Monday, 23 December 2019

Feel (is a word I can't explain)

So sang Paul Weller on The Style Council's fourth single, A Solid Bond In Your Heart, which had also been considered as The Jam's last single. It's partly a soul song about being a soul song, a self-reflexive enactment of the power of music to move:

'Feel is a word I can't explain/At least not in words that are plain/Making it easy to express/ But I'll try to do my best/ To hit you where it counts/I just want to build up/ A solid bond in your heart'

I've been thinking about 'feel' and feelings a lot in the period since the election. I'm now listening to a 60s/70s soul playlist and it's the kind of music that raises my spirit, because its intention is to move, physically and emotionally. 'Get On Up', JB is singing as I write; Curtis tells us to 'Move On Up'. 

'Feel is a word I can't explain': or, put another way, feeling isn't totally encompassed by language. This seems to me to be entirely the case in the last election, which makes all the blue-tick commentariat hot takes about Labour's policies being 'too far left' just scratching the surface at the same old liberal itch. Polling showed that Labour policies were and are popular; but people went out and voted Conservative anyway, or didn't vote at all. This wasn't just the 'Brexit election': it exposed very clearly that when it comes to voting, people aren't rational actors, but vote with their emotions. And I think the overwhelming emotions in this country at the moment are despair and anger.

Adam Ramsey wrote a very insightful and persuasive piece on Open Democracy about the strategy on the Tories' part to concentrate not on politics, but feelings, using simple messages and the negative connotations relentlessly associated with Corbyn himself. Ramsey suggests that voters now tend to believe that all politicians are liars; it's no surprise then, when the Tories renege on election promises 10 days later. It's to be expected, as everyone lies.

If that's true, then you can't believe anyone, or in anything. There's no hope. Things are bad; things will always be bad; there cannot be a better future. That's why Labour's strategy of trying to persuade people with policies to vote for a better life for themselves and others failed - people don't, or can't believe in it.

It's the horizon of Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism tightened to the size of a noose.

All they can admit is the possibility of some kind of magical elevation out of all this: a lottery win. Or Brexit.

I understand depression and despair. I understand the pull towards it, the gravitational well of negativity. It's sometimes felt like I had a black hole right in the middle of myself. Life means nothing then. You yourself mean nothing, you value yourself at nothing. Nothing can be fixed, it's not worth even trying. You endure, and then you don't. And you break.

 This country, it seems to me, needs treatment. The Mass Psychology of Brexitism (to borrow a phrase) is negative hope, a kind of suicide: a leap off the ledge, out into something and somewhere else. And if you don't feel the landing, all the better.

I wrote a post about 'crying in the classroom' a couple of months ago, and how feeling is written out of the academic scenario. I think it's also written out of contemporary political analysis, which still operates as if we lived in a rational democratic moment. We don't. As Colin Crouch outlined 15 years ago, we live in a post-democracy, where spectacle takes the place of debate, and emotion takes the place of politics. Only Labour had any ideas in the election, but it didn't matter, because it was about how people feel. And those feelings were overwhelmingly negative.

 There's no solid bond in our hearts, to anything, even to ourselves.

Sunday, 15 December 2019

Home: the Gift

I've been listening a lot to The Jam's The Gift album recently, their last studio lp. In fact, I've been listening to all their songs from 1982, when Weller turned the band towards soul and funk with, on The Gift, some pretty outrageous borrowings (such as The World Column's So Is the Sun lifted wholesale for Transglobal Express) and some impressive covers, including the Chi-Lites 'Stoned Out of My Mind' (which gets a soft, slow workover) and Curtis Mayfield's 'Move On Up'. Mayfield is a keystone for the whole album, so it would have made sense to have the cover on The Gift itself rather than on the double-pack/ 12" single for 'Beat Surrender' (a Jam nut by the time of its release, I bought, and still have both).

The connection between soul, funk and Left politics that Weller found in Mayfield and early 70s soul pushes him to try to move the band towards a Stax or Motown sound with addition of keys and a horn section, but except in brilliant exceptions ('Town Called Malice') the graft never really takes. Weller's half out the door by then anyway, and though he tries the agit-funk mode again with Money-Go-Round, The Style Council's second single, he's really moving in a different direction.

The Gift was one of the first albums I had bought myself (preceded by Adam and the Ants'  Prince Charming, OMD's Architecture and Morality and Madness's 7). The Jam were the first band I really fell for, hard: a friends' older brother had all the original singles, which I goggled at, but I slowly picked up all the albums, just in time for the band to break up. I remember some clued-up fellow pupil telling me the news (another older brother must have been reading the music press), and the farewell tv performance on The Tube. I was 13 when they split.

Listening to The Gift takes me home. 1982 was the year the family moved to a house that my parents had looked at before but couldn't afford, a semi-detached house in the Essex town of Hadleigh. I lived there from age 18 until I left for university in 1987, and then returned for a couple of stints between degrees. It's the only house - in fact the only place - that is 'real' in my dreams. Everywhere else - work, towns cities, country - are all arbitrarily constructed by my unconsciousness, and labelled 'office' or 'park' or 'New York'. Except for the house in Hall Crescent, in my dreams, I am never at home.

