Tuesday, February 28, 2006

I don't know whether to laugh or cry. While winding down for the night, I came across a rediffmail article on Bush's visit to India.
While American staff must be lauded for the perfect manner in which they handle the President's security, it has petrified those who will be involved in India.
I bet it has. If the President has a cold while he's swapping rugby jokes with ministers and senior bureaucrats, will we be the next Global Terrorists, the new Threats to World Security?
Staff at the Maurya Sheraton in New Delhi, where Bush will stay, are completely overawed. They are not allowed to speak with the media and do not even whisper about the possible schedule of Bush and his wife, Laura.
'They seek him here, they seek him there....' Bush the phantom wraith slipping into and out of five-star hotels like a ghost....Bush as Clark Kent who has a Secret (who has a WMD)...watch out, you never know...he might be standing behind you. BOO! There, scared you, didn't I?
An unconfirmed report claims that American security officials wanted to handle Air Traffic Control themselves when Air Force One, the Presidential aircraft, arrives in New Delhi. Indian engineers, they've been told, are capable of handling the situation but it would not be surprising if American officials are allowed to be around.
No? Seriously? It would not be surprising? Go on, then, surprise me, do. And Jai Mata Di, while we're about it. Brave, patriotic Indian engineers, risking their all to prove the nation's collective manhood...we can handle our own Air Traffic Control ourselves, thank you very much! Huh! Who do these Americans think they are?? Remember the National Movement....jokes apart, though, it is brave, isn't it? Suppose Dubya trips on the red carpet? Jobs for the chop then, boys, surely? (It reminds me, not entirely coincidentally, of the red carpet that the Germans try to roll out for Mussolini in The Great Dictator).
Weapons, gadgets, helicopters and personnel are accompanying Tarzan as he swings from tree to tree in New Delhi. It is being said that 700 Indian and American policemen will cordon off the route from the airport to Maurya Sheraton.
Indeed. What fun. Santa Bush is coming to town...and not just Bush, but a vast, expanding mobile foliage too. With the best weapons discreet arms deals can make.
It all makes me a little sad. Visiting English cricketers used to get stomach flu when they came here, and whinged about it no end. Hell, even I got stomach flu, once in a while. Couldn't something like that be gently arranged? We are a hospitable people, it's often said, isn't it? It wouldn't end the War on The World's Biggest Abstract Noun, but it might, just might, weaken Bush's famous Resolve for a moment. Think about it....the President's Resolve has Loose Motions!
It does no harm to fantasize. Just a bit. Couldn't they cook him something spicy at the Maurya Sheraton?
Chefs of the Maurya, unite! The balance of the world hangs in your hands!

Cromer Street is a narrow road that I use to get from where I live to SOAS, or to the Senate House Library. As you walk down it towards London University, on the left there's an old church, and on the right a row of small shops - eateries, groceries, clothing shops - run chiefly by Bangladeshis. Today, as I was walking by, things seemed tense, though there weren't many people on the street. It was beginning to get dark, around the time that you remember friends telling you that King's Cross is a 'dodgy area'. Facing me, in the middle of the road, was a black man who looked absolutely livid - it took some time to realize it wasn't me he was glaring at, just staring inarticulately into space, tuning in to something I hadn't picked up yet. Two South Asian women hurried by, looking straight ahead of them, looking scared. And then I heard the voice.

'....fucking coming here with your filth. Coming to our land, with your shit and your filth.' It didn't take long to figure this out. Across the road was a man, a tramp, dressed in a thick white jacket which was probably all the clothing he'd been able to afford in all of last month, not shouting precisely but speaking in a very, very loud voice. 'I fucking wish you'd all fucking die. Go back to where you came from. I can smell you - from a mile off, you fucking filth. Coming here and destroying our land.' I walked by, darting a glance at him every two seconds despite myself. He didn't seem to notice me. I don't think he noticed anyone. There were three or four brown and black faces on the road - but to him we were a tidal wave, a plague of conquerors, a machine gun roaring away at his land, taking away his home, his happiness, his job. (Should I have shouted 'Maggie took your job, not me' at him? Trite as it might sound, it wouldn't have been untrue. But I walked by.) 'I KNOW you. ALL of you.' No, you don't. You never did and you never will. And that's not your fault. But it's not mine either. 'Go...awaaay. Fucking filth. Our land...' The voice trailed off. Speakers on Hyde Park Corner must often feel the same way, when they lose their audience. And they're often saying the same things. It was frightening, it was also pathetic. He didn't have enough strength on those bones to hurt a child. But there were children looking at him with scared, wounded eyes on the street. And I felt like them. That wasn't difficult. I wonder what it's like, though, to feel like him.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

I like convalescing. Four days of bad bad flu, then I pick up the debris, start recovering, aided by Terry Pratchett's The Light Fantastic. (there are some things I'm a complete sucker for, and Pratchett's one of them. My first in ages, by the way. Last year I read about twenty one after the other when I should have been finishing a dissertation...but that's another story.)

