Mad Kings and Mass Tourism.

2 Nov

Being a History buff, I’m a sucker for castles. Living in the north east of England I am spoilt for choice as there are numerous fine examples within an easy day trip. The Normans built them to consolidate their hold over the country they conquered in 1066AD and, in my neck of the woods, to guard against marauding Scots.  They are some of my favourite places, providing enduring fascination. Some are now museums, some are stately homes and others just picturesque ruins. Most of my castle visits have been shared with just a sprinkling of other people, the only exceptions in Britain being The Tower of London and Edinburgh Castle, which are both on the international tourist trail, and Warwick Castle, which has been transformed into a major entertainment venue by the Tussauds organisation. It seems to me that usually, castles are a bit of an acquired taste.

So it came as a massive surprise to find that when I decided to visit a German castle in the Alps of southern Bavaria, Neuschwanstein, I found myself fighting for space with hundreds, if not thousands of tourists from around the world. At first I couldn’t understand why. It is situated in a fairly remote, rural area. It is a 3 hour journey by train and bus  from the nearest city (Munich). Even when  one gets to the village below the castle ( Hohenschwangau), there is a stiff 30 to 40 minutes walk up a hill, or one faces a very long queue to board a crowded bus or  horse- drawn wagon. The crowds are so vast that one can only visit Neuschwanstein on a guided tour and these have to depart every 5 minutes throughout a 9 hour day to accommodate everyone in the high tourist season. Even then, many people are turned away as they have arrived too late. One reviewer on Trip Adviser gave up his plans to visit the castle after learning that the queue for a ticket was 2 hours long and then there would be a further 5 hour wait before finally getting in. I had seen photos of the castle perched on a precarious rock , surrounded by mountains and had imagined a quiet, rather lonely place, cut off from the world in splendid isolation. I couldn’t have been more wrong! The place was heaving, and this was in September, outside the main tourist season. So I didn’t get much peace and there was little opportunity for quiet reflection. Maybe I should have done more research before going to Neuschwanstein. Even a cursory glance at Trip Adviser reveals mass adulation for the place. The last time I checked, it had attracted no less than 858 reviews!

So what’s all the fuss about? Why has this particular castle, tucked away in an obscure corner of Germany, attracted such a massive following? Every year it is visited by 1.4 million people. In summer, 6000 visitors a day stream through rooms only intended for one inhabitant. Neuschwanstein is one of the most popular castles or palaces in the whole of Europe. Why? What is even more astonishing is that it is not even a real, authentic castle. It’s a 19th century fake. In Britain, we would call it a “folly”, not the genuine article. It is actually the realisation of a King’s fantasy. Although loosely based on a medieval model it was largely conceived inside the King’s head, a product of his vivid imagination and romantic attachment to the past. That King was Ludwig II of Bavaria, sometimes called “Mad King Ludwig”, and it is his colourful back-story that partly explains the castle’s immense popularity.

Many people these days don’t seem to mind if something is a fake or not. From imitation “Rolex” watches to false eye-lashes; from spray tans to tribute groups — people don’t seem to care so much whether something is real or counterfeit. So why worry if a so-called “medieval” castle was not actually built in the Middle Ages or that it has never been involved in a battle and was never intended to? This castle was an eccentric monarch’s fantasy home. Ludwig had a megalomaniacal passion for creating fantastic architectural projects. Neuschwanstein was never meant to be an instrument of war. It is a fantastical confection of towers and spires, spectacularly situated on a high rocky ledge above a river gorge.  It has the elements of a castle but is merely an extravagant invention. Since the arrival of gunpowder into Europe at the end of the 15th century, the original fortified castle had been largely made redundant anyway. I believe it is the fantasy element that has fascinated so many people and goes a long way to explain the great popularity of this place. People don’t just come to see the building, they come to hear about the “Mad King”.

Ludwig II was really a king without a kingdom as in 1871, Bavaria had been incorporated into the newly unified Germany led by Prussia. It was the King of Prussia who became German Emperor, not Ludwig. He was reduced to the role of vassal. Although Ludwig was convinced that he had been chosen by God to rule, he never had any real powers.  Disappointed with the real world, he began to have Neuschwanstein built in 1868. It was here where he hoped to escape into a dream world based on the myths and legends of the Middle Ages which he was so enraptured by. These were the themes of the powerful operas of Richard Wagner, whom Ludwig greatly admired. Wagner would give private recitals to the King in his other pseudo-medieval castle at Hohenswangau down in the valley. The new mock castle was dedicated to Wagner and decorated with large picture cycles based on the stories told in his operas. The interiors are thus adorned with medieval Kings and knights, poets and lovers. They also prominently feature the swan, the heraldic creature of the royal courts of Swangau and also the Christian symbol for purity. Ludwig saw himself as a pure, ethereal messenger of God, sent to earth on a divine mission.

Yet the Middle Ages appearance of  Neuschwanstein is just an illusion. Behind the medieval façade lies a very modern building for its time. It has hot- air central heating, running water on every floor, hot and cold water in the kitchens, flushing toilets, electric bells to summon the servants and a lift to carry the King’s meals up to his chambers. Beneath limestone cladding, the building is really made of brick, not stone like the original castles. The spectacular Throne Room which also doubles up as a chapel, incorporates a steel frame. I think this intoxicating mix of the new and the old is another reason why so many people are drawn to visit it. The Throne Room was inspired by Byzantine churches. It features an enormous chandelier, a cupola decorated with stars and a beautiful mosaic floor featuring plants and animals. It’s all a bit “over the top” and I certainly wouldn’t want to live there myself, but it makes for a fascinating visit.

Ludwig built Neuschwanstein as a retreat. He allowed virtually no-one to visit him there. It is therefore richly ironic that vast numbers of people now come to visit what was supposed to be a private refuge. Here he lived out his fantasy life. From 1875, Ludwig lived mainly at night and slept during the day. He spent less time in his capital, Munich, and more and more time up in the mountains. He travelled around on elaborate coaches and sleighs. Sometimes he wore historical costume. Ludwig identified himself with Parsival, a legendary medieval figure who was famed for his purity. Unfortunately, Ludwig’s castle- building turned into an expensive obsession. He had several other castles built as well as Neuschwanstein. He got into great debt, and the foreign banks he had borrowed heavily from began to close in. The king’s behaviour became increasingly bizarre and erratic. Finally the Bavarian Government, supported by his family, declared him insane and deposed him in 1886. His brother has previously been certified as well. Ludwig was interned at Berg Castle. The very next day he drowned in mysterious circumstances in Lake Starnberg, together with the psychiatrist who had declared him insane. They were found in only a few feet of water.  These mysterious deaths have never been properly explained. Did Ludwig take his own life because he couldn’t live with the humiliation and disgrace? Did he and his psychiatrist make a suicide pact? We will never know. It is this mystery that has added spice to the tale of “Mad King Ludwig”. I believe that it is this strange story with a mystery at its heart that helps to draw thousands of tourists to this remote place. It has certainly been hyped by the modern tourist authorities. You can now buy: Ludwig tea-towels, Ludwig chocolates, Ludwig mugs, Ludwig calenders, etc etc. This rather sad, deluded man has become a tourist cash-cow. People love a mystery, and to misquote Churchill, Ludwig is “a mystery wrapped up in an enigma.”

So, we’re beginning to get to the bottom of why this fake castle in Bavaria is such a massive tourist draw. It is in a spectacular mountain location. It was built for an intriguing, mysterious character( though never finished in his lifetime). It is an eccentric mix of the ancient and modern. On top of all this, it is a perfect fantasy version of a castle rather than being hampered with the imperfections of the real thing. But the biggest reason behind Neuschwanstein’s phenomenal popularity, I believe, is it’s connection with the Disney Organisation, which has made “fantasy” its stock in trade. Walt Disney used it as the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty’s castle in the cartoon film of the same name. It was also the template for Cinderella’s castle in the Magic Kingdom theme parks.  It’s image is replicated in the Disney Tourist Parks in the States, Hong Kong and Paris. The shape of Neuschwanstein also features on the logo for Walt Disney Pictures, Disney TV, Disney Music Group and Walt Disney Studios. In other words, it has been placed at the very centre of 20th and 21st Century popular culture.  I think this is the real reason why it is so overwhelmingly popular. People see it as the archetypal “fairy-tale” or “story-book” castle. Instead of a real castle, it is Disney’s imitation of an imitation that has come to represent a castle in the modern, global public’s consciousness.

I doubt  whether many of those tourists are serious students of history or architecture. Neither do I believe that many of those who flock to see Neuschwanstein have read the biography of so-called “Mad King Ludwig” and are desperateto to see where he lived. The mountain location is stunning but this is still not the main reason for the tourist stampede. I believe it is the power of  the Disney cultural empire that brings so many to this corner of Germany. I hate using the word, but this castle has become “iconic”. The hype of the Disney organisation has sold this imaginary image of a romantic, medieval castle to the world. It is an idea of a castle rather than the real thing. This is why when I went there, even though it was slightly out of season, I had to fight for space with fellow tourists from all over the world. I met Europeans, Americans, Australians, Kiwis and especially Asian people. That is why I counted 30 large coaches parked up by 11 am and noted that the small village of Hohenschwangau has 5 enormous car parks ( all full). This is why this tiny rural settlement has: souvenir shops, restaurants, cafes, hotels, guesthouses, and all the other trappings of a mass-tourist hot-spot. It’s certainly not your average peaceful Alpine village. The bells of the cows in the meadows are drowned out by the drone of the traffic and the clicking of a thousand cameras. This is why I had to duck and dive amongst the selfie-sticks and queue for everything. The trouble with mass tourism is that it is always in danger of “killing the goose that laid the golden egg.” The density of the crowds means that it  can be more like a rugby scrum than an historical or educational visit. Any vestige of a medieval atmosphere ( fake though it is), is extinguished by the pressure of the constant crowds.

Despite all this it was still worth the visit. The wonderful location, the fantasy nature of the castle, the mysterious back story, all make for a memorable occasion. Even the tourist hordes are an interesting phenomenon in themselves. I can also add that one can fairly easily escape the crowds by walking along the lovely shoreline of the nearby Alpsee lake. From here you can view both the upper and lower castles ( Schloss Neuschwanstein and Schloss Hohenswangau), in their proper Alpine setting.

My wife, Chris, and I stayed in the nearby town of Fussen. It’s a picturesque, historical place, with attractive old buildings festooned with illusionist paintings, a monastery and its own castle. It had a sprinkling of tourists but when we visited the beautiful baroque monastery and the interesting schloss up on the hill, we virtually had them to ourselves. We met less than a dozen other  tourists in the whole of our 2 hour visit. Only 3 miles away the mass tourist hordes were pouring in to Neuschanstein. It’s the power of hype and the power of popular culture. That is why it has ended up on so many people’s “bucket lists” — a must-see sight that has to be ticked off. We met an American on the train down from Munich, who had come all that way just to see that one castle. He wasn’t interested in anything else and was returning to the city as soon as he had made his brief visit. Everyone to their own I know, but I find it difficult to understand this approach to travel. I like to stay in an area for several days at least and soak in the atmosphere. But many don’t stay. They flock to see this “fairy tale” caricature of a castle before rushing on to the next thing on their tick list.

