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Billy Bragg writes an uptempo history of skiffle's golden age

Roots, Radicals and Rockers is full of great characters and vignettes of bracingly different times.

Skiffle is an American expression which, between the wars, meant “rent party”. It means little to most Americans today. To Britons, particularly those who were young in the 1950s, it came to denote that fidgety form of music, which served as a bridge between the weighty folk-blues of singers such as Leadbelly and the lurid new rock’n’roll as practised by Elvis Presley. Skiffle was popular because it required little technique and could be played on cheap acoustic guitars and even items of old household equipment.

The golden generation of British rockers all started out in skiffle groups. It was their gateway to what came after rock’n’roll. Paul first clapped eyes on John when he was leading his skiffle group the Quarrymen at a church fête in the summer of 1957.

It helped that skiffle’s leading light, Lonnie Donegan, was British but had found a convincing way of playing American. As Van Morrison, who was in his own skiffle group, the Sputniks, while at school in Belfast, recalls, “People trying to copy Elvis had no chance… but Donegan made it possible to go through that door.” This book is a history of the music that made it acceptable for English musicians to sing in an American accent. Interesting that it should be written by Billy Bragg, one of the few British musicians who stubbornly sings in his own tongue.

The skiffle boom, which occupied the latter half of the 1950s, came about, as is explained in his readable account of its brief golden age, by accident. Donegan, whose name was Tony but who had adopted Lonnie in tribute to the American guitarist Lonnie Johnson, was supposed to supply light relief in the middle of his employer’s traditional jazz set. Inevitably his material became more popular than the allegedly serious stuff, particularly with the kids who wanted something you could dance to. When the band leader tried to throw him out, Lonnie was off to the races with the cries of his jazz scene detractors overwhelmed by the sound of ringing cash registers. Not overly lovable to begin with, Donegan further offended the purists by eventually swapping traditional American work songs for TV-friendly fare such as “My Old Man’s a Dustman”.

Throughout this period, the letters pages of the Melody Maker reverberated with passionate disputes about authenticity. As Bragg’s account makes clear, it’s easy to shoot holes in such arguments. Donegan’s big hit “Rock Island Line” claimed the railway was close to New Orleans. Not only was it actually hundreds of miles to the north, the song was composed by the winners of a talent competition run by the railroad’s owners and organised by some turn-of-the-century Simon Cowell.

’Twas ever thus. Tug on any thread in the most complicated musical tapestry and you always find somebody trying to make rent. Music is music. There isn’t one sort that’s more real than any other. But skiffle sounded authentic and the bands dressed like artisans, so there were the inevitable arguments about who had sold out and who hadn’t.

Bragg’s broad canvas, which encompasses everything from the birth of jazz in New Orleans to the mass trespass movement in the Peak District in the 1930s, is peopled with great characters and crammed with vignettes of bracingly different times: Londoner Ken Colyer, who signed on as second cook on a freighter just to get to New Orleans before the last jazz pioneers died; teenager Shirley Collins, who would sell the Daily Worker on Saturdays and then don her home-made finery and go onto Hastings pier at night looking for a man fit to throw her over his shoulder; the PR man John Kennedy, who got Tommy Steele in the papers by staging a party full of fake debs and pretending that Steele was the toffs’ chosen rock’n’roll star; visiting American Peggy Seeger, who rode a scooter from London to Scotland with no helmet on and a banjo at her back while barely out of her teens; and, inevitably, any number of glowering moralists, from Victorian folklorist Hubert Parry to the communist Ewan MacColl, who fancied that they could tell people what was real music and what wasn’t.

Most history from the rock’n’roll age, like most Second World War history, is now written by people who weren’t there at the time. If there’s a drawback with Bragg’s book it’s that it ought to have come out 20 years ago, when the people who played skiffle, either famously or in an amateur capacity, were still around in numbers. Because it’s 2017, such contemporary phenomena as the Aldermaston marches, the growth of ITV, and the electric effect of Bill Haley’s decorous “Rock Around the Clock” played through big speakers at the cinema, all have to be explained in full to a contemporary readership for whom pleasure denied can mean an app that won’t launch.

The subject of skiffle can’t have been the easiest sell to a publisher in 2017. This may account for the slight over-statement in the title Roots, Radicals and Rockers, and the regular recourse to comparisons with punk rock. Punk, being a mere 40 years old, is presumed to be comparatively pin sharp in the memory. This book made me wonder whether, for all the fuss it makes about itself, punk rock was actually as consequential as skiffle was. 

David Hepworth’s most recent book is “Uncommon People: the Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars” (Bantam Press)

Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World
Billy Bragg
Faber & Faber, 431pp, £20​

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon