Mike Quille

Mike Quille

Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and arts editor, and co-managing editor of Culture Matters.

The struggle never ends
Tuesday, 21 February 2017 18:25

The struggle never ends

Published in Music

Like all artists, musicians enhance the quality of our lives, and expand the cultural commons which we need as much as the air we breathe. Chris Wood has developed into one of the most socially aware songwriters in Britain, and Mike Quille caught up with him during his latest British tour.

MQ: Who are the people who've influenced you most, musically and politically?

CW: The answer to both those questions is - Anon. I grew up listening to folk song and I have to say, it's all there. Our folk songs are a vast repository of wisdom, and are about a history that has largely escaped the airbrush of the establishment. In fact the establishment works quite hard to have us believe that our folk music is not cool, that it is silly and naïve, which a great deal of it is.

But in amongst the fol-de-rols there are works of exquisite genius and great wisdom. Tales of cruelty and injustice, inventiveness and stoicism, love and fortitude. Above all folk music reminds me that, whatever is thrown at us, we abide.

MQ. You won the BBC Folk Award for the song None the Wiser, a melancholy but devastatingly insightful song about the way things are these days. Can you tell us something about the background to the song?

CW: None The Wiser was written on the Joan Armatrading tour bus during a 60 day tour. I remember Elvis Costello saying that he quickly realised if he didn't learn to write while touring he wasn't going to get anything written.

Every morning we'd wake up in a different town and I'd have the whole day to hang out in town centres and coffee shops. I soon realised I was getting a privileged opportunity to observe Britain in the throes of Austerity. Much more immersive than any politician on a 'battle bus' - with or without a lie painted on the side.

I remember a guy whose job was as a 'first on the scene' aircraft crash specialist. He said the first crash he attended he couldn't see any bodies and then, he started to realise there was a piece of something there and another piece of what looked like something there, a smear here and a shape there, the horror that slowly came upon him as he 'got his eye in' was a moment he'd never forget.

Well, without attempting to sound too dramatic, I had a similar experience as I spent time hanging out in town centres the length and breadth of the British Isles. I started to get my eye in, and my ear too. I'm sorry if it's a bit gritty for some people but pretty much all of what takes place in that song happened.

MQ. The way  you've arranged and sing Jerusalem is unusually downbeat and reflective. How far do you identify with Blake’s ‘mental fight’ to ‘build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land’?

CW: I woke at 4am one day, with Blake's half-remembered words in my head, so I looked them up. For the first time in my life I encountered the words, not sung by the crowd at the Last Night of the Proms, but as the poet had intended, on the page. It was an epiphany, and two things struck me.

Firstly, the first verse consists not of triumphal statements, but of four questions, to which the answers are all No.

And secondly, that this was a 4am poem. It's not the voice of many, it is a solitary voice. It's the voice of a human reaching into himself to find a reason to carry on. The voice of a man shaken by the depth of indifference the world has for him and all that he believes in.

I managed to get back to sleep but I awoke with a new tune in my head. I'm not trying to sell my thinking or my work here but this setting seems to me to more closely honour the poet.

I know what Blake means – the struggle never ends.

MQ. What’s the music business like these days, for working musicians?

CW: The business is brutal, but I think it always has been. That said, I wouldn't want to do anything else. I asked a fellow music biz worker what would he do if he won the Lottery, and he replied ‘exactly what I'm doing now, but ruder! I love what I do but love is, as they say, blind.

If I could click my fingers and make one change I would have loads more women in the business. It's far too blokey. I'm not so much talking about the principal artists but the backing musicians, crew, producers, promoters, mix engineers etc. Whenever I encounter women in these areas of the industry they are not only, of course, highly accomplished but have a hugely positive effect on the men around them.

MQ: How's your current tour, the So Much to Defend Tour, going?

CW: Well, a few years ago the industry decided to make music available, effectively, for free. The public responded wholeheartedly and now we find we have an industry which is, how shall we put this... fluid.

But you still find people talking like nothing has really happened. So an innocent question like, "When's the album out?" actually means – when will we be able to get what you've been pouring your heart, soul and life savings into for the past three years, for free?

This of course is not isolated to musicians. Driving jobs employ the most males in the western world, and yet the driverless car is only about 4/5 years away. Even lawyers, god bless ‘em, are looking over their shoulders as legal search sofware becomes ever more refined.

So the perfectly reasonable question ‘How's the tour going?’ actually translates as something like - now that your recordings are worthless I expect you're playing every gig you can get?

