Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

The Battle of Kinder Scout

I'm a rambler, I'm a rambler from Manchester way
I get all my pleasure the hard moorland way
I may be a wage slave on Monday
But I am a free man on Sunday
Ewan MacColl Manchester Rambler

This month it is 80 years since the famous Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout. A gortex clad posse from the Ramblers association will meet to commemorate the event, but ramblers weren't always so respectable and the campaign to open up the hills used to be about working class struggle rather than middle class leisure.

The first shots of the class war to reclaim our land were fired in the nineteenth century. Visionary social reformers like John Ruskin and William Morris had imagined a Utopian future where the land was free to all, and called for the introduction of National Parks.

By the nineteen thirties more radical activists appeared on the scene. For those who worked in the Dark Satanic Mills of Manchester the symbol of the forbidden Eden was the gloomy black massif of Kinder Scout, which they could occasionally glimpse through the smoke of the factories, but which they were not allowed to visit.

There is an old story that does the rounds about a rambler who was on a moor when he met the man who owned it. The rambler asks how this came to be.

Well,” replied the landlord, “I inherited it from my father, he inherited from his father and so on right back to the first of our family who won it in battle.”

Right then,” said the rambler. “Get thee coit off and I’ll fight thee for it now.”

It was with such an attitude that the communist influenced British Workers Sports Federation met during the Easter weekend of 1932, at Rowarth, near Glossop. At their camp they decided to reclaim the moors for the working people. Their initial attempt, by climbing onto Bleaklow Moor from Glossop failed when they were confronted by a gang of gamekeepers at Yellowslacks. Ramblers often came out of such confrontations badly injured, and the class system being what it was they could find little redress in the courts. However the group was not downhearted. All they needed, they figured, was more ramblers, and Manchester was full of them.

And so a week later, on the 24th April 1932, about 400 ramblers met at the recreation ground in Hayfield. Amongst them were my grandparents Claude and Ellen Porter. The intention was to trespass on Kinder Scout itself, but first they rallied at Bowden Quarry, where the modern car park is, for political speeches.

The trespass had been widely publicised and the police were intent on trying to stop the ramblers. The speaker who’d been booked for the day took fright and returned home, so onto a rock leapt 20 year old Benny Rothman to address the crowd.

An unemployed motor mechanic at the time, Benny had got the rambling and the trespassing bug as a teenager by climbing Snowdon equipped only with a sixpenny map from Woolworths. Fed up with the lack of progress that was being achieved by the moderate rambling groups in negotiating better access he helped organise the Mass Trespass to bring the matter to a head in a manner that no-one could ignore or misinterpret. A known radical, the police had been waiting to arrest him at the railway station, but he had cunningly outwitted them by arriving on his bike.

There must have been a touch of Citizen Smith about proceeding as the ramblers made their way up William Clough singing lefty songs. Benny’s best mate was even called Woolfie. Initially the ramblers were on a public footpath, but at a blast from Woolfie’s whistle they all started to scramble up the slopes of Kinder Scout itself.

The police had by this stage given up trying to keep pace with the trespassers and the twenty or thirty gamekeepers waiting for them on the moorland were overwhelmed by sheer numbers. There were a few scuffles and gamekeeper Edward Beevers fell and hurt his ankle, but on the whole it was fairly undramatic. A hundred yards further on they rejoined the footpath and carried on to meet some other ramblers who’d done it the hard way and started from Edale.

At this point Benny and co. could have got away Scot free, but they figured this would just make them look like criminals. But criminals is what the state intended to make them and Benny and four others were put on trial at Derby Assizes charged with riotous assembly. Benny defended himself showing his talent for the now lost art of working class oratory. “We ramblers, after a hard week’s work in smoky towns and cities, go out rambling for relaxation, a breath of fresh air, a little sunshine. But we find when we go out that the finest rambling country is closed to us, just because certain individuals wish to shoot for about ten days a year.” Not that any of this cut any ice with judge, who enlivened proceedings by asking, after it was revealed one of the accused had a book on Lenin, "Isn't that the Russian gentleman".

A fair jury might have let them off though. However as they found themselves in front of two Brigadier Generals, three Colonels and a pair of Majors they were all five were given jail terms of between two and six months.

