Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (104)

Friday, 24 April 2020 13:20

I, Anchorite: Capitalism, Coronavirus and Christ

Written by

Fran Lock writes about coping with the coronavirus crisis; resisting the material world; reading poetry slowly; and grieving, then rebelling.

‘Christ did not say you shall not be perturbed’, writes 14th century anchorite, Julian of Norwich, ‘but he said you shall overcome’. Together with Saint Silouan’s stern injunction to keep my mind ‘in Hell and despair not’, this has become a daily mental mantra.

In a sense it always was. To grow up in poverty is to be intimately acquainted with the workings of deferred gratification. How often have I fixed my sights on some speculative never-never? A victory, always imminent, yet one that has, after all these years, failed, in any meaningful sense, to materialise. We understand what it is to be ‘perturbed’. We understand what it is to tell ourselves over and over again that things will be better, that we will get through; to make a fetish of our own resilience, to wear putting up and making do like medals of honour, and to place our faith in a future that will not and cannot arrive for us.

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I was running when it hit me: this is not what Julian meant.  This is not what Christ meant either. What if perturbation, disturbance and distress were not merely to be endured or evaded, but met with: acknowledged and accommodated, mourned through? What if to ‘overcome’ was not simply to survive? What if we were not vainly and passively pinning our hopes on tomorrow and tomorrow, but anticipating praxis?

Coronavirus and the concomitant lockdown engender such reflections. Asceticism’s stock is rising, as people look to the past for ways of negotiating an unparalleled present. Because of my interest in Christian mysticism I find I am having a lot of conversations with friends and colleagues about the practice of religious seclusion, and what it can ‘teach’ us about dealing with our own contemporary experience of self-isolation. These conversations are occasionally illuminating, often hilarious, but mostly frustrating, because they stem from a botched reading of anchorism and a blindness to its radical social potential.

To begin with, the anchorites were not ‘recluses’ in the modern understanding of that word. They may have been walled up in cramped cells, but they were walled up in cells whose one tiny window faced the bustling thoroughfares of community life. They spoke with petitioners, granted indulgences, sat at the centre of a subtle and complex web of obligations. Anchorism isn’t about retreat from the world. It is, rather, a disciplined and dialectical renunciation of that world.

It is to live with a constant reminder of life’s pleasures; its temptations, its distractions, its endlessly proliferating structures of sin, its cruelties and its beauties both. It is to rededicate yourself each day to the act of turning away from those things. It is not a docile acceptance of privation, but an active embrace of this mode of life as spiritually preferable to its more worldly alternatives. My running gag in these matters is that anchorism’s lessons are not about coronavirus, but about capitalism.

We are all connected

This crisis has magnified the choices we make, has made them seem more meaningful, more loaded with consequence. They always were, of course, but people are awake to this now in ways they never were before. When washing your hands could literally save a life, we are dealing with a whole new metric of responsibility, sensitised to the ways our daily decisions impact upon others, their quality of life and their chances of survival. The anchorite mindset stays with this thought, travels the length of it to its logical conclusion: we are all connected. How we shop matters, how we vote matters, the language we use matters, where we bestow our time and our money matters, how we make that money matters.

To live in poverty is to have been ‘perturbed’ for a long time, and now we are living at a moment when personal responsibility and systemic inequality are in daily and violent collision. While the media is encouraged to castigate individuals for leaving the house in order to exercise, our Tory government use the unprecedented nature of this crisis to shield themselves from criticism over their consistent and politically motivated underfunding of the NHS, the deportation of key workers, and a handling of benefits so monumentally shambolic it left many of the country’s most vulnerable without vital resources.

But we shall overcome, which is not idly waiting for a return to ‘normal’, not a ‘riding it out’, but a resurrection, an act of radical transformation, inward at first, but ultimately outward looking and collective. Our suffering must be reckoned with; those who perpetrate and profit from it must be named and known. We must not forget. We must acknowledge too our own complicity. We must admit that we are implicated. We must choose, can choose, to turn away, in solidarity with others.

Resist the material world

These thoughts have been much on my mind of late. It’s Easter that does it, but it must also owe something to my current choice of reading. While I work on editing my own manuscript, and revise yet again for my serially delayed viva, I flit between the Taymouth Hours and  Sean Bonney’s final book, Our Death. Neither is easy to navigate. That aside, it might seem that the two texts cannot possibly have anything in common. Superficially, this is true: Bonney’s book, upon first encounter, is a wild carnival of disorder, its language is the language of a weaponised debasement turned against the sinister machinery of capital.

Whereas the Taymouth Hours is a beautifully illuminated manuscript, a precious devotional object intended for use by a single elite reader. But then, I see the leering gremlin faces in the borders of that sacred text, and I realise there is in fact a profound kinship between these two works. The myriad grotesqueries that pepper the margins of medieval religious manuscripts are profane to a purpose: their presence poses a moral dilemma, they dramatise the encroachments and temptations of the material world, and require of their reader a determined choice, a conscious and deliberate reinvestment of attention in matters spiritual.

Bonney’s work similarly recruits the paraphernalia and jargons of capitalism. Everywhere they inundate and overwhelm, puncturing and pressing in upon human relations, insidious and implicating, stupefying and seducing. How to exist, yet alone resist, under such a sustained onslaught? This is one of the central questions Bonney’s work poses. The poems ask it of both their readers and their speakers alike.

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These texts demand a level of nontrivial effort, require of their readers a singular commitment, an active resistance to the material world in its grossest aspects; its degradations, privations and soul-numbing assaults. But neither text ignores this world, they don’t gloss it or elide it; they don’t offer smug monolithic insights on how to accommodate its many barbarisms, its empty near-fatal banalities. There is no comfort here, and no catharsis, save for that which is derived from the act of resistance itself, from the act of saying ‘no’, from the development of a rigorous spiritual – for which we might also say political – autonomy.

Feel the pain

Reading Bonney’s work in particular reminds me that the anchorite’s injunction is also the artist’s: to be in the world, but to live within its rhythms at a tangent; we too are connected, we too offer prayers on behalf of our communities, whether they want us to or not.

One of the anchorite’s most important roles was to intercede for the deceased in Purgatory. This thought settled in my brain, not as I was reading Julian of Norwich, nor indeed Sean Bonney, but a short passage from radical feminist Andrea Dworkin.. ‘In her heart she is a mourner for those who have not survived.’ Dworkin writes. ‘In her soul she is a warrior for those who are now as she was then. In her life she is both celebrant and proof of women’s capacity and will to survive, to become, to act, to change self and society.’

Something about this quote still raises the hairs on the back of my neck. In common with many working-class women poets, I have often felt this act of ‘mourning’ to be integral to my practice. This ‘mourning’ is my intercession, this ‘mourning’ is my form of prayer. Only, perhaps I would not call it ‘mourning’. Perhaps I would say ‘grieving’, a making space for all that is recalcitrant and irreconcilable in loss; for a pain that will be not parlayed into consolation, that will not be assimilated, beautified, or eased.

I am not a great believer in a frictionless catharsis, in art or in life, and the notion of easy identification makes me, well, uneasy. I am not sure it’s poetry’s job to translate the pain of raw experience into some ideal of emotional expressiveness, to mould our abject losses into a readily accessible code of plain statement. I don’t select my themes to elicit an empathetic sigh from my audience. Catharsis is too much like absolution. It provides a release, it lets us off the hook. It doesn’t stay with pain, it doesn’t hold it to the light or force a confrontation. It won’t negotiate between the rage and hurt felt by an individual, and the radical collective engagement such an individual demands. It says a vague feeling of ‘empathy’ is enough. It cannot overcome.

These thoughts are with me often of late. Since the crisis began I have felt increasingly ostracised from poetry, and from the endlessly touted ‘bridge-building’ narrative espoused by creators and commentators alike: art should be about ‘connecting’ people, about ‘bringing people together’; it should ‘offer consolation’, provide a place of safety, invite a means of escape. I’ve been hearing ‘should’ a lot lately, and it shuts me out. It shuts out too all those whose art is incapable of comfort, who speak from a lived experience of grim disparity, from a place of anger, at odds with the world.

The pressure to churn out an endlessly uplifting torrent of content is enormous right now, and it instrumentalises creators in the worst possible way. Easy affirmation serves the aims of government because it folds the inequality and unfairness that are the substance of our lives into a textureless meld with the lives of others. It contributes to the illusion that we are ‘all in this together’, that corona – that capitalism – affects us all equally, which they manifestly do not.

Grieve first, then rebel

The virus has and will continue to exacerbate inequality. If the worst you are facing is boredom, you are lucky. If you have a garden, you are lucky. If you have more than one room with one window for you and your family, you are lucky. If you do not have to go outside and risk your health to work, you are lucky. If you can order your shopping online, you are lucky. If you are not confined with a violent partner, or an abusive parent, you are lucky. If you can access benefits, you are lucky. If you have no pre-existing mental-health conditions, you are lucky. If you are physically capable of taking a walk, you are lucky.  If you have the tools to communicate digitally, you are lucky. If you live in an area where you are fortunate enough to have essential services within easy reach, you are enormously lucky. And if you have access to private healthcare, well.

The idea that coronavirus is some kind of ‘great leveller’ is, as others have recently pointed out, arrant nonsense. Both the virus and the government measures put in place to contain it are impacting, and will impact the poorest amongst us first and hardest. While overcrowding and poor housing raise the risk of infection, the rules regarding lockdown and the arbitrary way those rules are enforced, further the Tory project of containment and control. As recent – pre-coronavirus – legislation has shown, this is a project directed first against refugees and immigrants, then against Travellers, and then against all proletarian bodies attempting to occupy and traverse public space.

We exist in a political climate now, where NHS workers are being coerced into silence, or gagged, banned from speaking publicly about the dangerous conditions of their job: their overwork, their underfunding, their lack of access to vital PPE. Yet at the same time the general public are encouraged to ‘come together’, to stand on their doorsteps and applaud those same NHS workers, in organised, state-sanctioned displays of gratitude. We live in a cultural climate now, where social media has become a Panopticon of performative moral correctness: didn’t you clap? Why aren’t you clapping? Did you go outside more than once today? Aren’t you wearing a mask? You inhuman monster.

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Under such circumstances, I don’t want to make peaceable art. I don’t want to ‘build bridges’ or ‘connect’ with people in ways that elide our differences, or pretend they don’t matter. Inequality isn’t a force of nature, it is an inherent and structural feature of capitalism. It is perpetrated by elites, and it privileges the few at the expense of the many. I am not writing for the few. I do not wish to ease their discomfort, or my own. Through obstacle, through difficulty, through something in the text that must be borne with and surmounted, I am trying to retune attention to suffering and injustice. I am resisting, saying ‘no’. More, I am lamenting, I am grieving. And this grief is the troublant but necessary precursor to praxis, to the revolutionary moment we are yearning for and need.

