Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Greetings to an old (former) brunette

Now, I must say that this is something I never expected: veteran left-wing singer-songwriter Billy Bragg pleasantly greeting the Queen at the re-opening of the refurbished Royal Festival Hall, a gala evening in which Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was performed with lyrics by Bragg.

I'm not sure which part of that sentence I find more unlikely: that Bragg exchanged pleasantries with the Queen or that he had freely interpreted the words of Friedrich Schiller that Beethoven had used in the fourth movement of the Ninth, better known to many as 'Ode to Joy'.

Woody Guthrie, sure...but...Friedrich Schiller? Unexpected, to say the least.

And it seems that he not only met the Queen, but found her to be quite charming.

Bragg, it seems, feels he has some explaining to do.

Via the Daily Mail (thanks to Anja for the tip):

How could I - a life-long socialist who believes that God Save The Queen should be replaced as England's national anthem by Blake's Jerusalem - find myself shaking hands with Her Majesty?

After all, as a punk rocker during the Queen's Jubilee year back in 1977, I bought my copy of the Sex Pistols' anarchic God Save The Queen like all my mates.

Indeed, I woke up the morning after the performance to find columnists in the Mail wondering how a 'dyed-in-the-wool republican' like me could shake hands with the Queen.
His explanation is interesting and well worth reading, not least since I have no doubt that there are a lot of his fans who will find this to be some kind of heresy.

I'm not one of them, though, and actually I find his commentary on the event convincing--indeed, even moving--for reasons both political and personal.

Actually, my reasons are probably more on the personal side, which requires some background.

Bragg and I go back a ways...in the sense that even though he has no idea who I am, I have been a fan of his since my mid teens (so the mid '80s), have seen him in concert more than a dozen times and once even had the pleasure of speaking to him after a show (in Washington, DC).

When I was first learning to play guitar (way back then), I made my way though his early catalogue, and for a while I could probably do reasonably good versions of nearly all his songs. My interest has waned a bit after the Guthrie projects, but I still have followed him occasionally, and have noted with interest his new career as author and advocate of left-wing patriotism.

My relationship with the Queen, in a sense, goes back to some of my earliest memories.

My mother, you see, immigrated to America from England in 1948 to marry my father, whom she'd met during the war. (No, in my family, we didn't have to specify which war, it was just 'the war'.)

Now, in my experience, immigrants tend to go either one of two ways: they either adopt fully the culture of the society they've entered or they cling to the memory of their homeland.

My mother, somehow, managed to do both.

Though she felt enormously proud of being American (she gained citizenship before I was born), it was always England that remained her 'home'. A particular version of England of course, one consisting of one part Finest Hour nostalgia, one part monarchist devotion, one part working-class earthiness...and a healthy dollop of kitsch. As a northern Irish friend of mine put it after a visit to our family home once: there were more Union Jacks in our house than he'd seen anywhere outside of a Unionist parade.

Hers was an idiosyncratic form of national identity, perhaps, but a heartfelt one nonetheless, and she went back as often as she could.

And though, toward the end of her life, she began to lose patience for the rest of the royal pack, she continued in some way to admire Elizabeth, who was born in the same year as she. They had, in a sense, grown up together, at least via newspaper pictures, newsreels and radio broadcasts. And to some extent, I'm quite sure that my mother's identification with the Windsor matriarch had more to do with sympathies of one mother (and grandmother) to another than anything resembling political theory.

This was something we often talked about over the years, just as we spoke about the class system in which she grew up (and so resented), the sacrifices and terrors of the war (somewhat softened by time and nostalgia) and the left-wing politics her own father had tirelessly -- if good humouredly -- promoted. (He was, as she informed me once with great solemnity, 'a socialite'. It never occurred to me to correct her.)

For all these reasons, then, I find it somehow poignant when Bragg comments on her generation:
Once [the House of Lords is abolished], I don't have a problem with having a monarchy that is symbolic. After all, the Queen already plays that role, especially for the generation who lived through World War II. They do seem to revere her more than the rest of us.

So I believe that while there are still those among us whose loved ones fought and died for king and country in that conflict, then we owe them a debt of respect, not only for the sacrifices they made during the war, but for the legacy of the Welfare State, which they created and handed down to us. By respecting the Queen, we respect them.
I recognise, of course, that there is something soggy and soft and hopelessly sentimental about this, so there's no need to point that out.

I'm not, after all, trying to argue that he is necessarily right about the relative benignity of the monarchy in the grand scheme of things (though, to be honest, I think he's correct that there are more significant fights to be fought than republicanism as such...), but rather to get past the politics a bit into the personal.

My mother died earlier this year. Since it wasn't a surprise, she had had time to issue requests (well, orders really...) about what kind of music she wanted played at her funeral. Music was one of the most important things in her life.

Among her choices was Jerusalem. Now, there are different views on this song, but I have always found the combination of the music and Blake's poetry to be deeply moving. Played in a simple arrangement and without some of the bombast that sometimes accompanies it, it's a lovely, lovely song. And in some way inspirational.

Thus it didn't take me long to pick out the rendition of the song that Bragg had sung on one of his EPs to be played at her service. It actually fit in much better than you might have expected with the Vera Lynn and Bing Crosby versions of the other tunes she had requested.

In the end, apart from a few of the older bits of ceramic commemorating various coronations and jubilees, the vast collection of royalist memorabilia that my mother had accumulated over her long life went to other members of my family. Royalism's not my scene, really, and the whole idea of political sovereignty deriving from royal power (recall: it is, quite literally, still 'her majesty's government') is something that I find somehow perverse.

But, really, as long as it's not taken too seriously (and, really, for a long time, it hasn't been) then I think one would have to look elsewhere for urgent problems in British society.

Additionally, I have always found it difficult to dislike HRH herself. (This goodwill is not extended either to her husband or her children.)

And I can certainly think of a number of reasons not to begrudge Billy Bragg a nice night out with his family, his friends and...uh...his national figurehead.

As he puts it:
I could have been sniffy, I suppose, and refused to shake her hand, but she was good enough to come to my gig and follow my lyrics while they were sung. She even asked for my autograph.

Last Tuesday night was very special. I sat with my mother, my missus and my son while we listened to a great orchestra and a massive choir passionately sing my words to one of the greatest pieces of music ever written.

And afterwards, I got to shake hands with the woman who gave the World Cup to Bobby Moore. For a boy from Barking, it just doesn't get much better than that.

What can I say? The Queen charmed the pants off me.

A questionable idiom, perhaps...but a sweet sentiment.


Anja said...

Is that a Mao suit he's wearing?

J. Carter Wood said...

You think he had just flown in from the 17th Party Conference? I don't know...

I hadn't really noticed the suit. I may have been distracted by the Spider Woman standing next to him.

E.R. is certainly looking snazzy though. I wonder what that material is....

R. Sherman said...

In spite of her relevance, she does seem to elicit a substantial amount of affection from the public. One wonders whether that will continue when she's gone.


J. Carter Wood said...

RS: Good question. I think, however, we can already have an idea of what the future of the monarchy will look like.

It's not pretty.