Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (81)

Sun, sea and socialism: beach reads for August 2022
Monday, 01 August 2022 18:47

Sun, sea and socialism: beach reads for August 2022

Written by

Mark Perryman makes a personal selection of ten books (and a T-shirt!) to add some bright sunny thinking to any holiday

It’s August and England is basking in Euro-winning glory. At Wembley, where England last won a major tournament, the 1966 World Cup. 56 years of hurt ended by England women. How cool is that? 

August, traditionally the height of the British holiday season.  And with the climate now in full emergency mode, bright sunshine and hot weather is pretty much guaranteed. That's how most of the front pages treat this deadly prospect. Rising summer death rates amongst the old and vulnerable, bush fires and drought are pretty much a footnote. Beaches along the Kent and Sussex transformed from holiday favourites to the frontline in arguments and actions over asylum, migration and race. 

For staycations north of the border how long before passport checks and currency exchange are required? Yes really this is the kind of level of debate the Unionist Left proffers. Meanwhile any length of Scottish break will convince this is another country and deserves to be recognise as so.  

Holidays, a time of nostalgia – what it was like when we were kids, teenagers, students and twenty somethings. For those of a pensionable age now and of a certain musical and political disposition, the summers of the late seventies will always be the era of rocking against racism with TRB, X-Ray Spex, Steel, Pulse but most of all The Clash. 

Packing some holiday reading? Despite all manner of digital media the written word remains a hugely influential space for ideas. How we read forms our ideas, what is read forms the ideas of other. With the rush towards vision-free Starmerism, a politics of critique, which for many begins with questioning what we read, see and hear, becomes more necessary than ever. 

A new generation of  left intellectuals are developing the kind of ideas that serve to highlight  the absolute lack of any kind of vision from Keir Starmer's Labour. In the 1980s a similar role was performed by writers in and around the magazine Marxism Today. It isn't simply nostalgia to observe how much this kind of thinking is needed today. Revisit, review, rewrite......and here are ten top reads for starters....  

1. Suzy Wrack A Woman's Game: The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Women's Football  

SS1

On the beach. England European Champions. A blissful summertime mix. And to add depth, context and brilliant ideas to the feelgood factor there's none better than one of the pioneers of the new (women's) football writing, Suzy Wrack, in her debut and most timely book.

2. Adrienne Buller The Value of a Whale: On The Illusions of Green Capitalism

SS2

Adrienne Buller is part of a new wave of economists producing  radical ideas, in stark contrast to Keir Starmer's mantra of 'Labour's mission in government will be economic growth'. With the climate emergency already upon us The Value of a Whale expertly explains why 'growth' isn't nearly enough.

3. Chris Armstrong A Blue New Deal: Why We Need a New Politics for the Ocean

SS3 

For the lucky ones there's no better place to spend August hols than on a beach in the sunshine. Thoughts of what rising sea levels will do to devastate coastal communities and rising summer heat as a threat to our health and environment may not be the nicest, if necessary, way to break up the sunbathing and swimming. A Blue Deal is the antidote, an incredible read on how by reversing climate change coastal communities could be regenerated.

4. Tariq Ali Winston Churchill: His Times, His Crimes          

SS4

'We shall fight on the beaches' was amongst many great Churchill lines a million miles away from the sound bites of  modern politics. But there's Churchillian myth-making too on an industrial scale: Tariq Ali provides a demolition job that some will disagree with but none should entirely ignore.

5. Vron Ware Return of a Native: Learning from the Land

SS5

For those who prefer a rural spot away from the sand and the sea Return of a Native is an insightful read of how the particularities of the English countryside have become key to constructing Englishness. Combining the ecological and the political, this is a book to provoke rethinking well beyond a holiday read.

6.  Gerry Hassan and Simon Barrow, Eds. A Better Nation: The Challenges of Scottish Independence   

SS6

The near-perfect summertime city break is surely the Edinburgh Festival. Edinburgh is also where the re-established Scottish Parliament is located. Since it was the momentum towards independence has been in fits and starts but it will come. Gerry Hassan and Simon Barrow's edited collection of essays is the best possible survey of a shift, a tad more important than fretting over whether future festival visitors from the rest of the UK (sic) will need to pack their passports. 

7. Owen Hatherley Artificial Islands: Adventures in the Dominions

SS7

Owen Hatherley is a key figure amongst the new generation of  left intellectuals. Mixing architectural critique, travelogue and cultural commentary, his writing is unique and never disappoints. His subject matter is rewardingly unpredictable, unearthing a long forgotten history of Britain and the white Dominions. Artificial Islands will spice up any holiday thoughts on the future of the Union.    

8. Gregor Gall The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer

SS8

As summer draws to a close September 2022 will mark the 40th anniversary of the break-up of Joe, Mick, Paul and Topper, aka The Clash. For those of a certain age and inclination it was this foursome who provided the soundtrack to our lives – and still do. Gregor Gall brilliantly locates the music Joe Strummer provided for the band in what he calls 'punk rock politics' a mix  of radicalism, resistance and rebellion, and good to dance to as well.

9. Terry Eagleton Critical Revolutionaries: Five Critics Who Changed the Way We Read

SS9

Terry Eagleton is both a pioneer of literary criticism and an unashamed Marxist. A politics of critique remains as essential as ever, especially in an era when the party of opposition is running scared of any ideas that are remotely oppositional. If literary criticism, let alone Marxism, doesn’t sound like a natural choice for a beach read, then this highly readable introduction to Eliot, Leavis, Williams and others will surprise, intrigue and inspire.

10. Doreen Massey Selected Political Writings; with Stuart Hall  Selected Political Writings; and Robin Murray Selected Political Writings

SS10 

If room in the suitcase or rucksack is at a premium these are the books to pack. Publishers Lawrence and Wishart have produced the perfect reads to take us away from the next-to-no-ideas Keir Starmer Labour Party to an ideological place where ideas are positively overflowing. Here are posthumous collections of three writers central to the magazine Marxism Today in the 1980s. Doreen Massey, Stuart Hall and Robin Murray's political writings – there is no better preparation for the change that must follow after a summer of discontent.

…..and a T-shirt!

SS11

On the beach and ever after, wear the incredible memories of an unforgettable July 2022. Philosophy Football's unique T-shirt with England's victories with full match details: Austria, Norway, Northern Ireland, Spain, Sweden. And then after 120 minutes England 2 Germany 1 added and the 'Lionesses' became the CHAMPIONS. From here 

NB No links in this review are to Amazon. If buying books from corporate tax dodgers can be avoided, please do. Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction aka Philosophy Football      

Mr. Caruso Goes To Town: Corporate Developer Remade as California Common Man
Saturday, 16 July 2022 09:34

Mr. Caruso Goes To Town: Corporate Developer Remade as California Common Man

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This is Dennis Broe's third article in a series based on Frank Capra’s Depression-Era trilogy of films. Image above: Gary Cooper’s tortured builder of homes for the homeless in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

In the first part of Frank Capra’s Depression-Era trilogy Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Longfellow Deeds takes his generous heart-of-America, small-town sensibility to the big city, where he becomes the victim of all kinds of cynical manipulation from the media, the law, and wealthy hangers-on. Deeds inherits $20 million and has to face a hearing where he can be declared insane for his scheme to donate all his money to buy farms for the homeless. He invites into his mansion people who who were forced to find food in breadlines, in what was still the height of the Depression in 1936.

 Caruso2

Rick Caruso strolling majestically through a Los Angeles he intends to "clean up"

In the current Los Angeles mayoral election, Rick Caruso, the wealthy developer of a number of Los Angeles projects that recall the innocence of small-town America, presents himself as a modern-day Deeds with all the homespun charm of Gary Cooper’s character in Capra’s film. In his campaign video, Caruso walks calmly in a mythical LA neighborhood with a long white picket fence behind him while he claims to be able to solve homelessness, curb crime, stop corruption at City Hall and “clean up” Los Angeles. His voiceover describes him as from a family of immigrants, “raised to put children and family first,” and “a lifelong builder and job creator,” who will “work for a dollar a year” and “won’t take a dime from special interests” because “my only special interest is Los Angeles.”

He positions himself as a sort of Donald Trump but tempered by the “warmth” and kind-heartedness” of a Mike Bloomberg, a kinder, gentler Trump fit for the Democrats (though before this race he was a lifelong Republican), with the Trump “can-do” quality intact but without the crudeness.

