Old December: seasonal tidings

Old December: seasonal tidings

Let’s sing for old December. Thea Gilmore’s 2009 album, Strange Communion – one of the best ‘Christmas’ albums ever – has been reissued this month in an expanded form. Christmas is in quote marks there because Strange Communion is not a conventional seasonal album, but one that raises a glass to all, ‘whoever you praise.’ The collection’s true inspiration is the conjunction of celebrations that mark this season

Raise a glass for these days
And sing, sing, sing for old December

To mark this re-release, here’s a re-post of my original blog post from December 2009:

It seems to be a rich year for Christmas albums (and I am not referring to the Dylan one).  For jazz, Carla Bley has produced the excellent Carla’s Christmas Carols, while the greatly-underrated Thea Gilmore has produced what may be, for me, the best non-jazz album of 2009: Strange Communion.

Actually, Christmas album is a bit misleading: this collection of songs  is redolent of all things wintry, the sense of short December days, cold outside and warmth within.  So Christmas is here, but more in its pre-Christian pagan form.

The album contains 8 originals and 2 unusual covers: Yoko Ono’s incandescent ‘Listen The Snow Is Falling’, which in Gilmore’s arrangment really does conjure up that sense of muffled silence as snow falls, and ‘The St Stephens Day Murders’, a little known Elvis Costello song, that sonically comes from the same place as the Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’ but which has lyrics that illuminate the mad hilarity and agony of an English suburban family Christmas.

Sefton Park 70

On the stunning opening track Thea, singing acapella,  is joined by the Sense Of Sound Choir on ”Sol Invictus’, that invokes the Roman sun god, Sol Invictus (‘Unconquered Sun’), whom the third century emperor Aurelian elevated to one of the premier divinities of the Roman empire, inaugurating the tradition of  celebrating Sol on December 25.

Come the dark
Come the cold
Come the beating air
Chill the night
Sol delight
Will be dancing there
And rise up, rise up
Days stretching weary wings

Come the day
Come the dawn
Somewhere in the rain
Low my heart
Low my life
Forget everything

Come the day
Thief of the night
Lift his voice to sing
Now rise up, rise up
Ever victorious

Low the tide
Low the light
Comes the sun again
Now rise up, rise up
Ever victorious

Low the tide
Low the light
Comes the sun again

Elsewhere, Thea Gilmore’s lyrics invoke the old Yule or Yule-tide pagan winter festival, later absorbed into the Christian festival of Christmas. In pre-historic times, winter was a very difficult time for people in the northern latitudes: the growing season had ended and food stocks would br running low. As the life-giving sun sank lower in the sky each noon, people feared that it would eventually disappear and leave them in permanent darkness and cold. After the winter solstice, they would have reason to celebrate as they saw the sun rising and strengthening once more. Although many months of cold weather remained before spring, they could take heart that warmth and growth would return, so the concept of birth and rebirth became associated with the winter solstice. A slight elevation of the sun’s path would be noticeable just a few days after the solstice – perhaps by December 25, the date on which celebrations were often timed to occur. In AD 730, the English historian Bede gave December 25 as the first day of the pagan year and wrote that the Anglo-Saxons celebrated all night:

They began the year with December 25, the day some now celebrate as Christmas; and the very night to which we attach special sanctity they designated by the heathen term Mōdraniht, that is, the mothers’ night — a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies they performed while watching this night through

So this is far from being a sugary, American-style Christmas album in the Christian tradition. Thea Gilmore has blended many different traditions and cultural commentaries on winter darkness and rebirth.  In ‘Midwinter Toast’ she sings:

I don’t believe in many things
But here’s my hymn to you all

‘Cold Coming’, inspired by TS Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’, the story that began with ‘a heart upon the straw’ is pursued to our ‘streets paved with light’, its meaning ‘the old reunion of the rebel with the fight’.

It was a cold coming
With stars upon the ground
And the sky was burning
And all the world was sound
It was a love beginning
A heart upon the straw
And the children were singing
Our Lord, our lord, our lord
Do you sing that song?

