Guns N’ Roses (London Stadium) – Review

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This concert has been a long time coming. I’ve been a fan of Guns N’ Roses for many years: they were the band that got me into heavy metal when I was a teenager, half my lifetime ago. But for all the countless concerts I’ve been to, I’ve never seen them live. I’ve always regretted the fact I was just a little kid during their heyday, and for one reason or another I never went to see the recent incarnations of the band, even though they gigged quite a lot during the Chinese Democracy years. I’ve always admired Axl’s musical ability and vision, but the acrimonious climate that surrounded the band all these years put me off seeing them.

So, like millions of others around the world, I was delighted last year when legendary guitarist Slash returned to GnR along with original bassist Duff McKagan for the ‘Not in This Lifetime Tour’ (named after a reply given by Axl some years ago when asked when a potential reunion might take place). The tour has been going for almost a year now, and at time of writing has grossed around a quarter of a billion dollars. The massive commercial success of the tour speaks to the enduring enthusiasm for the band’s classic albums, as well as the excitement generated among the band’s loyal fanbase at the prospect of seeing a reunion between Axl and Slash. In an ideal world, it would be nice to see guitarist Izzy Stradlin participating in the tour in some capacity, as well as former drummers Steve Adler and/or Matt Sorum. But the world we live in is so far from ideal that it feels churlish to get hung up about this. Just seeing Axl and Slash playing together is something few thought would ever happen again, and having Duff McKagan involved is the icing on the cake. In a world crying out for happiness and good news, I was determined to grab this with both hands, cynicism be damned. As far as I’m concerned Axl and Slash should be credited for putting their differences to one side for the sake of the fans, a gargantuan payday notwithstanding.

Tickets for the London date seemed to sell out as soon as they were released; but a second date the following day was announced within minutes, so T. and I eagerly snapped up a couple of standing tickets for £100 each. In all honesty, I would probably have paid significantly more if I’d needed to. It helped that the general vibe coming off the early tour shows in the States last year seemed to be overwhelmingly positive. Axl also received generally great reviews when he stood in for AC/DC last year, and the prevailing narrative seems to have changed a bit, with a lot of the engrained critical hostility towards the band, and Axl in particular, dissipating. Without wanting to disparage Chinese Democracy and all the work that went into that – and the work that Axl and other musicians have done to tour for GnR fans over the years – you can’t help but feel this tour was needed to eliminate a lot of the rancour, and restore Axl and the band’s reputation and legacy.

The concerts took place on consecutive days at the London Stadium in Stratford, East London – the only shows they played in the UK. According to the website the venue’s concert capacity is 80,000; the Saturday didn’t look sold out, but the crowd was still very respectable, and had a pretty good split of people from their early 20s to middle age. It also seemed pretty evenly divided between men and women: no surprise as the band has always appealed to both genders. The venue opened at 5pm, with a couple of support bands before GnR were scheduled to take the stage at 7.45pm. The band’s tardiness when hitting the stage back in the day is legendary, but a lot has changed since then, and this is a much more professional, mature, and sober operation. So, I wasn’t surprised when they started on time.

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The set opened with a couple of unarguable classics from Appetite, “It’s So Easy” and “Mr Brownstone”. I’d been looking forward to the concert a lot, obviously, but I wasn’t prepared for the rush of euphoria when it actually started. It wasn’t just me either: everyone around me basically went nuts, and I’ve never been at a concert where so many people were singing along to so many of the songs with such gusto. This concert seemed like a cathartic experience for a lot of people. Right from the get-go, the songs sounded just like they should, and that was a feature of the night in general. Axl’s voice is pretty much as good as ever, though I thought he seemed a little gassed at points during “It’s So Easy” – no surprise considering how much running around he was doing on stage. The guitar tone also sounded spot-on, which was particularly important during ballads like “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Estranged”. I don’t know whether this can entirely be attributed to Slash’s presence – most guitarists at this level should be able to get the right sound – but it certainly didn’t hurt.

The third song was “Chinese Democracy”, and there was a much more subdued reaction to it than the opening songs. I don’t think this was due to hostility so much as the fact a lot of people didn’t recognize it – I needed T. to tell me what the song was. I was actually a bit surprised to see them play it with Slash and Duff in the band, but I shouldn’t have been. The song actually sounded fine, as did fellow CD song “Better”, which they played after “Double Talkin’ Jive” and… “Welcome to the Jungle”.

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“Estranged” is my favourite Guns N’ Roses song and probably my favourite rock song, period. It’s even more special to me because it’s also my fiancee T.’s favourite Guns N’ Roses song. This is even more meaningful to us as it’s one of the band’s less popular ballads. So, we were hoping against hope they would play it, but weren’t sure they would (and had avoided seeing setlists ahead of time for fear of ‘spoilers’). Seeing them play it live in a perfect rendition was a singular experience, and I confess this was the first of several times the concert moved me to tears. It was an enormous emotional release, and I felt then (and still do) overwhelming gratitude to the performers and everyone associated with the concert for making it possible. I’ve been in bands, promoted shows, and attended hundreds of gigs, but live music has never come close to affecting me like that before.

