’re sinking into enveloping cheek.

 It’s a spine-tingling portent. You sigh with relief when the camera returns to the full face or left profile where an equally unnatural beauty prevails. 

This first Disc also reveals a degree of self consciousness and unease, to be expected from an icon threatened by change and perhaps the need to prove himself. It’s a strange mix of self deprecating arrogance. He comes to life when he’s on his feet, singing without the comfort blanket of buddies surrounding him. And, interestingly the camera largely avoids close ups of his right profile. We see only the demigod running through his greatest hits. Most of them are the necessary nods to his hey-day – just to remind you of why he was once unchallenged as ‘King’. Each song is professionally delivered, occasionally electric, but his last song – If I CanDream has pathos and power.  

The Aztecs had a god, Tezcatlipoca, and each year his priests chose the most beautiful man in the empire to represent him. For a year this man had everything a god incarnate could desire. At the end of that year he was sacrificed. Presley had more than a year but the story is much the same.

In 1968 he was 32 and, incredibly, a mere 9 years later he was dead, a bloated man aware of the unfulfilled parody he had become. And yes, I like the Vegas shows, but it is a different Elvis, still the consummate showman but more Liberace than Rock God, a sacrifice waiting to happen.

These lines, for me, sum up the tragedy of Elvis. He knew there was more.
There must be lights burning brighter somewhere
Got to be birds flying higher in a sky more blue

We're lost in a cloud with too much rain
We're trapped in a world that's troubled with pain

But as long as a man has the strength to dream
He can redeem his soul and fly

Deep in my heart there's a trembling question
Still I am sure that the answer, answer's gonna come somehow
Out there in the dark, there's a beckoning candle, yeah
And while I can think, while I can talk
While I can stand, while I can walk
While I can dream, please let my dream come true, oh
Right now, let it come true right now
Oh yeah

Friday, 18 October 2013

The meaning of Gay

I was doing some light dusting, the radio on in the background. They were discussing Will Young, who had approached the Education Secretary over the relatively new, derogatory use of the word ‘Gay’ in schools i.e. ‘That is so gay’ or ‘those shoes are gay’.

He has statistics ‘show 23% of young gay people attempt suicide and 56% will self harm.’ These are worrying statistics but I find it hard to reconcile them with a linguistic eddy over another layer of meaning in the word ‘Gay’. I would imagine there is much more direct verbal abuse, as unacceptable as even more serious on-line bullying. His suggestion that teachers should be ‘trained’ to stamp it out in the playground will have as much success as Canute ordering the tide to go back.

Language changes and officialdom – even French officialdom – has little success in stopping it. I’m old enough to remember when ‘Gay’ gained its new meaning. I remember the varying reactions, ranging from the ‘intrigued’ to the ‘irritated’ that a fine old English word could never be used again without this new connotation. To dance with ‘gay abandon’ took on an entirely new meaning. 

But then ‘Gay’ had been such a piffly little word, old but underused. Now it became turbo-charged culturally and politically. The language had changed. 

And it changes again. In a new world ‘wicked’ and ‘bad’ have an extra layer of meaning. ‘That’s wicked’ or ‘that’s bad’ means exactly the reverse, depending on context. The word ‘Gay’ has taken on the same fate.
I don’t know. It may have begun as consciously homophobic – some gay-baiting master-mind injecting it like a virus into the playground. Somehow I doubt it, but then again language is hard to pin down. 

Whatever the origin of the changed use of ‘Gay’ I doubt that its casual use in today’s playground is consciously homophobic, but I accept it has tainted a ‘brand’. The word ‘Gay’ was bravely appropriated to mean something proud. This extra layer of meaning is unfortunate, but what is appropriated can sometimes be re-appropriated in unexpected ways. In ten or twenty years ‘gay’ may have an entirely new layer of meaning with or without teachers being re-trained. 

Will Young has every right to express his concern, and use his minor celebrity status to approach the Secretary of State for Education, but he should also be aware of its dangers. Writing as a teacher with some experience of playground politics I fear such pleadings to officialdom for special treatment reinforces the concept of ‘victim,’ – a far more tainted brand and something Gay Pride resisted from its inception.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Tea bags and death

Last night I dreamt of tea bags and Chancellors of the Exchequer present and past. Head on pillow but somewhere else it seemed eminently logical that you could assess the strengths of their respective economic policies by examining their drained teabags, and I had amassed a fine collection going as far back as Gladstone – three for each chancellor to preclude mistakes, and each carefully arranged about the study. My fingers were poised on the keyboard when my wife came in and the dream ended.

In a peculiar way the dream made as much sense as the random leaflets inserted in   magazines. These two leaflets dropped from a recently purchased Private Eye, and I make no comment about the merits of each – not now at least – I’m still trying to get my head around a connection I sense but can’t quite tease out.



The soldiers of the Great War were heroes even if most didn’t want to be, and heroism on the battlefield has been shown before and since. And there is no doubt that those fighting in the campaign for ‘Dignity in Dying’ are sincere and believe it is wrong that they are not allowed to die. God forbid the dilemma ever faces me or those close. 