It was a cold coming
The streets were paved with light
You could hear the engines running
You could hear them all night long
It was a strange communion
His name raised up in lights
The old reunion
Of the rebel with the fight

Strange Communion does have a potential top ten Christmas single – ‘That’ll Be Christmas. The traditional Christmas staples – mulled wine, mistletoe – are here, but Gilmore cleverly crafts her words to take a swipe at Christmas while simultaneously celebrating it, which is probably how a lot of us feel about the whole thing.

This approach is captured, too, in Elvis Costello’s only Christmas song , The St Stephen’s Day Murders, about the day after after Christmas.  Elvis wrote and recorded the song for a Chieftains album in 1991. The lyric is a perfect portrayal of family life in the aftermath of Christmas. He is remembering , perhaps , extended family gatherings in his Anglo-Irish Liverpool-London childhood:

The good will that lasts till the Feast of St. Stephen
For that is the time to eat, drink and be merry
Till the beer is all spilled and the whiskey has flowed
And the whole family tree you neglected to bury
Are feeding their faces until they explode

There’ll be laughter and tears over Tia Marias
Mixed up with that drink made from girders
Cause it’s all we’ve got left as they draw their last breath
Ah, it’s nice for the kids as you finally get rid of them
In the St. Stephen’s Day Murders

Aside from ‘Sol Invictus’, the most beautiful song on the album is ‘Drunken Angel’, which could have appeared on any Gilmore album and could be listened to in July, even though it is drenched in mid-winter imagery.  It is a song of affirmation and faith in beauty, feelings and renewal:

Winter tells its truth to anyone who will listen
It will whisper to you slowly when the light is low…

There are some things broken and some things to hold tight
To the few brave birds of the season who are sky-writing
Shine your light…

Now is the time that I will raise my eyes and be honest
And look out across the plain of another tired and reckless year
Give thanks for the love and wonder that was hurled upon us…

A drunken angel danced into my heart
Singing lonely days and a brand-new start

You can hear the howl of wings
You can feel it when the wine is flowing
The tired and the lonely lay down their weary heads
And, baby, sometimes the beauty in this world
Comes from just not knowing
Feeling instead

Sefton Park 64

The album has been picking up glowing reviews everywhere.  The Independent carried an insightful review this week, which included these comments:Gilmore opens the album with ‘Sol Invictus’, a pagan hymn to winter solstice, sung a cappella with the Sense of Sound Choir, before offering ‘Thea Gilmore’s Midwinter Toast’ in agnostic manner. “I don’t believe in many things, but here’s my hymn to you all”, she admits, facing the uneasy prospect of the new year with hope but no illusions. T S Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’ provides the opening image to ‘Cold Coming’, Gilmore’s folk-rock rallying-cry celebrating Jesus as outlaw revolutionary, “the old reunion of the rebel with the fight”, and finding an even colder coming in “the ringing of the till” […]
Winter tells its truth to anyone who’ll listen
It will whisper to you slowly when the light is low.

Lest her Christmas slip too far towards the cautionary and sober-sided, Gilmore offers her own unabashed attempt at a Christmas single with ‘That’ll be Christmas’ – and makes a better fist of it than most, mingling sharp coinages like “faith, hope and gluttony” with unusually fresh, evocative images over a rolling pop groove streaked with slide guitar. This album’s “Fairytale of New York”, meanwhile, is not so much her melancholy separation song ‘December in New York’, as the celtic-flavoured duet ‘St. Stephen’s Day Murders’, an obscure Elvis Costello oddity on which DJ Mark Radcliffe plays the Shane MacGowan part, brusquely sharing anticipation of “laughter and tears over Tia Marias”. But it’s another obscure cover, of Yoko Ono’s ‘Listen, the Snow is Falling’, which provides the album’s most magical moment, Gilmore’s delivery a hushed murmur over a shimmering synth-pad sparsely illuminated by the occasional chime.

Elsewhere, ‘Old December’ is another non-denominational celebration of the season – “whoever you praise, raise a glass to these days” – while acoustic guitar and an intimate shiver of strings lends an Astral Weeks ambience to the lovely ‘Drunken Angel’, which carries much the same message in more evocative language, promising that

Winter tells its truth to anyone who’ll listen
It will whisper to you slowly when the light is low.

Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Thatcher? Tramp the dirt down.

Thatcher? Tramp the dirt down.

