Posts Tagged ‘Ballads’

The One Show and Ian Hislop on IDS’ Crying over the Unemployed

April 8, 2016

Yesterday, the Beeb screened the documentary, showing Ian Duncan Smith, the Minister for Culling the Disabled and Unemployed, crying his crocodile tears. Presented by Private Eye’s editor, Ian Hislop, and entitled Workers or Shirkers, it aimed to tell the story of how there had been a constant tension in British politics between offering state aid to the poor as unfortunates requiring help on the one hand, and a much tougher line demanding that they look after themselves on the other. The interview between Hislop and aIDS, in which the Gentleman Ranker shed his tears, was a discussion about Victorian attitudes to poverty.

I didn’t watch the programme, for the very good reason that I thought it would make me angry. There was also no need. Hislop himself was on The One Show Wednesday evening to talk about it, and they showed the clip of aIDS crying then. I wasn’t impressed. Usually I’ve got quite a lot of respect for Hislop. I’ve used material from Private Eye to attack the Tories, and particularly their privatisation of the NHS and the vicious and murderous sanctions regime by the DWP, ATOS and Maximus. But his comments and the lack of them about this incident left me somewhat disappointed.

Let’s be clear from the start that IDS did not break down in floods of tears. He was merely talking to Hislop about a 19 year old girl, who’d given up on finding a job. So his voice broke, and he dabbed his eye. Several times. He then said, ‘I’m sorry, but she reminded me of my daughter.’ It wasn’t open weeping so much as when some people stop themselves when they’re beginning to well up, and then try to excuse this sudden show of emotion by saying that ‘they’ve just got something in their eye’. Or other such words to maintain their dignity.

Now, I follow Mike, and probably most left-wing commenters on this government, that IDS’ performance, whatever it was, was certainly not a genuine display of grief. Or if it was, it was only that he’d so far managed to kill so few. IDS has presided over a regime that has killed about 490 odd people from neglect, starvation and by their own hand, after having them thrown off benefits. Over a quarter of a million more have had their mental health exacerbated – sometime severely – by the sanctions regime. And far from expressing any remorse, IDS has simply had a guffaw about it in parliament with David Cameron. He laughed about it when some of the cases histories of those, who had suffered were read out in the House of Commons.

And then he has the gall to pretend that he is somehow ‘caring’.

What I disliked was that neither the presenters of the One Show nor Hislop, who should, and probably does know better, didn’t challenge the authenticity of this performance. The Show’s regular female presenter said sympathetically, ‘You can tell that was genuine’. When asked about his reaction, Hislop said that he was surprised, and didn’t expect it from the Ranker. He seemed prepared to give Smith the benefit of the doubt. He said that if it had been someone like Tony Blair, he would have expected there to have been an onion. The presenters then asked why he didn’t try to comfort Smith, at which Hislop laughed, ‘No! It is Ian Duncan Smith’.

Now Hislop’s failure to tackle the authenticity or lack thereof of Smith’s tears is serious. I’m assuming that Hislop was aware about the jolly chuckle Smith had about the suffering his policies had caused in parliament. It should have been mentioned, as it puts into perspective not just Smith’s, but this entire government’s attitude towards poverty and unemployment. But he didn’t. You’re left wondering about how far Hislop’s own sympathies are with Smith, and the Beeb’s bias towards the Conservatives. Or it may simply be any case of the weird code of Omerta amongst some journalists – that you don’t push politicos too hard, or they’ll stop giving you the interviews you need.

I also wasn’t impressed by some of the other comments Hislop made which were purely historical. For example, he talked about how Edwin Chadwick, who invented the workhouse system, was later castigated and reviled because of its horrors. Hislop, however, says that at the time workhouses were accepted, and the hatred merely came later. In my experience, this simply was not the case. When they were set up the workhouses were denounced by the poor and the radical press as ‘the new Bastilles’, prisons where the poor would be incarcerated like criminals, like the infamous prison for political prisoners under the ancien regime in France before the Revolution. Some parishes were so horrified by them that they flatly refused to build any. If anything, the workhouses only became accepted after a notorious case in the 1880s when inspectors found the inmates in one were so starving, that they were cutting open the bones to be ground for fertiliser in order to get at the marrow bone inside. That incident started a parliamentary inquiry into the terrible conditions in the Workhouses, resulting in some improvement in conditions. And even then, there were contemporary folk songs and popular ballads attacking them.

So after seeing this rather biased view of the historical reality behind the workhouse, and Hislop’s failure to tackle Ian Duncan Smith, I simply didn’t feel that I wanted to see the documentary. Perhaps the next one will be better. I hope so, but after that, I’m not sure.

Charles Dickens on the Brutality and Rapacity of the Tories

September 29, 2013

Charles_Dickens_1858

Charles Dickens is one of the great titans of modern English literature. His works have been prized, celebrated and imitated since the publication of The Pickwick Papers . The book’s appearance prompted a horde of copies lower down the press hierarchy in the penny journals. The copyright laws were much less rigorous then, and so these, lesser novels all had titles similar, but not identical to those of Dickens himself. His book, Sketches by Boz, was taken and copied by one of the 19th century popular journalists, as ‘Sketchbook by’, followed by a name very similar to Dickens’ ‘Boz’. His books have been adapted into stage plays, films and musicals, most famously A Christmas Carol, which has twice been filmed as a cartoon, and Oliver Twist, which became Lionel Bart’s musical, Oliver! His novels have also been frequently adapted for television. In the 1970s, for example, many of the Beeb’s period costume dramas broadcast on Sunday evening were adaptations of Dickens. I particularly remember Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield.

