Monday, March 20, 2017

Neil Young's jeans.

It all started with my first glimpse of the back cover of Neil Young’s ‘After the Goldrush’ album.  Below the track titles and credits, the photo showed the arse of Neil’s denim jeans, resplendent with patches – paisley and otherwise patterned and textured.  To my eyes now, they look machine stitched, but at the time I assumed they were rather neatly hand stitched.  They get a credit on the cover – they were the work of Young’s then-wife Susan.  You get a shot of a youthful Neil on the inside gatefold.  He’s lounging on a leather sofa with a lot of guitars around him and he’s wearing the same jeans.  You can see more patching on the upper legs and knees.  He'd either been wearing them for some years until the material had worn to fraying holes, or Susan just figured the jeans would look good with all those patches.  It’s hard to tell how worn the jeans were from the cover shots.  He was doing quite well for himself by the time that record came out.  I guess he could have afforded a new pair of jeans if he’d wanted.  But at that time, patching your jeans was considered pretty cool.  Neil certainly looks that way in the gatefold – serious, thoughtful… and cool in his patched jeans.

So what started for me was the idea that it would be a really good thing to have my jeans covered in patches like Neil’s.  Back in 1970, feminism hadn’t really connected that properly for me, so my first thought was that I would have to find a woman who was willing to do the job for me.  I didn’t have any money to pay for the work, so they’d have to do it out of love for me – like Susan must have done for Neil, until she divorced him after two years of marriage.  Unsurprisingly, I didn’t manage to find a woman who was willing to patch my jeans for me out of love, so in the end I thought I’d better learn to do it myself.

Because I was a boy, I never got a chance to do needlework at school.  I had to do metalwork instead, and I don’t know why because metalwork has never been the slightest use to me in all the years I’ve lived since then.  And because I was a boy my mum didn’t think it would be appropriate to show me how to do needlework, because she probably thought that sooner or later I would marry a woman.  And then it would be her job to do any needlework I needed doing out of love for me.  So I got a woman who was a friend of mine to show me how to stitch on a patch, and I got a sewing needle, and some thread, and some random scraps of patterned coloured materials, and I started sewing my own patches on my own jeans.

It was easier to sew on patches by hand than I thought it would be, except where you had to sew through a seam and it was really hard to push the needle through all those tight layers of denim.  Mostly, I discovered that I quite enjoyed it.  The bit where you have to pin the patch on before you start sewing was kind of a drag, but once you had thread on your needle and you were pushing it through and pulling it out over and over again, that part was kind of soothing.  You could listen to music or watch TV even, and that repetitive action – in and out, pull it tight, in and out – just had its own pleasant flow.  And when you were done, got right the way round to the point where you started and tied the end in a knot so the thread didn’t start to work its way out of the material, well then you had a fine patch to show for all that time and energy.

And after a few years of wearing holes in my jeans and sewing on those multi coloured, patterned patches over those holes, I had one or two pairs of jeans that were starting to look just like Neil’s did on the cover of ‘After the Goldrush’.  Whenever I saw pictures of him or saw him on TV, I kept watching out for those jeans.  Had he got any more patches sewed on as more bits of the original denim carried on wearing away like they do?  But I never saw those jeans again.  In fact, after that I never saw Neil Young wearing patched jeans at all.  Not ever.  Maybe it was the trauma of being divorced by Susan after just two years of marriage, but he seemed to go right off wearing patched jeans altogether.

Actually, what it was really was something I hadn’t taken into account.  Fashion.  I thought that, once we’d got away from our parents and stopped wearing the kinds of clothes that they thought we ought to wear, we’d find the kind of clothes we decided we actually liked and carry on wearing them for the rest of our lives.  And when they started to get a bit worn, we’d repair them as best we could for as long as we could, and when they were really shabby we’d just wear them for doing messy jobs in ‘til they fell apart and we used them for rags.  How wrong I was!  I hadn’t taken fashion into account at all.

In fact, by the end of the 70s, people were actually buying new pairs of trousers that were ready ripped at the knees.  And they wouldn’t have even dreamed of putting patches over those rips, though sometimes I remember they did sort of join them together with safety pins.  I don’t think Neil Young ever did that, though.  Not even when he wrote that song that mentioned Johnny Rotten.

