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Monday, 11 February 2019
Sunday, 10 February 2019
Saturday, 13 October 2018
Saturday morning with a new edition of the LRB, a pot of coffee and no dog-walking duties: pure comfort.
My work for the week is complete, my folders organised for a couple of hours’ work on Monday, so that I am ready for teaching on Tuesday. I can forget work for two days. Amanda is meeting a friend to walk Tia, so I have settled in my office chair, logged in to the Naxos muxic library with my Isle of Wight Library card, and have enjoyed an hour and a half of reading.
As often happens, although nothing leapt out at me from the cover of the current edition of the review, every article I’ve read so far has been engaging. The opener is a review of Bob Woodward’s recent book on the chaos of Trump’s presidency, Fear: Trump in the Whitehouse. It is difficult to know what there is to be said about Trump’s reign of confusion and hatred that has not already become cliché. Even Woodward’s book has been so widely reviewed, trumpeted and quoted in the month since its publication that I feel I have already read it. David Runciman, in reviewing it, picks on the idea of office politics; the bickering of the mundanely selfish, and observes the extent to which the current American administration has demeaned the role of government in the United States.
Sure…all workplaces contain their share of plots and vendettas, backstabbers and arse-lickers, people on the way up and all the ones they’ve trampled on to get there. But actual politics is about more than that: the power it brings extends well beyond the immediate working environment…
Except, he concludes, in the reign of the great orange pastiche, it doesn’t. Trump does not understand the forces he is supposed to participate in and does not care. His only tools of government are extemporised pronouncement, self-acclamation and hiring-and-firing. He has reduced government to something less, but we are all, Runciman included, struggling to find the correct image to explain the mess.
I had a strong sense that Trump reminded me of someone I had seen regularly on TV, but it wasn’t TV’s Donald Trump. Then I got it. The working environment this White House brings to mind is a reality show that displays a deeper level of truth by being entirely unreal. Woodward’s book reads more than anything like a mockumentary, and the person Trump most resembles is David Brent from The Office. He has the grating inadequacy, the knee-jerk nastiness, the comical self-delusion. But he also has something of the pathos.
The letters pages of the LRB are a slow-burn enthusiasm. I used to skip them, feeling that any pleasure they offered was of the voyeuristic, petty sort experienced by venturing below the line on online news websites. However, they are curated by the editors and are, as a result, always relevant to a regular reader of the publication.
That is not to say that a taste for pettiness goes long unrewarded. This issue, there is a further development – a reply to a reply – in the delightful feud between Rhodri Lewis, author of Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, and Michael Dobson, who wrote an eviscerating review of that book in the LRB of September 13th. The editors of the paper are wise; they let these academic spats blossom for just long enough for both sides to get a few digs in and then draw a veil over them, so I suspect Dobson’s current letter will be the final say. He has used it well. Taste the vinegar:
Lewis closes by observing that ‘on two or perhaps three occasions I have been seated in close proximity to Dobson at the theatre,’ and he is generous enough to speculate that my apparent obliviousness of his presence may have been feigned out of politeness. I am sorry to have to report that my obliviousness was merely genuine. However, now that I have read Lewis’s letter and his book and seen his image on a dust jacket, it will be possible for me to ignore him in future every bit as politely as he could wish.
Or, to put it another way: “That’s you, that is.”
Pleasurable as this is, there are several serious letters in this issue that extend the topics of recent articles without descending into vitriol, erudite as that vitriol is. In particular, I was interested in the letter from Steve Balogh about the article Neanderthals, Denisovans and Modern Humans, by Steven Mithen from 13th September, which reviewed Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the new science of the human past, by David Reich. The original review had made an impact on me because of the force with which it made the case that racial distinctions between humans are scientifically meaningless, and the stress that modern genetic researchers are laying on this argument. Biology has a dark history of -sometimes deliberate; sometimes incidental- racist interpretation. Now, even well-intentioned work such as Reich’s is laid open to examination in moral and social, as well as scientific lights:
Earlier this year, Buzzfeed published an open letter signed by 67 scientists and scholars in the social sciences, law and humanities about Reich’s treatment of race…The signatories recognise ‘the existence of geographically based genetic variations in our species’, but argue that ‘such variation is not consistent with biological definitions of race.’ Their position is not that human populations ‘have no biological attributes in common’, but that ‘the meaning and significance of the groups is produced through social interventions.’
The article left me with a view of a much more varied and sunny history of human and proto-human interraction, in which the boundaries of species definition are less sharp than we might imagine: an analogue to the answers we all wish racial absolutists would learn about racial definitions. However, this, according to Balogh, might be a misinterpretation. I quote his letter in full:
Steven Mithen steps carefully around the issue of the fecundity of the offspring produced by couplings between ancestral hominin species (LRB, 13 September). The initial sequencing of Neanderthal DNA was of mitochondrial DNA, which is passed only from mother to daughter. It proved to be entirely distinct from that of Homo sapiens: there is today no one on earth whose mitochondria comes from a female Neanderthal ancestor. This means that interbreeding produced fertile offspring only through mating between Neanderthal males and Sapiens females. Subsequent analysis of autosomal DNA showed that the Neanderthal Y chromosome went extinct as well. This means that of the hybrids, only the females were fertile.
The implications are clear: relations between the two populations must have been difficult.
Nevertheless, the developments in DNA archeology are rapid and fascinating. It is an area of study with which I want to keep up. We are a long way from truly understanding what it is to be human, and this new technology has a lot to teach us and a potential for misuse of which we need to beware.