MQ. Finally, in ‘Trespasser’ you lament the Enclosures, the process of privatising and commercialising the commons, which as you say happens with cultural products like music as well as land. So what’s your thinking on what the way forward should be?

CW: It’s a human fault to always feel that the times through which we’re living are somehow special. There’s nothing particular or special about where we are at the moment. All of history’s archetypes are present – the avaricious, the ignorant, the helpless, the blind, the unquestioning, the naive, the cynical, the jaded, the selfish, the acquisitive, the self-righteous and so on.

Personally, I try to vote with my money. I’ve never been in debt to anyone but a building society. I avoid multinationals, I try and source my needs from my community and keep the VAT down to an absolute minimum. The allotment is a massive part of our life.

And of course there’s the songwriting!

Chris Wood is currently on tour, for dates and venues see http://chriswoodmusic.co.uk/gigs/. This is an extended version of an interview published by the Morning Star.

Bread, roses and the cultural commons
Monday, 30 January 2017 15:24

Bread, roses and the cultural commons

Published in Cultural Commentary

‘The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too’ said the aptly named Rose Schneiderman early in the last century. She was right, we all need bread – fair material rewards for our labour – but we also need roses. We need a popular and extensive cultural commons, including free or cheap access to cultural activities, to develop and enjoy our essentially social natures.

The Culture Matters website aims to contribute to the cultural struggle, what Blake called the ‘mental fight’ for a new Jerusalem, for a more democratic and socialist society. The struggle will be long and hard. Over time, capitalism has penetrated our culture more and more. And culture, as Raymond Williams pointed out, is not just highbrow art but consists of all our ideas, values, beliefs and customs, including all the arts but also sport, religion, eating and drinking, watching TV, etc.

It’s true that capitalism’s dynamism and innovation has helped create a massive expansion in opportunities for cultural education and enjoyment. Think of the number of TV and radio channels, books, art galleries, films, music festivals, and sports facilities there are these days. But there is also a relentless drive for profit in capitalism. Every human activity, including art and cultural activity, has to be measured by its contribution to profitability. It is also fundamentally exploitative, as demonstrated in the famous passage of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, where the Great Money Trick is explained. This transfer of value from workers to owners is divisive and unjust, so in order to lessen social conflict there has to be an ideological drive to generate a culture of submission and acceptance of exploitation.

Capitalism shapes culture, and culture expresses capitalism, in many different ways. It’s why sport is so commercialised and corrupt, why so much organised religion is so uncritical of exploitation and injustice, why we have TV programmes like The Apprentice glorifying selfishness and ruthless competitiveness, and why the supermarkets encourage a culture of overconsumption of food and drink.

And it’s why we have a huge and long-term problem of unequal funding by the state for the arts in Britain today. The inequalities are of staggering, Dickensian proportions. Vast swathes of the arts and cultural activities are virtually impossible for most ordinary people – particularly poorer people – to access and enjoy, for reasons linked to social class, geography and education.

On top of these structural problems, we’re suffering massive cutbacks to support for arts and cultural activities across the country, particularly outside London and the South East. These are happening through cuts in funding, directly and through cuts in general support for local authorities – particularly in poorer areas. Critical and creative engagement with the arts is also being shunted out of the educational curriculum.

Culture Matters seeks to expose the Great Culture Trick, the shocking inequalities in the way the arts and cultural activities are currently funded and managed. It will also campaign for more progressive policies. Because we know that the arts and cultural activities can resist, oppose and help overcome alienation and oppression. They can increase awareness, arouse indignation, and imagine alternatives. Robert Tressell’s novel is a good example of that potential. But it’s also there in sports clubs, churches, supermarkets and pubs, as well as in art galleries, concert halls and poetry readings.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which triggered one of the most significant, popular artistic and cultural explosions of the twentieth century. Let’s make 2017 the year of campaigning for bread and roses.

If you think you can help with relevant material for this section of the website, please write to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This is an edited version of an article first published in the Morning Star.

Monday, 14 November 2016 00:11

Welcome to Culture Matters

Published in About us

Welcome to Culture Matters


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I will not cease from mental fight

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England's green and pleasant land.

- William Blake

                    

 

Culture Matters is part of our cultural struggle or ‘mental fight’ against class divisions, to achieve a cultural commons in a socialist society – a new Jerusalem, as William Blake called it, and not only in England, but across the world. As you can see from the About Us section, we aim to promote a progressive political approach to the arts and all other cultural activities.