The hero of the day though was Tony Gillett. The son of prominent bankers, he was a good deal Aren't you ashamed of what you did?" Justice Acton was clearly angling for an excuse to let him off.
posher than the other and the only one able to afford a Barrister. This enterprising silk had evidently cut a deal with the judge and when Gillett was asked "

Instead though Gillett stood up before the court and looked the the Judge in the eye and said "No Sir, I would do it again" and got two months.

One of those sentenced was moderate rambler John Anderson. John had actually been opposed to the trespass and had just turned up to see what happened. He was arrested after he had gone to the aid of the injured Beevers. John was to spend the next sixty years protesting his innocence and turning up to heckle Benny at public events. This went on until one day, when both men were well into their eighties, when they met as Benny was trying to open a new cycle path. The Chief Constable of Derbyshire was also there, and when he told John he believed him innocent John was able to go home satisfied at last.

But John wasn’t the only person outraged by the severity of the sentences passed. Moderate ramblers too now took to trespassing and a few weeks later 10,000 walked through the Winnats Pass in the biggest protest yet. Further trespasses followed, but there were no more arrests. The point had been made and reform was now inevitable. In 1951 the dreams of Morris and Ruskin came true when Peak District National Park came into being. Shortly afterwards the first access agreement was reached and nearly 6000 acres of Kinder Scout were opened up to walkers.

Commemorating the trespass is now a regular event. For the 70th anniversary Michael Meacher came up from Westminster to trumpet Right to Roam legislation and the late Duke of Devonshire apologised for the actions of his dad's gamekeepers.

For the 75th anniversary I managed to bait David Milliband to have a dig at host Mike Harding's opposition to wind farms.

There's another bash this month, although funnily enough the Tories don't seem to keen to send up a Minister for the day. Perhaps the idea of workers using Direct Action to assert their rights is something they still don't want to be associated with?

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

GWPF: Follow the Money

Well I said that it was a shame Liam Fox resigned just as the scandal was getting interesting, and it seems I was right.

If you recall, Fox managed to wind up his charity The Atlantic Bridge (TAB) just before it had to answer some awkward questions to the Charities Commission. The Atlantic Bridge seemed to exist to link the Tories to the loony tunes Tea Party end of American politics, and one of its close allies was the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Koch Industries funded climate change denial front group.

The Atlantic Bridge was operated out of Fox's tax payer funded office by his friend Adam Werrity, whose unofficial role as Fox's advisor and roving ambassadore caused Liam to resign.

A major donor to Atlantic Bridge was billionaire Michael Hintze, he gave £104,000 and free office space to Atlantic Bridge. Piddling small change to him. Here he is on facebook. 21 people seem to like him.

Not to beat around the bush, hedge fund manager Hintze is in the news again today. Twice.

Firstly he turned up yesterday as one of the big donors to the Tory Party wined and dined at Cameron's place after the election. As a £1.5 million donor to the party that counts as a very expensive buffet. I hope there was at least a chocolate fountain.

Secondly the Guardian is today claiming that Hintze is the mysterious big donors to Nigel Lawson's climate change denial group The Global Warming Policy Foundation.

The evidence is a reply he gave to an unnamed environmental group in which he indicated his support for Nigella's Dad, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and the architect of the last-recession-but-one.

The identity of this chap has been a mystery for a while. A judge recently refused to order the GWPF to name him on the grounds that, lunches with the current Chancellor not withstanding, the group was not particularly influential. With only 143 members that may seem fair enough, but Lawson did get to have lunch with George Osborne, which is something Friends of the Earth hasn't managed despite having a thousand times as many members.

So it appears Hintze, by means of his bulging wallet, has managed to get the ear of both the Prime Minister and, indirectly, the Chancellor. No wonder the 'greenest government ever' is looking a sort of sludgy brown at the moment.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Kipling in five great poems (and one awful one)

Can a Progressive like Kipling?

Well I do, and so did George Orwell, and evidently so did the person who scrawled the last verse of The Secret of the Machines on the wall of the footpath under Manchester Airport's first runway during the protest against the second (right).

So here's my pocket guide to Kipling for the left-of-centre reader.

First, the worst.

The White Man's Burden (1898)

Take up the White Man's burden,
And reap his old reward--
The blame of those ye better
The hate of those ye guard--

Here's Kipling as most people know him.

It's difficult to know where to begin with being offended by this poem, although the description of subject races as "Half devil and half child" is probably as good a place as any.

Written after the USA decided to get in on the empire building game by nicking Cuba and the Philippines off the Spanish, this is Kipling at his imperialistic worst.

