Can You Have A Surfeit Of Anti-Wokery?

Woke is no joke. I despise it, just as my lifelong socialist late father despised PC for its preciousness, pomposity and intolerance. Oliver Stocker felt that there were much more important battles for the left to fight, and I, who still consider myself just a smidgen to the left of centre (what a joke, say the woke!) must agree. I’m just relieved that Dad didn’t live to witness some of the nonsense of the last six years in world politics and the rise—from seemingly nowhere—of wokery.

I don’t intend to make this a profound analysis, but what should concern us all is the world’s growing inequality, with vast salaries and performance bonuses for the undeserving rich at the top of the tree; global warming and other environmental degradation (it saddens me when I return ‘Home’ to see so few skimming swallows); obscenely high property prices which is fine for those with comfortably-off parents (I’m a beneficiary of this, I confess) but dreadful for most of the rest of us; then there’s the police stopping and searching innocent non-whites in the street; and on a micro level in Britain, disgusting school lunches for state-educated kids and continued tax breaks for rich kid schools like Eton or even my own school, Haberdashers’ Aske’s. It all sucks. If it’s considered ‘left’ to protest about these injustices and constructively frame policies to counteract them, then count me in! You’d have thought that the left would have a bonanza fighting the good fight here. It certainly makes their woke poses over ‘slaver’ statues and the decolonising the far-from-reactionary curriculum all the more frivolous, idle and, yes Dad, precious.

But at the same time, on the other side of the ideological divide, there’s surely a limit to the usefulness of fighting culture wars against the woke. This may be a heresy for me to say as a founder-member of the History Reclaimed group but it can become an obsession, a preoccupation with the ultimately trivial. By clobbering second-rate people, you risk insidiously becoming second-rate yourself, ironically falling into the same trap as the woke themselves. I feel particularly uncomfortable when I read about Tory chairman Oliver Dowden giving a recent speech to the overfed bow-tie wearers of the Heritage Foundation in the US, denouncing wokery.

I don’t necessarily disagree with the content, so much as the priority he accords it as a likely platform of the Tories’ next election campaign. It runs the risk of being an easy and glib attempted vote-winner while Britain burns. It could well backfire, too: common-sensed people will see through the superficialities of Dowden’s line of argument before too long—perhaps they already do. Oliver, you should focus on being a good “One Nation” Tory and attend instead to some of the harder and more serious injustices that I enumerate above. That will earn you my historical Brownie points alongside Disraeli, R.A. Butler and Michael Heseltine.

I’m not for a moment suggesting a suspension of HR’s activities, so much as a good-humoured awareness of the fact that there are worse things in the world than a fair bit of what we fight. Moreover, there’s a danger of falling into a constant trap of the hard left: being critical and negative, and not positing a constructive alternative. That’s why, in the “statues war,” I passionately believe in the “explain” part of “retain and explain,” consistent with my lifelong commitment to reasonableness! I have offered my services to the beleaguered Oriel College, Oxford and its Rhodes statue accordingly.

Merely banging on about the same theme can get rather boring; but doing something to tip the world just a bit in a positive direction—voluntary gardening in a public park, helping with the City Mission, supporting a “books in homes” charity—is surely time and money better spent than getting worked up into a right lather about a ludicrously woke-looking new Bodleian Library job description.

Apples and oranges, I know, but hey, let’s keep a sense of proportion in all of this, and try and do our bit to make the world a slightly less awful place.

Mark Stocker is an art historian whose recent book is When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971.

Guilty Pleasures: More Blokes: Farlowe, McKuen, Blunstone And Ward

Chris Farlowe, Rod McKuen, Colin Blunstone and Clifford T. Ward aren’t exactly celebrities; the sole exception is McKuen who nonetheless died relatively obscure and unjustly patronised. The first three have remarkable voices in utterly different ways, whilst the fourth was a singer/songwriter of minor genius.

McKuen was a later discovery for me – he was never particularly big in Britain, and is probably the guiltiest of these pleasures. Only Farlowe had a Number One, a record that remains, alongside “Bridge over Troubled Water,” “Dancing Queen” and “(Too-Rye-Ay) Come on Eileen” (but not “Hey Jude”), one of my favourite tops of the pops.

This happened the week that England won the 1966 football World Cup, to the delight of Mr and Mrs Broadbridge, teaching Germany another lesson lest they forgot. The song in question was “Out of time,” a Jagger/Richards composition which from the opening strings playing those stirring chords, you know would be a winner.

The lyrics address a tiresome ex-girlfriend who needs to be told she’s so last year:

You don't know what's going on
You've been away for far too long
You can't come back and think you are still mine.
You're out of touch, my baby
My poor old-fashioned, baby
I said, baby, baby, baby, you're out of time.

Poor thing! Farlowe has been labelled a one-hit wonder but several singles made the lower chart reaches and the album “The Art of Chris Farlowe” (and it was art) sold respectably. “Ride on baby,” which had nothing to do with lawnmowers, was too much of a carbon copy to succeed, but an earlier Jagger/Richards song, “Think,” should have been a lot bigger.

Farlowe is white, but he definitely sounds black. His voice tends towards the rasping and gritty, it’s tough, it makes no attempt whatsoever to endear or charm, which is part of his integrity but does nothing for his popularity. Nor is Farlowe’s stage presence or appearance heart-warming: with his narrow set eyes and long nose, he looks like a lean 1960s London gang leader who would either have beaten up Francis Bacon, or would have been requested to do so with cash inducements.

Farlowe later got into strife for selling Nazi regalia in his antique shop, compounding the image problem, and yet when you see him on rare video footage sharing the stage with his idol, Otis Redding, he commendably holds his own. He’s a good match for the Father of Soul James Brown himself in his rendition of “It’s a man’s world.” But the title: can you see the problem? He doesn’t shake hands with our heart, so much as stomp on it. “We’re doing fine” drips with relationship tensions:

Everybody wants to know
If everything's alright
I guess they thought by now
We'd had a great big fight
No no no no no…

Farlowe protests too loudly. The grim way he sings it suggests that a rather horrible fight had indeed taken place, or else was highly likely to do so. Years later (1988) guitarist and Pre-Raphaelite art collector extraordinary, Jimmy Page, plucked Farlowe out of relative obscurity to sing several tracks on his album “Night Rider.” Page has always had impeccable taste and knew what he was doing. “Hummingbird,” a Leon Russell cover far superior to the original, shows that Farlowe had lost none of his old tricks:

The gulf between Chris Farlowe and Rod McKuen is akin to blue cheese bordering on rancid, and strawberries and cream. Rod is an old flirt, a cardigan clad charmer, at least in his now rather excruciating TV specials which were hugely popular in North America half a century ago. Yet his songs about love and loss are something else: melancholy, sometimes even bitter. Oh, that husky, raspy voice! Technically it is god-awful, and came about after Rod had irreparably wrecked his vocal chords in 1961. But like our friend Bacon painting the backs of his canvases, Rod shrewdly made a virtue out of this.

If you like the overpraised Tom Waits, you can’t credibly dislike Rod, and I would even say much the same about Leonard Cohen. Yet Rod seems destined to go down in history as “the king of kitsch” and it was a sad reflection on today’s philistinism that his vast personal archive was scattered and sold, rather than acquired by the Harry Ransom Center…

Rod McKuen.

You “Rodophobes” should look at yourselves. You people would protest, but you’re the victims of left-liberal genre and cultural snobbery. You can’t even claim the high moral political ground, for Rod’s liberalism was impeccable and his fight for gay equality utterly laudable. He famously combined his composing and performing with poetic aspirations, and the slim volumes which now turn up in car-boot sales, perhaps accompanied by their late owners’ lava lamps and kaftans, once sold in millions.

