Saturday, 12 April 2014

Taking Up the Hitchens' Challenge...

Years ago I went into a trendy bookshop outside Bradford and asked if they had any biographies of General Gordon (of Khartoum). The bearded bookseller gave me a surprised look which I read as:  ‘A book about a British military imperialist? Pah!’  On the way out I noticed plenty of biographies about Adolf Hitler. 

Recently I had a somewhat similar experience in a bookshop in Bradford. I asked yet another bearded chap if the store had books by Peter Hitchens and Christopher Hitchens. “I don’t think we’ve got any by Peter Hitchens,” he replied quickly, in case I was a left wing spy checking out the shop’s PC credentials.  But he went off and helpfully came back with three or four volumes by the late Christopher Hitchens.

One of them was a large volume of essays at nearly £15. Another was his autobiography Hitch-22, which cost just under £10. “If you were on a desert island and could only take one of these books, which one would it be?” I said. He hummed and hahed for a bit, then proffered the less expensive autobiography, assuring me that it was brilliant. I liked him for that.


“Michael Gove said the same as you,” I added somewhat slyly. “Michael Gove!” he said, seemingly astonished by the idea that David Cameron’s Education Secretary, the man who pushed through privately-run academies and free schools, should  approve of a book by a self-proclaimed revolutionary socialist and militant atheist. “Hmmm. You shouldn’t under-estimate people,” I said sententiously. Of course, that’s precisely what I do all the time.

It was Gove’s written recommendation in a newspaper that had sent me into Waterstone’s in the first place. I am so pleased that I followed my instinct. An encouraging review, especially from an unexpected quarter, is a god-send. I’ve been reading chapters of Hitch-22: A Memoir in Caffe Nero before work, on the bus home after work, and, on one occasion, in work, with great pleasure to coin a cliche. It's a history of his life and times written with generous, self-examining intelligence. I like that in writers. Those who turn their critical eye upon the world only are too needy and sometimes too nerdy.

Anyway, last night I Googled up a two-hour debate between the Hitchens brothers that took place in a church in the United States two years ago. They had been invited to argue the case for and against the Iraq war and the case for and against the existence of God. The difference between them was clearly evident in the way they carried themselves. Peter was edgily combative, nervously forthright. Christopher was charming in a deadly kind of way, turning statements into questions, daring the audience to take him on, trans-Atlantically confident in his ability to take on and defeat all-comers.  

During the course of the exchange Christopher issued a public challenge. The old polemicist must have done this dozens of times, judging by the way he relished his calculated effects. Like an after-dinner raconteur aiming for the final word, he asked the audience if anyone could come with up an example of a religiously-inclined person doing a single moral act beneficial to mankind that could not have been done by a non-believer.

Okay, how about Tony Blair and George W Bush? The former British Prime Minister and US President, both believers, sent armies into Iraq to defeat the forces of Saddam Hussain - a decision warmly supported and defended by Christopher Hitchens, in spite of the falsehoods about WMD, in spite of the killing of thousands of civilians, in spite of the consequent chaos and instability. His only regret was that the decision to invade had been in 2003 and not earlier: the world was most definitely a better place without the fascistic Ba-athist party of Saddam in power in the Middle East, he said. Bush and Blair didn't have to be believers to go to war, but they were/are. Did he ever ask them the question he asked his audience, I wonder.

If that's out of order, then what about President Abraham Lincoln? Without his 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States slavery would not have been abolished by Congress in 1865. Then there's the Reverend Martin Luther King and all those God-fearing political activists among the Freedom Riders who took on the apartheid-approvers of the Deep South at the risk of physical injury and death. Lincoln and King, of course, were both murdered for their troubles, as was Mahatma Gandhi - not a Christian, admittedly, but nevertheless not an atheist either.

