Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (116)

Why the NHS matters so much to so many
Tuesday, 04 July 2023 08:16

Why the NHS matters so much to so many

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Mark Perryman and Steve Bell celebrate 75 years of a nation being looked after by the NHS

On 5 July 1948, the National Health Service was born. The architects of this magnificent endeavour were Labour firebrand socialist Aneurin Bevan – a sort of 1940s cross of Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn – together with archetypal social democrat economist John Maynard Keynes and liberal reformer William Beveridge.

It was a curious mixture: today we might call it a 'progressive alliance' but in those days it was a 'popular front'. A politics and culture of co-operation, extra-parliamentary as well as at Westminster, founded in the 1930s with anti-fascism the core. At home to stop in the streets Mosley's blackshirted British Union of Fascists, abroad to defend on the battlefield Republican Spain from Franco's fascists.

It is scarcely remarked upon by the cult of the Churchillian that in the year arguably Britain's greatest-ever wartime leader secured final victory against the Axis powers of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and Imperial Japan, Churchill led the Tories to one of their heaviest ever defeats.

Churchill's much lesser-known deputy in the coalition government, Labour leader Clement Attlee, captivated the electorate with his pledge to 'Win the Peace'. Our allies, the USA had their New Deal, the Soviet Union their Five-Year Plan.

Attlee's post-war settlement was founded on five momentous changes. The welfare state, nationalised public utilities, free, including university, education, full employment and the creation of a National Health Service. Campaign pledges were turned into institutional change once in office. Bevan summed up the scale of ambition and achievement beautifully:  " We have been the dreamers. We have been the sufferers. And now we are the builders."

The NHS is widely regarded as the pinnacle of this shared purpose, and for the intervening three-quarters of a century the NHS has often been described as the closest the British have to a state religion. It is worth remembering therefore that it was created in the teeth of fierce opposition from the Tories, who described the NHS as nothing less than communism. In addition, the main doctors' organisations resisted this momentous change with a diehard defence of their over-privileged professional position.

Labour 's failure to build a popular bloc in support of the new settlement, to be proud and public about the scale and consequences of what it was setting out do, contributed to Churchill's comeback win in the 1951 general election. Attlee would never lead Labour to victory again, Bevan became both a compromised and marginal figure.

Yet what both had created, the ideas of Beveridge and Keynes, remained in place, largely untouched for the best part of 40 years.  The post-war settlement transformed into a post-war consensus, neatly encapsulated by a 1960s politics buzzword 'Butskellism' that signified the large scale agreement by the two leading figures of political renewal, Tory Rab Butler and Labour’s Hugh Gaitskell    

Unfortunately…..

All of this was to change in 1979 and Margaret Thatcher’s victory.  Not in one term, not by one leader nor by one party, but all the core components of the post-war settlement were dismantled, never to be replaced. Public utilities were privatised under Thatcher, and none renationalised by Labour. State schools were handed over to the private sector masquerading as academies, a device massively expanded by Blair. University tuition fees were introduced by Major, grants replaced by student loans by Blair, the cost tripled by Cameron with the support of Lib Dems, and as a result, universities are now entirely marketized. Full employment as government's first priority was dropped by Thatcher and rates of poverty have soared ever since.

So is it a celebration or a wake for the NHS? In theory its founding principle remains intact – providing care based on need, free at the point of delivery. But visit any modern hospital and those bright shiny ideals are rusting away. Vast 'super ' hospitals are replacing closed-down local services, funded by Gordon Brown's flagship economic strategy, PFI (Private Finance Initiative), leaving the NHS in ever-increasing debt to financiers for decades to come.

Scanners and all sorts of other medical services are operated by private companies to make a profit out of the NHS. Entire ambulance services are operated by the private sector, ditto hospitals' vital ancillary services. The nurses and doctors the nation clapped for through the Coronavirus crisis are denied wage rises just to keep pace with inflation and are forced to launch the biggest strike in the NHS 75 year history – for what? A living wage.

And there's an irony barely remarked upon with two 75th anniversaries taking place in the space of a few weeks – first Windrush, second the NHS. No institution in our society is as much loved as the NHS or so dependent, from top to bottom, on migrant labour. In all this feverish hatred of the very idea of immigration, the NHS is testament to how immigration is a benefit to our society and economy, not a cost. For all of Labour's welcome talk of training thousands of new doctors and nurses – though the training infrastructure for such a ambition is almost entirely absent – it should be recognised that the foundation, survival and future of the NHS would be impossible without immigration.

We celebrate the NHS as a popular institution, one many of us could quite literally not live without. Precious, sometimes flawed, right now more vulnerable than at any point in its history, with rates of obesity at an all-time high; levels of participation in physical exercise at an all-time low; the vape replacing tobacco smoking with the same health dangers this entails; the scourge of gambling addiction and all manner of other versions of mental health problems; and an ageing population with dependants who have neither the time or the money to provide the care previous generations gave.

The idea of the 'nanny state' has been reviled but in the shadow of war this is precisely what the NHS and the wider welfare state represented – society that takes the responsibility of caring for all.  

The NHS 75th anniversary mug designed by Steve Bell is available here. 

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Wedges
Friday, 26 May 2023 08:28

Wedges

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Wedges

Some thoughts on solidarity, democratic deliberation, and class struggle

by David Betteridge

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Cartoon by Bob Starrett

I

Whoever is without fault among us, let them be the first to take a wedge, and hammer it  into our body politic, which is also our heart and soul and mind politic.  Let them look for a fine crack and turn it into one that is gaping wide.  Let them go on with their hammering until they have opened up as many fault-lines as they can find. Let them do that, whoever is without fault, claiming freedom of expression, and crying See me, I am the naked truth, or something like that; otherwise, let us hold back and think twice, and when divisive talk runs amuck, let us think more than twice.

How many times must we go down to self-defeat, making enemies of our friends, monstering them, wearing badges of difference so angry and so foregrounded that they kill off chance after chance of maintaining a needful solidarity? 

United, we keep from falling.  Not falling, we keep from failing yet again in our long march towards our long dream of transforming our world, and finding good ways of living in it.

There can only be one “Us”, which is our class-in-the-making, working to become the active agent “We” in History’s next turning of the page.

II

Stop hurting, comrade!  Stop hurting allies and allies-that-might-be, and, in so stopping, give yourself some respite from self-harm,  for with every breaking of a bond, with every comrade lost, you wound yourself, and are the less.  We are all the less.