You'll find recent material on this Home page, and every piece sent in since our launch a couple of years ago is available under the relevant topic sections in the Arts and Culture Hubs.

Everything on Culture Matters – articles, poems, images, editorial and technical support – has been contributed freely. We are a registered co-operative, firmly rooted in the labour movement, and we're planning to publish more books, deliver cultural education packages, run arts awards in partnership with trade unions, and develop other progressive cultural projects. If you would like to help with this work by joining the co-op and buying shares, please visit Shop & Support. You're also welcome to contribute articles, essays, poems and artworks to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

We hope you enjoy browsing the site, and that you find it entertaining, enlightening and inspiring. Culture Matters!

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: Heretical, Subversive and Revolutionary
Thursday, 10 November 2016 15:43

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: Heretical, Subversive and Revolutionary

Published in Visual Arts

A radical cultural struggle against the established order: Mike Quille reviews the Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery.

Curators sometimes overuse the word revolutionary when promoting exhibitions but it is an apt description of the six paintings by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio which hang alongside those of his admirers, rivals and imitators at the National Gallery. The show Beyond Caravaggio demonstrates just how innovative, oppositional and subversive his paintings were — and are.

Rome in the early 17th century was a city deeply divided by class, with a tiny minority of very rich and powerful people and large numbers of poor. It was also dominated by the Church which then, as now, often served to legitimise the exploitation of the many by the few. Art was commissioned and deployed by the popes and cardinals to provide conformist devotional images, part of the ideological justification for an unjust social order.

But Caravaggio’s art was both heretical and revolutionary. Long before thinkers were articulating theories of how religion expressed and inverted worldly suffering, he took religious themes and, visually, brought them down to earth. In Supper at Emmaus, the scepticism and shock on the careworn faces of peasants in their tattered work clothes gives a resolutely human and mundane perspective on sacred events - see how the man on the right of the picture stretches out his arms, like Christ on the cross. Imagine the reactions of poor pilgrims from all over Europe, streaming past these paintings, seeing themselves depicted realistically in sacred scenes for the first time!

The striking realism and “tenebrism” of Caravaggio — strongly contrasting tones, piercing light and vast pools of inky shadows — heightens the emotional challenge and drama in the images, as exemplified in The Taking of Christ.

Caravaggio Taking of Christ rev

The Taking of Christ, Caravaggio, 1602, Dublin


Like the noir film genre, surely part of his legacy, it is a visual expression of the uncertainties, contradictions and obscure, violent terrors of the precarious social existence around him. We can also interpret the painting as depicting the way artistic culture, represented by Judas and Caravaggio himself on the far right of the picture, holding the lamp, betrays truth and justice by allying itself with the violent, armour-clad forces of social domination. It's a prophetic parable of cultural hegemony, centuries before Gramsci was born. 

Caravaggio’s art also has a democratic force: it includes, involves and empowers. In Supper at Emmaus, the disciples’ hands stretch out, drawing us into the composition. For the first time in the history of Western art, the space between viewer and scene has been destroyed. And, in contrast to traditional religious art, the meanings in Caravaggio’s paintings are challenging, ambiguous and negotiable, liberating us from a lazy, deferential consent to the dominant ways of thinking and feeling so omnipresent in class-divided societies.

In paintings such as Card Players, depicting a foppish, soft-skinned aristocrat being cheated at cards by a lowlife character, whose side are we supposed to be on? Is this not a painting of resistance and rebellion, of playfully imagined expropriation by the lower classes from the rich thieves who rule them?

caravaggio cardsharps1

Cardsharps, Caravaggio, 1594, Kimbell Art Museum

In the light — and dark — of Caravaggio’s amazing achievement, it is perhaps not surprising that most of the other paintings in the exhibition are nowhere near as good. There are some technically good imitations but generally his admirers and imitators reverted to the mainstream aesthetics of devotion, awe and pity in religious art and a relatively anaemic realism in secular art.

The upheavals of 20th-century modernism are what make Caravaggio’s art look incredibly of the here and now. The enduring power of his paintings shows us that truly great art is intrinsically opposed to class-divided societies. Now, we are used to subversive ambiguity, social awareness and uncomfortable challenges to the viewer. Then, it was truly revolutionary — a radical cultural struggle against the established aesthetic and ideological order.