I don't know if Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans thought that God was on their side when they set up the White Rose movement in Nazi Germany to publically oppose Hitler. They were both guillotined. German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at Flossenberg concentration camp in April 1945 - two years after being imprisoned. He was an active anti-Nazi dissident who helped Jews escape to Switzerland and supported attempts to assassinate Hitler. Pastor Martin Niemoller was another anti-Nazi clergyman who was  imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945. Nearer his own life and times, Christopher Hitchens could have recalled Polish Roman Catholic priest Father Jerzy Popieluszko, an active supporter of the banned shipyard trades union Solidarity during the time of martial law, who was murderd by Polish Communist Party security police in 1984.

Were all these people "slaves of a celestial tyranny", as Christopher Hitchens was wont to describe believers? Slaves, however, were what Thomas Jefferson had at Monticello, his Frenchified mansion in Virginia. Hitchens, who greatly admired the co-author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States, doesn't flinch away from this in his memoir. That's partly why I found myself warming to the book. For what it's worth, I am happy to endorse Michael Gove's recommendation.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Hot Air

As I was pounding the treadmill in the gym on the eve of the second Farage v Clegg European Union lightweight title fight, it was my misfortune to be confronted with BBC Television's Six O'Clock News.

I should explain that these instruments of self-torture face a wall on which there is an array of nine flat-screens showing a variety of programmes about sport, food, chat shows or quiz shows, pop videos and news. The screen on my left was showing the news.

And top of the agenda was the air pollution over England. In BBC speak this seemed to mean London. An obsese woman in a cafe was talking anxiously about the difficulty of breathing. Lose some fucking weight, I nearly shouted, and you wouldn't have trouble breathing.

That wasn't the point of the story, of course. Here was yet more eco scare-mongering to frighten the timorous and vindicate planet-saving warriors. It followed hot on the heels of the previous day's lead story about the world being on the brink (yet again) of a man-made global warming holocaust - according to yet anaother scary report emanating from the discredited Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This tale was given the full treatment by the BBC and, to their shame, by ITV.

That same day the Heartland Institute's Non-Governmental International Panel on Climate Change in America had published a report of more than 1,000 pages taking issue with everything in the UN report. But this document was totally ignored by the media. I only got to know about it on Richard North's EU Referendum blog.

Of especial irritation was the news wangle linking mm global warming with the recent flooding of the Somerset Levels. There wasn't a whisper, of course, about the EU directives on wetlands, wildlife and drainage that just might have been a teeny-weeny bit influential in the drowning of the ground where King Alfred took refuge from maurauding Danish Vikings in the ninth century.

Anyway, 24 hours later that IPPC report was yesterday's news as warm winds from the Sahara blew more fine powder over the head of that fat woman in London babbling on about the difficulties of breathing. Today, I hear, our own Prime Minister cancelled his morning jog for fear of ending up with Arab dust in his lungs. And this is the man who says he's going to face down Angela Merkal over the EU and Vladimir Putin over Crimea. I think not. Rich Londoners spend so much time stuffing fine powder up their noses you wouldn't think they'd be bothered by a bit of dust from Lawrence of Arabia land.

This stuff blew over Bradford as well, giving the sky the same scoured whiteness as on the cover of the U2 album, October. I walked to the station this morning and here I am, Mr Cameron, to tell the tale.

I didn't watch the Clegg-Farage scrap. Highlights on the news were enough to irritate me even more (which is why I don't normally watch the news). The BBC pitched it as a debate about whether Britain should stay in Europe of leave it. For the love of Holy Christ, the argument is about leaving the bloody European Union - not the continental landmass across the Channel, which has been integral to our history since the Romans, the Angles, the Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans came, saw and conquered.

Farage-Clegg might have picked up a hint of this had they watched Professor Robert Bartlett's lucid three-parter The Plantagenets on BBC 2 - Henry II to Richard III. Europe has been part of our consciousness for centuries. Cressy and Agincourt, the Black Prince and Henry V, victories against overwhelming odds in unpropitious circumstances - isn't that what we pride ourselves on? One hundred years ago British soldiers went back across the Channel to die in their thousands for the sake of Europe.

