Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Robert Tressell – ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’

This is a big, polemical, bloody minded book about working men in the early 1900s, and – not their struggle against, but their acquiescence in the condition of poverty to which capitalism has brought them. They are taught from a young age not to question their situation, but to trust in their Liberal or Conservative political masters. Class divisions are absolute, and ‘the likes of us’, as the men refer to themselves, think only of beer, women, football and racing; never of anything that might improve their circumstances. The men live and work in Mugsborough, a town on the south coast of England, and they are house painters. For the first half of the book, they are engaged in doing up a house belonging to the head of the company they work for, Rushton & Co. They are bullied into working as fast as possible by a man variously known as Misery, Hunter and Nimrod, who is Rushton’s right-hand man. He does all Rushton’s dirty work, and all his thinking too: calculating the cost of jobs, and creeping around trying to catch the working men not working, in order to be able to sack one of them and keep the rest on their toes – and ideally to force down the wage for which they are prepared to work . Below him is the foreman of the job, Crass, who does his share of creeping, and gives himself the easy task of mixing paints. This hierarchy is rotten to the core, and is a microcosm of the system of commerce in the wider world, which rewards cunning and greed, and scorns talent and craftmanship:
What Misery did not know about scamping and faking the work, the men suggested to and showed him in the hope of currying favour with him in order that they might get the preference over others and be sent for when the next job came in. This is the principle incentive provided by the present system, the incentive to cheat. These fellows cheated the customers of their money. They cheated themselves and their fellow workmen of work, and their children of bread, but it was all for a good cause – to make profit for their master. (p. 462)
There is a lot of talk of the ‘present system’ in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The central character, Frank Owen, is a socialist, who tries to kindle a sense of outrage in his fellow workers. He tells them that money is the cause of their poverty, and they laugh at him, because it sounds like it makes no sense. But it does make sense:
money is the cause of poverty, because poverty consists in being short of the necessaries of life: the necessaries of life are all produced by labour applied to the raw materials: the raw materials exist in abundance and there are plenty of people able and willing to work; but under present conditions no work can be done without money; and so we have the spectacle of a great army of people compelled to stand idle and starve by the side of the raw materials from which their labout could produce abundance of all the things they need – they are rendered helpless by the power of Money! (p. 588)
Tressell goes so far as to prefer feudalism to capitalism:
It would have been much better for them if, instead of being ‘Freemen’, they had been slaves, and the property, instead of the hirelings, of Mr Rushton. (p. 315)
Because then he would have taken care of them, ‘as he would of his horse’. Money cuts ties, creates abstractions. Rushton can pay them when there is work to be done, and lay them off when there isn’t: it’s like a zero hour contract, without the contract. And so the workers strive for the right to earn not enough to live on, and when they are out of work they and their families starve. The council is run by Rushton and his cronies Sweater, Grinder and Didlum, purely for their own profit, and the only councillor who stands up to them, Weakling, is so unpopular he gets voted out. Not because he is unpleasant, or an ineffecive speaker, but because he is not selfish enough, and this puts him in a position of weakness, which the voters can’t stand. Everything continually gets worse, and Tressell has only contempt for the charities which claim to want to help:
If it were not for all this so-called charity the starving unemployed men all over the country would demand to be allowed to work and produce the things they are perishing for want of, instead of being – as they are now – content to wear their masters’ cast off clothing and to eat the crumbs that fall from his table. (p. 428)
Charity is invariably tied to the Church, which sanctifies ‘the system’, and never, ever does what Jesus would have done. Witness the vile Rev. Mr Belcher:
If he had removed the long garment, this individual would have resembled a balloon: the feet representing the car and the small head that surmounted the globe, the safety valve; as it was it did actually serve the purpose of a safety valve, the owner being, in consequence of gross overfeeding and lack of natural exercise, afflicted with chronic flatulance, which manifested itself in frequent belchings forth through the mouth of the foul gases generated in the stomach by the decomposition of the foods with which it was generally loaded. But as the Rev. Mr Belcher had never been seen with his coat off, no one ever noticed the resemblance. (p. 202)
He has been made ill by his disgusting over-indulgence, and the most disgusting thing of all is that the children of his Sunday school are made to collect money from people on the poverty line to send him on holiday to recover.

I kept expecting the workers and the unemployed to form a society to help themselves – the ‘Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’of the book’s title. But they are too divided for that. The meaning of the phrase is actually the reverse: that the workers are the source of their masters’ riches, which they essentially donate, via the ‘money trick’ that forms the basis of Owen’s best lecture. Here is his illustration of that trick:


The solution to this problem? It’s not very likely to come about, I’m afraid:
Public Ownership of the Machinery, and the National Organisation of Industry for the production and distribution of the necessaries of life, not for the profit of a few but for the benefit of all! (p. 596)
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Thanks to my Secret Santa for this book. I do like the fact that it came to me via work.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Hookers for Jesus Winter Revue Charity Show with Altres, Pauline M. Hynd, [Box] and Vex at Beat Generator Live!, 10th January

‘I am tired,’ said Miss Havisham. ‘I want diversion, and I have done with men and women. Play.’ (Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, chapter 8)
First, you should know about the stage dressing. Flagged in advance as a ‘Gothic Miss Havisham’s Christmas Day kind of vibe’, Daisy Dundee (who put the show on in collaboration with the Cool Cat Club) kitted the place out to startling effect. A wedding dress was the main prop, hung from the ceiling stage left, accompanied by a cake under a glass dome, an old stick telephone, a clock stopped at twenty minutes to nine, and a dead Christmas tree, still with its (white) lights on. There was also a table lamp and a portable fire with real fake flames. In the middle of all this, one of those mini reproduction Korg MS–20s, vintage from a different era, awaiting the arrival of Vex. Plus much other stage gear, and a screen showing images of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name, and some crosses, drawn white on black. Not sure how they tied in exactly. A link between stoic male characters and Miss Havisham, possibly? Or characters with grudges?

For my taste, there was too much noise and not enough melody in the show. It was a shame Rowan Wright of Blood Indians had to pull out, she would have redressed that balance a bit. Returning DJ Duncan did his best, and interlarded the noise with pop and jazz of the sprightliest order (Rodriguez! Nancy and Lee’s ‘Summer Wine’! The, er, James Bond theme!). Vex had the advantage of being the first noise act, and their racket was engagingly bloody minded, delivered from some dumb postures (the MS–20 was low, with no chair, so its player had to bend double for half an hour), and sounding to me like an extended version of Big Star’s ‘Downs’. Towards the end the front man held up his arms like a conductor trying to bring matters to a conclusion, and everyone stopped bar the keyboardist, who made some exaggerated movements as he continued to trigger (or failed to un-trigger) some ugly mechanical sound for a further few minutes. [Box], which is one man with a MacBook, a mixer and an electric guitar, made his usual drones, and William said they might sound good on acid. On beer, though — give me at least one out of rhythm, words, melody; who could care less about texture in their absence? Not that there weren’t some interesting shifts within the texture, but… too Wire magazine for me. It was some consolation to see these two anti-structure performers placed within a scene from Dickens, though.

Pauline M. Hynd, of The Onion Club, had to warm the room up again after [Box]’s freeze-out, and who better? It was strange to see her just get up and play songs on a guitar, with no grand entrance, no piano player, no 1920s schtick. Out with cabaret, in with blues. Candy, black crows flying, vocal acrobatics, and some much-needed momentum. ‘What a gorgeous audience,’ she said. ‘I’d like to lick you all.’ Most compelling was a cover of Nick Drake’s ‘River Man’, given a sinister edge and mixed with PJ Harvey’s couplet ‘Big fish little fish swimming in the water / Come back here and give me my daughter’ as a coda. Altres marked a move back to instrumental music, and… I don’t think I’ve written about them before, but playing music with two of them (but mainly Brian, the guitarist) is how I met S. Live, they can go either way, with their longform songs, digital synthesizer sound and tight arpeggiated riffs. They work best when a rhythm cuts through the texture. You can either get lost in the jam or the jam can lose you. Last night? A bit of both. I enjoyed it, but by the end I was longing for a chord change.

