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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Monday, January 21, 2008
    Learning to love ourselves
    I spent some time today listening to Chris Wood's 2005 album The Lark Descending. Thoroughly compelling English folk music, the stand-out track for me was One in a Million, Chris's interpretation of a Hugh Lupton story about love thwarted and ultimately fulfilled - in a chip shop. Profound because it's so wonderfully ordinary in its setting, I later discovered it won a BBC Folk Award in 2005: justly.

    During the contributors' pre-gig conversation at The Imagined Village at Liverpool Phil last autumn Chris stood out for me as a musician who has done some very hard thinking about the whole topic of Englishness and the potential which traditional music holds to grapple with the tricky issues involved.

    In an article on his website he identifies the root of the problem in scriptural terms:
    The nub of my argument is that the English establishment and our arts administration in particular have focused long and hard on the ‘Love thy neighbour’ part of the second commandment, creating ever more tortured initiatives in pursuit of political correctness. But the secret of the commandment is contained in ‘as you would love yourself’, and if they are thinking of getting around to that part of the commandment, they haven’t done so yet. If I might make a slight paraphrase of the commandment for the situation as I see it here in England – until we learn to love ourselves, we will not understand what it is to love our neighbour.
    What does learning to love ourselves imply? For Chris, the task is to recover an interest in the work of 'that most prolific of all composers: Anon.'
    ... when we ‘English’ look at the legacy left us by Anon., what do we find? Not icons but jewels. Songs, tunes, dances, ceremony, custom, lore, vocabulary, craft, magic and most crucially, an instinctive understanding of the pedagogical power of narrative. Nothing short of ancestral attempts to unriddle the universe. Offerings so perfect in their conception, so apposite, so full of wisdom, so spot-on, so timeless – so ‘English’ – that no ‘cultural initiative’ comes close.
    The story of England which Anon. tells of course stands in contradistinction against 'official history', which is concerned only with the victors. If we listen then we may hear Anon. describing the effect of the enclosure acts in terms as powerful as all those Scottish and Irish songs of the Clearances; we may embrace stories of radical eccentric geniuses like John Ball (Lollard priest thrown out of the church for suggesting that all men were equal in God's sight) or John Clare (peasant poet and maddened chronicler of England's enclosure).

    Chris brings these stories to the surface on his new album Trespasser, released next month. The John Ball song was written by Sydney Carter, another great writer in the tradition of Anon. It's a strong tradition, that of the outsiders who can teach us so much about how to love ourselves.