Many people’s minds—and I would venture to say not a few ageing academics’ minds—were opened up to poetry thanks to Rod, but he has received singularly little thanks for this. He’s a bit too homespun, predictable and lower middlebrow, a wannabe Charles Bukowski. Posterity, as I say, has been ungrateful, but a poetic sensibility unquestionably infuses Rod’s many memorable songs.

Some of the best are tributes to Rod’s Belgian mentor and friend Jacques Brel, which he translated. The much-recorded ‘If you go away’ is something of a signature song, surpassing almost every other cover version (no thanks, Neil Diamond):

If you go away on this summer day
Then you might as well take the sun away
All the birds that flew in a summer sky
When our love was new and our hearts were high
When the day was young and the night was long
And the moon stood still for the night bird’s song
If you go away, If you go away, If you go away…

I know, I know. My personal favourite is “Seasons in the Sun,” the reflections of a dying man. Please ignore that Canadian Terry Jacks’s icky and cheesy cover, and instead appreciate Rod’s mordant and angry rendition. Its poignancy is accentuated by the barest of acoustic guitar accompaniment and you don’t forgive or forget the cheating Françoise easily:

Rod could of course write (and perform) no shortage of admirable songs in his own right. Frank Sinatra knew what he was doing in recording “A Man Alone,” an album entirely based on McKuen, and not unusually it is rated far more highly by popular opinion than by jaded critics. “Love’s been good to me” is the standout track and Rod’s version holds its own against the infinitely greater formal perfection of Sinatra’s singing. Rod may have gone away, but his brittle talent and charm live on for me at least:

Like many people, I sometimes fantasise about singers, what they might be like and what their intellectual pursuits might be. With the late Robert Palmer, so studied, stylish, sophisticated, suave, witty and ever experimental, I felt that he must have enjoyed the fiction of Sterne, Thackeray and possibly Gide. No such luck: he was evidently at his happiest getting up at night and working on his Airfix model aircraft kits (just as Rod Stewart famously loves his train set). Perhaps my illusions would be likewise shattered by any putative meeting with Colin Blunstone.

Colin Blunstone at the CBS launch of Ennismore, 1972.

When I listen to his singing, I feel he is incapable of the common, vulgar, unrefined or uncouth. This is a voice which, before it broke, would have surely made him head chorister at the local St Albans Cathedral or even one’s alma mater, King’s College, Cambridge. The same adult voice was an integral part of the appeal of the Zombies, those pioneers of Prog, whose breathily beautiful “She’s not there” and “Time of the season” were surprising but deserved chart toppers in the US. American audiences are far less familiar with, but would surely not be disappointed by, Colin’s solo career from the early 1970s onwards. Here, Prog yields to superior, sensitive pop. I remember one of my contemporaries in the sixth form (11th grade) describing how he had been reduced to tears by “Caroline goodbye”:

Saw your picture in the paper
My, you're looking pretty good
Looks like you're gonna make it in a big way
Oh, I always knew you would
But I should have known better, yeah
And I should’ve seen sooner.
There's no use pretending
I've known for a long time your love is ending
Caroline goodbye
Caroline goodbye.

It’s that emotional generosity moving me (and my mate), perfectly meshed with that perfect sounding tenor. How could anyone in their right minds chuck Colin, who is as good looking as that voice? And it would be Caroline (a classy name half a century ago), rather than Sharon or Tracey: Colin, you are middle-class Home Counties and I like you very much for that.

Colin’s biggest hit was a cover of Denny Laine’s lovely song “Say you don’t mind” (I remember a music critic remarking how he would immediately smile whenever he heard it playing). Colin’s tenor attained powerful falsetto heights, corresponding yet again to the emotional… tenor. Oh, and those strings!

I realise that I've been in your eye some kind of fool
What I do, what I did, stupid fish I drank the pool
I've been doing some dying
Now I'm doing some trying
So say you don't mind, you don't mind
You'll let me off this time.

I forgive you anytime, Colin, but I can’t speak for Caroline. The voice is perfect, the songs likewise, and sometimes quite complex (“How can we dare to be wrong?”) and I continue to remain as baffled as I was half a century ago as to why he wasn’t a megastar:

How could people “fail to see” as Colin rhetorically asks in this song? But I get the strong impression that Colin is relaxed and contented with the recognition that he does get, and again he has my admiration. In fact, I feel a fan letter coming on:

Dear Mr Blunstone,
I’m in my 60s and average looking. I like church architecture and Prog Rock and like you grew up near St Albans. Well, I’d like to tell you that for many years, I’ve just loved your singing and your songs…

Next singer, please!

As one of Clifford T. Ward’s obituarists has observed, his best songs—and there were a fair few—synthesised a fine grasp of pop melody with genuine poetic sensibility. An awful lot of English art before those ghastly, self-advertising Young British Artists, and a comparable amount of literature, celebrated the homely, the domestic, the everyday and the low-key. Woe betide anyone who mistakes this for insipidity.

Clifford T. Ward.

Ward epitomised these qualities. He first hit the charts as a Worcestershire schoolteacher with “Gaye,” which enchanted me as a sensitive and uncertain 17-year-old, and no, it is not about liberation of one’s sexuality. But my personal favourite has to be “Scullery.” North American readers perhaps need to be told that this is an offshoot of the kitchen in an English home, where you wash your smalls or dirtier pans. Clifford T’s perfect enunciation perhaps makes any reproduction of his lyrics otiose, but I hope you too marvel at how he makes the humdrum poetic:

You're my picture, by Picasso
Lighting up our scullery
With your pans and pots and hot-plates
You'd brighten up any gallery
If I could paint a different picture
Leafy lanes and flower scenes
Buttermilk, your cooking mixture
You still have ingredients that make you shine
And when you take your apron off I know you're mine…

This was inspired by his wife, Pat, whom he knew from their schooldays. One would love to create an idyll around them and their four children living in a picture-postcard ivy-clad cottage, but the reality was far sadder. Clifford T. was diagnosed in his early forties with multiple sclerosis, and took many years to die.

From his stage persona, he seems the very embodiment of sensitivity and sweetness, but a tell-all biography sadly blew that image to smithereens and though this was surely aggravated by pain, he emerges as hectoring and self-centred. Yet, to quote Prog Rock band the Nice, ars longa vita brevis, and there remains much to cherish in Clifford T’s songs. “Home thoughts from Abroad,” itself of course a quotation from Robert Browning’s famous poem, and the gorgeous “The best is yet to come,” are both cases in point:

Obviously, Clifford T. had no truck with punk rock, and the feeling was mutual.

Truly, he could be deemed a cult figure: his shyness meant that he loathed live performance, and yet he and Pat were legendary for making fans cups of tea if they called round. This was utterly in character with the aforementioned domesticity and decency. I’d like to think the same fans would go on to do brass rubbings in a local church on the same trip, but I fantasise.

People who matter in music jolly well knew he was special: these included Elton John (“Your song” is very Clifford T), Paul McCartney, whom historian Dominic Sandbrook rightly lauds as the greatest Beatle, while Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, Art Garfunkel and Judy Collins all recorded cover versions of his songs. Clifford T. died aged 57 in 2001 and I am pressing for his inclusion in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Mark Stocker is an art historian whose recent book is When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971.

Featured image: “Colin Blunstone-The Zombies,” by Thomas Leparskas, 2020.

