Sunday, April 13, 2014

Harvey Andrews - Glad To Be Grey


Another weekend, another concert ... and another long drive and another late night. I wonder why this CFS flare-up is taking so long to clear! Yesterday was Within Temptation and Delain at Wembley - booked ages ago and postponed from January, so not really to be helped. Last Saturday was Harvey Andrews at Portishead.

Harvey Andrews is a singer-songwriter who was a major influence on my teenage self. I had a friend who played the guitar and had Andrews' Writer Of Songs album on constant repeat as he gradually learnt the guitar accompaniment, for what seemed like months. Angry songs, happy songs, sad songs: songs that told stories, often songs that took an unusual point of view.

There's a song about one of the students shot at Ohio Kent State University by the local national guard; a song about a British soldier in Ireland (see the link); a song about an early morning 'knock on the door' in any of the many totalitarian countries which go in for that sort of thing; a song about a bitter and angry gossip, questioning how she got that way (see the video at the bottom of the page); a song about a teacher who put his hand on a young girl's knee.

As I say, Harvey Andrews was a major influence; he retired a few years back, and now only does the occasional charity concert in the area he lives, around Shrewsbury. So for him to be as far south as Portishead is an unmissable treat (actually he'd been in Thame the previous weekend, but even I'm not that daft).

These charity concerts, under the banner Glad To Be Grey, are advertised as  “A celebration of maturity, with songs, stories, humour (and the occasional rant)”, which is an accurate enough description. Harvey Andrews gigs always included a fair amount of chat and stories mixed in with the songs (see the video at the top for a typical example). Now there is a bit more reminiscence, and a couple of stories from his autobiography replace a couple of songs, but he remains consummately entertaining and a fantastic singer (the very first song, I thought his voice did show slight signs of age, but after that it warmed up and was as good as ever).

At Portishead he sang a mixture of songs old and new, told stories, and played his guitar. The sound was good, and the atmosphere brilliant. A lot of people there had never heard of him before (they were there for the fund-raiser) but I think everyone enjoyed themselves enormously, singing along with the chorus songs, listening to the music, joining in the nostalgia (it was a church-organised event, so the average age was older than me), and laughing at his humour. Harvey and his wife, Wendy, were friendly and approachable as ever after the show, and I was able to pick up a fresh copy of Writer Of Songs to replace the old vinyl one I cleared out when we moved house.

All in all an excellent gig, long may he continue.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Unfortunate Timing II
So, was my last post, Unfortunate Timing I, just a moan about a difficult weekend? Whilst I reserve the right to moan and rant on my own blog, in this case no, it was always intended to be a lead-in to thoughts about, well, difficult weekends, or rather difficult times in general. It was also a bit of a review of a live show (most of it, grrr!), and the two themes didn't really work in the same post - hence parts I and II.

Who was to blame for the rough weekend? It is hardly reasonable to blame the family I helped move: they were at the mercy of their landlords and moving house always takes longer (and is more stressful) than you expect. Myself, for overbooking? Not really, my original schedule over the last few weeks was fairly busy, but not unreasonably so - one really can't duck out on life 'just in case' something else turns up and blows my CFS. The RAC route planner mistake didn't help, but that's why I normally look at both map and directions so I understand where we are going before we start ... in this case I had no time and BlackLin couldn't get the map to print. Maybe it's easiest to just blame God: he has broad shoulders.

Why blame anyone? By and large I don't trust the blame game and try to avoid it: sometimes bad stuff happens, that's life. But there's an inconsistency there: if we had made it on time, in spite of the tightness of the timing, I'd have said a quick "thank you" to God. Gratitude is a good thing. So surely it's only fair to respond to it all going wrong with a sarcastic "thanks a bunch"? Especially since I had been helping someone out. then, we did get all the furniture and stuff moved successfully, in the end. And we did safely get from Reading to Brighton and back, through some very heavy traffic, without accident or breakdown. Although we missed most of The Dirty Youth's set, the other two did get to do their fangirl bit and had posters signed by the band. One reason I try to avoid that blame game is that there's always more involved than my initial focus, and in the heat of indignation it is easy to get priorities topsy-turvy.

Anyway, I don't actually believe that every single thing that happens to us is because God made it happen ... not in that simplistic a way. I believe that we live in a world which was made beautiful but has become flawed, damaged so that things no longer work as they should. One day it will be fixed, but in the meantime good things should never be taken for granted and when things go wrong, that's the way it is. It's always worth considering if there are lessons to be learned, of course, but we have no entitlement to an easy ride, sometimes garbage will happen and we just need to pick ourselves up and get on with it.