Steve Bell NHS wakeup

Symbolic really: on the day that Margaret Thatcher’s death was announced, we get a letter informing us that ‘following a robust procurement process’  the GP practice at our local health centre has been acquired by a private company, SSP Health Ltd.

It’s part of a massive move by a company that is rapidly taking over GP practices across the North West.  In one fell swoop, SSP Health will now manage 22 GP practices in Merseyside.  Last November, in the Liverpool Echo, Paul Summers, northwest organiser for Unison, was quoted as saying: ‘We are very disappointed with this decision. The problem is that they are in it for the purpose of making a profit, which we believe is incompatible with delivering the best possible patient care. Staff and the public will be concerned about the future of these practices’.  Sam Semoff, from Keep Our NHS Public Merseyside, added: ‘We are very much opposed to any services going into the private sector’.

So Thatcher casts a long shadow.  The wave of privatising public services that she instigated is still rolling forward, and now laps hungrily at the shores of the NHS.

Recently, NHS Unlimited? Who runs our GP services?, a study of GP services put out to tender by the NHS which was carried out by the NHS Support Federation, had these words of warning about the process of GP procurement:

We believe that the extent of the commercialisation of GP services has been substantially understated. From our study we found 23 commercial companies that have multiple contracts and between them run a total of 227 GP surgeries and health centres. These are all private or public companies that have expressed publicly an interest in commercial expansion and have a corporate structure. Until now many of these expanding companies have been described as GP-led companies. We have found this to be misleading as it suggests that they have a non commercial focus and are managed by GPs, when in fact many of these companies have a profit making intent and a traditional corporate management structure. We found 18 examples of private companies that were started by groups of GPs but are now in the process of business expansion.

A small number of companies have a sizeable portfolio of NHS contracts. There are 9 companies with 10 or more contracts to run GP health centres or surgeries. Chilvers McCrea, described as a GP led company runs 35 surgeries across the country. Care UK and Assura (currently selling to Virgin), both public companies, have the largest number of contracts to run the large health centres with 11 and 12 each.  Local GP practices are finding it hard to afford to bid for contracts according to anecdotal evidence, which could lead local GP practices to be squeezed out as the NHS market matures. […]

Public scrutiny of these new providers of NHS services is very difficult. Their business strategies and approach to generating profit does impact upon the quality of the service and yet this information is often not collected by government or not made available by the companies themselves. Information about the contracts between providers and the NHS are not easily accessible. The public are often excluded from involvement in choosing a provider and the tendering process is not open to scrutiny. The complex structure of ownership makes it difficult to track who controls the service and where public money is going. Employing less GPs and more nurses is one cost cutting strategy of the profit motivated providers. The proportion of nurses is going up sharply and they outnumber GPs in many of the supposedly GP led health centres. […]

Profit is crucial for any companies, but for those companies with shareholders, profits have to be evident sooner rather than later as a rule. Investors can be placated for only so long with an optimistic business plan, eventually if no significant profit is forthcoming shareholder pressure on the company often leads to changes in business strategy and the divestment of loss-making business interests. Once the NHS was immune to such pressures from shareholders for quick profits and the uncertainties of the stock market, but now privatization means that the NHS can no longer avoid such pressures.

An investigation by Keep Our NHS Public found that a principal shareholder in SSP Health is also a director of 20 active companies including property and private medicine. The campaign also discovered a link to Capita, suggesting that SSP Health’s takeover of surgeries may strengthen Capita’s influence on what health services are commissioned in future. Capita is the largest ‘business process outsourcing’ company in the UK, a creation of Blair’s New Labour hubris (see Why it gets called Crapita). There’s almost no branch of local or central government that has not been outsourced to Capita – health care, housing, Criminal Records Bureau, you name it. In January, The Guardian explained why vulnerable residents fear a Crapita (as it has been named by Private Eye) takeover of Barnet Council Services.

