Beautiful harmonies from Rufous Nightjar

Listening to Rufous Nightjar and our Hobbledehoy ears hear echoes of The Fleetwoods and the Roche sisters – which is a splendid thing indeed! Rufous Nightjar is a three-part harmony trio consisting of Branwen Kavanagh, Anna Mieke and Zoe Basha. This lovely video is a product of the uber-talented Myles O’Reilly

How Ready Steady Go! soundtracked a revolution

Ready Steady Go!, the pioneering 60s pop show, takes to the stage as part of the Meltdown festival. RSG! producer Vicki Wickham tells Phil Hogan about the impact – and the fun – of its early years

by Phil Hogan

Like the Beatles’ first LP and sexual intercourse, you might guess the pioneering pop show Ready Steady Go! was a product of 1963, the year the 1960s started swinging at last.

With its youthful spontaneity, cool graphics and gleefully shambolic presentation (and you only had to watch the BBC’s Reithian Juke Box Jury with your parents to see what it wasn’t), RSG! trailed the white smoke of the coming revolution. Its chirpy slogan, “The Weekend Starts Here” – a mantra for a hip new generation of teenagers with money in their pockets for clothes and records and going out – could equally have been “Everything Starts Here”.


History has declared Ready Steady Go! a cultural landmark – for its live performances (miming was eventually outlawed on the show) and its championing of emerging talent – though of course no one was thinking about posterity back then. “We really had no idea,” says Vicki Wickham, who at the age of 24 found herself plucked out of a backroom secretarial job to produce the show. (Now running her own production company in New York, Wickham is putting together a Ready Steady Go! event for Ray Davies’s forthcoming Meltdown festival in London.)

“We were all so naive. It was like being given a box of candies and being able to eat them all. Elkan Allan, the executive producer, just said to us, book who you want. So we were booking people our own age, and for all sorts of reasons – Brian Jones, because we loved his hair and thought he was gorgeous. George Best, who we all thought was heavenly – he came on to be interviewed. We could have anyone.”

And they did – the Beatles, the Who, the Stones, the Animals, the Beach Boys, Ike and Tina Turner, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Isley Brothers, “Little” Stevie Wonder, the even littler Marc Bolan, David Bowie (as Davy Jones and the King Bees). Gary Glitter – Paul Raven then – worked as the show’s warm-up man! It’s a long list. In the 178 episodes aired – the show went out live every Friday night for more than three years without a break – it would be easier to say who was missing (Dylan, Aretha and, weirdly, Cliff).

Dusty Springfield – a close friend of Wickham’s – was a permanent fixture. “It was Dusty who introduced me to American black music. She would play me these obscure artists and I fell in love with them. Dave Godin had his store, Soul City, just off Cambridge Circus, so on a Saturday we would go there. We introduced an awful lot of American acts people had never heard of – mostly Motown. The mod crowd loved Motown. So if we put on Wilson Pickett or Ike and Tina Turner, they would respond because it was music they were beginning to hear in the clubs. They knew if they watched the show they’d find out who was new and over here. The mod scene was just starting out as we came along, and when Cathy McGowan joined us we became a mod show. And, of course, Cathy became the face of Ready Steady Go!

McGowan was 19 when she was recruited as an “adviser” after a trawl of hundreds of teenagers for her looks and her interest in “boys and fashion”. She was soon presenting the show, though she became as famous for her lack of polish as her trendsetting Biba styling and pelmet fringe. (The YouTube clip of her asking George Harrison what the Beatles did in their spare time is a case study in what happens when a group of young people say: “Hey, let’s put the show on right here!”) And the nation loved her for it.

Wickham agrees. “You couldn’t do it today. They would fire her after two weeks. But it became endearing – a lot of people watching felt that they could do the job, which they probably could. It wasn’t a bad thing. And in fact none of us had any experience. Where could we have got experience?”

Is it true they once had Marianne Faithfull miming to the wrong song? “Oh, things like would happen all the time. There’d be cues missed, someone coming late out of the dressing room, or the camera would mow down one of the dancers. But that’s the excitement of live TV. We laughed at Solomon Burke, who in his full cape and crown and everything fell off the riser. He was a big man even in those days.”