Twelve things You Always Wanted To Know About The Colston Statue That The Guardian Never Tells You…

The recent trial of the so-called ‘Colston Four’, who were acquitted of causing criminal damage when the Edward Colston statue in Bristol was toppled, sent shock waves around the civilised world. As a former “classic liberal” Guardian reader and fan till not so long ago, Dr. Mark Stocker decided to pen this piece, originally for the History Reclaimed website. This is a revised and improved version. Mark acknowledges that the issue is a highly divisive one, but the toppling and subsequent trial only intensified his belief that “Retain and explain,” a now famous phrase that he coined, is the only way to go for the overwhelmingly majority of public statuary worldwide.

  1. The bleeding obvious: the statue, by being toppled and then thrown into the harbour, was subject to blatant criminal damage, hence the trial of identifiable participants. As far as I know, none of the Famous Four wrote to Bristol City Council beforehand seeking permission to topple it or even to have it peacefully relocated to a museum.
  2. The statue is a Grade II listed historical monument, subject to legal protection. The topplers, if they knew about this (which seems unlikely) disregarded it.
  3. Professor David Olusoga has several times pronounced on the statue’s supposed artistic mediocrity. What are his art historical credentials that qualify him to do so? The monument is a highly capable piece of Victorian portrait statuary by the Irish Catholic sculptor, John Cassidy, resident in England because he probably would have faced penury at home. Stylistically it combines sartorial realism with an attractive Art Nouveau pedestal. Edward Colston’s pensive stance and body language suggests a thoughtful man, the philanthropist that he manifestly was. The pose is influenced by such London statues as Sidney Herbert (sculpted by Cassidy’s fellow Irishman J.H. Foley) and General Gordon (by Hamo Thornycroft). As an art historian and retired curator, I believe society should care for art like this, not topple and deface it.
  4. Simply identifying Colston as a “slave trader” is a dead political giveaway, and is both lazy and misleading. Indeed, it is probably about as accurate as identifying Edward Heath as a musical conductor.
  5. Colston was no mass murderer, as Olusoga claims—something he didn’t say 18 months ago—even if many slaves tragically suffered when they were transported or subsequently worked to death on plantations. I certainly don’t believe in making light of Colston’s indirect involvement in such deaths but there seems to be a compulsion among his critics to denigrate him exponentially, so much so that at times he seemed to be posthumously on trial rather than the Famous Four. Is it naïve to suggest that Colston deserves at least partial redemption when he resigned from the Royal African Company and devoted his energies to the philanthropy that was central to all accounts of him up to the 1990s?
  6. We don’t even know how much Colston personally profited from the slave trade. Consider what the main historian in the area, Professor Kenneth Morgan, has to say in Edward Colston and Bristol (1999): “To what extent Colston received money from the sale of slaves in the New World is unknown. He was undoubtedly remunerated for his work on the committees of the Royal African Company, but whether his money was the basis of his fortune remains conjectural.” No new information has surfaced since Morgan’s publication, so the repeated assertions that Colston made his fortune that way remain mere conjecture. Morgan’s research suggests it was likely that Colston made more money as a merchant of textiles and sherry, and almost certainly far more as a shrewd moneylender.
  7. The topplers make an elementary error in their history. Write out 100 times: “That was then, this is now.” To quote what the historian Professor Trevor Burnard told me: “Everyone was invested in slavery in the late seventeenth century—Locke, for example, was a big supporter—and the monarchy was a supporter more than most.” The governor of the Royal African Company in Colston’s time was the King (Charles II, James II, William III), whereas Colston was deputy governor, not necessarily entitling him to the dirty monies of the slave trade. Obviously we all wish today that Colston had opposed slavery (just as one wishes he had supported Bristol Rovers), but what happened, happened.
  8. The estimated costs for the statue’s repair and restoration, £3750, are risibly and artificially low. This is because the threshold for a criminal damage trial in a magistrate’s court—where the Colston Four would have appeared had they not elected to go before a jury—is £5000. I know on good authority that the costs are probably closer to £20,000.
  9. The jury were subjected to irrational and emotional pleading, amounting to bullying and intimidation. As I’ve said, it sometimes seemed more of a trial of Colston (based on inadequate evidence) than of the Four. Among other things, the jury were told by the defence to make sure they were “on the right side of history.” Surely history should not have sides but facts? Regrettably, jury members could probably be recognised and would very likely have been subjected to intimidation (e.g. smashed windows, slashed tyres) by pro-toppling activists had they opted to convict.
  10. The prosecution didn’t seem to try very hard. They didn’t call on an expert witness to counter Olusoga and when I attempted to offer assistance, supplying a link to my History Reclaimed article, “The future will be grateful for thy eternal goodness,” which specifically addresses Colston, my email was ignored.
  11. A frequently repeated canard—or is it laziness?—repeated by the “liberal” press is that the anti-topplers are invariably Tory reactionaries. A YouGov poll did show more Labour voters agreed than disagreed with the acquittal of the Colston Four, but 53% were in the “disagree” or “don’t know” categories. Disagreement with the verdict was overwhelming among Tories and decisive among Liberal Democrats. I’m hoping against hope that one or two prominent and brave Labour and LD figures could stick their heads above the parapet and express their concerns about the verdict too. A great start would be the distinguished former Director of Public Prosecutions, one Sir Keir Starmer. Pigs can fly!
  12. A talking point. Aren’t there significant parallels between the acquittal of the Colston Four and that of Kyle Rittenhouse, involved in the Kenosha unrest shooting? Whatever we may think of the verdicts, the associated gloating coming from the left (Colston Four) and the right (Rittenhouse) is pretty sickening.

And a bonus on a more positive note: a dear friend, who happens to be a lifelong Labour Party supporter, wrote me this a couple of hours ago: “I agree with you about the futility and sadness of destroying the emblems of bygone years. There are numerous generals and dukes whose monuments seem unjustified today, but that isn’t their point. I wish we were as energetic in dealing with modern slavery as statues of men associated with oppression hundreds of years ago.” I couldn’t put it better.

Mark Stocker is an art historian whose recent book is When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971.

Featured image: John Cassidy, Edward Colston, 1895. Formerly The Centre, Bristol.

Guilty Pleasures: Gene Pitney, Scott Walker And Cliff Richard

Me And Pop

No, the articles by Mark Stocker that will dominate 2022 and surely represent the highlight of the Postil Magazine to its more discerning readership, are not about the author and the generally benign relationship he enjoyed with his much loved, late father.

Pop was a square about Pop—his idea of a great number one hit was the theme from The Third Man—I ask you—and his comprehension of heavy metal was minimal. That said, Oliver Stocker could be quite shrewd. Watching Mick Jagger on our Bush black and white television, a masterpiece of c. 1960 cabinetry, he pronounced: “That young man is interesting looking and has real presence. I predict a big future for him.”

I was a little disconcerted, for what right had someone of the older generation to comment in any shape or form upon “my” Mick? Such was my admiration for him that when I read in Fabulous magazine that he disliked tomatoes, I too boycotted them for a couple of weeks.

All this testifies to the place that music of the popular idiom had in my formative years. I am indeed “Talking about my generation” to quote Pete Townsend. I entered my picture of his group (as they were then called) The Who in the 9-12 year old section in the 1966 Window magazine art competition for children of civil servants at the Department of Social Security (where Oliver Stocker worked in the Legal Office) and attained second prize: a proud line in my CV. I think some messily painted family dog beat me to it, but I feel remarkably little bitterness. More to the point, pop music exuded from my every breath and pore….

As I pen these columns, memories are brought back and I feel the corresponding need to share them with my devoted readers. The undertaking is both profoundly intellectual (this can be easily inferred through my multiple literary and historical allusions), and unashamedly emotional. Indeed, I think of Carpenter (Karen, not Edward, you clot) when she reminisces:

When I was young
I'd listen to the radio
Waitin’ for my favourite songs
When they played I’d sing along
It made me smile.
Those were such happy times
And not so long ago
How I wondered where they’d gone
But they’re back again
Just like a long lost friend
All the songs I loved so well.
Every Sha-la-la-la
Every Wo-o-wo-o
Still shines
Every shing-a-ling-a-ling
That they’re startin’ to sing’s
So fine.

Pure poetry, and beautifully enunciated singing. Reader, I will take you on a journey through “Every Sha-la-la-la/ Every Wo-o-wo-o” in these columns in the months ahead, and I thank you in anticipation for joining me. I prefer to keep the contents a closely-guarded secret, and the editor agrees, but I promise to explore a diversity of genres (I’m very PC, you see). Sometimes an arresting theme transcending them, such as “Pop and politics” and “Pop art,” will be my focus.

Throughout, I must acknowledge with warm thanks the patient and sagacious comments and corrections of Emeritus Associate Professor Robert G. H. Burns, a bass-guitarist’s bass guitarist and author of Experiencing Progressive Rock: A Listener’s Companion (2018). Impressed? I am, for starters. Well, without further ado, let us commence.

In this inaugural article, I consider three solo male singers who came to the fore in the 1960s, all of whom had an impact on me. Read on, and—aided by Youtube—appreciate how and why, and see if you feel similarly…

Let’s start with Gene Pitney, who was in the British Top Ten when I became instantly hooked on pop aged nearly eight. My moment of epiphany dates from the first ever episode of Top of the Pops, January 1964, presented by the egregious Jimmy Saville. I remained a TOTP addict up to its 500th edition (1973) but David Cassidy’s nauseating “Daydreamer/ The Puppy Song” was the limit, and I never watched a single episode thereafter. Gene’s current hit marked his British breakthrough, the splendid Bacharach-penned “24 Hours from Tulsa”:

It wasn’t so much a song as a short story. Gene was one day away from the arms of his girlfriend when he met this smashing babe, you see, and this is his confessional. What impressed me was the perfect consonance between the tone and timbre of his unusual tenor voice and his guilt-ridden state. A lot of Gene Pitney is pretty emotional stuff, dim critics would say faux melodramatic, on the verge of operatic, with a tenor that sometime barked with angst.

The tragedies of love central to the Pitney iconography were belied by what was evidently a happy, if sadly shortened, life: his wholesome looks, his invariably gentlemanly nature shown to what must have been many limited and irritating fans, his unaffected Anglophilia and his regular family life (marrying his high school sweetheart after briefly dallying with Marianne Faithfull, a fortunate escape). What clinched it for me, though, was the teenage Gene (and I hope beyond) as a keen coin and fossil collector. A punk rocker would doubtless deem Pitney a fossil, but that’s rude.

Once when I saw Henry Moore being interviewed on TV, I was initially irritated by, then suddenly grasped, why he appeared to be fidgeting all the time: he’d much rather be in the studio, modelling material than being browbeaten by some art historian. With Gene you get a comparable impression: he’d much rather be singing than doing anything else. Exploring his repertoire on YouTube shows something far wider than anything I had expected: put the phone book in front of him and Gene would happily sing it. My favourite songs are often the very early ones: a teen Gene (well, barely out of them) was perfectly cast with Dimitri Tiomkin’s eerie “Town without pity”:

He’s almost as impressive with the upbeat Jagger/Richards “That girl belongs to yesterday.” He’s typically moody in the anthemic “I’m gonna be strong,” which certainly made big girls cry. He sings a shampoo commercial in “She lets her hair down.” With “24 Sycamore,” he glories in unglamorous British semi-detached mock Tudor suburbia. But he’s utterly captivating—and if I may say so, totally Stocker-like—when, relatively late in life, he turned to singing John Betjeman’s poem, “Myfanwy at Oxford”:

Pink may, double may, dead laburnum
Shedding an Anglo-Jackson Shade,
Shall we ever, my staunch Myfanwy,
Bicycle down to North Parade?
Kant on the handle-bars, Marx in the saddlebag,
Light my touch on your shoulder-blade.

This is 24 light years from Tulsa but it’s the same irrepressible Pitney. After she’d written her superb double biography of John and Myfanwy Piper, I drew Frances Spalding’s attention to this recording and her response was “I just don’t believe this!”

Scott Walker: an act of sheer class, and he damn well knew it. Calling his first four albums Scott 1, Scott 2, etc. shows that he had no false modesty. He had a musical depth and refinement that I recognise the more amiable Gene lacked, and, not surprisingly, enjoyed a more respectful critical press.

Scott Walter, ca. 1968.

Pseuds particularly admire the experimental Scott Walker of the last 20-30 years of his career; but these impenetrable records sold pathetically and their titles say it all: “Track Three” (akin to the modernist “Untitled”) and “Bish bosch”—give me a break! But much earlier he had the nous, and indeed the talent, to forsake the heart-throb status of his first incarnation as lead singer of the Walker Brothers, who were in their heyday between 1965 and 1967. What I loved about their hits was not just their melodies, impeccable delivery and powerful orchestration, but their emotional generosity. The first verse of “Love her” reads thus:

Love her
and tell her each day
that girl needs to know
tell her so, tell her everything I couldn't say
Like she's warm, and she's sweet and she’s fine,
Oh love her like I should have done.

From beginning to end (the Ronettes’ cover, “Walking in the Rain”), the Walker Brothers were something special. But Scott was bursting to break free, to go up-market. It was a golden time, before the cult of the singer-songwriter which did untold damage to pop and rock (can you imagine Enrico Caruso or Kiri Te Kanawa as composers?) and when an artist was given free rein to choose their own material and not kowtow to mega-capitalist labels and ghastly managerial suits. Scott’s selection of songs has impeccable taste and deftly straddles genres. With the big ballad “Angelica,” he makes a fascinating comparison with Pitney:

Scott’s version is richer and more classically perfect but Gene wins the contest emotionally. Yet Scott made a dear friend (now sadly dead) cry when I sent her “Best of both worlds.” He can do a great Jacques Brel in “Jackie,” and a comparably impressive Tim Hardin in “Black Sheep Boy” and “The Lady Came from Baltimore”:

Yes, a bit soundalike those two, but gorgeously melodic and they don’t outstay their two-minute welcome. With “The Big Hurt,” Scott veers towards soul, but you’d never find him being danced to on the talced floor of the Wigan Casino.

“Scott 4,” alas, flopped and this setback set him on a new path of becoming ever more relentlessly experimental. It was brave but—unlike Philip Guston in painting—ultimately regrettable. Battling with his later material, I felt like screaming, “Oh Scott! Have you changed your name to Scotthausen?”

Cliff Richard, the “Peter Pan” of British pop, who never really made it in the US, is hard to write about. I champion him partly because he has long been the object of vicious, sneering, sniping criticism by critics and journalists with intellectual pretensions. I ask them this: isn’t his Christ-centred life (not one I’d choose, but…) a saner, better role model than that followed by his tragic near contemporaries Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, as well as by improbable survivors like his dissolute near namesake Keith Richards?

