Culture Matters

Culture Matters

Culture for All: Why Film Matters
Thursday, 12 May 2022 11:19

Culture for All: Why Film Matters

Published in Films

 As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about why film matters, by Deirdre O'Neill

Why Film Matters

by Deirdre O'Neill

Action films, horror films, romantic comedies, science fiction, documentaries – film plays a big part of our lives. Film matters, not only because it was the most popular cultural art form of the 20th century, but because film connects to so many areas of our lives in so many different ways. Not only in the way we visualise our lives, but the ways in which we understand and communicate them.

One of the wonderful things about film is that it’s a universal language, one that we can all understand. Our relationship with film is one that engages with our sense of who we are and who we might become. Film speaks to us of our dreams and our desires, making us think about who we are, who we don’t want to be and crucially who we might become.

It does this by communicating images and ideas that represent the ‘real world’. We learn about places we have never been to and people we have never met so it’s really important that we understand and engage with what kind of world it is that the films we watch are representing.

Even though Marx and Engels never watched films, they did point out something that is as relevant today as it was when they were writing: the leading or dominant ideas in circulation in society tend to reinforce the power of the ruling class. It follows that the ideas embedded within most of the films we watch serve the interest of the rich and powerful.

They might not do this overtly – rather they do it in subtle ways which, unless we know what to watch for we just take for granted. So….

- women are often represented as dependent on men;

- thirty five year old women are considered too old to play the partners of men in their 50s or even their 60s;

- white men have the most heroic positions 

- middle-class people are smart, intelligent funny and interesting

- working-class people are lazy and not very bright

- the major institutions of law and order and the police will punish the bad guys in the end

- the military are doing a tough but necessary job abroad

- the terrorists tend to be from outside the West

…..and so on. We need to develop an independent and class-specific critical engagement with film in order to develop the tools necessary to identify, through a process of discussion, debate, and critical engagement how cultural artifacts such as film reproduce and legitimise these existing structures of oppression and exploitation. It is crucially important that we are able to critically interrogate dominant images and the ideological concepts embedded in them that often go unchallenged.

Most films at the moment are made by the middle classes. They have most of the jobs behind the camera as directors, producers, editors and technicians, and in front of it as actors. So working-class people very rarely get a look in. This means when working-class life is represented on film it is filtered, literally, through the lens of a middle class who have no experience of working-class life. They have never lived on a council estate, never gone hungry, never had three jobs to survive and never had to use a foodbank. The viewpoints of the middle class and the way in which they think about the working class are therefore embedded in the films they make.

It is difficult for working-class people to get a job in the film industry and it’s not just because we can’t afford to do unpaid internships or that we are not part of the privately educated Oxbridge network that employ each other. It’s also because making sure we don’t tell our own stories is one of the ways that those with both cultural and economic power reproduce, consolidate and hang onto that power.

So, the question is, how do we change this? How do we make sure that we get to tell our own stories? Stories that connect to our experience of work and relationships around our work. Stories which are about our own culture, explore our memories, analyse and develop our politics – where we can collect all the experiences that come together and make us working-class. Just think of the stories we could tell, if given the chance.

Neoliberal capitalism and austerity has led to ever increasing hardship and deprivation for working-class people and the pandemic will be used to increase these levels of deprivation and to curb our freedoms. We need to organise, to fight and to resist – and film can document these struggles and visualise our alternatives.

The other question then is how do we achieve this, and how do we go about making our own films? The answer is participation in a democratic community-based film culture with its own screening spaces and independent forms of distribution and exhibition.

Trade unions and the labour movement generally should be working to provide training and workshops for working-class people, run by working-class people in filmmaking, scriptwriting, acting, and film criticism, so that we can create a working-class film culture that is able to represent us in ways that we can recognise and engage with.

We need to self-organise and we need to make sure we don’t compromise with the dominant model in order to get funding or good reviews.

Filmmaking, like the struggle for a different world, is a collective endeavour. It’s a way of working together to explore and analyse our struggles, our beliefs, our ideas. As a cultural practice film is able to address the issues important to working-class lives by responding to their immediate concerns, building a vision of how a very different society might begin to emerge.

Working-class values, attitudes and experiences are different from those of other classes. Working-class people think differently, have different priorities and share experiences that separate them from the middle and upper classes. It is working-class people who have the unique ability and the undeniable right to create their own narratives, tell their own stories  and to represent themselves.

That’s why film matters – because it will allow us to do that.