It’s all about race, and its underlying impulse, hierarchicalism. All the mess of Trump’s misrule, and the broader darkness of capitalist inequality, come back to the separation of humanity into groups enjoying legitimacy and dominance and others excluded from that illusory social fortress. Two very different articles highlight this. The first is an account by Thomas Laqueur of a tour of Montgomery, Alabama, focussed upon the new Legacy Museum, a project of the Equal Justice Initiative. The second is a short, coldly angry article by Francis FitzGibbon about the destructive effect of austerity-led misrule over the U.K. justice system, of which, more later.
The Legacy Museum catalogues the scale of the horror of slavery, both when it was the basis of the U.S. economy in a legal framework, and in its reinvention as an extralegal economic structure, skirting the boundaries of slavery’s abolition. I recommend clicking on the link in the previous paragraph. On its home page, there is this:
The Story: Slavery Evolved. To justify the brutal, dehumanizing institution of slavery in America, its advocates created a myth of racial difference. Stereotypes and false characterizations of black people were created to defend their permanent enslavement as “most necessary to the well-being of the negro” – an act of kindness that reinforced white supremacy. The formal abolition of slavery did nothing to overcome the harmful ideas created to defend it, and so slavery did not end: it evolved.
Lynchings served as the enforcement arm of a parallel state in the U.S., and, in a way, they still do, although that parallel state now has one of its most enthusiastic denizens in charge of the greater nation. The sheer scale of the terror is dizzying: 150 deaths in a particular incident (more people than died on Kristellnacht), three a week through the 1890s and one a week or more for decade after decade, and well into the civil rights era. But it is the deliberateness of this sustained failure to concede the wrongness of one racial identity’s power over another that repeatedly shocked me throughout Laqeur’s article:
Lynching – charivari at its most violent, a murderous popular enforcement of majority community values – has nowhere else in the world been employed for as long or as often as in the United States. There are incidences of it in some Central American countries with weak governments; it is now on the rise in India. But it is indigenous here. Before the Civil War whites were the primary victims, especially but not exclusively in the relatively lawless west. After it, close to 75 per cent of lynchings were in the deep South; more than 90 per cent of the victims were black…But the story of African Americans constitutes a special case. No other post-slave society turned to terror lynching to maintain white racial dominance.
And they were horrible murders, as well: the atavistic desire to make the outsider suffer and to revel in his, or her, suffering.
In a 1909 article called ‘Lynching, Our National Crime’, Ida B. Wells identified another, unassimilable strangeness: ‘No other nation, civilised or savage, burns its criminals,’ she writes. ‘Only under that Stars and Stripes is the human holocaust possible.’ Europe had not seen public burnings since the Spanish Inquisition and the burning of heretics after the Reformation. Racial terror was more than instrumental: the hundreds of carnivalesque burnings and hangings were ritually constitutive of the white South, a holocaust in its Old Testament sense. Lynchings were sometimes responses to primitive fears of the sort we usually connect to the early modern European witchcraft trials and medieval pogroms: Charlotte Harris was lynched in Rockingham County, Virginia ‘after a white man’s barn burned down’; three people were lynched because the white family for whom they were working claimed to have been poisoned; seven black people were lynched near Screamer, Alabama for drinking from a white person’s well.
There was always a pretext for the random murder of black people, then as now; often spurious sexual accusations, but, among the many other lies, rejection of a business offer or trying to vote seem to pierce the crazed patina of pseudo-moral outrage of the murderers, just as traffic stops by modern, poorly-trained and heavily armed police forces make us see through the lying generalisations about black American criminality. We should not believe, however, that these pretences were (or are) anything other than rationales for power, because the murderers didn’t (and don’t). They knew (and know) what they were (and are) doing.
The so-called Wilmington Insurrection was, in fact, a coup; whites, furious at the victory of a mixed-race coalition in a local election, started a rampage. At least thirty blacks – the EJI puts the number at sixty – were murdered. ‘North Carolina is a white man’s state and white men will rule it,’ the local paper announced. ‘No other party will ever dare to attempt to establish negro rule here.’
The rape pretext, like all the others, can be linked to slavery: a metonym for the white fear of blacks in revolt. In her 1911 memoirs, Rebecca Latimer Felton, a leading Southern advocate of women’s rights but an inveterate racist, made the link blindingly obvious: ‘Southern fathers and husbands’, she wrote, remembered the fear of slave insurrections during the Civil War, and were ‘desperate as to remedies’. ‘It is the secret of lynching instead of a legal remedy. It was “born in the blood and bred in the bone”, and a resultant of domestic slavery in the Southern states.’
The other aspect of this terror-dominance is the misuse of formal legal structures to embed inequality. While the U.S. has seen a steady decline in overall crime over several generations, the imprisonment of black men has become its own holocaust. Neither is this a new phenomenon.
The museum shows how the Black Codes passed by Southern states after the end of the Civil War to restrict the occupations, movements and wages of former slaves led to the rise of incarceration of blacks for petty crimes, partly as a result of their inability to pay fines for small infractions. It also documents the advent of black convict leasing, when prisoners were hired out to provide labour to private companies. It is not hard to see the present in that past, and some of the continuities are almost parodic. The notorious 19th-century Louisiana State Penitentiary is known as Angola after the sugar plantation on the same site which was worked by slaves before the Civil War; after the war it remained a sugar plantation but was worked instead by black convict labour. Those not needed on the plantation were hired out elsewhere. But unlike expensive privately owned slaves whose lives mattered, leased convicts were disposable. In bad years the death rate among leased prisoners was roughly equivalent to that in the labour camp part of Auschwitz.