It was a memorable experience for me but I cannot wait to get back to the genuine castles in my home region, where I will have space to breathe and where visitors are generally there for the history rather than the fantasy. It’s so strange that an out and out replica can become so much more popular than the genuine article. Still “that’s life”, as they say, or in this case “that’s Mass Tourism.” One can only imagine what “Mad King Ludwig”, so jealous of his privacy, would think if he returned to his former retreat today. At least all those tourists have paid off  his debts and have given his estate such a handsome profit which accumulates every year!

A Holiday in Germany — Don’t Mention the War.

7 Oct

I’ve just had a holiday in Germany. I visited Bavaria. This followed up a city break in Berlin about 10 years ago. Germany is regarded as a slightly unusual destination for a British tourist. Even though it is close at hand and is a beautiful, fascinating country, the majority of British tourists ignore it, preferring the delights of Spain, Greece, France and Portugal, as well as being lured across the Atlantic to the States. I believe many British people have a prejudiced view of Germany and thus avoid visiting it. It seems to me that a lot of this derives from the two World Wars in which Germany was our main enemy. These devastating conflicts dominated and shaped the 20th century such that it will take a long time for the Germans to live down their previous reputation as aggressive, war-mongers and authors of the horrific Holocaust. Many older people still carry unhappy memories of  all the suffering, death and devastation caused by  the German armed forces in the World Wars. Even as they begin to fade a little, such memories are constantly stirred up again by the numerous war commemorations that the British seem so fond of. As well as the annual Remembrance day every November, the UK has recently commemorated : 100 years since the start of the First World War, the 70th anniversary of D Day, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, and, in 2015, the 70th Anniversaries of VE and VJ days that marked the end of the Second World War in Europe and in Japan.  Films and TV programmes also often feature the war and stir-up its memories in the public consciousness. The enduring popularity of the BBC comedies “Dad’s Army” and “Allo Allo” are just 2 mild examples of this persistent trend even though they deal mainly in crude caricatures and stereotypes. Currently we have More 4’s “Resistance” a British/Belgian/French drama about the struggle against  German occupation in the 1940’s.

So the Second World War, in particular, continues to be alive and well on our screens as if it only happened yesterday. “Resistance” follows in the footsteps of countless other programmes over the years such as: “Colditz”, “Hogan’s Heroes”, “Secret Army”,and “Land Girls”, not to mention endless repeat showings of films such as “The Great Escape”, “The Guns of Navarone”, “The Dam Busters” and “Where Eagles Dare” The Nazis are the evil enemies in all these dramas, even in such family favourites as “The Sound of Music”, set in German- occupied Austria. I think that many people still mix up “Nazi” and “German”, even after all these years. So the image of a German in some people’s minds I suspect, is of a goose-stepping, sadistic monster, rather than of a normal person, just like you or me. I wonder if this is a significant reason why more British people don’t consider Germany as a viable holiday destination. Recently an acquaintance expressed nervousness because his relatives had persuaded him to go on a city break to Berlin. I asked him why he was reluctant to go and he replied:”Well, it’s Germany isn’t it?” Just for the record, he told me later that he had had a great time. I even fell into this mind-set myself on a recent trip to Vienna. A waitress in a café came up behind me and suddenly called out “auchtung!” as she struggled past with a tray full of pots. Just for a moment, a shiver slid down my spine as I remembered the German soldiers in my childhood comic, ” The Victor”, shouting the same command  before spraying someone with their machine-guns.

The British seem stuck in a rut in regarding the Germans as our “natural” enemies. The tabloids are quick to label them as “Krauts” or “Huns” whenever England plays them at football. They like to point out the German team’s mechanical efficiency and organisation rather than its skill or flair. This “put-down” has persisted even though the Germans usually beat us in the important matches. The recent Greek debt  crisis generated a lot of anti-German posts on social media, portraying Angela Merkel and the German government as cruel, unfeeling pay-masters 9 a bit like the Nazis perhaps?), forcing the poor Greeks into further austerity, poverty and misery. I think the real reasons for the Greek’s desperate situation  are a lot more complex than simply blaming the Germans. Because of the terrible atrocities they committed in the first half of the 20th century, it will take a long time for such anti-German sentiments to die down and be supplanted by more positive feelings. For many British people, the Germans will always be associated with Hitler and the Nazis. I often think of a  memorable scene from the 1970s TV comedy “Fawlty Towers”. Faced with complaining German guests, the hilariously incompetent hotel proprietor, Basil Fawlty, gets prickly and argumentative. When the Germans politely point out that it was he who started the argument, Fawlty retorts: ” No,you started it! You invaded Poland!” He then proceeds to march around the hotel dining room in goose-step style!

Another apparent negative point about German from a touristic point of view is that much of it lies in the north of Europe, where the climate tends to be cooler and less reliable. In fact, in that respect, it’s very much like the UK. Maybe British people just don’t fancy holidaying in a country that reminds them of their own! High street holiday brochures tend to concentrate on: sun-kissed beaches, bright, blue skies and sparkling seas. This goes a long way to explain the massive popularity of the Mediterranean destinations listed above. Germany spreads into central Europe, but its beaches are exclusively in the north. Here the skies can often be cloudy and grey, while the seas are cool, if not downright cold!. This image persists even though the German coast, like Britain’s, can enjoy many hours of summer sunshine. Naturism wouldn’t be so popular amongst the Germans if their resorts were always freezing cold. Even so, the North Sea ( formerly known as the German Ocean) and the Baltic, rarely, if ever conjure up the sunny, exotic images associated with the south.

Jonathan Meades, in his fascinating television documentary “Magnetic North”, persuasively points out that northern European countries have for a long time failed to have the glossy allure of their southern counterparts. He suggests that the vast majority of us have been seduced by the attractions of the south. Wine seems more carefree and celebratory than beer, which often is more associated with drowning one’s sorrows or obliterating one’s worries. Gently swaying palm trees seem more exotic and romantic than the stolid ranks of oaks or beeches in dark, northern forests. Blue skies of course are nearly always preferable to grey. Even the architecture of the south, the graceful, classical columns of Ancient Greece or Rome, are usually preferred to the gloomy Gothic style that originated in the north. The wealthy young aristocrats of yesteryear, set off on their “Grand Tours” to Italy, Greece and the Ottoman Empire of the Balkans and Turkey, rather than to Germany, Poland, the Low Countries or Scandinavia. As I look out of my window today, at the leaden, sodden skies of northern England ( in October), I can fully understand this preference for the sunny south.

For students of History though, it seems very strange that the British and the German peoples don’t have a much closer affinity because the ties between the two countries have been quite intimate over the centuries. The original “English”, as opposed to the Britons who were conquered by the Romans, were the Anglo- Saxons. They invaded British shores from the 6th century AD onwards and gradually took it over. The Saxons came from Saxony in Germany and the Angles came from what we now call Denmark, which is next door to Germany and well within German sphere of influence. Thus one can argue that the original ” English” were in fact Germans. Later on in the 17th century, England had a Dutch King, William III, and Dutch is technically a form of German. Then in the 18th century, Great Britain had a string of German Kings, the Georgians, who spoke limited English and preferred their native German. They were the Electors of Hanover ( also known as Brunswick-Luneburg.) and spent much of their reigns in Germany rather than England. When the last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, died without a direct heir in 1714, the next 50 people in line for the throne were all Roman Catholics who were banned by law from succeeding. The 51st person in line, and the first protestant, was Georg Ludwig, the Elector of Hanover, in the loose mosaic of German states known as the Holy Roman Empire. He became King George I. The Hanovarians  ( 4 Georges and a William) ruled until Queen Victoria succeeded to the throne in 1837. She promptly went and married the German Prince Albert. It seemed a very appropriate choice at the time as the Germans had been our close allies in the wars against the Revolutionary and Napoleonic French.  The Duke of Wellington usually garners most of the credit for the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. However it was the late, decisive intervention of General Blucher’s Prussians ( i.e. Germans) that turned the tide in the Allies’ favour. Prince Albert had a great influence over British life, including introducing Christmas traditions such as decorated Christmas trees. Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, the Princess Royal Victoria, followed in her mother’s footsteps and married a German prince. At that point, in the 19th and early 20th centuries the British Royal Family’s surname was the German Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha). The German Kaiser in first World War, Wilhelm II, was actually the first cousin of the British King, George V. The war must have been a great embarrassment for the British Royal family as all other people with German sounding names were being rounded up and interned, because they might be potential fifth-columnists. Finally, in 1917, the Royal family officially adopted the name of Windsor, so they could hide their German ancestry. The only connection they had with the very English sounding “Windsor” was that it was the name of one of their castles.

I could go on and on about  the Anglo-German connections that have brought the 2 nations close together. What about all those classical musicians and composers that have had enduring popularity in Britain? — Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Hadyn, Mendelssohn, Bach and Wagner — all Germans or German speaking Austrians. I could do similar lists from the worlds of : literature, drama, art and philosophy. It was in Germany that Martin Luther launched the Protestant revolution which eventually resulted in Great Britain becoming an officially Protestant country. Yet all these important and numerous connections between Britain and Germany have been clouded by the 2 devastating World Wars of last century and Germany’s culpability in both ( although the first world conflict can be blamed on a whole host of countries including Britain.) Everyone loves a scapegoat — someone to blame. Germany has fulfilled that role for many years. They must have been relieved when the Soviet Union, then Russia largely took over that role. Now the Germans are officially our friendly allies. We are in NATO together. We are both long term members of the EU. We work and trade together in many ways. We have German players in the Premier League and Liverpool Football Club have just appointed a German manager, Jurgen Klopp. Yet I fear that anti- German prejudices linger on. I wonder how many people have been recently rubbing their hands in glee at the recent troubles of Volkswagon?

So what was it like entering the lair of the “enemy” — sorry, “friend”? Well the best word I can use to describe Germany and the Germans is “civilised”. At my very first meal in Berlin, when  I was struggling with the menu, the German gentleman on the adjoining table leaned over and said, in perfect, English ” If you need me to translate anything, I would be delighted to help.” Berlin itself was exciting with stunning modern architecture, great museums and art galleries and a whole host of fascinating history. I know it’s a cliché, but everyone was really friendly and helpful. This autumn’s trip to Munich and southern Bavaria was equally interesting and enjoyable. This time we saw: gorgeous mountain scenery, beautiful lakes, the fantasy castles of King Ludwig II ( made famous by Disney), medieval buildings decorated with illusionist paintings from the 16th century, spectacular Baroque and Rococo churches and palaces and so on. We even found vegetarian sections on most restaurant menus, a bit of a surprise in a big meat eating country. All the trains and buses ran on time. We never saw a speck of litter until we arrived back at London Stansted airport. Welcome back to England! Yes Germany was very “civilised”, picturesque, interesting and enjoyable. And, even though it was September and no- where near to the Med, the sun shone nearly every day. As in Berlin, everyone we met in Bavaria was helpful, friendly and spoke pretty decent English. It was a very enjoyable holiday and I’m glad I ignored the anti-German prejudice which unfortunately still lingers in Britain. I plan to return next year to visit the World Heritage listed Hanseatic city of Lubeck near Hamburg. It should be really good so long as I don’t mention that long ago war. But then again, why should I?

Living under a Nuclear shadow.

