The Plastic Hippo

July 2, 2014

Nat King Cole



Decades before Will Smith`s fictional Fresh Prince migrated from West Philadelphia to Bel Air, singer and pianist Nat King Cole tried upward mobility for real.

As the first African American entertainer popular enough to have his own television show in the 1950s, Nat King Cole`s success brought him enough money to buy a large house in an affluent, all-white suburb of Los Angeles. Soon after moving in with his family, his wealthy, white neighbours invited him to a party to welcome the famous newcomer. However, the invitation made it very clear that he was expected to play and sing and as a reward might be able to have some chitlins and corn bread with the servants in the kitchen. Ever the gentleman, Cole politely declined, explaining that he made his living by playing and singing and helpfully included the contact details for his agent and manager should the host and hostess wish to arrange an engagement subject to a binding contract and the usual fee. The host and the hostess did not make a booking.

Hancock Park, just below the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles California, is a long way from the Arboretum Walsall England, but the patronising and rather insulting attitude of talentless people towards creative people remains rooted in 1950s ignorance. One of the latest admissions of failure to ooze out of the big house on Lichfield Street is an “appeal” for musicians to work for nothing dressed up as an “opportunity” to showcase talent. The barely cogent portfolio holder for leisure and culture, councillor Anthony Harris, managed to string together a sentence or two. He said;
“Residents understand the financial pressure that the council is under and we are not in a position to be able to pay artists to perform. But that doesn`t mean we can`t appeal to them to offer their services free.”

This particular resident understands that the financial pressure has been caused by a toxic mix of an inept local administration, of which he is a member, and a venal central government cutting public services to the bone and beyond into amputation whilst giving tax breaks to millionaires, helicopters to princes and the NHS to sharks. Before the fun fair councillor recites the four-year-old mantra of “the mess we inherited”, he might to try and focus on the ONS figures which indicate that under Osborne, state borrowing, the national debt, the deficit myth and child poverty have all increased. It seems that councillor Harris would prefer it if the band on the Titanic played for nothing. All they need is their own PA and equipment and a willingness to put on a show for free. Because of the difficult financial situation, food will not be available in the servant`s quarters and musicians needing practice, dedication, skill, talent, a PA, an instrument, a van or anything what was once called recognition should refer themselves to a food bank.

Being a little bit dim, Walsall`s cabinet seem to equate something for nothing as value for money and as the good ship Walsall steams blindly on, the offer of an “opportunity” to work for free is just the tip of the failing civic iceberg. Sure enough, a couple of days after the Judy Garland Mickey Rooney “let`s do the show right here” nonsense emerged, another impassioned “call to action” was clanged onto the ship`s telegraph. This time, the admission of abject failure came from Liberal Democrat patsy Ian Shires who requires “communities” to come forward to provide local services for communities and, more importantly, for free. You could try tweeting the portfolio holder for community engagement and voluntary sector but he stopped tweeting once his position in cabinet was guaranteed and then re-appointed after failing to retain two wards in the local elections.

He said, apparently;
“We are asking our communities, and in particular voluntary and community sector agencies, to come together as a call to action. They may be able to do the things that Walsall Council with either have to do less of or not do at all in the future. We want our local voluntary and community sector organisations to be fully involved in meeting the needs of our communities. No-one knows better about what services these communities want, and how they should receive them, than the organisations that are run by our communities themselves through the voluntary and community sector. Now is the time for this expertise to be ignited.”

This level of free form avant-garde jazz improvisation is difficult to interpret but the underlying groove seems to be that Walsall`s cabinet are incapable of providing the services that they have a duty to provide and would now like people not receiving cabinet allowances to provide those services for free. Local politics in Walsall, like jazz and reggae and certain forms of erotica, is defined by the bits that you leave out rather than the bits you include. So there are no riffs around the themes of mayoral cars, flagpoles, car park resurfacing, missing European millions, whistleblowers, the Serco shambles, an £8m “loan” to Primark or an unusually large increase in cabinet allowances. A self-indulgent 20 minute drum solo celebrating the funding cuts imposed by central government will only alienate the audience and the Conservative and Liberal Democrat “big society” bad vibe will confirm that charities like Oxfam and the Trussell Trust are politically motivated terrorists for suggesting that the government is causing poverty and hunger. Workfare, part time drudgery and zero hours contracts not only manipulate bogus employment figures but also provide an unlimited supply of free labour.

The appeal to artists to entertain for nothing on the Walsall Arboretum bandstand might even be taken up by the different kind of artists around the cabinet table. Working 28 hours a day for free, Mike Bird could treat us to his brilliant stand up comedy routine followed by his hilarious vent act featuring little Adrian sitting on his knee. Councillor Shires could hand out the pitch forks and flaming torches whenever the adoring crowd yells “mental health facility” and the newly appointed cabinet member for children`s services could do a turn boasting about his wealth and success as an IT consultant and offer to fix everyone`s internet thingy at no charge. A fun fair will be provided for free and a Shadows tribute band so enthusiastically promoted by the bloke now in charge of the bins will play for nothing. The newly appointed mayor will persuade the newly appointed Freeman of the borough to reform his band and perform for free to recreate the magic of the 1970s. Minor male personalities of a certain age will, in the fullness of time, volunteer to guide children to the event using only a giant lollipop.

A few days after Nat King Cole declined the “opportunity” of doing his job for free at a Hancock Park mansion, he received a letter from the residents association stating that “undesirables” were not welcome in that affluent community. That night, the KKK planted a huge burning cross on his front lawn.

Igniting such expertise is not confined to 1950s California.

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