The final article I read this morning, and the one that made me put down the LRB and decide to spend another morning blogging, was a Short Cuts piece by Francis FitzGibbon on the deliberate, catastrophic dismantling of public justice funding in the U.K. When I stopped working (as a teacher) in the criminal justice system, in 2013, the prison system was at something of a high point. Much was wrong with it still, of course, and the creeping privatisation bode ill for the future. However, the generation of prison officers whose attitudes had been formed in the anarchy and violence of the 1980s (known within the service as ‘the dinosaurs’) had, by and large, been removed, or been sidelined, to be replaced by educated, professionalised officers of commitment and understanding. Suicide, self-harm, violence towards officers and other prisoners, and even reoffending across all types of crime were as low as they had ever been. While Disney had made an expression of interest in the next round of privatisations, and G4s and Serco were defying their incompetence to hoover up more and more of the funds available to prisons, the New Labour government, for all its varied and manifest failings, had managed to keep a lid on the U.S. style marketisation of prisons in this country, albeit a shaky one.
Today, five years later, we are in a state that is probably as bad as the worst period of the eighties, although, with the collapse of principled journalism, you would hardly know it. Prison unrest and assaults against staff; suicide rates that indicate it is becoming a tolerated norm for prisons to suffer regular self-slayings; staffing levels that make the delivery of even basic safety, let alone meaningful activity serving towards rehabilitation a wistful memory: the horror mounts up, virtually ignored by society at large.
Unusually, though, in this political and social disaster, there is a clear culprit. I have been amazed by the continuing power of a particular Tory Minister: Chris Grayling. He is a base, incompetent ideologue, with his eyes firmly set upon the dismantlement of a working U.K. FitzGibbon, focussing upon the effects his criminal uselessness have had upon the courts system, more than on prisons, has this to say about his tenure as ‘Justice Minister’.
Criminal justice has long been a sandpit for policy-makers, with the political imperative being always to appear ‘tough on crime’. It would be unfair to blame one man for the present state of affairs, but for casual ineptitude no cabinet minister comes close to Chris Grayling, lord chancellor and justice secretary between 2012 and 2015…Prison budgets have been cut by about 30 per cent. Grayling stopped prisoners receiving books. He cut the numbers of prison officers. He hived a large part of the probation service off to private companies, several of which have performed poorly and have had to be saved from going bust by the taxpayer. His legacy is the violence and anarchy that reigns in many prisons today.
I have long loathed Grayling. I find it hard to believe that he was not taking bribes or, at least, working in partnership with organisations in whose interests it is to asset-strip the justice system, on the promise of later favours. Otherwise, why, for fuck’s sake? Why?
Trump, interspecies rape amongst early proto-humans, lynchings, political corruption: all these horrors make it sound as though I have had an uncomfortable and angry morning. Nothing could be further from the truth. In a time when the BBC bases most of its news on the press releases of American corporate lobbying companies and The Guardian is lost in a trap of protecting its writers’ London property interests against all political good sense, reading the London Review of Books gives me a slight reassurance that, on many issues, I am on track, at least in general terms. I am outside the LRB’s social and economic class: the subscription is barely within my means now that my hours at work have been cut, but the recognition that I am not alone in my preoccupations is an important pleasure for me.
Sunday, 7 October 2018
Being as on-trend as I am doesn’t come easy, and this post is an example of that. Over the last couple of days, I have had an obsessive relationship with a rap album by the actor and rapper Riz Ahmed. For a little while, I thought I had discovered a hidden gem, but it turns out that it is, in fact, two years old and has even been reviewed in Newsweek.
No matter. I love it, and this blog is about things I love. First, though, I need to indulge in a little self-justification.
For many years, I have sought serenity in music, rather than challenge or enlightenment. My escape from the depression and desperation of my twenties and thirties caused a change in my musical tastes. Rock, pop and dance gave way to classical, jazz and (my secret shame) lounge electronica. Ideas are there, at least in the classical and jazz, but they are behind the music, giving rise to it, for the most part; not written into its performance.
Hip-hop and its descendants have had hardly any impact on me. I used, sometimes, to listen to Trevor Nelson on Radio 1 when I was delivering pizzas in the year after I graduated from university, and, I bought Dre Dre’s 2001 in a burst of curiosity after hearing it played by colleagues when I ran a warehouse office, but my feelings about it mirrored the summary on its Wikipedia page: “2001 received generally positive reviews from critics, many of whom praised the music although some found the lyrics objectionable.”
I was a taxi driver in Portsmouth when Dizzee Rascal’s album Boy in Da Corner filled radio with a convincing British rap voice. I was paying off a deep swamp of debts then, though, and living in insecure housing, so buying music was a rare luxury. When I did go to gigs or copy a CD off a mate, it was with a group of students I’d worked with before I got my taxi license, and they favoured the bland brit rock of the time – Snow Patrol, Elbow and Muse – , or the type of American rock that I imagine was what U.S. army tank crews listened to as they shelled villagers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and targeted Arabic journalists: Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Foo Fighters, Green Day, but not Blink 182, whose fifth album, for reasons I cannot now imagine, I broke my self-imposed austerity to buy. Jungle, Dubstep, Drum ‘n’ Bass, Grime; these were for young people living metropolitan lives, and I was no longer young, and was stuck in a provincial city where local radio playlists ruled. Years later, for a year or two, working in the virtual campus in Camp Hill Prison, I was surrounded by young men for whom music was rap, Grime and their subsets, leavened with a little R&B. It was the people who excited me, though: their stories and attitudes, resentments and hopes. The music they championed left me cold, and feeling excluded. I realise the irony of this.
