By Paul Laird @mildmanneredmax
Who knows who said it but it is true that a patriot is someone who loves their own country and a nationalist is someone who hates everyone else's country. Love is a complicated thing. It requires honesty and a willingness to say things that may cause some hurt but that, ultimately, allow for the sometimes troubled waters of a relationship to be stilled. I'm not sure that one can lay claim to loving someone, or something, if one is unwilling to see all sides of the object of our affection.
I was born in Scotland but I am British.
That is primarily because I am an Anglophile.
I love England.
The problem with a statement like "I love England" is that it can be said by ugly people for ugly reasons, it can be used as a sub-rosa call to the hateful. When those people say they love England what they actually mean is that they hate people of colour. If you are black, brown, Asian...you are not English, you are the other and the "love" that these people declare is, in reality, a proclamation of their hatred of you. This isn't the sort of romanticised, Romantic, vision of England as captured by Powell and Pressburger in "A Matter of Life and Death" where the country is Blake's "Jerusalem"...Albion. This is the fevered rant of bitter, broken, brutish, souls.
In that world England is not so much a garden but is, instead, a front lawn with brown grass, a broken washing machine, dog shit and shattered bottles of beer.
A better England does exist, even if only in memory and hope, and it is one of good manners, inclusion, cricket, fair play, rooting for the underdog, aspiration and eccentricity. Roses in bloom, cucumber sandwiches and Kathy Burke on the television twnety-four hours a day, every day. It is Cool Britannia without the lads or loaded. It is The Smiths and not Morrissey.
That better version of England, that purer vision of England, requires the country to listen to someone who wants it to become that place, who wants to be able to love but who cannot for obvious reasons; a critical voice is required to effect change.
Cornershop are that voice.
"England is a Garden" is the joy of love and the quiet voice of reason in hateful and noisy times. A sonic representation of what the country could be; a beautiful blend of voices, cultures, experiences and hopes all working to create something better, stronger and purer than what surrounds us.
Sixties pop, hip-hop beats, funk, seventies glam rock, rat-a-tat drums duelling with winsome flute, politics and personal, love and anger, pastoral and urban...this is all things to all people. In so many ways this is the perfect pop record...except it may not be a pop record at all, it may be a manifesto of some sort. The righteous anger that saw Jesus chase the money lenders from the Temple with a cry of "In my Fathers house?" is the same anger that caused the 'Shop to attempt to chase Morrissey from his place as darling of the music press in the early nineties; just like Jesus they were prophets, unlike Jesus their is evidence that they exist. That same anger is still here at the heart of this incredible collection of songs.
A key moment arrives with “Everywhere That Wog Army Roam”.
In 1964 the comedian Lenny Bruce found himself convicted in an obscenity trial. That, in a nation with a consitution that guarantees freedom of speech, is quite the achievement. It suggests that Bruce was taking the idea of freedom of speech and seeing exactly how free he could be. Very little was out of bounds for Bruce. He could be vulgar, he could be offensive (whatever that means) he
toyed with attitudes towards sex, religion, politics and, crucially, with race. In one famous "bit" Bruce suggested that certain words had power only because we bestowed that power upon them.
"Well, I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it's the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness."
Think of a derogatory word to describe a minority group and Bruce was arguing that to erase or suppress them was simply to reinforce the negative power of the word. Only be reclaiming the language of the hateful could we ever hope to dilute the power of that language.
It's not for me to say if Bruce was right or wrong. I don't have to worry about someone using such language against me. I can't possibly understand the power of certain words.
There are voices who would argue that they shouldn't use that word.
It's a problematic word.
It may even be offensive...
But what does "wog" mean? Is it comparable with the "n" word? Should it be erased from the English language? Is using it in a pop song simply an act of provocation, a means of puncturing the bubble that surrounds polite society?
"Wog for me is a word that is rather offensive as it's a word that was created by Whites as a noun for some Blacks. Coolie would be another such noun, and as well as class they both denounce race and standing." said Tjinder Sing when I asked him exactly those questions.
"Broken down the word has geographical and historical relevance, and expanding its acronym it becomes Western Oriental Gentleman/woman. Well if Gentleman and Gentlewoman or Gentleperson has anything to do with it, that shows a glimmer of hope in the abbreviation, and we can build on hope. You can’t build too much on a word like Paki, which would have originated from Packer, on the docks. What is evident is that all these words and changes of words have a space in all our galleries, and should maybe be kept there like slave owning statues, to highlight what they meant, where they came from, who they hurt, etc. This is why I don't think Wog should simply be chucked away – or nothing will be learnt from it. There is a school of thought that wants to do away with this past, and move on – I understand that too, but in the few decades I have lived, I have always been close to the orbit of feeling like a Wog more than anything else. So I unpack the word, reclaim the word and turn it into doctors and leave it in a history book for all to see."
What about the recent decision to remove an episode of Fawlty Towers by the BBC? That episode saw the character of the Major use the word but for me it seemed that the purpose of that scene wasn't to condone the use of such language or to argue that racism was funny but was, instead, to highlight the racism in Britain's colonial past and to mock it, to show how out of step it was with the attitudes of the time. Is that too simplistic? Does that simply highlight how unaffected someone like me is by something like that scene?
"This again is all to do with history and the climate from which it came. We need that history to show how things were – to give us co-ordinates on the direction we have come from for right or wrong. Some think that "Mind Your Language" was more offensive, but there was probably an element of class attached to as to why one got more stick than the other. However, I loved "Mind Your Language", it was the first English program I sat with both parents waiting for a turban, a sari, an Indian accent – we could not have been more pleased with these seconds of television. Stereotypes can be unpacked again, and we can look back and say how horrible it was, but to be
pleased by seconds of someones attire, or accent because you associate with it, is sadder in retrospect than the stereotypes themselves. If you were not English, you got what you were given, and the seconds we enjoyed were something to hang hope on. I think "Faulty" Towers is a monument to how things were, and by hiding these things, it wont make those feelings go away." explains Tjinder.
One of the great joys of Cornershop lies in their refusal to dumb it down. They are, of course, melody makers but, crucially, they transcend the normal confines of "rock 'n' roll" by casting their net further than "The White Album" or "The Village Green Preservation Society". Equally important is their willingness to say things...about things. While everyone enjoys a jolly song about a cup of tea or an arms in the air anthem the truth is that the thrills and spills of those sorts of things very often lead to bellyaches. Cornershopp want their audience to think and they believe they are capable of doing so.
The fabulously titled "No Rock: Save In Roll" is a chunk of seventies glam rock presented with love and, mercifully, free from any hipster irony. It possesses that rarest of qualities in contemporary popular culture...authenticity. And heart. It also highlights, and not just in its title, the fact that rock, sans roll, is nothing to celebrate. It's the movement, the shake, the pulse, the quiver of rock and roll that elevates it above the dull thump of rock, Noel-rock or any other sort of rock without roll. It is a reminder of how good Cornershop are and how important they are too.
Cornershop got you covered.
From glorious start (St Marie Under Canon) to the psychedelic delights of “Slingshot”, from the glam stomp of “I’m a Wooden Soldier” to the hippy-hippy shake of “Highly Amplified” the album reveals a truth known by only a few; that Cornershop are the best band in the country right now, operating at the peak of their powers, realising their own new pop vision with such craft, guile and skill that, at times, it takes your breath away.
Album of the year?
I’ll go with album of any year.