‘You’ll have to write a blog page,’ said Andy at the end of the night, before apologising for seeming to demand it. He’s right, though. It was a fine Hookers for Jesus show. He thought possibly their best, but there are several strong contenders for that crown. From their amazing, ridiculous debut in 2009, to other more accomplished shows, culminating in an Oxjam house gig early last year, acoustic with the addition of Anna on violin, and a beautiful song about a 1980 murder in Templeton Woods, which threatened never to be recorded in the inactivity which followed. Last night was a partial reprise, just in time, as Anna is to return to Canada in a few days’ time, leaving the remaining Hookers to — sound ugly again? They do a fantastic ugly sound, actually (see ‘Cabaret Song’, or ‘The Dead Don’t Dream’, which closed yesterday’s set in fiery fashion), but there has always been a softer undercurrent. Graeme’s introduction of classical / flamenco-inflected guitar was already a civilising strand, and his imagination won’t let them settle on a single sound, in any case. The flamenco style breathes new life into ‘Cindy’s on Fire’, and I wonder if I’m the person who has been listening to them play this song the longest, as I also wonder at its pull now, which wraps in the fondness of familiarity with a lightness it didn’t use to have. There are two new songs, one which passes me by somewhat, but one which is tender and magical, with its chorus of ‘I love you / P.S. fuck you’ and its through-gritted-teeth reflections on learning to accept the place where you live. The theme of the whole set, said Andy afterwards. That’s Dundee for you. And most other places too, which aren’t up their own importance. Miss Havisham could learn a lot from that. Pip, too. At the end, the Hookers join hands and bow like actors at the end of a play. That’s it: the violin phase is over. It sounded great. What next?
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The two charities being supported last night were Dundee Young Carers and Dundee Foodbank.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

BAMS 2014 / Music this year: a miscellany

Chris S. and me (and two other fans) photographed by The Chills.
Martin Phillips’ signing hand is bottom left.
Now, to be honest, my favourite musical things of the year were the Serum wave table synthesizer, and getting re-acquainted with the Reaper DAW, due to having a semi-modern laptop for the first time in ages. Certainly for the last 3 — 4 months of the year I spent my evenings tinkering with these programs, and not listening or reading as much as usual. Which possibly explains the total lack of records in the list below by people I’d never heard of before. Still, they are great records.
  1. Vashti Bunyan — Heartleap
  2. Lispector — The Cult of Less
  3. Comet Gain — Paperback Ghosts
  4. National Jazz Trio of Scotland — Standards Vol III
  5. Ian Crause — The Vertical Axis
  6. Vic Godard & Subway Sect — 1979 Now!
  7. Tara Jane O’Neill — Where Shine New Lights
  8. Morrissey — World Peace is None of Your Business
  9. Ai Aso — Lone
  10. Scott Walker + Sunn O))) — Soused
Best gig of the year was Security at the DCA in July supporting Ela Orleans (who was also great). A text message conversation is the closest I got to reviewing it:
M: Any good?
Me: Fucking amazing — I have a new favourite band. Called Security. Who said ‘AIDS care put back 5 years by Putin’. I pulled the singer’s piggy nose. How were Owen & the Rednecks?
M: Lol missed them; arrived late, left early. Wrong choice by me. Yours sounds awesome =]
Me: Aw — next time!
M: Only if they have sax
Me: They had sax with the furniture — does that count?
M: Did you go to the right show? That sounds slightly more specialised.
Me: I did. Which I guess means that the guy was actually subsidised for chasing people away from their seats and dry humping them.
M: Ooh… All for £5… Damn it.
Vic Godard was on top form at the Voodoo Rooms last month, too. To my shame I missed the only Pastels show within reach after falling over in my parents’ garden racing my niece and scraping most of the skin off my left palm, which made driving difficult. ‘You hurt yourself didn’t you? And you still didn’t win’ was her less than sympathetic summing up. It was amazing to see The Chills in August — and amazing, as Manic Pop Thrills pointed out, to hear them so vital and bursting with new material.

Best mis-heard song title of the year (by S.) was ‘Saddle Up’ by Comet Gain (it’s actually ‘Sad Love’).

The song that got me in all of the right places the most was Lispector’s ‘Endless Summerz’. Beautifully pitched between hope and despair.
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BAMS is ‘An annual poll of Scottish Blogs and Music Sites’, on Twitter here. Thanks for asking me to participate (with the albums list, the rest is off piste).

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Anthony Trollope — ‘Framley Parsonage’

The Crawley Family
Amongst my excuses-to-self for sometimes not blogging about books are ‘it’s an ebook,’ and ‘it’s part of a serial’. Dr Thorne, the third of Trollope’s Barchester novels, fell foul of both, which is a shame, as it is probably my favourite so far. Its plot, involving murder, hidden provenance and uncertain expectations, was unusually dark and mysterious. Though the tone righted itself eventually, early on it could almost have been a Thomas Hardy novel, actuated by schaudenfrade and the playing out of old, hidden crimes (I’m thinking particularly of The Mayor of Casterbridge). The intricate plot was more characteristic: usually it’s the space between his characters which interests Trollope. The way things work together. It didn’t seem much connected with The Warden or Barchester Towers, its predecessors. Bishop and Mrs Proudie got walk-on parts, and the Thornes of Ullathorne were mentioned, but only to distinguish Dr Thorne from them. Framley Parsonage reverses the trend, and brings back the Proudies, the Grantlys, Miss Dunstable and Dr Thorne himself as major characters; we also discover something of the fate of the Greshams of Greshamsbury, the Arabins, Lady Scatchard and Mr Harding into the bargain. Dr Thorne could stand alone, but this book depends upon its place in the series.

Politics is back, too, and not just local or church politics. Framley Parsonage features a cabinet minister, Harold Smith, who after only a few weeks in the job finds himself a victim of Tom Towers, the most powerful man in the book. As editor of newspaper The Jupiter, Towers is more interested in causing events than reporting them. In The Warden he plagued Mr Harding into resigning the wardenship of Hiram’s Hospital, and in Framley Parsonage he causes even more of a stir when he appears, briefly, at Miss Dunstable’s party. Miss Dunstable, heiress of the Oil of Lebanon fortune and the richest woman in the country, is an interesting mix of worldliness and innocence. She genuinely frets about whether the two big stars she has invited will attend (one of them would add thirty percent to the value of the party, we are told), but she also mocks this deference in herself:
Angels and ministers of grace assist me! […] How on earth am I to behave myself? Mr Sowerby, do you think that I ought to kneel down? My dear, will he have a reporter at his back in the royal livery? (p. 303)
This is Towers’ only appearance, in person, but he makes good use of it:
‘By-the-by, Sowerby, what do you think of this threatened dissolution?’ said Tom Towers. (p. 304)
And so, by way of the rumour thus started, parliament is dissolved, and Harold Smith loses his cabinet post. But not before he has been buttonholed by Mr Sowerby (MP and rogue) and enjoined to recommend a preferment in favour of Mark Robarts, the incumbent of Framley Parsonage. The preferment in question is a prebend connected to Barchester Cathedral, previously held in absence by Dr Stanhope (now deceased), worth £600 a year. Sowerby is anxious to do this favour for Mark, as he has embroiled him in his money matters by getting him to sign a bill for £400, which, through renewals, increases to £900 and threatens to ruin Mark and his family. Sowerby is not wholly corrupt, and wants to do well by Mark; but the greater consideration is that any favour he accepts will bind him to Sowerby. Like payday lenders today, he wants to create a dependence: the last thing he wants is for the bill to be settled.

Lady Lufton and the Duke of Omnium
The other great star invited to Miss Dunstable’s party is the Duke of Omnium. Like Tom Towers, he is a background character, whose absence from the narrative is a characteristic of his great power. He has the misfortune, when greeting Miss Dunstable, to press against Lady Lufton:
The duke, as he begged her pardon, wore in his countenance that expression of modified sorrow which is common to any gentleman who is supposed by himself to have incommoded a lady. But over and above this, — or rather under it, — there was a slight smile of derision, as though it were impossible for him to look upon the bearing of Lady Lufton without some amount of ridicule. All this was legible to eyes so keen as those of Miss Dunstable and Mrs Harold Smith, and the duke was known to be a master of this silent inward sarcasm; but even by them […] it was admitted that Lady Lufton had conquered. (p. 294)
This meeting of factions is another important moment. The Duke of Omnium represents the new, racy, monied world (which includes the Proudies), who are busy gobbling up the old, staid, monied one (the Luftons, the Grantlys) across three spheres: land, church and state. Gatherum Castle is his home, viewed by Lady Lufton as a den of iniquity; and it pains her that her son, Lord Lufton, and her clergyman, Mark Robarts (a friend from childhood of Lord Lufton’s: the Framley living was his mother’s gift), have both visited. The trouble Robarts gets in as a result of this visit, and the obligations foisted upon him there by Sowerby, justify her view. Her son, too, is drawn in to the same situation, on a larger scale, and she has to sell some of the family estate to free him from the clutches of Tom Tozer, the debt collector (Tom Towers / Tom Tozer — there seems to be a deliberate echo in these names). Robarts’ smaller debt is the more important in terms of the story, and is the main fact about him: he is a good man, but a weak one. The same is true of Sowerby, and here Trollope shows the difference that circumstances can make, over and above character. Ever even handed, he also shows the opposite, via Miss Dunstable and Lady Scatchard, both ‘new money’ women, one who takes like a duck to water to her new milieu (though she is a long time finding a husband); the other who finds it profoundly awkward and lives a life of isolation.

Right at the other end of the social spectrum from Tom Towers and the Duke of Omnium, are the Crawleys. Mr Crawley is minister at the impoverished parish of Hogglestock, and he is fiercely, foolishly independent. An old friend of Mr Arabin, he feels unable to keep up the friendship since Arabin’s rise to dean of Barchester. He feels ashamed of his clothes, and of the fact that he has no horse. They are so poor, in fact, that it is even a struggle to feed the family. When his wife gets cholera, he refuses Arabin’s help, and it is only the strength of character shown by Mark Robarts’ sister Lucy, who essentially kidnaps his children to get them out of harm’s way, that is able to save the situation. She stays to nurse Mrs Crawley, and so is conveniently absent from Framley doing unquestionably virtuous things, at the period when Lord Lufton is trying to convince his mother that Lucy should be his wife. Lady Lufton had her heart set on his marrying the grand but vacuous Griselda Grantly, and takes some adjusting to the idea of his taking up with someone so ‘insignificant’ (p. 349). But she has misunderstood significance: it is not to be found in playing a pre-defined role (as Griselda is eventually able to do with Lord Dumbello), it comes through defining one’s own role, and hence through character. Always assuming the lubrication of money.

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Illustrations are by John Everett Millais, from this site.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The Onion Club, Hospitalfield Arts, Arbroath, 6th December

A circular chord sequence, at the back of the room, played on an accordion. Nick Cave’s ‘The Ship Song’, I thought, as the woman with the Louise Brooks bob began a slow, meandering walk between the tables towards the stage. But it wasn’t, it was ‘Song to the Siren’. The lights were low, as they have to be, to hit the right mood; the cafe layout in the room is a prerequisite, too. This isn’t really an arts centre in an ornamental castle down a potholed track (though that setting would be special enough). This is Berlin in the ’20s. It’s Pandora’s Box, it’s Dr Mabuse the Gambler. Tim Buckley, Nina Simone, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, the singers whose catalogues have been appropriated in the cause of the show, have yet to be born. Billie Holiday is still a child. Kurt Weill walks its streets, inhabits its shadows, and usually a highlight of these… concerts? Let’s call them spells. Witching hours. They usually have ‘Alabama Song’ at their core. Not last night, but it was only thinking back that I noticed its absence. All the other songs, despite the breadth of the selection, and the variation in performance — they’re all ‘Alabama Song’ too. They’re all athirst. We must have whisky or you’ll know why.