So, I enjoyed the grime I heard on the radio, but I didn’t take it to heart or listen to it in a way that brought it alive to me. Similarly, although I used to occasionally listen to the BBC Radio Asian Network when the taxi I hired had a DAB radio, and was quite a fan of DJ Nihal for a while, I have not really followed the influence of British Asian voices on pop music. I am too old for the anger and lust and demonstrative introversion of pop music now: the season of semen and sin has passed for me, and the pop and rock music that does reach me all sounds so alike, so much a variation on half-a-dozen repetitive themes, that none of it rises above the status of background noise.
Via an interview with him on The Daily Show (for which you’ll need a VPN service unless you’re in the United States) I came across Riz Ahmed’s music, released under the name MC Riz. He and Trevor Noah discussed his first released track, Post 9/11 Blues, which was banned in the U.S.
I searched for him and found he had two albums on Bandcamp. Neither included this track, but I streamed the more recent one and was mesmerised. I paid a fiver, downloaded it, and put it on my little music player, then I took the dog for a walk and listened through the album. I came home, plugged the music player into the kitchen speaker, and played the album through again as I cooked supper. This morning, the first thing I wanted to do was to play it through again.
It’s called Englistan. I’ve embedded it at the top of this page. If you haven’t clicked play, do so now.
n.b.: I’ve transcribed the lyrics in the quotes below as I hear them. I may have made errors.
The album – he calls it a mixtape – is a series of meditations on the pressures of identity. Specifically, he is concerned with the conflict between his Englishness and his identity as the child of Pakistani immigrants.
Since we were small/we’ve been taught a certain way to be is law/It’s deep-seated, like genes are for/”My son, our people came to these shores/with nothing/honour is all we brought/so keep your culture/keep the thought, son”/Last of the Mohicans talk/Since we felt like outsiders/this helped define us/and we made it our choice/but now, I’m just confused/half-Mohican, half-cowboy/Cos life slips/ideas mix/Is it best of both/or two lives I live?
For a white, provincial, middle-aged man like me, for whom mass culture pretends to speak, it is difficult to imagine the specifics of such a situation. Again and again, Riz’s lyrics are revelations.
‘Scuse me moosh/Pardon me/nah, don’t mind me/I’m usually lost/hard to see/…the usual crop of wannabes/all get in the way/hiding me from public view/I’m not included/in any scene as a useful unit/Hybridity gets low YouTube hits…Paki till I drop/UK till I lose it/Never fitting in/Let the beat prove it
However, While that is a central issue, it is only one element in a rich set of themes, and much of the result is broader and more universal than just Asian representation, important and credible as that concern is. The title track, and the first one on the album, sounds, at first listen, as though it mocks Englishness. The chorus says…
God save the Queen/now she ain’t mates with me/but she keeps my paper green/Plus we are neighbours see/On this little island/politeness mixed with violence/This is England
This is not a specific view. Even on the Isle of Wight, his list of grievances about the sheer awfulness and sordidness of the state of England now resonate vividly.
Where the money you make/And the man you are/stand in opposites/so you drink too hard/Where the banks rob you/and the news is half the truth/wrapped up in boobs and arse/Pigs hit kids so/bricks hit windows/and the high street burns/with broken dreams and herb/Only thing you can’t find in Tesco/is that/and a sense of worth/
However, there is affection, and this line gripped me every time I played the song.
Is Britain Great?/Well, hey! Don’t ask me/But it’s where I live/And why my heart beats.
Isn’t that a central conflict in Englishness for all of us: the weary, stupid prejudice of English exceptionalism, constantly being pumped out at us against all evidence? I have felt this; what he says. This stupid myth of British ‘greatness seems to me to be a national leg-iron, smothering the more realistic love that we feel for the idea of a national identity that is at the root of how we are aware of ourselves.
If Englistan had simply stuck to these themes, continuing to explore them, I think I would have found this a fascinating and enlightening album, but on the fourth track, Sunburst, Ahmed changes tack, to a far more personal topic.
I was caught out by this song. I was depressive for two decades, and it has left its shadows, although I rarely think, explicitly, about it now. Nothing that anyone says about depression is new: its mundanity is part of its cruel strength. It is a paper tiger; an ephemeral bully that, when it has you in its grip, feels all-powerful and inescapable. Ahmed tackles it head-on and comprehensively. Inertia, self-loathing, exhaustion and, centrally, the apparent uselessness of all the trite remedies that only work against despair when you are already through the worst of it, are muttered urgently through clenched teeth in just over four minutes. Through it, though, an R&B refrain repeats and builds the only remedy any of us can offer a depressive: reassurance.
I want you to know now/sunburst will soon come/after rainclouds
Riz duets this chorus with the guest singer, Tawiah between two verses of bleak descriptive rhyming, then there’s a break, and he sings a final verse of brave, common-sense defiance and advice.
First things first/don’t beat yourself up/it makes things worse/It’s not your fault/it’s all just chemical/You’re not a prick/You’re sick/it’s medical…You’ll ride it out and then you’ll laugh/Please believe that this too shall pass
Behind this verse, Tawiah’s voice gradually comes to the fore, repeating the reassurance. I’ve not found it easy to get to grips with R&B voices, but her lovely, emotive, crying voice is used perfectly here.
I was impressed by, and drawn to, Ahmed before I got to this track: I felt close to him after I had heard it.
In the next track, A Few Bob, Tawiah features again. This is the first song to use a narrative structure to carry its theme. Bob, a hapless everyman, is caught in debt and the financial crash. Tawiah sings:
When the house of cards/comes falling down/I’m left holding the joker/Did we come so far/for it all to fall down?/I gave you my dreams and you broke them.