Opposition is true friendship, said William Blake. That adage needs some interpreting: true friendship in pursuance of our politics has its own true form of opposition, which is a dialectic of ideas, and not of divided folk. 

Following the protocols of a quiet determining, we might take inspiration from the practice of certain deer who live in the semi-deserts of sub-Saharan Africa. When the wind whips up a storm, the deer crouch down and gently blow the sand from each other’s eyes.

III

There is one fault-line, and only one, requiring to be opened up, being integral to our politics, because written into reality. That is the fault-line that separates Capital in all of its manifestations

from Labour in all of ours; and there is only one wedge, also integral, that we need take to hammer home.

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Image derived from El Lissitzky (1919)

From citizen to consumer: the growing corporatisation of public space
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Thursday, 27 April 2023 18:28

From citizen to consumer: the growing corporatisation of public space

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The growing corporatisation of public space: From public good, to public as consumer.

Parks and public spaces are increasingly being used and situated as revenue generators whilst the public who uses them have become reimagined as consumer in these environments. Moreover, what we have witnessed over the last 20 years but increasingly so is the use of parks and other public spaces is an ideological shift in how we imagine the purpose of these vital resources, away from free to use locations for public good and well being to highly monetised income streams.

This is not happening within in some sort of abstract and coincidental manner, it is situated and indeed mirrors the insidious and creeping privatisation of our lives and the very spaces we inhabit. The increasing commercialisation of public spaces, which of course restricts free enjoyment (their original purpose and function) is located within a wider narrative and ideological dominance where public good is supplanted by privatised individualism.

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This is also situated alongside projects of urban regeneration which have often spelt further intensified marginalisation of the urban poor, pushed away from city centres and relocated in the periphery. The dominant sociopolitical model of neoliberalism has given an impetus to these processes which has resulted in both the emergence of middle class gated communities but also class based exclusivity of prohibitively expensive events within public spaces whose interests are protected and forwarded by the state and supported by firmly established ideological discourses.

The brutal reality is that local councils and city authorities are increasingly pressurised to provide revenue streams and to monetise any available assets. This is firmly within the context of withering and continued cuts to public services and central government funding. Often using public spaces for commercial events is the only means for councils to make up for shortfalls in funds. However, the wider and more pressing point is that neoliberal dominance which has repositioned ideas around purpose, place and provision by government over the last 40 years or so has become so ingrained unquestioned, that it has been able to completely reconfigure how we view our urban environments and what we view as normal and acceptable. Moreover, this also operates within an increasingly divided and unequal public sphere where exclusivity is championed and co-operation and communal good is sidelined.

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What we have witnessed is an assault on the accessibility and democratic utility of public space over recent years. From the huge increase in gated communities and the restrictive use of public areas, public parks, city squares, gardens, plazas and even streets are not immune to the privatisation and public-as-consumer mantra of contemporary neoliberalism. Indeed, Brighton’s recently remodelled and refurbished Valleys Gardens and Grand Parade (cost to public- £7.8m) being a prime example. Throughout the summer residents wanting to enjoy or access these spaces will have to contend with a multitude of exclusive and commercial events such as; Brighton Open Air Theatre, Brighton Fringe, Lady Boys of Bangkok let alone Brighton’s Preston Park which hosts the all fee paying events such as ‘Foodies Festival’, ‘Pride’ and ‘Pub in the Park’.

Increasingly public spaces have become locations of packed entertainment scheduling. Hyde park in London being a prime example of vital public space remodelled as an exclusive and prohibitively expensive consumer commodity. Their summer schedule includes a variety of exclusive and costly events such as; Bat Walk, LTA Youth Tennis Courses, ‘Hidden Stories of Hyde Park’, Swim Serpentine, Royal Parks Half Marathon and most notably the 10 day American Express Presents BST Hyde Park music extravaganza which consists of turning Hyde Park into Londons largest (and most expensive) outdoor open-air music venue.

However it is not just limited to the summer, most cities now use their public squares in the winter for open air ice-skating rinks and not to mention the perennial faux-German Christmas markets. There is no limit to the commercialisation of public space and parks in particular, for example a Tough Mudder commercial event in Finsbury Park in mid-April drew huge local criticism. Local Labour MP for nearby Tottenham, David Lammy  tweeted that he had been to the park and was “utterly appalled”, he also commented that “Finsbury Park is an inner city urban park and the damage done is an environmental disgrace”, he also said that “there are serious questions about how and why this license was granted, enforced and policed” (BBC News, 2023). Again, the point not necessarily being the damage and disregard to vital public spaces these events can cause (and often do), but the assumed and accepted narrative that this is the purpose of these spaces.

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Policies and practices to ameliorate this renegotiation of public space would be the relatively easy part. For example introducing strict curbs on the number of days events can be held in each public area such as a specific park; strict regulations, penalties and fines for any damage or distress caused to public spaces; local consultation for proposed events; and of course greater government funding to local councils and authorities to deter the reliance upon an increased commercialisation of public space.

However, the most important point is that we must directly challenge and reject the neoliberal agenda that has permeated our understanding of use and utility of public spaces. That first and foremost the very purpose of public spaces like parks, gardens and squares is to provide free to use, open and accessible spaces for public good and well being, not as sites of commercial gain and profit that often excludes the very population these spaces are meant to serve. This is a big challenge as it requires us to rethink and reject the neoliberal agenda that has become so dominant not only within the realm of public space but throughout the wider social, cultural and political context.

I am not necessarily arguing against the diversified use of public space for fun events and entertainment, many of which are free to access, however, the main point being is the insidious and creeping corporatisation of public space from places of inclusive public good to exclusive commercialisation. This subject area goes to the heart of discussions and debates around who is the city for, and more particularly public space.

Workers’ Playtime: community and culture in industrial Lancashire
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Thursday, 13 April 2023 08:18

Workers’ Playtime: community and culture in industrial Lancashire

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Finally clocking off for the day, leaving the dark satanic cotton mills of Manchester and Lancashire behind for a few precious hours, what were the options available for workers in Victorian times and the early years of the twentieth century to lighten the gloom and grimness of the daily grind?

Quite rightly, we usually focus our attention on the appalling conditions of the working life for mill workers and the alienation they experienced. The premise of this exhibition at the John Rylands Library (Deansgate, Manchester) is that it is worth our while spending time considering and recognising the determination and ingenuity of working people to seize opportunities to engage in communal and cultural activities, to shed some light and hope for a brighter future.

The exhibition itself may be confined to a rather small, cramped and very darkly lit room, but it does enable us to be beamed straight back into the nineteenth century thanks to its wonderful display of historical documents. Once transported to the 19th and early 20th centuries in this tiny time machine, you can delve into the many fine examples provided of the extent of the playground. There is evidence of literary groups meeting in pubs, workers’ newspapers, poetry, drama performances, sporting clubs, music making, correspondence courses, trips to the seaside and so much more. The workers were organising themselves, socialising, networking, all in the pursuit of a more fulfilling life, which of course also included political engagement.

Fellowship is life

As anyone reading this review knows: culture matters! The good life for socialists is not just limited to achieving better working conditions, but needs to go hand-in-hand with greater leisure opportunities for education, artistic expression and fun. William Morris believed that 'fellowship is life' and a precursor of what a socialist society would be like, and it is sometimes said that Marx beavering away all hours in the British Library would have been happier spending more time reading his beloved Balzac.

This exhibition summarises the changes, after a great deal of campaigning by trade unions, religious groups and enlightened employers, which provided more scope for leisure, especially more time for women and men to devote to running their own affairs. For example, the Factory Act of 1833 and the Education Act of 1870.

At the heart of the exhibition then are the various historical documents. This is a small-scale exhibition covering a large subject across a wide timeframe. The selected items though do represent key areas of cultural and communal activity in the Cottonopolis region. They capture the range and variety of cultural interests that were evolving. The choice is stimulating, encouraging us to look more closely into a particular aspect, perhaps at home in our leisure and with all the aid of 21st century technology. The exhibits are all from the Rylands collection and it would be interesting to find out what other, similar treasures they hold.

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You can read the front page of The Clarion, that entertaining socialist newspaper begun here in Manchester which built up a huge circulation, 80,000 at its peak. Or check out The Cotton Factory Times aimed initially at Ashton-under-Lyne mill workers. Back in the day, you might have been one of 40 or 50,000 also browsing it.

There’s The Labour Church Hymn Book and searching for further information afterwards, you find that it was founded by John Trevor, a Christian Socialist. The church provided a shelter for the homeless on Deansgate. 

There are photos of sports clubs, trips to the seaside. Humour is to be had in the dialect poets and the spoof rules of The Moss Side Debating Society.  Filling yourself with ale to deaden the misery of your work and surroundings was understandable, but was it fulfilling? The influence of the temperance movement is highlighted with a map of Manchester showing the proliferation of pubs. So many of these different items raise issues which merit their own in-depth study and display.

The Co-operative Movement

Here’s a challenging statement in the section on the Co-op: ‘The Co-operative Movement is the great working-class success story of the 19th century.’ As significant as Chartism, or more? This claim is backed up by the display material and background facts, for example, by 1890 it had 721,310 members, and one person one vote was not restricted to male membership. Its reach was extensive, providing safe and affordable food, but also educational and cultural opportunities.

The ‘Workers’ Playtime’ exhibition certainly is ambitious, whetting the appetite for more. At reception staff spoke about the plans for the Library to have improved exhibition facilities and it must be said that this is a small taster type of exhibition. Anyone visiting Manchester from afar could also visit The People’s History Museum, a short walk away, which would perfectly complement what’s on offer here.

I benefitted and thoroughly enjoyed the experience of accompanying one of the three curators of the exhibition, along with many others, on a free tour. The tour was led by Michael Sanders, Professor of 19th Century Literature and Culture at the University of Manchester, and a contributor to our Culture Matters website. ‘He really brought it all to life’ was one comment I heard afterwards. The next tour he will be conducting will be on May 4th at 2pm.

Every St Patrick's Day, Everywhere, All at Once: A Disaster for Ireland
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Thursday, 16 March 2023 21:13

Every St Patrick's Day, Everywhere, All at Once: A Disaster for Ireland

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 March 17 is traditionally St Patrick's Day, a day when 'Irishness' is celebrated all over the world. This date is traditionally held to be the date of the death of St Patrick  (c. 385 – c. 461), the patron saint of Ireland. It is marked by parades through the main cities and towns of Ireland, and in recent years it has become popular as a festival around the world with famous buildings being lit up green and major rivers being dyed green.

However, in recent decades the symbolism of St Patrick's Day has changed dramatically and promotes negative stereotypes (e.g. leprechauns) of the Irish people to a world audience. This is not good for Ireland or the Irish people. It must also be noted that St Patrick is seen as the patron saint of Ireland because he defeated pagan ideology in favour of Christianity. However, pagan ideology had a strong connection with nature and the cycles of nature that resulted in seasonal festivals such as Beltaine (1 May), Lughnasadh (1 August), Samhain (1 November) and Imbolc (1 February).

St Patrick

Not a lot is known about Saint Patrick except he is believed to have been a Romano-British Christian missionary who was kidnapped by Irish raiders and brought to Ireland as a slave. After six years as a shepherd he went home and became a priest. He then returned to Ireland to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity. He is famously believed to have driven the snakes out of Ireland despite the fact there is no record that Ireland ever had snakes. It is more likely that the snakes refer to the pagans themselves:

"Scholars suggest the tale is allegorical. Serpents are symbols of evil in the Judeo-Christian tradition—the Bible, for example, portrays a snake as the hissing agent of Adam and Eve's fall from grace. The animals were also linked to heathen practices—so St. Patrick's dramatic act of snake eradication can be seen as a metaphor for his Christianizing influence."

It is believed that he died on 17 March and was buried at Downpatrick. It is also believed that the date is suspiciously close to Ostara, a pagan holiday:

"It wasn't arbitrary that the day honouring Saint Patrick was placed on the 17th of March. The festival was designed to coincide, and, it was hoped, to replace the Pagan holiday known as Ostara; the second spring festival which occurs each year, which celebrates the rebirth of nature, the balance of the universe when the day and night are equal in length, and which takes place at the Spring Equinox (March 22nd this year). In other words, Saint Patrick's Day is yet another Christian replacement for a much older, ancient Pagan holiday; although generally speaking Ostara was most prominently replaced by the Christian celebration of Easter (the eggs and the bunny come from Ostara traditions, and the name "Easter" comes from the Pagan goddess Eostre)."