But as Orwell points out, the real objection to this poem is not the lack of morality in the message, but the grand delusion of what the Empire was all about. The British Empire was many things, but at its heart it was never the armed evangelistic crusade that Kipling imagined.

Kipling admired the soldiers, engineers and governors of the Empire, and shared the disdain of his class for the 'boxwallahs', the traders and businessmen. He would be amazed as much as anything to discover that it was the boxwallahs, or rather their financial backers, who really pulled the strings.

But whilst this poem may be extremely objectionable, it can't be denied, as Orwell also points out, that it is actually a very good description of how a significant proportion of the population of this country saw the mission of Empire.

Arithmetic on the Frontier

A scrimmage in a Border Station --
A canter down some dark defile --
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail --

But if Kipling was deluded about why we had an empire, he was more informed than many about what the reality of imperial administration actually involved.

Kipling before 1914 is often accused of glorifying war, but that's unfair. Compare this poem to The Charge of the Light Brigade by Tennyson, who never went anywhere near Afghanistan. You'd never catch Kipling writing guff about "was there a man dismay'd" - he knew that British soldiers always go into battle grumbling about their officers.

And it is the ordinary soldier who is the hero of Kipling's military poems, not the war.

Others may suggest that the minor wars of Empire were simply a case of "We have got the Gatling Gun ... and they have not", but Kipling knew that for every Battle of Omdurman there were a hundred scrimmages at Border Stations and that, then as now, the odds favour the guerrilla.

If- (1895)
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

How to be a man by Rudyard Kipling.

As you might expect from such a character as Kipling there not a lot of room for compassion or empathy here, but lets not be too negative.

It's a hymn to Stoicism, the unofficial religion of the era and as Melvyn Bragg has pointed out it's a remarkably classless depiction of British virtues, including "Upper Class aloofness, Middle Class stiff upper lip and Working Class grit".

If- isn't just the morality of the ruling class, it also inspired the Working Class that formed the Labour Party and that would go on to found the Welfare State. It was translated into Italian by Gramsci for his radical newpaper and, as Dennis Hopper's reading above shows, it can even inspire the Beat Generation and modern rebels.

What strikes me though is that how, by modern standards, it is so un-macho. For Kipling, being a man was not about not being a woman, but about not being a boy.

Today's New Lads should read it and learn.

Recessional (1897)

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

This, remarkably, was Kipling's contribution to Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, a late substitution for The White Man's Burden.

1897 is generally regarded as the high water mark of British Imperialism, so Kipling's poem stands out like Darcus Howe at a Monday Club bash.

However a century and a bit later his words seem so much more prescient than the rubbish that everyone else was putting out at the time.

As representatives of a hundred grateful colonies and dependencies trooped down Whitehall, and a hundred iron hulls steamed up the Solent, few people, including Kipling, could imagine it would all disappear, but it did.

A Tree Song (1906)

Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,
Or he would call it a sin;
But--we have been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring Summer in!

Having lived most of his adult life in India, Kipling returned to England in the final years of the nineteenth century. Looking beyond, or just not seeing, a century of Enclosures and an Agricultural Revolution, he imagined a land unchanged since the days of the pagans - apart from a slight hiccup called the Reformation.

The result was the book Pook of Pook's Hill, which includes this poem.

Modern Pagans, or at least Wiccans, may recognise some of it as it's the only poetry to make it into Gerald Gardner's Book of Shadows.

When Kipling met W.B.Yeats it was no surprise that the Arch-Imperialist and Irish Rebel didn't get on, but despite this there is a lot of similarity in their work. Both looked to a mystical past and, not finding one to their liking, decided to make up their own.

Gethsemane (1919)

And all the time we halted there
I prayed my cup might pass.

It didn’t pass—it didn’t pass-
It didn’t pass from me.
I drank it when we met the gas
Beyond Gethsemane!

Kipling is my favourite First World War poet, which may be a minority position but not an entirely unique one.

His Epitaphs of War sums up the horror and futility of the war in just a handful of words.

The war was both a personal and a political disaster for Kipling. As well as the death of his son, the entire world of benign imperialism had fallen apart. How could any sane person now believe that Europeans were worthy, let alone capable, of bearing the White Man's Burden?

This makes these lines almost unbearably sad.

Was Kipling in part responsible for sending a generation to their deaths?