Just perhaps God occasionally tilts things a bit in our favour, when it doesn't mess some other situation up, so it is still always good to be thankful, I reckon.

There is a balance, it seems to me, between being fatalistic, not even trying to make the world a better place, and taking everything too personally, obsessing about every little problem. An elderly rabbi once said, talking about far more serious issues, that the Jews have never believed that God will save them from going through difficult times, but have never stopped believing that He will always bring them through to the other side. That, for him, is a central part of what it means to be God's people.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Unfortunate Timing I
I'm not quite sure what I did, but somehow I mangled my back the weekend before last, leaving me unable to drive for part of last week. That was unfortunate timing, as friends were moving house this weekend, and had asked for help on Saturday, including with the driving. Luckily the back was less bad by then, especially after a hot bath, and I coped. I even managed to mostly resist helping carry stuff ... mostly.

They had someone else to drive on Sunday, which was useful as we had tickets to a concert in Brighton that evening, quite a long drive away, to see The Dirty Youth opening for Heaven's Basement. Unfortunately, in a piece of bad timing for all concerned, that driver's wife fell ill after his first run, so I got the call early Sunday afternoon. Just one more run needed to transport the last few bits and pieces, then get the van back to Berkshire Van Hire (although the dirty great Luton was a scary beast to drive, it was a nice - and surprisingly comfortable - piece of kit). "The last few bits and pieces" - except they had managed to forget to check a room that morning, so it was the last few bits and pieces, plus a fair bit of furniture, plus all the other stuff that goes with being "90% complete".

So we got the van back quite a lot later than I'd hoped, and I was quickly picked up by BlackLin and BlackSar in our car, and set straight off for Brighton, with just about time to get there for the start of the show. But not enough time to go via home, so not enough time for me to persuade the PC to print off the map of Central Brighton which I had found. So we depended on a print-out of directions from the RAC route finder. Which had Brighton Pier a mile down the road from where Brighton Pier actually is. Which is a tad inconvenient since BlackLin didn't have the postcode of The Haunt, which was the venue, but she did know that I'd said it was just opposite Brighton Pier.

That meant we made good time into Brighton, but still ended up getting to the venue late. Which was unfortunate timing when it was the opening act we really wanted to see. We managed to see a song and a half of The Dirty Youth: the sound was really good (this time), the venue was pleasantly busy, the band were brilliant ... and we got to see them for a song and a half!

The second support act were Glamour Of The Kill, a band from Yorkshire. Wikipedia describes them as 'post-hardcore'; I'd call them generic 21st-century pop-punk. They are like all the least interesting tracks on Kerrang, whizzed up in a blender and poured out, lukewarm. This Yorkshire band sings its own songs with an American accent - how's that for artistic integrity! What really got me, though, was the drumming. Generally I like hard working drummers, and he was working hard. He was also drumming absolutely flat, on the blandest possible beat - no push, no pull, no interesting offbeats, nothing creative at all: one two three four wibbly bit wibbly bit one two three four and so on. I really didn't enjoy Glamour Of The Kill.

Headliners were Heaven's Basement. They were much more convincing: for a start they had genuine stage presence - you could tell they were the headliners. They also played their brand of modern heavy rock with energy and skill (and proper drumming). I genuinely enjoyed their set, but there was no doubt they were dinosaurs: from the posey guitarist to the "if God invited me to Heaven I'd choose Hell' woffle (Dio did it far better decades ago) to the acoustic ballad with a heavy finale, they were basically reworking ideas from the Classic Rock era, just heavier ... nothing really new. One entertaining moment was when the lead singer went off to allow the posey guitarist to sing lead on a song: the sense of presence just vanished; for all his posing he had the stage charisma of a damp towel dropped by a supermodel. Although, to be fair, he was good on guitar. At the end of their set there was no real enthusiasm from the crowd for an encore, but they gave us one anyway, as the audience slowly trickled away ... including us.

I'd say Heaven's Basement were a decent band, but anachronisms - out of time.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

It's Not Enough

File:Bombed out vehicles Aleppo.jpg
Aleppo, 2012
"Within the world the way it is, some policing will always be necessary; policing will sometimes involve restraint; restraint will sometimes involve violence. Not to admit this is to risk colluding with the bullies who are waiting in the wings for good people to remove controls."
Tom Wright, Creation, Power and Truth, p 64
It's not enough to simply say that some ruler, or government, or other authority is corrupt and abuses its power, so it should be removed. We live in a fallen world and all authorities are prone to do that to a greater or lesser extent. If you remove authority and allow anarchy to take its place the result is all too often an illustration of just how evil human nature can get.