I am finding lockdown difficult. It isn’t the isolation, which under any circumstance I cherish as the rare and valuable root of my own creativity, it is the claustrophobia, and more than that, the feeling that I have nothing to offer or contribute. In lockdown my daily dilating sense of anxiety about the world, about my friends and family, sits awkwardly on top of a recent bereavement, the irreparable breakdown of a collaborative artistic partnership, and a series of crushing disillusionments with the academy and my place – as a working-class person – within it.  This against the background any of us live with, the ambient static of precarity and threat that is the texture of working-class existence in Britain. I cannot make ‘positive’ art from this. My work is perturbed, distressed and distressing. But it is not abject. It is not without hope. That it takes place in the teeth of these feelings, these places, these times, is the hope. It both imagines and manifests a model of resistance. I keep Julian of Norwich and all of my anchorite foremothers in mind as I write.

Slow poetry

Poetry is really the anchorite’s art: the reading of poetry both demands and facilitates the kind of slow, close investment of attention with which we should be approaching each other and the world; which we need in order to transform the experience of listening from a passive act of art imbibing into one of active and affective solidarity. Poetry says ‘stay with’. It doesn’t promise us comfort, but it rewards effort with insight.

We badly need this skill, to understand what besets us, and to parse the continual flow of suspect political discourse flooding across a variety of social media attack surfaces every damn day. Poetry is attentive to difference. It says ‘look’ and ‘look’ and ‘look again’. That’s what I want to read right now, work that makes a commitment to the muck of immediate history. That’s what I want to write, right now.

Expressing care for one another is important, healing is important. But healing isn’t agreeing to ignore pain. We can’t book-club our way out of crisis. We can’t cosy our way back to normal, especially not when normal, for so many of us, simply wasn’t good enough. And that’s not to say there is no room for positivity or beauty, of course there is: those Arcadias of the mind open up a utopian imaginary, a way of being otherwise, and they are so important. But we need testimony too, we need savage acts of rebarbative witnessing, we need to be made to feel uncomfortable.

And ‘community’, true ‘community’ isn’t only about mutual consolation, but is also about radical action. It is about asking what can I do, what can we do. I’m interested in how the literary communities coronavirus fosters move us from emotional support networks toward meaningful action, or at the very least, to applying critical pressure to power. There is endless hope in this vision also. This is what Christ might have meant. I think so anyway.

Class and culture in the age of Coronavirus
Monday, 20 April 2020 14:50

Class and culture in the age of Coronavirus

Written by

Dennis Broe traces the links between class and the coronavirus, and parallels in cultural works. Plus ca change........

In many ways the rearrangement of life in the wake of the global impact of the Cornoavirus has created a brave new world. And in other ways, the arrangement has reinforced the cowardly old one.

Class differences during widespread global lockdowns and quarantines have in some ways hardened. There is a small minority of a rich class which passes this temporary isolation in comfort, having quickly evacuated the contagion of the city centres for sometimes palatial estates in the countryside. There is a sheltered middle class, many of whom are able to continue to work and earn online, though often at a diminished capacity. And finally there is an unsheltered working class, who must risk their lives in order to earn their daily bread.  

Here in Europe and particularly in France these distinctions are as profound as elsewhere, with perhaps a million people fleeing the high-contagion centre of Paris for their country homes, with new middle-class family subscribers flocking to the just opened Disney+ streaming service while cheering on medical workers each night at 8pm from their balconies.

CVCornoavirus Hospitals and Nurses

Finally, there are not only working-class nurses but also cashiers, that most unsung group of workers, 90 percent of whom are women and many of whom are from minority ethnic groups. They go to work each day and come home to crowded apartments in the Parisian suburbs, where the police are using the excuse of not having proper quarantine papers to assault these women’s children.

Europe, with its well-developed welfare state, might seem to be better equipped to combat the virus than the U.S., with its hollowed-out state folowing the Reagan-Bush-Clinton neoliberal attack. However, Europe also has experienced wave after wave of shocks and attacks on its social compact. For example, a French cashier noted that while doctors and nurses are being cheered today by both the people and the state, “Only a few months ago,” in the wake of a protest against the cutting of hospital budgets by the Macron government, “They were teargassed for daring to rally in the streets”.

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The impact of the virus echoes Daniel Defoe’s historical novel Journal of the Plague Year, written after the deadly assault of an earlier virus on 17th century London, where nearly 15 percent of the city perished. In observing the parallels, one wonders if these are because of the similar nature of each disease or because this new era of greed-take-all capitalism has hurtled us back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, where protections for workers were almost nonexistent.

Upper-Class Quarantine: Flight to the Country and Wide Open Spaces

In Defoe’s account when the plague first appeared, “nothing was to be seen but wagons and carts, with goods, women, servants, children…; coaches filled with people of the better sort, and horsemen attending them, and all hurrying away.” His comment on this exodus of the rich from the city to escape the disease is that “they spread it in the country” and had they not fled, the plague would not have “been carried into so many country towns and houses as it was, to the great damage, and indeed to the ruin, of [an] abundance of people.”

Likewise, in France, where there are three million second homes, just before the Macron lockdown, Paris trains and highways were jammed with those exiting the city. After the lockdown the health minister had to beg Parisians to stay at home, rather than fleeing to the rural areas and especially to Normandy which was relatively untouched by the virus. One Brittany resident then saw these urban visitors on the beaches “in cool outfits as if they were on holiday,” adding “Quarantine is always for other people”.

Meanwhile Monaco, surrounded by the European virus epicentre countries of France, Italy and Spain, had (as of recently) only 60 cases total and 4 deaths. This country is the wealthiest in the world, with 30 percent of the population made up of millionaires and with a state that could afford to close the casinos, turn away cruise ships, and furlough for 90 days all its employees.

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Elsewhere the French online “faschosphere” was instead quick to blame immigrants for the virus. While others across the world noticed the similarities of the situation with this year’s Academy Award-winner Parasite, with its lower-class family living in a flooded basement, “stealing” internet reception and its upper class, corporate family living in a spacious mansion surrounded by acres of green lawns.

Middle-Class Quarantine: Sheltered in Place and Working Online

The disappearing middle class is sheltered at home, many able to at least pursue some semblance of their business through Zoom, the online meeting app. The company has thrived, going from 10 million to 200 million users as have many online businesses and this has no doubt improved the connectivity of the world. However, as Shoshana Zuboff claims in her monumental work The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, the secret of the internet is that its “evil design aims to exploit human weakness” by creating interfaces that “‘make users emotionally involved in doing something that benefits the designer more than them.’”

Zoom has already been accused of selling data to Facebook and recently hired a Facebook executive as an outsider advisor. The mass use of Zoom is the Holy Grail of selling user data to advertisers. For a long time, there has not been enough data on user’s emotions to match with their words to create more detailed profiles. The Zoom meetings supply that data in abundance, and will increase the quality of data sold or rented that can be used to supply more detailed consumer profiles. As Zuboff says, we grow ever closer to a B.F. Skinner-type “technology of behavior” that would “enable the application of …[surveillance] methods across entire populations.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. Chinese monetization of internet traffic, for example, doesn’t just package data to advertisers. The online service Lizhi creates its revenue stream by offering users the option of buying virtual gifts in which to shower their podcast favorites, as was the case with the Japanese girl group AKB48. Ironically it is China, which does not try to match the US in the efficiency of its consumer surveillance, which is constantly accused of being a thought-control, totalitarian society.

Working-Class Quarantine: Working and At Risk 

While wealthy Parisians were fleeing the city, in poor banlieus across the Peripherique such as Saint Denis, where the cashiers, sanitation workers, and health care workers live, there is “an exceptional excess” of deaths from the virus.This is similar to the disproportionate deaths in heavily African-American populated places in the U.S., such as areas of The Bronx and in the immigrant communities of Queens.

Defoe described a similar situation where servants who “were obliged to send up and down the streets for necessaries” contracted the disease. Similarly, restaurant workers along with the delivery service carriers put their lives in danger each day to bring food to those economically above them. Just as in the present pandemic, where in the French supermarkets new recruits from the suburbs abound, so too Defoe detailed a situation where “though the plague was chiefly among the poor, yet were the poor the most venturous and fearless of it, and went about their employment with a sort of brutal courage; ran into any business which they could get employment in, though it was the most hazardous.”

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Meanwhile, the police, whose often casual brutality is detailed in this year’s Caesar winner for best French film Les Miserables, have been cited by Human Rights Watch for “unacceptable and illegal” behavior for several beatings of young men from this polyglot area. These victims were accosted because they did or did not have their “attestation,” the legal paper required for leaving the home. The middle class face a fine of 138 euros for not having their papers – the working class face state violence.

In Marseilles, McDonald’s workers, led by the local union, the Force Ouvriere, decided to distribute the company’s food to the poorest districts of that city and to use the closed-down restaurant as a central site for collecting and preparing food. McDonald’s issued a statement opposing the measure.

Similarly, at a Crenshaw McDonald’s in South Central Los Angeles – one of the poorest districts in the US – when the workers staged a spontaneous action demanding they be sent home for a two-week quarantine, the protest was broken up by the police.

Amazon, one of the companies most extravagantly profiting from the quarantine, was temporarily forced to halt its operations in France when a court ruled the company had failed to adequately protect workers. The case was heard because several employees walked off the job, citing a law that allows workers to leave an unsafe workplace and receive full pay. In response, the company criticized the union that brought the case.

CVDelivery Drivers Under Fire in Ken Loachs Sorry We Missed You

What could be more prescient in the light of these protests by a most exploited workforce than Ken Loach’s latest film Sorry We Missed You, about how a delivery driver for an Amazon-type firm is being driven to despair because of the inhuman pressure put on him and his family to produce.

The quarantine also called attention to the importance of seasonal workers in Europe in terms of harvesting crops. In France, with an embargo against non-Europeans coming into the country, 200,000 workers are needed to replace this seasonal workforce to harvest fruit and vegetables in places like the Loire and Alsace to feed the urban population. These workers come from central and eastern Europe as well as from Tunisia and Morocco and most labor under impoverished conditions and leave after the harvest. Jean Renoir’s 1935 film Toni which recounts the tragic life and fate of one of these workers coming across the Pyrenees from Spain is unfortunately still relevant today.

CVGerman builders in Bulgaria in Western

Germany uses 300,000 day-labourers a year to harvest its crops, mostly from Romania, Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Hungary. One of the films that most accurately tracks this discrepancy in income and the disdain of more affluent Germans for these easterners is Western which recounts the prejudice of a group of German workers building a power plant in Bulgaria.

To combat this problem, Portugal granted temporary citizenship status to immigrants while in the US, where the federal government is floating a measure to detain undocumented immigrants indefinitely during “emergencies,” Americans bought almost 2 million guns in March, their own Wild West solution to what they view as the immigrant problem and the anarchy they are afraid will come. The Trump administration seconded this solution, declaring weapons stores to be an essential business that should stay open during the quarantine.

Arundhati Roy’s eloquent description of workers on the roads in India where “our towns and megacities began to extrude their working-class citizens – their migrant workers — like so much unwanted accrual,” and where workers with no other resources had to begin a long walk home to their villages.  As they walked, she noted, “some were beaten brutally and humiliated by the police, who were charged with strictly enforcing the curfew” .

