Watching War of Words, the BBC2 documentary about British poets and writers who fought on the Somme between July and November 1916, narrated without fuss or portentousness by Michael Sheen, the chorus of a song called Ghosts by New Model Army echoed in my mind:-
And when the music is gone the silence is still ringing
With all these conversations between the dead and the living
For these ghosts become part of us, the ghosts become part of us, the ghosts become part of us
The faces of dead soldiers looming up through water's mirror in rain-drenched shell holes that the likes of Siegfried Sassoon, David Jones, Wilfred Owen, J R R Tolkien, Robert Graves and others saw; the lives and voices of dead comrades forever echoing.
Ghosts is the last song on New Model Army's last album Between Dog and Wolf, released last year. The album is also the title of Matt Reid's film documentary which we went to see before War of Words - hence the fusion of the two.
New Model Army was formed in Bradford by Justin Sullivan 34 years ago. He was greatly helped in his ambition to make a career out of being a singer-songwriter-performer of uncompromising attitude by Joolz Denby. Of all the work he has produced I know only that single LP and two or three songs: Green and Grey, Angry Planet and Vengeance.
In Reid's documentary Sullivan said he wrote Vengeance after watching a TV documentary about Nazi mass-murderer Klaus Barbie in which he was addressed as "Mr Barbie". Sullivan's chorus, to a pounding punk beat, goes:-
I believe in justice,
I believe in vengeance,
I believe in getting the bastards, getting the bastards, getting the bastards
Nazi war criminals didn't come into my mind, but bankers playing silly buggers with foreign exchange rates and world economies did; and vicious buggers playing games with the lives of children.
Neither Greenpeace nor the Labour Party's Red Wedge would have anything to do with New Model Army. On the band's one and only appearance on Top of the Pops they insisted on playing live, not miming to a pre-recoded tape. Sullivan also insisted on wearing a T-shirt bearing the legend: Only stupid bastards take heroin. The BBC insisted that all but the b of bastards was masked by tape. When the boss of Sony arrived backstage at a NMA concert to tell the band he would make them rich and famous, Sullivan told him that his job was to promote their music; it was not their job to promote his corporation. Sony dropped them.
Phil Jupitus said Sullivan's insistence on shooting himself in the foot was one of the consequences of being true to his principles. A man after my own heart, I thought: let the work to the talking.
How different to Nick Cave, who spends almost the entire length of Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard's biopic 20,000 Days on Earth talking about the art of song-writing (when he's not talking about himself). His stage act is very different to Justin Sullivan's, very touchy-feely. With his jet black hair swept back Dracula-style, he leans into the front row of his concert audience saying, repeatingly, Can you hear my heart beat? Very theatrical, but then he has written for the stage as well as the big screen.
While I quite enjoyed watching the Cave man building the song Push the Sky Away in the studio, recording the various parts and splicing them together, as he performed on stage my mind was distracted by his facial similarity to Lee Marvin and his stylistic resemblance to Neil Diamond (with a dash of the younger Leonard Cohen). Lesley thought he was pretentious whereras she thought Justin Sullivan was honest. I wondered who took his kids to school and shopped for the pizza he later ate with them (while being filmed of course). Talking about art can be disingenuous. While you are playing god somebody else is paying the bills or cooking the dinner; but the material aspect of making art is not something that singer-songwriters or painters are either asked about or offer to discuss.
David Hockney is case in point. His father Kenneth gave his artistic son a piece of advice: "Don't worry too much about what the neighbours say."
For the last 50 years Hockney has not spent too much time worrying about what anybody - art critics among them - had to say either about his lifestyle or his work. He appears to have adopted his father's iconoclastic advice as his personal philosophy. Early on in his career he declared portentously: "I paint what I want, when I want." Later on he added to this manifesto, saying that he painted pictures wherever he happened to be - London, Los Angeles or Bridlington.
Hmm, well I can report that he's no longer on the east coast of Yorkshire. Instead he's on back on the west coast of America. The least interesting parts of Randall Wright's biopic homage Hockney take place in the Hollywood Hills. Not that the 77-year-old artist's reflections about his childhood in Bradford are boring, they're not. Hockney's always been an interesting, sometimes mischievous, raconteur. It's just that the more compelling parts of the film, for me at any rate, consist of black and white footage of late 1950s Bradford, the art college where Hockney irritated macho show-offs by drawing studiously for hours at a time, learning his craft, and the early 1960s clips of the Royal College of Art in London.
We see the young Hockney, close-cropped hair dyed blond, pogo dancing with a young woman with evident Yorkshire relish. There is a great deal of youthful joie de vivre, both in his behaviour and in his paintings which in 1962 won the 25-year-old the Gold Medal for Painting. Some of the scenes from London of the early 1970s are clips from Jack Hazan's weird and wonderful mixture of fact and fiction, A Bigger Splash (how did he get them all to, well, play themselves?).
One of the incidental fascinations of Wright's film, apart from John Harle's soundtrack, is the changing timbre of Hockney's voice across half-a-century. Like the colour of his hair, it has gone from craggy Heathcliff black to camp California blond and bleak Yorkshire grey.
Former student colleagues at Bradford, John Loker and David Oxtoby, are among the talking heads who offer anecdotal colour to the Cook's tour of Hockney's life, though there is little or no evaluation of his art. Oxtoby comes closest, declaring that Hockney probably hasn't changed his basic outlook since his days in Bradford. "He's still searching," he says. Okay, but for what?
For me the best sequences of the film belong to the artist as a young man, before fame, fortune and celebrity - and all those honours bestowed by the Queen. We two old queens clinging together. Not that the film goes anywhere near assessing either Hockney's enormous wealth - extensive properties in California, London and Yorkshire - or his attitude to money and posessions.