Perhaps, but if so, at least he realised where that guilt lay. That is the response of a great artist.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Top Six Modern Pagan Folk Songs

This was a hard list.

Thanks to an explosion in pagan folk groups at home and abroad, and mainstream rock bands dabbling in folk sounding tracks, I could have easily done a top 20 or top 50.

I've limited myself to one track per artist, and disqualified Jethro Tull, Nightwish and the Waterboys for being technically rock not folk-rock, and have had to miss out Telling the Bees, Skyclad, Druidicca, The Dolmen, Mad Magdalen, The Moon and the Nightspirit, Jim Faupel, Wendy Rule, Cernunnos Rising, Seize the Day and Paul Gill (who's Whisper on the Breeze is the best song to come out of the 1990s road protest movement) and many more. Sorry guys.

But what I'm left with are six songs I really love. Curiously only half are by artists that describe themselves as Pagan, which just shows how the zeitgeist works.

You just can't stop a folky being pagan.

6. Hunting Song by Pentangle

You can debate exactly how pagan the Arthurian legends are, but this song about a magical hunting horn, written by John Renbourne, contains the sort of allusions that make the Arthurian tales so enchanting. It is also a fantastic song by one of the great pioneering folk acts at the height of their powers.

Bert Jansch, I hope you're strumming this now in the Otherworld.

5. Herne by Clannad

For some people Eroll Flynn is the only true Robin Hood, but I suspect for people of my age it's Michael Praed.

Well made, well acted and dark and pagan enough to enrage Mary Whitehouse, it was essential viewing for any teenager who played Dungeons and Dragons. This song, dedicated to Herne the Hunter, sums up the whole thing.

And Clannad's music was sublime. A band from Donegal steeped in Ireland's Trad. scene, at some point they stopped being folk, but it's not entirely clear when, so I'll count them as folk act.

Along the way they lost some of their creative spark and departing member Enya eventually eclipsed them with her own solo career, but they remained a terrific live act up until their eventual semi-retirement.

4. Maypole by Paul Giovanni

Saruman the White, alias Count Dooku, alias Christopher Lee thinks The Wicker Man had the best use of music of any film he knew. Not the best music, he qualifies himself, but the best use of it.

Certainly Paul Giovanni sets the tone of Summerisle perfectly. The best song is Gently Johnny, but as it's basically just about shagging its the Maypole song gets the nod for being slightly more pagan.

Really this soundtrack is what started the whole Pagan-folk thing in the first place, and if they'd gone with different music we may now all be Goths instead.

3. The Morrigan by Omnia

'cos they're Dutch I've never had any close connection with Omnia, who seem to be a bunch of heavy metal headbangers who've forgotten to plug their instruments in.

They certainly take the Pagan thing seriously - perhaps someone should tell them it's only a laugh really?

The only problem with putting them in this list is choosing a favourite track.

2. The Goddess and the Weaver by Spiral Dance

Just to show that the Old World doesn't have the monopoly on music for the Old Religion, at number two we have from the land of AC/DC, Spiral Dance.

They've been around for a while and, amongst other songs they have my favourite version of Burning Times - a historically inaccurate but quite catchy tune.

This is the best though, a rare foray into Greek myths.

1. Spirit of Albion by Damh the Bard

Well there could only be one winner couldn't there?

What can we say about our greatest living Pagan songsmith?

Well not a lot, but as I'm fairly sure it was him who woke me up one morning years ago at a PF mid-west bash by playing a medley of Fairport Convention songs when I was trying to sleep off a hangover, I suppose I should say I forgive him.

The only problem though, is what song to pick. Sons and Daughters of Robin Hood is the best pagan protest song of this century whilst Pagan Ways pretty much sums up why Romantics like me take up Wicca. Then there's Taliesin's Song, or Green and Grey or numerous others.

But whilst any of those would make a good runner up, there can only be one winner - the Pagan National Anthem, Spirit of Albion.

The six most pagan traditional folk songs

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The Six Most Pagan Traditional Folk Songs

With all those merry deeds all in the month of May, it is easy to imagine folk music being the most pagan of art forms.

However, whilst there are now plenty of modern, pagan folk songs about about the number of actual trad. songs which can claim to be pagan in some way is pretty small.

Part of the problem is that there really aren't many folk songs that we have that date back even two centuries. Most of the repertoire was in fact only collected in late Victorian times, by a visiting American Doctor.