Yes, there’s a lot of light-weight froth in Cliff’s vast repertoire and—good god—he has suffered for this (“Goodbye Sam, Hello Samantha” is an especially toe-curling example). At the same time, there’s also a fair bit that’s good, occasionally damn good. Cliff is so old, he long predates this recent pensioner, and I have to delve back to my pre-Top of the Pops infancy for some of his best songs: it’s hard to get past “Living Doll,” written in 10 minutes by Lionel Bart:

Then there’s the irrepressibly catchy “The Young Ones,” “Summer Holiday” and “Bachelor Boy.” A measure of Cliff’s appeal was when I was in a supermarket fairly recently and their canned music system was playing his early, and still spiritedly rocking, “Please don’t tease.” A little boy was shopping nearby and asked “Mum, what’s that song called?”

“Congratulations,” cheated by an unholy fascist alliance of Spain and Portugal out of winning the 1968 Eurovision Contest by a song that repeats “La-la-la-la” no less than 138 times, remains the YouTube number I send to friends who attain high places or have grandchildren. They seem to approve. You need stronger nerves to cope with Cliff’s remarkable 1999 “Millennium Prayer,” which infuriated his snobbish atheistic critics by setting the Lord’s Prayer to the song of “Auld Lang Syne”:

It was cheeky, it was naff, but you have to hand the concept to its composer, and it is nothing if not a conviction performance by Cliff. He enjoyed the last laugh over the knockers, as the great British public promptly sent it to Number One, the fourteenth in his phenomenal career.

And then, rather too rarely, Cliff records songs that are to my untutored ear, lovely standards. I’m a soft touch for his European composed ballads—the wistful and tender “Constantly” and the melodic “All my love”:

“When in Rome” is a remarkably good and as ever, critically underrated album of the mid-1960s. He goes reggae in a sentimental but effective cover of Harry Belafonte’s “Scarlet Ribbons” (avoid the tacky video, however), and is impressively Country in “Wind me up” and “The minute you’re gone,” recorded in Nashville. Cliff won the reluctant admiration of some of his sharpest critics with his so-called “Renaissance” phase (the early to mid-1970s hadn’t been particularly kind to him), with “Devil Woman,” “We Don’t Talk Anymore” and, particularly, “Carrie”:

Written by B.A. Robertson, a very different kind of artist, “Carrie” was justly admired by AllMusic pundit Dave Thompson as “an enthrallingly atmospheric number. One of the most electrifying of all Cliff Richard’s recordings.” Cliff is no social commentator, but this came closest to nailing the increasing anomie and alienation of British society in the early Thatcher era. He is trying to track down the young woman of the title, but is told:

Cliff Richard, ca. 1975.
Carrie doesn’t live here anymore
Carrie used to room on the second floor
Sorry that she left no forwarding address
That was known to me.

So, Carrie doesn’t live here anymore
You could always ask at the corner store
Carrie had a date with her own kind of fate
It's plain to see.

Another missing person
One of many we assume
The young wear their freedom
Like cheap perfume.

This is an unhappy real-life situation, really rather banal and almost certainly one of underlying tragedy, but the whole point is we can at once hear it and identify with it. Cliff’s quest culminates in a helpless, inarticulate, despairing “Carrie!” I love the muffled sound effects of the unhelpful information line. Don’t bother listening to Cliff Richard if you seek anything profound, but do so if you want a singer who—perhaps despite yourself and your Guardian-reading proclivities—can and indeed should sometimes move you.

Mark Stocker is an art historian whose recent book is When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971.

Featured image: a portrait of Gene Pitney by James Wilkinson, ca. 1980s.

Mulled Wine À La Broadbridge—A Christmas Delight!

Mrs. B.: “Would you like a punch, Vicar, ’tis the season?”

Vicar of Aldenham and Radlett: “Well, I don’t mind if I do, Mrs Broadbridge!”

So, quick as a flash, I gave him a playful and fairly gentle punch on the rib-cage. He was quite rattled.

Scrooge and Bob Cratchit enjoying mulled wine, by John Leech.

“Only joking, Padre!” I reassured him. “Look what I’ve just been cooking up!”

“Oh, I say, Mrs Broadbridge, the devil’s brew! I’d be most partial to some, just a drop or two, mind. I don’t wish to be had up for failing my breath-test.”

“Don’t let those interfering socialists bother you, especially at Christmas, Vicar! We can toast Margaret and Dennis Thatcher!”


  • 2-3 bottles of red Hirondelle wine
  • ½ -¾ cup of Leslie’s Drambuie or Glayva
  • ½ – ¾ cup brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon cloves
  • 1-2 oranges, sliced, or even 1 orange and 1 lemon


  1. In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine all ingredients and bring to the boil. Stir occasionally.
  2. Once boiling, reduce heat to simmer and cook for a further 5-7 minutes.
  3. Pass it through a strainer into the Broadbridge punch bowl.
  4. Garnish with a further slice of orange and, if you are really being fancy, a cinnamon stick. Les quite likes canned tangerines rather than an orange in the mixture but to me this removes all the subtle tanginess from it.

Serve hot, and enjoy with cheese footballs or Marmite ™ twiglets. Serves 4.

Vicar: “In the name of the Father, Son and not forgetting the Holy Spirit, I give you my thanks and blessing – may I call you Lilian?”

Mrs B: “Ooh, vicar, you’ve made this little girl blush!”

Vicar: “I feel a jolly Christmas Carol coming on. ‘When shepherds washed their socks by night… 🎵’”

The Two Cravats: A Broadbridge Christmas Anecdote

I thought I’d give Leslie a pair of silk cravats, one polka dot and the other paisley, for Christmas. They give a man a certain je ne sais choir [sic], a sophistication, and a cravat looks very good worn with a suede-fronted cardigan. Just the ticket, too, at Porters Park clubhouse at the 19th hole.

Once when we were holidaying in Sussex, I even saw an old chap in a cravat picking blackberries! So, I went to Austin Reed in Watford, and enjoyed a pleasant half-hour choosing and discussing the niceties of cravats with my favourite assistant there, Roger, a real lady’s man but with an intelligent eye for other men and their needs too.

Man wearing a cravat.

So, the great day came and Leslie seemed quite chuffed: ‘A nice variation on the theme of the two ties, Lilian, and very smart they are too’. Every other Boxing Day we book a buffet table, usually with Violet and that smoothie of a husband of hers, Lionel, at the Red Lion (in alternate years they take us to the Griffon in Godalming, a somewhat chi-chi place but they do an excellent Dover sole there).

Well, Leslie was all ready to go and what do I see but him with the paisley cravat round his neck and beaming, perhaps just a little full of himself.

“So,” I said, “You didn’t like the other…”

But then I noticed he had folded the polka dot one into his Burton jacket top pocket.

“Les, you didn’t go to Watford Grammar or manage a branch of Barclay’s for nothing! Our Liam would call you a cool dud, or whatever the slang is.”

And I gave Les a real smacker of a kiss, which I had to immediately wipe off, having carefully applied my Max Factor not ten minutes earlier. But I’m a spontaneous woman and, I hope, a warm-hearted one!

Editor: That’s it, Dr. Stocker, you are now retired as the Postil Magazine’s gag-writer!

Dr. Stocker: Hey! That’s a grave blow, I’m taking this real hard.

Editor: Man up! In 2022 you will be our regular pop music correspondent. And I fully expect our dear lady friend, Mrs. Broadbridge, to make the odd appearance in these columns.

Dr. Stocker: Okay, bro… whatever!

The featured image shows, “The Spirit of Christmas in Regent Street,” by William Heath Robinson; painted in 1928.

