Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Review: Anni Fentiman/Dave Webber/Brian Peters: The Road to Mandalay... Monday, 23d November, 2009...

Monday night: over to the Grand Union now that the rain has eased... an unusual gig, Anni Fenterman, Dave Webber and Brian Peters coming together for their take on Kipling's 'Barrack Room Ballads' and beyond via the settings of the late Pete Bellamy. Supported by the usual high level of singing from the floor and two veterans of the scene, Tim Garland and Geoff Halford, a veteran's veteran perhaps but still a deep power in his lungs and heart that belie his years.

A slightly different format for a folk gig and one that worked very well – contextual readings in between the songs to situate them in their time and to subtly point out the continuing relevance of the way that the 'brutal licentious soldiery' are still treated. Check out 'Tommy,' for example...

'For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot.'

(As if to demonstrate the continuing relevance of Kipling, I have seen this poem quoted extensively over the last couple of years – for obvious reasons).

Kipling was(is?) deeply unfashionable for years for a variety of reasons, locked out of the canon until some brave souls – and Bellamy was in the van – dug deeper than the cliches engendered by sadarse literary departments. Slowly the ripples went out and I can remember hearing many of the songs delivered tonight down the years, one here, one there as tastes slowly changed. Although – I see that Neil Gaiman was attacked recently when he disclosed his love of Kipling's work. The usual claptrap – 'fascist apologist for Empire' – by the usual thought fascists who have a limited conception of free speech and even less understanding of a man like Kipling and his time. See here... As Paris Nat Schaffer would have said: 'xxxxing schnorrers.' But enough of my diatribing...

The robust rhythms of the 'Ballads' lend themselves to musical settings and Bellamy's skill adds another dimension to them. Brian Peters mentioned the speculations that Kipling was writing with folk and music hall tunes in his mind and it's a reasonable bet – although I would wager more on the music hall side, not that it matters. Kipling had the rare gift of getting inside his subjects and channelling their hard, rough, often boring and frequently dangerous lifes. Capturing the elusive joys of hard drinking – and the consequences - in 'Cells:'

'I've a head like a concertina: I've a tongue like a button-stick:
I've a mouth like an old potato, and I'm more than a little sick,
But I've had my fun o' the Corp'ral's Guard: I've made the cinders fly,
And I'm here in the Clink for a thundering drink
and blacking the Corporal's eye.'

Or the harsh punishment that befell 'Danny Deever' for murdering one of his NCO's – a vivid portrayal of a military execution.

'They are hangin' Danny Deever, they are marchin' of 'im round,
They 'ave 'alted Danny Deever by 'is coffin on the ground;
An' 'e'll swing in 'arf a minute for a sneakin' shootin' hound
O they're hangin' Danny Deever in the mornin!'

This is hardball stuff, hardly glib hoorahs for imperialism, but a raw delineation of what a heavy load the Empire rested on the backs of the common soldiers. As brought out further in the biting ironies of 'The Widow's Party,' which balances the broader political narratives: 'We broke...goed' with the price paid by the anonymous dead and wounded of the Widow's (Queen Victoria) army: 'And the river's...flowed.'

'What was the end of all the show,
Johnnie, Johnnie?
Ask my Colonel, for I don't know,
Johnnie, my Johnnie, aha!
We broke a King and we built a road --
A court-house stands where the reg'ment goed.
And the river's clean where the raw blood flowed
When the Widow give the party.'

Loving a soldier was/is a risky venture... In 'Soldier, Soldier' the returning survivor gives sharp comfort to his comrade's sweetheart:

'E's lying on the dead with a bullet through 'is 'ead,
An' you'd best go look for a new love,'


'The pit we dug'll 'ide 'im an' the twenty men beside 'im
An' you'd best go look for a new love.'

A bullet in the head and tossed into a mass grave far away. Kipling catches the incongruities, the contradictions of a soldier's life, the savage reality of battle or the diseases that can be equally fatal, alongside the pride in being part of something bigger, the Victorian army and beyond, perhaps to the aspirations of Empire - however flawed that imperial endeavour seems with the benefit of hindsight. It's not one-sided, which gives his work such power, he's not trying to second-guess his subjects.

Kipling was proud of the Empire, in which he was but a man of his time. But he sounded a warning against petty jingoism and hubris in 'Recessional' which is often forgotten, again that point well-driven home tonight that empires also fall:

'Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet.
Lest we forget—lest we forget!'

Worse was to come when the imperial certainties of Victorian England were broken on the battlefields of the Great War. Using his army connections he helped his son, Jack, to enlist even though he was under age. He died at the Battle of Loos in 1915, which devasted his father:

'Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind —
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!'

Yet there was also adventure to be had, exotic warm places to visit, remembered fondly through the brute reality of leaving the army for drab poverty-stricken existence back home, wistfully captured in the last song, somehow fittingly 'Mandalay:'

'I am sick o' wastin' leather on these gritty pavin'-stones,
An' the blasted Henglish drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;'

contrasted with

'Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin', an' it's there that I would be --
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;'

Encored by 'Follow me 'Ome' which also served as a tribute to Johnny Collins, who died not so long ago, sadly missed by all present, describing the interpersonal bonds that hold an army together, which we non-combatants can only get a small glimpse of, the comradeship made all the more precarious when sudden death intervenes:

'There was no one like 'im, 'Orse or Foot,
Nor any o' the Guns I knew;
An' because it was so, why, o' course 'e went an' died,
Which is just what the best men do.'

A lot of quoting above – but I think that with the thickened layers of poetry set to music and a controversially misunderstood author, some textual setting is necessary to give a flavour of the richness on display. Fairly spartan backings from concertina and violin, the performance rested on the readings interlinking and binding the songs into a satifying continuum, done skillfully but informally. A small room like the Soar Bridge enforces intimacy anyway and with the formidable battery of singers in the audience to join in on the choruses you are up close and personal all the time here.

This intimacy also carried you along with the narrative, pulled you into an essentially alien world which is both exhilarating and disturbing. The crowd respond to the bugles and drums as it were, which can be uncomfortable if one analyses it. Not a glorification of war – hardly that – yet a small glimpse of the seductions of 'glory?' Maybe that is what Peter Bellamy saw initially, that folk music allied to a degree of theatre could still provide a relevant message to move people – certainly brought out tonight when Brian Peters read out a couple of contemporary parodies of 'Tommy' from serving soldiers in Baghdad a while back. Links inserted in an ongoing chain of resonance, given the disgraceful treatment of the contemporary army both abroad – ill-equipped and stuck in dubious conflict – and at home. Oddly, there was probably more consensus during Kipling's time for the wider aims of Victorian foreign adventures than exists now for our current entanglements/wars. But the world was a different place then... Yet: tonight's performance was not a museum piece, like much folk music has become, whatever the intention... there was an emotional edge that is often lacking in trying to connect to past experiences of a gone world, spanning quiet pathos, raw rowdy humour, vivid and often brutal description and something else - a surging power that came through especially at the end, that locked musicians and audience into a bizarre collective experience where one could almost feel a big marching drum beating somewhere.

'Oh, 'ark to the big drum callin',
Follow me -- follow me 'ome!'

As Bellamy said, in reply to the critics of his day: 'Rudyard Kipling made exceedingly good songs.' Tonight done great justice to by Webber, Fentiman and Peters, three stellar talents who subjugated their individual techniques to produce an ensemble performance of great subtlety, power and beauty...

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