Not too bad, thanks. Better than expected. How did you get on with Morris and Bellamy?
I found both frustrating.
Which is probably how they wanted it.
On a literary level, Morris was clearly far ahead of Bellamy. But Bellamy got it right, didn’t he? Classical music played over the telephone while you wait to be connected! Paintings and sculptures projected on the front of skyscrapers! Benign corporate control!
Bellamy was of course speculating about Boston in the year 2000. Responses depend upon whether one prefers astrology to literature.
Or life to either. I did a bit of supplementary reading and viewing as well – the first episode of “The Prisoner,” the chapters describing the protagonists’ journey from London to Oxford in Iain Sinclair’s “Radon Daughters.” I expected that you would have expected it of me.
Madam, you are the kind of reader I adore above all others.
Don’t give it away!
You’re right. We haven’t got to M Ward yet. But about News From Nowhere - you have to remember it was a dream rather than a prediction, a fantasy spelt out in the very title; “Nowhere” being the literal Latin translation of More’s mongrel word “Utopia.”
So fragile, so touching, ultimately so sad.
Well none of it came true, did it? His fantasy of industry and capitalism being overthrown semi-benignly, cities of green foliage, hills and woods, and happy artisans working only for art’s sake…
My friend, you have fallen into the classic trap. In which timescale is this dream set?
Well, the protagonist – William Guest (i.e. William Morris) wakes up about two hundred years in the future. Old Hammond tells him that the great revolution occurred about one hundred and fifty years ago.
And he fell asleep in the late 19th century. Which means…
Of course. It’s very nearly the 22nd century.
One hundred years from now, more or less.
So it is still too early to predict.
Exactly. Contemporary readers are always tripped up by such references as Hammersmith Bridge being rebuilt and re-opened in 2003. It makes them think that this is supposed to be happening now.
Bit hard on Bazalgette’s bridge, wasn’t he?
Morris was a bit hard on everything. The green Hammersmith-Barnes span has always been one of my favourite London bridges; reassuring and reliable. And rather grand, though I understand how vulgar it may have seemed to an over-sensitive late Victorian thinker. Although of course had the IRA succeeded in blowing it up, a new Hammersmith Bridge could well have been opened this year.
There’s so much poignancy before the fact. How Guest falls asleep in the bleak dead of winter and awakens in summer sunshine.
Wake up on brilliant days. Was that why “Someone Somewhere In Summertime” had to be released as a single in November 1982?
The fluidity of Guest’s movements through the “new London” has a remarkable quality. Even when travelling in a horse and cart we still feel that the characters are floating through London. Movements are very rapid here – note how quickly they manage to get from Hammersmith to Piccadilly and beyond.
The elasticity of time reminded me somewhat of “The Man Who Was Thursday.”
Chesterton wrote that as a partial parody of News From Nowhere. Saffron Park – a.k.a. Bedford Park in Morris’ old North Chiswick stamping ground – is populated by fops pretending to be artisans. Gabriel Syme effectively functions as a moral bucket of cold water, but he is as spellbound by the illusion as anyone else. And of course Chesterton took the time travel to deliberately absurdist levels – note how, at the novel’s climax, the characters seem to travel from Dover to Earl’s Court in about five minutes. London as a giant trampoline, around whose corners they keep bouncing.
It appears paradisical, but the key word there is “appears.” We never quite get rid of the feeling that this isn’t quite the perfect future which Guest professes to desire. And anyway…wouldn’t industry’s march have been inexorable? Doesn’t anyone use the Tube? How do they live if they “sell” their wares for free? Where’s the economic matrix? Where are the immigrants? One black child in Piccadilly Market, and that’s it. What about…
You are forgetting that this is a dream and not Das Kapital rewritten by John Ruskin. You also discount the notion that this might all still come true a century hence. True, few, if any, of us will be around then, but it might still happen, but for very different reasons, all of which blind us with their obviousness in the world of the early 21st century.
The revolution happens after a General Strike and a battle in Trafalgar Square in 1952. Well he couldn’t have known about the two world wars.
