Blow, winds, and puff your cheeks

''Yes, yes, I'm a wild boy. The trumpet is my way of focusing a lot of physical energy and controlling its output. The violin wouldn't suit me at all. As a child I probably would have stamped on it."

He speaks in gusts, inhaling deeply, as if sucking up a thought and then breathing it out smoothly like a musical phrase. He is extrovert and introvert by turns. He'll pick up guitar, flute, penny whistle, percussion, but mostly he plays jazz trumpet.

“Jazz is just ears open. Ears and a tap open, ideally. For me it's a way of removing the barriers to instinct."

He's an improviser. He scavenges tunes. He listens to the world and replies. He tries anything, even sailed his own boat to St Petersburg this summer, crossing the North Sea in a gale with his children.

“It strikes me when the wind whistles through the rigging that the overtones it sings are like the ones I play on the trumpet, a fixed series of notes that are enshrined in nature. I love the sound of the wind. I love the smell and the power of it. It's terrifying. “I've seen this cumulonimbus cloud or whatever it was, a big black cloud rising up from the west like a hand reaching into the sky. It just covered the sun and suddenly it blew an enormous storm . . ."

Wind ought to be a verb or an adverb. It isn't really anything. It's a manner of movement of warmth and cold, a kind of information system of the air. Sails, clouds, clothes, leaves or planks or horses or whole houses blowing by at a hundred miles an hour are only ever the wind's afterthought.
And yet there's something quite vindictive about the emptiness that whips up your coat and pushes you backwards as you're walking. There are stories of milkmaids left with nothing but a bucket when the wind carried their cow away; and a child in Kansas who was sucked on his mattress through an open window and set down in the yard without waking. It's impossible not to take the wind personally.

“You have to offer some resistance to the wind. Whether you're sailing or trumpeting, you've got to adjust the air, like this . . ." He blows a raspberry long and loud and the wind replies by rattling the door.

Lip service

“You see the lips are like a water-skier and the airstream has to be going fast enough for the lips to ride it. It's a sort of intentionality of the wind blowing through your lips. Now a woodwind instrument is affected by the wind quite badly. You can't play penny whistle in a wind because it takes the sound away.

“But with a trumpet, the sound is produced in a sheltered environment, unlike the flute, which you blow over and it's right open to the elements.

“One of the strangest gigs I've done was swimming with a little model boat I'd made, about a metre long with a cornet in it. It was sailing by itself, powered by the wind, and the cornet was being carried by it. I snorkelled out and then trod water and played. It was quite easy with flippers. I just made something up. I thought it was one of the most unusual gigs I've ever given, but I don't think the audience noticed me. Ha!"

He leans forward. He says: "Now the secret to circular breathing is actually storing a little air in your cheeks and just while you snatch a breath
release it. Ha!" With eyes wide open and cheeks puffed out, he looks just like the North Wind, and when he laughs he slightly loses control.

With particular thanks to Martin Holland. Alice Oswald is a poet and the author of "Memorial" (Faber & Faber, £12.99). She will write about nature occasionally for the New Statesman. Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

Alice Oswald is an award-winning poet. She writes the nature column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Britain

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide