Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Jeremy Thorpe, racism and rock and roll

Embed from Getty Images

Here, photographed backstage at the Royal Festival Hall in 1967, are Jimi Hendrix and the then leader of the Liberal Party, Jeremy Thorpe. Other photos taken on the same occasion show Hendrix tutoring Thorpe in playing the guitar.

So was Thorpe keener on rock and roll than Cyril Smith was?

Judge for yourself. Here he is talking about the film Rock Around the Clock on BBC Radio in 1956:

"I am a lover of music; therefore I am prejudiced and don't like jazz. Jazz to me comes from the jungle, and this is jungle music taken to its logical conclusion. This is musical Mau-Mau."

The racism here makes you catch your breath, particularly as Thorpe was a principled opponent of Apartheid in South Africa.

I remember hearing this extract played on the radio more than once when I was a boy - it may be that John Ebdon used it in his creative archive programmes.

In his book The Restless Generation - How rock music changed the face of 1950s Britain, Pete Frame suggests that it comes from an edition of Does the Team Think (DTTT), but that sounds unlikely. DTTT was a sort of parody of Any Questions? with comedians on the panel, so it's more likely that it comes from Any Questions? itself.


David Evans said...

Dear Jonathan,

I am sending you this as an expression of my sadness and dismay in the commentary you have made in this blog, not, as some do, in the hope of gaining some sort of kick out of chastising you (verbally) but in the hope that you will consider my points and hopefully respond so that I can consider more fully your aims and motivations and also so you can consider my concerns about what I, as a mature [never old] liberal and liberal democrat, consider to be an almost fatal weakness in the approach adopted to commentary by too many Lib Dems (and including yourself on this occasion) when it comes to senior liberal figures of the past.

Now we all know that each new generation likes to believe that it is somehow magically massively better than its predecessors, but as we all know, it is never true, at best some progress in some aspects of the human condition may arise, but are often accompanied by regression in others – of course the problems of the errors made by each generation are rarely clear until many years later, which gives the young an advantage in that their feet of clay have not yet been exposed. Indeed the fatal flaw of the liberal left of our era has only been exposed in relatively recent times by its total failure to adapt and successfully confront the problems it faced, be it deindustrialisation (i.e. giving the nasty polluting jobs to the third world, particularly China, which accepted the pollution we had merely exported and used the economic benefits to expand its military might, while we ignored the impact of the loss of jobs, pride etc over the years on many communities, which led to their alienation from the mainstream and ultimately into the arms of Boris Johnson and Brexit), or left wing angst that people (especially people like us) had a right not to be upset by being exposed to people with different views leading to cancel culture and an obsession with relatively minor problems faced by us and our close friends while rapidly ignoring those much worse problems in places like Byelorussia as soon as they disappeared from our TV screens.

With this in mind, I do find it very disappointing that so many normally sound liberals and Liberal Democrats seem to want to re-interpret history by publishing commentary that looks at what was said in the past (almost always by liberals, very rarely conservatives or labour) and, putting it bluntly, applying the most adverse conclusions possible. (1 of 4)

David Evans said...

It is as if the right of passage for modern liberals (including those of us old enough to know better) is to denounce their party's past and its leading figures, without any thought of the implications on our party, its reputation or its values, nor for the objective accuracy of the commentary.

The commentary I am referring to is your article entitled “Jeremy Thorpe, racism and rock and roll”

To my opinion and putting it bluntly, I believe you have simply done a hatchet job on an old and long dead senior liberal, taking and transforming his words (which I presume are accurately quoted) from what was said and meant in the context of the 1950s, into something with the worst possible implications on the individual concerned based on your personal spin on the meaning of those words in a modern context.