Wickham does put a good word in for Keith Fordyce, an avuncular old-school figure who as the main presenter in the first series kept chaos to a minimum, even if it meant having a “square” in the camp. “Yes, Keith was much older and he was experienced, and at the time we were all rebelling and saying we’ve got to get rid of him, but in retrospect it was great he was there.”

It wasn’t an obvious idea in 1963 to let a bunch of twentysomethings run a TV show, but the resulting mix of guilelessness and instinct for what audiences wanted did work. “The show reflected what was going on then because we were young. We could decide to have Pete and Dud, or Phil Spector or someone from the art world or the book world. We reflected the times without knowing what the times were.”

Not only that but it was so much fun that artists kept coming back for more. “It was a small world and I guess we were all in it together. It was our scene. We all went out to clubs every night – the Revolution or the Speakeasy. You knew everyone – the pluggers, the managers, the writers and photographers.” The artists too. Many became friends, not least Ray Davies of the Kinks, whose performance of “You Really Got Me” in 1964 made the group overnight stars.

Wickham is now preparing for Davies’s Meltdown, featuring acts who appeared on RSG!, including Eric Burdon, Sandie Shaw, Ronnie Spector and the Manfreds (most of Manfred Mann, whose hit “5-4-3-2-1” was the programme’s theme tune). Does it make her nostalgic for that golden age?

“I’m not nostalgic at all. It won’t be an oldies show by any means – they’re all acts that are working and relevant now and we’ve added new ones and quirky ones. So it will be representative of what the show was.”

It will be a concert rather than an attempt to recreate a studio environment, she says. But the set will be familiar. “Nicholas Ferguson designed all the best sets and graphics and luckily he kept a lot of them. I’m delighted to be doing it. I love a challenge – and I love Ray.”

Continue reading

On Killing Charles Dickens

I did everything I could to avoid writing my historical novel. When I finally started “The Fraud,” one principle was clear: no Dickens.

By Zadie Smith

For the first thirty years of my life, I lived within a one-mile radius of Willesden Green Tube Station. It’s true I went to college—I even moved to East London for a bit—but such interludes were brief. I soon returned to my little corner of North West London. Then suddenly, quite abruptly, I left not just the city but England itself. First for Rome, then Boston, and then my beloved New York, where I stayed ten years. When friends asked why I’d left the country, I’d sometimes answer with a joke: Because I don’t want to write a historical novel. Perhaps it was an in-joke: only other English novelists really understood what I meant by it. And there were other, more obvious reasons. My English father had died. My Jamaican mother was pursuing a romance in Ghana. I myself had married an Irish poet who liked travel and adventure and had left the island of his birth at the age of eighteen. My ties to England seemed to be evaporating. I would not say I was entirely tired of London. No, I was not yet—in Samuel Johnson’s famous formulation—“tired of life.” But I was definitely weary of London’s claustrophobic literary world, or at least the role I had been assigned within it: multicultural (aging) wunderkind. Off I went.

Like many expats, we thought about returning. Lots of factors kept us abroad, not least of which the complication of a child, and the roots she swiftly put down. Still, periodically, we would give in to fits of regret and nostalgia, two writers worrying away at the idea that they had travelled too far from the source of their writings. After all, a writer can be deracinated to death. . . . Sometimes, to make ourselves feel better, we’d make the opposite case. Take Irish writers—we’d say to ourselves—take Beckett and Joyce. See also: Edna O’Brien. See also: Colum and Colm. Didn’t they all write about home while living many miles away from it? Then the doubt would creep back in again. (The Irish always being an exceptional case.) What about French writers? Caribbean writers? African writers? Here the data seemed less conclusive. Throughout all this equivocation, I kept clinging to the one piece of data about which I felt certain: any writer who lives in England for any length of time will sooner or later find herself writing a historical novel, whether she wants to or not. Why is that? Sometimes I think it’s because our nostalgia loop is so small—so tight. There are, for example, people in England right now who can bring themselves to Proustian tears at the memory of the Spice Girls or MiniDiscs or phone boxes—it doesn’t take much—and this must all have an effect on our literary culture. The French tend to take the term nouveau roman literally. Meanwhile, the English seem to me constitutionally mesmerized by the past. Even “Middlemarch” is a historical novel! And though plenty English myself, I retained a prejudice against the form, dating back to student days, when we were inclined to think of historical novels as aesthetically and politically conservative by definition.

