Monday, August 22, 2011

On prejudice against country music

The Independent's pop music critic Simon Price excuses his surprise at learning that the country and western artist Brad Paisley sold out the O2 arena by saying 'he operates in a genre which still dare not speak its name in sophisticated company.' He adds:

The one thing, in the great tribal Taste Wars of the Eighties, that everyone could agree on was that country-and-western was rubbish. Even its main British proponent had to sneak past the defences by giving himself the self-consciously wacky name Hank Wangford.

While it's certainly the case that people who should know better unthinkingly mock country music, the above comment is testament more to the author's ignorance than anything else. While there was plenty of cheesy and naff country music around in the 1980s that was only part of the story. Elvis Costello recorded an album of country and western standards that spawned hit singles. Bands like Jason and the Scorchers and the Long Ryders fused country and punk influences in a way that was just as reverential to the former as the latter. And Paisley Underground bands such as REM, while hardly belonging in the country section of record shops, were clearly influenced by country music traditions.
If all of the above don't qualify as country, there were plenty of respected artists around who did. Steve Earle (see youtube link) was a kind of country-and-western Bruce Springsteen. Dwight Yoakam revived and reinvented traditional, hard-core country, while Rosanne Cash, kd lang and Nanci Griffith each emerged as serious songwriters working within a country-and-western tradition.
Simon Price's comment is a bit like saying all rock music is naff and citing the oeuvre of Cliff Richard as proof.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Total Politics blogger awards voting thingummy

I don't really approve of such beauty contests, but in response to the various pleas (now I know how voters feel when they are knocked up) have given in, logged on and voted.

But those folk at Total Politics don't make it easy. For your vote to count you have to name five blogs, then separately name five bloggers, write 'Blank' down the rest of the list, designate the Blank by category (I thought 'Non-Aligned' was best) then name your favourite twitterer or whatever.

It took me three goes to cast my vote successfully. If I didn't have better things to do I wouldn't have bothered.

More on Richard Webster

There is an obituary at the Good Enough Caring blog by Mark Smith of the writer Richard Webster, about whom I wrote recently. It might seem a little eccentric of me to post twice about a relatively obscure writer whose work is a little removed from the normal subject matter of this blog.

But one of Webster's preoccupations was the concept of 'noble cause corruption' - how people can be less than scrupulous methods in promoting a cause that they believe to have an overriding good. It is regular, if intermittent interest of mine, and part of the reason for the name of this blog.

At St Edmundsbury Cathedral

The weekend took me to Bury St Edmunds where I was surprised and delighted to realise that the Perpendicular Gothic tower of St Edmundsbury Cathedral was completed as recently as 2005. I didn't think they still did that sort of thing, and can imagine voices saying that there were better causes to spend the money on, or that additions and alterations to the cathedral should be in a contemporary rather than traditional style. The architect Stephen Dykes Bower, was a Gothic revivalist and official 'Surveyor of the Fabric' for Westminster Abbey. When he died in 1994 he left a legacy to St Edmundsbury so that the tower could be completed.

We were told by a guide that before the tower was completed there had indeed been many local people who were sceptical of the tower project, but now it was finished there was almost universal agreement that it was worthwhile. Which I suppose goes to show that sometimes it is worth being bold and courageous even where a project is not universally supported.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The riots: are Labour no longer quite so tough on crime?

It was predictable that figures on the left of Labour such as Ken Livingstone and Diane Abbott  should be quick to link the riots to the coalition government’s spending cuts. Less so perhaps that the party’s deputy leader and New Labour establishment figure Harriet Harman should do the same. It raises the question of whether Labour’s curious journey on crime has come full circle.

Back in the 1980s one could be forgiven for thinking that much of the Labour party, while by no means condoning crime, believed that much of it was an understandable if regrettable response to Thatcher’s cuts. Labour viewed the police with suspicion, particularly after the miners’ strike. At local level they could be reluctant to support initiatives like Neighbourhood Watch, or to tackle low-level criminal and nuisance activities that later became known as anti-social behaviour.

Such attitudes were doubtless sincere enough, but they didn’t play well with the sort of voters Labour needed to win a general election. As Labour’s shadow home secretary, Tony Blair set about mending fences with the police and changing Labour’s rhetorical tone to the ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ formula. In doing so he managed to neutralise a perceived weakness of the party. But this wasn’t enough.

When Blair took over the leadership, one of New Labour’s trademarks was establishing that they were the party that was toughest on crime. To this end, the Blair government introduced endless new pieces of legislation and hundreds of new criminal offences introduced in a bid to outflank all comers (including the Tories, the traditional law and order party) on the right on crime policy. Labour were the party that was against crime, so by definition their opponents, especially the Lib Dems, weren’t. (See Nick Cohen’s book Pretty Straight Guys for more on this.)

Any attempt by opponents to suggest that things were more complex than government propaganda implied was derided as a sign that they were ‘on the side of the criminals’. I never ceased to be surprised at how easily Labour activists (even those who were active in the 1980s) adopted this rhetoric, using their ‘tough on crime’ versus ‘soft on crime’ mantra in leaflets, attacking opponents for not issuing enough ASBOs etc.