Culture for All: Why Poetry Matters
Tuesday, 10 May 2022 10:11

Culture for All: Why Poetry Matters

Published in Poetry

 As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present Fran Lock talking about poetry. Image above: Rag Town Girls Do Poetry, by Steev Burgess

Why Poetry Matters

by Fran Lock

Hello everybody, my name is Fran Lock, and among other things, I am a writer and teacher of poetry. What this means in practice is that I have a lot of conversations with people from all walks of life about how they “don't get”, are bored by, or “can't stand” poetry, and then I do my best to convince them that poetry is in fact relevant, exciting, necessary; even potentially radical. And I generally start by explaining to people that the aversion they feel is understandable, and that it's probably not their fault. It isn't the fault of poetry either.

As with so many other things in life, I blame the Tories. Specifically, I blame successive generations of Tory governments, who have used so-called educational “reforms” to routinise and shrink the teaching of English in schools, producing a loveless conveyorbelt curriculum where students are rewarded for the relentless memorising of disconnected facts, and are really not encouraged to develop any kind of lively conversation with and about literature. Michael Gove did a tremendous amount of damage as Education Secretary in 2013, and I think Ofqual's recent decision to make poetry optional at GCSE level is part of this same ongoing process: of hammering arts education in general, and poetry in particular. And I've taught in all kinds of places, from women's shelters and prisons to universities, and something that has always struck me, and that I think is really telling about what the Tories have done to education in this country, is that while my degree students, who have the highest levels of formal education, are the most knowledgeable with regards to terminology, and to different kinds of poetic technique, and who are maybe “better read” in terms of “the classics”, it's my students who have had the least contact with formal education who are the most excited by and the most original and vivid writers of poetry.

So, when I'm talking to people about why they feel suspicious of or maybe hostile towards poetry, I try to suggest that the attitudes and perceptions we have about it are coloured by the way it has been presented to us. It has been fed to us in this way for a reason, and that is absolutely deliberate and absolutely ideological. I get angry about that because I spent a large part of my own childhood and adolescence believing that poetry wasn't for me; that poetry belonged to some mysterious higher realm called “culture” that was somehow above criticism or reproach, and which had nothing to do with the likes of me. And nobody ever bothered to tell me any different. My ah-ha! moment came when, quite by accident, I came across a recording of the poet Ciaran Carson reading his poem 'Belfast Confetti'. Here was someone like me, who sounded like my friends and family, talking about something that we knew, and something that mattered to us. I realised in that moment that I had been lied to, that I'd been edged and engineered out of something that felt really important. I asked myself who that served, and I'm still asking, still arguing that poetry matters, that it belongs to us.

Poetry, as an art form, is practically tailor-made for those of us who are poor in resources and in time. It does not require specialist tools or training. It is portable and cheap. It can be practised anywhere. Poetry can be short, and memorable. You don't need to spend hours wading through text to arrive at the point. It cuts through bullshit to reach our rawest nerve. In other words, poetry is one of the few cultural activities that working-class people, that prisoners and homeless people, and people living in poverty are able to independently access and produce. It's also one of the few places where working-class voices, accents and grammar are allowed to creep into culture, where it doesn't matter if you're not talking “proper”, where slang and patois and dialect and swearing are all up for grabs. When my students are made aware of this huge toolbox they have at their disposal, they get really energised by poetry; it gives them permission to enter that space, it lets them know that people like us are welcome to the party.

Poetry is such an immediate and intimate thing: it energises and moves people, so it's potentially incredibly powerful both socially and politically. Restricting the access of working-class people to poetry early on in life is all about denying us that power; it is about trying to reabsorb something radical, dangerous, and engaging back into the self-serving myth of middle-class literary production: only posh people make art. Only white, male, classically educated people write poetry.

This tactic, it seems to me, is inseparable from the funding cuts that ensure inequality of both provision and of access. 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, theatre. Poetry is underfunded again with respect to literature. While it might well be true that some free resources and opportunities exist, and that some funding is available, these opportunities are hedged at best, either because they are solely concentrated in Greater London, or because nobody is there to guide young working-class people towards them, or because the process of accessing these opportunities is Byzantine. I've known so many working-class women in particular give up half way through applying for ACE funding because they don't have the time or the energy to spend making sense of a system that seems designed specifically to alienate them

The Tories don't want us writing poetry; they don't want us recognising and reclaiming the spoken word as a source of collective strength; they don't really want us participating in culture at all. Culture is the medium through which the work of ideology flows. It's also a place where those ideologies can be met and challenged. Publishing operations such as Culture Matters, Lumpen Journal, and Proletarian Poetry have really taken up that challenge, to make art and poetry more widely accessible and available. Because we do not need some Oxford posh-boy to tell us what's “good”. We can write about our own lives to, with, and for each other. And there are many fine poets who are publishing through operations like Culture Matters, and Smokestack Books, and Lumpen, who are writing about working-class life and labour with directness and heart, proving that we do have a seat at the table, even if we've had to fight to get it.

Nothing worth having was ever given freely, was it?

