Someone Else's Words
Wars of mass stupidity
When the Wind Blows provided an outlet for Waters' anti-war sentiments
"Dear Sir, Mr. B. J. Thing... er... we the people of Britain are fed up with being bombed we had enough of it last time with old Hitler so will you just leave us in peace you live your life and we'll live ours hope you are well...
Please don't drop any bombs.
Mr. And Mrs. J. Bloggs"
Growing up in Australia in the late '70s and '80s meant I had to put up with a lot of bad music, I had the pleasure of watching some of the world's all time great cricket players strut their stuff, and I had to live with the Four-Minute-Warning. Luckily for me, it was a bigger problem avoiding Duran Duran on the radio than it was contemplating how to survive a nuclear winter. But, to borrow from Raymond Briggs When the Wind Blows, the Powers That Be ensured a steady supply of fear and hatred of the Eastern Bloc, continually telling us how it could all end in the blink of an eye. But the beauty of growing up in Australia also meant that, just rock stars generally ignore the Southern Hemisphere when they embark on 'World Tour's, the world's 'Big Red Button Pushers' had a general disinterest in us with far bigger fish to fry in their neighbouring countries. What it was like for people in the Northern Hemisphere I can only guess.
But it was such fears, misinformation, downright lies, and stupidity that inspired many forms of artistic Cold War commentary, Roger Waters' Radio KAOS being the clear example from a Floydian perspective. And it was Roger Waters' work on the soundtrack to the animated film version of Briggs' book that brought the book to my attention in the first place. Ironically, I didn't know of the book or film until I found the soundtrack in my favourite little record store (Kent Records in Elizabeth St, Brisbane) that had the occasional, well hidden, legitimate release amongst the miles of bootlegs. It was another year or more, in 1990, when my wife tracked down a copy of the book for my birthday before I was able to read the book and all its stupidity.
And it really is stupid, in a good way. It's as if Briggs has intentionally developed a list of how stupid people--both individually and nationally--can be and then crammed it all into these few pages. Some of the stupidity is blind ignorance, forcing you to both love and pity the main characters, Jim and Hilda Bloggs. But Briggs makes it equally clear that the various nations going to war are exhibiting well-chosen, thought out, perfectly planned and efficiently implemented stupidity on a mass scale. Weapons of Mass Destruction for Wars of Mass Stupidity indeed!
In Briggs' comic-book-style story, retired Jim Bloggs, famous Council toilet cleaner previously charged with Highway Robbery (see Briggs' 1980 book Gentleman Jim) returns home from the town library to tell Hilda, his wife, how the 'International Situation' has worsened to such an extent that war is imminent. This doesn't seem to phase either of them as they happily survived World War II and have every expectation of surviving this war as well. With Hilda armed with good intentions and happy memories, and Jim armed with both the County Council's and Government's booklets on how to survive a nuclear war, Jim and Hilda prepare for and deal with global nuclear war.
It becomes very apparent almost instantly that the thing that makes Jim and Hilda so memorable is their utter ignorance of practically everything as they live, and prepare to fight, in the past. Hilda's ignorance of Jim's thoughts and theories and Jim's ignorance of the known world strangely gives them both a secure feeling of knowing everything worth knowing simply because he knows (or at least thinks he does) more than Hilda.
The reader's amazement at this trait of the main characters is reinforced through a retelling by Jim of the phone call to his son, Ron. Ron's resignation to the inevitable and mocking of his parents because of it, is met with Jim's total misunderstanding of why. And what Ron is mocking is his parents' utter faith in the powers that be and commuters (they mean computers) that are now running the show. The County Council and Government Regulation leaflets on surviving the bomb attack are for me only bettered by images of school children crouching under school desks in '50s "education films"... duck and cover indeed! But this wouldn't wash with Jim, no sir! If Jim does what the government says he should then all will be well... they won WWII, after all, following what the government had told them. And Hilda's biggest concern is the simple things in life: the state of the curtains and cushions.
Then the radio announces they have three minutes before the first missiles strike! From here on, the whole feel of the book turns from sad, head-shaking humour to outright pity for Jim and Hilda and the millions of people they represent the world over. How they cope with their new world is both moving and shocking.
In telling this story, Briggs has brought to the fore his considerable artistic talents, as the book is quite simply a work of art in itself. As one might expect, each frame is oh so very British, yet at the same time strangely global. But Briggs goes a very clever step further by changing his colours and shapes as the story unfolds. Jim's depression about the state of the world is seen in the slight fading in the artwork, but this takes on far more subtle appearances with such effects as blurring the characters, but not so much the setting, with the nuclear blast and a very clever use of all white and all black pages with the various global threats being introduced and dealt. After the blast, an effective fade-in from pure white, through pinks to reds and back to normal again. But even the normal seems washed. And by story's end, the pages are almost devoid of colour as our characters struggle with radiation poisoning. The last page sees night fall and darkness take over the pages.
When the Wind Blows has become somewhat outdated in the last decade. With the ending of the Cold War, four-minute-warnings and the opposing threats of Communism and Democracy, so too the production of books and films such as this has come to an end. Sadly, it doesn't mean that such threats will never return, with the equally sad passions of the current conflicts in the world, wherein the media tell us that weapons of such destructive power are only a short distance from falling into the wrong hands. It would seem that still folks haven't been able to accept that all hands are wrong when it comes to such things. So maybe there is still room for such books as When the Wind Blows on people's bookshelves. Either way, for me it is a great book in itself and well worth tracking down a copy.
