Break Up the Union?

With the United Kingdom under threat from Mr Salmond and his bravehearts, in this week’s music feature Brit searches for the essence of its four constituent members…

The Scottish National Party has been mugged by power and, as Daniel Kalder so brilliantly explained, the northern Britons are faced with the frightening prospect of divorcing themselves from the Union. My own view on this is that the Scots are a practical people at root and will not want to punt their entire economic future on dubious estimations of North Sea oil and the hope that they’ll still be allowed to use sterling, but the question of identity – which is the ultimate psychological driver of the independence movement – is a more interesting one. Well, slightly more interesting. It is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time, and it is possible to be British while also being Scottish or English or Welsh or Irish, as the following four pieces, all composed within our great Union, amply demonstrate.

Let us begin, aptly, in the freezing north. “Ma feet they traivel England but I’m deein for the North.” Why even I, a born and bred Englishman of Irish Catholic stock with a trio of Scottish names and a Unionist web-handle, can feel the pull o’ the heather and the call of the deep-fried Twix when I hear the evocative words of The Wild Geese, penned in 1915 by Violet Jacob. Also, “For there’s muckle lyin ‘yont the Tay that’s mair tae me nor life.” Who could disagree with that, especially when it’s set to music by the late Dundee folkie Jim Reid under the title The Norland Wind

Talking of Celtic gibberish, let’s have some Dylan Thomas. Without agitation for separation, the Welsh have found renewed confidence in their identity in recent years, so much so that they charge nearly six quid just to enter the place via the M4. With the rugby thriving, Katherine Jenkins belting the big ones out and Cardiff leading the UK in city centre binge-drinking, it’s a proud time to be amongst the Welshies, those mountain-dwelling purveyors of gloomy magic and musical language. Here is Richard Burton’s voice

Van Morrison may be the obvious choice for Northern Ireland, but here’s an unusual version of a favourite – an alternate 1967 version of Madame George, that sprawling centrepiece of the peerless Astral Weeks, Van rambling nostalgically down Cyprus Avenue which, according to fellow Belfast boy Roy Kane, was “the street that we would all aspire to – the other side of the tracks … the Beersbridge Road had the railway line cut across it; and our side of it was one side of the tracks and Cyprus Avenue was the other… there was an Italian shop up in Ballyhackamore, that’s where all the young ones used to go of a Sunday… we used to walk up to the Sky Beam for an ice cream or a cup of mushy peas and vinegar… We used to take a short cut up Cyprus Avenue, ’cause that’s where all the expensive houses and all the good-looking totty came from…mostly upper-crusty totty…”

But what is the essence of England? The wonderful PJ Harvey, who has begun producing her best work in her forties, explores this elusive question in her 2011 Mercury Prize-winning album Let England Shake. It is a masterpiece. Consider The Last Living Rose:

Goddamn Europeans! Take me back to beautiful England
And the grey damp filthiness of ages
And battered books

And fog rolling down behind the mountains
On the graveyards and dead sea-captains.
Let me walk through the stinking alleys
To the music of drunken beatings

Past the Thames river glistening
Like gold hastily sold
For nothing… nothing.

Let me watch night fall on the river
The moon rise up and turn to silver
The sky move
The ocean shimmer
The hedge shake
The last living rose quiver….

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About Author Profile: Brit

'Brit' is the blogging name of Andrew Nixon, a writer and publisher who lives in Bristol. He is the editor and co-founder of The Dabbler.

4 thoughts on “Break Up the Union?

    February 26, 2012 at 10:44

    Bracing post Brit, especially the PJ Harvey number. You sure that’s Burton, sounds like Windsor Davies to me. On this cold clear Celtic morn the lums are a’reekin’, the Forth Road Bridge a’creakin’ well, actually, it’s not, nothing wrong with the steely structure, they have just (common knowledge for two years) discovered.

    Why, fool that I am for asking, after spending some hours yesterday in choked traffic, either side of the bridge, caused by the construction of the new crossing, are Alex and the Natters going ahead with it

    Celtic icon for the new millennium, see. Who needs Donald Where’s yer Troosers when we can have concrete and steel. They don’t like it up ’em, you know.

    Cailin Mo Rùinsa, first heard this, unaccompanied, in the bar of Skye’s Sligachan Hotel, back in the nineteen fifties, sung by a beautiful, dark haired teenage girl, one of those never repeated moments in time, spine-tingling, magic.
    The song was later murdered by Callum Kennedy, the singing shortbread tin. The Skye of the fifties no longer exists.

    February 26, 2012 at 15:31

    Van Morrison has such an original sound – like here, where there’s a mix of rhythm and blues, gospel, Celtic folk – and Van’s extraordinary voice… a strangely primal (almost Middle Eastern sounding?) chant. Thanks for the alternative version of Madame George, Brit.

    Have you read Bryan Appleyard’s interview with PJ Harvey in today’s Sunday Times?

    • Brit
      February 26, 2012 at 20:25

      No didn’t realise the Yard was onto Polly J. I’ll check it out, thanks Susan.

      • Brit
        February 26, 2012 at 20:27

        Though scanning the Culture I did spot a truly horrible pic of him in a cinema.

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