12 Aug

When I was a teenager in the 60’s I had a small collection of pen-friends, scattered around the world. This was well before the Internet/E Mail age. In those days we wrote real letters to each other. I had pen-pals in Northern Ireland, Sweden, the USA and Japan. It is the Japanese friend, a girl called Junco Fujii, who has stuck longest in my mind. She was a serious girl who wrote sober letters.  She was from the city of Hiroshima, which meant nothing to me at the time. While my American pen friends from Cleveland and Pittsburgh wanted me to send them Beatles memorabilia or wanted to know whether I had been to The Cavern or who my favourite “mop top” was, Junco sent me pictures of white doves and was always asking whether I was in favour of world peace. Sometimes she sent me pictures of peace memorials in her city, of which there seemed to be quite a few. Being a naïve, ignorant 15 year old, I was at first bemused by this obsession with “peace.” As far as I knew, the world WAS at peace, except for the war in Vietnam of which I was only vaguely aware of at the time. Then the penny dropped — Hiroshima was the first city to have a nuclear bomb dropped on it, on August 6th, 1945. Three days later, Nagasaki, also in Japan, became the second city to receive such a nuclear attack. The two cities suffered horrifying consequences, both at the time and for many years to come. It had obviously left a deep scar on Junco’s psyche. I wonder how many of her family perished on that fateful day?

The devastating bombs were dropped by the USA and the received wisdom is that they were justified because they led directly to the Japanese surrender, finally bringing the Second World War to an end. It is argued that the nuclear bombs  probably saved many lives that would have been lost in the battle to conquer Japan. This conclusion has been challenged however. Some think the nuclear bombs were dropped as a massive, horrific scientific experiment, using tens of thousands of Japanese civilians as human guinea- pigs. The Soviet Union was about to join the war against Japan. As this development would almost certainly have brought about a swift Japanese surrender, it is argued that President Truman and his advisers  dropped their nuclear devices in haste, before the justification for using them was taken away. The arguments about whether the nuclear attacks were morally acceptable have raged back and forth over the subsequent decades. Many have quite rightly pointed out the atrocities that the Japanese carried out during the war, especially in their appalling prisoner- of- war camps. My own great Uncle William was reduced to eating grass and although he survived, he could never eat properly again. However, can it be comfortably argued that revenge was an acceptable reason for dropping the bombs? As my grandma always taught me: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” It is not the purpose of this blog to come to a definitive conclusion however. I don’t have enough relevant information anyway and the Americans have made sure their motivations and discussions have remained strictly classified. ( I wonder why?) What I can write about are the consequences of those first, and so far only, nuclear attacks, both for the World in general and on my life in particular.

I was born in 1949 and in some ways you could say I was lucky as I had missed the horrors of the Second World War. However, what I didn’t know was that I had  entered a savage new age — the Nuclear Age. Now, for the first time in history, it was possible to kill and maim indiscriminately on a colossal scale. 90,000 people were killed instantly at Hiroshima, and another 70,000 died or were seriously injured at Nagasaki. Nuclear bombs were the most destructive explosives ever invented. A whole city could now be obliterated with a single bomb. Radiation poisoning could then kill or deform many others in the years to come. Even the unborn were to become its victims. So I had been born into a world of fear rather than one of hope. Luckily, in my childhood innocence I didn’t know that. President Harry Truman, the man who had catapulted the world into this frightening state of affairs, was rather proud of his achievement. He boasted: “We have spent more than 2 billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history and we have won.” That sort of gives the game away. The Americans probably dropped the nuclear bombs as a scientific experiment rather than to bring about a Japanese surrender. President/ General Dwight D Eisenhower stated in his 1963 memoir – “Japan was already defeated, so that dropping the Bomb was completely unnecessary.”  But as I said, we cannot reach definitive conclusions until the US government declassifies the relevant documents, and I don’t think they are going to do that until we are all dead and nobody cares about what happened in 1945 anymore.

Despite all this, I had a happy childhood, blissfully unaware of the threat to the world I lived in. The Soviet Union, Britain and France quickly followed America as so called “Nuclear Powers.” Other countries, such as China, India, Pakistan and Israel, followed. Nuclear proliferation was inevitable as the Bomb was seen as the ultimate status symbol, enabling  a country to be known as a “Great Power”. Possessing a terrifying weapon that could destroy the whole planet was thought of as essential by  countries and leaders who wanted to have a big say in world affairs. It seemed that they were quite content to hold the rest of us to ransom in exchange for power and influence. In 1955, while I was playing out with my friends and starting primary school, Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his last “great” speech to parliament. In it he chillingly stated that we had “reached a stage where safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival, the twin brother of annihilation.” He probably thought that sounded pretty impressive at the time, almost as good as his “Iron Curtain” speech at the end of the 40’s. But was he really happy with a situation where many of his people were terrified of a Third World War and where everything and everyone could be annihilated at a moments notice? ( i.e. at the press of a button by an unstable leader.) I’m pleased I was still living in blissful ignorance, thankfully unaware of the grave potential danger the world now faced.

By the early 1960’s I was growing up, entering my teens, and slowly becoming more knowledgeable about of the world. A first big clue to the dangers we all faced was the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962. Suddenly all the newspapers were full of gloom and doom about a confrontation between the USA and the Soviet Union which could lead to a nuclear war. I didn’t know the precise details at the time but I clearly remember the fear and tension. Dire headlines dominated my dad’s Daily Mail, though he never discussed any of it with me. Maybe, quite rightly, he wanted to preserve my innocence for as long as possible and for me to continue to enjoy my youth. Afterall, I was only just 12. My voice had not even broken yet! Yet my young life was being played out under a nuclear “sword of Damocles.”

Apparently, an American U2 spy plane had discovered Soviet nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, Russia’s communist ally in the Caribbean. They were within easy reach of all of America’s great cities. The American President, John F Kennedy saw this as a dangerous and unacceptable situation for his country. The Soviet Union and the USA had been sworn enemies in the so-called “Cold War” since the conclusion of the Second World War. So now places such as New York, Chicago and Washington DC could suffer the same fate as Hiroshima and Nagasaki 17 years earlier. Understandably the Americans didn’t like the feeling of being potentially on the receiving end of their own terrible invention. When the Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev refused to remove the missiles , Kennedy initiated a naval blockade of Cuba, which raised the tension considerably. What Kennedy didn’t reveal was that the USA had already placed similar missiles in Turkey, its NATO ally. They were near to the Russian border and were trained on Russian  targets. So Kruschev and his colleagues probably argued that they were merely acting in self defence. For 13 tense and terrible days the 2 leaders faced each other like 2 rutting stags, posing and strutting their macho stuff as the rest of the world waited in fear. It was like a massive game of “chicken” with potentially dire consequences for everyone . Thankfully Kennedy and Kruschev saw sense and the offending missiles in Cuba and Turkey were removed.  Kennedy was hailed as a hero who had faced down the Soviets and saved the world from a nuclear catastrophe. However, he never told anybody about the American climb-down in Turkey, a secret that was kept for 25 years. I’m surprised Kruschev agreed to keep this quiet, but maybe he had bigger problems to deal with. Kennedy was allowed to pose around as a great strong leader without revealing the full truth.

So the world was saved from a nuclear holocaust because one of the great powers was willing to back down and lose face. However, even though the world had escaped unscathed this time, the message was clear for all to see —  trying to keep world peace through the premise of Mutually Assured Destruction was a very fragile and highly dangerous concept. It could so easily have come unstuck, with disastrous consequences in 1962. The acronym of this policy is very apt I think — M.A.D. Already many people in the world were campaigning for nuclear weapons to be destroyed and abolished. The CND movement held many protests and marches in Britain in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Again, I was vaguely aware of all this through the press, but was more concerned with listening to pop music, trying to get a girlfriend and studying hard at school.

In 1964, just as The Beatles and Rolling Stones were hitting their stride, Harold Wilson’s Labour Party was elected to power in the UK. Part of its manifesto was to unilaterally disarm Britain of its nuclear arsenal. However Wilson, surprise, surprise, promptly broke his election promise and instead his government started to develop  a full nuclear weapons programme despite widespread public protest. The  Labour government then leaned heavily on the BBC to stop it screening a drama/documentary by Peter Watkins called “The War Game” in 1965. It set out to show in a terrifyingly realistic manner, just what might happen in Britain if it was subject to a nuclear attack in a future war. It depicted mass deaths through blasts and hurricane speed firestorms. It showed  large scale sickness and death caused by radiation poisoning. It examined the psychological impact of such an attack leading to a big rise in suicides. It depicted a breakdown in law and order and the shooting of looters by police. In other words it wasn’t the usual comfortable or escapist TV fare. The government pressurised the BBC to ban “The War Game” because it didn’t want the public to see the possible results of its own “defence” policies. By being a nuclear power we made ourselves into a prime nuclear target. The film was not shown until 20 years later to mark the 40th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Until that time, much of the population was kept the dark.

Again I was only slightly aware of the fuss about Watkins’s film, not being told at home or at school what was really happening. I was too busy watching football, experimenting with a new “Mod” hairstyle and hanging around with my mates. But full realisation was to come and it came suddenly through my old friend, Bob Dylan. I had already sung along to Barry McGuire’s hit single: “Eve of Destruction” without bothering to engage with the Doomsday lyrics it contained. Now at the age of 17 or 18 I at last started to listen seriously to early Dylan. His 1962 song “A Hard Rains’ A-Gonna Fall” from the “Freewheelin” album, had such vivid , powerful, evocative lyrics that listening to them for the first time was like receiving an electric shock. They talked of “crooked highways”, “sad forests”, “a dozen dead oceans”, walking “ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard”, “blood drippin'”, and “A young woman whose body was burning”. This wasn’t the usual “I love you and you love me” of your average pop songs. Dylan’s lyrics were deliberately ambiguous and were open to all sorts of interpretation. But to me they were clearly about the aftermath of a devastating war. And what was the “Hard rain” that he finished every verse with? Although he denied it in an interview, many people interpreted this as a reference to deadly nuclear fallout. Irrespective of Dylan’s denial, I believed this interpretation and it led to me growing up very fast. I read about nuclear warfare and learnt all about the lethal effects of long term radiation, a silent killer. Bonny Dobson’s “Morning Dew” which I heard via Tim Rose’s recording, also referred to radioactive fallout, being a dialogue between the lone man and woman left alive after an apocalyptic catastrophe. So I had entered serious territory here — contemplating the end of the world!

I was really frightened, if not terrified by all this. It was a lot for a 17/18 year old to take in. My previous childhood innocence had well and truly been blasted away.( an unfortunate verb I know.) This all led to me having an enhanced awareness of my own fragile mortality. I started to fear death! This in turn developed into me being strongly against any unnecessary death. I became anti- war except in the case of self- defence. I did not want animal’s lives to be deliberately ended just to fill a hole in my belly. It was a formative period of my life. I became a pacifist and a vegetarian. I argued with my history teacher about the War in Vietnam. Yes, the Americans were sadly at it again — bombing, napalming and slaughtering people in a far away Asian country. Luckily they didn’t use nuclear weapons this time but I know that President Nixon actively thought about it. As a student I went to London and took part in anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in 1968, including a night long sit-in at the LSE. I manned the barricades, ate vegetarian food and watched films about American atrocities in Vietnam. I suppose you could say that I was being radicalised.