Or the Depression. The Wall Street crash did more damage to capitalism than any Committee for Public Safety could have mustered. We still haven’t recovered properly from it.
That having been said, Morris is painfully on the mark when he talks about the downside of unregulated capitalism. His rightly furious remarks about wage-slaves, useless consumer goods and nationalistic expansion into “foreign territories” could have come straight out of Naomi Klein.
Or Klein out of Morris. Naturally.
Indeed. Neither is keen on anarchy; they still insist on the joys of work (when the job is not unpleasant and the output is not pointless), on the absolute importance of permanence of some notion of “collective society.”
In which, incidentally, a woman’s place is still a woman’s place.
Yes, I noticed that. But then is it? Morris certainly doesn’t believe in the “family” matrix. Partners should be free to drift off with others, then back if they so wish. And what about the character of Ellen? Won’t she blow all of this apart?
If the society of 2090 doesn’t manage to do it themselves, that is. But you are skipping to the end of the book. We need to journey to Oxford first.
Morris seems to be in something of a rush to get out of London. Once Guest gets into the boat and starts the journey to Oxfordshire the pace of the story immediately slows down and becomes more reflective, less in a hurry.
Morris’ London of 2090 is still a city, of course. Long Acre is chock-full of buildings; Hampstead remains a “town.” It certainly isn’t the London of half a century before Morris, when Dickens could take a stroll in the country to Camden.
It is only when Morris/Guest gets out of the city that he encounters people with even a semblance of awareness of the history which preceded them.
Oh come now, the centrepiece of the novel is Guest’s lengthy histo-sociological discussion with (or obtuse questions directed at) Old Hammond.
Who lives in the British Museum. Detached from “London.”
Oh, very good. Ageing is one of the many things of which this not-quite-brave new society seems to be straining to avoid getting into its mind.
The “young” couple – Dick and Clara – are so bland and colourless.
They remind me of a stereotypical couple in the later, lesser Ealing Studios dramas. Look, for example, at John Fraser and June Thorburn in 1955’s dreary Touch And Go. It would be difficult for ameobas to assume more colour than this already dead couple. The father, Jack Hawkins, is scarcely more alive. The film is about the efforts of the latter – a supposedly adventurous interior designer – to emigrate to Australia. But there are too many ties, which is the same thing as saying that there are only as many ties as one wishes to have draped around one’s neck. How tight would you like that noose to be wound?
One presumes he doesn’t go to Australia after all.
Of course not. That would be tantamount to saying that the entire philosophy on which the “Ealing film” was based was a destructive fallacy.
Much better to be Alexander Mackendrick. Send the whole bloody structure tumbling.
The Ladykillers is the bleakest of Ealing films, isn’t it? All about the utter impossibility of abolishing The System. Danny Green’s violin case catching in the front door of Katie Johnson’s boarding house sums up precisely why Morris’ utopia could not happen. The attraction to the old order – to any tangible form of order, no matter how repressive or suffocating – is too strong. So the robbers kill each other off and leave the Old Lady with all the money and a pleasant daydream which may just have been a reality. The film demonstrates how the cosy community is simply a better-disguised prison. Once filming had been completed, Mackendrick took off for America as fast as his feet could carry him.
The prison which, a decade later, Patrick McGoohan – with the aid of many familiar faces from Ealing – will attempt to demolish.
He too legged it for America. But Morris has a touching faith in the communality of the upper/middle and working classes. After the General Strike, Trafalgar Square battles and civil war of attrition, the two sides come to a reluctant agreement into which they gradually settle with succeeding generations. We know from the Restoration, never mind the actual General Strike of 1926, how improbable this state of affairs will be. Every decadent monarch has to be replaced by a Cromwell, or similar.
Back to the boat trip. Back also to the character of Ellen. She explodes with colour and passion, does she not? Such a contrast to everyone else in the book.
Morris’ idealised woman. But yes, her appearance is a severe jolt to the complacency of the society in which Guest has found himself.
And the arguments with the old “grumbler” of a grandfather! The arguments about the merits of literature!
