Don't Burn the Books
Saturday, 20 January 2018 00:52

Don't Burn the Books

Published in Round-up

A scorching hot list of summer political reading selected by Mark Perryman.

A year ago as Labour sought to recover from the May General Election defeat, halls were starting to fill up for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign rallies. But even as the halls got bigger and the queues round the block longer, few would ever imagined that this would result in the Left for once being on the winning side. The overwhelming majority of Labour MPs never accepted the vote. They bided their time, and chose the moment for their coup in a way to cause maximum damage. Richard Seymour’s Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics is to date both the best, and the definitive, account of what Corbyn’s victory the first time round meant. One year on, it is the essential summer 2016 read.

But as Corbyn would be the first to admit, his victory will never amount to much unless he can refashion what Labour also means. A Better Politics by Danny Dorling is a neat combination of catchy ideas and practical policies towards a more equal society that benefits all. Of course the principal barrier to equality remains class. In her new book Respectable, Lynsey Hanley provides an explanation of modern class relations that effortlessly mixes the personal and the political. If this sounds easier written than done, then George Monbiot’s epic How Did We Get Into This Mess? serves to remind us of the scale of the economic and environmental crisis we are up against.

Labour’s existential crisis is rooted in competing models of party democracy, and how this should shape a party as a social movement for change. An exploration of what a left populist mass party might look like and the problems it will encounter is provided in Podemos: In the Name of the People, a highly original set of conversations between theorist Chantal Mouffe and Íñigo Errejón, political secretary of Podemos. And it's introduced by Owen Jones - what a line-up!

MP Podemos

One of the more positive aspects of Labour’s crisis should be pluralism, and a rejecion of simplistic binary oppositions such as Corbynista vs Blairite. To begin with, all engaged in the Labour debate should read the free-to-download book Labour’s Identity Crisis: England and the Politics of Patriotism, edited by Tristram Hunt. There is much here on an issue vital post-Brexit, yet scarcely acknowledged as important by most on both ‘sides’. One criticism though - why no contributors from the Left side, such as Billy Bragg, Gary Younge, or the young black Labour MP Kate Osamor?

Taking a tour round Britain to portray the state of the nation(s) is fairly familiar territory for writers on Britishness but Island Story by JD Taylor stands out, thanks to a the author’s sense purpose, tenacious imagination - and a bicycle. It also avoids the common tendency in attempts to produce a settled national narrative of  producing a bastardised version of English nationalism, combining the isolationist and the racist to produce a toxic mix. As a shortish polemic The Ministry of Nostalgia from Owen Hatherley is also more of a demolition than a deconstruction of the rewriting of our history that flows from this naionalism, and all the better for it.

Anglo-populism is mired in the issue of immigration as a mask for its racism. Angry White People by Hsiao-Hung Pai encounters the extremities of this - the far Right, whose politics of hate have a nasty habit of not being as far away as many of us would like. In the USA, the brutal institutionalised racism of its police force has sparked a mass movement which is reported with much insight by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s in her From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, another essential read if a similar popular anti-racism is going to emerge on this side of the Atlantic sometime soon. Of course #BlackLivesMatter didn’t emerge in a political vacuum, it connected movements that date back to the 1950s and 1960s. These connections are expertly made by one of the key Black political figures of both then and now, Angela Davis, whose new book Freedom is a Constant Struggle is an absolutely inspiring read.

MP black lives

Do the deepening fractures around race spell a new era of uprisings? Quite possibly, though their political trajectory and outcomes remain uncertain. Joshua Clover comes down firmly on the side of the optimistic reading in his new book Riot.Strike.Riot, while most wouldn’t be so sure. A handy companion volume would be Strike Art by Yates McKee which helpfully explains the protest culture created via the Occupy movement. However, doubt remains whether such moments, direct action or insurrection, can generate a positive impact beyond their own milieu or locality. Shooting Hipsters is a much-needed up-to-date account of, and practical guide to, how acts of dissent can break through into and beyond the mainstream media. And for the dark side? Mara Einstein’s Black Ops Advertising, which details the many ways in which corporate PR operations have sought to colonise social media.

