Saturday 29 April 2017

Ewan McLennan & George Monbiot: "Breaking The Spell of Loneliness"

You might have read articles by George Monbiot on the Guardian website. He is strident and thought-provoking on all things environmental, political and social and, while I don't always find myself agreeing with him, I do often enjoy having my preconceived ideas challenged by his incisive writing.

 In 2014 he contributed an article "The Age of Loneliness is killing us" that went viral, big-time. In a manifesto that resonated with people all over the planet, he wrote that "the religion of our time is a celebration of extreme individualism and universal competition". The resulting loneliness, he argued, is a deadly condition that kills as many people as smoking or obesity.

The Guardian and several book publishers wanted more but Monbiot realised he would be researching and writing at his computer in a solitary endeavour for several years and, in a light bulb moment, surmised that music, which brings people together and unites us, would be a much better vehicle to develop these concepts. With this in mind, George wrote some lyrics and given that, as he says himself, there are international treaties to prevent him from singing, he shared his ideas with critically acclaimed Scottish folk singer Ewan McLennan.

After an exciting collaboration via email, this wonderful project took shape. McLennan had carte blanche to do as he wished with the words - some he kept, and some he re-wrote - and his softly understated Scottish brogue lends them a certain earthiness and poignancy. His sparse arrangements feature harmonium, cello, fiddle and banjo to accompany his own fine vocal, guitar and harmonica work to great effect. Each song wrestles with a different issue. "The Child Inside" addresses the fact that a child's area in which they free-range, either on their own or with their friends, has shrunk by 90% in just one generation. For many urban children, any connection with nature is now all but lost.

"Reclaim the Street" is an anthemic celebration of a street party bringing a neighbourhood of strangers together for the first time. "I'm Coming Home" is the voice of a migrant yearning to return home. "These Four Walls" explores those brief moments of connection at checkouts for those elderly folk who are otherwise isolated all day with only the TV for company. “In the aisles, as I wonder, I practice my lines. ‘Did you see the news’ and ‘The weather’s been fine’ But the checkouts have gone and the tills can talk. So I count my change and home I walk.”

 For me, the standout is the opener, "Such A Thing As Society": The neo-liberal story we are told we have to live by is that we are selfish, brutal, venally competitive, nasty individuals and yet in reality our capacities for cooperation and altruism are staggering - quite unique in the animal kingdom. "It my friend is the time-honoured lie - there is such a thing as society, it keeps us from losing our minds, it's working and living and laughing together that makes us humankind". The set is perfectly rounded out by a rousing pedal steel guitar-accompanied version of the Pete Seeger classic "We Shall Overcome".

If you would like to explore more and have access to SBS On Demand, you can watch the BBC Doco that was inspired by Monbiot's original article: "The Age of Loneliness" - well worth a watch!

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