“Estranged” was followed by “Live and Let Die”. The cover is one of the better songs on Use Your Illusion 1, and it was a really enjoyable number and a needed change of pace from the intensity of “Estranged”. It was followed by “Rocket Queen”, another one of my personal favourites off Appetite, and it was fucking awesome. Unfortunately they didn’t have anyone doing the sex sounds during the song, but a lot of people in the crowd tried to supply them anyway. “You Could Be Mine” followed, one of the best songs of UYI 2, rounding off the best hour of live music I’ve ever witnessed.

It has been uplifting to see Axl somewhat liberated over the last couple of years, and as a frontman he now does an extremely professional and engaging job. He didn’t spend too long chatting with the crowd but what he said was simple and sincere (and included an endearing reference to his pet cat). He still has arguably the best voice around, and delivered an engaging and entertaining performance, switching between about ten different outfits over the course of the near 3-hour set. Slash and Duff were on great form, and to do them credit, both of them looked in amazing shape. Slash looked jacked as hell and could have passed for someone 20 years younger, while Duff was something of a revelation, lean and muscular, looking like a heavy metal version of David Bowie. It was good to see him taking over vocals for a couple of covers in the middle of the set. The other band members, mainly holdovers from the Chinese Democracy tours, did a great job, and here’s hoping things hang together like this for a while.

Rose has got a lot of stick over the years, some of it justified, most of it not. For all that he hasn’t necessarily helped his public image much of the time, as an artist he remains misunderstood (sometimes willfully) by much of the musical fraternity. It’s also his misfortune to have been out of sync over the last couple of decades with the dominant smartass hive-mind that overtook a lot of musical culture, something he gives the impression he neither understands nor cares for. He’s continued to do his own thing, to the mixed amusement, bewilderment, and frustration of a lot of observers, but what has never been in doubt is his artistic vision. I’m starting to feel like he has been in the right a lot more than I and many others have given him credit for.

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The middle part of the set was a bit more subdued, with some comparative filler in the way of lesser-known covers and songs from UYI like “Civil War” and “Yesterdays”. They played “Coma” – apparently the song is a regular on this tour, the band having not played the song since 1993. It has always been one of my favourite songs off UYI 1, largely because of the intense and emphatic vocals, particularly towards the end. It didn’t quite have the oomph that I would have liked, but that could have been due to the venue’s sound (which wasn’t perfect) or just because it’s a long song that fell during a natural lull in the set. Still, it was nice to hear them play it at all.

“Coma” was followed by a Slash solo, which segued into a cover of the Godfather theme (apparently a staple of shows back in the day). This led into “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, probably the very first GnR song that caught my attention as a teenager. It was a joyful, lungbursting experience, followed by “Out Ta Get Me”. It’s probably one of the weaker songs off Appetite, and the one change I would have made to the setlist would probably have been to swap it for “Think About You”. A cover of “Wish You Were Here” led into “November Rain”, yet another high point in an evening full of them.

The sun had set by this point, which felt somehow appropriate. The mood started to get a bit more reflective, not least as we knew we were pulling towards the end of the marathon set. The band did a cover of the Soungarden song “Black Hole Sun”, a tribute to the late Chris Cornell, and the theme of paying tribute to departed friends and family continued with a heartwarming rendition of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”. The cover is not one of my favourite songs off UYI 2, but it shone in the stadium setting with everyone singing along, not least with Axl explicitly connecting it to lost loved ones. The mood then lightened again somewhat with an explosive rendition of “Nightrain”, before moving into the encore.

“Don’t Cry” won a prize for most ironic title of the evening, as by this point a lot of people were really struggling to fight back the tears. The emotional rollercoaster continued with an uproariously upbeat cover of AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie”, which was very well-received indeed. It was an excellent version of the song; the association with AC/DC undoubtedly seems to have helped invigorate Axl. Inevitably, the set finished with “Paradise City”, which was one last opportunity for everyone to sing their hearts out. I’d completely given in to my emotions by this point, trying to make the most of a transcendent and once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Guns N’ Roses have long been one of my favourite bands. They were a gateway band for me – the band that got me into heavy metal – but they’re also much more than that. I discovered debut album Appetite for Destruction around the age of 16, and the energetic, masculine romanticism of the music as well as the lyrical themes themselves helped give me confidence as I entered adulthood. For better or worse, it helped shape the way I approached the world, and my personality. Aside from the great music and hellraising motifs of sex, drinking and drugs, one of the things that always appealed to me about the band was the emotional sincerity, and the surprising penchant for reflection that accompanied the bombast of Use Your Illusion. My disillusionment with GnR over the last decade or more has really hurt, and been like a loss; so this whole experience felt like a massive healing process. Who knows where the band will go from here, but the tour has already shown there’s reason to hope the future has more in store than bitterness and recrimination.

