For the Many not the Few
Monday, 22 May 2017 17:24

For the Many not the Few

Published in Poetry

If All the People Voted for the Many Not the Few

by Zita Holbourne 
 
If all the people who didn't vote used their vote
They'd force politicians to sit up and take note 
The number of young people who didn't vote at all
Outnumbered those voting last election in total

If all the people who said "I don't do politics"
Joined the "all politicians are the same" cynics 
They could hold our political future in their hands
And influence on June 8th what happens in these lands 

If all those who said they like Jeremy Corbyn
But they don't think  he can win so they won't be voting 
Used their vote and voted for  Labour he would win 
If all who won't vote Labour 'cos they don't like him

Voted on policies not his personality 
We could make stopping cuts a reality 
We could save the NHS, reduce inequality 
Lift those struggling to survive out of poverty

End zero hour contracts and earn a living wage
Stop disadvantage based on gender, race and age 
Disability and sexual orientation 
Make a stand against exploitation

Or neglect of the most vulnerable people 
Build a society that's more just and equal 
Invest in social and affordable homes
Get paid a living wage, not turn to payday loans
 
Renationalise energy and Royal Mail 
End the privatisation of buses and rail 
Reverse welfare reforms like the bedroom tax 
And to University tuition fees give the axe

Make education free not a privilege for the rich 
Kick draconian Tory policies in the ditch 
Halt cuts to jobs, services and communities 
That are destroying lives, made with impunity

Stop austerity measures that are ideological 
Reject the myths and lies that they're economical 
If all the people who even though they know full well
These Tory cuts assign them to a living hell

But still in vox pops and polls, when asked will say 
"I'm voting Tory cos I like Theresa May" 
Would see that's just like turkeys voting for Christmas
It makes no sense at all, it's just ridiculous

If all those who say they're voting for May "because she's strong"
Would stop to realise you can be  strong and wrong 
That gentle and peaceful doesn't equal weak 
That being real and caring doesn't make you a freak

If all the people voting on how you look not what you do 
Looked at voting records rather than each leader's shoes 
They'd see that Corbyn's stood up for us from time 
That for decades of time he's had your back and mine

In communities not just in  Parliament
He's meant what he said, said what he meant
Joining rallies and vigils for justice and peace 
Stood on picket lines and protested on the streets 

If elected Labour will invest  in schools and  education 
- An old African proverb gives Corbyn inspiration
"It takes a village to raise a child" he says -
EMA and free school meals because it pays

To invest in the lives and  futures of   our children 
This is what it's all about, the next generation
If all the people who say they won't vote, voted Labour 
Encouraged their friend, colleague and neighbour

We could change the future life chances of  young people  
Build a society that's safe and is stable 
Protect our rights and defend communities 
Focus on building trust and hope and unity

If all the people who say "I don't really know"
Take the time to read the Labour manifesto 
The undecided could be the people who decide 
And together with those who "don't vote" turn the tide 

If all those who don't, decided now that they will 
We could move forward rather than standing still
Just imagine how empowered we could be 
If we stopped thinking I and thought of we
 
If the “don't vote” became the people who do
If we voted for the many not the few
If we acted as a majority
We could  finally see an end to austerity
We could rise up out of poverty
We could achieve true equality
 
If all the people voted for the many not the few.....
 
Ballade upon 'Warts and All'
Monday, 22 May 2017 17:24

Ballade upon 'Warts and All'

Published in Poetry

Ballade upon ‘Warts and all’

by Rip Bulkeley

Only the old world could provide
the means by which to reach the new,
wreck timbers soiled by the tide
of history which a stumbling crew
have cobbled for a rough canoe,
then launched with hope for all our sakes
despite the fact, which they well knew,
that politicians make mistakes.

It need not, surely, be denied
that Jeremy has blundered too.
How could he not, when vilified
by hacks from here to Timbuctoo
who yearn to cage him in their zoo,
then smear across their mental jakes
the headline revelation: ‘Ooh!
This politician makes mistakes!’?

Our man pays no one else to hide
his defects from the public view.
He’s neither schooled nor prettified;
his faults and merits are all true
and benefits from this accrue.
A voter from the balance makes
an informed choice: this much virtue;
this politician; some mistakes.

Envoi
Let none of this bewilder you,
divert you from the greater stakes
which some would have you misconstrue:
Which politicians? Which mistakes?

Monday, 22 May 2017 17:24

Stop consuming and do it yourself

Published in Music

Via email interview, Robb Johnson introduces his new album and talks about politics, protest music, and plum pudding.

Q. Can you tell us something about your new album, whether it's a change of style, direction, material or theme?

‘My Best Regards’ consists of 16 tracks, 13 songs recorded with Jenny Carr on piano and organ, John Forrester on bass and double bass, Arvin Johnson on drums and percussion, with some guest contributions from Jim Cannell on cello, Linz Maesterosa on clarinet and saxophone, and Saskia's Tomkins on violin. Kirsty Martin’s singing adds some extra vocal magic, and there are two tracks which are different versions of songs on the album, recorded live with Brighton's Hullabaloo Quire, which Kirsty coordinates. Then there is one track that is an alternative version of the song ‘When the Tide Comes In’ again performed live, with Palestinian singer Reem Kelani.

 

I think it is more of a development than a change of style, and it's not really a change of material. For a while now, my songs have generally been understood to be a balance of the personal and the political. I am quite happy about that, and that seems to me to be a pretty good description of the songs on this album, though sometimes I think more mainstream reviewers only seem to hear The Political, at which they promptly throw their hands up in horror.

I have released albums that have been determinedly Political – ‘Some Recent Protest Songs’ and ‘Us and Them’ – partly because I had accumulated a lot of overtly political songs, but partly because there was a tendency for mainstream media hacks to spew out articles complaining that no-one writes that sort of song any more. This seemed to me a combination of arrogance, ignorance, and an unhealthy dose of hypocrisy.

Mainstream media hacks have been either sneering contemptuously at politics in music which they term dismissively ‘protest music’ (in a way they never quite do with theatre or film) or ignoring it altogether for so long. Then they felt able to wring their hands, as austerity ravaged communities and cities erupted in riots, and take songwriters to task for not writing about austerity and riots any more. Yet their idea of popular music doesn't seem to be interested in anything that isn't in the media-sanctioned pop mainstream.

But this isn't one of those albums, although I suppose it is structured so as to have a political theme framing it. I like to have albums that give a narrative, that have an emotional or intellectual beginning/middle/end coherence. So this one starts off with the rather bleak ‘September 1939’. Immediately after the last general election I felt that the summery sunny days that followed must have been a little what it was like after war was declared in 1939. The album ends, though, with the post-Corbyn election song ‘The Future Starts Here’.

Originally the album was to be shorter and much more obviously politicised, but we used some of the more personal songs as warm-up numbers in the studio, and enjoyed playing them so much that we kept them. I think they actually work well to balance some of the album's bleaker moments, and help make the album more of a narrative journey.

Q. The JC4PM tour reminded some of us oldies of the Red Wedge tours in the eighties in support of Labour. How did the tour go?

Well, I think it was pretty successful. Certainly the gigs I did were very enjoyable and there was a very effective mix of speeches, stand-ups and songs. There seems a lot more comedy involved in JC4PM, compared with the earnest guitar and song tendencies of what I remember about Red Wedge, but then I suppose that's post- modernist irony for you, comedy being the new rock'n'roll etc.

The other difference is that Red Wedge were working in support of a Labour Party in retreat, a Labour Party under Kinnock beginning the long and dismal process of making itself electable in the eyes of Rupert Murdoch, by making itself into something that was hardly worth electing at all, and losing all sense of principle, integrity, and contact with the very section of society it had traditionally represented.

JC4PM, on the other hand, is working with a Labour Party – leadership and membership anyway – that is on the advance, reclaiming its principles, integrity and commitment to represent its historical constituency.

Q. What are your thoughts about politics at the moment, generally and of course in particular the situation with Jeremy Corbyn, socialism and the Labour Party?

I have rejoined the Labour Party. It was the pusillanimous attitude towards the poll tax, and the collusion over the Gulf War that did for me. I have always voted Labour. I didn’t have illusions about voting Labour, but as a working person and a trade unionist – I worked as a teacher for 35 years and was a fairly active member of the NUT – having a Labour government seemed a better option than having a Tory one.
Indeed, that old inch of difference between Tory and Labour was really significant for early years’ education at the start of the century, where there were some really positive developments for children introduced, while Tony Blair was telling us about how Saddam had all these weapons of mass destruction only 15 minutes away.
So what Jeremy Corbyn represents is a significant shift in the accepted narrative that has dominated politics in the U.K., since the Tories set about deliberately trashing the postwar consensus 30+ years ago. Corbyn's selection has taken the gag off those voices that never accepted that greed was good, that there was no such thing as society, that the poor have to pay for the fuck-ups of the greedy rich.

I know Jeremy Corbyn from being on the same anti-war demos, and he is like you and me, only whereas my day job was teaching, playing guitar and secretly wishing I'd been in the Stooges or The Pink Fairies or whatever, Jeremy Corbyn's day job, and I suspect his version of being in the Stooges, is doing politics properly, with principle and integrity. Doing a version of politics to ensure society and social organisations exist to serve the needs of the people, not the other way round.

Obviously, the consequences of Blairism means we have a parliamentary party of careerist small businesspersons for whom that idea is both strange and threatening, because Corbyn's politics are essentially about inclusion and empowerment, and machine politicians like being machine politicians. They play the game, they prefer to serve the machine that rewards them for their compliance, rather than serve the voters who put them there.

Socialism is simply the tradition of trying to organise society to the benefit of all, so to me it seems simple common sense. Certainly, my experience has confirmed that to be the case. Working with under fives, you see people at their best, before the manifold poisons & disappointments of capitalism and its commodifications screw us up. I know that human beings are absolutely brilliant, every single one of us, and that humans are essentially kind and positive, happiest when they cooperate rather than compete. Happiest also in societies that value their individual members, and are organised along principles of inclusion, empowerment, equality, and fair play.
That is of course why 30 years of government interventions in education have only served to produce generations of unhappy, stupefied consumers. It is significant that it was the dismantling of that bastion of the concept of privilege, of the fatuous and inhuman concept of the deserving being separated from the undeserving – I mean the the grammar school system – that first really energised the Right in their challenge to the postwar consensus. And here it is again, being exhumed by Theresa Mayjor! A sure indication of how politically bankrupt the Tory party is.

Q. What's it like working in the music scene at the moment, as a worker? How has it changed, over your career? What do you think of other bands and musicians, and other music these days?

As with all workers, the introduction of new technology does tend to result in fewer jobs. Growing up in the 70s, I got to see lots of great bands at lots of great venues, and also lots of bandslike Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, who worked conscientiously round the pubs and who gave you a good night out.

By the 70s, the average band size was four people. But bands and musicians still exercised a certain creative control, and up to and including punk I think musicians rather than the music business determined the progress of popular music. This of course is not the case now. The business now determines the culture, the media polices its business decisions. From being the most exciting, innovative, democratic and radical cultural form of the last century, popular music has become a dull, processed puppet of the society of the spectacle.

You could say that there is surely a limit with what you can do with three chords, and that may well have been reached even before the Gallagher brothers made a career out of recycling old John Lennon riffs. This never used to bother folk music however, or indeed blues musicians, because these musicians were working within a tradition of form that facilitated personal expression. The experiences of the worker animated each song into something particular and expressive.

Now, there are bloated spectaculars of television, festivals and stadiums, no middle ground where the likes of Sutherland Brothers and Quiver can earn an honest crust, and pubs that will either play safe with covers bands or pay bugger-all for open mike nights. It is difficult in these circumstances for people to find their own voice, and to give their own lives particular expression.

Nonetheless, people keep on writing great songs and singing their hearts out about what it is like to be like them, to think like them, rather than Ed Sheeran. The media doesn't want you hear about them, because they remain outside the process of cultural recuperation. But they are there. They are people like Joe Solo and his mates, inventing We Shall Overcome, a grass roots weekend of nationwide self-organised gigs and community action as an annual alternative to getting kettled at a demo.
We need more of that, taking back our culture, organising a folk club or whatever you want to call it – Grace Petrie's just started a folk club in Leicester – more gigs like Nick puts on at the Yorkshire House in Lancaster. And less nostalgia!

Q. Can I have your thoughts on politics and music, such as what your favourite political songs are? And how you think music makes a difference, politically?

All music carries political meanings. In our agitprop trio The Ministry of Humour, singing down Thatcher, apartheid and capitalism in the 1980s, when people accused us of Being Political we used to say ‘everything's political.’

I tried translating The Marseillaise and it is awful, but I think the Internationale is beautiful, and the words don't really need updating. Songs may not of course kickstart strikes and seizures of post offices and telephone exchanges, or storm the Winter Palaces of the Ice Queen etc, but as we all know – and this is why the media don't want us listening to politically conscious songs – that magic combination of the perfectly apposite words with a perfectly apposite melody stays with us long after the speech or the editorial or the television interview. We can hum and sing them, and we realise we are not alone in our ideas and our aspirations, and they inspire us as we kickstart our own little part of the revolutionary process.

My favourite political song? ‘Te Recerdo Amanda’ by Victor Jara. My favourite song, which is also set within the landscape and language of working class life, but which carries its politics less consciously, is ‘Les Amants d’un Jour’ by Marguerite Monnot, sung by Edith Piaf.

 

Q. Culture Matters has recently started a series of articles looking at arts and culture policies, in the light of the austerity driven cutbacks which impact more on working people, and in the light of the research which is showing that working class people are finding it harder to access the arts, as consumers and as performers. And of course the gap between the funding of the arts in London/the South East and the rest of the country is pretty huge. Can we have your thoughts on arts and culture policy please?

Well – first step as above mentioned is to stop consuming and do it yourself. I saw a headline in a London newspaper on a London train which trumpeted – like it was a good thing – that arts funding in London wouldn't be cut! The headline should of course have been ‘Arts Funding to be Cut for Most of the UK’, just like we should recognise that for most of us, the Tory obsession with selection at 11 means a reintroduction of education at secondary moderns, rather than a reintroduction of grammar schools.

Yes, I would like to see funding directed at supporting art and culture initiatives rather than paying for military action in the Middle East, or Armageddon being parked at Faslane. But this financial support needs to be supported in turn by a social culture of empowerment. State education needs to be reconfigured to serve the needs of the child, not the state, which will mean a curriculum that values and encourages imagination and creativity. The media needs to be regulated to ensure cultural as well as journalistic balance, and press freedom should not be confused with the lowest common denominator.

Similarly, community art – like open mike nights or reality TV – should not be used as a cheapskate alternative to paying skilled workers at appropriate skilled worker rates. However, we would also need to reconfigure cultural workers as workers rather than as the extraordinarily differentiated celebrities that is the paradigm we are presented with at the moment. We need to recognise individual aptitude, but also recognise that this needs to be understood within a spectrum of performance, not within a hierarchy of ‘excellence’ that is usually related to the valuations of economics rather than valuations based upon intrinsic qualities of artistic expression.

Art & culture need to be returned more to the reality of their social function. Some of us are pretty gifted when it comes to plumbing, some of us are pretty gifted when it comes to singing, but when your plumbing goes wrong, Bono is no use whatsoever.

This spectrum of performance needs to be supported by a plurality of performance spaces and opportunities – culture should not be something that only takes place on television or as spectacular events set apart from the lives of those people whose existence is only defined by the word ‘audience’ and whose appreciation and experience of art and culture is determined by the economics of production and consumption.

Applying huge amounts of money to something does not necessarily ensure high levels of performance. A couple of seasons ago Brentford drew Chelsea in the Cup, and so there they were, all these fabulously-paid celebrity Chelsea footballers so celebrated in the media, hoofing about Griffin Park, and not actually performing that much better than Brentford’s cheery collection of 19 year-olds still living with their mums. It was a draw at the final whistle. Possibly the most creative aspect of the afternoon was the Brentford fans chanting “You’re just a bus stop in Fulham.”

The same problems of scale exist in the arts. Size of spectacle and budget are no guarantee of artistic achievement. Any investment in arts would be obviously welcome, but it will be largely ineffectual unless it is animated by an understanding of the importance of diminishing the distances between performer and audience, which necessarily involves a more realistic perspective on issues of inclusion and particular aptitudes and skills. We need a culture where everybody can join in, and though some people can join in a bit more than others, this is not a big differentiating deal. Even genius shits like the rest of us.

Another consequence of having spent so long working with children, is that this experience convinces me that each of us is gifted with our own skills of creativity and our own unique artist’s perspective. With our current models of culture as commodity, most of us find our access to & participation in art and culture limited and defined by capitalism’s profit-driven economics, and the mindset of privilege and hierarchy.

But we all have an aesthetic intelligence, we are all artists. Access to and participation in culture should be on the basis of personal choice and predilection, our engagement should be based on the forms of self expression that appeal to our individual consciousness, and our choices should be encouraged and supported by empowering education and inclusive social organisation, whether we feel happiest expressing ourselves through plumbing, plum crumble or plumbing the profoundest depths of the human condition with poetry, or painting, or postpunk acoustic guitar. Or maybe a combination of all three – plumbing, plum crumble and postpunk acoustic guitar.