Perhaps it was the random contrast between the horrendous death toll of the First World War and the infinitesimal casualties of those wanting to die. I keep feeling it is something else as well, a shadow hard to define but there.

My feeling is that once such a right is enshrined in law what begins as permissive will end up as noblesse oblige  and the eventual casualties will dwarf those of World War I. The ‘LiverpoolPathway’ began as a humane approach to death in the hospice movement. Adopted larger scale and institutionalized it became something horrendous.  It may be that the law should remain uncertain. The alternative might be  a neat symmetry between abortion and euthanasia – the carnage of the inconvenient.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

The man that hated Britain: ideological ping-pong

The man that hated Britain: the headline is arresting as tabloid headlines should be. It encapsulates an aspect of truth, which, in a free press will be ideologically one-sided. For those who don’t live in Britain the article refers to the late Ralph Miliband, the Marxist ideologue  and father of Ed Miliband, a possible future Prime Minister. 

It might have been a more accurate headline if it had declared ‘The man who hated the Britain that was’. And he did hate, or if you will, dislike, the Anglican Church, the Monarchy, the armed forces, Parliamentary Democracy and the ‘rabid nationalism’ of the people at large. As a Marxist and internationalist he’d have been a rum cove if he didn’t preach that ‘the workers have no country.’ Ralph Miliband probably did hate what ‘was’. He also loved an abstract alternative.  

He wanted to replace ‘the Britain that was’ with ‘a country that could be’. And there’s nothing wrong with that you might say. Who would want to live in the Middle Ages? Social structures come and go, each carrying the seeds of their own destruction. Contradictions become unbearable and change when it comes is invariably violent.
And therein lies a problem. 

Change is effected by intellectuals who profess to know what the people want – or at least what is good for them if only they knew it. There’s no getting away from this, Cromwell, Robespierre, Lenin, Mao, they knew ‘what was what’ and imposed their vision on societies in turmoil.  It’s how things work, and at least such men (maybe not Mao) accepted the moral consequences of their actions.

So what about British Marxists – even - Fabians in the interwar years?

Between 1928 and 1932 seven million people died in Stalin’s Russia as the result of an engineered famine designed to drive peasants into the new collective farms. Beatrice and Sidney Webb (founders of the London School of Economics) concluded:  ‘Strong must have been the faith and resolute the will of the men who, in the interest of what seemed to them the public good, could take so momentous a decision.’ So that’s all right then. It was for their own good.

The late Eric Hobsbawm, another Marxist academic, refused to condemn Stalinism’s 30 million dead, or the Soviet invasion of Hungary. When asked whether if:  ‘the radiant tomorrow’ had actually been created in the Soviet Union, the deaths of 15 or 20 million people would have been justified, he replied: ‘Yes.’  I think it was Stalin who said, ‘you don’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.’

Hobsbawm and Ralph Miliband were close friends though the latter never went as far as to support the excesses of Stalinism. My point is that the Webbs were opinionated fools, whilst Eric Hobsbawm was at least morally consistent. He believed the ends justified the means and accepted the moral consequences of his ideological beliefs.

And that’s my point. Once you adhere to a belief system you shouldn’t attempt to shrug off the moral consequences. A Nazi however far removed from the death camps bears a degree of responsibility. Similarly a Marxist accepts that revolution is violent, whether you’re talking about Trotsky’s suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion, or the later Gulags. Revolution involves killing, and Marxist academics who lead comfortable lives are either open about it like Hobsbawm – or attempt to look the other way and refine the abstraction. In both cases these are men who hate their country if by country you mean the status quo.

I’ve touched upon relative giants. Now on to pigmies.

 No doubt the children of Maggie Thatcher felt similar grief when confronted with this puerile petit bourgeois nonsense. But they took it on the chin and remained silent

 The same Ed Miliband declares…The Daily Mail sometimes claims it stands for the best of British values of decency. But something has really gone wrong when it attacks the family of a politician — any politician — in this way

In fact the brunt of the ‘attack’ was on the father’s belief system, and yes, it was a deliberate, smear in what will be a very dirty battle between now and the next election. Now it is Ed Miliband bringing his ‘dad’ into the fray. There is anger and hurt, no doubt. There is also calculation in how to win the sympathy card. In foot-balling terms Milliband is taking a calculated dive – calculating, too, in how to destroy a dangerous opponent. First News International, now the Daily Mail. Press regulation is gathering steam.

And where do I stand in all this? I prefer a free press with all its faults. I would rather newspapers make mistakes than not be allowed to make them.  My nightmare would be a monopoly BBC or a monopoly Daily Mail. Regulate boxing, yes but blogs and newspapers should be opinionated and ‘bare knuckled’ - the bloodier the better. A Marxist will tell you that the primary aim of a legal system and police force is to protect property and in consequence the ruling class because they have most to lose. In a similar way Press Regulation is meant to protect the Establishment, cynically using victims of the press as pawns.