Unaffordable housing creating homelessness in LA

One of the major issues in this campaign is homelessness with the city full of makeshift homeless encampments not only under its bridges but now also on its sidewalks as tents are pitched on many city blocks. An article last summer in The Los Angeles Times, which described the circumstances that led three of those without shelter onto the streets, detailed how in each case it was largely the unaffordability of housing combined with lack of employment or retraining after losing a job, rather than deep psychological problems that created this situation. These victims, who may then suffer psychological disturbances, instead recall the homeless who storm Deeds’ mansion and ask not for a handout but for land and an opportunity so that they may feed and shelter themselves.  

Before the pandemic hit, causing more unemployment and now with rent moratoriums cancelled again increasing the problem, Los Angeles, according to the government agency Freddie Mac, was short of 400,000 homes. This figure counts not only the homeless (a low estimate of which is 29,000 but with 41,000 with inadequate housing) but also multiple families sharing single homes and those living in spaces like garages and attics.

Deeds is dubbed “The Cinderella Man” because he naively believes in people’s goodness and that he can change an extremely cynical system set up to protect the powerful and keep wealth in the same hands. Caruso, on the other hand, is no Cinderella Man. Far from naïve, he is a card-carrying member of the Los Angeles elite, a wealthy real estate developer, who according to his Democratic opponent Karen Bass outspent her by $40 million to $3 million, most of it his own money. He is on the board of trustees of the University of Southern California, that other major developer and land holder in the city.

He is president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, a so-called oversight agency which has long white-washed police conduct and maintained the Thin Blue Line. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protest Caruso proposes increasing the police budget and hiring to the maximum allowed. He is also a member of the powerful Board of Water and Power, which in a city adjacent to a desert, with water becoming more than ever a scarce commodity, holds the city’s fate in its hands – as did the scheming and bloodthirsty Noah Cross in Chinatown whose reason for his crimes was to control “The Future.”

caruso noah 

Chinatown’s evil land baron Noah Cross and Caruso? 

Gary Cooper’s soft-spoken man with the common touch is described in his court hearing as “obsessed with an insane desire to become a public benefactor.” The cynics in New York see his embracing of small-town fellow feeling as “cornfed bohunk.”

In his building projects, Caruso has attempted to summon up his own kind of “cornfed bohunk” in creating isolated “villages” that have the feeling of the past, remembered in tranquillity, but which in effect are branded upscale shopping paradises which draw upper middle-class audiences and which generally reflect little of the diversity of the city.

Since Los Angeles culture is so dominated by the automobile, one of the main characteristics of these “utopian” spaces is their “walkability.” The developments are not open to traffic and promote the idea that you can exit your car and supposedly for a block or two be surrounded by others pacing though a Los Angeles that, at least since the postwar automobile frenzy, never was. Caruso’s gift to national architecture is to replace the more middle-class mall with the upper middle-class “nostalgic” branded “neighborhood.”

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The Grove, a fabricated fairy tale with more visitors than Disneyland

The Grove, adjacent to the Farmers' Market, is typical. The area was once a real farm, complete with apple orchard, but is now transformed into a maze of high-end shops, with the apple orchard replaced by The Apple Store and with various relics of a number of bygone eras. A trolleybus loops through the main artery, which contains, especially in the post-pandemic, two relics of American cultural gathering, a bookstore (Barnes and Noble, the largest remaining bookstore chain) and a cinema (AMC, the largest cinema chain).

This is Facebook’s Metaverse and Marvel’s Multiverse materialized as near virtual “nostalgic” space. The Grove, a kind of fairy tale, has more visitors than Disneyland and includes in the centre a conical monument with a nondescript sculpture of two angels at its top titled The Spirit of Los Angeles. This kind of sanitized version of the city couldn’t contrast more with projects such as Judy Baca’s mural history of a city in struggle in The Great Wall on the more contested space of the border of LA and the San Fernando Valley.

What The Grove cannot erase is the online attack on retail stores, as both FAO Schwartz and Abercrombie and Fitch have both closed since the opening of the development. The Grove was also attacked as site of privilege in the Black Lives Matter protests.

The Commons for the rich and powerful

Another Caruso development, Palisades Village in the Pacific Palisades, located adjacent to Malibu, and home to some of the wealthiest in the city, was described by a Caruso architect, noting that a number of public meetings were held before the space was built, as an attempt to “curate, not create, a community.” Residents were wary of the Caruso touch and did not want “a theme park,” though that is still the overall look of the place, with a small bookstore being replaced by an Amazon bookstore, with residents complaining that The Commons, a public space akin to a New England green, kept shrinking as the meetings progressed, and with a recent visit revealing the site as a staging ground for a campaign to remove a councilman who championed affordable housing. Another project, ironically called The Commons, with its 40 high-end retail tenants, is set in Calabasas, thirty minutes from LA amid one of the wealthiest communities in California.

Far from providing sources of income and housing for those most in need, as Longfellow Deeds is nearly labelled insane for doing, Caruso, who claims he can solve the crisis by quickly shuttling the homeless into makeshift shelters, was described by his Democratic opponent Karen Bass, who bested him in the primary and who he will face him in a runoff in November, as someone who “never built a single unit of affordable housing” and in that way helped create the housing crisis. It is a bit like Purdue Pharma, largely responsible for the opioid crisis, claiming that it would then swing over into making a pill that would eliminate the addiction.

More to the point, and closer to Longfellow Deeds, was progressive candidate Gina Viola’s call for steering money away from the police toward both social services and for the city to use to seize empty properties, some of them already occupied by squatters, and convert them into housing for the homeless.

Caruso’s small-town hoaxes for a privileged class while the rest of the city, just outside these tranquil villages, deteriorates marks him instead as part of the greedy power structure that attempted to use the law to prevent Deeds from actual construction for the public good. Caruso’s cynical campaign is the antithesis of Deeds’ populist cry of protest: “Why do people get so much pleasure out of hurting each other? Why don’t they try liking each other once in a while?”

This piece is the third article in a series based on Frank Capra’s Depression-Era trilogy. The first was Mr. Zelensky Goes to Washington, a parody of Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, about a media figure made into a folk hero, and the second was Meet Juan Guaidó, based on Meet John Doe, about a politician plucked from obscurity and arbitrarily made ruler of his country. All three are available at substack.com, see Cultural Politics For Those Who Care.

Tackling the neoliberal, capitalist culture of Scotland: Review of 'A New Scotland: Building an equal, fair and sustainable society'
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 27 June 2022 10:22

Tackling the neoliberal, capitalist culture of Scotland: Review of 'A New Scotland: Building an equal, fair and sustainable society'

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This book, edited by Gregor Gall, is both a timely and ambitious work that seeks to take Scotland further forward along the road to self-determination. It is timely because it matches rather well Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announcing recently that she plans to hold a second independence referendum later next year. Anyone interested in how Scotland could be as an independent nation should read this book, for its breadth of vision almost prefigures a new nation into being.

The ambition of the book is evident by the array of contributors to it. Gregor Gall has brought together nearly 60 academics and activists in various fields to consider three central areas of concern – Key Issues which deal with poverty, climate justice and economic concerns, Policy Areas which deal with housing, health, education, work, human rights, income and wealth inequality, gender justice, race and migration and the thorny issue of land ownership, and finally Political Practice that looks at culture, Scotland’s radical tradition, political classes today and community campaigns.

If all the analysis and calls to action were enacted upon then there would certainly be a newer and fairer Scotland. If everything suggested in this book came to fruition there would be nothing less than a paradigm shift in the political, economic and cultural condition of Scottish society. And it would lead to editors of every other nation commissioning their own versions of such a book.

What militates against this – and this is something most contributors agree upon – is the actual neoliberal condition in Scotland, in the UK and elsewhere in the world. Nearly every contributor deals with this, however without anyone actually defining what it is. It was interesting to see that Ellie Harrison is one of the contributors to this text and in her marvellous book The Glasgow Effect: A Tale of class, capitalism and carbon footprint (2019), she said that the word had a pervasive use in the world of culture and the arts and no-one ever bothered to define it. She referred to the book written by Alana Jelinck – This in Not Art: Activism & Other ‘Not-Art’- which suggested that neoliberalism has three main components, namely privatisation, deregulation and trade liberalisation.

This aggressive system of parasitic capitalism is clearly responsible for the world’s inequalities and for the climate emergency that it also fails to fully recognise. This economic culture holds Scotland back just as it holds back every other nation on earth. However, Scotland truly does have a special place in this debate since she last voted for the Conservative Party – a key driver of neoliberalism – in 1955. Undeniably, Scotland has suffered from a democratic deficit since then as a result of voting Labour up until 2010 at General Elections, and has subsequently voted SNP at General Elections since then as well as giving the SNP majorities in Holyrood since 2007 and at local elections too since then.

