11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Nicely written, but an uneven mixture
, 17 Aug. 2007
This review is from: The Progressive Patriot: A Search for Belonging (Hardcover)
I only know Billy Bragg from a few of his songs (the terrific "A New England", of course, plus his lesser-known third album "Talking To The Taxman About Poetry"), and a vague idea about his political activism. So I had a few preconceptions about what this book (lent to me by a friend) would be about - the usual musician's story, supplemented by a side order of polemic. He'd thrown me off the scent by the end of the first chapter, which is a careful - even scholarly - account of the history of Barking (his birthplace). He follows that with a discussion about the Anglo-Saxons, the story of his ancestors' involvement in the London Docks strikes of 1889 and 1911 and the history of his family. It's not until the fourth chapter that he starts telling - in a very roundabout fashion - how he got interested in music.
So this isn't your standard musician's book, although he gives a very good account of the relationships between British and American folk music in the 60's (an early influence was Paul Simon, and BB makes the fascinating suggestion that "The Boxer" was inspired by a Essex fighter named Billy Walker) and the way he got swept along with the arrival of punk in 1976. In addition, he writes very well (he memorably describes the difference between writing a song and a book, comparing taking a photograph to "painting in oils on a twelve-by-twenty foot canvas"). He's clearly put a lot of work into this book (though I think the first name of the historian he calls Charles Babington MacCaulay was really Thomas), but the overall point he's trying to make remains obscure.
First, as others have pointed out, there seems to be a confusion about nationalism, patriotism and xenophobia, which get used interchangably. More crucially, he doesn't appear to draw a distinction between Britain, Great Britain, the United Kingdom and England, which is both a standard source of bewilderment for foreigners and a touchy subject for many inhabitants of these islands, although it should be handled carefully in a book which is supposed to be about national identity.
His proposals for how to go about setting up a Declaration Of Rights seem a little naive - indeed, his argument for why such a thing is needed (which includes the contention that it would be a great way to celebrate the anniversary of the 1707 Acts Of Union) is unconvincing. But, leaving his call to action aside, this is still a good book - well written, wide-ranging and (for the most part) stimulating.
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