Monday, August 10, 2009

GLAD DAYS: Tom Paine & William Blake, The Dirty Strangers & John Sinclair


'Glad Day' or 'The Dance of Albion' by William Blake (c.1794)

Two beautiful glad days, with a large moon in the sky. Things are afoot.

Thursday night, torrential rains. I'm in the bar when friends arrive and tell me they're just off to the Lewes Little Theatre to see 'In Lambeth' by Jack Shepherd, there's tickets left, would I like to come. No question.

132 Some background. Jack Shepherd has always been one of my favourite British actors. He has produced a huge volume of work in his long career and is a man of great integrity and character. His play 'In Lambeth' is of special interest. I first saw it on the BBC years ago (happily this version is now available on YouTube).


'In Lambeth' is based around a meeting between Tom Paine and William Blake. The scene is Blake's back garden and the play begins with he and his wife sitting up an apple tree in the nude. Tom Paine turns up for supper (by arrangement or unexpectedly, I'm not sure).

The play, written and directed by Jack, who also plays PaineTom Paine in this production (the BBC film starred Bob Peck) is based on the story of a 'real' meeting between Paine and Blake when, legend has it, Blake warned Paine not to go back to his lodging and to escape to France before he was arrested. Paine takes Blake's advice and just escapes from Dover ahead of the clutches of the secret police of those days.

 200px-William_Blake_by_Thomas_Phillips Whether this incident happened is questionable. Blake and Paine certainly travelled in some of the same circles. Modern biographers of Paine and Blake ( and Peter Ackroyd respectively pay it little mind).

The first major biography of Paine was  the 2-volume 1892 edition of 'The Life of Thomas Paine' by Moncure Conway, he records that Paine gave a speech to the 'Friends of Liberty' of "inflammatory eloquence". The following night, at the house of friend called Johnson, a number of sympathisers to his cause were present, including the 'mystical William Blake.' Conway then quotes Gilchrist's account:

"On Paine's rising to leave, Blake laid his hand on the orator's shoulder, saying, 'You must not go home, or you are a dead man,' and hurried him off on his way to France, whither he was now in any case bound to take his seat as a legislator. By the time P:aine was at Dover, the officers were in his house... and, some twenty miniutes after the Custom House officials at Dover had turned over his slender baggage, narrowly escaped from the English Tories. These were hanging days! Blake on the occasion showed greater sagacity than Paine, whom, indeed, Fuseli affirmed to be more ignorant of the common affairs of life than himself even. spite of unworldliness and visionary faculty, Blake never wanted for prudence and sagacity in ordinary matters.'

This goes to heart of the great interest of the play. Here are two men living in revolutionary times - the birth of a New World. Paine  believes in political and social action, changing the world through practical efforts, repealing bad laws, extending the social franchise. Blake is more concerned with changjng the individual from within. Both speak with great eloquence and the dialogue and interchange between them is fascinating, moving and very contemporary.

This production was first- rate. Luke Shaw was brilliant as Blake and Lisa Bealby as his wife Catherine was equally excellent. Shepherd as Paine was expertly done. We were captivated and held by their wonderful performances.

It was a night of torrential rain. In the interval I was out having a fag in my hoodie (how sad is that, in the rain!) when a big guy with a leather jacket came out for a smoke. This was Vinnie. We fell into conversation. He said things in this country have got to change. He's been reading Marx and was studying Rousseau and related thinkers. He spoke in a heavy Scots accent and was full of righteous anger about the state of our country.That night I was full of thoughts.

The Friday night - a most beautiful evening, balmy weather, beautiful skies darkening to stars and bright moon.Dirty Strangers565

I'm putting on a gig: The Dirty Strangers (fantastic band) and the legendary beat poet, writer, activist John Sinclair, former manager of the MC5 and founder of the White Panther Party.

In person, John is immediately delightful. A man at peace with himself, open and courteous and with an enthusiasm that is contagious. Laughing at being considered a legend. He says "I am a Bodhitsattva". He has no fixed home, has being taken in by two young people in Amsterdam, financially dirty strangers 005supported by well-wishers. He has an internet radio show and does live appearances. At these he improvises free verse/raps/blues songs and delivers them with spirit and gusto - as we discovered. His book, 'It's All Good', available from Head Press, is an excellent collection of well-written essays on various aspects of his busy and eventful life. He also gave me his CD of 'Detroit Life' by John Sinclair and His Motor City Blues Scholars. He tells me he is writing poems to every single Thelonious Monk track. Some of these are on the album.

dirty strangers 036 Alan Clayton of the Dirty Strangers is a  powerhouse, a man of banter, with a Fred Perry and a porkpie hat. His songs are warm and joyous rock 'n 'roll tunes that make you smile and want to dance. The band as a whole are superb. George Butler on drums,  John Proctor on bass and Scottie Mulvey on keyboards just have a real natural groove with Alan as a full-on frontman pumping it up with a big smile on his face.  Their set with John Sinclair, in which they set up some great blues rhythms while John improvised his beat poems was a stonker. They'd never played together before, had 10 minutes soundcheck time, yet it all melded beautifully and received huge rounds of applause. Catch them if you can at the 100 Club in Oxford Street on August 19th.

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