Robb Johnson’s new album, My Best Regards, is available from http://www.ethicalwares.com and all good record shops.

 

 

Films for Corbyn
Monday, 22 May 2017 17:24

Films for Corbyn

Published in Films

Andrew Warburton interviews one of the organisers of screenings of some socialist films at the islington Mill, Salford.

One proof of Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to inspire grassroots action among Labour members and in the community as a whole is the ever-expanding list of cultural projects and activities bearing the name ‘… for Corbyn’. First, we had ‘Poets for Corbyn’ (a collection of poems released by Pendant Publishing in August 2015). Then we had ‘Dance for Corbyn’, a mixture of speakers and DJ sets in London, and soon there will be ‘Rock for Corbyn’, a night of live music in Warrington. Next week sees the beginning of a Greater Manchester-based project called ‘Films for Corbyn’, involving the screening of socialist films in aid of various causes, including the pro-Corbyn activist group Momentum.

The first film, screened on 24th August at the Islington Mill in Salford, is the documentary, ‘The Hard Stop’, about the shooting of Mark Duggan, a young black man, by the Metropolitan Police. Speakers at the screening will include Claudia Webbe, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee; Carole Duggan, the mother of Mark Duggan; and the poet Mark Mace Smith.

I asked Simon, one of the project’s organisers, what inspired him and his Momentum colleagues to start a film series in support of the Labour leader. A testament to the dynamic nature of grassroots organising associated with the Corbyn-led renewal of the Labour Party, Simon’s responses also demonstrated the importance of combining socio-cultural activities with the more serious business of political organizing.

What was the inspiration for ‘Films for Corbyn’?

I suppose ‘Films for Corbyn’ came out of us on the committee of Manchester and Trafford Momentum thinking about socials we could do to keep people engaged in politics. I think it’s important that as well as doing all of the important organising meetings, we do events which allow people to socialise and have fun, so that we don’t lose the energy from all of the people who have become enthused with politics for the first time in a while (or ever!) thanks to Jeremy Corbyn. I worry that it’s quite easy for people to become bored or disillusioned with politics, especially in the Labour Party, whose structures are often bureaucratic and unwelcoming to new people.

Will the project raise money for a particular cause?

We were initially going to donate any funds raised to our local Momentum group, which has been building a grassroots pro-Corbyn movement without any funding. The committee has had to finance our activities out of their own pocket, and that has become increasingly difficult as we have had to book bigger spaces to cope with the numbers of people coming to our events, which has risen dramatically in recent months. We will also be donating to causes which are related to the films we are showing. So our first screening will also be redistributing donations to the Duggan family.

Where will the films be shown?

This is initially a Manchester project, so we will be concentrating on showing films around the Greater Manchester area, with our first screening being in Salford. We don’t have any plans as of yet to show films in other regions, but if there is interest elsewhere it would be exciting to expand this project to other parts of the country

What kind of films do you intend to show?

We intend to show films from a radical working class or socialist tradition, which explore issues affecting some of the most marginalised groups and people in society, which are issues Jeremy Corbyn has been campaigning on throughout his political life.

What is your larger vision for the series, i.e., is it an educational project or part of a bigger political campaign?

For us, educational projects and political campaigns go hand in hand, and we want ‘Films for Corbyn’ to be both of these things. Not only is it something which we hope will maintain and attract enthusiasm for supporting a left-wing Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, the films and discussions we will host will hopefully raise further awareness of issues in Britain which the Labour Party should be fighting. Promoting political education is something we have been doing in Manchester and Trafford Momentum and is something which we feel there needs to be more of.

What do you see as the great socialist filmmakers or classics of socialist film?

Personally, I’m a massive fan of the work of Cinema Action, which was a left-wing film collective whose members produced amazing (but overlooked) documentaries from the late ‘60s to the ‘80s. Particularly for me, the work of Marc Karlin and Steve Sprung, such as ‘The Year of the Beaver’ and ‘Between Times’ stand out. As someone who is more interested in documentaries, I also admire the series produced by Granada in its glory days, such as ‘World in Action’. And I, of course, love a bit of Adam Curtis.

The first film in the ‘Films for Corbyn’ series will be shown on 24th August at the Islington Mill, James Street, Salford. Tickets are £5 (£3 unwaged) and are available through Eventbrite at the following link: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/films-for-corbyn-opening-the-hard-stop-tickets-26874738065.

Don't Burn the Books
Monday, 22 May 2017 17:24

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
Monday, 22 May 2017 17:24

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.