Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Review: Going to Sea in a Sieve: The Autobiography

Going to Sea in a Sieve: The Autobiography
Going to Sea in a Sieve: The Autobiography by Danny Baker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It took me more than two decades to realise that Danny Baker isn't a chattering imbecile but is in fact a genius. This revelation came through spending an hour a day listening to the gloriously surreal inventiveness of his BBC London radio show.

Despite being co-founder of the legendary punk fanzine Sniffin' Glue and a major writer at New Musical Express in the late 70s and 80s, where conformity to 'correct' opinions was almost Maoist in its intensity, this is a man who has never denied his love for unhip, old music (such as Steely Dan and Anthony Newley) and who was almost lynched when, aged 20, he leapt on stage to berate a punk audience that was cheering at the news that Elvis had just died. More recently he's been railing against the tyranny of 'cool'.

This covers the first 25 years of his life, and what a fascinating life it is. His father was a docker who supplemented his income - as they all did - by taking a cut of Britain's flagging export trade. Baker sold knocked-off records to the Petticoat Lane traders and left school at 15, despite being top of the class, to work in a hip record shop in Soho, where he met all the stars but chucked Queen out for demanding that the shop play their debut album, which he and the manager hated.

Baker's story isn't a tale of triumph in the face of hardship: it's a story of of a happy, trauma-free, working-class upbringing; staying just the right side of poverty by keeping just the wrong side of the law; being happy by spending every penny as it comes; and succeeding by cheek, talent, wit, blarney and outrageous good fortune.

His warmth and utter lack of pretention keeps the book charming, while his comic talent keeps it fun and sometimes hilarious, never more so than in his record-shop days or his japes as receptionist at the NME. He even apologises for calling Kate Bush Chicken Licken.

My only complaint is that, having never given Nick Kent's testicles a moment's thought, I now have an image of them in my mind that can never be erased.

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Sunday, September 22, 2013

Farage, Dulwich and the Hitler Youth songs

My only picture of Farage from school.
It has been reported recently that Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence party, sang "Hitler Youth songs" while in the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) at his school, Dulwich College, in 1981.

I know Farage didn't sing any Hitler Youth songs because we didn't know any. Yes, ‘we’. I was there; Channel 4 News wasn't and nor, for that matter, was Chloe Deakin (the teacher whose letter about Farage was the basis of the stories).

The letter itself was kept by Bob Jope, a teacher I knew well and admired very much, and who was the epitome of what right-wing commentators would describe as a "trendy leftie". His motives in keeping and later publicising the letter will be obvious, but he didn't hear the cadets singing in Sussex because he wouldn't have been seen dead in the CCF. He was still a good teacher though, and one who inspired creative thinking – a much-needed counter-balance to the school's more usual obsessions with Latin and rugby.

Deakin was never a friend of the CCF (and I'm more sympathetic to her view now than I was then), so it's no surprise that her hearsay report to the headmaster, David Emms, was exaggerated. By the time the story appeared in the newspapers this month, it was a report of a report of a letter reporting a report: in other words, the fourth round of Chinese whispers spread over 30 years. 
Bob Jope in November 1981, singing in a school band

The songs we sang were often racist and sexist, but none were Nazi songs. Nobody could sing in German, and anyway, where would you learn the Horst Wessel song in 1981? Look it up on YouTube? They sold some pretty questionable records in Our Price in Croydon (REO Speedwagon anyone?), but I don't remember seeing Lieder aus der Hitler-Jugend in the bargain racks. 

I'm ashamed of the songs we did sing, and I'm disappointed the teachers didn't stop us, but maybe they were consciously not rising to the bait. After all, the point wasn’t to express an opinion; it was to sing something to shock our elders, in the loutish ways adolescent boys often do. It wouldn't have been shocking if we hadn't known that the sentiments were repellent. That's probably why the Red Flag also got the occasional outing (only occasional: we didn't really know the words), because a Communist song was considered just as likely to raise the hackles of the authorities at a public school. Another song celebrated homosexuality in a boys' school where no one would ever admit to being gay. We were almost daring ourselves to shock ourselves as well as the teachers.

Nobody ever expressed these views in normal conversation; after all, we had black, Asian, South Asian and Jewish friends. There were a few racist songs in the canon, but when marching we were more likely to sing something like Yellow Bird - a cheerful song about animal cruelty that provided the title of Kevin Powers' recent novel about the Iraq war, with a rhythm much better suited to marching than Ivor Biggun's Winker's Song.

Did Farage join in with these songs? My (possibly flawed) recollection is that we all did. Did he instigate the singing? Possibly, but I don't recall him doing so, whereas I often did, despite being a left-leaning liberal then and now. Despite our political differences, Farage was a friend of mine and he appeared then as he appears now: nationalistic, right wing on social and economic issues but not a Nazi or a racist.

As an old school friend of mine commented on Facebook this week, "I don't recall him being particularly strident or offensive and I was almost the only Jew in (Dulwich) Village."

The songs we sang are irrelevant because they tell you nothing about our political beliefs now. They don't even tell you about our political beliefs then.

Why am I bringing up actions I'm ashamed of to defend a politician I don't support? Something to do with facts being sacred, I suppose.