The famous old Regent Hotel in Leamington, which opened in 1819 and played host to the young Princess Victoria, had 100 bedrooms and a single bathroom. It is now a Travelodge. Its dining room and public areas, once the centre of fashionable society, are currently boarded up while we await yet another mass catering chain to take over the lease. Twenty years or so ago, however, in its already fading glory, Melvyn Bragg and I serenaded a young lady called Joanna with the first couple of stanzas of Dylan’s great song; his light tenor and northern vowels harmonising rather well, I remember, with my middle-class (classless) baritone.
I’ve been a fan of Melvyn’s ever since. His popular and popularizing programmes on contemporary culture have been a pleasure, always; provocative and insightful, occasionally.
But I’m not sure where he’s going with his latest series, on class and culture. It’s good TV, for sure, racing through footage of brass bands, rock and roll, choirs, ballet and opera as he attempts to explain how working-class, middle-class and upper-class cultures have interacted. It’s autobiographical, too, because implicit in the programmes is the story of the young working-class boy from the north of England who became a rich Hampstead intellectual and now sits in the House of Lords.
In Melvyn’s terms, it all seems fairly simple and seamless. In Melvyn’s life, it probably was and is. But I don’t think he’s really getting to the heart of the matter.
I am not, any more, one of those Marxists who regard culture as part of the ‘superstructure’, a manifestation of the economic ‘base’, as the economic circumstances of man determine his consciousness. I do, however, subscribe to what Raymond Williams termed ‘cultural materialism’. Raymond’s essay “Culture is Ordinary” was a key text for many of us in the ‘60s, because he argued that culture was not separate, as it was being presented to us by our tutors, but “a whole way of life” and thus, by definition, political.
He went further, expanding the definition of culture. Yes, working class culture is choirs and brass bands, and those few proletarian novels which we studied as part of the English tripos. But it is also political organization. It is a march, a strike, an event, a movement. The cultural (and political) significance of the brass bands and the male voice choirs is not so much the music: it is, primarily, the very existence and organization of the band or choir itself.
I doubt whether Raymond would have agreed, and I suspect Melvyn does, but I see this theme also in the counter-culture of the ‘60s, in The Grateful Dead, in - today - the culture of the Internet, and in a whole raft of similar phenomena which I hope my readers will add.
Culture is ordinary. And that is what makes it extraordinary.
Meantime, thanks to Melvyn. Always a pleasure. And, on this occasion, provocative also.
Today’s listening: Dylan’s 1961 Carnegie Chapter Hall show. One of my most treasured possessions is an original flyer for this concert (All seats $2), and this has been recently released. I don’t think it is ‘official’, and it appears to differ not at all from the ‘bootleg’ which I possess. But it’s great nonetheless.