Sound familiar, do they not? They are crucial arguments, too; do we want an ordered society with no literature, or the Mayhew-documented squalor of Victorian Britain with its Brontës, Dickenses, Hardys and Thackerays? Or to put it another way, a perfect world with a David Gray soundtrack, or a mess of a world with a soundtrack provided by El-P, Girls Aloud and DJ Scud?
Orson Welles in “The Third Man.” The Borgias and the cuckoo clocks.
But think of what else he makes Harry Lime say. “Free of income tax, old man.” Ten thousand dots. He didn’t have a high opinion of the general public. Nor, I think, did Morris. Everything in this utopia is paternalistic in its beneficence. Again and again Morris rants against “vulgarity,” about everything being “cockneyfied.” Clearly if plain people were to exist in this new society, they had to do so like obedient pupils, and therefore lesser beings. So much for equality. And I think Morris knew this deep down. Repeated reminders are spread throughout the book that this state of affairs may not be permanent, may yet undo itself. When in Oxford, Guest asks the archivist Henry Morsom, “What is to come after this?” Morsom replies with a hearty laugh, “I don’t know…we will meet it when it comes.”
It’s very sinister.
But not half as sinister as the artificial gaiety of Dick and Clara. Both are noticeably affronted, though retain their benign façade, when Guest questions them about concepts such as money, crime and punishment, love and death. With Clara’s character, particularly, there’s a very distinct air of “don’t spoil our fun.”
”Questions are a burden to others. Answers a prison for oneself.”
Quite. Perhaps the most sinister chapter is chapter 24, when passing through the Berkshire countryside, one Walter Allen appears to recount the story of a rejected would-be lover who murders his rival. Dick and Clara are entirely bemused by ideas such as grief. “He should just get over it,” speaks the cheery voice of the cure-all therapist a century too soon.
You end up wanting to shake them and ask them what they are afraid of.
They have dim knowledge of the blood and pain in the eras which preceded them and an inbuilt determination never to go back there again. So their defence mechanisms automatically rise up. It is as though they are constantly fighting to suppress these thoughts.
So they are not really free.
Merely in the most deviously disguised of prisons. To be fooled into thinking that their world is perfection whereas it is in fact strangling them, slowly.
And Ellen knows this.
Oh yes, she wouldn’t be in this book if she didn’t. She knows full well how Guest got here; she may well be a fellow time-traveller herself, but it’s never explicitly spelled out. She is cynical about the new world, but reluctant to resume existence in the old one. There are few more heartbreaking statements in English literature than Ellen’s “I love life better than death,” which she uses to settle the books-versus-life argument. I love life better than death.
The cloud comes at the end, swallows him up and takes him back to 1890. That’s sad, too.
You could never film that ending. The look which Ellen gives him at the dinner party just before he disappears. Don’t talk to me, we cannot acknowledge each other, you must return to your proper…
…station in life?
Just go back and do your best to make this happen, she’s saying. We are all your descendents. Mess it up and we won’t exist. It’s up to you.
But what about…
Bellamy has hardly come into this discussion.
It’s the dullest of books.
All that happens is that the protagonist awakens in Boston in 2000. The society is one of state capitalism – Morris’ is explicitly one of communism – and the protagonist merely comes to terms with it and decides that it’s not the worst of states to be in. Bellamy loves his technology, but not necessarily his characters.
If one wanted to extend the concept of time travel, one could propose that “News From Nowhere” is in fact the sequel to “Nineteen Eighty Four.”
Oh, very clever.
Orwell’s final chapter.
The society which has replaced Big Brother?
Morris’ proof that communism doesn’t necessarily have to be involuntarily converted into state capitalism, perhaps.
How tragic would it be if the utopia described by Morris turned out to be, not the unobtainable future, but an irreversible…
Steady on. We haven’t quite got that far yet. Time to do some more reading. What do you make of this?