Som independents / We are independent
Monday, 09 May 2022 20:55

Som independents / We are independent

Published in Music

Som independents / We are independent

by Xavier I Panades, extracted from Gwrthryfel / Uprising

No necessitem que ens vigilis,
ni que ens suggereixis que fer.
No cal que seguis a damunt nostre,
ni que posis preu a la nostra fe.

El fantasma del meu pare plora:
per les tortures innecessàries.
El fantasma de la meva mare crida:
a seguir lluitant per la nostra vida.

No som més alts, ni més petits,
som un poble que mai decau!
No som ni més negres, ni més blancs,
Som un poble que vivim en pau!

Som independents
del teu centralisme,
dels teus oferiments.

No volem que juguis amb nosaltres!
No volem patir gana!
No volem xiular amb la llengua torta!
No volem nens ignorants!

Som independents,
de les teves guerres,
de les teves almoines.

Amb estat o sense estat,
amb força i sense por,
amb dignitat i serenitat,
sobreviurem la vostra caritat!

Som independents,
de les teves mentides,
de les teves envestides.

Som gent que parlem clar i català!
No us interposeu en els nostres afers,
ens encanta la vida, del porró bevem,
per sempre cridar: som independents!

We are independent!

We don't need you to watch us,
nor do you suggest us what to do.
You don't have to sit on us,
nor to put a price on our faith.

My father's ghost cries:
for unnecessary torture.
My mother's ghost screams:
to keep fighting for our lives.

We are neither taller nor smaller,
We are a people that never decays!
We are neither blacker nor whiter,
We are a people living in peace!

We are independent,
of your centralism,
of your offerings.

We don’t want you to play with us!
We don't want to go hungry!
We don’t want to whistle with a crooked tongue!
We don’t want ignorant kids!

We are independent,
of your wars, of your alms,

With or without status,
with strength and without fear,
with dignity and serenity,
we will survive your charity!

We are independent
of your lies, of your attacks.

We are people who speak clear and Catalan!
Do not interfere in our affairs,
we love life, we drink from the jug,
to forever shout: we are independent!

 
Culture for All: Why Sport Matters
Monday, 09 May 2022 07:32

Culture for All: Why Sport Matters

Published in Sport

As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about why sport matters, by Michael Roberts

Why Sport Matters

by Michael Roberts

Sport is one of the most popular cultural activities in the world. It is essential to our physical, emotional and mental health, and to developing our individual talents, abilities and social skills like friendly competition, co-operation, solidarity and collective, co-ordinated effort. The recent attempt to form a ‘super league’ of top European clubs was a serious threat to these underlying values, a classic example of the way capitalism corrupts and undermines cultural activities that matter so much to us.

But the collapse of the ‘Super League’ project by the billionaire owners of the big clubs is only an interrupted chapter in the story of the commodification of sport into profitable capitalist enterprises, owned and controlled by capital. It is no accident that JP Morgan was the fund manager for the Super League plan – as the bank epitomises the role of global capital in controlling modern sport. And it is no accident that the main drivers for the new league were Real Madrid, a football club dominated in the past by the corrupt Spanish monarchy and Francoism, the fascist wing of Spanish capital.Sport is one of the most popular cultural activities in the world. It is essential to our physical, emotional and mental health, and to developing our individual talents, abilities and social skills like friendly competition, co-operation, solidarity and collective, co-ordinated effort. The recent attempt to form a ‘super league’ of top European clubs was a serious threat to these underlying values, a classic example of the way capitalism corrupts and undermines cultural activities that matter so much to us.

The Super League was going to be a cartel, designed to create a monopoly for the larger football clubs in Europe at the expense of the smaller clubs, and eventually at the expense of the ‘fans’ or followers of these clubs who would soon be paying big subscriptions to watch matches on TV or face high prices to see matches in the stadiums. But then, as I’m sure you know, that was already happening. 

The fuss made about this cartel hides the role of capital itself. It is the same idea when economists talk about the nasty role of monopolies, as though competitive capitalism was fine and equitable and we just need to return to 'free competition'. The reality is that football had already been capitalised: owned and controlled by billionaires, often as their playthings, but increasingly as money-making businesses.  Fans have no say; players and managers follow orders.

So ending this cartel (for now) does not change the reality of the commodification of sport. Sport became a business as early as the development of industrial capitalism in the mid-19th century. Take football. There are about 600 premier league professional players in England, around 4000 professional footballers in England and around 65,000 professional players in the world.  Of course, from the bottom to the top, the inequalities of income or wages for footballers are huge: from one player that earns $1.5m a week to one that cannot live on football wages and needs a second job (the latter of course are the overwhelming majority).  And then there are people who just play for fun, apparently about 250 million association football players in the world.

