Being first on the bill at the Nocturne concert at Blenheim Palace, Nick Lowe had first choice of the songs he would sing, but it was his song, anyway. “You might hear this again, tonight,” he said, as he played the opening chords of “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” A solitary voice, alone on the stage, with only an acoustic guitar for accompaniment, the lyrics seemed a plaintive protest at the mood of the times, just as they did four decades ago when recorded at the height of the Cold War. Three hours later, as Nick Lowe had anticipated, Elvis Costello’s set included the same song, a cry for a world different from the present.
As I walk through
This wicked world
Searchin’ for light in the darkness of insanity.
I ask myself
Is all hope lost?
Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?
Peace, love and understanding are a remote prospect in a world that cannot manage simple truth and basic politeness. The rise of populism on both sides of the Atlantic has brought the politics of slogans and scapegoating. Populism has become an attempt to escape from complexity and responsibility, to blame visible minorities, or invisible elites, for problems mature democratic societies would in the past have recognized as having no simple solutions. The slapstick, knockabout exchanges on social media might play well to the audiences of the respective protagonists, but do nothing to address problems or create healthier and happier societies.
If Nick Lowe’s words about searching for light in the darkness of insanity seem extreme, then read the reports that the British government’s own studies suggest that next year food supplies to Cornwall and Scotland could run out in early April and that a critical shortage of medicines could arise. And if “pain and hatred and misery” seems too extreme a description of the times, then listen to the accounts of those subject to daily abuse of xenophobes.
2018 is not the 1930s, but like that awful decade, there is an absence of leadership in the centre ground, there is an absence of a credible and coherent opposition, there is no figure capable of drawing together polarised communities.
Nick Lowe’s lyric offers no comfort:
And as I walked on
Through troubled times
My spirit gets so downhearted sometimes
So where are the strong
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
Where is the harmony? It’s a long way away.