Hockney describes his father's advice about ignoring the neighbours as "aristocratic, actually, not working class. My mother would have worried about what people say." As far as I know, Hockney showed no inhibition in projecting himself in London, New York and Los Angeles. Does this make him one of life's natural aristocrats or democrats?
The film does not ask this question let alone answer it. He says: "When I didn't have much money I always was always working..." Words to that effect. Now he has a great deal of money, but this doesn't come up in the film and this made me wonder why. Hockney is not obliged to tell anybody outside the Inland Revenue and its American equivalent what's he worth. Like Justin Sullivan, I expect he wouldn't give a damn however little money he had. But wouldn't you expect a documentary film-maker or profiling journalist at least to ask how much? Hockney is fond of expatiating upon the significance of space and time in his art. Well, his economic power has bought him a great deal of both - a dozen or more people depend on him for a livelihood. Hockney's story, indeed the story of his family, is one of rags to riches. They all made something of themselves by their own efforts. How he did it, how they did it, is worth a few minutes. We are all interested in how people rise above their circumstances. Hockney's wealth isn't the key signature of his story, but neither is it a minor part of it.
The most moving moment occurs about 17 minutes in when Hockney's sister Margaret is shown walking along a street of terraced houses off Bradford's Leeds Road. She enters one of them, the former family home, goes up the stairs into a room and looks out of the window. The camera pans round to a mirror on the wall, into which the young Hockney with a hand-held camera, appears. It's a clever, simple, piece of film-making, splicing together past and present; and Harle's accompanying sountrack mirrors the mood perfectly.
Refreshingly, Randall Wright's film has no disembodied narrator. The people who appear on camera - they include Hockney's mother, Laura - speak for themselves.
"Why have I kept silent, held back so long,
on something openly practised in
war games, at the end of which those of us
who survive will at best be footnotes?
It's the alleged right to a first strike
that could destroy an Iranian people
subjugated by a loudmouth
and gathered in organized rallies,
because an atom bomb may be being
developed within his arc of power.
Yet why do I hesitate to name
that other land in which
for years – although kept secret –
a growing nuclear power has existed
beyond supervision or verification,
subject to no inspection of any kind?
This general silence on the facts,
before which my own silence has bowed,
seems to me a troubling, enforced lie,
leading to a likely punishment
the moment it's broken:
the verdict "Anti-semitism" falls easily.
But now that my own country,
brought in time after time
for questioning about its own crimes,
profound and beyond compare,
has delivered yet another submarine to Israel,
(in what is purely a business transaction,
though glibly declared an act of reparation)
whose speciality consists in its ability
to direct nuclear warheads toward
an area in which not a single atom bomb
has yet been proved to exist, its feared
existence proof enough, I'll say what must be said.
But why have I kept silent till now?
Because I thought my own origins,
tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,
meant I could not expect Israel, a land
to which I am, and always will be, attached,
to accept this open declaration of the truth.
Why only now, grown old,
and with what ink remains, do I say:
Israel's atomic power endangers
an already fragile world peace?
Because what must be said
may be too late tomorrow;
and because – burdened enough as Germans –
we may be providing material for a crime
that is foreseeable, so that our complicity
will not be expunged by any
of the usual excuses.
And granted: I've broken my silence
because I'm sick of the West's hypocrisy;
and I hope too that many may be freed
from their silence, may demand
that those responsible for the open danger
we face renounce the use of force,
may insist that the governments of
both Iran and Israel allow an international authority
free and open inspection of
the nuclear potential and capability of both.
No other course offers help
to Israelis and Palestinians alike,
to all those living side by side in enmity
in this region occupied by illusions,
and ultimately, to all of us."
Translated by Breon Mitchell. You can read the poem in the original German here.
• This poem was amended on 10 and 11 April 2012 after it was revised by the translator. This was further amended on 13 April 2012 to include a link to the original poem in German.
Before anyone tells me that the author of this poem joined the Waffen SS when he was 18, I know. Hence the line "Because I thought my own origins/ tarnished by a stain that can never be removed..."
I copied Grass's poem on to my blog because yesterday the television news showed a picture of a block of flats in Gaza imploding, having been struck by a projectile or bomb fired by Israel.
I didn't think of 9/ll and the World Trade Center. I thought of all the years I have taken Israel's side, its right to exist, its right to live behind the defensive shield not of Iron Dome, but the Holocaust - the conversation stopper, the dialogue killer. The Holocaust does not give Israel the right to do to Gaza and its people what the Nazis did to Warsaw and its people, not in my book. As Grass says in the poem, "the verdict Anti-semitism falls easily."
I'm not surprised that Grass's poem resulted in Israel declaring the old boy persona non grata, though the poem, calling for an independent inspection of both Iran and Israel's nuclear capabilities, seems fair enough to me. It's better balanced than Respect MP George Galloway's recent pronouncement, for example, that Bradford was an "Israel free zone". While that's not an anti-Jewish statement it doesn't acknowledge the Israelis critical of the Likud Government's military policies and its borderland strategy.
George Orwell wrote - what did he write, exactly? Something about true freedom meaning listening to something, an opinion, an idea, you don't want to hear. Have I become so accustomed to the censorship that now abounds in this age of scheissdrek - even fictional dramas on television have an obligatory warning about scenes of violence (imagine that, a drama about World War 1or the Holocaust warning of scenes of violence) that I can no longer instantly bring to mind Orwell's words?
Establishment Israel choosing to be offended by a poem as sane as Grass's, with its reasonable questioning propositions, but offending the world's sight by unreasonably blowing up a civilian apartment block in Gaza doesn't surprise me either.