The Hall of Einar Sunday Review #11

Hello and welcome to my Sunday Review. Every week I read great wildlife and nature books, see engrossing websites and hear wonderful new music – this is my chance to bring you all the best I’ve experienced – every Sunday.

The Bristol Slaver – Show of Hands

The Bristol Slaver is a song by one of my favourite bands, Show of Hands. It was originally released in 1997 and was inspired by songwriter Steve Knightley watching a BBC documentary on Bristol docks which failed to mention the word ‘slavery’ once. The city of Bristol’s wealth was built on slavery. Recent events with the #BlackLivesMatter protests have brought that realisation to a wider British audience.

People all around the world know our history better than British people do. We tend to learn about being invaded in 1066 or the Dissolution of the Monasteries, or the Battle of Britain, but learn about British involvement in colonialism or genocide? Not so much.

I’ve blogged about Bristol’s struggle with its past and the names and symbols it celebrates:

Given the international #BlackLivesMatter protests at continued inequality, the band have revisited the song and given it a fresh treatment with a new ending and a great video:

Show of Hands are an English acoustic roots/folk duo formed in 1986 by singer-songwriter Steve Knightley (guitars, mandolin, mandocello, cuatro) and composer and multi-instrumentalist Phil Beer (vocals, guitars, violin, viola, mandolin, mandocello). On stage and on record they are a trio with double-bassist and vocalist Miranda Sykes.

Here’s what the band has to say:

On 3rd July, some 23 years after the original song appeared on their 1997 album ‘Dark Fields’, Show of Hands unveil a stunning new production of the Knightley-penned track ‘Bristol Slaver’. The track has been updated in recognition of the recent Black Lives Matter protests where the statue of prominent Bristol slave trader Edward Colston was toppled and thrown into the harbour.

Knightley, who has a degree in Politics and History says: “I wrote the song after watching a BBC ‘Special’ from Bristol Docks that somehow managed to avoid the word ‘slavery’ throughout”.

The three way trade operated from the late 16th to the early 19th century carrying slaves, cash crops and manufactured goods between Europe, West Africa and the Caribbean and American colonies. The succinct lyrics of the song tell the story of a Bristol slave trader “To my house in Clifton/I bring capital from pain/Trinkets to Africa Slaves to Jamaica/Rum and tobacco back again and again”.

The song also references the post war Windrush generation. Invited to Britain from the Caribbean colonies many settled in the St Paul’s area of Bristol in the late Forties and Fifties.

The song highlights an often overlooked shadow in the history of the city. Topical and pertinent, moving and menacing, the brooding production is accompanied by this powerful new video, created by leading graphic design studio Stylorouge.

The track is produced by Rolling Stones keyboard player and long-term Show of Hands collaborator Matt Clifford.

Show of Hands manage to write songs about subjects that other bands wouldn’t. From mining in Cornwall, to sheep rustling, to rural unemployment, their songs touch forgotten people. You can explore their extensive back catalogue here.

I think it’s a triumph. What about you? It’s a shame we have to rely on artists and musicians to bring the impacts of colonialism to our attention.

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

Surfacing is a collection of essays. Before reading I had expected them to be in a similar form, written in the same person, of the same length, about similar or linked subjects, or at least one or two of these. I expected a recognisable theme. Instead, they are distinct, appearing almost random in length and style and time. It’s a collection of objects just like the cover. What links them is metaphor. It’s a collection fitting of a poet.

Surfacing - Kathleen Jamie - The Hall of Einar
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Surfacing was recommended to me by a reader of this blog. He suggested the book as it features the Links of Noltland archaeological dig on Westray. A good guide to whether you should trust someone’s opinion is whether, when they talk about something you know, they still seem authoritative. I’ve heard many compelling voices on radio and tv who have seemed believable until they begin to speak about a subject I know well. Then their pretence is shown in a harsh light. Kathleen Jamie’s first large essay, about the Yup’ik people in Nunalleq in Alaska seems eminently believable. It’s engagingly written and beautifully described, with just enough contemplation of the meaning of it all to lift it to being a work of philosophy rather than journalism.

It’s when the essay on Westray in Orkney begins and the action shifts to the Neolithic that I begin to relax and trust her. She describes places I know and people I’ve met with unerring accuracy. I worry about her guessing people’s ages; surely someone reading themselves being described as in their late 60s is capable of being offended? Kathleen Jamie’s world is full of natural signs, meaningful dreams and internal conversations. It’s beautifully written, with a precision of language and an attention to detail which singles her out as a confident and capable voice.

What’s missing from the writing is some occasional humour, which is replaced by a delicious wryness or pathos. I found the male characters sometimes absent though physically present. We can picture them exactly from their lavish physical descriptions and that is all. I find the women utterly believable and yet the men seem like empty husks. Men are portrayed as tall and and active while women have deep thoughts and rich emotional lives.

Both ‘In Quinhagak’ and ‘Links of Noltland’ are triumphs and I highly recommend reading them. The third longer essay ‘The Wind Horse’ is reconstructed from notes of a trip to China, near Tibet, half a lifetime ago and disappointed me. I couldn’t see any reason to be reading it. It’s documenting a real life which would be so much more interesting if it was fiction, because every character would have a purpose in advancing the plot and some development through their experiences. Instead it’s episodic and, despite the beautiful prose, seems pointless.

Kathleen Jamie is clearly a philosopher, sharply observant and unerringly thoughtful. Her use of figurative language is what you would expect of a poet. Surfacing is an intriguing and thought-provoking collection. Highly recommended.

That’s it for this week. I’ll be back with more reviews of things you might adore next Sunday.
In the meantime, I wish you a great week. Keep safe, everyone.

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