We Sing For The Future

Playing politics … Cornelius Cardew in May, 1971.

In this week’s cupboard, upper-class men of the people…

It was often said of the late Tony Benn that he had a wholly romantic view of the working class. It is a trait he shared, of course, with other high-born lefties. There is a fatal combination of complete unfamiliarity with ordinary people and a head stuffed full of abstract political theory about “the people”.

That may be slightly unfair on Benn himself, who undoubtedly met a huge number of people both as a campaigning MP and latterly as a sort of end-of-the-pier entertainer. Though being an active leftie politician is not in itself a guarantee of being at ease with those who used to be called “the lower orders”. Tom Driberg, for instance, was notoriously rude, contemptuous, and dismissive of waiters and taxi drivers and “the servant class” in general.

With those in the cultural sphere, who have no need to garner votes every few years, the disconnect between “people” and “the people” can become vast, and highly amusing. Doyenne of the type is Vanessa Redgrave, born to theatrical royalty who then spent years in the service of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party under the leadership of the unlovely Gerry Healy. At least Vanessa kept her acting career on the go. Her brother Corin sacrificed his best years to the cause, only returning to stage and screen in his final years – when Healy was safely dead and buried.

The writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, daughter of a housemaster at Harrow School, became an enthusiastic communist in the 1930s. Her idealisation of the workers did not prevent her from bewailing the fate of her lover Valentine Ackland during the second world war. Warner complained bitterly about the sheer unfairness of poor Valentine – a poet! – having to do war work in a factory.

My favourite English upper class revolutionary firebrand is the composer Cornelius Cardew [above]. (Oddly enough, he always used his middle name, Cornelius or “Cor”, rather than his first name, the more proletarian-friendly Brian.) Cardew was the son of the potter Michael Cardew, and though the family were not rich, he had a more than comfortable upbringing, and attended Canterbury Cathedral School as a chorister. Early in his career he went to Germany and became a pupil of Stockhausen, and his music was uncompromisingly modernist and experimental.

Around the time the Beatles discovered the Maharishi, Cardew fell under the spell of an Indian of a rather different stripe, one Hardial Bains. Like Gerry Healy, Bains was a full-time revolutionary, forever forming new parties and splinter groups as his theories evolved. Marxism-Leninism was the basis, naturally, but Bains’s path led him through Trotskyism to Maoism to, finally, a position where the only truly socialist state was deemed to be Albania under Enver Hoxha.

Cardew followed Bains with absolute obedience. He renounced his earlier music and published a book with the splendid (and self-explanatory) title Stockhausen Serves Imperialism. He turned his hand to writing jaunty tunes to words written by his mentor. Unfortunately, Bains’s words were not the easiest to sing. Here, for example, is the opening verse of “We Sing For The Future”:

In utter chaos the old order spews out unlimited decadence and parasitism.
It brings disaster to mankind and fights against progress with unprecedented ferocity.
Stricken by all kinds of sickness, this system’s in all-sided crisis with economics at the base.
Spiritual and cultural devastation – the crisis is social and political too.

Cardew spent more time on “the struggle” than on his music, though he would bash out his songs (including “Smash The Social Contract!”) on the piano at gatherings of the faithful. He was killed in a hit-and-run accident, aged just forty-five, in 1981. There were dark mutterings that he had been assassinated by the security services because of the imminent danger posed to the state by his activities. The reader can judge the likelihood of this theory. Here is a recording of Cardew urging the working class to rise up against their masters. Does it fill you with revolutionary fervour? Or does it sound like a quintessentially English Home Counties singalong?

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Frank Key is a London-based writer, blogger and broadcaster best known for his Hooting Yard blog, short-story collections and his long-running radio series Hooting Yard on the Air, which has been broadcast weekly on Resonance FM since April 2004. By Aerostat to Hooting Yard - A Frank Key Reader, an ideal introduction to his fiction, is published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions. Mr Key's Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives was published in October 2015 by Constable and is available to buy online and in all good bookshops.

13 thoughts on “We Sing For The Future

  1. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    March 21, 2014 at 09:38

    The song in the video is brilliant. I might have a go at a similar composition, something like:

    Oh! Didn’t we have a luvverly time, the day we instigated the inevitable socialist revolution against the oppressive British ruling class?
    Inspired by the works of Marx and Engels we seized control of the means of production, we had lunch on the way, and all for under a pound, you know!
    Rising up against the parasitic and corrupt old order, we smashed the social contract, I cuddled with Jack and we opened a bottle of cider,
    Uniting all the oppressed proletariat of the world under the Marxist-Leninist banner we were at last victorious in our struggle against the decadent bourgeoisie, and the wheels go round!

  2. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    March 21, 2014 at 11:13

    Exactly and t’was ever thus, them who would be in charge occupying the fertile side of the yawning chasm, personalty I prefer me socialists bred in the heart of the north, the likes of Ted Garrett, solid as a rock, earnest, totally lacking in vision and serially uneducated, the perfect North East member of parliament. Show Ted an injustice and he would hound it down like a sixties DJ chasing pre-nubiles. I did, and he did, bless him.
    I blame university education, turning out legions of over-educated two plank idealists, mostly lawyers of course. Meanwhile the Germans edge even further in front, both sides of their chasm are fertile.

  3. Worm
    March 21, 2014 at 11:20

    enjoyed this a lot! (well, not the music)

  4. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    March 21, 2014 at 12:40

    Heh heh. Do you think that it’s the extreme seriousness of the Left (which I alluded to in Monday’s Diary) which leads to the endless splintering into tiny factions who all hate each other?