We are deeply embedded in Europe and Europe is deeply embedded in us. All the talk of the EU representing a pan-European consciousness as against what is caricatured as a little Englander mentality just doesn't hold water - unlike the Somerset Levels. That's where you'll find the reality of the meddling EU.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Send for Lord Lucan and the Light Brigade...

About 160 years ago, Britain, France and Sardinia joined forces with the 'Sick Man of Europe' - Turkey - to fight a war against Tsarist Russia.

Ostensibly the bone of contention between the big three was the right to safeguard Christian places of worship in the Holy Land - Palestine in 1854. But as every bored GCE 'O' Level history student was told by equally bored history teachers, the Crimean War was about keeping Russia out of the Eastern Mediterranean via the Dardenelles Straits and the Black Sea.

The war was a bloody one. Between 1853 and 1856 the Russians and their enemies put an estimated 1.7m men into the field. Fatalities totalled more than 700,000 with thousands more wounded. Britain lost more than 20,000 men. The result pushed the Russians out of exotic Balkan territories such as Moldavia and Wallachia and, for a few more years, sustained the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against Russian Imperial territorial ambitions. 

All we got out of it was a poem by Lord Tennyson, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Florence Nightingale (we ignored Mary Seacole because she was from Kingston, Jamaica), the first photographs of a battlefield, the invention of the Victoria Cross, a pithy quip from Liberal MP John Bright who said Crimea was A Crime, and GCE questions about the dreaded Eastern Question. 

Evidently we didn't learn much because here we are again, with another contrived face-off in Crimea. And once again it seems to be Europe which has engineered the current crisis by encouraging instability in the Ukraine and then seeking to exploit it with a network of binding agreements. The poor old western Ukrainians were led to believe that the European Union was the gateway to freedom and prosperity.

Since Sunday's referendum which resulted in the people of Crimea voting overwhelming to pal up with Russia, EU apologists such as Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague as well as the United States have denounced the referendum as illegal and a sham.

Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. The European Union's record of responding to referendums is as questionable as anything that Vladimir Putin and his boys are capable of gerrymandering. 

In 1992 the European Community eagerly endorsed referendums in Slovenia and Croatia that resulted in the fragmentation of the federal state of Yugoslavia - a country formed of various bits of the Balkans after World War 1 - which rapidly led to war. NATO was obliged to intervene to deal with the mess engineered by the EC.

No constitutional change can be imposed on the member states of the European Empire, we are told, if one of those members votes against it. Well, we know that's not true. Between 2005 and 2008 the proposed European constitution - which became the Lisbon Treaty - was kicked into touch three times in referendums in France, the Netherlands and the Irish Republic.

What happened? Each time the boys in Brussels simply declared that the people had in reality voted for an improved union of member states. In short Brussels carried on regardless as though the referendums had been a vote of confidence. And in Britain? Prime Minister Gordon Brown simply said the Lisbon Treaty had altered the constitution so there was no need to hold a referendum.

We know this. Vladimir Putin and his men certainly know this. President Obama, if he does know this, gives no sign of acknowledging that there is a degree of hypocrisy at play in the European Union's response to events east of the Dneiper. 

But don't expect that to hit the headlines. Those organising the news to suit their own agenda should remember that you can fool some of the people all of the time, you can fool all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the peole all of the time.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Global Cold War Warming Up (again)

News that Russian military forces have moved into areas of the Crimea didn't surprise me and shouldn't surprise anyone else old enough to recall what happened in 2008 when the republic of Georgia decided to reclaim South Ossetia by force.

For a week that August foreign correspondents abroad and news editors at home were all speculating on the possibility of another Cold War stand-off between the West and Russia after the latter sent the 58th Army and airborne units into Ossetia to repel the Georgians. For a short but intense period of nostalgia and alarm we were once again on the slopes of the big Red glacier.