Incidentally, last night Amanda and I went to a screening of a film about the NHS selloff, whose most shocking revelation was the degree to which the dismantlement of the U.K. state has been planned by American corporations and their treasonous British lackeys. This song reflects the fact that young people, who don’t share my lingering delusion in the fundamental decency of the British order, have been perfectly aware of this treason for years.
I didn’t mean this to be a track-by-track review of the album, but each song is compelling in a different way, building on what has come before without repeating. I wanted to talk about the production, which is as much a part of my fascination with Englistan as the vividness of the brilliantly observed lyrics. The electronic music is cold, restless and often disruptive, playing a part in the dramatic structure of the arguments or stories the songs tell. Much of it is in minor keys; the musical theme of the title track is one of the few obviously Asian-influenced segments: a looped phrase of, perhaps, bansuri? My ignorance shames me. I know hardly anything about Indian music, and just as little about how electronic music is produced. I assume it’s all done on Cubase on a Mac.
In other tracks, there are string duets and acoustic guitar trills, echoing, to my ears, Philip Glass or Max Richter minimalist loops. On Sunburst, this is reflected in an atonal opening theme, and the song is punctuated by anxious organ tones and percussive bell strikes until what sound like harp arpeggios lay a suggestion of hope and optimism over the darkness. However, it is on the penultimate track that the modern operatic voice comes to its powerful conclusion.
Benaz is theatre as song. Ahmed’s comic acting chops shine in the final track, I Ain’t Being Racist But…, but in Benaz, it is pure, sincere acting. It is a poem-play about the murder of Banaz Mahmoud, an Iraqi-Kurdish refugee who fell in love with an Iranian Kurdish man and was killed by her father and uncle. The true story has been sensitively and exhaustively documented in a 2012 film, Banaz: A Love Story, which, I warn you, makes hard watching. Ahmed’s rendition of the story is an imagined one, and it is beautiful. He takes her experience and makes it day-to-day; how inescapable young love is, even in the context of a life lived subject to tyranny; especially when the love is the only apparent hope of an escape from that tyranny. It is Romeo and Juliet set in pebble-dashed Greater-London terraces and fluorescent-lit Tesco Metros, with the hope of escape represented by woodland and wet grass. Woven through it is the dance of cello and violin, acoustic guitar and restrained electronic chords that heighten the tension.
It should be a story of unrelieved defeat. That it is not is thanks to a refrain sung by Ayana Witter-Johnson. It seems trite typed below, but, in context, it is gorgeous.
If I knew I’d live in shame/Just to be near you/I would do it all again/I would do it all again.
But even with that redemption, it is impossible to escape that this is the story of a reckless, stupid, ugly and bitterly cruel crime against a gentle, kind and brave young couple. Banaz Mahmoud and her lover, Rahmat Suleimani, are in my prayers, as is her braver-than-brave sister, who now lives her life in hiding.
Part of the discomfort of the film about Banaz is the way in which this family and community tragedy became a political theme and then a racist trope. This is expressed baldly in the final track of Englistan, a satirical monologue without music, in the voice of an archetypal (although unconvincingly literate) white supremacist ranter. It is funny, but it is also a catalogue of despair, especially in the context of all that has come before.
In the Newsweek interview to which I linked at the opening of this post, Riz Ahmed is quoted as saying,
I describe it as a love letter to modern Britain, which is multicultural Britain…A lot of people feel like they’ve been jilted by their country recently, or alienated, or wronged. Their country has cheated on them in some way in the past couple of years…Love letters do sometimes contain complaints.
What he has done, for me, is to describe his and my country in terms stripped of all the comforting bollocks: all the mythopoeic fog that is constructed to preserve a privilege-zone of hierarchical certainty for a subset of English identity. I love my English culture, but I know just enough history to understand that culture is not fixed: we remake it every day, and that is a beautiful thing, if we acknowledge the vitality of our variety as a national group. The idea of a fixed and unchanging England, that has been ‘betrayed’ by change is a lie, and it is a lie that hurts us, belittles us, makes us sordid and stupid.
I am a long way from my areas of authority writing about rap, and about British Asian voices. I have approached this review as a fellow-Briton, in admiration for a work of art that has gripped my imagination and touched many of my concerns. If I have said anything stupid, made any dad-mistakes while writing about an artform about which I have barely any education beyond the research I did for this post, forgive me. I mean only respect for an album that has lit the past few days for me, doing what art should always try to do: opening up the world for me, touching something within me and, ultimately, enlightening me.
Monday, 1 October 2018
On Saturday 6th October, Isle of Wight SaveOurNHS are having a free screening of the film ‘Groundswell’, directed by John Furse. It will be at Quay Arts and will begin at 6pm. John will be answering questions after the screening. A trailer for the film is available to view here
and this is another:
Tickets are free from this page: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/film-screening-groundswell-the-grassroots-battle-for-the-nhs-by-john-furse-tickets-49807937883
For more information about Isle of Wight SaveOurNHS, please see this website: http://iowsaveournhs.org.uk/ or contact Christine, the group organiser, on 299432.
Sunday, 30 September 2018
I meant to sit down and write a books post today, but I have been distracted, and in the most enjoyable way.
Last Christmas Eve, I mentioned in a post that I love the album ‘An Evening With Bach‘, by the American early music ensemble, Voices Of Music. Since I made that post, they seem to have revamped their website, because it now hosts a video playlist of over 130 high definition videos of their recordings. Sadly, Schlummert Ein, the aria from the cantata Ich Habe Genug, that I love so much, is not among them, but you can listen to it here, if Magnatune’s website is behaving, which it often is not.