Just like Gall’s book the Scottish people have aspirations to improve. The preferred route was traditionally through Labour but with that Party’s incarnation into New Labour that continued the neoliberal nostrums enacted by Thatcher, they have now switched to the SNP, which claims to be social democratic. Initially, this party did some excellent things with free bus passes for pensioners – extended to young adults aged under 24 – free tuition fees, free prescriptions and, more recently, baby boxes for each new child born in Scotland.

Brexit certainly changes matters even more. Scotland voted to Remain in the EU in 2016 by some 62% and there is no special deal for Scotland as there is for Northern Ireland. The Brexit coup has pushed the whole polity of the UK further to the right and Scotland feels isolated by these events. While the contributors do applaud some of the SNP achievements, many also recognise how the party has stalled in recent times. The book, in a sense, seeks to push things forward.

Much of this stalling is due to what several contributors call the PMC – the professional and managerial class both within Holyrood, and the troupe of journalists, assorted media and business interests which surround the place. According to Morelli and Mooney this has been responsible for what they call the technocratic managerialism within a fixed budgetary framework. Scotland’s Barnett formula grant from Westminster has created a heavily centralised state under the SNP as it seeks to distance itself from an even more centralised post-Brexit Westminster under a right wing Conservative government.

Hassan and Graham suggest that the community around Holyrood and its professional politics is defined by the privileged white, middle-class, male gaze. In a marvellous phrase they speak of the choreographies of consultation that take place there while lamenting the missing voices of ordinary working-class people and their growing concerns.

Danson and Dalzell both castigate the two centuries of clearance, emigration and degradation of communities, land and culture have created imbalanced landscapes, economies and populations. Such sound historical knowledge of the contributors underpins the desire for social justice in a small nation that is genuinely in need of it.

The use of the word culture seems well chosen. In essays by Burnett and Chalmers and Scothorne and Gibbs, there is recognition given to the place of culture in Scotland. While Burnett and Chalmers view Scottish culture as an inherently national identifier and admit that culture is not about ‘additional benefit’ but is essential to our lives and wellbeing, Scothorne and Gibbs view Scottish culture as the most likely source of renewal for Scottish radicalism. However, this view also used the word perhaps and I must take issue with this choice of word here. Both writers point to the wonderfully radical play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, written by John McGrath in 1973, but seem to fail to understand that it is Scottish writers and artists since McGrath and Hamish Henderson, who also gets a mention, that have taken us to the demand for a second independence referendum.

Scotland’s first three Makars – Edwin Morgan, Liz Lochhead and Jackie Kay – all had their poems read out at the opening sessions of Holyrood. All three poems had a radical edge, demanding that the Scottish Parliament deliver for the people of Scotland. Alasdair Gray, as both writer, artist and individual was the very epitome of Scottish radicalism. In both Gaelic culture and in Scots there are many writers producing work that is radical. Scottish literature – and Scottish culture more generally – has been on the side of radical change for Scotland. And that change has been of a constitutional nature.

Jim Cuthbert refers to Lenin and the rentier states that Scotland and the UK have become but maybe – as opposed to perhaps – with independence the SNP could wither away like the state as envisioned by Lenin after revolution, and create an opening for more radical politics that could be filled by a Scottish Labour Party that is no longer a branch office’of London, as Johann Lamont once said?

Maybe or perhaps is all that can be said just now. On a broader level of cultural understanding there is the recognition that access to culture has a price tag attached and with so many people living in poverty there will clearly be an issue here. And big business, of course, sponsor so many events in the cultural sphere that seems to counter any radicalism ever coming into play. The same can be said of print houses that are foreign owned but Scothorne and Gibbs do point favourably to the website Bella Caledonia which, it must be stated, has been inspired by one of Alasdair Gray’s creations.

It was good to see some excellent input to the book by Rozanne Foyer, General Secretary of the STUC and Linda Somerville, the Deputy General Secretary. The STUC, we are told, was the first ever labour movement body to employ an arts officer. That is recognition of the radical importance of culture in Scottish society.

The final word should go to Gregor Gall, the editor of this fine collection of essays. He tells us in his introduction that Scotland is a wealthy country full of poor people. The whole point of this book is to try and change that.    

Why Culture Matters
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Tuesday, 31 May 2022 12:42

Why Culture Matters

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Our final video in our 'Culture for All' series of short films, sponsored by the CWU, features Professor Selina Todd talking about why culture matters.

Why Culture Matters

by Professor Selina Todd

In 2021 I published a history of social mobility: Snakes and Ladders: the Great British Social Mobility Myth. Most studies of social mobility are packed with statistics, as if the story of social mobility is beyond politics and personal experience, able to be condensed into a neat statistical table showing how many people have gone ‘up’ or ‘down’. I was more interested in who had managed to define some ways of life as superior to others, and what this meant to the people who travelled across British society during the past century. And because of this, at the beginning of the book I placed a quotation that had echoed around my head as I wrote. The quotation is from the socialist intellectual Raymond Williams, and it is this: ‘Experience isn’t only what’s happened to us. It’s also what we wanted to happen.’

That quote is taken from Williams’ autobiographical novel, Border Country, which was published in 1960. The protagonist in the novel is, like Williams, from a Welsh working-class family but he has become a university lecturer in the south of England. In the course of the novel he comes to realise that he hasn’t got to where he is by escaping his background, but by using the riches he inherited from a community characterised by solidarity, and the hope that solidarity can bring.

He inherited other things, too, that speak to the harder side of working-class life: a knowledge of deep, often unspoken unhappiness and despair arising from political defeat, poverty and the thwarting of personal dreams. In a rural community there was also love of nature but appreciation of its strength – ultimately, an appreciation of the need to coexist with the natural world rather than attempt to dominate it. And there was the tension between solidarity and the claustrophobia that small communities or tight-knit neighbourhoods can cause. As Williams showed, the need to move outwards from this community to realise personal ambitions brought rich gains – but those who did so incurred losses as well.

Put simply, Border Country, like much of Williams’ work, and like much of my own, is an attempt to smash the much-peddled notions that working-class people are ignorant, uncultured, uncivilised or – one that I’ve had to grapple with in the 21st century – that they no longer exist, having disappeared with the mines and the steelworks.

In Snakes and Ladders I traced the importance of the labour movement in creating adult education in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The demand for adult education grew out of men and women’s thirst for knowledge – and a wide-ranging knowledge at that. They wanted to know about the history of their own communities and the socialist movement, but they also wanted to discuss Shakespeare, Dickens, philosophy and art. Later, in the 1970s, when feminists began to point out that women made culture too, it was the Workers Educational Association, not the elite universities, that introduced women’s studies and women’s history courses.

There was no single ‘working-class culture’, jostling in opposition to ‘highbrow’ culture. The kind of culture of which I write always arises from material life – from the experience of industrial work, or poverty, or being born a woman into a sexist society. But the art, writing or cinema produced from those experiences doesn’t only speak to those who have had the exact same experience as the producer. Culture can provide a map to solidarity, helping to forge connections across different social and political locations, providing that burst of recognition that you too feel those deep emotions, have experienced that fate, dream the same dream.

In 2012, the playwright Shelagh Delaney died. She was best known for her play A Taste of Honey, which she wrote as a Salford teenager in 1958. It’s the story of a single mother and her teenage daughter, who herself becomes pregnant during a brief relationship with a black sailor. I decided to write Delaney’s biography, partly because I found the obituaries so frustrating. On the one hand, Delaney was accused of not having written A Taste of Honey herself, a claim made by critics since the 1950s – they couldn’t believe a working-class women was capable of this. On the other hand, the obituary writers wondered where today’s Shelagh Delaneys were, not recognising that their inability to see young working-class people as more than ‘savages’ (how one critic described Shelagh back in 1958) might not exactly help young people from pursuing their dreams.

What made a difference to Shelagh Delaney, and to many of the so-called ‘angry young’ novelists and film makers who followed in her footsteps was the availability of local opportunity. There were local newspapers, regional television channels, and city theatres where they could cut their teeth. For Shelagh, it was the existence of a radical socialist theatre, in the form of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, that made it possible for her play to be staged in London where it became a box office hit. Those opportunities aren’t there today, but the next generation of Shelagh Delaneys are there if anyone cares to look – in her old stomping ground, MaD Theatre Company, Salford Lads Club and Salford Arts Theatre give a home and a voice to plenty of talented young people.