    • wormstir@gmail.com'
      March 21, 2014 at 14:30

      It’s a competitive arms race of caring

      • Gaw
        March 21, 2014 at 15:35

        The hating is more evident.

  5. bugbrit@live.com'
    March 21, 2014 at 14:37

    Funny and true Frank but in Cardews case sad too. I wonder, if not for his early death, he might one day have recovered his wits and his huge talent. What an awful waste.

  6. Gaw
    March 21, 2014 at 15:34

    More Marxist-Leninist fun. This is what the post I linked to above calls a “very interesting response!”:

    Comrade Hardial was a staunch defender of the Communist Party of China and Chairman Mao Tse Tung until about 1978 and gave the slogans — “China’s Chairman is our Chairman”, “China’s path is our path” and “India attacked China in 1962”.

    From 1978 onward he became a most vehement opponent of the the Communist Party of China and Mao Tse Tung whom he then started calling as revisionist, opportunist, anti-Marxist-Leninist, traitors etc. And he started saying that “China’s revolution was not a real revolution” and that “China attacked India in 1962”. And he spent the next 2 years writing articles and giving speeches against “Mao Tse Tung Thought”. From this time on he started calling names to all those who upheld China and Mao Tse Tung. And in India he set up the Communist Ghadar Party in opposition to “Mao Tse Tung Thought” and CPI(M-L) whom he called Maoist.

    In 1994 he once again started praising Mao as ” an outstanding revolutionary and anti-imperialist fighter of the 20th century”.


  7. denkofzwemmen@drapersguild.com'
    March 21, 2014 at 19:29

    Well, let’s raise a glass to Pete Seeger: the real deal.

    • hooting.yard@googlemail.com'
      March 21, 2014 at 20:02

      I’m not sure the widow of Solomon Linda would agree. (Linda wrote the music of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, copyright P. Seeger.)

      According to Mark Steyn, “The child of wealthy New York radicals, Seeger has always been avowedly anti-capitalist – supposedly. Yet his publisher had a deal with Gallo Music: they snaffled up the rights to “Mbube” cheap and in return sub-licensed to Gallo the South African and Rhodesian rights to “Wimoweh”. And Seeger knew Solomon Linda was the composer. He says now that back in the Fifties he instructed his publishers to give his royalties from the song to Linda, and he was shocked, shocked to discover decades later that they hadn’t in fact been doing so. But it never occurred to him, as an unworldly anti-capitalist, to check his royalty statements.”

      The whole story is here: http://www.steynonline.com/6003/the-lion-sleeps-tonight

  8. law@mhbref.com'
    jonathan law
    March 26, 2014 at 13:24

    The communism of Sylvia Townsend Warner is more than a little puzzling. For one thing, it doesn’t seem to fit in with anything else we know about her. Apart from being very posh and writing like the proverbial angel, STW is funny, witty, clever, and kind, a lover of cottage gardens, church music, and the English countryside – an all-round good egg, you’d say, if she wasn’t also a pig-headed apologist for Stalin. In fact, having read quite a lot of her stuff in the last few years I wonder if her loudly proclaimed leftism isn’t really an old-fashioned Tory paternalism in disguise. One of the attractions of communism to certain upper-crust types, back in the 1930s, seems to have been the way it gave an outlet for a brazen patrician bossiness.

    By all accounts STW had a peculiarly penetrating upper-class voice and one of her great joys was using it to heckle speakers that she considered ideologically unsound. This was a talent she first discovered at the 1935 general election, when “to my rapture I found that I loved making rude remarks at the top of my voice and that the top of my voice was gratifyingly loud and nasty … it is awful to think of all the years this gift has been slumbering in me.” She and Valentine Ackland also possessed a motor horn that they delighted in honking at policemen during demonstrations.

    Stephen Spender, for one, seems to have found Sylvia intimidatingly posh when the two of them met as part of a delegation of intellectuals during the Spanish Civil War. According to his (much later) account, STW “looked like, and behaved like a vicar’s wife presiding over a tea party given on a vicarage lawn as large as the whole of Republican Spain. Her extensory smiling mouth and her secretly superior eyes under her shovel hat made her graciously forbidding.” The dislike was entirely mutual and in 1937 Sylvia would do her best to have Spender expelled from the CP before he left of his own accord: “he has not proved up to our standards … let us be sure that it looks like a purge, and not like a miraculous escape of Jonah the Prophet”. An entirely petty quarrel, of course – but note that chilling little word “purge” (I suppose many people went to their deaths as a result of spats that were no less trivial).

    Although Sylvia drifted away from the Party in the 1950s, this owed less to the revelation of Stalin’s crimes than to her poor opinion of the ingrates and careerists who replaced him. Her reaction to their denunciations of the great leader could hardly be more grotesque, but contains a sudden flash of self-knowledge: “I remember his voice on the radio in ’43, and those broad serviceable shoulders that they were all content should shoulder the burden, and I feel a deep distaste – a Tory distaste, I daresay, for my eminent comrades.” As she got older, STW seems to have identified communism more and more plainly with the preservation of old forms and decencies – the manners of her youth. After visiting two old comrades from the pre-war Party she writes in her diary “I felt the nobility of their manners … these old Communists have an almost old-world charm now; social Arcadians, dwelling in a former world of trust in the future …” There’s a funny and revealing passage in one of her letters, where she comments rather sniffily on the dearth of mourning clothes in the streets following the death of George VI – the only exceptions being “a very few old-fashioned people like ourselves (all communists, I presume).”

    • wormstir@gmail.com'
      March 26, 2014 at 18:41

      Brilliant JL, the mind boggles as to where you summon this fantastic stuff from!

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