Graham Stevenson

Graham Stevenson

Graham Stevenson is a political and trade union activist, and has held many senior posts in the labour movement.

Singing for Peace and Socialism: Birmingham's Clarion Singers
Tuesday, 17 October 2017 16:03

Singing for Peace and Socialism: Birmingham's Clarion Singers

Published in Music

Graham Stevenson reports on the recent concert.

Birmingham's Clarion Singers, 77 years young this year, recently celebrated with an Autumn Concert with a full programme of songs at All Saints Centre, in Kings Heath, Birmingham.
The 25-strong amateur choir – women dressed in red, men in black – led with Cavalry of the Steppes, a well known song by Lev Knipper, often associated with Cossacks.

With typical aplomb, Clarion has changed the arguably slightly pompous standard final verse into an altogether more subtle refrain, sung with gusto and speed, almost boomingly reverberating around the hall.

Strong in our courage and determination
Never shall invaders take our freedom.

Jane Scott, choir leader, applies seemingly effortless command of the many and varied singers, unquestionably having changed lives by allowing the joy of music into open hearts. Wonderfully, the soundness and sureness of her judgement is clear in the flawless sound that emerges from the ultimate display of collectivity. No special test of skill or prior experience is demanded of new members, no audition. In the spirit of Music for all, Clarion welcomes all into its left-of-centre heartstrings.

An impressive rendering of the Funeral March, immortalising victims of Tsarist repression in 1905, which prompted initial revolutionary stirrings that came back in a dozen years, whilst honouring those who fell as victims as the song intends, sees Clarion view the work as not just for funerals but for life itself. They start in despair, "banners lowered" but end with stirring hope, the message being that death shall not defeat. Our dead live on: our music will always reflect that.

Scarecrow by John Tams is an anti-war song. A solo goes: "I see the line advancing with a steady timeless grace." But it is the repeated refrain that conveys powerful message in its poetry:

Blame it on the generals
Blame it on their guns
Blame it on the poppies and the pain
Blame it on the scarecrow in the rain.

Reconciliation by Irishman, Ron Kavana, to Clarion's own arrangement, tells us that there's a "time to fight and a there's a time for healing". After “the struggle the sweetness comes”, a song about comradeship, with a clear eye on "Fair weather friends".

The Song of John Ball, by Sydney Carter, celebrates the 1381 Peasants' Revolt. It is amazing to think it was written only 40 years ago, as Carter succeeded in making it sound like a mediaeval ballad. It is a clear, lyrical vision of an egalitarian, caring communism, and particularly appropriate as we celebrate the centenary of the Russian Revolution:

Who'll be the Lady,
Who'll be the Lord,
When we are ruled by the love of one another?

Sydney Carter's piece gave the baritones more work to do and the audience clearly loved the message:

Sing, John Ball, and tell it to them all
Long live the day that is dawning!
For I'll crow like a cock,
I'll carol like a lark,
For the light that is coming in the morning.

Special guests Bournville Brass performed several pieces before the interlude. A long way from former mining villages, Britain's second biggest city has far fewer big brass bands of 28 players that it once did when giant fortresses of labour, hundreds of factories, dominated the skylines.

Five pieces, a tuba, a horn, a cornet or two, and a trombone, effortlessly melded into the distinctive bright, mellow sound one would expect in a larger ensemble – especially when rendering Singin' in the Rain, when a definite jaunty note sauntered into the room. Feet tapping in tune, the audience instinctively began swaying:

Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo-doo...

Surely, that was Gene Kelly I saw getting out his umbrella?

Song of Peace or Finlandia, by Sibelius, in an arrangement for women's voices speaks for itself, but the delivery makes more of the music and words combined.

Quite Early Morning by Pete Seeger is of its time. A time that has reasserted itself, hopefully the second time as farce, if international thermonuclear war could ever be so treated:

Some say that humankind won't long endure
But what makes them so doggone sure?
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing.

In 1951, Geoffrey Parsons of Unity Theatre wrote Civilisation, rediscovered in Clarion's archives. Musical Director, Jane Scott, has produced a remarkable four part arrangement.

Tell shopping centres that Ode to Joy is not just for Xmas! And tell the EU that Beethoven integrated Schiller's poem into his 9th Symphony for the brotherhood of humanity, not the Single Market.

The choir, rather sweetly, slipped in an additional song just before their traditional finale. Long standing Clarion members, Jan and Chris, are about to depart for Northern climes, and they were treated to a specially written farewell song (by Annie Banham) to the tune of England Arise! The classic socialist hymn. Not a dry eye in the house:

Shall we shed a tear?
Sheffield's fairly near
An hour and a quarter if you get the train.

Jan and Chris, like Clarion, have

sung it all,
on fire trucks and pavements,
Cradley Heath and Kendal.

Then came, of course, The Internationale, song of the most militant sections of the working class the whole world over.