The reality was less catastrophic. In all some 275 soldiers were reportedly killed and about 1,500 wounded. Civilian displacements were given as 158,000. French President Nikolas Sarkozy, in his role as European Union President-in-waiting, helped broker a cease-fire with Russian President Medvedev. There was a six-point peace plan. Russian forces were withdrawn from all but 20 per cent of Georgia.

Western Europe did not freeze over, probably to the disappointment of global doom-mongers. Far from it, our part of the EU heated up as thousands of Eastern Europeans poured westwards. Life went on and we soon forgot all about Red Armageddon.

For outsiders like myself, the Cold War was John Le Carre's best spy thrillers and the sort of idealised trips to Eastern European countries undertaken by western poets and novelists that John Updike wrote about so well in his Henry Bech stories. Those on the receiving end of Russian military intervention will have a radically different view of it.

Ukrainians can point to 90 years or more of it. But then not all Ukrainians have the same feelings about Russia in its incarnation as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. But whether you belong to the faction who thinks the people's flag is deepest red or the faction who thinks it is stained with innocent blood, Russia is never going to stand by and watch the world's 44th largest country steal away to enrich the European Union.

It was unwise for anybody to believe that could happen. Egypt and Syria may have inspired a rush of blood to the head of those who dreamed of independence, but the outcomes of the revolutions in both countries appear to have caused more problems than they have solved, principally the problem of freelancing Islamic insurgents. Vladimir Putin is not going to permit another Chechneya to happen.

In comparison with what was taking place across the Dnieper, Angela Merkel's away day in London - tea and biccys with the Queen at Buck House, more tea but without sympathy for the Head Prefect at Number 10, followed by giving Peers and MPs a good talking to at the Palace of Westminster - must have seemed like visiting the Cubs.

All those sherry-faced cherubs with floppy hairdos smiling admiringly up at her, as though Germany's Chancellor was a dominatrix in a blue bum-freezer. How many of them miss the verbal spankings that Margaret Thatcher handed out? Next, in spite of current posturings about sanctions and the like, it will be Vladimir Putin, bare-chested, riding a horse up Whitehall. Won't the prefects love that (oohh, talk tough to me tovarich, talk dirty real politick!).  I'd be surprised if they didn't miss the Cold War too.

For is it not true that a common enemy, real or imagined, is a god-send for keeping warring factions in check? I believe that in Brussels' diplomatic Euro-speak this is known as the beneficial crisis.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Is History About to Repeat Itself?

With Russia making threatening noises about foreign intervention in neighbouring Ukraine and the the European Union sending in its foreign affairs supremo, the Baroness Cathy Ashton, I was reminded of events 22 years ago which arguably helped to provoke the first war on the European mainland since 1945.

But because I am a bear of astoundingly little brain I thought I'd better Google back to refresh my diminishing little grey cells. In 1992 the New York Times carried a report, parts of which I reproduce here:-