Selected excerpts from Song From Somewhere, my forthcoming book on British jazz
“…Joe Harriott’s position in British jazz was exactly analogous to that of Alexander Mackendrick in British cinema; by nature part of the mainstream, yet quietly curious about what might lie just beyond the banks visible to his eye. Just as Mackendrick politely demolished Ealing’s politesse with The Ladykillers, so did Harriott quietly set out making British jazz veer off its overly respectful towpath. Harriott always claimed that his experiments with free jazz on records like Free Form and Abstract were completely independent of those of Ornette Coleman, and that in fact at the time of recording these albums he was unfamiliar with Coleman’s music. Listening to them again 40 years later, what is puzzling is why Coleman’s name should be used as a reference at all. Harriott’s music is far more indebted to the careful methodology of George Russell or Don Ellis; harmonic and rhythmic patterns are all present, and his alto sax seems more interested in exploring the harmonic implications of the music, as opposed to Coleman’s approach of improvising directly on the melody without recourse to harmony at all. Coleman preferred not to use a pianist, and even in Prime Time the guitars of Ulmer, Nix and Ellerbee have far more rhythmic than harmonic implications. Harriott used intelligent, thoughtful improvisers such as Shake Keane, Coleridge Goode and Pat Smythe, though Bobby Orr seemed to understand the rhythmic implications of Harriott’s music better as a drummer than Phil Seamen. These records were clearly experiments; Harriott continued to record and perform standards, and never had anything to do with the Little Theatre Club/Ronnie Scott’s Old Place developments in the mid-1960s. Were he alive now he would probably be musical director emeritus of the Jazz Warriors…”
“…British jazz has never been good at innovating, but matchless at toying with, stretching and imploding existing innovations (the innovations of British improvised music do not altogether, or even particularly, stem from roots in jazz). In Perspectives, the 1972 album by the Stan Tracey Trio, quite remarkable results are achieved by extending the implications of Monk’s innovations, being careful to layer them with a veneer of approachable Horace Silver, and then stretching them out in an entirely different manner. Tracey’s piano is more obviously aggressive and percussive in its deliberately discursive approach, and helps us to understand exactly how major an influence Silver was on Cecil Taylor’s music. Unlike the typical Monk rhythm section, too, bassist Dave Green and drummer Bryan Spring are not content to lay out and keep their heads down; they both, especially Spring, keep prodding actively at Tracey and only drop out when they know that Tracey has absorbed their propulsion…compare with The Howard Riley Trio’s 1973 Incus album Synopsis. Although the latter involves a more obviously improv-centred rhythm section – Barry Guy and Tony Oxley, stretching so narrowly that they scarcely qualify as a rhythm section at all – the spatiality offered here is palpably that of Bill Evans and Paul Bley; notes are careful, considered, never superfluous. The exaggerated formality of Riley’s approach contrasts dramatically and efficiently with the strumming and thunder thrashing raging and purring behind, in other words with, him…”
“…Derek Bailey continues to make his reckoning, to continue summing things up, except he’s never satisfied with a summary in and of itself. With the eponymously-titled debut album by his new group Limescale he approaches the History of Music, or even the History of Himself, as benignly as he did The Song on Ballads. In some ways the instrumentation of this quintet harks back to the earliest (and perhaps most adventurous) days of jazz – guitar, bass saxophone and clarinet, and also a dictaphone and a pile of bricks (we have to remember our Duchamp, remember it’s 1918). Tony Bevan treats the bass saxophone as a virtual bass, occasionally raising his head to make more obviously saxophonic comments, and at many points on this record holds everything together, introducing what we can loosely approximate as “rhythm.” Whereas Manchester’s THF Drenching and Sonic Pleasure (on dictaphone and bricks respectively) are far more compatible, quiet and violent than you might imagine. The bricks are the group’s “drums.” Ms Pleasure addresses them with a chisel, or simply beats them together or hammers at them. The result is a surprising percussive lightness; uncannily like Sunny Murray, to be vaguely honest, free but crucially light, to balance the sometimes unexpected onslaughts from the other musicians. The Drenching dictaphone is the most freely mobile and versatile of these five voices. As far as improvising on the dictaphone is concerned, I can only think of Holger Czukay as a precedent; but Drenching is rhythmically very astute and sonically effective – lightning-fast rewinds, repeats and speed variations sometimes provide a piano-like harmonic framework, at other times can squawk and slap as freely as the freest of saxophonists.