St Patrick's Day Parade

As a child I remember being brought to the parade and seeing a very dignified parade of marching pipe bands and symbols of the Irish state and nation such as the Irish army. By the 1980s it had been reduced to low levels of commercialisation (such as multiple floats advertising a major security firm). Later, the influence of Macnas took over and a kind of Celtic primitivism became very influential.

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St Patrick's Day, Downpatrick, March 2011

The commercialism of the St Patrick's Day Parade also resulted in Irish people dressing up as red-bearded and green-hatted leprechauns:

"Films, television cartoons and advertising have popularised a specific image of leprechauns which bears little resemblance to anything found in the cycles of Irish folklore. It has been argued that the popularised image of a leprechaun is little more than a series of stereotypes based on derogatory 19th-century caricatures."
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leprechaun

Along with this negative stereotype came a change in terminology as St Patrick's day became known as Paddy's Day, a derogatory term for Irish people (Paddy). The festival has become an excuse for all-day drinking and riotous behaviour, feeding into the negative stereotypes of 'drunken Paddys'.
 
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St. Patrick Parade, Fifth Ave., New York 1909

In a way the St Patrick's Day parade of recent years does symbolise the Ireland of today just as the content of past parades represented the prevalent ideologies of their day too. The colorful, brash, internationalism of the parade now is similar to other major festivals around the world (such as Brazilian Carnival) and, similarly, has more of a feeling of public catharsis than a celebration of national identity.

The kind of drinking and self-mocking celebrated now on St Patrick's Day has more in common with the work of the Roman satirical poet, Juvenal (c. 100 CE), who wrote that "the People have abdicated our duties [and] now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses."  Public palliatives for societal woes only temporarily cover up the real problems facing Irish people today as the housing, energy and financial crises deepen.

Spring is a time of rebirth and renewal. This is what is really needed now, the rebirth of the politics of social justice, and the renewal of our deep connection with nature and life - a movement away from the theology of death.
 
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 15 March 2023 11:13

Culture and barbarism: the work of Walter Benjamin

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Culture Matters is pleased to present this short film by Professor Esther Leslie, Carl Joyce and Mike Quille. Professor Leslie's text is below.

Walter Benjamin was interested in the ways in which art, culture and politics flow together. He made a connection  in a line he used a couple of times:

‘There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’

This signals an insistence that all of our forms of culture are simultaneously politically, or socially, enmeshed, in the broadest sense. All cultural documents – artworks, films, novels, poems, statues – are produced within the prevailing barbaric circumstances of class-divided society. That something beautiful or awe-inspiring might be made by an artist relies on a social division of labour that denies most people any permission to be creative. The existence and persistence of culture confirms the validity of the production process that brought it into in being. Cultural documents of all kinds thus work to embellish the rule of those in power, justifying their elevation above the immiserated and disempowered.

The Colosseum is an example of real barbarism taking place in cultural form – for example, in gladiatorial battles, staged to underline the power of privileged families, or in the real executions of condemned people as the climax of stagings of myths. But there are more subtle ways in which culture hinges on barbarism. Cathedrals, full of artworks, carvings, opulence, do not glorify those who built them, but rather give consolation for ongoing suffering and the promise of something better to come.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - November 18: Official Portraits for the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall November 18, 2019  AUCKLAND, New Zealand. (Photo by Mark Tantrum/ http://marktantrum.com)

There is no such solace apparent in the oil paintings of the wealthy, those who are ‘long to reign over us’, – the canvas simply covers over a world of immiseration experienced by those who are not expected to leave any traces of themselves to posterity.

The cities are littered with relics of individuals who are immortalised in granite or bronze and who gained from a barbaric system. Sometimes the wrong is righted, the barbarism inherent in the artefact exposed, the statue brought down, as when the late Victorian statue of Bristol-born merchant and transatlantic slave trader Edward Colston was toppled in 2020.

Art and Politics

Walter Benjamin lived through varying types of barbarism – coming of age in the years around the First World War, when experimental and avant garde art movements thrived, often alongside left wing and communist movements. He also lived through the years when the Nazis took power in Germany, fascism  dominated various parts of Europe and a Second World War broke out. One of his interests was in how art and politics worked together across time. There is a line in his programmatic essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility’ from the mid-1930s:

'Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.'

Here Benjamin observes that populations are encouraged to rush headlong into war and mass destruction. Fascism speaks of the glory of war – and some Futurists wrote poems to that effect. War is presented as a dramatic sensation, an intensified experience, like an artwork or a spectacle. Political rallies and parades, uniformed ranks of people arranged in ornamental fashion, blonde housewives with children, were enacted and broadcast using the latest medium of film and radio. They became cultural events. To counter this, Benjamin insists on regarding art as political, as intrinsically political and as a place where a progressive politics of liberation might be carried out. Art and culture might be used not to service the glorification of war or the deification of leaders, but rather as weapons wielded in social and political struggle.

But what kind of art.....? 

What art then? Benjamin argues that aesthetic choices, such as the choice to paint a picture or take a photograph, to make a collage or a poster, to write a poem in obscure and high-flown language or in the vernacular discourse of the street, the decision to work as an individual artist or as a collective of makers and producers, and so on: These are all political aspects of art.

Is an artist someone who sells work as a commodity – and what sort of a commodity is art? Benjamin’s interlocutors, Adorno and Horkheimer, wrote about something they called the culture industry. This described all cultural production first and foremost for money. Financial models, questions of access, the high price of art, the return on the value of investments, all this is part of the politics of art – and for Benjamin, the work of Brecht, John Heartfield or Eisenstein would be three methods of engaging with this field, in his time, under the conditions of his time, questioning in their various ways value, circulation, ideology, the purpose of art, distraction, propaganda, the relationship of image and world, beauty, horror, lies, violence, war, social relations.

And, furthermore, who is an artist? This too is a question with political aspects – who is allowed to be an artist when the roles the artist should perform have become highly politicised, as in the Great German Art Exhibition of 1937.

The 'brutal grasp' and 'destructive character' of art

'To the process of rescue belongs the firm, seemingly brutal grasp

Benjamin wrote this line in the Arcades Project in 1931. Walter Benjamin’s aphorism advocates a sudden movement, getting the hands dirty in grasping or grabbing in order to rescue something – what? A better life? Humanity itself? Nature? Art? Benjamin is interested in salvage, in extracting from the jaws of doom, a better life, through a decisive and hard gesture – or at least a ‘seemingly brutal’ one. Sometimes, he argues, it is necessary to take decisive action – and not even to reflect on that too explicitly.

