Category: Rambling

From Olympia to the Valleys: What Riot Grrrl Did and Didn’t Do for Me

[This essay first published in the Wales Arts Review, with artwork by the tremendous Dean Lewis.]

 

With riot grrrl now approaching the status of a heritage industry, not to mention Courtney Love’s current incarnation as the post-grunge Norma Desmond, it can be hard to recall that both of them helped me find my feminist footing on the slippery rocks of a ’90s girlhood. This is a roundabout remembrance of how it happened.

I.

  The arts have long been a space for radical expression by women, even if the extent of that radicalism has often gone under-acknowledged. In 1915, the author and journalist Dorothy Richardson produced Pointed Roofs, credited as the first English stream of consciousness novel, using an innovative prose style which she saw as necessary for the expression of female experience. Virginia Woolf observed that Richardson ‘has invented, or, if she has not invented, developed and applied to her own uses, a sentence which we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender’. If Richardson’s challenge to linguistic convention in her writing has musical counterparts, one of them is the ‘new, raw and female’ sound made possible by post-punk. Punk removed barriers of precedent and technical expertise to engagement in music, enabling trips into less-charted musical and lyrical territory. But it was in the subsequent voyage of discovery that was post-punk that punk’s revolutionary potential really bore fruit, and the untried, experimental nature of post-punk music was particularly suited to women.

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The Manics’ Next Step

We cannot get rid of employers and slave-driving in the mining industry, until all other industries have organized for, and progressed towards the same objective. Their rate of progress conditions ours, all we can do is set an example and the pace.

- The Miners’ Next Step (1912)

Nicky Wire in the Quietus reviews (previews?) Rewind The Film.

Of course, having put away excitement and belief and other childish things, I no longer await a new Manic Street Preachers album with the same starry-eyed avidity I once did. (Do you?)

On the title track and its accompanying video, I liked what Lost Communication had to say:

While I don’t doubt that the video portrays places, issues and themes that the Manics hold dear to them (as do I), I fear they have fallen into the trap of adding a romanticism to the ‘noble decline’ of the industrial heartland of Wales. There should be nothing romantic in portraying how working class communities have feebly clung on to life after being chewed up and spat out by a succession of neoliberal governments.

… and I’d add only that the swampland that lies between mawkishness and sentimentality is a thoroughly Welsh place to get stuck. On at least one of the tracks discussed in the Quietus interview, though, ‘30 Year War’, the band seem to succeed in side-stepping the rose-tinted ‘noble decline’ trap:

“It’s not about Thatcher, it’s definitely about Thatcherism, about the establishment across the last 30 years, and it doesn’t matter what government is around, we always love to portray ourselves as this holier than thou country, and yet we have scandal after scandal uncovered, right to the root of power, government, Murdoch, the police, Hillsborough, this stupification of the class I grew up in, which I think all stems from Thatcherism really. The idea that if you break down any power that we had we’re going to be fucked forever…

I find that elitist, ‘We know what’s better’ is so all pervading, from the monarchy to fucking Cameron to Mumford and Sons. We’re just told… what did one of Mumford and Sons say the other day? ‘Either ignore it or celebrate it.’ What a fucking futile attitude. Don’t say anything bad, just ignore it or celebrate it. So what about fascism then? We don’t like it, we’ll just ignore it. It does feel like the last five years has been such a redress of monarchy and establishment and public school through all points of our culture. I feel a bit helpless about it.”

Bang on, of course, as is everyone else who appears to be waking up and wondering what went wrong after the Old Weird Nineties (that Mumfordian ‘ignore or celebrate’ ultimatum is straight outta Cool Britannia, although much of that era was more notable for its ability to do both at once).

I’m glad that bullish bullshit detector of his endures to an extent. It’s encouraging that the disingenuous and damaging nature of both austerity and austerity chic is being increasingly noted, but the lack of analysis and alternatives are still too glaring for this to be any more deeply gratifying. Not that analysis or alternatives have ever been the preserve or the responsibility of rock stars.

Elsewhere.