In the 1970s I got married and became a father twice over. A third child arrived in the early 80’s. I was also, busy working of course, so no longer had much time for demonstrations or activism. However, the arrival of my three lovely children gave me a sharp reminder that they had been born into a dangerous, precarious world. Their birth gave me a second, massive wake-up call. I suppose this is why, in my thirties, I became an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament ( CND.) Thus it was a decade of protest marches, torchlight processions, vigils, debates, doorstep canvassing, writing letters, signing petitions, lobbying MPs and singing songs of solidarity. The issue which re-energised the anti-nuclear movement in the 1980’s was the arrival of American Cruise Missilles at British sites such as Greenham Common. It seemed to many that Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was making Britain even more of a target in the event of a nuclear war. We already had our own nuclear weapons — Polaris and then Trident — but now we were letting the Americans bring there’s along too. For me it wasn’t a time to remain apathetic and to sit on the fence. It was a time to stand up and be counted. The campaign against Cruise missiles was long and hard but in the end they were removed. However we remained a nuclear state and after 4 consecutive election victories for the Conservatives, the position of the Peace  Movement seemed hopeless. I personally lost heart and started to feel burnt out. Finally, reluctantly, I dropped out of active participation in CND, turning my attention to the environment and becoming a member of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.

In the 80’s there were, thankfully, reductions in the American and Soviet nuclear arsenals, negotiated and cemented by treaties. This multi-lateral disarmament was welcome but the world still retained enough of these weapons to destroy itself  several times over. Also in the 1980’s we had a belligerent Prime Minister ( Thatcher) dubbed the “Iron Lady” by the Soviets, and we also had an American President, Ronald Reagan, who could joke ” let’s bomb Russia” when he thought the microphone had been switched off. With leaders like that it was a very worrying time for lovers of Peace. Apologists for the Nuclear weapons say they have kept World peace for over 60 years since the end of the last World War. However, this conveniently ignores the constant smaller wars that have occurred in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Central America and even in Europe ( Yugoslavia and Ukraine.) The Nuclear age has been anything but peaceful. I still cannot understand how any sane person can think that having weapons of mass destruction is the best way to preserve world peace. The Nuclear Powers of the West know this full well as they are desperate for them not to fall into the hands of terrorists or states they don’t like, such as Iran. If nuclear weapons are safe and necessary for our security, why deny them to the Iranians? This smacks of gross hypocrisy .

So the nuclear debate goes on. On the 70th anniversary of the atrocities at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese Prime Minister has twice called for the World to give up its Nuclear Weapons. Japan, by the way, is still a pacifist state. The leading candidate in the British Labour Party leadership race, Jeremy Corbyn, is in favour of Unilateral Nuclear Disarmament. Even though he is derided by the right wing press as  a left wing extremist, he is extremely popular with many people, especially the young. I still fear for the world and am worried for my children and now my grandchildren. I have been living under a terrible nuclear shadow all my life and it has not been pleasant. I may be thought of as a naïve idealist but I still dream of genuine world peace and of a planet free of weapons of mass destruction. I have recently rejoined CND and plan to be a more active campaigner again. I wonder what Junco is doing now? Maybe she was at the recent ceremonies in her home city and saw the release of the doves of peace. Maybe, like me she is still clinging on to hope and trying to conquer the fear of living in the Nuclear Age.


25 Jul

Every journey can end up as a mystery tour. This can easily happen even if the destination and route have been meticulously planned in advance. This explains the excitement of travel. When I set off I always get that feeling of nervous expectation in the pit of my stomach. What am I going to see? Whom am I going to meet? What am I going to learn?

Recently, my wife, Chris, and I drove from the North East to the South coast of England for a family visit. It’s a long trail so we decided to break the journey in Nottinghamshire. It’s one of those midlands counties that many merely pass straight through on their way to more obvious destinations. Nottinghamshire has few famous attractions that demand a visit. Nottingham itself is a large city but I have only ever visited it to watch Notts Forest football matches in the Brian Clough era. ( They won the European Cup twice in the late 70’s and early 80’s.) Other than that, I have largely associated the county with vast Sherwood Forest and the legends of Robin Hood. The tales of Robin, his girlfriend Maid Marion, and his Merry Men, robbing the rich to help the poor in the reign of “bad” King John, are emblazoned in my memory because they featured in the first television programme I ever saw. It starred Richard Greene. It always started with a fanfare of trumpets, then an arrow whizzed through the air and  thudded dramatically into an oak tree. The stories have since been given Hollywood glitz by Kevin Costner and co, but I’ll always remember those early, flickering black and white TV pictures from the late 1950s.

Nottinghamshire also makes me think of the novelist D H Lawrence, who hailed from the small west Nottinghamshire mining town of Eastwood. Since college days he has been one of my favourite authors. I remember finding novels such as “The Rainbow” and “Women in Love” so vivid and intense that  reading them made me feel dizzy. I suppose they sent me into a sort of swoon. It’s not often that that happens. Lawrence’s books featured smouldering heroes and heroines struggling to cling on to their individuality, freedom and spontaneity amidst the crushing pressures of industrialisation and urbanisation. Eastwood, when Lawrence was young in the latter years of the 19th century, was dominated by ten coalmines. The overwhelming majority of young men in the town were destined to become black-faced colliers. I can just imagine the young Lawrence vowing to himself that he’d never end up going down the “pit”. I can empathise with his predicament as I grew up just across the county border in north-east Derbyshire, another area dominated by winding wheels and slag heaps. I too was determined not to disappear down a deep hole and  chose the chalk face (of teaching) over the coal face.

However, I digress. I suppose my excuse is that like journeys, writing does not always arrive at interesting places by travelling only in straight lines. This road journey to the south , included north Nottinghamshire but only as a stopover. I’ve always believed in treating the journey as part of the holiday experience. We stopped in Newark, an historical river port and market town. I’d already visited a couple of times in recent years, exploring its atmospheric ruined castle by the river and its narrow streets and lanes leading to an impressive, spacious market square. But the biggest thing about Newark for many travellers is that it is on the busy A1 and the busy East Coast mainline between Newcastle upon Tyne and London Kings Cross. Until recently, I’d merely glanced at its lofty church spire as I sped north or south. Now it was to be a place to rest our weary heads before driving on the next morning. Our hotel, just off the motorway, was full of people with similar notions. Lorry drivers and travelling business people dominated the breakfast room along with a couple of families journeying to holidays or special events further north or south. One group at an adjoining table had come up from the south and were travelling on to Carlisle for a wedding.

As we consumed our breakfast, it felt as if we were in a large transit camp with everyone eager to hit the road and return to the frenetic “madness” of Britain’s motorways. We were soon to join them en-route to Hampshire, but our memories and camera cards had already been filled with images of an unexpected gem we had discovered just down the road the previous day — Southwell.

It’s a genteel, handsome little town, hidden in the green, rolling folds of the countryside. It had an attractive collection of  Georgian mansions, Britain’s only fully preserved example of a Victorian Workhouse, and a magnificent  Minster which was officially re-designated as a Cathedral in the 1880s. Southwell also threw up several interesting mysteries and questions. Why did a tiny, obscure town of less than 7000 people have such a large and impressive place of worship? Why did it have a large wicker-work representation of an apple in its Bishop’s Palace gardens? Why did Southwell’s most historical public house change its name following a fateful King’s visit. What on earth were the mysterious “Prebends”? Finally — how had such a lovely town escaped the devastation of the industrial revolution which had scarred much of the area surrounding it?

I have to come clean and admit that we didn’t visit Southwell purely by chance. My sister and brother in law had already tipped me off. However, it still threw up lots of interesting and unexpected stuff. It’s the Minster that dominates the scene. It is still mostly referred to as a Minster despite its cathedral status. Its twin pepper-pot towers can be seen for miles around. It’s a Norman church built on the site of an Anglo-Saxon predecessor. Underneath it there are also the remains of a sumptuous Roman villa. So it seems that the area has been settled for a very long time. Just near the town runs the route of the Roman Fosse Way which has now been turned into a very fast and very straight A46. In Saxon times, Southwell was a place of pilgrimage as its church contained the bones of Saint Eadburgh, the Abbess of Repton. Whenever I visit a place I try to work out why it grew up in that particular location. Is it on a major river, perhaps at a bridging or fording point? Is it on an important crossroads, servicing the needs of travellers coming from four different directions? Is it a port or the centre of an important industry? Is it the main market centre for its region? In the case of Southwell, the answer to all these questions is “no”. This puzzled me for a while. Where had it sprung from? Then I figured it out. It grew up here because of the church. It was an important religious centre. Thus it is most fitting that the town is still dominated by its Minster (Cathedral). It still attracts pilgrims but today these are mostly of the non-religious, tourist variety. It’s status as a religious centre attracted the wealthy to live there and this in turn protected it from the ravages of the industrial revolution.

It seems strange today, living in a predominantly secular society, that the Church could have the power to create and control a whole community. Yet that is precisely what happened in Southwell and many other places in the past. It must have been so simple in medieval England. Most people, in normal times, travelled no further than a day’s walk from their village in their entire lifetime. One had to obey without question the commands of the Norman Lord of the Manor, even to the extent of fighting and dying for him on some far off battlefield. Finally, one omnipotent church, headed by the Pope, controlled everyone’s spiritual beliefs and practices. There was no alternative to Roman Catholicism. This was before the Reformation which gave people a choice of churches and before the “Age of Reason” which gave us alternative philosophies and theories about life and death. Back in the Middle Ages, if anyone rebelled against the Catholic Church, he or she would be branded as a heretic and ran the risk of being burnt at the stake. It was a spiritual dictatorship. Everyone believed in Heaven and Hell, and in the struggle between God and the Devil. Intimidating priests threatened people with eternal damnation if they didn’t follow the church’s rigid rules. The Catholic Church’s dictatorship extended to levying taxes on the ordinary people. These were seen as down-payments on that place in heaven that was reserved for you if you were good and conformed to the rules.

It was during these times that Southwell was created. Up to the 12th century, Nottinghamshire parishioners paid their church dues to the Archbishop of York. However in 1108AD, these payments were diverted into the building of the Church of St Mary in Southwell. It was constructed on a magnificent scale, much bigger and grander than a run-of-the-mill Parish church. The Notts parishioners were then released from their obligation to visit York Minster annually. Instead they were able to visit Southwell Minster on a more local pilgrimage, in exchange for remission of their sins. Their subsequent church tithes and other taxes went to Southwell instead of York. Similar arrangements were made in Ripon ( North Yorkshire) and Beverley ( in East Yorkshire or Humberside.) Thus, all three places, Southwell, Ripon and Beverley, now have very impressive Minsters/Cathedrals even though they are only small towns. When the Archbishop of York went on a tour of his huge church estates, he needed places to stay, so Bishop’s Palaces were built next to his major churches. Southwell has one of these too except the palace has been partly in ruins since its brutal occupation by Parliamentary troops in the English Civil War, back in the 1640’s. They actually stabled their horses there!

Southwell Cathedral is still very impressive. It has a large central tower and two taller towers at its west front. The large wooden Norman doors are surrounded by fancy dogtooth decoration. Inside, the nave is flanked by massive stone towers linked by rounded archways. This heavy Norman-style architecture gives way to more delicate pointed arches in the choir. These were added in the 13th century in the Early English Gothic style. There is also a spectacular, octagonal Chapter House decorated with stone carvings representing naturalistic foliage. This is one of the earliest examples of this type of carving in England. Our eyes were also drawn to the large stained glass windows. Many of these used to have plain glass to let maximuim light in, until the Victorians added their contributions. Ironically, the window that impressed us most was the most modern. The huge 15th century west window had had its plain glass replaced, in 1996, with a spectacular collection of angels in light-coloured stained and painted glass. It was created by Patrick Reyntiens of York — very apt as Southwell Minster was originally formed as an annexe of York.