This idea of acting sharply and brusquely comes together with a figure that Benjamin invented: the ‘destructive character’. The ‘destructive character’ is a type without memory, opposed to repression in its political and psychic senses, who – causing havoc by cutting ways through, by liquidating situations – removes the traces which sentimentally bind us to the status quo. They do this in order to make possible modes of behaving or misbehaving, which are appropriate to the brutal conditions of the world and to their dramatic overthrow. The destructive character rejects past traces, has abolished ‘aura’ and with it sentimentality about things, including his own self.

The destructive character is the enemy of the comfort-seeking ‘etui-person’, who cossets everything in velveteen cases and plush, trying to individually make the hard edges of the world temporarily comfortable and for him or herself alone. In ‘The Destructive Character’, Benjamin writes about those who try to preserve the world – and art – as it is:

'Some people hand things down to posterity by making them untouchable and thus conserving them; others pass on situations, by making them practicable and thus liquidating them. The latter are called destructive.;

Benjamin is sometimes portrayed as a melancholic and fated individual who was unable to make his way in the world and prone to abstract theorizing. In actuality his writing about art was carried out in close conjunction with practice – including his own: for example he made many radio shows in the late 1920s and early 1930s – and he wrote fables and stories and poems.

He also worked with others who were questioning the ways in which art might contribute to social and political struggle, in the most revolutionary way, with implications for culture and social forms. For one, he was close to Bertolt Brecht, Marxist poet and playwright. Brecht praised a certain kind of vulgar thinking – forwarding the idea that truth is simple, graspable.

The new barbarism: shock and awe, work and war

Sometime between the spring and the autumn of 1933 Benjamin wrote a short reflection titled ‘Experience and Poverty’, which considered the new reality of world war in the twentieth century. Twentieth century warfare had unleashed a ‘new barbarism’ in which, observes Benjamin, a generation that went to school in horse-drawn trams stood exposed in a transformed landscape, caught in the crossfire of explosions and destructive torrents.

Benjamin’s was no lament for the old days, for those were unliveable for the property-less and the habits engendered by the cluttered and smothered interiors were unhealthy and uninspiring for the propertied. ‘Erase the traces!’ Benjamin proclaimed – a line he took from a poem by Brecht. Benjamin enthused about a ‘new, positive concept of barbarism’ and he championed the honest recorders of this newly devalued, technologised, impoverished experience: Paul Klee, Adolf Loos, and the utopians Paul Scheerbart and Mickey Mouse. In all of these the brutality and dynamism of contemporary existence, including its technologies, was used, abused, mocked and harnessed.

Property relations in Mickey Mouse cartoons: here we see it is possible for the first time to have one’s own arm, even one’s own body, stolen. Benjamin wrote about Mickey Mouse first in 1930. What fascinates him is the fact that Mickey Mouse can alienate from himself an arm or a leg, he can give up his body in order to serve the power structure operative within the cartoon. That fascinates Benjamin as an image of what we are required to do in order to survive or to live our bare lives. Experience, a sense of consistent development over time, wisdom and continuity, no longer is relevant in the modern world of shock and awe, factory work and war. These films disavow experience more radically than ever before. In such a world, it is not worthwhile to have experiences.

Charlie Chapin

Benjamin has a very sober sense of what capitalism requires of the body, the whole thing about film and its shock aesthetic subjecting the human sensorium to a type of training – this is painful. Benjamin thinks that there is a potential there to understand how we inhabit the world with technologies that might, indeed, alienate parts of our body in order to become this partly human, partly technological, endlessly refungible and brutalised subject. Audiences flock to these films not primarily because they are artworks of the mechanical age of reproduction – that is just a condition of their existence. They flock to them because they recognise something in them that gels with their own existence:

So the explanation for the huge popularity of these films is not mechanization, their form; nor is it a misunderstanding. It is simply the fact that the public recognizes its own life in them.

History and change

The final piece of writing by Walter Benjamin, from 1940, was not published. It is a few sheets of paper thinking about history and change. Benjamin advocates a mode of thinking that could overpower the political situation. It is written at times in an elusive language and it is not a manual. It is an effort at the production of an attitude, one that is open to imagining the breaking open the continuum of history or arresting it, one that sets out from the positive aspects of shock, breaking through the picture of history – a warlike, explosive assault on the state of things, snatching an evanescent memory that flashes up at a moment of danger.

Benjamin’s strategy addressed the idea of the image or picture of history. These metaphors cannot be simply translated into practical action. Or rather they might import themselves only at specific, charmed revolutionary moments. As he put it in one of the theses in Selected Writings:

'The consciousness of exploding the continuum of history is peculiar to the revolutionary classes in the moment of their action. … in the July Revolution an incident took place which did justice to this consciousness. During the evening of the first skirmishes, it turned out that the clock-towers were shot at independently and simultaneously in several places in Paris.'

History is exploded as an act of ‘genuine’ progress, which does not move simply forwards. Revolutionary time is not clock time, but rather the time of the present, filled with the moment of acting, an acting which is then re-invoked as a conscious reflection on what brutal, disruptive act brought the new time into being. A new calendar, such as that inaugurated in the French Revolution, should mark the discontinuity that has been brought it into being in its naming, its re-divisions, its spaces of commemoration – unlike the Weimar republic, born of a compromised revolution in 1918 and 1919, and which is unable to acknowledge its own constitution as a break in time, a break in tradition – and so returns to old times, business-as-usual.

What Benjamin asserts in the essay ‘Experience and Poverty’ is the necessity to adopt brutal modes of thought and action not as a freely chosen strategy as such, but as a mimetic adaptation to the brutality that is the world and as a glimpse into what is needed to carry through a break, a revolution, a change in the state of things. Through a kind of doubling, the negation is negated.

Marchel Duchamp fountain sculpture SFMOMA 3700182764 resized     brecht play     situationist comic     Sex Pistols in Paradiso Johnny Rotten Steve Jones resized

We can find this radical brutality in various and varied documents of culture: in artworks like Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’; in Eisenstein’s montage and editing techniques; in Brecht’s plays and poems; in the Situationist ‘detournement’ of comics; in the music of John Cage or in punk.