If you pick up a novel and find that it could have been written at any time in the past hundred years, well, then, that novel is not quite doing its self-described job, is it? Surely, it’s in the very DNA of the novel to be new? So I have always thought. But, over time, the specious logic of these student arguments has come under some pressure, specifically after I read several striking examples of the genre. “Memoirs of Hadrian,” by Marguerite Yourcenar, is not written in Latin, and “Measuring the World,” by my friend Daniel Kehlmann, is not in old German. Even the language of “Wolf Hall” has very little to do with real Tudor syntax: it is Mantellian through and through. All three bring news. Not all historical fiction cosplays its era, and an exploration of the past need not be a slavish imitation of it. You can come at the past from an interrogative angle, or a sly remove, and some historical fiction will radically transform your perspective not just on the past but on the present. These ideas are of course obvious to long-term fans of historical fiction, but they were new to me. I laid down my ideological objection. Which was lucky—and self-serving—because around 2012 I stumbled upon a story from the nineteenth century that I knew at once had my name all over it. It concerned a court battle of 1873—among the longest in British history—in which Arthur Orton, a butcher from Wapping, claimed to be Sir Roger Tichborne, the long-missing, presumed-drowned heir to the Doughty-Tichborne estate.

Continue reading

Historic strike in Michigan, historic corruption in SCOTUS

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

September 23, 2023

Two major stories today seem to bring together both the past and the future of the country to chart a way forward.

The first involves a historic workers’ strike. A week ago, on Friday, September 15, after workers’ four-year contracts expired, the United Auto Workers union declared a limited and targeted work stoppage in which about 13,000 workers walked off the job at three Midwestern auto plants. For the first time in history, those walkouts included all three major automakers: workers left a General Motors plant in Missouri, a Stellantis (which includes Chrysler) plant in Ohio, and a Ford plant in Michigan. 

Workers accepted major concessions in 2007, when it appeared that auto manufacturers would go under. They agreed to accept a two-tier pay system in which workers hired after 2007 would have lower pay and worse benefits than those hired before 2007. But then the industry recovered, and automakers’ profits skyrocketed: Ford, for example, made more than $10 billion in profits in 2022.

Automakers’ chief executive officers’ pay has soared—GM CEO Mary Barra made almost $29 million in 2022—but workers’ wages and benefits have not. Barra, for example, makes 362 times the median GM employee’s paycheck, while autoworkers’ pay has fallen behind inflation by 19%. 

The new UAW president, Shawn Fain, ran on a promise to demand a rollback of the 2007 concessions in this summer’s contract negotiations. He wants a cap on temporary workers, pay increases of more than 40% to match the salary increases of the CEOs, a 32-hour workweek, cost of living adjustments, and an elimination of the tier system. 

But his position is not just about autoworkers; it is about all U.S. workers. “Our fight is not just for ourselves but for every worker who is being undervalued, for every retiree who’s given their all and feels forgotten, and for every future worker who deserves a fair chance at a prosperous life,” Fain said. “[W]e are all fed up of living in a world that values profits over people. We’re all fed up with seeing the rich get richer while the rest of us continue to just scrape by. We’re all fed up with corporate greed. And together, we’re going to fight to change it.”

Fain has withheld an endorsement for President Biden out of concern that the transition to electric vehicles, which are easier to build than gas-powered vehicles, will hurt union jobs, and out of anger that the administration has offered incentives to non-union plants. That criticism created an opening for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to announce he would visit Detroit next week to show autoworkers that he has “always had their back,” in hopes of winning back the support of Rust Belt states.

But for all his talk of being pro-worker, Trump recently attacked Fain, saying “The autoworkers are being sold down the river by their leadership, and their leadership should endorse Trump.” Autoworkers note that Trump and the justices he put on the Supreme Court have been anti-union, and that he packed the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees labor laws and union elections, with officials who reduced the power of workers to organize. Before he left office, Trump tried to burrow ten anti-labor activists into the Federal Service Impasses Panel, the panel in charge of resolving disputes between unions and federal agencies when they cannot resolve issues in negotiations. 