Post-convalescence, with ginger steps, is a nicer feeling still. Today, mid-afternoon, Covent Garden. Lunch with an old college friend I hadn't met in ages. And then, out in a very fragile London sunshine, threatened by clouds from all sides but holding strong. In front of Covent Garden station, crowds milling past busily, people mostly like my friend, with work and offices to go to once lunch hour's past. The usual bunch of tourists too - many nationalities, many chattering tongues, many footsteps clattering on the cobbled stones, many cameras clacking. Many faces, disappearing into the distance.

And in the middle of all this, a bearded busker in a blue cap, picking out the most exquisite notes on an old acoustic guitar. First a typical delta blues, could have been anything really, and probably was too. Then, nearly without a break, pirouettes into the first solo guitar rendition of the Dave Brubeck Quartet's 'Take Five' that I've ever heard. A man, a woman and a pram (I wasn't near enough to see if it was occupied, but I suppose it was..) stop for a while, gaze wonderingly at him as he plays, clap their hands, and move on. He looks up briefly, grins and winks at them, then at me (who is this bugger anyway? he's been here half a bloody hour!) and carries on playing. Nearby, a youngish man in a much-worn and tattered black jacket, I think a tramp, is sitting on a bench eating the remains of a sandwich. Also listening. The liquid notes weave a blue line between us. Kids rattle across the cobbles, casting curious glances at the man with the guitar. There was something sad about it, yes. There always is about buskers, about anyone who needs to bust a gut to have someone toss 20p into his empty guitar case. When I tossed in a coin, I saw he'd made very little indeed today. But what he was doing, right then and there, was about more than that - the music was about more than that. It was sad, yes. It was also the most beautiful thing in the world.

The sun was up. For a while. Holding its own.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Why, oh why, is sleep so difficult? I spent much of the last year trying to prove that body clocks don't exist, I'm paying the price now, as reality kicks in like the worst of black coffees.
And tonight - or today - is not the best of times to go through another fit of insomnia. Tomorrow Jose Pununari, from the occupied Zanon factory in Argentina, speaks at SOAS, and I want to be there and I want to be awake. The factory takeovers by workers in Argentina have, for me, been the most exciting thing to have happened since the millennium began. Will they lead anywhere? One doesn't dare hope too much, of course, given the history of our hopes on the Left, and all our idols and movements with their tragedies and defeats and feet of clay...but yet...but yet.
Right. I thought I might have something clever/profound/witty to say. Surely there's some compensation for not being able to sleep? But it turns out I don't. I shall continue to listen to Jerry Garcia cover Dylan's music and fight the good fight against the demon of wakefulness. U. has promised to deliver a wake-up call at 8.30 in the morning...bless her, but I have a feeling it'll be to no avail. And in the meantime, anyone in London whose hearts are set a-beating at the idea of a workplace without bosses, please do turn up at SOAS tomorrow. Two in the afternoon. There - I've done my bit for the revolution. Now good night.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Martin Scorsese's monumental enterprise, the six-volume film compilation The Blues, begins with a moving elegy by Scorsese himself, a film named 'Feel Like Going Home', which traces, a la John and Alan Lomax, the beginnings of the story of the blues, back in the Mississippi delta, and makes imaginative connections between the musical past and present of the land of the blues. Midway through the film, Willie Dixon, playing in a run-down bar, breaks into a song I haven't ever heard before. Dixon turns out to be an old man with two surviving teeth - as 'classically 'typical' a purveyor of the blues as ever lived! I don't know what I expected the man who wrote 'Little Red Rooster' and 'Spoonful' to look like - I guess surprise was unavoidable. But here are lines from the song he sang - another touch of the uncanny, another song which seems to have been written for the world we live in right now, though it wasn't.