Readers might eerily have confused Roy’s description for Defoe’s, since they were so similar. Defoe says:

The constables everywhere were upon their guard not so much, it seems, to stop people passing by as to stop them from taking up their abode in their towns…[because of the “improbable” possibility] that the poor people in London, being distressed and starved for want of work, and want for bread, were up in arms and had raised a tumult, and that they would come out to all the towns round to plunder for bread.

Recurring class tensions have also broken out between states. Before it finally passed a European relief bill, the hardest-hit countries – Spain and Italy – were proposing that the EU issue joint bonds, called Eurobonds or Coronabonds, which would spread the cost of the economic damage caused by the virus among at least the 19 countries of the common currency. The wealthier northern countries, led by Austria, Germany and The Netherlands, refused. It was similar to these countries’ refusal to cancel the debt and instead impose austerity budgets on the countries of the south, after the 2008 crisis.

CVLatvian emigre in Brussels in Oleg

This disparity on a personal level is well documented in Oleg, one of last year’s best films. The film recounts the story of a butcher from Latvia who emigrates to Brussels, the EU capital and centre of its wealth and affluence, quickly loses his job, and is bullied to join the criminal underground in order to survive. Oleg’s individual path is similar to the national path of countries such as Greece.

Finally, to return to Defoe’s description of the plague, the virulence of that disease hastened the appearances of all kinds of charlatans coming out of the woodwork. Because of fear, working people ran to “fortune tellers, cunning-men and astrologers” and London swarmed with “a wicked generation of pretenders to magic, to the black art… and “to a thousand worse dealings with the devil.”

The difference in this stage of neoliberalism, where the state exists to serve the interests of financial capital – the banks, the real estate and insurance industries who the US government bailed out – is that the con-men are running the show.

Thus Trump,  snake-oil salesman and charlatan-in-chief, suggested that people take hydroxychloroquine, an untested drug that could produce fatal heart arrhythmia and that one report claimed Trump had invested in. Trump called the drug a “game changer,” and told his viewers to “Take it. What do you have to lose?”

In Defoe’s time, the King’s court fled the city and allowed lower civil servants to bear the brunt of dealing with the plague. Unfortunately, in our time, the court remains in the White House, and continues the dangerous and deadly process of urging the country to quickly re-open so that the state does not have to subsidize the people, and can continue to ignore worker unemployment and misery. 

A well-built wall, or other work of art: Alasdair Gray
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 13 April 2020 18:27

A well-built wall, or other work of art: Alasdair Gray

Written by

David Betteridge takes us along Glasgow’s Byres Road, enjoying several works of public art by the late Alasdair Gray, who died on 29 December, 2019, the day after his 85th birthday

Perhaps the best thing I could do is write a story in which adjectives like commonplace and ordinary have the significance which glorious and divine carried in earlier comedies. What do you think? - Alisdair GrayLanark

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This is a stub. Many more hands and minds besides my own would have to be set to work, to write a piece giving proper value to Alasdair Gray’s achievements. Like his admired William Blake, he was an artist as well as a writer, a lover of both the epic and the miniature, a deviser of both encyclopedias and minute particulars. He ranged over many genres, deploying details from his own life (a long one) and his own city (Glasgow), but at the same time he regarded the whole world with its many cultures and many histories as his oyster (not forgetting the cosmos in which the world has its unique place). He was, as Ali Smith wrote in an eloquent short obituary, “a renaissance man”. He was, she judged, the very heart of that revival in Scottish life to which he contributed, and from which he drew strength. 

A walk of a few hundred yards along Byres Road, in Glasgow’s West End, affords a good introduction to the man and his work. 

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 On the corner overlooking the Botanic Gardens, there is a former church, now converted to a bar, restaurant and performance area called the Oran Mor, which in Gaelic means “big song” or even, some would have it, “great melody of life”. That epithet describes Gray pretty well.

As you enter the Oran Mor from Byres Road, look down at the white and grey marble floor of the porch. There, carved into the tiles, you will see “WELCOME”, in 32 languages. Gray took great care with the lettering of this message, as with every aspect of every part of his quite substantial contribution to the Oran Mor’s conversion. For all those words of greeting that were in the Roman alphabet, he designed his own lettering, using sans serif block capitals that slightly taper away from you as you read them. This lettering he called Oran Mor Monumental.

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Go to the third floor. There, extending across the breadth and length of the ceiling, you will see one of Gray’s largest and most ambitious works: a painting that combines myth and legend, Biblical reference and astronomical lore. “It’s a song of praise to the colour blue,” wrote Figgy Guyver, after a visit she paid to view it, and also “a heartfelt, humanist plea for people to come together for a better future.” This plea is directly expressed in words, as well as art. In gold lettering, across the roof beams, we read: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” This motto, borrowed from the Canadian author Dennis Lee, has been widely adopted as a motto for modern progressive Scottish politics, thanks to Gray’s use of it. 

Looking up, you will see a cross-section of Creation boldly and beautifully represented. As in Gauguin’s famous Tahitian triptych, big questions are asked: “Where are we from?  What are we?  Where are we going?” and answers are given, if we search for them. The planets and the Milky Way give us a sense of Time and Space. The Tree of Life drives its roots into fossils and skeletons. A varied fauna and flora inhabit land, sea and air.  A naked Adam and Eve kneel, entwined in one another’s arms. A phoenix rises. 

The present day and the present city are not forgotten, either. Contemporary citizens, including folk who worked on, and work in, the Oran Mor have their likenesses portrayed here, honouring their labour. Gray’s is a democratic intellect, and a democratic aesthetic, and a democratic structure of feeling.                

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As you leave, as a companion piece to the “WELCOME” on the way in, you will see, and walk on, a set of 32 carved tiles bidding you “GOODBYE”. Many of Gray’s books end on a similarly friendly note, from his early masterpiece Lanark onwards, as if he wanted you to feel that reading the books was akin to visiting him, maybe at home, maybe in a shared public space, and he was your host. “Goodbye,” he says, as you turn the last page.  I see him as a latter-day Interpreter, as in Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. In his House, we are shown “excellent things, such as would be helpful to [us]”.

In fact, the more you immerse yourself in the print-world of Gray’s published works, the more parallels you discover between them and buildings. As you make your way through them, the books seem to have doors and windows, and rooms and corridors, and stairs and landings, with good labelling and sign-posting so you do not get lost, all in Gray’s distinctively bold, clear style.

Gray was fortunate in having Canongate as his publisher for Lanark, as for many subsequent books, as its owner Stephanie Wolfe-Murray gave him creative control over all aspects of its look, from the grand plan of the art-work to the details of line-spacing and indentation. Like William Blake or William Morris before him, Gray was enabled to work in the combined roles of artist,  artisan and author.

III

After leaving the Oran Mor, turn left along Byres Road, and very soon you come to Hillhead Public Library. It was much used by Gray in the second half of his life, when he lived at various addresses in the West End, just as, in his earlier years in the East End, Riddrie Public Library had been a favourite haunt, being almost a home from home for the inveterate bibliophile. 

In his retrospective memoir, A Life in Pictures, Gray tells of an occasion when one of his teachers at Whitehill Senior Secondary School invited him to give a lecture to the school’s Literary and Debating Society. This he did, with specially drawn illustrations projected on an epidiascope. These illustrations are recognisably by the same hand, and from the same mind, as all his later art-work, including the Oran Mor ceiling. Gray appears to have developed his skill and found his genius very young. His chosen subject for the lecture was “A Personal View of History”, no less, typically encyclopaedic. He started with The Ice Age and The Stone Age, and ended with The Industrial City and The Triumph of Socialism.

4 2

Along this onward march, full of epic horrors, two sunnier episodes are celebrated. Babylonian priests are pictured  “recording an eclipse, having devised an alphabet and calendar that made writing history possible”. Later, the schoolboy lecturer showed his audience The Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus tells the people of the slave-based empires of the world that “every human soul was equally valued by God”. Regrettably, his art-work for that episode was mislaid, as he explains in A Life in Pictures. 

For the end-point of History, The Triumph of Socialism, he chose as example and symbol the nearby Riddrie Public Library. “I thought,” he tells us, “this well-planned, well-stocked public library was a triumphant example of local egalitarian democracy.” Here we find the bedrock of Gray’s later more developed politics. He never lost his youthful Spirit of Forty-Five. Again, as with The Sermon on the Mount, we only have his word for it, as, for some reason, the drawing of the Library “was to be”, but was in fact never actually drawn. 

IV

I started writing this short guide to Gray’s visible legacy in Glasgow’s West End shortly after his death at the very end of 2019. For inspiration, and for refreshing my memory, I followed the route that I am here recommending. Arriving at the wide inviting entrance of Hillhead Public Library, I found that I could not pass it without going in.

There, next to the librarians’ issue desk, was a display of all Gray’s books that they had in stock, and a table set aside where his fellow-readers were invited to sign a book  -  not so much a Book of Condolences, more a Book of Celebrations. Already, after only a few days of the library and the book being open after the New Year holiday, page upon  page of entries had been written. As I read through them, I became aware that “Alasdair” had been well-loved as a local worthy, a kindly man, and a great conversationalist, as interested in his interlocutors as in himself; but, at the same time, “Gray” was well-regarded as an important author-cum-artist, who had put his native Glasgow and Scotland on a world map, and also brought the world to the very streets of this city. This “fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glasgow pedestrian”, as he once described himself, had made his mark, a large and indelible one.

There is a point of correction to be made regarding Gray’s self-description as a “pedestrian”. For his final few years, after a fall that nearly killed him, he was a wheelchair user.  Undaunted, after seven months in hospital, he was to be seen again, visiting his  favourite places, going about his many ploys, and continuing his last great project, his re-telling of Dante’s Divine Comedy. How like Blake, who also immersed himself in the old Tuscan’s Hell, Purgatory and Paradise!

V

 After Hillhead Library, proceed further along Byres Road to another place where Gray’s presence is felt, namely Hillhead Subway Station.

5

Look across the entrance hall, beyond the turnstiles that lead to the platforms and trains. There, confronting you, is Gray’s final work of public art, a mural made of ceramic tiles, two metres high and twelve metres wide. “All Kinds of Folk” it is called, and so it is identified in elegant lettering to the left. Alternatively, it is called “Folk of All Kinds”, to the right. In the middle is a panoramic view of the streets and buildings of Hillhead, the busiest part of the West End. The panorama is so boldly three-dimensional that you can imagine yourself walking there. It is flanked on both sides by panels of equally bold drawings of the very kinds of folk whom Gray imagined using the subway.

He gives us Lucky Dogs and Financial Wizards, Hard Workers and Brain Babies, Lovely Mums and Bonny Fechters, Lassies and Lads, Cocky Chaps, and others. A|few beasts and fairy-tale figures are thrown in for good measure, including Urban Foxes, Fiery Dragons, Birds of Paradise, and Unicorns. The effect is to make you smile, and that was Gray’s intention, as he indicates in a bit of verse inscribed on the wall:

Do not let daily to-ing and fro-ing
To earn what you need to keep going
Prevent what you once felt when wee
Hopeful and free.

