A song about now
As a kid I would wonder why all the songs on the radio were about relationships. Surely there must be other things worth singing about?
At the end of a terrible year — 2016, of course — I was glad, if that is the word, to hear a great song, The War, by a great singer, Thea Gilmore.
It was hard not to be struck by a song about the terrible events of last year, the summer especially where events seemed to race each other across this page of history — the Orlando massacre, the murder of Jo Cox, the Nice attacks. We barely needed Brexit and Trump adding in on top.
I’m writing this, first, to bring attention to a song and singer that deserve much more of it. And, second, to give vent to the lines and thoughts that keep circling round and round thanks to song and singer. The first few, which I would pick out from The War, are the following lyrics:
In the tide of hate
Throw down the counterweight
These resonate, not least because those of us concerned at the tide of events are not yet confident we have found a counterweight. We can see what we believe to be wrong but we don’t yet have the full battery of ideas to overturn it nor the language to articulate it. We need words which work for the late 2010s.
The song ends:
You can cut that stem
But wildflowers grow again
All you can do is just tend to them
And know that you tried
This is a time when it feels as though a lot has been cut from underneath us — the progress made from the 1990s towards a more tolerant, equal, fair Britain shuddered to a feeble stop. In some cases it has hit a violent reverse. Abroad, even more breathtakingly, the progress that Barack Obama embodied and that Hillary Clinton might have done, feels like someone has taken secateurs to that stem.
Gilmore’s note of hope — the wildflower, perhaps persevering up through rocky ground — sticks in my mind and reassures, not only for its tenacity — ideas, once shared, cannot die — but because of its wildness. For of us those on the losing end of recent blows, the outsider status is unfamiliar, but must invigorate and define us.
This is especially true as voices at allegedly opposite ends of the political spectrum instruct us to make the best of quitting Europe. They do so in words and tones denuded of any sense of friendship, solidarity or comradeship with our fellow Europeans nor of Europe’s stabilising place in the world. This won’t be good enough for my generation or those that follow, so we must find a new way through ourselves.
Tending to the wildflowers and, if nothing else, knowing that you tried, brings to mind Voltaire’s exhortation, through Candide, to ‘cultivate one’s garden’. Attend to what you can, make a difference where you can.
And, in a similar vein, I was also happily reminded of words which the excellent Alison McGovern MP has shared, by the South African campaigner Olive Schreiner, and which more than bear sharing again:
‘I should like to say to the men and women of the generations which will come after us — ‘You will look back at us with astonishment!
‘You will wonder at passionate struggles that accomplished so little; at the, to you, obvious paths to attain our ends which we did not take; at the intolerable evils before which it will seem to you we sat down passive; at the great truths staring us in the face, which we failed to see; at the truths we grasped at, but could never quite get our fingers round.
‘You will marvel at the labour that ended in so little — but, what you will never know is how it was thinking of you and for you, that we struggled as we did and accomplished the little which we have done; that it was in the thought of your larger realisation and fuller life, that we found consolation for the futilities of our own.’
2017. Things will get worse before they get better, and in the next years too. For me, and I hope perhaps for some others, Gilmore’s lyrical wisdom catches the tone of the times, and Schreiner’s words light the way to reconciling striving for progress with the foreknowledge of setbacks to come. Those who have been there, at the beginning of the battles for people to live the fuller life, have seen it all before. In the times to come, we will too.
Thanks to Eran Edry for introducing me to Thea!