“But the real revelation here is clarinettist Alex Ward, whom I had previously regarded as a slightly more animated Braxton disciple. Sometimes he can sound rather constricted in the wrong environment, but here his attack is positively feral, even coming near to Br?tzmann territory on occasion (on the track “French Archive” he is positively Ayler-ish in his passion). Meanwhile, Bailey’s guitar carefully polices the premises, unafraid to reintroduce rhythm if required. His wistfulness on “Academy Now!” could almost have you wondering if Ralph Towner had wandered in on the session.
“The instrumentation, and free approach to same, remind us not only of early jazz but also the adventures of the likes of the Bonzo Dog Band, who in their many looser moments were quite prepared to go “out,” with Roger Ruskin Spear’s bass sax bleating and rampaging as required, but who preserved, via Neil Innes, an innate and irreducible melancholy. The centrepiece of the Limescale album is the 17-minute “Charity Singles Ball” where Bailey’s guitar prompts can conjure up Charlie Christian or, at one exceptionally startling moment, threatens to turn into U2’s “New Year’s Day.” There are moments of deeply mournful brooding, but eventually the musicians work themselves up towards a fabulous and tremulous climax of collective screams threatening to demolish one’s speakers. Balance this with the sad Bechet/Mezzrow trudge of the closing “Titles By Drenching” – a woozy but very old and instantly recognisable lament. But again the material is poked at, prodded, and the musicians heat up for one final orgasmic screech as if to say: don’t bury us yet.”
The male Cat Power? Hymie’s Basement are a duo comprising DJ/musician Andrew Broder (a.k.a. Fog) and cLOUDDEAD vocalist Jonathan Wolf (a.k.a. Why?) with input from Dose One. Yet another Anticon spinoff then, yet, for those who feel that Anticon might sometimes be Sub Pop with turntables, their eponymously-titled debut album, which is due for release on Lex Records at the end of October, is one of the year’s quietest and finest.
The post-hip hop My Computer? There’s a similar pulling down of the shutters upon the world, though they can still see outside; thus the splenetic opener “21st Century Pop Song” – one of only three songs here to utilise guitars – which sneers an American apocalypse into existence (“Shout at the TV just like your dad”). Similarly, the frenetic thrashing and polytonal harmonising which begin “All Them Boys” brings to mind a slacker Proclaimers – no, let us not mention They Might Be Giants – before the song suddenly decelerates and detours into a wasteland of indistinct synth tones and solemn, stately piano.
Suddenly it is nightfall. But whereas Chan Marshall’s similarly stately piano is used to try to shed, and maybe to donate, some more light upon, or to, the world as a whole, Hymie’s Basement are trying to get as far within themselves as their molecules will allow. So there’s the strange narrative of “Ghost Dream” which describes a driver who has driven his truck into the river on the way to a gig and elects to drown because he cannot bear to throw away the bass guitar which is weighing the vehicle down (“Meet your new angel monster”). In “Moonhead” Wolf is struck by a “crater exactly the size of a human head” and his head therefore becomes the Moon*
*which reminds me; no sooner had I written about Slim Gaillard’s “How High The Moon” than it finally comes out on CD, as part of the Verve reissue Slim Gaillard Rides Again!. Gaillard’s glee at the prospect of the planets meeting, colliding and exploding, and his tossing and slurring around of concepts like “moon,” “stars” and “sun” can be as poignant as the final moments of Major Amberson. We will all go together when we go…except some of us won’t…**
**The heartbreaking “The Pump” (with its central, almost sotto voce lament of “When she’s not there, there’s only air”) reminds us that had this album been released by Simon and Garfunkel in 1966 under the title The Sound Of Silence, it might have changed everything. “Parrots” starts out bouncingly, with the synth bassline from Hot Butter’s “Popcorn,” but that soon slows down towards stasis. Most frightening of all is the baritone robot of a voice, chanting in lieu of a heartbeat, on “Pretty Colors (Smile Your Brains Out).” The “real” voice of Wolf comes in for awhile, musing about what children should really know, but soon gives up the ghost, while the ghost continues its preprogrammed damnation.