Now look below the station’s “Exit” sign. There, in black block capitals, you will read that same motto that you saw in gold on the Oran Mor ceiling, regarding early days, a better nation, and working. Those block capitals, by the way, like all the lettering here, were specially designed for this project. They are based on Gray’s own handwritten letterforms, for that reason being known as Gray Display.

VI

I had got this far into writing my piece, when Covid-19 closed down everyday life as we are used to living it. The three places that I have described above  -  the Oran Mor, the Library, and the Station  -  are now in lockdown, as is a fourth place that I would have directed you to, namely a restaurant and bar in a lane off Byres Road, the Ubiquitous Chip, the decor of which, on a lavish scale, was Gray’s work. (He was paid for doing it, it is said, by the promise of free dinners for ever.) 

It was my intention to illustrate my conducted tour with photographs taken specially for it, but that cannot now be done until Glasgow and the world return to the old normal, for good and ill, supposing that is possible. What with “self-isolating” and “social-distancing”, and shutters being up, it is as if we are suddenly inhabiting a nightmarish or dystopian or purgatorial or infernal scene of a kind that Gray might have included in the “Unthank” chapters of Lanark. You can, however, find plenty of already existing photographs online, and so compose your own visual commentary for the itinerary.  You might well begin here and then progress to Gray’s official website, and then delve into his publisher’s website.

My thanks are due to Canongate for giving me permission to enliven my text (above and below) with illustrative material from their files. Maybe, post-Covid-lockdown, I will be able to return to my tour of Gray venues and take photos of my own, for splicing  in.

How, then, are we to leave this inconclusive ramble? There is no better way than in Gray’s own words. In an interview that he gave in the year before he died, to Gutter magazine (Spring, 2018), he remarked on the pleasure he took from being able to work and create, even in old age and ill health; in fact, especially in old age and ill health. At the time, he was putting the finishing touches to the “Heaven” part of his Divine Comedy, “Englished in prosaic verse”, as he put it, after Dante. In words that reveal a great deal about himself, Gray concluded the interview as follows:

Everyone who makes something that survives them has overcome death to that extent: especially if it is another human being.  It may also be a well-built wall or other work of art.

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VII

ENOUGH TO LIFT MY EYES TO

An imagined meeting with Alasdair Gray,
in a Glasgow street

“There’s not a street in Glasgow,
Anyplace, or Purgatory that I don’t know.
I’ve sojourned here for all my years,
studying the root and consequence
of the world’s good and the world’s ill,
watching both succeed, pondering
how the one can let the other grow.”
Looking up intently from his wheelchair,
like a tree’s last stubborn leaf
lit by a late sun, in a winter’s wind,
not torn, not shaken even,
he held my attention as he spoke.
I thought of the Ancient Mariner,
as for a long moment he had me
in his close focus there.
We were like two islands in a flow
and counter-flow of passing folk.

Untitled 7

“For self-protection,” he explained,
“or, if hurt, self-heal, I carry with me
images and words that speak truths,
some from the past, some being formed.
Reviewing them can feed them present life,
and make them for a moment real.
“Whoever harrows any kind of Hell
must do the same. But…” -
he cautioned with a work-worn hand -
“know this: there is no certain Paradise
at journey’s end, perhaps no journey’s end;
but I have seen, for sure,
occasional glimpses of a far-off hill,
part-grey, part-green, chequered bright.

“It is not the steep slope
that Dante wrote of in his Purgatorio.
Rather, it is some high point,
beyond our city’s boundary,
that catches now and then whatever rays
there are of the day’s light.
It is enough for me to lift my eyes to.”
Then, "Look!" he cried,
and gave a sudden whoop of joy,
pointing across the street to where,
in a park, a chestnut tree stood tall.
“Imagine,” he said, “imagine playing there,
swinging on a knotted rope,
collecting conkers, being Tarzan,
being a dryad, trying not to fall.”
Studying that tree, we saw -
he made me see - a rain of golden orioles.
As if so many falling meteors,
as if directed by a hidden hand,
in a swoop, they cascaded to the tips
of the bare boughs.
There they perched for a short while,
overlooking the neighbouring ground.
Talismans, they flashed forth
against the evening’s blue.
I see them now, transfiguring
the landscape of my mind’s-eye view. 

'Eat The Rich' becomes 'Let The Poor Die': Corona Culture and the New Normal
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 25 March 2020 23:26

'Eat The Rich' becomes 'Let The Poor Die': Corona Culture and the New Normal

Written by

Dennis Broe writes from Paris about some of the effects on culture of the coronavirus

Europe is being called the epicentre of the disease and particularly Western Europe where the responses have varied from the new Socialist-Podemos coalition in Spain nationalizing the country’s industry, to a total quarantine in France by the neoliberal Macron, criticized for being three weeks too late.

Life is shifting online and as it does the American entertainment behemoths have, with pressure from the EU, acknowledged their oversized share of internet bandwidth with Disney delaying by two weeks the opening of its streaming service Disney+, Netflix halting streaming in HD, and YouTube also employing a lower bandwidth. The moves are necessary with the coronavirus pandemic forcing so much commerce to be done online at home. They call attention to the monopolization of the internet by American firms, with YouTube boasting 2 million users worldwide and Netflix having tens of millions of European subscribers.

There is a kind of constant tension between whether xenophobic nationalist solutions to the problem will reign, where the predominant way of fighting the disease which the US president Trump labelled a “foreign” virus, is to close borders or whether the European Union will come together to combine its forces to fight this battle.

There is controversy also about the origins of the virus with one Chinese official claiming that the virus was manufactured in US army labs and could have been delivered to its first point of outbreak in Wuhan province by the American delegation to the Military World Games, held just weeks before the outbreak. This theory recalls the parasite hatched in a US lab in South Korea that develops into a monster in The Host, Boog Joon Ho’s allegory of the US destruction of that country. 

Meanwhile, Texas senator Tom Cotton, in a theory bandied about by Trump former advisor Steve Bannon, has turned this conjecture on its head and accused China of developing the disease in its labs, while the Wall Street Journal apologized for using a phrase that recalled former imperialist ideology in labelling China “The real Sick Man of Asia”.

Some of the European responses are telling glimpses into the minds of the continent’s neoliberal leaders. Angela Merkel claimed that in Germany possibly 70 percent of the population would come down with the virus.This Malthusian response, which essentially is a predictor if not a welcomer of widespread death and destruction, does indicate elites harking back to the 18th century where Malthus himself predicted war, pestilence or natural disaster as ways to curb an ever-surging and dangerous population growth from below. 

Boris Johnson’s initial reaction in England was similarly to have the virus cure itself through “herd immunity,” meaning it passes through enough people that the country develops its own natural vaccine by being infected. Johnson’s solution involved 60 percent of the population, around 40 million people stricken by the virus and an estimated 250,000 deaths. This solution was being promulgated in a context where the poor are much more vulnerable to infection and epidemics. Is a sweeping pandemic the neoliberal solution to the coming loss of employment through automation? If so, we are now closer to Jonathan Swift’s anticipation of Malthus’ thesis in “A Modest Proposal,” where the poor are served up as a source of nutrition and fine dining. The old '60s slogan “Eat the Rich” has morphed in neoliberal parlance into “Let the Poor Die.”  

In Italy, decisions on triage and intensive care, given the limited number of beds, are being made based on who is most likely to survive, meaning younger patients are being chosen to be saved over older ones. In Western Europe, the two countries hardest hit are those whom years of austerity budgets have weakened, Spain and Italy. Germany meanwhile has been as unyielding in this crisis as in the housing and banking crisis of 2008.

The European President Ursula von der Leyen called for unity and understanding but her words were quickly belied by the head of the European Central Bank, ex-IMF head Christine Legarde who, from her headquarters in Frankfurt, claimed that it was not the ECB’s job to close the 60 point difference between Italian and German bonds. On the day Italy lost $68 billion in savings in a stock market crash, she simply labelled the country “the elephant in the room.” The treatment reprised the EU's humiliating treatment of Greece in the wake of 2008, detailed in superb fashion in Costa-Gavras’ film version of the Syriza finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’ literary description of this intimidation in Adults in the Room.

Not one European country responded to von der Leyen’s call. Germany banned the export of masks and protective gear to Italy at the same time that Austria closed its borders to Italians. Not the European Union but China, which has now stemmed the tide of transmissions, came to Italy’s aid, promising 31 tons of supplies which included ventilators as well as 300 intensive care doctors. 5 Star Foreign Minister Luigi di Miao, amid quarantined Italian citizens playing and singing the Chinese national anthem from their balconies, said Italy would not forget who responded to the call for aid and who did not. 

Here in France and especially in the capital Paris, the intensity of the lockdown has increased. All restaurants are closed except for delivery and the cafes are boarded and shut, a situation that did not even occur under the Nazi occupation in the 1940s. In order to be on the street, to exercise, work or shop, each citizen needs a written “attestation” swearing they are outside for a legal purpose, else they can be fined 138 euros. This is a drastic measure and comes also amid the closing of two of France’s most prominent promenades, the banks of the Seine and Nice’s water walkway The Baie des Anges, subject in less turbulent times of a Louis Malle New Wave movie with Jean Moreau where the hapless condition was that of gambling not of lives endangered by years of cruel government policies.

Macron is being hailed, at least by his own party, as having made a transition from “the president of the rich” to a now stalwart republican who puts the country’s welfare before financial gain. However, the imperious style of the decree, issued by the prime minister Edward Philippe on a Saturday night outside of the weekday media cycle, recalled a similar decree issued two weeks before that arbitrarily passed without a vote the gutting of the pension system, termed pension reform. This was the most contentious piece of legislation in the history of the 5th Republic since the last time the Macron government used the arcane article 49.3 to equally arbitrarily pass the labour “reform” law which has led to increased precarity, as more and more workers now are employed under short term contracts and all contracts can be more easily cancelled.

Indeed, the way of enforcing the lockdown is in typical corporate bureaucratic Macron fashion. The attestation is simply a paper saying the person swears they are outside for legal reasons. It can be printed from the government website but must be reprinted each day one goes out. So it is simply a tax on the poor, on those who do not have a printer because it is not relevant in their work or cannot afford one and who now are subject to a fine.

As the lockdown continues perhaps the cheeriest respite is to recall that when Shakespeare was “sheltered in place” because of the plague, he wrote both King Lear and Macbeth. Both were critiques of power gone mad in his day in a time of a catastrophe and both couldn’t be more relevant today.

To watch any Trump press conference on the virus--including his flying off the handle with a reporter who asks him if he thinks Trump’s precautions are too lax-- is to recall Macbeth’s mad banquet scene where he is tormented by the ghost of his conscience Banquo who he has ordered assassinated. Likewise, watching the camera lingering after Trump’s address to the nation and catching him exhausted and drawing breath at his effort to care about the welfare of the country as a whole, cannot but summon up the image on the moor of Lear equally going mad, “mewling and puking” like a little babe.