And because our unequal world is not so different from his, we can still feel the strength of his challenging, complex and oppositional art. In that sense art has not, in fact, gone beyond Caravaggio.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Beyond Caravaggio runs at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until January 15, and then tours to Dublin and Edinburgh.

'Work For It!' John Berger at 90
Friday, 04 November 2016 15:36

'Work For It!' John Berger at 90

Published in Poetry

John Berger was born on 5th November 1926. To celebrate his 90th birthday, we republish some of his poems, an interview, and some of his quotations.

One of the people who was due to attend the Teeside International Poetry Festival in 2015 was John Berger, the Marxist art critic, essayist, novelist, artist and poet. He could not come in the end, due to severe arthritis, but he appeared via Skype at one of the sessions, and recited some poems from his recent collection, published by Smokestack Books.

Collected Poems reflects Berger's longstanding concerns with art and politics, love and war, history and memory, and the life of the peasantry around him (he used to live in the Haute Savoie, in the French Alps). They demonstrate an enduring commitment to the extraordinary lives of ordinary people.

You can tell from the poems that the writer is a fine draughtsman and artist. Each one of them is like a perfectly framed image, a painted still life, sensual, honest and plain. They are sketches of hard lives, caught between the provisional nature of language and the permanence of things. Here are five of the poems.

16.45h The Firing Squad

The dog carried the day in her mouth
over the fields of the small hours
towards a hiding place
which before had been safe.

Nobody was woken before dawn.

At noon
the dog sprawling in the shade
placed the pup between her four paws
and waited in vain
for it to suck.

A line of prisoners
hands knotted
fall forward
into the grave they have dug.

Belly to the earth
the dog carries the day
which has never stirred
back to its dark.

Under the stars the bereaved
imagine they hear
a dog howling too
on the edge of the world.

This piteous day was born
stone-deaf and blind.

Napalm

Mother let me cry
not letterpress
nor telex
nor stainless speech
bulletins
announce disaster
with impunity -
but the pages of the wound.

Mother let me speak
not adjectives
to colour
their maps of wretchedness
nor nouns to classify
the families of pain -
but the verb of suffering.

My mother tongue taps
the sentence
on the prison wall
Mother let me write
the voices
howling in the falls.


History

The pulse of the dead
as interminably
constant as the silence
which pockets the thrush.

The eyes of the dead
inscribed on our palms
as we walk on this earth
which pockets the thrush.


Seven Levels of Despair

To search each morning
to find the scraps
with which to survive another day.

The knowledge on waking
that in this legal wilderness
no rights exist.

The experience over the years
of nothing getting better
only worse.
The humiliation of being able
to change almost nothing,
and of seizing upon the almost
which then leads to another impasse.

The listening to a thousand promises
which pass inexorably
beside you and yours.

The example of those who resist
being bombarded to dust.

The weight of your own killed
a weight which closes
innocence for ever
because they are so many.


Ladle

Pewter pock-marked
moon of the ladle
rising above the mountain
going down into the saucepan
serving generations
steaming
dredging what has grown from seed
in the garden
thickened with potato
outliving us all
on the wooden sky
of the kitchen wall

Serving mother
of the steaming pewter breast
veined by the salts
fed to her children
hungry as boars
with the evening earth
engrained around their nails
and bread the brother
serving mother

Ladle
pour the sky steaming
with the carrot sun
the stars of salt
and the grease of the pig earth
pour the sky steaming
ladle
pour soup for our days
pour sleep for our night
pour years for my children


Art and Politics

As well as being a major poet, John Berger is a cultural critic who has challenged and changed the way we see the world, in countless essays and in books such as Ways of Seeing, Permanent Red, Pig Earth, and the novel G.

During the Skype session at the Festival, he answered some questions about art and politics. I followed this up with a telephone interview with him, and exchanged some texts, and below I set out the questions he was asked, and the answers that he gave.

Q. What constitutes good art?

A. Good art is like a lorry: it transports.

Q. Are poets, as Shelley famously suggested, the unacknowledged legislators of the world?

A. Poets are not legislators themselves, but they can be great agents of change. They evoke the need for a new politics by being able to envision the world, to summon up the past and future, to make them present, thus making it clearer how things could be different.

Q. Auden said that poetry changed nothing, and Brecht said that art is a hammer with which to change reality. Can poetry make useful political interventions, and change reality?