One of the ironies of Not in This Lifetime is that it might actually go a long way towards enhancing the reputation of the Chinese Democracy album. The album attained memetic status before internet memes were even a thing, becoming a byword for excess and self-deception. By the time it was released, an underwhelming reception was almost guaranteed due to the widely entrenched views about the band and Axl’s personality. I confess to having been completely biased and barely listened to it at all, dismissing it out of hand once the critical reviews confirmed my negative expectations. But now, having heard several songs played the other night, I was surprised to find they were actually pretty good. And having listened to the album four or five times since the concert finished, I’m astonished how good it really is. There may not be anything on the album to rival the iconic songs from Appetite or Use Your Illusion, but its an underrated gem with great vocals from Rose (naturally) but also some inspiring composition and guitar work. It definitely seems more consistent than UYI. Hopefully the album will get a bit more of a hearing now. It certainly will in this household.

10/10

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Cheers (Seasons 1-3) – Review

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Cheers was a hugely successful comedy, running for eleven seasons and 270 episodes between 1982 and 1993. Cheers began with a very simple formula, as a situation comedy set in the titular bar in downtown Boston. Cheers revolves around retired pro baseball pitcher and bar owner Sam Malone, and a cast of characters comprising bar staff and barflies. The first season is set entirely in the bar, and each episode begins with an announcement that it was filmed in front of a live audience. Later seasons include other scenarios as well, moving the action into the homes of some of the characters, and by the end of the third season we even have scenes taking place outside of Boston.

The physical location of the show in a single bar, filmed entirely in front of a live audience, gives the first season of Cheers a wonderful energy and at times it feels almost like watching theatre. The actors sometimes laugh and break down under the comedy of their own lines, and there’s an obvious chemistry at work on set that adds a spark to the show. In particular, there is excellent chemistry between Sam Malone (Ted Danson) and the new barmaid, haughty graduate student Diane Chambers (Shelley Long), which gives the first season real magic. For a comedy filmed well over 30 years ago, the first season is still enormously entertaining, partly because the main storyline (the will they/won’t they dynamic between Sam and Diane) is so timeless. Sometimes the episodes have a theme which belies the show’s age, such as when Sam is pressured by his regulars to exclude some gay customers from the bar. But Sam generally ends up doing the right thing, often under the direct or indirect influence of Diane.

One of the things that makes the first season of Cheers feel so special is that it is a profoundly democratic comedy. At their best, pubs and bars are leveling public spaces where people from different walks of life come together to share their problems or have a laugh over a couple of drinks. Cheers’ iconic intro sequence captures that perfectly, conveying the social importance of bars to community spirit and social bonding. This is carried through to the writing, and over the course of the first season Diane comes to relax and lose some of her superior attitude, while Sam and, to a lesser extent, some of the other denizens of the bar see their moral and cultural level rise ever so slightly. In the first season, Cheers also demonstrates a mature capacity to create rounded characters, generally avoiding the easy option of painting people as caricatures or lazily vilifying them. Sam’s alcoholism is also introduced and handled sensitively, at least at first.

The first season of Cheers received critical acclaim, but it wasn’t a ratings hit. It was only with the second season that ratings started to pick up and it slowly became the commercial success it’s now known as. The writing of the second season takes a bit of a turn for the worse, in large measure due to the decision to make Sam play a shitheel role for a number of episodes. This may be important for storyline reasons, but it’s hard as a viewer to see a character you’ve come to like behaving reprehensibly episode after episode. That said, season two is still pretty good, largely for the same reasons as the first, and continues to be very funny for the most part.

Season three sees the introduction of psychiatrist Dr Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), a breakout character who was to star in the frighteningly successful spin-off that bore his name. Frasier is a very welcome introduction to the show, and most of season three’s best moments revolve around Frasier in some way. Unfortunately, the general level of season three is notably inferior to the first two seasons, and the beginning of season three in particular contains some very disappointing episodes. One of the major problems with season three is Sam’s bartender “Coach”, a retired baseball trainer. Coach is supposed to subscribe to the trope of the dimwit with a heart of gold, but the character shows a proneness to selfish and manipulative behaviour which is very unappealing and at times difficult to watch. Coach was fine as a background character but during seasons two and three he takes too much of the spotlight, and his overacting and lame and one-dimensional jokes wear thin very fast.

The actor who played Coach, Nicholas Colasanto, became seriously ill during the filming of season three, and it’s obvious that he loses weight and looks more and more unhealthy as the season progresses. I know that Colasanto was admired by his co-stars and that many people are fond of the Coach character, so I should emphasize that the criticisms I have of Coach as a character stem from the script, and can’t be attributed to the actor’s health problems. To a lesser extent, I noticed the same phenomenon (overacting; repetitive and tiresome one-dimensional jokes) with the character of Carla, the other barmaid at Cheers. Carla’s obsessive and unrelenting dislike of Diane wears thin, and I really hope that her character sees some development or progression in coming seasons, as I’ve grown fed up of her character by the end of season three.