 

Ten books to turn 2020 upside down
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Friday, 07 February 2020 09:18

Ten books to turn 2020 upside down

Written by

Want to turn the world upside down in 2020?  Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman has found ten books to help us on the way

 MP1

 1. On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, by Naomi Klein

 The issue that should have dominated the 2019 General Election, but didn’t, the climate emergency. Despite this it’s not going to go away, the Australian bush fires are simply the preview of long hot summers that will come Europe’s way, along with ever increasing risks of floods. Naomi Klein wears Trump’s ‘prophet of doom’ badge with honour and in her new book On Fire is unafraid to map out a planet on the verge of a breakdown, together with a plan to do something about it.

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2. The Case for the Green New Deal by Ann Pettifor

A small group of economists have been working on a ‘Green New Deal’ since the mid 2010’s . The idea was revived and made popular first by the U.S. Democrat Party’s Alexandria Ocasio Cortez early championing of the idea on her election to Congress in 2018, and then once more last as the highlight of Labour’s 2019 general election manifesto. Ann was one of that original small group, and The Case for the Green New Deal serves to inform and inspire a politics of alternatives to the otherwise forthcoming destruction of our planet. 

MP3

3. Now We Have Your Attention, by Jack Shenker

 While it is absolutely right to seek to establish a commonsense understanding that the Climate Emergency changes everything, this won’t happen by ignoring the fact that for most life goes on, because there is no other choice.  Now We Have Your Attention by Jack Shenker is a guidebook to this stark reality. The precariat, hollowed out communities, a debt-ridden generation, but also day-to-ay resistance by casual workers, renters’ unions, and grassroots Labour members. A book to both make sense of - and change - the world.

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4. Hostile Environment : How Immigrants Became Scapegoats, by Maya Goodfellow

 There’s not much doubt that the 4 years of the Brexit Impasse has ramped up a resurgent, populist racism. That’s not to say Brexit is a racist project, but too much of the discourse around it is. And that in turn was built on the legitimising of racism via government policy to create, remarkably in its own official words, a ‘hostile environment’. Maya Goodfellow’s Hostile Environment expertly unpicks the background of how contemporary racism has been framed by this process and the widespread failure to challenge the basis of it.   

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5. The Fall and Rise of the British Left, by Andrew Murray

 It might be thought in some quarters publishing a book on the eve of the 2019 General Election entitled  The Fall and Rise of the British Left  would mean only one thing in 2020 - the remainder bins.  But Andrew Murray comes from the school of thought that takes the long view. We are where we are, but that doesn’t mean that’s where we’ll stay. His account starts in the early 1970s to track this fall and rise through to the eve of the election. The downs are of more immediate relevance right now - the ups might have to wait.

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6. The 43 Group and Their Forgotten Battle for Post-War Britain, by Daniel Sonabend

 For an inspiring take on the art of the possible, Daniel Sonabend’s We Fight Fascists cannot be bettered. The largely hidden history of the Jewish ex-servicemen who on their return to Britain from the war witnessed Oswald Mosley’s attempted comeback and set out to stop it. They did this by any means necessary, but mainly through hard-faced, well-organised, physical confrontation. Not for the politically faint-hearted - have a milkshake handy whilst reading.

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7. Antisemitism, The Party and Public Belief, by Greg Philo, Mike Berry, Justin Schlosberg , Antony Lerman, and David Miller

 What would the 43 Group make of the Labour Party being portrayed as an antisemitic party? The rigour of the approach by the academic authors of Bad News for Labour cannot be faulted, there is a wealth of detail here. But what is lacking is a broader political perspective - there should be no ifs or buts, no need to qualify or contextualise our opposition to all forms of racism, and that includes antisemitism. Even - and arguably especially - when those victims aren’t allies of the Left on the question of Palestine. The really bad news for Labour is that too often, too many have appeared to fail that simple test. 

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8. Renewal: A Journal of Social Democracy

 OK so strictly speaking this is not a book, but a quarterly journal. However add four issues of Renewal together in the course of a year and you'll have the most up to date, debate and analysis of  Labour politics from a left social-democratic standpoint. Which given the current trials and tribulations of the Labour Party, the shallowness of the debate therein, and the uncertain direction of the party thereafter, makes Renewal uniquely placed to provide an indispensable read in 2020. 

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9. Steal as much as you can: How to win the culture wars in an age of austerity, by Nathalie Olah

 Steal as Much as You Can has to be the runaway winner of the best book title for essential 2020 reads. Nathalie Olah has written an  effortless traversal of the terrains of politics and culture, unpicking their mutual reconstitution in the grip of austerity and neoliberalism. A book that never surrenders to left miserabilism, instead offering the kind of manifesto of generational hope that 2020 demands. And along the way unafraid to pay off its intellectual debts, to Stuart Hall and Mark Fisher in particular. What’s not to like?

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10. Island: How To build a radical culture beyond the idea of England, by Alex Niven

 As soon as Rebecca Long-Bailey inserted the words ‘progressive patriotism’ into  her pitch for the Labour leadership, all ideological hell was let loose from that part of the Left that holds dear to the idea that ‘there’s nothing progressive about patriotism’.  Alex Niven is deeply suspicious of the idea of inserting ‘Englishness’ into all of this, yet ironically in New Model Island he reveals a keener sense of England than most.  What he favours is a resurgent regionalism, to let a thousand ‘Englands’ flower, and create what the book proclaims is a ‘dream archipelago.’  As Britain stands, post-Brexit, on the verge of a constitutional breakdown, New Model Island is the essential guide to the troubled year ahead.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction', aka  Philosophy Football.

 

Resolutely democratic and socialist: Remembering Bill Sutherland
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Friday, 17 January 2020 09:54

Resolutely democratic and socialist: Remembering Bill Sutherland

Written by

David Betteridge remembers the poetry of Bill Sutherland. With drawings by Owen McGuigan

1

Readers who are familiar with the lower reaches of the River Clyde will recognise Dumbarton Rock in the drawing shown above. 

We are looking down on the river from a hilly slope, from a position behind a pair of lovers, or so we presume the two figures to be, who are standing in front of us, pressed close. Grass and flowers are at their feet; trees cluster beyond, on both banks of the river. The lovers are so positioned that they might easily and joyfully jump off the hill, and fly like birds or paraglider pilots, and so get a closer look at the scene in front of them. 

The upper half of the drawing is darker than the bottom half. It presents a crowded urban area, overhung by four clouds of smoke, each one hanging heavily over a different part of a town. That town is not Dumbarton exactly, but an artist’s re-imagining of it, as it was in the past, busy with shipbuilding and other industries. If you explore the drawing further, you will see ships on the river, and graves.

The drawing is the work of Owen McGuigan, well known as a photographer and a Clydeside archivist. His website is a magnificent treasure hoard of material relating to Clydebank and its environs, present and past. Never has the term “People’s History” been more apposite than when applied to this Gramscian labour of love that Owen has committed himself to.

Owen’s drawing is his interpretation of a poem by a Dumbarton writer, Bill Sutherland, dead regrettably, at a young age. Once a teacher, and a dedicated one, he was later employed as an oral historian at the Denny Maritime Museum in Dumbarton. He was a member of the Workers' City group of authors. Some of his early poems appeared in their Workers' City anthology of 1988. The poem illustrated here was published shortly afterwards, in a collection called A Clydeside Lad.

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The poem starts by conjuring up the idyllic scene shown in the bottom half of  our drawing. We hear the voice of a “lad” addressing his “lass”:

Come tae the high fields, love, wae me
faur fae this stoory, summer toon
an there like eagles lookin doon
Ah’ll teach ye aw ma hert cin see.

Fae crags, Ah’ll show ye, lass, the green
o five bright, bonnie Scottish shires,
fae Glesga’s reeky, shimmerin spires
doon tae Loch Lomon’s blinnin sheen.

Ah see great ships oot on the Clyde
thit ply fae here tae Timbuctoo
an shipyerds glintin in the blue,
Ah see sich beauty an sich pride.

Ah see tae lasses bright is May
and women kinely is the earth
an men whose jokin hides thir worth
an lads is honest is the day.

Suddenly the mood turns dark, as the speaker’s head takes over from his heart. Innocence gives way to Experience, as happens for instance in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and as happens all the time, of course, in real life.

Bit lass, aw lass, ma heid well knows
the truth ma hert fur love denies
this lan’, ma floor o paradise,
is bit a poor an cankert rose.

Fur, lass, Ah look an plain Ah see
men fat upon thir brother’s sweat,
the slums, the warrant-sales, the debt,
oor drunkiniss, oor bigotry.

Sae if up ther ma hert shid sink
fae seein ma lan’ too truthfully,
fae thinkin o it honestly,
then haud me, lass - don’t let me think.

How much meaning has been packed into this poem, showing both political and personal awareness! How well the contrarieties of Innocence and Experience are managed! How beautifully a complex scene is described and dramatised! How skilfully a vernacular Scots is put into stanza form! 

The same qualities are to be found in Bill’s other poems, which he crafted with great care during his short life. There are scores of them, many available only in handwritten or typewritten form. They are archived by the National Library of Scotland. You can access them by citing the reference Acc.14020.

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Here is another of Bill’s poems from A Clydeside Lad:

Her mooth wis fuul o chuckie stanes -
“God bless this ship and all who sail...” –
an we wir laughin wild is wains
it muck on oor yerd-owner’s tail
fae where he’d slipt on ile an fell,
the day we launched the San Miguel.

The botil smashed. There came a hush
sae lang an wide it felt like noise,
sae wee Joe yellt, “It wants a push!”
Then, like it waited fur his voice,
the Giant edged oot fur the swell,
the day we launched the San Miguel.

A roar rose up sae strang an fierce,
loud fit tae crack the cranes above,
and many throats choked many tears
bit nane cid hide the powerfa love
thit burnt in aw, is in masel,
the day we launched the San Miguel.

Pride ran sae deep it near wis pain
an me, ma fethir bae ma side,
watched whit oor hauns hid built, oor ain.
The ocean noo take fur its bride,
an take fae us pert o oorself,
the day we launched the San Miguel.

Ther’s men drag coal up oot the mine,
Ther’s men drag rhymes up oot thir soul,
Ther’s men build buildins, taw an fine,
bit in this big, crule, sweaty hole
we bult a beauty oot o Hell,
the day we launched the San Miguel.

 Picture2

 “We built a beauty oot a Hell...” There, in that single little paradox at the end of his short drama-in-verse, Bill gives us a succinct expression of his understanding of the syntax of working-class experience: first, the plural and collective subject “we”; second, the active verb “built”; third, the direct object of that act of building, “a beauty”; and fourth, the adverbial “oot a Hell”, defining the harsh circumstances out if which the “beauty” - a great ship, as ambitious a project as any cathedral - was conjured. The poem, as indeed the whole of A Clydeside Lad, is packed with similarly well-wrought phrases. They are its building blocks, with not a wasted or a clumsy line. Their articulate energy jumps out at us.

As in all his vernacular poems, Bill transcribed his Scots in such a way that we get the very sound of it, just the way he spoke it and heard it. His poems are from and for the spoken word. (Some might argue that all poems worthy of the name should answer this same description.) Eye-reading on its own is not recommended. Get the taste and sound of Bill’s lines on tongue and ear!