Fain recently said: “Every fiber of our union is being poured into fighting the billionaire class and an economy that enriches people like Donald Trump at the expense of workers.” 

President Biden prides himself on his pro-union credentials, and as soon as he took office, he fired Trump’s burrowed employees, prompting the head of the union representing 700,000 federal employees to thank Biden for his attempt to “restore basic fairness for federal workers.” He said, “The outgoing panel, appointed by the previous administration and stacked with transparently biased union-busters, was notorious for ignoring the law to gut workplace rights and further an extreme political agenda.”

Today, in the absence of a deal, the UAW expanded the strike to dozens more plants, and in a Facebook live stream, Fain invited “everyone who supports our cause to join us on the picket line from our friends and families all the way up to the president of the United States.” Biden has generally expressed support for the UAW, saying that the automakers should share their record profits with their workers, but Fain rebuffed the president’s offer to send Labor Secretary Julie Su and White House senior advisor Gene Sperling to help with negotiations. 

Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and John Fetterman (D-PA) have both visited Michigan to meet with UAW workers, but it was nonetheless a surprise when the White House announced that the president will travel on Tuesday to Michigan, where he will, as he posted on X, “join the picket line and stand in solidarity with the men and women of UAW as they fight for a fair share of the value they helped create. It’s time for a win-win agreement that keeps American auto manufacturing thriving with well-paid UAW jobs.”

If President Biden is showing his support for the strong unions of the past, Vice President Kamala Harris is in charge of the future. The White House today announced the establishment of a National Office of Gun Violence Prevention, to be overseen by the vice president. 

Lately, Harris has been taking the lead in embracing change and appealing to younger voters. On September 9 she hosted a celebration honoring the 50th anniversary of hip hop, and she is currently in the midst of a tour of college campuses to urge young people to vote. She has been the administration’s leading voice on issues of reproductive rights and equality before the law, issues at the top of concerns of young Americans. Now adding gun safety to that list, she is picking up yet another issue crucially important to young people. 

When 26-year-old Representative Maxwell Frost (D-FL) introduced the president today, he said that he got involved in politics because he “didn’t want to get shot in school.”

If the president and the vice president today seemed to represent the past and the future to carry the country forward, the present was also in the news today, and that story was about corruption and the parties’ different approaches to it.

ProPublica has published yet another piece about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s connections to wealthy donors. Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliott, and Alex Mierjeski reported that Thomas attended at least two donor summits hosted by the Koch family, acting as a fundraising draw for the Koch network, but did not disclose the flights he accepted, which should have been considered gifts, or the hospitality associated with the trips. His appearances were coordinated with the help of Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, who has been behind the court’s rightward swing.

The Koch family network funds a wide range of right-wing political causes. It has had interests in a number of cases before the Supreme Court during Thomas’s term, including an upcoming challenge to the government’s ability to regulate businesses—a principle the Koch enterprises oppose. 

Republicans have been defending Thomas’s behavior since these stories began to surface. 

Also in the corruption file today is Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who, along with his wife, has been indicted by a federal grand jury in New York on three counts of conspiracy to commit bribery, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, and conspiracy to commit extortion in connection with using his influence to advance the interests of Egypt. 

This is Menendez’s second legal go-round: in 2015 he was indicted on unrelated charges of bribery, trading political help for expensive plane flights and luxury vacations. Ten of the twelve members of the jury did not agree with the other two that he was guilty and after the hung jury meant a mistrial, the Department of Justice declined to retry the case. 

That the DOJ has indicted Menendez again on new charges undercuts Republicans’ insistence that the department has been weaponized to operate against them alone. And while Menendez insists he will fight the charges, he has lost his position at the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under the rules of the Democratic Conference, and New Jersey Democratic leaders have already called on him to resign.

“So a Democratic Senator is indicted on serious charges, and no Democrats attacking the Justice Department, no Democrats attacking the prosecutors, no Democrats calling for an investigation of the prosecution, and no Democrats calling to defund the Justice Department,” wrote former Republican representative from Illinois and now anti-Trump activist Joe Walsh. 

“Weird, huh?