We left the Minster as it was being taken over by a large group of motor-bikers, gathering for the funeral of one of their own. Many had “Mansfield Rockers” inscribed on the back of their leather jackets. It showed that the church still has the power to pull the unlikeliest people in if the occasion merits in. We visited the remains of the Bishop’s Palace and found out that it been visited by several medieval kings and also served as one of the last refuges of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. He had fallen out of favour with King Henry VIII after failing to arrange his divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon. Wolsey had left London and gone into exile further north to escape the wrath of the sovereign. It made us think of our recent viewing of the wonderful Hilary Mantel drama “Wolf Hall.” It was strange to imagine Wolsey spending some of his last days in this tiny town  before being summoned back to the capital and dying in the Tower.

The Bishop’s Palace has lovely peaceful gardens with a colourful, Gertrude Jeckll style flower- border. It also has a wild meadow, a labyrinth and a giant wicker- work apple. The latter was because the Bramley cooking apple was discovered in 1809 by Mary Ann Brailsford of Southwell and the  original tree is still in a private garden there. I remember my grandma peeling and slicing bramleys when making an apple pie or crumble. They are popular for their tart, acidic taste and for the fact that they cook up into a smooth puree. The local football team is nicknamed “The Bramleys”, as is the local community newspaper.

The town itself is an attractive collection of mostly Georgian buildings with a lovely tree- shaded green at one end of it. The oldest building however is late medieval — The Saracen’s Head — built in 1463. This later became a coaching inn as Southwell, as we have seen, is just off the Great North Road ( now called the A1.) Its biggest claim to fame however was that King Charles 1 spent his last night as a free man there at the end of The English Civil War in May, 1646.  At the time the inn was called The King’s Head. The next day he surrendered to the Scottish army stationed in Newark. They subsequently sold him to Parliament whose leader, Oliver Cromwell, put him on trial for treason and had him beheaded in January, 1649. I think this is possibly why the King’s Head was renamed. Once poor Charles had been separated from his head, it would have been a sick joke to continue with the old name. To double the irony, Cromwell later stayed in the very same rooms as King Charles Stuart, because his parliamentary troops had smashed up the Bishop’s Palace, where he had planned to lodge.

Near the Saracen’s Head and opposite the entrance to the Minster we came across the mysterious “prebends.” They were big, grand houses set in their own grounds. Apparently, all the surrounding villages had to pay prebends, which were church taxes to pay for the housing of canons and other church officials. The churchmen also claimed a portion of this tax for their stipend, or income. Each house is named after the village that paid for it. It is just another example of the immense power and wealth that the church used to wield. Today most of the houses are in private hands except I noticed that one was still used as a religious retreat.

Southwell’s final claim to fame, apart from the fact that it used to be a temporary home of the Romantic poet, Lord Byron, is it’s huge, forbidding Victorian workhouse. Today it’s run by the National Trust which unfortunately closes many of its properties on Mondays. Guess which day we were there? However we did catch a glimpse of the building on the edge of town as we drove back to Newark. The long drive up to it is known as the “Pauper’s Path.” One can only imagine the feeling of deep foreboding the Victorian poor must have felt as they walked up the drive to take refuge there. For most, it was a desperate refuge of last resort. The building, put up in 1824 is very austere. It looks like a prison, which in many ways it was. The workhouse established a harsh regime which was meant to deter all but the absolutely destitute. It was the blueprint for many other workhouses around the country. As one churchman noted : “An empty workhouse is a successful one.” In  some ways the attitude of the Victorian authorities to the poor was similar to that of our present Conservative Government to people on benefits. Both wanted to force unemployed people into low paid work by making the alternative of living off the state, even worse . At Southwell, 160 inmates lived and worked in a strictly segregated environment, separating the old and infirm, the able bodied men and the woman and children. As I said, we didn’t get to see the workhouse, but we will return sometime when we are passing by on the A1. Apparently it’s a really miserable experience!

So I’m pleased we left the motorway and explored just a bit of the countryside that we normally flash by without a thought. A teashop in a little Georgian town is far preferable to the anonymity of a motorway service station. Maybe, we would get more out of modern life if we were  more like the tortoise and less like the hare.

Encounters with Russia.

23 Jun

I’ve just spent 2 months in Russia, visiting the homes of the very rich and the very poor, listening to monks deliver long religious discourses, eavesdropping on political and philosophical discussions in taverns, getting caught in the middle of violent family disputes, eavesdropping on passionate love affairs, witnessing a murder and attending the subsequent trial. It’s been a long, intensive, traumatic experience. Luckily, I am now back in the calm and familiarity of my English home and the book I’ve been immersed in: ” The Brothers Karamazov” is now resting safely back on the shelf. Reading its  985 closely typed pages was a mammoth enterprise and, at times, an all consuming experience. Fyodor Dostoyevsky didn’t belief in writing little ditties. His novels were invariably on a grand scale, sprawling epics giving a rich slice of life at all levels of 19th century Russian society. He’s very much like a Russian version of Charles Dickens, painting a rich, detailed picture of the human experience. Like Dickens too, Dostoyevsky’s works were published in instalments in newspapers or periodicals. That’s probably why they contain such gripping suspense. He wanted to make sure that his readers would  purchase the next episode. Some wag in a review I read, noted that he got paid by the word, thus explaining why his novels were so long.

The sheer length of “The Brothers Karamazov” explains why I waited until I’d retired before I was brave enough to tackle it. When I was at work I wouldn’t have had the time to read it regularly enough to follow the multiple threads it contained. As a 20 year old student I had attempted to read the same author’s “Crime and Punishment.” I gave up just over halfway through the crime. This time it wasn’t the length that daunted me but the frightening, sinister quality of Dostoyevsky’s prose. It got to the point where I was too scared to turn over the page! I abandoned the book and didn’t think about reading anything by him again until a thrilling, chance encounter in the early noughties. In November, 2006, I was lucky enough to go on a city break to St Petersburg, Russia’s former capital city. Opposite our hotel to the south of the city centre , stood an ancient looking Orthodox church surrounded by an atmospheric graveyard. It was in fact the Alexander Nevsky Monastery and cemetery from the mid eighteenth century. It had been snowing so everything looked pristine white and beautiful. My wife, Chris, and I decided to brave the biting cold and go to explore it. The church was mysterious but fascinating with people bowing to and kissing glistening icons and a bearded monk baptising a crying baby. But it was in the cemetery that the real surprise and thrill came. We wandered past a row of Bolshevik head- stones tucked away to one side. They were topped by red stars and red hammer and sickle motifs. Presumably they were not allowed to rest in the main part of the cemetery because they had been atheists. It was surprising that they were there at all though, as if at the last minute they had decided to hedge their bets. Then we stepped into the heart of the graveyard. It was surrounded by avenues of bare black trees festooned with bunchesof blood-red berries. It looked stark and beautiful in its blanket of snow. What enfolded was a parade of Russian, 19th century celebrities.

First came Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s headstone, quickly followed by two other famous composers: Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin. Tchaikonsky’s handsome bust was accompanied by two thoughtful angels, one studying a music manuscript. Flecks of snow gathered in her wing feathers and in the folds of her gown. On to her lap someone had placed a bunch of lovely, white narcissi. Borodin’s tomb featured a dazzling art-nouveau mosiac of a page of his music, black notation, a glowing golden background and green and red decoration. We were just marvelling at our surprise find when there it was, the grave of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the celebrated novelist. We stood and stared, forgetting the freezing cold. It was a tall, handsome tomb surrounded by a low, wrought iron fence. At its centre was a head and shoulders bust of the great man , sporting a full, flowing beard and a dodgy looking comb- over. Above and below him in gold, Cyrillic script were his name and biographical details, I presumed. Strewn in the snow was a scattering of red carnations. We had just stumbled across the last resting places of 4 of Russia’s most famous sons. For a while, until the cold started to gnaw the tips of my fingers, I stood there mesmerised. I think it was at that moment that I decided to return to Dostoyevsky’s novels at some point, as well as listening  to more Russian classical music. Time to dust down those old vinyls and revisit the classics on the book-shelves.

At first though I ignored Dostoyevsky. Maybe I was still too scared. I had had nightmares for months after putting down “Crime and Punishment.” To me it was the literary equivalent of Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, a film I always have to pluck up courage to watch. Instead I took down Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”, another epic work. It’s sheer length had made it previously too daunting to tackle. My only previous connection with it had been through the old Hollywood film starring Ingrid Bergman. ( made in the 1930’s I think.) Most people remember the last scene when the ” heroine” jumps in front of a thundering train. But watching the film seems a lazy way of tackling one of the great works of world literature. The inner world of the book and of the characters cannot adequately be revealed in a moving picture. I’ve always thought this and that’s why I made a point of reading all the novels of Jane Austin instead of just being satisfied with the pretty costume dramas on TV or at the cinema. The same goes for the works of Dickens. One cannot capture the sheer power of his writing by singing along to the catchy tunes of “Oliver” or viewing any of the innumerable TV adaptations of his works. Applying the same logic to Tolstoy, I decided to pick up the book, even though it was so big. I don’t know what all the fuss was about– my translation of Anna Karenin ( mysteriously missing the final “a”) was a mere 853 pages of close text and they flew by in no time. From the first sentence Tolstoy’s wonderfully lucid writing had me in its spell. A book only seems long if it’s boring. It’s dead easy to read a genuine masterpiece. Don’t worry, I’m not going to deliver a critical analysis of the novel in this blog. It probably wouldn’t be very good anyway. I’ll just suffice to quote part of the back cover of my Penguin classic ( translated by Rosemary Edmonds) :” Acclaimed by many as the world’s greatest novel, Anna Karenin provides a vest panorama of contemporary life in Russia and humanity in general. In it Tolstoy uses his intense imaginative insight to create some of the most memorable characters in literature.” Like Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy is a supreme master of the psychological novel, delving into the motivations of his characters and their many conflicting facets, with subtle, compelling skill. Yes, I got drawn straight into it,was gripped and fascinated throughout and felt sad and bereft when it finally finished.  Like all very good books, completing it was like losing a close friend. Anna Karenin jumped straight to the top of my all time favourite  novels chart, pushing George Eliot’s marvellous “Middlemarch” down to number 2. Without leaving my armchair I had returned to St Petersburg and Russia. My earlier trip had inspired and enhanced my reading of the great novel. I was now on a roll. I now picked up “War and Peace”, another Tolstoy classic and another truly epic read. Many critics regard this as the greatest book ever written.

I thought “War and Peace” was great. It too has vivid characters and their psychological and emotional worlds are expertly detailed. The epic battle scenes are fascinating too but I think Tolstoy overdid the theorising about history and the fate of humanity. Sometimes he laid it on with a trowel as they say and his frequent philosophising slowed the momentum of the main story. So I didn’t put it at the top of my personal literary hit parade, ( sorry Leo), but it easily secured a spot in the top 20. The book has wonderful characterisation, and  such convincing dialogue that you feel as if you are actually in the room with the speakers. Most of all, it too immersed me in the Russian world, albeit one of over 2 centuries ago. It’s a world that is familiar but strange at the same time. Russia is the largest country in the continent of Europe, yet the majority of its land is in Asia. It’s a paradox. I entered that same intriguing world in my Dostoyevsky readings. To make it all the more mysterious and compelling, it’s a world that has now passed into history following the traumatic revolutions of 1917.