4

A Clydeside Lad begins with an in-depth Introduction, the work of the then Literary Editor of the Glasgow Herald, Chris Small, who tutored the Dumbarton Writers Group that Bill Sutherland attended. A key passage made in this Introduction contains the following insight:

Bill Sutherland’s collection of poems belongs firmly to a place, a speech, a community and a way of thinking and living...  He knows the reality behind the “economic terms”, and his knowledge enters his poetry with indignation and compassion... 

Bill’s “way of thinking and living” was resolutely democratic, socialist, and in step with the complex realities of everyday life. He saw things in the round, and with a binocular or 3-D vision, so to speak, of a moral kind, seeing both the good and bad, the light and dark. There is a second key passage from Chris Small’s Introduction that helps us read Bill’s collection of poems as it was intended, that is to say as a whole, with a narrative shape to it:

The scope [of A Clydeside Lad] is wider than a single view.  It extends, with imaginative empathy, into other minds, and it moves backward and forward over more than one generation...

To test this “wider than a single view” point, I made a list of the characters who make an appearance in the course of the book, people with whom the poet empathises, though not necessarily agrees.  They include: his Mother and Father; a big priest; Ann, “aye sae thin, a deid wain o only three”; Miss McLeish, a teacher given to fierce punishing; Kate McGraw, a free-spirited classmate; a posh woman officiating at the launching of a ship, whose voice we have already heard; St Peter, God, and a succession of malodorous politicians, all in the same poem; Pat, a passionate singer, dying of cancer; Mike, a boozer, a boaster, and a bampot; a wife-to-be, who “made me wan wae aw thit aches tae grow”; and a Socialist orator from Glasgow, who made a winter’s night warm, and inspired the young poet:

He curst the chains o ignorance
in whit oor bosses thrust us;
he spoke o human dignity,
o britherhood, o justice...

This cast of characters helps drive forward the plot of A Clydeside Lad, which is the drama of the poet’s growing-up. 

5

Regrettably, Bill and his poems have slipped over the years into a limbo of neglect, remembered by friends and established readers certainly, but making few new contacts along the way. The reason is simple: his works are out of print, and hard to come by, even on the second-hand market. Bill himself had some thoughts on the subject of availability and accessibility.  In an interview that he gave to a local journalist, Rory Murphy, he said:

I’ve had a lot of help from my local councillor, Geoffrey Calvert.  He’s been pushing hard to have my books sold through the local libraries...Wouldn’t it be a good idea [to have] a corner which had all our local authors’ books on view, and for sale? I mean, all of them, not just a chosen few...

It would be like saying to ourselves,“Yes, we are creative people; yes, we should take pride in ourselves; yes, and if these writers can do it, maybe I could do it too.” It would be a great big Yes to ourselves as a community...

Picture3

Bill Sutherland, in his home-town of Dumbarton

Right now on Culture Matters, as a constructive small step, we can give Bill and some of his poems a certain afterlife online; and we can hope that other websites do the same. Maybe, seeing Bill’s work, some publisher will come along and re-issue A Clydeside Lad, and other writings, too. Maybe librarians and booksellers will make shelf-space for them. Maybe some singer-songwriter will add a memorable tune to some of Bill’s already memorable words, and thus give them an added chance of survival, on the folk-club scene. Maybe educators will include a selection of his poems in a school anthology, thereby slipping them into the carrying stream of a common curriculum. 

Such initiatives - and face-to-face workshops, as well, of the Workers City kind, which helped Bill get from writing privately to publishing and performing - contribute to the fleshing out of an essential eco-system of letters. That eco-system, in turn, contributes to the growing of our essential Left counter-culture, without which our political advances falter. 

In the 2019 General Election, the Labour Party went down to a bad defeat, even in its traditional heartlands. The defeat can be explained, I believe, in large measure in cultural terms. “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Bill Sutherland knew the truth of this proverb, and his poems embody it, expressing in heartfelt words the heart of the heartless world.

6

A poem may serve as a summary rounding-off, arguing against neglect and oblivion, and in favour of keeping our culture going, fighting across a wide front:

Seedcorn

Seeds For the Planting Shall Not Be Ground Up:
so Käthe Kollwitz called a picture
that she made.

It shows three children hugged within the circle
of their mother’s arms; the mother fiercely
and with vigilance looks round,
their guard.

Such love the wise extend to more than family
and seeds.

Thoughts for our thinking shall not be let
to slide;

values for our saving shall not be lightly held,
nor scorned;

books for our reading shall not be pulped,
nor put in skips, nor left
in dead files or bottom drawers,
nor thrown in furnaces and burned.

kk

Seeds For the Planting Shall Not Be Ground Up, by Käthe Kollwitz, 1942

You’re great, just don’t get too big for your boots
Friday, 17 January 2020 09:14

You’re great, just don’t get too big for your boots

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Roaa Ali explains why you don't see many black and ethnic minority faces in cultural spaces, how race and class operate in tandem to marginalise minority ethnic groups – and what happens if you call out the system

Have you ever been to the theatre, looked around, and thought about how predominantly white the audience is? Does the same impression come to mind when visiting museums? If it does and the answer is a resounding yes, then you’re not alone. There is a major problem in Britain’s cultural industry and it’s time we all took a hard look at why.

For years now, there has been a growing recognition of the ethnic inequalities in the creative sector. Arts Council England found it to be prevalent and persistent, particularly in theatres and museums: 12% of the workforce in national organisations in the council’s portfolio were from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and just 5% across its major partner museums. In positions of leadership, this fell to only 9% of chief executives and 10% of artistic directors in national portfolio organisations. On executive boards at partner museums it was 3%. A recent survey showed that 92% of top British theatre leaders were white.

In TV, a report from communications regulator Ofcom showed that ethnic minorities were also considerably underrepresented. It highlighted “a cultural disconnect between the people who make programmes and the millions who watch them”.

This is all despite a number of leading institutions introducing action plans and policies to improve their diversity. While Arts Council England launched the Creative Case for Diversity in 2011, to emphasise the importance and value of diversity in the arts and its significance in enriching artistic practice, leadership and audiences, leading broadcasters the BBC and Channel 4 have ramped up efforts to increase diversity. Yet change of the status quo seems to be minimal and in some cases static. The cultural sector remains steeped in ethnic inequality.

Failing Strategies

There are many factors for why Britain’s cultural sector appears to be circumscribed by whiteness in ideology and practice, production and consumption. Diversity strategies seem to be failing so far, partly because “diversity” itself is a problematic term that can often dilute the problem and depoliticise the issue of racial discrimination. In the creative sector, it has morphed from an aspiration to tackle racial inequality into a drive for better business and economics – a rationale that downshifts the social impact of ethnic inequality, as film studies fellow Clive Nwonka argues.

The business case for diversity can help campaign for ethnic equality, but using it merely as a business tool can mask discriminatory practices and shift focus away from deeper issues of structural racism – for example, in embedded attitudes about art production, its consumers and its exclusivity; attitudes that enforce creative hierarchies that align with racial and class hierarchies.

Myths about high art and its audience

Many a myth still exist about cultural creation, what constitutes high or low culture, and the attitudes of ethnic minorities towards cultural participation. Commonly held opinions include, for example, that audiences from black and ethnic minorities are hard to engage – a view that ignores the lack of ethnic representation in the sector, among other realities pertaining to education and class.

In 2014, and in response to calls by actress Meera Syal for theatres to cater to Asian audiences, distinguished actor Janet Suzman was staunchly criticised for claiming that theatre was a “white invention”, that “runs in their [white people’s] DNA”. Consciously or not, statements like these contribute to a segregation of culture, and a hierarchy of cultural production.

In What is this “black” in black popular culture?, Stuart Hall articulated how the ordering of culture into high and low serves to establish cultural hegemony:

It is an ordering of culture that opens up culture to the play of power, not an inventory of what is high versus what is low at any particular moment.

Take grime

Ethnic and racial hierarchies get reproduced through cultural hierarchies. For example, grime music is tolerated, even celebrated, as long as it remains an ethnic genre, confined to a black experience, and so subject to hierarchical cultural positioning.

The outrage that a number of public figures (such as presenter Piers Morgan and academic Paul Stott) showed towards Stormzy when he recently affirmed that racism exists in the UK, appeared to stem from their sense that the grime artist has succeeded courtesy to whiteness, its tolerance and patronage, as a tweet from Stott suggested:

It all starts with education
 
Attitudes about culture are also produced and reproduced through education. Theatre departments are probably one of the first and most essential blocs in the chain of supply for the theatre sector and cultural industry in general. Yet a predominantly white curriculum continues to be the norm in arts and theatre subjects – that is because for the most part, the canon has been constructed in the image of whiteness. As a consequence, most theatre students will study the works of Shakespeare and Bertolt Brecht, for example, but not many will consult the plays of Nigerian Nobel Laureate writer Wole Soyinka, or Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous.
Wole Soyinka: we don’t know either. jdco/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Black and ethnic minorities are underrepresented as students, academics and authors on reading lists. As one notable report put it: although a welcoming environment, the discipline remains monocultural in terms of both its staff and curricula.

The few taught modules that focus on non-white theatres texts are offered as part of an optional stream, to add “flavour” rather as part of the core canon. This reproduces the hierarchy of knowledge with whiteness on top, and ethnic contributions valued through their proximity to whiteness. It also exoticises and exceptionalises non-white modules, created to appeal to non-white students. While these texts, and those who consume them, are both kept part of and inside the institution, they remain outside its frame of cultural influence and power.

Some scholars and activists are taking bold actions to decolonise the discipline from within. Campaigns such as Why is my curriculum so white challenge the lack of diversity in UK universities and the dominance of white eurocentric teaching materials.

Yet attitudes towards cultural production remain set within a frame of mind that centres whiteness as the custodian of high art. When the principal of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama was asked about quotas as a potential way to boost diversity in 2018, his concern for the school’s standards and reputation implied that black and ethnic minorities might not possess the finesse required to meet such “standards”.

Others, such as the Black British Classical Foundation, aim to nurture interest and participation in art forms often seen as exclusionary.

It plays out in institutions

Our representations are created in cultural institutions, and it is within their daily operation, structures and processes that ethnic inequalities are either perpetuated or mitigated.

For the last two years, my colleagues and I have been researching how institutions reproduce or mitigate ethnic inequalities in cultural production. Throughout our research and interviews, the idea of exclusivity has been reiterated again and again by both majority (white) ethnic and minority ethnic staff.

Although some institutions have introduced diversity initiatives, progress seems slow and tied up to arts funding structures that are temporary and one directional – ultimately serving the institutions rather than the ethnic minorities they seek to engage. Organisations may gain funding by appealing to funders’ diversity agendas, but their engagement with ethnic minority communities and artists is rarely sustainable or lasting, leaving creatives feeling exploited and perhaps further marginalised.

Bafta: still struggling. Lorna Roberts/Shutterstock

Many theatres and TV production companies also aim to increase representations on stage and screen, but that really only serves as window dressing. Ultimately, creators, writers, producers, senior management and commissioners remain mostly white. The stories they tell are therefore also mostly white. The lack of diversity in the 2020 Bafta nominations is an example of a film culture that struggles to produce, represent or celebrate ethnic minorities.