The inequalities in wages are just the same in other major sports around the world: baseball and American football, cricket and tennis. But the thing about football (soccer) and American baseball is that they are supposed to be the people’s sports. But at some important levels, they have never been ‘people’s sports’. The first is that women have been broadly excluded from playing, until fairly recently. Football was not a people's sport’, but a men's game, played by men and mainly watched by men. Women did not 'do sport' and certainly not football. Women's football has only just got into the wider world in recent decades: women were supposed to stay at home and prepare the meal when the men got back from playing or watching. In the case of cricket, women were expected to make the tea and prepare the sandwiches while their men played on the field.

Also racism was a powerful force in modernised sport. If you were black or Asian, you were excluded from professional sport. For example, it was not until 1947 that American professional baseball teams included a black player. Baseball until then was not just a man’s sport but a white man's sport, particularly where money was involved.

Cricket

Cricket originated in the medieval villages of England and France and was mostly played by rural labourers. But it soon became a 'toff’s sport'. At an organised level it became dominated by the upper class and aristocrats (and still is in England). In England, the professional game was divided between those who were ‘players’ and got paid for playing and those who were ‘gentlemen’, who were so rich that they did not need to be paid.

Of course, modern capitalism got rid of most of this when money talked.  Now cricket has become a global capitalist enterprise, run by Indian billionaires employing cricket mercenaries from around the world in their lucrative competitions. The Super League football cartel already operates in cricket in India, while the old amateur leagues founder in the face of billionaire capital. In England cricket is hardly played any more in state schools and professional players are almost completely drawn from private schools or from cricket ‘families’. The working-class players of Yorkshire and Lancashire's industrial areas have mostly disappeared.  And although there are many Asian players at amateur club level, there are few in the professional game.

Tennis

Tennis was never a people’s sport. It was invented by medieval aristocrats and played in the palaces of kings and nobles as a pastime. Tennis maintained its amateur status right into the late 20th century because it was an upper-class activity. Working-class English tennis hero, Fred Perry, son of a cotton spinner from Lancashire, three times Wimbledon champion and winner of eight ‘grand slams’, was never recognised by the authorities because he turned professional to make a living. Professionalism in tennis eventually triumphed when capitalism saw the profits that could be made in the sport. Now tennis is yet another globalised operation run by billionaire sponsors, based on an intense global rat race for players to get their rankings and earnings. 

Cycling

Cycling might be considered a people's sport, as multi-millions cycle every day. But while millions cycle every weekend for pleasure, professional sport has become yet another commercial product controlled by billionaire sponsors and riddled with drug use, corruption and race-fixing, as we have learned from the story of Lance Armstrong.

Rugby

Rugby was a toffs’ sport, on the whole, although in the mining valleys of Wales it gained adherence from local communities as a people’s sport – for men only. Otherwise, it was the main sport of farmers in the richer areas of England, France and the colonial countries of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – and in the private schools and clubs of the upper classes. Rugby League was a development in the working-class areas in the north of England and was formed professionally so that working-class players could be paid – something frowned upon by the Rugby Union authorities. The irony is that capital eventually made rugby union go professional and that is where the money is now, and rugby league is the poor relative.

Baseball

The people’s game of baseball in America was brought to the new continent by immigrants playing older bat and ball games in England.   But it too has been totally commercialised in 'super league franchises'. American football was never really a working-class sport, but came from the Ivy League colleges of the rich, like rugby in the UK. Now working-class kids with sporting talent desperately try to get scholarships in football, tennis and basketball as a stepping-stone to riches of the professional leagues – and of course, only a tiny minority ever make it, despite huge sacrifices by everyone.

Football

Football was a truly working-class sport in Europe. It was first played by rural labourers in villages and then workers in industrial cities. It was mostly played for little or no money, and it was followed by working-class men (and some women). For many working-class people with talent it was a way out of poverty, just as boxing had been also. But capital took it over in the last 150 years or so. Now football is a business run by billionaires for their enjoyment and funded increasingly by global capital. Football clubs now have shareholders and are quoted on the stock exchanges.

So the Super League saga is only the latest chapter in the commodification by capitalism of sport. What the story of football and other sports tells us is that football cannot become a people's sport again under capitalism. To achieve that requires that stadiums and clubs should be in public ownership and that clubs should have members who can democratically decide their activities. Sport should not be funded by capital. Players should be employed on reasonable wages, like any other job. Private capital investment in sport and running it for profit must be replaced by a real people's sport, run by the people for the people. Sport matters too much to us to be ruined by capitalism.

The implementation of this kind of approach, this kind of cultural democracy, would of course be difficult to achieve on its own. It could only happen as part of a wider programme of public ownership and democratic control of the other cultural activities in this series of films, and as part of a wider democratisation of ownership and control of the economy and society in general. 