For much of my life I wasn’t allowed to visit Russia. It wasn’t even called Russia. The communists renamed it : The Soviet Union. When I was growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, the Soviets were the enemies. They were the ones we might have a catastrophic nuclear war with. It was very scary especially during the incredibly tense Cuban missile crisis of the early 1960’s. Russia still is scary. Their recent annexation of the Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine are not exactly peaceful or welcome developments. Also the Russian treatment of the Chetchens and other Causasun peoples has been consistently shocking and largely ignored by the west. Putin loved Bush and Blair’s “War on Terror” as it gave him the convenient opportunity to harshly suppress and oppress his minority peoples with western approval. All he had to do was label them “terrorists.” It’s not surprising that in their desperation, some of his opponents have turned to terrorism. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Violence sadly breeds violence. And all this has come on top of the many horrific events of Russia’s tragic 20th century — a disastrous First World War, violent revolutions, bloody civil war, communist dictatorship under Lenin and especially Stalin plus others, reigns of terror, political repression, enforced collectivisation and subsequent famine, forced relocation of whole populations, the lethal work camps of the Gulags, the Nazi invasion and the horrors of the Second World War… The list of terrors and tragedies is seemingly endless. It makes Tolstoy’s or Dostoyevsky’s Tsarist Russia seem like a walk in the park.( which it wasn’t of course.) The fact that many Russian novels are so big, long and heavy, merely reflects that nation’s long and heavy history.

Even in our brief visit to St Petersburg in November, 2006, we could feel the heavy weight of Russian history bearing down on our shoulders. St Petersburg, 17 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, looked superficially prosperous. The roads were crammed with cars, big, glossy shop windows displayed a wide range of luxury goods, and many of its grand historical churches and palaces had been beautifully restored. However, even a brief look at the people, their facial expressions and their body language, was enough to show that all was not well. Most people avoided eye contact and did not even look up. They trudged through the streets or on and off the Metro with bowed heads and slumped shoulders. Most, if you could see them, wore miserable expressions. There were no smiles, and no courtesies in these street encounters. People did not make way as we approached. They just walked straight  at us and it was us who had to give way. It’s easy for tourists from a rich country with a comfortable life style to conclude that Russian people are just plain rude. It’s not as simple as that though. As soon as I tried to imagine myself in their shoes, I understood their behaviour a lot better. With all that tragedy and tyranny in their lives, why should they be carefree and happy? The younger ones whom we met in shops and restaurants were more friendly and spoke enough English to break down the language barrier a little. However the younger generation is not weighed down by so many terrible memories. They had not had to survive the horrific Nazi siege of Leningrad in the 1940s for instance or the gross deprivation of human rights experienced under the Soviet regimes. They had not lost loved ones in the wars in Chechnya or Afghanistan.      Many older people tragically lost their life savings in the post Communist Yeltsin regime when inflation ran riot and the state’s prized resources were sold off to opportunist businessmen who became obscenely rich overnight. There was a power vacuum and an economic free for all which saw the rise of the notorious Russian mafia. Apparently, when state run industries such as oil, gas and minerals were broken up and privatised, every citizen was given a handful of shares. However these were gobbled up by the oligarchs, who bribed many gullible people with the price of a bottle of vodka and so the few became super rich and the many became desperately poor. A travel companion of mine told me she had lodged in the St Petersburg apartment of an older couple in their late 60’s. They had lost all their savings in the Yeltsin era and were forced to go out to work full time and rent their spare room to western tourists. This was  in the mid 90’s. My friend told me the area where she stayed was dimly lit and shabby, with litter and broken glass . She didn’t feel safe and was always in well before dark. She said it was an interesting but very uncomfortable experience. Meanwhile, mega rich Russian oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich, buy up properties in central London, the south of France or Cyprus, swan around in luxury yachts and private planes and buy football clubs such as Chelsea FC to use as their private playthings. At the last count, Abramovich was worth a cool US$9.1 billion. A few years ago someone commented to me : “I wonder how many people are slaving away in Siberian mines to pay Frank Lampard’s wages!” At the time, Lampard was one of Chelsea’s highest earners at £150,000 a week!

So it was not surprising that we encountered gloomy faces and defeatist body language. Many Russians have had their hopes and spirits crushed by circumstances. Life is one big, bitter struggle. That was my impression anyway. The lack of smiling, welcoming faces was disconcerting but it certainly lent a powerful atmosphere to the place and a definite edge to our visit. Yes, we saw wonderful churches and cathedrals, ornate palaces, spectacular squares, picturesque canals, world class art and a wonderful ballet performance. We saw the Winter palace in winter and queued for the Hermitage museum in a raw, freezing -7degrees centigrade, to be eventually rewarded with a dazzling array of masterpieces. St Petersburg is a world class tourist destination. Yet my most abiding memory is of the depressed ordinary people shuffling through the wintry streets. It was not a  totally comfortable experience but that made it all the more fascinating. On our last day there we got mugged in an underpass as if to underline the air of discomfort that hung in the air. A large group of Asiatic- looking men in military uniforms, bumped into us and jostled us for about 30 seconds. It was like being in the middle of a rugby scrum. When we were spat out at the end I found that my wallet was missing and they had tried to cut the straps of Chris’s rucksack. Luckily we were not hurt, albeit more than a bit shaken, and they only got away with the equivalent of £35 and my Tesco’s card. I hope they found it useful!  Oh, and we also got taken as hostages in the colourfully named Restaurant Rasputin where we ate with friends after the ballet. They would not accept payment by card, demanding cash only. They refused to let us leave until one of us walked back to the hotel cash machine to get the money. A couple of “heavies” suddenly appeared to back up the previously friendly waitress. ( They weren’t really that heavy– I’m only joking.) Still it wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience.

So, I’ve had a rich, interesting interaction with Russia and the Russians over the years. Not all of it has been easy. But it’s a vast, strange and intriguing country and in my reading, music listening, ballet watching and armchair travels, I continue to be fascinated by it.  I’m determined to visit it again and see places beyond St Petersburg which is beautiful but not exactly typical. I have another Tolstoy lined up — “Resurrection!”, plan to explore the piano concertos of Rachmanoff and revisit the plays of Chekov.( The Cherry Orchard is a particular favourite of mIne.) I may even pluck up courage and face up to my old nemesis: “Crime and Punishment.”

Living in a Left Wing Bubble.

16 May

Well, I’m still recovering from the shock of a Conservative victory in the 2015 UK General Election. It was a severe jolt to the system for several reasons. First of all, the much vaunted opinion polls had consistently forecasted a hung parliament and the necessity for another coalition government to be cobbled together. That didn’t happen, so all that media hot- air about who would form an alliance with who turned out to be a waste of time. The polls were so consistent in telling this stalemate story that I was lulled into a false sense of security myself. Maybe we could get a “progressive”, left-leaning government after-all I hoped? But it all proved to be a cruel mirage. I heard that a full third of the total media election coverage had been spent on such hypothetical speculation about the consequences of a hung parliament. That time could have been more fruitfully spent on exploring the issues, manifestoes and policies of the parties in contention. It was a big mistake to try to second guess the actual voting public, who in the privacy of the polling booth, revealed more than they did to the pollsters
The second reason I was shocked by the election result was the realisation once again that I was living in a deeply conservative, right wing country. All those vast swathes of blue on the new political map of 2015 Britain have really upset me. I should have known better. Afterall I lived through the misery, frustration and heartache of the Thatcher years of the 1980s. Mass unemployment, jingoistic war, Trade Union bashing, class war ( almost), nuclear missiles, the privatisation of important public services — it was an endless nightmare. The fact that Margaret Thatcher’s governments were wildly popular at the ballot box in 3 elections, showed me just out of step with much of the rest of the nation I was. I hated it all and got deeply depressed. Now it’s happened again. A new right- wing Tory administration has been elected and this time there are no Liberal-Democrats to curb and restrain their more extreme policies. I fear for the future. One of friends said she cried. Once more I feel like a square peg in a round hole. I should be used to it I know, being a vegetarian in a predominantly meat- eating society. Sometimes I feel it’s as if I’m living in the wrong world! It’s impossible for me to grasp that so many people have voted for a party that has been responsible for a devastating programme of public spending cuts, seriously affecting the most vulnerable people in our society. To me it’s incomprehensible that many people have voluntarily opted for another damaging dose of austerity, but I have to accept that they did. It’s a bitter pill to swallow.
I know it’s dangerous for me to write a blog about politics. Along with religion, politics is such a hot potato of a subject. I know many people will disagree with my views and may even have stopped reading by this point. However, I think it’s important to stand up for what one believes in. It’s just too easy to sit on the fence. Politics is about the pursuit of power and how that power, once gained, is used. In a way, it’s the most important issue of all. Power can be used as a force for good and as a force for bad. It can be used for the benefit of all or just for the few. We are lucky that in the United Kingdom we have a democracy where in theory, the ordinary people can choose their rulers. Many nations around the world, those ruled by dictators or corrupt governments, do not have such a choice. Yet, this idea of choice is a bit of a con I think. Apparently 63% of the British people did not vote Conservative but still ended up with a Tory government controlling their lives for the next 5 years. This particularly applies to Scotland, North- East England, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Inner London where the vast majority voted SNP or Labour. The fault of course is with the “first past the post” voting system, where a party can garner a large number of votes but keep coming second or third in the constituencies, gaining no MPS. I’m no UKIP fan, far from it, but I think it unfair that a party that experienced such a significant surge in support, only ended up with a solitary MP. The same applies to the Green Party. The only fair way forward seems to be a Proportional Representation system where the amount of votes a party gets is properly reflected in the number of MPs they have in Parliament. Most other European countries have PR so it cannot be that outlandish an idea. However, the British people rejected PR in a referendum a couple of years ago. Maybe they were influenced by the largely right wing press or maybe it was just too complicated for many to understand. I voted for PR, finding myself in the usual position of being in the minority. Maybe it’s just my lot in life to be out of step.
I think of myself as a left winger, politically speaking. To me this means that I want to live in a compassionate, fair society where everyone looks out for everyone else. I belong to what is known as the “soft left” along with people like Ed Miliband, all of my friends and most of my family. “Birds of a feather flock together” as they say. I am one of those people regularly mocked as a “Guardian reader” by the largely right wing press. I’m proud to read The Guardian and its Sunday sister “The Observer.” I don’t see anything wrong in caring for others and wanting a more just society, where the strong protect the weak and vulnerable and the wealthy help the poor. That is my Utopia, my dream. Instead, in my opinion, we have the tragic dystopia of a right wing government that promotes individualism and an “I’m all right Jack”, attitude. It’s no coincidence that the 5 years of a Conservative led Coalition, resulted in the gap between the rich and the poor widening considerably and a massive and shameful rise in food banks. A caring society should look after its own without the need for charity. But the Tories, despite their claims that “we’re all in it together”, do not want a society where every one is cared for. Margaret Thatcher revealed her true colours when she declared that “there’s no such thing as society.” She was promoting rampant individualism where the strong prosper and the weak fall by the wayside. It was this era that gave birth to the idea that everyone in need of help from benefits is a “scrounger”. I know that not everyone on benefits is a genuine case and agree that the cheats need to be weeded out, but to tar everyone with the same brush is wrong. The right wing press are mainly responsible for this especially the Daily Mail and Daily Express with their drip drip of daily poison into the minds of their readers.
So I’m a left winger, which puts me out of step with much of the media and many of the voting public. I’m not “Hard Left” as I do not want a revolution or a working class dictatorship. That would be inconsistent with my belief in democracy and in human rights. Many of those on the left of the political spectrum are compassionate people not violent revolutionaries. We want a fairer, more equal society, not a Marxist/ Communist Dictatorship. I think we have seen that go horribly wrong in Russia, China and eastern Europe. All the soft left wants is a caring society which looks after it’s less fortunate members. I don’t see anything wrong in that and yet I consistently end up in the minority. It’s difficult for me to fathom.
Maybe my lack of understanding derives from the fact that I have been living in a left-wing bubble all my life. My parents and grandparents always voted Labour. I grew up in the Labour stronghold of Chesterfield in industrial North-east Derbyshire. Both my grandfathers took part in the 1926 General Strike. One was a coal miner, the other, a steel worker. My dad worked on the railways and voted Labour as, for a long time, this was regarded as the political Party that supported the working man ( and woman.) So you could say that voting Labour was in my DNA. I grew up being taught that Labour supported the ordinary working class people whereas the Tories represented the privileged and the well-off. I know that this is a very simplistic, divisive interpretation but that it what I was indoctrinated to believe. Largely speaking though, I still think this holds true. If you look at all the great social reforms of the last 2 centuries, most if not all have been brought in by the Liberal or Labour parties.( not the Tories) :- The Great Reform Act of 1832 (The Liberals), The Poor law Amendment Act, 1836 ( Liberals), Secret Ballot, 1860s ( Liberals), Old Age Pensions, early 1900s (Liberals), School meals, early 1900s ( Liberals), The National Health Service, 1945 ( Labour), The Welfare State, 1945 onwards ( Labour), Legalisation of Homosexuality, late 1960s (Labour), legalisation of abortion, late 1960s ( Labour), Equal pay act and other anti sex-discrimination legislation, early 1970s ( Labour), Abolition of Fox Hunting, early 2000s ( Labour) etc. I cannot think of one important piece of progressive social reform introduced by the Tories. David Cameron, to his credit, has recently presided over the legalisation of GAY marriage, but even that was when he was under the influence of the Liberal-Democrats and was against the objections of many of his own party. Even Cameron’s new, post election 2015 cabinet contains several people opposed to GAY marriage and who are pro hunting.
As he grew older my father moved more to the right. He started to read the Daily Mail and take on many of that paper’s views. He became anti-trade Union and anti comprehensive education even though I, his son, had been a victim of the 11 plus lottery. I had arguments with him about these things. When Tony Benn, a leading left winger, became the MP for Chesterfield, my dad couldn’t bring himself to vote for what the right-wing tabloids painted as “a red under the bed.” (To me Benn was a hero.) Even then though, dad couldn’t stomach voting Tory but switched to the Liberals instead, taking my mum with him. He too would have been shocked by this election if he had been still alive. All my children have grown up being anti-Conservative being brought up in the left wing bubble that our family has always existed in. Maybe we might vote Green , maybe up to the betrayal of 2010 we might vote Liberal, but never Conservative. Their mother shares my views as does my second wife. You see, we are all lefty Guardian readers and proud of it! So it comes as a massive shock to find that we are in the minority.
There has been an outpouring of shock and horror in many of the conversations I have been involved in since the election result. This sense of disbelief and outrage has also been aired big-time amongst my Facebook friends. People have been expressing disgust, signing petitions and preparing to go on anti-cuts protest marches. I think it’s important not to just have a knee jerk reaction. Anger and despair must be channelled into useful, constructive avenues. The 37% must be constantly reminded that their views are minority ones even though they are represented by the majority of MP’s. I will march, write letters, canvass my MP ( a Labour one) and sign constructive petitions. I am actively considering moving to Scotland! ( joke!) I also intend to join the human rights organisation “Liberty” as one of the first priorities of this new Conservative government is, unbelievably, to scrap the European Human Rights Act! I intend to come out of my left-wing bubble and engage the right-wingers in the real world in as many ways as I can positively can. Roll on 2020!