A. Well you have to remember that reality is not just some outside, fixed given, it includes our experience of what’s out there. With that in mind, it seems to me that poetry can indeed change people, because we all know how a good poem alters, no matter how slightly, our perceptions of the world around us. Those perceptions lead to us making hundreds of different choices, including political choices. So its effect is continuous, and multiple.  It can also encourage disobedience, and demonstrate that language is not necessarily the meaningless crap by which we are surrounded!

Q. You have produced many kinds of writing, including art criticism, novels, essays, and poems. Which discipline do you prefer the most?

A. Nearly all my work has involved collaborations with other people. For example, Ways of Seeing, for which most people know me best, was a collaboration with several others, and this tends to get forgotten.  So I would say that I don’t have a preferred genre as such, but I do have a preferred mode of creativity, and that is collaboration. For me, collaboration is a kind of solidarity, in fact it creates solidarity, and that is for me a very important principle of working.

Q. You spoke of the ability of poetry to envision the world. How should teachers and academics approach poetry, what should they do with it, and how should it be taught?

A. Students and people generally should be encouraged to surround themselves with poetry, with the sounds and forms and silences that are in poems.

Q. What impact do you think the internet has had on the arts and society generally?

A. The internet is a fast, effective way of sharing a lot of information. It thus helps expose and clarify the present structures of power in the world. It makes it clearer how globalised capitalism works, how the world is run by decisions taken by giant transnational corporations, by tiny elites of capitalists.
I think many young people see this clearly, partly because of the ease with which they handle new technology, but also because they are one of the main victims of unemployment, low pay and insecure employment.

Politicians have lost power, or perhaps it has become clearer how little power they ever really had. But they won’t admit it, and this leads to great folly and doublespeak in the use of language, which alienates people, it makes us feel lost and desperate. But we can resist it when we realize where power comes from, and as I say, the internet and new technology generally can help clarify where real power lies.

Q. What would be your parting message be to us?

A. We live in a dark age. Art has existed for at least 30,000 years. Another age of hope will come.

Work for it!

Some Quotes from John Berger


'the issue is between a total approach to art which attempts to relate it to every aspect of experience and the esoteric approach of a few specialised experts, who are the clerks of the nostalgia of a ruling class in decline. In decline, not before the proletariat, but before the new power of the corporation and the state.'

‘I now believe there is an absolute incompatibility between art and private property, or art and state property, unless the state is a plebeian democracy. Property must be destroyed before imagination can be developed any further.'

'My aim has been to try and destroy this bourgeois society'

'The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied...but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.'

Orgreave: an injury to one is an injury to all
Tuesday, 01 November 2016 15:32

Orgreave: an injury to one is an injury to all

Published in Festivals/ Events

JEREMY DELLER GIVES ORGREAVE WORK TO RAISE FUNDS FOR THE LEFT BOOK CLUB


Amber Rudd rules out an enquiry into the 1984 violent clash between police and striking miners, saying that 'policing had changed' - thereby implying that there was something very wrong with policing at the time.

Meanwhile Turner Prize winning artist Jeremy Deller has given a signed set of 19 photographs that he took during a re-enactment of the battle of Orgreave for his 2001 video work
'The Battle of Orgreave ; an Injury to one is an injury to all', shown at Tate Britain. 

Jeremy Deller says, 'I am delighted to donate this work to the Left book Club, to raise funds for this important enterprise, and to keep Orgreave fresh in our minds.'

The work is an important collectors' item and can be bought for £500 as part of the Left Book Club's current crowdfunder.


Call Jan Woolf - 07967 161 291 for further information. For details of the work and crowdfunder, which is raising money to fund new progressive writing and a network of live book clubs to debate their work: http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/leftbookclub

Poets Exploding Like Bombs: poems from the Spanish Civil War
Tuesday, 01 November 2016 15:28

Poets Exploding Like Bombs: poems from the Spanish Civil War

Published in Poetry

To mark the 80th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War, and in memory of the British and Irish International Brigaders who wrote poems and who died in that war, Mike Quille introduces a few poems taken from Poems from Spain, edited by Jim Jump.

The war against Franco's fascist rebellion saw 'poets exploding like bombs' as Auden said in his famous poem 'Spain', published in 1937. And the war has sometimes been called 'the poets' war', probably because more progressive political poetry was written about it, from combatants and others on active service, than any other war in the twentieth century, even though it was considerably smaller and shorter than other wars. However, as in every other war in modern times, 80% of the fighters were men from manual trades. None of the poems below were written by professional poets. They were, though, exceptional individuals, activists from the Communist Party, the Labour Party, the trade unions and some of the allied cultural and educational institutions.