Gwrthryfel / Uprising: An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Wales
Friday, 06 May 2022 14:41

Gwrthryfel / Uprising: An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Wales

Published in Books

Gwrthryfel / Uprising takes us on a journey to the heart of Cymru. Edited by Merthyr writer Mike Jenkins, co-editor of ‘Red Poets’ magazine, with artwork by Gus Payne, this ambitious anthology of radical poetry explores Cymru’s history, hardships, rebellions and resistances. The book is sponsored by Merthyr Trades Council, the GMB union, and Left Unity Cymru.

It opens with three poems directly about the 1831 Rising, ‘an extremely significant working-class revolt” according to Professor Gwyn A. Williams. A range of historical and current themes are covered in the anthology, by eighty poets including Kitty Jay, Phil Howells, Malcolm Llywelyn, Rebecca Lowe, Alun Rees, Laura Wainwright, John Williams, and many others. There are also a number of poems in Welsh by renowned poets such as Ifor ap Glyn and Menna Elfyn.

It is an anthology of and for our troubled times.

Here, rebellious poets draw from that common history, common culture, and common desire to speak truth to the world, showing that we, the people of Wales, y werin Gymreig, have the fire of dragons in our words. Through these words the reader is taken from coal mines to political discourse, from coronavirus to historic heroes, from mountains to valleys, through towns, villages and cities. Words dug from mines, hewn from quarries, herded from hillsides and forged from furnaces—here be dragons.

Here are 21st century bards using the ancient magic of poetry to bring home the fight—the fight against imperialism, against injustice, against discrimination. Not just in Cymru, but the world over.

Why? Because an injury to one is an injury to all / un yn dioddef, pawb yn dioddef.

                                                                                              — from the Foreword by Peter Jones

Gwrthryfel / Uprising, An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Wales, edited by Mike Jenkins, £12 inc. p. and p., 180pps., 4 colour illustrations, ISBN 978-1-912710-48-5. 

Gwrthryfel / Uprising: An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Wales
Friday, 06 May 2022 14:38

Gwrthryfel / Uprising: An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Wales

Published in Poetry

Gwrthryfel / Uprising takes us on a journey to the heart of Cymru. Edited by Merthyr writer Mike Jenkins, co-editor of ‘Red Poets’ magazine, with artwork by Gus Payne, this ambitious anthology of radical poetry explores Cymru’s history, hardships, rebellions and resistances. The book is sponsored by Merthyr Trades Council, the GMB union, and Left Unity Cymru.

It opens with three poems directly about the 1831 Rising, ‘an extremely significant working-class revolt” according to Professor Gwyn A. Williams. A range of historical and current themes are covered in the anthology, by eighty poets including Kitty Jay, Phil Howells, Malcolm Llywelyn, Rebecca Lowe, Alun Rees, Laura Wainwright, John Williams, and many others. There are also a number of poems in Welsh by renowned poets such as Ifor ap Glyn and Menna Elfyn.

It is an anthology of and for our troubled times.

Here, rebellious poets draw from that common history, common culture, and common desire to speak truth to the world, showing that we, the people of Wales, y werin Gymreig, have the fire of dragons in our words. Through these words the reader is taken from coal mines to political discourse, from coronavirus to historic heroes, from mountains to valleys, through towns, villages and cities. Words dug from mines, hewn from quarries, herded from hillsides and forged from furnaces—here be dragons.

Here are 21st century bards using the ancient magic of poetry to bring home the fight—the fight against imperialism, against injustice, against discrimination. Not just in Cymru, but the world over.

Why? Because an injury to one is an injury to all / un yn dioddef, pawb yn dioddef.

                                                                                              — from the Foreword by Peter Jones

Gwrthryfel / Uprising: An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Wales, edited by Mike Jenkins, £12 inc. p. and p., 180pps., 4 colour illustrations, ISBN 978-1-912710-48-5. 

 

Culture For All: Why Theatre Matters
Monday, 18 April 2022 19:14

Culture For All: Why Theatre Matters

Published in Theatre

As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about why theatre matters, by Ed Edwards

Why Theatre Matters

by Ed Edwards

Like every sector of society over the 30 years since the disastrous rise of Thatcherism and the economic devastation it has brought to Britain, culture has taken a big hit. Ideas that years ago seemed insanely right wing are now considered normal, such as cutting social security to the point where tens of thousands are losing their shelter and people with serious diseases are walking miles to food banks on a daily basis. While the richest increase their income and pay no tax, the rest of us face insecurity and misery.

