Us and Them
For the past few weeks, in preparation for next weekend’s extravaganza of English Song in beautiful Ludlow, I’ve been reading about, and listening to, a great deal of British music… and trying to determine what, exactly, makes it British. From Peter Ackroyd’s Albion to Raymond Williams’s sensational The Country and the City, I’ve been trying to trace those things that we use to define musical and poetic nationhood back to its sources: the political reality, the poetical conceits. It’s been fascinating, and I’m hugely looking forward to discussing this, and other topics, with colleagues at Ludlow.
But as sometimes happens, this research has also come to set the cogs of my brain turning once again as, at City Lit, we come to questions of nationhood and nationalism in late nineteenth-century Europe (and indeed, further afield). What is it that all these people were seeking out, in their respective countries – whether under the rule of empire, struggling for unification, or simply attempting to escape that sense of being culturally beholden to other places? (I maintain that there is a version of music history to be written – quite a long and expansive one, actually – called ‘getting away from the Italians’. If I had a pound for every time a cultural development is apparently galvanised by trying to kick Italian musicians out of assorted courts/opera houses/theatres/concert halls/musical genres…) Inspiration seems so often to have been found in landscape, in ‘the peasants’ broadly conceived: folk songs and dances, finding the oldest person in the remotest village and asking them to sing a song, you know the drill. On the pre-industrial, the pre-cosmopolitan. And in the belief that somehow, the countryside itself, prior to the advent of the steam engine and mass production, hadn’t really changed since… well, since the area first got its sense of identity. A belief which Raymond Williams unpicks and dispatches with amazing grace and eloquence.
But we also very often define things in opposition to: a reactive definition, if you like. If we know that certain characteristics belong to the Pips, and we’re Pops and do don’t those things, then we’re partly Pops because we’re not like Pips. If you see what I mean. Rinse and repeat to uncover the stereotypes we all know and love. Italians, what? All emotional all over the place. No stiff upper lip like us Brits, eh? And so on.
Push it far enough, and reactive definitions and stereotypes give way to active suspicion. We don’t trust the Pips, because they don’t do things like us Pops. All a bit shady. Perhaps they’re up to something. Aha, an idea: maybe if those Pips who are visiting Pop-land should be encouraged to be a bit more Poppish. Let’s teach them a jolly song. And some stories. And give them a nice woolly jumper, like the woolly jumpers we Pops always wear. Much better! Now they look like us. Nothing to be scared of. Quite what the visiting Pips might make of such treatment, of course, is not really part of the equation.
I’ll not belabour connections with the current international political situation. (OK, I won’t belabour such connections any further.) But it fascinates me that the broad historical picture seems to demonstrate a constant swinging pendulum between the frantic rush to define and protect Us, and periods of curiosity and optimism that we might be able to work better with Them. And I don’t just necessarily mean between countries, of course: a trip to Beverley a few weeks ago for the glorious New Paths Festival featured a most enjoyable conversation with some locals who teasingly spoke of the enmity between those of them in East Yorkshire (the ‘right’ side of the county) and those funny folks over in the West. Every day, in every way, we tend to define things, people and places in all kinds of ways to make sense of the world. And there is a real sense of panic, for some, when what they see before them cannot easily be classified.
The need for group belonging is evidently very strong with us as a species, from football clubs to Womens’ Institutes and yes, if you like, national pride. But it’s a thorny issue as well, of course. Most rich topics of debate are, when you come down to it. So what’s the secret to being Truly British? Like everything else, stories: some of them historical (Kings and Queens, Tallis and Byrd), some musical (modes and masses, folk songs and dances), and some them the many and varied myths that have grown up around things, to explain, unite and divide. As a little experiment in last week’s City Lit class, I asked what we might do to write something now that was an honest-to-god British nationalist composition. We ended up with a Shakespearean sonnet-style text and a Vaughan Williams orchestra, on the subject of King Arthur, in a reworking of a hit by the Sex Pistols. Someone had better write to the RVW Trust. That’s a piece I’d be extremely interested to hear.