Between The Wars by Billy Bragg


I’ve written before about organising Summer Holidays to The Bernese Oberland in Switzerland with up to 80 children. They were very enjoyable. I’ve also written before about sitting beside the outdoor swimming pool in the hotel listening to Brian Wilson. The swimming pool features again today.

The first time that we went to the Hotel Schonbuhl in Wilderswil, the staff supervision was maybe not quite as professional as we should have been. Apart from every member of staff leaving the hotel on the first evening to partake of the local brew, within a few hours of arriving, several children in our group had been thrown, fully clothed, into the pool. The owner of the hotel, Herr Raber, was furious and gave everyone, teachers and children, a severe telling off. Going into the pool with clothes on was unhygienic and he would have to drain and refill the pool which meant that there could be no more swimming for a couple of days.

When we went again in 1987, Herr Raber’s son, Urs, was running the hotel. He was much more laid back but we knew the rules and we told the children that under no circumstances should anyone go into the pool fully clothed. The staff on the trip included Stuart and Desmond (not their real names) who were younger colleagues of mine that I got on with very well. I really liked them and have seen them recently even though they live 80 miles away on the other side of London. They had not been to this hotel before but we had a chat beforehand about everything and they knew the “rule” about the swimming pool. On the last night, probably encouraged by a few beers and the cheering of the children, they thought it would be a jolly jape to chuck me in the swimming pool with my clothes on. I resisted, strongly and became increasingly angry. After about 10 minutes they gave up. A few minutes later we went to bed. The next morning we got on the coach to come home and I didn’t speak to anyone for 24 hours because I was still angry.

Looking back, 33 years later, I can see why I was angry. I hope that these days I wouldn’t sulk for quite as long but I’m not actually sure what I should have done or what I would do differently now. There were a number of issues. Probably the least important of these is that I can’t swim but the pool wasn’t that deep so I may well have survived. I suppose a more important concern was that we had been asked by the owners of the hotel not to do this and as a matter of principle we should do what was expected of us and not “break the rules”. To be honest, the thing that got me really angry and one that I’m not especially proud of was the potential loss to my dignity in front of a large group of children for whom I was ultimately responsible. Again, I think I felt that as a matter of principle, teachers should not be humiliated in front of students. I would hope that now I would take the joke and acquiesce with a good sense of humour. However, I feel that some personality flaw within myself would still prevent me being so mature.

Casuistry is “the application of general ethical principles to particular cases of conscience or conduct.” Malcolm Gladwell in his podcast “Revisionist History” describes how casuistry can be used to solve a moral dilemma about performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in baseball players. In 2008 Andy Pettitte admitted that he had used PEDs to heal an injury he had suffered. Malcolm Gladwell compared Andy Pettitte to Tommy John who underwent a surgical procedure called “ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction”, nicknamed “Tommy John surgery”, in 1974 after damaging the ligament in his throwing arm. John was the first pitcher to receive the operation, and he returned to being an effective pitcher. It has since become a common procedure among baseball pitchers. The surgery didn’t make Tommy John a better pitcher; it simply restored him to the state he was in before the injury. Malcolm Gladwell also compared Andy Pettitte to Barry Bonds who also took PEDs which transformed his body in such a way that he went from needing a size 42 jersey to a size 50 jersey. Barry Bonds’ career ended in controversy over the issue of PEDs. Malcolm Gladwell claimed that whereas we are probably fine with restorative interventions (Andy Pettitte and Tommy John) we are not fine with transformative interventions (Barry Bonds). On a continuum of what is deemed cheating and what is not, Tommy John is considered not to be cheating, Barry Bonds is considered to be cheating and Andy Pettitte is somewhere in the middle. Towards the end, Malcolm Gladwell says “our problem with Bonds isn’t one of principle. Bonds isn’t wrong because he used PEDs and using PEDs is always wrong. The issue is how he used PEDs.” To criticise Andy Pettitte simply because he used PEDs s misguided. It’s not the use of PEDs we disapprove of. It’s using PEDs to gain an unfair advantage that we disapprove of. To unthinkingly apply a principle (“use of PEDs s wrong”) doesn’t always lead to the best outcome.

Malcolm Gladwell concludes “there is a way to make sense of difficult problems without retreating into the trenches of principle.” He adds that “if all principles do is divide us, why do we bother talking about them at all.” To live your life by principles is cowardly and weak. “If you do not immerse yourself in the specifics of someone’s life and circumstances all you can offer is indignation and outrage.”