Culture, as Raymond Williams once said, is ordinary. It arises from everyday life. But it is also extraordinarily radical. Think of the miners’ banners that still appear each year at the Durham Miners’ Gala. On one side of many of the banners is a picture of the colliery as it is. On the other is the picture of the world we want to come. We are living through some very hard times at the moment, and it is worth remembering that many of those banners were created before 1939, in times of great hardship, a lack of democracy, and the threat of fascism. No one knew then that socialist and feminist aspirations for free healthcare and education could be achieved. It was a dream, not a precedent or a focus group, that led to the 1945 welfare state – a welfare state that gave many young people, Shelagh Delaney included, chances their parents had never had.

How do we find them and give them their chance? We need more funding for adult education, not only because many people don’t fulfil their potential at school but because we want to know different things as we get older. We need to break down the artificial division between ‘community’ arts and ‘professional’ initiatives, by giving space on BBC television and the BBC’s Internet platform to local groups, and by inviting women’s groups, WEA classes and trade unions to curate exhibitions at our national galleries and museums. And our children should grow up knowing that girls are as capable as boys, and migrants and black British people as capable as those who are white and British-born.

This hasn’t been achieved by so-called ‘diversity’ initiatives in the early 21st century, because they fail to address the causes of racism and sexism. It’s time to rediscover the culture and campaigns of earlier feminists, like those of the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement, who argued against sex and racial stereotyping and for equal pay, equal treatment at work and in education, and for liberation from oppression, not simply ‘diversity’. And, following the lead of Southall Black Sisters who have argued this since the 1980s, our culture should not simply celebrate ‘diversity’, but, in the wake of a new wave of religious fundamentalism, must stand up for the universal values of freedom from violence and freedom of expression.

Culture translates individual dreams and disappointments into collective experiences, explaining both where they come from, and where they might take us. It is a reminder that we are not alone; we are not solely responsible for our fate; but we might use our disappointments and defeats, as well as our achievements and victories, to weave a better life for the future. As the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War once put it: ‘Reality and dreaming are different things…because dreams are nearly always the predecessors of what is to come’.

Culture for All
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 23 March 2022 16:17

Culture for All

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Over the last year Culture Matters has been commissioning a series of short films about cultural democracy, called culture for all. The films cover a range of cultural topics, including the arts like poetry, film, theatre and music, and also other cultural activities like sport, religion, the media and videogames. The films were made by Carl Joyce and Mike Quille, with the support of the Communication Workers Union. We will be uploading them onto our website over the next few weeks, together with the text of the talk.

Here is the introductory video......

....and here is a video on the media, by Professor Natalie Fenton, followed by the text of her talk. 

Why the Media Matters

By Natalie Fenton

 We live in a society full of information and entertainment, coming at us from all kinds of media. The TV we watch, the radio we listen to, the newspapers we read, the content we consume online, are a crucial part of our daily lives. From watching ‘Strictly’ to getting our daily diet of news, our media are a source of pleasure as well as a means of education and information.

The media we consume stimulate conversations and provide collective experiences – from the televising of the football or the Olympics – to gaining knowledge about the Coronavirus Pandemic – to figuring out who to vote for and how we build our own identities. The very ideas and concepts that people use to make sense of an increasingly confusing world are to some extent dependent on the images and frameworks offered by the media.

So it matters who owns, controls and produces this content. It matters how messages are communicated and the sorts of values, beliefs and forms of understanding that the media promote at any one time. It matters which voices are excluded to the preference of others; who or what is marginalised or misrepresented; which sets of ideas are prioritised and which are neglected.

Ownership of newspapers is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few billionaires. Newspapers continue to set the news agenda of the nation yet just 3 companies dominate 90% of the UK’s national newspaper market, Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, DMG Media and Reach. Concentration of ownership creates conditions in which wealthy individuals and organisations amass huge political, economic and cultural power and distort the media landscape to suit their interests.

The same happens online. Our digital media space is dominated by a few unregulated tech companies and social media platforms. Apple is the first trillion-dollar company in history. Jeff Bezos, founder and owner of Amazon, is the richest person in history. In 2018 his net wealth increased by $400 million a day. These corporations – the likes of Facebook, Google, and Amazon – form the largest oligopolies the world has ever seen.

They exist to make money out of advertising – they seduce us onto their platforms, monitor our behaviour and then sell that information back to advertisers so that they can target their goods more precisely. These tech giants exercise considerable gatekeeping power over how UK audiences discover, access and consume media content constantly adjusting their search algorithms to maximise their advertising revenue. And although some independent media are flourishing online, their business models are precarious and their audiences tiny compared to legacy national media like the Mailonline, that benefit from algorithms that prioritise well-known brands. 

The BBC is still a powerful presence, but a decade of funding freezes has kept its budget far below that of its immediate domestic and international competitors. Over the last 3 decades its independence from government has also been steadily eroded and its programme making increasingly commercialised. Boris Johnson is threatening further cuts to its funding, and suggesting he might sell off Channel 4. So unsurprisingly, the editorial culture of the BBC has become increasingly Conservative.

And two rival news channels – GB News and News UK TV (from the owners of the Sun, The Times and Times Radio) – will launch soon. Murdoch’s move back into British TV will only increase his already tremendous power over UK politics.

This is bad news for democracy. Major shocks like the coronavirus pandemic have made it clearer than ever how much we need public media – accountable media institutions, run in the public interest, which help a divided society talk to each other and hold the powerful to account. ‘Public media’ are media institutions that act in the public interest, rather than the interests of politicians and governments, billionaire owners or powerful corporations. In the UK today, public media are the best of public broadcasting, as well as independent media cooperatives and democratically-run community media.

Public media are essential to a functioning democracy, and for facing the huge challenges of the 21st century. Our current media system is very far from this ideal, which is why we have to fight for change and for cultural democracy in the media. One vital area for change is access to the internet. 11% of the UK population still does not have access to the internet at home – that’s 7.5m people – more than the combined population of the cities of Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Bradford, Liverpool, Bristol, Newcastle, Sunderland, Wolverhampton, Leicester and Nottingham.

Many do not have the appropriate device, quality of connection or required skills to make use of digital technologies and services. Digital exclusion extends to all of life – access to work, quality of education, availability of healthcare, costs of goods and services and the ability to connect with loved ones as well as voice, information and political participation.

Studies also show that the varying forms of political participation online correlate to social class and educational achievement. In other words, although half of the world may now be online, those using the internet for political purposes are still largely middle-class and well educated.

So what can we do?

Firstly, we need to lobby government for regular media plurality reviews that will ensure plurality of media ownership and redress existing concentrations to deliver a rich mix of media at both local and national level.

Ensuring plurality also means ensuring our media serve a more diverse set of interests. So we need to encourage alternative models of media ownership such as co-operatives and employee buyouts that promote equality and financial security over shareholder returns through offering tax relief and direct subsidies for media that function in the public interest and not for profit.

Social media and other fundamental media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google need to be brought under public ownership and control, in various national and international ways.

We need our media to be fully accountable to the public they serve through independent and effective regulation so they can no longer be discriminatory and cause harm.

We need to ensure equality of access to careers in the media for working-class people, women, people of colour and others who are systematically excluded from sustainable, satisfying careers in TV and broadcasting, newspapers and publishing as well as online provision.

We need to ensure equal and fair representation of working-class people, women and people of colour and others who have historically been under-represented and unfairly represented in the media.

We need a more democratic, diverse and devolved public service broadcasting that is fully independent of government and fully representative of all UK citizens.

And we need free broadband for all.

We need these changes now – there can be no meaningful democracy without media reform.

The Media Democracy Festival is on Saturday 26th March, see here.

Capitalism and Death
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 21 March 2022 17:04

Capitalism and Death

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My maternal grandmother passed away at 2 am on February 14, 2022. For her funeral, I went to Bihar where my grief was socialized among the many people who came to collectively remember her. I could not help but remember what bell hooks said in her book “All About Love: New Visions”:

Love invites us to grieve for the dead as ritual of mourning and as celebration. As we speak our hearts in mourning we share our intimate knowledge of the dead, of who they were and how they lived. We honor their presence by naming the legacies they leave us. We need not contain grief when we use it as a means to intensify our love for the dead and dying, for those who remain alive.