MP shootinghipstersthumb

We can be inspired by history to carve out a better future from the present. A Full Life by Tom Keough and Paul Buhle uses a comic strip to illustrate the life, times and ideals of Irish rebel James Connolly. Alternatively, enjoy the extraordinary range of writing from the Spanish Civil War compiled by Pete Ayrton in No Pasaran! And Owen Hatherley’s carefully crafted The Chaplin Machine provides an insight into the aesthetic of revolution that was abroad at the time in the immediate aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, on a scale never seen before or since.

It is also a period that is recorded with considerable skill by the twice-yearly journal Twentieth Century Communism - the latest edition providing the usual thematic range, including Trotsky’s bid to live in 1930s Britain, and an outline of the basis for a cosmopolitan anti-imperialism. Of course there are plenty who would seek to bury all of this. David Aaronovitch comes to the last rites with his brilliantly written if flawed Party Animals. An entirely different perspective is provided by the hugely impressive Jodi Dean and her latest book Crowds and Party, an impassioned account of modern protest movements as the enduring case for a mass party of social and political change. Sounds familiar, trite even? Not the way Jodi argues it, mixing an acute sense of history with a vision of the future.

MP Crowds and party cover

But enjoying the here and now of a super soaraway summer perhaps demands more than the promise of a better tomorrow. My starting point for a today to look forward to usually revolves around finding a recipe for a decent supper. Plenty of these can be found in The Good Life Eatery Cookbook with a mix of good-for-you, or more importantly in this instance good-for-me recipes, temptingly delicious-looking photography, and a philosophy behind it all that reminds me of that useful maxim ‘small is beautiful.’

Of course no summer should be complete without a visit to the beach. Highly recommended reading for the sun-lounger searching for a dash of a thriller for a mental getaway is Chris Brookmyre’s latest Black Widow which, as always with Brookmyre, is dark, twisted and entertaining. And for the children? Pushkin Press do the hard work for parents, tracking down the best in European kids’ books, translating, repackaging and producing such gems as Tow-Truck Pluck from the Netherlands. The perfect holiday read for families needing to be cheered up post-Brexit.

MP Chris Brookmyre

And my book of the quarter? Food is never far from most of our minds. Summertime picnics are for the fortunate, worrying about what we eat and the impact it has on our health. For others, the spread of food banks is testament to the failure of austerity politics. Few writers could appeal to both the modern obsession with food as well as to consciences concerned with those who don’t have enough of it to get by, never mind baking off. But Josh Sutton does with his pioneering account Food Worth Fighting For. This is social history that packs a punch, while written in a style and with a focus to transform readers into fighting foodies. Brilliant, and incredibly original.

 Food rev2

 

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’, aka Philosophy Football. No links in this review to Amazon, if you can avoid purchasing from offshore tax dodgers please do.

Billy Bragg on tour 2015
Saturday, 20 January 2018 00:52

Socialism of the Heart: an interview with Billy Bragg

Published in Music

 How did the last tour go, did you enjoy it? You had to put on extra dates, what were the audiences like? Do you think you're tapping into a new radical mood among young people, the same mood that got Corbyn elected?

The tour's just finished, it was great. I started with a couple of London shows at the Union Chapel, a non-conformist church in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency of Islington North. Built in 1877, it’s a wonderful gig to perform, but backstage isn’t really designed for rock and roll gigs. It’s a more of a Victorian warren. One of my crew asked if I’d seen the mural of Jeremy in one of the rooms? I went to investigate and found that, while it did depict a kindly looking fellow with a beard, this chap was carrying a lamb and his head was suspiciously backlit.

Following the London shows, I headed up to Scotland to do my first gigs there since the independence referendum. I was very encouraged to find that the energy of the Yes campaign had not dissipated, despite their defeat last September. I also found that Corbyn’s election means something different in Scotland. Progressively-minded people are happy that someone who opposes the neo-liberal consensus has been elected leader of the Labour Party, but they do wonder why it’s taken us so long to catch on to the idea that the Westminster system is broken.