6. Scarborough Fair

Some people think this song only dates back to the Summer of Love, but long before Paul Simon ripped off Martin Carthy's version it was doing the rounds of Ye Olde Folke Clubs.

The song consists of a protagonist giving a long list of very challenging tasks to his would be lover, suggesting some inexperience at on-line dating.

Possible pagan origins of the song are hinted at by its resemblance to the second of the songs in the good Doctor's collection; Child Ballad #2 or The Elfin Knight. This version, which dates back to 1673, has a young woman trying to ward off a horny devil by setting him the impossible tasks of make a shirt with no seems and finding some good land on the beach.

Later versions reverse the situation, with the woman being willing, and the otherworldly lover playing hard to get, and that is what appears to have evolved into the Scarborough Fair we know. I guess he must have been one fit elf.

This setting of impossible tasks to gain a Fairy Lover is common in our mythology, perhaps most famously in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, where the hero has to enlist King Arthur and all his knights to help him meet the demands of his would be father-in-law. The path of true love, heh?

5. King Henry

Another one of Dr Child's songs was this one, about a hideous hag who after a night of passion with the titular monarch turns into a beautiful maiden. When things happen this way round it's usually a sign of Otherworldy forces being at work, whereas the opposite transition is generally the result of drinking too much mead.

The 'loathly lady' appears in both Celtic myth and the Northern Tradition, and appears to be connected with sovereignty of the land. She appears in Arthurian legend in the story of Gawaine and Dame Ragnelle, in which the knight shows his loyalty to the King by bedding a right minger on his behalf - which is the sort of loyalty only Arthur could command.

4. The Wife of Usher's Well

Another of the good Doctor's collections was this one.

Superficially this is a conventional story of returning ghosts. In this case it is the three children of a woman who has mourned them for longer than the prescribed time of a year and a day. The sons are now ghosts, unable to enter paradise until mum moves on.

So far so ordinary, but what makes this song interesting is the date the events happen. In the words of the song "It fell about the Martinmas" and at night. Martinmas is the 11th November, but in 1752 we adopted the Gregorian Calendar and lopped 11 days off the year. Hence for anyone who forgot to reset their watches the 11th November would be the 31st October - Samhain, when the veil between the world's is thin and the Otherworld can come visiting.

All of which hints that there may be a real pagan survival here, and that some people continued to follow the Old Ways on the Old Calendar up to the nineteenth century.

Maybe modern pagans should all move their rituals forward a week and half? If nothing else it gives you an excuse if you forget your Sabbat, and can certainly help in getting one up on the Traditionals.

3. John Barleycorn

So far we've had sex and death so all we need for a full house of pagan themes is drink.

Made famous by Traffic in 1970, the song dates back to at least 1568. We can't be sure if it's a real pagan survival or the product of a Late Medieval imagination, but who cares?

Steve Winwood's stoned version seems to go on for ever, but I've heard some pretty raucous versions from Irish musicians, memorably Ron Kavangh. I've also a Fairport Convention live version where Simon Nicol gets the words jumbled up, which probably better resemble the way it was performed in Days of Yore.

A classic amongst drinking songs. Wassail!

2. Thomas the Rhymer

Older though by at least three centuries is this song about a legendary Scottish prophet and his trip under the Eildon hills.

Thomas allegedly met the Queen of Elfland whilst sunbathing, and was offered the classic choice of the wide road to Hell, the narrow road to Heaven or "the bonny road which winds about the fernie brae" to Elfland, where he and she can tootle off for seven years of fun and frolics. Smart lad, he chose to go with the pagans.

As a parting gift he is offered the choice of becoming a musician or a prophet. He chose the latter and is said to have successfully predicted the death of the King of Scotland and a localised Credit Crunch, making him far more famous than if he'd chosen the harp. Once again, smart lad.

1. Tam Lin

Frustratingly this song was only written down the sixteenth century, so we don't know if it was derived from the above, or is a record of separate tradition.

Certainly it is richer fair for pagans. We have hints of the Faery Lover, having his wicked way with maidens who wander through the forest of Carterhaugh, the reversal of the Persephone legend, with a woman rescuing the man for a change, and a bit of shape shifting thrown in for good measure.

Maybe it only gets to number one because I prefer Sandy Denny to Maddy Prior, but I find it an enchanting tale, and all the more interesting for being so enigmatic.

My top six modern pagan songs