You can get all eleven seasons of Cheers for twenty or thirty pounds in the UK. 270 episodes is a lot to get through, but it’s pretty low-effort fare which lends itself well to regular viewing. Fingers crossed we can stick it out, because Cheers has the potential to keep T. and I entertained for a long time to come. I’m hopeful that the arrival of new character Woody (another breakout role, this time for Woody Harrelson) will see season four come close to the heights of season one. If not, we might just have to move on to Frasier itself. But the first season of Cheers is easy to recommend to anyone, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth the price of admission.

Season 1 – 10/10

Season 2 – 8/10

Season 3 – 7/10

 

The Raid 2 (film) – Review

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Within the scope of its limited ambition, 2011’s The Raid was a perfect action movie. The Indonesian film, written by Welshman Gareth Evans, featured astonishing action set pieces choreographed by martial arts experts Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian. The film garnered a huge following, so it was no surprise that it was swiftly followed by a sequel. The Raid 2 is a much more ambitious film: whereas the first was set in a single tower block, the sequel is a sprawling two-and-a-half hour epic set across Jakarta’s criminal underworld. Taking place right after the events of the first film, surviving badass cop Rama (Uwais) is sent undercover to build a case against the corrupt senior cops who protect the city’s criminal overlords. Rama has strong personal reasons for agreeing, but it’s nevertheless one of those occasions where you don’t really have a choice: if he says no, Rama will almost certainly be killed, as will his family. The only way out is to keep moving forward, winning the trust of senior mob bosses while also managing incompetent and uncaring superiors in the police force. As someone points out to Rama later in the film, the only way to extricate himself and protect his family is to eliminate all the crime bosses, and their police patrons, for good.

The plot brings to mind movies like Infernal Affairs, and Rama is a very sympathetic character. He’s also, once again, an extremely effective one-man-army and the film features several lengthty and brutal fight scenes, both one-on-one and one-versus-many. The first film was very violent, of course, but The Raid 2 really ups the ante and features spectacular set-pieces and some quite gruesome executions. For the most part the violence makes sense, but the second half of the movie does see a move towards more stylized violence. We are also introduced to two assassins who are each based around the idea of a single gimmick: one uses a baseball and bat, and the other is a stylish young mute lady who uses a pair of claw hammers and always wears shades. These characters revel in brutal executions, and I really disliked their presence. They felt very out of sync with the sincere tone of the rest of the film, and more like a knowing nod towards the Tarantino style of ironical comic book violence. It’s a bad sign for the franchise, and I really hope that future films don’t go further down this path.

When the film is making an effort to be sincere, it is capable of producing decent characters. The crime family which Rama infiltrates is led by the gruff but charismatic elder statesman Bangun, while Rama befriends Bangun’s hotheaded son Uco, who looks uncannily like Bruce Campbell. Bangun’s consigliere Eka also gets a moment to shine towards the end of the film. Many of the film’s events are precipitated by Uco’s egotistical behaviour and desire to usurp his father, meaning he conducts an underhanded alliance with rival mobster Bejo. Bejo was one of the film’s problems for me, largely because he is devoid of menace, physical appeal, or any charisma. He also sports physical disabilities, which is fine in itself but taken with his lack of discernible mob boss attributes means he lacks credibility. He is often seen bringing in defenceless victims to be executed like beasts, but we never see how they are supposed to have been overpowered or defeated. The whole Bejo storyline feels incongruous, and I would have preferred they had cut him and his his faction (including the gimmicky assassins) out of the movie and shortened it by a good half hour.

Indeed, at 150 minutes the film is far too long, and especially considering the body count and level of violence, sitting through it is a test of endurance as much as anything. It’s a shame, because the film is not without moments of compassion and human feeling, but in the absence of any real humour (sorry, watching a girl slaughter a group of grown men with a pair of hammers doesn’t count), it turns into a slog. It’s an impressive film, with some wonderful technical and artistic achievements, but it only partly lives up to its lofty ambitions.

7/10

The Golden Bough (book) – Review

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The Golden Bough is a famous work, and with it Sir James Frazer pretty much founded the school of ‘comparative anthropology’. It is a massive text which he revised and re-published several times; the abridged edition I read clocks in at over 800 pages, so it’s not a quick read. For the most part, it is relatively readable, so long as you accept that you won’t be familiar with all of Frazer’s references. Essentially, what he tried to do in The Golden Bough was to survey primitive magical rituals across the globe and the span of human history, and he incorporated a dizzying amount of material from Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas.

Frazer’s central idea is that there is a level of consistency across the magical beliefs and ritual practices of peoples around the world which suggests they stemmed from a common approach to understanding the natural world and in particular the passage of the seasons. Many of the rites, he suggests, have the character of practices designed to influence or control the earth’s natural cycle, or at a later stage of economic development, to boost agricultural production. Parts of the book deal with quite ghoulish subjects, particularly human sacrifice, which Frazer identifies as a common practice across many agricultural civilizations, in every part of the world. Some of these will be familiar to readers from movies and popular culture (cf. The Wicker Man).