And while this disaster unfolds the means of communication are getting further and further out of reach of the ordinary people. Lies and deceit are everywhere. The free press, which should probably be called “the very expensive press” based on what they pay Fleet Street hacks, seems more like a pack of attack dogs chewing up truth, while the few sane voices are drowned in the sea of disinformation. It seems to me, after many years working as a professional script writer that our culture has been as badly deformed by the dictates of The Big Dollar as socialist art and culture was under Stalinism. Instead of asking how do we please the censor, a modern TV producer has to ask: how to we make money out of this?

Yet in the middle of all this, British theatre – before lockdown of course – and hopefully again after lock down – has remained something of an oasis in the cultural desert. Rather than sanitised, or frankly stupid entertainment, or glittery distortions and fantasies, theatre has remained a place where audiences can often see work that tells the truth, or explores alternative views and sometimes sticks two fingers up at the system. I’m not talking about the array of musicals here, which have sprung up these last couple of decades, some of which are undoubtedly very entertaining, but which usually aspire to no more than to become billion dollar shows. I’m talking about struggling local theatres and travelling theatre companies, often run by people who are struggling economically and will probably one day have to leave the industry to earn money somehow, somewhere else, but are still for now clinging to the dream of a better life and a better society.

Most of these theatre groups and buildings are funded out of public money. They somehow manage to cling to the notion that our cultural life matters for reasons other than profit making, that truthful words can change the world and that the airing of radical and different views is a vital part of our lives. And yes, you need money to make a show that can enter this realm of debate and feeling – and even ecstasy – but you need a hell of a lot less than you do to make a Netflix show, or a movie, or a billion dollar musical. So somehow, the tradition lives on. Yes theatre struggles to publicise itself, yes a lot of it happens in London, yes some of it is “up itself”, but there’s a lot of amazing theatre out there still all over the country and if you look for it you will find it. Theatre can still turn your world upside down. It can change the life of the young, as it did mine.

I’ve seen fantastically entertaining and moving plays in recent years about child abuse, zero hours contracts and casualisation. About racism, domestic violence, prisons, crime, foreign policy disasters, corruption, immigration, pollution and war. I myself wrote a play called The Political History of Smack and Crack that made the link between the advent of Thatcherism, the 1981 inner city riots that see their fortieth anniversary this year and the massive heroin epidemic that followed in its wake. Sounds heavy, yes? Actually it was a wild comedy that still made people cry at the end.

Make no mistake about it. The pandemic will give the current government a great big excuse to continue their ravenous eternal austerity drive. They have every intention of cutting deeper and deeper into the money they currently pay to every sector and will use every device to divide us against one another. Every penny they cut will go to pay off the billionaires who will use the disaster to continue their takeover of everything. They will say, “How can you expect us to pay for grassroots football, or TV licences for the elderly, or theatre when we’re having to make “tough decisions” like cutting disabled benefits and closing hospitals.

The real truth is there is more than enough out there to go around. They don’t need to cut a thing. All the debts can be paid by collecting due taxes off the corporations that are talking over everything and especially the means of communications – plus a little more on income tax. It’s actually very simple. But the people who control the airwaves would have you believe there isn’t. We have to stand together to protect every inch of ground against those that would tear it out from under our feet.

We have to fight to keep theatre relevant. To let people in who are currently shut out. We have to fight to make work that challenges an increasingly - and I don't know what else to call it - fascistic system.

In fact, I’m going to write a play about this!

 

Culture for All: Why Art Matters
Monday, 18 April 2022 19:08

Culture for All: Why Art Matters

Published in Visual Arts

 As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about visual art, written by John Molyneux. Image above: Käthe Kollwitz, Tower of Mothers, 1937/1938.

 

Culture for All: Why Religion Matters
Friday, 15 April 2022 09:03

Culture for All: Why Religion Matters

Published in Religion

As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about religion, written by James Crossley. 

Why Religion Matters

by James Crossley

Religious ideas have been central to human culture and society for thousands of years. They have been the inspiration behind art, architecture, and epic literature from the Bible to the Qur’an, from Homer’s Odyssey to Icelandic sagas.

Whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we agree with them or not, religious ideas have influenced systems of morality and our very understandings of life and death.

Traditional expressions of religion are still with us. Today, people will experience religious buildings and ceremonies at weddings and funerals—or even when visiting a historic town. But even in twenty-first-century Britain where church attendance is in years long decline, religious-related ideas remain widespread, such as in beliefs in the afterlife, guardian angels, horoscopes, or alternative spiritualities. Many popular sayings in English are from the Bible. Think of ‘eye for an eye’, ‘love thy neighbour’, Good Samaritan, ‘the blind leading the blind’, ‘cast the first stone’, ‘eat drink and be merry’, ‘writing on the wall’, and many more.