Three things, then:
1. As a coda to my overthinking-it series of posts on Welsh history, identity, and the Manics, I did an interview with Studio Hiraeth on roughly the same themes; it is here.
2. The Quietus ran a piece from my upcoming rant about representations of class and gender in the 90s, featuring Shampoo and Kenickie. (By the way, if you thought that was tenuous overthinking-it pseudo-academic bollocks, wait till you read my take on S*M*A*S*H.) The band themselves have all been positive about it, which makes me wish I had some means of time-travelling back a decade or so to tell my late-teenage self to cheer the fuck up.
3. Sticking with 90s nostalgia, this Wales Arts Review interview with Simon Price is a good read, if bleak and suspicion-confirming.

Little Empires V: Coming Up For Air

This is the fifth AND LAST in an overlong and overthinking-it series of posts on Wales, history, identity and the Manic Street Preachers, as filtered through the song ‘Ready for Drowning’.

Part One: All Surface No Feeling

Part Two: Fear Death By Water

Part Three: Work is the Curse of the Drinking Classes

Part Four: Everybody Hates a Tourist

Part Five

Jennie Fach from folkcostume.blogspot.co.ukhttp://www.themefancydress.com/welsh-flag-costume-ladies-dress-4180-p.asp From http://media.nowfashion.com/2011-06-28-decode-the-look-nicky-wire-leopard-print-and-chintz-art-3.html

“For a start, the very fact that we were Welsh meant that we had to try 100 times harder than any other group. Even now, in some terrible news magazine, someone’s reviewed the album and the headline is ‘Boyos To Men’. And I’m not saying it’s racist or anything: I just find it incredibly thick. In a way I’m glad I’ve got all that now: it gives me something to rail against, to use as a creative feeder.”

Can you speak any Welsh?

“We were never allowed to learn. And that’s another big bit of resentment in us: it wasn’t on the curriculum for the whole of South Wales. I’d have loved to have been able to speak Welsh.”

- Nicky Wire, 1998

“Damn it all, you can’t have the crown of thorns and the thirty pieces of silver.”

 – Aneurin Bevan, c. 1956

After all this, I mean, I still feel Welsh, and I still call myself it. ‘Welsh’ for me can be a residual, reserve identity, buried or submerged, but still enduring; something to cling to when adrift, rightly or wrongly; something to anchor me. What the identity consists of, though, I’ve never been sure. It’s not a national identity but a local one, and its localness – the ways in which I feel myself to be Welsh -always keeps me conscious of the ways in which I’m not. Rather than ‘yes, that’s it’, it’s easier to say ‘yes, but that’s not all it is’. Wire in that 1997 interview may well proclaim himself ‘into oneness’, but there is no One Wales. Even beyond the country’s linguistic, geographic and political divisions, there exist multiple fractured identities, defining themselves by the local not the national – particularly through being from X, rather than from Cardiff. Growing up, attributes, accents and attitudes were associated with specific areas, towns, areas of towns, sometimes pinned down to exact streets. The Wales of swords and stone circles, drowned lands, dragons and druids, Taliesin and Eisteddfodau exists in romance alongside the reality of GLC’s Newport, Gavin & Stacey’s and Simon Price’s Barry Island, the drug-soaked, politically corrupt underworld of Lloyd Robson’s Cardiff Cut, the Valleys anti-romances of Rachel Trezise, and a multitude of other identities scattered and self-contained but highly secure in their specifics. To brush under the national carpet all of these peculiarities, to smother them in fantasies of ancient racial purity, the flag, the Senedd, or MTV’s predictably execrable The Valleys, does justice to nothing Continue reading

Little Empires IV: Everybody Hates a Tourist

This is the fourth in an overlong and overthinking-it series of posts on Wales, history, identity and the Manic Street Preachers, as filtered through the song ‘Ready for Drowning’. Stay tuned with suitably low expectations.

Part One: All Surface No Feeling

Part Two: Fear Death By Water

Part Three: Work is the Curse of the Drinking Classes

Part Four

To be Welsh is to be conscious

At dusk of the spilled blood

That went into the making of the wild sky…

And an impotent people,

Sick with inbreeding,

Worrying the carcass of an old song.