Alex McDade was a labourer from Glasgow who fought and was wounded at the battle of Jarama in 1937. He became a company political commissar for the British Battalion and was killed on 6 July 1937. His poem 'Valley of Jarama' was the basis for the song by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, but it's shorter, bleaker, and more soldierly.

Valley of Jarama
by Alex McDade

There's a valley in Spain called Jarama,
That's a place that we all know so well,
For 'tis there that we wasted our manhood,
And most of our old age as well.

From this valley they tell us we're leaving
But don't hasten to bid us adieu,
For e'en though we make our departure,
We'll be back in an hour or two.

Oh we're proud of our British Battalion,
And the marathon record it's made.
Please do us this little favour,
And take this last word to Brigade:

'You will never be happy with strangers,
They would not understand you as we.
So remember the Jarama Valley
And the old men who wait patiently.'


Charles Donnelly was an Irish Republican, Communist and trade union activist, who was also killed at Jarama. Like a number of war poems, his modernist poetry is formally innovative, finding bluntly effective ways to express the horror, cruelty and inhumanity of war.

The Tolerance of Crows
by Charles Donnelly

Death comes in quantity from solved
Problems on maps, well-ordered dispositions,
Angles of elevation and direction;

Comes innocent from tools children might
Love, retaining under pillows
Innocently impales on any flesh.

And with flesh falls apart the mind
That trails thought from the mind that cuts
Thought clearly for a waiting purpose.

Progress of poison in the nerves and
Discipline’s collapse is halted.
Body awaits the tolerance of crows.

Heroic Heart
by Charles Donnelly

Ice of heroic heart seals plasmic soil
Where things ludicrously take root
To show in leaf kindnesses time had buried
And cry music under a storm of 'planes,
Making thrust head to slacken, muscles waver
And intent mouth recall old tender tricks.
Ice of heroic heart seals steel-bound brain.

There newer organs built for friendship's grappling
Waste down like wax. There only leafless plants
And earth retain disinterestedness.
Though magnetised to lie of the land, moves
Heartily over the map wrapped in its iron
Storm. Battering the toads, armoured columns
Break walls of stone or bone without receipt.
Jawbones find new ways with meats, loins
Raking and blind, new way with women.

Norman Brookfield worked in a library in Essex and died in September 1938 at the Sierra de Caballs in the battalion's last day in action. His style is much more traditional than Donnelly's, almost hymn-like, but equally anguished.

'Rest, I will know your all-pervading calm'
by Norman Brookfield

Rest, I will know your all-pervading calm
Relax my limbs, and feel your sooting balm;
Beneath light's tranquil stars I'll sleep at ease
When dawn's well past, to rise, and day-time fill
With pleasant strolls and food and talk at will.
Shaping vague thoughts beneath the olive trees;
Watching tobacco wreathe its lazy fumes
Quintessence rare, O rest of your perfumes.
And yet this is a respite that must end
An interval between the course of war
Which all too soon will raise its dreadful roar,
Bidding my laggard pace once more to mend;
But 'tis the thoughts of past and future strife
That make you sweet, O rest, and with you – life.

George Green was an ambulance driver, dispatch rider and hospital orderly in Spain, and was killed on the same day and at the same battle. He wrote in a very modern, prosepoetical way, vividly evoking the battlefront in an almost cinematic way. 


Dressing Station
by George Green

Casa de Campo, Madrid, March 1937

Here the surgeon, unsterile, probes by candlelight the embedded bullet.
Here the ambulance-driver waits the next journey; hand tremulous
on the wheel, eye refusing to acknowledge fear of the bridge, of
the barrage at the bad crossing.
Here the stretcher-bearer walks dead on his feet, too tired to
wince at the whistle of death in the black air over the shallow
trench; to tired now to calculate with each journey the
the diminishing chances of any return to his children, to meals at a
table, to music and the sound of feet in the jota.
Here are ears tuned to the wail of shells: lips that say, this one gets the
whole bloody station: the reflex action that flings us into the safer
corners, to cower from the falling masonry and the hot
tearing splinters at our guts.
Here the sweet smell of blood, shit, iodine, the smoke-embittered air,
the furtive odour of the dead.
Here also the dead.
Here also the dead.
This afternoon five.
Then eight.
Then two neat rows.
And now.......this was the courtyard of the road-house, filling-station
for the Hispano-Suizas and the young grandees' bellies. The sign
American Bar still hangs unshattered.
….I cannot count. Three deep: monstrous sprawling: slid from
dripping stretchers for more importunate tenants: bearded
plough-boys' faces: ownerless hand: shatterd pelvis: boots laced
for the last time: eyes moon-cold, moon-bright, defying the moon:
smashed mouth scaring away thought of the peasant breasts that so
recently suckled it....
I cannot count.