Of course, class plays a major factor in perpetuating ethnic inequalities in the cultural sector, but it is also sometimes used to camouflage structural racism in its institutions. Race and class can work in tandem to marginalise ethnic minorities in cultural spaces, but racism in cultural spaces has a direct link to racism in social spaces and that has an impact on how the nation imagines itself – dictating who belongs and who doesn’t.

There is a silver lining, though. New modes of cultural production and consumption via avenues like Netflix, YouTube, and Instagram are changing traditional cultural production practices. Netflix’s large investment in original content and its subscription model means that the network is commissioning diverse content to cater for and further attract a receptive diverse audience. Such trends may yet force institutions to properly address their lack of diversity.

A cultural sector that is able to represent Britain’s diverse communities and respond to new digital means of production and distribution cannot happen without a diverse workforce, institutions that conceptualise diversity as a core strength, and funding bodies that facilitate long-term ethnic equality in the sector rather than short-lived diversity initiatives.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Tory election victory: control of the national narrative through culture
Monday, 16 December 2019 10:57

The Tory election victory: control of the national narrative through culture

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Stuart Cartland argues that the Conservative victory is based on their control of the national narrative, achieved partly through control of popular cultural experiences

It must be understood that it is not just the message of ‘get Brexit done’ that provided such an overwhelming majority for the Conservatives, although that is what it clearly appears to be. As surprising at the Conservative victory might seem to many, particularly where the Conservatives picked up the votes to win in traditional Labour strongholds, elections are not won on practical manifesto pledges but rather through dominating the national narrative, including dominance through the control of cultural experiences.

This dominance has been the culmination of an overwhelming control of a symbolic national narrative dictated and controlled by the conservative right. Practicalities of politics matter little here. The point being that key right-wing conservative tropes of Euroscepticism and anti-immigration rhetoric have become the common ground of British politics and a sense of national narrative, particularly within England. This has been an ongoing process and theme through a conservative cultural dominance that arguably made the Conservative victory almost an inevitability.

Since the Conservatives came into power under David Cameron, and probably even before this, there has been an ongoing reinvention and reinforcement of an experience of the mythical majority. The booming cultural industries, dominated by themes of nostalgia and national experience, have shifted the cultural imagination and a national narrative.

For example, the last 10 years have witnessed a cultural shift on the small and big screen of historical dramas, for example: Downton Abbey, Poldark, Call the Midwife, Victoria, The Queen et al, in which a very specific ideological narrative has been spun (a pre-politically correct, multicultural or liberal landscape). Ideological perspectives and cultural narratives such as conservative traditionalism and a discursive dominance go hand-in-hand with political dominance. It becomes a naturalised and normalised manner in which to imagine the nation, it is also a cultural perspective that has monopolised what national imaginings might be in an era of increasingly defensive nationalism such as the reterritorialising of British cultural politics within the context of a process of disengagement from Europe and devolution.

Moreover, the past 10 years has also seen a shift in a process of memorialisation as a form of conservative nationalism. This can be seen in the ideologically situated use of symbolic commemoration characterised by historicised cultural pastiche and revitalised nationalism, for example through the WWI centenary commemorations and the ongoing politicisation of the symbolic use of the poppy.

Bringing this back to the recent election, the key point is that Johnson represents this symbolic narrative, much like Trump does in the US. Regardless of how untrustworthy, contradictory, offensive and inappropriate he may have proven himself to be, and regardless of scandal after scandal, Johnson (much like May) represents the symbolic social and political discursive conservative dominance within England of a national narrative and imagination. It was the Conservatives' dominance of this national imagination, not the individual figure, that won the election.

For huge swathes of England voting for the Conservatives is an act of willing self-harm, but this proves how utterly encompassing the conservative message and dominance has become. Regardless of how (in practical terms) a Labour government would benefit the majority of the population and conversely how detrimental a Conservative majority will be, ‘get Brexit done’ is the symbolic representation of a conservative national imagination rather than the rather hollow and meaningless message it might seem on the surface.

In terms of policy the Conservatives offered very little in the election but they didn’t need to. The Johnson victory is the culmination and consolidation of several years of  Conservative cultural and ideological dominance, particularly within England, of the national narrative.

The election: Statement by 117 poets in support of the Labour Party
Monday, 02 December 2019 09:57

The election: Statement by 117 poets in support of the Labour Party

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Statement By 115 Poets in Support of the Labour Party

We, the undersigned, representing a section of the poetry community, pledge our support to the Labour Party in the upcoming general election because we want to see its radically transformative and compassionate manifesto come into effect. The manifesto shows a commitment to social justice and equality not only in its comprehensive policies of state support for consumers and producers of the arts and culture generally, but also in its social and economic policies to support working people, including:

An end to austerity and the ideological attack on our welfare state
An end to the malicious work capability assessments of the sick and disabled and PIP
An end to the political scapegoating of the unemployed
An end to the two child benefit cap
An end to discriminatory rhetoric at the dispatch box
An end to the "hostile environment" for immigrants and refugees
An end to rough sleeping
An end to zero-hour contracts
An end to unpaid internships
An end to tuition fees
An end to creeping privatisation of the NHS

We want to see these Labour policies implemented:

A National Education Service
A National Care Service
A Universal Basic Income Pilot
A reintroduction of private rent controls and greater rights for renters
A restitution of Legal Aid
Free prescriptions in line with Scotland and Wales
A green industrial revolution
A culturally transformative Charter for the Arts
A Race and Faith manifesto

Signatories:

Keith Armstrong
Anne Babson
Bruce Barnes
Christopher Barnes
Amy Evans Bauer
Bob Beagrie
Brian Beamish
Peter Branson
Jane Burn
Gale Burns
Lesley Burt
David Cain
Ushiku Crisafulli
Andy Croft
Alan Dent
Matt Duggan
Steve Ely
Dr Naomi Foyle
Harry Gallagher
Owen Gallagher
Raine Geoghegan
Harry Gilonis
Prof John Goodby
Maria Gornell
Chris Gutkind
John G. Hall
Colin Hambrook
Chip Hamer
Emma Hammond
Robert Hampson
Oz Hardwick
Bruce Harris
Martyn Hayes
Kevin Higgins
Clare Hill
Luke Hoggarth
Bernadette Horton
Keith Howden
Zekria Ibrahimi
Andy Jackson
Kevin N. Jelf
Nicholas Johnson
Fred Johnston
Strider Marcus Jones
Tom Kelly
David Kessel
Mark Kirkbride
S.J. Litherland
Fran Lock
Marilyn Longstaff
Hannah Lowe
Rupert Loydell
Chris McCabe
Niall McDevitt
Rachel McGladdery
John McKeown
James Mainland
Caroline Maldonado
Char March
Dez Mendoza
Rob Miles
Christopher Moncrieff
Stephen Mooney
Alan Morrison
Graham Mort
John Muckle
Pete Mullineaux
Mark Murphy
Nicholas Murray
Chris Nash
Christopher Norris
Dr John O'Donoghue
Clive Oseman
Antony Owen
Ben Parker-Jones
Ian Parks
Tom Pickard
Steph Pike
Mair De-Gare Pitt
Winston Plowes
Dr David Pollard
Steve Pottinger
Alan Price
Prof John Quicke
Mike Quille
Frank Rafferty
Peter Raynard
Sally Richards
Karl Riordan
Lisa Rossetti
Anne Rouse
Dave Russell
Bernard Saint
Stephen Sawyer
John Scott
John Seed
John Short
Ken W. Simpson
Fiona Sinclair
Richard Skinner
Linus Slug
Barry Smith
Geoff Smith
Theresa Sowerby
Steve Spence
David Stoker
Peter Street
Paul Summers
Dr Andrew Taylor FRSA
Laura Taylor
Angela Topping
Ruth Valentine
Jo Walton
Rob Walton
Stephen Watts
Merryn Williams
Gareth Writer-Davies
Wendy Young

Co-ordinated by Alan Morrison (The Recusant) and Mike Quille (Culture Matters Co-operative Ltd), December 2019.

How to read an election
Friday, 29 November 2019 11:36

How to read an election

Written by

Mark Perryman provides a handy reading guide to the General Election

There’s not much doubt politics is getting hot, hotter, hottest – just as the nights draw in and get cold, cold, colder as Boris Johnson seek to bring some kind of ending to the sorry saga of all things Brexit.

A December General Election? The first at this time of year for goodness knows how long. And to sort out Brexit? Well the last one didn’t, and there’s absolutely no guarantee the result of this one will either, whichever way it goes.

In the immediate aftermath of ‘17 there was much talk that for Labour it was the manifesto that wot (nearly) won it. Mike Phipps’ For The Many helps us understand the original’s appeal and the ideas required to win this time.

Most of the contributors to the essay selection Rethinking Britain are slightly more detached from the organised Labour Left than those contributing to Mike’s book, though they share the same intent ‘for the many’, ranging over economics, employment, investment, and social security.

One of the brightest voices for such a brand of ‘new’ economics is Grace Blakeley, her first book Stolen is a compelling account not only of all that’s wrong with how financial power is misused but also what could be done about it.

The abolition of tuition fees was a vote-winner in 2017, makes good sense but surely we also need to ask what are universities for, not just how they’re being paid for. A good step in the former direction is provided by Raewyn Connell’s The Good University complete with the rather excellent sub-title ‘ what universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change.

My favourite source for ideas in and around Labour however, is the quarterly journal Renewal. Issue after issue it never disappoints – the latest is themed around the issue of democracy, with a stand-out essay by Lewis Bassett on the vexed question of democracy in the Labour Party.

Radical, new, policies broke through at Labour’s 2019 party conference including the 4-day week, abolition of private schools, a Green New Deal. Most of these have found their way into Labour’s 2019 manifesto. But in any general election these face the problem of how they are affected by the Brexit impasse which isn’t going to disappear in a hurry.

Also, Labour’s antisemitism crisis will be an issue too. Strange Hate by Keith Kahn-Harris firmly and correctly puts the resolution of that crisis in the context of anti-racism. While for those unfamiliar with the specificities of Jewish culture A Jewdas Haggadah provides a much-needed introduction, with occasional hilarious results.  

people get ready

For a primer chronicling the history of the rise of Corbynism read David Kogan’s Protest and Power : The Battle for the Labour Party. As to what happens if Labour wins, Christine Berry and Joe Guinan’s People Get Ready! deals strategically with how Labour might govern while seeking to implement a post-neoliberal economic strategy unimaginably radical in its ambition. Wow.

But to get even close to that point, Labour’s arguments for ‘real change’ need both to be made popular and to challenge a resurgent right-wing racist populism. J.A.Smith’s Other People’s Politics charts precisely this terrain via a rigorous deconstruction of the populist surge, and what kind of response from Labour this requires.