Another find today was the libretto of the cantata, which is here. Knowing the aria so well, I felt a sense of familiarity: the meaning of the German poetry, which I did not understand, seemed to have already formed itself in my love of the music. The first aria, Ich Habe Genug, will linger as a favourite poem, I think:
It is enough.
I have held the Saviour, the hope of all peoples,
In the warm embrace of my arms.
It is enough.
I have seen him,
My faith has impressed Jesus on my heart;
Now I wish this very day
To depart from here with joy.
The video posted above is of Dido’s Lament, from Dido and Aeneas, by Henry Purcell. The recording of the opera I favour is the 2008 CD featuring Simone Kermes, which appears to have had a reissue last year, with a moody new cover image. I prefer the earlier one.
Anyway, just for comparison’s sake, I’ve embedded a copy of Kermes’ performance below. I didn’t choose the picture, BTW.
Entirely unrelated to her corsetry, I think Kermes has a remarkable, unique voice, and her phrasing seems to me naturalistic in a way very few operatic singers achieve. Thanks to Dido and Aeneas, I have become a fan, and have bought the CD of her recording of Blood Wedding: a setting of Lorca’s play by the Danish Composer Hans-Erik Philip. It is beyond lovely. A highlight is embedded below.
Anyway, all this fanboyishness doesn’t take away from my enthusiasm for Anna Dennis’ performance with Voices of Music, which I think is spectacular, particularly as the orchestration is probably much closer to what the seventeenth century audiences at the court of Charles II would have heard. I’d encourage you to click on the link to Voices Of Music’s website, and let their videos play through good speakers. Look out for David Tayler’s lute performances and, in particular, his accompaniment to Phoebe Jevtovic Rosquist’s effortless performance of John Dowland’s Flow My Tears (Lachrimae). It’s another beloved piece of music that this remarkable group give new life.
Book reviews will have to wait.
Thursday, 27 September 2018
We have had a glorious summer.
Going back through the photos on my phone, picture after picture shows a dazzled world: clear blue skies; smiling, tanned friends; sunlight lancing through rich green foliage or glinting, blindingly off sea or lake.
Tia, the golden dog, features in many of them, and she, as much as any other element in my life, has helped to make this a summer whose memory I will treasure.
How memories last is one of the mysterious revelations of middle age: the extent to which what we have experienced descends into a soup of glimpses and sense impressions that lose their sharp edges and become blurred. I suppose that is why I blog, or a large reason for it at any rate. Already, I cannot quite remember what I was doing when I took the photo above, of Tia asleep in our back garden. I suspect it was during one of the long afternoons when I was sitting outside, drinking tea and reading crap science fiction, enjoying the sun with Charles Mingus on my headphones. That has been a key part of this summer for me. I must post about the books I’ve read; the music that has shifted from new excitement to established favourite over this wonderful, sun-drenched year.
I should also, I suppose, record my achievements over this summer. I have completed a university access course, in science, technology and maths: a major milestone for me. I have, with Amanda, enjoyed the maturing of our relationships with our Labour Party comrades on the Island: in June, I went up to London for the SaveOurNHS march, and, with my sister, we attended the Burston School Strike Rally at the beginning of September. At work, the last academic year was my most successful so far, both in terms of results and the sense that I had helped several of my learners to move on with their lives, opening up new opportunities for them.
It has also been a summer of uncertainty. My father’s lymphoma has reasserted itself, and his treatment has shifted from fighting the illness to a more palliative-focused care. We have been up and down to Suffolk, and he has been, on some visits, frighteningly unwell, and on others, his old self, if diminished, physically. One afternoon, I sat in my parents’ garden with him, reading and chatting, warmed by bright sun, and I feel now a desperate need to grab at this memory; to preserve the comfort of being with my father, to record his anecdotes and loving enthusiasm.
I am beginning to feel old, but, at the same time, I’m swamped by feelings of never having grown up at all.
When Amanda opened the blinds this morning, the world outside was blanketed by fog: our first Autumn mist of the year.
From the river, half a kilometre away, the ferry’s foghorn lowed.
Signs of autumn have been settling throughout September, of course. We have had the heating on a few nights over the last week and I have been wearing long-sleeved tops, instead of tee-shirts, when I cycle or walk. Thanks to Tia, I have watched the passing of summer in Firestone Copse, as the blackberries fruited, ripened and, now, are beginning to wither on the brambles. A fortnight ago, there were still mushrooms all round the woods, layered on tree stumps and poking through the undergrowth, but they are, for the most part, past now; either gone completely or looking wrinkled, slimy, deathlike.
Yesterday evening, in wonderful autumn sunset weather, I saw the first major turn of leaf colour, and was walking over fallen leaves for the first time his year. I took Tia off the main path, across a hidden bridge on the path that, after the winter rain sets in, will be inaccessible, as it was all last winter, When I reached the top of the last descent to the creek, the sunlight off the water screamed up at me through the woods, white and fresh, rather than yellow and warm, as it has been through the summer.
A man was at the creek edge, by the bench, throwing stones into the water for his dog to chase. Tia, who doesn’t like swimming, waded along the shallows, barking at the other dog to come and play, but not quite able to summon up the courage to throw herself in and join in the fun.
Later, I bumped into two friends who were having an after-work walk. It was a lovely surprise, but threw me out of my dream: my woods-peace. I had hoped to make it back to the main path in time to see the low sun on the bank that rises up from the path, but we talked for a little too long. By the time we made our way back, the sun was set and twilight was setting in, the woods off the path turning dark, with the sense that life was stirring within. Tia had become bored, waiting for us, and disappeared, causing anxiety and shaming me. Eventually, as the shadows on the path were turning from chocolate to black, she came bounding out of the woods, tongue lolling out of her excited grin, as if butter wouldn’t melt, and we came home to a delayed supper and annoyed wife.