But poet, this is old stuff.
This we too have seen.
This is Flanders 1917. sassoon and Wilfred Owen did this so much better.
Is this all?
Do twenty years count for nothing?
Have you no more to show?

Yes, we have more to show.
Yes, though we grant you the two-dimensional similarity, even (to
complete the picture) allowing you the occasional brass-hat and
the self-inflicted wound.
Yet there is another dimension. Look closely. Listen carefully.

Privilege here battles with no real privilege.
The dupe there, machine-gunning us from the trenched hillside,
fights still to preserve a master's title-deeds, but we....we battle
for life.
This....we speak a little proudly, who so recently threw off the slave
shackles to do a man's work.....
This is our war.

These wounds have the red flag in them.
This salute carries respect.
Here the young soldier says 'camarada' to his general.
Here we give heed to no promise of a land fit for heroes to live in, but
take for ourselves the world to mould in our hands.
These ranks can never be broken by four years of mud and bitter
metal, into sporadic and betrayed rebellion.
Here the consciousness of a thousand years' oppression binds us as
brothers....We have learnt our lesson.
Look. Over the bridge (it is not yet dawn) comes a Russian lorry,
ammunition-laden.
Forty-three years gone, unarmed St. Petersburg's blood paid a heavy
duty on those shells.
And I? The Chartists commandeered this ambulance from a Portland
Street shop-window.
I drove: and dead Communards raised living fists as far south as
Perpignan. I saw the perils of the Pyrenees spurned by feet that
once had scaled a Bastille, by the fair-haired boys who graduated in
the streets of Charlottenburg, by those who paid a steerage
passage, to tell us how their fathers fell at Valley Forge.
For this is not 1917.
This is the struggle that justifies the try-outs of history.
This is the light that illuminates, the link that unites Wat Tyler and
the Boxer rebellion.
This is our difference, our strength, this is our manifesto, this
our song that cannot be silenced by bullets.

And finally, to Rupert John Cornford, a Cambridge Communist who was the first Englishman to enlist. He travelled twice to Spain to fight for the POUM and the International Brigades against Franco's rebels, and died in December 1936 at Lopera, near Cordoba.

'These are poems of the will, and the will bangs a drum' wrote Stephen Spender of Cornford's poems, which like some of the poems above combine a modernist sensibility with a direct, blunt and unflowery descriptions, images and diction. Here he is, banging the drum from Aragon.


A Letter From Aragon
by John Cornford

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.

We buried Ruiz in a new pine coffin,
But the shroud was too small and his washed feet stuck out.
The stink of his corpse came through the clean pine boards
And some of the bearers wrapped handkerchiefs round their faces.
Death was not dignified.
We hacked a ragged grave in the unfriendly earth
And fired a ragged volley over the grave.

You could tell from our listlessness, no one much missed him.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
There is no poison gas and no H. E.

But when they shelled the other end of the village
And the streets were choked with dust
Women came screaming out of the crumbling houses,
Clutched under one arm the naked rump of an infant.
I thought: how ugly fear is.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
Our nerves are steady; we all sleep soundly.

In the clean hospital bed, my eyes were so heavy
Sleep easily blotted out one ugly picture,
A wounded militiaman moaning on a stretcher,
Now out of danger, but still crying for water,
Strong against death, but unprepared for such pain.

This on a quiet front.

But when I shook hands to leave, an Anarchist worker
Said: 'Tell the workers of England
This was a war not of our own making
We did not seek it.
But if ever the Fascists again rule Barcelona
It will be as a heap of ruins with us workers beneath it.'

Acknowledgements and grateful thanks are due to Jim Jump. The poems are all taken from a highly recommended book called Poems from Spain, edited by Jim, and published by Lawrence and Wishart, 2006. The book contains a foreword by Jack Jones; an excellent, clear introduction to the poems; notes on the poets and poems; and a brief history of the British and Irish Brigades' involvement in the war.