Verse And Worse: A Response To Philip Larkin

They tuck you up, your Mum and Dad
So you sleep sweet the whole night through
Their values really are quite trad
They only want the best for you!

And they were much loved in their turn
By grandparents in duffel coats
Who, though they seemed a little stern,
Were kindly souls, this poet notes.

Man hands on happiness to man
And with it comes both health and wealth
Make the most of life – you can!
And you’ll have happy kids yourself!

The featured image shows, “Mother Tucking Children into Bed,” by Norman Rockwell; painted in 1921.

Wit Collection Exclusive: In Bed With Dr. Stocker

While the venerated Postil Magazine rigorously upholds family values (Editor: ‘I should hope so, my girlfriend watches my every move!’) and while predominantly conformist sexualities prevail among its readership (thanks be to God), this episode of the ever popular “Wit Collection” is unprecedently edgy, courageous and even risqué. I urge readers to enjoy exploring with me potentially delicate themes of fancy, desire and longing without ever descending into the graphic or the remotely vulgar. Lest you tremble, I will seek some kind of intellectual imprimatur by pointing to a proud British tradition of faintly smutty innuendo, while at the same time maintaining a façade of the utmost propriety and decency. The most famous seaside postcard, after all, is one that I cannot for a moment rival, and comes courtesy of the artist/gag-writer Donald McGill:

A bookish man and an embarrassed pretty woman are sitting under a tree.
Bookish man: “Do you like Kipling?”
Blushing girl: “I don’t know, you naughty boy, I’ve never kippled!”
“Kippled? Was ist dass?” asked my puzzled friend Zbig, who earnestly and nobly desires to become more English but still has some way to go.

Some hints for fellow learners: the Bloomsbury Group were a pretty dirty lot. As far as I know, no scholar has attempted to constructed a diagram to indicate who bedded whom, where, when, why or how. This would surely defeat the finest Cambridge minds. Lytton Strachey was one of its naughtiest members, but E.M. Forster was the worst of the bunch when he famously declared “Only connect.” Here, I will confine myself to the marriage of Clive Bell and Vanessa Stephen, and the aesthetic precepts of their much-admired Roger Fry and Bernard Berenson. Oh, and Gwen John was one of a number of the lecherous, ageing Rodin’s girlfriends. Kiki Smith is a famous contemporary sculptor. Barnett Newman described the meaningful verticals in his impenetrable abstract paintings as zips. How much more need I explain to you plebs?

One final thing to add. There are more jokes which our somewhat prim and spoilsport editor has felt fit to censor. These can be provided on receipt of a postal order to the value of £6 (mailing address provided upon request).

Edwin Landseer, The Monarch of the Glen, 1851.

What did Clive say to Vanessa when they exchanged their wedding kiss?’ “Tu es très Bell!”
And the morning after, to his best friend, who asked him whether he knew what to do: “Roger, Roger of course! I knew I was right about her Significant Form… not to mention Berenson’s tactile values.”


The military tribunal in 1915 is assessing a problematic recruit. “So, Mr Strachey, what would you do if a German solder were attempting to violate your sister?”
“Ha, I’d come between them!”


What did Picasso say to the otherly-abled hitch-hiker with three eyes, no arms and one leg? “Aye, aye, aye, you look like my kind of girl, ’armless enough. Hop in!”


Back in the 1970s, a notorious Cambridge college imposed a strict R18 admissions policy: Emanuelle.


I’ve set up a dating agency for unsexy chemists which, of course, is called “Love Chemistry.” Unfortunately, we attracted lots of geeks in anoraks who, of course, love chemistry. They had to be explained that our prime aim is covalent bonding.


As a practising photographer myself (did you say pornographer? see me afterwards!) I felt it appropriate to create a still-life homage to the iconic Robert Mapplethorpe, Banana and Sliced Pawpaw.


What did Dr Stocker, art critic of The Sun, say of an abject, sexualised, edgy exhibition by a well-known American sculptress? “Very Kinky Smith!”


Barnett Newman had just spent a shattering day working in the studio. His girlfriend (looking very demure) therefore demanded: “Barney, please unzip!”


Guido Reni had just painted a remarkably camp looking Jesus. The title was obvious: Ecce Homo.


What did Rodin’s mistresses call him? The Monarch of the Gwen.


What was Quentin Crisp’s favourite Noel Coward song? The Stately Homos of England.


The raunchy Pop Artist Allen Jones has just been convicted for an act of gross indecency. Noting previous good conduct, however, the Magistrate informed him: “Mr Jones, I think this calls for a suspender sentence.”


What is Giovanna Arnolfini coyly saying to her husband in Van Eyck’s famous portrait? “You turn me on, Vladimir!”


The title of a new exhibition of highly select etchings, containing suspect erotic content, is “Top of the Rops.”


What did the feminists write on the door to The Turkish Bath? NO INGRESS.


Captions for Ingres’s Turkish Bath: Waiting for Hugh Hefner. Or possibly… Women for Trump HQ.


What was Angelica Kauffmann’s advertising slogan? Put the Madam into Adam!


What is the bumper sticker of gay-friendly Flemish art historians? I likes Van Dycks.


What did a witty Mannerist art critic observe of Parmigianino’s latest masterpiece? “He gives a whole new meaning to neckrophilia.”

Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1535-40


Sub-title of my fine new book on American Architecture from Green & Green to the Chrysler Building: Organic to Orgasmic.


My friend Moshe reacted fiercely to Barry Manilow coming out: “Oy vey! Next thing he’ll be telling us he’s Jewish!”


My mate Ron has just come out. “I’m a pansexual, Mark,” he told me. “Me too,” I replied, “Those Le Creuset ones, wow, they’re really hot!”


Real Estate Ad: Shabby Mackintosh for sale. Suit Art Nouveau pervert.

A bonny cathair for a “Scotsman wi’ wee shanks an’ a verra long back,” by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (Glasgow Museums).

An evil-looking man in a long raincoat goes into the newsagents and asks the young shop girl: “Have you a copy of The Spectator?” The blushing girl replies: “Oh no, Sir! We don’t stock that sort of thing!”


Binary soul star Marvin Gaye is a real he-man (despite the name). His latest hit is “It takes 10, baby!”


My portly non-binary friend Don(na) urges me to opt for pretzels as “Trans fat chips are fat trans unfriendly!”

Dr. Mark Stocker is the resident humorist for the Postil Magazine. Overdoses of his jokes can damage your health. Please indulge with caution.

The featured image shows, “The Arnolfini Portrait,” by Jan van Eyck; painted 1434.

Guilty Pleasures: Reggae

I know that my childhood and youth would have been a lot less pleasant had I been deprived of reggae. My love of it is admittedly superficial but strong – the insanely compelling reggae beat, the equally compelling melodies and – something all too rare in rock and even in mainstream pop – a frequently wacky sense of humour that is charming and disarming. A sheltered youth, I never went to a proper reggae concert, the sole exception being the King’s College, Cambridge downmarket version of a May Ball, where the star act was the stellar Desmond Dekker. He played most of the big hits pretty damn well. Who can forget the a capella opening of “The Israelite:”

Get up in the morning slaving for bread, sir
So that every mouth can be fed…

Not much humour there, I admit. But Desmond could also produce something maddeningly catchy in “Sing a little song:”

When your heart is filled with sorrow
Sing a little song, sing a little song
When you’re worried and feel heavy-laden
Sing a little song, sing a little song.

