01/01/2012

Trafalgar Square To Anywhere


One of the odd things about some places is that whilst they stay the same themselves, one’s perception of them changes from time to time –either because they appear and re-appear at different stages of the life cycle or because you experience them at different times for different reasons. An example of the first was mentioned in the column For What Is Chatteris, with the local park. “I sometimes thought about the families in the small park down the road from his house. The children went there to play on the swings and roundabout and eat ice - creams; a few years later they were back with their school or college friends, hanging about the park and War Memorial drinking cider and smoking; a few years after that they were back with their own children playing on the swings”. In the meantime the park itself hardly changed at all. There are songs about particular parks but one of the best park songs is a generic one,  Billy Stewart’s Sitting in the Park (covered in the UK by Georgie Fame) and it is rare that I can sit on a park bench anywhere without the tune going round my head.

An example of the second - where associations can come from a variety of things -is Trafalgar Square in London. Traditionally it has been where New Year has been celebrated and one of my stored memories of the place is coming through it after watching the Millennium firework display along the Thames. Traditionally too, it has been linked to the pigeons that flocked there to feed from the tourists before the move to eradicate them. I have a black and white photo of my sister aged about 8 standing in the square with a bag of bird seed bought from one of the vendors who used to be there and pigeons swarming all around. Genesis did a song about the birds in 1977, Pigeons: “Who congregate around Trafalgar Square taking pot shots at the tourists? Oh you've got to watch out, when you wander round the square in the morning, cos they're everywhere, they're everywhere”

In film and music it has often been used in the same way as Big Ben or Tower Bridge, as a iconic image that simultaneously denotes traditional and Swinging London - red buses and black  taxis circling the column and fountain, the epitome of where it’s at. I was once sitting in the square eating a pork pie and hard boiled egg and Paul McCartney drove  past in an open top sports car – it seemed very fitting to the setting. It was used in this sense in Bill Wyman’s Si Si Je Suis Un Rock Star, possibly the most entertaining song by one of the Stones outside of the group. The clip below shows Trafalgar Square in 1981. It also has the only instance I have seen of Bill Wyman dancing –sort of.

It is not just a tourist spot, however and since the Nineteenth Century it has been a focus for political demonstrations, where marches started or finished en route to Whitehall or Hyde Park  to hear speeches by Bertrand Russell or Tariq Ali or Tony Benn or George Galloway on nuclear disarmament or Vietnam or government cuts or Iraq. That aspect has cropped up in songs from time to time.  The Stones’ Street Fighting Man was supposedly inspired by a 1968 anti -Vietnam War demo that started in Trafalgar Square before moving to Grosvenor Square and the US Embassy. Chumbawamba were cynical about the place in Marching Round in Circles:” They let us make a noise ,they let us march around in a specially built police-cell they call Trafalgar Square”. More recently David Rovics claimed poetic licence with his Trafalgar Square:” Even the mayor came out, called him a criminal of war. Said "World domination ain't worth fighting for". They said "We don't like Dubya or his poodle, Tony Blair", on the day the statue of George Bush was toppled in Trafalgar Square”.

But beyond all these images it is a place on which people construct their own personal associations. Like Chris Difford in his own Trafalgar Square: “Every time that we scream and shout I’m the clown who’s wrong but when this is all over I’ll meet you in Trafalgar Square”. Or like the song here from 2007, Trafalgar Square to Anywhere, by Dave House,  a singer with echoes of Frank Hamilton of Waterloo Guildford. (He is from Kingston on Thames, itself not far from Guildford). Trafalgar Square here is an image familiar to many, the starting point for a possibly fraught journey home on a late night bus or tube. A little personal story set to acoustic guitar and cellos.

I suppose you might go to Trafalgar Square to look at Nelson’s Column. Oddly enough, though, that has been a mere backdrop to my visits there, feeding pigeons on a holiday trip up to London, on marches over the years, seeing a new millennium in or just sitting in the mid-day sun. Same place, just seen from a different angle each time.