And so to this morning. I am working late today: my last class finishes at eight-thirty, so I don’t have to start until midday. Thus, we lingered in bed and I got a second pot of tea; a luxury usually reserved for the weekend. I put on the kettle and opened the blind above the sink to see a forest of webs over the denuded jasmine outside the kitchen window. I grabbed my phone and went outside to get photos. The paving slabs were cold beneath my bare feet, the air damp and fresh, the stillness of the fog enclosing me like a shelter.
Something sharp, joyful and clear will be remembered, when the irritations, fears and sorrows of this time in my life are swallowed by the passing of time. The blessedness of living through nature’s greatest truth is shaping this period in my life: the inevitability of change, and the awareness that that is life’s brightest magic.
Tuesday, 25 September 2018
Anything I say about this speech would be inadequate. It is sublime.
Watch it, read it, remember it.
Emily Thornberry MP, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, speaking at Labour Party Conference today, said:
Chair, Conference, it’s a privilege to be opening this debate on behalf of my good friends Nia Griffith and Kate Osamor, their shadow teams, including Liverpool’s own Dan Carden, and my own superb ministerial team: Liz McInnes, Khalid Mahmood, Fabian Hamilton, Helen Goodman, Ray Collins, and my PPS Danielle Rowley.
And it’s wonderful to be back in Liverpool: a city we really thought couldn’t get any more Labour, but where last year, we won 37,000 more votes than in 2015, our biggest ever vote in this city. And next time round, under the inspirational leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, we’ll go one better.
It’s been 35 years since we kicked the last Tory MP out of Liverpool. And next time round, we’ll win Southport as well, and kick the Tories out of Merseyside for good.
Conference, as we all know, this is a year of important anniversaries in the history of the socialist movement – a movement always based on the unstoppable momentum of the masses, the incredible inspiration of courageous individuals and a core belief that injustice done to any of us is injustice done to all of us wherever we are in the world.
And in this year of anniversaries, we start by celebrating 150 years of the TUC: 150 years spent fighting for workers, not just in Britain but all across the globe, and stronger than ever today thanks to the leadership of Frances O’Grady, and thanks to a Labour leadership which now respects the representatives of our workers, rather than treating them with deliberate contempt.
And in this year of anniversaries, Conference, let’s recall it’s 130 years since a thin, humble, bearded socialist – it’s funny how those men can change the world – a Frenchman called Pierre De Geyter sat down and wrote a new melody for some old lyrics, and created the song we know as ‘The Internationale’, which inspired the working class of Europe and shook the ruling class, because it rejected war, rejected exploitation, and urged the human race to unite.
And of course, conference, it’s 100 years since the first women in our country won the right to vote and won the right to stand for Parliament. And don’t let anyone ever say that we were ‘given’ those rights, because the women who came before us weren’t given anything! They fought for those rights, they suffered for those rights, and some died for those rights. And everything we now enjoy was won for us by those brave, brilliant women.
But it’s also 100 years, Conference, since a young woman who never got the right to vote gave birth to her only son: a son who was refused permission to attend her funeral 50 years later because he was in a prison cell on Robben Island. Nosekeni Mandela never got to see her son freed. She never got to see him change his country and inspire the world. But he called her “the centre of his universe” so we owe it to her that he did.
And Conference, we also this year celebrate the anniversaries of some of Labour’s greatest achievements: 70 years since the Attlee Government created the NHS; 50 years since the Wilson Government helped create the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; and 20 years, Conference, since Gordon Brown brought in the Tax Credits which the Tories are trying to dismantle; 20 years since Tony Blair secured the Good Friday Agreement which the Tories are trying to jeopardise; and 20 years since a Labour government started the Devolution Revolution which the Tories are trying to ignore as they hurtle towards a false choice between the ‘Chequers Deal’ and ‘No Deal’, either one of which will kill jobs and growth all across our country, and neither one of which we will accept.
But Conference, it is also a year of solemn anniversaries.
100 years since the end of the First World War, when young men from every corner of the human race united across Europe, Africa, The Middle East and Asia, not in the spirit of The Internationale, but – in the words of Keir Hardie – “to fill the horrid graves of war” in the name “of selfish and incompetent statesmen” who had failed to preserve peace.
And it is 70 years too Conference, since the assassination of Gandhi and 50 years since Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy: three men of peace, three men of hope, all shot dead because they believed in an alternative to violence and hatred and war.
And there is a final anniversary we must pause and remember today. Because Conference, it was 80 years ago this very week that the International Brigades were disbanded after their brave struggle against fascism in Spain, and their heroic final stand at The Ebro. And we pay tribute today to those brave men and women, including one of this city’s greatest sons, the legendary Jack Jones, who were prepared to sacrifice their youth, their futures and their lives to try and stop the rise of fascism in Europe.
And we need that same spirit today, Conference, because make no mistake, those dangerous forces are on the rise again in our world on a pace and scale not seen since the days of the International Brigades.
And it is not just the scenes from Charlottesville to Stockholm of masked thugs marching under Neo-Nazi Banners. It is also – far more dangerously – the rise of leaders projecting a form of nationalism not defined by love of one’s country and one’s people, but by hatred towards everyone else; by the erosion of democracy and free speech; and by the demonisation of any minority, any religion, and indeed any media outlet deemed to be ‘the enemy’.
And everywhere we see those governments today, we know they are contributing to the creation of a world which is the opposite of The Internationale’: a world where the human race is more divided, more drowning in hatred than at any time since the 1930s. And a world which is therefore utterly unable to deal with the problems that we all collectively face.