Syria is a recent illustration of this. Before March 2011 Syria was under a long-term Emergency Law, which allowed extensive government oppression. Over the period from spring 2011 to summer 2012, with extensive western encouragement, unrest and protest escalated into full-scale civil war. An oppressive climate transformed into an out-of-control fratricidal bloodbath, with enormous suffering and no sign of any sort of long term solution arising out of the mess. Not to mention all the foreigners coming in and further destabilising the situation.

Of course, not everybody sees this is a bad thing: the Syrian civil war alters the balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran - one a western ally, the other not - as well as leaving serious instability on the borders of Russia. Would anyone, politician or newspaper owner, see this as in any way justifying the evil of an unnecessary civil war? Of course they would, we live in a fallen world.

Tom Wright's quote above was originally in the context of the need for some form of trans-national policing, which can be seen across the board as fair and effective. The US and UK have no credibility in that respect, especially in the Middle East, and have done no good to the authority of the UN in the process.

It's not enough to simply change the ruling class and expect anything to change for the better. Change has to start amongst the people: in civil institutions, in people working together for the common good. Change has to start with conversation and cooperation not with violence. If the authorities are too rigid then change may well eventually involve destruction and violence, but only as a last resort, and only when there is a civil society which can step in to rebuild and continue, speedily and without anarchy.

It looks as though Egypt has fallen at this hurdle - they failed to distinguish between true democracy, which involves a range of civil institutions with checks and balances, and a winner-takes-all majority rule, leading them straight back to yet another military coup (strongly backed by US and Israeli interests, it seems).

It's not enough to say "something must be done" and pressure governments into unhelpful interventions. It certainly isn't helpful for foreigners to get involved directly in another country's internal conflicts - a civil war already has too many factions fighting one another, without bringing in ignorant outsiders to further stir things up.

What would be helpful would be to support strong governance at a grassroots level, to promote fairness and equality internationally - not treating countries as pawns in global power games - and to find better ways of addressing conflicting needs and demands without violence.

To put it another, arguably more religious, way: we need to support justice and peace, whilst recognising that we live in a fallen world. In a Christian context 'justice' is always restorative justice - restoring creation to the way it was made to be - not retributive justice, which has little or nothing to do with peace.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

12 Years A Slave

12 years a slave
Quite a moving story, but I'm not sure what the point of the film really is.

12 Years A Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York State, who, in 1841,  is kidnapped and sold as a slave in the Southern USA. He's beaten and abused then, after 12 years, he is set free again (given the title, I don't think that counts as a spoiler). There is a lot of whipping, dwelt on in a manner reminiscent of Mel Gibson's Passion, and a certain amount of abusive sex. Quite why it only has a 15 certificate is a bit of a mystery.

The movie is based on a true story: one that happened in the 1840's, which was a very important story to tell back then. Even after 1865, when slavery was legally abolished in the USA, the story would still have been important in showing why abolition was necessary. But why at the beginning of the 21st century? Does anyone seriously still think that slavery was a good and reasonable institution? If they did, would they watch this film?

I am part of a housegroup which will be looking at this film over the next few weeks, so maybe I'll have better ideas after that. In the meantime, a few thoughts:-

The first point is that it makes a powerful and dramatic story. Not much happens, but it still paints a vivid and painful picture. A picture of long ago, but a truthful picture nonetheless.

The second is that, like the Holocaust and the First World War, slavery in the USA remains a painful but vital part of a people's history, which should not be forgotten. The original book was a very important historical document which dovetailed well with other accounts of slavery at the time, written from the perspective of an educated man who was 'on the inside'.

Thirdly, although legalised slavery has been abolished in the West (Pakistan and other countries still practise forms of indentured labour, which is essentially the same), illegal slavery still continues. The slavers may not comfort themselves with dubiously interpreted religious texts any more, but they are still active. Also, the underlying racism and dehumanising of 'the other' are far from over. In the USA racism around their black president is explicit; here in the UK it tends to hide behind other masks.

I guess the biggest take-home message of the film is that a human being is a human being, made in the image of God, never 'property', never disposable, always to be respected, always to be treated according to the Golden Rule: how would you want someone to behave if the situation were the other way around.