A picket mounted by the Women's Peace Camp at Greenham Common, 1982.
Monday, 01 August 2016 16:06

The persistence of protest: the preventative photography of Edward Barber

Published in Visual Arts

A woman sits on a fold-up chair, with a sign – 'Hello, can you stop for a talk?' – inviting passersby to stop for a chat about nuclear proliferation. An elderly woman stands on her own with a sign 'No to nuclear war' round her neck. A sandalled foot sticks out from under a police van, whilst a polieceman leans on the van, smiling uneasily at the camera. A man stands with a paper bag on his head, covered in instructions on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.

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CND Rally, Hyde Park, London, 1981. Copyright Edward Barber.

'Peace Signs', Edward Barber's collection of arresting and moving photos from the early eighties, taken at Greenham Common and elsewhere, is currently on exhibition at the IWM in London. The photos capture the protests of people from a hugely diverse range of ages and backgrounds, though most are women.

Some images show the creative, almost playful aspects to the performance of protest, as demonstrators try to obstruct, disrupt and prevent the smooth running of the murderous war machine of Britain and its U.S. ally. Lines of singing women join hands around the fences of the missile base. Activists lie in the roads in the shape of the CND sign. Demonstrators and pickets supply an endless stream of volunteers to block the paths of supply lorries, tractors and bulldozers. Women stage a Die-in outside the Stock Exchange.

die in

Women from Greenham Common stage a Die-in outside the London Stock Exchange during the morning rush hour as President Reagan arrives in Britain, 1982. Copyright Edward Barber.

In several more sombre images, we see protesters stare unsmilingly at the camera, returning our gaze. In some ways they look vulnerable and helpless. What chance do young children, older people and women have, ranged against large numbers of blank-faced, uniformed policemen? Yet the strength of their determination and conviction also shines through these beautifully clear, well-printed images, and the challenge of their anger comes vividly across the 30-odd years that separate us, mutely willing us to continue their resistance.

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A protester from the Women's Peace Camp at Greenham Common after keening in Parliament Square, London, 1981. Copyright Edward Barber.

As befits the anti-nuclear cause, the protests are peaceful, and in a forerunner of the Occupy protests they are often playful and witty, part of an unscripted collective performance. It's a kind of folk art, facing off against the bleak, regimented lines of policemen, lifting and dragging their protesting, prostrate bodies off roads and pavements.

There are no prosaic notes accompanying the photos, giving details of the locations and events depicted, because although they would have given documentary precision, they would have limited the power of the exhibition to creatively communicate its still-relevant messages.

Instead, the photos are arranged to echo the creative, chaotic nature of the protests they document. Then, towards the end of the exhibition, Barber's 'mind map', connecting rough ideas and movements with arrows using a thick marker pen, gives some context to the protests. It maps them into a tradition of creative and collective action, reaching from the fifties to modern day protests by Jeremy Corbyn and others.

women linked round fence

'Embrace the Base': 30,000 women link hands, completely surrounding the nine mile perimeter fence at RAF/USAF Greenham Common, Berkshire, 1982. Copyright Edward Barber.

“I saw this as preventative photography” says Edward Barber, about his collection of photographs. “I intended to document, celebrate and warn. It attempts to foreground both individual and collective engagement, courage and resilience.”

The exhibition can hardly be said to have prevented the continuation of the immoral threat to world peace represented by Britain's arsenal of nuclear weapons. But it is certainly a celebration and a warning. It is a celebration of a peculiarly British kind of humorous, angry and incredibly determined type of commitment to persistent protest against state power and militarism.

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Protestor at Bank of England. Copyright Edward Barber.

And it's a timely warning of the evils of nuclear proliferation. Just when the genocidal threats implict in the Trident missile programme are being renewed by the Government, the exhibition itself echoes and confirms the protesters' critical resistance to war, and renews their creative call for peace.

Peace Signs is on at IWM London until September 4th.

Editor's Notes Summer 2016
Sunday, 10 July 2016 06:43

Editor's Notes Summer 2016

Published in Round-up

 I spent yesterday at the Durham Miners' Gala, one of the largest and longest lasting festivals of politically conscious working class culture in the world. Every July, the various pit-based communities of Durham come together, expressing solidarity with each other and with like-minded trade unionists, politicians and activists not only from elsewhere in the country but from around the world.

With its community-based brass bands, lodge banners, speeches, and chance to meet up and have a chat and a drink, it's a great day out. It's an enjoyable, inspiring celebration of the kind of art and culture that Culture Matters aims to present and promote. Some great photos of the event, which was of course addressed by Jeremy Corbyn, have been posted up on the festivals/events section. 

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