– ‘Welsh Landscape’, R S Thomas

To be born Welsh is to be born privileged

Not with a silver spoon in your mouth

But music in your blood and poetry in your soul

- from ‘In Passing’, Brian Harris

While living in London I had that second quote on a keyring for several years; if you’re Welsh, you might have done so too – or you might have had it on a mug, a teatowel, an embroidered sampler. The 1967 poem from which it is (mis)taken contains far bleaker Thomas-esque currents (‘ugliness that scars the spirit / as the earth’, ‘rivers of mingled blood and sweat’), but this opening snippet has become both tourist branding, found everywhere it can be sold, and a kind of faux-folk fetish for the Welsh themselves. With its elevation of ‘natural’ cultural creativity over material advantage making a virtue of necessity, it is our Keep Calm and Carry On – a comforter, a pacifier. Continue reading

Little Empires III: Work is the Curse of the Drinking Classes

This is the third in an overlong and overthinking-it series of posts on Wales, history, identity and the Manic Street Preachers, as filtered through the song ‘Ready for Drowning’. Stay tuned with suitably low expectations.

Part One: All Surface No Feeling

Part Two: Fear Death By Water

Part Three

The furies are at home
in the mirror; it is their address.
Even the clearest water,
if deep enough can drown.

Never think to surprise them.
Your face approaching ever
so friendly is the white flag
they ignore. There is no truce

with the furies. A mirror’s temperature
is always at zero. Its camera
is an X-ray. It is a chalice

held out to you in
silent communion, where gaspingly
you partake of a shifting
identity never your own.

– ‘Reflections’, R S Thomas

Most people see me as a rake, womanizer, boozer and purchaser of large baubles. I`m all those things depending on the prism and the light. But mostly I’m a reader.

- ‏Richard Burton

Besides the drowning of Tryweryn, Ready for Drowning also snags the idea of drowning one’s sorrows, referencing the alleged propensity of the Welsh for – what shall we call it? – a steady, a committed, a co-dependent relationship with drink. The association of Wales with a certain kind of romanticised and spectacular inclination to alcoholism – not so much in reality as in legend – still persists. Ready for Drowning compares the flooding of Tryweryn with how, according to Wire: ‘a ceaseless chain of Welsh people seek to adjust to their circumstances by drowning their synapses in alcohol. …‘it’s half Richey, half Welsh identity – about how many of our icons either drink themselves to death or run away’. Continue reading

Little Empires II: Fear Death By Water

This is the second in an overlong and overthinking-it series of posts on Wales, history, identity and the Manic Street Preachers, as filtered through the song ‘Ready for Drowning’. Stay tuned with suitably low expectations.

Part One: All Surface No Feeling

Part Two

In the Bible, God made it rain for 40 days and 40 nights. That’s a pretty good summer for Wales. That’s a hosepipe ban waiting to happen… I was eight before I realised you could take a cagoule off.

- Rhod Gilbert

O where are our fathers, O brothers of mine?

By the graves of their fathers, awaiting a sign…

The slopes of slag and cinder

Are sulking in the rain

And in derelict valleys

 The hope of youth is slain.

- from Gwalia Deserta, Idris Davies (1938)

Idris Davies, the coalfield’s ‘bitter dreamer’, lost a finger in a mining accident and was first radicalised and then disaffected by his participation in the 1926 General Strike. Subsequently unemployed, and having been introduced to the work of Shelley by a fellow miner, he began four years of what he called ‘the long and lonely self-tuition game’. In his poetry, as fanboyed by T S Eliot, he is notably attached to the word ‘derelict’, especially as a description of the south Welsh valleys, desolate and desecrated by industry. (They’ve only grown more apt as a pairing.) Davies has little of R S Thomas’ brutally bleak, at-bay snarling; his jeremiads are, like the landscape and land he describes, just ‘sulking in the rain’, sad and sullenly resigned. Continue reading