36 comments:

  1. That's a great photo Geoff - is it from the 1970s?

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  2. Here's the Georgie Fame version of Sitting in the Park too, which is a great version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3nNB8D_A1k

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  3. This is the Pigeons song Geoff mentioned, by Genesis: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zpJei6-Kses

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  4. I read about pigeons in Trafalgar Square and always presumed that the 'Feed the Birds' scenes in Mary Poppins were set there - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHrRxQVUFN4 - but now I'm not so sure, on watching it again, it doesn't look too much like Trafalgar Square. Does anyone know where the bird lady is supposed to be sitting with all those pigeons on her head?

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  5. Geoff, I have so many questions in response to this column, but the most pressing one is..... do British people REALLY eat pork pies and hard boiled eggs, and if so then is a pork pie literally a pie with some bacon it in???

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  6. That Billy Wyman song is hilarious - and has great shots of Trafalgar Square. But I'm not sure it counts as 'dancing' - if you mean that slight sway thing he does at 1.10 mins:)

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  7. Hi Martha

    I'm pretty sure it is St Paul's Cathedral.....

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  8. One of my favourite glimpses of Trafalgar Square recently was in an episode of Outnumbered:) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3Qxj3g4sPA

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  9. Yes, its St Pauls Cathedral in the Mary Poppins sequence.
    A pork pie is sort of pork (often startlingly pink) and pork jelly in pastry with a hard crust.
    Yes the photo is from the 70's -I dont think the Bovril sign is still there!

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  10. Here's a video I took of George Galloway speaking in Trafalgar Square in Jan 2009: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0XaMwYqwKc

    That was a huge a great demo.

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  11. Thanks Geoff! But I have to say, it doesn't sound hugely appetizing. And this photo doesn't help it seem pleasant either: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pork_pie.jpg. Also, apparently it is eaten cold, which makes it all the more strange!!

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  12. No, you're right, I think the Bovril sign has gone...... I bet it was the early 1970s too, which was when Bovril launched its instant flavours for gravy and casseroles, and probably advertised those things a lot.

    Happy new year Geoff! And here's to the third calendar year of Songs about Places (2010/2011/2012)!

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  13. I love Tony Benn - here is a video I shot this past May when he spoke in Trafalgar Square! - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yy1Imxj5060

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  14. You probably already saw this video, but I was there with the other 13,500 people singing Hey Jude - somewhat spontaneously - in 2009:) - http://www.openculture.com/2009/05/13500_sing_hey_jude_in_trafalgar_square.html

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  15. You might have a pork pie, Maggie, with a Scotch egg, which is a hardboiled egg wrapped in sausage meat and breadcrumbs and deep-fried...

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  16. Oh no, that sounds just as strange!!!

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  17. Maggi, that's nothing. You should try some of their black pudding: a mixture of congealed pigs blood, lard and oatmeal.

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  18. The weirdest thing they eat though is something called Marmite. It's a kind of yeast extract. Looks like tar. They spread it on bread. It looks like this: http://goodtoknow.media.ipcdigital.co.uk/111|0000050a4|34f3_orh250w379_Marmite-on-Toast.jpg

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  19. Thanks for this! I appreciate the comparison to Frank Hamilton, too!

    Also, for the previous poster, try marmite once a year until you like it.

    Dave

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  20. I really like Chris Difford's Trafalgar Square - hadn't heard it before and it was quite hard to find online, but here is a version! - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ujwsxCFG7GY

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  21. Hi Geoff

    You mean David Rovics - not Kovics. For anyone who was struggling to find music by David Kovics (because he doesn't exist), have a look for Rovics instead!

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  22. Hey Geoff,

    Superb blog you have here. And you're my kindred spirit too - check out the map I did of my songs, organized in a geographically sensible way, with a link for each song to an MP3 or a video. A bit geekish but fun! Songs about places! On a map!
    http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?msid=214332236265472596547.0004b370d5d982f4a54ea&msa=0&ll=12.93758,143.263092&spn=107.343463,226.054688&source=gplus-ogsb

    Also, on February 15th, 2003, a lot of people did participate in one way or another of the toppling of a statue of George W Bush - that wasn't just poetic license. Here's an article about it:
    http://www.commondreams.org/headlines03/1121-07.htm

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  23. Sorry for name mis-spelling and thanks for pointing it out, Laura! Thanks for the map link -what a great idea.
    Marmite on toast is very tasty! Here is a link to a woman who only eats marmite sandwiches and crisps..

    http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/woman/health/health/3613496/Woman-lives-on-Monster-Munch-for-10-years.html

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  24. Wow, that's really disturbing! Also the woman who only eats Monster Munch!