Specifically, you have
- Adopted a headline about racism (an attitude which we all abhor)
- added a large picture of a historic black Rock and Roll icon (probably recognised even now by a significant proportion of the population) with our party leader at the time, both of whom look as if they are having some fun
- but then you create an extremely tenuous link between Jeremy Thorpe to Cyril Smith (with all his well-documented personal baggage) – a man who apparently has no relevance to the article other than the fact that you wrote about him and Rock and Roll previously,
- you then refer to the film "Rock around the Clock" which is less well known by modern readers, and certainly the fact that it was built around Bill Haley and his Comets (a white group) which is even less well known,
- then you take a comment made 10 years earlier, when he described his distaste at the time for the music in the film Rock around the Clock (most of which is by Bill Haley and his Comets) describing it in disparaging terms, but where he makes no reference (directly or otherwise) to race, but simply to musical taste. Well, as we all know having different taste in music does not make a case for an accusation of racism. [Indeed, I have never had a taste for the music of Bill Haley and his Comets, which I would have described, accurately, as fat, old, bald man's music. Nowadays I would describe it in the same terms, with the one caveat that it was one small step on the way to the music of my time (Led Zep, Sabbath, ELP, Bowie, Yes, ELO and Quo among many others, with the added comment that anyone who describes me as fat, bald or old is in severe need of attitude realignment.]
(2 of 4)

David Evans said...

He does refer to Jungle Music – but that expression was not racist at the time, or even now to those aware of the facts, specifically it being a term in common use at that time, used by both black and white musicians to describe that particular style of music. Clearly no racism there.

Finally, he then finishes with the statement, ‘ … taken to its logical conclusion. This is musical Mau-Mau’. Now the Mau Mau rebellion, uprising or whatever your chosen term, was indeed a terrible time in Kenya, with brutalities being done by both sides, and whether you consider those brutalities justified or not, in the early 1950s the ‘known facts’ in the UK (with all the well understood caveats about ‘known facts’) were that the Mau Mau were undertaking an extreme form of guerrilla warfare against both white and black citizens in Kenya. So while it could be argued that it was a poor choice of language for those with a modern view of the British empire, warts and all, it was simply used to describe the intense dislike he felt towards that music, an intense dislike similar to one he felt about the acts of the Mau Mau at that time. Now those of us with no direct knowledge of the events of the 1950s, which were brutal for anyone with family involved in the fighting, it is easy to instead apply a modern re-interpretation ignoring the realities at that time. (3 of 4)

David Evans said...

Overall, there is no racism in the statement at all, just an expression of intense dislike for a form of music, using terms that at that time were used as descriptive terms by both black and white cultures.

All in all, the only thing that makes me catch my breath, is the ease with which a sound liberal like yourself can become so used to the standard tactics of our enemies, refining meaning in old language based on new (and often slanted) norms for the use of language in trendy labour leftie circles today, that you use it to decry sound liberals (as you acknowledge in passing when referring to Jeremy Thorpe’s anti-apartheid credentials).

But when it all comes down to it, do you really think that this piece does anything to advance our cause of building and safeguarding a fair free and open society, when the only thing it does is produce a link between an ex leader of our party with breath-taking racism? You will notice that the Conservatives don’t do that with their past leaders, and they are massively more successful in building their sort of society and destroying ours than we have been in safeguarding it for a great many years now.

To me this article is extremely troubling. (4 of 4)

Jonathan Calder said...


You have written four comments about half a sentence in a short, lighthearted post.

Do you think it's possible you are making too much of this?

David Evans said...

Hello Jonathan, Sorry for the delay in responding, but I am sad to have to tell you that I really don't think it is an over-reaction.

I know we can both agree that racism is a pernicious evil which shames our society, but I have become increasingly aware that it is also a weapon used by the authoritarian left to undermine any of its opponents including us, our party and our values by demeaning our past. It happened in Liverpool University with Gladstone Hall and attempts continue to remove his name from elsewhere.

Hence, when I see a good liberal drops a one liner in an article effectively accusing a past Liberal leader of racism that makes you catch your breath, that concerns me hugely for the damage to our party's reputation it could inadvertently trigger.

That is why I gave you the courtesy of a detailed explanation of my concerns, as I said "in the hope that you will consider my points and hopefully respond so that I can consider more fully your aims and motivations."

Certainly the article could have been "a short, lighthearted post," if it were not for the racism comment you made. To me and most people, comments about racism are so important they completely change the context of any matter, making it a matter of real importance and any article, even if the article was originally meant to be lighthearted, cannot continue to be, even if we wish it.

I suppose the one question I would ask is If it was meant to be lighthearted, why put the bit in about racism at all?