Not me, actually. I was driving, so drank Coke and coffee — the latter, absurdly, sold by the full-size cafetière, so, as I write, it’s 4:30AM and I’m still wired. Pauline, she of the bob, did slug from a whisky bottle, but word has it that it contained apple juice. She had a cold — kept pulling paper hankies from somewhere about her person — so this was almost certainly for the best. Her singing was fractionally bluesier than a month ago, when we last saw The Onion Club, but not spoilt. Her patter was mostly the same, with cold-related ad libs thrown in. A string of twentieth century witticisms: ‘One more drink and I’ll be under the host’ (Mae West); ‘I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy’ (Tom Waits). It’s a good script, worth sticking to. Also courtesy of Tom Waits was ‘God’s Away on Business’, for which Pauline took the radio mic and went on the prowl, taking delight in throwing out an arm while half undressed and shouting ‘KILLERS, THIEVES AND LIARS!’ in whoever’s face was closest. This song, at the mid point of the first half of the set, upped the ante and cured the singer’s cold at a stroke. Lithe and livid, this is why it’s worth driving to a different town to see a covers band. There ain’t no other covers band like this one. Stephen, the pianist, whose playing always makes me think of ‘Time’ and ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ from Aladdin Sane, thumped the low notes with heat seeking precision, and God may be away, but this pair mean business.

Costume changes are always a feature of Onion Club shows. Their signature prop is a coat stand with a pair of angel’s wings hung on it (which no-one puts on), along with whatever else might be required. Last night there was a screen standing to the right of the stand, ostensibly for Pauline to change behind. ‘No peeking,’ she warned, disappearing behind it for about a second, which was quite enough down time from audience adulation, and she came out and half-changed into a black skirt with a leather belt (left unbuckled) in front of us instead, mid-song. I don’t know if there was a blouse to go with it, but she left it at the chemise, which made ‘God’s Away on Business’ seem fearless as well as fearsome. After the interval, and after the deep melancholy of Portishead’s ‘Roads’ and an interesting take on Kate Bush’s ‘The Red Shoes’ (possibly a slight mis-fire, because there’s not a lot to be done with that one-chord song), they did a great version of ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ from The Jungle Book, turned into a modern morality tale. Pauline almost fell over trying to sing into the mic and change into a suit at the same time. ‘I can learn to be a greedy bastard too’, went the amended lyric, as she fantasised about breaking through the glass ceiling from ‘75 grand PA’ to being the boss of her boss. Who must be a banker. For an instrumental / tap dancing break she put on a monkey mask, with a bowler hat on top of that.

In a way, The Onion Club are a very twenty first century proposition. Kenneth Goldsmith would probably approve of the emphasis on re-appropriation over creation. Would say that re-appropriation is the only form of creation left in this age of content overload. Praising Pauline’s singing and Stephen’s piano playing (which does need doing) is missing the point, because what you get at these shows is a powerful and entrancing aesthetic vision, stitched together from lust, joy and abandon as much as it is from the songs which give it shape, or the era which gives it much of its style. ‘My Funny Valentine’, augmented with trombone and muted trumpet, was so tender and beautiful; ‘Strange Fruit’, similarly paced, was its deathly flipside; ‘Mad About the Boy’ had the best posh twit accent and the amazing conversational gambit, tossed out in mock panic to an audience member: ‘Do you like fruit?!’; and at last Pauline put the accordion back on and played what appeared to be ‘Song to the Siren’ again, but this time it really was ‘The Ship Song’, and she meandered back through the audience, who all knew all the words, and sang them, way down low, in this lilac-lit stone room in the ornamental castle, down a potholed lane in Arbroath, where the car sat waiting patiently in the rain on a muddy verge. Wading the water. Sandman’s mud, sandman’s mud.

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