We all know that religion has justified acts of bigotry and even extreme brutality. Even to this day, we only need think of groups like ISIS, American presidents going to war with the enthusiastic backing of Christian fundamentalists, or far right attacks on Muslims on the basis of their religion supposedly being incompatible with the values of a supposedly Christian country.

In this country, the medieval church justified the social hierarchy, class relations, and oppression with reference to God, theology, and the Bible. This has even been updated to be relevant for today’s ruling class—the austerity measures under David Cameron’s governments were justified with reference to a Thatcherite reading of the Bible in favour of charity rather than a strong welfare state. 

Liberatiuon Theology and revolutionary change

But religion has also inspired reactions against the ruling class. Liberation Theology in Latin America emerged in opposition to American imperialism where religion and the interests of workers and peasants has gone hand-in-hand and where priests have even been murdered for taking a stand.

Radical traditions can be found arguably in any religious tradition, particularly when attacking landowners and the wealthy, demanding care for the poorest in society, and providing a community as protection for the individual. These common ideas across religious traditions can be taken not only in reformist directions but used to justify more revolutionary change. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism (and no doubt many more) have long traditions noting the connections between their teachings and Marxism or socialism—sometimes to the point that they are seen as one and the same thing.

And while religious capitalists preach a gospel of wealth being as a result of hard work and a sign of being blessed by God, religion has simultaneously provided opposition to this fantasy by also being used on the side of the workers. The rise of the labour movement in Britain owed much to Christian and Jewish socialists with their traditions of combatting poverty, homelessness, and deprivation and a hope for a transformed world sometimes labelled a New Jerusalem.

And that religion has been part of the labour movement should be no surprise given our national history where religion has been integral to any number of revolutionary movements. Think, for instance, of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 inspired by ideas from the Bible about social equality and a time when all things would be shared in common. Or think of the English Revolution of the seventeenth century and the advancements made in democratic thought and visionary ideas of a better future by religious figures from outside the established church.

Religion isn’t automatically good or bad, pro- or anti-worker, revolutionary or reactionary, any more than film or literature are. But it can be all these things because it is an integral part of human culture and society, a shared language.

'Religion is the opium of the people'

Karl Marx got religion right, though maybe not in the way many people think. Marx famously claimed that religion is ‘the opium of the people’. This is popularly understood as an outright attack on religion as manipulation. But if we read the fuller version of the saying we see that Marx knew how complicated religion could be: ‘The wretchedness of religion,’ he stressed, ‘is at once an expression of and protest against real wretchedness. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’

This is why even some atheists have embraced the more revolutionary parts of religion as a way of understanding what a better world would look like and how to achieve it. People like William Morris—who had long given up his faith by the time he was active in politics—saw the values of solidarity, community, and pride in work emerging from our shared religious heritage, ideas which should not be lost and could now challenge and help overthrow the uncaring individualism of capitalism. We should not underestimate the appeal of these values in an era when loneliness has thrived as a consequence of contemporary capitalism.

In everyday practices we see the connections made between non-religious and religious people—campaigning on housing, welfare, and poverty regularly involves people from churches and mosques working alongside agnostics and atheists. No matter how their values are personally justified, the reason why such people can work together is that they clearly do have shared beliefs, goals, and concerns about the devastation caused by a class-ridden society.

People from whatever tradition who interpret their religion in such ways—whether committed members of a radical religious community or casual believer—are potentially part of any response to a heartless world as much as agnostics and atheists who likewise want to overturn class oppression. This should not mean accepting any views—reactionary views must be challenged, religious or otherwise. And the labour movement cannot promote this or that religion and will remain central in opposing ongoing imperialist and capitalist versions of religion. But the trade unions and the labour movement are now the main custodians of those inherited and shared values of solidarity and community which will one day transform the world.  

Culture for All: Why Jazz Matters
Monday, 11 April 2022 12:01

Culture for All: Why Jazz Matters

Published in Music

 As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about jazz written by Chris Searle, with voiceover provided by Mike Quille. 

Why Jazz Matters

by Chris Searle

I grew up in the skiffle and trad era of the 1950s, when the songs and sounds of Southern black Americans and white radicals like Woody Guthrie became almost mainstream. One of my favourites was the Ken Colyer band. Colyer was a merchant seaman who had jumped ship in New Orleans and played his trumpet there, with its finest musicians. His experiences of virtual apartheid in the city and the racist barriers facing his beloved musicians increased his radicalism, and he and his band marched to Aldermaston on giant demonstrations, protesting against nuclear weapons.

Such experiences taught me that jazz and the blues was the music of black working people, and there was no separation between music and ordinary working life. Songs like King Oliver's 'Working Man's Blues', Freddie Keppard's 'Stockyards Strut', Louis Armstrong's 'Coal Cart Blues', Duke Ellington's 'Stevedore Stomp', Bessie Smith's 'Washwoman's Blues' and Clara Smith's 'Strugglin' Woman's Blues' encompassed a world of work, hardship and struggle. The depth of their poetry of sound and word made me realise that this music was about the real world, and the musicians' powerful quest to humanise and improve it.