now you talk about terror
what about poor me
i been terrorized
all my days
couldn't walk down the road
without somebody gonna stop by
want to pick on poor me

'You talk about terror'. You do, indeed. And poor Willie, who's probably been singing that song decades before you decided to bomb terror out of this world, knows you've been lying all along. In a sense the only genuine 'war on terror' the USA's ever seen, or probably is ever going to see, was the Civil Rights Movement. And this song speaks the terror that was confronted, and partly beaten back, by that.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Late night, early morning really. London at its coldest. Nerves jangling to music. A DVD version of Baez singing ‘Love is just a four letter word’…and there’s the ghost of old man Dylan, rather young man, or better still boy Dylan, floating menacingly above the tragi-melody of her rendition. At a cleverly chosen juncture, a passable imitation of the great man’s voice rings through her, before she bends back into her own tones…enough said. I know you hang over this song, I know it can never be fully mine without summoning you from our past, our shared history, as you were and as you never were…but this is not a reproach, not now, let this be a shared joke between us, though I alone will laugh at it.

The DVD – Scorsese’s marvelous if somewhat hagiographic documentary – moves on to Dylan himself, barely more than a child, a rebellious adolescent with a voice and a vocabulary none had possessed yet, or has since. He sings, in front of a visibly gloomy Donovan, a haunting early version of ‘love minus zero’, in that voice, world-weary but angrily young, bitter yet joyously high-spirited, wary but knowing, hard yet tender. I haven’t heard it sung better – compassion, sweetness and brittle danger resonate with one another in that voice. In that music. We move, instantly, into that maddened Newcastle performance of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, when a junked-out Dylan cups his hands, and blazes into the mike like lava, ‘you’re invisible, you got no secrets…to conceaaaaaal’…blotting out in that scream and in that gesture the history that gave him his power, the political world he fed off, and the doomed, failed escape from it which nonetheless succeeded, producing the greatest writing rock music will ever know. The crowd is edgy, stunned, shocked…Dylan feeds off that shock, ripping at it with his teeth, his eyes, and his breath.

And I wonder, watching all of this at a distance of four decades, about the nature of that peculiar intensity that binds me to this re-re-reproduction, through digital technology, of that moment in time and in music, about my investment in what haunts me. The nervous drive that fuses my body and mind with that moment, dimly imagined and dimly represented in the shaking motions of the camera, the machinic pulsation between us, this radiation and interlocution of distant presents and disentangling histories. How can this be named? Awe, rapture, resonance…all true, but all inadequate. Perhaps the only word that can catch it is love, at its richest and in its most ambivalent manifestations. Tenderness and desire, devotion and obsession, longing and, above all, excitement.

And it holds, though with a greater melodic softness, into the music I play next, the dancing, shimmering guitar-work of Jerry Garcia. His music moves me like the music of none I’ve heard…each note plucks out unexpected juxtapositions of sweetness, mystery, mourning and ecstasy. Garcia died horribly, but I like to think of his life as happy. The live recordings of his performances convey this to me somehow. The earlier days: the poet in a community of poets, the purveyor of lyric, the gentle, already slightly burly bearded guitarist weaving his magic with an almost diffident grace. The later days: an older, more twinkling magician, more a touch of the professional performer, perhaps, but also a more meditative wisdom at work, reflective as his earlier work was exploratory, interpretive as his earlier work was innovative. After the watershed with the Dead in the early and mid 1970s, his best work came well into his forties, from the early 1980s. There’s more mastery in the construction, the finesse that comes of re-tuning and reworking the same sets for decades. The best work comes live, there are few outstanding studio recordings in the decade before his death. Psychedelia, hippie freedom, country and bluegrass renewals…these cannot generate a new music in the 1980s, but remain Garcia’s musical referents. So he begins to re-interpret the music that swayed the Dead in the 70s. And operatic crescendos, darkly beautiful narratives are produced, and leap out from the guitar and voice at screaming audiences…there’s not just commerce, but mischief in how he plays with them. A wise ageing man, looking older than he is, a Father Christmas figure, with a big round belly and a sweet smile and a white beard…avuncular to the core. But something hides and dances beneath that, to the last days before the drug overdose that killed him. An elvish magic, to tiredly evoke tolkien, an elvish and impish and druidical magic, obvious yet hidden, dark but kind.

Nostalgia's a strange thing. How is it possible to feel nostalgic for a time and place you'd never known? But I do.