Now, and perhaps because they can’t resist attacking the cuts, Labour’s tone has come over all atavistic. It is true that in his House of Commons speech Ed Miliband did not blame the cuts for the riots. But one could well imagine that if the riots had happened two years ago, and Nick Clegg had made a similar to speech to the nuanced one Miliband made yesterday, Labour would have been very quick to spin the final section of it as condoning the rioters .

If this event marks a rowing back from Labour’s ‘tougher than the rest’ approach to criminal justice then that is to be welcomed. Things are indeed more complex than being either against crime or in favour of it. A sensible debate free from emotive posturing would be a good thing. Yet in the cold light of day Labour will wish to avoid any hint of appearing as apologists for the rioters, thereby compromising position on law and order. But I can well imagine that Conservative, and perhaps even Lib Dem strategists will be itching to turn Labour’s past rhetoric back on them. Indeed this may well already have started.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Liberal party and the Spanish civil war

Sticking to a historical theme, I notice we have just passed the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish civil war. Following the nationalist rebellion in July 1936, the main European powers pursued a policy of non-intervention that was flagrantly flouted by fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

One of the tragedies of this conflict was how lukewarm, the major democracies were about preserving democratic government in Spain (however flawed it was) and standing up to dictatorship. Most people who have any knowledge of this period will be aware of the International Brigade who fought to defend republican Spain. But what was the position of the British Liberal party? Well-meaning enough, it would seem, in calling for the spirit of non-intervention to be maintained, but hardly heroic. In his book Liberals International Relations and Appeasement, Richard Grayson writes

The Liberal Party never came to see events in Spain as an opportunity for making a stand against the dictators, as the party's main aim was to ensure that the war remained an internatl dispute. By the time it became apparent that this would never happen, it was too late. The work of Wilfrid Roberts, the Liberal MP for North Cumberland, as a political and humanitarian campaigner for the Republic was the only significant Liberal contribution to the struggle.

Journal of Liberal History Issue 71

I see that the summer edition of the Journal of Liberal History includes my review of Ross McKibbin's Parties and people: England 1914-51.

More than that it there are articles by Martin Horwood MP on Cheltenham's Liberal history, Ross Finnie on Russell Johnston and Kevin Theakston on the afterlives of former Liberal prime ministers. It's an impressive achievement of Duncan Brack (who must also be busy with other things) and his editorial team to keep producing this quarterly journal, which is not only highly-readable, but contains original, peer-reviewed research.

Subscriptions are a bargain at £20, giving also membership of the Liberal Democrat History Group. By subscribing you will not only have an enjoyable read four times a year, but also helping to promote interest in the rich and diverse history of the Liberal Democrats and their predecessor parties.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Pickles on town centre parking: ignoring the evidence, playing to the gallery

Anyone who has been involved in local politics or community and residents' groups will recognise the following: the person who knows for certain the solution to all an area's parking, traffic and transport problems, who is completely confident that his solutions are the only possible way forward and that only idiot councillors and officials could fail to support everything he proposes. He dismisses all counter-arguments as 'rubbish' and is unable to conceive of alternative points of view, let alone how many of his neighbours see things differently.

For the most part, the job of elected representatives is to listen to all viewpoints, consider the nuances of any policy issue and try to find the best way forward. Sadly, today we have Mr 'I Know Best About Everything' as secretary of state for communities and local government, and his latest pronouncement is that 'fairer' (i.e. more) parking in urban development will help to boost high streets and town centres. Although couched partly in terms of giving councils more freedom, the logic of Mr Pickles' rhetoric is that councils ought to end 'anti-car restrictions' and encourage more parking. This is all part of 'ending Labour's war on the motorist'.

In fact, while Labour's policy was dirigiste in the extreme, they merely continued and strengthened the approach taken by John Gummer in the previous Conservative government. Whether because of genuine support for the sustainability agenda, or because Conservative voters were angry at increasing greenfield development, high streets being destroyed by out-of-town shopping centres etc., the Major government began to re-think planning policy. Whereas since the 1960s the planning system had encouraged low-density development, which militated in favour of building on greenfield, out- and edge-of-town sites, the government now tried to encourage urban renewal, particularly by ending restrictions that meant town centre development had to have suburban levels of parking, amenity space and the like, which had made regeneration more difficult.

So trying to limit parking in urban development was not simply a perverse attack on motorists, but a rational response to planning and transport issues that was broadly shared across the political spectrum (even if Labour were unnecessarily control freakish about it).

Living Streets has posted a brief but pointed critique of Pickles (hat-tip Jonathan Calder). But Pickles would probably regard Living Streets as exactly the sort of tree hugging organisation that wages war on the motorist. So let's look at the practical, straightforward problems with increasing town centre parking that someone only slightly more open-minded than Mr Pickles might sympathise with.