Frazer has quite a pedagogical and accessible style, considering the challenging nature of his material, and he also has a dry sense of humour which brightens things up. Of course, as he was writing in the 1890s-1910s, there is a certain amount of what would be regarded now as politically incorrect terminology. But Frazer fundamentally has a humanist viewpoint and doesn’t take a racialist view of the world, instead highlighting the similarities between peoples and cultures at different stages of historical development. His writing style features the typically Victorian method of providing page after page of examples to illustrate his points, which can make for tiresome reading on occasion, and I would say to anyone considering reading this that it’s fine to skip forward from time to time. I read it cover-to-cover myself, but I wouldn’t have lost anything by cutting out large sections.

One of the reasons I was interested in The Golden Bough was because I read Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, which takes this book as its starting point. I kind of wish I had read this first, as it would have helped me understand the context of The White Goddess a bit better. The Golden Bough is more readable, comprehensible, and responsible than The White Goddess, which has its points of interest but is ultimately a very self-indulgent work. Frazer was criticized for one of his main theses, though, to do with the role of corn-gods and ‘dying and resurrected deities’ in Asia Minor and Greece and Rome. This section was probably the least interesting part of the book, leaving aside the academic issues which I’m not really able to comment on.

One of the best services Frazer does here is how he documents pagan festivals which were widely practised around the world, and shows how they have been subsumed into common religious festivals and other events that persist to this day. Some of this was highly controversial when he wrote the book, particularly his treatment of the major festivals associated with the death of Christ. Festivals like Christmas, Easter, and Halloween have a heritage going back at least 5,000 years, and probably a lot longer; they were co-opted by various religions in order to try and gain legitimacy by associating their mythology with well-established, common practices. There is a fundamental relationship between our intellectual and emotional lives, the mode of production, and the natural world, which urges us to celebrate or commemorate at certain times of the year. It’s far too common, if not universal, to be a coincidence.

Frazer’s book and overall method is deeply unfashionable in academic circles today: the whole idea of shedding light on different cultural practices by comparing them to one another is looked on with scorn by many who would argue that by doing so we lose the ‘singularity’ of specific practices by incorporating them into a ‘Eurocentric’ model. At its worst, this school of thought holds that the mere act of such comparison is itself harmful, causing psychic damage to the people whose culture you are comparing. There is no doubt that Frazer’s approach was Eurocentric, and that there are significant problems with his method and many of his conclusions. However, anyone who can read this book and not be moved by the common humanity its pages reveal is either a pseudo-radical poseur or a jaded cynic. Frazer not only points out the similar cultural practices among diverse people around the world, he also begins to unveil the functional basis of ritual and mythology, which helped lay the basis for later materialist understandings of cultural behaviour.

7/10

We stand upon the foundation reared by the generations that have gone before, and we can but dimly realise the painful and prolonged efforts which it has cost humanity to struggle up to the point, no very exalted one after all, which we have reached. Our gratitude is due to the nameless and forgotten toilers, whose patient thought and active exertions have largely made us what we are. The amount of new knowledge which one age, certainly which one man, can add to the common store is small, and it argues stupidity or dishonesty, besides ingratitude, to ignore the heap while vaunting the few grains which it may have been our privilege to add to it. There is indeed little danger at present of undervaluing the contributions which modern times and even classical antiquity have made to the general advancement of our race. But when we pass these limits, the case is different. Contempt and ridicule or abhorrence and denunciation are too often the only recognition vouchsafed to the savage and his ways. Yet of the benefactors whom we are bound thankfully to commemorate, many, perhaps most, were savages. For when all is said and done our resemblances to the savage are still far more numerous than our differences from him; and what we have in common with him, and deliberately retain as true and useful, we owe to our savage forefathers who slowly acquired by experience and transmitted to us by inheritance those seemingly fundamental ideas which we are apt to regard as original and intuitive. We are like heirs to a fortune which has been handed down for so many ages that the memory of those who built it up is lost, and its possessors for the time being regard it as having been an original and unalterable possession of their race since the beginning of the world. But reflection and enquiry should satisfy us that to our predecessors we are indebted for much of what we thought most our own, and that their errors were not wilful extravagances or the ravings of insanity, but simply hypotheses, justifiable as such at the time when they were propounded, but which a fuller experience has proved to be inadequate. It is only by the successive testing of hypotheses and rejection of the false that truth is at last elicited. After all, what we call truth is only the hypothesis which is found to work best. Therefore in reviewing the opinions and practices of ruder ages and races we shall do well to look with leniency upon their errors as inevitable slips made in the search for truth, and to give them the benefit of that indulgence which we ourselves may one day stand in need of: cum excusatione itaque veteres audiendi sunt.” p. 218-9

The White Goddess (book) – Review

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I first came across references to The White Goddess while doing some general research on Celtic mythology, specifically the Morrigan, or Morrigan, the famous Irish goddess of fate and death. Pagan myths and legends have always interested me, and so I was quite eager to check out this book, which is widely regarded as one of the most important to investigate the links between goddess-worship and matriarchal culture. The book is written by Robert Graves, someone I’ve admired ever since I watched the TV adaptation of his most famous work, I, Claudius.