The logical extension of “Fitter, Happier”? The apocalyptic duo/duel of voices which arise out of the graveyard piano of “America Won/America Too,” which then suddenly cease and leave the piano to cope on its own. Is there a more final final line than “If you’re lonely, have a lobotomy”?
The centerpiece? “Lightning Bolts And Man Hands,” a very careful six minutes where we return to an acoustic guitar. Wolf ponders on the assumed inferiority of the left hand to the right, has clearly lost everything and as a consequence tries to disappear within his own self, to be eaten by his own body; nothing left to think about or consider than what he knows for sure exists. The song is immeasurably moving, almost on a par with Smog’s “Prince Alone In The Studio.” And of course Hymie’s Basement is finally swallowed up in the closing “You Die” which could almost be Coldplay, except the vocals are undecided and the drum machine keeps hiccuping and throwing the track off balance. At the end, a high-pitched drone, waiting for you to switch the life support machine off. To die or to live again?
Of course it is a very male thing to want to vanish into yourself. Kimya Dawson sings about trying to raise her child. Chan Marshall sings about the world. But this Jonathan Wolf just seems to want…not to be.
You were saying about Morris’ utopia…
Yes. It’s sad that Guest has to leave, but hope remains…he has to return in order for what he has just seen to exist. To complete his work as he is best able – in his own time and age. The door is not firmly closed on the future; in fact he has to return in order to open it. But how tragic would it be if we were to view what Guest has seen, not as a symbol of a benevolent (if still uncertain) future, but as a vision of something he did know, somewhere he did live, but has now gone, vanished forever? Wouldn’t you just want to…
“…A melancholy song, it’s also the final working-out of the dilemma central to On The Beach: how to regain and maintain authenticity when the pressure is on to present a false façade and when life itself is almost too awfully real to allow any space for creativity.”
(From Ian MacDonald’s review of Neil Young’s On The Beach, Uncut, August 2003)
I no longer have any idea about what constitutes the “best piece of music writing” but I know what my favourite piece of music writing is, the piece which did most to lead me here, and that was Ian MacDonald’s two-page NME review of David Bowie’s Low in January 1977. Citing everything from Rhinehart’s The Dice Man to the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love” in service of a close examination of the gradual and systematic dehumanisation of music, art and the world, of how any attempt at chance and spontaneity is instantly nullified, this piece told me how record reviewing and music writing could amount to infinitely more than the maitre d’ wine list which most music criticism emulates (“The new Coral is slightly off but the Thrills are warmly recommended” etc.). This was writing aware of its history, writing which actually instructed the reader to take pop music seriously, writing which stayed with the open-minded reader for decades even as it described the closing of minds. Did we know that even then MacDonald was writing his own obituary?
Two years to the day and I was surrounded by reminders of suicide. Roy Cropper clumsily attempting it in Coronation Street, and then, for real, the obituaries in that day’s broadsheets for MacDonald, who had taken his own life that weekend at the age of 54. To cap it all, Kodwo Eshun remarks in this month’s Wire how he briefly assumed me to be “a younger, more generous-minded Ian MacDonald.” Signifiers outweighing the signified.
MacDonald had apparently grown very depressed over the state of the world over the last two years. It would be easy for me to make facile comments of the nature of: well, perhaps he would have liked to swap his last two years for this writer’s last two years. Or perhaps not. Harder yet to realise that his depression extended back some 30 years; there had been two suicide attempts in the late ‘70s. Dick and Clara would no doubt have told him, exasperated, to get over “it,” as people with clinical depression rarely do.
Am I staring into a mirror when I read about what happened to MacDonald? Could I have helped him in any way? I had his email address but never used it; I didn’t think we, as we were in 2003, had much to talk about or even that much in common. It wouldn’t have stopped anything, anyway. I didn’t even know.
How to sum him up? His best popular music writing was indisputably that which he did for the NME in the ‘70s (I sometimes think that my second favourite piece of music writing is MacDonald’s two-page demolition of Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge in August 1974, fast following his fulsome praise of Tubular Bells a year earlier). Typically the broadsheet obituaries gave prominence to his Shostakovich biography, coming even above Revolution In The Head; the antiquated snobbery which continues to drive millions into the arms of The Sun.