In a triumph for German foreign policy, all 12 members of the European Community, as well as Austria and Switzerland, recognized the independence of the former Yugoslav republics of Slovenia and Croatia today.
In a series of separate statements, various European governments asserted that the Belgrade Government no longer had a right to rule the two republics.
"Slovenia and Croatia have held referendums that showed clearly that their people want independence," a statement issued by the Danish Foreign Ministry said. "It is now time to fulfill the desire their people have expressed."
In Belgrade, the Serbian-dominated Government denounced the decision on recognition as "contrary to the sovereign rights of Yugoslavia." The Government said it would continue to function until all six Yugoslav republics reached an agreement on their future relations.
The action by the European Community marked an important diplomatic victory for Germany, which has vigorously supported Slovenian and Croatian independence. German officials announced last month that they would recognize the two republics regardless of the wishes of other European countries, and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher lobbied intensely for the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Mr. Genscher said in a radio interview today that he was "very happy" with his success. He asserted that Croatia "has achieved the highest imaginable standard of respect for minority rights."
Leaders of Croatia and Slovenia today expressed gratitude for Germany's support. Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel of Slovenia said recognition of his republic's independence was due largely to "the wise policy of the German Government."
But Serbian leaders deplored the European Community's decision and singled out Germany for special criticism. Vladislav Jovanovic, the Serbian Foreign Minister, described Germany's role as "particularly negative," and said he regretted that other European Community leaders had decided to follow the German lead.
"It is a very serious precedent to encourage unilateral secession in one multinational state," Mr. Jovanovic said in an interview broadcast on British television.
 Although most European governments favored eventual recognition of Slovenia and Croatia, some had sought to postpone today's announcement so recognition could be part of an overall peace settlement in the Balkans. But German officials insisted that recognition was the only way to force the Serbs to accept a settlement.
Germany's decision to press for quick recognition of the two republics, disregarding appeals from the United States and the United Nations, marked a new assertiveness that some Europeans find disconcerting.

Quite apart from the novelty of European Community members, as they were called then, taking the moral high ground on the principle of supporting the outcome of referendums, there is the suggestion that the EC embodies the principle of national sovereignty. I fear that people in the western half of Ukraine, at least, believe that. We should not encourage them in that chimera. But I daresay we will.

Remember what happened next in what was then Yugoslavia between 1992 and 1999? I can remember Srebrinicia, the term "ethnic cleansing", and television pictures of Sarajevo under Serbian artillery bombardment and sniper fire. I remember NATO warplanes over Belgrade and Kosovo. I daresay centuries of sectarian hatred and tribal mistrust played a big part in the killings - more than 100,000 - and the destruction. You would have thought the wise men of Europe would have realised that after the death of a strong leader, in this case Yugoslavia's President Tito, the destructive forces that he had contained were bound to explode at the slightest encouragement. Newly reunited Germany gave it, and boom!

If the freedom fighters on the barricades in Kiev ever do get their way and find themselves embedded in the European Union they will find that they have swapped the devil they know for one they are not familiar with. 

Monday, 17 February 2014

Sebastian Barker RIP

I must have corresponded with him before I met him at the re-launch of The London Magazine in London in 2002. Sebastian Barker had been appointed editor by the new owner Christopher Arkell, following the death of Alan Ross and the closure of the literary journal.

The event took place at Christie's, if I remember rightly. Never having been invited there before I excitedly assumed this could be the start of something big. It wasn't. However, under Sebastian Barker's enthusiastic stewardship, I did have a number of pieces published; moreover, I got paid modest but welcome amounts for them.

The first piece he accepted was an essay on T S Eliot's masterpiece Four Quartets. Eliot finished the fourth poem Little Gidding in 1942. Fearful that the sixtieth anniversary of Eliot's finished work would pass unremarked, I asked Sebastian if he was interested. He told me to send it. To my surprise and pleasure he published it in the October/November 2002 edition.

Five years later, in the October/November 2007 edition, he published my final submissions: two poems called Swans and Homily For a Prodigal. The following year he resigned as editor, deeply unhappy with the Arts Council's decision to cut the magazine's funding. The Labour Government wanted to promote social cohesion and probably thought literary excellence was an elitist idea.

After that I met him one more time, on a Saturday in north London. Thereafter there was a desultoty exchange of seasonal cards. He sent me a card from France and a manuscript when he returned from the small house that he and his wife Hilary had been renovating in Greece. And then, today, I learned that Sebastian had died on the last day of January, the very day that I went to see the worthless Wolf of Wall Street. It was raining as well.