Labour’s ‘Momentum Left’ is often derided as extremist and Marxist. In fact it is overwhelmingly non-marxist – Marxism no longer offers the pole of attraction for those who favour politics against the mainstream that it once did. In its place there is a greater range of models of critique. But that’s not to suggest it is dead, buried or irrelevant. The Corbyn Project by John Rees is testament to the necessity of a Marxist critique of even the most left-wing versions of reformism,. We may choose to disagree with the critique, but to ignore it entirely is a serious error.

The new edition of the classic Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein The Labour Party: A Marxist History now updated by Charlie Kimber to take in both the Blair-Brown years and Corbynism, carefully records from a Marxist standpoint the errors Labour governments have made over the decades. Again we can differ over the precise nature of the causes and consequences, but those causes and consequences need accounting for.

If Marxism is no longer sufficient to explain everything about the modern world, that doesn’t mean it is analytically redundant. Testament to that proposition is the sharply titled, and written, Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism . Full of techno-politics of an unashamedly left complexion, the book is described as ‘a manifesto’. Notwithstanding the free broadband offer, Labour still doesn’t entirely share Aaron’s somewhat breathless enthusiasm for the progressive potential of technological change.

However, modern politics needs to understand how digital technology is transforming the terrain on which we contest. An unpicking of the contradictions this generates is provided by Jamie Woodcock’s Marx at the Arcade, a careful survey of video games and the politics they produce.    

Another ‘unofficial’ manifesto is The Socialist Manifesto by Bhaskar Sunkara, who offers up a political platform which is historic in inspiration, futuristic in vision, and practical for the present.

In a similar vein Nancy Fraser’s The Old Is Dying and the New Cannot be Born takes Gramsci’s famous dictum as a starting point to understand the twin, opposing, potentials of left and right populism out of the current global impasse typified by Trump, and Brexit. It is one of the first of a very welcome new pamphlets series from Verso, short enough to be read between canvassing sessions – relevant, intelligent writing leaving campaigners wanting more.

For the ‘new to be born’ demands that the ‘old’ has to be subject to critique. Stephen Duncombe describes this process as ‘reimagining politics’ which he explains in a new edition of his superb 2007 book Dream or Nightmare, updated to take in the age of Trump.

Such a reimagining demands an engagement with what politics means for those whose entry post-dates the 2008 financial crisis, 2019’s first and second time voters on whose support Labour is counting so much. Keir Milburn’s Generation Left should be considered the set text for connecting with these voters’ practical ideals.

And after all the votes have been counted, what changes and how much? The annual Socialist Register has taken for its 2020 theme ‘new ways of living’ with an admirably global view of the cusp of new versus old.

A scary vision of how such a transition might end up is provided by Peter Fleming’s The Worst is Yet To Come, described as a post-capitalist survival guide, ranging over economic decline, social division and environmental detonation. Oh well, it wasn’t good while it lasted.

TheTwitteringMachineCOVER

To prevent such a vision becoming a reality requires a conversational culture that enables differences of opinion to be shared, rather than as a badge of rising intolerance. Two contrasting approaches to this are provided by Billy Bragg and Richard Seymour, yet both take a similar starting point, social media. Billy’s The Three Dimensions of Freedom champions democratisation in the face of what some have described as ‘surveillance capitalism’. While in The Twittering Machine Richard Seymour tackles the degradation of political debate the entire social media edifice has helped bring about. In time honoured fashion we need both, institutional change and taking personal responsibility to effect that change. The importance of both approaches cannot be underestimated with elections increasingly fought as much online as on the doorstep.

Even in the heat of the such campaigns we need to locate change, personal and political, in the midst of what theorists call ‘the conjunctural’, the terrain of the present. A special edition of the journal New Formations takes this as its theme, This Conjuncture drawing on the work of Stuart Hall to apply the theory to a wide range of what constitutes the present.

Of course any sense of this particular ‘conjuncture’ is pretty much defined by all things Brexit. But of course the issue and what it raises has a history too. Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson’s Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire makes this precise point very well – imperial nostalgia is still a powerful political mobiliser.

cover The People s Flag and the Union Jack

Similarly, in The People’s Flag and the Union Jack Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw apply the consequences of an Englishness entwined with the imperial and the martial to the enduring failure for Labour to engage with either the break-up of Britain or the consequent re-emergence of the English nation. Both are of course vital to any understanding of Brexit.

It isn’t however a crude reductionism to suggest that Brexit must also be understood via the prism of class. Mike Carter’s All Together Now? is an epic journey, walking half the length of England to help provide that prism, looking at the deindustrialised communities almost entirely disconnected from the body politic. What kind of answer are the parties providing to their howls of rage?

In a similar vein Our City by Jon Bloomfield is an incredibly powerful testimony of how race and migration shapes the modern British city, in this case Birmingham, establishing grounds for both unity and division, the choice of which is entirely political.

Riding for Deliveroo, the debut book from Callum Cant, is another potent rejoinder to those who would reduce the entire General Election to all things Brexit. Callum’s spirited case for a resistance to the ‘new economy’ should be more than sufficient to convince it shouldn’t be.

If an election shaped by the Brexit impasse fails to respond to these many and varied howls of rage, the future will be anything but progressive. Cas Mudde’s The Far Right Today connects such an understanding to Brexit’s transatlantic equivalent, the 2016 triumph of Trumpism. A triumph framed by a populist racism coupled with authoritarian populism that has its origins in, and message projected by the alt-right.

The New Authoritarians by David Renton is an important new analysis of this phenomenon, that distinguishes this radicalised, racist right from more traditional versions of classic fascism. It is all the more dangerous for this shift. As David argues, our opposition and offering of alternatives is strengthened not weakened by understanding the nature and appeal of what we are up against. Casting votes will not be enough.

The biggest issue in the election should surely be the Climate Emergency. This will condition the shape of politics to come, so it’s useful to have a handbook to guide us. There is none better than Paul Mason’s latest, Clear Bright Future, a guide to past and present crises beyond any conventional electoral focus and a map of what a radical future in their place might look like too.

A more conventional response is provided by System Change not Climate Change edited by Martin Empson. It’s conventional in the sense that most of the contributors derive their politics from Marxism. It’s not to deride the entire legacy of this most revolutionary of ideologies to recognise that firstly its contribution to our understanding of the environmental crisis is negligible, and secondly other revolutionary ideas are serving to make up for that absence and inspiring millions to action.

For example, Greta’s short book No One is Too Small to Make A Difference , which would be my pick as the perfect 2019 Manifesto. And for a campaign guide, Extinction Rebellion’s handbook This is Not A Drill showcases the scale of audacity, action and creative resistance this campaign has generated in such a short time.

But however imaginative, however creative, in the same way that voting is not enough nor will blocking roads be sufficient if the Climate Emergency is to be reversed. We need ideas that become policies and in turn become government action. Labour putting a Green Industrial Revolution at the centre of its message is a hugely important development in this regard, although Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams’ The Economics of Arrival shows how far traditional, including left, governments need to travel to produce a society that is sustainable.  

Despite the claims of politicians on the stump, nothing in politics is ever entirely ‘new’. It pays to take more than a moment to pay heed to the past. Portugal in 1974 is one such instance, the most potent example yet of revolutionary change where we’ve become accustomed to least expect it, Western Europe. It’s an episode brilliantly recalled by Raquel Varela’s new account, A People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution.

rebel

Closer to home the new edition of Rebel Footprints by David Rosenberg is a guide to the streets and other parts of London that carry with them a radical past. It’s a history lesson on the move – what a way to spend a Sunday afternoon after 12th December, with David’s book in hand, strolling for socialism.

Anti-racism is a strand that runs through much of this past, or at least it should. Evan Smith’s history British Communism and the Politics of Race may focus on one particular part of the Left and its changing relationship to anti-racism, yet the insights provide a much broader perspective on what makes, and what doesn’t make, an anti-racist Labour Party.

To keep up to date more broadly with the historiography of communism there’s no better source than the journal Twentieth Century Communism. The latest issue is testament to its customary eclectic mix, containing Eric Hobsbawm, the Brothers Grimm and the Communist Party of Cyprus.

A range of new titles offer an impressive revisiting of how to construct a political culture. Too little has been done on this front by Labour, since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. In the rush and tumble of the campaign theres’s Fck Boris and Grime4Corbyn – but what will remain of this after the polling stations close? If 2017 is anything to go by, not a lot.

Beautifully produced, the songbook Working Class Heroes: A History of Struggle in Song edited by Mat Callahan and Yvonne Moore provides like-minded artefacts from the past to inspire us that a radical political future is not only necessary but possible – and the beauty of this is that with instrument in hand, the music can be turned into a weapon of change here and now.

Visual Dissent is an extraordinarily vivid collection of works by the much-celebrated photomontage artist Peter Kennard. If only more of the Left took note of Peter’s ability to communicate with wit, humour and impact.

The LGBT movement is never backward at coming forward with communicating its hopes, ambitions, demands for change. The origins of that political and cultural imperative are beautifully chronicled in the photos and accompanying essays from Stonewall ’69 which comprise Fred W. McDarrah’s Pride: Photographs after Stonewall.

And for a soundtrack? In Don’t Look Back in Anger Daniel Rachel chronicles the rise and fall of Cool Britannia, a music that just like the politics of the same era, the 1990s and the noughties, promised so much but in the end didn’t deliver. Better luck this time, eh?

And as for when the cut ’n thrust of the campaign serves to get a tad blunt and tawdry, I recommend a turn to How to be a Vegan and Keep your Friends from Annie Nichols. Individual, lifestyle choices aren’t sufficient in themselves, we need governments to effect change on the scale the Climate Emergency requires, yet reinventing our diet and ‘keeping our friends’ provides more than an inkling of both what is possible and necessary. Tasty too!

Who knows what the future might hold after 12th December? We can but dream, with many sacrificing evenings and weekends to help make it happen. A very welcome return therefore of the Big Red Diary to help plan the first year of supporting, resisting – or maybe even a mix of the two – a new government.

poems for when your phone dies

And my book of the General Election campaign? Matt Abbott’s debut poetry collection A Hurricane in my Head: Poems for When Your Phone Dies. Poetry? And these are for children too! What’s that got to do with 12th December, eh? Heaps. This is a once-in-a-generation vote, not only to determine Britain’s relationship with Europe via the EU, but also the scale of ambition to tackle the Climate Emergency.

On both fronts those of us of a certain age will struggle on and learn to live with the dire consequences, if the worst possible result imaginable materialises and Johnson is back at Number Ten on the morning of 13th December. But those at secondary school, the age group Matt’s book is primarily aimed at, will have to live with the fallout for most of their adolescence. A Johnson victory moreover will cement the popular shift to the Right, institutionalise its grip on power for a considerable time to come, so those at school will face a grim future.

At the very moment the Climate Emergency needs reversing most urgently, the least will be being done to stop it. The school climate strikers symbolise an entirely different discourse, hope on the move, pinning the blame for the dire prospects for their future squarely on those old enough to know better. Matt’s poems capture this hope and potential superbly, with a line in humour that the grown-ups will smile along to warmly. 12th December, for those not yet old enough to vote is just the beginning – and this is their book.

Note: No links in this review are to Amazon, if you can avoid buying from the corporate tax-dodgers please do. 

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled 'sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction' aka Philosophy Football.

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