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If the past is another country and they do things differently there (O Level study of ‘The Go Between’, sorry) which aspects get changed in translation?
Between the re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo, the serving out of the sausages and the filling of the charity bucket in the firework display at the small north Dartmoor village we find ourselves in at the moment, they played music. We got used to cultural dislocation via bizarre musical combinations while we were in Gulu. Cliff Richards’ ‘Congratulations’ was played at every opportunity, more Westlife songs than is necessary (any more than none obviously), ‘’Islands in the Stream’ whenever possible along with the usual Celine Dion, local pop music and Acholi traditional songs.
But what surprised me in wet Devon as blond children rushed around with glow sticks and we stood around in the mud, was a Country and Western version of Patti Smith’s version of Springsteen’s song: ‘Because the Night’. Patti Smith’s raw singing made it an iconic song in Leeds in the early punk days. The only night club in town then (imagine that) had the single (imagine that too), we would demand it endlessly, would leap onto the dance floor as it rapidly cleared; that style of music was loathed by everyone else. And here it was thirty nine years later, a milky version that nonetheless accurately copied Patti Smith’s vocal styling, passing entirely without notice as the mix segued into some other anodyne American something or other, Celine Dion probably.
Elvis Costello is reading his autobiography on Radio Four at the moment, heard him describing his ecstatic reaction to The Clash’s ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’ yesterday morning and he played the song too, all before ten ‘o’ clock in the morning.
And now Siouxsie Sue is on the radio talking about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, eh? What has happened while we were away?
And yesterday I went to the London premiere of a film (The Revenge of the Mekons) about the band I used to be in way back when. Another form of the group is still going (a Country and Western version). The film is mostly about the newer group and certainly had a bigger audience than we ever did way back etc; curiouser and curiouser.
You couldn’t get further from the febrile urban atmosphere of the late seventies than the sodden fields and moors around us now, it has stopped raining since our arrival but only briefly.
The past we have been approaching here is very distant, stone circles, clapper bridges,
worked out mines and tiny lanes made for people on foot or pack horses.
Have we made any decisions about where to live and what to live in? A project? Living in a caravan while we struggle with ancient building techniques?
As Grace Slick sings ‘go ask Alice’ on the radio I’m reminded of the very different role of the past in Gulu. We worked and lived amongst astonishingly optimistic people, very few old buildings, a non-literary culture, no real evidence of the deep past and no wish to remember horrific and violent recent times.
On Dartmoor, as the rain sheets by, the past or rather a curious translation of the past, is threaded through everything we see, think and do. How that past will govern our next choices still seems to be placed in the future.
‘Hold Back the Night’ was another important song, this time by Graham Parker and the Rumour came out in 1977. The drummer, fact fans, is now drummer with the current Mekons.