Family Values

The older I get, the more country music I listen to, and the more I like what I hear, whether songs about drinkin’, lovin’, shootin’, cheatin’, drinkin’ (again), prayin’, dyin’, bein’ locked up, and so on. And if I were one to make wild generalisations, I’d say that these songs, taken together, speak to the central problems of modern life better than any other comparable group in the Anglophone corpus, and they deserve to be celebrated for that.

But country music and I part company when it comes to sentimental ballads about parents. I like my parents very much, and don’t have anything bad to say about them — but, nevertheless, mushy songs about parents leave me cold. There’s even something about songs like “To Daddy” (recorded by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and, no doubt, others) that makes me want to throw up, its feminist politics notwithstanding.

Well, Norm has just posted the lyrics to Ronee Blakley’s song, “Idaho Home”, from Robert Altman’s Nashville (see this page, by the way, for a comprehensive plot summary of this magnificent film). Of it he writes, “Don’t mock. Or, at least, wait until you’ve actually heard it before you mock”. And I think that’s about right: although the genre of country songs about mom and dad is wholly mockable, I think this one is actually less vomit-inducing than the others.

Two can play the “reproducing the lyrics from the Nashville soundtrack” game, and my favourite, by a long way, is this excellent Henry Gibson number. (Again: do resist the temptation to mock… It’s well worth it.)

Unpack your bags and try not to cry.
I can’t leave my wife — there’s three reasons why.
There’s Jimmy, and Kathy, and sweet Lorelei…
For the sake of the children, we must say goodbye.
For the sake of the children, we must say goodbye.’Cos Jimmy’s been wishin’ that I’d take him fishin’
His Little League pitchin’ is something to see
And Kathy’s thirteen now; she’s my little queen now,
And I’ve gotta see who her beau’s gonna be.

So unpack your bags…

But you are my true love, the one that I do love,
But I’ve got to stay with the woman I wed.
Laurie’s just walkin’, she just started talkin’,
And Daddy’s the first word that she ever said!

Et cetera.

Great song. Great film.By way of a postscript, I’d have thought, incidentally, that the Ronee Blakley song from Nashville that would interest Norm the most would be her “Rolling Stone” — see here and here.

Man of Principle

Politicians always profess to be principled, but we tend to suspect that they are self-seeking opportunists, and experience suggests that we are usually right so to suspect. Those occasions, therefore, when politicians stand up for principles which will almost certainly work against their short-, medium- and long-run interests are very striking ones. And this is doubly true when it comes to right-wing parties, owing to the lingering suspicion that, as J. K. Galbraith once put it, conservatism might really at bottom just be “the search for a higher moral justification for selfishness”.

But this clearly isn’t always the case. As Donald Sassoon notes, for example, in a (sort of) recent essay on the fluctuating fortunes of socialism in the twentieth century, the longstanding conservative opposition to women’s suffrage across all of Europe was quite principled, as it was widely believed — and it turned out to be largely true — that women were more likely to vote for conservative, religious and traditionalist parties than for liberal, socialist or other workers’ parties. And it was the opportunist Stanley Baldwin who brought an end to years of this principled opposition by equalising the franchise in 1928, thus boosting Tory fortunes at the ballot box.

With that little bit of history in place, then, we should notice Michael Howard’s altruistic defence of the the First Past the Post electoral system in his recent speech in Burnley. “PR always magnifies the opportunities for small, extremist parties”, he declared, “as other countries have found to their cost. That is one of the reasons why I am so resolutely opposed to it”.

He doesn’t tell us what the other reasons are, but I’d quite like to know what he’s thinking of, since I think that we should be more puzzled by the almost unswerving Tory defence of FPTP than we usually are. This part of the Jenkins Commission report into the possibility of an alternative voting system spells out just how badly the Tories currently do under FPTP. And while the reduction in the over-representation of Scotland will offer something of a corrective in the direction of proportionality, there’s no sign that the electoral system will generate fair outcomes any time soon, but that it will remain systematically skewed in the interests of the Labour Party.

It’s fun, of course, for thorough-going anti-Conservatives like me to contemplate an electoral system in which, as Jenkins estimated (a few years back, to be sure, when he was still alive), “the Conservatives would have required a lead of approximately 6 1/2 % to give them an equality of seats with Labour”, and still have that electoral system so ardently defended by those whom it will reliably punish.

But perhaps the Tories may just be terribly aware that their persistent inability to transform themselves into a credibly decent European centre-right civic liberal / Christian Democratic party dooms them to permanent opposition in any system of PR / coalition politics, and so they feel they lack the incentive to campaign for fairer votes.

Or, as I say, they may be significantly more principled than we generally reckon.

Dead Socialist Watch, #70

Rest in peace Anthony “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England… and Wales … and Northern Ireland” Crosland, Labour politician and Cabinet Minister under Wilson and Callaghan. Born 29 August 1918, died 21 February 1977. Author of The Future of Socialism, 1956, a revisionist tome which, in light of the politics of the present, appears quite fundamentalist.

(Hmm. I can’t find any Crosland pages out there on the web worth linking to. Any ideas?)

Gay Pride

One of the reasons I’ve been excited about the politics of gay marriage in the United States in recent months has been the fact that it has been the parts of the country I know and love best making the progressive running. Last year it was the court in Massachusetts — where I lived for most of the period 1995-2000 — that ordered the state legislature to draw up proposals to legalise gay and lesbian marriage; last weekend it was the Mayor of San Francisco — where I lived for much of 1999 — who ordered officials in City Hall to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

And there’s an additional reason for me to feel thrilled at what’s been happening in San Fransciso, which these two photos will serve to illustrate…

That photo was taken on 19 March 2001, and is of marriage commissioner Richard Ow officiating at my wedding to Josephine at the top of the grand staircase in San Francisco City Hall.

And this photo, left, is of the same person, Richard Ow, in the same place in City Hall, again, at the top of the steps, this time officiating at a same-sex marriage ceremony on Friday, a day that made the best kind of history that there is to make. (I found it on this page.)

Last week-end’s events have provided the faces and names and photographs to make the hitherto abstract and hypothetical concept of state-sanctioned same-sex marriage in America concrete and real for the watching world. And for me those photographs are marvellously accompanied by my own happy memories of City Hall as a terrific place to get married, and the wonderfully moving email messages I’ve read by people I know in San Francisco, who grabbed their once-in-a-lifetime chance to get their love for a partner officially recognised by the City — and a City they love, too.

And to get a sense of how busy that staircase in the top image was over the weekend, here’s a usefully-labelled snap by local photographer Zak Szymanski

Below is another pic by Zak Szymanski of some splendid shoes — there are lots more at his authenti-city site, and it’s an excellent visual documentary record of three extraordinary days.