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  25. I only eat fish fingers.

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  26. Here's The Stones’ Street Fighting Man for those who don't know it (Geoff mentioned it): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUO8ScYVeDo

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  27. We did a version of Marching Round in Circles too, here it is!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSR0bbZuQ-8

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  28. This is a great blog. Unrelated to this week's theme, but because it's Friday and you're a fellow music writer, I thought you'd appreciate this piece I wrote recently about Rebecca Black's song 'Friday'!

    -----------------------------------
    ‘Friday’ starts with what is ostensibly a description of Black’s morning routine. Obviously, there is much more to the lyrics than what is visible on the surface. The first question we must ask ourselves is whether the protagonist of the song is Black herself, or a persona created purely for the purposes of the song. The ‘truth’ is not important – only our perception counts, so I won’t attempt to answer this question.

    The protagonist wakes up at 7 a.m. Is that normal for the youth of America? It’s hard to say, but it is obscenely early, and it looks like Black is highlighting the plight of school children across the United States, under this oppressive regime.

    ‘Gotta be fresh’: what does this mean? ‘Fresh’ in the sense of clean or awake, or ‘fresh’ in the more hip-hop sense of the word? The use of such an ambiguous word at the start of this song sets the tone for the rest of it.

    The protagonist goes to the bus stop, but then sees her friends. We assume that she was planning to take the bus, but was this just a ruse? Is the ‘bus stop’ a metaphor for meeting friends? Here comes the first dilemma of the day – should she sit in the front or the back? Clearly this is a metaphor for the classroom – should she sit at the front of the class or the back? We all know the ramifications of these alternative positions. In a normal classroom there is always the option of the middle-ground, but in a car this is reduced to the stark choice of front or back. Look a bit further, and you’ll find an oddity. Black doesn’t ask ‘which seat should I take’, but rather ‘which seat can I take’. It turns out there is no choice involved here – the protagonist is at the will of the fates (much like her school life).

    We then get to the crux of the song – the evocation of ‘Fridayness’. Just like the Crunchie bar is designed to evoke ‘that Friday feeling’, ‘Friday’ is all about the truth and beauty of Friday. To really get the point across, Black repeats the word ‘Friday’ multiple times in the chorus. She also highlights the ambiguity of this strange day of the week. Is it the weekend? Or the precursor to the weekend? With the line ‘Everybody’s lookin’ forward to the weekend’ it’s hard to tell.

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  29. [Continued]

    Now it’s 7:45. A.m or p.m? Who can tell? Have 12 hours passed already, or is this still the morning? I think what is happening here is some kind of quantum superposition of the two states – the actual time doesn’t matter as much as the day. We are reminded slightly of the post-modernist masterpiece ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’, where school time and play time merge into a state of general ‘beingness’.

    ‘Cruisin’ so fast, I want time to fly’: we have now moved from quantum physics to general relativity. By including these references so close to each other, Black is almost mocking the current lack of a unified theory of Physics. This is followed by more Physics/Buddhist thought: ‘I got this, you got this’. We don’t know what ‘this’ is, but the fact that Black and her friend both have it at the same time tells us a lot about her holistic view of the world.

    Skip forward a bit, and we get to the most genius part of the song, repeated here:

    Yesterday was Thursday, Thursday
    Today i-is Friday, Friday
    We-we-we so excited
    We so excited
    We gonna have a ball today
    Tomorrow is Saturday
    And Sunday comes afterwards
    I don’t want this weekend to end

    Black is truly putting the day of Friday in its context – after Thursday, before Saturday, and two days before Sunday. The lyrics here are split – we hear about Thursday and Friday, then a break, and then Saturday and Sunday. So Friday belongs with Thursday, and Saturday with Sunday. The past is the present, the future the future. This is the kind of depth that is all-too lacking in most modern pop music.

    We now move to the secondary protagonist of the song, who I believe to be Black’s alter ego. This character is driving, thus removing the dilemma of front seat/back seat (there can be only one driver’s seat). Then on to ‘It’s Friday, it’s a weekend’, which contrasts with the other lyric ‘Lookin’ forward to the weekend’ – setting up a conceptual dissonance that is never quite resolved.
    Conclusion, or, why does my heart feel so bad?

