Monday, September 12, 2005

William Blake Revisited


Every year, round about the now, the BBC hosts a series of classical music concerts known as ‘The Proms’ at the Royal Albert Hall. This year’s Proms have just finished.

Rather like big cricket matches, The Proms are one of those occasions when large groups of almost exclusively middle and upper class Anglo-Saxon people still congregate in London. The Proms always end with a big finale, with lots of people crowding into the Albert Hall clutching enormous Union Jacks making complete tits of themselves.

How else would you describe an audience of 9,000, waving flags and singing along to the lyrics of Rule Britannia, without the slightest trace of irony in its collective voice?

When Britain first at Heaven's command,
Arose from out the azure main,
This was the charter, the charter of the land,
And guardian Angels sung this strain,

Rule, Britannia, Britannia rule the waves,
Britons never will be slaves!

Er, well, yes, er, OK. Now there’s an accurate summary of British history and the current global geopolitical situation if ever I’ve heard one.

To demonstrate the softer side of the crowd, tradition dictates that Rule Britannia is followed with a stirring rendition of William Blake’s Jerusalem

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?

Rule Britannia always was jingoistic nonsense but Jerusalem is an altogether more thoughtful piece. Blake lived during the Industrial Revolution and was disturbed by the huge increase in the number of urban poor living horrid lives in British cities. Playing on a common belief that the Britain was created by ‘Heaven’s Command’, his poem asks ‘does anyone think that people living like shit next to horrible factories is some kind of new paradise?’.

Blake was being ironic and challenging and the question marks in the poem are key to the piece. But, perversely, Jerusalem was hijacked and became an anthem for the privileged classes of Britain. It is sung in their schools, rugby matches and nights out, and most emphatically without the question marks.

The true significance of the words passes completely over their inbred heads.


I mention all of this because we were strolling around the annual Brick Lane festival in the East End yesterday. Brick Lane was crowded so we restricted ourselves to the surrounding side streets and housing estates.

It was fucking horrible.

There’s no need to find the words to describe it. All someone has to do is dust off some of William Blake’s old stuff, translate it into modern vernacular and they would be there; poverty, decay, alienation, substance addiction. The usual stuff.

Just as in Blake’s time, London’s underclass is growing rapidly. Only this time round it’s not country folk being drawn to the factories. The new underclass is largely foreign born and they’re far more likely to end up employed in the service sector rather than any ‘dark satanic mills’. Their living conditions are, however, certainly woeful enough to be comparable with Blake’s era.

On one street in particular I was awestruck by the sheer squalor of people selling personal items ‘yard sale’ style off the pavement. At least I think that’s what they were doing. To the uninformed observer it might have looked more like a group of tramps had emptied a series of rubbish bins onto the floor and then sat down on the mess.

My companion, another veteran connoisseur of urban decay, was also pretty impressed by the scene and commented on the sheer third worldness of it all. The third world feeling was nicely capped off by the fenced-off private sports club at one end of the street. Its car park filled with BMWs and Mercedes coupes. Poor person sitting on a pavement trying to sell old socks for a few pence on one side of the street. Chinless wanker in sports car, who probably knows Jerusalem off by heart, sitting behind a fence on the other side.

This isn’t the London I grew up in and its sucks arse.

As I’ve said before, the underclass of New Orleans we saw on TV last week is nowhere near unique. We just haven’t had big floods in any of our other cities lately. That’s all.


de said...

Brick Lane itself is cool. Worked above 83 feet East, oppostite Hype. Didn't wander to bad bits of course. My insurance wouldn't cover me..

Homemade said...

Wondering around the deprived bits of London really is an eye opener. You don't have to have lived in London forever to notice how it is growing - its happening all round the country.
I think that these areas are getting more "ghettoised" because many of the immigrants don't speak English and hence have a harder time breaking out of their communitities. Whatever the Daily Mail says, being an immigrant isn't easy and there certainly aren't any easy answers.
What never ceases to amaze me though, is the ability of so many not to notice it, or mabye, not want to notice it. I'm pretty sure that the majority of those in the sports club you mention, don't fully appreciate the conditions that those around them live in. They only notice that Jeremy has a lovely roof terrace, a new plasma TV and they don't.

Stef said...

bang on the money there homemade

Sparkling said...

"If you don't see it, it doesn't exist", is the motto most people live by. It is too depressing to face reality, so most people choose not to.

Stick a "make poverty history" on you blog, or donating money to a third world country is easier. It keeps the misery at arms length.

David said...

Brazil? Third world? I don't know how far it's yet spread, but the third world has now spread to London, and we are definitely evolvong backwards to a neo-mediaeval age (soon to include the horses as well), and the politicians appear to be laughing and playing their metaphorical fiddles.
I'll just add for good measure the EU have sided with mad Ken Livinsgstone in pleading with member governments not to reduce fuel tax so they can 'get people off the roads'. As I said, horses are coming. Head for the hills...

Postman said...

The Dark Stanaic Mills were of course the Textile mills which have now disappeared in the North.

The 1st generation of Pakistanis who shaoled these glowing Titanics through the Northern night odf the 50's and 60's have been replaced by the 2nd and 3rd generation who beaver away with small businesses and corner shops, petrol staions.

Now they are joined by a worldwide diaspora in the North West. Our local FE college (or whatever they call such things now) has an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) school which last year dealt with people from 69 nations with an uncounted number of native languages.

Many illegal, they transfer a third world attitude to litter, housing, and many service a thriving drugs industry, shoplifting, and street begging.

As they pose a nightmare in documentation for the Police they are left alone and avoided.

Anonymous said...

I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear.

How the chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackening church appals;
And the hapless soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls.

But most through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage hearse.

ps. Can I have your camera, as you're not using it mate? ;)