Music to give life, 4…

Nothing opens me up like a three (or more) part harmony. Those moments when a melody lift and soar into the stratosphere will almost always be carried there by polyphony. Yesterday, some dear friends of ours took us out for the evening in Glasgow. We ate Iranian food and then went to see a gospel choir singing- massed ranks of voices pulsing and harmonising. Perhaps heaven really will be like this because who wants to play harps for eternity anyway?

The music I want to offer you today however, is not gospel music, but something different- 4 men from Boston who sing what might described as ‘folk-pop’, who call themselves Darlingside.

Despite my commitment to keep hopefulness front and centre of this blog through this year, the song I have chosen, at first glance, might be seen to be rather dystopian. Here is what they say about the album it comes from;

“It’s over now / The flag is sunk / The world has flattened out,” are the first words of Extralife, the new album by Boston-based quartet Darlingside. While the band’s critically acclaimed 2015 release Birds Say was steeped in nostalgia and the conviction of youth, Extralife grapples with dystopian realities and uncertain futures. Whether ambling down a sidewalk during the apocalypse or getting stuck in a video game for eternity, the band asks, sometimes cynically, sometimes playfully: what comes next? Their erstwhile innocence is now bloodshot for the better.

The song is like a stiletto wrapped in silk, but in my defence it does not leave me without hope.

On the one hand, it might remind us that without mankind, the wild things of the planet will do just fine. Rivers will run clean, forests will regenerate, wild creatures will no longer be crowded and fenced into shrinking corners of the world. The seas will swallow all that plastic in sediment.

It might remind us too that without wild things, we are buggered. The 70% decline in insect life is not just a disaster for insects and birds, it is a disaster for us too, because we are the top of the ecosystem. We depend on them, they do not depend on us.

So where is the hope? The hope is in the sublime beauty of this song; how it carries our humanity. How it displays our ability to love and value the very place that we are destroying.

Because perhaps we have to be able to imagine a world without us in order to once more realise that we are part of the world, not separate from it.

And just to prove they can do it live

Someday a shooting star is gonna shoot me down
Burn these high rises back into a ghost town
Of iridium-white clouds
Matted close against the ground
While the sky hangs empty as a frame

See the reddening horizon line
Feel the planet spilling on the space time
On the way down Somerset I take pictures of cement
For the history books on Mother Earth

To the west now it begins
In the sound waves in the wind
There is an echo going by
Of the mountains caving in
And the parted roads and I
Knew that one day we would die
And become smooth and old again
Like the ash that sweeps the sky

Someday a shooting star is gonna shoot me down
Burn these high rises back into a ghost town

There’s holy water lying in the crater well
Heavy metals high test gasoline
Blessed singularity
A telescoping memory
Where the sky still flickers through the leaves

The demonisation of the working class…

I am reading Owen Jones’ ‘Chavs’ at the moment. It was loaned to us by a friend but despite their recommendations my expectations were low becaue I tend to skim past Jones’ columns in The Guardian. Half a book later, here I am to say I was wrong. It is a book that we need to read; a necessary, prescient mirror to hold up in front of a British society that has lost any sense of the injustice at rampant, growing inequality, and has replaced it with pervasive negative stereotypes that can rightly only be called demonsation.

Jones charts this through social media, through the virulent portrayal in press, film, music and television and of course, in post-Thatcher politics, both Tory and New Labour. Think of Waynetta Slob or Shameless. Think of the ‘Skyvers not Strivers’, think of the rise of the middle class as a social ideal. Now try to think of one positive image of working people from recent times. To be working class, it seems, should induce shame- as surely otherwise your aspiration would have allowed you to become middle class. If you are still working class, then you are scum. You are a Chav.

Not that we ever talk about class any more. Most 20th C social policy was dominated by analysis of how social class systems shaped and dictated life paths for good and ill, but it is as if this vast body of social research never happened. Inequality is no longer a political imperative. It has been replaced by the relentless pursuit of wealth and profit…


But, I need to stop ranting because there was another moment in this book that brought me up short- one that described how the liberal left might have joined in with all the Chav hate.

school photo

I should start with my own confession. I have spent my whole life working on my own personal escape plan from where I came from. Here I am above, back row in yellow, with bowl-haircut, from my primary school days. I was the second child of a single mother, entirely dependent on state hand-outs. My absent father was an Irish road worker but both his start in life and my mothers were much worse than mine. We lived in a nice house and never went hungry. Sure, we were ‘different’ from other kids, marked out by our clothes, shoes and our lack of foreign holidays but at the same time, there were always presents at Christmas and birthdays, piano lessons and pressure to succeed at school. Despite this, embarrassment and shame was a dominant part of my becoming.

Small wonder then that I did my best to hide my background. I told small lies about our lack of ‘things’ that seemed to be social markers. I tried to speak with a neutral accent. I went to church youth clubs full of middle class kids. I did enough schooling to become a graduate, via a third class Polytechnic. I ended up working as a social worker, where I inevitably ended up looking down at where I came from with the perspective of one who is no longer like them, but has now become something else. Someone else. No longer working class. I had managed to hide my inner Chav.

There is of course another way to characterise my rise into middle-class respectability. I might be better understood to be the poster boy for meritocracy. Perhaps I escaped because I was better than those who did not. Perhaps I worked harder than those who did not. This feels like bullshit though because the Chav is still with me. The shame is still in me. This despite the fact that I grew up in the late 70’s and 80’s, a much more benign time to be living on benefits than we are living through now.

In reading Owen Jones book, I realised something else though- my own prejudice against working people. In ‘escaping’, I promoted myself. I was not like them. They were racist, sexist unthinking football-crazed yobs who drank too much and lived in dirty conditions. Of course, they were not all like that, but even those that were not were not like me. I think this contributed to a certain kind of alienation and displacement in my life because I was not like the middle class either. I lacked the confidence, ease and security that characterised most of my peers. I was cast as observer, participating only at the edges. Either way, despite my liberation theology/ left wing leanings, perhaps I have to acknowledge that I have done my share of unconscious demonising.

Does this matter? It is not as though I have ever indulged in any of that daily mail rabid Chav hate.

Yes. I think it does. There needs to be a corrective, which has to start in us if it is to become a movement.

Perhaps this film says it all.