The calmness of my stay at Bihar was torn apart by my school’s announcement of exams which immediately made me worry about how I would have to frantically complete the syllabus in a short time. This incident made me realize how capitalism has penetrated into our understanding of death. The present-day social structure of accumulation is obsessed with the need to be ambitious, competitive and achievement-oriented. As such, it never allows us to nurture social bonds of relaxation in the present, constantly compelling us to remain neurotic about the future. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

We tend to be alive in the future, not now. We say, ‘Wait until I finish school and get my Ph.D. degree, and then I will be really alive’ .We are not capable of being alive in the present moment. We tend to postpone being alive to the future, the distant future, we don’t know when. Now is not the moment to be alive. We may never be alive at all in our entire life.

Our passive submersion in the future means that we keep avoiding the question of death in the present. We worship monetary wealth in order to cope with our fear of death, using feelings of strength and superiority to protect ourselves against the sense of smallness and insignificance that death can engender. In other words, we deny death, clinging to the symbolic immortality offered by material commodities. Contra this ideological concealment of death, Avijit Pathak explains how the recognition of death can promote a humane art of living:

Things are impermanent; yet, for some time we have got an opportunity to find ourselves in this world amid this blue sky, these mountains, forests and rivers, or amid the presence of the loved ones. And to live is to live with this sense of gratitude. This is like seeing ourselves as humble wanderers or seekers, not egotistic conquerors.

By refusing to attribute any element of eternity to our existential environment, we come to embrace the fragility of things, working hard to sustain our relations with them in the face of the possibility of loss; with this sense of mortality, we become aware of the fundamental fact that our lives are dependent on the actions and inactions of others, that we need to be sensitive to the needs of others. This means that the recognition of our shared vulnerability and finitude is the foundation of a human life based upon reciprocity and mutual love. As Martin Hagglund notes:

My devotion to the ones I love is inseparable from the sense that they cannot be taken for granted. My time with family and friends is precious because we have to make the most of it. Our time together is illuminated by the sense that it will not last forever and we need to take care of one another because our lives are fragile.

As we understand that the present is the only moment available to us, and that it needs to be lived with compassion, grace and love, our hubristic orientation to the surrounding world changes. A deep awareness of the perishability of things does not transform the human body and nature into dead stuff that can satisfy our desires. Rather, it looks at them as receptacles of finitude whose lifespan can’t be wasted for the possession of an illusory future of death-defying promises. We see these flows and forces of life; who knows the next moment they may not be alive because death doesn’t follow a pre-formulated plan of arrival. Pathak articulates this perspective vividly:

[T]o live deeply and intensely here and now is to hear the chirping of birds, feel the warmth of the sunray and experience the boundless laughter of a child. Indeed, at this intense moment of living, one breaks the egotistic wall of separation; one becomes the butterfly, the sun, the tide in the ocean; in other words, one becomes the universe. And this confluence removes all sorts of fear. Instead, what grows is the abundance of love.

As I looked at the trees and pond that fill my grandmother’s village, it dawned upon me that I am embedded in the world. I am not an “exam warrior” that unilaterally contemplates the supposedly external reality in concise formulae and memorized words; I am not a mere student that wants to compete with the world and become a “topper” – I am a formless human being that draws its meaning form the well of earthly fragility; I am someone whose life is defined not by individual pursuits but by relations of empathy and care toward other things. As I realized that the world is intrinsic to me, that it resides within me, the destructiveness and futility of the present-day capitalist lifestyle became evident. By structurally subordinating our existence to the compulsion to achieve, capitalism deprives us of the poetic density of life and turns death into an event of meaningless chaos. Building an alternative to this barbaric system is crucial.

The Future of the Scots Language
Thursday, 24 February 2022 10:57

The Future of the Scots Language

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2022 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Scots Language Society, set up to encourage and promote the use of Scots Language. In 2021 a Scottish Parliament Cross Party Group was reconvened in order to advise the Scottish Government on ways of taking Scots forward. It is worth considering not only how this might be achieved, but to look at attitudes toward Scots and how they have changed during the last fifty years.

Re-reading David Purves “A Scots Grammar - Scots Grammar and Usage’, published by The Saltire Society in 1997, though full of facts, knowledge and examples of Scots as it is, I was struck by how much it has dated in less than three decades. Purvis was a notable spokesman and advocate for Scots. Though I was impressed at the time I feel now that “A Scots Grammar” represents a miss-step in terms of the way we think about Scots Language and languages in general. David Purves was a hard-working editor of Lallans, the magazine of the Scots Language Society, who put in much time and effort on behalf of the auld leid. It may seem harsh to criticize his book when he is no longer around to defend himself but now is a good time to take stock.

In “A Scots Grammar” Purves tries to establish a case for a form of “correct” or “pure” Scots that he can base his system of grammatical rules on. This is an unhelpful inversion but one that is typical of an academic approach. He argues that the grammars of all languages are based on their national literatures – the language, he claims, represented in its highest form. He is, in effect, implying that languages derive their identity from their literature. This is not the case. They derive it from their speakers, the people.

In the book, Purves suggests that following the Union of the Crowns and then the Parliaments, Scots lost its status as a national language. This has been oft repeated, along with other historical explanations such as the effect of the Reformation and the unionist-supporting Uncle Tams of the Enlightenment.  It is true to an extent of course, but more so if you place greater credence in crowns, parliaments, philosophers and kirks. The fact that Scots has survived as a spoken and written medium since 1707 is because it has continued to enjoy the support (or authority, for want of a better word) of the majority of the folk who have never let it go.

This is not wishful thinking. As far as the establishment has been concerned, Scots has been dying out now for over three hundred years, even though members of that very same establishment who attack it have continued to use it. Burns believed this to be the case and it motivated him, not only to preserve, but to create a completely new body of folksong. Burns actually came on the scene at the end of a renaissance rather than a decline. But in the everyday context of the factories, fields, shops, playgrounds, pubs and homes, Scots has aye been thrang.

Hamish Henderson got this, but MacDiarmid didn’t.  Purves doesn’t really get it either. For him, it is about the restoration of an older tongue back to its former days of courtly prestige and royal patronage. But such authority tends to take little notice of the list of places I mentioned in the above paragraph. “Establishment” is a vague and pejorative term to use in itself but it includes all “the Gaffers”: the gentry, landowners, academics, educationalists, and all those in authority charged with running the North British reservation. And Scots is often not spoken when the Gaffers are around so naturally, they have assumed that it is the tongue of a shrinking, cap-doffing minority.

Ironically, in providing examples of ways in which Scots differs from English, Purves gives many examples taken from his own Borders dialect area, but he is less generous in his comments toward other regional dialects of Scots, inferring that they exist only as corrupted survivals from pre 1600 (excluding Kelso!). Anything that is newer and urban he classes as demotic. He is particularly dismissive of the working-class speech of Glasgow which he quotes examples from and highlights as not being Scots and also labels as ‘bad” English.

None of this makes sense, however it is easy to see why he is doing it. In order to justify and defend Scots as being a language in its own right, especially against the perceived threat of extinction from English, he feels obliged to “fix” it as a kind of unchanging model with lots of rules that can be learned and taught by rote. Doing this proves not only that it exists but it makes it much easier to prescribe and own. His grammar of Scots is predicated on the notion that the Scots grammar rules are different from the English grammar rules, but he is still in thrall to the English model in his approach. The demonstrative pronouns are different and the verbs more irregular from English so Scots must be a language like English is, he tells us. 

This lack of linguistic self-confidence and hang up with English holds back the development of Scots to this day. Endless arguments about “correct” spellings and attempts to make each and every syllable look as different as possible from an English equivalent not only deter those interested in taking Scots up but take us far away from the bruckle beauty o the leid. A further aspect of this academic approach and emphasis has resulted in far too much importance being placed on owersetting or importing other literatures into Scots. Not a harmful or bad thing in itself but something that is far easier to do than attempting to be genuinely creative in your own language with the aim of producing new work that stands with the best internationally.

As the late Tom Leonard put it in his put-down poster poem “Makar’s Society”:

Gran meetin’
The nicht
Tae decide the
Spellin’
O’ this poster
And the admission price is thritty pee (a heid).

Purves is attempting to take possession of Scots, to put a fence around it. But as Tom Leonard also wrote, all living language is sacred, it carries a heavy responsibility to communicate truth and therefore must not be twisted or appropriated in this way. Especially so in our contemporary world of “alternative facts”, fake news and internet conspiracy theories.