Steve Bell miners

So how do we feel about Thatcher? Well, here in the north we’ll probably just hum along to Elvis Costello’s vitriolic ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’:

I think I’ll be going before we fold our arms and start to weep…
Well I hope I don’t die too soon
I pray the lord my soul to save
Oh I’ll be a good boy, I’m trying so hard to behave
Because there’s one thing I know I’d like to live long enough to savour
That’s when they finally put you in the ground
I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down

This is Elvis Costello talking about the song in a TV interview in 1989:

See Seven Streets’ post today – Why Liverpool Won’t Mourn Margaret Thatcher – for reasons why Costello’s song is the one to which we raise a glass today.  The piece angrily concludes:

30 years on we find ourselves unable to build our way out of a recession because we don’t have a remaining industrial base or the associated skills – all swapped for call centres and minimum-wage service-sector jobs – and the North is again to be sacrificed an the altar of ideology. Joe Anderson [Mayor] says that the effect in Liverpool of the coming cuts will be four times the national average. History repeats itself. Liverpool may have seen off Margaret Thatcher, but the effects of her tenure as Prime Minister will continue to felt across Merseyside, long beyond tonight’s parties and tomorrow’s sore heads.

Or read Ian Williams’ tart assessment Margaret Thatcher: A Flawed Legacy:

She was not nice, not popular and a person of narrow but tightly focused vision. But her flawed legacy lives on, mesmerizing, for example, Tony Blair.  Apart from the pious politicians, one suspects that sackcloth and ashes will he hard to discern on the streets of London, that in pubs across the former industrial heartland of Britain, many pint glasses will be raised in tasteful celebration.

Maybe there was one blessing of those dark years.  Reading Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions recently underlined how the Thatcher era saw the last great outpouring of protest song.  As Lynskey observes on the Guardian website today:

Protest songs thrive on combat. Complicated policy details may cause the songwriter’s pen to freeze but larger-than-life politicians who polarise opinion enable the ink to flow. It is striking that, despite all the frustration and ferment of the punk era, nobody wrote a memorable song about Jim Callaghan. But to musicians on the left Margaret Thatcher was an irresistible super-villain who threw all the conflicts of the time into sharp relief. Penny Rimbaud of anarcho-punk radicals Crass once told me: “I think Thatcher was an absolute fairy godmother. Christ, you’re an anarchist band trying to complain about the workings of capitalist society and you get someone like Thatcher. What a joy!”

Never before had a British prime minister so explicitly identified certain sectors of society as enemies — trade unionists, socialists, liberals — and so diligently set out to crush them. Thatcher’s infamous description of Arthur Scargill’s miners as “the enemy within” (the Argentinian dictator General Galtieri being the enemy without) spoke volumes about her need for foes and this Manichean outlook cut both ways, as did the strength of her personality. The single word “Thatcher”, said with appropriate contempt, handily encapsulated everything the 1980s left opposed.

Here are five of my favourites from those times – each one a brilliant example of the form.

To end this bilious outburst, here’s a magnificent response from Morrissey, posted on Dorian Lynskey’s own blog this morning.  It really captures the visceral hatred that Thatcher aroused:

Every move she made was charged by negativity; she destroyed the British manufacturing industry, she hated the miners, she hated the arts, she hated the Irish Freedom Fighters and allowed them to die, she hated the English poor and did nothing at all to help them, she hated Greenpeace and environmental protectionists, she was the only European political leader who opposed a ban on the ivory trade, she had no wit and no warmth and even her own cabinet booted her out. She gave the order to blow up The Belgrano even though it was outside of the Malvinas Exclusion Zone—and was sailing AWAY from the islands! When the young Argentinean boys aboard The Belgrano had suffered a most appalling and unjust death, Thatcher gave the thumbs-up sign for the British press.

Iron? No. Barbaric? Yes. She hated feminists even though it was largely due to the progression of the women’s movement that the British people allowed themselves to accept that a prime minister could actually be female. But because of Thatcher, there will never again be another woman in power in British politics, and rather than opening that particular door for other women, she closed it.

Thatcher will only be fondly remembered by sentimentalists who did not suffer under her leadership, but the majority of British working people have forgotten her already, and the people of Argentina will be celebrating her death. As a matter of recorded fact, Thatcher was a terror without an atom of humanity.

Perhaps the most sober assessment is found in the closing words of today’s Guardian editorial:

There should be no dancing on her grave but it is right there is no state funeral either. Her legacy is of public division, private selfishness and a cult of greed, which together shackle far more of the human spirit than they ever set free.