Clocking in at over 500 pages, it took me several months to read The White Goddess, which is a very challenging book. Graves is not primarily a historian, but a poet, and he describes his book as a ‘Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth’, rather than an academic work of history, anthropology or even literary criticism. The book is suffused with classical, literary, historical and mythological allusions and references, and it is frankly impossible and pointless to try and pursue all of the twists and turns Graves makes as he pursues his argument. This is partly because the book is ludicrously dense, as Graves bombards the reader with endless obscure references from all over Europe and the Near East, dating from any time between about 2000 BC and 1500 AD.

Much of the book is devoted to some hopelessly convoluted analysis of a few little-known Welsh and Irish myths and legends. Whatever the inrinsic interest of these stories, their appeal or indeed significance is not well communicated by Graves, who gets hopelessly lost in the maze of his own investigations and speculations. However, the one good thing I got out of these sections was a love for trees. I’ve never been interested in trees or plants, but the prevailing importance of trees in Celtic myths and legends is something I now appreciate, and I’m grateful to the book for opening my eyes to this hugely important, and indeed beautiful subject.

Graves’s critical method is quite undisciplined, and the book would have benefited from proper editing; but then again, it probably would have been impossible to edit this book properly. Graves is obsessed with the idea that all ‘true’ poetry is inspired by a ‘single poetic theme’, Goddess-worshship, and his book essentially consists of an unending effort to find evidence for this argument. At times it’s akin to a form of monomania. Graves has an absurd method of presenting ‘evidence’: if something seems to flatly contradict his thesis on the face of it, he will simply assert that the ancients got it wrong, and that in fact the true allusion or story behind the myth is literally the opposite of what it has been taken to mean for thousands of years. At times he presents a credible reason for this, but time and again he simply asserts it without backing it up at all.

What’s worse, towards the end of the book Graves has two chapters in which major parts of his argument consist of pure fiction. The first is a novel interpretation of the meaning of 666, the ‘number of the beast’, where Graves converts the number into Roman numerals and then imagines a sequence of words starting with the appropriate letters, DCLXVI. The second is a cringeworthy section where he ‘imagines’ a conversation between some Romans discussing the subject matter of his book. It’s excruciating and embarrassing to read, and a massive disappointment considering that these sections come towards the end of the book, just when you’re expecting his argument to finally come together in a coherent way. Graves describes these chapters as the product of ‘analeptic thought’, referring to the idea that you can throw your mind back in time to get a new perspective on something that happened a long time ago. This has been suggested as a way of examining prehistoric art, by looking at its intrinsic visual patterns and moving away from the methods of art criticism that are a modern construct and arguably not valid for examining prehistoric creations. However, there’s a difference between that, and what Graves does here, which I would simply describe as ‘making things up’.

The sad thing is, that the book does actually contain nuggets of inspiration as well as some fascinating comments on comparative religion and the development of religious mythology and iconography. Graves takes his inspiration from Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a pioneering book which analysed the material basis for myths and legends in ancient and prehistoric rituals. This book’s best sections are in that tradition, and Graves highlights familiar religious tropes which can be traced across not just Egyptian, Graeco-Roman, and Judaeo-Christian religion, but also between Norse, Germanic, Celtic, and Babylonian religious custom. Moreover, although Graves takes the subject in a personal and subjective direction, the core subject matter is something that has interested me since discovering the ‘materialist conception of history’ as a student and reading Friedrich Engels book, ‘The origins of the family, private property, and the state.’

The key theme here is the role of ‘The White Goddess’, also referred to as the Triple Goddess, who recurs in most religious pantheons as a mother/wife figure, often in a triple aspect as mother, daughter, and crone (or as maiden, seductress, and hag). The argument is that in matriarchal society, before the development of agriculture and before the Bronze Age, this goddess was a prevailing archetype across most of Europe and indeed the wider world, whose primary position was overthrown by male gods over a period of time due to the rise of patriarchal society and the concomitant development of patriarchal religion. This goddess figure was thenceforth subjugated in her commonly known forms such as Isis, Hera/Juno, Frigg/Freya, etc.

One thing that surprised me was that Graves doesn’t seem to examine the role of Gaia-type goddesses. In Greek mythology, for example, Gaia (‘Mother Earth’) is the original deity who gave birth to the fatherless Uranus, and then mated with him to produce offspring which included Cronus (the father of Zeus). The trope of a virgin birth, or the child without a father, is an obvious indicator of matriarchy or matrilinear descent, ie, a form of social organization where a child’s paternity is either unknown or unimportant. But Graves tends to shy away from this kind of social comment in favour of obtuse linguistic references. He also makes no comment on the well-known ‘fat lady’ iconography that existed across Europe in the neolithic period, and which is a clear sign of worship of fertility and the female form.