I listened to the early records of Ellington, and his radicalism and condemnation of Jim Crow racism in works like 'Jump for Joy' or 'Across the Track Blues'. There were also performances like his trumpeter Rex Stewart playing his tune 'Menelik', a compelling protest against the invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini's Italian fascists.

I also followed the big band genius Count Basie and heard his expose of Southern racism in his 'It's the Same Old South', or his union with Paul Robeson singing 'King Joe', a 1941 praisesong to another great black boxer, Joe Louis. A parallel consciousness was revealed in the performance of Billie Holiday, who had sung with the Basie Orchestra. When I heard her singing the seethingly angry anti-lynching protest song 'Strange Fruit', accompanied by the trumpeter and Marxist Frankie Newton, it became even clearer that jazz was at the very centre of black people’s political protests.

This continued with musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and the great drummer Max Roach, whose records embraced Civil Rights protest and the cry for racial justice. His 1960 album 'We Insist! The Freedom Now Suite', with the sleeve photograph of a group of black activists desegregating a Southern diner, was emblematic of Roach's proud music.

During the 1960s and 1970s the Civil Rights Movement cut a path right through jazz, as dozens of tunes and albums supported and evoked the relentless campaigning. They included

-        Dolphy's excruciating solo on Kurt Weill's 'Alabama Song' on the 1964 Sextet of Orchestra U.S.A. album;

-        trumpeter Blue Mitchell's 'March on Selma' on his 'Down With It!' album of 1965;

-        bassist Charles Mingus’ burlesque 'Fables of Faubus', which lampooned Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas, who, with members of the National Guard had blocked the entry of nine black children to Central High School, Little Rock;

-        John Coltrane's 'Alabama', from his quartet album 'Live at Birdland', mourned the racist murder of four schoolgirls, blown up in their Birmingham church as they prepared for Sunday School.

Mingus' contemporary, saxophonist Archie Shepp, is another dedicated musical revolutionary. Albums like 'Fire Music', 'On this Night' and 'Attica Blues' of 1972  which included his epochal 'Blues for Brother George Jackson' fused insurgent jazz aspirations and political struggle, often with incendiary vocals:

Rise up you starved and toiling masses
My brothers, sisters all.
We cannot fail, justice is our avenging angel, 
All hail the bird of truth.
Come soon that day
When slaves break their chains,
And the worker's voice resounds.
Give back the valleys, steppes and plains,
They are mine! They are mine!

Shepp's internationalism was echoed in the music of Carla Bley and bassist Charlie Haden, who jointly formed the Liberation Music Orchestra in 1969. They fused Civil Rights anthems with songs from the Spanish Civil War, a praise-tune to Che Guevara, and Ornette Coleman's lament for the children of Vietnam, 'War Orphans'.

Their track 'Circus '68 '69' satirised the Democratic Party congress of 1968, and its support for the war in Vietnam. Successive L.M.O. albums spread out to support for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua with Haden's tune 'Sandino', their championing of South Africa's liberation from apartheid with their version of 'Nkosi Sikelel'i Afrika', their solidarity with the Portuguese Revolution in 1974 with 'Grandola Vila Morena' and the people of El Salvador in 'The Ballad of the Fallen'.

In the sixties many tunes of protest against the war were recorded by jazz musicians. The great trumpeter Freddie Hubbard recorded an entire album memorialising the fallen of the massacred Vietnamese village of My Lai in the astonishing sounds of his suite 'Sing Me a Song Of Songmy'.

While this musical militancy was at the centre of U.S. jazz, in South Africa the music had taken root with new forms and folk genres in the townships. Outstanding musicians like altoist Kippie Moeketsi, trumpeter Hugh Masekela and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim developed a powerfully African version of the music, while apartheid forced many conscious and brilliant artistes to become musical refugees.

Now, as I listen to the new generations of jazz musicians, transformed by the ever-growing participation of superb women virtuosi, I hear new human power, democratic intent and revolutionary configurations of sound. In their performances they embrace the issues and struggles of all of us living in the real world, and their music seeks to find creative, radical and humane answers.

I leave it to the words of great music-maker Charlie Haden, writing in the sleeve notes of the first Liberation Music Orchestra album of 1969:

This music is dedicated to creating a better world; a world without war and killing; without poverty and exploitation. We hope to see a new society of enlightenment and wisdom where creative thought becomes the most dominant force in all people's lives.

Jazz is real music about real life: that’s why jazz matters.

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