What good advice. It’s like a secular variant on Cardinal Basil Hume saying – and I paraphrase – “If someone or something has angered you, don’t answer back. Instead, bite your tongue and just say, ‘Thanks be to God!’” I’m not much of a religious believer, but that really moved me. Of course, reggae itself can be religious, and why not? The lovely voice of John Holt is made for non-Rastafarian Christ-centred (or maybe Baby Jesus-centred) songs of praise. Once I found myself in a crowded bus in Samoa, wedged into a tiny seat by a generously proportioned Samoan lady, couldn’t reach my water bottle and thus in some discomfort, but was enchanted by the blaring sound system playing a succession of reggae Christmas carols – in August!

Who are my reggae favourites? Relatively conventional chart-orientated acts I suppose, which is hardly surprising for someone whose main idea of intellectual television when growing up was “Top of the Pops.” I’ve never been a huge fan of Bob Marley, though I immensely like his “One love,” and sometimes style myself, – never having quite reached the summit of academe – as “Robert Marley Professor of Rastafarian Studies, University of Oxford.” It would probably not go down particularly well in these woke days. In a pre-woke culture, white artists could happily record reggae and apart from a few far left white spoilsports, there were smiles all around. Sometimes the results could be woeful – the British singer Paul Nicholas was one such example with his fairly big hit “Reggae like it used to be.” But even here the following lyrics delighted me:

I had a reggae-pneumonia, I went to my doctor
He said “I got just what you need
Three times a day, a little reggae like it used to be”
We got reggae, we got reggae, we got reggae…

Yes, reggae is a fabulous cure for pneumonia and other ailments. While many people go for “I shot the sheriff” by Eric Clapton as the all-time white reggae classic, I beg to differ. For me it’s Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer mak’er.” The title itself a dreadful pun. It’s been said that people who dislike much of Led Zepp nonetheless adore this song, and I’m no exception. It takes courage to record a great cover version of it, but Sheryl Crow did so with panache. And, of course, a lot of reggae itself is by definition reggaefied covers of standard classics: few, I think, are more beautiful than Ken Boothe’s version of the David Gates/ Bread “Everything I own,” and the great British public thought so too in 1974, sending it to a deserved number 1.

The ageless Cliff Richard, a favourite of our friend Mrs Broadbridge, cut a reggae beat version of the Harry Belafonte classic “Scarlet Ribbons,” and excellent it is too. A very obscure white tribute to reggae came from the outstanding Johnny Arthey, conductor and composer, revered in his time by everyone in the British music business but very little known to the masses. Through his string arrangements, added to Jamaican recordings, he helped reggae artists such as The Pioneers trying to force a breakthrough on the British market.

Surely the best “wacky” reggae performer is Pluto Shervington, who notched up a number of hits while failing to attain the stardom that he richly deserved. One of his biggest hits, “Dat,” is about the tragic predicament of a Rastafarian trying to sell pork (without naming it aloud), contrary to his faith so that he can afford some ganja. In another song, the same fellow also fell prey to indigestion and worse following a curry derived from an illicitly obtained ram goat:

Well I pop two belch and I make a sigh
I tek a walk go outta street
But while I waitin down di road, fi bum a ride
I feel a gripe and I start feel very weak…

There’s a deeply conservative moral in this, of course.

Then there are reggae songs which, on first hearing, you knew would be huge and deserved hits. One such was the late Johnny Nash’s “I can see clearly now,” a song of wonderful optimism and a mite profounder than “Sing a little song.” So far I have been a reggae sexist (well, it can be quite a macho culture), so a tribute to reggae’s “Queens” is in order.

One is relatively obscure – Cynthia Richards who has a lovely voice and whose version of Cilla Black’s “Conversations” is great but lacked the expensive orchestration (hardly Cynthia’s fault) that money could have bought. Sadly, she never got the break via Johnny Arthey or anyone else to make it big outside Jamaica.

Someone who made it bigger was Susan Cadogan, whose raunchy and delectable “Hurt so good” (I will spare readers the lyrics) was a big hit in Britain in 1975. I was delighted to note that in later life Ms Cadogan became a respected university librarian, and I impudently suggested to a few not-so-young women in that profession that it was never too late to do a Susan Cadogan in reverse. This was received with watery smiles. And of course there’s Marcia Griffiths, one half of Bob and Marcia, of “Young, gifted and black” fame.

Ah, Wordsworthian happy, aspirational days, so unlike today… but I write as somebody who is ageing, talentless and white. I need cheering up. I know what, I think I’ll play myself some reggae on my tape-deck…

Dr. Mark Stocker is the resident classical and late Baroque music critic for the Postil Magazine.

More Guilty Pleasures: Northern Soul

Flash back to the mid-1970s. Was Britain’s intellectual nerve centre the Cambridge of Stephen Hawking and his black holes? No! Or Margaret Thatcher boning up on her Chicago economics? Warmer but no. Dear reader, ’twas the dancefloors of Northern and Midlands England where it was all happening: the rule of Northern Soul (hence the name). Its epicentre was the Wigan Casino – which was not a casino, while the Twisted Wheel in nearby Manchester was another Northern Soul mecca, as was the Torch Club at Tunstall, one of Arnold Bennett’s Five Towns and where I would now hang out at the Wedgwood Museum.

On those legendary soul “all-nighters,” talc was shaken on the floor to facilitate the glissando of the extraordinary dancers, an integral part of the Northern Soul aesthetic experience that complemented its aural delights and which anticipated the better-known break-dancing of a later era. And lest I put the cart before the horse, the music matched the dancers.

So, where did the music come from? Lonely Northern soul connoisseurs who could afford the airfares would go on quests to grungy US record stores and perhaps car boot sales to snap up rare vinyl, songs then going for a song but now often worth serious money, by the likes of Garrett Saunders and Susan Rafey.

Who? If you ask that, you haven’t lived… Well, to continue my story, the aforementioned connoisseurs would bring back their precious cargo and it would be played till it snapped, crackled and popped, to the delight of the Casino or Twisted Wheel regulars. They danced till the stars came home – or perhaps till the arrival of HM’s constabulary, no doubt in search of minute quantities of cannabis, not in itself particularly conducive to dance-floor aestheticism or athleticism.

I consider these Northern Soul connoisseurs the equivalents, nay, the superiors, of, say, Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino, hunting down their priceless classical texts 500 years earlier. And their patrons weren’t poncy Renaissance princelings in tights like Lorenzo the Magnificent, but the white working-class heroes and heroines who took to the talced floor and, as I say, danced away the heartaches of their humdrum lives. This cultural appropriation of obscure vinyl was surely akin to Palladianism, that distinctively English take on a great Northern Italian architect, but whereas Palladianism is posh (like Lorenzo), and formed part of one’s liberal education, Northern Soul is triumphantly proletarian and regrettably did not.

I was a gormless, liberally-educated posh boy when it was in its pomp; I had barely heard of Wigan Casino and nearly 50 years on I bitterly rue one of life’s missed cultural opportunities. But an “all-nighter” would have finished me off – I would have wanted my cocoa by midnight, or 1 a.m. most definitely. And it would have been a logistical nightmare: getting to Wigan from Cambridge would have probably taken over 6 hours, involved numerous changes of train and bus, and left me with little change from £20, which sustained me for almost a week in those days. I would have had to ask a suspicious mater and pater for more, when I should have been writing my next essay. Stocker the swotter. Shucks!

Old American records that matched the genre but had flopped commercially ten years earlier, their singers long retired and now probably cleaning houses like Darlene Love at her lowest ebb, suddenly became gold dust. As for the bemused artists – well, I certainly hope they were chuffed. To be a Northern Soul star, it positively helped to be a miffed miss and a slipped disk and not, pray, a chart hit. Northern Soul eschewed the mainstream: it studiously avoided the cloyingly commercial, such as “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand” by Diana Ross. As the author Anthony Burgess memorably replied, “I’d rather not.”