But fashion can get under your skin.  It can change your perception.  I hadn’t taken that into account either.  By about 1975, even I was starting to think my multicoloured patched jeans looked a bit silly.  Intrinsically, they probably didn’t at all, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling.  The trouble was, I still didn’t want to throw away a pair of jeans just because of a little bit of wear and tear.  I liked my jeans.  They were friends.  So I started doing my patches with just other pieces of blue denim, from even older pairs that had worn out or that I’d grown out of.  With all the different tones of blue and levels of fading, that looked kind of good - and it didn’t look silly at all to me.  It still doesn’t, and I still do it.  So it really doesn’t matter these days whether I see Neil Young wearing patched jeans or not.  Though I’m quite glad he still sometimes wears those kind of checked shirts he’s always worn.  That shows some sort of integrity.

As for me, when I go out wearing my patched jeans, I do sometimes feel a bit self-conscious.  It would help to see at least one or two other people doing the same.  But there we are.  I don’t intend to stop.  And if ever it does become fashionable again to patch your own jeans, I shall be so far ahead of the pack, I will be feted as a fashion icon.  Everything comes around.  All I have to do is to live that long.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Thoughts on 'I, Daniel Blake' pt2 - 'Two Days, One Night.'

Last time I wrote about my personal response to Ken Loach’s latest film ‘I, Daniel Blake’, welcoming the way it highlights in detail the pernicious modifications that have accumulated within the UK benefits system in recent years, but critical of its ‘tick box’ approach to storytelling.  

The film I’d like to describe now is one that, I felt, told a gripping story (managing to do so without resorting to car chases, explosions etc.) at the same time as it exposed the plight of low waged workers within the corporate system we have built around ourselves.  It was made in Belgium, released in 2014 and its English title is ‘Two Days, One Night’.

The story concerns a factory worker, Sandra, who returns to work after taking time off for depression, only to find that her bosses have decided that, in a period of austerity, they can get by with one less worker.  She is to be made redundant unless a majority of her co-workers vote to keep her on.  But if this is what they decide, they each have to sacrifice a 1,000 Euro bonus.

It’s a small factory, manufacturing solar panels, with a work force of 16 men and women.  A show of hands vote has gone against Sandra, but she persuades her employers that there has been a degree of intimidation on the part of a supervisor who is determined to get rid of her and secure the bonuses.  They agree to a secret ballot and she finds herself with a single weekend to persuade enough of her colleagues to support her, so the vote will go in her favour and enable her to retain her livelihood.

It’s a gruelling challenge, involving bus journeys, hours of foot slogging, searching for addresses, fruitless doorbell ringing, constant rehearsal/modification of the arguments she will use when she does get face to face with one of the 13 people she hopes to speak to.  Some of the confrontations are heartbreaking – they are all people for whom the 1,000 Euros could make a positive difference in their lives, or in some cases who are under family pressures to bring home that additional money.  Sandra herself understands all too well the difficult choice she is asking each of them to make.  And remember, her own mental balance is still frail.  The actress who plays the role, Marion Cotillard, is superb.  We are made to feel the strength of her determination; we are touched by her many moments of weariness and despair; we share her occasional moments of encouragement when someone agrees to vote in her favour.

The suspense builds as the weekend winds to a close, Monday morning and the secret ballot arrive.  It is not clear how the vote will go.  The story’s end can be found online, but I’m not going to put a spoiler here.  Suffice to say that a final twist presents Sandra herself with an acutely difficult moral choice.  That she makes it with clarity and compassion is a testament to the way in which her own strength of character has been developed by her efforts.

Okay, this film has a somewhat different brief to ‘I, Daniel Blake’.  But there are a good many parallels.  Both films highlight, as the gap continues to widen between rich and poor, the unnecessary and humiliating shit the latter have to face just in order to live.  Both focus on the harsh, soulless environments in which working class people now find themselves more often than not living.  Both tell of a possibly hopeless quest for some sort of justice in the face of a profoundly unjust system.  Where ‘Two Days, One Night’ scores is in making out of this kind of material a story that cannot fail to affect anyone of a reasonably sensitive disposition.  It’s a film that makes you ask questions and think, rather than to nod along numbly and say: ‘Oh yes, isn’t that terrible?’

It’s been said to me that in this particular slough of the twenty first century, the oppressed lack articulate voices to speak in their favour.  This may well be true and the likes of Ken Loach are to be treasured for speaking up and for going resolutely against the grain.  But in terms of doing this effectively, in a way that might just bring the situation home to those who prefer to think otherwise, I think Ken may have missed a trick.  One that the Dardenne brothers (directors and screenplay writers of TDON) managed to achieve compellingly.