Last night I watched the film The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, for the first time. Richard Burton as John Le Carré’s hero Alec Leamas. I think he’s a hero, anyway. A spy disillusioned with corruption, with the price paid for loyalty to national security, with the concept of national security, with the moral self-righteousness of nations, with the soul-destroying nature of espionage and the cheapness of human life that it involves. It wrote large my current preoccupations over the current desperate move towards nationalism, patriotism, clan-based responses, isolationism, countries breaking away from each other rather than pulling together, and all these things at a local level as well as a national and international one.
As I said before, the thing that has been most difficult through this pandemic is facing the introspection of a small town, the introspection of lots of people, the sense that ‘community’ is a local thing. I loathe the rise of overt nationalism that has come to the surface in the wake of the Brexit referendum, and has grown – not just the thugs and Farageites of this world, but the kind of isolationism at different levels of society that is painful to see. At the moment, there is a trend for politicians to appear in Zoom calls with the union flag in the background – often two. We are in danger of starting to worship the flag, as Americans are wont to do. People say, Why are other countries not allowed to be proud of their flag but not us? That’s not the right question, for me: no one should be proud of their flag. Nationalism and patriotism are destructive. The flags are an emotive thing that undermines careful thinking. Lately a Tory councillor has taken to putting up quotes about how many here have been vaccinated with a union flag as the background to his posts, and it’s nauseating.
Why am I ranting about patriotism and nationalism? Because this emphasis on local places and local people is patriotism writ small, and narrows the world for everyone. This year I have spent a lot of time grieving for Kenilworth Arts Festival. It is still going, and the current committee did a lovely job of putting on a small festival with online events. But for four years, the amazing Lewis Smith organised the most beautiful Arts Festival for Kenilworth – put together quite fabulous events bringing some of the most interesting and exciting writers, musicians and creative groups to Kenilworth. Whenever I tried to spread the word, people would say. ‘But what’s it got to do with Kenilworth? Where are the Kenilworth artists?’ And it always broke my heart. It was never meant to be about Kenilworth, it was about bringing the highest quality arts events TO Kenilworth – like Edinburgh, Cheltenham, Hay-on-Wye and others. The parochialism is soul-destroying. It was a shock when someone just mentioned almost casually that Lewis would not be part of the Festival any more, and I have been crying over it ever since, and still going through a grieving process for something that we should have nurtured, developed, continued to grow into a nationally-respected festival. But all people want is a platform for local artists.
The musicians who have come to the Tree House have all been professional musicians on national – sometimes international – tours. They may not be household names, but they have all been significant, sometimes stellar, names on the folk and acoustic scene, which is producing some of the most talented singer-songwriters around. We should be excited that these musicians made Kenilworth part of their tours, but Kenilworth rarely was, beyond a handful of people who were either knowledgeable or adventurous. There was very, very little in the way of sharing our gigs, encouraging others to come to them, spreading the word about how good these musicians are. Lots of businesses and individuals ask me to retweet their stuff on a daily basis; I can count on one hand the number of people who regularly share(d) our events, and three of those are personal friends. We are a very small venue, and without selling 30 tickets each time, we struggle to meet the fees of those musicians, let alone pay for extras such as giving them food, and the shop almost never gets anything to help with rent and paying for my time. This is my livelihood too.
I am being unkind, I realise. But I don’t mean to be, only honest. Having the shop closed for eight months of the last year has given me plenty of time to think, and seeing people not just locally but around the country responding in inward-looking ways to this pandemic has been very sad. For me, sadness and anger can be emotions that overlap and it can be hard to find the line that separates them.
The quotation in the title of this post is from Bob Dylan’s Sweetheart Like You, and is adapted of course from Samuel Johnson. Bob’s song goes on to say, ‘Steal a little and they put you in jail, steal a lot and they make you king.’ We have had a chance over the last year to change our way of thinking about society, about capitalism, about lifestyle, about our place in the world and the cosmos, and it feels as though we have largely failed to do that.
One of these days I will list the things I am most proud of at the bookshop, and half of it won’t mean anything to the people of Kenilworth, but we have done lots of things. The live music, however, is the pinnacle of what we have achieved, though hardly anyone acknowledges it as anything at all. That’s OK – those of us in the know, know! Thank you to those who have supported our gigs.
Enough rambling for now. Others may be looking forward to returning to their normality, but I don’t want that at all. This is a chance to change, a chance to rethink and re-evaluate, and as I said in my previous post, I am not going to go back to how things were before. We may lose followers and customers, but ours is not a business in the conventional sense, and I am not going to compromise my beliefs and hopes in the interests of commerce-led values. I hope my accountant does not read this.
Here is Bob’s song. On a more positive note, here is something that my other hero Nick Cave wrote the other day: ‘The world still turns, ever perilous, but containing its many joys. Music remains a balm. Friendships endure.’ Thank you Nick. Thank you Bob. Music transcends national boundaries and cultures and languages, music is fundamental to us as humans and so it unites us in a way that being part of a political clan never can. It teaches us to look both deep into ourselves and then out, as stronger people, to others and to the world and the universe of which we are all a part. I will continue to champion music – and live music – in whatever ways I can, and there will be the occasional live and fabulous gig at the Tree House, and we will support Bob and Nick and Nick’s friend our wonderful patron Warren Ellis in all their endeavours. Music Matters.
Next time I will focus on beautiful things not the ones that make me angry.