1980s- Musical memories.– from synthesizers to CDs and everything inbetween.

22 Apr

Move to Newcastle upon Tyne.
On the cusp of the 1980s I hit 30 years old and got a new job in North Tyneside. My young family and I moved from Sheffield up to Whitley Bay on the North East coast. From a musical point of view this was a very good move. Newcastle City Hall had many more mainstream gigs than its equivalent in South Yorkshire. Having been virtually starved of live music in the last half of the 70s, I was now presented with a veritable feast of concert opportunities throughout the bulk of the new decade. However, my most indelible musical memory of the 80s was not at the City Hall but at Newcastle United’s football ground, St James’s Park. Here, in the summer of 1985, I was lucky enough to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on their fabulous “Born in the USA” World Tour. From a live music point of view, it was one of those “Road to Damascus” moments. Acquiring a friend of a friend’s spare ticket, I accidently stumbled upon the most dynamic and thrilling live rock show in the World.( and I’ve seen a few.)
The Ups and Downs of the Decade.
The 1980s was to be a tumultuous decade, both personally and musically. Those 10 years witnessed the birth of our son, who joined his 2 sisters to complete the family; a crisis at work which resulted in me being granted a year’s secondment to study at Newcastle University; a crisis at home which led to the break up of my marriage; a mid-life crisis (as I approached the dreaded 40), and eventually setting up in a place of my own. All these events were played out to a background of popular music. I partied to Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Soft Cell and drowned my sorrows with Tracey Chapman or The Cure. I had music to suit most occasions and moods. I wasn’t a depressed teenager so the downbeat offerings of The Smiths did not initially appeal to me. So it was only later that I came to appreciate their haunting melodies and provocative lyrics. The same thing happened with The Stone Roses. I discovered them in subsequent decades but now revere their peerless first album as a timeless classic. Better late than never as they say. I tried the same trick with The Joy Division, belatedly purchasing their second album “Closer”, but never got into their depressing, doom-laden sound.

