Down the Che Guevara Highway

I am reading Billy Bragg‘s The Progressive Patriot: A Search for Belonging. Not as good a writer as a songwriter, the book is nevertheless reasonably interesting. It fits into the faddish genre of biography-lite, I guess: everybody who is anybody telling their story in straightforward, often uninteresting prose. By this I mean that swathes of the prose is flat and boring, with nothing to lift it except that Billy Bragg wrote it.

It starts off with a history (ancient and modern) of Essex, specifically Barking, the town from which Bragg hails. It has some interesting archaeological bits, bits on local politics and so on. But the book becomes more interesting as story – and, I guess, for fans of Bragg as musician – when he tells the story of his early experiences of music. In chapter 4, Bragg relates a story of a schooltrip to Holland when he has just entered his teens. On his way back, the bus now parked on the ferry, another schoolbus pulls onto the ferry. It is full of young teenage girls. The boys and girls communicate by writing notes on napkins and holding these to the windows. The boys try and hide their excitement. Then the ferry arrives in England, the two buses go their respective ways.

Young Billy suddenly feels an enchantment shattered, as well as an inability to express this loss. Then, on the radio:

I am just a poor boy, though my story’s seldom told…

And so starts Billy Bragg’s enchantment with Simon and Garfunkel, and popular music in general.

At some point he gets a reel-to-reel tape recorder for his birthday, and soon he is lugging around the 7kg piece of equipment by bus to tape music from friends’ older siblings’ record collections, and so on.

Call me a sentimental old fool, but I am enjoying Bragg recapturing some universal moments in pre-digital nostalgia, when copying music was more than downloading ones and zeroes via uTorrent; when the ‘below the line distribution push’ of music depended upon a small network of friends who were devoted enough to spend hours (real-time) recording music for friends. I just can’t imagine someone, thirty years hence, writing such poignant pieces about how they lugged their mega-gigabyte flashdisk around, or how quickly they were able to download whatever mash-up via uTorrent.

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