Revolution In The Head is among the most problematic of music books. Brilliantly conceived and indisputably authoritative, yet fundamentally wrong-headed; at least, that’s what one would assume without knowing much of MacDonald’s personal life and beliefs, even though they make themselves increasingly visible and indivisible as the book progresses to its rather tragic end. There is more than a touch of the Max Harrisons about MacDonald’s systematic analysis of every Beatles recording; ostensibly hard and unsentimental in its criticism (the early stuff might have been better, McCartney might have been more adventurous than Lennon, “Helter Skelter” is just bad metal) but never completely objective. Again and again MacDonald conjures up the sunshine and wonder of Britain in 1966/7 (his heartfelt comment on how anyone who wasn’t between the ages of 14-30 in 1966 could understand what a beautiful time it was, or the real cultural significance of something like “Penny Lane”), again and again he underlines to us how things can never be as good as they were then, be it music or life; and his ill-informed comments on contemporary pop (as well as contemporary classical and jazz) indicate that this world is now beyond his reach. There is a great, intractable sadness about this which distances him from the “I-don’t-like-it-therefore-it’s-no-good” school of red-nosed clowning in which too many writers still indulge. He is aware of his self-imposed limitations.
As a cultural signifier I did not think that Revolution In The Head was very helpful, playing as it did the rôle of an inadvertent midwife to the stifling canonical tendencies of ‘90s Britpop. And MacDonald’s later writing, as anthologised in the recent collection The People’s Music, indicates that a ghost was already doing the writing, the spirit having fled, except for one incandescent final moment – his Nick Drake piece for Mojo, which worked so brilliantly because MacDonald summoned up for the last time the spirits which had originally driven him. His recollections of sitting in his rooms at Cambridge, watching Drake premiere Five Leaves Left, are heartbreaking in their suddenly recaptured evocation of unalloyed happiness, with full hindsight of how that particular story was to end.
Was MacDonald staring at a mirror even then when he looked at Drake? He attended (but did not graduate from) King’s College, Cambridge, an idealistic, Left-leaning institution which tends to leave the idea in the minds of its students that they can somehow transcend the world, or at least give them a strong cocoon within which they can safely view the world. From a 1970s NME viewpoint – an entirely different creature to the NME of today – the re-entry of MacDonald into the harsh, capsule review, ticksheet world of the monthlies in the ‘90s and beyond must have been barely bearable. Everyone’s writing in Uncut comes across as “cramped and awkward.” In the current edition there are capsule reviews by MacDonald of things like a live Animals album, a Ron Wood solo anthology and a Searchers anthology. He must have wondered why he bothered. Was this all that was left of his world?
How can one describe the magnitude of the horror which descends upon a human being when, in one lucid second of despair, they catch a sideways glance of themselves in the mirror and realise that they are just one near-invisible speck in an obscure corner of the universe? To spend their lives searching for perspective and recoiling in pain and horror when they finally find it. The realisation that the world they knew and loved has gone, is of the past, exists only in their memory, and that nothing lies ahead except further struggle and pain. Why bother to preserve such a life? The pills are to hand.
There is, of course, a more difficult option, which is to try to continue living, to try to find new worlds to inhabit – they won’t be the same as the old one, but at their best they will make you glad that you stayed alive long enough to find them and to live in them. I am not sure that Ian MacDonald had that kind of strength left in him, nor can I condemn him for not having it; for I am acutely aware that I too am staring into a potential mirror when I read his obituaries, that this too is how I might end if I’m not careful. If I come to the conclusion that music is finished. If I cannot disengage myself from the prison of my memories. If I cannot understand that William Morris’ utopia is to come and not something which has passed away into the past.
So I continue, Laura. I expected that you would have expected it of me.
“As a document of a despairing personal low, On The Beach would be a kind of masterpiece by any standard. Yet it’s the album’s inner strength, its refusal to die or evade the issue, its ultimate squaring up to a regenerated future which make it such a moving experience.”
(MacDonald, ibid. Emphasis added by the present author)
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