DJ Taylor: Once a rocker

The week's news about Prog rock, Morris dancing and Tolkien will help those haunted by their youthful entusiasms tell their Marillion from their Silmarillion

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The most arresting item on TV last week was BBC 4's celebration of the spangled, bearded and at times frankly ludicrous entity known as progressive rock. Extending over several evenings, and including performances of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells and a 90-minute documentary entitled Prog Britannia, the exercise eventually became a kind of spiritual jigsaw, in which piece after piece of one's adolescence snapped briskly into place.

Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson perched precariously on one leg, the better to execute one of his deathless flute solos; Yes's Jon Anderson warbled his immortal lines about "Dawn of light lying between a silence and sold sources/ Chased amid fusions of wonder in moments hardly seen forgotten"; The Nice's Keith Emerson stuck knives into his Hammond organ, and all it needed was a three-day week and rubbish piled in the streets (who knows? – they may yet return) for it to be 1974 again and the future a roseate blur rather than the hard reality it has since become.

All this, not to mention the glimpses of the prog audience – mute, male and meekly attentive – was consistently hilarious. Yet, as the contributions of those who were there at the time (Soft Machine's Robert Wyatt) or those who looked fondly on from the school playground (the novelist Jonathan Coe) bravely insisted, what lay beneath was deadly serious: essentially a grammar and public schoolboy's overlay of the 1960s pop template aimed at giving it dignity, myth and depth. As someone explained, they were more interested in Cupid meets Psyche than Boy meets Girl.

Amid the footage of side-whiskered hippies brooding over their Mellotrons and veteran drummers recalling their delight at being allowed to play in 17/8, two things stood out. One was the survivors' habit of distancing themselves from the movement of which they had been a part: Ian Anderson represented himself as a satirist, avid to send up one or two of prog's more baroque aspects. The other was the Gadarene rush to blame Emerson, Lake & Palmer, they of the two-ton drum kit, for the eventual slide into decadence. All this reminded me of a conversation I had with an ex-member of Pink Floyd I met by chance at a Christmas party. His judgment on the whole of this swirling 1970s charivari was that "We were never prog" and "It was all ELP's fault." If I were Keith Emerson, I should be jolly cross about this.

Most prog historians asked to give a date for the genre's inception would probably settle for 1892, the year of J R R Tolkien's birth. Tolkien, it scarcely needs saying, was a key influence on the music of the 1970s, inspiring band names (never mind Marillion – I used to play in a group called Mithril, the Elvish word for "truesilver") armfuls of Malory-esque lyrics and on one occasion an entire album, by the Swedish keyboardist Bo Hansson. By coincidence, the week's big publishing story was the news that, a bare 36 years after the author's death, HarperCollins are set to publish yet another posthumous work by the sage of Middle Earth.

The book, a retelling in narrative verse of the Norse legend of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niflungs, and annotated, introduced and finessed by Tolkien's son, Christopher, was apparently written in the 1920s and '30s, during the author's early years as professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford.

Like The Children of Hurin (2007), pictured right, another ancient manuscript found in a trunk and given a filial polish, this latest addition to an already groaning oeuvre will undoubtedly sell in truckloads, while prompting some readers to reflect that Tolkien's lasting achievements are The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: I can remember the huge excitement with which I picked up The Silmarillion in 1977 and the huge yawn of boredom with which, not all that many moments later, I put it down.

What is really needed to set alongside the gleanings from the family attic – which people were making jokes about 30 years ago – is a proper biography. The late Humphrey Carpenter's trail-blazing effort from 1977 was compromised by family censorship (according to Carpenter two chapters about "Tolkien the man" ended up on the cutting-room floor). A later effort, by an American writer named Michael White, if it doesn't actually plagiarise Carpenter, at any rate follows his procedural path almost from one paragraph to the next. There have been enough hints in the books about Tolkien's friends published since his death to suggest that he was a much more complex and in some ways forbidding character than the twinkly old sage of existing portraits. It is time some flint-eyed revisionist got to work.



***

To walk towards St James's Green, Southwold, as I do on several Saturday afternoons each summer, is always to experience a mild feeling of alarm. First there comes that faint susurration of bells borne on the breeze. Then follows a dull clacking noise suggestive of sticks being struck together. By the time one gets in sight of the Sole Bay Inn, shouts of "Hey nonny nonny" are piercing the air and the appurtenances of morris dancing – men with beards quaffing foaming tankards, wheezing accordions and white duck trousers – are everywhere to hand.

But, according to the Morris Ring, the pastime's administrative body, these are desperate times. Numbers are falling, and young people are for some reason shy of donning their fathers' white suits and beribboned headgear.

To anyone bent on the upkeep of England's rural heritage, the morris dancer is a problematic figure. On the one hand, there is something rather bogus about the clacked sticks and the lofted knees, the sense of an activity kept artificially alive beyond its natural span. On the other, morris dancing always seems an infinitely sinister spectacle. I nearly always have a vague feeling that the dancers are about to throw down their staves and run amok, start building giant corn dollies with enormous phalluses and making human sacrifices of anyone who hasn't taken cover. No doubt about it: repeat viewings of The Wicker Man can really warp your imagination.



***



In an industry, and a culture, still bent on prostrating itself before unresponsive youth, the triumph in the Costa prize for biography of the memoirs of Diana Athill at the ripe age of 91 is a matter for wonder and congratulation. At the same time, I can't be the only reader of Somewhere Towards the End (Granta £7.99), Athill's no-nonsense account of the realities of old age, to be slightly unconvinced by its tone.

Certainly detachment is something to be prized in a writer, but not many writers have followed Athill's trick of appearing to be detached from her own life. There is an odd moment, for example, in which, reflecting on her late-flowering success, the wall-to-wall profiles and the interviews with Sue Lawley, she declares that at "the deepest level" it doesn't really mean anything.

Cakes, of course, may be had and eaten too, but I was even more taken aback by the episode in which her long-time boyfriend Barry takes up with another woman – a "lovely new friend", according to her notably unjealous rival, and straightaway welcomed into a ménage à trois.

Admirable as these attitudes undoubtedly are, I would have warmed to Athill a bit more if she had hurled her new chum's clothes down the staircase or lobbed a jug of scalding coffee into her lap. The line between genuine selflessness and the suppression of natural instincts can be uncomfortably fine.



***



The retail consultancy Experian has calculated that as much as 15 per cent of the country's retailing capacity may soon be lying fallow, and that 135,000 retail units could be empty by the middle of the year. However depressing this may be for anyone involved in the retail trade, it tends to support the idea, repeatedly advanced by local ginger groups, that even in times of comparative prosperity there are just too many shops.

Anyone who lives in a provincial city will be familiar with the phenomenon. A piece of land becomes available, pious hopes are expressed about the desirability of a civic amenity, and, whomp, in marches a developer to propose a shopping complex with a dozen restaurants attached.

Here in Norwich, this process has happened not once but twice. Rather than expanding the volume of trade the result, as far as one can see, has been simply to shift the city's economic centre a few hundred yards to the east. Back in the early 2000s, huge effort and expense were devoted to the construction of something called the Chapelfield Mall (vigorous local lobbying for a concert venue got nowhere.) Five years later, while the Chapelfield Mall survives, the area it supplanted is a Gehenna of To Let signs and boarded up shop-fronts. You wonder why they bothered.

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