It’s a significant problem that Graves did not do a better job with this book. This is an important subject, and one can’t help think that he was onto something with his central argument. The problem is that his irresponsible and self-indulgent treatment of the subject matter tends to discredit the whole line of investigation. Sadly, if you do an internet search about matriarchal religions today you’ll find the subject is largely the preserve of mystics and cranks, which is a far cry from the late-nineteenth century when there was a great deal of serious study devoted to this important subject, by women and men alike. As Graves points out in connection to the replacement of matriarchy by patriarchy, the onward march of time brings regression as well as progression.

6/10

Et tu, Owen?

Owen Jones made an unexpected foray into the Labour Party leadership debate today in the form of an article for the Guardian. While making certain obvious criticisms of the right-wing offensive against Corbyn and his supporters, the purpose of Jones’s article was to legitimize ‘left-wing’ criticism of Corbyn on the basis of more or less the same arguments as the Blairites and their allies. In other words, Jones criticized Corbyn’s personal style, and Labour’s failure under his leadership to ‘engage’ the electorate.

This latter smear is particularly insidious and has been a widespread argument by Corbyn’s opponents which doesn’t bear much scrutiny. For one thing, there is plenty of evidence that Corbyn has been successful in energizing widespread sections of the population, not limited just to Labour members. I received an email from my CLP today welcoming the huge number of new members who’ve joined Labour and stating that membership in one party ward was now almost 10% of the electorate! The mere fact of doubling Labour’s membership in the space of a year is an unbelievable achievement, and you might assume that Labour would want to harness that energy rather than deliberately drive people away from the party. But that is exactly what the Blairites and party apparatus are doing: they would rather see people off politics for life, making them totally apathetic or even hostile, rather than witness the Labour Party transformed into a vehicle for genuinely progressive social change. And with his screed in the Guardian, Jones is in effect signalling his willingness to serve as a left-wing screen for that strategy.

Jones make the remarkable statement he has “frequently” been in “utter despair” since Corbyn took over as Labour leader due to his supposed lack of “competence” and “effective communication”. Again, Jones doesn’t really refer to much to back this up, other than reference to a couple of minor episodes, largely relying on the kind of assumed knowledge (Labour appeared “shambolic” and “incompetent”–to whom? when?) that is characteristic of the Blairites’ Big Lie campaign against Corbyn. He dismisses the fact that Corbyn has been routinely undermined and plotted against by his own MPs, never mind that he has continuously had to face down an unbelievably hostile mainstream media. Jones could lend his not inconsiderable literary talents and public profile to bolster Corbyn’s case and help motivate his vision to a wider audience, but instead he’s decided to join the chorus of voices bemoaning Corbyn’s leadership style.

Considering what is going on in the Labour Party at present, that is tantamount to a betrayal. The Party executive has launched an anti-democratic campaign against its own membership, rescinding the voting rights of 100,000+ people who joined the party in the expectation of being able to vote in the leadership election, while also suspending all local party meetings for the duration of the campaign. The party apparatus has effectively declared war on its own members, but Jones doesn’t make a mention of any of this, choosing instead this moment in time to come out as a critic of Corbyn. It’s shameful.

Owen Jones did write one book that was pretty good, ‘Chavs’, a book which was about the demonization of the working class. The thing is, that book was written at a time when left-wing politics and the class struggle in general was at an unbelievably low ebb. It’s very easy and can actually be quite profitable to adopt a sort of house-trained, literary left-wing posture at a time like that. But over the last year Jones has been quite muted and largely irrelevant, and I mentioned before on this blog that he seemed mainly concerned with showing he could ‘brain trust’ for a future Labour government. Now there actually is a massive movement for change taking place within the Labour Party itself, which is blowing apart the established political consensus and threatening even the stability of the party; so the need for a militantly polite left-wing literary posture is much reduced. Instead he needs to pick a side, with those who are joining Labour because they are desperate for change, or with the Blairites, the media, and political establishment. Maybe Owen secretly yearns for things to go back to the way they were. In any event, he is certainly doing his best to establish his credentials as someone who can be trusted by the right-wing and the party establishment when push comes to shove.

 

Blairites reveal £25 price of democracy

The establishment campaign to remove Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader suffered another massive blow yesterday evening when the Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC) voted 18-14 that Corbyn, as the incumbent leader of the party, does not need to gather signatures from Labour MPs to be on the ballot for the forthcoming leadership election. This is significant because Corbyn would have struggled to muster enough signatures from among the PLP, dominated as it is by Blairites and venal careerists, to be on the ballot that way. He has massive support among the Labour Party membership but not among the Parliamenary Labour Party or its allies in the party ‘elite’, most of whom are ideologically opposed to everything he stands for.  The failure of this latest stage of the ‘Chicken Coup’ was something to be celebrated by everyone who hopes for a kind of politics not dominated and controlled by the rich and powerful.