There is also brutality in thought: a breaking with thinking as it has been thought to date, an assault on common sense, in order to annul the thinking that justifies, by not drawing attention to, everyday brutality. Brutality in action: a brutal, critical one, in which time itself might be interrupted. The world itself might stop spinning – such is revolutionary political action. The world is brutal and critique might become action on and in the world and its symbols:

‘There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’

Sometimes the statues that glorify brutal systems and their agents are kicked over, revealing a connection between culture and the barbaric that exists usually obscured. Such radical acts direct art and politics – and life – towards other possibilities.

You can also hear Professor Leslie talk about Benjamin on Radio 4's In Our Time, here.

Why Birkbeck Needs To Nurture English Literature
Saturday, 18 February 2023 09:48

Why Birkbeck Needs To Nurture English Literature

Written by

Introduction

by Fran Lock

This story both is and isn’t about Birkbeck. On the one hand, it is absolutely particular to an iconic institution that recently celebrated its 200th anniversary as a radical space offering accessible higher education previously beyond the reach of poor and working people. It is the story of how, in the midst of those celebrations, the aims and ideals of that institution were – and are – being aggressively undermined by major restructuring, with proposed cuts to more than 80 academic and over 50 administrative and professional services jobs across the College. In English alone 50% of academic staff are faced with redundancy.

This story matters: it matters because English research at Birkbeck is world-leading, ranked 2nd in the UK and 1st in London by the Times Higher Education. It matters because of the vital role the department plays in widening participation in English studies, creating a unique space with one of the most diverse student bodies in the country, among them many mature students, and many working-class students, often the first in their families to enter higher education. Most of these students are studying after or around the working day. I can attest from personal experience both to the pressing need for such spaces, and to the rich, polyphonous creative and intellectual communities they help to foster and create. This story matters. And it matters to me, personally.

On the other hand, this is also a story with much broader implications. It is a story about the managed decline of the Arts and Humanities across all levels of education. It is a story about the marketisation of the academy towards the exclusion of poor and working-class people. It is a Tory Story, about the way in which successive generations of Tory governments have used so-called educational “reforms” to routinise and shrink the teaching of English in schools, producing a loveless conveyor belt curriculum where students are rewarded for the relentless memorising of disconnected facts, and discouraged from developing any kind of lively or critical conversation with and about literature.

Michael Gove did a tremendous amount of damage as Education Secretary in 2013, and Ofqual's 2020 decision to make poetry optional at GCSE level is part of this same ongoing process, which is, to my mind, ideological and deliberate. To put it plainly: the skills that the study of English develop in us – nuanced and analytical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration – are not skills that those in power would like to see evenly distributed. The cuts taking place at Birkbeck are disturbing not only because they impoverish and scar a pioneering Arts and Humanities curriculum at an iconic institution (although they do), and not only because they are symptomatic of the government’s myopic and grimly utilitarian focus on STEM subjects within the academy (although they are); the cuts taking place at Birkbeck are disturbing because they concentrate the burden of that skewed focus on poor and working-class people. A move every bit as wrong-headed as it is political.

In 2022, the Office for Students announced plans to remove funding for “low quality” courses, which they defined as those where less than 60% of participants go into “good” jobs or further study quickly after graduating. This has led to a number of universities – among them Sheffield Hallam, Cumbria, Roehampton, and UEA – suspending or cancelling Arts and Humanities courses amid budget cuts and spiralling redundancies. The idea seems to be to strongarm universities (with a particular emphasis on non-Russell Group universities) into vocational courses, thereby shrinking at one stroke the pool of contributing talent to the artistic and cultural life of this country to a small group of privileged graduates. Yes, this is a miserable denial of working-class creativity, but it is also monumentally self-defeating: the arts and entertainment industry is one of the few areas of the British economy that can still claim to be thriving. Its reputation and success is, in large part, due to working-class creatives.

We need Birkbeck. We need literature and the arts. I needed it. It is far from perfect, but the level of cultural and intellectual participation I now enjoy, I owe to being able to complete my doctorate at Birkbeck. As a mature student. Around my existing jobs and elder care commitments. This would not have been possible for me at any other academic institution. And that’s important. In that it is important to acknowledge that significant and original contributions to knowledge are lost when we exclude poor and working-class people from educational opportunity. Because when we exclude them, then talent is frustrated and futures are curtailed. It is important because working-class people are as capable and deserving of knowledge, literature, art and culture as our more privileged peers.

But that’s not the whole story. What is happening at Birkbeck is inseparable from arts funding cuts, inside the academy and out, that ensure inequality of access and provision. Elites will always try to marginalise or underfund any cultural activity to such an extent that only those with a vested interest in maintaining the status-quo can afford to participate. And when they do invest, they tend to invest in the kinds of cultural activities that automatically exclude working-class people. For example, literature is underfunded by ACE in proportion to ballet, opera, and theatre. Put simply, as the academy closes its doors on the study of English, there are fewer and fewer outside opportunities to help fill that void.

How do ascribe worth? Can the cultural and intellectual pulse of a country really be reckoned by labour market outcomes? Whose value system is that, and is that a world any of us would seriously want to be a part of? Culture is the medium through which the work of ideology flows. It's also a place – and a language – where those ideologies can be met and challenged. We’re fighting for our right to broach those challenges, and the ability of future generations to think them into being.

Literature is for Working People

by Craig Smith

During lockdown, book sales boomed. Many of us who were forced to work from home found we had an extra couple of hours of free time per day because we weren’t commuting. We read. We watched movies. We binge-watched TV series. Isolation was tough, and we reached for works of imagination to escape our confinement, to bring light relief, to help us understand what was going on in the world.

The English language is fundamental to British culture, and English literature is the English language at its finest. Directly or indirectly, it filters through everything we think and do, and imbues our daily lives with a richness that sometimes we don’t appreciate. When literature matters so much to us as a nation – to our view of ourselves, to the world’s view of us – why would we not encourage students to immerse themselves in its variety and glory, to understand it thoroughly, to carry its message forward? But that is what Birkbeck University is planning to do.

The founding and growth of Birkbeck University – the Mechanics’ Institute – is testimony to a sane and civilised society providing opportunity for working people to engage with the world around them and to better their lot in life. Birkbeck offers opportunity for working people to grow, to challenge themselves, to follow their dreams when their circumstances mean they don’t have the luxury of ditching the day job, when they still need to earn a living.

We would not have been able to continue our studies had it not been for Birkbeck’s unique operating model. We are each in the second year of a two-year part-time MA in Creative Writing. English literature and creative writing go hand in hand. Understanding literature is fundamental to better writing. So we don’t just write, we also read, for the course and for the love of it. We are both from working-class backgrounds, we both work for a living, and it has always been our dream to sit within an ecosystem that revolves around written works of the imagination. Birkbeck allows us to do that.