It was an interesting time to be on the road up there. The Syria vote fired everyone up – even the doorman at my Glasgow hotel said it was outrageous that parliament had voted in favour of bombing. The Oldham by-election added some edge to things and the new left wing grouping, RISE, were holding their first conference on the coming weekend. As a result, the Scottish gigs were highly politicised.

We finished off with a gig at Butlins Skegness holiday camp. Sounds strange, I know, but it’s the best way to hold a festival in December and Butlins host music events most weekends through the winter. This one was the Great British Folk Festival and although I’m not really part of the tradition, the folk audience has always been very supportive. In a music business where most artists would rather not say anything politically controversial, the folk fans deserve respect as people who have helped keep the topical song alive.

I wasn’t too sure how my songs would go down at Butlins, but I gave them the same politicised set that I’d been doing in London and Scotland and it went down a storm. Every mention of Corbyn was cheered and when I finished with ‘There is Power in A Union’, they stood and sang along.

You're also one of the people that have kept the protest music tradition alive in this country, and helped make sure socialist values are kept alive and celebrated musically. Can you tell us something about your background, how you got into the protest music tradition, and why you've stuck with it when others have fallen away? Can musicians influence politics, do you think?

I got into politics through music. My earliest heroes were the singer-songwriters of the 1960s – Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Jackson Browne all wrote topical songs. My other love was American soul music. Listening to the likes of Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and the Impressions I heard the songs of struggle that were inspired by the civil rights movement.

Although people believed that music could change the world in the 60s, that has not been my experience. Ultimately, the responsibility for changing the world rests not with the artist but with the audience. To pretend otherwise is to fail to understand history. Having said that, I do believe that music has a role to play in inspiring the audience to take up that challenge.

Attending the Rock Against Racism Carnival in May 1978 was my first political activism. That event made me realise that I was not the only person who was troubled by the casual racism, sexism and homophobia I saw everyday at the office where I worked. However, it wasn’t the bands that gave me the courage of my convictions, it was being in that audience – 100,000 kids just like me. That day I realised that my generation were going to define themselves in opposition to discrimination of all kinds, just as the previous generation had been defined by their opposition to the Vietnam War.

The bands that played that day did a great service to me by creating an atmosphere in which my perceptions were challenged, which in turn led me to take a different view of things. That is the role that music can play in the struggle. I know, because it happened to me and so I try to challenge perceptions every time I do a gig.

Can you tell us more about the phenomenon that was Red Wedge, in the eighties, which you fronted? And the obvious next question, any chance of something similar happening in the next few years?

Taking its name from a poster by Russian constructivist El Lizzitsky, Red Wedge was an artist-led initiative that sought to encourage young people to support the Labour party at the 1987 election. When the miners' strike ended in defeat, those of us who had done gigs in support of the strikers and their families didn’t just want to go back to normal. Red Wedge was our way of continuing the struggle, taking the fight to the Tories at the next possible opportunity – the 1987 election.

We chose to work with (not for) the Labour Party because we felt they represented the best vehicle for getting rid of the Tories. The miners' strike had been a genuinely revolutionary moment, but it had failed. Now we had to take the next best option. We didn’t see the fight against the Tories as an either/or choice: our message to revolutionary colleagues was that we would come on to the street with them when it was time, if they would come into the ballot box with us.

The core artists involved were myself, the Style Council, Junior Giscombe, Jerry Dammers and the Communards. In the lead up to the election, we were joined by Madness, the Smiths, Prefab Sprout, the Kane Gang, The The, Gary Kemp, The Beat, Tom Robinson and many others. What defined us was our opposition to Margaret Thatcher, rather than an avid support for the Labour Party.

Could Red Wedge happen again? I think that’s a question for someone under 30.

How has the music industry changed over the years? Could someone with your background and your openly political approach still make it, do you think?