Among my unpublished essays is an entire volume called Dead Poets' Society - Almost. It's a mixture of biography, chronicle and criticism. The penultimate chapter, In Conclusion, includes a few thoughts on Sebastian's poetry. As a salute to a good man here is what I wrote:-

Sebastian Barker did not have anthologised immortality in mind when he was compiling the ninety-six poems that make up his book Damnatio Memoriae. Barker, one of the sons of George Barker and Elizabeth - I Sat Down at Grand Central Station and Wept -happens to be one of the few modern English poets to whose work I have given a considerable amount of time and attention.

As he had been kind enough to publish a couple of my poems and an essay about T S Eliot...I wanted to recriprocate by saying something about his books. I would not have done so had I disliked The Dream of Intelligence, his book about Nietzsche. I read all or most of it at least twice and still go back to it on occasion. It is too European and too bloody serious to be English in the sense of modern English poetry as evinced by Ian McMillan, John Hegley and the rest of the Blackpool Pier school of poets...

Sebastian Barker struck me as being deeply concerned with spiritual and philosophical themes. He later told me he had spent seven years writing The Dream of Intelligence. "I had fifteen thousand sheets of paper," he said. He'd have needed a bursary just to pay for that. An American foundation provided the essential. He was building a house in the Greek mountains at the time, Beethoven's string quartets resounding from speakers under the roof. I am glad that the book, 205 pages, 150 pages of poetry, was well received - made book of the year by a couple of publications. The edition sold out.

The fourth part of Damnatio Memoriae - he says the title means the recovery of what has been forgotten or lost - consists of sixty sonnets, modern psalms on the themes of God, love and history. The intent is spiritual; the poet is not interested in the circumstantial alone, only how the circumstantial is transformed into the universal. His pamplet The Matter of Europe refers to a period before time and, of course, before history (history can only be recorded through time). Is that Pascal's God-shaped hole, that place of inexplicable yearning of which we are conscious especially on beautiful summer days? The sonnets in Damnatio seek a common spiritual language. Barker says he drew upon the voices of 145 historical figures to achieve this.

"Where will I find
a language capable of rendering
religious comprehension of the world?"

This poem, The Agony of Faith, echoes The Dream of Intelligence in part V of Nietzsche's twelfth dream-song:-

"This is the artistic labour of the age,
To take the hateful content of our lives,
And turn it into everlasting proof
Of what we are, through which we are, redeemed."

Love draws us closer to knowledge:-

"Steeped in the depravity of conceit
the language of men
cannot comprehend
heaven or hell.
The world is lit by the sunlight of the word,
the holy word..."

No man has joy unless he lives in love:-

"I turn, I return, I repent
to the green olive tree, fair with fruit,
Jerusalem..."

These sonnets remind me somewhat of the serious intent of John Berryman's modern sonnets, when he managed to achieve lift-off from the incidentals dragging him back to earth. I think Berryman would leap up, as was his wont, to show his affirmation of:-

"Silenced by articulated rapture,
no one blest with happiness will say
why I myself in poverty and pain,
aching heart in ice cold rooms alone,
wasted whole summers, if not for him..."

I also think of Berryman's Eleven Addresses to the Lord, a more forceful, colloquial, expression of spiritual doubts than the elegant ruminations of Arhur Hugh Clough:-

"Surprise me on some ordinary day
with a blessing gratuitous. Even I've done good
beyond their expectations. What count we then
upon your Bounty?"

But Barker's sonnet-psalms are not as contorted , neither spiritually nor linguistically; nor do they suffer from a drunk's stylistic over-confidence and balancing doubt:-

"I want nothing,  yet lack everything,
the writer's hell. 
Just as a poet chooses words
to release people from the tyranny of words,
so must I return to the genius loci
who first taught me the sacred language..."

Barker asks not to be deflected by the voice of his ego into a berrymanesque odyssey. At this point it is worth pointing out that the title page of Damnatio states:-

"A poem in six parts
scored for many voices."

Let Mr Barker's scored voices in turn be scored by John Tavener, the true interpreter of his soul. Failing that Henryk Gorecki, if he is still alive, in the mode of part III of his miraculous Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.   

