Cafe society, Sloane Square 

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Time travellers

Early music meets folk. From my review of the Emily Askew Band’s date in Clerkenwell:

Perhaps some things never change. Miri It Is, one of the songs in Emily Askew’s opening set, written in Middle English, dates from the 13th century yet deals with a topic that modern audiences will have no difficulty understanding: the vagaries of the weather. It didn’t take a great leap of the imagination to picture ourselves huddled over a fire in some hostelry in ye olde London.

The quartet’s programme carried us much farther afield, from France to Germany, Spain and Portugal, blending wistful introspection with, occasionally, the raw energy of a ceilidh. Askew, as some readers may remember, was part of the Elizabethan Session, a glorious meeting of past and present that yielded one of the outstanding concerts and recordings of 2014. Anyone who was present at the Hatfield House premiere will cherish the memory of the petite musician corralling her arsenal of period instruments.

What makes her new project so intriguing is the instinctive approach it takes to bridging the gap between folk and early music. Her group, which includes another versatile soloist in John Dipper, deserves to catch the ear of non-folkies who have always made a point of keeping a couple of David Munrow albums in their collection.

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That time of year

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Audiences in black & white

It was Stax night at the Proms last week. I gave it a rave in the Times. Yes, the 75-minute running time was too brief – with so many singers on the programme (Eddie Floyd, Sam Moore, Beverley Knight, Tom Jones, James Morrison and Ruby Turner all had their moment in front of Jools Holland’s big band) there wasn’t really time for any of them to do more than the bare minimum. And yes, the whole thing was essentially geared towards the audience watching on TV. But the music was so uplifting that I was happy to be swept along. There’s a dissenting view from Gregg Kofi Brown, who wonders why there weren’t more black people in the audience. That point hadn’t even registered with me, to be honest, mainly because I’m so used to seeing so few black faces at events like this. Are the Proms organizers to blame for that? Not knowing how the concert was marketed, I can’t say one way or the other. All I do know is that, off the top of my head,  I can only think of one jazz/R&B star I’ve seen lately who does attract a sizeable black following at the major venues: Gregory Porter. It really does trouble me that an artist like Eric Bibb, who draws together so many strands of African-American music, invariably plays to audiences that are 99 per cent white.  The same applies to most of the world music acts I’ve seen in the last decade. Maybe I’m forgetting some blindingly obvious exceptions. There definitely seems to be a problem. Is there a solution?

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new yorker cartoon intimacy

Barbara Smaller, The New Yorker.

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Macaulay , like Burke, was an intellectual MP who harnessed history to politics. He was a literary celebrity of forceful personality and decided opinions – “I wish I was as cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything,” remarked the prime minister, Lord Melbourne… His strength was not analysis but narrative. He aimed at a large readership, “to supersede the last fashionable novel on the tables of young ladies”. He applied literary narrative techniques to a major work of English history for the first time, concentrating on vivid descriptions of events and people, lauding heroism and denouncing vices (above all those of the Stuarts – “inconstancy, perfidy, baseness”, etc), and dwelling on heroic and pathetic ends; death scenes were a speciality. He was brilliant on memorable sayings and details, not least the gruesome: rebels hanged from a pub sign (the White Hart); a woman about to be burned at the stake arranging the straw herself so that she would die quickly. How much was true? Macaulay was not interested in testing evidence, but exploiting it. Popularity came: and a cheque for £200,000 from Longmans in 1856 – worth several millions today – was preserved by the publishers as the relic of a prodigy.

Robert Tombs, “The English & Their History”.

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On the water

The Thames at Bisham.

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dunkirk-poster-600x889Well, I went in with my expectations set reasonably low – the swooning and gasping from many of the critics automatically put me on my guard. (Remember how they tried to convince us that “Skyfall” was the best Bond film ever?) What you get from “Dunkirk” is a decent war film with some inspired moments but an awful lot of blockbuster padding and a distinct lack of memorable characters. Maybe Christopher Nolan was trying to show how war reduces us all to ciphers, but the ultimate effect is that the film becomes a string of hardware-driven set-pieces. The CGI is a big disappointment too: those much-touted aerial scenes struck me as a lot less impressive than those in “The Battle of Britain”, which is, remember, getting on for fifty years old. The constant cross-cutting between characters at crucial moments undercut the momentum too, the final appearance of the little boats was embarrassingly schmaltzy, while the climactic dog-fight had more than a touch of “Top Gun” about it. As for Hans Zimmer’s horribly bombastic, cod-Elgar score, the less said the better.

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But the single greatest shock, which recurs in emigrant reminiscences with the force of a primal scene, was seeing working-class Britons. The vast majority of the new arrivals modelled their idea of British people on the colonial officials and missionaries they had encountered in the Caribbean. They had met no others. A number of women, headed for nursing training, recall the shock of seeing “ordinary white people doing ordinary work. You were sort of made to believe that they lived in a more aristocratic way, that they didn’t clean floors and they didn’t sweep streets. I couldn’t understand any of what they were saying!” “It was really strange to see white people sweeping streets and doing manual jobs. I had not seen that before.” “We had white people pick up our luggage and that was one of the first shocks because in Guyana all the white people that we came into contact with spoke like Prince Charles and they were in very high positions.” For the men it was the same. “My images of white people were of a race which had all the good jobs and therefore lots of money. A people whose menfolk work while their women stay at home or play tennis.” The novelty of being addressed as “sir” by station porters and train staff would wear off. But the image of the white street sweeper was so powerful because it revealed to the migrants their new situation. If white people worked in such lowly jobs, then to seek any employment at all in Britain meant challenging those who already belonged.

Clair Wills, “Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain”.

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Ways of seeing

At the National Gallery. 

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