Trying to Keep Up.
Obviously, by the time of the 1980s I had left my adolescence far behind. I no longer had the luxury of listening to pop music whenever I pleased. I had other priorities such as: teaching career, family and political campaigning to take up much of my time. Therefore it was impossible to keep up with the myriad of musical trends, the latest releases or new artists. I fell further and further behind, such that whole movements and major new performers appeared on the scene with me only being vaguely aware of them. As well as a constant “to do” list , I also had a “to listen to” list which I never got near to the bottom of. For a time I beat myself up for not keeping up, but I then sensibly decided to do just what I could and not worry about falling behind. After-all, it was not a race and nobody was judging me except perhaps myself. This was still a pre-Internet age for the majority of the public, including myself. Getting to know new music was not a question of You-Tubing, Spotifying or instantly downloading. One had to tune-in to lots of radio or spend hours in the listening- booths of the high street record stores – all very time-consuming.
The task of keeping up became all the more complicated in the 80s because of the multiplicity of styles and genres that appeared. Once upon a time, life had seemed so simple — a straight choice between classical and pop. Now the popular music scene was fragmenting at a frantic pace. I was faced with a mind-boggling choice between: rap, hip hop, techno, House, funk, soul, folk, reggae, country, blues, New Romantic, New Wave, heavy metal, hard rock, soft rock, Indie, Goth, synth pop, post punk and uncle Tom Cobbly and all! It gives me a headache just to think about it all. As one commentator noted, it was a decade that refused to be pinned down.
Watching Top of the Pops.
We still watched Top of the Pops on Thursday nights as a family. It was past its sell by date and had included lots of gimmicky novelty- acts in the latter years of the 70s. However it helped us to keep up with some of the latest musical trends and fashions even though many of them didn’t appeal. I was still a rock fan really. So the soundtrack of the family as we moved north was the driving, aggressive rock of Chrissie Hinde’s “Pretenders” and the witty, jazz-infused rock ‘n roll of Ian Dury and the Blockheads. “Brass in Pocket” and “Hit Me With Your Rhythmn Stick”, both Number 1 singles at the turn of the decade, were big hits in our family too. We went on to buy multiple albums by both groups. Apparently, Dury and his group was a top live act of “New Wave” music, so that’s at least one item ticked off the above list. But labels like “New Wave” don’t really appeal to me. They are often artificial constructions made up for the convenience of music journalists. I wasn’t bothered whether they were New Wave or not. I was just attracted by the driving rhythms and Dury’s amusing Music Hall- style word- play. I was later lucky enough to attend gigs by both The Pretenders and Dury’s Blockheads ( just before he prematurely died) in Newcastle. Both put on dynamic and exciting performances. And it had all started with good old Top of The Pops!
The New Romantics.
As I switched on my screen or turned the pages of the music press in the early 80’s it soon became apparent that mainstream musical fashion had changed yet again. I was no longer confronted with angry, foul mouthed punks festooned with piercings and thrashing their guitars to death. ( as you can see I wasn’t very enamoured of the Punk Rock movement). Now, I was faced with groups festooned in flamboyant clothes such as frilly fop shirts, and sporting a variety of extravagant hairstyles. These were the “New Romantics” who in many ways reminded me of the mods from the 60s. Some of them, following in the footsteps of Bowie and Roxy Music, wore cosmetics such as eye-liner and lipstick, cultivating an androgynous, gender-bending look. However, although it obviously appealed to the latest generation of teenagers, it did not grab me, mainly because I saw it as a fashion movement rather than a musical progression. Thus I never took groups such as Ultravox, Spandau Ballet or Duran Duran seriously. To me they were just pretty “boy bands” who had little musical merit. I found their offerings overwrought and largely vacuous. Another popular group I rejected was Adam and the Ants, who thought make-up and silly costumes could compensate for lack of talent. Their commercial success was another example of the triumph of style over substance. As you can see, I was now starting to show my age by dismissing the younger generation’s musical choices ( just as my own teenage music had been derided by my parents and their peers, back in the 60s.) Life goes on and history constantly repeats itself.
MTV and the Pop Video.
Part of the reason for the rise of the image- driven “New Romantics” was the emergence of the pop video as a major way of marketing music. This huge new development was kick-started by the creation of MTV, an American television channel that played wall to wall music videos. It was the time when viewers in America were no longer restricted to a few main TV channels but now had many more cable channels of varying quality, to choose from. This development was parodied by Springsteen in his song:”69 Channels and Nothing On.” The cable and satellite TV revolution was to follow in Britain a little later and we now have many more channels than a mere 69. The actual video tape was also a completely new thing for most people in the 1980s. Before, we could only watch a TV programme when it was broadcasted. It was very restricting. Now, with the aid of a video tape, one could choose to watch a programme or a film whenever one wanted, could pause the entertainment in order to make a cup of coffee, could rewind to see an important scene again and could fast forward through the boring bits. All this is taken for granted these days but was a wonderfully liberating new piece of technology in the 80s. I remember going to friends for video evenings which also featured another new 80s development in Britain — the take- out pizza delivered to your door. It was all very exciting and novel. MTV and the advent of the pop video completely transformed the music scene. It was a god-send for TV shows like TOTP because they no longer had to book the live artist to perform their song. Now it was just a simple case of playing their video.
Reservations about Pop Videos.
All this sounds great but I had several reservations. Instead of being judged on their musical merits, artists were now judged on the qualities of their videos. People who had the glossiest, slickest videos got more TV airplay and publicity than those who had less flashy offerings or could not afford to produce anything at all. In other words, the new system discriminated against musicians who did not have much money to splash around. It seemed so unfair. This was even criticised by some successful groups such as Dire Straits in their facetious top seller “Money for Nothing.”
I also thought the video often seriously hampered the listening experience. No longer were we allowed to just listen to the lyrics and paint a picture in our minds. Now a film director and photographer were hijacking our imaginations and imposing their own vision of what the song was about. It was all very irritating and distracting. I was annoyed that a moderate singer like Madonna, a purveyor of routine dance music, was quickly elevated to super-star status on the back of her mastery of image, media manipulation and marketing. It seemed that musical ability and vocal skills were now of secondary importance. Duran Duran also swept to the top of the charts on the back of their expensive videos in exotic locations, even though their music was distincly run of the mill. Musical giants such as Springsteen didn’t even bother with videos, until forced to by their record companies and broadcast media demands. MTV has a lot to answer for! It’s heavily ironic that the very first music video played on the game-changing channel was The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Focus had changed from music and lyrics to fashion and theatrics.
Masters of the Pop Video.
Of course some of the videos were great and despite everything, actually enhanced the music. A prime example was David Bowie who quickly transferred his flair for performance art from stage to screen. I enjoyed both his music and his vivid imagery. Also memorable were the dynamic productions of Michael Jackson in support of his record selling “Thriller” album. I enjoyed his urgent singing and whirlwind dancing but never actually bought the album as I didn’t fancy listening to track after track of relentless dance music.
Synth Pop.
Another dominant feature of early 80s music was the synthesizer. So many groups based their sound on it that the term “Synth Pop” was coined. I had first heard and enjoyed the synthesizer in the late 60s and early 70s when it was a central component of the music of The Moody Blues. It had also been pioneered by Kraftwork and Tangerine Dream in the 70s. However, guitars and drums mostly continued to dominate until suddenly it seemed that almost every new group had to consist of a singer backed by a synth player. Leading the charge into the charts were : Yazoo, Gary Numan, The Thompson Twins ( all 3 of them), Soft Cell, The Pet Shop Boys and of course Eurythmics. At first synthesizer-driven pop and rock sounded a bit artificial, mechanical and even sterile. It lacked the warmth and subtleties provided by other instruments. However it was something new and interesting and we all quickly got used to it. Although I never liked Numan’s cold, robotic offerings, I did enjoy quite a few of the others. Yazoo had a great singer: Alison Moyet, whom I still like to listen to today. The Pet Shop Boys produced moody epics about seedy urban life. I found their music evocative and atmospheric and often listened to it on my headphones late at night when I was in a melancholy mood. I loved Marc Almond’s Soft Cell with his sexually ambiguous looks, and soulful singing, also focussing on the sleazy side of life, all to an insistent electronic beat. “Tainted Love” and especially “Goodbye and Hello” were favourite tracks of mine.
Pre-eminent though were “Eurythmics”, who were to become one of my top groups of the 80s and beyond. Lennox’s superb singing whether belting out a rocker or extracting more subtle and gentle emotions was one of their main assets. But the songs were memorable too with driving, hypnotic beats, haunting, minor key melodies and increasingly dark, obsessive lyrics that lingered in the mind. They were masters of style and image too, producing powerful and unusual videos to back up their excellent music. Annie sported a whole range of striking looks and was not afraid to do a bit of gender bending. Like Madonna, Lennox was a stylistic chameleon, but unlike Madonna, Annie could sing with real feeling and the group she was in produced original and memorable music. As the decade progressed, so did Eurythmics. They were a movable feast. They morphed into a rock group with Stewart on electric guitar, they employed other musicians and backing singers as they saw fit, and they were not afraid to indulge in electronic experimentation in the studio. They constantly pushed the boundaries, driven on by Stewart’s creative musicianship ( it’s not surprising that he later went into production) and Lennox’s superb songs. Eurythmics provided a consistent soundtrack to my decade.
Straits and Stranglers.
I still loved guitar groups though. I continued to follow Mark Knoppler’s “Dire Straits” especially when he sang about the area where we lived — Cullercoats and Whitley Bay on the lyrical album “Making Movies”. I went to see them 2 or 3 times at Newcastle City hall, including taking my teenage daughter Joanna. They were all great gigs. However I slowly tired of them when they added extra musicians ( keyboard and sax players) and started to cultivate a grandiose, bigger sound. I found it overblown. As they become more full of themselves they became more middle of the road, used as background at dinner parties and played in many a BMW.( I imagine.) I didn’t even bother buying their massive selling “Brothers in Arms”. Another City Hall favourite were The Stranglers, who had calmed down a bit from their wild punk days and began to produce hypnotic, keyboard based, mood music based on the excellent songs of Hugh Cornwall. I adored their single “Golden Brown” even though it was about drug taking. In a way their music reminded me a bit of The Doors with their emphasis on organ riffs. I enjoyed most of their 80s output and their concerts were great. It could get pretty wild at the City Hall. I remember fans rushing on to the stage in the middle of Stranglers gigs and being thrown back into the crowd by the bouncers. I’m glad I wasn’t sitting on the first few rows! However, when Cornwell left in an acrimonious split, I lost interest, as he was the creative heart and soul of the group. Also at Newcastle City hall I enjoyed concerts by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions and bought their first 2 excellent albums.
American Rock.
American rock bands were always high on my listening agenda. Springsteen and the E Street band with their energetic, stunning live shows took pride of place. I saw them at the aforementioned St James’ Park and later at Bramhall Lane, Sheffield on the equally brilliant “Tunnel of Love” tour. Both of those nights lived long in the memory.( I have already written about them on a previous blog, so I won’t go on now.) Other American rockers I followed were Bob Seger ( and the Silver Bullet band) and Tom Petty ( plus his Heartbreakers.) Petty was also a leading light in the Traveling Wilburys, a sort of loose “super-group” formed by George Harrison and friends in the late 8o’s The other members were Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynn. They were a staple of every party I attended at that time, and I loved their easy-going, chugging along, catchy songs.
Live Aid and Mandela Day.
The 1980s had two big musical events which were given wall- to- wall coverage on the TV — one was Live Aid, to raise funds for the victims of the Ethiopian famine and the other was a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday which doubled up as a protest against South African Apartheid. You can tell how long ago it was as Mandela was still languishing in jail. Both events brought a lot of new music to my ears and the great opportunity to see artists performing live. The Live Aid event was actually two 2 simultaneous music extravaganzas, one in London, the other in Philadelphia. It was a great opportunity to catch up. Queen were supposed to have stolen the London show but I had no time for their pretentious, over the top showiness. The groups who caught my eye (and ears) were U2 and Simple Minds, both darlings of big stadium, anthemic rock. I found their performances exciting and immediate and followed up by purchasing several albums. These included U2’s classic ” The Joshua Tree. They were one of my favourite acts for a while but after they achieved worldwide fame and became increasingly bombastic, I gradually tired of them. I followed a similar trajectory with Simple Minds, losing interest after they became mainstream. This was a trait of mine — to turn away from many artists once they were famous. I was still more comfortable with undiscovered, so called “Underground” musicians.
Singer Songwriters.
The Mandela event enabled me to see Eurythmics, Sting and Dire Straits ( with Eric Clapton guesting) put in great live performances. It also introduced me to Tracey Chapman, a previously unknown American singer songwriter. I loved her soulful singing style which had such an edge to it. Her subjects were edgy too, dealing with racial tension, violence, revolution and poverty as well as the usual joys and heartaches of sexual politics. Apparently she was given a longer set than planned because Stevie Wonder had had his keyboard, computer and other equipment stolen. Welcome to London! He later appeared to do one song backed by a galaxy of musicians who had scrambled together to help him. Another favourite singer songwriter of mine to emerge in the 80s was Suzanne Vega. I liked her sparse voice backed by subtle guitars and violins. Her melodies were often haunting and her lyrics interesting and clever, featuring word-play such as similes and metaphors. Vega’s subjects ranged from medieval knights, to having a cup of coffee in a café, to serious issues such as child abuse.( in her famous song “Luka.”) I went to see her a couple of times and the concerts were magical and spell- binding. Yet another singer songwriter I liked and admired was Billy Bragg with his overtly political lyrics in support of socialism. His was a necessary voice in that bleak, oppressive era of Thatcherism.
Chance Discoveries of New Artists,
New artists arrived at my door by a variety of means. My post- marriage life was initially sad but at least it gave me opportunities to meet new people and come across new music. Some of it had been around for a while, but it was new stuff to me. In one friend’s house, my ears suddenly pricked up at the magical opening strains of “Fisherman’s Blues”, the folk-rock classic of The Waterboys. Meanwhile, at another friend’s place, I was given a welcome crash-course in the exhilarating Afro-funk rhythms of David Byrne’s “Talking Heads.” Both groups have since established a major presence in my music collection. Catching on to them a little late, I proceeded to embark on a retrospective but exciting exploration of their repertoire. My appreciation of Talking heads was enhanced by the brilliant concert movie “Stop making Sense” by Jonathan Demme. It encapsulated the essence of their live performance and the flair and charisma of Byrne himself.
African Rhythms.
The African influence was strong on the 80s. Not only did we have Mandela’s “party” which featured leading South African musicians, and the insistent Afro beats of Talking Heads, but we were also treated to the evergreen Paul Simon reviving his career with the inspiring “Graceland” album. Everyone I knew bought it and played it constantly( including me). It was like a huge breath of fresh air — new rhythms, new instruments, new harmonies. And it was all welded together by Simon’s smooth, soothing voice and his clever, quirky lyrics.
My final major musical revelation of the 1980s came via the unusual medium of a glossy Sunday newspaper magazine. I was just settling down to read the sport’s section when my eye caught the headline: “REM — The Worlds Top Rock Band?” I abandoned the football reports and started to read about a great “garage rock” band that had emerged from the south of the USA several years before. I had hardly heard of them I’m ashamed to say. That chance article sent me on another illuminating voyage of discovery covering every album from 1981’s “Murmur” onwards. I now regard them as one of the all time greats.
Summary of My Musical 80s.
Although it is now fashionable to deride the 1980s, for me they were another golden age of music. I have only mentioned a fraction of the stuff I enjoyed. From late night listening to Sade, allowing myself to be enjoyably introspective while listening to the Goth Rock of The Cure, jumping around the kitchen to Bruce, Tina Turner and any number of rockers, grooving to Fleetwood Mac ( “Tango in the Night) and Eurythmics, it was a great decade. I have tried to avoid boring lists and have attempted to give you a flavour of my musical journey through those eventful 10 years. I bought many albums and saw numerous gigs both in the flesh and on the screen. It was a great era for live music.
Cassettes and CDs.
But the 80’s music scene was also driven by technological developments. Apart from the aforementioned music video and MTV, that era was also the golden age of the cassette tape. I spent many a merry hour dubbing compilations to swap with mates or try to impress girlfriends. I always felt a bit guilty ( “Illegal taping is Killing Music”) but couldn’t resist the temptation. I consoled my conscience by buying most of the albums anyway. Finally of course there was the advent of the CD which quickly pushed vinyl on to the dusty attic shelves. ( at least for the time being.) It was a whole new and simpler way of playing music and stopped us worrying about whether we should change that scratchy stylus.
That decade was a typical example of the frenetic, kaleidoscopic world of popular music. I couldn’t have got through all the trials and tribulations of the 80s without it!


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