A better way of thinking about it might have been to try to demonstrate how our language, our syntax, our word choices reflect the way we perceive ourselves and our existence within our environment – our culture, history, people, landscape. A kind of psychic or karmic grammar if you like. A much harder thing to do. All languages right down to idiolects are unique. They represent who we are. To mock or seek to undermine linguistic expression is to deny identity. Orwell knew this.

Languages die out in time. Their survival depends on whether they are used or not. We know that all language is organic and in a continual state of flux. Languages wane and wax. As I write, dialects are becoming languages and vice versa. You can say that a language is a dialect with an army and navy. You can say what you like. People usually think that the medium they use to fill in their tax forms in is the “official” language.

Some of this is based on geo-political influences. To give one example, Norwegian (Norsk) has become stronger and more widely used over the last hundred years since the country gained its independence. But there are no such things as “rules”, only conventions of speech and writing that are perpetually changing, morphing, adapting.  Of all people, authors and poets are continually tinkering, bending and breaking convention in order to create new forms. So to try to fix a centralized model derived from a literature, especially an older one divorced from common speech, is plain daft. Nor can it be forced retrospectively against the will of people. But the fact that Scots has retained a strong and living identity over a number of centuries, against constant attempts to marginalize it and belittle it, tells you that it has something of a powerful hold in our heads and hearts.

We may not speak in the iambic pentameters of Drummond of Hawthornden when we meet wi our drouthy neebors at the pub. And neither do our English neighbours speak in the language of the sonnets of Shakespeare in theirs. But colloquial Scots is used every day by hundreds of thousands and in millions of social contexts.

David Purves was wrong because he suggested that there was good Scots and bad Scots. It is all good Scots. And as usual in these cases he was the self-appointed judge and jury. The usual cultural elitism prevailed. But he was also a man of his time – by now, some of his views may have changed. For over three centuries, Scots has been in an unusual but not unique situation for a language under threat from a colonialist education system and social conditioning. Today, we could either be at the end o an auld sang or the stert o a new reel. I believe much depends on how we approach it and how external factors effect it but I am hopeful.

Tomás Mac Síomóin: From One Bright Island Flown
Saturday, 19 February 2022 11:11

Tomás Mac Síomóin: From One Bright Island Flown

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Jenny Farrell pays tribute to Tomás Mac Síomóin and reviews From One Bright Island Flown - Irish Rebels, Exiles,and Martyrs in Latin America, Nuascéalta, 2022

Tomás Mac Síomóin has died on the eve of his 84th birthday. He was a significant Irish language writer, poet, publisher, scientist, and Marxist. A former editor of the Irish language and weekly newspaper Anois and later for the monthly magazine Comhar, he published four collections of poetry before embarking on prose fiction writing. His sardonic Cín Lae Seangáin [An Ant's Diary] (2005), won first prize in the 2005 Oireachtas short story competition.

Mac Síomóin was one of the finest Irish language novel writers of the late 20th/early 21st century. His novel An Tionscadal won the highest award for an Irish language piece of literature in 2007. In an effort to bring to the non-Irish speaking public the work of the outstanding poet Máirtín Ó Direáin, Mac Síomóin along with Douglas Sealy translated his work into English, published as Selected poems/Tacar dánta (1984). We have presented his work before in Culture Matters.

Among his outstanding achievements are the republication for the first time since their original edition outside Ireland and subsequent banning in Ireland of three of Liam O’Flaherty’s five novels placed on the index. Apart from this, Tomás Mac Síomóin wrote two studies on the cultural conquest of Ireland by Britain and more recently Anglo-American cultural domination, following in the footsteps of Frantz Fanon and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, applying and developing their thinking in the Irish context.

Mac Síomóin wrote tirelessly, exposing neoliberal society and its profoundly inhuman nature in both fact anf fiction, often in a very satiricalway. His internationalism found expression, among other things, in his indefatigable translation work into and out of Irish, English, Catalan, Spanish. Among his outstanding translations into Irish are Juan Rulfo's classic Pedro Páramo and the selected poems of Marxist priest Ernesto Cardenal. He also translated The Communist Manifesto into Irish.

Being ostracised in Ireland for his outspoken anti-establishment views, Mac Síomóin made Spain his home in 1998. There follows a review of his last book, From One Bright Island Flown, published only last month.

Tomas 2

The defeat of the Gaelic Irish, supported by Spanish forces, at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, was the final blow in the English conquest of Ireland and  a watershed in Irish history. Following this, a great number of the aristocratic and military leaders of Gaelic Ireland fled the country as the only alternative to submitting to criminalisation by the coloniser. This brought with it the rapid decline of the Gaelic society and culture, eventually leading to the near destruction of the Irish language.

The majority of those who emigrated went to Catholic countries, above all France and Spain, although they also went to other European countries such as Austro-Hungary to serve in their armies and become military and administrative advisors. The great Lament (keen) for Art O’Leary/ Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire tells of the return of one such officer to Ireland, defying the British authorities and paying the ultimate price. 

Tomás Mac Síomóin, who was one of the foremost Irish language writers and activists, has now published a book on the “Wild Geese”, as these emigrants are known. However, this is a book with a particular focus on the men who went, via France and Spain, to Latin America and became Latino heroes in their own right.

Typically, they initially went to Spain to study, work or join distinct military units in the Spanish army,  commanded by their own officers. Some travelled on to Spanish colonial countries in South America, in roles such as administrators, business people, military men. Frequently, the men integrated, and settled in their new homelands, indeed becoming involved in the fight for independence in these countries. A number became so famous, that their names known to this day. These are the stories Tomás Mac Síomóin tells, in by what he describes as 'an incomplete compendium'. Nevertheless, it is an encouragement to future researchers to look further into the lives of those in the Irish-Latin American hall of fame.

Mac Síomóin introduces the reader to six of these colourful lives.

Liam Lamport was born in Wexford in 1615, later became Guillén Lampart in Mexico, and wound up intriguingly as the inspiration behind Zorro, the fox. He is the only non-Mexican represented in statue at Mexico City’s Ángel de la Independencia.

Alejandro O’Reilly, too, has left a mark in present day Latin America – a street in Havana, Cuba, is named after him. Born in Moylough, County Galway, in 1722, his family fled the notorious Penal Laws and took him to Spain as a child. A military man, he was sent to Cuba by the Spanish crown in 1763, and from there continued his service to the Spanish monarch in Puerto Rico and Louisiana and back to Cuba and then Spain. Many other Irishmen are memorialised alongside him in this chapter.

Camila O’Gorman, on the other hand, was born in Argentina and suffered the same Catholic prejudice against women and those who opposed Catholic values, as so many women have done in Ireland. Aged twenty and eight months pregnant by her lover, Father Uladislao Gutiérrez, she was hounded and betrayed, and suffered the death penalty for living outside the iron rule.

The next chapter explores the story of a group hero (as did some of the early ones), the St. Patrick’s Battalion. Their deeds for Mexican independence are commemorated on a plaque at the San Jacinto Plaza in the district of San ÁngelMexico City: “In memory of the Irish soldiers of the heroic St. Patrick’s Battalion, martyrs who gave their lives to the Mexican cause in the United States’ unjust invasion of 1847”.

The chapter on Eduardo Bulfin acquaints the reader with the background to the largest Irish migrant population outside the English-speaking world in Argentina, which of course includes the family that brought forth Che Guevara. In this chapter, however, Mac Síomóin focuses on a family that returned to Ireland only to take part in the Easter Rising. Both children of the family were actively involved in the Irish struggle for freedom. Eduardo, a Republican activist and Catalina, secretary to the Irish revolutionary, Austin Stack. 

This small collection of outstanding Irish people with a Latin American connection concludes with the story of Rodolfo Walsh, another Argentine-Irishman, who saved the Cuban revolution. Rudolfo was a founder of Prensa Latina in Havana. He famously cracked the secret code which revealed the CIA’s intentions leading up to the Bay of Pigs. Consequently, Fidel Castro was able to defeat this assault on Cuban sovereignty.

Mac Síomóin points out that the book opens a window on a fascinating connection between Ireland and Latin America. Many more stories await their telling. Among them Daniel Florence O’Leary, aide-de-camp and chronicler of Simón Bolívar, the father of the Argentine navy, William Browne, and Bernardo O’Higgins, Liberator of Chile. Ireland’s loss of her Wild Geese was the Hispanic world’s gain.

Karen Dietrich’s beautiful illustrations complete the book’s purpose to reimagine the lives of those who took their sense of rebellion to the new continent.

The book is available here.