For further fun into the world of the Bloggs and Raymond Briggs, grab hold of Briggs' Gentleman Jim (1980), a prequel to When the Wind Blows introducing us to the two main characters, and Ethel and Ernest, a 1998 biography by Briggs of his parents, the inspirations behind Hilda and Jim. And, for those who are far more interested in the Floydian connection (and/or can't be bothered reading a book), a Region 2 DVD of When the Wind Blows is due out in September by Channel4 Films. Although most of the music by Waters is short background instrumentals, two songs, "Folded Flags" and "Towers of Faith" are stand-out tracks, the latter making it onto Waters' compilation album Flickering Flame released in 2002. The full soundtrack, with additional music by the likes of David Bowie and Genesis is available on CD.
A Pillow of Winds, part 2
Such music I never dreamed of
Syd Barrett and The Wind in the Willows
"I work down in a cellar. It's quite fun... a nice place to live, really, under the ground." -- Syd Barrett, 1971.
This combined quote from Syd described what he was up to after The Madcap Laughs and Barrett were in the shops. And those simple, few words of honesty have led to all sorts of theories from journalists and fans alike. The most predictable explanation was that Syd was now a recluse, living a strange, solitary existence. The most simple explanation, mundane even, was that the cellar was the obvious choice for an art studio. But, with tongue partly planted in cheek, and logic definitely out the window, I put it to the readers that the cellar was the obvious choice of where Roger Barrett, a childhood fan of Kenneth Grahame, wanted to be after his adventures beyond the Wild Wood.
Kenneth Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows some 35 years before any of the Floyds were born, and from a Floyd fan's point of view, the book is only significant because of the title of Chapter Seven: "A Piper at the Gates of Dawn". As any Floyd fan can tell you, it was this phrase that Barrett used for the title of the group's first album. But I think that the similarities between Roger 'Syd' Barrett and The Wind in the Willows goes way beyond a chapter title. For a fuller idea of what I'm getting at, all you need do is read the novel.
The Wind in the Willows centers around Mole, who, along with a countryside full of creatures, lives out a simple, yet sometimes eventful, existence with a few close friends. The adventure starts one Spring when Mole realises that there might just be something better outside his hole, away from home, than dusting away the grime of winter. And so to the river bank he goes, where he finds Rat, who soon becomes a good friend. It is here we see Syd start his journey to London and the big wide world beyond.
Once there, the ever-inquisitive Mole questions Rat constantly about everything and anything. So when Mole asks what is beyond the fields:
"Oh that's just the Wild Wood" said the Rat shortly. "We don't go there much, we river bankers."
"Aren't they - aren't they very nice people in there?" said the Mole, a trifle nervously.
A little later Mole continues...
"And beyond the Wild Wood again?" he asked. "Where it's all blue and dim, and one sees what may be hills or perhaps they mayn't, and something like the smoke of towns, or is it only cloud drift?"
"Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World," said the Rat. "And that's something that doesn't matter, either to you or me. I've never been there and I'm never going, nor you either, if you've got any sense at all. Don't ever refer to it again, please."
But for Mole, like Syd, the temptation was too much, and to the Wild Wood he went. Luckily for Mole (who inevitably encountered danger) and Rat (who came to his rescue), Badger saved them both, helped them recover, and together they made it back to the safety of the river bank.
"As he hurried along, eagerly anticipating the moment when he would be at home again among the things he knew and liked, the Mole saw clearly that he was an animal of tilled field and hedgerow, linked to the ploughed furrow, the frequented pasture, the lane of evening lingerings, the cultivated garden plot. For others, the asperities, the stubborn endurance, or the clash of actual conflict, that went with Nature in the rough; he must be wise, must keep to the pleasant places in which his lines were laid and which held adventure enough, in their way, to last for a lifetime."
For all the difficulties that London was to cause Syd, the world beyond London was a lot worse, and so returning to London represented a measure of safety and comfort. But, as with Mole, his real home, Syd's 'burrow' in Cambridge had a calling even stronger than the safety of London.
"He saw clearly how plain and simple--how narrow even--it all was; but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him, and the special value of some such anchorage in one's existence. He did not at all want to abandon the new life and its splendid spaces, to turn his back on sun and air and all they offered him and creep home and stay there; the upper world was all too strong, it called to him still, even down there, and he knew he must turn to the larger stage. But it was good to think he had this to come back to, this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple outcome."
But alas, for Syd, the coming of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was to change all of that.
"Oh, Mole! The beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us."
Syd obviously read this book, possibly more than once, maybe often. For all the pleasures stardom offered, it's so easy to speculate that maybe, just maybe, for Syd, his burrow was the right place to be all along. And so, just as The Wind in the Willows inspired him in so many positive ways as his new fame blossomed, maybe, just maybe, the adventures of it's main character taught Syd a wisdom that none other than those who take such adventurous steps can ever understand. Syd happily followed Mole to London and beyond, and Syd has been wise enough to keep following Mole ever since. To find out where that journey leads Syd... well as I wrote before, read the book.