    We have only scratched the surface of ‘Friday’ in this analysis, but I hope I’ve given you an idea of the depth of Black’s music. It’s all too easy to see this piece as just another Bieberfied tween pop song with no artistic merit, but as you will now see, this could not be further from the truth. So, go forth and enjoy this beautiful Friday!

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  30. Hi Geoff

    There was something about your theme of songs meaning different things at different times that got me thinking about whether any given song is most suited to a particular moment in time, and that reminded me of Pete Seeger's quote that 'the right song at the right time can change history' - which sent me in search of that Time Out list of songs that have changed history. I'm not sure if you ever saw it, but here it is in case you didn't (and I'd be curious to know if you agree with the top few songs on this list!)

    http://www.timeout.com/london/feature/1488/100-songs-that-changed-history-the-full-list

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  31. I have enjoyed your blog for a while - it relates to a book I wrote over 10 years ago now, called The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society.

    Your reminder that places mean different things to the same person at different times - or look different on each visit - relates to what I wrote in that book:

    "Artists can make the connections visible. They can guide us through sensuous kinesthetic responses to topography, lead us from archeology and land-based social history into alternative relationships to place. They can expose the social agendas that have formed the land, bring out multiple readings of places that mean different things to different people at different times rather than merely reflecting some of their beauty back into the marketplace or the living room. As envisionaries, artists should be able to provide a way to work against the dominant cultures rapacious view of nature, reinstate the mythical and cultural dimensions of public experience, and at the same time become conscious of the ideological relationships and historical constructions of place. The dialectic between space and change can provide the kind of no-man's-land where artists thrive."

    This applies to musicians too, not only artists, as your blog makes clear.

    Here's a link to my book, in case it's of interest: http://thenewpress.com/index.php?option=com_title&task=view_title&metaproductid=1145

    Anyway, thank you for the thought-provoking and educational column.

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  32. I liked that quote from Lucy above, and also this whole column theme. What it helped me to see is that site should be considered not only in physical or spatial terms, but as a particular cultural framework characterized by a complex set of social conditions, historical happenings, geological, economic, and political circumstances that change over time. That a place is a hybrid of memories, fragmented events, and incredible potential. This is a concept of site as something more than a location.

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  33. Hi Geoff

    This isn't very related to the column, but I'm originally from Cleveland and my sister lives in England and I visit with some degree of regularity, so I've been trying to figure out what the Cleveland of England must be. Surely there must be an old industrial town that's been bleeding population for decades, where the people wear permanent frowns and peer suspiciously at the future from behind their rusting chain-link fences. That's what Cleveland is like. Maybe it's Liverpool? I know that Liverpool peaked hard, growing from a 7-street town along a muddy riverbank to a seaport city of over 70,000 in just a few short years. And then with the disintegration of the textile industry in the county of Lancashire, Liverpool experienced a severe decline from 1950 onwards. Around 1930, it boasted approximately 850,000 inhabitants; today, only about half as many people live within the city boundaries. And this extreme de-industrialisation and suburbanisation went arm-in-arm with growing poverty among the working class and an increasing rate of population loss. The nadir of decline was marked by violent riots in Liverpool's Toxteth districts in 1981. Change a few details (and substitute "Cleveland" for "Liverpool") and the story sounds even more familiar! But is this not a correct vision of Liverpool?

    Feel free to ignore this question if it's too complicated to answer or you don't want to engage in a tangential response!

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  34. I believe the Cleveland of England is here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleveland,_England

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  35. Hey Nick

    I grew up an hour outside Cleveland, and went to grad school in Leeds- which reminded me a lot of Cleveland- northern industrial city- good town, and good people.

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  36. Thanks for the above comments and links -including the Lure of the Local book, which looks very interesting.

    I am not sure that Liverpool compares to Cleveland -maybe somewhere like Blackburn or Stockton might be closer.

    That Time Out list is an interesting, if idiosyncratic, one - David Hasselhoff and no Beatles in the Top 10! I am surprised as well that Country Joes's Feel Like I am Fixin' to Die didnt make the list. And in a very early column, a number of commentators said how important the Bee Gees' Massachusetts was as a rallying song in Czechoslovakia in 1968!

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