May 19, 2013 § 1 Comment
This year marks the 50th anniversary of CLR James’ wonderful, groundbreaking work Beyond a Boundary. To call it a book about cricket is a bit like calling cricket a ‘game’. Beyond the Boundary blends politics and memoir, history and journalism, biography and reportage, in a manner that transcends literary, sporting and political boundaries. V S Naipaul, not a man given to offering easy praise, described it as ‘one of the finest and most finished books to come out of the West Indies’. John Arlott, that most wonderful of cricket commentators, wrote of Beyond the Boundary, that it was ‘a book so outstanding as to compel any reviewer to check his adjectives several times before he describes it and, since he is likely to be dealing in superlatives, to measure them carefully to avoid over-praise – which this book does not need’.
Beyond the Boundary was a book that CLR James had to write, and that only he could write. Novelist and orator, philosopher and cricketer, historian and revolutionary, Trotskyist and Pan-Africanist – there are few modern figures who can match the intellectual depth, cultural breadth or sheer political contrariness of Cyril Lionel Robert James. He was a lifelong Marxist, yet one with an uncommonly fierce independence of mind that expressed itself both in his rejection of conventional Marxist arguments and in his refusal to repent of his politics even when it became fashionable to do so. He was an icon of black liberation struggles, and yet someone whose politics was steeped in a love of Western literature and Western civilization. He was a man whose affection for cricket was matched only by his love for Shakespeare. The book is in the image of the man himself. Brilliant, complex, contradictory, beautifully observed, deeply insightful, but sometimes also romantic and naïve. And, of course, boundary-crossing. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 14, 2013 § 6 Comments
So, those who despise Margaret Thatcher for her vindictiveness and spitefulness want to celebrate her death by propelling into the charts a song about the death of a witch. Those who laud Thatcher for her supposed love of freedom want to ban that song. And the BBC settles on a cackhanded ‘compromise’ by censorsing the song while pretending it is doing no such thing. Nothing, perhaps, could better express the inanity of contemporary politics than the crass, puerile controversy around Ding Dong the Wicked Witch is Dead. Once, protest songs provided the soundtrack to political struggle. Now political struggle is reduced to getting old songs into the charts.
But what of the actual protest songs of the Thatcher years? These were the years of mass unemployment and inner city riots, of the miner’s strike and the hunger strikes, of the poll tax protests and the Falklands War. Yet, even in the 80s anti-Thatcher protests were all too often overwhelmed by personal loathing and descended into little more than an outpouring of vindictive venom. And so did the protest songs – from Morrissey’s Margaret on the Guillotine (And people like you/ Make me feel so old inside/ Please die) to Elvis Costello’s Tramping Down the Dirt (I’d like to live/ Long enough to savour/ That’s when they finally put you in the ground/ I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down). I have excluded from my list all these personal hate pieces (though I was tempted to include Elvis). I have also left out all the protest songs that don’t relate directly to the policies and events and experiences of the Thatcher years. So, for instance, I have included the Gang of Four’s Ether (which is about the H-Blocks) but not their far superior classic tracks such as Damaged Goods, Anthrax and Natural’s Not in It. (It is worth remembering also, in the context of musical censorship, that the band was thrown off Top of the Pops after it refused to change the lyrics of its first hit single, At Home He’s a Tourist. The BBC objected to the line ‘And the rubbers you hide in your top left pocket’, finding it highly offensive, and demanding that ‘rubbers’ be changed to ‘rubbish’. The band refused) « Read the rest of this entry »
January 27, 2013 § 7 Comments
Last month, in The Weary Blues, I set out my 20 favourite blues tracks, mainly from the Mississippi Delta and Chicago, the two traditional homes of the blues. Over the past half century the blues have travelled well beyond their origins and become anything but traditional. So here is a brief attempt to trace that journey. As ever, this is a personal, eclectic, even eccentric collection. There are 20 tracks split into three groups. The first group comprise singers whose work reveals the early influence of the blues on jazz, soul and country: Billie Holiday, Etta James, Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Johnny Cash and Dr john. Then we move to blues-flavoured rock, from Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, through the Sixties British blues boom to contemporary reworkings as different Ian Siegal and The Black Keys. Finally, a set of tracks that show the influence of blues on ‘world music’ (a phrase I hate, but that seemingly has become indispensible today).
It is perhaps both fitting and poignant to end with three tracks from Malian artists. It was out of the slave trade and the transportation of millions from West Africa and the Sahel to the Americas that the blues emerged, formed out of the traditional songs that the slaves brought with them. Over the past few decades the influence has flowed in the opposite direction as American blues has travelled back across the Atlantic to shape the contemporary music of West Africa and the Sahel. And nowhere more so than in Mali, a nation that has in recent years produced an astonishing line-up of outstanding musicians. The Islamist takeover of the north has silenced that music and driven many into exile. I might pull together my favourite Malian music in a post soon. In the meantime, enjoy the weary blues going forth.
December 27, 2012 § 2 Comments
December 15, 2012 § 2 Comments
I published recently a transcript of a radio documentary I had made that explored the question of ‘Who owns culture?’. Perhaps the most fractious of recent debates around this question has been over ‘Kennewick Man’, an ancient skeleton found on the banks of the Columbia River in America’s Washington State. The 9000-year old skeleton became the focus for two major controversies: What is race? And who owns history? I tell the story of Kennewick Man in my book Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate. I am publishing here an extract that lays out part that story, looking at the question of the ownership of culture and history and of the clash between scientific rationality and cultural identity. I will publish a second extract next week that delves into the debate about race posed by Kennewick Man.
From Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides Are Wrong in the Race Debate (Oneworld, 2008), pp190-195, 204-213, 216-218
Will Thomas was waiting for the start of the annual hydroplane race on the Columbia River, near the town of Kennewick, in Washington State, USA. Larking around with his friend Dave Deacy, he decided to amuse himself by wading through the water. A few yards in, his foot hit something round. ‘Hey, we have a human head’, he joked. But that was exactly what it was – a brownish skull, covered in mud. It was 29 July 1996 – and the beginning of an extraordinary story of skulls and bones, history and politics, race and science. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 11, 2012 Comments Off
I mentioned in my last post the attempts by the UN, UNESCO and WIPO to give certain groups, particularly indigenous groups, control over traditional culture, and of the dangers inherent in such an approach. I am publishing here the transcript of a BBC Radio 4 Analysis programme that I wrote and presented in 2004 which explored the issue of ‘Who owns culture?’. You can listen to an audio of the programme, too.
‘Who owns culture?’, Analysis, BBC Radio 4,
29 July 2004
Taking part in the programme, in order of appearance, were Jack Lohman, Director of the Museum of London; Lola Young, cultural consultant; Michael Brown, Professor of Anthropology, Williams College, Massachusetts, and author of Who Owns Native Culture?; Robert Foley, Professor of Human Evolution, University of Cambridge; Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum; Norman Palmer, Professor of Law, Art and Cultural Property, London University; and Adam Kuper, Professor of Anthropology, Brunel University.