Banksy’s 'Season's Greetings' and a lesson in the commodification of art
Wednesday, 16 February 2022 14:07

Banksy’s 'Season's Greetings' and a lesson in the commodification of art

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In December 2018, Ian Lewis, a steel worker from Port Talbot in South Wales, woke to an early Christmas present – an artwork by world-renowned street artist Banksy had appeared overnight on his garage.

Season’s Greetings, as the painting was officially named, is painted on two sides of a wall. One side shows a child playing in what looks like snow. Turn the corner and the ‘snow’ becomes falling ash and smoke from a skip fire.

Mr Lewis’ garage became an overnight tourist sensation, hitting national headlines, as crowds flocked from all over the country to see it.

What follows is nothing less than a salutary lesson. It quickly became clear that the artwork needed protecting. Amid fears of vandalism, fencing was installed, together a screen in front of the wall. Security guards were stationed at the entrance, together with parking attendants.

Next came the news that John Brandler, an Essex-based art dealer, had bought Season’s Greetings for an unspecified six-figure sum, despite not having seen the painting in real life. In May 2019 the piece was moved from the Taibach garage wall to Ty'r Orsaf, the site of the former police station on Station Road, where it was safely positioned behind panes of reinforced glass.

This month came the disappointing news that, despite the townsfolk’s best efforts to keep the artwork in the town where it was created, it was to be rehoused at a gallery in England. Apparently, Mr Brandler had plans to eventually create a street art museum in the Banksy's new home, Ty’r Orsaf, featuring other world-renowned artists. But in June 2019 he scrapped the idea after the cash-strapped Council refused his demands to pay a yearly fee of £100,000 for the loan of the artwork.

So that’s that, then. An artwork which was gifted to the city – and which arguably only makes sense in the context of its original location – is to leave Wales, possibly forever. Capitalism commodifies everything – skills, time, land (I recently read of The Adam Smith Institute’s plan to sell shares for plots on the Moon) and, yes, Art.

Determining the price of a piece of art is a tricky one. Who decides whether Tracy Emin’s bed is art or just…a bed? Or whether a cow pickled in formaldehyde is worth as much as an Old Master? Such decisions often feel arbitrary, based more on reputation than Skill. Even artists play this game. Salvador Dali famously avoided paying for drinks in bars by drawing on the backs of his cheques, making them priceless works of art and therefore un-cashable.

Artists, of course, deserve to make a living. It’s not unreasonable to charge prices that reflect the time, effort and skill required to create something beautiful and unique. The problems arise when collectors and dealers move in, and art becomes prized more for its perceived monetary value than its intrinsic worth. (Banksy, of course, famously played with this concept with his ‘shredded picture’ stunt at a London auction house).

Who determines what a piece of art is worth? A few years back, I bought an original painting for a fiver in my local charity shop. I bought it because I liked it. I’ve no idea who painted it. If tomorrow I was to discover that it was the work of a famous artist, nothing materially would have changed. The painting would be exactly the same as when I bought it. The only difference would be the market value, but the artistic value – the reason I bought it – stays the same.

Street art, by its nature, has always been ephemeral. Images and tags appear and disappear. Unlike the carefully curated art in galleries, historically Street Art has been egalitarian – anonymous or semi-anonymous, created purely for freedom of expression, with no intention of material gain. In a world where so many are made to feel invisible and worthless, it’s a way of rising up through the cracks, a two-fingered salute at the world – a way of shouting ‘I Exist!’

When does Street art become Established Art? A few years ago, Swansea Council, in their wisdom, decided to paint over a Cofiwch Dryweryn mural which appeared on the marina wall – arguably just as strong an artistic statement as the Banksy. When is an artwork deemed graffiti? When the Council considers its message too political? When it’s not judged to be in keeping with the tourism aesthetic of the area? When it poses a threat financially?

Banksy’s ‘Season’s Greetings’, too, was political. It was a statement about pollution, about the town’s industrial past (and future). A statement about how the ugliness of industry can, when viewed through innocent eyes, appear beautiful. About the legacy of a town which in 2018 was listed as the most polluted area of the UK, yet relies upon industry to feed its children. And it’s a child, significantly, who appears in the mural – a symbol of the town’s future, appearing at Christmas when the symbolism of Nativity, and of lost childhood, is at its most redolent. Above all, I think, it is a symbol of hope.

It’s easy to feel hopeless, as the town’s Banksy is lifted onto a crane to begin its long journey to a gallery miles away in England. It’s easy to feel frustration at an opportunity missed. Yet, amidst it all, there is hope. Banksy’s gift to the town has inspired the Port Talbot ARTWalk – a coming together of artists from across the town and farther afield, both known and unknown, to create a stunning walkway of murals and street art.

The ARTWalk is, of course, free for anyone to enjoy. Amid the gloom of a steel-grey February sky, these colourful, rebellious swirls of colour are a joyous shout to the world: We are here, we are the voices of the town, and we are not going anywhere.

Writing on the group’s Facebook page, Derek Davies of Port Talbot ARTWalk explains:

As a community, we will move forward. The fact that the Season’s Greetings artwork is not with us anymore – is that really so important? The mystique about the artwork will remain with us for all time in our town, regardless of not having a piece of wall. The story of the Port Talbot Banksy is part of who we are, the people and the passion of Port Talbot. It stays in the hearts of the people of Port Talbot and that, that cannot be taken away by money or profit. We are the winners, not art dealers. Money is okay for some, but the legend of the Port Talbot Banksy holds far more riches than money can ever, ever buy…And that my friends…is priceless.

So the commodification of Banksy’s Season’s Greetings has, in fact, achieved just the opposite. Rising up from the streets is unbridled freedom of expression – uncommodified, de-monetised, freed from the shackles of galleries and dealers. This is Art for Art’s sake. I reckon Banksy would be proud.

RL 0 Untitled design 64 resized

Class-based barriers to cultural production
Sunday, 13 February 2022 09:51

Class-based barriers to cultural production

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Jenny Farrell's presentation to the recent conference in Dublin on working-class writing

In an unprecedented venture, Culture Matters published a trilogy of anthologies of contemporary Irish working people’s writings between 2019 and 2021: The Children of the Nation (Farrell, 2019), a collection of poetry, From the Plough to the Stars (Farrell, 2020), a volume of prose writing, both fiction and memoir, and Land of the Ever Young (Farrell, 2021), a fully illustrated book of writing for children. These anthologies were the first of their kind in Ireland, gathering in a grassroots, democratic way the writings of working people.

The editor in chief of the socialist online publication Culture Matters, Mike Quille, suggested this project. The website focuses in particular on promoting the voices of working people, who represent the second culture: not the mainstream affirmation of the ruling class, but the distinct voice of the disadvantaged who make up such a large proportion of the population.

In addition to living and working in Ireland, Mike Quille was aware of my background: I was born and educated in one of the socialist countries, in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany. This background meant that I was particularly conscious of the importance of working-class culture and its absolute validity in the cultural discourse, the importance of its development, and as a subject of academic research. In addition, I grew up in a household with a heightened awareness of the significance of working-class cultural expression. My father Jack Mitchell devoted his entire academic career researching Irish and Scottish working-class literature, and as a singer he took a great interest in folksong and political song. A family friend was Mary Ashraf, one of the outstanding scholars of working-class writing.

The GDR

The GDR, like the other socialist countries, defined itself as a working-class state, one where the working-class had taken power, where this state distributed the wealth produced back into the living standards of the working people. This included aside low rent, free health care, education, very inexpensive basic foodstuffs and public transport, work place season tickets to theatres and concerts, in addition to state subsidized access to all fields of sports and culture.

In order to ensure working-class input into the arts, most workplaces had, among other things, creative writing circles, free of charge. They were usually tutored by established writers. From these workshops arose a number of successful authors. In addition, professional writers were encouraged to spend time in production, familiarising themselves with working-class people and life, to be able to write more authentically about this, set stories and novels in the factory sphere. Authors were financially supported by the state, which meant they could write fulltime - irrespective of other income.

The working class under socialism and under capitalism

In the socialist countries, there was no unemployment, and all people entering the workforce were trained in their jobs. Qualified workers in factories did not earn less than professionals. There was little difference in incomes, and living standards were similar across the population. Everybody received a comfortable living wage and through this and the many state subsidies, participated in the national wealth they produced. There was ‘positive discrimination’ favouring working-class children’s access to university and thereby giving the professions a sound awareness of working-class life. Working-class studies at universities was a very regular field of research in the socialist countries.  It is important to note, when defining the working class, that it is only under capitalism that the working class generally experience poverty and generally poor education.