Diana just didn’t get it when she dissed Northern Soul as not being very good in the first place. It was uneven, sure, but it had an emotional generosity that transcended any shortcomings in musicianship. And sometimes its production values, perforce very economical, can make the outcome all the more moving. Give me the kitchen utensil percussion of Susan Rafey’s “The Big Hurt” any day in preference to a slickly professional Motown production of c. 1970.

Yet there were some Northern Soul chart hits, and I love many of them. Probably the best known is (the white Jewish) Len Barry’s gorgeous “1-2-3.” I still feel a thrill when I hear the recitative – and philosophy – of Len to the accompaniment merely of drums:

Baby, there’s nothin’ hard about love
Basic’ly, it’s as easy as pie
The hard part is livin’ without love
Without your love, baby, I would die!

A more minor hit-maker was Donnie Elbert; his version of the Four Tops’ “I can’t help myself” is exhilarating, his desperate tenor matching the emotional tenor – he sure cannot help himself, o sugar pie, honey bunch!

Then there was the slightly bigger R. Dean Taylor, a white Canadian(!) artist, whose “Gotta see Jane” is – like a lot of the genre – disturbingly obsessive, even menacing, and sounds as it’s been sung through a megaphone as Taylor relentlessly motors through wind and rain, destination wrongly forsaken lady love. The same singer’s hit “There’s a ghost in my house” with its stop-start rhythm would make the vast dance floor cast of Northern Soulsters go collectively bonkers.

But, I repeat, most Northern Soul worth its salt was “top of the flops” territory, as in the delectable girl group The Poppies’ “There’s a pain in my heart” (a nice juxtaposition with “There’s a ghost in my house”) which sadly failed to match the stunning chart success of its predecessor, “He’s ready” (Billboard #106).

A pain in my heart. Yes, even an up-tempo number like this reveals the emotional scarring and tragedy that is the sine qua non of so much Northern Soul, love’s agonies, not its ecstasies. It wouldn’t surprise me if the big-voiced Garrett Saunders blew his brains out after singing “In a day or two,” by which time shallow friends try and reassure him he will have recovered from disappointment in love.

Women singers could pile on the agony superbly: I think of Lorraine Ellison’s powerfully imploring “Stay with me, baby,” an anaemic cover version of which was cut by the normally admirable Walker Brothers. Then there’s the tragic Linda Jones, who died of diabetes aged 27 after failing to take her insulin. Her big hit (#74) “For Your Precious Love” scales alpine emotional heights and is justly esteemed by anyone with aspirations to Northern soulfulness.
Yet Northern soul can be happy, silly and sometimes today profoundly politically incorrect. Take “Girls, girls, girls,” when Chuck Jackson philosophises with a series of rhetorical questions, after confiding, speaking not singing, “Let me ask you something, fellas…”

What’s warm when the fire glows with glitter?
What’s sweet when all else seems so bitter?
What’s cold when your dreams start to wither?
And gives strength when you feel like a quitter?
Look to your heart when the trouble starts!
It’s girls this thing that I’m describing
Girls that make a man keep striving
Many shapes and sizes
Man’s greatest prize
Is girls! (girls) Girls! (girls)

Tell me, how many red-blooded fellows would not concur with Chuck’s sentiments? (Sorry, girls, I mean women…). Another, rather less loaded but joyous and celebratory Northern Soul classic is Robert Knight’s “The Power of Love,” which cheekily borrows its melody from Tchaikovsky’s “Marche Slave.” The Toys’ “Lover’s Concerto” – a bit too prettily successful for my liking – flagrantly borrows in turn from Bach’s Minuet in G major, which I was playing for my Grade II piano at the very time the girl-group were high in the charts.
But it’s the Toys’ less successful follow-up “Attack” that is far more Northern Soulful. Its changes of key and still more its lyrics, are unforgettable. I’ll treat you to the first couple of verses, and the plot thickens:

Once I walked beside you, so in love were we then
It had always been that way since we were children
Then one day she saw you, lied and flirted for you
Helplessly I watched her take your love away.
While she’s not with you she cheats and she enjoys to
How can I sit by and cry while she destroys you?
Though you may not want me, my heart keeps repeating
Onward, onward, time to stop retreating
Attack! Attack!

Awesome stuff, Northern Soul as emotional revenge. I wish Frankie Valli had recorded a cover with his famed falsetto.

Indeed, the genre is more than music, more than dance, more than a provincial British working-class cultural movement and, if you dare condemn it for colonialist appropriation, I can but pity you.

In its heyday and in its ageing aficionados’ hearts, it was something fundamental, a way of life, a faith. Lest we forget, its celebrated logo – itself a cheeky appropriation of the Black Power clenched fist – exhorts us to “Keep the faith.” Well, I’m a believer!

Dr. Mark Stocker is the resident Greek and Renaissance dance critic for the Postil Magazine.

Down With Australia!

Dear reader – it’s just possible that you missed out on reading (or if you have nerves of steel watching) Candace Owens’s recent modest proposal to invade Australia. A good account of it can be found here.

That arch neo-conservative, Dr. Stocker, was deeply moved by Ms Owens’s utterances and accordingly felt impelled to lend her his warm support. He rattled his sabre (actually his Solingen kitchen knife) as he penned the following stirring message…

Power to Candace, whose nuanced intellect and lifelong knowledge of international relations I salute. Across the pond we heartily loathe the Australians whose attitude to NZ has a track record of being consistently arrogant and patronising. They even bowl under-arm in cricket – it’s not cricket!

God, how I hate them. Personally, I have been turned down for jobs in Australia three times, the first when I was insulted at my interview, the second when the museum director capriciously changed his mind and decided to appoint no-one to the job and the third when I had approximately five times the number of publications of the successful, in-house candidate.

As if that weren’t enough, the conspicuous recent lack of interest among Australian numismatists in my book, When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971, has been deeply hurtful. Our onetime prime minister, Rob Muldoon, famously said of Australia: we welcome the emigration of New Zealanders there; each departing Kiwi doubles our nation’s average IQ rating, and in turn doubles Australia’s – win, win!

Dame Edna Everage, considering Candace Owens’s invasion of Australia plan.

To augment the US forces sent to liberate Australia, I would advocate top level deployment of NZ’s armed services. You don’t trifle with them, particularly our brave Māori fighters who made Rommel himself tremble in World War Two! The recent “AUKUS” military alliance signed by Australia, the UK and the US, is a mere bagatelle, a feint to disguise Candace’s ulterior plan, and can be torn up as easily as Herr Hitler shredded the gormless Neville Chamberlain’s “Peace in Our Time” scrap of paper, biting the carpet for good measure. So, go Candace, the US and NZ! And may our Aussie foes crumple and crumble, just as they do so unerringly on the footy field!

NOTE: Dr. Stocker’s statement has been vigorously endorsed by his good friend and fellow Postil Magazine contributor Dr. Zbigniew Janowski who comments: “It’s currently compulsory to vote in Australia – can you believe this egalitarian madness? Their franchise must henceforth be restricted to graduates of Oxford and Cambridge Universities with MA degrees or higher. Invasion will surely facilitate this!”

Dr. Mark Stocker is a leading New Zealand political commentator and president of the Candace Owens Appreciation Society.

The chart from Nicholas Vallard’s manuscript sea atlas (1547), showing Jave La Grande’s west coast (the first map of Australia).