Lost Causes

Last night, I found myself in tears, and thinking to myself “despite everything, I still believe in Liberalism, and I still believe that the Lib Dems are the best vehicle for it. I’m going to have to fight harder for the party”.

Which is probably not the response Steve Earle was intending to provoke.

I’ve been having a tiny bit of a crisis regarding the party recently. It’s partly been to do with stuff that’s been in the news — not just the Rennard stuff (about which I agree with Jennie), but also Clegg’s speech about immigrants, which had me spitting blood. (And it was specifically the bits about *immigrants*, not about immigration, that annoyed me. People of good will can disagree about what level of immigration should be allowed, but taking rights and services away from people who are already here is just vile.) I try to be loyal in my public statements, to accept the realities of politics, and not just to be someone sniping from the sidelines, but that really pushed me to my limit.

But mostly because I’ve been fairly unwell myself for quite a while, and had a *LOT* of personal stuff to deal with (enough that when I’ve just listed some of the “highlights” of the last couple of months people have tended to laugh because the sheer number of things going wrong has been hilarious) and I’ve had difficulty keeping to my party commitments. I’m on my local party exec, and I try to do a good job, but there are some very simple things that I haven’t been able to do recently. I hope to be able to pull my weight again very soon.

These things have combined to create a sort of “what the fuck is the point of even bothering?” attitude in me. I’ve been using up more and more energy, but having less and less actual ability to do the things required of me, and all for what seem to be rapidly diminishing returns in terms of result. I’ve been seriously questioning why I bother.

Basically, in short, I’ve been turning into a whiner.

But yesterday I went to see Steve Earle, at the conference centre attached to the Echo Arena in Liverpool. I hadn’t meant to go to the gig, actually, but my friend Emily had a workmate who couldn’t go, and so I got their ticket. I love Earle’s work, but hadn’t seen him live since about 1998 — he always seems to play Manchester when there’s another gig on the same night that I already have a ticket for, or when I’m out of town.

After a support act which reinforced my desperate desire to get out and perform music again — their guitarist played exactly like I do, by which I don’t mean “badly”, but that he had exactly the same phrasing, to a degree that was frankly spooky — Earle came on and launched into You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, and I remember realising that I have never yet seen an American act play Liverpool and *not* play a Beatles song. Blondie even did it in Delamere Forest, because that’s close enough…

For those who don’t know who Earle is (which I discovered when talking about the gig in the days leading up to it is far more people than I would have thought), he’s usually described as a country singer, but like all genre labels that’s something that can describe totally different forms of music. In Earle’s case, it seems to mean “man who has both a guitar and a Texas accent”, and not much more than that — Earle’s music definitely has a resemblance to Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Michael Nesmith, or Townes Van Zandt, but no more so than its resemblance to Richard Thompson, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits (in ballad mode), Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, or Elvis Costello, none of whom normally get called country singers.

Earle did a two-hour set, which touched on most of the highlights of his career — I Ain’t Never Satisfied, My Old Friend The Blues, Devil’s Right Hand,Goodbye, Tom Ames’ Prayer, Copperhead Road, Guitar Town, and Galway Girl (which got a small number of people who had seemed rather disapproving of his swearing and songs about crime, and who had presumably only come because they knew that song from the cider advert, on his side), and the rest. He also talked a lot between songs — about the different types of song he writes (“I write those songs so that I get women in the audience, which stops my audience getting uglier and hairier, because when I look at the men it’s like looking in a mirror” — which made me laugh more than it should, because I’d been joking earlier that Earle’s current glasses/balding head/huge beard look is stealing my style, and because he said this right after Goodbye, my single favourite song of his, so it might not be having quite the effect he hopes), and about his own personal struggles (he’s currently going through his seventh divorce, though to his sixth wife — he married and divorced one of them twice).

The one area of his songwriting he didn’t go into much in the show was his political songwriting. While almost everything Earle does has an at least implicit political message, he left out most of the explicitly political stuff he did in the mid-2000s, songs like John Walker’s Blues or Amerika v6.0 (The Best We Can Do), at least until the encore.

But for the first song of the encore, he played Jerusalem, his song about the Middle East, and talked about the work he’s done there producing collaborations between Jewish and Palestinian musicians and working with anti-war Israeli activists. And he said “I don’t believe in lost causes, because I’m a recovering heroin addict, and for a long time everyone thought I was a lost cause, and I even thought so myself, and I turned my life around”, before talking about how Belfast had changed over the years, and how even the seemingly impossible can soon become normal in politics, and then singing:

I woke up this mornin’ and none of the news was good
And death machines were rumblin’ ‘cross the ground where Jesus stood
And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way
And there was nothin’ anyone could do or say

And I almost listened to him
Yeah, I almost lost my mind
Then I regained my senses again
And looked into my heart to find

That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem

And suddenly I understood how Earle could carry on his own political campaigning, which is mostly against the death penalty in the US, a cause that seems far more hopeless than any of the causes I’ve been involved in. And I thought about my own pathetic moaning that I haven’t yet got everything I want in politics, and that changing the world is quite hard and sometimes you have to do it even when you have a headache or are a bit tired, and I compared that to the people in the Middle East for whom political activity is literally a matter of life and death, and who just get on and do it, and realised just how comparatively easy my own political “struggles” really are.

So I’m more resolved than ever that I’m going to keep campaigning for the Liberal Democrats, and that I’m going to keep pushing within the party for it to be more like it is at its best and less like it is at its worst. I can’t promise that I’ll be any more use than I have been, given my health, or that the efforts I do make will be any more successful. But I’ll do what I can, when I can, to make the world a little bit better…

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13 Responses to Lost Causes

  1. Yeah. I’ve only heard him once. During Blair’s Iran war. “Are you tired of this war? I’m old enough to remember Viet Nam anld let me tell you…songs helped to end that war.”

  2. andrewrilstone says:

    I almost certainly meant to type Iraq there. But you never know.

  3. plok says:

    Andrew, now how would I ever have guessed that your heart can be recharged by music? Nevertheless, you should take a YEAR OF REST. Just lay down some basic REST. Get the REST thing covered, put some tax-free REST in the bank account. People in war-torn parts of the world don’t get to have rest, now what would they say if they knew you were disdaining it?

    (And with that, my “influential” metasocial rating simply plummets…)

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      There’s a general election next year — one where even the most optimistic polls say Lib Dem representation in Parliament is going to be halved. And I have a Kickstarted book to write, and a day job.
      No, my best guess for when I’ll be able to get some rest is in about the year 2050…

      • Mike Taylor says:

        My wife and I, like you, are chronically overworked. It’s our own fault: we keep taking things on. We often used to talk about “When am I going to find time for X?” for various values of X — “rest” being an important one. We’ve come realise that the answer is always never: we will never find time for anything, and instead have to make time.

        Sometimes that means things like leaving the garden unweeded to compose music, or leaving the post to pile up to write a research paper or organise a church event. It’s amazing how often we find that the things we didn’t do — that we deliberately left undone so we could make time for the things we care about — weren’t actually all that important after all.

        From everything you’ve written in the last couple of years, it looks to me like the thing you need to make time for is rest. In other words, I agree with plok. My take is that you’ll be of more use to the Liberal Democrats over the next decade if you take a year out and do nothing at all, then return with your batteries recharged and your head securely attached. Please: be kind to yourself. So often, no-one else will.

        [I’m sure the last thing you expected or wanted when you wrote this was unsolicited lifestyle advice from someone who hardly knows you and is almost completely ignorant of your specific issues. I hope you can take it in the spirit it’s intended. If nothing else, at least that last part: be kind to yourself.]

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Oh, don’t worry, I appreciate it. That said, the general election campaign, more than anything else I can think of, is something for which I do have to make time…

          • Mike Taylor says:

            It may be true that the general election is the one thing you really do have to make time for …

            My worry is that, once that’s done, there will be something else that you’ll say that about; and then your health, and emotional wellbeing, will keep getting pushed down the queue so that it’s the one thing you never prioritise.

            I know how easy that trap is to fall into.

  4. Liz W says:

    Good luck. I do think that the Lib Dems are a lost cause – mainly because I think that Westminster politics itself is a lost cause and drags all parties down with it like a black hole – but I’m not ready to give up on changing the world, so I’m finding other ways to do my bit towards that. But if I turn out to be wrong on the Lib Dems, and thus on Westminster, I shall be very pleased.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thanks. You leaving the Lib Dems a couple of years back was one of the things that hit me the most, actually, because I trust your judgement a great deal.
      I agree that Westminster politics is *almost* hopelessly corrupted, but I still think it just about possible to reform it, and it makes such a difference to so many people’s lives that I have to try…

  5. misssbgmail says:

    “I thought about my own pathetic moaning that I haven’t yet got everything I want in politics, and that changing the world is quite hard and sometimes you have to do it even when you have a headache or are a bit tired, and I compared that to the people in the Middle East for whom political activity is literally a matter of life and death, and who just get on and do it, and realised just how comparatively easy my own political “struggles” really are.”


  6. TAD says:

    I lost faith in liberalism ages ago. You’re just finally coming round to the same conclusions, I suspect. :)

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Nope. Firstly, “liberalism” means something *very* different in the UK, and secondly the problems I’ve had with the party have all been, without exception, those times when the party’s leadership and MPs have gone against Liberal principles…

      • TAD says:

        Fair enough. I still consider myself liberal on some issues, especially the social issues. On economic issues I’ve moved in the capitalist direction. I can relate to your frustration with politics though.

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