Monday, 10 February 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis...

...there's a stray cat trying to get out. If you've seen the Coen Brothers latest film about the folk scene in wintry New York City in 1961, the tale of the cat will make sense of a kind. 

Folk singer Llewyn Davis (an American with a Welsh name...Bob Dylan, a middle American Jew called Zimmerman with an adopted Welsh poet's surname) is an up but not coming singer of folk songs ("they're not new, but they don't die"), a regular cat in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village, especially The Gaslight.

Like Simon and Garfunkel, he once had a singing partner, Mike, who called it a day by jumping from the George Washington Bridge. When the film opens Llewyn, played pretty convincingly by Oscar Isaac as a sad-eyed, dark curly-haired, bearded former merchant sailor, is trying to make a career onshore as a troubadour.

But all he's achieved is a solo album which his tight-fisted manager has not circulated or promoted and making one if not two women pregnant. And he accidentally loses the marmalade cat of a married varsity couple who allow him to bunk down in their apartment. Seemingly without a home of his own, he sleeps where he can in the homes of people he hasn't pissed off. 

He is driven almost all the way to Chicago where he auditions for a music impresario who says: "Play me something, from inside Llewyn Davis" - Inside Llewyn Davies is also the title of his solo LP.  The impresario - named Grossman, perhaps with the late Albert Grossman in mind - wants to hear if Llewyn's heart has a dollar sign stamped through it. "I don't think there's much money in it," he says, or words to that effect, after the song and Davis hitches a ride out of freezing Chicago back to New York.

That's enough explanation. The first part of Bob Dylan's faction novel Chronicles and the first part of Martin Scorsese's Dylan documentary No Direction Home came to mind, although I've read that Joel and Ethan Coen's original source of inspiration was Dave Van Ronk's memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street. From the photographs I've seen, Oscar Isaac's character was fashioned in Van Ronk's image. 

None of which tells you what's going on Inside Llewyn Davis. A friend who saw the movie with us said Llewyn Davis was yet another Coen Brothers character who was on the receiving end of life, getting by without getting on, making his mark. Perhaps that's true of many of the folk-singing fraternity of Greenwich Village in the years of President Kennedy's New Frontier America. Maybe the legacy of Dave Van Ronk, Rick Von Schmidt, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and others is that they were enablers. My distant view of it would be that they enabled Bob Dylan to pass rapidly through his musical incarnations - would be Rock 'n' Roll singer, folk singer, protest performer, folk-rocker, electric visionary poet. The last performer at the Gaslight in the film is a young Dylan. He embodies the future just as Llewyn Davis embodies the past.

The muted colour cinematography, the period cars, street signs, dress style and street scenes, are complemented by T-Bone Burnett's canny soundtrack choices, a dozen songs about struggle and loss including Dominic Behan's The Auld Triangle, Ewan MacColl's The Shoals of Herring and the English folk ballad Fare Thee Well (Dink's Song).

Fare Thee Well is the film's trailer music. I heard it once and the sound it left behind stayed with me for a couple of days. The music in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, especially George Clooney's lip-sync version of I'm a Man of Constant Sorrow, eventually persuaded me to watch a batch of films by the Coen boys. I'd never been taken by their work before. That's changed. Of the seven or eight I've watched in the past few weeks I'd say that Fargo is the one I'll revisit first. That too is set in wintry North America, Minnesota I think. There's not much sunshine in Miller's Crossing either. Maybe moody subdued colours and tones best suits their film-making.

I'm pleased I saw this film, on a wintry Monday night in Bradford. It suited the mood of the time, what with large areas of southern and south-western England flooded or threatened by floods - homes washed out or under water, fridges exploding, toilets backing up, communications fractured or broken, wild-life sanctuaries preferred to people, rivers deliberately left undredged. Real subjects for real folk singers to write about.