You don’t have to study English to degree level to enjoy works of literature, but it’s a cornerstone of any worthwhile institution to offer an undergraduate course in the written word of our native language, to offer the opportunity to understand our shared body of literature. It speaks to the aspiration of your student body, of the students you wish to attract, to present English literature as an option. For Birkbeck, of all places, to walk away from English literature, or to downplay it, is to suggest that literature is not for working people. At least, that’s how it feels.

As writers of fiction, we are on a perpetual lookout for the reasons behind human behaviour, for the motivating factors behind a given course of action. We want to think well of the people around us, to search for resolution, for the satisfying ending. We believe in redemption. And so it is with the plight of English teaching at Birkbeck. We have faith that a solution can be reached that allows the English Department to survive and to thrive. But as we are not party to the discussions as to department’s future, all we can do is add our voice to the multitude of people who know that closing the department (or downgrading it, which is tantamount to the same thing) would be an error. English literature sits at the heart of British culture, and Birkbeck needs a thriving English department to support working people who love our language.

Craig Smith is a novelist and poet from Huddersfield. Craig was recently a winner of Poetry Archive Now! Wordview 2022 with his poem, 'The Great British Insurrection'. Other poems have appeared in The North, Atrium, iamb, Writers Rebel, The Interpreters House, among others. Rue Bella published his long poem, 'A Quick Word With A Rock and Roll Later Starter', and Smith/Doorstep published his pamphlet, L.O.V.E. Love. Craig is currently working toward an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. He tweets at @clattermonger.

Fags, booze, weed, and nitrous oxide: a review of Ghost Signs: Poverty and the Pandemic
Wednesday, 25 January 2023 10:33

Fags, booze, weed, and nitrous oxide: a review of Ghost Signs: Poverty and the Pandemic

Written by

Michael Jarvie reviews a book which has just been shortlisted for Parliamentary Book of the Year award.

Stu Hennigan is a senior librarian in Leeds. During the Covid-19 pandemic, he volunteered to deliver food parcels and medicines on behalf of Leeds City Council to vulnerable people throughout the city. Ghost Signs, published by Bluemoose Books in 2022, is his harrowing account of an eventful six months. The book provides a unique inventory of the scale of poverty and deprivation in Leeds, but also explores how the pandemic, with its draconian lockdowns and social distancing measures, ravaged the mental health of those very same people, including Stu and his family. It’s a book that will inevitably draw comparisons with Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier.

It soon becomes clear that some of these people are wary of opening their front door to an unknown man, driving a council-owned van, which means they end up missing out on essential food deliveries. Forty years ago, I would have been part of the same demographic, surviving on only £28 a week in unemployment benefit and living in an attic flat in a shitty area of Birmingham. These are the “underclass”, a classificatory term every bit as dehumanising as the Nazi concept of the Jew as “untermensch”, i.e. lower than human, subhuman. In all such middle class concepts, that which is lower is inevitably inferior, and that which is higher, something to which one must aspire. Lakoff and Johnson have got all that off to a T in their book Metaphors We Live By.

Stu has an eye for detail and explores not only his environment but also the individuals he encounters. Close up, the body, whether male or female, young or old, wiry, muscled, or fat, is a palimpsest, inked, pierced, and sometimes scarred. It might incorporate evidence for years of manual labour, including industrial accidents, or be the site of casual street violence. The inhabitants of these bodies are almost always old before their time. Life expectancy for poor people in this part of the world must be way below the national average. And under the present regime, it can only get worse.

Fags, booze, weed - and nitrous oxide

Fags, booze and weed are the drugs of choice, and evidence of their use is everywhere. Oh, and whippits, those nitrous oxide cartridges that can be found inside cans of whipped cream. But hasn’t drug use always been rife amongst the poor? It’s just that the drugs are different. In my day, it was a blob of yellow Evo-Stik at the bottom of a plastic bag. You wouldn’t have to look very hard to find the same state of affairs in gin-sozzled and opium-addicted Victorian London, or Paris with its cafes full of spaced-out absinthe drinkers. All of them searching for the means with which to create a tawdry paradis artificiel that might temporarily blot out the abject horror of their existence.

There’s really only one time where I’d actually disagree with something Stu has written, and it’s this passage from page 127: “The panic buying early on in the pandemic that left supermarkets looking like they’d been looted was a real sour point. To me, it exemplified the selfishness of certain sections of the middle class in this country…”

In my experience, selfishness is not the exclusive preserve of the middle class. Instead, it’s the genie that Thatcher released. After all, let’s not forget her undisguised contempt for “society” and her emphasis on the primacy of the individual. Speaking to a taxi driver in Darlington during the height of the pandemic, she candidly admitted how she’d bought 200 bog rolls. She was working class, and yet was one of the people whose selfish behaviour directly led to shortages in supermarkets for essential household items such as those very same bog rolls.

Ultimately, the problem with a book like Ghost Signs is that its typical readership comprises people like me. In reality, it should be compulsory reading for everyone who voted Conservative at the last general election, especially the Red Wallers, who gleefully ushered in the reign of King Boris.

Ghost Signs is published by Bluemoose Books and is available here.

In solidarity with journalist and Just Stop Oil protestor, Jan Goodey
Sunday, 15 January 2023 22:49

In solidarity with journalist and Just Stop Oil protestor, Jan Goodey

Written by

I’ve known journalist and lecturer Jan Goodey for many years and was shocked and saddened to learn he had been sentenced last November to a six-month jail term for taking part in one of the Just Stop Oil protests. Jan is a decent man, unassuming and thoughtful, but he is—demonstrably—passionate about environmental issues and the damage that's being done to our planet, as are many of us. It tells us everything about the moral bankruptcy of Tory Britain where idealistic activists are criminalised and temporarily removed from society when they are no threat to anyone.

The judge said that Jan’s conduct—climbing up onto a gantry over a motorway to hang a banner—was "not acceptable in a peaceful and democratic society". But isn’t protest supposed to be a core component of a “democratic society”?

The huge irony here is that our “democratic society” only ever came about precisely because of protest. Our very universal suffrage was achieved through the protests and sacrifices of radicals such as the Levellers, Diggers, Chartists and Suffragettes—all were persecuted and criminalised in their times, but all have long since been historically vindicated as democratic pioneers. I believe in time Jan will also be vindicated, and, I suspect, a lot sooner than his precursors.