The music industry has changed massively in the 33 years since my first record. When I started out, there were three weekly music papers that sold big – NME, Melody Maker and Sounds, as well as many smaller publications. There were only two pop radio stations, BBC Radio One and it’s regional commercial equivalent – Capital in London. And there was a weekly pop show on national tv that broadcast all the latest music and styles into your living room – Top of the Pops. All of that has either disappeared or had its voice drowned out by digital competition.

More significantly for someone who wants to make political pop, music has lost its vanguard role as the primary identifying medium of youth culture. When I was 19 years old, the only avenue of expression open to me was pop music. If I wanted to broadcast my thoughts about the world, I had to learn to play an instrument, write songs and do gigs. Now any 19-year-old can express their views by blogging or making a film on their phone or using the ready-made platforms of the social media.

Although we didn’t realise it at the time, back in the latter years of the 20th century, music was our social medium – we used it to speak to one another and to our parent’s generation. Now if 19-year-olds want to know what their peers are thinking, they don’t buy an album or look at the charts or in the NME, they simply check their Instagram account.

I also wonder if I’d have been able to overcome the amount of scorn and abuse directed at anyone who expresses a progressive opinion on social media these days. If I’d had to endure the slings and arrows of Twitter and Facebook while forming my political opinions, would I have thought better of it and just stuck to writing love songs?

Your latest book of lyrics, A Lover Sings, is published by Faber and Faber, the august publishing house for top class poetry. That's quite an achievement in itself, isn't it? What do you think about the difference between poems and songs?

The main difference is that you generally experience poetry in solitude, reading quietly somewhere. Songs tend to be more of a communal experience. To hear a favourite song sung by the artists who wrote it and to sing along with them and hundreds, maybe thousands of others, has the effect of validating whatever emotions you’ve invested in the song. It’s a kind of solidarity. The left know the powerful unity that can come from singing together but it doesn’t have to be a political song to make you feel that you’re not alone. You can’t get that sense of communion on the internet, which is why I think gigs are becoming more popular, particularly festivals where you can feel part of something bigger.

What's your thinking about current political issues, the new Labour leadership, and the sudden and unexpected resurgence of the political left?

Unexpected is the word! I think Jeremy Corbyn himself may have been the most surprised by his elevation. It’s clearly not just about him. There is something bigger at work. My hunch is that he has become a lightning rod for a different way of doing politics. His sudden popularity is less to do with his own position and more to do with an urge on the left to be part of a genuinely transformative movement.

That’s the feeling that I got in Scotland last year, when doing gigs with supporters of the Yes campaign during the referendum. People were energised not by nationalism but by a sense that another world was possible. That’s why the turn out was unprecedented – people knew that their vote would really mean something. I think the same urge is behind Corbyn’s landslide. At a time when globalisation has allowed corporations to set the agenda, our democracy has become less about change and more about rewarding the status quo. Corbyn challenges that cosy arrangement.

Whether he can survive until the general election is anybody's guess, but, again, I take heart from what happened in Scotland: the Yessers lost the referendum, but they didn’t go home and give up. They maintained the connections they’d made and kept the momentum going. My hope is that, now we Corbynites have been engaged in the process of changing our politics for the better, we won’t simply melt away if the Great Helmsman is brought down by Blairite revanchists within the PLP. They can oust him, but they will still have us to deal with in the ensuing leadership contest.

Finally, Billy, what do you mean by your phrase 'socialism of the heart'?

It’s a term I came up with after the fall of the Berlin Wall, at a time when ideology was being swiftly abandoned and the language that we’d used to debate our politics no longer meant anything to the public we hoped to engage. I’ve always believed that if socialism is not, at heart, a form of organised compassion, then it is not really worthy of the name. So I began trying to find ways of expressing the compassionate politics that I felt had to form the bedrock of our attempts to forge a new ideology that connected with people’s everyday experiences and ‘socialism of the heart’ was the first term I came up with.

Billy Bragg has just finished an intensive year's tour round Britain. A Lover Sings, The Selected Lyrics of Billy Bragg, is published by Faber and Faber.

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