Yet barely had news about the NEC’s decision got out before the latest Blairite tactic was revealed. After Corbyn and some of his supporters left the NEC meeting, the committee voted to stop anyone who joined Labour in the last six months from voting in the leadership election. This includes the 100,000+ members who signed up in the few weeks since the Brexit vote, most of whom are Corbyn supporters. Supposedly, members will be able to pay a £25 fee to register as a ‘registered supporter’, and be able to vote that way–a tactic which manifestly discriminates against the less well-off, most of whom are likely to be Corbyn supporters; while £25 is small change to the sort of ‘filthy rich’ Blairite who might specifically sign up to try and vote against Corbyn. More generally, the idea of putting a price tag on a vote like this is profoundly undemocratic, and flies in the face of everything the Labour Party is supposed to stand for.

There have also been unconfirmed reports that the NEC voted to suspend all local party meetings in the run-up to the leadership election, which will take place between August and September. If true, this would represent a profoundly undemocratic manoeuvre designed to silence and marginalize the grassroots membership which forms the base of Corbyn’s support, and which is also the lifeblood of the Labour Party. The pretext for this seems to be a supposed campaign of intimidation against Blairite MPs and party functionaries; a campaign which does not seem to have existed apart from in the heads of said figures and their cheerleaders in the media. A brick was thrown through the window of leadership ‘candidate’ Angela Eagle’s office in Merseyside, but it’s still unclear who did it or even what their motive was. Corbyn and his supporters, including Momentum, have been quick to condemn any and all behaviour that even hints at being aggressive or unfriendly, but that’s not enough for the Blairites or the media.

Eagle said it wasn’t enough Corbyn condemnded any intimidation or abuse, refraining from saying what else he is actually supposed to do; while NEC member Johanna Baxter made the risible claim that by voting that the leadership vote should not be a secret ballot, Corbyn was ‘endorsing bullying’. Again, these people who are so quick to denounce Corbyn’s supporters of bullying seem to find it very hard to actually provide any evidence of bullying or intimidation, instead conflating bullying with the idea of democratic accountability. Yet Corbyn is subjected to the lowest form of schoolyard bullying in the House of Commons, including listening to his own MPs telling him to ‘sit down and shut up, you’re a disgrace, while he’s trying to hold to account the Conservative Prime MInister during PMQs. The Blairites and their supporters in the media are suppsoed to be able to smear Corbyn and his supporters, but the mildest criticism of them is denounced as if it’s the worst kind of abuse imaginable.

You know, if you manifestly try to sabotage the democratic structures of the party you’re paid to represent, and metaphorically spit on your own members, then you might eventually find yourself voted out of your cushy position and be forced to actually go and earn a living like the rest of us. The mentality of these Labour Party careerists has become abundantly clear: voters and the membership are just there as electoral fodder who are supposed to vote and keep their mouths shut, allowing the political class to do whatever they want with no possibility of consequences. Well, that’s not how democracy works. The rampantly undemocratic bureaucratic chicanery indulged in by the PLP and Labour Party establishment over the past few weeks has shown exactly how much store they put in the principle of ‘democracy’. It’s a fig leaf to be used only to suit their own interests and as a pretext for bombing other countries.

This attack on new members’ right to vote was actually anticipated by the decision to deny anyone who joined after 24 June a vote in the upcoming elections to the NEC. That was the day before Hilary Benn called Corbyn to tell him he was gathering signatures for a vote of no confidence; the event which forced Corbyn to fire him. This was in turn the event which precipitated the massive surge in people joining Labour. Coincidence? Probably. But considering some of the individuals and organizations involved in these machinations, nothing would take me by surprise.

The details of how new members are supposed to be able to vote in the election are still scarce. However, one of the few ways new members can supposedly guarantee a vote is by joining as an affiliated supporter via a Labour-affiliated trade union. It would be the mother of all ironies if this latest Blairite tactic led to an explosion in union membership–just as it was the change to voting rules, designed to harm the unions, which paved the way for Corbyn’s electoral success last year. For all their malevolent bloody-mindedness, there is plenty of evidence to back up John McDonnell’s assertion the coup plotters are ‘fucking useless’. But at the same time, they are absolutely determined, and will not give up until Corbyn is gone. Corbyn has spent the past nine months trying to conciliate the Blairites within the Labour Party, and all it has done is emboldened them and given them time to plot a series of coup attempts.

Corbyn and his supporters barely have any time to articulate their vision of a better Britain, considering they spend all day every day firefighting attempts by Labour’s right and the media to smear them and undermine the party. But nevertheless, Corbyn has inspired Labour Party to grow to around half a million; an amazing development, as he has said, that needs to be mobilised to work for a better country and a better world. The problem is, there are major parts of the Labour establishment who do not want these members joining the party, and who would be much happier if they left, and the party carried on as the same Tory-lite charade it has been since the 1980s. Then there would be no opposition to their self-serving political perspective, and no threats of deselection to keep them awake at night. But sooner or later, something will have to give. The unions who finance the Labour Party will play a pivotal role. Until now they have by and large supported Corbyn, but history is full of examples of trade union leaders betraying their members when the pressure is really on. Unless Corbyn is going to join the ranks of honest but tragic labour leaders, he is going to have to act decisively to ensure all his support does not just fizzle away.