Jan undertook a radical act of protest, it was inescapably disruptive, that’s part of the point of protest, but it was peaceful, and did no actual harm to anyone. With our prisons overspilling and in appalling condition, how can it be justified either morally or practically to sentence peaceful protestors to serve jail terms? A key sign of a society that has lost its way morally is when compassionate idealists are criminalised by its legal system.

Below is a poem composed in support of Jan—it is based on the villanelle verse form which repeats the first and third lines of the first verse alternately for each third line of the subsequent four verses and the closing two lines of the four-lined final sixth verse, but here I’ve varied the third lines throughout, so this is a semi-villanelle, or what I will term a ‘villanelle-vague’.

Jan on a Gantry

In solidarity with Jan Goodey, first protestor to be convicted for
'causing a public nuisance' under the draconian 
Police, Crime,
Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act – sentenced to six months in
HMP Belmarsh for climbing a gantry over the M24 to hang a
JUST STOP OIL banner


No place in a peaceful democracy
For peaceful protest, disruptive dissent
& Jan hanging a banner on a gantry.

Radical demurring, recusancy,
Outspokenness, complaint, argument:
No place in a peaceful democracy,

Certainly not a busy motorway—
Where cars career in daily sacrament—
Brought to a standstill by a bannered gantry;

Just as, historically, Winstanley,
John Lilburne, Robin Hood, Samuel Bamford,
Had no place in peaceful democracy,

Nor Levellers, Diggers, Chartists, tree-
Hugging green men, Suffragettes, rent-
Strikers, Unions, & Jan on a gantry

(Just who scooped the protest from Protestant?)—

Heroes of our hard-won rights & liberties
Without whom we’d have no enfranchisement
Nor, in fact, meaningful democracy,
But banners urging OBEY from gantries.

Alan Morrison

The Poppy and the Politics: Remembering the First World War
Friday, 11 November 2022 10:19

The Poppy and the Politics: Remembering the First World War

Written by

Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football tries to untangle the poppy from the political undergrowth 

This weekend, Premier League footballers will be sporting a poppy embroidered into their kits, as they have for several years now. Up and down the divisions, clubs will precede kick off with a scrupulously well-observed minute's silence, if they haven't done so already.

But what precisely is being remembered here? Unlike the Second World War, the First World War's causes and effects have largely been lost in the mists of history. Even the most diligent regime of revision by those preparing for their GCSE History might struggle to come up with a reasonable explanation. The Blackadder version of class division in the trenches together with a mix of superhuman courage and senseless sacrifice fits awkwardly with official versions that cannot bear to admit the latter half of the origins of the poppy myth. 

When Philosophy Football commissioned the renowned illustrator Dan Murrell to come up with an image to combine these varied contradictions, Dan didn't disappoint. He drew a silhouette of those countless hundreds of thousands who in death became a single unknown soldier, with place and date unspecified. The poppy represents not today's far-off commemorations but the bloody carnage to come in a matter of days, if nor hours, and the football in his hands symbolises what he'd rather be doing, away from brutal war at the front.

On Christmas Day 1914 soldiers from both sides did just that – the 'football truce' was a brief but hugely symbolic episode of rank-and-file resistance on both sides to the juggernaut of war which left 22 million dead. He'd rather be playing football but all his mates who would play in his team will soon be dead at Loos, Vimy Ridge, the Somme, Passchendaele – and for what?

IWM Image 624x389

British and German troops meeting in No-Man’s Land during the unofficial truce. (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector). Copyright © Harold Robson/IWM (Q 50719). 

The Christmas Truce game took place on the Western Front, at Pont Rouge. On Christmas Eve 1914, German troops had decorated their frontline with Christmas trees and candles. They sang Stille Nacht, a carol that most of the British troops knew too, as Silent Night. Astonished, they applauded and then joined in with songs of their own. Christmas Day, dawned, the guns are silent. A German NCO advances across No Man's Land carrying a Christmas tree towards the British lines. A British soldier goes to meet him, soon others join him, gifts are exchanged. A football is produced. Caps and helmets for goals. The match ends 3-2 to the Germans.

By lunchtime on Christmas Day the guns had fallen silent on two-thirds of the British sector. More games were played before hostilities recommenced. The fact that football was the means of connection amidst such conflict is the perfect illustration of its centrality to working-class life in Britain, and to a lesser extent mainland Europe, by the early 20th century.

Two and a half years later a very different expression of football's centrality to early twentieth century class culture was at the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916, when Captain Nevill of the East Surreys offered a prize for the first platoon to kick a football up to the enemy trenches:

On through the hail of slaughter,
Where gallant comrades fall,
Where blood is poured like water,
They drive the trickling ball.
The fear of death before them,
Is but an empty name;
True to the land that bore them,
The Surreys played the game.

This was the way a poet writing under the pseudonym 'Touchstone' described for the Daily Mail the 420,000 losses the British Army suffered. A game? Even the most committed militarist might struggle to comprehend this particular emotional response. But such was the iron will at the time of those who backed the war, no questions were asked and no answers were given.

All of this sits rather awkwardly with the twenty-first century status of the poppy. A remembrance that provides little space for why such a war was fought, to what ends. The words of the war poets, most famously Wilfred Owen, almost entirely absent from institutionalised memorializing: 

Sit on the bed. I’m blind, and three parts shell.
Be careful; can’t shake hands now; never shall.
Both arms have mutinied against me,-brutes.
My fingers fidget like ten idle brats.

This was written while Owen served on the frontline with The Manchester Regiment and published posthumously following him being killed in action in November 1918. Of course, remembrance is tinged with the mournful. The minute's silence is an incredibly powerful statement of this, whether observed in silent unison in a crowd of thousands before a football match, or in the quietness of solitary observation of the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, the eleventh month.

Those who pour scorn on such emotions do themselves no favours. But neither do those who embrace the moment to divorce themselves from all critical faculties. The Christmas truce, the verses versus the war, the dashed hopes of those who returned home to look forward to a society fit for heroes and found anything but – if we cannot provide the space for such faultlines in our collective memory then what precisely is the good of that poppy we're wearing?

Further Reading Douglas Newton The Darkest Days : The Truth Behind Britain's Rush to War 1914

The Philosophy Football 1914-18 Remembrance collection is available here.

Poppy s s 2022 1.600

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