Despite his deserved popularity and immense respect, I suspect Dickens’ status as one of the Great Men of English Literature has probably done much to put people off him. People have a tendency to distrust automatically anything that becomes official, established art. One way to guarantee that people refuse to read a particular willingly is to put it on the school syllabus. Moreover, modern audiences are also likely to be left alienated by some of the characteristics of much 19th century writing, such as verbosity and their sentimentality. Boys in particular are likely to be put off him because of his novels’ period character, which associates them with the great 19th century lady novelists Jane Austen and the Brontes. In Superman II, for example, Clarke Kent’s identity as a wimpish square is firmly established, when Superman’s alter ego announces he wasn’t around to cover one incident as he was at home that evening reading Dickens. One suspects that its the kind of literature that such narrow-minded upholders of bourgeois respectability as Mary Whitehouse liked. For those younger readers suspicious of Dickens, I strongly recommend his short story, The Railwayman. It’s one of the classic British ghost stories, and completely amazed me when I read it as a teenager with its complete absence of all the dullness, verbosity and sentimentality I’d expected to come across in his works. Today one of Dickens’ great champions is the thesp Simon Cowell, who has toured in a one man play about the great writer and his life, and even appeared as his hero in a episode of Dr. Who, with Christopher Ecclestone playing the Time Lord. The video below comes from the Guardian, and is on Youtube. In it, Simon Callow takes the viewer around Dickens’ London.

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Dickens is partly celebrated for his work defending the poor and describing the hardship and poverty of the lives of ordinary people in 19th century Britain. Indeed, his surname has become a byword for conditions of grinding poverty and squalor in the word ‘Dickensian’. Dickens himself consciously wrote some of his novels both as works of social criticism, but also actively to improve the conditions of the poor. Horrified at the respectable middle classes’ indifference to the suffering of the labouring poor, he wrote A Christmas Carol. This transformed Christmas from a relatively minor holy day into the massive festival that it is today. As a socially engaged writer, Dickens could and did write bitter pieces sharply attacking the Conservatives. In 1841 the Liberal magazine, The Examiner, published his ballad, The Fine Old English Gentleman: New Version. It was a parody of a traditional ballad celebrating the virtues of the gentry. The hero of the traditional ballad shared his good fortune with his social inferiors, in the line ‘while he feasted all the great, he never forgot the small’.

Dickens wrote his satirical versions after the reforming Whigs had lost office and been replaced by Peel’s Conservatives, and the country was in the middle of a depression. The poem attacks the Tories for their corruption, brutal and oppressive laws, and their savage oppression of the poor to enrich themselves and the other members of the aristocracy. Cheekily, Dickens states as a direction for the poem’s performance that it should be said or sung at all Conservative dinners. It shows that what could be described as agit-prop literature long preceded the Communist party. The blackly humorous suggestion of performance venue and the bitter satire of the poem itself very much reminds me of the same mixture of humour and bitter social criticism in much contemporary radical, popular protests following 1960’s Situationism. This leads to the question of whether Dickens, if he were alive today, would be marching with the demonstrators, neatly attired in top hat and tail coat, and wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. Here’s the poem:

‘I’ll sing you a new ballad, and I’ll warrant it first rate,
Of the days of that old gentleman who had that old estate;
When they spent the public money at a bountiful old rate
On ev’ry mistress, pimp and scamp, at ev’ry noble gate,
In the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

The good old laws were garnished well with gibbets, whips, and
chains,
With fine old English penalties, and fine old English pains,
With rebel heads, and seas of blood once in hot in rebel veins;
For all these things were requisite to guard the rich old gains
Of the fine old English Tory timnes;
Soon may the come again!

The brave old code, like Argus, had a hundred watchful eyes,
And ev’ry English peasant had his good old English spies,
To tempt his starving discontent with fine old English lies,
Then call the good old Yeomany to stop his peevish cries,
In the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

The good old times for cutting throats that cried out in their need,
The good old times for hunting men who held their fathers’ creed.
The good old times when William Pitt, as all good men agreed,
Came down direct from Paradise at more than railroad speed …
Oh the fine old English Tory times;
When will they come again!

In those rare days, the press was seldom known to snarl or bark,
But sweetly sang of men in pow’r, like any tuneful lark;
Grave judges, too, to all their evil deeds were in the dark;
And not a man in twenty score knew how to make his mark.
Oh the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

Those were the days for taxes, and for war’s infernal din;
For scarcity of bread, that fine old dowagers might win;
For shutting men of letters up, through iron bars to grin,
because they didn’t think the Prince was altogether thin,
In the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

But Tolerance, though slow in flight, is strong-wing’d in the main;
That night must come on these fine days, in course of time was
plain;
The pure old spirit struggled, but its struggles were in vain;
A nation’s grip was on it, and it died in choking pain,
With the fine old English Tory days,
All of the olden time.

The bright old day now dawns again; the cry runs through the
land,
In England there shall be deear breat – in Ireland, sword and brand;
And poverty, and ignorance, shall swell the rich and grand,
So, raly round the rulers with the gentle iron hand,
Of the fine old English ~Tory days; Hail to the coming time!

Great literature transcends the ages, and speaks eternal truths about human nature, politics and society. What is shocking reading this is just how much is true today. The line about the silence of the press in the face of horrific oppression and abuse just about sums up much of the modern press under Murdoch, Dacre, the Barclay twins and the rest.

Source
Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove with David Horspool, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport (Edinburgh: Canongate 2013).