That is why our world leaders shrug their shoulders as the Climate Change crisis reaches the point of no return. That is why governments like ours continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia even when it is proven that those weapons are being used to murder innocent children in Yemen. That is why the war in Syria too remains so intractable and destructive, with the dozen major countries involved not striving to stop it, but playing their own lethal power games with other peoples’ lives.
That is why North Korea can happily continue developing their bomb; Iran can keep Nazanin jailed for a third year; Myanmar and Cameroon can slaughter their own citizens at will; Russia can act with impunity not just in Syria but in Salisbury; and Donald Trump can tear up treaties it took other leaders years to agree.
All because Conference, the world order has been turned into a global free-for-all, and the leadership to fix it is simply not there. But Conference, it’s here in this hall, it’s here on this stage, it’s here in Jeremy Corbyn. And we as the Labour Party in government must strive to lead the world in a different direction.
So with Nia Griffith’s leadership, we will support our forces, maintain 2 per cent spending on defence, invest more in peacekeeping, respect our international treaties, and never hesitate to defend ourselves, our allies, and our citizens abroad. But equally, we will never as a party go back to supporting illegal, aggressive wars of intervention with no plans for the aftermath, and no thought for the consequences, whether in terms of the innocent lives lost or the ungoverned spaces created within which terrorist groups can thrive.
And with Kate Osamor’s leadership, we will also rise to the challenge that Nelson Mandela set this Conference eighteen years ago when he told us that “one of Labour’s major political and moral tasks in the 21st century” was to “become once more the keepers of our brothers and sisters [all around] the world.”
And with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, we must and will lead the world in promoting human rights, in reforming the arms trade, in pursuing an end to conflict, in supporting not demonising refugees, and in turning the promise of a nuclear-free world from an impossible dream to a concrete goal.
And with the leadership of every single one of us, Conference, we must also honour the memory of the International Brigades, and lead the fight against the forces of fascism, of racism, and prejudice, and anti-semitism. Because that is what we have always done both at home and abroad, and that is what we must always do.
We were there in Spain fighting Franco in 1936. We were there in Cable Street that same year fighting alongside the Jewish community to stop the Blackshirts. We were here in Liverpool a year later, when Oswald Mosley tried to speak in this great city and was forced out without saying a word. And we were there in the 1980s – I was there myself – when we marched against the National Front.
And let’s remember Conference, we won all those battles! We beat the Blackshirts, and the NF, and the BNP, and the EDL, and whatever they call themselves today, however they dress up their racial hatred, we are there in the same streets telling the fascists: ‘No Pasaran’.
And when we look back on all those battles, stretching back 80 years, I make a simple point, it hasn’t been thousands of Tories assembling in the streets to fight the forces of fascism. It’s been the men and women in this room. It’s been Jack Jones and Jeremy’s parents. It’s been Jon Lansman and Len McCluskey, Diane Abbott and Dawn Butler, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. So while I make a point of never disagreeing with John on anything, I disagree with him on this: we don’t need a new Anti-Nazi League, because the Anti-Nazi League is in this hall and on this stage.
But Conference, let me speak to you from the depths of my heart and my soul and say something I never thought I’d have to say in my lifetime as a Labour member and activist, and it is simply this: that if we want to root out fascism and racism and hatred from our world, and from our country, then we must start, we must start, with rooting it out of our own party.
We all support the Palestinian cause, we are all committed to recognise the Palestinian State, and I stand here with no hesitation when I condemn the Netanyahu government for its racist policies and its criminal actions against the Palestinian people.
But I know as well, and we must all acknowledge, that there are sickening individuals on the fringes of our movement, who use our legitimate support for Palestine as a cloak and a cover for their despicable hatred of Jewish people, and their desire to see Israel destroyed. Those people stand for everything that we have always stood against and they must be kicked out of our party the same way Oswald Mosley was kicked out of Liverpool.
And Conference, there is something more. Because if we truly want to realise the dream of The Internationale to unite the human race, and re-unite our country, then again we must start with uniting our own party, and ending the pointless conflicts which divide our movement, which poison our online debate, and which distract us from fighting the Tories.
Because as Gandhi said: “We but mirror the world so if we could change ourselves, the world would also change.” But if we can’t show the strength to change ourselves to change the way we behave to each other, how can we ever hope to change the country, and aspire to change the world?
But if we can do all that, just think what we’re capable of. Think what history we can create in government. Think what we can achieve that future Labour Conferences will remember as great anniversaries.
And I want to close with a story told by Dolores Gomez about the siege of Madrid in 1936, when every day she and her fellow citizens expected their streets to fall to the fascist forces surrounding the city. And sure enough, one day, they heard a huge army on the march
“Iron clad boots”, she said, “Men marching silent, severe, with rifles on their shoulders and bayonets fixed, making the earth tremble under their feet.” She and others crouched on balconies overlooking the street, rifles cocked and grenades ready to be thrown, just waiting for the order to attack.
But then she said, the army began to sing. “A thrill goes down the spines of the people, `Is this a dream?’ ask the women, sobbing.” But no, it was not. The men marching down the street had begun singing ‘The Internationale’, each in their own language – French, Italian, German, and English – the men of The International Brigades, all singing different words, but all with the same meaning, that when any of us is under attack from the forces of hatred, prejudice and exploitation, we are all under attack and we must unite and fight back together.
And if we can show that same unity today in our party, if we can root out prejudice and end division in our own ranks, then we can heal our divided country, we can unite our fractured world, and we can show that the greatest achievements of our socialist movement lie not in our past, but in our future. That is the kind of government we need for our country and that is the kind of Britain we need for our world.