Clarion Singers are at  https://birminghamclarionsingers.wordpress.com/ and Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/BirminghamClarionSingers/ and Twitter: https://twitter.com/ClarionSingers

Tuesday, 11 October 2016 14:43

Communism in the gunsights

Published in Fiction

Graham Stevenson reviews the recent In Our Time radio programme about George Orwell's Animal Farm.

Melvyn Bragg's discursive radio series, In Our Time, recently considered Orwell's Animal Farm with comment from Steven Connor, Grace 2 Professor of English at the University of Cambridge, Mary Vincent, Professor of Modern European History at the University of Sheffield, and Robert Colls, Professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University.  The usual response of the liberal-minded intelligentsia to Orwell, awe-filled exaggeration of his `timeless’ importance was there, as was to be expected. But it was refreshing to hear Professor Vincent openly judge Orwell as being completely wrong about Spain, as perhaps befits the author of original research in the social basis of Franco's support, particularly that provided by the Catholic Church, as evidenced in her “Catholicism in the Second Spanish Republic” (1996).

Much of the programme was a well-travelled rehearsal of the events of Animal Farm and of Orwell’s own life. A staunch critique of publishers’ reluctance to publish the text is made, hindsight-driven as it is an expected justification that publishers were fearful was focused on the assumption that it was merely the fact of the prestige of the Red Army and Commander-in-Chief Stalin that worried people who spend their lives sending out rejection slips!

Sloppy historical facts abounded; for example, it was said the Cold War had more or less started in August 1945, so it was “alright” to publish Animal Far then but not a year or two earlier. In fact, it was the British government’s announcement that it could no longer afford to prop up the right wing anti-communists in Greece as late as February 1947 that promoted US President Truman to announce a global programme of funding of such projects that was the trigger for the Cold War.

The truth is that Orwell’s book wasn’t (isn’t) very good and it only makes sense as a tongue-in-cheek fable about Communism. The 1941 drawings by Gertrude Elias for a storyboard for a cartoon film featured Nazi hoodlums as pigs – and the allegory rooted in personal experience. She mooted the idea for a cartoon to the Ministry of Information and the imagery and ideas were known to Orwell, who briefly worked there as a BBC Talks Producer. He and Elias knew each other and she was later very firm in that the core of his Animal Farm was effectively plagiarised from her, after the mischievous inversion of Nazi pigs into Soviet ones.

In 1946, the New Republic book reviewer, George Soules, panned Animal Farm with disgust: “the book puzzled and saddened me. It seemed on the whole dull. The allegory turned out to be a creaking machine for saying in a clumsy way things that have been said better directly. And many of the things said are not instantly recognized as the essence of truth, but are of the sort which start endless and boring controversy.”

Such a view of the work was common; indeed, it was not uncritically or well received at any point until the CIA heavily popularised it. Orwell wrote a preface to a 1947 Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm in which he makes it clear that this is an anti-Soviet work, designed to undermine the Soviet Union. One moment’s thought – a Ukrainian edition in 1947 – should make clear the malevolence with which this book was promoted. Amusingly, Melvyn Bragg comments that for a work slating propaganda this is “an irony”. Perhaps there is a more cynical explanation?
In terms of substance, its value is over-rated by the process of filling its gaps with belief that they are intended. It is helped in this by being written with great speed and little skill (the original work was sub-titled “A Fairy Tale”) and the fact that it isn’t very long. Supposedly, it is full of laconic irony and is a humorous satire, as critics of Orwell and his sources have long stated, his work is almost entirely at odds with the two famous anti-communist pieces.

Frustratingly, the radio discussion speeds past the 1930s and 40s, almost missing the Spanish war. Yet it is noted that Orwell’s contrary nature seemed always to start with opposing one thing and ending up against another. Although, the canonisation into a “saintly and heroic” figure in the 1950s is touched on, that he doesn’t see any contrariness in Nazism is passed over almost without comment. It is communism that is in the gunsights.

Seemingly, it is the rewriting of history that is the strongest motivator of Orwell; the “fragility of memory”. Yet, frustratingly, it is only as the broadcast programme is about to end and the off-air (intriguingly available on the web) discussion emerges that the expert of the piece, Professor Vincent is able to stress her view that “Orwell got it all wrong about Spain”. Defeat was not down to Stalin but to the military aid given by the Fascist powers that was not stopped by French or British politicians.

An account of how Orwell’s creative output, as opposed to his journalistic production, seems uncomfortably too well informed by material produced by women is available online here:
http://www.grahamstevenson.me.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1451:orwellian-mischief&catid=36:articles-and-reviews&Itemid=135

A short account of Gertrude’s life can be found here:
http://www.grahamstevenson.me.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1446:elias-gertrude&catid=5:e&Itemid=20

A pamphlet containing an extract from Gertrude’s encounter with Orwell is now available:
http://www.marx-memorial-library.org/shop/shop-books/item/674-gertrude-elias-pamphlet