Well, this was a shock to me. Living my life by principles is something I’ve always considered to be a good thing, a worthy thing. The counter suggestion is that a strong person considers each event individually “without retreating into the trenches of principle”. but it has always seemed to me that you need to ask people which side are they are on? Do people want equality for all or wealth for a few? That seems a pretty easy question to answer – in principle, everyone is equal. Consider the current situation with “lockdown”. Should every person be treated equally? Should all people have equal access to PPE? Or should NHS workers have priority? It seems clear to me that NHS workers should have priority. So that means I don’t think every person should be treated equally. Should everyone have the right not to go to work in order to protect themselves or should supermarket workers be encouraged to go to work to accumulate profit for Tesco shareholders? As it happens, thriving supermarkets are currently feeding the nation. It’s the particular case that needs examining. To simply abide by the principle of choosing a “side” could mean putting NHS workers at (even more) risk and the population starving.

I know, I know. Anyone reading this wants to argue with me and will be able to see flaws in my argument but the general principle that it is lazy and cowardly to hide your decision making behind principles is one we should all consider. In my opinion. Which side are you on?

Billy Bragg released a wonderful EP in 1985. It was called “Between The Wars” because that is the name of the most powerful song here. It describes the contribution made by miners, dockers, railway workers, craftsmen etc in “times of austerity”. That’s the 1980s not the 2010s. Billy Bragg has stated that this song describes the time between World Wars II and III (not I and II). He advocates voting “not for the iron fist but for the helping hand”. Of course, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister in the 1980s and her nickname was “The Iron Lady”. The song ends in the most heartfelt way when he sings “Sweet moderation/Heart of this nation/Desert us not/We are between the wars.” Billy Bragg performed this live on Top Of The Pops surrounded by a balloon waving audience. It’s wonderful.

EPs are a long overlooked way of releasing music. I used to have 6 Beatles EPs, the best of which was “Long Tall Sally” which contained 4 songs not on any Beatles singles or LPs. Notice that on the cover of this EP, which contains 4 brilliant songs, it states “Pay no more than £1.25”.

“World Turned Upside Down” was written by Leon Rosselson. It is the story of the Digger Commune of 1649. My favourite lines are “This earth divided, we will make whole so it will be a common treasury for all. The sin of property we do disdain. No man has any right to buy and sell the earth for private gain.” Excellent. Which side are you on? What principles are you applying here?

“It Says Here” is about the power wielded by the newspapers. “Do you ever wish that you were better informed? And it says, here that we can only stop the rot with a large dose of law and order and a touch of the short sharp shock. If this does not reflect your view you should understand that those who own the papers also own this land and they’d rather you believe in Coronation Street capers. In the war of circulation, it sells newspapers. Could it be an infringement of the freedom of the press to print pictures of women in states of undress? When you wake up to the fact that your paper is Tory. Just remember: There are two sides to every story.”

Brilliant. Or is it? Which side are you on?

This brings us back to the song “Which Side Are You On”. It was originally written by Florence Reece in 1931 about the Harlan County War strike by the United Mine Workers of America. Billy Bragg re-wrote the lyrics in 1985. Here are some of the lyrics: “It’s hard to explain to a crying child why her Daddy can’t go back. So the family suffer but it hurts me more to hear a scab say, “Sod you, Jack”” This is a good song. I agree with the sentiments completely. Clearly, in principle, scabs were misguided, terrible, selfish people.

Or were they? Were they all? I’m not saying one way or the other but I think the casuistic method would require me to consider particular cases and not dismiss every single scab as “bad”. What do you think? Which side are you on? Do you have any principles?

Clearly these arguments require several pints of Harvey’s and a good prolonged argument with an open mind. In the absence of the opportunity to do this with you all, any time I come down on one side or the other “on principle”, I am going to attempt to reflect on what I truly believe and not hide behind principles.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

5 thoughts on “Between The Wars by Billy Bragg

  1. Good, thought-provoking post, thanks. I completely agree that being guided wholly by long-held principles is a lazy approach because it can be used as an excuse for disregarding context and the specifics of a situation. Like a lot of (left-leaning) people I have a lot of trouble with the concept of patriotism and it’s become a sort of principle for me to assume that proclaiming patriotic pride is synonymous with being on the right. However, by advocating “progressive patriotism” (the idea that you can love and celebrate your country without being a flag-waving bigot) Billy Bragg has made me reassess my point of view. He’s a true voice of reason in troubled and confusing times.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I listened to the Gladwell piece as well and enjoyed it. I wondered if he was replacing one principle – ‘All PEDs are bad’ – with another – ‘PEDs all right for restoration but not for transformation’. More nuanced perhaps, but still a principle?? Maybe the important thing is the mindset from which you start your approach to such issues.

    Liked by 1 person

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