I had the same feeling on Friday morning. Where we live in North Wales, on the edge of the old coalfield, had been a Labour seat since we moved here in 2002. But it went Tory, along with Wrexham. I was horrified, and my instant reaction was: the village, the country, the world, isn't what I thought it was.

Ever since I left Essex - a place that was, and is, the opposite of home to me politically - I think I've been looking for a home. I probably found one in Liverpool, a city I love, but left after 6 years, mainly to start a life with Deniz, who would become my wife. And Wales, slowly, became my home. But now - well, I'm not so sure. It feels like I've been kidding myself.

I still listen to The Jam a lot, from all periods of their career. There's never quite been a band like them since, I think. But because I've listened to them all my adult life, it's not nostalgia when I play their albums - I know all the words and sing along, but the songs are alive. There's not that resonance of time or place that certain songs will provoke because they are locked into a particular moment, memory, or emotion. In that way, they don't take me home.

But in other ways they do. If it's not nostalgia, it's the gift of solace. The Jam don't bring me home to Hall Crescent, but they do bring me back to myself, somehow, to a younger self - and The Jam are a young man's band. A young man, living in a Tory heartland, wanting and hoping for a better world.

The Old Man Blues

I watched Scorsese's The Irishman in two parts in the end: two hours and then 90 minutes (sorry, Marty). I found it baggy and episodic, and Scorsese-by-numbers in a way. It passed the time. The 'de-ageing' CGI didn't really bother me much, and was more convincing than the cushion-up-the-shirt look affected by De Niro in later scenes to present Frank's barrel-chested physique.

The Irishman was, I thought, Scorsese's version of Ellroy's American Tabloid: a tale of titanic bad men whose activities are part of the matrix of forces that determine the history of post-war America. Like Ellroy, Scorsese privileges paranoia, violence and crime over the everyday, and over politics per se. Hoffa is a rabble-rouser, but his actual popularity with his union members was predicated on what he did for them against the 'government and corporations', not on mobbed-up lawyer-grifters getting them off charges of theft, nor on the huge loans made to organised crime from the Teamsters' pension fund. Yes, we know about Mob involvement in Kennedy winning Illinois; yes, we know that Hoffa funded Nixon's 1968 campaign. But these political narratives are really pushed to the periphery.

Frank has no political consciousness, a lack matched only by the absence of remorse: "Water under the dam' he says, incongruously, when a priest asks him if he has any feelings for the families of the men he murdered. Frank inhabits an instrumentalized subjectivity: he does what he is told (and the only time he doesn't, near the beginning of the film, he gets into very hot water). Is he an 'authoritarian personality', completely other-directed, who aligns himself with prevailing powers? Is The Irishman Scorsese's Frankfurt School-style indictment of postwar American life?

Not really. It is, as ever, a film about men and masculinity. There's a homosocial triangle between Frank, Russell (Joe Pesci) and Hoffa (Al Pacino) which excludes all the women in Frank's life: to make the point, he gets divorced early in the film, and his second wife dies of lung cancer before the end. But they're really only cardboard cut-outs, scenery for the masculine drama. The one female figure who does make a recurrent appearance, although she hardly speaks at all (two or three lines), is his daughter Peggy, who he forces to witness an act of violence when she is a child. This alienated her from him, and throughout the film you can see her guess Frank's role in a series of high-profile mob murders. But her role is so symbolic that she might as well have 'CONSCIENCE' written on a sign around her neck.

Peggy often stares from the edge of the mise-en-scène, a type of shot that recurs throughout the film: Harvey Keitel, in a cameo as a mob 'higher up', does this recurrently, and in a banquet scene, Hoffa stares down aggressively from the top table at Russell and Tony (another capo) discussing him. This scene makes most overt the idea of Banquo's Ghost, a role really played by Peggy (whose relationship with Frank is effectively 'killed' when she witnessed his violence); but Frank never really feels guilt, still less repents. Like driving a truck, killing men is just a job.

I found the last half an hour the most interesting and effective, when all the main protagonists are silver-haired, superannuated and somewhat pathetic while serving time as very old men. The scene where Frank, now wheelchair-bound, refuses to tell a couple of FBI agents what happened to Hoffa even though 'it's all over' and everyone else is long dead, is one of the best-calculated in the entire film. It's not exactly omertà (Frank is, is the title won't let us forget an Irishman, not an Italian or Sicilian) - it's more the sense that he's so closed as a human being that nothing escapes.

The final shot of the film is a very overt nod to the end of The Godfather, with Frank wanting the door of his room in an old folks' home left open by the priest, and the camera outside framing him through the gap. As much as the Ellroy connection, I felt this is a film which could have been made, and made more effectively, by Coppola at the height of his powers. One of my favourite scenes in The Godfather is the late discussion between Brando and Pacino, with the Don as an old, fading consiglieri in a plaid shirt: 'I never wanted this for you'. And the end of The Irishman could also be said to echo the end of The Godfather Part II, with Michael sitting on the dock, a hollow man. But there's no pathos here, no depth. It's cleverly orchestrated in terms of time and narrative, it looks lovely, but it's an old story told by an old man about other old men. I wish it had recognised that a bit more fully and not wanted to de-age both its cast and itself. A film about the everyday lives of three old mobsters in prison or a nursing home? Now that I'd want to see.

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