In the first place, many town and city centres suffer from traffic congestion, which can be very frustrating to motorists. Providing more and cheaper car parking to encourage people to drive into town, rather than use other transport methods, will only add to motorists' frustration without doing much to improve town centre economies. Unless of course the government funds a massive road-building programme to enable people to drive to the new car parks. But even those not worried about the unsustainability of such an approach might recognise that large-scale urban road building has hardly been a panacea for town and city centres.

Secondly, parking space provides less economic benefit than business floorspace or housing (it certainly attracts lower business rates) so more parking really doesn't offer good value for money or make urban development more viable. Given the space constraints that often affect urban sites, developers forced to reduce the number of homes, offices or shops in a scheme in order to provide more parking may well seek to develop out-of-town instead, where there is plenty of room for everything. Which will kind of undermine the notion of improving the economic health of the high street.

Lastly, on Pickles' criticism of 'parking fines, soaring parking charges and a lack of parking spaces'. These are things that can and do contribute towards making town centres work effectively. Without parking charges and regulation, spaces would be used by commuters that are needed by shoppers on whose custom town centres depend. Parking controls, pedestrianisation and the like can also help to create reasonably pleasant town centre environments that people want to visit: i.e. that are safe for children, aren't full of car fumes, and either traffic jams or fast-moving traffic. While Pickles claims to want to 'assist mums struggling with their family shop' his policies would make things worse for them: added congestion during their journey, supposedly free car parking spaces already taken up for the day by town centre workers and a feeling that this isn't a safe or environment to bring your children to.

I am not sure which is worse: the thought that Pickles can't and won't understand such arguments, or that he understands them perfectly well, knows his policies will make little practical difference, but is just playing to the gallery to give the impression that there are simple solutions to problems that are in fact rather complex.

(Later): I see my dear wife is advising me not to get wound up by Mr Pickles.

Jayhawks live at the HMV Forum, Kentish Town

To the HMV Forum last night to see The Jayhawks perform in their classic, mid-90s line up, for the first time in 16 years. They have a new album coming out in the autumn, and apparently the reunion is permanent rather than a one-off tour.

The last time I saw the Jayhawks in this incarnation they appeared set to make the commercial breakthrough with their single 'Blue'. They were supported by a little-known band called Wilco, who were less than memorable (in fairness their first album A.M. released that year gave little hint of the great things to come.) But it was Wilco who made it big, while the Jayhawks lost one of their two main songwriters and remained in obscurity.

This reunion would have once seemed very unlikely. But it is still very welcome. Last night they were in fine fettle, trademark sound intact and the harmony singing of their two leading lights Gary Louris and Mark Olson to the fore. The overwhelming majority of the set came from the two albums for which they are best known, Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass, released before Olson left the group in 1995.

Much to enjoy and praise therefore. The only disappointment is the virtual absence of material from the three albums released after Olson's departure. Nor was there anything from last year's Ready for the Flood album by Olson and Louris without the Jayhawks. Perhaps it's a tact and diplomacy thing within the band, so they are pretending the years between 1995 and 2010 never happened. But those of us who have followed the Jayhawks through their career might have wanted a more representative set (or at least I did).

But it's a minor quibble. It was an excellent evening, they played many of my favourite songs, the new material sounds promising. Who knows, maybe this time around they will win the wide audience that their previous work deserved but never got.
I couldn't find a decent clip of their 2011 tour, so the above from 1995 introduced by a very young-looking Jon Stewart will have to do.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Cultural historian Richard Webster dies

I was sorry to read of the recent death of the cultural historian Richard Webster, who was the subject of a belated Guardian obituary a few days ago.

Although he wrote on a range of subjects, from Freud to the Salman Rushdie affair, he was best known in recent years for his work exposing injustices suffered by residential care workers arising from the 'trawling' methods used by the police when investigating cases of historic child abuse.

While Webster was very clear that abuse can and did happen ('some of those who are now in prison are there for no other reason than that they are guilty of the crimes alleged against them'), he argued in his compelling and thoroughly-researched book The secret of Bryn Estyn that there many innocent people had ended up accused and convicted, as a result of (in the words of the Guardian obituary) 'public hysteria, fuelled by credulous journalists and ratified through inefficient police investigative techniques'.

This was a brave stance to take, and one that was predictably often misrepresented by those he criticised. He was clear that the basis for paedophile (and other) panics was not the anger of the mob. Instead he argued that:

'Witch hunts don’t happen without an educated elite behind them. In the past, bishops and priests let panics loose. Today it is the police, social workers and broadsheet journalists.'

He used the phrase 'witch hunts' not as lazy journalese but as one who had studied the read phenomenon of medieval witch hunts.

Although an atheist himself, he believed that a modern, secular, rationalist society, confident that it had left religious superstition behind, was actually more rather than less susceptible to such collective fantasies than were those of previous eras:

The widespread belief that, belonging as we do to a rational scientific age, we are no longer vulnerable to such fantasies, is itself one of the most dangerous of all our delusions.

In many ways this was the unifying theme in his diverse body of work. His website, which collects the eclectic range of essays he wrote, remains available for the time being.

See also this review of The secret of Bryn Estyn by Edinburgh University academic Mark Smith, which is published on my father's Good Enough Caring website.