Marx defined the working class under capitalism as those who own nothing but their labour force, which they sell to employers:

the proletariat, the modern working class, developed – a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market. (Marx & Engels, 1848)

In return, the working class participate only marginally in the wealth they create. This is why in a capitalist society, the working class are generally poor. And of course it also includes the unemployed, and people who also receive very little for the work they do – some self-employed, small farmers, people on short or zero contracts: teachers, nurses and others in formerly well-paid jobs, and all people who are excluded from the possibility of earning a living wage. So in fact, the working class is increasing in size.

The lower strata of the middle class – the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants – all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialised skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population. (Marx & Engels, 1848)

Lack of money brings with it reduced educational opportunities and access to participation in cultural life and so on. In capitalist society, the working class includes all strata of population who are experiencing precarious work and living conditions – these groups are a reserve army of workers who serve to keep down wages.

Taking them as a whole, the general movements of wages are exclusively regulated by the expansion and contraction of the industrial reserve army, and these again correspond to the periodic changes of the industrial cycle. (Marx, 1867)

To return to contemporary Ireland, while all kinds of financial obstacles are put in place to exclude the working class from education, it does not mean that a university graduate is automatically precluded from identifying as working class. In addition, very many academics and graduates find themselves on short contracts, low hours, or indeed unemployed – in other words, they are largely excluded from the wealth of society. They too are experiencing the condition of the working class under capitalism.

While in capitalist society, being working class is most often associated with poverty and lack of education, not all working-class people are poor. Thanks to trade unions, there are companies that pay the average industrial wage and their workers receive a living share of the wealth they produce.

Representation of the working class in culture

If the cultural mainstream is an expression of the ruling ideas in a society, and therefore the ideas of the ruling class (Marx, 1845, publ. 1932), then the powers that control publishing and the media are not exempt from this. The control exercised by this class over cultural institutions is examined for example in the book Culture is Bad for You (O’Brien, Taylor  & Brook, 2020).

When working-class writers depict the realities of their lives, they are quite often silenced by these mainstream cultural powers. I experienced this when trying to promote the three anthologies mentioned at the start. Two literary festivals, Cúirt in Galway, and the Dublin Book festival, refused to include readings from the anthologies. Cúirt did not answer, despite repeated emails, and the Dublin Book festival, after months of very intermittent communication, finally wrote to say they didn’t have the space.

An example of a prize-winning working-class writer who has been a firm part of the anthologies and who has experienced such class prejudice, is Alan O’Brien. He submitted his radio play Snow Falls and So Do We (O’Brien, 2016) to RTE, based on the true event of Rachel Peavoy, who froze to death in a Ballymun flat in January 2010. O’Brien won the P.J. O’Connor Award for Best New Radio Drama but encountered significant opposition from RTE about the broadcast of his play. O’Brien was told his lines were crude and that the portrayal of the Gardaí was unacceptable. A significant and inappropriate change in the narrative was suggested whereby the main character, Joanne, rather than disliking the Garda known as “miniature hero”, actually fancies him, and wants him to take her out of this hellhole.

This smacked more of make-believe Hollywood that the reality of Ballymun. O’Brien’s statement that the people of Ballymun have a very different experience of the Irish Constabulary was sneered at. He rejected the changes to his script, explaining his reasons. But RTE made them anyway and many more, without further consultation. Most significantly,  they changed the ending of a working-class woman dying as a result of social depravation, metaphorically (and actually) freezing to death. Working-class tragedies are not allowed. The establishment will only accept its own interpretation, and rewrite history accordingly.

This reflects a generalized denial, ignorance and rejection of the cultural expression of working-class experiences, values and culture across most areas of cultural production. Publishing is not exempt – its readership, critics, and reviewers and especially its workforce are biased towards middle-class experiences and lives. Not only are working-class people excluded financially from mainstream cultural consumption, they are also often actively prevented by the media – including the publishing industry –  from expressing artistically their experience of the world. By recognising this class barrier and attempting to tackle it, these anthologies of working-class writing are blazing a new trail. However, unless other cultural workers, institutions, trade unions and universities acknowledge this deficit with a view to redressing it, they will remain a drop in the ocean.

Unlike the establishment, the Irish trade union movement has fully and most generously supported this project. Individual unions and trades councils supported the three publications financially, and three Irish trade unionist wrote the forewords. In two instances they were the Presidents of the ICTU, Brian Campfield and Gerry Murphy, the third foreword was written by Andy Snoddy who works for the international trade union movement.

Finding working-class writers was a challenge. Galway working-class poet Rita Ann Higgins was very helpful in identifying potential contributors and their networks. Furthermore, the call for submissions went out to many writers’ networks. Salmon Publishing was also most supportive.

Until recently, I taught modern Irish literature at GMIT and have, over the years, observed the difference between the effect highly wrought poetry by representatives of the literary canon have had on students as opposed to the poetry that calls a spade a spade – literally. The students respond far more enthusiastically if they think a poem has something to do with their lives. That the students found their own experiences reflected in these works was nothing short of a revelation to them. This is not to put either side down, devalue the texts of our Nobel Prize for Literature winners etc, nor is it to say that the writings of the working people are somehow simplistic. Yet, the latter find a more direct line, shall we say, to the people about whose life experience they are writing.

These anthologies are different to collections of political writing. All writing is written from a particular point of view, the author’s point of view. This can either consolidate or undermine the mainstream culture. The point of view in these anthologies of working people’s writing, is that things are not as they should be. Things as they are, are not in the best interest of the working population. Important themes are homelessness in all its forms, including emigration, the abandonment of women in the mother and baby homes, poverty, but also about fightback, internationalism and solidarity.

There are very many more themes of course, but all of them reflect what if feels like to be disadvantaged, a victim in a society that punishes the poor and rewards the rich. By writing about his experience, the authors are creating political writing with a small P. And of course, the fact that this trilogy of working people’s writing exists, that they give expression to the voice of a class, is a political statement.

Many contributors only took up writing because they felt no one like them was in the books they read. To make this common ground clear to the readers, every contributor was asked to supply a short biography outlining their connection with the working people. Many readers have commented very favourably on the inclusion of these biographies. It is a break with convention, where authors are asked to list their publications, prizes and successes, which can sometimes falsely alienate readers who wish to find themselves in a book, their biographies, their stories, their life experience.

Another important consideration was the inclusion of Irish language writing. Far too often, an artificial divide is put up between Irish and English – most commonly published in separate books, which obscures what authors have in common. We need to see the writings in both languages put side by side and highlighted for their common concerns. Ireland has a significant tradition in working-class writing in Irish. Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin (1766–1837), cowherd and labourer, or the 20th century literary giants Pádraic Ó Conaire, Máirtin Ó Caidhin, Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, Liam O’Flaherty, or Máirtín Ó Direáin, to name but a few.

It is imperative to incorporate this substantial body of writers in any research of working-class writing in Ireland.

Moreover, these anthologies needed to represent the whole island of Ireland. There are a significant number of contributors from the North of Ireland and here from both communities. The fact that there are contributors from both parts of Ireland also highlights common ground between the people living in the North and those living in the Republic. Working people’s lives are not so different.

All three anthologies have about an even number of female and male contributors.

Finally, I would like to mention the other anthology published in 2021 of working-class writing, The 32 (McVeigh, 2021). The collection is mainly memoir, or faction, and therefore an important companion volume to the Culture Matters anthologies, which are largely fictional writing, inspired by working-class experience. A new page has been turned for Irish working-class writing.

Let me conclude with the famous poem by Bertolt Brecht:

A worker reads and asks questions

 Who built seven-gated Thebes?
In the books you'll find the names of kings.
Was it the kings that lugged those hunks of rock?
And what of Babylon, so often demolished?
Who rebuilt it time and again? In which
Of golden Lima's houses lived its builders?On the day the Chinese Wall was finished where
Did the masons go in the evening? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who raised them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium of the songs
Palaces only, for its inhabitants? Even in fabulous Atlantis,
The very night the sea swallowed it,
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.
 
Young Alexander conquered India.
All alone?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Didn't he have so much as a cook with him?
Phillip of Spain wept when his fleet
Sank. Did no others shed tears?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Year War.
Who else?

A victory on every page.
Who cooked the victory feast?
A great man every ten years.
Who paid the bill?
So many accounts.
So many questions.

To find answers to these questions, we need working-class art.

 From Plough to Star cover   children of the nation resized  9781912710430 resized

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