Tunes of glory
How do you love a song you disagree with?
This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
I never had to have an opinion about the Falklands War because it was all over before I was ten months old, and however annoyingly precocious I was as a child, even I drew the line at articulating foreign policy in shrieks and burping. (Anyone tempted to jump in with, “Isn’t that just what you do now?” — have this one for free.) So my opinions about the conflict, for most of my life, have been a vague cloud comprising the words “sheep”, “rock”, “Belgrano” and “Maggie”.
And a song. “Shipbuilding” — written by Elvis Costello as a response to the Falklands War, but performed in its canonical version by Robert Wyatt — is often called a protest song, though it doesn’t sound very much like one.
It starts with a scuffle of drums, a roll of piano notes, a double bass solemnly holding up the bottom of the melody. It sounds sad, not angry; hesitant, not polemical. And when Wyatt’s fragile vocal comes in, it’s with a question: “Is it worth it? / A new winter coat and shoes for the wife / And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday.”
The song takes the view of a shipbuilding town, or rather the men of the town. The war, it says, will bring them the prosperity to buy luxuries for their families, but it will take their sons from them too: “Well I ask you / The boy said, ‘Dad they’re going to take me to task’ / But I’ll be back by Christmas.”
And then the chorus: “It’s just a rumour that was spread around town / Somebody said that someone got filled in / For saying that people get killed in / The results of the shipbuilding.” (Wyatt’s phrasing here is a thing of perfect beauty, every syllable landing with trembling grace at the perfect mark.)
If Britain made a military error in the Falklands, I decided, it was in leaving them vulnerable
Is “shipbuilding” an anti-war song? There’s nothing militaristic or jingoistic in these delicate lines, but it only tips its hand in the gorgeous, yearning refrain. “With all the will in the world,” sings Wyatt, “Diving for dear life / When we could be diving for pearls.”
There’s something hopelessly moving about the conversational bathos of that “with all the will in the world” (which echoes the banality of “is it worth it” and “well I ask you” before it), followed by the poetry and promise of “diving for pearls”. Couldn’t we be better than war? The music almost agrees as the song ends, but the piano withholds a final note of resolution.
So, the Falklands War was fixed roughly in my head as, if not a misadventure, at least a kind of tragedy. Then, four decades on, two things belatedly forced me to think about it.
First, Joe Biden won the US presidency, and shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy praised him as an ally to Britain — based, in part, on his backing for the Falklands War. Cue the brattiest bits of the British left rending their garments over a Labour politician speaking well of “Thatcher’s imperial war”.
At the same time, I was watching series four of The Crown, which covers the Eighties and so touches on the arguments around the Falklands: were they even worth defending, or was this an ego trip for a PM with a fragile grip on power? The more I read, the more hawkish I became.
If Britain made a military error in the Falklands, I decided, it was in leaving them (and their British occupants) vulnerable while Argentina’s military dictatorship was clearly spoiling for a bit of expansion. Rule Britannia and down with the junta: now does anyone fancy a street party?
Those who make war’s implements don’t get to make cool judgments of right and wrong in retrospect
Which puts “Shipbuilding” in a strange spot. It’s a song that abides in ambivalence, so it’s a problem if the answer to “Is it worth it?” is an abrupt “Yes, of course going to war against a fascist is a good idea”.
Even harder to accommodate is the version by Suede, who covered it in 1995 to support the charity War Child, founded initially to aid child victims of conflict in the former Yugoslavia. The UK’s intervention in that was not noted for its naval power, and nor was there any plausible dissent from the moral case for British engagement. Yet singer Brett Anderson puts tender conviction into every word of this hymn to doubt.
How do you love a song you disagree with? Because I do love “Shipbuilding”, and I do think — even though there was ultimately no Falklands-inspired reversal to shipbuilding’s decline, and the boys were in fact back by Christmas, and honestly if you want to talk about British industry in the Eighties indirectly killing people, coal has an awful lot more to answer for — that it captures something rarely caught about the intimacy of war — the uncertainty of it.
Those who make its implements, and those who die for it, don’t get to make cool judgments of right and wrong in retrospect. In the present, there’s only a question, and a silence where the note of resolution ought to be.
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